The Coming of Spring

While photos have the ability to make almost anything look beautiful, the corollary is that there is beauty to be found in most everything.

Of course some things may be more obviously beautiful than others, but the trick to recognizing beauty is in allowing yourself to feel it—the calm in the morning before the sky has fully brightened, the smile that stretches across your lips when you notice that the cherry trees have precociously started blooming though it’s not yet the end of February.

This time last year I couldn’t wait for spring to come. It was my first winter, by way of which I mean that as a California girl, I grew up spoiled with full blooms in February and year-round flora. I got through the cold all right, kept warm most of the time by my stylish wool coat and in the times I wasn’t, knowing I’d live. That experience of my first winter, joined with my newly acquired skill of artfully wrapping a scarf, turned out to be quite useful when this year I ended up in DC, a city in urban design and architecture Paris’ (arguably less classically beautiful) twin.

By mid-February I was growing depressed by the barren limbs of the trees and feeling resentfully undercompensated in snow. I hadn’t learned to appreciate the quiet of the city, the way my breaths froze in air and time. But this absence of liveliness made it such that when the flowers did start to bloom, it was exquisite—a slow reprise that, having all but disappeared, was all the more anticipated.

The flowers bloomed slowly and in turns. For weeks I passed buds on my walk to school, and though day after day they did not seem to grow, in a few weeks’ time they had blossomed. The first to do so were the cherry blossoms; then it was the wildflowers and tulips, and finally the magnolias.

On the first of May, the florist above which I lived sold sprigs of muguet de mai, or Lily of the Valley, to give to close friends and family, as is the custom.

In Paris, the magnolias were the first to bloom. Having visited the third weekend in March, I’ve yet to truly see Paris in the springtime, but the magnolias in the Jardin du Palais Royal were spectacular, their thick pink petals reaching up into an overcast sky. 

Only the bravest of cherry trees near the Petit Palais had blossomed. The Grand Palais, however, had opened a temporary exhibition called, appositely, “Jardins,” which I adored: analog photography and silver bromide gelatin prints, cut paper, watercolors of crumpled irises with edges like eyelash lace. My favorite work was one of two botanical drawings from Conrad Gessner, Orlaya grandiflora, a sketch of the white lace flower from between 1555 and 1565.

Last year taught me to find beauty all around. Perhaps it was in part my environment that taught me this—Europe, a continent of history, where an old beauty is literally in the details of its palaces, its opera houses, its bridges, an homage to opulence. This year I look forward to the blooming of the cherry blossoms—to the Yoshinos and peony-like Kwanzans, with their layers of tulle, to the paper flowers of ancient Sakura—to the anticipation.

Close-up of the anemone from Eugène Delacroix’s Étude de fleurs: pavot, pensée et anémone (Study of Flowers: Poppy, Pansy, and Anemone).

In the final space of “Jardins,” René Magritte’s Le Grand Style (1951) took a room to itself, depicting a dark stalk growing upwards into a star-filled sky, planting there a strange flower: Earth, iridescent like the moon. This year I will appreciate spring as it comes, one of the gentle workings of the Earth.


La Fête des Lumières and Georgetown Glow

It’s ineffable, really, light’s capacity to hold a crowd of people in total silence—each person, for the heartbeat before a projection begins or a candle is lit, caught in the space between hoping the light will make them feel something new and fearing that it might abandon them, leaving them with nothing but their expectations.

The captivation is global: I first knew of La Fête des Lumières, an annual festival of lights in Lyon, France, a college friend having gone during her year of study abroad. In the year since I moved to Washington, DC, I’ve discovered that light festivals like this are common, the Norrköping Light Festival, in Sweden, among them (it’s on my list). They also exist in DC.

La Fête des Lumières in 2016 was spectacular, the light installations artistic, elaborate, or intricately choreographed, sometimes all three. The first of the two nights for which I went, my friend and I started in the courtyard of Hôtel de Ville, where “Platonium” was walls of magenta, a red clock tower, and strips of paper-thin material lighting up in waves above a mirror.

Through the opposite side of the courtyard was Place des Terraux, where on the facades of Hôtel de Ville and the adjacent Musée des Beaux-Arts played “Sans Dessus, Dessous” (Upside Down), a film that can only have been trying to make an environmental statement about humanity’s wastefulness (a very French thing about which to be concerned) and sinful destruction of both itself and, so the story goes, those whom we were put on this earth to look after.

A bridge spanning one of Lyon’s two rivers had been transformed into “Bright Boat,” swirls of white light from which blue spotlights rotated in small circles, as oars paddling, while across the river Saône, at the base of Fourvière Hill, “Soleil” evoked the natural progression of the sun from sunset to dawn, sparkling at midnight as the Eiffel Tower sparkles on the hour.

