Posts Tagged ‘France’

Follow the Owl

Follow the Owl

Good-Luck Owl

In Dijon, France, there is a self-guided walk called Parcours de la Chouette (Owl Walk or Trail) shown by owl arrows and numbered owl plates in the pavement (sidewalk). There are 22 stops at notable sights in the city. An owl is “l’hibou” in French, but a tufted owl is “la chouette”. These stylized owls are definitely tufted.

We start out at the train station and are curious as to why the city uses an owl symbol. Turns out that the owl is the icon of Dijon. This is based on a small stone owl, sculpted into the wall on the north side of the Notre Dame Cathedral in the 15th century.

The facade of Dijon's Notre Dame Cathedral with the three rows of false gargoyles

The facade of Dijon’s Notre Dame Cathedral with the three rows of false gargoyles








The little owl statue has been stroked so much that we can hardly distinguish its features

The little owl statue has been stroked so much that we can hardly distinguish its features

This amazing cathedral has a façade unlike any I’ve seen before, with three rows of false gargoyles across the front. But this little owl is not one of those. It is around the corner and about 6 feet off the ground.  No-one seems to know why an owl was carved here, but legend says that if one strokes the owl with one’s left hand while wishing, then the wish will come true. People have been doing this for hundreds of years, so now the owl is very smooth and shiny and has lost many of its features. We wait for a quiet moment and do as thousands before us.

I too become a believer for a few moments while stroking the smooth stone. Who knows?


Rod makes a wish

Rod makes a wish




Viv reaches up to make a wish too

Viv reaches up to make a wish too

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The exterior of the Opera is always surrounded by crowds of eager visitors

The exterior of the Opera is always surrounded by crowds of eager visitors

A Fanciful Afternoon at the Opera Garnier

The actual name is Opera National de Paris Palais Garnier, a 1,979-seat opera house, on Boulevard des Cappucines in the 9th arrondissement. It’s one of the icons of Paris, made doubly famous as Gaston Leroux used it as the setting for his 1911 novel The Phantom of the Opera (and its adaptations into films and a popular musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber).

A tour of the Opera House, a monument in its own right, is also something that we’ve somehow managed to miss in all these years, but now we’ve done it! There’s open touring throughout the day, but it’s well worth taking the guided tour (in English at 11:30am and 2:30pm, 13.50 euros/adult) as you learn so much more and realize the significance and details of what you’re looking at—and the whole building is covered in details and symbols from top to bottom. All the ornamentation was symbolic and carefully chosen, at great cost for those days.

A few mannequins give an idea of some of the lovely costumes

A few mannequins give an idea of some of the lovely costumes

If you’re lucky you’ll have Emmanuel as your guide, an expressive young man who’s a walking encyclopedia of information about the Opera that he conveys with passion. It’s one and a half hours of concentrated history and facts.

We enter through the side of the building into the lovely Subscription Foyer, an entrance place where the special subscribers could enter, and designed to make them feel special. Emmanuel points out the writing on the ceiling, done in intricate script so you wouldn’t know if he didn’t tell you, with the dates of the beginning and end of the construction (1861-1875) and the name of the main architect-designer, Charles Garnier.

Our guide. Emmanuel, explains about the mechanisms of the stage operation

Our guide. Emmanuel, explains about the mechanisms of the stage operation

The whole tour is chock-full of details like this—-what the materials are (lots of onyx); what the statues represent and why; the same for the paintings and frescoes. Many are allegorical and related to Greek gods and myths, especially Apollo and lots of lyres. Emmanuel peppers the tour with stats—cost, how many workers, how many performances a year, size of stage etc. It’s all too much to take in actually, but we do get a good sense of the size and grandeur of this opera building. It was built to impress and dazzle and I’m sure it would be hard to find anyone who isn’t totally dazzled and impressed by it. Almost everything is huge, grandiose and gorgeous, shining and colorful, with gold or goldleaf in abundance.

We sit in the sumptuous orchestra for a while and marvel at the Chagall ceiling, which is not in context with anything else there, so it’s different. But then, so was the whole theater at the time it was built. The curtain rises to show the first set for the final production of Hippolyte and Aricie (by Jean-Philippe Rameau). Magic. We hear stories about Napoleon 111’s box (which he never used) and the phantom’s box (Number 5, next to the royal one), and stories of the phantom—-based on some true events (like a chandelier falling down), and the existence of an actual lake way below. Hence, the “Phantom of the Opera”. Sitting here, in this fanciful place where magic happens in each performance, one can almost believe there might be a phantom, where the unreal becomes real briefly, where stories come alive.

