jeudi 31 mai 2012

Great Hospitality and Eating Well in Romans-sur-Isère

Through the home exchange group, Homelink, I contacted Alain and Eric, who live in Romans-sur-Isère to see if they might be interested in an exchange with our house in Australia (Home Exchange - Benefits and Getting Started). Although they have no plans to travel to Australia they very generously offered for me to stay with them for 7-10 days in their amazing home. Hospitality is one of the options that some members of Homelink choose to offer in addition to home exchanges. It is great privilege and huge pleasure to be able to stay originally with C near Besançon and now Alain and Eric. I get all the comforts of home along with lots of practice in speaking French, great food, inside local knowledge about what to see and do as well as good fun company.
View from lounge towards the river
In just a little more than 2 hours the TGV whisked me from Gare de Lyon in Paris to Valence TGV railway station (10 km from Valence). My hosts kindly offered to collect me from the station although there is both a rail and bus link between the station and the town of Romans-sur-Isère.

Entrance to Eric and Alain's home and lounge room window above the doorway
Romans-sur-Isère is a medium sized town situated on the banks of the Isère river. In the old town where Eric and Alain live; the narrow streets, which are predominantly pedestrian only, are paved with stones and are flanked by large Renaissance homes. These are built around a church whose origins date back to the 9th century.

My ultra-comfortable bed which sits within the former gateway into the building
The flamboyant gothic stairway
Imagine my surprise when I found out that Eric and Alain live in the oldest home in Romans, Hôtel de Clérieu. The dungeon part was built in the 10th century to provide protection and also to provide a vantage point for surveillance. Additions and modifications have been added over the years. My bedroom window, which looks out on the internal courtyard, is opposite a flamboyant gothic staircase. Louis XII and Henri III have stayed here - and now humble me. This wonderful home shows Alain and Eric's interests and passions in life. It is full of books, magazines, music, original artworks and collections of items from their travels to countries such as England and Japan. 

Eclectic style with items from travels (Note the picture of the Queen)
I took on Eric's suggestion and lunched at Nature Gourmande. It has provided me with the culinary highlight of my trip so far when dining out. Qualitive, fresh food with an innovative, creative twist well executed. 

The husband and wife team, Pierre and Gwenaëlle, make a formidable team. He is the chef while she looks after front of house and is the pastry cook. The 20€ lunch menu provides great value although I chose to pay the 6€ supplement for the foie gras.

I decided to go all out so I started with an apéritif - kir cassis. This was accompanied with what to me seemed to be mini Croque Monsieur (does that make them Croques Messieurs?).  I had dés de volaille basquaise, roquette et balsamique followed by noisettes de veau poêlées, pommes de terre et mange-tout. As if this was not enough I had an assiette gourmande

I chose a glass of red from Bourgogne (Burgundy) which I thoroughly enjoyed. Each dish was beautifully presented to show off the ingredients and to invite you to partake. The flavours and textures didn't disappoint. I ate slowly to make the most of each bite. 
Dés de volaille basquaise, roquette et balsamique 
The veal (veau) was so tender that it cut effortlessly and melted in my mouth. The snow peas (mange-tout) were crisp providing contrast to the potato (pommes de terre).

Noisettes de veau poêlées, pommes de terre et mange-tout
The assiette gourmande was superb. Each morsel an absolute delight. My favourite though was the lemon curd on the small piece of cake/biscuit.

Assiette Gourmande

The combination of fresh, quality ingredients, extremely well cooked and presented along with excellent service make this restaurant a winning combination. If you are going to be visiting the Drome I strongly recommend you seek out Nature Gourmande. I am sure that you will be equally delighted.

Bonbons accompanied the coffee

Restaurant Nature Gourmande37 Place Jacquemart, 2610B0 Romans-sur-Isère

mercredi 30 mai 2012

Père Lachaise Cemetery and Brocante

Being the 'season' for brocantes I visited the Père Lachaise brocante nearby to the cemetery of the same name. I was actually filling in time until the cemetery opened. It opens later on weekends. Brocantes are where individuals and dealers sell second hand and antique goods. You can buy everything from crockery and glassware to furniture to knick knacks. It was a funny moment when I tried to disengage myself from discussion with a dealer who was keen to shout me coffee at the local café. He was amazed that an Australian would learn French and come to France. 

