Saturday, October 24, 2015

Gray (but still Gay) Paree

Medieval architecture in the Marais
Paris is always a delight, even for visitors like us who have been here many times. And even when the weather is gray and chilly. We stayed in the Marais section this time around, the most medieval quarter of Paris (even if it is pretty overrun with upscale shops these days).

Hotel du Sens,
one of Paris's few remaining Hotel Particuliers
The Marais

One of the most impressive types of architecture in the Marais is what the French call a Hotel Particulier, a sumptuous city mansion built for aristocrats.  A good example is Hotel du Sens, built in the Middle Ages and once home to Queen Margot.  Queen Margot was both beautiful and brilliant, and she played a critical role in the politics of 16th c. France. She was also known for having numerous lovers and for being the daughter of Catherine de Medici, a nasty piece of work who was fond of poisoning her enemies. (If you want to know more, watch the movie  “La Reine Margot,” available on Netflix).

The famous L'As du Falafel (which always has
a long line at the take-out window)

“Falafel Street”

The Marais also contains Paris’s most famous Jewish neighborhood. We happily ate our way along rue de Rosiers, also known as “Falafel Street.” We ate the best falafel of our lives at neighborhood favorite L'As du Falafel. And scarfed down an incredible pastrami pretzel sandwich at Florence Kahn’s.
Pastrami Pretzel sandwich
at Florence Kahn's

Well-equipped soldier
guarding a Jewish school in the Marais
Other sights in this Jewish part of town were more sobering. We saw military personnel with automatic weapons guarding Jewish synagogues and Jewish schools with the intent of deterring any possible terrorist attacks.  Extra security has been in place everywhere since the Charlie Hebdo shooting back in January of this year. One French woman told us she was certain there would be another terrorist attack before the end of the year; but despite the high level of terrorist threat, life goes on as usual.

"The Thinker" made completely of chocolate
at Patrick Roger

Chocolate Addicts

As you know, we have a weakness for French chocolate. One of the goals of our visit was to stock up on plenty of incredible dark Parisian chocolate for the long, snowy Pocono winter.  We hit several of our favorite choco shops: Patrick Roger, Jean-Paul Hevin, and Michel Cluizel.  Thanks to our Parisian friend Martinn, we also discovered Alain Ducasse, who has a fine chocolate factory right in the heart of Paris. When you visit his chocolate shop, you can actually watch the chocolate being made on the other side of a glass window (unfortunately, photos were not permitted).

Anne relishing her cup of hot choco at Angelina's
Anne was thrilled to finally visit Angelina’s, a Belle Époque tearoom that has become a Paris institution. Lunch here is an elegant experience, and the highlight is a cup of old fashioned hot chocolate called le chocolat chaud à l’ancienne l’Africain (or just “The African”). This hot chocolate was so dense and satisfying – we could feel it coursing through our bodies spreading warmth and contentment throughout.  Probably the best hot chocolate ever. Legend has it that Coco Chanel used to drop in (her shop was just around the corner) for a cup of this liquid choco goodness every single day!

Directly behind us, the grave of Lafayette in Picpus Cemetery
The Marquis de Lafayette

Anne is a big Lafayette fan. What’s not to love? George Washington treated Lafayette like a son, and many believe that we would never have won our American Revolution without the assistance of the French, and specifically, our greatest French supporter Lafayette.  Anne is also intrigued by the fact that Lafayette stayed in Bethlehem, PA where he recuperated from a wound suffered at the Battle of Brandywine and may have had a romantic dalliance with a young Moravian woman named Liesl.

We paid our respects to the Marquis at his gravesite in the little known Picpus Cemetery, the only remaining private cemetery in Paris. The cemetery was created to honor the 1,306 victims who went to the guillotine during the summer of 1794. Only relatives of the original guillotined victims may be buried in this small cemetery.  Sadly, the grandmother, mother, and sister of Lafayette’s wife Adrienne were all guillotined which is how he came to be buried here.

