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Sep 042011

How does one express their first impressions of this magnificent city? And during what a pitifully short time can one even say they’ve even experienced Paris? A day and a half is woefully inadequate. Unfortunately, that is all I had for my first visit to Paris. And it was a glorious day and half–the weather perfect, the evening balmy. Strolling along the Seine, wandering the Tuileries Gardens, exploring a tiny bit of the Louvre’s astounding collections, confronting the mammoth magnificence of the Eiffel Tower and tasting a morsel of Paris’ famous cafes is about all one can manage.

Yet, due to the wealth of beauty and design, the images I found capture the iconic nature of this City of Light. Certainly there are cliche’s in the bunch, perhaps most of them. One can’t help but create clichés. Literally everything has been photographed 10,000 or 100,000 or even a million times over. But, I hope to have brought something from my unique, highly-honed perspective to the mix. And I can honestly say, my interpretation of La Gioconda, the Mona Lisa, you’ll find at the end of this post, truly captures a bit of the absurd frenzy surrounding this most iconic of paintings.

Pont Neuf, my first view of the incredible Seine.

One of Paris’ iconic book sellers along the Seine.

Pont de Arts and the Bibliothèque Mazarine

The courtyard of the Louvre.

In the Jardin des Tuileries

Cliche’ of Tuileries lovers.

Late afternoon in the Jardin des Tuileries.

Place de la Concorde

Dusk along the Place de la Concorde

Night cliche’ of the Seine.

The gorgeous lights of the Louvre.

Leaving the metro and approaching the Eiffel Tower I find myself (at least it kinda looks like me), depicted on an enormous scale in an ad for Australia. I think I should sue.

Breakfast by the Eiffel Tower–delicious pastries and quiche. Taking in the grandeur and complexity of this architecture and technological masterpiece.

You’ve seen so many images of this Paris icon yet nothing can prepare you for its shear size and massive, structural complexity.

Oh yes, I too had to do the “postcard shot”. Had the day not been hazy, we would have ascended with the hoards to be astonished but the view. But, another time.

The Louvre–Architectural detail of the entrance through the pyramid.

Modern and classical. Architectural detail of the Louvre.

Detail abstract of the ceiling inside the Louvre’s pyramid.

A magnificent ceiling inside the Louvre.

A Grecian statue from the Louvre’s vast collection.

In the apartments of Napoleon III.

The modest dining room of Napoleon III.

Abstract from the huge underground shopping mall beneath the Louvre.

The Apple Store in the Louvre. Here, as with every Apple Store I’ve been in, people congregate in droves to play with the technology.

And finally, my interpretation of the Mona Lisa…

The Mona Lisa is absolutely THE must-see object in the Louvre. She’s on every tour groups itinerary. For those who have visited the gallery in which the Mona Lisa hangs, no words are necessary. To the uninitiated; after walking down a very long gallery past scores and scores of true, Renaissance masterpieces, you turn into another gallery packed with tourists from all over the world. People elbow their way through the throngs to get close enough to lift their cameras or phones above the heads and cameras of those in front, snap their picture and then elbow their way back out. Proof positive that they’ve been to Paris and “seen” the Mona Lisa. It was hilarious, beyond absurd.

Copyright 2011 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging


Jul 282011

Driving deeper and deeper into the forested countryside, I wonder what awaits. It’s getting dark and I hope I can figure out all the turns as I navigate through the small towns and tiny villages of southern France. We made arrangements at a farm/B&B an hour north of the city of Bordeaux, beyond the normal tourist routes. The roads become narrower and the villages tinier the closer we get.

In the last light of day, across a green, flower-filled meadow, set amidst tall trees, we see the stone buildings of Ferme Auberge La Gabaye, www.lagabaye.com. Several cows interrupt their quiet munching to watch us pass. Christianne, the energy-filled proprietress, greets us warmly, showing us to the little guesthouse that will be our home for the next ten days.

Christianne, who speaks very little English, manages to communicate that breakfast will be ready the following morning whenever we happen to awaken. It’s been a long travel day and we fall into the downy coziness of the comfortable bed.

