June 25, 2017

Night Train to Paris

As I prepare for my trip to Europe, I wanted to share this guest post with you.  Jesse Langley will transport you with him as he takes a night train to Paris!

The sun hung hot in the late afternoon sky and my clothing clung to me with varying degrees of dampness. Even my linen pants were moist. I had escaped the cold gray drizzle of Amsterdam the month before. After a detour into Germany to visit some old university buddies for a week I had continued south through France until arriving in Montpellier. Three weeks of studying French had given me a case of verb conjugation confusion and a serious addiction to mussels covered in stinky cheese. Besides, I had played hooky long enough and had some serious academic work cut out for me in Edinburgh. But Edinburgh wasn’t going anywhere any time soon and Paris was sort of on the way. Besides, not stopping in Paris when I was this close would be a crime.

 St-Clément Aqueduct Montpellier France

Montpellier Aqueduct by jparise, on Flickr

As I walked past the old Roman aqueduct under the load of my heavy backpack I stopped long enough to wipe sweat out of my eyes and admire the aqueduct’s engineering. I looked at the sturdy Roman lines and the pristine condition of the aqueduct and briefly wondered why we still have problems building sturdy roads in the states. I limped into the train station determined to never load so much into a backpack. I guess that’ll require a smaller backpack. The gendarmerie was trying to inconspicuously scan for suspicious passengers from the balcony in the train station but the German Shepherds kind of blew their cover. The French police don’t do inconspicuous well, but at least they’re better than the Italians.

I waited for the one o’clock to Paris in the shade of the station. When it pulled in and was ready for boarding I was the first one in. I had learned the hard way on the stretch from Cologne to Montpellier that stragglers with enormous backpacks will always suffer if the luggage rack in the corner of the train car gets full. There is no humanly possible way to stuff seventy-five pounds of pack in an overhead bin. I got my backpack securely stowed, found my seat and plugged in my headphones. As the train left the station Bob Dylan was mumbling his way through Stuck in Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again and Montpellier began to recede into the distance.

Eiffel Tower Paris France at sunrise

Eiffel Tower by Tristan Nitot

I fell asleep and when I woke the sun was hanging just over the mountains to the west painting the peaks in brilliant shades of oranges and pinks. I made my way to the bar car for a drink and sat near the bar sipping a glass of wine and watching the sun through the bar car window as it slowly sank below the mountains until they were silhouettes. I finished my wine and made my way back to my seat. The train car was quiet except for the soft snoring of passengers so I worked for a while with my dissertation on Joyces’s Ulysses until my eyelids got heavy again. I opened my eyes as the train began to slow coming into the Paris Gare du Nord station.

I collected my backpack and hailed a cab. The taxi driver’s English was actually worse than my French, and I was pleased that he understood the hotel directions I gave him on the first try. We chatted as much as my horrible French would allow until we got to the hotel. Upon arrival I paid him an extra four Euros for putting up with my mangled conjugations. The interior of the hotel lobby was high-ceilinged and airy. I waited while the young woman behind the counter checked my name against the reservations before producing a gigantic old fashioned skeleton key. I thanked her and headed for my room. Inside the hotel room large windows were open outwards and a light breeze blew softly and rustled the pulled back linen curtains. Just visible in the distance the Arc de Triomphe glowed against the night sky lit from underneath with spotlights.

Arc Triomphe Paris France at night

Arc Triomphe by Benh LIEU SONG

I took a quick hot shower and wiped the steam off the mirror for a quick shave. I rooted around in the backpack until I found a pair of linen pants with the fewest wrinkles. I put on a clean white oxford and stepped into a pair of bright red espadrilles. After a quick look in the mirror I wiped a wisp of shaving cream off my ear and put the skeleton key in my left pants pocket where I noted with disapproval that it caused the pocket to sag under its weight. I walked out past the check-in counter and noticed that the young woman who had given me my key had a pixie haircut and looked like a young Audrey Hepburn like so many French women do. I had a hankering for a croissant and a good cup of coffee, so I continued out the lobby into the balmy Paris night to look for a late night café and a conversation.

 

Ah Paris, Tell us about a favorite memory you have of Paris!

 

Jesse Langley lives near Chicago. He divides his time among work, writing and family life. He is an advocate for online education and has a keen interest in blogging and social media.

