Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Caillebotte à Yerres" - Spend the Day at the Country Home of Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte

"Pénissoires sur l'Yerres" (1877) National Gallery of Art Washington

The day dawned bright and beautiful as I boarded the bus bound for Yerres yesterday morning. Like the Impressionist painters in the late 1800s, I was escaping the hectic streets of Paris for an idyllic interlude in the French countryside. The occasion? "Caillebotte à Yerres", a major exhibition featuring 43 masterpieces by Gustave Caillebotte at the painter's familial home. This event is all the more remarkable because it's the first time that many of these works have been exhibited in public. Viewing them together, at the place where they were painted, is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Peche à la ligne, Baigneurs, bords de l'Yerres and Pénissoires sur l'Yerres, Caillebotte's three-panel triptiyque was first displayed at the fourth Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1879 

Gustave Caillebotte, who was 12 years old when his parents purchased their summer residence in Yerres, painted some of his most important works at the familial home between 1875 and 1879. The first room, which was probably my favorite, portrays the pleasures of summer. Caillebotte's three-panel triptiyque, exceptionally reunited for the exhibition, features men paddling on the Yerres River, a swimmer preparing to dive into the refreshing water and a man with a fishing pole quietly contemplating the river as it flows past.

Le parc de la propriété (1875)

Strolling through the estate's tranquil gardens, it's easy to understand why inspiration came so easily to the painter in Yerres. Using the application that accompanies the exhibition, it felt as though the painter took my hand for a private guided tour. "Here," he seemed to whisper in my ear, "Is where I set my easel to paint Le parc de la propriété" and "There," he added, pointing towards a spot on the riverbank, "is where I observed the concentric circles produced by the rain splattering on the surface of the river as I painted L'Yerres, effets de pluie."

L'Yerres, effets de pluie (1875)

Much more than an exhibition, "Caillebotte à Yerres" is an unprecedented opportunity to walk in the painter's footsteps. I suggest taking the train from Paris and spending the day in Yerres. While you're there, be sure to visit "Caillebotte's Garden", an award-winning educational garden at the far end of the estate. The beautifully restored L'Orangerie offers rapid dining options, while the Chalet de Parc is a gastronomic restaurant and teahouse located in the Swiss chalet constructed by Caillebotte's father. If you would like to emulate the boaters in Caillebotte's paintings, rowboats are available for rent on the estate.

As "Caillebotte à Yerres" is a major exhibition, I strongly recommend visiting during the week.

Caillebotte à Yerre (April 5 - July 20, 2014)
Propriété Caillebotte
8, rue de Concy
91330 Yerre

Boat rental: 3:00-7:00 pm on weekends and holidays in April and May; 3:00-7:00 pm on Wednesdays, weekends and holidays in June; 3:00-7:00 pm daily, with the exception of Monday, in July and August.

Directions to the exhibition: Take the RER D (direction Melun/Malesherbes) from Gare de Lyon to Yerres. From the station, take bus line "F" to Caillebotte's estate. Or, walk 15 minutes from the station to the estate. The way is clearly marked with "Caillebotte à Yerres" signs.

 The Orangerie
Lunch at the Chalet de Parc
Lunch at the Chalet de Parc
Rowboats for rent on the Yerres River

Monday, April 28, 2014

Market visits with Michelin-rated Chef Eric Briffard -- one more reason to stay at the Four Seasons Hotel George V!

Michelin-rated Chef Eric Briffard sampling a turnip at Joël Thiébault's stand.

Holding up a bunch of leafy greens with delicate yellow flowers, Chef Eric Briffard invites the members of our group to sample one of the serrated leaves. "Mizuna, also known as Japanese mustard, is an interesting addition to salads," he explains. As I savor the slightly peppery taste in my mouth, I notice that the Chef's eyes are busy surveying the other produce at the colorful market stall. Before placing anything in the woven baskets that we've brought with us from the Four Seasons Hotel George V, Briffard performs a quick taste test to confirm that it meets his exacting standards. From the way that he jokes with the vegetable merchant while he selects three heads of creamy-white cauliflower and enquires about the fishmonger's husband as he studies a piece of cod, it's clear that Chef Briffard has developed close relationships with many of the vendors.