Breakfast is a continental affair with the typical coffee and baguettes. But Christianne’s homemade cherry, grapefruit and rose-petal jams make it special.

According to Nathalie, Christianne’s daughter who speaks excellent English and helps run the Auberge, the farm has been in the family for over two hundred years. She does her best to facilitate communication despite her obvious neck pain after being broadsided the day before by a driver from la-la land.

Nathalie has traced the family history here back to 1680 and explains that their village, La Petite Glaive, had more inhabitants prior to WWII but suffered much damage during the war. Now, the village is a collection of widely dispersed, old farmhouses and a few newer homes set in a landscape of lush fields, gardens and thick forests.

The first day is spent exploring around the ancient town of Guitres, as recounted in the previous article. Upon returning, Christianne is busily preparing dinner. Relaxing before dinner with a glass of the farm’s red wine beneath the many fruit and nut trees is close to heaven. The quiet is broken only by the calls of birds and the breeze through the trees. Not far away, a cuckoo calls, sounding exactly like the eponymous clocks.

The bell rings and dinner is served. First, an aperitif-delicious, sweet and fruity, followed by homemade pate’ de foie gras and fresh bread. The main course is succulent confit de canard, leg of duck seasoned and preserved in the local manner, surrounded by fresh, locally-grown vegetables. Confit is a speciality of southwestern France. It was developed centuries ago as a way of preserving meats and Christianne is a master. Served with generous amounts of the farm’s wine and topped off with a delicious pear tort or a luscious custard, it is heaven and a prelude of meals to come–authentic, down-home, French-country cuisine.

During the long, slow dusk following dinner, a walk up the deserted road provides an opportunity to see close up the few farmhouses and gardens of the village and experience the sense of timeless peace in the idyllic quiet of the Dordogne countryside.

Every meal is a gastronomic experience in regional cuisine, always beginning with a different, delicious, homemade aperitif. The main courses vary but duck is frequent. An omelet of farm-fresh eggs with local, wild mushrooms is a highlight.

One meal though, remains especially memorable. In the large fireplace in her kitchen, Christianne builds a small fire of dried, grape vines pruned from her vineyard. They quickly turn to coals over which she places a grate and proceeds to grill an ample duck breast. This is a local specialty. When done and sliced into medallions, the duck is succulent with a unique, smoky flavor.

After a few days, I discover Christianne’s root and wine cellars. Yes, there are many bottles of wine, but also shelf after shelf and room after room of canned fruits, vegetables, confits, pates, sauces and jams, not to mention the baskets and baskets of hazel and walnuts strewn around. It is a cornucopia of canning and a glimpse into regional farm life over the centuries.

La Gabaye is located only an hour from Saint-Emilion, one of France’s premier wine growing regions. Vineyards are everywhere. Old Chateaus dot the hilltops. The opportunities for sampling regional wines are endless as are the opportunities for exploring the other wonders of the Bordeaux region.

Copyright 2011 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging


Jul 032011

Descending the medieval lanes of Saint-Emilion, France.

The brilliant sunshine of a southern France spring plays across vast, rolling fields of venerable grape vines. Row upon row march up and over the undulating landscape of the Dordogne Valley with military precision. Where the land is flat, their perfectly straight files disappear into distant trees or perhaps one of the many, age-old Châteaus dotting the horizon and hilltops. In the distance, an ancient steeple among a cluster of stone buildings rises out of the vineyards denoting a village.

A typical village in the Dordogne Valley near Saint-Emilion.

Driving the two lane, back roads of northeastern Bordeaux is a journey into 18th century France. The landscape has changed little over the centuries-a few, widely dispersed towns, tiny villages set among vast battalions of bright, green vines, here and there islands of trees, and of course, the ubiquitous, elegant Châteaus.Market day in the town of Libourne on the way to Saint-Emilion.

A baker in his mobile boulangerie selling scrumptious breads on market day in Libourne.

Blossoming rose bushes adorn the ends of many rows. Besides providing a contrasting touch of color, they act as sentinels for disease and fungus, an early warning system telling the farmer of possible problems in his vineyard.

