A Night in an Enchanted Castle!

Chateau de la Verrerie

Chateau de la Verrerie

It is the perfect setting for a murder mystery. After some fairly tricky driving, we found our way to Chateau de la Verrerie, the Glass Castle, http://www.chateaudelaverrerie.com, situated next to a misty lake deep in the Berry, a department in the Loire south of Paris. Seemingly, we drove forever through flowering fields, having veered off the main road 30 kilometres north of the medieval town of Bourges (an interesting stop to be covered in another blog.) Suddenly we were upon it, a 15th century castle with all the turrets, sculptures, mullioned windows, frills and furbelows one could wish in such a structure.

Set in an oak forest, La Verrerie has a fairy tale quality. Huge trees line the approach as we drive in next to the mysterious lake. A short spurt through the turreted gatehouse arch and we are there. The castle’s origins actually date back to 1422. The name, the Glass Castle, came from a small glass factory next to the lake which was demolished in 1815, but the name stuck.

The mysterious lake

The mysterious lake

The Chateau is on the Route Jacques Coeur, en Berry, http://www.route-jacques-coeur.org. I knew nothing of Jacques Coeur before my first visit to this region but now know he was a fifteenth century adventurer who became a trusted financial advisor to King Charles VII. The Jacques Coeur route has been put together as a driving tour, visiting Coeur’s many houses in the region and allowing tourists to experience the best of the Berry, itself a somewhat undiscovered French region, particularly to Americans. It has the full complement of French chateaux, charming villages, vineyards and the great wine village of Sancerre – plenty for any eager traveller to see.

At the castle entrance, we were ushered into a great oak door and foyer. Our luggage was quickly carried up two massive flights of stairs to our chamber, one of seven available for overnight stays. The room itself was beautiful, with 15-foot ceilings, walls, chairs, draperies and bedspreads all covered in the same sprigged flowered pattern, antique furniture and a bathroom larger than many apartments in Paris or New York City.

Our ensuite bathroom!

Our ensuite bathroom!

Venturing downstairs, we enjoyed a private tour of the castle itself – learning about the centuries of history encompassed in this one house.

Once upon a time there was Louise de Kéroualle, a beautiful young woman from Brittany. Somehow she had a friendship with King Louis XIV and became the King’s spy at the Court of Charles II of England. Being quite enterprising, she struck up a similar friendship with Charles II, diverting a tad from her spying duties. She bore Charles a son who became the Duke of Richmond. Somewhere in this scenario, this house came into the picture. The descendants of Louise and her son work their way down through the centuries, even becoming entangled with the Spencer family, ancestors of Princess Diana. Diana’s sons William and Harry and the forthcoming 3rd generation heir to the throne are all part of this story.

But wait, even with these generations of descendants, in 1842 the house and lands were sold to another elite family, the de Vogüés, who added the south wing which houses the reception rooms and most of the bedrooms. And it was the current owner, Count Béraud de Vogüé, with whom we met and had a long, cosy chat. The Count traces his family history back to the 11th Century, a simply amazing feat to any American. Clearly, he felt the press of  historical ancestry as he pointed with pride to his framed family genealogy chart.

The Count, current owner of the chateau

The Count, current owner of the chateau

We wound our way through the grand rooms: the living room where musical evenings are held; the billiards room showcasing a fierce-looking dagger which is supposed to have slain a bear; the imposing dining room and, most interesting of all, the library, which holds Egyptian treasures brought back by one of Béraud’s ancestors who was an Egyptologist, and a perfect set of tiny lead soldiers, forever ‘frozen in their last charge.’* The house is filled with extraordinary antiques, of course, including a sedan chair belonging to Louis XV, and scads of Renaissance furniture. A great treasure of the house is four small figures of mourners carved in white marble, created for the tomb of Duke Jean de Berry in 1470. There were originally forty mourner statues but three centuries later they disappeared during the French Revolution. Just twenty-six have been recovered, 20 split between the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Two others are in the Berry museum in Bourges. But here a Renaissance cabinet is discreetly opened and we gaze reverently at the backlit figures in awe. Each is completely different in stance, clothing, face and posture – we are two inches from them and they are priceless!

