Monday, January 29, 2007


Not much to report, just a lazy Sunday wandering around Avignon yesterday, since bus travel is futile on Sundays. Today we did laundry (!!!), imbibed oodles of hot chocolate (which comes in varieties here - even from automated dispensers - including chocolat chaud (hot chocolate), chocolait (a pun, hot chocolate with milk), and a third one that comes in powerful, brown-black half-cups. Chocolate, in fact, has become its own food group in France, and a main staple of my diet - often swaddled in a buttery, flakey croissant (the worst of which are still better than the good ones in New York).

Tonight we take on Marseille in search of bouillabaisse!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

La Tour d'Argent, and other tours

The shower at Aloha hostel has a button your have to push to start the water running. Like one of those automatic sinks in an airport, the water runs - with amiable temperature and decent pressure - for seven seconds, and stops. You have to push it again to keep it going. And again. And again. Your shower, ultimately, consists mostly of pushes.

Renting sheets tacks two extra Euros onto the price of each bed in a six-person dorm, a price you already feel is inappropriately high, considering the quality of the mattress. Instead, you elect to make do with the complimentary itchy wool shroud folded neatly there; you grimace as you recall a friend who contracted scabies in a hostel in Iceland; you reason that scabies live in mattresses and thus sheets, however clean, would not protect you; you assure yourself that bed pests are equally acquirable in fancy hotels and put the whole discussion out of your head. You roll over on your top bunk as carefully as possible (to keep the bed's wrenching shrieks to a minimum), plug your ipod forcibly into your ears as a barricade against the violent snoring of one of your (otherwise impeccably well-mannered and sweet) three Malaysian roommates, scroll down your "sleeping in hostels against all odds" playlist, select "peaceful ocean surf," and drift off.

Such is student accomodation; one expects nothing less from accounts of someone's requsite post-college whirlwind tour of Europe. One might not expect, however, a description of accommodations like these from a customer at that famous bastion of Parisian culinary history, La Tour d'Argent.

Lunch at La Tour d'Argent was awarded us by a generous family member; we had packed especially for the occasion, and got out of the push-button shower to don skirts and suit jackets. Our roommates looked at us with bewilderment.

A stroll along the Seine under the stern gaze of Notre Dame brought us to the door of La Tour, which seemed to open by itself as a swarm of staff came to greet us. Our ratty backpack was immediately snatched from us and sequestered in a coatroom/Room for Unsightly Items, and we were ushered through a lavish parlor dotted with the signatures of every sort of celebrity and political figure and into a manned elevator. Upstairs, we were whisked to a gorgeous windowside table for two overlookng the Seine; hors d'ouvres arrived immediately - little variations of puff pastry with unimaginably delicious fish mousses - along with a thousand-page tome of a wine list, and a large-nosed, humming sommelier with very resonant sinuses. I imagined him having different areas of them for sensing different fragrances in the wine. Several embarassing faux-pas later, we ordered from the prix fixe menu, which was itself an embarrassing €70. I started with a bowl of clarified lobster broth swimming with jullienned seaweed, transparent shavings of jerusalem artichokes, and tiny, boulliant cubes of foie gras ( I know, I know - but come on, guys! I'm in France! Foie is like its own food group here!). Following that, I ordered La Tour's famous canard - each duck is served with its own numbered certificate. My duck was something like duck number 1,187,000. I asked whether there had been une grande fete when they had reached a million; he replied that there had been.

My duck, served with roasted glazed pears, sweet potato puree, candied orange zest and a rich brown sauce, was exquisite. A parade of desserts followed, each more fanciful than the next. We refused €8 coffee and an impressive array of aperitifs, but in a courageous display of faux-aristocracy, J inquired as to whether we might have a look at the wine cellar.

Our obliging waiter arranged a tour, and down the elevator we went. It deposited us in front of an iron gate in an almost unlit room; the bellboy swung the chain of an ominous bell and left us in the dark. Moments later, a cellar-keeper (for what else would you call him?) trundled out of the shadows. He led us through cool, dark tunnels with high walls of dusty bottles; the oldest of which dated back to the 17th century. Altogether, the cellar's two subterranean floors amount to some 11,000 square feet, and by the time we got to the end of the tour, I was recollecting Edgar Allen Poe's dark tale, "The Casque of Amontillado," where a drunken intruder is bricked into one of the walls in a vast underground cellar. I was relieved when the elevator came back in sight.

