Les Gets

Every winter I try to discover another mountain destination where I can breathe in fresh alpine air, dine on savory meals (including lots of cheese) and practice skiing. While last year found me in Courchevel, this year I became completely charmed by Les Gets, a Savoyard village in the Rhône-Alpes region of southeastern France. What makes this village between Lake Geneva and Mont Blanc so special is the intimacy you feel upon arrival. Les Gets is not merely an artificial ski station but a mountain destination filled with soul, all year round.

I immediately felt at home at the charming four-star hotel La Marmotte. Family run since 1947, the hotel is situated at the foot of the slopes and has in recent years expanded to include 63 rooms, four restaurants (including one in the mountains) and the luxurious Séréni-Cimes Spa. La Tapiaz hotel was added in 2011 offering an additional eight chalet-style rooms. I was impressed with the design and comfort of each of the unique rooms, ideal for a romantic getaway with plenty of suite options for families. And the restaurants… Aside from trekking up to the mountains for purposes of sport, no need to leave the hotel. Not to mention the spa where I could easily spend every evening between the hammam and jacuzzi. Heaven!

From La Marmotte I headed up for a tour of the landscape, this time via racket walk. Harder than it sounds!

With plenty of snowfall, the views were breathtaking! I could imagine the stunning scenes come springtime.

Appearing like an oasis was La Marmotte’s restaurant La Paika, high up on the slopes and well worth the climb to feast on traditional dishes and fish grilled on their wood-fire barbecue.

I forced myself to leave the hotel to explore the village, and stopped to buy a few local Haute-Savoie specialties, including cheese. Apparently my fondue feast at restaurant La Pivotte only whet my appetite.

What this gem of a village also has to offer is the impressive Mechanical Music Museum. Opened in 1988, this museum houses over 550 musical instruments from around the world, including chimes, street organs and mechanical pianos. Prepare to be both amazed and entertained! Yet another reason to plan a trip to the mountain haven of Les Gets.

Château Hopping into 2018

This past year has been an adventurous one and I feel overwhelming gratitude. Beginning with a new year in Sicily, my Italian and I have explored Miami’s Faena District, discovered Lisbon and Sintra in Portugal, encountered Valencia, Spain, and spent memorable birthday celebrations in Sardinia, Italy, in addition to visits home to the Hamptons and Cinque Terre. For blogging and writing projects I skied in breathtaking Courchevel, explored Lombardia, Italy, and visited Mont-Saint Michel by night, among other trips. And let’s not forget beautiful Budapest! One last trip before a family Christmas beneath the Florida sun was to a château in Brittany. All the while Kasia Dietz handbags journey with me as the brand continues to grow.

A four hour drive from Paris, or much faster via train, we arrived to the city of Rennes. From here we discovered remote and romantic Château du Bois Glaume. This family-run castle was the perfect weekend escape.

Our regal room overlooked the chapel of this charming castle. Immediately we felt at home, and like royalty.

While my Italian went for a run in the late fall foliage, I explored the grounds, camera in hand. That night, dinner for two was served in the elegant dining room, accompanied only by the castle’s cat.

During our stay we learned the history of this château, and how it’s part of a collection of family-run French castles converted into bed-and-breakfasts, each offering no more than five rooms. I immediately became fascinated with Bienvenue au Château and couldn’t wait to discover others. Perhaps château hopping will become a theme for the new year?

Our last visit after stopping for crêpes in the picturesque village of Rochefort-en-Terre, was to Josselin with its stunning medieval castle set upon the river. The perfect last stop before returning to Paris.

As I count my blessings for the year that has passed and prepare to fill 2018 with beautiful memories, may you live your own fairy tale, château optional. Wishing you a happy, healthy and adventure filled new year!

 

 

World War I Centennial

This year marks 100 years since American soldiers entered World War I, aiding their French allies in winning the war. To commemorate the Centennial of the Great War, I recently joined Atout France for a trip to the Lorraine and Meuse regions of France, the setting for many hard fought battles. Our journey began at the train station in the city of Metz. The Neo-Roman architecture is one example of the power during the German empire.

