Real Travel for Real People
In Florence they call it the “Rinascimento.” We know it as the “Renaissance”, a new beginning, a fresh start, a new chapter in life and in nature. The trees are in bloom; the countryside turns from sound asleep to wide awake. And what better place to see God’s glory than in the Napa Valley where last year’s grapes were picked, the vines pruned and neatly tucked away for a long winter’s rest. But now they are reawakened and coerced into producing yet another award-winning crop where the cycle will repeat itself. From grapes crushed into juice, to fermentation, to the miracle of wine as it silently matures in oak barrels. Soon the vintners will stand proudly, as awards and accolades are bestowed to those fortunate enough to make the pages of the wine magazines, or enjoy private wine tastings in the company of close friends.
We may not be so fortunate as to have the world famous artists, philosophers, poets and architects from Tuscany where the Renaissance began, but we do have the beauty of fog-covered farm land hovering near the majestic Pacific Ocean, growing delicious artichokes served piping hot or brazed over an open fire with freshly-caught salmon.”
In the Salinas Valley the orchards are showing new buds that will soon become delicious figs, almonds, lemons, limes and oranges. The strawberries will regain new sweetness, and the lettuce picked, cleaned and bagged to be shipped around the world. My back aches as I watch the workers in the fields bent over their crops for our enjoyment.
We may not be so fortunate as to have the world famous artists, philosophers, poets and architects from Tuscany where the Renaissance began, but we do have the beauty of fog-covered farm land hovering near the majestic Pacific Ocean, growing delicious artichokes served piping hot or brazed over an open fire with freshly-caught salmon.
As humans, we too reproduce, and as the sun starts to shine brightly once again there also seems to be a new crop of infants. Is it our imagination, or as the saying goes “it must have been a cold winter.” Stroller’s line the sidewalks, while panicked dads escort their older children wearing safety helmets while resting precariously on training wheels as they weave around terrified adults.
We backyard farmers are deep into tilling, fertilizing and planting as the pages of local nurseries advertise the latest crop of heirloom tomatoes, herbs and garden tools. During the Second World War we used to call them “Victory Gardens.” Now we boast of the fact that our produce is organic, and with our own compost for good measure. No need to go to the Farmer’s Markets on the weekend, we have our own crop to share with friends and family.
And what better place to enjoy the beauty of nature than with friends and family? The old Italians proudly served their homemade wine at every meal, followed by a shot or two of Grappa made from the left-over pomace of the crushed grape. I’ll never forget the meals that my mother cooked for us. No need to call ahead, in just a matter of minutes a feast would appear that always impressed my buddies and eventually the girlfriends.
But before moving on to the dog days of summer, let’s all take a moment to enjoy what nature has so generously provided for all of us. We are all so fortunate to live in such an amazing area that we sometime forget those less fortunate. Enjoy the day and enjoy the season, as my Italian friends say in North Beach, “Buona Primavera.”
My Two Best Friends, Leonardo and Napoleon
If cigarettes, cell phones, rich food, good wine, buttery croissants and animated conversation are bad for you, then Paris should be a ghost town. To the contrary, what we saw were trim, well-dressed young women wearing designer jeans, boots and colorful scarfs masterfully draped around their necks. Men wear them like we wear a necktie, loose and casual.
When sitting at a sidewalk cafe they become part of the scene and when not sitting at a cafe they are determined in their walk and demeanor. I don’t know where they hide the old people but they are few and far between. No need to go to a gym and workout, every moment is a workout. Handicap facilities don’t exist, with hundreds of stairs to and from the Metro. Most toilets are either up a steep, narrow, winding stairway or in the basement. And if you’re a linebacker for the 49ers you’d better go before you leave home because the Toilettes are very narrow.
Bright and early Monday morning we were picked up for a two-day tour of the Loire Valley as we watched the incredible traffic coming into town drenched in the early morning rain. Our first stop was at Chartres, about 50 miles south west of Paris, where we visited the Cathedral Notre Dame de Chartres. The beautifully preserved stained glass windows date back almost 800 years, while the church attracts large numbers of Christian pilgrims, many of whom come to venerate its famous relic, the Sancta Camisa, said to be the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary at Christ’s birth.
