Friday, January 30, 2009

Savoring the Day

Friday, January 30, 2009
Paris to Aix
We're up early, in time to catch a taxi to Gare de Lyon for our 6:14 train to Aix. We had to change our tickets due to yesterday's strike, so are in separate cars. Kirk gets out his French books and starts studying, and continues to do so for the entire trip of 3 plus hours. I read for a while, then snooze, and wake up to snow draped hills and valleys of Burgundy, followed by a glowing sunrise.
What a smooth trip - the twice-hourly shuttle to Aix from the TGV (super fast train) station is ready to depart when we arrive, and we get right on. Kirk carries our heavy suitcase (I couldn't get everything to fit inside this morning but he worked some magic to get it to close) up the apartment stairs, then quickly walks to school, getting there in time for the end of the first morning session.
After I unpack, wash a load of laundry, and work on the computer, I walk to meet him for the goodbye party on the terrace of the school.
I'm feeling nostalgic - our month is nearly at an end - as I walk one last time past the historic school of Arts et Metiers (Arts and Crafts), established in 1843 in an even older building, a Charity Hospital from the 1600's.
Kirk receives his Diplome and tells the teachers au revoir til next year, when we hope to return.
And now for one last lunch deal. Le Formal is an atmospheric vaulted stone restaurant with a great chef which we like to use for our "first night meal" on our Music and Markets Provence tour. We have not yet tried their lunch special - three courses and a glass of wine for 22 euros, and today's our chance.
Some restaurants only offer one selection, or at the most two, for their daily specials, but Le Formal offers 4 tempting choices for each course. We normally try different things, but both of us want to try the Ravioli with grilled mush- rooms and truffle oil for the first course and magret ( duck breast - in a unique spring-roll form) and confit de canard (melt-in-your-mouth tender duck leg) for the second.
We're not disappointed - both dishes are terrific - some of the best cuisine we've enjoyed this month. An unexpected taste arrives with the duck - a tiny shot glass of hot cocoa, complete with a straw.
And the presentation is as arresting as the tastes.
Our dessert choice is Gourmandise du Formal - more yummmm tastes - white chocolate mousse ice cream with a crispy coating, cassis sorbet, and a caramelized cylinder filled with herbed sweet foam.
What is this cylinder, and the spoonfull of crunchy sweet surprise to sprinkle on the ice cream??? It's like pop-rocks that fizzle as they dissolve - a party in your mouth! This chef has a sense of humor - making things fun as well as delicious.
This has got to be the most impressive lunch deal so far! The chef thanks us for coming as we depart, and we let him know that we loved every bite, as always, and are looking forward to our next visit, hopefully with guests, this summer.
Not wanting to waste any of this glorious afternoon inside, we walk north out of the city center towards Cezanne's atelier.
We've never walked this road before, or driven it, and find more Aix jewels - a beautiful monument and little garden built during the time of the Revolution (late 1700's).

Since the Revolution was very anti-church, we're surprised to see Biblical figures surrounding the garden, such as this David, foot firmly planted on Goliath's head.

It's a steep walk up to Cezanne's atelier, which has been preserved as he left it when he caught a cold while outside painting and died in 1906: still life props on a table, his smock and easel ready for work. It's a nice little estate, with walking paths through the surrounding woods.
Where are those fabulous views of Mt. Saint Victoire that Cezanne prized?

We decide to walk further up the hill to find his muse... and there it is,

the shadowy hulk presiding over the plain.

Don't look now,
but I think that Cezanne just came around the corner!

Then back into town...and another nice little surprise for us when we stop at a menswear shop, Quadra, on Place Saint-Honoré, that carries the French brand of winter jacket that Kirk bought in Como last fall. One of the distinctive buttons broke into pieces, and we wonder if they can help us replace it. They exclaim that they just found a Delahaye button that's probably just the right size and offer to sew it on. Then the young girl realizes that it's a double button, with one on the inside as well as the outside, and doubts her ability to sew it. But she's ready to do her best. All of a sudden the ladies exclaim "Oh, perfect, just what we need - the expert!"
Their tailor has walked in the door to drop off some work he's done for them, and he whips out his special needle, thread, and glasses and gets to work...replacing the button, and redoing the other buttons as well.
Will they accept payment? No sir - just enjoy your jacket! How about that fantastic French customer service once again?!

Happy Birthday in Paris!

Thursday, January 29, 2009 Paris

We relished the peaceful quiet night's sleep at Karen's - no loud booming bass to wake us up here! Kirk walked to Maison Kaiser for a baguette and croissants.Check out the French look - beret, baguette, and all :)
Karen says these are the best croissants she's ever had - and she has tried quite a few over her decades in France!

