A scenic route of wines, truffles & rivers through the South of France

The luxury ship Scenic Sapphire starts its South of France river cruise at Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy, which produces some of the most expensive wines in the world.  Photos by Tanya Lara

At some point on the train speeding from Lyon, France’s third largest city, the landscape changes into my mind and memory’s picture of the South of France — a scenic route of vineyards, wheat fields, farmhouses and red-roofed village houses.

And plenty of golden hay rolled under the gathering blue skies of July.

I am on my way to Chalon-sur-Saône, a commune in the wine-producing Burgundy region 130 kilometers away, to join a river cruise on the luxury ship Scenic Sapphire, starting in Chalon, sailing the Saône and Rhône rivers back to Lyon at midpoint (where I’m to disembark), and then continuing its journey further south to Nice.

Vineyards in Beaujolais grow gamay grape. Beaujolais Nouveau is released on the third Thursday of November and is greeted with wine parties across France.

Having arrived in Lyon two days earlier, I’ve opted to take the TGV myself rather than the complimentary shuttle service that Scenic offers its passengers arriving at Saint-Exupéry airport or the train station.

It’s a one-and-a-half hour journey, and now that I think of it, the train ride is just enough time to adjust your eyes, like when you walk out into the blinding sun when you come out of the house for the first time during the day.

Except in this case, my eyes are adjusting from Lyon’s urban vistas to farmlands draped in a light that renders the landscape with such stillness it’s as if I’m looking at a painting. I don’t know why this is, in the South of France. I’ve been to the lavender fields of Valensole in Provence before and was struck by the singularity of its light, especially at sunset.

A rubber duckie race on the Saône river to raise funds for a children’s charity.

Arriving in Chalon, you have two choices — to walk 15 minutes to the docks or take a taxi from the train station. It’s now noon and the sun is blazing. There are three taxis on the curb outside the station, but there are no drivers inside the cars. A minute later, the driver approaches and asks where I’m going. It seems even they are hiding from the summer heat.

But you get my point — it’s not a busy town. It’s so slow and laid-back that their idea of a race to raise funds for a children’s charity — as I would find out the next day — is to release 10,000 rubber ducks downstream on the river and see which one would float to the finish line first. Apparently, it’s a thing in first-world countries, this rubber-duckie race.

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Scenic Sapphire is one of the 20-ship fleet of Scenic Cruises, which offers itineraries around the world’s greatest rivers. In the Philippines Scenic Cruises is represented by Acewin Travel & Tours (0915-5000-678, 0917-572-5540). Photos courtesy of Scenic Cruises
Crystal Dining offers four-course meals with wines and other drinks; you can also order off-menu.

Being onboard a Scenic Space Ship (that’s how the ships on their fleet are called) is like being in a floating luxury boutique hotel. Obviously, it’s much smaller than an ocean liner, plying on rivers around the world instead of the open sea — but the keyword here is luxury.

Scenic offers butler service to its passengers, the cabins are well-appointed with complimentary minibar, a step-out furnished balcony, L’Occitane toiletries, flatscreen TV and a sitting area.

It’s also all-inclusive — the land tours, meals, wine and drinks at the bar (we’re talking about top-shelf spirits here) and snacks.

The mezzanine floor with the reception lobby.
Scenic cabins (this one is on Scenic Eclipse, not Sapphire) are well-appointed with complimentary minibar, a step-out furnished balcony, L’Occitane toiletries, flatscreen TV and sitting area.

My friend Abbie Sandico, general manager of Acewin Travel & Tours which represents Scenic River Cruises in the Philippines, says, “Scenic has the best curated tours on Europe’s rivers. They’ve got your history covered if that’s your interest, but they are also strong with experiences: truffle hunting, a private concert in a palace, exploring on ebikes, etc. In a fast-paced world where everyone is busy, Scenic removes the hassle of planning and allows you to slow down and just enjoy the experience.”

Scenic Sapphire is only 135 meters long and 11.4 meters wide. It has 10 suites, 67 cabins and 28 crew cabins; and can accommodate about 160 guests, 43 crewmembers and seven nautical crew.

Founded in Australia by Glen Moroney, whose wife Karen Moroney designs the interiors of each of the 20 ships on their fleet, Scenic started 32 years ago with coach tours throughout Australia. In the 1990s they expanded to New Zealand and Southern Africa; in the next decade, they went pretty much around the world. And then they went into ship-building, constructing their own Space Ships.

