THE ROYAL TREATMENT

THE ROYAL TREATMENT

Shabby chic? More like regal elegance. That’s what you’ll find when you cross the pond to visit London and stay at its grande dame Ritz Hotel…and other aristocratic pursuits on a long weekend getaway that you will always treasure, according to our intrepid fun follower Lance Avery Morgan.

CROWN ROYAL

Think back to your college literature class. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, wrote Shakespeare in King Henry IV. With the upcoming season three debut of The Crown, the world once again has Anglophile fever, wanting to know what it’s really like to be in Great Britain’s Royal Family. Who wouldn’t with all the pomp, the circumstance, and the real life drama that’s unfolded over the last 67 year reign—and the fact that the world has become an almost otherwise unrecognizable planet than it was in 1952 when Queen Elizabeth began her long run as monarchy-in-chief. If you want to get a glimpse of how the Londoners live in the present with a regal nod to the past, try some of the things they do when guests visit from across the Atlantic.

 

London is one of the hippest, most international cities in the world. Period. And its residents love Texans. It may even rival Paris and Milan based purely on street style alone. In London, style is serious business and it is  indeed that way at the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly. For me, arriving there brought as much drama as an episode of the country’s longest running primetime T.V. drama, Coronation Street. I had just stayed at a country estate in the Hampshire region of the South of England, which would have been perfect had my luggage arrived before the third of my fourth day staying there. Borrowed from a friend since I needed a large suitcase for all the clothing changes for croquet and the country house life, the bag went missing in transit. Once the airline delivered it extremely late, the exterior zipper had apparently gotten caught in gosh-only-knows-what type of conveyor belt. So, what to do? The generous team in Hampshire were kind enough to lasso the shredded mass of black nylon together, with yes, a winding lasso rope. Then off I went up from the English coast, squired directly to the height of London glamour.  

 

I’d called ahead to see if I could arrive through the rear entrance of the hotel since my bag was so unsightly and upon checking in would momentarily, if not sooner, have to be replaced from the nearby Selfridges. New luggage now purchased, from the moment I crossed the threshold from the revolving door at the Ritz, I realized its fabled existence lends itself to the feeling that time has stopped­—or at least drastically slowed down. Suddenly I felt like cavorting about as if a Noel Coward play was dictating the future, complete with a Cole Porter soundtrack. And, perhaps, clowning around the royals debonairly played in The Crown.

 

LEGENDARY LEGACY

It may feel like time has stopped, yet the five-star hotel’s legendary reputation of representing the best of the best never has. With its French chateau-style architecture and Louis XVI furnishings, the hotel was created as, according to renowned founding hotelier César Ritz, “a small house to which I am proud to see my name attached.”

 

The Ritz Hotel in London is so legendary that many incarnations of its name have permeated into popular culture over the years. Think Puttin’ on the Ritz and A Diamond as Big as the Ritz. The native and visiting international aristocracy made it an instant hit when it first opened in 1906, and it has been star-studded ever since. Famed Russian ballerina Pavlova danced there. Charlie Chaplin needed 40 English Bobbies to escort him into the hotel from his throng of chasing fans during a Hollywood film promotional visit in the 1920s. Eisenhower, Churchill and deGaulle conducted wartime summit meetings there. Broadway actress and movie star, Tallulah Bankhead, even sipped champagne out of her own slipper at the Ritz. How’s that for a celebrity antic?

 

Back at the hotel, it’s like a world unto its own. If one feels pampered there, it’s with good reason. The staff to guest ratio is about three to one, so every detail during your stay is attended to with promptness. Want to be unpacked upon your arrival? Not a problem. Desire some chocolates, a fruit bowl, and champagne awaiting your appearance? Consider it done. Five-star service is abundant and a way of life for each employee in the hotel. Michael de Cozar, the Head Hallporter (Concierge) who is almost as much of a legend as the hotel because of his 46-year tenure, explained, “I’ve welcomed guests to The Ritz for decades and have formed friendships with families that span generations.” Included in those relationships are plenty of Texans who always end up at the posh hotel.

 

Well rested, the next day we pop off to Buckingham Palace, strolling through the leafy glade of Green Park, in natty business attire. A tour of the Queen’s private art collection had been arranged, yet there was just one catch:  the tour must be taken before the palace opens to tourists. A palace to oneself? Yes, please. The art collection, comprised of primarily English and Dutch artists of the mammoth masterpieces on high, was a wonder that might rival the Louvre’s collection of 17th and 18th century works. After we toured other parts of the palace that are rarely seen, we were ready to celebrate our good fortune beyond the regal gates, beyond the miles of red carpeting we had just walked.

