Monday, February 28, 2011

Bois de Boulogne - Part I

One of our goals for our time here is to explore Paris from top to bottom. Since we've been here before and have seen all the main sights, we are drawn to places and things we haven't seen. Over the years we've read guide books, pored over maps and searched and researched on-line, so in the back of my brain there is a half-formed list of places to visit that I've seen or heard about, but actually know very little. One such place was the Bois de Boulogne. I don't recall how I learned of its existence - perhaps just from perusing a map, but I knew it was big, it wasn't far, and I wanted to see it, so I looked it up.

As an aside, one of the things that never ceases to amaze me when I start researching things, is the history attached to these places. It boggles my mind, really; and it fascinates me to no end that right here, right now in 2011, I can stand in the same spot as someone did 100 years ago, 300 years ago, 600 years ago and in some cases, nearly 1000 years ago. And even though this sounds like maybe I've been smoking duck feathers, I feel a sort of connection to the past if I stop and think about it. And I want to stop and think about it. I want to try to imagine who was here, why they were here, what they wore, what their life was like. And it makes me wonder if in 1000 years, someone from the future will be standing in the same spot, admiring the same cathedral, or path through the woods and thinking about all those who came before them. It's so strange to think that we are only separated by time and not space. It makes me realize how important it is to preserve the past and present for those in the future.

As I was saying, I did a little research about Bois de Boulogne, and I learned a few things. I'll share them here and put them in a handy dandy list so you can skip the facts and go straight to the photos if you want.
  • Bois de Boulogne is located on the north-west side of Paris in an area that once was a vast oak forest.  In the 13th century, the area was purchased back from monks by Philip Augustus and used as a Royal Hunting Reserve.  Louis XI reforested the area and named it Bois de Boulogne in the 15th century.  Henry IV planted 15,000 mulberry trees hoping to start a local silk industry in the now fenced-in hunting park and in 1852, Napolean III created the park.
  • Baron Haussmann was hired to design the park (and that of Bois de Vincennes, the Bois de Boulogne sister park on the south-east side of Paris) in the style of the great parks in London.
  • There are 22 miles of foot paths, 4 miles of cycling paths and 18 miles of riding paths
  • The upper and lower lakes are man-made - the excavated dirt was used to create Butte Montmartre (who knew!?)
  • The park covers an area of 3.3 square miles
  • There is an amusement park inside the Bois de Boulogne and at night it is transformed into a red light district
We decided to visit the park on a Sunday afternoon.  After discussing all the various options for getting there, we decided to walk.  Our plan was to walk all the way down Rue de la Convention, cross the Seine at Pont Mirabeau, head in the general direction of Bois de Boulogne, enter the park from the southernmost end and stick to the east side of the park.  We figured at some point we would get tired and from the east side we could leave the park at several spots and hop on the metro.

Pont Mirabeau - it was a very cold and gray day - I wasn't too inspired to take my hands out of my pockets before we reached the Seine!  Oh...and see the Statue of Liberty in the middle of the river?  Ours is bigger! :)
On the other side of Pont Mirabeau - the Seine isn't just fun and games
At Porte Molitor we crossed the Périphérique - the dual ring road that separates the city proper of Paris and its suburbs.  The speed limit is 50 mph and if you can travel at the speed limit (this is rare as it is generally congested!), each loop takes about 26 minutes. 

Crossing the Périphérique - not too busy on a Sunday morning!
As usual, we got a little sidetracked.  Because we ended up one major boulevard south of the Bois de Boulogne entrance, we walked past the Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil, so naturally, instead of walking along the sidewalk past Roland Garros, we thought a walk through the garden would be nicer!
The Palm House
Turns out, this was a really nice garden, again with some history.  The Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil is what is left of the plant nurseries of King Louis XV.  The Palm House was designed by Camille Formigé; it was built between 1895-1898 and it is about 324 feet long and 40 feet wide.  The Auteuil hothouses are still used for indoor plants, collection plants and for plants that decorate offices and public places.

