Rome’s Fascinating Basilica of San Clemente Reveals 2,000 Years of History

November 6, 2016

Old Rome never gets old, does it?

Timeless Italy Travels

I descended 60 feet below Rome’s surface into a mysterious past I knew little about…

Standing outside of the ancient Basilica of San Clemente, named after Rome’s third pope, hardly drew my attention. I had approached it from the side by mistake and missed the grander entrance fronted by a small courtyard with palm trees.

basilica_san_clemente_in_rome photo credit Wikimedia Commons

Located just a short distance from the Colosseum, I knew it embodied three levels of ancient church history.  Harboring this thought, I stepped inside the 12th century Basilica.

High above me was a vaulted ceiling with a dazzling mosaic in the apse depicting Christ on the Cross surrounded by doves. I walked across the uneven tile floor as it dipped and swayed through the centuries of visiting pilgrims and worshipers. A faint smell of incense, mingled with the cool and earthy surroundings, grew stronger as I began my journey into the depths of San Clemente

450px-interior_of_san_clemente_rome photo credit Wikimedia Commons

I soon found…

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January 24, 2016

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Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel is always surprising

August 6, 2015

Photos Copyright, 2015, Lee Balgemann

In Chicago you can experience Asian graciousness combined with Midwestern hospitality and lagniappe, a little bit more, at The Peninsula Chicago.  The hotel has a prime location on the Magnificent Mile and offers an extravaganza of amenities, surprises, and a comfortable ambiance that encourages you to be you whatever mood you are in.


You can dress to impress or you can feel at ease in what you wore on the plane because your luggage went on vacation to Kathmandu. Nothing is off limits at the Peninsula except indecency, and it is not a place indecent people gather. If you are a closet odd person, the concierge is discrete and can provide directions to off site venues such as the abandoned Brach’s candy factory, the Leather Archives and Museum, the 95th Street Bridge, Busy Beaver Button Company, and Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonalds’s.

Peninsula Chicago gown

If you are a tech fan or simply appreciate the convenience, you can have a fabulous time in your room controlling temperature, lighting, and curtains from bedside control panels, one on each side of the bed. For connoisseurs of the bath, marble bathrooms have deep soaking tubs, inset televisions, and Oscar de la Rena toiletries.  Starting at 530 square feet, the guest rooms and suites are elegantly appointed and some of the largest in Chicago. Peninsula pages are one touch of a touch phone away to run errands and walk dogs.

Peninsula Chicago guest room

You can eat like royalty. From classic European fare at Pierrot Gourmet to the Shanghai Terrraces’ acclaimed Chinese choices and The Lobby’s international menu, the Peninsula is one of Chicago’s most refined places to dine. If you are longing for Europe, outdoor dining at Pierrot Gourmet is like dining in Paris without a phrase book and waiters with attitudes. Head for the Shanghai Terrace for Asian Fusion with a view. All three restaurants have won important culinary awards.

Peninsu;a Chicago food

You can eat in your flip flops. “No shoes, no service” is a mandatory policy to keep a restaurant hygienic, but table vases made of reimagined running shoes convey the message: by all means be yourself and enjoy your meal. You can appreciate the artistry of the centerpieces or simply feel good that your hotel takes recycling seriously. Don’t be surprised to find a selection of Asian delicacies served on a skateboard. The Peninsula is redefining “urban chic.”

Peninsula Chicago floral

You can simmer in exotic, soothing fragrances in the hushed and holistic spa.  Treatments are inspired by Ayurvedic and Asian philosophies, ranging from the all-natural Hot Stone Massage with aromatic ESPA oils to spiritually uplifting Ayurvedic massages. The two story wellness center includes a half Olympic size pool and a workout room. Or you can join a party on the Shanghai Terrace.

Peninsula Chicago rooftop

You can expect unexpected smiles. The Peninsula guardian lions flanking the entrance and its mascot Peter Bear are loyal to Chicago teams and wear sport jerseys during playoffs.  Off season, their shirts, hats, and garlands may celebrate a holiday or simply surprise you with a wisp of whimsy. The hotel’s MINI Coopers wear rabbit ears for Easter and spiders on Halloween. For a less conspicuous ride, ask for the house BMW.