Place de la Bourse was a winter garden filled with my favorite flower—peonies, or “Les Pivoines”—and at Place des Célestins, “Coups de Cœur” was a heart beating in time with the combined pulses of couples who went on stage and kissed.

The jewel of the festival was the Ferris wheel at Place Bellecour, onto which a short animation, “Un songe forain,” or “A Fairgrounds Dream,” explored themes reminiscent of those on which I wrote papers in school—fairy tales, sexual death. I watched it both nights.

It began with teacups and then a carousel and the animals on it, horses and dolphins, only on the top of the carousel were numbers like those on a roulette wheel. This carousel transmogrified into a spiral target, red and white, on which a girl who looked not unlike Rapunzel or Elsa laid provocatively across it, dressed in gypsy attire, while knives landed all around her and finally an axe narrowly missed her head, which as I learned from Gilmore Girls is a common ending to dreams. Next we saw a Cinderella carriage driving off into pink clouds, clouds which soon obscured the screen, turning into cotton candy through which hot air balloons floated. We were then dropped into a rib cage roller coaster car, which moved on bloody tracks from which a giant arachnid emerged but finally turned us out into bright blue sky filled with real balloons.

Before nightfall the second night, my friend and I went to the Marché du Noël in Place Carnot, where we crowded into the prettiest vin chaud stand and looked on as the trees of the Forêt des Lumières, not a part of the festival but illuminated all the same, changed colors.

Once it was dark, we walked down to Confluences, which as anyone who has visited Lyon will know is removed from the rest of the city. Along the way we saw “Caprice” on the water. The reason for our trek was “Deep Web,” a light show set to trance-like music wherein LED orbs suspended from wires moved like caterpillars in red, pink, and blue-violet oscillations and promised new formations that wanted to be stars but weren’t until finally they were, white and shimmering.

The most technically impressive show was our last: “Evolutions,” projected onto the Saint-Jean cathedral. It matched perfectly every pane of every window and even a small clock to one side, reimagining the cathedral’s construction, first in paper and then in silk, steel, light, and energy.

I immediately thought of this when I watched the light show projected onto the Freer Gallery of Art, “Perfect Harmony” (created by 59 Productions, which designed the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic Games), at IlluminAsia, a festival celebrating the reopening of the Freer|Sackler Galleries (Smithsonians that house Asian art). The light there similarly fit all of the details of the building, telling first the story of Charles Lang Freer’s collection of art coming to America and then celebrating that art in a classical number full of twinkling in time with notes and dancing in red, white, and blue. It even incorporated those details into the third story it told, that of the building’s creation to serve as a home for the art: Asian characters ran across the top of the building as steel and stone gave it shape until finally, script of many languages flashed across the center of the facade, followed by “THINK FREER” diagonally and then, simply, “Freer|Sackler.”

The most recent light show I attended—and the one most similar to La Fête des Lumières—was Georgetown Glow, a collection of light installations sprinkled throughout Georgetown December 8–January 7 (tonight), of which my favorite was “Open Lounge,” by Géraud Périole in collaboration with Light Art Collection and Amsterdam Light Festival, Bordeaux, France. Located in Cady’s Alley in the Georgetown Design District, twenty chandeliers invoked magic, inviting us to imagine that we were in a grand palace or beneath a starry sky. I’m always up for a little magic.

Annecy and the Lake

My trip to Annecy was short and sweet.

My host during my stay in Geneva (between the municipalities of Troinex and Plan-les-Ouates), a truly lovely and inspirational woman and my first cousin twice removed, drove me to Annecy for a half-day trip. We took the scenic route: rolling hills the color green all flora seems after a rain—verdure among which were nestled small, isolated collections of homes—and a medieval bridge no longer used, white and unlike anything I’d seen, like the drawbridge to a castle (retroactively trying to determine what it was, I’m supposing it was Pont de la Caille).

Coming into Annecy, we passed beds of pink and white flowers in the middle of roundabouts and parked next to Parc Charles Bosson, in which beautifully landscaped beds of flowers were filled with fringed tulips, white and purple pansies, white anemones, and white flowers with yellow pollen centers that looked as though they would feel like clouds when touched.

Lake Annecy is thought to be one of the world’s most gorgeous lakes, and this is why: its color is like that of no other lake—not like that of the lakes on the German-Austrian border, a shiny gray-blue as if their water filled pools of obsidian, nor like that of Lake Geneva, a deep, pure blue (Évian, the town from where the bottled water comes, sits on Lake Geneva). It’s more like the aquamarine of a Monet painting, only clear, as opposed to a beautiful mess. The water catches and holds the sunlight, at the time subdued by clouds, allowing it to transpire from its surface only in shimmers with the rippling of the water.