The Palm House with lovely cranes in the background
The Jardin des Poètes is adjacent to the Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil, but we didn't know it at the time.  We thought it was a continuation of the Jardin des Serres d'Auteuil, so we missed the plaques dedicated to French poets in the lawn and the sculptures.  We did see the lovely gate with sculptures on our way out though!
We also saw the first signs of spring in the Jardin des Poètes:
Buds ready to burst
I don't know this shrub but it was covered in fabulous yellow blooms!  Lovely on a gray day and mostly barren flower beds.
I also don't know this one, but this tree was in full bloom!
 We crossed Avenue de la Porte d'Auteuil and wandered into Bois de Boulogne.  After the green and signs of spring in the Poet's Garden, the Bois de Boulogne was a different world.

A wintry scene - leafless tress, few people in the park
We walked along this lane for quite some time and were surrounded by woods on both sides.  It was very quiet and we didn't see many people at all.  We wondered if we were on the right path.  But just around the corner ahead, we met up with civilization.

Men playing Boules
This park is huge and when we reached the Boules area, there were suddenly lots of people; men playing boules, children on bicycles, runners, walkers,  etc.  We continued on toward the east side of the park.  From our map, we knew the lakes were over there somewhere.

A lovely path leading to the lakes

Once in the lakes area, there were a lot more people around; families and people out for a Sunday stroll
Lac Superieur
Lac Superieur
Moi!  There was some construction along the north end of Lac Superieur and we had to cross to Lac Inferieur in a round-about way.  Not sure why Ron had the camera, but he snapped a photo of me to prove I'm really here!

Lac Inferieur
Lac Inferieur with view of Tour Eiffel
Boating on Lac Inferieur
Lac Inferieur has two small islands and from the larger of the two, you can rent boats.  Lots of families were out taking advantage of the nice day (it wasn't raining!).

By the time we walked from the southern entrance to the north end of Lac Inferieur, we were beat.  We made our retreat at Porte Dauphine and headed to the Metro Station on beautiful Avenue Foch.  Again, there were more signs of spring!

More crocus!

This is titled Bois de Boulogne Part I because we saw only a fraction of Bois de Boulogne.  We decided to reserve Part II for the spring and visit the west side of the park and the flower gardens when they are planted and blooming.  Stay tuned for Part II!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Époisses de Bourgogne

When I first sent out links to this blog to family and friends, I encouraged them to send us on missions - things they would like to see or know more about.  A friend of mine, Lily (who , by the way, is very lucky!)  asked me if I had tried Époisses de Bourgogne (pronounced ay-pwahze du bore-gunne) cheese as it was one of her favorites when she lived in France many years ago.  Being the cosmopolitan world traveler that I am, I had never even heard of Époisses de Bourgogne.  Thus, a mission was born.  I would seek out and try Époisses de Bourgogne.

I needed to know more about this cheese so I did some research.  What is it exactly and how do I eat it?  Google is my friend (except when I have a French ISP address and it assumes I want all my pages in French), as is Wikipedia (once I googled google and clicked on Google in English) and I found quite a bit of information about Époisses de Bourgogne.  

First, it is commonly referred to as Époisses.  

Second, it is one of the "smelliest" cheeses, second only to Vieux-Boulogne. I feel a disclaimer is in order though - I am not fond of the term "smelly".  I prefer the term aromatic, which means
  • fragrant,
  • having a strong smell and,
  • having a distinctive quality. 
  Époisses is all of those, so I will use the term aromatic.  

Third, it is a cheese made in the village of Époisses, a small town about halfway between Paris and Lyon.

The aromaticity of cheese intrigues me; who decides which cheeses make the top ten list?  Again, more research.  It turns out that researchers at Cranfield University (a British post-grad university with it's own airport!) tested 15 British and French cheeses with their very own noses and determined that Vieux Boulogne was the most aromatic.  That was all well and good, but with the limited information available, I'm guessing the researchers each smelled the 15 different cheeses and then rated them, which required some kind of scale and a little bit of subjectivity.  However, in addition to the blind-folded judges' noses, the researchers also used a bionic nose (an electronic nose with sensors).  Vieux Boulogne was again crowned the winner of the most aromatic cheese (con)test.  So, if Vieux Boulogne is considered the most aromatic cheese by real and bionic noses, and Époisses is considered 2nd to Vieux Boulogne by some noses and 10th by other noses, then I think Époisses really and truly is quite aromatic.

