Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Archive for the ‘France 2005’ Category

The Palace of the Popes, Avignon, 13.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on March 17, 2006

We got up early to visit the Palace of the Popes. The Lonely Planet is rather dismissive of this 14th century headquarters of the Catholic Church after the papacy was moved from Rome to France, but we loved it. It’s a monumental fortress, with a museum inside, full of most interesting displays and fabulous old frescoes. I’d never seen such things before, and one set of them were in extraordinarily vibrant colours – after all this time! There were tombs of assorted popes to mull over, and some magnificent tapestries – my favourite was the pope stopping Attila the Hun at the Gates of Jerusalem. It was woven in strong reds instead of the usual blues and greens that you see in the chateaux of the Loire Valley.
There were small chapels for the pope’s private prayer, and a lovely room full of hunting scenes, and a couple of large halls for papal audiences. Looking out from a tower window, we couldn’t resist making a ‘papal blessing’ to the crowd below, and got a laugh from a couple of tourists who obviously shared our irreverent sense of humour.
We don’t buy many souvenirs, but here we bought a tapestry cushion cover, a tray, a cicada magnet (which we have since mislaid) and of course the guide book. My best purchase of the day, however, was a pair of shoes. My stout German black leather walking shoes suddenly developed cracks in the heels, and Avignon’s shoemender couldn’t (or wouldn’t) repair them, so I went shopping. She didn’t speak any English except for shoe sizes, but Australian shoe sizes are neither European, English nor American, so we had to sort this out with my inadequate French. I managed to explain about my ankle brace on the cobblestones and the need for the extra height at the back of the heel, and eventually, for a mere 115 euros, she found a much more stylish replacement which will do nicely for day and night in most places.
After this triumph we had a light lunch at Chez Pivard, washed down with some Bretagne cider, and then set off for the famous Pont d’Avignon. Legend has it that it was built by a shepherd, Bénezet, who, in about 1185 saw a vision and, effortlessly moving a large rock, managed to convince the people to help build it. Originally it had 22 arches but the Rhone is a wild river in flood and the bridge had to be rebuilt more than once. Now it only has four arches and doesn’t go right to the other side of the river, much less to the tower on the other bank as once it did.
Naturally we walked across it anyway, humming ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon’ en route, and checked out the Chapel for St Bénezet – where miracles are known to have happened. It’s dedicated to the patron of bargemen, the Virgin. (Quite why she is their patron is not clear.) It was beautiful in the sunshine, strolling across the cobbles among lovers arm-in-arm, and looking along the heavily wooded banks at the barges and skiffs making their way down the river. Some German tourists kindly took this photo of us, a nice memento of a lovely day.
We headed back into town on one of those little tourist trains. It was a little rough over the cobblestones, but rather fun, and definitely the only way to see the view from the ramparts and the top of the rock where Avignon was founded. The train threads its way through some incredibly narrow streets where we saw a ‘florid’ 14th century Gothic church whose bells we had heard a little earlier, and a library from the same period. We checked out some 18th century mansions in need of a bit of paint, and a street called ‘Rue de Mud’ because it used to get flooded. Along the most narrow street, carved out of the rock below the Palace of the Popes, we could touch the walls on either side!
At night we had one of the most memorable meals of our trip at La Moutardier Restaurant in the Place du Palais. We sat in a corner lit by candlelight with a view of the Palace of the Popes out of the window, listening to a CD of Bireli Lagrene playing in the style of Django Reinhardt. We had appetisers of tapenades black and green, and champagne, and then I cast my principles aside and tried the fois gras. Now I know why the French love it. It was served with a vanilla & cinnamon flavoured pear, and Tim had a brochette of prawns with rosemary and tomato in tandoori sauce on little rice cakes. With his tuna, and my veal and ceps we had a Cote du Hermitage, not AOC, but very nice all the same. It was such a lovely atmosphere and a perfect way to end our stay in this delightful town.
Next, off to Milan!