From here we discovered the Centre Pompidou-Metz, a modern contrast to this medieval Gallo-Roman city which includes Saint Etienne Cathedral with stained glass windows by Marc Chagall and the Porte des Allemands (German Door). The latter was named for the Teutonic Knights who founded a hospital nearby in the 13th century.

From Metz we drove 80 kilometers to Verdun in the Meuse Argonne region, where I enjoyed a room with a view of the city at hotel Les Jardins du Mess, not to mention a decadent dinner. In the morning it was time to explore.

The first stop in discovering exactly how grueling life was for the soldiers during the Great War was at Butte de Vauquois. It is here that mine warfare created massive craters in the land, beneath which German soldiers built a network of galleries. Soldiers often spent entire weeks within these dark, damp tunnels. Hard to fathom.

Our next stop was to Romagne ’14-’18, a museum created through 30 years of collecting wartime objects within the woods around Romagne-sous-Montfaucon. This is the life work of Jean-Paul de Vries, a man with many a tale to tell. Collections of grenades, rifles and helmets to items including combs, forks, watches, shoes and love letters, tell the story of the soldiers’ everyday life.

American soldiers officially entered the war on April 6th 1917, mobilizing over 4 million able-bodied men. This followed their two years of aiding injured French soldiers as ambulance drivers. Victory with the aid of American soldiers in 1918, ended the mine warfare in Verdun. The American Monument at Montfaucon d’Argonne is one of many testaments to America’s loyalty to France. This 60-meter high monument commemorating American victory in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, faces the front line of the American First Army on the morning of September 26, 1918, the start of the offensive.

To commemorate the 14,246 American soldiers who lost their lives during World War I, we spent a solemn evening at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. It was November 11th 2017, and the largest American graveyard in Europe held a ceremony with 3,000 candles in remembrance of these soldiers. I will never forget this deeply touching experience. Next year for the Centennial on September 23, 2018, one candle will be lit for every soldier who fought alongside the French. This event will honor the promise made by General Pershing: “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds”.

That night we found refuge at Hostellerie du Château des Monthairons, a family-run castle that once served as as a hospital for US troops in 1915. The perfect place to reflect.

The following day began at the Battlefield of Verdun, the setting for the most intense warfare that took place during WWI. This French and German battlefield remained in French hands, but not without horrific losses of life from both sides. The Battle of Verdun in 1916 lasted 300 days and 300 nights with non-stop fighting. Tragically, more than 300,000 soldiers died or were considered missing, with over 400,000 French and German soldiers wounded. A visit to Verdun might be the only way to truly comprehend this unprecedented loss of life from both sides.

The Ossuary is one of the national French memorials to the First World War, and a remarkable tribute to brave men. Here the remains of 130,000 unknown soldiers are laid to rest. Whether from the German or French side, these soldiers are united as men who lost the battle for their lives.

Nearby Fort Vaux is a symbol of French heroism. It was here that Major Sylvain-Eugene Raynal, after running out of water, medical supplies and food for his men, sent several messages via homing pigeons. It was his last pigeon that brought relief for his soldiers. This pigeon named Le Vaillant, released from Fort Vaux on June 4, 1916, was awarded the Order of the Nation. A feat worth the honor!

The Verdun Memorial provides a comprehensive history lesson on the Battle of Verdun. You are greeted by the image of a Verdun soldier, unaware whether he is French or German. This recently renovated museum is filled with original photographs, bone-chilling eyewitness accounts, and 2,000 wartime items. Personal items include crafts made by the soldiers during many idle hours, and letters sent home to worried families.

This journey through the Lorraine and Meuse regions presents both a history lesson and brings us closer to the heroism and tragedies of all these young soldiers, regardless of the borders that defined them. A journey worth taking for all of us, especially for the Centennial of World War I.