More than the Louvre or Eiffel Tower, outdoor markets are a fundamental part of daily life in Paris. They're where locals go for the freshest fruits and vegetables, perfectly ripened cheese and convivial social interactions. Wanting to share this typically Parisian experience with guests of the George V, General Manager and Regional Vice President Christian Clerc has launched a new experience: market visits with the hotel's Michelin-rated chef from April until September.

Back from the market! Photo credit: George V.

After pausing at the front entrance of the George V for a souvenir photo, Chef Briffard warmly welcomes us into the hotel's event kitchen for a cooking demonstration. To make it official, we don the hotel's signature black aprons emblazoned with gold "V's" (très chic) and towering chef's hats. Fortified by glasses of wine and equipped with knives and cutting boards, our group eagerly sets to work chopping vegetables for cauliflower taboulé, a simple dish that Briffard frequently makes for his family. Normally, a hush falls over a group when they're focused on their work, but the Chef's easygoing manner creates a companionable atmosphere in the kitchen. Conversation flows as we marvel at the exquisite flavors of the first dish, salmon sashimi.

Chef Briffard, Claudia Caringi (Recreations Manager) and a guest from Texas 

While we observe the Chef's carefully orchestrated movements as he prepares confit de salmon, cauliflower taboulé and an amazing seasonal dessert, he reveals his culinary philosophy: share the best that France has to offer with the hotel's guests from around the world. To emphasize his point, he offers each of us a strawberry. "They're from Provence, the first of the season," he declares. Never in my life have I tasted such a succulent strawberry. It's a sweet revelation. Yet, the strawberries combined with thinly sliced fennel, a scoop of goat cheese ice cream, slice of kumquat, dollop of black olive tapenade and drizzle of olive oil are even more sublime.

The monthly market visits with Chef Briffard  and floral arrangement classes with Jeff Leatham are available exclusively to guests of the Four Seasons Hotel George V or restaurant Le Cinq on a complimentary basis. Please refer to the "Experiences" section of the hotel's website or contact the Concierge for additional information.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sunday's Picture and a Song: Double Rainbow (arc-en-ciel) over Paris

Yesterday afternoon, we were blessed by the sight of not one ....

 ... but two rainbows over Paris!

The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral -- A "must see" for its role in French history and Chagall stained glass windows

Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral

I've long believed that some sort of telepathy exists between humans. If you're thinking about someone with whom you're emotionally connected, it seems only natural that there's a strong probability that they're thinking about you, too. That's why I wasn't terribly surprised to receive a text message from Stéphane at the exact moment I snapped the above photo of Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral. Even though my husband was thousands of miles away in Egypt, or was it Turkey (?), he knew that I was about to enter the place that he had been trying to persuade me to visit for the last two years.

It all started when Stéphane proposed a trip to the almost-impossible-to-pronounce, for Anglophones at least, city of Reims in 2012. His goal was to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site where the kings of France were crowned. My goal was slightly less lofty. I wanted to visit as many champagne houses as possible. Needless to say, I'm unabashedly guilty of hijacking Stéphane's and my two trips to the Champagne region. To date, he hasn't seen the inside of Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral, but he did get to listen to me tell him that it's a "must-see" sight after I visited it with Jon at the beginning of April.

From 1027, all the kings of France have been crowned at the cathedral in Reims with the exception of Louis VI and Henri IV. Placing his hand on the Bible, the Prince would swear to respect justice, uphold the law and defend widows and orphans. Upon the presentation of the spurs and sword, he became the first of the knights. Following a long prayer and nine anointings consecrating him as the King of France, he received the symbols of royalty: the cloak and ring, sceptre and the hand of justice, which Jon and I somewhat irreverently nicknamed the face-slapper because that's what it resembles.

The alter of Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral

Between 1027 and 1825, 29 French Kings were crowned in Reims. The Cathedral, formerly the Abbey of Saint-Rémi, earned this honor because it housed the Sainte-Ampoule, a holy flask containing the sacramental oil that transformed men into kings. It was said that an angel, in the form of a dove, delivered the holy flask to Saint-Rémi when he anointed Clovis King of the Francks on December 24, 496. Not surprisingly, the original holy flask was shattered during the French Revolution. A fragment of it was incorporated into the replica on display in the Cathedral's treasury.

