Friday, May 30, 2014

Parc de Bagatelle: Award winning roses, peacocks and the former residence of Sir Richard Wallace

Château de Bagatelle

64 days -- that's how long it took the Count of Artois, subsequently King Charles X, to build the Château de Bagatelle in 1777. The challenge arose after Queen Marie-Antoinette, the Count's sister-in-law, wagered that it was impossible to construct a palace with a park in less than three months. The Count, determined to win the bet, enlisted the help of architect Francois-Joseph Bélanger and Scottish landscape gardner Thomas Blaikie. Within the span of sixty-four days, the two men managed to create a small but elegant palace with a beautiful English style garden. Built in the Anglo-Chinese style popular in the 18th century, the delightful gardens feature meandering streams, picturesque bridges, artificial waterfalls and caves.

In 1806, the palace was acquired by Napoleon I for use as a hunting lodge. After the Revolution of 1830, King Louis-Philippe sold the domain to an English aristocrat, Lord Seymour, the 4th Marquess of Hertford. And, this is where the story gets even more interesting because the estate was left to the Marquess's illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace.

Never acknowledged by his father, Wallace, who took his mother's maiden name, was well-beloved by Parisians for his charitable works and gifts to humanitarian causes. The next time you take a drink from one of the iconic green water fountains, be sure to thank English philanthropist and Francophile Sir Richard Wallace for donating them to the city of Paris at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Wallace Collection in London is a national British museum which displays the wonderful works of art collected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace. It was bequeathed to the British nation by Sir Richard's widow, Lady Wallace, in 1897. If you're a fan of Wallace fountains, the gift store sells two different miniature models.

Prize-winning rose garden at Parc de Bagatelle

From May until September, Parc de Bagatelle's prize-winning rose garden is a riot of colors. Visitors are invited to help select the three most beautiful roses and the rose with the most perfumed scent. Considering that there are 10,000 rose bushes from 1,200 species, it's not an easy task. While you're admiring the vibrant hues of red, purple, pink and yellow, be sure to note the rose's names. Bridget Bardot, Pullman Orient Express and Rose of Hope are some of the ones that caught my eye yesterday.

Parc de Bagatelle hosts a variety of musical events during the summer months:

June 7 to 9: Les Musicales de Bagatelle
June 22 to July 14: 31st Chopin Festival in the Orangerie 
August 30 to September 14: Soloists of the Auteuil Greenhouses at Bagatelle

Admission to the park is FREE until June 5, 2014. An entrance fee is charged from June 6 until November 2.

Parc de Bagatelle is in the Bois de Boulogne, the second largest park in Paris. Located in the 16th arrondissement, the Bois de Boulogne was a former hunting ground of the kings of France.
Metro: Pont de Neuilly then bus line 43, or Porte Maillot then bus line 244
Station Vélib 16124

Pullman Orient Express Rose at Parc de Bagatelle
One of the many peacocks at Parc de Bagatelle showing off his plummage

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Navigating the Loire River and Picnicking Aboard L'Aigrette with Passeurs de Loire

A sandy island in the Loire River

In a month dotted with public holidays and long weekends, the weather has not been kind. It's almost as if Mother Nature wants to punish the French for having so many days off during one of her most productive periods. Thanks to a series of relentless thunderstorms that she manufactured at the beginning of the month, Stéphane and my cycling trip in the Loire Valley quickly evolved into a wine and cheese tasting extravaganza.

Not surprisingly, Stéphane feels slightly bitter about Mother Nature's turbulent behavior and has made some rather unkind comments while hunkered under his umbrella. But not me. I'm still thankful that Mother Nature produced a spectacular day when I needed it most. Too bad for Stéphane that he was back at work while I was picnicking on a "toue", a traditional boat used locally on the Loire River.

Bruno Gabris of Passeurs de Loire piloting L'Aigreet and the wooden boat moored for our picnic lunch.

