France 2011: Day Two

Thursday    29 September 2011

A full day in Paris. Karen, Anne, Jenny and I make an early morning pilgrimage to the patisserie in our favorite square to get breakfast. We take our pastries down the hill to the garden at the Natural History Museum (Jardin des Plantes) to sit and eat while watching the joggers, not feeling guilty in the least.

Ancient sycamore
An ancient sycamore in the Jardin des Plantes, planted in 1785.
And all that was left was his foot.
Graphic statue in the Botanic Garden.

Afterward, we head back up to the square for coffee at a sidewalk cafe. We meet up with Rick and Mary to walk down to the river and over to Sainte-Chappelle on the Ile de la Cité.

Un cafe creme

Sainte-Chappelle welcoming committee.

Sainte-Chappelle on a sunny day. After a brief wait in line, we enter the grounds and tour through the 13th-century church, built by King Louis IX. On the ground floor is the oldest mural in Paris and up on the second floor, the king’s chapel is a riot of color, with brilliant stained glass windows stretching far above to meet with a brilliant blue vaulted ceiling. The light from these walls of glass play off of the columns, stonework, and floor; it’s gorgeous and impossible to capture in a snapshot.

Annunciation--The oldest mural in Paris.

After we get our fill of Gothic light and color, it’s time for lunch. Unfortunately, in all our restaurant pre-planning, we failed to make a reservation for lunch, so we’re shut out of the restaurant we’d hoped to try. (Oh well, next time!) We substitute with the next door neighbor, Restaurant Paul. It’s pleasant enough but nothing special and is easily the least memorable of all our meals.

Berthillon: Rhubarb and salted caramel
Rhubarb and salted caramel.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for Berthillon. Afterward, Rick and Mary split off to visit the Caravaggios in the Louvre and we four walk through the Marais to La Place de Vosges and then over to a must-see on our Paris itinerary: the legendary Berthillon Ice Cream. Tiny scoops of a creamy salted caramel and sorbet-like rhubarb were phenomenal.

Before returning to the hotel, Karen, Jenny and I hike back up the hill to have a beer at what is now our favorite neighborhood hangout, one of the outdoor cafes in the fountain courtyard. While enjoying the ambiance and people watching, we flip through a guidebook and discover there’s the ruin of a Roman amphitheater a few blocks from our hotel. With just enough time to spare before dinner, Karen and I make a detour that way to check out the Arènes de Lutèce. I’m glad to see it’s a living ruin, bustling with activity. Pick-up games of bocci ball and soccer are in full swing, while groups of people socialize in the stands.

Arenes de Lutece

Best. Meal. Ever. At 6:15 sharp, we leave the hotel for a thirty minute walk to our dinner destination, Le Timbre, a tiny storefront restaurant with most tables against the wall and diners squeezed in shoulder-to-shoulder. Our meal is nothing short of phenomenal. As we’re being seated, the chef greets us warmly and brings us a round of champagne and white wine aperitifs to start. Then, after wishing us a good meal, he steps into the tiny kitchen just a few feet from our table to get down to work.

The second seating waits outside Le Timbre.

This meal has gone down in history as one of our trip highlights. We start with snails in a tomato sauce, duck fois gras, sautéed mushrooms, mushroom soup, and the specialty of the day, pig cheek, a loaf of succulent, pan-seared pork with capers. Think of the best bacon you’ve ever had and quadruple it. The next course includes duck breast, white fish with mushrooms, port sausage with lentils, pork back and red cabbage. To finish, we have chocolate mousse, a blue cheese tart with sherry, a Napoleon, roasted figs in red wine, and an amazing poached pear. Every dish was phenomenal. A Bergerac white wine accompanies the meal.

This was a fantastic, leisurely meal, stretching three hours, the norm in France. We were all raving to the chef as we stood up to leave and as soon as our crowd had cleared the place, the staff rushed to prep for the late seating, and we walked home in a culinary glow.

Clicking on any of the photos above will take you to my Flickr site where you can see more photos from the trip.

France 2011: The Trip Begins

Tuesday/Wednesday    27/28 September 2011

Night flight to Paris. Our group of six gathers at O’Hare at 6pm. After weeks of preparation and months of anticipation, we’re ready to get on the plane and wake up in France. In the United terminal, we’re surrounded by a mountain of luggage, large and small, duffle bags, daypacks, and camera bags. The time for angsting over just how much to bring for a two-day stay in Paris and a week on a houseboat in the South of France is over. We’re on our way!