Coming down for dinner, we are ushered into a small salon, lined with books and art and furnished with deep sofas and chairs. Classical music is playing; drinks are set up along with snacks. Since the restaurant is closed this night, the chef makes us a so-called simple meal, a delicious combination of salmon and fresh asparagus with a lovely sauce, preceded by a perfect salad and exceptional bread and wine, (of course, this is France!), ending with a scrumptious lemon tart and tiny cookies. After a quick stroll outside, we dash through the freezing cold corridors to our warm room, sleeping straight through until breakfast, a sumptuous buffet of choices.

Merle, in the small salon

Merle, in the small salon

Perfect murder mystery fodder, right? I think I am going to give it a go!


*Quote from “The story of “La Verrerie” by Marc Frimat

Other references:

“La Verrerie, Le Château ou le temps se repose, by J. Frizot and Count Béraud de Vogüé, published by Histoire et Patrimoine, Victor Stanne Editions.






Note: Main Chateau photo from www.chateadelaverrerie.com; other photos by Merle Minda


Posted in Independent Travel, Travel, Travel i France, Travel in Europe, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Response

Keeping Your Stuff Safe Overseas!

Simple reminders for passport, cards and cash safety.

Recently, a friend asked advice for her teen-aged daughter who would be traveling in Europe for the first time. She asked what to do with her passport and credit cards while walking around on the streets; wanted to know about using hotel safes; taking travellers’ checks or using ATMs, and so on. These questions seem fairly basic if you are an experienced traveller, yet a momentary mistake and we might pay severely later in terms of lost money, cards, passport, etc., not to mention the emotional stress!

Here are a few basic rules of the road:

1.      Passports:

  1. While in transit, keep your passport close to you/on your person at all times, on the plane, on the train, etc. Never leave your bag with these items in the seat if you get up for any reason.
  2. At your destination, use the hotel safe for your passport. Do not carry it around with you as you sightsee, shop or amble. Be particularly careful in the metro, i.e. in France or England. It is reassuring to know that your passport is safe at the hotel in case you do suffer a rip-off.
  3. If your room does not have a secure safe for your passport, extra credit cards and even larger amounts of currency, place them in the hotel safe at the front desk. Usually they have you put your stuff into a secure envelope that is then locked in their safe for you. Anytime you go into it, you must sign, so it is quite a reliable system.

2.      Credit cards:

  1. Take at least 2 credit cards and an ATM card on your trip. Again, do not carry all of these around with you while sightseeing. When you leave the hotel,  carry just one credit card and some cash. Only take the ATM card if you are planning to withdraw cash.
  2. Be sure you have all the international numbers to call your credit card provider, just in case. Keep a copy of each card – Xerox both the front and back sides of the card so you have the account number and phone information. I usually make two copies and keep them in different secure places. Again, this info should be in the safe once you arrive, not just sitting in your luggage in your room.
  3. VISA and MasterCard seem to be the most widely accepted in Europe, although American Express is also accepted. It just depends. With VISA or MasterCard you usually don’t have to worry.

3.      ATMs; getting/carrying cash:

  1. Travellers’ checks work but are totally passé. They are used only rarely now and some places may not accept them.
  2. Use ATMs: The best way to get cash is to use a secure ATM. You will get the best exchange rate, even though you will probably be charged a transaction fee. These vary from 2% – 5% of your transaction but it is still the best way to get cash. Shield the keypad as you enter your private PIN.
  3. Repeat: do not carry all your cash with you when on the street. When traveling, again, keep everything tight and close to you. Don’t leave your bag or purse anywhere, even for a few moments. Watch it when hanging these items on the back of your chair, even in a restaurant. It is best to keep your bag on your lap or on the floor squeezed tightly between your feet.

4.      If you have a loss:

  1. Call the emergency number on the back of the credit card (that you copied and kept) and report it immediately. They will cancel your card and arrange for a temporary card and number.
  2. It’s also best to call at least one of the BIG 3 Card Security agencies:
  • Experian: 1-888-397-3742
  • Equifax: 1-888-766-0008
  • Transunion: 1-800-680-7289

From Europe, use the access code from each country; these are also available online according to your long-distance phone service, MCI, AT&T, etc. Usually each of the BIG 3 agencies will notify the other two for you.

Keep track and be careful. It’s more fun if you don’t lose anything!

