Monday, February 28, 2011

Medieval Center and Musee Fabres

Yesterday, we wandered the medieval allys of the historic center of Montepellier. The Place Canourgue is an important square in this part of the city, and there are narrow streets branching off in all directions from where we are staying. I keep expecting to get lost, but one always comes out someplace familiar because it is a fairly small area. The painted facade (look closely) is directly across from the steps up to St. Anne's, a church near us. We were really looking for one of the restaurants recommended by previous guests, which we found, but the church and the area around it were fascinating.

In the afternoon, we visited the impressive art museum, Fabre, which houses a large collection of mostly French art from the Renaissance through the 21st century. They have a big collection of contemporary paintings by Soulange, if you'd like to look him up. They are big black minimalist textured canvases and some from the sixties that are large black shapes filling white canvases. The museum is newly re-done and well worth a visit. It fronts on the Esplanade across from the Corum, one of two opera houses in this small city.

I set up a still-life of our beautiful fruit in the antique limestone sink in our kitchen. I'd love to get my hands on the kitchen, and I'm sure our owners will be remodling it sometime in the future. It could be a real show place, but on the otherhand, I wouldn't want the headache or the expense. This is truly an old building, and re-plumbing and re-wiring must be a nightmare. Next, I'll take pictures of the gorgeous master bath which has been luxuriously modernized.

Tonight we are eating in a restaurant about two blocks down the hill - Bistro l'Alco - which our host recommends. I actually made reservations in French with the young woman on the front as she spoke no English. If I just "take a chance" and use the little I have, it works pretty well. I'm sure I sound funny, but at least I am understood. A few more weeks. . . .

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Market Day Montpellier

The Arc de Triomphe and the Place Royale Peyeou with Louis XIV on horseback are just a couple of blocks from our apartment. They were built in the 18th century, and the pavillion building was a water tower with reflecting pool serving as a reservoir. Behind this is a "Roman Aquaduct" built in the same period, though not Roman, it is stlll very picturesque. We followed the shopping carts and bags to the market beneath and beyond the aquaduct and found the regular Saturday market. What a treat.

We wondered the length of the stalls admiring a huge selection of fresh produce, meats, fish, oysters (we are only 1 mile from the Mediterranean) eggs, chesses, and breads. Then, made our selections as we walked back. I bought large sweet and crisp apples, juicy pears, tasty goat cheese, some comte and another kind of cheese - both very distinctively flavored. The friendly cheese lady gave us tastes of several, and it was extremely hard to choose. I wanted a piece of each one. We also bought a chunk of moist brown bread with a crusty exterior, the freshest lettuce, and a "jug" of white wine. This is my kind of shopping. I was grinning the entire time, so I don't know how Bill managed to get me with a basket full of stuff and looking so serious. I have avoided the meats so far as they don't look much like ours at home. The chickens have heads and feet, there's very little beef and it is cut differently, the veal? I don't quite know what to do with it. I'll get over being intimidated soon.

After stowing our treasurers, we walked through more of the medeival streets and ate lunch in an outdoor cafe. Last night, it was an omelettte in our lovely dining room with a fresh pear for dessert. We are off to the train station this morning to see what day trips we can make. Lots of sun and temperatures in the 50's.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Picture Montpellier!

Here's our apartment from the cafe where we ate lunch today. We are on the "third" floor, although here it is called the second. Here is also "The Cat in the Cafe," who sat very comfortably in his chair while we ate our lunch. Then, there is "The Cat in the Cafe Watching the Man Read the Newspaper and Smoke a Pipe." After the Man With the Pipe left, a gorgeous girl came in and sat opposite the cat. She lit a cigarrete, and the cat went back to sleep. Great country for cats.

There is also the carousel in the Place de la Comedie, and the blue tram with doves. Gorgeous. There were so many people on the streets this sunny Friday afternoon. Hundreds were sitting at cafes and enjoying wine, beer, cokes, conversation, and friendship.

