PARIS from Sept. 26 to Oct. 2 and Oct. 8 to 9, 2016
Friends who frequently stay in Paris recommended Duc de Saint Simon Hotel. It’s on a quiet street with lots of good restaurants nearby (in Saint Germain district) and close to Metro stops as well as a 20-minute walk to the Louvre, Tuileries, Musee Orsay, etc. Lauren Bacall (for those who remember her) used to stay here in a suite. After we checked in, we walked to a nearby café for my favorite dessert, Tarte Tatin then began our wanderings across Paris. Rather than describe each of the places we walked, viewed, participated, etc., I’ll group them.
- Monet, Monet, Monet. In preparation for our visiting Monet’s home and gardens in Giverny, scene of his famous water lily paintings, we visited Musee L’Orangerie, with a large collection of his water lily paintings. We also viewed the large, wonderful collection of Monet’s son—of his father and other Impressionists–who donated it to Musee Marmottan Monet. Then we took and half-day bus trip and tour of Giverny, which was lovely, particularly the wild, thickly-planted gardens.
- Other museums. Another friend mentioned a museum that had been converted from a wealthy couple’s home, with all their various collections, furniture, glassware/plates, etc. called Jacquemart-Andre Musee. This little gem is off the beaten track in a residential neighborhood. The highlight was a special Rembrandt exhibit of a few paintings and many sketches and prints. On the Right Bank across from Notre Dame is the Shoah (Holocaust) Memorial which was very moving tribute to the 1000s of French Jews sent by the Vichy collaborators in World War II, to mostly their death in labor and concentration camps. Also housed in a lovely 1600s mansion in Le Marais district, (the old Jewish District) is the fascinating Musee d’Art et d’histoire du Judaism. The latter included some paintings of famous Jewish financiers, authors, and artists and many forms of religious and other Jewish artifacts; as well as describing through multi-media, the complex and rich history of Jews in France starting in the Middle Ages through today. Hotel Les Invalides aka Musee Armee with its brilliant golden dome, is a large complex (including nice gardens) that contains memorials and tombs for various war heroes, including Napoleon I’s over-the-top monument to himself and a statue of the short-lived Napoleon II.
- Cathedrals, Cathedrals, Cathedrals. We re-visited after many years, the always-beautiful Notre Dame. Actually we spent as much time in its adjacent Archeologique Crypte which preserves some of the old underpinnings of the Isle de la Citie as well as gives you a sense of how over 2 millennia, Paris has kept reinventing itself from Roman times forward. One evening we attended a chamber music concert in the gorgeous, smaller Sainte-Chappelle mostly used by royalty and now for special occasions as an auditorium rather than as a church. Listening to music when you visit, the spirituality of the setting becomes even more apparent. Basilica Sacre-Coeur de Montmatre, atop the hill in the fun Montmatre district, has the requisite lovely stained glass windows and architecture. We went just before sunset to see Paris starting to light up and to watch the sun pouring through the windows.
- “Secret Food Tour” of Montmatre. On Friday evening, after taking the Metro to visit Sacre-Coeur and walk around a bit in this old artist district, we met up with a guide and a few other tourists for a walking food tour. This young (Peter-Pan-like) college-grad foodie took us to many food shops: boucherie (pate, ham, etc.), fromagerie (cheeses), boulangerie (baguettes), and 2 patisseries (macarons, chocolates, & cakes). We then walked to the tour company’s local office which has a picnic table in its basement. There we pigged out on all he had including the wine waiting for us. What a kick and what great food!
- Walking, Walking, Walking. Of course we wandered up, down, and across Paris—just occasionally taking taxis and the Metro. Some of where we walked to or along: the Seine River, Champs-Elysees, Tour Eiffel, Arc de Triomphe, Rive Gauche (Left Bank) especially Sainte-Germaine de Pres (our hotel’s neighborhood), Tuileries, Luxembourg Garden, and to/from the many museums we visited and restaurants where we ate. Since our hotel was in Rive Gauche, we walked across multiple bridges to Isle de Citie and Le Rive Droite (Right Bank). The most-photographed is Pont Alexandre III, which is lovely with its gilded statues and graceful architecture. FYI, romantic tourists, hook locks (the hardware kind) to the metal fences along the insides of all bridges. Their “locks of love” hope to ensure that they’ll return to Paris.