Posted in Independent Travel, Travel, Travel in Europe, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Responses

France trip with my spouse doing all the juggling, driving and talking!


Written by Guest Blogger: Roland Minda

This is a lavishly laudatory spouse review plus trip highlights. It was intended to be brief, but now a little indulgence as to length!  (P.S. I often call my wife by her nickname, M2, for her name, Merle Minda.) This trip took us first to 5 glorious days in Paris, then to the wine town of Sancerre in the Loire district for a week while M2 attended her French immersion language school, and finished off with a driving trip in the immediate area, the “Berry.”

Together on a Sancerre hilltop.

Together on a Sancerre hilltop.

Immediate Thoughts:

  1. In Sancerre, M2 began to provide empirical evidence that she could suddenly converse on the street totally in French with natives. This skill was critical during our driving thru tiny, obscure villages. The school—Coeur de France Ecole de Langues, Sancerre– had achieved a breakthrough in her language skills!
  2. After Sancerre we had reserved an automatic car. No automatic showed up. In fact, no reservation showed up! Somehow M2 arranged to rent a manual, conversing 100% in French.
  3. My esteemed driver (my wife) was able to adapt to a 5-gear shift European manual, something she had not done since the days of her first marriage years and years ago.
  4. Further, my cartographer/driver navigated thru challenging, detour-plagued roads, often jumping out of the car and accosting startled villagers with pleas for help in total French sentences, both complex and compound.
  5. And her careful selections of historic, majestic and literary sites attest to her love of the total French zeitgeist.


I must add, despite my appearing to be a one man claque, that Merle was a phenomenal travel leader. There were many so challenges, and I, her erstwhile former stalwart, no longer could provide heavy duty travel partnership. Yet M2 unflaggingly prevailed, and, putting it in the vernacular, was magnifique!


As to a few trip highlights, we were abroad a total of eighteen days, departing May 5 and returning May 23. We flew to Paris for five days, then took a train to Sancerre where Merle reveled in French language study for a week, and finally several days on the road in the Loire Valley.


In Paris we stayed in our usual, comfortably utilitarian left bank hotel, hung out in our familiar St. Germaine church environs, sampled Merle’s past restaurant favorites along with researched first-timers. We met with Check, her former Minneapolis French teacher now residing in Paris, and we had a sumptuous lunch with Terrance, the American turned Parisian boulevardier that Merle last year had brought to Minneapolis for a four day series of French-oriented appearances. Of course we toured several favorite museums, plus a first time visit to Les Invalides. The attraction was a detailed exhibit of Napoleon’s battle sites plus a presentation of Napoleon’s many civil codes. And we loved the sumptuous house museum, Musée Nissim Camando.


Thence we made our way on Saturday to a train station for a two hour journey to Sancerre. It was getting on-to and down-from the train when we realized Merle had made a rare travel packing mistake. Our authority on minimal packing had purchased two 24 inch Rick Steves’ bags instead of our standard Travel Pro 22 Inchers.! The increased weight became a constant reproach to our packing hubris. Fortunately fellow train travelers recognized our pitiable condition and often provided instant succor.


The school, along with several apartments where we stayed, was a felicitous choice. Coeur de France is in a 16th century chateau and set up for a maximum of 30 students. Aside from a few apartments in the school/chateau building where we stayed, most students resided in nearby dwellings owned by the school. All classes were held in the morning, and some days included afternoon tours such as a visit to a goat farm. (M2 is now addicted to goat cheese. I am somewhat ambivalent.)


The town of Sancerre is a genuine village, about 1,500   residents, where we daily walked a couple blocks to the town square and bought viands for our well- appointed kitchen. The Sancerre wine vineyards are limited to the immediate hills, thus accounting for its high price in America. We had dinner several nights in excellent restaurants located in the square, including a one star Michelin, which was a memorable gastronomic and presentation experience!


Our final activity was the four day challenge tour. On Saturday, May 18, we took a cab to a nearby town for our car rental. (This was also the location for our train stop.) It was at this juncture that Merle’s travails and triumphs began. This day we traveled many miles, by French road standards, to a hotel very close to a lovely chateau, now museum, owned by George Sand. You walk in, by tour only, and it is as though she is still living here. The dining room is set up for an elegant banquet, with place cards for distinguished guests, including Chopin, Liszt, Balzac, Flaubert, Delacroix and such, all her lovers, although not simultaneously. Chopin resided in this mansion for ten years.


