A month ago in the French city of Bourges, Kay and I stood in front of a nativity scene in the town’s great, medieval cathedral. There were the figures of Mary, Joseph, the Magi, the shepherds, etc. What was missing on those days before Christmas was the figure of the baby Jesus. Of course, we celebrate the birth of Christ on the 25th of December, so, according to the French, it would be irrational for him to appear before then.
Rationality is important in the civic life of France. The country is well ordered. Rules are clear, and public transportation, other than during those frequent periods of labor unrest, is efficient and punctual. These attributes make France an easy country to visit.
There is much to love about France, especially for Kay and me, enthusiastic as we are about history, beautiful sights, and the pleasures of the table. On this latest trip (perhaps our best ever) we indulged our love for these things as never before.
I should say that I first fell in love with France as a 20-year-old student a long time ago. It was a simpler time, and I was a simpler person. That year I felt like a child learning to speak, each day a new word, a new cultural discovery. I’ve returned to France several times since those early days, and other feelings have replaced the novelty and freshness I experienced so long ago.
Both France and America have changed enormously in the past 50 years. France no longer seems like the foreign country I remember. Today, it’s common to be addressed in English by store clerks, restaurant staff, and even people on the street. These days, people in France dress just as Americans and all Western Europeans do. Most of all, France has become wealthy. The travel bargains that once existed for us Americans are long gone. And yet, the French remain special. They carefully respect and protect their cultural and historical traditions. Not only are their streets named after their important cultural figures but the street signs even say whom these men and women were and often give the dates when they lived. Museums, public statuary, and historical monuments abound in France, and because French history is so long and rich, the country is a mecca for us and others who appreciate those things.
I want to give you a few highlights of our winter holiday, but before I do, a couple of acknowledgements:
Last summer, Jacqueline, a new acquaintance, invited us to visit her one day in Paris or in Tours. ‘One day’ arrived quickly when we showed up at her Paris door in early December. She graciously installed us a floor above in a studio she calls her “ship’s cabin”. It is small and cozy, perfect quarters to return to after our daily forays through the city. Jacqueline even stocked the small refrigerator and the cupboard with all the necessaries to prepare a light meal. In the city of Tours, where we spent our second week, Jacqueline generously turned over her apartment to us while she stayed at another property nearby. Kay and I share many of Jacqueline’s interests in art, literature, and music, so we spent many pleasant moments together. She is also an excellent cook.
Visiting our far-flung friends is one of our greatest travel pleasures. We have known our Paris friends, Eric and Laurence for years, ever since we exchanged homes for two weeks when Kay and I still lived in New York. We don’t see them often, but when we do meet, our hours together are joyous occasions. This time, Laurence, who comes from Alsace, prepared Baeckeoffe, a hearty casserole dish of lamb, beef, and vegetables that was perfect for a cold winter’s evening.
Following an entrée of choice charcuterie and followed first by slices of the cheese Brillat-Sevarin and then by L’s homemade apple tart, it made a meal that would have satisfied the most discriminating gourmet. It was late in the evening when, after the food, the champagne, and the other wines, Eric was kind enough to drive us back across the city to where we were staying.
Hemingway described Paris as a “movable feast”, and wherever in the world I’ve been, I’ve cherished my memories of it. Parts of the city are timeless. To walk southeast through the Tuileries Gardens, past the royal pavilions and the Louvre on our left and with the silhouette of the Musée d’Orsay across the river ahead of us was to take one of the most thrilling strolls of any city I know. It had a special beauty in the winter with the leafless tree limbs outlined against the grey sky and the marble statues dripping water from the recent rain. On days like these with so few people around it had a moody and poignant beauty.
We walked a lot in Paris; the city is ideal for that. One path took us along the Seine towards le Pont Neuf (the oldest bridge in Paris) and the Tour Jacques.
Another day we walked by the river in the opposite direction past the Invalides to the Musée du Quai Branly, the city’s newest major museum whose otherworldly design is by architect Jean Nouvel.