Into the lake dip shady trees, their broad leaves made greener by the light of the water, while pedal boats float near a dock, waiting for summer. Across the lake, on forested mountains, sit half-clouds. They look like snow.

We walked along the lake into Annecy and between the canopies of the morning’s farmer’s market in the rain. Winding through people, umbrellas, and vendors quickly trying to pack up their goods, we walked alongside canals and flower boxes of poppies drooping under the weight of raindrops. The rain becoming heavier, we sat for tea and crêpes, and when we had finished, the sky had brightened. We walked back along the lake, now even more crystalline.

Cassis: Picturesque Coastal Provence

A picturesque port town of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, Cassis is everything and more one might expect from the south of France.

From the grape vines at the top of the hill, apricot and raspberry buildings cascade down to the waterfront, where clouds like cream puffs hover above the horizon at sunset and sailboat lines run high into the sky. As on any Mediterranean coast, the water turns from turquoise to blue in places, and one can sail to the limestone and calcium cliffs of the Parc national des Calanques in no time at all. The less adventurous can stick to the village, as there are plenty of restaurants and boutiques, but wandering reveals some of the loveliest of spots.

I thought the prettiest spot in the village to be on Rue Adolphe Thiers, looking towards Cap Canaille. Tea-green and bateau-blue shutters face one another across the intimate street, continuing its length, in varying shades, to trees. It’s the narrow streets like this one—and the unexpected views at the ends—that give Cassis its charm. I spent the morning of my one full day in Cassis walking, half-heartedly looking at a map as I more mindfully chose to allow serendipity to lead me where it would. Walking up the hill, I found a library, a camel-colored villa with blue-green shutters and palm trees, filling the courtyard—walking down, bright colors and sunshine, and a glimpse of the port.

Walking around the port, I looked up at the flower boxes hanging from second-story balconies of buildings, shades of pink, almond, and white sand. In the water were French blue boats; boats with “Cassis” written on their bows, in a row; a single soft-lime-green boat in the middle of a perfect line of others. Behind the boats, on the hill, was a castle, while on the far side of the port was a mini lighthouse.

Directly next to the port was La Plage de la Grande Mer, a beach proportionate in size to Cassis but far from small in beauty. At the moment the sun broke through the clouds, it turned the water to sparkles. The crests of the waves were the color of light blue seaglass. They reminded me of clean laundry.

At a small booth just before the beach, I purchased a ticket for the “Discovery” tour of the calanques, which took us to the three closest: Port Miou, Port Pin, and Calanque-en-Vau. While Calanque-en-Vau is the tallest and most popular and has the biggest (still small) beach, I liked Port Pin the best: it’s cute and unassuming. The captain offered to take my picture there, too. Going, we saw an island in the distance; returning, we had spectacular views of Cap Canaille. The water was darkest blue.

Once on land again, I set out on foot past pretty estates with names to a small summer restaurant, open from April to September, called La Plage Bleue. It appeared I was a bit early for the season, as the pool was being filled, but benches cushioned and decorated with pillows turned the outdoor patio to a lounge, with an unbeatable view of the sea. I ordered my first Caipiroska and vanilla ice cream before searching for the start of the Sentier du Petit Prince, a 30-minute walk around a peninsula that leads to a vista that overlooks Cap Canaille and, according to Antoine de Saint Expéry, author of The Little Prince, is “le plus beau et le plus triste paysage du monde.” All along the trail were wildflowers, including wild red poppies! I had contemplated visiting Provence to see the poppies, whole fields of which I had seen pictures, but decided against it because I read that gardeners consider them weeds, so the only fields one might find are in places impossible to reach without a car. Here I found some anyway, though, and bright coral ones too, in planters in the village.

Walking back through the village, I started in the other direction, towards two coves named Anse du Corton and Anse de l’Arene. Through palm trees on the walk to the Anse du Corton, I saw a small vineyard, and once there I spotted fuzzy white flowers like bunny tails. By the time I had reached Anse de l’Arene, the sun was most of the way through its descent in the cloud-filled sky. I was nervous about the tide coming in—I didn’t know whether it did or not—but made my way down a staircase, past a door to nowhere, and over rough white rock that gave way to stones, to pebbles, and finally to clay as I approached the base of Cap Canaille, where the cove, illumined in white light, reminded me of Butterfly Beach, in Montecito. At sunset, I asked the bartender at the single wine bar in the village for a glass of his best Clairette, a light, white grape variety for which Cassis is known.

The next morning, Place Baragnon, around which are arranged the city hall, the museum, and a historic fountain, was overflowing with vendors selling hammam towels, fruits, and flowers. The towels were gorgeous—I went back for one in rose and light blue—and the cherries delicious, lunch, along with a pear tartelette from a local bakery, for my train to Geneva.

