A sommelier…

Screen shot 2014-03-03 at 10.16.33 AMMimosa blossoms hummed a vivid yellow against the crystalline blue skies. It had been the rainiest winter on record, but the sun was shining so bright over Monte Carlo, I had peeled off several layers and was down to a light t-shirt as two costumed doormen escorted us through the revolving doors and into cool, refreshing marble clad beauty of the Hôtel de Paris.

I was right on time for my 15h appointment, which meant I was typically late, having miscalculated that I’d need to check-in. Details are not my forté! In no time, the formalities had been taken care of and I was being escorted into the mythic caves (wine cellars, but caves sounds so much more mysterious, non?) of the Socitété des Bains de Mers, the company founded by Prince Charles II of Monaco in 1863.

because every girl should have her very own sommelier...

because every girl should have her very own sommelier…

A handsome, young sommelier, Fabien, one of an impressive team of 7 was there to greet me, proud to be sharing the largest privately held collection of wines in Europe, with over 6000 references for 400,000 bottles, 90% of them French held in 100 year old chambers of 80% humidity. We walked pass rows of Côtes du Rhone, Burgundy and Bordeaux, to the Ranier family cellar where Princess Grace and her Prince celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary over a Chateau Margaux ’29. In the excitement of imagining her dining by candle light in a white fur (totally my imagination, her wardrobe for the evening) I sent my pen crashing on to the cement floor. Which brought an end to my note taking and explains the fact that there are no more facts…

Screen shot 2014-03-03 at 4.31.50 PMFabien guided me to the gated room that holds the most precious wines, which include the last few bottles of Petrus’45; a landmark year that is known not only for the excellent vintage, but because it was the last harvest done almost exclusively by women, as all the men were still at the front. While telling me this tale, he snakes his arms through the metal bars, grabs an ancient Chateau d’Yquiem, and brings it into the light, showing me the tobacco toned liquor as I squeal in fear that he drop the bottle. I see the cave dedicated to Pétrus, Y’Aquiem and des Pins. I see the new stock that has just arrived and is being put down for the next decade, or so, the romm where the sommeliers taste potential new acquisitions and I see the room where a private party can be held by candle light, the seductive scent of wine cellar in the air. We leave through a staff elevator, that lets us out into the lobby of the Hermitage Hotel. The cellar connects the two hotels, for the ultimate in discretion.

At dinner that evening I put myself in Fabien’s very competent hands, letting him choose a glass to accompany my grilled catch of the day, at Le Grill restaurant. He had me compare two glasses of white, explaining that he usually hates comparisons, but thought I’d enjoy this one. My dinner date and I had the same impression of the two wines. One was more complex and interesting than the other. He stunned us by explaining that the two glasses held the exact same natural Bordeaux wine from the exact same bottle, but he had shaken the bottle and let it sit before serving the second glass, “degaz-ing” it and removing some of the sulfites. It was an impressive lesson that has already come in handy…

ps If you ever find yourself in Monte Carlo, be sure to dine at Le Grill and order their lemon souffle. I’m already scheming a return trip, if just for that!

Black and blue

Screen shot 2014-02-26 at 11.43.10 AM

A Jefferson county police cruiser on the French Riviera… pinch me, again!!!

Feeling a bit bruised these days, but in a mostly, very, very good way, as my mind reels from the imaginary pinches I receive after murmuring, “Pinch me, I’m dreaming!”. And I have been thinking it ALOT lately.

Last week I spent time exploring the largest private wine cellar in Europe at the Hôtel de Paris, with a charming sommelier who took out his keys and invited me to visit the private stock of the royal family of Monaco, and cradled and ancient Chateau d’Yquem so I could appreciate the smoky tobacco shade of the liquor. And while I hate the expression “the best” I think I savoured the best soufflé; the perfect balance of tangy lemon and carmelized sugar laced with butter at Le Grill as the above mentioned sommelier taught me more than I’d ever thought I’d know about appreciating fine wines. After dinner, we walked into a final dress rehearsal in the Royal Opera House in Monte Carlo, I watched the roulette wheel spin and slipped into a dreamy sleep at one of the finest hotels in the world.

