Monday, October 22, 2012

Amboise et Ailleurs

A few weeks ago I was going stir-crazy from sitting inside working on the computer all day, and when Sunday proved to be clear and warm, I begged Seb to take me somewhere, anywhere, just to get out for a bit. He kindly agreed and we took the dog and drove to Amboise, a bit upriver from Tours, where there is a weekly market every Sunday that's one of the largest in the region. Large enough that tour buses bring people from outside the immediate area for their shopping. The booths and stalls run in two lanes for many blocks along the south bank of the Loire, with the usual mix of food, produce, clothes, random household accessories, flowers, and knockoff leather goods and jewelry. We got there towards the end of the market, but there were still many people in the aisles, even as the vendors started to take down their awnings and pack up for the day.

I continued my exploration of French charcuterie with a purchase of one each of donkey, pork-and-chestnut, pork-and-fig, and taureau, which translates to "bull" although I'm not sure if they really use ballsy beeves or if it's just your generic variety. If I hadn't recently had a good breakfast I would have been tempted by the savory roast chicken and the chicken-fat-covered potatoes roasting beneath them.

I made a note of this recipe for braised goat in cider, and when the weather gets colder (and I can find another goat meat vendor) I'll give it a try. The tripe terrine, however, was only attractive in a visual sense. Not that I wouldn't try it, just to see what it's like. But maybe some other day.

We left the riverside market and went across to the main area of town at the base of the Château Royal d'Amboise, a 15th-century edifice surrounded by 11th-century fortified walls, where Leonardo da Vinci is said to be buried. Whether they're his bones or not, it's true that he did spend his final years in Amboise, and his house and gardens are open to the public. Because of this, and the popularity of château-visiting in general, Amboise is quite the tourist town. We got stuck behind one of the little diesel-powered sightseeing trains for a while, but that let me get a closer look at the timber-framed houses along the cliff-edged fort walls, and a peek at one of the "troglodyte" houses built into the cliffs themselves.

We drove back along the north side of the river, through several smaller towns, including Vouvray and Rochecorbon. One of Seb's frozen-food delivery clients lives in Rochecorbon, in the house that was used as the family home in Jean Cocteau's 1946 film "La Belle et la Bête." We couldn't go up to the house, as he didn't have a delivery, but I peeked in through the gate. L'amour peut faire qu'un homme devienne bête. L'amour peut faire aussi qu'un homme laid devienne beau.

Vouvray is a well-known wine region, and the vineyards stretched for miles to either side of the road. The grape harvest was over, though, and the empty crates were piled at the ends of the rows.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

12 (Conscious) Hours in Paris

Jean and I spent the last day of her time in France in Paris, or at least that was the plan. We took the TGV to the airport and checked in to the usual expensive-and-small hotel room around noon, then went back to the airport to get the RER B into the city. Unfortunately there was an accident on the train line about three stops in (I heard later that it was a suicide, and that there's an average of one a day) and so they shut down the platform and told everyone to go get a bus. We all scurried up the stairs, Jean and I following the crowd, as I had really no idea where to go. There were supposed to be two bus lines, the 300 and 301, I think it was, that would take us in, but we ended up in a line for a completely different bus company, one that charged us another 10 euros each to ride. Approximately half an hour was spent with the increasingly-wrathful bus driver explaining over and over to each oncoming passenger that no, this was not the bus connected with whateverthehell was going on with the train line, and he didn't care if you already had a ticket, monsieur/madame, you needed to buy a new one, and there was nothing he could do about it, he wasn't employed by the train line, and finally that is enough I am closing the doors, you will have to wait for the next bus, we are leaving NOW, followed by an impassioned phone call to his immediate supervisor saying that if this ever happened to him again he was going to quit, just walk away from the bus et si le putain RER n'arrive pas à comprendre comment gérer la situation qu'ils devraient se faire foutre, or words to that effect. We arrived at the Place Opéra around 2pm, I think, and headed more or less for the river and all the touristy and beautiful sights. We walked by the Academy of Music, where someone was entertaining the crowds with classical piano works.

I think Paris is perhaps the most beautiful city I've ever been in, and it's probably because I absolutely love the architecture. Even when the buildings are covered with modern advertisements, there's something about the color of the stone, and the high windows of the attic spaces (in which I can totally see myself living, of course), and the details of the rooflines and the iron gratings scrolled across each balcony ... the same style is here in Tours, but in Paris it's just more.