So, armed with this information, I went to my local Fromagerie and looked around and there it was!

Époisses - from Époisses de Bourgogne in a handy dandy round wooden container
I made my purchase and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it's aromaticity could not escape the wooden container.  That's a good thing because I realized after I bought it that if it was going to aromatize the refrigerator, that would not be a good thing.

So what makes Époisses an aromatic cheese?  Apparently it is the rind-washing process that does it.  Époisses is made by heating whole milk to about 85F with coagulation lasting for at least 16 hours.  The curds are then drained in molds and the whey is allowed to run off.  About 48 hours later the cheese is removed, salted and placed on racks to dry.  When the cheese is dry it is moved to a cellar to mature.  During maturation, the cheese is washed up to three times per week with a mixture of water and Pomace brandy, and while being washed the cheese is brushed by hand to spread the bacteria evenly over the surface.  The yeast and fermenting agents create a distinctively aromatic orange-red exterior in about 6 weeks.

My Époisses was wrapped in thin plastic inside the wooden container.  Once opened, it's aromaticity was released!  Notice the orange rind.

My research indicated that I should cut off the top rind to dip into the cheese, 

Époisses - a very light and creamy cheese inside the rind
and spread  it onto slices of a baguette, accompanied by a nice white wine.

Époisses is very soft (aka "runny")
Along with the typical orange rind, the cheese has a salty flavor.  The one we bought had a variety of flavors; first I noticed the salty, then another more pungent flavor developed and finally there was a sweet aftertaste.  It was quite an interesting experience.
Because I had to run over to the boulangerie to get a baguette for our lunch, Ron thought we should have a little something sweet to go with our cheese.
un chocolat et un éclair au café - délicieux!
It was a fun and fabulous lunch.  Thanks Lily, for sending us on this mission!

If you'd like to see photos of something specific or have us try a French food item and review it for you, send us an email or leave a comment here.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Royal Victoria, St. Leonards-On-Sea and Coast Drive

The Royal Victoria

As I mentioned in the previous post, our visit to Hastings and Battle included a stay at The Royal Victoria Hotel, and we chose it for it's location and historic interest.  The hotel was built in 1828 and gets its name from Queen Victoria.  And now we can count ourselves among the 500 distinguished guests who have stayed in the hotel, including King George V, Prince Albert, Edward VII, Gladstone, Palmerston and Tennyson. So not only were scenes from Foyle's War filmed here, but one of my favorites, Tennyson, slept here too!

The hotel is situated  right on the coast and most rooms have views of the English Channel and Beachy Head.  It is difficult to photograph the hotel because it is right on a busy coastal road, and directly across the street is the beach, with a promenade above the sand level.  To get a view of the hotel you have to stay up on the promenade, but the hotel is huge so photographing from the promenade is too close! 

The view from the same side of the street - The Royal Victoria is BIG and quite beautiful, even on the grayest of days.

From across the street on the promenade - trying to show the full length of the hotel
The hotel does have free parking, but the small lot 6 cars is the extent of their on-site parking.  The rest is street parking.  We found street parking behind the hotel once and on the street in front of and up the street just a bit, and this is obviously not high season!  I can't imagine trying to park in August!

The entrance to the hotel is a beautiful wood revolving door.  But as you can see, it isn't large, so getting through it with luggage was a bit of a challenge.  Despite my best efforts, I sort of spilled into the lobby. 

The revolving door! 
When we checked in, I was excited to learn that our room was on the 5th floor (great views!), but that excitement was quickly extinguished when we were told the elevator was broken and we would have to take the stairs.  We had two suitcases (one with clothes and one full camera suitcase) and two laptop bags.  Normally, stairs aren't a problem, but our stuff was heavy!  So while the view from the 5th floor was breathtaking, so was the chug up the stairs.