The Père Lachaise cemetery is well known for the many famous people who are buried there. Whilst most people seek out these tombs I decided to just wander aimlessly reading the inscriptions and admiring the mausoleums and statues. As you would expect there were many sad inscriptions. My visit was cut short by the rather Hitchcockian huge black crows attacking me. Perhaps it was a message that it was time to leave and have a coffee.

Mausoleums at Père Lachaise Cemetery
After the brocante, time for a coffee

Père Lachaise Cemetery: 15 Boulevard de Ménilmontant,  75011 Paris

lundi 28 mai 2012

French Countryside from the Air

Perfect weather. 26 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. I am at Bernay aerodrome about to take off in a 4 seater plane. I love flying but loathe large planes so it doesn't get much better than this. The runway is grass dotted with pot-holes. We call in to the club house for the necessary paperwork. An elderly gentleman reading the newspaper greets people as they arrive. It is only a small aeroclub and everyone is not only on first name basis but tutoyer's (informally address each other). A young girl of about 15 or 16 prepares for her flying lesson.
Château de Tily
Our plane is still in the hangar the pilot has to manually pull it out on to the bitumen area in front. After some preliminary checks it is time to finally squeeze into the cockpit next to the pilot. I am so excited that I feel the need to pinch myself. My heart is not racing with fear but with pleasure. My pilot points out châteaux after châteaux as we first head north towards Rouen. The Seine winds back over itself. We pass the forest and the cliffs that drop down to the narrow strip of land that borders the Seine as it takes its circuitous route out to sea. My heart skips a beat as I make out La Bouille, a wonderfully pictoresque village that I have visited. I can easily make out Pont Flaubert and the cathedral in Rouen where I studied with the Alliance Française.
La Bouille near Rouen
Dieppe and the neighbouring white cliffs
We fly over one landmark after another: Bec Hellouin, Jumieges, etc. We continue towards Dieppe and then along the coast with its white cliffs. What a sight glimmering in the sunlight. All to soon we head back inland. As far as I can see there are green fields interspersed with villages, châteaux and churches. I want this flight to never end. All too soon we approach the runway for a perfect landing. I feel extraordinarily privileged to have been able to partake in this experience of a lifetime.

samedi 26 mai 2012

Centre Pompidou and the Matisse Exhibition

Centre Pompidou foyer
More than ten years ago I visited Centre Pompidou for the first time. It was extremely hot and we waited a long to get through security due to the implemenation of security checks in response to 09/11. At the time we couldn't even find where to get tickets so we didn't get to see any of the art works.

Fast forward ten years and the situation was very different. It was very wet and cold and consequently relatively few people so I breezed through security. I even managed to avoid the queue for tickets by purchasing through the automatic ticketing machine. It should be noted that in spite of having a card with a chip and a 4 digit PIN I had not previously been able to make purchases such as at the railway station using kiosk machines.

