Light posts and snail mail

Maggie and I spent three weeks across June and July on the west coast of North America. First up, we went on a tour that began in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, and finished in the city of Vancouver, including ten days in the Rocky Mountains and other areas of high country. We then flew to San Francisco and spent six days exploring this famous city and its environs, before flying home to Melbourne via Auckland.

I won’t be publishing any posts on this blog about our recent travels; I have too many other pressing tasks that are inhibiting me from writing the slightly earnest type of stories with which regular readers would be familiar. However, I have published a series of lighter posts on a new blog, which I created for the residents of a nursing home to whom I read once each week when I am home.

Three posts about the Rocky Mountains tour begin here

If you would like to see some photos and brief accounts from our time in San Francisco, the first of two posts is here

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Delicious French dining forays, October 2016

In an earlier post, I described a phenomenon, which I call ‘palate-lag’, in which foods that usually please your palate, taste bland for up to two weeks after you return from a foreign country.

If you too would like to experience a dose of ‘palate-lag’, I recommend that you visit the following restaurants in France. We dined at each of these during the fortnight before we flew home to Melbourne.

Amiens

We spent two nights in Amiens during our program of visits to First World War battlefields, cemeteries and commemorative sites. On the first evening, we ate in the dining room of our hotel, the Mecure Amiens Cathedrale. The atmosphere was a bit ho-hum but the meal was very good.

Bistrot du Boucher

On the second night, we dined at a restaurant close to our hotel and only a couple of doors from the famous cathedral. After we had returned from our day of visiting sites, we took a late afternoon stroll around the centre of the city and studied the menus and looks of several restaurants, before settling on Bistrot du Boucher. The menu was biased towards meat-eaters, which suited our appetite. Maggie enjoyed an excellent piece of grilled beef while I tucked into a whole roasted spatchcock. Uncomplicated but delicious. And generous!

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Saumur, Loire Valley

We explored the Loire Valley from another Mercure hotel, located on the small island that stands in the middle of the Loire River in the heart of the town of Saumur. On each of our three nights in Saumur, we dined at a restaurant that was within walking distance of our hotel.

La Reine de Sicile

Our first restaurant was rated highly on Trip Advisor and by staff at our hotel. And the menu read well when we made the short walk there late in the afternoon. Although our meal didn’t quite live up to our expectations, I was happy enough with my dish of Sole meuniere, a dish I had been wanting to try ever since I saw Meryl Streep going into raptures over it in a scene from the movie Julie and Julia.

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Restaurant la Pierre Chaude

This was the first of two excellent evening meals at restaurants that were unpretentious and operated by a husband (chef) and wife (maitre d’). At La Pierre Chaude, we both enjoyed a perfectly-cooked beef steak, accompanied by a generous array of vegetables and even some baked apple, plus a pot of intoxicating sauce (blue cheese in Maggie’s case). The red wine was local, fresh and flavoursome.

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Le bouche a Oreille

We had wanted to dine here on our second night but the restaurant was closed, to give the owners a breather after a particularly busy week, as we later discovered. It was well worth the wait! ‘Madame’ had quite a personality, was a welcoming host but was also protective of the quality of the food and service, so she determinedly turned some prospective customers away on the premise of being fully-booked.

(I was impressed by this. Many years ago, I worked at a fine dining restaurant where the owners were too greedy to resist overcrowding the dining room, leaving me to manage the frustrations of customers waiting for their meals to emerge from the overworked kitchen.)

Although the vegetables on the plates of food were more typical of what we have seen in French restaurants, ie a distant second behind the main ingredient, our three courses were all delicious and, progressively, more eye-catching! In order, Maggie ate prawns and scallops in a cream & garlic sauce; perfectly-cooked duck breast with a plum sauce; and baked figs with mango ice-cream. I had a warm mushroom salad, veal steak with a wild mushroom and brandy sauce; and poached pears with coffee ice-cream.

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Mont St Michel

Le Relais du Roy

We had dinner at our hotel after spending the afternoon exploring both the iconic Mont St Michel and the hamlet that is clustered on the mainland end of the causeway. Our expectations of the hotel’s kitchen were modest – there was nothing about our room or the general appearance of the hotel that hinted at fine dining. This proved to be a potent reminder that you should never judge a book by its cover!

