Monday, December 31, 2012

Champagne- The Wine of Kings

The "Wine of Kings" has come to  epitomize French sophistication throughout the world. There are other sparkling wines but the only true Champagne is grown and made in the Champagne region of France located 90 minutes northeast of Paris.  Rolling vineyards surround the main Champagne towns-- Reims and Epernay in the Marne department and Troyes in the Aube district,  Champagne is grown in rich limestone soil and comes surprisingly from red grapes-- two thirds Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier with the remainder from white Chardonnay grape. 

On a visit of the Champagne region you will most likely tour cellars instead of the vineyards. Champagne houses' cellars are dug deep underground carved into chalk quarries. The wine bottles are kept in kilometers long cool and dark galleries.  Whether visiting the cellars of Mumm, Taittinger, Pommery or Veuve Cliquot in Reims or Moet and Chandon and Mercier in Epernay you will learn about the "Method Champenoise" of producing bubbles which consists of first fermentation, blending with other wines, adding liqueur of triage (sugar, wine and yeast) followed with second fermentation, daily remuage for a year and finally disgorgement. Did you know there are 56 million bubbles in a bottle of champagne!! Finally at the end of the tour you are rewarded with tasting of a cuvee.  Sante!!

tags: champagne, Reims , Epernay

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Victor Hugo - A Giant Pillar of French Literature

Victor Hugo represents one of the giant pillars of French literature and an influential 19th century political figure.  Born in 1802 in Besancon, Hugo had a long and prolific literary career that included poetry, novels, theatre dramas and political essays.    Here are ten facts about this ever more popular author.

  • Poet- From an early age, Hugo displayed talent for poetry and very much admired romantic poet Chateaubriand (1768-1848).  At 20, Hugo published his first collection of poetry " Odes et Poesies Diverses" that earned him a royal pension from King Louis XVIII.    His most famous poetry works throughout his career include: 'Odes and Ballades"(1826), "Les Orientales" (1829) , "Les Feuilles d'Automne" (1831), "Les Chants du Crepuscule" (1835), "Les Voix Interieures"(1837)  and the epic "Legende des Siecles"(1883).

  • Playwright- Victor Hugo is the author of "Hernani", "Marion Delorme" and "Ruy Blas".  All three plays  are classics of the French repertoire and often staged at the Comedie Francaise, the national theatre.  

  •  Novelist- Hugo's world reputation rests on his two epic novels - "Notre Dame de Paris"(1831) ("Hunchback of Notre Dame") and "Les Miserables" (1862). These two novels have been popularized numerous times on the silver screen and on the  stage  - the musical adaptation of Les Miserables "Les Miz"  has been the longest running musical in London's West End.

  • Preservationist- The enormously popular novel "Notre Dame de Paris" (1831), led to the raising of public funds for the restoration of the much neglected Parisian cathedral.  Initiated in 1845, the works of restoration were led by architect renovator Viollet -le -Duc and took 25 years; in the process the cathedral acquired a spire.

  • Politician- Hugo had monarchist tendencies as a young man but his political affinities shifted to ardent Republicanism.  Supporting the July monarchy, Victor Hugo was elected Pair de France by King Louis Philippe, a seat he held from 1845-1848.   Following the 1848 Revolution and the formation of the Second Republic he was elected to the Constitutional Assembly (1848) and the National Assembly (1849-51).

  • Activist- Hugo fought for social justice and was an opponent of the death penalty.  He wrote and debated in favor of its abolition. He convinced the government of Queen Victoria of England to spare the lives of six Irish people convicted of terrorist activities.

  • Political Exiled- After the forced government take over by Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) in 1851 that established the Second Empire, Victor Hugo declared him traitor to the nation and went into exile  to the Channel islands- first in Jersey then in Guernsey where he lived for 17 years to return to France in 1870 when Napoleon III's empire collapsed.  After the Franco-Prussian war, he was elected to the National Assembly in 1871 but resigned the post after a month.  He was then elected to the Senate in 1876  and kept the seat till his death in 1885.

Victor  Hugo-Gavroche

  • Artist- Victor Hugo showed talent for drawings and produced more than 4000 sketches. He kept his drawings from the public sharing them with friends and family.  The painter Delacroix expressed the opinion that if Hugo had decided to become a painter instead of a writer, he would have outshone the artists of their century.

  • Musically Inspiring -- Victor Hugo lacked musical talent but his works inspired many artists among them composers such as Berlioz, Bizet, Faure, Lizst, Saint Saens, and even Verdi whose opera Rigoletto was inspired from the play "le Roi s'amuse".  

