Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Paris métro signposts -- "Val d'Osne" at Saint-Paul Station (Line 1)

Val d'Osne signpost (totem) at Saint-Paul metro station in Paris

The next time you're rushing out of the Saint-Paul métro station (Line 1) on your way to the Place des Vosges in the Marais, take a moment to admire the rare Val d'Osne signpost. The luminous opaline globe was created in the 1920s to better illuminate the metro entrance. An ornate cast-iron frieze frames the word MÉTRO. The font used for the abbreviated form of Métropolitain is remarkably different from Hector Guimard's Art Nouveau signage of the early 1900s. 

Named after the iron foundry that manufactured them, the Val d'Osne totems were followed by the Art Deco Dervaux signposts in 1924. Those totems, created by architect Adolphe Dervaux, illustrate the trend away from elaborate decorative embellishments.   

With more than 300 metro stations in Paris, spotting a Val d'Osne signpost is like finding a needle in a haystack. During the next couple of months, I'm going to see how many I can locate. If you come across one, please let me know!

While searching for additional information for this post, I came across the following:

Interesting tidbit via France.frThe Paris metro is the only one to have offered a choice of two classes on its network. The "first class" service existed until 1982. After this date, the principal of first class was restricted to rush hours (from 9 am to 5 pm) and people with disabilities and pregnant women were allowed access to first class at all times. A single class system has been in place since 1991.

Click here to listen to a fascinating NPR podcast with Mark Ovenden, co-author of the book Paris Underground.

Quotation: The Metro furnishes the best opportunity for the foreigner to imagine that he has understood, quickly and correctly, the essence of Paris. - Franz Kafka

Val d'Osne signpost (totem) at Saint-Paul metro station in Paris
Information about the Val d'Osne signpost (totem) at Saint-Paul metro station in Paris

Monday, September 29, 2014

Paris-Deauville Rally -- Exhibition of vintage cars at the Place Vendôme on October 2, 2014!

A Jaguar at the Place Vendôme, the start of the annual Paris-Deauville Rally

The upcoming Chanel fashion show at the Grand Palais is creating a big buzz in Paris this week. Most of my friends are charging their camera batteries and strategizing about where to stand so that they can take the best photos of the fashionistas on Tuesday morning. Me? I'm looking forward to a different red letter day -- Thursday, the 2nd of October, to be precise. That's when the French Republican Guard will parade down the rue de Rivoli and arrive at the Place Vendôme at approximately 4:00 pm. The occasion is the free exhibition of the vintage automobiles participating in the 48th annual Paris-Deauville Rally.

French Republican Guard at the Place Vendôme for the Paris-Deauville Rally

In 2012, Jean-Pierre and Marie-Claire warmly welcomed me as a passenger in their Delage during the unforgettable trip from Versailles to Deauville. Luxuriating in the autumnal sunshine, I relaxed in the backseat, took photos and waved at the people we passed along the way.

My status took a unexpected turn in 2013 when I was promoted from passenger to navigator of Englishman James Ayres' 1964 Cadillac Coupé de Ville. With sweaty palms, I diligently studied the comprehensive route book that indicated every turn and curve in the road. It was going to be my job to get us from point A to point B, and I wasn't sure that I was up for the task. As James eased the blue car with its massive fins into the heavy morning traffic in front of the Château de Versailles, I felt a rush of adrenaline. We were on our way to Deauville!

A sweeping view of the Seine River - one of the highlights of the 2013 Paris-Deauville Rally

The old adage to focus on the journey and not the destination best describes the pleasures of participating in the Paris-Deauville Rally. Following little known byways, James and I passed Monet's house in Giverny and paused to admire sweeping vistas and historical sights along the way. By the time that we stopped for lunch at the Vaudreuil Golf Club restaurant, it seemed as if we were old friends. The silences in the car were companionable. James, an English "car guy" with a passion for Cadillacs, and I, an American who grew up traveling vast distances by car, both understood the intoxicating lure of the open road on a sublime fall day.

