Friday, December 27, 2013

Paris and the Loire in winter

Cold. Damp. Windy. But it was Paris, so who cared? We’d left Newark four hours late in a blizzard and arrived four hours late in the City of Lights. Our friend, an expatriate, met us at Charles DeGaulle Airport. We’ve been to Paris a bunch of times, but this is the first time that we didn’t have to fool around with a rental car or get a cab or train into the city. Knowing a local is a real treat.

Her apartment is on the Right Bank, a short way from the US Embassy. There’s a security gate at the street. Punch in a code and you get access to a passageway once used by carriages. Pass through a second gate and you find yourself in a courtyard garden. Cross the garden, push through the main entrance into the marbled foyer, up a short flight and welcome to the Elevator From Hell. 

Actually, it’s the Elevator Doors From Hell. The French have an obsession with self-closing doors. A good idea, but their springs are far too aggressive. The outer, wire mesh door opens out. The dual inner, wood and glass doors open in. Both require real strength to open, and both love to snap shut on luggage, grocery bags, backpacks and slow moving derrières.
We took the nickel tour of the apartment, showered, changed and hit the street. Lunch was in a small, smoky, brightly lit neighborhood bistro where the waiter knew our friend and made little jokes in French. He really was a pleasant guy, and the lunch of soup, salmon, bread, cheese and (of course) wine was perfect. We sat in a small booth in a corner and watched the other diners and their dogs as they chatted and ate and smoked and drank and barked and growled and talked and texted and just lived.
After lunch, we walked to the embassy. The US Embassy is on the Place de la Concorde, a traffic circle at the foot of the Champs Elysee. Opposite the embassy in the center island of the circle is an Egyptian Obelisk looted from the Temple of Thebes in Luxor. I saw its twin still standing in the original position a couple of years ago. It’s certainly impressive and dramatic standing there in Paris, but it would probably look more at home back in Luxor. It was a “gift” to the French Government, given while Egypt was a French colony. That was about the same time that Napoleon’s soldiers were shooting the nose off The Sphinx looking for treasure.

There’s a bar in the Embassy, and that night, five American women were putting on a musical show for an audience of about fifty people. The youngest performer was a seventh grader who sang two original songs and played guitar. She gave a solid performance. The kid was followed by four forty-something diplomats who together and in combination entertained with original and cover tunes on vocals, guitar and piano. It was mostly folk music, but with a splash of lounge jazz. The bartenders were competent, the drinks strong, the pizza bad, and the company terrific.

After the show ended, we had a late dinner at a pasta restaurant a few doors from the embassy with a bunch of our new friends. The place had faux-painted sandstone walls with statues in little carved niches. Italianate tapestries hung from the walls and potted plants provided privacy. We had salad and pasta and wonderful crusty bread and wine and conversation and laughs ‘til no one was left in the place except us. When I travel to Europe, I try to stay up as late as possible on the first day in order to acclimate to the time change. I usually make it to about nine in the evening. This time we went til two in the morning on three hours of airline sleep!

Next morning, after a quick breakfast, we toured the neighborhood. A few blocks from our friend’s place is the local market. The street’s lined with food shops for several blocks, and the vendors build sidewalk displays on Saturday. The stands were filled with geometrical arrangements of fresh fruits and vegetables, some familiar and some alien. Oysters in their knobby grey shells and scallops in their brownish shells about the size of a big man’s open hand were piled in great mounds. Mushrooms were everywhere – chanterelles, portabellas, tree ears, and many others that I couldn’t identify.

One of the things I love about French food markets is their lack of squeamishness about displaying meat. Americans are neurotic about not wanting to know that their meat used to walk around under its own power, so we package it to look sterile and unrecognizable. 

The French have no such quirks. Gutted suckling pigs dangle from hooks. Skinned and cleaned rabbit carcasses aligned in display cases, stacked against each other in a row. In one display, a turkey was cleaned and plucked, but the iridescent feathers were still on its head, neck, and tail. The bird was laid in the display case with its feathered neck curved into a graceful loop and luxuriant tail spread in a smooth arc. It was beautiful and it reminded me of 17th Century still lives in the Louvre. We didn’t visit the Musee du Louvre on this trip; our plan was to concentrate on the Chateaus of the Loire Valley.

