Amsterdam A to Zed OR 26 reasons to visit Amsterdam

Clay Doyle moved from Los Angeles to Amsterdam in 1998, intending to stay a year. He is still there. Here are some of the reasons why..

Red Tulips

A is for Ambassade

The worst thing about living in Amsterdam is that I have no longer have a reason to stay at the Ambassade—one of my favorite small hotels anywhere. It’s made up of a row of 17th century canal houses and fairly oozes with charm. If the Ambassade is booked, try one of the many other small canal house hotels that dot the city center–a more romantic choice than the ubiquitous chains.

B is for Bicycle

You just have to ride a bicycle—it’s by far the quickest, easiest way around the city. It may look intimidating at first, but once on a bike you have the advantage as bicycles have the right-of-way. Rent one from Frederic Rent-a-Bike—their bikes don’t have any annoying logos that label you as a tourist.

Bicycle Reflections

C is for Canal

It’s all about the canals—they are the city’s greatest monument. Canals embody the history, planning, and character of Amsterdam—and they are beautiful. Rent a motorboat and see the city from the water; a cheesy rondvaart tour can be fun too, but choose a boat with an open-air deck.


D is for Darkrooms

Admit it, you want a little tryst with a local on your holiday, and what darkrooms lack in romance, they make up in efficiency. The Eagle has the nicest space, and the Web is the friendliest, but there are plenty to explore. Make sure you buy a drink upon entering a bar with a darkroom though–it’s considered the price of admission.

E is for English

A foreign country where everyone speaks English–It’s almost as if it were a holiday spot designed for Americans. And we’re not talking basics here–your new Dutch acquaintances will eagerly engage you in discussions of politics, culture, and travel. And they are far easier to understand than the English!

F is for Film Museum

Catch a great film in one of the three small, comfortable screening rooms at the Nederlands Film Museum. Every day brings something different—from American classics to French new wave to communist-era East European musicals. Many programs are in English. Located in the Vondelpark, the museum has a lively café as well.

G is for Gay Capital of Europe

Paris has more men, London more clubs, and Berlin has more sex, so why is Amsterdam Europe’s gay capitol? Perhaps it is the lack of ghettoization—you’ll find plenty of gays anywhere you go. And the compact city center makes bar-and-club hopping effortless—nothing is more than a 15 minute stroll away.

H is for homomonument (and gay rights)

The netherlands was the first country to erect a monument to gay victims of the holocaust and homosexual oppression. I like the monument, but I like even more The Netherlands commitment to respect and equal rights for gays, including most recently, full marriage rights for same-sex couples.


I is for Itinerary

The charm of Amsterdam is that there’s enough in the way of culture to keep you busy, but not so many sights that you feel compelled to run from place to place all day long. The Van Gogh museum and Rijksmuseum are must-see destinations; the Stadelijk (modern art) and the Amsterdam Historical Museum often have interesting temporary shows. Check out the Royal Palace and the several canal house museums–the Van Loon, the Willetholthuysen and the Amstelkring. Go to the Anne Frank house late in the day to miss the crowds. Feeling energetic? Climb to the top of the Westertoren for a superb view of the city.

Rode Klompen

J is for De Jaren

De Jaren is everybody’s favorite grand café and why not—the terrace on the Amstel River is one of the prettiest spots in town. The tomato soup is fantastic, and though the service can be chaotic, the waiters are cute. Second best canal side cafe: Spanjer and van Twist.

Cafe de Jaren

K is for Keukenhof

It’s not hip or trendy, but what could be more Dutch than tulips, and the Keukenhof is THE place to see them. It is one of the most beautiful gardens anywhere. A short train ride from the city, the Keukenhof is open March through May only.


L is for the light in summer

The summer days are amazing. Daylight lasts late into the evening, ensuring plenty of time for exploring, strolling, and sitting in cafes. Then watch the sun set as you enjoy a magical late dinner outdoors. The canal side tables at the Belhamel are too romantic.

Light in the Summer

M is for marijuana (of course!)

Contrary to it’s well-publicized image as a drug mecca, there are probably more stoners in San Francisco than Amsterdam. But there’s something about getting high in a pleasant sidewalk café—it’s just so civilized. The Belmondo on the Nieuwmarkt, the Kandinsky and Dutch Flowers in the Negen Straatjes and the gay coffeeshop The Other Side are laid back and friendly choices. Best to avoid the tourist traps around central station and the Leidseplien.

N is for Negen Straatjes

This is my neighborhood, the “nine little streets” between the Singel and the Prinsengracht. This 17th century district is home to numerous interesting and unique shops and pleasant cafes. Treat yourself to a stylish wallet from designer Hester van Eigen, an erotic woodcut from local artist Eddy Varekamp or a new outfit from the gay boutique Nieuwe Kledding van de Keizer.

Negen Straatjes

O is for Out all night

Dance with the circuit boys at Salvation or the revamped IT. Alternative boys flock to de Trut and locals love the COC and the Montmartre. Trendy boys pose at the Arc, the Soho and the Exit. Sleazy bars can be found on Warmoesstraat, and neighborhood places along the Amstel. Everyone seems to end up at the Cockring eventually and before you know it, it’s 5 am.

P is for the pace of life

New Yorkers may pride themselves on how busy they are, but Amsterdammers make time to enjoy life, and you should do the same—linger over a coffee, spend three hours at dinner, sit in the sun. Once the work day is over, the pace of life is leisurely and relaxed. Enjoy it—and don’t expect speedy service in shops or restaurants, it just doesn’t happen.

Q is for Queen’s Day

It’s Amsterdam’s most festive holiday—a 24 hour celebration in honor of the Queen’s birthday. The party starts the night of 29 April as revelers pack the bars (gay and straight) until the early morning hours. On Queensday, the 30th, the city becomes a giant flea market, a stage for myriad performances, and a citywide street party—cars, taxis and even trams are banned from the city center. The Vondelpark is devoted to children selling toys and performing; it’s charming and worth a morning visit. There are plenty of Gay parties too—gays throng the Westermarkt, the Amstel, and the Reguliersdwaarstraat, for performances, cruising, and of course, beer.

Egg Boy - by Patrik Noome

R is for Romance

Avoiding Amsterdam because you aren’t interested in a sex holiday? You’ve got the man of your dreams? Amsterdam is a great place to be in love. Stroll hand in hand down romantic canals, have a long, delicious dinner at Borderwijk, paddle through the canals together in a canal bike, give your significant other a kiss on a bridge—no one will mind.

S is for Schipol

Bright and calm, well designed and well organized, Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport takes some of the pain out of flying in these trying times. Plus, the a train station inside the airport makes getting to the center of town quick, effortless and cheap!


T is for Tourists

With a population of only 750,000 (even if well over ten percent are gay) visitors to the city make up a sizable portion of those out on the town, providing an interesting, international mix. Tourists are vital to the gay scene in Amsterdam, so do your part and visit!

U is for Utrechtsedwarstafel

This is one of my favorite restaurants for a splurge–owners Hans and Igor always dazzle my guests with some fabulous new creation. It’s one of a number of small uniquely Dutch restaurants where chef decides what you will eat, based on the availability of the market. More moderately priced versions of this concept can be enjoyed at my other favorites Balthazar’s Keuken and Helder.

V is for Vondelpark

What’s not to love? This beautiful and expansive city park is also Amsterdam’s favorite people watching spot. Rent some rollerblades or have a drink at the 30’s moderne Blauw Teehuis, or join the shirtless gayboys for an afternoon of sun on the lawn at the rose garden.


W is for the Weather

Nobody comes to Amsterdam for the weather—but really it’s not that bad. Spring and Fall are beautiful, the Summer is never too hot, and Winter’s not as cold as new york. Yes it’s rainy—it’s the locals’ number one topic of complaint–but the sunny days are glorious.

X is for x-rated

Amsterdam’s century old red-light district is the Disneyland of sleaze. Gaudy but totally non-threatening, lingerie-clad ladies sit in the red-lit windows of cute 16th century houses on some of the city’s oldest canals. The real show is watching the crowds of stoned and gawking tourists; grab a seat in in the window of the popular gay bar Casa Maria for a ringside view.

IJ is for IJ

IJ (say eye) is a letter unique to the Dutch language. A brief review of Dutch pronunciation (all those funny double vowels are easier than they look) will help in reading street signs, and your slight effort will endear you to the locals. Plus, you’ll be able to order a delicious rijstafel at Kantjil en de Tijger.


Z is for Zeedijk

One of the oldest streets in Amsterdam, the Zeedijk is the city’s newest “gay” street. Sometimes very low-key, sometimes very festive, the bars here–the Cock and Feathers, the Barderij, and especially the Queenshead are worth checking out. Finally, the Nieuwmarkt square, at the southern end of the Zeedijk, is a favorite for its outdoor cafes.

Article by Clay Doyle,

Photos by Clay Doyle and Michael Logan (except Queensday Photo by Patrik Noome)

{Published in Next Magazine, New York City, April 11, 2003}

The List

Favorite Hotels


Herengracht 341;


fax +31-20/624-5321;


Seven Bridges

Reguliersgracht 31



Café Nielsen

Berenstraat 19;


Café De Jaren

Nieuwe Doelenstraat 20


Spanjer & Van Twist

Leliegracht 60


Le Soleil

Best place in town for Dutch pancakes!

Nieuwe Spiegelstraat 56

(31 20) 622-7147


De Belhamel

Brouwersgracht 60


Hemelse Modder

Gay owned, stylish, good food!

Oude Waal 9



Noordermarkt 8;



Utrechtsedwarsstraat 107-109;



Taksteeg 7

+31 20 320 41 32

Fax +31 20 320 41 32

Balthazar’s keuken

Elandsgracht 108, Amsterdam

+31 20 420 21 14

Kantjil en de Tijger

Spuistraat 291/293

+31 20  620 09 94

Fax (020) 623 21 6



Reguliersdwarsstraat 44



Reguliersdwarsstraat 37



Reguliersdwarsstraat 36



Halvemaansteeg 17


Amstel Taveerne Amstel 54


Casa Maria

Warmoesstraat 60



COC Friday Night Disco (

Rozenstraat 14


Fri 11pm-4am

de Trut

Bilderdijkstraat 165

+31-20/612-3524 S

Sun 11pm-4am, doors open at 11pm


Warmoesstraat 96



Amstelstraat 24

+31 20 489-7285

Sat 11am-6 am


The Web

From 4pm til Midnight!

Sint Jacobsteeg 6


The Eagle

From midnight to 4 am

Warmoesstraat 90



The Other Side

Reguliersdwarsstraat 6



Rosmarijnsteeg 9



A Bigger Splash

The city’s gayest gym is also clean, well staffed and well equiped.

Looiersgracht 26-30;


day passes available

Thermos Day Sauna

For a different sort of work out!

Raamstraat 33


Eddy Varekamp

30 Hartenstraat

1016 CC Amsterdam

tel. 31 20

Open Saturdays 1-6pm

Frédéric Bike Rentals

Brouwersgracht 78


Friday, April 11, 2003

Tuscan Food and Wine

With an emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients and straightforward preparations, it is no wonder that Tuscan food has become a favorite around the world. Still, there is nothing like a trip to the source, and Tuscan food in Tuscany offers both familiar favorites and delicious dishes and ingredients not often seen in America. Best of all, food and wine in Tuscany is not only great, it can also be a great bargain—even in the most touristy areas.

The ultimate meal in Tuscany is Sunday lunch, and the ultimate Sunday lunch is the justly famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina—a two-inch-thick slab of beef cooked on a wood fire. This is possibly the best steak in the world, and strangely impossible to recreate outside of Tuscany. Order it at Casa al Chino (53037 San Gimignano; +0577/946022; fax +0577/946045; $8-20), an unpretentious farm restaurant in the hilly fields seven kilometers west of San Gimignano—by far and away the best place to eat near this touristy town. Start with very traditional antipasti—the crostini with chicken liver (rather like a New York chopped liver) or an assortment of cured meats. Sample the pastas, as all are good and you can share an assortment of three among the table. Then have the bistecca—though served for two persons, it can easily feed three. Skip the lackluster desserts though, and have a justly famous italian gelato later. Sunday lunch draws a festive crowd that ranges from stylish young couples to extended families with children and grandparents, but it’s a good choice for lunch or dinner any day.