Part of the Chagall ceiling in the actual theatre

Part of the Chagall ceiling in the actual theatre

Emmanuel explains how the subscription system has changed and now the French government puts in a lot of money. Subscribers and patrons were allowed to interact with the dancers, but that was stopped in the 1930s.

This opera focuses on dance now, while the Bastille Opera (which opened in 1989) does the operas, plus the really big ballets. They try to balance the old and the new, traditional and contemporary.

Emmanuel talks knowledgeably about the writers and the composers and who did what for the inauguration of the Opera. We wander up the magnificent Grand Staircase, through multiple galleries—one of which is like a miniature Versailles without the mirrors—onto the outside gallery with its view down to the Louvre; that avenue was newly created at that time just for that view and for people to be able to walk or ride up to the Opera. And everywhere we marvel, our eyes out on stalks. Some people may say it’s all over the top rather but sometimes fairy tales and fantasy do have a place in our lives, sometimes beauty just for beauty’s sake is okay.

Emmanuel points out details in this gorgeous gallery

Emmanuel points out details in this gorgeous gallery

All the people in our group, except for just one negative guy, were very excited to see and hear all this, and thought it was great.

This is a perfect activity for any afternoon, but especially a rainy one (as we had).

It’s well worth buying the small Opera booklet for 7 euros for extra information.

Or go to Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palais_Garnier



Viv on balcony of main hall

Viv on balcony of main hall

Details on just one wall

Details on just one wall

Vaulted ceiling in the Subscription Hall

Vaulted ceiling in the Subscription Hall

Amazing details on a pillar----they are all ornately decorated

Amazing details on a pillar—-they are all ornately decorated

The main hall

The main hall

Details of the sumptuous gallery

Details of the sumptuous gallery

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Exterior of this bouchon-style restaurant

Le Pile Poêle, A Traditional bouchon-style restaurant

9 Rue St-Dominique, Clermont-Ferrand, France. Tel: 04 73 36 08 88

Open Mon-Sat 12-14:30pm and 19-23:30pm

It’s just off Rue Etats-Unis, where the tram runs, and very close to the Jaude tram stop, so is ideally placed for visitors to the old city and the cathedral and for shoppers.

Rod inside with Frederique and Francois

This is a Lyonnais bouchon-style place, with the traditional color scheme of red and white. We have been twice, each time with our French hosts. In 2008, Frederique and Francois took us there as they felt it’s a typical bouchon, serving traditional food. He had kidneys—a traditional French delicacy—while the rest of us had some kind of pork dish. They were very proud to have such an eatery in their city and to be able to show us.

In 2012, our host Pascal thought it was a good place when we went there with a large conference group, so that was another endorsement by a French person!

Le Pile Poêle serves traditional cuisine with several local Auvergnat specialities and seasonal suggestions.

Plat du Jour €9, Menu Midi €12-15,  A la carte €9-40, Most main dishes are in the €18-20 price range

You can sit outside at a few tables in good weather, but most locals prefer to be inside. There are many tables and banquettes on the ground level and a couple of big rooms in the basement too. We ended up in the basement at a large table last time with our big group. Some of the group had onglet, a beef cut with potatoes. Others had the special salad with canard, foie gras and ham. Quite a few of the group had the andouillette (coarse sausage) with potatoes and said it was okay, not too gamey. Some had the tuna steak, cooked rare.  Pichets of rose and red wine went well with these dishes.

Our conference group, Viv next to Chris (2nd right) and Rod next to me

A bouchon is a type of restaurant that was first found in Lyon, France, that serves traditional Lyonnaise cuisine, such as sausages, duck pâté or roast pork. Compared to other forms of French cooking such as nouvelle cuisine, the dishes are quite fatty and heavily oriented around meat. Typically, the emphasis in a bouchon is not on haute cuisine but, rather, a convivial atmosphere and a personal relationship with the owner.

The tradition of bouchons came from small inns visited by silk workers passing through Lyon in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. According to the dictionary Le Petit Robert, this name, bouchon, comes from the 16th-century expression for a bunch of twisted straw. A representation of such bundles began to appear on signs to designate the restaurants and, over time, the restaurants also became known as bouchons. The more common use of “bouchons” as a stopper or cork at the mouth of a bottle (and the word for a traffic jam in France) has a different etymology.

There are actually few officially certified traditional bouchons, but a much larger number of places around France now describe themselves using the term. Obviously a catchy phrase!