When I reached the rear of the Cathedral, I suddenly spotted a collection of stained glass windows that reminded me of the famous ceiling at the Palais Garnier in Paris. I wonder why Stéphane didn't tell me that the windows were created by Marc Chagall, the talented Russian born French-Jewish artist!?

Chagall stained glass windows in Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral 

I only noticed the gold fleur-de-lis when I took this photo and was delighted to discover the archer in the top left corner when I uploaded my pictures onto my laptop.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

First stop in Champagne -- Bonnevie-Bocart, an independent wine grower in Billy-le-Grand

Wine maker Mathilde Bonnevie-Bocart and a glass of one of the champagnes that we sampled.

With approximately 16,000 winegrowers and 320 Champagne houses, deciding which winegrowers to visit in the Champagne region of France is a daunting task. To make my job a bit easier, I invited people to post the name of their favorite grower champagne, on "Out and About's" Facebook page. Evidently, champagne is a subject that's near and dear to everyone's heart because the response was overwhelming. A couple of people even left comments asking if there was a limit to the number they could name.

Disappointed that Jon's and my short two-day trip wouldn't allow us enough time to sample all of the recommended champagnes, we followed Paris by the Glass's advice:

Contact Mathilde, wine maker and cellar master of the family run 3rd generation estate in Billy-le-Grand: Bonnevie-Bocart. She is a charming and enthusiastic young lady and proud (for good reason) of her work. You can sample their lovely champagnes and visit the winery. Tell her Preston sent you!

At precisely 11:00 am., the pre-arranged time for our visit, Jon and I pulled into the parking lot in front of Bonnevie-Bocart's modern facility in Billy-le-Grand. After explaining that it was Jon's first time in the Champagne region, Mathilde invited us to tour the winery. Pausing in front of a horizontal champagne press, Mathilde explained each step of the process and told us about the strict regulations governing the production of the world's most famous bubbly beverage.

A family affair. Collage of photos at Bonnevie-Bocart showing the 2013 grape harvest.

Unlike Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot, two of the champagne giants that dominate the US market, Bonnevie-Bocart's grower champagnes are produced exclusively from grapes cultivated on their 4.90 Ha (12 acre) familial estate. Like the big houses, Bonnevie-Bocart makes a selection of nonvintage champagnes from grapes grown in different years, single vintages (millésimé) and prestige cuvées or special blends.

Not surprisingly, listening to Mathilde's explanations of the production process had created quite a thirst. When she asked if Jon and I were ready to taste some of their champagne, we replied with a resounding, "Yes!" Mindful of all the labor that goes into each one of the 50-55,000 bottles of champagne produced by Bonnevie-Bocart annually, Jon and I paused to admire the pale golden color and sparkling effervescence before taking a sip of his favorite: the Blanc de Blancs blended exclusively from white Chardonnay grapes.

My favorite was the Cuvée Prestige Premier Cru, a blend of 85% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Noir. This exceptional champagne was awarded the Féminalise 2013 Gold Medal and the Decanter 2013 Bronze Medal. In an industry long dominated by men, the annual Féminalise Competition focuses on the economically important female sector of the wine market. Since all of the Féminalise wine tasters are women, I guess it's not too surprising that the Cuvée Prestige also won my stamp of approval.

The next time that you're in a wine store, ask for a bottle of grower's champagne. Without the substantial marketing budgets of brands owned by huge conglomerates, like LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy), they're usually good value for the money and a pleasure to drink.

As Mathilde sealed the carton of Cuvée Prestige and Blanc de Blancs that I was taking home, I asked the name of her favorite champagne, aside from Bonnevie-Bocart, of course! I knew that we were in for a treat when she replied, "Billecart-Salmon" because that was the next house on our itinerary. (Click here to read Jon's post about our visit.)

Bonnevie-Bocart (Please send an email to reserve your visit in advance)
10 Rue du Midi
GPS [49.107689,4.231192]

Mathilde explaining the awards won by Bonnevie-Bocart's Cuvée Prestige Premier Cru.  

