The Magic of Venice in Winter

The Magic of Venice in Winter

Venice is unique, dazzlingly so. It’s a fabled destination that belongs on everyone’s European bucket list. A distinction that during the tourist season, from Easter thorough October, turns the city of the Doges into a chaotic citywide museum, overrun by millions de visitors. At the height of the summer rush, cruise ships alone can unleash a daily stampede of up to 30,000 day-trippers onto the tiny island city. In the narrow lanes and lovely little squares along the de-rigueur circuit from the Piazza San Marco to the Rialto Bridge, foot traffic slows to a shuffle, and lines for anything from entering the Basilica to buying a gelato can reach epic proportions. But come winter, the crowds fade away and the magic of centuries past returns. The Serenissima becomes once again serene.

The Romance of Winter

Italy-Venice mist.

A gauzy mist spreads over the lagoon.

Venice is a winter place, romantic and mysterious, especially when fog drifts in across the lagoon, swathing the whole city in a gauzy mist. Come evening it becomes an eerie place where footsteps echo along empty alleyway. It can be damp too, downright wet actually when acqua alta (high tide) blurs the line between lagoon and pavement. Boardwalks are quickly set up as water rises, and pedestrians walk on unconcerned. And it can get bitingly cold when the wind whips down from the Dolomites, adding a bitter edge to the damp air as it clears the sky to a crystalline blue. Time to wrap up warmly and enjoy the exquisite golden light that brushes the lacey façade of the ancient Byzantine palazzos.

Italy-Venice canal at night

The canals become eerily quiet on winter nights.

Winter is the time when Venetians bring out their fur coats and their perfectly groomed little dogs bundled in stylish quilted jackets. Of course there are still tourists, there always are, but they are few and mainly focused on their own artistic pursuits. Local people go about their business and stop to chat in the small neighborhood squares. And this is hot chocolate season, time to dive into a cozy café for an afternoon cup of decadently rich cioccolata calda and perhaps a frittella, the plump little doughnut oozing with sweetened ricotta or zabaglione that is a pre-Lenten staple. Everywhere the mood is one of conviviality unknown once the tourists take over.

It is this wintery Venice that cast its spell on me decades ago, on the November weekend of my first visit, and draws me back every few years. Over time, I have set for myself a few necessities for an ideal Venice sojourn.

Arrive by Train

Italy-Venice train.

The train reaches the lagoon with the morning light.

Not just any train mind you, but the overnight train from Paris, one of a handful of sleeper trains still operating in Western Europe. This is not your Agatha Christie sort of train, but a comfortable, moderately priced no-frill one (complimentary welcome glass of Prosecco served with dinner in the cafeteria-style dining car notwithstanding). The private cabin I am sharing with my girlfriend is made up into two bunk beds while we dine. Traveling at pre-high-speed pace over the Alps and down the Po Valley, we ease into Venice rested, just in time to watch the sun rise over the lagoon.

Italy-Venice San Simone

Voyagers step off the train right onto the Grand Canal.

It doesn’t get any better than a morning arrival at the Santa Lucia train station, where you step out straight onto a Canaletto painting of the Grand Canal, with the regrettable but necessary contemporary addition of a major vaporetto (water bus) hub. The sudden transition into the timeless universe of Venice feels a bit surreal.

Take the Vaporetto

Italy-Venice Zattere.

The Canal of the Giudecca. offers a unique view of the Zattere Promenade.

Venice may be a puzzle of 118 islands stitched together by 400 foot bridges, but constrained within its watery boundaries, the overall city is actually quite small (about 4.5 kilometers, or 2.75 miles east to west, and 2.5 kilometers, or 1.75 miles north to south), making it possible to walk just about everywhere. Although we could walk from Santa Lucia to our Dorsoduro District hotel in about the time it takes reach it by vaporetto, only a boat approach will do. As soon as it has extricated itself from the traffic in front of the station and circled the western tip of the island, the vaporetto enters the broad outer Canal of the Giudecca. The familiar stretch of the Dorsoduro’s Zattere Promenade comes into focus, punctuated by the soaring classical façade of the Church of Santa Maria del Rosatio glowing in the morning sun. From here, Venice unfurls itself in all its splendor.

Stay in the Dorsoduro

Italy-Venice San Trovaso.

The Squero di San Trovaso is oldest gondola yard in Venice.

Located on the south side of the Grand Canal, right across from the San Marco district, the Dorsoduro is my favorite place to stay, for its authentic lived-in neighborhood atmosphere and relaxed pace. Here, housewives roll their small shopping carts to the market in the morning, and children play in the squares after school. On the San Troveso Canal that links the Giuadeca to the Grand Canal, the city’s oldest working gondola yard, the 17th century Squero di San Trovaso, one of the last two surviving in Venice, is still bustling with activity.