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One of the older, framed posters for the festival, found in many local wine bars

La Fete des Vendanges de Montmartre, annual in October

Unfortunately, we were not there for this year’s festival, which has just taken place (October 10-14, 2012), but I heard that it was a lot of fun—which I can imagine, as we’ve been in Montmartre in virtually every other month of the year.

As the air gets crisper, the days shorter, and bursts of color in the trees turn brilliant autumn hues, Paris reveals another of her many faces: Paris is a big city, a famous city, a historical city, a city full of icons, but Paris also has vineyards. Yes, vineyards, right in the city! There are vineyards on the outskirts of other cities like Vienna and Bordeaux, for example, but the Clos Montmartre is more central and unexpected. It’s Paris’s secret vineyard.

The vineyard in late summer. Note an official, in the traditional red and black, showing a group the vineyard

The vineyard in late autumn

Le Lapin Agile (the Agile Rabbit) on a corner near the vineyard

Up on the hill of Montmartre on the west side of the basilica of Sacre Coeur, down rue Cortot, past the Musée de Montmartre and into the rue des Saules, you will find a small, neat vineyard, its edge opposite the famous bar/cabaret Le Lapin Agile, and the restaurant Maison Rose. Between the 2,000 or so vines of gamay and pinot noir grapes are neat strips of turf with lavender bushes or other flowers planted at the ends of the rows. The vineyard covers around 1,556 sq meters and every October a special five-day festival celebrates the harvesting of those grapes. It is on a steep slope and is surrounded by houses, with buses chugging past, so may seem out of place. But, having vines and vineyards in this part of Paris was always part of the landscape and traditions.

The Maison Rose, also nearby

Vines were introduced to the Paris region by the Romans, and vineyards stretched to the slopes of the Butte Montmartre as late as the mid-19th century. But, by the early 20th century there were basically no vines left, as they were largely wiped out by the phylloxera outbreak in the 1880s. In 1933, a group of local artists, led by Francis Poulbot, wanted to block a real estate development where the vines had been, an area that had become rather a waste land. So they got together and petitioned the city of Paris to grant them the land so they could replant the vines, and the Clos Montmartre was renewed. It is now funded by the Mairie de Paris. Vines trump real estate development in France apparently!

Some of the older framed posters of the festival in a local wine bar

Montmartre is unique because of the artistic life and culture that has existed there for so long—and continues to do so—but is also special because of the wine. Every year more than 1000 bottles of red wine are produced, called Clos Montmartre with most of the labels designed by local artists. After the grapes are harvested they are pressed in the basement of the 18th arrondissement’s Mairie —-where else is that possible? Most of the wine is auctioned and all proceeds of the special bottling go to local charities.

Clos Montmartre plaque

During the festival it’s possible to visit the sloping vineyard (the rest of the year by appointment only with the Montmartre Tourist Office). Each year the festival has a different theme and two famous persons are chosen as marraine and parrain (godmother and godfather) to lead the festivities. For example, in 2009, Charles Aznavour was the parrain and Anais the godmother. This year, the marraine was Anggun, and the parrain Jean-Luc Petitrenaud. Montmartre’s bars, cafes and restaurants feature the favorite dishes of the godmother and godfather, supposedly all pairing well with the wine. I heard that this year there were lots of different types of sausages. Many tents are set up and offer tastings of regional wines, cheeses and other products too, and you can visit various boulangers, patissiers, and choclatiers. Children are also always part of the Fete des Vendages, with parades, costumes, balloons etc. Many people dress up in traditional black and red colors, so it’s a very colorful affair too.

So, next October if you are in Paris, head up to Montmartre for a good time and a glass of fine (although expensive) Montmartre wine. The vineyards are on a north-facing slope so exposure to the sun is minimized and the wine is not very full-bodied. But, it’s fruity and has been described as “somewhere between a decent Beaujolais and an Hautes Cotes de Nuit red”.

For more specific details about, and pictures of, this year’s festival (and previous years) go to the official website:


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Le Soufflot Cafe decked out one December

Paris, France: Le Soufflot Cafe

16 rue Soufflot, 75005 Paris

This restaurant is very close to the Pantheon, on a street of the same name. Jacques-Germain Soufflot was the architect of the Pantheon (started 1758, completed 1790), so the name is very appropriate, even though he died before the Pantheon was completed. Because this street is so close to the famous Pantheon, it is right on the tourist trail and therefore always teeming with visitors. Many of the souvenir shops and some of the smaller cafes have, sadly, become “generic tourist traps”. But, in our experience, Le Soufflot has managed to escape this fate.