The giant building and its garden house the country’s collections of art and artifacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and South America. They remind us that France was once a great colonial power that made inroads into virtually every continent.
Other walks went past Notre Dame, through the Latin Quarter, and into Montparnasse where we lunched at Le Timbre, a tiny bistrot recommended by our Canadian friends Jenny and Ralph.
Of course, we spent time in the Luxembourg Gardens, beautiful in any season. It was there, when I first came to Paris, that I would sit reading for hours after lunch in a nearby student restaurant.
Kay won’t forgive me if I don’t mention seeing a temporary exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay entitled Beauté, morale, et volupté dans l’Angleterre d’Oscar Wilde. This is one of Kay’s favorite periods of English art and design, incorporating the Pre-Raphaelites and the artists and designers of the Aesthetic Movement.
A very exciting discovery was the work of the German photographer Gisèle Freund, exhibited at the Foundation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent. Its small exhibition space is perfectly elegant, befitting the memory of its donors. We were thrilled by the work we saw. Although Freund would probably have wished to be remembered most for her photojournalism, it is her portraits of artists and literary figures done in the late 1930s that fascinated us most. Among the standouts were the shots of James Joyce in relaxed poses and portraits of Virginia Woolf. Other favorite subjects of Ms. Freund were Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, the owners respectively of the legendary bookshops Shakespeare & Company and Les Amis des Livres.
On our penultimate evening in Paris, we splurged by going to a performance in the Palais Garnier, the city’s flamboyant 19th-century opera house. Its over-the-top décor and ornament are startling for a first-time visitor, and Kay was suitably startled. We saw a classical ballet of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin created by South African choreographer John Cranko to music by Tchaikovsky.
Another evening found us at the Salle Pleyel, Paris’ premier concert hall. After a fire some years ago, the venue was completely done over. Now, the huge lobby with its neo-classic columns, large golden medallions and indirect lighting feels like a temple to the muse of music. Online, we had opted for the least expensive seats, which placed us above and behind the orchestra, looking at the backs and profiles of the musicians. It also gave us an unobstructed view of the maestro facing us, the brilliant, young American conductor Alan Gilbert. It seemed to us as though we had the best seats in the house.
I can’t end these memories of Paris without saying something about the food. French cuisine deserves its reputation of being the most refined in the world. We have to admit that on our previous couple of visits, we had been a bit disappointed in some of our restaurant meals. Not this time. When we travel to the West, we try to choose things that aren’t readily available in Turkey. Scallops are such an item, so for our first evening meal we enjoyed a delicious risotto St Jacques. In an elegant restaurant that we stumbled upon for a mid-day meal, I tasted cod for the first time in ages. It was cooked and presented to perfection. In a brasserie after the concert, Kay was delighted with her Salade Avergnate, a composed salad of greens, mushrooms, haricots verts, tomatoes, and walnuts mixed with herb vinaigrette and topped with slices of country ham and warm goat cheese on toast. We both love sausage and the tastiest of the trip came in a sandwich seasoned with a special mustard and caramelized onions. We bought this at a Christmas market and ate it sitting on a park bench.
We could have returned home after our week in Paris perfectly satisfied with all we had experienced; however, since we had chosen to extend the adventure by visiting the Loire Valley and its cathedrals and chateaux, off we went.
To travel by train is such a luxury, especially in ones as clean, comfortable, and fast as the ones that took us to Tours and back. Compared with the oppressive and uncomfortable ordeal that air travel has become, trains are wonderful. I regret that America allowed its once great rail network to expire and that the country has done so little to replace it.
At the risk of boring you by taking you too far along on my sentimental journey, I’ll say that long-ago days and weeks spent in Tours and its environs figure prominently in my memories of France. I boarded with French families in that city for a month each on two separate occasions, but they were so long ago that now the city seemed new and strange to me.
Old Tours has an architecturally rich medieval quarter, and when I told Jacqueline that I had no memory of it, she explained that at the times I lived in the city, the medieval buildings were dilapidated and in very poor condition. Cleaned and restored, they now bare witness to a time when Tours’ great cathedral rivaled that of Bourges as an important stop on the pilgrimage route to the great religious destinations further south, including Santiago de Compostela.
