25 July, 2014

Where the Buffalo Roam the Alps

We climbed the Route de Napoleon from Grasse into the forested foothills of the Alps to pay the buffalo that roam the Haut-Thorenic a visit.  It was November but in the mountains winter had already encrusted itself.  My husband and I slipped on every last stitch of warm clothing we’d brought before negotiating the last available slots for the afternoon safari.

European Buffalo and Ecolodge

After our small group assembled at the camp playground, we weren’t more than a dozen, we set out on foot into the sprawling 700-acre pasture of the Monts d’Azur reserve.  Our guide spoke of the temperament of the herd of European buffalo as we approached referring to partners and their offspring by name as you would friends. No, these buffalo (bison in French) weren’t native. Imported from Poland in 2005 on an initiative to increase the endangered population’s numbers, the herd has since doubled.  We stood only a few meters away from these largest of the land mammals yet the herd paid us no mind. 

I could have spent the day admiring those relics of prehistory but our guide suggested we travel a kilometer downwind to where the wild Przewalki horses were exhibiting frisky behavior that he wanted to investigate.  We followed eagerly, stopping to identify flora and fauna while the youngest in our group, a pair of elementary school-aged children, continued their barrage of questions.  With each informed response it became more apparent.  The scraggly 20-something we were following wasn’t just any tour guide; he was a naturalist.  The patience with which he responded was as much a product of his nature study as the knowledge he shared.

Winter in the mountains is cold and by the home stretch of our two-hour safari when we encountered a flock of water birds my feet were too frozen for me to care much about their habits.  I was happy to see the camp gate being opened and ducked into the lodge for a therapeutic cup of hot chocolate.

The next time I pay the reserve a visit will be during the summer when it is warm enough to camp out in the park.  They offer tent rentals (on a platform safe from stampede), catered picnics, horse drawn buggy rides and “safari” hikes like the one I took.  Hotel rooms are also available but lack the resort appeal to be enticing.  Definitely book your visit ahead of time as tours seem to fill up.  Though it’s only an hour away from the Riviera you don’t want to make the trip for nothing.  Prices range from 25 Euros for a safari hike to 260 Euros for an Adventure package for two that includes dinner, lodging in an eco tent, a safari and a buggy ride.

16 April, 2014

On the Perfume Trail in Grasse

The perfume industry in Grasse, renown for the production of luxury fragrances, evolved as leather tanneries began selling perfumed gloves.  A visit to the recently renovated Musee International de la Parfumerie offers a look at the process of making perfume and the history behind fragrance’s role in the last four thousand years.  From Roman slaves applying perfume by mouth to their mistress’ hair, to the use of incense to commune with the divine during the Middle Ages, to fragrance’s role as a disinfectant in the Age of Enlightenment, the displays make for interesting reading.  My favorite part of the museum was sampling the constituents used in creating fragrances.  With the push of a button, a chocolate, incense, rose or even cocaine-scented cloud was expelled.  Though good fun, smelling them all left me feeling nauseous.  Set aside a few hours to visit the perfume museum; it is well worth the time.

Several of the old perfumeries are still in production and offer free tours of their ateliers to drum up business.  When in Grasse I like browsing the Fragonard boutique because in addition to perfume they stock beautiful, affordable gifts like embroidered laundry bags and colorful scarves. 

For a more personalized approach, the sleepy village of Gourdon has a row of mom and pop perfume boutiques where merchants will concoct a scent just for you.  After doing some winter shopping, my husband and I stopped for dinner in Valbonne at the Auberge Provincal and enjoyed warming up by the fireplace and filling our bellies with the hearty fare from their three-course menu.

The South of France still produces jasmine, rose, mimosa and lavender.  The museum’s sister garden in Mougins, developed to educate and preserve native perfume plants, offers a look at the plants before they are distilled into perfume.  While it lacks the majesty and old growth of more established gardens educative approach makes it a pleasant experience.  You are actually encouraged to touch and smell and plants!  In early spring blooms were sparse but I was advised May is the best time to visit. 

