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.

Normandy Countryside

Beyond the history lesson, the trip was worth it just for the opportunity to ride around the French county side. Narrow lanes, fields boarded by hedgerows, old stone farmhouses, and vibrant yellow fields of canola were every bit as picturesque and charming as they sound. According to our guide, Adrian, Norman cows are very friendly and curious (in sunglasses - see pic), a trait the Americans used to their advantage in the war. If the GIs saw a field of cows clustered around an otherwise empty looking patch of field, it was a big tipoff that German soldiers were hiding there!
Some how I think Jessie gets his hair coif'ed at the same place as this cow. From our car window we flew past field after yellow field of canolla flowers. This photo does not do the countryside justice.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Small Strokes of Luck

I was struck by how many events were impacted by small stokes of luck and chance. An example of good luck -the convergence of a low tide and a full moon dictated the invasion happen in June. The timing meant that the Allies attacked before the Germans had finished fortifying their newly built bunkers with cannon. Had the Allies waited until September (the next time a full moon and low tide occurred),it would have been a very different battle, because the bunkers would have had their full compliment of arms. More examples...a shell serendipitously hit a section of the cliffs at Omaha beach, causing a huge avalanche of stone. The avalanche essentially formed a stone ramp that made the cliffs at Omaha beach easier to scale-good luck. The weather was bad, so the Allied troops were held out at sea in the landing craft overnight, leaving the soldiers cold, hungry, and seasick- bad luck. A huge house fire broke ou the night before the invasion, when paratroopers were to land under the cover of darkness and set flares for the gliders that were supposed to deliver troops the next day. The fire lit up the night sky, ensuring all the German soldiers were outside trying to put out the fire and making the paratroopers easy targets- bad luck. It just goes on and on- even with all of the planning the US military put into the invasion, individual soldiers lived or died based on happenstance. I just kept thinking of all the mother and fathers, wives and children, whose lives were changed forever because of some small element of chance Stiking too, was seeing just how tiny a toehold the Allied forces began the liberation of Europe. Hitler held the territory all the way from Norway down to the south of France, and the Allies began the eventual undoing of the 3rd Reich with a swath of land that you could easily walk, end to end, in less than a day.
The first picture in this post is of a landscape scared with 70-year old bombing divots. 70 years ago, the coast would have been marred with much deeper holes from the Allied bombing. The second picture is of a German bunker which at the time had the large cannons, but did not have ventilation and sighting components completed at the time of the "embarqement". In the background you can see a field of canola flowers found all over Normandy and Britany (more pictures to come of these fields).
One of the German cemeteries in Normandy. Our guide Adrian pointed-out that most of the German soldiers that lost their lives in the war had no desire to fighting for Hitler, but they had no choice. It was said that it was better to be an German POW than a German soldier, as the Americans treated their POWs better than Hitler treated his army.

Paris to Bayeux

Wednesday, May 9th: At 8pm, we left our busy schedule in Paris on the train north to a small town in Normandy called Bayeux. We arrived after 11pm and walked a half mile from the train station in a light mist to our hotel-Hotel de la Rein Mathilde. In the center of this small town stood an enormous, beautifully lit and almost out-of-place cathedral. After the giddy high of Paris, with the crowds, bustle and old-time royal oppulance, NOrmandy was a welcome yet somber change of pace. Early Thursday morning we set out on a tour of WWII sites. The liberation of France by the Alies is an integral part of the identity of the Normans, just like dairy products such as Canembert cheese, sparkling hard apple cider and Calvados, a liquor that will burn all the way down. We saw Utah beach (a success marred by 80% casualties in the first and second waves to land), a German cemetery, the American cemetery and memorial, and the town of St Mere Eglise (featured prominently in the 1960s movie The Longest Day because of its prominence in the actual invasion).