At Picpus Cemetery
Lafayette’s grave is located in the very back of the cemetery; it's easy to spot because of the American flag. During WWI on July 4, 1917, American Colonel Stanton placed an American flag at the gravesite and uttered the famous phrase "Lafayette, we are here." An American flag has flown over the grave continuously ever since, even during the Nazi occupation when Hitler’s flunkies failed to find this obscure cemetery. Every year on July the 4th, the flag is replaced as part of a joint French-American ceremony.

Lafayette loved America so much that he is buried under soil that he brought from Bunker Hill.  Yes, he's actually buried under genuine "American" soil.  The site is quite moving with many commemorative plaques from America including one from the Daughters of the American Revolution and even one from Post 217 Easton, PA! Anne stood there soaking it all in and whispered, “Lafayette, je suis ici.” (I am here.)

Photo of Marie Curie
(positioned on the porch where the
photo was taken)
Curie Museum

Frank especially enjoyed our visit to the Curie Museum where Marie Curie and her husband Pierre pioneered research in radium & radioactivity. The museum was very low-key, but included an extensive collection of scientific instruments and Marie’s former office and laboratory. Marie's presence was heavily felt everywhere here, as if she might come out and greet us at any moment. 
The Nobel Prize winning Curie Family - from left:
Pierre & Marie Curie, Irene Joliot-Curie, and Fredric Joliot-Curie

A short synopsis of their contribution shows that they both recognized that radium had almost "magical powers" in that it continuously emitted invisible radiation and gave off measurable heat. It was viewed by the Curies as potentially an inexhaustible source of energy.  Altho Pierre Curie was killed in a horse cart accident in 1906, his wife, Polish-born Marie, continued experiments on radium and radon gas at the Curie Institute here in Paris for the rest of her life.  In 1934, weak from many years of experiments with exposure to radiation poisoning, Marie succumbed to an inevitable demise.

We concluded the Curies were one remarkable family! We knew that Marie and Pierre had received a Nobel Prize in 1903, but Marie actually received a second Nobel Prize and is the only woman to be awarded this honor twice; also, she was the very 1st female, degreed physicist ever. We also didn’t realize that their daughter (Irene) and son-in-law (Fredric) received a Nobel Prize as well for research in chemistry.  Yet another son-in-law, husband of Marie's eldest daughter, accepted a Nobel Peace Price for his work on UNICEF.  Wow!!  Five Nobel Prizes attributed to just one family. That's unheard of and had never happened before or since!!

Marie Curie's office

Marie was not only a brilliant scientist; she was also a humanitarian who worked hard to foster collaboration with scientists from all around the world. She and Pierre never patented their discoveries believing that all life-saving knowledge should be shared.

Our friend David

Amis in Paris

Our Paris visit ended up being quite social. We met up with our friend David who we first ran into on a bus tour in Croatia back in 2006. We have stayed in touch over the years and were thrilled that our paths crossed once again.

Our friend Martinn

We also spent a special evening with Martinn, who rented us her apartment the last time we stayed in Paris. Martinn was kind enough to include Kay and Popat in our get-together, a California couple who were her current renters. Kay had contacted Anne via our blog many months ago and sent Anne an email asking for Paris apartment recommendations. 

Martinn with our new friend, Kay

Naturally, Anne recommended Martinn’s apartment, and now we were all together drinking wine here in Paris. Isn’t life grand?

We left Paris all too soon.  There is always something more to see and do in this grand city.  But then, we'll be back another time.  Certainly, just as soon as the current stash of fine chocolate bars runs low!!  Heh, heh.

More pics of Paris:

Hotel du Sully, another Hotel Particulier

The stunning architecture of Place des Vosges

Loved these crazy "Tazmanian Devil" shoes

Marie Curie's Laboratory

Long lost son of Marie and Pierre Curie!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Corfu: Elegant, Scenic, and a bit Crazy

View from our hotel room balcony
The Greek island of Corfu sits in the Adriatic Sea on the Italian side of Greece, across from the heal of Italy. Unlike the dramatic starkness of Aegean islands like Santorini, et al, Corfu is lush and green with an Italian feel to it. Which is not surprising since Corfu was occupied by the Venetians for more than 400 years.

