“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
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