The beauty of France is difficult to capture with mere words, as is the beauty of a thirty-five year marriage, and enduring friendships, but I shall venture in and give it a go. This is our third anniversary trip to Europe in the span of fifteen years with the same hexad of friends and we plan on continuing the tradition ‘until death do us part’.
Simone Signoret says, “chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years.” This is why we travel, we go in search of colorful threads for our emerging tapestries, memories so vivid we abandon our predictable way of life and live, really live. Okay eat, really eat. Yes, and drink, really drink. “Le monde est un livre dont chaque pas nous ouvre une page,” claims Alphonse de Lamartine. The world is a book ~ with each step we open a new page.
Let me just say the transportation required to bring us safely to our destination was challenging at best, but as with most things in life, a little perseverance and flexibility can overcome many an obstacle. I wasn’t going to compare the difficulties of travel with relationships but how could you not?
I found myself trying to fit into uncomfortable spaces, focused on the destination instead of the journey, sleep deprived, impatient, fearful for my belongings, to alleviate the boredom I binged watched The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, felt a little edgy on the final approach, and was forced to deal with a lot of inefficiency. How is it possible over seven million people visit France each year? You’ll be relieved to know we survived the ten hour flight, marriage intact, mission accomplished.
La vérité vaut bien qu’on passe quelques années sans la trouver. Jules Renard (Truth is more valuable if it takes you a few years to find it.)
On the train to Avignon, slipping in and out of sleep, I underwent one of those instantaneous consecrations, no longer Cheryl from the suburbs, but Cheri`, a consummate traveler on the verge of a daring escapade. From the window I let my eyes absorb the green rolling hills, small chateaus, whimsical farms, majestic churches, and meandering streams. It’s a full-blown fairytale, and by the grace of God and a generous bump on my visa limit, I get to join the damn story. Merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream…
|From Left to right Greg, Phyllis, Jill, Steve, Cheri, Larry
We arrive in Avignon (main characters in my dream ~ Greg, Phyllis, Jill, Steve, Cheri, Larry), found ground transportation and the six of us emerged at 23 Rue de La Republique with overstuffed suitcases, eagerly awaiting a glimpse of our new digs. Our apartment is located in the center of Avignon’s historic district, spacious, european, swanky, and oh so French (little did we know we would narrowly escape death within these charming walls).
Moving through the narrow door on the sixth floor we entered as a unit, spilling into a spacious, softly illuminated room, to the left a charming red kitchen, behind us a modern dining table, above a glass floored room (only in France), and ten steps up, a capacious family room with inviting couches, our view a sea of tiled rooftops, dotted with church steeples, and an occasional balcony garden. The four bedrooms are located on the third level, each with their own air conditioner, and on suite bathroom (awkward European style), but no window.
|Glass floor loft with our growing empty wine bottle collection!
After throwing ourselves onto the couches, flinging open the windows, we sat mesmerized by a gentle rain, and the sweet fragrance of southern France. All I can say is after a ten hour flight, two hour wait at the station, and three hour train ride we are ready for a glass of wine. We definitely came to the right place because it took the guys about ten minutes to return with several bottles of marvelous regional wines. And let me just say we are excellent consumers.
Someone famous penned the lines, when a door slams, a window opens. I believe the quote goes something like that but you get the general drift. There was a frustrating mix up with our rental car, but as it turns out, it was an enormous blessing (Jill might disagree). They didn’t have the car we ordered, the price mysteriously doubled, and with no option in place we canceled the entire deal. So French of us.
But the window I mentioned earlier came in the form of a driver for hire, one we happened to meet on our ride into town, and Philip was delighted to take us on. He held the world record for deepest scuba dive back in 1985 (he showed us a magazine as proof), owns a quaint hotel on the edge of town, and he’s adorable. We hired him for the entire week. Bravo.
Our first night in Avignon we put our trust in providence and headed out the door without a plan. As Anthony Bourdain was known to say, “nothing unexpected or wonderful is likely to happen if you have an itinerary.” Walking the ancient cobble stone streets recently baptized by rain, we wander up and down the charming rues, following the ebb and flow of the ancient sandstone buildings, with carved wooden doors that will charm the shit out of you.