Don't miss the exhibition of the 2014 Paris-Deauville Rally automobiles at the Place Vendôme from 2:00-6:00 pm on Thursday, October 2. The rally, which is open to all pre-1945 automobiles and pre-1960 coupés et cabriolets, is one of the most well-known vintage car rallies in Europe. Organized by the French Automobile Club, the 2014 rally will feature Delage and Hotchkiss classic cars.

Please click on the highlighted words to see photos of the 2013 Paris-Deauville exhibition of vintage automobiles and the French Republican Guard at the Place Vendôme.

Leaving the Vaudreuil Golf Club during the Paris-Deauville Rally

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Caffè Stern in the passage des Panoramas - plenty of reasons to go for lunch, dinner or coffee!

Caffè Stern in the passage des Panoramas

"Mmm, this burrata is amazing! It's so incredibly creamy," I exclaimed as a sigh of delight escaped my lips. "Are you going to write a post about this place?" queried Donna in her charming Southern accent. "Nope, I'm just going to sit back and enjoy it."

When Donna suggested that we meet for lunch at what was previously the Stern engraving boutique, I didn't have a clue that the Caffè Stern is the hot new address in the passage des Panoramas. As I snapped a couple of photos of the Mad Hatter coat rack complete with felted top hats and a winged white rabbit checking his pocket watch, I overheard a stylish Parisian woman tell her companion that the restaurant's interior was typically Starck. She was referring to Philippe Starck, the innovative French designer whose whimsical decor paired perfectly with the carved wood panelling, delicate twisted pillars and patinated drawers of the historically listed monument.

Selection of Venetian starters and burrata with juicy tomatoes at Caffè Stern

The menu composed by Massimiliano Alajmo, the youngest chef to ever receive three Michelin stars, offers such an intriguing array of options that Donna and I had a hard time choosing between the steamed margherita pizza, poached lobster with bread crumbs and curry sauce, Venetian cichetti and fried jumbo shrimp involtini with botargo. After much deliberating, I finally settled on the lunch menu with a selection of Venetian tapas as a starter followed by a creamy risotto drizzled with truffle oil.

My enthusiastic comments as I took pictures of the sleek open kitchen and the table for two with a view of the covered passageway prompted Donna to reiterate that I should share this place with you. So, I am.

Insider's tip: If you visit the passage des Panoramas in the morning or late afternoon, be sure to have a cappuccino or espresso at the Caffè Stern's cozy bar. After you enter the restaurant, turn to the left. Don't miss the miniature Murano chandelier encased in a glass bubble in the first room and the winged rabbit in the nook on your right.

Caffè Stern
47, passage des Panoramas
75002 Paris
Open Tuesday to Saturday from 9:00 am to midnight; service from 12:30-2:30 pm and 7:30-10:30 pm
Tel: +33 1 75 43 63 10
Metro: Richelieu-Drouot and Grands Boulevards (lines 8 and 9)

Monday, September 22, 2014

The World's Oldest Basketball Court is in Paris!

The world's oldest basketball court.
The poles in the center of the court must have added an interesting dimension to the game!

If you would have asked me the whereabouts of the world's oldest basketball court, I would have never guessed that it's in Paris. Not only does the YMCA court on rue de Trevis hold the distinction of being the world's oldest, it's also where the first basketball game in Europe was played.

The court is an exact replica of the one in Springfield, Massachusetts where the game was played for the very first time. On January 20, 1892, Canadian doctor James Naismith introduced basketball, a game intended to keep the students of the International YMCA Training School active during the winter months. Two peach baskets nailed to the lower rail of the gymnasium balcony were used as hoops. The 13 rules were simple. Ball bouncing was prohibited, perhaps because the original basketball was a soccer ball. Whenever a point was scored, the school's janitor had to climb a ladder to retrieve the ball from the peach basket. Fortunately for the custodian, the score of the first basketball game ever played was a surprisingly low 1-0.

In this gymnasium in 1893, "basket ball" was played for the first time in Europe.
This game was created at the School for Christian Workers in Springfield (U.S.A.).

