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!


Mom said...

What a different experience from the warm summer days and open shop doors of, what was it, June 2000?...and I guess in some ways, better (except for the accommodations!). You must be learning so much.

after thought from Mom said...

P.S. "I can't babble like this at every internet cafe or I'll run out of money before we reach Ireland!"...

BABBLE! Don't miss this opportunity to write about your experiences. I will gladly sponsor the endeavor, just let me know what you need…I’m enjoying the travel!

Tea said...

What an adventure--I'm so glad for you that you're getting to have this experience. Enjoy!

Al said...

Your writing is superb, as always, and this post took me on a "mini trip" to France. Love you! (And J too!)

abby j said...

beautiful :)

Anonymous said...

where was the onion soup from? what restaurant in avignon?

Anonymous said...

It is so real u see I see the visions are all in my head thanks to your
kodac moment. They really are hear for all the world to see and share.
compared to being there this is the best thing. A dream come true only if in a dream the truth is I am a dreamer from way back when? Thanks again for the rock solid climb.