The lovely Loire

Loire Valley October 2011 105

Two years ago I spent a long and lovely weekend in the Loire Valley, home of chateaux, vineyards, fruit orchards.  From Paris I took the train to Amboise where my friend Andrew, an Englishman who lives in the region, met me.  Amboise is a pretty riverside town with its own chateau. Here’s how UNESCO describes the Loire region: “an exceptional cultural landscape, of great beauty, comprised of historic cities, villages and great architectural monuments.”  And it’s true.  There’s a softness in the landscape: the rolling of its gentle hills, the meandering of its rivers and the richness of its fertile soil that all converges into one glorious package that’s called the garden of France.  And home of Kings since the 10th century.

From Amboise we drove to the nearby village of Loches where Andrew knew the owners of a bed and breakfast establishment.  It was an excellent recommendation.  Below you’ll find the link.

I stayed in the Sforza room and had the whole upper floor to myself.  There was a sloping roof and dormer window that opened onto the river and a park beyond.  The clean air and nocturnal silence that pervades the village Loches was like manna from heaven.  I couldn’t get enough of the fresh country air nor the gentle burbling sound of the stream that flowed beneath my window; stark contrast to the metallic whine of scooters and cars that flow beneath my window in Paris, not to mention exhaust fumes and general pollution.  Even though the nights were cold I slept with the window wide open.  It was the long weekend of November 1st.  Here’s the view from the Sforza room:

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The two gentlemen who run the B&B couldn’t have been more charming and hospitable. Jean-Claude is originally from Paris and his business associate, Moha, from Morocco. Every morning I’d come downstairs and a smiling Moha would greet me with “Bonjour Mademoiselle!  Avez-vous bien dormi?”

“Did I sleep well?” I replied, “I think I died and went to heaven!”  A generous continental breakfast was laid out on the table: yoghurts and jams home-made by Moha; croissants, breads and lots of good coffee.  We were only three guests that weekend, so Jean-Claude and Moha (and their little black dog) joined us at the large table.  We engaged in lively conversation.  It’s rare that innkeepers in France sit down and join their guests at table, so I appreciated their warmth and company.

As you probably already know, the Loire Valley is known for several gorgeous wine regions: Muscadet, Sancerre, Vouvray and Pouilly-Fumé to name a few.  Loire wines tend to have a characteristic fruitiness with fresh, crisp flavours.  My favourite red wine from the Loire is Chinon, so Andrew kindly drove me to the town of Chinon, an unassuming place located on the banks of the Vienne river.  What a treat!  I was determined to unearth some exceptional (but reasonably-priced) bottles of wine to take back to Paris with me.  In the center of town we found a caviste, an independant wine merchant, with a tasting room.  Sitting at a long, hand-hewed wooden table, we proceeded to sample glass after glass of Cabernet Franc, a black grape variety for which Chinon wines are known.

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Because there are so many chateaux in this region, it’s a good idea to do your research before going so as to not waste time wondering which one to visit. The weather being beautiful, we wanted to stay outdoors so decided on the Château de Villandry, famous for its amazing gardens that comprise an ornamental garden, a water garden, a medieval herb garden, a vegetable garden and a maze.  For two hours we wandered in the sunshine, marvelling at the landscape design and the history of the place. We’re talking 16th-century and this is what I love about France (and Europe in general): the commingling of past and present, modern and ancient.  Here’s what the brochure blurb says – The Chateau of Villandry is the last of the great chateaux built during the Renaissance in the Loire Valley. The sober elegance of its architecture combined with the charm of its outstanding gardens illustrate the ideals of the Renaissance and the Age of the Enlightenment on western European thought and design.

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The next day we drove to Tours to lunch in a lively bistro named Le Chien Jaune (The Yellow Dog.)  The food was good, but nothing to rave about.  This place is more for atmosphere and decent wine.  Tours, the principal city of the Loire Valley, makes a good base from which to visit the surrounding chateaux and vineyards.  From Paris Montparnasse train station, it’s only one hour and 12 minutes on the TGV fast train.
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All in all, a terrific weekend.  I’m eager to return.