The Venetian Lion
Like many of these small islands, Corfu has been invaded over and over: by the Greeks, Romans, Sicilians, Venetians, French, and British. However, the Venetians left the most lasting impression, and the Venetian lion, symbol of the Republic, is carved on buildings throughout the capitol city of Corfu Town.

One of the gorgeous flowers
on this lush island
Our reason for coming here is to slow down and relax -- something a bit different for us. Visiting Corfu is all about balmy weather, sandy beaches, and swaying palm trees.  We rented a car and each day set out to explore a different part of the island. We were here in the off season (which still seemed pretty busy to us), but we lucked out with the weather, arriving during what one Corfiot shopkeeper called “a little summer, a miracle in October.”  Yes, the "Corfu-ian" people call themselves the "Corfiot".

Our one big disappointment was that we were unable to do a planned day trip to Albania. We had booked an excursion thru our hotel expecting to visit nearby Albania, a place we have never seen. This is not a country with lines of tourists trying to enter, so we would probably never get there any other way other than by happenstance.  The jaunt from Corfu for one day would have been perfect, but the evening before our trip, the front desk called us and told us that our trip was cancelled.  What?  Nasty storms were predicted for the day of our travel, and the tour company would not cross the channel with their Mickey Mouse ferries during a storm.

Nasty sea on the day we were scheduled to
ferry over to Albania
We had to agree with them, as we weren’t anxious to meet our demise somewhere in an unknown waterway between Corfu and Albania.  Of course, the day turned out to be beautifully sunny. Ironically, the stormy weather that caused our tour to be cancelled, was initially a non-event; thus, we had a real live SNAFU on CORFU!!  Heh, heh. But wait: we have to come clean and admit that the weather degraded as the day progressed, and we did get rain and extremely high winds on the day our tour would have gone. So it really was for the best.

Corfu Town with the New Fortress in the background

Corfu Town

Corfu Town is situated on the sea between two mighty fortresses simple known as The Old Fortress and the The New Fortress (relatively speaking as in 17th c.). 

Former palace in Corfu Town

This is definitely Anne’s kind of town. Lots of fun shopping, and buildings with the crumbling, faded elegance look she likes so well. The ambiance is definitely Italian, and we could easily imagine we were in Venice or Sicily.

Saint Spyridon church
A major sight in Corfu Town is the Saint Spyridon church, honoring the patron saint of Corfu. Saint Spyridon is quite venerated, and inside the church, there is always a line to see him. Anne joined the queue and noticed that as people walked up to view the casket, they leaned way over and seemed to be kissing it -- once at the bottom of the casket and once at the top. When she got closer, she saw that two sections of the casket were exposed beneath a sheet of clear glass. The lower section offered a view of the Saint’s little feet all donned up in fancy brightly-colored shoes. The upper section exposed the black, rotting face of the corpse with two gleaming teeth still hanging in his gaping mouth. It was all Anne could do not to gasp in horror. What she remembers are those teeth and the smudged glass where all those kisses were deposited.

Piperitsa pizzeria on Saint Spyridon Square
To celebrate the Italian side of this island, we ate lunch at a pizzeria called Piperitsa. The café was located on a sparkling square behind San Spyridon church. The food was great, and as we sat under the outdoor umbrellas, a choir of young people made some heavenly music, singing
"a cappella" in the square taking advantage of the fine acoustics provided by the towering stone buildings. One of those very special travel moments.

Bright orange kumquat liqueurs
We had another special moment when we met Aphrodite, a vendor with a shop where kumquats were sold. Kumquats are very popular on Corfu and eaten as snacks, as part of local dishes, and are even found in a bright, orange kumquat liqueur.

Candied kumquats
Aphrodite was so friendly and a good salesperson too - we bought two containers of candied kumquats, one for now and one to take home for later. The kumquats are a delicious blend of sweet and sour, and the first bite is the best when the inner juices explode in your mouth.  Unfortunately, kumquats are quite sour on the vine and only edible when saturated with a sugary syrup. They are scrumptious, but not exactly a health food!