Italy-Venice Ca Foscari

The Ca’ Foscari University overlooks the Grand Canal.

Home to several of Venice’s leading museums, including the Gallerie dell’Accademia (Venetian paintings) and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (modern art), the Dorsoduro is also the main university area of the city. Both the Ca’ Foscari University and the Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts) are located here. Between classes, students fill the small, convivial cafés that serve inexpensive ciccheti (small snacks) at all hours. These are fun places where to pop in for a quick lunch.

But for now, lunch is still some ways off and our room won’t be ready “until afternoon.” We entrust our luggage to the desk clerk and head out to enjoy a favorite Venice pastime: wander along back alleys, cross narrow stepped bridges and peer through open doorways into hidden garden. Just get lost for a while and let the city reveal itself.

Italy-Venice Dorsoduro

Vaporetto approach of the Dorsoduro.

Good to Know

  • Getting thereThello is a subsidiary of Trenitalia (Italian Railways) formed to operate trains between the Paris Gare de Lyon and Venezia Santa Lucia railway stations with stops in Dijon, Milano Brescia, Verona, Vicenza and Padova. The refurbished Wagons-Lits Company sleeping-cars were originally built from 1964 to 1974. Each has 12 compartments with their own washbasins, usable as single, double or triple berths. Basic couchette cars with four and six berths are also available.
  • Getting aroundVaporetto The Venice public transports company, ACTV, runs efficient and punctual vaporetto lines all around the city and the outlaying islands of the lagoon. Single fare tickets are €7.5 (approximately $10 at current exchange rate). If you plan to use vaporetti frequently, travel cards are available for unlimited travel during a set period of time (24, 48 and 72 hours, or one week) at greatly reduced rates. Tickets and cards may be purchased at vaporetto stops. Time begins when you first validate your card at the yellow machine located at each vaporetto stop. Traghetto – If this ultimate Venitian tourist cliché otherwise known as a gondola ride is on your bucket list but you are put off by the extortionate rates, consider a taking a traghetto, the gondola service used by locals to cross the Grand Canal between its four widely spaced bridges. Traghetti usually run from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm at six crossing points. Rates are € 2 per crossing for non-residents.
  • Staying – There is an over-abundance of short-term lodging options throughout Venice, ranging from efficiency apartments to internationally famous luxury hotels. Prices soar during the tourist season, but return down to earth in winter. For years, my personal favorite place to stay has been La Calcina, Dorsoduro 780, Fondamenta della Zattere, 30123 Venice. While this property, family-run for generations, had long since been fully modernized, it had retained the unpretentious feel of a genteel pensione reminiscent of the days when the famous 19th century British author and art critic John Ruskin  was a long time resident there. However, on this last stay, the property had recently changed ownership. While sweeping view of the Giuadecca Canal, attentive service and realistic prices remained, the public areas had experienced a complete “update” to the stage-set style that is the norm in many Venice hotels. Our room was still unchanged but there was considerable work in progress on the upper floors of the hotel. and it’s anybody’s guess what may become of La Calcina in the near future. Contact: tel + 39 (0) 41 52 06 466, email: info@lacalcina.com.

Location, location, location!

Venice

Written in Stone – Two Thousand Years of Lyon History

Written in Stone – Two Thousand Years of Lyon History

The Romans called it Lugdunum and made it the capital of Gaul. Today it’s Lyon, the third largest city in France and a unique metropolitan center with a 2,000-year history as a commerce, banking and industry powerhouse. Along the way, every phase of its evolution left substantial marks on its architectural and cultural heritage. From Roman ruins to Renaissance mansions to contemporary skyscrapers, few cities anywhere can boast such diversity in their urban structure.

Take it from the Top

France-Lyon Panoramic view

A panoramic view of Lyon, seen from the top of Fourvière hill.

Like the Romans before me, I head for the best vantage point in the area, the top of Fourvière, the steep hill that dominates the town and overlooks the confluence of the Saône and Rhone rivers. High above the west bank of the Saône, they founded the city they called Lugdunum, as a nod to Lug, a Gallic Zeus-type whose temple they appropriated for their urban development project. From here, the spectacular view over the red-tiled roofs of the city seems to go on forever. It illustrates clearly the march of history that shaped Lyon, from its Roman hilltop downward to the river then across it to the Presqu’ile district, the narrow peninsula that separates it from the Rhone, before continuing its eastward expansion.

France-Lyon Basilica

The Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière.

