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Cooking from a Suitcase - Notes and photos from Auvergne and Paris

Cooking from a Suitcase - Notes and photos from Auvergne and Paris

Jan 23rd, 2006, 03:10 PM
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Cooking from a Suitcase - Notes and photos from Auvergne and Paris

Last May my wife and I spent nearly three weeks in France, most of it in the Auvergne. Some of these notes were written when we returned, but what with one distraction or another, I have only recently pulled them together (it’s tough work being retired).

Auvergne is a beautiful region of volcanic domes and lush meadows that doesn’t seem to be as well travelled as other parts of France; these notes and photos might help anyone considering a visit to the region. I’ll cover some of the scenery, driving suggestions, Romanesque churches, the pleasures of cooking from a suitcase, and some notes on Paris.

Thanks, by the way, to all who have posted about the Auvergne in the past. There haven’t been that many, but your recollections and recommendations were very helpful.

The bones of the journey

Our route was Halifax to Paris by air, leaving on May 5, then on to Clermont-Ferrand by train (we took the Air France bus from CDG to Gare de Lyon). We stayed in Clermont-Ferrand for two nights, picked up a rented car, and moved into a house in Montaigut-le-Blanc, a small village near Issoire. Two weeks later, we returned to Paris by rail, spent four days in Paris, and flew back to Canada on May 25. As I go along I’ll put in links to our hotels, the rented house, a few restaurants, and some photographs.

Clermont-Ferrand as a starting point

We looked at a map and chose Clermont-Ferrand as our starting point. It is only three and a half hours from Paris, and there are several trains a day. We found it a welcoming city with interesting walks and a couple of architectural gems. Still a bit jet-lagged, we wandered through the Marché Saint-Pierre for a taste of the Auvergne (cheese, local produce, freshwater fish, and all parts of the pig were on display) and lingered at the Fontaine d’Amboise, a Renaissance fantasy constructed of the distinctive black Volvic lava that is so common in the area.

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption towers over the city. Begun in 1248, it was only completed in the late 19th century under the hands of Violett-le-Duc, the military architect who supervised the restoration of Carcassonne and parts of Notre-Dame in Paris. The church maintained a remarkable consistency of Gothic style despite its centuries of construction. It is all the more striking for being built entirely of the black stone.

But it was the nearby Basilique Notre-Dame-du-Port that was our main reason for scheduling a day in Clermont-Ferrand. Small, dark, and somber, its solid and comforting Romanesque embrace is a sharp contrast to the tall thin walls, soaring ceilings, and huge windows of the neighbouring Gothic cathedral. The basilica is one of five unique churches within an hour’s drive of Clermont-Ferrand. I’ll describe them a bit more in a later post.

We stayed at Dav’Hôtel, a short walk from Place Jaude. Our room was cheerful, comfortable, and quiet. The staff were extremely helpful, particularly the young woman who helped us track our errant luggage (it had decided to stay in Montreal) and who spoke to the airline about delivery arrangements. (Dav’Hôtel, 10 rue des Minimes, 04 73 93 31 49, www.davhotel.fr)

We ate dinner at Le Château Chardonnay, a wine bar close by the cathedral. Michelin says it has “regional dishes, delectable and copious,” which we can confirm. It was lively on a Friday night. An animated party of chic young women chatted near the bar, families and young couples crowded in, and there was soon a buzz of conversation and a haze of cigarette smoke. (There is a non-smoking room at the back of the restaurant.) My wife had a lentil salad, with pied de cauchon and cantal, one of the region’s justly famous cheeses. I chose saumon mariné, which was intensely flavoured with lemon and mustard. We followed with rabbit in a mustard cream sauce and escalope de veau panné—seared, almost blackened, and subtly seasoned. Our waiter suggested aligot, a regional dish of potatoes, cheese, and garlic, which was delicious. (Restaurant Le Château Chardonnay, 1 place Phillipe-Marcombes, tel: 04 73 90 18 28)

Next: the rented house
AnselmAdorne is offline  
Jan 23rd, 2006, 03:14 PM
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Delayed or not, I am so glad you posted! Looking forward to reading more, especially more foo descriptions!
TexasAggie is offline  
Jan 23rd, 2006, 03:28 PM
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Thank you, TexasAggie. The food ... I think that post may be delayed 'til tomorrow, as I am about to watch the results of the Canadian election (a big event for us). In the meantime:

The rented house

On Saturday morning, just before we were due to check out, the desk clerk called to say that the luggage had arrived. It was perfect timing. We taxied to the airport, picked up our car, and drove to Montaigut-le-Blanc, stopping in Issoire for supplies.

