Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Across the Pond

So I went to France again. Spent six overcast, rainy yet glorious days in Paris and one in Burgundy, to be precise. I didn't do any hiking, per se, but with my fellow travelers I sure did a whole lot of walking. We hopped on the Metro aplenty, of course, and took the bus at times, but during the weeklong trip I happily discovered anew that Paris is a pedestrian's dream come true. The terrain is relatively flat, especially in the city center where tourists like me spend most of their time, and the Parisian hits - the architecture and art, the food and wine, the gardens and fountains, the music and museums and people watching - are safe and sound and worth the expense of getting there.

It was my sister Anne's idea. Her daughter Eleni was living local for three months, and before she returned home to Lorian, Ohio, Anne wanted to jet over for a spell and experience the famed City of Light. So she sent out the feelers via email and telephone and soon had her hands full with a slew of interested souls: her daughter Myia, Eleni's main squeeze David, our mom Ginger, our nephew Peter J. and his sister Kelli, me, of course, plus a handful of friends from the neighborhood in west-side Cleveland: Kiva, Michael and Sarah. Our cousin Eddie, who lives in the French town of Thoron-les-Bains on Lake Geneva near the Swiss border, even joined us for a day and a half.

I learned a little bit about myself this trip, and about travel in general.

You see I'd been to Paris twice before. Granted the last time was almost fourteen years ago as I write this, but for some reason I had the brilliant idea that, while the newbies in the group were busy exploring the usual sites - spending an entire day at Versailles, standing in long lines for the Louvre, Nôtre Dame and Eiffel Tower - I would schedule a few solo excursions to wine-growing regions I adore and have wanted to visit: Alsace, Burgundy (again), Champagne (again) and maybe Bordeaux. During my pre-trip research I discovered that all the areas are accessible for a day trip via the TGV (train à grande vitesse, the bullet train); albeit a long day, but our vacation dates coincided with the summer solstice, when the sun doesn't set until almost 10:00 p.m. Sixteen hours of sunshine...I was primed!

Well, my master plan went down the drain like water down the Seine. The Champagne houses I contacted couldn't seem to accommodate us; Alsace, without a car once I got there, was just too complicated and expensive for a mere seven hours; Bordeaux and Château Palmer never really materialized past the "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride" phase. C'est la vie, eh? In retrospect I couldn't be happier with the way things turned out, for c'mon now...What the hell was I thinking. You're in Paris, for cryin' out loud! No, I didn't stand in line for the Louvre or the top of the Eiffel Tower because I'd done that before, but seeing the Eiffel Tower from afar and lit up at night close by, even for the fourth or fifth time? Absolutely fantastic! Milling about the Tuileries garden and the courtyard by La Pyramide; finding myself utterly awestruck by the mindbogglingly good collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressioniest masterworks inside the Musée d'Orsay for the third time. Ditto and ditto! Ambling up the cobblestone rue Mouffetard? Relaxing with a coffee on Place Saint-Michel? Poking around inside Saint-Séverin or Saint Germain-l'Auxerrois? Yes, yes, and yes...all fantastic!

I also realized, once again, what a horrible packer I am, and always have been. You've no doubt heard the advice from friends or read it online: Pack your suitcase, then remove half of the crap inside. Okay, maybe you haven't, but I have, and I got a concrete lesson in the truth of it, this time, as my luggage did not arrive for almost four days (there was a kerfuffle in Newark, not only with me but with everyone in our group - hell, the entire airport - but that's a long story). The lesson learned? They are correct; I didn't need half the stuff, less than half, in my suitcase.

Airport woes and lack of stylish urban-assult clothes aside, our week together in Paris was an absolute blast! A treasure. I'd traveled internationally with Anne before, and I've been blessed to have enjoyed some extraordinary trips with my mom (and dad, who stayed State-side this time). I will forever cherish the adventure with them (even, in retrospect, the minutes - hours? - we spent trying to corral ourselves and our fellow travelers and just make a damned decision), but there's no doubt the addition of the "younger generation" made the experience even more of a hoot! The lot of 'em spanned the ages from 18 to 25 or so, and most had never before been to Paris.