I swear that we had no intention of eating three courses each! -We just got caught up in the moment; the moment the entrees arrived, that is.

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Honfleur

We loved Honfleur. Everyone loves Honfleur. And the old town’s inherent charms are supplemented by the generous number of opportunities to eat well.

We had three very good evening meals, all at establishments rated in the top 20 of Honfleur’s 140+ restaurants by the Trip Advisor community.

Le gambetta

We chose Le gambetta having studied its menu where I found a dish I had been itching to try for many years – bouillabaisse. It did not disappoint! Meanwhile, Maggie enjoyed the fact that we were in Normandy at the height of oyster season.

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L’homme de bois

On the following evening, it was Maggie’s turn for a special treat – lobster! My feed of prawns with a spicy tomato sauce was also delicious.

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Le Breard

Le Gambetta and L’homme de bois were both comfortably in the category of ‘classic French bistro’, with crowd-pleasing favourites on the menu, friendly staff and a cosy atmosphere, including street-side tables to take advantage of the warm weather. But you need only look at our entree plates to recognise that Le Breard was anything but ‘classic’.

We had looked at the menu early in our stay, as its was on our hosts’ short list of recommended restaurants. And we walked past it each day, on the route from our lodgings to the harbour. However, it took us until late on our final afternoon to get our heads around its distinctive menu and reserve a table. Good decision. Very good decision!

The decor is modern – clean and crisp, but not too minimalist. The wine list by the glass is acute and elegant. The service is refined, yet welcoming. And the food? Sublime, taking familiar ingredients and transforming them into delights of of look, texture and flavour.

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Rouen

Gill

When we were making plans for the self-driving part of our 2016 travels in Europe, my father said that he would happily help meet the cost of a high-quality meal on our last evening in France. We gratefully accepted his generosity and investigated options for dining out in Rouen, where we had booked to spend one night in the the city’s old heart, just a few doors from the medieval cathedral, which Monet famously depicted in a series of thirty paintings.

We settled on Gill, a restaurant with one Michelin star and a menu to match that lofty rating. And only s short walk back to our hotel after dinner.

We chose the five-course degustation menu, which was pushed out to seven courses by an ‘amuse bouche’ and a bonus dish by way of apology for a bone I discovered in a piece of fish. (As you might guess, the maitre d’ was deeply mortified.)

Here is a sample of what we ate, culminating in a selection from the stunning cheese trolley.

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Bon appetit!
Rick Grounds

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Honfleur: happy hour 24/7

After our enjoyable afternoon and evening in Mont St Michel, we set off for Honfleur, the easternmost town on the coast of Normandy, where we would spend the next three nights.

On the firm advice of a friend back in Melbourne, we called into Bayeux, to view the famous tapestry depicting the events that led to William, the Duke of Normandy siezing the English throne from King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The tapestry is displayed in a carefully managed environment and is in remarkable condition. It is only 50cm high but all of 70m long, comprising a chronological sequence of fifty numbered sections, divided into nine panels of varying length. The Wikipedia entry for the tapestry provides a useful account of its design and content, including the novel fact that it is NOT a tapestry but actually a work of embroidery.

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We had left Mont St Michel quite early and arrived at Honfleur in time for lunch at one of the dozens of bars/restaurants located cheek-by-jowl around the town’s old harbour. We were to while away many happy hours in this precinct over the next three days.

Honfleur, on the southern side of the Seine estuary, was a significant commercial and military port for many centuries from medieval times onward, but its status eventually diminished due to silting and the development of a much larger, modern port at Le Havre. However, it is still used actively today, mainly by leisure craft, and, if you sit by the water’s edge for long enough, you will witness the raising of the hinged bridge to allow boats to enter or depart.

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The view from our favourite watering hole

As was typical of a medieval coastal settlement, the narrow streets of Honfleur fan out from the three sides of the harbour and then up the slope towards the plateau which overlooks the town. On the western side, the lower parts of these streets are lined with shops and restaurants, the latter being more genteel than the harbour-side throng.

