mercredi 26 décembre 2012

Belated Christmas greetings from Paris

Thank you to friends and family who have contacted us to wish us a merry Christmas. I have been very slack about updating my blog and also not individually responding to emails. I do apologise. Your kind thoughts and best wishes are nevertheless greatly appreciated.

Here are some miscellaneous photos of some of the wonderful times from Paris over the Christmas period.
Christmas Trees are everywhere. These are near Saint Sulpice, Saint Germain des Prés.

Somedays the weather is perfect, and everyone is out to enjoy it. 
Family time. 
Maybe not Christmassy, but at 110 metres tall, La Grande Arche is striking architecture at La Défense
Love looking in the windows at the fresh goods on offer.
The department stores have amazing window displays many of which are animated and are created by well-known designers. My photos just do not do justice to them.


Champs-Elysées and its markets and illuminations

For truly beautiful photos of Paris see Carina Okula's blog and website. She is an Australian expat living  just outside of Paris.

mercredi 19 décembre 2012

Christmas Drinks with Paris Rooftop Views

A quick Google search or checking your favourite Paris blogs reveals a number of bars, cafés, restaurants and terraces that have wonderful rooftop views. I am not sure if it is a new trend but there are a couple of temporary 'popup' additions to existing terraces that are worth considering if you are fortunate enough to be visiting Paris over Christmas and New Year.

Angelina's, a rue de Rivoli institution famous for its hot chocolate and Mont Blanc patisserie, has taken over one end of the 8th floor terrace at Galeries Lafayette. It is free to go up to the terrace and enjoy the views of Paris. With heating provided in the café you can enjoy the view of Opera Garnier, Madeleine and through to the Eiffel Tower for a little longer. It still does get quite chilly. You do need to make a bit of a sprint if it is raining. I think from memory we paid about 7-8 €uros each for our hot chocolate. Not exactly cheap - but it is delicious and the view is stunning.

View towards Madeleine and Eiffel Tower
View back towards Sacre Coeur
Le Bar Etoilé à BHV: I was just planning on taking in the view from the restaurant lower down in BHV early one evening. I love reading signs. As soon as I saw the sign I was interested in spite of not knowing that it was a bar sponsored by Grey Goose vodka. Technically you are supposed to book ahead via their facebook page but we just turned up. You pay 10€ for your cocktail. They are vodka-based although a non-alcoholic one is available. The area is very exposed and not much seating.

Enjoying a cocktail (just for the photo of course)
Hôtel de Ville from BHV rooftop bar
Angelina's (12 November to 31 December 2012)
8th Floor Galeries Lafayette
40 bd Haussmann
PARIS 75009
11.00am to 6.00pm 

Le Bar Etoilé (12 November to 23 December 2012)
52, rue de Rivoli
PARIS 75001 
5.30pm to 7.45pm Mon, Tue, Thu, Fri and Satu
5.30pm to 8.45pm Wed
5.30pm to 7.15pm Sun

samedi 15 décembre 2012

Outstanding Dinner in the Outskirts of Paris

I am very fortunate to have a wonderful local restaurant in La Garenne Colombes on the outskirts of Paris. Le Saint Joseph was recognised earlier this year for its excellence with an entry into the Michelin Guide. It is not hard to see why they have received this commendation.

It was my second visit, and once again the welcome was both warm and sincere. It is a very popular place, as evidenced by the need to book at least 3 days ahead. I was stunned that the helpful and charming lady in charge of front of house waitress remembered me from my last visit nearly 4 months ago. 

The 29€ three course dinner represents excellent value. We paid a supplement for some of our dishes. I was guided towards the snails with chorizo, mushrooms and red wine (cocotte escargots bourgogne, chorizo, champignons) which was served in a small cast-iron casserole dish. I have only ever had snails with garlic, parsley and butter before. As much as I like them that way - this was much better. The individual flavours were detectable with the rich flavour very warming on this cold, December evening. So enthused, I mopped up the last of the remnants of the sauce with the fresh, crusty bread.  The staff were so thoughtful that they even brought out a second dish for me to photograph when I thought I had lost the first photo. 

Cocotte escargots bourgogne, chorizo, champignons
My main course was lighter and more subtle in flavour but equally rewarding - scallops and prawns lightly flavoured with vanilla (noix St Jacques à la vanille).  The recommended riesling was the ideal accompaniment for this dish. The scallops were succulant and plump, perfectly cooked.
Noix St Jacques à la vanille
Dessert was equally rewarding. I can't recall the description on the menu but it was like a chocolate mousse served in a glass jar with biscuits. It was smooth, rich and very chocolatey. Not too sweet. The perfect finish to an outstanding meal.

The very personable chef, Denis Jublan, does an amazing job balancing the flavours in his dishes. The freshness and the quality of the ingredients are evident. He is ably supported by knowledgable, enthusiastic front of house staff. This is not a fancy restaurant where you leave feeling hungry. It is down to earth with the focus on providing quality food prepared with attention to detail and passion. It feels like you a sharing a very special meal surrounded by friends and locals who enjoy good food. I am looking forward to my next visit.

