Monday, May 29, 2017

Back to Paris

Up early again - what is going on with this - as we need to leave by 8:00am for Paris to meet our airbnb host at 12:15. All goes well between the GPS and the maps, until we hit the Peripherique and traffic backs up. We miss the 12:15 meeting, I text her, and she is nearby so we can be a bit late.This is the hairy part, as we need to find a parking space nearby so we can unload, which amazingly, we did. All bags upstairs, short briefing on the place which is lovely, and we're ready to go. We go to the place that makes Parisian street signs, only to find they have moved (why did I not call ahead?), and then very hungry, try several paces where the mangez is no longer possible. At last, we try the Crepe place I heard so much about, but once again - third time - it is closed. We give up, and go to the same place I went to last time the crepe place was closed, near the old market, We have large salads and a drink, and feel much better.

We walk over toward Notre-Dame and spend a little time inside, listening to the organist warm up, absorbing all the incredible beauty in this one building. I think a lot of the tourists may be here juts to cool off, but with so many people here it is not as cool as some other churches. We then walk across the bridge on the Left Bank, and over to rue Mouffetard to do some food shopping. However, we find that rue Mouufetard is mostly clothing shops and restaurants now, with only a few food specialty shops at the end o the street, and those closed because it is Monday. We navigate some items at Franprix and get a few peaches at the one place that is open, and head back to the apartment to unload.

This evening, we are seeing Alexandra and her sons Antoine, Louise, and Benoit for dinner. It is wonderful to see them again. Alexandra looks quite chic with her new short haircut. Antoine has a beard now and is 19, studying business. Louis is 6, interested in medieval literature, and Benoit is 12 and trying to keep up with all the English. hey are really wonderful boys, very well-behaved and interesting to talk to. I tell Alexandra she has done a great job with them, which is true. After an interesting amuse-bouche (pea purée in a hard-cooked eggshell), I get a terrine which I split with Barney, and then about the best piece of salmon I have had anywhere in France, delicious and succulent. Dessert is the Baba au rhum for which the restaurant is famous (Au Bain Coin). Everyone enjoys this, and finally we say farewell, in Kong the younger baby's to come to California sometime for summer intensives.

Walking back to the apartment, finally it cools off a little, it is so nice to be relaxed and without a schedule. Time to catch up on the blog.

A Relaxing Sunday

Because of the long holiday weekend, Thierry and Nathalie told us that the return to Paris on Sunday would be "black," even worse than red, perhaps double the time we had planned. So we decide to stay an extra day, change our dinner with Alexandra and our airbnb and car rental, and spend a lovely relaxing day in Échiré. First we go to see Benjamin who is playing in a football (soccer) tournament that day, 6-8 15-minute games in sweltering heat. Kids are amazing to handle all this. Watching them brings back memories of Madeleine's soccer days and Barney's coaching. We go back to the house, eat a simple salad lunch, and then Benjamin comes home later, his team finished 8th of 16, and he had a nice trophy. I do some laundry - it dries almost immediately outside on the laundry line - and just hang out and relax.

Then we walk to a local park for some pétanque, and tings get serious very quickly, Benjamin in squire competitive, and Margaux is not thrilled when she loses a point , so the whole thing is quite interesting. I even played a bit during out US vs. France team thing, and of course we lost. This makes we want to do this at home even more. Then Nathalie makes a lovely dinner, radishes and pate, then a seafood salad, and the leftover chocolate mousse and creme Brûlée from the first night we were here. We eat outside on the front porch at the table, and it is quite nice. After such a lovely weekend, we pack up and prepare to depart early the next day.

Bordeaux!

Another early morning, up at 6:00am so we can leave right at 7:00am for a a secret "adventure" that Nathalie and Thiery have planned for us, but they won't tell us what it is. We roll out at 7:00am, and they tell us we are driving to Bordeaux, about 2 hours away, for a 9:30 appointment. It is a lovely drive through the countryside, and we arrive at the outer borders of Bordeaux, where there are parking lots and a very cool tram system that takes you into town (so there can be fewer cars in town). The 5 Euros for parking gives you unlimited riding on the tram all day for all people in your car, which is a great deal.