Montaigut-le-Blanc is a tiny village about 25 kilometres south of Clermont-Ferrand. The older half of the village is perched on a steep hill, the lower half straddles the main road below. An old château and a Romanesque church stand over the upper village; down below you can find a charcuterie, boucher, boulangerie, fromagerie, tabac, and a small restaurant.

We have rented at least a dozen houses over the past six years; this place, which we found through French Connections, was one of the most comfortable and best equipped we have had so far. The house is a modernized amalgamation of old buildings, opened up and connected in a way that yields six levels of living space. There is a well-equipped kitchen on the lowest level that includes a wood stove, a round table, and comfy chairs. There is a small balcony off the kitchen that overlooks a garden courtyard. Up half a level is a bedroom, with a queen-size bed, a huge old wardrobe, a table, and two windows. Up another half flight is the main entrance from the street, plus a long, open room for sitting and dining, and a bathroom with a whirlpool tub.

There are three more half-levels above that, which include a couple more bedrooms, a mezzanine, and another bathroom. It may sound as if we rattled around in a mansion, but, in fact, we lived happily on the lower three levels and enjoyed the sense of openness and space above us. The most wonderful feature of all was the wall of windows in the dining area: it looked south across a deep wooded valley. Blackbirds sang in the trees outside, lizards darted up the garden wall, and butterflies danced by the window. We spent many happy hours there, flooded in warm sunlight. (It’s property number 786 on www.frenchconnections.co.uk; the owner’s website is at www.montaigut.net)

To be followed by: breathtaking scenery and beautiful villages
AnselmAdorne is offline  
Jan 23rd, 2006, 09:45 PM
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Anxiously awaiting continuation...Thanks for the entertaining and informative read thus far!
klondike is offline  
Jan 24th, 2006, 07:04 AM
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ttt for the morning group
TexasAggie is offline  
Jan 24th, 2006, 07:10 AM
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I feel as though I'm there, you describe it all so beautifully...

er..um... did you say something about pictures?
SuzieC is offline  
Jan 24th, 2006, 07:29 AM
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klondike and SuzieC, thank you! The link to the photos is at the end of this post.

Breathtaking scenery and beautiful villages

Although we arrived with ambitions of seeing the entire area, we ended up focusing on an arc running west, south, and east of Clermont-Ferrand. This area includes the Monts Dômes and the Monts Dores, which are mountain ranges of volcanic origin. It also includes the Limagnes, fertile rolling plains dotted with “puys,” the distinctive volcanic shapes that are so characteristic of the area.

The low-lying areas are farmed; the fields are a rich green, save for the occasional patch of yellow canola. There are cows everywhere. There is also a remarkable amount of forest. On the mountains, trees give way to alpine pastures, grey rock, and in May, the remains of winter snow. We enjoyed daytime highs of about 18 to 20 Celsius, but it was cold enough in the evenings to turn on the heat in the house. Lilac, wisteria, and irises bloomed everywhere at lower elevations, and we noticed wild daffodils up on the mountainsides.

Roads are narrow, twisty and often steep. Almost any road provides beautiful views at every turn, sometimes over the edge of a precipice, looking down on a village far below, other times up towards a towering peak. On one road we followed a farmer and his dog as they walked a herd of cows to a different pasture; on another, we came across a menhir, one of those ancient stone megaliths so well known to Astérix fans, and we looked around, half expecting to catch a glimpse Obélix striding off for a lunch of wild boar. This is, after all, the part of France where Vercingétorix, the role model for Astérix, is supposed to have defeated the Romans.

Visitors come to the region for hiking, therapeutic spas, and skiing; nonetheless, there is everywhere a sense of isolation and tranquility.

