Sunday, May 6, 2012

Day 25 - Chateau de Fontainebleau, Dinner on Le Calife

We have no bread.  Let us eat cake. There goes my share of the complimentary madeleines from Le Jules Verne.  We’ve had several days experimenting with the whole leisurely breakfast from the bakery approach.  That is a pleasant foray into an alternative state of being, but now we’re finding it’s really cramping our sightseeing style.  Today we are determined to be up and going earlier.  It’s another late night tonight.  A late night is good. Paris is the sort of city that makes you want to stay up all night and sleep all day.  Walking at midnight in Paris seems the most natural thing in the world.
However, back to the day’s agenda: we’re feeling like a change of pace. I had planned to go to the Musee’ d’Armee. After our experiences over the past couple of days, I suspect that the English information around the Army museum may be a bit thin. There might be an audio guide, but I can’t face it if there is and we’ll have days ahead concentrating on war.  We just want to get out of town although the weather is again rather iffy. It is cold and grey and rainy, so something where there is something indoors to do is in order. We decide to go to Fontainebleau.  It’s a super easy walk down to Gare de Lyon.  The ticket seller tells us that the return train ticket will also work for the bus when you get there.  What a happy situation, there is a train leaving for Fontainebleau shortly.
For a while after leaving Gare de Lyon the scenery is pretty ordinary and urban. It’s not so nice along the railway line in the beginning but gradually the countryside opens up and we see fields. A swipe of brilliant yellow from flowering oil seed (rape). Stone buildings, first white, then brown.  Even quite new looking buildings made from rough stones. A small church displays flying buttresses and crumbling stone. The leaves are unfurling on most of the trees as we pass an area of woodland. A large carpark adjacent to the train station hints at a community of commuters at Bois le Roi, bringing home the funds to support large houses screened by dense shrubbery.
The time passes quickly and we’re arriving at Fontainebleau –Avon at 10:10 am.  We loiter on the platform donning our rain gear and looking around and generally taking our own sweet time.  Immediately we leave the train station we are in a large interchange area with a number of bus stops.  A couple of buses are leaving right now.  Ah.  I bet one of those was one we’re supposed to catch.  Oh well. We’re not in the least upset really, although steady drizzle is carrying on a breeze that keeps it at just the right angle to make the bus shelters of limited value.  As is our routine practice we entertain ourselves in the time until the next bus by figuring what we’re supposed to do, where we’re supposed to be.  Eventually we find the correct bus shelter.  Perhaps the large poster of Napoleon III and his other half would be expected to give us a clue.  Ha! Don’t be silly!  For what it’s worth, you catch route number 1 at stop number 2. :o).
It’s about half an hour to the next bus and it arrives as scheduled.  It is helpfully labeled “Chateau” as the destination.  We settle in for an exploration of the community en route to the Chateau.  Fontainebleau is a very attractive town.  We’re peering into all sorts of shops as we go by: a fromagerie;  a huge florist. It’s hard to imagine that they turn over that many flowers in what looks like a fairly small village.  There are lots of operations labeling themselves Boulanger and/or Patisserie.  Pharmacies. Banks. Bistrots by the dozen. There is a large market being conducted under canvas in a large square. The guy at the info centre was right. You certainly could spend hours just exploring Fontainebleau. 

We turn into quieter streets. Houses are arranged in the French fashion of having tall flat facades facing the street with solid doors opening into a private courtyard where you enter the apartment block itself.  Most buildings have shutters on false balconies.  Everything is fascinating.  We’re having a marvelous time but suddenly alarm starts to jangle on the edges of my mind.  We’ve been riding the bus for quite a long while should have got off the bus already?  Neither of us has been paying the slightest attention to where in the route we are or what stops we’ve made along the way.  We look at eachother and laugh.  Oh well, we can each think of far worse things than just riding around on the bus today.  As it turns out however, our required stop is the next one.  This is also rather helpfully named “Chateau”.  It’s all far too easy and sensible to be expected. The bus ride has taken another half hour.
Before we lock ourselves in to hours of walking around in the Chateau which beckons us, it might be nice to have a proper breakfast. Anywhere will do.  We decide to do a reccie around the immediate area.  I laugh as I see a piece of ongoing performance art. 
