South of France: Part I

Labor Day—and the unofficial end of summer—may be coming up this weekend, but I’m still stuck somewhere in early June, as I continue telling you about our France trip. I know, I’m ridiculously slow. Case in point—this past weekend, I just finished a photo book of our trip to Spain, where we spent our honeymoon. More than one year ago. Eventually, stuff gets done.

Anyway. Today, we’re moving on from Paris to the South of France. We spent the second week of our trip in that region, starting in Marseilles, going through Provence, and ending up in Nice. Along the way, we noticed some big differences between the Northern region, where we started our trip, and the South. Of course, since it’s closer to the Mediterranean, the South is  warmer and the food and architecture are typical of the region (it reminded me of Italy). In addition, the people are more laid back and welcoming. Even the language is different. The French spoken in the South is harsher and lacks the smooth, lilting quality that we had become used to hearing in the North.

We took a short flight from Paris to Marseille, the second largest—and oldest—city in France. Because of it’s location on the Mediterranean and it’s longstanding tradition as a trading port, it has long been a major point of entry for immigrants to France. Italians, Greeks, Russians, Armenians, Spanish, North Africans, and Arabs have contributed to the diversity of the city.

The Greeks settled Marseille in 600 BC. After that, it was one bad thing after another. The Romans conquered it. Then, the Visgoths did. Then, the Franks. Then, the Aragonese. The plague came through and killed 100,000 people. It was heavily bombed during World War II. An oil crisis and economic downturn in the 1970s gave rise to increased crime and poverty. The city does look a little beat up.

On the other hand, there are some beautiful views to take in. We stayed at the Hotel Alize, which faces the Vieux (Old) Port. This area is really lovely, and is filled with cafes and places just to sit and gaze at the crystal blue water. If you take a ferry from the port, across the Bay of Marseille, you can visit the The Château d’If, the prison, which was the setting for Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

Vieux Port

We took a bus tour of the city, which stopped at the Church of Notre Dame de la Garde, which is situated on a hill, at the highest point in Marseille. It’s worth getting off the bus and climbing the steep steps to this church in the hillside, to take in some of the best panoramic views of the city.

Notre Dame De La Garde

View from Top of Notre Dame De La Garde

Another view from the top

And, last one from the top. It was quite a hike, but the views are the best in the city.

The food was probably our favorite part of our time in Marseille. For lunch, we went to Au Falafel, an Israeli restaurant on a little side street, which was walking distance from the port. I will forever be in search of hummus that will live up to what we had here—it was velvety smooth, with just the right mix of garlic, chickpeas, tahini, lemon, and olive oil, and was served with warm, chewy, pita bread. I could have made a meal out of just the hummus, but I couldn’t resist the kabab sandwich, which was stuffed to the point of bursting with turkey, lamb, fresh veggies (including eggplant, cabbage, cucumbers and tomatoes) and topped with a yogurt sauce.

Bouillabaisse, a rich, hearty fish stew, is one of the specialties of Marseille. The dish was invented there by fishermen who were looking for a way to use up what they couldn’t sell from their catches. For dinner, we headed to Chez Fonfon, which is frequently cited as being one of the best places to sample it. The restaurant is little off the beaten path (we had to take a cab there, and then descend a flight of dark creepy steps and walk through a little alleyway) near a small port called the Vallon des Auffes.

Not the best photo, but it was dark and late by the time we left.

When we sat down, the waiter already knew that we were there for the bouillabaisse. Although there is some version of fish stew in many parts of France, bouillabaisse is distinctive in the way its prepared (the name of the dish is a combination of the French words for “boil” and “simmer,”) its use of herbs de Provence and bony fish, and the method of serving it.

First, our server gave us only the broth, with a bit of toasted bread. This is kind of like an appetizer and lets you appreciate the hearty tomato and saffron infused base of the soup. Then, he brought out a plate of fish and potatoes, ramekins of aioli (garlic mayo) and rouille (kind of like mayo as well, but with saffron and chile peppers), more bread, and refilled our bowls with the broth and left us on our own to add the fish—which included eel, scorpion fish, gurnard, John Dory and weever—and all of the toppings. The server will keep bringing broth until you are too full to eat anymore. The dish is so rich and hearty that it doesn’t take long for a food coma to set in—I think I made it through a bowl and a half.

