Tower to Tower on the Paris Metro

La Defense, the last stop in the Western direction on Metro line 1,  was planned as a business park in 1989. With its iconic Grande Arche, it has become a tourist attraction in its own right.

The area also boasts “Europe’s largest shopping centre,” on 11 hectares of parks and gardens, with elaborate fountains and 60 modern sculptures, including the works of Calder, Miro and Richard Serra. The arch itself is a giant hollow cube spanning an open space large enough to accommodate Notre Dame Cathedral. Two panoramic lifts make the 110-metre ascent to the “Toit” in 66 seconds. Make the ascent to visit the computer museum, where over 200 pieces are displayed, documenting the computer’s evolution since World War II. Exhibits include an early computer so large you are invited “to come inside”, as well as the first desktop and first laptop. There is also a reconstruction of a teenager’s bedroom of 1980, complete with the equipment that he would have needed to download one song in 24 hours.

The Grande Arche itself is a prolongation of the “historic axis” that starts at the Louvre pyramid, continues through the Carrousel Arch, the Place le la Concorde, and the Arc de Triomphe. From the viewing terrace in front of the arch you can take in a spectacular vista that includes not only the axis, but the Seine valley, too.

Le Toit de la Grande Arche is open seven days a week from 10:00 to 19:00 from October through March and until 20:00 during the rest of the year. There’s a “water ballet” at the AGAM Fountain Monday to Friday from 17:00 to 19:00 and Friday and Saturday at 20:30. Download an audio guide to La Defense to your MP3 player from

There is something undeniably exotic about emerging from the Metro right at the foot of a castle; you need only cross a drawbridge over a wide stone-lined moat to enter the grounds of the Chateau de Vincennes. Now the last stop at the Eastern end of Metro number 1, this was the residence of French kings until Louis XIV moved the court to Versailles. It is complete with a medieval keep and dungeon and its own Sainte Chapelle built to house a fragment of the crown of thorns now kept in Paris.   The Chateau began as a Royal hunting lodge in 1150 and was enlarged and modified over the centuries. The picturesque 50-metre high tower was constructed in 1337, making it the tallest medieval fortified structure in Europe. Take a tour of the dungeon, one of whose prisoners was the Marquis de Sade. The Chateau is now the headquarters of the French Historical Service, which maintains a museum in the dungeon.

The Chateau is open every day from 10:00 to 17:00.
For details, visit Metro Line 1: La Defense-Chateau de Vincennes


Weekend with Vincent


Van Gogh arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise by train from Paris on May 21, 1890. He rented an attic room in the Auberge Ravoux for 3.50 francs a week and immediately wrote to his brother Theo in Paris:  ‘Auvers is strikingly beautiful’. Vincent would still find Auvers beautiful and the scenes he immortalised – the church, the town hall, the fields, houses and village streets – very little changed.

Like Van Gogh, I arrived in Auvers on the Paris train and quickly settled into an inn. Not the Auberge Ravoux, because it is now a restaurant called ‘La Maison de Van Gogh’, but the 17th century Hostellerie du Nord, where Cezanne had stayed on his visits to Auvers.

Then I set out along the picturesque pathways of Auvers, eager to see for myself what had drawn so many Impressionists to the village. Reproductions of 19 canvasses, 12 by Van Gogh, are displayed on panels positioned where the originals were painted. It’s as if the artists themselves were pointing out the views that had appealed to them, inviting you to see the landscape through their eyes.

Auvers -only 35 kilometres from Paris -was ‘discovered’ by the painter, Charles-Francois Daubigny.  In Auvers, he built a floating studio on the river Oise,and in 1861 a house and atelier in the centre of the village. Cezanne, Pissarro, Corot, Daumier and Guillaumin were among those who joined him in Auvers, to make up a flourishing artists’ colony.

A Parisian doctor, Paul Gachet – who painted under the pseudonym of Paul van Riesel – also had a house in the village, where he entertained the leading Impressionists. It was the doctor’s kind assurance to Theo that he would keep an eye on his brother’s precarious health that led to Van Gogh’s stay in Auvers. The experiment, which began so promisingly in May, ended only 70 days later with Vincent’s self-inflicted death.

