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Friday, November 20, 2009

Speaking French

Breakfast In Paris We arrived in Paris on Nov13 at 5.30am. Now we could not have imagined this... I mean how could we have guessed that after having flown 13 hours across the globe, we'd end up so close to home! Yup, straight ahead looking back at us was the jetty of our JapaMala Resort in Tioman! On a gigantic rectangular light box on the wall of this Parisian airport, beaming warmly at us with "MALAISIE". Kudos to Malaysia Tourism France! Well, we have indeed ARRIVED. Our warm welcome was immediately blazed with the chilling fleet of Parisian morning winter air at the bus stand. I crossed all my extremites and prayed to the sun...Here I am I thought, at last...the land of the covetables. Crepes, macaroons, truffles, foie gras, foie gras and more foie gras! Well, I must say I did get quite a lot of all that in the next few days to come.

We checked into Hotel Costes K, a trendy design hotel owned by Hotel Costes which is famous for their music. Got one full day in Paris before we fly to Biarritz! The first thing on my mind was crepe with bananas + nutella for breakfast
at a sidewalk café somewhere in town so I can sit and be a Parisian - watch people (and doggies).
Wish granted, spent the rest of the day getting lost in the city; went inside Lido to book show tickets, walked past the Arch of Triumph, saw Eifel Tower from a distance, strolled along the river Seine (found my Moulin Rouge posters, yayy!)... ...shopped a little on Saint Germaine, sat outside a café again and sipped tea, went inside Notre Dame. Paris looked exactly the same 11 years ago.
We then went on to District 6 to shop some more. Good shopping near the opera too but we decided to prioritize as time was our enemy.
Dinner was awesome. Found fresh oysters & had also steamed mussels ‘marinere’ at a restaurant on an ally somewhere at Saint Germaine. Oh here's a reminder, English is almost never used in most restaurants in France, so do learn some basic French for your own sake or you won't know what the menu says! Especially those who have food allergies, go learn those few words to save yourself. After dinner, we were supposed to go watch Lido but we were quite dead by then. Plus we were catching a 7am flight to Biarritz in the morning and having to wake up at 5 put me off already. So no Lido:( That morning at the airport in Paris was an experience so atrocious I think France will forever be tainted. Well, to cut the story short, this staff of Easy Jet should just burn in hell. Budget airline or not, whichever the industry, no customer in any circumstances, let alone a lady, should be called a MOTHERFUCKER. Agree?

Supper in Spain Anyway, we got in to Biarritz and I was still boiling with rage. The weather, just as hot as my temper. That same evening at San Sebastian however, totally blew our minds. As much as I couldn't stomach the Easy Jet incident, I decided to shove it aside so that I can fully digest what's coming. Being in San Sebastian was like stumbling upon a food playground.

Half an hour drive from Biarritz is the Basque country which I’ve never heard before. It’s a very old country bordering France on the south which belongs to Spain. Stephane drove us and Eugene there to meet our friends Joerg and Txuku (pronounced chu-ku) who own an apartment in this charming town.

from left : Eugene, Stephane & Txuku

Our one and only objective there was to EAT. The way to do it is tapas-hopping, from one bar to the next, from 9pm till late. We were brought to these packed tapas bars which served smorgasbords of small Spanish eats or what they call, PINCHOS displayed on the bar for your own helpings. We squeezed in amid people reaching for ham in croissant, veal cheek, pig’s ears, preserved cod fish, pan-fried gigantic mushroom sponges and mini sandwiches of sort. There was one bar that served a very unique item which our friend Eugene was most intrigued by. He has a thing for delicacies and he's one who'd gladly pay (through his nose) just to try it. So, we did just that! We ate sautéed baby eels – which cost 400 euros/kg.

It was Saturday night and the town with tiny & tight little bars was crowded with happy people, noisy with talk, perfumed by food and drunk on life. And this scene, we were told, is everyday in San Sebastian! I think we must have hopped into 3 bars by now, purely relishing.

This 4th place had apparently, the best wines in the world. They cooked fantastic chunky steaks too! Eugene, again asked for the most obscure - the fattiest piece of meat, trimming of course not necessary. Very juicy indeed...I felt like having a glass of red all of a sudden. Quite unusual that I'd ask for a 'drink' but oh... that wine and the meat, perfect balance.

My disinterest, or actually my dislike in alcohol must sound totally absurd to those we love drinking. I mean the gallons of wines and champagnes that are perpetually bestowed upon me are enough to literally drown me, yet how rarely do I ever indulge. Hmmm... why am I not in the shoe business...? Seriously...

