September 27, 2011

Our visit to Versailles (along with the entire population of Western Europe)

I'm not sure what April and I were thinking when we thought we'd take advantage of a warm and sunny Saturday to visit Versailles. Somebody should have stopped us! Although we suspected it would be crowded, we reasoned that because we were not going to be viewing the palace (been there, done that), and just visiting the Grand Trianon, Petit Trianon and the Hamlet, it shouldn't be so bad. We couldn't have been more wrong.

Having done some research on the Versailles website in advance of our trip, we knew that we could purchase a ticket to visit our desired locations (sans the Palace) for 10 Euros, instead of buying the full ticket that includes the Palace (25 Euros). Once we were in the outer courtyard, we could find no signs to indicate if we could purchase our ticket anywhere else but from the ticket office where there were already about 300 people in line. Merde.

After standing in this line for almost an hour with many people who had questionable hygiene habits, we finally get up to the ticket window only to be told that we could not purchase our ticket there. We must purchase our tickets at the Grand Trianon or Petit Trianon palaces. And here's the other kicker: in order to get to the transportation options for those palaces, we have to enter the garden and there's a separate entrance fee for that! So we had to pay a ticket that cost 8 Euros to "enter the garden" to go stand in yet another line to get to the palaces. Merde merde, merde!

What a racket! None of the hundreds of fountains in the gardens are actually on, except for during two times that afternoon when there's a "musical extravaganza" -- kind of like the fountains you see in Vegas at the Bellagio where the sprays of water are in time with music. So even if you wanted to just wander around the gardens and NOT stay for the "musical extravaganza" you're still going to pay 8 Euros to enter the garden. Unless of course you've purchased the full-fare Versailles "passport" ticket for 26 Euros. I might also add that's it about 80 degrees out and we're getting kind of cranky.

So our choices to get to the Grand Trianon palace are either to walk (1 hour walk over cobblestones and rocks), take the "petit train" where there's already about 100 people in line (the train maybe accommodates 30 people) and will take about 30 minutes to get there, plus we're probably going to have to wait through 3 or 4 trains before it's our turn, or stand in yet another line (although shorter) to wait for a golf cart to be returned to rent by the hour. Guess which option we chose? If you wonder what lovely gifts from Paris I'm going to bring you when I return, I will tell you that instead of buying you a gift, we enjoyed the use of a golf cart at Versailles for 4 hours . . . I won't even tell you how much per hour we paid because you will undoubtedly feel your heart stop. As the saying goes, "it is what it is."

Luckily for us, once we had come to this decision, we hurried over to yet another line and like a sign from the Roman Gods, 4 golf cart chariots had just been returned and we were the lucky recipient of the last available one. Don't judge us.

So off to the Grand Trianon we went. We thought about zipping into the town of Versailles to acquire some chilled rosé, but we were told that the cart must stay on the "marked paths" or it will stop. How do they do that? GPS technology? And they were right -- we took one wrong turn (April still can't read a map) and sure enough, our chariot stopped. It will, however, let you put it into reverse and correct your direction of travel. So much for our rosé.

During our visit, there was a special fashion exhibition at the Grand Trianon on the influence of the 18th century on modern fashion. There were fifty models by modern designers like Vivienne Westwood, Karl Lagerfeld pour Chanel, Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Christian Lacroix, Thierry Mugler and others that showcased haute couture designs, with reference costumes and accessories from the 18th century. The pieces came from the archives of the couture houses and from the Musée Galliera’s collections.

This special exhibit was pretty popular and we stood in yet another line for over an hour to see it and I almost got into an altercation with a women at the entrance to the palace. It was our turn next to be "let in" (they were modulating the number of people allowed inside at one time) and some woman who acted like she was more special than the rest of us that stood in line tried to push her way in front of April and I. As you can imagine, I was not having it. I caused enough of a commotion about it that two employees had to come over and see what the problem was. And I was happy to tell them. There was NO way I was going to wait patiently for my turn to see the exhibit and have some woman push her way to the front of the line. It was not fair. This woman really thought that she was going to get her way and after some Franglish (I think she might have been Italian) was told that she had to go stand in line like everyone else.

