No time for jet-lag first morning I woke up in Paris. I was headed down to Nogent-le-Rotrou in lower Normandy, to visit my blogging friend Virginia, on an early train out of Gare Montparnasse. I woke early and gave myself plenty of time, stopping at the cafe on the corner for a cafe au lait and a croissant before heading to the station. While the coffee was a bit bitter and the croissant less than perfect flaky deliciousness, I did feel a part of the city, as workmen and neatly suited women shared the same petite dejeuner.
I wrestled with the ticket machine once again at the train station - it took about three attempts before I really could approach an SNF machine with confidence -- but eventually I picked up my round-trip tickets and was pleased that I remembered to activate them before I boarded the train. I had time to spare so I wandered around a very well-stocked pharmacy (my ongoing indulgence) and then hit the newsstand for a Coca Cola Light, a chocolate bar and the latest issue of Vivre Cote Paris, my favorite design magazine*. I paged through my magazine while I waited for my train, though I was much more interested in checking out my fellow travelers, including a young man wearing a beret un-ironically, napping on his duffel bag.
The first time I'd gone to Virginia had been in December and the landscape was quite bleak, stubs of crops harvested months before, skeletal wet black trees, grimy sodden sheep in muddy pastures. By contrast, the route this time was idyllic with lush green fields, charming rosy stone cottages, poppies -- or coquelicots -- and bluebells scattered on either sides of the tracks, and storybook-worthy forests, with glimpses of sunlit green glades and brooks. My seat mate pointed out Chartres cathedral, an image I've seen so many times in Monet's paintings. For the first of many times, I marveled at what it must be like to live surrounded with so much beauty and history.
Virginia and her wriggling English Springer Spaniel Tommy met me at the station and soon we were loaded into her English drive Jaguar sedan, off to a nearby town for lunch. I knew gas prices were higher in Europe, but I was stunned to learn that it ran about $9 to the gallon in France. It made me all the more appreciative for Virginia's generosity in showing me around the region. We stopped first in a pretty-as-a-picture little Normandy town. Two young girls on white ponies were looking over a map as we drove into the tiny hamlet of 17th century stone houses on winding lanes, window boxes overflowing with brilliant blue hydrangea and fuchsia geraniums, the doors and window frames painted a particular shade of blue-green that Martha Stewart could only dream of emulating. We went into a little cafe, Tommy included, and started our lunch with a local specialty aperitif -- a kir made with locally produced sparkling cider instead of white wine. It was refreshing and delicious. The starter and main dishes were delicious, followed by a creamy cheese course and then a salted butter caramel custard that made me want to lick the plate clean. Incroyable. Back to the car and on to the Prieure de Sainte-Gauburge, dating to the 13th, 15th and 18th centuries. This magnificent handsome building rises out of the fields like a mirage.
Inside, a friend of Virginia's was hanging a photography show of regional images shot by a couple who had moved to the area from Brooklyn years before. The building itself was so beautiful, with a domed wooden ceiling, soft brick floors and ancient stone carvings.
Tommy made himself right at home on the cool tiled floors.
This may be Saint Excedrin, patron saint of migraines.
With chickens in the yard and tidy flower beds, this house across from the priory was irresistible.
I loved all the textures of weather-worn wood and pale yellow stone.
I didn't realize how patterned this thatched roof was until I downloaded my photos. I was more focused on the old cart in front of the barn.
Regional specialties include pork rillettes, rabbit pate and escargots.
Almost four years ago, when I was first going to visit Virginia, I did a "google" search on the region and came across this article from The New York Times by a writer named Colette Rossant. When I mentioned it to Virginia, she told me that not only was Colette a good friend, but so were several of the people mentioned in the article. So I was utterly delighted to learn that our next stop was for tea with Colette at her stunning home. The farmhouse is between two barns that have been converted to living space. Her late husband was an architect who added several modern touches to the the house, like glass doors, without destroying the integrity of the building. Inside, the space was very open and cool, with stone floors and thick walls and a massive fireplace at one end. Colette's daughter and grandchildren were visiting from Germany and tea was served with a plum tart that she'd made that morning with her grandson, with plums plucked from the orchard behind the house. Colette is a James Beard-nominated author of eight cookbooks and several memoirs of her life in Egypt, Paris and New York. She spends her winters in New York, as the house in le Perche is too big and cold to adequately heat, and her address is just a few blocks away from my apartment. I'd love to get back in touch with her when she's back in New York. Her kitchen was a chef's dream come true and I could have spent hours just listening to her weave her tales.
