Wednesday, April 13, 2011

It's not much...

... but it was home for a few days. This is the château we stayed in, which was very quiet, very elegant, very secret. "We don't really want the publicity," the dapper manager, Olivier, told us when we asked why there was so little info on the property.

As long as there's a room available, I don't really care about the marketing outreach strategy. Just please bring me some more baguette and jam and coffee, and then I'm off to stroll along the terrace, and wander through the woods, and breathe in the impossibly clean air.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A typical day in La Loire - part two

After a tragically disappointing lunch at a little spot in the village, about which I will say no more, we zoomed off to the next château on the itinerary: Villandry, which is known for its astonishing gardens. The story of the château is quite something: it was built in the 16th century, on the grounds of a demolished 12th-century fortress (the keep and the foundation are all that remain); it was "upgraded" in the 18th century, and the traditional garden was destroyed in the 19th century in favor of an English-style park (Arcadia, anyone?).

In 1906, it was acquired by an American heiress, Ann Coleman, and her Spanish husband, Joachim Carvallo. These two non-French people restored Villandry to its earlier glory, and lived there with their children (it's so odd to wander around this museum, looking at both 17th-century paintings and 20th-century family snaps). Carvallo became determined to turn the grounds into gardens appropriate to the château's era, and to make them absolute show-stoppers.

As you can see from the photos, he succeeded. For all of you out there planning your summer gardens, here are a few Villandry-inspired tips:

Design your garden to replicate Renaissance ideals: highest should be a formal water garden (swans included), signifying the soul. On a lower level you'll need an ornamental garden, symbolizing the heart, with intricate arrangements of boxwood-bordered flowerbeds delineating various concepts of love: tender, passionate, fickle, and tragic. And then at the lowest level, symbolizing the body, set up a vast checkerboard of a potager, or vegetable garden, with all the beds outlined in hedges, and each overseen by a single rose bush standing in for the monk who would have tended gardens like this back in the day.

Throw in a maze, a canal, a garden of medicinal and cooking herbs, ancient pruned lime trees bordering every square centimeter, and a belvedere high above it all for the view, and you'll be the talk of the neighborhood association.

After hours spent wandering the gardens and taking zillions of photos, we headed to our fourth château of the day, Château de Noizay, where we had a lovely dinner. It wasn't quite as special as Le Bon Laboreur — a bit too Relais & Château-y for my taste — but nothing to sneeze at.

Then we headed home to our own little château, the one we love best; one always prefers one's own castle, even if it's not quite as grand as Villandry.

A typical day in La Loire - part one

Obviously, a typical day in the Loire involves châteaux. On Tuesday, we hit four of 'em.

We had a lovely breakfast at "our" château (which included some butter that I could have eaten straight up, with a spoon), then drove over to Azay-le-Rideau, which everyone had told us was the absolute gem of the Loire, so beautiful, so charming, the setting, the mirror effect, etc.

Maybe I was already jaded, one day in, but Azay-le-R, to me, had nothin' on Chenonceau. Or maybe it's just that your first château is always your best, and even after one day, Chenonceau had already acquired a golden haze of loveliness.

At any rate, the best thing about Azay to me was the name, which kept morphing in my head to Zazie-dans-le-Métro — a lovely film, to be sure, but not very Renaissance, perhaps. Of course, Azay is indeed lovely, but half of it was shut up for renos (which they neglected to mention at the ticket desk), and it just didn't have the pizzazz of Chenonceau. (However, it is on a charming little island, and having to cross over water to get to the front door just has such class.)

The weather, however, was absolument parfait — finally. A truly gorgeous spring day that didn't start off with morning haze or trickle off into afternoon gloom. Just bright blue skies, loads of sunshine, and a charming little French breeze filled with charming French birdsongs.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

My first châteaux

On this, my fourth trip to France, I finally took a trip outside of Paris: to the Loire valley, where I found out that fairy-tale castles do indeed exist. We hopped on TGV and an hour later were in a dingy suburb of Tours, where we picked up a rental minivan (my first time driving in Europe!) called, incongruously enough, Le Picasso and headed to Amboise. Just the day before, when we still had not made any concrete plans for our three-day excursion, a friend excited said, "You have to go to where we were married! You have to stay in the château!" No complaints from me — I've always felt, on some level, that I belonged in a château, and this one fit the bill: not too big, as châteaux go, quiet, unpretentious (no cheesy certification from some random corrupt hotel association, no ostentatious "luxury" items), on the most beautiful grounds, and with a staff of invisible workers who we never, ever saw. Our only contact was with Olivier, the manager, who nonchalantly chose a room for us when we arrived, not even asking for a credit card.