Aside from the food, Marseille honestly wasn’t one of our favorite stops on the trip. There are still some neighborhoods that are kind of underdeveloped and sparsely populated. Then, there are some streets that are so crowded, you feel like you can’t even breathe. We felt a bit uncomfortable walking around.

Nevertheless, it served our purposes of an entry point into the South of France. We picked up our rental car the next morning (a debacle, but I’ll spare you the details) and made our way out of the city, to Salon de Provence.

Gateway into historic center of Salon

Salon’s principal claim to fame was that Nostradamus lived out his final years and is buried there.

Nostradamus

Church of the Cordeliers where Nostradamus was buried. Fun fact: He's buried standing up in a wall.

The home where he wrote his famous prophecies is now a museum. Basically, it’s a series of rooms with wax dolls, depicting different scenes from his life (from his childhood, his time training to be a doctor, the plague, etc.). You stand in the room, stare at the dolls and commentary plays out of the speakers to explain the scene. It was interesting to learn a little bit more about his life and where his ideas came from, but it was a little strange.

Nostradamus was here. Plaque outside of his home, which now houses a museum.

After lunch, it was back on the road again to head to Avignon. The town is situated along the Rhone River and the ancient town center is still surrounded by walls.

Avignon became the seat of the popes for 68 years, beginning in 1309, when Pope Clement V decided that he wanted to stay in Avignon, instead of moving to Rome (which at the time was pretty chaotic and violent). He and his successors took up residence in the Avignon monastery, which they gradually expanded into the Palais des Papes, the largest Gothic palace in Europe. The palace, situated in the center of the town took about 20 years—and most of the papacy’s money—to build.

Palace of the Popes

Chester blesses the crowd

View from watchtower at the Palace of Popes. The bridge over the Rhone goes to nowhere. It used to have 22 arches, but was damaged so many times over the years that they just stopped rebuilding.

Dinner that night was at Restaurant L’Essentiel. If they had a location in Philly, I might  eat there three times a week. The food was wonderful, and the presentations were so pretty. Some of the highlights included Chester’s marinated sardine appetizer; my chicken in a flavorful mushroom cream sauce with olive oil mashed potatoes and both of our desserts. I went with the warm chocolate cake (of course) with tart strawberry sorbet and Chester had cottage cheese topped with cherries and cotton candy. I know that probably sounds like a weird combination, but all of the flavors worked together and the pink spun sugar on top was unexpected and fun.

By the end of the day, I decided that I am going to retire to Avignon. It is the perfect combination of old and new, trendy and simple, upscale and simple. You can walk down the main street and be surrounded by shops and restaurants or walk through the winding medieval back streets.

Hotel Mignon, where we stayed in Avignon. Hey, that rhymes.

Oh, retirement. Such a long way away. At least I still have plenty of time to start learning French.

Paris: Part II

Today, I’m picking up our France trip recaps on our third day in Paris, which was extra special, because we celebrated one year of wedded bliss! The year flew by so fast, and celebrating in Paris on an absolutely gorgeous day was the perfect way to mark the occasion.

We started the day out at Notre Dame Cathedral. The cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture. It is extremely ornate and detailed—it’s no wonder that construction took about 200 years—and is probably best known for its stained glass Rose windows, the gargoyles that line the façade, bells and Quasimodo (have you ever seen the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame? It cracks me up how completely opposite it is from the book).

If you want to be able to go up into the tower, I would probably recommend getting there much earlier than we did. When we arrived around 11, the line stretched down the block and there was a 90 minute wait to go up. We decided to save that for our next trip. Instead, we stopped by the Crypte Archéologique de Notre-Dame, which is an underground museum that houses remnants of the early Roman tribes the settled in Paris long ago. It’s kind of eerie to see the ruins and the artifacts that have been preserved from those early civilizations, but it just underscores what a rich history the city has.

Our next stop was La Sainte-Chapelle. The chapel was built by Louis IX as part of the royal palace. The palace today house government offices, and the chapel has become kind of obscured as the complex was built up around it. Definitely put it on your list of things to see, because it’s easy to walk by without knowing what you are missing out on.

The chapel houses the most extensive collection of stained glass from the 13th century. Amazingly, the structural support is very minimal, so when you stand in the center of the upper chapel, you can feel all of the color and light just pouring in. It is an absolutely spectacular sight.