Gazing ahead as he expertly guided the wooden-hulled L'Aigrette upriver, professional fisherman Bruno Gabris told our small group about the different species of fish that inhabit the Loire and described the techniques he uses to catch the bream, catfish and carp swimming in its murky water. When he suddenly noticed a low flying tern with a long forked tail out of the corner of his eye, Gabris explained that the migratory bird was preparing to dive for a fish. A hush fell over our group as we turned our heads to watch. It was obvious that Gabris, who has a degree in forest management and environmental ecology, is at home on the water. He knows the stretch of river from Sigloy to Bouteille like the back of his hand. As he steered L'Aigrette towards the sandy bank of an island, he pointed towards a worn path on the river bank. It was a beaver slide, slightly downriver from the point where we moored the boat for our picnic lunch and beer tasting.

Asparagus starter from Le Grand Saint-Benoît

Since my picnics normally consist of some bread, cheese, pâté and wine, the term was a bit of a misnomer. After polishing off a couple of jars of Bruno's fish terrine served with a crusty baguette, we indulged in a three-course meal prepared by the gastronomic restaurant, Le Grand Saint-Benoît. While savoring the white asparagus with shaved parmesan and a dollop of pesto sauce, craft brewer Laurent Boulay invited us to try his artisan "Belgian Strong Ale". Considering that we were in a region famous for its wine, Boulay's beer was a thirst-quenching revelation, the kind that I thought only existed across the border in Belgium.

Laurent Boulay of La Brasserie des Ecluses and Bruno Gabris

Seeing the delight with which we drank the Belgian Ale, Boulay urged us to try his Irish Stout. Tempted to decline his offer since I'm not usually a fan of more bitter brew, I nonetheless accepted a small amount to accompany the main course of chicken served with a medley of spring vegetables. It was full-bodied, yet smooth. Just the kind of beer that was easy to drink while relishing the warm sunshine on my back.

Mother Nature has her moments. To enjoy them to their full advantage, take a boat trip on the Loire River with Passeurs de Loire. An English speaking fisherman can accompany your group if it's requested in advance. Even though I would recommend letting Grand Saint-Benoît prepare a three-course gastronomic picnic, you're welcome to bring your own food aboard. Passeurs de Loire offer several different types of trip. Please refer to their website for additional details.

Passeurs de Loire (Boat Trips)
La Tuilerie
45110 Sigloy, approximately 34 kilometers from Orléans

La Brasserie des Ecluses (Craft Brewery)
94 Route de la Chênetière
45530 Vitry aux Loges

The Loire River -- it doesn't get much than this!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Le 68 Guy Martin: An Elegant Interlude at Guerlain's Flagship Boutique on the Champs-Élysées

Guerlain's flagship boutique, 68 Avenue des Champs-Élysées, decorated for Mother's Day

Can you keep a secret? Good! Because I've been wanting to tell you about a restaurant where elegant Parisians organize birthday dinners for their friends and doting mothers treat their daughters to pre-shopping lunches. The recently opened Le 68 Guy Martin first caught my attention when the Parisian press was all aflutter with the news that Guy Martin, one of the most famous French chefs, and Thierry Vasseur, the "nose" of the renowned perfume house Guerlain, had combined talents to create a unique restaurant where gastronomy meets the world of perfume.

The aptly named Le 68, located on the underground level of Guerlain's flagship boutique at 68 Avenue des Champs-Élysées, quickly became one of my favorite spots for afternoon tea during the grey winter months. After purchasing a tube of Guerlain's Terracotta foundation, I would find myself drawn down the marble steps of the historically listed monument. "Since you're here," an inner voice would whisper, "You may as well have a macaron or a Petite Robe Noire (Little Black Dress) pastry." Always amenable to decadent treats, I readily agreed.