- Mmmmm, Patisseries. Most mornings throughout our trip, starting in Paris we walked to a local patisserie to have pastries, juice and tea/hot chocolate/coffee. Though I love “pain au chocolat (chocolate croissants),” my favorite is the delicious Chausson (meaning slipper) au Pommes which is a turnover filled with almost-sauced apples, and my next favorite is a many-layered, flaky “sandwich” filled with raspberry jam.
- Mmmmm, Restaurants. It is well known that there are no bad meals in France. Our concierge recommended 2 local places. La Ferme Saint Simon is an upscale gem of a bistro just down the street that was mostly filled with Parisians—always a good sign. The lovely ambiance (white tablecloths, low lighting) fit the excellent food served by friendly (yes, in Paris) well-versed staff. He also suggested another cute neighborhood bistro, Le Petite Chais with good French food, nothing fancy, with a competent staff. As we wandered in the along the Champs-Elyssee, we stopped at a bistro serving Moules (mussels) Dijonnaise (which I love), called Leon du Bruxelles (a small chain). We had a fun lunch at Chez Marianne in Le Marais, the old Jewish District, serving Jewish food with a French flare. Our best lunch was at the Michelin-starred Helene Darroze restaurant, recommended by a U.S. friend, in a colorful, modern setting which fit the innovative, tasty food. The knowledgeable staff served our prix fixe menu that provided lots of variety to display the creative chef’s ability.
- Rotary Club in Paris. As a Rotary member, I contacted the Paris Rotary who allowed Rick and me to join them for lunch (66 Euros each) at their standard Wednesday meeting at the Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse restaurant in the fancy Le Meurice Hotel—very different from our meetings’ decent buffet ($10 each). This the largest and oldest (since 1921) of 20 Rotary Clubs in Paris, with 225 members. Of the approximately 100+ members attending, not even 10% were women, which is very different from my Los Altos club which as not quite 50% women. We were “assigned” to an English-speaking architect to help us understand what was happening. Their speaker was head of a government-related financial institution who apparently talked about the only so-so French economy. NOTE: Good thing he is a very secure person but Rick was the only man not in a jacket and tie.
- Last AND Best Meal in Paris. If you are willing to spend big bucks, Michelin-starred L’Atellier De Joel Robuchon (author of multiple cookbooks) is a delight for the senses! We had the tasting menu, without wine pairings, that was 12 courses, each amazingly delicious and beautifully presented. I only wish I had taken photos.
CANAL DE BURGOGNE, BURGUNDY – 6 NIGHTS ON FRENCH COUNTRY WATERWAYS’ BARGE–Oct. 2 – 8, 2016
Nenuphar Barge. This whole trip to France was built around a barge cruise on the Canal de Bourgogne in Burgundy with Rick’s business school friends. So the 6 couples met in Paris on Saturday, Oct. 1st for dinner at the Hotel Regina, from where we’d be picked up the next morning. This was the 1st time we met the 6th couple who were friends of 1 of the core 5 who had traveled together in previous years. Plus another classmate and his wife who happened to be in Paris also joined us for dinner.
On Sunday, Oct. 2nd, we all boarded a bus to reach Venarey-Les-Laumes, our starting point, from where we’d travel north to Tanlay along Le Canal de Bourgogne for 36.5 miles over the next 6 days. And yes, we could walk faster than the barge floated most of the time from lock-to-lock. We had the barge named Nenuphar (water lily) to ourselves, with each couple having a lovely stateroom “en suite” and sharing a dining and living room and covered deck. We met our “Captain” Matthew who also acted as tour guide and bus driver when we visited sites nearby; his wife who was one of our food and wine staff; a young woman who worked with her; Chef Tadek, who had trained at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris; and 2 operators who guided us through the locks and handled all problems.
5-Star Food, Cheese, and Wine. Each lunch and dinner were served 3 different cheeses and at least 1 each white and red wine. Every breakfast had fresh pastries, cheese, juice, coffee and eggs if we chose. Every lunch had 3 kinds of unique, fresh, locally-based salads plus a creative quiche AND another delightful hot dish. Each dinner had a unique starter, entrée with fresh vegetables, cheeses and desserts, generally lasting up to 3 hours. Cumulatively, this was a 5-star food and wine experience. There were groans of happiness during all meals
Upon our arrival, we had a champagne reception during which each couple was assigned their rooms as well as received “training” about boat protocol and safety. Dinner that night was on board, setting the delicious tone of all subsequent meals.