Although it was interesting, it was very, very, very, crowded and the rooms were just too small to hold that many people. I have never encountered so many rude people before -- people just pushing and shoving you out of the way so THEY can get a better look. I'm pretty sure that April got more enjoyment out of it than I did. No photography was allowed, but I was able to create some images from the brochure:

The Grand Trianon was commissioned by Louis the 15th and built in 1672 as a retreat for him and his mistress(es) where they could take light meals and entertain guests away from the strict etiquette of the court. Here's a picture of the backside of the Grand Trianon and the gardens:

Our next stop with our luxury mobile was the Petit Trianon. The Petit Trianon was commissioned by Louis the 15th for his long-term mistress, Madame de Pompadour, and was constructed between 1762 and 1768. But Madame de Pompadour died four years before its completion, and it was subsequently occupied by her successor, Madame du Barry. Upon his accession to the throne in 1774, the 20-year-old Louis the 16th gave the château and its surrounding park to his 19-year-old Queen Marie Antoinette for her exclusive use and enjoyment. Marie longed to escape Louis and his court, and he gave her just the place.

Marie Antoinette would come to the Petit Trianon not only to escape the formality of court life, but also to shake off the burden of her royal responsibilities. At Versailles, she was under considerable pressure and judgement from both her family and the court, and the Petit Trianon was her place of ease and leisure where she could rest from those trials. Since all was "de par la Reine" (by order of the Queen), none were permitted to enter the property without the Queen's express permission (not even, it was said, Louis XVI). The interior of the Petit Trianon is somewhat understated compared to other royal residences.

My favorite part of this visit was the surrounding park known as the "Hamlet". In spite of its idyllic appearance, the hamlet was a real farm, fully managed by a farmer appointed by the Queen, with its vineyards, fields, orchards and vegetable gardens producing fruit and vegetables consumed by the royal table. April and I probably spent two hours just wandering around this park. It was lovely.

Visiting the Hamlet made all of the day's pain go away. It was such a beautiful day and I enjoyed wandering around this little French village. Bravo Marie Antionette!

You can view more of my pictures from our visit to Versailles here.

September 26, 2011

Château de Fontainebleau

The last time we were in France, we attempted to visit this château, but some last-minute shuffling of our schedule resulted in me "re-scheduling" our visit for a day that the château was closed. Imagine our surprise having arrived and commenting "wow, it doesn't look crowded at all" only to get close enough to the ticket window and see the dreaded "fermé le mardi" (closed on Tuesdays). This time, we triple-checked their open days/hours just to make sure! It's a quick train ride from Paris, taking only about 35 minutes from Gare de Lyon.

The first recorded reference to the Château de Fontainebleau in a royal charter dates back to 1137, the year of the accession of Louis VII, known as Louis the Younger. The huge keep (or central tower) dates from this period. In 1259, Saint Louis, who was very fond of his fortified castle in Fontainebleau, established a monastery hospital there, presided over by the Trinitarian or Mathurin monks. The foundations of their chapel and other monastery buildings are all that remain from this original configuration, now located near to the current Chapel of the Trinity.

It was the Renaissance which saw the first major changes to the Château de Fontainebleau. In addition to the major building extension works, followed by extensive decoration works by Italian artists, there were court visits. Francis I (1494-1547) often came to stay at Fontainebleau, where he liked it so much that when he spoke of going there, he referred to it as “going home”. From 1528 onwards, the date of his first commissioned works there, the king particularly liked to spend the winter at Fontainebleau, to hunt boar and other quarry in the forests. In December 1536, his future son-in-law James V, King of Scotland, came to visit him there. This King had this passage built for his personal use, which only he had a key to. The passage led from his sleeping quarters to the main part of the château.