Carpaccio of Sea Bass at Le 68 Guy Martin

Last Thursday was a red letter day because it was the first time that I had the foresight to make lunch reservations for Le 68. The plan was to savor Guy Martin's creations while interviewing Élodie Berta of the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau about her experiences as a judge of Paris's annual "Best Baguette" competition. When my starter arrived, I somewhat abruptly informed Élodie that we would have to schedule another meeting because there was no way that I would be able to take notes. Each and every bite of the delicately flavored carpaccio of sea bass, aloe vera, tofu and cucumber marinated in ginger deserved 100% of my attention. With delicate flower petals sprinkled on top, it was a multi-sensorial voyage. Fortunately, Élodie, who was equally intent on her white asparagus lightly perfumed with orange blossom water, concurred with my proposal.

Peking Duck with honey accompanied by braised tuberous-rooted chervil,
chanterelles, Séchuan pepper, orange and cardamom at Le 68 Guy Martin

While waiting for our main course of Peking Duck with honey, Élodie and I admired the glistening Baccarat chandeliers and the large trompe l’œil windows that seemingly fill the room with light. With the exception of the floral patterned table tops that distract somewhat from the masterpieces created in the kitchen, Le 68's decor is as harmonious as Chef Martin's sophisticated dishes.

For dessert, I couldn't resist the one-size-fits-all La Petite Robe Noire, named after Guerlain's fresh, enigmatic and exhilarating perfume. Strewn with red rose petals, Élodie's pink La Parisienne (The Parisian) looked almost too beautiful too eat.

Le 68's pastries are also available for take-away.    

Le 68 Guy Martin, lower level of the Guerlain Boutique
68 Avenue des Champs-Élysées
75008 Paris
Open every day for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and Sunday brunch. 8:00am until 11:00pm.
Phone 33 (1) 45 62 54 10

One size fits all - Guy Martin's Petite Robe Noire (Little Black Dress)

Monday, May 26, 2014

Paris Rendez-Vous, the official boutique of the City of Paris: Souvenirs, information and exhibitions all in one place

Paris Rendez-Vous, 29 rue de Rivoli, 75004 Paris

Rue de Rivoli and Montemartre are overrun with shops selling colorful berets, Paris placemats, miniature Eiffel Towers made in China and other knickknacks. But if you're searching for something more authentically Parisian, check out the newly opened Paris Rendez-Vous. The concept store and information center operated by the City of Paris has a wide range of products made in France. It's where you'll find boats like the ones that sail on the ponds in the Luxembourg and Tuileries Gardens, official "Eau de Paris" ("Paris Water") carafes and the complete range of beloved Vélib products, including the indispensable book Paris by Bike with Vélib.

For those who aren't in Paris, it's possible to shop the entire selection of scented candles, Mariage Frères teas, tote bags, etc. at the online Paris Rendez-Vous Boutique.

Paris Rendez-Vous, 29 rue de Rivoli, 75004 Paris

Paris Rendez-Vous is also the place to go for the latest information about cultural events and special activities organized by the City of Paris, such as the upcoming Fête de la Musique (Musical Festival) on June 21, Paris Cinéma Festival from July 5-12, and Paris Plages (Paris Beaches) in July and August. There's a self-service section where residents will find useful brochures and tablets to access all of the city's online resources. If you have your own device, free Wi-Fi and comfortable seats are available for public use.

During the summer months, a representative of the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau will be on hand to answer questions and provide tourists with maps, museum passes and helpful brochures.

The Parisianer covers by Marc Boutavant and Icinori 

After you've finished shopping, be sure to visit the temporary exhibition space for Parisian artists, designers, photographers and journalists. The inaugural exhibition, The Parisianer à l’Hôtel de Ville, features the work of 50 artists who were asked to express their vision of Paris. Using The New Yorker for inspiration, the idea was to create imaginary covers for an imaginary magazine, The Parisianer. Visitors are invited to design their own magazine covers and post them on a designated wall. The creator of the most surprising, energetic or poetic cover will win a copy of the original book, The Parisianer.

The Parisianer à l’Hôtel de Ville runs through July 19, 2014.

To see more photos of the boutique and some of its products, please click here.