Air France fury

photo credit Kenzo Tribouillard, Agence France Presse

all photo credits Kenzo Tribouillard, Agence France Presse

Who is this man and what is he doing?  He’s the Deputy Director of Human Resources and Labour Relations at Air France.  Why is he shirtless?  Because his shirt was ripped off this morning by furious Air France employees.  Why is he climbing a fence?  Because he’s desperately trying to escape an angry mob.

AF put this in

This morning, at 9:30 am, an Air France central committee meeting was held at its headquarters near Charles de Gaulle airport.  Executives met to finalize the latest restructuring plan involving the loss of 1,700 ground staff, 900 cabin crew and 300 pilots between now and 2017.  It was reported that several hundred employees, furious upon learning of the loss of of 2,900 jobs, stormed the meeting.  Senior managers were attacked and forced to flee.  This man below is the Vice-President of the Air France hub at Orly airport.

AF troisAF cinqAF quatreAF six

Air France, who merged with KLM in 2004, has been hard hit by the deregulation of the industry and the popularity of low-cost airlines. Increased competition from Middle Eastern rivals and budget airlines led the loss-making group to seek €1.8bn (£1.3bn) in savings. The company is also looking to close five long-haul routes and sell off 14 of its larger long-distance aircraft.

Sympathetic analysts pointed out that the physical violence, shocking and inexcusable as it was, paled in comparison to the psychological violence of being thrown out of work in a deep economic crisis by well-paid men in suits.

Drouot auction house


Decades ago I had a Parisian boyfriend named Raoul.  Raoul was a snob and a sophisticate and on Saturday afternoons he liked to meet up with his equally snobbish friends at Drouot  (like him, his friends were journalists at Reuters or AFP – Agence France Presse.)  I was invited to tag along.

I was far from being a sophisticate in those days.  Before Drouot, the only auctions I had attended were in country barns in rural Ontario (growing up, my family had a weekend farm east of Toronto.)

Raoul had a penchant for Persian and Oriental rugs.  These rugs below reminded me of him.

IMG_5106IMG_5108IMG_5107Look at these beautiful pressed flowers that are over a hundred years old.IMG_5112

Drouot is fun because anyone can just walk on in and attend the sales.  Entrance is free.  There are several rooms upstairs and sales occur simultaneously.  There’s a lot of activity and people milling around.  If you like beautiful, eclectic things and objects of historical value, I suggest that you go.  Sales usually start at 2 p.m.  Here below is the sale of postcards.  A few years ago, a postcard dated October 1899 and signed Guillaume Apollinaire sold for 8,000 euros.


You can also bid via telephone and internet.  Closest metro stop is Richelieu-Drouot on lines 8 and 9.



There’s something supremely relaxing about sitting in a spacious, half-empty restaurant at 4:30 pm on a Monday, sipping a fizzy cocktail, waiting for your roast chicken to arrive and being served by a smiling, solicitous waiter. And what made the experience doubly satisfying is that I’m usually at work at 4:30 pm on a Monday.  But today was my RTT day (basically, one day off a month).  And the weather was so beautiful that I spent most of the day outdoors (a) exploring my old neighbourhood in the 9th arrondissement, (b) popping into Drouot auction house, (c) strolling the picturesque Passages, (d)stopping off at La Marelle vintage boutique and buying a pair of fab Carel boots, and (e) ending up, like I always do, in my most favourite spot in all of Paris.  But all that in my next post.  For now, let me tell you about Chartier.


Here’s what Courtney Traub wrote on her Go Paris website – First opened in 1896 as “Le Bouillon Chartier”, a cantine for the working classes serving up simple hot dishes comprised of meat and vegetables, Chartier is now a much-coveted address for inexpensive French fare in a gorgeous setting. The restaurant, set near the bustling Grands Boulevards neighborhood, is housed in an imposing turn-of-the-century hall decked out on all sides with large mirrors, wooden panelling and globe lamps. Chartier is as famous for its inexpensive, basic dishes as it is for its congenial, teasing servers wearing traditional black waistcoats and white aprons, who scrawl your orders out on the white paper tablecloths in front of your eyes.