Only a few restaurants serve the bistecca, but within central Florence, the lively Baldovino (Piazza Santa Croce; +055/234-7220; $10-30) offers a huge version as well as fantastic homemade pastas (try the pear and ricotta ravioli) and not to be missed desserts. The atmosphere is lively and informal.

In Siena, head for the tiny Osteria la Chiacchera (Costa di S. Antonio 4; +0577/280631; $6-9) on a steep and narrow alley by the San Domenico church. Run by a group of hip young Sienese, the atmosphere is fun (shared tables) and the food is excellent. Try the bici, a Sienese specialty that’s a thick spaghetti, and the daily specials. There’s a variety of tasty tarts to conclude your meal but, quirkily, no coffee.

In Lucca, the locals flock to the Trattoria da Leo (Via Tegrimi 1; +0583/492936; $5-8) for hearty traditional pastas and fantastic roasted meats. There’s always a lively crowd at this family-owned trattoria, drawn by the friendly staff and low prices. The nearby Giulio (Via delle Conce 45; +0583/55948; $6-9) is good choice for Lucchese specialties: try the white beans with tuna, the bread or emmer soups or the house-made maccheroni; you can skip the unexciting meat courses, but do have the traditional (and unusual) chard tart for dessert.

In Pisa, avoid the restaurants around the Duomo and its famous tower, and make the short walk into the little-visited center of this pretty university town. Have a traditional meal at the bustling Osteria dei Cavalieri (Via San Frediano 16; +050/580858; $8-12) or an elegant one at La Mescita (Via Cavalca 2; +050/544294; $10-18). The complex, original food here can be fabulous—when it works; the huge, reasonably priced wine list makes up for any excesses in the kitchen.

The best food can turn up in the most unlikely places. The hamlet of Meati, 4 km southwest of Lucca is no more than a handful of scattered buildings, and the Osteria di Meati (Meati; +0583/510373;$5-8) looks like little more than a roadside bar. But the welcome at this family restaurant is sincerely friendly and the food streaming out of the kitchen to the tables of stylish locals is unbelievably good. About half of the short menu consists of daily specials in season—mushrooms, game, tripe, eel. It’s hard to make a plate of beans topped with lard sound good, but it was amazing, as were the risotto, homemade pasta with a sauce of game birds, and the delicate meat courses duck, rabbit, and traditional, but far better than usual, dish of cinghiale (wild boar) with olives. One can hardly believe that four excellent courses and house wine cost only €20 Euros a person.

House wine is almost always quite drinkable. Nice Chianti’s, even with some age on them, are usually reasonably priced. Many excellent wines carry simply the label “Rosso” as winemakers are blending grapes in new and interesting ways; ask for recommendations. And if you want to drink a famous Montalcino or Montepulciano be prepared to pay—and don’t bother with one less than ten years old; these big reds need plenty of age. Do try the traditional dessert of cookies and a glass of Vin Santo.

Reservations are expected, and often essential, though they can often be made the same day. Meal times are rigid in Italy—do not make the mistake of thinking you can eat any old time. Plan to sit down to Lunch between 1 and 2:30 and dinner between 8 and 9:30. Go on the late side and you will have the advantage of seeing what the other diners are ordering; it’s often more informative than the menu.

By Clay Doyle {Published in Out & About, 2002}

THE RED and THE WHITE: A food and wine tour of Burgundy

One of France’s most famous wine regions, Burgundy features a picture-postcard landscape of vineyards, forests, fields, canals, medieval towns, and Romanesque monasteries; charming country inns; and of course, delicious food and wine. Easily accessible from Paris—and considerably less expensive than the French capital—Burgundy is ideal for a relaxing holiday or a romantic getaway.

The Red and The White

The Red: Beaune and the Côte d’Or

For many, Burgundy is synonymous with red wine. Red burgundies are made from pinot noir, but they will not be labeled with the grape variety, and only the least expensive will be labeled Burgundy. Most will carry the appellation of a specific, often tiny, area, such as Fixin, Mersault or Rully–the villages of the Côte d’Or, or golden hillsides—each with its own distinctive character. Many of the wineries—and there are many—offer tastings; unless you are a serious oenophile, it can be a bit hard to know where to begin. One of the best ways to experience different wines is with food—and the restaurants accommodate with a huge selection of the local product. Not surprisingly, the region’s delicious specialties are a perfect accompaniment to burgundy wines. Classic Burgundian dishes include escargot (snails in butter and garlic), jambon persillé (a terrine of ham and jellied parsley), the braised dishes of coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon, and meats (especially the famed Charolais beef) grilled over a wood fire. Beaune, the beautiful medieval town that is the spiritual center of Burgundy, boasts a selection of fine restaurants. Le Jardin des Remparts (10 Rue de l’Hôtel Dieu; +03/8024-7941; $18-25) may have Beaune’s best food, and the tables set within the walled garden of a manor house make an unbeatably romantic location. The smaller Le Bénaton (25 Faubourg Bretonnière; +03/8022-0026; $18-22) offers equally fine, creative food, if a less impressive location. Though it looks touristy, La Grilladine (19 Rue Maufoux; +03/8022-2236) around the corner from the Hotel Dieu, has good regional dishes, a great wine list, and pleasant tables along the sidewalk. There are also many country inns thoughout the region where you can eat—and drink—extraordinarily well for very little money by sticking to the menu du terrior, the regional specialties. A delicious example is the Auberge du Coteau in the tiny village of Villars-Fontaine (03/8061-1050; $8-10) near Nuits-Saint-Georges, where the meats are roasted in the dining room fireplace. And do have a Kir, the local aperitif, properly made with Bourgonge Aligote and locally produced créme de cassis.


The White: Chablis and the Yonne

Chablis, unlike Beaune, is just a village–one of many tiny, picturesque towns scattered about the quieter, less touristy, white wine region of the Yonne. Though the name Chablis has been appropriated (unfairly) by cheap wine producers around the world, the real thing is a distinctive, sophisticated dry chardonnay whose character none-the-less varies greatly with the style of the many individual producers. Start your tour of the wineries with a visit to Les Chablisienne (8 Boulevard Pasteur; +03/8642-8989) in Chablis, a wine cooperative with 280 members. In nearby Bailly you’ll also find the best of the sparkling, champange-like, Cremant du Bourgonge (the Yonne is adjacent Champagne). Try a glass while nibbling a Gougères, a little cheese puff that is a local favorite. Other regional specialties include Andouillettes (tripe sausages); Jambon Morvan ( a raw cured ham served in thick slices); soft cows-milk cheeses–famously Époisses, a smelly, runny cheese; and Chaources, a milder creamy cheese; Pain d’ Epices (gingerbread); and in springtime, fresh cherries and asparagus. Chef Michel Vignaud’s Hostellerie des Clos (Rue Jules-Rathier; +03/8642-1063; fax +03/8642-1711; $20-40), in Chablis, is the region’s best restaurant—it was created as a showcase for the local wines, and gourmet menus are excellently crafted to show them at their best. Everything is top quality, and set menus provide excellent value. A good choice for a less formal meal is the Auberge des Tilleuls (+03/8642-2214; $12-16) in Vincelottes, with al fresco dining at tables set along the picturesque river Yonne. Not to be missed is the tiny Le St. Bris (13 Rue d l’ Eglise; +03/8653-8456 $10-15) in the village of St. Bris le Vineux, where chef-owner Jean Francois Pouillot will prepare you a memorable meal of regional specialties. In addition, restaurants belonging to the Terrior de L’Yonne association are highly recommended.

Beyond Food and Wine

Of course you can’t eat and drink the whole day; but fortunately there is plenty to do between (or instead of) lunch and dinner. The gently rolling hills are popular with cyclists, and you can rent bikes for a few hours or a few days, with maps and itineraries provided: in Beaune at Bourgonge Randonnés (7, Avenue du 8 Septembre +03/8022-0603); and at the Chablis Tourist Office (1 Quai Biez; +03/8642-8080). Beaune itself has much of interest. Most famous of its historic sites is the Hôtel-Dieu, a beautifully restored medieval hospital complex. Also worth a seeing are the Romanesque church, Collégiale Notre-Dame, and the town ramparts and moat. The region was a center of the medieval monastic tradition—the powerful Cluniac and Cistercian orders were both founded here—and a wealth of surviving monasteries provides a fascinating glimpse into French history and architecture. Many of the still extant monastic sights are well worth visiting, and represent Burgundy’s main cultural attractions. The ruins of the Ancienne Abbaye de Cluny—once the largest church in christendom—give a glimpse of the power of this monastic order at its height, but the perfectly preserved church at Paray-le-Monial reveals the architectural style at its apex. Situated in an isolated valley halfway between Beaune and Chablis, the self-contained monastery of the Abbaye de Fontenay (nearest town: Marmagne) is remarkable for its completeness and tranquility. The pilgrimage church of Ste-Madeleine offers amazing views of the surrounding countryside from its location atop the picturesque, if touristy, hill town of Vézelay—as well as housing the reputed relics of Mary Magdalene. A personal favorite is the little visited Cistercian Abbaye of Pontigny, north of Chablis, for it’s tranquility and fine architecture.


Sleeping Around

The entire region is well provided with rooms in all price categories. For luxury accommodations, look to hotels belonging to to the association Châteaux & Hôtels de France( For simpler, and very reasonably priced, hotels, as well as restaurants with reliably good regional food, look to the inns belonging to the Logis de France( In Beaune, Le Cep (27 Rue Maufoux; +03/8022-3548) offers the towns most luxurious lodgings; the Hotel Du Poste (5, Boulevard Clémenceau; +03/8022-08 11; fax +03/8024-1971; and the Blue Marine (10-12 Boulevard Maréchal-Foch; +03/8024-0101) are also excellent full-service hotels. For a less expensive alternative, the Hotel Belle Epoque (15 Rue du Faubourg Bretonnière; +03/8024-6615; fax +03/8024-1749) offers very pleasant rooms in the town center, while the Hôtel Grillon (21 Route de Seurre, east; +03/8022-4425; fax +03/8024-9489) offers comfortable, bargiany rooms, a good restaurant and a rural ambiance, a few kilometers from the city center. In Chablis, theHostellerie des Clos (see above) offers pleasant and inexpensive rooms in the former convent that houses their luxury restaurant. Nearby, in the picturesque and tiny village of Cravant,L’Hostellerie Saint-Pierre (5 Rue de l’Église; +03/8642-3167;—owned and run by a gay couple—offers tasteful, comfortable rooms and a friendly welcome to gay visitors. Some hotels close during the winter months, and all will be at their busiest in August, and during the wine festivals in November.

Getting there, getting around

You’ll definitely need a car to explore the region. You can easily drive from Paris, or take the TGV (frequent connections from the Gare d’ Lyon) to Dijon and pick up a car at the station. All the major companies are represented; expect to pay about $200 for one week. The area is well served by major French autoroutes, but it is most enjoyable to travel the smaller, scenic, departmental roads. All roads are in perfect repair and well sign-posted, though a Michelin road map is indispensable. Be aware that you can never drive fast enough for the locals—let them pass!

The (limited) gay scene

You may want to schedule a few days in Paris if it’s nightlife you crave; if you can’t wait, the best option is the Sunday night only gay disco at L’An-fer (8 rue Marceau; +03/8070-0369) in Dijon. Dijon, a university town, also has two gay bars: Caveau de l’univers (47 Rue Berbisey; +03/8030-9829) and Le Phaune (4 bis, Rue de Serrigny; +03/8050-0169) as well as a gay sauna, Le Relax (97 Rue Berbisey; +03/8030-1440). Auxerre, a mid-size, lively town 20 minutes from Chablis, also features a gay sauna, Le KLS (21 Avenue de la Tournelle, 03/8642-7687).


More information is available on the internet at from the Burgundy Tourist Office(, the Chablis Tourist Office ( and theAssociation of Alsace, Burgundy and Champagne ( Gay listings are available online from the France Queer Resources Directory ( and the gay magazine Têtu, available throughout France, has excellent regional agendas. The Burgundyvolume of the Touring in Wine Country series offers the most comprehensive English guide to the region’s wineries and restaurants.

