Viewing: France

A Paris Valentine

Well, this is unexpected. After years of (mostly) turning a blind eye to Valentine’s Day, we’re changing it up a bit. Not only do we have plans for tonight—a cocktail workshop at Amsterdam’s historic House of Bols—but in a serendipitous twist, we’ll also be celebrating Valentine’s weekend in the most romantic city on earth.

Oui, Paris!

Paris is always a good idea

A work trip to Paris fell into Marlon’s lap came along at just the right time. After agonizing over budgets and schedules and other boring, adult, parent-like things, Marlon threw caution to the wind and offered me the weekend in Paris as a Valentine present. How could I turn down such a present? Besides, as Audrey Hepburn famously said, “Paris is always a good idea!”

I’ll be back next week to report on Valentine cocktails and Parisian pleasures. In the meantime, happy Valentine’s Day and have a love-ly weekend!

Devil in the details

Before I leave Versailles behind, I thought I’d quickly share (in a very PKF-style post) a few details that I really liked.

Though these obviously aren’t the original wall coverings, the pattern freak in me loved them all the same. But while I loved the look of these, I wouldn’t necessarily want them in my house!

Paintings with black backgrounds, like this one, remind me of the works of the Dutch masters in the Rijksmuseum.

I kept reverting to details whenever I would get overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of excess. Or simply when I didn’t want to see any more crowds.

Gold and marble everywhere!

For the child-woman in you: sweet prints in Marie Antoinette’s bedroom.

The look of libog from a horned satyr in the gardens.

After the rain, blue skies. And puddles, of course.

One last look…

And it’s bye bye, Versailles. Till we meet again.

Garden state

Last month’s visit to Versailles was actually the second time I’ve been there. The first time was exactly 10 years ago (eeep!) with the Glee Club. We had some bonus miles from our bus company, so the group decided to use it on a day trip to Versailles.

However, it was a Monday and the palace was closed. We only got to see the gardens, which were free. We would have been extremely bummed if not for the fact that the Versailles gardens are, like, jumongous. Never underestimate the fun-generating ability of a bunch of Pinoys with cameras.

The gardens of Versailles then… and now.

How’s this for another before and after shot?

Nobody is allowed to comment on how I looked like I was stretched in post. I’m not exactly happy about this decade-long, er, expansion project. You are however allowed to comment that 10 years later, I am at least dressed better than my neneng self. By the way, this outfit is part of the two-part guest post I did for Plus Size Fasyon Mudra.

In the summer, Versailles charges a €7 admission fee for its gardens. In exchange for this little sum, you get the perfect soundtrack for a French frolic. Music from several appropriate historic periods is piped in amidst the tall green hedges, serene fountains and assorted Greek bronze figures.

Not all of us were happy about having to pay for something that was free on our last visit. On the bright side, the music was well-chosen, discreet and did a lot to enhance the ambience and stimulate the imagination.

Not only did I keep expecting to happen upon Marie Antoinette amidst a flock of poodles, the music  made me feel like I should be laughing a coquettish, lady-in-waiting kind of laugh and playing hide-and-seek in a powdered wig and taffeta ballgown. Makes me wish I hadn’t left the talcum powder and the whalebone corset in my other handbag.

Versigh

The last-minute decision to go to Paris was mainly to do three things: shop at Uniqlo (how I’ve missed you!), spend more time with my friends, and finally step inside the gates of the Chateau Versailles.
All it took was a train ride on the RER Line C to a Versailles-Rive Gauche, a suburb of Paris, and a few steps to cross this imposing portal (which I kind of liked, by the way, these modern brackets framing the past) into an age gone by.

Versailles is everything you would expect a seat of power, the locus of an empire to be. It’s all about grandiose scale, opulent ornamentation, and sumptuous excess. From the private chapel that rose up through two floors…

… to the seemingly boundless gardens beckoning from every floor-to-ceiling window.

