Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Brittany - surrounded by the Atlantic and the English Channel

We moved on to Saint Malo in Brittany. Our main goal was to get to Mont St Michel, the island abbey on the coast of Normandy (but bordering on Brittany). However we wanted to stay a few nights and needed a larger town. Saint Malo turned out to be a good choice. 

We started our journey by bus. Taxis are difficult to get in the morning in Paris and we had a very convenient bus route nearby, so our journey was: bus to the Gare Montparnasse (train station), train to Rennes, and rental car to St Malo. It all worked smoothly. (Except we ran into our first truly rude folks...for instance as Pat entered the train station, a woman walked into her luggage and got upset at Pat for being there. Pat just took this in stride, finding it somewhat amusing.)

The first thing we noticed upon arrival on the coast, was the significant change in temperature, it was at least 20 degrees cooler in Saint Malo than in Paris.

Our room was ready when we arrived and after dropping the bags we were off for a walk through town and have some lunch. We found a creperie. Bill was dubious of crepes but he was game to try. The menu listed lots of gallettes. It turns out that these are savory crepes made from buckwheat. The waitress recommended the "scallops in garlic" to Bill. He thought the few scallops served on top of his gallette were great but otherwise he was left with a dry, possibly tasty, crepe. He wasn't pleased. Pat had one stuffed with sardines and tomato, a much better flavor combination and quite tasty. The Chabiis was a good choice to accompany the seafood based meals.

A little exploring along the walls and through the town yielded gifts for friends and pastries for breakfast. Some additional facts we learned, "the tide is out" in Saint Malo means you can enjoy the beach and walk to the islands. In extreme cases "the tide is in" means the adjoining road is getting wet. The tides here can be 40 plus feet! Not quite the Bay of Fundy (in Nova Scotia) but very close.
Here's a shot of a sometimes island fortress. Basically at high tide, it's an island.
By mid-tide you can walk out to it.
The city retaining walls are protected from the storms (and surges of waves) that come in from the English Channel by tree trunks planted like little forests in the sand.  Apparently the “trees” need to be replaced every 20 years. It would be interesting to see that process.
Note: Tree trunks on left, city walls on the right
Below is a copy of a post card we found showing what can happen with an unusually high tide. Wewere taken by this shot because our hotel is in the center of the photo. Fortunately the tide was pretty well-behaved for our stay.  And this seems to be typical. ;-)

We returned to the hotel to settle in our room. After a short break we wandered back onto the beach while the tide was out. We decided to walk out to one of the island fortresses (now surrounded by sand) where we got some good photos of the walls around the old town.

We snacked at a local brew pub on a “La Chaca”, a toasted tartine with 4 cheeses (mozzarella, raclette, emmental, and chèvre), that came with a salad garnish. A very tasty combination. To accompany the tart we chose two of their beers, Rock’n’Hops and a Saint Malo.  Both lighter than others we’ve had on this trip but very good. 

We returned to the hotel getting more photos in the waning sunlight.

From our window we continued enjoying the sunset as the tide brought water back up the beach.

In the morning after breakfast in our room, we noticed a visitor on the ledge outside our window, a sea gull. After shooing it away we took some photos of the beach and the island fortress in the morning sun. 
Our morning friend on our window ledge...who could resist?  We could.
We walked about 30 minutes to Cite d'Alet, the quieter part of Saint Malo, and discovered a special Weekend Art Market comparable in quality to the better summer Craft Fairs in the Bay Area in California...much smaller but located on a cute bay and in the shadow of a watch tower…very charming.  Also nice crafts. Pat saw several fragile things she would have loved to buy. Oh well.

Our short walk around the headlands yielded some nice views of Dinard, across the harbor, and Old Town Saint Malo.

Looking back at St Malo from Cite d'Alet
We found a real gem for lunch, L’Altre, a restaurant where we had a view of the market…and the bay.  From the amuse bouche, cucumber puré with dill and a slice of tomato, to the apple pie with ice cream and expresso everything was excellent. The appetizer was a fish paté with a salad on the side. Pat had monkfish while Bill had sea bass. The monkfish was good. The sea bass was excellent. Both went well with the wine, a Menetou Salon white from the Loire. We ordered expresso with the apple tarte and ice cream. 
Apple Tarte. Yum!
On our walk back to St Malo we wandered through a corner of the old town and Pat did some wading in the significantly higher water.  The beach was much more crowded, partly because the tide had hidden 3/4 of it by now.

