Saturday, June 29, 2013

Florence: The Birth of the Renaissance

We arrived in Florence, Italy after 11 pm with other travelers from Paris.  We were surprised to not go through customs, and waited for a taxi.  Our driver whizzed into the heart of Florence, Piazza del Duomo, where the majestic and unreal Duomo and Baptistery still held court to swarms of people and our bed and breakfast's door was right smack in the square.  After buzzing in, we trudged up three flights of stairs to our quaint room, where we opened the shutters to what seemed like a painting view of the Duomo.

Those stairs were no match to our cravings for gelato, and we dropped our bags and went back for a few gelatos in the square for our first taste of Florence.  Bueno!

The next morning, a polite knock on the door signaled breakfast, brought to us by the lovely Mariana on a tray overflowing with cappucinnos, teas, juices, apricots, fruits, croissants, rolls, yogurts, nutellas, jams, butters, and more.  We enjoyed our Italian breakfast on our own private terrace before heading out for our reservations at the Galleria del Accademia to see Michelangelo's David.  Upon entering the gallery, we saw other statues by Michelangelo, but it was David that stopped us in our tracks.  Over 17 feet tall and carved with a chisel and hammer from one piece of marble,  this masterpiece carved by Michelangelo when he was 26 years old in 1501 is a feast for the eyes.

After our viewing, we strolled the streets of Florence, looking at all the leather bags and shoes, and found a mama and papa spot for lunch, where we dined on spaghetti.  We headed back out to find the Palazzo Riccardi, because  Moretown School has our own Riccardi, classroom teacher Patty Riccardi. This was one of the main palaces of the Medici family which ruled Florence for hundreds of years.  We noticed that in Italy, the grandeur of the palazzos, or palaces, is often hidden from view from the 1000 year old streets, but it is within the courtyards reached through strong iron gates where the magic lies.  Our walks in this labyrinth city always had us stumbling upon an ancient scene, be it a fountain, a piazza, a church, or a statue.  And in the height of the tourist season, we weren't the only ones from afar stumbling around!

Our Friday was filled with a full day tour with the Taste of Florence.  We met our Florentine guide, Tina, at a local meat shop  and spent the day sampling salamis, meats, balsamic vinegar, olive oils, cheeses, pates, local bakeries, the pasticcieria (the coccholi, one of our favorites, made with tomato and mozzarella), local wines, freshly fried fish from the Ligurian Sea  as we strolled the ancient food markets and streets in search of hand-crafted chocolates, and her secret spot for the best gelato in town.  It was an exploration of the tastes and flavors of this ancient Renaissance city, where food is prepared simply, with simply ingredients, from locally sourced farms and markets.  Delizioso!

We've only just arrived in Lucca and already are feeling a sense of serenity and calm in this medieval walled city, called "lovely" Lucca.  Ancient winding cobblestone streets led like a river to our sweet bed and breakfast, Evelina.  Sitting now with a terraced view overlooking an ancient campanile, laundry blowing in the breeze, we are looking forward to our evening out to listen to Puccini in the church where he was baptized, San Giovanni.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Loire Valley

After arriving by train from Paris into Tours, we navigated our way past fields upon fields of vineyards, wheat, and poppies to Chinon, a small medieval city on the banks of the Vienne in the Touraine section of the Loire Valley. What seemed a mirage in a distant field was actually our bed and breakfast in a real-deal chateau.  If one is in the Loire Valley to tour the chateaux, it is only fitting to stay in chateau, n’est pas?  Chateau Charge is now run as a bed and breakfast extraordinaire by a most lovely family.  Charlotte popped her head out of her Dutch door to welcome us, and we immediately started pinching ourselves as she showed us to our room.  Records of ownership date from 1429, the same year Joan of Arc visited Chinon to meet with the King of France, and our windowsills had etchings in the stone from the 1600s, a sort of ‘Philip was here, 1629’.   We enjoyed walking the grounds, meeting the menagerie of pets, chickens, sheep, including Caesar the donkey and Lola the goat and eased into what would become our ritual of dinner at the chateau, four courses prepared by Chef Franc for the exclusive enjoyment of the lucky guests at the small and charming Loire Valley Retreat.

                                                                            Chinon Fortress

And, oh, the chateaux and history of the Loire Valley!  It is simply too much to do in just one visit, or even a year’s worth of visits.  We choose to start with the medieval city and fortress of Chinon.  It creates a formidable and impressive impression along the steep banks of Chinon, and we spent well over four hours exploring turrets and dungeons, spiral staircases and ancient rooms that relayed the story of the fortress through tasteful vignettes played onto the old stone walls themselves: it literally was as if these walls could speak.  It was here that Joan of Arc road her horse to convince the King of France to go to war.  Her history is so entwined into Chinon’s story, and we look forward to exploring her biography with students, as she is an incredible female role model. A brand new dragon installation added a little bit of fun and flair, so we also took away the names of some dragons from many traditions, and thought of the myriad of ways we can weave their imagery into the study of fairy tales.