This is what I would call a clean city, splashes of color from simple floral displays beautifully contrast the stark cream edifices, cafes with tables overflowing onto the sidewalk, a palatial Popes Palace (referred to as the “Babylonian captivity of the Papacy” during the 13th century), moss covered fountains, statues, more churches than pubs, lush gardens, and swarms of well dressed people. I’m rethinking my shoes, my lingerie, maybe my entire wardrobe down to my hideous socks. I pat the credit card tucked in my purse, take a deep cleansing breath, and smile because clearly I’m making Larry nervous. Love.
Yes, a table for six,” spelled the same in both languages, but totally different pronunciation. I never quite got it so I fell into holding up one hand and a thumb. Whatever works. I’m not sure how it happened but we stumbled upon the most exquisite cafe. Lingering at our table until day turns into night, they start us off with a tray of sumptuous meats and cheeses, olives, wine, and bread, but when the pizza is served it’s worthy of a moan! Bon appetit!
Jet lag is a real thing, our first morning in Avignon we gave ourselves a break, lingering over coffee, warm croissants, fresh yogurt, assorted cheeses, and more coffee (thank you Greg for rising early and foraging the village for these amazing treats), we stayed nestled on the couches in wrinkled pajamas as if waking from a slumber party. Total bliss…
For over a century Les Halles has been an emblematic spot in the center of Avignon, a charming covered market made famous by authors Peter Mayle and Jean Viard. Les Halles is only open until one in the afternoon so we scampered out of our pj’s and into town to secure fresh produce, meat, bread, and cheeses for our evening dinner. Of course we immediately found ourselves seated at a table for six indulging in raw oysters, muscles, and local wines. This took several hours as you can imagine, with the market now closing, we hit the streets, happy, and full of mischief. I’m not sure the names of the cafe’s we visited, sipped, tasted, and enjoyed but they were memorable, or quite possibly we were memorable? Somehow Greg pulled together a fabulous dinner and I have no idea what time we went to bed. Bonne nuit…
“Only snobs kiss once, I was told, or those unfortunates who suffer from congenital froideur.” Peter Mayle
Phillip arrives at 10:00 sharp to take us site seeing. I’d like to say we were on time but we weren’t even close. I watch the countryside whirl past from the rear window, quiet, absorbed, slightly hungover. An hour later we step out of the car and into the enchanted hillside village of Gigondas.
There is a thyme scented aroma that lingers in the air mixed with a hint of lavender, baking bread, and rosemary. It forces one to breath deeply holding onto the delightful emotions inspired by these natural perfumes. Simple clay pots bursting with geraniums decorate porches, balconies, and windowsills, sometimes forcing there way through the stone streets. The atlas trees form a natural canopy, branches woven together, shading us from the hot sun. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant but I will never forget the food. Our plates are works of art, designed to please all of the senses, and so they do. Revived after a splendid lunch we wander up and down the cobbled streets, do some wine tasting, and take in a few galleries. The sky is so bold.
“Beauty is the harvest of presence.” David Whyte
After a fabulous dinner in town of roasted duck, veal, and beef tenderloin, we sauntered back to the apartment, sipping wine, windows flung wide, allowing a gentle breeze to cool us. It was a few minutes shy of midnight when the entire apartment went dark and we all smelled smoke (no smoke alarms). This is when you are harshly reminded you should have identified possible escape routes when staying in an unfamiliar apartment six floors up. Using our dead or dying phones as flashlights we move towards the putrid smell. It leads us to the fuse box which we fiddle with for a bit but to no avail. When we are relatively sure we are not in immediate danger we decide there is nothing we can do until morning, we head to bed, with our backpacks ready to grab. Larry sleeps on the couch acting as sentinel for the night.
In the morning our landlord promptly appears, his name is Fredrick, and he reminds you of a small bird. Flighty is a good description. With the advantage of daylight the guys check out the damage, they discover one of the wires caught fire inside the wall, located next to the door (the windows are on the far side of the apartment, six floors up, the door being the only exit), which blew a fuse (incinerated), and plunged us into darkness. Had that caught fire while we were sleeping there would have been no escape.
The days blend into one another as we meld into the provincial lifestyle. It’s difficult to explain. On my way in I said I was consecrated, during our stay I am consumed. This is Avignon.
We spend the next few days exploring the lively outdoor markets of L’lsle-sur-la-Sorgue, rummaging through antique stores, attending mass at the Cathedral around the corner, walking the beautiful streets, shopping, talking with the people, and of course indulging in the unique experience of fine french food.