The waiters are really good at switching to English and one waiter, Christophe, even jokes around with customers in English. But, in spite of catering to many tourists, this place hasn’t become a tourist trap like so many of the cafes/bistrots/restaurants in San Michel. Over the years, it’s continued to be charming (compared to our first visit more than 10 years ago) and the food is good. And a small container of peanuts arrives first, with the drinks. On a recent visit, our lunch salads came in big bowls, which fit better on a small table, rather than large flat plates. And tables are pretty small, but that’s nothing unusual for Paris eateries! Many of the tables are set out on the pavement (sidewalk), with the obligatory awning, and then sun umbrellas (which are also good for rain protection).

Our two great salad plates on a recent visit

Big salads are in the 9-12 euro price range and a demi wine about 9 euro, so it’s pretty good value for money. Service is friendly and competent, and people around us were all satisified.

Another point: Can one go back to a place that one liked before and be happy with it again? So often that’s not the case—we harbor a memory and therefore an expectation, and are often disappointed. Not the case with Le Soufflot. It doesn’t seem to have changed at all: in fact, many of the waiters are still the same too. And we’ve been eating there almost annually for many many years, and in different seasons. Great!

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Seen in Beauvais, France, a town north of Paris. Interesting name, as the pizza delivery is supposedly fast, but they’ve chosen a slow animal logo. Or is rather to represent commitment, as did the turtle in the fable about the Hare and the Tortoise? We did see one of the bikes roar off in a huge hurry though!

Pizza delivery bikes in Beauvais

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(PS I’m back from our last trip to France and finally have proper internet access, so here’s the Choco Story I promised to put up.) Enjoy!

Museum entrance

Choco-Story, The Paris Chocolate Museum (Musee Gourmand du Chocolat)

museum sign (with deep shadow, unfortunately)

This is an amazing museum and I’m sorry we’d never gone before but at least we’ve found it now. Another example of the wonderful variety that is Paris. We saw the ad in the Greater Paris magazine and it happened to be close to our hotel, so was perfect for a visit one morning.

Charles Dickens is reputed to have famously said, “There is nothing better than a friend, unless it is a friend with chocolate.” Chocolate, the food of the gods. Chocolate as an indulgence or a reward. Chocolate as therapy for a stressful day, an argument, an attack of the blues. For many, chocolate has become a necessity in life, as evidenced by the word “chocoholic”. For them it is wonderful, whether it comes in the form of a bar, a drink, a cake, a mousse, or a fondue. It can be hot, warm, cold, or frozen. It can be served with both sweet and savory food.

So, what is this substance? Much has been written about chocolate over the years. Wander up and down the cooking aisles at your bookstore or browse on Amazon and notice how many books are on chocolate, its history, properties, or cooking with it, both savory dishes and desserts. For example, “The True History of Chocolate” by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe“ (2nd ed. 2007); “The Great Book of Chocolate” by David Lebovitz (2004); “The Healing Powers of Chocolate” by Cal Orey (new ed. 2010); “The Chocolate Cookbook (Greatest Ever)” by Christine McFadden and Christine France (2007); and “Naked Chocolate: The Astonishing Truth About the World’s Greatest Food” by David Wolfe and Shazzie (2005). If you take a look at Chocolate Festivals around the world too, it’s soon obvious that the popularity and importance of this “drink of the gods” has not changed.

This wonderful museum in Paris does an excellent job of setting out the whole story of chocolate. There are many

Mayan statue of man with cacao bean

colorful and clear informational boards, all in French, English and Spanish. It is set out on 3 floors and covers the whole history of chocolate. It’s an interesting story and well told, whether you like chocolate or not, detailing more than 4,000 years of history and displaying more than 1,000 original artefacts.

On the ground floor, we see the geography and biology of the cacao tree and the cacao bean (now mostly grown in Africa in Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria; but Indonesia is also a big producer). The cocoa bean is one of the world’s culinary treasures because chocolate developed from it. The bean comes from the Theobroma cacao tree. In Greek, ‘theobroma’ means ‘drink of the gods’, showing that even early people attached importance to this tree discovered in Central America and Mexico, in the land of the Olmec and Maya people. It’s believed that cacao was first cultivated by the Olmecs 3,000 years ago, not by the Aztecs as was commonly believed. However, the Maya and Aztecs embraced cacao, but as a drink only at that time. There’s a really good coverage of the Mayan connection to cacao and a surprisingly extensive collection of Mayan artifacts, including a couple of their wonderful codices (books).