The Château de Fontainebleau was also where Catherine de Medici gave birth to six of their children. Francis II was born on 19 January 1544; Elizabeth (the future queen of Spain) on 2 April 1546; Claude (the future Duchess of Lorraine) on 12 November 1547; Edouard-Alexandre (the future Henry III of France) on 19 September 1551; Hercule (the future Duke of Anjou) on 18 March 1555; and Jeanne and Victoire, Princesses of France, on 24 June 1556. Apparently women of the court were required to give birth in public to "legitimize" the future heirs. Not sure how giving birth in public was proof that those children were actually fathered by who they were supposed to be fathered by . . . just sayin'.

The last major building expansion works at the château were carried out during the reign of Henry IV of France (17th century), whose favourite residence it was after the Louvre. In the 18th century, hunting parties continued to be held at Fontainebleau during the autumn. The French kings made the most of the fact that etiquette here was a little more relaxed than at Versailles, coming here to receive visiting diplomats from foreign rulers or even, before marriage, taking advantage of a trip to Fontainebleau to meet visiting princesses.

Someone had an obvious obsession with breasts (photo above).

By the late 18th century, the château had fallen into disrepair; during the French Revolution many of the original furnishings were sold, in the long Revolutionary sales of the contents of all the royal châteaux, intended as a way of raising money for the nation and ensuring that the Bourbons could not return to their comforts. Nevertheless, within a decade Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte began to transform the Château de Fontainebleau into a symbol of his grandeur, as an alternative to the empty Palace of Versailles.

The throne room (pictured above) is the only only such suite in France still in its original state.

The library (image above) holds more than 16,000 volumes.

Today part of the château is home to the Écoles d'Art Américaines, a school of art, architecture, and music for students from the United States. The school was founded by General Pershing when his men were stationed there during the First World War.

It's hard to capture in photos just how beautiful the furnishings and decor are. Most of the rooms were very dark as to not cause further damage to tapestries and paintings from the sunlight, and one could envision just how lovely some of the rooms would be when bathed in sunlight. I wish part of the tour would have included the kitchens. I'd love to see what a working kitchen looked like in the 15th century (and beyond).

You can view more pictures of Fontainebleau here.

September 24, 2011

The charming village of Grimaud

We had some time to before our train departed St Raphael for Paris, so we stopped to visit the charming perched village of Grimaud, with its cobble stoned streets and alleys, most of them pedestrian only, vaulted passages, carefully restored 16th - 19th century houses, flower pots on window sills, a few shops, cafés and restaurants - the setting was perfect.

The village is named after the Grimaldi family, still in power in Monaco, and was bequeathed to a Genoese nobleman, Gibelin de Grimaldi, by William the Good of Provence, in reward for his support in driving the Saracens from Provence in the 10th century.

The original intent of the "perched" village was to provide a view of the sea to watch out for possible invasions. At the very top of the village is a partially restored 11th century chateau, which originally had three enclosures and four enormous towers.  Much of it was destroyed during the 17th century wars of religion and later after the Revolution. 

The St Roch’s Wind Mill was built in the 17th Century, and was recently restored by the "Compagnons du Tour de France".

We were all charmed by this little village. It was everything I envisioned a hilltop French village to look like.

The Penitents Chapel dates from the 15th century.

Some people prefer the glitz and glamour of Monaco, but I much preferred the cobblestone streets, stone archways and flowering vines of Grimaud.

It was the perfect way to end our trip in the Cote d'Azur. You can view more pictures of our trip to Grimaud here.

September 22, 2011

Monaco - No Income Taxes; 0% Unemployment and #1 Export is Pharmaceuticals (hmmmm)

While we were in the Cote d'Azur, we thought we'd take a roadtrip to visit Monaco for an afternoon. The only thing I really knew about Monaco was that it was very small, Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier in 1956 and the current Grimaldi's (Albert and Caroline) have had numerous scandals and sordid affairs linked to them. I obviously knew about the Casino (hey, I watched Casino Royale) and that they host the annual Grand Prix race there. But that's about where my knowledge ends.

The weather wasn't too great for our adventure, although I'll take a little drizzle and grey clouds over actual "rain" so I'm not really going to complain. It just would have been nice to have had some sunshine.

