Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Talking with Alexandre de Vogüé, co-manager of Château de Vaux le Vicomte

"Ah, it feels good to be home." That's what Stéphane invariably says whenever we pass through the arched gate into the enchanting gardens of Château de Vaux le Vicomte. There's something so welcoming about the 1,236 acre (500 hectares) estate that it's easy to imagine that we've returned to our own private domain.

But in reality, Stéphane's and my favorite French castle belongs to the Vogüé family. On Saturday, I was pleased to have the opportunity to talk with Alexandre de Vogüé, who became co-manager of the estate responsible for development and communications when his father retired in 2012.

When we take our visitors to Château de Vaux le Vicomte, I always describe it as the castle that inspired Versailles. How would you describe it?
While it's true that King Louis XIV hired André Le Nôtre, Louis Le Vau and Charles Le Brun, the same landscaper, architect and painter who helped Nicolas Fouquet create Vaux le Vicomte, I would describe it as the castle that inspired all of Europe for more than a century. What the landscaper André Le Nôtre did at Vaux le Vicomte was incredibly innovative for the 17th century. He consolidated the technical innovations from previous decades, like laws of perspective, water conveyance systems and leveling, to build the foundations of the French formal garden, variations of which then spread throughout Europe.

The story of Nicolas Fouquet and Château de Vaux le Vicomte is largely unknown to most Anglophones. Can you tell us briefly about the fascinating history of the castle?
Nicolas Fouquet was a brilliant, flamboyant and charming man. He was also the Superintendent of Finances for Louis XIV. At the time, there was something called the "duty to be rich". In the 17th century, the finances in France were a mess and the state was close to bankruptcy. To demonstrate his solubility, Fouquet assembled a team of the three best artists of the time, Le Nôtre, Le Vau and Le Brun. And then he did something very important, he gave them a huge amount of virgin land, a lot of money and the freedom to design something audacious and innovative.

Yes, audacious. Because you have to remember that they were creating a totally new model. One where there was harmony between the architecture and the landscape.

Unfortunately, both Jean-Baptiste Colbert and Fouquet were vying for the position of Prime Minister. Colbert, who was extremely jealous of Fouquet, convinced the King that Fouquet was embezzling money.

While it's difficult for historians to believe that Fouquet had a good relationship with Louis XIV, he was loyal to the King. But the main problem is that he didn't understand the king's personality. Fouquet made the mistake of thinking that Louis XIV was a kind of party animal or a "light character". He was wrong. The King, who had been planning Fouquet's arrest, waited until after a lavish soirée at Vaux le Vicomte. Do you know what the French writer Voltaire said about Fouquet? “On 17 August [1661] at 6 in the evening, Fouquet was King of France; at 2 in the morning, he was nobody.”

Three weeks later, Fouquet was arrested and spent the rest of his life in prison.

If you could ask Nicolas Fouquet one question, what would it be?
I would ask how this [gesturing at the castle and garden] came out of the earth. How did he conceive of something like Vaux le Vicomte when he was only familiar with Louis XIII style castles? He was like the chef d'orchestre who conducted the imagination of three geniuses to create something totally new.

I would also ask him what secrets he knew about the King. He must have known something that made Louis XIV overrule the judge's decision to banish Fouquet from the kingdom and to incarcerate him instead. The story would make a very good movie. There is a French mini-series [Le roi, l'écureuil et la couleuvre] starring Lorànt Deutsch but nothing in English yet.

As an American, I can't even begin to imagine what it must have been like growing up in a castle. So, I've got to ask, did you ever do anything mischievous, like play in the King's bedroom?
[Laughing and at first declining to answer in case his parents happen to read this post] When we were kids, my two brothers and I occasionally searched for an adrenaline rush, something a bit scary that we weren't permitted to do, like running through the tour circuit of the château, jumping on the king's bed, hiding in the fireplaces and finally ending up in the attic, surrounded by old chairs, paintings and pieces of furniture covered with dust and spider webs. We didn't need to watch cartoons or listen to stories because we had our own world of excitement, games and adventure set in one of the most exquisite and unique baroque decors of the 17th century!