We go to the Palais de Justice, which is both an old traditional building and a new and somewhat odd one, with cone-like wooden structures enclosing the courtrooms. The group is led by a virbrant women who speaks only French, I understand some of what she says, and Nathalie does some translation. A young man who I think is her son is doing a video of the tour.

Our first stop is a wonderful gourmet boulangerie and patisserie, call Koin (a play on coin, as it is on the corner), owner by a man who used to be an architect. They take us down in the basement to see the Owens and pastry-making areas, which are large and have a lot of flour on the floor. The young baker, who started when he was 16, gives us details on how they approach their breads. Upstairs, they have set up a table for the group, and we get to taste three breads and two pastries. One bread is the young baker's own creation, a yellowish bread with bits of corn and papaya in it, which is good, a moderate whole wheat which is nice, and then a darker multi-seed bread which is delicious. They serve these with plenty of butter and strawberry jam that the woman who leads the tour made herself. Of course the croissant has a delicate crust and the pain au chocolate is terrific, Barney tells me.

We walk to our next stop, a shop founded in 1838 for traditional products of the region. There we taste a Dillon and rillette of duck liver, with the rillette being a bit more flavor awful and spicy, we are told, because it has less fat. We buy some of this, as well as a jar of the salted caramel sauce which we also taste. They serve a young local wine with the rillette, which is nice

Then on to La Dune Balance, named after the white sand dunes somewhere nearby (I did not get all of this) where they invented this extraordinary creme-filled puff that absolutely melts in your mouth.We each have one, the eyes close, the oohs and says comefrom everyone, and this is the lovely ending to our tour.
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We then walked around, following a path in the tourism map, though the old part of town, sa the Saint-Andre cathedral, and went to the waterfront, where a large group of 0' sloops were gathered for a race that would begin in a few days. MAIF, Theirry and Nathalie's employer, sponsors a boat in the race, and their virtual reality booth has a system that they had brought to the office one day as well.

It is very hot - almost 96 degrees - and we head over to the "water mirror" a think layer of water near the waterfront, from which come spurts of mist and burbles of water from time to time.This is very popular with children, and some adults, and we enjoy watching the reactions of the children when the water spurts up.

We continue our walk, decide we are getting hungry, and found a place with a large variety of main dish salads, just the thing for a hot day. We each get a different salad, so nice and cool and delicious.  We continue out]r walk, and I feel so tired and hot, at one point I saw "I wish I could lay down in the grass somewhere and sleep for a few minutes". And lo and behold, we find a little park in the middle of everything, with a small pond, and Thierry, Barney and I laid down for a nap on the grass (while Nathalie went to St. Catherine Street, the big shopping street) to look around. This was the very first time I have ever slept in a park and it felt so wonderful!


We continue out we all,and I am concerned about Barney getting sunburned, so I buy him a nice gray tweed-y looking cotton hat with a discreet Bordeaux sign on it. We stop at a tea shop for cool drinks, which helped cool us down, because there is really nothing else you can do when it is 96 degrees out, but then leaving brought all the heat back - the high was 96 that day around 5pm.
As we continued our walk, we found another plaza  and get some delicious ice cream and walk around a bit. We sat for about half an hour by the Place de la Bourse, people watching and waiting for it to cool off.

Dinner was at 7:30 at  the Brasserie Bordelaise, with delicious food and quite a huge array of wines. Fully sated with charcuterie, lamb and duck, we roll back to the car on the tram and head for Echire. Thierry was nice enough to drive home while we are all quite sleepy, and we did indeed sleep well that night. What a lovely adventure with our friends!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Abbey and Échiré

We're up be ry early, pack everything, and head out to a quick breakfast. The shuttle is slow, so we decide to walk to the Mont, a beautiful way to approach, which takes about 30 minutes. We head straight to the Abbey, which already has a long line, and slowly wind our way through until we ascend the grand staircase - more stairs! Each room of the Abbey is more spectacular than the last, beautifully proportioned, brilliantly engineered in this difficult site, most of the rooms are plain stone, the colors long ago erased, but at least this was not too damaged after the revolution. In several locations we have incredible views, which are both intimidating and thrilling. At the end, we exit through the beautiful gardens with stunning views of the ocean, and head down the main rue, which is now thronged with people as the day heats up. I am very glad we followed Madeleine's advice and came last night and early this morning.

