Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The French National Food

Only in Paris would there be an expo dedicated to chocolate! We spent the several hours today at the chocolate show in the suburbs of Paris, sampling and just taking in the devotion of the French to one of their most important foods.

In addition to tasting, there were demonstrations, movies, dancing, and even massage with chocolate oils. One exhibit featured the winners of a chocolate art competition. At another booth, a man was carving chocolate.

Classes of French children were on field trips to the chocolate expo.

I thought the impossible had happened as I left the expo hall: I was chocolated out. But I was ready to eat a chocolate dessert for lunch just a couple of hours later.

We spent the afternoon wandering in the Marais, the Jewish quarter of Paris, where we visited a fantastic museum dedicated to Jewish history.

On the walk back, I took this picture of my favorite motorcycle. It has a roof and even a windshield wiper. So sensible!

As the sun was setting, I started to say my goodbyes.

Winding Down

It’s a lot more work to be a tourist in Paris, a city that begs you to walk morning, noon, and night. I literally walked my ass off today because it was a perfect day and there is just so much to see.

This is the view out the window of the cafe where I get free wi-fi.

This morning we took a walking “DaVinci Code” tour with a 25-year-old who is in a lot better shape than I am. We met at the Ritz Hotel in one of the priciest sections of downtown Paris. We learned that the rooms in the Ritz range from 900 to 9,000 euros a night. I just had to take a picture of the bathroom because it is in such contract to the one from last week with the footprints and the hole in the ground.

Our young guide did a commendable job at giving us a history lesson, while pointing out the spots that figured in the story and also pointing out the inaccuracies in Dan Brown’s novel. We walked for most of 2 hours from the Place Vendome, where the Ritz is located, through the Louvre to St. Sulpice, the church that played a big role in the story, which is located in the Rive Gauche.

Lunch included 6 of the oysters I have been eying since coming to Paris. They came with a shallot vinaigrette dipping sauce. They were wonderful. After lunch we visited La Maison du Chocolat, where a free taste resulted in a purchase of melt-in-your-mouth pieces of chocolate.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at Montmartre, seeing Sacre Coeur and just soaking up the ambiance of this place that was the home to so many famous artists. Getting up to this highest spot in Paris burned off all the calories we had taken in today as the funicular was not working.

Kris and Bill are doing a bateau mouche trip on the Seine tonight. David and I are just too beat to join them. We’re going to have a crepe or two across the street from the hotel and just relax, something we’ve forgotten how to do here in Paris.

As our trip winds to an end, I realize that as much fun as it’s been, I’m really ready to go home. I feel over-stimulated by so many things to see and do and EAT! It’s time to get back to the simplicity of my daily routine with things like fruit and cottage cheese for lunch. It’s time to play with my dogs. It’s time to go back to work. All good things must come to an end.

One more day to be a tourist…
Happy Halloween! This picture of a stack of "courses" was the best I could do...

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Even in the Rain

Paris is still the most beautiful city in the world. We arrived on what appeared to be the last day of summer. The street performers were out in full force last night as we strolled along the Seine in the Rive Gauche in short sleeves.

But today it is damp and markedly colder. Even two café-au-laits failed to take the chill away.

We are staying under the shadow of Notre Dame on l’Ile St. Louis. Here are some pictures I took on the block where our hotel is located.

Right now we’re sitting at an outdoor café in the Tuillerie Gardens waiting for the Musee de l’Orangerie to open. This is the home of Monet’s 91-meters of water lilies, which was closed for renovation the last time we were in Paris. The scene is considerably different than it is on a sunny Sunday, when young children are sailing their boats in the pool, couples are lounging in the grass, and musicians are adding the background sound that so typifies Paris.

Instead I can hear the crunch of leaves underfoot, the chatter of children confined to their strollers, and the clink of spoons from those sipping hot drinks. What a window on humanity as they stroll by on their way to who knows where.

The afternoon ended with a little sun and a chance to sit and meditate while listening to an organ concert in the Eglise de la Madeleine. Even though it’s not my religion, the church is magnificent. And the concert was free, as many are.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Saying Au Revoir

I’ve always had trouble with saying goodbye – to good friends, to favorite places, to healthy changes of pace. So how did we spend our last day in Provence?

Breakfast was a mixture of leftovers – yogurt with fresh plums, a hunk of toasted baguette with butter, a cup of coffee. The cereal, milk, and juice are fini.

Today was market day again in Lourmarin. So I went with particular things in mind -- soaps, gifts for David’s mother and aunt, a little pomade of lavendar to sweeten the layette of Leyla’s unborn baby, and something for our wonderful friends at the Moulin Hotel who have treated us like guests as we mooched their wi-fi.

We had also agreed to buy dinner, thinking the lady with the roasted chickens would be back. But instead there was a man making fresh paella at 5 euros a portion – quite a bargain.

Street musicians playing jazz near the market.

A Frenchman with this dogs.