It took us about 2 hours to drive from St Tropez to Monaco. I suspect if Avis had sported us in a beautiful Bentley, Aston Martin or other high-performance vehicle, we could have cut that time by at least 45 minutes. Let's just say that the Ford Fiesta doesn't understand "high-performance".

Although Monaco is tiny (just under two square kilometers), it's very hilly, so us old people decided to take a tour on one of those open-top buses that let you jump on/off at various stops around the town. It's also a good way to learn more about the city than you would have otherwise on your own since they have those handy recordings you listen to as the bus drives around.

Here's some interesting facts about Monaco:
  • It's the second smallest independent State in the world (the Vatican is the smallest)
  • There is no income tax
  • Their number one export is pharmaceuticals (I certainly did not see any factories in the 2 square kilometers that I visited, so you have to wonder WHAT they're cooking up there) . . . just sayin'
  • They have zero unemployment
  • Monaco boasts the world's highest GDP nominal per capita at $151,630 and is the most densely populated country in the world (31,000+ live there)
  • They have one of the world's longest life expectancy rates at just under 90 years
  • They are reclaiming land from the sea to expand the city limits
  • The House of Grimaldi has ruled Monaco since 1297
  • Citizens of Monaco are not allowed to gamble in its Casinos

So after sightseeing for a few hours, I have to say that Monaco is one of those places that I'll tick off on my long list of "places I'd like to see before I die" and will most likely never visit again. The town held very little charm for me, which was kind of a surprise. I was even a little disappointed by the palace -- it didn't seem very "palace-like" in its appearance and it's a fairly understated building with not a lot of architectural detail, except for the medieval part of the structure.

While eating lunch at one of the local restaurants, we were quite entertained by a group of 6 young ladies that were also visiting for the day. They all were participating in a "study abroad" program for a semester in Florence, Italy (jealous!) and had come from various places in the United States (not sure what college they were attending). They all seemed to enjoy some of the finer things in life (can you say spoiled rich girls?), most particularly a substantial "allowance" for travel while they were abroad. I'm not sure how much studying will be involved as all they could talk about were all the places in Europe that they couldn't wait to visit (and boys).

These girls were absolutely clueless about anything French and it was funny watching them try to navigate a French menu. Pretty much every thing on the list of "Don't do while traveling to call attention to yourself as an American Tourist" they did/said. I wish I had recorded some of their conversations to to share with you because it was pretty hilarious. You could tell that they were afraid of the dishes on the menu and pretty much the only thing they all ordered were French fries, yet they didn't know how to ask for some in French; P-O-M-M-E   F-R-I-T-E-S was way too difficult for them to say; and I about doubled over laughing when I overhead one of them in her best Texas drawl ask her server about what "Foooey grass" was (Foie gras).

I sure hope their Daddies don't expect that their expensive education is going to yield much more than a rich husband.

C'est la vie, right?

You can view our pictures from Monaco here.

September 20, 2011

St Tropez Day 2 - Warning: The Beached Whales Have Arrived!

Although St Tropez is mostly known as a destination for the jet-setters and celebrities and more famously where Brigitte Bardot was discovered, it has some interesting history. It was a fifteenth-century military stronghold, a small fishing village at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the first town on the French Riviera to be liberated during World War II as part of Operation Dragoon. It wasn't until after the war that it became an international seaside resort.

To partake in a some local color, we visited their market that takes place on Tuesdays and Saturdays in the main town square. The market is a combination swap meet, food hall, farmers market and apparel market, selling both used and new goods.

The selection of both "gourmet" foods and fresh produce was a chef's dream, where you could find vendors selling aged meats, pickled and preserved fruits and vegetables, spices, and a very large selection of ready-to-eat foods. The smells wafting from various stalls were very inviting.

April and I both learned a good lesson at the market: you get what you pay for. Sure those 10 Euros shoes were cute and seemed comfortable, but the quality was more than questionable. This is what my shoes looked like after wearing them twice:

Notice the "white" detail where the heel section meets the bottom? That's the glue that's starting to rip away from the bottom. April's shoes were unwearable after one outing. So for 10 Euros, you can purchase disposable footwear.