And that was just the first afternoon of my adventures on the Cote d’Azur…

It would have been hard to come home, if home wasn’t Paris and if it wasn’t to write about about the Côte d’Azur and all the wonderful adventures for AFAR magazine and The Girls Guide to Paris. So, in another “pinch me” moment I am spending my week writing about my true passion; travel.

And as I sit here typing, I have just received an invitation to the Dior Fashion show this Friday. I was asked to reply quickly. I think they had my answer in a nano second. I am such a fan, I don’t need to see the invite to know that it is held in a white tent in the gardens at the Rodin museum.

I am off to finish my work. As soon as its done, I’ll be back here, setting the clock to noon and sharing it all with you…

Hitting the beach…

I haven’t written in nearly a week, and I wasn’t even on holiday! I have been busy, busy getting ready for a press trip to the Côte d’Azur. I am so excited… this is going to be my first solo trip in ages. Does anyone have any pointers for me? Either your favorite solo travel tips, or your secret addresses on the French Riviera? Advice, suggestions, recommendations are welcome!!!

I will be down there preparing a mini guide on the region. I know it fairly well, especially the incredible wealth of art museums; Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Cocteau…. SO mostly I need to research the timely stuff, like the restaurants and the festivals. It will be the Lemon Festival in Menton, and you know how I love my citrus fruit! But with all that, there is one place I am particularly excited to visit.

Before starting my junior year as an exchange student at the Sorbonne, I spent a summer in a language program in Antibes. I do not remember a single thing about that program. I can not tell you where the classes were held, what the building looked like, or the slightest detail about my professor. What I do remember was the Madame who hosted myself and two other American students. An exuberant platinum blond with a teen daughter and two young sons who was getting a divorce. I remember the flavor of her vinagrette, laced with the post delicious olive oils. And I remember her taking us to the beach one Saturday. Antibes beaches in the month of August tend to get crowded and sun worshippers were at their prayers, pretty much elbow to elbow when we arrived. Madame was not pleased and stomped over to the biggest available space she could find, uncomfortably near an uptight Parisian and his family. Monsieur was none to pleased with our proximity and started yelling at her to move.” Over there,” he gesticulated condescendingly to the other end of the beach.
Madame was having none of that and started laying out the towels for all of us, while screaming at the man, as the American students and I stood a few feet away, totally in awe at the exchange. Set up and ready to sun bath, Madame continued screaming as she threw her basket to the ground and started to strip before the Parisian, completely unabashed as her rather large boobs bounced a little to the left, then a lot to the right yelling her head off the entire time at this presumptuous man who was on her beach, in her town.

It took me a half an hour to brush the sand off my jaw after it had fallen to the ground and another half an hour before the Americans and I felt brave enough to take our tops off as well. That was my introduction to topless sunbathing. I took to it like a duck takes to water and found it by far the most comfortable way to stay at the beach. The Americans and I got so used to it that we’d just rip them off every time we were at the beach.

One day, the other students and I went for a wander. A train ride followed by a long hike along the beach. Eventually, the beach ended and there was a jetty of rocks and we were ready for some sun bathing. We sprawled out on those rocks and dozed off for a short while, feeling incredible chic and sophisticated in all our topless glory. A man started coming our way. I could hear him speaking loudly, but squinting through the sun, I saw that he was alone. That was odd. Even odder, he was wearing pants, and a blazer. We sat up and covered ourselves demurely just as he got to our little outcropping. “Ahem… excuse me ladies, but, well, you’re not in France anymore. This, is, um, Monaco, and well, the topless sunbathing at the private yacht club, where you’re clearly not members, well, I must ask you to leave.” The three of us were hoping a wave would come and swallow us up, we were so mortified.

