Tag - France

Visiting Europe’s Christmas Markets Aboard Uniworld

A Troika of Treasures in Germany, France & Switzerland

During the Christmas season, typically from mid-November through 23 December, all Europe comes alive with holiday festivities and none are more joyous and all-encompassing than the Christmas markets. I had the opportunity to experience these merry events when I joined a Uniworld River Cruise and sailed down the Rhine, visiting cities from Cologne to Strasbourg and all the way to Basel, in Switzerland.

Heedless of the Wind and Weather

Les Trois Rois

Les Trois Rois

During this season, town centers, market squares and narrow cobblestone lanes come alive with brightly decorated stalls, offering regional food, Christmas decorations, sweet confections, crafts, and live entertainment. Oh, and let’s not forget the Glühwein, that spicy, hot mulled wine that is reason enough to visit the markets – and it banishes the cold quite handily! On my excursions into several enchanting German, French and Swiss medieval castle towns, I celebrated the magic of this season in a memorable way. An added plus was learning some background and history of each metropolis– and meeting warm and hospitable locals in the bargain.

Unique Uniworld

Popularity of river cruising is on the rise, as continued news of mega-liners’ disasters at sea lure us toward more intimate, smaller craft like the SS Antoinette—Uniworld Boutique River Cruise’s 164-passenger vessel. The company has been in business since 1976 and currently has 18 ships, including the all-inclusive SS Catherine which launched this year. From the moment I stepped on-board I was giddy with excitement, and that high never flagged throughout the cruise. High above me in the two-storey lobby hung a shimmering light fixture, which I later learned was the 10-foot, blue Strauss Baccarat chandelier. Resplendent with sapphires, it originally graced New York’s famed Tavern on the Green. Checking in at Reception, I gaped at the Brazilian marble on the walls and floor and was captivated by a 19th century Venetian glass mirror mounted behind the receptionist.

Entering my stateroom, I felt I’d stepped into Chateau de Versailles. My room was decorated in 18th century French furnishings, with perhaps my very favorite feature being a mini-conservatory. Heavy toile draperies enclosed this French balcony with two cozy chairs, a soft cashmere throw and a floor-to-ceiling window that, at the touch of a button, lowered half-way, providing a wonderful view of the Rhine and its myriad fairy tale castles. Bikes were available for our cycling pleasure port-side, and each day there was an engaging tour excursion into town to visit the markets, the cathedrals, or just saunter and shop till sailing on to the next port.

This Little Trekker Went to Markets

The Rhine

The Rhine

Our first stop: Cologne. This city of just a million inhabitants boasts 42 museums and a sophisticated dining culture, as the cuisines of all Cologne’s 181 nationalities are represented. A leader in culture and art, it is Germany’s 4th largest city with a bustling center for trade fairs and conventions. Its party-going mentality encourages visitors to join in the fun and have a drink. There’s also a spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site: the famed Gothic Cathedral of Cologne. Construction began in the year 1248, was halted in 1473, then finally completed in 1880. A visit here is at once empowering and overpowering. Among its treasures I found my favorite in the Lady Chapel – an important triptych alter painting done in 1442. A portion of the work depicts the legend of St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgin companions, who were murdered in Cologne by the Huns. The cherubic faces of Ursula’s girls are sweet and poignant. Cologne’s markets glowed with pre-Christmas excitement and its stalls were small, Alpine huts. I was smitten by the market at Rudolfplatz, which transported me into a world of Grimm fairy tales. Costumed Grimm characters paraded the streets – a fantasy world for kids of all ages.

A castle along the Rhine

A castle along the Rhine

Next up – Koblenz. Talk about old. This city celebrated its 2,000th (no, seriously) birthday in 1992. It lies at the confluence of two rivers—the Rhine and the Moselle—and is considered the “corner of Germany.” Its market’s 130 gaily-decorated, wooden stalls offered an extensive range of hand-made goods and Christmas decorations, hot, aromatic Glühwein and bakeries selling Stollen—a fruit-cake like bread covered in powdered sugar or sugar icing—and other German goodies.

Rudesheim is a medieval city at the southern end of the Rhine Valley in Hesse. UNESCO World Heritage rewarded it for its wine making that dates back to the Romans, who grew vineyards here in the 1st century. Drosselgasse is considered the “party lane” of the town, with taverns and restaurants offering regional cuisine famed Rudesheimer wine, live entertainment and dancing.  120 stalls represented 12 countries and presented Christmas customs from around the world, including specialties from far-flung Finland and Mongolia! I loved the life-size figures on Market Square, the largest Nativity scene in all of Germany.

Heidelberg Castle

Heidelberg Castle

I was looking forward to touring Heidelberg and it did not disappoint – in spite of a freezing, drizzle throughout the tour. I just pulled up my hoodie and was off to the markets. Heidelberg is home to Germany’s oldest university and, of course, immortalized by Sigmund Romberg and his sparkling operetta The Student Prince. The town center sported a lively open-air ice rink and carolers who serenaded in colorful Victorian garb. As far as the castle, it would be hard to find a more striking location than the one it enjoys. Set against the deep green forests on the Königstuhl hill, its red sandstone ruins towering majestically over the entire Neckar Valley. First mentioned in writings in 1225, this monumental pile was destined to become one of the grandest castles of the Renaissance.

Our voyage touched a small corner of France – Strasbourg – which has the oldest Christmas markets in the country. The city walks a tightrope between France and Germany, straddling a medieval past and its progressive future, all the while pulling off this act in inimitable Alsatian style. The markets were situated close to Strasbourg’s inspiring cathedral and the old town’s twisting alleys, which are lined with crooked half-timbered houses à la Grimm. One wonders how a city that does Christmas markets and gingerbread so well can also be home to the glittering EU Quarter and France’s second largest student population. Well, that’s Strasbourg…all the sweeter for its contradictions and cross-cultural quirks. The whole island of Strasbourg is a World Heritage Site, and its holiday bazaars have existed since the Middle Ages. I indulged in one of the region’s specialties: tarte flambée. This confection consists of a thin pastry covered with cream, onions and bacon pieces (every bit as outrageously good as it sounds!).

Certainly Not Least

Basel, Switzerland

Basel, Switzerland

Our last port of call: Basel, Switzerland. It’s the country’s third most populous city located where the Swiss, French and German borders meet. Though not a particularly large city, it is grand in countless ways, not the least of which is its Kunst Museum. It houses the most significant public art collection in Switzerland with works from 1661 up to the 19th and 20th centuries. No surprise here. This is, after all, the home of the famous ArtBasel. The Christmas markets at Munsterplatz and Barfusserplatz in the old town are considered to be the prettiest and largest in Switzerland. Each displayed a towering tree that glowed and shimmered at night, casting its spell over the entire square. The wares offered here were of very high quality, and the mulled wine I quaffed was maybe the best of all the ones I sampled (yes, there were many). More indulging: warm, sweet waffles smothered in whipped cream. And why not? It was the end of the trip and when in Rome – or Vienna – or Basel for that matter…..

Les Trois Rois is Basel’s grand hotel. No, let me amend that. It is one of the grandest hotels in the whole wide world! The first official record of it dates back to 1681 and some of its past guests include Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth II, Picasso – the list goes on. In fact, one could say that every renowned, celebrated person for more than four centuries has guested here. Les Trois Rois (The Three Kings) enjoys a prime location in the city’s center and directly on the banks of the Rhine. On the day I visited, it was decked out in holiday finery with two huge Christmas trees that flanked the steps to the entrance. The property belongs to the first generation of urban grand hotels and truly exemplifies the pinnacle of le grand Swiss hotel. In the plush lobby/bar, I stopped for a glass of bubbly. What a sparkling way to end my Uniworld European holiday happening!

If You Go:

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise: www.uniworld.com

Les Trois Rois: www.lestroisrois.com

 Photos -“Courtesy of Michael Sloane Travel Photography”

Fairy Tale Destinations for Couples and Families

There are some places on earth that make you sit back and pinch yourself to see if you’re awake or dreaming. Visiting these locations with your loved ones can be a great way to inject some magic into your travels, ensuring you, your partner and children can experience some beautiful locations and share some true fairy tale moments together. To help you set an itinerary, here are six destinations which successfully blur the lines between dreams and reality.

