29 hours in Clermont-Ferrand

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Vercingetorix (82-46 BC)

Three and a half hours south of Paris by train, almost in the center of the country, is one of France’s oldest cities. Before the Romans arrived around 50 BC, it was Nemossos, the home of the Gaulish Arverni tribe led by the famous chieftain Vercingetorix. The invaders renamed it Augusta Nemetum, and then in the 9th century it became known as Clairmont after the castle Clarus Mons. Over the centuries, it was attacked by Vikings, Normans and Visigoths and also served as the starting point for the First Crusade (1095-1099). In the 18th century, it merged with the neighboring city of Montferrand and took on the name we know it by today.

How about now? What draws visitors not interested in invading or waging a religious war? Clermont-Ferrand is famous today for being the home of multinational tire manufacturer Michelin and hosting the world’s biggest international film festival dedicated to short films. It’s also surrounded by a chain of dormant volcanoes whose highest point is the lava cone Puy de Dôme, which can be seen from many parts of the city. And of course, street art—the main reason for my quick trip to Clermont-Ferrand the other weekend.

I arrived just after noon on a beautiful sunny day and left the next day around 5, so was there for only about 29 hours. But that was long enough to form an idea of the city, supplemented by vague memories of an even briefer trip there back in 2006. I can therefore share only a few things about Clermont-Ferrand, and this article will be more of an introduction to the city than anything else.

Day 1: vegan lunch, space invaders and dinner from a grocery store next to the freeway

As always when arriving somewhere, anywhere, directly from Paris, I immediately noticed how much cleaner the air and streets were. I then became enamored with the city’s splendid colorful houses and the deliciously ancient feeling that reigns in the area around the spooky Gothic cathedral made entirely of black lava stone. After navigating a few narrow medieval streets, I arrived at Myrtille, a beautiful little eatery where almost everything is vegan.

I had the beet and orange soup garnished with soy cream, chives and toasted hazelnuts for a starter and then a quinoa and azuki bean salad with arugula, potato and sweet potato, green beans, carrot and squash seeds. Both very nice, especially as I was famished after the longish train ride.

Clermont-Ferrand has a total of three vegetarian restaurants (no fully vegan places), which is not bad for a French city of 142,000 souls, and only Myrtille and another one called La BerGamoThée were open this particular day. As I wanted to try both, I headed to the second one for coffee. Although the owner of La BerGamoThée was washing dishes after the lunch service when I arrived and was starting to think about closing, she gave me a very warm welcome. I ordered coffee and a scoop of sorbet, and as the caffeine revived me from my sleep-deprived state (it had been a very early morning), I began to feel more like my usual self. The owner was curious to hear my story (what was a foreigner doing in those parts?) and we chatted a bit about our lives. She wasn’t a native of Clermont-Ferrand but had been there for some years after trying various other cities including Paris. One of the nice things about Clermont-Ferrand, she said, is that it’s almost always sunny, even in the winter. As someone who starts having an existential crisis every November, when the gray season in Paris begins, I made a mental note of this key detail.

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Invader’s CLR_09 from the 2016 wave greeted me at the station as I exited my train from Paris.

Back to our history lesson. Some 2,050 years after the Romans, Clermont-Ferrand was invaded yet again… but this time the intruders were a whole lot cuter. French street artist Invader placed his first mosaic on a city wall in 2001, then returned a few times to add more, culminating in 2016 with an impressive wave of 31 more creative and ambitious pieces paying homage to the things the city is famous for. As you stroll around town you may notice 8-bit aliens wearing 3D glasses, holding popcorn, featuring in film frames or fleeing volcanoes. A few pixelated bats, most likely escaped from the belfries of the ominous Gothic cathedral, can also be seen lurking about.

Those of you who follow my Instagram already know about Flashinvaders, the GPS game the artist created so his fans could “collect” his works around the world and score points for their finds. For every new city, you get 100 bonus points. Clermont-Ferrand is a particularly good city for this game as a lot of the works have high values and most of them are pretty close to each other.

After a long afternoon of exploring the city and finding mosaics, I headed to my hotel, which turned out to be a farther hike from the downtown than I’d thought when planning my trip. Moreover, it was right next to a busy freeway interchange surrounded by desolation. Once there, I scrapped the idea I’d had of returning to the city center for dinner and began looking for something nearby.

It turned out there was nothing much, and definitely nothing likely to have vegan options other than fries and iceberg lettuce, so it was time for Plan B: the large Intermarché grocery store on the other side of the freeway. Rain clouds were beginning to gather in a suitably dramatic sky, but I just thanked my lucky stars there was a store in that area at all and set out, umbrella in hand.

