By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
The Gare de Lyon train station in Paris
During a spring visit to Paris, France we went on an overnight side trip to the Seine-et-Marne Department (www.turisme77.co.uk and www.paris-whatelse.com) for the first time. To get there we took a train from the Gare de Lyon in the twelfth arrondissement of Paris to Melun, a city in the Seine-et-Marne. From there we made our way around by car from the train station to the area villages where, despite cold and rainy weather, we explored museums, chateaux, an artist village, a spa, and a pastry shop, spending the night at the La Demeure du Parc, a four-star boutique hotel within walking distance from the Château de Fontainebleau (Fontainebleau Castle), a museum and former royal residence.
The rotunda inside the Château de Champs-sur-Marne looking out on the gardens
Our first stop was the Château de Champs-sur-Marne (see Eighteenth century home museum near Paris worth visit when in Seine-et-Marne area), a 16 room two story structure completed in 1708. Known for its rococo style and its Notable Gardens the former family home had been converted into a museum managed by the French government. After a guided tour in English of the Château de Champs-sur-Marne, we had lunch and a short guided tour in English of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, a private estate open to visitors and my favorite attraction overall. Even when compared with grand former royal residences the property's historic character, artistic harmony and beauty stood out. Before leaving and despite the ugly weather we made our way around the beautiful gardens in an abbreviated self-guided exploration.
Les Bains de Marrakesh in Fontainebleau
The shop at Les Bains de Marrakesh
Before checking into our hotel we had a massage at Les Bains de Marrakech (186 rue Grande, 77300 Fontainebleau, +33 09 81 13 17 21, lesbainsdemarrakech.com, email@example.com). Because we arrived late our massages were cut short. Despite that the staff members were friendly and welcoming. The small facility was spotless and quiet.
The war memorial in Barbizon
The house of Robert Louis Stevenson
Dinner (and breakfast the following morning) at our hotel was excellent. In the morning, we met Véronique Villalba, our English speaking guide in front of the Fontainebleau Castle, a former residence of the French monarchy, for an excellent tour. Following lunch, we headed to the charming artist Village of Barbizon, about seven miles northwest from Fontainebleau. We walked around with umbrellas in hand, exploring the touristy main street and admiring the pretty facades. We popped into Le Musee des Peintres de Barbizon (the Museum of Painters of Barbizon). Although it was crowded at times we enjoyed our visit thanks to our guide's insights and engaging discussion.
Tasty treats at Frédéric Cassel, Fontainebleau
On our way back to our hotel we stopped at Frédéric Cassel Fontainebleau (71-73, rue des Sablons, 77300 Fontainebleau, +33 01 60 71 00 64, www.fredericcassel.com), a shop in the town's popular pedestrian shopping street for espresso, tea, chocolates, and pastries. We had a Vanilla Millefeuille and an Ilanka pastry, a worthwhile sweet ending to our pleasant visit, before our taxi drove us back to the small train station, where we boarded the crowded train back to Paris.
Article and photos by Scott S. Smith
The north side of the John Madejski Garden courtyard at the Victoria and Albert Museum
In September 2016, my wife, Sandra, and I reluctantly visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, VAM, (Cromwell Road, +44 020 7942 2000, www.vam.ac.uk, firstname.lastname@example.org) in the South Kensington area of central London, United Kingdom. We were hesitant because we normally don’t care for decorative art, but Time Out London had rated it the number one attraction of a city packed with world-class destinations. We had flown in that morning and planned to go to our hotel to sleep off our jet lag before heading to the museum, which was open until 10 p.m. on Wednesdays. But our hotel was out of the way and we decided to head directly to the museum for a few hours. It had one of the world’s largest and best collections of its kind, with 4.5 million objects, only a tiny fraction of which could be displayed at one time in its 145 galleries spread over seven miles on six levels. They included ceramics and glass, textiles, furniture, sculpture, metalwork, drawings, photos, jewelry, and costumes from around the world covering 5,000 years.
