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Alison and I clocked 750 miles across Burgundy and Southwest France, a 3-month "skeptic pilgrimage" chronicled in my book "Paris to the Pyrenees." Among our absolute favorite places: Cluny and Southern Burgundy. This backwater of timberland, vineyards, and pastures is where the big white Charolais cattle you now see all over the world came from. Cows outnumber residents.
From where we stood, atop the silent, windy world, on the Via Panoramica behind the eastern suburbs of Genoa, it was strange to look down on the glam and think of salt, sweat and poverty. The Riviera isn't exactly inexpensive or unsung. Yet the ancient salt route we'd been walking on since dawn, linking the briny Ligurian coast to northern Italy's mountainous interior, is what today's Via Panoramica and the well-marked network of serpentine, stony trails above the Riviera are all about: countless misery-etched miles far from the madding masses.
For the last 26 years, calligrapher extraordinaire Eric de Tugny has lured the curious into his magical bolt-hole of a stationer's shop in Paris, on the Rue du Pont Louis Philippe.
Long down at the heel, part of the crumbling old Jewish district, this short, straight road is on the western edge of the Marais. Most of the traditional businesses have gone elsewhere, though the nearby Shoah Memorial remains the neighborhood's soulful anchor. Now a chic shopping enclave, indigenous bobos and visitors crowd the sidewalks to gaze at the handmade papers in the accessory-filled boutiques, do the photo gallery and tea salon, and open their wallets wide in the chocolate or specialty food shops that stand cheek-by-jowl between the Seine and Rue Francois Miron.
The shop's name - "Mélodies Graphiques," meaning "Graphic Melodies" - gives nothing away. What might it really mean?
The melody of beautiful writing, or the graphic quality of music? Inside, Bach or baroque chamber music plays softly on the sound system. The only other sound is that of Tugny quietly penning sinuous lines of his inimitable script letters - creating invitations and announcements, or love notes, wedding menus and anything else clients can imagine where the beauty of the penmanship and the composition are essential to the message. Perched behind his working surface – it doubles as the cash desk – Tugny merges village scribe and New Age seer.
No, the dinner on our Air France flight from Paris was not remarkable. The good news started in Washington, DC. Friends took us to a reconverted firehouse in a formerly edgy neighborhood on Massachusetts Avenue where by magic succulent fresh scallops the size of saucers appeared. The venue: Sixth Engine. Very cool.
Too cool for the sidewalk tables, we colonized a booth inside, where the firemen once chowed. Or was it where the engines parked? The wait staff didn't know. They did know how to bring water and wine and micro-brewery beer and food swiftly-and how to smile. We were dazed. After Paris, smiles take the breath away.
But my breath was snatched foremost by the monster scallops, perfectly sautéed with white wine: simplicity. The roasted pork belly, giant burgers, hand-cut fries and fried catfish sounded wonderful. No. We had to have the scallops.
Why? Scallops are the symbol of Saint James and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Here we were on tour in America to promote my new adventure travel book, the one about trekking 750 miles across France over the Pyrenees into Spain. I'd carried a secular scallop shell with me en route, a skeptic pilgrim open to serendipitous encounters and adventures while traveling in time and place-and on dinner plates.
Clearly the DC scallops were a sign sent by Saint James.
April in Paris is about spring buds, blossoms, lovers and delicate sunshine – everyone knows that. Just because the temperatures are often in the 30s or 40s Fahrenheit, branches still barren, makes no difference at all. So it was with a light heart and step that I trekked to the western edge of town the other day to revisit one of my favorite gardens anywhere: the lavishly landscaped Parc de Bagatelle.
Edging the Bois de Boulogne and posh Neuilly, Bagatelle comes complete with ponds, grottoes, fountains, lichen-frosted statues and sexy sphinxes, a miniature chateau, orangeries, a café and restaurant, and remarkable rose and iris gardens. Peacocks feathered and of a human kind saunter along looping lanes, some draped with wisteria or clematis. The exquisite whole is tied together by more tortuous history than could fit into several of my monthly columns.