Candied Fruit at the Florian Confiserie
Another way to enjoy the local flowers is in the candied variety.  The Florian Confiserie beside the river in Tourettes-sur-Loup offers free tours and tastings.  Meander through each room of the factory as the candy is being made and learn about the process.  The lemons and clementines, rose petals and violet blossoms are almost too pretty to eat.  After sampling your fill of candy, don’t leave without a stroll along the picturesque trail that follows the river.  It doesn’t take more than fifteen minutes to walk and would be a nice place for a picnic or swim during the warmer parts of the year.

For more information on the logistics of planning a visit:
The Perfume Museum and Garden
Florian Candy Factory

05 February, 2014

Un Lion à Paris - Children's Book Review

 A Lion in Paris - Un Lion à Paris
Once upon a time there was a lion. Bored in the Savannah he jumps a train to Paris. Expecting to incite fear, he discovers that the Metro passengers pay him no mind. This and the rain that make the city look grey cause him to feel sad. While out exploring he visits landmarks like Café Floré, the Pompidou Museum, the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré Coeur. At the Louvre Mona Lisa’s tender regard cheers him up. He finds a perch to look out on the city from and decides to stay indefinitely.

A sweetly simple story by Italian writer/illustrator Beatrice Alemagna, compiled into a beautiful book. Even the way it’s bound it atypical, it hinges from the top rather than the side. The illustrations, a combination of drawing and collage, are what make it my favorite children’s book. I bought a copy for myself long before my son was even born.

I recommend this book for adults and children alike. It was originally published in French and recently translated into English. Though I shy away from reading novels in French, children’s books are a less intimidating way to pick up some vocabulary while travelling the fantastical voyages between the pages. Some of the words I like from this story are: rugir – to roar, and bouche bée – to have your mouth open in surprise. Reading it would be a fun way to prepare for a trip to Paris, or to revisit the sites afterward.

I first discovered A Lion in Paris in the Pinacotheque museum gift shop, a fun place to browse.
You can order a copy in English here.
To learn more about Beatrice Alemagna, visit her website here.

12 September, 2013

What to Wear – Paris

Nobody wants to stand out as a tourist.  Here are some tips on what to wear when visiting Paris with both style and comfort in mind.

Lou Doillon-Vogue Magazine
Stereotypes exist for a reason. Parisian women like to smoke. They are often overly thin and dressed in monochrome black, gray and navy blue, nothing that strays from the palate of an overcast sky. One flashy piece goes a long way so don’t play the peacock. Model and musician Lou Doillon’s androgynous style exemplifies Parisian chic with a dose of vintage flair.  You can also look to boutiques like Vanessa Bruno, Maje, Sandro and Comptoire des Cotonniers, mainstays for “modeuses,” as they call the fashion forward gals.  Check out their collections to see what is trending.

Young girls mirror their mother’s sophistication opting for pieces like blazers and skinny jeans, none of this running around in pajamas.  I’m fond of the original version of the film Lol (Laughing Out Loud)’s depiction of life in Paris.  It chronicles the coming of age struggles between a high school girl and her single mother who share more than just clothes.  Invest in timeless basics that can be worn repeatedly like the cashmere sweater Sophie Marceau, who plays the mother, isn’t so keen to lend out.

Pay attention to your choice of footwear.  Trotting all over the city in heels only seems like a good idea in fashion week pictures in the fashion week pictures.  Your feet would never forgive you.  Opt for sensible and stylish in the likes of ballet flats and boots fit.  Keep a sweater and scarf into your tote to ward off evening chills.  

To sum it up dress comfortably, pack warm layers and keep your wardrobe simple. French fashion magazine fixture Ines de la Fressange’s book, Parisian Chic, is a list of dos and don’ts that is worth reading if you are still looking for ideas on how to pull off effortlessly cool.

03 July, 2013

Visiting the Paris Opera

Nestled amongst the grand magasins, Paris' most established department stores, lies the elaborate façade of the Opera Garnier. From the top floor of Galleries Lafayette get a bird’s eye view while taking the edge off your appetite in a casual cafeteria setting. Look closely and you might be able to decipher the colony of bees that inhabit the rooftop and produce over a ton of honey each year together with their siblings that live atop the Opera Bastille.