Day Trippin’ to Chantilly

As much as I appreciate Paris for its history as an artist’s haven and for the opportunities with which it pulses to educate oneself culturally, it is a big city and, like any big city, can leave one longing for nature. Chantilly, a small town only half an hour outside of Paris by train, offers a refreshingly grassy landscape, a château with bluish gray roofs that sparkle, and horses and is the perfect day trip destination from Paris!

From the train station, one can walk to the château through the town via Avenue du Maréchal Joffre, turning right at Rue de Connétable. I’d recommend taking a detour via the side street Boulevard de la Libération Maurice Schumann for a lovely first glimpse of the château.

Having arrived at the château, I was turned around, so what I’d meant to do last I did first: I walked to the Anglo-Chinese garden, alongside a line of daffodils that paralleled a stream, to Le Hameau, a white and dark-wood cottage restaurant with a water wheel on its side said to serve the best Chantilly cream.

Though the menu lists many attractive options, among them a plate of fresh strawberries topped with Chantilly cream, I chose the simplest, a scoop of Chantilly cream served by itself. Chantilly cream is many things at once without being any of those things: it looks like whipped cream, has the consistency of frosting, and tastes like ice cream, a subtle sweet with a hint of vanilla. It is not something to be skipped when visiting Chantilly!
The château itself is a museum, the Musée Condée. It is home to Nicolas Poussin’s Le massacre des innocents and Raphael’s La Vierge de Lorette but comprises many rooms, one of which holds black lace—including a piece sewn into the shape of a butterfly—and many of which contain paintings by Bellini, Dulac, Girardet, Gudin, Mazzoluno, and d’Orleans, to name some of the artists. There is Delacroix and Delaroche, too, but look for L’amour désarmé, by Jean Antoine Watteau, in a rotunda with a skylight and paintings of French cities hung just below the windows. I loved this painting for its artistic style—soft and blurred, but not as in Impressionist works—but more so for the beauty of the emotion it evokes with its name, once one connects it to the painting’s subject: Venus steals Cupid’s bow, but as Venus is the mother of Cupid, the painting is also simply of a mother and her child, and so the name might be interpreted literally as Cupid, disarmed, but also as Venus, Goddess of Love, disarmed by her small child, whom she loves.

Worth seeing is the Cabinet des Livres, a library of beautiful books collected by a bibliophile and organized by format, intellectual movement, and binding period. It contains over 700 incunabula, or books printed before 1500. The prettiest book on display, I think, is a beaded one with an “M” on it for Marie de Médicis.

Additionally, there are the grands appartements and Le Chambre de Monsieur Le Prince, full of things glittering, upholstered, and gold; La Grande Gallerie des Batailles, on the walls of which hang a floor-to-ceiling canvas of a scene from battle and another, skinnier, canvas like a map; and Le Salon de Musique, which contains only a harp but looks out onto the French garden.

After doing a lap around the English garden, I said hello to the horses in the grand stables and walked through Le Musée du Cheval, which contains statues of horses from Asia, drawings of horses from the Middle East, and European portraits of champion racehorses, before walking back into town along a racetrack and rows of trees.

Le songe d’une nuit d’été – March 18, 2017

The Paris Opera Ballet is idolized as one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world, yet for some reason—perhaps because I had never observed dancers who had nurtured such finesse—I was not expecting its dancers to move as beautifully as they did and to be as effervescent with magic as the story they told: Le songe d’une nuit d’été (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). They had me literally sitting on the edge of my seat (they and my insistence, as a twenty-something, upon purchasing a ticket for one of the least expensive and worst seats in the Opéra Bastille); they were enchanting, and I was enchanted.

Choreographed by Balanchine and set to music by Mendelssohn, the ballerinas’ dance was the apogee of whatever notions of feminine fragility captured America’s heart half a century ago. In the first act, Hermia jumped into the palladium of Lysander’s arms, both legs folded under her body like a caterpillar’s newly formed wings, still too immature to spread and resting just below its protective chrysalis. Upon his catching her, she descended into an arabesque—one leg pointed straight below her, the other straight behind—with languid elegance, as if she were suspended in water, and finally, Lysander assisting her in performing various extensions en pointe, she wrapped a single leg around his torso to give life and shape to a series of movements across the floor.

The quiescent power of the male dancers was most exhibited during one of Obéron’s solos—the dancer had leviathan thighs, pure muscle, which made me long for the idea of having lots of muscle, all for a purpose, and nothing else besides. It’s an idea that applies not only to the male dancers but to the ballerinas, too; for them to be able to lift themselves by a string from their center of gravity and to lift their legs so high above their swan’s necks into the air requires immense strength. Obéron masterfully executed quick coups-de-pied that ended in little extensions, all within the span of a few seconds and in the air.

