By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
Fontainebleau Castle from the gate
During a spring trip to Paris, France we visited the nearby town of Fontainebleau, in the Seine-et-Marne Department (www.turisme77.co.uk and www.paris-whatelse.com), known for its former royal residence and forest. There was too much to see in one day so we spent the night at La Demeure du Parc, a boutique hotel established in late 2015 that was conveniently located within easy walking distance from Fontainebleau Castle.
During our tour we walked past one of the water fountains named for Diana
Since our time was short and it was our first visit to the area we took advantage of the opportunity of a guided tour in English. We met Véronique Villalba (email@example.com), our licensed guide, at 10 a.m. in front of the castle for Les Grands Appartements Tour, a private two-hour visit of Fontainebleau. A graduate of the University of Nanterre specializing in art history she had 10 years of experience as a guide. It was her friendly demeanor and passion for history that brought the former castle stories to life and made our morning activity memorable.
The interior design varied according to the time period of construction.
When I asked her why the historic attraction was special she explained that it was the sole castle that housed French kings for more than eight centuries (taking into account an interruption due to the Hundred Years' War). In contrast, she explained, Versailles only served that purpose for four centuries and the Louvre had only become a royal home 650 years earlier.
One of the characteristics worth noting was that the castle retained period furniture
Fontainebleau Castle, established circa 1137, was large. The fortified complex occupied 46,500 square meters of space in 13 floors, which included 1,536 rooms. Of those, 6,000 square meters were open to the public. It had 130 hectares of parks and gardens with 42,500 plants, and employed 135 staff. Despite the chilly and rainy weather we encountered it was by no means devoid of visitors. On the plus side, with only 470,000 visitors in 2015 it was a much more serene attraction than the Louvre or Versailles, both of which had millions of visitors a year each.
The Grand Salon de l'Imperatrice
The attraction itself was made up of a hodgepodge of buildings, improved and modified on the whims and budget strings of its powerful owners over the years. Despite our brief visit we toured interior and exterior areas. That the interior rooms were frequently furnished with original pieces, she explained, lent the castle a notable ambiance absent in other castles and palaces where the furniture and art had been sold years earlier.
The Chapelle de la Trinité
We visited the Royal apartments, Renaissance Rooms, one of Marie Antoinette's Boudoirs, Francis I Gallery, Galerie de Diane, Chapel of the Trinity, Chapelle basse Saint-Saturnin (only the upper level). We saw many of the masterpieces: The Duke of Orléans Commemorative Wedding Cabinet, Charlemagne in the Guise of Henry IV (in the Chapelle de la Trinité), The Royal Elephant (in the Galerie François Ier), Alexander Taming Bucephalus (in the Galerie François Ier), Odyssey Cabinet (in the Ancienne Chambre de la Reine), Beneman Commode (in la Nouvelle Chambre de la Reine), Marie Antoinette’s Bed, Napoleon’s Throne. Outside we walked through or caught a glimpse of its gardens and courtyards (sometimes from a distance): Cour Ovale, Cour de la Fontaine Cour d’Honneur, Cour des Offices, Grand Parterre (created by André Le Nôtre and Louis Le Vau and said to be Louis XIV’s greatest architectural achievement at Fontainebleau), Jardin Anglais, Jardin de Diane, Grotte des Pins, Pavillion de l’Étang, and Park. Should I return to Fontainebleau I would enjoy another visit to the castle, especially in the company of Véronique Villalba, for further discovery and leisurely exploration, including time in its gardens if the weather is clear.
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
Our view of the Eiffel Tower as we cruised by on the Seine River
Often friends and acquaintances, knowing my fondness for Paris, France ask for dining recommendations. It is a question I never take lightly, especially for first time visitors. One of my top recommendations is Le Jules Verne in the middle of the world famous Eiffel Tower because of the romantic setting, gourmet offerings and spectacular views of the city. It is the type of setting that memories that last decades are made of and the perfect place for special occasions.
The boarding area of the yacht Don Juan II
On my most recent visit, I discovered another completely different yet equally romantic, elegant, and memorable venue, the Yachts de Paris Don Juan II (Port Henri IV, 75004 Paris, France, +33 1 44 54 14 71, http://donjuan2.yachtsdeparis.fr/ , firstname.lastname@example.org ), a 50 meter long by 7 meter wide yacht. Aboard the vessel, which could seat 38 guests (far fewer than the famous iconic tower), five staff served an appetizing set menu made from fresh ingredients while the boat cruised 26 kilometers along the Seine River past the Eiffel Tower and back to its departure dock, a stone’s throw away from the Ile Saint Louis in the heart of the city. There were only 12 of us that night, which made the experience ever more intimate and special.