Aside from these events, our days in Paris were full of the usual sights - the Louvre, the Musée Rodin, Sacre Coeur, a brisk night in the icy wind atop La Tour Eiffel. Café, kir and pastis. Cold expeditions in search of affordable dinner with no results; croissants and warm baguettes and crepes and croque monsieur instead.

Yesterday, we took the TGV (high-speed train) to Orange in the South of France. For the first hour of our ride, the broad countryside out the windows was blanketed in fresh snow, but by the time we arrived at our destination, the sky was bright and blue and the temperature a shade above freezing. We were in Orange, an otherwise rather unnotable town by tourist standards, to see first century Roman ruins. We were not disappointed - we were the only visitors that day, and had full reign of the quiet magnificence of that place.

The evening found us in Avignon, just to the south, regretting our choice of hotel, which turned out to be some seven kilometres outside the city. J found us a perfect new place just inside the ancient walls of the old city while I shivered in the depot; once we got settled, he went out and returned with a provençal pizza, which was smeared with crème fraiche instead of tomato sauce. It was hot and delicious.

Today we walked all over the Old City, taking in the narrow alleys and ancient stones; We explored the breathtaking Palais du Papes, where 9 popes resided between 1300 and 1400 AD. We ate pleasure-spasm-inducing French onion soup (which, of course, is simply called onion soup here) and a simmering vat of three-cheese fondue. It has been a wonderful day.

Tonight it's cold and I'm ready for warm blankets, a mug of tea and a game of Scrabble (our third so far). Have I mentioned the wind? The Mistral, the local winter gale and bane of all Provençal, is born from the collision of warm Atlantic currents and frigid Siberian ones, which collide in a frenzied torrent and blow south with enough force to topple over buildings and drive people mad. It arrived with us, belated in the season, a last winter kiss goodbye to Provence. Next week promises warmer temperatures.
I can't babble like this at every internet cafe or I'll run out of money before we reach Ireland! To everyone who offered advice in the comments on the previous post, THANK YOU, and keep it coming. I'm also always email-able at KATECROFT AT GMAIL.COM.

More soon!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

First Day in France

The morning finds me on the steps of Sacre Coeur, the carousel whistling an infectuous tune, a camera in one fist and a baguette avec la confiture du marmalade au chocolat in the other.

Our plane arrived only a little late yesterday, and we made it to our hotel in Montmartre without incident (apart from some minor difficulty understanding how to aquire Metro tickets). My dormant middle-school French is serving me rather better than I expected, and we wandered around the arrondissement, observing the bizarre proximity of the pricey upper-class neighborhoods to the notorious sex district surrounding the Moulin Rouge. Looking for dinner in mid-afternoon on a Monday proved difficult (the French eat at eight or nine, and many restaurants close on Mondays), but we finally stumbled across a welcoming (if empty) Italian establishment. We ate here out of starvation, despite every guidebook's warning that Italian food in Paris is not to be trusted. We were not disappointed - though, if anything, J's trois fromage pizza tasted, well, French, and was dotted with lumps of tangy gorgonzola and brie rinds. My escargots were a little earthy, but the gorgonzola ravioli was better than many an East Village nook. My favorite part was the complimentary kir, a popular French aperitif made with champagne (or sometimes white wine) and cassis syrup or liquor.

We slept a shocking fourteen hours as a result of our jet lag, and woke barely in time to grab an underwhelming breakfast in the hotel dining room. Our plans for today consist mostly of finding our hostel (where we'll be for the next three nights) and a good cafe. After that - well, I'll let you know.

I hope this suffices as an intermediary return to blogging. If anyone has suggestions and/or recommendations for Paris, Avignon/Provence more generally, the coastline west of Marseille, Carcassonne and the Languedoc region, or Barcelona (this gets us to Febrary 10th) - please let me know.

Until next time,
Your Intrepid Explorer

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Out in the World, Home in My Blog


A (strange) fresh start.

Everything I own is in an 8x10 storage unit in Brooklyn. I have eight minutes left on my card in an internet cafe to explain it all -

So the short version is that though I may be leaving the country for five weeks, I'm returning to the blogosphere immediately. In some capacity.

The next five weeks hold in store (among many undiscovered things): a croissant on the steps of Sacre Coeur in Paris, a biscuit on the bullet train to Avignon, truffles served in every manner possible in Provence, boullabaise in Marseille, a morsel in Barcelona, a Guinness in Dublin on J's birthday, Irish breakfast in Dingle, a hot tea on the cliffs of Moher. And home again.

And I'll keep you updated at every internet cafe. Time's up!

I love you all,

*Update: I am happy to say that every one of these culinary feats was accomplished. Hooray!