Paris en Famille: Jardin du Luxembourg

April 12, 2010

There are certain streets, bistros, parks that madly truly deeply make me feel I’m in Paris: Jardin du Luxembourg is one of them.

Saturday was no exception. Hot of the TGV, overload of luggage dumped at the apartment, we hot-footed it to Jardin du Luxembourg: the boys needed an energy burner and I wanted to unabashedly revel in that delicious feeling of ‘being in Paris’.

When @luefkens suggested renting a old-fashioned sailing boat – good-value entertainment at €3.20 an hour – to float on Palais de Luxembourg’s fish pond I was a tad skeptical. What on earth could be so fascinating about watching the wind puff a toy boat across the water for an hour?

Boy was I wrong. The boys loved it, jumped with joy, screamed in delight as they sprinted madly from one side of the monumental pond to the other in hot pursuit of their yo-yoing boats, nudging them away from the edge with a simple bamboo stick and screaming in excited horror as their vessel veered perilously towards the fountain in the pond’s middle. Pure unabated old-fashioned pleasure enjoyed by Parisian families since 1922.

And what did I do? Run around in circles after the pair of them (as did every parent there) trying frantically to keep them in sight!


Paris en famille: How to do it

April 11, 2010

Every travel writer has their own way of doing it. Mine invariably ends up en famille, a mode of travel that prompts immediate admiration from almost everyone I meet.

Bizarre really: if anyone seriously thinks I can research a guidebook with two overly-boisterous, attention-greedy boys and a baby who needs breastfeeding every four hours they must be mad. No way.

Except that that is precisely how this research trip has pared out. Fortunately I did bring my secret weapon along in the shape of devoted papa @luefkens who entertains the kids – all three of ’em – while I work.

Secret’s out. That’s how I do it.

So here we are in Paris, smugly snug in a 70-sq-meter apartment, a hop and a skip from Le Bon Marché in the well-heeled 6th arrondissement. Sped here by TGV from Geneva to Gare de Lyon where lugging our luggage (more pieces than people – blame the baby) from platform to taxi rank was a feat of engineering in itself.


Jurassic World Treasure

August 24, 2009


It’s a dream come true for every dinosaur-mad eight-year-old. And I have to confess that even at the grand old age of 30-something with two kids under my belt and the third en route, I too am excited.

Call it the Jurassic adventure of my lifetime – to view herds of fossilized, dinosaur footprints found in Switzerland during the construction of a motorway. Since the extraordinary discovery in 2000, paleontologists have been hard at it digging, cleaning, casting plaster copies and so on. But it is for just four precious days in August – last weekend and this weekend (29 & 30 August) – that the Paleontology A16 site is open to the public. 

The experience lives up to expectation. From a 15m-high platform, one sees what experts reckon to be one of the world’s most astonishing Jurassic finds – 1700 fossilized dinosaur footprints, best seen illuminated at night. Much to the disappointment of every kid there, the exact type of dinosaur hasn’t been identified. But what is known is these footprints belonged to herbivorous sauropods – a type of diplodocus probably – who stood 2.5m to 3.5m tall and 20m long,

The fossilized footsteps are impressive, but what most woos is the sheer scale of the site – 4000 sq m of Jurassic world treasure incongruously ensnared by a mix of green field, forest and bright-yellow building-site machinery. Standing below the platform on the flat rock plateau, it is easy to imagine the Bahamas-style ‘beach’, mottled with shallow lagoons and tropical vegetation, across which these dinosaurs would have roamed 152 million years ago. A sudden roar behind one’s shoulder as we viewed the prints, each carefully catalogued and ringed in a different colour to match it to a track, would have come as no surprise.


The Béchat-Bovais site is in Courtedoux, a village near Porrentruy in the Swiss Jura. It is one of six sites to have been excavated during the construction of the A16 Porrentruy-Besancon motorway, to be completed by 2016. So far 4200 dinosaur prints and 30,000 fossils have been found, and experts reckon there are herds more waiting to be exposed. But the big question remains: what will happen to them? The decision rests in the hands of the Swiss Federal Department of Environment, although the odds they will be covered in tarmac never to be enjoyed again. Grrrrr ..



The Feast of Your Life

August 15, 2009

What an incongruous setting for France’s longest buffet bar – a municipal swimming pool in Narbonne, an old Roman town in the Languedoc, southern France.  So practical though. The kids had run riot all morning with a duet of outdoor water slides and the sparkling Olympic-sized pool. They’d made mad dashes dozens of times between pool and bouncy castle (wet skin = greater speed down bouncy-castle slide) and by noon were, in true five- and seven-year-old style, STARVING.

The buffet bar, all record-breaking 70m of it, arranged in a trio of U-shaped courtyards, was mind-boggling. Lavish trays of crabs, oysters, nail-sized tellines and other shellfish jostled for tummy space with traditional fish soup, Italianate antipasti, salads, cold meats, sushi and oeufs de poisson aka poor man’s caviar. And that was just for starters. Main course translated as sufficient roasted meats and fish to render even Mr Decisiveness Extraordinaire completely inadequate: beef, chicken, pork, ham, lamb, quail, veal, veal kidneys, frog legs, deep-fried squid rings and so on, not to mention meaty local specialities such as pieds de porc a\` la Narbonnaise (pork trotters), saucisse de Toulouse (hunky pork sausage from Toulouse) and fatty chunks of courtellous (pork belly slices).