After a two hour ride through the French countryside we arrived in Tours, had a crepe lunch and headed for Amboise to visit the Chateau d’Amboise, the massive castle turned chateau whose relatively small chapel, built away from the main building, is the burial site for Leonardo da Vinci, who lived and worked at the Chateau for three years before his death in 1519. On arriving he brought three paintings with him, and yes, one was the Mona Lisa. The chapel is minuscule compared to Napoleon’s burial site at the Chapel of Saint-Louis des Invalides on the grounds of the old, massive military hospital known as Les Invalides. The chapel is almost as large as San Francisco’s City Hall, and does house Napoleon’s two brothers and his son as well. One would think that a giant of a man like Leonardo would deserve better, but this is one case where size didn’t matter
Next stop, Chateau du Clos Luce, Leonardo’s home, again modest by most standards. On our way out we visited five rooms full of wooden models of most of his incredible inventions. Parachutes, armored tanks, spring-powered carts and water pumps just to name a few. We learned that the models were produced by IBM using materials of that period.
Our overnight stay was at Le Choiseul, a beautifully appointed, fairly small hotel facing the Loire River and in the shadow of the Chateau d’ Amboise. Somehow spending the night that close to this genius of a man gave me a strange feeling and his presence could strangely be felt. Dinner was also at the hotel in the beautifully-appointed Le 36, where the pate and lobster was as good as our earlier experience was memorable.
The following morning we had three chateaus on the agenda, the first being Chateau de Chenonceau. Once privately owned and built in the 16th century, this huge complex with its moats surrounding it was by far the most memorable of the day. The Gallery, a grand room measuring over 180 feet in length, was being set up for a private party that evening. No, we were not offered an invitation!
Our next stop was at the chateau of Blois, huge but somewhat industrial looking with its four distinct wings around a single courtyard. More stairs, more ramps, more opulence and more rain. By the time we reached Chambord our curiosity was wearing thin, and with the pouring rain we decided on just a quick tour of the outside of the building and gardens. Enough stairs already!
Having spent two days cooped up in a car we were dropped off at our hotel and decided to walk to Notre Dame for some fresh air, where the evening mass was just starting. We sat and enjoyed the beautiful choir and listened intently to the prayers and sermon, unfortunately all in French. We lit a huge candle and headed back.
Our last day in Paris was spent not at a romantic café or on a stroll along the Seine, hand in hand, but rather, on a visit of the sewers of Paris. Not quite Monet’s garden, but actually it was very interesting winding our way deep under the streets of Paris looking at a real working sewer system. Our reward for the day was exiting out the door that gave us a magnificent view of the Eifel Tower, just a few blocks away. Although we had already visited the tower a few days earlier, this time we got up close and personal, standing completely under the huge tower looking at the very top through a light drizzle. Our last two Metro tickets (we had bought a set of 10) were put to good use as we found our way back to our hotel, organized our suitcases and headed out for a late afternoon walk.
As memorable as this trip has been, there is always one moment that somehow stands out. On the way back I passed an older, bearded man sitting on the sidewalk with his cup next to him. Wanting to get rid of what loose change I had in my pocket I reached down, pulled out some coins and placed them in his dish. In his perfect English he looked up, thanked me and gave me a slight tip of his hat. As I started to walk away I heard some loud, almost raucous laughter; he had noticed how little I had left in his plate and it cracked him up.
What a wonderful way to end ten marvelous days in Paris. Last time it took us 27 years to return. Now that we’re back home it’s time to plan the next visit.
Bread and Beaujolais
What a shame, what a crying shame! Under threatening skies, the early morning walk to the Musee d’Orsay took less than 30 minutes. With a postcard-sized map from the front desk, we headed down the local streets rather than going to the boulevard along the Seine for a more direct route. Karen is the best navigator in the world, but she still hasn’t gotten her bearings, and so just like an eagle scout I led her to the front door of the museum without a hitch. Our two day museum pass allowed us to go through the member’s entrance and bypass the usually endless lines, and although security was tight we entered without a hitch. After checking our coats we briefly stopped by the information booth and made our way into the main building. The first thing I saw was placards proclaiming in no uncertain words, NO CAMERAS. Usually it might say “no flash” but they were very serious about not having any pictures taken. If ever there was a building that cried out to be photographed, this one was it.
