January 28, 2011

And Some Thoughts About Churches

Throughout my travels I have had the opportunity to visit many significant and beautiful churches and places of worship throughout the world - including on this trip to Europe. In London we visited St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, and in Paris we went to Eglise Madeleine, Notre-Dame de Paris, and the Chapelle Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse.

Westminster Abbey is not only an amazing building, it holds a great deal of the history of the country within it's walls. From the tomes of kings and priests to memorials for artists and scientists - this building is a monument to the past.

It also has recorded the footsteps of the many people who have visited in the worn steps and paving stones. As you walk through the main cathedral and the cloisters you can also see the changes in style throughout the years of the abbey's history. This is a place to come and be reminded of the long, and often complicated, history of England.

When you view the skyline of the old part of London the grey dome of St Paul's Cathedral stands quietly among it's more modern neighbors. Although not as old or as famous As Westminster Abbey it is a beautiful building - inside and out. It is built on the highest point in the City of London, the present structure was built 17th century, and it is the fourth cathedral on this location.

One of the striking things about the inside of St Paul' Cathedral is the sheer open space. It is a vast area of peace that is a lovely reprieve from the city streets outside. Visitors to St Paul's can also climb to the top of the dome as well and look out around the city. Unfortunately we visited on Christmas Day and that area of the church was closed for the holiday.

Église de la Madeleine - or La Madeleine for short - is a large and imposing church in the 8th arrondissement of Paris. From the outside it looks like a Roman-style structure with large columns and is elevated from the surrounded streets. We visited the church on New Year's Day. I had never been inside this building before and was fascinated to see the high vaulted ceilings and detail in decoration. There were beautiful statutes lining each side of the church and the lighted candles at the base of these figures caused the whole room to glow.

Of course, the most famous church in Paris is Notre-Dame de Paris. Located on Île de la Cité construction on this church began in 1163 and took almost 200 years to complete.

While in Paris we visited this church twice - once in the evening during mass and then in the morning a few days later during the day. However, since we were staying nearby in the 5th arrondissement we walked it almost daily.

The outside of this church is beautiful with its many sculptures that adorn the facade and the gargoyles that look out in every direction protecting the church from evil.

On our first visit the church was filled with people and music. It was more vacant on our second visit, but the windows were illuminated and the scenes in the stained glass light up the space.

The last church we visited in Paris is the Chapelle Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse. This is a small chapel off a courtyard at 140 Rue de Bac and is often referred to by its address. From the street you enter through a wooden door, walk through the cobble stone paved courtyard, and through another wooden door into the chapel. Inside is a medium sized and beautifully adorned room of worship.

This is the final resting place of the body of St Catherine Labouré. It is said she that in 1830 she witnessed a vision of the Virgin Mary in the location where she rests today.
I am not religious. However, I was in awe of the beauty of these sacred and historic structures. In addition, I found a unique sense of calm inside each of these places. Perhaps it is the many years - actually centuries - that people have been coming to these churches to pray. Maybe it is the fact that these buildings have are dedicated to quiet reflection and were created as a place to give thanks. Or perhaps it is atmosphere that is evoked by the quiet statutes and flickering candles. I do not know.

January 25, 2011

Thoughts on Parisian Travel

I have already shared a bit about our Paris adventures, now I want to talk about the city itself.

Paris is an assault on the senses. It is an amazing city - it has rich history, beautiful architecture, and fabulous cuisine. It has grand boulevards and tiny alleys. It has crazy traffic and serene parks.

To truly experience Paris you have to experience it with all your senses - sight, hearing, taste, and smell. You need to continue beyond the classic tourist monuments and travel throughout the city. In Paris, I enjoy walking the streets, discovering hidden alleys, browsing in the small shops, eating at the small cafes, and marveling at the many historic buildings and landmarks. And I enjoy experiencing the city with all my senses.

January 19, 2011

Dinner at Les Gourmands de l'Île

It was dark and starting to feel cold by the time we got to Île Saint-Louis. After walking around the island we selected a small restaurant on Rue Saint-Louis en l'Île called Les Gourmands de l'Île for dinner. It was a cute cafe with about a dozen tables. The restaurant's awning advertises ice creams, sorbets, and crepes, but they also serve classic French dishes as well.