IMG_3374At the store, I had some trouble finding the hummus (every vegan’s lifesaver) and began to worry there wouldn’t be any, but in the end emerged with enough provisions for an evening meal and breakfast the next morning.

I spent a cozy evening at the remote but otherwise nice hotel eating hummus, resting my feet (12.5 km covered that day), editing photos and watching vintage episodes of The Simpsons in French. The French version is pretty good, although some jokes are untranslatable and the voices always seem a little wrong. Fun fact: they blur the Duff Beer brand name when it appears on screen because it has become a real beer in Europe and France has strict laws on alcohol product placement on television.

Day 2: a museum of tires, a ghost town and more street art

The next morning, after breakfasting on the remaining hummus plus some hotel coffee, it was time to learn about tires at L’Aventure Michelin! Back in 1889, brothers Édouard and André Michelin were running a rubber factory in Clermont-Ferrand when they developed a removable pneumatic bicycle tire. Two years later, these tires, which they patented that same year, were used by the man who won the world’s first long-distance cycle race, the Paris-Brest-Paris (an ancestor of today’s Tour de France). The Michelins then shifted their focus to rubber tires for those newfangled horseless carriages, and the rest is history.

This museum is quite interesting, especially if you’re like me and have never thought much about tires and what went into developing them. For example, at a certain point different types of coverings to protect the tires from puncture were tested—the materials included leather, fabric, cork and steel rivets, each of them presenting some kind of major disadvantage. Michelin eventually developed innovations making these additions unnecessary. Later, in a bid to promote their brand, they added an “M” tread to the tires to leave distinctive tracks everywhere the cars went, and accidentally discovered that it improved safety too.

It so happened that this year marks the 120th anniversary (birthday?) of the Michelin Man, who over the years has become a familiar character around the world and was even named “best logo of all time” by an international panel of experts in 2000. To mark this anniversary, L’Aventure Michelin had put together a special exhibition about the man made of tires. Like many cartoon characters, his appearance has changed over time, going from a Teddy Roosevelt lookalike to his current incarnation. Presumably, his designers wanted to make him seem more friendly and approachable, and perhaps less likely to encourage smoking, but I’ll always prefer his original look.

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Of course, there’s also a Michelin Man invader! (CLR_37 from 2016)

After the museum, I set about hunting down the last few invaders on my list. Incidentally, it was lucky I’d bought so much bread the night before, as it turned out that Clermont-Ferrand is almost a complete ghost town on Sundays. Even if I were a meat-eater, it would have been difficult or impossible to find anything to eat. To get a much-needed coffee in the afternoon, I had to duck into a hotel and bother the front-desk guy. The streets around the cathedral, bustling and packed with people on Saturday, were eerily empty on Sunday. The cathedral itself even seemed to be closed (!?), so I sadly can’t report on the inside of it this time.

The most challenging invader to add to my score on this trip was CLR_35, located on the wall of a freeway of sorts right where it forms a bridge (making the mosaic invisible from the street level below). With coaching from an expert invader-hunter friend, I discovered there were nevertheless two ways to “flash” it with the app: 1. entering the freeway on foot from the nearest entrance ramp or 2. scaling a small but steep slope next to the bridge. Preferring to avoid activities that could lead to arrest and deportation, I chose the more discreet option 2.

Clinging precariously to the fence, the thorns in the poisonberry bush next to it digging into my skin as rain clouds menaced overhead, I still couldn’t see more than the tips of the invader’s ears. But I held my phone up above my head and hoped for the best. This, by the way, was one of the “What am I doing?” moments that everyone with an obsessive hobby reaches at some point. Happily, it worked after just a few tries—the left-hand flash capture above shows how little of a piece needs to be visible sometimes. And best of all, I didn’t get arrested. On the right is the official photo of the invader in all his glory as he races down the road.

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Another fun one was this large 100-point piece of a certain French singer on Rue Serge Gainsbourg…

But Clermont-Ferrand also features creative works by other street artists, such as Lyon-based Lasco, who—true to his name—paints animals inspired by the prehistoric paintings in Lascaux Cave in southwestern France. Made around 17,000 years ago, the paintings were discovered by chance in 1940 by a group of teenage boys and are now among the first things mentioned in timelines of the country’s history. I, in turn, discovered the street art paying homage to them completely by chance and was delighted!

Several trees and posts in Clermont-Ferrand had been yarn-bombed when I visited. In French, this is known as tricot urbain or “urban knitting”—love that term! These pieces are by a group calling themselves Les Peloteuses du Kfé Tricot.