Occasional signs along the road announce various Châteaus, inviting the traveler to taste their wines, have dinner or spend the night. It is impressive to see signs for some of the most famous wines in the world. Narrow lanes between the vines lead to the elegant facades of Château Ausone, Château Cheval Blanc, Château Figeac, Château Magdelaine, and Clos Fourtet, all members of the elite classification, Premiers Grands Crus Classés.

The ruins of an ancient church greets visitors as they approach Saint-Emilion.

The town of Saint-Émilion, the center of the world famous Appellation Saint-Émilion Controlee and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lies now only a few kilometers away. The Bell Tower of its ancient, monolithic church and the buildings surrounding it give no indication as to the scope and beauty of the town. For that, you must stop and explore it on foot.

Entering a church through its age-worn portal unknowingly gives entry to the town. The cool, dark interior is lit by tall, stained-glass windows in the rear apse surrounding the chancel. Gregorian chant plays softly through hidden speakers. The effect is so beautiful and appropriate that it is a wonder more historic churches don’t take advantage of this simple method for dramatically enhancing their atmosphere.

A delicately columned cloister is accessed through a side door. From there, another door leads to the Saint-Émilion tourism office and through it to a small plaza surrounding the bell tower. Umbrellas shade the tables of two cafes and beyond them is a low wall. Spread beneath the wall is a panorama of tile-roofed, stone houses and cobbled lanes, a wonderful surprise.

Saint-Émilion is set within an enormous, natural amphitheater. Rows of grape vines mark the edge of town, disappearing into the distant horizon. At the foot of the sheer cliff lies a small, cafe-lined plaza. From this limestone cliff, the underground, Monolithic Church, the largest of its kind in France, was carved by generations of devoted Benedictine monks. Over 15,000 cubic yards of rock were quarried to create the huge interior spaces.

Narrow lanes, one so steep and slick a handrail is necessary, wind around and down, past stylish wine shops, to the plaza below. It seems as if the only businesses are wine shops, restaurants or macaroon stores, crunchy, multi-colored macaroons being another Saint-Émilion specialty.Establishment Martin is one of Saint-Emilion’s premier wine shops. It sells over 90 different wines and will happily provide tastings.

The portal to the Monolithic Church with its iconic bell tower.

The massive doors to the Monolithic Church lie at the bottom of the cliff just off the plaza. Frequent tours explore the vast interior. Past the church, more wine stores provide tastings of the local vintages. Cocktail tables with bottles and glasses sit just outside the doors of the shops, allowing casual tastings of the regions full-bodied reds as you stroll.

A leisurely 10-15 minute walk brings you to the vines of Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes abutting the town. From here, you can wander in all directions to your heart’s delight, toward wineries, châteaus and beyond.

The hills around Saint-Emilion.

A typical grave in the cemetery of village 1 km from Saint-Emilion.

Saint-Émilion is an architectural gem. Its timeless, medieval atmosphere transports you to a previous era. Here, you will find not only marvelous, southern French cuisine and exceptional wines, but also, a sense of quiet elegance and understated self-confidence that comes from centuries of culture and a world class reputation for excellence.

Copyright 2011 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging


Jun 102011

Straight out of the past, a couple and their dog paddle past the ancient town of Guitres.

Ancient and pastoral, two words that provide context for this idyllic, gently rolling, forested, countryside of old vineyards, older farms and even older, tiny villages. This is the south of France. Ornate steeples of 11th and 12th century churches tower over the cramped, cobblestone streets and stone houses as they have, seemingly unchanged for a millennium.

A stone bridge spans a river, dense forest lining its banks, as young boys fish for the big ones we see swimming below. A couple in a small, wooden bateau passes under the bridge. The longhaired man stands at the stern, propelling the boat with its single oar. But for the tee shirts and shorts, it could be a scene from any time in the past 500 years.

L’Isle and the countryside around Guitres’.

Entering the town on foot, it appears dormant, the houses shuttered, the streets empty but for three, old men at an outdoor table down the block. Fortunately, the small, modern patisserie on the tiny square is open, allowing us to appease our appetites with fabulous French pastries and chocolates.