Our driver surprises us with a quick trip up to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, and we willingly participate in a pilgrimage to the mouth of a natural spring, it is stunningly beautiful, caverns dot the mountainside, along with ruins of a papal castle, and water so brilliant it appears almost turquoise as it flows into the town. It is a place that has attracted poets and writers through the years, and one that continues in the ancient art of paper making. On the way back from our walk we are caught in a downpour but escape into a cafe for a cold beer while we wait out the storm. This is so stinkingly French I can hardly stand it. Thunder clouds form, drenching the lush landscape, the rumble vibrates all the way to your soul.
“Choisissez votre femme par l’oreille bien plus que par les yeux.” French proverb (Choose a wife rather by your ear than your eye.)
How do you leave a place like this? At night the calls of the cicadas from hundred-year-old atlas cedars is mesmerizing but the soft breeze that miraculously lifts the dense humidity of late spring is what catches your breath. When the sun goes down the sky is transformed to shades of peach, amber, and honey. I wish I brought a small pot of soil home with me because it is the dirt that nourishes this magical land which in turn has nourished me.
“On n’aime que ce qu’on ne possede pas tout entier.” Marcel Proust (We love only what we do not wholly possess.)
The day finally arrives when we pack our bags and board a train to Paris. Doesn’t that sound divine? We are hushed on the train by a sleepy French guy, such ugly Americans. We googled train etiquette and indeed exuberant voices are a total faux pas. The rest of the ride we whispered our thoughts.
Margaret Anderson says Paris is the city in which one loves to live. She notes this is the only city in the world where you can step out of a railway station ~ the Gare D’Orsay ~ and see, simultaneously, the chief enchantments: The Seine with its bridges and bookstalls, the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Tuileries Gardens, the Place del la Concorde, the beginning of the Champs Elysees ~ nearly everything except the Luxembourg Gardens and the Palais Royal. What other city offers as much as you leave a train?
The exquisite timelessness of Parisian architecture is gradually unveiled as we roll into town. In Paris we are staying in different locations, Larry and I at the Marriott on Haussmann Blouvard, Jill, Steve, Phyllis, and Greg at an apartment at 3 Rue Greffullhe in the Madeleine district. We grab cabs and go our separate ways.
Sandstone buildings line the streets, with curled filigreed, angelic carvings, mansard roofs, and ironwork that adorn the buildings as if expensive jewelry, colorful doors add to the general appeal. The streets are spotted with iconic mansions, tree-lined boulevards, lush gardens, majestic churches with medieval towers and spires, and it is impossible to describe all the charming cafes with colorful tables, awnings, and flowers.
“Okay: go to Paris, check into a nice hotel, and my plan is I’m going to eat some fucking cheese and I’m gonna get drunk.” Anthony Bourdain
My senses are appropriately assaulted, drugged by the spectacular sites, and sweet smells. After unpacking, freshening up, we make the ten minute walk to our friends apartment. It is a charmer, high ceilings, intricate molding, two wings, one for each couple with private baths. It suits them perfectly.
Sipping wine at the apartment we loosely sketch a plan for our time in Paris. The first thing we do is hit the board of tourism for bus tickets, boating on the Seine, and passes to the Louvre. We are partially successful. Reservations are made for our Michelin dinner and suddenly we realize Paris is our playground.
We grab a cab and head to the left bank of the Seine river at the northwestern extreme of the Parc du Champ de Mars for a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, also known as the Iron Lady of France, it is one of the tallest iron structures built by man. The tower was built in 1889, designed by world renowned engineer Gustave Eiffel, and if you are wondering when and why the Eiffel Tower was built, it was built as the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair. I refer to her as the night light of Paris.
Stopping at Le Petit Cler in the Rue Cler district for a little comfort food was a spectacular way to end the day. Bonne nuit Paris.
“I ate and drank what I wanted in Paris. Butter, duck fat, liver fat, triple-cream brie, deep cherry-red wines, pear, clementine and lavender jelly, crème cakes, caviar, escargot in sautéed pine nuts and garlic butter. I did what the French did, I licked my fingers, didn’t care if people saw, what they thought. Father would’ve hated it, would’ve told me I was uncouth. I ate everything up, ate his money, was delightful everywhere I went. I learned how to wrap my tongue around accented vowels, spoke to this stranger and that. Nobody knew me, didn’t expect anything from me. I wanted to stay like that forever.” Sarah Schmidt
Up early Larry and I head to the Arc De Triomphe, standing at the western end of the Champs-Élysées, a 164 ft. arch which honors the soldiers who have fought for France. Under the arch lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the flame of remembrance is rekindled every morning at 6:30 am. When you stand in the center of the arch, looking back towards the Louvre, the streets of the city stretch out like legs of a spider in all directions, it seems as if I am standing on top of the world.