Once on the plane and in the air, for the first time ever, I order wine during a flight, hoping it will help induce sleep. According to friends who travel internationally, the best way to minimize jet lag is to spring forward seven hours to get on French time right away and sleep as much as possible on the plane, waking up to the new day when the plane touches down. Almost directly after dinner, the lights in the cabin go out and everyone tries to catch some sleep in the five hours remaining before we land.

When I’m not napping (I can’t really call it sleep), I enjoy watching our progress on the inflight map on the screen in the chair back in front of me. The flight passes quickly and we land around 9:30 a.m., flying through customs without incident. We pick up our bags and are met by the Super Shuttle which takes us into Paris, a long drive (1-1/2 hours in traffic) punctuated by interesting tidbits from the driver.

Our Hotel

We check into the Hotel Saint Christophe, a very pleasant (and very tiny) hotel in the 5th arrondissement. The elevator barely holds one person and three pieces of luggage. After dumping everything off in our rooms, we regroup in the lobby and head out to find a neighborhood spot for lunch. We’re all starving and eager to get the culinary portion of our trip underway.

Lunchtime

Lunch in an alley. A few blocks away, we find a cute corner restaurant (I never did get the name) with plenty of outdoor seating. At first I thought it was located on an alley, but came to realize, nope, that’s just a typical narrow French street. I chose the Prix Fix meal, a common (and often economical) option found in most French restaurants. Everything, from the snails and grilled lamb to the crème caramel, was quite tasty, probably accentuated by the long hours of travel and mediocre plane food. Others in the group feast on goat cheese salad, mussels with fries, and steak with béarnaise sauce. We order our first bottle of wine, toasting the beginning of another adventure.

We all enjoy people-watching as we dine al fresco on the mostly pedestrian street, marveling whenever a car threads itself through the people, walking and dining on either side of the road.

Down to the river. After lunch, Rick and Mary return to the hotel to nap and the rest of us walk down to the Seine. After a short stroll along the river, Jenny and Anne succumb to jet lag and return to the hotel, and Karen and I push through our fatigue to continue walking along the Seine toward Notre Dame. Along the way, we watch the tour boats floating along and the people streaming across the many bridges. Walking through the garden behind the cathedral, we circle around Notre Dame and decide to go inside when we see that the line to enter is moving fast and the admission is free. To put it lamely, Notre Dame is absolutely impressive. Many visitors sit in contemplation, serenade by the endless click of digital cameras.

Notre Dame

We walk in the sticky heat back to our hotel and continue up the hill to a bustling neighborhood square lined on all four sides by shops and cafes, tables lined up facing a fountain in the middle of the tiny traffic circle. Karen and I enjoy our first cafe crème at an outdoor cafe, people-watching and soaking up the atmosphere of this quintessential French street scene.

This square quickly became a favorite hangout.
My first cafe créme of the trip.

The first of many outstanding meals. Our first dinner is an outstanding meal at A la Biche au Bois. From the moment we step inside, we receive warm and friendly attention from our waiter, and in no time we’ve kicked off the party with the featured house cocktail, a Kir Noir, made with red wine and plum liquor. Mmm good. A bottle of bordeaux with dinner, which includes deer and salmon patés, mushrooms a la Greque, and a big pot of outstanding, succulent chicken stew (made with wine, of course.) This was followed by a mouth-watering cheese course that will live forever in my memory; goat, sheep, and cow cheeses that had us all exclaiming the glory of French cheese. Dessert followed: sautéed apples and puff pastry, coffee glacé, and a chocolate cake with crème anglaise.

Tango by the Seine

Afterward, another walk by the Seine, watching the boats and the varied night life along the river. We pass groups of musicians jamming together (each with their own half-moon of an audience), dancers sashaying and tangoing in a circle to music playing on a boom box, and folks in large and small groups simply enjoying the view over a bottle of wine.

We head toward Notre Dame, beautifully lit and the center of attention even at 10 p.m. Sidewalks are busy with wanderers and a large crowd watches skating street performers put on a show. Tired and well-fed, we return to the hotel to turn in, our mission to avoid jet lag and stay up for our entire first day in France a success.

Forget March, We’ve Skipped April and Headed Right Into May

The unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having this winter is rolling right into spring and things are budding, blooming, and leafing out very much ahead of schedule. These last two days have been downright hot and humid, which makes me think we’re in for a wicked summer.

In the meantime, it’s nice to see the first color of the season.