Article and Photos by Clay Doyle {Published in Out & About, October, 2002}

Cafe des Federations


While it may be France’s second-largest city, any Frenchmen will tell that Lyon is its country’s gastronomic capital.

No where else (in the world maybe) can you find such an appreciation for eating in such a grand, hearty, deliberate style as in Lyon. Vegetarians won’t find much to woo them on a traditional Lyonnaise menu. It’s all about meat; and much of it is all about organ meat—tripe, and the famous andouillette and Rosette and Jesus sausages (made from the intestinal bits of the hog)—which will be found in every eatery. Even the salads may come served with bacon and a poached egg on top (the classic salade Lyonnaise). But if you’re game for trying these local favorites, you won’t be sorry. They’re delicious!

The most traditional of Lyonnaise restaurants is the “bouchon”—a unique regional sort of bistro. You can’t leave Lyon without eating in at least one. Many vie for the title of the most perfectly typical, but the winner may be the splendid Cafe des Federations, a lively local institution that can’t have been redecorated since the ’50s. As soon as you arrive (and it’s a good idea to book ahead) the staff with begin filling your table with starters like the classic salade Lyonnaise, deep-fried pork skins, potatoes with bits of herring, a tray of cold-cut sliced sausage meats, and more. Wash it all down with a pot (a uniquely Lyonnaise unit of measure—about 2/3 the size of a usual wine bottle) of the local Beaujolais or Cote du Rhone. Then the jovial waiter will rattle off the evenings main course specials, all of which will be classics, like fish quennelles (a local dish, much like a large dumpling) or battered tripe. Be bold, ask your server for his recommendation, and prepare to be delighted. Then sit back, enjoy your wine and the festive atmosphere. English is spoken—sort of—but having some elementary grasp of French wouldn’t hurt. Expect a fun, festive night of it, surrounded by cheery locals.

Loire Valley Travelogue

A detailed account of my first delightful journey through France’s Loire Valley, accompanied by Michael Logan and Rufus…

Stained Glass Ghosts

Part One: From Reims to Berry

Although it is an area we had been interested in exploring for some time, the Loire trip happened almost by accident. Michael Logan was planning one of his periodic visits to us in Amsterdam, but found that airfares to Paris could be had at a substantial discount. He proposed taking the train to Amsterdam, but, at the same time our landlords were eager to do some renovations in our flat. Logan did not want to spend 10 days in Paris, so I proposed a trip through the Loire Valley. We would rent a car and drive down from Amsterdam. To avoid an extra drive into Paris, it was arranged that Logan would take a train from Paris and meet us in Reims, the capital of the Champagne country and a very pleasant small city that we all had some familiarity with.

Logan and I visited Reims in 1991 on a day-trip from Paris, visiting the Cathedral and the Veuve Cliquot cellars. Rufus and I spent two days there last summer as part of a driving tour through northeastern France.

We left Amsterdam mid-afternoon on July 10, planning on stopping somewhere along the way in Belgium. After an overnight stay in Leuven, a University town east of Brussels, we headed off, arriving in Reims by 12:30 on Friday afternoon. We deposited the car in what may be France’s best designed and most immaculately maintained underground car park, at the Place d’ Erlon in the center of town. We checked into the Hotel Crystal, a charming old ‘typically French’ hotel we had discovered on our last visit. We then staked out a strategic sidewalk table in café between the hotel and the train station and awaited Mr. Logan, who arrived from Paris about 2.

That afternoon, we took a tour of the Pommery cellars—they have a huge network of tunnels connecting ancient chalk pits that were originally excavated for building materials. It is one of the more impressive of the big champagne houses and they take visitors without advance reservations. In the early evening—still bright daylight in mid-June—we visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims, one of France’s most elegant Gothic Cathedrals, despite the damage of the first world war which laid waste to much of the city.

We had a good dinner the first night at Au Petit Comptoir, a place Rufus found in le guide du Routard Hotels et Restos de France. (This is an invaluable guide for travelling in France—especially smaller cities and towns. It lists good value, high-quality hotels, inns and restaurants in a variety of price ranges. This French guidebook has been translated and published in and English edition by the publishers of the Rough Guides. This book also led us to the Hotel Crystal, as well as a number of fabulous country inns.) I had a starter of four kinds of salmon; Rufus had a cold vegetable soup with a mustard ice-cream and Logan had foie gras. Logan and Rufus both had fish as a main course (monkfish and char) which both declared fantastic. I had a spit-roasted steak, which although it had a delicious charred crust and a great wine sauce and a little piece of marrow, was a ‘rump’ steak and just about the chewiest piece of meat I’ve ever eaten! As we were in Champagne, Logan ordered a really good one, a Krug grand cru, and then a Fixin from Beaune. I had a tasty chocolate cake with a warm center that I had to order at the beginning of the meal.

Saturday morning, we had a really good tour at Moët et Chandon in Epernay, with a college girl from New York as our guide! We had three glasses of three different champagnes in the tasting room at tour’s end. The 40 franc tour gets you one glass of the basic non-vintage brut—but we opted for the 65 franc tour. This admits you to the “special” tasting room where you are supposed to get to taste two of the vintage wines. (We’re nothing if not big spenders!) We had our two wines, and then because everyone got so chatty and friendly and enthusiastic, they poured us a third type. This was mostly due to an amusing couple from Philadelphia who now live in Brussels who gamely requested (our did they slyly insist?) they we be poured a third glass. There were also a couple people from the Netherlands. Finally they had to throw us all out. We had a simple lunch at a nearby brasserie and spent the whole afternoon driving around the Route du Champagne, past the fields and vineyards and through the charming little towns each with its miniature cathedral and dozens of small champagne houses.

It was nice to stay once again at the Hotel Crystal. Madame Jantet was not there on this visit. (It was she, the charming proprietress, who showed us room after room in this pleasant old-fashioned hotel on our visit last August.) The pleasant, rather younger, lady at the reception said that Madame now often spends the weekends visiting her son in Grenoble. I had to ask after her—Madame is quite elderly and I was glad to hear she is doing well. They are doing some renovations to the hotel—new bathrooms and carpets—but it still retains plenty of old-fashioned charm, with the open cage elevator running up the center of the staircase, and big French windows opening onto the courtyard. A very friendly welcome too, despite Madame’s absence. And all this for 290 francs a night. It’s amazing—and they even have Canal+ !!

We left Reims Sunday morning just before noon, after another visit to the cathedral during high mass. We drove south to Epernay , then further south thorough some very pretty Champagne country. We made the entire trip from Champagne to the Loire (near Sancerre) on two-lane roads through vineyards villages–a very pretty drive. It was a Sunday so it was very quiet everywhere. No farmers out and nothing open. We stopped for lunch—just before two—at a “Logis,” chosen at random (just because it was there, and we were there–in rural France, if you don’t eat lunch by two you don’t eat.) This was a hotel-restaurant called L’Auberge du Regain in a tiny village outside of Sens and it was fantastic. We have found that you can really depend on places in the French countryside that are members of the Logis de France organization. They display a green sign with a yellow fireplace on it and specialize in good (and good value) regional cuisine and, like this place, are often excellent. We had the four-course set menu—a huge lunch at a very reasonable price.

Starters were 12 escargot with puff pastry hats for Logan and melon with local ham for Rufus. I had an amazing house-made rillette in a little ceramic crock (no idea what all was in it). Then came a palate cleanser(!) a sorbet in some kind of liqueur. Then we all had lamb chops—just two each, very rare and very delicious and just the right amount when accompanied by potatoes gratin and potatoes fried with bacon and green beans. The next course was a slice of local cheese served with a small salad of greens and walnuts. Dessert was a really yummy lemon tart for me, ile flotant for Rufus, and a rhubarb tart for Logan. There were two gentlemen running the dining room, both very nice. All the other diners were locals out for their Sunday lunch. And although we ate inside there was also a pretty garden courtyard out back.

We drove on through the quiet and remote countryside into the Berry region, the easternmost edge of the Loire. Our Eyewitness Guide to the Loire describes Barry as “off the beaten track.” Our experiences here—the scarcity of other tourists and the emptiness of the roads would confirm this—though given the beauty of the area and the many things to see, I’m not sure why this is so.

Our stop that night was a magical introduction to the region and to the whole of the Loire Valley. We had reserved rooms at an historic chateau that also takes overnight guests. We had read about this one, the Chateau La Verrerie, in an article in Travel and Leisure—but as nice as the article made it seem, the reality of the place was breathtaking. After finding our way past a couple of very small villages, a road took us into deep countryside to a turn onto a private road with a gatehouse. And there, at the end of a long road, sitting in splendid isolation the edge of large lake, stood the ancient chateau.

Located on the easternmost edge of the Loire near the small village of Aubigny-sur-Nère, Château de La Verrerie is a gem. The chateau is quite magnificent and our suites were rather grand. The rooms were large and elegant. But also quirky—seeming very much like bedrooms in a grand manor house rather than hotel rooms. Most of the second floor is given over to large high-ceilinged guestrooms with expansive views, while the main floor contains the historic rooms and art treasures and the owners live in a wing connecting the main house and the chapel. Logan was in the Rose room and Rufus and I were in the Felix room. The chateau is mainly of a Renaissance style, with some bits of leftover Gothic—a grand Gothic private chapel and fortified front wall with gate. There’s a large lake to one side, and the fortified wall on the lakeside collapsed some time ago and was not rebuilt—affording the courtyard a magnificent view. Our nominal hosts are the Comte and Comtesse de Vogüé. Shortly after arriving, we thought we saw the count out strolling with his black Lab behind the family wing of the house. A very nice young woman greeted us on arrival and showed us our rooms—we were not sure if she is a member of the family or an employee.

We arrived about six and after settling in, we spent the early evening exploring the grounds. There are cottages, horses, a forest and incredible views of the chateau from everywhere you wander. We made, that evening and again the following morning, what was, even for us, a huge number of photographs.

We had our dinner at La Maison d’ Hélene, the little restaurant in a cottage on the chateau grounds. There we got a look at the other guests of the chateau. There were eight parties at dinner (including us) corresponding to eight cars parked in the court of the chateau, so all the diners would seem to be overnight guests. There are the two old ladies who Rufus has dubbed “the Miss Alans”, and older couple with a large dog under their table, a quite attractive young couple and, most intriguingly, an elderly one-armed Englishman accompanied by his younger (third ) wife? secretary? companion? Who can say? He seemed very eccentric and quite rich. He spoke to his companion about his time in “the Argentine.” The restaurant staff consisted of just one nice girl serving and one young man in the kitchen. The setting in an isolated country chateau and the choice assortment of characters prompted the question: “So, which one of them ends up murdered tonight?” You really can’t help feeling like you’re a character in a classic Gothic mystery as you wander the long and darkly handsome halls, and stroll the green and misty grounds. Alas, looking back, all the guests seemed to have survived. Not even a ghost disturbed our sleep.

For those of you interested in such things, the meal was quite good. I had very good foie gras and a tasty, very meaty duck breast. Rufus had foie gras and then pork with mushrooms—a bit bland he said. Logan had a terrine and then sweetbreads. The sweetbreads were not on the menu, but the restaurant prepared them especially for Logan because when Rufus made the reservation via fax he said that he hoped they would have sweetbreads because Logan was a big fan. He did this because the article in Travel & Leisure magazine (the article which prompted us to stay at the chateau) had made mention of the exceptional sweetbreads. However, on returning to our rooms after dinner, Rufus gave the article to Logan to read and it turns out that the exceptional sweetbreads were at another place entirely! Still, Logan said they were tasty. For dessert I had crème brulee (good) and Rufus and Logan had this chocolate tart, a cake with a warm liquid center that was just fantastic! To drink we had a Sancerre blanc and a Chinon rouge. We have apparently arrived just a few days too late for the white asparagus. It was listed on the menu but we were informed that the season was “finished.” Poor Logan missed the season by just days on both ends this year.

After dinner, we retire to the sitting room of the chateau, where I make some notes about the trip and record my impressions: “…The chateau is very quiet! I guess all the other guests are snoozing; I’m still try to digest all this food. We attempted a short walk after dinner, but you can’t go far unless you are willing to venture across damp lawns, braving the mosquitoes, in total darkness!”

