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Château Country

The Loire Valley is known for its rolling green countryside, its distinctive wine and probably most of all for its magnificent castles. The most stunning of all these great structures is the Château de Chenonceau perched (literally) on the River Cher not far from the town of Amboise. It was built in the 16th century and has been home to several leading ladies of France, most notably Diane de Poitiers and the queens Catherine de Medici and Louise of Lorraine. Inside, you wander through a succession of drawing rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, galleries and great halls, all filled with priceless paintings, tapestries and other furnishings. Outside, you are treated to the elaborate 12,000-square-meter garden created by Diane and the more "intimate" 550-square-meter garden created by Catherine. As open houses go, this one is in class by itself.

Sunday in the Park

There's a small park and a grove of trees sloping gently to the water on a narrow island in the Seine just northwest of Paris. Unremarkable perhaps, except that the island is known as Île de la Jatte and the peaceful spot is the setting for Georges Seurat's magnificent painting, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte." It wasn't only Seurat who was drawn to the serene île: Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh and Alfred Sisley painted there as well. Of course, the place has changed a lot in the last 130 years; it now has about 4,000 inhabitants and looks a lot like any small French village. But a few years ago a walk, called "the circuit of the impressionists," was established around the island so art lovers can appreciate its unique and special history.

A Tale of Two Towers

The 58-story skyscraper known as Tour Montparnasse is widely considered to be the ugliest building in Paris. When it was completed in 1973, public outcry led to the prohibition of any new buildings of more than seven stories in the city center. The one thing the tower has going for it, though, is a rooftop deck with possibly the best views in all of Paris, including a unique view of the city's much more famous and beloved tower. My first-ever trip to the top of Tour Montparnasse came on an ideal day, as the morning light brilliantly caught the Tour Eiffel in all its splendor.

Cattelan in Paris 

There’s a great show going on right now at the Monnaie de Paris on the left bank. Italian sculptor Maurizio Cattelan’s satirical and irreverent works range from a horse suspended from the ceiling to uncharacteristic sculptures of historical figures like the Pope and Adolph Hitler, to a sculpture of the artist himself peeking out from a hole in the floor. It’s Cattelan’s biggest show ever in Europe and marks his return to the art scene after a five-year hiatus. The neoclassical building itself, which was once a mint, is worth the visit. After you’ve wandered through the 18th-century salons exploring the art, you can  pop into the newly relocated Michelin three-star Guy Savoy restaurant (assuming you recently won the lottery).
November 21, 2016

Cream, No Sugar

I got a chuckle out of this sign in the window of a coffee shop in Copenhagen (I suspect most admitted coffee addicts would). It turns out that more than the coffee is good in Copenhagen — the city has no fewer than 13 Michelin-starred restaurants! It also has more bicycles per capita than any city I’ve ever seen. It’s well worth a visit, preferably in early summer when the weather is nice and the sun rises about 4:30 am and sets around 10:30 pm. Wander the streets, hop on a boat for a canal tour, and take the 25-minute train ride to see the world-famous Louisiana Museum. Along the way, drink as much coffee as you like. 

Ionian Odyssey

When you’re not marveling at the natural beauty surrounding you as you spend a week sailing in the Ionian Sea between the Greek mainland and the islands of Corfu and Paxos, you might be thinking of the journeys of Odysseus, imagining the shipwrecked hero washing up on Corfu's shore with the help of the goddess Athena. If you’re an English major, you might be imagining the British writers Lawrence and Gerald Durrell spending idyllic days in Corfu with their family as they did in the 1930s. You might, in fact, actually drop anchor in Kalami Bay just outside of Corfu town and visit the Durrell house. The Ionian islands, the westernmost of the Greek islands, have a character and a history all their own. 

