Under the Tuscan Sun

Today is my last day in Siena, Tuscany. I know, I'm a little sad about this. Only a little, since there are other places to go and things to see.

So today I decided to have a "day off" from site seeing. No plans.

After a nice, late breakfast and shower at La Locanda di San Martino, I wandered over to Piazza del Campo and sat in the morning sun watching the little kiddies run around chasing pigeons. It really ought to be a national sport. Silly pigeons; so focused on the possibility of food left from tourists, they don't have the sense (or desire) to fly off. Then a Jack Russell terrier and a very excitable dachshund started in on the game. Pre-schoolers, small dogs and birds...what could be more entertaining?

After that I headed over to the Siena Cathedral to sit on the white steps and soak up some more sun. Did I mention today is clear skies and 23 degrees? Slight breeze. Anyhow, sitting against the warm white stones, feeling the sun shine down on my arms and face...in late October. Amazing.

Time to stroll along the winding streets and do a little window shopping. After about two hours of walking, it was time for a late lunch. I found myself back at Piazza del Campo and opted for a little table, some fresh bruschetta pomodoro, some house pasta, a glass of wine, and you guessed it....more sunshine.

Next up was some gelato. It's absolutely true that Italy has the best gelato. I mean, Spain and Portugal come pretty close, but I think Italy has it down to a science. This time, I chose Cherry English Trifle and coconut. English Trifle in a gelato you say? Why yes! The gelato custard base is made and then a layer is spread into the pan. Pieces of sponge cake, amarena cherries and liqueur are then layered on top. Then more gelato custard base is spread on top. Repeat the layers. So good! And where did I eat my gelato? Why, sitting in the sun of course!

Back to wandering the streets. There are so many leather goods and pottery shops here. My mom has asked for a pair of brown leather boots. She and I are the same size shoe, as well as the same through the ankle and calf muscles. Which means if the boots fit me then they should fit her. I think she's going to really like the ones I bought her. And if she doesn't, well..... I really like them, and I know they fit me....so it's really a win-win situation.

Then it was time to head back to the hotel for a quick nap and to catch up with family back home. I also worked on some design sketches for a bit. I'm happy to report the new sketches are coming along nicely.

Dinner was at Osteria La Logge. This Michelin-rated restaurant is warm, inviting, and just a little quirky. I passed by the spot during the day and couldn't help smiling at the display of old trumpets used as candle holders in the window and the old weigh scales by the cash register. Also catching my attention were the large display windows into the kitchen, and that one of the windows was open with a screen in place. This meant that the kitchen is the star of this restaurant (as it should be), and that the restaurant is happy to display their working kitchen in hopes of enticing the people walking by. The open window let prospective guests (the restaurant does not advertise but replies on word of mouth) know that the kitchen is "open for conversation" and therefore approachable. And the wonderful aromas coming through the window definitely had people stopping to take a longer look. An interesting way of advertising, but it seemed to be working. I knew I needed to eat in this restaurant.

The lead server is Mirco. He was amazing at finding me a spot in an already-booked restaurant. If you do visit, be prepared that you might not be seated at your own table. I was seated at an oval table with two other men, but the table gave me a great view of the room. The kind gentlemen promptly offered me some of their Brane- Cantena Margaux 2000 Gran Cru (yes, a French wine in Italy....even Italians get tired of their own wines I guess). Already in the room (and in full swing) was a party of ten gentlemen from various states in the United States. They were visiting the area on business. More on this gang a little later.

The space used to be a pharmacy, and still retains the beautiful cabinetry; now filled with books, glassware, bottles of grappa and scotch, as well as limited edition bottles of wine. A cabinet of additional glassware by the kitchen proudly displays snapshots of famous guests including Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Stiller and Morgan Freeman.

And what a kitchen! High end Italian kitchens tend to be laid out in a square format, rather than the traditional "kitchen line" I'm used to in North America. Essentially, each cook works in their space on their particular item (garde manger, veg, meat, etc), and then bring their item to the center island to plate. This, to me, seems to cause less confusion, less shouting of "BEHIND", and ensures each station has access to the plate, which means in theory it would leave the kitchen sooner. And as a result, all of my dishes arrived within great time.

The food was fantastic. I started with a simple pappardelle with house ragu. Noodles and meat sauce, right? I didn't want this dish to end; I could have ordered another portion it was so good. The meat sauce was somehow both robust in flavour and light in texture at the same time. The noodles were spot on.

As soon as my plate was cleared, it was replaced with my second course, stuffed rabbit. The medallions were crispy on the outside while moist on the inside and stuffed with spinach, rosemary and salvia.