Then on to the ancient, and still thriving, town of Bourges, population about 100,000. It is a town of 14th to 17th century wonders of cathedral, palace and perplexing, meandering streets that only with adroit planning could my driver find the incoming and exiting vistas. Yes, another unflappable Merlian triumph!


Our final stop was a magnificent, 15th century castle/chateau that is travel poster worthy, and with its current, 6th generation owner in residence. He is a charming Count where we shared wine and his fascinating explanation of the castle’s history along with a summary of the count’s lineage which extends back to the 11th century. And such a history! The count’s ancestors have had ownership since 1842. Earlier it was owned for a period in the latter 17th century by England’s Charles ll. (Don‘t ask how come– this treatise is already taxing the most loyal of viewers. It has to do with across channel royal mischief.)


On May 22 back to the train station and overnight at the Marriott Charles De Gaulle Airport, and the next day to our Minneapolis sanctuary. A trip that only slightly aging seniors with faith in the future and travel trained survival skills could have achieved.


And thank you for enduring this entire saga. RLM


NOTE: Roland Minda blogs at www.retirement-dance.com.


Posted in Independent Travel, Travel, Travel in Europe, Travel in France, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Responses

A Hilltop in Umbria

Picture this. You wake to the sound of birds chirping. You fling open your bedchamber windows to overlook a spectacular Umbrian valley. You brew your own espresso and wander out onto your own terrace, still in your pajamas and perhaps barefoot. Soft morning clouds are rising from your private valley and grapes are ripening almost literally at your feet. There are no sounds. Slowly, you sip your espresso and butter your croissant. These are the pleasures of renting your own villa in Europe. For me, it was this 13th century lieutenant’s tower in Umbria, set high on a hill and surrounded by roses and other fragrant plants.

‘Torre del Tenente’ is the perfect Umbrian villa.

Our hilltop villa in Umbria, 'Torre del Tenente'.

Our hilltop villa in Umbria, ‘Torre del Tenente’.

Often called “the green heart of Italy,” Umbria is where Assisi is located, with its incredible churches and steep streets, its Giotto murals and endless tourist shops. A bit further north is Perugia, another grand city full of chocolate and great sights.

Southern Umbria is a good spot to center yourself for day traveling. Just 90 minutes north of Rome, our villa is in tiny Acqualoreto, between the two gorgeous hill towns of Orvieto and Todi. Orvieto sits high on the “tufa”, the volcanic rock upon which it is built. One of the most beautiful cathedral facades in Italy is here in the main square, with the whole story of the Bible carved in marble on the exterior. Orvieto boasts an artisan street where you’ll find hand-loomed scarves, hand-made leather goods, sculpture, paintings and pottery. Todi, on the other hand, is smaller and more ancient – again with extraordinary views, good shopping and restaurants, but an especially charming atmosphere.

For relaxation, we sip an icy limoncello at an outdoor Todi cafe. Nearby is the Ristorante Umbria for an exquisite lunch or dinner. We take our laundry to Todi (it comes back wrapped in pink tissue paper!) and we shop for groceries here. We get to know the shopkeepers from our frequent visits. They are warm and welcoming. The drive back to our villa is only eight kilometers.

Exploring more Umbrian hill towns, we drive to Deruta, a pottery town where they have been hand-making exquisite majolica for over 500 years. Our favorite stop is Grazia, the oldest factory; Ubaldo Grazia and family have been here for 25 generations. Their guest book displays signatures from the Beatles, (John, Paul, George and Ringo all signed.) Or try Montefalco, an incredible wine town with a church filled with frescoes. Tiny Bevagna has an amazing, hand-painted theatre (ask the tourist office to unlock it for you), plus good restaurants and shops. Spello is a stone-town, with steep streets and the amazing Baglioni Chapel, frescoed by Umbrian artist Pinturicchio. If you are into climbing, visit Gubbio, legends of St. Francis and more hilly stone streets. All of these towns are ancient, founded back as far as the Bronze Age in some instances.

Ubaldo Grazia with some of his fabulous majolica, in Deruta.