The Louvre-Second Half of D&B's Afternoon

After the Musee d'Orsay, Dave and Barb walked over the bridge to the Musee du Louvre--it is amazing how may of the famous sites in Paris are so close to one another. You can't swing a cat without hitting some famous something or another! We again across the bridge with all of the lockes to the ironwork--lovers affix a lock on to the bridge and toss the key into the Seine River as a symbol of their undying love How romantic! Like the Musee d'Orsay, it is the museum's perogative to move exhibits around, so D&B enjoyed a lively game of "Where's Waldo" with the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. We just followed the crowds to find Winged Victory, a strategy we should have used through the entire museum. Art could be it's own category of "things we wish I knew more about (see my earlier blog). As we walked through the Louvre, I could not shake the feeling that I was racing past once in a lifetime artwork without the slightest appreciation for what I was seeing. Maybe in my next life I will come back as an art history major. We had been prepped ahead of time to expect the Mona Lisa to be small and hard to see (partly because of crowds and partly because of the protective glass), but I was reminded of the statue of David in Florence. When you see these masterpieces, it is not hard to understand why their appeal has endured for so long. One of our tour guides mentioned that if you stood for just three seconds in front of each pieced of art in the Louvre's collection, it would take you three months (24 hours per day) to see the entire collection. No wonder we were overwhelmed. Another (under-appreciated, in our case) aspect of the tour is the building itself. While Chateau du Versailles was intended to replace the Louvre as the royal palace, it certainly did not outshine it. Dave commented that, except for the extensive grounds of Versailles, Louis Louis XIV traded down when he moved out to the country!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Dave and Barb Go Their Own Way

E and K did their own tour, and left early to meet Olivier Maloisel for lunch (more on this elsewhere), so B and D ate lunch in the restaurant of the Musee d'Orsay. The museum used to be a train station, and the restaurant was original to the building. Unlike many museum restaurants, this one wasn’t tucked away in the basement, but was upstairs in a light filled room with mirrors opposite the windows and crystal chandeliers. Felt like we were eating at Versailles!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

More to Come

Today from our small town with an enormous church, we traveled out to the Normandy coast to see the WWII sites here including: Utah Beach, Omaha Beach and the WWII American Cemetery of Normandy. These 9,800+ American women and men were true heros who fought for freedom on the other side of the world from their US homes, and gave their lives. Amazing!

Splitting Ways

Wednesday we all got up, and headed to the other side of the Seine River. We started at Poiline Boulangerie where there were beautiful baked goods… Dave and I had pain au chocolate like it was supposed to be, Katie had a plain croissant and Barb had a mini baguette. All were very good… how are flour, water and butter so different here than in the US. We then headed to Musee d’Orsay to see the most incredible collections of Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gough and more. Katie and I did the power-art version of going through the museum at break-neck speed, as she was joining me to meet a former friend/boss of mine from when I did my internship. Meanwhile, D&B took a more leisurely tour of the Musee d’Orsay, with plans to visit the Mona Lisa in the Louvre Museum later that day. Olivier Maloisel hosted Katie and me at Le Bistro du 7eme for a very traditional French lunch. We dined for 2.5 hours, having some wine, salads, baguette slices, entrees, dessert… and good conversation. He continued to be amazed at how much we were attempting to see on our short trip to France. I believe it was the first time we were in a restaurant with nothing but francophones. It was a great opportunity to get caught up with a very good man. He hopes to return to the US for a driving tour along Route 66, and hopes to have some “must-see" provided by me for his next visit. He is always welcome! From lunch we (Eric, Katie and Mr. Maloisel) took the Metro to the Opera station. We were in search for the Pierre Herme patisserie shop to pick-up some macaroon cookies---OMG you thought Cheryl's Cookies were expensive!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Les Grands Eaux (translation The Big Waters)

Decorating was another area where restraint was not exactly Louis’ watchword. Every square inch inside Versailles is painted, gilded, plastered, embroidered, or otherwise embellished. And every square foot of the massive gardens outside is clipped, trimmed, trained, or decorated with a fountain or statue. Imagine 20 or more fountains like the ones pictured in this posting all flowing, while the air was filled with classical music and opera. The walls of the chateau were hollowed out to allow passageways for the servants, so that they could be invisible most of the time but available at a moment’s notice if needed. It was through one of these passages that Marie-Antoinette tried to escape when the rabble came to “arrest” her and Louis XVI. -BHyre

A Day at Chateau de Versailles

We knew going into it that our visit to Versailles was going to be a crowded one. We opted to go on Tuesday, knowing that it was a national holiday, because it was also the only day during our trip that the fountains of Versailles were going to be operating. True to our expectations, the fountains and the holiday made for a double whammy, crowd-wise. Look at the numbers of people in the backgrounds of our pictures.
According to the tour, Louis XIV wanted to draw his court and advisors out of Paris into the countryside at least in part so he could keep an eye on them and keep them too busy to meddle in his running of the county. And keep them busy he did. Watching the king get up in the morning, go to bed at night, eat, and go to mass, were all command performances for the noble guests at Versailles. Not to mention the hunting trips, parties, firework displays in the gardens, card and billiard games etc. Hard to get much done with all of the goings on. -BHyre