  • Spiritualist-Victor Hugo explored Spiritualism and participated in occult seances during his self-imposed exile in Jersey and Guernsey.   He claimed to have communicated with famous departed such as -Shakespeare, Plato, Rousseau, Galileo and Jesus.

Pantheon -OT Paris Tourisme-

Victor Hugo died in Paris in 1885 at the age of 83.  As a venerated national hero, his funeral procession gathered over 2 million people. After laying in state under the Arc de Triomphe, he was enterred in the Pantheon among the nation's Greats.  When in Paris you can visit the Victor Hugo Museum located 6, 
Place des Vosges.  The second floor apartment  displays mementos and drawings of the author.  


Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Mystery of van Gogh's Ear

Van Gogh-Self-Portrait with Pipe

On this day December 23, 1888 Vincent van Gogh mutilated his ear. This event occurred after an argument he had with his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh came to settle in Arles in the south of France earlier in the year; there he spent time painting feverishly the landscape and colors of Provence. His dream  was to establish an artist colony and he invited his friend Gauguin who came from Pont Aven, Brittany, another artist colony.

Van Gogh-Yellow House, Arles
They lived together in a little yellow house that van Gogh rented in Arles and spent times working and producing canvases such  a series on the Alycamps, the Roman necropolis. At first all was well, then the artists started to argue about artistic conceptions.  Two nights  before Christmas, the two men quarreled rather violently and Gauguin moved out to the nearby hotel.   Van Gogh upset about his friend leaving, took a razor and mutilated his left ear lobe. Even more bizarrely he wrapped up his bloody ear lobe and gave it to a local prostitute named Rachel (apparently the two men patronized her). This is according to the official version based on memoirs reported by Gauguin and van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo.

However, a recent version by two German art historians, Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, dispute this traditional version. They believe while quarreling, Gaughin might have brandished a sword  to scare off the demented Van Gogh who had thrown a glass of wine to his face and while defending himself he sliced off Van Gogh's ear. In order to protect his friend from police investigation and perhaps in the hope that he will remain in Arles at the artist colony, Van Gogh  pretended he did his own mutilation. This version is disputed by experts from the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

 After this incident, Van Gogh was sent to  St. Remy de Provence 's asylum of Saint Paul de Mausole where he spent time recuperating and where he painted many of his masterpieces while Gauguin left for for Paris and subsequently settled in Tahiti. 

Paul Gauguin-Alyscamps

van Gogh- Allee des Alyscamps

Recommended reading: Adam Gopnik's article in the New Yorker- (January 4, 2010).

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Chocolate, Anyone?

Christian Constant
Giving a box of chocolate is a popular gift during the holiday season.  Who doesn't like receiving chocolate?  France is passionate about chocolate.   It consumes 400,000 tons a year or about 6.4 kg per capita. Though not the leader in Europe for chocolate consumption (the Swiss, British and Germans consumes more), French prefer their chocolate dark and they like it of high quality 60-70% pure cocoa and rich in cocoa butter (at least 31%) . Over the last 30 years, gourmet chocolate boutiques have proliferated in Paris and all around France. On a  walking stroll around Paris you will be enticed by more than one artistically decorated windows of chocolatiers.

Debauve &Gallais
For the history, chocolate came to Europe via Hernan Cortes and the Conquistadores who were introduced to the cocoa bean and the drink  made with it by the Aztecs of Mexico.  Hernan Cortes returned to Spain with the recipe of a chocolate drink but adapted to the colonists of New Spain.  Chocolate then  traveled to the court of France via the marriage of Anne of Austria (a Spanish Infanta) to Louis XIII.  At the court of Versailles from the 17th century till the Revolution, the chocolate drink became all the rage and it was appreciated for its aphrodisiac and energetic properties.  King Louis XV was a great lover of chocolate beverage and he had his own recipe that he on occasion prepared for himself in the kitchens of his private apartments.  In the 19th century  the process of turning chocolate into chocolate bars or tablets was invented in England and the production of chocolate bars was launched by companies like Cadbury in England, Meunier in France and Nestle and Lindt in Switzerland.