Every night I happily hosted "Uncle Pete's Wine Class", be it in one of the apartments Anne had rented in the Latin Quarter or in the restaurant du jour, and the kids simply ate it up! Knocked it back, too. Concentrating on the classics I perused our local wine shop and snagged, or ordered for dinner, Sancerre blanc et rouge, Côtes du Rhône rouge from several producers, Vouvray sec, Montlouis, Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine, Bordeaux rouge, cru Beaujolais, Sylvaner from Alsace, rosé from Provence and syrah from the northern Rhône; then lead the group thru an informal tasting, discussing the aroma and fruit profile, the body, the acid, the oak treatment, the tannin and the growing region.

Let's get to some pictures and let them tell the rest of the story. I put together an eight-minute slide show on You Tube, complete with a soundtrack by Edith Piaf, if you want to watch the whole thing, but following is a distilled version of pictures and memories.

The whole gang together at last, with me taking the picture. As I mentioned it was touch and go in Newark, but we all arrived within 4 hours of our originally scheduled times (with unplanned stops in London, Madrid and Oslo, to boot!). In the back row there's Myia, Peter J, Kelli, David and Michael; front row is Ginger, Sarah, Kiva, Eleni and Anne.

The facade of Nôtre Dame de Paris at night, of course. After the debacle of our trans-Atlantic flights, after finally checking into our hotel and apartments, and after a delicious, fun-filled yet stiflingly hot and stuffy and sweaty Basque dinner at Chez Gladines, I suggested that we all take a stroll and relish being in Paris with the classic view.

Wine class! Everyone was (just barely) old enough to tie one on with...oops, I mean sip on...some inexpensive, classic wines of France. I loved it; they did as well.

Mom and me on the Pont des Arts after an oh-so memorable luncheon at Le Comptoir in the 6eme. Escargots, naturellment, plus a killer terrine of veal and foie gras, stuffed zucchini blossoms and a savory tart of petits pois, hericots verts, feta and mint. Sipped a glass of Bandol rosé and a half bottle of cru Beaujolais to wash it all down.

Place Saint Michel, one of my absolute favorite locations in Paris, after lunch and during our walk about on the bank of the Seine: past les bookinistes, by the Tuileries and the Louvre pyramid.

An instant Palmer classic! I simply could not resist the sight of all those uniforms, and at the last second told mom to get in there with 'em.

Riding on the Metro-oh-oh...You remember that song by Berlin, right? Not all fun and games, tho; later in the week we found ourselves once again packed in like sardines when Eleni felt a hand inside her purse. She looked around and saw a man holding her wallet, then elbowed him in the ribs. He dropped it and we made our escape, only to find that a few other purses and backpacks were unzipped as well.

Peter J and his yiayia enjoying Breton galettes at Café Breizh in the Marais (highly recommended). Of course they couldn't seat an unannounced party of ten in the postage stamp-sized restaurant, but right next door was a retail space/workshop with a large wooden display table. It had packing crates instead of chairs, and a young woman asked if we might want to eat there. We sure did, and so began one of the most delicious and memorable meals of my life: loads of different, savory buckwheat crepes, two large bottles of breton cidre traditionel de pomme, and a space all to ourselves. It was a total gas!

Relaxing in the Jardin du Luxembourg, the 2nd largest public park in Paris, during our walk back from lunch. I had forgotten how serene and ornately landscaped and beautiful the garden is; this year the greens and explosion of flowers whipped up a notch by a very wet spring.

