Friday, September 4, 2009

Versailles in the Sky

Oh crap. Its pouring. We don't have far to walk, but it is uphill, with luggage. And it is a really really shitty day here in Paris. I wish I hadn't given Michael all the horror stories about driving in Paris because then I might feel like I can phone him and ask him to come via here. But I can't. So here I sit trying to work out which railway station en-route we can get a cab to, that is not too far to travel, and yet allows us to get in and out under cover more or less. Looks like Issy might do it.

Oh joy of joys - the rain stopped! And in time for me to stop panicing! We loaded all our luggfage - mind you Helen had to sit on her suitcase so that she could shut it with her pillow in! Hels takes some photos of the apartment - I think that it has given her some ideas for home! Then we are off out the door. As we push the button for the lift, it arrives on the 7th floor with the next tenant for Isabelle's Marie Antoinette Apartment. Carla from the US is here for just over a week. We have a quick chat and give her a few snippets of information before heading downstairs.

And finally we are away. It has been an amazing four days and I am so blessed to have been able to share them with Helen - this is something we will always be able to chuckle over.

We walk (OK Hels, we crawl) up Quai de Grenelle to the RER station, clunk our suitcases down a flight of stairs, easily buy tickets to Versailles Rive Gauche Station and then wrestle our luggage through the two tiered turnstile system they have in place here. The train we want is the second one due, so we have enough time to catch our breaths and prepare to get ourselves and the luggage up the two steepish steps on to the train. Funnily, the Australian Embassy is across the road and I find it kinda cool that in the same view, I can get a photo of the Eiffel Tower and the Embassy with a huge banner advertising Australia!

Versailles is not very far from where we are. It only takes about 25 minutes on the train to get there. Michael is meeting us here after driving down from Albert where he has spent the last four days. I'm a little worried for him as he hates driving in cities at the best of time and Paris is probably the worst city in the world for drivers. Mind you, he won't be driving in to the centre of Paris, heaven forbid - even I wouldn't do that! He will follow the Peripherique (the Ring Road) around the outside of Paris to get to Dijon in the south west edge of the city.
Luckily, Michael was able to get a mobile the other day and so once we have reached Versailles and can identify that Starbucks is a really visible place and so might be somewhere that Micael can find, I phone him. Poor thing, he is in heavy traffic and won't be here for some time yet. We order breakfast but poor Hels has yet to find the right coffee and doesn't enjoy the one she has. Me, I'm just happy to be sitting and eating. I am kinda anxious and keep looking out for Michael. Of course, Helen hasn't even seen the car yet so she doesn't even know what we are looking for! Finally, I see him driving by!! O thank god!

Thankfully Frances has trasferred her cover to Michael today and he finds a spot very close to us in the nearby car park. He comes over - gosh its good to see him. Four days ain't long, but ... Of course more than ayone, he needs a coffee! So we sit a little longer while he has coffee and donut. Then its up on the sticks and off we go. Of course Michael takes 90% of the luggage which makes the walking oh so much easier! And hello car - oooh you are nice! I have missed you more than I thought.

Rive Gaudy (Gauche)
A lot of Gold
International tourist central
Ludicrously loud
Extravagant and Excess

Versailles, Versailles you are so high
You make me scream inside
I hate the way you look so smug
Your gilded face caught us by surprise
When the heavens opened up
And down poured the skies!
(contributed by Helen!)

Ah, Versailles! After a couple of big days walking in Paris, I knew that there was going to be no way that I could walk around the behemoth that is the Palace of Versailles. So I opted to stay in the car and have a yiayia (nana) nap! Michael and Helen therefore set off to explore the Palace. Even though I have not see it myself, I know what to expect and I wanted Helen to see one end of the spectrum so she can better appreciate the less grand palaces and castles we will see.

Maria has been bugging me to do a paragraph on Versailles so here it is.

I had heard a lot about the vastness of this palace from Maria and she was determined that I view it for myself. Having lived in Queensland all my life, there was not much that I had in my little head of experiences that I could compare it to as yet. Well??? It was big, real big, really, really, big! It was a series of buildings bound together with a never-ending rope of guilded wrought iron fencing, interspersed with monumental gates. It stood above your eyeline, so when you approached it, I assume you would have gasped at it's greatness. Not me. It seemed filled with people. Touristy people armed to the hilt with cameras and maps.

To be honest, I didn't really concentrate too much on it as I negotiated the dreaded cobblestones at my feet. We faithfully lined up for tickets like the rest of the throngs of voyeurs from all over the world. We waited and waited for tickets to view the likes of the chambers of Louis 16th and Marie Antionette, but we were informed that the next tour was hours away."Stuff that !" Michael and I both said in unison. We turned out of the ticket office and had a wander around.

Why was I not impressed? Why did these buildings of such historical importance, not bring me to my emotional knees? I mean, this was were the Treaty of Versaille was signed at the end of the second world war. Having said that, it wasn't until Michael sugggested that there was more to see in the backyard that I perked up a bit. Yep, what a big backyard this place has. It was filled with delightful ordered gardens and so many statues both modern and ancient, that one really didn't know where to look. There were indeed lots of the pretty manicured topiary and symmetrical gardens that Maria would have yelped with delight at.

I just saw the bloody big storm building, down the end of the huge runway like lakes at the furtherest edge of this property. My goodness! What a storm... You could see it advancing like a row of cranky prawns on a massive chess board. I anxiously reminded Michael that there was indeed some wet weather on the way. But he was a man on a mission. He had Maria's camera and he wasn't afraid to use it. My battery had run out so I was bored and over it.

The gardens were divine, the flowers showing their last sets of summer floral dresses. I tried to be inhe moment and remind myself of where I was. In VERSAILLES! but storms beat palaces any day!

ventually, as the heavens opened up and I realised that there was at least 500 meters between us and the buildings, I tried very unsucessfully to share the south end of a topiary with another bedraggled and sopping tourist. Michael joined us, but there was no room in the inn!

We gave into Mother Nature and abandoned the saturated tree and ran quickly towards the palace as it thundered all around us and I think, some lightning was very close by. We raced up the steps, past the non working fountains and into the tunnel that separated the front from the backyard, then over those dreaded cobblestones and across the eddies of running riverlets that said storm had created. It was windy now and my jeans were glued to my backside from the rain. Now those Africans were selling umbrellas not Tour Eiffel statues at the front gates. Never let an opportunity we wasted in the name of a sale. My umbrella was in my bag in the car! Ugghh We eventually made it back to the car. I got changed between the shelter of two open doors and sat down. It was a grand spectacle in Versaille afterall! "Good", I said. One palace down, another 90 to go! NOT!

OMG it was actually quite funny watching Michael and Helen arrive back at the car. I looked up and there they were, sopping wet, bedraggled and looking positively defeated. And it was OK that Hel's jeans clung to her ass, because no matter what she says, it is quite shapely! Out came the towels, and while Michael went to pay the parking fee, Helen managed to get into some dry clothes - amazing how we lose our self consciousness when we really need to - I mean she was between the two opened car doors, shielded by the car parked next to us!

And so we head off. The rain is quite persistent, but the worst of the storm has been vented. As usual, I have programmed Kate to lead us away from the motorways. Its not too long before we're back in rural France - after about an hours travel we see a tourist sign for one of those amazing covered bridges and so there I go again, ignoring Kate and setting off down a road of exploration while she patiently and persistently tells me "in 100 m turn right" or "turn around when it is possible" - I have learned to just tune her out when I want to!!!

Eventually we end up in the town of Milly La Forêt without having seen the bridge, or any more signs to it. As we come in to the town and follow the road into the centre, I realise that it was not a covered bridge, but the Covered Market Place. These are amazing (this is not the first one we haved seen) - they are where once upon a time all the traders came together under shelter to offer their wares for sale. Some, but not many are still in use today for this purpose. I got the feeling that this was not one of them.

Luckily, this road takes us past Fontainbleau - another of the French royal estates. Although grand in its own scale, it is nowhere near as gaudy as Versailles. Happy to see it just from the outside, we linger for some photos from the car before we push on. After all, we still have 2.5 hours of travel to reach Dijon.

Its a joy to be travelling with Helen as there is again a sense of wonder and awe. I guess that with all the travel we have managed to cram into the last eight months, we have become a little blasé and now, we are getting our second wind and again starting to really appreciate the beauty of places new! The country is open with farmed lands being framed by forests and wooded areas. It looks cared for and used well. Intersperced with small villages and towns, aloof, once isolated country estates, often hidden behind high walls continue to amaze us with their size and dominance over the surrounding areas.

Helen was amazed that it was village after village after village, all so alike, and yet each unique with their own sense of style. Village houses are set right on the edge of the streets - ha ha, she comments about the "masterful manipluations of the driver's wheel around tight streets" - if only she knew what close really was! The colourfulness of the flower boxes not only on the houses, but on all the public infrastructure - lightposts, bridge railings etc. The homes appear to turn their shoulders to the streets, indifferent to the traffic that passes by on its way somewhere else. Before we reach our destination we pass through more than 50 and Helen tires of taking photos - you know, lots of those O Wow moments - and yet she continues, time and time again.