Paris Rendez-Vous
29 rue de Rivoli
75004 Paris
Métro : Hôtel de Ville
Open Monday to Saturday, 10:00am - 7:00pm

Paris Rendez-Vous, 29 rue de Rivoli, 75004 Paris

Friday, May 23, 2014

What grows 50 meters underground in the Cave des Roches? Pied bleu, Shitake, Oyster, Horse and Old-Fashioned Button Mushrooms!

Here's a riddle for you -- what grows 50 meters (164 feet) underground in a natural atmosphere of 13°C (55°F) and is sought after by chefs in France and around the world?

To answer that question, I traveled to the Cave des Roches at Bourré, a small troglodyte village in the heart of the Loire Valley. During the castle building boom of the French Renaissance, the area served as a quarry for tufa, a type of limestone that hardens and whitens when it comes into contact with air. With its 77 staircases, 282 fireplaces and 426 rooms, you can imagine just how much tufa limestone King Francois I needed to build Chambord, the extravagant castle originally intended to be used as a hunting lodge. Cheverny and Chenonceau were also constructed from tufa limestone.

Brown button mushrooms (champignons de Paris) at Caves des Roches.

Once the stone was extracted from the earth, 120 kilometers (75 miles) of limestone galleries on seven levels remained. In 1893, Louis Fay and Emirin Buchet had the brilliant idea to grow button mushrooms (champignons de Paris) in the caves. By 1930, Cave des Roches was producing 220 tons of button mushrooms a month.

Pied Bleu mushrooms at Cave des Roches

In 1991, the Cave des Roches decided to specialize in top of the range mushrooms and offer tours of their underground mushroom farm. Total production of pied bleu, shitake, oyster, horse and old-fashioned button mushrooms amounts to over 110 tons of mushrooms a year, entirely hand-picked. Most remarkably, the Cave des Roches is responsible for 40% of the world's pied bleu mushroom production. The fragrant tasting pied bleu, which must be well-cooked and never eaten raw, is destined either for the best Michelin starred restaurants in France or exported to New York, Tokyo, London and Geneva.

An interesting tidbit that I learned during the tour is that the original "Champignons de Paris" were grown in the catacombs of Paris. MessyNessyChic tells us more in her blog post, The Last Mushroom Farms of the Paris Catacombs.

Click here to view more photos of the underground farm at the Cave des Roches.

Cave des Roches
40 routes des Roches
41400 Bourré

My "Vin et Terroir" tour was organized by the Loire Valley Regional Tourist Board. Be sure to check out their website if you're planning a trip to the Loire Valley.

Oyster mushrooms growing at the Cave des Roches

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

You've got to see it to believe it -- NEW, the 100% improvised musical in English

NEW in English

"I'm having a party, a painting party" - those are the words that I found myself singing while waiting for my morning coffee to filter through the Nespresso machine last Tuesday. Considering that I wasn't planning to host a party, much less a painting party, it was kind of an odd song to be singing at 7:00 am. But I couldn't help it. I was still on a happiness high after watching NEW, the phenomenal 100% improvised musical in English, the night before.

Based on NEW in French, the cult show that has delighted Parisian audiences since 2012, NEW in English features 12 professional artists from the USA, England, Australia and Ireland. During the short span of 60-90 minutes, this very talented team creates an entire musical right before your very eyes. You've got to see it to believe it. And, even then, you'll wonder how they do it.

Scenographer's drawing projected on the stage

The fun started when the Master of Ceremonies, who orchestrated the entire adventure, pulled a couple of titles proposed by the audience out of a hat. On the evening in question, we were asked to vote for either "Lost and Found" set in a Louisiana swamp or "The Red One" set in a tennis club. As soon as the MC declared that "Lost and Found" was the winner, the scenographer began designing the set. Shortly after a member of the audience provided the opening notes of the musical, the actors, musicians, and scenographer accomplished the seemingly impossible: they invented a thoroughly engaging musical within minutes.

The plot took unexpected twists and turns whenever the MC asked for audience participation. My favorite moment was when someone in the audience supplied the word "jambalaya" in response to the MC's question, "What does she want to eat?" It was a true test of the cast's ability to improvise because it was the first time that some of the performers had even heard of this traditional Louisianan dish made from rice, chicken, Andouille sausage, shrimp and spices.