Somewhere (and somehow) between my dinner plate being removed and my dessert arriving I ended up invited to the table of 10 Americans; who as it turns out were with Jackson Family Fine Wines .....Freemark Abbey, Hartford Family Wines, Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Stonestreet...and Tenuta di Arceno, which produces Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Reserva under winemaker Lawrence Cronin. Meeting a group of like-minded people also interested in wine and food is fantastic and always evokes great conversations, along with some hilarity. Case in point: I was educated on the word "Schmeg"...as in "Waiter, there is some schmeg in my glass".

For dessert I took Mirco's advice and had a hazelnut cake and chestnut sauce dish. I liked how cheeky this dish was. It resembled mushrooms and a forest floor in the fall. The airy sponge cake was divided into pieces on the plate in a puddle of hazelnut cream. Cylinders of pastry made to resemble pasta or the stems of mushrooms offered a bit of saltiness and were filled with vanilla pastry cream; a nice contrast. Chestnut gelato. Heaven.

The business men headed out to their next party and I found myself with Mirco, his friends (my original dining partners) and their friend; a lovely woman from New Jersey. Some grappa, scotch and more wine resulted in dancing into the wee hours of the morning in a closed restaurant, causing people passing by to (once again) pause and look in the windows.

So a day with no plans turned into my most enjoyable day in this city. Tomorrow I leave for San Gimignano (again) and then on to Montepulciano. But I will take with me these wonderful memories of this beautiful city of Siena, and look forward to returning again soon.

San Gimignano

Today I visited the beautiful medieval town of San Gimignano in Italy. San Gimignamo is located in the province of Siena, Tuscany and is about 30 minutes by car from the town of Siena. It sits on a hill top surrounded by lush, rolling landscape.

The town is surrounded by three walls, with a series of gates between each wall and the ruins of a fortress at its highest point. San Gimingano is famous for its architecture; specifically for its ancient tower houses in Romanesque and Gothic styles.

The reason for the towers has a sort of Montague and Capulet story. There became a long, on-going rivalry between two families (the Guelphs; who supported the Pope, and the Ghibellines; who supported the Holy Roman Emperor) and as a way to out-do each other, for 200 years the generations of these two families built the towers as a way of showcasing their wealth and influence (or perceived wealth and influence). At the height of the feud, there were 72 towers, the tallest being over 70 meters high. Today, there are 13 remaining towers; as towers either crumbled through neglect or were brought down over time to make room for more usable living space.

San Gimignano is also known for the production of many delicacies including wine, extra virgin olive oil, wild boar products such as sausage, and saffron. Vernaccia, the first Italian white wine to receive DOC and then DOCG recognition, is a beautiful, easy drinking white wine that starts out creamy and finishes clean with hints of pear and apple. I enjoyed it so much that I had some shipped to my home (and anyone who knows me knows I am predominantly a red wine drinker)

I got the opportunity to visit the Tenuta Torciano Winery and enjoy a very thorough tasting of a number of their wines. These included:

2013 Torciano Poggioaicieli Vernaccia DOCG
2013 Torciano Crete Rosse Chianti DOCG
2012 Torciano Doge Chianti Classico
2009 Torciano Brunello di Montalcino DOCG
2010 Torciano Baldassarre "Super Tuscan" IGT
2010 Torciano Vin Beato Dessert Wine (not shown)

Served with the wine was bread with both their house olive oil and truffle infused olive oil, wild boar sausage, pecorino cheese and a radicchio and endive salad with their house balsamic reduction.

After all that wine and food tasting, it was time to head back to Siena and have a little nap before heading out for dinner and gelato.

Genoa / Genova - Part One

Today was Day One in Genova. This morning I took the train from Asti to Genova. The weather here is not good. When I arrived it was threatening to rain. Luckily, there are all kinds of street vendors harassing people passing by to buy their umbrellas. These guys sure do know their target market.

The place I am staying is called Morali Palace.  My room is on the fourth floor of a building from the 1700's. The room is nice with a great view of the harbour. It is located in the Piazza della Raibetta, very close to the Aquarium, which is one of the largest in Europe. The aquarium has a domed-like structure that is remarkably similar to the Expo Ball / Telus Science World (or whatever we are now supposed to call it) back home in Vancouver.

After checking in I decided to walk around the city for a little bit.

Genova is the capital of the province of Liguria, and is the sixth largest city in Italy. The city has a nickname of La Superba (the glorious one), due to it's rich history and many impressive landmarks. Several buildings within the city have been recognised as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. The city has a vibrant art, music, food and history. It is the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and Niccolo Paganini.

