Do you have a favorite hotel? I’m talking about a legendary, grande-dame of a place that may or may not be showing its age but remains elegant, with discrete service, a five-star dining room and the requisite, legendary bar. The Ritz in Paris or the Plaza in New York may come to mind. In Chicago it would probably be the Palmer House or the Drake. In Moscow it is the Metropol Hotel.
According to its website, the Metropol was built in “1899-1907 in Art Nouveau style, with contributions from some of Russia’s greatest architects and artists of the day.” Its location between the Bolshoi Ballet and the Kremlin makes it ideal for travelers and as a setting for A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.
This is my new favorite book.
It would be a great read at any time (and obviously it has been for many since it spent 20 weeks on the New York Times best seller list since its release in 2016). But now, with Russia dominating our headlines, it seems almost too perfect. Do not, however, expect A Gentleman in Moscow to bear any resemblance to current events. Rather this is a tale from inside Russia in the first half of the 20th century. In fact, it’s a novel set almost entirely inside the Metropol Hotel.
Briefly, the novel tells the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat arrested by the Bolsheviks in 1922, but saved from execution because as a student he had written an influential revolutionary poem. Instead of the Gulag, he is sentenced to permanent house arrest in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. The Count had been living in a posh suite in the Metropol, where he had installed a variety of cherished family heirlooms and established a comfortable routine. However, under house arrest, he is forced to move what he can into a garret room in the Metropol’s attic and go from there.
The Count, being the Count, adapts.
That’s the charm and the challenge of the story. I must admit that I knew the premise of the book before I started reading, and I was intrigued about how Towles would handle the limitations of the hotel. Not to worry. The count’s former worldly circle is replaced by a new one within the Metropole: the cook, maitre’d, seamstress, bartender, and even an orphan for whom he assumes a paternal role. Towles deftly introduces hotel guests to bring the world to the Metropole and the Count, whose diplomatic skills and knowledge of history, literature, music, art, food and drink eventually make him a valuable mentor to high-ranking party members, netting a whole new range of relationships.
And then there are the dramas that play out. This is, after all, post-WWI and revolutionary Russia. There is the depression, the party’s struggles, WWII, Stalin’s death, the Cold War. The book spans nearly four decades, giving the count plenty of time to adapt while never losing his dignity or his sense of right and wrong.
Although the focus is on the Count, it’s impossible to overlook the challenges the other characters experience. The cook isn’t just losing access to ingredients in a time of shortages, he’s losing access to the tools of his trade, to his artistic expression. When the hotel manager — “the party’s” representative in the hotel — inserts himself into the daily restaurant meeting, the Count and his cohorts lose their autonomy. The losses may be incremental, but they mount. Life in Moscow is not easy, but these characters soldier on, assuring their guests the Metropol’s traditional service and style, and assuring themselves of their values and traditions.
This is much more than a survival story, it’s about thriving in the midst of adversity, never losing one’s “center” (and in fact, having a moral center). And this is the part that brings me to current headlines. Without sounding too political, what does it mean today to have a moral center? What does it mean to be an American in 2017? I’ve been thinking about that a lot.
This book would be a great read at any time, but right now, I think it’s perfect.
Bonus! Saving — and celebrating — a bit of every book
My daughter is an avid reader. (Hence her blog, What Maggie Read). We talk books a lot: what we’re reading, why, what’s next on our list, what our respective book groups thought about recent reads, and on and on (as my husband would say). One recurring topic of this conversation is documenting what we have read.
Maggie keeps a reading journal. (I’d like to be that disciplined, but I’m not.) She recently told me about a friend who keeps a kind of “annotated” list of books. As Adele finishes a book, she adds the title and the first sentence of the book. Cool, huh? We both think this is a great way to keep a record of what you have read. (Thanks, Adele.)
Do you track what you have read in a journal or a list or just by looking at your bookshelves? I would love to hear from you.
I could not wait to plunge into our recent travels in France to tell you about Castle Sercy, here, and my day at The Cook’s Atelier, here. But then I thought I should backtrack and give you a look at our trip overall. It was more than castles and cooking.
A few years ago we took a river cruise in France that traveled north from Arles in Provence to Salon sur Saone in Burgundy. We had a wonderful time, we just didn’t have enough time in many of the places we stopped. There were other sights like the Pont du Gard, and towns, like Aix en Provence, along the way, that we never got a chance to see.
We knew we would go back — soon. Then my son introduced me to Ina Caro’s book, Paris to the Past, in which Caro and her husband retraced French history by daytripping via train from Paris to various cathedrals and castles. They did this in chronological order starting with the oldest sight. Since we had already visited Notre Dame, Saint Chapelle and Chartres, I wanted to visit a few more sights on the list.