I was fascinated to learn that she'd been the "Underground Gourmet" in New York magazine for years. When I first became infatuated with New York when I was living in South Carolina, I'd devour every issue of New York magazine I could get my hands on and I always read her column about out of the way dining destinations.
We reluctantly said our goodbyes, then headed to the Hypermarket to get preparations for dinner. Once back at Virginia's house, we dropped off my overnight bag, paid our proper respects to each of her four Abyssinians, then we headed off to see the giants.
"Why would you want to go see horses when you could spend time admiring me, Genji?"
Or Bibi-, or Tama- or Sei-Chan, the Pouponettes!
To call these noble beasts "draft horses" is a terrible disservice. These are the noble steeds of the knights and the Crusaders. Their history dates back to the fifth century. They may have been bred from Arabian stallions brought by Muslims, mares captured by Clovis, or reinforcements from Caesar's legions. Whatever their heritage, they wear it proudly, with large noble heads, intelligent eyes and gentle demeanors belying their massive strength.
We crossed a field, after turning off the electric fencing, across a narrow pipe bridging a creek and into the pasture where Virginia's Viddock and his older brother big Tom lifted their massive heads from grazing and ambled across the field in the late sunlight of early evening.
Soft nudges of velvety noses for a gentle caress or a scratch under their chins. The horses have thick ropey double manes, almost like finger-width dreadlocks on either sides of their arched necks. Their shoulders are thick and well-muscled. They are big, magnificent brawny creatures and I honestly felt humbled in their presence.
Big Tom comes over for a nose rub from Virginia.
Viddock is Virginia's boy, just three years old. He's a bit smaller than his half-brother Tom, but there's plenty of time for him to catch up. His coat is a foggy deep gray.
Satisfied with their dose of human attention, the horses wandered off to continue grazing and we navigated the fences and field back to the car where we drove up the hill to a picturesque chateau, resplendent with turrets and a beautiful view overlooking the fields below.
This handsome fellow is Urey. He had been purchased sight unseen by a Danish woman. After Urey spent almost a week being trailered to her stable, his new owner pronounced him "a monster" and immediately put him up for sale. When Virginia heard this, she quickly put plans in order to purchase him and return him to his stable in France, as she was unsure who this not-so-great Dane might sell him to (especially as Percherons continue to be sold for horsemeat in France.) Fortunately for Urey, he was soon out of his filthy stall - the men who came to collect him found him knee-deep in manure, as his stall hadn't been mucked out since he'd arrived - and back with his friends at the chateau. Not long before I met Urey, he'd been visited by Benjamin Grain, the premier acrobatic rider in France, who was interested in training Urey to work in his show at the Museum of the Living Horse at Chantilly. He ended up purchasing the horse, but had not yet collected him. (Remember this story for a future post!)
Tom and Viddock's father was especially attentive when their mother was lead past
on her way to the field for grazing.
They'd hoped to breed this gorgeous young mare last year but she just wasn't interested.
Hers is a "Coat of Stars." Black Percherons have a "Coat of Night" while Percherons that turn white are said to have a "Coat of Clouds." Such poetry.
I loved this vibrant orchid-colored door.
Tommy, wondering why I was so busy taking photos of horses
when he was around and ready to pose.
Many thanks to Virginia, Colette and Sylvie who made my 24 hours in le Perche unforgettable.
*This gorgeous interior/lifestyle magazine used to have English translations of all their articles in the back. I'd first try to read the french version, then flip to the English so I'd look really smart!