Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “hidden treasures”

Au revoir Paris

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Some years back when I was still travelling on business, one of my son’s friends and I compared notes about our favorite places to stay and eat in Paris.  We agreed that the 7me Arrondissement was a great home base for convenient access to the best-known historic sites and museums, and argued gently over the merits of staying east or west of the Avenue Bosquet.  I liked the slightly better Metro access from the Rue Cler area, while he preferred the slightly more upscale hotel and dining options east of the Avenue. 

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His list of favorite restaurants differed completely from mine, but as I had not been as happy as I wished with our dinner at l’Affriole, I decided to lead my group of four to one of his recommendations on Rue St. Dominique just east of the Avenue Bosquet, La Fontaine de Mars.  It was as wonderful as he had said.  Next time I’m in Paris I will go there on my first night, not my last.

But it was a fine farewell to our week.  The next morning we rose early, glimpsed the Seine from our taxi, and caught a last view of the Arc de Triomphe by dawn light from the express bus to deGaulle.  The only good thing about leaving Paris is that each time I do, I am reinforced in my determination to come back again.

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[next week: my monthly article from the Town Crier.  After that, a new set of Freeway Free travels in a completely different part of the world!  I hope you keep reading.]

Freeway Free in France: A Drizzly Day Among the Honored Dead

P1030342webWhat better way to spend a gray and drizzly Sunday in Paris than wandering around the cemetery of Pere-La-Chaise, site of burial of many notable and not-so-notables of recent (since the 1800’s ) French history? The requirement for burial here is that one must have been a French citizen OR have died in France (which is why Jim Morrison and Maria Callas are here.) WB and I spent several contemplative hours in the light rain contemplating the mortality of such immortals as Delacroix, whose masterpiece “The Raft of the Medusa” is harrowingly evoked in bas relief on his tomb.

Armed with a tour map, and assisted by an elfin elderly man whose mission in retirement was to guide tourists to the most remote celebrities, we did the [ghost] town, paying our respects to Heloise and Abelard side by side in death as they were denied in life, plus Colette, Modigliani, Edith Piaf,  Honore de Balzac, Maria Callas, and many others .

Somehow I ended up with no pictures of Jim Morrison’s grave site, but fortunately there are plenty of places on the web you can check out.  At present the site is cordoned off to prevent the vandalism which you can see documented at the link I provided.  Strange for fans to show their admiration by trashing the grave.

A whole section of the cemetery consists of memorials to French citizens deported by the Nazis during the World War II Occupation.  It seems as thought the French conscience is still uneasy at what was allowed to happen to its citizens during that fraught time.

And of course, there are a number of sites with memorable sculpture and meaningful inscriptions honoring people of whom one has never heard.  I would like passers-by to pause by my grave one day and wonder what sort of person chose my epitaph, as I wonder about Mssrs Kieffer, Percheron, and Maria.P1030370doc

“Nothing which does not fall, and does not decay!

Mysterious abyss where the spirit hides!

A few feet underground silence abides

And so much noise above in light of day!

-V. H. [could be Victor Hugo?]

 

 

 

Freeway-Free in France: Saturday on the Seine

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WB and I took the bus to the Pont Neuf today and walked down to Notre Dame.  Since we had Museum Passes we spend about an hour down in the Crypt, which harbors a number of relics of Gallic, Roman, and medieval times which were exhumed when they built an underground garage under the Pavee in front of the cathedral. Very interesting but fearsomely educational with all sorts of cool interactive 3D computer representations of the Ile de Cite at various stages, the cathedral in various states of construction, etc. We would have spent even more time but it began to feel a little claustrophobic. 

We then strolled across the pavee to the cathedral, where an impressive mass was being held.  We were able to walk quietly around the edges of the church, admiring the wonderful carvings around the sacristy and the gorgeous windows.  

