Category Archives: 2014 12 FRANCE – East & Central

Jingle Bells continued…

DAY 9:  Friday, Boxing Day Off to the largest castle in the Loire Valley, Chateau de Chambord, in DM2.

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Another cold day, which only made it seem more authentic considering the only heat in this 77-staircase, 426-room home were a couple of the 282 fireplaces with burning wood in them. That and tourists’ bodies, and there weren’t a ton of those on this chilly day.

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Set on a large estate with some areas opened to the public for walks, etc., while the remainder is kept for high-officials of the government (some things never change), it’s another fairytale estate, built by Francois I of Amboise (1494-1547).  [FYI:  His son was Henry II who married Catherine de Medici and whose mistress, Diane de Poitiers, created the other amazing chateau, Chenonceau. The mistress was booted out upon his death by his wife, Catherine. Francois I’s grandson, Francois II, was married briefly to Mary, Queen of Scots.]

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Unfortunately, he reputedly only spent 47 days here due supposedly to finding it too drafty. I couch this with reputedly and supposedly because no sooner do I read a fact about someone or something of history only to discover a conflicting story from another source (72 days vs. 47, 365 vs 282 staircases… you get the drift). So, who knows really what happened except that he had a lot of houses from which he could choose. We all set off only to start going in different directions once inside the courtyard. Max and I can’t resist a cut-out opportunity (ask Jane S. as we made her do one with us in Brighton), so we did the same here:

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The size of the interior keep was impressive, especially the double helix staircase, which supposedly (there’s that word again) Leo designed for his king pal.  This spiraling staircase connected the three main floors with apartments off of them.  From the bottom to the top (sixth floor) you can be on one staircase and someone on the other but not touch. A way to avoid brushing up against someone, or an attacker’s sword. However, as per the audio guide, this definitely wasn’t built as a fortress – too many easy-access doors and openings.

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Most of the rooms were unfurnished because the king carried his foldable stools, etc., with him to his various other homes, along with his retinue of 2,000+. However, we saw lots of salamanders, Francoise I’s personal emblem, like the green sign I saw walking with Betsy in Amboise. These creatures, which were thought to be able to survive fire and extinguish it with their cold little bodies (that’d be easy to test, I’d think), supported this king’s motto ‘I nourish [the good] and I extinguish [the bad]’. All over the place you see them… carved in stone

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and carved in wood (this, by the way, is the original wooden door accessing his personal chapel).

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We kept the audio guides glued to our ears as we also looked for any lit fireplaces.

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When we reached the terrace where we could promenade around the Harry Potter-esque chimneys and spires,

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we took the opportunity to take group portraits

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Exiting we spotted a shaggy donkey (Patricia, this is for you :),

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then we (Max, Betsy and I) stopped in Blois for a quick cafe lunch and a snapshot of the Loire and red-chimney dwellings prior to heading home to Amboise.

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Our farewell dinner was filled with leftovers, plenty of vino, and exotic veggies Danielle and Michelle found at the local market.

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DAY 10:  Saturday, December 27

I truly HATE goodbyes. We all knew it had to end, but that realization didn’t make it any easier. They’re off to Normandy to stay with friends until flying back to the States. We’re driving to Paris to return the car and stay in an airbnb.com rental. Being with this family was a treasure. Every day reminded us of just how much we love their company. And, having my sister here only made it even more wonderful. Thank gods and goddesses for such times.

With strong hugs we bade goodbye and set off for Paris with a brief stop in Malmaison, Josephine Bonaparte’s (1763-1814) home where she lived with her husband Napoleon (1769-1821) from 1799 to 1809, then as a divorcee (he needed a male heir and she was unable to give him one) until her death five years later on May 29.

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With 30 minutes before it opened after lunch break, we toured the gardens. Early on we found this fella. What did I say about photo ops?… :)

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Josephine purchased the house while Napoleon was on his Egyptian campaign. Evidently, she had a history of extravagance (bad) and graciousness (good except it fed into the extravagance), and Napoleon was furious at the price tag (300,000 francs, beaucoup bucks in today’s dollars). But, he soon got over it, and she began renovating it by hiring famous architects and landscape artists. She even imported exotic birds caged inside and animals to roam the grounds including never-before-seen black swans from Australia. (These weren’t there but thought I’d throw in a pic of them.)

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The house was lovely. Both Betsy and I said ‘I could live here’. Alas, not in the cards; yet, it didn’t keep us from drooling or thinking how we’d redo this and that room… :) No one really knows why Malmaison was so named but, as one site said, it could have been because of the occupants, not the house. Whatever the reason, the estate is beautiful. Napoleon held war councils here in a room framed out to resemble a battlefield HQ tent,

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and had his own library/office with a hidden staircase where he could escape to his apartment

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The rooms comprising Josephine’s apartment showed her bedroom where she died of a cold.

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She was truly Napoleon’s love of his life, and it’s where he returned after her death prior to being exiled. It’s recorded he spent some alone time in her boudoir reflecting on his love for her. In his memoirs he wrote her death was ‘one of the most acute griefs of that fatal year of 1814.’

Another reason this house was fascinating was because of the many family portraits we saw. There is a famous one of Napoleon crossing the alps by Jacque-Louis David, originally commissioned by the Spanish King who just happened to be Bonaparte’s elder brother, Joseph, who hung it in Madrid. A little interesting snippet:  David was on the Committee for Public Safety during the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, and he signed the death warrant for Josephine’s first husband. Small world, although not one I would have liked inhabiting.

Napoleon liked it so much he commissioned four others to hang elsewhere… one in Milan, two in Paris, and another kept with the artist until his death. There is a slight difference among all of them, with the original one now hanging in front of us at Mal Maison. Good PR for him as it shows him fitter than he was (the artist used his son as the model for the lower part) and he actually crossed the Alps on a mule (he wasn’t a good rider). The artist also threw in two other fearless leaders (Hannibal and Karolus Magnus or Charlemagne) carved in stone for good measure.

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Portraits of Josephine hang throughout as well. You don’t see her showing any teeth when smiling because she had horrible teeth. Betsy and I remembered this fact from a series of historical fiction books on Josephine that our mom gave us. In spite being fictional we still gleamed enough history to match the personality of the house to the owner, Empress Josephine.