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The Sapphire Lounge serves drinks and snacks all day. At the front is River Cafe for light meals, and L’Amour serves a five-course dinner featuring French specialties paired with local wines.
A French cuisine lesson is held onboard every afternoon with each class limited to 10 passengers.

One of the great things about a river cruise is you’re never far from land. On Scenic, you get to choose from two to three tours to take in the morning, and the rest of the day you can go onshore on your own with Scenic Tailormade, a GPS locator that guides your own personal excursion. Think of those handheld devices in museums that are automatically activated with an audio commentary at each point of interest.

You can wander but you won’t get lost because the device has an interactive map.

The tours I choose in Burgundy are all wine and food-related (after all, this is the region that produces some of the best wine appellations in the world).

Is it any wonder that in Burgundy you can casually stop at a random restaurant and find that it has a Michelin star?

Chateau de Savigny les Beaune was built in the 14th century and has an unlikely collection of airplanes and motorbikes.
Scenic Sapphire’s main restaurant Crystal Dining offers four-course meals with wines and other drinks; you can also order off-menu.

Chateau de Savigny les Beaune, an hour by the arranged coach from Chalon, was built in the 14th century. During the wine tasting, we are told that Burgundy produces the most expensive wines in the world, and the region accounts for three percent of French wines and — surprise! — 65 percent is white wine. In Burgundy, vintners aren’t allowed to blend varieties — the pinot made here is 100 percent pinot grapes.

More than the wines, the chateau is known for its unlikely collection of  aircraft and helicopters, and motrobikes. The estate has a park lined with twin props and in the museum thousands of scale models of bikes.

On another day, we travel to Beaujolais to try the light-bodied red wine at Chateau Montmelas, and also white and rosé, all made form gamay grape. This variety allows for quick fermentation of just a few weeks and the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday of November is greeted with parties across France and tasting starts in bars, cafes and bistros.

Perched on a hill, the estate affords views of the vineyards growing gamay grape. It is a breathtaking sight.

* * *

Chateau Montmelas in Beaujolais is not a museum — but a castle where the owners live.
Turffle and butter on bread and some Burgundy wines at Cos de Piguet.

An Englishman living in the South of France is in financial ruin and so one day he takes out an ad in the International Herald Tribune looking for interesting and unusual work. “Anything considered…except marriage,” he says. What follows is a job to impersonate a wealthy gentleman who has the formula to grow truffles quick and cheap, and he’s soon plunged into truffle espionage.

If this story sounds familiar, you’ve probably read Peter Mayle’s 1997 fictional novel Anything Considered, the caper that kicked the door open for the public to have a look into the rare mushroom.

On a truffle farm in Tournus — a commune with only one four-star and one three-star hotel but with four Michelin-star restaurants — the story is not quite as dangerous.

This Burgundy truffle is not quite ready yet; they’re usually harvested in autumn.

Oliver, who quit his job as a soil researcher in Switzerland to farm the land he inherited in Cortevaix, is a truffle farmer. He started from scratch, reconstituted the forest on his estate and planted it with truffle and saffron trees to have long and short-term yields. He grew two species of Burgundy truffles, one of them historically served on the tables of the French kings.

Truffles are fungi found near the roots of trees and they’re expensive because they grow only in specific kinds of soil, such as Burgundy’s or Tuscany’s in Italy. It takes five years before you can harvest truffles and you can only do so with animals with an acute sense of smell.

Pigs were previously used to hunt truffles, but I read somewhere that the problem with pigs is they enjoy eating truffles, too — and you can hardly teach them to refrain (being pigs).

Enter dogs.

Oliver’s dog is 14-year-old Chinook, a female working dog whose only mission in life it seems is to please him. It’s a relationship that he knows will end in a few years given her age, and so he started training another dog — a hunting dog. But the problem with hunting dogs is that they’re too efficient and want to get the job done as quickly as possible. The new dog doesn’t wait for Oliver; Chinook, meanwhile, sits on her heels and waits as he gathers the fungi in his basket and then they walk together in the forest to hunt some more.

It melts my heart seeing Chinook looking up adoringly at Oliver as he is telling us about truffles and complicated French laws regarding land and farming.

The truffles Chinook digs up aren’t ready yet, as they are usually harvested in autumn. Oliver’s wife tells us that the best way to enjoy truffles is fresh — shaved on a dish like pasta or eggs. As for saffron, they should be in their stalks because you never know what’s been added to the powder form. A kilo of truffles can go as high as $50,000 (P2.65 million) and saffron $20,000 (P1.06 million).

