Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Thrill of Attending the Tour de France in Paris According to "A Tour of the Heart"


Guest post by Maribeth Clemente

I lived in Paris eleven years without ever attending the Tour de France. It wasn’t until I moved back to the United States and grew a whole new me that I discovered the joy of cycling and the thrill of attending the Tour de France, the greatest bike race in the world. This grueling, three-week-long extravaganza weaves around France–and dips into at least one neighboring country–with all the color and might of the TGV blazing to Lyon on a bright summer’s day. One of the world’s best-loved sporting events, the Tour always ends in Paris, punctuated by the riders doing laps on the Champs-Elysées in front of throngs of cheering crowds.

The following is an excerpt from my fifth book on France, A Tour of the Heart: A Seductive Cycling Trip Through France. Part memoir, part love story, A Tour of the Heart is a romantic ode to the most visited country in the world. It highlights the life of a travel writer, France, cycling, food and wine, the Tour de France and the joys and travails of traveling à deux.

Pete and I made our way to the middle section of the grandstand in front of the Champs-Elysées, ideally situated beneath the shade of an enormous chestnut tree, directly across from the big screen TV. We were ecstatic. We joked about pinching ourselves since we still couldn’t quite fathom we were really there, ready to watch the final stage of the Tour de France together on the Champs-Elysées. We were in a great place to people watch too, which we did enthusiastically as we observed the diverse range of spectators filling the stands. “Some of the friends and family of a few of the Dutch cyclists sat down behind us,” Pete whispered. Indeed, people from all over Europe and beyond claimed seats around us.

“This is truly an international event,” I said. “I still can’t believe I missed this all the years I lived in France.”

“I can’t believe it either,” Pete said shaking his head.

“Oh well, I’m making up for it now, aren’t I? It’s nice we can share this big first- time event together,” I said as I gave him a squeeze.

Once the grandstand became almost entirely filled up, Pete loosened up even more. “I’m glad I can finally relax,” he admitted. “I kept thinking we were going to be booted from here.”

“You just stick with me,” I teased. “It seems as though I’ve come to know my way around the Tour scene pretty well.” Just then we spotted a woman descending the aisle distributing ice-cold Cokes.

“It looks as though they’re free,” Pete said.

“Yeah, and that other person is passing out sandwiches,” I replied. Our luck was doubling by the moment.

The 2014 Tour de France cyclists shortly after they entered the city of Paris.

Halfway through our most welcome yet unexpected picnic, the giant TV screen was turned on revealing the race in full Technicolor splendor. The Tour riders were approaching the capital. I could sense the excitement mounting all around me with each kilometer that brought them closer to the Champs. The publicity caravan blasted in with all the hoopla of a fast-moving circus coming to town. The fanfare surrounding this colorful cavalcade of promotional vehicles provided an excellent distraction as we sat on the edge of our seats in anticipation of the cyclists’ arrival. If the pretty girls that touted the sponsors’ products were tired out from three weeks of being on display, they didn’t show it. Each was fresh and smiling, waving from the many vehicles like beauty queens at a pageant. They knew what it meant to parade up and down the Champs-Elysées.

“Look, that colossal shopping cart with the giant cup of steaming café au lait even made it to the end,” I said. “This is a triumphant finish of sorts for them, too,” I laughed.

“Yeah, but that’s nothing compared to the more than 2,000 miles riders log across France during the three weeks of the Tour.”

“Belgium, too. Remember they also rode through Belgium,” I added in a know- it-all kind of way.

As the caravan continued to do laps up and down this grand avenue, our attention quickly shifted to the Jumbotron across from us. “There they are,” Pete shouted. And when I looked up I saw that the cameras had captured the riders cruising alongside the Seine with the Eiffel Tower perfectly positioned in the background.

“The whole scene practically gives me goose bumps,” I said.

Not long after the publicity caravan dispersed, a whole squadron of motorcycles buzzed by in front of us. Pete and I–and apparently the rest of the spectators– knew that this pack of motos indicated the eminent arrival of the cyclists. We all craned our necks toward the place de la Concorde as we followed the action out of the corner of our eyes on the Jumbotron. As everyone jumped to their feet and began to cheer wildly, the peloton zoomed into view and barreled up the Champs-Elysées with the force of a fierce wind. After the initial big swoosh, I realized the cyclists were traveling as fast–probably about 25-30 mph–as the motorcyclists that rode ahead of them. It was a glorious sight. And as fast as it all happened, I could see the U.S. Postal team lead the rest of the Tour riders into Paris, as is the tradition for the winning team.