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Avignon, Tuesday 12.10.06

Posted by Lisa Hill on March 17, 2006

We left early for Avignon on the TGV which is fast, but otherwise a disappointment, because there is no catering in first class, and only an uncooperative vending machine…
But Avignon is lovely. The Hotel De L ‘Horloge is in the historic part of town, within the 14th century walls, and the staff were friendly and helpful. We settled into our lovely room, decorated in French provincial, of course, and then went out to explore. At the Hotel Palais des Popes, just past the historic carousel we discovered a charming outdoor cafe, nicely decorated with pumpkins because of Halloween, and had a light lunch of sea bass and ratatouille. After that we took a walk through the old city, taking great care on the cobblestones in case my ankle let me down. After an exhaustive reconnoitre, we found the perfect place for dinner. La Cour du Louvre, at 23 rue St. Agricol, is in a commercial area, but down a quiet alley of little shops. Half the tables are inside and the rest are in an outdoor patio enclosed by walls built in 1273 by the Templars. This was an Order dissolved by the Hospitaliers in 1312, but re-established in the 18th century.
I managed to book a table by phone in French, but the waiter was easy-going, and happy to take our orders in English once he had established that we were Australians. We had little tasters of tomato puree & salmon mousse, and another opportunity to try truffles in a mushroom soup for me and a rabbit terrine for Tim. For mains, Tim had a tagine of lamb with prunes and preserved eggplant, and I had duck again, but this time with Schezuan sauce and pepper – not very French but very tasty! We had a 2002 Cote de Rhone Cairanne, Domaine de la Presidente 2002, and very nice it was too.

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Musee D’Orsay, Tuesday 11.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on March 17, 2006

What a great day! We took the Met to the Musee D’Orsay, which turned out to be an old railway station, complete with two massive clocks and a monumental facade, overlooking the Seine. We bought a guide book straight away and planned our tour, beginning with the Impressionists on the top floor (to avoid the crowds on the ground floor – whom we had neatly bypassed with our prepaid museum passes – I’m so glad we bought them!)
Once again it was a joy to see the real paintings, though this time quite a few were familiar from exhibitions we had seen in Melbourne. The En Plein Air Gallery seemed rather ordinary after the ones we’d seen at home, but with others the pleasure of seeing them again was intense.
Visiting this gallery made me realise, however, how lucky we are to have a purpose built gallery in Melbourne. The National Gallery of Victoria has easy visitor access & excellent design, appropriate framing, and carefully managed lighting both to protect the pictures and to make it easy to see them. At the Musee D’Orsay there were some heavy, florid frames which really diminished the paintings: bright, cheery Gauguins seemed to have all the colour leached out of them, and the beige plaster walls made some pictures look quite drab. A shame, really. They should come to Melbourne to see how to do it properly!
We had a light lunch in the restaurant, where we admired the glorious ceilings and impressed some Americans from Detroit with our French. After that we strolled across the Pont du Royale to the Tuileries and then went home to the hotel. The sun shone, the people smiled and everything was lovely.
To cap off a perfect day, we dined at Restaurant Le Petit Marguery, on Boulevard de Port Royal. Dinner at this restaurant had been the highlight of our last trip to Paris, and once again, we had a wonderful time. There was the same waiter, who pretended to remember us, and the food, of course, was sublime. This time it was Tim who had the salt-cured duck with cabbage and I had Liévre à la Royale, a boned wild hare, stuffed with foie gras and truffles, and braised in red wine and brandy.
Paris, all is forgiven!

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Dining In Paris, Monday 10.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on February 7, 2006

 We had some overdue housekeeping to sort out this morning, so we bundled up some washing for the laundry and found a post office to post off some of our souvenirs and lighten the suitcase by 4.5kg. (60 euros, but worth it.) We had to go to Galerie Lafayette to buy some packing tape for the box, and discovered a foodie’s wonderland. Yes, we saw the famous stained glass roof, but it was the ‘supermarket’ in the other building that had us transfixed. It’s like a David Jones Food Hall but oh! what a paradise! Dozens and dozens of cheeses we’d never seen before, and breads, and black potatoes; ceps and other mushrooms, miniature lettuces, an endless variety of oysters and mussels, beautiful gateaux, and – in the wine section – a cognac from 1856 with a hand written label at only (a-hem) 3600 euros. I (who have cheerfully handed over responsibility for all the supermarket shopping to my beloved) could have happily pushed a trolley round there for a week – and taken out a mortgage to pay for it!