That was my introduction to the Principality Monaco. We left and I have never been back, far too intimidated by the prospect. But now, I am going there for work, invited to stay at the Hotel de Paris and I have one mission in mind; Stroll into the casino, order myself a martini, shaken, not stirred and wait for a little adventure to come my way! Here’s hoping I have lots of fun stories to share! Cheers! Prost! Salute!

NYE in Amsterdam

Screen shot 2014-01-10 at 3.53.15 PMWhen we checked into our hotel, the bell boy showed the girls their room, announcing that they had the most requested room in the entire establishment. Not being a particularly generous person, I was having none of that and much to their dismay, insisted on a swap. It was a lovely room, but the real appeal was the 180° view of the rooftops of Amsterdam and the Rijksmusem. We unpacked, happy with our good fortune and headed out to explore the city.

Then, we did it. For the first time in our lives together, Mr French and I went out for NYE. We didn’t go out with high hopes expecting an extraordinary meal that would promise a better evening than usual. We have a lot of fun when we go out, anyway and we know the NYE’s drill; exorbitantly priced, very average meals, incredibly lousy service.

Screen shot 2014-01-10 at 3.53.52 PMWith that in mind, we were in an unfamiliar city, in a foreign country. We’d had several warnings that the Dutch go a bit wild with fireworks on the 31st.  And I mean several, as in every Dutch person we met, from our taxi driver to sales staff, to online advisors and waiters, told us to stay inside. So I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do. In a panic, I made reservations at the restaurant in our hotel. A Japanese fusion place that gets good reviews.

That morning, the fireworks began. Dutch taking advantage of the nation-wide 24 hour moratorium on randomly blowing things started lighting firecrackers randomly throughout the day, explosions like gun fire accompanying our adventures as Em and I jumped like giddy foals at each large “boom”.

Screen shot 2014-01-10 at 3.56.08 PMBefore dinner, the girls headed back to Paris to celebrate with their friends (gotta love high speed train travel) and we went to the Double Tree Inn on the port. Being the international traveler that he is, Mr French was certain they’d have a roof top bar with a decent view of the pyrotechnics going on at 17h. He was right (kind of gives you an idea of why I love the guy).

The fireworks were amateur but beautiful, and fun, and for the first time in decades I didn’t get a sick feeling in my stomach thinking about all the money the government was burning up in smoke for 15 minutes of glory, instead of using it to feed someone. As we strolled back to our hotel for dinner, there were people shooting off fireworks at every square, bridge and (no longer) quiet canal. I jumped at every blast, sending Mr French into hysterical giggles.

Screen shot 2014-01-10 at 3.53.37 PMWe dressed for dinner (I wore Le Smoking) and headed down to a surprisingly delightful dinner at Izakaya. While I am sure that the service was slower than usual, the rest was perfectly prepared and absolutely delicious. The bar was crowded with hip men of every age with high hopes of getting “lucky”  with their dates (also of every age), all of the ladies wearing tight black skirts with a serious dose of sequins. At midnight the dj (yup, Izakaya has a dj, and its not just for NYE) led the count down and there was lots of kissing.

Screen shot 2014-01-10 at 3.52.43 PMSuddenly an idea popped into my head, undoubtedly inspired about the fireworks popping outside. I grabbed Mr French by the hand and pushed him to elevator as he tried to figure out what bee had stung me. Rushing out the doors and into our room, we were greeted by a marvelous display of fireworks going off in every direction. Like the proverbial kids in the candy shop, we opend the windows and stood there, ignorant of the cold air and complete mesmerized by the red, blues, greens and golds exploding in every direction. We ran from window to window until we were too exhausted for anymore. Curling up under the think down comforter, we feel asleep dreaming of our 2014, which had gotten off to spectacular start.