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Josephine had two children (son and daughter) from her first marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais, and after she died the house was taken over by her son, Prince Eugene de Beauharnais. The estate was later sold and then purchased by Napoleon III, Josephine’s grandson via her daughter Hortense and Napoleon’s brother Louis  (yes, her step-uncle), who bought it from the widow of the King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, in 1861. Eventually, the estate was purchased by a philanthropist, David Iffla who called himself Osiris (no idea why). He renovated the home and then turned it over to the state allowing common folk such as us to tour and sigh over the loveliness found in this home.

Back in the car… where we dished out another high toll…

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and to our airbnb.com home in Montparnasse SW of Paris Center.

Our arrival was timed perfectly to meet up with our young hosts Marco and Lisou, a couple expecting their first child. We found out we were their last renters for awhile due to a baby on the way, and they enthusiastically showed us how things worked and stressed to call them with any and all questions. They were delightful, and we were sorry they weren’t going to be around (they were heading back to Normandy to spend the holidays with her parents). She had even left us Christmas cookies (she explained her dad’s German, so Christmas is a big deal with her family).

The house is small and lovely and modern, and we settled in for another late and easy night. PJs de rigueur :)

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DAY 11:  Sunday, December 28

Pariee! And, GD was it blistering cold. I put on one shirt, two shirt, three shirt, and then a sweater followed by tights, pants, coat, neck warmer, and hat. Mittens were long sleeves pulled over fingers. With that I was sort of ready. Off we tramped to the Metro at Pleasance to Champs Elysee-Clemenceau stop to go to Louis Vuitton’s new Foundation, a modern art museum designed by the famous architect Frank Gehry (he did the Guggenheim in Bilboa, Spain, and that bank in Berlin we recently saw).

Reaching our stop, I blithely told Max and Betsy ‘follow me. I know where we’re going.’ Not quite. I got us to the s-t-o-r-e, which amazed Max to think that this guy made enough money to have his own museum. We educated him on the demand of women for certain pocket books. He was still shaking his head five hours later wondering what they looked like. I promised not to purchase one to show him.

At least I got us to the store where we were told how to really get to the new center, the Foundation Louis Vuitton, which the famous architect Frank Gehry designed, one that Betsy had mentioned she wanted to see. There was a special van running from the Arc d’Triumph (about two blocks further away) every 15 minutes. Luckily, I spotted one at the roundabout waiting. We scurried over and jumped in. Doors shut and off we trundled to the Bois de Boulogne (west of Paris center).

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Well, it was new (opened in October) and it was a Sunday and it was a holiday week and it was frigging cold. So, when we saw the hours-long line, we did an about-face and tried to scramble back on the warm bus. No luck. We only had to wait another 15 minutes and, at least, it wasn’t the same driver. We were batting one to zero. As we drove away in the van, Max looked back at the huge new museum and commented there must be a wicked mark-up on women’s handbags.

Next idea:  Musee d’Orangerie in Tullieres Gardens opposite end from the Lourve. We took the Metro and exited at the Gardens. Orienting ourselves we crossed to the Musee only to find, yep, you guessed it, an hour-long line… in the cold. Nope, Next.

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So, now we’re two to none. Time for lunch, a pee break, and getting out of the cold. An hour later we’re back on the streets.

What about Notre Dame? It’s free, huge, and not a museum, per se. We thought it wouldn’t be a long walk, so we headed for that part of gay Pariee noting that if we walked by the Seine we’d be in the sun. Twenty minutes later with legs like popsicle sticks we’re there and see the line and say ‘what else?’

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Three to zero and it’s getting close to when we could head over to check on our theater tickets. Max had seen on Tripadvisor some excellent reviews for ‘Hymne a Edith Piaf’ by Caroline Nin. A mix of English and French this chantreuse had performed to sold-out shows at the Sydney Opera House. Her Paris performance was in a 13th century building (underground) and catered to an intimate audience (40 at the most). He had reserved three tickets for the 6:00pm show, and we were looking forward to sitting down out of the cold. But, we still had two hours before we could do that.

We saw some exhibit banners at the Pompidou Center, one being for Frank Geary, so, we thought ‘what the hell? let’s check that out’. Hah! Hadn’t we learned? Sure enough, it was packed with a line out the door and bending around and around.

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Realizing we now were at four to zero, we headed for libations, starting with coffee and migrating to alcohol after walking around the Marais area (where Betsy said she’d visited our friend Robbie when he was living there for a summer).

A little before six we returned to the Theater for our show. And, Max hit it out of the ballpark. She put on a spectacular show. We even purchased three CDs and had her autograph them. If anyone enjoys Edith Piaf’s music and is intrigued by her history, give yourself a gift by hearing Caroline Nin (carolinenin.com).

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FYI:  Edith Piaf tried to get two of her regular composers to write her melody down for the lyrics she had written. They both said they wouldn’t put their name to this song. Fortunately, the third person she approached loved it. And, even more fortunately we can close our eyes and drift along with the music.

DAY 12:  Monday, December 29

Because there are a lot, and I mean A LOT, of folk trying to visit the same sites we are, Max had a brilliant idea of getting off the typical sight-seeing path. So, today we’re checking out some places researched the night before. Part of our tour including revisiting Rue Cler, a lovely pedestrian street located SW of the Eiffel Tower. We had stayed here a few years ago in February on a layover and, yes, it was freezing then, too, but not the inside shops and markets weren’t as crowded. We had found a little restaurant, Petit Cler, which served inexpensive meals amidst locals shoulder-to-shoulder, and we loved it. So, we thought it would be a wonderful way to remember our previous visit and to introduce Betsy to a favorite place of ours.

We stopped in at the hotel where we had stayed (unfortunately, the owners and their pup, Cannelle, weren’t there),

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But, the street hummed with the same energy as the last time,

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and we enjoyed the coziness and crowd at the tiny restaurant. Betsy, who had seen our water pitchers from here on Orr’s, ended up getting two herself :)

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Then, she headed back to the Foundation Louis Vuitton while we began our trek to more obscure sites, such as Victor Hugo’s Maison (closed on Mondays but beautiful to see the park on which he lived). We passed a restaurant named Cape Horn where Max went in to ask why the name, and discovered it was owned and managed by some Chileans; but, he didn’t meet any fellow Cape Horners.