From the sublime to the mundane: Tim bought some socks, and I bought a couple of autumn scarves as gifts. I saw them later for half the price, but I’m not going to get upset about that – it was too good a morning. We set off for lunch in high spirits…

 The highlight of any trip to Paris is dining in style, so before we left home, we used a terrific little book called The Historic Restaurants of Paris by Ellen Williams to book a couple of meals. The first of these was lunch at Au Petit Riche on Rue Le Peletier in the 9th Arrondisment. It has been catering to the theatre crowd since 1854, but the building dates from 1880 when it was rebuilt after a fire. It is apparently virtually unchanged since then, with small salons with dark wood panelling, velvet upholstered banquettes, antique brass hat racks, and frescoes on the ceilings.
It specialises in food from the Touraine, an area of France we have yet to visit. We took the sommelier’s advice and had a lovely crisp and light Sancerre La Moussiere (2000) with first course: oysters for Tim and a cassolet of ceps for me. (The mushrooms in France in Autumn are just heavenly; I do wish we could grow the same varieties in Australia.) We had a young red wine, La Diligence Chinon 2004, with our main course – irresistable beef and truffles (which we can grow in Australia but fresh ones are still scarce and hard to buy). For dessert Tim had a creme brulee (real vanilla bean, of course) and I couldn’t resist Le Tout Chocolat a Creme a la Vanille Bourbon.

It was all absolutely splendid, and we would have liked nothing better than to collapse on the bed back at the hotel and have a snooze, but I had run out of books to read, so my beloved and I set off to find the Galignani bookshop that had saved my sanity last time. Alas, we went the wrong way on the Rue de Tivoli so it ended up being a very long hot walk and by the time we found it we were both tired out, and I had to make my choices somewhat hastily – The Aspern Papers (excellent) & The Turn of the Screw (ho hum) by Henry James, and The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier (book of the trip).

We struggled back through huge crowds – the Louvre is on the other side of the Rue de Tivoli colonnade of shops and it was full of tourists. Heaven knows what it must be like in summer! We were very glad to put our feet up back at the hotel, and spent the rest of the day using my new souvenir art books to swot up on the impressionists in preparation for our visit to the Musee D’Orsay. The National Gallery one is most useful because it explains the progression of art movements, and why a painting or artist is significant, and it also refers to examples in the Louvre, which I could then find in the Louvre souvenir book.

Although we weren’t really hungry after our splendid lunch, my hero went out for some Japanese for dinner and smuggled it back into the hotel. Eating in the rooms is strictly forbidden, but I was just too tired to go anywhere. Alas, our hotel lacked facilities to make a cup of tea or hot chocolate, so we had to make do with water!

Posted in Dining out, Europe 2005, France 2005, LitLovers pilgrimage, Paris 2005 | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Louvre, Paris 9.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on February 6, 2006

 After our last visit to Paris in 2001, when all the public museums and galleries were on strike for the whole week, I was a bit anxious. As far as I’m concerned, if the museums and galleries are shut, there’s nothing much to do in Paris once you’ve checked out the Eiffel Tower. Montmartre is nice on a sunny day, but Versailles is merely a bigger and more crass version of the ostentation you can see in palaces anywhere. The Botanic Gardens are shabby and you can’t get near the Arc de Triomphe for the traffic. It’s a good thing the Picasso and Salvador Dali museums (both privately owned) were open, and that I found an English language bookshop, or our stay would have been a total loss.

So we were pleased and relieved to see the 9.00am queue snaking down the road to the Louvre. Having pre-booked our tickets from Australia and had them delivered to our hotel, we sauntered past the hordes and went straight in. After the disappointment of last time, it was all I could do not to shout out loud ‘We’re in! In the Louvre!’ Tim (as you can see from the photo) managed to retain his dignity.