Colmar, France

Colmar, France

Colmar, France

Located in north-eastern France, this town is home to 65,000 people and is one of the most beautiful settlements in the world. Walking through the paved streets of the old town, visitors to Colmar will witness fully preserved historic homes and shops, winding canals complete with boats, and a host of fountains. Come at the right time of year and you’ll find everything decked out with flowers of all kinds. Colmar was home to Frédéric Bartholdi, the man who created the Statue of Liberty, and it is easy to see how his artistic talents were moulded by this amazing French settlement.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam

The central region of Vietnam plays home to the seaside town of Hoi An, one of SE Asia’s hidden gems. Now a UNESCO heritage area, the old Chinese shop-fronts, temples and bridges are all incredibly well preserved. Walking around with your loved ones, you can take in the sights and purchase the region’s many amazing handicrafts including:

• Lanterns
• Suits
• Dresses
• Pottery

There are also some nice beaches nearby if you and the family want to relax by the seaside after a long day of sightseeing within the town itself.

Cappadocia, Turkey

Cappadocia, Turkey

Cappadocia, Turkey

For something more natural and surreal, pack your bags and take the family off to the Cappadocia region of Turkey. Here, the landscape is filled with bizarre clay structures, some of which actually have homes within them. The rock formations themselves are known locally as ‘fairy chimneys’ so you can image the magical nature of the place! Even though Turkey might not be on the typical tourist itinerary, you can still find exclusive Atlantis Travel deals to fine Turkey hotel resorts so that you and your loved ones can explore this region without having to sacrifice any of the luxuries that you need during your everyday life.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

When it comes to fairy tale locations, none stays true to the actual name like the Neuschwanstein Castle found in the Bavarian region of Germany. As well as acting as inspiration for the magical castle found in the Disney logo, this structure also has a long romantic history of its own.

• It was built by Ludwig II as a private retreat
• Decorations were inspired by Richard Wagner
• It offers stunning views of the mountains and plain

It is here that you and your family can witness true royal style, intricate architecture and spectacular natural scenery all thrown into one.

Bamboo Forest, JapanBamboo Forest, Japan

Bamboo Forest, Japan

Bamboo Forest, Japan

Throughout Asia, the bamboo plant is known for its many symbolic meanings. It Japan, it is a guard against evil which explains why the stunning Bamboo Forest feels so tranquil. Found in Kyoto, this surreal location features a single walking trail through the towering bamboo stalks. Their gentle knocking in the breeze will sooth you as you take in the sense of otherness of this amazing Bamboo Forest. Visitors can also visit the adjacent Tenryu-ji Temple and the Okochi-Sanso Villa for a full journey of inner discovery and outward experiences in this memorable Asian nation.

Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

Our last fairy tale destination may seem a little cliché. Venice still continues to be one of the most magical places on Earth and for good reason. The architecture and the canals offer an unforgettable backdrop and the vibrant culture and extraordinary atmosphere end up providing visitors with a feeling they won’t get anywhere else on the planet. Venice actually consists of 117 islands all interconnected with a number of bridges. Couples and families can stroll through this city, taking in the sights, for weeks on end without growing bored of the surroundings.

These six fairy tale locations will give you an excellent idea of the many amazing destinations available for you and your loved ones to travel to in the future!

The Easiest Ways To Get From London To Paris



There are several options for people to get themselves from London to Paris. While driving is usually the most frequently chosen option there are others as well. Here are some of the easiest ways to travel from London into Paris.


The Eurostar train can get someone from London to Paris in 2 ½ hours. This train starts in the St. Pancras Station in London and its final destination is Paris’s Gare du Nord. With both train stations being in the heart of their respective cities, the Eurostar is a great way for tourists to see both. Any passenger taking this train must arrive 30 minutes prior to their train’s scheduled departure time and is required to have their luggage pass through a metal detector for security reasons. The streamlined shape of this train allows it to pass through the Eurotunnel at a speed of 100 miles per hour. The train provides a smooth ride free of the sound most other trains make while in motion.


    France Dover-ferry

France Dover-ferry

Those who are looking to have a long, leisurely trip to Paris from London can always take the ferry. This is a more expensive option than the Eurostar but is desirable to tourists who want to see as much of the area as possible. The journey is a very scenic experience and eliminates the need to travel through the underwater tunnel of the English Channel. From London it is necessary to take the train to the ferry in order to get to Paris.


If someone needs to get to Paris from London quickly they have the option of flying if they would rather not take the train. Many U.K. airlines offer cheap and frequent flights between London and Paris.

iDBUS London to Paris



Taking the iDBUS to get from London to Paris is an easy and popular choice. Passengers are able to choose the iDBUS coach travel they wish to take part in. These buses depart many times per day and run every day of the week. The bus ticket prices are fixed so whether a person buys their ticket days in advance or hours in advance they will pay the same amount of money. The price of a bus ticket is dependent upon when a person is looking to travel as opposed to where they are looking to travel to. Making reservations on this bus entitles passengers to check one bag and carry one bag with them on the bus. On-board services are available to passengers, such as power outlets and free wifi. The bus leaves from the Victoria Coach Station and travels to the Paris-Bercy Station.



No matter how an individual chooses to travel from London to Paris they will enjoy their commute. With so many transportation choices everyone can find the service that fits their needs the best. Having several different ways to get from London to Paris is very convenient for both locals and tourists from around the world.

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Nice, France

Russian Orthodox church, Credit-PAnoramio

Russian Orthodox church, Credit-PAnoramio

by Douglas Clarkson,

The article traces the history of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Nice, France, describing its design, construction and consecration. Among the many surprises of Nice, on the French Riviera, is its Russian Orthodox Cathedral which was initially consecrated in 1912. The cathedral is noteworthy due to the diligent care its planners and builders took to incorporate the highest levels of design, craftsmanship and materials into its structure. The cathedral today is surrounded on all sides by a modern bustling city though its obvious workmanship in the finely carved limestone motifs and ceramic facings stands out against the functionality of the city now enclosing it. In its context as a Russian Orthodox Church, however, there is an immediate association with its Byzantium roots.

Early Days

The origin of the present Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Nice can in part be traced to the visits to Nice around 1860 by key members of the Russian Imperial Family such as Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, widow of Emperor Nicholas I. This is linked with the construction of the first Orthodox Church in 1859 on rue Longchamp, which still remains a noteworthy attraction. In the late 19th century the establishment of a Russian Naval base in the nearby town of Villefranche significantly increased the sphere of influence of the local Russian community. The expansion of the Russian community around this time indicated the need for a larger church and this cause was championed by Empress Alexandra Feodorovna who received the backing of her son Emperor Nicholas II in 1900. This allowed a planning committee to be established. The planning of the project was entrusted to M.T. Preobrajensky, professor of architecture at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. The design employed was the classic style of a central dome surrounded by four proportioned domes. While the eventual design was to closely resemble that of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, the design implemented tones and colours that were more in keeping with the vibrant light of the French Riviera. This is in particular reflected in the extensive mosaic designs on the exterior of the building.

Work Begins

An initial site was selected but building came to a halt when it was established that the ground was unsuitable to support the great weight of such a construction. The intervention of the dowager Empress provided a poignant solution. Some 37 years previously her fiancé Crown Prince Nicholas had died in Nice and the small estate of Bermond Park where he had died became the property of the Russian Imperial Family. Later the Empress was to build a fitting memorial chapel on the site where he died and which still remains. The Empress dowager persuaded her son to sign over Bermond Park as the site of the new Cathedral and from that point the work progressed in a more meaningful way. The laying of a foundation stone in April 1903 provided a new focus within the local Russian community to plan to complete the project.

