Friday, May 30, 2008

Observations about France and Fashion

This was our second trip to France. We visited with a tour group in 2001, this time we made all our arrangements ourselves. The first trip was just a couple months after 9/11. We have traveled to other European countries between these two visits and have found each country is different in its own way, but they all have similarities. They are all different from the US, but in some ways are similar, too. One thing is that no matter what country we were in, people are willing to help give information if asked. People usually were willing to at least try to understand our questions, and most of them were very patient.

On our first trip to Paris, almost everyone spoke English. This time, many fewer people spoke English with the exception of hotels and restaurants in Paris. In Bordeaux, there was very little English spoken, but we managed to get around and people were still pleasant to us. We did remember to always say "bonjour" and "merci" which I am sure helped.

Black is the color to wear in France. I arrived with a predominately black travel wardrobe, but part of my reasoning was that after 10 days, the dirt was less likely to show and it is an easy color to coordinate. I estimate that seventy percent of the women I observed had some black on and many were black head to toe. Our tour guides at the vineyards in Bordeaux were all dressed in black with the exception of the American guide. Checking out the Satorialist and other French fashion sites contradict this, but the masses were wearing a lot of black during our visit. Everyone seemed to own a black winter coat.

In spite of the fashion magazines, stilettos are not the norm. Low heels and flats were much more common. Shoes were also usually black, and lots of boots were worn. People in France walk a lot, so lower heels make much more sense anyway. I only can remember seeing one woman wearing very high heels, and she was with a conference at the hotel so if she was just going from room to room, and meeting to meeting, then the heels probably were not uncomfortable. I saw very few platform shoes. They must be on their way out.

More than half the women wore a scarf. All styles and colors were acceptable. On my first visit to Paris, I estimate that 25% of the women were wearing scarves. This time women without a scarf of some type around their neck were in the minority. The longer, colorful wool or pashmina scarf tied in a European loop like on the right was the most common way to wear one. I had brought five scarves to wear and always had one on. I felt like I belonged! but I also wear lots of scarves when I'm home.

Lots of jeans. On our first visit I could count the number of pairs of jeans I saw on one hand. This time there were everywhere. Skinny dark denim jeans was the norm. No faded, ripped or baggy jeans anywhere. Jeans are a wardrobe staple, but they must look reasonably new, not worn out. Also, jeans were usually highrise.

If you wore a skirt, you also wore black tights. I did not see any bare legs or even flesh colored stockings. This may had been influenced by the weather since the temperature was usually in the mid 50's while we were there.

The big purse is popular over in France, too. Lots of big purses with lots of hardware. The purse always looked in proportion to the woman carrying it rather than a purse with a woman attached. Purses were one items that was frequently a color and not black.

From what I saw and if France is the leader in what's ahead in fashion, these trends have either already hit the US or will be easy to adapt (except maybe skinny jeans).

Day Nine - Two Great Restaurants

May 1. Our last full day in Paris. We really screwed up our trip planning not realizing that May 1 is France's Labor Day--so almost everything was closed! The little bakery we had been going to for breakfast was closed, so we ventured towards the Madeleine district, which was about a 10 minute walk, to find a place to eat. We found Cafe le Madeleine where we dined on croissants and cafe creme and viewed the sparse pedestrian traffic from our window table. It seemed that everyone was sleeping in that day and the cafe only had a few patrons besides us.

Well, this was looking like a walking-around-and-eating day, then Ken mentioned that he wanted to see the Gare de Lyon which was the station in the movie "Mr. Bean's Holiday". What can I say but, I like fabric, he likes trains. So we took the Metro to the station. It is a rather impressive station built in 1900 for the Worlds Fair, the same event that produced the Eiffel Tower. All the train stations in Paris that I have visited are very orderly and easy to get around. I have been in a number of major train stations in the US, but the French have us beat when it comes to stations. These are actually places where you can hang out which is exactly what we did. Ken's ulterior motive was to go to the grand restaurant located in the station. Le Train Bleu (watch out, there is music to the homepage link) was built as part of the station and has been featured in many movies. This place was the most elegant restaurant I have ever visited. Since we were there, we decided to have lunch and take in the full experience! This place was very expensive, but we both settled on the salmon which was 27 Euros and one of the less expensive items on the menu. It was absolutely wonderful. We both had a glass of wine, salad, cheese, ice cream for dessert, coffee and calvados. The bill was well over 125 Euros (for lunch, no less!), but well worth the price. Lunch took about two hours start to finish. I would certainly do this again. After lunch we decided to look around the area outside since we had never been to this part of Paris. We ended up at the Seine and followed it until we reached Hotel de Ville (city hall) then we walked up Rue de Rivoli. At this point, it dawned on us that we had not seen the Eiffel Tower during our visit, so on to the Metro and we headed toward the ET. This was where everyone was hanging out. Even though it was a Thursday, since it was a holiday, it seemed like a Sunday. We did not want to stand in line to go up the tower, so we just walked around it. I found the place I plan to live in my next life. It's the apartment with the red awnings located across from the Eiffel Tower.

