Mass in Notre Dame, Anyone? (Day 4)

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When we planned our trip to France/Switzerland, we intended to incorporate lots of time for relaxing, soaking in the culture, and taking in the scenery – put simply, time to stop and smell the roses. But then we went crazy and decided to do everything we could in “OMG, what if we’re never here again and this is our ONLY chance to do x, y, z?!” fashion.

Except for Sunday morning in Paris. On our fourth day, May 25th, we literally strolled around the streets and, when there were chairs, we sat in them. The rest of the time we acted like chairs were radioactive bombs to be avoided at all costs, but not that morning.

We started our day in a different breakfast cafe, and this meal would offer our only real brush with anti-Americanism (or perhaps just anti-foreigner mentality – it’s hard to say). We sat at a table and the server approached. When Damian began with a smile and, “Bonjour Monsieur. Parles vous anglais?” he fired back with “Parles vous francais?” in a tone which unmistakably said, “You’re in my country, jerk – speak my language.”

So I tried. I’d read the menu, I know how to count to 10 and order coffee, so I said, “Deux le continental, un café au lait, un café allonge, s’il vous plait.” There was a lot of pointing involved in this exercise, and I can’t imagine how bad the grammar was in all of that (because I’m an anglophone!), but it worked and we got what we wanted. He also brought us a basket of pain (bread), but we didn’t want it, and when he arched and eyebrow and inquired “Pain?” and I said, “No,” he literally took the basket off of our table and put it on the table next to ours! Cracked us up.

After that, we strolled. When we first visited the Louvre, we didn’t stop to appreciate the gardens. We had time to remedy that mistake Sunday morning, so we wandered around, looking at the gorgeous predominantly lavender and violet flowers, snapping pictures and enjoying the cool but (for once) clear weather. When we found some chairs overlooking the gardens, we bought some coffee and sat down to savor it while taking in the beauty around us. We also bought some artwork from a street vendor (yay! paintings done by a French local!), and we visited the famous lock bridge. We did not buy a lock to add, though.

The fancy meal we planned for the day was lunch at L’Atelier Joël Robuchon. Joël Robuchon also has a pricey place in Las Vegas, Joël Robuchon Restaurant in the MGM Grand, which we’d heard of but never visited. So we thought, why not experience the French chef’s haute cuisine in Paris? We arrived at 2:00 PM for our reservation.

The restaurant is located just off the Champs Elysees, but to get to it, you have to enter through a drug store. Very odd. We walked past convenience store items to the back of the store, where a set of beautiful dark steps suddenly appeared as if by magic to lead us down into the mysterious underground space. The hostess materialized as we hit the ground floor, and she led us to our space at the counter (you can see the counter where we sat if you click on the first restaurant link above). For the 2:00 PM seating, we were (once again) the first dorks to arrive. (sigh)

Le menu at Joël Robuchon included three courses, and we chose the wine pairing option. From our vantage point at the counter, we could see the food preparation. I had the clearest view of the guy whose job it is to plate the food (just like in Spring) and the saucier, the person in charge of making the sauces. Interestingly, I noticed that most of the sauces were put into white squeeze bottles, making it simpler for the plater to create the fancy sauce designs on each dish.

We began the meal by asking the waiter to surprise us. He seemed a little nervous about this idea, not knowing us and our adventurous tastes, but we assured him that we would eat anything he put in front of us and love it, so he nodded assent, poured us a crisp savignon blanc, and set about to make the magic happen.

First, we were served a shot glass filled with fois gras and parmesan cream. When we lifted it as if to drink it, we were instructed to eat it with a spoon. It was rich and velvety – a combination of flavors I wouldn’t have thought to put together. Probably why I’m not the wealthy Paris chef, but that’s just a guess.

The second items (technically the first course) were a cold seafood salad, shaped and perfectly garnished, or an egg artistically nestled in an edible nest of some sort of fine crispy beige fronds. Both were beautiful as well as delectable. Course two offered perfectly grilled beef with marsala sauce with bright-colored peas and carrots, or buttery sea bass over chopped herbs. We enjoyed these dishes with a deep red burgundy wine. To end the meal, what could be better than a plate of fromage? A selection of bleu, brie, and goat cheeses arrived arranged perfectly to be enjoyed with a final glass of crisp white wine.

Nap time!

Following our afternoon food coma, we decided to spend our last evening in Paris visiting Notre Dame again. Before I talk about that, however, I realized that I forgot to mention our visit to another beautiful Paris Cathedral, Sainte Chapelle. We toured this cathedral after Notre Dame, and the stained glass depicting stories from the bible was jaw-dropping. Anyway, on that last night in Paris, I felt the need to visit Notre Dame one last time.