 But in that time he had produced 73 canvasses, drawings and sketches, among them the most celebrated of his works. In 1990, a Japanese businessman bought one of Van Gogh’s two very similar portraits of the physician for 82 million dollars. The other portrait of Dr. Gachet hangs in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

The story of Vincent’s time in Auvers is told in a short but moving video presentation at the Auvers Tourist Bureau. The bureau is also the place to pick up the useful maps, setting out three itineraries that retrace Van Gogh’s footsteps. Vincent walked as passionately as he painted, and to cover the entire circuit would take some seven hours. This is one reason not to limit your stay in Avers to a single day. Another is that, by staying the night, you have the chance to see the village in the early morning light and in the evening when it is free of day trippers And the third is that even two days is barely enough in which to see all there is to see.

Visit the early 17th century Chateau d’Auvers, viewing a 90-minute multimedia journey into the world of the Impressionists and a 20-minute 3D film of Van Gogh’s last days in Auvers. The Chateau figured in one of Van Gogh’s paintings and it was within its park that the tormented artist fired a bullet into his own chest. He died two days later in his room in the Auberge, attended by Dr. Gachet.

Spend a moment in Vincent’s room and visit Dr. Gachet’s house, where Van Gogh often shared a meal with the family. Daubigny’s home and atelier, still occupied by Daubigny’s descendants, is open at certain times, too. (Daubigny and his son, the artist Karl Daubigny, helped by Corot and Daumier, decorated its interior walls as a rainy day project! Van Gogh had deeply admired Daubigny and became friendly with the artist’s widow. Van Gogh painted Daubigny’s house and garden more than once.

On my last morning in town I followed the steep road behind the Hostellerie, past the Romano-Gothic church Van Gogh made famous, to the cemetery where Vincent is buried. Theo lies next to him, their twin graves blanketed in ivy and marked by the simplest of headstones. Across the road, stretches a broad field with a reproduction of a Van Gogh landscape posted beside it, a painting he completed 15 days before he fired the fatal bullet. Only here did I fail to share the artist’s vision. I saw a newly planted field on a sunny morning; he saw crows descending on ripe wheat under a doom-laden sky. In a letter to Theo, Vincent wrote of the painting: “ I did not have to go out of my way to express sadness and extreme loneliness.”

GETTING THERE:   A direct train from Paris to Avers operates weekends and holidays from the first weekend in April to the last weekend in October. Leaves Gare du Nord at 10:08 arrrives in Auvers at 10h43. Return leaves Auvers at 18h06, arrives Gare du ord at 18h39.

STAYING THERE: Joel Boilleaut’s Hostellerie du Nord has 8 individually decorated en suite rooms. The restaurant attracts food lovers from far and wide; book ahead.

To book hotel or restaurant visit the website:

AUVERS TOURIST BUREAU, rue de la Sansonne, Auvers-sur-Oise. Open all year, Tuesday-Sunday and holidays (except  Dec 25 and Jan 1) From April through October from 9:30 to 12:30 and from 14h to 18h ;from November to March from 9:30 to 12:30 and from 14h to 17h.

France/Italy Welcome

Another Side to Venice

In his Companion Guide to Venice, the British art historian Hugh Honour wrote that to approach Venice in any way but by sea “is like entering a palace through the back door”.

To understand what he means take a water taxi from the airport. From your boat your first view of the city is the majestic white dome of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute. Punctuating the low skyline of Venice, as indistinct in its envelope of mist as a painting by Turner or Monet, it is the iconic symbol of Venice.

In Venetian terms, the church is not old; it dates from the mid-17th century when it was built in thanksgiving to “Our Lady of Good Health”, whose intercession was credited with halting a plague that had raged for two years and killed more than one-third of the population of Venice. The competition for the design of the church was won by an unknown, 26-year-old architect, Baldassare Longhena. He promised a building that would be “strange, worthy, and beautiful”. And that does describe Longhena’s octagonal Venetian Baroque building which, though supported by over one million wooden piles, seems to float near the tip of the Dorsoduro, the west bank of the Grand Canal.