Upper Chapel in St. Chapelle

We stopped for lunch at an outdoor café. I don’t know if I mentioned the love of baguette sandwiches—particularly those made with ham and cheese—that I developed on the trip. I don’t even like ham and cheese that much in real life, but for some reason, I could not stop myself from ordering it when I saw it on a menu. There was just something about the whole combination—the fresh, crusty bread, creamy butter and cheese, and salty ham—that was so satisfying to me (Randomly, the best one that I had was one that Chester and I bought at a café and shared on our second day in France, while we drove from Rouen to Bayeux. I think I had just taken a big bite out of it when we got pulled over).

Anniversary Lunch. Ham and Cheese Baguette and Omlette

We rounded out our tour of churches with a stop at the Pantheon. Originally built as a church dedicated to St. Genevieve, who is said to have saved Paris from an attack by Attila the Hun, today it is the final resting place of many of the heroes of France, including Victor Hugo, Pierre and Marie Curie, Alexandre  Dumas, and Voltaire to name a few.

To commemorate our anniversary, we left a lock on the Pont des Arts Bridge, a pedestrian bridge that stretches over the Seine to link the Institute De France and the Place de Louvre. Hundreds of locks in all shapes, sizes, and colors have been attached to the bridge by husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, friends, (and probably random hook-ups too) to signify their undying love for each other. How romantical.

I’ve read a couple of things online that said that the city thinks that the locks are an eyesore and plans to remove them from the bridge. I really hope they don’t. It’s such a nice, sweet tradition. And, I’m sure even if they did, people would just continue on with the tradition and the bridge would be full of locks again in no time. In any case, there are police patrolling the bridge, probably to discourage this practice, so we just waited until they had their backs turned, picked out a good spot for our lock, attached it to the gate, and threw the key into the Seine. Now, Chester will really be stuck with me forever. Chester geotagged our lock with his phone so that maybe someday we can come back and find it. That would be pretty cool.

Defacing Public Property

After a quick trip back to the apartment to change (the mountain man left so we got to move into his room. Hooray for being able to shower whenever we wanted!), we headed out for a celebratory dinner at Paul Chene.

The restaurant is located in the Trocadero neighborhood, and has been around since 1959. It’s a favorite of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip; Jean Gabin (do I have any Les Mis fans here? He played Jean Valjean in one of the film adaptations of the book. Just a bit of trivia for you, should you ever be on Jeopardy), a popular French actor dined there often too. He has a mackerel dish named after him and his regular table, where we sat, had his picture above it.

The service was impeccable and typically French. The maître’d kissed my hand and flirted with all of the female customers (I thought it was funny that they gave me a menu without any pricing information included). The waitress expertly juggled refilling water glasses, clearing plates, and making Crepes Suzette behind the bar throughout the night.

This was easily the best meal that we had in France, if not one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in my life. I started out with the fish soup. I thought it would be similar to the stew I had for lunch at Mont St. Michel, with whole chunks of fish. Instead, it was a velvety, flavorful puree, which was accompanied by bowls of croutons, cheese, and Dijon mustard to use as a garnish. The portion size—and in fact, all of the portion sizes for the evening—was extremely generous. I had to make myself stop eating it so that I could have room for the rest of the meal! Chester had the langoustine salad, which I didn’t try, but it must have been good because he decided that langoustines were his new favorite thing.

I don’t usually order steak when I’m out because I can never finish it. But, I figured it was our anniversary, and I hardly ate any of the steak that we had at our wedding reception (too excited to eat!), so that’s what I chose for an entrée. They brought out at least half of a cow, which was cooked to a perfect medium rare, and served with a rich truffle sauce. A ridiculously large plate of thin, crispy French fries, served with a ramekin of sea salt, accompanied the dish. They were as addictive as potato chips (needless to say, I couldn’t finish either dish). Chester had a porterhouse cut veal chop, served with a side of egg noodles. We hadn’t had a meal that was served with any type of starch but potatoes up until that point in the trip, so I thought was weird. But when they combined with the rich morel sauce that accompanied the veal, it reminded me of beef stroganoff.

Of course, I managed to find room for dessert. I ordered the profiteroles, which were served with vanilla ice cream (I was surprised, but glad, that they didn’t use pastry cream). The waitress doused the entire dish in a rich chocolate sauce. When I couldn’t fit any more of the puff pastry and rich ice cream, I just spooned that up like it was soup (I know, I’m classy). Chester had the Crepes Suzette, which as I noted were made to order, served with house made orange liquor.