Peninsula Chicago mascot

Actor David Boreanaz who plays FBI Special Agent Booth in the TV drama “Bones,” said, “I like to escape to hotels…where the people are great and you are in the lap of luxury. You kind of find yourself wanting to stay once you’re in the door.” The Peninsula is his first example.

Motivational Posters

July 6, 2015

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn”
In my local elementary school, I saw a child who looked bowed by burdens too heavy for his small shoulders. Tears ran down his cheeks unaccompanied by the slightest sound. He slouched, alone, at a table in the back of his fourth grade classroom, his face to the wall of backpacks, coats, scarves, lunch boxes, and little boots.
“Tony,” his teacher said looking in his direction. Her expression was that combination of helplessness and frustration I have seen too often on teachers who have too many students and too little assistance with the difficult ones.

I was a substitute for the special education teacher who provides individual and small group instruction to children who have difficulty learning in a regular classroom. I am untrained in psychology, inexperienced in special education. My whole body relaxed when I realized Tony was not among the three students I was picking up for a math lesson. But Tony’s face haunted me while I taught three children how to add triple digit numbers in the small special education room. Why was he sitting alone? Why did he have smudgy gray shadows under his eyes? Why was he weeping silently? Children bawl or sob; they do not suffer in silence.

The brightly colored motivational posters on the wall mocked me with their upbeat clichés while I drew smiley faces on my students’ neatly completed math papers. Anyone can teach willing children how to add. I walked them back to their classroom satisfied that I had done my job well but sad that for some children life is a painful struggle seldom lightened by joy.

Every day is a second chance
That afternoon, I returned to Tony’s classroom and was met by an eager Max who told me he loves reading. My other student for the reading lesson was Tony. He was still sitting in the back of the room, still weeping silently. He did not argue with me when I asked him to come for his lesson. He simply did not move. His teacher coaxed him. Max pleaded and promised the lesson would be fun. Tony looked like he was trying to vanish. I sat beside him and told him I hoped he would come with us. I promised to bring him back to his classroom if he felt uncomfortable.

Slowly, he got up. He shuffled after Max and me like a condemned man, tears dripping on the floor. I was out of my depth with this child, yet no one else had time to urge him out of that lonely chair. Walking down the hall, I hid my panic when I realized I did not know the location of the panic button in my little room. What if he had a meltdown?

I sat facing my two students and began with my usual ice breaker. “I’ll tell you one thing about me, then you tell me one thing about you.” Max looked expectant. Tony looked at his shoe. I told them I had two dogs, Bailey who is a perfect little lady and Homer who is so naughty the whole neighborhood calls him Homer Simpson. Max giggled. Tony did not look up. I asked Tony if he would tell us one thing about himself. He shook his head.

Max proudly reported that his mom makes pancakes every Sunday. I told Tony that I knew one thing about him. “You have great taste in shirts,” I said, “That is my very favorite shade of blue.”

Not expecting an answer, I turned to get the lesson folder.
Tony mumbled, “I shoplifted it.”

Be awesome today
A response was not optional, but what response? No educational “best practice” spoke to this situation. I said the first thing that came to mind. “I shop lifted a crayon when I was five because I broke my red crayon in a brand new box I got for my birthday. I got caught and I got punished. I never enjoyed coloring after that, especially with red crayons.”

Max offered that shop lifting was bad. Tony looked uneasy.
“I think Tony was being creative with his shoplifting story.” I said. “I love creative stories. We’re going to talk about one right now.” I handed each boy a work sheet. I was stunned to see that Tony’s tears had stopped.

Two questions into the work sheet, Tony’s sweet soul melted his armor of belligerence. He smiled. I will never forget that smile. With every personal defeat, I will see Tony’s smile and know that for one shining moment goodness gathered around the troubled mind of a child.

We had a lively lesson. Both boys participated. They were so proud of their worksheets they wanted to show them to their teacher instead of leaving them on the special education teacher’s desk. I walked them back to their classroom, my feet twitching to dance. Max held my hand, and Tony walked tall and proud. He handed his teacher his paper and said, “I answered every question.” The worry lines on her forehead eased as she congratulated him. She followed me out into the hall. “He hasn’t done a bit of work all week,” she said. “Thank you.”

Driving home, I felt humbled to have witnessed such a butterfly moment. I wondered what had made the difference for Tony. Was it something Max said? Was it something I did? Or did an angel whisper in Tony’s ear: “You are worthy; you are loved.”