If visitors to Paris only have the time and money to tour one castle, why should it be Vaux le Vicomte?
Because it will be a pleasure from A-Z. It's more than just visiting a castle, we consider you as our guest. The personnel work hard to make sure everyone feels at home. Not only do we offer the grandness of a huge château but Vaux le Vicomte also has a lot of charm. It has a more human scale than Versailles.

What do you wish more people would do while at Vaux le Vicomte?
I wish that guests would spend more time in the garden. 70% of our visitors are French and the majority of them don't venture past the rond d'eau. They step outside, look around and say, "Yes, it's a French formal garden" before they turn around and leave. Because of the perfect proportions between the house and gardens, there's a certain serenity or peacefulness here. It's a place where people can take refuge from the city. They can picnic in the designated areas and relax. There are also two walking circuits, one that loops around the statue of Hercules at the far end of the gardens and a discovery trail that leads visitors to the largest trees on the estate.

You're the 5th generation of the family to manage the estate. What is your mission?
First of all, we have to preserve Vaux le Vicomte because of its emblematic architecture and gardens. We also want to share it with the maximum number of people and to transmit it to future generations in the best state possible. My goal is to make Vaux le Vicomte what it once was, a center for the arts. We have lots of projects in mind, like exhibitions and cooking classes, but we also have lots of expenditures for maintenance.

In addition to weekly candlelight evenings during the summer, Vaux le Vicomte organizes special events, like the Palais du Chocolat, Vaux le Vicomte Celebrates Christmas, Dîner des Muses, Journée Grand Siècle and Vaux le Vicomte Celebrates Easter. Which one is your favorite?
The Dîner des Muses and Journée Grand Siècle.

What's the best way for foreign visitors to get to Vaux le Vicomte from Paris?
The easiest way is to book a coach tour with Paris Cityrama. They offer days trips to Vaux le Vicomte and Fontainebleau, as well as an evening excursion to our candlelight evenings. Of course, it's also possible to take the train from Paris. On weekends, the "châteaubus" takes visitors from the train station in Melun to the castle.

Château de Vaux le Vicomte
77950 Maincy
Tel : +33 (0)

Please click here to see a photo album with some of my favorite photos of Château de Vaux le Vicomte.

In a recent article, Grand chateaux worth a day trip from Paris, Rick Steves says Vaux le Vicomte "gets my vote for the most beautiful chateau in all of France".

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Paris as seen in Washington DC, Cleveland, China and Las Vegas!

©"Paris on the Potomac" - A Photo Safari in Washington, D.C.

"Paris on the Potomac"

(Via Travel and Leisure News) The brainchild of Paris-trained architectural photographer E. David Luria, this photo safari trains amateur photographers in travel photography technique at several sites in Washington, D.C. that have their counterparts in Paris, such as:
  • Washington National Cathedral, a Gothic structure resembling Paris’s Notre Dame 
  • The US Capitol, inspired by the Palladian architecture of the Pantheon in Paris 
  • Arlington Memorial Bridge, whose arches were designed to look like Pont Neuf 
  • The newly illuminated Washington Monument, DC’s counterpart to the Eiffel Tower 
  • IM Pei’s glass pyramids at the National Gallery of Art, similar to those at The Louvre 

This photography training workshop is offered by DC-based Washington Photo Safari on Sunday August 25, from 2:30 to 5:00 pm.

"Cleveland is my Paris" T-shirts

(Via The Plain Dealer) "At first people thought the slogan was kind of a joke," he says. "But then my friends started asking for them, and it's been growing ever since." - Luke Neubecker, T-shirt designer

After the New York Times mentioned Neubecker's "Cleveland is my Paris" T-shirts in a laudatory article, "Culture Blooms in Cleveland", the young designer's stock was quickly depleted.

If you would like to order a T-shirt, please click here to visit "Cleveland is my Paris" on Facebook.