Since every performance is 100% new, I plan to take Stéphane to the last show of the season on Monday, May 26 at 8:00 pm. That way, we'll both wake up singing.

NEW in English
Théâtre Trévise
14 rue Trévise, 75009 Paris
Metro: Grands Boulevards / Cadet
Tickets 19 € / 13 €. Available at billetreduc and fnac.
Reservations: 01 44 91 96 56 / reservation @

the extremely talented team of NEW in English

Monday, May 19, 2014

Completely charmed by Chartres - A weekend getaway to the "City of Lights and Perfume"

Chartres, France

It's odd how much the weather impacts our perceptions of a place. The first time I visited Chartres, it was pouring. After admiring Chartres Cathedral's magnificent 12th- and 13th-century stained-glass windows, we quickly toured the city's windblown streets before seeking refuge in a café. Over cups of hot chocolate liberally topped with whipped cream, we surmised that we had seen most of what Chartres had to offer and beat a hasty retreat to Paris.

Now, thanks to some blissful, sunny weather and a four-day "Vin et Terroir" tour organized by the Loire Valley Tourist Board, I realized how much I had missed during my initial visit and have added Chartres to my list of favorite weekend destinations.

"Lights of Chartres": Chartres Media Library and Chartres Cathedral

If you travel to Chartres before October 12, be sure to devote at least one evening to the spectacular "Lights of Chartres". From shortly after nightfall until 1 am, the city takes on a festive air as locals, families, friends and tourists follow the light trail leading to 29 illuminated monuments. While it's tempting to begin with the star attraction, I recommend saving the Cathedral for the grande finale of what will surely be an unforgettable evening. Watching the animated re-enactment of the Cathedral's construction projected on its towering facade, I felt the same sense of awe that people must have felt at their first glimpse of the Cathedral in the 12th century. When the show ended, I burst into spontaneous applause with the rest of the crowd.

A panel of the Bakers' Window, Chartres Cathedral 

Even if you've already seen the 12th-century Belle Verrière and 13th-century Rose windows, a trip to Chartres wouldn't be complete without visiting the interior of Chartres Cathedral. The ancient stained-glass windows, which were removed during World War I and II to protect them from bombing, present interesting glimpses of life in medieval times. As the theme of our tour was gastronomy, our guide explained that many of the windows were originally sponsored by various craft and commercial guilds, such as the Bakers' Guild. In the lower panels of the Bakers' Window (Bay 140), a baker is seen shaping dough, sliding loaves into hot ovens on long-handled paddles and selling bread to a customer. All of the loaves are shaped like balls, or "boules", which is the etymology of the French words for baker and bakery, boulanger and boulangerie.

When you visit the Cathedral, try to spot the stained-glass windows funded by the fishermongers, water carriers, butchers and winemakers. The panels on the lower left-hand side of the windows indicate the trade of the donors. Furriers, weavers, drapers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, shoemakers, haberdashers and apothecaries are some of the other medieval trades portrayed in these remarkable windows.

Pâte de Chartres and Vitrail de Chartres 

Chartres has numerous local specialities that are worth sampling. Famous since the 18th century, Pâte de Chartres is pâté baked in a crust. It was traditionally made from migratory birds that flew over the city but more recently from young partridges and pheasants.

The somewhat difficult to pronounce Mentchikoff is a sweet confection made of fine praline chocolate covered with a light meringue. It was created in honor of the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1893. More recently, artisan chocolatier David Lambert devised a clever way to fuse the cultural and gastronomic history of the city. His Vitrail de Chartres, an ode to both the stained glass windows of the Cathedral and the Mentchikoff, are confections made from praline, dark chocolate and meringue topped with magnificent Chartres blue and gold. It's a must-try for chocolate lovers!    

In addition to Loire Valley wines, Chartres also has an award-winning, local beer. Found in many of the restaurants and shops, L’Eurélienne is brewed and bottled on a family farm less than six miles from the city.