Whatever happened, it cannot be explained by a catchy phrase on a motivational poster.
Originally published in Globe & Mail

There is a field

May 26, 2014


(c)Famiglietti 2014

Out beyond ideas

of wrongdoing and rightdoing

there is a field.

I’ll meet you there.

–Rumi, 13th Century 

I’m the question mark with a bag over my face. The ashes I’d rubbed all over my body were too dramatic compared to other question marks in this field. The woman from India sits on a sunny rock, wrinkled face exposed, gnarled hands relaxing at last. She killed her infant daughter “to spare her the miserable life I live.” Here, she finds acceptance if not understanding. The price of admission to this field is not understanding.

My friend Deanna sits beside the Indian woman and hugs her gently. Deanna’s wrongdoing was stealing $10 from a humane society donation jar. She stole the money to buy a tube of Preparation H. Her hemorrhoids were excruciatingly painful, and she was flat broke with no health insurance. Yet, those stray dogs would be euthanized if the jar did not fill quickly.

A man I once worked with has his pockets turned inside out to show he is still broke. He confessed his homosexuality to a small group of senior managers at the Christian charity where we worked. His brothers in Christ fired him within the hour. I don’t see them here. I don’t see abortion clinic bombers or FOX News. In fact, I don’t see anyone who makes my skin crawl.

The prostitute from Uganda approaches Deanna and the Indian woman, a tiny smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. She prays to God every day of her life and blesses the food she feeds to her children. The only way she can earn that food is to sell her body. Her children survive; her spirit shrivels. The Indian woman looks her in the eye and invites her to sit on the sunny rock.

I linger in the shadows, hugging excuses. Is this the place where I can leave them?

I won’t tell you my question marks. I won’t ask yours. Just know there is a field where some walk into the light naked in their truths. Many are here in the shadows with me, gathering courage.

This post is dedicated to my life-long best friend Deanna who died several years ago leaving a large hole in my heart.

Thanks to Nicolo Famiglietti, Ph.D. for providing the beautiful photo. You can see more of his work on his web sites:


Cincinnati, a renaissance town

April 13, 2014


I am torn between touting Cincinnati’s treasures and keeping the city under wraps so I can continue to easily park my car downtown. The spirit of Cincinnati is what I image the spirit of Florence was during the Renaissance: so much happening and most of it creative, innovative and exciting. The streetcar is a work in progress and will add to the city’s charm and convenience.

The eight-story Hotel Cincinnatian, built in 1882 in the French Second Empire style, was a surprise even before I entered. On the street, a London taxi idled. Its name is Maxwell and the driver knows all the best restaurants. When I complimented the hotel doorman on his impressive top hat, he pointed across the street.  Batsakes Hat Shop has been a modest corner store since 1907.  The owner, Gus Miller, has be crafting hats for more than fifty years the old way. He measures heads and uses equipment that would make prized museum pieces: a steam cleaner and re-shaper, wooden blocks to shape hats, and razors in wooden brim cutters. His customers include both Presidents Bush, Pavarotti, Bill Cosby, Red Skeleton, Tony Bennett and other celebrities.

Inside the Cincinnatian, I was surprised to meet Don Pigiovanni, one of the hundred fiberglass pigs scattered around town during Cincinnati’s 2012 Big Pig Gig. The bejeweled porker stands in the elegant lobby near an original walnut and marble staircase. This grand hotel once had 300 rooms and boasted a shared bathroom at the end of each corridor. Renovated in 1987, the hotel has 146 rooms surrounding a sizable atrium with sky lights. The rooms have ample space, fine furnishings and old world charm.

Old World, until you enter your futuristic bathroom with heated floors. An eight-foot long walk-in shower has rain showerheads at both ends plus body sprayers that can blast away the most stubborn aches. The deep soaking bubble tub has chromo-therapy lights. Or you can watch the TV suspended from the ceiling. Perhaps some multi-tasking overachievers do both. The toilet is closeted like a Victorian unmentionable. I appreciated the vanity table and Gilchrist & Soames toiletries.

Exploring Mainstrasse Village

I was struck with a novel dilemma: abandon myself to the bathtub or drive to Kentucky. My traveling spirit won, and I was soon exploring Mainstrasse Village in Covington, Kentucky, just over the river. Covering five blocks, the village is a restored 19th Century German neighborhood.  Shops and restaurants are in renovated houses. There are no “souvenir stores” just shops owned by people sharing their particular interests. An old fashioned candy shop, a cymbal shop, a magic shop, a general store are as unique as the little restaurants serving German, Italian, and Cajun food.