Modern art in Fontainebleau
Perhaps the local artists amuse themselves this way whilst watching the children riding the  carrousel.  There’s a range of eateries around, but most don’t seem to be serving yet. Happily there’s a place right opposite the Chateau that looks like it is open.  They have cunningly called themselves “Le Delices du Chateau”. This place has a couple of people sitting at tables.  We discover as we approach that one of them is connected to the business and he’s more than happy to offer us breakfast in English.  This place has clearly identified its target demographic.  Would we like French, English or Russian breakfast?  Drinks?  I’m not all that confident that we’re going to be eating authentic French cuisine. I don’t much care at this point. I just want to get on with it.  Hubby has a pancake with everything which means cheese and ham and things served with a green salad; I settle for an omelet with green salad.  Both hit the spot but are pretty standard fare, but we’re not complaining and this place gives itself away with the general ambience.  It serves a purpose.
Now, time to display our stupidity to a brand new audience.  We walk in through the impressive gilt tipped gates of the Chateau - slowly as we are obliged to stop to take photographs. There is a large banner on the wing over to the right. Make that a huge banner, because we can clearly read it from the street so it is a long way off. It says Entrée in big clear letters.  Might that be the entry over there?  It seems very likely.  We head over to have a look but cannot see any sign of a door that looks open.  There’s people coming out of a door on that other wing of the Chateau.  Perhaps they’re operating at a reduced staffing today seeing as it seems pretty quiet.  We head in. Sure enough we find some ladies serving in a gift shop.  Hubby asks where to go to enter.  She patiently explains that we enter over there where the signs says entrée.  Uh ha.  Lets try that again.  This time we know there must be some forensic evidence we can follow to detect where precisely that enormous banner intends us to go.  Ah ha. A sloped ramp and it’s heading up to those derelict looking doors with nothing other than dirty smudges on it. Other people, less stupid than us have the same idea they open one of those solid dirty looking grey-white doors.  Look! It opens.  It’s an Entrance. Who would ever have thought!  We shake our heads at our own ability to turn the most mundane of excursions into a magical mystery tour and head on in.  Gingerly at first.  It still looks like we might just have walked into a store room.  This area is very run down.  We nose around a corner and sure enough, this is a ticket desk.  We’ve got our museum pass thing down pat. The lady, clearly better at the game of detection than we are, has anticipated our needs.  I’m standing there with brows furrowed looking like I’m mentally deficient. Hubby is more on the ball and he says “yes, thanks”. In reply to her question.  By which time I’m beginning to catch up and have figured she said “would you like an audio guide”.  Things are looking up. Ah €2. This I can do. I pay.  All we have to do is take the tickets and show them to the people in the next room.  Toilets?  Just on the left after the audio guide desk.  Done and done. Now. The next challenge.  Where do we go.  The operators have anticipated us and have a person stationed at the base of the stairs to say – up the stairs and point.  Just what I needed… oh that person also has the job to check that we have tickets, though clearly the first of his tasks is the more important!
Fontainebleau (which is pronounced “Font –an-blow” not “Font-an-bler” if the audio guide is to be believed over every French person we meet) is enormous. Well you knew that didn’t you. It is full of incredible walls and ceilings and antiques and squeaking wooden floors in elaborate patterns,  stately marble staircases, and elaborately canopied beds. There is even an elaborately canopied camp bed inside an elaborate tented ceiling to represent Napolean 1’s abode when on campaign. If I’m not mistaken it looks like green silk that the canopy is made of. I laugh.  It’s almost too ridiculous.  Well.. that’s if I have read the sign that was in French correctly at any rate.  Hubby is impressed by my ability to decipher stuff that is written in French.  It’s really not that hard sometimes. There’s a lot of similarities between English and French words.. ok when it’s written.. it’s when it’s spoken there’s more of a problem!  Of course we also did some compulsory French language study in high school.  Nice that after 30 odd years I’m finding what little of it I can remember useful at last.