 © Reuters/Aly Song

China tried to build a city to replicate Paris … and here’s what it looks like now

(Via Business Insider) If you visit Tianducheng, a day trip from Shanghai in China’s Zhejiang province, you will be confronted by a 354-foot replica of the Eiffel tower.

Development on this Paris replica in China began in 2007, but local media say it is a ghost town now.

Everyone points to China’s ghost towns as proof of a malaise in China’s property sector.

But some, like Stephen Roach, former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia have argued that these cities will become “thriving metropolitan areas” as China continues to urbanize.

What’s truly quirky about these ghost towns though is that some of them have been designed as replicas of Italian, German, English, and French towns.

Please click here to see more photos of Tianducheng and read the complete article.

With special thanks to Janet de AcevedoMac​donald, Bob Clancy and Amy Watson for calling my attention to the above articles.

And to Linda Stumpner for sharing her photos of the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas.
Photo taken by Linda Stumpner during a recent trip to Las Vegas to celebrate her sister's birthday.
Photo taken by Linda Stumpner during a recent trip to Las Vegas to celebrate her sister's birthday.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Pink Flamingo pizza delivered to your picnic at the Canal Saint-Martin

If you happened to notice a ravenous looking man with a bright pink balloon sitting next to the Canal Saint-Martin yesterday, there's a good chance that it was Stéphane. But it may have also been someone else because holding a "Pink Flamingo" balloon aloft in the breeze is a cue that you're waiting for your Ghandi, Ho Chi Minh or Obama pizza to be delivered to one of the hippest open air dining spots in Paris, the Canal Saint-Martin.

After having read about Pink Flamingo's unique delivery system in Paris à Velib' (Paris by Bike with Velib'back in June, I was ready with an answer when Stéphane asked if I had a plan for our Sunday afternoon outing. Glancing at my watch, I proposed that we follow Itinerary 5, "The Paris Canals", from the Bassin de la Villette to the Canal Saint-Martin. If we maintained a good speed, I calculated that we would reach the Pink Flamingo precisely when the doors opened for dinner at 7:00 pm.

Given the glorious weather, I should have known that lots of other people would also want to be outside and that there wouldn't be any bikes at the Velib' stations near Bassin de la Villette. But with pizza on our mind, we did what we had to do. We walked. We had a strong incentive to reach the 10th arrondissement before a long line formed in front of Pink Flamingo. Along the way, I snapped some photos of Parisians playing boules and families enjoying the last days of Paris Plages. It was one of those perfect Sunday afternoons that linger in your memory long after your alarm rings on Monday morning.

When we finally arrived at Pink Flamingo, we were thankful to have a family in front of us so that we had time to study all of the creative options on the menu. Wavering indecisively between the Basquiat topped with gorgonzola, figs and jambon cru and the Che covered with Cuban style pork and fried plantains, I appealed to the man behind the counter for assistance.

Pizza delivery with a smile.

Fifteen minutes later, our pizza arrived at the Canal Saint-Martin right on time. As I described the tantalizing tastes of pork marinated in lime, garlic, coriander and green onions to Stéphane, I heard a passerby say, "I wonder where they got takeout pizza." If my mouth wouldn't have been so full, I would have told her, "Pink Flamingo - and they deliver, too!"  

Pink Flamingo has several restaurants in Paris. We ordered our Che and Aphrodite pizzas from the one located at 67, rue Bichat, 75010 Paris. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 12:00-3:00 pm and 7:00-11:00 pm. 

One of my favorite bloggers, Ella Coquine wrote about the Pink Flamingo in the Marais way back in May 2011. Eating at an exclusive table in a Volkswagon bus sounds every bit as fun as picnicking next to the Canal Saint-Martin. 

Just when I was getting ready to take my first bite, I remembered to take a photo of my Che pizza.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

After 500 Years, Tour Saint-Jacques Temporarily Opens to the Public

While Stéphane and I were sipping glasses of Perrier menthe and rosé on the terrace of Café Nemours on Friday evening, my ears perked up when I overheard an American couple at the table behind us talking about the 360-degree panoramic view of Paris from "that tower". When the woman added that the vista of all the famous Parisian monuments was well worth the climb even though it had been hard on her knees, I nudged Stéphane in the ribs and whispered, "They're talking about the Tour Saint-Jacques, the one I want to visit this weekend. We're going to have to get up really early on Sunday morning to make reservations."