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Another site on our list was the National Archives.

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Walking along the courtyard’s path to the front door we passed some historical markers commemorating WW II. What was interesting, though, were the pedestals featured black and white photographs of France’s collaboration with the Germans. They, like the Germans, are facing their past and using it as a teaching instrument to those for whom that period of time is only experienced via history books.

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The archives were open but only for another thirty minutes.  But, boy, did we see some amazing documents:

  • a document on papyrus from 625 from the king to the Abbey of Saint-Denis
  • Charlemagne’s diploma
  • a letter from Jeanne d’arc to the people of Reims (1429?) (she was illiterate so she must have had it penned for her)
  • a letter from Napoleon on National Letterhead to Josephine (1796)
  • one of Marie Antoinette’s coded letters to her very (very) good friend, the Swedish Count Axel von Fersen (June 29, 1791)

All in French and no photos allowed but I did ask the front desk for a translation of a Robespierre list of people’s names that had ‘la tete’ written on it. I thought it was a list of future losses, but the three women who followed me to the display case said it was about the courage and heart of the men. Actually, they rushed to where I had found the scrawled list under glass. They admitted they couldn’t easily translate a lot of the earlier documents because they were in old French so maybe they, too, thought it was a list of heads to roll…

Another display case explained that cursive writing came about due to folk wanting to write quickly, hence the linking of letters. However, writing deteriorated so badly in the 16th and 17th centuries King Louis XIV demanded that people must write legibly. He would have loved typewriters. Better yet, computers with auto-correct. Except that could be dicey if not checked carefully. Imagine someone typing a note to him like I did to a good friend only to have ‘dear ____’  auto-correct to ‘dead ____’.

Finally, this site displayed some parchment rolls explaining they were used for lengthy records, such as trials; and, they said the one covering the Trial of the Knight Templars (1308-09) was 174 feet long. That wasn’t shown but added weight to the rationale for rolling documents.

Wishing we had more time we still were glad we got a taste of this collection. As an out-of-the-way exhibit it was a great find, thanks to Max, and we headed home content knowing we had seen something so informative (it would have been more so if we spoke ancient French). We also agreed to find more, less touristy sites to visit during our stay.

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Picking up a chicken that goes round and round the three of us ended the night picking out our next day destinations while wishing we had Michelle and Danielle around who could finish off the carcass.

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DAY 13:  Tuesday, December 30

While Betsy went to the newly renovated  Picasso Museum, Max and I returned to Victor Hugo’s Maison on Place des Vosges, the oldest square in Paris and designed by king Henry IV (1553-1610).  [Interesting history:  Catherine De Medici destroyed the royal residence, Hotel des Tournelles, after her husband Henry II died there (July 10, 1559)  from wounds obtained from a tournament.] (When inside I looked out one of Hugo’s windows to see what he’d see, and this is of the square.)

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We barely had to wait in line (a limited number of people are allowed in to ensure no over-crowding), and we were soon climbing on wide stairs to No.6 on the second floor of the Hotel de Rohan-Guemenee where Victor Hugo (1802-1885) lived with his wife and their four children.

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He moved there at the age of thirty and began one of his best known works, Les Miserables. He finished this book when in political exile on Guernsey Island. The reason for this self-imposed exile began due to his lack of support for Napoleon III (called him a traitor to France… he’s probably lucky he kept his head). Hugo fled to Brussels in 1851 then the Channel Islands where he lived on Jersey until 1853. From there he moved to Guernsey living in Hauteville House until returning to Paris 1870.

One reason he selected the Channel Islands were their close affiliation with Normandy from when William I, Duke of Normandy, became King of England in 1066. These islands are self-governing but have been dependent territories of England since 1106 when Henry I, King of England and youngest son of William I, seized the Duchy of Normandy from his brother Robert. Hauteville House is the other Hugo home maintained as a museum.

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ouring the apartment composed of decor from different times of his life with the ever-present audio guides we both learned a lot more about this famous author.

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The anteroom has a portrait of his father, Leopold, the son of a carpenter who rose to social prominence as one of Napoleon’s generals. Due to his military career he travelled a lot. Eventually his mother, Sophie and a Catholic Royalist, got tired of the constant moving and just stayed in Paris. From then on Victor and his two siblings would split time between mother and father.

The red room decorated with heavy, red damask curtains and wallpaper, displayed more family portraits, including one of him,

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He was devoted to his four children, and you can get a sense of that caring in one of the pictures with his son.

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The Chinese room is overwhelming and was designed by Hugo himself for his mistress, Juliette Druett (1806-1883), an actress… soon former actress, who became his secretary and traveling companion. She moved with him to the Channel Islands (but lived in a different house… Adele was still with him. Go figure.

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He was a socially conscious activist and put his money where his mouth and pen were. At one point his wife Adele solicited writing inkwells from four famous authors:  Alphonse de Lamartine, considered to be the first French romantic poet; George Sand, the first modern liberated woman and lover of Chopin; Alexandre Dumas, historical novelist (ie., The Count of Monte Crisco); and Hugo. The purpose was to raise funds at an auction to feed the poor. The inkwells were affixed to a desktop with plaques and now stands in this red room. (It didn’t sell at the auction due to the high price so Hugo bought it.)

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The dining room reflects Hugo’s penchant for old chests, which he then had dismantled and reassembled to use as tabletops, doors, etc. This room, too, seems over the top, furnished with dark Gothic furniture and covered in brown wallpaper.

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His bedroom, next to the study, is from 130 Avenue d’Eylau where he lived from (1878-1885). His writing desk used when standing is placed against one wall, which allowed us to envision him doing just that. It also has his bed where he died (beds where famous people have died are quite popular).