European Villages Discovered-Kuressaare

Europe is home to many world famous cities; Paris, London, Prague and Munich to name a few.  We have all visited or dream of visiting these cities but there are many more small villages that offer travelers a closer look into the culture of the country.  There are even some that may be labeled as “secret” because they are not on the normal tourist routes.

I thought it would be fun to open the door on a few of these “secret” villages.

First up is a wonderful village on Estonia’s largest island, Saaremaa.

Kuressaare on Saaremaa Island of Estonia

by ** Maurice **, on Flickr

Estonia may not be Europe’s best kept secret anymore but Kuressaare is one of Estonia’s.  This lovely village has a feeling that time has stood still and, if this is true, we have the Soviets to thank. During the 1940’s they closed the island, Saaremaa, to all foreigners and most Estonians.  So for 50 years Kuressaare was isolated allowing for its small town feel to remain intact.

Kuressaare church Saaremaa Estonia

Church by Ivo Kruusamägi via Wikimedia

This favored summer get-away was reopened in 1991 and the charms of Kuressaare can once again be enjoyed.  Long summer days and warm weather make this a favored spot.  There are many beaches to enjoy and swim in.  I didn’t know this but the Baltic has a lower salinity level due to the amount of fresh water that flows into it! So swimming in the Baltic won’t leave you with the icky crusty salt feeling.  The weather during the summer months averages in the low 70’s making it not balmy but an enjoyable temperature.

Kuressaare Castle Saaremaa Estonia

Kuressaare Castle & Park by Erik Christensen

What else can you find in Kuressaare?

  • The best preserved medieval castle in the Baltic’s sits at the waterfront and will make all castle lovers happy!  Wander the halls and make your way to the fortifications for amazing views!  While visiting the castle
    Suur Toll Sculpture Kuressaare Estonia

    Suur Toll Sculpture by Beentree via wikimedia

    make sure to visit the regional museum with its own creepy legends.

  • For peaceful way to spend an afternoon, rent a row boat and float in the lake surrounding the castle.
  • Golfers can enjoy a round on the 18 hole golf course.
  • Walking around town you will find some interesting and unique sculptures including the Suur Toll which depicts one of Saaremaa’s heroes.
  • Spend time wandering the historic buildings and churches nestled in the Keskvaljak square area.  Many date back to the 1670’s.
  • The city is flat and, therefore, very friendly to bikers.  Grab a picnic and take off to explore on your own.
  • Kuressaare also has a spa offering a bit of pampering.  How about a bath full of coastal mud?
  • Enjoy the many restaurants, shops, museums and galleries waiting to be sampled.

What do you think?  Could you see yourself wandering Kuressaare?

Montmartre a retreat in Paris

Paris is one of my favorite cities.  When visiting France, I always make an effort to spend at least a day in Paris discovering a new neighborhood or reliving a past find!

One of my personal favorite neighborhoods in Paris is Montmartre.

Montmartre Street Paris France

To me this is what Paris of old must have been like!  I love the winding cobblestoned streets, the central square, the views of the city below and Sacre Coeur.  Even though it is usually busy, it feels so remote.

Montemartre Paris France

Montmartre was a haven for painters like Monet, Modigliani, Picasso, and Van Gogh.  Today, it is still a haven for painters.  Maybe a famous painter of tomorrow is painting there right now.

 

For more great pictures, make sure to look into Budget Travelers Sandbox.

Every Thursday they post new photos from their travels and invite others to join in!

Maybe I’ll see you there.

 

 

Wine Tasting in Paris with O Chateau!

Are you in Paris, afraid to try French wine but don’t know where to go to learn?  Have I got a fun and informative solution to your dilemma!

O Chateau is a company in Paris that teaches the public all about French wine in a very enjoyable and fun way.  O Chateau was started by Olivier Magny whose energy and knowledge is only surpassed by his canny sense of humor!  As stated on their website, “. . . we hire our sommeliers based on their personality just as much as their wine knowledge.”  If you want an indication of their sense of humor just take a look at their website!

Without further ado, Olivier Magny of O Chateau. . .

 

Tell me a little about you.  Where are you from, how you got into the wine business?