Today, on the spot where the Roman Forum once stood, the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière, a nineteenth century architectural extravaganza where neo-Byzantine style meets Gothic revival, looks like a distant relative of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Castle. It was built with private funds from the local population, to thank the Virgin Mary for protecting the city from a Prussian invasion during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. The interior is a testimonial to the full extent of their gratitude. Venetian-style gold mosaics, gilt, marble work and soaring stained glass windows cover every inch of the structure. The Basilica is considered (for better or for worst) Lyon’s most emblematic monument.

France - Lyon Roman Theater

The Grand Roman Theatre.

A few minutes’ walk south of the Basilica, the Grand Roman Theatre, built in 15 B.C., is the oldest of its kind in France. Excavated and restored in the early twentieth century, it is now used through June and July for the Nuits de Fourvière (Fourviere Nights) Music Festival.

 

 

 

Downward through the Ages

The Palais des Gadagne, today Museum of Lyon History is a prime exemple of Renaissance architecture.

The Palais des Gadagnes, today Museum of the History of Lyon is a prime exemple of the city’s Renaissance architecture.

From the Basilica I wander down toward the Saône into the Vieux Lyon (The Old Lyon), one of Europe’s largest (424 hectares or 1.63 square mile) and best-preserved Renaissance neighborhoods. Because the area is tightly constrained between the river and the steep Fourvière hillside, architects of the time must build upward. They develop for their predominantly Italian banker patrons a unique style inspired by the Florentine Renaissance palazzi. The resulting multi-storied mansions open onto narrow internal courtyards with open spiral staircases leading to arched galleries and loggias that make the most of light and air circulation.

Secret Passages

France-Lyon Traboule

A traboule leads to the interior coutryard and the well  of the mansion commissioned by Antoine Bullioud.

The streets of the Old Lyon are few, narrow and running parallel to the hillside. To facilitate traffic and save time, another unique architectural feature develops: the traboules (from the Latin trans-ambulare or walking through). These warren-like arched corridors run mainly perpendicular to the river. By linking houses through their shared interior courtyards, they allow pedestrians to easily pass from one street to the next.

These Renaissance homes are still inhabited and the traboules still in use. Some of the passageways and courtyards are open to the public (maps are available at the Tourism Information Center), offering to visitors a rare glimpse at their remarkably well-preserved architectural heritage.

France-Lyon Rue Juiverie

The Rue Juiverie still retains the signs of long-ago artisans.

Nowadays the maze of narrow cobblestone streets of the Old Lyon, which still bear the names of their medieval past like Rue du Boeuf (Ox Street) or Rue des Trois Maries (Three Maries Street), are closed to traffic. Storefronts have mainly been taken over by businesses catering to the throngs of tourists, but it still makes for a pleasant stroll. In addition to window-shopping, every upward glance reveals facades with grinning figureheads, elaborate garlands or other historic details. One of my favorites is the Rue Juiverie with its many ancient signs recalling the shops of long-ago artisans.

The Cathedrale Saint Jean

France-Lyon Astronomical Clock

The Cathedrale Saint Jean’s astrological clock.

Eventually my roaming leads me to the Cathedrale Saint Jean. Built in the course of three centuries starting in 1165, it has a Romanesque apse and choir, while the nave and façade are gothic. But arguably the most unique feature of the cathedral is the towering fourteenth century astronomical clock located in the north transept. A spectacular feat of technology, it springs into action at noon, 2:00 pm, 3:00 pm and 4:00 pm, with a cockerel singing, angels heralding, the archangel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Marie and God blessing the whole performance. Adjoining the cathedral, the Manécanterie (choir school) is notable for its twelfth century Romanesque façade.

The Bouchons Lyonnais

Following the thread of history is hungry work, and by now I have developped Bouchon-worthy appetite. The Bouchon is a quintessential part of the Lyonnais cultural heritage.

France-Lyon Bouchon

Salad of red cabbage with lardons is a typical Bouchon fare.

Named after the bunch of twisted straw that designated restaurants at the time, the first Bouchons originate on the Croix-Rousse hill, where the silk industry flourishes in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. They are small eateries that cater to the workers with hearty meals based on local staples and washed down with a pitcher of wine. The wife is at the stove, devising thrifty ways to prepare the most humble cuts of the ubiquitous pork meat and put yesterday’s leftovers to good use, while the husband sees to the patrons and manages the wine cellar.

Le Bouchon des Filles

Today, there are hundreds of Bouchons scattered around the city, of varying degree of quality and authenticity. This being my first visit to Lyon, I follow the recommendation of a local acquaintance and head for Le Bouchon des Filles.

France-Lyon Bouchon des Filles

Le Bouchon des Filles is a favorite with locals and tourists alike.