As we go round we are diligently listening to our audio guides.  Mulling it over on the train this morning, I concluded that we really are going to have to get over the aversion to audio guides if we are to get the most out of what we’re seeing in France. I feel guilty about copping out at the great institutions yesterday.  We really didn’t do things justice yesterday. So we press in the numbers and press play and listen along.  After a while the various kings and emperors and republics start to spin and dance in my head. Louis XXIII twirls with Henry IV. St Louis bows and twirls to Louis XXIV and the Sun King shines over all.  I’ve got no real idea when they were or what they did.  Don’t even talk about the Queens! More than one seems to have been from Austria and they all seem to be named Marie – something. I need to be able to relate them to points in English history. I’m really pretty reasonable on the English history side of it all. Very occasionally the audio guide might make a brief reference to the something or other century, and this helps a little but not that much.  I’m sure I would be getting more out of this if I could relate these particular sovereigns to the corresponding English sovereign.  Aaggh.  This is what comes of not doing enough preparatory reading!  I had concentrated what time I had on the history of Amsterdam and a brush up on the English history. All I know about France is having read “A Place of Greater Safety” by Hilary Mantel.. which is a faction book on the revolution. Note to self for the future.. spend several years reading before heading somewhere new!
Among it all at Fontainebleau there are some really amazing pieces.  The two that really spring to mind are a huge pane of stained glass dated 1867 and with the most wonderful portrait of someone in it.  What a masterpiece.  There’s no photography in the apartments.. this stained glass item is just outside the apartments.. I’m tempted to risk it.. but no. I walk on.   The other really incredible things were inlay. Tortoiseshell and brass.  Gorgeous.  Of course most of the rest of the furniture and furnishings are original so pretty much priceless.
As we wander I can’t help thinking what an enormous job of maintenance it must all require.  It must be very costly. It is all so elaborate.  But it’s a tad of a downer too. Such national treasures and yet so much of it looks dusty, or the joinery is coming adrift at the joints in doors and panelling. I didn’t pull out my white glove, but I was thinking someone should.  Clearly there is restoration and maintenance going on.  As we tour there is a man restoring one of the walls of a staircase which requires delicately dabbling a tiny paintbrush to provide highlights on the fake stone effect.  In one of Marie-Antionette’s rooms there is a section where the wall covering and soft furnishings required an incredibly beautiful fabric to be rewoven.  The job took 20 years to complete! The mind boggles.  Just having the staff and infrastructure to allow visitors here must consume a great deal of money.  There are security people all along the way, as is commonly the practice in England also.  In this case they don’t LOOK like they would know a great deal about what they are guarding.  Wrong demographic, posture is one of utter boredom and disconnectedness with the situation. However perhaps I shouldn’t jump to conclusions.  Suffice to say I didn’t see any person conversing with any of the “guards” about the rooms as we went about our tour and everything about the guides discouraged interaction.  At any rate, my mind increasingly is drawn to wondering about the condition of the Chateau and whether this results from lack of resources or just a completely different approach to the preservation of this World Heritage site.  Certainly in Australia the motto at present seems to be conserve not restore.. I’m at all not sure I agree with that approach. It's clearly not followed slavishly in Europe as the various great premises make choices to display particular rooms or suites as they appeared at particular significant points in time.
I miss the ability to take an English language guided tour at Fontainebleau.  I’ve tried to love them, I really have, but I just hate audio guides. They always seem to concentrate on the provenance of the objects rather than the broader social and political context of what we’re looking at. Human guides tend to do the latter. They just can’t help themselves. Perhaps the need for the speaker to find it interesting day after day leads makes it more important to weave a coherent narrative that puts it all in a sensible context.. who knows.. I just know that human guides are most invariably far more interesting.
Pretty much as indicated by following the audio guides we finish our tour in round about the 2 hrs predicted.  It is time to head out into the garden.  The weather is still patchy.  There are periods of sunshine and periods of rain, and also periods of sunshine with rain.  Again pretty much as predicted we take about an hour to wander through the gardens.  It’s too soon in the season for the thousands of bedding plants to be in the ground… but..… wait for it… what should be drifting across the lawns in one of the wilder sections of the estate than daffodils. White daffodils.  They’re looking lovely and natural. I take a photo and the penny drops. Hang on a minute. Hang on a minute…. I walk closer to investigate my suspicions with growing excitement. Oh my god! They are poeticus!! A drift of poeticus.  YES! First I’ve seen this trip. It was worth coming out to Fontainebleau just for that!  I snap wide shots and close ups and eventually it’s time to move along.  Those poeticus have made my day!