The only time we did not eat on board was the 2nd night when we dressed up, were driven to the nearby town of Salieu, and partook of a 3-star Michelin experience at the Restaurant at Le Relais Bernard Loiseau. The original chef, Loiseau, committed suicide in 2003 when he thought he was about to lose one star. The current chef has maintained the 3-star status until recently, when it was just announced the restaurant would only be 2-star in 2017. We certainly could not perceive why but rather totally enjoyed the many-course, groan-inducing, fabulous meal. After that tour de force food and wine tasting menu, we had to be rolled back to our barge.
Barge “Field Trips.” Throughout the next 6 days, some of us walked (faster than the barge) or bicycled (much faster than the barge) as well as experienced private tours of nearby sites led by “Captain” Matthew. Our 1st stop was in Montbard at the family-owned Abbaye de Fontenay, 1 of the oldest French monasteries, also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Founded in 1118 by the abbot of Clairvaux, St. Bernard, it remains in good condition as 1 of the oldest Cistercian monasteries in France. After the Abbaye tour, we had the privilege of being hosted for wine with the daughter of the owners in their living room. Definitely a unique setting and lovely experience.
Another nearby stop was Musee de Buffon, an 18th century Forge created by naturalist Buffon. Though George-Louis Buffon was a well-known, highly-respected naturalist (including by the King) he added to his estate’s many gardens and lovely home, a forge where he invented new processes and equipment to develop iron and metal devices that would impact industry as well. It was impressive how as an early ecologist he was still practical enough to develop this fascinating forge and related equipment.
We also toured the impressive Renaissance Chateau de Ancy-le-Franc, in Ancy-le-France. Still privately-owned, this 16th century Chateau is beautifully architected and houses many impressive artworks, including an amazing collection of murals. It is not part of a “standard” chateau trail, but well worth a stop if in Burgundy. It rivals many of the best for its beauty, inside & out.
Our final “field trip” was to Domaine Servin vineyards and winery in Chablis. Our group received a private tour of the vineyards, winery, and tasting. We happened to meet the owner as we overlooked some of his hillside vineyards, where he told us that adjacent, small plots, growing the same Chardonnay grapes (we didn’t know that Chablis wine is 100% Chardonnay grapes), on the same hill can yield table level, aka “Petit Chablis” to Premier Cru to Grand Cru Chablis Wines. The winery tour was informative about how wines are crafted in France vs. Calif. Wines more scientific approach. In France, any “Appellation Controllee” wine must be “dry-farmed” with no irrigation other than the rain which Mother Nature provides. They also seem to incorporate the yeast naturally-occurring on the grapes, while U.S. vintners remove all natural yeast and add a consistent type of yeast for better quality control. Hence the importance of vintages in France because of the wide variety of production and quality from year to year. By the way, Domain Servin’s Grand Vins de Chablis (Grand is highest) were delightful!
Our dinner on the final night aboard the Nenuphar was, of course, the “piece de resistance,” from our chef and wine steward (Captain Matthew). Photos cannot do justice to any of our meals, but I do have a few. After breakfast on Saturday morning we were among the 3 couples who returned to Paris while the others headed further south. You have already read about our last meal in Paris at the fabulous 3-star L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon.
REIMS in the Champagne Region
On Sunday, October 9, we picked up our rental car to drive north east for a couple of hours to Reims (mysteriously pronounced “rance”) in the Champagne region. Once there we visited the Reims Cathedral, which is worth seeing if you are in that region or a French royalty buff. This interesting venue with lovely stained glass windows is where virtually all the French kings were coronated so there is lots of history to review.
Verdun World War I Battlefield. The next day we drove to the Verdun Battle Memorial, a fascinating, poignant tribute to World War I’s fallen. This famous World War battle site of Verdun has been turned into an impressive memorial and cemetery. Looking out over the 15,000 white crosses is very poignant as well as the stone engraving noting that 10 million senselessly died from 1914 to 1918 because WW1 was not the “war to end all wars,” but instead directly led to WW2. The memorial building is extensive, with names of officers and soldiers and several statues. The most haunting sight for me was the “ossuary” under this building, where thousands of unknown soldiers’ bones are laid. I peeked into one of the many windows for less than 10 seconds, but the view of those untold number of bones is etched into my memory.