I debated between the English pub and an interesting little place called The Main Bite. Once a narrow shotgun house, the owner lives in the back and serves guests in the parlor. For an appetizer I enjoyed pita with sundried tomato and artichoke dip that was obviously and deliciously homemade. The mac ‘n’ cheese was made with gouda and cheddar and topped with caramelized onions and bacon. All the herbs used by the owner are grown by her.  Once skeptical of the culinary trend of turning kitchen staples into gourmet dishes, I am now a believer.

Goodbye England’s Rose

That afternoon, I had a timed ticket to the award-winning “Diana, a Celebration” exhibit that ends its 11-year global tour in August 2014. It is displayed in Cincinnati’s museum complex, once the busy Union (train) Terminal. The exhibit begins with Diana’s family tree and ancestral portraits followed by photographs of her family and predictably large family jewels. The next room is more personal with artifacts from Diana’s childhood including toys, books, and diaries. Home movies play on the video monitor.

A room is devoted to her engagement and is a fitting prelude to the stunning hall of the wedding. Her wedding dress, train fully extended, is in a glass case. Her intricately designed dress is of such fine silk, it can be lifted with one finger (minus the train). Her wedding shoes have suede soles so she would not slip during the most televised wedding in history. Only two people in the world are authorized to handle this national treasure of a wedding dress. They fly in from London to set up and dismantle the exhibit as it moves around the world.

Another room displays 28 of her designer outfits. Her evolution as a style setter can be seen as she refines her fashion sense through her royal years. She had a brief Jackie phase with the first lady’s iconic pill box hats and then moves on to the style that was uniquely her own. My favorite is an Easter suit displayed with coats for her little sons made with the same fabric. The dress she wore to her last public function is black, foreshadowing her untimely death.

The next room is the most difficult for those who remember the People’s Princess. A video display of her funeral cortege is surrounded with thousands of real rose pedals, now brown and curling. Elton John’s adaptation of “Candle in the Wind” that he sang at her funeral plays softly. The first draft of her brother’s eulogy has his bitter words against the paparazzi crossed out

Cincinnati, known as the Queen City, celebrates the Princess with English teas served at some hotels and also celebrates philanthropic women of the city with a companion gallery “Princesses of the Queen City.”

Hanky Pankys and Hot Dogs

The Rookwood Restaurant is an 1892 repurposed Rookwood Pottery Plant. pottery plant serving locally sourced and locally loved food. You can eat in one of the original kilns that can accommodate a table of ten. Cincinnati is famous for its chili, so I ordered the Rookwood’s version with smoked Anaheim peppers, four types of beans, scallions, white cheddar and the homey touch of goldfish crackers. The chili had an initial burn that I quickly got used to and now expect in future chilies. It is serious chili for people who are serious about chili. Of course, I had to try the Hanky Panky as I had never heard of it. Simply put, it is a satisfying mixture of textures and flavors all in one bite. There are many versions, but mine had Glier’s goetta, emmentaller béchamel, and house giardinera on marble rye. Goetta was another mystery ingredient and goes back to the town’s German roots. It is a crispy-tender, fried sausage patty made from ground pork shoulder combined with steel cut oats and flavored with bay leaves and rosemary. Once peasant fare, it tastes as gourmet as the mac ‘n’ cheese over at The Main Bite.

The next morning, Maxwell and I toodled to The French Crust in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood. This authentic little café even gets the accent right. I reluctantly passed up the Croque Monsieur for puff pastry with goetta, poached egg and hollandaise sauce. While it may sound like an adventure in French-German fusion food, it was a delicious breakfast served in a French casserole.

Over the Rhine is an intriguing strolling neighborhood, particularly when I learned that less than 15 years ago it was slum housing scheduled for demolition. The city fathers (and mothers) campaigned to save the neighborhood. It contains the largest collection of Italianate architecture in the United States. Eclectic shops include a poster store, a book café, a floral boutique, specialty food markets, antique shops, and Rookwood Pottery. It also has a variety of European and Asian restaurants.

