Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “France”

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: 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: Looping back to Souillac

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 It was hard to tear ourselves away from our luxury hotel on the outskirts of Carsac this morning.  In fact, Winifred and Dianne failed utterly, opting to take the sag wagon with the luggage back to Souillac.  Turns out the pickup time was not until 3PM, so they had almost a whole day of lounging around the pool eating bonbons.

 

P1030227doc Meanwhile DM reconsidered her idea of a solo stroll, so the two of us set out promptly just after 9AM to regain the converted train right of way now known as “Le Voie Verte” -the Green Way.  This is a lovely hiking, biking and jogging path with a nice shallow grade going along past quaint little towns, distant castles, through tunnels, and along the Dordogne River.  We missed the first castle as the fog had not yet lifted, but compensated by exploring the next little town Aillac, a fabulously pretty little yellow Winkie village with some really cute cats and kittens outside a barn, and an amazingly clean set of public toilettes.   We hikers appreciate these things!P1030222web

 We made very good time on the Green Way, even overtaking and passing the Australian couple who had been besting us in previous days – however, we were not held back by DB and WB, and the Australians had made a wrong turn. We tried to stop for a snack at the halfway point, but the season had officially ended on the 19th, the snack shops were closed, and the one open restaurant was out of Coca-cola, Dory’s secret vice.

Once we ran out of Green Way, things took an upward turn – waaaay up to the top of a small mountain where we found the village of Millac, but were too exhilarated at being able to stand up straight and see for miles to spend time exploring yet another crumbling church.  

P1030234docThen it was down through dappled shade and dappled sun in a woodsy canyon, then down further through more dappled shade and dappled sun as we crossed a series of walnut orchards with beautifully shaped and spaced trees, then down further into the tacky outskirts of Souillac, then down past the cemetery.  We got confused, asked a passerby if he knew our hotel, and he pointed to it across the street.  Winifred and Dianne had just arrived.20160921_052432web

 I took a short walk up down with Dory to locate a Coke for the train tomorrow, and we wandered a little bit more through the old medieval section of Souillac.  We were surprised to see that a small two story townhome in this section, with 2 BR, 2WC, and two other “pieces” which could be used as a “salon” or a BR, was en venue for around 135K euros – seemed a lot considering how many empty shop fronts we had been seeing.

 The area is suffering from gentrification – so many wealthy Brits have bought old hones in the area and are restoring them, that housing prices are going up for everyone.  Sounds eerily familiar.

 Tonight we expect another luxury dinner, but must leave early tomorrow to catch our 8:25 train to Paris.  Maybe we will spot Hercule Poirot.20160921_114231webP1030239web

Freeway Free in France: The Green Way from Domme to Carsac

P1030212docUnfortunately WB has developed some problems with her knee and has not been able to hike for the last couple of days, but she has gotten a free ride in the luggage van and enjoyed some leisure. The other three have enjoyed walking through the countryside on back roads and grassy trails, sampling wild blackberries, feral figs, late-season asparagus sprouts, and sunflower seeds.

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We had an easy day today, with a gentle descent from Domme down to the verge of Dordogne River, and along the riverbank for quite a while.  Then we cut through some bends in the river on grassy paths and gravel roads, through woods, corn fields, past impressive farmhouses with lots of outbuildings and HUGE stacks of wood, whose use is somewhat mysterious. There are not many wooden fences, it’s mostly barbed wire supplemented with electricity, and the pieces are too long for firewood.

Lunch and a Coke!By noon we were looking for luncheon options, and happily came upon a small shop in a small village which had, to DM’s delight, cold Coca-Cola available.  We purchased a few other snacks and continued until we found a convenient stone to serve as both stools and table.  We enjoyed the sun, sipping and munching, then snuck through a gap in the wall for a view of the Chateau de Montfort (privately held, unfortunately) 

About two/thirds of the way to Carsac we started on the Green Way, which is a former railroad right of way converted to bike and hiking path.  Very pleasant, though a bit sad to walk past the abandoned railway stations in the small villages.  Lots of scenic views, lots of picturesque eroded sandstone formations in the hills and along the river.  P1030188web

Our hotel, La Villa Romaine,  is a three star affair with a beautiful courtyard and an infinity pool (solar heated, but it felt wonderful to wade my hot feet in.  After a shower and a change of clothes I was up to a stroll along the river into town, where there was a lovely park, an old medieval community laundry shed built over a spring, and a Romanesque church which was closed for the day, but very lovely in the evening glow.