After a fire destroyed the basketball court in Springfield, the YMCA Paris Union court became the oldest in the world. The property, which is classified as an historic monument, was designed by architect Bénard, a student of Gustave Eiffel. It was financed by donors from around the world, most notably American James Stokes who wished to show his appreciation of General Lafayette's contribution to his country's independence. The YMCA Paris Union is now a student residence. For 160 years, it has housed thousands of young people from different countries and backgrounds.

The basketball court was exceptionally open to the public during European Heritage Days.

YMCA Paris Union
14 rue de Trévise
75009 Paris

The world's oldest basketball court is located in Paris, France.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Visiting the Banque de France (National Bank of France)

Bar of gold at the Banque de France. Each bar weighs between 10.88 and 13.37 kilos.

I wrote the following post about visiting the Banque de France during European Cultural Days before I learned that it's not open to the public this year. Keep it in mind for 2015! 

Gold bars and ingots aren't all that glisten at the Banque de France. The Central Bank of France, created on January 18, 1800 by Napoléon Bonaparte, is partially located in the luxurious Hôtel de Toulouse in the first arrondissement. Formerly a private residence, it was built between 1635 and 1640 by French architect François Mansart (famous for popularizing the Mansard roof) for King Louis XIII's Secretary of State, Louis Phélypeaux.

During the French Revolution, the residence was confiscated as national property and used as the French National Printing Office. Printing machines were installed in the historic building and the sumptuous Golden Gallery, built to expose Phélypeaux's works of art, was used as a store room for paper.

The Hôtel de Toulouse was purchased by the Banque de France in 1808. The Golden Gallery, which was in a state of disrepair, was used solely for the annual stockholder's meeting and the launch of government bonds.

In the 1870s, the building was totally dismantled room by room before being meticulously restored. Missing architectural elements, paintings, frescoes and statues were replaced by replicas.

La Tasse de chocolat (The Cup of Chocolate) by Achille Leboucher and Charles Rauch. 

If you visit the Banque de France during European Heritage Days, be sure to look at The Cup of Chocolate located in the antechamber. Ever since I first saw this painting in 2012, I've wondered why the painters, or perhaps the Duc de Penthièvre, decided to portray the family with cups and saucers of chocolate in their hands. It almost looks as if it could be an advertisement: "Chocolate, the treat for the elite".

The courtyard garden of the Banque de France

In addition to seeing the interior of the Hôtel de Toulouse (with the exception of the Golden Gallery because it's currently closed for restoration), you'll learn about the history of the Banque de France and how to identify counterfeit bills. A gold bar and ingot are the glittering finale.

Interesting fact: In response to counterfeit photographed bills, the Banque de France issued the first colored notes in 1862. They were blue.

The Golden Gallery at the Bangue National de France is closed for restoration in 2014.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Château de Vaux le Vicomte invites its social media fans for an unforgettable soirée! #FanVLV #VauxExperience

Château de Vaux le Vicomte

On Saturday evening, Stéphane and I stood in the courtyard of Château de Vaux le Vicomte with a group of fifteen strangers. While we had only traveled from Paris, several of the guests had driven over 500 kilometers to attend a very special soirée. The occasion? Vaux le Vicomte's premiere evening dedicated entirely to its social media fans. As we gathered around Community Manager Juliette Dagois, she explained that it was their way of expressing Vaux le Vicomte's gratitude for our support on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest.

Social media table at Vaux le Vicomte invites you to share your #VauxExperience

The agenda included  a private tour of the château with co-proprietor Alexandre de Vögué, a stroll through the gardens magically illuminated by more than 2,000 candles, a private dinner and a firework display for the grand finale.

While the evening was remarkable from start to finish, I was most impressed by the fact that several of the fans were visiting Vaux le Vicomte for the very first time. They were active supporters of the château without ever having seen the harmony and elegance of its French formal garden or the grand ceiling with its eight muses in the Salon des Muses. That's the power of social media!

Whether you live 5 or 500 kilometers from Château de Vaux le Vicomte, you can be a #FanVLV by liking it on Facebook and/or following it on Twitter. Share your photos and participate in the discussion. If you would like to help preserve this masterpiece of French architecture in a more substantial fashion, join the Friends of Vaux le Vicomte Association.