Having been built in 1828, the hotel has a lot of beautiful architectural components as well as some quirks.  The ground floor lobby is nice, but it was dark and led to a grand staircase as well as some meeting rooms. The Grand Staircase is beautiful, with marble columns and balustrade.  At the first landing, the staircase divides to the right and left and continues to the 1st floor.  There is mirror on the back wall of the landing, the photo below is looking up to the first landing with the staircase continuing up to the first floor reflected in the mirror. 

The Grand Staircase, 1st landing - you can see the lobby at the landing level and the staircase rising to the first floor reflected in the mirror.  The flowers are in front of the mirror on the landing.
The Grand Staircase from above
Both sides of the staircase open up to a lounge area that is flanked by hallways leading to rooms on one side and a bar and restaurant on the other.

At the top of the Grand Staircase

The Lounge Area
The bar and restaurant are at the front of the hotel to take advantage of the ocean views.  We had breakfast in the restaurant and each morning we were greeted by the maître d'; a very outgoing gentleman from Barcelona with a sense of humor!  You can see him in the photo below.

View into the restaurant from the bar area

From the lounge area, we continued up another staircase, and this one had a beautiful stained glass window.

Stained glass window in the first floor stair case
 From this staircase we had to walk from the center of the hotel down the length of one side to get to the side staircase leading to the 5th floor. Our room was quite big and it was nice.  The opulence of the staircase and lounge area didn't extend to our standard room, but I would guess that some very nice suites are available here. Still, we had a 2 room suite with a bath and it was nicely decorated.

The main room -view from the door
Opposite view - you can see the doorway to the sitting room
The sitting room had a dressing table, two very large closets with cabinets above them and a sitting area.

The sitting room
Both rooms have ocean views:

The English Channel and the Promenade
The bath was pretty standard except for one thing:
Separate hot and cold taps?!  Eight inches apart?!  Not sure how "warm" is supposed to work in that configuration!
Oh...and another thing.  There was plenty of hot water.  A little too much, probably.  Getting the water temp just right in the shower was a challenge because for some reason, once it was hot it was very difficult to keep a mix of cold water so that it wasn't scalding.  And when the hot water was running in the shower, warm water came out the cold water tap on the sink.  Voila!  Problem solved!  Ron thinks that the hot water pressure was much greater than the cold water pressure, causing it to back flow.  I call it roundabout engineering. 

I'm also going to guess that the floors are original.  Not the carpeting and linoleum, of course, but the ones underneath.  They creak and moan and wobble to and fro!  Walking across the floors was akin to walking on a small boat.  I would have liked to have seen the floors underneath - I wonder if they are fabulously old parquet?   I really think the quirks are part of the charm of staying in a hotel with such history.  Except for the out-of-service elevator, we loved this hotel. 

Coast Drive

We had a leisurely breakfast and morning in the hotel, and then set off for our drive up the coast to the Portsmouth area and Titchfield.  Although we weren't expecting summer-like weather in February, a little sunshine would have been nice, but again the day was gray, misty and cold.  The drive along the coast is pretty and we made our first stop in Eastbourne, an elegant seaside resort at the foot of the South Downs in Sussex and about 17 miles from Hastings.    At the west end is Beachy Head, the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain, rising 530 feet above the sea.  The 5-mile long promenade along the coast leads you past gardens, a 1930's bandstand, the beaches and a Victorian pier.

The promenade with Beachy Head in the distance

The sandy beach with the pier in the distance - the wood structures are called groynes and they are installed to reduce/prevent longshore drift by trapping sediment
Garden along the promenade

Carpet Garden near the pier

The Victorian pier - originally built in the 1870's
Pier entrance
We walked out onto the pier, but many of the attractions were closed.  There were, however, many interesting signs:

Do's and Do Not's
Slip Slap Slop
Jellied eels do not appeal and whelks are snails; I would have loved a Mr. Whippy if the shop were open and much warmer outside, and as for the doughnuts, I think I'll order them one-at-a-time, thankyouverymuch!
From the pier looking back at the many hotels
I love all the lamps and lights and wish I could see it on a warm summer night!
An interesting sculpture along the promenade
The Eastbourne Bandstand - built in 1931
Our tour of Eastbourne was too short, but Ron wanted to get to Titchfield before dark, so we headed west again.  Our route took us inland and around Beachy Head for a short distance and we were treated to lovely vistas of sheep farms.