The 2013 Tour de France cyclists whizzing along the rue de Rivoli.

It was great to be across from the big screen TV as the cyclists made their way up and down the Champs-Elysées and back down by the place de la Concorde, along the Seine, through the tunnel, and up part of the rue de Rivoli, we could follow every bit of the excitement. “This is the best,” Pete said. “The riders don’t just blow by once. Here–along this loop–they pass ten times.

“Yeah, it’s really impressive. Each time the peloton whizzes by, you feel a big rush. I’m over the moon,” I said to Pete. I had viewed the workings of the peloton–a group of approximately 150 cyclists–in action before on TV, but being here in person provided a whole different experience. You could feel the thrust of their combined efforts as the riders pushed the air before them. Everything I had learned about the power behind the peloton was playing out before my eyes. All the principles of drafting were revealed to me in full force. I could see how the riders could race faster for an extended amount of time when they were part of one big, powerful train. Lone riders were at an obvious disadvantage; they had no one to break the wind for them, no one in front of them to create a good draft.

Like a colorful swarm of bees buzzing by, the peloton fascinated me both by its sight and sound. The sound of grace in motion I thought to myself as I watched and listened as I felt another swoosh pass before me. Even I could tell that the pitch on this sprawling avenue only enhanced the beauty of the workings of this massive assemblage of athletes. The conditions were ideal for all the cyclists to work together. “Whoa! There goes someone,” I yelled as I spotted a cyclist break away from the main field on the giant TV.

Tour de France 2013 circling the Tuleries Garden.

“Oh, you wait and see,” Pete said. “They’re all vying for their moment of glory on the Champs-Elysées.” And sure enough, true to Pete’s prediction, one daring cyclist after another pedaled forth with all his strength in an attempt to separate himself from the mighty peloton. Little groups of intermittent breakaways formed throughout the course. But it seemed as though big gaps turned small again, until finally even those daring souls were gobbled up by the mass of cyclists moving ever faster. Surely it was a challenge for even the best riders to do much work on their own after so many miles and days of racing.

“This is a sprinters’ dream,” Pete declared. “This stage always is. You wait and see–it’s going to come down to the wire. It’s all about positioning and sheer strength in the end.”

MARIBETH CLEMENTE is the author of The Chic Shopper's Guide to Paris, The Riches of Paris: A Shopping and Touring Guide, The Riches of France: A Shopping and Touring Guide to the French Provinces and A Tour of the Heart: A Seductive Cycling Trip Through France. She now lives in Colorado where she writes about her highly contrasted life at her blog, Bonjour Colorado, hosts Travel Fun, a talk radio show on KOTO and writes for various travel publications and websites.

Don't miss the giveaway of A Tour of the Heart: A Seductive Cycling Trip Through France on Out and About's Facebook page on Thursday, July 2, 2015!

The Vittel float, part of the 2013 Tour de France caravan.
The 2014 Tour de France cyclists shortly after they entered the city of Paris.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Hidden Paris! Café Cour - an Ephemeral Café in a Secret Courtyard.

Café Cour.  A hidden courtyard in the Marais with a tower from Philippe-Auguste's wall, built between 1190 and 1209.

Serendipity is the name of my favorite guide in Paris. Whenever I follow her lead, I'm sure to have a special Parisian experience.

Yesterday afternoon, Serendipity escorted us through the courtyard of the Hôtel de Soubise, a sumptuous mansion housing part of the national archives of France. As we were too late to visit the temporary exhibition about the four French Resistance fighters recently inducted into the Pantheon, our guide consoled us with a couple of surprises.

The first was a secret courtyard that's open to the public for a limited time this summer. Not only does the ephemeral terrace have an interesting selection of bio snacks and fair trade products, but it also offers the opportunity to have a rare glimpse of a tower built by Philippe-Auguste between 1190 and 1209. Serendipity certainly knows how to please -- What could be better than sipping a glass of rosé while sitting in the historic Cour Renaudot of the Crédit Municipal de Paris?

Hurry if you would like to enjoy a meal or drink in this peaceful courtyard. Like the fleeting pleasures of summer, Café Cour closes its doors on September 27, 2015.

Café Cour
55/57 rue des Francs-Bourgeois
75004 Paris

The University of California, Fullerton choir rehearsing at the Eglise Notre-Dames des Blancs-Manteaux in Paris

After leaving the tranquil haven of Café Cour, Serendipity urged us to step inside the Eglise Notre-Dame des Blancs-Manteaux. Walking past a group of American youths cluttered near the entrance, Stéphane and I took a seat to enjoy the cool interior of the church. It was only then that we realized that the group of Americans was a choir from the University of California, Fullerton. We listened in awe when they took their places in front of the alter and broke into song. They were rehearsing for a concert later that evening.