At the end of our tour, Oliver scoops Chinook up in his arms and carries her back into the house.

On this truffle farm, at this moment in France, I suddenly feel homesick thinking of my own senior dog thousands of miles away.

* * *

Before sunset in Mâcon. By the time it’s dark, France will have won the World Cup and the whole city is partying. Photos by Tanya Lara

I was in Paris when the national team Les Bleus beat Belgium in the semi-finals. By  the time the final game is played and won against Croatia, I am in Mâcon.

Mâcon is known for its wine appellation and its riverside buildings painted in burnt sienna and buttermilk. Every April, Mâcon holds a wine fair of which two-thirds of its  production is white, made from chardonnay grape.

And tonight in Mâcon, bottles of wine and champagne are popping inside the houses, and then the party spills out onto the streets. In Paris, people are celebrating on the Champs Elysées; in Mâcon cars are honking around the river, being driven aimlessly and crossing bridges on the Saône, drivers screaming with joy and the French flag waving in the summer night.

Bands are leading impromptu parades, faces painted with the French colors, people are singing and chanting, children are carried on their fathers’ shoulders, and the party’s getting bigger as the evening progresses.

It’s impossible not to be carried away by the crowd’s happiness — the French have earned their second star, their second World Cup after 20 years.

It’s a truly wonderful time to be in the South of France.

* * *

In the Philippines, Scenic River Cruises is represented by Acewin Travel & Tours Corp. For inquiries and reservations, call Acewin Travel & Tours at 0915-5000-678, 0917-572-5540, 729-66-88. Email acewincruises@yahoo.com or visit their office at the ground floor of LPL Bldg., 17 Eisenhower St., North Greenhills, San Juan.

Chateau de la Rochepot on the scenic route from Chalon to Chateau de Savigny.

Cathay Pacific flies cleaner, further with the new A350-1000

The A350-1000 comes home to Hong Kong: The world’s most modern aircraft will be used for Cathay Pacific’s longest route: the 17-hour nonstop flight from HK to Washington, DC, starting in September. Photos courtesy of Cathay Pacific and Airbus
Cathay Pacific chief customer and commercial officer Paul Loo, flight operations director Anna Thompson, the four pilots who flew the A350-1000 from Toulouse to Hong Kong Evan Summerfield, Karl Lucas, Marcin Grzyb and Dominica Yung, and the flight crew at the Airbus Delivery Center.

An Airbus takes off or lands every 1.4 seconds. By the time you finish reading this story, about 500 will have done that all over the world; in 24 hours, 61,714 Airbus aircraft will have taken off or landed at any given airport on the map.

There’s a little bit of poetry in these numbers — one imagines airplanes carrying people home or taking them to adventures that lie ahead; the anticipation of a long-overdue homecoming, a reunion, or simply a weekend away to some island or a new city. Every single takeoff or landing is the beginning of a story for millions of people every day.

Last Wednesday, an Airbus made a special landing in Hong Kong. For the first time in the world, Cathay Pacific’s first ever A350-1000, which took off from Airbus’ runway in Toulouse 12 hours before, landed at Chek Lap Kok International Airport, signaling the start of a new generation of modern and clean-fuel airplanes for the airline’s fleet. It is only the second such plane in the world, and the first in Southeast Asia.

The wide-body aircraft will be used for CX’s longest route in its network: the 17-hour nonstop flight from Hong Kong to Washington, DC, a distance of 8,153 miles (13,122 kilometers). The service begins in September, four times a week, as the airline expands its long-haul network and increases its capacity in its 206 destinations in 52 countries. The A350-1000’s first commercial flight will be to Taipei, and will serve Madrid, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, Manchester and Zurich from winter this year.

The business class cabin features more comfortable seats that convert into flat beds with one touch, new personal stowage compartment on the side and a touchscreen remote control.
You can now pre-order your breakfast before you sleep in business class.

Cathay Pacific chief customer and commercial officer Paul Loo who, six years ago, negotiated the carrier’s order of 20 A350-1000s to be delivered until 2021 (the next delivery is in August), says, “We already have one of the youngest long-haul fleets in the sky (an average of 5.6 years in service), and with the arrival of the A350-1000, our fleet is only going to get younger. The aircraft follows the successful entry of the A350-900 variant, which has enabled us to expand our long-haul network at a near unprecedented rate, providing our customers with a wider range of nonstop travel choices while at the same time strengthening Hong Kong’s position as Asia’s largest international aviation hub.”