The pacing between the courses was perfect. We didn’t feel rushed at all, but it wasn’t like some places where we waited and waited and waited for the check. When we left three hours later, it was raining, but the maître’d had already called us a taxi to take us home. And, luckily, that was the only time it rained on the entire trip.

After that meal, it was a good thing we had a lot of walking planned for Sunday, our last day in Paris! We started the day out at the Hotel des Invalides. This huge complex houses museums and monuments related to military history, as well as a hospital and a retirement home for veterans.

The main reason for our visit was to see Napoleon’s tomb. Chester was a history major in college, and studied Napoleon extensively, so this was one part of the trip he was really looking forward to.

Chester Channels Napoleon

Napoleon died in exile in Saint Helena and was originally buried there. But, in the mid-1800s Emperor Louis-Philippe decided to transfer his body back to France. A national funeral was held, and a grand sarcophagus, which is made out of Russian red porphyry and actually holds six separate coffins with Napoleon’s remains, was constructed under the stunning, gold dome of the Eglise du Dome Church.

Eglise Du Dome Church

Inscriptions detailing all of the great things Napoleon are etched around the rotunda. The tomb itself is surrounded by 12 statues representing his victories, and at the back of the crypt is a gigantic statue of the man himself in his coronation robes. A bit over the top, yes?

After paying homage to Napoleon, we walked over to the Eiffel Tower, since we had timed lift tickets. We grabbed a snack while we waited for 1:00 to roll around. A hot dog in a baguette is just wrong. Way too much bread!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I highly recommend buying tickets in advance. There’s a designated line for advanced ticket holders, and although there was still a bit of a wait to actually get into the lift, at least you get to bypass the crazy ticket window lines.

Self-portrait under the Eiffel Tower.

Our tickets just got us to the second floor, but that was high enough for me. I’m sure I would have freaked out at the very top. Be patient when you get to the observation deck. It will be crowded, but sooner or later there will be a break in the crowd and you’ll be able to appreciate the views around Paris.

View to the top, from the second level.

View from the Effiel Tower, looking towards Montemarte

When we were back on ground level again, we headed down to the Musee D’Orsay, which is housed in a beautiful building that used to be a train station on the left bank of the Seine.

We visited on the first Sunday of the month, when admission is free, so there was a bit of a wait to get in. But, it was nowhere near as crowded and overwhelming as the Louvre. It was definitely my favorite museum of the trip, and is not to be missed if you are a fan of Impressionism, as it houses an extensive collection of Impressionist artworks by Monet, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, and others.

After the museum, it was snack time, so we meandered over to Laduree, the birthplace of the double-decker macaroon. Wikipedia tells me that they sell 15,000 macaroons every day, which, based on the crowd which was lined up nearly out the door, and the pretty green bags that I saw every other tourist toting around during our time in Paris, seems pretty accurate.

Laduree has three locations in the city; we visited the one on the Rue Royale. Next door, to the shop, there is a tea room, where you can sit to have your snack, but we opted to get some to go (mostly because there was a Starbucks nearby and we were in the mood for full sized coffee). The inside of the shop looks like every little girl’s (well, at least this little girl’s) dream—light pinks and greens with gold accents everywhere, pedestals piled high with mouthwatering sweets, and the smell of sugar in the air.

I picked out ten flavors to sample. That little pink box of goodness wasn’t cheap, but oh my goodness, are they worth it. A chewy, melt in your mouth shell gives way to a sweet, creamy center. The vanilla, coconut, salted caramel, and chocolate flavor were my favorites–they tasted exactly what they were supposed to taste like.

Snack time!

Unfortunately, they only keep for about three days, so we weren’t able to take any home with us. Ever since, I’ve been wanting to make macaroons at home myself, but I know I’ll just be disappointed. Luckily, on August 26, Laudree is opening a shop in New York City, so you can bet that every time I visit, I’ll be stopping by.

For our last activity in Paris, we planned to go on a boat tour, a ticket for which was included in our Paris Pass (I told you it was a good deal!). Since we had time to kill beforehand, we ended up going to this random restaurant, overlooking the river beforehand. I do not recommend it. The only nice part about it is the view of the Seine. Otherwise, the servers were not very nice and the food is not very good.