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A collaboration in Rue Savaron by Apogé (left) and Repy One (right).

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If you love art too and are planning a trip to Clermont-Ferrand, you’ll want to pick up the free Such’art map of art galleries and street art from the tourist center in Place de la Victoire for a self-guided tour of works by Invader, Lasco and others. On Instagram, you can follow the latest street art developments in Clermont-Ferrand at @such_art_63.

At 5 pm it was time to board my train, and a good thing too because after 22.2 km of walking that day (!) and 34.7 km for the weekend as a whole, I was ready for a bit of a rest! The skies continued to offer dramatic clouds as the train sped northwards and the sun began to set.

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The places mentioned in this post:

  • Myrtille restaurant: 4 Petite Rue Saint-Pierre, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand
  • La BerGamoThée restaurant: 1 Place du Mazet, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand
  • L’Aventure Michelin: 32 Rue du Clos Four, 63100 Clermont-Ferrand
  • Maison du Tourisme (tourist office with street art map): Place de la Victoire, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand

Cathedral spires and Jules Verne

A couple weeks ago, to celebrate a good friend’s birthday, I took him on a surprise day trip to the town of Amiens, just an hour north of Paris by train. Actually, it was only a partial surprise as I’d told him we were going on a day trip, but hadn’t said where to… only that it would take under two hours to get there by train (to throw him off the track a bit, since that encompasses a lot of destinations). He was pleased when he heard the train conductor announce that we were headed for Amiens, since (as I knew) he had never yet been there.

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Luck was mainly on our side, this day. The weather was nice—suitably sunny and warm. We got out of the train station and began heading toward the city center. As we walked, I took a few shots of some cute old-timey building façades. On the white building, in beautiful Art Nouveau lettering, it says North Train Station Seed Company.

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As soon as we started heading toward the river, we began to see the spires of the cathedral appear above the rooftops. A block or two later, after a turn around a corner, the enormous building emerged as a whole.

But before visiting it, arriving as we had at 1 pm, the first order of business was to have lunch. After the Lebanese restaurant I’d planned for us to go to disappointingly turned out to be closed during its normal business hours (the one thing that went wrong on this day, so I can’t really complain), we headed for another one on my list. Fuji Yama, listed on Happy Cow as an especially vegan-friendly eatery, turned out to be a good source of tasty maki, temaki and glazed mushroom skewers. As we savored our postprandial pot of green tea, my friend speculated as to the rest of the activities I had up my sleeve.

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One of the sites we would see was nevertheless easy enough to guess: the cathedral. We paid our check and made our way to it through some narrow streets full of old houses that were very charming indeed—especially to me, the non-European who is still in awe of such things even after eight years here.

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A network of narrow canals criss-crossing a section of town connects to the River Somme, which divides Amiens in half. Here, a canal flows along a street near the cathedral. It made me think of the film version of Girl with a Pearl Earring.

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Built remarkably quickly between 1220 and 1270, the Amiens Cathedral is the tallest complete cathedral in France (at 112 m/369 ft)  and the 19th largest cathedral in the world. It has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1981.

A documentary about this cathedral can be seen here.

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I didn’t take many photos inside (to see the interior, check the documentary linked to just above), but this enchanting play of stained-glass-filtered light and shadow deserved to be remembered.

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I also happened upon these three gilded feathers, which took my imagination to some fanciful places as I imagined cherub statues coming to life and flying around under the vaulted ceilings at night. Perhaps they soared a bit too enthusiastically and lost some plumage along the way.

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I am not overly fond of either heights or very narrow, endless stone stairs in a spiral configuration, but Birthday Guy is, so I indulged him and we went up the tower for some panoramic views of the city.

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There are about 300 steps up, in total. But don’t look down before you reach the top!

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Some people from bygone days (to whom the cathedral was already ancient) left names and dates on the staircase walls.

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Views from the first level. Already quite high enough for me… but there were still more steps to climb.

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At the very top, we walked around among the tower’s uppermost stone encrustations under the watchful eye of a guide. In any case, it would have been harder to fall from this level than from the lower (but still lethal) one.

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A view of Amiens and the River Somme.

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I had to admit the views were rather worth the stomach-fluttering climb up those steps (and the seemingly interminable descent).

Next, we moved on to what I knew would be the highlight of our visit to Amiens: Jules Verne‘s house! Although born in Nantes, the prolific and visionary proto-sci-fi author lived in this house with his family for eight years just before the turn of the century. Today, it is a museum honoring his life’s work.

