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Mont St-Michel: Our Secret Footpath

April 30, 2012

We made the iconic pilgrimage to Mont St-Michel with the kids last summer and to be frank, the August traffic was so hellishly snail-slow and nose-to-tail that even before we caught sight of the hardcore traffic jam blocking the final 1km-odd stretch of road, we all unanimously agreed that the only way to salvage the trip was dump the car and walk.

Which turned out to be the best decision we ever made: The easy, one-hour walk across flat sheep pastures was idyllic. The contemplative crown of the mount on the horizon teased constantly, like a sweet candy begging to be eaten; and bar a handful of walkers we met at the initial roadside stile, we were alone. Mid-way across the grassy plain specked white with grazing sheep, we stopped for lunch – a stinky gooey round of Camembert spread on baguette and a bottle of local Normandy cider. Bar having to dodge sheep pooh to spread our picnic rug, it was, well, the stuff of French dreams.

Until we hit the concrete causeway linking the mount with the mainland. From then on, it was pure unadulterated August-crowd hell, confirming my suspicion that – as with the best of Provence’s hilltop villages – the true beauty of Mont St-Michel lies in the seductive mirage it proffers from afar.

Shutting the concrete causeway linking Mont St-Michel with the mainland to cars – walkers and cyclists are still welcome – is good news, although it will surely only shift bottleneck a kilometer or so back to before the car parks at La Caserne instead.  No doubt there will also be some pilgrims simply unable to walk the obligatory 800m it is from the car parks to Place des Navettes, departure point for the shiny new shuttle buses. Included in the new €8.50 parking fee, the shuttles cross the causeway in 6 minutes and run non-stop every day between 8am and 1am. Horse-drawn shuttles, evocative of the path blazed by medieval pilgrims in the 11th century, are planned for summer 2012.

The suggested new green walkways from car park to the rather unromantically named Shuttle Square seem pleasant enough. But my hot tip remains with our secret footpath through sheep pastures, flagged by a old wooden stile, next to a roadside farm in La Rive, a tiny hamlet just east of busy La Caserne on the D275.

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Musings on a Vintage Ski Season

April 5, 2012

Playing Ski Mum

Call me spoilt but I’m done with the ski season. Living as close as I do to the slopes, I’ve more than proved my dedication to the sport what with traipsing the kids up the mountain every day during Christmas and February vacances scolaires, freezing my butt off in blizzards during far too many Saturday trainings and – as every loving parent whose child races does – skiing boy racer’s ski jacket down slope while same-said boy hairs down slalom course sans jacket in the hope of shaving a split-second off his breakneck-speed time. Nah, there might still be some snow on higher-altitude slopes – Argentière is open until early May – but I’m a discerning, blue-sky-perfect-snow skier and I’m done.

Vintage all the Way

Weather patterns gone bonkers aside, this season screamed vintage for me. A decade ago I would quietly giggle at how easily recognizable my 70-year-old belle mère and her veteran ski companions were as they elegantly tootled down the slopes, weaving perfectly uniform curves with enviable artistry in matching pearly white ski boots that closed at the front and knitted woolly hats they’d worn since the 1980s.

Hence my bemusement this season when not one but two, three, four friends – all of that ski-bum hip, pre-kid ilk – raved about retro ski parties they’d been to, on and off piste. One had bedazzled Chamonix’s slopes with a bright turquoise all-in-one her almost-50 boss had dug out from his youth; another had rocked up at a 1980s carnage party in Morzine in a rather delightful, orange and pink two-piece picked up from Retro Rentals. Should you have the end-of-season urge, the 1980s skiwear specialist rents out all the garb in Chamonix, Morzine and Avoriaz for €10 a day, plus €30 deposit to cover damage (‘mud, beer, wine, puke, tears, burns, bullet holes, wolf bites’ to quote the company).

What with Heidi chalets and wooden Davos sledges straight out of a traditional Christmas card scene, Swiss ski resorts somehow seem to retain more of the grace of yesteryear than their French counterparts. Case in point: Belle Epoque week in Kandersteg in late January when skiers don gaiters, balloon trousers and wooden skis to recreate the understated ski glamour of the 1920s. Vintage après-ski in the shape of a tea dance might not necessarily be your cup of tea, but traditional Swiss alpine villages like Bettmeralp and Riederalp – no motorized vehicle in sight – beneath the Aletsch Glacier instantly rekindle the romance and retro-best of an era when sedate was the ski pace and when mums definitely did not ski their speed-fiend sons’ ski jackets half-way down the mountain.