Final Phases

The difficulties of the project related to keeping to the exacting plan of the architect and also finding the funds necessary to complete the project. The quality of the completed building can be attributed in no uncertain measure to the diligence of the committee in ensuring that the details of the plan were meticulously followed. This involved extensive tests and studies on materials used for the project in laboratories both locally and in Paris. Progress remained limited, however, by lack of funds and by 1908 the project had almost stalled. Again the direct intervention of Emperor Nicholas II provided a way forward for the completion of the project. The architect was commissioned to undertake an in-depth analysis and costing of work still to be completed. The indicated sum of a further 700,000 gold francs was provided by the Emperor to the committee and Prince Serge Golitsyne within the Ministry of the Imperial Court took direct management of the project. A key element of the new phase of construction was the construction of the five domes, the raising of the main walls and the construction of the bell tower. A novel feature of the construction was the use of reinforced concrete.

Exterior Decoration

Once the main structure of the building was complete, the next focus was the exterior decoration of the cathedral. A key element of the external appearance of the cathedral was that of the brickwork. Extensive trials were undertaken of bricks from a wide range of suppliers in order to find types that would maintain colour fastness. External carved stone was a key element of Preobrajensky’s design. The committee identified an extremely hard, light grey limestone from Lens as a suitable material. Highly skilled Italian craftsmen were employed to produce the required designs. Key facades of the building were decorated by large mosaics surrounded by majolica and with canopies of beaten and gilded copper. These elements were to add considerable cost to the project.

Interior Decoration

During 1909 the committee focused on the interior decoration of the cathedral and made enquiries through the Stroganoff School of Painting in Moscow for a suitable artist/designer. Subsequently the work of designing the interior of the cathedral was entrusted to a promising young artist called Leonid Pianovsky who drew inspiration from the best examples of church decoration in Russia, notably within the town of Yaroslavl. The committee was to approve his design for the central altarpiece or iconostatis which is in many ways the key feature of the Cathedral. It contains work of the highest quality not only of design and interpretation but of craftsmanship and with notable inclusion of work of the Brothers Khliebnikoff in Moscow. Among the set of highly decorative icons on display in front of the altarpiece are “Our Lord not Made by Hands”, “The Mother of God of Korsun” and “The Mother of God of Kazan”.


The Cathedral was finally consecrated on the 17th December, 1912, with representation from the Imperial Russian family including Grand Duchess Anastasia and Prince Alexander Romanovsky, with the Bishop of Dmitrovsk officiating. The translation of the commemorative plaque recording this event reads, “This Cathedral was built thanks to the solicitude and generosity of H.M. The Emperor Nicholas II and his gracious Mother the Dowager Empress Maria. Inaugurated 17 December 1912.”

Personal Perceptions

On entering the Cathedral there is the perception of the effect of the building as a whole, with the connection made between the angels, archangels and saints on the high ceilings and in the majestic altarpiece and mortals below. The height of the building appears as a mechanism to convey this concept of spiritual hierarchies. The window spaces are not as extensive as in classic European cathedrals, which increases the emphasis on interior sources of light. The aura of the icons such as “The Mother of God of Kazan” is almost tangible. As you move closer, its aura lightens up your thoughts and as you move further away from the icons, the sensation is diminished. The exterior gold, although on a small part of the building, conveys a wonderful ethereal light. What is quite striking, also, is the level of detail, an indication of the Byzantium preoccupation with the use of ornamentation to convey higher spiritual truths. One of the themes inherent in the Cathedral is that of resurrection, from the tragedy of the untimely death of Crown Prince Nicholas in 1865 to the establishment many years later of a permanent place of spiritual solace and refreshment.

Beautiful Beaune in Burgundy

A Taste of History, Wine and Mustard

One of the signs on the vineyards drive

One of the signs on the vineyards drive

Beaune is a beautiful, small, medieval city right at the heart of the famous Burgundy wine region in France (Bourgogne in French). This makes it a good base for trips to other towns and places along Burgundy’s wine routes. The partially-walled, historic center, full of beautifully preserved old buildings, is easily walkable, but streets are narrow and many are one-way, so it’s best not to try and drive in the old city. There is a ring road around the edge of the old city, so we found a hotel on one of the big roads off the ring road, parked there, and just walked each day into the old city. That way, too, it was really easy to drive out to other wine villages, such as Nuits St Georges, to vineyards, and to famous wine chateaux, such as Pommard and Mersault. Two important abbeys are also within reasonable driving distance: Citeaux, and Cluny. We rented a car from EuropCar, on Faubourg Bretonnière a few blocks out from the ring road.

How to get to Beaune? We caught a train from Paris that went via Dijon, so you can also stop and visit that lovely city. We did that at the end of our Beaune stay and found it very convenient, as there is a TGV train from Dijon directly into Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Exterior of Hospices de Hotel Dieu

Exterior of Hospices de Hotel Dieu

Attractions in Beaune

Start at the excellent Tourist Office, at 1 rue de l’Hotel Dieu, in a building incorporating one of the old city gates, also housing the Musee des Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts). The staff are very friendly and helpful, giving out good pamphlets and maps, including one of the wine routes of the Burgundy area. Check out beaune-tourisme.fr

Besides just wandering and enjoying the narrow cobbled streets, the most famous attraction in Beaune is the Hotel-Dieu Hospices de Beaune (often just referred to as Hospices de Beane, or Hotel Dieu), a magnificent building with a multi-colored tile roof. Founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor of the Duke of Burgundy Philippe le Bon, and his wife, Guigone de Salins, as a charity hospital run by nuns, it only closed its doors to the sick and elderly in 1971. That’s more than 500 years! They also owned a vineyard that helped finance the hospital, a vineyard still profitable today. The building is now a museum and part of the international wine trade, with its famous annual wine auction to raise money for maintaining and upgrading the new charity hospital nearby.

The spectacular courtyard of the Hospices de Beaune

The spectacular courtyard of the Hospices de Beaune

The self-guided audio tour starts in the spectacular courtyard, a perfect example of 15th-century Flemish-Burgundy architecture.
 Marvel at its wooden-panelled gallery, its turrets and bright roofs. The highlight is the Great Hall, off the courtyard, with its high painted ceilings and the red-curtained booths along both sides, where the sick had their beds. There are other wonderful preserved rooms, the pharmacy, the nuns’ quarters, and the kitchens. Don’t miss the magnificent Polyptych of the Last Judgement (altarpiece) by Rogier van der Weyden, now displayed in a separate room with other amazing art works.

Not far from Hotel Dieu is the Church of Notre-Dame. One of the last of the churches built in the Burgundian Romanesque style, it’s famous for its 15th-century tapestries illustrating the life of the Virgin Mary.

Also worth a visit is the Musée du Vin de Bourgogne (Burgundy Wine Museum). Originally the private residence of the dukes of Burgundy, the museum displays giant winepresses and traditional tools once used in the business of winemaking, and tells the story of winemaking from the Romans to today. Note the collection of old wine bottles, and of tasting glasses, and how the shape changed over time, plus a fun exhibition of old wine labels. You can buy a combined ticket for Hotel Dieu, the wine museum, and Musee des Beaux Arts.

This whole area is probably the most famous wine region in France (maybe the world?), but it’s also well-known for mustard. Most people have heard of Dijon Mustard, but mustard is also a feature in Beaune. So, plan a visit to the Fallot Mustard Mill
, at 31 Faubourg Bretonnière
, just off the ring road. The Fallot family has been making mustard since 1840. You can see the traditional processes involved, from grinding the seeds with stone wheels, through to the finished product, which you can taste. You’ll be amazed at all the different types of mustard. The beautifully-packaged products make great gifts.

Marche aux Vins, one of the many wine sellers in Beaune

Marche aux Vins, one of the many wine sellers in Beaune

Because you’re in the heart of the Burgundy region, this is the place for visiting the various caves (wine merchants) that dot the city. There are many and all seem to have great offerings. Another fun event is the Wednesday and Saturday outdoor food market, which crowds the streets in and around Les Halles, the covered market opposite the Hotel-Dieu.

All the streets and squares in the old city have many cafes, bars and bistrots, giving multiple choices of eating places. Try Le Clos Carnot on Place Carnot (the square with the bright carrousel), or Baltard on Place de la Halle, right opposite the Hotel Dieu and covered market (Les Halles).

