Category Archives: Paris

Gustave Caillebotte

Self Portrait, Gustave Caillebotte, circa 1892, Public Domain

Self Portrait, Gustave Caillebotte, circa 1892, Public Domain

Maybe it is really best for an artist to be poor, at least at the beginning of a promising career.  It seems to me that inherited riches stopped the artistic career of a potentially great French painter, Gustave Caillebotte.

Caillebotte, 1848-1894, was born to an upper-class Parisian family; most of their large fortune came from textiles used for military uniforms. I can almost hear the family arguments that resulted in Caillebotte going to law school.  He was licensed as a lawyer in 1870 and was also trained as an engineer. (“Painting will never get you anywhere, son. Besides, why don’t you just run the family business? We need you.” This is all speculation on my part, of course). Anyway, Caillebotte was drafted to fight in the Franco-Prussian War for almost a year, 1870-1871.

He returned home safely, but rather than working in the family business or practicing law, he began serious study of art at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts. I’d speculate that after seeing the horrors of war, he was determined to spend the rest of his life doing exactly what he wanted to do.  And being the heir to a very wealthy family gave him the means.

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Last year while in Paris I made a trek by train about 12 miles south of the city to the country mansion of the Caillebotte family in the posh suburb of Yerres. There was a special exhibit of the artist’s work.  The champions of his work billed Yerres as “Caillebotte’s Giverny”–the tourist magnet that is the beautiful home and garden of Claude Monet. That was wishful thinking, at least for now. I doubt that Yerres will ever have the hordes of tourists that descent daily on Giverny.  But that is not a bad thing. No photos were allowed inside the exhibit; that was just as well, because it was easy to give each wonderful painting the close attention it deserved.

Caillebotte painted in a much more realistic style than many of his Impressionist friends, and often from unusual perspectives.

The Yerres, Effect of Rain, Gustave Caillebotte, 1875, GNU Free Documentation License

The Yerres, Effect of Rain, Gustave Caillebotte, 1875, GNU Free Documentation License

The property was much larger when the family occupied it.  But the house and grounds are still beautiful, and beautifully placed on the banks of the River Yerre. I especially loved the virtuoso painting above, depicting a moment of time as rain falls on the still surface of the river.  I loved the play of light and shadow. It was on loan from the Indiana University Art Museum in Bloomington.

Les Perissoires, Gustave Caillebotte, 1878, Public Domain

Les Perissoires, Gustave Caillebotte, 1878, Public Domain

The exhibit had many other water scenes, like this one with its unusual vantage point just behind a pair of men paddling canoes on the river. It was on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Rennes.

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Gustave Caillebotte, “A Boating Party,” 1877-78, private collection

I stood for a long time in front of this painting of a gentleman rowing in a top hat and bow tie, and bought a large postcard of it. If I could carve out the time, I would travel to Washington, D.C. just to see this one painting again. The image above is from the website article from the National Gallery exhibit, cited below. What if the moments of our lives could be captured in a few thoughtful paintings, rather than a never-ending stream of selfies and forgotten party snapshots?

Young Man at a Window, Gustave Caillebotte,1875, Public Domain

Young Man at a Window, Gustave Caillebotte,1875, Public Domain

From his family’s Paris city home, Caillebotte also found unusual perspectives. The painting above shows Caillebotte’s younger brother looking out over the street from the Paris family home. The painting is from a private collection.

The Floor Scrapers, Gustave Caillebotte, 1875, Public Domain, Musee d'Orsay

The Floor Scrapers, Gustave Caillebotte, 1875, Public Domain, Musee d’Orsay

Caillebotte’s most famous painting, The Floor Scrapers, was controversial in his day. This masterpiece was actually rejected by the Salon of 1875. But the Impressionists loved it, and it appeared in their second Impressionist exhibit, where people stood in front of it and argued. Why? There was already a time-honored tradition of painting peasants at work in the countryside, but almost no one had honored urban laborers by painting them. The scene is believed to show a moment of refurbishment of the artist’s own studio in Paris. I love the play of soft light from the open window, the delicate curls of the planed wood, and the sweating shirtless laborers.  Did Caillebotte gain an appreciation of the work of ordinary people during his wartime service?

Sadly, Caillebotte mostly stopped painting at age 34; he was more interested in photography.  The exhibit I saw had a number of his photos, but in my mind they paled beside his paintings.  I wish he had stayed with his brushes and canvases.