Amsterdam for dinner

Screen shot 2014-01-08 at 12.32.03 PMAs much as we enjoyed our lunches in Amsterdam, dinners were the real treat. On our first night we had no plans. The girls nearly fell over from the shock of it. Being somewhat obsessed with food, I tend to make reservations when we travel. But, I had no idea where our wanderings were going to take us that first night, so I had left it up to kismet. The word kismet comes from the Turkish language and the first fantastic looking place we passed that night was from the Bosphorus. I had forgotten that Amsterdam is full of some excellent Turkish places, and started getting excited when Mr French reminded me we’d just had some pannekoeken, those traditional Dutch pancakes (if you want to try some, the best come from the Pannekoekenpavijoen de Carrosel).

Screen shot 2014-01-08 at 12.33.09 PM5 minutes later we were in front of Balti House Indian restaurant. E and Em wanted to go in. I wanted to go in. Mr French decided we’d had enough time to digest and a split second later, we were going in. The place was full of friendly chatter from neighbors enjoying piping hot dishes. Em nearly swooned from all the tempting aromas passing by our table as we waited for our meal. When it arrived, each dish was light and flavorful and the best Indian we’d had in ages.

The second night was my big night, my reason d’être for this trip. Decades ago friends from Montréal had given us this address and it was one of my all time favorite meals, ever. Now, I hadn’t been back in nearly a decade, and had a serious craving for the spicy, flavorful dishes at Indonesian Tempo Doeloe. I was so excited I emailed my friend from Montréal. “Watch out,” she replied back, “Anthony Bourdain featured it on his show.” Having been warned, I wasn’t entirely shocked to see that they had added a few extra tables since my last visit and the place was overcrowded. Almost, but not quite, uncomfortably so.

The place was quite literally packed, and it was a marvel to watch the staff negotiate their way through the narrow maze as they served guests, patiently explaining how the rice plate system works. Rice plates are the Indonesian equivalent of an Indian Thali platter, and very much like asian tapas. At Tempo Doeloe, a large bowl of white rice and a second bowl of yellow, coconut flavored yellow rice are served with collection of 6 ramekins on a hot plate. We chose the most elaborate rice plate, which came with 3 hot plates for the 3 of us who were sharing a meal. Each hot plate has different dishes, a mix of meats (including goat) and vegetables and the dishes get spicier and spicier as the hot plates arrive, until the final dish is too spicy even for me (I sprinkle thai bird chili peppers on my salads). I don’t remember that last ramekin being too hot to eat on our last visit. I don’t know if this is a new habit, trying to impress the likes of Anthony Bourdain.

A very happy me...

A very happy me…

Because the food is exotic, and spicy, the staff gives excellent advice as guests place their orders. Em was given her own rice plate, with less dishes and a lot less heat. When Mr French selected a Gewurztraminer to accompany our meal, our waitress warned him that it was an extremely sweet vintage and suggested a drier one that was on the menu. A French man taking wine suggestions from a woman. An Indonesian woman who lived in Holland, no less. It was a wonder to behold, and a good thing, because the wine was absolutely perfect with our meal.

Having traveled 4.5 hours just to get there, you’ll understand that despite the filling meal, I insisted on having dessert. I had memories of eating my first jack fruit at Tempo Doeloe. Just a simple fruit, sliced and served. And that is when I discovered the second change they’ve made in the last decade; the dessert. Normally, you mess with my dessert, and I get grumpy, but here, the changes were for the better. Fresh, tropical fruit sorbets were added to the plain fruit, for refreshing, cool end to a hot meal.

ps you’ll have to forgive for the lack of photos… I was too busy eating…

Amsterdam for lunch

Screen shot 2014-01-06 at 11.20.52 AMThe Dutch traveled the 7 seas, taking over the world, and yet, nobody ever talks about their cuisine. Except the French, who consider Holland the second greatest cheese producing nation on earth. I probably researched Dutch cuisine on my first trip, decades ago. I know that pea soup is one of their national dishes, pickled herring is a big deals and that pancake houses are common, even in the remote countryside. But beyond that, I remember very little and local cooking doesn’t seem to be a favorite, even among the Dutch, who spent the colonial era amassing colossal fortunes, importing spices from across the globe, making Amsterdam a feast for those craving a bit of international cuisine.