The city's name is derived from the Latin word for knee (genu, plural genua). When looking at a map of Italy, Genova is located just under the "cuff" of the "boot" right where the knee would be. So this makes perfect sense.

The first place I came to was Piazza de Ferrari. There is a beautiful round fountain in the center of the square. The square is surrounded by both financial and art buildings. These include the Palace of the Doges (Dukes), the Theatre Carlo Felice; home to opera and ballet performances, The Ligurian Academy of Fine Arts and the Stock Exchange building.

There are many churches and cathedrals in Genova. The most noted is the Cattedral de San Lorenzo, with its striking black and white striped exterior. The cathedral was first founded in 6th century AD, and through various stops and starts and fires and additions and refurbishing, was finally completed the way it looks today in the 17th century. That's a VERY long time to build a church. There are a number of exceptional artworks and frescoes within the church, as well as a 15in shell from WWII, which struck a corner of the naive but failed to detonate. It is proudly displayed, with the inscription (in Italian):

This bomb launched by the British fleet while breaking through the walls of this great cathedral here fell unexploded IX February MCMXLI. A perennial gratitude of Mary, the city of Genoa wanted engraved in stone the memory of such grace.

Time to eat. Genova is famous for its pesto and fresh focaccia, so those were first on my list of things to try. I found a little pizzeria, and sat down and had myself the BIGGEST pesto pizza you could imagine, along with some red wine.

After dinner I wandered around a little more, but by that time it was starting to rain. Walking back to my palace / hotel, I was not five minutes in the door before the thunder started and the lightening began to flash. Hopefully it will all blow over and tomorrow will be a beautiful day for site seeing in this historic city.

Cascina Barac - Part Two

Today is my second full day in Alba / Cascina Barac. I have decided to not really make any plans for my time here and to just see what unfolds.

At breakfast, one of my hosts Katia asked me if I wanted to go truffle hunting. A quick cup of tea, change into my boots and jeans and we were off. There were six in our party: A couple from Florida, Giancarlo who was a guide/translator, Renaldo the hunter/tartuffola and myself. And Luigi the dog; the star of the show. On the drive from Cascina Barac to the area where we were going hunting for truffles (which coincidentally is right beside the Gaja Winery), Giancarlo was very good at chatting about and explaining not only about the truffles, but about wine production in the region, the rise and fall of the market, which seasons have been better than others, and the increase in agrotourism in the area. Having worked a number of years in higher end restaurants, I was able to tell him a lot about how we here in North America receive the end products of their labours, and how much we are willing to pay at times to receive them. When I told him how much the tartuffa d'alba actually sells for in a restaurant in Vancouver, he quickly translated to Renaldo, who was driving. I thought Renaldo was going to drive off the road. Renaldo said something back to Giancarlo in Piedmontese, which I took to mean something along the lines of "I need a bigger cut of the money, no?" Obviously, there is a big price discrepancy between what the truffle hunter works hard to find and sells, and what we as end consumers pay at the restaurant.

It turns out our guides were no slouches at this industry. I found out there is a Truffle School that dogs must attend to learn how to sniff out and find the truffles. And not all dogs have a nose for it. But Luigi is one of the best. I'm not sure which incarnation of "Luigi" we had with us. You see, Renaldo has been hunting truffles for many years, and over the years, each male dog has been named Luigi and each female dog has been named Diana. In fact, in 1999, he and his dog Diana found one of the largest truffles in the world near Buje, Croatia. The truffle weighed 1.31 kilograms (2 lb 14 oz) and has been entered the Guinness Book of Records.

Luigi also knows the difference in smell between a black truffle and a white truffle, even while it is still in the ground. If it is a black truffle, he is allowed to dig it up and bring it to Renaldo. If it is a white truffle, he must stand and point and wag his tale. This is for two reasons. White truffles are more valuable than the black ones, and they are also more fragile and damage quite easily. We watched Luigi find truffles the size of a pea under six inched of soil. Luigi has been known to discover truffles around stone walls, under bracket and under 2 feet of hard packed soil.

We spent about 3 hours hunting for truffles. The ones in my hands (right) were the biggest we found today, and I'm holding about $350.00 worth of truffles. Many were small, or were a bit old. Renaldo says, "No matter, for the soup!" I guess if you are working that hard to find these gems, you don't want to let any go to waste.

The fresh air and walking meant it was time for a short snooze before heading out for the afternoon.

Around 4pm, I said to myself, "Hey Self, I want to go see that church up there; it looks interesting." So I made the 25 minute uphill hike to Treiso. I had the road to myself, with only one motorcycle that passed me. My company were the grape vines, the hazelnut trees and an occasional winged flurry as small birds took flight when I walked by.

