France and Italy, Part I, Paris to Lucca

My journal of  a 49 day, nearly 5000 kilometer, driving tour through France and Northern Italy during September and October of 2006. I was accompanied by my mother (aka Nonna) and joined by Michael Logan (twice) and other friends along the way. A long trip, and a long story…


14 September 2006                    LAX

So through security (some special alert today…who knows why; fortunately we had a town car and that could bypass the roadside checkpoint…apparently terrorists aren’t smart enough to hire town cars?) and waiting in the WorldClub lounge to board the plane to Paris. Everyone thinks I left 2 days ago, when I really just went to Tustin to pack and to work until today. Air France check in very nice; security the usual annoyance. Not excessive, considering. Have decided Airport Check-in should be one event in the Modern Triathlon. One is exhausted by the time one gets to the lounge. Not to even mention boarding the plane. And it is prohibited to take water on board. Silly. Oh, and I packed too much stuff. Too many t-shirts. Next entry from Paris.


15 September 2006                    Paris, France

Arrived Paris. Flight uneventful, almost pleasant, despite coach seats. Very good dinner. Slept a bit. Watched To Catch a Thief and Transamerica on video. Slow, trafficy taxi ride into Paris. Hotel Malher (across the street from the Sevigne) would be nice, except for the scaffolding and constant parade of workmen in front of our street-facing windows. It’s seven o’clock. You’d think they’d go home now? Only had time to have a coffee and quick walk around the neighborhood. Nonna broke her purse strap on the plane! So I found one very similar, just by luck, at the pricey Manderina Duck store just down the street, and bought it for her. Saw a new restaurant on the Place de Vosges that had a nice menu—but it is on the touristy Place de Vosges, so you never know. Cloudy and occasionally drizzly here but not cold, and no real rain. Hope it stays like this, more or less.


17 September 2006                    Paris

A lazy Sunday. Nonna and Logan both very tired, and rested all day (following an early lunch of croques at the Palais Royale and a short walk). I’m feeling a bit melancholy, for no particular reason. Perhaps the inactivity, though I’m a bit tired myself. The weather’s good—the threatened rain has never materialized, and though the sky is gray, the temperature is mild. Except for the gray sky, it still looks like summer—the trees green and full of leaves, the tourists in shorts. This weekend was some kind of open monument days. Buildings not usually open could be toured (the Hotel de Ville, for example, though I didn’t stand in the line to walk through it) and the courtyards of some private hotels particuliers. We got into the Orangerie for free yesterday, and into the Orsay at a reduced price. I thought about popping into the Louvre today, since we were at the Palais Royale, but I didn’t. Took a long walk, this part of town very busy today, as it’s Sunday; mobs of people shopping in the Marais, a long line to get into Notre Dame, crowds on the illes. A typical Sunday. Dinner at Willi’s last night; I had crab, and then duck. Tonight we are trying the restaurant on the Place de Vosges, instead of our usual Sunday night at Balzar. I went out last night, but the nightlife at my usual haunts was rather dull.

I forgot to change the pick up date of the car! (We have a Peugeot lease/buyback through Auto Europe; much cheaper than renting a car, but slightly less flexible.) I called today, but they can’t try to fix it until tomorrow. The guy I talked to seemed to think I would be able to pick it up a day early but he wouldn’t promise until he talks to the France office tomorrow. I’m hoping it will be taken care of; I don’t quite know what I’ll do if it isn’t. Trying to remain optimistic, and calm. Was careless of me; I had simply thought I had changed the date, when in fact I never did. I’m not going to write anything else now. I’m going to get dressed for dinner.


18 September 2006                    Paris

This morning we took the Metro out to St. Denis, to see the Cathedral, and the tombs of the French kings. I was really happy to have my new Leica digital camera…what a pleasure it is to have manual exposure control again! Great for shooting in cathedral interiors. After that, we took the metro back to the Galleries Lafayette. We had a mediocre lunch nearby (in hindsight, I think we should have eaten in one of the department store’s multitude of restaurants.) The store was wild—it’s huge and beautiful (enormous atrium with belle epoch glass dome, women dancing in cages, make-up artists doing make-overs, Kenyan acrobats!) Nonna was tired though, although she did make friends with one of the acrobats while Logan and I explored the food hall.

Some disappointments. Last night’s restaurant, Cocona’s, I wasn’t too impressed with. And it seems it is not new, but has been there fifty years. How could I have never noticed it? I am still trying to figure that one out. Possibly it has been closed for remodeling for a time (everything looks new inside) but I don’t really know. Nonna and Logan both really liked their dinners, while I found mine sort of mediocre. Maybe I just ordered the wrong things. I had a starter of mushrooms fricasseed with ham. It was large and salty. Then I had a wild duck served on choucroute; both seemed fine (though the duck didn’t taste that wild) but together I didn’t find them so happily paired. The atmosphere was a bit too sedate. It’s owned by the famous Tour d’ Argent. Tonight we went to Benoit, which though pricey, I have always enjoyed. It too is now owned by a conglomerate (celebrity chef Alain Ducasse) and I think it suffers for it. The food was excellent, but it just wasn’t as festive. The waiters more restrained…it seems to have lost its unique personality. There was always a sense of fun there, that balanced its seriousness. I missed that tonight. Nonna had foie gras (always reliable) and Logan had a marinated salmon that was quite good. I had a pate that was good, but perhaps the tiniest bit bland. They always had such interesting entrees there…I remember the mad ballotine they used to serve. My veal main course was excellent though, and Logan liked his veal cheeks. My mother was not that impressed by her fish (a st pierre) but that was because the fish was too intensely flavored—not the fault of the fish at all, but rather Nonna’s own aversion to fish. For dessert we shared a perhaps definitive version of the classic profiteroles—delicious little cream puffs, served with a scoop of excellent vanilla ice cream, and a separate pot of warm, bitter chocolate sauce. It was a deconstructed profiterole, and it worked beautifully—each item was delicious on it’s own, and they combined perfectly. Still, I think I miss the old, more quirky, Benoit. Benoit was one of my favorite places to take people…it was pretty, the food was good, but mostly it was fun, and the staff always made a big fuss over you…they’d show you the food, they’d discuss it, they’d bring you extra desserts. None of that happened this time, and it all seemed rather soulless. I don’t think I will go back anymore. It’s rather sad to see its character lost to another corporate entity.

Nonna cannot walk at all at night. We had to take a taxi one metro stop from Benoit to the hotel! I don’t know what she will do at Versailles tomorrow. The palace is huge with long staircases (forget it!) and the grounds are enormous. Hopefully she will be up to walking from the entrance to the tourist train that takes you around…but even that is something of a hike as I recall.


19 September 2006                    Versailles

I needn’t have worried about Nonna and Versailles! After a bit of a trek (for her) from the Hotel to the chateau, I discovered that at the entrance to the gardens you could rent golf carts! I rented a golf cart for an hour (28 euros an hour and well worth it) and drove her around the chateau gardens! She loved it, and what a relief for me. We didn’t go in the house…she would have never made it up the all the stairs; besides, the palace is really pretty ugly inside, and the whole place (including the famous hall of mirrors and the front court) is under renovation. Well, you see how big it is from the outside, and its bigness is its outstanding feature. Logan didn’t come with us, he stayed at our pleasant little inn (the Hotel du Barry) to work. He’s working far too much on this trip; it’s hard to get him to delegate and to schedule, but it does no good for me to tell him so. I guess I can’t complain about the compulsiveness of others.

We ate across the street from the hotel at the Café des Arts, a cute little modestly priced restaurant. I had a tomato and feta salad, and veal liver. It was actually quite good. Nice breakfast room at the hotel.

We had no trouble picking up our Peugeot. They didn’t even ask for my driver’s license(!) and it was ready before two. The cab ride across Paris took forever. As did the driving around Versailles looking for the hotel. The actual drive from La Defense to Versailles only took about 20 minutes though.


20 September 2006                    Amboise

Logan’s TomTom navigation device, was cranky and wouldn’t work yesterday. It magically started working on our drive to Orleans, and seems happy now. The car is nice; it’s a huge four door sedan, very comfortable—a little too big for easy parking or navigating tiny streets, but just big enough to hold all the luggage in the trunk! It has an easy to use five speed stick, and plenty of power. It does, however, take 70 euros to fill the gas tank! I like the way it drives better than driving a diesel, but it is more expensive.

We got up and on the road by 10. We had no trouble finding our way to Orleans—and as I said, the navigation device started working on our journey there. We met Sebastien, from the Loire tourist press office, for lunch in Orleans. He took us to the Brasserie Place Mertroi in the center of town, where we all had plates of raw beef (either tartare or  carpaccio). Got the latest press kits from him and some suggestions for dinner and activities. It was nice of him to meet me again.

After lunch we walked to the Cathedral. Lots of teens skating in the place in front. No one in the Cathedral. Leisurely, scenic drive to Amboise. The Clos d’Amboise is nice…really comfortable beds, and a swimming pool, but it doesn’t come close to the luxury of the Manoir des Minimes. Fortunately, Logan and nonna don’t know what they are missing. Still the rooms here are large, and the beds comfortable. Unfortunately they put nonna on the second floor, and she can barely make it up the two flights of steps. I should have requested a ground floor room. I think all of our other hotels have elevators!


21 September 2006                    Amboise

Clear blue sky and very warm in Amboise. All the trees are green and it really feels like summer here. Still light until well after 7pm as well. I guess Autumn will be upon us in a couple weeks, though we are racing away from it by heading south. Catching up…the last day we were in Paris they removed the scaffolding from the Hotel Malher. It greatly improved the ambience of our room. The owner is very nice. However, it is nearly double the cost of the Sevigne across the street, and the amenities are comparable.

Dinner last night at a place suggested by Sebastian, L’ Epicerie, right opposite the Chateau d’Amboise. It was a cute, family run sort of place, but with a rather extensive menu and wine list. It was fairly inexpensive, and the food was quite good, as were the wines. It was also very busy—we had to sit in the back room with the other English speakers, but the staff were so nice it made up for it. It was the sort of place with big set menus, so you got a cheese course included! Good cheese. I had a country duck pate and rillettes (together at last) and then this big lamb shank. Logan had smoked salmon and then a steak with foie gras on top, and my mother had the salmon and (the best dish I think) a sort of terrine made with scallops and rougets. Apple tarts and chocolate domes for dessert (after the cheese of course.) Vouvray and Chinon to drink.

Today a very nice breakfast at the hotel. A walk around town and then a short drive to Chaumont sur Loire to see the chateau. Nice chateau, totally deserted. Then across the grounds to the Festival des Jardins—an annual garden design competition, with several dozen custom created gardens. This year the theme was “playing in gardens.”  An interesting idea, with some (of course) more successful than others. It was full of children and teens, school groups I suppose. You could see which designers were successful in meeting the theme simply by observing which gardens were full of children and which were empty! Some fun ideas—searching for a four leaf clover in a clover garden, a game in which you spun a wheel and searched to identify plants, an ugly but popular garden with spinning toys. Some themes were too abstract: some interestingly so and some not. There was an additional garden consisting of a sequence of mysterious rusted iron constructions, which seemed part of something else, but was quite fun.

Came back to Amboise, had a snack, a dip in the pool, and now just resting before dinner. Tonight we go to the Pavillion des Lys for dinner—the entire reason we have detoured through Amboise on our way from Paris to Italy!


Pavillion des Lys for dinner. The cute boys in the dining room had no record of my reservation…despite the endless emailing required to make it. Note: reserve by phone. They were very gracious though and seated us without a fuss. Still…

Anyway dinner was, one year since our last visit, still pretty amazing. And why Sebastian doesn’t double his prices (he well could) is still a pleasant mystery. We ate inside tonight; the dining room very pretty, but a little bit warm. It would have been a fine idea to eat outside, but it’s September, and I guess it’s just not done. (They do have actual outdoor furniture now, wicker chairs and  marble tables.)

For dinner we had

A sort of green pea mouse

A  pastry with mousaka and goat cheese

Artichoke puree with foie gras (surprisingly good, considering the odd combination)

Lobster and scallop risotto (Logan had tomato and mushroom risotto)

Filo with lamb and coco beans

Apple and almond tart with ice cream

Figs in orange sauce

Cactus sorbet

Then tiny strawberry smoothies and cookie

We retired to the lounge for tea and coffee and tiny pot de chocolats

Nonna said she ate too much and had too much wine. She has horrible indigestion every night now, so I may try to switch to having lunch instead of a big dinner…though I will probably be more successful with this after Logan leaves. If we have lunch, maybe she can digest better. I worry about her stamina. I hope this whole trip is not too much for her.


22 September 2006                    Moulins

An old French town, really in the middle of nowhere. Quite interesting as it is totally tourist-free. We’re staying at the Hotel de Paris,  a sort of faded grand hotel…a business hotel, but it’s Friday night so there is no one here. The rooms are large and have been curiously remodeled in some style I can’t place to any particular era. View of the cathedral. The cathedral is quite interesting, being built in two distinct parts, two styles of gothic, in the 15th and 16th century. Very gloomy inside. Has a rather amazing renaissance triptych, by a local, unknown painter. Very beautiful and in perfect condition with no restoration. Must have been kept out of sight for hundreds of years. Center panel is the Madonna of the Apocalypse, from a story in Revelations. Interesting bell tower (not by the church) with mechanical bell ringers; rebuilt after a 1947 fire. Big ruined chateau. Lots of interesting little buildings. A big grand tree-lined L-shaped avenue, which is unfortunately all torn up for reconstruction.

Dinner at Restaurant des Cours. Slightly fancy, but very pretty. Very good food, nicely presented. Logan and I had a special fig menu. First a crumble of figs with seared foie gras. Then a duck breast with figs; then a soft blue goat cheese with a fig compote, and finally three little fig desserts. Nonna had the regular menu, a starter of lentils and salmon and an egg, and piece of pork cooked five hours in whiskey! The food was inventive and quite good. The staff was very nice, and our waiter enjoyed practicing his English. Everyone else was French. They don’t get many American rufuses in Moulins!

When we were out walking today we passed a pharmacy with a display of walking sticks and canes. I made nonna buy a cane with a silver dog’s head.