For off-piste vintage ski glamour: Ponder beautiful B&W photo essays on retro ski trends in the New York Times and Boston Globe.

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Clifftop Drama in Cornwall

April 5, 2012

Minack Theatre © Martin Hartland

It is all very well me passing the week plotting and planning a fortnight in April of family motoring between glittering bays, sapphire waters, golden sand beaches and lost hilltop villages in Corsica (all in the name of work I hasten to add). But I must absolutely not forget to book what every Cornwall aficionado assures me will be the most magnificent night out of our post-Olympics Cornish detox later this year.

Tickets for summer performances at the Minack Theatre go on sale 2 April. And such is the aura, drama and magnitude of this astonishing coastal venue that gold-dust tickets are snapped up in seconds. Wedged high on a crag between rock and velvety moon-lit night, the open-air cliff theatre is an incredulous mirage of terraced stone seating (bring cushions and rugs – no umbrellas, plastic raincoats sold in situ), vintage rockery gardens planted in the 1920s, and immense views of the timeless big blue and Porthcurno Bay far below. Perhaps not the best address for those prone to vertigo.

To know that such dizzying magnificence grew out of a humble garden project initiated by a theatre-loving dame called Rowena Cade, kind enough to lend her cliff-top back garden with sea view to the local amateur dramatics society for a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in 1932, makes the experience all the more sacred. This season’s repertoire includes David Copperfield, Macbeth and As You Like it, Cat Among the Pigeons and Molière’s The Hypochondriac, oh, and the musical Return to the Forbidden Planet.

Just between you and me, a ticket to any star-topped performance will do. I simply want to sit on moonlit stone, stare out to sea and play the hopeless romantic as cliff-top drama unfolds beneath stars before me. (And did I mention the glorious afternoon beach picnic of fresh crab sandwiches and clotted-cream ice cream I’m planning beforehand between sea scampers and sandcastles on the soft white sands of Porthcurno beach?) My family will never forgive me if I forget to book.

Booking Essentials: The Minack Theatre, Porthcurno, Penzance, Cornwall TR19 6JU, Box Office +44(0)1736 810 181

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French Chicken

March 28, 2012

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It has always tickled me pink that the paltry poulet (chicken) – such a common bird, so plain on the plate unless wed with other ingredients – can be so prized by French gourmets. Enter the reason why a weekend flit to small town Bourg-en-Bresse in eastern France excited me so.

Poulet de Bresse is no cookie-cutter chicken. Raised, cherished and tended with care according to exacting AOC rules on small family farms (the sort where Grandma still helps out as best she can), this chicken is god among knowing gourmets and France’s top chefs. One bite and there is purportedly no going back: the taste of that firm, well-bred, baby-tender Bresse flesh is strong, almost gamey, a tad on the wild side and just a teeny bit heady. Marry it with a crisp white Chardonnay or rich red Pinot Noir from nearby Burgundy and you enter gastronomic heaven.

Perusing the over-sized menu at Auberge Bressane in Bourg-en-Bresse is akin to savouring the descriptive card in a lavish box of Swiss chocolates – Bresse chicken and pricier poularde (fatted hen) in every guise imaginable. Being something of an impromptu family trip decided upon with wild abandon last minute, the moment to order an entire €120 poularde de Bresse rôtie (roast hen) was past (50 minutes wait and we were with the children).

So, aspiring to the pure and unadulterated, I skipped chicken au vinaigre de framboises and à la crème au chardonnay for a kid-simple, no holds barred thigh of roast chicken – while the shiny white porcelain Bresse chicken with signature blue-grey legs and punk-style red wattle in the centre of the table gazed at me unfaltering: Happy are young chicks in this neck of the woods which peck around freely in the open for the first 12 weeks of life (after which reality kicks in with wired pen, and corn and milk to fatten for several weeks). Few Bresse birds leave France, making the ostensibly simple dish all the more special.

As with so many of French cuisine’s hearty regional dishes with unabashedly peasant-kitchen roots, greedily mopping up the fragrant puddle of pan juices left behind with chunks of chewy bread was the sweetest part. The chicken was perfectly roasted, with gorgeously finger-licking crispy skin and moist succulent meat, but it was that irresistible swirl of meat juice begging to be devoured that really left me yearning for more.

Dessert? Skip across the street and gorge on the gleaming cream façade of the extraordinary Monastère de Bou, a 16th-century monastery with a breathtaking Flamboyant Gothic church, an unusual trio of cloisters, and respectable modern art collection.