Upcoming events at Château de Vaux le Vicomte include European Heritage Days on September 20 and 21, Chocolate Palace from November 8 to 11 and Christmas at Vaux le Vicomte December/January.

Château de Vaux le Vicomte
77950 Maincy

Dessert, a sweet tweet (treat) for Vaux le Vicomte's social media fans!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Hôtel de Talleyrand (George C. Marshall Center): A "must-visit" for Americans in Paris during European Cultural Days (September 20 & 21)

Inside the Hôtel de Talleyrand, Paris

Important notice: the Hôtel de Talleyrand is open on Sunday, September 21, from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.

If you're in Paris during the European Cultural Days on September 20 and 21, be sure to add Hôtel de Talleyrand to your list of places to visit. This historic building, with a spectacular view of the Place de la Concorde, has played a significant role in numerous historical events. Of the time that this hôtel particulier (private residence) belonged to Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Victor Hugo famously wrote in Choses Vue:

In the Rue Saint-Florentin there are a palace and a sewer. The Palace, which is of a rich, handsome, and gloomy style of architecture, was long called "Hôtel de l'Infantado"; nowadays may be seen on the frontal of its principal doorway "Hôtel Talleyrand". During the forty years that he resided in this street, the last tenant of this palace never, perhaps, cast his eyes upon this sewer.

He was a strange, redoubtable, and important personage; his name was Charles Maurice de Périgord; he was of noble descent, like Machiavelli, a priest like Gondi, unfrocked like Fouché, witty like Voltaire, and lame like the devil. ...

During thirty years, from the interior of his palace, from the interior of his thoughts, he had almost controlled Europe. ... He had come in contact with, known, observed, penetrated, influenced, set in motion, fathomed, bantered, inspired all the men of his time, all the ideas of his time; and there had been moments in his life, when, holding in his hand the four or five great threads which moved the civilized universe, he had for his puppet Napoleon I ....

View of the Place de la Concorde from the Hôtel de Talleyrand 

He did all this in his palace; and in this palace, like a spider in his web, he allured and caught in succession heroes, thinkers, great men, conquerors, kings, princes, emperors, Bonaparte, Sieyès, Madame de Staël, Châteaubriand, Benjamin Constant, Alexander of Russia, William of Prussia, Francis of Austria, Louix XVIII, Louis Phillippe, all the gilded and glittering flies who buzz through history of the last forty years. All this glistening throng, fascinated by the penetrating eye of this man, passed in turn under that gloomy entrance bearing the architrave the inscription HOTEL TALLEYRAND.

Well, the day before yesterday, May 17, 1838, this man died. Doctors came and embalmed the body. To do this, they, like the Egyptians, removed the bowels from the stomach and the brain from the skull. The work done, after having transformed the Prince de Talleyrand into a mummy, and nailed down this mummy in a coffin lined with white satin, they retired, leaving upon a table the brain,--that brain which had thought so many things, inspired so many men, erected so many buildings, led two revolutions, duped twenty kings, held the world. The doctors being gone, a servant entered: he saw what they had left: "Hulloa! they have forgotten this." What was to be done with it? It occured to him that there was a sewer in the street; he went there, and threw the brain into this sewer.

After Talleyrand's death, the hôtel particulier remained the property of the Rothschild family for over a hundred years. After World War II, it was rented and then purchased by the US Department of State. From 1947 until 1952, it was the headquarters of the Marshall Plan, the postwar American reconstruction plan for Western Europe.

In 2010, the Hôtel de Talleyrand re-opened its doors after a magnificent restoration that took nine years and cost approximately $5 million. A team of over 150 French artisans resurrected the original light-gray tone of the walls, gildings, wood panels and parquet floors, which are considered to be among the finest examples of 18th-century French decorative art. 100 private and corporate donors from both sides of Atlantic contributed to the project.

Hôtel de Talleyrand (Exceptionally open for visits on Sunday, September 21, from 10:00 am until 5:00 pm)
2 rue Saint-Florentin
75001 Paris

Hôtel de Talleyrand

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Add Château de Valençay, the former residence of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, to your Loire Valley itinerary!