It really is huge. Everyone says so, but it’s not until you get inside that it becomes comprehensible. There’s no way anyone could even circumnavigate it all in one day, even without stops to look and gawk and marvel…

 We started off with French painting from about 1250-1800 – so interesting to see how the same period in Britain was done differently. French artists created more massive paintings with classical references – like the colossal ones by Le Brun of Alexander the Great, designed to appeal to Louis XIV who liked to be compared to the great conqueror. References in their still life painitngs were often to the five senses and the four elements, sometimes with some objects indicating impending death. There were also some great portraits, with very expressive faces, but from what I could make out from the info panels (in French) these were often criticised for being too flattering so they probably weren’t very lifelike really.

I liked the mistresses: not quite royal but laden with fleur de lys and royal rings, they looked quietly triumphant and very dignified. I also liked the religious themes depicted in renaissance landscapes, with all the sumptuous details of everyday life in the background. I do wish I knew more about painting…I should have prepared better.

We had a delicious lunch in the Louvre Cafe and set off again. We found the Mona Lisa, and up close and personal too – once the Japanese group had gone, it was less crowded than some of our Melbourne exhibitions at home. It’s a lovely painting, worth all the fuss. The colours are more subdued than in reproductions, but the landscape seems clearer and her smile does seem to follow you around the room.

Napoleon’s rooms were what I expected: ornate, gilded, massive chandeliers & all very impressive – except for his bed. It was surprisingly small – perhaps he was? Curious too, was that it was surrounded by a kind of altar rail and chairs, as if an audience might watch the royal ‘performance’?

 In antiquities, we saw the Winged Victory of Samothrace looking very impresssive at the top of a flight of stairs, and the Venus de Milo, who has such a saucy smile, a real 21st century girl! These statues were wonderful -my favourites were the Roman emperors Augustus and Trajan, with all the carvings on his tunic. What else? Lovely Eqyptian treasures, a portrait of a Roman girl that I remember from my studies at Melbourne University, a mosaic from a Roman villa and another one all of birds – all of them so exquisite, and oh! so old! Seeing the actual artefact instead of a reproduction in a book makes antiquity real: it’s the difference between knowing something in your head as an abstract idea and knowing it in your soul.  There were even textiles, quite well preserved fragments, and an intriguing statuary group of men holding up a fountain which has sadly been lost.

I thought things couldn’t get any better, but on our way out, we heard singing, and there under the arches was a young woman with a glorious voice singing Ave Maria and something from Mozart. She had a CD player for accompaniment, and she had the crowd transfixed. I wonder if we have heard a Joan Sutherland of the future? A wonderfully Parisienne moment.

 We took a stroll through the gardens where Paris comes out to play, and I saw more children in 15 minutes than I did all week! They were riding bikes and rollerblades and playing soccer while people sat in the sun and read books or newspapers and even marked test papers. It must be where people who live in apartments go because they don’t have gardens of their own, but it seemed very companionable.

 We found a terrific fin de siecle bistro for dinner, not far from our hotel. Le Grand Cafe Boulevarde des Italienne is all decked out in art nouveau nymphettess and silky textiles. The waiters are really sweet, the seafood is scrumptious, and the Pommeroy champagne is just the restorative needed after a long but very satisfying day.

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Paris! 8.10.05

Posted by Lisa Hill on January 22, 2006

Most of Saturday was a travel day. Stratford to Paddington by train, a taxi to Waterloo and then the Eurostar to Paris. Fast, quiet and comfortable, Eurostar whisks under the channel at about 300kmh and arrives at Gare du Nord with a minimum of fuss and bother.
Our hotel, the Grand Hotel Haussmann in Rue du Helder, was enchanting in that uniquely French way. We had a large double room with double & single beds, a desk & a wardrobe, and a spacious ensuite bathroom.
There is no restaurant on site, but in Paris, who cares? When we were settled in we went round the block to check the eateries, rejected anything with a menu in English and finally settled on La Taverne. We had mussels and oysters for entree, duck for mains and for dessert, sorbet for me and creme brulee for Tim. I felt very pleased with myself that I remembered enough French to order everything without needing English – and (probably because of that) the waiters were nice and friendly.
An early night, and we were off to the Louvre in the morning!

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