By now it was after 5 p.m and we had dinner reservations in the 9th Arrondissement for 8:30, so we headed back to our hotel to relax, freshen up, and change our clothes and start packing for our trip back home the next day. We had made these reservation in February and had been trying for over two months to contact them. They are very particular as to the time of day when they would take reservations, so it was a big effort on our part. Ken had read about this restaurant in Bon Appetite and found it interesting that one of the hottest places to eat in Paris was run by an American. We left the hotel around 7:30 taking the Metro then walking to the restaurant. We got there a little too early, so walked around the neighborhood and found another restaurant to try on our next trip. By 8:30 the restaurant was opened and one couple was seated. In France, I guess people arrive fashionably late, too. But by 9 p.m. everyone was seated. The restaurant is called Spring and has only one seating and a fixed menu with no choices (unless you make a specific request in advance). If you check out the blog for the restaurant, there is a link to a webcam located in the restaurant. The kitchen cam has been off the past couple weeks, but the seating area is usually up. This will give you an idea of the size of this place. The restaurant seats only 16 people and the kitchen and chef are in the same room as the dining room, just located in the back of the room. This place was not romantic, but it was cozy. We were seated next to two gentlemen, one French and the other a transplanted American who had been living in France for the past 17 years. He had been trying to make reservations for several months himself. Even in France it was had to get into this place. We started off with a squash soup that was delicious, then an appetizer of gravlax and vegetables with spun sugar over it. The main course was pigeon (hey, it's France!). I had never had this before, but it tasted pretty much like chicken since it was a bird--a tiny bird of mostly dark meat. Dessert was fresh strawberries with a reduction sauce. All portions where small, but we did not leave starving by any means. Rather than buy a bottle of wine, we asked to be served a glass of the appropriate wine for each course, so we had four different wines, and of course, calvados after everything. Dinner took four hours, but did not drag. Conversing with the American and his French friend seated next to us kept the evening entertaining along with the great food. It was 12:30 a.m. by the time we left, finding ourselves the only ones on the street at that time of night. We were hoping that we would catch the last Metro train back to our hotel, and luckily we did! Since we did not have to leave the hotel until around 10 a.m. the next day and were mostly packed, we set the alarm clock for 8 a.m.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Day Eight - Another Day, Another Museum

April 30. We had bought tickets three days earlier to go to the Musee D'Orsay today. This museum pretty much picks up where the Lourve leaves off around 1850. You can find works before and after that time at both, but the majority of the art at the Musee D'Orsay covers the period after 1850 through the early twentieth century. This time we did not have tickets to a special entrance so when we arrived at the museum there was a large crowd outside. The museum had already opened, but because of security, the line was slow. It was also cold and raining rather hard that morning, but as the crowd wound around the barriers, we eventually were under a large canopy outside the museum for the majority of the wait. Once inside, the crowds were much smaller than at the Lourve. The museum was a train station in another life and was considered a showpiece in its day. It still is with a beautiful clock inside the main hall on the wall facing the entrance. In fact there are clocks throughout the museum--so you won't miss the train! The main hall of the museum is quite impressive and can be seen from most floors in the building. This hall exhibits all the sculptures of the period, mostly mid to late 1800s. Off the main hall are galleries many which featured one or two artists only. Some of the galleries were actual collections and were displayed together rather than broken up by time period. The first floor galleries were all pre-Impressionists. Many times an artist would paint the same subject more than once, but each was slightly different and both would be displayed for comparison. Aside from the sculptures, the earlier artwork started on the ground floor and each floor represented the next time period. I could see the influence the early artists had on later work since some of it was very similar to the Impressionists. On the second level was a beautiful gallery of furniture from La Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau movement. There were individual pieces and then entire rooms of furniture. In one case, the carved, wooden walls of a dining room were displayed which was absolutely beautiful and must have been quite modern in its day. From there we climbed to the top floor where the Impressionists resided. There were very large individual galleries for Monet and Degas, but all Impressionists were represented. Mr. Van Gogh was also very well displayed along with his friend, Cezanne.

My biggest disappointment was that there was only one Mary Cassatt painting. Possibly because she was an American and the French certainly did dominate the place. Two other Americans were represented, Winslow Homer and Whistler (who would have expected this work to be in Paris?) We had covered the entire museum in about four hours and were hungry, but it seemed that Paris museums are not always user friendly. There was a small restaurant on the top floor with a long line waiting for seating. We decided to leave and look for a place to eat outside. The rain had stopped and we found a cute little cafe just off a side street which was run by an Asian couple who spoke better English than French. This place was tiny, but clean and quick. After lunch, we traveled to the Boulevard Saint Germain which we realized was one of the better areas of Paris--hey, this is the Left Bank! We strolled down the boulevard looking in shop windows, checking out the wine shops and stopping at a chocolatier to buy a little box of goodies. Then we turned onto Boulevard Saint Michel where we found Gibert Jeune (with the yellow awnings), a french bookstore. We spent quite a bit of time there looking at books we could hardly read! One thing about France, bookstores only sell books, but not magazines like in the States. So finding a copy of Patrones was all the more difficult. Across the street from Gibert Jeune was a little brasserie where we stopped for refreshments and did some serious people watching from our window seats. We then went down a side street and followed the street along the Seine wondering what it would be like to live here. We crossed over to Ile de Cite, then to Ile St Louis (the two islands located on the Seine). Ken was looking for an art gallery that was exhibiting the son of a friend of ours (imagine having your work shown in Paris!). Since Ken had the address, we did find the shop but it was closed. It was too late in the day, even though it was only around 4 p.m. However, we did see some of his work in the window. From there I found a shop that sold mostly scarves and a few other accessories. I had all my fabric swatches with me and tried to coordinate a few. I ended up buying a long dark red silk scarf with fringe. This went nicely with the coat fabric I had bought the day before. From there we crossed the bridge to the Right Bank, looked around the Marais district and ended up having dinner at a little bistro near the Pompidou Center. I had curry for supper that night. From there we decided to take the Metro back to our hotel.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Day Seven - Fabric Shopping in Montmartre