The sculptures are just off the Place de la Comedie, all painted bright colors. These are up the Esplanade past the fountain. This city has a real sense of playfulness in the public sculptures and children's play parks. Such fun. We haven't seen or heard any other Americans or British. They don't know what they are missing!

Beautiful Montpellier

We had such an adventurous day yesterday, I was far too overwhelmed to write.

We packed up our suitcases on Wednesday evening after a wonderful meal at La Fontaine de Mars. It was great food. I spluged on the specialite, fois gras with poached pears. Ah, heaven on a fork. Bill had the plat a jour, duck burgundy, a rich stew of duck, potatoes, mushrooms, and red wine. Such wonderful food and service in a traditional brasserie (Madame was wrong) with red checked table cloths and crisply ironed napkins. I recommend this place for everyone from presidents to peasants.

Thursday morning, we went down to breakfast in the hotel, then back up to our room to get wallets and a shopping bag. On the way back down, the elevator opened to reveal two substantial British gentlemen who said, "oh, no, come on, there is plenty of room," and inspite of the fact that there is a sign in the back of the lift saying "Only two persons," in French - we thought, "okay, it will be alright." Of course, the elevator did not agree, and we went all the way to the bottom floor, and then it fell about 2 feet to the very bottom with a solid bang. (I hope it wasn't the fois gras!) We had to ring for help, and Madame was VERY ANGRY with all of us. The two gentlemen beat a hasty retreat, and we were left to a good lecturing and much wringing of hands. Well, I was very sorry, but no one inquired as to our well-being, and after the scare and a bruised knee, I wasn't much impressed with being treated to the "naughty child" lecture. I guess in the States, the management might have heard from someone's lawyer, but at least we were not physically injured, but Madame displayed such angst and trembling, I am sure she would benefit from regular medication of some sort. I had listened sympathetically to how hard she was working with no vacation, etc. the night before.

After all that we had a quick and easy taxi to the Gare de Lyon, a full but comfortable 3 hour train trip, and then arrived in Montpellier. However, a pitiful young woman on the train about three aisles back from us kept up a very loud French conversation, completely one-sided, for the entire trip. When I glanced back, there she was resplendent with firey red hair and fingernails playing a Game Boy. The gentleman sitting next to her was silent and stoic, and I couldn't tell if he was with her or not - probably not. She got off in Nimes and almost immediately began to shriek and cry hysterically about something, even getting back on the train at one point and then fleeing to the platform where she continued is a similar manner. I never heard such screaming. Poor thing. The people on the train were all craning to see what was going on, but I couldn't understand what was being said, and eventually we pulled out of the station about ten minutes late. That's two for regular mediation.

Our taxi from the station in Montpellier put us out about two blocks from our apartment as it is located on a pedestrian-only square. Unfortunately, we were on the downhill side of the square and had to drag our suitcases up about twenty steps and then across the cobblestones to the front door. I'm sure the little ladies enjoying the afternoon sun were entertained. I kept dropping things - first, water bottles, a bag, my coat, then my coat again. I should have bowed and enjoyed applause once I finally reached the door.

Well, the apartment is absolutely spacious and beautifully furnished. We un-packed, visited a small shop for essentials, and did a little walking to see what is nearby. It is a lovely city, small, with lots of medieval alleys and beautiful 18th and 19th century buildings. We are only a couple of blocks from the Arc de Triomphe. Everything is illuminated at night, and so pretty. There are out-door cafes on every corner and square. We ate outside at lunch. Of course, there are lots of pattiseries as well with gorgeous bread, croissants, and pastries of every kind.

I will write more about the city tomorrow. Since we'll be here for two weeks, we'll have lots of time to explore. The sun is out today, and it is warm enough to stroll without a jacket. This region of France has lots of fruit orchards and vineyards. The plum trees are blooming, so it is early spring here, while still winter in Paris. We are happy for warmer weather.

With no luck at all, we should find some regional wine and good food for dinner.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Winter Greys and Notre Dame de Paris

This hippo is how I'll look if we keep eating as we have. He resides on the front patio of the Musee D'Orsay, rain or shine.