The Loire is magical. We visited one château on Monday — Chenonceau, which is privately owned and in excellent condition. It's built over a river — Catherine de Medici's idea — and the rooms are filled with objets and paintings and furniture and so forth, as well as piles of fresh flowers from the gardens.

You approach the château by walking down a long allée of tall trees, with just a glimmer of the castle in the distance: exactly like New York City Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty. I just could not get over it. Oh, and you pass an ancient keep, then cross a drawbridge. I mean, come on.

We spent hours there, checking out every room, wandering the gardens, trying unsuccessfully to get lost in the maze. The sun came out (finally!) in the late afternoon, just before we discovered the tulip garden, which was positively aglow. I took about six hundred pictures of the flowers (like I've said, it's been a loooooong winter), and bored R. silly going on about the ancient wisteria.

Then we had possibly the best meal of the whole trip: dinner at Le Bon Laboreur, an auberge right by Chenonceau. Highlights were the amuse-bouche of carrot velouté with cumin cream, the local chèvres, and the roasted pineapple with chantilly cream and sponge cake. Oh, and the local wines: Vouvray pétillant (my new favorite word from the trip, translated as "sparkling") and the Pouilly-Fumé.

Note: All the photos are of Chenonceau.

Friday, April 8, 2011


Perhaps our top Paris experience was an impromptu late afternoon / early evening Velib ride. On your next trip to Paris, you must rent a Velib and bike around, and please please please, go to the Louvre courtyards after dark, when the exterior is lit up, and the pyramid is glowing, and then ride across the Seing and watch the Eiffel Tower's spotlight shine against the sunset.

PS: I'm back in NYC, and catching up on the blogging -- I'll post a few more "from" the Loire and Paris.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


For almost our entire time in France (and I'm writing this on our eighth day), the weather forecast for the coming days has been gorgeous: sunny, 70s, breezy. And then the day comes, and it's grey and windy and damp. It's rather like a "Jam yesterday, and jam tomorrow, but never jam today."

However, Saturday was gorgeous — a perfect Parisian spring day, with everyone out and enjoying the parks, streets, outdoor cafés, and plazas. We finally made it to Grande Epicerie (one of my favorites), the huge food hall at Le Bon Marché. For home, I bought preserves, tea, tisane, and crunchy sugar, and for lunch in the adjacent park, we bought roquefort, comté, two mini baguettes (one white, one multi-grain), brandade de morue, marinated baby artichoke hearts, grapes, blood oranges, and mineral water. It was quite a feast.

We then hit Hugo + Victor, a highly hyped modern pastry shop, where I bought more preserves (my luggage is getting heavier and heavier), as well as an exquisite box of chocolates. And then, just to top off the afternoon, we wandered along the Seine, basking in the late afternoon glow.

Saturday night was the birthday party that was the excuse for this trip in the first place: a splashy blowout in a beautiful 19th-century building near Parc Monceau, complete with hip new band, fancy finger food, and a deadly pastry and cake selection.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


OK, I've fallen behind, but what would you rather do in Paris: post blog updates, or hunt down more delicious treats?

Friday was another late start. We picked up formule déjeuner at Erik Kayser, one of my mainstays from my 25 days in Paris two years ago. This time for me: roasted chicken and roast tomatoes with mayonnaise on baguette, eau minèrale, and an insane tarte aux abricots et pistaches. We ate our picnic on the grounds of the Musee Rodin, where the flowers were just coming out. It wasn't the crazy riot of tulips I remembered from my first visit to Paris, 15 (!) years ago, but it was still a welcome sight to my winter-weary eyes.

The museum itself is charming, in a down-at-the-heels way. We noticed the water stains, the crumbling plaster, the cracked glass — and then saw a sign that basically said, We know you've noticed the water stains etc., and we're doing our best with what we have. Understood.

