Fish Out of Water

Musings and observations about life from an East Coast native now living on the Left Coast in the California State Capitol since 2004. This fish has made her home in Madison, WI (7 years); Portland, OR (2 years); Las Vegas, NV (7 months); Middlebury, VT (3 summers); Marne-la-Vallee, a small town east of Paris, France (6 months); Middletown, CT (3 years); and Marshfield, MA, the fish's coastal hometown 40 miles south of Boston (17 years).

Location: Sacramento, California, United States


France Trip (Days 7 & 8) -- End of Trip!

Day 7: Friday, September 30
Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysées, Musée de l’Orangerie, Promenade Plantée
Our friends J & C came to meet us at the hotel for café at 10am, and we spent a pleasant hour chatting with them about travel, culture, and politics. Then we headed off to the Metro and traveled to the Arc de Triomphe, where we climbed up to the top for some more photo opportunities. Then we strolled down the Champs Elysées towards the Tuileries Gardens, stopping along the way to get savory crepes for lunch, which we enjoyed in a garden area right across the street from the American Embassy.

We passed the big white tents set up for Paris Fashion Week in the Place de la Concorde and visited the Musée de l’Orangerie, where eight large-scale panels of Monet’s water lilies are on display in the light-filled upper galleries. I had very vivid and fond memories of these enormous canvases from my time in France in 1995, although my visual images of the rooms was quite different, as I remembered coming upon them quite unexpectedly on the bottom level of the museum, but Mr. E and I viewed them on the top level. This discrepancy was resolved when we saw another display on the lower level showing four stages of the museum’s architectural evolution, including the latest renovation in 2006 that restored the Monet paintings to their featured top position from their former lower level placement, which is where I had indeed seen them 21 years ago.

Our next destination was the Promenade Plantée, an elevated former railway line that has been repurposed into a pedestrian pathway through part of the city (and which served as the inspiration for the High Line in NYC). We strolled atop the Viaduc des Arts until we reached the end of the elevated section, where we then took a pause in the pocket park of Vivaldi Allée. We decided to walk back along the street so that we could browse the various artisans whose studios and galleries are built under the arches of the viaduct. Incredible craftsmanship and artistry for woodworking, metallurgy, lights, paper artwork restoration, textiles, silver, and boots, among others.

By the time we had finished with our stroll, some sprinkles were starting to fall, so we were glad that we had carried around our umbrellas all day in anticipation of some precipitation. The metro took us back to the hotel, where we looked up the menu for the nearby Le Petit Sommelier restaurant to make sure I could find appropriate options. Our final meal in France was absolutely wonderful! Mr. E got the variety of pig parts for his starter and lamb with artichoke purée for his main dish, and I enjoyed the prawns with fennel citrus salad followed by grilled octopus with candied turnips and bok  choi. We also both ordered the supplemental wine pairing, so each course began with the sommelier’s presentation of the wine and explanation as to why it would pair well with our food. The meal ended with a cheese plate for Mr. E and a rather large lemon meringue tarte for me. Delicious! We capped off the evening with a final glass of wine at the hotel bar.

Day 8: Saturday, October 1
Paris > DC > Sac
We had found a Starbucks at the Gare Montparnasse yesterday, so I returned there in the morning to fetch coffee and fresh-squeezed orange juice (why can’t the US Starbucks offer this wonderful concoction??) before we got all of our belongings together and caught the Bus Direct back to the airport at 9am. Thank goodness for Mr. E’s United Platinum status to help us get through the passport control in the priority line or we would have been waiting for at least an hour just for that part of the process. Yikes! Mr. E’s status also gave us access to the Star Alliance lounge, where we had several cups of café allongé and took advantage of the breakfast buffet food items before heading to our gate. No upgraded business class seats this time around, but at least we still had Economy Plus and were in a row with just our two seats, so we had some extra room to move around.

Both flights home were uneventful, and the only travel annoyance was having to wait more than 30 minutes for our checked bag at the Sacto airport. Arrrgh! Just do not understand why prompt baggage service is such a challenge for our Sacto crew. Regardless, we were home and snuggled in bed with the kitties by about 9:30pm, hoping to avoid too much jet lag over the next few days.

C’était un voyage très aimable. When do we go back??!!


France Trip (Day 6)

Day 6: Thursday, September 29
Bordeaux > Paris
After breakfast, we left the apartment at 9am and took a taxi to the airport to catch our noon flight to Paris. We enjoyed a couple of cafés allongés as we waited and arrived in Paris around 1:30pm. Since we had bought a bottle of wine at Château Soutard to bring home with us, we had to check Mr. E’s bag again, and once we retrieved it, we made a stop at the airport Tourist Info counter to verify that the “Bus Direct” would be the best transportation option for us to get to our hotel by the Montparnasse Train Station. We had perfect timing to catch the 2pm bus and enjoyed a pleasant ride of about 80 minutes, finishing at the Gare Montparnasse and discovering that our hotel, Pullman Montparnasses, was literally across the street from where the bus dropped us off. Perfect!