Called “the future of air travel,” the A350-1000 is longer than its 900 sister in the A350 XWB family with 54 more seats (CX’s configuration is from 280 for four-class planes with first, business, premium economy and economy; to 334 for those without first class).

The business class menu has three more starter choices and up to six main course choices.

“From now until 2024, we still have 79 aircraft to be delivered in total,” says Loo. Though he wouldn’t say the investment for this particular aircraft, he says the “the total cost of our investment is more than what Hong Kong is spending on building a third runway,” which is HK$141.5.billion (US$18 billion).

Cathay Pacific general manager for corporate affairs Kinto Chan says the airline’s A350 planes are partly powered with biofuel to reduce the airline’s GHG emissions and to fly greener; this plane flies on 10 percent biofuel. “Fulcrum Bioenergy will supply the aviation biofuel produced from municipal solid waste.”

Author Tanya Lara with the Rolls Royce Trent XWB engine, the most efficient large aero-engine flying today. Cathay Pacific’s A350-1000 runs on 10 percent biofuel made from municipal waste.

Airbus head of A350-XWB marketing Marisa Lucas-Ugena says that compared to previous aircraft generation, the A350-1000 is 25 percent better in fuel burn, CO2 emissions, and cash operating cost. “Its new wing, inspired by and acquired from nature, morphs to mimic a bird’s wing; it has a new fuselage design using 70 percent advanced titanium and composite material, which means no corrosion or fatigue, and lower weight and reduced maintenance.”

The A350-1000’s Rolls Royce Trent XWB engine is the world’s most efficient large aero-engine flying today with 1.8 million flying hours and 99.89 percent operational reliability.

* * *

CX 3510 or the ferry flight from Toulouse to Hong Kong had only 76 passengers composed of CX executives, engineers, and employees who had won a company-wide contest held by the airline, and journalists. Out of the 334 seats, only business and premium economy cabins were occupied.

Flying over the French Alps on the delivery flight to Hong Kong. Photo by Tanya Lara

As soon as the seatbelt sign went off, we were up and about inspecting the plane. Being a noncommercial flight, it was unlike any other flight of course. For one, the economy cabin was empty. Second, there was an atmosphere of celebration and for us journalists it was actually the only time we got to exchange business cards on this coverage, having done a series of interviews and tours at the Airbus factory the day before.

And third, the CX executives had loosened up as we were chatting on the aisles — finally, after six years, they were bringing this baby home! CX general manager for planning Lavinia Lau even helped with the breakfast service, serving bread to passengers. “When else can you do this?” she says with a laugh.

With all the journalists taking pictures and videos of the crew as they served drinks and food, it took twice the amount of time than on a regular flight. Leslie, a flight attendant who’s been with CX for 22 years, corrects me. “No, thrice!” he says. Indeed, the very cheerful flight attended was very excited to be on the ferry flight. “It’s a privilege for me,” he says. “Every crew wants to experience this and it comes only once in a lifetime.”

Economy cabin: Throughout the plane are air and noise management systems and ambient lighting that help passengers relax.
The author Tanya Lara with CX chief customer and commercial officer Paul Loo and wife Joy Loo, CX general manager for planning Lavinia Lau and Cheche Moral of Inquirer in the economy cabin.

Cathay Pacific corporate affairs editor Alexander Jenkins says the airline held a contest among its employees and the winners were flown to Toulouse, had a tour of the Airbus facilities, and joined the delivery flight back to Hong Kong.

A brand-new plane is the norm for CX, which is receiving a new one every month as it retires some planes and adds to its existing 206-aircraft fleet — but a new-generation aircraft is a big deal.

It’s not only the hardware that makes the A350-1000 the most efficient aircraft today, it’s also the passenger experience. The cabins have a higher ceiling, a flat floor — no more bumps that cover wires running throughout the plane —  wide panoramic windows, HD screens,  more legroom, and LED ambient lighting with 16.7 million colors that make possible lighting scenarios to mimic natural sunrise and sunset and help reduce the effects of jet lag. Plus, what everyone wants — mobile and WiFi networks! The latter is especially good news for Filipino travelers who need to work on a long-haul — but who are we kidding? — it’s important to document their air travel on social networks in real time.