Later that morning, we headed southeast on the A10 highway to Blois. France has a system of superhighways much like our own, but the speed limits are higher -- often in the eighty mile per hour range. Along the route we got a good look at one of the famous high speed TGV trains as it passed us at nearly double our speed. Including stops for gas and junk food (how about mustard flavored potato chips?), the drive lasted a bit over two hours. Our final destination was a bed & breakfast inn, or "chambres d'hôtes", called Le Saint Michel, in the tiny village of Les Montils a quarter of an hour outside of Blois.
Villa Ste Michel

Le Saint Michel was built in 1835. The brick and masonry building is three stories tall and has four guest rooms, formal salon and dining rooms, a library, and commercial kitchen. Less than two years before, innkeepers Dominique Couvreur and Marie-Paule Rondpierre bought the run down and overgrown mini estate. They hired a renovation team of seven men and spent nine months bringing it back to life.

The salon has a detailed ceiling, painted crown moldings and working fireplace. The library and dining room both have beamed ceilings and in the library is a Louis XII fireplace rescued from a far older building. The dining room seats ten, has an elaborate carved fireplace with the salamander motif of King Francois I and the Eagle of Napoleon. The dining room walls are covered with rich, old, raised panel oak woodwork.

Marie-Paule met us at door wearing blue jeans and a University of Maryland sweatshirt -- not at all what I expected from a French country innkeeper. She shook our hands after giving our friend a pair of the traditional two-sided air kisses. Although she was born in France, Marie-Paule has a perfect Queens, New York accent. Her father moved the family to Detroit after World War I, but returned to France in time for World War II. After the war ended, he planned to return them to AmericaChile this time, so the family all learned Spanish. But he changed his mind, had the family learn English, and went back to the USAForest Hills, Queens.

We were joined shortly by her partner, Dominique, a slight, elegant woman of indeterminate middle age. Dominique greeted us formally in French. Although she didn’t seem to speak much English, Marie-Paule let the cat out of the bag and told us that Dominique actually speaks English well enough to handle a hotel full of Americans when she has to.

All the guest rooms in Le Saint Michel are named for Former Queens of France, except “Diane”. That room is named for Diane de Poitiers, a favorite of Henry II, and enemy of his Queen, Catherine de Medici. We stayed in the room named for Queen Charlotte of Savoy, wife of King Louis XI. Our friend had Catherine. Both rooms were furnished with antiques that the two women collected, appropriated from relatives, and picked up from local estates.

The innkeepers added private bathrooms to each guest room. The big rooms, Charlotte and Catherine, have full bathtubs with showers, while the smaller rooms have just a shower stall, sink, and commode. All the tile and fixtures are shiny and white. The sink in Charlotte is the only fixture saved from before the renovation. It’s a gigantic free-standing double sink. About 5 feet wide on rounded white porcelain legs, it has two bowls and the original 1920’s faucets.
Marie-Paule arranged a wine tasting for us at a local vineyard. Michel Contour is the proprietor of the vineyard, and he makes his own wines from Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Pinot Noir grapes that he picks by hand. He makes a red, a white, and a rosé that was surprisingly unlike any rosé that I have tasted. It’s fruity and vibrant and a delightful drinking wine. The wine is named for the region, Cheverny (sheh-ver-NAY), and Michel’s name is in small print near the bottom of the label.

M. Contour lives on the property in a compound with two homes. One is for him and his family, and the other belongs to his mother who helps him in the business. At seventy-one, Madame Contour is an energetic wisp with grey hair and a handy smile. She manages the bottling operation and the retail shop while Michel runs the vineyard, makes the wine, and serves as the mayor of the village of Cellettes. He could expand his operation to make more money, but he enjoys the life of an urbane, hands-on viniculturer and winemaker, and he revels in village politics. We were fortunate to show up on a day when the vineyard was hosting a pottery exhibition.

