Thursday, September 25, 2014

Italian Countryside Idylls

We've visited the Val d'Orcia several times and never tired of it, and this time we are staying smack in the middle of it, in a villa rented by friends who kindly invited us for the week.  The villa is one and a half kilometers down a dirt road between Pienza and San Quirico d'Orcia and looks out on rolling hills crowned with other villas and farmhouses.

We've hung out at home and made excursions in the area.  A couple of days ago we drove to Siena, which has the most extraordinary cathedral I've ever seen, a fantasia of different colored marble on the floors and walls and the instantly recognizable stripes of the exterior, which are repeated inside.

Driving at night is not a lot of fun, no lights, winding roads, wine-influenced drives.  I've preferred the evenings when we all cooked at home, sipping and talking into the night.  We've had a wide range of weather these last days, from heat enough to tan by the pool to shivering cold to winds that blew the outdoor umbrellas 100 yards across the fields.  Yesterday we went into Pienza for lunch and a bit of a walk in the moderate rain.  This morning is bright and sunny and feels like fall.

This is the country and the country comes with animals.  I don't begrudge the field mice their attempts to join us indoors, but our fellow guest who sleeps on the first floor of the villa is less sanguine.  She prefers not to share her room with the critters and has moved to the bed in the loft.  Height from the ground doesn't seem to deter the small scorpions who also live here, one of which was found crossing the floor of our hosts bedroom the other day.  I've been shaking my shoes out before putting them on.

We have another couple of days here before going back to Paris.  There is a strike of airport workers scheduled on our travel day but theoretically it will be over before our scheduled flight.  Theoretically.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Does a Birthday Count if It's in Italy?

My birthday dinner on the terrace of a beautiful restaurant in Rome finished with this dessert, which I had not ordered.  I imagine the hotel had told the restaurant when they made the reservation for us.  It was a sweet gesture on everyone's part, except for the fact that we were charged for the dessert!  Oh well.

And how had the hotel known about my birthday? Well, apart from the fact I milked it in making the reservation and asking for a room with a view, they had ordered, at my darling husband's request, a huge bouquet of flowers for my room. And sent up a bottle of Prosecco from the management!  How sweet was that?

But the best thing about my birthday was the four hours we spent riding around Rome on the back of a Vespa, well yes, actually two Vespas since Gene came too.  Just a few weeks ago I came across a reference online to ScooterRoma and I was hooked.  Vintage Vespas? Sold!  Valerio and Lorenzo turned up at our hotel at 10:00 and dropped us off at 2:00.  I could have kept going all day.  

We've been to Rome many times before and never really loved it, but seeing it this way, along with the intelligent history and background we got from Valerio, a historian by training, was an experience not to be missed.  Not only that, we had loved the recent Italian film The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) with its views of a non- touristy Rome and locations we couldn't identify.  When I signed up for the tour I mentioned this and we visited several of the sites.  Too cool!

Other than that, how was Rome? Frankly, still don't love it.  But that was sure a great birthday!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Saint-Germain Sunday

Even the babies in St-Germain des Prés pay homage to the famous philosophers of the quartier.  Dress your child in very expensive onesies so they too can grow up to be Simone de Beauvoir or Jean-Paul Sartre.  It's been a long time since this was the center of the intelligentsia, although there are still a number of publishing houses nearby and a nice café, lined with book-filled walls, called Les Editeurs to commemorate them. More prevalent now and for the last few decades are upscale designer boutiques and wealthy tourists, Italians, Americans, Japanese, in search of clothes and housewares.

There has been for many years a man who moves throught the streets of Saint-Germain selling newspapers, an odd way of making a living since there are several very well supplied news kiosks in the area.  Nonetheless he's been here a long time and is a fixture, to the point that a couple of years ago someone painted his portrait, wearing his distinctive cap, on a billboard overlooking one of the intersections.  There's a bit of graffiti on it but for the most part it remains untouched by vandals or advertising companies.  Redundant, I know, but you know what I mean.

A small street off the very busy intersection of rue de Buci, rue Dauphine and rue Mazarine has become the de facto parking for all two-wheeled transport in the area.  Since it's a no car parking street, the city has taken the opportunity to fill it with Velib bikes, thus avoiding the need to eliminate car parking spaces on other streets to provide the public bikes.  Motorbikes also seem to have colonized the same block.  Very few unused spaces on a busy Saturday night; people are coming into the area, not leaving it.  The bars, restaurants and streets are jam-packed in the lovely weather.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Nothing Doing, Doing Nothing

This morning was one of the mornings our local street market is operating so as soon as our jet lagged eyes opened we strolled up to Boulevard Raspail to buy some provisions.  Along the way we came across this team of workers breaking for lunch. (Can you tell how late we slept?) you can also tell that this is not the old Paris; rather than a bottle of rouge they are drinking a can of soda.

No plans for the day, which feels good.  Yesterday we went to the Champs Élysées to see an outdoor photo exhibit on World War I, a subject much in the air on this 100th anniversary.  The exhibit was interesting more as a piece of propaganda than as history, concentrating quite a bit on photos of soldiers from all the French colonies of the time, apparently happy to be fighting in the trenches for their colonial masters, and providing patriotic text.  There was a photo of the young Capitaine Charles de Gaulle, noting his five attempts to escape after having been taken prisoner by the Germans.  Of Marechal Petain, the hero of Verdun, there was no mention.  Apparently his collaboration in the next war outweighed the victories of the first.

A stop for lunch at Rosa Bonheur de Seine, on a barge moored along the newly pedestrianized Berges de Seine, was pleasant and we met a young friend for coffee later in the pretty garden café at the center of the Petit Palais.

We had dinner with friends we hadn't seen in a while at one of our new favorite restaurants, Terroir Parisien in the 5th arrondissement, lingering until we were the last to leave.  A walk home along the boulevard and so to bed. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Lafayette, We Are Here

One hundred years after the beginning of World War One, I'm adopting the motto of the Allied Expeditionary Force (that was us, the US, for the most part) to tell the French that we've arrived.  I suspect they cared more back then.

For those of you loyal readers who missed photos being posted during our last trip and who had to go all the way over to to see what we were seeing, I think I may have fixed the problem.  We'll see if it works, and if it's worth it.

Back this time in our old apartment, the duplex garret in St-Germain des Près, we feel right at home.  So much so that in looking around the kitchen we find the dishes we bought and even some two-year old canned goods we left.  Our dear patronne, in true French style, never gets rid of anything.

Our old nemesis, jet lag, is back with us and we're giving it its head, sleeping when we can.  The weather is wonderful, which everyone keeps telling us is very lucky as the summer all over Europe was disappointingly cool and rainy.  Keeping fingers crossed for it to go on.

I'm sitting in our glassed-in kitchen, windows wide open, listening to the sound of the bells of the church of St-Germain des Près.  Time to go explore before our next nap is due.