Just downstairs from Joerg and Txuku’s holiday apartment which sits next to a clock tower on what looked like an old railway square was in fact an old bull-fight ring, are 230 tapas bars as such all stacked one after another squared around the town. People, neighbors, friends, gather to socialize there very regularly. And everyone there is ostensibly obsessed with food. So you can imagine how good food here must be. Here's an interesting story :

Back in the day in San Sebastian, some hundred years ago there were these MEN-ONLY clubs. Although this has changed now, quite clearly women were not allowed then. I of course had immediately pictured prostitutes-gambling-smoking-drinking joints, you know the common pleasure-principles. Well, pleasure indeed, except these Basque-men gathered really, only to cook! This cracked me up big time. Obsessed with food you don't say!

Txuku’s brother took us to one such club, somewhere in the cracks which he’s a member of. There, we talked and laughed and after one bottle of local champagne later(Cava it's called), we walked down the alley past all these pinchos bars again to a Whisky Bar, or rather a Whisky Museum. In the basement of this place, people congregate to sing ala karaoke-style except to live music. All are free to join in.

from left : Eugene, Federico, Stephane & Joerg

It must be almost 2am. Yes, we decided the Whisky Bar was the last stop. We saw Txuku have her birthday dance with brother and decided to call it a night. They (Jorg, Txuku & brother) however, partied on. Stephane drove us out of San Sebastian while I struggled to stay awake to keep him awake while the other two (my husband & Eugene) snoozed away.
Road signs were really vague, we had no idea IRUN and IRUNA were not the same so ended up heading towards Pamplona (which is the opposite side of Biarritz) – 30km in the wrong direction before we found a no-sign exit. It was quite freaky to be driving on a totally deserted highway in the middle of nowhere at that hour… not a single soul on either side of us. By the time we reached Biarritz, Stephane and I were totally wasted. He wasn't gonna get much sleep - 7am was his call time for the 1st R&C meeting!

Dinners in Biarritz Well, that Sunday in Biarritz was truly awesome. Slept in from the late night plus no work:) And not that I’m complaining, but whatever happened to winter?!!? The temperature was perfect, the sun was out to warm my face. I did bring the tropics with me!

So I woke up in the hotel room to sunny Biarritz with the sea outside my window. I couldn't wait to get outside. I knew I needed just a sweater. How very nice! Since shopping in town was closed, we went and ate crepes again back at the same place overlooking the canyon. Then we just mosey-ed around town in a lesiurely pace, admiring the castles in the hood.

Adam's Family - I passed this castle everyday getting to town. There's a creepy-wonderment about it. It's a childhood fantasy of mine to stay in a castle one day... like those I read in storybooks. But I'll probably freak out spending the night in this one. We came to Biarritz specifically for the RELAIS & CHATEAUX XXXV International Congress (15-18 November 2009). All the members meet at a different country each year to attend the seminars and parties. That same night was the Relais & Chateaux welcoming party at the castle by the sea, at the L’Hotel Du Palais.

R&C OPENING PARTY Again, lots and lots to drink whole night long, with endless helpings of cuisine of the most sumptuous sorts prepared by some of the best grand chefs in France.

Le Parcours Gastronomique des grand chefs Relais & Chateaux

The setup was ala station-style where we helped ourselves to anything and everything and in an eat-all-you-want environment. To my delight, there was foie gras (again) and fresh oysters too - infinite offerings. To end, a myriad of not-possible-to-resist desserts of the finest French sorts, but I was literally badgering the macaroons booth.

Starters & Main Courses

Restaurant Helene Darroze - Escaoutoun with truffles

Chateaux Cordeillan-Bages (Grand Chef Thierry Marx)Fresh, raw oysters, iodine breadsticks & caviar

Restaurant Richard Et Christopher Coutanceau (Grand Chef Christopher)Confit scallops au naturel in a viennoise of fresh herbs on creamy broccoli with an acidulated beetroot vinaigrette

Carre Des Feuillants (Grand Chef Alain Dutournier) Daube of tripes with ceps

Le Saint-James (Grand Chef Michel Portos)Cannelloni of ceps & aubergines, coriander cockle vinaigrette

Hostellerie De Plasiance (Grand Chef Philippe Etchebest)Cubism of foie gras & smoked tuna, aspic of oceanic bonito & Aquitaine caviar

Les Pyrenees (Grand Chef Firmin et Philippe Arrambide)Shredded hare a la royale

Desserts by L’Hotel Du Palais (Grand Chef Jean-Marie Gautier)

Churros with Eugenie chocolate, soft macaroons with almond cream, waffles with fig compote & Bourbon vanilla & “Russian” with pistachio.

R&C Basque Dinner Biarritz was its most beautiful on Monday morning. The sun and he sea was calling. Hung-over or not, most attended the 8am congress down at the casino. Whereas I, spent 2 fabulous hours in the outdoors, power-walked by the sea and sprinted around the sleepy town. Met everybody for lunch later and then proceed to shop some more.That night was the FETE BASQUE – the Basque-themed night out at a farm called Ferme Inharria, somewhere out in the countryside. All of us (some 600 people from all over the world) were asked to dress in red & white with a red scarf & red berret.