Château de Valençay in the Loire Valley, France

With 71 historical sites, it's difficult to know where to start when planning a trip to the Loire Valley. While many people concentrate on the "C" castles - Chambord, Chenonceau and Chaumont-sur-Loire - consider moving further along in the alphabet. Continue all the way to "V" for Château de Valençay, one of the most attractive Renaissance castles in the region.

Although it was built on the ruins of an old feudal castle in 1540, Valençay's claim to fame is that it was the home of Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, Napoleon Bonaparte's foreign minister, at the beginning of the 19th century. Talleyrand, whose club foot and political machinations earned him the nickname "the lame devil", was a man of many contradictions. During the time that he was the Abbot of the wealthy monastery of Saint-Rémi-de-Reims, he devoted most of his time to gambling and women, his two great passions. After his excommunication from the church, he switched careers from religion to diplomacy.

Napoleon instructed Talleyrand, who was both admired and mistrusted by his peers, to acquire a beautiful estate that could be used for entertaining noteworthy foreigners and ambassadors. In 1803, Talleyrand purchased Valençay, which was partially funded by Napoleon, sight unseen. It turned out to be the perfect choice.

The Blue Salon at Château de Valençay in the Loire Valley

The elegant Empire-style furniture, paintings, sculptures and other precious objects give visitors a rare glimpse into life during the Napoleonic era. One of my favorite rooms was the surprisingly modern kitchen, the domain of Antonin Carême. Known today as the founder of Great French Cuisine, Carême created a year's worth of completely original menus using seasonal products for Talleyrand's illustrious guests. Not only did Carême invent thousands of recipes (including vol-au-vent), lighten dishes with sauces, use different herbs and lay the foundations of modern French cuisine, he also shared his expertise by writing several memoirs.

In keeping with the historical importance of French cuisine at Valençay, the châteaux features renowned chefs from the Tables Gourmand de Berry. On the first Thursday of every month, one of the association's chefs reinterprets a traditional recipe and invites visitors to sample the finished dish.

The Theatre at Château de Valençay in the Loire Valley

If you have the good fortune to visit Valençay on a Wednesday afternoon (2:00 pm) or Sunday (11:00 am and 12:00 pm), be sure to join the guided tour of the theatre. This beautifully preserved jewel was built at the request of Napoleon for the Spanish princes who were imprisoned, albeit in a golden cage, at Château de Valençay. The well-preserved decor and backdrops are unique in France.

In more recent history, the château was spared by the occupying German forces during World War II because the owner at the time, the Duke of Valençay, managed to establish his neutrality as Prince de Sagan (duchy of Sagan in Prussian Silesia, now part of Poland). Thanks to this technicality, one of treasures of the Louvre Museum, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, was safely sheltered at Valençay and remained unscathed during the war.

The 53 hectare estate offers many surprises, including an outdoor ballroom and a Spanish tavern that were built to entertain the Princes during their long captivity, a pond where ice was collected during the winter, a bats' cave and the tuffeau caves left after the stone used to build the château was extracted. Four-seater electric golf carts are available for rent (30 minutes for €12.00).

Château de Valençay
2, rue de Blois
36600 Valençay

Click here to see additional photos of the château and estate taken during my visit.

Château de Valencay in the Loire Valley, France

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The super cool ice wall and other contemporary art at Le Meurice in Paris

♥ Le Meurice - my parting message on the ice wall

Paris is a fast-paced city. It seems that I'm frequently rushing from the latest exhibition to the newest show. One of the downsides is that I all-too-often miss some fascinating sights.

Take Le Meurice as an example. During the years that I've lived in Paris, I've visited this lovely palace hotel on the Rue de Rivoli for drinks at Bar 228 and afternoon tea at Le Dali on numerous occasions. That's why I was so surprised when the bellhop showed me the super cool ice wall, where guests are invited to etch comments, when I checked into the hotel for #EmbraceParis. "Is this new?" I queried. When he replied that it wasn't, I shook my head in wonder. How had I missed it?