We drove here from Amboise, via Bourges, where we stopped briefly for lunch. The navigation system was strangely useless in Bourges (sending us round in circles) but it was flawless in getting us straight to the hotel in Moulins. (Logan was desperate to go into Bourges, to eat lunch at this café where he had horse tartare on our previous trip—he says it was the best tartare he ever had, but I think he likes telling the story ten times as much as he liked the tartare—but we couldn’t find it, so we ate at a normal, quite decent brasserie.) So Moulins is halfway, more or less, between Amboise and Lyon, but not really on the route to anywhere else in France. It’s not near the autoroutes or the main train lines, so it really is rather isolated. You could buy a house here, or a farm, really cheap. As I went on yesterday about how summery it was, I have to say it started to rain in the middle of last night, and all day today was cloudy with intermittent showers. Still not cold though, and it stopped raining by the time we arrived in Moulins.


24 September 2006                    Lyon

Weekend in Lyon. Warm, but intermittently showery. Hotel Globe et Cecil is elegant, but oddly deserted on the weekend. I feel a bit like we are the only ones here. A nice lady on the desk all day, but she is the only staff at the hotel. Lyon was very busy when we arrived yesterday, a Saturday. Everyone in town shopping, or demonstrating in the Place Bellecour, or handing out balloons encouraging ecological transportation. All the cafes, and streets, full of people. Today is very quiet, everything is closed, except in the tourist area of Vieux Lyon. And there was a demi-marathon this morning, it went by our hotel, but had nearly ended by the time we finished breakfast.

This afternoon we took the official tourist office walking tour of renaissance Lyon (my third time) which was still enjoyable, and a good way to pass a Sunday afternoon. That is the only lively quarter of Lyon on Sunday. Visited the gothic church with the astronomical clock, and some of the traboules and renaissance courtyards, and got the 2000 year history of Lyon. Nonna held up well, keeping up with the tour to the end. And then even managed to walk back to the hotel. I had wanted to be here on Friday/Saturday rather than the weekend, but it didn’t work out that way.

We did a bit of window shopping yesterday, after arriving at three, then went to an early dinner at Raphael Berringer, a stylish restaurant (new I think) south of the Place Bellecour. This district seems newly fashionable, with art galleries and antique shops. The restaurant was very pretty, in a contemporary way. Big windows and striped walls in two shades of green, which was much more beautiful than it sounds. Just two, not very large, rooms. And the youngest staff I have ever seen in French restaurant. No one seemed to be over 25; and our waiter, I think it was his first week on the job. He was flummoxed and nervous and sweating, but very sweet. Everyone else, though young, seemed polished and relaxed. Food was interesting and good. A plate  of amuse bouches (that one had to pay 5 euros for) that had a shrimp, an eggplant puree, a potato/bacon thing, and a broccoli cream. I had a starter of stuffed rabbit back and artichoke hearts, followed by lamb sweetbreads. Logan had pumpkin soup with chestnuts and autumn mushrooms and a veal kidney. Nonna had the soup also and a steak. As usual in trendy restaurants, my mother had the least successful main course—her steak was overcooked (Logan’s fault in ordering, I think though) and her potato thing was burnt (no excuse). The innards were very good. Logan and I had cheese. And we ordered three of the four desserts: a pear and puff pastry concoction (light and good) and chocolate layered thing (very rich) and a cinnamon mousse with chestnut ice cream. We drank a bottle of white and a bottle of red St. Joseph, Logan’s wine of choice for this trip.

Wanted to note a nice looking hotel for future reference, the Hotel du College, in Vieux Lyon. Looks stylish, good location, and cheaper than the Globe et Cecil. I’d give it a try on a return visit I think. It was on Louise’s (of the French tourist office in New York) suggestion list, but I somehow had my heart set on staying at the Globe et Cecil, as I always admired it’s Agatha Christie era name and appearance. It’s nice but not that great, and a bit spooky in its emptiness. Although the woman working today could not have been nicer. And it has super bathtubs, windows that open, air-conditioning, and we are on the top floor.

One big minus—they contract the wifi internet service with a company that charges 30 euros a day; absolutely outrageous, and the highest price I have ever seen in a hotel—more than the George V, more than in London. My pet peeve—I think hotels should provide free wifi, as it costs them virtually nothing. In Paris we tapped into someone’s open network for free (pretty easy to do in Paris). In Versailles Logan paid for it. In Amboise it was a nominal 5 euros a day (which we may not even have been charged); in Moulins, it was simply non-existent. I don’t mind access only every few days…but I will miss it at the Gatto Rosso; I’m hoping I can connect occasionally somewhere in Lucca.

On our drive from Moulins to Lyon, we cut across southern Burgundy. Saw those cutouts of dead people all along the side of the road again. Creepy. Logan insisted we stop at Paray le Monial to revisit the pilgrimage church, once a Romanesque Cluniac monastery. He had said we had visited it on our trip to Burgundy some years ago, but I did not remember it until we got to Lyon and I reread my notes from that trip. The interior has been completely restored and redone. The walls are painted a light ochre with fake white mortar joints and the whole interior is very light and bright. Also some rather nice modern light fixtures (all swirling leaves) and candle holders have been designed and installed, along with some truly beautiful abstract stained glass in the upper windows. It’s no wonder I didn’t recognize it. The façade is typical Bourgundian Romanesque, and it does face a pretty canal. When last we visited, we approached from a different direction (through the town and a market) and the interior (I think) was dark and under restoration. From my notes I recall a garden and diorama of a young nun’s vision of Jesus telling her to worship his sacred heart. Sadly, I didn’t recall this while we were there—it would have been a hoot to see that again.

Tomorrow I want to shop a bit in the morning, and have a proper bouchon lunch before we set off on the two hour drive to Avignon. It seems vital to have a Bouchon meal while in Lyon.


25 September 2006                    Avignon

Spent the morning in Lyon, wandering around, shopping (a few places open on Monday morning) and had a nice lunch in a tiny Bouchon. The owner, Mme. Danielle, at her self named Bouchon Chez Marie Danielle, did all the serving in the little room—dashing about with amazing efficiency. Food was excellent; and even rather light and delicate for a bouchon. Logan started with a plate of sliced sausage and lentils, nonna with foie gras on top of an artichoke heart, and I with a terrine of chicken livers. Nonna and I followed it with quenelles (a kind of fish dumpling), a specialty of the house, very light (though large) and deliciously sauced. Lemon tart and chocolate mouse were both superb, the first very lemony, the second chocolaty but very airy.

Picked up our car and our many bags at the Globe et Cecil and had no trouble driving out of town to the payage. Boring two hour drive on the expensive A-7 highway to Avignon. The navigation device took us into the old city through the wrong gate, then promptly lost its signal. The hotel is just on the main, straight road from the gate opposite the railway station! If I had only known.

Six o’clock when we got settled in our awful hotel. A short walk, and a half decent, simple supper at a tourist brasserie on the Place de Horloge. Logan unwell.


26 September 2006                     Avignon

The Palais des Papes is pretty amazing, some incredible, large, starkly beautiful 14th century rooms; the view from the rooftop is amazing. The morning tour groups make visiting impossible, but it’s open late, and at 6pm we had the place to ourselves, basically. Go late.

Sunset from the Dom de Notre Dame next to the Palais was brilliant. We were too late to go into the church though.

Le Cid, on the touristy Place de Horloge is a hoot of a gay café/bar. By day, you’d never know it was gay, as like all the cafés there, it is chock-a-block with tourists; your only clue is a tiny rainbow flag inside and the staff–everyone young, pierced, tattooed and gay as can be. After dinner, when the tour groups are long gone, it has a much gayer ambience. Loads of cute boys sitting at the tables, posing. Very fun.

The Hotel Danielli is shabby and cheerless. Must remember to tell Louise to remove it from her list of suggested hotels. Eager to see what it looks like on its website again, for if there was any resemblance to the reality of the place, I would not have booked here. But internet access is just one of a number of promised amenities that doesn’t exist. The staff, what there is of her, is cheerfully indifferent. Out room is on a noisy alley; quiet enough at night, but a cacophony from 7:30 am—first a delivery truck endlessly unloading noisy metal racks, and now a circular saw, of all things. It’s in the center of town. The navigation system could not find it, though now that I know where it is, I could have found it easily. As it was, lots of driving around inside the old walled city. And the car is parked some distance away…only a problem when I have to come back tomorrow to pick up the luggage and nonna. The two star Hotel Palais du Papes with view of the Palais is cheaper! Hotel d’Angleterre, a logis with parking and an elevator, is cheaper. Hotel Le Cloitre St. Louis is  more expensive, but beautiful beyond belief, built around an old monetary cloister. Well, we know for next time.

Choosing a hotel by its website bears a certain similarity to internet dating…the ever present risk of false representation is much the same: out-of-date pictures, photos of something else; false promises. And conversely a bad website can put you off a good hotel!

The Mistral, the famous cold wind, is blowing.


27 September 2006                    Marseilles

Got Logan off on the TGV to CDG this morning, and then we drove to Marseilles. A big, big, traffic-filled city—far too big for an overnight stop. People seem friendly, lots of bustling around. Waiters don’t speak a lot of English, but they are very friendly. I guess not so many tourists come here, even though the old port area looks very touristy. At the café where we had lunch, it was all locals. But even in the old port it seemed mostly French. The Irish pub was hopping with French speaking patrons!

We had a good dinner down there, at a place recommended by the hotel, which is a pleasant enough Best Western. The restaurant Rudon Bleu specializes in fish and especially bouillabaisse—they are a member of an association for the preservation of proper Marseilles bouillabaisse. It has to be made and presented a certain way. It was good, but it sure was a lot of fish! I loved the roué.

A long drive tomorrow anyway, but a simple inn in a small town.


28 September 2006                    Liagueglia, Italy

I love this hotel (The Splendid Mare) and especially this little resort town, right on the Mediterranean coast. It’s so cute, and it’s very unpopulated now in late September, even though the weather is perfect. Only Italians, and a few Brits, here. Not busy at all, very off season. But perfect. I wish we were staying two days. I thought there would be nothing to do, but it’s a block from the sea and they have a private bathing beach with chairs and umbrellas and changing rooms. There are lots of outdoor café/bars, really cheap, and it’s just great. I’d love to lay all day tomorrow under an umbrella, and take occasional dips in the Med. I walked along the beach at sunset, the weather was great, the water was mild, the beach was deserted, a few people promenading or sitting in a café near our hotel. We went there after dinner for coffee and grappa, an old man was playing the piano—hit songs from the 1940’s. The hotel is equally lost in time, a grand old resort. The town is a beach resort trapped well in the last century. Mostly Italians here. It’s too great.

Beautiful drive today. We took small roads from Marseilles to Bandol, where we stopped for  sandwiches. Really cute town with a big yacht harbor. We should have stopped there instead of Marseilles. For the one night, it would have been much easier. Then drove the Payage to Monaco. It looked really cool (so clean and shiny) but we couldn’t really stop to admire the views because there is nowhere at all to park! Stopped on the other side, in Menton, the last French town, and had coffee and ice cream at a café on the beach. Crossed the border to Italy past the two abandoned border control stations. It gives me hope to see such things. Drove the crazy Italian Payage—now called the Autoroute of course (the highway is all high bridges and long tunnels, it must have cost a fortune to build) to Diano Marina, then along the coast to our cool hotel. Great suggestion of Jim’s friend Arthur. This town is cool. Dinner was decent in the hotel, actually pretty good, if a bit rushed. Other restaurants in town look really good. Sitting outside the bar nearby, listening to the piano player and drinking coffee and grappa on the square was great. I’d cancel Genoa and stay here if I could without paying a penalty. It’s just so relaxing…finally! I want to come back. Maybe Lake Como, so late in the season, will be this cool.


28 September 2006                    Liagueglia

Morning. Waiting for nonna. My room has those great wooden shutters on the window that block out heat and light, but still allow air. The floor is tiled, the ceiling is tiled, the bed comfortable, it is all very pretty. Rates are low in the off season, and the weather is perfect. Why would anyone want to come here when it was crowded? Wish I could stay on the beach all day under an umbrella, but perhaps Genoa will be interesting.


29 September 2006                    Genova

Hotel Savoia is pretty cool. Pleasant modern rooms in a very old building. Antique Otis cage elevator from the 19th century with manual opening doors.

Walked to the aquarium today for a visit. I love aquariums. It’s pretty nice. Amazingly big fish; giant sea turtles. Pretty cool. Dinner tonight at Da Dominica, across town by taxi on Piazza S. Lorenzo, a suggestion of the hotel clerk. Nice tratoria, a maze of rooms, but we sat on the back terrace, which was quite busy. No menus. The waiter recited the things on offer and attempted to translate into English, though I understood his Italian better. An aperitif of slightly sparkling wine, a bottle of local Genovese white (and a half bottle when we finished that…actually they just opened another bottle and said drink what you want and we will charge accordingly. Antipasto plate of little marinated fishy things: an anchovy, salmon, eggplant, pulpo, more. Primi piatti of branzino-filled ravioli in a tomato cream sauce with clams, mussels and shrimp. Whole, grilled branzino, filleted at the table for a secondi. Skipped dessert, had a coffee. The bill for the whole thing was 90 euros. Seems like a bargain, especially for the big city. Everyone else was Italian. Waiter was nice and cute and his younger brother (son?) assistant was really sweet, if a little earnest. “Mama” running things. Very pleasant.

The hotel is great, although I think it’s not quite the center, so there’s not much open at night—shopping and café/bars by day though—it’s just at the Principe railway station. Some grand old churches and palazzos; would be a nice place to explore someday. Not many tourists here it seems (though I did stop the car while driving in to let two American teens cross the street!). Internet here is theoretical, but they said they haven’t got it working yet. Chatty English-speaking taxi driver on the way to dinner, he seemed quite proud of Genova and thought we should see all the sights. Well, off to the Gatto Rosso tomorrow. Now I’ll get back to reading Cloud Atlas, a pretty great book.