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He was considered the ‘voice of the people.’  When he died over two million people (more than the population of Paris) came to the city for his funeral. No wonder. He spoke out for those who couldn’t, or, if they did, got kicked back down. He was and is (debate still goes on amidst radicals) a controversial figure due to his politics, which changed throughout his life ping-ponging from socialist to imperialist but always bourgeois. Yet, one can’t deny that his writings and many acts in life demonstrated his desire to help those who were often overlooked and scorned by those more fortunate.

You may remember from other comments in previous Blob Blogs that I really enjoy the overlapping and connectivity in history; and, a minor touch point here is Charles Dickens describing his meeting of Hugo in a letter to a good friend of his, Lady Blessingham, on January 27, 1849:  

“I was much struck by Hugo himself, who looks like a Genius, as he certainly is very interesting from head to foot. His wife is a handsome woman with flashing black eyes, who looks as if she might poison his breakfast any morning when the humor seized her. There is also a ditto daughter of fifteen or sixteen, with ditto eyes, and hardly any drapery above the waist, whom I should suspect of carrying a sharp poignard in her stays but for her not appearing to wear any. Sitting among old armour, and old tapestry, and old coffers, and grim old chairs and tables, and old Canopies of state from old places, and old golden lions going to play at skittles with ponderous old golden balls, they made a most romantic show, and looked like a chapter out of one of his own books.”  

Ouch.

A test for me of whether I’ve enjoyed a site or not is whether I want ‘more’… more information on a person, building, event. And, Victor Hugo’s apartment No.6 definitely left me with a hunger to learn more about this man’s life and times. Max left to explore more Joan of Arc historical places while I walked around the square waiting for Betsy. The Place des Vosges has plenty of art galleries, and I spotted a few that were just fun to look at.

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Betsy arrived saying she missed out on the Picasso Exhibit because it was a 1.5 hour wait in line (again). Nothing like a popular city during holiday season. Instead she had wandered into the Carnavalet Museum, one covering the History of Paris. In spite of the displays being all in French, she said she didn’t have to wait in line and it was free. Oh, and it was interesting. Free? No line? Interesting? That museum went on the list for a ‘to-do’ tour.

We decided to walk to St. Germain, an area familiar to her. We crossed the river and just window-shopped as we made our way to Le Petit Cler to meet Max. Along the way

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we saw Autolib, a pay-as-you-drive electric rental car, at one of the 1,200 recharging stations…

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the English book store where Jonathan R., the son/nephew/grandson of some great family friends of ours use to live and work (he slept on a cot on the second floor in return for working there). See if you can spot B (hint:  look for a furry hat).

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another sign that at a briefest of glances I thought ‘wow!’ until Betsy reminded me the McCarthy ending’s not ‘tney’ but ‘thy’…

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and, something for our friend Carol E. who’d appreciate this on the streets of Paris as much as I :)

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We made it to Rue Cler where we found Max enjoying a libation while he’d been waiting for us, holding our seats. We joined him and began an early, New Year’s celebratory dinner out, our best (and only one out) in Paris.

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We finished off the night with Max posing in the Metro and Betsy studiously ignoring him (wise choice).

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DAY 14:  Wednesday, December 31

After hearing Betsy’s description of the Carnavalet Museum (name comes from the original mansion converted to a museum in 1880 and enlarged in 1989 by annexing another mansion next door), we all decided to go. Betsy went with us to wait with a newspaper at a cafe for then all of us were heading to another not-so-busy (we hope) museum, Musee Jaquemart-Andre.

We planned only a brief (one hour) stop-in; yet, we discovered they offered audio-guides, which made us wish we had agreed to a longer time. But, even with the short time we were there it was easy to get a sense of whether it was worth returning (it is) at a later date.

One of the first rooms has iron signs dangling from the ceiling. Unbeknownst to me, street signs were the only way to identify addresses until 1805 when Paris made street numbering compulsory. Who would have thought it?

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One room had three bedrooms set-up where you could peer in, one belonging to Marcel Proust no less, with the iron bed he had owned since age 16.

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Another room was dedicated to two famous philosophers, Voltaire (1694-1778) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who detested one another.

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Their thoughts on mankind were exactly opposite:  Voltaire believed education and reason are the tickets to a better life while Rousseau felt nature is man’s salvation. This excerpt says it all from a letter Voltaire wrote to Rousseau after receiving a copy of Rousseau’s Social Contract:

“I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid…”

Double ouch.

After leaving the museum, Betsy and I got sidetracked while Max left for our next museum tour, the home of Edouard Andree (1833-94) and Nelie Jacquemart (1841-1912). He was the son of the wealthiest Protestant banker in town, she a well-known society painter.

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The house has both public and private rooms on tour, all filled with priceless art work. Built in 1869 and finished six years later, it was a home everyone wanted to see. (The walls of the grand salon could be lifted so three rooms became one, large enough to entertain 1,000 people. Not bad.) The party in 1875 celebrating its opening attracting the creme de la creme draped in jewels and fancy dress. [However, the audio guide said diamonds weren’t suppose to be worn;  they were considered crass and tacky, and they scratched the guests with their sharp points. Oh well. Let them wear pearls while eating cake]

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This husband-wife team met when she painted his portrait. Ten years later, they married in 1881. According to a guard we met (Froggy Francois, a name HE called himself, not us), it was a marriage of reason not of romance. Good thing as Edouard had syphilis and Nelie was just looking for a wealthy man (info from Francois).

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Paintings by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Botticelli adorn the walls along with tapestries, frescoes, and sculpture such as the bust of Pope Gregory by Bernini.

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Considering Edouards’ wealth, it’s not too shocking the masterpieces he and Nelie acquired. What was shocking was hearing this couple described on the audio guide as upper ‘middle’ class. Yeah, right.

In one room Francois pointed out the differing perspective in a painting:  her knees face you either side you’re on….

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He also told us to go back into the previous room where a bunch of the Dutch paintings were exhibited and gave us an assignment:  how many people are in the Jesus-at-the-table painting by Rembrandt? We finally got it right, but it only proved how valuable and entertaining this guard was. Why he wasn’t teaching an art class I don’t know. Then again, he might be!