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With Kids: Week Two in Paris

May 11, 2010

With the start of our second week in Paris (click here for Week One) came the realisation that we had just seven days left to do everything we wanted to do. Phone calls were made to book kids’ ateliers (workshops) and battles ensued with various websites – the Eiffel Tower for starters – that insisted on printing out e-tickets (not handy if you’re staying in apartment rather than hotel).

Saturday
It had been the highlight of the kids’ last trip to Paris and three years on the Kapla Centre still enthralled. Several thousands wooden bricks and a couple of hours later, they’d built the Eiffel Tower. Next up was a 2.5km walk from the 11th arrondissement to Parc de Bercy for a picnic in the park and gad around what must be one of the city’s most inventive green spaces – a decade ago warehouses filled with wine marked the spot. Anyone mad about design will love it.

Sunday
Someone had told me that the climbing frames and playgrounds in the Parc Floral de Paris, a flower park in the Bois de Vincennes, were among Paris’ best. So it was with an extra big skip in their step that the boys trekked off that morning. The thrill in Niko’s voice when he told me that evening how he’d got to the top of a spider frame intended for kids 11-plus said it all. He’s eight.

Monday
The day when many Paris museums are shut: This time around they actually made it into the Natural History Museum where, much to the boys amusement, Papa @Luefkens strode unabashedly into the women’s loos to change the baby: the concept of equally equipping both men’s and women’s loos with changing mat has yet to reach France (unlike in Switzerland: just last weekend we were at Lausanne’s Olympic Museum where, yes, @Luefkens sighted a changing-mat in the mens).

Post picnic in Jardin des Plantes, it was a funicular ride up to the street entertainers, buskers and artists of Montmartre. Avoid spending €30 on a portrait unless you’re happy for it to bear zero resemblance to your child (unfortunately our three-month-old daughter was wearing blue that day … she was clealy unimpresed with the result).

Tuesday
Striving for a cheap morning, the gang rode the metro as far as Bastille then spent the morning walking along the banks of Canal St-Martin to the Cité de la Musique (where the boys were enrolled in afternoon music-discovery workshops). The canal walk was superb: within seconds of spotting the first canal boat navigate one of many locks the kids – initially horrified at the idea of ‘a walk’ – were hooked. Dinner at Les Pâtes Vivantes, 22 blvd St-Germain, was a spell-binding affair thanks to the chef behind glass who hand-pulled Chinese noodles while we dined.

Wednesday
They had scaled it twice before already, but the Eiffel Tower is one of those irresistible Parisian icons. With a pram in tow, e-tickets were purchased for the lift. (Smartphones owners note, @luefkens didn’t print out the tickets and yes, the guy at the entrance did successfully scan the bar code on his Blackberry.) From the handsome height of 324m the boys plummeted below-ground level to the city sewers aka Paris’ rather stinky Musée des Agouts. Four million rats live down there but the boys didn’t spot one.

Goûter was another rather stylish affair: the kids’ culinary workshop at Palais de Tokyo’s ArtHome (in French pronounced ‘arôme’ meaning ‘aroma’) climaxed with the boys eating their afternoon’s work – a silky-smooth panna cotta spiced with fresh mint, served in a bowl made of chocolate and decorated with orange-flavoured meringue sticks. Chic.

Thursday
The boys enjoyed the art workshops at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs but what really tickled their fancy was the 16th-century Ecole de Fontainebleau painting their father introduced them to in the Louvre. Being the savvy Dad he is, he knew Mona Lisa just does nothing for six- and eight-year-old boys – unlike the two nipple-pinching ladies the pair of them have been talking about ever since. Do the same if you want your children to actually remember the world’s most famous art museum. Post-Louvre, watch the kids play hide-and-seek in the boxed hedges of Jardin des Tuileries over tea or champagne on the lawn at unforgettable stylish address Le Saut du Loup.

Friday
La Grande Arche in Paris’ spacey La Défense business district was today’s culture box, followed by a frolic in yet another park – Parc André Citroen – and pizza al fresco on the terrace at kid-friendly Restaurant Fiori. Final treat of the week was dinner en famille at L’Entrepot, a edgy cultural centre with restaurant, live bands, film screenings (including monthly parent and baby showings) and a leafy back garden to die for.