Opened a decade ago by two women chefs who wanted to “bring a lighter touch to authentic Bouchon fare”, this cozy little place tucked on a side street at the foot of the Croix-Rousse is definitely a keeper. Its stereotypical crimson walls, ancient beamed ceiling and checkered napkins are a perfect backdrop for the copious four-course set menu served at the friendly price of 26 Euros per person. The first course is a trio of generous shared salads: red cabbage with lardons, curried lentils, and carrots with pickled herrings on the day of my visit. Then the main course choices include local specialties like andouillette (tripe sausage) and boudin grillé (grilled blood sausage) or, for the less adventurous palate, pike croquette in crayfish cream sauce or hanger steak with peppercorns. With cheese and dessert yet to follow, I remark that if this is Bouchon Light, I can’t imagine ever considering Bouchon Classic!

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Lyon is easily reached by rail, with several direct TGV (high speed trains) connections throughout the day from Paris (2 hours), Lille (3 hours) Strasbourg (3 hours and 30 minutes) and Marseille (1hour and 40 minutes) as well as Geneva (2 hours). Lyon Saint Exupery airport, with connections to Paris, Geneva and other major European cities is located 20 kilometers east of the city. The Rhonexpress light-rail link offers easy access to the centre of Lyon in just 30 minutes. Note: Lyon has two main train stations. All TGV high-speed train services come into the new Lyon Part Dieu station, on the east side of the Rhone. Some continue, along with many local trains, to the old main station at Perrache, on the Presqu’ile, one kilometer south of the main square in the city, Place Bellecour.
  • Getting around – Lyon’s public transportation system, known as TCL is regarded as one of the most efficient in the country. There are four metro lines (A to D), five tramway lines (T1 to T5) and over 100 bus lines that cover the entire Lyon metropolitan area.
  • What to do – With so much to see and do within the city of Lyon, it is a good idea to start with a visit to the Office de Tourisme (Tourism Information Center), Place Bellecour. Located at the southwestern corner of the square, it is open daily open daily from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. Contact: E-mail: info@lyon-france.com, Tel: +33 (0) 4 72 77 69 69.
  • Where to eat – Le Bouchon des Filles, 20 Rue Sergent Blandan, Lyon, is open every day from 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm as well as Saturday and Sunday from 12:00 to 1:30 pm. Reservations a must. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 4 78 30 40 44.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Old Lyon

Beyond the Louvre – The Other Museums of Paris

Beyond the Louvre – The Other Museums of Paris

There are close to 200 museums within the Paris city limits, illustrating every imaginable topic. Yet, ask any visitor to the City of Lights and the first, often the only one, they will name is the Louvre.

The Louvre Always Comes First

France-Paris Louvre Venus of Milo

Aphrodite, better known as the “Venus de Milo” is one of the most visited treasures of the Louvre.

No surprise here. As one of the oldest (circa 1793), and with over 38,000 pieces of art displayed across more than 60,000 square meters (646,000 square feet) of permanent exhibits space, the Louvre has long captured the imagination of tourists everywhere. It attracts 10 million visitors annually, often mainly intent on catching a glimpse of three legendary women: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and two ancient armless Greek beauties, the Venus de Milo and Nike of Samothrace (also known as Winged Victory). During the high season, lines can stretch for hours in front of the Louvre’s central entrance glass pyramid.

Another Crowd-Pleaser

France-Paris Musée d'Orsay View

In addition to its rich art collection,the Musée d’Orsay is graced with a terrace that offers a spectacular view of the Seine.

A short walk across the Seine, the Musée d’Orsay is another crowd-pleaser that also draws sizeable lines. Its collection spans the years 1848 to 1914, an exceptionally inspired time that saw the birth of impressionism, postimpressionism and art nouveau. All the giants of the period are represented, from Dégas, Manet, Monet and Renoir to Pissaro, Cézanne and Van Gogh. Fittingly, their home is a superb example of Belle Epoque architecture, the former Gare d’Orsay, a train station built to coincide with the 1900 Paris World Fair.

But long lines are not a prerequisite for an enjoyable museum experience in central Paris. Within a fifteen-minute walk radius of the Musée d’Orsay, three of my personal line-free favorites immediately come to mind. And in addition to stimulating exhibits, they offer welcoming exterior spaces where you can enjoy a quick meal or just relax, away from the constant din of the city.

Musee du Quai Branly

France-Paris Branly Vegetal Facade

In addition to its lush gardens, the Museum also features a luxuriant vegetal façade designed by botanist Patrick Blanc.

Inaugurated in 2006, the newest of Paris’ major museums, the Musée du Quai Branly is dedicated to the indigenous art and cultures from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Its collections include almost 370,000 works ranging from the Neolithic period to the twentieth century, only one percent of which are on display at any given time either in permanent or temporary thematic exhibits.