France and Italy, Part II, Tuscany


3 October 2006                    The Gatto Rosso

Amazingly almost nothing has changed in the three years since I was here last. It was a quick drive Saturday morning on the Autostrada to Lucca. We stopped there for lunch at da Guilia. Same good (cheap) food, same waitress, and her son…grown from a little boy to a very tall teen (14, she said). Had some of the beans with tuna I like so much, and then that delicious Macherroni (flat, house made pasta) with the creamy veal sauce. Arrived at the Gatto Rosso to warm greetings from owner Carlotta. The house, and the estate is not much changed. Still three cats, a flock of geese and a dog (Vita, replacing the dead Edo). Grapes harvested, but trees green and full of fruit. Apparently they own a large farmhouse on the estate as well…I can see it from out back yard…I wonder if she rents it and how much, it would be great for a large group. Still the too small bathtub…nonna is in there now trying to take a shower in it! There will be water everywhere. {Note, Gatto Rosso is the nickname of the rental house on the agricultural estate…the actual name of which I will not reveal here, as it is a fantastic place and an amazing bargain, and so not surprisingly has very limited availability.}

Saturday late afternoon we braved the supermarket; the COOP market has moved to a much bigger location a few blocks farther away. We loaded our basket full of goodies and got in line, only to discover at the register that they no longer take credit cards! Fortunately they have an ATM  machine in the store, and although the market was very crowded, the cashier was quite nice and helpful about the whole mix-up. Nonna had trouble with the ATM, as she kept asking it for 30,000 euros, but fortunately my Amex card worked in it fine. The groceries are still much cheaper here than at home, and a much better selection of fresh items as well. What we bought would have cost three times as much, at least, at Whole Foods.

I used Ermintrude (that’s what we have named the Tom-Tom satellite navigation device) to locate the HUB gay club outside of Lucca. It really is less than ten minutes from the Gatto Rosso. The device guided me right to it. I went back a little after midnight on Saturday hoping to catch some gay Italian nightlife, but there was nothing going on…parking lots virtually empty. Having found the club, now I wish I could find out when it was open!

Ermintrude is a great help…sometimes. Can save a lot of frustration getting in and out of big cities; and sometimes she’s great at guiding you directly to your destination. Sometimes she gets confused…certain towns, and especially narrow streets are not so good. Sometimes she loses her satellite signal, or her battery power, at crucial moments. Sometimes you can’t tell which street you are meant to turn on until you have passed it. All in all though, it’s a help, just not an absolute. One still has to keep an eye open for directional signs, and having a good map is an essential backup.

Sunday we had a big lunch outside at the Osteria de Meati, also unchanged since our last visit. Pasta and a big rare bistecca. I love my Italian Sunday lunch. Later on Sunday we decided to take a drive, north of Lucca, to the hill town of Barga. Very high up and very steep. Mostly closed up since it was Sunday, but I did climb to the very top to see the Duomo, a pretty cool, very austere, almost windowless, large, Romanesque church. A little farther down was another pretty little dark church, this one redone in the 18th century. Fantastic views from both over the countryside. We had a lemon sorbet at a gelateria that was open; the woman there spoke flawless English with an English accent, but she amused herself by speaking Italian and listening to my garbled responses.

Driving back to Lucca the road was very congested. Lots of traffic around Lucca in all directions, not quite sure why. We did pass a big carnival, with lots of neon-lit bolted-together rides, outside the Lucca walls. I would have liked to have gone to it, but inquiring at the tourist office on Monday, apparently Sunday was the last day. They said there were lots of fairs and events in Lucca through September, but everything ended with the end of the month. Indeed, on Monday in Lucca, they were tearing down the market sStalls on the San Michelle square. We paid a brief visit to Lucca on Monday, and lunched at the tratoria de Leo. It was packed and bustling. Food was simple and very good…bean soup, rissotto, tasty roast veal slices with excellent potatoes. A stylish woman next to us showed us a picture (half page, full color) of the restaurant in the September 24 issue of The New York Times. The lead article was about eating in Lucca!

We will probably go back to Lucca this afternoon, around 4. The shops open from 8 to 1 and then again from 4 to 8. Very Spanish! I want to do some shopping.


4 October 2006                    outside Lucca, Italy

Sunny day today. We leave in an hour to go to Pisa to pick up Jim Laur et al at the train station. Giving ourselves and hour and fifteen minutes to make the half hour drive…just in case. Though I did program Ermintrude to find the station, and I checked it on a map.

Yesterday was a pleasant day. Midday we took a drive over the mountain that lies south of Lucca and East of Pisa—a tiny winding road to the summit and back, through a few historic towns and saw a few old Romanesque churches (all closed of course). We didn’t really stop and walk around any of the towns (too much for nonna), but the drive was nice. Went into Lucca around five, when the shops have re-opened and it’s getting lively with locals again. We had a coffee, then shopped some, at the good bakery Gusti; and I bought toothpaste and contact lens solution, and Nonna bought another Manderina Duck purse (for home use). We walked around the shopping streets, to the old amphitheater piazza, then got lost coming back. Nonna had to walk part of the way on the top of the walls—it’s nice up there, but I thought it was going to kill her. Actually she held up pretty well. We had dinner, early, at da Guilia. Many Americans, but the staff treat us like regulars now. A big dinner too: mixed antipasto, two orders of the house made maccheroni, and liver for nonna and veal in some chopped tomato sauce for me. Even a slice of torta verdura (Lucchese vegetable tart that tastes oddly like gingerbread, despite being green.) Very tasty local Fabianno red wine, pricey for them at 15 euros! Even with the wine dinner cost only 61 euros.


4 October 2006                    outside Lucca, Italy

Uneventful drive to Pisa to pick up Jim, Bea and Pat. We went to lunch at that nice Osteria in Pisa then I drove them to their hotel in Lucca. Actually drove to their hotel, in the center of Lucca ( a bit insane that; and even worse trying to drive out; was saved by an English lady on a bicycle who tapped on my window to tell me how to quickly get out of the city as bikes, pedestrians, and mothers pushing strollers enveloped my car as if it wasn’t even there, on one of the tiny, semi-pedestrian streets that make up all of central Lucca.) The hotel is wacky. They have kind of a cool apartment in a building around the corner from the hotel; it’s a residential building and very private. Not sure what the rooms in the hotel itself are like. They seem to find it acceptable, even fun, even after the 5 star luxury of the Hotel Bristol in Vienna. I wandered with them a bit after check-in and then went to the internet café, where I found I could plug in my own computer (happy day). Then I drove here to pick up Nonna and we went back and had dinner at Tratorria de Leo. Our second meal there, and I am really liking that place. I had a great piece of grilled pork. Started with ravioli with butter and sage, though Jim’s Tortellini in Brodo looked great too. Love the lively atmosphere.


5 October 2006                    Lucca (Pisa)

Today I drove everyone back to Pisa to see the monuments: Baptistery, Duomo, Cemetery, and of course the tower. For the first time, I paid the 15 Euros and climbed to the top. Great views, but you really know it’s leaning when you are on the top of it! They let very few people up at one time (and you get a half hour, start to finish); but it was not crowded; the tour buses come in the morning I think, and it’s late enough in the year now, that things are not too busy—though the weather (mostly) is great.

After Pisa, we came back to the house here, and had some prosecco, then we went to dinner at Meati. Did a big family style meal, with shared antipasti, four primi (gnocchi with shrimp, fetucinni with mushrooms, rice with herbs, and ravioli with ragu), then shared two big steaks, one with rucola and one with porcini mushrooms. Food there is great—and very cheap, except for the steaks.


6 October 2006                    Lucca

Our visitors wanted to stay in Lucca and shop, so we joined them for lunch at Gigi, a cute tratoria near their hotel (and one that was also mentioned in the NY Times.) Was another great, inexpensive, local place. Full of Italians. Nice outdoor space on the square, but we had to sit inside because the terrace was full. I had a pasta with shellfish and a carpaccio (though I was tempted by baccala fried with tomato sauce.)

We wandered around the city, looking at churches and shops and stuff (even wandered over to the east end beyond the canal, where I’d never been and where there really isn’t anything of note). Nonna and I went home to get our laundry inside, then we went back to meet them for dinner at Giulia. I ate way too much, considering I had lunch that day. I had my tuna and bean antipasto; a soup; and …in honor of Mr Logan…the tartare cavallo, which was, I must admit, really, really tasty. Jim ate a big meal too…I don’t think Pat and Bea were that hungry, and Bea was not impressed with the macheroni I recommended (she later confessed that she likes her pasta overcooked.) It was a beautiful day, warm and very sunny—I actually got too much sun.

Jim and family are very taken with Lucca, and like wandering around the town very much.


7 October 2006                outside Lucca (Viareggio and Livorno)

So we decided that the next day, Saturday, we would take advantage of the good weather and drive to the coast. Naturally it rained all day! We did walk around Viareggio. We had coffee in a café, and walked down to the beach—the water was a very pretty green in the overcast and drizzly sky. Then we drove on to Livorno.

Sadly, no reason to see Livorno at all. A couple old coastal forts you could see from the car; the rest of the town unremarkable. Dull duomo, completely rebuilt after the war (and closed), a network of canals, not particularly picturesque, with another shut up church. Actually everything was closed (it was between 1 and 4, so the stores I could understand), not even cafes were open. No one was around. It was all very desolate, and rather depressing. The rain didn’t help. We finally found a lone bar/cafeteria that was open, with one table occupied, and we went in and ordered some pasta (very cheap, like 3.50 euro a plate.) While we were inside, this torrential storm broke: thunder, lighting flashes, torrential rains, wind, the rain driving sideways, the street flooded, the rain rushed into the café under the door flooding the floor! It was quite a scene. Fortunately Jim and I were able to get from the café back to our car by traveling the whole way under arcades (they must get a lot of rain in Livorno) and then we drove back round the square to pick up the ladies. No one liked Livorno much; the storm was the highlight of the trip.

We came back to our house to rest up, the storm broke and the sky cleared. I took Jim for a walk to see the “town” of Cerasomma, then Carlotta sent us some hot fresh baked bread, so we ate bread and drank a bottle of Vernachia de San Gimignano (very light and refreshing).

We drove back to Lucca for dinner at eight, a place Jim found on his wanderings. A bit stuffy and catering to rich Americans—and all rich Americans seem like Republicans to me. I thought the food was good, but no better than the other places we eat in Lucca, and the prices were double (still, not outrageous). But the atmosphere was lacking, and the formality unnecessary. Jim had booked it because he’d seen their nice courtyard terrace (too cold for dinner) and not the over-formal dining room.


8 October 2006                    outside Lucca

Last night Jim and I went to the HUB disco, only five minutes from the house here! It’s supposed to be the biggest gay club in Italy, and I believe it. It was packed too. It was great to have Jim to go with, as I think we were the only non-Italians there. But for the rest, they must have come from all over northern Italy. Very diverse group (though trending toward young!) gay boys, lesbians (lots), gay boys with their girlfriends, maybe even a few actual straight couples. Many different looks and fashion statements: casual, dressy, International Male(!), eighties. Showing a lot of boxer underwear is not the style here—but showing your butt crack is! Also lots of wild hair. The common denominator, and so typical…everyone was thin. Thin to very thin. How do they do it?

The club itself was really nice, obviously lots of effort put into it. A huge indoor dance floor, a huge outdoor terrace with gazebos (for smoking, for quiet, and with better lighting than indoors), a small outdoor dance floor (techno, while the music inside on the big floor was very eclectic—they played Tainted Love—and euro-pop.) Lounges, several bars. Admission and buying drinks took some puzzling out. Various lists (for discounts) and a short line for general admission (pricey). But you don’t pay going in, you just get a colored card. Then you take it to the cashier at the bar and pay your entry fee (a pricey 25 euro for us non-list folks; I think there is a 10 euro or more discount depending; there were many colors of tickets). You get an exit card and a drink ticket. Then you stand in line to get a drink from the bartender—everyone is ordering fancy cocktails (Americano’s and such) so it takes a while, even though the attractive bartenders are quick.) We had vodka tonicos, easy to say, easy to make. There was something for everyone: go-go boys, a brief drag show, eclectic music, cute boys and girls. The staff was very friendly, and helpful, despite our complete lack of Italian (limited English was spoken by some, enough to get us by.)

It seems to be open every Saturday night, though I have no idea why it wasn’t open last Saturday. By the time we arrived at 12:30, it was packed already and a throng at the door. I think it’s worth showing up smack at 11:30. They do have convenient parking, for 2 euros. Drinks are expensive (7 euros?) but strong. No tourists, because it’s so hard to find, I think, being so far from a city center; you absolutely have to have a car to get there, and I was a bit concerned about all the cute boys driving home drunk—and they were pretty drunk by the time we left at 3:30. Not sure how late it’s open. Typical Jim: he saw a hairdresser from Lucca there and then he chatted briefly with a waiter from a café in Lucca he’d been to. It was fun; actually the most fun big disco I’ve been to in a long while. Everyone seemed to be having such a great time (because being gay is still rather a private thing in Italy) and there were so many different “types” there, and much flamboyance and over-the-top looks. It was one of those times though, when one longed to speak the language a bit, so one could talk to people, ask questions, be involved more than as just an observer.

Today, I plan a Sunday lunch with Nonna, and then to meet Jim & Co. in the late afternoon for ice-cream and shopping.


10 October 2006                    outside Lucca

Sunday was a quiet day. The weather was beautiful—sunny and warm—and indeed has remained so. Nonna and I had Sunday lunch in the garden at the Osteria di Meati (gnocchi, riso, and steak) and then went into Lucca in the late afternoon. Lucca in October is not closed to cars on Sunday, nor is it thronged with people; just an ordinary afternoon, with a lot (but certainly not all) of the shops closed. We had ice cream with Jim et al, (not at Turandot, which was closed, but at the place on the opposite corner of the piazza). Nonna, Pat and Bea sat there all after noon, while Jim and I went looking for bookstores, and the outdoor book market. Some fun old things at the book market, but too bulky to buy. I did get an English/Italian Touring Lucca regional guide at a bookstore. We came back and had another drink at the little café, and Nonna and I left Lucca about 6:30. We just had a cold supper at home.

Oh, I also explored some hotels in Lucca. Jim says the Le Torre was nice enough, with their room in the private annex, but not too great on service. The promised shuttle service and the free internet didn’t seem to exist. And when Jim arranged on Sunday to have them driven to the Santa Anna gate so I could pick them up, the staff on Monday morning knew nothing about it. I’m not so impressed with them. I am impressed with a little hotel I found off the Piazza San Michelle, The Picollo Hotel Pucina (across the street, apparently, from the house where Puccini was born.) Really cute lobby, great location, nice guy at the desk, and cheap at 68 euros a room. It seems really nice. Another nice looking choice is La Luna, a bigger hotel, with more services, near the amphitheatre. It’s rooms start at 110 euros however. Also saw a super swanky hotel, very elegant, but small, with a fancy restaurant and beautiful courtyard. It’s called Hotel Noblesse, but it’s in the 400 euro range, so it’s right out…and no doubt filled with rich American Republicans as well. The Hotel Universo, on the Piazza Napoleon, looks fun—it’s a grand 19th century hotel which seems to have resisted modernization; no idea what the rates might be.