Dinner was with R.'s friends, at their home: more roast chicken (all the chicken here is clearly injected with concentrated chicken flavor, making it so beyond the chicken we get back home — even the expensive happy chickens at Whole Foods. I can't figure this one out — explanations are welcome.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Jeudi: Le Marais

We’re not exactly springing out of bed and dashing outside to conquer the city. We’re more slowly emerging from a cocoon of jet-laggy sleep, letting some coffee soak into our systems, and only then, after much puttering and researching and wrapping of scarves and packing of notebooks, do we amble outside, in search of the next delicious treat.

Thursday we struck gold, at Au Fil des Saisons, a small, traditional-looking spot in the Marais where we set up camp for a couple of hours. We arrived at the tail end of lunch, but the chef, Loïc, not only welcomed us, he served us, and helped us choose the wine (a snappy and delicious Joseph Drouhin white burgundy), and answered our string of questions about the items on the chalkboard menu. (“Ça c’est egg with mushrooms and cheese; ça c’est snapper, ça c’est ….)

We had the egg (served in a gratin dish with cream and a mushroom puree and plenty of butter, all broiled together into a beautiful mess) and the escargots, which were stuffed into phyllo cigars and served with a cream sauce infused with 18 cloves of garlic (“Dix-huit?! Non!!”) For plats principaux, we had snapper en papillote with julienned vegetables and a “French risotto” with parmesan, and duck breast with a fine layer of crispy fat, served with potatoes and stir-fried vegetables with soy sauce. This is just the kind of meal that has a certain French flavor and quality (and liberality of fat) that you cannot find in the States, even in New York. I couldn’t do it every day, but for a treat, it was certainly welcome.

Then we set off to wander the Marais, one of my absolute favorite places in the world. Hausmann didn’t get his hands on this neighborhood, so it has old winding streets, back alleys, courtyards, vest-pocket parks, a hodgepodge of building shapes, sizes, and styles that you don’t see in the grand and stately arrondissements.

Paris, unlike New York, has museums scattered throughout the city; you’re forever stumbling across some little jewel that has its own lovely treasures. One of the more interesting ones is Le Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (The Hunting and Nature Museum), housed (of course) in a pair of handsome hôtels particuliers in the Marais. The exhibits have clearly been designed by someone with a quirky sense of humor; the exhibit on the fox, for instance, has a taxidermy fox in a glass case, around which is built a cabinet with various drawers (one has casts of a fox’s pawprints, another casts of a fox’s leave-behinds), some sliding panels that show a mini-installation of fox drawings by a contemporary artist, and a kind of hologram that shows you the fox’s territory.

There was also a room with birdcalls, which you could call up from a vintage-y box of labeled buttons, and then rooms organized by theme (The Wild Boar and the Stag, The Big Game Hunt, The Unicorn), filled with artifacts, taxidermy, and art. Somehow, it didn’t feel creepy, but instead smart and urbane and elegant.

Already in need of fortification, we window-shopped our way over to Mariage Frères for some Assam and thé vert, and a green tea financier and a citron macaron.

We then lingered in Place des Vosges, undoubtedly one of the most serene, most dignified spots in the city. As always when I’m in Place des Vosges, it was overcast, which makes the place even more somber and reserved.

We strolled along the arcades, peeking into hotel lobbies and jewelry shops, before working our way back to the lively part of the Marais, where we had an aperitif at Les Philosophes, a classic corner café on Rue Vieille du Temple (with an amusing sign in la toilette), next to La Chaise au Plafond, where I had my daily breakfast coffee years ago, on my first trip to Paris.

Our last stop of the evening was Breizh Café, where we had maybe a bit too much of the rich, buttery galettes (Bretonese buckwheat crepes). I couldn’t resist trying the famous Bordier butter, especially when I saw there is a smoked version (beurre fumé!), so we started with that, and probably could have wrapped it up right there. But on we went: galette with egg, mushrooms, and cheese for R., and galette with Reblochon, potatoes, bacon, and salad for me.

We had to cab it home, we were so full and wiped out and footsore. In the Marain, even in one day, you can really live a very full and filling life.