Story of a Sweater

Following my day and night discovering the secrets of Mont Saint-Michel with Centre des monuments nationaux, we headed to nearby factory Saint-James, one of France’s oldest and most famous brands which continues to manufacture locally. Being a designer myself, I was interested in discovering the history and makings of this label, located in Saint-James, a commune in Lower Normandy, 20 kilometers from Mont Saint-Michel. This is the brand that made nautical stripes famous, and I was about to find out how it all began.

How and when was Saint-James born? Around 1850, the Legallais family started to spin and dye locally produced wool. They resold this wool to the haberdasheries of Brittany and Normandy, later as woolen shirts which turned into the now famous fisherman’s sweater.

In 1950, the company changed hands and new owner Julien Bonte began manufacturing cardigans and sweaters, including the famous “Real Breton Fisherman’s Sweater” knit in pure wool. This became “the seafarers’ second skin”. Along with his son and much determination, Julien grew the company, renaming it “Tricots Saint-James” in 1970.

Julien’s son Bernard grew the company further in 1977 by building a new plant with an 1,800 square meter workshop and 300 square meters of office space. Tricots Saint-James also expanded its product range to include sea-themed seasonal attire for women. They were known across France as the knitwear leader, including a 100% cotton collection.

In 1989 Saint-James celebrated its 60-year anniversary as well as 100 years of Léon Legallais. In commemoration, they modernized their logo and knit the biggest sweater in the world, 8 meters high, and 14 meters from one sleeve to the other. Impressive! In 2001 the company further expanded and shirts, jackets and trousers were added to its wares.

In 2005, Tricots Saint-James received the trophy for “Ethics and Governance” following a company staff buyout. In the words of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, “The Company was chosen to recognize the good governance represented by Mr. Bernard Bonte (President until December 5, 1990) transferring power and capital to the employees, as well as the significant development of the company in France and abroad. The company’s takeover project of 1990 was declared a success for both its development and staff growth.”

What I noticed while touring the factory was the meticulous attention to detail. Every employee trains for over a year, taking pride in their work as each piece is carefully crafted by hand. Observing the process from weaving the wool or cotton to preparing the final product for shipment was fascinating. It’s no wonder Saint-James has such a stellar reputation!

These days Saint-James sweaters, shirts, scarves and dresses are available not only in Mont Saint-Michel, but in Nice, Paris, Saint-Malo, Strasbourg and Lyon, as well as  around the globe. Their timeless stripes and style continue to dress the world! What’s more, when you buy one of these shirts, you’re supporting the cloister restoration project! “The Tricots Saint James company is also associated with this major national heritage project with an exceptional and unique product-sharing operation. From 15 April to 15 October 2017, the “Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey” striped jerseys are on sale in the Saint James distribution network in France and abroad (Korea, USA and Japan), and in 3 bookshop-boutiques of the network (at Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey, the Alignments of Carnac and the Towers of La Rochelle). For every striped jersey sold at the price of €45, Saint James pledges to donate €2.50 to the Centre des monuments nationaux for the cloister restoration project.”

Mont Saint-Michel by night

I knew I would return to Mont Saint-Michel, a marvel of Norman Gothic architecture, after spending an incredible day last February exploring France’s first World Heritage site, this time to enjoy the sunset. With the ease of a new Intercités train to Villedieu-les-Poêles connecting to a bus directly to Mont Saint-Michel, I joined the National Monuments Center and jumped aboard.

We arrived to a rainy and gray abbey, quite a contrast to the sunny day I experienced on my last visit, but equally as enchanting.

After a private tour of the abbey, fellow bloggers and I had the privilege of meeting Philippe Bélaval, the President of 100 monuments in France for the Ministry of Culture, at a lunch in the Salle Belle-Chaise. I imagined all that went on in this grand hall so many centuries ago!