We arrived to find Sunday evening mass had begun, so we walked in and found seats near the back to appreciate the service. The cathedral was lit for the evening, with chandeliers and candles everywhere. The ambiance was otherworldly. Although the service was all in French and Latin, I felt familiar enough with mass to understand some of what was going on. “Peace be with you, and also with you,” receiving the host, etc. The pipe organ and the singing were absolutely gorgeous, and just the feeling of “this is mass in Notre Dame!” made the crush of the crowds worth it.

A couple of rows in front of us sat an interesting fellow. He appeared to be a homeless Frenchman. This man took it upon himself to police the tourists. He ushered people to different seats. He firmly told them “no” when they tried to take video or pictures. If anyone spoke out of turn, he shot them the evil eye. The man clearly had no official affiliation with the church, but he successfully cowed everyone around us into being the respectful church-goers we ought to have been from the beginning. I agreed with him in that sense – it’s a religious service; show some respect for God and the people around you. Still, he had no real authority, except in his mind. I suppose man needs purpose, and this was his purpose. We nicknamed him “The Enforcer.” I wonder if he’s there every Sunday evening?

We didn’t need much dinner after our enormous lunch, so we found a crepe stand and bought a Nutella/strawberry/banana crepe with whipped cream and ate it on a picnic blanket under the Eiffel Tower. Observing the crepe preparation was entertaining. We watched a man expertly ladle a precise amount of batter on three flat round crepe cookers. He flipped them, then spread on the Nutella, sliced the banana, added strawberries and whipped cream, and handed it over – fresh and fragrant. Yummy.

We crashed hard, as always, and woke the next day for our trek to Normandy on Memorial Day….

Versailles! (Day 3)

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We woke on Saturday, May 24th in Paris, but we spent most of the day in beautiful Versailles. We’d purchased the train tickets to Versailles the night before, so we only needed to catch the metro and the SNCF trains to get there. Our regular breakfast cafe was closed, so we went across the street to a similar cafe and had bleu fromage quiche and coffee.

After breakfast, we walked to the metro station, where we discovered that the usual metro line to Versailles was closed for some reason (explained clearly in French). We looked around for a person at a ticket counter to help us. Guess who was on strike again that day? I’ll give you a hint: not the Germans. Determined to find our way to Versailles, we looked at the train map to try and find an alternate route. At this point we met a couple from Minnesota and a French couple who were all also trying to get to Versailles, and between the six of us, we found another route.

With the other couples, we took a metro train to the SNCF station, and, after some confusion, we realized that the SNCF train we wanted for Versailles was leaving in just three minutes. The race was on! We played a game of follow-the-French-guy and literally ran through the train station, weaving in between other patrons, and managed to hop on the last car of the train moments before the doors shut and it took off. Whew!

Damian and I were both on board, luckily, before the doors closed. Had we been separated, that could have been dicey – I didn’t have a phone with me. We’d actually witnessed a similar situation earlier that morning. A single girl got separated from her group as the first few girls hopped on the metro and watched in horror as the doors closed on their friend. Panic attack, anyone? That girl wasn’t dumb enough to be running around France without a phone, though, so I’m sure they found her.

We were on our way to visit the Chateau de Versailles, home to King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette! Since our original train was not available, we weren’t sure exactly how far away from the chateau we would land. Would we be able to walk? Would we need to find a bus? Our guide book said the walk was 25 minutes from the train station. It wasn’t. It was only 15 minutes, and it was a lovely walk through a part of Versailles that we would have otherwise missed. We arrived at the chateau, and it was breathtaking to view the enormity of the place as we approached.

The museum passes allowed us to bypass the long ticket lines again (woo hoo!), but we still had to wait in a long line to pass through security. The sheer volume of people visiting the chateau was crushing and fairly overwhelming, but we skipped the audio-tour line and opted to just walk through the palace on our own. On our first pass through, we familiarized ourselves with the rooms. We would later walk through again (after touring the palace gardens) – the second pass allowed us to stop and take in the details of the rooms we liked.

The size and opulence of the chateau were mesmerizing. Impossibly high ceilings, gold carvings, master paintings, marble fireplaces holding logs that were the size of half a tree, beds with canopies stretching to the ceilings, ornate furniture, precious rugs, a hall  of mirrors nearly the size of a football field, and, as if all of that intricacy wasn’t enough, most of the ceilings were completely painted in heavenly works of art. I could have spent a full day in each room and never been able to appreciate all the details.