April 29. Ah, the day I have looked forward to the most finally arrived. It was drizzling out and the shops did not open until 10 a.m. so we had a leisurely morning getting ready, watched CNN to see what was happening in the rest of the world (not that we actually cared), ate breakfast at the corner bakery and headed to our secret, free Metro entrance. The trip only took about 10 minutes, we made one transfer and ended up the Anvers stop at the base of Montmartre. Leaving the Metro, I found us on Boulevard de Rochechouart (a major street) and Rue De Steinkerque (a side street loaded with fabric shops). Sacre Coeur was at the top of the street. We needed our umbrellas, but the rain was light. First I just wanted to take it all in, looking, but not actually entering any shops. This was not a problem since most shops displayed some actual fabrics outside. Most shops had awnings which protected the fabrics, so the merchandise did not get wet. We reached the end of Rue de Steinkerque and turned right on Place Saint Pierre. That was where Reine and Marche Saint Pierre are both located and now I was ready to do some actual shopping.

We first went into Reine. This is one of the larger stores having four floors of fabric. The first floor has mostly women's garment fabrics. All the fabrics were on rolls laid out on tables according the fabric type, mostly rayon, silk, cotton, linen--seasonal fabrics. The prices are clearly marked and most tables also have a mannequin about a meter tall with a garment made from one of the fabrics on the tables. I did not take a picture, but wish I had. These mannequins all wore wigs that really did not suit them, but were straight hair with bangs covering their eyes. The sample garments were interesting, but I did not look on the inside to see how they were made. I did see very nice fabric and the prices were certainly more reasonable than at Bouchara, but there really wasn't anything I had to own. We ventured up to the second floor (or the 1st floor in Europe) taking the stairs since the elevator was no where to be seen. Up there were wools, some notions and decorator fabrics. Still nothing I had to own and no mannequins beyond the ground floor. Up to the next floor, more decorator fabrics and all the trimmings to go with them. Then up the stairs to the top floor. More decorator fabrics, but here is where the toiles were located. I actually expected a larger selection than was there, but the quality was excellent, and if I remember correctly, around 20 Euros a meter. If I were making drapes, this is where I would go. Well I did not score at Reine, but I would go back. I guess I just was not in the mindset for what was offered that day. I may also have gone back to look again had I not purchased any fabric later in the day.

Next stop was Marche Saint Pierre which was perpendicular to Reine. Another large fabric shop. The first floor again contained fabrics which were in season, dressy fabrics, cottons, velvets and everything was on rolls. Still nothing called my name. Up to the second floor and linens for the house. You certainly could use some of these for clothing. The next floor was primarily clothing fabrics, wools, silks, jerseys, lace and linings. Still nothing caught my eye. Up to the next floor--decorator fabrics and the next floor up had the really expensive decorator fabrics along with the decorators themselves. My stash was very much under control so far. Back down the stairs and on to the street.

Just across from Marche Saint Pierre, near Reine was a little shop called Le Coupons de Saint Pierre. This shop had all pre-cut fabrics in 3 meter lengths in a variety of fabrics. Some were not worth looking at, but there were treasures in the mix with lots of natural fabrics. The fabrics were arranged by fabric type and each had a tag on it identifying the fiber content, length and cost. I had brought all of my swatches from my stash, but I was trying to match a certain few. Voila, I found a great match in a 120 brown and grey wool stripe with more than enough for a pair of pants and possibly a skirt or vest. It wasn't all that cheap, but it wasn't overpriced either. The owner of the shop looked like she was around my age and was very cordial to me even though she did not speak English and my French is horrible. Credit cards say it all, anyway. If you happen to be looking for something specific, this may not be the place to go, but there certain was a variety to choose from.

Moving further down the street I found the next "coupons" store, Au Gentleman des Tissus (the Fabric Guy?) with "sacres coupons". Lots of the stores had the word "coupons" in their title, which means pre-cut lengths of fabric and all coupons I found to be in 3 meter lengths. I never asked if a length could be cut, but I am assuming they could not since all of them appeared to be the same length. This store was a little larger than the previous, but all cuts were again arranged by fiber and neatly placed on tables with the cuts overlapping each other so you could see all the merchandise. Touching the fabrics was not a problem in this shop and I found one that felt lovely, a blend of black and cream wool & silk in a small herringbone weave. This would be perfect to replace my black, grey and cream wool tweed jacket that I have worn out. The price for this gem was 30 Euros (10/meter). Not a steal, but a good buy. The owner did not speak English that well, but she did speak German, so Ken was able to converse with her. She said that the "sacres coupons" was meant to be a joke since they were located at the foot of Sacre Coeur and their fabric was "sacred".

