Paris, Beaune, Chablis – Spring 2002

One of my many wine and food journeys through the French countryside, this time the Burgundy region, accompanied (as often) by Michael Logan. This trip produced the Bourgogne slideshow photographs and the short food and wine article for Out & About. What follows is a rather detailed account of the trip…

MOOOOOOOOOOOOoooOOOOooooOOOOoooOOOOoooOOOOO

25 May 2002 Aboard the Thalys to Paris

Ah well, here I am once again racing towards Paris. I’m a little tired, though I went to bed early, I didn’t sleep well, waking up very early, and repeatedly. I guess I was just overly excited about the trip. So it’s nice to be underway.

We’ve reached that part of the trip where the train goes really fast —so we’ll be in Paris in no time now; this trip I think is even faster than the last time I took it; I guess they just keep trimming the travel time bit by bit.

And Paris… well, we must go to the Pompidou Centre, and the Palais de Tokyo exhibition space; There’s that funny museum in a mansion in the 3rd that is supposed to be quite nice… not sure what else Logan wants to do… the Louvre no doubt —we’ll have to go late. And we must shoot some video of Paris… and with Logan doing his turning around —perhaps at the Palais Royale. And I want to have some oysters. And some foie gras!

Natalie Merchant and her band were in my car on the train from Paris…

25 May 2002 Paris

1 am, so really, we’re back early I suppose. Watched the Eurovision song contest in a little bar/coffee shop in the Marais, with a small but enthusiastic gay crowd. Not as fun as in Amsterdam though. Latvia won… it was neck and neck with Malta. The most fun really was Slovenia —with these drag queens. Well it was fun to watch —and the interminable voting. Mad little “fairy tale” vignette films about Estonia between each song! Curious, but they grew on you and seemed rather fun by the end. Before that we had dinner at Balzar —white asparagus (good, but I agree with Nathan, slightly over cooked) and steak tartare —that could not be improved upon —and frites —the only thing they could do to make those better would be to serve more of them!! And I had a bite of Logan’s delicious chocolate eclair —the dessert of the day. We left the restaurant and it started to poor down rain —almost out of a clear blue sky; so we caught a bus over to the Marais. It cleared up quickly; walking back to the hotel there’s a big bright full moon and the city looks so beautiful.

26 May 2002 Paris

Up late today… and all day, off and on rainstorms; so we went to the Pompidou Centre. There was a big surrealist show that was actually a bit overwhelming. Magritte, Dali, Max Ernst… I like the Magrittes, but a lot of the the rest just doesn’t appeal to me. Maybe we should have gotten the audio tour… it was huge. The whole post-1960 floor of the main museum has been reinstalled —and all my favorite works are gone! That was bit disappointing. I suppose they have to rotate things, but all-in-all I did not think the current selection was nearly as impressive… the collection does have to compete with the views over Paris —and more people seemed to be looking out the windows than looking at the permanent collection. Of course the sky was beautiful —very dramatic clouds in a changing sky. At one point the Sacre Cour looked like something from a fairy tale with a backdrop of fluffy clouds… we had a coffee and tart at Georges around tea time —super expensive; and then there’s the odd and aloof fashion-model staff…

Dinner tonight at a new place —the Table d’ Aligre at the Place d’Aligre (there’s a famous covered food market there) in the 12th not far from the Bastille. A pleasantly unassuming place with really good food, and really inexpensive. Good cheap wines too. We had foie gras and this braised lamb with artichokes and olives —it was delicious, especially the fat. I had an apple thing for dessert. The waiters were really nice and then when the one found out we were Americans he wanted to know about taking the train from New York to Montreal —which oddly enough I happened to know something about; so I told Logan to tell him that it was really nice —that’s what I’ve read anyway. Dinner for three with wine and the foie gras was 108 euro’s —a great deal, and very pleasant. We had a long walk back, now it’s time for sleep.

27 May 2002 Paris

… a day of doing very little. Slept much too late, but then we walked over to the Marais for a very late breakfast around noon. I had a cup of excellent tea (Marriage Bros.) and a croissant served by the cutest teen you can imagine! Afterwards we collected Brian and went over to the sixth, around Saint Sulpice. for some shopping. We had salads for lunch at an unremarkable but decent Bistro (ubiquitously named Bistro du Metro); We stopped in Saint Sulpice to look at the Delacroix’s and the crumbling chapels. We watched some shirtless boys disassembling the market stalls. We dodged intermittent rain showers. We shopped… well Brian shopped and Logan and I looked. We walked back through the Luxembourg gardens. Logan and Brian went off together to go to a used record store (where Logan was picking up a Joni Mitchell etching he had bought on ebay!) and I walked back towards the hotel. I stopped in a church, St. Ettienne du Mont, a sort of pretty gothic/renaissance hybrid begun by Francois I. Inside they have a tiny relic of St. Geneviève; they used to have her entire corpse, but the revolutionaries burned it and threw it in the river! I came back to the hotel, and Logan came back and we were going to go to the late hours at the Louvre… but we never made it. There was a tremendous rainstorm with thunder and a deluge… when it let up a bit we just walked down the street to have a glass of wine. We had dinner at nine at the Caveau de Palais, as Brian is quite fond of it. The food was quite OK, but we were seated upstairs and it was not so festive… really so much of the fun is a lively atmosphere and getting to see what everyone else is eating. That odd woman still rules the place with authority and the little dog still runs in and out. My cod was good, and brian had a quite wonderful whole fish, and it’s not terribly expensive… just wish we had gotten a table downstairs. We strolled home after, and went to sleep…

27 May 2002 Paris

Today quite active… we managed to get up at a reasonable hour and have our breakfast downstairs at 9:30. After breakfast we got on the metro and went to visit the Catacombs. I wanted to get us there before they closed for lunch —but they’ve changed the hours again, now they don’t close for lunch but they don’t open until eleven… so we had a twenty minute walk around the neighborhood–a nice market street lined with food shops and butchers and bakers and fishmongers. Not too many people in the catacombs —one had a bit of a feeling of being all alone down there at times; It’s quite large. Well, I had just been in September, but Logan and Brian had not been in a while. It’s a pity they don’t have a nice guide to explain everything though. Afterwards, Brian was hungry so I suggested we get back on the Metro line 4 and have Lunch at Deux Palais. We had a good lunch there —it really is one of the best of these generic Bistros —good frites, a decent roast chicken, Logan had a very good steak tartare and I had a delicious fresh strawberry tart. And we had a little pot of beaujolais. And the place was all full of smartly dressed Parisians from the Palais du Justice.