We found several towns that we would recommend for a visit:

- Besse-en-Chandesse, just west of our village, has a distinctly medieval air. The centre of the town is a twisted maze of narrow alleys. Some of the buildings are constructed of black lava stone; the roofs are black slate. It has a wonderful market every Monday, where we bought asparagus, dried sausage, black olives with lemon, garlic, and herbes de provence, local cheese, spinach, and potatoes.

- Orcival, St-Saturnin, and St-Nectaire are all attractive and intriguing. Champeix has beautiful terraced gardens around the ruins of an ancient château. Murol and Polignac are dominated by huge medieval fortresses. Issoire became our destination for fuel and groceries. And then there are the tiny hamlets along the way, some no more than a few houses, each quite striking in its own way.

We made a day-trip to Le Puy-en-Vellay. Once a stopping point on one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, the city sits in a bowl, with houses climbing up the surrounding hillsides. Michelin quite rightly describes it as one of the most extraordinary sites in France. A huge statue of the Virgin stands on top of Corneille rock; immediately below is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, with its unusual Byzantine ornamentation. The most distinctive feature is the Chapelle St-Michel-d’Aiguilhe, an 11th-century church perched atop a volcanic needle. We barely scratched the surface of this city.

No trip to Auvergne would be complete without a visit to Puy le Dôme. The road to the top is a 4.8-kilometre drive up a 12 per cent grade that corkscrews around the mountain. The view from the peak was astounding; despite a haze, we could look north and south along the Chaine des Puys and directly down into Clermont-Ferrand. If you are in the region for a few days, wait for a clear day. Beware, too: the drive back down is vertiginous, and they haven’t discovered guardrails there yet.

We also visited Puy de Sancy, the highest peak in the Auvergne. There is a cable car to the top; the energetic can walk. We contented ourselves with gazing up from the base and marvelling that we were standing at the headwaters of the Dordogne River.

There are several spectacular drives in the area. Here are five that we loved:

- D216, D27, and D983 south from Villejacques to le Mont-Dore. This route reveals a beautiful view of Orcival and its Romanesque church. A bit farther south, look for la Roche Tuilière and la Roche Sanadoire, two striking volcanic remains with a glacier-carved valley between the two.

- D978 leaving Besse-en-Chandesse provides a sudden view of Puy de la Perdix with the Super-Besse ski resort at its feet. Turn left from the highway and drive up to Lac Pavin, a crater lake of haunting beauty.

- D5 from Aydat south to Murol provides tantalizing views of the Vallé de Chaudfour and the Massif du Sancy. Just before reaching Murol, there is a spot with a wonderful view of the medieval Château de Murol.

- D36 from Besse-en-Chandesse to le Mont-Dore is stunning. You can stop at le Rocher de l’Aigle for a gorgeous view of the Vallée de Chaudfour. After plunging to the valley floor, the road climbs steeply up to Col de la Croix St-Robert, at 1451 metres, then drops down again to le Mont-Dore.

- And our favourite, just near our village: D640 through Treizanches, then left onto D150 through Farges. Shortly after, you will be rewarded with an aerial view of St-Nectaire and its beautiful Romanesque church. It’s a heart-stopping scene.

(This is probably a good point to add the link to our photographs. Click on the gallery that says Auvergne and Paris: www.pbase.com/anselmadorne)

Next up: food
AnselmAdorne is offline  
Jan 24th, 2006, 07:45 AM
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Beautiful beautiful. This is an area of France little visited and so refreshing to read about. I was there about 10 years ago, did most of the stuff you have mentioned and have always intended to go back but...Those Romanesque churches are a joy. Thanks for the memory.
gertie3751 is offline  
Jan 24th, 2006, 08:00 AM
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This is a definite keeper ! And as we areconsidering this area for Fall, I plan to study it carefully! Thank you
jody is offline  
Jan 24th, 2006, 08:05 AM
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Such a beautiful report. I can almost close my eyes and imagine being there. Your details and descriptions are superb.

Thanks so much for sharing!
tcreath is offline  
Jan 24th, 2006, 08:15 AM
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gertie3751, I'll be adding a little section on the Romanesque churches after the food.

jody, I am delighted that this might be helpful.

tcreath, *blush*

Cooking from a suitcase

My wife and I love to cook, and one of the joys of renting a house in France is free rein in a kitchen (and an excuse to do more than look at what is for sale in the markets). Delicious ingredients are always available, even in villages as small as Montaigut-le-Blanc. This notion of cooking from a suitcase—travelling with a copy of Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, and a recollection of the recipes we make at home—has given us hours of enjoyment in a dozen kitchens. Some, like this one, are wonderful to work in; others have required a bit of improvisation. (On one memorable occasion we had to make a pot lid out of tin foil; we have also learned to carry a knife sharpener.)