After being closed to the public for most of its 500 year history, the Tour Saint-Jacques received permission to temporarily open its doors to visitors from July 5 until September 15, 2013. 

Built in the flamboyant Gothic style between 1509 and 1523, the Tour Saint-Jacques is all that remains of the Eglise Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie (Saint James of the Butchers) after it was ransacked by French revolutionaries in the late 18th century. One of the traditional starting points for pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, the 62 meter (203 foot) tower was also an ammunition plant. In the early nineteenth century, molten lead was passed through a sieve and dropped from the top of tower. By the time it landed in a tub of water at the bottom, the lead was in the shape of a bullet. At other times in its history, the tower was used as a small meteorological station and a watchtower to spot the frequent fires in the French capital.

For fans of the Harry Potter series, it's interesting to note that alchemist Nicolas Flamel was buried in the nave of the Eglise Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie. 

From 2000-2009, the Tour Saint-Jacques was covered by scaffolding as decades of pollution was scrubbed from the 3.5 meter statue of St. James the Apostle, gargoyles, 18 statues of saints and sculpted symbols of the four evangelists that adorn its corners. Upon completion of the 8.3 million euro restoration, the Tour Saint-Jacques was opened to the public for the first time in 2012 during France's annual Heritage Weekend. 

So, after a late night at Château Vaux le Vicomte's magical Candlelight Evening, did Stéphane and I have the gumption to climb the step spiral staircase of the Tour Saint-Jacques early this morning? Nope. But I sure hope that I'll be able to get to see the magnificent view before the tower closes its doors again on September 15. If you get there before me, please let me know because I'll be away from Paris on vacation from August 15-29.

Tour Saint-Jacques, Square de la Tour Saint-Jacques, 75001 Paris

Additional information from the ParisInfo website: Special opening of the tower from 5 July to 15 September 2013. Accompanied tour, every hour from 10am to 5pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Duration of tour: 50 minutes. Reservations must be made on site (corner of rue de Rivoli and rue Sébastopol), at the foot of the Tour Saint-Jacques, on the tour days from 9.30am for the same day. Each person can reserve three places.
Access to the top (54 metres, approximately 16 floors) via a small staircase with 300 steps. It is not recommended for those suffering from claustrophobia or vertigo and access is not permitted to those under 10yrs.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Paris: On vacation for the month of August

The painted window at my bakery depicts a happy family departing on vacation. Even the cat and dog are carrying bags.

Paris, at least my little corner of it in the 16th arrondissement, is quiet. Eerily quiet. My bakery, newspaper stand, butcher and cheesemonger have all closed up shop for the month of August. Pieces of paper wishing their forlorn customers "Bonnes Vacances" ("Happy Holidays") hang in the darkened windows. I guess it's to be expected considering that most of their clients have vacated the city for beaches in the South of France or familial country homes in Burgundy.

The rest of us have been left to forage for food from the one or two stalwart vendors remaining at the market. Not surprisingly, they're cleverly using the opportunity to win our hearts by reminding us that they value our patronage even if our regular vendors have deserted us. I've never been given so much free produce in my life. "Would you like a bunch of mint or basil, Madame?" and "I put a few extra peaches in your bag because I always reward my faithful customers." The message is clear. They want my return business in the fall when my regular vendor returns sun-tanned and relaxed from his annual holiday.

Not only are the shopkeepers gone but so are my doctor, dentist and hairdresser. When I tried to make an August appointment with my dentist, she peered at the ancient silver filling in my mouth and proposed that we wait to replace it until after la rentrée (the return) in September. As soon as I agreed, she deftly switched subjects to something more important, her upcoming vacation in Deauville. As she worked on my teeth, she rhapsodized nostalgic about childhood memories of summers spent in Normandy and told me that she couldn't wait to exchange her practice for leisurely days relaxing on the beach with her young son and daughter. It was obvious that a month-long holiday was a long standing tradition in her family. My filling could wait.