The tour, however, was a nice way to end our time in Paris and provided a different vantage point to admire the monuments and bridges and to take in all of the activity—couples strolling, people walking dogs, dancing, and street musicians performing—on the banks of the river.

Au Revoir, Paris. One last view of the Effiel Tower, from a boat on the Seine.

Paris absolutely lives up to the hype. I cannot wait to go back (I just hope our lock will still be there!).

Next time I post about our trip, we’ll be heading to the sunny and hot South of France!

Paris: Part One

The computer geeks saved Chester’s memory card! Here’s one of his photos!

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been back from our France trip for more than a month. Those two weeks were the best, and I’m glad to be reliving them through these posts. I’m also glad that when I’m 90, I’ll be able to refer to the Internets to remember what I did and ate in the good old days, when I can no longer do or eat anything worth writing about.

Anyway, in my last post about the trip, we made it to Paris relatively unscathed (if you don’t count the slight carsickness on my part). Those four-and-a-half days were the longest stretch of time that we stayed in one place during the trip. It was nice not to heave our bags up and down hotel stairs every day, and also to be in a bustling city after a few days in farm country. I loved every single second of our time in Paris, and I’m already thinking about when we can go back.

Outside the apartment

We discovered a little café down the street from our apartment, Le Cavalier Bleu (143 Rue St. Martin, Paris), on our first day. It served the most amazing croissants ever. They were crispy and flaky, and easily had a pound of butter in each bite (okay, maybe a slight exaggeration). Chester’s eyes lit up in a way I’ve never seen before when he bit into one.

We ended up going there every morning while we were in Paris. We always sat at the same table. It was a nice place to people watch and it was a pretty good deal, too. For about seven euros, you could get the “Classique”—a croissant, baguette, butter, jam, orange juice, and coffee. For nine euros, you got all of that, plus eggs and bacon.

After breakfast, we would set out for the Metro to start our sightseeing for the day. The Metro is fabulous—it’s clean, well lit, and it smells better than SEPTA. When you look at a map of the touristy areas of Paris, it’s kind of deceiving because it seems like all the sites are within walking distance of each other. But places like Montmarte and even the Eiffel Tower were pretty far from our apartment on, so it was wonderful to be able to jump on the subway to get anywhere that we wanted to in minutes.

So what did we do in Paris, besides eat breakfast?

Day One

We decided to use the two-day voucher that came with our Paris Pass to take the sightseeing bus tour. The bus passes by all the major sites and you can hop on/off as much as you want to over the two days. They give you headphones so you can listen to a commentary along the way. It’s a great way to see the city and get the lay of the land. Since we had a lot of walking planned for our time in Paris and the rest of our trip, it also gave Chester a chance to rest his foot.

After the tour and a quick stop for coffee near Notre Dame Cathedral, we hopped onto the Metro and went over to Père Lachaise Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Paris. It’s said to be the most visited cemetery in the world, probably because it’s the final resting place of many famous people, including Edith Piaf, Chopin, Moliere, and Samuel Hahnemann (like a good Drexel alum, and then employee, I paid a visit), and Jim Morrison.

In the early evening, we made our way to Montemarte, in the northern end of Paris. Montmarte has traditionally been an artists community—Dali, Monet, Picasso, van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec all had studios here. Parts of it are a little seedy. I don’t know how I would feel about being around here really late at night, but in the daytime, it’s packed with tourists and is a lot of fun to walk around in.

We climbed to the very top of the hill—about 130 meters—to the Basilica Sacre Coeur. There is a tram car (the funicular), which you can use your Metro ticket on to get up and down the hill in less than two minutes. It was not running on our way up, but we did take it on the way down.

It was the feast of the Ascension—a holy day–when we visited, so the basilica and surrounding area were pretty packed. Mass was going on when we visited and the atmosphere outside the church was very nice, too. People were just sitting around on the steps, listening to the street musicians. And, the view from the top of the steps of the Basilica overlooking Paris is pretty breathtaking.

I made Chester find the Moulin Rouge. I love the movie that was out a few years back. At Drexel, I was always trying to convince my co-workers that we should have a “Spectacular, Spectacular” themed Alumni Weekend. They didn’t go for it (if you guys still decide to do it, I’ll definitely volunteer to help plan!).