Monday, we picked up Jim, Bea and Pat so I could drive them into Firenze, to the Hotel Silla. Didn’t get underway until about noon, due to complications with the hotel, Jim leaving his credit card at a store, etc. Nonna rode along too, so everyone had to sit with bags on their laps (except me, as driver). Pat and Bea have so much luggage…like four bags each, some of which are huge. Anyway, got efficiently to the Silla, from the back road down the mountain, with a stop at the Piazza Michelangelo for the view. Beautiful day…even the quick snaps I took with my compact camera show what a nice day it was. Got them into the Silla, and they let me park in their garage long enough for us to have salads for lunch at Zoe. They have a nice triple on the third floor (I didn’t know the hotel was that big, having never stayed above the first floor!) I look forward to staying there again when we visit Firenze.

Drove home and made some prosciutto and melon, and pasta, for dinner. Cooked up the porcinis from Carlotta, but I think I waited too long, as they had lost much of their flavor. I guess you should eat the fresh porcinis when they are really fresh. Had good fresh macherroni from the supermarket though.

Nonna has been going strong; lots of walking, and getting her stamina back. I was having high hopes for her, but last night she hurt her back (somehow, she was just standing in the house doing nothing) and today she can barely move. So we will see; I was hoping with the continuous exercise she would regain some of her mobility, and it seemed to be happening. Also, with the exercise, she seems to be sleeping much better. I will hope this new period of invalidism will be short lived.


12 October 2006                    outside Lucca

We had dinner at Da Guilia again on Tuesday night…just a few people there, mostly Italian. We are real regulars now. Macheronni and a pressed chicken. Yesterday we decided to see the sights of Pistoia, so we made the thirty minute drive on the Autostrada. Had a lot of trouble parking (it was market day, and they were shooting a movie or something!) but finally found a place. I had forgotten to bring a guidebook with a map though, so we didn’t know where we were! Just next to a big church that was closed up. We wandered toward what we hoped was the center, and I spotted a bookstore where I got a city map for six euros (a very detailed, very large map of Pistoia!). We were near the center, though we’d taken a sort of round about way there from the car. It was just time for everything to shut up for lunch (the market was closing, and of course all the shops) so we decided we might as well have lunch. We were on a little square and sat first at an outdoor table at what I soon realized was a Czech beer pub (!), so we moved to a wine bar (no food) and then to a charming restaurant next to it. Had a table on the street, and was consulting my map to see where the duomo and main piazza might be. When I got up to go to the toilette, I found out, as the other end of the restaurant opened on to the Piazza, and had tables overlooking the baptistery! The restaurant was called ‘la Botte Gaia’ and it was really excellent. I had a delicious pumpkin soup with chestnut and big slices of fried proscuitto, and then a salt cod with garbanzo beans. My mother had an excellent risotto and then a grilled ham and cheese crostini that she couldn’t finish. We had some white Vernachio de San Gimignano to drink. It was really a nice lunch—pleasant table, great food.

It was a warm afternoon. We walked to the Piazza after lunch and visited the Cathedral (S. Zeno). It was very old, very large. Romanesque, very few windows, roman columns (I believe), very elaborately decorated truss roof. Bits of frescoes remained along the upper parts of the walls. Great baroque altar, obviously added centuries later, rather gaudy. Most famous treasure is a solid silver (very large) altar, locked up in a side room with the lights off. I bought a brochure with a picture for a euro. Baptistery was pretty, typical black and white striped octagon, but closed. Large L-shape square with a number of gothic buildings surrounding it, one open, with a courtyard and frescoed vaults. We walked next to Santo Sprito, another old Romanesque church, the façade never completed, and the interior completely remade in the baroque style. Pistoia has quite a few churches and monasteries and convents within the remains of its ancient walls, but it would have been too much walking for Nonna to try to find them all. We walked back to our car, hoping St. Sebastian, the huge church we parked next to, would be open, but it was locked up tight. I decided to skip the Autostrada and take the scenic route home…unfortunately it wasn’t that scenic—suburban sprawl, traffic, etc. I liked Pistoia though, definitely worth a day trip. We had dinner at home. Today, later we are going into Lucca. It’s partly cloudy…not the bright sun we’ve been having.

I should mention that I really like that in Italy they have gas stations where a boy will fill your tank for you. Even if it does cost nearly 70 euros to fill up the Peugeot.

Not getting a lot of news here in Italy. I think I’ve only bought the Herald Tribune twice. And CNN International (the only non-German language TV we get via the satellite) is awful…practically information-free. Last night turned it on to find a small plane had crashed into and apartment building on New York’s upper east side—the reporters knew nothing of course, but they talked and talked, basically trying to instill panic through wild speculation about terrorism. Turned it off.


13 October 2006                    outside Lucca

Lazy morning around the house yesterday. Drove to Lucca around three. Coffee and gelato at Turandot. Shopping. Nonna bought a sweatshirt (an American brand, expensive) and prescription reading glasses (a bargain, and ready in 30 minutes!). Wandered around the town. Had dinner (early, 7:30) at Tratoria Leo, not too crowded. Sat on the sidewalk, weather was cool but comfortable. Our waiter, a cute, effete Italian boy with glasses, was very enthusiastic with his English. He spoke well, and obviously enjoyed it. Said he learned it all from working in the restaurant, and from the internet. His name was Marco. They seem to have given him all the English speaking guests to deal with. My mother was eavesdropping on the couple behind us, as Marco had to explain to the young woman what ravioli was. My mother said to me: “I thought they were from Colorado, not Mars.” I left him a big tip. (I ate tortellini in brodo, roast pork, roast potatoes, fagioli e cipolini, and torte di fiche e noci.)

Today, bright sun (yesterday a cloudy morning, sunnier afternoon, warmish evening). Have decided to drive to Volterra—a longish drive, but why not.


14 October 2006                    outside Lucca

Yesterday was quite an active day, with my decision to visit Volterra, a 90 minute drive each way. Of course we arrived in the vertiginous mountaintop city just in time for lunch. Ended up in quite a fancy restaurant (a member of the association piatti boun giorno) called Del Duca. Food was excellent, though we did not opt for a full lunch. We split a starter of proscuitto of wild boar served with a hot cheese sauce and toast. All very delicious, though I was never sure of the proper way to combine the elements. Afterwards I had a very tasty rabbit haunch, cooked in butter with little green olives and kapperappeltjes (still don’t know what they are in any other language but Dutch). Nonna had a pasta with truffle slices on top. We had a dessert of semifredo with vin santo jelly (interesting, that) and little crumbs of chocolate biscotti. Not as stellar as the savory courses. A glass of prosecco, and glass of very nice house red from the region. Slightly pricey, but only by comparison with the places we usually eat in rural Tuscany. Would be good for dinner.

After lunch we trekked across Volterra (a very small town) to the Etruscan museum. It’s filled with artifacts (all uncovered locally) from the Etruscan period, about 9th to 1st century BC. Hundreds and hundreds of funerary, or ossuary boxes. The most beautiful are the Greek-influenced (in carved alabaster) from 2nd and 3rd century BC—a reclining figure of the deceased (banqueting) on the lid, and elaborately carved scenes on the sides. They literally have hundreds of these. Along with urns, coins, oil lambs, candelabra, bronze figures of people and animals, jewelry (funny how earrings have not changed in 2500 years), mirrors, pots, etc. It’s all housed in this dusty old palazzo and things are just stacked everywhere. Only a few visitors. I like the old fashioned-ness of it, it’s a very 19th century sort of Museum. My mother said—“think if there were an Earthquake!”—and it’s true, everything would just come crashing to the floor and be shattered into a million pieces. One is kind of amazed that the Getty foundation doesn’t swoop in with a billion dollars and build a state of the art modern museum; but I do like the unassuming charm of this one.

Visited the cathedral and the baptistery too. Small octagonal baptistery with only one façade finished in striped marble. Romanesque church, fairly large, with some interesting later paintings—a large, rather sexy St. Sebastian, and likewise a young Jesus teaching in the Temple (I’m fairly certain), with, incongruously, very cute naked boys lounging in the foreground. Elaborate, gold-leafed coffered ceiling, not sure from what era.

We bought a few alabaster doo-dads, and I got the small catalogue from the Etruscan museum. We drove back, taking a rather unusual route via Pisa…the route planned by Ermentrude, rather than our usual straight line route through Pontaderra (the road we took down). It was faster perhaps, a chunk was on a free stretch of autostrada, and would have been faster still if we’d stayed on the autostrada from Pisa to Lucca, rather than wending through the Friday night traffic on the local roads.

Been gone four weeks, with two weeks and four days left. So strange how time distorts in travel…in a way it seems like I’ve been gone forever, California a distant memory, and one easily forgotten. Then too, one feels so busy, that the days seem quite rushed…then fade into a suddenly distant past. Still warm and sunny, a beautiful autumn. The signs of the season are around us though…the grapes have been harvested, there are sounds of gunshots from the hunters, everyone is selling and eating porcini mushrooms. I expect to see game on the restaurant menus any day now. Just hoping it stays warm and dry for two more weeks. The weather is perfect.

Logan and Randy arrive tonight, 8:15 at Pisa airport. We have a 9:30 dinner reservation in Pisa, so I hope their plane is not delayed. I hope they are not exhausted from the trip, and from the 4 hour stopover in CDG. Should be a busy week ahead, with Pisa, San Gimignano, and Siena to show them, as well as Lucca.


15 October 2006                        outside Lucca

Logan and Randy arrived right on time Saturday night at the tiny Pisa airport, in a tiny commuter jet from Paris. We met them there (excellent directions into the airport courtesy Ermentrude) and arrived early for our 9:30 dinner reservation at La St…. (also easily located with the GPS system.) Same place I ate on my first trip to Pisa eight or so years ago, I did vaguely recognize it, same husband and wife owners. Menu with a heavy emphasis on seafood, dinner was quite good, and portions were huge. Shared some starters: octopus, caprese, and porcini salads. Primi: I ordered vongole, it was a plate so large I thought it was for at least two people, but no, everyone else got a pasta too, randy a risotto with squid ink, Nonna had fettuccini carbornara, and Logan had gnocchi. It was enough to eat, but we went ahead and ordered two segundi anyway—a mixed grill of fried fish (sardines, calamari, squids) and some rouget in a red sauce. Came back to the Gatto Rosso, and Randy, surprisingly was energetic enough to want to go to the Saturday disco. So we headed to HUB about 12:30, arriving just after the rush this time. I said I had been there the previous week so the color coded entry tickets we got this time only cost 15 euros instead of 25. A nice surprise. Not quite as crowded as the week before but still basically the same. Lots of cute boys, an act…not drag, but a Eurovision singer, I am guessing (her song, “Boys, Boys, Boys” had Eurovision written all over it; I’ll have to ask Martin), go-go boys, cuter than last week. Just fun people watching. We stayed until three and then made the quick trip back to the house. (After all the wine at dinner and two gin tonicos at the club, I was glad I didn’t have to drive far.) Poor Randy had to sleep on the couch, as he couldn’t check into his hotel until Sunday.

We had breakfast and then Logan and I drove Randy into Lucca. Parked outside the gate, and carried his bags to the hotel (fortunately he’s a light packer). I had considered trying to drive into the hotel again, as I did for Jim, but I’m glad I didn’t as there was a special, city wide flea market that Sunday! Anyway, Randy’s room is even farther from the Hotel than Jim’s was (though much closer to our usual entry gate, so that is good. A cute room, but with the same set up as Jim’s: a private bath, but outside the room. His room does have two nice windows overlooking an enclosed courtyard. He says the bed is not bad. I am beginning to wonder if they have any rooms in the building where the lobby/breakfast room is though. It’s definitely an odd hotel—though good if you crave privacy; sort of like having an apartment in Lucca.

After we got him settled we went back to the car and picked up Nonna and went for Sunday lunch at the Osteria de Meati. Great weather again, and a great lunch on the back patio. Crostini and lardo; riso, fettuccini fungi and the house pasta, a macheronni with a ragu, then two big chianini steaks. Dropped randy back in Lucca for a nap, and napped myself at the Gotto Rosso. Around eight we went back to Lucca, just to meet Randy (lots of traffic; and they had just torn down the flea market stalls). Everything was closed of course; but we did have coffee, and walked around to see the monuments by night.


16 October 2006                    Lucca (Pisa)

Today we took Randy and Logan to Pisa. Turned away for lunch at our favorite restaurant (I hadn’t planned on lunch, so hadn’t booked, but when we got there everyone was hungry.) We found this cute little student hangout with a back terrace (I don’t even know the name) that was super cheap and cute—full of smoking university students. Pastas and salads, everything was under 5 euros and pretty good. I liked it a lot.

Afterwards we stopped at the hospital chapel of S. Chiara to see the thorn from the crown of thorns (brought to Pisa in 1266.) Then back to the Campo de Miracoli for the monuments. The same tour we did a week ago with Jim et al. Not at all busy, pleasantly uncrowded in fact. The Rolex watch sellers almost outnumbered the tourists. Let Logan and Randy climb the tower, as I had done it the week before. I went off to find a pharmacy to get Nonna something for her mosquito bites (which were making her cranky). After some wandering, found the main shopping street—I’d forgotten how nice it was—didn’t have time to linger though, just stopped in an old fashioned pharmacy, very cute, and bought what was recommended to me.

We had dinner tonight a de Giulia, our last visit this trip, I suppose. It was surprisingly busy, and we had to sit for the first time ever in what I call the sale de tour buses, as the front room was full. They put a few more Italians in there as well, so it was fine (we did have the English speaking—sort of—waiter though) and the room is cute. Had the favorites: mixed antipasto, tuna and fagiole, macherroni, horse tartare for me and Logan, veal stew with olives for Nonna and the flattened chicken for Randy. Some very tasty spinach that Logan ordered on a whim. Nonna had her panna cotta with strawberry sauce. The blonde lady wasn’t there, and the dark haired woman was so busy when we left, we didn’t really get to say goodbye. Kind of sad.

Anyway, tomorrow we are off to San Gimignano and Siena.