How to get there: Chartres is an easy 50 minute train journey from Paris Montparnasse. Check the SNCF website for up-to-date information on train schedules and ticket prices.

Where to stay: Le Grand Monarque is Chartres' premier hotel conveniently located in the historic center. Enhance your stay with a wine tasting hosted by head sommelier Nicolas Duclos in the hotel's cellar, dinner at the Michelin starred restaurant or a relaxing massage in the spa.

Where to eat: Both times that I've been in Chartres, I've enjoyed a traditional French lunch at Le Pichet 3. Also recommended by American travel guru Rick Steves, the cozy bistro/local-product shop is a great place to pick up a colorful scarf, souvenir bottle of local beer or a necklace while waiting for your steaming hot poule-au-pot (chicken in a pot) or Boeuf Bourguignon to arrive at your table.

More information: To book a guided tour, download the free app "A Day in Chartres" and get the latest news about current events, be sure to visit the Chartres Convention and Visitors' Bureau Official Website.

Click here to see the photo album, "Completely Charmed by Chartres"

Monday, May 12, 2014

Follow Your Nose to the Annual "Fête du Pain" (Bread Festival) in Paris

Fête du Pain" ("Bread Festival") in Paris

Mmmm! If you're planning to attend the annual "Fête du Pain" ("Bread Festival") in Paris, just follow your nose to the large tent in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral from May 8 to 18. It's where French bakers and pastry chefs invite visitors to learn about one of France's most revered professions. Not surprisingly, the celebration coincides with the name day of Saint-Honoré, the profession's patron saint.

During the award ceremony for the "Best Traditional Baguette of the City of Paris" this morning, Christophe Girard, the Mayor of the 4th arrondissement, spoke of the important role that neighborhood bakeries play in the lives of all Parisians. It starts when a child is allowed to go to the bakery on his own for the very first time. Wide-eyed and proud of his new found independence, the little Parisian plops the money on the counter to purchase his first baguette. On the way home, he breaks off the tip, "le quignon" of the warm baguette and pops it in his mouth. It's a ritual, part of the culture of France, that has been passed down from generation to generation.

Fête du Pain" ("Bread Festival") in Paris

This year's winner of the "Best Baguette" competition is Antonio Teixeira of the Délices du Palais in the 14th arrondissement. In addition to a cash prize of 4,000 euros, Teixeira will also have the honor of supplying the Elysée Palace, the home of French President Hollande, with his award-winning baguettes for the next year. But the 24 year old is not the only talented baker in his family. Antonio's father won the illustrious "Best Baguette" award in 1998. To win the grand prize, the baguette must measure between 55 and 65 cm, weigh between 250 and 300 grams and have a salt content of 18 grams per kilo of flour.

One of the judges of the competition, Élodie Berta of the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau, has promised to tell us what it was like to select the "Best Baguette" in an upcoming blog post. With 187 delicious contenders, I'm sure that it wasn't an easy task!

In the meantime, be sure to visit the "Fête du Pain" to learn more about bakers and their products. While I was there this morning, I discovered why French croissants taste so incredibly delicious.

Please click here to see more photos of the Fête du Pain.

Fête du Pain (Bread Festival) from May 8-18
Large tent in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral
75004 Paris

Antonio Teixeira of the Délices du Palais, winner of this year's
"Best Traditional Baguette of the City of Paris" competition.

Friday, May 9, 2014

"Once Upon a Time the Orient Express" - A journey to the Golden Age of train travel

"Once Upon a Time the Orient Express"

“Bienvenue à bord!” says our uniformed conductor as she welcomes us aboard the first of four original Orient Express train cars. Rather than collect our passports to facilitate nighttime border crossings during the long trip to Constantinople, she simply scans our tickets for the blockbuster exhibition "Once Upon a Time the Orient Express" ("Il était une fois l’Orient Express”) at the Arab World Institute through August 31.