Mmmm, Champagne. On a much more pleasant note, we toured the Mumm Champagne Cellars. Funny enough, it is immediately adjacent to Louis Roederer Champagne Cellars, make of the celebrity-touted Cristal Champagne. Since we have toured and tasted at several “sparkling wine” cellars in Napa/Sonoma, we figured just one tour in France was enough. It was an informative tour with historical cellars and tasting very good champagne at the end. While French wine is crafted by taste, dependent on weather, and leads to different flavors, Mumm Champagne’s philosophy is consistent taste every year—since the late 1820s. When Mumm adds new products, these will then also taste the same high quality every year. Our tour guide was knowledgeable and the cellars quite extensive for the bottle-aging. Most interesting was the old champagne dating from the mid-1800s that the master maker tastes every few years to ensure that the flavor is virtually identical.
One Great Restaurant in Reims was Le Millenaire. Our hotel recommended Le Millenaire as a “gastronomique” restaurant, which it turned out to be. The food was very tasty and beautifully presented. We had a tasting menu that was well-priced for the quality and innovative food we were served.
HONFLEUR & BAYEUX
The quaint fishing town of Honfleur on the Normandy Coast was our base for the D-Day sights over the next few days. We did spend some time walking along the boat-filled harbor during the day and at night, on our way to and from meals. Each of the 3 mornings in Honfleur, we walked a couple of blocks up the hill adjacent to our hotel to a small, residential-neighborhood patisserie with an always-smiling and cheery lady who understood our limited French to provide some of the best pastries on our trip.
All 3 evenings, we partook of local Normandy cuisine recommended by our hotel—1 was good and another was quite good. Cote Resto bistro, just up from the main street along Honfleur’s bay, had a Normandy-style ambiance (wooden beams everywhere). Apple tree orchards in Normandy create the local ciders as well as the Calvados brandy. Our friendly waiter served a nice meal that integrated Cider, Calvados, and seafood from local fishermen. The next evening, we ate at “gastronomique” restaurant, La Fleur de Sel. Surprisingly a top-level restaurant in remote Honfleur, also tied into the local food then got quite creative. The food was very tasty and beautifully presented by strong staff. The 3rd evening’s bistro was nothing special
St. Catherine’s church in Honfleur is unique because it is made out of wood rather than the more traditional stone. In fact, this mid-1400’s-built structure replaced a stone church built during France’s Hundred Year War. The interior ceiling is particularly interesting because it looks like an upside-down ship hull, reflecting the town’s seafaring history.
Bayeux Tapestry. Driving from Honfleur toward the Normandy Coast was the town of Bayeux, known for its lovely cathedral AND the ancient Bayeux Tapestry. Imagine a 900-year-old linen cloth, nearly 75 yards long and 2-feet high, embroidered with simple but wonderfully depicted characters, places, and events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England, through some battles with the Saxons, all the way to the Battle of Hastings. Truly amazing! It’s beautifully preserved, displayed, and explained (audio-guide) in the Tapestry Museum in Bayeux near the Normandy Coast.
NORMANDY COAST’S D-DAY BEACHES
The highlight of our 4 weeks in France for me were our days on the Normandy Coast visiting the World War II D-Day beaches, related museums, and memorials—with World War I’s Verdun Battle Site next. Our 1st D-Day stop was at the excellent Au Memorial de Caen which covers the details global events leading to WWII through the war to giving insights into the Cold War to its end. The films are amazing, the exhibits are thorough and well-done and multi-lingual, excellent tours to D-Day sites are available, for which we signed up for the next day.
Our D-Day Tour. What we learned over the next two days about the logistics leading-up to D-Day then the subsequent 100 days was mind-boggling. Britain created mobile, miles-long bridges called “mulberries” that were built in segments and dragged into place off-shore from Arromanches near Gold Beach (British) and Omaha Beach until a significant port like Cherbourg could be liberated from the Germans. Though the bridge at Omaha Beach was damaged during the storm that postponed D-Day, the 6-mile-long semi-floating bridge at Arromanches carried 7,000 tons of personnel, weapons, and war equipment daily. In the 24 hours after the touch-down of troops on D-Day, 156,000 soldiers landed. Over the course of the next 100 days, over 2 million troops would land, Cherbourg would be liberated, and Germany would be pushed way back toward Paris.