The AVF – A Helping Hand for Foreigners in France

Eiffel Tower, Cr-wikipedia

Eiffel Tower, Cr-wikipedia

Janine Lea-Oesi,

Moving to Paris for work? Don’t speak French? Find the bureaucracy daunting? The AVF rolls out a welcome mat.

Not everyone comes to Paris as a tourist. In line with the cosmopolitan nature of the city many people relocate here for work and I have met many people over the past two years who are here on work contracts of one sort or another and for varying amounts of time. Some are European Union citizens, some are Americans or other non-European nationals sent here by their employers, some are married to French nationals but are themselves nationals of another country. Regardless of their origins, these people all have one thing in common: they want to acquire a reasonable working knowledge of the French language and they want to integrate as best they can into their new environment. These people are positive and dynamic and have something to contribute.

What is the AVF?

The AVF, short for Accueil des villes françaises, was founded in 1975 to help people relocating integrate into their new environment. ‘Accueil’ means ‘welcome’ in French and the idea was to make the transition from one place to another as stress-free as possible and to offer newcomers not only practical advice but a range of social and cultural activities as well. It is a French organisation and has offices throughout the country.

What does the AVF offer Anglophones?

In a nutshell: French and France! French conversation is offered on a weekly basis. These are not formal classes, but rather friendly gatherings at the homes of the respective conveners. Activities range from playing scrabble in French to reading, writing simple sentences and of course speaking. Even if you already have some French this is an activity that will help you improve on it. And of course it wouldn’t be French if the session didn’t end with cake and tea/coffee! I first joined in 2008 and still go along, although more now for the friendship and fun rather than just the language. In fact I got in touch with the AVF even before moving to Paris, such is the value of the internet.

Cinema evenings

These are offered on the first and third Thursday of the month. The cinema is a real culture in France and films are always seen in their original version so English films will be sub-titled in French. Again, this is another wonderful way to learn the language.

Other activities

The AVF offers many activities: walking, cooking classes, wine appreciation, knitting and crochet, book club (French and foreign), bridge, scrabble, theatre and cultural outings both within and outside Paris.


Consult the website Acceuil des villes françaises for the office closest to the city you are moving to. In Paris, the AVF is organised according to arrondissements so you simply need to find the one closest to where you live.

Life as a Chalet Host for Ski Total, France

    Staff 09/10 - Michelle Barrow Photography

Staff 09/10 – Michelle Barrow Photography

by Ben Blewett,

A guide to what life is really like for a chalet host during a ski season. What you are likely to expect and how to get the most out of your French winter.


Training and Experience

To work a ski season you do not need any formal training and can apply as a host, although completing a recognized course is an advantage. You are provided with a manual with a step by step guide on all menus for each day of the week. Once you reach, in Val D’Isere’s case, Les Arcs then you will begin a week’s unpaid training and team building before heading to the resort for familiarization.

The Working Day

The life of a chalet host is a 6 day working week, with your single full day off on a Thursday. Your working day will begin depending on how much preparation you need to do for the breakfast service. Breakfast is typically served at 7:30 A.M. and any hot breakfast offered that morning is required to be available at that time, besides the continental breakfast as a standard option. So, if you have to cook sausages then you may start earlier compared with whipping up some scrambled eggs–for example. How much you need to cook up depends entirely on how many guests you have in your chalet, obviously catering for 12 people requires more time than for 6 people. If your chalet sleeps 12 or more guests then you will be provided with an assistant.

During the breakfast service it is your job to ensure all beverages are topped up and available, as well as the breakfast. Concurrently to this, you should be clearing away crockery, cutlery and cups from the table and wipe any mess away. Once everyone has eaten, clear the tables and wipe them down, remove all breakfast items and store for the next morning. Anything cooked fresh should be discarded. You also need to bake a cake for your guests.

Your guests will now be finishing their preparations for skiing and be heading out, usually by 9 A.M. Before you can do the same, unless requested not to, you need to clean the guests bedrooms–make the beds, empty bins, vacuum, clean the toilet, sink and bath etc. Once you are practiced at this routine you can be finished by 10:30 A.M. at the latest on most days.

You now do not need to return to your chalet until the evening service. The evening meal, for adults, is served at 7:30 P.M. and can be prepared from as late as 6 P.M. (One full hour after the mountain closes for the night). Any preparation you didn’t do in the morning needs to be done, as well as the table set for the meal. You will be preparing a four course dinner, canapés with aperitifs followed by appetizers, main course and the dessert. After service, an additional fifth course of coffee and chocolates in available. If you draw the guests away from the dining table for the fifth course, you will be able to clean down the table and leave it ready for the morning–enabling you to stay in bed longer.

During the evening meal you should be clearing away courses as you go, offering complimentary wine and generally catering to your guests’ needs. Quite often, your kitchen is beside the table which can be good for obtaining a successful rapport with your guests. As with the morning, once you have everything cleaned down in the dining room and kitchen then you are done for the evening. This is typically around 10 P.M. however; you are the host and can usually dictate timings with practice.

Transfer Days

Sundays are known as transfer days and will become a day of ceaseless work. Essentially, your present week’s guests will be departing from as early as 4 A.M (yes, you are required to serve breakfast to them) or as late as 9 A.M. Either way, you are up early to serve your departing guests and clean the entire chalet, so that it is ready for the new guests arriving in the afternoon. Transfer day is, by policy, a no skiing day in order that you turn around your chalet and prepare the evening feast for your new guests. Be prepared, if the incoming flights are delayed, to work almost 24 hours on transfer day. This, thankfully, rarely occurs.


Living accommodation for the season can be a little compact and crowded. You most likely will be required to share a room with someone of the same gender, in an apartment with up to another 6 or 7 people. For couples, there might be an opportunity for a room between you with a double bed otherwise it will be a pairing of single beds. For some, their chalet will provide a room for the host. This can be a double-edged blessing, for example if the room is within the guest area of the chalet then you are constrained to what you can do. In your own apartment, parties and loud music can be tolerated whereas within your chalet it may not. In either case, you will have access to a full kitchen enabling you to do your own cooking at your leisure–if you haven’t eaten alongside your guests.


As part of your contract, you are catered for with regards to food. However, as a host you are provided with the basic ingredients and are therefore forced to prepare your own meals. Some restrictions may apply depending on the resort/management, otherwise you will eat the same evening meals as your guests. Breakfast and lunches are down to you. The towns have small supermarkets where you can buy your own food, as well as numerous cafes and restaurants.


Now the important part for all seasonnaires. Your free pass, courtesy of Ski Total. This pass enables you to full access of the skiable terrain surrounding your chosen resort, everyday and all day, week after week. Be prepared to have little free time prior to New Year’s to go out skiing, as you learn the ropes of being a chalet host and settle in. Afterwards, any free time you possess (after and before services) is yours to spend skiing. That’s a tremendous amount of time every day, except Sundays, to tear up the slopes. If you don’t have your own equipment do not worry, you will be able to get quality rental equipment for the entire season–free!


In your resort you will have a variety of places to socialize, the bigger the resort the wider the variety. Any number of bars and restaurants are open for you to frequent. Having a favourite, as well as good knowledge of the town will help impress your guests and might lead to a bigger tip come the end of the week. After you finish the evening service it is generally standard to go out clubbing until the early hours, especially on the night before your day off. As well as being a socialite during the dark hours, you can also spend time with your co-workers during the day on the mountain. Skiing or having a few drinks (après ski) during and/or post skiing is common place, just don’t indulge too much because it costs a lot of money to get escorted down the mountain.

Anything Else?

As a chalet host you will come across a variety of people with different dietary requirements. The manual issued to you will have alternative recipes/ingredients listed within so you should be safe. Usually, you will know in advance what requirements are so that on the first evening meal you can have everything right.

Guests usually leave behind tips, unused alcohol, shampoo etc. Feel free to use any and all of these left behind, although lost property should be returned! The more you provide for your guests, spend time getting to know them the better the cash tip at the week’s end–it is not uncommon to earn 200Euros in one week on tips alone! Your pay is minimal, but your food, accommodation and lift passes are free.