 

Squinting in the bright sunlight of day, little did I know that the tourist queue to enter would be blocks long. Then, all the tourist eyes narrowly settled on our small group as we exited the front manor entrance. The tourists, obviously not knowing who we were, began applauding us as if we lived there somehow. Mistaken identity indeed, but always much appreciated. Then we were off to an early light lunch at The English Grill, near the palace,  and onto High Tea later in the day, which is a true experience.

TEA, ANYONE?

A myriad of generations of the Brits certainly know about the ritual of teatime. That commitment carries over to the famed Afternoon Tea at The Ritz, an institution in itself served in the spectacular Palm Court at the center of the hotel. Birthdays are celebrated there. Proposals of marriage have been made there. You’ll find tea served on fine Limoges china, with an array of 17 teas offered from silver-service tableware. A choice of finger sandwiches, freshly baked scones, jam, potted cream and a range of pastries, all combine to make it an unforgettable afternoon. It is reputed to be the best tea service anywhere, so to enjoy the high tea, you’ll want to make reservations ahead, as it books up quite far in advance–about three to six months. While sipping both tea and champagne, a former potentate wearing a head-to-toe powder blue dress ensemble, whisked by us. Ah, London and all its colorful characters who appear seemingly at every turn at The Ritz.

 

You will also indeed find some characters in the very private Ritz Club downstairs. High rollers only need apply. It has a casino and some of the most beautiful rooms ever designed for any hotel. With the room’s themes, such as the Amber Room, and the Blue Room, ornate chandeliers and fancy finery are within arms reach at every turn. You’ll think you were at a Versailles salon party as well. And if you’re in a Bond-like gambling mood, hands start at a cool $100,000, which surpasses what you’d find even in Monte Carlo.

 

Dinner in the club, as in the hotel’s main restaurant, is impeccable…with every five-course meal being better than the one before it. John Williams, the longtime revered executive chef told me, “I have always had a great love for The Ritz and for its time-honored traditions. Escoffier, the chef, and his forward-thinking methods and beliefs have influenced my entire career and it is a pleasure to be cooking in the very kitchens where it all began.” Williams’ staff is impeccable, too. Expect to see morning cutaways on most of the hosts in both the restaurant and the lobby. It’s easy to see why the dress code for patrons in all public areas is strictly enforced.

 

To match the public spaces, the private rooms and suites are decorated in full French splendor. A suite life indeed. My suite of rooms, swathed in gold brocade with Wedgewood blue accents, lived up to the hotel’s reputation for having only the best. A small, discreet umbrella was waiting on the bed, along with welcome goodies. The Brits seem to think of almost everything.

 

PIP PIP CHEERIO

In between time, I found time for a VIP, skip-the-crowd tour of both the National Portrait Gallery that always makes me wonder what life must have been like for its subjects who lived in a much physically harsher world than we do now. Then, it was time for the Tate Museum that is the epicenter of the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport–talk about cutting edge art in the complex of its four museums. I had been to see Houstonian Carolyn Farb’s loan of Frida Kahlo’s The Wounded Deer and this time was just as exceptional.

 

In between all the outside engagements, within The Ritz London you can enjoy the orchestra quintet playing in the restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights, and everything from Strauss to Sinatra can be heard. This complements the pianist in the Palm Court lobby, Ian Gomez, who tickles the ivories. If he likes you and knows where you are from, with a friendly conversation, he will play a personalized homage when you walk by. For a Texan like me, he played Don’t Fence Me In. I’m not sure it gets any better than that. Until my next trip…after I have watched how season three of The Crown unfolds with what will likely be waist coat deep in regal mayhem.   

THE HEIGHT OF LOVE

THE HEIGHT OF LOVE

Claire Cavender And Easton McNab Marry In Aspen

By Jake Gaines
Photography by Robin Proctor Photography

Claire Cavender, the daughter of Suzanne and Rick Cavender and Easton McNab, the son of Connie and John “Sandy” McNab, were married at Chaparral Ranch in Woody Creek, Colorado near Aspen, in a ceremony surrounded by family, friends and sky-high mountain ranges. The native San Antonians have known each other since they attended St. Luke’s Episcopal School and St. Mary’s Hall High School together. The bride, a graduate of the University of Texas, who later moved to the West Coast, and the groom, a graduate of the University of Southern California, said their move to Los Angeles solidified their relationship.

Together since 2009, the couple wanted their nuptial festivities near the groom’s family home. A favorite summer destination for nine years and the beginning of their 14-month engagement, the venue set the tone. “I was getting ready for dinner and Easton asked me to go down with him to check out the Roaring Fork, which is the beautiful river that runs by their home,” says Clair McNab. “This was not a giveaway at all because every time we arrive we like to enjoy a cocktail by the river. However, this time it was different because he instantly got down on one knee and asked me to be his wife. It was a moment we will never forget in a place that means so much to both of us.”