Looking back over our notes, I see we made saucisses lentilles one evening, with endive, apple, and blue cheese salad. (Carrefour stocks a lovely saucisse de Toulouse, pure pork, coarsely ground, and lightly seasoned; lentilles de Puy are a specialty of Auvergne.) Another evening we had lamb chops from M. Gonin, the butcher in the lower village. (We used to say that the best lamb we had ever eaten was from a butcher in Nyons. We have turned that honour over to M. Gonin; this lamb was divine. When we asked if it was local, Mme Gonin told us it came from Besse.) We paired the lamb with fresh spinach, white asparagus, and potatoes from the market—the spinach cooked with a bit of butter and a drop of cream, the asparagus steamed and lightly drizzled with lemon juice and butter, the potatoes cubed and sautéed in olive oil. Another day we made potage parmentier—leeks, onions, and potatoes (unable to locate any chicken stock that wasn’t in a cube, we made our own), served with a green salad and baguette. Another evening it was breaded veal, rice from the Camargue, tomato fondue, and braised endive.

Food tastes very different in France. We bought olive oil from la Vallée des Baux-de-Provence, which had a very different flavour than the Italian we buy at home. We bought butter from Charentes Poitou and found it amazingly different (not the least of which is that it can be heated to a higher temperature than Canadian butter). The Mona Lisa potatoes we bought at the market in Besse have yellow flesh like our Yukon Golds, but are a touch sweeter. Rice from the Camargue is fluffier than what we can buy and tastes of grain. We bought eggs from chickens raised en plein air; their yolks are a deeper golden-orange and they have a more intense flavour. It all adds up to delightful differences.

But it wasn’t all our own cooking. Breakfast was coffee and baguette, although walking down to the lower village (8 minutes) and climbing back up (15 minutes) was a major undertaking. Some afternoons we bought a half roasted chicken or some wonderful pâté-en-croûte or rôti-de-porc from M. Baffaleuf, who runs the charcuterie in the lower village. Those evenings we simply made huge salads and followed with pain au levain and cheese.

Lunches were usually on the road, at a café or a restaurant. The food of Auvergne is good, honest fare. There is freshwater fish on most menus. There are several ways of preparing potato-based dishes, including aligot and truffade. We encountered a wide variety of dried pork sausages and ham. And there are superb local cheeses: Forme d’Ambois, Bleu d’Auvergne, Cantal, and Saint-Nectaire (I did mention that there are cows everywhere).

Our lunch at a place called the Bar Fleuri in St-Nectaire-le-Bas was a typical offering. The owner was talking to an elderly well-dressed woman when we walked in. She showed us to a table, handed us menus, and immediately turned on a stereo playing pop from the ‘60s and ‘70s. (The first song up was “Where Do You Go To, My Lovely” by Peter Sarstedt. I love the line about living in a fancy apartment off the Boulevard Saint Michel.)

The restaurant filled up; she managed to prepare and serve simple four course meals to nine people while we were there, as well as keeping two elderly farmers lubricated at the bar. (One of them was wearing a beret, an old pullover, classic blue French workpants, and bedroom slippers.) The €12 menu was a choice of jambon or salade aux gesiers, steak with pommes dauphinois (which were sublime), a cheese course, raspberry tart, and a pichet of red. It was basic food, well cooked, simply served, and delicious.

Next: Romanesque churches
AnselmAdorne is offline  
Jan 24th, 2006, 08:21 AM
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Love this report - makes me want to go back to that wonderful region of France!
StCirq is online now  
Jan 24th, 2006, 08:23 AM
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Hi AA,

Thanks for a lovely report.

ira is offline  
Jan 24th, 2006, 08:31 AM
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Not that I've seen much of France but the Auvergne is my favorite region so far. My visit in May 2003 is still my overall best trip to France.