A great tip is multi-tasking and knowing how long the food preparation takes. Be able to cook whilst cleaning, for something that can sit in the oven for example. If you need to stew something for a while, perhaps pop it on first thing so it is done when you’re finished cleaning.

Still interested? I hope so; working on a ski season is amazing. Click on the link to find out more!

Monaco beyond the Grand Prix

Fairmont Hairpin

Fairmont Hairpin

Monaco is surely one of the most unique destinations in the world. Only about a mile wide and a mile long, the second-smallest nation in the world is known for its commitment to luxury. This weekend, the Monaco Grand Prix, one of the most prestigious racing events in the world, takes over the principality once a year and is raced through its streets. But if you’re going for the Grand Prix, be aware that there’s much more in store for the traveler visiting Monaco.

The closest airport is in Nice, and the distance to Monaco is only 30 minutes by taxi. However, the more glamorous option is to take a seven-minute helicopter ride instead, offered by Heli Air Monaco. Flights leave from Nice every 15 minutes.

Where to stay? Le Meridien Beach Plaza is Monaco’s only hotel with its own private beach. Suntan on the chaise lounges at the beach or the nearby pool, or grab a bite to eat at the hotel’s L’intempo Restaurant. The hotel’s “Unlock Art” program provides free or reduced rate access to many local galleries for guests. We also stayed at the Fairmont Monte Carlo, known for its fantastic views of both the Mediterranean and the Grand Prix’s famous hairpin turn, making it an ideal place to stay during the race. On the top floor, the hotel offers local fish and vegetables among others at the Horizon Deck Restaurant. An outdoor pool and lounge area are part of the top floor as well.

Right next to Le Meridien, the Maya Bay Thai and Japanese Restaurants offer dishes that combine the French Riviera’s fresh seafood with Asian recipes. With menus that stretch to over 70 pages with pictures of each dish, you’re sure to find something spectacular.

A great way to get an overview of Monaco is Le Grand Tour, which takes passengers on a hop-on hop-off tour of twelve of the country’s most notable sites by open-top bus. Stop by the Prince’s Palace to watch the changing of the guard, the Prince’s Collection of Vintage Automobiles, the Naval Museum, the Museum of Napoleonic Memorabilia, and much more. Visitors can also take a walking tour of notable spots from the life of Grace Kelly. Gambling is also an option, but this isn’t Vegas; unlike in Sin City, casinos in Monaco blend in with the landscape. Don’t forget the shopping; the country packs 1,200 shops into its boundaries, many of them the height of luxury.

The Grand Prix is great, but there’s so much more to Monaco, as a side trip on your European vacation or as a destination in its own right.

To hear more about what to do in Monte Carlo and “Visit Monaco for Grand Prix” and beyond, listen to this new Travel Brigade podcast with Kathleen Curry and Geoff Griffin by clicking on the box below:

Listen to internet radio with Travel Brigade on BlogTalkRadio

Copyright-Kathleen Curry and Geoff Griffin © uncharted101.com


Stress-free Planning Tips for a Parisian Getaway

Notre Dam de Paris

Notre Dam de Paris

by Cami Krein,

As exciting as it is, planning a trip to Paris can be stressful. What if your hotel is too far from the iconic sights? Where can you get a taste of the storied French cuisine without spending a fortune? Is the coffee really as bad as everyone says it is? Don’t let the details overwhelm you. Here are four tips to help you plan a trip to the French capital without the stress:

Book Early

Book all travel plans as early as possible to get the best price on tickets and avoid using up all of your budget on pricey fares. AOL Travel notes that another reason to book early is because it helps to kick-start travel planning and get the ball rolling for booking accommodations and planning the trip itinerary.

Get Travel Apps

Take advantage of technology and download a few travel apps to help plan and organize your trip. European travel guru Rick Steves’ Audio Europe app (free) features four audio tours in Paris for popular sites such as the Louvre and the Orsay, as well as travel advice for numerous other European cities. The Metro Paris Subway app ($1.99) is handy for those who want help navigating the notoriously confusing Paris metro system.

Check in on everything at home via your home security system through the system’s web app. If you have a remote access system, found online LifeShield.com, you can stream video from home using the LifeView app (free). Keep all of your travel arrangements and lists of must-see attractions organized with a note-taking app like Evernote (free) where you can store trips detail and access them offline.

Learn the Arrondissements

Understanding the arrondissement system is essential to help you get around the city, but it’s equally important to understand it before booking your accommodations. The arrondissement system dates back to 1795 when the city was divided into 12 administrative districts. It was updated to the present-day system of 20 arrondissements by Napoleon III in 1860. Numbered one to 20, they start in the center of Paris and spiral away from the center in a clockwise direction. Learning this system can make it easier to determine what part of town to stay in. Here are some of the most-popular arrondissements to stay in and their famous sights:

  • Arrondissement 1: The Louvre, Tuileries Gardens, Royal Palace, Forum des Halles
  • Arrondissement 4: The Marais district, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Place de Vosges, Centre Pompidou
  • Arrondissement 5: The Latin Quarter, Pantheon, Jardin des Plantes, Cluny Museum, Sorbonne
  • Arrondissement 6: Jardin de Luxembourg, Saint-Germain des Pres
  • Arrondissement 7: The Eiffel Tower, Musee d’Orsay, Musee Rodin, Invalides
  • Arrondissement 8: Champs-Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, Grand Palais, Place de la Concorde
  • Arrondissement 18: Montmartre, Sacre-Coeur, Moulin Rouge
Consider Alternative Lodging

While Paris is home to numerous world-class hotels such as the Plaza Athenee, George V and the Ritz Paris, many travelers on a budget find apartment rentals to be a more affordable way to stay. By renting an apartment, you can usually get more space for less money than in affordably-priced hotels.

In a city famous for its food, budget-conscious travelers also appreciate having a small kitchen of their own to prepare goods from plentiful local markets. Home Away and AirBNB are two websites you can use to find affordable Parisian apartments.

Korean Grill for a Quiet Meal after a Day at Disneyland Paris

    Koreana Restaurant

Koreana Restaurant

The Disney Parks and Village at Marne-La-Vallée have plenty of eating places, but if you feel the need to retreat to a cool, quiet and refreshing place, the KOREANA at Val d’Europe might fit the bill.

One RER train stop or a five minute bus ride or car-run will take you to from Disneyland to Val D’Europe Shopping Centre and Outlet Village in Serris, a modern village in continuous development, home to many of the Disneyland cast members. The RER station is called “Serris-Val d’Europe/Montévrain” and lies on the RER B running between Marne La Vallée (Disney) and Paris (Gare de Lyon, Chatelet-les-Halles).

Just outside the large shopping centre is Place de Toscane, where a variety of restaurants offer French, Italian, Spanish cuisine. For a more secluded atmosphere, there is KOREANA.

If the fresh orchids displayed in all the windows and the shiny black and lilac décor inside seem cold and impersonal, you may not want to enter this place, and you could miss having a meal that is simple and fun, completely enjoyable.

Each table is equipped with an inset grill, spotless and shining. It will be lit if you order a plate of fish, meat or vegetables ready cut into small thinnish pieces for grilling. These little slices are fairly easily handled with the supplied chopsticks. A fork is not offered but you can ask for one if you really want it.

Besides the grills, you can order hot soup, which is served on a sort of brazier – not the best thing if you have a wriggling toddler on your knee – white rice, and dishes typical of oriental cooking such as the delicious mandu (steamed ravioli).

This restaurant is not ideal for young children. After days of Disneyland this may be what you were looking for, if you have someone to look after your little ones. Yes, take the grandparents with you to Disney!

Older children will enjoy the fun of the mini-barbecue. The plates of beef, pork or chicken come without dressing, look and taste very fresh, and those on gluten-free or sugar-free diets don’t have to worry about how they have been cooked.

The service is efficient and polite, not chatty or informal. There are no tablecloths (incompatible with the inlaid grill) but the place is clean, orderly and quiet.

A variety of French wines are available, and rather expensive. I noted that the place setting has only one glass. When I asked for separate glasses for water, they were supplied immediately, however I felt that considering the price level, compared with nearby restaurants, and the formal, adult type interior, wine and water glasses should be set by default.