Marian, the birthday boy's wife, has invited the three of us to meet them for lunch at Fables de la Fontaine, and although it's been a gray morning, the sun comes out - just for the birthday celebrations?!
Check out those blue suede shoes - a birthday present, Eric?
Fables is known for its fish, and does not disappoint!

Several people order a simple langoustine mayonnaise - fresh seafood with house-made mayonnaise. Others choose a truffled scallop and endive dish. Bites are traded around the table, where the conversation is as delightful as the food. Family and friends from London, Virginia, Florida, and more have gathered to celebrate. From young ones (Eric and Marian's adorable almost-four Anna, her younger cousin Wells, and friend Charlotte) to peers, to parents, everyone's having a super time.

Eric and Kirk can't help but talk a bit of business - they both have a lot going on back in Virginia. We all return home on Sunday and they'll jump right in on Monday.
Bundled up for the chilly day, we snap a few photos, then go our separate ways before we'll meet again for dinner.
Kirk, Karen, and I stroll and shop. Last stop - the fabled Bon Marché department store. Kirk's looking for a special gift for a friend, and Karen's in the market for some new glasses for the apartment. I just enjoy the store - an architectural beauty enhanced with tempting things to buy and art installations, such as this tribute to the Egg Chair by Israeli artist Tal R.
We have not even noticed the strike. Karen says the cafés are emptier than usual, but the busses are running, and seem no fuller than usual. Any demonstrations are going on on the Right Bank, and we're on the left, totally unaffected.
The birthday celebration hits its peak this evening with a terrific dinner at Bastide d'Odeon, a long time favorite of Eric and Marian's. Karen told Marian where she could find a party shop, and the room is festive with banners and balloons, which keep the young ones entertained for hours.
While we were in Champagne with Jack and Anne in November, we found a special bottle for Eric, who collected Napoleon memorabilia - a Napoleon champagne! He says it'll be proudly displayed on the shelves at home in Virginia - if it makes it home!
A walk home by the Luxembourg gardens, and we pack up for our early departure tomorrow. We've booked the earliest train to Aix so that Kirk won't miss his final French class.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

From Aix to Paris

Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Aix en Provence, Paris, France

Another beautiful day in Aix - how about lunch by the fountain?

We're inside today - but sit right beside the big windows of Chez Feraud, a little spot we had noticed down a hidden lane (rue Puits Juif) as we walked one day.

The meal is terrific - my roasted fish has the flavors of provençal fish soup, and is served atop crisp garlicky croutons.

The accompaniments - roasted vegetables and a creamy zucchini soufflé - were so delicious I would have been happy with them alone.
Kirk's roasted pork was tender and flavorful too. Definitely a place to include on our Music and Markets Provence trip this August.

The trip downstairs to the bathroom is an adventure in itself - down a winding stone staircase that reminds me of the castle towers we've explored in the Loire valley.

Even the little corners are tastefully decorated. It's not often we take photos of a trip to the bathroom, but this one is worth it!

Kirk heads back to school for private sessions this afternoon, and I should go home to pack for our Paris trip....but it's just too beautiful to go inside!

The deliciously blue sky never ceases to delight both Kirk and me....and I see that, like me, many others are enjoying the crisp and sunny winter day.

I walk to the edge of town, passing the cathedral and interesting shops, then back to the apartment.
We've been receiving emails from the French train company regarding tomorrow's strike - a huge deal here. The strike even has its own website! We're notified that we can use the tickets we've purchased for the strike day anytime between noon today and noon Friday (it's a 24 hour strike), but there's no guarantee of a seat. So we decide to try for the 5: 43 train to Paris. We find two seats and room for our suitcase. First stop is Avignon and no one comes to claim our seats - next stop Paris!
Oh-oh - about 10 minutes after we streak off from Avignon, a young man comes up and says our seat is his reserved Kirk stands in the aisle (all seats are filled, people sitting on the stairways too) for the next 2 hours plus.

We arrive at the Gare de Lyon right on time, and catch a bus to Karen's neighborhood.
We so enjoyed her lovely apartment in November and it's great fun to be here with her this time.

She's got a steaming pot of carrot soup ready - the perfect warm-me-up on this cold Paris night.

One of Karen's former careers was as a decorator, and her dining tables are always so inviting, whether here in Paris, in Provence, or in Washington.
Once again our eyes as well as our palates enjoy a delicious meal.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Friends, Fountains, and Food

Monday - Tuesday, January 26 - 27, 2009
Aix en Provence
After the gloriously sunny Sunday, the rain is back with a vengeance today. But like the US postal service, we're out during the rain, the snow, the sleet...
As we walk into Fournée Joseph this morning, the young lady behind the counter spies us and sings out our usual order - Kirk doesn't even get to practice his French on her today!
Studies and errands today, and in the afternoon I buy a luscious chocolate raspberry torte to take to our friends' house for dinner this evening.
Oscar, a terrific cook, has planned an Italian meal, perhaps because we're also bringing a bottle of wine that was highly recommended by Stefano Conti in Florence. When we bought it there we had Anne-Marie and Oscar in mind :)
And the wine goes perfectly with Oscar's delicious Risotto with Porcini.

