The first weekend we spent quietly walking around Paris and enjoying the weather and the surroundings. Spring had definitely arrived and flowers were in full bloom! We walked down to the Luxembourg Gardens where we sat, read books and gazed at the Eiffel Tower in the background. The gardens are one of my favorite places in Paris. A place where I can run or just sit with the kids and people watch. We also walked to the Champ de Mars and Eiffel Tower, places we actually hadn’t been since last April.
The following weekend Ethan turned 11! He awakened to a couple of presents and when he arrived home from school e-mails from all his friends, buddies and family wishing him a “Bonne Anniversaire!” It was a great addition to his day. A big thank you to all for making it special. For his birthday dinner Ethan wanted to go to a brasserie and try escargots. We chose the oldest brasserie in Paris, Chartiers which is located a bus ride away in the 9th arrondissement and has been serving traditional French cuisine since it’s opening in 1896. It was a total scene, packed with people and waiters and waitresses in traditional black uniforms with white aprons. We sat at a communal table where we just people watched for awhile. Ethan ordered his escargots which we all tried. He and I both enjoyed them (what’s not to like when it is smothered in garlic butter?!). As you can see from her expression, Maggie not so much! For dessert Ethan got profiteroles with a candle and the a chorus of Joyeuse Anniversire from the waitstaff. It was a birthday to remember.
The last Thursday of Lent I took a free tour of Notre Dame where I learned that Christ’s Crown of Thorns had been acquired by the French and was kept at Notre Dame. It is guarded by the Knights of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and taken out during a special service each Friday of Lent. I stood in line the next day to view the relic and went to the mass to observe the ritual of presenting the crown to the small crowd of people gathered in Notre Dame. This year marked the 800th anniversary of the birthday and christening of King Louis IX of France, who acquired it in 1239 from Constantinople.
The following weekend the kids April vacation started and Jim arrived. After a wonderful night out sans children at a local restaurant Au Verre Contacts we boarded an early train to Amsterdam and we were off. As Jim arrived so did a cold snap. The first two days in Amsterdam were sunny but blustery. Poor Jim did not pack a coat, nor did my crazy daughter and they were quite chilly as walked around the canals. As a surprise to the kids we rented an actual houseboat on the canal Prisenzgrat. It made the trip really special to come home after a day of sight seeing and crawl into the boats bunkhouses. We had an actual television and VCR on the houseboat. It sounds horrible but we loved curling up together at night in the big master bed and watching episodes of 24 on the DVD player. The kids hadn’t watched television since January and we all loved the snuggle time.
The dutch were very friendly and helpful (Maggie and Ethan wanted to know when we could come and spend 6 months in Amsterdam!) We had some great meals usually starting with a big mug of delicious hot chocolate for the kids served with an actual cube of Dutch chocolate that you dunked in the hot mild and served with a generous dollop of delicious whipped cream! What a way to start a busy day. We saw the Anne Frank house, the Rijks Museum (which had just reopened and was gorgeous), and the Van Gogh Museum. In between the Reiks and Van Gogh Museums was an AMSTERDAM sign on which the kids had fun playing.
Jim and I took a solo stroll through the red light district which was fascinating and sad. We, of course, had to try the french fries which is a local favorite and we had a lot of Thai food and Dutch chocolate. I discovered these chocolate jimmy/sprinkles that the dutch sprinkle on their bread with butter in the morning. The sprinkles look like the sprinkles that we put on ice cream but are actual really yummy small pieces of chocolate. Yum. Our last day was sunny and beautiful. We spent the day renting bikes and joining the locals traversing the city. The city was so easy to navigate on the bikes as most of the inhabitants of Amsterdam don’t own cars but bike everywhere. The bike lanes were great and you felt so much safer than biking around Paris. We spent a couple of hours at Vondelpark near the museums where the kids climbed trees and ran off some energy before catching a late train back to Paris.
Our first day back in Paris Jim and I spent wandering around the streets and poking into shops. Very relaxing. That night we took a bus to the 18 arrondissement to a Maroccan restaurant, 1000 and 1 signs. It was run by deaf people and you had to order in French sign language. To help, there were signs on the wall showing how to sign for the different dishes as well as signs on how to ask for water, say thank you, etc. It was a really great and fun experience.
On Friday we boarded a train to Chartres to visit the cathedral. While there we went on a tour led by Malcolm Miller which came highly recommended by our buddy Steve Stern. Mr. Miller is an 80+ year old British historian who has spent his life studying the stained glass windows in the cathedral. In a 90 minute tour he chooses 3 windows on which to lecture. He likens the windows to a library. Each window is its own book which tells a story. Like a library you can visit many times but never read all the books. He claims he is still reading and learning. The lecture was incredibly informative and held our attention including the kids the entire time.
The last weekend of Jim’s visit was Easter weekend and good friends from Maine were in Paris visiting. We met them serendipitously at the wine bar around the corner from our apartment and had a wonderful meal of tartines (the french version of bruschetta), cheese, salad and charcuterie washed down with delicious glasses of wine chosen by the bar/owner after consultation of likes and dislikes. It was a lot of fun and we were surrounded by locals. The owner has a wine cav right around the corner from his bar/restaurant that I pop into on Saturdays for his wine tastings. He is a really nice guy who speaks English but lets me bumble around practicing my French before helping me to choose and buy a bottle of wine.
