Paris’s Opulent Opera Sunday, Feb 26 2012 

Paris has several architecture marvels that seem to define the city and its history – the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame cathedral, Les Invalides, the Institut de France, to name just a few. Another iconic Paris image is the Opéra. More specifically known as the Palais Garnier, or the ‘Garnier Palace,’ this incredible beaux arts building is named for its architect Charles Garnier.

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When wandering around in Paris, you can’t miss this stunning, gold-tipped facade located on the Right Bank at the convergence of the Avenue de l’Opéra and the Boulevard des Capucines. The Opera was initiated in 1861 by Emperor Napoleon III as part of the major reconstruction of Paris during the Second Empire. But it was city planner Baron Haussmann’s clearing of old buildings and medieval streets that provided the acreage needed for such a large edifice. The opulent theatre, the first built specifically for opera, was inaugurated 15 years later on January 5, 1875.

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Palais garnier

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The Opera was home to lavish opera productions for decades. And then in 1989, the modern Opéra Bastille was completed, and it is there that most operas in Paris are performed today. The Palais Garnier opera house now showcases primarily ballet performances and classical concerts with the occasional opera thrown in. I have seen many ballets at the Palais Garnier over the years, and despite the cramped red velvet seats (people must not have been very tall when they built the Opera!), I would include a classical dance performance there on my “Top 20 Things to Do in Paris” list.

But the Opera is not all about attending musical or dance events. It’s a ‘living museum’ worth visiting in its own right. After admiring the Opera’s exterior, you can take a guided or unguided tour to discover the luxurious architecture, sculpture, chandeliers and other decorative elements of the interior building.  Don’t miss the ceiling painted by Marc Chagall as well. The Opera is open every day from 10am to 5pm and until 6pm between July 16 and September 5 making it very easy to schedule a visit into your Paris agenda.

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If a trip to Paris is not on your horizon at the moment, you can see the Opera via the magical 2010 documentary La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris. Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman captured the Paris Opera’s ballet dancers rehearsing for seven different ballets. The footage also stars of course the Paris Opera house so you can get a virtual tour of the ballet company’s home as well.

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So if you haven’t ever been to the Opera or if it’s been a while, think about including it in your next Paris vacation. Catch a ballet performance, take a tour, dine at the restaurant. It’s a destination in and of itself—and is well worth valuable Paris trip time.

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Discovering Provence: A Short Guide to the Geography of Southern France Monday, Feb 13 2012 

It is tempting to think that traveling can be quantified. In other words, it’s easy to believe that it’s possible to ‘do London’ or ‘do Florence’ or ‘do Paris’ in one week. But if you’ve ever spent time in any of these cities, it’s clear that their abundant riches can’t be fully experienced in just a few days.

A similar idea comes to mind when visiting some of the regions of France. Provence, for example, is a popular destination and full of wonderful things to see and do. What becomes clear once you start planning a trip to the area, however, is how large Provence really is. So how to know where to start your visit? And how to make sure you’re not missing something really fabulous while you’re there?

Here’s a short guide to what la Provence is all about and, whether you have a few days or a few weeks or even more time, where to go to savor ‘the good stuff’:

Provence is located in France’s southeastern-most corner next to Italy. This part of the country is also known as le Midi or le Sud (short for ‘le sud de la France’). Its Mediterranean culture and beautiful climate make it one of the most blessed places in all of France, and really in all the world. Sea, sun, luscious landscapes and fragrant hills make it attractive nearly all year round. While full of cultural treasures, Provence is also known for its laid-back atmosphere which even extends to locals and their pronounced southern French accent – really a twang! And for me, just the idea of sitting outdoors at a Provence café or on the terrace at home sipping a glass of local rosé wine is sublime.

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The name ‘Provence’ comes from the Romans who occupied the region 2000 years ago and called it ‘Provincia,’ or a province of Rome. Some of the most stunning features as you travel around the Provence region today are the numerous Roman ruins and monuments, many still in excellent condition.

