Saturday, February 16, 2008

Such Blue Skies

Most people who know the Paris region in winter will tell you it's rainy and gray. We've been having some beautiful weather. It's even been warm. (OK, today it's freezing, but the sky is cloudless!)

On February 6, Daniel led the Ile de France walk to the Abbey of Royaumont and last Wednesday, Krystina led the walk to Neauphle-le-Château. In order not to take up too much room on the blog, I've put the photos up on Picasa: They are not great photos; some might only be interesting to those who were there.

Abbaye de Royaumont

It was a large group -- over 30 -- to the abbey. Although it was cold and it had rained the day before, the weather report was good. We had a fairly long train ride to get to Seugy, on the edge of the Chantilly forest, where we started our walk. It was muddy. My boots felt like they were carrying their weight in mud. But as we walked, the clouds lifted and we actually started shedding layers.

I had been on a similar walk to Royaumont a few years ago with the group of Diabetes Club hikers. It was in the summer. The abbey is very interesting, probably at its apogee in the 13th century when Louis IX, Saint Louis, spent time there. After the French revolution, in the 19th century, it became a cotton factory. Now, it's a cultural center - music mostly. It's a good hike destination. You go around fields and through woods to get there. There are some nice villages you walk through. I'm not sure it's the kind of place I would make an effort to visit by car, so I'm glad I discovered it on these walks.

Of course, the nice thing about the walks is meeting new people and seeing other familiar faces from previous walks. Tom had the book
Sarum with him. He had just finished it. Coincidentally, I finished reading Sarum the week before. (Alison lent it to me at Christmas.) Sarum is an epic novel about Salisbury, England. It starts in prehistoric times -- when the glaciers started receding and Great Britain became an island. A small group of nomads arrived in the region on their search for better hunting grounds. Later, Stonehenge was built. Then the Romans made it a minor intersection. In the Middle Ages, they built a great cathedral. And so on. All through this, you keep finding descendants of the original families. Tom loved it. I read it all the way through, but I didn't love it. It was like a Mitchner novel -- once you get into it, you want to find out how it ends, but I wasn't impressed by the quality of writing.


This week, Krystina, led us through her neighborhood, from Plaisir to Neauphle-le-Château, near Versailles. Plaisir, or at least the part we walked through, is one of these new cities around Paris -- a succession of residential neighborhoods that all come out of the same catalog. Then, all of a sudden, there are fields with horses grazing and you find yourself at the château.

The Château de Plaisir is a municipal building with the music conservatory, a theater and a pony club. The park was devastated in the storm that hit France on Dec. 26, 1999. Most of the trees were uprooted. That was one of those events that brings out tales of where you were (we were in Florida for Christmas) and what damage you had (we lost some tiles from the roof) and how long it took to be repaired (we waited more than a year and had the roof replaced). So, all us permanent residents told our tales to the newcomers.

We cut through some woods and fields to reach Neauphle-le-Château. I think Americans, if they know the name at all, only know that it is where ayatollah Khomeini lived before returning to Iran in 1979. He didn't even live there for six months.

Historically, Neauphle-le-Château was a major market town. Probably for that reason, Mr. Lapostolle chose to found his distillery there in 1827. Fruit liqueurs were quite the thing in the 19th century and he made them. During the Franco-Prussian war, the family went to the southwest of France to escape the war. There, they got to know Cognac. By this time, Miss Lapostolle had married Mr. Marnier and they came back to create a new kind of drink, a blend of essence of fruit and cognac. They still make the Cherry drink created then.

Later, Mr. Marnier discovered the Caribbean, especially the sour oranges used for marmalade. They bought plantations in Haiti and the zests of unripened sour oranges are the base for Grand Marnier. There's a free tour of the distillery -- very interesting. To start, you get a presentation of how they make Grand Marnier, a history of the drink, the different varieties of Grand Marnier (variations of the orange-based liqueur, the ancestor Cherry, and the new Navan, which is vanilla-based). Then they take you into the distillery. It smells wonderful. And it's an interesting visit. At the end of the visit there's a little tasting session. I compared the "red ribbon" with the "yellow ribbon" and my conclusion is that the "yellow ribbon" is undrinkable. I did like the Navan, which is not available in France (only the US and Canada). It's made from vanilla blooms, so it's very sweet, like vanilla ice cream actually. This would make a nice side trip to a visit to Versailles.

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