When I asked the woman who periodically cleans our apartment if she was available last Monday, I inadvertently learned that all of the Filipina housekeepers and nannies are also on vacation. The major difference is that the Filipinas work the entire time they're at the beach because apparently well-heeled French families only leave Paris if they can take someone along who will babysit their children and do the dishes. As I sent one futile text message after another to various members of the Filipina network, I kept getting the same response, "Sorry, but I'm in _______ (insert Cannes, Trouville, Beune, etc) this month." When I was finally able to reach the lone Filipina who was rather remarkably still in Paris, I was curious to know why she was here when all of her friends were gone. It's because she had already gone on vacation with a family during the entire month of July. Even Grace, my masseuse, is away. A French family took her to the beach with them so that she could give them daily massages in return for a monthly salary. Knowing that most of her regular customers would be gone, she explained that she had no option but to agree.

Empty rowboats floating on the lake in the Bois de Boulogne

Nonetheless, staying in Paris has its advantages. There are lots of empty seats on the bus, it's possible to get reservations at the few restaurants that are still open and the normally crowded parks located outside the touristic center of town are pleasantly deserted. Despite the sunny weather, empty rowboats remained tied up at the pier while the ponies appeared to be permanently parked under a tree in the Bois de Boulogne when Stéphane and I were there last Saturday afternoon.

As always, the city of Paris does a good job looking after those of its residents who aren't able to flee their urban confines. Throughout August, it offers a wide range of free activities and entertainment. There's Paris Plages, sandy beaches with evening dance classes, nautical activities and volleyball courts near the Seine and at Bassin de la Villette, as well as Cinéma au Clair de Lune, an open air cinema screening films in some of the most picturesque parts of town. In a "pinch me, I can't believe this is real" moment, Stéphane and I watched Audrey Hepburn drive a sports car past Notre Dame on a large inflatable movie screen right next to the Eiffel Tower on Sunday evening.

"The bakery will be closed for vacation from July 31 to August 28, 2013, inclusive."
The sign also gives the addresses of nearby bakeries that are open.

In spite of my bakery being closed for the entire month of August, the government has been regulating bakers' holidays for more than 200 years to ensure that Parisians will always have easy access to bread. This regulation is a legacy of the time when lack of bread sparked revolutions in Paris.

To find out which bakeries are open this month, click here. Once you're at the website, click on the section that says "Consulter la liste des boulangeries parisiennes ouvertes au mois d'août 2013 (au format pdf)*".

Another added bonus of staying in Paris during the month of August is that 90% of the parking places are free of charge. Click here for more information in French.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Fountains Night Show and Fireworks at Versailles

For the past two summers, Stéphane and I have been intending to go to the Fountain Night Show at Versailles. The third time must be the charm because we finally made it last night. With illuminated fountains, classical music playing on speakers strategically placed throughout the gardens, a laser light show, dramatic flames synchronized with the music and 15 minutes of dazzling fireworks, the evening proved to be much more entertaining than we could have ever anticipated.

Something else that we couldn't have imagined were the hordes of people. When Stéphane and I tried unsuccessfully to find a place where we could sit down and eat the baked potato topped with chili that we had purchased from a vending cart, we couldn't help comparing the pandemonium in the garden with the tranquility that reigns during the Candlelit Evenings at Château Vaux le Vicomte. The difference is like night and day. Whereas we always feel that we're special guests invited to a magical evening at Vaux le Vicomte, we felt like we were part of the unruly masses who stormed Versailles last night.

Here's a short video that I shot of last night's grand finale.

Still, there's a reason that thousands of people flock to the majestic gardens every Saturday night during the summer. The Fountains Night Show is so spectacular that everyone should see it once. Well, everyone except for those who don't like large crowds and people with mobility issues.