"Le Baiser" by Zoulikha Bouabdellah was the first winner of the Meurice Prize for Contemporary Art.
(Photo credit: Le Meurice)

Something else that I learned during my three-night stay at Le Meurice is that Salvador Dali was a regular visitor of the 180 year old hotel, hence the restaurant that bears the name of the famous Spanish artist. To carry on its role as a patron of the arts, the palace hotel founded the Meurice Prize for Contemporary Art in 2008 under the impetus of general manager Franka Holtmann. In doing so, Le Meurice asserted its support of young artists.

The Meurice Prize for Contemporary Art is an international award with an endowment of €20,000. It concerns all disciplines in the visual and plastic arts (painting, sculpture, installation, photography, video, etc.) and distinguishes a project of international stature, proposed by an artist and their gallery, two weeks before the FIAC contemporary art fair in Paris.

Lesson learned: I'm going to start dedicating more time to noticing my surroundings and less time to running from here to there. Maybe I'll even start hanging out at Le Meurice like Salvidor Dali. It will give me the opportunity to more fully appreciate the Dalinien chair with feet in the form of ladies shoes, a lamp with drawers and Le Meurice's recognizable lobster on a telephone in Le Dali. 

Salvador Dali at Le Meurice (1974). ©Huper-International Press.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

10 reasons to visit the charming town of Bourges in the Loire Valley

Place Gordaine in Bourges, France

The lovely town of Bourges is located a mere two hours by train from Paris making it the ideal spot for a weekend getaway. Here are ten things to do once you get there:

1. Marvel at Saint-Etienne Cathedral, one of the great Gothic buildings of France and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Don't miss the "Last Judgement" above the central portal, the 13th century stained glass windows made by the same master artisans as those in Chartres and the impressive astronomical clock. Created in 1424 by Canon Jean Fusoris, the clock indicates the lunar cycles, the height of the sun and the signs of the zodiac.

2. Meander down the quaint cobblestoned streets lined by more than 440 half-timbered houses dating back to the 15th century. The most remarkable is the Three Flutes House (Maison des Trois-Flûtes) located at 13 rue Bourbonnoux.

3. Indulge in a luscious "chocolate to share" (chocolat à partager) shaped like a camembert cheese at Daniel Mercier on the Place Gordaine. A subtle fusion of flaky Breton pancakes, praline and chocolate, it's 200 grams of pure pleasure! Mercier also has a line of "Busy Women" (Femmes Pressés) chocolate bars inspired by the active women in his life.

Forestines, the world's first soft-centered sweet. Bourges, France.

4. Step back in time at Maison des Forestines, an art nouveau style candy shop with stucco flowers and a colorful Gien ceramic ceiling, at 3 Place Cujas. Invented in 1878 by confectioner Georges Forest, "Forestines" are the world's first soft-centered sweet. The pearly exterior enrobes a smooth almond and hazelnut praline.

5. Admire the Palace of Jacques Coeur, a wealthy and powerful French merchant who became one of the most influential men of his time. With his massive fortune, Coeur funded King Charles VII's reconquest of Normandy and made loans to many aristocrats. Falsely accused of poisoning the king's mistress and dishonest speculation, he was arrested in 1451 but escaped to Italy. He died while commanding a naval expedition against the Turks.

The façade of the palace, which was completed around 1450, is decorated with Jacques Coeur's royal emblem, along with a multitude of sculptures portraying religious themes, his travels and scenes of everyday life.

6. Taste some of the local specialities at Au Nez du Vin38 rue des Arenes. My lunch of Saint-Maure and Valençay goat cheese, potato cakes (galettes aux pommes de terre Berrichon), pâté and salad accompanied by a glass of crisp Sancerre wine was an exquisite representation of the flavors of the Berry region of France. Linger over a café gourmand on the terrace when the weather is pleasant or in the cozy dining room with wooden beams when it's cold outside.

7. Sip a cocktail or a non-alcoholic beverage at Monin syrup. Whether you prefer the flavor of pumpkin pie, cotton candy, green banana, cucumber, pina colada or even bubblegum, Monin has a syrup for you. The company was founded by the Monin brothers in 1912. Three generations later, Monin is the world's leading producer of the finest flavored syrups, gourmet sauces, smoothie mixes, fruit purees and fruit smoothie mixes.