17 October 2006                    San Gimignano

San Gimignano hadn’t changed much since my previous visits. It’s far too touristy, but still rather fun (and impressive) to visit. If you step off the main street, it can be strangely deserted, we found to our delight. It was late afternoon that we spent there, and it wasn’t that crowded, really. We had excellent pizza (wish I knew the name of the place, I only know how to find it) and then excellent gelato. We visited the small Romanesque Cathedral, with it’s fantastic frescoes of the old and new testament stories. Nonna sat in a café while we went off to see the monastery church. We all had a coffee, then she joined us for the walk up to the fortress, and the amazing view of the surrounding countryside. We just missed the sunset (the sun had slipped behind the mountains anyway) but still a very beautiful, almost timeless view.

We had dinner at a tucked away little restaurant that I discovered on my last visit—but discovered too late to eat at. It looked good, and so I had always wanted to go. Turned out to be really excellent. (It’s called Rondo, in some cellar rooms on an obscure side street.) It didn’t hurt that there was an incredibly cute, very friendly waiter—his name was Omar. But the food was outstanding. Highlights included a trio of soups: cavalo nero, onion, and cream of potato; and more I don’t remember althouh I have the menu among my papers.


18 October 2006                    Siena

The drive to Siena was easy (even though Ermentrude’s power was dead when I tried to turn her on this morning—the danger of relying on technology.) We only had a little rufusing about the walls of Siena before we found signs which led us to the hotel and its on-site parking. The Hotel Athena is nice—modern, without a lot of character, but very comfortable and convenient, and very service oriented. Logan forgot to bring his passport, despite my reminding him, so at the hotels we’ve been sort of pretending he doesn’t exist. This silly registering one has to do with Italian hotels. You also have to show ID to use the internet in Italy—they make a copy for the government, some anti-terrorist law—absolutely silly.

We got to Siena and walked down to the campo. Sat at a café for the view. Had sandwiches and a glass of wine and coffee for the outrageous price of 55 euros—well, you pay to sit on the campo, it’s silly. This evening we found a better café, still on the campo, to have our pre-dinner drinks—four euros for a campari/soda, much more reasonable (at the bar il Palio). After our afternoon snack we walked across town to the San Dominica church to see the head (and finger) of St. Catherine. I bought a bunch of postcards, of course. The church is otherwise unremarkable. Walked back (past St. Catherine’s house), Nonna complaining of the hills and the length of the walk. Rested in the hotel and downloaded emails for a while. A little after five Randy, Logan and I walked to the Duomo and spent quite a lot of time inside. The façade, sadly, is completely covered in scaffolding, but it does have one of the most interesting and impressive interiors in Italy. The inlaid floors were uncovered. We also visited the ‘crypt’ which I had never seen before. It’s not really a crypt, but an old pilgrimage entrance to the cathedral, which was buried when the church was expanded and the baptistery built. It actually sits between the dome of the baptistery and the floor of the cathedral, and had been filled with dirt and debris until it was accidentally rediscovered in 1999. Because it had been buried for 600 years or so, the surviving paintings (not frescoes, but images dry painted on the walls) are brilliantly colored and without any alterations or restoration. It’s beautiful (though much was lost in expanding the church). We were the only people there. The Cathedral too, late in the day, was mostly empty…it’s mobbed most of the day. We were too late though to go to the baptistery, it was closing…it wasn’t yet 7, the official closing time, but it was empty and they wouldn’t let us in. We went for a drink and waited for Nonna to walk from the hotel and join us. She’d been walking well…lots of walking the day before in San Gimignano, and again today, but now her hip seems to have given out.

Great dinner tonight dinner at Osteria di Logge, just off the Campo. It’s a really cute restaurant with fantastic food. I had: first a chunk of fatty bacon cooked with a few beans; then a ravioli stuffed with potato puree and mozzarella, then fried rabbit, then a rich chocolate ‘soup’ with lemon sorbet (an odd but delicious combo). Other dishes included two tasty octopus tentacles, pasta with sausage, rare sliced steak, and delicious rack of lamb. And another dessert of warm chestnut mouse with cassis sorbet. Chianti (1999) of course. We started off with a cute young waiter, but ended with some of the more experienced servers. Everyone was very nice, including a woman who I think is the owner.

Randy, Logan and I walked back from the restaurant, after putting Nonna in a taxi to the hotel. She was very happy that I insisted; I’m glad that I walked though. On the walk back, passed a bar full of gays on the same street as the restaurant. Not a gay bar, just a typical Italian bar, but all gay guys, inside drinking and on the street smoking. Farther along toward the hotel, spotted a rather surprising scene of a guy giving another guy a blow job in a dark little square by a sculpture of a Panther, off the fairly busy lane leading to our hotel. Who knew Siena was so gay? Who knows what you might find, prowling around the dark Siena streets?



20 October 2006                        outside Lucca

Change in the weather yesterday afternoon, just after we returned from Siena. Cloudy and a light but steady rain, then a heavy rain through the night. Today it’s chilly and overcast but dry, though occasional showers are forecast (by Carlotta, who always seems to know the weather.)

Yesterday we didn’t get up to much. A quick visit to the baptistery in Siena after breakfast, and an easy drive back to Lucca and Cerasomma. A quick visit to the COOP with Logan, then lazing around the house in the rain until dinner. Ate at Leo, bean soup and roast pork. Logan had the pumpkin ravioli and the rolled roast veal, which was really excellent. Randy had a combo of boiled tongue and chicken leg—not sure why the combination. I didn’t try it. My mother had a particularly tasty spaghetti pomodoro, and a stew of chicken, tomatoes and olives. Lemon sorbet with sage for dessert—not as interesting as the melon with peperocini, though.

Today is our last full day in Lucca…so Logan and I, at least, are going in to see the churches, and have a walk around the city walls. Nonna is suffering with a painful hip.

Logan and I drove into town in the late morning and met Randy. We had coffee at Turandot, made a dinner reservation at Giglio; walked by the Cathedral and on to lunch at Gigi. Nice table on the small terrace, as we arrived just ahead of the rush. We ate light (one course each) so as not to spoil our dinner—but everything we had was fantastic. I definitely wanted more; and in retrospect was sorry we had not had a light lunch at Giglio and a big dinner at Gigi. The food was better and half the price, another super cheap tratoria like de Leo and de Guilia. I had spaghetti with seafood: mussels, shrimp—simple but really tasty, with excellent pasta. Randy had a terrific looking seafood stew, mostly octopus, served on a big slice of toast, in a broth. I think Logan had bresola and rucola, though I may be misremembering. Everything coming out of the kitchen looked great, and the patio was lovely, and the casual atmosphere charming.

After lunch we visited churches. I got us lost going round the Piazza Ampiteatro, so we visited a church I wasn’t expecting. Then finally found San Frediano, with its impressive mosaic façade. The Chapel of Santa Zita was closed—under renovation—but the saint in her glass vitrine was on display in the main church. From there we ascended the city walls and walked halfway around the city atop the walls. It’s a lovely park-like promenade with attractive views. Most of the trees were still green, but some were turning and losing leaves, depending on their orientation. We passed the Casa Cura de Santa Zita—a rest home that looks like a luxury hotel; and we passed a penitentiary (inside the city walls; I never knew it was there.) All over the city they have been setting up fully enclosed tents; they started at Piazza San Michele, then in front of the Cathedral, the entire Piazza Napoleon and a big grassy area outside the walls. I never did find out what event they were for. We came off the wall on the other side of the city and visited the Cathedral (with it’s “holy face”—a crucifix of miraculous origin, carved by saints, which then sailed itself to Lucca; that sort of thing). We visited also the deconsecrated church of SS Giovanni and Riparta with it’s interesting archeological excavations dating to the first century. Then onto gelato at Santini on the Piazza Puccini, and a little shopping. Back to the Gatto Rosso to get Nonna and return for dinner at Giglio. Coming back Logan twisted his ankle—it looked bad when we got home. Giglio is a bit elegant, for which you pay double the price of the tratorias. The food sounded interesting, but while it was good, it was really no better than the places we’d been eating. Nice terrace, but so has de Leo and Gigi.



Saturday 21 October                outside Lucca

Morning. Preparing to leave our country house. Raining this morning. With Logan’s twisted ankle, I am now dealing with two invalids. Neither of the them can walk, or want to go out in the rain, and there’s nothing for breakfast here. Carlotta gave me a little tin plaque of a sheep, it’s really cute.


Later, Hotel Silla, Firenze

Left Lucca in the morning, without a proper breakfast and in the pouring rain. Had a mediocre coffee along the way at the Autogrill. Checked into the Silla, and it looked like it was going to clear. Had salads under the tent outside Zoe. Decided to take Randy for a walk around the city while Nonna and Logan rested their various achy parts. As soon as we left it started to rain again, but I walked Randy in a great circle around the city anyway: Santa Croce, Duomo, Baptistery, Piazza Signorini, Ponte Vecchio, Pitti Palace, Santo Spirito. As I refuse to be burdened with an umbrella, I got soaked.

Took a taxi to dinner at Cibreo. Expensive (340 euros for 4) but really excellent. Attentive friendly service. Lots of great little antipasti: delicious tripe salad, tomato aspic, salted onions, chicken liver crostini, a few other things. I had a primi of pumpkin soup a segundi of a breaded room-temperature veal chop with tomato sauce; Logan had potato flan with ragu and a mound of raw fish over celery. nonna had polenta,  and then a veal stew. Randy had mushroom soup and… oh I forget. Everything was quite delicious though. Desserts of flourless chocolate cake (a gift) and coffee bavarese (like flan) with dark chocolate sauce were outstanding. A pear tart and chestnut filled merangue were less spectacular. Altogether though, interesting, very good and different food. I’d still be happy to eat in the adjacent tratoria though, and pay half as much. We walked back to the hotel.



22  October                    Hotel Silla, Firenze

Took a very nice walking tour in the morning. Official, licensed guides, and ours was excellent. The company is Mercurio, and I would recommend them. Basic art and history of Florence –Ponte Vecchio, Piazzi Signorini, Duomo, then to the Academia (where they arrange admission) but still quite interesting. Our guide (Patricia) was knowledgeable and interesting. And I learned things I didn’t know: that Florence was ruled for a time by the Byzantine empire; that the important families lived in stone towers before they replaced them with Palazzos, that the white, green and pink marble on the Duomo represents faith, hope and charity. Her discussion, inside the Academia, of Michelangelo’s late, unfinished, slaves, and his early David was most interesting. Sadly, the room in the Academia filled with plaster study casts was closed for renovation. We couldn’t really linger in the Academia, sadly, as we had lunch reservations.

We took a cab to Omero, in the hills south of the city for Lunch. Nonna met us there. She was supposed to go on the walking tour, but her hip was too painful this morning. The weather was nice—it turned quite warm during our walking tour, and Omero has this fantastic view of the Tuscan countryside. We had a little salumi and crostini, and interesting mushroom and parmesan salad; then pasta: papardelle with hare for me and Randy; Spaghetti with ragu for nonna and (expensive!) white truffles for Logan. After that, two bistecca alla fiorintino. Good, but not really better than the ones at Osteria di Meati. Wacky ladies from Texas in the dining room. Our waiter was kind of surly most of the meal, but he cheered up toward the end. Randy tipped him 20 euros which I wouldn’t have done, but then I am always thinking Randy is over tipping. He gave the taxi driver on the way down an enormous tip, just because he thought he was so amusing (he was right out of central casting as a stereotypical young Italian Guido).

Logan, Randy and I wandered around the Boboli gardens a while. I came back and checked my email (free wireless now at the Silla, though the signal doesn’t reach our room; but it’s a nice first floor room on the front.) Around 8pm took Nonna out for a walk and we sat at Riviore, looking at the Palazzo Vecchio, drinking expensive Campari sodas. The evening was warm, but grew chilly with a weak breeze. Randy and Logan joined us for a drink, then we went for a little walk, had gelato (mediocre) and came back to the Silla. Not enough time in Firenze I fear.


23 October 2006                    Hotel Silla, Firenze

I desperately wanted to take everyone to La Specola, the strange natural history museum of Florence, with the 18th century wax anatomical models. I marched Nonna there…up the road blocks beyond the Pitti Palace, only to find that the Museum—up six flights of stairs in a rennaisance palazzo that is now part of the unversity—has no elevator. I walked up and asked at the desk if they had invalid access. They told me to wait downstairs. And then two not very young and not very large men appeared and offered to carry my mother up the stairs! I was expecting, of course, a service elevator hidden somewhere. They looked greatly relieved when Nonna declined and went instead to a café for capuccino while Logan, Randy and I toured the collection of ancient stuffed creatures and gruesomely realistic wax corpses. It was virtually deserted, have just been abandoned by a group of school children. I felt badly that Nonna didn’t get to see it, but she sounded unimpressed by my descriptions. I think it is a fantastically cool place.

We had lunch outside on the Santo Spirito square, which has a number of pleasant cafes. Then we went shopping at Nonna’s favorite leather shop—the prices are surprisingly low.

Dinner was at one of my favorite Firenze restaurants—the fabulously bargainy and always delicious Casalinga. We had reservations, but were denied the pleasure of being led to our table under the envious gaze of tourists waiting in line (so much fun!) as it was Monday and not crowded to overflowing. The food, as always, was basic, traditional and delicious—and priced to encourage over-eating.


24 October 2006                    Hotel Silla, Firenze

Logan had to catch an early flight to Paris to connect back to Los Angeles, so we didn’t even get to see him at breakfast. We went shopping at our favorite Florentine paper store (the somewhat hard-to-find and therefore inexpensive) il Torchio, then had a more leisurely departure for the scenic drive north to Modena.

France and Italy, Part III, Tuscany to Paris


25 October 2006                    Villa Giadello, Modena

Returned to a favorite discovery, the farm/inn-restaurant of Villa Giadello, east of Modena. The elderly owner is still here and hard at work. Our apartment was smaller and rather more modern than the one we had on our previous visit (we were in the new building), but the only disadvantage was the very narrow beds. (Randy told me, much later, that he didn’t sleep at all, for fear of falling off the bed, which was both narrow and quite high. He still refers to it as a “Nun’s bed.”)

Just a brief rundown on last night’s dinner (the reason we came, after all).

Sat down to a big stack of white plates. First offered a locally made wine—their own wine in fact, first a frizzante white Trebbianno followed by a frizzante red Lambrusco. The white is better—the red more resembling something teens would drink at a party. The food began to arrive.

1st: a platter of cold cuts, and a platter of pickled onions and pickled artichoke hearts. A bowl of puffy deep fried dough pockets (irresistible!)

