Monday, February 27, 2012

Deyrolle - A Taxidermist's dream shop in Paris

There is a fabulous shop in Paris that is worth visiting because of it's bizarre and quirky nature. It is called DEYROLLE and even if you do not like taxidermy it is incredibly captivating with an amazing collection of animals, insects, shells and many other natural curiosities. It has been in existence since 1831, and feels like a museum masquerading as a shop. Situated at 46 Rue de Bac, Paris, one enters the shopfront and goes to the upper floor where the sight awaiting you looks like something from Noah's Arc. Most of the product is available for purchase and although there are not many places a life-size giraffe or polar bear would look at home, one can not help but be amazed by the depth of the collection.

These photos from
I took these photos below before I saw the signs asking that one refrains from photographing the exhibits, so they are limited. It is certainly an amazing place to spend some time, and who knows, you may even come home with a stuffed peacock to grace your living room, or perhaps a book on one instead - much easier to get through customs! 

Markets in L'Isle-sur-la Sorgue, near Avignon France

We are still on a quest to find furniture for our house in Italy so last week, on our drive back from Paris, we visited a small town in southern France which is known to have a good Sunday market which includes food, local product and many stalls with antique and 'brocante' (old but not necessarily antique items). Even with a great deal of research markets can be 'hit & miss' and you are not sure if it is worthwhile until you get there. I suppose that is part of the fun, but it also means one has to have patience. This market is in a small town near Avignon called L'Isle-sur-la Sorgue, and the market is on Sunday morning 9am-1pm, about 1hr drive from where we were staying in Aix-en-Provence. It proved to be a very successful day and we now have a very nice solid timber table for our kitchen - about 60yrs old with a 'lived in' aesthetic which will suit our house, some beautiful French quilted bedcovers for the 2nd bedroom, and some worn looking French iron lattice armchairs to sit on our loggia.

Many of the antique stands are permanent sections (so slightly removed from the market part of the town) and although permanent are only open on 10am-5pm Saturday, Sunday and Monday. There were no real 'bargains' to be had, but there is an interesting and eclectic array of products which most stall owners were happy to negotiate on - which in effect is part of the fun of market hunting. Fossick, then negotiate negotiate negotiate - and be prepared to walk away! The food & produce market stalls close at 1pm and then everyone relaxes to the many restaurants around town to enjoy the local produce and a glass of wine.

Here are some of the photos I took while wandering the antique side of the market.

This table will soon be getting much use in our Italian kitchen

Time for a glass of wine and some local food after a successful day

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Chateau Amboise, Chenonceau & d'Azay-le-Rideau, and the Loire Valley

We left Paris a few days ago to drive through southern France back to Italy. We are not in a hurry and plan to take about a week or so, visiting a few places of interest as well as some local markets for possible furniture purchases for our little Italian home. I researched the drive and decided Amboise looked like a beautiful place to stay for a few days as it is centrally located in the Loire Valley, within easy reach of many of the superb chateaus. In Amboise we found a delightful hotel, 'Manoir Les Minimes', in a lovely position between the Loire river and chateau Amboise. Entirely decorated in beautiful French style this hotel was a charming place to relax and explore our surrounding for a few days. 
Hotel Manoir Les Minimes - I took this photo from Chateau Amboise
Interior sitting room of Hotel Manoir Les Minimes
The town of Amboise France
Along this stretch of the Loire river and its tributaries, which is an area of land 200 kilometres long and 100 kilometers wide, there are numerous chateaus which can be visited. We chose to visit the Chateaus of Amboise, Chenonceau and Azay-le-Rideau, although paring it back to just 3 was a difficult task.

Chateau Amboise dominants the town of Amboise with its imposing surrounding wall together with its setting high on the hill. It was the childhood home of King Francis 1 as the chateau was owned by his mother Louise of Savoy. As a guest of King Francis 1, Leonardo da Vinci came to Chateau Amboise in 1515 and lived and worked here until his death a few years later. King Henry II and his wife Catherine de Medici also raised there children in this chateau.

The private chapel of Chateau Amboise
The 2nd, Chateau Chenonceau is an absolutely superb building with an impressive pedigree of owners. The building that remains today was built in 1430's by French Renaissance architect Philibert Delorme. It was acquired by King Francis 1 through unpaid debts by its owner and after his death, King Henry II gave the chateau to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. It was Diane de Poitiers who instructed the planning of the arched bridge (and internal gallery) joining the chateau to the opposite river bank, but after King Henry's death, his wife, Catherine de Medici forced Diane de Poitiers to return the chateau to the crown (offering her Chateau Chaumont in exchange) and it was Catherine who then had the gallery built. Catherine de Medici enjoyed the chateau for many years, entertaining in it often. In 1788, it was Madame Louise Dupin who saved the chateau from destruction during the French revolution due to being loved by the town people plus her ability to convince them of its importance as a bridge across the Cher river. In WW1 the gallery was used as a hospital and WW2 it became an escape route, with the front door being in occupied zone and the opposite door to the other side being in Vichy France. Since 1913 it has been owned by the Menier family, but is opened for visits all year round. 