Recently restored to their original splendor, the dining area and two compartments of the salon car look like something out of a play, or an Agatha Christie novel. Bottles of champagne are chilling in silver ice buckets, a crumpled pack of Gitanes French cigarettes sits atop a yellowed copy of Le Figaro dated October 20, 1883 and the muffled sounds of a clandestine conversation emanate from the first private compartment. Is Mata Hari, the exotic dancer, courtesan and spy, inside? The tables vibrate and lamps flicker as the legendary train, an icon of luxury and romance, seemingly hurtles along the track on its way to Istanbul, a journey that used to last three days and two nights. The forlorn sound of the train's whistle jolts me out of my reverie.

"Once Upon a Time the Orient Express"

In the far corner of the salon car, I spot an old typewriter. Perhaps it's the very same one that author Graham Green used to write Stamboul Train (renamed Orient Express), his novel about passengers traveling from Ostend to Istanbul. A strand of pearls and elegant silk gloves evoke the memory of the glamorous American singer Josephine Baker, while a stack of false passports with the names of characters from Murder on the Orient-Express is a tribute to author Agatha Christie.

The second part of the exhibition, a collaboration between the SNCF (France’s national railway company) and the Arab World Institute, recounts the history of the Orient Express with archival documents, photographs and film clips. In keeping with the theme of the golden age of travel, oversized travel trunks are used as display cases for brightly colored vintage posters of the exotic destinations along the route of the legendary line.

Marking the 130th anniversary of the fabled Orient Express route, the exhibition is the first step towards bringing the railway legend back to life. The SNCF is currently working on a version of the Orient Express that will allow modern day passengers to travel in style from Paris to Vienna. "The idea is to create a cruise on rail tracks," said Patrick Ropert, head of the SNCF's Orient Express unit.

If you would like to further immerse yourself in the luxurious world of the Orient Express, the exhibition includes a "pop-up" restaurant in the dining car. Michelin starred chef Yannick Alleno offers a dinner menu priced at €120, €160 with wine pairings. Reservations are required.

Know before you go: The exhibition's signboards are exclusively in French. If confined spaces bother you, the narrow aisle of the sleeping car may make you uncomfortable. Purchase your ticket online in advance to avoid disappointment or a long wait.

"Once Upon a Time the Orient Express"
Arab World Institute
1, rue des Fossés-Saint-Bernard
75005 Paris

"Once Upon a Time the Orient Express"

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Parisians have a message for you - #WeAreFreeMerci. Respond #YouAreWelcomeParis for the chance to win a trip to Paris!

#WeAreFreeMerci - To celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the Liberation of Paris in 1944, the Paris Regional Tourist Office has come up with an engaging way for Parisians to say "Thank you" in three simple steps:
  1. Parisians upload photos of themselves ("selfies") on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #WeAreFreeMerci. Click here for the entry form on Facebook.
  2. They collect votes from their friends.
  3. One lucky winner will be drawn from among the ten photos with the most votes. The prize? A trip for two to New York City, including accommodation.

In return, Americans respond by posting selfies with #YouAreWelcomeParis on Facebook or Instagram. The winner will be randomly drawn from among the ten photos with the most "likes" . The prize is a trip for two from New York City to Paris, including lodging. Click here for the entry form on Facebook. The contest is open to legal residents of the United States, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, 18 years of age or older.

The campaign, which officially started on May 5, will continue until June 27. The winner will be selected via a random drawing on or around July 2, 2014.

The Liberation of Paris, a key moment during World War II, lasted from August 19 until the occupying German garrison surrendered on August 25, 1944. The seventieth anniversary has given the region the opportunity to host a number of commemorations and festivities from March through August 2014.

Click here to see the Paris Regional Tourist Office's "Liberation of Paris" guide.