Before our departure we sat on at a comfortable spot on deck to enjoy views of Notre Dame while sipping a bubbly aperitif
Below deck the bar was stocked with several types of champagne
Despite our early arrival we received a warm welcome by the English speaking staff. We were immediately invited to board. Black rattan furniture with red cushions was spread around the open space atop the Don Juan II. Below deck pretty tables were set and awaiting our arrival. The elegant tableware was designed by Safran and the furnishings were by Pierre Frey. The single stall head was spotless. After a quick tour one of the staff invited us to have an aperitif topside while we waited for the rest of the passengers to arrive.
Another Yacht de Paris vessel passed just as we pulled out onto the river
Moments later, we were sipping chilled champagne and munching on mixed nuts (pistachios, cashews, pecans, walnuts and Brazil nuts) and enjoying views of Notre Dame Cathedral, the Institute du Monde Arab, and the Left Bank as the rest of the guests began to arrive. Francois, an attentive staff member, offered me a synthetic fiber red blanket to ward against the night chill. He brought us bite size morsels of salmon with beetroot, tomato and radish. Greg, the cruise photographer, introduced himself and with our permission took some photos. When it was departure time our server invited us below deck. We headed to our window side table for dinner.
The aft view of the river
From the Port Henri IV we motored past the Ile Saint Louis and Ile de la Cite islands passing many historic buildings such as the Conciergerie, Musee du Louvre, Grand Palais, small Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower (at the top of the hour to see the twinkling lights), the Musee d’Orsay and finally Notre Dame Cathedral. The Don Juan II glided gently along the river most of the way, so that but for the passing scenery and the occasional wake from a fast moving boat we might have forgotten we were on the water.
We had an outstanding view thanks to the yacht’s large windows
The bread cart was one of several luxury features of the dinner service.
Our five course set menu dinner began with a pre-starter of Crab, white radish pickles, chips and crisps. There were two types of butter, salted and seaweed flavored. A server came by our table to offer us bread from a cart: country, fruit and nut, Italian bread sticks, brioche. Whenever our bread plate was empty she would return to refresh it with our selections. Lobster with fresh greens and creamy nage was next. The main course was Suckling Lamb, roasted and cooked with bay leaf, organic asparagus from the Landes with juice and Parmesano di Reggiano cheese. A Saint-Nectaire cheese course followed. For dessert we had Flower of flowers, lime and strawberry cremeux and juice of an infused hibiscus. Chocolate bites, presented in individual boxes for us to keep, completed the repast. Our meal was paired with a 2012 Louis Jadot chardonnay from Burgundy. We appreciated the souvenir printout of our menus. It included a map of our path along the Seine.
The art like pre-starter featured bites of crab
The suckling lamb
The photographer took our photos with iconic buildings in the background such as Notre Dame while we were docked and later the Eiffel Tower when we went topside to enjoy the light show during the cruise. At the conclusion of the cruise the photos were available for purchase. Our two favorite photos became a lovely keepsake that enhances our wonderful memories of the evening.
Among the sightseeing highlights were the Pont de Grenelle replica of the Stature of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower
The restaurant, opened March 2003 and managed by François Giroud, was one of eight small vessels owned by Yachts de Paris. The meals were created by Guy Krenzer, executive chef, who was recipient of the recognition Double Meilleur Ouvrier de France and creative director of well known Lenôtre culinary enterprise. The wine and food pairings were selected by Olivier Poussier, recipient of the Meilleur Sommelier du Monde 2000 award.
The colorful dessert of Flower of flowers, lime and strawberry cremeux and juice of an infused hibiscus
A cart of sweets to wrap up the meal
In addition to the well presented gourmet dinner we enjoyed and the exacting service, there were a myriad luxury touches, such as the blankets, cloth napkins with our amouse bouche, the orchid on our table, artistic dinnerware like the sea urchin shaped appetizer plates, quality nut snacks, perfectly timed courses to allow us to profit from the best views, and friendly and professional staff who kept us informed during the brief journey, that made the evening special. I would gladly take another cruise aboard the Don Juan II and recommend it to friends living or visiting Paris to celebrate a special occasion or just because.