The Place des Vosges was our last stop on Serendipity's tour of the Marais...

Place des Vosges

Monday, June 22, 2015

Finding Hemingway for "The Pilot; Fighter Planes and Paris"


Author Ed Cobleigh when he was a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force.

Guest post by Ed Cobleigh

While writing my new novel, The Pilot; Fighter Planes and Paris, I embarked on a nighttime quest in the City of Light to visit some of Ernst Hemingway's old haunts, those he experienced during the 1920's Lost Generation era. Ernie's thoughts would figure prominently in the book and I needed to absorb the ambiance and the alcohol he adored to strike the right tone in my descriptions of  Paris.

I began my journey at the Shakespeare and Company bookstore  (37 Rue de la Bûcherie, 5th Arr. across the Seine from Notre Dame) to see if they stocked my first book. This isn't the original location of the store, but who cares. They didn't have War for the Hell of It. For a moment, I contemplated secretly slipping my own copy on a back shelf, easy to do in the labyrinthine, cluttered shop. They would clear 100% of the price when someone bought it and I could boast of my book being sold in the famous store. But, I had an uncharacteristic attack of good judgment and abandoned the reverse shoplifting idea.

Next stop, a short walk away, was the bistro Les Deux Magots (6 Place Saint-Germain des Prés, 6th Arr) in the Quartier Latin where I nursed a café creme as Papa had and waited for James Joyce to show. He didn't. I wondered how Hemingway got any writing done there what with all the tourists.  Maybe it was different back then. I never liked Joyce anyway, he wrote unreadable gibberish.

A longer walk took me to another legendary bistro, La Closerie des Lilas (171 Blvd du Montparnasse, 6th Arr. on the edge of Montparnasse). An Armagnac at the bar was the obvious historic choice that night. As I sipped, I was appalled to find no Hemingway memorabilia in view. Strange, considering that The Sun Also Rises is rumored to have been partially written there. At least they could have displayed a small portrait of Ernie or mounted a stuffed Marlin on the wall. I pondered the lack of homage. For Americans, Papa is an icon, but for the French, he was just another expat writing novels, like me. Well, sort of. When I pushed away from the bar, a tiny brass plaque caught my eye. It read, "Reservée à E. Hemingway." I was sitting at Hemingway's place at the bar! Now, that was more like it. I felt inspired to write some bad Hemingway, at which I excel.

Harry's New York Bar in Paris

A taxi ride to La Rive Droit deposited me in front of Harry's New York Bar (5 Rue Daunou, 2nd Arr)  a side-street watering hole that looked like it hadn't been remodeled since Hemingway was last in. My libation choice was a French 75, the cocktail supposedly invented by Franco-American WWI flying ace Raul Lufbery during the Great War and named after a lethal anti-aircraft gun. While Harry's and the French 75 were achingly authentic, I found the joint to be too much like, well, New York. With visions of Fokker Triplanes and Sopwith Camels dog-fighting in my brain, I decided to end my night's pilgrimage at the Hemingway Bar in Le Hôtel Ritz on Place Vendome (15 Place Vendome, 1st Arr). Ernie wrote about personally liberating the bar at the Ritz in 1944 to make the world safe for drinking among civilized company and to rescue his trunk containing the manuscript for A Moveable Feast from the basement.

At the Ritz, the Maitre' D barred my way in. I told him in my best "Foreign Correspondent" voice, "You let Hemingway in.  He was far rowdier than I am."

The reply came back, "Ah yes, but you see Monsieur Hemingway, unlike yourself, knew how to dress properly."

Shot down in fashion flames, I sulked off into the night, but not before I had gathered enough material to bring a chapter to vivid life in the new book. Did I capture Hemingway's Paris? No, but my fighter pilot protagonist patrols the present-day city when not engaging the Bad Guys in air combat. The Hemingway Bar at the Ritz is now closed. By all accounts, it was a true and honest and brave bar where a man could get a straight drink and meet a beautiful woman. A strong woman who would help him to drink and love and live and die like a man, which aren't the same things.

Ed Cobleigh is the author of War for the Hell of It and The Pilot; Fighter Planes and Paris.  He has flown fighters with the US Air Force, US Navy, Royal Air Force, and the French Air Force. He and his wife Heidi live in California's wine country.