A little shopping at the magazine next to the hotel (Mont St-Michel beer for Thierry, caramels for the children), and we are off for the long drive to Échiré. With only a few detours and a short stop for a picnic lunch, we arrive about 5:00pm. Nathalie looks as gorgeous as ever, Thierry the same, and the children are so tall now and so beautiful! Of course a lovely long dinner follows, salami and fois gras, then a duck shepherd's pie, quite delicious, with salad, the three delicious local cheeses, and then chocolate mouse and créme brulée. We can't even finish the desserts, and we stay awake late talking. It is so nice to see them again.

On to Mont St-Michel

We pack up this morning, get some fresh bread, pack and load, and we're off to Mont St-Michel. But first,we head up to Longues-sur-Mere, one of the large German batteries, which is just a short distance from Bayeux. We head up through the beautiful countryside, and park in the lot, then head out on foot. These were the largest of the German batteries, with 15mm guns, protected by tons of concrete and steel. On the heights of Longues, they had a full view of the whole area, so this was a fearsome place of defense. The Allied bombings did finally destroy one battery, but the others were preserved with their huge guns. We walk along the trail, and see munitions storage underground, as well as a well-hidden lookout. It is no wonder the Germans held out here a while.

Then we're off to Mont St-Michel, about 90 minute drive through the beautiful countryside of Normandy, lots of cows and sheep and pitcuresque small villages. We stop at an aire for our picnic lunch, and this place has an automated bread machine which is kept restocked 24 hours a day, amazing. We arrive to the tiny village (about 50 people live there full-time) and find the Hotel Vert. It is a bit nicer than Motel 6, not quite as nice as a Holiday Inn, but very serviceable for our purposes. It is very warm here, so we unload, fill our water bottles and take a snack to head for the shuttle bus.

The drive is short, and in a few minutes the amazing Mont St- Michel comes into view, floating above the water. We stop in the tourism bureau for a map, learn that the tide is coming in, and head to the ramparts to watch. It is truly impressive to see the water coming in, mixing with the flow of the river, like the potato patch of the Golden Gate. We also scoped out a good place to watch the sunset. Because of Ascension, a holiday in France, many places we saw along the way were closed (this also became a long holiday weekend for the French) and the Abbey closed early. So we explore the rest of the island, climbing many, many stairs, around each turn another breathtaking view of the area around Mont St-Michel. Around 7:30 we look for the Cafe Mére Poulard, and go up to the lovely terrace for dinner. It is so hot still we are not that hungry, so I get moules mariniere and Barney gets a nice lamb casserole, both with wine and dessert. Then we walk back to the place we scoped out for the sunset, which is about 20 minutes away. Others figured that this is also a good place, but we hold our spot to take photos of the sunset. As the sun slips lower and gets redder, more as more people gather, and we take some final dramatic photos before we head back. The high tide was at about e8pm, so only the upper edge of the entry way is dry. We head out, are lucky to get on a shuttle, and go to bed so we can wake up early.


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Sobering Reality of Omaha Beach

Today was our day to explore Omaha Beach, the second of the American D-Day invasion areas. Now that I understand how the guide works, and Barney highlighted the key places he wants to go, we should have a smoother day (and not so late). We head out for St Come du Mont, the start of this itinerary, and go to Carentan, one of the major areas of fighting in the Battle of Normandy, what happened after D-Day. Our next stop is Isigny-sur-Mer, which was a bustling town and had a market in the square. The open air grill is irresistible, and we get a homemade sausage and some fries to go, which were delicious. We then walked by the church, which had been party destroyed in the war. The stained glass windows had been replaced by single-color faceted glass, so the light shone through to the Gothic columns and made each one look a different color.

