Destination Champagne

When we arrived to live in France a visit to Champagne was near the top of our must-do list.  I wanted to see the home of French Champagne; the land, the towns and villages, the famous Champagne houses and walk along the Avenue de Champagne, dubbed “the world’s most drinkable address” by Winston Churchill.  As it turned out, we stayed two nights at Magna Quies, a family run Bed and Breakfast at number 49 Avenue de Champagne, Epernay.  We were not disappointed; every aspect of our stay was as good as its perfect location.

Along with the other guests on Saturday evening we enjoyed a convivial apero time sampling champagnes made by the family of our most charming host Francois.  They undertake every step in the process themselves from growing the grapes on their land just to the south of Epernay to harvesting the grapes and making the wine to offer their guests for tasting and sale.

A short stroll along Avenue de Champagne towards the town centre took us past names from the list of who’s who in the world of Champagne; Perrier  Jouet, Pol Roger, Moet et Chandon just a few of them.  There are tours to be had, samples to be sipped and souvenirs to be purchased if you wish.  We rationed our time to two tours, one at de Castellane in Epernay and the other at Pommery in Reims; both were thoroughly enjoyable, informative and of course involved tasting some of the effervescent stuff.

Having escaped Paris the easiest way on the fast train to Reims, we hired a car from there to make our way to Epernay and allow us the pleasure of exploring the countryside at our leisure over the long Easter weekend.  Epernay proved to be a good choice; we ate delicious food with extremely pleasant service at both La Grillade Gourmande and La Banque.

In the countryside it was too early in the season for there to be any green on the vines; their bare branches stretched out like tentative beachgoers exposing undressed limbs to the first rays of really warm sunshine.  Even if the vines were bare the countryside was still beautiful with perceptible green buds emerging here and there, and golden forsythia heralding the end of winter hibernation.  We followed the well signposted Champagne tourist route tootling through tranquil villages stacked with small champagne producers that are the only interruption to hectare upon hectare of grape vines covering the rolling hillsides between Reims and Epernay and along the Marne Valley.  At Hautvillers the cluster of village buildings that includes the Abbey where the cellar master Brother Pierre Perignon – Dom Perignon – perfected his technique for making sparkling wine was picture-postcard perfect.  From a lookout point just beyond the village the river Marne sparkled below in the sunshine and the lateral flow of the Marne Canal followed its straight and narrow path.

Abbey at Hautvillers

Abbey at Hautvillers

It seemed an incongruous mix that this area, famed for its alcoholic beverage that is the ultimate symbol of celebration, fun and fizz, was so close to the setting for one of the most important battles of the first World War; the Battle of the Marne between 5 and 12 September 1914.  We learned on our tasting tours that the production of Champagne continued, albeit with difficulty, during the war years.  Any celebration deserved Champagne, and there was nothing better to boost morale than bubbles.

The Battle of the Marne memorial at Dormans was well worth the stop on our Champagne route itinerary.

Reims is the main city in the region, even though it’s not the administrative capital of Champagne.  The trickiest thing about Reims is to pronounce the name! Say “Rance” with your best nasal twang and you’ve got it.  Reims Cathedral is where the kings of France were crowned.  It was damaged by fire in 1210 and rebuilt, severely damaged again during WW1 and repaired once more.  The restoration of the spectacular cathedral is an ongoing project, as is the evolution of the equally spelndid interior.  For its 800th anniversary modern stained glass windows by German artist, Monsieur Knoebel, were installed in the apse.

Here’s to Champagne, it’s something special: cheers.

Tasting at la Maison Pommery

Tasting at la Maison Pommery

Fresh air – it blows out the cobwebs and is good for the soul

I get to wear my own hand knits in the snow

I get to wear my own hand knits in the snow

I’ve been away.  Two weeks out of the city and into the fresh air of the Alpes for a week of energetic skiing at Chamonix, a couple of days exploring Geneva before venturing further north for brisk walks beside the Alster lake in Hamburg.