Sweet Aphrodite
The next day, we happened to eat dinner across the street from Aphrodite’s shop. We exchanged greetings with her, and then a few minutes later, she came back to give us a container of chocolate-covered kumquats! We couldn’t believe it and were very touched by her kindness. You’ve heard the sayings about “Greeks bearing gifts.” Well it is absolutely true, all throughout Greece. And Aphrodite’s unexpected gift to us is a good example.

The Old Fortress of Corfu Town
Old Fortress

Corfu Town’s Old Fortress stands overlooking the sea across a small bay from our hotel. The craggy fortress looks almost like a ship moored along the seaside. In the pictures, you can see the clock tower about half-way up and the cross-shaped antenna at the very top.

Climbing the Old Fortress
The hike up looked quite daunting, but we decided to enter the site just to hike up to the first level.

Clock Tower in the Old Fortress
Well once we got to the clock tower, we wanted to keep going all the way to the top.

Made it to the top of the Old Fortress!
The views at the top were fabulous with panoramic views of the town and across the sea to the Greek mainland and even north to Albania.

Achilleon Palace
Achilleon Palace

The first day we had a car, we headed south of Corfu Town to visit Achilleon Palace, the Corfu residence of Empress Elizabeth of Austria (aka "Sissy").

Sissy with her tiny 19-inch waist
"Sissy" was renowned for her beauty (particularly her 19-inch waist), and she was so popular, that much like Princess Diana, she was hounded by the press.

Statue of the lovely Sissy
Sissy hated the rigid life at the Austrian court, and she liked to travel by herself whenever she could. In one instance, she arrived in a new town, and the local officials wanted to give her a royal welcome. Sissy sent her hairdresser masquerading as the Empress herself. Meanwhile the real Sissy watched the proceedings from a nearby café where she ate ice cream incognito.

Frank admires one of the many Greek
statues on the terrace at Achilleon Palace
On one of her travels, she came to Corfu and was captivated by the island, Greek mythology, and the peaceful lifestyle. Her Palace reflects her unique style and her love of all things Greek. She had the Palace of Achillion built as one of her travel respites, and named it after Homer's Greek hero "Achilles"; she loved his beauty and his strength.  Sadly, Sissy was murdered by an anarchist in Geneva when she was 60 years old. 

At Paleokastritsa Beach

Paleokastritsa is one of the most beautiful beaches on Corfu. The relatively small beach is surrounded by rugged cliffs and unusual rock formations. One thing we have noticed is that beaches on Corfu tend to be quite small and narrow, but it doesn’t seem to matter because people spend all their time in the gorgeous blue-green water.

Stunning view from the Paleokitstrikia Monastery
We drove up a steep and winding road to the Monastery of Paleokastritsa where we had even more dramatic views of the surroundings. Seems that most people who come to Corfu hole up in one of the many beach towns and spend their time enjoying the sea.

Beautiful little inlet at Kassiopi

Kassiopi is a lively beach town in the stunning northeast part of the island. We followed the sea all along the eastern seaboard taking in fantastic scenery the whole way. Kassiopi is a lot like beach towns all over the world with plenty of shops selling chintzy souvenirs and flip-flops, but we loved the vibe here. And the small inlets along the northern shore looked so inviting, we wanted to dive in.

Inches count when driving on Corfu!
Local Life of the Corfiots

We had a car on Corfu for 4 days, but we never saw a police officer on the roads, not once.  We did see two cops down in Corfu Town giving out parking citations, but there were none around to issue moving violations. Seems like the cops here are glorified meter maids. Speaking of parking, we were told that you can park anywhere you can find a space, although we did see two cops deservedly giving a ticket to a car that was blatantly blocking somebody’s driveway.  But seriously, parking around Corfu Town is the biggest hodge-podge we’ve ever seen.  You can park in almost any place you can slide your vehicle into; the smaller your car, the better!  A motorcycle is certainly ideal. 