After our large, tasty lunch we decided on a light snack in the evening. Another pub. Pat had a Guinness Stout (her first ever) and Bill had a Affligem, a very nice amber beer. Notice the lack of food!! Pat was a little disappointed in the Stout. She's had a couple stouts she likes at lot. Guinness seemed like an pretty tasty beer but was not especially memorable. Notice that both wines were served in the proper, made for them, glasses.
Affligem on the left, Guinnes Stout on the right.
Sunday we departed Saint Malo. On our drive to Amboise we stopped at Mont Saint Michel. We arrived at 9 and spent 2 hours climbing up and down through the town and abbey. An impressive site: an island accessible by foot at low tide, and elevation, a little over 300 feet. It has been a strategic fortification since the 8th century. A causeway was built in 1879 and the Abbey lost its island status due to silting from the river. Recently they have built a bridge for access, removed the causeway and added a dam. During some low tides, they release water from the dam to flush the silt from around the abbey which is now on an island again. There is still a lot of silt to clean up but clearly progress has been made. Some visitors seem to enjoy walking out on the extensive mudflats. It didn’t appeal to us.

Historically, The Bishop of Avranches built and consecrated a small church in 709 upon the request of Archangel Michel (San Miguel / St Michael).  In 966 a few Benedictines settled there and the pre-Romanesque church was built before the year one thousand. In 11Ccentury, the Romanesque abbey church was founded.

Us at Mont Saint Michele...paying homage to the patron saint of San Miguel de Allende. ;-)
All materials for the abbey had to be quarried elsewhere and hauled to the island and up the hill. So they devised ways to be efficient. In this case two sets of smaller supports around the cloister provided the needed support for the roof above but required many fewer stones.
There were various interesting sculptures like this around the Abbey.  We suspected they might be different views of the same eagle. Earlier in our tour we saw a claw wrapping around the wall above us. For perspective, realize that those openings are probably 10 feet high.
We stopped in Fougeres for lunch and to checkout the local castle. This turned out to be a great experience. There is an amazing, extensive and extremely picturesque medieval castle that dominates the town. 

The adventure began with finding a place to park. Somehow we must have missed a turn that would have taken us to the convenient parking lot by the castle/chateau. Consequently we ended up on some very cute (Pat’s view) and very hard to managed little streets. We finally found a parking spot and saved the location on Google maps to assure we could find our way back to the car.  Then we looked and looked for an appealing place to eat that was not a creperie. We gave in and luckily our lunch of galettes changed Bill's opinion drastically. These were much lighter crepes with tastier fillings (andouille sausage, cheese, onion for Bill; For Pat mushrooms, onion, and ham. Note both were fillings, not a few savory items on top.) The 1/2 liter of red wine was also good. 
Bill's tasty gallette
After lunch we wandered around admiring the castle from many angles and then found our way back to the car WITHOUT using Google Maps! 
The castle at Fougeres. See the restaurant umbrellas on the right? We ate under the 2nd from the right.
They must have believed in water power here, there were 4 water wheels in this one spot.
Then off for the 4 hour drive to the Loire Region. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

We love Paris in the ....make that nearly anytime

We headed to Paris by train from Brussels.  Our first experience with the Thayls, a private train service that serves Paris, Brussels, as well as London, Western Germany, and Marseille. Quiet ride, quite nice service (tea, coffee, snacks included in first class). Not a cost efficient way to travel though. Even with a rail pass that covers all routes, you still need to pay around 40 euros for a reservation.  You can travel without a reservation if you are indifferent to schedule (i.e. don’t care to travel in the AM), and don’t mind stops and/or train changes.

We arrived at Paris North and were met by a driver we had arranged on the recommendation of Paris Perfect, our rental agent. We arrive, settle in a little bit to our gorgeous surroundings, Pat is quite infatuated with the apartment that is decorated with loads of designer touches and equipped with ample cooking utensils and even basic supplies. Our recent rentals have been more basic with no decoration beyond the essentials. This apartment is ever so much more homey.We also like the view. 

Pat is, however, a bit fearful of the tiny elevator that gets us to and from the 6th floor. She climbed the stairs while Bill brought up the luggage in the elevator but she has worked on distracting herself for the ride up and down. If we weren’t walking so much, she’d just climb the stairs more but...