At the end of our extended weekend, Em looked at us and declared this to have been our very best trip ever, at least as far as eating out was concerned. She loved every meal. But really loved them! Ironically, we had planned very little and seemed to have stumbled upon one excellent place after another.

The Dutch often dine by candle light

The Dutch often dine by candle light

For lunches, we were always lucky enough to find acosy Dutch place filled with locals enjoying their pea soup, thai or italian inspired salads and the ubiquitous bread with ham, melted cheese and eggs. In France, the last dish would be called a Croque Madame, and the Dutch version was similar, but as effusive as the Dutch are tall, with tons of cheese and eggs spilling over up to three slices, of fresh, delicious bakery bread. We had lunch at three different cafés, all within a block of each other (between our hotel and the museum district). We were all as enthusiastic as Em about our meals, if slightly less surprised to have found great food where ever we went, even if the meals would never earn international acclaim. Probably because it was something we value more;  undeniable authenticity!

Our lunch joints//

Café Binnen Buiten – This place feels like a pub, decorated in dark woods and traditional wainscoting. Locals were playing a game of backgammon to our left, behind us neighbors had come in just to share a drink amongst a relaxed lunch crowd eating by candlelight. One man was so relaxed he used his fingers to wipe his bowl of potato chip dip clean!

Café Loetje -Sunlight floods in from the large glass enclosed terrasse, highlighted the artist decorated table tops of this old fashioned café. The bathroom signs are in their original stained glass, the light fixtures from another era. And while there were plenty of locals, there also seemed to be a lot of Dutch tourists having made their way, guidebook in hand.


Near the museum, The Corner Bakery inspired my little still life

Near the museum, The Corner Bakery inspired my little still life

The Corner Bakery As small as a bread basket, this modern little bakery features freshly baked breads, a few cakes and French confiture. There are a few tables upstairs and a large common table in the basement where they feed hungry folk with light sandwiches and salads.

Amsterdam museums

Screen shot 2014-01-03 at 11.30.50 AMThe reason I wanted to go to Amsterdam was rather devious. 15 years ago I had an Indonesian meal there that was of my favorite meals ever, right up there with Aquapazzo in Venise and St Placide in St Malo. Home sick for anything close to resembling serious spices in Paris, I’ve been wanting to return, so badly that it had become something of a obsession with me.

Screen shot 2014-01-03 at 11.30.04 AMThere was no way I was going to tempt Mr French with a holiday based solely on the memory of a meal I had enjoyed over a decade ago; I needed to find a lure. Skimming the net, I found that the newly renovated Rjksmuseum had made it to somebody’s Top 10 museums in the world list. I had my bait! In addition to the fine art museum, there is a newly renovated contemporary art museum, a highly regarded science museum, a maritime museum, the Tropen museum on the Dutch colonies, the FOAM photography museum, Rembrandt’s house, Anne Frank’s house, a Jewish history museum and several private homes that are now open to the public. And unlike Paris, many of them stay open for New Years Day!

I booked my Indonesian restaurant, just to be sure they were open over the holidays and would have a table for us, then I cast my line and suggested we go to Amsterdam for a museum holiday. Mr French bit my squiggling worm hook, line and sinker. I booked the Sir Albert Hotel through the Splendia website, pre-purchased museum tickets, loaded up the car and we were off, the girls snoring in the back seat as we crossed borders and sped by polders. Windmills started popping up in the landscape… cyclists, grazing sheep and canals. We were in Holland!

Screen shot 2014-01-03 at 11.31.10 AMThe Dutch spent an entire decade renovating their star museum and it is beautiful, featuring a large, glass topped hall that is flooded with lone of the country’s rarest commodities; light. Just before Christmas was a terrible time to go, the place was more crowded than the Louvre in July and without the infrastructure to handle it. Even with tickets in hand, our line went outside the building and around the corner, full of people anxious to see what was new. And there was plenty to see.