2nd: A bowl of tortellini in brodo: chicken stuffed tortellini in a rich chicken broth

3rd: a cheese stuff pasta (larger tortellini) with butter and cheese

4th: roast pork in a dark balsamic gravy with roast potatoes and green salad

5th: desserts: a bowl of fruits in a liqueur; a custard and a chocolate pudding, and a plate of meringues and cookies.

6th: Coffee and a mysterious after dinner sweet liqueur.

Just finished a nice breakfast of good coffee, meat, toast, apple butter, pear juice and plum cake.


26 October 2006                    Como, Italy

After dinner, our second night in Como. I’m fighting the onset of a cold…a little congested, not too bad, I’m hoping it will pass. Como is a really cute (almost too cute), really rich little city on the south edge of Lake Como, not far at all from Milano. It’s very pristine: clean, ordered, manicured…it seems almost un-Italian. Full of banks and fancy shops, and a beautiful lake front with promenade and park and marina. Our hotel, the Metropole and Suisse, is cute, if a little stuffy, but comfortable, on the Piazza Cavour with a view of the lake. We arrived yesterday, midday, and had lunch in the rather formal, and rather empty, hotel restaurant. It’s after the season here, so it’s not very crowded, which is nice, and the weather is great, but it gives this big resort hotel a bit of a forlorn feeling. The food was good, a little pricey, the service too formal.

After lunch, we discovered a funicular, which takes you up a steep hillside from the waterfront to the top of the mountain. It’s only a seven minute ride, so it’s not that far up. Great views though. It was sunset, I took some pictures; we had some really bad wine at the café up there—“all natural wine as made by the Romans before the bisth of chist.” It was fun though.

We found a neat little tiny restaurant for dinner. It’s called Nostra’damus, which must be some kind of pun in Italian. They had a very small menu, which they seem to change daily. After pressing our faces to the glass, we reserved a table for 90 minutes later, but it’s good we did, because every table in the little place was full by 8:15. All Italians except us, I believe. No translation on the menu, although the waitress did translate a few mysterious items for us. Started with a plate of artisinal salumis, and a polenta (of wheat or ?, it was dark brown) with a soft cheese melted on it. Unusual and really delicious. Had a risotto…your basic saffron, very rich though, and followed that with pork loin stuffed with sausage—really great but also just too much by then. Great place though. It’s on this cute little (tarted up, but historic) medieval street, just behind the shopping area.

This morning I went to the Duomo, a fabulous renaissance cathedral in pristine condition. Inside there are some amazing altars…a carved wooden one, a great renaissance altar, and a mad baroque concoction. Tapestries, and a beautiful vaulted ceiling painted with stars. The facade is a marvelous marble display decorated with statues of saints. (I took Randy and Nonna to see it late in the day…the facade was prettier in the fading light, but the interior was too gloomy by late afternoon.)

We left at noon to take the public ferry boat up the lake. The lake is dotted with cute little hillside villages and extravagant waterfront villas. We took an almost two hour ride to Bellagio, the halfway point, sitting on the open deck of the ferry. It was a lovely ride…cold in shadow, but very warm in the sun. We had sandwiches and cappuccini in Belagio, which was mostly closed up for the season. There’s one really extravagant hotel there, with what sounds like an amazing gourmet restaurant; but really there is not much there. Definitely just a resort spot. It made me glad we were staying in Como, where it’s pretty but also some real life going on. We came back on the hydrofoil, which took less than an hour.

Randy and I walked along the waterfront to a little early 20th century villa rotunda that turned out to be a monument and museum to Allesandro Volta, the scientist and inventor of the battery, and Como native. It was at the end of a very pretty little park, which also contained a fascist era (but rather nice looking) monument to the WWI dead; and a memorial to the resistance fighters of WWII. Italy often seems to forget what side it was on in WWII; one forgives them though because they are so good natured. I wonder that the people didn’t want to go to war anymore then than we wanted war with Iraq.

We had dinner tonight at Resturante Rino, oddly enough, a Tuscan restaurant. (It and the restaurant the night before, had been suggested to us by the owners of this cute little place we stumbled into that only served lunch; unfortunately we didn’t get to try it—they serve a different lunch every day; It’s next door to Nostra’damus.) The Tuscan place was really good as well, also quite small and full of Italians (mostly; there was a group of posh, well-heeled, elderly Brits). I had some crostini, fresh pasta with truffled duck sauce (I think they own the pasta shop next door as well) and grilled lamb chops with spinach. And some vin santo and cantuccini. The truffles were very nice, very aromatic (one of the crostini was a truffled something…all I could taste was truffle.

In the morning we are off to Strasbourg, the long drive through the Alps. Should be fun, and quite scenic. It’s the longest drive of the trip.


28 October 2006                    Strasbourg, France

The Hotel Rohan is as nice as ever. Great staff, friendly and helpful. Haven’t done all that much while in Strasbourg. A little shopping. Some walking around. Visiting the beautiful red sandstone cathedral (such an unusual color)—though they are doing a lot of work on the tower and the north exterior. Took the silly boat ride around the city. Visited some gay bars—well two—with Randy. One a place of middle-aged queens who all knew each other, with comfy sofas (JJ’s) and the other a packed and happening teen hangout with really cute boys (and girls) and cheap drinks. It was very hot and we were conspicuously old.

Randy was happy to be in France (he likes the ethnic diversity and open homosexuality, which is lacking in Italy). Nonna’s becoming a little impatient with everything, (It annoys me particularly because I think it is an unpleasant trait I have inherited myself.) I think she’s ready to go home. I could use a week in Paris, alone. It all makes me want to run away to Europe—oh, I did that already!


29 October 2006                        Strasbourg, France

Great dinner tonight, our best in Strasbourg, at the famous (justly so) Chez Yvonne. Fantastic foie gras and great choucroute (with liver quenelles, worsts, lard, duck confit, ham) and also excellent house wines…a very good Gewurztraminer (sweet) with the foie gras and a nice Riesling to follow. Lots of other great sounding things on the menu too, if you don’t want to be so traditionally Alsatian. The (small) staff was very nice and friendly and the place was packed with people streaming in all during our dinner (we arrived at 8). It’s the best place we ate in Strasbourg. Better than Strissel (booked  by our hotel the first night); better than our return to Table d’ Alsace (the fish place), although I did enjoy my oysters. Strasbourg does seem to have a service problem though, all the restaurants seem understaffed and overworked. Not sure if it’s a chronic problem or if perhaps they have cut back to winter staff and are overtaxed by the unseasonable warm weather. Every place needs more staff though.

We decided to stay a third day in Strasbourg. For simplicity’s sake, and skip Reims in favor of two country inns on the route to CDG.

Having finished the fascinating but excessively self-conscious Cloud Atlas, I am now reading the aggressively self-conscious Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.


30 October 2006                    Marre, France

Leaving Strasbourg, we drove straight through to Verdun, where we had a tiny lunch in grand hotel/restaurant, Le Bistro hostellerie du Guy Hardi, where I’d really like to have a full meal sometime. They had cloches! Verdun seemed kind of cool, its buildings still showing WWI bullet holes in the stone, and a nice Cathedral with a beautiful Gothic cloister.

Staying the night at a funny little logis in Marre, the Village Galois. Cute, simple rooms, a nice dinner, and a (closed for the season) miniature golf course—all buried under autumn leaves. Dinner was good, a salad of warm rabbit in vinegar, and a piece of suckling pig, though I ate half of Nonna’s steak, which was better. Nice breakfast of meats and a fresh baguette and pain de chocolat. The inn was really quirky though…in addition to the abandoned miniature golf course, the dining room was this circular stone building, and the inn, which appeared to have only two floors, had two staircases—each led to a similar—but not the same—corridor of rooms; which both appeared to be on the first (2nd American) floor. They seemed to occupy the same space at the same time! There was also a very odd old man, who may have been the proprietor, who was building an extension to the building…he kept coming by to talk to us: outside, at dinner, at breakfast, but each time he found we spoke English he just smiled and went on his way.


31 October 2006 (Halloween)                    Chateau-Thierry, France

Leaving the logis, we drove nearly to Belgium through beautiful, bright green, and completely deserted countryside, to the American Great War cemetery, which Nonna wanted to see. The whole area we drove through was devastated in WWI; they say whole villages were destroyed and never rebuilt. We drove then to Reims, and parked by the Cathedral, and because I had an overwhelming desire for steak tartare, we walked to the Brasserie Flo. The tartare was good, but big. Nonna ordered a Choucroute (it came with a ¼ duck confit and a whole tongue (!) which she didn’t eat, of course.) Then we drove out of town just as it began to rain, and onto our misadventures with the inns.

The idea was to stay in a final country inn, then in the morning to the airport. We actually found the place I was looking for, a place we stopped for lunch a year or so ago—the Auberge Le Relais, a few kilometers east of Chateau Thierry on the N3. Excited to find it (not remembering its name) and pulled up in front to find it Ferme Mardi et Mercredi! Merde! Drove on few more kilometers and saw a sign to the hotel restaurant Le Moulin…followed the sign to this really cute farmhouse type inn…with a locked gate and a note that they would be closed from 30 October to 3 November! D’oh! After that we were in the small city of Chateau-Thierry, where we could not find two hotels suggested by Ermentrude; stumbled upon the one logis in town (I parked the car to look it up in the book and noticed it was across the street!), but it was kind of forlorn and shabby. Followed signs to something that sounded promising but was a motel by the payage, turned around and saw this big Best Western Hotel La France. It’s comfortable, but not quite charming, though the Madame at the desk is quite nice. It has a restaurant (which turned out to be pretentiously elegant and rather dull). The room has a pleasant view, but the street out front is like a highway, so it’s not so charming. Ah well, it will be fine. It’s a pity the cute inns were closed. Had I known, I might just have stayed in Reims, though this will, I suppose, make getting to the airport easier.

Last night in France, funny it is Halloween. We fly on All Saints Day, a holiday in France and across Europe. Sort of just a nothing night, a rest-stop before CDG. We didn’t go back to Paris; possibly I should have stayed the night in Riems, where we stopped for lunch.  We saw some kids trick-or-treating on the way—in the daylight, so as not to be run down on the roads at night, I suppose. In Reims a cinema was showing 12 horror films for one admission price! Seems this American holiday has caught on in France. I suppose they are whooping it up in West Hollywood. It’s been ages since I did anything on Halloween.

Winding up the trip now; It will be good not to have to carry suitcases anymore, though I know I will miss Europe after a week back in LA.

Anecdotes from a French Spring

“It would be easier,” I remark, “To have lunch with Jacques Chirac.” We are standing outside the Pilier Sud, at the entrance to private elevator to Restaurant Jules Verne. Our way is blocked by a pleasant but stern young man, clad in all black, with a radio headset. It is a near impossibility to make a reservation at Jules Verne, the luxury restaurant on the second tier of the Tour Eiffel.


“Three months in advance” is their standard reply…and even then…I finally had a friend who works for the French Tourist Office in LA make the reservation…to her slight annoyance, as even for her it required multiple phone calls and faxes. It’s somewhat ridiculous…Le Grand Véfour, Le Cinq—great, three star restaurants—booked with a simple fax on our last trip to Paris. Anyway, even after going to such great lengths to extract a reservation, and a fax from the restaurant confirming such reservation, the Jules Verne insists that you reconfirm the reservation the day before. OK, slightly annoying, but not unheard of. Except that they never answer their telephone. Call, call, and call again, and all you get is a multi-lingual message telling you that all lines are busy and please try again in a few minutes. At the prices they charge, you’d think they could hire someone to answer the phones…or outsource it to a call center in India or something. Finally we sent them a fax. But, of course something has gone astray…our table has been canceled (and given to who I wonder, considering the difficulty of making a reservation and the impossibility of reaching them by phone. Have they a list of stand-ins at the ready?) Calls are made from the elevator desk to the restaurant upstairs; someone comes to confer with us…I wave my confirmation fax (bearing the imprint of the French Tourist Office) and Logan explains the multiple unanswered phone calls. Still the young man in black bars our entry to the private elevator lobby, snicker though he did at my comment about lunch with Jacques Chirac. Clearly this is a commonplace occurrence. Someone in authority explains that they had tried to call our hotel, unsuccessfully, that morning, and then—finally behaving in the manner one expects from such a restaurant—says, but of course we will take care of everything, please come up…

From that point on, all is pleasant. A sweet boy lifts us to the second étage in one of the tower’s uniquely slanted elevators; we can see the young and the vigorous clambering up and down the stairs as views of Paris flash in and out of sight between the steel girders. We are offered an aperitif in the bar, but already they have a table ready for us. It’s a small table…too small really for the theater of food the restaurant requires, but it is right at the window, on the best side of restaurant. All of Paris is below our table: Sacre-Coeur on its hill, the Place de la Concorde, the Arc de Triomphe, the roofs of the Madeleine and the Opera, the expanse of the Louvre, and, in the distance, the distinctive towers of Notre Dame and the brightly colored tubes of the Pompidou Center. Directly under us, on the platform below the restaurant, tourists admire the view. It is spectacular, as promised. Inside, the restaurant is all black and grey and leather—very eighties. It seems a bit, well, too eighties, though in mint condition. Logan admires the china, white with black geometric accents, eighties too, but handsome. I find the black stemmed wineglasses less successful. We have glasses of Veuve Cliquot vintage rose (€29 a glass!) Logan promptly knocks his over—25 euros spilling into my plate and lap—fortunately protected by my napkin. Fortunately our only mishap. Service is efficient, professional, but no better than most Paris restaurants. Food is fairly excellent. The à la carte menu is shockingly expensive—50 starters, €90 entrees, and up. But there is a very nice “businessman’s” lunch menu for 55 (the only thing not translated into English—Logan finds this very cunning). He and I have a starter of haddock prepared three ways: a soup that is almost entirely fish flavored air—really good; haddock tartare, and a little spinach and haddock tartlet. Abbie has a terrine of foie gras and oxtail—terrific. They have lamb for the main course—they proclaim it excellent. I have quail—deboned for the most part, and stuffed with foie gras. It is excellent. We drink two bottles of wine, a white and a Bordeaux, neither particularly expensive. Dessert is a sablé with strawberries, with custard and ice cream; and a lemon thing that Abbie had. Various little candies and cookies and truffles are brought to the table, of course. The wine waiter is cute. After lunch, we wander downstairs and out amid the milling crowds for the view of Paris from the open platform. Logan buys another cheap souvenir Tour Eiffel to add to his odd little collection. We make a waiter open the back door to the Jules Verne for us, so we can take the private elevator down. We are about the last lunch guests to leave the restaurant. The crowd was largely American; a few French people. What can I say? The view: extraordinary. The decor: fair. The service: good but not outstanding. The food: very good. The price: the prix fix lunch is a good value. Otherwise for the money, I’d go to Le Cinq, hands down.