Photo credit: Paris Regional Tourist Office

Monday, May 5, 2014

Remembering the victims of the Charity Bazaar fire - one of the most profound tragedies of Belle Époque Paris

The 4th of May is a tragic day in Parisian history. It's when 126 people, mostly women, perished in a raging fire that engulfed the building housing the annual Charity Bazaar in 1897. The list of the dead reads like a Who’s Who of nineteenth century French nobility. At the top is the Duchesse d'Alençon, sister of "Sissi," the Empress of Austria, who reportedly refused to leave until all of the children and elderly women had escaped the blazing inferno. Her corpse was so badly burnt that it was necessary to use dental records to positively identify her body, thus creating the new discipline of forensic odontology.

Through an unexpected twist of fate, I found myself at the memorial service for the victims yesterday afternoon clutching a piece of paper with the name "Madame Duclos de Varanval" written on it. A mere 23 years old at the time of her death, Madame was the mother of two young daughters. Fortuitously, the small girls remained at home while their mother, fashionably attired in a flowing chiffon dress, attended the bazaar presided over by the Baron de Mackau. No doubt Madame Duclos de Varanval marveled at the elaborate wooden booths of the Charity Bazaar painted to resemble sixteenth century shops and inns.

Plaques inscribed with the names of the victims, including Madame DUCLOS de VARANVAL, line the walls of the memorial shrine at Notre Dame-de-Consolation.

On the second day of the five-day event, 1,600 of the crème de la crème of Parisian society were gathered in the temporary timber hall on Rue Jean-Goujon. Eager to support the bazaar's charitable causes, the noble ladies briskly purchased trinkets and tombola tickets. At one end of the building, the older children in attendance were entertained by a cinematograph show in a packed booth accessible through a narrow turnstile. It was only eighteen months after the Lumière brother's first private screening of projected motion pictures in Paris.

At approximately 4:15 pm, the projector lamp suddenly went out and the room was plunged into darkness. While the projectionist struggled to refill the Molteni lamp with ether, he asked his assistant for more light. Rushing to his aid, the assistant made the tragic mistake of striking a match. The ensuing explosion caused a jet of fire to shoot across the booth. Within minutes, the wooden floor and the fabric adorning the ceiling were ablaze. Panic ensued as the terrified society ladies, their servants and the nuns who had come to bless the charitable event attempted to flee the burning building. Eyewitness accounts told of women turned into human torches when burning tar from the roof fell on their heads and others trampled to death by men hastening to escape.

Within minutes, the pine building housing the ill-fated Bazar de la Charité was reduced to ashes. Six males and 120 females lost their lives, while another 250 people were seriously injured. Noting the unseemly conduct displayed by some of the gentlemen, the May 16, 1897 headline of The New York Times read "Cowardice of Paris Men Exhibited in Brutal Form During the Burning of the Charity Bazaar".

After the annual memorial mass at Notre Dame-de-Consolation, the church built on the site of the disaster, the iron doors leading to the shrine were exceptionally opened yesterday afternoon. Two scorched dolls, a pair of scissors and other relics retrieved from the smoldering ashes are kept in a glass case as sobering reminders of that tragic day. United by tragedy, descendants of the victims spoke quietly amongst themselves. When the president of the association noticed a stranger in their midst, she asked if I had lost a relative in the fire. "No," I explained, "I'm here because Madame Duclos de Varanval's granddaughter is my father-in-law's friend." During a recent visit to Paris, Mercedes had recounted her family's history. Unable to overcome the grief of his young wife's death, Mercede's grandfather had died pre-maturely leaving the two small girls (Mercede's mother and aunt) as orphans to be taken in by distant relatives in England and Germany.

It's possible to visit the memorial, which is otherwise not open to the general public, at 2:00 pm on the first Tuesday of every month. To arrange a visit, call 06 77 89 85 69 or send an email to bazardelacharite @ The price is 8€ per person for a 90 minute visit. For additional information, please refer to the Official blog of the Mémorial du Bazar de la Charité maintained by descendants of the victims.

Notre Dame-de-Consolation, 23, rue Jean-Goujon, 75008 Paris
Ne vous attristez pas comme ceux qui n'ont pas d'esperance (Do not grieve like those who have no hope)
Notre Dame-de-Consolation, 23, rue Jean-Goujon, 75008 Paris
Duchesse d'Alençon