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

La France V.I.P. -- Spend the night aboard a péniche (river barge) B&B on the Marne River in Epernay

View of the Marne River from my porthole window aboard La France V.I.P. in Epernay

The summer I turned 18 and my brother turned 21, we flew from Los Angeles to London on Laker Airways, the world's first long-haul, low-cost airlines, for a backpacking trip through Europe. It was 1981. Budget travelers, Jon and I survived on a limited diet of bread, lots of bread, cheese and an occasional beer. Letters home expressed our wonder at the sights: people drinking bottled water in Paris (was something wrong with the tap water?), chickens with their heads still attached at the markets in Spain and down comforters at our pen-pal's house in Germany.

Back in the day when American beds were made exclusively with sheets, a blanket and a bedspread, the down comforters were a luxurious revelation. They made such an impression that Jon and I used some of our meager funds to buy two "comfies". Even though they were big and bulky, we toted them everywhere. Their cozy warmth made sleeping on night trains much easier. Our strategy, developed over time, was to find an empty train compartment, shut the door, sprawl out on the seat and pray that no one would interrupt our sleep. Of course, someone always did.

Perhaps those sleep-deprived nights explain why I wanted to find just the right accommodation for Jon's and my recent trip to the Champagne region. I originally thought about returning to the Maison des Vignes de Verzenay, the charming B&B where Stéphane and I had stayed in 2012 but rejected it as too "normal". Even though Jon and I have aged in the intervening years since our epic trip to Europe, I still wanted something more adventurous. Recalling that my children had been urging me to use Airbnb, the global website that's currently the world leader in travel rentals, I scanned their offerings for Epernay.

La France V.I.P. in Epernay

Looking up from my laptop, I asked my traveling companion, "What do you think about spending the night on a péniche?" Since Jon was immediately on board (bad pun intended!) with the idea of sleeping on a French river barge, I registered with Airbnb and sent a request to France, the hostess. Within minutes she replied that two double rooms were available at the price of €120 per room, plus an additional €18 booking fee payable to Airbnb.

Breakfast aboard La France V.I.P. 

Even though I had studied photos of The France V.I.P online, we were very pleasantly surprised by the size of the barge. On the top deck, there's an indoor seating area where we were served an appetizing breakfast and a heated outdoor space with a jacuzzi, barbecue grill and another seating area. On a warm evening, the spacious deck would be the ideal spot to relax after a day of tasting champagne. If you're in the mood for more bubbly, the refrigerator is well-stocked with a variety of champagnes available for a reasonable fee.

The boat's galley, massive living area with a billiard table, four double rooms (the Captain's cabin is the most spacious) and toilet/bathroom are located belowdecks. Since we were the only guests, Jon and I were given our choice of cabins. That evening, as we watched the sun cast its last rays on the Marne River while sipping champagne and dining on provisions from the local grocery store, Jon and I agreed that we've come a long way since our first trip to Europe.

Pluses: A very unique experience for a couple, family or friends traveling together. Peaceful location, yet close proximity to Epernay. Possibility to eat on board. A variety of entertainment options, both inside (billiards, darts, boardgames, multiple televisions) and outside (jacuzzi, barbecue, etc). Gracious and discrete hosts, we saw Franck when we checked in and France when she brought our breakfast in the morning. Free parking nearby. Wifi is available in a small building located next to the boat.

Minuses: While Jon and I were fortunate to have the entire boat to ourselves, we probably wouldn't have enjoyed the experience nearly as much if there had been other guests aboard. Also, €120 for a double room with a shared shower/toilet would have been somewhat expensive during low season in Epernay.

La France V.I.P. (Vacances Insolites en Péniche) Hosts: France and Franck

If you would like to stay on a péniche in Paris, be sure to read Aussie in France's post: A Barge on the Seine in Paris – what better holiday accommodation can you get?

The view from the breakfast area to the belowdecks living room.
I opted to stay in a smaller cabin. The Captain's Cabin is much larger.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

“What’s your favorite Champagne?”