Equally remarkable for its architecture and surroundings as it is for its collections, the Musée du Quai Branly sits on the left bank of the Seine, just a five-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. As you step into the high translucent glass enclosure that isolates it from the busy riverside drive, you are embraced by an exuberant 18,000 square meter (4.5 acre) wilderness created by noted French landscaper and botanist Gilles Clement. You may want to lose yourself in its detours, or enjoy a picnic break on one of the benches tucked into its many shaded spots before finding your way to the discrete entrance of the exhibit space.

A Jean Nouvel Masterpiece

France -Paris Musee Branly Main Gallery

The bridge-like main building appears to rest on the treetops.

For the main building, which contains the galleries of the museum, world-renowned French architect Jean Nouvel created a 210-meter (690 foot) long bridge, anchored at both ends with concrete silos. Its center is held 10 meters (33 feet) above the garden on 26 steel columns. The maturing trees are beginning to hide the columns, giving the impression that the building is resting on the treetops. Inside, a winding ramp leads to the 200-meter (650-foot) long main gallery, a beautifully staged space evocative of mysterious primeval forests with only the barest amount of natural light filtering through. Direct lighting focuses only on the displays of the collection. Two mezzanines dedicated to temporary exhibits look down on the gallery.

A Marquesas Islands Journey

France-Paris Quai Branly Matahoata.

A display of ancient ceremonial drums of the Marquesas Islands.

What brings me to the Quai Branly today is a stunning exhibition: Matahoata, Art and Society in the Marquesas Island. The Marquesas, a major source of inspiration for post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin and his final resting place, form one of the most remote archipelagoes of French Polynesia. The exhibit traces the development of the sophisticated Marquesan artistic tradition through the times preceding the incursion of westerners at the end of the nineteenth century. From this baseline, it leads the viewer through the cultural mix that ensued, and illustrates how the islanders managed to preserve the main codes of their ancestral culture while incorporating the outsiders’ perspective. A remarkable feat that not only enabled the traditional culture to endure, but also paved that way for the current revival of traditional arts. Overall, a virtual journey so inspiring that it has propelled the Marquesas to the top of my travel wish list!

Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

France-Paris Art Moderne Dunant

The gold-lacquered Art Deco panel (circa 1935) by Jean Dunant originally dominated the décor of the first class smoking lounge of the SS Normandie.

Just across the Seine from the Quai Branly, the City of Paris Museum of Modern Arts offers one of France’s richest and most vibrant reflections of the contemporary art scene. With about 10,000 works in its collections and a vast permanent exhibition space where works are rotated periodically, it is a dynamic representation of all the artistic currents that shaped the twentieth century and the present art scene. All the great names are represented in this context, from Picasso, Modigliani, Derain, Picabia and Chagall to today’s Boltanski, Parreno and Peter Doig. There are also several temporary themed exhibits per year. A recent visit allowed me to discover Paula Modersohn Becker, a remarkable German early expressionist, regrettably deceased at 31.

An entire hall is dedicated to La Fée Electricité by Raoul Duffy.

An entire hall is dedicated to La Fée Electricité by Raoul Dufy.

The building itself is emblematic of the architecture of the 1930’s, with a vast terrace and reflecting pool overlooking the river. Its soaring interior spaces enable the museum to feature unique permanent installations such as the first, unfinished version of The Dance by Matisse, and Raoul Dufy’s monumental fresco, La Fee Electicité   (The Electricity Fairy) originally commissioned for the entrance hall of the Pavilion of Light and Electricity at the in Paris 1937 International Exposition.

The Petit Palais

France-Paris Petit Palais Cloister.

A cloistered garden retreat in the heart of Paris.

Le Petit Palais is a Beaux Arts extravaganza built to hold a major exhibit of French art during the 1900 Exposition Universelle. Think of it as a human-scale Louvre without the lines. All of its works have been donated by various collectors and range in time from Greek antiquity to the end First World War. I especially enjoy their rich Art Nouveau and Art Deco exhibit. But my favorite part of the Petit Palais is its lovely vaulted cloister and lush central garden that offer an unexpectedly secluded retreat right in the heart of the city.