The sky is grey again, and the temperature requires hats, gloves, and scarves. We took the Metro to "Cite" and walked around the corner to re-visit Notre Dame. It's fun to return, and it looks much the same, although the stained glass is certainly more spectacular on a sunny day. We walked the length of Isle St. Louis and browsed shop windows, but there is not much activity on a cold day in February. Paris is much lovelier, though more expensive, in May! Crepes for lunch, how French, and then a nice long walk back to our hotel.

Last night, we were unable to get a reservation at the recommended restaurant (I was carefully corrected by our front desk lady - it is NOT a bistro.) So, we booked for tonight. It is one of the oldest restaurants in Paris, the "Fontaine Champ de Mars," and has the distinction of having hosted Barack and Michelle when they made their state visit to Paris. So, it remains to be seen if they are resting on their laurels or still serving up wonderful food and service! We walked over to see the Eiffel by night, and then selected a small cafe on the way back to our hotel for our evening repast. There were plenty of empty tables when we walked in about 8:10 p.m., so we were surprised to be asked to sit on the "outside" which was, however, quite comfortable as it was heated and had plastic walls. By 8:30, it was completely full, and the hostess was turning potential customers away. The food was simple and good, and the service was perfect. If anyone is interested in fresh proscuitto on grilled Poilaine bread slices, this is the place to go!

Only upon checking out the website for our first restaurant choice when we returned to our room, did I find that we had accidently dined in their "little sister" restaurant, the "Petit Cler." It always surprises me when these serendipitous moments occur on trips. Sometimes, it's the best part of traveling. We still have the "Fontaine" for tonight. I'll convey Mr. Obama's best; and Rush Limbaugh, you can eat your heart out.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Sun Came Out in Paris

After our yogurt, fruit, cafe creme, and croissants we walked through our neighborhood to The Eiffel Tower, and the clouds began to thin, and the winter sun began to shine. What a treat, but we forget how far north we are and how low the sun is in the southern sky.

We walked along the Seine to the Musee D'Orsay and waited about ten minutes to buy tickets. Now who would imagine how crowded this museum could be at the end of February, in the midst of an economic recession, and on a Tuesday morning? Whoever said there are no tourists in Paris these days is quite mistaken. Perhaps it's a testimony to how popular the Impressionists remain. The gallery of paintings was jammed with admirers. We could hardly see the paintings, but it was still wonderful. The museum is remodeling and upgrading a number of gallery spaces. I thought, but this is a "new museum," then had to remember that I was a first time visitor to this "new museum" well over thirty years ago. There are many new paintings from the same period and lots of new surprises for this old art history student.

Lunch at the lovely gilded and mirrored restaurant on the second floor. We sat next to two beautiful Vietnamese girls who charmed the waiter, and vice versa. They were choosing and eating well, and the creme brulee looked so delicious , I followed suit. Such a bad influence, but it's Paris, and we had walked a long way in the cold.

This gourmet wine and cheese shop is only one of many very near our hotel. Tonight we are walking to a nearby bistro recommended in a recent Saveur magazine for dinner. More food! I may skip the plate and just go for the fois gras. And, wine, of course.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Paris - Ahhhhhhhh!

We had an easy flight to Paris from CLT. Actually, upgraded to business class and were absolutely delighted to find reclining seats when we got on board the new Airbus 300. It was wonderful, with good food, great wines, and the ability to stretch out and actually sleep for 4 hours, or so. There are no crying babies in first class, either. It's another real benefit. (The flight from
GSP to CLT was only 30 minutes total. Straight up and straight down again.)

Paris is cool and drizzly. We expected it to be about like this. We had lunch in a local brasserie, took a short nap, and then went to the Pompidou Museum for a couple of hours. The view from the 6th floor was spectacular as the lights came on across the city. Our dinner at "L'Ambassade d'Auvergne" was all I had anticipated. They have a wonderful website, and you can see our menu on-line. The Swede soup with blue cheese was heavenly, and so was my stuffed cabbage. What a great evening and delicious food. The wait staff was not only efficient but had a great sense of humor. I find the Parisians are much more friendly than on previous trips. They make eye contact and smile, even on the Metro. Maybe we are just funny-looking Americans, and they are amuzed.

