The Bells, The Bells

It was only fair I asked The Mister about his birthday weekend preferences. After all, it was his birthday.  He decided on an unstructured, casual three days of aimless wandering through Paris with occasional good food and serendipitous moments.  I agreed. Mostly. After all, the plans I make often fall through and I adjust well when it happens (this is a lie), so what is the point of over-planning?

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The morning’s un-planned plan included a leisurely walk through the streets of Saint-Germain, along the Seine, through the Tuileries Gardens and over to the Musee d’Orsay for art-looking and lunch.  The unplanned part of the plan involved a trip to the local pharmacy. I swear to you, on every trip to Paris, no matter who I’m with, someone needs to find and utilize a Parisian pharmacy.  This trip, the someone was me.  Parisians design their pharmacies for maximum embarrassment.  No slinking up the aisles in search of familiar remedies, no plucking things off the shelf  and hiding them in your basket, no skulking to the self-checkout line..non non non. In Paris, you are warmly greeted by the Person In Charge, who offers to help you with any embarrassing problem you might have as long as you can articulate it clearly in French (or type it into your blackberry, hit translate and pray to the Google translate gods).  I survived the exchange although I’m not sure the pharmacist did.

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We walked from the pharmacy to the Il de la Cite and into the shadow of Notre Dame.  It seemed a sin to walk by without going in to gaze on the glorious colors of the rose window, so we decided to spend few minutes inside the Cathedral warming our hands, our feet and  our hearts. The crowd seemed unusually heavy for a mid-February Friday, but the line moved quickly.  As we entered the Cathedral, we could see huge church bells lining the floor of the nave from the entrance to the altar.  Each magnificent bell stood alone, roped off and surrounded by hordes of camera-toting admirers.

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Bells have been a part of Notre Dame’s ecclesiastical life since the 12th century, but the ravages of time, war and reconstruction left the Cathedral with bells of poor construction and questionable musical quality. As part of the Cathedral’s 850th birthday, the church commissioned new bells to replace the substandard bells currently hanging in the towers.  Only one original bell, Emmanuel, will remain in place.  The newly recast bells are named in honor of saints and people significant to the history of Notre Dame…Marie (Mary), Gabriel (in honor of St. Gabriel), Anne-Genevieve, Denis, Marcel, Etienne (Stephen), Benoit-Joseph, Maurice and Jean-Marie. The bells are displayed in the Cathedral nave until the end of February and are scheduled for their first celebratory ringing on Palm Sunday, 23 March.  If you are curious to hear what the bells sounded like at the end of the 18th century and how they will sound after reinstallation, click here. If you are interested in the process of replacing the bells, click here and practice your French or make up the dialogue as you go along like I do.

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The Mister and I spent a few more minutes in the Cathedral absorbing the atmosphere and admiring the beautiful windows before heading back out into the city.

Plead on, O bells, that thy sweet voice
May still forever be
An intercession to rejoice
Benign divinity;
And that thy tuneful grace may fall
Like dew, a quickening balm,
Upon the arid hearts of all,
O bells of Notre Dame!

from The Bells Of Notre Dame, Eugene Field  (1850-1895)

The Mister Has a Birthday

I had a hard time choosing a title for this post.  “How I Slowly and Methodically Froze My Husband to Death in Paris on His Birthday” was too wordy.  “Never Chase a Hell’s Angel Tour Guide With a Baguette”  was a close second, but again, too wordy.  Also, the tour guide was the one with the baguette.  I had a camera. Story to follow.

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I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Paris more than once.  Such are the joys of living in London where the effort required to go to Paris is similar to the effort expended taking the train to New York from Connecticut.  I had great plans for The Mister’s special, special big-number birthday, starting with pre-trip drinks in the fabulous Booking Office at St. Pancras station.  I love the vibe of St. Pancras, with the beautiful kissing statue overlooking the train platforms, the gloriously fancy hotel adjacent to the station and the bustle of people off to exotic locals (ok, some are just going to Wimply-on-the-Marsh, but it’s fun to imagine).  After drinks, The Mister and I would gather ingredients for an en-route picnic from the epicurean delights found in Marks and Spencer…wine, cheese, something lovely to share as we planned our weekend in Paris.