One of the six sestieri or areas of Venice, the Dorsoduro (Italian for “hard ridge”) has always been considered less fashionable than the facing bank which is home to St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. But from the tourist’s point of view that works in Dorsoduro’s favour. Far less congested and in many ways more atmospheric than the sestieri across the Grand Canal, the area is mysterious and misty in the winter and in summer cooler and more tranquil. With its narrow streets and hidden alleys, Dorsoduro yields up its treasures one by one as if it were turning over playing cards. Although it’s linked with the opposite shore by the Accademia Bridge and the number one waterbus, you can make crossing the Grand Canal an authentic Venetian experience in itself; take the traghetto that runs during daylight hours from a “campo del traghetti” near the Guglie waterbus stop. (Yellow signs on house walls point you to it.) Traghetti are old gondolas, their seats stripped out to make room for passengers who stand on the short crossing, contriving to keep their balance even when the traghetto crosses the wake of a motorboat. You pay your 50 cent fare to the oarsman on arrival at a little wooden pier convenient to La Salute, the new Punta del Dogana art gallery and the Peggy Guggenheim collection of modern art.

If this very Venetian ride across the Grand Canal isn’t excuse enough to make the excursion, here are six more good reasons to visit

1. Experience La Salute

The No 1 waterbus brings you right to the steps of the church; if you come by traghetto, turn left from the landing and a short walk will bring you there. Enter this Baroque masterpiece to admire the ceiling panels by Titian and Tinteretto’s famous painting, the Marriage at Cana. On the feast day of Santa Maria della Salute, November 21, a temporary pontoon bridge links La Salute with the San Marco district. Venetians carrying candles walk across to pay their respects and gondoliers bring their oars for a blessing.

2. Visit the Punta della Dogana

The only building further out to sea than La Salute, is the low-lying Dogana, a 17th century maritime Customs House remodelled by the Japanese architect, Tadao Ando into a chic contemporary art gallery; it opened in June 2009 to house one-half of the ongoing ‘Mapping the Studio’ exhibition made up of art works belonging to the French billionaire Francois Pinault. The other half of the exhibition can be seen in the Palazzo Grassi which also belongs to Mr

The two museums share a
Opening hours are 10:00 to 19:00, with the last entrance at 18:00.
Closed Tuesdays and from December 24 to January 2.

3. Stroll down the Zattere quay

If you follow around the tip of the Dorsoduro you find yourself on the Zattere, a picturesque promenade lined with 15th and 16th century palazzi and churches which front on the Giudecca Canal. Zattere means ‘raft of logs’, and it was here that the wood that floated down river from the Dolomites was landed to be made into ships’ masts and pilings for the city of Venice. Today the Zattere is popular with Venetians for its restaurants (including one whose dining tables are set out on a platform in the water) and Gelateria Nico, which serves what many claim to be the city’s best ice cream.

4. See a gondola repair shop

Turn left off the Zattere at the fondamento that runs along the Rio San Treviso. From here you have the best view of the boatyard, the squero. New gondolas are rarely made here (there are three other boatyards in the city) but when they are, they are built traditionally from seven kinds of wood in a process that takes up to two months to complete. The principal work in this boatyard is the repairing and maintaining of the 350 gondolas still in service in Venice. The picturesque Tyrolian-looking wooden buildings that surround the squero have been home to the same owners for generations and are the original workshops, dating from the 17th century.

5. Visit the Accademia Gallery

This museum covering five centuries of Venetian painting up to the 19th century is so huge – 24 rooms – you should plan your visit in advance, it’s also a good idea to buy your ticket online and save queueing. The Accademia was founded in 1750 as an art school, but had several homes before its move in 1807, under Napoleonic edict, to the present location at the foot of the bridge of the same name. It benefitted from Napoleon’s suppression of religious schools and convents, acquiring many extraordinary works of art.

The gallery is open every day from 8:15, closes at 19h every day but Monday when it closes at 14h. You can find descriptions of the exhibitions – to help you decide which rooms to visit – as well as online ticket purchase at

6. Relax at the Peggy Guggenheim museum.

This small palazzo, with its breathtaking view of the Grand Canal, was where the American millionaire collector lived. The rooms in which her sensational assemblage of modern art is shown still feel ‘domestic’. You can easily imagine the parties, the drinks on the terrace, the lifestyle she led here surrounded by her treasured collection. At the back of the garden is a café where you can enjoy a coffee or a light lunch. Open every day from 10:00 to 18:00. Closed on Tuesdays and on Christmas Day.