The busy planning of the wedding took many months and the couple chose to select their hometown favorites to be involved from the beginning. The bride’s handmade engagement ring and the groom’s wedding band were both designed by Nicole Mera in San Antonio. The bride’s diamond wedding band was by JB Star, along with her rehearsal dinner and wedding jewelry, all from Shetler Fine Jewelers in San Antonio. The wedding planner for the events was Suzanne Dupre and her team from An Aspen Affair, while Luc Haughart at Premier Party Rentals helmed the décor, and Carolyn’s Flowers created the floral environment.

The rehearsal dinner was at the St. Regis’ Aspen Velvet Buck restaurant and its after party occurred at the Caribou Club. The couple flew in an LA-based DJ to spin the tunes for the event so that all the guests, wedding party and families could  meet each other after the rehearsal dinner. The bride’s rehearsal dinner dress was designed by San Antonio-based Creviax et Cie.   

For the ceremony, the bride walked down the aisle wearing a stunning Carolina Herrera dress from Julian Gold Bridal and colors of dusty rose and dusty blue were seen everywhere. The groom chose to wear a custom Knot Standard suit for the occasion. Reverend Jill Pidcock officiated the ceremony as the couple was encircled by 250 of their guests who flew in for the wedding festivities.

The bride chose her sister, Courtney Cavender Smith to be her matron of honor and her bridesmaids were: Brittany Blonkvist, Alexandra Clark, Felice Coon, Laine Deutscher, Ashley Fatjo, Georgie Ferrell, Sarah Geibel, Brenna Hart, Clare Holden, Emily Honigblum, Amanda Lodge, Nicola McLauglin, Sita McNab, Hallie Swope, and Kellye Thomas. The house party consisted of Kate Dawson, Rachel Jonkers, Alicia McNab, Stella McNab, Chloe Shands, and Leah Sheesley. The groom’s best men were his bothers, Ian McNab and Charles McNab, and serving as his groomsmen were: Cadell Alexander, Hank Cavender, Tod Cavender, Ben Ghez, Joe Martin, Joey Maloney, Tucker Oelson, JJ Rubin, Jack Sertich, Eli Tash, Beau Townsend, and Chase Wirth. His ushers were Maxwell Atherton, Hal Guggolz, Phillip Halliday, Tobin Smith, and Paul Swann.

The reception that followed the wedding at the Chaparral Ranch was a seated dinner with the duo’s signature drinks, Moscow Mules and Negronis, offered to guests upon arrival. As the evening progressed, especially touching was the bride’s father, Rick, who sang the opening song to the couple. The Denver-based band, Tunisia, provided the dance numbers for the guests before the wedding send-off surprise of confetti machines (artfully planned by the mother of the bride and the wedding planner).

The bride is the granddaughter of Judy Cavender and the James “Jimmy” Cavender and Sybil and Robert V. West, Jr. The groom’s maternal grandparents are Charline and Red McCombs and his paternal grandparents were Ian and Sita McNab. The couple’s honeymoon was spent in Lake Como, Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast. The couple reside in San Antonio where Claire works at the Cavender Auto Family and  Easton is employed by McCombs Enterprises. They spend their time playing and traveling with their Maltese/Shih Tzu mixes, Hadley and Harper, and supporting Blue Star Contemporary, Southwest School of Art and The McNay Art Museum in San Antonio’s vibrant art scene. 

THE ART OF FLYING

THE ART OF FLYING

Not too long ago flying used to be glamorous, fun and exciting. What changed? The airline industry, popular culture and a myriad of other reasons. Join us as we romp with our social chronicler William Jack Sibley to ascend to where the Jet-Set really did live large.

Photography courtesy of author, archival

 

FLY ME TO THE MOON

For five years in the late 70’s, early 80’s I was employed as a “Spanish Speaker” steward for the coolest (then) airline in the world—Braniff International. Braniff was famous for inaugurating The End of the Plain Plane in its attention-getting revamped advertising campaign transformation designed by Madison Avenue whiz kid, Mary Wells Lawrence, second wife of Braniff CEO, Harding Lawrence. We were nicknamed The Jelly Bean Airline because of the lime green, pumpkin orange, turquoise colors of the planes, the wild Emilio Pucci uniforms and the sassy-meet stylish service embodied in the “Braniff strip” where stewardesses changed their uniform several times during each flight. Andy Warhol appeared in the print and TV If You’ve Got It Flaunt It! ads for Braniff. Sonny Liston, Salvador Dali, Playboy centerfolds, and more all were showcased in the airline’s zippy, audacious marketing campaign. In a first ever industry venture, Braniff hired world famous sculptor Alexander “Sandy” Calder to paint one of its DC8’s and named it, Flying Colors. It was a highly original, brassy organization in every way, shape and Crayola-colored airplane.