Entrance to Chinon Fortress

Chinon Fortress overlooking Vienne River.

We had just enough time left in the day to explore a chateau only ten minutes or so away from Chateau Charge, the Chateau du Rivau.  It’s an absolutely stunning structure from the outside, with the classically pale-colored Touraine stone, a drawbridge, turrets, and a bounty of gorgeous roses growing up its sides.  The eclectic collection of art on the inside had us puzzled, but the outside and gardens did not disappoint.  Every girl’s dream is to have a turret to call home, and the ones at Rivau fit that image to a tee.  It is not so far off to imagine Rapunzel resting her head inside one of these towers.

Chateau du Rivau's drawbridge

Chateau du Rivau

Chateau du Rivau

The following day took us further afield to the chateaux and gardens of Villandry, Langeais, and Chateau d’Usse.  The Villandry’s symmetrical gardens were perhaps our favorite in all of France, with their absolutely perfect alignment of herbs, vegetables, flowers, and roses.  Oh, the roses.  The Villandry Rose was especially stunning - a flower fit for a princess. A water moat surrounding the grounds is the stuff of legends, indeed. Langeais, situated in the middle of a medieval town along the Loire River baring the same name, rises up in the heart of its medieval city, with a massive drawbridge and formidable grey stone towers befitting a royal marriage.  Inside, winding stairways inside turrets led to room upon room filled with stunningly intricate medieval tapestries and artifacts.  Last, but not least, a meandering drive along a sleepy road alongside the Loire led us to the d’Usse, Charles Perrault’s inspiration for the story of Sleeping Beauty.  The soaring spires certainly are the stuff of dreams, and the interesting, albeit tired, looking wax figures inside the rooms retold the classic Sleeping Beauty story in all her glorious Renaissance detail.

The Loire Valley is an ideal playground of chateaux and fortresses, inspiring us to bring this era and these stories to life with our students.  While we simply scratched the surface, we leave feeling invigorated, charmed, and above all, filled with dreams.

Villandry's moat

Villandry's garndens: Pam, Emily, Josie, and Meg


Villandry Rose

Langeais's drawbridge


Chateau d'Usse

Chateau Charge: Loire Valley Retreat
Madeleine Rose

Feeding baguettes to Caesar and Lola at Loire Valley Retreat.
This picture was taken at 10:15 at night.  Look how bright it is.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Paris: But only a Dream...

Paris, be still our beating hearts. 

We've had more magical moments in Paris.  Days 3 and 4 have been a whirlwind of activity, but also filled with moments of rest and relaxation as we ease into a whole new way of doing things. We are navigating Paris's world famous metro system quite well, thank you very much.  It is like a puzzle to figure out each time we set our sights on a destination and so far, so good.  There's something to be said for a solid and dependable public transportation system.  

We started our third day here with a visit to the second most recognized symbol of Paris, the Arc de Triomphe.  Commissioned  by Emperor Napoleon to mark his victories and surrounded by the world's largest round-a-bout, it is a bustle of energy, tourists, pickpocketers, doubledecker buses, and Vespas going round and round and round.  Undoubtedly, it is an impressive monument and climbing up the narrow spiral stairwell rewarded us with an outstanding 360 view of our new favorite city, and our first "Wow" sighting of the Eiffel tower. 

Strolling along the Champs-Elysees was a sight for the senses, especially a stop in one of the most famed patisseries in all of Paris, Laduree.  One can easily imagine a queen strolling in to order a tart.  We opted for a box of macarons, each making hard choices about which of the delicious flavors to try.  I don't think a wrong choice was made.

Macaron box in hand, however, we sought a place to sit and rest, warm up a bit (it has been unseasonably chilly, n'est pas?) and the Jardin des Tuilieres was straight ahead.  Created by Catherine de Medici in 1564 for the Tuilieres Palace, it became a public park after the French Revolution.   Nestling under the trees at Cafe Renard, we sipped on chocolate chaud, nibbled on croque monsieurs, and enjoyed watching the people strolling by.  But, no rest for the weary, as we had a mission.  Where was Charles Perrault?

Oh, here was right here beside the Carousel we spied as we ate our lunch.  Surrounded by overgrown yellow irises, we paid homage to the founder of of the fairy tale genre.  Surrounding his bust was the most delightful trio of dancing children with the precocious Puss in Boots.  We blew kisses in thanks and made our way to the Louvre at the end of the garden.