Like the food, the event was nothing less original. And any R&C event is never short of surprises. A welcoming entourage of men dressed like characters of Asterix, drumming, marching and trumpeting.That was, Basque-style. We were led on red carpet first passing a trojan-looking beefy man demonstrating his physical power, then some ladies offering trials of their specialty chili-jam and finally to our dinner venue, the barn.

To start, a smorgasbord of cold cuts with bread (which was delicious beyond speech). Again, free-flowing champagnes and wines while Basque men out in the cold, roasting our dinner.

THE BASQUE MENU Lobe de Foie Gras de canard entire (yes FOIE GRAS again. I almost couldn’t eat anything more after this butter-rich slab of fat)

Cochon de lait cuit a la braise, haricots tarbais au chorizo (yup, the suckling pig was roasted just outside the barn – it was so super juicy I stuffed it anyway...)

Fromage de brebis & bleu basque, confiture de cerise’s Itxassou (strong-flavored cheese with berry jam, which I’m sure was to die-for but I was sitting there like a bag of bananas by then albeit not much worse than those who have had to sit through a full-day of talk at the Congress earlier - they were heavy with sleep by then)

Delice d’Amatxi, sauce caramel au cidre basque (AH…. now THIS was food for my soul. Quite special, picture cream flan on top of an apple pie then topped with a caramel-cider sauce. It was so light I simply inhaled it.)

Lunch at the fish market Now this was truly WOW. What was in-stored for us all after the Champagne Cocktail Brunch that didn't interest me at all, was really outstandingly. Unwilling to spill the beans, Stephane walked us through the Biarritz town to a mystery place. There was singing and drumming again as we reached what smelt like a fish market. Indeed it was! A market place – one end fish, the other meat. And OH MY GOD...

Need I say more??!!! Let's rape the oysters!!! There were also poached red prawns, boiled mussels, sautéed calamari, caviar… we, and hundreds of people from Relais & Chateaux were gobbling down like the world was running out of air. We could eat all we wanted.

And I, was unstoppable. It was the case of "I've come and I've conquered" AND totally raped the oysters. Hence no time for pictures, was too busy gobbling. Oblivious to the rest, I’ve lost Stephane too (another oyster rapist) by now, I moved on to other stations eating like a hungry homeless person. Now that, is the true meaning of 'indulge'.Then, when I was starting to look like an oyster, Federico pulled me away to the other side – the meat, cheese & dessert market. Yeah, let’s eat something else! Oh my oh my….guess what, just as we stepped through the door, I saw foie gras AGAIN! Slither after slither of foie gras pate later, I was again dragged away.

I had room left only for sweets. So there I had my first dose of basque cake and something called Canale which looks like a kind of Malay kuih. But it has an interesting tenacity and a hard-to-forget flavor... kinda burnt vanilla-caramel with a hint of rum. I was again relentless, in fact desperate. Since I almost could not eat no more, I asked to ‘ta pao’ :D Voila, I asked, I got! We had them for breakfast with coffee in Paris on our way outta France two mornings later.

R&C Finale Gala - The Charleston Night That was our last night in Biarritz. Held at the Casino, the party's themed was Charleston glamour. Think ‘Cabaret’, think old Hollywood divas, the aristocratic glamour of the 40s. Sequined and tassle-trimmed dresses with legs sheathed in fishnets and elbow-length laced gloves, ostrich-feathered head dresses and lips in come-hither red, set the stage for the cameras. SHOWTIME it was!

I always make it a point to dress as required at parties. You wouldn’t believe how I had scrambled to improvised...from Paris to Biarritz I searched for bits and pieces of glitzy accessories to put together, adding some degree of loudness I bought some look-at-me rhinestone bracelet and necklace, organza gloves that were really stockings, all that eventually became my mix-&-match medley of the cabaret-diva look for the night. Geez…. I was again, very lucky to have found something at all within just those 2 days! Although I’m never the plan-what-to-wear sort and even if I do have an adventurous spirit, in order to save myself some sanity AND MONEY while traveling, I vow to plan ahead next year. Before leaving Biarritz...Henriet's chocolates are, according to Stephane, the best in the world! I was here everyday. Their nougat-filled chocolates are really THE BOMB. The pralines and truffles are awesome too. I grabbed a bunch of different mixes - colorful macaroons, home-made candy, fudge, Basque cakes and candied fruits.