“More is more” is the philosophy at work, and maximalism is king. Even their fireplaces were awesome in scale. I could roast entire Dutchmen in there, and the Dutch are the biggest buggers on this living earth.

It was crowded beyond belief the day we visited, definitely the biggest tourist crowd I’ve experienced alongside Keukenhof in spring and the Forbidden City in Beijing on school holidays. You’d think a building of such sprawling proportions wouldn’t feel crowded, but never underestimate peak season in Paris.

You were either practically carried along by a slow-moving mass of bodies or permanently rooted behind a tour group with cameras furiously clicking. But moving at a shuffle seems to work for Versailles, because there is always, always an excess of details to look at.

Maybe even more details than there are tourists, and that, in peak season, is saying something!

After a while you realize that the only way you can really frame out the masses is to focus on the ceilings.

And what ceilings they are.

After a while, you’ll find yourself just shaking your head, and it’s not because you strained your neck gawking at the ceilings.

Kaya pala pinagpupupugot ng mga  mga ulo ng mga hitad na ito! The only thing more awful to imagine than all this wealth belligerently ignoring the squalor of its time, is how many besotted visitors leave Versailles wanting their home to look just like this. Versailles was not built in a land area of 100, 300 or even 500 square meters for a reason, people! Just thinking of all the mini-Versailles in the world is giving me the heebie-jeebies right now.

I would love to return in the off season just to spend some quality alone time in Versailles’ famous Hall of Mirrors, where the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Nothing can appeal to your inner Marie Antoinette like a hall of mirrors can.

Speaking of Marie Antoinette, her bedroom was the one place my wide-angle lens threw in the towel. It was great to have a wide-angle lens in a place like Versailles where scale speaks volumes. But I just couldn’t seem to get an overall impression of her bedroom as I did some of the other rooms. This place would make a great spot for one hell of a girly slumber party.

Eventually I decided to stop fighting the crowds and let them become part of the photographs.

It was when I was watching the crowds flow, like spectres, through the richly decorated rooms, down the cold marble staircases, that Versailles and I finally had our moment. How many centuries have worn down these steps? How many people have walked these same halls, and do their spirits still linger for the love of all this beauty or simply because at some long-ago junction in time, this was home?

Rulers may come and go. Power may ebb and change hands. Revolutions may rage and settle. Through it all, these marble halls endure. Such is the power of Versailles.

Ancient stone, flowing water

With temperatures soaring to 32℃ and our friends flying off to Rome, Marlon and I knew exactly what we wanted to do the day after Mimi and Pete’s wedding: take it slow and go swimming. We had the option of driving an hour from Caissargues to the nearest beach, or to drive 20 minutes to see the Pont du Gard, a UNESCO World Heritage site. 
All it took was for me to see “swimming” among the list of activities allowed at this ancient Roman aqueduct, to decide. Pont du Gard it was!

Aside from being an incredibly picturesque sight, Pont du Gard is an architectural marvel. (Wondering what an aqueduct is? Read here). Built between 40 and 60 AD, this aqueduct was as a pathway down which 40 million liters of water a day flowed from a water source in Uzes to the Roman town of Nimes, 50 kilometers away. 
Thanks to the simple physics of gravity, homes, public baths and fountains in Nimes were assured a steady, efficient supply of water—something which the Romans enjoyed in 60 AD, but citizens of Paranaque did not until the 21st century. 

Today, the Pont du Gard is a major tourist attraction as well as a public recreation area used for kayaking and (most importantly for Marlon and myself) swimming.

There is a small sandy area by the riverbank, as well as a few roofed sunbeds where we saw families  picnicking.

This was when I started feeling that I was really on vacation. Things began to slow down and take on a dreamy haze. To have this time to just lay in the sun, watch the sunshine turn the ripples of the river into so much gold and soak up the atmosphere felt like the ultimate luxury. Time is indeed gold.

Venturing into the river was like getting foot reflexology, which my mom was nuts about for a time (remember those painful, fugly slippers that were big in the 90s?) and which I absolutely abhor. In one word: pebbles. It got to a point where I felt like I couldn’t move another step, and regretted leaving my faithful tsinelas at home. 
But once we got in deep enough to float… yahoo!

