Jun 162009
 
Skulls in the Catacombes

Skulls in the Catacombs

Six million in fact –  neatly stacked and arranged in the Catacombs of Paris.

From 1785, skeletons were moved from Paris’ overcrowded cemetaries into an old limestone quarry beneath the streets of the city.

The large stacks of bones fill a labyrinth of underground tunnels about a kilometre in total length.  The bones look like they have been arranged by type, so I don’t think you were kept together when you were moved from the cemetary!

It’s a macabre museum to say the least!

Catacombs of Paris

Catacombs of Paris

When we weren’t disturbing the dead, we were eating garlic-butter snails with newfangled utensils…

Les douze escargots de bourgogne

Les douze escargots de bourgogne

Morning in Montmartre

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Jun 142009
 
Sunday at Sacré Coeur

Sunday at Sacré Coeur

Apparently Montmartre is one of the most visited places in Paris (after the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre of course).  I would speculate that Amelie may have something to do with that… I know I hadn’t heard of the area before I saw the movie.  Today it seemed like every tourist in Paris had woken up with the same idea.

After a wander through the admittedly picturesque back streets, we puffed up the hill to Sacre Coeur.

We admired the slightly smoggy view of greater Paris and then walked down the 235 steps to the Metro Anvers.

Along the way we congratulated ourselves on picking an alternative route to the summit, and laughed at the gullible tourists who had been caught by the string men.

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I will miss the beautiful twilight hour in Europe…

The Louvre, 22:30

The Louvre, 22:30

The Louvre

The Louvre

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Jun 132009
 
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La Tour Eiffel

Although we arrived early to the Tour Eiffel, the people waiting had already formed a snaking line beneath the tower they desired to ascend.

Fortunately the ‘I’m fit enough to not need an elevator’ line was very short and we were soon scaling the steel stairs to the second level of the tower.

668 steps later we arrived, slightly short of breath and in need of the water we brought, but confident we’d beaten all those who lined up for the elevator below.

The views of Paris from the tower were pretty amazing, smog aside.  From every side of the tower there were several Parisian icons to spot.

Back down the steps, now with time to read the signs along the way that inform you on various tower trivia like it’s weight in elephant equivalents or that it is coated with 60 tonnes of paint.

Palais de Chaillot and Trocadéro Garden from La Tour Eiffel

Palais de Chaillot and Trocadéro Garden from La Tour Eiffel

We then headed for the Arc de Triomphe.  Commissioned by Napoleon (like a few things around here…) the massive arch sits in the middle of a 12-street intersection.  If driving, it seems you shut your eyes, pull out and hope someone else actually has their eyes open to see you and let you through the world’s craziest round-a-bout.

Arc de Triomphe

Arc de Triomphe

One of the 12 streets leading away from the arch is Champs-Elysées – a wide, tree lined boulevard that took us to the Tuileries Garden and home.

Champs-Elysées

Champs-Elysées

Viva la revolution!

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Jun 122009
 
Gardens at Palace of Versailles.  This is just the orangerie (orange orchard).

Gardens at Palace of Versailles. This is just the orangerie (orange orchard).

A trip to Versailles makes one thing clear – the French probably had a point when they revolted.  The palace is a study in excess.  I’m pretty sure you could run a marathon in the grounds without retracing your route.  It felt like we walked 40km trying to get to Domaine de Marie Antoinette.   When we arrived at the Summer House, it was like we’d stepped back in time; there appeared to be some kind of period piece being filmed.

Filming at Domaine de Marie Antoinette

Filming at Domaine de Marie Antoinette

In the evening we took advantage of the Louvre’s free entry for under 26s.  We mainly focused on the Italian and French paintings found in the Denon wing.  Of course we saw the Mona Lisa, but in my unsophisticated opinion the Eiffel Tower is cooler.

There she is, behind bullet-proof glass

There she is, behind bullet-proof glass

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Jun 112009
 
Le Tour Eiffel

Le Tour Eiffel

Our final destination in Europe!  We’ve been keeping busy so far in Paris – apparently there’s more wet weather on the way so we’re making the most of the half-sunny days.

First stop, the Picasso Museum, for a look at the Spanish painter’s crazy cubism.  And no,  we didn’t take the sketches.  The security was quite low compared to most galleries we’ve visited.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

We then took a walk across Pont Neuf to Ile de la Cité (the island on the Seine) to visit Notre Dame.  Nearby on Ile Saint-Louis is Berthillon, the most famous (and best) ice cream shop in Paris France Europe the world.

Berthillon

Berthillon

Walking on we glimpsed the massive Louvre museum and the Tuileries Gardens before ending back at our cute little apartment just two minutes from the Louvre.

The Louvre

The Louvre

At night we checked out Le Tour Eiffel from across the river at Palais de Chaillot.  Every hour it puts on a little flashing light show.  It is 120 years old this year; the last time I saw it was at it’s centenary.

Le Tour Eiffel

Le Tour Eiffel

Jun 092009
 

Although we did not visit one of the bigger châteaux, we saw about half-a-dozen smaller ones without even trying.

Châteaux de Tours and St Gatien Cathedral

Château de Tours and St Gatien Cathedral

We had some wet, stormy weather in Tours but it made for some interesting photos of the sky.  (And we had a much needed rest).

Our  wine tour promised cheese but did not deliver 🙁  Nonetheless, it was a good opportunity to learn about French wines and visit a vineyard in each of the Bourgueil and Chinon regions.  In Europe, it is the region (and not the grape) that is usually marked on the bottle.  So if you don’t know which grapes are grown where, then you’re basically just deciding between  red and white!