Good to Know

 

  • It’s Free! Entrance to the exterior spaces of the Musée du Quai Branly, the Musée d’Art Modern and the Petit Palais is free. All three have above average cafeteria-style restaurants where you can grab a tray (or if you prefer, bring your own) and enjoy a relaxing lunch or snack in a gorgeous environment. Additionally, like at all other City of Paris-owned museums, at the Musée d’Art Moderne and Petit Palais, entrance to the permanent collection is always free of charge. Only the temporary exhibits have an entrance fee.
  • Visiting – Musée du Quai Branly, 37 Quai Branly, 75007 Paris. Open Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm and Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11:00 am to 9:00 pm. Closed Monday. Contact: Tel: +33 (0)1 56 61 70 00. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 11 Avenue du Président Wilson, 75116 Paris.Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed Monday. Contact:  Tel: +33 1 53 67 40 00. Petit Palais, Avenue Winston Churchill, 75008 Paris. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed Monday. Contact:  Tel: +33 (0)1 53 43 40 00.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Museum of the Quai Branly

My Favorite Table in Aix-en-Provence

My Favorite Table in Aix-en-Provence

Hard to imagine that in the historic center of Aix-en-Provence, where even the tiniest of squares is crammed with bistro terraces thick with tourists, cookie-cutter menus and hurried waiters, there still exist an intimate heaven where you can enjoy imaginative cuisine and considerate service in a relaxed atmosphere.

A Seasonal Feast

France-Aix Table Relaxed Atmosphere.

An intimate heaven of imaginative cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere.

Until I stumble onto La Table des Saisons, an unassuming little hole-in-the-wall on a narrow cobbled lane of the old town, somewhere between the throbbing, cigarette smoke-filled Place des Augustins and the trendy Place des Cardeurs. The jewel-like pastries lined in the refrigerated display case by the open French doors first catch my eye. But before I have a chance to consider skipping dinner and going straight to dessert, the plat de la semaine (weekly special) announced on the blackboard by the door straightens things out. Herb-encrusted filet of cod, served with a zucchini and red-pepper custard, carrot puree and baby string beans? Yes please! My friend, a red meat aficionada, is already sold on the filet of Charolais beef, the most prized cattle meat in France, served en croute, (in puff-pastry, Wellington-style) with shallot and port wine sauce.

France-Aix special cod.

Herb-encrusted filet of cod weekly special.

These simple dishes are flawlessly prepared to order and artfully presented with garnishes of spring vegetable. Because of our disparate choices of main courses we order wine by the glass, pleasing local offerings at friendly prices recommended by our knowledgeablel server. I won’t pretend we’ve left room for dessert, but we indulge anyway. My pistachio Bavarois over a “heart” fresh cherries is pure poetry! And a taste of the exquisite lemon cheesecake earns it top billing on my “next time” list.

A Family Affaire

France-Aix local artists.

The decor makes room for works by local artists.

La Table des Saison is a chef-owned family affaire. In the open kitchen, Lionel officiates with the enthusiasm and efficiently of a one-man orchestra. In the dining room, Martina welcomes guests with all the attention of a gracious hostess. The atmosphere is warm, the décor unpretentious. Comfortable wicker chairs, tables set with casual linen, soft lighting and art by local artists all around the room (yes, it is for sale in case you happen to fall in love with a particular piece).

Filet of Charolais en croute, with shallot and [ort wine sauce.

Filet of Charolais en croute, with shallot and port wine sauce.

The menu, a showcase of ultra-fresh seasonal ingredients from the market and local artisan suppliers, offers a range of options to satisfy the varied demands of the guests. There are imaginative grandes salades: Quinoa taboule with magret de canard (quinoa with grilled duck breast, cherry tomatoes, garden fresh radishes and cucumbers, sautéed baby carrots and black olives, served on a bed of mesclun). Tempting. But so is the Mediterranean-style vegetarian candied zucchini salad, bursting with roasted vegetable, pine nuts and the chef’s own pesto. Then there are the tartes salées (savory pies) that also make for a satisfying lunch or light dinner: red snapper with tapenade or goat cheese and cherry tomatoes. Both are served with a choice a mixed greens or assorted spring vegetable at the time of my visit.

France-Aix Tapenade.

This week’s special is rabbit with tapenade.

But my favorite remains the plat de la semaine available Monday through Friday, a new one offered each week. On my second visit it’s a succulent rabbit leg, in Lionel’s homemade mild tapenade sauce, served with grilled polenta triangles, crunchy string beans, and more of that lovely zucchini and red pepper custard.

 

Guilty Pleasures

France-Aix Bavarois.

Pistachio Bavarois filled with fresh cherries.

By now, La Table des Saisons is my own guilty pleasure in Aix. I stop for coffee and one of their irresistible pastries in the afternoon whenever I am in the neighborhood. And I manage one more visit on my recent stay there, a late lunch antidote to a particularly hectic morning. It’s Saturday, no plat de la semaine today. No problem though, as I have had my eye on one particular item on the regular menu. For me, it’s Gigot d’agneau de Sisteron today, a pan-grilled steak of delicate milk-fed lamb from the Provencal Alps, just one hour north of here, served with garlic cream sauce and eggplant “caviar”. As I pause by the door to let a young woman pass by, she whispers confidentially: “tout est très bon içi ,” and vanishes without breaking stride. The word is out: everything is delicious here!