Then we all ooh and aah over the torte, which tastes as good as it looks!

On the way home, we snap a photo of the mossy fountain on Cours Mirabeau, steaming away on this chilly night. In the summer, when we're usually here, it's so warm that you don't see the steam, but it really shows off in the winter. Aix was founded by the Romans as Aquae Sextius, for its warm springs, and there is still a bath and spa complex here today.
It's nearly midnight when we get back to the apartment, and both of us keep working for a while, Kirk on the phone to the states setting up more staff for several big proposals coming out, and me responding to emails.
On Tuesday I go to the train station right after breakfast at Joseph. It's right on the edge of the historic center, and a pretty old Calisson (Aix's special candy) shop on the way there always has gorgeous window treats - is that a basket of candied PUMPKINS? Looks like it! Fruits confits, candied fruits, are another Aix specialty.
Although current information on the french railway internet site says that our trains on Thursday will run even though there's a massive strike scheduled for the entire day, our knowledgeable friend Karen Fawcett, of Bonjour Paris, has called again to urge us to come to Paris Wednesday "if you really want to get to that party Thursday night". So I wait in line to change our tickets...we don't want to miss our friend Eric's big birthday bash. When Eric and Kirk met for lunch a few months ago he mentioned that he'd be celebrating the big 4 - 0 in Paris and we were invited, so we've been planning to join him and his family and friends, knowing we'd be in France.
As I go back to the town center to meet Kirk for lunch I spy Mont Saint Victoire in the distance - what a beauty! No wonder it so inspired Cezanne that he drew and painted it over 100 times.

We meet at Br'unch again today - these smiling ladies (mother and daughter) always make the meal even tastier with their cheery welcome.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rain and Sun

January 24-25, 2009
Aix en Provence

It's a lazy gray Saturday, which we begin with a stroll through the open-air market, quite busy even in the rain. We gather a few goodies to nibble on, then spend most of the day working and studying at home. We're already planning the next trip - a February long weekend in Bath, England, to inspect several hotels and eat in as many restaurants as we can sqeeze in as we prepare for a new Music and Markets tour - the Bath Mozartfest in November. A recent Frommer's blogpost touts the great deals now available in England. I never imagined the dollar would gain such strength against the pound!
We were happy to wake up to a bright sunny Sunday, and walked down the Cours Mirabeau to the church on rue de la Masse. We found it easier this week to follow the sermon. Perhaps it was because the children stayed for the entire service so the pastor had lots of interesting and creative props to keep their attention and no doubt made his sermon easier to understand for the young ones. We appreciated that! A promising young student played the prelude - a Bach minuet - on the organ, and as we were singing the final hymn, a familiar tune, Kirk whispered in my ear "this is the first song I learned to play on the harmonica - Ol'Black Joe!" In the French protestant hymnal it's titled "Je crois en toi" - I believe in You.
In the afternoon we took a looong walk, passing by the soaring tower of St. Jean de Malte (above) on our way out of town. We followed the road towards Le Tholonet, the Route de Cezanne, passing a big sports complex (where Kirk was invited by the director of his school to a tailgate party before an American football game last night - unfortunately rained out), the St. Pierre cemetary, where Paul Cezanne is buried, and uphill to a mossy ridge above town.

From here we can see the center of town, and the tower we passed earlier is definitely the focal point of the skyline.

Kirk had a good map with him and found another way to get back to town.
We passed the Santons Fouque workshop, one we've often heard about, and a favorite Santon *
of ours, a man leaning into the Mistral wind, must be his creation - it crowns the house,
a larger one is in the garden, and it and other santons decorate the exterior of the house.

The workshop is closed today, but it would be a great place to see excellent quality Santons.

We haven't started a collection of those - but we're more tempted each visit!
For now we'll just collect photos.

*see Kirk's response to a question regarding Santons in the comments section - for a bit of Santon history

Monday, January 26, 2009

It's Friday!

