15 Things I Learned About Wine After a Year in France

15 Things I Learned About Wine After a Year in France

Like any Frenchman worth his sel, my French host dad loves wine. On any given night we might be uncorking a 1997 Côtes du Rhône or pulling an award-winning Rioja out of the cave à vin. And as someone who once felt that yellow tail was a splurge, I’m not sure I deserve all of this well-aged goodness. (more…)

But thanks to my host dad I really have gotten a wine education this year, and have learned a lot about wine pairings, varietals and growing regions. So without further ado, here is what I have learned about wine after a year in France.

1. White wine is better with cheese. In fact, never drink red wine with cheese.

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2. When it comes to wine pairings, it’s best to choose a wine that comes from the same region as the dish. For example, if you are cooking a boeuf bourguignon, which comes from Burgundy, pair the dish with a Burgundy wine.

3. When pairing a wine, consider the dish’s sauce- if it’s a white sauce, like blanquette de veau, pair it with a white wine. If the dish has a dark sauce, pair it with a red wine.

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A rooster dish that I braised in Côtes du Rhône. So for the meal I served it with… the same Côtes du Rhône.

4. If wine is used in the dish, serve the same wine alongside it.

5. Wine and chocolate do NOT go together, contrary to common belief.

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Map of the principal wine regions in France, source

6. The top five wine regions in France, in terms of quality, are traditionally Bordeaux, Champagne, Burgundy, the Loire Valley and the Rhône Valley.

7. There is such a thing as white burgundy by the way, and it’s delicious. (Bourgogne Blanc)

8. Wine qualifications are extremely complicated, but as a rule of thumb grand cru is a qualification for the best-quality wines in the region. In most regions premier cru is one ranking below grand cru. (Both of which fall into the category of wines I definitely can’t afford.)

9. French wine is much cheaper than American wine because it’s not taxed to death. You can buy a passable bottle of wine here for 2 or 3 euros, and a great one for less than 10.

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10. Wine, baguettes and cheese are all completely reasonable pre-gaming selections. In France we rarely pre-drink with beer because wine is worlds cheaper.

11. Only sparkling wine that comes from Champagne, the wine region, should be called champagne. Random fact- French people often refer to champagne as “champ.”

12. On the third Thursday of November the year’s supply of Beaujolais Nouveau is released to great fanfare. And even though it’s sold everywhere on that Thursday, no one actually thinks Beaujolais Noveau is a high-quality wine because it’s young and inexpensive. (It’s good enough for me though!)

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13. Serious winos know which years were good wine years by heart. Apparently 2005 was a good wine year, for example.

14. If a French person asks you if you’d like a glass of wine, say “volontiers”, not “bien sûr.” In this context bien sûr means, “obviously”, as in, “Obviously I want some wine, don’t you know I drink allll the time?” P.S. I learned this the hard way.

15. Terroir is the unique combination of natural factors that affect a wine or food product: soil, rock, altitude, sun, etc. Even in the same area, no two vineyards have exactly the same terroir. As Wikipedia wisely states, “In other words: when the same grape variety is planted in different regions, it can produce wines that are significantly different from each other.” 

I love that this is such a French concept that there isn’t even a word for it in the English language.

 

My French Wine Region Cheat Sheet (also known as French Wine for Dummies):

Alsace: Lots of crisp white wines like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot gris and Pinot blanc, and sweet white wine like Muscat.

Armagnac: Where Armagnac comes from, a brandy I like to use for flambé-ing.

Bordeaux: Very high-quality wines, mostly red. The red wines produced are usually blended, from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and sometimes Cabernet Franc.

Bourgogne (Burgundy): Very high-quality wines, lots of grand cru, both red and wine produced. Chablis and Beaujolais are also produced in Burgundy.

Champagne: Where the best bubbly comes from of course!

Cognac: Where Cognac comes from, the famous brandy.

Languedoc-Roussillon: The largest French wine region in terms of vineyard surface and production, so it is where most of France’s cheap bulk wines are produced.

Provence: Rosé, rosé, rosé!

Loire Valley: Great wines, mostly white.

Rhône Valley: My personal favorite for red wines. The most famous appelation from this region is Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Do you enjoy French wine? Which one if your favorite?

Dear Paris: A Love Letter to the City I Finally Adore

Dear Paris: A Love Letter to the City I Finally Adore

Dear Paris,

I have a confession. I didn’t love you at first. And I’m not really sure why. (more…)

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Maybe it’s because I associated you with loneliness, as I spent my first three Parisian summers wandering the cobblestone streets by myself. Or maybe it’s because I thought you were cold and uptight, that your citizens were too effortlessly perfect. Maybe it’s because everyone else seems to love you, and I didn’t want to form a part of the swooning, Eiffel Tower-adoring masses.

