Tuesday, January 31, 2012

If you, like me, are crazy for 'Downton Abbey,' you must read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle (Broadway Paperbacks, $15.99), written by Lady Fiona Carnarvon, Countess of Carnarvon. Highclere is the real-life castle that is the inspiration and setting for Downton Abbey, and Lady Fiona -- who maried the Earl of Carnarvon in 1999 -- has lived at Highclere for the past twelve years (though the jacket text states they've lived at Highclere for eight years, Lady Fiona notes in her Prologue that it's been twelve, and I've decided I prefer to believe that!).

The true story of Lady Almina, 5th Countess of Carnarvon, is positively fascinating, and much that happens in the life of Lady Cora Crawley in the PBS show is based on the life of Lady Almina, who is believed to be the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild (there is no doubt who her mother was: Marie Wombwell, widow of a "heavy drinker and reckless gambler," Frederick Wombwell). Lady Almina truly was an exceptional woman, in many ways, but I was no less taken with her husband, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, who, quite remarkably, was with Howard Carter when he discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun on 4 November, 1922. As Lady Fiona notes, "despite the differences in the two men's social background, they were a formidable alliance and became great friends." Lord Carnarvon apparently adored the exquisite objects he and Carter were discovering, but again as Lady Fiona notes, the book he wrote with Carter about their five-year-long dig at Thebes was quite a serious work, published by Oxford University Press and illustrated with his own photographs (I think the book published by Routledge/Kegan Paul Library of Ancient Egypt in 2006, Tutankhamen and the Discovery of His Tomb, is a reprinted edition of this noted work).

In her Epilogue, Lady Fiona writes that Highclere today is an ensemble of characters just as it was in Almina's time. She met relatives of the former staff while researching this book and they helped enormously in shedding light on life in the 'downstairs' areas of the castle. "Today," she adds, "the Castle and estate still house families who have worked and lived here for generations. They pass down stories of predecessors. Retirement is possible but not mandatory. The new generation learns from the old. 'Newcomers' have worked here for fifteen or twenty years and 'proper Castle people' may stay for up to fifty years. Some people think they are coming to work for a short time and find it hard to leave."

I devoured this book, starting it one morning and finishing it late the next night, and I loved it. I think you will, too. And if you're traveling to England this spring or summer (for the Olympics, perhaps?) note that Highclere Castle is open to visitors! Online ticket purchases may be made beginning the second half of February, and ticket prices range from 5 to 16 British Pounds per adult. The Castle is closed until the 1st of April and welcomes visitors until the 15th of that month, then it's open on select dates in May and June, and in the summer it's open from 1 July to 13 September. The Highclere website features good visitor information -- with suggestions for accommodations and places to eat in the area -- and Egyptology links.

The other image above is of a special edition of two novels by Julian Fellowes, who wrote the screenplay for 'Downton Abbey' (Fellowes is also an actor, notably in the BBC series 'Monarch of the Glen,' and he won an Oscar for best writing, original screenplay for the film 'Gosford Park' in 2001.) My British friend Yvonne visited me last fall and when she found out I was such a fan of 'Downton Abbey' she asked if I'd read any of Fellowes' novels. I didn't even know at that time that he'd written any, so she sent me the British editions of Past Imperfect and Snobs (the U.S. editions sport different covers). I recently finished reading them and found them equally as engaging and I highly recommend them! Yvonne thinks Fellowes is particularly brilliant at portraying British class differences, and I completely agree. I was ignorant of the fact that such traditions as debutante balls, coming out parties, and strict seasonal wardrobes we inherited from the British -- I had thought they were uniquely American (and I'm not even sure these things are still popular, though they were still going strong when I started college in the late '70s). The main character in Past Imperfect, which is set in the present but recounts events from the late '60s, observes that "before the first war, among the upper classes, five or six changes a day, for walking, shooting, breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner, were de rigueur at any house party and three at least were necessary for a day in London. They observed these tiresome rituals of dress for the simple reason that they knew once they stopped looking like a ruling class they would soon cease to be a ruling class. Our politicans have only just learned what the toffs have known for a thousand years: Appearance is all. Why, then, did it die so suddenly? Because they stopped believing in themselves."