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A globe structure sits atop the building’s tower in homage to his most famous work, Around the World in 80 Days (1873). In front of the home’s winter garden, an elegant Art Nouveau verrière stretches out to shield visitors from the elements.

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Beautiful tiles on the house’s façade featuring the typical colors and organic floral shapes of the art movement.

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The music room.

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An imposing fireplace in the dining room.

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Jules Verne’s own personal shoebutton hooks, nail buffer and… toothbrush?

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Another impossibly elegant room.

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A parlor with sofas that were graced by the bottoms of many famous Victorians, back in the day. George Sand was one of them, but I have forgotten the others.

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Copies of Verne’s writings on his desk.

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A recreation of the interior of one of Verne’s boats, which may have inspired the vessel featured in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1871).

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An undated letter accompanying the gift of a gold-handled walking stick from the Boys’ Empire League in England. My favorite part, from a description of how the funds to buy the gift were raised: “Boys are not much burdened with pocket money, as you know…”.

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A set of Around the World in 80 Days dessert plates! What I wouldn’t give to have one of these.

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Period Around the World in 80 Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea board games.

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Around the World in 80 Days trading cards.

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I couldn’t help taking a moment to admire these embroidery-upholstered chairs!

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Here, we have a framed section of some Around the World in 80 Days wallpaper from the time of the book’s first success. Who wouldn’t like to have a room papered with this?

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An 1881 essay titled Ten Hour Hunt, in which Verne describes the trials and tribulations of his first and only experience hunting. “There are some who do not care for hunters,” it begins, “and perhaps they are not totally wrong.” Verne was a visionary in the realm of science; perhaps his forward-thinking extended to other areas as well.

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A wheeled lobster with bat wings… or, alternatively, a model of one of Verne’s imagined flying machinges.

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Cross-section of a model of the rocket used to travel through the heavens in From the Earth to the Moon (1865). A top hat is a must when exploring space—especially if you expect to meet with high-ranking representatives of moon people. You’ll also be glad of the table lamps, wallpaper and velvet-upholstered chairs when they come round for tea.

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A poster advertising an 1892 theatrical production of From the Earth to the Moon in Reims. Those moon women look suspiciously corseted.

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Ten years later, cinematography pioneer Georges Méliès would make a silent film adaptation of the story. You can watch it here in a restored version with a wonderfully otherworldly 2012 soundtrack by French band Air.

Visiting this house made me realize I haven’t yet read much Jules Vernes at all. Only Journey to the Center of the Earth, ages ago, and in English! This lamentable oversight is something I hope to correct in the very near future. One book that I’m especially eager to read is Paris in the Twentieth Century. Written in 1863, its depiction of the dystopian world of 1960 was deemed too unbelievable by Verne’s publisher and so was never published during his life. It was finally released for the first time in 1994 and the predictions apparently proved remarkably prescient. Still waiting for the monorail at Bastille though…

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The end of the house tour. Time to head home!

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On our way back to the train station, I noticed this decidedly modern building, which provided a curious kind of contrast to all the 19th-century (and Victorian retrofuture) images I had just been steeping in. Also, it strangely reminded me of a cute United Nude shoe, which has nothing to do with anything else I’ve been talking about. 😉

But I digress. What I wanted to say, to conclude this post, is that Amiens is well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Paris for a longer stay or are just a huge fan or cathedrals, Jules Verne, or both! If you reserve your ticket a couple of weeks ahead of time, train fare is only 10 euros each way.

A visit to rural Burgundy

Those of you who follow my Instagram may have noticed that I recently went away for a short visit to the countryside. More specifically, I went to a tiny village called Les Deschamps in Burgundy, one of France’s winemaking regions. It’s about a half-hour away from the smallish city of Mâcon in east-central France, which itself is 70 km north of Lyon and 150 km west of Geneva, Switzerland. This is where my friend Yukiko (the one who taught me how to make that amazing ramen dish) and her boyfriend were staying temporarily while housesitting for some friends. As the first blossoms appeared on the trees and a definite hint of springtime began to infuse the air, they invited me (with the owners’ blessing) to come and spend a few days with them surrounded by nature. Living as I do in a city and with zero green things visible through my windows, I could not resist!

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You will undoubtedly remember how much I love traveling in Europe by train (less so in the US, but that’s a story for another time). The ride from Paris to the Mâcon-Loché TGV station took only an hour and a half, the perfect amount of time to read a few articles in the new Véganes magazine. My friends then picked me up and we headed for the house.