After lunch, Brian went to rest and Logan and I went to check out the new exhibition space in the Palais du Tokyo. It’s a cool space —this big 30’s style Neoclassical/fascist architecture —the interior of the new space has been stripped back to the framework. But it’s all so hip… like it’s been turned over to hipster teens and they’ve run amok. A huge space with really just a few highly over-conceptualized pieces of art… Outside, in front of an arcade of impossibly tall square pillars, three French teens attempted tricks on skateboards —they seemed so much like they should have been a piece of installation art. And in the other half of the building, the more conventional old modern art museum (of the City of Paris) goes to the other extreme —way too staid and dull (they do have good temporary exhibits here —it’s where we saw Douglas Gordon several years ago —but the temporary exhibition space was closed for installation.)

Now, resting before a drink, and dinner at La Villeret. All day today it’s been gray and raining, or drizzling. No dramatic downpours but no bits of blue sky or dramatic cloudscapes either. And rather chilly for the time of year…

Later…

Had a delicious dinner at La Villeret. We set out early and stopped at that attractively modern little AOC wine bar where I had tea the day before. We had a couple glasses of wine —very economical, Chinon 3 Euro’s a glass; the same cute boy was there, and a very nice woman. We sat and chatted and drank our wine and watched the gay boys rendezvousing, while it poured down rain outside. Eventually we paid up and went to catch the (very crowded) 96 bus to dinner. At 8:20, we were among the first to arrive at La Villeret. Of course it filled up completely as we sat there and ate. For starters: Logan had a concoction of cold lentils with bits of lamb tongue and foie gras on top —it was really delicious; Brian had the white asparagus —cooked the way I like, with a bit of rigidity, and served with a delicious vinaigrette and a slab of lardons. I thought mine was least successful, a sort of a crab salad, with pastry and wild asparagus. But it did have lots of crab. My main course though, was the best I think —a big hunk of braised pork shank with the most incredibly delicious honey glazed skin and honey sauce. Mr. Logan had a beautiful hunk of fish and Brian had veal liver. For dessert I had pan fried fresh cherries with some ice cream —delicious; and Logan had rhubarb with a blanc mange. We drank a bottle of 96 Savignier from the Loire. Dinner was first rate, and really a bargain (130 for three) for such elaborate preparations; It was the fanciest meal we’ve had so far this trip, even though the room and all is quite casual and neighborhoody. After dinner we took a leisurely stroll back to the Marais —it had cleared up for the moment —and sat at the Open Cafe and had a couple of drinks and watched the boys go by. The best of the lot was our super-cute waiter, Cyril. Finally we decided to walk back to the hotel —just as it started to rain again!

29 May 2002 Paris

Today we managed to get up and down to breakfast before 10 again! After breakfast, Logan and I headed over to the Musee d’ Orsay. There was a special Mondrian exhibition —his painting before his trademark abstract style —that we wanted to see. It wasn’t crowded —no lines or delay to get in, and though there were a lot of people at the Mondrian exhibition, it wasn’t unpleasantly crowded at all. The museum is in the midst of some sort of renovation, so a number of galleries were closed, and most of the big academic paintings were off view —no loss really, except for Jesus and the Nelly Apostles. We looked at the kitchy —but fun —sculptures in the center, and of course went up to the rooms on the top to see our favorite impressionists. I hope they re-hang the whole museum once the renovations are done —there are too many fabulous little paintings stuck away in tiny, grim rooms. After, we walked along the Seine, heading for the Marais, and lunch with Brian. It was a nice day, perhaps slightly cool, but dry, with clouds that were purely decorative. We stopped at the Bouquiniste Alain Huchet —fortunately, one of the few bouquiniste open today —so Logan could look for a cookbook birthday present for June. He found something in short order —we barely spent anytime browsing; just as well I suppose, as I really didn’t need to buy anything! We met Brian back at the AOC Cafe, so we could have these delicious looking club sandwiches that we saw people eating the night before. They were good; the cute boy was there again; I think he is a member of the family that owns it. After that we went shopping —the Camper store for new shoes, the Chaise Longue just to look at silly things, and the FNAC record store at the Bastille (with a stop at the place de Vosges, just for fun). Now we’re resting up in our room and listening to a Marianne Faithfull album (her new one, released only in Europe) on the iBook cd player, before we go out to a trendy restaurant for dinner.

Later…

Dinner at Salon d’ Helene… the little downstairs place of Helene Darroze, chef-of-the-moment in Paris. Actually the bistro —well not really a bistro —is very successful; a small, elegantly modern room, spacious and comfortable, serving little tapas-like plates of things. The food’s a little bit French and a whole lot “chef”. The service is friendly and casual —the whole little room attended by one cute girl and one cute boy. (after you get through the entrance that is, shared with the upstairs restaurant, where a boy in a little cap opens the door for you and a man behind a big desk checks your name off a computerized reservation list! Anyway, the food was interesting and complicated, and fortunately also delicious. We had seven little plates to share, which they brought round in two groupings; then a round of 3 very interesting cheeses, then dessert. Let’s see, first there was a soup with asparagus and foie gras with bacon on top; fava beans with black truffle and foie gras ice-cream(!); and a piece of almost raw salmon with couscous. Then we got a little pot of sweetbreads; a big piece of pork lard with roasted potatoes and girolle mushrooms; a plate of shredded oxtail; and a big lump of roasted foie gras. Then a spanish cheese, a soft cheese and a roquefort. My dessert was ille flotant–a very tasty and light meringue floating in a soup of summer red fruits —no creme anglais —very tasty; and Logan had a really chocolatey millefiulle. Dinner was nice —lots of eating but all so small that I don’t feel at all bloated; and while you wouldn’t call it cheap, it wasn’t too expensive —considering Logan ordered a bottle of champagne as soon as he sat down, and at € 70 it was a third of our bill! There were a lot of less expensive wines to chose from, so I think you could eat there for 50-60 euros a person —a good deal for a really fancy place. I took a copy of the menu —it changes monthly with a daily special.

We were going to go to the Eiffel Tower after dinner —but of course dinner went on a bit too late. The weather was nice, so it would have been a good night. I’ve been going to go the last few times I was here… and just haven’t made it.

30 May 2002 Beaune

Our first day in the countryside and, of course, today was all about gorging ourselves! We’ve had two cheese courses today! Oh those country meals.