Finally we get into Dijon. Now, I made a fatal error - and the for the first time, have written down the address and phone number of the hotel where we are staying. All we can remember is that it was Hotel des Ducs, and I think it is near the railway station (turns out that was wrong - it was another one we were looking at). So I follow the signs for the Railway Station hopeing we will see a sign post to it. We are in new Dijon and are collectively unimpressed with what simply is another modern working city - almost without soul.

After driving around for a quarter of an hour or so, we pull up near one of the police stations and Michael is off - in search of directions. Hah, its the Police Headquarters and they close at 5 pm - its now pushing for 7 pm! Eventually, he finds a phone directory in a bar and we have a street name. And wouldn't you know it - Kate can't find it. Back he goes and gets the phone number. Eventually we phone the hotel - thankfully the receptionist speaks great English (it was such a blessing Latifa). She confidently gives us detailed directions complete with landmarks. At this point Helen comes up with the bright idea of asking Kate to find the street, not according to the fastest route, but rather by the most direct route - and golly gosh, there she has it! Its amazing that such a tiny choice can make such a huge difference - and I am glad that I have a truly lateral thinker in the car! She suggests that the police station might have a communications block in place - guess we will never know!

Ahh - this is more like it - we have reached the old town and Helen is absolutely agog! As we get close, the police have streets cordoned off - turns out there is a huge party in town tonight. Some famous European DJ is in and the whole town is out for a good time - pity the poor tourist trying to get to their hotel! A quick word with the Gendarme guarding the railing put up across the street though and we are through (the car park is literally just on the other side of the fence!) And getting in to the car park under the hotel was a whole other story - we just won't go there!!!)

We are tired and a little cranky. Latifa is wonderful, welcoming and calm and soothing. And pleasant and genuinely pleased when we ask for her recommendation for dinner. She suggests a local restaurant 'Les Clos des Capucines' that serves regional food, so unpacked, loo'ed we head off. Turns out it is just a block away and around the corner.

I was so glad in a way that we had cafe'd it in Paris. Now Helen is getting some of that great regional cuisine that we have been going on and on and on about. Interestingly, they are not busy - what with the concert on! Dinner tonight is an amazing affair - there are a couple of set menus and we all decide to choose from them. So here are our choices - it is a pity that blogspot does not have smell-a-vision or taste-a-vision. Words are not enough to describe the deliciousness of the meal - the creaminess, the richness, the cleanness of the tastes and the combinations of those tastes offered to us. Poor you!

We begin with an apperitif - Pastis 51 (which Helen doesn't like and so she then gets a Kir Royale, leaving me to drink two!) and poor Michael with Mineral Water. Out comes an appetiser - a doublet of salmon - one small rectangular cube of meat with a creamy mayonnaise and a tiny aspic covered vegetable and salmon set mousse. Oh god, have we died and landed in French heaven????

Entrees next - Michael has Terrine de foie gras maison et sa brioche (Terrine of foie gras and brioche) and Helen and I each have Paris-brest de St Jacques sauce époisses (Scallops)

Mains were: Helen - Tulipe d'homard et gambas girolle á la fleur d'hibiscus (Lobster and prawns) while Michael chose the Emincé de Lotte au cumin et crevettes sauce truffe (Sliced Monkfish with Cumin Shrimp and Truffle Sauce) and I had Caille et grenoille cuite à la graisse et sa figue (Quail and frog cooked in fat and fig - OMG have just transalted and realised I had frogs legs!!!!)

This was followed by cheese (as you do in France) with Michael and I enjoying Ronde de fromages - a selection of three morsels, a goats cheese, a reblochon and a mature camembert while Helen had Fromage Blanc - a cultured cheese with a soured cream. They bought salt and pepper and sugar for her to add should she want - either savoury or sweet - she opted for neither.

Then it was dessert - another O My God moment. We ordered one each of the three offerings (just as we had done with the mains)! Michael got Gratin de raisin á la crème d'amande, Helen had Gauffre aux fruits exotiques avec sa glace sauce violette and I had Autour de la poiré.

Chef Felipe Vasquez has worked wonders with this menu. His young apprentice has made my pear tastes for dessert and Christelle and her staff have provided superb service to us during the night. VERY highly recommended should you ever find yourself in Dijon.

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