Le football! Came upon these scrappy Parisian youths and asked if they might pose for a picture (I dig taking shots of the locals). Immediately one of them ran about yelling "le photo, le photo!" to his peers. What a hoot: it took a while, but they finally stopped the game and let me have at it. This was just after I asked the same question to a young mom and her cute, cute, cute baby girl, out of the stroller and toddling about. At my request to take a picture of her child the woman paused, looked at me suspiciously and said, "I don't think so." Probably thought I was some sort of perverted "masher".

Sacre Coeur atop the hill of Montmartre. I had never been there before so it was high on my list of to-dos. Wonderful outing, and the views of Paris are unsurpassed.

Love this picture of Eleni, David and Peter J. If they were some hip, grungy rock band it could be their album cover. Right?

Inside Le Train Bleu at Gare du Lyon, one of Paris' main train stations. Cousin Eddie took us there for a glass of wine and a snack, and I was blown away! Can't believe I'd never heard of it in any of the guidebooks I've read, as it's totally worth a stop to while away a couple hours beneath the ornate Belle Epoque decor.

Dinner, Café Le Papillon at the bottom of rue Mouffetard, with cousin Eddie. It was a raucous affair, and our table of twelve occupied most of the tiny dining room. Some of the dishes were tastier than others, but the meal was an utterly enjoyable three hours with family and friends.

The other-worldly, high French (Rayonnant) Gothic splendor of La Sainte-Chapelle on Isle de la Cité. This was also on my short list, and literally gave me chills. Completed in 1248, restored after it was damaged in the revolution and declared a national historic monument in the mid-19th century, the chapel sports 15 fifty-foot high stained glass windows with the thinnest of supports that seem to soar to the heavens. As we were standing in line to enter I noticed a poster for an upcoming concert, Vivaldi's Four Seasons. "Wouldn't that be awesome," I remarked, only to have someone else read the sign and pronounce, "It's tonight!" Thus we returned, and, as you might imagine, the sound of all those violins and cellos was ethereal. Pure magic.

Mom and me with the winemaker chez Paul Pernot in Puligny-Montachet. That big-ass smile on her face probably reflects what we just tasted: '12 Bienvenue-Bâtard- and Bâtard-Montrachet. Can't believe I went to Burgundy with me mum!

Barrel tasting a slew of 2011 red Burgundies chez Alain Michelot in the town of Nuits-Saint-Georges.  Classic, moldy cellar; lovely wines of good structure and purity of fruit.

Ginger and Jeanne-Marie, our gracious host and guide for the morning/afternoon, discussing viniculture on the hill of Corton. She picked us up at the train station in the charming town of Beaune, then escorted us to three domaines in Puligny, Chassagne and Nuits, plus treated us to a lovely lunch in Volnay. Merci beaucoup, Jeanne-Marie!

Ginger enjoying escargots in the town of Volnay...somebody pinch me! We Americans, slave to the automobile since its invention, have missed the, train...because the TGV is phenomenal: quick, of course, quiet, clean, comfortable and on time. The ride to Beaune took 1.5 hours versus over 3 to drive; at one point we reached speeds of 297 miles per hour.

Although I'd seen it before several times, the view of the Eiffel Tower from across the Seine at Place du Trocadéro almost brought me to tears. Throw in the fact that I got to experience the trip with my mom and my sister Anne, assorted nieces and nephews and friends of theirs, plus cousin Eddie, and I'd say the whole adventure was un grand succès complet!

*  *  *  *  *

The entire week was a rainy one, no doubt about it, but the worst of the downpours lasted only 45 minutes or so, and the cooler temperatures sure beat playing tourist for 16 hours a day in 85 degree heat with a humidity to match.

Even though it seems, at times, as if many Parisians wouldn't much care if we all just stopped visiting, most are more than happy to stop and lend a hand, recommend their favorite local boulanger or restaurant, share their love of Paris, City of Light. And it's an easy city to love. From my first glimpse of the Seine out the plane window to that final RER ride back to Charles de Gaulle airport, I learned that 14 years is way too long between trips to France, way too long since my last "Week in Paris".

A bientôt,
Peter J. Palmer