The bedrooms were particularly fascinating and beautiful. On the first pass, King Louis XIV’s room was open to the sunlight streaming in from enormous windows. On the second pass, the floor-to-ceiling heavy red drapes had been closed to mimic nighttime, and chandeliers and candles were lit to give the room a soft glow. The queen, Marie Antoinette, had her own separate room, decorated in a much more floral and feminine manor than the king’s. We were amused by the room located directly off the king’s room, the purpose of which was to hold ladies who might join him in the boudoir. Apparently this chamber was designed to hold up to six ladies at one time. I guess King Louis XIV was a busy guy.

We strolled through the massive gardens next. Much like the chateau, the gardens were absolutely enormous. Greenery as far as the eye could see, topiary, ponds, and little theaters-in-the-round built specifically to allow painters to work in an outdoor setting. It was raining a bit, so we found a little snack shack hidden among some trees (probably done to avoid ruining the beauty/experience of the gardens) where we bought salads, a dark chocolate crepe, and coffees. We enjoyed this at a little outdoor table covered from the rain by a canopy of trees. It was a fun little adventure.

Afterward, we found our way back to Paris, changed clothes, and headed out for our next fancy dinner at a tiny gem of a place called Mariette. I wore black pants this time, but I wore my ballroom-dancing heels again, since they’d served me so well the night before.

We were the first to arrive, right on time for our reservation. Several other couples arrived later in the evening, exclaiming, “We’re very late – so sorry!” Punctuality in France is not necessarily a good thing. But! Since we arrived early, we were able to choose our table, and we chose the most private table, near the stairs. Restaurant Mariette is run by a husband/wife team. He is the chef and does all the cooking. She is the hostess and the only server. She takes the orders to her husband, and then he sends the food upstairs via dumbwaiter.

I liked her immediately. She was very welcoming and friendly, and she poured us full glasses of champagne to start our evening. In France, we learned that the coffee cups are small and never full, and the wine glasses are not filled more than a quarter of the way. So we were pleasantly surprised to receive a full glass of champagne. We toasted to our anniversary, ordered a bottle of Côtes du Rhône red for the meal, and perused the menu.

The pace of the meal was wonderfully slow and enjoyable, allowing us to savor every bite. We both started with fois gras wrapped in impossibly-thin slices of sweet potato in an orange sauce. The combination of sweetness and richness was perfection, and it was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. For the main course, Damian had prime rib, and I had a buttery turbo served over a bed of asparagus. For dessert, we savored apple crumble and strawberries & cream. Cognac to finish. The dinner took three hours, and it was fabulous.

We strolled out, content and ready to turn in for the evening, to find that darkness had fallen and the Eiffel Tower was lit! It’s only lit with the flashing lights for five minutes per hour, so we literally ran down the Paris streets to get a photo of it through the trees. Damian managed to snap the shot moments before the lights turned off. And I managed to run in my heels. I’m telling you – ballroom dance shoes. That’s where it’s at.

We crashed after a full and wonderful day. The next morning we would spend time slowing our pace and enjoying the Louvre gardens…

10 Days in France/Switzerland, Day 1

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To celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, Damian and I visited France and Switzerland. There aren’t adequate adjectives in English to describe how incredible this trip was. Maybe in French, but not in English. Alas, je ne parles pas francais (save a few key phrases), so I’m going to muddle through in English and try to do justice to our experiences. (Note: no we did not take the kids. They were in the capable hands of their wonderful grandparents, whom we are eternally grateful for.) I’m going to talk about the trip one day at a time.

We flew from BWI to Charlotte, NC and then over the pond to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris on Wednesday, May 21st. It was a red eye, so we landed in Paris at around 7 AM on Thursday, 5/22. We found our bags without much ado, which was fortunate because we were pretty delirious from the flight. Passports in hand, we took our bags and prepared to deal with French customs.

This is where I got my first lesson on the French. I’m used to US customs where you are required to complete paperwork, go through several checkpoints and answer multiple questions before they’ll let you into our country. The French, not so much. I was all prepared to smile and assure whomever was helping me that my reasons for entering the country were all on the up and up, but the guy didn’t even look at me, or my passport, as he flipped to a random page and stamped me right on into his country. Next! Any Dick or Jane can just stroll on into France, I guess.

Our next challenge was figuring out the French train system. We had no Euros at this point, and to purchase train tickets you need either a human at a ticket counter or Euro coins to buy the tickets from the automated machines (or a chip & pin credit card, which we don’t have). No problem – we’ll just break out our two key phrases of “Bonjour Madame!” followed by “Parles vous anglais?” and get some train tickets to our hotel. Seems reasonable, right?