 

Braniff employees worked their high-altitude derrières to a “fare thee well” in order to make it so. A quick primer from the glory days of air travel: Braniff served beer, wine and cocktails immediately after takeoff (craving a Pisco Sour at three in the afternoon? We’ve got it!) followed by a complete chicken dinner, in coach—from Oklahoma City to DFW—and, afterwards a gratis cappuccino made with real brandy to enjoy with your gratis mini-pack of cigarettes that came on every meal tray. And that kind of professional, exhaustive service happened countless times a day, every day, on a global scale from Amsterdam to Singapore, Buenos Aires to Montreal, Brownsville to Lubbock.

 

When President Carter deregulated the airlines in 1978, the world changed overnight.  Braniff’s route structure increased by 40% in one day—no other airline had ever grown so large, so fast. We even became larger than the legendary Pan Am. In fact, we were the only American airline to fly the Concorde. With our bright orange 747 “Fat Albert” Braniff established an industry world record, exceeding 30,500 flight hours in just under six years. And as in all chimerical dreams—the bubble wasn’t to last. But first, the 1970s.

MILES HIGHER CLUB

In 1977 Braniff bid adieu to the swinging 1960s and bon jour to the 1970s that inaugurated the cooler, more subdued beiges and taupes of New York designer Halston. Out went the minis, in came the just below the knee jersey wrap dresses, polyester pantsuits and Ultra- suede overcoats. Flight attendants might have earned subpar pay (stories were legendary in Dallas of flight attendants swathed in Halston cashing food stamps at the nearby Tom Thumb grocery store in Highland Park Village) but damn we looked great, I sailed into Studio 54 two weeks after it opened because the doorman recognized my mid-calf, ultra-suede overcoat as Halston and apparently assumed I was somebody (everybody was somebody at 54 if you got past the club’s doorman Marc Benecke).

 

It was a heady time to be working for the airline. I was in one of the last classes to graduate in the old Pucci uniforms. For the men it was a classic, double-breasted blazer with gold buttons and one gold band on the sleeve – identical to the pilot’s uniform, yet sans those extra “Captain” sleeve bands. (We also wore black “pilot caps” which I loathed because it made me look like some kid playing John Wayne in the film The High And The Mighty). For the women Pucci meant a fruit salad explosion of mini-skirted color and retina-twisting motifs. With Halston, not only did the uniforms drastically evolve, the plane colors became darker, richer with chocolate, plum, malachite, cobalt taking the mile-high stage. The silverware, china and stemware changed. The seats became all leather, both in first and coach (Braniff led the way on this now common feature. Rumor was it was the only way the company could get payment from another popular Braniff destination, economically challenged Argentina, by enlisting its processed cow hides).

 

Because I was satisfactorily fluent in Spanish (thanks to high school and college classes, two summers in Guatemala, a year studying in Puerto Rico) I got assigned as the Spanish Speaker on the round-trip flights to Mexico, as well as South American charters. Thus began my Acapulco residency; three days a week, every week, for three years at the beachside Princess Hotel (where Howard Hughes died the year before in the penthouse of the pyramid-shaped landmark).

 

Acapulco then, unlike today’s crime cartel miasma, was a kind of pinnacle of tropical chic, understated elegance and beautiful people brio. Even today, it is still one of the most romantic, breathtaking bays in the world. A near perfect semi-circle of sandy beaches, Palapa bars, seaside cafes with barefoot beach vendors hawking fresh coconuts, beer, cheap jewelry and sunglasses were dotted everywhere. On the far edges of the bay magnificent villas perched high atop the rocky cliffs looking like gigantic bird nests. Henry Kissinger, the Shah of Iran’s sister, Hollywood actress Merle Oberon, the “World’s Best-Dressed Woman” Gloria Guinness, Dolores Del Rio, Lana Turner, Johnny Weissmuller, John Wayne, and more all had homes here or rented them during the 1970s.

SI, ESPAÑOL

I always worked the First Class section of each flight, the Spanish Speaker being the one to make announcements in both languages from the fore entry P.A., handle transit documents and spray the entire length of the plane with insecticide before take-off. (Incredibly, no one ever once complained about being assaulted with Raid. Today there would be a dozen lawyers greeting your arrival stateside for attempted asphyxiation.)

 

I got to greet everyone. Movie stars, TV personalities, politicians, dukes, earls, barons, marchesas, principessas, honeymooners, surfers, moms and dads on a spree, preachers, teachers, gamblers, hookers – you name it. Everyone off to see the sybaritic, glamorous, hedonistic—thoroughly non-Puritan—Acapulco.