Reaching the top, the church does not look impressive from the outside. Built in 1755, the Maria Virgine Assunta is a red clay brick church with a couple figures in stone on the front and a tower at the back.  The door was open, so I went inside. I was the only one there. I had this whole silent, empty space to myself. It was magic. And then I looked up.

This church is by no means the Sistine Chapel. And I know that there will be amazing examples of painted frescos and ceilings in Genova and Rome and everywhere in between. But to see this much detail devoted to a little church that serves a community of only 9.5 square km.....it was very inspiring.

I found a couple nice restaurants surrounding the church. One is from the Le Soste collection of restaurants called La Ciau del Tornavento , which is a Michelin Star awarded Asian-Italian fusion restaurant. It was impressive to find that calibre of eatery in a small town high up in the hills. Craving something more regional and rustic, I wandered into Trattoria Risorgimento. They were just opening for service. It is a family run restaurant; the father, Ilario is the host with a dry sense of humour and a wonderful selection of wines, and his daughter leads the kitchen with other daughters filling in service staff roles. I had a fantastic meal; starting with tarajin tagliati (a regional pasta created especially with white truffles / tartuffa) with butter and white truffles. One bite of the pasta and my sole focus became this dish in front of me. Delicate pasta, butter and white truffle. Outstanding. Usually in Vancouver when you order shaved Alba truffle on your meal, it is by the gram and usually around $25.00 to $32.00 per gram added to the price of your entree. Looking at the photo to the left, for 20€ for pasta including truffle, you can see this chef was quite generous with the truffle shaving. Next I has braised pork cheek with polenta, followed by a sort of raisin and jam cake made from local grapes. I also found a bottle of 2005 Sori Montaribaldi Barbaresco which, you know...at 28.00 I just couldn't pass up. Total for three course meal with wine was 75.00

Ilario was kind enough to drive me back down the hill to Cascina Barac, and I took the remainder of my bottle of wine, a glass from my room and sat out on the veranda swing and enjoyed the silence of the rest of the evening (and my bottle of wine)

Looking forward to what tomorrow will bring.

A Year of Pretty - October 07, 2014

In keeping with the warm fall colour theme, I found this photo of this beautiful red hat. I love hats. I have a number of them. And this one I really like. It's also a stunning photo. Of which I have no original source. Except our friends at Pinterest.

Cascina Barac - Part One

Today is Day One at Cascina Barac. Well technically, day two because I arrived last night at about 8 pm.

First off, I cannot begin to tell you how wonderful it was to check into my room last night. I had been travelling all day. I left Paris at 10:40am and took the train from Gare de Lyon to Turin (Torino - 5 hours), then waited until 7:30 (because it was Sunday and the trains run every two hours on Sundays; silly me) to take the train from Bra to Alba. Also, compound this with my not-so-great-stay in Paris (no hot water, no towels, mosquitos and a bed up a rickety ladder into a loft). All I wanted was a hot shower and a good night's sleep.

Cascina Barac has been so welcoming from the beginning. The hostess has been wonderful. I speak less Italian than she does English, but we laugh and muddle through and somehow it's all okay. Once I had checked in, I had a hot shower like nobody's business, made myself a pot of tea, sat and unwound from the day of travelling,climbed into bed and slept until the morning.

You have to also understand that I had not had a hot cup of tea in six days. Six whole days. This is most likely a record for me. It is amazing that when you finally get to have that hot shower and hot cup of tea, how your very soul rejoices. It doesn't matter what happens after that point. You are restored and ready to take on whatever comes next.

Speaking of next, the next morning I woke and went down for breakfast. Again, not something I had been able to linger over for a few days. While grabbing a pain au chocolat on the way to the Metro had it's charm, enjoying a long luxurious breakfast was indeed a treat. Cascina Barac puts out an outstanding assortment of cheeses, meats, breads, jams, yogurts and cereals each morning, and the ladies are quick to replenish anything that is getting low, or to bring you anything you wish; such as hot water for tea or an espresso.

After a hearty breakfast, I took my camera and decided to wander into the vineyard. There, I met up with Albino (pronounced AL-BEE-NO), who greeted me with a warm "Hello! How are YOU??". He is extremely charming and we had a wonderful stroll and chat about Nebbiolo grapes, the season, the harvest and the differences between wine production in Canada
versus Italy (of which there are many).

Leaving Albino, I wandered down a trail a bit by myself, then returned to the Cascina for a nap. I found my electric outlet converter that worked in Paris did not fit here in Italy. No fear. My hostess once again was very accommodating and had just the thing for me by way of an outlet adapter.