Just an example of how opulent this mansion was… off of the winter garden room (lots of window panes) was a staircase designed to be different (placed at the end of the house vs. center) and magnificent (marble spiral). The architect who lost the bid for the Paris Opera house wanted to create a showpiece, and he did, one that’s never been duplicated. The twin staircase climbed to the next floor

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where this was on the ceiling (which, by the way, was above the music room).

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And, this is only a small smattering of what we saw in this house of art. [I can’t do this place justice so here’s a link for anyone wanting to really see the place:  http://musee-jacquemart-andre.com/en/home.]

After his death, Nelie continued adding to their collection with both Egyptian artifacts and English paintings. When she died, she followed her husband’s wishes and bequeathed the house and its contents to a private instituion, Institut de France. Which is why Francois kept asking us if we knew Bill Gates for this private organization needs money for upkeep of this glorious house of art.

Max caught up with us when we were conversing with our new-found buddy, Francois, and commented that Bill Gates is off curing malaria at the moment.

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Max decided to head off to the see the Musee des Egouts , i.e., Paris’ sewers. I was contemplating going with him but, after reading comments about the smell with one visitor warning people not to visit during the hot summer months, I decided sipping wine with Betsy was much more preferable.

Our last night we brought out the bottle purchased at Lelarge-Pugeot Vineyard and named for their daughter Clemence whom we had met. It seemed a fitting end to 2014.

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DAY 15:  Thursday, January 1

We left for Gare du Nord and our morning trains back to London. Betsy was flying on to Cincinnati and we were training it to Ipswich.

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But, I had to have one shot of the Metro, the transport we relied on so heavily during our visit, and at least one more bread item at the station.

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Speaking of carbohydrates I read something on Eurostar’s napkin, which adds to my fondness for France… “Je ne regrette rien.  Calories don’t count when crossing time zones.” Now, that’s the type of philosophy I can easily adore.

What a trip, what a wonderful group of people with which to share it, and what beautiful memories.

Au revoir… nous allons revenir.

Jingle bells

We’re spending the holidays with family and friends in France. Talk about fairy-tale living!

DAY 1:  Wednesday, December 17

Leaving Ipswich by train and subway, we arrived at St. Pancrass Station to await my sister Betsy’s arrival from Cincinnati. While there I headed off to wander around (lovely bustling station) and Max kept watch over our bags. When I returned a young woman had sat down next to him and begun chatting him up. When I plopped down next to him she immediately began apologizing for talking to my husband, which I thought was a bit strange. Well, it got even better for Max later told me she began a conversation by saying her ex-boyfriend had just texted her asking her to reimburse him for all the money he had spent on her…. then she related how he had just bought himself a camper van, and she wasn’t about to give him any money for he was just going to use that van to get whores. Whoa, now it was turning into an interesting conversation. She then told Max (and, my ear was tuned in but still had to have Max fill in the details) that her 14-year-old niece wouldn’t have to work… ever… because she just had a baby and would keep on having them. All of this while she evidently had poured herself a glass of wine and drank it down.

Betsy met us at the Eurostar terminal and off we squeezed into a tube hurdling through the chunnel towards France. We arrived in Paris, located our EuRopcar

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and duly noted with the attendant all the itsy-bitsy scratches on the car. The kind attendant had the patience of that bible guy Job because we had already peppered him with questions about the extra insurance deposit; and, his sign of relief when we left must have turned to a groan when he saw us return asking where the garage elevator was. He must have promised himself a good bottle of wine when he finally saw us get in the car and actually leave as he waved us on. We quickly exited the train station and entered the sludge of rush-hour traffic as we centimetered our way out of the center and then suburbs of gay pariee.

We made it to Reims in 2.45 hours (yes, the last 15 minutes was due to my not seeing the blue moving dot creep to the correct turn in Reims so we had to retrace our steps just a wee bit), checked into our little but, to us, excellent rooms (remember, Max and I live on a boat where, to travel from the ‘bedroom’ to the ‘kitchen’ is a matter of 9 steps),and left to suss out a place for dinner. We found one just around the corner with a charming young waiter. The waiter became even more charming when he answered Max’s question about ‘what is this?’ on the menu with ‘father of Bambi’ :) I fell in love on the spot.

DAY 2:  Thursday, December 18

We wake Betsy at 9:50 am (she was on Cincinnati time), and she was perky although a bit confused. After some strong cafe au lait,

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we were off to Verdun,

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the sight of WWI’s tragic battle akin to the US Civil War’s Gettysburg. A friend recently told Max and me that WWI was begun by Queen Vicky’s petulant grandchildren:  someone snubbed someone at someone’s event causing everyone to begin maneuvering to hate anyone not on the side of someone. It’s confusing but considering all European heads were somehow related to England’s Victoria and, thus, to each other, it’s believable.

For those who were like me, the understanding of Verdun’s significance during WWI was it was bad. Scratch that, it was horrendous. Now, touring it I obviously learned just how terrible this 300-day battle turned out to be. As a symbol of French pride this town stood in Alcaise Lorraine, territory representing both German and French pride. The Germans decided to throw everything they had against this area counting on the French to then bleed to death defending and losing it (The Germans could have taken out the French supply line but wanted to keep that artery fully operational ensuring their enemy was pumping out life blood until it was depleted).

On February 21, 1916, the Germans began their bombardment and the Battle of Verdun began. Lasting 300 days (until December 18) it resulted in a French victory but not without horrific casualties (estimated just over 500,000 for the French and just under 500,000 for the Germans). There’s a reason this battle is also called The Mincing Machine of Verdun. The actual town of Verdun wasn’t captured but around it became a scorched earth. This engagement between two enemies ended with neither strategic or tactical advantage for either. It represents the senselessness of war, and seeing the scars and the memorials to the dead, we couldn’t have agreed more.

If anyone would like to see one, uplifting moment, check out Sainsbury’s youtube video of its 1914 Christmas ad. It’s based on a historical event that occurred during WWI. Max and I saw it played on the movie screen in Ipswich, and, although a bit saccharine, I still can appreciate its message.

Without too much trouble following the blue Google dot we located Verdun beautifully situated along the River Meuse. Our first Verdun stop was the town of Fleury. This is how it looked like after the German bombed the town.