Cuba Libre

A week in the newly emerging Cuba didn’t seem like enough. Experiencing the colors, sights and sounds of old Havana; checking out art galleries and night clubs; meeting journalists and economists; taking a salsa dancing lesson; eating the flavorful food at the new private restaurants, or paradors, springing up all over the island; touring Hemingway’s house; hiking the countryside and visiting a working tobacco farm (and smoking a freshly rolled cigar); and, yes, getting around in one of the ubiquitous classic 50s-era American cars that serve as taxis. It was well worth the visit, and one can only hope that relations between our two countries continue to strengthen.

In Memoriam

The Place de la République, which was the scene of massive demonstrations of solidarity after the terrorist attacks of November 2015, still serves as a gathering spot for those wishing to pay respects to the  people who were killed at the Bataclan Theatre on Boulevard Voltaire and at three restaurants near the canal St. Martin, as well as the Stade de France in St.-Denis. The large monument in the center of the square stands as a memorial, covered with flowers and messages and tributes to victims. The people who died were innocent, mostly young, and of varying nationalities and ethnicities. It is heartbreaking to read their names.

Water Mirror

The city of Nice has been undergoing huge changes in the past few years. Perhaps none has been as striking as the appearance of this huge, brilliant “water mirror” in Place Massena in the city’s center. It looks like a big rectangular lake, but the water is only two centimeters deep so in warm weather you’ll see many barefooted kids splashing around, running on the water and dodging the various fountains when they shoot up. It makes this already beautiful, distinctive city all the more appealing. 

Le Selfie

I assumed the French were too sophisticated for selfies, but then I spotted these cute, cool kids on the beach at Cap Ferrat wielding a selfie stick and having a great time. Not only do the French do selfies, but leading dictionaries like the Petit Larousse the Petit Robert now recognize the word “selfie” on their pages (no doubt grudgingly). I’m sure, though, that the French do it with a little more panache than the rest of us. By the way, in Quebec it’s called an “égoportrait."

Joyeux 4th

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The big French national holiday is of course Bastille Day, or quatorze juilliet (July 14th), but in some places our own national holiday also gets some celebratory notice. On July 4th this row of lovely seaside tables in the Riviera town of Villefranche-sur-Mer was festooned with American flags in honor of America’s Independence Day. The town’s spacious deep-water bay once hosted many U.S. Navy ships, as Villefranche was the the headquarters of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. Even though the Navy officially moved out in 1967, the town still observes July 4th with flags and bunting and, yes, a big fireworks show. If you happen to be visiting at the time, it’s a nice touch of home. 

En forme

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I came across these Tai Chi buffs doing their morning routine in Place Dauphine on a brisk Sunday morning. It was fascinating to watch — they were intensely focused, fluid and synchronized, yet seemed utterly serene. I have a feeling they’re out there most days regardless of the weather, but the rare February sunshine must have made it all the more invigorating.

It’s the wine talking

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This sign above a wine store made me chuckle as I came out of the Place Maubert Metro station one evening. It reminded me of a New Yorker cartoon, “It’s probably the wine talking, but I think I’ll have some more wine.” It seems that wine speaks many languages.

Chapeaux

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Sometimes when the French want to offer congratulations or a compliment, they simply say, “Chapeau,” as in “I take my hat off to you.” This is the window of a popular hat shop in the 6th arrondissement called “La Cerise sur le Chapeau,” which is a play on the French phrase, ‘la cerise sur le gateau” or “the cherry on the cake.” (Full disclosure: I’m a customer.) I happened by and took this snapshot on a dreary winter day — it cheered me up, seeming to signal that Spring can’t be too far away.

Sunrise at Machu Picchu

They say there are very few days when it's clear enough in the Peruvian Andes to see the morning sun cast its first rays onto the magnificent Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. Well, this was one of those days. I'm convinced it was a reward from the mountain spirits (the "apus") for having completed a six-day, 42-mile trek through the Andes and then awakened in time to be at the site before 6 a.m. It was the perfect finish to a  fascinating experience. As UNESCO said in declaring this 15th-century marvel (believed to have been an emperor's estate) a World Heritage Site in 1983, Machu Picchu is nothing less than "an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization." It's impossible to overstate the impact of coming to this wondrous place.