Across the street and along that block was Moline which was a group of storefronts specializing in decorator fabrics. If they had a shop with just garment fabrics, I couldn't find it. There were lovely silks, linens, cottons, all for upholstery or drapes and all the extras that go with them. However, on the same side as Sacres Coupons, was the Moline notions shop. This store carried a variety of tassels, cording, etc for decorating, but also had the necessary notions for dressmaking. There was a lovely selection of buttons in all colors, zippers, threads, elastics, all types of trim and a large selection of ribbons, appliqués, and embellishments. There also were books and magazines, but most of them were for knitting or embroidery. Off the main room was a smaller room which had quilting fabrics, but they appeared to be the same as what was found back in the States. I spent a long time looking at buttons and was able to match some metal buttons to a boucle from my stash which is an unusual color brown. I was a happy camper.

Now I was on a roll. We walked to the end of Rue d'Orsel, turned around then walked back so I could investigate the smaller streets which we hadn't seen yet. We ended back where we originally started on Rue de Steinkerque. Now that I had a better sense of the area, this time I spotted some fabrics outside of one of the shops and started fondling them. A gentleman came out of the shop and started speaking to me in English asking me to come in, which of course, I did. He had a great selection of fabrics, lots of 120 wools, silks, linen and cotton. I noticed a staircase to the side and asked if I could go up. Sure enough all the out of season wools were there and a large selection of tweeds and boucles. An older gentleman, whom I am assuming was the father of the gentlemen who invited us in, was in charge upstairs. The older man did not speak English, but sure knew how to sell fabric. He tried to figure out what I was looking for even though I really did not know myself. He kept pulling out fabrics to show me and I would point to different bolts to look at also. This was the first place that I did see fabric on bolts rather than rolls. Everything that he pulled out, he quoted a price that was at least 20 Euros less than what was stated on the bolt. We both finally figured out that what I really wanted was a Chanel-like boucle. He kept pulling out bolts to show me, then I pointed to a grey, cream and gold bolt, he took it out, then opened it. That was the fabric I was looking for, I had found my Paris Fabric! I took 2 meters. During the enter process, this lovely man was trying to discuss the American Presidential race, so we kept referring to our French/English dictionary. He clearly was for Hillary. After he cut my fabric, I asked if I could take some pictures and he obliged. The shop's name was Galleries des Tissus and is certainly worth a visit. We said "au revoir" and up the street we went.

But not too far. There was a very small shop on the same side of the street and what caught my eye was a sign in the window that stated "Best of Paris 2007" and was appropriately named Paris Tissus. Well, I certainly had to go in there. This shop was unbelievably tiny and stacked from floor to ceiling with bolts of fabric. The front room was barely large enough for a small counter and cash register. Behind the register were linings. After this room was a small hallway also filled with fabrics, then a back room which was bigger than the other two combined, but not by much. In the center of this room was a table used to show fabrics and cut. There was hardly any space to move around, but I did not care, I was in Heaven. I was trying to match by odd color brown (how about coriander for a color?) boucle piece that I had just bought buttons. Pants or a skirt would be nice. I found a nice piece of wool/lycra, then one of the owners came over to me and pulled out the bolt. He managed to talk me into purchasing enough a jacket to go with the skirt. Then the other owner came over, asked me if I liked cashmere--well, duh! Then he started to try to figure out how much I was willing to pay and pulled out a gorgeous piece of cashmere. It was mine for a mere 180 Euros a meter. If you figure out the currency conversion on 3 1/2 yards, that would have been over $1,000 US!! I was way out of my price range, no matter how spectacular that piece was. Then he showed me a lovely wool/cashmere blend in taupe for a winter coat. This was beautiful and he was marking one-third off the price on the bolt. It must have been a slow day, which is the reason I assume that the last two shops where marking down. The picture above shows the coriander wool/lycra and the taupe wool/cashmere on the cutting table. I decided to take only a meter of the brown/coriander wool for a skirt and buy the taupe wool/cashmere for a new winter coat. My old coat is six years old and getting a little tired even though it is not yet showing much wear. They cut the fabrics and then talked me into lining for the coat, then threw in enough to line the skirt. The fabrics in this shop were unbelievable, but the prices were great for the quality. I'm sure the prices for the same fabrics in the higher-end fabric shops not located in Montmartre were much higher, such as Bouchara where the wools started at 130 Euros, yet I paid a zillions times less for what I did buy. I left poorer, but very, very happy and with new additions to my stash back home.

I had spent enough money and had a tired, non-complaining husband in tow. I had brought a tote bag along and Ken was nice enough to carry it once it started filling up. It was around 1 p.m., so we looked for a place to eat lunch and found a lovely brasserie on Boulevard de Rochechouart overlooking a major intersection. We took a table by the window to watch the locals. I forget what Ken ordered, but I had Croque Messieur, which is a French version of a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, and of course, wine since I had earned it after all that shopping. After lunch, we headed back to the hotel via the Metro.

My only regret was that I could not find any sewing magazines like Patrones or Octobre. I looked everywhere, especially the newsstands in Montmartre. But all I could find was Burda. What do the French do for patterns? Reine did sell patterns, but that was the only place I found any.