For further details, visit:

Take the taxi!

Book your water taxi on arrival in the airport – there’s a desk in the arrivals’ hall – or, pre-book at or Expensive — but way to go!


At Home in Rome’s Wine Academy

Il Palazzetto has its feet on the ground on Vicola del Bottino but its head in the air. Its rooftop terrace looks out across Rome’s famous Spanish Steps. In between are the five elegant floors of the International Wine Academy of Roma.

For centuries, Il Palazzetto was one of the favourite residences of an aristocratic Roman family. Abandoned in 1980, it lay empty until 1998, when film director Bernardo Bertolucci used it as the setting for L’assedio (The Besieged), the story of a pianist’s romantic pursuit of a beautiful African servant.

In September 2002, Il Palazzetto opened as the “Wine Academy of Roma,” an informal club and meeting place for wine lovers. Today, a pre-dinner guided wine tasting in the library, or a gastronomic lunch or dinner in the garden (roofed and heated in winter), is the kind of refined delight which makes Rome “Rome.” The work of transforming an abandoned historical building into a luxurious and welcoming setting for the appreciation of fine wine took three years. It began when Roberto Wirth, owner and manager of Rome’s ultra-prestigious Hotel Hassler, acquired Il Palazzetto in 1999. He decided, along with a group of like-minded friends, to express his own enthusiasm for fine wines and food by making Il Palazzetto the headquarters of an International Wine Academy.

The subsequent renovation of the palazzo brought to light ancient materials and finishes such as the original marble pavement of the ground floor which dates from the year 500AD, and the wrought iron of the magnificent spiral staircase, dating to the end of the 1800s. As other architectural details were uncovered, they were restored and reinstated, bringing the building back to harmonious life.

Responsibility for coordinating the educational activities of the Academy was entrusted to Steven Spurrier, who established the Wine Academy of Paris in 1973 and the wine course at Christie’s in 1982. He orchestrates the daily wine tastings, the lunches and dinners at which food and wine are carefully matched, and the various educational courses, which are held at the Academy on a half-day, weekly or full week basis.

Four beautiful bedrooms – one with frescoed walls – have been opened on the upper floors of Il Palazzetto making it possible for a lucky few to stay in an historical palace in the heart of Rome.

Wine tastings, guided by a master sommelier, are held Monday to Friday between 6 and 7 pm. A platter of gourmet cheeses and cured meats accompanies the tastings. €20 per person; reservations are essential. For those who prefer to taste wine on their own, Il Palazzetto’s wine bar is ideal for a casual glass of wine; there are 400 to choose from, along with a cheese and meat platter or an appetiser. Il Palazzetto’s restaurant, under Chef Antonio Martucci, serves modern Italian fare combining fresh ingredients in adventurous ways.

For more information, or to make a reservation for a wine tasting, lunch or dinner: telephone +39-06-699-0878; email; visit; or write Il Palazzetto, Wine Academy of Roma, Vicolo del Bottino, 800187, Rome, Italy.

Il Palazzetto’s bedrooms each come with stylish bath en suite and continental breakfast. For full details and to book visit

France/Italy Welcome

Four Layers of Rome

Rome is built on a crust of history. It seems that wherever they break through, a secret museum is found lying beneath the ground. Currently, some 400 excavations are accessible, varying in degree of difficulty presented by the site and in terms of the amount of red tape required to arrange a visit.

One which requires no forward planning, but offers an easy walk through a four-layer cross section of Roman history, is the medieval Church of St Clemente. Simply descend a staircase in the nave to arrive in an earlier Basilica, larger than the one above it, built around 375 AD.

Both churches are richly decorated, the 12th century church with mosaics, the earlier one with frescoes. Sacked by the Normans, it became the foundation for the present church and lay forgotten until 1827 when a determined priest started the 40-year excavation project that brought it to light.

Down a further level is one of the best preserved shrines to Mithras yet found under Rome. This Persian religion, popular with the Imperial soldiers, had more followers than Christ at the beginning of the 4th century. The religion involved the sacrifice of a bull, and in the floor is the channel down which the blood of the animals ran. There are rooms with stuccoed ceilings, the dining room with stone benches, and what is thought to have been a schoolroom for young initiates.