Monsieur Le Chef was kind enough to invite me visit the kitchen
Le Saint Joseph
100, boulevard de la République
La Garenne-Colombes 92250

mardi 4 décembre 2012

Snow in Alsace and Strasbourg Christmas Markets

I had always wanted to spend at least one Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere. Even in Australia we have images of Christmas with snow. Imagine my unrestrained delight as the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) sped towards Strasbourg in Alsace and I looked out and saw snow in the fields and forests. I am not sure what the other passengers made of my excitement and incessant photo-taking. Of course the photos are really not much more than a blur.

Not quite so exciting was having to descend from the train in the Arctic conditions when we reached Strasbourg. By now it was actually snowing. I was rather pleased with my foresight in booking Hotel Cathedrale directly opposite the cathedral and surrounded by Christmas markets. What's more there is a bath so I can duck back to the room for a long, hot soak between checking out the markets.

Our hotel is the blue building
We started our visit with the Cathedral so that we could see the nativity scene and the special exhibitions of tapestries and Neapolitan figurines. The tapestries were extraordinarily well-preserved with their colours and patterns still very clear.

Although it was very cold, I enjoyed wandering around the market. Storeholders and visitors alike were good-natured. I found the mulled wine too sweet for my taste but I did enjoy one of the best crepes I have ever bought on the street. It was huge and topped with cinnamon sugar. Delicious and very warming. The markets sell Christmas decorations, foods such as pain d'épice (although I am not sure if they are as good as Aussie in France's homemade one), bredle, macaroons, etc and handicrafts.  

So much better than going to the local discount store to buy a tree

One very large Christmas tree

View from our hotel
Dinner at Dôme Café was rather unremarkable. The prices were slightly higher than I saw elsewhere but it was warm and convenient. The vegetable soup was a little too watery and the flammekueche of cream, onions and bacon was crispy and generously proportioned but somewhat lacking in taste. I did however really enjoy my glass of champagne.

vendredi 30 novembre 2012

Returning to France and La Défense in Winter

I have been fortunate in being able to return to France for a further two months, having already spent three months here this year. This is my first trip to France in winter.

Travelling in business class in the Singapore Airlines A380 from Singapore to Paris was a special treat. The seat was a massive 86cm wide and was folded down to turn into a bed. No wonder I arrived in Paris refreshed and ready to explore.

La Défense is about a 20 minute walk from our accommodation chez Valérie. It is possible to take the bus or the train but I really needed some exercise and fresh air after the 22 hour flight from Adelaide. I hadn't though counted on it raining during the last 10 minutes across the open plaza.

La Défense is a business area north-west of Paris made up of many high rise buildings and of course the Grande Arche and the Quatre Temps and CNIT commercial centres. The shops are generally chain stores of reasonable standard. The Christmas decorations were particularly pretty within the CNIT atrium area.

As excited as I was about the commercial shopping centres my attention was quickly drawn to the Christmas market on the plaza in front of the gi-normous Grand Arche. In spite of starting out refreshed, I quickly wilted and could not be tempted by the vin chaud, tartiflette, fois gras, champagne, saucisson etc. Perhaps next time I should not have second helpings of Valérie's tomato tarte with gruyère, parmesan and comté cheese. 

mardi 17 juillet 2012

Christian and Islamic Cultures Come Together in Córdoba

Islamic influence in Córdoba 
Córdoba, in Andalusia, is reported to have the highest summer average in Europe. It certainly was hot when I visited with friends, Isa and Julio. Apart from the heat, I was struck me by the Islamic influence in the architecture and decoration. I was very much reminded of my stay at Riad Sekkat in Marrakech. Córdoba, historically was Spain's most significant Islamic city.

Part of the Great Mosque complex
Great Mosque gardens and courtyard
Some of the Islamic elements in the Great Mosque
The Great Mosque is considered to be the city's main tourist attraction and can be found in the heart of the old town. The old town is one of the largest in Europe and is probably best explored when the temperatures are not in the range of more than 40°C. The mosque is rather unusual in that since the 15th century it has been a Christian cathedral. 
Córdoba Cathedral's ornate altar within the Great Mosque 
Beautifully maintained buildings
Ceramics are well known in Andalousie and this café has their tapas menu on ceramic tiles  

For friendly service, cold beer and some great jamon and tapas (including my favourite croquettes which were so light and fluffy), I can highly recommend the Bodegas Campos Taverna.

If you are thinking of visiting Andalusie, then Córdoba should definitely be on your list of places to see.

Los Lineros, 32
14002 Cordoba Espana

vendredi 13 juillet 2012

Looking for Warmth in Andalucia, Spain

My trip to Spain got off to an exciting start with an aborted landing at Malaga airport. The animated Spaniards at the back of the plane, who had not stopped talking since leaving Paris, only momentarily draw breath as we sharply took off again due to a sudden wind change. In spite of the pleasant company of Tom, a lovely Canadian man who was making the trip that he and his recently deceased wife had planned, I was rather relieved to finally land. I was surprised by the large size of the airport as well as how modern it was. Isabel, a former student at the Alliance française de Rouen and now a very dear friend, was there to greet me. Isabel doesn’t speak much English so the plan was that we would  speak French given I have no Spanish.