But I settled for a good old American hot dog. The Senate bar and grill is tucked into one of the historic homes and is famous for its hot dogs. As Cate Blanchette was in town filming the movie Carol, their hot dog offerings included an off-the-menu Cate selection that looked about as tasteful as a hot dog can look. I ordered the Lindsay Lohan. “It’s a mess because she’s a mess,” the waiter explained.  My beef hot dog was buried under goat cheese, caramelized onions, bacon, arugula, balsamic, and “lots of drama.” Lots of taste as well.

Cincinnati was a city I changed planes in or drove around on my way to Lexington or Columbus. Who knew, the little noticed port city on the Ohio is now a Renaissance town with a great sense of humor.


Goetta Recipe from Alvina Weimhoff Knauer (1859 – 1944)

My great grandmother, Alvina, got this recipe from her mother who emigrated from Germany to Louisville as a child. My cousin still prepares this special dish that I rediscovered in Cincinnati.

¾ pound lean beef, preferably chuck

¾ pound lean pork

Salt and pepper to taste.

Cook together in water until tender

Save juice

Add enough water to make 8 cups

Add 3 cups of steel cut oats to the 8 cups of juice and

Cook until puffs of steam are the only liquid left

Add 1 tablespoon of fresh allspice and 1 teaspoon of pepper

Put wax paper on top so crust does not form


Put in loaf pan to shape

Cut into ¼ inch slices and fry in lard until crispy

Serve with scrambled eggs and buttered toast



An utterly fine farm near Mesa

March 3, 2014

Superstition tractor

My family is rooted in the farms of Ohio County, Kentucky, so I am steeped in folk knowledge. One erudite superstition is that if you lay down right after you eat, you will turn into a cow. Great aunts and uncles that farmed when I was a child were champion Sunday dinner chased with moonshine diners. Every visit, I counted carefully. There was never one less relative snoozing on a porch swing and one more cow in the pasture. Still, why would they make such a big deal out of turning into cows if a truth did not lurk beneath the hyperbole?

Near Mesa, Arizona, I found 1,000 relatives and ancestors contentedly mooing at Superstition Farm. One looked like Aunt Lily Mae with her soft brown eyes and flapping lips. Was that Uncle Cicero Timolean plodding to the water trough? The brown blotches of skin sure looked familiar as did the bovine trod to the source of liquid “refreshment.”

Superstition Farm is a fun place for the young’uns – and their grandparents. Need something to do with the kids? Go to Superstition Farm. Need to get away from the kids? Go to Superstition Farm. Tired of the mall and city folk? Go to Superstition Farm.

The narrated hay ride around the cow enclosures and milking sheds is entertaining and informative. Animal rights activists would not find anything to get agitated about. These cows are treated like the valuable commodity they are. You can feel good about the beef you eat and the milk you drink when you see their balanced diet, clean enclosures, shady areas, and ample room to socialize and meander. Ohio County never looked so good.

In addition to the hay ride, there is a petting zoo, small market of just-picked produce and a milk bar with 12 flavors of milk to choose from. I moved on from orange milk, passed up banana milk, and downed the grape milk. It was as close to moonshine as I was going to get in this county that does not consider white lightening a basic food group.

As for their ice cream, they call it an “udder delight.” Yessiree Bob, I had two scoops

Where the boys of summer spend the winter

February 27, 2014

I am not a baseball fan, in part because of a ten-year bout with “bleacher butt” acquired while cheering three kids through Little League. My song of summer is “Take me out of the Ball Game” and, for the record, I hate peanuts and cracker jacks. If I root root root for anything it is for my dog to escape the village dog catcher so I won’t have to pay yet another fine to Animal Control.

I did not become a Chicago Cubsfan until the day I barely made it out of a Chicago blizzard to the warm breezes of Mesa, Arizona. The fine Mexican food and light-sweater evenings were expected, and I luxuriated in them. But wait. Why was I hearing “Cubs” every where I went? Even I know there are no Arizona Cubs, no Mesa Cubs.

Mesa is where the Chicago Cubs go for spring training, and the Cubs are so important to Mesa that the town built them an $84 million training facility with six fan-accessible practice fields and a 15,000-seat stadium. This is all part of a 140-acre community park and pond so Mesa Cub fans who footed the bill can picnic and watch the kids run around while watching practice games and getting a sun tan,

Mesa’s Cubs Park may look like Wrigley Field with light standards and cantilevered roofs matching those in Chicago and a replica of the Wrigley Field marquee, but there is no snow during spring training season. There are plenty of activities for the Chicago-weary, both travelers and ball players, to forget about the “s” words: snow, sleet, slush, slips, slides, and expletives deleted.