Soon we headed out for lunch along Rue Cler, a street that Rick Steves may have made famous for it’s marvelous mix of cafes and speciality food stores. It is one whole block from our apartment. Bill had a burger and fried potato slices. Pat had a Cesar salad with tandoori chicken. The chicken was great and this comes from someone that isn’t crazy about chicken.  The salad was surprising though. It was a combination of piles of shredded cabbage, shredded carrots, baby green beans, and tomato on a bed of lettuce. The 50 cl of Mouton Cadet bordeaux wine went quite well with both.

After lunch we shopped along Rue Cler, stopping at specialty store after speciality store to purchase snacks & wine for the evening and pastries & fruit for breakfast. All within a block or 2 of our apartment. Purchases were:
     Cheese - Truffle Camembert and Reblochon
     Bread - Whole grain French
     Wine - Les Perrays Anjou 2016 (Loire); SingulierTrousseau (Arbois, Jura)
     Pastries  - Red Fruit Crumble, Chocolate Almond Tarte, Muffins (raspberry and almond)
     Fruit Blackberries
     Veggie - Tomato (red, yellow, orange), cucumber, radish

Pat liked the Anjou and Bill preferred the “welcome” Chardonnay provided by Paris Perfect with the Camembert during our evening repast.

Later we ventured out to investigate the tower that dominates the skyline of the area around the apartment. There were a number of others also out viewing the tower and we all got to see a light show  around 9PM. We joined many other in taking photos with the tower as a background.  Quite a spectacular sight created by Mr Eiffel.

Bill also took photos of the tower from our apartment window.  It truly is a pleasure to “live” in a quiet neighborhood only 3-4 blocks from one of the worlds most known icons.
The top of the Eiffel Tower...Bill snapped this from our window.
On Saturday we launched our touring with a visit to The Musée Rodin which houses a nearly complete collection of Auguste Rodin’s most significant works plus other fine pieces that he collected.  The sculpture garden includes The Thinker, The Kiss, Burghers of Calais, The Gates of Hell and many more works. All of which Rodin donated to the French State. Included in his donation are also fine works from his private collection including paintings by Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh. There is a great collection of Rodin’s works at Stanford in the Cantor Sculpture garden, but this collection is far more complete and well worth a visit.

The Burghers of Calais. They are in anguish because they are sacrificing themselves for their families.
It is common to see one of the Burghers on display. It is rare to see the grouping.
"The young girl with flowers on her hat"
A young girl was looking at this with us...she could have been the model. So cute.
Lunch was at Brasserie Camile, a nearby restaurant where we shared a John Dory (a flounder style fish) with a salad and fries and a bottle of white Chateau-Neuf-du-Pape (very nice).

After lunch we stopped at our new favorite wine store for another red (Gigondas) and a dessert wine, Domaine Cauhapé “Noblesse du Temps Jurançon” made from Petit Manseng grapes. Yep more grapes we never heard of before. (We’ll have to report later on how these wines turn out.) Then on to “our” patisserie for more breakfast food and bread for a snack later.

We next ventured across the Seine to the Marmottan Monet Museum to see a few Monet’s and purchase tickets for the trip to Giverny.  This museum features a huge collection Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works by Claude Monet (the largest collection of his works in the world—donated by Monet’s son), Berthe Morisot (the first noted female Impressionist), Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin, Paul Signac and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. No photos allowed. So Pat snapped this from the brochure.

Sunday, mixed sun and rain. We ventured off to Giverny, so Pat could realize one of her impressionist dreams, to see Monet’s home and gardens. We started at the Water Gardens, then crossed the road to the main garden. We also visited his house and studio. We shot many, many photos from around the water gardens, flower gardens and home. Here are a few of the most representative.

After a light lunch at La Petit Giverny, (paté, seafood salad, and a half bottle of Brouilly - a nice light red) we headed back to Paris…managing to dodge most of the rain.

Upon arrival back in Paris, noting that the rain seemed to be have abated, we decided to take a walk up the Champs-Elysées to the Arc du Triomphe. The street is lined with stores and cafes and there are a fair amount of tourists strolling both sides.  

