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Sacre Coeur

We are a lá carte travelers. We enjoy creating our own trips, day by day — from starting with months of research to arranging airfare to booking hotels to renting cars and especially to planning a flexible itinerary. This past September we returned to Paris for two weeks and re-discovered this magnificent City of Lights. Our schedule included places we missed on our first visit in May, 2012. This time, in addition to revisiting some of our favorite places, we explored Paris’s rich history of churches and cathedrals. Since we had been to the famed Notre Dame Cathedral several times, we targeted other well-known sites.

We began with a metro ride to Montmartre, one of Paris’s oldest neighborhoods and the location of a thriving artist colony and the Basilica of Sacré Coeur. While we walked from the metro stop to Montmartre, the last leg of the trip was a choice of walking up a some very steep stairs or taking the funicular, an electric tram. Tough choice…we took the funicular. However, that meant waiting in a long line but it went quickly.

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St. Michael

Once we reached the top, the sight of Sacré Coeur was impressive (see photo above). Throngs of people were seated on the steps that overlooked the city of Paris. After climbing these steps, we stood in a short line and passed through a security check in order to enter the church. (Security checks were at all public sites in Paris, churches were no exception.) We viewed the interior and admired a dramatic statue of St. Michael, lit a candle as we did in each church we visited and then rejoined the throng outside. Since Montmartre is the highest point in Paris, the broad steps of the basilica are popular with tourists for their panoramic view of the city.

We walked up the small, winding streets, had lunch at a small café and then roamed through nearby Place du Tertre, where artists set up stalls in the famous outdoor square. We purchased a small original watercolor from an elderly French artist as a permanent reminder of this iconic Parisian neighborhood.

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The next day was Sunday, the day we traveled to Chartres, a small town 50 miles outside of Paris and this called for a train ride. (We found train travel in France to be clean, safe, reliable and reasonably priced — round-trip Paris to Chartres cost €64 for two.) So here we were at Gare Montparnasse to catch the 10:06 train for the 90-minute ride to Chartres. 4-gare-montpanasseThe train was only half full and we enjoyed seeing the French countryside — lots of agriculture and cows, some shabby houses, some nice ones.

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Our Lady of Chartres

We knew when we were getting close to the town of Chartres because the cathedral, aka Our Lady of Chartres, could be seen from a distance, soaring in its gothic glory high above everything. A spectacular introduction to this medieval town.

Since we were here for the day, our plan was to explore the cathedral and the nearby town on our own, have lunch and then take a one-hour guided tour of the cathedral. The cathedral is surrounded by restaurants and small shops but, being Sunday, all the shops and most of the restaurants were closed. Sunday closings seemed to be the case throughout France.

After lunch, we met Elizabeth, our guide, who began the tour outside the church explaining the history of the cathedral as well as its gothic architecture. This was followed by a descent into the dark and deep Crypt, the remains of the old church. The tour finished with a walk through the cathedral and details describing the extraordinary stained glass windows.

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Stained Glass and Rose Window at Chartres

As we returned to the train station, we looked back one last time at this magnificent Gothic cathedral with its tall pointed steeples, towering stained glass, grand rose windows, gargoyles, flying buttresses, hundreds of statues, and a compelling history.

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St. Chapelle Upper Chapel

Next on our list was St. Chapelle which is located in the shadows of  Notre Dame Cathedral on the Ile de la Cité in the heart of Paris. We arrived at noon on a Tuesday and expected a long queue but found a short one instead. We bypassed the line anyway with our Museum Pass and entered into the lower chapel where we rented audio guides, a must to fully understand the history and contents of the church. (A Museum Pass doesn’t save much money but allowed us to bypass the line at many venues.)

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St. Chapelle

St. Chapelle was built in the gothic style in the 13th century by King Louis IX and has the most extraordinary collection of stained glass anywhere in the world. The church is divided into two chapels, the upper or royal chapel was for the king and the lower was for everyone else. The walls of the upper chapel consists of 15 towering gothic stain glass windows stretching 3/4 of the way up the wall, each a jaw-dropping 49 feet high, with a glorious rose window at one end. Each window has 90 or more panels and relates a biblical story or depicts an old testament scene. St Chapelle is much smaller than Notre Dame and only takes an hour, two at the most, to visit.

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St. Sulpice

If it weren’t for the Da Vinci Code movie, we may never have known about St. Sulpice Cathedral, one of the largest cathedrals in Paris, second only to Notre Dame. After Notre Dame, St. Chapelle, and Chartes, the architecture of St. Sulpice is subdued, lacking dramatic stained glass windows and big crowds. What it did have, however, was a gnomon and an extraordinary pipe organ. It also provided the dramatic setting for a scene in the Da Vinci Code — which was actually filmed on a duplicate stage elsewhere.