The couple who opened the second act controlled the ballerina’s movements together. She trembled as she leaned on her partner for support as if at any moment she could deliquesce into him, but rather than making her seem unfit for her role, this made the things they made together all the more beautiful because it was obvious that they needed each other.

There was beauty also in the production of the ballet. I thought the fairies’ costumes strange, but a part of me liked them for their whimsicality. The three lead ballerinas’ wedding tutus were speckled with gold; the others’ were all white. The court costumes—blue dresses for the girls, billowing white shirts for the men—were charming. I quite liked one of the sets, pink blossoms protruding from the wings, and then there was the aesthetic of the choreography, not only that of the soloists’ and couples’ dances but that of the company, their formations as they wove in lines and formed semicircles in the backstage. The dances had a contrived softness to them, a worked-for illusion of sweetness that expressed physically what we all crave from love, much as people express their thoughts and feelings through language. It’s more difficult, in a way, to communicate through ballet, because there are no words, but the dance is itself a language that has us all sitting on the edge of our seats to watch unfold stories of love.

Les fleurs de Monet

The allure of Monet began, for me, with les nymphéas. For too long I’d wanted to go to Musée de l’Orangerie, a museum in Paris famed for its two elliptical rooms in which long canvases of water lilies conform to the walls, providing almost the experience Monet intended the viewer to have—that of being encircled by one continuous landscape of flowers.

My grandparents (visiting for the holidays) and I had sought out the museum and found ourselves in the place of the viewer, in the middle of one oval room, then the other, each lit in muted natural light. The French have a word, feutré, meaning felt-like, and that’s exactly what this light was like. One end of the room to the other transformed light into shadow, warm, late-afternoon radiance into nightfall on the depths of a lake.

My favorite painting was in itself like three paintings, the way it progressed in color. From left to right, it comprised gentle lily pads of sage, olive, and emerald; clouds of powder pink, apricot, and mauve blended into lilac and forget-me-not; and water, jet with but a touch of aubergine. Four little red lilies like roses floated in the top right corner like tutus lifted en pointe; below, strokes meticulously applied so as to look haphazard swirled into faintly pink flowers—pink mixed with red with violet—and messy swishes of light and dark blue.

My second favorite was a mess of dark colors, all black and grays and violets and blues with lily pads so obscure as to be almost indistinct and delicate blush blossoms, single and in pairs, a tiny lonesome green blossom up and away to the right.

My third characterized clusters of lilies at the bottom and some in the background, a sky of pink mist descended amongst willow branches. It’s all pinks and blues, as if captured just before dusk or just after sunrise.

In every painting, the lilies were different: dark blue pads with the slightest touches of dark purple, and blooms light green as if memories of light blue; rough, rosy magenta and cream brushed into more cream, peach, and lightest green; vibrant, thickly painted light pink, bright red, dark pink, stone blue, passionflower, periwinkle, honey tulip, and lemon green, all smudged into fields of floating flowers.

At the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris, was Le bassin aux nymphéas, one of 17 paintings of the Japanese bridge draped in willows; another, and I liked this one more, for its cooler tones, is held at the National Gallery in London.

Though it’s not strictly a painting of water lilies, Le jardin de l’artiste à Giverny, also at the Musée d’Orsay, I found beautiful, with its beds of lavender flowers speckled in places with dark violet and white and patches of bright turquoise and red that give the illusion of reflections of lilies on a pond in the background.

Then there was the Musée Marmottan Monet, a charming little museum tucked away in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, a calm, slightly more upscale neighborhood removed from the city center. Behind a long park with a tree that, when I visited, was like cotton, covered in white blossoms, the museum proved misleading at first, seemingly dedicated as much to its décor—mirrors, chandeliers, and statuettes, all of which were art—as it was to its paintings. Though charmed by the pink and sage rotunda that is the first room and the blue and cream elegance of the second, delighted at finding a second Antonio Canova statue, L’Amour et Psyche, (I love Psyché ranimée par le baiser de l’Amour, at the Louvre), and more educated about Berthe Morisot and Camille Pissarro (there was a Pissarro special exhibition on) than I’d ever imagined I’d be after going to a museum named for Monet, I began to think that perhaps the museum was only named after the artist and I’d misunderstood what I’d read about its housing 100 of his masterpieces.

They were hidden in the basement, like coveted bottles of aged wine in a cellar. Across from a biography of the artist printed on a dark red wall was a painting of Charing Cross Bridge, in London, all white and touched with the faintest silver blue. In addition there was Londres, Le Parlement, reflets sur la Tamise, a cool, misty image, mainly teal. Impression, soleil levant was plainly the highlighted attraction, set into a wall away from the other paintings: a neon (it actually looked neon) poppy sun illumined wisps of nectarine clouds while ships like watercolor shadows faded into the water, struck definitively with teal strokes contrasting with the reflections of the sun.