While reading the menu at Les Gourmands I noticed a vegetable terrine on the appetizer list. After the fabulous leak terrine we had at Cafe Marly previously I decided to try it. Then for a main course I ordered a cheese plate. Jonathan order onion soup and cassoulet.

My vegetable terrine was very good. Instead of leaks and truffles this one was made of more simple vegetables - carrots, spinach, and potatoes.

While I was eating my terrine, Jonathan was enjoying his soup. I have never particularly liked onions in the past and therefore never tried French onion soup. However, Jonathan convinced me to try his soup here in Paris. To my surprise I really enjoyed it! It was rich, flavorful, and sweet - and, of course, was topped with bread and melted cheese.

After the terrine and soup we got our main course. My cheese plate was lovely. (I think cheeses in France are fantastic and wish we had the same quality and variety available in American grocery stores and markets.) The cheeses were served with a simple salad and sliced baguette.

Back in DC Jonathan likes to order cassoulet at a French bistro we eat at sometimes and he had been looking forward to trying this dish in Paris. At Les Gourmands he was not disappointed. He thoroughly enjoyed his cassoulet and said it was more simple, but also more flavorful than what he had eaten in the past.

Dinner at this cute restaurant was perfect. The atmosphere was cozy and the food was excellent! We enjoyed it so much that we returned another night before we left Paris. On our second visit we shared an onion soup - our favorite thing on the menu. Then I had a cheese and mushroom crepe and Jonathan had bœuf bourguignon (beef bourguignon). Again we had a lovely dinner with more excellent food and wine.

Les Gourmands de l'Île is another restaurant I look forward to returning to next time I'm in Paris.

January 16, 2011

New Year's Day – A Day of Just Food

New Year's Day in Paris was cloudy with drizzle. After breakfast at our hotel, we took Metro to the Arc de Triomphe. After visiting the famed monument we started walking down Paris' grand boulevard - Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Being a holiday the majority of the shops were closed, save a few. Sephora was open, and so were the car showrooms and many restaurants and cafes. Yes, you can buy a car on New Year's Day in Paris. But, instead of shopping for cars, we opted to stop at a brasserie for lunch.

For lunch I ordered a baguette with camembert and Jonathan got a omelette. My sandwich was very good and, unlike similar sandwiches in the United States, had Camembert and butter! (Definitely not a diet food.)

After eating, we continued our walk down Avenue des Champs-Élysées. At the bottom of the street we discover a holiday market lining both sidewalks and perused the stalls as we continued to walk along the boulevard. At Place de la Concorde we turned left along Rue Royale and stopped for tea at Ladurée. Time for a snack. This adorable - and very popular - tea salon and patisserie is one of my favorite places to go in Paris for tea and sweets. They make bright colored macaroons and other beautiful treats. Jonathan order a macaroon pomme caramel - like a large macaroon with caramel cream, apples, and sea salt caramel. I got a chocolate sweet that had many different layers of macaroon biscuit, chocolate pastry, and chocolate cream. Both were lovely and tasted excellent, but again I preferred the apple pastry over the chocolate one.

After tea, we went to the Madeleine, a large and imposing looking church in the 8th arrondissement of Paris. I will write more about this at another time, now I must move the story forward to our next snack.

We walked back to Place de la Concorde and enter Jardin des Tuileries. It was dusk at this point and many people were out strolling along the paths and relaxing in the park.

We walked through the Tuileries arrived at the Musée du Louvre. The museum was closed, however the square was filled with people looking at the glass pyramids and admiring the magnificent former palace.

Here we stopped at Cafe Marly for our next snack. This is a unique and fashionable cafe with windows overlooking the Louvre's sculpture gallery. And it was at this cafe that we discovered vegetable terrine by serendipity. We sat down and got some wine. Jonathan ordered a terrine, assuming it was of the meat variety. The waiter brought a plate containing a terrine of leaks with truffle shavings and a vinaigrette sauce.

After Jonathan's initial bewilderment that he had ordered a vegetarian dish, we both thoroughly enjoyed the terrine. It was one of those dishes were the quality of ingredients and the simplicity of preparation created the perfect flavor. Yes, these were just simple leaks - and, yet, as a dish they were so much more. With the terrine they served bread and my favorite things in France, butter.

After our snack and early evening drink, we went back out onto the street and began walking towards Île Saint-Louis in search of more food – dinner.

January 14, 2011

A Perfect Meal, Without Chocolate...