Yes, the water was cold. And no, river swimming has never really appealed to me. But how many times in my life can I swim in the shadow of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and let my body drift lazily under 20,000 years of history?

Not many, I would think. And that’s what made this Sunday afternoon swim so unforgettable.

Once the sun started to set and the families around us began packing up, Marlon and I were left by ourselves, not wanting this day to end, waiting for the last rays of the sun to dry us off. It was suddenly so easy to picture a battalion of Roman soldiers clad in armor, stopping to let their horses drink from this cool river on a hot summer’s day. I swear, I got goosebumps. And I know it wasn’t the water.

Check out more lovely photos of Pont du Gard at Apol’s blog!

A little piece of Rome

Pete’s hometown was just minutes away from Nimes, the town that gave denim its name (de Nimes) and the home of the world’s best-preserved Roman coliseum. Yes, the Arena of Nimes, built between 90-120 AD, trumps even the one in Rome, of which it is a smaller copy… at least in terms of preservation. So we just couldn’t miss it. 
A bronze statue of a matador in front of the Arena gives an indication of Nimes’ Spanish-flavoured heritage, and of what the Arena is used for these days. (I also saw banners advertising the Arena’s summer concert series, featuring the likes of Akon, Chemical Brothers, Portishead, Santana and Sting.) Check out the detail on that matador.
Looks like bullfighting is a serious workout, if this statue is anything to go by. Talk about buns of steel… or bronze.
Speaking of big and juicy, our cheapest meal of the whole trip was care of a small kiosk just a few steps from the Arena. An enthusiastic Pete brought us to Chez Lucette for killer sandwiches that were not only less than half of what you’d pay for a sandwich here in Amsterdam…

… but were also spectacular in terms of value for money. Each sandwich was a full foot long. Marlon asked for frites with his merguez (lamb sausage) baguette, thinking they’d be served on the side. Non—the thick-cut fries went inside the sandwich. Mon Dieu!

Where was I? Oh, yes. The Arena.

One of the most impressive things about the Arena was how was were built to enable a smooth flow of human traffic, create an efficient seating system. With its ingenious organization of entrances, corridors and staircases, the general public (a.k.a. the jologs) could go straight up to their nosebleed seats from the outside.

This was done so that the nobility didn’t have to mix with the rabble, and so the masa couldn’t steal their seats and wreak havoc among the chi-chi crowd. What the Romans mastered in 90 AD, Filipinos still cannot do in the 21st century. Case in point: Araneta Coliseum, a coliseum to shame all coliseums.

Ironically, the cheap seats also offered the most spectacular vantage point. The richest Romans sat right up front at the bottom of the Arena. But to me, this was the best view. I personally would not have wanted to get splattered by blood and guts. But what do I know? I’m not ancient Roman nobility. I’m just a lowly unemployed bum freelancer.

(By the way, I was slightly relieved to find the center of the arena set up for a concert. If not, you can bet your shapely matador pwet that the hubby would have wanted to stage some kind of long-held gladiator fantasy photo-op down there!)

They say everything is better with friends. I agree! Dear kiddies, do you remember scrambling like mad for sponsors and living for months on a dollar allowance in the mere three-digit range? Who would have known we would someday be spending our own money to travel to Europe? #whenyouwishuponastar

The combi ticket also included a screening of the heroes of Nimes at La Maison Carree, just a few blocks away. We didn’t have time for that…

But we did have time for our own mini Vanity Fair photo shoot.

If it can’t pass for Vanity Fair, can we at least be a poster for “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum”?