Corfu's alluring scenery can be a distraction on the roads 
The rules for drivers on Corfu seem to be non-existent too; you basically do what you want.  Yes, the basics are there.  You drive on the right, you stop at stop signs, you obey traffic lights (if they are working!), and please don’t run any of the multitude of pedestrians down.  If the traffic lights worked, we could probably obey them, but in many cases, the lights weren’t operating at all!  Very disconcerting. It was a free-for-all at many 4-way intersections with the boldest drivers getting thru first, while the timid remained stuck with a slew of pissed off horn-honking drivers behind them. 

Another issue is the one-way streets.  Many times they are not marked at all – how would you know? We found out the hard way when a waiter at an outdoor café blocked our passage and waved us off as we started to enter an unmarked one-wayer. Even when they are marked, they may not be truly one way. You will be driving down a one-way street with the road entirely to yourself, and here comes Joe the ass right at you.  Now, the street was marked one way for a reason – because two vehicles are unable to fit.  But Joe the ass is here now, and you gotta deal with that. You need to navigate around him, unless of course you know fluent Greek, and are able to get out and chew him out for his less that acceptable driving skills.  But you can’t even do that, because next time you might be Joe the ass who took a wrong turn up a one-way street, and now you are the one on the hot seat for the same faux pas. 

Cemetery along the winding coastal road to Kassiopi
Driving outside of the city was tricky too. The plethora of mountain switchbacks along the coastal highways were sometimes treacherous and made for slow-going.  We wondered how many over-zealous drivers have plunged over the cliffs there. We had many impatient local drivers glue themselves to our bumper in an intimidating style, and then pass us on blind turns, or whenever the tiniest opportunity presented itself.   But also, the scenery is so beautifully seducing, if you are not careful, you can find yourself drifting into an on-coming lane or towards the cliff side of the road.

Grilled octopus, our new food fave!
Food on Corfu was a real delight. The food here is fabulous, so fresh with lots of unusual local dishes to try. We ate things like Rabbit Stifado (rabbit served in a delicious sauce with the sweetest onions), super tender Lamb Kleftiko, and Pastisada (made with an unusual spicy pasta sauce). But our favorite dish was grilled octopus. Yes, seriously! We had always wanted to try this very Greek dish but were put off by the thought of tentacles and little sucker cups. However whether grilled (the best) or marinated in vinegar, octopus is a surprisingly delicious delicacy! Once we wrapped our tentacles around octopus as a food for us humans, we ate it every chance we got.
At first, Frank really wasn't sure about
trying octopus 

Anne goes for her first
taste of octopus

We also enjoyed lots of live music. Our hotel, the Mon Repos Palace, put on a live show of great music every night. Wow, the assortment of eclectic singers was excellent and kept us entertained for the duration of our stay.  One gal that goes by the name of Ionna, sang a variety of traditional Greek songs on several evenings. She was a big draw for us, the other hotel stayers, and for local folks as well. We met a couple from Scotland named John and Mary who were celebrating their 55th wedding anniversary, and we got together nightly to sit out on the large veranda and share in the music.

More pics from Corfu, including what we like to call “Ode to a Greek Salad:”

Gorgeous beach at our Mon Repos Hotel

The moat at the Old Fortress is now a parking space for
fishing boats
From the Old Fortress

Elegant architecture of Corfu Town

Anne loved these arcaded streets in Corfu Town
(supposed to be like rue de Rivoli in Paris)

Who's that Corfu Town photo bomber???

Shopping in Corfu Town

Anne playing around in the gardens at
Achilleon Palace

Flowering shrub in the Achilleion Palace Gardens

Stunning scenery at Paleokitstrikia Beach

Cute taverna in the village of
Doukades in the Corfu countryside

Frank got in the habit of eating a big, beautiful
Greek salad almost every day and loved
taking pictures of these masterpieces of Greek cuisine

Nothing like a big block of fresh feta cheese!

Greek salad goes down best with a
good Red Corfu Beer 

Speaking of beer, Frank's all-time favorite
Greek beer was Mythos