Friday, May 18, 2012

A Swim for Old Times Sake

The last thing that Jememy and I did before he returned to Munich, was to head to the pool. I met Jeremy at Ohio State University where he did a 6 month exchange program. He met our group of swimmers one afternoon, and swam with us multiple times per week. Jeremy is the smoothest, most efficient swimmer that most of us have seen. So we decided for ole times sake, we had to go to a public pool in Paris, take a picture and go for a swim. We got to the public pool, and went through the process of entering which I found interesting... We had to enter the men's locker room with "nude" feet, where about three women circulated about mopping floors, wiping down counters and keeping the area clean. We then entered a private changing room and then put our clothes in locker. Then we had to go through a large shower area, walk through an anesthetic foot wash, and put a swim "bonnet" on. Bonnets are mandatory and "Bermudas" are not permitted!
It truly was a very nice 50 meter pool with TONS of people in it! Upon entering the pool of rules, we asked a lifeguard if she could take a picture of us in the water. She said... "it was against the rules to take pictures in the pool area". We were surprised about, and proceeded to ask "why"? And she said that we might get people in the picture that might not want to have their picture taken. Jeez! So we then asked "can we take it up against a wall where nobody would be in the picture"? To which she replied "have someone do it fast for you and I will look the other way... but don't be surprised if you get in trouble by a supervisor".
We did hear from the supervisor, but got the photo anyway... now I am wondering after seeing the picture, why I thought that would be such a great idea... LOL! I love the sign to the right of me saying "Bonnet de Bain Obligatoire" not so thrilled about my part in the picture.

Sunday Afternoon in the Park

After leaving the cemetery Jeremy and I were again looking for something to eat... Possibly a famous French pastry of some type. Now that Jeremy lives in Munich, he says one thing he really misses are the French pastries. Although they seem to be all over in Paris, Patisseries too seem to be generally closed on Sundays. While walking around Paris (in the wrong direction of our next destination), we found a nice shop with many treats. Although my picture does not do the patisserie justice, you get an idea. We ordered a slice off a huge brioche (charged by weight), a raspberry meringue and mille-feuille (what we call a Napoleon)... Literally translated as "1000 leaves" of pastry.
Amazingly, we did not devour the treats right then but decided to head to a park that Jeremy remembered and eat the treats there. When we got to the park, I was shocked! There was not a "main attraction" in the park. There were no: boom-boxes, footballs, baseballs, soccer balls, or Frisbees. No huge Coleman coolers, no loud groups of teenagers, and no shirtless people who shouldn't be. What I found were thousands (literally) of small groups of people sitting on hills and open spaces enjoying the sun, speaking in hushed tones and possibly noshing on small morsels of food. I told Jeremy that this was about the most foreign experience that I had encountered on my trip. It was so understated, and relaxing... a bit odd for such a big city.

Looking for a Sunday Croissant and Edith Piaf

Before meeting his friends on Saturday night, Jeremy asked me "when do you want to meet tomorrow and what do you want to do"? I said, "don't rush to get here and I have NO AGENDA". What a great thing to sleep in a little bit, and let Paris come to me! So on Sunday around 1030am, Jeremy and I decided to look for a boulangerie for a breakfast bakery item and a coffee... wow was that difficult. Most everything was closed on Sunday around my hotel, so we decided to head off to the cemetery Pere Lachaise Cemetery hoping to find some to eat along the way.
Today there are over 1 million bodies buried above-ground there, and many more in an area reserved for those who requested to be cremated. Some of the more famous people buried in Pere Lachaise include: Balzac (French Novelist), Georges Bizet (French Composer), Frederic Chopin (Composer), Moliere (Play write), Jim Morrison (American Singer/Songwriter), Edith Piaf (France's most famous singer), Camille Pissarro (Impressionist Painter), Gertrude Stein (American Writer), George Seurat (Post Impressionist), and Oscar Wilde (Irish Writer).
All of the burial sites were above ground, from small tombs to buildings the size of a small cathedral replete with stained-glass and religious monuments. As we purely happened upon one grave circa 1871, a Parisian told us of the story of the man buried where we stood (Victor Noir). Seeing that he was speaking in French, I missed quite a chunk of the translation, but knew a bit about the story of the man's death death by a pistol shot from a Prince of the Emperor, and the story behind his grave. It is said that if a woman rubs the bronze grave and places a flower in his top hat, she will be guaranteed a husband within a year. Quite the story... and one that many women appear to believe!
Unfortunately, Jeremy and I did not have a map nor any idea of where to find ANY of the famous people listed in the first paragraph of this post. After walking around for several hours, and marveling at many of the structures, we decided to head out of the cemetery.