Ubaldo Grazia with some of his fabulous majolica, in Deruta.

In our tiny Acqualoreto, we climb the road to the square where we find one small restaurant, one church, one bar and very few people. On our last visit, we postulated that the town was Brigadoon-like; we could picture it going to sleep every night for 100 years and waking up exactly the same!

We head up to our tower room for bed now, with perhaps one more limoncello on our terrace, gazing at the star-filled sky.


If you go:


  • Grazia Maioliche, Via Tiberina, Deruta; www.ubaldograzia.com, you can ship from here!
  • Il Crogiolo, hand-loomed weavings, Via dei Magoni, Orvieto
  • Il Girasole, hand-made linens from Florence, Via Casali, Cortona


  • Ristorante Umbria, La Mulinella and Antica Hosteria de la Valle, all in Todi
  • Il Molino, in Spello
  • Taverno del Lupo, Gubbio
  • Ottavius, Bevagna
Posted in Travel, Travel in Europe, Travel in Italy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Responses

She Cruises; He Cruises — Downton Abbey at Sea?

  Pack lighter for a cruise and still look sparkly!

         It was bad luck timing that the New York Times Sunday Travel Section published a major piece on transatlantic cruises or crossings the very week and actual day that the second worst cruise incident in just over a year hit Carnival’s Triumph, drifting without power in the Caribbean with over 4,000 people aboard.

Even though the piece was generally excellent – I have made this “crossing” myself on the exact same ship in the article (Cunard’s Queen Mary 2) – and agreed with most of it, I take major exception when it comes to the included packing list.

For men, there is an abbreviated list including a tuxedo and a suit, two pairs of shoes and so on, allowing for the dress code and several formal nights on this very British ship, (although my husband just takes a dinner jacket and slacks, and one sport coat.)CM5_4804

But for women, the list induces a heart-thumping ‘fear-of-packing’, including three formal dresses and two cocktail dresses; three pairs of heels and pumps for day and evening, plus boots and walking shoes; shawls and scarves of wool and silk at different levels of warmth; three purses (clutch for evening, daytime purse and spa bag); plus assorted skirts (3), blouses, sweaters, tights, socks, underwear, pajamas and a nightgown, two bathing suits, etc. The list calls for taking your best jewelry and “lots of it.”

Well, what are we dressing for here – Downton Abbey at sea? Only a man could have come up with this list; daunting enough to intimidate even the most practiced female packer.

I agree that it is much more challenging to pack lightly for a cruise than most other trips, but I think this author must face the fact that the era of the steamer trunk is over, even on board the Queen Mary 2.

Let’s dissect author Dwight Garner’s packing list for women. First, even given that the atmosphere on board is a bit more formal on a British ship, taking three formals and two cocktail dresses is beyond overkill. My suggestion: two dressier outfits – I get around the various evenings by packing one pair of black silk slacks (a long black silk skirt works too) and two sparkly tops. I wear each outfit twice; or perhaps on another night I wear a black silk blouse with a pretty scarf or shawl. Same silk slacks. I say no skirts, but rather, two-three pair of khaki or black cotton slacks. (If you are a skirt person, make it two casual cotton skirts.) No cocktail or day dresses for me; days on board remain casual. For shoes, I take only two pair – one casual and one for evening, plus I usually wear athletic or tennis shoes for traveling and walking the decks. For jewelry, I say leave your best jewelry AT HOME! For evenings, I wear fake rhinestone earrings and one string of pearls, which can also be fake. Yes, there is a safe in every cabin but why worry? And whom do we need to impress? You don’t know 99 percent of the passengers and chances are you will never see them again. When it comes to shirts,  underwear and socks, be sparing. The ship has laundry service and a dry-cleaning service should disaster strike. You won’t regret these decisions as you lug your luggage to and from the ship, on trains or through airports. Why risk a rotator cuff injury for strangers?