Don't miss the giveaway of The Pilot; Fighter Planes and Paris on "Out and About's" Facebook page on Thursday, June 25, 2015!

Les Deux Magots, one of Hemingway's haunts, decorated for the holidays.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Looking for something new to do in Paris? Visit Rungis, the world's largest fresh food market, with La Route des Gourmets!

The fish market at Rungis is a beehive of activity in the wee hours of the morning. It's open from 2:00-7:00 am. 

Even though I'm more of a night owl than an early bird, a couple of not-to-be-missed adventures have compelled me to roll out of bed in the wee small hours of the morning. When we lived in Indonesia, it was hiking to the rim of a volcano to watch the sun rise over the island of Java. In Trinidad, it was traveling to an isolated beach to observe leatherback sea turtles lay their eggs.

In Paris, the only item on my "must get up early to see" list was Rungis, the largest fresh food market in the world. Unlike my trips to the volcano and remote beach, figuring out the logistics of visiting Rungis proved to be a daunting task. The pavilions of the massive market, which are spread over 234 hectares (578 acres), are strictly off limits to the general public.

When I learned that Carole Metayer, one of twelve official guides with access to Rungis, had an extra spot on a private tour, I immediately jumped on the opportunity. Not even the 4:00 am meeting time at a hotel in the first arrondissement dampened my enthusiasm.

"Les Halles", the enormous painting by Léon Lhermitte. It was restored thanks to the patronage of the Marché International de Rungis and returned to its original place in the Petit Palais in 2014. 

As Carole skillfully navigates the deserted streets of the city, she tells us about Les Halles, the former food market that was created in 1110 in what is now the 2nd arrondissement. In his classic novel, "The Belly of Paris", French author Emile Zola powerfully describes the olfactory sensations experienced during a visit to one of the cheese stalls at Les Halles. One section recounts in vivid detail how the gamy odor of a ripe camembert overpowers the milder scent of the marolles and limbourg cheese. If you add the heady aroma of fish, beef, chicken and vegetables, it's little wonder that city officials decided to tear down Les Halles and move the massive market outside the center of Paris during the modernization campaign of the 1960s.

"Departure of Fruit and Vegetables from the Heart of Paris" at the church of Saint-Eustache

Even though I still mourn the loss of Les Halles, it's hard not to be impressed by the overwhelming size, efficiency and cleanliness of Rungis. Located seven kilometers south of Paris, the market includes 17 restaurants, 20 banks, a gigantic tower for producing ice and its own train station. More than 11,000 people work at Rungis. There's even a school where future fish mongers learn their trade while enrolled in a three year program.



As we don sanitary white coats and disposable hair covers, Carole explains that we'll start our visit at the fresh fish pavilion since they will soon close for the day. It's not yet 5:00 am!

The next time you're savoring sole meunière and potatoes at a Parisian café, it's worth pausing for a moment to consider the journey that the fish made from the Atlantic Ocean to your plate. After being offloaded from a fisherman's boat in Normandy, the fish was transported in sterile styrofoam boxes to Rungis by one of the 26,000 trucks that arrive at the market every night. The café's chef, who rose before dawn to select the best ingredients for his customers, spots the sole and decides to make it a prix fixe option for lunch. He quietly negotiates the price with the wholesaler while standing in a box marked with paint on the floor. It's a strictly private discussion because the price varies from client to client. It depends on the relationship between the buyer and seller, the quantity purchased, the freshness of the fish and the time of day.

The meat pavilion at Rungis, the world's largest fresh food market

With a mind-boggling number of beef carcasses hanging from ceiling hooks, the meat hall is not for vegetarians or the faint hearted. Walking past row upon row of Burgundy's famous Charolais beef, aging steaks and Limousin veal, I'm staggered by the amount of meat consumed by Parisians in a single day. Just as corpses in a morgue have identifying tags attached to their toes, the carcasses have labels indicating their breed, origin, weight and the exact dates that they were slaughtered. Each detail is meticulously recorded to ensure that the cow, calf or bull has been "born, raised and killed in France".

Pointing at cow heads hanging from hooks and bins full of entrails, Carole assures us that all of the organs are used. Nothing is wasted. I'm somewhat relieved when we leave the hall. The blast of cold October air feels fresh against my face. As we walk past a group of jovial butchers seated at a bustling café, our guide tells us that 3,000 cups of coffee are consumed there every morning, more than at any other café in France.