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It is now a wooded landscape with a chapel and a path taking one to markers noting previous occupants’ livelihood.

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Haunting? Yes.  Beautiful? Yes. Sad? Of course.

With sprinkles turning a bit into straight away rain Max, who’s generally always prepared, got out his protector pants while Betsy and I just figured our hair would get rinsed well.

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The three of us took separate paths while each tried to envision what the scene would have been like in 1916 after the battle. I can honestly admit I couldn’t. It’s too overwhelming. I found it difficult enough trying to reconstruct towns and cities when ruined buildings and streets still stand. What was even more poignant to me was finding ourselves sloshing around in mud, mud that was so minor compared to what those in war were living in.

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Back in the car we headed towards another battle and memorial site.

The Duoaumont Ossuary is a sacred memorial to those unknown soldiers who died in the Battle of Verdun. Correct outfits are requested to be worn and men to remain bare-headed. Furthermore, one is greeted with the a sign asking visitors to remember where they are.

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The bones of 130,000 unknown fallen during the Battle of Verdun were dug up and re-interred under this building dedicated in 1932, seven years before the next war (and WWI was to end all wars? sure). Another tragic reminder of how most wars end–placeholders for the next.

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Touring the long gallery, we lit a candle for our mom and our two dads.

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We then went to listen to a 20-minute documentary that provided the overview of the battle and the creation of this site.

Back outside were 15,000 graves and their associated crosses standing to attention before the artillery-shaped memorial. Each cross has a rosebush, which means this site must be amazing beautiful during the spring and summer in spite of the deaths associated with it.

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Suitable somber after this visit we head towards Fort Douaumont, built to defend France against future German aggression after the signing of the Treaty of Frankfurt ending the Franco-Prussian War (July 19 1870-May 10, 1871). That war resulted in the unification of Germany and France’s loss of the provinces of Alsace and part of Lorraine in addition to a heavy war indemnity and German occupation until it was paid. Not a good way to rebuild friendly borders.

On our way to the Fort there were remnants strewn along the road, such as this bunker that was connected to the Fort via its 3km of underground galleries or tunnels.

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This fort had a skelton crew when it was taken by the Germans in four days on February 25th. Talk about demoralizing.

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On the 24th of October the Moroccan Colonial Infantry Regiment retook this symbolic Fort, and a memorial was erected in thanks to those soldiers who fought for France.

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Similar to our Fleury visit the wispy images of former embattled structures, craters and trenches created more ghostly imagery of battle scenes. What helped bring a sense of peace to this and other sites was the documentation was in French, English AND German. And, often we saw the German flag standing in brotherhood next to the French one.

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We stopped at one of the most beautiful memorials for another ugly event:  the Trench of Bayonets. On June 12 the 137th Regiment of French infantry were buried alive, and they were found three years later only because of their bayonets sticking out of the earth. When they dug down they discovered a soldier standing next to each bayonet.

This memorial is the trench where they were found.

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From there we went to Citadelle Souterraine located under the citadel of Verdun where 7km of galleries housed 2,000 men, a bakery (reputed to have baked 28,000 loaves a day), mlll, armaments, telephone and telegraph exchange, and a water-pump station. It’s also where we decided to take a battery-operated cart running through some of the galleries (tunnels).

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Final review:  don’t do it. It was a bad Disneylandesque ride through what should have been held in a more sacred light.

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After that, we decided it was too dark to visit the American cemetery (the Americans arrived June 26, 1917, but needing training before entering the trenches October 21 on the Western Front; the war ended on November 19, 1918, with the Treaty of Versailles signed on June 28, 1919. As many know, the terms of this treaty set the stage for the next world war thanks to the ostracizing of Germany and its war debts).

Second option was pick up wine and scotch and return to room for cocktails. Max was willing to drive the extra hour+ if anyone wanted to go there. We smartly and unanimously went with the second option.

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… four hours later we’re back from eating street food (hamburgers and fries) amidst some locals who were serving champagne. Betsy caught their eye and started a conversation. Before we knew it Stephen was pouring us glasses from his family’s vineyard and Clemence was promising some from hers. We ate, drank, and spoke with them as well as some other locals. We also met Natayla. She’s from US via Columbia, South America, and is working at Clemence’s family’s vineyard, Lelarge-Pugeot as an intern from UC Davis. And, instead of one booked tour of Billecart-Salmon that B arranged last week we now have two… Billecart-Salmon AND Clemence’s.

Bubbles anyone? :)

DAY 3:  Friday, December 19

The alarm dragged us out of sleep as we prepared for even more champagne. We stumbled out of our rooms and to the car thinking we’d grab coffee along the way.

Wrong. There was no coffee along the way (with the exception of a Micky D’s we passed at which both B and I turned our noses up; big mistake).  Continuing to our destination in Mareuil-sur-Ay we scoured the ville centre for a coffee shop. Nope. But, there was a patisserie, so we ended up at least with some bread item in our stomachs prior to imbibing bubbly.

Pulling into the gorgeous French driveway of this champagne headquarters we met Sandie, our guide, and waited for two more to appear.

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They turned out to be Stephanie and Sam from LA, two young engineers, he, working on digital phones, she, on environmental and sustainability consulting.

Through the back garden

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we trundled off to the buildings where the champagne was squeezed from all the gathered grapes collected from the plots they own and from ones from which they purchase the harvest. Harvesting typically takes a week to ten days.

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To prove I was listening I’ve noted some retelling of Sandie’s tour:

  • They use three types of grapes in varying configurations to create their different champagnes and wines:  pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier. The first two are less hardy than the pinot meunier, but the climate change has made it easier to grown them.

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  • 4,000 liters of grapes convert to 2,000 of juice.Billecart-Salmon allows only thirty minutes from harvesting to pressing; they want minimal grape skin contact with the juice to keep the champagne from acquiring the color from the skin.
  • This champagne house produces two million bottles a year with five million kept in the cellars (3km long running under the town).
  • Their unique method is making it quite cold (although, you should drink it NOT cold but slightly chilled)If not a vintage year (year stipulated on the bottle), they can add up to one and two years’ previous wine to ensure a consistent taste.
  • It’s been in the family since 1818, and the cellar master along with the current owner and his father (over 90) are the tasters.