The restaurant is on ground level and easily accessible. Being slightly more expensive than most of the surrounding restaurants, it seems fairly easy to get a table even without a reservation.


18 Place de Toscane

F 77700 SERRIS

Tel. +33 1 60048708

Price range 20-35 €
or more depending on wine
Parking Not in Place de Toscane itself, but the Commercial Centre has a large car park.

Copyright © STI

November is Beaujolais Nouveau Time!

    Beaujolais Nouveau arrives in the USA

Beaujolais Nouveau arrives in the USA

A Celebration of Wine on the third Thursday of November

My husband and I celebrated the arrival of BJN in Paris a few years ago when we lived there. Even at our small local bistro by the train station in the Paris suburb of Lozere, “le Beaujo” was a major event and all the locals thoroughly enjoyed themselves—and the wine, the special snacks and the typical BJN meal.

Before the great day, many stores advertised that Beaujolais was coming soon, and on the great day signs sprouted all over, “Le Beaujolais est arrive!” (Beaujolais has arrived).

Wine shops, specialty delis, and even supermarkets carried many different Beaujolais wines—many bottles with colorful and/or fanciful labels. Initially we were a bit skeptical but were soon won over—what’s not to like about this young, refreshing wine?

It was such an interesting experience that we decided to start a new tradition here in our own neck of the woods in the USA. We had one party here some years ago and decided to do it again this year, Saturday November 17th
on 2012.

Great fun was had by all, I believe. So, next year on the third Thursday in November, it would be a fun experience for you to try Beaujolais Nouveau. If you happen to be in France you won’t be able to miss it, as it’s celebrated all over the country.

So, what is this Beaujolais Nouveau, or BJN, or “le Beaujo”?

Every year at one minute past midnight on the third Thursday of November, the first bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau are opened in France and thousands of eager people begin drinking this young wine from the Burgundy region of France. This special party, which has now become international, began as a local tradition in Lyon. Bars and Bistros in the area would receive barrels of the wine, which had just been harvested and crushed in September, from local growers. Patrons loved the light, fruity taste and there are about 120 festivals to honor the arrival of this enticing young wine in the BJ region alone, not to mention throughout France.

Due to the marketing and promotion efforts of Georges Deboeuf in the 1960s this local tradition has become a worldwide celebration of this unique French wine. And every year, we can still get Georges Deboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau wines throughout the world. A marketing triumph!

The region it comes from is small and located just north of Lyon, France’s third largest city. The grape growing area is just 34 miles long from north to south and 7-9 miles wide. In this tiny area, there are over 4,000 grape growers, growing principally the gamay grape. By law, the grapes for Beaujolais must be picked by hand. The wine gets its taste from a unique fermentation process called carbonic maceration, which means the grapes are pressed and crushed in large vats that are then filled with carbonic dioxide and yeast. They are not allowed to remain in the vats very long and this assures that only a minimum amount of tannin is released into the wine. After only 7 weeks the wine is ready to be bottled and shipped.

The arrival of “le Beaujo” is really just an excuse to get together with friends and have some fun. If you can’t stay up till midnight on Wednesday, don’t worry. People continue with the tasting on Thursday, and Friday, and the weekend. And it’s common to host a BJN party at home. It’s a young wine, so one doesn’t need to get too serious at this party. After all, until the first bottle is uncorked, no one quite knows what to expect from it—so be prepared for surprises!

The wine has a light purplish-red color with a fresh, fruity taste and should be served slightly cool. This is definitely not a swirl, sniff and sip wine. In fact, the charm lies in the fact that you don’t have to pay it any special homage, you just have to enjoy it, like an early present. It’s festive, but casual.

The Food: In Lyon, “le beaujo” is served with simple country dishes like sausage and potatoes. In general, its light fruitiness goes best with mild flavors that complement the wine rather than compete with it. Usually for the party, the French ask everyone to bring a bottle of BJN and a plate to share. Some of the typical foods are:

For Appetizers: strong>Gougeres (airy cheese puffs), Pork patties (pork and chestnut patties wrapped in bacon)

For Salads: Herring and potato, Ham and cheese with walnut vinaigrette

For Entrees: Saucisson chaud pomme a l’huile (warm poached sausage with potato salad); Pommes de terre Comtoises (Potato gratin with ham and cheese); Saucisson Paysanne (sausage with a white wine and mustard sauce); A plate of various sausages

For the Cheese Course (served with French baguettes): Small goat cheeses (crottins), Camembert, Brie, Morbier

For Dessert: Pears in red wine, Apple cake

Have fun and enjoy!

Ecoship MSC Divina helps keep the ocean clean

    Seconds after the christening of the MSC Divina in late May 2012, it was time for streamers, lights and music. Photo: Helen Ueckermann

Seconds after the christening of the MSC Divina in late May 2012, it was time for streamers, lights and music. Photo: Helen Ueckermann

Travellers interested in cruises may remember the furious protests in Venice last month when the MSC Divina, labelled a “monster ship” in some media, entered the waters of the ancient Italian lagoon city.MSC Divina was the largest ship to ever visit Venice.

Environmentalists carrying “No Big Ship” banners made their point and used the event to step up their efforts to have large cruise ships banned from the city, calling on the ship’s godmother, Italian actress Sophia Loren, to ditch her endorsement of the ship, adding that it contributed to the destruction of Venice, a world heritage site.Complaints, with which I wholly agree, ranged from the huge ship blocking views to massive air pollution, damage to the delicate maritime area that is the Venice lagoon and the very real possibility of the ship’s vibrations, the lapping waves in its wake as well as the displacement of huge volumes of water damaging the foundations of historic palaces and churches in the city.Silvio Testa, spokesperson of the No Big Ships Venice Committee, reportedly claimed that the ship produces the same amount of pollution in an hour as 15 000 cars, and that the pollution it causes contains 15 times as much sulphur than car fumes.

Now that is mouthful and could put any environmentally aware traveller off cruising forever.

However, I believe there are a few positive points to be made about MSC Divina and its sister ships cruising the oceans of the world. I had the privilege of attending the christening of MSC Divina by the lovely Ms Loren in the French Mediterranean port of Marseilles towards the end of May and spent three nights on the luxury cruiser. During my stay on board I made it a point to learn more about the ship’s carbon footprint, completely unsuspecting of the furore that was to follow a few days later in Venice. But more about that later.

MSC Divina, named in honour of MSC Cruises’ “godmother” Sophia Loren, is modelled on her sister-ships, MSC Splendida and MSC Fantasia, but features some remarkable enhancements.

“Experience classic glamour in high-tech comfort,” it says on the MSC website, and truly, that is no exaggeration.

The Infinity Pool in the aft of the ship, with its “beach zone” adjoining the glass balustrade, offers a unique view of the ship’s wake fading into the sunset. And if you’re travelling in the expanded MSC Yacht Club, you can relax in style in the Top Sail Lounge.

It is a first class hotel on waves with a spa, sports club, shopping centre and entertainment complex where you can enjoy a cosy coffee break, a quiet stroll or a romantic drink beneath the stars. A floating holiday destination indeed.There are six restaurants to choose from, 17 bars and lounges, for entertainment you can go to the theatre, attend a 4D cinema, visit the card room, the cyber library, or try your luck at the casino. If it is shopping you are after, five shops will keep you occupied.

The luxury mega vessel can accommodate a total of 3 959 guests and 1 325 crew, has a total of 18 decks of which 13 are passenger decks, 13 elevators, and weighs 133 500 tonnes.

With all that, it stands to reason that MSC Divina will have a considerable carbon footprint, but despite that obvious deduction, the ship has been awarded the 6 Golden Pearls award by the leading international classification society Bureau Veritas.

This is one of the highest awards for cruise vessels in recognition of specific voluntary attention paid, from design to operation, in relation to “Quality Health Safety Environment”. MSC Divina also received the additional classification notation “Cleanship 2 ship”, for the three domains of potential pollution of air, water and waste.

