Throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, there are many "dead dioceses, places that ecclesiastic history has passed by. There are two uses for those titles in limbo--one is to reward Vatican officials who don't have a working diocese. The other is to punish bishops who misbehave--e.g., Pope John Paul II recently kicked out the bishop of Evreux for his excessively modernists views by taking away his seat and assigning him to a dead one in Africa. The Vatican's sense of humor is often bizarre."
Later, as I was taking a closer look at the church's appointments, now that there was no Mass being performed to slow down this curious tourist, he came by to present me with a complementary copy of the life of Martin of Tours by his protege Sulpice Severe. I had remembered my fourth grade teacher, Sister Marie Bernadette, telling us the story of how St. Martin slit his winter cloak in half to cover a shivering homeless man on the outskirts of Tours, where he was bishop.
The story imprinted compassion on my youthful conscience so I might be said to be an unwitting Martin man from age ten! What I didn't know was that he came from Hungary and became the Apostle to all the Gauls. How all? Here are some St. Martin trivia for your next Jeopardy visit: there are 3674 other churches in France named after the patron saint of the Gauls, and 425 cities. France is veritably Martinized.
Next I popped in City Hall across the street looking for an Office de Tourisme. I learned that it was down Main Street next to the museum of local history. A tall stunning woman came waltzing in, whistling. I asked her what the French word for whistling was. "Siffler, monsieur," she replied, winking. "Pourquoi vous demandez?" Because, I replied, we wouldn't allow City Hall officials to whistle while they worked in America.
She laughed deliciously at my lame joke, and began to shower me with guides, reports, bulletins, etc. This townlet of 16,000 has as its mayor the former information minister in Valery d'Estang's administration and he was putting his awesome energies into making L'Isle-Adam into a world class tourist destination. She was his aide, Madame Villaiard.
At the Tourist Office I learned that I had just missed a major exhibition on the past two centuries of L'Isle-Adam. "Don't worry," the attendant consoled me. "At the Maison de la Presse you'll find the catalogs and other memorabilia." She wasn't kidding. No fewer than four photo books. Art historians are just beginning to sort out the connections between impressionism, the rise of the railroad and democratized leisure. And the great city planner Baron Hausmann, who blessed Paris with its grand boulevards, also less famously created its modern sewer system--emptying inevitably into the lower Seine.
The more sewage poured in, the farther toward the mouth of the Seine the railroad daytrippers went. There are gorgeous Art Deco posters touting Isle's beach in the 1930's. Daubigny created the first floating atelier on the Oise, and Monet cribbed the idea and floated his on the Seine in Argenteuil. Later he moved still further out to Giverny--to escape the weekend crowds.
Which brings me to y second Philly surprise on my second visit. I stopped a sixtyish Colette-looking lady in the street for a free French lesson. She was in no great hurry on her way to market and babbled on and on marvelously about nothing and everything in Isle. I asked her to recommend the best restaurant in town. She said if it were open for lunch it would be the Hotel Cabouillet. But otherwise I should try "Le Gai Rivage," the happy riverbank! It's kitty korner from the Cabouillet, across the Oise. I popped in out of the cold to find a young man with a Georgetown sweatshirt sweeping the floor.
I asked him if it was too early to have a Calvados to kill the chill. He sought out the wife of the patron who kindly let me in out of the cold to quaff. When I told her I was from Philadelphia, she perked up immediately. "My husband used to work there," she said happily. And before you could say "Haute cuisine," there was the chef waving a yellowed old Bulletin story (October 29, 1978, p. D 10) on his training episode as chef at the Hotel Barclay. 43 year old Pierre Menier had been tapped by Ester Press to display his talents as pastry maker "Pastry chef has genius in fingertips," Photo by Jon Falk.
Let's just say he hasn't lost any of his skill. Partridge was specialty of the day, and after he insisted I visit his kitchen (where he showed me the bird with its head feathers still on) I nearly did a Bambi-lover by choosing something else. Luckily my gross appetite prevailed over such sentimentality (it's chubbier and chunkier than a Cornish hen, but the sauce, Pierre's secret formula, ah those French sauces always make the difference.)
And half a bottle of Cotes-de-Bourge added to my pleasure. Madame Menier explained how edgy those Michelin inspections can be and proudly claimed they had already been rated three forks, which is the honor which precedes Michelin stars. Definitely save a meal for Le Gai Rivge but avoid Sunday nights and all day Monday when they're closed. (Tel 01-34-69-01-09.) A great experience for 293 francs. With the franc going for over 6 to the $, that's value.
Alas, the Black Banana is no more. Sold. But the new owner has a place in his heart for jazz lovers--Saturday nights, and piano jazz Sunday brunch. (Be warned: Friday nights are for Karioke!) it's now name Aris Club after the new owner's father. Bernard Maury inaugurated his tenure withe Dee Dee Bridgwater, so the man knows how to book. To see what they're up to when you visit, call Tel 01-34-69-56-15. 3-5 Rue du Patis 95290 L'Isle-Adam.
This year the town held its eighth annual Week of Taste, and now there's a free pamphlet of 21 tasty recipes proposed by the restaurants of the Val d'Oise, for those handy with the skillet. And for 10 francs for a handy guide to hikes around town, Promenades Adamoises. There are other art places on the same Gare St.-Lazare train line. Furthest is Vernon, a short bus ride from Monet's Giverny.
All I ever encountered in Giverny were the crowds Money vainly sought to avoid. And Monet for Money souvenirs. Daniel Terra's new museum nearby actually has art exhibitions. The best idea the Monet complex has come up with is residencies for American artists paid for from the Lila Dewitt Wallace Foundation.
I've had some great chats with some of them at the Monet restaurant. But the dirty little secret of this tourist trap is that the artists in residence leave homages to Monet at the Vernon Musee des Beaux Arts, so sparsely attended I wanted to cry at the absurdity of it. Giverny overcrowded with no art, Vernon empty with plenty of it.
Using the marvelous French tradition of emptying the Louvre attics into regional and local museums, Vernon has the best collection of 19th century animal sculpture I've ever seen outside of the Musee D'Orsay. Hotels are easy to come by in Vernon. So start out there, pause on your way back to Paris at Isle and Auvers sur Oise (for the Maison de Van Gogh) and end up one or several days later exhausted but happy at the Gare St. Lazaire where there are plenty of hotels in every price range.