For many years, Caillebotte was neglected as an artist and more well known as a patron of other artists, notably his Impressionist friends Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Camille Pisarro.  He bought their canvases, funded and curated their exhibits, and sometimes paid their rent.

Did Caillebotte believe he had reached the limit of his abilities and it was better to be a patron of more talented artists? Or was painting just too much hard work? He had the means to do anything he wanted to do.  What he wanted was to hobnob with artists, grow orchids, build yachts, collect stamps, and generally enjoy himself.  Who can blame him? And yet I wish he’d had a bit more of a work ethic.

Caillebotte died while gardening in 1894, aged only 45. He owned a collection of over 70 mostly Impressionist paintings, which he bequeathed to the French state on his death.  They formed the core of the state’s Impressionist collection.  Modestly, he only included two of his own paintings in the bequest.  The rest remained mostly with his family, since he had no need for money and rarely sold a painting.

Gustave Caillebotte,

Gustave Caillebotte, “Paris Street, Rainy Day,” 1877, Public Domain, Art Institute of Chicago

Some of these paintings are part of an exhibit, Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye, running through October at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.  The website is at http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/exhibitions/2015/gustave-caillebotte.html

Forget Versailles: Get Lost Instead

If there is a ground zero for summer tourism, it may be the Mona Lisa, whose smile seems less mysterious than long-suffering when viewed against the constant crush of tourists around her. As many as 40,000 people rush the picture every day at the Louvre, according to the Paris museum.

The photo above, from a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, shows hordes of tourists crowding around the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Been there, done that. Actually, I’ve been lucky enough to visit when I could get up close to the most famous painting in the world without being jostled or impaled by someone’s selfie stick. But that was some years ago, and the enigmatic lady is behind glass anyway.  I’d rather look at her in a book. On more recent visits to the Louvre, I’ve escaped her overcrowded gallery as fast as possible. There are plenty of less popular treasures in the Louvre.

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There are also the glorious gardens just outside in the Tuileries–surely less crowded and just as inspiring. Other Paris sights?  The article cited above says that officials at Versailles just outside Paris are actually asking tourists NOT to come to Versailles. They are going to cut off ticket sales to the Palace, and they suggest the vast gardens instead. The 25% drop in the Euro is luring huge numbers of tourists to Europe, many of them first-timers who are understandably intent on seeing the biggies they’re been hearing about all their lives. Last time I visited Versailles, the Hall of Mirrors looked like this:

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Right now, it’s much worse:  wall-to-wall people, shuffling along shoulder to shoulder. It would be impossible to see and appreciate the grandeur. I wouldn’t go near Versailles or any of the major tourist “must-sees”  in the height of the coming tourist season.

Here’s what I would do instead: forget the major tourist draws, even for people who have never seen them. They’re all in books and movies and videos. Get lost instead. Just a short drive outside of Versailles, the countryside opens into vast serene fields, dotted with farms and pretty towns. It’s easy to get lost with a car and an intrepid driver–preferably equipped with some kind of GPS device when it’s time to get un-lost.  But it would work with a railpass and a pair of good walking shoes too.

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On a trip through the Loire Valley, I came upon a chateau I had never read about in any of my guidebooks.

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I walked up its paved driveway, admiring the symmetrical beauty of the facade. Although I managed to take a tour of this chateau, I can’t tell you its name.  My husband and I had the entire place almost to ourselves.

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What lives played out behind these elegant windows? Who strolled in the gardens beside the dreamy moat?

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No one seemed to be around.  We walked around the little gatehouse until a lady appeared, wiping her hands on her apron.  She’d been making lunch and not expecting visitors. She made a phone call, and eventually another lady appeared in the courtyard to give us a guided tour. Three other people appeared for the tour. In we went. Instead of the burnished surfaces of Versailles, we were looking at genteel faded elegance:  dusty mantelpieces, faded floral wallpaper peeling in places, slightly tattered lace curtains covering ancient wavy glass windows.

Alas, the tour was only in French. Still, the tour guide made valiant attempts to explain the history of the family.  My French was just adequate to understand the most surprising fact:  during the turmoil of the French Revolution, the chateau was occupied by an elderly noblewoman who was never once disturbed by what was going on just a few miles away at Versailles. The King and Queen were arrested and hauled off to imprisonment and eventual execution in Paris. All over France, nobles lost their lands–and in Paris, hundreds of them lost their heads.  Churches became Temples of Reason.  Chateaux were sacked and burned. But at this particular chateau, life went on as before.