My name is Olivier. I’m 30 years old. I was born and raised in Paris. I’m a sommelier. I entered the wine business by creating Ô Chateau seven years ago. It was a moment of mild insanity I must say.Olivier Magny O Chateau Paris France

What made you leap into this new venture?

Another clear moment of insanity. We were looking for a space of our own. We spent 18 months looking for a new home for O Chateau. And one day, my business partner, Nicolas Paradis, found this beautiful space 5 minutes from the Louvre, in Paris coolest neighborhood. We visited it. Thought it was too big for us, too pricey for us, too everything for us.  And decided to go for it!! I completely blame it on that second bottle of wine.

O Chateau Wine Bar Paris FranceTell me something about O’Chateau that isn’t on your website.

We are in major debt.

Do you find that US wine palates and knowledge differ from other nationalities?

Clearly, there are many discrepancies within the US. Some people are more experienced than others. But if I were to give you a general line, I’d say that Americans tend to like bigger, fuller bodied reds, and fresh, fruity whites. When they come to a tasting at O Chateau, they all recognize how different French wine can be from the wines they’re used to drinking at home. In terms of knowledge, I’d say that most of our American clients tend to be more knowledgeable about wine than our French clients. The passion, the interest for wine in France is vastly MIA while it is and been booming in the States.

I noticed on your website that you have a very attractive staff and you bear an uncanny resemblance to Jude Law.  Are you related?  How did you decide to share that photograph with the world?

Well, actually, I am Jude Law. But acting is not filling enough a profession so I created this Olivier Magny persona. It’s working out so far. As per the rest of our staff, well, I was lucky enough that some of my Hollywood homies had an interest in wine.

In your opinion, what are the top 3 misconceptions US travelers have about French wine?

1 – That it’s expensive. The average amount of money spent of a bottle of wine in France is 3.61€. You can get great wine in France for 6 or 7€ a bottle. In many regions, even the great wines are super affordable.

2 – That it’s arrogant. That might have been true 20 years ago but not any more I feel. Any lack of accessibility is mostly due to bad O Chateau Food Paris Francemarketing, which stems from the sociological identity of who is behind wine in France. Key difference with the US right there.

3 – That they should order the “house wine” at a restaurant. This strategy frequently works well in wine regions. In Paris, it’s a bit more tricky and you may end up with rather unexciting wine.

What is your favorite French wine region and why?

I’m a big Northern Rhône fan. Mostly because I love their wines: Ermitage being probably my favorite all.

Tell me 2 things customers should do after one of your wine tastings?

1 – They should hang at the bar. We have 40 different wines by the glass. Great French tapas food, cheeses, foie gras… Our wine selection changes daily too. Hanging at the bar is a great way to relax, use their new found knowledge and get to chat a bit with the staff and the other clients of the tasting. Our groups are great because you find people from all over the world and what they have in common is that they like to drink wine!

2 – They should buy a bottle of two. Most of the wines we serve at the tasting are not available overseas.

What is your favorite city/region in France to visit and why?

Wow – tricky one. I don’t know. France is a fabulous country for that. I guess it really depends on the time of year, and on my mood. South of France in the Spring is fantastic. Brittany in the fall I love, Alsace in the winter is enchanting, and good old Paris in the summer…

If you’re not drinking wine, what are you drinking?

Mostly sparkling water.

What is your favorite wine that isn’t French?

I fell in love with the wines of Clarendon Hills in Australia. The Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve of Robert Mondavi’s Winery are superb. So is Insignia by Joseph Phelps… I don’t know, I could go on and on…

As long as the wine is good and takes me somewhere, I’m happy. (Debbie here, that’s my motto too!)Wine tasting with O Chateau Paris France

When you’re not at O’Chateau, where will we find you?

These days, in bed mostly.

 

“O Chateau is a place that is open to everyone. To people who like wine, who love it, who are intrigued by it, who have no clue about it… “ 

Make your next stop O Chateau!

You can find more information about wine tastings with O Chateau at www.o-chateau.com

 

Full disclosure: A few years ago I was in Paris as a guest of the French Government Tourist Office which included the opportunity to take part in a wine tasting at O Chateau.

All photographs are courtesy of O Chateau.

Gothic Architecture of Europe

Last month I explained some of the attributes of Romanesque architecture.  Today I will delve into the world of Gothic architecture in Europe.