Back to Panama

I thought it was going to be a trip down memory lane, a nostalgic return to the city of my birth. But to say Panama City has changed in the five decades since my last visit would be something of an understatement. The dynamic, highly populated, traffic-filled, skyscrapered modern Panama City of today is virtually unrecognizable to someone whose memories are fixed in an earlier era.  Some vestiges of the past do remain: the colorful old city, casca viejo, now starting to be reborn with shops and restaurants, and the former American-held Canal Zone, which still hints ever so faintly at its colonial past. And of course there is the canal itself, the amazing engineering and construction feat that took decades to complete and changed the world. Today the canal is managed by the Panamanians and functions impressively at full capacity all day, every day. The Panama City of memory may be gone, but the new version is well worth exploring.

Belle Isle

Corsica has been part of France for almost 250 years, but it has a personality all its own -- part French, part Italian, part fiercely independent. It's called the Ile de Beauté, and for good reason -- snow-capped mountains, spectacular stretches of rocky coastline, lovely beaches, a ruggedly beautiful interior, and attractive towns like the port of Calvi with its impressive citadel (seen here) dating back to the island's Genovese occupation in the 15th century. It's best to rent a car to visit the major port towns and the charming villages of the interior. Some of the sights, especially the wilder and more spectacular coastlines like the Scandola nature reserve near Calvi or the chalk cliffs of Bonifacio, are best seen by taking a boat ride. Corsica is the birthplace of Napoleon and, supposedly, Christopher Columbus, but the most revered historical figure on the island is Pascal Paoli, the general who governed Corsica during its brief period of independence in the 18th century. There are still calls for independence and the Corsican language is still used along with French. If you've seen a lot of France but haven't yet ventured out to the Isle of Beauty, it's well worth a trip. Corsica is France as you've never seen it before. 

Man on the Edge

This sculpture caught me by surprise as I wandered around Mougins, a hilltop village just outside of Cannes. It's by French sculptor Nicolas Lavarenne, and it's suspended high on the outside of Mougin's Museum of Classical Art. The museum, which opened in 2008, has a widely acclaimed, eclectic collection ranging from antiquities to classically inspired modern works by artists including Picasso, Matisse, Rodin, Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. Lavarenne's bold, monumental bronzes fit right in -- classically inspired but decidedly modern in presentation. This one, fittingly, is called "L'Essor," which means "flight."

Like a Rolling Stone

The current owner of the mansion behind this imposing gate in the Rivera town of Villefranche-sur-Mer is reportedly a Russian tycoon of some sort, but to many the house will always be the place where the Rolling Stones recorded much of their their critically acclaimed album "Exile on Main Street" in the early 1970s. The Stones decamped to this waterfront property in one of the most beautiful parts of France in 1971 seeking shelter from tax issues in the UK. It was initially rented by Keith Richards and his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg but soon played host to the whole band and an ever-changing cast of visitors (including John Lennon). By all accounts, it was a time of extreme, shall we say, indulgence. The band gave up the house in 1973 and the album was actually finished in a studio in Los Angeles. The property, known as "Nellcôte," is quiet and heavily fortified nowadays, hard to spot even from the water. But if those walls could talk...

Cannes-do

Spending a few hours on a Sunday in Cannes during the world's most famous film festival makes you appreciate what a crazy phenomenon it is. The beaches are covered with tents, the streets are filled with limos, and the sidewalks (and many streets) are chock-a-block with all manner of humanity. It's quite an experience, but probably only for a little while (imho -- unless you have some very good reason for being there). You might even by sheer happenstance get to photograph a real star. In this case it was young British actor Robert Pattinson, whom I confess I'd never heard of, leaving his hotel and getting into his limo. It turns out he's quite well-known, having portrayed a vampire in the "Twilight" movies and with two movies premiering at Cannes. Playing paparazzi is easier than I thought!