We navigated the metro quite easily through three changes each way, coming and going. It helps to have done this before in other countries. Tomorrow, we'll walk more. I hope for a late breakfast, but we may still be on NC time.

Hoping for some sun tomorrow, so goodnight to all.

Monday, February 14, 2011

European Trip Itinerary

February 20
Depart Greenville, SC USAir 5:19 p.m.
Charlotte to Paris Depart 8:05 p.m.

February 21
Arrive Paris 10:15 a.m.
Hotel du Champ de Mars near Eiffel Tower

February 24
Depart Gare de Lyons 11:20 a.m. TGV to Montpellier, France
Arrive Montpellier 2:42 p.m.
3 Rue Canourge Apartment

March 10
Depart Montpellier 5:26 p.m. to Geneva, change for Bern
Arrive Bern Switzerland 11:27 p.m.
Staying with Thomas and Helen Friz Hirni, Stapfenackerstrasse, 57

March 14
Depart Geneva 11:20 a.m. EasyJet
Arrive Gatwick 11:55 a.m.
Tonbridge, Kent The Little Dairy Cottage, L. J. Mounsey, host

March 21
Depart Gatwick 9:40 a.m. Ryanair
Arrive Dublin 11:05 a.m
Belfast, Wellington Park Hotel

March 22
Antrim Coast and Devil's Causeway
Bushmills Inn

March 23
Glenreagh National Park and Slieve League Cliffs
Mill Park Hotel (two nights)

March 25
County Mayo and Croagh Patrick Holy Mountain
Westport Knockranny House Hotel and Spa

March 26
Galway and Aran Islands, Connemara
Galway Bay Hotel (two nights)

March 28
County Clare, Cliffs of Moher and the Buren
Dromoland Castle Hotel

March 29
Camden Court Hotel (two nights)

March 31
Depart Dublin USAir 11:15 a.m. Change Philladelphia
Arrive Greenville, SC 5:09

Sunday, February 13, 2011

European Trip - Spring 2011

We are off next weekend to Paris for three days - and, then to check out Montpellier, France, which was featured in an article last spring in AARP magazine. It was mentioned as one of the most popular destinations for retired American ex-pats, and supposedly there is a good-sized community there of retirees looking for the "good life." We were intrigued, and decided to see for ourselves. We have rented a lovely apartment in the historic district (17th century) overlooking a park, and we'll be in residence for two weeks. That should be long enough to see what the city offers in addition to its location on the Mediterranean, an Arc de Triomphe, Roman ruins, fountains, several theatres, an opera house, and many sidewalk cafes with reputations for gourmet French food at prices lower than those in Paris.

From Montpellier, we take the train to Bern to spend Fasnacht weekend with our Hirni cousins, Thomas, Helen, and their children, Sabina and Benz. They all are actively involved in the festivities, marching in the parades and out until dawn every night. I doubt we will be involved to that extent, but it will be fun to see the costumes, local neighborhood bands, and displays. We may also be fortunate enough to see the two new baby bears in the park, "Urs" and "Berna." They are celebraties of great fame, and hopefully they will come out of hibernation before we arrive.

Then, we have a flight to London where we have rented a cottage for a week in our favorite village, Tonbridge, on the commuter line to London. And, from London we fly to Dublin for a ten day self-drive tour of Northern Ireland and the west country of The Republic. We booked this tour though a company called "My Ireland," and it has turned out to be a very reasonable itinerary and price. We will see much of the country and stay in comfortable hotels, spending the last two days in Dublin. Our flight home leaves from there.

So, if you'd like to "come along," check in on this sight as often as you like. I'll try to post pictures and commentary almost everyday. Tomorrow, I'll put up the entire itinerary with websites you can access for more information on where we are staying.