When you here the word “Gothic” what do you think of?  Dark. Eerie.  Scary.  Grotesque.  Let’s see if this is correct.

Gothic style architecture originated in France during the mid-12th century and it was during this time that many cathedrals were designed in this new and innovative manner.  But it wasn’t only cathedrals that using these Gothic characteristics.  Town halls, castles, bridges and other fortresses were all designed using this architectural style.

Cathédrale d'Amiens by OliBac, on Flickr

Cathédrale d'Amiens by OliBac, on Flickr

What were these new architectural innovations?  The most prominent distinguishing feature of Gothic architecture is the use of pointed arches instead of the rounded Romanesque version.  The pointed arches are able to support more weight allowing thinner walls, more windows, and the addition of elegant elements such as columns and moldings.

Other innovations included the flying buttresses and ribbed vaults.  Flying buttresses were used to connect free standing supports to the walls enhancing the stability of the structure.

Notre Dame de Paris by pixie_bebe, on Flickr

Notre Dame de Paris by pixie_bebe, on Flickr

Ribbed vaults added elements of beauty to Gothic structures and were supported by columns.

Royaumont Abbey

Royaumont Abbey

Since the designers of this era had introduced new building techniques, the bulky thick walls seen in the Romanesque style were not needed.  This allowed Gothic architecture to create openness by including grand windows which let in natural light.  These can be seen in the many stained glass windows displayed in the cathedrals of this time.

Interior Reims Cathedral France

Interior Reims Cathedral

We have all seen Gargoyles on Gothic buildings.  Did you know these were first used as waterspouts?  True and at one point in history they were removed for being improper but were later returned to their positions where they seem to be guards of the building serving as their homes.

Gargoyle 2 Notre Dame Cathedral Paris France

Gargoyle Notre Dame Paris

Gargoyle Notre Dame Paris France

Gargoyle Notre Dame Paris France

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gothic architecture is not eerie or grotesques. In fact, as we’ve seen it is a style that is actually known for its elegance.

 

What is your favorite example of Gothic architecture?

 

 

 

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Travel Foto Friday: Royaumont Abbey

While traveling in Europe we see a lot of beautiful and inspirational spots.  As I was flipping through some photos, I stumbled upon these of the Royaumont Abbey I had taken a few years back during a trip to France.

The Royaumont Abbey was founded in 1228 by Saint Louis, King of France and was occupied by Cistercian monks  until the Revolution.  This abbey is the largest Cistercian cloister in France.  As you can see the grounds are spectacular as is the Gothic architecture!

Royaumont Abbey outside Paris France

View of the Royaumont Abbey

These canals were used by the Cistercian’s as they are known for using water for energy purposes.

Royaumont Abbey outside Paris

Canals of Royaumont Abbey

The buildings of the Abbey are situated around the Gothic cloister.

Royaumont Abbey Courtyard outside Paris France

Royaumont Abbey Courtyard

Royaumont Abbey

Royaumont Abbey

The Royaumont Abbey is outside Paris and can be enjoyed as a day trip coupled with a stop in Auvers sur Oise.

 

Have you been to Royaumont Abbey?  What about other Cistercian Abbeys?

 

 

5 Cities to Take a Walk In

A fairly recent new love of mine is walking tours.  My love for walking tours began when my daughter went off to college and I needed to get out of my empty nest!  Since I live in the San Francisco bay area, my husband and I headed off and enjoyed a fantastic walking tour of Nob Hill.  Since then I have enjoyed many walking tours and look forward to new walking adventures in any city I visit. 

To me, a walking tour allows you to really get to know a neighborhood at a much slower pace.  Since you are walking the amount of area covered is more limited and allows for a more in depth look into the subject of the walk.  I have found the guides to be very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the subject.  You can find walking tours in larger cities covering a vast range of topics.

So to inspire you to walk a bit, I picked 5 European cities to begin a list of walking tour companies.  Guides from all companies listed are from all walks of life (no pun intended) including historians, literary experts, art historians, performers and authors.  Most of the tours listed do not require reservations, however, some do have minimums so look for this when deciding on the tour you will enjoy.