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No doubt there were many anxious days and nights, but the local residents loved this woman and her family.  Never once did an angry mob try to cross her moat, which was never built for defense in the first place. The old lady lived out her days in peace, no doubt doing good works among the local peasants.

Generally I buy a little guidebook, but  there didn’t seem to be one to buy.  The name of the chateau? The name of the family that once lived there?  In one ear and out the other.  We were given laminated information sheets which we had to return. No photos were allowed inside, so I didn’t even think to snap a photo of the information. Now, I’d like to know the name of this chateau and the history of the family who built it. Maybe a reader can enlighten me.

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The nearby village is substantial enough to have a nice little park.

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There’s even a City Hall. It looks just like hundreds of other city halls in small towns in France.  OK, I’ve learned my lesson.   Now I fill up my camera with pictures of signs–towns, sights, works of art.  It’s nice to know where I’ve been.

Still, I have a memory of an unforgettable sight that I took in without mobs of other people breathing down my neck. I had a chance to muse about the actual life of the lone noblewoman who lived out her days in peace and tranquility during the darkest days of the French Revolution. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Versailles already. Even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t trade a hectic day-long visit to Versailles for my two peaceful and intriguing hours at my Mystery Chateau.

Update: May 6, 2018. I just returned from a trip to the Loire Valley where I went to a lot of chateaux. I did not get a chance to find my Mystery Chateau, but I think it is Dampierre. I think it is fairly close to Versailles, not in the Loire Valley. I stopped briefly at Versailles and decided I’d like to go back there again in the winter, when there would not be near as many visitors. Maybe I’ll get to look up my Mystery Chateau too. It’s almost always worth going back to sights I’ve already seen. There’s always more to see and learn.

The article cited above, from The Wall Street Journal, is at

http://www.wsj.com/articles/europe-braces-for-a-summer-travel-crush-1432847803

Vincent and Theo

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In 1990, Robert Altman directed the movie Vincent and Theo, concerning the relationship between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother.  The fine actor Tim Roth plays Vincent.  The equally fine Paul Rhys plays his brother Theo. It was originally made as a 4-hour BBC mini-series, which the director Altman compressed into a feature film. Rolling Stone called the Altman movie “a masterpiece.” But then, lots of Altman films are known as masterpieces.

The film brilliantly evokes the times in Paris and in the south of France.  There is nothing very picturesque about poverty in either place.  Vincent’s brave attempts to create a stable life for himself are heartbreaking.

“Memory of the Garden at Etten,” Vincent van Gogh, 1988, Public Domain

In 1888, during his troubled time with his painter friend Paul Gaugin in Arles, van Gogh painted his mother’s garden at Etten from memory.  I don’t know whether I’ll ever see the original; it’s at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.  It’s a stunning painting.  Vincent wrote about it to Theo:  “A reminiscence of our garden at Etten with cabbages, cypresses, dahlias and figures…Gaugin gives me courage to imagine and the things of the imagination do indeed take on a more mysterious character.” Which of the figures is van Gogh’s mother?  One of the sad-looking figures in the foreground?  Or the woman bent over her garden in humble hard work?  Maybe they all represent his mother, or his childhood, in some way.  I think this painting would have had deep meaning for the brothers who shared so much.

Having recently visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I gave the film another look.  I have always thought of Theo as the long-suffering, conventional patron of his tortured genius brother.  In the film, interestingly, Theo comes across as equally troubled.  In fact, he sometimes seems more tortured than VIncent.  At least Vincent always has his single-minded determination to paint.  Theo has self-doubts.  Why is he stuck working in art galleries?  Why can’t he afford to get married?  Finally he does marry, in spite of suffering from syphilis.  Then he has a wife and colicky baby to add to his troubles.

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Theo was always in frail health.  In fact, he died just a few months after VIncent’s death.  The brothers are buried side by side in Auvers. When I visited, a few years ago, the cemetery adjoined a cornfield that could have come straight out of a van Gogh painting. The same ivy vine intertwines and covers the graves of the two brothers. It’s a lonely trek to see the graves; this is not a major tourist attraction. The brothers’ relationship, troubled as it was, gave us the gift of Vincent’s paintings, which always attract clumps of viewers in museums lucky enough to own them. Vincent could not have painted his masterpieces without the love and support of his brother Theo.

I wrote about Vincent’s mother and their loving relationship in a previous post at  https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/05/09/thanks-for-eve…m-love-vincent/

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Slummin’ with Marie Antoinette

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What’s a Queen to do when the gilded glories of Versailles get to be a bit much? Early in her reign, Marie Antoinette larked around Paris, shopping and taking in theatre and opera performances.  Adoring crowds applauded her beauty and grace.  That was then. Things changed, for the worse.  Retail therapy became a lot less therapeutic.  The Paris crowds began to turn restive, then hostile, and finally lethal.