Chteau de La Grille winery, Chinon region, Loire Valley

Château de La Grille winery, Chinon region, Loire Valley

In contrast to the Australian cellar door tasting  experience where you line up at least half-a-dozen varieties of grape from whites to reds, here it is half-a-dozen vintages of the one variety.  Both vineyards we visited grew only Cabernet Franc vines but the weather and soil conditions the different vintage grapes were exposed to produced a very wide range of tastes in the final wines.

35 year old Cabernet Franc vines at Château de La Grille

35-year old Cabernet Franc vines at Château de La Grille

In other news,  the EU elections were held on the weekend.  Although we’ve seen a lot of advertising for the elections in various countries, they had the lowest voter turn-out ever of 43%.  The Swedish Pirate Party actually won a seat!  Arrr!  (Not that type of piracy 😉 )

May 282009
 
La Boheme

La Boheme

Where to begin?

Perhaps with our first 3 course meal.  We ate lunch at La Boheme, and we were so full for the rest of the day that we had a very light dinner!

Julian had the Menu Provencal and I had the Menu Vegetarian.  My entree was a huge salad, with olives, zucchini, semi-dried tomatoes and marinated mozzarella.  I’m not normally a big fan of mozzarella (a bit too bland for my liking) but marinated like this it was lovely.  My only complaint with this salad was the dressing – a bit too lemony for my liking.

My first French salad

My first French salad

Julian’s entree was an Assortment de charcuteries de Provence – basically an assortment of Provencal meats, including a very tasty chorizo like sausage.

Mini ravioli

Mini ravioli

For my main, I actually ordered the Tian de legumes de salson a la creme de basilic.  For some reason I ended up with Ravioles croquandres sar sa compotive de tomates fraiches, which was like miniture ravioli, filled with some kind of cheese and maybe basil(?) in a tomato sauce.  Despite the mix-up it was still incredibly tasty.

Julian's tagine

Julian's tagine

Meat-loving Julian had the Tajine de taureau aux fruits socs – despite the fact we are going to Morroco in a week!  We saw quite a few African inspired dishes on Provencal menus, so obviously the cultural influence has worked in both directions.  FYI, taureau is bull, a regional speciality.

The creme de la creme!

The creme de la creme!

Finally, dessert.  I had the dessert du jour (dessert of the day) which was creme caramel.  It was divine – the perfect combination of sweet caramel sauce and smooth custard.  Mum, you would have loved it!  Julian had the Sabayon aux fruits de salsons, which he tells me was quite tasty, but he probably wouldn’t order it again.

I won’t bore you with details of our other meals, but I thought you might enjoy this snapshot of Provencal food – the reputation for robust, simple, flavourful food is well deserved.

At the markets

At the markets

2 days in Provence

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May 282009
 

Sadly not a year in Provence, like Peter Mayle!

We spent 3 nights in Arles and did a day trip to Avignon.

Typical provencal street

Typical provencal street

Arles is small (25,000) but picturesque.  It has some fantastic Roman ruins, is known for its bullfights (although the season hasn’t started yet) and it’s where Van Gogh painted some of his best pieces, including one of my personal favourites, Starry Night over the Rhone.

Not quite Van Gogh...

Not quite Van Gogh...

We had to go to the farmer’s markets on Wednesday morning, which are apparently some of the biggest in the region.  Although the produce looked excellent, they weren’t the best markets we’ve seen – they would be better if we were locals or were able to cook whilst here.

Tomatoes at the farmer's market

Tomatoes at the farmer's market

Avignon was a small and unimportant town until the French Pope moved the papal seat here.  For nearly 30 years there were 2 separate Popes – on at the Vatican and one in Avignon.  For nearly a century after the papacy was restored to Rome, Avignonians spoke Italian.

St Benezet Bridge, Avignon

St Benezet Bridge, Avignon

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May 262009
 

It was always going to be a big day of travel:  Italy to France, Riomaggiore to Arles, 600km, five trains, 11 hours.

Then the French decided to call a rail strike.  Chaos erupts.  Trains are cancelled.  Tourists are stranded.  Fed up Italian train officials on the border station of Ventimiglia wish they shared their border with a different, less prone to industrial action country (three times in the last 10 months we heard).

Make that now an epic 15 hours of travel.

We arrived in Arles at 10:30pm, exhausted but jubilent that we made it to Arles at all (we ignored the advice of the rail official in Nice who told us to stay the night).  Fortunately, the reception at Hotel Regence waited until we arrived to check-in.  And people say the French are rude!

This train will be taking no passengers

This train will be taking no passengers

Apr 242009
 
Amy and I at her flat in Ferney

Amy and I at her flat in Ferney

We spent the last 2 nights with my cousin Amy, who lives in Ferney-Voltaire, just past the Swiss/French border in France.  Ferney (as locals prefer to call it – apparently Voltaire was  not a nice guy) is a cute little village, with an excellent boulangerie (bakery) and Indian restaurant.

We spent yesterday touring Geneva, with Amy as our very capable guide.  It was so nice to not have to worry about which bus to catch or how to navigate in the city.  We visited the UN, the botanic gardens, tooks a boat across Lake Geneva and explored the old town.  It was a most glorious spring day and I must confess that Geneva (and in fact, all of Switzerland), now holds a special place in my heart.

Outside the UN

Outside the UN

Thank you so much Amy (and Lis) for having us and showing us the sites.  It was definately one of the highlights of our trip!

Sunny Geneva (note the snow-covered mountain in the background!)

Sunny Geneva (note the snow-covered mountain in the background!)