I was captivated by both the old-timey charm and immenseness of this home, which is composed of two wings each with two or three storeys and an uncountable number of rooms. For someone like me who lives in a tiny city apartment (frustratingly without even a closet or storage space), it was somewhat disorienting, but in a thrilling way, to suddenly be surrounded by so much space. For perspective, my entire apartment could have easily fit into this house’s combined kitchen and dining room. It was a nice change.

The owners are in the process of preparing the house for sale, so I of course began daydreaming of what it would be like to live there.

Here are a few shots of the exterior.

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I believe the plaque in the above photo means that one of the previous owners of the home won 1st prize for their Beaujolais. About 95% of the land in and surrounding this village is covered with grapevines. The rest is covered by roads and random grassy plots. You’ll see the vineyards in a moment—first, let’s take a peek inside the house. I didn’t take too many photos indoors, but here are a few of the details that caught my attention.

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A beautiful old rug…

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The guest bedroom I occupied, with its beautiful ceramic tile floor and a spacious built-in armoire that took my breath away (remember, I’m someone without a closet at home). All these vintagey details made my heart sing.

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Sésame would have liked this regal chair, which has a certain air de famille. He’s not big on traveling (or even leaving the apartment at all), so I left him in Paris with a mountain of dry food and a friend coming to check on him.

During the house tour, we took a quick look into the house’s attic, which was suitably timeworn and full of antique things. It’s mainly a finished attic, with a series of rooms that seem to have been used as bedrooms at some point. The patterns of the fading, crumbling wallpaper suggest that this continued up until about the 1950s or 60s. Indeed, stepping into this attic felt like entering a time portal back to another era. I think that if I were to buy this house, I might leave these attic rooms as is, to preserve this window onto the past.

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If these walls could talk, I wonder what tales they could tell, and how many years of life they have seen…

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After a very delicious lunch of spinach soup seasoned with cumin and accompanied by potato salad, green salad, whole-wheat bread and various homemade tapenades, we set out for a walk among the vineyards.

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The overcast sky and misty hilltops created an interestingly ominous mood, as if nature were not quite ready to let us enjoy this early bit of springtime. The moors of Wuthering Heights somehow came to mind, and rambling along the paths in spite of the slight chill in the air and the threat of rainfall became a defiant act of adventure.

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We happened upon this friendly horse in a nearby field. We weren’t sure what she was being kept “for” and speculated that it could be to pull a plow through the vineyards, but a neighbor later told us that tractors can do all of that these days, even on steep slopes.

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A bit later, the sun decided to poke its face through the clouds for a bit, allowing me to get some warmer shots.

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Looking back at the entrance to the tiny village, which is composed of only some 20 houses. You no sooner enter it by car than you go past the “leaving” sign, which is the same sign with a red cross through it.

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To my great delight, this house (which seems also to be a winery) had a miniature replica of it out in front, complete with real terra-cotta steps and the frame for a gate without any gate. The only difference between the two is the addition over the garage on the life-size one. Can you guess what this little house was doing there?

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That’s right! It’s the mailbox.

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I now have a new reason for not being able to wait to have a house of my own: to create a miniature version of it!

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Strolling down the village’s mostly empty streets, we happened upon this sociable orange fellow. Shortly after shooting us this rather grumpy look, he flopped down on his back to show his readiness for belly scratches.

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The next day, after spending the afternoon working on our respective freelance projects, we began to prepare the evening meal. A neighbor was invited to join us, so we wanted to be sure it was extra-nice. Yukiko made pasta with a homemade red sauce and a vegetable soup for the starter (they were divine).

No ideas for dessert that matched our somewhat limited ingredient supplies were coming easily to mind. But we did have a lot of bananas, and I recalled a photo of a dessert with sliced bananas on top that I had seen somewhere in the meanders of social media. Chocolate was another thought, since we had cocoa powder, so we decided to combine the two. It was something of an experiment, as I had never actually baked anything with bananas in it like this, and we were also working with certain restrictions because we had less sugar than we initially thought and no vanilla. But the main ingredients were there (whole-wheat flour, baking powder, cocoa powder and oil), and with the addition of some chocolate chips, the outward appearance at least was quite promising.

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To our relief and satisfaction, it tasted pretty good too! The banana chunks inside the cake (barely visible in this shot) helped add sweetness and are probably a good solution for using even less sugar. I may recreate the recipe for a future post if people are interested.