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But now, I know that I love you. We’ve been through a lot together, Paris. I’ve watched you move through each season. I’ve seen you without your make-up on, so to speak.

I arrived in the fall, when the markets proudly displayed whole mallard ducks and chestnuts fresh from the tree. I was there during the grey, drizzly days of winter, when I tucked into a plate of Japanese curry with kimchi on the Rue Saint-Anne. I was there when snow dusted the roofs of Montmartre, when spring came seemingly overnight and the pollarded trees budded green. I was there in summer when I downed cheap cider on the banks of the Seine until three in the morning, the glass bottle cold against my fingers. I was there on the 90-degree days, when I laid on the grass at Parc Buttes Chaumont with friends, munching on chips and squinting under the summer sun.

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I was there when the bakers put crowned cakes in the windows. I was there for Labor Day when lily of the valley was sold on every corner, the flowers like delicate, white bells. I was there for Gay Pride, when young people draped in rainbow flags celebrated in the streets, when the banners proclaimed “LA REPUBLIQUE A DIT OUI”, when pink balloons drifted in the air, bright against the robin-egg blue sky.

And the people who say you’re dead, that the artists and writers are gone and you’re just a monument to the past?

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They don’t see the Senegalese women on the metro, walking tall in Kente cloth, squabbling in their singsong French. They don’t know where to find the best challah in Le Marais, golden and braided in the window. They don’t know how to make quiche lorraine by scratch, or how you should leave in the pits for the best apricot jam. They don’t know how many meanings “sympa” can have, or what the inside of a studio apartment in La Goutte d’Or look like or what the best route is from Montmartre to the river. They don’t know you like I do.

You’re alive, they just don’t know where to look.

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Dear Paris, thank you for the beautiful memories.

Thank you for the night I sang Jacques Brel in the street with two French boys under the moonlight.

Thank you for the moment I watched candles light a friend’s face on her 24th birthday.

Thank you for the dim sum breakfasts when I was hungover, all the way out in the 14th.

Thank you for red wine pre-drinking sessions on the RER, for the smile on my little sister’s face when she tasted her first tarte au citron.

Thank you for leafy, refreshing salade verte, thank you for salted butter caramel crepes, thank you for blue-tinged logs of chevre with the piece of straw inside.

Thank you for teaching me your language and showing me your streets and giving me a home.

P1090662 Dear Paris, I think I finally love you. Thank you for a wonderful year together. And may the last three weeks together be the best yet.

Love always,

Ashley

Moments from a Weekend in the French Countryside

Moments from a Weekend in the French Countryside

Last weekend, I escaped Paris to visit my friend Laura’s horse farm in the south of France. It was a weekend of muddy wellies, Earl Grey, good friends and big laughs.

Laura, who hails from the north of England, has an English mother and French father who run a horse-riding school near Limoges. And even though I was staying in the heart of French horse country, I honestly felt like I was in England, from the endless cuppas to the delightful colloquialisms of the north.

Here are my favorite moments from my weekend away.

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The nearest village, Confolens, has all the trappings of a typical French town: the church steeple rising above the buildings, the oh-so-French shutters, the little specialized shops like the boulangerie and charcutier.

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But was truly makes Confolens special is the beautiful bridge across the riverfront which I photographed incessantly. One thing I’ll miss about France is stumbling upon such picturesque towns that no one else has ever heard of. How can this not be a tourist destination?

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 My Very First Fish and Chips

After a bit of sight-seeing we stopped by the local chip shop which stuck out like a sore Anglo thumb in such a French town. Though I was iffy about trying a dish I had previously deemed “grease on grease”, I was strongly urged to taste the cod. “Here they do a real northern crust,” said Laura’s mother.

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Evidently I was very excited to try fish and chips…

The verdict? Delicious. As a seafood lover with a hot-fries-and-Heinz guilty pleasure, I really enjoyed it, though afterwards all I wanted a long nap and a shower.

During the meal we started talking about the comfort of eating food from your home country after a long trip away. When asked what I most missed from the states, I admitted, “I know this is a total cliché but sometimes I would just really like a good burger.” True dat, y’all.

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Antique Shopping

One of my French bucket list items was to buy a set of old-fashioned champagne glasses. But due to budgeting concerns for my up-coming trip and the fact that I don’t technically have a residence, I decided not to purchase the beautiful set pictured below. Saving up sucks.