Yet, I preferred the flowers. I saw another of the tulips in the Netherlands like one I’d seen at the Musée d’Orsay, Champ de tulipes en Hollande, but I liked this one more than the other. It was brighter, the yellow sunnier. Bras de Seine à Giverny was puffs of pink and white clouds; pink, navy, and blue water striped with lavender, berry, and violet; blues and greens in at least four shades each composing the trees. I quite liked Champ d’iris jaunes à Giverny, a happy field of yellow irises tilted to appear as though swaying in the wind, and of course, there were nymphéas—canvases of vivid purple blossoms and bright lime green in the leaves; light yellow, daffodil yellow, and orchid; and blue, yellow, and baby green with red flowers.

A Le bassin spoke in red with aqua, orange, pink, and purple accents, while the most beautiful Le bassin promised incandescent blue blossoms smoothed into purple and trimmed in wine. In Reflets de saule, pensive pale and deep pinks combined with ruby and cornflower blue on a midnight background. Lily of the Nile added another kind of lily to Nymphéas et agapanthes.

Finally, two wisteria, two Glycines, painted from 1919–20, echoed the water lilies at l’Orangerie, hanging from long canvases stretching the length of a wall. Both were pretty; my favored one between the two was pale yellow flowers cascading from green leaves the color of limes and seaglass, spots of pistachio and turquoise, and navy and orange trails faded into hints of pink, all set on soft, feathery lavender.

Adventures in Brittany: La Côte de Granit Rose

Lately I’ve been thinking about the stories I’ll be able to tell in the future, both three months from now, when I’m home, to family and friends, and thirty years from now, to acquaintances sitting around a fancy table and sipping from delicate wine glasses. When I travel, I try to do things that could turn into stories. My first story is from the first day of the first trip I took after arriving in France.

It was an adventure, truly, in the sense that I had little idea of how to get where I wanted to go and even less of an idea of how to get back. I caught the once-a-day bus to some place maybe thirty minutes walking from Ploumanac’h, the most picturesque part of La Côte de Granit Rose, and walked through a small residential town to a dirt path called “Chemin du Phare,” which means “Way to the Lighthouse.” It was like walking into the woods: an arch of trees gave way to a couple of houses, nestled away, and finally to an outcropping of pale, dusty pink rock, the Ploumanac’h Lighthouse visible in the distance.

A bit one way was a house for a boat (I don’t know what else to call it—it had a roof and tracks leading out to sea). Just past that, the path continued past a pretty little stone bench set into the hillside and onto a beautiful miniature bay, where the water crashed violently over a rock across the water but was tranquil closer to shore. It felt like a paradise, a small haven carved out in the coastline just for me, where I could listen away from the noise of every day to the high-pitched tinkling of the rocks tumbling over one another, the water withdrawing back into the sea.

After collecting shells from amongst the rocks, washing them in the water and holding them in my hand, I headed back along the path towards the lighthouse, climbing around boulders and up stairs to the lighthouse. From there, I saw that the pink granite coast wasn’t constrained to only this stretch of coast but that it was in fact three times that size, with two more areas like this one extending at intervals into the ocean. I walked back towards the town via a path different than that on which I came, this one leading me past a gem of green—of ferns and trees the kind of verdant green that makes one think of New Zealand or of glens in the farthest reaches of Scotland.

Next I set out walking across town, around Port de Ploumanac’h, around an estate right on the water, over a quay, and through a larger town named Trégastel to La Grève Blanche, the (pebbleless) “white pebbled beach.” It resembled a resort at first on account of not only its seclusion and the whiteness of the sand but also a wooden fence that lined the steps down to the sand and a solid white one stretching the length of the sand, separating the homes and a waterside restaurant called Latitude (I didn’t go because it was a bit pricey, but it looked to have an adorable ambience and a fabulous menu) from the beach. Out on the water, windsurfers pulled up their sails, visibly fighting with corporeal might against the earthly splendor of an ocean breeze.

Curiosity led me around the point—I almost didn’t go because walking in the middle of that wide stretch of immaculate sand could have been enough, but I’m so happy I did—to the most striking location I’d visited all day. The rocks flanking the beach were dark, almost black: that’s what I saw first. Next the kayakers; then the coast wrapping around on one side, enveloping the sea; then the homes lining the beach; and the clouds, incandescent in contrast to the dark blue of the sky, beams of sunlight turning the sand white and obscuring the coast in scintillant light. I had to sit on the sand for a moment and feel, as I did, that I was in Brittany, this most elysian of places.