Retiring to bed was amazing as the place was totally, absolutely dark and silent. Looking out the window you saw no light anywhere and there was no moon. The stars were incredible though: the brightest stars dazzling and you could even see the bands of the milky way. But inside there was no light at all! To see the night sky in all its splendor is such a rarity—it must be one of the great losses of the 20th century.

In the morning we had croissants and homemade jam amid the antiques of the breakfast room while the resident black Lab begged for scraps. We took the guided tour of the Chateau’s main rooms and treasures—who could resist. The guide, a pleasant girl, spoke mainly French, but one got a good look around. We were the last guests to leave, at about 12:30—like us, everyone seems to have booked for just one night, but I would happily spend several nights here—exploring the surrounding region and just lazing around the grounds.

From the Chateau La Verrerie we drove a circle around the Berry region, first south to Bourges, a bigger town with a beautiful gothic cathedral and a famous (and well preserved) gothic residence—the Palais Jacques Coeur. (He was the Royal treasurer of medieval France, but his own lifestyle eventually proved too extravagant—despite his many accomplishments on behalf of France, he was accused of fraud and forced to flee to Rome.) The Bourges cathedral, St. Etienne, built between 1195 and 1260, has fantastic stained glass windows.

From Bourges we turned back north to Sancerre. We had come for the wine, but Sancerre turns out to be a fabulous medieval hill town. A collection of stone buildings on narrow streets perched on the crest of a solitary hill rising above the surrounding countryside. This beautiful town was almost completely empty of tourists—amazingly tranquil. We bought a baguette and one of the Crottins de Chavignol goat cheeses that Sancerre is famous for producing and ate them in a little park with a view over the river and surrounding countryside. We bought some wine of course, from Domaine La Moussiore in the center of Sancerre and from Lucien Crochet (regarded as one of the best producers) which is located in the village of Bue. Logan had invested in a copy of A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire (by Jacquiline Freiderich) an invaluable to the wine producers of the Loire.

From Sancerre we meandered west on tiny country roads to the town of Salbris—our destination for the night. We had a reservation at Domaine De Valaudran, a grandly solid looking 18th century mansion that, sadly, had been completely gutted inside and concealed a generic, if comfortable hotel. I had selected the hotel from the Routard guide because of it’s highly regarded chef—although the chef had since departed the hotel and replaced by a new, 23-year-old chef. The food (like the hotel) was pleasant but unexceptional—though Logan, who ordered pigeon, raved about it! (Logan also liked that although he had a rather small single room it inexplicably had a huge bathtub.) The young staff too, were enthusiastically friendly, but the hotel’s lack of character was heightened by an inevitable comparison with the fabulousness of the previous night’s Chateau.

Part Two: The Great Chateaux

We drove then into the heart of the Loire, and made a tourist-attraction-filled day of the region’s two most famous chateaux—Chambord, the largest; and Chenonceau, indeed the most beautiful.

The approach to Chambord is through the estate’s vast walled game-preserve—a suitably impressive approach to the 440 room royal palace—though the trek across the vast parking lot to the ticket booth is rather less so. Chambord is interesting for its historical significance and for some fascinating bits of its architecture but, as it was built by and for the Kings of France, it is rather too large to be charming. The symmetrical Greek cross plan with its identical apartments in groups of four and especially the unusual central double-helix staircase are attributed, though not definitively, to Leonardo Da Vinci. The staircase, with its parallel but separate spiral ramps is rather fascinating, as are the large but maze-like private apartments. The chateau’s other famous feature, it’s roofscape of turrets and chimneys seems more romantic fantasy than Da Vinci, and can best be appreciated (despite the scaffolding that seems to cover every major European monument) at a distance. A decent audio tour helps make sense of the buildings layout and history; rooms have been restored to reflect the era’s of various occupants, from the Chateau’s creator Francios I (in the early 16th century) to the last Royal occupant Louis XV, who gave it to his father –in-law in 1725.

It was well into the afternoon when we finished exploring the rooms, losing each other on the staircase and looking at the various collections of paintings and other art. I’d worked up a bit of an appetite—and ever mindful of the French countryside’s rigid timing of lunch—I announced as we left the chateau that we were stopping to eat at the very first Logis we came upon. The Logis de France does not let you down, for there—between the Chateau and it’s parking lot—was the Hôtel du grand St Michel, displaying the green and yellow Logis emblem and featuring a pleasant outdoor terrace. What a treat to be able to get a tasty, reasonably priced meal right on the grounds of a major tourist attraction!

After lunch we drove through La Sologne forest from Chambord, near the river Loire, to Chenonceau, on the river Cher. We were staying that night at an inn only a kilometer or so down river from Chenonceau, so we checked in the late afternoon, enquired about the timing of dinner (7:30) and set off for the Chateau.

Despite the number of visitors (and the chateau was busy) it is possible to have a very pleasant visit at Chenonceau. Fortunately, the main road as well as the carparks are well separated from the Chateau and its gardens—the estate still has quite a bit of land around it. We found, rather by accident, the best approach to the house: bypass the direct path—the one mobbed with visitors—and take the path to the left. This makes a long loop around the estate but allows you to approach the Chateau by way of Diane de Poitiers moated formal garden. It’s a beautiful approach, providing the classic postcard-view of the house spanning the River Cher like a bridge—and is virtually crowd free. The house itself is busy—there is no getting around that—but the interior is gorgeous—both beautifully restored and beautifully maintained. There are even great arrangements of flowers everywhere. You can visit the entire palace: salons, bedrooms and even the kitchens tucked into the foundations and opening onto the river. There is a fantastic private chapel—though it lost its original stained glass when a bomb exploded near the Chateau during WWII. The fact that the house is also a bridge across the Cher lends it a certain strategic importance; it may be a factor in saving it from destruction during the Revolution. In the WWII it formed a link between occupied and Vichy France. Chenonceau, unlike Chambord, is privately owned and managed and it shows both in the meticulous upkeep and the aggressive merchandizing—there is gift shop, a restaurant, even a winery. All are conducted with style and rather good taste, though—and the profits are obviously re-invested in the property. We had a pleasant drink in the wine cellar to escape the afternoon heat. The grounds are pleasant for strolling, and far less crowded than the house. The forested section on the opposite bank of the river is least visited of all and offers fine views.

This night’s inn, the Hostellerie Du Chateau De L’Isle, was quite charming. A real 18th century house, with additions and remodelings, it still had lots of character. We had a sort of suite of attic rooms with hand hewn beams and mismatched furniture. Though it’s only about one kilometer from the Chateau de Chenonceau, our inn seems quite out in the country, surrounded by fields and pastures, and just a short walk down to the river Cher.

Dinner was served on a terrace overlooking a pond and a large yard full of ducks that came begging for bread. By the end of the evening we were best friends with the ducks. There were only two choices for each course, but the food was fantastic. I had a started of salad with two kinds of smoked salmon, crab and tiny shrimps, and a small piece of fantastic foie gras. Rufus’ starter was a terrine of duck (eek!—and they were watching!) Main course was gambas for Rufus and me; chicken breast with morels for Mr. Logan. Local cheeses and then dessert: a great île flotant—it had a layer of caramel under the crème anglais and carmelized orange peel on top! And chocolate mousse. After dinner we walked around the grounds. The sun was setting with much brilliant orange/red fanfare across the fields and through the trees beyond the hotel. Suddenly we were in our own Van Gogh landscape. Bathed in the pink evening light, we ambled down the country road until we came to the Cher river’s edge. When we got back to the hotel, we had a bottle of Gandon champagne from the minibar—relatives of the inn’s owner, Denis Gandon, have a small champagne house. We drank it on the terrace and chatted with an older couple that were driving from their house in Portugal back to their main home in Hamburg. Quite a drive, that.

The next morning, after feeding croissant to the ducks on the terrace, we set off in our rented Opel, returning to our tour of off-the-beaten-track Loire.

I believe it was Logan who chose Montrésor as our destination that morning, and I’m not at all sure how he came to select this small town with its one-paragraph mention in our Eyewitness Guide. We followed a lonely road, south through the woods stopping for a look at a private chapel, a miniature renaissance church, locked up tight at the side of the road. Shortly thereafter we entered Montrésor, a little ribbon of a village following the base of a great hill and small, placid river.

Our first stop was the town’s gothic/renaissance church, a lovely mini-cathedral that was the private chapel of Imbert de Bastarnay, Lord of Montrésor. The Lord and his family are still present here, in spirit and marble effigy anyway—their 16th century tomb is the highlight of the church. Lord, Lady and son repose in life-size marble relief atop the sarcophagus, while angels, apostles and greyhounds keep watch. Sad that the tomb (like so many treasures of France) was badly damaged in the anti-clerical and anti-royalist frenzy of the revolution, but it has been well restored with only a few cracks and missing fragments. The highly sculptural and gruesomely realistic stations of the cross are also well worth a look!

We climbed the hill to the Chateau, which retains the gate and some of the walls of the original medieval fortress. It was noon when we arrived—lunchtime–so were told to return at two for a guided tour; in the meantime we were invited to explore the Chateau’s walls and enclosed gardens. The grounds are neither formal or manicured—the impression is of limited staff—but there are lots of flowers and bits of statuary, and the overgrown quality simply adds a romantic note. The views from the walls and ramparts are fairly impressive.

We then spent some time exploring the little village: walking along the story-book pretty riverbank and peaking into the gardens of the old stone houses. We stopped for lunch in little café in town, where we ate at a sidewalk table along with a few local workers. We had a fine, unpretentious 3 course lunch and a bottle of local rose for about $12 apiece.

When we returned to the Chateau, a busload of French schoolgirls was on their way out, and then it was once again deserted. Our tour of the house was just the three of us and a solitary American girl, backpacking through France. Our tour guide was a local boy of about 17, who spoke in the clear, perfect French that is the hallmark of the Touraine region; even I could understand a bit of what he said. He delighted in the American French of Logan and the Backpacker though, and presented them with elaborate descriptions and asked them teacher/pupil sorts of questions. The Chateau was built in the 15th and 16th centuries, but most of the interior dates from the 19th century occupancy of an exiled Polish count. The main room is given over entirely to the counts hunting trophies and antlers, horns, heads, small stuffed creatures and even leg are mounted on every available surface. They’re all a bit dusty and moth eaten after 150 years (for the record, a boar’s head will not age as gracefully as an oil painting) as well as seeming a bit gruesomely anachronistic. The rest of the house is given over to more artistic pursuits—a nice collection of paintings, including a Caravaggio portrait looking rather forgotten in a dark corridor! A small treasury room holds a small fortune in gold and silver objects; a contrast to the dusty, deferred-maintenance look of the Chateau.

From Montrésor, we proceeded north, back towards the Loire river, to one of the regions more curious sights—the Pagode de Chanteloup. It is a seven story Chinese/French tower, a grand folly on the grounds of the lavish 18th century Chateau de Chanteloup. The Chateau lasted less than hundred years—it was abandoned and then pulled down in 1823 and the estate reclaimed by nature. All that remains is this curious seven-story tower and a bit of a once elaborate system of artificial waterways—now set in splendid isolation amid forest and fields. From the road, where one parks and buys an admission ticket (and a picnic lunch if you wish!) it is a healthy hike to the Pagode. Once there it another hike on narrow stairs to the spectacular vertiginous views from the very top. Still there’s something about the scale and the design and the lack of function that makes it seem like a toy—which of course is what it was built as in the first place. You can’t help having a good time here—it’s just so silly. The keepers of the monument have recognized this as well—and have thoughtfully provided a number of ancient games—bowling and coin toss and croquet with enormously oversized wickets for additional amusement. The hiking, and its status as a decidedly minor monument, meant that we had it to ourselves for much of our visit, joined at last at the top of the tower by two huffing and puffing British couples.

Part Three: Chinon

It was time to make our way west, in the direction of Chinon, to reach that evenings lodging, the Château des Réaux. We drove southwest, and then along the river Indre, through the village of Sache—birthplace of Alexander Calder—and round the square which is dominated by one of his brightly colored mobiles. Logan, consulting his trusty wine guide, had one more stop he wanted to make en-route—a small and highly regarded maker of Touraine wines in Chapelle St. Blaise. The winery will go nameless here as we never did find it, and in this one instance our wine guide failed us completely. It listed no phone number for the winery, and only a vague address—but as the village was tiny, we easily covered it in it’s entirety. No sign of the winery. We widened our search, exploring country lanes in all four directions. The more we searched, the more determined we became. Finally we had covered the countryside all around the village; had driven twice through town of Azay le Rideau across the river (where we decided we would return to tour the Chateau which looked so beautiful from the bridge); had searched west as far as Usse (a dramatically sited and isolated chateau) and then back; and to the south into the Foret de Chinon!