Flight attendants roll out main course selections and desserts in business class.

On the delivery flight from Toulouse to Hong Kong, we experienced just how intuitive the design is, and how much more comfortable the A350-1000 business class is compared to Boeing’s 777-ER of the same class, which the airline will be replacing in phases. The seat, which converts into a full flat bed, is longer and doesn’t have the bumps that I felt lying down — it felt like a true bed.

Also, there is a compartment beside the seat where you can store your handbag and other stuff compared to the net pocket in the 777. When you raise the armrest a water bottle cavity reveals itself so hydration is within easy reach at all times.

As for the entertainment system, the screen is full HD with a touchscreen remote control. Trying to find figure out the device, I was prompted, “Do you want to watch movie on this screen or main screen?” It means you can have one movie playing on your PTV and another one on your handheld screen.

Journalists on the ferry flight to Hong Kong.

In the economy seats, the headrest has been redesigned with a softer, leather- overed one that’s adjustable six ways, and it feels like a pillow now. There is also a mobile phone holder for when you want to watch movies on your phone or just a place to put it while you’re charging on the USB socket, and a cup holder.  They’ve added a metal stepper on the aisle seat for you to reach the luggage stowage (the plane has a higher ceiling).

“Have you noticed that it’s quieter than on other flights? Sometimes on older planes, I can’t talk to my wife, but here that’s not a problem,” says Loo.

“It’s nine decibels quieter than the 777-ER,” Airbus’ Marisa Lucas-Ugena, who incidentally started her career at Boeing, told us the day before.

CX’s A350-1000, which took off from Airbus’ runway in Toulouse on June 19, starts a new generation of modern and clean-fuel aircraft for the airline’s fleet (the plane uses 10 percent biofuel mixed with jet fuel)

According to Airbus, “the air management systems help passengers to enjoy a more relaxing flight. Total cabin air is renewed every two to three minutes in a draft-free environment at the optimum temperature and with 20 percent more fresh air. In addition the A350 offers the unique possibility to install an active humidification system in business and first class to reproduce a private jet flying experience.”

Lucas-Ugena adds, “There are features on this aircraft that you cannot see but you can feel. And on a long-haul flight, you will feel better when you land.”

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Cathay Pacific flies from Manila to Hong Kong seven times a day to connect you to any of CX’s 206 destinations in 52 countries; 12 times a week from Cebu, and four times a week from Clark on Cathay Dragon. Starting in October, Cathay Dragon will have four times a week direct flights from Davao City to Hong Kong.  Call the global center at +180014411011 for Smart/PLDT, +180087395117 for Globe. Log on to www.cathaypacific.com.

Waiting for our flight back to Manila at Cathay Pacific’s business class lounge The Pier. What a treat to have a shower and a hot meal after a long flight!

The Paris I love

Paris’ Eiffel Tower, autumn 2008. Ridiculed by the French when it was first erected in the 1880s, it became one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved landmarks. Photos by Tanya Lara
…and in the winter of 2013. Still beautiful under a blanket of snow.

Like Hemingway said of Paris, “And then there was the bad weather,” at the beginning of A Moveable Feast, the only book that I try to reread every year.

In this case, the weather is merde.

Flights are cancelled in and out of Charles de Gaulle Airport. Paris is buried in snow, cut off from the suburbs and the rest of the world. It is a city fending for itself for the weekend.

But Paris is unapologetic about its weather. C’est la vie. Deal with it.

This is Paris, after all, a city that is still so perfectly beautiful even under a heavy blanket of snow that falls softly from the sky and settles with resignation on the ground.

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The Opera House (Photo by Peter Rivera/wikipedia)

The city that moved Nietzsche to say, “An artist has no home in Europe except Paris.” This is Paris awash in a strange green color by Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, in a golden hue by Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris.

Even in this miserable cold in the winter of 2013, Paris has me putting her back on top of my list of favorite cities in the world (after a brief dalliance with Berlin).

Like many tourists, I think of Paris through a hopeful Hemingway and his merry band of creative misfits, through pop culture, through corny lines in film. I think of Paris when I was a younger writer and the smell of freshly baked baguette from the boulangeries gave me such hope.

Paris is a city for writers, lovers, artists, shoppers, wandering souls, and to borrow a literary phrase, for innocents abroad who, according to our local tour guide Mireille, pronounce Avenue des Champs Elysées as “Chumps Delysis.”