I could stay for but a few heartbeats before I had to walk back into town to call a taxi; I didn’t know whether or not I’d be able to find one available (all of the taxi companies here are individuals), and the nearest train station, in Lannion, was a three hours’ walk away. On my fourth try, I found one—and it turned out he was from Lille!—which meant I had a couple of spare hours, but I didn’t mind. Lannion was cute, kind of like a mini-Vieux-Lille bordered by a river lined in trees, a bed of flowers at one end, and it was here that I ended my day’s adventure.

Quimper: The Cutest French Town

I’ve just booked everything for my final trip, in May, once my TAPIF contract is over! I’ll be going to the south of France, Geneva, Scotland, and London. I’m especially excited for my adventures in the Scottish Highlands: new cities are wonderful, but sometimes, you have to throw in a little nature!

Thinking about what I expect will be one of my favorite places made me want to write about one of my favorite places I’ve visited so far: Quimper. This is by far the cutest French town I’ve visited. If I were to move to France—and I don’t want to, but if I did—I could live here. It has charm subtle enough that the city isn’t trending amongst tourists (yet), and it effuses a delicate shine—reflecting like glass the early morning light that reaches the water, brightening the whole of the river Odet in the middle of the afternoon, twinkling in the crystals that hang in lines in the air, like stars.

I started my day in Quimper in a way a bit out of the ordinary: I walked all the way to the end of Quimper, past the historical district to Locmaria and the older section of the city. I followed the dirt path along the river, where lots of runners took advantage of the misty morning and other people walked their dogs. I passed quaint little houses styled in typical Brittany fashions: white with gray rooftops and cobblestone.

The fog transformed the city that lay ahead of me into an empyrean cloud of light and settled on the houses on the other bank of the river, where another dirt path mirrored the one I was on and appeared to lead to a small orchard or something like it.

Back in the city, I first explored the main street, Rue Kéréon. It’s here you’ll find lots of shopping and adorable buildings with timber framing—some a light, dusty blue, others with bright pink framing around the windows.

Lots of little side streets wander off from this main street.

It’s on this street, too, that I saw two ponies waiting to give pony rides!

Up the hill is Place au Beurre, where a crêperie can be found on every corner.

At the far end of Rue Kéréon is Place du Terre au Duc, which is pretty but nothing too special, and another river, Le Steïr, around which a bit of wandering will lead you to a small park and a nice row of restaurants.

At the other end of Rue Kéréon is the cathedral, formally called Cathédrale Saint-Corentin. Of all of the churches and cathedrals I’ve visited in Europe—which is to say quite a lot—this one is my most loved, and it’s because of the tiny coats of arms on its ceiling. One is painted I think to look like a Brittany flag, and the ceiling itself is a pretty light coral-pink tile. The first thing I do now when I walk into a cathedral is look up: on many of the ceilings are coats of arms such as these.

The cathedral is lovely for reasons other than its tiny coats of arms, though. In contrast to those of many Gothic buildings, which may appear hard, rough, and intimidating, the exterior of this Gothic cathedral is delicate and sweet.

Inside, light streams through stained glass windows up high to play on the opposing walls. Along the upper walls are mini rainbows of barely-there color, while more opaque red and purple decorate the center of the cathedral.

In some of the chapels, paintings incorporate the old depiction of the halo, a thin golden circle around the head.

Turn around and the organ is small but magnificent, the definition of Quimper cuteness!

After visiting the cathedral, I walked down to the Odet and sat on one of the benches beside it for a while, taking in the blueness of the water and working myself up over the flowers in their boxes on the bridges. It was a tranquil way to end my day in Quimper and something I highly recommend doing!

A Morning in Montmartre

When one goes to Paris, one is compelled to visit Montmartre. Its name short for Montaigne des martyrs, or “Mountain of Martyrs,” Montmartre is a charming bohemian town rich in artistic history. During the Belle Époque, many artists, including Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec as well as Les Nabis, a group of Post-Impressionist avant-garde painters, lived here or derived inspiration from the town. Separate from the rest of Paris both geographically and atmospherically, it has its own characteristic charm and is not to be missed.


Start your day with breakfast or brunch at Coquelicot. This bakery offers the option of either taking things to go—there’s a queue out the door around peak breakfast- and lunchtimes—or sitting to order from the menu. If there’s room, sit at one of the petite wooden tables outside.

café au lait

It’s here that I drank the best coffee I have in Paris, a perfect glass cup of café au lait (I ordered the café crème on the menu, but when the waitress brought it out she said “café au lait,” and it tasted more like milk than it did cream. If you order food, you’ll receive a basket of freshly baked bread that you can dip in the coffee as the French do—so good!