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Of course, this was not to be.  The Mister was flying in from a business trip, ended up on a late flight and had just enough time to switch suitcases before we raced out to catch a cab.  We arrived at the station with 10 minutes to spare.  So, instead of pre-travel drinks and a lovely picnic dinner, we had soggy horseburgers hamburgers and wine in tiny bottles. Not to worry…we had days of wine sipping and fine dining ahead of us.

The Eurostar is a modern day marvel. Fast train, comfortable seats, no airport check-in.  We were in Paris in 2 hours and 15 minutes, which was barely enough time for me to practice my “hailing a cab” and “giving the hotel address” in French.  It turns out that my anxiety was totally unfounded since my French is clearly unrecognizable as a foreign language.  I did try.  The cabbie blinked, stared and asked if I had the address written down.  Oh well. He was charming and patient, although he kept looking back in the rear view mirror and laughing.  We just told him we were Canadian.  It was clear from the beginning that French cabbies do not possess The Knowledge required of London cabbies but after a few minor detours, we pulled up in front of our little hotel and unloaded our luggage.   

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We chose the Hotel Luxembourg Parc because of its fabulous location and intimate size.  I like the Left Bank, its proximity to restaurants, Luxembourg Gardens, metro stations and things to do.  The hotel has a little bar in the lobby, a library, an enclosed courtyard and a tiny, glassed-in breakfast room. It isn’t over-the-top fancy, but it’s pretty and the hotel staff is warm, efficient and multinational.  Jules graciously tolerated my abysmal French (I’m pretty sure I said something along the lines of “Good Day. I am the reservation.”) and whisked us off to our room overlooking the courtyard where, instead of planning our next day’s adventures, we promptly passed out and dreamt of long walks, chocolate chaud and afternoons spent in steamy French cafes.

I Missed You, London (but not really)

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I knew it was going to be a perfect morning for my last walk with the dogs. The sun was streaming through the big front windows and a heavy mist hung low over the fields and wrapped around the church tower in the distance.  My week of housesitting in the country was coming to an end. I pulled on my wellies and tattered old Barbour, leashed the dogs and headed down to the fields. I thought about the past week, the serendipitous moments, the theraputic hours spent walking the fields and woods with two appreciative and affectionate dogs. I thought I would miss London.  I didn’t.

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I’m convinced my first English housesitting experience was unusual.  The location was spectacular… a small, country village on the outskirts of Salisbury, the lovely old vicarage that overlooked sheep-speckled fields and two beautiful labradors to keep me company. My job was to take care of the house and the two dogs, walk them daily and keep general order around the property.

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My mornings consisted of waking and feeding the dogs, chugging a cup of coffee and trying to choose which of the dozen scenic walks we would take that morning.  There is something to be said about crunching through the hoar-covered fields and ancient forests just as the sun hits the horizon.  Clears the head.  Accentuates the need for more coffee.  Afternoons were much the same…a long ramble, a quick walk through town for stops at the butcher or green grocer before heading home for dinner and a night snuggled up on the sofa in front of a fire.

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On the weekend, The Mister came to play the role of country gentleman and our daughter came to visit.  We piled the dogs into the car and explored the neighboring towns on Saturday and drove to the beach on a beautiful, sunny almost-spring day. Sound like heaven?  It gets better.