We were stunned when we reach the Arc. From past experience we think of it as the world's most intimidating traffic circle.  Last time we were here, it was roughly 7 lanes of traffic deep. We have always wondered who would let them selves get into the innermost lane. Yet when we arrived, there was hardly any traffic. Why the difference?  Changes in traffic patterns over the years? It's August, the vacation period in Paris?  Who knows?

We stopped for a few photos near the Arc before taking the underground passage to the center of the circle. The climb up the spiral staircase (284 steps) requires some energy, apparently there is an elevator but even that leaves 46 steps to the top. We are rewarded with some good views and a little sunshine.
See that empty space around the monument?  Yep, in the past we've only seen that full of cars.

Our walk continued back to the apartment via the Trocadero (across the river from the Eiffel Tower) for more views of the Eiffel’s masterpiece. With sunshine and blue sky we took a few more photos before crossing the VERY crowded bridge loaded with tourists & vendors.

Later we had Pizza at Gusto Italia, a local Italian place, ie 7th Arrondisement, with a Nero Davola wine. Having expended "so much" energy with our wanders and our climb up the Arc du Triomphe, we rewarded ourselves with dessert - an excellent chocolate souffle with extremely chocolate ice-cream and whipped creme, expresso and amaretto (“complementary”). 

Monday the weather was sunny and warmed up throughout the day.  (It looks like a trend, with forecasts for the 90’s later in the week.)  We were off for the next phase of Impressionism with a visit to the Musée de l'Orangerie to see Monet’s Water Lilies. There are 4 wall size paintings displayed in each of two large oval rooms. We spent quite a long time viewing and photoing these magnificent renditions of the water gardens we had visited on Sunday in Giverny.

We also visited several other galleries there before heading to lunch. We split a Quiche (ham and cheese), a Croque Madam (ham and cheese topped with a fried egg on toast) and a half liter of Beaujolais. Very tasty.

The afternoon was mostly spent in the Musee du Louvre. Wandering around various galleries, seeing Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa and many other noted and notable works of art.

This is what it is like to visit Mona Lisa. We've seen her upclose in the past so we
settled for documenting the crowd this time. Note: This was the ONLY crowded spot in the Louvre.
View of "The Pyramid" from inside the Louvre
Some of the ceilings...after all, the museum was a Palace.  This time we chose to notice details of the building.

We then strolled across the Seine and stopped at a cafe, Champagne for Pat and Sancere for Bill. We then hopped on a bus to see some of the Left Bank neighborhoods and Rue St Germain. Before we returned to the apartment we bought some cheese for our evening snack. Don't worry, we still had wine left from Sunday. ;-)

Pat’s B’day!!  We are off to the Musée D’Orsay. Armed with audio guides and Rick Steves we make our way through the many galleries and levels. Art Nouveau, Impressionism, Sculptures and much more.

Ballet Dancers by Degas
La  Déjeuner sur l'herbe by Monet
From Monet's Woman with an Umbrella series...we saw others in his studio.
Greek Statues taking selfies...which is against Museum policy they seem to have camouflaged their cameras.

Next we took the metro to the Canal St Martin area. Canal Saint-Martin is a 2.5 mile long canal in Paris with two locks that connects the Canal de l'Ourcq to the River Seine. (The spelling of the canal name is correct. We have no idea how it is pronounced.) You can take canal boat rides but they include a trip through a portion of the canal that runs underground. No Thanks. The Canal Saint Martin area is noted for it’s restaurants and shops. Many of these were closed for August vacation. The restaurant we had targeted opens on Aug 24 (this is Aug 23!). 

We found a little brasserie and snacked on carpaccio and an artichoke salad with a half liter of Bordeaux.  We finished with a raspberry tart and expresso.

For the evening we stopped at a bakery and picked up some savory snacks, (one bacon and cheese and one potato) and then at the local wine shop for a bottle of Champagne, Phillipponnat Royal Réserve Brut 2011. We finished the main course and added a little of the dessert wine, Noblesse du Temps Jurançon

We are off to the islands today, Isle de la Cite and Isle St Louis. First we stopped along the Seine at the beach!!.

Then we headed to the Conciergerie, first for photos from across the Seine and then for a visit inside.  The Conciergerie started out as the first residence of the Kings of France, established by King Clovis in 6C. Five centuries later it was turned into the Parlement de Paris.When Charles V moved the royal residence, he left the facility in charge of a “concierge”.  Hence the name.