I came for the sun and the food, and I left with a Cubs hat. Baseball still strikes me as kinda dumb and dull, but the Cubs are a savvy team to winter in Mesa. I’ll buy a ticket for that. See you at Wrigley in June. I’ll even eat a hot dog. Hold the cracker jacks and keep your mitts off my Cubs hat.



My forever face

January 12, 2014

Today, I gave my 70-year-old face a presentthe best thing I’ve done for it since I stopped smoking. When I was 12, my mother introduced me to the world of facial care with a jar of Noxema. The smell nearly knocked me out. Something with that big of a kick was legal?

For several years, I felt grown up with my jar of Noxema on my dresser and the stench chasing me in my dreams. Then, teenage rebellion kicked in. Noxema reeked of the 1940s. Never mind that my mother was beautiful and looked about 18 when she was 38. I would find my own product.

I bought the most expensive facial cream I could afford. Oil of Olay. For more than 50 years, I was loyal to Oil of Olay until I tried a bit of facial cream from Paris that cost more than my car. Oil of Olay felt like crank case oil after that. But it was affordable, and I haven’t spent much time hanging around mirrors since I became a grandmother. It was just my face for Pete’s sake. Who cared?

Finally, I decided my face was worth caring about as it has reached vintage status and qualifies for The Antique Road Show. I researched products with my lifestyle in mind. As a travel writer, I can go from Chicago’s 20 below to India’s 100 above in 18 hours. Then, there is the beach and airplanes that aspire to mummify passengers with their stingy dose of humidity. Traveling the way I do puts my face to the stress test. No cute little light-weight facial cream sold at parties would do the job.

LUMAVERA caught my attention, because the company founder, David Vargus, created the products using plant extracts his mother and grandmother used to defy aging under the Mexican sun. He added toxin-free  plant stem cell technology that revitalizes “vintage” skin.

Vargus says, “By combining my family’s traditional health remedies with today’s science of skin care and beauty in Lumavera products, I am excited to share this timeless wisdom…”

He was kind enough to send me a box of Lumavera products. They are stench free. I suppose when writing about a beauty product I should say, ‘fragrance free,’ but if you have ever smelled Noxema you are nodding your head..

The creams feel great and are giving my face the 24/7 emergency response it needs and may even deserve after all I put it through.If you want to do your face a favor, visit the website:

Little Stars in the City of Light

December 16, 2013


cancan pix

“Paris is always a good idea” — Audrey Hepburn

In the midst of our heated debate between Switzerland and Italy, my sister offered “Paris” like a peace treaty, and that ended the controversy. We made of a list of things to do besides buy scarves and visit the Mona Lisa and booked a boutique hotel in the Latin Quarter. We learned to decipher a Metro map (with a magnifying glass) along with the rewards and the limits of lists.

Parapluies Simon (Umbrellas Simon), 56 Boulevard St. Michel, was not on our list. We happened upon the shop on arrival day during our jet-lagged stumble to Luxembourg Gardens, which was on the list. This boutique with its ceiling vaulted like an open umbrella has been keeping Parisians chic and dry since 1897. Devoted to keeping the umbrella a fashion statement instead of a boring necessity, Parapluies Simon offers approximately 3,000 umbrellas for every mood and fashion. From frilly parasols to stately gray umbrellas with ivory handles that could take on a monsoon, the shop gave us even more respect for the capitol city of style. The shop also offers umbrella repair services. “Only in Paris,” we sighed, “would one own an umbrella worth repairing.”

Luxembourg Gardens
We eventually wilted into chairs in Luxembourg Gardens and watched children sail rented toy boats in the central fountain. The Gardens were created by Marie de Medicis in the 1600s to surround the Palais du Luxembourg she had constructed to replicate her childhood home: Florence’s Palazzo Pitti. The Palais now houses the French Senate, but the gardens are open to the public and free. On Sundays an orchestra plays in the bandstand, children ride ponies, and even adults sail toy boats. The park has many strolling paths and hundreds of moveable chairs. We read for awhile beside the fountain before exploring. Two delightful finds were a miniature bronze Statue of Liberty and the Medici fountain tucked into a shady glade. Although it was early fall, flowers bloomed in formal gardens validating writer Henry van Dyke’s observation: “Paris is a woman’s town with flowers in her hair.”