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But first things first, to figure out where to spend your time in Provence, it’s helpful to know that the region is divided into six government departments:

Les Alpes Maritimes

Le Var

Les Alpes de Haute Provence

Les Hautes Alpes

Les Bouches du Rhône

Le Vaucluse

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Many consider the Alpes Maritimes department that includes the Mediterranean coast from Menton over to Cannes to be more the “French Riviera” than Provence. Known as la Côte d’Azur in French, the French Riviera is home to the glitzy, (over)developed cities on the coast such as Nice and Cannes as well as small villages such as Vence, St. Paul de Vence, Cagnes, Grasse, and more. My advice for enjoying the Riviera to the fullest is to visit any time of year except July and August when vacation crowds and traffic are absolutely overwhelming.

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Regarding other Provence departments, I would say that the Var, Alpes de Hautes Provence and Hautes Alpes are less visited by tourists. The exception would be the Var which is home to the legendary St. Tropez on the coast and also intriguing cultural visits such as the inland town of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie known for its charming Provençal pottery. And in the Alpes de Haute Provence, the magnificent Gorge du Verdon is a sight outdoor enthusiasts will not want to miss. The 25 kilometer long canyon welcomes hikers and kayakers wanting to see the canyon’s spectacular beauty and turquoise river waters up close.

So where do visitors go for the best of Provence? The Bouches du Rhône and the Vaucluse departments hold most of what people think of when they say ‘Provence.’ Marseille and Avignon are found here. The lovely villages perchés (hilltop towns – literally ‘perched villages’) such as Gordes are found here. Many of the most popular market towns are located in the Bouches du Rhône (meaning ‘mouth of the Rhone river’) and the Vaucluse.

 

For me, the absolute best part of Provence is time spent in what I call the ‘golden triangle’ bounded by Arles to the west, Avignon to the north and Aix-en-Provence to the east. Here you have the best of city life with lots to see and do of course in Aix, Avignon and Arles. Then in between, you come upon some of the most picturesque villages such as St. Rémy and Les Baux in the Alpilles hills. There are also the towns of Lourmarin and Bonnieux in the southern Luberon mountains. You have wine country. You have olive oil country. You have gardens galore. You have Roman monuments par excellence. And you have some of the best cuisine in all of France. All wrapped up in a place with some of the most magnificent weather on the planet – making every bit of it that much more enjoyable.

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So I hope this demystifies Provence a little bit but we’ve really only touched the tip of the iceberg with what the region is all about. I’ll have to include some more specific places and things to visit in future postings. But for now, I’ll leave you with this wonderful quote from classic culinary writer and chef Elizabeth David which notes the eternal pull of Provence on those lucky enough to visit it:

‘Provence is a country to which I am always returning, next week, next year, any day now, as soon as I can get on to a train…’  from French Provincial Cooking (1960)

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

‘Tour de France’ Lecture Series coming up at SMU in Dallas! 

France is much more than Paris! The City of Light is spectacular and so are many other regions and their citites in France. Discover the riches of France through this extended lecture series on key French regions, including Provence.

In five comprehensive sessions, France specialist Dr. Elizabeth new Seitz will explore the geography, history, art, architecture, gardens, culture and cuisine of France’s most attractive areas through illustrated lecture and insightful discussion. Participants will receive an inclusive study guide to accompany each session along with top sights to see, places to visit, not-to-miss museums and cultural events, hotel and restaurant suggestions and more. Being immersed in the riches of the region for a few hours will leave you wanting more–to continue your studies you will depart with recommendations for further reading and films to enhance your understanding of each region.

Join us as we begin our series – you can attend all five sessions at a discount or sign up for a single session. The ‘Tour de France’ Lecture Series promises to be a unique and rich view into this beautiful country.

March 26:  Lecture 1 – Welcome to the Tour de France Lecture Series! Introduction to the Geography of France. Paris, the Ile de France and Champagne.