It was founded in 1852, the year after the Great Exhibition, a world’s fair that showed off the fruits of the industrial age and provided the museum’s initial collection. First called the Museum of Manufactures, it was the world’s first devoted to “applied art and science,” and the official opening at the current location was overseen by Queen Victoria in 1857 (her last public appearance was in 1899 at the laying of the foundation for a new building).
Samson Slaying a Philistine by Giovanni Bologna
Walking into the central sculpture hall on the ground floor we were greeted by the dramatic marble statue of Samson Slaying a Philistine by Giovanni Bologna (also known as Giambologna) dated about 1562. He was sculptor to the Medici dukes of Tuscany and the most important one after the death of Michelangelo in 1564, until the emergence of Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1614. Renaissance works dominated the long room. The VAM had one of the most comprehensive sculpture collections from the post-Classic era, with 22,000 from around the world created between 400 A.D. to 1914, using materials ranging from wood to bronze.
Glazed glass basin from Turkey
Islamic art was represented with 19,000 objects, one of the world’s largest collections, with works from the 7th to 20th centuries. We were particularly impressed with the rugs and tile art, with the artistry honed for nearly a millennium within the mandate of not depicting human or animal forms (except in the Persian Shiite tradition). We saw that up close on the Taj Mahal in India and in Uzbekistan, where floral and abstract forms were perfected. The VAM lighting in that area made it difficult to take photos, but we did get one of a glazed glass basin from Iznik, Turkey, 1545, with the Golden Horn design (a reference to the waterway off Istanbul). Some believe the museum’s glass and ceramics collection of 80,000 to be the most comprehensive in the world.
Tibetan deity representing enlightenment
With 160,000 items, the Asian collection may be the largest in the West. We only saw a small part of it, but particularly loved the exquisite gilded brass statuette of the donkey-headed, many-armed Tibetan Buddhist deity Kharamukha Samvara, a metaphor for enlightenment in the Tantric tradition of channeling sexual energy. The male aspects represented compassion, the female wisdom.
Boy with Bagpipes by Caius Cibber
We visited the room with the Raphael Cartoons, sketches for tapestries displayed in the Sistine Chapel on special occasions. By that time we were exhausted and our last photo was of the statue of a boy playing the bagpipes with his dog at his feet, sculpted from Portland stone by Danish artist Gaius Gabriel Cibber in 1680. Cibber moved to London in the 1650s, where he worked closely with the legendary architect Christopher Wren. When we return to London, the Victoria and Albert will be high on our list so that we can explore the areas we breezed through and check out those we completely neglected on photography, books, furniture, costumes, and jewelry, as well as regional exhibits on Asia and the Americas. I would recommend the VAM to friends who like art museums, regardless of whether they think they will like the focus on decorative arts.
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
Champs-sur-Marnes on a cloudy rainy day
A view of the Notable Gardens, inspired by Le Notre’s work, from the second floor
We liked visiting the Château de Champs-sur-Marne (31 rue de Paris 77420 Champs-sur-Marne +33160052443. www.chateau-champs-sur-marne.fr, email@example.com) in the Seine-et-Marne Department (www.turisme77.co.uk and www.paris-whatelse.com) in the town of Champs-sur-Marne near Paris, France. A private home in the eighteenth century the property was completed in 1708. It was managed by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, a government entity. Champs-sur-Marne is within an 85 hectare estate in the town of the same name, about 25 minutes from Paris by public transportation (RER A) and a 30 minute drive via highway A4.
The furniture in the entry hall
The 16 room two story structure stood out for its rococo style and its Notable Gardens, inspired by Le Notre’s work and restored in 1895. Because of rainy and cold weather we missed visiting the gardens. In its heyday the Castle of Champs-sur-Marne welcomed illustrious tenants such as the princess of Conti, duke de La Vallière, and la Marquise de Pompadour. In 1895, Louis Cahen d’Anvers, a banker, bought and restored the property, and in 1935, the Cahen d’Anvers family donated the property to the state. About 1,800 square meters of the 3,600 square meter large property were open to visitors, including the second floor and basement.