The Palace of Versailles was the permanent and mandatory home of at least 3,000 people, courtiers and their servants.

The Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon are elegant, smaller, private palaces conveniently close to the ever-crowded main palace.  They’re great for private dinners away from the majority of prying eyes.  But still, a girl sometimes needs to just get away from the whole kit and kaboodle.

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Marie Antoinette’s haughty pose was set in stone, as far as the angry intellectuals and hungry mobs plotting revolution.  (After all, she had been raised to carry herself like a queen). But she had fond memories of running wild as a child in the wooded grounds of Schonnbrunn Palace, with her many brothers and sisters. She had an idea:  she ordered up her own personal getaway within the vast grounds of the Palace.

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Le Hameau de la Reine, The Hamlet of the Queen, was built for Marie Antoinette in 1783.  It was a large fenced-off area, open only to the Queen, her children, and her dearest friends.  It included private gardens much more informal than the main grounds.  There were pretty, grassy walks and a Temple of Love on an island.

Grotto

There was a grotto–a sort of custom-made concrete movie set meant to look like a cave.

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The grotto was perfect for games of hide-and-seek with the many lovers the queen was rumored to entertain. Were the rumors true? In the end, it didn’t matter one way or the other.

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But the most notorious feature of the Hamlet was the Queen’s Farm.  Quaint rustic buildings created a fairy-tale version of a working farm.  The Queen spent carefree days dressed in simple white muslin and a straw hat. She milked carefully groomed cows using specially made Sevres china buckets. There was a special billiards room attached to the main house–naturally, an important room in any farmhouse. There was an actual working farm nearby which provided shampooed and scented cows, sheep, chicken and ducks.  I’m sure her kids loved it.

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Today, the Hamlet is a place to ponder the wretched excesses that led to the French Revolution. When angry mobs arrived at the gates of Versailles, they had no sympathy at all for a Queen who played at being a peasant. For Marie Antoinette, there was no escape from her destiny.

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Versailles: Crowded Splendor

 

Galerie des Glaces, Myrabella, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike

Galerie des Glaces, Myrabella, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike

Why bother to stay overnight in the town of Versailles?   Most people do Versailles as a daytrip from nearby Paris. The picture above shows the best reason to spring for an overnight. It’s the Hall of Mirrors, built by Louis XIV in 1678 and crammed with people ever since. On one memorable day, after an overnight in Versailles, I managed to appear early at the entry with ticket already in hand. Success! I had arrived early enough to be THE VERY FIRST PERSON to walk the length of the glittering room. I was so awed that I didn’t take a picture.  The one above was taken by a person with more presence of mind.

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This picture above was taken about 20 minutes later.  On busy summer days–which I would avoid– tourists shuffle along almost shoulder to shoulder. But once in my life, I had the place all to myself. I doubt that even the Sun King himself had that privilege, unless he managed to do it late at night after courtiers had turned in.

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The King invented two ceremonies which bookended his day:  the Lever, when invited courtiers watched him get up, and the Coucher, when he was tucked in for the night under his grand canopy festooned with ostrich feathers. Like everything else Louis XIV did, these ceremonies inflated his ego and made people think they were lucky to even be in his presence. Trouble was, he made his bed and then he had to lie in it.  In actual practice, the King sometimes did get up way early to go hunting, but Louis XIV valued ceremony so much that he would return to bed in order to properly get up all over again.

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It’s hard to appreciate the overwhelming scale of the Palace of Versailles–and the Sun King wanted everyone to be overwhelmed.

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I do better getting off to the side and lingering over some details, like this corner of the Hall of Mirrors.

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Images of the Sun King are everywhere.  He could have invented the modern term “self-esteem.”  He famously remarked, “L’Etat, c’est moi,” meaning “The State, it is me.”  That worked out pretty well for him, but not so much for his offspring.

Louis XIV also once remarked, “Apres moi, le Deluge.” That loosely translates as, “After me, all hell breaks loose.”  He had that right.  His descendants managed to hold on to their riches and absolute monarchy for only two generations before the Revolution changed everything.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Affordable Europe: La Ferme du Chateau

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Over the years I’ve grown more adventurous in places I find to stay.  The internet has made it easier.  When I first started traveling, I used to pore over guidebooks, trying to read between the lines of outdated reviews.  Of course there were rarely pictures.  Now, a huge selection of lodging is easily accessible to anyone with a computer or even a smartphone.  And I haven’t yet even dipped into Airbnb.