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But we did stumble upon some other treasures like a Mad Hatter top hat…

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and fashion magazines from the 1920s. And even though we didn’t buy anything, it was still fun to come across treasures and trinkets from another era.

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Getting a Taste of Farm Life

Laura’s farm is a veritable menagerie with chickens, ponies, horses, donkeys, pigs, doves, dogs and cats. I loved being able to spend a few days getting some one-on-one time with the animals and breathing some fresh country air into my lungs. IMG_6079

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Hearing the War Stories of a 90-Year Old French WWII Vet IMG_6098

One of the highlights of the trip was chatting with Laura’s surrogate grandfather, Georges, over pineau and madeleines. After offering us a drink, Georges told us about the tribulations he had faced as a young soldier fighting the Germans, or as he called them, the “Boschs.”

The most horrific thing Georges told us about was the massacre in the nearby village Oradour-sur-Glane. On June 10th, 1944, four days after D-Day, a German Waffen-SS company locked up several hundred women and children in the town church and burned it to the ground. Any who tried to escape the church were then met with machine gun fire. The men were brutally murdered in several nearby barns and then burned as well.

“I could smell the burning bodies from my house,” George told us. Limoges June6

When my friends told Georges that I was American, he gasped. “Une vraie americaine?” A real American? He then proceeded to tell me how grateful he was for the Americans because they had “dropped parachutes full of chickens and supplies” during the war.

And though he told us that he had seen many miseries in his life, it amazed me that Georges was such a jovial person, laughing and drinking with such a broad smile on his face.

Before we left, he gave my two English friends many kisses, “Mes petites anglaises ! Vous m’avez sauvé la vie.” My little English girls! You saved my life.

Home-cooked, Farm-fresh Meals

Over the weekend we demolished lots of goodies, like a large jar of homemade strawberry-rhubarb jam and lord knows how much baguette. And while I’m lucky to enjoy lots of home-cooked meals here in France, it was wonderful dining on home-cooked food straight from the farm.

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And never in my life have I looked up from washing dishes and seen five horses galloping past- country life at its finest. IMG_6234

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Horse-back Riding

One of my favorite adrenaline rushes in the world is the one you get from galloping on a horse, so it was such a joy to be able to ride all weekend! But I must say I have never felt like such a Yankee as when I grabbed the reins with one hand, as you do with a Western saddle.

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Laura has been riding since she was a little girl and has competed for years, so it was fun to finally she her jump. And by the end of the weekend I was finally getting the hang of riding with an English saddle.

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Good Times with Good Friends.

Over the year I’ve spent in Paris, I’ve made some absolutely incredible friends. And though it pains me to admit, I only have a few weeks left with them. (At least until we cross paths again!)

So it was wonderful to spend some quality time together without watching the clock: rocking out to Dizzee Rascal in the car, strolling the countryside with the dogs and munching on orange-flavored biscuits and tea while watching Spice World on VHS. IMG_6197

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In more ways than one, this weekend was a breath of fresh air. It was exactly what I needed.

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Have you ever visited the French countryside?

The French Open for Beginners

The French Open for Beginners

While I may not be the sportiest/most adventurous of bloggers, I am really into tennis and used to play varsity in high school. So when a family friend visiting Paris asked me, “Do you like tennis? How would you like my extra ticket to the French Open quarterfinals?” I actually had tears in my eyes. (more…)

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Can you spot baby tennis-playing Ashley in this picture?

As the daughter of two very skilled tennis players, I grew up watching the French Open every summer, idolizing tennis greats like Martina Hingis, Andre Agassi and the Williams sisters. But I truly never dreamed I would see the red clay of the French Open in person.

For all the non-tennis fanatics out there: the French Open is one of the four Grand Slam tournaments, which include the French Open, Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the US Open.

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From left to right- the flags of all the countries that host Grand Slam tournaments: France, the U.K., the U.S. and Australia (not pictured). Incidentally it was the first time I noticed that these countries’ flags all share red, white and blue as common colors.

The first match was Victoria Azarenka v. Maria Kirilenko. I knew Azarenka was playing before even stepping into the arena, considering I could hear her ghoulish moan from a half-mile away. “Bah-woo!”

I had to wait for my seat as you’re only allowed to enter the stadium every two games when the players switch sides. I stood there tapping my feet like a little kid, eager to see some balls fly. I had come prepared with three camera lenses, a chilled bottle of lemon-ginger water and a generous coat of sunscreen. I was ready.