Finally, under this pagan temple, you visit the still unexcavated foundations of the Roman buildings burned in Nero’s great fire and walk the cobbles of a 1,900-year-old Roman street, now 30 feet underground. The Church of San Clemente is at Via San Giovanni in Laterno, open every day from 9.00 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. and from 3.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m.


Museum of the Liberation

On August 25, 1944 – after 1,533 days and nights of humiliation, deprivation and fear – the Nazis were driven out of Paris  and the city was free. De Gaulle led the grand march of the victorious French and Allied troops down the Champs Elysees, where the incoming Nazi troops had paraded on June 14, 1940.

On the 75th anniversary of this day, in August 2019,  the Museum of the Liberation which preserves these memories opened in its new home in the historic pavilion Ledoux on Place Denfert-Rochereau. I  visited it once in its previous hard-to- find location above the Gare Monparnasse; the eclectic collection of artefacts on view – wartime newspapers, photos and posters, ration books, uniforms, documents and much else.- produced a collage that was both affecting and personal. The story of these extraordinary days it told through the histories of two exceptional men: Marshall Leclerc and Jean Moulin, one who served France under the battle flag, the other who worked in the shadows.

The aristocratic Philippe_Leclerc_de_Hauteclocque, known simply as Leclerc, took part in the Normandy Invasion of 1944 as commander of the Free French 2nd Armoured Division. This illustrious division was the one later assigned by the Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower,  to liberate the French capital. When  Leclerc died in a plane crash in Algeria in 1947, he was accorded the honour of being buried in a crypt in Les Invalides. 

The  underground work of the leader of the French resistance forces, Jean Moulin, is the other focus of the museum. A local government administrator from Bezier, Languedoc, Jean Moulin was entrusted by De Gaulle with the difficult task of unifying the French resistance efforts.  He was twice captured  and tortured by the Gestapo.  He died in Gestapo custody. His presumed ashes were interred first in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris before being transferred to the Panthéon on 19 December 1964. 

The museum traces the overall history of the war, as well as the stories of some of the ordinary people who endured it, through thousands of objects, both military and domestic and hundreds of eye witness reports; it  puts in context the period between the two World Wars, the events of the African campaigns, the Normandy beachheads and eventually the liberation of Paris.

The museum is open daily except Monday. Admission free.

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Hideaway on the Riviera

CAP d’Ail is the last French town the motorist rushes through before crossing the border to Monte Carlo. So obscured by its glamorous neighbour is Cap d’Ail (Ail derives from the Italian for ‘bee’) most guidebooks don’t even mention it. Those that do, comment only on its beach. True, a French newspaper voted Plage Mala ‘the prettiest beach on the Riviera’ but that’s not all the little village ‘between the sea and the mountains’ has to offer.

An old-style resort town, Cap d’Ail has hardly changed since the beginning of the last century. The most popular restaurant, Edmonds, is still in its 1930s’ decor and across the street from it, there’s a little shop crowded with buckets and spades, post cards and beachwear.

There are tiny pockets of parks where children play, as well as grand landscaped gardens surrounding villas . . . once the winter homes of celebrities ranging from Apollinaire and Colette to Greta Garbo and Winston Churchill.

Two of the villas and several of the gardens may be visited.Sun-lovers will appreciate the beaches; in addition to Plage Mala there are three others.Committed walkers have their choice of four relatively undemanding but stunningly panoramic paths to follow: two along the shoreline and two up in the hills. Each walk is signposted so you can identify the flora growing along the way. For a small charge, a knowledgeable guide will accompany you.Information and bookings at the Cap d’Ail Tourist Office, 87 bis. Av du 3 Septembre. 

There are two exceptional restaurants in Cap d’Ail, both on Plage Mala. La Pinede, once a fisherman’s hut on the shore, is now a relaxed but sophisticated setting in which to sample Mediterranean fish specialties.

La Reserve, with its flower-banked wooden deck overlooking the sea, is beautiful in the daytime but memorable on a warm night when the water reaches almost to the deck and torches light the high tide mark.