Equally as impressive as the Second Empire façade is the ornate interior, which together equated the most expensive building in Paris in its time. Those with tickets in hand are ushered in beneath the busts of Beethovens and Mozarts, through the lobby, up the marble staircase and into the gilded and velvet swathed opera hall. A seven-ton crystal chandelier tops Marc Chagall’s dreamy fresco, an anachronism that the room wears well. Squint your eyes to airbrush audience attire and time travel back to the 19th century when, during a performance of Faust, a counterweight of the chandelier came crashing down and inspired the novel The Phantom of the Opera.

“But how do I obtain tickets?” you might ask. Don’t waste your time on the opera tour that is little more than a 10-euro saunter through the halls. There are several ways to book tickets for a ballet or opera performance that will allow you to experience the Opera Garnier in all its glory, as the lights dim and the curtain rises.

It's best to be date savvy and stake claim on the reasonably priced tickets as soon as they become available. Sales are staggered: first the Internet, then telephone, and lastly the box office releases tickets.
Verify the location of the show as the modern Opera Bastille hosts an equal share of the performances but lacks the belle époque magic. Located in the Place de la Bastille where many a head was offed, it was intended to be an “opera populaire” welcoming all walks of patrons. It is an angular eyesore but once beyond the external structure, functional modernity resonates within the star-ship sleek interior and even the farthest seats offer an unimpeded view of the performance.

On the opera’s website mid range places at 30 to 40 euros are quickly snapped up. For those that want to splurge on prime seats, it is a completely different experience from the front rengs, detail rich with couture costumes, dancers’ expressions and the patter of ballet slippers discernable through the orchestra bruit.
Reserving by phone is an option if you speak French but even those making a local call will be charged by the minute, as is the custom for phone service in France.

For the spontaneous-natured, visit the ticket office (located on the side of the building) to see what is available, but beware, cheap seats aren't the bargain they appear. Those labelled “visibilité réduite” may mean that your head grazes the rafters or you’ll have to strain for a peek at the stage limits, which I find terribly frustrating.

A cultural night out in one of the most beautiful buildings in Paris is well worth the effort. It also gives you a chance to doll up, though black tie attire attracts as much attention as wearing a Halloween costume would. I once shared a box with a dancer’s mother who complained of the tourists in their blue jeans. When it comes to opera attire, a happy medium is classiest.

To find out more about availability and ticket release dates visit the Opera de Paris website.  Signing up for their newsletter will keep you in the know. I once attended a costume sale at the Opera Garnier that was announced via their newsletter. Nothing is more surreal than men trying on crinoline gowns and penguins promenading through the opera halls. After sifting through racks and racks of costumes I settled on a Napoleon hat and a corduroy corset and bird’s nest headpiece that were worn in a representation of William Tell.

If you are interested in getting to know more about Paris architecture, I recommend One Thousand Buildings of Paris, a dictionary-sized tome of old and new.

19 April, 2013

Fitzgeraldien Summers in the South of France

 Sepia toned photographs of sunbathing beauties sprawled alongside phonographs or posed underneath papery umbrellas and a few Art Deco mansions tucked amongst tastelessly built apartment buildings, tell tale of summers past when everything was grandiose.

Jacques-Henri Lartigue  1927

Fitzgerald dedicated his book Tender is the Night to the very couple that launched the trend of summering on the Cote d’Azur and inspired the main characters Dick and Nicole Driver. “Many fetes,” his inscription to Sara and Gerald Murphy who convinced the owner of the Hotel du Cap to stay open through a season when the businesses normally closed. And so the story begins “On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border.”
Sometimes I think they had it right in the 1920’s when Normandy’s beaches were the French destination for summering. To migrate towards heat rather than escaping it seems counter intuitive in a country that functions without air conditioning.
While there isn’t much of this modern oceanfront town that resembles F. Scott Fitzgerald’s accounts, Juan les Pins remains a retreat of the privileged where the beach monopolizes daylight hours. “It seemed that there was no life anywhere in all this expanse of coast except under the filtered sunlight of those umbrellas…”

The population climbs with the temperature. Native dames sunbathe topless, slipping the straps off their one-piece bathing suits and shimmying them down to their hips. They spend months cooking their skin to an orange patina that lasts through the winter while wrinkles add up like growth rings in a tree trunk to account for each summer. Families picnic on French bread sandwiches eaten from aluminium foil wrappers, and about the time the Mediterranean Sea is heated warm as bathwater the jellyfish arrive. Translucent pink like the rose in everyone’s wine glasses, they add an element of risk to late summer swims.