I had intended to eat in the restaurant on the 6th floor to take advantage of the view. If you plan eating at this restaurant you may want to check out the prices. It was more than I was willing to pay for a light snack. Instead I chose to eat at the café on the mezzanine floor overlooking the lobby. If circumstances were different and the weather was fine I may well have eaten at the restaurant as it did look nice as did the view, or as much as I could make out in the rain and low cloud. I have read that it is possible just to have a glass of champagne there, but I am not able to confirm this nor to confirm if it is possible to just have a coffee.
Great sense of motion in this 3D artwork
I had timed my visit to see the Matisse: Pairs and Sets exhibition which looks at Matisse's works where he explored the same subject repeatedly. As someone who knows very little about art, I thought it prudent to hire an audioguide to explain what I was seeing. They are available in English but wanting to immerse myself in the language I chose the French version. It was certainly worthwhile but I was extremely fortunate to be able to sit in on a professional art guide from the museum presenting Matisse's artworks to a group of school children. His interesting and informative discourse really made the experience extra special. I was able to get a lot more out of the visit and was able to much better appreciate the works.
This 2m high installation was quite beautiful
My feet started to give out by the time I descended to the permanent collection which spans two floors. I have to confess that there were quite a lot of works in the section from 1960s to present, that I really couldn't appreciate their artistic merit. One canvas was just navy blue. Nothing else. No texture, no lines, no variation in shade.  I confess - I just don't get some modern art.
Is this really art? Or is it, that I just don't get it?
Things you may not know about Centre Pompidou:
  • If you want to skip the queues for the tickets it is possible to prepurchase online full-priced tickets. You then print the ticket out yourself. 
  • For 3 € you can access the 6th floor and  its panoramic view without purchasing a ticket for the art gallery and exhibitions.
  • You can visit for free the recreated studio of the Romanian born sculptor Brancusi.
  • Like many French museums and art galleries admission is free for visitors under 26 years old from the European Union and the first Sunday of each month.
  • There is 1 1/2 hours free WiFi access daily within the centre and its forecourt. You don't need to have a ticket to access this. For more information:  CENTRE POMPIDOU FREE WIFI ACCESS
I love the contrast of the modern and the old next to Centre Pompidou

Centre Pompidouplace Georges Pompidou, 75004 PARIS

jeudi 24 mai 2012

Decadence in Paris

I decided to give art and culture a miss today and instead tackle some some of the other things on my Paris To Do List.

Bloggers and magazines such as Gourmet Traveller sing high praises of Coutume Café, in particular its coffee. It is one of several cafés with an Australian link reportedly raising the bar in regards to coffee in Paris. The café is owned by a French-Australian duo Tom Clark and Antoine Netien. 
The decor is very industrial, stripped back to basics with its rub-backed parquetry floor, white tiled bar area and translucent plastic flaps 'hiding' stores and supplies. The laboratory theme was carried through to the stainless steel bench where I ate and the beakers for carafes.

Slightly unusual décor for a Parisian café

The café did not disappoint. My expresso was very good, equalling the better coffees I have had in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. My lunch of Norwegian smoked salmon with pancakes was delicious. I forgot to note from the menu the details of the pancakes and the accompanying dressing. I think they should sell the dressing - I was tempted to ask for extra. The serving was an ideal size for a light lunch and there was no doubt that they did not skimp on quality ingredients. 

Coutume Café is rather conveniently located around the corner from Le Bon Marché department store. Unlike the first time I visited the store, I felt comfortable wandering around looking and touching the luxury goods. Staff were helpful but not intrusive. I can't however understand why the price tags are invariably hidden from view. Perhaps if you have to ask or handle the goods then you can't afford to shop there. I saw many beautiful things in the store but was not seriously tempted to buy anything. Not even the Australian Ugg boots at 150 € for the basic ankle model could tempt me. The other shoes that seem to be popular in France are high healed sandshoes and Le Bon Marché had quite a range. Most are in the same colours as other sandshoes but I found some that really make a statement. I am not really convinced though about them as a fashion item. I must be getting old!

As the sun was finally out in Paris after weeks of rather average weather I decided to head to the Tuilerie Gardens and enjoy the scenery from Café Diane, mentioned by Fraussie, from Aussie in France,  in her post, Five Places to Eat Lunch near the Louvre. I only had a drink so I can't comment on the meals but I will be going back another day as it is such a beautiful setting.