That Sunday was Easter Sunday. We met our friends, Mandy, Cameron and Aiden for
Easter service. The kids sang with the choir and then headed out to a cafe for some nourishment of noisettes, chocolate chaud, pain au chocolate and croissants. We spent the day wandering around. Jim and I finally put our lock on the Pont des Beux Arts and the kids threw the keys into the Seine sealing our love! That night we headed to a great little brasserie on Ile St. Louis for a final meal while gazing out at Notre Dame. My favorite street performers were playing outside our restaurant on the bridge leading from Ile de la Cite to Ile St. Louis and gave a great performance.
After Jim’s departure the kids still had one week left of school vacation so on Tuesday we boarded yet another train bound for Dordogne. Dordogne is the region of France known for its fois gras, medieval villages/castles and limestone caves decorated with prehistoric artwork. I was really looking forward to this adventure as I thought the kids would really enjoy it. When arriving in Brive, however I first had to face my fears head on and rent a manuel car to navigate the tiny, winding, mountainous roads of Dordogne. I was terrified and made the kids promise to offer nothing but support as we navigated the unfamiliar terrain. The area was beautiful and we had a fabulous time. The first day we followed my friend Martine’s recommendations and stopped in Sarlat for a leisurely lunch and wondered around the old medieval city. It was beautiful and not yet crowded with tourists (except us of course!). We navigated the narrow roads exiting the city and followed signs to our first stopping point along the Dordogne river a beautiful city built along the cliffs, Beynac. En route we decided to take a canoe trip down the river. It was a very scemoc trip and the river traversed many little medieval villages, chateaus and castles. By the end of the 9 mile paddle however both the kids and I had had enough and were happy to be picked up by the company’s van and head off to our hotel. We found a quiet cafe to eat on by the river and had an early night.
The next day we set off for our next destination which was Rocamadur. We again took a scenic route and stopped at many little medieval villages where we explored meandering cobblestoned roads and fortresses. We had reservations late afternoon for our first cave the Gouffre de Pagirac. It is a cave system formed over thousands of years. A natural wonder at a depth of 103 metros it contains a subterranean river system which is partially navigable by boat. Dramatic limestone formations including huge stalactites and stalagmites, waterfalls and natural cisterns. It was quite an experience. Then it was back to our car and just a short drive to the walled city of Rocamadur. It was once one of Europe’s top pilgrimage sites to see the Black Virgin, a 12th century statue with a thin coating of blackened silver presenting Jesus to the world. It is also the site where the body of the miraculously preserved body of St. Amadour was found in 1166. For me the most miraculous thing was that I didn’t bash up the car as I drove through the tiny gates entering the medieval part of the city navigating the pedestrian zone to our hotel!!
The next day we headed off to explore a breathtaking little village, Cirque de la Popie built into the cliffs along the Lot River. We had a picnic lunch and then headed out on a walking trail along the river which led us to a pretty nifty passageway that nature carved into the mountainous walls. We left to visit our next cave the Grotte de Pech Merle. It contains prehistoric cave paintings of mammoths, bison and horses. It was discovered back in the 1920’s by two 15 year old boys who saw the opening to a tunnel and spent the next two years navigating the tunnel systems which were hundreds of meters long to different cavernous rooms containing the prehistoric drawings. It was a great trip and one of our favorites!
The following weekend the kids had yet another “jour ferie” (holiday) leading us into a four day weekend. We set off for the Loire Valley to visit the area of France most dotted with the chateaus of kings, princes and just plain old wealthy. At this point I felt like a pro driving the manual car and we started off confidently from Amboise to visit our first chateau, the chateau of Leonardo de Vinci. This is the home where Leonardo died. He was enticed to France by King Fancois I who was a great patron of the arts. He arrived from Italy toting the Mona Lisa and spent his final days peacefully drawing sketches of inventions, anatomy and scenery. It was a great chateau to visit. You saw not only copies of Leonardo’s diaries with his inventions but in the yard outside the house the government built the inventions based on the drawings. There was a primitive appearing tank, one of the first machine guns, man powered mills and a flying machine. The kids had a great time playing on the the different inventions.
We then loaded back into our little car and set off to our chamber d’hôte in the hamlet of Les Fees, a tiny village situated between the areas of the next chateaus to be visited. Our hosts the Flaneries were charming and offered us the use of their bicycles to explore the area on the numerous bike routes. Unfortunatley the next morning was overcast. I had a nice run along the bike routes with beautiful views before getting poured on!
After a breakfast of homemade jams and bread we were off to our first chateau Chambord. Chambord is famous for its double spiral staircase supposedly designed by de Vinci. Other than that we were not too impressed and we had a quick visit dodging the rain and then were off to Cheverny. Cheverny was lovely and owned privately by a family who still occupies part of the chateau. The gardens were beautiful. The family is very involved in hunting and horseback riding. One of the highlights of the visit was watching the feeding of the hounds which takes place every day at 4:00.
It was quite a site to see all the dogs being herded up the stairs of their kennel while the master of the hounds set out their food and then released them to feast. That night Ethan had a pasta carbonara which arrived complete with a raw egg in its shell to be mixed into the piping hot pasta!
Our last day dawned bright and sunny and we went for a short bike ride around the area before visiting our final chateau, Chenonceau. It was by far the most dramatic chateaus that we visited and arches gracefully over the Cher River. We spent a lovely afternoon exploring the grounds (which was complete with a maze garden) and then departed with the kids declaring that they had seen enough chateaus to last the duration of their time in France!
We ended April with the first of our spring visitors. Two good friends from my Intermed days made the journey across the pond and we had some great dinners and some good times. It was really great to see friends from home and the kids loved it! We had the kids favorite meal of moules avec craime fraiche, good french cheeses and wine. Thanks to both of you for making the effort during your brief visit to spend some time with us!