France: On the trail of hidden gems

By Flip Byrnes

It's Bastille Day on July 14. Flip Byrnes visits some lesser-known gems in Paris and Provence.

Some of the greatest literary minds in history gathered at Paris cafes. Photo / Flip Byrnes
Some of the greatest literary minds in history gathered at Paris cafes. Photo / Flip Byrnes

It's midnight in Paris. In the recent movie of the same name, the protagonist sits on the steps of Sacre Coeur as the clock chimes 12, dreaming of a different time. Then a carriage arrives, transporting him to 1920s Paris. A time when Sartre, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso and Dali caroused in the bars and soothed angry angst with absinthe.

So it is not completely unreasonable that resting in the same place, as the clock ticks over into the witching hour, there's a sense of being on the brink of something magical, that this journey will throw up pieces of France I have never seen before.

In fact, that much is a given. I've joined a Trafalgar tour, offering a zinger of an itinerary with a morsel of everything to satiate curious travellers: mountains of fresh, local food, myriad sights and enough free time to feel, well, free. Above all, we shall head off the beaten track to visit Michelin-starred restaurants, organic wineries, markets, delve into the cracks of French existence and find history brought to life.

If it's history you're after, in Paris you don't have to look far. On St Germain Boulevard, slicing through the bourgeois suburb of Saint-Germain on the Left Bank, we set out for some time-travelling by foot.

Today, the boulevard is a thriving high-end shopping street featuring stores from Armani to Rykiel. But the old stones of the 1860s Haussmann buildings, and even older medieval remnants, speak volumes if you can score an insider's description.

The church Saint-Germain-de-Pres is one example. The original Abbey was constructed in the 6th century, sacked repeatedly by the Normans, rebuilt in 1014, accidentally blown up during the Revolution and reconstructed in the 19th century.

Opposite the church, pull up a pew in Les Deux Magots cafe, the Starbucks of the roaring 20s and magnet for philosophers, writers and artists.

Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "On Sundays, we sat at the Deux Magots, and watched the people, devout as an opera chorus, enter the old church doors".

Now, the area is filled with chestnut-sellers and miniature-painting vendors rather than the pious. But it's possible to loll in the same chair, with the same view as Fitzgerald, perhaps next to the table that permanently held Jean-Paul Sartre's inkwell where he worked while chatting to Hemingway.

It's only Day One and as we sit with pain au chocolats, surrounded by the ghosts of great literary minds, a Midnight in Paris moment has already arrived.

But for a true taste of old Paris, that evening we dine at A La Petite Chaise, founded in 1680. It's a tight, winding staircase to a second floor, where Toulouse Lautrec sketched famous courtesans, the tenor Alvarez sang post-meal love songs to companions and former President Mitterrand studied during his student days.

But the most memorable part of the evening is a soupe à l'oignon gratinée, French onion soup, the spoon standing on end, upheld by a foundation of melted cheese.

From Paris, it is possible to drive to the South of France in around eight-and-a-half hours. Or take the high-speed TGV and arrive in two hours and 40 minutes.

Before we depart Paris, travel director Jonathan can't resist showing us one last hidden treasure, the art deco cafe above the Gare du Lyon. Suspended immediately above the station is Le Train Bleu, a restaurant of frescoes and gilded angles, an unexpected slice of architectural beauty a stone's throw from oblivious commuters below.

Jonathan has us headed for L'Isle sur la Sorgue, famous for antiques, although the charming Provençal riverside town holds another gem, the Michelin-starred Les Jardins du Quai and its own trophy, Daniel Hebet.

A former Laduree chef, Hebet tempts us from a lunch of volailles confites aux petits legumes (poultry with local vegetables) among trailing vines, for a demonstration on how to make macaron aux framboises, strawberry macarons. Who needs Laduree when you have their chef?

But if this trip hinges on personalities, then we are yet to meet Baudoin Parmentier, owner of the Château La Dorgonne winery.

En route to the winery, we wander the markets and fountain-dotted streets of Aix-en-Provence and soak up the Provençal countryside.

If only time had stopped at Parmentier's organic vineyard, where a labour of love from vine to bottle results in the famous quality of wine.

All the wines are derived from hand-picked berries. During harvesting, 24 people spend 570 hours plucking and 260 hours sorting the grapes.

But even the wine is outclassed by the gentle, unassuming hospitality of Parmentier and his dog, Mongoose. We taste the Rouge Chateau Dorgonne 2009, accompanied by a courgette flan with a cream, mint and herb sauce, served in a dining room ringed with pictures of hunting scenes.

The lunch continues long into the afternoon, as we explore the buildings and gardens, admiring the Chateau's escalier en colimacon (typical Provençal spiral staircase architecture), exterior reflection pools and burgundy creepers wrapping the Château as though blown there by the Sirocco winds.

It's yet another Midnight in Paris moment, that feeling of having been transported to a French moment so authentic, the only thing missing is a passing cyclist in a striped shirt carrying baguettes. But the trip is not over until the fat lady sings, and with three days to go and more seasonal produce to taste, that fat lady could very well, quite happily, be me.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines operates 12 times weekly from Auckland to Singapore (daily from Christchurch), connecting daily to Paris on the A380.

Tour guide: Trafalgar's 11-day At Leisure Paris and Provence guided holiday is priced from $4250 per person, twin share.

Flip Byrnes travelled in France as a guest of Trafalgar.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf03 at 26 Oct 2014 16:41:06 Processing Time: 746ms