Finally we had the good sense to abandon our search, and fortunately our next destination, Château des Réaux, presented no difficulty. The chateau is both hotel and family home—presiding over it all is the lovely Florence Goupil de Bouillé, whose family has lived here for over 100 years. The moated Chateau is an imposing site, in spite of its variety of unrelated Architectural styles. The oldest part of the house, from a the 13th century, was originally a barn; Next to this is a 16th century castle, which merges into a 17th century manor. A an early 20th century arts and crafts style wing completes the building. Somehow, it all comes together in a rather romantic composition. In addition there are pretty gardens enclosed within the moat as well as a beautiful 19th century gothic revival burial chapel. The family rooms of the Chateau, many of which are open to guests, are eclectic and homey—filled with personal photos and other momentos. The guest rooms however are luxury hotel lavish. We had booked two rooms—but one of these, a lavish suite with two sleeping rooms, would have been more than adequate for the three of us. None-the-less, I believe Logan enjoyed his Moroccon-themed room in the 20th century wing—outfitted with jewel-like stained glass windows brought back from an expedition to the near east. We spent some time exploring both the house and grounds—the real pleasure of staying at these Chateaux-inns.

Madame sometimes serves a family-style dinner to her guests but perhaps because there were few guests in residence (or was it the cooks night off?) dinner was not available. As a consolation, she made us reservations, following a consultation with Logan, at Au Plaisir Gourmand which, she assured him, was one of Chinon’s finest restaurants.

On the road to Chinon, occupying a prime site along the River Loire is a jarring reminder of the 20th century—The E.D.F. Centrale Nucléaire. It covers a huge area—an area larger than the town of Chinon, and three huge cooling towers emit bits of steam like artificial clouds. These are surrounded by acres of parking and at night the whole installation glows with electric light. The Loire valley should not want for power.

Chinon sits on a narrow strip of land along the north bank of the River Vienne; the land rises steeply behind and the hilltop is dominated by the ruined fortress of the Chateau de Chinon. Au Plaisir Gourmand Occupies a beautiful 19th century townhouse at the back of an enclosed garden at the foot of the chateau. Madame must send quite a few guests here, because we got the royal treatment—starting with the best table in the house, front and center and set between French doors overlooking the garden. Service was formal but friendly, and everything was quite beautiful. I had the best starter, perhaps, and excellent foie gras. Rufus had an escargot ravioli and Logan had potatoes with caviar. Logan had the best of the main courses—as is only right as he had the courage to order it—a big plate of lambs’ kidneys and sweetbreads. Sadly, there is no way on earth to make this sound good (or, you’re thinking, even palatable)—but I tasted it and it was fantastic. Rufus had a pigeon, also excellent, and I had guinea fowl, but it was really too simple a dish to do the kitchen justice. I remember the desserts were fabulous—but as I did not note them in my diary I have forgotten what they were!

This is a good place to offer some comments on the wines of the Loire. We had two wines here that were new to me; both were really good and quite inexpensive—the catch of course is that they are going to be really hard to find outside the region. The first of these is a Vouvray Petillante—a sparkling Vouvray that is the local, inexpensive alternative to champagne. It’s very nice, as can be the Cremant de Loire, a sparkling wine I have seen exported. The other discovery was Layon—a sweet white wine that is an excellent companion to the foie gras. While most of the sweet wines classically paired with foie gras are top-of-the-line expensive, the Layon is a bargain. As a result, though the food at Au Plaisir Gourmand was (as expected) rather pricey, an excellent selection of wines—including a well-regarded Chinon, of course—was quite cheap by comparison.

It was late when we crept up the tower stairs to our rooms in the Chateau, for a peaceful nights sleep as lords of the manor. Breakfast was in the formal dining room—I remember cherries and home-made jam. We went out walking again after breakfast—it is so hard to leave these places. However, our next night’s hotel—in a bit of a logistical error—was only a ten minute drive from the Château des Réaux! In fact, we had driven past it on our way to dinner in Chinon. As it was so near, we went there directly on leaving the chateau, and dropped off our things. The Hôtel Restaurant de la Giraudiére was rustic country inn wrapping itself around a pretty table-filled courtyard. We were given a suite of attic rooms—two bedrooms, one bath and a separate sitting room—a nice arrangement and cheaper than two separate rooms with bath.

The rooms weren’t ready of course, it wasn’t even noon, and in the courtyard they were busy setting up for a Lions Club lunch, so we set off immediately to sightsee. Backtracking yet again, we returned to Azay le Rideau to tour the Chateau. This is a rather quintessential example of the Loire Chateau—a setting in the river, unified renaissance facades, and decorative, functionless, turrets with ‘pepperpot’ roofs. There’s a wealth of sculptural detail, including plenty of Salamanders (the symbol of Francois I) and Stoats (the symbol of Claude de France, his wife). This bit of Royal toadying was ineffective though; Gilles Berthelot, the chateau’s owner was treasurer to Francois I—and he suffered the fate of treasurers; accused of embezzlement, he was forced to flee the country. The interior and the grounds are open to wander through—and the audio tour gives lots of historical and architectural details. We explored the chateau ‘til well after 2, so lunch was a quick croque monsieur in the adjacent town.

We returned to Chinon, to pay a visit to the winery of Charles Joguet, one of the top producers of Chinon wines. As luck would have it, one of the winemakers, Alain Delaunay, was himself in the little tasting cellar (not Mr. Joguet though—he’s at least about 90 years old), and conducted us on a tour of his wines. Here Logan was really in his element—Rufus and I watched in amazement as he chatted expansively in French for a good 20 minutes, while we tried the various wines. We bought some good Chinon at bargain prices—unfortunately we must fight the urge to drink them—they are supposed to be cellared for several years.

Rufus was ready to visit more wineries, but Logan was satisfied—and frankly we had run out of room for wine in the limited cargo hold of our tiny rented Opel. Next time we visit a wine region we splurge on a bigger car! So we went next to the town of Richelieu—noteworthy as one of the few planned cities of the 17th century: an orderly walled rectangle with gridded streets arranged around tow large plazas. Unfortunately the plazas are now given over to carparks, and the Classical Mansions to shops, so the grand beauty of it is a bit obscured, but at least it has not been corrupted by sprawl—the town remains entirely within its original walls. It was built by the notorious Cardinal, who’s adjacent chateau no longer stands—the grounds remain as large park.

We returned to la Giraudiére for a pre-dinner drink on the tree-shaded terrace. In one of those too-strange coincidences, we spotted the back-packing girl from Montrésor checking into this very inn; she didn’t arrive at dinner though, and that glimpse was the last we saw of her. Still, it seemed quite surprising to see the same American at two rather obscure, somewhat distant spots.

We had our dinner on the terrace—throughout the trip we had the very good fortune of clear skies and warm weather. Dinner was simple, but quite delicious: starters of fish, or foie gras; roast duck with asparagus, chicken in mustard sauce and nice ’89 Chinon—and the so pleasant terrace which made one wish dinner could last forever. But it could not of course, and neither could our visit to the Loire. The next day we were due in Paris. We left Chinon in the morning and made a leisurely and scenic drive along the Loire to Tours. From there we picked up the motorway to Paris, stopping only at Chartres to see the famous Cathedral. It was a fantastic trip, but it is an area so rich in sights that even as we left we were eager to return. After all, we had not visited the Chateaux of Usse, or Villandry, with its famous gardens. We had bypassed the bigger cities, Tours and Orleans, each with many famous attractions. There was still the whole of the Anjou and Loire Atlantique to explore. There were also countless unvisited towns, wineries and Chateaux in the area we just spent the week in—as well as a few places to which we already longed to return.


Roma Travelogue

A pre- Holy Year visit to Rome and Vatican City, accompanied by my companion Rufus—my first trip to this city—and it seemed on the one hand an excellent time to visit and on the other exactly a year too early.

Lily in Rome

Part One: The Holy Year

The January weather was brisk but continuously sunny—and comparatively warm compared with our winter here in Northern Europe. Still, the city was delightfully free of tourist crowds and museums were empty and restaurant reservations easily made. Indeed, the only place in all of Rome where we encountered a crowd was inside the Sistine Chapel. It was, as expected, fairly wall-to-wall with visitors. Even here though, there was no wait to enter—we actually passed through twice, making a second, accidental visit, in our search for another part of the vast Vatican galleries!

This is all expected to be rather different next year, as the Catholic Church begins its Jubilee, or Holy Year, on December 24th 1999 and this once-every-twentyfive-year event coincides with the frenzy of the millennium. Record numbers of visitors are subsequently expected in the year 2000—but they will have an opportunity to see much of Rome that we could not. (Everyone has heard of the millennium of course—far too much at this point; but this was the first I’ve heard of the Holy Year. Even with six years in Catholic schools, I don’t remember any mention of it, but apparently it is quite the big deal. The Pope opens a fifth door in the façade of St. Peter’s—a door that is kept bricked up in the intervening 24 years—and those who make the pilgrimage to Rome and pass through it…well something good is supposed to happen, though I’m still a little vague on what. I believe you get an indulgence—and if I have to try to explain that we’ll never get to the trip!)

In preparation though for the Jubilee and the year 2000, many of Rome’s most famous ancient and Christian sites are undergoing cleanings, renovations or major restorations. For us this meant galleries closed, artworks off exhibit and dozens of facades, mosaics and church interiors buried behind scaffolding. It got to the point that when we entered a church, EyeWitness guide in hand, after a long trek only to find everything covered in plywood and accompanied by the roar of power tools, we would begin to laugh.

Still, there was plenty to see and do in this city whose monuments span more than 2 millennium, and we spent seven days being quite the tourists.

We arrived in Rome late on a Sunday evening. Checked into he Hotel Campo de Fiori—cute sixth floor room, but no lift. (our retribution for putting my mother in a similar room in Venice last year). It’s quite a hike! Adjacent roof terrace with nice views though—especially of the garishly huge Victor Emmanuel Monument. Arrived a bit after 10pm and had a walk around to the Pantheon, then a couple of pricey compari/sodas at the swanky Hotel Minerva.

Up early Monday morning: breakfast in the basement and off to the Vatican. The Vatican museums close at 1:45(!) so we had no choice but to get an early start. A short walk really from our hotel on the Campo de Fiori across the Tiber to St. Peter’s square. The Bernini colonnade had just been cleaned—they were just finishing the last few columns—but the facade of St Peters was completely hidden behind scaffolding. In the square, next to the obelisk, the pope still had his Christmas Tree and larger-than-life Crèche up! And it’s 24th night! I am a bit appalled. The tree looks pretty sad at this late date.

It’s a further, rather longish hike around the Vatican walls to the museum entrance (despite the fact that one end of the complex actually adjoins St. Peter’s.) Not too busy at the museums—we breezed right in and up the long spiral staircase. Stayed from 10am or so until the 1:45 closing—saw quite a bit, but still only a fraction of the galleries: The Sistine chapel of course, the Rapheal Rooms and the Pinacoteca galleries. Also a fab great long hallway with huge frescoed maps of Italian towns from the 16th century. Highlights included a fantastic Rapheal fresco of St. Peter being sprung from jail by an angel; An amazing Carravagio (deposition of Christ) and a last judgement from the middle ages. The last judgement panel was circular and had beasts spitting up the limbs of people they had devoured and angels waking the dead with trumpets! Of course the Sistine Chapel’s frescos are amazing—though one wishes for a catwalk so one could get a bit closer to them. We had the CD audio tour, which in addition to detailed art history, also managed to work in quite a lot of Catholic theology as well!