Budding leaves in Clos Saint-Hilaire. Billecart-Salmon's rare Blanc de Noir cuvée is produced exclusively from grapes grown in this one hectare vineyard. For each vintage, there is a limited release of 3,500 to 7,000 bottles of Clos Saint-Hilaire.

With special thanks to Jon, my brother and first traveling companion in Europe, for writing the following guest post about our memorable trip to the Champagne region of France.

When visiting Paris in April I was asked by my host, “what’s your favorite champagne?” The question confounded me. I drink plenty of California and Spanish sparkling white wine and call it champagne, and I’ve enjoyed actual French champagnes occasionally, but I didn’t think I had a favorite. I felt some pressure because I believed my answer would influence a two-day itinerary for our visit to the Champagne province. So I was struggling, what is “champagne,” what is Champagne as a place to visit, and is there a champagne sparkling wine I care enough about to claim as my favorite? This was way too much thinking about a beverage I connect with fun, light-heartedness and the best of times. I resolved that while I may not have one now, I would have a “favorite” champagne by week’s end.

Paris feels like any other big city with weekday traffic issues on a morning departure out of town. The driver was not Parisian, so we were not naturally tuned to the tempo of the commute. I was assigned navigator duties, which means I operated our Volvo’s integrated GPS unit (not user-friendly), and was responsible for sorting through the highway signs that hopefully directed us toward Champagne. I don’t know French, and none of the signs said, “Champagne this way.” Without collision or a frayed sibling relationship, my host and I successfully exited Paris and soon arrived in an amazingly different place, the French countryside. Driving through newly tilled rolling farmlands, I tried to remember F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, “France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter…”

Champagne tasting with Jérôme Lafouge of Billecart-Salmon

Navigating the A (A4) and N (N51) and D (D71) roads, and many others intentionally and unintentionally, Reims-to-Epernay and Epernay-to-Reims, we seemed to be on the mother roads of Champagne. Our goal was to start small and experience champagne houses first at the grass roots. On good advice our initial visit was at Bonnevie-Bocart, 55,000 bottles per year, within the oddly named village of Billy-Le-Grand. Origin apparently unknown? After Bonnevie-Bocart, where we were fans of the Blanc de Blancs champagne, we ate lunch nearby and drove next to the medium-sized champagne house of Billecart-Salmon at Mareuil-Sur-Ay. Slowed by indecipherable road construction detours and feeling a little hurried, I wasn’t aware of the gem we had found when we first arrived at Billecart-Salmon. Jérôme Lafouge, our Billecart-Salmon guide, greeted us as a friend would and with warmth made us welcome. For several hours he opened the house to our small group of Australians and Americans, happily sharing his knowledge about champagnes and Billecart-Salmon. By the time we surfaced from walking the cellars we were deep into the afternoon - Happy Hour – and Jérôme was now serving and teaching, with a passion. Everything we tasted seemed perfect. Jérôme, our companions, Billecart-Salmon and that moment were all perfect. For me this is what champagne does best, it sets the moment. Family, friends, new friends all become a little closer with champagne in the glass.

Recommendation, find a bottle of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé (my new “favorite”) or any other champagne for a moment with family and friends.

Billecart-Salmon (Be sure to reserve your visit in advance via Billecart-Salmon's online contact form)
40 Rue Carnot
51160 Mareuil-sur-Ay

Bottles and bottles of champagne in Billecart-Salmon's cellar

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Historic Parisian Hotel Lutetia to sell art collection, furniture, wine and spirits at auction May 19-25!

While thumbing through the Paris section of vintage advertisements at the market in Beaune last Saturday, I was very tempted to buy one proudly proclaiming the opening of Hotel Lutetia in December 1910. With the hotel scheduled to close for a three year renovation on April 14, it seemed like a fortuitous find. But since Stéphane and I were supposed to be searching for a place to eat rather than buying antiques, I reluctantly returned the advertisement to its cardboard box and went on my way.

Admittedly, I felt a pang of regret for the missed opportunity when social media was abuzz with tweets and posts about the historic hotel's closing on Monday. Following in the footsteps of the Ritz, Crillon and Plaza Athenée, the seven-story building with Art Déco and Art Nouveau architectural elements will undergo a massive renovation to better welcome its guests.