By Elena del Valle
Photos by Gary Cox
Our meeting place for the tour was the entrance of Les Invalides metro stop in Paris
Over the years I have visited Versailles, the famous palace established by Louis XIV near Paris, France, several times on my own and with large group tours. While the attraction itself was impressive the crowds were oppressive and the logistics to visit it cumbersome. On my most recent stay in the City of Lights, I tried a new approach. I placed myself in the hands of an organized small group program that started and ended in Paris. When I visited Versailles in the past I had to make my own way there from Paris. This time all I had to do was reach the meeting point in central Paris in the morning, and make my own lunch arrangements. The tour company took care of the rest. At the conclusion of the tour our small group returned to Paris together. I was pleased with the results. I appreciated and enjoyed my visit to the 787 hectare palatial estate much more than on most of my previous visits, and was able to discover areas open only to small escorted groups such as ours.
At the train station in Versaiilles
We met Herve Rudrauf, our English speaking French tour guide, by the entrance to Les Invalides RER train station in the tony seventh arrondissement near the heart of the city early morning on a spring Friday. It was pleasantly chilly. The sky was gray and overcast, threatening rain. We were thrilled to discover there were only four of us in the daylong (eight and a half hours) tour. The other two participants in the Full Day Versailles VIP Behind Locked Doors program, organized by City Wonders Tours (6-9 Trinity Street, Dublin, 1-800-358-1942, www.citywonders.com, Info@citywonders.com) were from the United States.
Herve Rudrauf, our tour guide, in the palace gardensFollowing greetings, introductions, and instructions Herve handed each of us an RER train ticket and we descended the stairs to the station platform. A few minutes later, we boarded a crowded two level suburban train. It was necessary for our group to split up in order to find seats. Once at the Versailles train station, we found each other and walked together to the palace entrance where, thanks to our tour, we skipped the long admission line. We also had special access to select rooms, such as Marie Antoinette's private theater, open only to escorted visitors. A staff person provided our group exclusive access.
The Royal Chapel at Versailles
Despite the expedited entry and private visit, the interior of the palace was overcrowded with tourists, sometimes making it challenging for our small group to remain together, hear our guide, take photos and walk from one room to another without being separated. That was not surprising given that some 7.5 million people visit the opulent former royal residence each year, according to a Versailles spokesperson. Although the interior was 63,154 square meters large and the attraction employed as many as 1,000 staff, only 23,072 square meters of the former palace were open to the public, and some of those rooms and halls could only be visited with a guide. A representative from City Wonders indicated that as much as 70 percent of the palace interiors may be visited via an escorted tour.
Our private visit of the Royal Opera was memorable.
Because of the uncertain and overcast weather it was a relatively quiet day, our guide explained to our surprise when we commented on the number of people all around us. As we made our way within the storied interior the cacophony of noises competed for our attention. Our eyes and imagination wondered. It was easy to become distracted. Thankfully Herve was efficient at keeping a speedy yet comfortable pace (although restroom breaks were limited and there was no time for the gift shop) while at the same time sharing engrossing information about the former royal residence and its famous occupants.
The palace gardens did not look their best because it was cloudy and rainy.
Anticipating a two hour break for lunch we had made reservations in advance at a gourmet restaurant in the village of Versailles. Unfortunately, by midday we were in the heart of the estate and too far away to return to the village for lunch so we begrudgingly cancelled our booking. Instead we made our way to one of the crowded restaurants within the property. While the service was speedy and efficient lunch was the most disappointing meal we had during that month long trip. We were so hungry after leaving the restaurant we attempted to buy something else at the nearby cafe only to find a slow moving long line and a limited selection of fast food items that appeared no better than what we had already sampled at the restaurant.
Part of what made the tour worthwhile, in addition to our tour guide's knowledge and enthusiasm, was the access our small group had to areas of the former palace reserved for escorted tours such as ours. Despite huge crowds we had a chance to step behind the cordon at the Royal Chapel for a brief look. We had private visits of the Royal Opera in the main building and the Queen's Theater in Le Petit Trianon, among of my favorite sections.
A painting of Marie Antoinette at Le Petit Trianon
One of the houses in the Hamlet, part of the Versailles estate
After lunch we walked around the gardens, discovering a hidden grotto where the famous queen was said to spend quiet time alone. We also visited Le Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette's home away from home while at Versailles; and ambled around the Hamlet, a make believe village within the estate.