As for the shops, we have never seen such a variety of quality goods to tempt us. Many items were well outside our budget but we were happy to include some window shopping in our wanderings. Besides, there was an ample supply of attractive and affordable gifts for us to buy, mainly items destined for our six grandchildren.

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One of the popular sites close to the harbour precinct is Saint Catherine’s Church, a strikingly unusual building and the largest wooden church in France. It was constructed by local shipyard workers in the 15th century and all of the timber was hewn by axe alone. It’s not the prettiest church in Christendom but it is quite remarkable nevertheless.

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Our lodgings in Honfleur also contained elements of medieval construction, to which additions had been made from time to time. As its name suggests, A l’ecole buissonniere had once housed a school. It was comfortable, only a short walk from the west side of the harbour and the breakfast spread was excellent.

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The entrance to our ‘chamber’

On one morning of our visit, we drove up to the plateau above the town, where the woods maintained a comfortable temperature under the mid-autumn sun. Here we came across the Grace Chapel, constructed 400 years ago. The chapel’s exterior is quite unpretentious but its interior is fascinating, with numerous maritime elements, such as tiles praying to or thanking God for safe journeys, and model ships suspended from the ceiling.

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Just along the road from the chapel, we found the point where a walking trail descends to Honfleur. From here, we had great views of the town centre and across the Seine estuary to Le Havre.

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We had chosen to stay in Honfleur after doing some online research, and we were not disappointed. When we checked into our favourite hotel in Paris a couple of weeks earlier, we told our hosts about our plans and one of them, a woman in her 30s, exclaimed that Honfleur is her favourite place in France and she goes there as often as possible!

So, when I say “happy hour 24/7”, it is not just a reference to the myriad harbour-side bars. It is also a reflection of how many opportunities we found in and around Honfleur for visitors to enjoy themselves. We were sorry to leave and would happily return.

A near-full moon over Honfleur for our last drinks

 

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Must see Mont St Michel

Le Mont St Michel, the abbey-capped island just off the western-most part of the coast of Normandy, is one of the most recognisable sites in France. To me, it is not especially beautiful, nor architecturally brilliant, nor grand. But it is one-of-a-kind, captivating and almost unreachable in its mystery, with a hint of medieval Disneyland thrown into the mix, and made all the more striking by the fact that the adjacent coastline is so flat.

It is also one of the most frequented sites in France, averaging over 8,000 visitors per day. The built form has evolved and enlarged over the centuries – find out more here – but the only changes since I first went there in 1982 have been the crowds, the conversion of several buildings into businesses feeding off those crowds and the introduction of systems to manage the flow and impact of visitors.

The island is connected to the mainland by a viaduct, which is closed to private vehicles. So, visitors have the options of a not-too-strenuous walk; a bus service using vehicles with controls at either end, like a tram; or a horse-drawn carriage. We used the second of these – it was inexpensive and the buses ran frequently.

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A visit to the abbey complex starts to become strenuous, both physically and financially, when you pass through the entrance gate and begin to jostle your way up the slope towards the main abbey edifice. If you are thirsty, let me tell you that the price of a bottle of water is in inverse proportion to your distance away from the entrance area!

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Despite the crowds, it is not difficult to appreciate the virtues of the ancient structures and the views as you make your way to the upper reaches of the pathways. Owing to my bung hip and Maggie’s bung knee, we didn’t go all the way to the top, but a decision to descend via an outer route rounded off our explorations very satisfactorily.

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Our last view of the island was across the sandy fields of the low-lying coastal fringe to the east of the village of Mont St Michel, where we had spent the night comfortably in one of several accommodation premises.

We came. We saw. We were content!

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Next stop: the Bayeux Tapestry, en route to Honfleur.
Rick Grounds

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Lovely vistas in the Loire Valley

So, after my long lay-off, it’s back to the high-minded business of being a traveller, and it doesn’t come much loftier than the Loire Valley! For example, the vaulted ceiling above the apse of Chartres Cathedral.