Remains of Mulberry Bridges at Arromanches. As part of our D-Day tour from the Caen Museum, we visited this site where you can see the remains of this man-made logistical wonder of a bridge built from about 6 miles off-shore to Gold Beach on the Normandy coast to allow the huge number of people and equipment to land for D-Day. After seeing films of the construction and use of the bridge at the Caen Museum, it was still amazing that 100s of 1000s of men and battle material would cross this bridge to enable the liberation of France. Our guide provided an excellent overview that complimented what we learned at the museum.
The American Cemetery is a sad tribute to U.S. soldiers who died on the Normandy Beaches. The graves are extensive but less than they might have been since the U.S. allowed the option to families to bury their loved ones back in the U.S. Seeing a sea of crosses and Jewish stars was an impressive and poignant reminder of the sacrifices of the 10s of 1000s who died liberating France and Europe. This was further reinforced by our visit at sunset which added to the emotion by watching our flag being lowered accompanied by the playing of “Taps.”
Omaha Beach was the deadliest D-Day Landing Site where 2,000 Americans died in 1 day. Looking there now, an innocent expanse of a lovely beach, it was hard for us to reconcile that attaining their goal of taking this beach from the Germans on D-Day was at the cost of 2,000 young American lives plus 1,000 wounded, crossing land-mines, miles of barbed wire and metal barricades. While the British and Canadians lost several 100 men on that day, we learned on our tour and at the Caen Museum, how and why this was the deadliest landing.
Utah Beach was an important but less deadly U.S. D-Day Landing Site now has a wonderful museum. This now-empty beach once was once filled with land-mines, miles of barbed wire and metal barricades. The Utah Beach museum details in its exhibits–tanks, airplanes, pieces of landing bridges, landing boats, and tons of military gear–and films, how important this beach was to enable the eventual liberation of France. Troops from here were able to take the port of Cherbourg which allowed over 1 million soldiers and 100s of 1000s of tons of equipment to land as a result of this specific landing.
Taking the advice of Rick Steves’ guidebook and that of a friend, I arranged for an overnight stay on Mont Saint-Michel. We saw the magical Abbaye in the near-distance but then we had to park about 1.5 miles away, drag our suitcases across the dirt lot, up onto the shuttle bus, to be dropped off over ¼ mile from the entry to the “town,” from where we had to pull our suitcases up a steep, tourist-filled cobblestone street to our hotel. Since this was very late in the “tourist” season, we discovered that our hotel and its restaurants were closed but we could get the key to our room at another nearby hotel. The young man who opened the hotel and Rick then had to schlep our bags up a narrow, spiral staircase to our 4th floor room, which at least was clean though modest.
Again, with my friend’s recommendation, I had booked at least 3 months in advance a 7:00pm dinner reservation at the well-known La Mere Poulard Restaurant. When we arrived a few blocks down the hill from our hotel, they could not find our booking and refused to let us enter as they were “fully booked.” We persisted—a bit loudly–so the snippy waiter let us in, kept us waiting 40 minutes before taking our order, and was very rude the rest of the time. Apparently, they were short-staffed &as well as full. We ordered their famous omelettes which were unique–almost like a crepe filled with a soufflé then flipped in half—and were very good. However, this very touristy restaurant was truly worsened by its staff.
Le Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel—Night and Day. This land is famous because it’s a peninsula except during very high tides when it becomes a tidal island, covering up the large mud-flats surrounding it. As of mid-2014 the new causeway is rarely under water, despite the almost 50-foot difference between lowest and highest tide. After dinner Rick and I walked/panted up the hill to see close-up the Abbaye glowing at night from its many lights and surrounded by the dark ocean. After a decent night’s sleep, the next morning we walked back up to the Abbaye entrance to take the 1st tour of the day. Fortified since ancient times, it has been a monastery since the feudal 8th century A.D. then an abbey as well. Its great halls are built above storage and housing, and at the base outside its walls, are houses for fishermen and farmers. The views were as impressive as the buildings, looking over the mud-flats to the tourist village and further, barely visible in the greyness, and the other parts of the Normandy Coast.