Friday, January 23, 2009
Aix en Provence

Friday's feel even more special than at home - there's something more enticing about the end of the week and the coming weekend when you're a student again...or the wife of one.
Continuing my quest to cook things not readily available at home (such as the goat cheese salads and a creamy casserole of leeks and seafood that we've had on previous nights) I'm shopping for tonight's rabbit stew. Jill shared her recipe with me while she was here, and we're eager to try it: rabbit legs simmered in cider and broth, with some dried apricots added near the end of the cooking. I easily found all the ingredients and it's bubbling on the stove as I work on the computer.
I walk in the drizzle to meet Kirk by the obelisk on Place du Precheurs, and we decide to try a little place he noticed down an alley - we looked at it yesterday and it seems like a perfect place for a cozy rainy-day lunch. So we dodge the raindrops down little Rue Mignet, and duck under the low doorway into The à Theme - so sorry we didn't reserve, do you have a table for two left? They squeeze us in beside two ladies and a poodle and place a little blackboard on our table describing today's Tartes Salées (savory tarts) and salads. Kirk chooses a caramelized onion and duck breast quiche, and my choice is a eggplant-tomato-parmiggiano slice. Both delicious - and the interesting conversation of the elderly ladies beside us was a plus - a French lesson along with lunch.

We couldn't resist the dessert offerings, once again, and slowly savor a chocolate orange tart.
As we come out of the passageway to Rue Mignet, we notice one of Aix's most beautiful doors (above) - a work of art right on the street.

We're just a few steps from a charming square - the Place des Ormeaux - and we see that a favorite antique restorer and seller has opened his doors for the afternoon. Salvatore is from Sicily, and we always enjoy chatting with him in a mix of Italian and French, and checking out his latest finds.

He has some tempting little oils of the Provencal countryside - shall we???

Down another lane is an interesting olive oil shop. In a corner is an old sink and tin olive oil container just calling out to be photographed.
This evening, after our delicious rabbit stew (thanks, Jill!) we watch a French movie that we checked out from Kirk's school, using the French subtitles (described in the usage chart on the DVD thus: for deaf or mentally challenged people - that's definitely us in french!!). When it finishes, we're both excited that we actually understood what was going on! So we then figure out how to set up the tv in the apartment so that we can see the French subtitles on any program for which they're available. We do much better at reading than hearing...and hope that this will improve our listening skills!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Nice Surprises

Thursday, January 22, 2009
Aix en Provence
France is renowned for many things - delicious cuisine, marvelous wine, gorgeous chateaus, talented artists (that's Aix's own Cezanne ). It is NOT, sadly, known for good customer service. What a pleasant surprise, then, to take a cashmere sweater that we bought in Paris last month back to the branch of the same shop here, show them that the collar was unravelling, ask what could be done, and have them encourage us to pick out something else in the store! I looked around, and decided to come back with Kirk later in the day to see what he would like. When we did so, we talked to a different salesperson, who wanted to see a receipt, which we did not have, and asked when we had bought it - more than a month ago. Both of these things meant that we were not eligible for an exchange or return. But the kind salesperson at Celio (our friend Jack likes their clothes - he's the one who pulled us in the door in Paris) disregarded both, said that since we didn't have a receipt he could only give us the sale price, and again encouraged us to find other merchandise that we'd like. We came out with 3 merino wool sweaters, having paid a mere 75 centimes plus what the old sweater was worth. Now THAT'S the kind of customer service that gives you a smile!
Yesterday's tea pastries were such a grand success that I decide to pick up a couple of treats for our dessert tonight from the same patisserie - a thumb-sized coffee eclair for me, and a dense dark chocolate hazlenut tower for Kirk. I love walking "around the corner" to pick up all that we need - guess I'd better walk a little more if I'm going to keep going to the patisserie!
Years ago, when we came to France once or twice a year, I would allow myself a treat of my favorites -a Tarte Citron and a Religieuse (cream puff stack filled with coffee cream) - not both at the same time! When we started coming more often I thought it would be a good idea to pace myself, and not enjoy those treats EVERY time. Do you have a favorite French pastry that you look forward to when you visit?
Tonight's nice surprise - Kirk says we MUST include what promises to be a stellar piano concert at the Grand Théâtre de Provence in our evening. So after dinner we walk down the Cours Mirabeau, past the grand Rotonde fountain, through the new Allees Provencal shopping mall, and across the street to the modern new concert hall. While waiting in line to buy tickets, we see several of the musicians that we've already heard during our month here. The pianist who played such impressive Mendelssohn with the trio last week is beside us in line, the tall tenor whom we heard last night is in the lobby. We music-lovers stick together!
We are in the very highest spot - a single row in the top balcony right in the middle. I couldn't tell you what the pianist, billed in La Provence as "Monsieur cent notes à la seconde" (Mr. 100 notes a second), Boris Berezovsky, looked like, but I could hear every marvelous note of the fabulous program - Beethoven's Waldstein sonata, with it's memorable Adagio melody, Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, and a Liszt Sonata. His encores were all Chopin - a familiar waltz (I think he DID play 100 notes a second!), a mazurka, and an all-over-the-keyboard etude.
A day full of wonderful surprises!