During the revolution it became the temporary prison, prisoners were moved here the day before their trials. (We are unclear on how so many prisoners could be guilty of crimes requiring “off with their heads” but it seems that initially most were “charged” with “abetting” the king and  for “resisting the popular will”, later it may have become a matter of not being 100% in support of Jacobin programs. Initially maybe 1 in 5 prisoners were “found” guilty. Toward the end, the majority of prisoners were found guilty. Apparently the Revolution more or less ended with the military coup of Napoleon in 1799.

It was interesting to learn more about the French Revolution.

We also stopped at Sainte Chapelle where you see some exceptional stained glass windows.

We had lunch at at Restaurante L’Orangerie on Isle Sainte Louis. Besserat de Bellefont Brut Champagne and an excellent melon, prosciutto and arugula salad with a touch of balsamic. Pat had sweet breads and Bill had duck with orange sauce, both exceptional with accompanying potato. Desert wine and coffee completed the best Paris dining experience of this visit.

After lunch we did some shopping along the streets of Isle St Louis and Pat found a necklace!! A crystal necklace from Coeur d’Leon in teal and dark blue. She loves it. We of course stopped for a photo or two of Notre Dame. We love it from the backside which features the gargoyles and flying buttresses.

Evening takes us to the Tour Eiffel. We started up to the top at 8pm and made our way back down by 9:30. The lower elevator cars have two levels and climbs up the slope of one of the 4 base areas. Arrival at “levels 1 or 2” means the car arrives at two floors for each level. We went straight to level 2 (on the lower car) so had to go up one flight of stairs to get to the elevator to the top. (Note: Some folks take the stairs from the bottom to the 1st or 2nd level. We had elevator reservations for 8pm and had had enough exercise for the day. No climbing for us.) Each “level" has an open-air floor and a glass-enclosed floor. We walked completely around the top and level two. For photos, we of-course preferred the open-air floors. We also particularly liked the area around the east tower where there was a breeze.  It was the only cool spot during the day.

We arrived at the top with plenty of time for views in all directions and then to watch the 9pm lightshow (which is much better from the bottom, but now we know).
Invalides from Eiffel Tower
River View
Pat spotted the Frank Gehry designed Fondation Luis Vuitton building. We overlooked visiting it up close with our visit to the Marmottan. It is an impressive building with what is claimed to be an “impressive contemporary art gallery”. We wanted to see the building. Gehry is quite the artist of architecture. The only photo we had seen of the building looked sort of like a silvery spaceship standing on it’s base.  Pat knew the roughly where to look for the building and spotted something quite different but also Frank Gehry’ish. A more horizontal looking checkered canopy. We snapped a photo and our later research confirmed that this building is sort of a chameleon, only instead of changing to blend in, we think it changes to stand out.

At the bottom, we had to look back up from the very center. Lo and behold, it looks like a kaleidoscope.

Back at the apartment we topped off the day by finishing our desert wine accompanied with a little fruit crumble.  Oh and yes, this was our anniversary and we imagined it would be great to have champagne at the top of the tower. There is a champagne bar there but it was crowded and somehow the idea became less romantic.

We started our final day in Paris for this trip with a “climb" to Sacre Coeur. The church sits on the high point in Paris, about 425 ft above sea level. The exterior is plaster of Paris (with the plaster made from the gypsum mined below the church.)  It gets whiter over time. The bright mosaics were the standout feature of the interior.

We moved over to Saint Germain for lunch & a visit to Le Bon Marche,the renowned department store (think Neiman Marcus level).  Pat had one of her favorite French foods for lunch (baguette with Parma ham and butter), Bill had a Croque Monsieur with Poilâne bread & green salad. We shared an “Authentic Gratin Dauphinois (potato gratin with cream, slowly cooked)”. For wine, Pat chose a Bourgueil and Bill a Crozes Hermitage.

After lunch we explored Le Bon Marche which we found to be a bit high-end/designer for our taste but we enjoyed the associated La Grande Épicerie de Paris (think of it as a deli-department on steroids).
We liked the elevator design at Le Bon Marche
These veggies (we think) we at La Grande Épicerie de Paris.
We have no idea what they really are.

Our evening snack consisted of Champagne (R&L Legras Blanc de Blanc) and 2 types of Quiche, mushroom and onion. We added a few raspberries or dessert, they also went nicely with the champagne. It was a fine finish to our birthday and anniversary week in Paris.