•Simple, classic French fare for very reasonable prices
•Unbeatable Belle-Epoque setting
•Friendly, vivacious service and warm ambiance abounds
•Nonstop service all day long, including weekends
•Central location: in close reach of several right-bank attractions and interesting neighborhoods

•Reservations not accepted; long lines outside often await
•Quality of food is often rather mediocre
•Hygiene and presentation could be improved
•Not ideal for intimate tete a tetes: tables are often shared with other patrons
•Very few vegetarian and vegan options

OK, so you don’t come here for superlative food, although I must say that everything I ate and drank was delicious.  You go for fun, ambiance and low prices.  It’s what my mother would call “cheap and cheerful.”  It gets very crowded at night, especially on weekends.  I went today because it’s in my old neighbourhood and I hadn’t stepped foot in the place for 12 years.  And at 4:30 pm it was quiet, a perfect setting to sit, look around and relax. (hours are non-stop from 11:30 am to midnight, seven days a week)


So go.  Drink wine.  Eat chicken.  Chat with your neighbours (some tables are shared.)  Enjoy life.

two new art exhibitions in Paris – Florentine portraits from the Court of the Medici and Prostitution in 19th century Paris

Art Exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André on the boulevard Haussmann, Paris

 11 Sept. 2015 to 25 Jan. 2016

Judith and her Maidservant, 1613–14, Oil on canvas, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

Judith and her Maidservant, 1613–14, Oil on canvas, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

This exhibition is huge.  It’s imperative that you buy your tickets in advance.  You should also anticipate long lines and crowds.  If you’re wondering whose head is in the basket pictured above, it’s Holofernes, an Assyrian general who was about to destroy Judith’s home of Bethulia, a fictitious Israelite town.

The small and intimate Jacquemart-André museum is located in central Paris on the leafy Haussmann Boulevard in the 8th arrondissement.  There’s a gorgeous restaurant and tea salon on the premises.  But it might be packed, so be forewarned.

The route through the exhibition will be split into five sections built around a thematic history of portraiture in Florence in the golden age of the Medici (1512-1599).

This exhibition has benefited from an extraordinary partnership with the Museums of Florence. Other renowned international museum institutions and exceptional collections such as the Royal Collection (London), the Louvre (Paris) and even the Städel Museum (Frankfurt) are also supporting this event with remarkable loans.

Great painters such as Rosso Fiorentino, Andrea del Sarto, Alessandro Allori, Francesco Salviati, Pontormo and Bronzino will be the emblematic figures of this history of the portrait through some forty paintings.

Here below is a dazzling portrait painted by one of my favourite Florentine artists, Alessandro Allori (1535– 1607).  The subject is Maria de Medici, sixth daughter of Francesco I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany and Archduchess Joanna of Austria. 

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Alessandro Allori

Born in Florence at the Palazzo Pitti on April 26, 1575, Maria  was one of seven children.  Her youth unfolded between the Pitti Palace, the Boboli Gardens, the villa at Pratolino and other Medici residences.  Music and painting lessons, devotional practices and sumptuous dresses were her interests.  In October 1600 at the age of 25, she married Henry IV of France. Her eldest son, the future King Louis XIII, was born at Fontainebleau the following year.  Maria was crowned Queen of France in 1610, a day before her husband was assassinated by a fanatical Catholic named François Ravaillac.  She later travelled to Cologne and died there at the age of 62.  She’s buried in the Basilica of St Denis in the north of Paris.

This exhibition will offer a panorama of Florentine portraiture in the 16th century with all its main themes and stylistic transformations. Through the eyes of the painters experimenting with new ways of representing their contemporaries, it will allow visitors to appreciate the style developments of the Cinquecento, an especially eventful century in cultural and religious terms.

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Enjoy your visit.  Tip – on Monday nights, the museum is open until 8:30 pm….that’s when I’ll be going (less people).  Weekends will be packed solid.

I’ve just learned of another exhibition opening this week across town at the Musée d’Orsay – “Splendours and ­Miseries”, the ­first major exhibition looking at the artistic ­representation of prostitution in 19th-century Paris.