The proportion and scale of the architecture elicits a grand ambience, yet it still feels intimate and personal. The rooms are fitted out in the style of the furniture from various periods of its life with magnificent tapestries and portraits of its owners. We hired the audio guides (in an iPod format) which were very informative and interesting - in fact they were the best audio guides of any museum we have ever attended. This superb chateau was definitely our favourite, and I have since learnt it is the 2nd most visited chateau in France, after Versailles.
External view of Chateau Chenonceau showing the gallery built over river Cher to the opposite river bank

The bedroom of Diane de Poitiers

The bedroom of Catherine de Medici

Internal view of the Gallery where Catherine de Medici entertained with extensive banquets

The gardens incorporating a maze - note the central pond is largely frozen!
The 3rd Chateau we visited was Chateau d'Azay-le-Rideau built in 1515-1527 by Gilles Berthelot, Treasurer-General of Finances under King Francis 1. It was one of the earliest French Renaissance Chateaus. As Berthelot spent much time at the Kings court, it was his wife, Philippe Lesbahy who directed the building works including the open central staircase for which this chateau is famous. When Berthelot was suspected in collusion of embezzlement in 1528, we was forced to flee the chateau, never to see it again. Today it is owned by the government and able to be visited all year round.
Chateau d'Azay-le-Rideau 

This is a truly magnificent area of France with a great depth of history visible in its spectacular Chateaus. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Gorgeous Fitout for a Patisserie on RUE DU BAC Paris

I am always taken by beautiful design and when a shop selling every day products goes to exceptional effort to display their wares, I am even more delighted. This patisserie called "La Patisserie des RĂªves" at 93 Rue Du Bac in Paris's 7th is absolutely gorgeous. It uses a very clever system of weighted pulleys attached to glass domes to cover the pastries. When they want to access the delicious products below, the weighted end is drawn down to lift the glass dome. The walls are intermittently covered in pink, lime and orange perspex which acts as an upbeat backdrop to other products for sale. The end result is something that makes you smile as each item for sale is like a precious jewel. I felt like I was attending a sophisticated child's tea party out of a Lewis Carroll novel. Oh, and by the way.... the pastries are some of the best I have ever tried!

Reims - the beautiful Champagne region

A few days ago we took our conference group to Reims for a tour of the champagne region. As it is winter (and exceptionally cold) most champagne houses are closed to the public, but Marie-Pierre, our personal guide who is well known in the area, was able to open doors for us. The TGV train trip, reaching speeds of close to 300+km/hr is a quick 40minutes from Paris, so one can easily visit this area for a day trip. 

We began with a walk around the beautiful Gothic Cathedral in Reims, which last year celebrated its 800year anniversary. It has suffered significant problems in the corse of its life - major fires, the French Revolution and World war 1 all inflicted serious damage but each time has been repaired to its original form. Clovis, the first Christain king of France was baptised in this Cathedral by Saint Remi in 498-499 and since then, 25 coronations of kings of France, from Louis V111 in 1223 to Charles X in 1825, including the crowning of Charles V11 in 1429, in the presence of Joan of Arc, were also coronated here. The main construction was overseen by 4 different architects and lasted 80years. The Gothic arches and original stained glass windows over the entry portal are truly magnificent.

Following this we went to the Veuve Clicquot caves for a private tour. I have been to the caves on a previous visit, and am still surprised by the way times appears to have stood still in this underground labyrinth. Obviously there are signs that we live in 2012, (a small fork lift was operational  during our visit) but these 2012 signs are reasonably limited, and the dust of the caves and the original racks where the champagnes sit waiting to age, look like they have been there forever! Indeed their Cuvee de prestige champagne, La Grande Dame, is still even degorged (the process where the sediment is removed) by hand. The reason for this is that this bottle is a different shape and as such the bottles do not fit into the machine, plus being their premier product they prefer only the expert people to be involved in the process. The time involved in producing such a premier champagne makes one truly realise the price, although not small, is justified. 

Degorging (removing of the sediment in the neck of the bottle during the 2nd fermentation process) is a process discovered by Madame Clicquot and these original racks were designed by her for this process.   

This shows the sediment in the neck of the bottle prior to degorging  

Vintage Champagnes are only made in the years when the grapes are exceptional. Each time a vintage year is produced, this champagne house places a plaque to commemorate it.

After the tour of the caves we were all very much looking forward to tasting the product, and  our next stop was for a magnificent lunch with the venue being one of the chateaus owned by Veuve Clicquot. In the early 1800's, this chateau was given as a wedding gift to one of the men who controlled the business and was used as his family's summer house. Lunch was catered by a local restauranteur and consisted of 5 courses all matched with gorgeous vintage champagnes, beginning with Veuve Clicquot's premier champagne, La Grande Dame. A truly memorable day!
The Chateau in the midst of the vineyards where we had a beautiful lunch matched to vintage
Verve Clicquot champagnes
One of the sitting rooms within the chateau

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Snow in Citta della Pieve!

It has been a wild past 24hrs here. Our home is on the Umbrian Tuscan border in an area which has a reasonably temperate climate. It rarely sees snow, and if at all, only in a small way, however, the past 24hrs have seen some very unusual weather. It began snowing in the village late yesterday, and we were delighted, albeit surprised. This morning we woke to a winter wonderland, reminiscent of a European ski resort. And it didn't stop all day. School was cancelled, most non essential businesses were closed, the village children were having a delightful time throwing snow balls everywhere and the whole place had an atmosphere of a festival! It was such fun and I imagine something we will not see again for awhile. Apparently a cold front has hit Italy and many places that rarely see snow are covered. We are not sure how we will get our car out to leave tomorrow for Paris, but we will worry about that one in the morning!

The tables and chairs where we had a glass of Prosecco a few days ago
Our street!

Late this afternoon it started to clear and left the whole valley covered