To market, to market

The morning of Mimi’s wedding was free, so my friends and I decided to drive to the nearby town of Arles to see the Roman ruins, an idea that delighted the Asterix fan in me. There was a Dutch connection there, too—Vincent Van Gogh had lived there towards the end of his life, producing some of his most brilliant and intense work while living in Arles.
Entering Arles, we ran into awful traffic, and had to endure the electronic nagging of our GPS device as we kept deviating from its frenetically recalculated routes. I had set the voice controls to American English and hearing it slaughter the pronunciation of French street names was both maddening and hilarious. 
When we finally found parking, however, we discovered the reason for all the rerouted traffic… a Saturday farmer’s market!
Marlon and I were instantly catapulted to heaven. We love markets, and it’s rare to see such beautiful and abundant produce as we did that Saturday morning. Among the bounty were melons bigger than my head…
Fragrant, blushing garlic…
Luscious fruits and berries…

A number of varieties of perfectly plump tomatoes…

including some varieties that were completely new to us.

I love my life, my new city and its markets, but for the first time I actually felt like packing up and moving to France. I was positively green with envy. So much good food! And it’s like this every Saturday?

The array of dry goods was also pretty spectacular. Lavender sachets being sold at souvenir shops for €8-10 were available for €2 apiece. All eight of us raided that stall like there was no tomorrow. Compare before…

… and after. What is pakyaw?

Marlon took home several small glass bottles of spice mixtures, including some labeled for specific uses like with omelettes, fish, and steak.

He was thrilled to find a stall specializing entirely in salts, and bought some black and pink Himalayan salts to add to our already-full spice rack at home.

We were getting hungry just strolling through the market, so we decided to split up and buy our lunch there. There were so many choices.

I was momentarily entranced by these teeny tiny baby clams…
… but I eventually settled on paella. Yes, Arles is that close to Spain.
The eight of us gathered around an old gazebo and carousel in the sun and sat down to an immensely satisfying lunch. Afterwards, it was time to walk off the calories by exploring Arles’ old town. 

So many beautiful details, full of history and character.

Modern architecture can move and impress me, but I will always have a special place in my heart for old places and things.

Interspersed among the narrow streets and quintessentially French buildings of Arles are ancient Roman ruins, like the amphitheater…
… and the coliseum, built in 90 AD. It’s still used today for events like horse shows and bullfights. A Roman coliseum, built in France, used for Spanish traditions. Just… wow.

We managed to squeeze in a quick visit to the Espace Van Gogh before leaving Arles. Formerly the main hospital of Arles, it was where Vincent Van Gogh was committed after infamously cutting off his ear.

At this small garden, immortalized by Van Gogh on canvas, our day as tourists ended, and our day as singers began. After all, we had a wedding to catch that afternoon!