Burgundy is home to countless small wineries that we could only sample by visiting ourselves, and Steve was eager to do that. I had discovered The Cook’s Atelier in Beaune (a town we loved on our first visit) and was determined to attend one of their daylong cooking classes. If we started in Reims, we could visit the cathedral where centuries of French kings were crowned.
After a few days in Burgundy, we planned to drive south to Provence, exploring more hilltop towns, visiting markets, and, yes, getting lost on more back roads, before dropping the car off in Avignon and taking the train to Paris.
Our travel misadventure adventure begins
We flew into Paris and, on a chilly, drizzly morning with virtually no sleep on the overnight flight, proceeded to drive to Reims in our rented Renault Clio. We paid extra for a GPS system, but never really figured out how to use it, which explains how we ended up heading towards Paris instead of Reims. Fortunately, even my seriously limited French revealed we were going in the wrong direction. Pull over, pull up Google maps, and recalibrate. (This is a little jingle we would oft repeat!)
Here’s what we learned about driving in France: In addition to being in French, the road signs did not indicate direction. Alas, we midwesterners are used to I80 West, I65 North and so on. Not so in France. Keep your eye on the Google map. And here’s what we learned about roundabouts: keep going around until you are sure of the exit you want to take. If you make the wrong assumption and take the wrong roundabout turn off, you can go many kilometers before getting a chance to turn around on these narrow country roads. Tollroads are nice, but not typically very close to the towns you really want to see. (And the country roads are indescribably scenic and fun to travel!)
After our stop in Reims and catching up on our sleep at a hotel in Troyes, we visited the Abbey of Fontenay on our way to Beaune. Founded in 1118 by Saint Bernard as a Cistercian abbey, Fontenay is one of the oldest in Europe. Cistercians vow to live a simple life in poverty. Their monasteries were self-sufficient. By 1200 the monastery was complete and able to serve as many as 300 monks. Despite its initial success, the abbey was attacked and pillaged in the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion. The monks left during the revolution and the property was turned into a paper mill by the Montgolfier family (of balloon fame). Today it is privately owned. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.
True to the abbey’s orders, the buildings are remarkably simple, sometimes even stark, but they feature beautifully vaulted ceilings and generous doses of graceful symmetry.
On to Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy in eastern France. It is also home to the Hotel Dieu, a 15th-century former hospital that is now a Museum. We had toured the Hotel Dieu on our first visit (an intriguing sight), but we were anxious to explore the town, sample the legendary wines, and I would spend a day cooking.
As we explored Beaune on foot on the day before my cooking class, we stopped by The Cook’s Atelier to introduce ourselves. My husband asked about nearby wineries and Marjorie’s son-in-law graciously arranged for us to visit Chateau Pommard, one of the oldest in Burgundy and just a handful of miles away. (And, yet we got ridiculously lost in this tiny town, so much so that we had to call the Chateau and say “this is where we think we are, how do we find you?”)
Although the estate changed hands a few more times and is now owned by an American, it has remained complete and has benefited from significant improvements to the estate management and the winemaking. Pommard wines are known worldwide for their quality, and the tour and tasting was simply wonderful.
By now we were becoming more comfortable with driving in France. We still got lost (often!), but we took it in stride and felt free to stop, take pictures and make impromptu changes to our so-called itinerary. This is what we were hoping for!
Now we know why everyone loves Provence…
Before we knew it the road from Burgundy led to Provence where we finally saw the Pont du Gard, visited Aix, and fell in love with French markets. Provence is absolutely charming and prettier in person that any picture. Really. We just let it unfold in front of us as we traveled.
One of the charms of driving on our own was the freedom to stop and explore, as we did here at Seguret, stopping for a leisurely lunch in an outdoor cafe overlooking the French countryside.
Our plan was to stay in L’Isle sur la Sorgue for a few days (so we could attend their big Sunday market which includes antiques) and then move on to St. Remy. Both towns provided a great base from which to visit other hill towns. (And we did a lot.)
L’Isle sur la Sorgue is larger and has a working class vibe. The town owes its early prosperity to the Sorgue River, which served it well defensively centuries ago, and for the industry and trade the river offered. A number of working waterwheels remain in the heart of town
Today it’s home to many antique stores, typically only open on the weekend for the market (though I’m sure they do considerable private business the rest of the time). In the few days we were there, the people and pace seemed to pick up in anticipation of the Sunday market. We stayed a few miles from town and the hotel advised us to arrive in town on Sunday well before the market opened to assure parking. We did, though parking proved not to be a problem (or maybe we were just really early). So, we grabbed cafes and croissants from a boulangerie and enjoyed the activity as the vendors set up their wares.
I was especially eager to see what the antique dealers would offer and was not at all disappointed. There were linens, dishes, knickknacks, books, paintings and prints, and furniture, some of it just barely vintage but much of it centuries old. Centuries! I think the prices were fair and dealers were willing to bargain, I just had no idea how to get a lot of it home in a suitcase!