Built by the owners of the Bon Marché, Paris's first department store, Hotel Lutetia's location in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés made it a favorite spot for Left Bank intellectuals. Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, Marcel Proust, Henri Matisse, Peggy Guggenheim and André Gide all frequented the hotel in its early years. James Joyce wrote part of Ulysses there.

During World War II, Hotel Lutetia was requisitioned by the Nazi's counter-intelligence service and used to house, feed and entertain the German officers. After Paris was liberated, it became a repatriation and medical center for people returning from the German concentration camps, prisoners of war and displaced persons. The halls echoed with the sounds of joyful reunions when the survivors were reunited with family members and friends.

In the 1950's, the piano bar at the Lutetia was in full swing. Josephine Baker, the celebrated American singer and dancer, made the luxurious hotel her residence for a time and French singer Eddy Mitchell wrote a song about it, Au bar du Lutetia.

If you would like to own a piece of this historic Rive Gauche hotel, mark your calendar for May 19 to 25. That's when Hotel Lutetia will sell its art collection, including works signed by Arman, César and Takis, 3,000 pieces of furniture and 8,000 bottles of wine and spirits. The items will be on display at the Hotel Lutetia from May 15 to 18.

The auction house Pierre Bergé & Associés was commissioned by the direction of Hotel Lutetia to orchestrate the sale of part of the hotel's collection. “We’re just about to start a three-year program to renovate the Lutetia, but before turning this new page in the hotel’s history, we’ve chosen to use an auction house that embodies our values, Paris, and its innate sense of elegance and sophistication,” the hotel management has stated.

When Hotel Lutetia reopens its doors, it will join “The Set” collection of luxury hotels, including Café Royal in London and Conservatorium Hotel in Amsterdam.

Hotel Lutetia
45 Boulevard Raspail
75006 Paris

Photo credit: Hotel Lutetia

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Casino of San Pellegrino Terme - a magnificent Art Nouveau building reminiscent of La Belle Époque

If you've ever ordered a bottle of San Pellegrino sparkling mineral water while seated on the terrace of a Parisian café or purchased a six-pack of the distinctive green bottles from your local grocery store, you may have noticed the elegant building on its label and wondered about its history. Thanks to a special guided tour of the Casino (Grand Kursaal) of San Pellegrino Terme yesterday afternoon, I now know that the building is one of the most famous examples of Art Nouveau (or Liberty Style as it's called in Italy) structures in Europe. Recently restored at a cost of 10 million euros, it's also one of the most impressive buildings that I've ever had the pleasure of visiting.

The Casino (Grand Kursaal) in San Pellegrino Terme, Italy

Imagine for a moment that it's the summer of 1907, the year that the Casino first opened its majestic doors. The spa town of San Pellegrino Terme is overrun with members of high society. International nobility, diplomats and celebrities have all flocked to the fashionable resort at the foot of the Italian Alps to drink and bathe in its healing water. Most of them are lodged at the Grand Hotel, an imposing edifice ideally situated on the bank of the Brembo River.

San Pellegrino Terme's naturally mineral-rich hot springs have been considered a health cure since the twelfth century when pilgrims drank the water. In 1509, Leonardo Da Vinci visited the Brembo Valley while living in Milan to taste the miraculous waters and produced a map of the area indicating the source. The original map is the property of Queen Elizabeth II and kept in the Royal Library Windsor Castle. By 1760, an enterprising entrepreneur had built a booth near a spring and offered the mineral water for a fee. According to historian Maironi da Ponte, who wrote of San Pellegrino in 1819, "The pleasant and innocent nature of this water make it beneficial to weak and unhealthy persons when it is consumed properly. Doctors also recommend it for kidney stones, those of the bladder, for gravels and other kidney disorders. It is also beneficial for cases of ill-temper, melancholy, and the pain that they cause and above all to heal skin conditions caused by salt, and by mood afflictions".

With such glowing accolades, it's not surprising that wealthy visitors from all over the world traveled to San Pellegrino Terme to stroll along its riverside boulevards and cure their ailments in its modern bathhouse, where the healing springs rose from deep underground at the slightly-warmer-than-body temperature of 22°C (71.6°F).