…”Few people swam any more in that blue paradise…most stripped the concealing pajamas from their flabbiness only for a short hangover dip at one o’clock.” It is still very much see and be seen minus the day ware trend for pyjama pants that was born here in the 20’s. Renting a chair on the beach in the bustling heart of Juan les Pins at the Belles Rives Hotel, once called Villa Saint-Louis when it belonged to the Fitzgeralds, will set you back an excessive 40 euros. Winding away from town through the airy Cap d’Antibes mansions, I like to nestle in amongst the parasol pines to swim behind the Villa Eilenroc. From there a footpath traces the rocky peninsula of the Cap d’Antibes and ends on a cosy slice of beach called la Garoupe, a spot where the Murphys, Picassos and Fitzgeralds lazed summers away drinking sherry. Though it is often crowded as all the local beaches are in season, Fitzgerald voiced distaste of it having become overdeveloped even in the five year span between the opening and closing his novel, the view is unmarred.
All quotes from
For more images of the 1920's by Jacques-Henri Latrigue visit this excellent photography site la petite melancolie.   

17 March, 2013

How to Order Coffee in France

How to Order Coffee in France

Ordering a cup of coffee in France means more than just getting your caffeine fix. After a day of wandering or working, it is a chair in the sun, a place to rest your feet, a bathroom you have permission to use, a dessert (coffee is often served with a piece of chocolate or a speculoos biscuit), but most importantly, it initiates you into the café culture of stretching something that takes a few minutes into an hour long affair.

Whether you’re people watching or setting up writers’ residency in a cafe like Hemingway, you’ll want to order the right cup. Here’s how:

Robert Doisneau, Les coiffeuses au soleil, Paris 1966

You can usually help yourself to a table rather than waiting to be seated, especially those that are outside but when in doubt, ask. If you’re alone make sure to have a prop such as a cigarette, magazine or notepad to scribble on.
Try to make eye contact with the waiter, who will no doubt be very busy and very aloof. A simple, “Monsieur, s’il vous plait,“ should get his attention.

Drink wise something that resembles a cup of drip coffee is referred to as allonge.

Coffee with milk is referred to as café crème. You are often given the choice of a petite or grande portion.

Cappuccino is a universal term for coffee with frothed milk.

For those that are “gourmande” as the French call being indulgent, a café viennois is topped with whipped cream and a dusting of cocao powder.

I find the coffee very acidic therefore a thimble full is often enough. If you prefer your beverage black order a shot of espresso and fit in. Put a splash of milk in it and it’s called a noisette.

You can request tap water by asking for “une carafe d’eau.” Don’t forget to follow that with a “S’il vous plait,” as courtesy is expected.

You may be asked to pay upon your drink’s arrival in contrast to dining protocol where you won’t be presented the bill until it is explicitly asked for. You’re still entitled to stay as long as you like. Time stands still.

“Sometimes we used to enter secret wayside cafes. There might be a step down, and there was always a table to choose in the silence or the murmur of speech. A shadow was the most ancient of the regulars. A long, long time she had sat at every place. The sun would be there, on good terms with her, lying upon her forehead, on your hand, on a glass. And soon he left, like a god one forgets. During these halts that seemed to become eternal, experience came to us, and we always left these secret cafes subtly changed from what we had been before.” Guillevic, from Stopping Along the Way

Enjoy the commotion of life unfolding around you in a moment of meditation. When finished you can leave the change on the table for your waiter or choose to pocket it since service is included in menu prices.

Voila, there it is. For more café culture images and quotes, I like this book...