This is Guitres, an ancient town on the Isle River. The 11th century abbey, Notre Dame de Guitres, is world famous for its acoustics. Unfortunately, the concert season, with an a capella vocal ensemble, doesn’t begin for another two weeks. To hear unaccompanied voices singing Gregorian chant and Renaissance vocal music in the sparse darkness and vaulted setting of Guitres’ church would be close to heaven.

The Abbey of Notre Dame in Guitres

A typical village cemetary with its ancient church in a tiny village near Guitres’.

Our rented car gives us flexibility to explore. With a sudden change to blustery weather, a day in the city of Bordeaux seems appropriate. The old city center is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our hosts at the farm/b&b recommend a park and ride north of the city that, for three Euros, provides parking and tram tickets. Such a deal!

The wide, muddy Garonne River splits the city and provides easy access to the sea. Bordeaux has been an important port for centuries-France’s primary debarkation point for early trade with the America’s. Vast quantities of wine were shipped from here. Enormous fortunes were made, not just from wine, but sadly slaves as well.

One of Bordeaux’s stylish and efficient trams.

Along the Quai de la Douane and the Garonne River.

Departing the tram at the Stalingrad stop allows us to walk across the Pont de Pierre, the bridge spanning the river, for the full impact of Bordeaux’s elegant, centuries-old riverfront. Grand, 18th century, four-story buildings line the river for miles. Only the steeples of churches and cathedrals punctuate this magnificent façade as they rise above the warren of streets and alleys behind the riverfront.

One of the gates into the old city in Bordeaux.

The Cathédrale St André at the end of the Rue Vital-Carles in Bordeaux old city.

The interior of Cathédrale Saint-André de Bordeau

Wandering the busy, stately streets, we find the elegant flying buttresses of the Cathédrale Saint-André de Bordeaux and turn left to visit the Musée d’Aquitaine to learn something of the history of the region. The museum is a wealth of historical information. With evidence of ancestral human occupation reaching back as far as a staggering 700,000 years, the archeological record is rich. Several caves in the region yielded Neanderthal artifacts dating back 30,000 years while other caves, including the famous one at Lascaux, contain Paleolithic paintings estimated at over 17,000 years old.

Paleo-lithic tools at least 30,000 year old.

Here again, Rome left its impressive mark. The museum’s collection reflects this past with much Roman sculpture, glass and mosaics. Turbulent centuries followed the slow collapse of the empire.

A bronze, Roman Hercules.

Bordeaux didn’t begin to come into its own until the middle ages when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henri Plantagenet who shortly thereafter became King Henry II of England. The many Romanesque churches of the city are clear evidence of this growth. Bordeaux’s golden age though, came with the 18th century when it became the focus of commerce with the New World.

A beautiful, marble bust of some 18th century archbishop. Such elegant craftsmanship.

Sadly, Bordeaux profited greatly from the slave trade. It was a hub of the triangular trade with the new world. This African carving is festooned with actual chains used in the despicable trade.

Leaving the museum, we find the old city center and stroll through the alleys and pedestrian streets checking out the enticing patisseries and chocolateries. In one, you could get high just breathing the chocolate fumes!

Another of the gates to the old city which is now entirely a pedestrian area.

I hear clapping and cheering coming from an extremely, crowded, corner store and go to investigate. It’s the opening day of Bordeaux’s first Apple Store!

Apple’s grand opening in Bordeaux.

Outside the Musee’ de Beaux Arts.

Lord knows why they were dressed like this.

The altar area of the Notre Dame de Bordeaux.

Continuing our stroll, we find broad, tree-lined avenues with luxurious homes built by 18th century wine merchants. The avenues open to the riverfront quay-a grand, stately promenade of reflecting pools, gardens and elegant buildings.

Homes of the wealthy leading to the Grand Theater of Bordeaux.

Toward late afternoon, the streets got really busy!

The wonderful reflection pool in front of the Place de la Bourse along the Garonne.

Ending our day, the quay leads us back to the tram and eventually our car for the forty-minute drive through the ancient villages, vineyards and quiet country roads to the farm/b&b where we are staying.

Copyright 2011 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging