It had been a couple of years since my last visit to Paris and I decided that on this trip I would finally stay on the left bank. All of my previous stays in Paris include decadent stays at the gorgeous luxury iconic hotels of the right bank with easy walking distance to the Champs Elysees and the glamorous Rue de Montaigne for haute shopping and people-watching that never disappointed. (During my last stay at the George V, I took a dive in the beautiful indoor pool at the underground spa, only to surface next to none other than Mick Jagger in the shallow end).
This time, I was determined on this visit to sink my teeth and spirit into the more bohemian culture of Paris on the left bank. My stay was at the charming and discreet Hotel L’Esprit de Saint Germain located next to the Saint Sulpice Church made so famous in the “Da Vinci Code”.
This tiny boutique hotel feels a bit more like a home with a wonderful sense of modern but warm French décor and a welcoming living room and fireplace as you walk in the front door. With just a handful of rooms and suites, it is easy to feel instantly at home. Included in the room rate for all guests are daily breakfast, honor bar snacks and drinks, and unlimited complimentary drinks and champagne at the self-service bar in the lounge. My guests also receive an extra amenity of a hand-selected cheese platter and a bottle of white or red wine to be enjoyed in the room, the lounge, or even packed up for your train ride as we requested.
San Germain is renowned for local chic boutiques, patisseries, brasseries, and bistros. With the university just nearby and the gorgeous Luxemburg gardens (where I along with many others had our morning jog), and the Musee d’Orsay and Seine river a short walk away, the area is an ideal base for a Parisian stay that maybe feels a bit more local and relaxed.
I was grateful for some spectacular recommendations from my dear Parisian friend and fellow food snob, Jean-Pierre that rewarded our desire to eat with and eat like a Parisian. I can promise that in each of these suggested bistros, you will be the only non-Parisians there and you will thank me in the morning for spectacular and reasonably priced meals that will not be easily forgotten!!
Vaudeville – Shrimp tartare to start and a combination of grilled soul fish and sautéed foie gras – http://www.vaudevilleparis.com/fr
L’Assiette – Fresh jumbo asparagus to start and a traditional Cassoulet for dinner – http://www.restaurant-lassiette.com/
Brasserie La Lorraine – The most incredible foie gras pate with pear chutney to start and an enormous platter of fresh crustaceans including prawns, crawfish, lobster, crab, and several types of snails – http://www.brasserielalorraine.com
Other foodie tips if you are staying on the left bank….
If you would like to see or take home gorgeous foods, every food lover must visit La Grande Epicerie at the Bon Marche –http://www.lagrandeepicerie.fr/#fr-FR/home
A wonderful cup of French coffee at Les deux Magots opposite St Germaine des Près and Paris’ best gateaux at the pastry shop of Gérard Mulot just off the Marché St Germaine.
This morning, I write as I watch the French countryside whiz by from the window of the TGV (while enjoying our cheese plate and wine from L’Esprit de St. Germain) as we make our way down to the culinary capital of Paris – LYON!!
Our day in Lyon was highlighted by a visit to “Les Halles” market – located discreetly in a non-descript modern building in the new section of Lyon. This market is where the most famous chefs in the region including the local hero, three Michelin-star chef Paul Bocuse provide delicacies for their restaurants. The most spectacular foie gras, cheeses, terrines, pates, seafood, fowl, meats, pastries, and wines. The market is immaculate and locals wonder in to stand at a counter and enjoy a gorgeous meal and a glass or two of wine to break up their workday. We perused the market wide-eyed trying everything we could. What a shame we did not have a kitchen in which to cook some treats!
Our riverboat departed Lyon at the confluence of two mighty rivers – The Rhone and the Saone – and we cruised upstream through several locks and just inches below many bridges up the Saone River until we reached the ancient city of Trevoux. Trevoux, once a country of its own, is a tiny walled city with a fortress, castle, cathedral, and parliamentary building. It was annexed by France hundreds of years ago but was considered an equal in its heyday when silversmithing was a primary trade.
Trevoux and The Beaujolais:
In the morning, desperate to work off some of the decadent dining I have enjoyed, I sported sneakers and took a run straight uphill through the town’s Saturday market and locals eyed me, with curiosity, but possibly astonishment or disapproval. Who, after all, wears shorts in the winter and runs up to the castle on an early Saturday morning when civilized people are bundled up enjoying the first coffee of the day and a pain au chocolat?
Ah, now my mind and body were ready to experience The Beaujolais area of the Saone. The French say that there are actually three rivers in the area – The Rhone, the Saone, and the Beaujolais for the large amount of wine drunk in the region. We met a charming vintner named Pascal who runs his small vineyard with his wife and was only too delighted to share the history of the land and allow us to taste one of the 10 Cru Beaujolais (not the very young Beaujolais Nouveaux). The local winemakers call the Gamay the black grape with the white juice. They also make a nice and dry Rose – “a cup of sunshine” according to Pascal. The wines in The Beaujolais always served with local saucisson and chewy bread made with bacon, olives, or almonds – all wonderful!
We are back down on the Rhone River now as I write my blog, the rain is failing the pianist is playing and the views of the lovely city of Vienne are all about me.
Vienne is a charming Roman city but what I can most remember was one of the biggest highlights of our trip – dining at La Pyramide, perhaps one of the most important restaurants in the world.
Currently a charming Relais & Chateaux property with a gastronomic restaurant by Patrick Henriroux, which currently boasts two Michelin stars.
The gardens, an oasis of peace and the dining room a contemporary departure from the history surrounding, the menu and service – impeccable!
Our tasting menu with each course complimented fantastic regional wines.
Vienne to Tournon and Viviers:
Needless to say, the morning started with a deck-top self-induced bootcamp including squats, lunges, sit-ups, push-ups, dips, frog jumps, burpees, and flying jacks.
This, of course, is all very necessary as we departed at 9:15 am to Cornas vineyards in the Cote du Rhone. We met with Alain Loge, the vintner who took us to where the grapes are grown, and learned about the Terroir – all of the natural elements that affect the wine – the soil, the sun, the water, and in this case the “mistral” – the famous winds from the north, the slope. Whites thrive in limestone soil and reds in granite as an example. We then tasted with the winemaker himself (wine maker-grower-marketer-multi-generational caretaker of the land). It is such a treat to be able to experience the land and the produce of labor and love with locals who are so passionate about what they do. Of course, the wines were phenomenal – a white from St. Pernay and a Red from Cornas.
This afternoon, we opted to dine “off-boat” and ended up at a local pizzeria. Think of the lighted and most wonderful crust from the wood-burning oven covered in fresh tomatoes, artichoke, bacon and slices of brie. Indulgent and perfect with a glass of cote de rhone!
Following afternoon wine tastings and cooking demos on board, we arrived after dark into the incredible medieval town of Vivier. There are absolutely no modern buildings in this city that dates to the 11th and 12th century. There are eerily beautiful homes and the castle and the cathedral and even today people live in this walled, cobblestoned hilltop town that seems to have evaded plunder and modernity. The bishop of Ardeche still has his diocese here. We toured the town at night in the rain, which made for a very dramatic effect, I try to imagine I lived here nearly 1000 years ago!
Grignan and Avignon:
Grignan is an absolutely charming village with a hilltop castle, wonderful views of the lavender fields below and local shops.
The highlight today however was a visit to a local truffle farm where we observed a delightful relationship between the truffle farmer and his brilliant Italian dog, Emmy. Emmy is charged with sniffing and digging up the extremely valuable ripe truffles far below the surface, making them difficult to detect. Just before reaching the truffle, the farmer intervenes and rewards Emmy with a cookie rather than the 50 Euro delicacy! We tried wonderful truffle, oils and other French treats with a morning glass of wine. Tubermelanosproum, the technical term, takes place from mid-November to mid-March.
The afternoon was spent in the famous city, Avignon, home of the Popes from 1309 to 1377 before the papacy was returned to Rome and the Vatican! The historic center is incredibly well preserved including the Palace of the Popes and the famous bridge of Avignon.
Avignon to Arles:
Today was perhaps my favorite day with a NOT TO BE MISSED visit to the village of Le Baux de Provence. This hilltop town and fortress built into the rocky mountain top, was a Protestant stronghold during the French wars of religions. The shops here are fantastic with pricing on typical Provencal goods considerably cheaper than in Aix-en-Provence.
Just nearby we visited an Olive farm. Again, what is so impressive is visiting these small scale local producers who walk you through the process of selecting Olives from their trees, taking care of their trees, pressing the oil into olive oil or selecting the most beautiful olives to be jarred for snacking. Did you know that green and black olives are not different varietals, the black ones have just turned after ripening. We tasted again spectacular olive oils, olive pates and tapenades, and many other wonderful products created under the Provencal sun – spreads made from eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and wonderful jams from cherries, blackberries, strawberries, etc.
The afternoon cycling through Arles was the perfect way to spend a final day. This Roman surrounded by 2.5 miles of its original wall, boasts an incredibly intact Roman amphitheater, arena, and even remains of the original forum and Roman baths, all built by Augustus. It is a brilliant mid-sized city with a spectacular modern museum showcasing the treasures found in the Roman activity-centres. A wonderful central plaza with many bistros and bars (one made sensationally famous from Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting), make this another not-to-miss stop for me.
Ah, Provence! Finally the sun is brighter, the skies bluer, and the scents – enough to mesmerize. We disembarked early in the morning after bidding farewell to all the friends we enjoyed during our week on Ama Waterways. Mom and I rented a car and headed for the absolutely charming town of St. Remy de Provence. Here we experienced, perhaps our most enjoyable meal of the trip. (One note, though dubbed a culinary and wine cruise, Ama Waterways did not live up to expectation with the food and beverage offerings. We have sailed on many upscale cruises where the food is the absolute highlight and this was anything but the case on this particular ship, sadly. The ship itself was immaculate and up-to-date, service was extremely friendly and attentive, and the shore excursions and itinerary were excellent, however, anyone that is going with high expectations of the cuisine on board, needs to be prepared. It is tailored to the American tastes and its not at all European or highlighting specialties from the region. So with that said, we were hungry (no pun intended) to indulge in some truly Provencal cooking. We were delighted beyond words at La Reine Jeanne where we dined on a surreal foie gras, unreal seasonal asparagus, scallops that dripped with natural juices, and roasted tomatoes that burst with flavor. However, nothing can ever replicate or describe the enormous dish of quartered fresh artichokes, I think oven-roasted with garlic, herbes de Provence, sausage and …I don’t know what else! The chef laughed when I asked for the recipe (no way, that is a family secret, for generations!). The house wine was wonderful in every way and the meal was the least expensive meal we had had on the trip. Not saying cheap, but just saying, so incredibly well worth it!
Next we drove to Aix-En-Provence to spend our final night before departing from Marseille airport. We arrived into Aix, at first slightly taken back by its “largeness”, we wound our way around the city center and finally up the hill to a tall electronic gate guarding the entrance to Villa Gallici. After ringing the bell, the gates swung open and we entered, well, heaven or what you might imagine heaven to be. Gardens beyond perfection, swaying cypress, flowing fountains and impeccable staff in stylish Italian uniforms. We were immediately welcomed to the Relais and Chateaux, Villa Gallici, decorated as in the most comfortable and highest of style, Italian homes. Every fabric, every furniture piece, ever artifact, lampshade, table decoration – pure eye candy. Can’t tell you how many inspiring ideas we discussed for our own homes, one day! J Chef welcomed us with a beautiful display of three chocolate tarts – dark, white, and caramel – the appeared on a tray with a rose and a candle in our room in minutes after arriving. I decided to make myself an espresso and soak in the sun coming in through our French balcony. This was calm, peace, and perfection.
That night after mom retired to bed early, I enjoyed a glass of local Provencal Rose and then was invited to the dining room. Sometimes dining alone can be intimidating, not here. I was seated on a quaint couch with beautiful lighting and linens and tasted some spectacular seafood – perfectly succulent prawns on a puree of artichoke and silky chunks of codfish atop an eggplant and zucchini tapenade. I wish I could, but I just could not, take them up on cheese or dessert, though I knew from my earlier in the day experience, that the pastry chef was well worth the splurge.
I went to bed that night with the light winds from the north blowing in the scent of Provence into our room. The linens and bed were like something I had not slept in some time. I appreciated this place more than anything and only dreamt of returning one day to share this place with my husband. Villa Gallici is a wonderful place to simply “be”. I know my mother felt the same, and she will also return one day. I highly recommend a tour of Southern France staying in select Relais and Chateau properties that are a complimentary experience with Villa Gallici.
We did walk into the city center, just 10 minutes away, and Aix is a lively town with spectacular shops and a very young college and family life.
It is a wonderful stop in Provence from the Riviera, which is just 30-60 minutes away.
As I type my final words, I am sitting on an Air France flight back to Atlanta. Our journey started at 10am this morning driving from Aix-en-Provence to Marseille. Never completely sure of my driving skills abroad (not to mention sense of direction), we got an early start and arrived to the gas station, rental car company and finally the airport (MRS) 3 hours before our flight. Slightly obscene given the absolutely beautiful place we had just left and possibly could have soaked in an hour or two more. There was no surprise that our bags were excessively overweight (not us, the bags!) and we had to unpack and redistribute and finally take out some of the heavier items including a wonderful bottle of wine from Alain Loge and a terrine of Foie Gras. It was 11am after all so we headed to the “before security” café and with a big smile pulled our or own wine and asked ever so sweetly if the barman could open our wine. Without a hesitation he pulled out his corkscrew and opened the wine for us (this would never be put up within the U.S., bring your own wine into a café in the airport). Mom and I enjoyed every last drop in the name of “not wasting a perfectly good purchase”. And now aboard the plane, we break out a baguette and our foie gras and enjoy it with the approving and jealous eye of everyone around us.
A word about our flight, if I may. We booked via Delta.com our economy roundtrip flights to France. On the way to France, we were on a Delta operated flights and we purchased the upgrade to the recently established economy comfort. The plane had no personal entertainment systems, very small seats, no “head catchers” (the flaps on the headrest that catch your head when you are sleeping and inadvertently drop your head on to your neighbors shoulder), and food so inedible that I opted for sleep instead. Before dozing off though, the flight attendant did inform us that because we were the “lucky” passengers in Economy Comfort, we were eligible for complimentary drinks. Can you imagine the “unlucky” in regular economy that had no entertainment system and no free drinks? Makes for a long flight in my mind. My mention of this all is not to complain because, lets face it, air travel even in business and first on most carriers (hate to say it, but particularly the American carriers) is nothing but a glamorized bus ride. However, our return flight was operated by Air France, Delta’s codeshare partner, and though we were not in Economy Comfort (they call is Seat Plus), we had individual entertainment systems, “head catchers”, welcome champagne and complimentary drinks, but additionally, frankly, much better food (though, don’t get too excited!). Point being, when booking any American carrier, check to see who is actually operating the flights and could be the difference between a regrettable and a much more enjoyable flight.
Well, I arrive home late tonight and I there is nothing more than I look forward to than hugging my little ones! The other part of the equation will be to start my three day detox at “Dtox” – a wonderful new juice bar in Atlanta. They will provide three days of cleaning, delicious and nutritious juices, and my mind and body will get back on track after overindulging during my travels – but it was so worth it. Till next time!