I love the buzz of city living, but escaping to the outdoors is such a refreshing and invigorating change!  Even though it was later in the season than our previous visits, there was still plenty of snow on the vast ski fields surrounding Chamonix.  First day up on the mountain the early clouds prised themselves off the mountain tops and there in all its snow covered glory Mont Blanc sparkled in the early spring sunshine, and stayed that way for the next few days.  On our last day light cloud returned but through it (and our goggles) we enjoyed a great view of the partial solar eclipse as we rode the chairlift – a fantastic sight.

I’ve confessed before that I’m not a proficient skier, nor have I been an avid fan; it has always seemed to be a lot of clobber and discomfort to slither down a slope with little, if any, control and a bit more than a healthy dose of fear.  But this time was different.  For a start the boots seemed to fit better, the ski bindings weren’t such dang-fangled things to get in and out of, I felt more familiar, even a little bit confident. Starting out where I left off last year everything fell into place so that I conquered the slopes designated red for difficult on the Balme field.  (Maybe conquered is a slight exaggeration – there were a few spills.)  It was exhilarating and remarkably picturesque skiing in the sunshine along ski lanes winding down a forested valley.  Oh the serenity!, and I was tickled pink to have added a few new skills to my (old dog’s) repertoire of tricks.

Parapenters soar and swirl above Chamonix town

Parapenters soar and swirl above Chamonix town

We farewelled Chamonix and made the short train, train, and bus trips to Geneva.  After a week of energetic skiing in the mountains any remaining cobwebs were swept away with lashings of freshly chilled lakeside air as we walked along the promenade for a glimpse at some of the international organisations located there: World Trade (WTO), European HQ for the UN, International Red Cross, and the World Meterological Org (WMO) amongst them.

WTO building, Geneva

WTO building, Geneva

The famous fountain spouts a tall plume in the lake

The famous fountain spouts a tall plume in the lake right beside the city centre

Leaving my DB in Geneva for his meetings at WTO, I headed off to Hamburg for some quality mother-daughter time with my Kiwi-hamburger.

There was no let up in Project Invigoration!  She had me up at 6am and out walking around the Alster lake en route to Boot Camp.  To be clear, she ran as her warm up and did the group boot camp with trainer Ollie from Original Bootcamp – which did seem to be quite fun despite the occasional groans and grunts coming from the participants – while I followed at a brisk walk.  Inspired by the early but definite signs of spring we weren’t the only ones out and about.  On the weekend the track around the Alster is a highway for runners, the grassy verges are alive with dogs chasing balls and sticks, while the lake ripples with yachts racing along, every now and then their sails ruffling noisily and then snapping taut again as they tack back and forth into the bracing wind.

After two weeks of fresh air and lashings of outdoor exercise I’ve been well and truly invigorated and inspired by the beauty of nature.

Lille and Roubaix: science and innovation, art and industry.

rue de La Monnaie, Lille

rue de La Monnaie, Lille

I’ve been through Lille many times.  From my seat on the trains whooshing in and out of the station en route between London and Bruxelles or Paris I had gazed disdainfully at the grimy, graffiti covered buildings near the station and decided I was glad to be passing through.

I’ve had a change of heart.

Lille, and Roubaix a little further out to the north east, were once wealthy cities thanks to the textile manufacturing that boomed in the wake of the industrial revolution, but with so many other beautiful towns and villages neither are likely to hold the top spots on a list of France’s must visit places.  But when Lille was my destination she turned out to be beautiful and interesting – rather more so than I had imagined, and Roubaix has a genuine treasure in La Piscine; the Museum of Art and Industry.

The Old City of Lille centred around the Grande Place, now called Place du General de Gaulle, tells the story of its history through the beautiful old buildings surrounding the square; the ups and downs of its fortune, who was in charge and who was fighting whom are reflected in architectural styles and monuments. From the outside facing onto the square the elaborate Flemish renaissance styled Old Bourse (the Stock Exchange) attracted me; a glimpse into the interior courtyard had me curious enough to venture through the arched doorway to check out the antique book sellers setting up their stalls under the vaulted balconies. 