Moulin Rouge and more
The Moulin Rouge was not on our list, but a friend from Geneva who met us in Paris wanted to go. He wanted to go so badly he bought new glasses for the occasion and asked wistfully if we could go twice. No. Like the gondola ride in Venice, the Moulin Rouge is something to do. Once. It is a melting pot of tour groups, and the dress code is “whatever.” The meal was three ho-hum courses, the champagne was high quality, and the show was a tasteful, topless, two-hour extravaganza. The only disturbing act was an underwater swim by a topless woman and several bored-looking boa constrictors. In addition to dancers in sparkling costumes gyrating in flashing, blinking lights, acrobats defied gravity and a ventriloquist defied physics. The Moulin Rouge has been drawing crowds since 1889 when the cancan was decidedly naughty.

The best thing about the Moulin Rouge was that it inspired a keen interest in the bohemian Montmartre district. Here is where the cancan was born and the first cabaret, Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat), opened in 1881. The cabaret is now a boutique hotel, but the district retains much of its bohemian ambience.

Posters and paintings of the Black Cat abound at the Museum of Montmartre, 12 rue Cortot. This charming 300-year-old house contains paintings, photographs, and posters that illustrate the bohemian history of the neighborhood. “Le Moulin Rouge” by Toulouse-Lautrec and the “Theatre d’Ombres” by Henri Riviere are two of its most important works. Renoir’s studio was here, and the gardens were recreated using his paintings as a guide. You can sit on a swing swaying in the exact location of his painting “Girl on a Swing” now hanging in Paris’ Orsay Museum. The painting was ill-received when he completed it in 1876 and probably never will be put up for auction. Two of Renoir’s paintings have sold for more than US$70 million, and the Orsay knows how to hang on to its treasures.

From the garden, you can see a vineyard that has existed since the Middle Ages and was replanted in 1933. According to the New York Times, the vineyard is reputed to make the most expensive bad wine in Paris. We decided not to sample the wine, but the view is stunning.

Le Petit Prince
We saved the most poignant attraction on our list for our last day. The official Le Petit Prince store, 57, Boulevard Arago, is in a quiet Parisian neighborhood. No grand marquee announces its location, and we walked by it once expecting bright lights and helium balloons. But the shop is as modest as the Little Prince and, like his asteroid, has just what we needed: silk scarves made in France, baby clothes, note cards and post cards, little cups and plates, mugs, fuzzy foxes and sheep, and the Prince’s proud rose with four thorns.

We wondered, perhaps for the first time since we were children, if the sheep ate the Prince’s cherished rose. After all these decades it remains an important question — as important as sunsets are to the Little Prince. What do we tell the grandchildren after we read them the book and give them each a fuzzy sheep? We will tell them that the sheep did not eat the rose, because children who read the book draw what the pilot forgot to draw: a strap for the sheep’s muzzle. If you missed the book by Saint-Exupery, it was published in 1943 and is the most read and most translated book in the French language. Our mother was reading it to us before we could toddle.

Legendary sandwich
Lunch in the Marais District was a leap from fantasy fiction to fantastic food. Sacha Finkelstein’s, 27 rue des Rosiers, is a family-owned kosher deli and bakery serving the community since 1946. At some point it caught on with the international community. And no wonder. Its signature sandwich with pastrami, eggplant, pickles, and tomatoes is served on a poppy seed and onion bun. We were too full for dessert, but we could not leave the cheesecake for another day. We carried two servings back to our hotel. Don’t tell Mom, but we spoiled our dinner with satin-smooth, lemon cheesecake and were whimpering for more.

French fries in France
That night, instead of fine dining, we strolled around the Latin Quarter. Shakespeare and Company Book Store, 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, was a special treat with its maze of rooms and selection of books both current and rare. That first edition of Babar the fictional elephant was hard to pass up. Hunger struck with a surprising twist. “I want to eat French fries in France,” my sister said. We bought French fries at a gyros shop and carried our snacks to a park bench facing the Seine. Notre Dame gleamed under flood lights and the moon rose as we finished our fries and agreed with Hepburn that Paris is always a good idea.

Originally published in LuxuryWeb Magazine December 2013

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