P1030324webThen we went to the memorial to the 200K Frenchmen who were taken away by the Nazis and never returned, which is hidden below ground level at the end of the garden behind the cathedral.  After that, a cup of restorative tea and a couple of scoops of glacé at Berthillon’s seemed in order.  P1030325web

 

 By the time we finished our break, it seemed a strike of bus drivers had broken out, (what is a visit to Paris without a manifestation of some kind?)and we were forced underground to the Metro, which involved a lot more steps and stairs for poor WB’s knee.

 Happily, the Galleries Lafayette has a direct entrance from the Metro at their stop, so we executed some efficient shopping and then went to ooh and aah at the Art Deco atrium and stained glass dome which they acquired when they merged with La Samaritaine a few years ago. 20160924_054841web Next up to the rooftop terrace to admire the view of everywhere we had been and wave at the folks up on the Eiffel Tower.

 By the time we got down, the manifestation seemed to be over, so we caught a bus which nearly took us to where we wanted to be.  Winifred chugged off to the Musee d’Orsay, while I decided to skip the Louvre this trip and check out the Monet water lilies and the Picassos and Renoirs at l’Orangerie.  Lots of lilies.20160924_075112doc

I didn’t feel like going back to the Metro station and there were a whole lot of policemen around, so I walked slowly back to the hotel, stopping here and there to check out some menus for possible dinner tonight, and a little browsing of the clearance rack in the dress shop on the corner.  

 A bit later WB arrived – the buses were stopped again so she had to walk from the Musee d’Orsay.  She is taking an exhausted rest’. We will decide about dinner in an hour.  No word from Dianne, who was planning to spend at least part of the day circling the city on the Route 69 bus – hope she didn’t get marooned somewhere.

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Freeway Free in France: On my Own at the Orsay

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We took our separate paths yesterday as planned.  I strolled around the neighborhood re-familiarizing myself with some of the restaurants I might want to try again, then down the Seine bank looking at all the quayside life to the Musee d’Orsay, home of Impressionism and much else.  The place had been shut down for renovation for a couple of years, with many of its gems traveling to SF, Chicago, and New York for display in the meantime, and I was eager to see what had been done.

Opinion:  the d’Orsay Sculpture Court, that jaw-dropping entry into the museum, has been vitiated into ordinariness by the inexorable forces of pragmatism and logistics.  The expansive view has been cut up into a narrow “Allee” with increased display space in little rooms carved out of each side.   So no traffic-impeding “Wow!” moment as you enter, but a lot of diversionary stops:  Here’s where you get your bag checked, here is a gift shop, here is where you get your ticket checked, here is where you pick up your plan of the museum.

One logistical improvement:  if all you really want to see is the Impressionists, you can walk briskly to the back of the museum, start with Toulouse-Lautrec on Level 0, then take an escalator for a big dose of Van Gogh and Cezanne on Level 2, then return to the escalators for a direct route (no exits on Levels 3 or 4) to Level 5, where the rest of the gang is displayed.   There are some jaw-dropping moments here – a lovely huge Renoir never displayed in its entirely before, and Caillebotte’s Floor refinishers, which I sat and looked at for quite a while.

After a quick visit to the battlements to thumb my nose at the Louvre (which I will probably visit anyway today) I walked down to St. Germain de Pres via the posh Blvd St. Germain and looked in all the shop windows and at all the places made famous by Hemingway and Fitzgerald and “Midnight in Paris.”  I stopped for lunch at a little cafe where I ate a nice omelette with frites, then on down to St. Sulpice, one of the wealthiest and loveliest churches in Paris (featured, to its humiliation and resentment, in Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code”) , and now undergoing restoration which hides some of the malarkey-inducing elements from the frivolous visitor.20160923_062405web

Bus back to the hotel (This is a key discovery for this trip: the bus system near the Rue Cler is great – at least three bus routes come right through – and it is more fun to be above ground than trudging through Metro tunnels.). I Met WB and we went together for a glass of wine and recap of the day at a sidewalk cafe on Rue Cler, then met later for dinner at Au Petite Tonneau – a wonderful meal of Things We Would Not Eat at Home (snails, veal kidneys, toasted goat cheese).  Then we bused over to the Tour Eiffel and managed to get up to the second floor for some great nighttime views, then caught the last bus back to our corner.

Fine day!

 

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Freeway Free in France: Back to the 7me Arrondissement

My favorite pied a terre in Paris is the Jardin D’Eiffel, just off the market street Rue Cler (see above) by one block. 15 years ago when I first stayed the decor was dominated by giant yellow Monet-esque flowers on Royal blue  on drapes, pictures, and murals throughout (see below) , and the clientele favored busloads of Canadian and German students and tourists on a budget.

The old Jardin has undergone a 21st century revamp, and is now robed mostly in subtle shades of gray with some paisley drapes to brighten the feel (see above).  The elevator, however,  is no larger;  it can accommodate two people and two suitcases on if you are on friendly terms, or you can stash the suitcases in the elevator, push the button,and race the elevator up the stairs. DB and I are sharing a room facing the street – not the best, as the next door neighbor is the police station and we expect to hear sirens all night.  From the back rooms, if you lean out the window, you can glimpse the Eiffel Tower.

We arrived after an efficient breakfast at La Vielle Auberge, a lightning transit to the train station in Souillac, a bit of a hassle with ticket’s but we eventually got on the train and enjoyed four hours of French scenery, shading from Romanesque yellow sandstone  with steep-pitched roofs and bell-towers in the Dordogne to white stucco with mansard roofs and steeples in the Touraine.  Gare Austerlitz is large and bustling but well-signed, our Algerian taxi driver was friendly and expansive about  what we should be sure to see in Paris, and the staff at the Jardin welcomed us like old friends.

We took the Metro to the Place de ‘l’Opera and picked up our museum passes for two days of urgent museum – going.  This may be our last joint adventure for awhile, as we each have different plans for our stay in Paris.    WB missed the Louvre on her previous visit and expects to spend two days there, but wants also to fit in the renovated Musee d’Orsay, the Rodin, the Pere LaChaise cemetery, and perhaps a tour of the opera.  DM has a friend dating back to a working stint in London  who came to meet her and is staying at the Jardin, and also has a cousin who wants to return the hospitality DM showed him in the states, so after tonight’s dinner  she will not share evenings until Sunday. Dianne has not been in Paris in decades and has murky memories, so she may take the #69 bus tour around the city per Rick Steves’ recommendation and then follow her interests. 20160922_230844web

I have in mind the renovated d’Orsay tomorrow together with l’Orangerie which houses Monet’s water lilies, then there is another exhibit at the Grand Palais I want to find out about, and I need to visit Notre Dame and the Holocaust victims memorial and of course Berthillon’s ice cream and the Art Deco atrium of La Samaritaine, and Le Pere LaChaise cemetery with WB on Sunday.  Our walking tour will have been good prep for pounding all this Gothic pavement. Right now we are getting cleaned up in preparation for a celebration meal at l’Affriole, which it appears has developed enough of a reputation that Michele (who is French with family and friends in Lyon) had heard of it.

I am trembling at the potential cost.  But we have economized greatly up until now, having scrounged for lunches at the hotel breakfast buffets and having dinner and breakfasts prepaid during our hiking tour.

20160922_073111docWe decided to walk back from L’Opera (which was undergoing a revamp of its own behind a Rene Magritte-inspired façade) and stopped at a street-side cafe on Rue Tour Maubourg for wine, tea, and people -watching. We saw Cinderella’s glass coach go by, pulled by a rather ordinary brown horse and with two dotty English tourists inside.  Such is life in a tourist city.

Unfortunately l’Affriole did not live up to my memory. New management has revamped the decor here also, opening up the front of the place for sidewalk seating, which leaves one exposed to the curious glances of passers-by and other hazards.  In our case, a large dog decided to deposit an equally large souvenir on the sidewalk just by our table, and the dog’s owner loftily prepared to ignore the awkward incident until the restaurateur bounded out and demand she clean up after her pet.  She argued, gave in, and “cleaned up” by kicking the mess to the curb, then wiping her shoe carefully on the edge.  Not the most appetizing of beginnings.

The food, instead of bringing on the sort of ecstasy seen in “When Harry Met Sally,” did not measure up to either my memory or the best of the food we had enjoyed while hiking. So much for my “local expertise”.  But I still have a few 7me arrondissement aces up my sleeve.20160922_070928doc

 

 

Freeway-Free in France: Dallying in Domme

P1030157webDomme is a medieval island perched on top of a bluff, too remote from normal four-lane roads to have been changed much by the advent of the automobile.  As we trudged up the winding road, we were wishing for a donkey cart!

But when you get to Domme, it’s worth it.  It’s like a visit to Brigadoon, if Brigadoon had a three-star hotel  featuring  gourmet cuisine, 15th century ramparts on three sides , a view out over the whole of Scotland on the fourth side, and a comprehensive walking tour which included a famous author’s home,  a prison whose stone walls are covered with graffiti carved by imprisoned Knights Templar,  and a subterranean cavern where the peasants could hide in case anyone made it past the ramparts or scaled the bluff. Plus a very good ice cream shop.

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Above is the view from the bluff which protects the side of Domme which looks over the Dordogne River.

After doing the city walk, nothing could be better than returning to the Hotel Esplanade, which sits on the main square of Domme next to the promenade along the bluff. Not only did our room have a view to die for (see above) but the food was superb.  I don’t usually publish pictures of meals I have eaten, but I can’t resist showing you these beautifully presented dishes:

At breakfast, we found our buffet of lovely edibles presented in the sitting room above, with the early morning view of the valley just clearing from low-lying  fog. One almost did expect this fairy-tale place to vanish in a puff of vapor as the sun rose!

Freeway Free in France: Up and Down along the Dordogne

20160919_003919cropThis day was the scenic highlight of our walking – we stayed the previous night at Beynac, beneath the cliff topped by the medieval fortress which we had wandered through the afternoon before.  After our breakfast of croissants, cafe au lait, and local yogurt and strawberries, and after wrestling our luggage down three flights of narrow stairs, DM, DB, and I set out along the “grassy track” by the Dordogne River.  (W has developed a painful knee after too many ups and downs and decided to cop a ride in the van.). The path led along the river through woodsy patches – lots of bird calls, some families of ducks on the water, the occasional fisherman, the occasional egret.  We stayed mostly level through a series of acricultural meadows and fields (DM sampled the sunflower seeds, I sampled the fresh asparagus spears pushing up from the ground) and took turns pointing out the yellow sandstone castles on the successive cliffs – Beynac behind us, its hated rival Castelroud across the river on the English side.P1030117web

We continued past Montingnac and a couple of others unnamed in our guidebook, ending with Roque Gageac where we broke for lunch.  This is a point where the cliffs come almost to the water, and the oldest homes are carved into the Rock faces – “troglodytic  dwellings” per our guide.

 

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DB stopped at a sandwich/boulangerie shop and ordered a panini with ham and cheese. I watched in horror as the young man took a perfectly lovely baguette and squished it flat in one of those icky panini presses. Yuck. We picnicked at a quiet park next to the little quay and watched the tourist boats plying the river.

Then began the up and down part which had intimidated W.  First we went up “Banana Alley” to admire the work of a gardener who had learned to grow exotic fruits and plants along the south facing sheltered cliff – very lush and lovely, then further up on narrow roads with improbable “parking privee ” signs posted on narrow ledges next to elegant and not so elegant sandstone homes, some of them evidently refurbished antique dwellings, others more modern knockoffs, but all of the same glowing yellow stone. P1030129web

We snaked up along the angles of the woodsy cliff side, mostly following an ancient stone wall held together by moss and ivy, and finally came to the top where we had our first view of Domme, perched on the top of a distant cliff on the other side of the river. Then down past more elegant farmhouses and homes, some with old ramparts and fortifications still, now on “Tarmac roads”, crossing the river on a narrow bridge with an even narrower sidewalk- only one km to go! P1030141web

But what a kilometer it was, up and up and up in almost the only full sunshine of the day, stopping at every patch of shade and every wayside bench, til we finally reached the medieval gateway with its arrow slits to use against invaders still intact.  The hiking guide led us straight up to the central square, a knockout view, and our elegant hotel right there on the edge of the bluff.  Our room has a view out over the valley, a fitting reward at the end of a day of wonders20160919_093221doc.