Good to Know

  • La Table des Saisons, 6 Rue Lieutaud, Aix-en-Provence, France, latabledessaisons.com, is open 12:00 noon to 5:00 pm on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, 12:00 noon to 10:00 pm on Friday and Saturday, and 12:00 noon to 6:00 pm on Sunday. It is closed on Wednesday. Reservations are prudent on weekend. Contact: e-mail contact@latabledessaisons.com. Tel: +33 (0)4 42 22 97 07.
  • The overall menu is seasonal, updated every couple of months to take full advantage of local offerings at their prime.
  • Lionel, who originally trained as a pastry chef, creates some of the most tempting desserts ever, showcasing local seasonal fruit. His creations can be enjoyed on site, or purchased to go.
  • In addition to featuring vegetarian options on the menu, Lionel is happy to recommend choices and substitutions for gluten-intolerant guests.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Table des Saisons

The Hallowed Beaches of Normandy

The Hallowed Beaches of Normandy

One of the pivotal moments of modern history was written on June 6, 1944, on remote beaches and cliffs of the Normandy coastline in northern France.

 

France-Normandy Caen Peace Memorial.

The Caen Peace Memorial illustrates the events of D-Day.

Today, the picturesque villages along this 85 kilometer (53 mile) stretch of English Channel, with names like Ouistreham, Arromanches, Colleville-sur-Mer and Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, are remembered the world over under very different names. They are evermore immortalized as the places where allied troops from Britain, Canada and the United States landed under fire on beaches code-named Juno, Sword, Gold, Omaha and Utah. This, the largest amphibious assault in history, set in motion the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi occupation and the ultimate resolution of the Second World War.

France-Normandy Beaches

The D-Day Beaches of Normandy are forever remembered by their landing code names.

By now, history books document with chilling clarity the epic scope this opening assault. And famed movies such Darryl Zanuck’s 1962 “The Longest Day” and Steven Spielberg’s 1998 “Saving Private Ryan” are vivid illustrations of the horrific cost of reclaiming lost freedom. But I never fully grasped the extent of the heroism of the 150,000 men of D-Day until my recent visit to “this tiny sliver of sand upon which hung more than the fate of a war, but the course of human history.” (President Obama, at the June 6, 2014 D-Day Anniversary, Omaha Beach, Normandy).

The Caen Peace Memorial

My D-Day itinerary starts at the Caen Peace Memorial. Inaugurated in 1988, the stark memorial complex stands on the site of an old bunker on the northern outskirts of Caen.

France-Normandy Caean Memorial Facade.

The small entrance door in the center the façade of the Peace Memorial symbolizes the Allies’ breach of the “impregnable” Nazi Atlantic Wall.

The main exhibit space, which focuses on the causes and consequences of the Second World War, is entered via a descending spiral staircase lined with photograph panels illustrating a detailed chronology of the rise of Nazism. Exhibits include models of bunkers, battleships and battlefields, artifacts from the French Resistance, a tribute to the Holocaust and outstanding video presentations of D-Day, showing the events from the Allied and German perspectives on a split screen.

France-Caen American Garden.

The American D-Day Commemoration Garden at the Caen Peace Memorial.

A new wing added in 2002 covers the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attacks of September 11, 2001. (n.b. The Caen Memorial was the first museum outside of the United States to display artifacts from 9/11).

The museum is surrounded by serene gardens that commemorate the allied forces: the Garden of Canada, the American Garden and the British Garden. I find them to be meditative spaces that invite to reflection on the necessity of finding lasting peace.

 

La Pointe to Hoc

France - Normandy La Pointe to Hoc.

Utah Beach seen from la Pointe du Hoc.

Between Utah Beach to the west and Omaha Beach to the east, the cliffs form a sheer promontory towering thirty meters (100 feet) above a narrow strip of rocky beach. This is the Pointe du Hoc, a strategic point where the Germans had established a network of interconnected bunkers with a heavy artillery battery capable of raking a long stretch of the coastline.

 

France-Pointe Hoc Stone

A giant standing stone at the edge of the Pointe du Hoc cliff honors the memory of the U.S. Second Ranger Battalion.

Although Allied bombardments had repeatedly targeted the position in the weeks leading up to D-Day, there was no guarantee that they had neutralized it. The decision was therefore taken to attack the position at dawn on D-Day. The men of the U.S. Second Ranger Battalion scaled those cliffs under enemy fire only to face heavy fighting in a lunar landscape pockmarked with bomb craters at the top. They took and held the position for two days before they could be relieved. Of the 225 commandoes that stormed the beach, only 90 were still standing, many of them wounded.