Getting here was pleasantly uncomplicated. We caught a bus just steps from the Agora St. Germain, which took us to the Gare de Lyon. We caught our TGV train and rode a little over an hour and a half —through incredibly picturesque countryside —to the station in Dijon. At the tiny Avis office at the train station, everything was arranged and it took about 30 seconds to get our car —a really nice VW Golf. Avis is so nice to deal with. We drove straight out of Dijon and about halfway to Beaune on the N road. I had scoped out a place for lunch the night before in the Routard Guide, in case we were hungry —and of course we were. This place was in a tiny village outside of Nuits-Saint-Georges, the Auberge du Coteau in the tiny village of Villars-Fontaine. All the meats are cooked over a wood fire in a fireplace at one end of the dining room (a bit like in the Vosges). Logan had wood-grilled lamb and I had wood-grilled beef. There was homemade terrine, and our first of many “Jambon Persille” to start. Then they left the huge groaning cheese board at our table. Very tasty, and a fine introduction to the Cotes d’Or.

It was a quick, and very scenic, drive into Beaune. We circled the town looking for the “Hotel de la Poste” and pulled up in front of this very glamourous establishment. The Logan got out his confirmation, and realized we weren’t staying at the Hotel de la Poste (rejected as part of our austerity plan) but at the Hotel de France. So we drove on, and found it —a much more basic sort of Logis across from the Beaune train station.

Beaune is still a fairly small town; the historic center enclosed by mostly surviving ramparts. We were just a block outside the center. We took a late afternoon stroll into town to check out the sights. There’s some pretty little squares (one with a miniature carrousel), a nice shopping street, the very famous Hotel Dieu —the medieval hospital —which we decided to visit later. We did stop into the Collégiale Notre-Dame, a crusty old (mostly) Romanesque church. And we scoped out various restaurants —one very beautiful place, all the tables set up in the garden of a villa. This is the Jardin de Remparts, which has an excellent reputation, and undoubtedly the prettiest location in Beaune; sadly it was already ‘complet’ during the weekend of our visit. After our exploration of the city, we stopped at a little outdoor cafe and had a kir. The kir is especially good —really good cassis made locally in Bourgonge, and proper Bourgonge Aligote wine. The weather was especially nice and summery as well.

We did find the Americans in Beaune! After being so conspicuously absent in Amsterdam, and even in Paris, Beaune was positively swarming with Americans. (On the other hand, Chablis, we would discover later, was all Brits and Australians. And in the historical sites, the Abbeys and Churches, the few visitors tended to be Germans.)

Because the weather was so pleasant in the evening, I really wanted to eat outside. All the terrace restaurants seemed rather touristy, unfortunately, but we did find one, La Grilladine, that despite being full of Americans, seemed nice. It had a nice looking menu, a good wine list, a Bottin Gourmand recommendation, and a pretty interior where some locals were eating. We got a very pleasant outdoor table, and it turned out the food was very good —and we had what turned out to be our favorite bottle of burgundy on the trip —a Fixin. I had a tasty boeuf bourguignon and the jambon persille to start; I’m afraid I don’t recall what Logan ate (probably foie gras!). It was really nice on the terrace, and entertaining as well. The Americans were typically loud and demanding, and the several waiters were young, and obviously new summer help. Well they were quite unbothered by it all, but the headwaiter was in a tizzy; he was this very ‘Basil Fawlty’ sort of character caught between the demands of the patrons and the inexperience of his staff. One thought he might at some point simply explode!

There’s not much happening in Beaune after dinner, so we returned to our room overlooking the train station. Now there’s no passenger service in Beaune after about 11pm —but apparently it sits on the main freight line between Paris and Geneva! About every 20 minutes a huge freight train would roar past the station. Strangely though, the noise didn’t really bother me.

31 May 2002 Beaune

Mr. Logan has picked out some far-flung sites for us to visit today. They don’t seem so far-flung on the map, but actually driving to them you feel the distance. We’re heading to the Southernmost part of Burgundy — almost into the Beaujolais, north of Lyon. All along the N road, (the main roadway, but still only one lane in each direction most of the route) there are the most stylishly grisly highway markers. They are life-sized black and red metal cutouts depicting a stylized, but very recognizable, dead person! There is a marker placed at every point on the road where someone has been killed! And there are, I must say, quite a lot of them. Most chilling are the little groups where 3 or 4 people have died together. Well, I told Logan. at least if we get killed driving this road, we will get little markers to commemorate the event. Perhaps they would even append a little sign: “American Rufuses”. And the way people drive it is no wonder so many die on the highway —they go so fast on these narrow, curving roads. I cannot drive fast enough for the locals, and then someone is tailgating at high speed; I frantically try to find a place to pull over so they can get past. Fortunately there is not a whole lot of traffic, and one often has the road to oneself for a while.

Our first stop is Paray-le-Monial, the most perfectly preserved of the Cluny monastic churches. It is a sober Romanesque church, said to be a smaller version of the great church at Cluny, now destroyed. The church sits facing the river and is quite impressive. There is also quite a nice garden behind. The church’s main claim to religious fame is that it is here that the cult and the doctrine of the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” originated. I don’t think I understand the Sacred Heart well enough to try to explain it… but apparently at some point in the middle ages a young nun at the convent down the street saw a vision of Jesus with a flaming heart on the outside of his chest (we also visited the little chapel where she had her vision.) This seems to have been thoroughly (and perhaps rightly) ignored until the 19th century, when in a frenzy of religious ferver it was revived, and formalized by the Vatican, and Paray-le-Monial became a pilgrimage site. Anyway, out in the garden there is this pavilion which tells the story of the visionary nun in an endless series of narrated dioramas. We started to watch, but it just went on and on, and we were shortly defeated. There was also a nice street market in town that day, and we bought a little pastry to eat.

From Paray-le Monial we had a short, but circuitous drive to Cluny —the seat of the once-powerful Cluniac Monastic Order —to see the remains of the great church. It was at one time the largest church in Christendom, but it was demolished during the Revolution, and really there is not much left. From the excavated foundations, and one remaining chapel, you can get an idea of the size… they sell you a ticket which entitles you to a tour, but we discovered that most of what is interesting to see you can see for free. The admission doesn’t get you much. The town itself is somewhat interesting; We climbed to the top of the cheese tower (no idea why it’s called that) for the panorama, and we visited the little town church, which was very cute and crusty.