Dominique Garet and Roz Herrin were the potters. We didn’t meet Dominique, but were surprised to find that Roz is actually an English woman named Rose. Fortyish, she has a girlish look and a disarming flirtatious little twisted smile that cracks open her animated face. It’s a face that’s seen a lot of sun or a lot of hours before a hot kiln, but the crinkly seams and wrinkles add warmth and character. She’s designed and invented some unique pieces, too.

One that caught our eye was a broad, flat, funnel-shaped bowl about as wide as a dinner plate. The mouth of the bowl is filled by a removable disc, into which are punched a couple dozen holes of various sizes. Some of the holes can accommodate a fat toothpick, others a pinky finger. The entire unit is no more than three inches tall. I examined it for several minutes trying to figure out its function before surrendering and begging an explanation. The disc is a frog -- for arranging live flowers. Water goes into the bowl. Those annoying and apparently useless little short-stemmed flowers that you always seem to end up with go into the holes. Since Krys is forever putting stumpy-stemmed flowers in shot glasses, we had an immediate use for Roz’s invention.

Medici's - Blois
Dinner Saturday night in Blois was at a place called Medici’s, named for Catherine de Medici who was a daughter of the great Florentine family. We didn’t even need a reservation. On the edge of a light industrial district, it doesn’t look like much from the outside. Inside, though, it’s a riot of classic Florentine style. The walls and ceilings are heavily decorated and painted in the rich deep green, gold and peach of the Florentine Duomo. All that’s missing are a couple of Michelangelo sculptures.

We spent the evening at the restaurant; it was a five-course, four-hour dinner. Aperitif and hors d’oeuvre, entrée, main, cheese, dessert, digestif and coffee. We had venison in a black currant sauce, steak and fish. The cheese was served the old fashioned way, a couple dozen varieties on a rolling cart. We pointed to our choice, and the waitress cut and served. Cheverny is famous for its goat cheese, which is rolled in soot to cure. I tried the goat cheese, the Roquefort and the camembert, which is a cow-cheese that comes only from Normandy. It was soft, sweet, creamy and contrasted perfectly the drier and more piquant goat cheese.

On Sunday, we followed the river down to Amboise, a small town with a famous chateau. Amboise is also known for its Sunday flea market where you can buy anything from breakfast to a new sofa or a pair of used trousers. The market’s on a strip of land along the river side of the dike that protects the town from floods. The most elaborate vendor stalls are permanent structures, like sheds or pole barns. Others are enclosed trailers opened up and transformed into full working kitchens -- one had a pot four feet across full of Choucroute Garni, Alsatian sauerkraut and sausage -- and elaborate merchandise displays so tall it took a pole with a hook to get shirts down from the top.
Uphill from the river is a small estate called Le Clos Lucé. It’s surrounded by a wall and, once through the gate, a wide lawn bordered by trees and nearly as long as a football field slides gently down to the left. To the right is the three-story renaissance brick house where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life. Invited to Amboise by Francois I, he was provided with housing and a pension. Two rooms on the main level were renovated during the eighteenth century, but most of the house still appears as it did during da Vinci’s time. The floors are softly worn terra cotta tile and window shutters are carved with a folded fabric pattern found throughout the region. 

Many pieces of furniture actually owned by da Vinci are still there, including the bed in which he died. I was struck by the look of the study. Tall-ceilinged, neat, orderly and sparsely furnished. Five hundred years ago I bet it was a fantastic mess of books, models, dust, and clutter.

The curators have built displays with thoughtful imagination. One of da Vinci’s sketches of the town and the Chateau hangs beside the window where he sat as he drew it. The view is unmistakable and the effect startling. In the lower level of the house are models of machines that he invented. The reproductions were created by IBM employees using techniques and materials of the Renaissance. 

A servant of Kings, many of da Vinci’s innovations were for implements of war: Improved catapults and cannons. Prototypes of machine guns. But he was also fascinated by flight. There was a crude helicopter and a glider. He even invented the parachute – a pyramid-shaped device of fabric stretched over a light wood frame. The display included his mathematical calculations specifying the relationship between the height of the parachute and the size of the open area at its base.