Asian style decor was popular despite a lack of accurate information about the subject matter.
A glass covered close up where the removal of paint revealed further paintings underneath
During our visit to the Seine-et-Marne the Château de Champs-sur-Marne served as a contrast to other larger and far more pompous properties such as the Chateau de Fontainebleau, the former royal homestead, and Vaux-le-Vicomte, the famous precursor to Versailles. Like Vaux-le-Vicomte, Champs-sur-Marne served as a model for another well known property, the Elysee Palace in Paris completed in 1720. The north facade’s special feature, the rotunda, is similar to the one at the Hôtel de Matignon, the official residence of the first minister.
One of the rooms appeared inviting
The Château de Champs-sur-Marne was built as the home of a newly wealthy family wishing to impress society, whereas the other two area properties were designed for the public as well as private life of their affluent residents. A staff of 37 looked after the property. In 1959, President Charles de Gaulle began using it as an official residence for government guests. In 1974, the Ministry of Culture took over management of estate, allowing the public to visit the castle and its grounds. In 2006, parts of the Chinese Salon ceiling collapsed, requiring a six year long restoration. Although it was reopened in 2013 it looked like it could use additional work.
The rooms were decorated according to purpose with light colors for women or mixed groups.
If the Château de Champs-sur-Marne looked familiar, our English speaking guide explained, it was because a number of films were shot on the estate, including Dangerous Liaisons (1987) by Stephen Frears, Ridicule (1995) by Patrice Leconte, and Marie-Antoinette (2005) by Sofia Coppola.The orangery of the castle also appeared in the series Versailles (2016) by Jalil Lespert.
The dark rooms were offices and places for men to gather.
The billiards room
Our guide especially noted the chinoiseries painted decorations and the door panel (in the Cabinet Camaïeu) by Christophe Huet, among the highlights of the era. Other noteworthy features included, in the great hall, the Coromandel screen from the 18th century restored in 2016; faience pieces from the 18th century in various rooms as well as exceptional pendulums, for example, the pendulum Tête de Poupée by Jacques Auguste Thuret, clockmaker to the King Louis XIV in 1694 in La Chambre Grise; and “le Bonheur-du-jour” signed Charles Topino in the 18th century, a desk for the ladies.
Limefish from the beach
Although we loved our Holmes Beach rental house's beachfront location, its outstanding views of the water across lush sea oats and sea grapes from the open porch as well as from the single contiguous air conditioned living, dining and kitchen room, we were disappointed with a number of aspects of the luxury rental house. Holmes Beach is one of three municipalities on Anna Maria Island on the west coast of Florida. In addition to its outstanding beachfront place the house was on the north end of Holmes Beach, which after some exploration became our favorite part of the island along with the town of Anna Maria. It was also conveniently one block away from a complimentary island trolley stop, and within walking distance to the main shopping streets in the town of Anna Maria.
The living room featured an outstanding view of the beach
Limefish, a 1,500 square foot colorful three bedroom three bathroom house, faced the beach. The pool was on the north side and included a shady covered open air area with a propane grill, two lounge chairs, outdoor dining furniture with seating for eight and two showers. Indoors the air conditioned house was painted in bright colors. It had a master bedroom with a king bed and small en suite bathroom, a second bedroom with a queen bed and standard en suite bathroom, and a third bedroom with four bunk beds and an adjacent bathroom convenient for guests. The living area had two loveseats, a brightly painted coffee table and a built-in entertainment wall.
The private pool area was inviting day and night
We liked the quiet, especially indoors, and sense of privacy the home afforded us although it was sandwiched between other houses on two sides and an empty lot adjacent to a busy public beach access with parking. The muted sounds were the result of double-paned windows and a well tended garden with a narrow path that led from the back porch straight to the beach some forty feet away. The distance from the crowded beach and the garden seemed to serve as buffers. We also liked the large private heated swimming pool, an uncommon amenity in rental beachfront houses in town based on an informal tally, and the spacious parking area, which included three spaces under cover.