We had planned to have a long lunch as a reward for our Vatican tour; but instead just grabbed a slice of pizza, so we could take a guided tour of St. Peter’s at 3pm. Actually it was quite a good tour; an hour and a half and quite a bit of information. Our guide was Penny, a smart Englishwoman who has lived in Rome for 32 years—and has been conducting tours for 17 years! She was quite fun, in the manner of ‘English Lady’ tour guides and, it became evident, a devout Catholic, a fervent Papist and quite the fan of John Paul II. She even gave everyone on the tour cards with a picture of the pope on one side and the lord’s prayer in Latin on the reverse, which she apparently has printed up of her own volition! She’s also in the Vatican choir and a regular at mass at St. Peter’s. (We learned a lot about her.) We also learned a lot about the church, particularly about how huge it—and everything in it—is! It’s a behemoth; certainly an amazing construction feat for it’s time. I’m not sure how they managed it. It is also the most immaculately maintained church I have ever seen—it looks like it could have been finished yesterday. All the paintings were replaced in the 18th century with copies made of mosaic tile (amazing copies that are so finely detailed that at the distance one views them they look like paintings) so they would not crack or discolor! There is marble everywhere, and gold, and statues 22 ft tall! And all of it gleaming! I guess the façade will be as clean as the inside when the scaffolding comes down for the holy year.

Dinner was at a little place near the hotel recommended by travel writer Rich Ruben (as was the hotel)—Hostaria Giulio. We had a mixed antipasto (cold meat and vegetables), ravioli with ricotta , butter and sage; and I had grilled anchovies on arugula. Then we had an artichoke because they were having them at the next table and they looked so good—it was. Desserts were tiramisu and a really good flan type thing in caramel sauce. Of course we were starving after 10 hours of walking and standing! It wasn’t at all busy, but reassuringly, the other diners were all Italian.

Part Two: Christians and Lions

Rome offers irrefutable proof of the incompatibility of the automobile and the city. Here we have a large and vibrant urban center that functioned without cars for some 2500 years—and is now dominated by the internal combustion engine. Boulevards have been bulldozed through ancient sites; beautiful squares and courtyards turned into parking lots; and everywhere, at all hours of the day and night, there is a chaos of traffic with driving that borders on anarchy.

Drivers actually do stop for pedestrians, though in our seven days there I never came to accept this idea. The necessity of stepping into a traffic circle swirling with automobiles or crossing a six lane Via at an uncontrolled intersection continued to fill me with fear. We would often wait at the sidewalk until some unconcerned Romans stepped nonchalantly into the maelstrom of traffic and then cross in their shadow…following as closely as possible. We found the most effective escorts to be old women in fur coats and soldiers in uniform…they parted traffic like Moses at the Red Sea.

On our second full day in Rome, Rufus arranged for us to go on a walking tour which met at the Coliseum. We set out to toward it, but found ourselves trapped behind the excavations of the Forum. We walked all the way round the outside of the Forum, then down along the long grass covered oval marking the site of the long-vanished Circus Maximus, and back along the other side of the Forum to the Coliseum. Fortunately we were still about an hour early for the tour so—after several wrong turns—we located another stand-up pizza place recommended in the Cheap Eats in Italy guide.

The tour was amusing—actually rather interesting, and quite long—over three hours. The company is called “Enjoy Rome” and is owned, or run, by an American woman named Suzy. She actually accompanied us for most of the tour—checking up, I think, on our guide, a young, fun-loving Australian. The guides all seem to be young, just-out-of-college types who have drifted to Rome on a lark. We met a couple of the others before the tour. We got lots of information on the coliseum (and the bloody slaughter of men and beasts that constituted the entertainment there. There was a fair amount of Roman history and social organization as well. (The coliseum dates from 74 AD, well into the empire, and stands on the site of a lake in front of the hated former Emperor Nero’s palace. It takes it’s nickname, probably, from a colossus of Nero—and subsequent Emperors, they just changed the heads—that stood on a square adjacent the stadium. Things we probably learned in high school and have subsequently forgotten). Also got a bit of information on the Forum, The arch of Constantine and Hadrian’s Markets and Column, all nearby.

Mussolini built a huge boulevard thought the archaeological site to connect the Arch of Constantine and coliseum with the Victor Emmanuel monument; a place to parade his (briefly) victorious armies. We waked on to the V.E. monument and the adjacent papal palace that was Mussolini’s HQ. From there it was on to a more pleasant monument—both historically and architecturally—the Trevi Fountain. This is the fountain of’ “three coins in the fountain” fame; as the tradition goes, if you toss one coin in the fountain you will return to Rome, a second and you will fall in love on your return, and a third and you will be wed in Rome. It is one of the most pleasing examples of baroque architecture: a lovely grand fountain on a tiny, intimate square filled, even in January, with happy people—and many of the coin throwers were Italian!

We made brief stops also at the Temple of Hadrian—a surviving colonnade now embedded in the façade of the stock exchange, the Pantheon, and the Piazza Navona, laid out on the ruins of a Roman foot-race track. There is a rather impressive Bernini of fountain of the Four Rivers in the center. (Nile, Danube, Ganges, and one recently discovered in South America, FYI)

It was a particularly great day to be outside: striking deep blue skies, a few muscular white clouds and, to end it, a pastel sunset.

That night we had a delicious dinner at Al Pompiere, one of the Roman-Jewish restaurants near the Campo de’ Fiori. We had the house specialties as our antipasto—one of each, all deep-fried—artichoke, zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovies, and salt-cod. Next we had pasta e fagioli (it was good, but everyone else in the place was having a different pasta—and all were having the same thing.) To follow Rufus had saltimbocca (tasty!) and I had some lamb cutlets roasted in salt, also really good. And a simple, perfectly dressed salad. We had an assortment of pastries for dessert—but everyone else was having the lemon sorbet! I recommend: go a little late, and watch what comes out of the kitchen before ordering! Everyone seems to be in on what’s best—the place was obviously packed with regulars. OK, I confess, I sneaked back two days later for lunch so I could try the pasta and the sorbet—I hate feeling left out! Other favorites included the deep fried vegetables, oxtail (I think) and some kind of salad with slices like big celery that I never did figure out what it was.

After dinner we walked back to the Trevi fountain, to see it lit up at night and to toss in our coins—just one each of course!—and to walk off some of our huge dinner.

Wednesday we were up early again for our breakfast, and then walked over to see the interior of the Pantheon. It’s the place I most wanted to visit in Rome. It really is a magnificent building, if a bit unfortunately tarted up inside with Catholic iconography (it was given to the pope in the 6th century—which is though why it has been preserved in such good condition) and tombs of Italian kings. The dome is amazing—a perfect hemisphere in coffered cast concrete.

The Romans managed some fantastic architecture and engineering. The buildings are on a vast scale and the water system is apparently still in use today. Little spring-fed fountains run continuously all over the modern city. Rome, we are told, had the same population at the time of the empire as it does today—and covered a somewhat smaller, but still vast area. And the subsequent buildings—renaissance, baroque and modern, are largely built on Ancient foundations.

From the Pantheon, we walked on to the daily print market and then to the area of fancy shops around the Spanish Steps. There was one shop I liked that sold prints form 19th century photos of Rome—they even had very pretty little mass-produced prints on watercolor paper. We walked up the Spanish steps, with all the tourists and Italian youths lolling about on them, admired the view—of the city and the youths—and then walked back down.

We had made a lunch reservation at Fraterna Domus, an inn run by Nuns, who also serve lunch and dinner six days a week. This was written about with some enthusiasm by Sandra Gustafsun in Cheap Eats—and it seemed so charming as to be almost irresistible. (We also loved the fact that there is one seating per meal and one daily menu—absolutely no choices. Are we the only people who absolutely relish this absence of choice where food is involved? Sit us down, bring us food, ask us no questions—that way you completely avoid that nagging feeling that someone is feasting away on something far better than what’s on your plate!)

We arrived at Fraterna Domus and were seated at benches of highly polished dark wood at a table covered with a plain white cloth, two simple white plates, two simple wine glasses and a big pitcher of water. The room was plain, but very pretty, and possibly the cleanest dining room I have ever seen. The place began to fill quickly—primarily with neighborhood folk—shopkeepers, workmen, a few old people, mostly quite lively though. Wine was brought to the tables—a half liter for us, several liter bottles for some of the larger parties! It was cheap and screw-capped, but not at all bad. Lunch began with bowls of pasta: penne sparingly sauced with a tomato/pancetta sauce. It was delicious, and impossible to say no when the nuns returned with big serving bowls offering seconds! The secondi was a perfectly roast quarter chicken with absolutely heavenly (no pun intended) pomme frites. Then a simple salad of greens in oil and lemon, and a bowl of blood oranges for desert.

The workers, who obviously ate there all the time, had a great time. I noticed that they frequently went up stairs to the toilet; after lunch, the bowl full of cigarette butts explained why. This is probably the only restaurant in all of Rome where smoking is prohibited—the men had to sneak up to the toilet to smoke—undoubtedly just as they did when they were children in Catholic Schools!

Lunch was great, and cost (for 2 persons with wine) 43.000 lira—a grand total of about $26.50! The nuns were very sweet too, it’s enough to change my whole feeling about nuns—if only the ones that ran my elementary school alma mater St. Dominic Savio had been able to cook like that!

Well, we liked it so much we immediately arranged to return Sunday night. The atmosphere at night is less lively—guests of the inn (mostly American retirees) instead of workmen—but the food was no less tasty; a soup of tortellini in chicken broth, pot roast, green beans, and those french-fries—which must be the nun’s signature dish—and salad and fruit.

Oh, how I do go on. This installment is just all about food—are you hungry yet? After lunch, more browsing in shops. We climbed the Spanish steps yet again and then spent some time walking and sitting in a big park overlooking the city. It was once the grounds of someone’s villa of course. There were very many busts of famous Italians, mostly with their noses broken off. From the park we climbed down to the Piazza del Popolo, one of the entrances to the old city. We visited the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which has two important Caravaggio paintings; of course they are located on the side walls of a tiny private chapel—not the spot for optimal viewing. The church also has a wonderful Bernini sculpture of Daniel in the lion’s den. Daniel is depicted as a nearly nude, very attractive youth with a lion licking his foot!

We walked back to the Piazza Di Spagna and had an exceedingly expensive pot of tea at Babington’s, a well regarded sort of English tea room in Rome (leaving aside the question of why one would want British food in Rome—they do have a full menu—it was nice to have a cup of tea). The place was (predictably, I suppose) full of Japanese ladies with bulging bags from the designer shops. Rufus mitigated the price somewhat by lifting one of their very cute ashtrays!

(Note from Rufus: I am such a bad thief. I was a nervous wreck. I fully expected to get busted and began imagining myself dragged down to police headquarters—which probably ain’t too pretty in Rome. I suppose my crime was inspired by reading too much Jessica Mitford on our trip. Her tales of her madcap British upper-crust upbringing—complete with the favorite nanny who taught the children how to shoplift—must have had undue influence on me. After getting the ash tray back to our hotel safely, I was struck with a raging fever that kept me in bed all the next day. I imagined I was being punished for my crime. Rome’s Catholic guilt must have rubbed off on me.)

Part Three: Scaffolds and Bones

Rufus, with his fever, spent a day in bed, with his Isherwood and a view of the rooftops of Rome.

I went out wandering alone that day, first down to the Tiber. I crossed the oldest bridge in Rome (1st century BC but completely covered in scaffolding of course, with just a narrow girdered passage to walk—or ride your scooter—across!) on to the little island in the Tiber, which has a church and a hospital. Not much to see really. I crossed back, walked around two intact temples from the Roman republic (well the round one was completely covered in scaffolding, but the other was quite lovely—a small, rectangular, well proportioned roman building.)

There were a several Romanesque churches in the area I had in mind to visit. (I prefer the Romanesque to the gaudiness and grandiosity of the Baroque—especially since the baroque is so ubiquitous in Rome; it seems most of the churches in Rome were built, re-built or at least redecorated in the baroque style during the Papacy’s time of great wealth and anti-protestant excess. I also love the layering of the very old churches—the way they incorporate parts of ancient buildings, and I think it quite interesting how technology vanished with end of the Roman empire and the buildings become smaller and less accomplished.) One church of course was completely covered in scaffolding—closed of course, and another was closed for a wedding; but I did get to go in one very old and dark church, and I had the place all to myself. It was gloomy and cold and deserted—but rather beautiful in its solitude. The roof of the nave was supported by mismatched columns, scavenged from various Roman temples. In a side room that might have once been a chapel, an old friar kept a lonely vigil over a small shop of plaster saints and extremely inexpensive postcards.