The arrondissement (district) that most tourists gravitate to is the 8th, home to Champs Elysées, inarguably the most beautiful avenue in the world with its wide footpaths and horse-chestnut trees (bereft of leaves in winter but still a breathtaking sight).

Champs Elysées is Paris’s busiest avenue, “12 roads and a circle in the middle,” and our Trafalgar travel director Hamish Wallace explains the 50/50 rule here. Since so many cars get rear-ended, the city simply imposed a rule that splits liability and fault 50/50.

The Louvre with IM Pei’s pyramid skylights. (Photo from aisweekwithoutwalls.com)
At Léon de Bruxelles on  Champs Elysées, Binky, Vangie, Gibbs, Anna and I — waiting for our mussels and fries. Winter 2013.

Talk turns to art when our coach snakes its way through the 1st. As we pass The Louvre, Mireille says, “The Italians are accusing the French of stealing the ‘Monalisa,’ but we say we didn’t steal it, we just lost the receipt.”

That French sense of humor!

Rodin’s stone sculpture “The Thinker”  looks to have become naked after a night of partying in Oberkampf and is now in deep thought as to where his clothing might be. “That’s why the Monalisa is smiling — she knows where it is.”

The Eiffel Tower, a stone’s throw away from our hotel for two nights, is in the 7th arrondissement. It is closed due to maintenance when we go in the morning, so we enjoy wandering through the snow-covered grounds instead.

Mireille says a lot of people used to commit suicide by jumping from the Eiffel Tower, so the city fenced off the platform.

“And tourists want to know, ‘Where can you commit suicide in Paris?’ They are very concerned about us,” she says dryly. “I tell them, ‘Just cross the street. If you’ve seen the traffic in Paris, you know what I mean.’”

Taken from the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower — Central Paris’ 19th-century skyline, which hasn’t changed much even as its population has. The green park is Champ des Mars in the 7th arrondissement, between the Eiffel Tower and Ecole Militaire. Photo by Tanya Lara
Lunch in 2012 at the Michelin-star Le Jules Verne restaurant by chef Alain Ducasse. The views are actually much better than the food.
Gargoyle on Notre Dame Cathedral (Photo by Corbis/National Geographic)

Amid the sludge and snow on the grounds of the Eiffel Tower, this is where we bond and laugh a lot — four Filipino girls and one guy from a group of 30. Binky, Anna and Vangie are from the travel industry whom I meet for the first time; Gibbs and I are newspaper journalists who have been bumping into each other at this or that coverage.

Two years later, we are all still trying desperately to see each other over lunch or dinner at least three times a year, because living in a city like Manila and having our schedules is like trying to find a Frenchie that doesn’t drink wine. It’s doable but close to impossible.

 * * *

For all the times that I have visited Paris, I literally followed the footsteps of the writers I worshipped as they walked all over the city in their books and during their lifetimes.

Sacre Coeur Basilica on top of  Montmarte, the highest point in Paris and part of the Right Bank.  Photo by Tanya Lara
Enjoying drinks with Olga and Alex in St. Germain, spring 2012.

From Montmarte’s cafes and bistros, the bridges on the Seine that connect the Left and Right Banks, the museums, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the boathouses moored on the Seine.

Obviously, Hemingway wasn’t the first writer to love Paris, but to my heart he loved it best. He articulated it in the way Van Gogh did to Provence on his canvas: with such tenderness and affection even if neither of them knew of how massive their influence would become. Their deaths, both from self-inflicted gunshot wounds (Hemingway to his mouth and Van Gogh to his chest), would not deter generations of painters or writers later.

They would all love Paris through its sadness, joy and beauty.

You always remember the first time you visit Paris like you remember your first kiss. I always go back to when the smell of baguettes brought inexplicable happiness to me, or that first time at the Louvre seeing the Monalisa and I didn’t have to line up or pay because I had a press ID as a newspaper reporter, or the first time I saw the Opera House and not far from it Galeries Lafayette with all its designer brands.

This district has always amused and baffled me. That the beautiful Opera House, center of the culturati and the well-heeled, is a short walk to the red light district and its supermarket-like sex shops. I’ve always wondered if this was by design or happenstance.