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We began our eight day self-drive exploration of the Loire Valley and Normandy by taking a train from Gare Montparnasse to the the town of Chartres, where we would pick up the rental car we had booked. Between modes of transport, we walked up to the famous cathedral, described by the great sculptor Rodin as “the Acropolis of France”.

I had visited the cathedral in 1982 and my memory of it, even at the height of summer, was of a dark space, relieved by the take-your-breath-away stained glass. Clearly, it has been spruced up since then!

One of the things I like about this Gothic monument is that, despite its size and despite the magnificence of the stained glass, it retains a degree of humility. Unlike St Peter’s basilica in Rome, say, it is not overly cluttered and decorated, and a visitor of the Catholic faith would, I imagine, feel quite able to spend time of quiet prayer, comfortable in the company of a great but gentle god.

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From Chartres, we drove south to the Chateau of Chambord, the largest residence built by royals and nobles in the Loire Valley.

Everything about Chambord is grand: the size of the rooms and halls; ceiling heights; fireplaces; the central staircase; and the decorative elements, both outside and within.

If you are interested, you can learn more about the architecture and history of Chambord at its official website. Here are some images from our visit.

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From Chambord, we made our way to the town of Saumur, where we would spend the next three nights. We had chosen Saumur because it is no larger than would support a good range of dining establishments, and because of the charming castle overlooking the town and the Loire River.

Here is an early morning view from our hotel room, followed by a view of the town from the castle.

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The centre of the town’s old heart, on the south bank of the river below the castle, was quite charming.

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During the morning, we took a leisurely walk across the Seine and up to the castle. You can learn more about it here.

Although the Chateau de Saumur is not nearly as grand as Chambord, it has several interesting features, including a dungeon and an ancient well. It also houses the municipality’s collection of arts and crafts, including several large and finely crafted tapestries and a wonderful collection of porcelain dining wares.

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Another early morning start – the weather was markedly warm for mid-autumn – set us on our way to Villandry, a chateau which is like the yang to Chambord’s yin. The edifice at Villandry is relatively modest but the chateau’s extensive gardens are so structured and decorative that they put those of Versailles in the shade! The gardens were meticulously restored early in the 20th century and are maintained to an intricate plan, according to the seasons.

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You can learn more here. A selection of our photos follows.

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On our final day in the Loire Valley, we travelled to the village of Chinon, site of a once grand chateau, now largely in ruins but still famed as the place where a young Joan of Arc first met the then French Dauphin.

Our impression of the village of Chinon, nestled between the still-towering ramparts of the chateau and a tributary of the Loire, is that it has largely been given over to noisy and crowded dining establishments, with only lip-service paid to its status as a place of honour on St Joan pilgrimages. We made our escape promptly after a light lunch.

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We had much better luck when we made a late decision to visit the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, regarded as the largest and most remarkably intact medieval abbey in Europe. You can learn more about the abbey’s myriad components here.

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Maggie and I felt quite replete by the end of our three days in the Loire Valley. Yes, we could have stayed a little longer, but we had another famous abbey on our itinerary – the one atop Mont St Michel.

A bientot!
Rick Grounds

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Back in the saddle: Take 2!

I’m back in the saddle, again, and this time I plan to stay there.

I have a trusty new hip and, after six weeks of recuperation and home-based rehabilitation, I can climb onto a horse all by myself. Well, metaphorically at least. I don’t know one end of a horse from the other, which is a very good reason to resist the urge to look a gift horse in the mouth!

But I can now put my socks on and I can also work in the garden and kitchen without the accompanying pain of osteo-arthritis; and I will be able to go on scenic walks in the Canadia Rockies in seven weeks’ time.

So, touch wood, I will soon be publishing some posts about our travels in the Loire Valley and Normandy in October last year.

Until then
Rick Grounds

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Fell off the horse again?

So much for being back in the saddle!

A series of stumbles, mainly in the form of family calamities, has made it impossible for me to finish the task of posting stories from our visit to France last year.

And today, I am being admitted to hospital for the hip-replacement surgery I foreshadowed last month. Come Wednesday, I will begin my rehab program, including sleeping on my back for six weeks. Won’t that be fun?!

I hope to resume sitting at my posting post before the end of April.

Until then,
Rick Grounds

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