The Old Bourse, 1652-3

The Old Bourse, 1652-3

My inner science geek sparked up when I spotted the wall plaques honouring French scientists, mathematicians, engineers and inventors whose work contributed to the health and economic well being of the region; in fact to people everywhere.  Amongst the notable names I found Louis Pasteur’s, for his work on fermentation, Ampere mathematician and physicist for his work on electromagnetism, Claude Louis Berthollet for his work on the bleaching property of chlorine and its application in whitening cloth and Philippe de Girard, engineer and inventor of many things including a machine to spin linen; all important in the textile manufacturing industries around Lille.  No women’s names that I could see but times have changed since the plaques were put up in 1854 – at the same time the University of Science and Technology at Lille was established.

Gallery honouring the Agents of Change

Gallery honouring the Agents of Change

Following the Old Lille route in the City Walks guide book led us to more gems like rue de la Monnaie, location of the mint built in 1685, and 18th century weaver’s cottages in rue Peterinck.  The picture of old Lille as a thriving city with knowledge and a practical inventive spirit to fuel the textile industry is apparent as you walk the streets.

The main purpose of our trip north was to visit La Piscine, the Museum of Art and Industry at Roubaix to see the Wool War One exhibition.  A 10-minute ride on the Greater Lille metro system Line 2 from Lille’s main train station then a short walk from the Roubaix Grand Place metro stop, its easy peasy to find.  As we meandered through the entrance hall the wall-sized grainy black and white photographs of chaps in their 1930’s styled bathers elicited a smile and a thankful thought that fashions have changed.  Then, the wow factor: the pool room.  The huge sun like stained glass window at the far end beams a golden glow over the sculptures that line the poolside.  It’s no longer an actual swimming pool, but back in 1932 this art-deco styled public bathing facility was described as “the finest swimming pool in France”.  The conversion into an art museum was completed in 2001 to house the collection of the Roubaix National Museum, and it is a sight to behold.  The former changing cubicles are beautifully restored, the light coloured tiles polished clean and the spaces used as novel display cases for different collections including superb Sevres vases and ceramic works.

Interior, La Piscine - Museum of Science and Industry, Roubaix

Interior, La Piscine – Museum of Science and Industry, Roubaix

I oohed and ahhed at the textile samples on display; these were just a small offering of the rows and rows of hefty sample books from bygone eras in fashion that are held in the fabric library.  (The library is open for research by appointment and there is an on-line catalogue too.)

Samples from the Textile Library

Winter 1920 Ribbon Samples  from the Textile Library

Painting (~1910) by Theodore Gueldry: Wool sorting scene

Painting (~1910) by Theodore Gueldry: Wool sorting scene

Lille and Roubaix might not be tourist hot spots, but they’ve certainly gone up in my estimation; science and history, wool and textiles, art and industry, a feast of interesting topics, and the beer was good too, (application of the science of fermentation of course!).  As the saying goes you can’t judge a book by its cover and seems you can’t judge a city by its railway station. More photographs of our visit here.

Wool War One on parade – L’ Adieu aux Armes

On parade

On parade at  La Piscine, Museum of Art and Industry, Roubaix

As military parades go this one is rather small in stature and quiet; so quiet you can almost hear a stitch drop.  No guns, no drums, no machines of war, this is a peaceful parade of 700 hand-knitted soldiers from every corner of the earth.

These soldiers, resplendent in authentic uniform detail, are the work of 500 knitters from 5 continents who responded to the call for help from Madame Delit Maille (Anna), knitting artist in chief of the Wool War One installation at La Piscine, Museum of Art and Industry at Roubaix in northern France.

Back in May 2014, my NZ friend Barbara and I were two of those 500 knitters; we knitted miniature uniforms to help dress the British and Commonwealth soldier dolls.  Through the summer and autumn knitters mobilised to join Delit Maille’s working bees around France and the knitted army came together ready for exhibition in December 2014.

The result is spectacular in its simple symbolism.  Seven hundred soldiers in distinctive uniform; French cornflower-blue jackets, red pompomed Belgians, caped Spahis and helmeted Germans all stand out.  Each figure seems to have his own personality.  Some peep from behind the man in front, others are stooped – weary looking – row upon row of fragile little figures representing all nations despatched to the Great War stand together in this parade.