One of the most startling bits of information was learning that people squeezed into each tank to wash it out once emptied. A wee bit claustrophobic for me (as well as requiring a fairly restrictive diet).

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In the cellar we discovered another interesting tidbit:  they don’t like to clean their cellars of mold, even stringy, disgusting furry stuff:

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The reason being they fear destroying the existing mold and growth might ruin any natural benefit that occurs when keeping the wines in the cellar. Yuck, although I can’t argue with the end product.

While in this cavernous cellar we passed a gated and locked room where Sandie said the owner kept their vineyard library. They had wines going back to 1932, and she also duly noted no one had the key except the owner…

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The last stop prior to tasting was where they aged the wine in casks. On a large blackboard in calligraphied handwriting (by a man as per Sandie), each village’s grape juice is duly noted to identify each cask.

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Billecart-Salmon doesn’t replace the interior but will add new exteriors to ensure their image and brand keep up apperances. Plus, the angel hovering over the casks helps keep the spirits in heavenly order.

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After three glasses of champagne (and that’s with limited food intake and NO coffee) we were buzzing a bit. Poor Stephanie and Sam didn’t even have coffee. But, we all enjoyed our tour, our guide, and the champagne.

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Next, lunch.

We ended up at the only bistro in town and immediately wished we had bought sandwiches at the patisserie after seeing the buffet (items not recognizable floating in mayo and strange meat slices) and hearing plat du jour was either fish and potatoes or steak and frites. Thinking it’d be rude to leave we ordered one plate of each and coffee. Wasn’t bad but we wouldn’t be stopping there again if you know what I mean.

Off we go to our second tasting up to Vrigny to see Lelarge-Pugeot, Clemence’s family’s vineyard, which is organic and been in the family since the 18th century.

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We parked and poked around and were finally spotted by Clemence’s mom and dad followed by Natayla. Natayla, whom we had met the previous night at the impromptu tasting that we managed to get invited to, showed us around their operation. Lelarge-Pugeot produces roughly 60,000 bottles a year, and one this year is named after Clemence (unfortunately, she was in Paris holding some tastings otherwise we’d have a photo of her, too).

Natalia showed us the turning racks, both modern and traditional. She said the owner liked the traditional method. The reason for this exercise is to get rid of the cloudiness in sparkling wine caused by sediment (turning loosens it and gravity pulls it to the neck when bottles are titled downward; it forms a plug when the neck is frozen so when the cork is popped, the trapped carbon dioxide disgorges the sediment out). For a much better and more complete lesson on how this starry drink is created, check this site out:  http://www.wineperspective.com/making_champagne.htm  :)

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The tour was quick (which was fine by us) followed by some tastings and, of course, a purchase :)

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We ended up leaving wishing we could spend more time with this young woman from UC Davis who’s adventurous and curious and gracious. As she said maybe our paths will cross again. A traveler’s motto for sure.

We hurried back to Reims so we could visit the Notre-Dame Cathedral before the light faded. It had really started to rain, which only added to the somberness of this church.

A statue of Jeanne d’arc (she’s linked to this city, specifically, this cathedral) greeted us as we scurried towards the entrance.

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Once inside the chilly cavernous building we discovered we had to go to the Tourist Information Office to rent the audio guides. Back outside we ran to a neighboring building, procured the guides, and ran back through pouring rain to the now freezing interior of this historic building.

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As we walked around trying to use the audio guides we didn’t do too well following the snippets of history. Because none of us knew our chuch architecture when the tape directed us to a certain location we didn’t know where the heck to go. After forty minutes of asking one another ‘what’s the [churcey term for a locale]? ‘ we decided to call it quits but not before we paid homage to the Maid of Orleans, Jeanne d’arc.

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Her chapel and the alter were worth viewing, the latter because it’s where  the Kings of France (last one in 1825) were crowned starting with the baptism of Clovis I, 498-499.

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Being crowned in Reims provided the kings with a connection to God, imbuing their rule with a sacred flavor.

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This particular church meant a lot to Max because it’s where Jeanne d’arc stood beside Charles VII as he was crowned; and, it’s because of her that Charles was able to hold his coronation in this place.

We turned in our guides, purchased take-away sandwiches, salads, and a turkish duram, and strolled back to our rooms taking in the Christmas spirit glittering all around us. A lovely way to end our stay in Reims.

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DAY 3:  Saturday, December 20   

We packed our bags and set off for Amboise via Troyes, a stop roughly midway between Reims and a VRBO.com where we’d meet up with our friends the Sumners.

Troyes is described as a great way to experience medieval France because of its half-timbered houses.  I particularly enjoyed the odd colors (not sure if the residents really painted their homes using these tints way back when?)

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There’s even a street where the houses almost meet as demonstrated by Betsy and Max and looking skyward.

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After a lunch of salads, including Max’s that must have had half a porker on it (more than he wanted),

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we walked back to our car catching sight of even more half-timbered homes, many of which were looking like they were on their last legs.

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One of the best sights was seeing the Cheshire Cat surveying his domain from the rooftop of a parked car…

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and, a manhole cover with wooden inserts for Ellen :)

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Our final destination, Amboise, loomed ahead of us. Three hours later AFTER a 32+ euro highway toll. (I think this is what they must mean by highway robbery. One even cost us over 8 euros for only twenty minutes of driving) we arrived at our VRBO.com, which Traci and Smokey found, unloaded a few essentials (cheese, ham, bread and wine) then waited form our friends’ arrival :)

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DAY 4:  Sunday, December 21

Up and out like a herd of turtles. We all wanted to experience the open-air Market held 8:30a-1:30p on Sundays.

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We were going to pick up items for our dinners during the week, but it was a bit of a hodgepodge in a wonderful sense.

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There were so many items from which to select it was difficult not getting side-tracked.

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But, we managed to find plenty that would jumble together for dinners augmented by a stop at the local butcher’s.