 

Vintage film star Dolores del Rio never ate a thing, carried a huge stack of the latest magazines and always wore orange pancake makeup (I was told by a Braniff agent that all the old Mexican film stars did this as it concealed wrinkles when photographers took black and white photos of them arriving at the airport.) First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson always liked one margarita the closer we got to landing. John Sebastian from The Lovin’ Spoonful sat all by himself in an almost empty First Class and told me he was meeting a producer that wanted to buy some of his songs. Sloan Simpson, a full time Acapulco resident, model, TV personality and the former wife of New York City Mayor William O’Dwyer, was on a number of Braniff flights and we became friends. She was known locally as “The First Lady of Acapulco” and if Sloan didn’t appear at your party, it never happened. I flew Tina Turner back to the US after a New Year’s Eve spectacular where she’d performed. Not sure who was suffering more on that flight, me or her. Also Grace Jones, Lynn Wyatt, Joan Collins…too many to remember them all. For a while there it was a Who’s Who of “somebodies” on each and every flight.

 

For some reason the Italian dolce vita cognoscenti took a great liking to Acapulco then. Every beach bar, restaurant and hotel lobby was filled with good looking, gente meravigliosa (wonderful people), gesticulating wildly, laughing uproariously, smoking like belching stacks on the Andrea Doria and swaggering madly about as only fearless Italians ever seem to pull off with any success.

 

The French weren’t far behind. On saw Baron de Redé Rothschild and his wife, Marie-Helene only in passing, their comings and goings apparently so exclusive no one was ever invited to accompany them. But I did meet a Comte (Earl) or a Vicomte (Viscount), not sure which, lounging by the pool at the Princess who told me he’d been awaken at dawn by a small earthquake, his first, and he ran excitedly to the window to see if the palm trees were falling on the golf course and broke his toe on a passing chair. Cauchemard! Quite an interesting guy. Sadly, the aptitude for lounging with a complete stranger and talking for hours about absolutely nothing in a perfectly serious way is an utterly lost art.

 

 

PARTY PLEASURES

On one flight coming down from Dallas I met a middle-aged gentleman from New York who was apparently somebody big in the fashion business. We had brief chats between my fellow flight attendant and me hauling the hors d’oeuvre cart, the salad cart, the Chateaubriand cart, and the dessert cart (avec billowing Creme de Menthe vapor scenting the cabin from a large brandy snifter stuffed with dry ice.) By the time we got to the fruit and cheese cart it was obvious that practically everyone in First Class was friends with Mr. Fashion Business. They were all having a big party for him that night and would I be interested in attending? I thought about it for maybe three seconds and said “Sure, I’d be delighted. Eight o’clock? See you then.”

 

The taxi pulled up to a charming villa beneath the legendary Las Brisas Hotel, Ocho Caballos (Eight Horses), and sure enough there were eight terra cotta horses prancing along the top of the outer security wall. Not finding an entrance door I felt my way around the side wall till I stumbled onto a small wooden gate in the rear. Stepping inside, I was suddenly in the kitchen patio where a middle-aged woman sat on a stool having her hair shampooed and set by a Mexican lady. Meet Pauline Trigère, French by birth, a renowned-in-her-day New York dress designer who inexplicably took an instant delight in slicing me into bite sized pieces.

 

“Who are you?”

“I’m a guest tonight. I guess I’m early.”

“You can say that again.” I was wearing what I thought was a cutting-edge party shirt that had Arabic writing on it that I’d bought on the street in New York.

She pointed to my shirt accusingly, “Do you know what that means?”

“No.”

“I do. It’s disgusting. What’s your name?”

“Bill”

“Bill? Like Bill Holden, Bill Buckley – what do you do, Bill?”

“I work for the airline.”

“Of course you do. Do you speak French?”

“No.”

“Of course you don’t. Why are you here?”

“I was invited…”

 

“Go swimming, you’re early!” The Mexican lady finished her styling and Madame Trigère stood tugging at her bathrobe and shooting me eye daggers. “Never wear anything you don’t know what it means, comprendre?” She turned and hastened off to some far end of the villa, hopefully to take a long, long nap.

 

No such luck. After a blissful swim in the carved out of solid rock pool jutting into the sea, the best margaritas ever, ceviche and tiny lobster hors d’oeuvres and chatting it up with some of the nicest, funniest, most fascinating people ever—guess who I was seated next to?

 

“It’s Bill Holden, yes? Eleanor, have you met Bill Holden…he speaks Arabic,” Pauline purred. On the other side of me sat another New York icon, fashion PR genius and creator of the International Best Dressed List, Eleanor Lambert. I wanted to crawl under the table and ride away on a tiny camel.

 

“Arabic? You don’t look Arabic. You don’t look like Bill Holden either. What ar-r-re you wearing?” The shirt that launched a thousand accusations. Wish I still had it. In spite of the few stiff necks in attendance that evening, it was a classic Acapulco party. Beautiful surroundings, beautiful people, beautiful night redolent with intrigue and adventure. Propriety takes a holiday. And then, as always, there was my 6:00am check-in.