“Her towering buildings, her massive cathedrals, her grand boulevards and ancient winding medieval streets–as vast and indestructible as nature itself. All was embraced by her, by her volatile and enchanted populace thronging the galleries, the theaters, the cafes, giving birth over and over to genius and sanctity, philosophy and war, frivolity and the finest art; so it seemed that if all the world outside her were to sink into darkness, what was fine, what was beautiful, what was essential might there still come to its finest flower,” Anne Rice.
We meet up with everyone for lunch at an adorable cafe, hop on the scenic boat traveling the Seine, exiting on the island for a quick peek at the infamous Notre Dame Cathedral. This is when we are caught in a torrential downpour, running for cover at the closest cafe, we score a table, and wait out the storm with a cheese tray and wine. I feel so Parisian, soaked to the bone, laughing, satisfied, beholden.
Close to the Champs de Mars, in the heart of the little district of “gros caillou”, you will find the restaurant Fables de la Fontaine. Fables De La Fountaine has been open for ten years and has earned the Michelin star, David Bottreau controls the kitchen, offering the customers an exceptional presentation of seafood. We are seated at a table next to a couple, maybe ten years our senior, and before the end of the night we have become friends. Veronica is charming she tells us there is a saying in french that is hard to interpret, “L`art de Vivre.” It has to do with living life to the fullest or the art of living well ~ good food, good wine, leisure, pleasure, love. If this is a cult I’m so joining.
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Ernest Hemingway
Larry and I spent half a day riding tour buses through the various districts, jumping off to climb the stairs of La Basilique du Sacre Couer in Montmartre, for an impressive view of the entire city. We rested at a charming sidewalk cafe, sipping wine, and indulging in a sumptuous pastry. On and off the bus we go as if a merry-go-round, spinning by churches, mansions, parks, and cafes but it was the Latin district that catches our attention and we spent hours rummaging through the quaint shops, touching, tasting, sipping, buying expensive perfume, watching the people watch people.
On Friday morning we meet at the The Louvre, originally a royal palace but became a museum in 1793. Outside the museum is a substantial glass pyramid where we line up and wait for the doors to open. Once inside we head straight to the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci, with a slight smile her eyes follow us around the room. Three hours later we are full as sponges, dripping with exhibits, artifacts, and paintings from Egypt, Greece, and Rome, unable to absorb any more we hit the streets of Paris for a little libation.
|Notre Dame is perfectly reflected in Larry’s glasses caught beautifully by a professional photographer, Meredith Mullins, we stumbled upon while boating on the Seine. She emailed it to Larry a few days later. So modern.
We meet back at Notre Dame, grab an extraordinary lunch, and spend an hour exploring this incredible cathedral. This is when we hear the crushing news about Anthony Bourdain who gave us the spirited wisdom, “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” He will be dearly missed.
“The waters of the Seine are contained and beautiful as they wound through the heart of Paris; so that the earth on that spot, so shaped by blood and consciousness, had ceased to be the earth and had become Paris.” Anne Rice
Robert Black says what you don’t know about Paris, is that when you live there over time, an invisible thread forms around your heart, and so when you leave, it always tugs you back. That is what we came in search of ~ threads ~ especially ones that bond us to one another. “There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved,” claims George Sand. We came to France with open hearts, thought we were traveling abroad, but arrived at the core of our own being, only to discover a most resplendent tapestry. This my friends is the secret to an enduring marriage and the art of living well ~ L`art de Vivre.
“Live every day as if it were your last. Spend your life hanging by a thread. Accept that you can fall from one moment to the next. And when that moment comes, rejoice, because the last day will be the first, and you will become the thread itself.” Franco Santoro
I’m Living in the Gap, missing Paris, dreaming of my return.
I write for Across the Board once a month, cross on over any time.
- “And, as for the oil, it is a masterpiece. You’ll see. Before dinner that night, we tested it, dripping it onto slices of bread that had been rubbed with the flesh of tomatoes. It was like eating sunshine.” Peter Mayle
- “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” RIP Anthony Bourdain
- I plan on returning to Paris someday and living in a swanky apartment for a month, I’m calling it research for the blog.