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Obelisk

The gnomon, once used in the calculation of Easter, is a brass meridian on the floor that leads to a white marble obelisk. A ray of sunlight passes at noon through an opening in a window opposite the obelisk and rests on the meridian at various points throughout the year.

As luck would have it, we were in Paris on the autumnal equinox and went to St. Sulpice at mid-day along with a small crowd of visitors there for the same reason. We all saw the oval sunray cross the meridian on time at just the right spot. This was an unexpected bonus on the trip.

We returned to St. Sulpice the following Sunday to attend Mass, a little surprised to find the Cathedral only three-quarters full, and stayed for the organ concert afterwards. The 45-minute concert is presented each Sunday after the 11 o’clock Mass with a combination of ecclesiastical and classical  compositions. The great organ with 5588 pipes is a remarkable instrument dating back to the eighteenth century. The sound was amazing, easily filling every nook and crevice of the enormous cathedral. Afterwards, we took our time strolling back to the hotel through Luxemburg Gardens to start packing for the trip home.

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The Great Pipe Organ

This trip was special and we talk about it all the time. The great benefit of being a lá carte travelers is the blend of spontaneous events, chance meetings with locals and other travelers, and serendipitous happenings that occur while we are out and about in a far-away place that would not happen on a more structured trip.

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While we have thoroughly enjoyed vacationing in other European countries as well as the United States, our first trip to Paris in 2012 exceeded our expectations and we made plans to return “some day.” Well that day came last month and we spent 2 weeks enjoying everything the City of Lights had to offer, including its museums, churches and gardens. But when we planned this year’s trip, we kept our daily itinerary to one major attraction, making sure to give ourselves enough flexibility to add or subtract places to see and plenty of time to explore the parts of Paris that weren’t in any guide books.

2-angelinasWe enjoyed revisiting the Louvre and D’Orsay Museums, as well as the restaurant “Angelina’s” which shares my name and has the best hot chocolate we’ve ever tasted. Traveling by train to Versailles and Chartres were adventures we enjoyed and visiting the Bagatelle Rose Garden in the western part of Paris was high on our list. (Stay tuned for upcoming blogs.)  But what added to the enjoyment of this trip was the free time we built in to wander the neighborhoods and stroll the gardens to see how Parisians lived in what we find to be one of the most exciting and vibrant cities in the world.

9-le-sixWe returned to the Hotel Le Six, a small boutique hotel in the 6th arrondissement in the Montparnasse section on the Left Bank. It’s centrally located, less than a block away from the Boulevard Montparnasse which offers a wide choice of restaurants, bistros and cafes. Plus it was only a few minutes walk from several metro stops, bus stops and even a train station which made getting around Paris easy. We used the Paris Visite pass which allowed unlimited use of transportation and after a few days we were using the metro system to quickly travel from one part of Paris to another.

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Since there is no shortage of restaurants in Paris, we decided not to eat in the same place twice. We broke that promise only once and returned to Invictus for our final night because our first meal there was so memorable. Invictus, a small restaurant with 12 tables, is owned by Christophe Chabanel, a former rugby player who played in South Africa for a number of years before returning to Paris, hence the name of the restaurant. He greets his guests, explains the menu in English or French, suggests wines and makes everyone feel welcome. He also assured us that he could adjust any of his meals to be gluten free. I ordered the lamb chops which were the best I have ever tasted and Mike enjoyed his entrecote steak followed by creme brulee for dessert. After sampling creme brulee  in various restaurants Mike declared Invictus’ was the best.

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Lamb Chops at Invictus

There were other memorable French restaurants and we did not have a bad meal anywhere. Paris is full of small, intimate restaurants like Invictus, located discreetly on side streets, with limited menus featuring excellent food. Night after night we feasted on entrees like crispy boneless duck, tender veal stew and chateaubriand, all accompanied by an array of French red wine.

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“Crepe Alley”

For evenings after we had indulged in late lunches, we took advantage of the creperies on Rue Montparnasse, a narrow street that we refer to as “Crepe Alley” a few blocks away from our hotel.  Creperies line both sides of the street and, to our surprise, in addition to wheat crepes all offered galettes  — gluten free crepes made of buckwheat that could be filled with a wide array of ingredients. Mike especially liked the one with ham, cheese and egg.

One place that I just had to go to was Les Deux Magot, a cafe frequented in the 20’s by Ernest Hemingway and other well-known writers and artists. It was doing a brisk business when we arrived at 2 PM but we were seated at one of the small round tables along the sidewalk and I ordered my favorite Parisian lunch: a jambon et fromage baguette (ham and cheese). We sat and people-watched imagining what it was like back in Hemingway’s day.