The d’Orsay was previously a train station that was scheduled to be demolished until it was converted into one of the most modern, beautiful buildings in all of Paris. The building is a piece of art all in itself and competes with the endless displays of world famous paintings and sculptures. From the 5th floor observation deck the entire building is on display, and I must confess that I did sneak a quick photo with my I-phone. The top floor displays some of the world’s most famous impressionist paintings, and for 5 Euros our ears were treated to colorful commentary on each painting and its artist. Our lunch at the Café Campana gave us a taste of the Croc Monsieur at its finest — it was not just a ham and cheese sandwich, it was extra special under the huge clock whose hands no longer move, but the setting was spectacular none the less.
Paris Opera House
Paris Opera House
The overcast turned into showers, and our next stop was a visit to Sainte Chapelle. With our umbrellas neatly tucked away at the hotel, we were considering a taxi when my keen eyes spotted a couple of young men eagerly awaiting unsuspecting tourists to sell them a ride on their bicycle taxis. After a brief negotiation we jumped in, and not a minute too soon; it was raining. The two-story church is famous for its stained glass windows, and although the sun was not shining, we saw some of the most beautiful stained glass ever. The two-page card described each section of glass in the huge main window, and one could only imagine the amount of time and talent that went into each one. The walk back was drizzly but not impossible.
The following day we were picked up in the early afternoon for a ride to Monet’s luscious gardens in Giverny to see his world famous Japanese bridge and water lily pond, the subject of so many of his famous paintings now worth millions of dollars each. Sim, our driver, was a professional photographer at one time, and we put him to work as he took endless photos of the two of us on the bridge, around the lily ponds, and in the main garden. The ride back was not bad until we hit the center of town, and then we saw what some of the 30 million yearly visitors look like.
On Friday morning we put on our brave faces and decided to check out the Metro system. After a few hiccups we found our way to the Opera House and saw what Napoleon was really all about. Forget about the operas, this place is truly amazing all by itself. The marble stairs, railings and balconies are truly stunning. One can only imagine the beauty of opening night.
Across the street is one of the largest department stores in Paris called Galleries Lafayette, whose stained-glass dome and galleries is worthy of museum status. The top floor hosts a series of restaurants, and the self-service was more like Macy’s, but a look at the beauty of the building itself soon dispelled that notion. A ride back on the Metro begged the question, “how come we don’t have the same system in the Bay Area?”
Saturday we attended a croissant cooking class, and after four hours of mixing and kneading we decided that it’s much easier to go to the local boulangerie and plunk down a couple of Euros than slave in the kitchen all day long.
The following day we met Jayne Louise, a beautiful young woman who is the daughter of a dear friend of ours, lives in Paris, and has been keeping an eye on us for the last couple of days. Monte Marte was our destination for the day, and after meeting her in front of the Moulin Rouge, we jumped into a waiting elephant train for the 45-minute ride around the district.
A stop at the top gave us a glimpse of the thousands that were out for a Sunday stroll, and the crowds in the Basilica of Sacre Coeur were just as bad.
Beautiful surroundings, but the crowds were horrendous. After a casual lunch at a sidewalk café, of which there are hundreds, we made our way back to the Metro stop, said our goodbyes to Jayne Louise, headed down to one of the deepest tube stops and headed back to our hotel. After a late lunch and a gelato stop along the way, we decided that what could be more fun than to stop by the deli and pick up a fresh baguette, some pate, cheese and of course a nice bottle of wine and have a picnic in our room.
The next morning, we were picked up at 7:30 am for an overnight stay in the Loire Valley, with a few stops at a couple of chateaus along the way. We’ve seen and done a lot in the last week, and with the last few days left we want to enjoy it all. We’ll miss the crowds and the traffic, but a couple of days in the country sound great right now. I wonder if the ice cream is just as good outside of Paris?