Today, chocolate shops compete for inventive recipes and artistry in the making of chocolate confections.  Here are just a few Parisian addresses of master chocolate artisans:

Jean Paul Hevin- 231 rue Saint Honore - Paris 8 and other stores
Christian Constant- 37 rue D'Assas ( Paris 7)
Patrick Roger -45 avenue Victor Hugo (Paris 16) and other stores
Yves Thuries-17 rue Daunou (Paris 2)
Debauve & Gallais -30 rue Saint des Peres (Paris 6) and other stores
La Maison du Chocolat- 52 rue Francois I (Paris 8) and other stores
A la Mere de Famille - 35 rue du Faubourg Montmartre (Paris 9) and other stores
Chocolat Puyricard-24 rue du Cherche Midi (Paris 6) and other stores

And for the best hot chocolate drink, head to Angelina's, a Parisian institution.
(226 rue de Rivoli- Paris 1)

Also, visit the Musee du Chocolat --23 blvd. Bonne Nouvelle (Paris 10) for an educational and tasty visit of the world's favorite bean.

Did you know that chocolate is good for your health?  As some research suggests daily consumption of dark chocolate has benefits  to reduce high blood pressure, inflammation and blood clotting.

Tag: Paris, chocolate


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Lyon- The Other City of Lights

Lyon Office du Tourisme

This year from December 6-9, Lyon celebrates its Festival des Lumieres (Lights Festival).    During this 4 day annual event everyone light a row of little candles at night on their windowsills or balconies and the facades of buildings , monuments, streets and river banks are artfully illuminated using computer, laser and other hi-tech sound and light technology.  The tradition begun in 1852 when citizens of Lyon lit candles to mark the inauguration of the Virgin Mary statue on top of the Basilica Notre Dame de Fourviere situated on a hill that overlooks the city.  This event is celebrated every year on December 8 and grew to become a 4 day popular festival that attract a large number of visitors. 

Notre Dame de Fourviere Illuminated- Lyon Office du Tourisme

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Louvre Museum Spreads its Wings North

Louvre Museum-Lens

This week the Louvre Museum inaugurates an annex in the northern city of Lens in the region of the Nord Pas de Calais.  In this former coal mining town, the Louvre  built a complex comprised of four rectangular buildings designed by the award winning Japanese architectural firm SANAA .  Made of polished aluminum and glass the light filled space will welcome some 300 of the Louvre’s  masterpieces in a rotating fashion.  Da Vinci’s "Saint Anne", Delacroix’ "Liberty Guiding the People" and Ingres’ portrait of "Louis Francois Bertin" have already made the trek north and will be exhibited there for one year.  There will be also a semi-permanent collection  showcased in the Gallerie des Temps (Time Gallery) in which  artworks from different periods of history going back to prehistory through the 19th century will be exhibited in a chronological fashion and across cultures –Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Islam, and Western European. Artworks in the Gallerie des Temps will be rotated every 5 years.

Lens is about 2 hours by car and 1h 30 minute by TGV and is close to the Belgium border.  This represents a new opportunity for the region which suffered for decades from economic decline and the ravages of WWI and WWII.  The Louvre expects a half million visitors a year. This will hopefully lead visitors to explore this region of northern France.  Other highlights of the Nord Pas de Calais include the art cities of Lille and Arras and the pretty beach resort Le Touquet.      

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Tis the Seasons Cheers from Paris

Throughout December Paris becomes especially festive for the end of year holidays as streets, monuments and window shops are alighted for the pleasure of shoppers and leisurely strollers.  Here is what you can enjoy this holiday season while visiting Paris. 
Champs Elysees

The famous avenue of the Champs Elysees intensely sparkles as the trees along the famous thoroughfare are decorated in scintillating garlands and floating tree rings that change color throughout the day and night. 

At the Place de la Concorde you will admire the tallest Christmas tree in Europe which measures 35 meters, about as high as the Obelisk that adorned the grand square. 

Visit the window displays of the Grand Department stores like Printemps, Bon Marche and Galleries Lafayette. Their mechanical window scenes are sure to enchant children of all ages.  The Galleries Lafayette has had Louis Vuiton decorate its windows to honor the 100 year anniversary of the store's Art Nouveau glass dome.

While at the Galleries Lafayette come in and admire the Christmas tree that stands majestically under the century old rotunda.  It sparkles with hundred of thousand of leds light and is crowned by a star-like suspended chandelier decorated in brilliant Swarovski crystals.

Galleries Lafayette 2012

Explore the Christmas market along the Champs Elysees between Avenue George V to the Place de la Concorde where chalets built in the Vosges mountains are temporary installed for the season.  They sell regional delicacies and hand-made holiday ornaments and gifts .  To warm you up while shopping savor a cup of hot mulled cider, a warm crepe or some roasted chestnuts.

For fun, ride the giant Ferris wheel in the Tuileries Garden for a view from above of the sparkling city of light .

How about putting on skates to glide on the skating ring installed in front of the Hotel de Ville. As for the little ones, a ride on the merry-go-around will sure delight them.

Happy Holidays!