 

THE LANDING STRIP

When I conjure up Acapulco glamour then versus today’s Kardashian-by-the-numbers. How? Why? Then, I still see Ali McGraw and husband, studio chief Bob Evans, strolling hand in hand out the front door of the mountaintop restaurant, Madeiras, followed by a trio of strolling guitarists trailing behind. I see the gorgeous Farrah Fawcett and the lucky Charles Grodin holding up airport traffic as they shoot a scene in front of the Acapulco airport terminal for their film that no one saw, Sunburn. Then—I’m walking through the lobby of what was once J. Paul Getty’s private estate, the Pierre Marques, and seeing the most heart-stopping sunset of my life and thinking, “Remember this, you have to remember this.”

 

Sadly, Braniff folded in 1982—a result of growing too fast, spending too much and planning too little. Like Pan Am, Eastern, TWA, US Air, Trans Texas, Muse, Mexicana, and so many more—these former giants of industry are as vanquished now as the once shimmering, intoxicating heyday of Acapulco.

 

I’m reminded of a story my friend, San Antonio socialite and long-time Acapulco habitué, Jeanette Longoria, used to tell. She’d occasionally be invited to dinner at actress Merle Oberon’s grand villa, El Ghalal, and the guests would mill and drink and nibble endlessly, but no Merle would appear. More drinking, more appetizers—and still no Merle. Finally, just as the guests were eyeing the front door a vision in a long gauzy Indian caftan would silently appear on the first landing of the stairs and pretend to be studying the floral arrangement there. The gathering below would by now be spellbound by the stylized pantomime. Then suddenly, as if startled by a gust of wind, she’d turn with a shy smile and beam in delight at the gathering as if it were the happiest day in her life. Down the steps she’d float, radiant, an entrance Cecil B. DeMille might’ve directed.

 

And it never failed to wow. Make your entrance kid, seize the moment. Braniff, Acapulco…then and now. It’s true—we’re only given so many days to bask in the sunshine before night, before expiration puts a date on whatever light that once burned so incandescent, so memorable in the past.

 

Acapulco, el problema no fue hallarte, el problema es olvidarte.” (Acapulco, the problem wasn’t finding you, the problem is forgetting you.)

COLOR ME BURGUNDY

COLOR ME BURGUNDY

Want to uncork, unwind and live la bonne vie life in Burgundy? Rose Betty Williams explores this trés chic French province where chateaux and cathedrals are common…and buying half-million dollar bottles of wine is the rage.

 

Photography courtesy of author, archival

 

BONJOUR, BURGUNDY

Burgundy, the wine, a region and color all hail from what was once the most powerful kingdom in Europe.

My husband Allan and I visited Burgundy in July and August. We wanted to learn about the history, sample the food, savor the wines, explore the castles, be captivated by the music and relax in verdant picturesque scenery. The more we saw and experienced, the greater our curiosity and enchantment! Our only regrets are that we did not dedicate at least three full weeks for this trip nor a return trip the third weekend of November for the Hospices de Beaune Wine Auction.

We flew from Austin to Paris, spent a week in Paris followed by excursions to the Loire Valley to tour Chambord, Chenonceau and Amboise, and then for a “boating party” luncheon in Chatou at the place where Auguste Renoir created the painting of the same name. We highly recommend both of these excursions, but the highlight of our French travels this trip was Burgundy.

From Paris we took a TGV high speed, 90-minute long train ride to Dijon, the capital of Burgundy. Dijon is a very cosmopolitan city best known for its seemingly infinite varieties of mustard, but also home to the Palace of the Dukes, where the Musée des Beaux-Arts was established in 1787. The Musée is a well-preserved medieval palace and fine arts museum with more than 130,000 works from antiquity to contemporary art. It is also where Philippe le Bon Tower or Terrace Tower is located and offers spectacular views of Dijon and the Grand Cru hillside towards Beaune from atop its 316 steps. Near the Palace is The Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon, a Roman Catholic church that is considered a masterpiece of 13th-century Gothic architecture but also famous for its triple row of fake gargoyles sculpted in the 1880s. The original gargoyles were supposedly removed when one fell off and crushed a moneylender.

We stayed at a charming hotel, Maison Philippe le Bon, and enjoyed a delicious dinner with friends in the outside courtyard and gardens. Allan had boeuf bourguignon – beef braised in Burgundian red wine with onions, garlic, carrots, and aromatic herbs and served with noodles. He devoured his dish. I ordered the oeufs en meurette because it’s a traditional dish and I’d never had it. What a treat – I loved every bite. It’s super-rich and creamy, consisting of eggs poached in a red wine sauce known as meurette that’s made with bacon, onions, mushrooms and shallots. No calorie counting here. 

SAVOIR-FARE

Our friends at whose home we’d be staying in Vic-sous-Thil, Burgundy, had coq au vin -chicken braised in wine that has its origins in ancient Gaul – and jambon à la chablisienne – a casserole that uses thick slices of ham prepared in a sauce of Chablis white wine, crème fraîche and tomato sauce.

