Saturday, 24 November 2012

Paris - Foie Gras Trois Fois

Emerging from the St Michel Metro station it felt like a bright summer's day, despite the November reality. We haven't been to Paris for years but it all seemed so familiar. This time it was  more welcoming than when we lived there thirty years ago. Gone are the grunting surly waiters. A new generation of friendly English speakers has taken over. Parisiennes stopped to help interpret our map when we looked lost and some even offered us their seats at busy times on the Metro.
     The formal reason for this visit was to do some location research for my third novel, set mainly in France. Writers can get a lot from the internet, but there's no substitute for an on the spot visit to get interesting detail. The Sacre Coeur Basilica at Montmartre and the Necker children's hospital were the target locations. 
     For Tuesday night's meal we didn't visit the overpriced Atelier Maitre Albert just along the street from our hotel. Judge for yourself from the pompous statement outside the restaurant.
'La cuisine est l'art de transformer instantanement en joie les produits charges d'histoire.' 

The restaurant we'd planned was closed for refurbishment so we took pot luck on the left bank at the Auberge Notre Dame. Unexceptional foie gras and overcooked duck breast- avoid.
     On Wednesday after visiting the Necker we walked down through les Invalides, across Pont Tsar Alexander III to the Grand Palais. The queue for the Hopper exhibition was too long so we walked through the Christmas market and across the Place de la Concorde to the Orangerie in the Tuillerie Gardens. The tortured pictures of Russian emigre artist, Chaim Soutrine were interesting. L'Homme au Petit Chapeau de Feutre looked disturbingly like Our Minister for Education, Michael Gove.
     Back across the Seine, the Musee d'Orsay beckoned, always worth a visit for the awesome display of impressionists and great views of Paris. At night we dined Au Petit Sud Ouest in Avenue de la Bourdonnais near the Eiffel Tower. Foie gras, pan fried this time and cassoulet were excellent. Cotes de Gascogne white and Madiran red showed just how good  some of the smaller wine local wines can be. A restaurant to be recommended. Book by e-mail.  
     Thursday morning saw us at the Sacre Coeur Basilica. We arrived as mass was starting so we joined from a distance, then had a good look round. For lunch we avoided the tourist trap of the Place du Tertre. Down the steps in Rue Gabrielle we found Chez Marie, recommended in Tripadvisor. All I can say is that the goats in my goats cheese salad  were busy in the small hours! From there we dropped down to the Pompidou Centre and joined the tolerable queue for the vast Salvador Dali exhibition. Well worth the wait to see the full breadth of the crazy Spanish genius.
    Evening vespers in Notre Dame Cathedral was followed by dinner at L'Ange 20, a tiny bistro in Rue Geoffroy L'Angevin opposite the Pompidou centre. The foie gras was made on the premises and easily the best of the week. The stuffed guinea fowl (yes, with foie gras) was unique and 7 hour cooked lamb exceptional. The tightly arranged tables made neighbourly conversation mandatory and we reviewed the result of the US presidential election again. This was the best dining experience of the three and highly recommended. Book by e-mail 
   We walked up to the Pantheon on our last morning. Built originally as a church, it now serves as a memorial to the French Revolution and final resting place to many of the heroic figures who took part, as well as some later famous writers and scientists, including Marie Curie.
     Eurostar was a good travel experience in both directions. We must go back to Paris soon.

The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. e-Book and paperback at all Amazon sites. Reviews at

Sunday, 11 November 2012

John O'Groats Update

Wandering around Caithness in half-term week a few things stood out as signs of economic progress.

     The Rural Retreats development at John O'Groats adds a huge tourist draw to our northern outpost, tempting travellers to tarry in Caithness and visit the many magnificent sites that our county has to offer, rather than hop directly over to Orkney. The chalets and apartments built into the extended hotel shell completely change the balance of the site for the better. The fabric of the old Victorian hotel has been completely renewed and the multicoloured extension looks dramatically Scandinavian from the harbour/sea side.

 One thing that never changes at John O' Groats is the family obsession with finding Groatie Buckies, the small cowrie shells that are said to bring good luck to the finder. There was stiff competition among the grandchildren to bag the highest total. Emma was the winner with 83 closely followed by Ben with 73. They are still wearing the 'pixies' purchased on Orkney a few days earlier. I hope the John O' Groats developers have taken the precaution of gathering a few buckies for themselves.
The Stuart Agenda by Alan Calder published by Willow Moon. e-Book and paperback at all Amazon sites. Reviews at