The shows are on Saturday evenings until September 14, 2013. Water features are from 9:05 to 10:55 pm. The fireworks display starts around 11:00 pm. For additional information and to purchase your tickets in advance, please click here to visit the official website for the Château de Versailles.

Click here to see additional photos on Facebook.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Dining and Saving Money in Paris with "The Fork" ("La Fourchette")

Cristal Room at Baccarat

I like to try new restaurants in Paris and I love to save money. If you've always thought that the two are mutually exclusive, I've got some good news for you. "The Fork", or La Fourchette, is a restaurant reservation website where you can reserve a table and save up to 50% off the check in three easy clicks.

With Stéphane away last weekend, I decided to treat myself to lunch at the Cristal Room. It's a restaurant that I've been wanting to try ever since I first spied the crystal glasses and sparkling chandeliers while visiting the Baccarat Museum two years ago. But since I could never convince Stéphane to join me, I was thrilled to see that I would receive 30% off the food portion of my bill if I used The Fork to book my table. It's really simple.

Grilled John Dory, zucchini flower and Taggiasche olives, lemon-thyme foam

Step 1: Go to The Fork (La Fourchette) or use their handy iPhone or iPad apps.
Step 2: Search for a restaurant by name or location. See if it's offering a special deal. If it is, be sure to read the conditions. Some restaurants only offer reductions at certain times or require that you order a starter and a main course or a main course and a dessert.
Step 3: Check the restaurant's score and read some of the reviews. For example, 366 reviewers have rated the Cristal Room a solid 9/10. With so many excellent restaurants in Paris, I'm not inclined to go to a restaurant with less than stellar reviews, even if I can save some money.
Step 4: Reserve your table by specifying the date, time and number of people.
Step 5: Receive a text message confirmation on your cell phone.
Step 6: Go to the restaurant and enjoy a fabulous meal knowing that you're also saving some money.

Melon merliton, acid marmalade and apricot coulis

Not only did the Cristal Room live up to my expectations, it surpassed them. The dining room was a haven of cool air on a stifling hot day and the service was impeccable. I felt pampered from the start of my meal until the very end. And best of all, I didn't feel the least bit guilty for treating myself to a delicious lunch while Stéphane was traveling because I saved some money in the process. I hope that the Cristal Room continues to offer the 30% discount on lunch because Stéphane has finally decided that he would like to go there. I think that his change of heart may have had something to do with the excited tone in my voice as I raved about my grilled John Dorry served with a delicate lemon thyme foam and the refreshing melon mirliton that I had for dessert.

Insider's tip: If you prefer to dine outside when the weather is pleasant, there are two tables on a private terrace overlooking Place des États-Unis.

Please click here to see more photos of the Cristal Room and terrace and here to see photos of some of the Baccarat chandeliers.

Carpaccio and salad with freshly squeezed lemon

The Fork also works amazingly well when you're craving Italian food but realize that it would require too much effort to make fresh spaghetti sauce for one person. Remembering that I had seen a nearby Italian restaurant listed on The Fork, I sent off a last-minute reservation request for a table at Giallo Oro. Within twenty minutes, I was sipping a glass of Prosecco and perusing the menu.

When Stéphane called at the end of his work day in Egypt, I was pleased to report that I was in the middle of saving money, once again, by having a delicious meal at a restaurant that we had been intending to try. From the free slices of pizza served as an appetizer to the owner asking if I would like to take my unfinished pasta home in a doggie bag (something that is extremely unusual in Paris), it was a delightful dining experience and one that I will readily repeat.

Insider's tip: If you're not alright with dogs in a restaurant, Giallo Oro isn't for you because the owner has two small Pugs.

Since all of my friends are tired of hearing me talk about The Fork, I thought that it's about time that I write a blog post about it. I don't have any personal or financial connections with the company. If you're going on vacation, you can also use The Fork to make reservations in other towns in France, Switzerland (Lausanne and Geneva) and Spain (Barcelona and Madrid).

Fine Food at the Tip of La Fourchette, a blog post about The Fork by "Paris at my Feet".

Pasta trio