Da Vinci was a close advisor of King Francois I, and in the basement is a secret underground passage that connects to the Chateau almost half a mile away. This long tunnel passes beneath the caves of the troglodytes, which are cut into a long cliff face. I grew up thinking that troglodytes were a race of ancient cave-dwellers, but in Amboise they aren’t too ancient. In fact they have satellite dishes outside their caves. They have homey-looking curtains in the windows and pleasant, tile-topped chimneys jutting out from them as well. We didn’t have an opportunity  to get inside any of these modernized caves, but we did walk up close in a failed attempt to look through a window. I wonder if this is where Tolkien got the idea of Hobbits living in Hobbit-holes. They match his description perfectly!
Chateau Royale d’Amboise dominates the center of town. It’s built atop a spur of rock that juts out into the confluence of the Loire River to the north and the Amasse to the south. There has been fortification of some sort here since the time of Christ. One of the most striking features of this Chateau is The Horseman’s Tower. It’s a two-tiered crenellated cylinder standing on end, over sixty feet across and almost a hundred fifty feet tall. Inside the tower is a brick ramp that spirals five times around an empty core and permits access to the Chateau for horsemen from the town.

Most castles open to the public in Europe are massive, stark, stone-cold edifices. Signs usually inform visitors that in their heyday, tapestries would have adorned the walls…. We visited ten of the several dozen rooms in the Chateau d’Amboise, and tapestries still adorn those walls. Expansive, gorgeous, three, four, and five hundred year old Flemish and Aubosson tapestries drape from ceiling to floor on many walls and original paintings by old masters hang in the state rooms. Fifteenth and sixteenth century antiques fill the Chateau and in the guardroom two Milanese suits of armor stand sentry. Since it was off-season, we were able to wander unimpeded by summer crowds.

Like any other seat of medieval or renaissance political power, Amboise has a history of tragedy and bloodshed. During the thirteenth century, the Chateau was repeatedly attacked by the Dukes of Anjou and the Count of Blois. In 1498, King Charles VIII tragically died at there after accidentally hitting his head on a low doorway, and following the failed Protestant uprising of 1560 (think Three Musketeers), many of the reformists were hanged and beheaded on the Chateau grounds.

The grounds of the Chateau, filled with formal gardens and ranks of tightly pruned trees, extend in a dramatic, terraced sweep upward from the rear of the building. The view from the summit takes in both rivers, the Chateau, the town’s rooftop panorama, and the Saint Hubert Chapel. The chapel is built alongside the fortification wall on the edge of the Chateau’s grounds, and it’s a spectacular example of flamboyant Gothic architecture. It includes the expected pointy-arched windows and the finely carved interlacing is sculpted out of Touraine chalk. An elegant cupola grows from the center of the roof and builds into a tall spire decorated with stone hart’s antlers. Inside the little chapel are two fireplaces and the tomb of Leonardo da Vinci, who asked to be interred there while on his deathbed in the spring of 1519.

After lounging about Amboise for the entire day, we rushed back to Le Saint Michel because Marie-Paule was preparing a special dinner for us.  is a traditional winter peasant dish. A stew, it features four different cuts of beef and includes potatoes, turnips, carrots and other vegetables. Two of the cuts were from the hindquarters and the other two were the tail and cheeks. 

I don’t know the proper name for beef cheeks, but they are a delicacy so tender you can chew the meat even if you were toothless. That makes up for the tail. My first experience with oxtail was mainly a struggle. Since the tail is an extension of the spine, the meat clings tenaciously between bone and cartilage that spokes out from the center. I worked it for a while and had some marginal success. Yuri is a fourteen month old Alaskan Husky that lives at le Saint Michel. Yuri was hungry and highly experienced in oxtail.

Our dinner started with cocktails in the salon at seven thirty. It ended with coffee in the dining room at eleven thirty. Over the course of four hours, we enjoyed our Pot au Feu with leeks from the garden. We dined on salad with Marie-Paule’s dressing, local cheese, chocolate tort and magnificent fruit compote. We enjoyed three different wines -- a Cheverny, a Bourgogne, and a taste of Bordeaux. In the meantime, we learned about the region, the house, and the village from our remarkable hostesses. We knew that we’d be saying “au revoir” in the morning, so we milked the evening.