As it had been a busy 24 hours since arriving, I decided to take the afternoon to write, sketch, and catch up with people back home. It will be an early night tonight, because I want to be sure to get a full day in of hiking in the local hills tomorrow.

So for now I will say "buonasera" and "buona salute".

A Year of Pretty - October 06, 2014

Fall; it's definitely Fall. I am posting this blog in early October from my room in a villa in the north of Italy, just outside Alba. The mornings are cool and foggy, the afternoons crisp and bright. The view is spectacular, the people are warm and inviting.

Warm and inviting is a good way to describe these pearls from Chanel. The colours remind me of autumn leaves; each different and unique.

Enjoy these fall colours, along with diamonds, amethysts and citrines; and I hope your day is crisp and bright wherever you may be.

A Year of Pretty - October 05, 2014

Fall Roses - the last burst of energy put forth by the garden before gearing down for the cold winter months.

Each year, there are usually a hand full of roses that open up in late September or early October; a result of the crisp sunny days in Vancouver in mid September. Each year, without fail....it is the same thing: first week of September is rain, second and third week is nice, last week of September and into October is cloudy with showers.

So that two week period mid September the garden gives one last hurrah!

It seems the same is true here in Italy. The rose bushes around the villa Cascina Barac where I am staying are still in bloom. And while they are not many, they give hint to what is most likely a glorious display during the summer. The patio is surrounded by the bushes, so I can imagine what it must be like dining al frecso by candle light on a warm summer's night in the middle of a vineyard and the perfume of roses.

Fall roses are like a little memory of the warm days gone too soon and a promise of new blooms next year.

Postcards from Paris

Today is a travel day for me. I'm taking the train from Paris to Turin, Italy and from there on to Alba. But I thought I would post a few "postcards" from my visit here to Paris. These photos are all my original content, so I hope you enjoy them.

Paris - Day Five

Today was my last full day in Paris for this trip. And to be honest....I'm a little glad to be moving on.

I started with breakfast on the steps of the Charles Garnier Opera House. Paris has some beautiful buildings, but this is my favourite. It's such a social meeting place as well. More on that later. Back to breakfast. There is a little patisserie en route to the metro station from where I am staying. Every morning there is the most heavenly aroma emulating from the place. They also have yogurt with fresh fruit, and I travel with a spoon in my hand bag. Yes, that's right. I bring my very own spoon. If I'm going to be eating decadent European pastries and custards, I'm going to be doing it with a proper spoon; not a cheap plastic throw-away thing. Call it my good deed for Mother Earth. Anyway, I sat in the sun on the steps, enjoying my fresh pain au chocolate and my wonderful yogurt and watching the morning traffic and people on bicycles and scooters zipping in and out of traffic and was very glad I had no specific place to be.

I headed over to the Jardin des Tuileries to go to the Musée de l'Orangerie. The main attraction in this museum are the Claude Monet Water Lilies murals. These are so beautiful and so grandiose. There are two large rooms, and the murals are displayed four per room. The individual panels measure about eight feet high by ten feet across, and these individual panels are joined either in threes or fours to form the larger murals and displayed on curved walls so that you have a complete surround of these magnificent colours and reflections.

Claude Monet's Les Nympheas - not my photo, photo source - Wikipedia
The museum also houses a grand collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masters including works by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Pierre Auguste-Renoir, Henry Rousseau, Alfred Sisley and Chaum Soutine.

No photography is allowed, but some people either didn't see the multitude of signs or perhaps thought the signs were meant for everyone else except for them. Either way, people were taking pictures.

Here is my thing about taking pictures in museums. If you are visiting a museum and all you do is walk around and take quick snapshots of the most famous works, then you are not really seeing the museum, let alone the art. Stay home. Google online and download pictures from there. They will be better quality and you will save not only your entrance fee into the museum, but your airfare and hotel costs as well.

I can't tell you how many times I've seen people SNEAKING pictures on their iPhones, pretending to be checking their Facebook status (come on, really? Monet's masterpiece is in front of you and you need to check and see what Betty had for breakfast?). It's distracting. I'm there to enjoy the art and understand the expression from the artist. I like to look at the work from across the room, from a couple feet away, then up close so I can see the brush strokes. Then back to across the room. I look at the work straight-on, then slightly off to the side to see if the perspective changes. Essentially, it takes me a good five minutes to completely appreciate a piece if I am really enjoying it. One does not truly enjoy Monet's Les Nymphéas at drive-by-mock-speed, or on a five inch iPhone screen on the plane ride home.

That being said, I have taken a number of pictures of artworks I want to research more when I am home. But only in museums where photos are permitted. And only once I have thoroughly enjoyed the piece in person, both up close and from afar.