As we waited to check in, I noticed that the posted prices of the room rates were quite high (980 euros +), and I joked with Mr. E that perhaps we had ended up at a luxury hotel without realizing it. We had paid in advance through a United-linked travel site and didn’t pay anywhere near that fee! Good thing, too, as neither of us was terribly impressed by the facilities, starting with the black stain on the carpet in the entryway of our room. The view from the 21st floor was pretty impressive, however, with a great panorama looking north towards the city, including the nearby Montparnasse Tower as well as the Louvre, Tuilieries Gardens, and Pompidou Center a bit farther away. We also discovered that we could get a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower if we got really close to the window and looked to the left.

The first stop on our agenda was to go up the Montparnasse Tower to the viewing area on the 56th floor and then the roof-top glassed-in observation deck a few floors above. The weather was perfect for an amazing panorama over the whole city, with the gold dome of the Invalides shining brightly in the late afternoon sun. To get the most out of the experience, we had a glass of pink champagne from the rooftop bubble bar.

Once back on ground level, we did a little bit of browsing in the nearby Monoprix, including a bottle of wine and some of my favorite Regal’ad fruit chew candy, and then took the Metro to catch the 7pm cruise on the River Seine with the Vedettes de Paris. We had learned from previous experience that doing this type of cruise just before sunset is ideal, as the first half allows you enough light to really see the buildings and the second half features the colours of the setting sun and the illumination of the same buildings on the way back. The other benefit is that returning to the dock by the Eiffel Tower right around 8pm provides a perfect vantage point for the first nightly sparkling light show on the Tower. The evening finished with wood-fired pizza at a restaurant just across from the river and some wine in our room.


France Trip (Day 5)

Day 5: Wednesday, September 28
Café, Museums, Gates, Shopping, La Cité du Vin
We ate breakfast as usual in the apartment and went down to the little neighborhood restaurant, Le Coin des Copains, just below us for coffee. After starting with espressos, we learned a very important term – “café allongé” – to order something closer to what we call an Americano (i.e. espresso with hot water) or analogous to a “long black” in Australia and New Zealand. Although we boarded the Tram together, we got off at different stops this time around, as we had arranged to do some separate activities this morning and meet back at the apartment at 3pm. Since we only had 1 key to the apartment, doing solo stuff definitely required careful coordination!

Mr. E spent his time walking around and discovering many of the old gates of the city, such as the Porte Dijeaux and the Porte d’Acquitaine, along with some other more modern sights. He tried to find a Bordeaux flag and a classic Lillet poster to purchase but was unsuccessful in the quest. However, his stops at two Celio stores (“the Italian version of the Gap,” according to Mr. E) resulted in the purchase of several new shirts.

I headed off to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs followed by the Musée de Beaux Arts and a climb up the Porte Cailhau. The first museum was particularly fascinating and even amusing, as a special exhibition juxtaposed very modern and abstract household items, furnishings, and decorations with the classic and historic 18th-century building and interiors. The exhibition was a multi-sensory experience, since each room also featured background sounds and scents associated with the typical function or use of the room, such as a bedroom, living room, dining room, etc. 

I walked across the Pont de Pierre and jumped on the Tram at the Stalingrad station just on the other side to return to the city center, where I got off at the rue de Sainte Catherine and walked up towards the Cours de l’Intendance to do some souvenir shopping at a store we’d noticed earlier in the week when we went to Max Bordeaux. Since I didn’t want to arrive back at the apartment before Mr. E (see key explanation above), I decided to walk rather than Tram for the return trip, not realizing how sunny and warm the afternoon had become… Oof! I was quite toasty by the time I got back, as there was no shade along the sidewalk or river promenade, and the morning clouds has completely disappeared by the early afternoon.
After Mr. E and I cooled down a bit and got cleaned up, we took the Tram to La Cité du Vin, a new and impressive cultural attraction that opened this past June. The building itself is a rather massive metal structure with a spiral tower that’s based on the design of a wine decanter. Our City Pass provided a discounted admission price, so we spent some time perusing the permanent exhibits on the second floor, learning more about the process of making wine, the history of wine back to antiquity, and the making of wine in various regions throughout the world. We also walked through the temporary exhibit on the first floor, which featured photos of the site and building as it was constructed, beginning in 2013.

We finished up the official part of our tour with a wine-tasting on the 8th floor, which provides a panoramic view and an impressive mirrored tasting area. Once we descended back to the ground floor, we made a few purchases at the boutique and then headed to the wine bar for some additional tastings and a cheese and charcuterie plate as accompaniment. We sat out on the terrace to enjoy the view and tried to avoid being downwind of the smokers.