The bedrooms looked out on the driveway
On the beach, many people walked by at a quick pace. Others set elaborate groupings of chairs and umbrellas, bringing babies, children and dogs (although the beach was supposed to be dog free). Because the water was chilly few went swimming. Once we spent time on the crowded beach we particularly appreciated having private space to ourselves where we could retreat anytime and enjoy beach views in quiet seclusion.
The second bedroom
Although the company website made the rental properties look inviting there were significant errors. When we began our search for a vacation rental we encountered a number of red flags. First, there was limited information on the company website. One property appeared to have never been rented and the second one had had no reviews in more than a year. The most recent review we found said the house needed a facelift. We were unable to find details about the properties, such as terms and conditions, and availability on the rental company website. It also did not indicate when the photos of the house had been taken.
The spacious kitchen also had a beach view
After an initial email reply, the real estate agency woman was slow to respond. When reached on her mobile number she was unable to provide additional information. The first time she answered she explained she was grocery shopping. The next time she said she was visiting her daughter. Then she said she was a realtor and busy selling houses. Unlike every other person we spoke with on the island who answered questions easily and with a pleasant demeanor, her attitude seemed somewhat condescending and dismissive to us. A conversation with a second woman at a United Kingdom location was fruitless.
The dining table
After some effort and contradictory information the company representative explained that they had made a mistake listing the first property, the one we preferred. It had a more upscale location and features. After some back and forth communication the representative said the listing with an elaborate video had been in error and the property was not for rent at all. Although it appeared for rent on the company website and was vacant they would not honor the advertised rental. The second property, she prompted, had been renovated and was available at a significant seasonal discount.
The deck and outdoor chairs were in the shade in the mornings.
We swallowed our concerns about the realtor and the property and took the bait. On arrival, the good news was that the property location was excellent. The house fronted the beach and had outstanding views from the back porch, and interior common areas. The pool, on the side of the house, was as we expected. There were however a number of disappointments, mostly the house was in a less than optimum state of repair and the amenities were of a lower quality than we had anticipated for a luxury property. We were surprised to read in the booklet with information on the house that if any equipment broke during our stay there would be no discount, only the agency's assurance they would try to fix it.
The master bathroom
One of the things we disliked most was the six human hairs strewn in varying places (bed covers, bathroom sink, shower, facecloth, extra blanket) and the smelly mold on the washer door. The towels were mismatched, some stained and very thin. The kitchen towels were synthetic as were the pillows and bed covers. The sheets were of low thread count. The washer soap dispenser was dirty. The dryer didn't work well at first (we discovered accumulated lint that might have caused the difficulties). The spare blanket smelled strongly of women's cologne.
Cheerful colors and bright sunlight gave the house a summer feel.
With some effort the repetitive noise of the dining and living room fans subsided. Such was not the case with the loud washer and dryer. The dishwasher door was broken. It had to be latched in place or it would fall open every time we opened it to load or unload items in the appliance.
There were four built-in bunks in the third bedroom.
The colorful outdoor furniture made of synthetic material didn't overheat, making it possible to sit on the chairs at any time of the day. But because the chairs were in a fixed position they became less than comfortable after a few minutes. There were no cushions on the chairs, which also made then less than ideal for extended lounging. There were only four beach towels for the three bedroom house, which meant if we wanted clean towels after a day at the beach we had to run the noisy washer and dryer.
The sunsets were lovely about half the time.
By the pool there were only two adjustable lounge chairs without cushions or tables (we had to place books and beverages on the floor) and no umbrellas for shade. The lack of umbrellas or cover from the sun made it difficult to enjoy the beach facing porch in the afternoons when sunlight shined directly on that part of the house. No kitchen curtains meant sunlight covered and heated parts of the kitchen (as well as the dining and living areas) during most of the afternoon. The air conditioner and fans struggled to cool the house.