We asked the neighbor about the area’s special attractions, to see if there was something we could do the next day before my departure. He told us there was a wine museum nearby, but also mentioned a rocky hill where some prehistoric remains had been discovered in the late 19th century. There was a small museum of prehistory there, he said, and a hiking trail. As we’d all been on winery tours before and are not much into wine these days, the choice was clear: the prehistory place!

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La Roche de Solutré is located in the municipality of Solutré-Pouilly (you might recognize the second part of this name—this is indeed where Pouilly-Fuissé wine is produced). The limestone escarpment visible for miles around is famous both as a geological curiosity and as the site where, in 1866, vestiges of Upper Paleolithic homes, tombs and animal bones had been discovered. The site has even lent its name to a span of time in the Paleolithic era, the Solutrean period, and a controversial hypothesis suggesting that Europeans, not Native Americans crossing over from Asia, were in fact the first humans to settle the Americas (!).

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At the foot of the rock, built right into the hill, is a small bunker-like museum of prehistory. Staffed by a very pleasant receptionist, the museum offers a number of artefacts inside glass cases, an audioguide in several languages and a series of short films showing excavations over the years. There’s an outdoor area behind the museum where you can stroll among some orchids if you’re there at the right time of year (we weren’t, but we didn’t mind).

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After the museum, we set off on the hike up to the top of the rock. As we climbed higher and higher, we enjoyed increasingly beautiful views of the countryside below, all vineyards and cute houses. They looked more and more like a toy train town as we ascended. These photos sadly do them no type of justice.

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I’m such a city-dweller that I cannot even guess at the names of the plants we walked among as we made our way up and down the paths, but the air was scented with a lush fragrance of fresh balsamy vegetation that did me a world of good.

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The view from the very top, more or less. So beautiful. The top is as pointy and slippery as it looks from down below, by the way, and is actually a bit dangerous if someone is not completely looking where they’re going (a sheer drop on one side, and no guard rails on this kind of thing). Don’t let that stop you from visiting, but be a bit careful if you do.

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Solutré is also famous because former French president François Mitterrand (1916-1996) made a vow at the end of the Second World War to climb it once every year, around Pentecost, and kept this promise from 1946 until 1995, the year before his death. The hard-to-read monument above testifies to his pilgrimages. In this video, you can see some parts of his 1976 climb. Note that he is climbing the very steep path; today there is also a longer, much more gradually ascending path for less avid hikers and those of us who arrive without the right shoes.

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The rock viewed from another side.

Soon after we descended, it was time for me to get on another train and return to Paris, where an impatient Sésame awaited. It was a very relaxing and re-energizing little trip, exactly the kind I’ve been telling myself I should make more often. 🙂

Chocolate mendiants

It’s easy to get overly ambitious around Christmastime and to plan a number of grand meals and complicated desserts, only to wake up one day and realize it’s already the 23rd or 24th and you don’t have the right ingredients or enough time to make everything you wanted. This is especially likely to happen, for some reason, with dishes that you hope to bring to holiday parties, escalating your anxiety levels further. But never fear, your favorite blogger is here to the rescue! Today I bring you a very easy-to-make traditional French confectionery creation that will nevertheless impress just about everyone. And since the toppings can vary greatly, you might already have everything you need in your kitchen cupboards.

These little Yuletide delicacies hail from the south of France and the fruits and nuts traditionally used represent the colors of the robes worn by the friars in four mendicant orders during the Middle Ages. These are gray (raisins) for the Dominicans, brown (hazelnuts) for the Augustinians, white (almonds cut in half) for the Caramelites and purple (fig or cranberry) for the Franciscans. As these friars subsisted on charitable offerings, they were referred to as mendiants (beggars), and the confections took on the same name. These items are also among the 13 desserts served at the end of the traditional Christmas meal in Provence.

Today, many types and combinations of nuts and fruits are used, so feel free to use whatever you have on hand! I used walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, cranberries, physalis and pineapple.

Chocolate mendiants

Makes 12 to 15 mendiants

Ingredients

  • about 6 oz (180 g) dark chocolate in bar form (or chocolate chips)
  • toasted nuts (walnuts, peanuts, almonds, pistachios, macadamia, etc.)
  • dried fruit (cranberries, cherries, raisins, apricot, citrus segments, etc.)
  • other items such as pumpkin seeds, candied ginger, white chocolate chips, toasted coconut chips, colorful Christmas sprinkles, fleur de sel, gold leaf

Equipment needed: double-boiler or metal mixing bowl plus saucepan, parchment or waxed paper

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Begin by assembling all the fruits and nuts you will use, so that you’re ready once the chocolate has melted.