And people can be blatantly rude about their right to take pictures in a NO PHOTOGRAPHY zone.

After spending a good three hours in the Musée de l'Orangerie, I headed over to the Musée d'Orsay. This museum is housed in the old Gare d'Orsay (train station), and as such has a wonderful glass ceiling to let in plenty of natural light. The center of the museum hosts all kinds of marble sculptures, while the side rooms are dark and house the painted works. Again, there is no photography allowed.

Renoir's Bal du moulin de la Galette, photo source - Wikipedia
So I'm admiring Renoir's Bal du Moulin de la Galette and all its intricacies when a woman came up and pretty much elbowed her way in front of me to take a picture with her iPad (her iPad!, not even a discreet phone!), and then elbow her way out. As she's turning to leave I quietly said, "You know we aren't allowed to take any pictures, right?" To which she replies,"Who are you, the photo police? Mind your own business!" I guess she has a point, I should mind my own business. But still, pretty ballsy.

And I think people believe that their taking pictures isn't hurting anyone. What they probably don't understand is that in the long run, it does. The paintings are displayed in low, filtered light since exposure to light breaks down the colour pigment in the paint. If everyone were to constantly be pointing their cameras and iPhones at the paintings, over time even those brief exposures will cause the paintings and tapestries to deteriorate. Yes, it will take time, but it is possible that we may not have these great works in the future based on how they are treated today. This is one of the reasons the Mona Lisa is behind thick, anti-glare, light filtering glass. Too many cameras shoved in her face.

Okay, enough of that rant.

After close to six hours in museums, it was time to refuel. Now when travelling, it is hard to always stick to a healthy diet. Often, you need to eat the local delicacies, and today that meant a crepe. A warm, hot-off-the-grill-Nutella-and-banana-crepe. And oh my! This was amazingly good. And huge. And filling. But definitely worth it.

Now I needed to walk off some of that crepe. I ended up walking through Paris side streets with a more-or-less general idea which way I was heading but with no real destination in mind. Which, in the end after about two hours, got me a little turned around. Okay, okay...lost. Along the way though I found a wonderful cathedral that I plan to visit next time in Paris, Église Saint-Augustin de Paris. Now that it was getting dark, it was time to start heading back toward the city center. A quick enquiry and I was heading in the right direction.

Ever have that feeling when you have been walking and walking and all the buildings start to look alike, so then all the streets start to look alike...and it's starting to rain and you're getting cold and tired and just want to sit? That was me today by 8pm. Six hours of museums, rude photo paparazzi, and three hours of solid walking meant the day was starting to wear me down.

Then I caught this amazing smell. Warm, savoury smell. A little restaurant with a man in his forties behind a bar. He came to the door to greet me and brought me in to a table. I ordered shrimp and avocado salad to start, then duck confit for my main course. And of course wine. A nice Bordeaux. Dessert was crème brûlée. Definitely one of the best meals I've had in Paris. I couldn't finish my wine so they let me take it with me with a plastic cup. We looked at my map, and in broken English and my passable French, we were able to determine which metro station I could take. I was on my way again.

I'm supposed to be heading home, right? WRONG! While walking, I suddenly found myself at the Moulin Rouge. Well, why not go in and enjoy a show? The night was young. Tomorrow I could sleep on the train, right? And while I did enjoy the show, I will say that the one at Crazy Horse was better. This one was too....touristy maybe? That is all.

Okay, one last look at the Eiffel Tower all lit up and sparkly and it's time to head home.....

No wait! There was a flash mob dance group on the steps of the Charles Garnier Opera House. My day has come full circle and I am back exactly where I started it with breakfast. Except now I am drinking wine out of a plastic cup and watching 40 people dance to "Blame it on the Boogie" by Jackson 5.

It's been an amazing time in Paris (despite the awful apartment), but tomorrow I will leave and take the train to Italy. So for now I will say, "À bientôt Paris! À la prochaine!"

Pretty Paris Pastries

A few photos of some of the pretty pastry displays that continually tempt me as I'm walking around Paris. It's a good thing I walk between 6 and 8 hours per day while in this city.

These photos are all my original work and are embedded with watermarks. Please enjoy, but refrain from licking your screen.


Paris - Day Four

Day Four in Paris.

Today I had to be up relatively early (for vacation anyhow) I had an important visit to a VERY big name fashion house today. Can't say who, can't name any names. Couldn't take any pictures. But let's just say it gave me A NEW LOOK to fashion. And you're pretty smart cookies to figure this out anyhow.