Who would have thought that my favorite dessert in Paris would feature apples, not chocolate? But, I'm getting ahead of myself...

New Year's Eve 2010. Jonathan and I were in Paris. After much questioning and reading we had decided to make reservations dinner at Ratatouille, a family owned restaurant in the 2nd arrondissement.

On New Year's Eve we walked from our hotel in the Latin Quarter across the Seine, through Les Halles, and up Rue Montmartre. The air was cool and crisp, but not bad once you are bundled up.

On our way to dinner we stopped at a small bar, Le Coeur Fou, for a glass of wine. Inside was quiet and intimate - a perfect place for drinks on a date. We placed our order at the bar and then took a seat near the back at a small table with a candle. With our wine the bartender served a bowl of lovely spiced olives.

After relaxing a bit we continued down Rue Montmartre towards our dinner destination. When we arrived at Ratatouille we were warmly greeted and welcomed by Claude, whom I had corresponded with via email to make our reservation. We were seated at a table on the first floor and began reading the menu and wine list.

Dinner in France even at small cafes is like a ceremony - there is an order to the different elements. Everything is slow and paced. Food in France is an experience and it is meant to be enjoyed.

So on New Year's Eve we started with an aperitif (kir) and complimentary toasts with ratatouille tapenade. Then our bottle of wine arrived - a burgundy.

Soon our appetizers arrived. I had a thick pumpkin soup with cream and truffle on top and Jonathan had bone marrow and toasts. Of course the food came a basket of sliced baguette. So good! Bread, I think, tastes different. I'm not sure if it is the flour, the water, or perhaps the experience. But, regardless, it tastes better.

For the main course (or plat in French) I had a vegetable plate prepared by the chef. This is one thing I appreciated about this restaurant. When I emailed asking if they had vegetarian options on their menu Claude was very accommodating and said that they would be happy to prepare a plate for me. I received a dish of perfectly presented carrots, green beans, and potatoes. They were seasoned with salt, pepper, and (of course) butter. It was so simple - and so delicious.

Across the table from me, Jonathan had duck confit. He reported it to be crispy, salty, and greasy (in a good way) - and perfect with his glass of burgundy.

Now, it is time for me to return to the subject of dessert. Although I have an obsession for chocolate, and particularly chocolate in Europe, I decided to order an apple tarte for dessert. Jonathan ordered creme brûlée. These are both classic French desserts and perfect for New Year's Eve in Paris. My tart was served with creme fraiche and a drizzle of raspberry sauce - and I loved it! The crust was perfect, the apples were sweet, and it tasted fabulous. I thoroughly enjoyed and would rate is as one of my favorite sweets in Paris. Jonathan's creme brûlée was also amazing - creamy with a perfectly caramelized crust.

So, even without chocolate, dinner at Ratatouille was wonderful - and a perfect New Year's celebration! This is a restaurant I will definitely visit again on my next trip to Paris.

January 9, 2011

Arriving in Paris

After several days in England we headed to the City of Lights, Paris. To get here we took the Eurostar train from St Pancras Station in London under the English Channel, through the French countryside, and into the city of Paris. Arriving at Gard du Nord we found a cab and headed to our hotel.

We decided to stay in the 5th arrondissement on a quiet side street.

After checking into our hotel we went out to enjoy the evening. First we went to a cafe for some tea, coffee, and people watching. After relaxing a bit we took the Metro to the Palais Royal stop near the Musée du Louvre.

Being rush hour, the Metro was packed. Coming from London, this is a very different European city. People push onto the trains and it feels more intense. Jonathan mentioned he felt Paris is akin to NYC. It definitely has a big city feel. London, on the other hand even though it is a large has the feel of small villages.

Once we were on the left bank we walked along Rue Saint-Honoré stopping in a few shops and enjoying the Paris evening. When we went to Place Vendôme we walked around the square and looked at the sparkling Christmas lights.

Next we headed to Galleries Vivienne on Rue des Petit Champs. This is a beautiful old shopping arcade with a tile mosaic floor. It is also home to one of my favorite wine shops in Paris.

Finally we went to Willi's Wine Bar, a favorite restaurant of mine from Paris visits past. I was happy to have the opportunity to return with Jonathan.

Dinner in France is a leisurely experience. You start with an aperitif or wine and relax. Then you receive your entree (appetizer in French), followed by your plat (main course), and the cheese or dessert.