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Break or chop your chocolate bar into more or less evenly sized pieces.

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Next, heat some water in a medium-sized saucepan and place a metal bowl on top of it (or a second, smaller saucepan for a double-boiler). Be sure that the water in the saucepan does not touch the bottom of the bowl or second saucepan. Place the chopped chocolate in it and heat, stirring occasionally with a heat-proof spatula.

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Once all of the chocolate has melted, turn off the heat but keep the bowl on top of the saucepan full of hot water.

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Line a tray with parchment paper and, using a teaspoon (the kind you use to stir your coffee, not the measuring kind), form small, round disks. After creating them, go back and add a bit more on the top of each one to ensure that they are thick enough. Make only six at a time so that you have time to add all the toppings before the chocolate firms.

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Add your toppings. I like to start with the larger items and then add the other ones around them.

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Once you’ve finished the first batch, put the tray in the fridge and continue making mendiants until you have used up the rest of your chocolate. The mendiants will be set after an hour or two of chilling (allow two to three hours to be on the safe side).

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Serve your mendiants on a platter at a party, or box them up as a gift!

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These mendiants were my Christmas gift to the concierge of my building, who brings our mail to our doors and takes time out of her morning to give Sésame (who is in love with her) a thorough scratching and petting on the days when my mail includes a package. This year, I included some photos of the furry little guy, which she was delighted to receive (they now adorn her refrigerator door, I was told). 🙂

Variations: change things up with this white chocolate version!

Decking the halls

I’m not usually one for holidays. Halloween? Eh. Fourth of July? Don’t really feel it. New Year’s Eve? I guess. I just don’t really get worked up over many of them. But Christmas is another story. Not for the consumerism aspect—in fact, a few years ago, my family and I agreed not to exchange Christmas gifts anymore unless we see each other in person—but for the decorations, the carols, the old movies and the joyousness of it all. Maybe it’s also because everything instantly takes a vintagey turn once this holiday comes around.

Anyway, when I’m in Paris in the holiday season, one of my favorite things to do is to check out the window displays of the beautiful old department stores on boulevard Haussmann. Every year, Printemps and Galeries Lafayette unveil elaborate holiday-themed dioramas, complete with animatronic dolls, highlighting the apparel, shoes, confectionery and other high-end wares on offer. At Printemps, they spend three months creating the props for the displays, which are designed a year in advance. An estimated 10 million people come to see them annually, and they’re naturally a hit with children, who love climbing up on the wooden platforms to get a closer look.

The best display I’ve seen so far, a few years back, showed a swarm of little Karl Lagerfelds preparing to direct a fashion shoot on the streets of a monochromatic Paris as catwalk music played.

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So, the other day, I happened to be in the area and decided to check out this year’s windows. This year, the showcases tell the story of Jules and Violette, two children with old-timey names who wake up in the store in the middle of the night and amuse themselves in the various departments, meeting strange characters along the way. Some 70 dolls and marionettes were created over a three-month period for these dreamscapes, and the installation took two weeks. Below is a selection of my photos, but don’t miss this interesting five-minute documentary showing everything in motion.

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Inside Galeries Lafayette there’s always a Christmas tree set up under the stained-glass cupola. The beautiful 1912 Art Nouveau structure alone is worth the detour, with its graceful undulating balconies decorated with floral motifs and gold paint. As you ascend the levels, you get an increasingly interesting view of the tree, animatronic decorations (polar bears in aerial cable cars, this year) and the bustling perfume and cosmetics department on the ground floor below. Altogether, it looks like some kind of futuristic, self-sufficient Edwardian city enclosed under a weatherproof dome, which strikes me as a pretty cool place to live.

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While there, I stopped in at Lafayette Gourmet across the street from the main building with the cupola. Offering high-end deli foods and grocery items of every description, it reminds me a bit of Harrods in London. But this is something that really deserves a post of its own, so more on that another time.

To my delight, another new arrival on boulevard Haussmann is a Prêt à Manger! People reading these lines from England may despair of me, as this chain (which, despite the name, is English) is tuppence-a-dozen over there, and you can hardly go two blocks without passing one. But I actually really like Prêt, or at least the concept of it—we have a similar (Belgian-owned) chain in Paris called Exki—fast food that isn’t so unhealthy. Anyway, I wandered into this Prêt mainly out of curiosity, to see if they had any veggie things. Although there’s usually a vegan option at the ones in London, in Paris I wasn’t expecting all that much. But what did I find? A vegan Mediterranean sandwich with avocado, Kalamata olives, pinenuts, arugula, basil and sundried tomatoes—and only one of them, sitting there as if waiting just for me. I could not resist. What’s more, they also have soy milk for hot beverages (another rarity in France). A yummy sandwich AND a cappuccino? That was the cherry on top of an already nice afternoon.