8. Visit one of the town's five free-admission museums. Top on my list for the next time I travel to Bourges is the Museum of the Best Artisans of France located in the former Archbishop’s Palace.

Cake Thé, 74 bis rue Bourbonnoux, Bourges.

9. Relax over afternoon tea and a slice of homemade Jacques Coeur cake made from a recipe from the Middles Ages or tarte au citron at Cake Thé, 74 bis rue Bourbonnoux. This delightful tea room is remarkably located in a vaulted Roman tower. It was part of a Gallo-Roman rampart with 50 lookout towers that protected the town from invading tribes.

10. Breathe in the fresh air of the countryside while strolling through the marshlands of Bourges. You'll be surprised by this labyrinth of 1,000 gardens and meandering streams located an easy ten minute walk away from the Old Town.

How to get there: Bourges is two to three hours by train from Paris. Once you're there, you can easily rent a car from Avis, which is conveniently located near the train station, or use public transportation to explore other parts of the Loire Valley.

Where to stay: Best Western Hôtel d'AngleterreHôtel de Panette (a B&B with a lovely view of the cathedral) or Hôtel de Bourbon Mercure are all good options.

The Tourist Information Office of Bourges is an excellent source of information about special events, such as the "Illuminated Nights" and Le Printemps de Bourges. You'll find the office next to the cathedral.

Click here to view more photos taken during my trip to Bourges.

Palace of Jacques Coeur

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"Tita" by Marie Houzelle -- book review of a remarkable novel set in the south of France

Tita by Marie Houzelle, an acclaimed French author who writes in English

Book review by Lizzie Harwood

Houzelle’s debut novel, Tita, is the tale of a precocious child, the eponymous star of her narrative, living out the year that she is seven (“the age of reason” we are told) in a small Catholic town in the south of France. But there’s nothing reasonable or typically French about Tita: she despises food (when have we read a book about France that doesn’t exalt the food?), wants to be a nun, but aspires to producing several children fathered by an assortment of nationalities: “Tuareg, Nuer, Trobriander, Khoikhoi, Samoan, Kalahari, Iroquois, Dogon… I copy the names into my notebook, and look them up in the atlas.” Tita is so off the radar of ‘expected French heroine’ that stepping into her thoughts is like belly-flopping into compulsory school pool sessions. The nun teacher sets our teeth on edge and Mother’s so removed from her children they call her “Stepmother/Mother-in-Law” (“Belle-mère”) without so much as a reaction.

But once we get comfortable inside Tita’s brain, the world that opens up to us is very different to any French-setting I’ve encountered. Cugnac, her insular, Occitan-speaking town in the south is on the cusp of big change. This is ‘50s Catholic-ruled town, far from glitzy Paris and well-heeled Lyon. A decade from now, the student-worker riots in ’68 across France will cause a seismic shift, but here in Tita’s Cugnac the fundamentals are already quivering: Father’s failing wine business sees him selling off chunks of the estate (including the tennis courts, hélas!), the older half-siblings can’t complete high school due to the cost or expulsions or to save face, Mother’s ultimatum-style hints to Father that she wants a crocodile handbag for her birthday go unheard. But it’s all so funny when seen through a whip-smart kid like Tita’s eyes: “I don’t want to live off the sweat of anybody. Not that my parents sweat much, now that they no longer play tennis.”

The battle becomes one of words and slipping through the cracks. As Tita gases up her mental tank with her Robert – the dictionary that doubles as best friend, contemplating how words have evolved from the Latin to their current varied meanings – she starts to wriggle away from her mother’s domination. This is the great fun of Houzelle’s novel: the more time Tita spends with words, the more subversive she becomes. When a band of girls face the privations and humiliations of Camp Nun at Lourdes (which is pure dark comedy along the lines of Vonnegut or Monty Python), it’s Tita who squirrels herself away with a book and manages the starvation by passing out for half of it, and cleverly buying Vichy mineral water in the Virgin’s grotto. When the others attempt to write letters home mentioning a portion of their sufferings, they are caught and humiliated. So Tita writes nothing more than a scrawled signature below her little sister’s drawing of a squirrel. Luckily, the dramatic play she writes later allows the truth to surface.