Mayan glyph showing possible origin of our word “cacao”

How the name cacao probably came about: Many Mayan ceramic pots are decorated with glyphs that have been interpreted as ka-ka-wa, which led to cacao. Why the word chocolate? In the Nahuatl language, still spoken in Central America by about 1.5 million Indians, cacahuatl is the word for chocolate (the drink); kakawa (cocoa) plus atl (water). They also had a drink called chocolatl, which was a mix of cacahuatl and pochotl (ceiba tree seeds). Scholars believe that early Spaniards, who had not mastered the Indian language, thought choco meant hot and atl meant water, so thought that was the hot cacao drink, and changed cacahuatl to chocolati.

Fascinating if you’re interested in languages!

Cacao has a long and complex history as it evolved through the hands of explorers, businessmen, cooks and manufacturers, and became part of our commercial, spiritual and social lives. This is all shown beautifully in this museum.

The Aztecs believed that cacao was the source of spiritual wisdom, tremendous energy and enhanced sexual powers. The Mayans also used cacao beans as currency, for example, a rabbit for 10 cacao beans and a slave for 100. The Aztecs continued to use this measure, for example, 1 turkey egg was 3 beans, 1 large tomato or 5 green peppers were 1 bean, and a rabbit 10 beans. Here’s another interesting factoid: the Mayan standard weight measure was the “carga”, equivalent to the load a man could carry, which was 24,000 cacao beans. I wonder if the English word “cargo” is related? The Mayans and the Aztecs loved their hot drink to be foamy (done by frothing it with a special stick, the molinillo), so our foamy drinks are definitely not new!

Christopher Columbus and Hernan Cortes in the early 1500s were the first Europeans to encounter chocolate from the

Marie Antoinette was a great lover of this new drink

Aztecs and recognize its potential, carrying beans back to Spain. From there, it moved to Netherlands, Italy, and France.

Chocolate only became popular later in Switzerland, Germany and Austria in the late 1600s (all countries now famous as chocolate makers), initially mostly in the Royal Courts and often on the instigation of women. Later it went to England, and then moved back to the Americas, to the USA.

The European love affair with cacao and chocolate is shown on the first floor, with an extensive collection and coverage of where and how it spread, how it was first used (as a drink) and all the equipment and paraphernalia needed to produce and drink it. For example, special cups (note the moustache cup with the special lip cover to prevent the moustache getting soiled!) and pots, called chocolatières, which were different to coffee pots. In those days, chocolate was often considered medicinal (especially when mixed with other ingredients), as well as for pleasure, and was sold through apothecaries.

A cup especially designed for those men with a moustache, so they could drink chocolate without getting messy!

Van Houten, a Dutchman, found a way to separate cacao butter and mass, an idea he patented in 1828. Then the idea of hard, eating chocolate was born in 1847 when the Fry company found a way to mix cocoa paste and sugar with liquid cacao butter into a paste that could be put into a mould. There’s a great display of the way that sugar was processed to add to the chocolate (both drinking and hard), many chocolate moulds, special tins and holders etc. We also see many labels, ads, posters, all giving a great record of the importance of cacao and chocolate in many people’s lives.

In the basement (level -0), is a demo kitchen area (we missed the demo time unfortunately) and an interesting section on the health benefits and/or risks of chocolate (not many risks, actually), plus boards on the composition of 3 types of chocolate: dark, milk and white. For a good discussion of the health benefits of chocolate go to this site:


one exhibit with a variety of lovely chocolate pots

A small shop behind the ticket desk has books on the history of cacao and chocolate, posters, moulds, and various bars of chocolate. We bought a bar that’s based on an original Mayan recipe (not as spicy as we were expecting) and another on the first Spanish one (it had a slightly grainy texture and was delicious, with a strong cinnamon flavor). Originally cacao/chocolate was always taken spiced (often with Tabasco peppers, also known as Jamaican peppers), and unsweetened, and it’s only in the last couple of hundred years that it’s been sweetened. Many of the artisanal chocolates nowadays are returning to the spiced version, with peppers, cardamom, chiles etc.

A great museum and well worth and few hours and the entrance fee.

Address: 28 Blvd Bonne Nouvelle (10tharrondissement)

another chocolatiere, or chocolate pot


Admission: Adults 9€, kids 6-12 6€, students and seniors 8€

Open daily 10am-6pm, except January 1 and December 25.

Easy to get to: Metro station Bonne Nouvelle, or Grands Boulevards, Line 8; or Strasbourg Saint-Denis, Lines 8 and 4.


a few of the many chocolate moulds on display



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