While we didn't take the time to go into the Louvre, we did walk through the grounds. I read the other day that they've added a new wing to the museum complex, dedicated to Islamic art; it's had mixed reviews. If I can find a cheaper place to spend the night, I'd like to go up to Paris now and again, and spend a few hours seeing the new exhibits, and saying 'hi' to La Joconde again. The first Sunday of each month the entrance fees to most museums are waived, but I expect they're also horribly crowded. However, with my student ID I'll get a discount, I believe - wish I could find student housing as well at a reduced rate. Even the hostels are expensive. I did find out that it's actually cheaper to get a hotel room in Paris on the weekend rather than the weekdays, because many people live outside of Paris and commute in to work during the week. Jean and I had a terrible time finding a place to stay on a Thursday night and couldn't figure out why until Seb explained the weekday/weekend phenomenon. I just bought a weekend pass discount card from the train company, giving me 25-50% off tickets if I travel with a weekend overnight, and perhaps that will make up for the cost of the hotel room. Well, that's the future - back to the past now, and our quick tour of Paris. I'd found a boat taxi that runs a loop on the Seine from Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower, a hop-on/hop-off sort of thing that seemed quicker and more interesting than tunneling through town on the metro, and we picked that up in front of the Louvre.

For the life of me I cannot remember if I went up in the elevator, or on the stairs, to any level of the tower when I was in Paris in 1989. I have a memory of being up high above a large metropolitan area, but that could be from a visit to the Tokyo Tower in 1984, or perhaps the view from the top of St. Paul's in London way back in 1980. Jean and I did not join the long lines waiting to take the last elevators of the day, but just walked around underneath the massive structure for a bit before getting back on the boat. For something that's so huge and heavy and imposing from a distance, it's surprisingly delicate when seen up close.

Back down (or was it up?) the Seine we went, standing outside at the back of the boat rather than sitting in the main glassed-in section; the first boat we were on smelled of vomit, and I at least wanted to be out in the fresh air. The sun illuminated the carvings on the bridges as we passed under them, and reflected off the gold-leaf highlights. We got off at Notre Dame, unfortunately just a few minutes after they'd closed the entrance for the evening. Sorry, Jean! Next time ...

Seb had given us a recommendation for a restaurant, a tapas bar in the gay quarter, that he said was relatively cheap and had good food. We'd originally planned on eating lunch there, and had also planned on going to the gluten-free bakery and checking out the French version of Goodwill, but with all the travel delays we could only do some sightseeing. By the time we got to Notre Dame we were both hungry, and started to look for the street address Seb mentioned.

We asked several people if they knew where Rue des Lombards was, and the restaurant Les Piétons, but no one had any idea. We even started asking waitstaff at other restaurants, rude as that might have been. Finally we found ourselves in a little stone-paved courtyard near a church with a small restaurant and outdoor tables and a friendly-looking waitress, and asked her. She didn't know where the street was, but said that her restaurant was undoubtedly better than the one we were looking for anyway, and after she called an older woman (who turned out to be the owner) over to point out on the map where we needed to be, Jean and I looked at each other and decided to just stay put and eat at this undoubtedly better restaurant, which at least had the advantage of being right there. And it was a lovely evening, the sun setting over the crenellated rooflines and pigeons flying past, black-wimpled nuns emerging from the doorway of l'église Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais as vespers ended, walking past thin and stylish students and ascotted men with small dogs. Jean ordered a large seafood salad and I had the special of the day, whitefish with a grapefruit sauce, rice, and ratatouille, and diced melon for dessert.

We walked back across the Île Saint-Louis, over a bridge covered with padlocks. Each lock has the name of a couple on it; modern legend has it that if you lock your hearts together on this bridge and throw the key into the river, your relationship will never fall apart. It's a romantic gesture, and a romantic setting, especially with the night-lit cathedral in the background.

Back on the train then and back to the airport, where we waited above the train platform for the shuttle bus back to the hotel. We did a lot of waiting on this trip.