My  first morning in town, the doorbell rang.  I opened it to find a neighbor, who stopped by to see if I needed anything.  We shared a cup of tea and a chat before he was off with a promise to return if  anything came up while the owners were gone. The shopkeepers in town were lovely and helpful.  They called you “luv” and asked if I was”enjoying my time here.” Strangers on the street said “hello” and “you’re a long way from home.”   In my first three days of housesitting, I had two coffee dates, one tea afternoon, two lunches and an invitation to church on Sunday. I met an ex-Royal Navy pilot, numerous retired clergymembers, a woman who was in the midwifery corps that inspired the Call the Midwife series and someone who had, in addition to an amazingly interesting life, Hugh Bonneville as a student (just mentioned in passing).  Somehow I had landed in the Lake Wobegone of England. In addition to everyone in town being good-looking and above average, they were interesting, kind, generous and neighborly. It was unexpected, undeserved and much appreciated.

There were moments that weren’t perfect. I forgot the poo bags on my first walk and had to walk a half mile with a warm poo wrapped in a receipt I found in my pocket.  I managed to blow a fuse in the kitchen the first evening. I stood on the toilet with a flashlight in my teeth and yanked the fuse out with enough force that it ricocheted off the wall and cracked into two pieces.  I did get to meet the electrical supply people in town, though.  They were very nice. There was a trip to the vet and a silly issue with a car key (by silly, I mean I was being completely stupid).  Life is interesting, isn’t it?

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So, I’m back in the city, missing the country, needing a dog and a few friendly faces.  Maybe I can talk the owners into an extended vacation.

A Day at “Downton Abbey”

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I love the fact we can watch Downton’s seasons a full 4 months before they debut in the States. Tonight, my American friends sit down to watch the last episode of Downton Abbey, Season 3.   What shall we do during the 7 month wait for a new season?  I suggest planning a trip to Highclere Castle, the setting for Downton Abbey.

Located approximately one hour from London by train, Highclere Castle is the stately home of the 8th Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.  Sir Charles Barry built the present house in 1842 on top of an existing Georgian home, which was built on the site of an Elizabethan home, etc. While the estate has been a part of the Carnarvon family for over 300 years, there is evidence of building on the site dating back 1300 years.

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We took a train from Paddington station in London to Newbury and hired a cab to drive us the remaining way to the castle.  We wound our way past miles of lovely countryside before turning up the mile-long, tree lined driveway.  As you round the final corner of the drive, you can see Highclere Castle’s glorious gothic turrets through the trees.  You can almost imagine the curtains twitching as Lady Edith watches you pull up the drive.

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Admission tickets, purchased either on-line in advance or from the little shed near the gates, are timed in order to manage the crowds. We had about 1.5 hours to explore the castle grounds before being admitted to see the house.  The castle landscape, designed by Capability Brown, lends itself to endless wandering through fields and across lawns.  We visited the tea room for a light lunch and convinced ourselves we needed a double-chocolate magnum bar to eat on the lawn while watching military planes, both ancient and modern, flying over the castle.  I’m pretty sure the flyovers aren’t part of the usual day out at the castle, but it was fun to watch. We walked through gardens and orchards, peeked into greenhouses and tried desperately to recreate the opening scene from Downton by walking up to the house from the fields below while loudly humming the opening music. We nailed it, even without the dog. The house also hosts a collection of Egyptian artifacts from the Tutankhamen tomb, discovered by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, but we didn’t have time to visit the exhibit before our scheduled time at the house.

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We joined the visitors queue outside the giant front doors at the appropriate time and waited for Carson to open the door and welcome us inside.  Sadly, he was not available and we had to make do with the lovely greeters that gave us a brief overview of house rules and a quick outline of the self-guided tour.

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Visitors are allowed to wander through the glorious dining room where the portrait of Charles I hangs over Carson’s sideboard and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) throws her infamous one-liners at unsuspecting guests.  Visitors can also see the library, used as Lord Grantham’s office and study and the glorious “saloon”, where the family gathers and the Grantham sisters plot their various schemes.  Upstairs, visitors file past Sybil and Edith’s bedrooms as well as the “Rose bedroom” where Lady Mary and Mr Pamuk had their passionate, ill-fated romp.  Unfortunately, all of the below-stairs scenes of Downton Abbey are filmed in a studio in London and not at the house.