 

 

Freeway Free in France: Ambling around Arles in Vincent’s Footsteps

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This morning DM was picked up at 9″30 by her Swiss cousin and his wife who happen to live about a half hour from Lunel.  Right afterward the remaining four of us set out for Arles, known for its Roman ruins and former resident Vincent Van Gogh.  We saw a lot of both.

vvgoghfondOnce we got to Arles and rather miraculously found a free parking space that I could maneuver into, we headed first for the Bureau Touristique for city maps, and then, at WB’s insistence, went first to the Fondation de Vincent Van Gogh, which was sponsoring a special exhibit of Arles’ favorite summer tourist. C scoffed “This isn’t Paris!  There will be no queue!” But there was one, and a twenty minute wait for tickets.  Rather than retrace steps, we shifted our plan of saving the nice air conditioned museum for later in the afternoon and plunged into three rooms of I would say B-level van Gogh’s on loan not from the Rijksmuseum but a less prestigious Vincent van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. 20160909_030921doc

The only well known work on view was the one of fishing boats on the beach.  It is a beautiful work.  There were a couple of others that I wouldn’t mind having on my wall, and a couple that I would NOT want to display  too dark and foreboding. Once out of the museum (including an ascent to La Terrace, with a wonderful view over the rooftops of Arles) we discovered we were starving.  We tried a couple of places with recommendations from Michelin and Routiere but found them with no available places, and ended up rather serendipitously at la Cafe de la Nuit, which was famously painted by Van Gogh, and which I had used as a focus point for one of my Lamaze experiences.  The lunch was better than expected, service snail like, but the locale could not be beat!

We rounded out our VvG experiences with a visit to l’Espace Van Gogh, which is the asylum to which he repaired after falling out with Gauguin and cutting off his ear.  It is a lovely enclosed space with a garden that blends the formal French garden with an Impressionistic flair. It is now a tourist center with one of the world’s greatest collections of postcards, and tour groups ebbing and flowing constantly.  I had to wonder whether the current buildings are painted as they were when Van Gogh was there or painted as he painted them (not necessarily the same.) Then we started our Roman ramblings. Maybe it would be good to consign that part of the day to a separate email.

Freeway Free in California: The Anderson Valley

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The Anderson valley, centered around Boonville, is so remote that linguists used to visit to study the evolution of “Boontling”, the dialect spoken by the inhabitants when keeping secrets from outsiders.  The valley is accessible only by twisty and nausea-inducing Hwy 128 at one end, and the “Tunnel to the Sea” through a second-growth redwood forest along the Navarro River on the other end. But if you make it over the pass, you will feel as though you have gone back in time and space to  the Napa Valley as it was a half-century ago.

Here in late May the rolling hills are just finishing  with spring, looking like sun-faded green velvet curtains dropped in heaps.

Here wineries make award-winning pinot noir and cabernets, and the traffic is nominal, the parking is easy, and the tasting is mostly still free.

Here you can buy chilled apple cider and many old-fashioned varieties of apples at Gowan’s Oak Tree, just next to the road in Philo surrounded by its orchards.

Here is a State Park where you can see old-growth redwoods without having to take a shuttle bus with a ticket in advance. Hendy Woods State ParkP1040234doc was bequeathed to the state of CA by James P. Hendy, whose fortune came from the steel company whose sign you can still see bordering the railway tracks in Sunnyvale, so there is a local connection.