At Fontainebleau the original layout of the gardens has been retained. The grand scale and vistas down the man made canal remain to draw the eye to the furthest extent of the park.  Also the large geometric spaces of the formal gardens remain as they were. However, and this is a pretty big “however” the box hedge embroidery has not been kept up. No doubt due to the cost of doing so.  This place must really have been something when it was in its heyday.  The whole is quite simple in design and doesn’t take a lot of time to view. A straight forward walk through is ample. It’s not a collector’s garden where you might stop and admire individual plants along the way and as I mentioned we’re a bit too early for the summer bedding so these large areas which will no doubt be wonderful in another 6 weeks or so are today just fallow earth.  My mind skips to the gardens at Hampton Court.  I point to the close clipped yews in the Grand Parterre. That must be what the yews at Hampton court were like before Capability Brown let them go.  What a different effect they provide today. Chalk and cheese.
As we peer round corners and meander quiet paths the squeals of small children come to us.  Above them the cautionary voices of their teachers. This seems to be an outing for some sort of child care centre.  The atmosphere of the gardens is intriguing. The chateau is always a presence in the distance, visible in carefully designed snatches of view as we explore, but it is a sleeping presence.  A looming reminder of times changing and the rise and fall of dynasties.  What seems permanent to us will also fade.

The Grand canal is 1200 metres long
We wander over to the balustrade that overlooks the park and the 1,200 metre long canal.  Apparently when it was being filled Henry IV had a bet with some person far more qualified than he, on the relevant issue.. probably the guy that built the canal.. something like that, anyway the King bet that the canal would be filled in two days.  The other fellow said no way.  King was prepared to bet 1,000 crowns (?) on it.  He lost and paid up. Good day at the office for the other fellow!
Spring flowers in Fontainebleau
We’ve had our fill of playing cat and mouse with the sun and rain, so we wander back up to the town to find something to eat and to head back to Paris for a rest before another night of revelry.  Our shortcut out a side gate brings us to the pretty town centre with plantings of spring flowers and bulbs we had admired from the bus.  The blooms now tilt determinedly towards the sun.  We’ve just watched a route 1 bus pull away from the stop, so we check the expected time for the next one and pop over to the boulanger for a simple lunch which we eat along the way home.  Then we sleep. The train braking wakes us from our doze.  We’re home and settling in by 5 pm.  Hubby snores. I journal and upload photographs contemplating the extravagantly tall chimneys of the ancient seat of French Kings. Chimneys whose elegant narrowness requires them to be braced against the steeply angled roofs of the chateau.
The relaxation is harshly interrupted by the need to get ourselves over to the Seine to board the Calife.  We follow our well practiced routine and alight at the appropriate bus stop pretty much right on 8:30 expecting a short walk to the pier.  Keen to be in ample time we are walking briskly.  The weather doesn’t encourage strolling in any case.  We think nothing of it as we pass the pont des arts and its glittering padlocks. We walk. We look eagerly along the river bank. I look at our watch. Lord we bungled the choice of stop. Eventually we stop and check the map again. We check the instructions from the manifesto again.  We’re walking in the wrong direction. Oh God. We have been walking away from our destination as long as we have time remaining, but of course we have longer to go because that is just to the bus stop, not the pier. We will never make it. We turn and hurry back. It’s not possible to get there in time.  We start to make alternate plans for dinner.  Perhaps we will just head over to the vibrant area around St Michel that looks like so much fun at night.  Whatever happens it’s OK.  Our feet continue to fly.  My calves ache.  I wish I was fitter.  We can’t make it.  It’s 8:59 and the boat is in sight. Still at the pier.  Hubby is ahead.  Long legs.  As I near the boat I hear the engines going. Hubby is at the gangplank waving me on encouragingly.  I slide on board in a tidal wave of apologies and unlooked for explanations as crew release the ropes and get the cruise underway.  The staff are welcoming and understanding, and apologetic at the need to get our order for dinner quickly before the chef closes orders at 9pm.  I am hot. I am flustered. We have so botched what was supposed to be a calm and elegant arrival with plenty of time for soaking up the ambience.. well.. calm and elegant by our standards anyhow.  The atmosphere on the boat is superb.  Candlelight. Rich woods on almost everywhere surface. Tiffany lampshades; the reflections of glittering lights from without and within, it is simply wonderful, but I’m having issues settling down.  I am dying. The boat is very warm. I’m far far too hot having donned my thermals in the expectation of cold outside temperatures.  Hubby’s fine.  I go for a wander to find the facilities and in the course of this have an opportunity to admire the boat.  Wow.  It is a very special cruise boat. We made the right decision in choosing Le Calife.