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to contribute my knitting to this project.  The exhibition, L’Adieu aux Armes, is a fitting memorial – well done Delit Maille, a clever and meaningful interpretation, thoroughly enjoyable to visit and to have participated in.

The Wool War One exhibition runs until 12th April 2015.  Eleven different artists whose exhibitions have been commissioned to commemorate the centenary of World War I run one after the other from September 2014 through to May 2018 at the museum in Roubaix.  The museum has a wonderful permanent collection of art and industrial archives – particularly relating to the textile industry from the region.  More about the wonderful art and industry museum at Roubaix coming up soon.

Luxury at the Louvre

Louis XIV

Portrait of Louis XIV

Time is my luxury; time to visit the Louvre Museum again and again.  I can make the most of the free entry on the first Sunday of the winter months between October and March to peruse in detail particular collections that take my interest.  Luxury is my interest this time.

The newly re-commissioned space in the Sully wing dedicated to the decorative arts of the 18th century opened in June last year (2014) and is, in a word, sumptuous.  The collection represents an era when the skills for design, creation and craftsmanship of beautiful decorative pieces flourished in Paris with encouragement from royalty and the privileged wealthy.  The exhibition is divided into three time periods:

1660 to 1725 during the reign of Louis XIV

1725 to 1755 the Rococo style, and

1755 to 1790 the reign of Louis XVI, husband of Marie-Antoinette

I especially liked the exhibition style; a mix of expertly selected examples of arts and crafts objects interspersed with faithfully recreated period rooms where newly made soft furnishings together with restored décor pieces provide a sympathetic setting for display of the museum’s collected treasures.

Making my way through the gallery according to the “sense of the visit”, gave me a better appreciation of the evolution of design and style, which is exactly the purpose of this type of presentation; it works.  I savoured the overall impression of the ornate period rooms with their gilded and painted wall panels and cornices, stylish passementerie, elegant porcelain ware and splendid inlaid wood furniture; there are dozens of adjectives that could apply – minimal is not one of them.

period room

Gilded cornices and wall panels

Gilded cornices and wall panels

 

But with over 2,000 pieces in the entire collection some had to be passed with only a cursory glance, others had me captivated; reading notes, studying the display.  Queen Marie-Antoinette’s necessaire, a travelling kit, fascinated me.  Ninety-four pieces of equipment adorned with her monogram – an intertwined M and A – in a cleverly designed mahogany case to make her journeys comfortable.  Amongst the 94 items there is office equipment, a tray bell and seal, a sewing case, ink well and pounce pot, and compass, items for a light meal including a chocolate pot and beater, 2 drinking glasses, a dish warmer, teapot and tea ball, 2 tea cups with saucers, a broth bowl and small chaffing dish, items for her toilette; a powder pot, cream pot and eyebath, 3 small bottles and a funnel, a mortar and pestle, round mirror, spittoon, and warming pan.

 

In it’s entirety this is a wonderful collection that provides a real insight into the life of the royals and social elite during the golden age of French decorative arts.  I saw exquisite craftsmanship, elegant and sumptuous decoration, but sensed lives of maddening formality and proper taste at the same time.  It makes you think.

Coffee cat, coffee cat

Maitre d' for the moment

Maitre d’ for the moment

I’d heard about a café, recently opened, that sounded a little out of the ordinary.  Off in search I went amongst the bustle of trendy well patronised cafes around the Bastille monument.

Just a short, 2-minute walk from Breguet-Sabin metro, as I turned the corner from rue Saint Sabin onto rue Seduin I knew I was at the right address.  Through the large window frontage I saw the café hosts inside playing games, chasing, snoozing on a comfy chair and another sitting regally by the counter waiting to welcome visitors.

I’m at The Cat Café, 9 rue Sedaine, in the 11th arrondissement.

A cat café?  Indeed, a café where cats live, you don’t bring your cats here.  This is the big sister of the original cat café on rue Michel Le Comte in Le Marais.  At this latest, larger, café there are about twelve lively jellicle cats in residence, all having been adopted from cat rescue services.  They now have the look and swagger of happy cats, completely at home in their spacious environment.