At Willi's Jonathan and I shared a bottle of wine from the Rhone Region. For food I got a artichoke and chestnut soup and Jonathan had foie gras to start. The soup was fantastic - rich and flavorful. And, of course, Jonathan enjoyed his foie gras. Then for the main course I got a vegetable dish with stewed beans, carrots, and other vegetables served with fresh arugula and creamy polenta. Again it was very good.

From my past visits to this restaurant the thing I remembered the most was the chocolate terrine. So, for dessert Jonathan and I shared one of these. The smooth, rich chocolate terrine was served with a white chocolate sauce - and it was as good as I remembered it!

And so, the Parisian part of our adventure began...

January 8, 2011

A Birthday in London

Picture London in your mind. It's an old city, steeped in history. More often than not imagines this city have a background of mist and cloudy skies.

The day of my birthday was a quintessential London day - cloudy with light drizzle and mild temperatures. After breakfast we started walking toward Covent Garden. It was a perfect day for walking. The mist gave the city a quiet and mystical air.

The area near Covent Garden, Neal's Yard, and Seven Dials is my favorite part of London. The market, the narrow streets of shops, and the small colorful yard are perfect places to wander around and experience London.

We went to the Neal's Yard Apothecary shop and then walked around the artists stalls in Covent Garden. As we left the market hall we came upon a silver Airstream trailer selling hot mulled Somerset cider. For those that are not familiar, cider in Europe is different than the fresh apple cider Americans are accustomed to. Instead, it is a fermented beverage with low alcohol content. Some ciders have slight carbonation while others are flat.

We purchased two half pints of the mulled cider to drink while walking back towards Neal' Yard for lunch. The cider was very good - warm, not too sweet, and with only a small bit of alcohol still remaining.

At Neal's Yard, we went directly to the World Food Cafe. This is a vegetarian lunch restaurant located above Neal's Yard Apothecary. When I used to travel to London more frequently I often had lunch here and I was looking forward to returning with Jonathan.

At the World Food Cafe the menu is on a chalkboard by the door. When you arrive you order and then sit at the counter or one of the communal tables. All the food is vegetarian and represents a different area of the globe. I ordered a Turkish mezze platter and Jonathan got vegetable masala. The food was excellent - just as I remembered - and this cozy cafe is perfect for a relaxing lunch or snack.

After lunch we got on the Tube and headed to Westminster to visit the famous abbey and switch gears from shopping to history.

Westminster Abbey is an amazing building. After being founded over 1000 years ago the structure was built over several centuries as the original building was added onto and made more ornate. In addition to being place of worship, the Abbey is where the kings and queens of England have been crowned for the last millennium.

Entering Westminster Abbey you are struck by the sheer size of the interior with the high vaulted ceilings and great open spaces. Elaborate, detailed decorations and memorials are everywhere inside the abbey. In areas of the building every inch of space - walls, floor, and ceiling - is covered with monuments, inscriptions, paintings, and other adornment. There is so much to see and learn about the history of England here. From noblemen and statesmen buried in tomes or below the paving stones to memorials for artists and scientists on walls - history of this country is recorded here via births, deaths, and coronations.

This was my second visit to the Abbey and there are many things I noticed this time that had escaped my eye previously. However one thing that I had remember was the floors. In addition to the many inscriptions marking burial places in the floor, many of the stones on the floor have been worn years and years of people walking through the chapels and corridors.

By the time we left Westminster Abbey the sun had set and dinnertime was approaching. After dropping our packages off at our hotel we walked back to Covent Garden in search of dinner.

After meandering around the streets a bit we ended up at Pix, a cozy tapas bar. It was a relaxed and friendly cafe and bar. The tapas were set out on platters on the bar. (This is a more traditional way to serve tapas than we are accustomed to in the United States where you order the small plates you want from a menu.) Each dish or piece had a stick (or pick) in it. As you eat each item you save the sticks and at the end of the night you give them to the bartender to determine your bill.

We got a bottle of wine and started selecting tapas to eat. I choose the tortilla, cheese-filled peppers, and olives. Jonathan got calamari and fried olives. After our first round of snacks we chatted and then got some more food. (My favorite was the cheese-filled peppers and I got a couple more if those.) The tapas were good, the environment relaxing, and experience fun.

Back at the hotel we ate a small fruitcake that Jonathan purchased for me during our visit to Harrod's. A perfect little cake at the end of a perfect day!