Needless to say, we shared a couple of bottles of Burgundy wine, one from Chateau de Marsannay and the other from Chateau de la Rochepot.

The next morning we stopped by the Galerie Lafayette, the department store also in Paris, and then walked the self-guided hour-long Owl Trail to 22 of Dijon’s main attractions. The owl is Dijon’s good luck charm. The “magical” owl, only 12-inches tall and carved into the north wall of Notre Dame de Dijon on the Rue de la Chouette, “Owl Street”, has been granting wishes for 300 years to all who stroke his face with their left hand.

Our last stop in Dijon was the Marche de Dijon, an indoor farmers market that’s open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and is comprised of approximately 300 stalls that sell fresh and local products, including Burgundy cheese, Charolais beef, lamb, pork, Bresse chicken, seasonal fruit and vegetables, freshly baked bread, pastry, herbs, spices, honey and souvenirs. We purchased some Epoisses and Chavignot cheese, apricots, bread and creme de cassis (a black currant liqueur) that we planned to mix with Aligote white wine to make Kir, a popular Burgundian apertif cocktail.

Early afternoon, we loaded our baggage into our friends’ car and off we went. The countryside is drop-dead gorgeous and peppered with chateaux that are centuries old, some dating back to Roman times.

Our friends told us about the Collegiale de Thil they purchased. Built across the hill from the Castle de Thil by the Bishop of Burgundy Jean Thil II in 1341, the Collegiale is a fortified church that no longer functions as a church, but supports and is supported by the community, has an historic monument designation and is the private residence of our friends. Concerts, art shows, civic events and ceremonies are held at the Collegiale throughout the year.

No description could have prepared us for this experience.

We approached the Collegiale and were stunned by the breathtaking views and the 14th century architecture. We could hardly believe we’d be staying there, and specifically, on the third floor of the bell tower. Incredible.

Our hosts pointed to an ornately carved nearly 6-foot long tombstone laid flat like a tile in the stone floor. It is the burial place of Pierre Chiffonye, the Doyen of the Collegiale, and dated 1492. They also showed us the bullet holes on the exterior stone walls, which based on their research on the bullets found, was probably where the Nazis executed Resistance fighters. The nearby Morvan Forest was a good hiding place for the Resistance in World War II.

We walked the trails around the Collegiale, took photos, marveled at the views of the countryside and the village of Precy-Sous-Thil in the valley below and enjoyed a delightful picnic meal under 500-year old Linden, chestnut and walnut trees. The hills and valleys looked like they were blanketed in a patchwork quilt made with every shade of green.

While we were eating, opera singers were rehearsing for a concert scheduled a few nights later in the Collegiale. We got a preview of their performances of Schubert, Verdi, Rossini, Debussy, Monteverdi and more, and were transported by their voices and the ethereal quality of the acoustics. The concert was one of eight concerts scheduled as part of the annual Musicales en Auxois Summer Opera Festival.

PAR EXCELLENCE      

The next day we visited Vézelay, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Vézelay is a medieval town built on a hilltop on the left bank of the Cure River in the Yonne region of Burgundy. Shortly after it was established in the 9th century on land that had been the villa of the Roman Vercellus  (the pronunciation evolved into Vézelay), the Benedictine Abbey of Vézelay acquired the relics of Mary Magdalene, and henceforth became an important place of pilgrimage. It is one of the main points of departure of the Santiago Camino pilgrimage. Saint Bernard preached about the Second Crusade there in 1146, and Richard the Lion-Hearted and Philip II Augustus met there to leave for the Third Crusade in 1190. With its sculpted capitals and portal, the Madeleine of Vézelay – a 12th century monastic church – is a masterpiece of Burgundian Romanesque art and architecture.

We toured the basilica, shopped and stopped for lunch at Auberge de la Coquille where we dined on delicious food and sipped on very reasonably priced and extraordinary Vézelay wines – a Bourgogne Blanc and a Bourgogne Rouge. Vézelay produces mostly white wines based on the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Melon de Bourgogne grape varieties. Since I loved the wine, I bought a few bottles of Cave Henry de Vézelay, Domaine Eypert and Domaine Elise at one of the many local wine stores. If we had known how difficult it would be to find Vézelay wines in the US, we would have purchased and shipped home a couple of cases.

That night we were treated to an evening of enchantment and music at l’Abbaye de Fontenay.

The capacity crowd of probably 700 came from all parts of France for this Musicales en Auxios Summer Opera Festival concert and was entranced by the heavenly performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat. The Baroque orchestra, including trumpets and timpani, in combination with the beautiful singing, made the evening glorious and unforgettable. Furthermore, as the sun set, the Abbey of Fontenay was transformed. Every archway, the entrance lodge, the great garden, the galleries, dormitory, forge, Cloisters and Abbey Church were illuminated by candlelight. Truly awesome.