House of Parliament London

House of Parliament London by cookipediachef, on Flickr

London:

London Walks is a company offering many walking tours covering the neighborhoods of London.  Their tours include:  The Secrets of Westminster Abbey (From Opus Dei & Death’s Palace to The Da Vinci Code), The Beatles ‘In My Life’ Walk, The Hidden Pubs of Old London Town, Ghosts Gaslight & Guinness, and The Blitz – London at War. There is no need to book ahead and most walking tours are priced at 8£ (about $15).  The biggest problem with this company is which tour to choose??

Eiffel Tower Paris France

Eiffel Tower

Paris :

Paris Walks offers many walking tours covering many of the wonderful neighborhoods Paris is so famous for.  You could enjoy The Medieval Latin Quarter, The French Revolution,  a Fashion Walk, the Village of Montmartre, Hemingway’s Paris or even a Chocolate walking tour!  Again, the cost for these walking tours is quite reasonable at 12 € (about $16).  Sign me up for the Chocolate tour!  Is there a better way to enjoy chocolate and work off the calories at the same time?

Prague Czech Republic

Prague by photojenni, on Flickr

Prague:

Learn about all that makes Prague famous by taking one of these walking tours from Prague Walks: Prague Castle Walk, Jewish Prague, Ghost Walk, Pubs of the Old Town and the Best of Prague, which also includes lunch and a river cruise.  Prices range from 300 czk to 890 czk (from $17 to $50 for the Best of Prague).  A few of these tours have minimums so be sure to check their website for more details.  For you early risers, they offer a Good Morning Walk where you will be able to enjoy Prague before the crowds are even up!

Brandenburg Gate Berlin Germany

Brandenburg Gate Berlin by Bernt Rostad, on Flickr

Berlin:

Original Berlin Walks offers tours that help you discover Berlin and its storied history.  You may decide to choose one of these tours:  Discover Berlin Tour, Infamous Third Reich Sites, Jewish Life in Berlin and Nest of Spies Tours.  These tours are 12 € ($16).  While looking at their website, I noticed their guides list their favorite restaurants which I think is a real bonus. . . local recommendations can’t be beat!

Marienplatz Munich Germany

Marienplatz Munich by JoeDuck, on Flickr

Munich:

Munich Walk Tours offers a unique way to learn about Munich and its history and culture.  Walking tours include: Bavarian Food Tasting & Viktualienmarkt, Haunted Munich Ghost Tour, Beer and Brewery Tour (you are in Munich!), Hitler’s Munich (aka Third Reich Tour) and The City Walk & English Garden tour.  These tours range in price from 12 €22 € ($16-$30).  Munich Walk Tours also offer a couple bike riding tours, which is my next “adventure” to tackle.

 

So there you have it, 5 cities 5 different walking tour companies.  Try one, you won’t be disappointed.  This list is not complete and inclusion here does not mean an endorsement is being made.  I do, however, suggest you venture out and walk a bit. . .

Which walking tour would you most like to enjoy??

What’s Your Favorite European Hotel??

Recently I was reading an article in Travel+Leisure titled “500 World’s Best Hotels”. Even though I don’t usually stay in hotels that would be considered “the world’s best”, I scoured the list to see if there were any that I had stayed in. I actually found 4 but all of them in the US. So this got me thinking about the best hotel I have stayed in while traveling Europe and, from their list, which one(s) would I love to spend a few days in.

View from room at Palace Hotel Lucerne Switzerland

View from Palace Hotel

I would have to say that my favorite hotel I have stayed in, but was not on the list, was the Palace Hotel in Lucerne, Switzerland. In full disclosure, I was in Switzerland as a guest of the Switzerland Tourist bureau, and I am quite sure that is why I was placed in a corner suite with amazing views of the nearby lake and mountains but I am not complaining! To say this hotel is stunning would be an understatement. The lobby is exquisite, breakfast was vast and yummy and the views from the hotel are breathtaking! As I am a huge fan of historic hotels, I was delighted to find the décor of my room keeping to the architecture of the building. The colors and fabric allowed the room’s warmth and comfort to come through.

Palace Hotel Lucerne Xwitzerland

Palace Hotel Lucerne

While scanning the list, I noticed one hotel that I have always wanted to stay at, Hotel de Crillon in Paris. Years ago I found this hotel on the web and put it on my list of hotels to stay at. Why has this hotel made my list? The location can’t be beat! I’m a sucker for old world architecture and the exterior of this hotel is exquisite. Being right on the Place de Concorde, the Crillon has witnessed much history. The building was built by King Louis XV in 1758 and it was here that France signed a treaty recognizing our Declaration of Independence! In my opinion, elegance and luxury seep from every corner of the hotel. Everything about this hotel invites me in!