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So if you ever find yourself in Paris in December, these are a few things you can do to soak up the holiday ambiance. Free of charge, unless of course if you opt for a sandwich and hot beverage!

Vide-grenier

Every fall, an event is held in my neighborhood that I look forward to with much the same excitement I used to feel when I was little and Christmas was approaching: the vide-grenier. Literally “attic-emptying”, it’s what we in the States call a rummage sale.

Paris is also home to the largest antiques market in Europe, Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen just north of the city limit. It’s like a gigantic partially outdoor museum of beautiful furnishings and art, and I love to visit it, but it can be a source of frustration in that the prices are often prohibitive. This is where rummage sales become an attractive alternative. But they’re also an excellent way to renew your wardrobe or book collection at low cost while helping maximize the longevity of consumer goods and protesting planned obsolescence. Plus, pretty much everything you find is unique.

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For a small sum, neighborhood residents can sell unneeded items from a space on a street bordering the park or an adjoining street a block away. Like at rummage sales all over in the world, you can find dishes, clothes, books, jigsaw puzzles and Scrabble games.

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Everything 60s at this table. I adored the color of the deep turquoise ashtray, but couldn’t talk myself into buying an ashtray.

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Pre-loved mystery novels with yellowing vanilla-scented pages. I love the typeface and simple illustration.

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I quite liked this large oil painting, but don’t have enough wall space at my place. But it would be perfectly at home in a cobbler’s shop (of which there are still many in Paris).

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Like Proust and his madeleines, one look at an album like this whisks me back in time to my grandparents’ house.

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This table was run by a man and his pre-teen son, who seemed to be liquidating his toy-car collection in preparation for adulthood. I bought the Paris bus (more on that later) but soon noticed that one of the wheels was missing. The boy briefly rummaged around for it at the bottom of a box to no avail, and then, regaining control of the situation, puffed out his chest and instructed his father to refund me 50 cents.

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What seems like a reasonable thing to buy while on vacation often ends up at a rummage sale. Souvenir plates from various European destinations are a mainstay of Parisian sales. Andorra is a common one, for some reason.

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Another item you always find at French rummage sales is ceramic fèves from inside the galette des rois (king cake), which is traditionally eaten in January. Whoever gets the piece with the fève hidden inside is the king or queen of the evening, and gets to wear the paper crown supplied with the cake. Some people become serious collectors of fèves, which are often figurines of people in medieval dress but can take other forms. The word fève means bean, as a dry bean was originally the thing hidden inside these cakes when it first came into being some 300 years ago. I picked up two of these for 50 cents each.

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An ingenious telephone-lamp, from the 60s and made in the 60s, as the stand-keeper explained. Both parts work! Somehow I can’t help thinking of Jemaine’s camera-phone on Flight of the Conchords.

So what did I end up taking home?

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One of my best finds this year! A recipe book whose title could be translated Cooking with the Mafia—now that’s something you just can’t refuse. The lady at the stand, recognizing my accent, told me in very good English that her mother was American. She threw in this little cookbook for free. What is American cuisine? Even I am not sure.

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A set of presses for making beautifully shaped turnovers and ravioli. May just come in handy for the Mafia book!

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A set of old metal canisters for tea, coffee and sugar.

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My personal collection of fèves, with a 50 euro-cent piece (similar in size to a US quarter) for scale. The pink lady and purple guy in the back row are the new acquisitions.

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The bus! I think this is my favorite among all the things I found. I love that it’s a replica of the real buses of Paris (even bearing the RATP logo), and I find it so charming that a vehicle as decidedly unglamorous as an articulated city bus was manufactured in miniature for children who, one imagines, would normally be more interested in racecars. I also couldn’t resist getting this mini Paris garbage truck for my three-year-old nephew, who has a burning passion for anything on wheels. I often take photos for him of the real thing—much to the amusement of the garbage-truck men, when they catch me—and send them to his mom via Telegram. Actually, I have a feeling he’ll end up with the bus too.

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All aboard for Porte d’Italie!

My neighborhood has its big vide-grenier only once a year, but there are other ones in different parts of the city most weekends. Sometimes they’re devoted to higher-priced antiques, art or stamps, in which case it might be referred to as a brocante. Whether you live here or will just be passing through, you can check out this dedicated site to find upcoming vide-greniers all over France.