More Real Travel for Real People (2009-2012)
Fifty shades of Red, White and Blue
Somehow “27 years” sounds better than “over a quarter of a century ago” but in fact, that’s the last time Karen and I visited Paris.
My birthdays always seem to be an occasion to celebrate and my 50th was no exception, except this one happened to be in Lucca where I was born all those many years ago, and what better place to party than in a restaurant appropriately named Ristorante Sergio. My aunt, a nun living in Rome, joined us along with my father and a gathering of 50 or so of the relatives still living in the area. And if one party was not enough, we managed to squeeze in another one at my cousin’s restaurant in Forte dei Marmi, a seaside resort, the following day.
After lunch, with Karen Brown’s book in hand, Karen and I headed off along the Italian Riviera, stopping off at Santa Margherita Ligure, Rapallo and Portofino. At the time we were members of St. Francis Yacht Club and we had reciprocal rights to all the yacht clubs along the way, and we took full advantage, visiting them all. Yacht Club de Monaco was the highlight of our trip, as they served us with the greatest of pleasure but could hardly wait for us to leave……we were the only two that showed up for dinner that night!
Once we crossed into France, we figured that a little Italian would carry us for a day or two but no such luck. We were in France! In the next five days we hit all the major areas, visiting the Pope’s residence in Avignon, stopping off in Chateauneuf du Pape, Beaune, a chance overnight stay at the Hotel Moulin de Mougins, where as guests of the 6-room hotel we were given dinner reservations, bypassing the usual 2-month wait to enjoy Roger Verge’s five star cooking, and finally arriving in Paris on Sunday morning. We had made it safely, and managed to miss the traffic before the midday madness. I whispered a quiet thank you to our faithful Peugeot as I turned over the keys to the hotel clerk, and told him it was his from now on.
So now this trip, here we are on a shiny new Air France 747, its proud red white and blue tail directing us to the city that we so enjoyed all those years ago. With dinner we were treated to a gorgeous sunset on one side of the plane, and on the other side the brightest, roundest, most beautiful full moon ever. We didn’t need to look up; the moon was looking directly at us. I don’t remember if we had a full moon last time in Paris but this one will not be soon forgotten.
As flights go, this one was OK. The food was airline good, the wine better than taking a sleeping pill, and the biggest treat for us was looking out our window as we took off over San Francisco, skirting the coastline as we admired the neatly arranged streets of the Sunset district, Golden Gate Park, the high-rise towers of the financial district and a postcard view of the Golden Gate Bridge that even got a comment from the captain, and to top it all off, a flyby over a pristine Lake Tahoe.
Arriving early, we got the usual, “we need to wait for our gate to clear.” Those few moments of peace were shattered by the simultaneous arrival of a bunch of planes, whose passengers had to go down the long winding corridors, grab a people mover, wait endlessly to get through passport control and work their way out the door. The mid-afternoon traffic was gridlocked as our driver kept looking at his I-Phone, reassuring us that the stoppage was just a few miles ahead and it would be much better momentarily.
Our hotel, the Relais Christine, is located on the left bank, is in a great location and very accessible, and for the jet-lagged couple our first dinner was immediately across the street in a very modern and popular restaurant called La Rotisserie den Face, where the sliver-thin home- cured salmon was, as they say, “to die for.” The following morning Francois took us on a four hour private tour of the highlights of Paris, where “traffic” was given a new meaning, and again we covered all the highlights including Napoleon’s tomb (a must see), The Arc De Triomphe, which was huge standing just a few away, the beauty of the Champs Elysees, a photo op in front of the Eiffel tower, a drive through Montmartre, and finally a quick stop at Notre Dame. Another long day for tired feet and tomorrow we plan on doing a museum or two. Fortunately Chez Fernand, also a stone’s throw from our hotel, had some of the tastiest fish with a fennel sauce and the bottle of vin ordinaire was a perfect match. So now it’s off to bed but not before looking out our window for that fabulous full moon. Is it still hovering over the Atlantic or did it follow us here? I’ll check it out…….