Then a glass of wine on the patio, with the restaurateur coming over to ask our dinner choices (How would you like your foie gras tonight?) Dinner of duck breast for me, with some interesting vegetable side dishes of a whipped-potato-with-puréed-this-and-that sort.  Dessert for me was “sticky pudding with salted caramel sorbet” = a kind of bread pudding with caramel sauce + artisanal salty ice cream.

And a very comfortable bed, thank goodness.

I’m wondering, though, how this three-star hotel/spa can survive on the outskirts of a small village like Carsac – there is no famous cathedral, no well-known wine appellation, no nearby major road.  And yet this hotel is the height of elegance.  Perhaps it will be a get-away spot for people from the much-less-picturesque town of Sarlat, which will be our destination next as we complete our loop .P1030189web

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: The Barons of Beynac

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We began the morning hiking past a campground which evoked so many stays as my husband and I sought affordable vacations with our two children .  Doesn’t this expandable trailer look familiar, fellow campers?  But having the trail on the other side of a cyclone fence was a little off-putting.

P1030109webOur next stint was up and over easy hills, on back roads through small villages.  We came across an old church, with a charming graveyard adjacent.  Such a contrast to the cemeteries in my neighborhood, where one has a choice of three different styles of stone, and one may not leave anything on the stone which would impede a power lawn mower! Here were live flowers in pots and personalized tributes from family members – one could construct an entire village history from the mementoes pile atop the sacophogi!

Further along the path we spotted what looked like a statue dedicated to Sagittarius on a pedestal in a farmyard.  As we approached nearer, we discover that the statue was a real goat!

We hiked further and higher, always seeing  the castle of Beynac hovering in the distance ahead of us. 20160918_055340web For hours it seemed like a mirage, always visible, yet never nearer.  Then suddenly we were there, on the highlands adjacent to the castle, looking out past the fortifications to the valley of the Dordogne far below.

We wandered through the medieval fortress marveling at the huge hall used for public audience, the spiral stairs leading to inaccessible floors, the barred doors marked  “Acces interdit- Residence privee ” with tantalizing glimpses of rooms in which people might actually be living. . I wonder what it would be like to live in such a place in modern time.

 

A plaque testified that  the lineage of Beynac has continued for centuries, right down to the mysterious current inhabitants.  I would have liked to meet LUCIUS GROSSO Et DIONYSIA -UXOR SUA!20160918_060949web

Freeway-free in France:Medieval Market and Marketing in Sarlat

 

Exploring the medieval village of Sarlat out-appealed  walking in the surrounding countryside,  and gave us each an opportunity to occupy our time without being one wheel of a four-wheel drive vehicle.  DM and I did shopping in the justly- famous Sarlat Saturday market, while DB walked the self-guided city tour and W did tai qi and sudoku in the park. We met for lunch at a quaint courtyard,  then DB went back to the hotel to relax while the other  three did the city tour. We all spent an hour or so doing email and post cards in the mid-afternoon and then the D’s invited us up to their roomier (set up for handicapped) suite for a pre-prandial cordial. So we are learning how to be apart as well as together –  A good travel skill. september-2016-410web

The Saturday market in Sarlat attracts vendors from all over the regions, with lots of opportunities to sampled the  key products: olives and their oil, walnuts and their oil, and (less lavishly set out for tasting) duck and goose foie gras.  The market fills several streets, the main public square, and the inside of an abandoned church whose entire back wall has been converted to a giant portal allowing free circulation of both air and people to the market stalls inside. 

 20160917_021452docHaving figured out the advantage of attracting tourists to their market on Saturday morning, the city fathers of Sarlat have lost no time in figuring out ways to keep those walking cash dispensers in town as long as possible.  On the Saturday of our stay we were tempted back onto the streets long after the market closed with an evening sound-and-light presentation called “Un Patrimoine sous les Etoiles” [A Patrimony under the Stars]  in the old city starting at 9pm.

 

 

 

W and DB begged off, but DM and I set out after dinner to find the streets and ramparts lined with votive candles , the public buildings and cathedral lit with patriotic blue, white, and red, an artist drawing calligraphy with a light torch in the public square, and a buxom artiste on a balcony reading patriotic excerpts from Sarlat’s leading literary light Etienne de La Boetie accompanied by a cello.  The ostensible theme of the evening was something to do with the responsibilities of citizenship, but the real point was to see how different and how cool the old city looked with candle-lit paths and colored light effects. 

 

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