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While we enjoyed our dining experiences in Paris as well as visits to various museums, churches and gardens, what we enjoyed just as much was meandering around the city in order to savor the flavor of this fascinating city. Several times we took the Metro to the Ile de la Cité area, where Notre Dame Cathedral is located, and strolled along the Seine, stopping at the bouquinistes who have their stalls set up along each side of the river. Bouquinistes are licensed vendors and are allocated a pre-determined amount of space for their green painted boxes. These green boxes open up to display shelves with their merchandise and when closed the green boxes are folded up and locked. We had fun perusing the old posters and books (in French) that were mixed in with the countless souvenirs as well as some original art. We took long walks along the Seine and over the bridges that connect the Left and Right Banks, stopping to watch the tour boats taking tourists along the river to see the many sights, including the Eiffel Tower.

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Boats on the River Seine

8-luxumbourg-gardens-chessOn one of our free days, a Saturday, we strolled through Luxembourg Gardens to find the park filled with Parisians, both young and old. There were men and women playing serious bocce, a couple of tables of men gathered around a very lively game of chess, children playing soccer, as well as people basking in the sunshine or reading under the trees that surrounded flower gardens. Parisians love their parks and gardens in the city because they don’t have backyards where they can otherwise enjoy outside activities.

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Edith Piaf’s Tomb

Another day we chose to go to the Père-Lachaise Cemetery, a very old cemetery in Paris. The Père-Lachaise is the resting place for well-known celebrities such as Edith Piaf, Chopin, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, and even Jim Morrison. It was impressive and a little eerie with over 100 acres of tombs and monuments so close together, there was hardly room to walk between one and the other. There was also an area with monuments honoring the French who had died in the WW II French Resistance and powerful remembrances of Nazi Concentration camps.

4-boulangerieWhen we made our way back to the hotel late in the afternoon after a day of sightseeing, we detoured onto side streets and found small shops and markets. We shopped like Parisians — got cheese at the fromagerie, bread at the boulangerie, and wine at the local wine shop. We’d take our purchases home (back to Le Six which had become our home away from home) and be greeted by the staff  who always asked about our day. After chatting for a while and getting recommendations for dinner, we’d return to our room where we would slice the cheese, pour some wine, put up our feet, and come to the conclusion that this was the life.

Now that we’re home, we ask ourselves what was the best part of our trip to Paris. It’s hard to pinpoint just one part. We’ve come to realize that a really good trip is more than the sum of its parts — it’s the whole experience melded together into an incredible adventure and the memories only get better with time.

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The Thinker in Rodin's Rose Garden

The Thinker in Rodin’s Rose Garden

As the new year approaches, we’re looking ahead with eager anticipation to 2013, to continuing to build our rose programs as well as experiencing another European adventure – this time to Italy. Since I’m a great list maker, I’ve long since started my Great List for 2013. And as I list away, I enjoy reminiscing about what we’ve done and where we’ve been in 2012.

Tree Rose in Paris Churchyard

Tree Rose in Paris Churchyard

#1 – Visit More Rose Gardens

When you travel, you never know where you’ll find roses. When we were in Paris last May, they were everywhere. We found small intimate rose gardens tucked away in small parks, in old churchyards, behind Notre Dame Cathedral, (not to mention the Rose Window in Notre Dame) at Giverney in Monet’s garden, and a real beauty at Rodin’s Museum.

Roses at Notre Dame Cathedral

Roses at Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Rose Window

Notre Dame Rose Window

Monet's Lily Pads at Giverney

Monet’s Lily Pads at Giverney

Not everything goes according to plan. When we visited La Roseraie de l’Hay outside of Paris, we were pleased to find what we’ll remember as one of the best rose gardens we have ever visited. But when we went to Kew Gardens outside of London two years ago, we found that the rose garden had recently been renovated. There was nothing to see except newly planted roses that had a terrible infestation of aphids. Luckily that train trip wasn’t a loss because we were able to enjoy the rest of Kew Gardens as well as a quiet lunch in a quaint café near the train station.

Newly planted roses at Kew Gardens

Newly planted roses at Kew Gardens

Kew Gardens

Kew Gardens

#2 – Plant New Roses

We’re always on the look out for new, disease-resistant varieties which means the more places we visit and the more we read, the more varieties we add to our “wish” list. We saw ‘Leonardo de Vinci’ in Montreal and a huge mass planting of ‘Rodin’ (the rose) at the Rodin Museum. We read about the disease resistant Fairy Tale roses from Kordes and may try a few. We’re thinking about ‘Cinderella’, a floribunda that’s light pink and looks like an Austin rose with cupped blooms and ‘Brothers Grimm’ that has an orange yellow bloom with lots of petals. From our David Austin Program we saw photographs of ‘Lichfield Angel’ and ‘Fighting Temeraire’ and know we’ll have to plant them in 2013. And then there’s the new Meilland hybrid tea ‘Francis Meilland’ which is reported to be very disease resistant. We plan to find out when we test it here in New England next summer.