We unloaded my fabric, then out again. We had made dinner reservations for a very small restaurant in the Ninth Arrondissement for the evening of our last day. These reservations were made three months earlier, that's how popular this place was. It took us over a month to get through, but persistence paid off. We decided to figure out where the restaurant was located and how long it would take to get there via the Metro. The Ninth Arrondissement is a very residential area with great shops, restaurants, bakeries and everything else one would need to live in Paris. It turned out that the restaurant was not near any Metro so we walked for about 15 minutes until we found it. Along the way, we found a great patisserie and purchased a dozen macarons. Again, the owner did not speak English, but kept interrupting us and would not let us try to tell her what we wanted. This took about 10 minutes to buy a dozen cookies. Had she just let us point to the ones we wanted, it would have gone much quicker, but we thanked her for her patience anyway. The macarons were heavenly. We headed back in the direction of our hotel and ended up walking the entire way back taking the sights.

For dinner, we ate at an English pub located near the hotel. Ken and I were not that hungry so we both ordered large salads. Even though it was an English pub and looked like one inside, our waiter was French. This was our first experience with a waiter who told us what we were going to order. I ordered first, but Ken was not allowed to order the same salad as me even though he wanted one. The waiter told him which salad he was having. The same thing happened with dessert. It's a good thing we both enjoyed the food.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Day Six - Caught in a Tourist Trap

April 28. After leaving the Louvre we headed back to our hotel to change for dinner. At the recommendation of the hotel concierge, we had made reservations for dinner and the show at the Lido. Ken put on a suit jacket and tie and I wore my Textile Studio Marseilles silk top and crepe pants with my dressy flats. We took the Metro which was about a 20 minute trip and arrived a couple minutes before 7 p.m. which was the time of our reservations. We were taken to our seats which were quite good, but I understand that the entire theatre was designed so that everyone would have a good view. Observing how other patrons were dressed, I saw everything--work clothes, t-shirts, dressy-casual, & dressed to kill. Ken and I decided to substitute a bottle of wine for the bottle of champagne which came with the meal. Having been in Bordeaux we ordered a red, but I must say after being educated in good wine earlier during our vacation, this wine was not a big deal and needed more time to age. But it was drinkable, so we finished off the bottle by the end of the meal. We ordered the appetizer first, Ken had the gravlax salad and I had the vegetable and crab ravioli. Our entrees were a white fish and sauteed lamb (which was more like a stew). Dessert was chocolate cake. The meal was fine, in fact it is good, but it was way overpriced for what we had. I will say that the service was very good. During the meal there was a full orchestra playing along with a singer who looked American and sang in English most of the time. She had a good voice, but I think she had reached the peak of her career. After the meal we ordered our calvados and the show began. What can I say, it was very glitzy, very topless, and boarderline tacky. Lots of props moving all over the place, like the mini airplane which flew the star of the show on to the stage after the dancers had been parading around for a few minutes. The singing was canned, the costumes (what there was of them) were a little too colorful, and everyone smiled the entire time (lots of teeth!). The entire show was based on the main character's idea of an ideal day. Well, I love walking around, shopping, fantasizing, but I would never expect a show to be based on that. The show was called Bonheur and that's what it was for the heroine. Since we where there for over five hours, a couple trips to the Ladies Room were in order. Pretty room, but each time I had to pay the attendant 1 Euro ($1.70) for the privilege to pee. I'm sorry, but that's just not classy. We were definitely sucked into a tourist trap! Would we go back? Probably not--if we did, we would skip dinner there and go to the little bistro around the corner where we had dinner the night before.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Day Six - Hanging out at the Louvre

April 28. We woke up early so we could be at the Louvre when it opened. There was a little bakery across the street from our hotel where we had lunch our first day and decided to have breakfast there. They had wonderful croissants and coffee and a place to sit and watch everyone else hurry off to work. I had always heard that everyone in France has cafe au lait in the morning, but I did not see it on the menu anywhere we ate. But they all had cafe creme, which is coffee with hot milk. I tried to have this every morning since it was so good every where we went. There was a small subway entrance just in front of the bakery and when we tried to enter through the turnstyle, it would not accept our tickets. Then we realized that the machines were broken and we could go through for free. We did this every morning we took the subway. My guess is that everyone who used this entrance was aware of it since we saw many other people go through. They were not about to report a broken turnstyle that was saving them money. I wonder if it has been fixed yet.

We were a little late for the opening, but were there a half hour after it had opened. The crowds had not yet arrived. When you enter the Louvre you first must go through the boutique section. It's like a mini-mall, but the stores were not yet opened even though the museum was. We had been there in 2001 with a tour and had the one-hour special highlight's tour. We needed more time and decided to spend as long as we could stand it. The tickets worked, we only stood in line for five minutes, and that's mainly because everyone had to go through a security checkpoint. If you have never been there, what is really interesting to see is the foundation for the old fortress in the basement. The fortress was built around 1190 and surrounded the city (which was much smaller then) to protect it as was the custom in those times. In 1358 Charles V built a wall around the fortress and made the fortress into his palace. Over time many other monarchs added to the palace until is grew become the building that is now an art museum. In the 1700's planning began to convert part of the palace into a museum for the pubic which opened in 1793. This started with just a couple galleries, but the French royalty liked building palaces and eventually moved out permanently. What I found most impressive was the different architectures, mainly inside the building. Each gallery was ornate and different from the next. No expense was spared, different colored marbles are everywhere along with mosaics, wood carvings, plaster mouldings, gilding, ornate brickwork, etc. The building alone with worth the visit.

We made our way to the sculpture garden then found ourselves in Napoleon III's apartments. These were truly grand as a ruler's house should be. We started with the dining room. Dinner for 50 was not a problem. Then moved on the grand salon which could fit just as many, then through the sitting rooms. I found these room not that different from Versailles. Same family, similar tastes. From there we wandered from gallery to gallery still impressed with the architecture.