Hotel de Crillon Paris France

Hotel de Crillon Paris

Another hotel that I would love to stay at, but did not make the list, is the Hotel du Palais in Biarritz. A few years ago, as a guest of the French Government Tourist Office, I had the opportunity to tour the hotel and enjoy dinner in the restaurant. This hotel also has quite a history attached to it as it was built in 1855 as the summer home of Eugenie and Napoleon III. In those days it was known as Villa Eugenie. The Hotel du Palais has maintained the style of the era both inside and out. The elegance shines from the gilt chandeliers to the sun glistening off the pool with its seaside vistas. Yes this would be an excellent hotel to spend a few relaxing days in while enjoying the charm of Biarritz and the surrounding environs.

Hotel du Palais Biarritz France

Hotel du Palais Biarritz

While I am sure I could enjoy staying at all the hotels on the list, I kept it to a few and would love to hear your favorites? Tell me about your favorite European hotel you’ve stayed in or would love to??

Hotel de Crillon picture by Bruce Tuten, on Flickr
Hotel du Palais picture by owlhere, on Flickr

Palace Hotel picture courtesy of Lucerne Tourism Ltd.

Art Appreciation in Auvers sur Oise

We all know that France and, in particular, the area outside Paris are full of sights related to famous painters. I want to tell you about an experience I had that really opened the world of art to me. First, you need to know that I am not an art or museum person. I am not the one spending hours and hours in every museum in town but this experience made be rethink art and museums.

A few years back I had the opportunity to visit France with the French Government Tourist Bureau. Part of the trip included the most exciting and enlightening 2 days of art appreciation I have ever experienced. The first part was a trip to a sleepy little village about 15 miles northwest of Paris, Auvers sur Oise. Auvers sur Oise is a French village that was popular with many 19th century artists including Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh spent his last 70 days in Auvers and, in fact, during this short time painted 70 paintings of Auvers and the surroundings.

We started our tour of the village at the Auberge Ravoux or House of Van Gogh. This is where Van Gogh stayed while in Auvers and is also where he died from a self inflicted gun shot wound. You are able to view the room where he died, room 5, but my favorite part of this visit was seeing the short film on Van Gogh. After seeing the film about his life and depression I felt as if I had a little vision into his mind and could see why his paintings are so dark and skewed. His paintings are a true reflection of what he was feeling and what was in his mind.

Restaurant Auvers sur Oise

After touring the House of Van Gogh and seeing the film we went to Dr. Gachet’s house. Dr. Gachet was an art lover and Van Gogh’s doctor while in Auvers. Van Gogh spent a fair amount of time painting the grounds of Dr. Gachet’s home. I vividly remember seeing the gardens and a copy of Van Gogh’s interpretation on a stand next to it. It was amazing to be able to alternate between seeing the actual subject and the painting at the same time!

Walking up to the cemetery where Van Gogh and his brother are buried we passed the Romanesque/Gothic church that was the subject of another of Van Gogh’s pieces. Here also is another opportunity to view the subject and the interpretation. Later, we had a wonderful lunch at Le Cordeville restaurant, which is a place Van Gogh frequented while in Auvers sur Oise.

Van Gogh Gravesites

The next day we visited the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. Even if you do not spend time viewing the art, you should visit this museum for the architecture alone! I digress, during our visit to the museum I enjoyed viewing the Impressionist art collection including artists like Monte, Manet, Cezanne and Van Gogh. Again I was really mesmerized by Van Gogh’s art, in part, due to the insight I had gained in Auvers. While viewing Van Gogh’s pieces I could feel his despair.

So, as a non-art lover I highly recommend a visit to Auvers and then the Musee d’Orsay. Visiting these two locations was very exciting and informative for me. I had never experienced art come to life but it did due to the insight I gained in Auvers sur Oise about Van Gogh. I really didn’t (still don’t) know very much about Van Gogh’s art but after visiting Auvers I am a fan!

Do you have any “art appreciation” stories??