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Pont Alexandre III connecting the Grand and Petit Palais on the Right Bank with the Hôtel des Invalides on the Left Bank. (Photo by Serge Ramelli/Pinterest)
Sunset descends on Champs Elysees and Arc de Triomphe. @iamtanyalara

I remember the first time I went to Paris alone and it really didn’t matter because despite its being the most romantic city in the world, it is perfect for loners.

You don’t need anyone to enjoy or fall in love with Paris.

* * *

In 2014, I would visit Paris twice. The first is with good friends Claudette and Steve for our road trip through Provence. We land in Paris in July to news that Russia had shot down a commercial flight over Ukraine. We had taken the same airline and friends urge us to change our flight back to Manila. A week later, when they are leaving and I am flying to Prague again, another plane from a different airline would crash in Algeria.

It doesn’t seem the right time to be traveling, but the three of us agree that no one can really predict such tragedies.

The second is over the Christmas holidays. I fly to Paris armed with my laptop and my external hard drive. In Manila a few days before, I decided to launch this travel blog on Jan. 1, 2015.

Stevie, Claudette and I buy saucissons at Bastille Market in July 2014. (Photos by Steve Villacin)

Like I told friends after: never start a personal project when you are about to go on vacation because it will consume you.

Paris is this city outside the flat I’m renting in Bastille where I am writing like crazy, it is the bustling place in front of me as I write in cafes and drink wine until my fingers are frozen from the winter chill, as I walk along Champs Elysees and look at the Christmas markets and can’t wait to get back to the flat because I’ve suddenly remembered some things from past travels.

For the first time, writing gets in the way of Paris and me.

It feels like I have wasted my time with Paris, but my friend Marta, a Polish girl married to a Filipino friend, puts things in perspective. She says, “Maybe you wouldn’t have written as much as you did if you weren’t in Paris.”

She is right, of course.

At our lunch a few days after the New Year with Marta and Hendrik is my French friend Cedric, who helped me with the tech details of doing a blog. We met the year before and he was so generous and patient in explaining things to me.

With friends Hendrik, a Filipino diplomat in Paris, his linguist wife Marta and their daughter Sofia after the New Year 2015; and Cedric after Christmas at the Mojito Lab Bar.

The irony is, even as I fall deeper in love with Paris, he can’t wait to leave it for Tokyo. I am struggling to understand how anyone could ever want to leave Paris.

One day after I arrive back in Manila, the Charlie Hebdo shootings would occur, less than a kilometer from where I had been staying for more than a week.

It fills me with sadness and rage.

* * *

Around 2008, my high school friend June and I are in the same city (Geneva). He gives me a book on which he writes and misquotes Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I tease him, “Dude, you can only use Hemingway as a pick-up line to girls who haven’t actually read him if you’re doing it wrong.”

Almost a year later, we would find ourselves in Paris, nearly missing each other by a day, but he redeems himself here having really read the book now. We spend the autumn afternoon walking around Trocadero and the Left Bank, go on a cruise on the Seine consuming a bottle of red wine each because it is so damn cold.

It is at this time that my crush on Paris becomes real, ten years after my first visit.

Hotel de Ville with the skating rink over the holidays, January 2015.
There is that one visit to a city when you fall completely in love with it. For me it was 2008, my fourth visit, when I realized that Paris is a place I will always find my way to.

Three years later, in the spring of 2012, I am in Paris for a work trip with Alex from the competing newspaper, Anna from a magazine, and Olga from the LVMH Group. Paris is a stopover. Olga and Anna have arranged lunch at the Jules Verne restaurant on top of the Eiffel Tower.

I am looking out at the views from the top of the tower, and at some point during the Alain Ducasse lunch, say, “I wonder if Parisians realize how lucky they are to be living in Paris. Look at this!”

Below us is all of Paris, spreading its arrondissements outward like the shell of an escargot.

I realize, of course, that there exist two sides of Paris: one for those who live here, and another for those who visit. One for whom the French are an absolute nightmare, and another for whom they are darlings when you talk to them in your bad tourist French.

I know this is the Paris that I love, the city that melts my heart like no other. The same Paris that Hemingway did before so many others like me, the Paris whose skyline hasn’t changed much even as its people and immigrants did.

Even have changed from when I was a tourist here for the first time in the 1990s, when Paris threw stardust in my eyes that I have never really been able to wipe away.

It is the same Paris even as I am older, a little wiser, not much richer because of this pesky need to travel.

But, unavoidably, still a writer.

I know this is the Paris that I love, the city that melts my heart like no other. (Photo from mandarinoriental.com)