There are two menus when you cruise with Le Calife. Perhaps not too surprisingly we have chosen the Menu Gastronomique for €67 which is the more expensive of the two options.  We begin the provided bread which is supplied as it is, no butter.  Hubby decided to start with the Marinated Salmon Carpaccio. Which I only belatedly explain to him is finely sliced raw salmon, not that he’s bothered by the discovery. The Carpaccio is accompanied by an olive oil and herb sauce and a green salad.  I stick to the conservative options with the Mediterranean Platter which involves carrots with orange, grilled peppers and eggplant caviar.  I win that round and the Mediterranean platter is enormous. It takes the two of us to get through it, which is no great hardship!
Not accustomed to being out in front in our friendly contest I follow up with the roast marinated shoulder of lamb and waste no time about announcing my selection. We’ve discussed this option before. It’s the chef’s specialty and the captain’s favourite. It’s why we chose this menu.  Hubby reverts to his standard strategy. He ordered the Duck with orange sauce: duck, oranges, grand marnier, celeriac, seasonal vegetables.  This will be an interesting contest, but we have a few minutes between the courses to enjoy the lights of the city drifting past.  Both our main meals are beautifully cooked, though the lamb is very strongly flavoured. It’s not Le Calife’s fault that I am developing an aversion to those variety of woollies that produce such powerfully flavoured flesh.
The cruise is timed perfectly to have us in front of the Eiffel Tower for the hourly sparkle display, though the clarity of our view is slightly hampered by the rain on the glass roof.  It takes more than a shower of rain to ruin the romance of this classic vessel and the Eiffel Tower!
The cruise continues around to the Statue of Liberty on Allee des Cynes and we spend rather a long while spinning slowly to give the gushing passengers plenty of time to appreciate the ongoing friendship between France and the United States.  Flashes fire and cameras give an electronic schlock.  People even get up for a better view, and finally we recommence our journey heading back to Calife’s home pier.
Hubby breaks the deadlock and takes the event in his choice of Iced Nougat with mango sauce for dessert.  I opted for the Red Berry Tart with Raspberry sauce, which was also very nice, so no shame in defeat for me at all in our friendly meal competition.
A long period of payment processing commences as everyone tries to be ready to depart when we reach the pier.  Usually this is no issue but it’s a little more tedious than usual as one of the machines used for card payments has gone on the blink.  As we sail along we are somewhat un-nerved by what seems to us like Sauron’s eye casting a forboding presence across the river.  Sauron’s eye?? What do they have in those drinks on the Calife!  You may find Sauron easier to dispose of if you look for the clocks on the Musee d’Orsay where in daylight the evil intent of the great villain is cannily concealed.
As is quite often the case with us we are among the last to leave the boat and make our way out into the Paris night. Fatigue and cold prevents our doing what comes naturally and wandering the Paris streets.Tomorrow we visit the Château de Versailles and we have to be away nice and early.  We're home by 11.40 pm and  I am flicking off the lamp at midnight no doubt leaving others to discover the joys of random rides in vintage vehicles to discover the Belle Epoque. Hubby keeps watch for another hour but similarly defeated he joins me in the land of nod without falling in love with a lovely woman in extravagantly fringed attire.

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