The The Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon’s Abbey of Fontenay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was founded by Saint Bernard in 1118 and is one of the oldest Cistercian abbeys. The Cistercian monks were the proprietors of the Abbey and estate from the 12th through the 15th centuries. The Abbey went into decline during the French Revolution, was sold as a property of the state in 1790, and then bought in 1820 by Elie de Mongolfier, a descendant of the inventors of the hot air balloon. In 1906, Eduoard Aynard, the son-in-law of Raymond de Mongolfier, bought the property. Today the Abbey of Fontenay still belongs to the Aynard family.

The next morning we drove to Arcy-Sure-Cure to see prehistoric cave art. There are more than 30 caves – eleven are prehistoric and two contain prehistoric drawings. The “Great Cave” has the second oldest cave paintings in the world (approximately 28,000 years old) after the Chauvet Cave in the Ardeche (31,000 years old). The cave art depicts mammoths, bears, stags and rhinoceros. Unfortunately, all tours were in French so we had a hard time following explanations of the art, their discovery and preservation, and the commentary about the stalactites, stalagmites, columns and draperies.

We discussed driving the short distance to MuseoParc Alesia, the site where Rome defeated the Gauls, to see re-enactments of the battle and replica war engines, but chose instead to go back to the Collegiale to drink our Vézelay wine, take naps, walk, prepare dinner, eat, relax, and yes, drink more wine.

PIÈCE DE RÉSISTANCE

A visit to Beaune was a high priority for us. It is a walled town in the heart of Burgundy’s famous vineyards Pommard, Corton-Charlemagne, Romanée-Conti, Meursault, Santenay and Savigny-les-Beaune.

Surrounded by the Cote d’Or vineyards, it is renowned for the colorful, geometric- patterned roof tiles of the Hospices de Beaune, now the Hotel-Dieu Museum, and the Hospices de Beaune annual charity wine auction, the primary wine auction in France, held on the third weekend in November.

The Beaune Tourism Department describes the auction weekend as, “The wine sale is the heart of a true “Rabelaisian” feast and forms part of an event called “The Three Glorious Days of Burgundy”. It is preceded on Saturday by the “Chapter” of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin (Brotherhood of the Knights of the Tastevin) and a dinner at Clos de Vougeot. It is followed on noon on Monday by a lunch, the “Paulée”, at Château de Meursault. During this traditional meal, guests bring their own bottles, giving this event a roundness and conviviality typical of Burgundy.

Christie’s, which handled the 157th auction in 2017, reported that $15,964,575  was raised –  the highest result ever – and that the Charity Barrel “La Pièce des Présidents”, from the Corton Grand-Cru Clos du Roi 2017 harvest, was purchased for $495,600, the second highest ever. By the way, one barrel of wine is called “a pièce” in Burgundy. The 2017 Pièce des Présidents consisted of two barrels of 228 litres.

Although the actual auction is reserved for potential buyers, the general public can watch on a giant screen set up on the street. Bidders can also call in their bids or make them online.

Additionally, there are shows, concerts, street performances, a parade, and wine tastings, and local restaurants offer special menus to coincide with the auction.

Proceeds from the Auction benefit medical treatment at the Hospice de Beaune and maintenance of the historic buildings. Proceeds from La Pièce des Présidents go to charity, and in 2017, went to The Federation for Brain Research, The Foundation for Alzheimer’s Research and the Foundation Tara Expeditions.

An interesting factoid about Burgundy is that in 2018, a 750ml bottle of 1945 Romanée-Conti Burgundy sold for $558,000, making it the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold at auction. Sotheby’s, which handled the auction, noted that the bottle came from the personal cellar of Robert Drouhin, the patriarch of the family-run Maison Joseph Drouhin.

From Beaune, we went to Château de la Crée in Santenay for a tour and tasting. Established in 1431 when it was owned by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to Philippe the Good and founder of the Hospices de Beaune, the Chateau’s vineyards include seven rare Premier Cru blocks located entirely along the renowned Côte d’Or escarpment. Ken and Grace Evenstad, founders of Domaine Serene Winery in Oregon, purchased Château de la Crée in 2015 and applied modern day biodynamic farming practices with centuries old winemaking techniques to drive optimal terroir expression, and ensure soil and plant health.  My husband and I loved, bought and shipped home both the Chateau de la Crée Santenay Premier Cru Gravieres and the Château de la Crée Santenay Monopole Clos de la Confrérie Pinot Noir.

We very much enjoyed our visit to Burgundy and continue to savor our experiences and the flavors of our vin de Bourgogne while toasting all with A Votre Sante and a Bon Voyage to Burgundy.