Here’s my shorter version packing list for a 7-night transatlantic crossing:

  • 1 pair silk slacks
  • Two dressy or sparkly tops
  • 3 khaki pants or casual cotton skirts
  • 2 sweaters
  • Scarves or shawl: 1 black Pashmina shawl (they’re warm); 1 silk scarf
  • 2 pair shoes – one casual for day; one for evening
  • Wear 1 pair of athletic or tennis shoes for traveling and deck-walking
  • If you are a swimmer or hot-tubber, perhaps 1 lightweight pair of flip-flops
  • 1 pair earrings, 1 necklace and 1 pair earrings for evening (suggest fake)
  • 1 bathing suit
  • 1 carryon bag (for airport travel)
  • 1 smaller, cross-body purse for day or evening use
  • Skip the spa bag, the ship gives you a logo’ed canvas bag which works
  • 4-5 assorted t-shirts or blouses
  • Socks or tights, underwear and 1 nightgown or PJ’s (plan to do 1 laundry load)
  • 1 warm hat for deck-walking
  • 1 rainproof and fleece-lined jacket with hood

That’s it; enjoy a lighter approach to cruise packing.

(This post originally written as a guest post for http://www.herpackinglist.com.)

Posted in Independent Travel, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Response

She Cruises, He Cruises – Packing for a Transatlantic Cruise

Grab my Guest Post today on www.herpackinglist.com, http://herpackinglist.com/2013/03/packing-for-a-transatlantic-cruise/. Learn my thoughts on packing for a transatlantic cruise and why the packing list in the New York Times was way off base. Catch it now — especially if you are planning a cruise — and skip most of the fuss and bother of extra luggage full of fancy clothes.

Wearing sparkly stuff packed in one small suitcase!

Wearing sparkly stuff packed in one small suitcase!

You can still look good!


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Two Cities, Two Flights — A Tale!

It should have been so simple. Just a quick weekend trip from Minneapolis, Minnesota to South Bend, Indiana for a family event. My mate and I are big on getting to the airport ahead of time so we arrived at 11 am  for a 1:30 flight, had lunch and made our way to a far-away gate about 12:45. And yes, last weekend there was a huge storm in the northeast but we weren’t worried. The weather was cold but sunny in Minneapolis; the same for South Bend.

But, as it happened, our plane was in Toronto, caught by the storm. We were flying a small regional jet listed as Delta but operated by Pinnacle Airlines. And there are few choices for a small carrier when a plane is out of action – in other words, a substitute plane was unavailable. Crew and passengers were in place, but no plane. Because of the weather, the plane had to be de-iced numerous times and we finally got our flight four-plus hours later, arriving at 7:30 pm, missing the first event but able to join our family just a little late for dinner.

OK, we chalked it up as an anomaly. This is only a short flight, just over an hour. But then came Sunday when we were heading home. Here we got to the airport about 2 pm for a 3:40 flight, but it was snowing a bit in Minneapolis! The airport had slowed down and, as we learned, regional jets are the lowest priority because of their smaller passenger loads. No Delta Club here so we settled into somewhat comfortable chairs with the Sunday New York Times, which we had the foresight to have brought with us.

The hours ticked by. Around 6pm we learned that in the course of so much waiting, a mechanical problem had been discovered with the plane. It took over an hour to try and fix it, but the fix was unsuccessful. Finally, another plane did become available and was sent down to pick us up. We unlocked our front door at about 10pm, when we had planned for a 4:40 arrival.

This has happened to everyone, right? We had found a small café on our concourse with fresh salads and sandwiches, and our little group of passengers became quite friendly as we waited. The next day we each received a note from the head of Delta’s customer care division, apologizing for the long wait and adding an extra 1,000 Worldperks miles to our accounts. An unprecedented gesture.

So it wasn’t all bad. As my husband says, “when does one have the opportunity to read the entire Sunday New York Times in an airport?”

Posted in Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Paris, Still the Feast

With just a few days in Paris, both before and after my immersion language stay in Sancerre (about 2 hours south of the city), there was just too much to see and do.  I had friends to contact, favorite haunts to visit, favorite writers to meet, and one day when all the museums were closed (Monday), so I had to be selective. Not easy in Paris — there is just so much and one wants to do it all.