The ship’s hull was designed for maximum fuel efficiency and energy saving devices for efficient energy production with regard to engines, propellers, motors, etc. It further boasts  last generation 5 diesel engines, an automatic system to reduce cooling in case the cabin is not occupied, lighting optimization with led lightings and low consumption bulbs, as well as a continuous temperature control including an optimized system when the balcony door is open or the cabin card is not in place.MSC Divina, just like all other ships in the MSC fleet, has an environmental officer responsible for all environmental issues on board. This includes the monitoring of up-to-date recycling and waste disposal procedures to ensure the implementation of the highest possible technological standards for sewage treatment and disposal. The environmental officer also ensures the careful, frugal use of resources, such as water and energy and is responsible for the training of crew members dealing with recycling procedures as well as the handling, collection, sorting and disposal of garbage.

The MSC Cruises also employs a shore based environmental co-ordinator responsible for overseeing all environmental operations throughout the fleet. This also ensures that on board conservation and environmental measures are supported ashore when the ships are in port.

One cannot expect a huge cruise ship not to have a carbon footprint, just as one would not expect that of any hotel or holiday resort. We can, however, expect cruising companies to do their utmost to protect our environment so that our children and and their offspring can enjoy the same great relaxing holidays that only a good cruise ship can offer. I believe that MSC Divina passes that test.

I will cruise with MSC Cruises again, if I ever get the chance, but let’s steer clear of ancient, fragile, beloved and beautiful world heritage sites like Venice, shall we?

Clams, Fish Soup, Dolmens and Costumes in Brittany, France

Brittany, France,Cr-chezlouloufrance

Brittany, France,Cr-chezlouloufrance

A highlight of a trip to Brittany is digging for clams, then eating them, washed and cold, with butter, pumpernickel, lemon slices and cider or Muscadet

A trip to Brittany in northern France is not really complete without digging for clams in tidal pools and sitting by the sea eating a plateful of “fruits de la mer” or seafood in English. In the old days fishermen prepared fish soup on board ship using any fish they had caught in their nets, liberally spiced. It was sort of a northern bouillabaisse, but Breton style.

Arthurian Legend

It is interesting to note that much of the action in Arthurian legend takes place in Brittany, most notably in the Forest of Broceliande, where Merlin, the court magician was supposed to have lived. Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King became one of the main sources of information about Arthurian legend.The earliest mention of King Arthur goes back to mediaeval days when Arthur was supposed to have been a king in Britain. Because of the close ties of Bretons with their Welsh, Cornish and British cousins and their knowledge of two languages – their own Breton language as well as French, this story traveled as far as Italy.

Breton Style Bouillabaisse

To be absolutely correct, my Larousse Gastronomique says that the true name for this northern fish soup is actually “Cotriade” or Breton Bouillabaisse. It differs from the Provencal variety because the fish caught in northern climes differs, so fishermen and their wives select from some but not all of the following: the sardine, mackerel, John Dory, conger eel, hake, red mullet, and the sea devil (angel fish). No garlic as in the south, but onions browned in butter, water, potatoes, possibly bay leaf, thyme, and any other aromatic herbs at hand..

Colorful Local Customs

Most of Brittany, especially the region known as Cornouille, has retained local traditions and characteristics which have made it attractive to tourists.Colorful costumes are worn on feast days and at weddings and special foods, such as Breton pancakes, always served with the local cider are famous. Other renowned Breton dishes include Brochette de Coquilles-St. Jacques, which is a succulent dish of scallops, mushrooms and bacon on skewers. The shells or “coquilles” are named after the saint because medieval pilgrims carried them on their pilgrimages to the shrine of St. James at Compostella in Spain.

Canadian Ties to Brittany

These traditions are remembered by many Canadians with ties to Brittany, either through their Breton ancestors who followed Jacques Cartier from St. Malo in Ille-et-Vilaine, or through much more ancient ties to the Celts who were driven out of England in the fifth century by invading Anglos and Saxons. Megalithic monuments, known as dolmens are scattered around the countryside, most notably at Carnac.Their purpose is still unknown and there is lots of speculation about them. Some people believe they were made by Druids. Stone calvaries, with carvings of the Crucifixion, are later additions to the landscape. They seem to be everywhere.

Religious Processions

The old fishing ports and villages host many religious processions and pilgrimages. Many take place around Pentecost. One unforgettable age-old pilgrimage takes place in July at Sainte-Anne d’Aury. Brittany, part of ancient Armorica, meaning coastal area, was conquered by Julius Caesar during the Gallic Wars. Brittany got its present name when it was settled by Britons whom the Anglo-Saxons had driven from the British Isles.

Local Drinks Include Cider and Muscadet

Gathering windfall apples in the autumn is essential for taking to the cider presses scattered all around. Sweet and hard cider is made and is the usual drink of choice at local gatherings. Muscadet, the one fine white wine, is also popular. As it does not age well, it is drunk young. It is refreshing, and as it goes with practically everything, it is not unusual for Bretons to drink it before, during and after a meal. Bon appetit!

Roujan – A Little Piece of Heaven in Languedoc

by Sarah Juggins,

A place to relax - the pool at Le Couvent - Gail Parker

A place to relax – the pool at Le Couvent – Gail Parker

Come to Roujan to experience a French way of life that is miles removed from the bright lights of Paris or the jet-set lifestyle of Cannes. Roujan is a village in the Languedoc region of Southern France, about 40 minutes by car from Montpelier airport, an hour and a half from the fortressed city of Carcassonne and a 400-mile drive from the ferry at Cherbourg.

It is off the beaten track and, as yet, not a fashionable destination for holiday makers, so what is the attraction to those souls who, once they have been to Roujan, keep going back?

The first thing would be the accommodation. A perfect example is Le Couvent, an old convent that has been lovingly converted into a six-bedroom bed and breakfast. The heart of the building, and indeed the heartbeat of the bed and breakfast, is the kitchen. This is an oblong room with a table large enough to seat 16-20 people. And importantly, that is what it does. Breakfast is taken in the traditional French way – everyone sits together, gets to know each other and shares the copious plates of croissants, pastries, cheeses and fruits.

The rooms are all individually decorated and provide a cool and private shade for guests. A welcoming bottle of locally-grown wine is left as a greeting to visitors on their arrival.

Wines of the Languedoc

Which is a neat segue to the next vital ingredient to Roujan’s charm – the vineyards. Not the pristine rows of vines spaced with military precision, as found in the regions of Northern France – such as Burgundy or Bordeaux – but a more rustic system, where visitors can walk along the edge of the fields, where weeds are encouraged to grow because they add to the ‘terroir’, and where much of the wine snobbery is forgotten as growers work together to produce grapes of a drinkable quality.

The local wine caves welcome visitors to taste the produce and, given half a chance, will talk for hours on the whole wine-making process. And one secret that is fast being leaked to the wider public is the rising quality of the Languedoc wine. Once reviled as a drink ‘merely fit for the laborers working on the fields’, now the wines have character, taste and are selling in major retail outlets across the UK.

Local food is the third factor in the success of this little corner of France. Within the village of Roujan itself there is a café – no great pretension but good quality local produce. Locally sourced beef and lamb, seasonal vegetables and salads, and daily baked bread mean that it is difficult to have a bad meal.

The next village, Neffies, is host to Les Goutailles. This is a more upmarket restaurant, but it is still small, family-run and with a menu determined by the ingredients that are available at that time. Beef cheeks, rack of lamb and pork belly are all examples of dishes that are cooked with simplicity, but to perfection.

An artistic heaven

A crafty sweetshop in Pezenas - Gail Parker

A crafty sweetshop in Pezenas – Gail Parker

Nine miles from Roujan is the market town of Pezenas, an artist’s heaven, and an architect’s dream. Little windows with colorful shutters look over narrow alleyways that provide a cool shade from the southern French sun. The buildings in the town center date from medieval times and the cobbled streets, turrets and towers give a unique ambiance to Pezenas. In tiny little shops, artists, craftspeople and ateliers make their carved wooden statues, their intricate jewellery and work on their paintings. It is not too hard to wander among these streets and imagine yourself back in the time of Renoir, Degas and Monet. In fact, in his early days Moliere was a resident in the town.