There are hotels and pensions in Cap d’Ail, and the tourist bureau has the list. I like Hotel de Monaco: Small bedrooms, no lift, but welcoming and affordable for the Cap d’Azur.

Plus. . .

If you find yourself missing the bright lights, there’s always Monaco, a mere mile away and minutes from Cap d’Ail by frequent local bus.

Dip into Monaco’s 700-year-old history with a visit to the palace; dip into your bank account for an evening at the casino. Wander in the upmarket shopping malls or pick up your designer gear from one of the super elegant boutiques. On the other hand, just relax over a coffee on the terrace of the Cafe de Paris and watch the Rolls roll by.

Getting to Cap d’Ail: The nearest airport is Nice . The train and the bus from Nice both stop in Cap d’Ail.  

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Tende, in the “Valley of Marvels”, is a French town with an Italian soul; it had been Italian for a very long time before it became, in 1947, the last commune to join the French Republic. A mediaeval, terraced village on the edge of the valley, Tende makes an easy, unusual day trip from Nice.

And getting there is part of the fun. A gaily painted Marvels Train” leaves Nice at 9am each morning. In summer, a commentator will be on board to describe the traditions and cultures of the villages you glimpse from the train windows in passing. Reservations are not needed. By 10:45am, you reach Tende.

The Vallée des Merveilles, now part of the Mercantour National Park, is the largest “listed” site in France. The marvels in question are the rock carvings– daggers, stars, and horned figures – left by Early Bronze Age man on the flat-faced rocks of Mount Bégo, their sacred mountain. On slabs polished by the glaciers, they inscribed over 100,000 symbols at an altitude of 2,872 metres – as close as they could get to their Sky God, whose energy was transmitted through lightening.

The 17th century historian, Pietro Gioffredo, described these petroglyphs as “merveilles”, from the Italian word for ‘fantastic’. In the museum,  under protective glass, you can see some of the carved rock faces that have been removed from the site for safekeeping.  Also exhibited are many moulds of carvings made by the museum staff. The advantage of these is that you can touch them; you can explore the chisel marks made by prehistoric man with your own fingertips.

In addition to material on the history of the region and its pastoral tradition, the museum features a lifelike replica of Ötzi, the so-called “iceman”. This is the 5,300-year-old frozen hunter, whose well-preserved and still clothed corpse was spotted in 1991 by a pair of German hikers in the Austrian Alps. Ötzi would have been roughly contemporary with the shepherds who made the rock carvings in the Valley of Marvels

The office of the Tende Tourist Bureau shares the square with the museum.  I picked up a free mimeographed guide to the village and after a very good lunch in the Miratelli restaurant on the nearby rue Antoine Vassallo, set out to see the sights. The main event is the 15th century church and the road to it runs to the  right as you leave the museum. The route is not as simple as it looks, however, as it runs sharply up and down hill – mostly up – and little side roads lure you through a maze of narrow streets.

A hair-pin turn with an important looking signpost to the Via Ferrata, for instance, beckoned me up a staircase and then led me back not far from the museum where I started. As you may know, but I didn’t, a “Via Ferrata,” is not a street but an Alpine “iron way”, in this case a 1,000-metre-long span of rope bridges and mountain climbing facilities linking Tende and the neighbouring village of Brique the hard way.

So I resolutely started out again, past fountains and tiny squares, over stone bridges, under vaulted passageways, up steep flights of stairs, on my way to the 15th century church, Notre Dame de l’Assomption. From some bends on the narrow road, there were vistas of the valley, the Tende River, and the arches of the railway bridge the train of marvels had travelled over on its journey here. At one miniature intersection, I found the entrance to the cave-like washhouse still in use by local housewives. Leading me on, sometimes visible in the near distance, sometimes obscured by a twist in the road, were Tende’s extraordinary bell tower and the exuberantly coloured façade of the church..These out-sized structures stand up to their waists in the modest grey town with its roofs of mauve slate. Behind the 400-year-old oak doorway of the church is a 15th century nave, an organ dating from 1802, and church furniture that has been in place since the 17th century. Or so I read on the guide sheet. The church was already closed when  I reached it.

I hiked back through Tende to the station in time for the 5:22 pm train to Nice.