In addition to my disposable shoes, I also purchased some lovely French-milled bath soaps, which are a great bargain at 5 soaps for 10 Euros. I have (and will) pay $10 for a bar of good French-milled soap. In hindsight, they would have made lovely Christmas stocking stuffers, so I probably should have purchased more than 5 bars.

My favorite purchase at the market was a beautiful 100% linen tablecloth that should be a good match for my Grandmother's china. It's not the greatest photo, but you get the idea. My Grandmother's china is the Fleur de lis pattern from Spode, which is ivory and brown. It has grown on me over the years and we use it for special occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

After perusing the market for a couple of hours, we returned to the apartment to get ready for the beach. St Tropez (and it's surrounding towns) have both private and public beaches (some of them are clothing optional). Since our beach chairs, umbrellas and favorite cabana boy didn't fit in the overhead bin of our Boeing 767 jet, we decided to visit one of the beach clubs in Pampelonne Bay, where some of the best beaches are in the area.

Coincidentally, this is also where Ernest Hemingway and his first wife (and mistress) also vacationed each summer during the years they lived in Paris. Seems that I'm following quite a bit in his footsteps this trip!

So we packed up our beach supplies, put on our apparel acquired from Omar the Tent Maker (also known as bathing suit cover ups) and headed to the Tahiti Beach Club.

As luck would have it, no sooner had we arrived, paid an arm and a leg for our beach chairs, towels, umbrellas and bottle of rosé (it is what it is) did the sun decide to leave us and instead, very dark clouds started to roll in. This was not part of the plan!

Since we no longer had any arms and legs to use after paying for our beach goods, we decided to have another bottle of rosé and hope that the clouds were just sticking around for a quick visit. And voila! - our patience was rewarded.

It was a lovely day at the beach. The club next door was playing some pretty good music, the water was deliciously warm and refreshing, the people watching interesting (including some nice boobies for Sean's pleasure) and did I mention the rosé? And although our cabana boy was named Tim (not very French, right?), he wasn't too bad on the eyes either. Sadly, it was time to leave paradise and head back to the apartment for the evening. 

After removing sand from every crevice of my body, we headed into town for some adult beverages and dinner. When we were returning from the beach, we got caught up in some kind of parade traffic and later discovered that St Tropez was hosting the European Fife & Drum festival that weekend.

There were 14 Drum & Fife corps representing various countries at the festival, including a troupe from New York, whose costumes reminded me of the era of the American Revolution.

We had another fantastic dinner at a randomly selected restaurant after wandering around the cobblestone streets. One of my favorite quotes from Sean during the trip was his comment during dinner that he felt like he was "eating dinner in a postcard".

You can view my photos from St Tropez here.

St Tropez Day 1 - It Is What It Is

The idea to visit St Tropez while in France was actually inspired by my friend Emilie, who suggested that we meet her and her husband during their planned visit. Naturally after we had made all of the arrangements, Emilie's plans changed and she was no longer going to be in St Tropez during our visit.

C'est la vie. Although I've been to the French Riviera before, I had not yet been to St Tropez, so to quote our favorite saying of the trip, "It is what it is." Emilie is a native French speaker and has visited the French Riviera many times, so we were looking forward to her more experienced itinerary, but I think we did just fine.

We purchased our ticket online from Paris Gare du Lyon to St Raphael on the idTGV website, which saved us about 60% on our tickets vs purchasing our tickets through SNCF (the main French rail site). The idTGV site lets you purchase tickets up to 4 months in advance with fares starting at just 19 Euros. Our tickets were 46 Euros each way, which was about $126 roundtrip. The trains are high-speed, and we were able to cover about 900 KM in about 4-1/2 hours.

We left Paris Gare du Lyon at 7:45 AM on Friday and arrived in St Raphael at 12:15 PM. All of the rental car agencies have a mandatory 2-hour lunch period, so we had to waste a little time before we could pick up the car. Rosé may have been involved.