Houzelle’s singular voice and deadpan prose left me utterly wowed. This is a “not for children” novel – like all the tomes Tita secretly reads – but it could crossover to younger readers as well as its adult fiction market. The complexity and grace that has gone into Tita’s creation gives us a protagonist who goes from being a saint-loving, misdiagnosed-ADHD phobic to a plucky, poignant individual who I can imagine pouring a can of highly flammables on the ’68 scene when she’s 17.

A remarkable novel from a seriously talented voice in literature. Thank God she writes in English for those of us who can’t read Latin.

Tita by Marie Houzelle available from Amazon and other booksellers on September 14, 2015. There will be a giveaway of Tita on Out and About in Paris' Facebook page in mid-September. Don't miss it!

Lizzie Harwood has been in Paris for 14 years and now lives outside the city, where Emile Zola called home. She writes and edits at editordeluxe.com, Lizzie Harwood Books on Facebook, and @lizziehbooks on Twitter.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Moynat: shopping for luxury handbags, travel trunks and champagne carriers in Paris

Vintage Moynat automobile trunks

Embrace Paris - July 2014

There was a lot of excited chatter as the Embrace Paris group left Le Meurice. The next stop on our itinerary? A behind-the-scenes tour of Moynat, a French luxury accessories brand, located a short distance away from our hotel on the rue Saint Honoré.

While a couple of the women had their hearts set on a Moynat handbag like the one carried by the always-so-chic Norma of My Beautiful Paris, I hoped to get a glimpse of some of Moynat's bespoke items. A blue leather vanity case at the Orient Express exhibition had sparked my interest in this famous Parisian malletier (trunk maker), for it was symbolic of an era when the journey was as important as the destination.

After welcoming us to the boutique, Guillaume Davin, the president of the newly resurrected luxury brand, explained that Moynat was founded in 1849 by Pauline Moynat. The only female trunk maker in history, Pauline was as creative as she was progressive. Not only did she make specially shaped trunks to fit the contours of automobiles, Pauline was also the first trunk maker to produce women's handbags.

The Pauline, semi-soft city bags in Taurillon Gex leather with Perle calfskin lining.

Pauline even pioneered the now-common trend of naming handbags after celebrities. In honor of her friendship with legendary actress Gabrielle-Charlotte Réju of the Comédie-Française, she created the Réjane (Réju's stage name) at the beginning of the twentieth century. According to LVMH, "Réjane was the ultimate incarnation of the Parisienne—naturally beautiful and high-spirited. To give a more feminine touch to the handbags the actress carried on stage, Pauline invented her first 'handbags for ladies', which were smaller and lighter. Réjane wore them in her performance in Décoré by Henri Meilhac at the Théâtre des Variétés in 1888."

Personalizing a light tote bag. I love the discrete Moynat initial design. 

Under Ramesh Nair, Moynat's new creative director, the Réjane has been revived as a structured city bag with a patented locking system and a clutch bag with a detachable shoulder strap. Nair, who previously worked alongside Martin Margiela and Jean Paul Gaultier during his stint at Hermès, told us that it takes an average of 24 hours to handcraft each Moynat bag. They are made from start to finish by a single artisan. The beautifully styled bags are priced in the €2,200 to €4,500 range.

The next time you're strolling down the rue Saint-Honoré, be sure to visit Moynat's boutique. There are currently only two locations in the world where you can admire their bags, briefcases, picnic baskets, champagne carriers and vanity cases:

348 rue Saint-Honoré
75001 Paris


112 Mount Street
W1K 2TU London

Click here to view more photos of our visit on Facebook. Related posts and videos: traveling in style by My Paris Apartment and Embrace Paris Visits Moynat, a video by Andrea Claire.

Picnic in style with a Moynat picnic basket and champagne carrier

The beginnings of a handbag at Moynat's atelier.