As much fun as the markets and specific sites were, driving almost daily through the French country side was just as much fun.
When we moved on to St. Remy I was reminded of the visit we paid a few years ago to the nearby Asylum of Saint Paul Mausole where Vincent Van Gogh went to recover his health; he improved here, and enjoyed an especially productive period, completing almost 150 paintings and a number of drawings from May 1889 until May 1890. (You may can read my post on that here.) One of the disappointments in the last visit was not spending time in St. Remy. This time we stayed in a charming, old hotel on the square. (In France, old means no elevator. We counted 69 steps to our room!)
We loved the weekly market in St. Remy. Like the others it was a colorful mix of fruit, vegetables, sausage, cheese, spices, baskets, t-shirts, linen towels, handmade soap, and local artists. And I’ve probably left out a few categories. Despite the obvious merchandise aimed at tourists, it’s important to remember that most French residents shop these markets weekly for food and to catch up with neighbors. It’s very much a part of the culture.
One of the side-trips we took from St. Remy was to Aix en Provence, a scenic drive on a warm day. I expected Aix to be pretty (and it was) and knew it played a role in the art community (you’ll see that), but we were totally unprepared for how big and bustling it was, especially on its market day (unplanned on our part). The traffic was like rush-hour gridlock. We worked our way towards Paul Cezanne’s studio, found parking in a nearby hospital lot, and walked the rest of the way.
The studio was so worth it. Cezanne had many studios over the course of his career, but this was his last and he had it built to his own specifications, a small, two-story structure on a hill in what was then the outskirts of town. The painting studio, above, was on the second floor, and though he worked every day, he often left the studio and worked outdoors. In October 1906 Cezanne was working outside the studio when the weather turned stormy. He worked for awhile anyway, then decided to go home. Unfortunately, the artist collapsed along the way. A passing driver took him home. He died of pneumonia a few days later. After his death, the Cezanne family simply locked up his studio. After a time the building was sold to a writer, who only used the first floor, leaving all of Cezanne’s art materials undisturbed upstairs. Eventually, Aix grew, and the structure was scheduled for demolition and redevelopment. A group of Americans banded together and saved Cezanne’s studio, donating it as a museum to a local university. The easels, paints, palettes, props, coffee cups – everything in the studio – are as Cezanne left them. Amazing!
After our stay in St. Remy, we dropped our car off in Avignon and took the train to Paris for our last few nights in France. I’ll post about that later. We have been to Paris a number of times, so this was more relaxed than earlier visits, seeing a few sights, shopping a little and enjoying French cafes.
Thanks for stopping by and reading and — hopefully enjoying — this loooong post. See you next time!
PS: I love Instagram and post there often. Follow me here.
Sometimes it’s the bits and pieces and not the “big picture” that capture my attention. Here are a few things that caught my eye this week.
An artist to watch
This past Sunday Steve and I headed downtown to meet some friends at the Millennium Art Show (which was really an excuse to catch up, walk around bit and then grab something to eat.) This was a small show but with some really interesting pieces and I’m sorry I didn’t spend more time seriously looking at the works displayed. Hmmm, perhaps we were chatting more than looking? However, I did enjoy re-discovering Daniel Lai.
Lai is a Tennessee artist who enjoys sculpting and repurposing books into the most amazing pieces of art. I first saw his work at the Wells Gallery at the Sanctuary on Kiawah Island. His work is so distinctive that I immediately recognized him at the show on Sunday. He says he started playing with books as a bored student, then was encouraged to re-purpose some of a friend’s books. I’m charmed by his imagination, the many ways he uses books and pages, those wonderful clay figures and the little extras, like the fishing pole. I think his work is both whimsical and provocative. What about you?
I captured the images, above, of his work from screen shots on You Tube. I wanted to share a few more images of his work and my photos just didn’t do it justice.
Three links to visit
I have been known do lots of blog-reading and coffee-drinking in the morning. Last week I was giving myself a real break after several especially busy days. And here’s the fun, my email inbox was full of links to some great blog posts.
Karianne at Thistlewoodfarms always has a fun take on life (she’s also a wonderful photographer and shares amazing DIY projects). She did a great post on 5-minute cleaning tips. I loved this, because she mentioned the messes that you (or at least I) forget about (like Cheerios in the silverware drawer). I also love the idea of limiting cleaning chores to 5 minutes. Click here for her tips, and if you have a 5-minute tip, please share!