We eventually found our way to the Italian paintings--this is where the crowds were forming. Many had come for one purpose, to see Mona. The painting is actually not all that big but commands its own separate wall in the middle of a gallery. The crowd is usually around ten people deep, but with perseverance you can make your way to the front and snap a picture. Picture taking is allowed in most European museums. There were areas where flashes were not allowed, but pictures without flashes were not a problem. Thankfully, this was the only section of the museum were there crowds were large. As afternoon came, there were more people in the museum, but nothing like the Italian galleries.

The museum houses a large collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman scupltures and artifacts, but we only passed through these galleries. We totally skipped the Oriental, African, Asian and American art exhibits. Our interests were mainly Western European which was the main focus of the museum.

By 2 p.m. we were starving and found our way to the cafeteria and dining rooms. Our past experience has been that museums usually have fabulous cafeterias. The Louvre was a disappointment. There was their version of fast food which was prepared sandwiches on baguettes, a formal dining room which was too expensive and a cafeteria which would also make custom meals and was the one we chose. There were lines and it was somewhat expensive, but if you were patient, you could find something that looked good. I got a vegetable quiche, fruit and bottled water. Ken ordered something that took longer. Then there was the problem of finding a place to sit for both Ken and I. I eventually found a table that was clearing out and in a location that I could flag Ken down. It turned out that we were next to a couple from San Francisco. They were in Paris for a couple days then off to South Africa. He was very friendly and appeared to be quite successful, but she was too into herself. That's her with the red hat.

After a not that relaxing lunch, we ventured back to the galleries. I was ready to call it quits, but Ken wanted to get his money's worth. We found ourselves in the Greek sculptures and there she was, Venus. She appeared to be more important that Mona since she did not share a room with any other sculptures or art. In fact, she even had a long corridor leading up to the room she was located. We worked our way through the Roman sculptures, artifacts, mosaics and reliefs. There were no escalators or elevators, but staircases were everywhere. So we climbed our way to the Nineteenth century art on the top floor. This was somewhat of a disappointment since I had expected a larger gallery. There were only two Impressionist paintings. It turns out that most of the Nineteenth century artwork after 1850 was moved to the Musee D'Orsay along with art from other museums. I did not realize that the two museums were connected in that way. If you were looking for French paintings before 1850, then the Louvre was the place to be. Especially if you are a fan of Delacroix. His paintings were quite prominently displayed.

After we felt we couldn't absorb anymore, we headed for the exit and the museum shop. The shop is on two floors and filled mostly with books. I did pick up a book on the museum, but that was it. I wanted to pick up a scarf since the MFA in Boston and the Metropolitan in NYC have great scarves in their shops, but the selection was not that impressive.

I was glad Ken talked me into staying. We saw almost every gallery and did not leave until after 4 p.m. Thank God, I own comfortable shoes!

Day Five - Transition Day

April 27. We said our goodbyes to Bordeaux in the morning, and figured out how to take the streetcar to the train station rather than take a taxi. It was a Sunday and evidently the streetcars were not running as frequently as they had been during the time we were there. We ended up waiting 22 minutes for a car. Why do I know how long it took, because there are signs at each stop indicating how long the wait is for the next and even the car after that. These are also at all subway stations in Paris. I love it. I wish we had that system in Boston. It was easy to take the streetcar since there was only one step to go up and Ken was the one handling the suitcase, anyway. The ride took about 20 minutes and cost us only $4. If the Paris subway was as easy, we would have taken that instead of a taxi.

This time the train left on schedule at 12:30 a.m and arrived at Gare de Montparnasse on time at 4 p.m. After being on the train for 3 1/2 hours I needed to find a ladies room. In Paris as well as much of Europe, many of the toilettes are pay as you go. Usually there is a woman who will take your half Euro to let you in, but there are also automated toilettes in Paris which consist of a closed room with a steel door. Well the only one I could find was an automated one. Ken jumped into it before I had a chance to get my money out. Then I discovered that the only change I had were 2 Euro coins and the toilette only cost .30 Euros. So I thought since it was unisex, I would jump in after Ken got out rather than overpay. WARNING--Don't ever do this! After the door closed I noticed that water was coming out of the wall in back of the toilette, then it started spilling over the toilette and on to the floor. My shoes were getting wet which made me look for higher ground. I tried to open the door, but it would not open. The water kept rising. I banged on the door yelling to open it, but Ken was not outside. I had visions of headlines back home saying "Local Woman Drowns In Paris Toilette". The water reached a level of a half an inch at the highest corner of the room, thank goodness, then started to drain out. There must has been harmless chemicals in the water because I did not smell and my feet survived the ordeal. Anyway, I used the facilities, but I guess I screwed up the automated system and while on the commode, a young mother had put money in the system and opened the door. I could hear her put the money in, but she could not hear me telling her the place was occupied. Well, the door opened and she screamed with surprise something in French, then closed the door. I guess her putting money in the system is what got me out when I tried to open the door the second time. Of course, Ken was no where to be seen. When I did finally find him, I told him about my adventure, but of course, he found the engineering of the facility fascinating and just overlooked my ordeal.