La Pointe du Hoc is now a hallowed site that has remained mainly untouched since then. France erected the Second Ranger Battalion Monument, shape like a gigantic menhir (ancient Breton language for standing stone) soaring toward the sky at the edge of the cliff to honor the memory of the US Rangers who fought and died here.

Omaha Beach

France-Normandy Omaha

Omaha Beach is just east of La Pointe du Hoc.

Omaha beach was the hardest fought and the costliest of the D-day landings. A combination of strong defensive positions and rough seas that caused the loss of most of the supporting tanks and artillery saw the first wave of American troops pinned down on the water’s edge. They endured grievous losses but held on as successive waves of reinforcing troops joined in. By nightfall in spite suffering over 2400 casualties, 34,000 men had landed and gained a hold on the beach and one mile of the immediate hinterland.

Sainte Mere l’Eglise

France-Normandy Paratrooper.

A model of Private Marvin Steele hangs from the steeple of Sainte-Mère-l’Eglise.

Located 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) inland from Utah beach, the western-most of the five invasion beaches, Sainte Mère l’Eglise was one of the first villages to be liberated in the night of June 6. US Airborne units parachuted in and around the village shortly after midnight, just as the entire village population was engaged in a bucket brigade to put out a major house fire right across from the church, under the watchful eye of the German occupiers. The paratroopers, clearly visible in the fire-lit sky, suffered heavy casualties. But by 4:30 am the Stars and Stripes was flying over the town. And Private John Marvin Steele had survived the night that was to make him an international celebrity (after it was related in “The Longest Day”). After his parachute lines fouled on the church steeple, he hung over the battleground for two hours before being cut down and taken prisoner. He managed to escape his captors and rejoin his unit a couple of days later.

The village remembers his story by keeping a replica of a paratrooper hanging from the church steeple. Meanwhile, inside the church, the sky-borne liberators are honored with two brilliant stained glass windows dedicated in 1972. One shows the Virgin Mary surrounded by airplanes and paratroopers, the second honors Saint Michael (patron saint of paratroopers).

The Normandy American Cemetery

France-Normandy Omaha

The Memorial features a large mosaic map of the military operations,

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is the most poignant memorial site I’ve ever visited. It stands on a verdant bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, on the ground of the first American cemetery on European soil in World War II, established as a temporary cemetery by the U.S. First Army on June 8, 1944. It is said to be on the very spot where they first reached the top of the bluff and breached the Nazi defenses overlooking Omaha beach.

France-Normandy American Cemetery.

Of the 9387 graves, 307 hold the remains of unknown soldiers.

The 70 hectare (172 acre) site, granted in perpetuity to the United States by the French government, contains the graves of 9,387 U.S. military dead, most of whom fell on the D-Day landings and ensuing operations, as well as Army Air Corp crews shot down over France as early as 1942. The Memorial consists of a semi-circular colonnade with a loggia at each end containing large mosaic maps and narratives of the military operations.

Then, beyond a long reflecting pool, the burial ground with its endless rows of neatly lined graves marked by white marble crosses and stars of David faces west toward the United States. Along with a long curved wall of white marble inscribed with 1,557 names that borders the semi-circular Garden of the Missing, it is a heart-wrenching reminder of the immeasurable price of war.

Good to Know

    • Getting There – The most efficient way to visit the beaches of Normandy is by car. It’s 340 kilometers (211 miles) via the A13 toll highway from the center of Paris to the Caen Peace Memorial. From there it’s about 130 kilometers (80 miles) meandering westward along the coastal country roads to Sainte Mère l’Eglise. Or it’s a two hours train ride from Paris, Gare Saint Lazare to Caen. From there, a number of tour companies offer various tours with pre-set itineraries of the main sites of the D-Day invasion.
    • Where to Stay – To make the most of my visit, I planned an overnight stay in the area. From hotels and country inns to bed and breakfasts and even camping grounds if weather cooperates, there are options to accommodate all preferences and budget. If in doubt, consult the tourist office site of the town you are considering for your stop over.
    • Visiting – Memorial de Caen, Esplanade du General Eisenhower, Caen. www.memorial-caen.fr. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 2 31 06 06 45. Consult the site for opening hours as they vary with the seasons. Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer. www.abmc.gov/cemeteries-memorials/europe/normandy. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 2 31 51 62 00. Open daily from 9:00am to 6:00pm. from April 15 to September 15 and from 9:00am to 5:00pm the remainder of the year. Closed on December 25 and January 1.The cemetery receives over one million visitors a year. The site is entered through the visitor center inaugurated in 2006 in a wooded grove just east of the Garden of the Missing.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

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