Saturday Night in Paris

Staying in my favorite small hotel, Hôtel des Marronniers on Rue Jacob (6th Arrondisement, Left Bank), is like coming home as I have stayed there many times before. I am just a few steps from the famous church, St-Germain-des-Prés, the famous and fabulous Café de Flore and Café Deux Magots, and my favorite smaller stop, Café Bonaparte with its delicious omelets. On my first day, I headed up to the Boulevard St. Germain and just walked, reconnecting with the street and drinking it all in. A friend joined me for tea at the Flore and later I ventured out for a light dinner on my own. Next day, I walked more, heading for Shakespeare & Co. to say hello to Sylvia Beach Whitman in her usual spot surrounded by books; then walked across the bridge to Notre-Dame and continuing on to Île St. Louis, stopping at boutique Grain de Sable for gloves and Berthillon for the best scoop of ice cream in the world. OK, predictable? Touristy? Probably, but I just wanted to reconnect and to feel the pavement under my feet. From there it was a long way home and having not gotten my Metro smarts up to date as yet, I walked. Then it was Saturday and I headed for the smallest railway station in Paris, Bercy, to catch my regional train south.
Returning two weeks later, I had another few days. Had a long lunch at Amoré & Jalousia with the Fabulous Mr. G, Terrance Gelenter, the guru behind Paris Through Expatriate Eyes, http://www.paris-expat.com, where we sat next to a long-beloved French movie star, Pierre Arditi — still handsome and with all his hair! My favorite celeb sighting, though, was running head-long into the infamous DSK, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in the FNAC electronics store — without bodyguards and just shopping. (Remember that little incident in New York’s Sofitel where he was arrested for assaulting a maid?) Well, he is no longer aiming to be president of France, just doing a little holiday shopping like the rest of us.
So what didn’t I get to do? Did not make it to the Louvre, or to the Musée Maillol with its special exhibit of Canaletto’s, or to another favorite, Musée Jacques-mart André, or to the Tuileries, But I did have a kir at the Hotel Meurice where the tidbits of delicious nuts, olives and crisps stood in for lunch; I did have a wonderful morning at Musée d’Orsay reveling in the glorious L’Impressionisme et La Mode exhibit of French fashions of the day mixed with spectacular Impressionist masterpieces; I did have dinner with friends at Astier,  a delightful little restaurant in the 11th. And I did meet with favorite writers John Baxter (The Most Beautiful Walk in the World) and Diane Johnson (Le Mariage, Le Divorce, Lulu in Marrakech and many more), and the charming Alec Lobrano, food writer supreme and author of Hungry for Paris. I didn’t shop much but bought a beret on the Quai opposite Notre Dame for 7 euros which I saw later in a shop window for 35!
I must head back to Paris soon, to fill in the gaps and to continue to try out my fledgling French.I have concluded that Paris is not, as Hemingway said, a movable feast. It’s there — and you have to go and be there to find it, to experience and taste it for yourself once again.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Responses

Angel on my Ceiling

French and the French!

As I drift off to sleep each night during my 14-night stay here at Coeur de France, www.coeurdefrance.com, the immersion language school I have been attending, I gaze up at my ceiling where a beautiful, hand-painted angel floats above me. My appartement at the top of this 400-year old chateau where the school is located is named Gabriel. And indeed, it is Gabriel who is painted on my ceiling, along with two adorable cherubs. Additionally, a real horn (Gabriel’s horn?) is hanging on the wall above my headboard and the wallpaper that goes around the room is of baby cherubs.

Altogether a lovely place to stay!

Living in an old chateau has its problems though. The steps up to my room from what used to be the main entrance of the chateau are broad and wide. But the spiral stairway down to the schoolrooms is a true castle stairway — twisty and windy. Luckily, it has a good handrail which makes it all possible for me. And the building is cold — not in our individual apartments or classrooms where there are giant radiators, but in the hallways, entrances and stairways. It is almost December and the weather is chilly. One can easily imagine how it was to live in these chateaus and castles when there were only fireplaces to keep one warm.

Sancerre itself is charming and interesting, with a wealth of little shops and wonderful cafes that I can walk to, and do walk to, almost every day. Each afternoon, I buy my one croissant and a half baguette for the next day’s breakfast and lunch. I have told the baker that he must think about opening a Boulangerie in Minneapolis — he said he is considering it! And as I have said before, this is a wine town — with the divine Sancerre wine everywhere. My book tells me there are 300 wineries operating around here, making terrific wine from this clay, chalk and flint soil. The goat cheese from this area is named Crottin de Chavignol. Also marvelous. I was introduced to about 200 goats so I have a personal interest.