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Luckily, the seat was worth the wait: tenth row, shaded and smack-dab in the middle of the stadium.

While I bought at telephoto lens before leaving for France, I had never had a good reason to put it to use. Now was the moment. I switched it to sports-mode to get a rapid-fire shots of the players in motion, as well as score some close-ups. With the aid of the telephoto lens I could see the tiniest details, from the the glint of Kirilenko’s gold watch to Azarenka’s face squinting in the sun. “Bah-woo!”

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As I had predicted, watching the French Open in person was so much more fun than seeing it on TV. I loved being privy to all of the little behind-the-scenes moments: Azarenka practicing her serves between games, the young ball-boy carefully holding an umbrella over the players between games, the sound of Kirilenko’s racket hitting her shoe to knock out the red clay.

Considering the French Open is held in Paris, most of the spectators around me were French. I loved eavesdropping on their Gallic observations, “Elle est prête !” “Allez, Maria !”

During the first set’s tense tie-breaker, my fellow spectacteurs had a field day arguing about the ball calls. “Ouais, elle était bonne.” “Putain, ooh la la…”

When Azarenka hit an amazing overhead and Kirilenko threw her racket trying to receive it, the older lady behind me scoffed, “C’est pas bon, ca.”

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Listening to the Francophone loudspeaker was also a joy. ”Quarante-treinte.” ”Avantage, Mademoiselle Kirilenko.” “Égalité.” Apparently “deuce”, or 40-40, is “égalité” in French (equality). Tennis did originate in France, after all.

Azarenka won, and we watched the players “faire la bise” (kiss each other on each cheek) at the net, which I found to be a very sweet gesture.

At her post-victory interview, Azarenka revealed her love for a certain dance song.

“What do you enjoy most about being in France? What do you like about French culture?”
“I like Paris and I like that song Alors On Danse.” Me too, Azarenka, me too.

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The sweaty crowds outside of the stadium reminded me of why tennis is one of the only sports I enjoy watching in person- it has a more civilized feel, with white hats, polite clapping and an ample amount of personal space. (Football games are a claustrophobic person’s worse nightmare, fyi.)

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For the second match, my friend and I decided to switch tickets, so I made my way to the Phillipe Chartrier stadium for the men’s match: Rafael Nadal v. Stanislas Wawrinka.

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I’ll be the first to admit that Rafa is my favorite tennis player. Not only is he a fellow southpaw (lefty pride!), I studied on his home island of Mallorca, where my host-mom was actually friends with his grandparents. Also, boy is really, really fine.

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Watching Rafa play tennis is truly like watching a bullfighter. I’ve truly never encountered a human being with so much testosterone. I thought at any moment he was about to leap over the net and strangle his opponent.

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But truly, the real joy of watching Rafa is the drama: Rafa sprinting to the net to hit an artistically crafted drop shot, serving up aces, blasting off a left-handed forehand that I can only describe as “gorgeous.”

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Rafa is a man of feverish fans- at the match his supporters shouted words of encouragement in a myriad of languages. “Rafa, es tuyo!” “Allez, Rafa!” “You got this, Rafa!” (The last one may have been me.)

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One thing that mildly baffled me was his bizarre, borderline obsessive compulsive ritual before each point: tucking his hair behind his ears and then unceremoniously picking a wedgie. His fans don’t mind though, apparently.

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And Rafa wins!

I left that day feeling blissed out, lightly sunburnt and inspired to play much more tennis. And google Rafa, perhaps.

Have you ever watched the French Open or other professional tennis matches?

Thank you so much Joe for offering me the ticket and making one of my lifelong dreams come true, I seriously can’t thank you enough!

An Hour from Paris: the Beautiful and Tragic Château de Vaux le Vicomte

An Hour from Paris: the Beautiful and Tragic Château de Vaux le Vicomte

I headed to Vaux le Vicomte on a rainy Monday with my French host family, and if I were a Lonely Planet guide I would proclaim it to be, “The perfect day trip for those who tire of the crowds at Versailles and Giverny.” (Ahem, me.)

And while the château is opulently beautiful, its most interesting feature is its dark history.

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Nicolas Fouquet, minister of finance to Louis XIV, bought the château in 1658. He commissioned the legendary trio of architect Louis Le Vau, landscape architect André le Nôtre, and painter-decorator Charles Le Brun to carry out construction, and they spent four years meticulously building one of the most lavish countryside estates France had ever seen.

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To secure the necessary lands for the enormous gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte, Fouquet purchased and demolished three villages and then hired the 18,000 villagers to build the château.