Though unplanned, my wanderings led me back to the spot where Rufus and I had been trapped behind the Forum excavations on. Today, being much earlier, the Forum was open and I found my way in through the back gate. One is allowed to roam rather freely through the excavations and the ancient site—and although all that remains for the most part are the merest fragments of the once massive temples and basilicas, it is none-the-less fascinating to walk through the site. and From the midst of the site, you really can get a feel for it’s enormous scale, the beauty and technology of the architecture—and the fact that it would take many centuries before anyone in Europe could build structures like these again.

I wandered some more, no real destination, and when I got hungry I got an irresistible craving for those deep fried artichokes and stuffed zucchini flowers. Of course, I was some distance now from the Jewish quarter, so I had a brisk march across town. I had a late lunch back at Pompiere—the above mentioned antipasti and the house pasta. Plus a half liter of wine all to myself! It was late afternoon when I returned to check on Rufus. He was feeling better—he had gone out for pizza—but still rather weak. We spent the evening reading and playing computer scrabble, took a short stroll and went to bed early.

Next morning Rufus was much better—up early and fairly energetic. We had to pack up after breakfast as we were being moved that day to a different room. We left the hotel and walked the short distance to the Gesu—the first Jesuit church. The exterior is unremarkable, but the interior is a spectacle of the Baroque—and this in spite of a good two thirds of it that was completely covered in scaffolding! (Rufus’ favorite part of the church was it’s nativity scene—a diorama behind glass that when you pushed a button real water flowed down a stream and s shooting star crossed the sky!) I was impressed by the sheer excess of the decoration, and a particularly bloody near life-size crucifix.

From there we crossed the terrifying traffic of the Piazza Venezia, and made our way to the other side of the Vittoriano. Here, behind this hideous and massive monument is a lovely little hilltop piazza design by Michelangelo. Flanking the piazza are the Capitoline Museums. Though one of them is completely closed for renovation the other was a dusty delight. A bit of a hodgepodge, the collections run the gamut from some very famous paintings and sculpture to a great many really kitchy porcelains. There is the famous Caravaggio of St. John the Baptist—St. John depicted as a nude and very sexy adolescent! In fact, there are quite a few teen John the Baptists and sexy young St. Sebastians in the Capitoline collections. (It may be possible to discern the sexual orientation of Italian artists by observing whether they depict St John as a youth or an old man.)

The museum has a wonderfully dusty, untouched for 50 years quality—and it is completely empty of visitors, which makes it quite fun to explore. No doubt it will get a modernizing in the not too distant future, as this is already underway at its companion across the Piazza.

We used the cheap eats guide to pick a little lunch spot on the other side of the Quirinal Hill, and wound our rather convoluted way through heavy traffic around the presidential palace. The little tratorria was pretty good…I had a big plate of gnocchi in tomato sauce. It was decorated oddly with these big lighted signs of puti pissing into champagne glasses….I’m not sure why. After lunch we walked into the Via Veneto area…a 19th century section of the city that is very Paris-like with grand boulevards and hotels. Apparently it was extremely chic in the 60’s but has now fallen out of favor with the truly hip. The main site here is the madly macabre crypt of Santa Maria della Consezione—where the Capuchin monks have decorated chapels entirely from the bones of dead monks. Bones, skulls and jaws are arranged on the walls in elaborate patterns. The overall effect is ridiculous and gruesome all at the same time.

We decide to walk back to our hotel via two churches we had yet to visit. The first of these was Santa Maria Maggiore—an enormous basilica famous for its mosaics. Naturally, the mosaics, and indeed most of the interior, were buried beneath scaffolding. Not only that, but all the interior lights were turned off, and the gloom was so absolute that one could see nothing of even those portions of the interior not covered up!

From ere we moved on to San Pietro in Vincoli—famous as the home of Michelangelo’s Moses. We found the church at the end of an alley, up a steep flight of stairs. The façade was covered in scaffolding and inside workmen were performing some rather loud and extensive renovations. Moses was in a little side chapel, behind a construction barricade. You could see him there, beyond the tour group crowds, who had to keep feeding lira coins into the meter that kept the light on! Such poor conditions for viewing an art object, one wonders how these things even become an attraction. An adjacent gift shop sells miniature reproductions—so poorly executed that you can actually choose from rather astonishing variations on the pose and facial expression of old Moses!

Returning to the Hotel Campo de Fiori, we were introduced to our new room. Though it had two french windows and a nice view over the city, by night it was a bit glum, owing to being covered in midnight blue wallpaper and lit by a few bare low-wattage bulbs. The most frustrating aspect was that there was no electric outlet in the room—not even one—so I couldn’t plug in the computer! Oh well, no guilt about not making notes!

(Yes, I too have become quite the pitiful slave to technology. No pencil and paper for me—no way. But I am hardly alone in my addiction to the marvels of the microchip. The rooftops of Rome are a sea of TV satellite dishes and in every café you hear the ubiquitous chirp-chirp of the mobile phone. At the sound, everyone within earshot begins rooting in unison in their bags. Outside the excavations of Hadrian’s Markets, boarding a school bus at the end of a tour, I saw a boy no older than eight pull one from his pocket.)

That evening we went to the Taverna Campo de Fiori in the square and drank prosecco (a very nice and rather inexpensive sparkling wine from the Veneto) and ate toasted sandwiches with the lively Italian crowd. We stayed there quite a while, then went next door to “The Drunken Ship” (yes, I know, the name says it all) where a crowd consisting almost entirely of American college students was drinking beer at prices exactly double that of the Taverna. We stayed for one drink, greeted our fellow hotel guests from USC, and fled.

Part Four: Saints be Praised (and Preserved)

The school I attended, grades one through six, was named for a saint: Saint Dominic Savio. Though he was an Italian saint, the unfortunate lad was born too late to be immortalized in the golden age of Italian religious art. He was a nineteenth century saint, and a bit of a country bumpkin too as I recall, living far from the centers of art and power. So alas, I have seen no paintings of young Savio. Had he been born a few centuries earlier, he might have been a popular subject—as I recall he died at the age of nineteen, and in a book at our school he was portrayed in dreamy watercolors. I don’t recall why he was made a saint—the road to sainthood has become a bit vague in the last two centuries; the requisite miracles become less impressive the nearer to our own era they occur. A patina of great age suits the miraculous. I recall only that St. Dominic Savio, son of a prosperous family, would trade the white bread from his lunch each day for the black bread of a poor peasant youth. This oft repeated tale was intended to inspire both guilt and gratitude as we all went out to eat our Wonderbread sandwiches. But I have to wonder now, was Dominic an unselfish, saintly child or a budding gourmet, ahead of his time? I also recall that he was the favorite pupil and special friend of St. John Bosco (namesake of the all-boy high school next door) who I believe, founded a religious order. Though for six years we studied the lives of these two very minor saints to about the same extent as we studied St. Peter, Charlemagne and George Washington, my memory of them is now rather vague, and I may have made a hay of their stories…alas, my volume of Lives of the Saints is in Los Angeles. But there are other saints in Rome, as you will see.

Saturday morning we strolled the Campo de’ Fiori market, a daily spectacle (excluding Sundays) just outside our hotel. The large square is lively with buyers and sellers: produce, fish, spices, flowers and counterfeit football jerseys. The vendors make bonfires from produce crates and shoppers retire to cafes for espresso. I wander the market, making still life photos of vegetables.

For our daily museum visit, we had selected the Palazzo Doria-Pamphilj, partly because the collection was housed in a Palazzo built between the 15th and 18th centuries, and partly because of a Caravaggio painting we wanted to see.

Interestingly, it turns out that the art and the Palazzo are still privately owned by the Pamphilj descendants, who still live, at least some of the time, in some part of the vast building. We learn this, and quite a bit more about the family, the ancestors, the Palazzo and the art collection from one of the cleverest and most delightful museum audio tours I have come across. The audio tour is included in the modest price of admission; its one of those nifty CD players that allow you to control the pace and the sequence of your visit. From the introduction we are hooked: the tour is narrated by a present-day Pamphilj heir and resident. He refers to it as his home, tells anecdotes about his family, recounts scandalous gossip about his ancestors and very quickly you get the feeling that Mr. Pamphilj is actually there, taking you through the house. We half expected him to pop out through a door and ask us to tea.

(Naturally the question arises, is this dashing Oxford accented voice on the English version of the audio tour really Mr. Pamphilj? Not outside the realm of possibility…and he does sound awfully sincere.)

Mr. Pamphilj takes us first on a tour of the 17th century public rooms of the villa, nicely restored and reopened in the late 20th century by his mother. There is a long series of these rooms, ranged in a row and culminating with my favorite—the private chapel. It’s a mini-baroque church which houses the Pamphilj family’s most sacred objects: the whole preserved corpses of two early Christian saints! These saints and many more were removed from the Roman catacombs, where they had rested for over a thousand years, and their relics handed out by the church to the faithful. According to our host and narrator, whole and intact bodies were rare and highly prized and it is a mark of the power and influence of the Pamphilj’s that they were given two such complete relics. One of the saints entrusted to the family is Justin the martyr, a relatively well known 3rd century saint. One of the female Pamphilj ancestors apparently prized the relic so highly that she obtained permission form the pope to allow the saint to travel, and took him with her on her journeys! The papal decree allowing the saint to travel is hanging on the wall; Justin gets out less these days I suspect, he and a female saint rest in glass cases in the chapel. (And all the nuns ever gave us were plastic saints!)

Beyond the public reception rooms is the wing of the Palazzo that houses the galleries. The extensive art collection dates from the 15th through the18th century. The current heirs have focused not on collecting but on restoration, and the galleries have been restored to their original appearance, the paintings re-hung salon style in their original positions. This approach to exhibiting art has been out of fashion for a century, so one really does get a feeling of being in another era. The context also, in some cases, becomes more important than the individual works: pictures were purposefully hung with and eye to contrasts and juxtapositions.

Of course there are some marvelous individual pieces in the collections as well: the aforementioned Caravaggio, Titian, Claude Lorrain.

There is a Velazquez portrait of Pope Innocent X that is considered by many to be one of his greatest, and two identical busts of Pope Innocent X by Bernini—when the original was chipped, Bernini himself made a copy.

Innocent X was the Pamphilj pope, and the source of much of the family’s wealth. Our host and guide takes us into his confidence and gives us the dirt on his most famous ancestor! It seems he was rather under the thumb of his brother’s wife (her rather formidable portrait hangs in the gallery) who rather likely was also his mistress. She made a fortune for the family by convincing the pope that it was immoral to collect taxes on Rome’s brothels—which she coincidentally owned! She finally become so powerful and demanding that poor Pope Innocent had to have her exiled from Rome.

There are plenty more amusing anecdotes, which make the visit to the Palazzo quite entertaining. The galleries are not at all busy—there couldn’t be more than a dozen visitors in the whole place—so viewing the art is a pleasure. There is also a collection of (heavily restored) ancient sculptures, and a suite of art and antique filled ‘private’ apartments that can also be toured.

The afternoon found us exploring Trastevere, an old and densely populated working class enclave on the opposite bank of the Tiber. It is district also recently popular for its restaurants and trendy nightlife. None of this was in evidence on a Saturday afternoon however—shops were shut, streets were deserted and an air of siesta pervaded the district. The main square is quiet too, save for a few boys kicking a ball around the fountain. The square is dominated by Santa Maria in Trastevere, a lovely Romanesque church. Inside, there are Roman columns supporting the nave, and real candles burning, not electric bulbs. The church is most famous for its 12th century mosaics; as the church was not currently undergoing a major restoration, and constituted our second scaffolding free site of the day we counted ourselves very lucky indeed!

Trastevere is reputed to have the most churches per area than any district in Rome—a city where there are no shortage of churches. We visited only a few; mostly they are Romanesque structures remodeled in the baroque style—and now quietly falling apart. Sad places in a lovely sort of way. The simple Romanesque can endure a fair amount of neglect, but the extravagant baroque ornamentation requires a level of maintenance that is quite beyond the resources of these neighborhood congregations. They are not being renovated. But each one has its works of art, its odd relics, and its stories to tell.

That evening, we had dinner reservations at Tratorria Checchino dal 1887, a restaurant famous for serving some of the best—and most unusual—food in Rome. The tratorria, sits on the edge of the wholesale food markets and established its reputation by preparing delicious food from the, well, discarded parts of the animals. It’s a tradition that carries on today. It gets rave notices, and we don’t mind a little adventure, so we had to give it a try. It was a longish walk from our hotel, through parts of town that were only intermittently interesting, and with plenty of Rome’s notorious traffic to deal with. The Testaccio markets, oddly are also home to a number of rather gaudy discoteques—meat market by day, meet market by night I guess. The restaurant itself is at the top of the hill, and inside it is another world; a small room of restrained elegance and smartly dressed diners.

We dined on headcheese—which I have never dared try before; and which I probably still don’t know want to know exactly what’s in it—two thin slices of a delicate flavor. Pleasant enough but not thrilling. The other antipasto was fantastic though—a salad of beans, carrot and shredded pig’s trotter. The pasta was even better—fettuccine with ewe’s cheese and pigs cheek—the cheek like tiny pieces of bacon. For main courses we passed on the testicles, hearts, and other organs on offer and had the less daring oxtail and the specialty of the house, chunks of lamb in a white wine sauce. Excellent and extensive wine list too—I know too little about Italian wines, so I had the waiter select something appropriate and affordable. They have a fantastic assortment of cheese as well—it’s expensive though, and I’d skip it next time; it’s a bit much after all that anyway. A good, and unusual meal—though not a place for vegetarians or even those leaning in that direction. We skipped the discos, and took a taxi back to the hotel.

On Sunday, our last full day in Rome, we returned to where we began our tour, the Vatican. We explored the Castel Sant’ Angelo, the Pope’s fortress.

The original building was built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as his tomb. It was turned into a fortified castle by the Church and used both as a treasury for the church’s wealth and a refuge in times of siege. A corridor built into the city wall connects the fortress to the Vatican. As weaponry became more sophisticated, the castle’s fortifications kept pace; the partial remains of an elaborate star fort enclose its square medieval walls. The entire complex is open to visitors—even the Pope’s private bath—and there are great views of the city from the upper walls.

Spanning the Tiber in front of the Castle, the Ponte San Angelo is perhaps Rome’s most beautiful bridge. It is lined with a colonnade of Bernini angels—delightful baroque fantasies in stone. Each angel holds one of the attributes of Christ’s passion: a cross, the crown of thorns, the spear, the three nails and so forth. Never have the instruments of torture looked so beautiful! It’s the paradox of religion: the joy of suffering and the shame of pleasure. The saints do so enjoy their martyrdom.

We returned to St. Peter’s for a second visit. Finally the Christmas tree had been removed from the square. The Pope traditionally makes an appearance at his window on Sunday morning, but he was touring America.

We walked back across the river and had some gelato at Giolitto’s near the Piazza Rotunda. It’s a very famous place for ice cream, but this was January, and it was mobbed. Fantastic stuff though.

We left Rome the next morning, with a lot of sites still unseen: The Appian way, the catacombs, The Lateran and the sancta sanctorum and everything that we couldn’t see because it had been behind the scaffolding…but we did toss our coins in the Trevi fountain…so we’ll be back.


Inedit on the Orient-Express

Cocktails on the Orient-Express

When the nineteen cars of the Venice Simplon Orient-Express pull into Verona’s Porta Nuova Station, heads turn. The gold trim glistens on the beautifully restored sixty year-old navy blue carriages. Improbably, the cars look as if they have been freshly washed en route to the station. Stewards leap from the cars to help us aboard. Unencumbered by luggage (our preposterously over packed bags have been collected at our hotel), we saunter stylishly to our cabin, just like in the movies.

Few things as fabled, and as hyped, as the Orient Express are able to live up to one’s inflated expectations. But if you can live without a murder, the experience is much as fans of Agatha Christie might hope. We settle into our cabin, its rich paneling inlaid with a tiger-lily design, as the train leaves Verona.

The train races through the Dolomite mountains, past vineyards ablaze with the deep reds and golds of late fall. Philip, our steward, cheerfully wrestles our bulging luggage into overhead racks as we watch apologetically. We are given a card with our table assignment for luncheon, seating at 2:00, allowing us an hour to explore the train. While each car is subtly different, owing to different manufacturers in Belgium, England and France, all were built in the 1920’s for the Orient Express or first class trains plying other European routes. Our car, No. 3555 was built in France in 1929, and in-between stints as a luxury carriage, was used as a hotel in Lyon during World War II. After years of neglect, the cars were rescued from various ignoble fates for this lates incarnation of the Legendary Orient-Express, begun in 1982 by James B. Sherwood, Chairman of Orient-Express hotels.

We make our way to the elegant bar car where a baby grand piano and saxophone serenade the train’s well-coifed and well-heeled passengers, who seem to be a mix of elderly Americans and moneyed Japanese tourists. We sip our Campari-sodas as the rushing scenery becomes increasingly alpine. Those brilliantly hued vineyards climb straight up the mountainsides as we plunge in and out of dark tunnels.


Attired in fashionable suits and ties we never have occasion to wear in Los Angeles (“You can never be overdressed on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express,” the English-language information booklet issued to us prior to our trip advises, emphasizing “please do not wear jeans.”), it is possible to believe that it is 1930. In travel today, speed and economy have replaced service and luxury, and the actual transit portion of any trip is now mostly something to be endured for as little time as possible. But traveling like this erases all desire for journey’s end, even when the final destination is Paris.

Luncheon is three courses, complemented by appropriately brilliant wines, and set with sterling silver fish knives and dessert spoons. The late afternoon vistas continue to dazzle as our meal finally ends in a glass of Courvoisier XO Imperial; the crystal snifter engraved, like nearly everything else aboard, with the cursive initials of the Venice Simplon Orient-Express. The cognac is wonderful.


We are not in the habit of drinking Cognac after luncheon, but it is after all, the cognac that has brought us here. Not an alcohol-induced delusion, but something close; an invitation from Courvoisier to participate in the launch of Inédit, a special limited edition cognac in a bottle designed by the late Art Deco master Erté. We have been chosen as liaisons to the gay community—whether it is the well-known gay enthusiasm for cocktails, for Erté’s work, or both, we can only guess. Accompanying us on this trip are a suitably mystery novel-like set of international characters, which include dashing French cognac executives, international liquor distributors, and journalists from all over the world who write for publications with names like Decanter. We meet over cocktails, the night before at the Hotel Due Torri, in Verona.


Finishing our post-lunch cognac as we whisk through Austrian mountain passes, we realize that it is nearly 4 o’clock—and we must hurry back to our cabin to await the arrival of afternoon tea at 4:30. Returning to our cabin, we hear it rumored that our hosts have a special surprise in store for us as part of the unveiling of the new cognac—but no one has any idea what it might be.

The schedule given us by Courvoisier is quite rigorous—even if it does consist almost entirely of eating and drinking. It does set aside 90 minutes for dressing for dinner after tea, a suggestion we ignore in favor of lying about our cabin resting our stuffed and besotted stomachs. This we regret when we find to our embarrassment that two people cannot get into black tie, dressing out of suitcases, in a tiny room (no matter how lovingly detailed), on a moving train in anything less than an hour!

As a final complication we seem able to get only one of our two bow ties knotted in a presentable fashion. In desperation, but also secretly eager to leave no service untested, we ring our steward for help.

“Do you have any luck tying these?” we query we he appears. Unfazed and grinning, Philip responds, “I’m afraid not. My mother always ties mine.” But all is not lost. As a testament to his preparedness, he produces a selection pre-tied clip-around bow-ties. Moments later we’re decked out and rushing down the narrow corridors to the conference car for our pre-dinner special presentation.

As we join the other guests in the leather paneled conference car that’s been added to the end of the train for this occasion, we realize that the train has stopped. Our host informs us that in order to power the generator to run the VCR for our presentation, they’ve had to stop the whole train! The video begins, and we learn more about Courvoisier, Erté, and the aging and blending of cognac. We view the previous limited-edition bottles Erté has created for Courvoisier—sleek, teardrop shaped decanters like giant perfume bottles, with Erté’s trademark deco illustrations depicting the cognac making process. But it isn’t yet time for the official unveiling of his ultimate creation. We adjourn our meeting and are treated to a pre-supper cocktail party where the champagne pours most generously. We’re all too dashing —the men handsome in their tuxedos, and the women looking like Bond girls in their sleek cocktail dresses.

Next comes dinner, served in the restaurant car (built in 1927, with black lacquer panels depicting scenes of sporting animals). Place cards reveal our dinner companions to be Roger and Diana Capstick-Dale (hyphenated—we are delighted with the perfect Britishness of it), a charming couple from London. He moves in art circles and was an associate of Erté’s; she is a theatrical set designer.

Our appetizer consists of rolled fillet of sole and scampi with spicy cuttle-fish ink. It’s gorgeous and Mrs. Capstick-Dale insists we take a photo of its brilliant orange and black swirled sauce for our magazine article. We don’t tell her that we’re shooting in black and white and it will end up looking like a biology dissection.

By the time coffee is served it’s well after midnight and there’s only one thing left—the very reason we’re here—the unveiling (and imbibing!) of the new cognac, Courvoisier Inédit.

Courvoisier’s Master Blender stands and tells a little about the cognac were are about to experience. Among the vintages of cognac combined to create this particular product, one dates back to 1892, the year Erté was born. As he speaks, we begin to notice the train’s staff, including the chefs, gather in the hallway outside the restaurant car door. Evidently our surprise is near at hand, and they too don’t want to miss the event.

The Master Blender passes the cordless microphone he’s been speaking into to Courvoisier’s director of PR, who thanks us all for coming, then gives a signal, which suddenly throws the entire room into darkness. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he announces, “Courvoisier presents Inédit!” With that music begins swelling through the car, and after a second we realize it’s the Dionne Warwick recording of Burt Bacharach’s “I Say a Little Prayer.” The lights come up a bit, and into the car strides a tall, lithe woman with cascading blonde hair, carrying a bottle of cognac—and completely nude. Nude, that is, except for a few strategically placed gold-leafed grapes over her more personal parts. She is the “living embodiment” of Inédit, a living, breathing version of the Erté gal on the front of the bottle. The gay waiters exchange incredulous looks. The model brings the bottle around to each table, stopping for photographs, allowing us to examine her and the cognac. There’s something just so deliriously fabulous about this all, so surreal and so European. Soon there are legions of waiters carting out more bottles of Inédit, filling our snifters.

This bottle, featuring the nude woman, was actually Erté’s first ever design for Courvoisier. Unbelievably, this restrained drawing was deemed obscene by U.S. regulators under the Reagan administration and, denied access to the American market, Courvoisier canceled production. Following Erté’s death, the company decided to revive his original, unreleased (Inedít is French for unpublished) design—and the less censorious Clinton administration cleared its importation to America. We savor several glasses of the rare and expensive blend. Only 4000 bottles of this cognac will be made; most of those will be collected, like expensive marbles, and never consumed.

We retire to the club car—it’s now about 2:00 a.m.—to find a few of our fellow travelers still eager for more festivities, and, inconceivably, for more cocktails. Leading this charge is the Inédit model, who, after being closed up in a train compartment all day (so as not to spoil our surprise), is ready to rhumba. She insists the pianist and the saxophonist (who seemingly never sleep) to play something danceable, and soon we find ourselves gyrating to “Rock Around the Clock”. This proves to be our undoing, and finally, exhausted, we retire to our cabin.

We slip into pajamas, and into our perfectly turned down berths. Giddy with exhaustion and fullness, we settle down to the rollicking motion of the train. A glance at my watch tells me it’s now almost 3 a.m. We’ve been eating and drinking for approximately 14 hours.

We sleep four hours and awaken heading into Paris—a very agreeable way to begin any day. Our 20 hours aboard the Orient Express have come to an end—save one last treat. Philip raps lightly on our door and enters briskly. “Breakfast, sirs,” he grins.

Article by John Polly and Clay Doyle. Photographs by Clay Doyle.
My First Travel Article!
{Published in Genre magazine, 1995}