Good stuff. I eagerly await this Sunday's episode of 'Downton Abbey' -- whether the deja blue Super Bowl lineup is over or not!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I've been unable to stop thinking about the Costa Concordia tragedy these last few days. It's just so hard for me to imagine, and the ship's sinking is just one reason why I have never been on a cruise (there are other reasons, to be sure, namely that I am not a boat person -- typically within the first five minutes of being on a boat I begin to feel nauseous -- and also because I view most cruises fit for what my friend Mitchell refers to as "sheeple"). I am filled with sadness for the people still missing and for those already declared dead, and I know the survivors will be haunted by the ordeal for a long time.

I am also wondering how this catastrophe will affect little Isola del Giglio. Those of you who've read my Tuscany and Umbria book know that my husband and I visited there on the recommendation of a friend from nearby Porto Ercole, and we positively loved it. It was mid-summer and the weather was as gloriously sunny as in the photos above, which I have copied from the Isola del Giglio tourist office website (I did not see any copyright notice referenced and the photos to do not appear to be attributed to anyone, so I share them freely and offer apologies to the photographer who took them).

Besides the island's natural beauty and easy-going style, particularly memorable for us was the fact that we did not run into a single other American tourist. The island is simply not on the typical Tuscan short list. Also memorable for me was that I purchased a pair of blue, plastic sandals from a vendor in Giglio Porto, the bustline harbor where the boat from Porto Santo Stefano pulls in. A lot of beaches in southern Europe are rocky, and Europeans have for many years worn plastic sandals to protect their feet going in and out of the Mediterranean. So I was happy to have my own pair and when we got to Campese, popular for its wide beach, I put them on and dove into some of the clearest, turquoise-colored water I've ever encountered. Promptly, the sandal on my left foot slipped off, and I watched it descend for a few seconds before I yelled at my husband to dive down and fetch it. Some Italian boys who witnessed the whole scene also dove down. Because the water was so clear the sandal seemed within reach, but after several minutes everyone gave up, and I was feeling rather bereft. I told Jeff that I would just have to go back to that vendor and ask him to sell me one sandal, to which Jeff scoffed. When we returned to the harbor area I found the vendor and tried to explain what happened, but there was a language barrier and it was clear to me that he didn't really understand what I was saying. However, he did understand that I only wanted to buy one sandal, and he made it clear that he would not sell me only one. So of course I bought another pair. And I still have them and wear them to this day.

Giglio is a mere 8 kilometers long and the majority of the island is uninhabited. Legend has it that when the Tyrrhenian Venus emerged from the waves of the sea, seven gemstones fell from her tiara, and turned into the seven islands of the Tuscan archipelago: Elba, Capraia, Giglio, Gorgona, Pianosa, Giannutri, and Montecristo. There are a number of wonderful hiking paths on the island, an impressive castello on a hill, casual places to eat, places to stay, and four great beaches.

As I say I have no idea what the future holds for the island, but I was distressed when I read an e-mail note sent to me by a friend who knows the island quite well. He in turn shared an e-mail note he received from someone who knows the island even better -- as he noted, the Costa Concordia "sank in waters I know like the back of my hand. " The rest of the message read as follows:

"The simple truth about the crash is the following: the varied captains of the liner were in the habit of "showing off" the boat to the islanders of Giglio. In fact, the mayor of the island had even congratulated just this past August a previous captain for the "honored spectacle" of bringing the ship so close to the island. The rock from which I have dived many times is a mere 50/60 yards from the coast and is linked by a chain of rocks quite large which protrude like small islands and are very visible to the naked eye. Pure incompetence!"