Wrong. Here’s where I got lesson two on the French. They go on strike all the time. Guess which day they decided to strike? That’s right! The day we arrived.

So we’re in France, we’re delirious, we don’t speak French, we’ve got no human and no coins with which to purchase train tickets. We can’t walk from Charles de Gaulle to our hotel, which is steps off of the Champs Elysees.

Right.

I felt like we were in an episode of The Amazing Race. Luckily we didn’t panic. I think we were too tired to panic, really. We eventually found a ticket counter on the lower level of the train station with a human (and a huge long line of tourists like us trying to buy train tickets). The signs were in French, but we managed to get in the right line, buy tickets, and take the SNCF train (which was bigger than the metro trains, but not as big as the high speed trains) about 30 minutes to the Paris metro.

Let me just say, thank God we know how to ride the DC/New York metros, because obviously all the maps were in French, but once you’ve ridden a metro, you can figure it out anywhere. And we did. We found our destination, found our metro trains, lugged our luggage on board, and zipped off around the Paris underground to the Franklin Roosevelt exit on the Champs Elysees. Which we almost missed, because “Franklin Roosevelt” pronounced with a heavy French accent sounds like “Fronk-Lynne-Rose-Felt” – what? Who’s that?

Fortunately our hotel, the Elysees Mermoz Hotel, which is literally steps off of the Champs Elysees, was not hard to find. Unfortunately check in was not until 2 PM, so our ideas of a snack and nap went to hell in a handbasket. We were able to check our bags with the friendly receptionist, though, and we struck out to wander the streets of Paris in our semi-delirious state.

We meandered up the Champs Elysees all the way to the Arc De Triomphe, which we had seen in movies and many times while watching the Tour de France. It was fairly quiet that morning, perhaps because it was chilly and rainy (or maybe it was just early), so we were able to pause and really take it in without being mobbed by other tourists. Seeing the street paved with cobblestones and looking at the shop windows along the Champs Elysees gave me my first real feeling of “we’re in Paris!” We were so in awe of our surroundings that we just wandered around, soaking in the feel of the place.

Eventually we decided we were hungry, and though we knew the food would be overpriced on the Champs Elysees, we decided to stop at a brasserie/café right on the street and people watch while we ate. We wanted the experience, and it was worth it. I whipped out the other key phrase I know in French, “Un cafe au lait, s’il vous plait,” and was rewarded with a delicious, if itty bitty, cup of coffee. Damian enjoyed his first crepe and a 14-euro coffee/liqueur drink with whipped cream in a fancy glass. And, like we love to do in Las Vegas, we watched the people stroll by.

We saw a lot of high-heeled shoes on the ladies. Bright colors, from teal to yellow, regardless of the color of the rest of the attire. Even the sneakers had high-heeled wedges. Lots of black tights with black shoes as well, which was the one in-fashion way that we seem to line up with the French at the moment. The French businessmen wore suits which were short and tight. An interesting look, if you can pull it off.

Two o’clock finally arrived, and we checked in at our hotel. The Elysees Mermoz Hotel is a boutique hotel, with only 20 rooms, decorated with colorful modern art by local artists. Our room was small but very nice, and the location was unbeatable. We had a king-sized bed and lovely windows that opened up to the street. I enjoyed sticking my head out of that window and just looking up and down the street, watching the people bustling by.

We had tickets to go up the Eiffel Tower at 4 o’clock, which Damian pre-purchased back in the US to save us two hours in the ticket line (he had to get up a 2:30 AM to buy them, because they sell a limited amount, and they go on sale at 8:30 AM in France, selling out within minutes). We zipped past the ticket line and got in line for the elevator ride up. We did wait for a bit on the second tier of the tower, but that was nothing, and the views from the top were everything we hoped for. Beginning the trip with a spectacular panorama of the city we were visiting for the first time was breathtaking and informative. Nothing like a bird’s eye view.

When we hit the street again we found a stand selling wine and bought some to enjoy in the gardens at the base of the Eiffel Tower. Sitting down in a little rose garden area and looking up at the tower while sipping a glass of French red wine was a beautiful moment in the day. We slowed our pace to relax and appreciate the beauty around us.

Afterward we found a local dinner place called Le Royal off a side street that offered a prix fixe menu for only 13 euros that included an appetizer, an entree, dessert and wine! It was delicious and the by far the best value we found anywhere on our trip. I had foie gras, chicken and rice, and a small chocolate/orange mousse, and we shared two carafes of red/white wine.

After that, we crashed for 10 hours into a world of oblivion. The next day we moved on to tour the Louvre……