The highlights of our second week in France included leisurely visits to both of these great monuments of Roman Catholic faith. At these times, I stood in awe as I always do, when facing the spectacular size and the sublime beauty of great gothic cathedrals. Studying the intricate iconography and puzzling symbolism of a vanished age, I found myself wishing I could better understand them. The larger question that I often wonder about is how these great churches could have been built at all. As with most things, the answer is money.
Recent reading has taught me that in the 12th and 13th centuries, at a time when an all-powerful Church rivaled kings and emperors, it was thought to be terribly important for anyone who could, to join pilgrimages to sites containing the relics of important saints. By visiting, and especially donating wealth to honor and glorify these places, one’s sins would be forgiven and a heavenly afterlife assured. In those days, important abbeys and pilgrimage sites would be overwhelmed with riches.
Apart from its churches, the region around Tours is chateaux country. These splendid country estates, some royal, some not, were mostly begun at the end of the 15th century and early in the 16th. Not only are the best of them masterpieces of French Renaissance architecture, they also carry a wealth of historical fact and legend.
The building of Chambord, the largest of them (426 rooms, 282 fireplaces, 77 staircases) was initiated by the young king François I in 1519 when he was only 25 years old. Although it was not finished in his lifetime, it consumed most of the country’s treasury, as well as supplementary monies from various surrounding abbeys. With other royal residences at his disposal, we’re told that the king spent a mere 37 days at the chateau. A particularly interesting feature of Chambord is its central staircase, or rather two staircases made of stone and wound around each other in a single spiral. Kay and I each took one, and although we could see each other intermittently as we climbed up, we never met.
By renting a car in Tours, Kay and I were able to visit several of these great estates. Her favorite, not far from Tours, is Villandry (1536), a smaller chateau with magnificent formal gardens. Even in winter these were unusually beautiful, especially from upper windows in the chateau from where we could admire the maze-like patterns of the plantings and the carefully groomed topiary. These Renaissance gardens were restored by the last private individual to own the estate. Joachim Carvallo gave up a brilliant scientific career to devote himself to Villandry. Thanks to him and his American wife, Villandry looks the way it does today.
Other important chateaux we visited are Azay-le-Rideau, Blois, and Chenonceau, and I’ll forego commenting on them except to say that because of the holiday season all had beautifully decorated Christmas trees in their splendid foyers and galleries and that fires burned in some of their magnificent Renaissance fireplaces.
I will write a few words about the historic city of Loches whose old town contains an unusual Romanesque church, a royal lodge and a donjon, or keep, all huddled on the slopes of a bluff above the Indre River. This is a preserved medieval town protected on its only vulnerable side by two sets of defensive walls through which we entered by a gate.
As January 6, 2012 was the 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc, it’s worth mentioning that when touring the royal lodge, we stood in the very room where in 1429 Joan persuaded the Dauphin to go to Rheims to be crowned Charles VII, King of France. Displayed in a glass case in one corner of the room is the actual transcript in Medieval Latin of Joan of Arc’s trial. She was 19 years old when the English burned her at the stake in Rouen.
Loches is also renowned as the residence of another famous medieval woman. Agnès Sorel was the mistress of Charles VII and a great beauty. She was also loyal to her king. In an advanced stage of pregnancy, she nevertheless undertook a difficult voyage to where Charles was camped in order to warn him of a treacherous plot against him. The rigors of the journey took her life. Agnès is immortalized in at least two paintings done during her lifetime while the church at Loches is the site of her alabaster tomb showing her recumbent figure watched over by an angel.
I could go on at length describing the pleasures of our stay in Tours that include two early-music concerts we attended thanks to the instigation of our friend Jacqueline. However, I think I’ve written enough to give you the idea of some of the richness that French travel has to offer. I know that some of you have traveled there as well, so perhaps you will be moved by this account to share some of your favorite memories.