The beds were very comfortable, with soft pillows and thick duvets, and it's a good thing that I generally can't sleep past 8am because the hotel didn't remember our wake-up call. The bathroom in the room was the size of a small closet, with a shower stall just wide enough to stand up in. Due to a problem with the drain, I ended up flooding the entire bathroom, but since the hotel was undergoing renovations I didn't feel too bad about it. I reported the flood, we checked out, and Jean went off in search of coffee and her gate. I got back on the train, planning on getting coffee in town, and maybe some lunch at that tapas restaurant, before leaving from Gare Montparnasse.

I found the restaurant, near the Tour Saint-Jacques, the last piece standing of a church built in 1520 as the official start of the Compostela pilgrimage through to Tours, from this point in France, in any event. However, the restaurant wasn't open and I didn't want to wait, not being familiar with the area around Gare Montparnasse nor how long it would take to get there. Instead, I found a noisy street cafe across from the station, and sat in the sun with a strong espresso and a good book, watching the passers-by and thinking how lucky I was, and am, to be in Paris and in France.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Tourist In My Own Town

Just like I rarely went to Multnomah Falls or the Pittock Mansion unless there was someone in town from out of town, so I tend to not wander around Tours for the sake of wandering these days, unless I have a visitor. I've had one visitor so far, so I haven't done much wandering; my weeks have settled into a routine of freelance work, reading, walking when the weather's nice, and weekly lymphatic massage. Shopping at the natural foods store and the Saturday farmer's market and the Friday mobile meat truck, and cooking, and eating way too much, especially of the many different kinds of salami and pâté and rillettes available. I haven't been this carnivorous in a long time. But my friend Jean extended her Italian vacation for a week in France, and we spent the afternoons walking around the center of town.

We went to the botanical gardens, which were laid out in 1843, sponsored by a local medical professional and originally dedicated mostly to pharmeceutical plants. They've got the gardens divided out into various sections now, with herbs in one area, butterfly-loving flowers in another, edible plants in a third, and so on. There's a small petting zoo in the middle, a stream running from north to south through the length of the park, dozens of non-native trees planted around, and some exotic birds in a mossy pond.

We wandered in and out of some of the many churches in Tours, and strolled along the south bank of the Loire for a while. The flood markers are so high above the current water level it's hard to imagine such a rise in the river, but the botanical gardens were under two meters of water back in 1856.

The Cathédrale Saint-Gatien de Tours sits on the location of the first church in Tours back in the 4th century when this area was known as Caesarodunum and then Civitas Turonum; St. Martin and then Gregory of Tours built and rebuilt the cathedral, which was destroyed again in the 12th century in the fighting between England and France, and finally rebuilt over three centuries and five architectural styles into its present form, which it has held since around 1550. Because of its position on one of the main pilgrimage routes to Compostela and its central importance in early Christianity, Tours became the seat of power and the residence of kings from the Middle Ages until the 17th century.

The many châteaux of the Loire valley were built by wealthy lords who traveled with the kings. I hope to visit several of them over the next year, as some of them are quite beautiful. The château in Tours is rather plain, notwithstanding its royal history, a blocky turreted affair that's been standing at the edge of the Loire since at least 1044, between the river and the cathedral.

There's an art museum there now, as well as an upper gallery space that holds rotating exhibitions. Right now it's a retrospective of the paintings of Gilles Cormery, a local artist who died back in 1999, and who appeared to have some issues with his relationships with women, or at least that's the impression I got from his works. I liked a few of the pieces but most should not be Googled by anyone under 18, and I am not moved to nominate him for one of the Infinite Art Tournament play-in spots. However, I rather liked the composition of this one, with its cats.

Ever since 1874 there's been a Wednesday flower market along the Boulevard Béranger that runs through the center of town, and these days (though perhaps in those days as well) other vendors have congregated on the end of the multiblock aisle, selling clothes and cutlery, buttons and rugs, furniture (Jean saw a chair she really liked) and tulip bulbs (she bought some which were unfortunately later confiscated by customs at the Canadian border) and hats modeled by disturbing mannequins. I've never bought flowers there, because the cats in the apartment knock over things constantly, and there's no space on the desk in my room, at least not until I clean it up. Which might be an impetus for doing just that, as I really enjoy a nice bouquet of flowers, especially in the winter. I do not think I will buy a hat.

I might not get another visitor until spring, but I'm glad I was reminded to keep my eyes open, to wander down side streets just because, to take photos for the blog even if I'm already used to my surroundings, and to get out of the room once in a while to see what I can see in Tours.