After lunch we caught a taxi to the Louvre. I felt such a tourist, taxi-ing from monument to monument. Everyone was over-tired in the Louvre…but we saw the remounted La Gioconda—or rather the crowds around it. It is better located and better lit. They have moved the Veronese wedding feast to the other end of the room. All and all, the room looks better. They have also finished refurbishing the rooms containing the grand format paintings. These galleries look quite good. We escaped the crowds though, for the Richelieu wing and the Mesopotamian art, the French sculptures in the sunlit courts, and the medieval objects tucked away on the floor above. These galleries are essentially deserted.


This spring, without really planning to, I ended up spending 24 days in France—nine in Paris and the remainder touring the towns and countryside in a wide arc around Paris from Reims in the Northwest to Chinon in the southeast. I made two separate trips to France; the first a last-minute press trip organized by the French tourist office to promote the “Gay Friendly” Loire valley followed by a long-planned trip with my business partner (Mr. Logan) and my mother (Abbie), AKA Nonna, which took us to Paris, Chablis, Berry, and again the Loire valley. The press trip focused on the cities of Orleans, Tours and Amboise, so the only real overlap was Amboise, which I visited on both trips. A detailed and chronological account of the trip would be lengthy and unnecessary, therefore I will recount only some of the more entertaining anecdotes, such as the one above.


Our first press visit was to the Parc Floral de la Source—a large garden of a former Château that now houses offices for the university. It was chilly, and just slightly too early in the season for most of the flowers, except the tulips. The most remarkable thing a about it is that it is the source of the river Loiret—hence the name. I don’t think I’d ever actually seen the source of a river before; so somehow I always imagined something rather grand—melting glaciers or something. Here the water bubbles up out of little hole in the ground and forms a small decorative stream that runs through the rather formal garden. It looks quite artificial really. When we dined a few nights later at Les Quatre Saisons, a beautiful inn and restaurant (with very good food) which sits picturesquely on the banks of the Loiret a dozen kilometers or so outside of Orleans, the decorative little stream had become a wide and rather impressive river. I still have trouble believing all that water comes out of a little hole in the Château grounds, but I’m assured by those with a more thorough knowledge of earth sciences that this is just the way these things work.


Our guided tour of Orleans took us to the old city hall, and the rather nice Cathedral of Sainte-Croix, and of course numerous statues of Jeanne d’Arc—patron and liberator of the city in 1429. The city was preparing for the annual festival in her honor on the 8th of May, taking place a few days after we depart. Apparently, each year a local girl—a virgin of course—is chosen to play the role of Joan, and she rides into the city on a horse and then much feasting and drinking ensues. Orleans is a pleasant and compact city of (newly) cobble stoned streets and quaint buildings. It’s easily explored on your own. Except for one thing you won’t see—and this is what I love about these guided press tours—the secret entrance to the excavated medieval gate and drawbridge. We were assembled on the main square, in front of the large equestrian statue of Jeanne d’ Arc when our guide from the Orleans tourist office takes out her keyring and presses something that looks like the little device that unlocks the doors on a car. She presses a button and a three meter square of cobblestone(!) in the place du Martroi, slowly, silently, and electrically opens like a huge trap door, and out of the ground rises a steel spiral staircase. Descending the staircase to some depth, we explore the foundations of the city wall, and drawbridge gate, and medieval moat. Rather impressive. It seems it was unearthed while constructing an underground parking garage. When we exit, the whole thing is closed up at another push of a button and the massive cobblestone trapdoor disappears seamlessly into the surface of the square.


Another guided tour—this of the privately-owned Clos Lucé, the final home of Leonardo da Vinci, in Amboise. Our guide is a completely charming young man with an endearing shyness and beautiful blue eyes. I would mention his name, but he seemed so shy that I think it might embarrass him. He keeps apologizing that he only gives tours to children—perhaps afraid that a group of fully adult homosexuals may be bored with his presentation. Actually I think he was an inspired choice. They run us from place to place on these press tours, so our (or at least my) attention span often grows rather childlike; plus the Clos Lucé is the perfect place for children. It is filled with reconstructions and models of Leonardo’s inventions that you can actually play with, and has lots of interactive exhibits, all of which seem more ideally suited to children, who may become bored with the don’t touch aspects of the Châteaux and Cathedrals. Again we got an insider treat—our guide unlocked the gate in the basement of the house that provides entry into the underground tunnel that once connected the Clos Lucé with the nearby Château d’Amboise. (So that Leonardo could be visited by his patron François I without the king having to go outside.) The tunnel has mostly collapsed but a hundred meters or so of dark, damp, off-limits passageway remain. It’s rather fun to explore, in a creepy way. Fortunately, I have learned a few things while traveling, and have a flashlight in my bag!

We meet up with our guide again, unexpectedly, at the bar La P’tite Chose in Tours, at a meeting of the local gay social group. Here we have a chance to chat with him and his friends over drinks. We discover that badminton is the group’s most popular sporting activity.


I’ve decided I really like the quirky Hotel de L’Abeille—the group is split, and this is the hotel I’m not staying at. The staff is gay, and friendly, and a few of them rather cute. The rates are really cheap, around 50-70 euros per room. The lobby is comfortable and has free wifi. (Why is it that the most inexpensive hotels are likely to provide free internet, while a in a room that costs several hundred euros, they will add an additional, sometimes absurdly high, charge?) The whole decor may be aggressively over the top, but the place has character and charm. The clientele is mixed. Gay and straight couples as well as one really attractive young man on his own! Breakfast looked good. My hotel, across the street (Hotel d’Arc) is just comfortably bland. And none of the other lodging in town seems very special at all.


Andrew, one of the writers, tells us a story about the gay sauna in Orleans—the brand new Savon—which I had declined to visit on a Monday night. He said he was in the steam room with a cute French boy—apparently there was a decent crowd of two dozen or so—and he started chatting him up—fluency in French, which I definitely lack, can be an advantage. Anyway he tells us, admitting it was a totally corny pick up line—he asks the boy if he has ever had sex with an American. The boy says no. So Andrew asks “Would you like too?” To which the French boy replies, “Yes…with a young American.” A hysterical story as he told it, and that he would tell it with such relish and amusement is a good example of his personality. You should also know that besides being charming, Andrew is extremely handsome, rendering it even more amusing.


Amboise, a small, almost too cute town straddling the Loire, is a real discovery. Two beautiful, luxurious manor house hotels, at very reasonable rates for such unrestrained luxury—the Manoir des Minimes and Le Clos d’ Amboise, and a restaurant that is so fantastic—and such a bargain—as to be almost beyond belief.

The amazing dinner was at the recently opened Pavillon des Lys—8 courses for €38 euros. I have no idea how they do it. Each course was amazing. The chef/owner, Sébastien, a gay guy (which is why they put it on the itinerary, I suppose), does all the cooking alone. There are two waiters. It is a small restaurant, about nine tables (with four lavish bedrooms as well.) Dinner consisted of…

Champagne and little snacks in the garden

Then dinner…

1. a beet and parsley cappuccino

2. foie gras and potato tart with Coteau du Layon wine

3. smoked salmon with a local Sauvignon wine

4. roasted sea bass

5. medallion of beef with (Chinon wine, I think)

6. chariot of local cheese

7. pre-desert course of little parfait and cookies

8. a chocolate mouse thing

9. a green apple clafouti with calvados ice-cream

and a glass of poire William in the salon.

hmm…seems like more that 8 courses. It was fantastic! They serve only two multi-course set menus (one vegetarian, rather a rarity) which change daily.

I immediately made reservations for my return trip with Logan and Abbie, as we would be staying nearby. Our encore dinner was equally impressive. Logan and my mother loved it. It was a warm evening, so all the tables were set up outside in the walled gravel courtyard. The indoor tables with lamps and stuff…all as formal as if in the dining room. The weather was perfect for it. We were the first to arrive (at 7:40) and the second to last to leave (at just before midnight.) Well, we spent an hour on the upstairs terrace having our coffee (or verbena) with a tiny chocolate pot de crème and waiting for the check. From the terrace there we had a postcard view of the illuminated St. Hubertus chapel, with the Château behind, as dusk turned into night. Amazing. We were the only ones invited to have our coffee up there, so didn’t we feel special? Same waiter as before (and Sebastien said hello briefly at the end of the meal). Only nine tables, but all were full. And this time only 33 euros! So it went like this:

Aperitif: Kir Vouvray pettilant with little bites: a shrimp, a tapanade, a spoon of beet, and a little glass of melon.


1: a goblet of almost pureed vegetables and herbs; a parmesan cracker

2: Foie Gras with sel gris and a tiny lettuce salad

3: Crabmeat, tomato and avocado mille fiule with a crispy pastry

4: A small filet of fish on a bed of baby peas

5: A half quail with some mushrooms and tiny root vegetables

6: Cheese from the cheese board—a long plank that it took both waiters to carry to the table (actually the cheese is a supplement to the menu, but they comped us on it.)

7: rhubarb clafouti with strawberry ice-cream

8: a glass of fresh sliced strawberries with a glass of vanilla ice cream

9: a mango parfait, a little raspberry on a cookie, a tulle cookie

Then the delicious pot de crème with coffee on the upstairs terrace

We did not drink too much, just two bottles of wine and our aperitifs. We had a light red Menetou-Salon with the first 4 courses, and a Chinon with the quail and cheese.

Oh, the Manoir Les Minimes is fabulous. It’s a grand manor house; my room is extravagant—my bathroom even has a view of the Chateau. Owned by two charming gay guys (in matching pin-striped suits!) Everything in Amboise seems to be owned by homosexuals. Even the director of the Château d’Amboise, I’m told, is gay!


At the first dinner at Pavillon des Lys, after everyone had made their selections from the enormous Chariot du Fromage, one of the writers remarked that he had selected an particularly pungent (I believe his descriptions was stinky) cheese. Christophe remarked casually, not really as an explanation, that the cheese in question was from Alsace. Except that in giving a correct French pronunciation to that region of Eastern France, it sounded like “It comes from Al’s ass.” That got everyone’s attention, and much merriment ensued. It took Christophe a few seconds to understand what all the laughter was about.


A nice tour of Tours—excuse the obvious pun. It’s one of the larger cities of the Loire, and a big university town. Lots and lots of students. A cute half-timbered medieval quarter with lots of crowded sidewalk bar/cafes. The ruins of the enormous Basilica of St. Martin of Tours—now the city streets run right through the footprint of the giant church; only a couple towers remain. A new, much smaller, 19th century basilica was built during the religious revival to house the relics. I was the only member of the group who wanted to see his relics—so our guide took me to the reliquary under the alter while the rest of the group had coffee. Two interesting stops on the tour that I would have never discovered on my own: We visited a traditional silk weaving factory where they still weave fabric by hand on 18th century looms. For historical restorations I presume, as it is a tremendously expensive process. Apparently it is the only surviving weaver from the time when Tours was the Royal silk weaving city. The fabrics are beautiful—but even the spools of thread were astonishingly beautiful—they glowed with an almost internal light. We also visited an artisanal baker, where all the bread is made by hand and baked in a traditional, pre-WWII brick oven—one of the few surviving in France. Really good bread—in a country of good bread—but a dying artform in an age of more modern, mass production techniques. Anyway the brick oven is essential to the perfect texture of the soft interior and crisp crust of the breads at Veiux Four.


Christophe (our host from the LA office of the Maison de France) wore his “Sophie” (The Doyle/Logan Company logo and mascot) T-shirt to dinner last night. It was sweet. I had been wearing mine occasionally during the trip—I brought both, as they are black (I travel in black, it’s just one less decision to make.) The business card, I realize from this, is very successful—everyone remembers the dog logo “Oh I have your card, I remember the dog!”

Sadly the only word that adequately describes dinner is ‘ridiculous.’ Yes, you can have a bad meal in Paris—even an expensive bad meal. It was good that we were, by then, tired of eating. Christophe was a bit sad, because it was our last dinner, and it was a disaster; but really, the place was so absurd as to be amusing. It is a “trendy” restaurant. Well just that word is enough to set off alarm bells for me, and for Andrew too. Christophe says that some “trendy” restaurants in Paris are quite good, and fun, and I have no reason to doubt him. He’d never been here before. I’m rather sure he won’t be back. It was the Cantine du Faubourg…a very big place, in the basement of a building in the fashionable eighth arrondissement. Well, already it was trying too hard to be trendy. Orange plastic T-rex’s on the stairs going down. Gauzy curtains. Cool, modern, straight edged furniture and goofy lamps. Actually it was kind of pretty, in a sort of LA, sort of just past being trendy, way. And the clientele was not trendy—pretentious, plastic surgeried, breast enhanced, yes—but trendy, no. I thought they might all be people who made a lot of money in illegal activities. Mixed with just plain rich people from the neighborhood. Anyway, all this is forgivable…but as a restaurant, the place was a disaster. We were seated….early, 8pm, there was only one, maybe two other tables occupied in this huge space. We ordered drinks. They never came. We waited and waited. Finally the waitress came and told Cristophe that they couldn’t do drinks because “the computer was down” but we could have wine instead. We said “fine”…but got a good laugh out of that. Then, mysteriously and without explanation, our drink order (just slightly wrong) arrived. We were offered a very limited menu. Some kind of shrimp starter and chicken skewers or tuna steak for a main course. The little filo wrapped shrimp things were fine—they were served for no reason on long tiles, which didn’t really fit on the table. The mains they mixed up…I got chicken instead of tuna, but both were said to be equally insipid, so I didn’t miss much. The chicken on a stick was just that…coated with some kind of spice and served with noodles that Christophe aptly described as “bland”. The tuna came over-cooked (not very trendy!) and with a pyramid of instant rice! The harried, clearly unskilled waitress had to bring all the dishes to the table, two at time, unassisted, while dozens of staff did nothing but glide elegantly around the room, looking beautifully detached. Honestly, the place had an enormous staff—all very pretty, dressed in all black or all white outfits—but they did absolutely nothing but swan around the room, looking pretty. Dessert was decent; red fruits and lemon sorbet. The PR director—a fabulously dressed black woman, came over to greet us and deliver an obviously insincere “anything you need just ask” speech. The highlights of the restaurant it seems, are that they change the interior decoration twice a year, and that they will send a car to pick you up and bring you to the restaurant! It is probably the only way they can get anyone in the door. Yet it was quite full when we left at eleven. We had a good laugh about it, and as I said, as we were still full from our very nice lunch, it hardly mattered. Perhaps it was even better at that point to have an amusing story.