Once the castle and gardens were finally completed, Fouquet hosted a grand soirée to show off his grand new home and gardens. Naturally, he invited his boss, Louis XIV.

Louis XIV, the Sun King, was a king known for his capricious jealousy. Once he laid eyes on the garden he was so overcome with envy that days later he imprisoned Fouquet for life, arresting him on the charge of “misappropriation of funds.” To add insult to injury, he then hired Le Vau, Le Brun and La Nôtre to begin a new project together – the château de Versailles!

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As Voltaire famously wrote, “At six in the evening on August 17, Fouquet was the king of France; at two in the morning he was nothing.” « Le 17 août, à 6 heures du soir, Fouquet était le roi de France ; à 2 heures du matin, il n’était plus rien. »

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And while the interior of the château is beautiful, the real treasure is the gardens. They are what inspired Versailles, after all.

I was kicking myself because I had only brought my 50mm camera lens, meaning I was unable to get a panoramic shot of what makes these gardens so magnificent- the optical illusion effect called anamorphosis abscondita that Le Nôtre so smartly employed. Luckily Wikipedia claims you can only notice the effect in person, but still.

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So what happened to the château in the end? After years of neglect, it was going to be demolished. But in the late 1800s a sugar baron purchased the estate and spent 30 years completely restoring it. The fifth generation of the same family looks after the castle today.

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When I was leaving the château something really bizarre happened- I stumbled upon a group of Buddhist monks dressed in yellow robes. While to most this would just feel like, well, stumbling upon a group of Buddhist monks, to me it felt like a symbol of my time in France coming to a close and the beginning of a new chapter in Southeast Asia. How’s that for poetic foreshadowing?

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Overall I really enjoyed the château. And you hear this Louie? I think the gardens are even better than Versailles. So there.

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Practical information: 

Château de Vaux le Vicomte

77950 Maincy, France

Tel : +33 (0)1.64.14.41.90 – Fax : +33 (0)1.60.69.90.85
chateau@vaux-le-vicomte.com

Open everyday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed December 25 and January 1. See more information here. Also the château is a pricey excursion at 16 euros per adult, but family, student and senior discounts are offered.

Also, the castle restaurant sells the world’s best salted butter caramel yogurt ever to grace the earth. Get some if you’re there. Yogurt au caramel au beurre salé. SCEA La Ferme du Manège 76640 Hattenville, Normandie. 02 35 96 71 23

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P.S. This is my first post in which I used Lightroom for photo-editing, which I got on a free one-month trial. The trial’s almost up so can you notice a difference or is it not worth purchasing? Merci!

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Want to read more? I’d love to keep you updated on my adventures in baguette-land and beyond, so feel free to subscribe to Ashley Abroad via RSS or by email in the sidebar.

The Most Parisian Park in Paris, the Jardin du Luxembourg

The Most Parisian Park in Paris, the Jardin du Luxembourg

Spring is undeniably beautiful phenomenon, especially when you live in Paris. After the long, overcast winter the sun finally shines, the flowers burst open in color and the city-dwellers stroll Paris’ many parks feeling a little… lighter. As I learned this spring, there’s nothing like feeling sun on your face after enduring months of living under eternally overcast skies. (more…)

The only problem with the Parisian spring is that it goes as fast as it comes. As I write this I know that spring is essentially over and a new season is already upon us. But there’s nothing wrong with a little reminiscing, right?
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Never one to miss out on a balmy Saturday, I called Edna to meet up at the Jardin du Luxembourg, the much-photographed left-bank park located in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

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For better or for worse, Jardin du Luxembourg is the most quintessentially Parisian park. From the “pelouse interdite” (French for “keep off the grass”) to the passerbys griping about the atrocious Montparnasse Tower (the sky-scraping eyesore pictured below at right), this park is as Parisian as they come.

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And although it’s a touch snooty for my taste, it’s awash in a refined sort of charm, from the pristine tulip beds to the children racing model boats in the fountain.

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Can you spot the Eiffel Tower peeking out from above the trees?

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Being as this was an Ashley and Edna outing, there was naturally delicious food involved. Eats of the day included still-warm baguette, cold Breton cider (brut, of course) and the best rotisserie chicken of our lives.

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I ♥ impromptu Parisian picnics.

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It’s the little moments like this I will remember from my time in Paris – talking with a friend under the palm trees in the Jardin du Luxembourg, drinking cider and watching the shadows grow long.

Have ever visited the Jardin du Luxembourg?