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The image above is the cover of a gift catalog/magazine (that I’m certain was expensive to produce) from La Grande Épicerie de Paris in Le Bon Marché department store (38 rue de Sèvres, 7th arrondissement). I picked it up in December of 2009, and though you can’t tell from the image, you can actually turn the serrated wheel at the right so that the colors change in the cut-outs of the gift boxes. I think it’s such a beautiful publication that I can’t bear to get rid of it, and besides, looking through it reminds me that La Grande Épicerie is a fabulous one-stop shop for wonderful culinary gifts (for others, but also for yourself!).

It also reminds me how much I love Paris’s grands magasins (department stores), and how often I tell people not to overlook them. It’s not just about the shopping: Galeries Lafayette, for example, has a gorgeous, mosaic glass domed ceiling that is every bit worth seeing as any other Parisian landmark, and the façade of Au Printemps was registered as a historic monument in 1975. In addition to Galeries Lafayete, Au Printemps, and Bon Marché, the other grands magasins include Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville (BHV) and, formerly, La Samaritaine, now closed. In some ways I liked La Samaritaine best of all. The store was founded by Ernest Cognacq and his wife, Marie-Louise Jay (yes, the very same names associated with the wonderful Cognac-Jay Museum in the nearby 3rd arrondissement, housing one of the finest private collections of 18th century painting and objets d’art). Cognacq reportedly began selling ties on the Pont Neuf at a site previously known for a water pump located under an arch of the bridge. The pump provided water to the community from the early 1600s to the early 1800s, and it bore a bas-relief of the biblical Samaritan woman drawing water for Jesus at the well. I suppose Ernest and his wife had no trouble thinking of a name for their store when it opened in 1870. La Samaritaine was enormously successful until the 1970s, when it began operating at a loss, and it closed in 2005. I didn’t buy many things there but I loved the store for its rooftop café, Toupary (I love that pun!). I always heard the food was mediocre so I only ever had coffee and wine there, but what I came for was the view, which was spectacular and gratuit – everyone was welcome to come and look out at the Seine and the rooftops and beyond. Luxury goods company LVMH now owns La Samaritaine, and in 2010 it was announced that the Japanese firm Sanaa had been chosen to redesign the property. A 450 million euro project – apparently the largest privately funded construction project ever undertaken in Paris – will turn the former store into a luxury hotel and three adjacent properties will be dedicated to offices, shops, 95 apartments, and a nursery.

On nearby rue de Rivoli and founded in 1856 is BHV (that’s pronounced BAY-AHSH-VAY and it was abbreviated in 1982), which also has a rooftop terrace that practically nobody seems to know about. I discovered it quite by accident, and I couldn’t believe my luck – besides me, there were only three other people up on the roof and the view, while not as great as at Samaritaine, was still terrific. There is not a café here, which is probably why few people know to come up. The stationery department and the sous-sol (basement, which is devoted to hardware and kitchenware gadgets; you can buy cool stuff you can’t find in the States here, like drawer pulls and knobs that say “chaud” and “froid”) are the only areas I’ve ever bought anything.

Galeries Lafayette (founded in 1893) and Printemps (founded in 1865) are neighbors on the boulevard (Haussmann) so they’ve long been fierce rivals. I like just standing in the Lafayette Coupole building with its Belle Epoque architecture, but I also like the Home building (across the street) and, of course, Lafayette Gourmet (though in my opinion it is not nearly as appealing as the Épicerie at Bon Marché). Also, there are free fashion shows, which can be great fun, every Friday at 3:00 on the 7th floor in the Coupole building. A man named Jules Jaluzot was the creator of Au Printemps, which had an unfortunate start when a fire destroyed nearly all of the original building. But when the store reopened, in 1883, it was unique in two regards, according to the store’s website: it was the first to have electricity, and the first to have set prices for its merchandise (bargaining had been customary, but according to Catharine Reynolds in ‘Paris Journal: The Great Department Stores’ [Gourmet, October 1993], the practice of fixed prices was begun at Bon Marché). Believe it or not, a second fire occurred in the early 1920s, but since that time the store has been spared further destruction (and underwent a major restoration in 2006). My favorite place to be in Printemps is the Brasserie, which features a gorgeous, Art Deco cupola. And the 9th floor offers an unobstructed view from the Opéra to the Madeleine and from the Eiffel Tower to Montmartre.