Monday dawned damp and overcast. What a surprise. We fussed with our hostesses over a long farewell, packed up our vehicle, and set off for Chenonceau. Home to some of the most beautiful and powerful women in French history: Catherine de Medici, Diane de Poitiers, Mary Stuart – Queen of Scots, and Louise de Vaudemont – the famed “White Lady of Chenonceau”. On learning of the death of her husband Henri III (a son of Catherine de Medici), Queen Louise fell into such despair that she lived the last twelve years of her life in a black draped bedchamber. She dressed herself only in white and dedicated the remainder of her life to solitude, prayer and ceaseless generosity to the unfortunate.

Chenonceau was originally a fortified mill, but Thomas Bohier tore it down in the sixteenth century and built the original portion of the structure that’s now standing. Access to the property is along a lane bordered on both sides by a colonnade of gigantic sycamores. Stone lions guard the entrance to the grounds and the Chateau rises from the midst of the river Cher. The Chateau is fronted by an honest-to-God moat. We crossed it on a drawbridge. Catherine de Medici’s intimate garden lay on our right and Diane de Poitiers’ massive formal one was on our left.

As we stepped through the doors, the chapel opened to our left. Four hundred year old graffiti, carved and dated in Roman numerals by Mary Stuart’s Scottish guards is scratched into the door jamb and protected by plexiglas. Just beyond the Chapel is the guard’s chamber. Thank goodness for the fireplace! There’s no central heat, so the curators built a fine hot fire in the guardroom. As with Amboise, many of the rooms in Chenonceau are decorated with ancient tapestries. In Catherine de Medici’s bedchamber, her motif of interlocking “C’s is carved into the beamed ceiling.

After Henri II, her husband, was accidentally killed in a fight by Gabriel of Montgomery, Catherine effectively ruled France in the names of four of her sons. When she moved into Chenonceau, the building stood on the riverside with a moat in front and bridge across the Cher at its back. She built a two-story gallery atop the bridge and created one of the most stunning and picturesque of all the Loire Chateaus. During the First World War, the gallery served as a military hospital. 

In WWII, the river Cher was the border between Free and Occupied France, so the gallery/bridge entertained some interesting traffic – smugglers mainly. Even though there was a warm fire on the second floor as well, the cold chilled our bones so we moved on. Paris called and we had only one more day to drink it up.

“Les Francais ne respectent pas la loi.” Translation: “The French have no respect for the law.” Especially traffic laws. We were stuck in rush hour traffic on the Periferique, which is the Parisian version of the Washington Beltway. As we inched along, motorcyclists tore past between the car lanes. Although the law requires motorcyclists to follow the same rules as automobiles, French motorcyclists have no respect for the law and these guys feel entitled to go wherever they want. The French also have no respect for parking rules. One evening we watched a well-dressed man park his new Porsche smack in the middle of a crosswalk. In Paris, no one cares about parking rules and pedestrians are used to being inconvenienced.

Paris loves to decorate herself for Christmas. On our final Parisian day, we wandered the quaint Christmas markets on the right bank a few blocks from the river. Later, we bucked the crowds at Printemps Department Store in search of gifts for the nieces and nephews (don’t miss the view from the rooftop café). We also stopped by Shakespeare and Company, the notorious English language bookstore. Originally founded by Sylvia Beach, it was a hangout of Hemingway, Pound, Gertrude Stein and the other expatriate writers of the 20’s. Shakespeare and Company was the publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The original store closed during WWII, and the current version opened in 1964. As always, they have books for sale and serve as a lending library to itinerate English-speakers. 

Our last evening, we dined in a proletarian French/Lebanese restaurant and then wandered the streets of the right bank scrutinizing Christmas decorations. The air was cold and the wind  bit hard, so we bundled up in hats and scarves. Most of the stores were dark, so mostly we shared the sidewalk with folks hurrying home and a few hardy dog walkers. The trees along Champs Elysee were draped in tiny white lights. Christmas time in Paris. We snapped photos on the center island of the grand boulevard while sparkling trees converged on a brilliantly lit Arc d’Triomphe.

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