Although we thought the chances high that Avis just might "upgrade" us for free to something exotic like a Bentley given our ultimate destination, we were sadly given the keys to a Ford Fiesta. Seriously? As in "Found On Road Dead" Fiesta? "Fix Or Repair Daily" Fiesta? Not even a French car. But I digress.

So off we go through a million roundabouts on our way to St Tropez in the gutless Fiesta. But I suspect that the reason this little gem of a car is gutless is that gas will probably cost me $10 per gallon (we paid 1.55 Euros per litre). Another dream of mine that was shattered during this driving experience was that April and I may not be as compatible as I thought as partners to win "The Amazing Race".  I'm not sure April knows how to actually read a map given that she was trying to navigate us to the apartment with the map upside down! We would also most likely kill each other as I'm the first to admit that we're both a little stubborn (but I'm smarter).  In her defense, they don't seem to actually have street signs in St Tropez, which was the primary reason we had so much difficulty finding our way that afternoon. But April could improve her map reading skills. Just sayin'.

Finally, at the suggestion of the lone male in the backseat (Sean), we stopped to ask for directions and not only did we find someone who spoke English, but he used to reside in the exact same apartment building. So after driving around St Tropez for about 45 minutes horribly lost (and me driving the wrong way down a one-way street) we find the apartment. I also should apologize to the 4 wrong numbers I dailed in an attempt to reach the caretaker of the apartment. Sorry about my horrible French language skills! I'm not even sure I reached wrong numbers in France -- I can't wait to get that AT&T bill! But it is what it is.

For our accommodations, we didn't have a lot to choose from since this trip was very last minute. There are a lot of nearby coastal (and inland) towns but I'm really glad that we found something in the town of St Tropez. Parking is a nightmare with very little public parking available and our apartment was within walking distance to the town and had an underground parking space (huge bonus). We still had to drive to the beach, but that was only about 5 KM away, which was easy to do.

We found our apartment on the HomeAway site, which is similar to VRBO (vacation rental by owner). We paid 200 Euros per night, which isn't too bad considering the location. The apartment was a one-bedroom with a pull-out couch for April, however, their idea of a "pull-out" couch and ours is quite different. The pull-out part was only about 3-1/2 feet in length, so that bed would have only been comfortable for a very small child. So April spent a fairly uncomfortable 3 nights on the sofa, but hopefully the Rose she grew fond of make the experience somewhat more bearable. Although Sean and I had an official bed to sleep on, I wouldn't say that our situation was much better. The bed was basically a futon mattress on the floor (double sized) and not much more comfortable than just sleeping on the floor.

Although the apartment was clean, the apartment was in a very old building that stunk horribly of mildew and getting to the underground parking was like entering a dungeon -- not something you want to do by yourself (don't mind the dead rat on the stairwell). Thankfully the apartment inside didn't have any mildew odor, but it was really horrible once you left the apartment and had to walk through the interior hallways.

My other complaint with the apartment was the lack of screens on the patio doors. There are no windows at all, just full-length patio doors that open up from both the bedroom and living room. This is definitely a nice feature, but it was way too hot to not have both of those doors open and while we tried to sleep, the mosquitoes enjoyed a nightly feast at our expense. The apartment had an A/C unit, however, it was pretty much useless. There was only one free-standing unit to use and you had to vent a large hose out the window (which didn't exist) so basically you still had to have the patio door open to stick the A/C hose outside. Not a very clever design.

So to recap, loved the location, loved having a parking spot for the rental car, enjoyed the pool, but wouldn't rent that particular apartment (or in that building) again unless I was desperate. But it is what it is.

After taking a dip in the pool to cool off (it was pretty hot), we showered and headed into town; after all, it was rosé time! We enjoyed the evening strolling around and looking at the mega-yachts tied up in the harbor and the beautiful, scantily-clothed people (also known as Super Models). Clearly, we were like fish out of water in this town (no yacht; not fit for a bikini; not wealthy; and most importantly, old!), but to be honest, we fit in just fine -- there were plenty of similar fish out and about.

À bientôt!