But back to Au Bon Marché (as it was originally called, in 1852, by its founder, Aristide Boucicaut): I think it has the jewel in the department store crown with the Épicerie. I have spent a lot of euros (and former francs) here buying chocolate (the Valrhona selection is far more extensive than what is available in the States, plus there are always several brands that I’ve never heard of; and I also bought a chocolate watch for my daughter!); dragée chocolate almonds covered in gold, silver, and copper (typically only available around the December holidays); Kusmi tea (again, lots more varieties on offer); a box of marrons glacés; A.O.C. olive oil from Nyons (among my most favorite); exotic salts; smoked salmon; and even an accroche-sac, one of those gadgets that you slide over a table edge and hang a handbag on (mine is “decorated” with the Epicerie website, http://www.lagrandeepicerie.fr/).

If you’ve read this far and are wondering if I’m just rambling on about the grands magasins for seemingly no good reason, in fact I’m doing so because January is one month of les soldes (sales) in Paris and I know a number of people who plan trips around these big sales. Les Soldes are nationwide and state-regulated, and, according to the authors of one of the best books about France ever written – Sixty Million Frenchman Can’t Be Wrong by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow (Sourcebooks, 2003) – they predate the discovery of America by at least three hundred years. Nadeau and Barlow note that “the police set the dates and supervise the sales across the country: stores are only allowed to have sales from mid-January to mid-February and from mid-June to mid-July. To hold a sale outside that period, merchants have to obtain special approval from the police. The rest of the year, small shops and big retailers can’t so much as offer a rebate without facing the wrath of the law.” I have read, however, that due to the faltering economy, the government has recently been allowing stores to mark down merchandise outside of les soldes. The Winter 2012 sales begin next week on 11 January and run for six weeks, ending on the 14th of February.

As each week passes, prices are slashed further, so it’s possible to get an outstanding bargain, even on designer items. But as with sales anywhere in the world, it pays to be knowledgeable about pre-sales prices to determine how good (or not) a deal you’re getting. Savvy shoppers will visit the stores in advance of the sales, especially to try on clothes for sizing – it will be a madhouse once the sales begin, so if you already know what size to buy you will save valuable time. Waiting until the end of the sales is not necessarily advantageous for clothes shoppers as by that point there will be limited sizes available. If you’re not going to be in Paris but you’d like to take advantage of les soldes, the bigger stores – notably the grands magasins – ship outside of Europe (I’m not sure of the policy for smaller boutiques), and if you are comfortable with an all-French website, check out http://www.1001bonnesaffaires.com/, which is excellent.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another of my favorite features of les grands magasins: their restaurants and cafes! Whether you are actually shopping or just walking by one of the stores and feel like taking a break, don’t overlook the dining and picnic possibilities these stores offer. For the most part, what you’ll find is far better than anything in North American department stores, even at the coffee bars, and you’ll have an array of choices. Author and writer Peter Hellman, whose piece “Why We Love French Wine” is in my Paris book, has thoroughly investigated Paris department store dining over the years. I used his piece for the travel section of The New York Times – “For Hungry Shoppers in Paris,” 28 January, 2001 – as a primer for several years, but his more recent piece – “How to be a Gourmet in the Paris Stores,” The Wall Street Journal Online, 29 July, 2010 – may be of more interest.

Lastly, I close with a sentence worth keeping in mind from a very useful book by Susan Swire Winkler and Caroline Lesieur, The Paris Shopping Companion: A Personal Guide to Shopping in Paris for Every Pocketbook (Cumberland House). “In a culture where style of life is a source of national pride and pleasure, shopping as the French do is an invaluable approach to understanding French culture.”