Once upon a time, in the days of gluttonous yore - the 1980s - the celebrated Burgundian hill town of Vézelay, crowned by the Basilica of Mary Magdalene, was known as "a site of gastronomic pilgrimage." Rarely did anyone evoke Magdalene's relics or her UNESCO World Heritage Site shrine. Rarely did gastronomes notice the strangely attired pilgrims trudging up the looping, lichen-frosted lanes to venerate the longhaired, wild-woman saint.
In the 1980s, pilgrimage wasn't in fashion. Hedonism seemed the thing. The Michelin-starred hotel-restaurant in crusty Saint-Père-sous-Vézelay at the saint's feet was the shrine. Thousands offered up wallets on the altar of haute cuisine. Only zealots spoke of the moldering bones inside the basilica's gilt reliquary.
Gargoyles glare down from the towers of Notre Dame as a motorcycle speeds up a ramp and tears into the air, arcing like a flying buttress, its spinning wheels dropping inches from terrified tourists and the sculpture-encrusted façade of the world's most famous, most beloved, most reinvented and most mobbed cathedral.
The fantasy flashed through my irreverent mind as I clambered among joyous crowds seated on the temporary wooden bleachers and ramp that will face the cathedral until the end of this year. Worshippers wept and sang as cameras clicked, buzzed and whirred. Bliss and bafflement filled me.
We'd watched the carpenters build the ungainly platform, a here-today-gone-tomorrow structure so at odds with the solid pile of stone 100 feet in front of it. We'd hoped, vainly, that it would recreate the medieval maze of narrow streets that stood here until Emperor Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann wiped the slate in the mid-1800s to make the cathedral's wide, modern square.
Script large enough for a par-blind skeptic like me to read declared that Notre Dame Cathedral was 850 years old this year, 2013. I wrestled the numbers back to 1163 and smiled a Gioconda smile. You had to wonder how many of today's hallowed stones, sculpted or squared, had actually been part of this ecclesiastical flagship as it rose from 1163 to 1345, the date of its putative completion.
The first fat flakes clustered along my sleeve as I stood facing the Luxembourg Garden on the icy Left Bank. A grumpy street sweeper from the south side of the Sahara scattered salt and scowled. Then he looked up and batted his clotted eyelashes. Snow! In Paris? What a forgotten thrill!
Which tunnel? There are many, many tunnels between the wave-lashed coves and perched, pastel-painted villages of the over-subscribed, over-reported, and now brutally hobbled Cinque Terre.
Above all there's a long, dark tunnel not of love but of disdain or disregard in the mind of the global public lying between the little-loved, unsung port city of La Spezia and the tourist mecca of the Cinque Terre 5 miles north.
The latest blow to the Riviera's breathtakingly picturesque suspended villages came last September, with yet another flash flood and killer landslide.
While the world's attention was focused on Sandy, smaller but similarly devastating storms hit the eastern Italian Riviera. Four people were seriously injured. Hillsides and hiking trails slid into the hungry Mediterranean's waves. Since September, the authorities have closed not only the roller-coaster hiking trail #2 linking all five Cinque Terre villages, but also the celebrated Via dell'Amore seaside stroll between Riomaggiore and Manarola.
I was staring, mesmerized, my mouth watering at a giant mozzarella. The elastic curd was submerged in a giant bowl of cold water in my favorite small, family-run specialty food store in Rome. The bowl was shaped like a huge puckered blossom. It sat atop a glinting counter at E. Volpetti & C. on Via Marmorata near the Pyramid of Cestius in the Testaccio neighborhood in southern-central Rome.
The archetypal Aladdin's Cavern of gastronomy, Volpetti is a place of secular pilgrimage for savvy foodies but also for normal, food-loving, unpretentious Romans.
Dozens of hams were displayed in cubby-holes, the archives of porcine paradise waiting to be sliced to order by bona fide prosciutto experts. Jowl bacon and smoked pancetta dangled like headhunters' trophies. Jars of artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, and slices of eggplant towered over the human scrum at the counter. Baskets brimmed with gnarled white truffles worth their weight in silver, truffles so nose-tickling that I nearly swooned of airborne gluttony.