With the iconic glass pyramid as our beacon, we queued right into the Louvre without any wait at all, being it was 5 pm and all.  Once inside, words simply cannot describe our awe and enchantment as we moved amid Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Canova, Venus de Milo, and room upon room of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman statues dating from the 6th century.  This former fortress, begun in the 12th century, is beyond anything we had ever experienced before: we were equally humbled and awe-struck.

Our last morning required an early-morning rise to catch the Eiffel Tower before the rest of the 12 million or so visitors a year it gets.  It didn't seem quite real to be standing under this massive structure, and over 340 steps later, plus an elevator ride to the top, we were afforded a windy and wondrous view of the City of Lights.  The top of the Eiffel Tower sees, on average, 3 marriage proposals per hour. Lots of love birds in the air, for sure.  Tres romantique!

Having built up our appetite, we wandered to Rue Cler (thanks for the tip, Rick Steves!), a road for the senses in the 7th arrondissement, a cobbled pedestrian street filled with flower stalls, boulangeries, patisseries, chocolatiers, poissonneries, and more.  We settled into a classic Parisian bistro for a relaxing lunch, but couldn't resist chocolate croissants, an assortment of pastries and another baguette from the boulangerie across the way.  A trip to a fromagerie to select cheese for dinner topped off our afternoon.

After afternoon tea and treats at Rue Montgolfier, we soldiered on. The Musee d'Orsay for some Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, Manet, Degas, Cassatt, as well as some entertaining street performers as we bandaged up blistered feet to then take an evening stroll along the left bank of the Seine, visiting the bouquinistes for postcards and trinkets.

We finally crashed well after midnight, with laundry drying on the line and visions of Loire Valley dancing in our heads.

Think trains, planes, and automobiles.  We took the metro to Gare d'Austerlitz for our 2 hour train ride to Tours, then waited anxiously for a taxi on a Sunday to our car rental at the airport, and a successful car ride to Chinon.  

We've only just arrived at the Chateau de Charge already we are in love.  The photo below is of our bed and breakfast.  Records date from 1429 , it is a former fortified manor surrounded by stone lookout towers. Surrounded by endless rolling fields of wheat, sunflowers, and poppies, we were warmly greeted by Charlotte, our lovely innkeeper.  As we warm ourselves by a fire stoked by Jerome, Charlotte's husband, we will soon be dining on a four course meal, including roasted quail with apricot sauce and creme brulee in the chateau's dining room. Bonne journee, mes amis!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

First 36 Hours in Paris ... Oh, la, la!

So many pleasant surprises (all the very friendly Parisians we have met) to the incomparable sights and experiences of Le Marais neighborhood, the Notre Dame, and Versailles, we don't know where to begin, except to say that our first 36 hours in Paris has been exhilarating, overwhelming, glamorous, and foot-weary. We have only seen but a sliver of the City of Lights, but already we are smitten, and well, frankly in love. L'amour! 

Our apartment on Rue Montgolfier in the 3e arrondissement is a gem: charming, awaking to the sounds of children playing the schoolyard across the narrow street to the immense green door welcoming us to our Parisian home. We are living like Parisians, visiting the market for groceries, and soaking up the late evening sunshine as we dine on fresh baguettes and brie from our quaint dining room table. C'est la vie! The Notre Dame is celebrating it's 850 year old birthday this year. It's not showing its age one bit: the gargoyles are breathtakingly eerie and surreal, the stained glass within takes your breath away, and its not a bad place to duck into in the middle of a Parisian thundershower. Words simply do not describe it. 

And then, there's Versailles. After successfully navigating the metro system, or not, we find ourselves 10 miles outside Paris, but in another world altogether. With its gold-plated gates welcoming us (and the rest of humanity, or so it seemed), it ushered us into a world of kings and queens, king Louis XIV and Marie-Antoinette surely know who to build themselves a home for the ages. Wow. Room upon room upon room astounded us with beauty on every square inch: floors, ceiling, chandeliers, tapestries, and mirrors. And that was just inside the Palace. Outside, we were star-struck by the first garden and fountain we saw, which led us to explore as much of the vast grounds as we could. Imagine a statue at every turn, a topiary every other foot, fountains where mermaids, cherubs, and Greek gods frolic. We thought we saw it all until arriving at Marie-Antoinette's estate, a hamlet built for her as a reincarnation of her country home. Her temple of love filled us with joy, but it was her simple kitchen gardens, the mills, the cows, and the beauty of a rose bush that had us each picking out which home we would call our own. 

 With blisters on our feet, we begrudgingly left, back for Paris for another joyous meal at our table, with delicious, but simple food. If only we ate like this every night. Tomorrow, we plan on seeing the Louvre, the Jardin des Tuileries, and climbing up the Eiffel Tower, to take in the grand sweep of this city that has swept us off our feet.