Perhaps because before studying to become a licensed tour guide Herve spent several years working as an actor his discussions about life at Versailles were engrossing and entertaining. His interest and passion about French history (he wrote his thesis on the representation of royal power in France), the royal families, and the intriguing stories of inhabitants of the former royal palace were contagious. By the end of the tour, our fellow travelers were asking him for recommendations of books about the history of Versailles and its previous inhabitants.
The ceiling of the Queen's Theater at Le Petit Trianon
At the conclusion of the Versailles portion of the tour, a taxi, slightly delayed due to strikes, dropped us off at the Versailles train station where we boarded an RER return train to the city. City Wonders Tours, owned by Simone Gozzi, offered the Full Day Versailles VIP Behind Locked Doors tour Fridays and Saturdays only for a maximum of 15 people. The company won the award for the best Guides and Products in Paris 2016 from Get Your Guide. The highlight of the tour was Herve, our friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide who brought the history of Versailles alive. We especially liked the well orchestrated tour logistics, intimate size of our group, and access to private areas. In the future we would be well inclined to book another tour with the same company and the same guide.
Article and photos by Elena del Valle
The crowd waiting for security at the Turks and Caicos airport from where I stood in line
It is a shame that the most salient memory I have of my recent trip to Providenciales in the tiny island nation of the Turks and Caicos some 573 miles from Miami, Florida is the unpleasant and frustrating departure. Given the upscale island's high standards compared to other similar sized nations in the region and the number of wealthy foreign property owners I was taken aback by the conditions and process. Although I checked in online, had no wait at the airline counter, and arrived at the airport more than two hours in advance (the airline recommended passengers arrive two hours early as did the staff at my hotel) they called my flight for boarding while I was still in the security line.
The airport in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos
I and dozens upon dozens of other travelers stood in a snaking queue that spanned five short lines in front of the entrance to the international departures immigration entrance and an additional line that ran back past the domestic airline counters beyond sight. The line was so thick a security guard insisted waiting passengers step away from the domestic airline counters so departing passengers for those flights could reach their counters. Although most passengers in the line, including families with small children, were patient and quiet, judging by appearances and overheard conversations, many were hot and sweaty (only the final portion of the line was within the air conditioned international departures area), surprised by the length of the line and long wait, and annoyed.
One uniformed staff woman in the main hall urged passengers to move forward in the line. Her military demeanor and biting tone did little to alleviate people's stress and anxiety over possibly missing flights. Another uniformed staff woman guarded the entrance to the international departures area. While her tone was less strident than her colleague's she was no more helpful. Two passengers near me in the queue were called by security over the loudspeakers while we were standing in line within the international departures area. When they tried to respond she insisted they remain in their place in line, dismissing their concerns. As they moved forward another staff person checked their documents and chided them for not responding to the security announcement. He rushed them to the head of the line.
View of the coast just after takeoff
Representatives from two airlines came out to search for passengers for their departing flights. Once they found them, they too were rushed to the head of the line ahead of everyone else, delaying our processing. We watched as a family of passengers paid hundreds of dollars for expedited service. They too were bumped ahead of everyone else in the queue. I heard fellow passengers around me complain repeatedly, saying that such a situation was the equivalent of extortion.
At the end of the line only one of two passenger metal detectors was working, causing further delays as two lines merged into a single one. It did not help that everyone (as a foreign nation Turks and Caicos did not recognize the United States Transportation Security and Administration Precheck Program) was required to remove shoes and extract electronics from their carry on bag. To add to joy of the experience the staff looked tired and unhappy. They had little patience and were just shy of rude to passengers at the slightest question.
By the time I finished the process and I arrived at the single overcrowded shared departure hall the airline had called my flight for boarding three times. I rushed to my gate, wondering if all the passengers had made it on board as I had not seen any airport personnel searching for passengers for our flight in the line behind me. My departure from the Turks and Caicos was the slowest and least pleasant departure I recall having from an island in a long time, perhaps ever. While I had a good stay in Providenciales once aboard the plane I asked myself if I enjoyed my visit enough to counter the unpleasant departure process. I am still wondering.
Market Food: South Africa
Following the explosion of local markets and the emergence of talented foodie entrepreneurs, Dianne Stewart and her two daughters, Lissa Stewart and Jessica Cairns, felt driven to travel around South Africa in search of the best market food. Two years later, in 2015, they published Market Food: South Africa (Bookstorm), a 167-page softcover book for tourists and locals. The book is divided into six sections: Find Your Local Market, Market Tastes, Market Meals, A Little Extra, Sweet Sensations, and Thirst Quenchers.