The beach was busy every day.
We enjoyed our time at Limefish as well as our first stay in Holmes Beach and Anna Maria, despite the high density of visitors during our shoulder season visit, and would consider returning. Perhaps by then the property owners and managers will have given the beachfront house some tender loving care or we can find another rental beachfront home.
Article and photos by Scott S. Smith
The Guards’ Crimean War Memorial in front of the Sofitel London St James
In September 2016, my wife, Sandra, and I spent one night at the Sofitel London St James (6 Waterloo Place, London SW1Y 4AN, United Kingdom, +44 0871 6630625 or 800-221-4542, http://www.sofitel.com/gb/hotel-3144-sofitel-london-st-james/index.shtml, H3144@sofitel.com) in central London, United Kingdom. As history buffs, we chose it for its location a few blocks from the Piccadilly Circus subway stop on Waterloo Place, with its magnificent Guards’ Crimean War Memorial.
The memorial was originally erected in 1861 to commemorate 2,152 soldiers who died in the 1854-56 conflict with Russia. Three guards were cast in bronze from captured Russian cannons. The memorial was reconstructed in 1914 to make way for statues of Florence Nightingale and the man who hired her to reform nursing on the front, Secretary of War Sidney Herbert. Nearby is the 34-meter (112 feet) Doric column for Prince Frederick Augustus, the Duke of York, a hero of the British Empire. The area is packed with 150 historic buildings, as well as statues, including those of King Edward VII (eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert) and Antarctic explorer Robert Falconer. It is also a few blocks from Buckingham Palace and Saint James’s Palace (where retired royal officials now live, and which has its own changing of the guard). A nice touch in the lobby were the gorgeous fresh flower arrangements each day.
Our Premium Luxury Room
Room categories began with the Classic, then Luxury, Superior, Luxury with two single beds, and Premium Luxury. We stayed in a 32 square meters (344 square feet) Premium Luxury Room, one of 183 rooms at the property. We hadn’t realized it was a five-star hotel until we tried the king bed and pillows. They were so well liked by hotel guests (we found them so comfortable we weren’t surprised), that Sofitel sold them in various sizes and styles, from $1,750 to $2,123 at its online shop.
We appreciated the light on the headboard that allowed me to read and not disturb Sandra when she fell asleep early. The view over Waterloo Place and nearby parks was beautiful, but we had to keep the windows shut because of loud exterior noises late at night (we like fresh air, but didn’t mind adjusting the air conditioning instead). The walls, floor, and ceilings were soundproof, so there was no noise from other rooms (a common problem I have encountered at four-star properties). There was an LCD TV, iron and board, safe, Krups coffee-maker, regular brew coffee pot, and complimentary WiFi. There was also complimentary Internet access in the business center. There were two types of complimentary mineral water on the desk. We were surprised by the number of families in the lobby and noted that the hotel offered cribs.
An excellent bathroom
The bathroom had a wonderful rainwater shower and Hermes toiletries. But the things which really distinguished this from other hotels were the deep and long bathtub with easy-to-understand controls (I can rarely find anything that can accommodate my 6’4” frame comfortably), the extensive counter space for both of our personal items, and an outstanding makeup mirror and lighting (even the best hotels usually have inadequate LCD lighting for the mirror).
The Rose Lounge
Breakfast in the restaurant was perhaps the best we’ve ever had in terms of food quality and quantity for people as picky as we are (lacto-ovo vegetarians who prefer whole foods). The sheer number of choices for yogurt and cereal alone were amazing. For example, there were organic and unsweetened selections, including honey and stevia. There were also many choices of cheese for omelets and breads.
After breakfast we visited the Rose Lounge, a lovely area for teas, with a harp in the corner. The staff, each of whom was multilingual, was pleasant. Some were helpful in explaining how to find our way to our daytime destinations. Thanks to its location, friendly service, in room amenities and excellent breakfast the Sofitel London St James would be our number one choice for a future stay in London.