We continue on to la Cambe,a small village which houses the German cemetery. It is an interesting contracts to the British cemetery we saw yesterday which was calm and orderly in crisp, British sort of way. The German cemetery is all dark: dark reddish-brown headstones (2-4 people to a headstone), massed around a series of black stone crosses, dotted by huge dark led oak trees, and with a dark statue of a couple mourning their lost son at the top of the mound where the unknown soldiers are buried. The German cemetery says "remorse"while the British one says "we will carry on."

On to Omaha Beach at its easternmost end. We first go to the Musée Omaha Beach, filled with actual. Items used by both sides during the war, and with German defensive boxes, American weapons and a Mulberry (temporary) roadway section nearby. We walk down to the beach, which is huge in its breadth, and at low tide, very similar to the way it was on D-Day. The expanse between the waterline and the cliff seems enormous ... it must have been terrifying to leave the transports, throw yourself into the water, and walk into a hail of machine gun fire.  Back on the shore, there is a National Guard monument built over a German bunker, these huge constructions with tons of concrete and steel in them.

Nearby at Ruquet, we climb up a small hill to another bunker, and it is easy to see how the German gunners had a wide view of the beach and the men below. It is a miracle that any of them made it through. The bombers missed their targets, the Hugh seas swamped the tanks and their equipment, men weighted down by equipment could barely get to shore .... so many things went wrong it is hard to believe that they actually won this.

On to the Omaha Beach Memorial Museum, which has some excellent exhibits on events of the days before and during and after D-Day. It is surprising how much materials has survived intact, and we learn that even today occasionally things wash up on shore. The film at this museum about the D-Day campaign is very informative and moving ... the actual footage of the day shows some of the devastating impacts on the early forces ashore. They also had some great exhibits on the engineers who helped clear the beaches, and how they quickly turned it into a massive port for bringing in millions of tons of materials and thousands more men, with the Mulberry temporary bridges and ports, truly an engineering feat. It was sobering to see the photos of the day with the beach littered with bodies that they had not yet been able to clear. So many lives lost at all the beaches, but this one was the worst ... the small town of Bedford, Virginia lost 23 men in the D-Day campaign, of the 35 who had enlisted, a whole generation of young men lost.

Finally, we go to the American Cemetery in Saint Laurent. It is huge, planted with trees and shrubs imported from the US, an enormous expanse of crosses. We arrive just as they are taking down the flag for the day, and they play taps. It is an emotional moment, and everyone there stops in their tracks and listens. In contrast to the German and the British cemeteries, the American cemetery says power, that "we have lost precious people but we are triumphant." The huge expanse overlooks the beach and the ocean, a lovely setting for the sadness of these graves.

Back to Bayeux for our appointment with Jerome and Sebastien. As tonight is the night before Ascension, which is a French holiday, Sebastien will be ringing the bells at 7:00pm, and they have invite us to watch. We enter the Cathedral as they are closing up for the night, and climb a few hundred stone stairs in a spiral staircase, to what feels like a rickety wooden structure and then we see the bells.  There are four medium size heels in the south tower where we are, and two large ones in the north tower where Sebastien is. He operates them by motors which power the swinging of the bells. And the sound is deafening. Jerome warns us to cover our ears and he is right. After the thrilling ringing of the bells, he takes us out on the roof of the side nave, where we can see up close the gargoyle and other decorative elements of the cathedral, some which have Ben recently restored. We carefully wind our way down the steps, and I ask if I can sing for them. I do the Fauré "Pie Jesu" but this time singing full out, and it feels so good to sing out, like my voice is back!

We offer to takeout Jerome and Sebastien for dinner o thank them for the tour, they demur, but finally agree, and we have a lovely Franglish dinner. At the end, we walk back to the Cathedral, and they let us in to the cathedral library, which dates for the time of Louise XIV, bit someone how not destroyed in the revolution. It is filled top to bottom hit prices books, all temperature and humidity controlled, wood-panels with Latin inscriptions of the sections of books on the wall. My recent experience at Bancroft Library taught me a little about special collections like this, so we touch nothing but only look at some amazing pieces. Our eyes filled with the wonders we'e seen and our ears with the sound of the bells, we go off happily to rest and get ready to travel to MOnt St-Michel tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Serenity of Bayeux

Today we decide to stay in Bayeux, a bit of an antidote to all the driving and the intensity of the beaches yesterday. But first, time to re supply ...we go out in search of groceries, after failing to find an open grocery last night at 8pm. At the end of the block is a small grocery where we get yogurt, milk, cheese, apples, and cookies. Across the street, we go to a cave with all sorts of alcoholic specialties, and get a large Calvados and a small sampler to take home. After depositing the groceries, we go off the the Bayeux Tapestry Museum, a few short blocks away. e go around the back side f the cathedral ... it is beautiful from every angle, and we can see it just as we step out the front door of the place we're staying.