With the exception of how many dirty plates you could cunningly balance on your well-laid table (dressed in a white tablecloth no less), there was no restriction on how many plates you took or times you served yourself. Food quality was something akin to a Swiss motorway service-station restaurant – which for any Brit translates as of an exceptionally high quality for pre-prepared food en masse – and drinks served by waiters added a touch of style.

The pièce de résistance was dessert, the course that interestingly everyone in the restaurant aged between 5 and 18 seemed to make a mad dash to – and linger on forever. Imagine a dozen different chocolate cakes, every breed of fruit tart and French patisserie, syrupy Greek-style pastries, exotic ice-creams like lavender or white chocolate, champagne sorbet in plastic green bottles, waffles and donut rings topped with milk, dark or white chocolate fresh from a chocolate fountain … each generously doused with a choice of whipped cream, fromage blanc, yoghurt, rice pudding, vanilla sauce or soft meringue.

Bottom line: The one fixed €22.90 menu at Les Grands Buffets  is good value for the ravenous and/or those who dream of gorging unrestrictedly on an unimaginable choice of different dishes and food products. Kids aged five and under feast for free, those aged 6-10 eat for €11.50, and wine is served at local producer prices (read €1.40 a glass or €7-10 a bottle). French dining hours are strictly adhered to, that is you’ll only get seated between noon and 2pm, and 7pm to 10pm (from 11.30am Sun). Turn up a second later and you’ll miss the feast of your life.


A Timeless Lunch

August 5, 2009

So my table reservation for 12 – six adults, six kids – is confirmed for Saturday. And with what relish I am looking forward to it, all the more so because I will lunch on the exact same meal I savoured so smugly last year when researching Lonely Planet’s Languedoc-Roussillon guide. This is where the unique charm of Château de Jau kicks in. I mean, where else in the world can you dine so memorably – think dining al fresco between 18th-century stone and pea-green vine with tasting notes to accompany each wine – and, return years later, to same said chateau to relive same said meal all over again. This address has been a faithful lunch date for returning Languedoc-Roussillon lovers since the 1970s.

Château de Jau by ulterior epicureI also love Château de Jau’s creative fusion of dead-contemporary art and timeless tradition. As with any self-respecting French restaurant, it serves its Côtes du Roussillon and Muscat de Rivesaltes wines by the bottle and carafe, the latter in this case being endearingly dubbed ‘le jaja de Jau’ and stamped with a unique Ben squiggle designed for this wine-making chateau by the self-same New Realist artist, born 500km-odd along the Mediterranean coast in Nice.


The Caviar of Lake Geneva Cuisine

April 26, 2009

Chez Gousse, Messery, Haute Savoie


Filets de perche (pike-perch filets) are a staple around Lake Geneva, to the point that dining can become monotonous (at least on the ‘rural’, southern French side where I live). Knowing most filets de perche come frozen from Estonia makes this ‘local’ dish even less sexy.


Not the case with fera, specifically carpaccio de fera. Savour just one mouthful of this raw fleshy whitefish and your libido for Lake Geneva cuisine spikes ten-fold.


I gorged on it with friends Friday night at Chez Gousse (tel +33 4 50 94 72 20, 24 rue du Bourg. Messery), our local bar which in true French village-bar fashion is propped up by the same faces six days a week and is never open when you want it to be. Gousse aka Serge who has run the place forever had gone all out with his feast of local products (incongruously called a ‘cheese and wine’ evening): cheese from the fromagerie in Douvaine, charcuterie (cold meats), three types of biscuits de Savoie (which pretty much translates as dry sponge cake), and some fabulous AOC Seyssel wines (I loved Maison Mollex’s 2007 La Tacconnière).


But it was the shrimp-like écrevisses (crayfish) and fera, both fished fresh from the lake that morning by Serge Carraud (tel +33 4 50 94 04 71, 68 rue des Pecheurs, Chens-sur-Leman), the local fisherman, that stunned the room. Served as wafer-slim slices soaked in an olive oil, raspberry vinegar and echalot marinade, carpaccio de fera is quite simply the caviar of Lake Geneva cuisine. I challenge you to find it in any restaurant. Rather call Serge for a fish and DIY.

Carpaccio de fera rarely features on restaurant menus

Carpaccio de fera is practically impossible to find on restaurant and cafe menus.


Travel Writing: Putting in the legwork

April 12, 2009


It’s not all wining in trendy Marseillais caves à vin and dining in the next best place to eat before Michelin. Hiking in the rain to hidden rocky coves, walking dodgy streets, cruising by pedal-power along defunct railways … Putting in the legwork is all part and parcel of a travel writer’s job which is precisely what makes it such hard work, so darn inspiring.