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With Kids: Week One in Paris

April 27, 2010

Disneyland Paris would have been an easy cop-out, but with husband @luefkens juggling a three-month-old baby alongside two six- and eight-year-old boys, the Parisian land of stomach-swirling rides and over-sized mice was simply not on.

No bother. With Parisian metro artfully mastered first day (no mean feat given the dozens of staircases – if you can’t handle your pushchair independently take the bus), the city of light, love and 101 ways to woo children was his oyster.

Saturday
No afternoon is better to mingle with Paris families than this. The city’s mythical Jardin du Luxembourg is where they frolic between fountains, flirt with ball games (footie, volleyball, tennis, boules …) or simply flop with a good read on a signature sage-green chair. Sailing a 1920s toy boat on the ornamental pond in front of the Palais du Luxembourg – a childish tradition much-loved since 1922 – is a charm-loaded Parisian classic.

Sunday
It has none of the romance of the Eiffel Tower, but the view from the 56th floor of the Tour Montparnasse – the perfect crowd-dodger – is not bad – and you can see the Eiffel Tower! Back on ground level (well, not quite …) the kids ran riot in the Jardin Atlantique, a rooftop park secreted on top of Montparnasse train-station – another perfect crowd-dodger. Reach it via the metal staircase next to platform No 1.


Monday
With many Paris museums shut Monday, the boys set their sights on ancient Rome in the shape of 2nd-century Roman amphitheatre Les Arènes de Lutèce. They ran and ran and ran in the vast oval, then made a beeline for the world’s second-oldest zoo in the Left Bank’s Jardin des Plantes. Menagerie done, more beasts dead-not-alive awaited them in the Natural History Museum’s Grande Galerie de l’Evolution (open Mon). But they got so lost in the park’s labyrinth they never quite made it. Lunch was an easy child-friendly walk from the Jardin des Plantes to Le Jardin des Pâtes, a creative pasta restaurant at 4 rue Lacépède (5e) no kid could possibly dislike.

Tuesday
The boys have yearned to return to the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie ever since first experiencing it a couple of years back. Of course we hadn’t thought to make an advance reservation for the kids workshops (all full). Nor had we thought to pack a picnic (food in the centre is pricey and poor). So a humble promise was made to return later in the week and the boys bounced the day away in Parc de Villette’s many playgrounds – easily Paris’ best – instead. Goûter for €36 was a real treat, as was dinner at Casa Bini, 36 rue Grégoire de Tours, 6e, where Italian waiters had the kids eating out of their hand in less than 10 seconds flat.

Wednesday
The boys being boys went bananas over the dinosaur exhibition, La Faim des Dinosaures, at the Palais de la Découverte: the animated monsters could not fail to impress. Then it was a merry dash to the Centre Pompidou for a recycling art workshop. When Niko met me that evening he gallantly presented me with an exquisite flower made out of a ratty old cardboard box. My heart instantly melted.

Thursday
Cité des Sciences take two: workshops booked this time and predictably boys are already yearning to return again. Dinner was an attempt to further the boys culinary education in the shape of frogs legs at Roger La Grenouille, 26 rue des Grands Augustins, 6e, near our apartment in St-Germain des Près (which, incidentally, we rented through agency Paris Attitude).

Friday
Day 7 in Paris ushered in a quick march up the Arc de Triomphe for triumphant views of the capital. Daily dose of culture done, the boys spun and swung and flew on all manner of funfair rides in the Jardin d’Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne, a favourite park they’re already citing as their holiday highlight.

Second post to follow on what the kids did with two weeks in Paris …

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Paris en famille: Goûter for €36 #gulp

April 14, 2010

They’d have been just as happy squatting on the pavement edge, licking a Berthillon ice-cream to the merry beat of street buskers on Pont Louis Philippe. And it would have been cheaper.

Instead we plumped for one of Paris’ most historic cake shops and tea rooms to give the boys that sacrosanct mid-afternoon snack no child in France goes without – goûter.

I sipped Earl Grey poured from an antique silver teapot and watched in amusement as the 6-year-old tucked into a lurid, bubblegum-pink Ispahan built from two raspberry macarons delicately glued together with rose-petal cream. Eggshell-crisp on the outside and soft ‘n chewy inside, it is these sweet treats baked in a rainbow of lurid colours that Ladurée in St-Germain des Près is known for.

Needless to say the sugary-sweet cake, fresh raspberries et al, went down a treat until he hit a lychee. Dramatic grimace followed by ‘Mummy, I don’t like the gluey thing’. So uncultured.

Tomorrow we’ll do the kerb on the bridge.

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