Joni Webb at Cote de Texas did yet another of her beautiful, well-researched and illustrated posts, this time on designer Jackye Lanham and her home in Charleston, SC. First, Ms. Lanham does beautiful work: elegant, traditional rooms, minus the do-not-touch museum look. You would like to live in her rooms and her Charleston house, well, just take a look at the post! This is pure eye-candy. Pour a cup of coffee and just enjoy. (Joni’s posts are always a mini-course in art, architecture and design. She did a remarkable post on the real homes and rooms behind The Crown.)
Finally, Elizabeth at Blue and White Home, has a wonderfully clean, easy, mostly-traditional-but-sometimes-modern aesthetic (she’s also a Chicago designer, yay!). One of her recent posts turns that look onto some floral arrangements she made from blooms in her parent’s Vermont garden. They are simple, unpretentious, infinitely doable and most of all really pretty. It’s one thing to go to the store for a few bunches of flowers and greenery (we all do it all the time), but quite another to create such pretty pieces from what we have growing in the yard. Check them out.
The “stars” in my garden
My garden has a few spectacular successes this year, as well as a few failures. I don’t know if it’s the weather or, more likely, my not-so-green thumb. However, I walk the garden daily, sometimes taking pictures, often cutting some blooms to bring inside, pulling assorted weeds and dead-heading spent flowers. Not surprisingly, the stars of this year’s garden are the daylilies, and these purple coneflowers that are popping up everywhere. Take a look:
I hope you’re finding some “fun stuff” in your inbox and enjoying these July days!
Since we returned from our recent travels in Burgundy, Provence and Paris I have been thinking (and thinking) about the French attention to detail, the way fruits, vegetables and even sausages are carefully arranged at the market; simple pots bursting with flowers on every cafe table, cherries thoughtfully piled on a footed plate, individual pastries arranged in a boulangerie window. Even the arrangement of garden plots.
Although attention to detail is one trait that characterizes French charm, it’s not limited to that part of the world. I have been looking at details closer to home, from what catches my eye on my Instagram feed, to Pinterest boards, and garden plots. And for me, at least, it’s often the details — simply shown or in layers — that capture my attention and imagination. (Perhaps this explains how I can spend hours arranging plates on a shelf, pictures on a table, etc.)
What makes these details so important? Obviously, we all want to put our best foot forward. We care about our surroundings and the people in them; personally, I want the surroundings to be visually appealing as well as comfortable. And I want the people to be comfortable and feel special or even pampered at my house.
In fact, I’m not comfortable if something is off visually. In my case, this may be genetic…
Some of us may be born detail tweakers
My mother had a way of arranging appetizers on a tray or serving platters on a buffet. She tweaked this and fluffed that and everything looked a little better. She fussed over curtains inside, then went outside to see how they looked from there (because pretty inside was only part of the story!).
My dad was no better. He was an ad man in the 50‘s and had an innate sense of balance (which he would point out is not the same as symmetry) and a sharp eye for details. One of my fondest memories is of the two of them engaging in a silent duel over the placement of a new pair of arm chairs. Dad happened to be home to accept the chairs, and after the delivery crew left, he adjusted the chair placement on each side of a table as he & Mom had planned. When she came home, Mom admired the chairs and then readjusted the angles on their placement. (Dad was out of the room.) Later, he walked back in and readjusted the chairs. And so it went for the better part of a week. Dad adjusted the chairs every morning. Mom, who left first and came home first, readjusted every afternoon when she returned from work. Until, that is, she finally caved and agreed to Dad’s angle.
There are details and then there are details
Obviously the details that I have been focusing on have to do with design and presentation. But life is loaded with other details. In my editorial days, I was involved in a lot of meeting/event planning (something for which I did not have much talent), and though I dragged my heels at many of the details we added to each agenda, itinerary, and banquet event order, you only need to be unexpectedly left in charge of one event to know how important those details are. You only need to run one meeting to appreciate the importance of a good agenda, including who reports on what. If you start skimping on those preparations, and someone always does, then it’s like fabric fraying around the edges. The result is not as crisp, clean and smooth as it should be.
And so the lesson is: the outcome depends on your attention to the details.
I hope I’m not painting myself as an uptight, Type A person. If anything, I tend to fly by the seat of my pants much of the time. This explains why, when I totally forgot a book group was coming to spend the evening on my back porch, I was able to invite them in, open some chilled wine and serve up cheese and crackers. My detail, as it turns out, is to keep cheese and wine in the fridge and crackers in the pantry.
Where was I going with all this?
Oh, yes, the French attention to detail. This is one of my souvenirs from France. I want to remember to take the time for the attention to details, the carefully wrapped package, the way the cheese looks on the board and the olives in the little glass jars (that I bought at the French flea market), the buttered cookie tins sprinkled with lemon zest to add a little extra. The bottom line is that it doesn’t take much time or money to add a bit of graciousness to our days. And that’s what I’m after.
Which details catch your eye and which ones bypass your attention? I’d love to hear from you.