After lunch and a lesson in the abbey’s history, we had a look at the cloister restoration where workers were busy waterproofing the garden and the galleries, including cleaning the numerous columns. All the while it’s open to the public, impressive! Archaeological excavations revealed the original level of the floors, 25 to 30 cm below the level that was in place. The 260 square meters of the “Merveille” cloister were once occupied by a garden which the abbey plans to reclassify. We carefully walked around the space where so much care was being taken in the refurbishment. I was in awe of the work being done and all the attention to detail. Aiding in this ambitious 11 month long restoration project estimated to be completed in 2018, is the French Heritage Society. Locally based company Saint James company has also stepped in, donating €2.50 for every striped jersey sold at €45. Even more reason to love this French brand! The public too can assist by making an online donation on www.mapierrealedifice.fr.

Our tour continued into the regal halls of Mont Saint-Michel, deep into the soul of this 13th century abbey.


After an in-depth visit of the interior, it was time to discover the views from above. We climbed the stairs up to the top of the abbey and were rewarded with a stunning vista! An experience I would certainly never forget.


A few last gazes into the horizon and it was time for dinner at Le Relais du Roy nearby Hotel Mercure.

Following dinner I discovered exactly why sunset at Mont Saint-Michel is so breathtaking, and worth the wait.

Courchevel 1850

Last week I discovered the most chic winter destination in France. Courchevel is a ski resort in the French Alps. Part of Les Trois Vallées, it’s the largest in the world. Courchevel alone is made of up of three levels, the highest being 1850 meters up in the mountains. This was where we were headed. Having only skied in the U.S. and Italy, I was looking forward to the adventure.

Just over three hours after leaving Paris I arrived to hotel Le Strato, set high up in the mountains. This five-star alpine hideaway revealed stunning views of the Alps, with skiers passing by on the paths just outside my window. I was in snow-capped heaven! I breathed in the fresh mountain air as I settled into my luxurious room.

This family run hotel is one-of-a-kind. Opened in 2009 by “a young lady of over 80,” it was the realization of a dream for Jeannine Boix-Vives. It’s named for the Strato skis that had contributed so much to the Rossignol brand’s fame, a company once owned by Jeannine and her family. As she so wisely states “dreaming alone will not determine your destiny.” Every detail in the 25 suites is taken into consideration, from the elegant modern decor to the unique comforts (catching up on the news from the bathtub, for one). The unrivaled spa uses Sothys products and features two saunas, a steam-room, jacuzzi, gym and indoor pool. (My signature massage was heavenly!) I was thrilled too, to take an invigorating yoga class, adding to the bliss I already felt.

Symbolic of the three generations running Le Strato, family paintings hang in the library, dining room and along the corridors, complimented by wooden sculptures and artwork collected from around the world.

What makes Le Strato even more of a haute destination is its Michelin-starred gastronomy.  Restaurant Baumanière 1850 is run by Jean-André Charial (owner of the famous Michelin 2-star restaurant l’Oustau de Baumanière in Baux-de-Provence). With executive chef Lowell Mesnier working closely with chef Glenn Viel and Jean-André Charial, the food alone is worth the trip. Having already tasted Glenn’s cuisine on my visit to Baumanière, I knew I would dine like a queen. Every evening I looked forward to the gourmet feast following a cocktail at the cozy bar, live music filling the space. Breakfast in the same regal setting was an introduction into local tastes.

Ready to discover the mountains, I headed to the ski room for my gear, booked a teacher to guide me through the slopes and headed down the hill directly from the hotel. With many blue pistes to choose from, as well as a handful of red for those more advanced, I felt completely at ease. This was paradise!

Guided by the sun, we skied the smooth snow all the way down to the village and took the chair lift back up, with views of Mont Blanc in the distance. It took a few years, but finally I was feeling that ski high unique to those dedicated to the sport. I was elated and couldn’t wait to return with my expert Italian skier!

I even encountered art in the mountains during my first ever racket walk, a healthy alternative to skiing. “Doggy John” by painter and sculptor Julien Marinetti stands 175 cm at 2238 meters high.

Before the return to Paris I took a petit pause on the terrace, filled with gratitude at having experienced this tasteful family chalet that honored one woman’s life, while providing happiness to so many others.

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