We enter - it is not too crowded - and get the audio guide which is included. And wow. No photo can do this tapestry justice. It is actually an embroidery on linen, 70 meters long (about 200 feet) filled with stories and  people and horses fairly bursting out of the fabric. This work is simply stunning, and like nothing else you'll see ... telling the story of William the Conquerer and how Harald's betrayal led him to invade England and then become its king. The time and creativity required to make this piece is unimaginable. The tapestry is hung in a long oval, and the recorded audio guide gives you the story as you go along, I recommend going through once with the audio guide,and then going again without it to see all the things you missed the first time. The exhibits on the second floor provide great context for the era, William and Harold, a replica of the boat they sailed in, details on embroidery of the time, and the aftermath of the invasion. We both found this place quite inspiring. Across the street are two wonderful shops, one with all kinds of fabrics and memorabilia with images of Normandy and her own designs of  Poppies which are quite lovely. Poppies,of course, became a symbol of veterans during the First World War, based on the poem "In Flanders Fields," and they are all over items here, but hers are the most attractive. I find a lovely tote bag, made here in France of unique fabrics. Another nearby store sells beautiful embroidery kits of the Bayeux tapestry and more. I fantasize about having the time to do embroidery, and decide that if I buy the kit I will be more motivated to do embroidery, which I do find quite relaxing.

Off to lunch ... at La Moulin de la Galette, a block away. It is lovely outside today, so we sit outdoors at a table shaded by a tree, next to the small river that runs through the town, and turns a nearby mill wheel. Barney orders a nice main salad with Camembert on toast and tomatoes, olives, pine nuts, chicken, pesto, and lots of nice lettuce. We've both been a little salad starved here, it has been heavy on the protein and carbs, so having this was great. I have a delicious galette with egg, chicken, caramelized onion, and Gorgonzola cheese, and we trade halfway through. There's plenty of interesting people watching here, and lots of folks walking dogs along the other side of the river, which makes me miss Atlas a little.

We still have a bit of shopping to do, so back to the Main Street to get bread, eggs,lettuce and tomatoes, and two small quiches for a dinner at the gite. The off to the other big musuem in Bayeux, the Musuem of the Battle of Normandy, which traces the whole nearly three-month battle starting with D-Day until the whole northwestern part of France was liberated. Bayeux was the first town liberated (others were villages) and De Gaulle landed on the Gold Beach and came here to proclaim the restoration of the French Republic and the provisional government. There were photos of him walking alongside Montgomery, and De Gaulle is a full head taller than Montgomery, which surprised me, I did not realize he was so tall. There was much more that happened after D-Day, as the troops fought through the hedgerows, tried three times to take Caen, swept up to Cherbourg and rebuilt the port within days, and joined up with Patton's Army to begin to march toward Paris. A very educational afternoon. Afterwards, we walk over to the British cemetery- 4,000+ urged here - and the memorial to the unknown soldiers and those for whom no remain were recovered. These memorials and cemetery are are the first we've seen since arriving in Normandy, and they are quite moving.

A nice walk back to the gite, and dinner out in the garden ... heavenly. Tarama and Chabicou with local cidre as we listen to the fat bumblebees nearby. All of the flowers are in bloom and the garden is gorgeous. I think that their garden is about the size of our entire lot. We have the quiches, and I make a nice salad with the lettuce we bought, as the sun starts to move down the sky and the birds are singing. Eventually, we go back in the house, typing notes and writing cards, and Howe at 10:15, there is still light outside. A truly lovely day.