January 5, 2011

Visiting Stonehenge and the City of Bath

The day we headed out of the city was chilly and overcast. As we drove towards Stonehenge we past kilometers of snowy English countryside.

A ring of stones atop a hill.

From a distance we could see the giant ring - grey against the white snow. We walked the footpath up to the ancient circle. The hilltop was chilly with cloudy skies and a strong breeze.

I had heard that Stonehenge was fenced off and tourists were only allowed to view it from a distance. In response to this my mind conjured up images of obtrusive barricades. However I was pleasantly surprised. There was a small dirt path with a rope supported short metal stakes along each side. It was more a reminder to remain on the path than an obstruction to assure that you do.

The site looked just as it does in images - stones standing against time. Perhaps it is slightly smaller in person than I had imagined in my mind. But, it is still impressive nonetheless. It is amazing to think this circle of stones have stood watch atop this hill for thousands of years.

After going to see the stones - and taking the requisite photographs - we went to the Stonehenge gift shop. Yes, Stonehenge has a gift shop. Inside you can buy Stonehenge keychains, shirts, jewelry, and socks. Of course, like most gift shops they sell candy and (since we are in England) marmalade too. We opted for a warm beverage and a snack from the cafe instead of tourist brick-brack.

After visiting Stonehenge we continued on to Bath. When we arrived in Bath our tour guide gave us on a brief driving tour of the city before setting us out on the streets.

We began our time in Bath at the historic Roman Baths. The source of the water is a natural spring with mineral waters that rise out of the ground at 46C (115F). The bathing facilities were originally built by the Romans in the first century CE. Multiple renditions were constructed throughout the centuries, however the Roman ruins remain. Today a more modern building protects the ancient stone pools and pavements. There is also a museum that houses addition Roman artifacts from around Bath.

After spending some time walking around the baths and watching the steam rise off the water we went out into the streets to discover other areas of this picturesque city.

Near the Roman Baths is the Bath Abbey. This beautiful building has carvings of angels climbing its towers towards the sky.

A few city blocks from the Abbey is the Pulteney Bridge. Built over the River Avon this bridge is designed as a copy of the Ponte Veccio in Florence. (A place I have yet to visit.)

Of course I would be remiss to describe a place without some reference to food...

While meandering the streets Jonathan and I stopped at a small shop and purchased some pasties. These are tasty savory pies that are easy to hold in your hand and eat. I got a pasty filled with cheese, broccoli, sweet corn, and potatoes; while Jonathan ate one with more traditional filling (beef, potatoes, and vegetables). This was a great lunch to have while walking around.

Before leaving Bath we stopped for tea at a local cafe, the Boston Tea Party. Of course, being from New England the name was intriguing. The cafe was along the edge of a small square. We sat at a table inside and had some tea with milk and traditional English fruitcake. A perfect snack before returning to London. Both the tea and cake were lovely, and the cafe was the perfect place to sit and enjoy the local atmosphere of Bath.

January 3, 2011

A Flight Above the City and Boxing Day Sales

Boxing Day dawned a bright and sunny day so we decided we would begin our day at the London Eye. After our daily English breakfast at our hotel we headed to the south bank of the Thames. After a short wait in queue for tickets we were boarding one of the capsules on the London. The ferris wheel rotates very slowly taking a full 30 minutes to go around once. A ride – or flight as the ticket refers to it as – on the London Eye is one complete rotation. The movement is smooth and it almost feels like you are floating around. Of course, the highlight of the ride is the view. On the day we went there was excellent visibility and we were able to look out over all of London.

After our trip around the London Eye, we hailed a cab and headed for Knightsbridge (and the Boxing Day sales). London's black cabs are a quite expensive mode of transportation, but it is fun to ride in one at least once. And, the Tube was not running on this particular day due to a strike.

Once on Knightsbridge we had lunch at Wagamama, one of my favorite fast noodle shops. There are several outposts of this place around London; the one we ate at is downstairs in Harvey Nichols. Wagamama serves steaming bowls of fresh Asian style noodles with fresh vegetables, tofu, or meat. It is a great place to go for healthy, fairly inexpensive, quick food.

After lunch, we joined the many people shopping at Harvey Nichols and other high street shops. This was my first time going to a Boxing Day sale in London and I would say it is akin to Black Friday in the United States, but that people are more polite!