Thanks for the photos and report. I'm wishing I had some Cantal and St Nectaire cheeses right now.
indytravel is offline  
Jan 24th, 2006, 08:42 AM
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Oh wow, your food descriptions are wonderful (and making it nigh impossible for me to wait for lunchtime!). I am very much looking forward to the continuation of this lovely trip report.
TexasAggie is offline  
Jan 24th, 2006, 08:51 AM
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Thos gets better and better. Just looked at your photos and am hallucinating the taste of the Ste Nectaire cheese.
gertie3751 is offline  
Jan 24th, 2006, 08:53 AM
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StCirq, ira, and TexasAggie, thanks for the encouragement. indytravel, yours was one of the earlier postings that I found here before we went. If I recollect properly, you had visited the region with your dad and had combined rail travel and driving. I really liked your post.

The five churches

I suspect that this section may have a little more detail than some might want. If your eyes start to glaze over, skip it, and I’ll be back later with some notes on Paris.

There is a very rich seam of Romanesque architecture in Auvergne, but five churches in particular drew us to the region. The first was the earlier-mentioned Basilique Notre-Dame-du-Port in Clermont-Ferrand; the other four are located in St-Nectaire, Oricival, Issoire, and St-Saturnin.

They were all started between 1080 and 1150, all are located within 50 kilometres of Clermont-Ferrand, and all show a remarkable uniformity of design, even though there is no clear reason why they were so much alike. All have rather plain western ends. Viewed from eastern end, however, the most distinguishing feature is a two-story octagonal bell-tower sitting on an oblong box or haunch over the crossing. Beneath this structure, there is a gentle fall of tiered rounded roofs over the chevet. It is a beautiful design, simple, yet wonderfully proportioned. (One of my photographs on the pbase web site shows these features on the church in Issoire.)

Inside, all five have side aisles and an ambulatory, characteristics of pilgrimage churches. The naves are barrel-vaulted; the side aisles are groin-vaulted. There are diaphragm arches at the transept supporting the oblong block and bell tower. The design of the interior lighting is very clever. At Oricival, for example, there is one window in the narthex and seven in the apse, but 16 at the transept and 22 in the choir. This difference in lighting, from darkness at the entrance to brightness around the altar, draws your eyes forward and upward when you enter the church.

As similar as the five churches are, they are different in ornamentation. Some of our photographs show various patchwork-like designs on the chevet. All are attractive; none are the same.

If you had time to see only one, I’d recommend the church in Orcival. There was something about that building, a spirit of place, that was subtly and profoundly moving.

A warm welcome

A final note before leaving Auvergne. Our previous visits to France have been to Languedoc, Provence, Strasbourg, and Paris. We have always felt welcome in France, and we like the polite formality that structures day-to-day dealings with people. However, we have never before encountered the blend of warmth and interest that we found in the Auvergne. We lost track of how many times we were asked, “Vous êtes de quelle pays?” which was followed by long discussions about where we had been, what we were planning to see, and recommendations for driving routes or markets. And then inevitably, the question, Did we like it there? We did. Although we have stayed in other villages for two weeks at a time, we have never before found one of our neighbours crossing the street, shaking our hands, and asking us how we were enjoying our visit. We were reluctant to leave.

Coming next: Paris hotel and restaurants
AnselmAdorne is offline  
Jan 24th, 2006, 09:03 AM
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Great report, Anselm.
This beats watching election results anyday, though I admit that we too in Ontario were glued to our TV screens last night.

Why don't you submit this report to the "Trip Report" section new to FODORS ? It allows both photos and script. I think your very enjoyable report is worthy of more attention on this forum, and will be enjoyed and appreciated by so many more that way.

Click on "Talk" on the menu above and then "Miscellaneous" for more information on how to do this if you're interested.

In the meanwhile, keep up the excellent work.


Mathieu is offline  
Jan 24th, 2006, 09:07 AM
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Wholeheartedly second Matthieu's suggestion
TexasAggie is offline  
Jan 24th, 2006, 02:52 PM
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Merci, Mathieu. I hadn't even thought of it. I'll take a look at procedures.