"Having experienced numerous food markets abroad, we knew that the world-class South African food markets were worth promoting," Jessica Cairns said via email. "We visited markets nationally, in search of markets with their own unique personality and we sort after talented food vendors who were producing creative food of a very high quality. Market Food includes a directory of markets that we visited around the country and a diverse assortment of great market food recipes accompanied by the foodie entrepreneur’s unique stories. The book aims to promote the food markets and these talented vendors."
Dianne Stewart, Lissa Stewart and Jessica Cairns, authors, Market Food
Their favorite part of the project Cairns said by email was, "Eating our way around the markets! Sampling the delicious food, chatting to the vendors to get the background to their food and how they ended up at the markets. Dianne and Jessica collated the vendors recipes and retold the vendor’s personal stories while Lissa had the task of capturing the market atmosphere and the delicious food through the photographic lens."
The biggest surprise? "The depth of the talent at these markets and the diverse personalities of each market- some tucked away in bustling harbour precincts, others on lush wine estates, in parks or inner-city warehouses," Cairns said.
The three continue the promotion of food markets and talented food vendors on their website and social media channels (marketscoop.co.za) where they feature an updated national market directory (each market has its own page with photographs, maps and opening times), scoops of what is happening at markets around the country and the personal stories of some of the vendors they meet at the markets. Dianne Stewart is author of 30 books, Jessica Cairns is a former international banker, and Lissa Stewart is a food photographer.
Lettuce and a Lady's Breast
In Lettuce and a Lady's Breast Looking back over 50 years of cooking Billy Gallagher (Billy Gallagher and Associates) outlines the highlights of his culinary life from his roots in the United Kingdom to South Africa. He shares insights from his personal life, his life as a chef as well as his work with the South African Chefs Association (SACA) and the World Association of Chefs Societies (WACS). The 330-page softcover book, published in 2015, is divided chronologically. It is peppered liberally with black and white and color images and photos.
Babel (Babylonstoren) by Maranda Engelbrecht is a 237-page softcover oversize book published in 2013. The visually appealing book has full color photos of the produce and meals from Babel, its namesake restaurant located within Babylonstoren, a relatively new produce farm lovingly established and nurtured in a former cattle farm, in South Africa's Winelands region near Cape Town.
Maranda Engelbrecht, author, Babel
The self described food stylist's affection for presentation is evident in the page size photos of plants and dishes served at the restaurant as well as the restaurant itself. Many of items on the restaurant menu are routinely made from products grown on the farm and its environs. The book is available for sale at a large shop on the farm.
Photos courtesy of Dianne Stewart, Lissa Stewart, Jessica Cairns and Babel
Click to buy Market Food: South Africa and Lettuce and a Lady's Breast
A leopard in a tree during a game drive at Rattray’s on MalaMala
The pool at Ratttray’s had a view of the dry river bed
When on safari the repetitive cycle of daily game drives and copious meals can leave us tired without the healthful benefits of exercise. On our most recent itinerary featuring safari properties in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa two lodges stood out for their fitness and pool features. Both lodges, within the Sabi Sand Reserve, a private reserve adjacent to South Africa’s Kruger National Park, had private plunge pools in the rooms as well as a main area swimming pool large enough to swim short laps.
The exercise room at Rattray’s
A white rhino during a game drive at Rattray’s
In the Mala Mala Reserve, Rattray’s on MalaMala had a dedicated fitness room for guests with exercise equipment and a few weights. Next to the fitness room there was a sauna. In front of the fitness room there was a swimming pool. Both had expansive views of the lawn and dry river bed. In addition, there were private plunge pools on the river facing deck of each spacious room.
The main pool at Chitwa Chitwa Private Game Lodge faced a dam
From the pool deck we observed elephants visiting the dam
Chitwa Chitwa Private Game Lodge, in the northern end of Sabi Sand Reserve, also had a dedicated workout room with electric exercise machines. The art filled sunlit room with glass walls was adjacent to the property’s dedicated spa treatment room. Guest rooms had private decks with bush and dam views as well as plunge pools. In the main area, there was a rimless swimming pool facing the property dam.
The exercise room at Chitwa Chitwa
A lion seen during a game drive at Chitwa Chitwa