Vaux le Vicomte

B, D, and K all braved the Paris metro system to travel to Vaux, a chateau 45 minutes outside the city. This chateau supposedly inspired Louis XIV to turn Versailles from a hunting lodge into the palace that replaced the Louvre as the royal residence. It is also the place that got the owner tossed in jail for the rest of his life for showing up the king’s country digs. The tour was amazing, at least in part because there were no crowds. Compared to the throngs at the Louvre and the mass of humanity at Versailles, Vaux was serene and peaceful. Vaux’s original owner (Fouquet) and his team (an architect, an artist/decorator, and a landscape designer) are credited with several major innovations, including the first formal, “sculpted” gardens and the first room to be designated as a dinning room (before Vaux, when it was time to eat, tables were set up wherever people were gathered). -BHyre

Things I Should Know More About

If I had it to do over again and didn’t want to feel so much like “county mouse goes to Paris”, here are some things I would have brushed up on before the trip: **Cheese - which ones are you supposed to eat the rinds on, and which ones are you not? **French History - hard to appreciate the finer points of many of the landmarks if you don’t know the war victory they are intended to commemorate. **Architectural Terms - again, it is hard to fully appreciate the descriptions of some of Paris’ most famous buildings if you don’t know your cupola from your flying buttress. **Conversational French - most everyone here speaks at least a little English, but I came armed with nothing but my good looks in the French language department. High school Latin and college Spanish at least gave me the chance to pronounce Italian words correctly and guess at some of their meanings. French is a different story. Thank goodness for E! Barb walked-up to purchase something and instead of saying to the shop attendant "Bonjour Monsieur" to start the conversation, she said "Merci Monsieur" both Barb and the shop attendant really did not know where to go from there... **
Greek and Roman Mythology - every chateau ceiling, fountain, and priceless masterpiece seems to harken back to mythology and I’m rarely in on the joke. -BHyre

Observations from a First Time Visitor to Paris (Barb Hyre)

All the things we expected as a part of travel happened (long layovers, small airline seats, jet lag) and some unexpected things as well (a hassle with all the roads leading to the airport, a near-crisis with our passports that thankfully didn’t materialize, an unexpectedly quick turnaround for a plane change in Atlanta), but in the end, we all arrived in Paris, safe and sound. In our 3 days so far, here are some things I’ve noticed: **To properly take part in the café scene, put your back to the café and face out, so that you can people watch. No need to be coy about it - that’s what everyone is doing! **French people don’t wear what Americans call tennis shoes at all, but Converse shoes are a huge hit. **Everyone, male and female, wears decorative, rayon scarves (maybe this is because it’s been cool since we’ve been here?). Also (again maybe due to the weather), dark clothes are de rigur. B sticks out like a sore thumb in her pink coat! **Parisians love their dogs, and generally take a much more enlightened approach to our four legged friends than we Americans. Dogs in shops, dogs in cafés, dogs on the subway - all OK. **The Paris subway system is a challenge. Would it have killed our guidebook to mention that the RER serves the suburbs and the metro serves the city proper? Just that one sentence would have made getting from the airport to the hotel in Marais much easier! **The French are better at saving electricity. All the lights go off automatically in the hotel if no one is moving around. This can make finding your way around an old hotel’s byzantine floor plan a neat trick. Motivation to learn where that light switch is! Americans are better at recycling - you can’t find a place other than a trash can to toss that empty water bottle to save yourself. **I know this will sound cliché, but there is no comparison between French butter and chocolate and their American counterparts. **Downward pointing arrows do not mean the same thing to the French that they mean to us Americans. A French arrow pointing down means “right here”. Can’t tell you how many boondoggle trips down stairs and elevators and ramps we took before that light bulb went off. **Getting into the subway doesn’t mean you can get out. On the trip to Vaux, D, B, and K took the Metro, and the RER, and discovered that a) if you don’t have the right ticket, the subway won’t let you out, and b) bored and harassed subway personnel, confronted by a panicked and persistent tourist, will eventually just give you the right dang tickets to get you out of their face. -BHyre

Monday, May 7, 2012

Hotel de la Bretonnairie

Our Paris hotel guestroom. I do have a couple of other photos, which we will add tomorrow now that we have figured out the picture portion of this blog world. We are off to Chateau de Versailles tomorrow in the morning, so it will be a late post. Barb will be writing about their trip today to Vaux le Vicomte, and I will add something regarding Versailles... Hopefully we have good weather later today, as we had today,