Here is the rest of it:

Paris—the waiter stepped over the dog

Having previously stayed in hotels in the 6th, 7th, and 8th, we decided on this trip to try the Marais and reserved a room at Hôtel Castex in the 4th. Rue Castex is a side street running between boulevard Henri IV and rue St-Antoine, about a block from Place de la Bastille. We found the hotel room tight, even by Parisian standards, but the bathrooms have been recently refurbished and the housekeeping is spotless. Our room overlooked the street, which is generally quiet. Light sleepers, however, might be bothered by the garbage truck that creeps up the street every morning between six and seven. I discovered that the sound of empty bottles being tipped into the back of the truck wakes me up. (Hôtel Castex, 5 rue Castex, tel 01 42 72 31 52, www.castex-paris-hotel.com)

The area is rich in cafés. We tried a number of them for breakfast and decided we liked the Café des Phares on Place de la Bastille the best. We also tried three restaurants within a ten-minute walk of the hotel. Two were excellent.

We stumbled on l’Ecume the evening we arrived. The Marais was once an area with many shops selling produce from Auvergne. L’Ecume is a perhaps an echo of those years; it specializes in beef from Salers. We were given a very warm welcome, despite walking in without reservations. There were already two couples dining, but the restaurant filled up quickly with families dining out on a Saturday evening.

We both chose the Menu Parisienne: Noix d’entrecôte de Salers aux trois sauces, purée beurre maison, salade verte avec pignons de pin, and brie. The beef was spectacular and grilled to perfection; the puréed potatoes were rich, yet delicate. It was wonderful food perfectly served.

There was a lively family nearby, three generations, two dogs, and one toddling grandchild. Somewhere through the meal, the child wandered towards the open front door. One of the dogs went outside and gently nudged him back. The child returned to the family fold, and the dog flopped down on the floor in the middle of the only path to the table. We watched in curiosity to see what would happen. The waiter stepped over the dog. (L’Ecume, 25 bd Henri IV, tel 01 42 72 39 85 www.restaurant-lecume.com)

Gaspard de la Nuit was more formal. I unfortunately didn’t keep very good notes of that meal, but I do recollect having a green salad with one of the best vinaigrettes I have ever tasted and carré d’agneau en croûte d’herbes. Try as we might, we can’t remember what my wife had for dinner that night. We did remark, though, that they had a superb saucier in the kitchen. That evening I tried, for the first time in my life (and quite possibly the last), hypocras, a liqueur. It was otherwise a very good evening. (Gaspard de la Nuit, 6 rue des Tournelles, tel: 01 42 77 90 53, www.legaspard.com)

Our third restaurant was l’Impasse. Neither of us were moved by the food or by the service, although we did end up chatting with a couple from California at the adjacent table. The conversation was more engaging than the food, touching on restaurants, exchange rates, softwood lumber tariffs, and flu vaccines. (Restaurant l’Impasse, 4 impasse Guéménée, tel 01 42 72 08 45 www.limpasse.com)

Paris shopping

We found our way to E. Dehillerin in the 1st and bought flan pans and tiny bright blue porcelain dishes to use as mise en place. The store is a cook’s delight. Nearby was La Droguerie, renowned for its yarn, trimmings, and beads. My wife emerged with a pattern and yarn, while I inspected the Church of St-Eustache. (E. Dehillerin, 18 & 20 rue Coquillière, www.e-dehillerin.fr; La Droguerie, 9 & 11 rue du Jour)

We spent the rest of the time sightseeing.

Practical information

We used the Michelin Green Guide for Auvergne and Rhône Valley and carried Michelin’s local maps numbers 326, 330, and 331 in the car. All are at a 1/150,000 scale and provide remarkable detail. Alternatively, there is a Michelin regional atlas, number 622, at 1/200,000. It is much easier to carry around and provides almost as much information.

We were able to get Prem tickets for the trains between Gare de Lyon and Clermont-Ferrand.

We booked our car through Auto Europe; the rental itself was with Europcar. We had a choice of picking the car up at the Clermont-Ferrand airport or in a downtown location near the railway station. We looked at a map and chose the former as being slightly easier, although a bit more expensive.

Air Canada treated us well, despite losing our luggage for 48 hours. We were able to use our upgrade certificates both ways; the service was excellent.

If by any chance anyone is interested in reading more about Romanesque architecture, Roger Stalley’s Early Medieval Architecture (Oxford University Press) is clearly written and beautifully illustrated.

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