No, the sheep have not been injured - their red dots are their branding
We drove along the coast and into Brighton.  We had considered staying in Brighton, but I'm glad we chose to drive through rather than stay here; it's a lot bigger and more crowded so arriving here on Friday night would have been much scarier than arriving in the much smaller St. Leonards-On-Sea!  We didn't stop in Brighton, but I managed a few snaps from the passenger seat:

The remains of West Pier - it closed in 1975 and then was severely damaged by fires and storms - fortunately the Palace Pier (sorry no photo!) is alive and well!
Brighton Traffic- I think we were merging to the left, but it sure looks like we're headed into the island; perhaps the young lady thought so too!
There were a lot of cars driving along the waterfront, at least one of them was très cher!
The streetlights are elegant - and the lights strung between them must be beautiful at night
From Brighton, we headed inland again, away from the coastal route and onto a bigger highway.  We were heading west-ish along A27 when we approached a roundabout in Arundel.  As we approached I saw a beautiful castle in the sky so I directed Ron to ignore the GPS and take the 3rd exit from the roundabout instead.  We drove in to town, all the while having an amazing view of this castle:

Arundel Castle from Queen Street/The Causeway
We turned right at the intersection and discovered this was a very popular place!  We had to drive down the lane about 1/3 mile before we found a place to park.  It worked out just fine since the walk back to the corner was along a canal along a lovely path.

Dashing and handsome, yeah?!

Canal along the path
Arundel Castle
When we got back to the corner, we found the entrance to the castle only to discover that it is closed for the season and won't open until 1 April.  We missed it by 6 weeks!  We hadn't heard of the castle and couldn't get any information about it on our short walk through town, so I had to google it later. Arundel Castle is the seat of The Dukes of Norfolk and it is on 40 acres of grounds and gardens.  The Castle has been open to visitors seasonally for nearly 200 years and is considered one of the great treasure houses of England.  Inside the Castle you can see paintings and furniture, tapestries and stained glass, china and clocks, sculpture and carving, heraldry and armour, all displayed in room settings.  I also discovered that no photographs are allowed inside the Castle, so although I didn't know it at the time, but I pretty much was able to photograph as much of it as is allowed anyway. 

The town of Arundel, looking up High Street toward the Castle
Winter root vegetables outside a shop (shoppe?)
Abbey ruins outside the castle walls
Once again, our time was too short and we headed west again towards Titchfield.  We stayed on the bigger highways, following our GPS and driving in the UK like we've been doing it forever.  We arrived at our hotel, checked in and then searched for a nearby restaurant.  We wanted something typically British and found The Titchfield Mill nearby.

The Titchfield Mill Restaurant
It was rather confusing as we entered the restaurant and there wasn't a host to take our names or seat us.  We stood around a bit, watching everyone else and it appeared as though you just help yourself.  We confirmed this with someone at the bar, then wandered around until we found a nice table for two.  

The Menu

Ron - at a nice table for two!

We had a very friendly waitress who took our order, but there was another woman delivering the meals.  She kept calling out to people asking them what their table numbers were and if what she was carrying was their order, and she kept muttering something about spoons.  We were perplexed to say the least and we thought she must be new and that someone should give her a map of the tables.  Later our waitress explained that in the few hours between lunch and dinner, they use a spoon with a number on it for some of the guests; so delivering meals to spoon numbers is NOT the same as delivering meals to table numbers.  I still don't get it, but it was comical.

Our stay in Titchfield was short and wet - I stayed in the hotel on Monday and Tuesday morning while Ron worked, then Tuesday afternoon we had an exceedingly uneventful drive back into London.  We dropped off the car, rode the shuttle to Heathrow and were headed back to Paris.
One odd thing though; we have only been in Paris for a few short weeks, yet it feels like home already.  After our ridiculously trying driving experience and a long weekend in England, we were happy to be going home!