The weather in France this spring and summer has been rather awful so it was quite a shock to step out into the 31°C heat. We took the coast road passing through Torre del Mar. This is a popular vacationing location and now in addition to the Spaniards, Germans and English there is a increasing French presence. The area is typified by the towns and villages hugging the coast, the dry rocky mountains that soar close by and are spotted with villages glowing in white. Mansions can be found spread-eagled on the mountain ridges making the most of the view to the ocean. Scattered between are the modest farmhouses, their orchards and the vineyards.
Approaching Isabel’s village, Torrox, about 60km from Malaga, one can’t fail to be impressed. It is nearing 10pm and starting to get dark. I am convinced that what I am seeing is not real. It has to be a movie set with the pristine white buildings, the palms and flowers. The tiled rooves and the drainpipes let you know you must be in the Mediterranean region. Some of the buildings have tiled frontages, the footpaths are spotless – literally gleaming in the central plaza. Public seating is bountiful, but demand is high from the Spanish grandmothers who are enjoying catching up with each other. To say that the atmosphere is laidback would be significantly understating thing the situation.

The smell of jasmine greets us we approach Isabel’s home. The sensuous perfume fills my bedroom. Isabel talks about her home and the connections she has with it. It is where she was born and was formerly her grandmother’s home. Beautifully decorated with mementos from her travels creatively grouped and displayed, it is spread over two floors with an additional large rooftop terrace.

Quickly dropping off my luggage, we take the 2 minute walk to her parents’ home. Here I am greeted not only by her parents but also by her brother, his wife and 3 children who are visiting. It is a family home filled with lots of warmth, love and laughter, not to mention great food! Isabel’s brother is cooking hamburguesa de pollo that are divine. I think I was asleep in under two seconds when I finally got to bed about 1.00am.
Breakfast on the terrace includes coffee and fresh bread spread with olive oil. What a great way to start the day. I wonder what the Australian Customs people would say if I tried to bring in 5 litres of the oil which has been pressed at the local cooperative from Isabel’s father’s olive trees.

I really hadn’t done any planning for this part of my holiday apart from the flights to and from Spain. Isabel has thankfully taken everything into hand and shows me a suggested outline for my 10 day visit. Would it do? I hug her – it is everything I could have wished for and more.

Nerja could be considered a touristic location – but it has great reason to be. There is some seriously spectacular scenery. The village sits high up on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea with its beaches and rocky outcrops. Having tackled getting a sim card for my smartphone it is time to explore. We buy an icecream, listen to some flamenco music being played by some buskers and wander the pedestrianised town centre.

Isabel has not only planned out activities but also local dishes that I must try and where she recommends eating them. Wanting to be the perfect guest I am happy to comply. Lunch is at 2.30pm and is called patatas a lo pobre. It is a potato dish cooked the way that poor people would have prepared it. The potatoes, green capsicums, garlic and olive oil are cooked in a fry pan. A fried egg is served with the dish and is eaten with the accompanying bread. Delicious and hearty. I am fortunate to be able to attend my first Spanish birthday party. Paula has turned 9.

An elderly neighbour telephones and Isabel and I are charged with translating from Spanish a request to be sent to a French bank. It is this sense of family and community that has really impressed me in the very short term I have been here. In spite of not being able to speak Spanish and Isabel’s family speaking very little English we have managed to communicate with lots of hand gestures and miming. I have managed to learn a couple of Spanish words and this has everyone laughing. After lunch, Isabel and I, armed with our laptops, go to the local tapas bar, 20 m away, where we buy a couple of bottles of water and a couple coffees for the measly price of 4€ all up. We spread out our laptops, bags and I plug into their power. No-one minds.

Evening and we take the scenic route to Frigiliana. We stop so many times so that I can take photos as we climb to the summit (in the car – you know I wouldn’t be walking). Every bend in the road presents yet another stunning vista. Poor Isabel must be wondering if we shall ever get there. The village is perched on the hilltop looking down a valley towards the sea. Can it get any better than does. I know as soon as I arrive and see the fountain with the Star of David, the Christian Cross and the Islamic Crescent that this place is special. These people have worked hard to maintain their homes in the tradition style. The stones that form the serpentine streets form decorative patterns both in terms of colour and layout. In several hours of wandering the streets I don’t see any dog pooh and see one cigarette butt. There is NO other litter whatsoever.

I am privileged to taste a family speciality for dinner: cold garlic soup. We then have garlic chicken. Isabel’s sister-in-law confesses that she likes to have garlic at breakfast rubbed on to toast with the homegrown olive oil. Her husband jokes about not having any friends with all the garlic. Isabelle’s mother hugs me warmly as I leave and I know that this is one very special family.
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