The next stops on our tour are the poultry and game pavilions, cheese halls, flower market and the fruit and vegetable pavilions, which comprise the largest part of the market. Along the way, Carole shares fascinating bits of information. Holding a bulb of Lautrec pink garlic in her hand, she explains that it's one of twelve AOC ("controlled designation of origin") fruit and vegetables in France. With a Master’s degree in Food and Food Culture from the Institute of Geography at the Sorbonne University of Paris, Carole considers Rungis a living museum of French heritage.

Du Champ Secret is the Rolls-Royce of camembert
When Carole spies a small wheel of cheese, she asks us if it's a "real" Camembert. Slow to provide any kind of answer because our minds are overwhelmed by all that we've seen, Carole reveals that a real camembert is always labeled "Camembert de Normandie" and weighs 250 grams. Without the "de Normandie", it's not an authentic camembert.

The sun is starting to cast a pre-dawn glow over the horizon as Carole drives us to our last stop of the morning, a café for a "Rungissois breakfast". Fortified after a cup of steaming coffee, buttery croissant and plate of charcuterie and cheese, I'm ready to start the day. It's not yet 8:00 am!

To book your trip to the world's largest fresh food market or another culinary tour of Paris, contact Carole Metayer at La Route des Gourmets. You can also connect with Carole via her blog, L'Actu des Gourmets, and her Facebook page.

Flowers,  Lautrec pink garlic, Gruyère cheese from Switzerland and Bresse chickens at Rungis, the world's largest fresh food market. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Looking for something new to do in Paris? Try a Gien faience painting workshop!

Traditional peony design stamped on the plates for the Gien ceramic painting workshop in Paris

Living in France has taught me to be flexible. If it rains on the day that we've scheduled a picnic with friends by the Seine, we'll change gear and spread blankets on the floor of our living room. If metro line 10 isn't running because security guards have found a suspicious package, I'll check the RATP application for alternative routes to my destination. I've learned that the need to be adaptable is an integral part of life in a dynamic city like Paris.

Perhaps that's why my morning coffee has become such a ritual. I have to drink it out of one of the Gien faience cups given to me by Mercedes or my day feels completely wrong. If all the cups are in the dishwasher, I invariably open the cupboard and gaze despondently at the assortment of other coffee cups before washing one of my favorites. There's something about the delicate weight of it in my hand that makes drinking coffee an even more pleasurable experience.

This obsession with my Oiseau Bleu coffee cups explains why I was so excited when Solène Colas of A Journey in Paris asked me to join a ceramic painting workshop at the Gien flagship showroom near La Madeleine. It was only after I had accepted her invitation that I started to feel the first pricks of doubt. I'm not at all crafty. Would I be able to paint anything that didn't resemble a child's art project on the first day of school?

In a desperate search for inspiration, I reviewed photos from Stéphane's and my visit to the Gien museum during one of our trips to the Loire Valley last summer. I even began stalking Solène's Instagram account to see what other people had painted.

Elodie Berta snapped this photo while I was diligently trying to paint within the lines!

It was only after Solène welcomed our class at the Gien showroom that I started to relax. There, on the table next to the paint brushes, were plates stamped with a peony design dating from the 19th century. My fears were completely assuaged when Solène explained that we only had to decide if we wanted to use the traditional multicolor theme, blue variation or our own variation. We didn't have to come up with a completely new pattern! As the peony is one of Gien's oldest designs, I opted for the traditional colors: light red, yellow, Delft red, green, light blue, dark blue and brown.

A masterpiece in progress! Gien ceramic painting workshop in Paris.

While we mixed our gouache paints, Solène shared some of the secrets that she has learned from the professional painters at the Gien factory. As you may have noted in the photo taken of me by Elodie, Solène's advice to work with a light hand went somewhat unheeded. It seems that I had a death grip on my brush! I did, however, strive to test the colors on a sheet of paper after mixing them rather then applying them directly to my plate.

By the time that the two hour workshop drew to a close, I had developed an even greater appreciation for my Gien coffee cups and saucers. Not only are they a testament to French elegance, they're also a tangible reminder of the craftsmanship that went into each piece. Even though it would take years of training for me to match the proficiency of the painters at Gien, I'm very pleased with the end result!

If you're looking for a unique experience in Paris, please visit Solène's website for additional details. The two hour class, which is 90 euros per person, is for groups of two to eight. The plate, paints and tea or mineral water are included in the price. The class is held in the studio of the Gien flagship showroom, 18 rue de l'arcade, 75008 Paris.

Et, voilà! Here's the end result. If I wouldn't have had to rush off, I would have probably filled in a bit more of the white. Nonetheless, I'm very pleased with my plate!