April 2:  Lecture 2 – Normandy, Brittany and the Loire Valley

April 9:  Lecture 3 – Burgundy, Jura and the Alps

April 16:  Lecture 4 – Provence, the Riviera and Corsica

April 23:  Lecture 5 – Southwest France- Bordeaux, Medoc and the Pyrenees

Registration for the ‘Tour de France’ Lecture Series is available directly through SMU by clicking here.

Dates:  March 26 to April 23

Time:  7 to 9pm

Location:  SMU Main Campus in Dallas

French Figs in January Saturday, Feb 4 2012 

If you haven’t heard, France is experiencing quite a cold snap at the moment. Siberia-like temperatures have overtaken the country (and much of Europe) for the last several days. Today, the high in Paris was 29 degrees and Provence only reached a high of 32 degrees.

While the winter weather has been pretty mild in Texas so far, I still found myself last week wishing for summer sun and all the fruits of its labors. Including figs for some reason. One of my favorite summer pastimes in southern France is to take long walks in the countryside and pick figs from the wild fig trees that grow by the side of the road.

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The other perfectly good alternative is to buy une barquette of French figs at the open-air market. They are so sweet and juicy that it’s hard to resist eating them on the spot.

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In the spirit of bringing French figs to the ‘off-season,’ I proceeded to pull out a lovely French tablecloth covered with the colorful fruit and put it on the breakfast room table. It was instant summer inside my house, and the figs were a welcome sight after weeks of Christmas holiday decor.

Figs aren’t the only way to bring the outdoors in. Various French tablecloth makers have been putting the French countryside, flowers and other nature motifs on their linens for quite some time. You can find their wares in shops in Provence, at some Provence markets, in Paris, and in this era of the internet, online as well.

I picked up my fig nappe et serviettes (tablecloth and napkins) in Provence village near St. Rémy a few years ago. They are designed by the French company Couleur Nature and its creative genius Bruno Lamy. I once had the opportunity to meet Monsieur Lamy at the immense French home decor tradeshow in Paris. He was quiet and soft-spoken, yet passionate about putting the beauties of French nature on display.

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Another company that captures the spirit of Provence in its linens is Souleiado. They began putting the sun and colors of southern France on tablecloths in Tarascon, France, nearly 200 years ago. Now with boutiques all over Provence and even one in Paris near the Luxembourg Gardens, Souleiado is synonymous with beautiful linens and other items for the home. They also have a museum in Tarascon which displays the history of Provençal linens and how they were made.

One other French linen maker that I particularly like is Le Jacquard Francais. A little ‘dressier’ than Couleur Nature or Souleiado, LJF has been around since 1888 and takes great pride in the quality of its linens and its special ‘jacquard’ technique which allows the design motif to be seen on both sides of the cloth. If you are in Paris, they have a shop on the Left Bank and also a wonderful collection of their linens at the department store Le Bon Marché (also on the Left Bank).

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If this has inspired you to pull out or obtain some French linens of your own, here are a few key French words to facilitate the process:

La nappe  - the tablecloth

La serviette – the napkin

Le set de table – the placemat

Le chemin de table – the tablerunner

Le linge de table – table linens

Of course, it will be quite some time before I can find good fresh figs to go along with my fig tablecloth. But for now, the sight of French figs in winter–in whatever form–is welcome indeed.

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

Today’s “French Take-Out” has several things to offer…

To purchase some of the French table linens mentioned above and bring some France linen countryside into your own home, click on the links here… Couleur nature , Souleiado , Le Jacquard français.

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You may have heard about the new book about French parents’ superior parenting skills. It’s called “Bringing up bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting”. It seems that French parents’ ability to say ‘no’ with firmness results in French children who are above average on the well-behaved scale. And it allows French parents to have their own adult life as well. Click here for a recent French Affaires’ posting on children and their behavior in France.

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Last but not least, music lovers in Dallas, Texas, will want to catch the upcoming performance of Chamber Music and Dance from Versailles and London by the Dallas Bach Society and The New York Baroque Dance Company. It will take place on February 12 at 7pm at SMU’s Caruth Auditorium. For tickets and more information, click here.