Monday, October 15, 2012

Triumph in Paris

by Christina Bossinakis
  My arrival in Paris last week was heralded by some pretty wretched weather--plenty of rain, gloom and cold. On my Transatlantic flight, I met an American from Texas, who recounted something a French colleague had told him during his 1 1/2-year stay in Paris--“The weather in Paris is like a cat, sometimes she’s nice and, aaahhh, sometimes she is mean.” Luckily for myself and my travel companion, my mother Lily, ‘she’ decided to play nice later in the day--we found some sunshine by the time we arrived at our hotel in Paris, conveniently situated right around the corner from the famed Arc de Triomphe, which honors those who fought and died for France during the revolution and Napoleonic wars. Just a brief comment regarding the monument: I have seen the Arc countless times in print and on tv, but quite frankly, it was something entirely different to see it in person. I had always assumed it would be impressive in scale and scope, but I found it far surpassed anything I could have ever imagined. Besides its obvious size, the detail and work that went into the structure left me completely awestruck. A side note: if you have any designs on climbing to the upper observation deck and Arc museum, you’ll need to be armed with good shoes, good knees and great lungs. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of standing before the mighty structure, you absolutely must plan a visit.

Piece de resistance

   As is inevitably the case, whether I am traveling for business or pleasure, if there is a racetrack (or ‘course’ for our European friends) near by, I am sure to make a stop. On a sunny and cool Sunday morning, the Bossinakis women headed off to Longchamp for France’s biggest day of racing, headlined by last weekend’s G1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Busy but comfortable through the first couple races on the card, Longchamp filled up fast. Graced with a fantastic view from the upper level of the grandstand, the racecourse is punctuated by the famed Le Moulin de l’Abbaye. On a personal level, however, I was most impressed with the amphitheater style seating surrounding the paddock (think Belmont but much bigger and grander). Also, differing from most North American tracks, the horses were saddled in an adjacent saddling paddock before being brought out to be paraded in front of the masses in the main viewing enclosure. It was also interesting that, immediately following a race, all of the horses, including the race winner, are returned to the main paddock to be unsaddled before being led back to the barn area (for those unfamiliar, beware, the lads and sweaty horses do not yield to the lingering patrons). The victor is paraded past the crowd, with jockey aboard, before being led to the far side for the winner’s picture, shortly before the winner’s presentation, also conducted in the paddock. It is all a quite theatrical production and, in my opinion, a great way to entertain the casual fan who may be lacking other VIP arrangements.

Longchamp Paddock

   As one might imagine, the security on Arc day was very tight. Ahead of the Arc itself, the paddock became highly restricted, think of the Gringotts Bank in Harry Potter series (elementary, maybe, but you get the point) So much so, in fact, that an unsuspecting Bo Derek almost found herself unceremoniously ejected from the exclusive enclosure only moments before the big race. The irony was that, only an hour earlier, the famed American actress obliged the international media with a television interview in that very same paddock. I guess Longchamp’s resolute paddock ‘police’ missed that little bit. All turned out well for the star of ‘10,' however, after the doggedly persistent and seemingly unimpressed security officer was informed of her oversight. Crisis, not to mention embarrassment, averted.

CBoss poses with statue of 1991 Arc hero Suave Dancer

   While the Arc itself lost many of its headliners, including the luckless Danedream and Nathaniel in the week leading up to the marquee race, the race still managed to draw some big names. Heading into the race, I liked Japan’s Orfevre and St Nicholas Abbey. They both looked great in the moments leading up to the race, and while the former ran up to form only to be edged by Solemia, the latter was well back at the end. Regardless, the post-race ceremony was really an affair to remember, replete with elaborate presentations and interviews, not to mention a lavish procession of horse-drawn carriages presenting the winning connections to the world. It was probably one of the most extensive and opulent ceremonies I have ever seen, anywhere. Now that’s the way to cap off an elite event.

Qatar, the official sponsor of Arc day, entertained the crowd with local performers

   The only knock I had on the day, and the host, was the lack of food options for those hungry fans who weren't lodged in the luxurious boxes and marquees spread around the course. In fairness, there were plenty of crepes and gaufres (waffles), in addition to kiosks offering sugary treats if you had a hankering for something sweet, not to mention loads of wine and champagne (this is France, after all), but the real food was limited. A snack bar (read as a watering hole which was not very enticing to a pair of ladies looking for some sustenance after a long day) and what seemed to be the sole concession stand which, by the way, had run out of pizza by 4:30pm) were among the  
Olivier Peslier following
his fourth Arc win
aboard Solemia
only options available to the general crowd. The only other spot that I encountered which offered any sort of fare was a pub-style structure which provided a very basic menu (a couple of sandwiches and potato chips were the highlights). Even though I must admit I was pretty bummed about the food options (or lack thereof) by the time I walked out the door, I was later treated to a very nice dinner at one of Paris’ hot spots L’Entrecote (so hot, in fact, that there was a line all the way out to the road, and apparently, is never without a wait), located near the Porte Maillot station. A special shout out goes to Hubert Guy for the recommendation and the company. Offering only ‘steak frites’ as the main (the sauce is tremendous), the desert menu is long and varied and offers sweet delights which are as good as they get, in Paris or anywhere. And being the daughter of a Patissier (pastry chef) of the highest caliber, that says a lot.
   Ready to move on to England after a quick jaunt out to the Chateau Versailles, I considered all that I had seen and experienced during my time in Paris. The Chateau was wonderful; the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral were spectacular and the Louvre’s Pyramid and adjoining Tulleries Gardens were memorable (you must also visit at night when those structures and monuments are lit--truly awesome). But personally, I found the Arc to be the real showstopper. Quite frankly, it is only fitting that the most prestigious test in French racing should be named in honor of France's national jewel.

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