Before I’ve even finished taking off my hat and coat Romulus and Remus, elegant Siamese brothers, wander over to check me out.  Suddenly though Romulus is off, it’s action stations at the window.  Snow is falling outside and causing a great stir inside: “what’s the white stuff, check it out guys!” Macchiaiola the young multicoloured gal pads the window trying to touch the flakes.  Some are not bothered; “pfff who cares”, Zeus stays asleep in the red armchair.

So, I settle in for lunch with these guys.  I’ve ordered une salade hivernale and my usual café allongé.  While I’m waiting there is time to read the entertaining cat biographies; it’s good practice for my French vocab skills, and I can figure out who’s who.  Romulus has a collar to identify him from his brother.  Sue is the friendly tabby who was first on my lap, Ringa is the most beautiful petite grey who pushed Sue off and made my lap her place.  Seems Ringa is also a bit of a drama queen when it comes to regular check ups and cares, but all is forgiven with a cuddle.

My lunch arrives; a generous serving of fresh lettuce with walnuts, Roquefort cheese, apple slices and tasty slivers of smoked duck breast, tossed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing, accompanied of course with crunchy fresh baguette: delicious.  The cats seem to know it’s my eating time and leave me alone for a bit.  I finish with coffee and Ringa back on my lap purring loudly.

In case you’re thinking eeewww, won’t it, well, smell of cats?  No it didn’t, not a bit.  The cats have the downstairs area for their hygiene needs; they are healthy and extremely well cared for.  However, if you are not fond of cats then this is probably not the place to choose.

If you are a bit of a cat person, then this unusual café with very pleasant staff, eclectic homely furniture; piano, armchairs, frayed cushions and resident cats is rather a treat.  I can imagine myself here for a leisurely late afternoon coffee, a good book and a cat on my lap.  I probably won’t bring my knitting, although it could be entertaining for some.

A bright day in Chartres

Rose window in the North transept

Rose window in the North transept

Keen to escape the city for a Sunday excursion we swotted up for a visit to Chartres to see the famous stained glass windows at la Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Chartres.  With a sunny forecast – the windows are apparently seen at their best on a bright day – the planning was finalised; departure time, metro route, train station, walking route from train to cathedral all checked and memorised.  Only the weather required confirmation.

Our apartment is so close to other buildings that we can’t actually see the sky just by glancing out the windows, a weather check is accomplished by leaning out the window and looking up – sky: blue or grey? Clouds: white, fluffy, grey, threatening?

Instead of blue sky we had a thick dose of the grey fog that is one of the less desirable characteristics of Paris, but as both on-line weathermen promised sunshine by 11am we felt confident with Plan A and set off according to the run sheet timetable.

The planning was perfect; the weather forecast was not.  The fog did not clear all day, in fact it was one of the coldest days so far this winter, but we needn’t have worried, the cathedral and its stained glass windows were beautiful anyway.

After only a few minutes walk from the station at Chartres the cathedral appeared above the town centre, its huge shape emerging rather eerily out of the mist.  On the outside the colour scheme is grey; age-old, weathered, blotched with moss and lichen grey.  Handsome grey? Or forbidding grey?

 

Inside, the dominant impression is anything but grey.  We arrived just as the Sunday morning service was finishing.  We snuck in quietly with a stream of other visitors, immediately impressed by the congregation in full song their voices filling the vast interior of the cathedral.  A vivid array of colour burst from the majestic stained glass windows high above the polished stone floor.  The three large 13th century rose windows, dull on the outside, blazed with reds and blues.  The most famous of the windows here is the Belle Verriere depicting the Virgin Mary wearing a blue robe, her child sitting on her lap.  This window is one of three that remain after a major fire in 1195 which destroyed the earlier cathedral on the site.

Aside from catastrophes like fire and world wars, industrial pollution is the most significant enemy of historic buildings, (and their stained glass windows).  The present day restoration programme is obvious; scaffolding, boarded up areas, the difference in colouration of the stonework between the before and after cleaning sections.  The works-in-progress didn’t diminish our enjoyment of the visit; if anything it affirmed the preciousness of the treasures we’d had the privilege to see and we’re glad to see the effort going into their preservation.