Here the coffee shop (there is only one, the Redwood Café,) has regulars instead of WiFi, and you can hear the morning’s gossip about who bought Dan’s old truck or admire the 5th Grade Science Fair ribbon won by the owner’s grandson which dangles from the wall along with team pictures of the Boonville Panthers basketball team and the cheerleading squad (which looks to be large enough to provide a cheerleader girlfriend for each guy on the team.)

The valley can be hot  in late spring and summer, so you can go for a dip in the Navarro River (access by the bridge just outside the park) or escape to the coast, with coastal scenery rivalling Big Sur, and a thirty-degree drop in temperature.P1040260web

You can go north at the coast to the famously quaint village of Mendocino, once an artist colony but now the home of film festivals, bed & breakfast inns, and other trappings of cutesification.  You can go further north to Ft. Bragg and the Mendocino Botanical Garden, a floral extravaganza in spring featuring 10-foot rhododendrons and azaleas, turning in summer to feature dahlias and roses. P1040257doc

If you want more of the coastal scenery, you can cross the Highway 1 bridge going south across the Navarro River and wind your way down to Elk (Population 208).  Don’t miss the left turn on the Philo-Greenwood Road or you will find yourself on a very steep, twisty section of Hwy 1 with no guard rails and very few turnouts. The Philo-Greenwood Road itself is narrow and twisty, but encased in what seems like deep woods – until there is a gap and you realize you are perched on a ridge with a steep drop on either side, with the Anderson Valley spread out like a patchwork quilt of vineyards and apple orchards on the right, and the coastal view to the ocean dropping away on the left.

When out-of-state visitors come and want to visit the Napa Valley, I usually direct them to Sonoma or to the Alexander Valley north of Healdsburg instead. They come back happy with memories of the quaint Sonoma town square, and of visits to Dry Creek Vineyard or the Coppola Vineyards Tasting Room replete with “Godfather” memorabilia.  The Anderson Valley is a bit too far for tourists, the road a bit too challenging.  It is still (until now) my secret step back in time.

 

 

Hidden Treasures: the Hiller Aviation Museum, San Carlos

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Maybe you have wanted to take your kids to the National Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport in Virginia or the San Diego Museum of Flight down in Balboa Park.  Maybe you have been daunted by the distance, or the cost.  You can give them a good taste of the experience by taking them to Northern California’s Hiller Aviation Museum, just off the Bayshore Freeway in San Carlos, California.

20150819_115401docI had driven past this museum many times, but given the name I had assumed it would be all about helicopters. But when my ex-helicopter pilot brother was visiting recently with his young son, we decided to give it a look.  There are indeed helicopters, but so much more, including full-size models of early flying machines, a giant unmanned glider whose wings span the length of the football-field-sized museum, the cockpit of a 737, a walk-in exhibit of the full front fuselage of one of the first 747s, hands-on flight simulators, a widescreen Google Earth projection from which you can zoom in from outer space to your own front yard, and, on Wednesdays in the summer, your choice of goodies from a half-dozen food trucks in the parking lot. 20150819_125934doc

In summer the museum also hosts a series of summer camps, so you might see a gaggle of ten-year-olds testing their experimental paper airplanes in the back patio, or a parade of backpack- toting sub-teens getting their introduction to flight simulation software in the Flight Lab.  As much fun to watch as to do!

20150819_115608docThe museum includes some special exhibits about early women aviators, Chinese-American aviation pioneer Feng Ru, and others you may not have heard of.

And of course there is a gift shop, stuffed with all sorts of magical flight related toys, model kits, and fluttering gizmos.  And the docents are enthusiastic volunteers with a lot of knowledge they are eager to share about the aircraft exhibits, some based on their own experiences of helping to build or fly the aircraft.

Admission is only $15 for adults, $10 for Youth and Seniors – you can get a coupon from their website for a $1 discount on Sundays.

Go ahead and indulge your inner daVinci, Wright, Lindberg, Earhart, or Yeager!

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