Leonardo de Vinci

Leonardo de Vinci

#3 – Spend More Time Enjoying Our Rose Gardens

Sometimes we’re so busy working in the garden that we don’t take the time to enjoy it.  Kind of like “don’t see the roses for the trees” syndrome. When we plan a special “Open Garden” event or invite friends over for a mid-summer glass of wine, then we have the chance to really “see” the beauty of the garden. Occasionally, on a warm pleasant summer evening, we walk through the garden before dinner and that’s when we’ll see the amazing little things we missed during the day. We’ll catch a spray of swollen buds cracking color about ready to burst into bloom or a rose that hit perfection 10 minutes before and is ready to be photographed. Or we just sit on the bench in front of the rose garden and enjoy the moment.

Giverney

Giverney

#4 – Travel to New Places

New places provide fresh opportunities and new adventures. We’re on the lookout for gardens, garden centers, restaurants, museums, and historical places just waiting to be explored. This year we’re going to Italy. Besides the museums and piazzas and the food, we’ll be looking for rose gardens, especially the little gems that we know are hiding in small parks, church yards, cemeteries and who-knows-where.

Mike and I wish you a happy and healthy New Year and encourage you to create a year full of memories that will last a lifetime.

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Now that we’ve finally had our first real snowfall of the winter, it seems like the perfect time to sit back and review plans for the upcoming 2012 Rose Season. While our rose gardens are sleepy and peaceful under a pristine layer of snow, inside Mike and I are busy contemplating future rose programs on our 2012 lecture schedule as well as planning the itinerary for our much anticipated trip to Paris.

We’ve developed two new Power Point programs for 2012. The first focuses on pesticides and garden safety. As certified American Rose Society Consulting Rosarians, we created this program to address the concerns of rose gardeners in dealing with rose garden pests. Gardeners have choices available to them regarding insects and diseases in their gardens. One choice is Integrated Pest Management – the method we follow – when deciding whether, when and how to treat garden insects and diseases. Along with IPM we also have chosen to plant sustainable rose varieties which can remain healthy and attractive without the use of pesticides at all. But we feel that gardeners should know the pros and cons of all choices available to them including the use of pesticides as well as precautions that need to be taken when using them. For instance, just because a product is labeled organic, doesn’t mean it is harmless to people or animals. So we have designed a new program called “Pesticides and Garden Safety” which we will debut at the RI Rose Society’s February meeting. This meeting is free, open to the public and all are welcome. For more information go to www.rirs.org

Our second new Power Point Program will be introduced at both the 2012 Rhode Island and Boston Flower Shows. It’s called “Anatomy of a Sustainable Rose Garden” and describes how to build a rose garden from scratch. This program provides a practical blueprint for anyone who wants a rose garden and includes everything from choosing a site, design choices, plant selection, the value of water and nutrients, proper soil, selecting the right rose varieties as well as suggestions for companion plants. This program will address the multitude of questions gardeners have when planning a rose garden. “Anatomy of a Sustainable Rose Garden” will be presented on Thursday, February 23 at 1 pm at the RI Flower Show and Saturday March 17 at 1:30 at the Boston Flower Show.

Eiffel Tower at Philadelphia Flower Show

Meanwhile, while fine tuning our new rose programs and deciding which new rose varieties to plant next season, we’ve been planning our trip to Paris! Ever since we went to the Philadelphia Flower Show last year and saw the Eiffel Tower, the gargoyles of the famous French cathedrals, and all the other famous Parisian venues, we’ve been eager to explore the City of Light for ourselves. On top of our agenda is a visit to the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay and a stroll or two down the Champs-Elysees. We’ve also planned day trips to Versailles and to Giverney – Monet’s garden. Then a river cruise on the Seine as well as a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral to admire the extraordinary stained glass Rose Window.  

 

The Louvre

We had imagined that the once-fabulous gardens at Malmaison, home of Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s wife, would be a magical must-see side trip. But after reading a few reviews, we discovered that the gardens that were once so magnificent have fallen on hard times. Fortunately, the famous Roseraie de l’Hay, only 8 km south of Paris, is in tip-top shape and till worth seeing so we’ve added that to our schedule.  We realize that we won’t be able to see everything in Paris, but if you have any suggestions for gardens or other cool places we should see, please leave a comment.

Meanwhile, we look forward to meeting many of you at our upcoming programs this year.

The Louvre Photo Courtesy of http://www.world-city-photos.org

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