Eric back in Paris

After visiting Chaumont sur Loire, Eric and Jeremy took the TGV (fast train) back to Paris. It took just over an hour to get the Montmartre station and another 20 mins or so to take the Metro to the hotel near the Arts et Metier station in the center of Paris. The hotel was so convenient to the Metro station which made it great to get around on my last two nights in Paris.
Like most of the hotels we stayed, Austin's (not a very French name) Arts et Metier hotel was small (only 29 rooms on 6 floors), well maintained and not cheap. The best parts of this room were the towels and shower. As I am sure DB&K can attest to my observation that most of the towels on our trip were not too plush nor soft. The shower had plenty of room to move around in without bumping into the faucet or the walls. On Saturday evening, Eric went to dinner with Jeremy and Emmanuel de Bourmont the youngest of the sons of the family I had stayed with during my internship over 20 years ago (amazing how the time flies). We went to La Table d'Ana, a small restaurant within walking distance to the hotel. We shared a bottle of Burgundy wine and Jeremy and I had dinner. Jeremy had the Tartare de daurade et mangue à la coriandre (a fish and mango tartar) and I had the Lasagne aux epinard et chevre (a spinach and goat cheese lasagna). The food was great and reasonably priced.
It was amazing how Emmanuel and I were able to pick-up our conversation as if it had been 20 days not 20 years since we had last seen each other. We discussed Emmanuel's new baby and new job. I got caught-up on the lives of his parents and siblings. We discussed the recent French elections and basically solved all of Europe's and the US problems. Hopefully we can do this a little more frequently than once every 20 years!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Blois and Chateau de Chambord

Sunday, May 13th: Mother’s Day - how perfect is that? We (Dave, Barb and Katie) stopped in the town of Blois for lunch, which is a picturesque town right in the heart of Loire, and then continued on to Chambord, which, as the guidebook says is the “granddaddy” of all the Loire chateaux. It was huge (440 rooms, but thankfully only 80 are open to the public), and created primarily to knock the socks off people the kings wanted to impress with their wealth and power (it surely worked on us). Fun chateau facts we learned are: the king and his court moved from chateau to chateau as a way of ruling by being physically present throughout the kingdom. When Chambord was empty, the forests surrounding the castle were guarded from poachers but the chateau itself was left untended. The court, staff, and hangers-on that traveled with the king were so numerous that even this huge chateau couldn’t hold them all, so the overflow people were forced to board with the villagers or camp out on the grounds. At a royal banquet, people ate with their fingers and shared a goblet - it was polite to drain the goblet before passing it on to the next person.

The Loire Valley: Chenonceau and Chaumont sur Loire

After Mont St. Michel, we hopped back in the car and drove to Amboise, which was our home base for touring the grand chateaux of the Loire Valley. On Saturday May 12th, we tackled Chenonceau, which was exquisite, and the focus of many royals including Catherine de Medici. Although she was not a looker, her chateau and the gardens are...
Dave and Eric were struck at how every room in Chateau de Chenonceau had a fresh arrangement of flowers in virtually every room. Although they were dwarfed a bit by the size and grandeur of the rooms, they were works of art each and every one of them. Notice in these pictures, not only the fresh flowers but the artwork, tapestries, ceilings and furniture... stunning!
After hunting down a former Ohio State University exchange student and friend Jeremy, we went to the chateau Chaumont sur Loire. In an attempt to boost tourism and local interest, this chateau has chosen to primarily focus on the gardens surrounding the partially renovated property. Each year the gardens are themed with plantings and installations to match. This year the extensive gardens had a "modern art" theme.... and they were pretty out there - very modern art-ish, like a “flower bed” of brooms, a bed of orange flowers centered around a huge man-made orange peel and a bed of garden gnomes. E and D, the gardeners in the group, were interested enough to tour the grounds, but B and K stuck to the chateau itself, which was also quirky. The maintenance/renovation was spotty, and big chunks of it had not been renovated but were hung with installations of modern art. K and B independently decided it would make a great setting for a horror film. We were warned about this chateau as a choice by Monsieur Maloisel... we should have listened!

Mont Saint Michel

We picked up a car in Bayeux, and drove to Mont St. Michel, the abbey built in A.D. 708 on a tiny crag of land that is an island when the tide is in.
We had lunch in the village before our tour of the abbey; crepes/gallettes featured prominently in the meal (again) and E introduced us to panache - yum. We decided that St. Michel is the patron saint of stairs after the steep climb to the top to reach the abbey. The narrow lane up to the abbey is lined on both sides with shops full of tacky, touristy junk - just like it was back in the middle ages, when enterprising business owners were looking to make a buck off the religious pilgrims. Nice to know not much has changed. The church is beautiful (and B finally figured out once and for all the difference between a Romanesque and a Gothic arch by seeing them side by side in the church), but the cloisters, with their fabulous view of the bay, are what literally took our breath away. Being a monk might not be such a bad gig if you got to live with that view! K said that MSM was the coolest place she’d ever been. D was impressed with the giant human hamster wheel, used to pulley construction materials to the top of the island when the abbey was used briefly as a prison. And E was intrigued that the farmers around Mount St. Michel had planted plants that were salt water tolerant and could withstand the salty waters coming in off the sea. The meat from lamb that graze on this land are a local favorite characterized a very salty flavor... he called it Lamb Jerky! Editor's Note: The pictures get a bit dicey from this point on. Dave dropped and broke his camera, Katie does not have a cord to her's so we cannot download them, Eric took a variety of pictures on his iPad and traditional camera, but left the traditional camera in France (coming back on Saturday with Dave and Barb). Unfortunately, pictures might have to be edited in at a later date.