Posts Tagged ‘France’


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.


French Chicken

March 28, 2012


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.


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).

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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 …


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.


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.