[Bleah. I always forget about this very negative aspect of being in France when we’re not here, and it’s definitely a major annoyance to encounter so many smokers all over the place, including the smoking parents who wave their cigarettes near their kids while pushing their strollers. Yuck. Makes me cringe.]

Since the water taxi runs on a very limited schedule, we weren’t able to try out that mode of transportation at all and just took the Tram back to the Chartrons station, near the Ibaia Café along the waterfront, which I had suggested as a spot for some final tapas and wine. We didn’t have much to choose from for the snacks, but we enjoyed a final glass of wine by the River before returning to the apartment to pack and get organized for our departure the next day. Good thing all of the laundry was finally dry!


France Trip (Days 3 & 4)

Day 3: Monday, September 26
Sunrise Run, Groceries, Tourist Office, Bus Tour, Tower Climb
I discovered the negative flip-side of the longer evening light that we experienced the night before when I got up at 7am to run and could still see the moon! Luckily, the riverfront promenade was nicely illuminated with streetlamps clad in patterned columns of glass. I didn’t encounter nearly as many people during my morning workout as we had last night, but there were still a few runners and even more cyclists as well as some early-risers on the riverboat cruise ships.

I noticed that the lights along the promenade changed colour from white to green and pink as I approached the Miroir d’Eau and the Jardins de la Lune (Gardens of the Moon) on either side of the reflecting pool. My timed out-and-back route took me just past/under the Pont de Pierre, which we later learned has 17 arches to represent the 17 letters in Napoleon Bonaparte’s name, as it was built under his command.

As I turned around to head back to the apartment, the sun was starting to rise on the right bank of the River. The slightly cloudy conditions resulted in an amazingly beautiful sunrise of pinks and oranges that were reflected in the windows of the buildings all along the left bank of the River. Breathtaking!!! I finished up my workout with some yoga, and once Mr. E was ready, we walked two blocks north to find the Carrefour City market, a miniature version of the typical Carrefour supermarket. We stocked up on some basics and then returned to the apartment for a late breakfast of soft-boiled eggs, fresh multi-grain baguette with ham for Mr. E and smoked salmon for me, fresh berries, and strong French coffee. Yum!

Thanks to some of the visitor info we found in the apartment, we had already decided to purchase a 3-day City Pass, which would give us free or discounted access to many monuments, museums, and attractions along with unlimited use of the public transit system, which includes many bus lines, three Tram lines, and a water taxi service. We decided to wander through some side streets to get to the Tourist Office, discovering some amazing and unexpected murals and other views along the way.

In addition to purchasing the City Pass, we also made reservations for a wine-tasting later in the evening at Max Bordeaux, a guided city walking tour in English for the next morning (included with the City Pass fee), and a half-day wine-tasting excursion to Saint Emilion for the next afternoon. Our City Pass also included a double-decker bus tour, so we strolled around the central area and the long pedestrian Rue de St. Catherine before finding the make-your-own salad spot Eat Salad (not even trying to be French in that name!) for lunch. 

We then headed back to the Tourist Office to catch the 2pm bus tour, which wound around the historic area and across to part of the Right Bank during a 70-minute narrated tour (personal headphones so each passenger could choose his/her preferred language… I chose French, of course!). After the bus adventure, we made our way to the Pey Berland Tower to climb the 233 steps to the top for an amazing 360-degree view of the entire city and surrounding area. Quite narrow and steep and winding steps – definitely a good workout!

At this point, we had just about 90 minutes before our wine-tasting appointment, so we decided to continue our explorations and stopped at the little street-car shaped kiosk near the post office, where I had bought postcard stamps earlier, to get crepes and a beverage to tide us over ‘til dinner. We also walked a bit further into the Golden Triangle area, checking out the Carrefour in the Marche de Grands Hommes, where I happily discovered and purchased a bag of mini Lion bars. Yay! I always stock up on Lion bars and the Regal’ad fruit chews when we come to France.

We arrived at Max Bordeaux a bit early and ended up having to wait even beyond the 5:30pm start time for our tasting workshop because only one staff person was working this evening. He apologized for the delay and explained that his colleague was ill (mentioned later a car accident!), so he was working solo and had to not only manage the scheduled reservations but also any other clients who wandered in for the self-serve style tasting option. Although we were initially a bit peeved by the inconvenience, we ended up with a private tasting that lasted at least 90 minutes (rather than the 60 minutes schedules/promised in the info guide). Not bad! He taught us about the history of Bordeaux as a wine-making region and provided a basic overview of the complicated classification system. He also gave us some interesting insights into how to approach a wine-tasting and how to begin to identify wines by sight, smell, and taste. At the end, he gave us an extra tasting of a very high-end wine to compensate for the delay and inconvenience of having to “share” him with other clients.