Back to Paris Flew back to Paris from Biarritz to fly to Venice on 18/11/09. Was a cold day too. And my temperament, just as cold as I stepped into that same airport remembering that rude Easy Jet prick. Suddenly I was pissed off all over again. I will file that complaint the minute I get the chance.
Arrived from Biarritz after a 2-hr flight almost. But with absolutely no luck getting a hotel in Paris! Paris was packed out! Us being us, definitely DID NOT learn from the last New York experience. We were very very lucky then. This time we were likely gonna have to pay an arm & a leg just to sleep somewhere for one night. Well with no options left, we resolved to the Sheraton Hotel at the airport. Which didn’t turn out to be that bad an idea since we were to fly out to Venice anyway the next afternoon. Although, yeah, we did end up paying 500 Euros (about RM2500) for a generic hotel room! So learn folks… PLAN AHEAD.
Nevertheless, we ended our Parisian trip on a high note. I got to see Moulin Rouge! Quite a way to end our night in Paris:) I’ve always wanted to watch the show and it was nothing less than what I had fantasized. Show tickets are expensive though. They run 2 shows a night 9pm (105 Euros - RM600+) and 11pm (92 Euros RM500+). With dinner, prices start from 150 euros.The entrance and inside the theatre with seatings at tables cabaret-style all facing the stage. Loads of Japanese tourists. Take note that you'll be asked to deposit your jacket/coat before entering the theatre but you won't be told you'll be charged 1 Euro for it. Just so you know, you CAN refuse if you don't see the need to.
They do change their shows occasionally, this one was Ferie. Pretty spectacular... a troupe of 100 artists, including 60 Doriss Girls (recruited world-wide) ; 1000 costumes of feathers, rhinestones and sequins, set up in the most famous Parisian workshops ; sumptuous sets in shimmering colours uniquely designed by Italian artists and the giant aquarium... Ah....this sold me the show actually. The high-tech stage made anything possible including an emerged aquarium where a topless Egyptian goddess submerged into a dance with some big pythons. Preview here!

It was a highly entertaining variety showcase with some of the best, most outstanding international acts; a super juggler, contortionist-comic dance which was amazing and a ventriloquist that uses a dog as his prop and who also engages audience participation. It’s a show not to be missed while in Paris!!! Do
book online or call in advance because you don't wanna be stuck in a queue like this.Unfortunately Boulevard de Clichy isn't exactly a decent area to hang out at. In fact pretty dodgy and filthy...I didn't feel safe here at all. This is actually the red-light district of Paris so you can imagine lah. Just down the road from the Moulin Rouge theatre are strip clubs, sex shows, sex shops in the dodgiest form. Horrible. What made it worse that night was the soccer fans of Albania, hooligans really, who were celebrating their win against Egypt. Speeding cars on the streets, people clad in flags and painted faces screaming and honking, burning stuffs... gosh they turned Paris upside down as seen in the news. There were police in high-tech gear roaming outside the theatre, tons of rubbish on the road. Ugh it was rowdy and ugly.

That night, we saw one helluva spectacular world-class cabaret performance, possibly best I've seen in the world, and one lousiest, most gross pole dance show I've ever seen in my life. Talk about extremes... Well, I had no idea! I was curious but then no peeping aloud so it wasn't like we could walk in to check it out first before paying! I seriously thought Paris would have some good pole dancers...was hoping to buy a lap dance even. So I forced my hubby to go in with me. He was not amused at all. Sure enough, we got conned. 20 Euros each for a damn lousy act (I won't even call it a 'show') or whatever it was, at this dark and filthy joint of zero customers. As we entered, working girls were lazing about half-asleep on some sofa and were immediately 'shoo-ed' to 'wake up' to show us to our table. I realized then it was a mistake. Hahahahh! This place looked and smelt so dirty I didn't even wanna sit anywhere, let alone drink. We were really, the only morons there by the way.... Some young-looking eastern-European girl (i think) then came and started to 'dance' around the pole on the 'stage' in front of us. She did absolutely nothing and we felt cheated. We only have my pole passion to blame. Anyway, now I know... Been there, done that. Earlier that evening before coming to this rowdy side of town, we were at the posh side of town and had dropped in at the famous Buddha Bar for a drink. Nice ambiance....reminded me of The Spice Market in New York. After, as we strolled closer to the main street to catch a cab, I came upon Laduree! What a coincidence. Just a couple of nights ago in Biarritz, I heard from my friend Ilsoon that this shop sells the best macaroons in Paris.
Look at the packaging. Haute macaroons they are, aren't they. If you're a macaroon fan, Laduree is opposite Dior on the main road not far from Buddha Bar. We also managed to walk around a bit in Paris on this last night. 'Pet'-A-Porter One thing I love about France is that people here love dogs. Dogs are allowed everywhere:) In fact, the 3 weeks we spent in France and Italy, I've not seen one stray dog. I remember a tourist joke I read from somewhere long time ago, when asked how France was upon one's return, the answer is, "I don't know because I was looking down the whole time!" - yeah, watch out for dog poop.Well, I think I've seen enough of France for now... less than a week of the good, the bad and the ugly. I can now say I've been there, done that. I must admit though, I don't particularly speak French.

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