Flowers and more flowers in the Tuileries Gardens
I was planning to go to a play but feeling tired I instead decided to make my way to a bar for an apéritif. I knew Le Meurice was not far, once again thanks to Fraussie's 3 Places for an Apéritif in Paris post. Her local knowledge gave me some idea of what to expect and I was not disappointed as I brazenly walked past the two doormen and through the revolving door. It was not immediately apparent to me where Bar 228 was located but eventually I found myself ushered into a comfortable leather chair. A stool was immediately pulled up for me to place my handbag on. They must have realised that I had only bought my bag the day before.  I was taking my time to drink my 14 € glass of rosé (which was excellent) so that I could soak up and enjoy the atmosphere. The head barman noticing that I was nearing the end of my nibbles quickly whisked them away and replaced them with another serving. Rather generous I thought. Not wanting to seem too greedy, and trying to be ladylike, I left most of them.

Coutume Café: 47, rue de Babylone, 75007 PARIS
Café Diane:  Jardins des Tuileries, 75001 PARIS 

Le Meurice - Bar 228: 228, rue de Rivoli, 75001 PARIS

mercredi 23 mai 2012

Exploring Saint Germain des Prés - Deyrolle and Un Dimanche à Paris

Things don't always turn out as you expect when on holidays. I hadn't noticed that the Balabus tourist bus between La Defense and Gare de Lyon only operates on Sunday afternoons and public holidays. Having already walked to La Defense from my apartment I decided to take bus 73 to Musée d'Orsay. I wasn't planning on visting the museum but the bus takes much the same route as the Balabus past some of Paris's well known locations.

It was pretty cool being chauffeur driven down the full length of Avenue de la Grande Armée to the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs-Elysées through Place de la Concorde, and across the Seine to the Left Bank. In the true French tradition I then flânered (strolled) my way around the Saint Germain des Prés quartier. Not a bad way really to spend an afternoon.

Window at Deyrolle's
First stop was Deyrolle's. You may remember it from Woody Allen's 'Midnight in Paris' movie. Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard attend a party there. I am not at all keen on taxidermy but still I was drawn to visit having read many blog posts and reviews about the shop. I was definitely not disappointed and would highly recommend it. It is spread over 2 floors. The stuffed animals in the window dressed in gardening outfits help paint the picture of what you will find inside. The shop is very traditional with lots of wooden fittings. Some rooms are filled with wooden specimen drawers much as you would expect to find in a museum. Downstairs you will find the gardening books, secateurs, seeds etc. Quaint and interesting. The surprise occurs when you mount the steps and are greeted by a giraffe (26 500€) and the recently arrived peacocks (photos available on Facebook: The zebra lying on the floor looked most relaxed. People must buy these items or the shop wouldn't survive. The polar bear was a steal at 45 000 €. If you can't afford these prices then you can just rent a stuffed animal. Alternatively they did have butterflies starting at 30 € and scorpions from 20 €. In case you are motivated to take up taxidermy as a hobby you will be pleased to know you can buy your tools here. The instruments that I saw being sold looked more like what I would expect a dentist to use. I don't know why, but I expected the animals' fur to be dusty and faded - instead it really looked just as it would on the live animal - only cleaner.
Hotel Paris Deyrolle
Hotel Paris Deyrolle by Hotels Paris Rive Gauche on Flicker

Deyrolle's also has special exhibitions. I was 'fortunate' that they had extended the exhibition of wax botanical specimens of fruit and vegetables by Louis de Tourhout. They were extremely well done and only 1200 € each! They were mounted so you couldn't really put them in your fruitbowl. Quel dommage !

According to my 'Customised Pâtisserie Google Map for Paris' It wasn't far from Deyrolle's to one of Paris's well-known pâtisseries. Not one to waste an opportunity, I headed straight there stopping to take a few photos on the way.

Café de Flore
I wished the man in the blue coat, socks and shoes had turned his head as I took the photo. You would then be able to see his bright blue glasses that had blue lenses. Very suave.

Un Dimanche à Paris
This pâtisserie shop seems to make most people's wish list for Paris. If you don't have a good map you may have trouble finding it tucked away in a little alleyway. The premises were very modern and sleek. The salon de thé (tea-room) unfortunately was unexplicitly closed for the afternoon so I had to have coffee in a paper cup and and the pâtisseries on a polystyrofoam type tray sitting outside. Not quite what I had envisaged.