And then, there’s learning the French language. As I have said in an earlier post, it is difficult. But interestingly, I am gaining a better understanding of the French people by learning the language. French is very precise (like the French people), very exact and expressive, as long as you use the right tense and the correct pronunciation. If you don’t, the word will mean something else, or it won’t mean anything. Even though I have had many visits to France, by truly learning the language, I have gained new insights into the French culture. Now I know why my taxi driver corrected my pronunciation on a previous visit — the street I was asking for didn’t exist, because I didn’t pronounce it correctly. It isn’t arbitrary; if you want to speak and be understood, you have to do it their way. And the villagers here are very patient and helpful.

The school has been a revelation — I am now speaking a bit — and sort of correctly. Voila! Now if I could only understand more I would be on my way. Big improvement though, with these great teachers and a clear and simple learning system.

So, interesting no? I love it here. It has been a grand 2 weeks — now for a few more days in exquisite Paris and I will head home.

Planning to come back definitely.






Posted in Independent Travel, Travel, Travel in Europe, Travel in France, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Responses

France On My Own

This goat took a fancy to me!

A Three Week Journey In Learning French


I look out the tall windows of my small apartment to gaze again at the petite village of Sancerre, about two hours south of Paris in the southern Loire. I have been here for just over a week now, ensconced at the top of a lovely old chateau in the heart of town. My goal in coming to Coeur de France, an immersion language school here, is to begin learning to speak and understand French. Somehow I never studied this language at school and for just the last year or so, have been taking some occasional lessons and classes beginning at the very lowest level. It’s been difficult and so I made this supreme commitment in hopes of a breakthrough. For the past week, it has been hours of French each day, grammar and vocabulary, pronunciation (tres importante in France) and listening for comprehension. And I am loving every minute. The learning is so challenging it takes absolutely all of my attention and energy. Amazingly enough, I am beginning to get it — at least a little. No English spoken here at all, and even though the four students here are either English or American, we are requested not even to speak English when we are alone together. So we eat, shop, stroll, and everything else, all in French. One can’t help but learn!

Living in Sancerre has been an unexpected pleasure. I am not strictly a tourist as I go to the Boulangerie (bread shop), the Fromagerie (cheese shop),  L’Epicerie (grocery shop), the Patisserie (pastry shop) or the Charcuterie (deli) almost every day. I see the same people daily and we say “Bonjour” and make other pleasantries about the weather, or how we are feeling, or I am ordering lunch or having tea, and I am speaking. Everyone in the village understands that students of the language school are trying to learn to speak, and they are very patient with us — mostly. The women at La Poste have been particularly patient. I see my server from yesterday’s café in the Boulangerie, or the pharmacist’s wife at the grocer’s and we greet other as friends.  It is a great experience.

The school itself is marvelous — dedicated, inspiring teachers determined to help us learn. I made so much progress my first week that I couldn’t believe it. My greatest difficulty has been being able to understand what I am hearing. The first two days I  couldn’t understand much. Then, on the third day I was listening to a long conversation between my fellow student and our instructor discussing some obscure point of grammar and suddenly realized I understood everything they said. It was such a revelation that I burst into tears!

The chateau itself is over 400 years old, constructed about 1590. Classrooms and a day room are on the first floor, and student apartments are above.  I love my cozy chamber — it has a small kitchen, comfy bed, my own bathroom and all sorts of other conveniences, like free Wifi, TV, DVD player, radio and CD player, plenty of storage and a beautiful armoire for my limited wardrobe.

I love Sancerre too. It is a town of less than 2,000 people, dedicated to wine and goat cheese. The soil on the Sancerre hill itself is unusual in that it is made of clay, chalk and flint. It is the flint that gives the famed Sancerre wine its distinctive taste. And the goat cheese is named Chevre de Chavignol in this region. We visited a winery, tasting right out in the vine fields and also visited a ‘chevrerie’, a goat farm to learn how the cheese is made. And such goat cheese! Beyond delicious. The goats themselves were also adorable. These excursions add even more to this experience.

There is so much more to say but I will save it for next time. I hope to write soon about my days in Paris on my own, which I also loved. Have to stop now because I have to study French!






Posted in Travel i France, Travel in France, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 5 Responses