From there we next stopped at the little medieval town of Tournus to see yet another Abbaye Church. The Abbaye de St. Philibert is one of the oldest romanesque churches in Burgundy. It’s a fortified structure with great thick round pillars and not many windows. There was a pretty little courtyard, and (I later read) another chapel above the gloomy narthex, which we missed. Also in the town is a preserved (or restored) medieval pharmacy, but after not finding it following a cursory stroll through the town, we gave up and headed back to Beaune. With all the driving added in it had been a long day. The scenery however —forests, vineyards, cows, canals, little stone villages —was beautiful.

Later…

We had dinner at Bénaton, a little chef-run place that is reputed to be one of Beaune’s best. It’s a small dining room, and though there is a nice garden at back, all seating was indoors. fortunately we got the table by the door, as it was quite warm. The food was good, with an amuse bouche, starter, main course, cheese and dessert. Sadly, I didn’t write down what we had, and now I can’t remember! It was on the other side of town (by the hotel de la poste) so we had a leisurely walk through the deserted town after dinner.

1 June 2002 Beaune

Today we are up for a morning visit to Autun, to see another 12th century church. We went to see the Cathedrale St. Lazare, famous for its stone carvings by Gislebertus. There’s a big last judgment over the door, and lots of smaller scenes on the capitols —Adam and Eve, things like that, all very stylishly, almost modernly, realized. We had lunch in a fancy hotel nearby —I had us seated on the terrace, as it was a very sunny day, but I roasted poor Mr. Logan. They didn’t have an umbrella for us, as this French family at the next table was hogging two. Despite the lack of umbrella, it was a nice lunch —we had just a main course and dessert —but again, I don’t really remember what we ate. Afterwards, we had a rather exhausting hike around the old ramparts —but never quite getting on the top of them, which was our intention. Then we drove to see the old Roman city gate and the remains of the Roman Amphitheater. As a Roman City in the first century, the population of Autun was four times what it is today. After that, we hurried back to Beaune, because we still had our sightseeing to do there. We took this tasting tour of the Cellars of the hotel Dieu —very touristy really, but also sort of fun —there are like 14 different wines to taste, all down in this refreshingly cold and dark cellar. And then you can buy things, but of course we couldn’t because there was no way to take them home! Then we visited the Hotel Dieu itself —The most famous sight in Burgundy, and really it is very beautiful. The courtyard is surrounded by restored medieval buildings, with those famous brightly-colored-patterned tile roofs.

Later…

It’s 11:30 pm here at the Hotel de France, across from the rail station in Beaune. It’s a funny hotel —in many way a quintessential Logis de France. Everyone is super friendly —a typical family owned hotel.

So for my food and wine of Burgundy article… aperitifs: Kir, which is really good here in its region of origin and the Cremant du Bourgonge, a cheap, but very refreshing sparkling wine. The best food of the region, I think, is the simple, basic sort of country food… the Jambon Persille; the escargot (but how on earth did they first think to eat them?!); the meats grilled over a wood fire or the classic braised dishes of boeuf bourguignon or coq au vin. Plenty of nice cheese too… and of course the red burgundies are a delight.

The scenery is wonderful… lots of forests, and rolling hillsides covered with vines… and everywhere tiny herds of white cows —the famous charolais beef (dare I say though, that I prefer the chianini beef of tuscany?). But driving along the tiny roads is really beautiful —it’s a prettier landscape even than the Loire, I think, and seems somehow more remote. That is except for Beaune —Beaune is overrun with tourists. All the American Rufuses who are not in Amsterdam and not even in Paris, seem to be here in Beaune —along with a fair number of German tourists as well. Actually, when you get out of Beaune, and visit the other towns —places more famous for history and architecture than wine —then there are no more Americans, and all the tourists are German! But really, nothing is very crowded…

… so back to our silly hotel… when Logan made the reservation, they said we had to take one dinner at the hotel, so he booked us here for Saturday night. Well fine… and we went down to dinner tonight around eight —and they had totally forgotten about us as they had booked a tour group of 45 persons into the restaurant! I thought this was very silly —so they were going to put us all alone in this sort of annex room, which seemed very depressing, but we got them to put us at one of the tables for the bar that sit out on the sidewalk facing the train station. That was perfect, the weather was quite warm, no breeze, a beautiful sunset —so really it couldn’t have worked out better. And the man running the place, and his teen son, were both really nice and really friendly. We had a very simple regional meal–snails and the jambon (delicious); a sort of flank cut of the charolais beef (inoffensive but unimpressive); a big-ass assortment of local cheese, and some cassis ice-cream. We drank a nice cote de nuits 96 burgundy; and I had a glass of marc de Bourgonge after dinner. The owner even gave me a cigarette to have with it. We watched the bus group arrive (it was dinner stop on a trip from Paris to the south of France) and we watched the people come and go from the train station. It was quite nice actually —much better than eating in the slightly stuffy, climatisee, dining room.

2 June 2002 From Beaune to Chablis

We left our hotel in Beaune and arrived in Chablis a bit after five. It’s a longer drive than one might think —although our trip today included plenty of rufusing. The first 90 minutes involved finding and visiting a ruined Abbey (Saint Margaritte) outside the town of Builland, not far really from Beaune itself. We got a bit lost finding the town, and then finding the Abbey ruins involved a bit of detective work —they are not marked by any sign, or monument marker, which is a bit unusual. We saw a picture at our hotel, and I wanted to visit. So we found them eventually (they are indicated, vaguely, on our Michelin map) up a very narrow, dead-end road above the town. It’s a nice ruin, the substantial remains of a small gothic church, and other buildings —but you can’t get too close. The ruins are privately owned and surrounded by a double fence of barbed wire. They are quite isolated, but we were not alone —there was also a family of German hikers and a bicycle tour. There was even a little parking lot, so one assumes there must have been signs to it at one time —though we were the only car to come up the tiny road. Fortunately! The drive from Beaune to there, and then on to where we picked up the bigger road to Chablis, took us through a forest, which was really pretty. Forests, fields of wildflowers, white cows in little pastures, some rugged stone cliffs, tiny villages —and all very peaceful. Very few other cars, and all quite sleepy —well it was Sunday, and everything in the villages was closed up, of course.