A wedding in the South of France

The highlight of my summer was a trip to the south of France for Mimi and Pete’s wedding. They were married civilly in Manila more than a year ago, a simple but moving ceremony they thoughtfully put on live streaming for the benefit of family and friends abroad, such as myself. I was thrilled to receive the invitation from Mimi last year, after we found out we were moving to Europe. For friends flying in from Manila and Singapore, this trip was almost a year in the making!
Ever the tour organizer, super-efficient but amazingly relaxed bride Mimi welcomed us at the Etap hotel in Caissargues, Pete’s hometown, with a card, a jar of locally made confitures, and a handful of brochures on the Languedoc-Roussillon region (and its popular neighbor, Aix-en-Provence). Can’t start a proper Glee Club tour without a tour kit!
A tour wouldn’t be complete without singing, which we were requested to do by Pete’s relatives literally the moment we stepped into his mom’s house. Pleased to realize we had a member of the original touring prod staff to take our photos (the original adventurer-turned-doctor Ross, who took a break from her residency in the States to attend the wedding), we launched into a bass-less rendition of (what else?) the tried-and-tested Rosas Pandan, a song I haven’t sung in eons. Never fails to bring down the house!
Dinner was an al fresco meal care of the amazing Agbay women, Mimi’s sister-doppelgangers May and Meng. Marlon and I were especially excited to see Filipino food on the table, complemented with the requisite French baguettes, or as Mimi’s mom calls them, pambugbog.
After dinner, we rehearsed around the dinner table for the Mass, and did some light prep work like separating confetti and folding menu cards for the reception.
The day of the wedding was everything we sun-starved Netherlanders had hoped for: abundant sunshine and a temperature of 32℃. (As you can guess, the Manila contingent was not as happy.) We spent the morning in the charming town of Arles, with its gorgeous farmers’ market and Roman ruins (more on which later). Then it was off to the hotel to prettify ourselves, and from there on to Eglise Saint-Sauveur, just a hop and skip away from Pete’s mom’s house, to rehearse.
Close to 5pm, Pete pulled up wearing his dapper gray suit and a huge smile, and guests began to trickle in, dressed in what would be considered shockingly casual clothing in Manila, but seemed just right for summer in the south of France. The Pinoys were definitely the dressier guests at this wedding. I was glad to finally debut a vintage floral-print maxi dress I got in San Francisco last year, with a polka-dot scarf from Uniqlo and tangerine wedges. God knows when I’m going to get to wear this again!
As soon as we stepped into the church, events took off at warp speed. I didn’t take as many pictures as I would have liked (the choir never does!), but I can clearly remember my first glimpse of Mimi in her elegant bridal whites. She was holding her bouquet and her mom’s hand, and crying openly all the way down the aisle. Naturally, I choked up. I think all the girls just stopped singing the wedding march (L’important c’est la rose), except for Trina who was not a girl, but a bass that day. Seeing wonderful things happen to the equally wonderful people who deserve them is one of the best feelings in the world.
And just like that, it was over: the Duhamels were kissing, people were cheering, and lavender and white confetti was falling everywhere, like a dream.
The not-so-newlyweds piled into an adorable yellow pickup truck, Pete’s first car, to roar off to the reception with horns blaring all the way there. I don’t know what was cuter, the truck itself or Mimi’s giant skirt and petticoat sticking out of it.

Being so close to Spain (just three hours by car to Barcelona!), Spanish touches such as paella and bullfights have seeped into the unmistakable Frenchness of the region. Thus, a reception at a manade, or bull ranch.

It was such a picturesque place, with wide open grounds, tall grass, a lovely little plaza, of sorts grapevines hanging around trellises. The grapes looked so luscious that we all thought they were fake. Duh, south of France nga pala to, not some tacky restaurant in Manila. 

We felt very chi-chi with our champagne and canapes before dinner…

… while the French seem to have downed bottomless shots of Red Bull. Seriously, they danced their asses off in the three hours leading up to dinner. And then they kicked their chairs back and danced all the way up to FIVE FREAKING A.M. the next day. Spell S-A-B-I-K.

In the meantime, we were just happy to finally spend time with our beautiful bride, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over all the details of her dress, a labor of love by our friend (and my entourage designer!) Tria…

And of course, we were just happy to take lots of pictures. 
Lots of them. Sayang ang damit!

Especially when we went out into the ranch grounds in the setting sun, champagne flutes and DSLRs in hand, for our very own de buena familia/Emperador Brandy photo shoots. Based on these two print ads, whose wine would you buy: mine or Pia’s?

The French may have had their dancing, but we Pinoys had our camwhoring. Kung saan ka masaya, suportahan ta ka. Ika nga nila, walang basagan ng trip!

Round and round we go

One of the smaller museums that I’ve missed on my previous Paris trips was the Musee L’Orangerie in the Jardin des Tuileries. It was an oversight that I was happy to correct on this visit.

Marlon, Gutsy and I were welcomed by Rodin’s The Kiss right outside the museum door. It’s the third I’ve seen, after the ones at the Musee Rodin and the sculpture garden in Martigny.

The centerpieces of the Musee L’Orangerie are a pair of tranquil white oval-shaped rooms that house Monet’s famous paintings of water lilies, Les Nympheas.

Six of about 250 paintings by Monet on the same theme are housed here.

Something about the scale of the paintings, or maybe the peace and beauty of its subjects, made the mood in these round halls somewhat contemplative.