Art that caught my eye.
David and I packed a picnic and headed out for a final bike ride. After a hilly start, we found a road that was only a gentle uphill. We tried unsuccessfully to buy wine for dinner at several local caveaux, or wine cellars, only to find them closed for the midday break.

As we walked our bikes over the bumpy cobblestones, we stopped to look at listings of houses for sale in the Luberon. Now if someone would just leave us the equivalent of a million earos…

My treat of the day was to get my hair washed and “brushed” (as they say here) at the local coiffure. It may not look as good as when Richard does it, but my helmet head from wearing a bike helmet for 10 days was definitely gone. My stylist Ellen told me how much she would like to live in Miami. She was also lamenting the fact that there is no place to get a massage in Lourmarin. I know someone who could provide such a service… She even speaks some French.

I have yet to say goodbye to Mousse, the black-and-white cat, and Batshik, the adorable hotel dog.

My only consolation in leaving Lourmarin is that we will be spending the next 4 days in Paris, the most beautiful city in the world.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Sur la Mer

Today we headed to the Cote d’Azur – to Cassis – to enjoy the French Riviera.

As we strolled into town, we had our pick of sidewalk cafes on all sides of the port, which was full of boats of all descriptions. Lunch was delicious garlicky fish soup with yet another chocolate dessert and espresso.

We had intended to take a boat trip to explore the Calanques – the fjord-like inlets along the coast. But the wind was blowing too hard to allow boats to safely exit and enter the harbor.

Instead we explored the labyrinth of side streets. We took in a serious boules competition in the town square. We finally planted ourselves near the beach to feel the breeze and hear the waves smashing against the rocky shore while seagulls flew overhead speaking the .same language they speak everywhere.

We missed the beach with topless woman bathers that Kris and Bill discovered on their walk to the lighthouse. Quelle domage!

We had our pick of a variety of flavors of sorbet before heading out of town.

On the way out of town as we drove up a very steep narrow road wide enough for just one car, we met someone coming down. We burned some serious rubber as Bill finally navigated the Kangoo around the oncoming car. The rest of us breathed a sigh of relief when we realized we were not going backwards into the ravine below.

Yet another adventure in the French countryside with the locals lamenting the American occupation…

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Haute Cuisine

Last night was a lesson in French gastonomie as we dined at L’Auberge la Feniere. There were so many hints at why this was a multi-star restaurant, in addition to the food itself.

We were ushered into a rustic but beautiful dining room which exuded warmth and were shown to a fairly secluded table. When offered menus in French or English, David said “French” – probably not the right response since there is still so much food vocabulary that I haven’t learned. After the sticker shock wore off, three of us decided on the less expensive of the fixed price menus and David went for two courses: duck and chocolate. He has his priorities straight.

While we perused the menu and asked a few questions, we were served a plate of scrumptious one-bite appetizers: a single shrimp on a spoon of curry sauce, a little piece of toast topped with something like a tapenade, and a puffed pastry bite with who knows what inside.

The wine stewardess gave a good demonstration of how to serve red wine. She skillfully opened the bottle, smelled the cork, tasted a small amount, and then poured it into a wide-bottomed decanter. Only then did she offer it to us to taste and accept. The wine was a local full-body red produced just down the road from us.

Our bread plates were filled and re-filled every time we finished off a piece of bread. The bread was accompanied by fragrent olive oil.

Course #1 was a duck confit with some sort of delicious chutney (pictured above). The confit was creamy and melt in your mouth good. The chutney was tart and just right as an accompaniment.

The next course was a parmesan crisp topped with a mixture of sautéed wild mushrooms. You have to imagine this one because I was too anxious to taste it to take a picture first.

The main course was sliced roast lamb tenderloin, cooked to a perfect pink, with a puree of a white vegetable. We could never figure out the vegetable, even when the waiter brought out the uncooked root vegetable in a small bowl.

David’s duck was just as beautiful in its presentation. It was adorned by plump purple figs.

The cheese course featured 4 varieties of goat cheese with a salad topped with some sort of red berries.

At this point we were served a rosemary sorbet to cleanse our pallets in preparation for dessert. I would never have imagined rosemary as a flavor for dessert, but it worked quite well.

The final course was pineapple topped with marinated cooked apples, with a small serving of passion fruit ice cream at the other end of the plate. David’s dessert was a decadent chocolate log that ressembled a bouche de Noel.

A large part of the beauty of this approach to food is in the presentation of it. Each plate is decorated with sauces, oils, and garnishes appropriate to its content. The colors are perfect. Even the plate itself is selected to best display the food it contains. Artistic design plays a large role in French cooking.

After 5 courses of the best food I have ever eaten, we felt satisfied but not overly full. We walked out into the starry, starry night for the 5-minute ride home to Lourmarin.

This is a night when I appreciated the fact that I was not wealthy enough to do this on a regular basis, but I had enough money to occasionally splurge. It was definitely worth every euro!