Every single work of art had been moved into a new space. Only Rembrandt’s Night Watchmen had kept its original space, dominating the central hall surrounded by masterpieces. The best part of the Rjksmuseum are the descriptions. There is an interesting text for almost every piece, explaining the history of the work or giving an interesting detail about the art. You learn all kinds of random facts; foot warmers symbolised love in Vermeer’s time, a sea captain once burnt his ship so it wouldn’t be caught by the enemy and some profiteering merchants then made a fortune selling bits of burnt wood from the “ship”, swan feathers look amazing when depicted in reds, blues and greens.

Screen shot 2014-01-03 at 11.32.38 AMThe museum is huge and after several hours, the girls and I were ready for a break. We’d seen the entire 2nd floor, all of it fascinating, it slightly overwhelming, and we’d spent nearly 20 minutes just looking at the 4 Vermeers. It had been a feast for the eyes, but we were now ready to feed our tummies. Mr French could have stayed all day, but the cafeteria was overflowing and he relented when I promised we’d come back. And we did, on New Years Day, when we visited the fabulous Middle Age and Renaissance collections, as well as the disappointing modern works.

The Stedelijk, Contrmporary Art Museum was another disappointment. 20€ each for a rather small collection of minor works. I think this is quite possibly the first time I have ever given a museum a negative review. I usually just don’t mention them, but this one is on the Museumplein and it really is outrageously overpriced.

Screen shot 2014-01-03 at 11.32.06 AMHappily, there were others that made up for it. FOAM had an excellent show that was installed by the 85 year old New Yorker William Klein, featuring the evolution of his work from the late 40’s to today. Across the street, visiting the private mansion of the Van Loon Museum gave an insider’s view on the life of Screen shot 2014-01-03 at 11.31.51 AMthe descendants of the East India Company and at the port the maritime Scheepvaart Museum shows the world how interactive displays can make any subject, even boats, come to life.

We missed the Tropen museum. I’ve been wanting to go there for 20 years, and I’ve still never made it. So happy for the excuse to go back!

Happy New Year!!!

Screen shot 2014-01-02 at 11.19.44 AM

Wishing everyone a healthy, happy, prosperous 2014!

Like most adults we know, NYE stopped being a big deal ages ago. Mr French and I usually celebrate it at home, far from over priced meals and forced enthusiasm. But this year was slightly different. This year we spent Christmas at home taking care of an elderly parent. This year, we needed a holiday!

Like Goldilocks debating the options, a flight to Vienna seemed too far. Having already been this year, the Eurostar to London felt like déjà vu. A 4 hour drive to see the recently renovated Rjksmuseun and enjoy an excellent (spicy!) Indonesian meal sounded just right. It became the perfect fit when E and Em agreed to join us.

They could even take the Thalys home a day early to celebrate New Years with their friends. It sounded like the perfect adventure for our salad bowl of a family. And it was…

Screen shot 2014-01-02 at 11.56.45 AMAs we strolled the streets, I was constantly asking myself why Amsterdam is not a more popular destination. They have as much history as the French, with harmonious 17th century architecture that highlights an illustrious past and plenty of museums to explore. The dramatic skies shift and evolve, creating light infused scenery evoking Vermeer and Rembrandt. The city is small, easy to navigate and couldn’t be more pedestrian friendly. And the place is not a has-been; Holland is a leader in contemporary design and an important influence in the slow food movement. For the sporting, adventurous types, it is a short bike ride from the train station to N Amsterdam where dykes and windmills are still a common part of the cityscape. I really can’t imagine a better destination for a city break.

Screen shot 2014-01-02 at 11.59.38 AMIn the 9 Street district, eccentric merchants share their passions with the world. There is a button store, a tooth brush store and a clothing boutique that sells cupcakes!