The visitors remind me of people watching films on a panoramic screen… except it’s not the images that change, but what you’re thinking about them.

I was just glad that the rooms were cool and quiet, making them a perfect place to hide from the hot sun. I’m learning to love it when the sun is out, but too much still annoys me. Yes, I’m still Asian.
Downstairs was a collection of mostly impressionist paintings, including works from Cezanne, Modigliani, Matisse, Monet and others. The one I liked the most was this portrait of Coco Chanel by the artist Marie Laurencin.

It was annoyingly hot outside, so we scrapped our plan to go walking around the gardens after the museum. Instead, we repaired to Laduree, which was just a few minutes away.

I’d been to Laduree once before with Gutsy and Tria, in 2006. But I couldn’t afford more than just a coffee back then. Not even one of Laduree’s famed macarons.

This time, I had a lime-vanilla sorbet… with a fleur de sel (salted caramel) macaron. Both of them were absolutely divine: so light and sweet, flavorful without being overpowering.

Marlon immortalized my first bite of Laduree’s famous macarons on camera. Each bite was definitely a mmm-mmm-mmmmoment. 

In addition to the fleur de sel, Gutsy and I also shared a pistachio and an orange blossom macaron.

After the oval rooms at L’Orangerie, I guess you could say that round shapes were the theme of the day!

Les Puces de St-Ouen

I’m a lucky, lucky girl: last week’s visit to Paris was my sixth. Having been there several times with my family and friends, I’ve managed to check off most of the tourist staples, such as the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur and more. On my last visit five years ago, when I got engaged in Paris, I started working towards the lesser-visited sites such as Ste-Chapelle and Musee Rodin.

Still, I’ve only just touched the tip of the tip of the iceberg that is Paris. With every visit, there’s always too much that I want to do, see, taste… and buy! Having experienced the city at different ages (5, 18 and 25, for example), my tastes and interests change between visits, which always makes each time new, fun and different.

Two things that I was never really interested in on my past visits to Paris, but absolutely love now, are vintage and flea markets. So I just had to visit Paris’ biggest flea market: Les Puces de Saint-Ouen at Clignancourt. Lured by Jordan Ferney’s beguiling photos and guided by her bright, cheery and very accurate map, Marlon and I headed there our first morning in Paris.

Les Puces (The Fleas) are made up of different markets spread out over numerous city blocks. It’s reportedly the largest flea market in the world. It’s about half the size of Bangkok’s massive Chatuchak market, but filled with nothing but antique and vintage furniture, clothing, odds and ends.

Both of us have been searching for the perfect living room armchair for the last six months. Les Puces were full of gorgeous pieces that we were dying to take home. You’d think delivery overland from France to the Netherlands would be somewhat affordable, right? Wrong! Estimates of at least €400-500 for shipping alone dashed our French armchair dreams to bits. So we simply made ourselves content with roaming the narrow maze of alleyways and resolving to come back some day with a car.

If you can’t carry a piece of furniture home with you, memories and photographs are the next best thing to take home from Les Puces.

In this aspect, you will not be disappointed. At Les Puces, each alley reveals a fascinating vignette for your camera and mind’s eye to capture.

Turning a corner can spark desire by discovering an entire alley full of objects you want to take home…

… or can simply mesmerize you for a moment with eye-catching textures and colors.

Each turn can remind you of a friend…

evoke a bygone era so vividly, that you wished you were born in it…

… or even make you see yourself in a new and different way.

Wandering the alleys of Les Puces, you come upon everything from the beautiful…

to the chic…

to the oddly humorous…

… even to the faintly disturbing. That potent mix of everything and anything, carefully chosen yet haphazardly thrown together, I love.

There is magic in a place like Les Puces where, like these bits and pieces from dismantled chandeliers, the old, broken and useless come not to die, but to regain life and beauty…

and where unconventional combinations give a new power and vibrance to the ordinary.

Or maybe it’s not magic. Maybe I just really love flea markets… or maybe it’s simply Paris!