(That really good lunch, by the way, was at L’Ecluse St. Honoré, one of a small chain of wine bars featuring Bordeaux wine and simple, excellent food. As it was a very hot day, we were served two cold courses, both excellent, and a dessert. All the while we were entertained with amusing stories by Patricia Deckmyn, the exceedingly charming and witty ‘Ambassadress’—public relations director—of the restaurant.)


We sit in a café on the Rue de Rivoli, because my mother wanted a croque monsieur. It’s an inexpensive neighborhood café and tabac—The Jean-Bart—with nothing to call attention to it and consequently devoid of tourists. I’d been here before; the food is good and it is remarkably cheap for Paris. It’s pretty busy on a Friday night, and we’ve snagged a sidewalk table at the very end. Service is slow, but the atmosphere is festive. At the table next to us, separated only by the space of the doorway, are three French boys. They are drinking a bottle of rose from coca-cola glasses, smoking, talking on their mobile phones. They are dressed in the international style of youth: baggy jeans, an expanse of boxer shorts showing, one expensive designer accessory each, casually worn. The prettiest one—though it’s a close contest, sports a Gucci belt. One is rather hyperactive, always leaping up, leaving the table, going off for extended periods. The other two are far more languid. They slouch in their wicker chairs, opposing sides of the tiny cafe table, legs entwined. They might be gay. They might not. Clearly they are no older than 17, probably younger. Clearly they are enjoying their evening on the town; the wine, the cigarettes, the casual interaction with the waiter, the calls to friends on the mobile phones. It’s a scene I can’t imagine in America, and I can’t but feel that the lack of such casual, and innocent, adult fun is somehow detrimental to developing responsible, well-rounded adult personalities. The waiter, himself about 20, faux-hawked and cute mainly because he tries so hard, is friendly and funny despite the crowd and the frantic pace it demands. A young man stops at my table and asks for a cigarette—not for him, but for his girlfriend, who laughs and remains shyly in the background, clearly embarrassed. Her boyfriend is gregarious and clearly unembarrassed, or if he is conceals it completely with bluster and good cheer. I proffer her one of my Galois and light it and he kisses me on the cheek and she, laughing, says “merci, merci.” The boys, two now, abandoned again by their manic friend, stare languidly into each others’ eyes, whisper secrets, smoke their own cigarettes.


Logan, always the culinary adventurer, ate a pigs foot (deep fried and admittedly tasty, if bony) at Brasserie Flo in Reims, and a plate of horse tartar (which I declined to try, but which he declared the best tartare ever) at a sidewalk bistro in Bourges. I’ll refrain from the “I’m so hungry…” jokes.


Open ateliers in Belleville (an artsy Paris neighborhood). Very crowded. Too many children—not really the children I mind so much as the attendant strollers, chariots, etc. which consume so much space. Followed about the same route as we did two years ago. Saw perhaps ten percent of the open studios. A few very good artists…nice etchings, a few nice painters. I had the idea that it would be great to do an annual Belleville/LA show…bring the works of the ten best artists to LA for a group show. The work is cheap…the artists almost all unknown. Much of it would be hugely popular in LA. Some of the work is really good…and we saw only a fraction. Belleville is fascinating. Deteriorating buildings opening into magical, spacious courtyards. Wonderful restorations hidden here and there. A fascinating neighborhood of terrific, ungentrified, raw spaces. Dilapidated, but not at all dangerous (at least it seems so). Is there any place like it in LA, I wonder, or even in Amsterdam. Lively too, as there are shops and cafes; Chinese and Jewish restaurants. Ugly sixties high-rise housing too, but not so much as to be overwhelming. Hilly, unusual for Paris; an ancient aqueduct; an abandoned rail line. Secret courtyards and amazing raw space.


Renting the car in Paris (from Avis—the best choice I think in France) was more trouble and time consuming than renting at a provincial train station. The girl that helped us was obviously new, and took forever. She wanted to see out plane tickets! Said it was an Avis requirement…I had never heard that one before—the rental agency was at a train station, and I had arrived in Paris, as often, by train, I’m not sure what I would have produced! Fortunately I had my itinerary and my e-ticket computer printout with me, as they were in my passport case. I thought they might want to see my passport…but she didn’t ask for that. Rented many Avis cars in France and it always takes like five minutes…in Dijon or Orleans…but at Paris Gare de Lyon it was a big production. The staff not even bilingual…good thing Logan was along to help me with all their questions. Really, I have always just shown them my reservation and they’ve tossed me the keys! Surprisingly, driving in Paris was the easiest part. Drove back to the hotel, then out of town, with no problem, no getting lost, no real traffic. But I’d take the train out of town just to avoid the Paris rent-a-car location.


The Hotel Crystal, in Reims, is unchanged, and Madame Jentet seemed younger than ever. Surprised, when I greeted her by name…but quickly recovered and didn’t let on that she didn’t have a clue who I was…but I would not expect her to remember me from our brief meeting seven years ago! We visited the Cathedral, of course. Had dinner at the Brasserie Flo. The restaurant we had planned, and had been to before, Au Petit Comptoir, was closed on Monday. After dinner Logan and I had a walk and visited the tiny Lesbigay Bar! It was predictably dead at midnight on Monday, but kind of cute. A silly boy bartender sang along with the CD’s. I had gone into the tourist office in Reims earlier as a kind of test (are regional tourist offices gay friendly even if you are not on a gay tour?) and asked the girl at the desk about gay clubs. She didn’t bat an eye, tried to find some information and marked this place on the map. Turns out it is listed in the general tourist guide as well. She said from there I could find information on everything else. I guess there is a disco, but I didn’t bother asking about that for a Monday night!


The Hostellerie des Clos, in tiny Chablis, hadn’t changed much either. Comfy cheap rooms combined with fancy expensive dinners. Had a walk around the town, to the church that is always closed, then dinner in the hotel restaurant. Set menu for €52 euros…white and green asperges, salmon-trout, veal liver, cheese, strawberry and chocolate dessert. Two bottles of Chablis and one bottle of Banyuls with dessert and after. Quite drunk on the Banyuls; it has a very high alcohol content; delicious with chocolate though. Ate at the hotel restaurant the second night too…a la carte, so it cost twice as much! Oyster and crayfish terrine and then a pigeon. Logan had morels stuffed with foie gras and sweetbreads. Abbie had green asparagus with truffles and then scallops. I have no idea how much money we spent there…I don’t want to know…but the set menu is a much better deal; of course it always is. We were going to eat the second night in the restaurant in the village of St. Bris that we discovered on out previous trip, but found it is both closed on Wednesdays and under a new owner—so who know if it is still good…it couldn’t be as unique and special as before, anyway. A strange note though…everything in the Yonne region seems to be closed on Wednesdays! Both restaurants we wanted to go to, the market across from the hotel—it just seems a very strange day for everything to close. Also in the Yonne, the churches are never open…where as in the rest of France they just leave the doors open all day so you can wander in and have a look about. Anyway, spent our second day in Chablis driving around on tiny roads and stopping in cute tiny towns. Visited the Abbaye church at Pontigny…I didn’t remember it until we got inside; it is really beautiful in its starkness. I remembered it then, and recalled my photos of it. Ended the day in Auxerre, visiting the Abbaye there, St. Germain, a quite beautiful church and cloister done up with very high tech lighting and museum installations. Tour of the crypt with (9th? 10th?) century frescos…anyway, supposedly the oldest in France. Also visited the Cathedral of St. Etienne; strangely more impressive on the outside than in, even though the exterior was extensively scaffolded. They do have a reliquary with some bones of St. Steven (he of the stoning) behind the altar.

The Hostelerie des Clos is very comfortable with reasonably priced rooms. No-hassle, free wifi internet. Very beautiful public areas and courtyard. The whole town of Chablis seemed to be getting a makeover—restored streets of medieval buildings and a new fancy hotel and new fancy restaurant being prepared to open. It seems it has become something of a real tourist destination since our last visit. Logan theorizes that the magazine article in “Saveur” which led us there three years ago started a trend.


Drove today on very tiny roads from Chablis to Briare, to see the pont-canal. It is very impressive. A beautiful piece of very elegant 19th century engineering. Very, very long too, as it crosses an extremely wide section of the Loire as well as the 16th century shipping canal that runs alongside it. It’s very strange to see this long bridge of water crossing a river. Funny too, to think that when it was built, in the late 19th century, it was already obsolete. Canal shipping, so vital for centuries, had already been replaced by the railroads. Strangely, no one was at the canal itself, except a group of Dutch students.


Lovely here at the Château de la Verrerie, as always. Arrived in the early afternoon and walked around the grounds—it was quite hot today. Logan and I borrowed bikes (in rather poor repair) and cycled around the grounds a bit. Visited the chapel—which is more beautiful inside than I remembered, with lovely paintings on the wooden ceiling. I love it here, because it is like staying in a private home—albeit a very, very grand private home. They have wifi here now, too…the only problem is that it doesn’t penetrate the thick stone walls…so you basically have to go down to the office to connect. Also they charge 10 euro for the password to the network (good forever we are told…although how much time does one spend at La Verrerie!) which I think is just silly. Nice dinner at the restaurant on the grounds, La Maison d’Helene. More white asparagus, as it is the season. And strawberries, which are uniformly outstanding. Logan ordered the most expensive Sancerre on the menu (57 euros) justifying it by saying it would cost three times as much in LA. We had a red Fixin (burgundy) too. The wine bill for this trip is going to be huge…I don’t even want to know about it. The Chablis was very good of course. We played several games of Cluedo in the lounge after!


A Saturday morning visit to the pretty village of St-Aignan. It was very busy, and it turned out that Saturday was market day. A fun market in the center of town with meat, vegetables, cheese, etc. Really cool Romanesque church with a crypt full of medieval frescoes. Impressive hilltop (private) chateau. We drove from there to Civrey, to the pleasant Hostelerie du Château de l’Isle and settled in early. We switched Abbie’s upstairs room for the one she had before in the little woodshed annex. She likes it; no stairs and a stall shower. It’s the cheapest room they have, and only used, I think, for overflow. There is a nice new glass pavilion where they serve dinner. They only have one menu per night…I can’t say I remember exactly what it was…though I do remember enjoying it. I got a kick out of Logan asking our teen waiter for advice on which of the old Vouvray wines was best. (He had a definite opinion though.) We had a Vouvray and, I think a Touraine red. We were the last diners in the dining room—a sudden rainstorm had blown in during dinner, and the rain was drumming down on the roof.


Discovered Loches, a pretty little town with an impressive castle-like chateau (small manor house, interesting church, donjon, intact walls with only one gate) and saw the sights. Interesting in that there were basically no tourists. Churches were busy in the morning (surprisingly so, until we realized it was mother’s day in France). But it seems no one visits Loches. What a contrast to Chenonceau! An amusing sight: two carefully marked handicapped parking spaces closest to the foot of a long staircase leading up to the Château gate! We also visited a ruined Abbeye on the opposite side of the river. Then I drove to Montresor, just because it was nearby and Logan loves it so. We sat in that same café (Café de la Ville) and had a little wine and shared a gigantic salad of meat (it was just after lunchtime). Then Logan and I went for a walk…he saw an empty house for sale, right on the little river that runs along the village, so we noted the phone number! It is all very pretty. Visited the little gothic church that was built as a funerary chapel! Talk about a nice tomb!


No trouble finding our hotel in tiny Chinon, and got lucky with a legal parking place just across the narrow street. The Hotel Gargantua—after the character by Rabelais; it’s not that it’s so large. In fact it’s a rather quirky, family run hotel, in an old (16th century) renaissance house. Pretty cool actually. Right in the center of town. Great view of the Château de Chinon. Nice big room and very low prices. The other nice, inexpensive hotel in town, the Diderot, seems a bit swankier and a bit more professional; it’s bigger and in a 19th century building with a cute garden. A toss up perhaps. Dinner was good, we ate in the dining room because of the variable weather, though it had stopped raining and was warming up again. (The next night they were serving dinner on their terrace, which seemed really pleasant.) That night though, we ate at Au Plaisir Gourmand, for our gourmet meal. We got the best table. Abbie had a lobster salad which was great. Logan had veal sweetbreads and kidneys. I had a menu—crab terrine, lotte in verbena, duck breast, strawberries. It was good, as always, but not as good as Pavillon des Lys—where both the food and the setting (outdoors in the courtyard, with coffee on the upstairs terrace) were magical—and cheaper!


We drove to Candes St-Martin to see the old, partially fortified church. It’s been fixed up a bit. We just went for a drive after that…up the Loire to Saumur, and past, to a little town that Logan remembered—where we visited another church. Took a much quicker road, on the other side of the river, back to Chinon. Good luck in finding our same parking space. We spent the afternoon shopping in Chinon (shoes, pastries—langues des femmes, pates de fruits—an extra duffel bag!) We sat in the pretty square and had some coffee and water.


Last night in France, back in Paris. We did a bit of last minute shopping in the Marais—somehow the thought of leaving brings out the desire to buy things. We had dinner at C’Amelot on the rue Amelot in the nearby 11th. They have the one menu per night. It was a cold pea soup with mint (delicious); monkfish; and pigeon with polenta. Abbie wouldn’t eat the pigeon, though she declared the polenta excellent. I’m sure she had enough to eat, and Logan and I split her pigeon. The one choice you have there is dessert: she had the best, a strawberry granita with strawberries and cream; Logan’s was second-best, a warm chocolate cake with vanilla ice-cream. And mine was good: warm cherries with a (fennel? very subtle) ice cream. We walked back to the hotel, the convenient and very inexpensive Sevigné, across from the St-Paul metro station. It’s actually a short walk. Logan was tired, but I wanted to visit the bar Andy Wahloo, where I had been taken once by my Parisian friend Mafoud, so I walked over there and had a glass of wine. I’m glad I saw it again. I really like it….fun atmosphere, comfortable, cute waiters. A nice end to the trip, as we won’t count the Aéroport Charles de Gaulle!—Clay Doyle