After I dried off, we took a taxi back to the hotel. The weather was lovely, in the 7o's, the sun was shining and everyone was out for a walk. We arrived at our hotel, unpacked, then went down to the concierge to see about tickets to the Louvre for the next day. Getting tickets to the Lourve was easy, and the tickets purchased at the hotel allowed us to enter the Lourve through an entrance that did not have long lines. We also wanted to go to Follies Bergere since it was the subject of one of my favorite Manet paintings. The concierge advised against it and instead suggested the Lido, which is locate on the Champs-Élysées . Then he talked us into dinner there, too. We knew this would be expensive, but it turned out to be much more than we had planned. My advice, skip the dinner and save a fortune. We also wanted to visit the Musee D'Orsay, but they were out of tickets. However, we could purchase them at FNAC just across the street. FNAC is like a Barnes & Noble/Circuit City that sells theatre tickets also (one-stop entertainment center). We bought some for Wednesday.

Since my husband worked for the local transit authority, he wanted to see if we could go to the Lido by subway. So we did a dry run and found it quite easily. The concierge suggested a taxi, but we had already spend enough. Since the day was so lovely we walked around the area and ended up at little bistro on a side street just off the Champs-Élysées. This place had only four outside tables and another dozen inside. We had a lovely dinner outside watching the people, and since Ken spoke German, trying to figure out what the German women at the table next to us were saying. After dinner, we took the subway back to the hotel.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Day Four - The Wine Flows

April 26. This time the bus wasn't scheduled to leave until 9 a.m. (so our "let them eat cake, I don't care if I'm late" person didn't hold us up). We drove to a different region. On the first day we visited chateaus on the left bank, this day we were to visit the right bank. Our first stop would be a lovely little chateau, Petite Village, which looked new, but was old and much more modest than the ones from the day before. This place had just recently completed a renovation making it into a very modern facility. The most unusual aspect of this chateau was that the fermenting tanks were made from cement instead of stainless steel or oak. The other difference was that the proprietress of the chateau, who was also our guide, was an American. This lady had been in France for the past 17 years and worked various positions in the wine industry over the years. This chateau is also owned by an insurance company rather than a family like all the others we visited during the two days. I'm sure that's why such an expensive/extensive renovation happened. This place is also used to entertain clients. The property is around 25 acres located on a plateau Pomerol which is the highest point in the Bordeaux region and produces 60,000 bottles a year. The chateau and more of this area has no classification, however, this is one of the best growing areas in the Bordeaux region and produces some of the highest quality wines in the area. The property adjoining this (the white house on the left) was only 4 acres, produced 200 bottles which sold for over 4,000 Euros each. Sounds like a great way to make a living. We tasted two wines and bought a half bottle which was enjoyed when we returned to Paris.

Back on the bus, we drove through several small villages until we finally reached the town of St Laurent d'Arce and Chateau L'Hurbe de Cablanc. This chateau was different from the others in that the property was leased, but had been leased by the same family since 1919. One of the owners, Marc, was our guide, but did not speak English. He had an interpreter, Lionel, who was also a PR person for the region. This property was not a business venture, but truly a way of life for a family. When the crop is bad, Marc has to find an outside job which he has done in the past. Marc lives in the oldest part of the house which was built in in the 16oo's and his sister lives in the other half built in the 1700s. Their grandfather began the winery after World War I. Marc and his sister run the vineyard together and had recently hired Lionel to help promote the business. Marc gave us a tour and what was different was that the aging took place in the stainless steel fermentation tanks. I think this was a matter of efficiency and economics. The wines produced were not of the quality of the ones we had previously tasted, but were very good everyday wines. After our tour, we tasted several wines and had pate, crackers and cheese in Marc's backyard. Then Marc's wife served us a four course lunch in the chateau. It was lovely with the French doors opened on both our left and right sides, a slight breeze passing through the room. The woman was amazing to be cooking a wonderful lunch for 20 strangers (even though I realize she was compensated for this). We again started with a poached salmon (must be the thing to serve these days), then another white fish with fresh vegetables, cheese course and dessert was tarte tartine, along with three different wines served during the lunch. I was fortunate enough to sit next to Marc and lucky that Lionel was at the same table. What was interesting was that Marc ate the opposite of how I was taught a Frenchman ate. He held his fork in his right hand and shoveled the food in. He was always the first to finish each course! But he was happy to pass more wine around to all of us. The wines were quite good and sold for less than 5 Euros each so we bought a couple bottles. Cheap wine with a year on the label, it must be good.

We said our goodbyes and boarded the bus for our last tour at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte. This property has been around for centuries, but was bought by a successful French couple (almost celebrities), in 1990. They sold everything to acquire this place. What is wonderful about them is that they are very concerned about the environment and built the main public building and storage area out of recycled materials and do not use pesticides on their vines. All grapes are hand-picked. The property at 150 acres was the largest of all the places we visited, and they produce around 200,000 bottles a year. Also on the property is the Caudalie Spa which the owners' daughter runs. I forgot the name of our tour guide, but she was friendly and very French. We toured the fermentation area with oak tanks instead of stainless steel like most of the others. Then on to the cellars and a visit to the cooperage which is the on-site barrel maker. Most chateaus purchase their barrels, but this chateau decided that is was actually more economical to have a full time barrel maker. The barrel maker turns out two barrels a day, 600 barrels a year, so there is still a need to purchase some barrels. From there we went to the tasting room where one of the owners, Florence Cathiard, greeted us. She was quite charming and showed us the "James Bond" room which was a secret party room beneath the tasting room. The floor opened up and we were led downstairs to a very dark room with one back-lit wall with a blown-up picture of grapes. She explained that it wasn't quite finished yet, but it was a fun place to be. That concluded our tour.