If you plan to visit Le Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel, plan to arrive either 1st thing in the morning or at the end of the day and don’t bother spending a night!
On last major stop was the Loire Valley, famed for its Chateaux, elaborate gardens, historic towns, and vineyards. In 2000, UNESCO added the central Loire River Valley to its World Heritage Sites. Its grapes and wines range from white (Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc) to rose (Gamay) to sparkling (Grolleau) to red (Cabernet Franc, Malbec), with other varietals thrown in for good measure.
We were heading to meet 1 of the couples from our barge trip in Amboise but first toured the Gardens at Villandry Chateau, reputed to be the most beautiful formal gardens in France. We knew we would visit at least 3 other chateaux so we did not tour the one at Villandry. The colors, shapes, layouts, fountains, variety of shrubs, flowers, and trees were breath-taking! Earlier on this same trip we walked through parts of the Tuileries and Luxembourg gardens in Paris, but our tour of Villandry’s gardens was truly memorable.
Our hotel for the next 3 nights was the lovely boutique hotel Manoir de Les Minimes in Amboise, where our friends were staying. Across the street from the picturesque Loire River (our room overlooked the river!), it is within walking distance of Amboise’s shopping district, the Amboise Chateau, as well as the Chateau du Clos. We met our friends in the living-room-like lobby for a glass of sparkling wine in the late afternoon the we walked a few doors down to the Restaurant Le 36. The formal dining room was lovely and the food was good.
After a delicious breakfast in the hotel, the 4 of us walked to the Chateau du Clos Luce and Parc Leonardo DaVinci. We found that this chateau was celebrating the 500-year anniversary of when DaVinci lived here for 3 years. The special exhibit of some of his sketches, paintings, etc. was particularly nice. The house itself was lovely with good self-tour information. The really fun part was seeing both life-size reproductions and wooden models of some of DaVinci’s widely varied equipment (water mills, machine guns, etc.). The pleasant surrounding park also displayed life-size examples of his equipment as we walked around. It was a lovely day with friends. Walking back to our hotel, we freshened up, relaxed a bit then headed back to downtown Amboise. Though autumn, we dined outside at Le Patio and enjoyed nice, local food as we watched the towns’ people walk by.
Our friends left the next day to fly back to the U.S. We drove for about an hour to the Chambord Chateau with its storied double-helix staircase rumored to be designed by Da Vinci.
This 500-Year old complex was built for King Francois I shortly after the death of his friend DaVinci, then passed through many aristocratic owners. It is huge and architecturally beautiful, has a well-explained audio for self-guided tours, and has extensive gardens. We spent several hours here before driving back toward Amboise to visit Chateau Chenonceau.
Known as “The Ladies’ Chateau” because so many women influenced its history, Chenonceau was originally given by King Henry II to his favorite mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who had excellent taste in decorating. She also had amazing architectural vision by adding a ballroom extension over the adjacent river to enable easy access to hunting grounds. Though Catherine de Medici, Henry’s widow, with generally more somber taste, removed Diane, Catherine’s beautiful design of the gardens remains today.
Both Chambord and Chenonceau are in the top 3, must-see chateaux in Loire Valley.
CHARTRES—OUR LAST CATHEDRAL IN FRANCE
The 1st Cathedral in Chartres on this site—on a much smaller scale–was from the 4th Century, and after many iterations, burned down. This allowed the current cathedral to be built in the late 1100s and which subsequently has had multiple remodels and additions over the centuries. The 2 main towers are different, the architecture changes from 1 spot to another but it is a lovely cathedral for religious history buffs or if traveling from Loire to Paris.
Our 4 weeks in France covered much ground (thanks to Rick’s excellent driving). It was relaxing at times, mainly on the Canal de Bourgone barge. It was culturally and historically insightful with its many museums—most of which we had never visited before, cathedrals, churches and chateaux. It was very moving at the Verdun Battlefield and Cemetery. But the highlight for me was the powerful D-Day Beaches, with the amazing logistics, terrible violence, and yet astounding heroes who on 1 day changed the course of World War II then the world history over the next 100 days.