Every Saturday is market day and this is when the town comes vibrantly to life. The main street houses hundreds of stalls, selling anything from shoes and clothes to strawberries, cheeses, breads, olives and vegetables. This is where the locals gather to shop, gossip and drink coffee and is a highlight for anyone whose main pleasure is people watching.

Hedgehogs and harmony

Welcome to Le Couvent - Gail Parker

Welcome to Le Couvent – Gail Parker

A traveler visiting Roujan should be prepared to be immersed in village life. Arrive in July and the village festival will be underway. Roujan’s village symbol is a hedgehog, so it is not improbable that a giant hedgehog manned by eight of the village men may be marching down the street.

La Maison Verte is a large venue that both takes guests and hosts artistic, musical and creative writing courses. These events attract a mix of locals and visitors, and to witness a group of Danish, Dutch, English and French people singing in harmony, while conducted by a internationally renowned conductor is a sight to behold.

The lure of the Languedoc will not be apparent to everyone. The sophisticated, wealthy jet-set who favor Nice, Cannes and Marseille will probably not see the charm of a rural village. Those seeking the bright lights of the French cities will also be disappointed. But for people who enjoy witnessing real French life – and that includes dog turds on the pavement, graffiti on the walls and unemployed young men drinking pastis in the morning – then getting off the well-worn tourist route will pay dividends.

The Cathedral of Saint-Peter Saint-Paul in Troyes, France

Central aisle, Troyes catherdral Credit:Clarkson

Central aisle, Troyes catherdral Credit:Clarkson

by Douglas Clarkson,

Troyes cathedral in northern France provides a fascinating insight into the visions and divisions of human endeavour.

It is likely that Christianity was introduced to the area of Troyes, in the Champagne region of France, in the third century. Through time the present cathedral site in Troyes has been associated with religious buildings. While a new cathedral was begun around 1200, it was the Archdecon Herve in 1208 who made significant efforts to get the project underway.

In 1228, however, a hurricane destroyed the emerging building and construction had to begin all over again. Delays were subsequently encountered due to the use of inferior stone in the building foundations. Building would continue in a significant way until around 1634 with the completion of the Saint Peter tower and essentially the cathedral has never been completed: the planned Saint Paul tower was never built due to lack of funds. The period of the revolution around 1789 is associated with damage to much of the sculptures around the cathedral’s entrance.

A 110 metre high tower once occupied the central position on the cathedral roof. This was destroyed in a storm in 1700 and was not rebuilt. The cathedral is currently undergoing extensive renovation as part of a seven year project as evidenced by the extensive scaffolding observed in 2010.

The treasures of the cathedral

The cathedral is associated with relics stolen during the siege of Constantinople in 1203. These are claimed to have included relics of various saints and apostles and a fragment of the ‘real cross’. This collection of ‘treasures’ grew until the revolution in 1789 after which time the various items were either dispersed or even deliberately destroyed. The reliquary of St. Bernard of Clairvaux is a noted surviving treasure of the cathedral. In this can be identified the animosity against the Church whipped up by the revolution.

Joan of Arc

Descriptions of the cathedral in various sources invariably omit references to the celebration of mass in the cathedral by Joan of Arc and King Charles VII of Reims on 10th July 1429. This was when the town of Troyes surrendered to the forces of the French King after the raising of the siege of Orleans. A plaque commemorating the 500th anniversary of this event is located near the entrance to cathedral entrance.

South rose window

The rose window in the south of the cathedral is constructed with a 10 degree symmetry – with the formation of 36 separate segments. This indicates a minimisation of stone structural support in the execution of its construction. It is only from the outside of the cathedral that the delicate stone supporting structure is visible. Some elements of round glass – such as the key central section appear to be clear. It is not certain if this is deliberate or part of the current renovations.

The Return of the Prodigal Son

A small chapel of modern design breaks with the Gothic lines of the main cathedral and provides an informal setting for small groups of worshippers. A reproduction of the paining ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ by Rembrandt, whose original is on display in L’Hermitage museum in St Petersurg, provides a touching reminder of the power of forgiveness. The picture is heavily charged with ‘visual symbolism’ used to convey subtleties of meaning.


The central isle of the cathedral conveys the feeling of the ethereal lightness of the construction and provides the impression of enduring values and a place of refuge from the outer world.


James Fergusson, Illustrated Handbook of Architecture – Volume II – Christian Architecture , John Murray, Albemarle Street, London, 1855

Hotel review – Grand Hotel Nouvel Opera, Paris, France

Grand Hotel Nouvel Opera, Paris- Gare de Lyon, Paris

Grand Hotel Nouvel Opera, Paris- Gare de Lyon, Paris

If you are the kind of traveler that thinks staying at a Motel 6 or Super 8 is roughing it, Grand Hotel Nouvel Opera in the Bastille district of Paris is not for you. From my standpoint, there is nothing wrong with it: it is a small, fairly clean, inexpensive place with really friendly and helpful staff (not at all uncommon among small Parisian hotels).

My husband and I stayed there for a week and very much enjoyed the place. Being in a very non-tourist area made us feel more a part of the local scene. Then again, we have also enjoyed pitching a tent on solid frozen ground at 2 a.m. at the Grand Tetons. We have also traveled to Paris with one 22-inch rollerboard and a small backpack each. If you consider yourself any higher maintenance than that, do not stay at Grand Hotel Nouvel Opera. You’ll just be uncomfortable and end up writing a lousy review for it and ruining it for the more adventurous types.

Grand Hotel Nouvel Opera is located in the middle of a living, breathing middle-class Parisian neighborhood. There are no large restaurants, no designer stores, definitely no silly tourist places selling little Eiffel towers and “I heart Paris” t-shirts. Avenue Ledru Rollin, where the hotel is located, is lined with apartment buildings of every architectural style, small grocery stores where you can pop in for a bottle of Orangina at 2 o’clock in the morning, home decorating and remodeling stores, clothing shops of every size and price range, and – in the great Parisian tradition of making sure you don’t starve – bistros, brasseries, patisseries and boulangeries every fifty paces or so.

With the address smack dab in the middle of a bustling neighborhood, the hotel owners did a really good job sound-proofing the place. So, if you feel like you’ve had enough of the “bustling” part, just shut the window. If it gets too warm in the room (the heating is via an old-fashioned radiator), and you have to re-open the window to the busy street …well …just deal with it. The rooms and the bathrooms are tidy, but small with limited storage space, so conservative packing is a must.

If you are planning to visit Paris not just to visit the regular attractions, but to explore the city and immerse yourself into the local culture – this place is for you! There are three or four metro stations within walking distance (and if you are like me, you understand that the walking distance in France is not the same as in America). Learn to navigate the metro – and it will take you anywhere you want within Paris city limits. Or, if you wish to go further, you can take a stroll to Gare de Lyon – a kind of Grand Central Station of Paris, a glorious old building, whose opulent facade hides a convergence of train lines running to all corners of France.

The food in the area is fantastic, and there is every kind imaginable to be had. In addition to a dozen or so boulangeries and patisseries within a one-mile radius, the Bastille district boasts enough ethnic restaurants to represent if not every country, then at least every major political region on Earth. A Japanese sushi place peacefully co-exists with an Indian restaurant on one side and a small Thai food window on the other, with an Irish pub (complete with Guinness beer) and an American Subway across the street. To find the best places to eat, make a point of watching the locals. That was how we discovered a fantastic boulangerie within a five-minute walk from the hotel – there was a line out the door near it every morning, so we joined in and ended up having breakfast there for the rest of our vacation.

While the Bastille district is not as favored by tourists as, say, Montparnasse or Champs Elysee, wondering around and window shopping is just as much fun – the window displays are still beautiful and stylish regardless of the size of the establishment or the price of its wares. Do not be mislead by the narrow store windows – where they cannot get breadth, Parisian shop owners go for depth, so a store that appears small on the outside, it may go the depth of an entire building.

In short: if you like to travel light, definitely consider Grand Hotel Nouvel Opera as your Parisian home-away-from-home. You’ll sleep comfortably, eat well and have plenty to see.