The Casino (Grand Kursaal) in San Pellegrino Terme, Italy
The two-story Casino, built to offer new recreational opportunities for the thousands of well-heeled travelers, appears to reach out and embrace its guests. The majestic main staircase, flanked by the figures of a young male and female holding lamps aloft, is the heart of the Grand Kursaal. Not surprisingly for a spa town, the theme of water dominates the lower part of the staircase while paintings representing the twelve zodiac constellations decorate the ceiling.

As the sound of my footsteps echoed in the empty reception hall, I was struck by a sense of nostalgia for the Belle Époque. I hope that the two stained glass butterflies adorning the skylight are a sign of changing times for San Pellegrino Terme and that the newly restored Casino, part of a massive regeneration projection, will once again be filled with the sound of voices from around the world. At the moment, it's only open for special occasions and functions.

The good news is that San Pellegrino will inaugurate their luxurious new spa in October or November 2014, just in time for the Milan Expo, which is expected to attract an estimated 30 million international visitors to the region in 2015.

If you're in the market for a Grand Hotel, the one in San Pellegrino can be purchased for a mere 40 million euros.

One of the magnificent butterflies on the skylight above the central staircase of the Casino in San Pellegrino Terme, Italy

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

French Connections: Count Nicholas Marie Alexandre Vattemare and the Boston Public Library

Charles Follen McKim, the principal architect of the firm chosen to design the Boston Public Library, attended the École des Beaux Arts in Paris and modeled the McKim Building after the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in the 5th arrondissement.

One of my favorite pastimes while exploring cities in the United States is unearthing little known facts about their connections with France. Thanks to Boston's French Secrets: Guided Walks That Reveal Boston's French Heritage, a fascinating book given to me by Boston friend Marilyn, my quest for insights into the 300 year relationship between Boston and France was made much easier during my recent visit to New England.

With its magnificent arched windows, cluster of wrought iron lanterns and tablets inscribed with the names of the great masters of art, science, religion and statesmanship, the Boston Public Library at Copley Square was designed by architect Charles Follen McKim to resemble a university library in Paris, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in the 5th arrondissement. But what's even more exciting is that the first free library in the United States actually got its start thanks to the persistent efforts of a Frenchman, Count Nicholas Marie Alexandre Vattemare.

Statue of Science outside the Boston Public Library

According to Rhea Hollis Atwood, the author of Boston's French Secrets, Vattemare sailed to New York in 1839 and visited each of the 26 states to introduce the idea of a free exchange of books and prints between French and American libraries. Much to the French aristocrat's dismay, however, private institutions that charged membership fees to borrow books vehemently objected to his plan. As New England seemed to be the only part of the country that was even remotely receptive to the concept of free, tax-supported public libraries, Vattemare focused all of his attention on Boston.

After meeting with Mayor Josiah Quincy and the directors of several libraries controlled by private associations, Vattemare sent a crate of French books, maps and engravings to Boston as a gift from the city of Paris. This selection, which was to form the nucleus of the Boston Public Library's collection, was rather ignominiously relegated to the third floor of City Hall on School Street. Perhaps it's because the city's fathers weren't quite sure what to do with such technical books as Reports of the Labors of the Paris Board of Health from 1829 to 1839 and Regulations Concerning the Sale of Spirituous Drinks in 1837 [in Paris] that the volumes gathered dust on the top floor of City Hall for years.

Nonetheless, Vattemare wasn't one to give up on his dream. He continued to correspond with Mayor Quincy on a regular basis and even brought a second load of books for the citizens of Boston. Finally, the Frenchman's goal was achieved in April 1848 when a statute was enacted to establish and maintain America's first free public library supported by taxation, the Boston Public Library.

While the city has almost completely forgotten Count Vattemare's pivotal role in their venerable institution, his motto "Give with joy, receive with gratitude" continues to greet visitors as they enter the McKim wing.

Tomorrow's post will reveal some of the treasures of the Boston Public Library.

Count Nicholas Marie Alexandre Vattemare, a French ventriloquist, actor, aristocrat, writer and philanthropist, was the first to propose the idea of a free public library supported by taxation to the city of Boston.