That was the only neighborhood we had time to shop on this trip, as we spent our hours lost in museums and savoring food we could never find in Paris. This week I’ll be writing about those museums and those meals, but for now, close your eyes and imagine the bicycles providing a picturesque focal point for photos of bridges that span peaceful canals as swans glide by and ducks roost.

A murderous weekend, part 2

Le Moulin de BarreMaking it through the hazards of the night we arrived at the Moulin, an old grain mill with a productive hen house and impressive kitchen garden. After checking out our room and washing away the cobwebs we’d acquired in the chateau, we headed to the bright, warm dining room to a welcome dinner featuring farm fresh food prepared by our hostess Doreen. Our English hosts were as warm as their kitchen and even more charming. Another guest, a French man, started asking about their chickens. Did they send them to the butcher, or kill them themselves? How did they slaughter them exactly? He must have felt Cara’s murderous vibes. The conversation evolved and I spoke about a Parisian butcher who had tried to sell me a very expensive pheasant from my coq au vin recipe. “Zat ees not a really coq au vin, zen…. For a really coq au vin, you must have ze blood of ze coq. You can not get ze blood from ze butcher.” His wife’s arms shot up in utter horror.

Saint Severin Jacques tatiI took that moment to introduce Cara as a professional killer and mentioned that traveling with a mystery writer had made me somewhat paranoid. I was really looking forward to a run in the countryside the next morning, but I couldn’t help thinking that its always the lone female runners that get reported missing and are later found chopped up in the trunk of some lunatic’s car. The room got silent. I heard a fork drop. “It’s not the lunatics you have to worry about.” Cara warned, “Its the hunters.” Everyone nodded in agreement, amazed that I had not considered the negative side effects of getting hit by a stray bullet.

Screen shot 2013-10-30 at 3.49.41 PMI had taken an extreme dislike to the “other guest”. Even before the chicken inquisition and blood recipe. The next morning over breakfast, I understood that he had talen an even stronger dislike towards me. He kindly informed us that the hunt had been canceled for the day… something to do with kill quotas and that I could go for my run after all. We’d already been late for our delicious breakfast of skillet drop scones, house made yogurts and jams and Cara’s prerequisite coffee, so I thanked him and decided other adventure awaited me that day. We decided it was time to change the mood and headed to St Severin where the hysterically funny French actor Jacques Tati had filmed the comedy, Jour de Fête. As we got out of the car there was a “pop, pop, pop” of gun fire. Loud and not very far away. I considered a drop and roll under the car, but Cara was nonplussed, hunters, she reminded me. So the hunt had not been canceled after all. Screen shot 2013-10-30 at 3.49.23 PMAnd the “other guest” had clearly hoped I’d find myself mistaken for a loopy deer and shot on site! We headed onto town, admiring the caravan from the film, the historic hall, the medieval porte and all the colorfully decorated stores celebrating Tati.

A local café was open, the kind that would have been foggy with smoke had the laws not changed and where some were on their third or fourth beer (or kir, or Pastis…) despite the early hour. Alcohol. The perfect social lubricant. We started chatting the crowd up, beginning with questions on Jacques Tati and the film before asking what we really wanted to know. The front door swung open. No one was there.” A phantom” warned the bar owner. Were there witches nearby?, we ventured. Yes, yes, indeed.

Screen shot 2013-10-30 at 3.49.58 PMNobody admitted to having seen something themselves but a friend had seen butterflies alight on the hands of witches visiting La Mare au Diable. And healers? What about the healers? We struck gold as one man was a big believer and had a healer of his own. And the healer’s business card.He confirmed that the magnetiseurs are born with their gift. They can not charge for their services, or they may loose their gift, so patients simply leave what they wish. Often as little a 10€. The can not cure people, but they can absorb their pain and know to be especially effective with burns.

Thrilled at having the inside scoop, we were off. Dodging hunters and their bullets as we sped our way back to Paris. Safe and sound. For now.