For food you can choose one of the predetermined meals, some combination of bread, jams, orange juice, and other items, or order à la carte. I opted for the latter and chose the tartine rustique, toast with yummy applesauce (America doesn’t do applesauce right. There, it’s that disappointing dessert you find at the bottom of your lunchbox at school; here, it’s delicious and often mixed with other fruits!), camembert half-melted, and raisins, accompanied by an impressively fresh mix of greens.

tartineYou can’t leave without ordering goodies to go. You can order them at the table, of course, but you may as well order them at the counter and take them to have them as a midday snack, as I did with this blueberry tart, because as at many bakeries in France, you pay more for the same thing sur place compared to à emporter; it’s like you’re renting the table at which you’d eat. If you choose to only stop for a minute and queue rather than sit, the brioche au sucre (it has pearls of sugar on top) is fantastic.

tarte aux myrtilles

When you’re through with breakfast, make your way to Place du Tertre, a square full of painters selling small canvases and caricaturists who aren’t afraid to vie for your business by telling you you’re pretty and they simply must draw you. When you reach the top of the steps, look down! (This works best when there are leaves on the trees and in the morning, when the light filters through the leaves.)

A short distance from here is the Sacré-Cœur, a beautiful basilica. As the name implies, it’s dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a Roman Catholic devotion that takes Jesus’ physical heart as the representation of his love. Designed by architect Paul Abadie, who is considered a key figure of French historicism, the basilica was consecrated in 1919.

The walk up to it is very pretty; stairs on either side lead to a plot of grass with two long staircases side by side in the middle and one final staircase above that, overlooking the city from the top of the Butte of Montmartre. The dome paradoxically looks smoothly etched; the stone looks bright from afar, aged up close.

I believe everyone ought to see the Sacré-Cœur at least once in his or her lifetime. I myself have been three times: the first time, my jaw dropped as I walked inside; the third time, I was still noticing details I hadn’t the previous two.

sacré-cœur inside

The Chancel
Likely the first thing you’ll notice upon walking into the basilica is the monstrance, in which is located the Body of Christ, at the front of the church. It’s carried by two silver angels, the Angels of the Adoration. White in the middle, red and rose gold around, and sparkly like a star, it has its own little shrine, in which a white curtain falls behind it.


Carved into the platform on which this piece rests are the twelve apostles; the gold altar contains statues of them. Around the back of the chancel are wooden boxes with pointed tops, again with the apostles inside. To either side of the chancel are Stars of David.

In the middle of the striking mosaic of the apse,  Christ’s heart shines out of his chest. At the base of the mosaic is written in Latin, “Sacratissimo Cordi Jesu Gallia poenitens et devota et gratia”—in French, “Au Cœur très saint de Jésus, la France fervente, pénitente et reconnaissante” or, in English, “At the saintly Heart of Jesus, France—fervent, penitent, and grateful.”

The Nave
angels of the passion
In each of the four corners where a column meets the ceiling is an Angel of the Passion. These angels carry the instruments of the Passion of the Christ: a cross, a lance, a crown of thorns, vinegar, etc. Delicately patterned stained glass windows encircle the top of the dome and allow a soft light, which contrasts sharply with the shadows around, to filter in.

The Side Aisles
Walk through the aisles and around the back of the church, stopping at each of the chapels. You can learn a lot from reading their dedications; for example, I learned that Saint Genevieve is the patron saint of Paris.

At the top of the walls to the sides of the nave are flower-shaped windows, small but daintily beautiful. One carries the image of a bird, one an apple, one a snake.

The Chapels

The windows in the chapels in the back of the church are lovely too—brightly colored and patterned in squares and rectangles. They say things, though I’m not entirely sure what. The panel on the right in the picture shows what looks like a small ghost but I would suppose is actually an angel.

sacré-cœur stained glass

In the chapel directly to the back of the basilica is a chandelier with what I think look like four-petalled flower cutouts, through which shine pink candles. In this chapel is also a golden tree of life with a cross in the middle and, on the stone just below it, a dark floral design. In another of the chapels are shield shapes in which are written the names of French cities, including Paris and Lyon.

After you’ve spent some minutes sitting in the pews or standing and staring in the back of the basilica, wander a little back down the hill to La Maison Rose, on the corner of rue de l’Abreuvoir and rue des Saules. Once an artist’s studio, it was made famous by Maurice Utrillo’s painting of it.

As it will likely be afternoon by this point, stop for a glass at Le Carrousel, a café that serves my favorite Bourgogne Pinot Noir. It’s this Pinot Noir that began my obsession with finding good Pinot Noirs (I haven’t found anything comparable). It has notes of cherry! Snag a table outside so you can people-watch as you sip your wine in the afternoon air.