We arrived back at Bordeaux around 6 p.m. Since our day consisted of mostly eating and drinking, that evening we had only salad for dinner--and calvados afterwards.

Day Three - Let the Tasting Begin

April 25. After the hotel breakfast of croissants, yogurt, fruit, juice and coffee, we all met in the hotel lobby around 8:30 a.m. and were on the tour bus by 9 a.m. (you always have to wait for someone!). Since we did not rent a car while in Bordeaux, the bus allowed us the opportunity to see the suburbs and countryside outside of the city. Our tour guide was Wendy who was extremely knowledgeable of the wines and the area. Besides Wendy, we were greeted at each chateau by another guide who spoke English. We traveled for about 45 minutes until we reached our first stop shown above, Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste which is located in the Pauillac region. In my opinion, the first chateau was the best, but the others all had their charm. This chateau has been producing wine for over 160 years. It was also one of two chateaus we visited that had an official classification. The current owners purchased this property and business in 1978 and it showed that they had put a lot of time and money into this venture. Our guide was Simone who spoke perfect English and was very friendly and helpful. We toured the property grounds first, then entered the area where the grapes first are sent after the harvest where they are hand-picked. Once the grapes have been picked and selected, they are placed in large stainless steel tanks for a few months. This is where the fermenting takes place and when the winemaker is pleased with the results, the fermenting is stopped. From there, the grapes are transfered to French oak barrels and are kept in the barrels for eighteen to twenty months. Air can enter through the oak and too much air is not good. This process is closely monitored to make sure that the barrels are kept full at all times, so they are topped off with wine from the same vintage on a rotating basis. After about 9 months, the wine is filtered and transferred to new barrels and the aging process continues for at least another nine months to a year. Two and an half to three years after the harvest, the wine is finally bottled and stored for another three years before it is released to the public. At Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste Simone explained that the wine still was not quite ready for consumption, but would be in another couple years. It was recommended that Bordeaux wine needs to age at least eight to ten years and the longer the better. The chateau is located on approximately 90 acres and produces 300,000 bottles each year. After our tour of the chateau, the best part took place--the tasting. We were only given one wine to taste (they only made three types which were various grades of the same wine). At least we were served a sizable amount for the tasting. This is where Ken and I learned how to identify a young wine from a wine that is truly ready for drinking. The wine we had was 2003 which was a very unusual vintage and matured slightly sooner than usual. It was absolutely delicious. We spent about a half hour tasting and admiring the tasting room and the view outside.

Back on the bus, and off to Chateau Maucaillou in the Medoc region. The drive only took about 20 minutes to reach the next chateau. We were greeted by our guide, Nadine, whose English was not quite as good as Simone's, but we did understand her. This chateau also is on approximately 90 acres and produces 300,000 bottles each year but had a larger selection of wines. What we found out was the the French government controls how many bottles each chateau may produce. This chateau was quite old, but the buildings we were shown were much newer. Nadine showed us the facility and explained the wine making process which was similar to Grand-Puy-Lacoste, but as we found each chateau did something a little different than the others, be it the fermenting process, aging process, barrels, etc. This chateau also hand-picked their grapes. After our tour, we where treated to three different types of wines along with hors-d'oeuvres of French bread and pate. From there we were lead to a dining room where we had a wonderful five course lunch with a different wine for each course. We started with soup, then a poached salmon, the main course was a white fish, the cheese course with a selection of five different ones to choose from, then the dessert of creme brulee, coffee, and after we couldn't eat another bite, the chef brought out homemade chocolates--just perfect!

After our lovely lunch, we were off to the last stop of the day, Chateau Rauzan-Gassies, which was in the Margaux region. This chateau dates back to the 1700's and has 50 acres. The owner is now the daughter of the family that have held this since 1945 and we were fortunate to have her as our guide. This chateau had a higher classification than the first one we visited, but I found the wine a little better at the first. This chateau chose to machine pick their grapes, but there were later sorted by hand. The reason for the machine picking was that the grapes could be picked in an afternoon once it was determined that they were perfect for picking. Machine picking also eliminated the need to round up 40 people to do the picking and the threat of weather ruining the crop. The building was a combination of old and new and done very tastefully. The cellars and fermenting tanks were located in original buildings, but the tasting/boutique room was a new building. At the tasting we tried three different wines which included a Margaux. In the background of the picture is a chalkboard with wines and prices. At the top of the list was a 1966 wine being offered for 160 Euros. One woman from our group bought a bottle of that wine! Ken and I bought a bottle but it was closer to 25 Euros for a 2001 vintage. The bottle we bought was put in a box and tied with a ribbon with the chateau's name woven into it. We got the same packaging as the more expensive bottle! By now it was after 4 p.m and back to the bus for our ride back to the city. After all the tasting Ken and I, we didn't feel like we had been drinking a better part of the day. Good wines treat you well. We were back around 5:30, brought our purchases (2 bottles) back to the hotel, then went out for a long walk. We were still full from our lunch so Ken and I only had salads for dinner.