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The house and grounds are stunning and make a fabulous day out, even for non-Downton Abbey fans.  Make sure you check opening dates and times before you go, as the family is in residence most of the year and Highclere is not open year-round.  You can check visitor information here.

Things to know and other random bits about Highclere Castle:

The 8th Countess of Carnarvon wrote a book “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey” to raise funds necessary to restore Highclere Castle.  The Castle was falling into serious disrepair in 2009 and required a minimum of £12 million to prevent it from falling into complete ruin.  The book, film fees and publicity from the Downton Abbey series generated enough funds to make necessary repairs. There was a bit of a neighborhood tiff between the Earl and his neighbor, Andrew Lloyd Weber. When Weber heard about the plight of the Carnarvon estate and offered to buy Highclere Castle to store  his art collection. The Carnarvon’s were not amused.

Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, nursed and housed recovering soldiers in WWI at Highclere Castle  just as it did in the second season of Downton Abbey.

You can book weddings and special events at the castle.

Highclere Castle is a two hour drive from central London.  Alternatively, you can take a train from London Paddington to Newbury and a cab to the Castle (cab fare approximately £25 plus tip).  It is also possible to take a bus from London Victoria to Newbury.

Make sure to arrange your return trip to the train station with your cabbie before you step out of the cab at Highclere.  The wait to return to the train station can be long if you do not.

Driving to Highclere from London takes approximately 2 hours.

Betwitched by The Witchery

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I was obsessed with the idea of staying at this “restaurant with rooms” the moment I saw it mentioned in a travel magazine (thanks, Marissa). The Witchery by the Castle stands in the heart of the Old City, steps below Edinburgh’s beautiful castle.  Suites are often booked months in advance and fall into the “special occasion” price category with rare exception. I rationalized The Mister’s 50th birthday combined with Valentine’s Day combined with a visit with Daughter #3 qualified as a “special occasion x 3.”   I can rationalize anything if I want it badly enough and I’m sure you would agree a stay was justified.   Alas, we did not dine at The Witchery Restaurant, but we did have the good fortune to book one of the eight sumptuously decorated suites for our weekend in Edinburgh.

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The suites are housed in a collection of  buildings dating back to 1635 and restored to their present glory by brilliant owner and restauranteur, James Thompson.   After a fast and comfortable train trip from London, we walked up (and I mean UP) the hill to The Witchery. Roxy met us at reception and happily lugged our suitcases up the winding stone staircase and stopped at a heavy, wooden door with a brass plate stamped “The Library.”  It would be an understatement to describe the Library Suite as opulent, decadent, and luxurious. The antique-filled, almost theatrical decor wraps guests in a transformative experience.  It was hard not to “ooohhh and ahhhhh” my way around the suite as Roxy uncovered hidden door after hidden door.   Champagne upon arrival, breakfast hampers in bed, luxurious bathrooms hidden behind book-lined  doorways, bathtubs for two and discreet, attentive service are all part of The Witchery experience.

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Our stay at The Witchery was the first time in my life I ceased to care about touring schedules, event agendas or ticking off sites in a city.  I just wanted to stay in our fabulous little bolt-hole in Edinburgh and luxuriate in my surroundings. I suggest you do the same.

Things to know:

There are 8 Witchery suites:  The Library, Inner Sanctum, Old Rectory, Vestry, Armory, Semphill, Guardroom  and the Heriot.  No two are alike, so spend your time choosing a favorite here .  I’ll have to go and stay 7 more times to determine which suite I think is best.  I’ll do it for you.

The suites do book up quickly.  I booked 5 months ahead.  Check their website for offers.

The Witchery is centrally located on the Royal Mile.  It was very quiet when we were staying (off-season), but if you are concerned with noise from the potentially busy street, choose a suite without street-facing windows.

The Witchery has a “sister” hotel adjacent to Royal Holyrood Park, a short distance from the Royal Mile. You can find details at Prestonfield House .