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Betsy and I went for a walk to Clos du Luce, Leo’s home for the last three years of his life thanks to his pal King Francis I (don’t know if you remember from when Max and I were here but the two buddies had an underground tunnel connecting the royal household with Leo’s house so they could enjoy one another’s company without a whole slew of folk hanging around). It was as lovely as the first time so I couldn’t resist snapping more shots of local color.

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And, one of the best ones was the surprise Christmas concert we came upon just below the Royal Chateau, primarily due to the lively conductor.

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Back home we enjoyed the company of our visiting Butterscotch Butterball so dubbed by Michelle and Danielle.

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This kitty became our daily visitor and was hard to resist a cuddle whenever we spotted him.

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Our first market dinner was chicken that goes round and round along with a ratouille dish Traci made after she learned to cook each vegetable separately and to add the tomatoes at the very end.

Boy, was it good, and it looked pretty fantastic as well.

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The night ended with a photo of our leopardess followed by a night of charades.

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DAY 5:  Monday, December 22

A lazy day without any committed sites to see or meals to create, so we all ended up wandering around Amboise and soaking up the Christmas spirit in this lovely Loire River Valley town.

Everyone gathered around the kitchen and dining room connecting with friends and family while catching up on the news.

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Meanwhile dinner was prepped

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and a lovely dessert was presented by Smokey.

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Yet, the girls, both runners, were visiting the chicken carcass an hour or so later prior to our nightly game of Charades, warmed up from the night before :)

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DAY 6:  Tuesday, December 23

A long drive to Oradour-sur-Glane (only 3+ hours one-way but, still, it felt long, especially since neither Betsy nor I had had any coffee to start. By the time we found a place almost an hour away we split five javas amongst the three of us. Along with some french goodies such as a croissant and french-bread sandwiches.

The site we were heading for was called the matyed village. The museum was closed but a statue is situated beside a street in the existing town prior to entering the original one across the street.

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On June 10, 1955, Nazis surrounded the town with lorries. They then separated the men and the women and children. They machine-gunned and burned the men around the town (plaques note the locations), then herded the women and children into the church and set it afire. 642 people died that day.

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No reasons are given except to say it might have been due to the Allied landing in Normandy four days earlier. Another atrocity occurred two days prior in a nearby town when the Nazis strung up 99 resistance fighters over that town’s balconies as a warning to the French residents. Maybe it was a reprisal for some French Resistance event? Whatever the reason, it wasn’t reason enough to inflict the horror to that one town.

France has left the town ‘as is’. And, a haunting ‘as is’ it truly is. We first saw some burned ruins over the low walls, then walked the entire village spotting every day relics amidst the charred walls and burned out homes.

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Everyday items that could survive the fire were left in the village, adding personal reminders to this inhuman act of war.

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One woman and five men escaped (the woman by jumping out of the church window where a plaque marks the spot).

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I don’t know if you can really see it, but the melted item in front of the alter is actually a baby carriage, no doubt because a mother used it to bring her young chid when forced into the church by the Nazis.

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The fortunate ones were those already in the cemetery, where now a memorial with remnants from the ashes stands to those martyred that day.

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It was good to have seen and even better to have left.

DAY 7:  Wednesday, December 24

The morning dawned relatively clear and chilly. Today was a day of last minute errands, which included picking up the roast beast (that Max would be cooking).

We caused quite a stir of raised eyebrows in the shop because the nice guy helping us didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak French, so when he began cutting up the beef, Max and I loudly said ‘non, s’il vous plait!’. Fortunately, the guy who did speak English came over and Max explained to him what he meant. No problem, said the guy, and the other one went to get another cut. And, boy, did he.

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With other last minute errands (bread, lettuce, olive oil, and vino) I headed home as Betsy went up to Leo’s house.

Max had already begun the prep for our Christmas Eve dinner by the time I was back. We added some music to the ingredients and the evening was shaping up nicely.

Soon the Sumners were back from Chenonceaux (Smokey has charaded it out so now it’s easy for me to remember how to pronounce it), unloading another luscious gift box of sumptuous pastries,

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and the festivities began with the uncorking of a magnum filled with liquid stars

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and a game or two of charades split into family teams.

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followed by an amazing meal with Max’s stellar roast beast, and

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followed by more charades and tons of laughter… and some special liqueur brought out by Smokey.

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DAY 8:  Thursday, CHRISTMAS!

The morning arrived with us appearing for coffee in our pjs.

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Santa came during the night and hung gifts on our white, frosted tree.

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By 11:00 am we all were up and gift-giving was shared all around with some special ones from Michelle and Danielle, which, I have to admit, made me and some others a bit teary-eyed.

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Butterball Butterscotch appeared to wish us a Merry Christmas, although I believe he was checking out any scraps from the Christmas Eve dinner.

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Smokey had managed to get us in to a Christmas dinner that was like a fairytale, requiring some dressing up.

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By 1:15 pm we piled into the DM2 (Dork Mobil 2, a Smokey and Traci rental van named after their first one) and went to Chateau duPrayer for a meal of a lifetime.

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Being Americans (and off to ourselves in a corner table) we couldn’t resist some decorations…

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Six courses later, we exited at 5:30 pm much fuller and richer for the experience. Never ever have I tasted and lived such an event. I believe, too, it will be a long, long, ever so long while before I do so again :)

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(the dessert photo complements of Michelle :)

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Back home we were able to connect with good friends Robbie Meredith in San Diego…

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Leighton Meredith Reeve, Gwen Mac and Hugh Meredith in Virginia Beach…Cammy, Carmen, Iain and Sarah in Nags Head… Chris, Judy, Doug and Eileen in Brunswick. The only downside with hearing and/or seeing them is reminding us we miss them. I don’t know if this comes with being older but, I sure do miss being with people I know and love. Thankfully, Betsy and the Sumners are with us.

After a game of OH HELL with Max providing the initial tutoring, someone opened the fridge door. From then on it was leftover heaven and the seven of us are standing around the kitchen island finishing up leftovers from the day before and the day before that. But, the best part about all of this? The stories that we began telling. Danielle’s lifeguard experience her freshman year topped them all. I’d relate the story here but couldn’t do it justice. That tale will help me weather many stormy seas.