The highlight was definitely the lemon meringue tart. Great combination and balance of textures and tastes with the lemon curd having just the right amount of tartness. Sublime. The other two were nice but not extra special. In fact the choux pastry which I think had hazelnut cream in it was a little bland. This could have been because I made the mistake of eating it after the lemon tart. Un Dimanche à Paris also makes some very nice looking chocolates and has cooking classes. Brunches on Sunday I understand are a bit of an institution. I am not sure that I would cross Paris to try them but am prepared to hear arguments for them.

Deyrolle: 46, rue de Bac, 75007 PARIS

Un Dimanche à Paris: 4-6-8 Cour du Commerce Saint André, 75006 PARIS

Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Sénans

I had previously seen photos of the saltworks at Arc-et-Sénans but I didn't realise that it was only 35 km from Besançon. I was fortunate to be invited by Nadine, a friend of Corinne's with whom I was staying, to visit it with her and her charming daughter.
Director's House
The salt-works was built between 1775 and 1779 and was designed by the architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux who was part of the Enlightenment movement. At this time salt, which was mainly used to conserve food and in manufacturing, provided the government with significant income through taxes.
Entrance to saltworks

The semi-circular design includes 11 buildings with the director's house at the centre. One of the buildings houses the Ledoux Museum where you can see many models exemplifying Ledoux's search for Utopia. The gardens are currently being redeveloped and were not at their best.

Ledoux's second design plan for Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans. (Wikipedia   

If you are visiting Franche-Comté, I do recommend visiting Arc-et-Sénans. We took the guided tour which unfortunately was extremely poorly done. I have never before experienced a guide who was in such a bad mood and short-tempered with the participants. It was a most unpleasant experience. I usually prefer a guide over an audioguide but in hindsight, in this case, the audioguide would have been the better option. The site is not particularly large, in spite of its 11 buildings, but I do think that the background information about the design and the history regarding the importance of the salt really does increase the appreciation and enjoyment of the site. 

If you decide to visit the site, I would allow about a half-day. It one of the few UNESCO World Heritage sites to also offer accommodation so you could do an afternoon visit and then stay on. I imagine that the site would have a rather special atmosphere at night. Definitely something to consider for another visit.

Saline Royale -Arc-et-Sénans:

lundi 21 mai 2012

Fondremand and its Mill

Fondremand is a beautiful, well-preserved historic village in Franche-Comté which has received accreditation under the Petites cités de caractère label. Thanks to Nadine, a teaching colleague of Corinne with whom I stayed near Besançon, I was able to visit this charming village of less than 200 inhabitants.

I have visited lots of villages in France but this was the first time that I was able to wander around such a pretty place and not encounter another tourist. Nadine indulgently smiled as I marvelled at each of the historic buildings dating back to the 13th century. For someone like me who comes from a country which was 'discovered' less than 250 years ago it is pretty mind-blowing to see such old buildings being actively used and occupied.

I was privileged to visit the mill restored by Claudie, an ex-teacher colleague, and who now works as a miller. She explained about the heavy work involved making wholemeal flour and walnut oil using traditional methods. She added it really is men's work because of its physical nature. The mill had passed into disuse for a period of 120 years but then Claudie who researched the history of the mill came to the rescue and over a period of 18 years restored it to working condition. The 850 kg stone for the mill came from Marnay and now is central to her work. It is intense work with 8kg of walnuts producing a little more than 3 litres of oil over a 4 hour period. Certainly not a job for everyone. The oil and flour are sold at the mill. You won't find them in the shops. I understand that the flour which is a mixture of rye, wheat and buckwheat, is ideal for making crêpes. If only I cooked! Unfortunately the day that I visited Claudie was busy mowing the lawn and preparing for the exhibitions and demonstrations she was having that weekend so I was unable to see the mill in operation, but nevertheless, I could imagine the work that she put into it and the difficult conditions she worked under.

Moulin de Fondremand, 70190, FONDREMAND
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