Avenue Montaigne is such an unassuming street. There are no big flashy signs to advertise what's going on inside all the orderly apartment blocks. To discover this, you need to look up. Because it is here, in these pretty but relatively unmarked buildings that the haute couture of haute couture is being assembled. All the big French fashion houses are here, but you pretty much need to look to find them. Sure, there is also a store on the street level, but it is often not directly under the design studios. Case in point is House of Dior. The beautiful showroom store is located about 10 doors up the street from the actual Dior Accademy. And the doors to the Accademy are very plain, no signage, no big fan fair. And then to make matters a bit more confusing, the signs that are visible are for the showroom for Louis Vuitton. It's when you look up that you see where the magic happens.

You can just make out the little Dior banners on each of the windows, and the bigger, more prominent Louis Vuitton in the main floor windows.

If you are even remotely interested in seeing what goes on inside a top fashion house, well I'm sorry to say that I can't provide you with any pictures from my visit. Everything is ultra-uber secure. Lots of men in dark suits and earpieces and talking into their cuff links. But there is an amazing video for the costruction from beginning to end of Dior's iconic red coat dress from Spring/Summer 2011, part of John Galliano's last collection with Dior.

I can't tell you how many times I have watched this video. The process, the cutting, the hand stitching, the pressing, the trimming, the beading....the amount of hours going into producing one single garment. And keep in mind, there are usually 30 to 40 looks in any given haute couture show.

It was indeed an eye-opener and a full day of learning. Thoroughly impressed and completely re-thinking (well, almost) how I want to design from the inside out, it was time to move on. This of course meant more walking around.

From Avenue Montaigne I kind of did a big loop. I walked down the Avenue des Champs Élysées towards the Jardin des Tuileries, then through the gardens and around the fountains to the Place de Carrousel and sat and watched a man with six frisbees and a dozen dogs. This was actually quite entertaining. Dogs of all sizes vying for six frisbees which were constantly being thrown and retrieved. Turns out people pay him to exercise their dogs. Kinda like boot camp for dogs. Dogs get dropped off in the morning, they spend the day doing whatever dogs do at a doggie daycare, and then towards late afternoon, this guy takes them all to the park where they chase frisbees until their owners come to collect them.

After the dogs, I walked over to Pont des Arts. This is the famed bridge where lovers go and proclaim their ever lasting love by attaching a padlock to the bridge. There are actually two bridges in Paris with locks on them, so you have to be careful which bridge you attach your lock.

Pont des Arts is for committed love, while Pont de l'Archevêché is for your lover. Don't get the two mixed up ! Sad news is that Paris will soon remove the locks from Pont des Arts and replace the railings with glazed panels. The weight of all the padlocks has been deemed unsafe for the structure of the bridge.

From there I walked along the Siene to a place called Flow. It is essentially a concrete beach. Beach chairs are set up along the Siene, and you go up to the counter and order your wine or champagne or beer or whatever, along with some pâté, bread and olives and then take it back to your little "beach spot" and have a little feast. It actually made a lot of sense, looked pretty cool and was very popular. I had seen this place just in passing the past couple days, and it is busy from about 3pm regardless which day of the week. Across from Flow is a barge / boat that has been converted into a happy hour hang out. Rosa Bonheur sur Siene, which I guess COULD be translated to Pink Happy Hour on the Siene; and that would make sense. However, Rosa Bonheur was the first well-known female animal-painter (or animalière), realist artist and sculpture of the 19th century.

What was interesting to note was that there wasn't a huge display of cell phones or other distractions. People were there to converse with each other. I saw a group of five or six young dads; all with baby strollers, and a collection of Heinekens on the bench between them. And this seemed somehow normal. Wife says "take Junior for a walk"; husband calls up buddies and says, "Lets meet down by the river". There is no meeting up in sports bars over loud music.

I continued my walking over to Pont Alexandre III, then through narrow side streets where I found a little French bakery (boulangerie). Bought a couple pastries, then walked over to the Eiffel Tower to watch the sun set. I wasn't planning on going up the tower; for €30 it just doesn't seem worth it. Not to mention that the line-up to go up the tower was exceedingly long. Always is. Estimated wait time today was three hours. No thank-you. Instead, I took my pastries over to a little space of lawn across the bridge and enjoyed a nice view and sun set.