Rather than walking back to the apartment, we put our City Pass benefits to good use by taking Tram B, which got us back in about 5 minutes. We headed back to Carrefour City to buy some dinner items – Mr. E inadvertently ended up with duck because I didn’t pay enough attention when he quickly showed me the package! – and then had our meal at the apartment, wrote some postcards, checked some email, and wrapped up the evening.

Day 4: Tuesday, September 27
City Walking Tour, Saint Emilion Wine-Tasting
After breakfast, we took our first Tram ride to the Quinconces station near the Tourist Office in order to meet up with our 10am walking tour of the City. Our guide was a bit tardy due to some delays on the Tram line she was taking to the meeting spot, so we set off around 10:15am as she began the tour with a historic overview of Bordeaux. Our first monument visit was the Girondins Column, which Mr. E and I had noticed the day before. The statuary around the column, especially in the lateral fountains, is fascinating and full of symbolism – figures representing military education, secular education, arts, vice, virtue, and who could forget the ocean horses with their web-like hoofs and fishy tails?

The tour lasted almost 2 hours, as we wound through the city centre, learning about the Golden Triangle, the Marché de Grands Hommes, the Cailhau Gate, several churches, and ending near the Grand Théâtre. Our guide also emphasized the changes that have occurred within the past 10 years, such as the Tram lines, cleaning the buildings, and restricting car traffic in the area by transforming former parking lots into pedestrian plazas. Mr. E and I definitely appreciated this aspect of the city. These changes also help to explain why I didn’t find much of the city familiar from my 2-day trip here back in 1995 when I was working for EuroDisney, since so many of the appealing characteristics we were enjoying didn’t exist back then!

We jumped back on the Tram for a return to the apartment in order to grab a bite to eat and get changed before heading back to the Tourist Office again for our afternoon tour to the Saint Emilion region. Led by Cristelle of the tour company BordO’Vino, our small group of eight included Mr. E and me, a woman from Brazil, a woman from Melbourne, a French couple from Lyon, and an Italian couple from Milan. Cristelle provided her commentary in both English and French in order to accommodate the mixed group, so I could understand all parts of the narrative!

The ½ day (6-hour) excursion included tours and tastings at two Châteaux along with a scenic promenade around the small town of Saint Emilion. Our first stop was at Château de Sales, a traditional winery that’s been in the same family for multiple generations. The current winemaker, M. Bruno de Lamont (I think that's the correct name...), is retiring after this year’s harvest, which had actually begun earlier today. His son, who has been working in the wine industry in Chile, will be returning to France as his successor. M. Bruno owns the property along with his three sisters, and among the four of them, there are 14 relatives in the next generation, but only a few of them are connected with the vineyard. Our tour guide at the Château was very friendly and multilingual (5 languages – I’m so envious!), and she told us about the history of the property as she showed us the house and the grounds before leading us back to the technical area, where we got to see the winery crew unloading and sorting the newly-harvested grapes. We finished up with a tasting of both the “first” and “second wines,” Château de Sales and Château Chantealouette, both from the 2012 vintages. Most wineries can’t label their secondary wine as a “Château,” but this vineyard has one of the few exceptions thanks to its longevity and existence prior to all of the strict regulations about wine classifications and categories. We bought a bottle of 2008 Château de Sales to enjoy later tonight.

The mid-point of our tour was spent following Cristelle around the charming small town of Saint Emilion, as she pointed out some historic buildings and provided an overview of the town’s founding and evolution. The second tasting was at Château Soutard, which was only about five minutes from the town center, and we could see some of the taller buildings of the town from the vineyards at Soutard.

This is a much more modern winery. Part of the current facility is housed in the original farmhouse, which was dismantled brick-by-brick in order to renovate the interior and then reconstructed to maintain the historic characteristics of the site. Our guide took us on a bilingual tour that included information about the different vines and properties nearby, as Soutard is owned by the international luxury brand conglomerate LVMH and includes two other nearby vineyards, all of which produce under their own labels. The barrel rooms and underground tasting room are quite elaborate and even ostentatious, including the chandelier in the fermentation room and the silent glass elevator in the second barrel room. Our tasting took place in a lovely area near the boutique, and we got to have some snacks with our wine this time (a platter of bread, almonds, sausage, and two kinds of local cheese). We made a purchase here as well and hope for the best in bringing the bottle back to Sacto with us, as it definitely needs to age for a few years.

We got back to the Tourist Office for our drop-off around 7:30pm and initially thought to eat out somewhere nearby but couldn’t find anything immediately tempting, so instead we took the Tram back towards the apartment, getting off one stop farther than usual to be closer to the Carrefour City market and an Eat Salad location. We’d discovered the latter restaurant option at a location near the city center where we had lunch the day before, so we grabbed dinner at this nearby site and enjoyed our meal with the lovely Château de Sales wine back at the apartment.