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A few years ago, I needed a place to stay in Versailles.  You couldn’t drag me back to either of the two places I’d stayed before.  One time, I scored a halfway-decent last-minute rate at the very grand Trianon Palace Hotel.  My room, in a modern annex, was a lot like like an elevator shaft: tall and narrow, cramped, with a sliver of window looking out at the parking lot.  True, there was a luxurious spa with a pool, and the breakfast buffet (included) was spectacular. But I was not sorry to leave. Another time I stayed at one of the better older hotels in town, and found it dated, cramped, noisy, and still pretty expensive.  Plus the employees were surly, even for France.
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Third visit was the charm:  I reserved a couple of nights at a 16th-century farmhouse which had been in the same family for several generations. It was only a few minutes’ drive outside Versailles, in the little farming community of Garancieres.
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I found myself in an enormous room under hand-hewn ancient beams.

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There was only one other guest room.  Service was personal and the room had everything I could want.

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Breakfast was served in a charming farmhouse parlor. The lovely owners spoke very minimal English, but breakfast was delicious and efficiently served up..  A friendly dog and cat wandered past.  Outside, the air smelled of fresh-mown hay.

I guess I could get used to 5-star hotels, as easily as the next person.  But there are downsides: snooty fellow guests, snooty employees looking for tips, a lot of time spent waiting for waitstaff to get on with the business of feeding impatient tourists like me. When in Versailles, I want to beat the crowds into the palace. I guess folks willing to pay 5-star prices like to linger and enjoy the expensive ambiance.

I just looked up La Ferme du Chateau–it’s still in business, and I’d stay there again in a minute. In fact, maybe I will! Time to start dreaming of France.

A Vegetarian in Paris

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In most parts of Europe, it’s a little tricky to be a vegetarian.  This display window in Amsterdam celebrates the joys of pork. My traveling life would be easier if I were a carnivore. I could grab a hot dog anywhere and never slow down.

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But in some ways, it’s easier to be a vegetarian in Europe than in the town where I live most of the time. In my Colorado ski-and- ranching town, beef cattle on the hoof turn into beef steaks on the grill when they’re about 18 months old. In these parts, a ranch kid as young as eight commonly chooses and fattens a calf for market for over a year. The child feeds the animal grain and walks it in the fields to develop muscle tissue. In early fall, the child leads the resulting steer, weighing about 1200 pounds, into the show ring at the county fair. The steer wins a ribbon and basks in thunderous applause. Then the child bids a tearful farewell to the animal as it’s sold to the highest bidder.  Local restaurants post photos of the winning animals they’ve purchased. It’s the circle of life here.

I have the greatest respect for ranchers and their traditions. But I just don’t eat meat. When I first moved here, I politely declined a chicken casserole at a community event.  “I’ll just take some rice,” I said. The server gave me a blank look.  “I’m a vegetarian,” I explained.

“But this is chicken!”

“I know,” I said, as people behind me in line fidgeted.  “I don’t eat meat.”

The server was completely mystified.  “But this is chicken!”  She was still shaking her head in disbelief as I walked away with my plate of plain rice.

Omelet

Obviously I am not much of a foodie, unless being a connoisseur of omelets counts. In Paris, every cafe serves an omelet and no one raises an eyebrow. The humblest establishment can whip up an excellent omelet quickly, and it almost always can be ordered with vegetables.

Ethnic restaurants, Indian or Asian, do have vegetarian items on their menus. But they also tend to have unfamiliar sauces and spices.  I’m reluctant to risk indigestion on a trip. I’m pretty cautious even though the menus are enticing.

So aside from omelets, my fallback, especially in France, is the ever-delicious crepe. In France in particular, entree crepes are made with a substantial buckwheat batter.  They’re called “galettes.” Actually, I’d cheerfully eat galettes or crepes every day if I could.

Crepe with Greens

Crepe with Greens

Crepe with Ratatouille

Crepe with Ratatouille

Of course all these light, healthy meals leave plenty of room for my favorite:

Crepe with Chocolate and Caramel

Crepe with Chocolate and Caramel

In the United States, there was once a chain of restaurants called the Magic Pan which served only crepes.  You could walk in and find all crepes, all the time!  Too bad they’re gone. It’s just one more reason to travel to France every chance I get!