Visiting van Gogh
The Val d’Oise is a department north of Paris separating it from the Normandy and Picardy regions. Most visitors to France will only experience this region unwittingly: the airport, Roissy-Charles de Gaulle, is easily its most frequented “attraction”. Venturing a little further west, though, one will find two unspoiled national parks, beautiful gardens, and, for Impressionist art lovers, the small town of Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent van Gogh spent a prolific two months, the last of his life.
Less than an hour from Paris, and costing less than 12€ round trip, Auvers-sur-Oise is a lovely town where one can tour the Auberge Ravoux, eat lunch in its restaurant, see van Gogh’s tiny room that he rented for 3,50 francs per day, and wander up the hill to the Notre-Dame cathedral and fields made famous in paintings by the tortured artist.
Make sure to stop at the Absinthe Museum as well. The 5€ entry fee is well worth it to read the history of the drink, understand the role it played in French culture (it's known as the Fée Verte, or the Green Fairy!) through its arrival in the 1830s to its banning in the early 1900s, and see its one-of-a-kind original art, posters, letters, and materiel such as spoons, water fountains, goblets. The museum’s founder and director, Marie-Claude Delahaye, is a wonderful hostess who enjoys showcasing the museum’s unique collection.
Lunch at L’Auberge Ravoux
Following our tour of the hotel, which consists of a well-crafted 20 minute video with excerpts of letters and paintings followed by a tour of two rooms of the Auberge (one being the artist’s that has, since his death, remained unrented and largely untouched), we ate lunch in the original dining room.
An aperitif of house-made semi-sweet sparkling rosé wine (so good we bought a bottle to take home) was followed by appetizers of pea soup, smoked trout, and foie gras. For a main dish we shared a rich stew of duck with potatoes and griottes, small dark cherries that added sweetness to the lightly salted sauce.
The cheese plate was a triumph of quality and variety. We started with an aged Brie de Meaux, creamy and earthy and nutty. The second cheese was a twelve-month old Comté that seemed for me at least to be at the perfect intersection of nutty, salty, and fruity. We were counseled to eat the Comté with a small dab of confit de coquelicot, a jelly made from wild red poppies that had the most amazing red fruit flavor.
The third was a thin slice of Salers, a hard, dry, salty cheese aged 18 months from cows that graze in the high altitudes and volcanic terrain of the Cantal (Haute-Auvergne) region. The last was a Roquefort from the Fromagerie Papillon. Many consider Roquefort to be the apex of blue cheese; the product of the Papillon fabrication, the haut de gamme. Salty and sour, it melted away in the mouth, a perfect end to an exceptional plate.