A murderous weekend

Cara Black

As we said our good byes at a bus stop, the successful American mystery writer, Cara Black, stumbled back, “Wait! your mother-in-law lives near Nohant, Mary Kay told me. I’m dying to go to George Sand’s house and I’m in town until Thursday. Are you up for an adventure?” Two days later I found myself alone on a dark autumn morning, driving through France with a woman I’d only known for twenty minutes. A stranger who spends her life plotting murder.

Maison George SandDuring our introduction over coffee, I asked Cara where she’s from and discovered that we’d been neighbors in San Francisco. She’d carpooled with my close friend (also a successful author) Allison Bartlett and she knows my aunt (you guessed it) Victoria Zackheim. Our connection was feeling spooky…

The sun just started to rise as we headed out of Paris. Three hours later, Cara’s ears were ringing from the incessant jabbering of her chauffeur (yes, moi) we pulled up to Mama French’s door in Chateauroux and whisked her off to lunch. Cara is intrigued by the rumours of withcraft and traditional healers in the Berry region. Over lunch she couldn’t resist peppering our hostess with questions… Was it true? Had she ever known of a witch? Solicited the services of a healer?  Mama French’s face went white and her mouth closed tight as a button. When Cara excused herself from the table Mama Fr leaned over and whispered that all those stories give the Berrichons a bad reputation in France. It was NOT a discussion to be had with outsiders, especially not in public and certainly not with published authors who may include that kind of damaging information in thier 15th mystery novel! We left our meal full of food, but without any leads.

Screen shot 2013-10-30 at 12.04.57 PMAs we drove along, Cara told me more about Amiée Leduc, her Parisian private detective who wears three inch heels, flashy nail polish and drives a pink Vespa as she solves morbid crimes in every quartier of Paris. I learned how to find the most mysterious crime scenes and plot the most gruesome murders.

Eglise George Sand NohantWe arrived in the tiny hamlet of Nohant, eerie bag pipe music wafting through the deserted square as we visited the graveyard and a church with wide ropes draped to the side, perfect for ringing the church bells, or hanging a man. George Sands home was lovely, but creepy, everything left intact, exactly as it had been when she died in 1876, despite living there herself, until 1971!

Chateau SarzayA small detour and we found ourselves visiting the privately owned medieval fortress of Sarzay where the owner has spent the past thirty years rebuilding the chateau, stone by stone, filling it with taxidermed animals and ancient weaponry. I think Cara’s knees went weak as we entered the Salles des Gardes, and there, spread out on a table the size of my living room was a collection of killing devices centuries old. There were no rope barriers, no supervision. Just a mystery writer, a photographer and an unlimited opportunity for gore.

The weather had been unseasonably warm, but the blue summer skies suddenly turned a vivid yellow, then black. Without warning, torrential rains start to pour down we found ourselves scrambling to descend the 14th centurywinding staircase, with narrow, uneven steps and without any light. There was a scream as a pigeon swooped past, a gasp as a step was missed. Outside, we made a mad dash for the car and headed into the prematurely early night to find our lodgings.

Screen shot 2013-10-30 at 12.08.12 PMThe rain turned to hail, pelting our windshield faster than the wipers clear our view. Large, swampy drainage ditches that lined the road made pulling over impossible. The GPS led us through twisting, hilly lands getting us to Vigoulant where we followed the sign pointing to the Moulin de Barre. We drove up the hill. And up and up, without seeing a single sign of life. A large tree branch (or was it a tree?) had fallen and barred the road. Cara ran put into the pitch black of the night and was relived to find that is was a light branch, easy to remove. The trees started to form a low, narrow canopy and tall grasses grew between the wheel ruts in the mud. The mud? We’d gone beyond the roads and were now on a narrow chemin. We called our hosts, made a u-turn and headed back down the hill where our host Geoff stood under an umbrella with his flash light to guide us in. We hadn’t noticed any lights because sometime during the day, someone had ripped the light fixture from their sign. Was it intentional? Had they known we were coming?

to be continued…

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...