Dinner was at Chez Francis. Here's the one thing I don't like about travelling on my own, and I have found to be especially true in Paris. Servers in Europe do not like solo diners. They somehow believe that a single diner is going to be cheap. But from what I understand, servers in Europe are paid a decent hourly wage from the gratuities already included in the bill. And here's the funny thing about me when I eat out: I ain't cheap. I usually have three courses and at least one glass of wine; sometimes a bottle which I take the remainder with me. I average between €75 and €100 if I am having a proper sit-down meal. So while the food was mediocre (steak lacked flavour, not enough bernaise), the service really killed the experience. I was brought water I didn't want and then charged €7 for it. Bread and the first course where put on the table without any comment from the waiter. My main course was put down in front of me with no cutlery. My wine was delivered with the waiter holding the top rim of the glass instead of the stem. The dessert was missing components. Essentially, I was made to feel like I was bothering the waiter by being there, that serving me was a hassle. This feeling was compounded by the table next to me who I gathered were regulars. They were fawned over. They were bought complimentary this and complimentary that; there were long discussions with the wait staff and the manager about this and that (remember, I speak both English and French, so I understood what was going on). It became rather awkward.

When my bill arrived, I was asked if everything was okay. I said no it wasn't and explained why (the water I didn't ask for, the dessert being incomplete). The waiter then says "So everything is good?". No, I just told you it wasn't. "But it's okay, oui?". Sigh, shake my head and leave. French service my buttocks!

The restaurant does have a great view of the Eiffel Tower, and is close to another Paris landmark - The Crazy Horse. What a great show. The show was more about lighting and shadows and optical illusions. You think you're seeing one thing but it's the reflection of something else. It was really, really well done. Sure, there was nudity, but it wasn't so in-your-face like a lot of North American cabaret shows tend to be. The cabaret has been open since 1961, and has hosted famous performers such as Dita Von Teese, Arielle Dombasle and Pamela Anderson.

After the champagne show, I walked back up to the Arc de Triomphe. This time my pictures turned out okay. After watching the twelve lanes of traffic miraculously merge in and out around the monument, it was time to head home. Big long day, and another one on the way tomorrow.

Apartment in Paris and the Unwelcome Guests

Here are some pictures of the place I am staying in while in Paris. Lots of rustic charm and away from the busy city centre. Peaceful, comfortable, inviting....seems like a great place to spend a few days.

rustic kitchen....lots of wood cabinets
living room and stair leading up to the loft
living room with lots and lots of books .....in French
Unfortunately, this is where the charm ends. I woke up the first morning with one arm covered in mosquito bites. The arm that was sticking out from the covers. Six bites. I also have three on my neck and two on my left foot. Between the toes no less (those freaky-fetish mosquitoes!). So on the first night, a total of 11 bites. I even sprayed the bug spray that the host left in the apartment before I left for the evening and again when I came back, but it didn't seem to do any good.

And did I mention what time I woke up? 7:00am. Why? Because there is construction work being done on three sides of this apartment. Drilling concrete and pile-driving begins at 7:00am. No mention of this by the owner or website when I booked (then again, no mention about the mosquitoes when I booked either).

The second day I woke up with more bites on my neck and throat. Today is day three and I finally had to go to a pharmacy and get some antihistamine tablets because the bites are swelling up into raised welts about an inch in diameter. It's pretty awful. People are looking at me funny on the street, like I have Ebola or something. I'm also concerned because the welts on my neck are over top of my airway, and honestly...I like being able to breathe freely.

In total, I now have 17 bites and I have two more nights here. I have taken to completely spraying my arms, legs and neck before I go to sleep. I'm having trouble falling asleep because of a) the itching; and b) the thought that these little suckers are out to get me. Each time I start to drift off, my sub conscious thinks I'm getting another bite and I wake up swatting at my arms and and neck.

Then in the mornings, I need to shower because of the sticky spray. Oh wait, can't shower because the hot water tank is manual. After reading the French instructions a couple times and through trial and error, I finally figured out that I have to re-start the hot water tank in the kitchen cabinet, then wait 20 minutes for the water to heat. It is only a four gallon tank (think four plastic milk jugs), so each morning I need to make a choice: I can either wash my face and body in cold water while the water in the tank is heating, then wash my hair with the warm water (I have hair to almost my waist, so it takes a bit of water to wash), or I can heat the water, wash my face and body, then heat more water and wash my hair. Which means it takes at least an hour to do both. I guess I could boil pots of water on the stove, but I shouldn't have to be messing with this. The shower set up is a bit wonky too. The shower head is on a hose that you hold; there isn't a hook or a place to hang it up (that I can find). Which means you either have to do everything one-handed, or just scrap that idea and opt for a sponge bath out of the sink. So far, I wash my face and body quickly in the ice cold water and throw my hair up into a pony tail. I'm on vacation.

The water problem I can deal with, though this really shouldn't even be an issue. If I am paying any kind of money to rent a place, I should be comfortable, right? I mean, I'm not asking too much, am I?

Time to get out and forget about this place for a couple hours. Or look for another place to stay.