We made it to the bigger road, which was also quite scenic, and where we quite sped along, between the villages. We were heading to the Abbaye de Fontenay —a sight Logan picked out —halfway between Beaune and Chablis. Around 1pm though, I started to get hungry —and the towns we were passing through seemed so small as to not really have any restaurants. Logan checked the Routard and found a highly regarded place in the town nearest the Abbaye: Mirrabelles, in St. Remy next to Montbard. We located the restaurant without too much trouble —and it was complet! Well it was Sunday lunch after all, but it must be very good; it’s quite an out of the way spot —even for the town of Montbard. Well, we went into the town center and had lunch at L’Ecu, the Logis in town. It was ok, nothing special, and a little pricey. We did get to sit on a nice shaded terrace, and at least we didn’t starve. (Good thing we did not wait and try to eat at the Abbaye —it’s totally isolated and the only food there is in three vending machines!). Anyway we drove into the isolated valley and found the Abbaye. It is the oldest surviving Cistercian Abbaye. (The Cistercian order was founded by monks who found the Cluny order too luxurious. Those kooky monks.) It has all been recently restored, and is quite an intact complex from the late romanesque/early gothic period. An impressive and somber romanesque church, a beautiful cloister, gothic chapter house and scriptorium, a dormitory with a ships hull wooden roof, and a huge 13th century gothic forge —almost as big as the church. Apparently it was the first iron works with a waterwheel for power; water was also diverted for fountains on the monastery grounds. It’s all quite pretty; smaller in scale than some of the other abbayes we’ve visited, and very peaceful. A few busloads of tourists, but they were sort of easy to ignore.

A lot of the way, we drove along the canal du Burgundy —it’s long, and very tranquil —with lock houses, and with boys diving and swimming from the banks or the bridges. After Fontenay, we drove on to Chablis, a cute little town with a gothic church towering over the center. Haven’t really explored yet, just arrived at the hotel and decided to rest a bit.

Later… in Chablis

Here we are in our little room in a cute fancied-up hotel in Chablis, the Hostellerie dus Clos. The room is cute but tiny; it looks out on a nice little courtyard, where I may go to continue typing in a bit. It is supposed to have the best restaurant in Chablis, so we will see. I am a bit hot and tired from driving all day.

And Later Still…

So we had dinner at our hotel tonight —at the world’s fanciest Logis! Well actually the rooms aren’t that fancy at all, but the lobby/restaurant is totally over the top. And all kinds of waiters and waitresses in fancy dress running about —in stark contrast to the poorly dressed Brits, and even the casually attired French patrons. Anyway we had aperitifs in the courtyard, dinner in the fancy dining room and our after dinner infusion du maison in the “salon”, in big wingchairs. Dinner was delicious —fairly inexpensive ingredients, but very well —and elaborately —prepared. Only mini-pricey at 49 euros each —and with a good Chablis for 20 Euros. They have a lot of reasonably priced Chablis —and some very expensive ones for the rich foreigners, I’m sure. Anyway, we had a little amuse bouche of cold tomato soup with a bit of shrimp in it —I ate Logan’s as well; Then a salad of little white asparagus, wild asparagus, and (mostly) little mushrooms in a delicious sauce. Then I had a pike fish mouse with crayfish and crayfish sauce, and they made a delicious piece of grilled sander for Mr. Logan. Then we had veal kidneys(!) in a Chablis sauce —three little slices really, in a sauce that was just perfect for them. Then an assortment of local cheeses. We drank a 1998 La Chablissiene Vielles Vignes —the sommelier recommended it; he wouldn’t let Logan order the one he had picked out that cost twice as much —he said this one was much better. I thought it was good —but then what do I know. For dessert we had some strawberries, very fresh, very delicious, with some little syrup and a croustillant. Then our infusion de la maison —with vervienne in it and the usual plate of very tasty little sweets. We took a short walk around the deserted town after dinner, and now we are resting in our suite… there are lots of really big mosquitos out in the town… so I’m a bit apprehensive. The room is not climatisee, so we have to leave the window open —it’s quite warm tonight.

and one more thing…

Cloches! The main courses arrived covered with silver cloches, which were whipped off in unison. Lots and lots of staff actually —and we didn’t even see into the kitchen. In the morning we have the true test —the breakfast!

3 June 2002 Chablis

I will mention the excellent breakfast at the hotel. They actually set up early this morning to serve it in the courtyard —I could hear them through the window —but then it started to rain and they had to move everything inside. It was a very good country in breakfast —lots of tasty pastries; good bread for toast; jams and honey in little crocks; good yogurt in glass jars, some dried fruits, and oddly, a custard. Tasty. The inn is a bit of an odd hybrid: the rooms, and the breakfast, seem like a really good Logis; but the lobby, and the staff and restaurant are like a Leading Hotel of the World. It would almost be stuffy, except there are enough people working here who are obviously summer help —less than perfect and sort of amused by what they’re doing; it helps take the edge off. And the food is really good, and the prices not excessive for the quality of the food —and the rooms are not expensive. It could use more French people though —there is far too much English being spoken; lots of Australians and Brits. It does have a big elevator, and the whole place is wheelchair accessible —a real rarity among country inns —so there are a number of guests in wheelchairs, living it up, which is a nice touch, and probably worth mentioning in an article.

A trip to Mr. Bricolage!

We asked the woman at the desk about having our laundry done and she directed Mr. Logan to this “Pressing” in a mall outside of Auxerre —at the “Geant”. Well, I knew by the time we were halfway there that it was too far to leave our laundry —when would we get back to pick it up, next year? But we sort of followed through anyway, and found this sort of mall on the ring road around Auxerre and went into this huge K-Mart sort of store —very American, except for the French-speaking —and inquired about an electrical adapter to replace the one I left in Beaune. they didn’t have one, but the cute boy (yet another one) consulted with someone and told us to go across the road —to Mr. Bricolage. Just like in America, though we could see it across the street, it was impossible to walk to; we had to get in the car and drive there! It’s a big Home-Depot like store, and they did indeed have just what we needed; Mr. Logan loved the place, and I had to talk him out of buying pricey European light bulbs to take home! After we left Mr. Bricolage, we realized we should have just bought new t-shirts at the Geant —easier and probably cheaper than the laundry —but we didn’t drive back to do it. Instead we set off on the day’s sightseeing.

And on to the relics of Mary Magdelene…

After we left Mr. Bricolage, we drove south to Vézelay, an old monastery church and hilltop village. It was a very important pilgrimage site in the middle ages —they have a reliquary in the crypt with the bones of Mary Magdelene! We got to see them. The church is large and very handsome —rather light inside for a romanesque church, and very austere except for very nice capitols on the pillars carved with flowers, bible scenes and religious legends. On has to hike up this long, slightly steep main street —lined with galleries selling ugly paintings, and lots of restaurants —to the church. The monastery buildings were mostly pulled down, leaving the church surrounded by a large park with amazing views down on the surrounding countryside and other little villages. There were surprisingly few other visitors, and we had the place mostly to ourselves. It had been sprinkling or threatening rain on the drive down, but when we left the church the clouds had dispersed and it became a sunny, and very warm, day.

From Vézelay we drove about 15 km to the town of Avallon —an old fortified town with a funny old romanesque church —the nave descended in steps so it was on about four different levels. the town also had an old clock tower, and the old ramparts. Driving back to Auxerre to visit the Cathedral there, we stopped in a really cute little town called Cravant. We stopped because it just looked so picturesque from the side of the road —there was a stone gate leading into town. Just a little place with tiny alleys —petit rues —running behind the houses, and a pretty little gothic church with fabulous gargoyles, that was all locked up (there was a sign directing visitors to someone’s house to get the key, but we didn’t bother.) There was also this mad enclosed pool fed by a fountain from a nearby stream —no explanation as to the purpose at all —but it looked like some sort of healing waters (at least I’d like to think so); it was enclosed, so not really decorative, but didn’t really seem functional either. Logan suggested it was for watering livestock, but I pointed out that it would be rather difficult to get them in through the rather small doors! (It was and old public wash-house of course —there was one in Chablis as well, we later found.)

From there we drove on to Auxerre —it’s a rather large town or a small city. You even have to pay for parking, though it’s quite cheap. And it was lively after the other places we’d been —lots of young people, students racing around on motorbikes and having drinks in cafes. It had a big old gothic church, Cathedrale St. Etienne —quite tall, with impressive windows, and below, a romanesque crypt, leftover from the previous church, with some old frescoes still extant. The old part of town has some narrow lanes with half timbered houses; It’s built on a hill and the river runs along the edge of the old city (now the modern city sprawls across both sides of the river). There are a couple of other large churches as well, which we did not visit. And the city has a long shopping street (in addition to all the mega-stores on the outskirts), but apparently the shops in this region of France are all traditionally closed on Monday.

We didn’t have dinner at the hotel tonight, but we had aperitifs and then afters —I had their excellent infusion maison, and Logan had this mad bright green mint liqueur called Gat 27. A bit like scope on ice. We had dinner at a place down the street called Bistro de Grand Crus, a simple little place which was fine but not amazing, and not so busy on a Monday night. We probably should have driven out of town to a little country inn —there was one that sounded really good in Logan’s wine book —but I didn’t really want to drive anymore; most of the other places in Chablis were closed on Monday night. Logan did have the Jambon de Morvan —a sort of prosciutto-like ham, but served in thick slices. I had some white asparagus, and then a cuisse de canard and Logan had a nice piece of white fish. It was all fine. Pretty cheap too, except for the €30 bottle of Chablis.

Had a long walk around the totally deserted and shut-up town, our after-dinner infusion and drink at the hotel, and now to sleep. We have dinner here at the hotel tomorrow —I’m planning an easy day of looking around the town and then driving a route of nearby wine villages.

4 June 2002 Chablis

We had lunch today in this terrific little restaurant —a tiny place we just happened on. Actually it was mentioned in Logan’s wine book, but it didn’t make it sound like much. It’s one of those discoveries that one makes in the French country side that is just a very happy accident. It’s Le St. Bris, in the little village of St. Bris Le Vineux. The owner of the place is Jean Francois Pouillot, and he works mostly alone in his small restaurant. When we arrived for lunch, at about 1:45, there was just one table occupied; he emerged from the kitchen and gave us a warm welcome, seated us at a little table, and got us a half bottle of the local white burgundy from nearby Chitry. We ordered just the simple plate of the day, a grilled Andouillettes de Troyes; with an apple rhubarb tart for dessert. There were several very delicious sounding menus written on little chalkboards —but they were all four and five courses, and we really wanted a small lunch. Apparently M. Pouillot decided we had to have a starter anyway, so we brought us a little crock of 6 escargots to share. They were delicious, in garlic, butter and parsley. Then our plates with beautiful white andouilletes —usually not my favorite I must confess, though they are a specialty of this region —and it was delicious (just the slightest suggestion of that innardy smell that is sometimes so overpowering). They were flavorful and tripey but not at all gross. I hope I’m not damning with faint praise here —but it was good and nicely presented on a plate with a few little vegetables. Then we got two huge slices of the apple rhubarb tart —the rhubarb green and crisp, finely chopped and mixed with a bit of custard. After that, coffee and some special little chocolates and biscuits from the bakery in the town. All the time the owner would come out to chat (in French of course) and ask questions of us; he told Logan that he prefers to work alone; he feeds 10 to 15 people at lunch and at dinner, and he likes to be able to interact with the diners, and do everything himself. I wish we had found it earlier in the trip, as I would like to go and have his huge groaning multi-course meal. I’m sure it’s fabulous. On the menu outside it said “a true cuisine de chef still exists” —his motto for the place. I just think it is great —a real find, and a place to look forward to returning —delicious, personal, interesting and inexpensive. I get much more excited about a place like this than about the very fancy place at our hotel —even though the food is indisputably terrific, it has been featured in bunch of magazines even.

If St. Bris is full, or a large group comes by, he sends them to the Auberge des Tilleuls in Vincelottes. We actually stopped there first for lunch (this is the place I had thought about going for dinner the night before), but decided that all the set menus seemed too large for what we wanted… but it’s good, regional cooking, and a beautiful terrace, tented, on the waterfront along the tranquil river Yonne. Very pretty, and it’s a Logis as well. Still I’m glad we moved on to Le St. Bris —it’s a special place.

We explored Chablis on foot in the morning. It has a pretty little riverfront promenade, with a few little parks, a swim pool that is filled from the river in the summer months, An old riverside washing house, some mills —one of which is of course a restaurant. We tried to go in the pretty —and from a distance, imposing —little gothic church, but it is in the midst of a re-roofing, and it was all locked up. We visited the town cemetery as well —another old church, but likewise locked up. The rest of the day we spent driving around the nearby wine towns —just cute, very little towns —with interesting old churches, all of which were locked up. And we drove by the cremant caveau of Bailly, and we had our fabulous little lunch in St. Bris, and saw an old Templar church (the oldest church in the l’yonne) in Fontenay des Chablis. The highlight of the days sightseeing though was Potigny —where there is an old, very handsome Cistercian Abbey. Very little visited, compared with the more famous abbeys, but really worth it —large and imposing, beautiful light inside; we bought a little guide in the shop to tell us all about it. I think the best thing though is being able to appreciate it in complete tranquility. During most of our visit we were all alone.

Back in town we stopped at the caves of the Chablis wine growing commune, La Chablissiene. Logan bought 6 bottles of wine —which we are lugging now; I wanted to have some shipped to Amsterdam; but apparently they can’t ship outside of France. There are good things, very inexpensive, and shipping within France doesn’t amount to much —but so much for the common market I guess… at least where wine’s concerned. The only way is to bring a car so that one can drive it back —so I guess I’ll just look for some of these things in Amsterdam. After that it was back to Hostellerie du Clos, and making some notes, and then off to dinner…

Back in the hotel now, and it’s storming. A sudden rainstorm has blown up out of nowhere, and it’s dark and thundering and pouring down rain!

Later…

OK, I have to say that dinner at our fancy hotel restaurant was a bit too big. I liked the less expensive menu with the kidneys more. Everything tonight was really tasty; it was just too much, too many courses of very rich food. We had an amuse bouche of cold cantaloupe soup —delicious. then we had a salad with foie gras and girolles mushrooms. This was a replacement for the morell mushrooms stuffed with foie gras —which Logan was dying to have —but which for some reason wasn’t available. Then I had a little soup of crayfish tails and Logan had a morrel soup with green asparagus. then we had “line caught” bar, pan fried. Then we had a medallion of lamb. Then we had a cheese assortment. Then we had little fried pastries filled with rhubarb and accompanied with strawberries. Then we had our infusion maison, and the little cookie things. So you can see —it was a groaning amount of food. We drank another chablis (1998) of course, and an Irancy red Bourgonge (2000, a more robust year for this very light red) with the lamb. It stopped raining so we could have a walk after dinner, but it wasn’t enough. I feel like I’m going to have to work at losing some weight when I get back to Amsterdam.

5 June 2002 Aboard the TGV to Paris

A long, sort of exhausting day, the return to Paris. It lacks the excitement of the outbound journey, and perhaps it was a mistake to book the return in the afternoon; there’s something good about getting the travel over with early in the day. But then it took us an hour and a half to drive from Chablis back to Dijon —even using the autoroute, it’s a longer trip than I thought. Then getting the gas, and finding the train station. So around 12:30 we set off for a quick tour of the town. It’s sort of a large place —bigger than any of the other cities we’ve been to on this trip, and bigger than Tours for instance, and very grand seeming, with a huge baroque complex in the center housing government offices and a musee des Beaux Arts. This was the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, but much and often added to over the centuries. There are also a number of Churches: the Notre Dame, with a very funny gothic facade absolutely covered with protruding gargoyles; and a big gothic church with a very odd looking renaissance facade —and inside a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary from the twelfth century. (It is believed to have saved the city from siege by the Swedes in the 16th century and from destruction by the Germans in WWII.) And Dijon has a big shopping area, with a Galleries Lafayette and H&M, and a big old iron covered food market, which was unfortunately closed for the lunch hour when we were there. So that’s it —we skipped a big lunch, as we’ve been eating far too much, and just had a hot cheese/onion/ham sandwich which we took away from a bakery. It was very oniony. Now we’re on the TGV —this one seems to have originated in Lucerne, Switzerland —and we’re racing back through the Burgundian countryside (very pretty) towards Paris. There was a storm last night, and now remnants of it all day; lots of wind, but then some sun too; and then brief bits of rain. Apparently the weather in Chablis, especially, is very unstable, and they are prone to sudden storms rising up from nowhere.

Specialties of Chablis/ the l’Yonne:

Gougères —little cheese puffs, a snack with an aperitif

Andouilletes —tripe sausages

Pain d’ Epices —gingerbread

Jambon Morvan —prosciutto like ham served in thick slices

soft cows milk cheeses —famously Époisses, a smelly, runny cheese; and chaources, a milder creamy cheese

Cherries —in springtime; asparagus in season

Escargots —from burgundy

“Terrior de l’Yonne” organization for regional products: butchers, bakers, and restaurants.

Wines:

Chablis —very dry chardonney grown in a small appellation surrounding the town on limestone soil. On of France’s best white wines, and the best of the Burgundy whites.

Cremant de Bourgonge —the best from Bailly near Chablis; this area is quite near the champagne region, and like many champagnes it is a sparkling wine made from Chardonnay grapes —but much cheaper.

Bourgonge Aligote —a cheap white wine that, with the local creme de Cassis, is the basis for a proper kir.

5 June Later… Paris

Our train arrived right on time at the Gare de Lyon and the bus trip to the hotel was super easy —it’s practically door to door service. It was nearly six by the time we got settled, and we were pretty hungry too. Logan decided he wanted to eat at Bofinger —for a very typical last meal in Paris. He called them but they wouldn’t take a reservation, but said if we got there by seven we could likely have a table. So we walked over to the Bastille and arrived at Bofinger a bit after seven. There were only a very few tables occupied at that hour of course, so it was no problem and we got a nice table on the ground floor. All was very pleasant until they seated these two very odd women at the table next to us. One was very loud, and despite a funny sort of accent, very American. She was ugly in the extreme, with unkempt hair, warty complexion, and some kind of hideous pink sleeveless hand-knit top. Her companion was none too attractive either, but at least very quiet in a mousey sort of way. Well the loud one was just complaining about everything —they were eating there on some sort of voucher given by a tour company or something, anyway they weren’t even paying for dinner, but nothing seemed to suite —“We don’t want any wine, we want coffee and tea —this coffee’s too strong! Sausages! who would eat sausages for dinner? Can we have extra vegetables? How about broccoli? Do you have broccoli? She wants a salad too… ” The waiters were so accommodating to all this, I was absolutely amazed; where the Parisians get their reputation for rudeness, I don’t know. Anyway, at first it was impossible to ignore this woman, and Logan and I both inwardly groaned —it stopped our conversation, and her voice just reverberated in the space between us. Apparently she was here to see the Louvre —that was her mission —and if she was forced to endure the city of Paris in order to do it, she was just going grit her teeth and soldier through it. Oh how I wanted to tell her to lighten up, have some wine, enjoy her free meal! Well, fortunately, the restaurant filled up quickly, the noise level rising to drown her out more-or-less, and their food came and she shut up —occasionally —to eat. And the ironic thing is they devoured the food —every bite: the onion soups, the fish, the mashed potatoes, the artichokes, the side of greenbeans; the extra salad —Logan said she commented constantly on how delicious it was, so go figure.

I enjoyed my dinner as well, but then I expected I would! We had Lillet served with a little dish of green olives and tiny pretzels. Then I had my big platter of six oysters with a glass of Chablis, while Logan had foie gras (again!). Then Logan had a fish that was the daily special, and I had braised duck. We had a nice bottle of Burgundy (a Mercurey) with it. Then Logan had a coupe colonel and I had a chocolate tart. It was all quite good —maybe it’s a little pricey, now that with the Euro one is aware of the prices —and it was great fun to watch the waiters dashing around, in and out of the kitchen, up and down the stairs, carrying trays piled with dishes and grand plateaus de fruit de mer. We stopped afterwards at the Petit Fer a Cheval for a drink —it was full of fashion-modelly drunk rufuses inside —but we sat outside so it was ok.

6 June 2002

Logan left early in the morning —before breakfast —so I had breakfast alone in the hotel, then set off dashing all around Paris on my own. And I really did dash around. First I took the Metro out to the 16th, where I’d never really been before, a sort of a well-to-do but non-touristy area, and walked several blocks to find the Foundation Le Corbousier —housed in a double villa he built in the 1920’s. One of the Villas is open to the public, and it is quite fabulous —very cubist, very stylish, probably not so easy to live in; but it’s on four levels with lots of windows, and interior spaces looking into other rooms and cool built-in bookshelves, and picture rails and light fixtures. I left there and walked all the way to the Trocodero —just to see the neighborhood, which is very residential, very typically Parisian. At the Trocodero I stopped to take in the view of the Eiffel tower, and the view of all the tourists and school kids taking in the view. Then I walked another couple blocks to the Palais du Tokyo, where I made a second visit to the hipster contemporary art space. The Wolfgang Tilmans had just opened, and I wanted to see it. Actually it was impressive and beautifully installed —this huge curving white space with a very high, sky lit ceiling; and the pictures —huge, tiny and everything in between, tacked to the walls all over the place. And some of the pictures were very affecting, especially the snapshotty portraits. But so much of his work is so banal —I know that the banality is sort of his stock in trade —but really I think it’s too much; and actually his newer work is more abstract —big photogram things and such; they don’t have much emotional appeal, but they do show some effort.

By now I was quite hungry, so on a whim I dashed to the subway and went to the Palais Royale and to Willi’s wine bar —arriving about 2:15, just in time to have a nice lunch at the bar: Asparagus and broadbean soup with a glass of Riesling, and veal liver with a cote rotie; a refreshing dessert of fresh cherries and orange slices with a slab of hard bitter chocolate. Very tasty. After lunch I had a bit of a walk around the Palais Royale, then took the metro out to the eighth and walked around looking in shop windows. Finally got back to the hotel after six; Went to the laundromat down the street at seven so I could have some clean clothes. At ten, walked over to the Marais, and had some dim sum things at that little place by St. Paul. Then sat at a sidewalk table at the Open cafe and had a few beers. Checked out the Full-metal and the QG bar —neither very busy, then checked out the Arene —busier, but as dreadful as I remember it being (thought I’d give it a second chance); and really expensive beer too.

7 June 2002

More photography… Before lunch, the show at the photo museum at the Hotel Sully —which after I paid my 5 Euros, I realized I had already seen —last year at the Van Gogh Museum. It’s this personal collection of American photographs from 1840-1940. It was interesting enough to see again though. And then, after Lunch, I went to the other photo museum in the Marais to see the much hyped Klien+Paris exhibit. Big and garish, and many funny juxtapositions; mostly crowd shots from the street, or group shots a society events. In between I walked out to the Place de l’Aligre and had lunch at the Table l’Aligre. I had the daily menu: a crab salad, a roasted codfish, and a creme brulee; it was all very tasty and included wine, and a cafe —all for 20 euros. A good deal, especially when you consider that I had just spent that morning 10 euros for two cups of coffee and a piece of toast at the AOC cafe.

It was a bit gloomy all day in Paris, but now that I’ve come back to the hotel to rest after a day of dashing around, it’s cleared up and become quite sunny. 8 pm and it’s very sunny and bright. I’d take this computer to a cafe to make my notes, but I haven’t had it plugged in and the battery is not charged.

Later…

I had a lie down in the early evening, then went out for a walk at dusk to take some photos and have a snack. I was going to stop at the Deux Palais, but it was closing, so I went to the Panis and had a croque on country bread.

8 June 2002

Out today pretending to shop. Actually I bought a summer shirt and some boxer shorts at this cheap, stylish store from Spain called Celio. Then it was just browsing around the St. Germain des Pres and San Sulpice. Then I happened by a little movie theater where they were showing the Larry Clark film “Bully”, so I decided to go see it. It was really good, I thought. Then over to the Marais for a bit more non-shopping —I tried in vain to find this one men’s clothing store that I had seen earlier in the week. Then on my way back to the hotel, I stopped at Notre Dame and caught a bit of the Saturday evening service. Lots of singing, and very nice to experience the church in use. I hadn’t a big lunch on Saturday, so I went out to dinner at Polidor. It was fun —because of the people —but it is not as cheap as I remember it. (dinner cost me as much as lunch at Willi’s.) I had a lentil soup (rather dull) and the pintade with cabbage, which was quite good, and a huge tarte tatin with creme freche. Sat with a girl from London and her two French friends; they were nice.

Dithered about where to go for a drink that night —Keller or Docks or Transfert. Decide on Transfert, but it was a mistake —it’s the tiniest bar in Paris, and was empty as well. So after taking the metro there (it’s at the far end of the Louvre) I had to walk back to the Marais, and just went to the Full Metal, and actually didn’t stay out too late.

9 June 2002 Aboard the Thalys to Amsterdam

Very tired today —too little sleeping the last three nights —so most of the trip back I’ve just been listening to music and staring out the window at the landscape. Some really beautiful cloud formations as we sped through Northern France. Holland is predictably gray.

I had an early lunch before I left Paris —a steak tartare at the Terminus Nord. It is yet another Flo group brasserie, but anyway that does assure that the food is of a high calibre. I was torn between steak tartare and oysters —I only had time for one course. Had the tartare and a half bottle of Cotes du Rhone. Anyway it is directly across the street from the station, so it is very convenient.

Now I have my article to write, but it won’t be done on the train. I finally get out the computer, and we’re racing into Schipol already —so we’ll be in Amsterdam in 15 minutes.

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.

FINIS