This astonishing photograph of a courtesan was taken sometime between 1861 and 1866.

musee dorsay pic

yearning to breathe free….

refugee children

Here in Europe we are receiving images daily on our TV screens of crowds of refugees struggling in their escape from persecution at home and arriving in Europe.  Welcome!  I want to help in some small way.  Tomorrow I’m taking a suitcase full of winter clothes, sheets and blankets to my local Red Cross up the road.  And a few stuffed toys.  How anyone can look at those children and feel nothing is beyond my comprehension. (UNICEF link below)

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….”

refugee one

Imagine leaving all your worldly possessions behind, cramming bare necessities into one backpack or small suitcase, shutting the door on your house, never to return, and then leaving your homeland on foot.  And then walking for days and days, with your children, some of them babies or toddlers, sleeping in fields or in train stations, crossing turbulent waters in a rubber dinghy.  Not knowing what awaits you, not knowing what dangers lurk, not knowing where you’ll end up.  If there’s a time for these brave people to have faith in their God, then this is it.  But they should also have faith in humanity and in the assistance of their fellow human beings.  And that’s us.  You and me.  We are their fellow human beings. 

“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…”

Why am I so pro-refugee?  Because the West is primarily responsible for their distress, the USA in particular: the Bush administration’s naked military invasion of Iraq in 2003 which led to degenerating the country into turmoil, Obama’s inept decision to end its military involvement in Iraq in 2011, Obama’s inaction towards Syria in 2012.  The USA should be receiving as many refugees, even more, than the EU.  The calculated destabilization of the Arab Middle East has its origin in the rise of neoconservative ideology and its influence on Washington’s foreign Policy. The neoconservative ideology requires that Washington maintain its Uni-power status, because this status is necessary for Washington’s hegemony and History’s purpose.”

France, Britain (and members of the Coalition) are also complicit in the chaos – (i)government-approved arms sales to Africa and the Middle East, (ii) Sarkozy and Cameron’s push for the fall of Gadhafi’s regime in Libya (months later, well-armed mercenary fighters and stockpiles of weapons made their way into Sub-Saharan Africa) resulting in further upheaval and an influx of migrants spilling out of Libya into Europe.

In short, the West’s meddling, bungling and questionable actions in the Middle East have come back, in the form of a human deluge, to bite it in almost biblical proportions.  As I looked up the word “deluge” in the dictionary, here’s what I found and I think it’s fitting – the great deluge that is said in the Book of Genesis to have occurred in the time of Noah; it was brought by God upon the earth because of the wickedness of human beings.

Many of us were refugees, migrants or asylum seekers…or our parents or grandparents were.  My maternal grandfather fled Riga (Latvia) for England.  My parents left England for Canada as economic migrants.

Below – Migrants being chased by Hungarian police.  Have Hungarians forgotten the Hungarian Revolution of October 1956?

refugee two

Below is the link to UNICEF to help children worldwide.

And don’t forget the children across Gaza, a year on from Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza’s defenceless population that left 551 children dead and 3,370 injured.  Many are struggling today with life-long disabilities. (see UNICEF – State of Palestine)

Lille flea market 2015

IMG_5078IMG_5081I was just one person out of two and a half million visitors who attended the flea market this weekend.IMG_5070IMG_5043This man is a Tuareg from Mali.  Nomadic Berbers, they roam the Sahara of North Africa.  I purchased two small leather boxes from him.IMG_5045IMG_5084Beautiful old linens which remind me of old houses, grandmothers and smells of camphor and lavender.IMG_5088IMG_5085IMG_5087I fell in love with these gorgeous paper weights with a jellyfish imprisoned inside.IMG_5093IMG_5094IMG_5063And every year I pay a visit to the Workers’ Struggle (Lutte Ouvrière) booth, France’s Communist-Trotskyist political party. They’re a friendly, feisty bunch.IMG_5053In Greece as in France, bankers and industrialists have benefited from the debt. It’s up to the capitalists to pay, not the workers!IMG_5050Competitiveness is to take from the pockets of the working class to enrich management. Out of the question!IMG_5054And right next door was the Socialist Party booth with members tucking into the traditional meal of mussels, fries and beer.IMG_5056IMG_5080And that’s it for another year!