Dinner that night was at Chez Toinette, a little restaurant tucked into a side street. The restaurant is run by a husband and wife team—he was working in the kitchen, she was waiting on all the tables. Like most of the other places we ate, the restaurant is tiny (seats about 30), so reservations are a must.

The food was pretty traditional French country style (it reminded me of the hotel restaurant from the first night in Normandy) and it was good—although not as good as what we had on our first night. I had a salad, with sheep’s milk cheese melted on a piece of crunchy bread, followed by the veal with apples and cider sauce, mushrooms, and carrots. Chester had the gambas prawns in a curry sauce and the lamb chop. The portions were very generous, and I had no room for dessert, which was sad because it looked fabulous, from what I could see at the other tables around us.

Day Two

The next day, we went to the Louvre. One word to describe that visit: Overwhelming.

At more than 625,000 square feet, it’s one of the world’s largest art museums and houses 35,000 objects from prehistoric times through the 19th century. I had no idea that it was actually built as a fortress in the 12th century. It then became the lavish palace of Louis XVI before he moved to Versailles, and only opened as a public museum during the French Revolution.

I highly recommend getting your hands on a gallery map and/or researching what you want to see online before you go. It’s would probably be impossible to cover the whole museum in a day (you might need about a month!), so you’ll need to prioritize. Luckily, our host had a map at the apartment, so we were able to do some planning the night before our visit.

Even so, it was difficult to get our bearings once we were inside. The galleries, are spread over four floors, and although they interconnected it’s kind of difficult to tell when you are passing through from one to another. And, the crowds are ridiculous (hooray, again, for the Paris Pass for letting us skip the long lines for tickets). Like Versailles, it’s not the kind of place that you can go through a leisurely stroll and really take in what you are seeing.

If you have a lot of time in Paris, it might make sense to plan a couple of smaller visits, and group the kinds of art that you really want to see together. But, since we had a limited amount of time, we just did the highlights, including the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, some works by David and Vermeer, and Napoleon III’s apartments.

After our whirlwind trip through the museum, it was lunchtime. After nearly a week of eating nothing but French food, we were craving a taste of home. So, what did we seek out? The Golden Arches, of course. I do like to visit at least one McDonald’s (or McDo as it’s called in France) when I go to Europe. It’s different over there–in a good way. The meat doesn’t taste processed. And, the ketchup tastes better (sweeter, I think).

There’s always have some kind of menu item that fits with the country. In France, you can get a Croque McDo. And, also, beer.

We got the French version of Quarter Pounders. Also, McFlurry’s are pretty popular over there–everyone had one. So, we got one too.

After lunch, we headed down the Champs Elysses, to the Arc de Triomphe. Commissioned in 1806 by Napoleon at the height of his power, and serves as a monument to those who died in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. The names of French generals and victories are carved in the inner and outer vaults of the 164 foot tall monument.

We climbed the 240 steps to the top, for some amazing views of the city.

On top of the Arc.

View from the top of the Arc, looking towards Montemarte.

View towards Le Defense, the more modern area of the city. Not as pretty as the old stuff.

When we came down, we started to walk toward the Trocadero neighborhood. This is a wealthy, mostly residential area near the Seine, although it is home to several museums and the Eiffel Tower.

We ended up just parking ourselves across the street from the Tower and staring at it for awhile. It’s pretty amazing, and much bigger in person than it seems to me in pictures. I love it, and took photos from every possible angle every time we passed by it. Luckily, we had timed tickets to go up the tower later that weekend—the lines to buy tickets for the lifts on-site were ridiculous!

Slightly crooked photo, but spectacular sight nonetheless.

After our McDonald’s fix, we didn’t mind indulging in French food once again. We had dinner that night was Le Billebaude. This was definitely one of the richer meals that we had.

The highlight, for me, was the foie gras appetizer. I’ve had the dish once or twice before at restaurants around Philly, but those versions were not as rich and buttery as this (it was literally like eating butter). I could not even finish the huge slab that was on my plate. For an entrée, I had sea bass, which was served in an equally buttery, creamy morel sauce. I can see why give you a huge basket of bread with all of the main courses France—the sauces are too good not to soak up. Chester had a salad with stuffed quail for his starter, and an Irish hanger steak (a little on the tough side, but full of flavor) with cheesy potatoes for an entrée. For the second night in a row, we had no room for dessert, although I was tempted by the chocolate soufflé on the menu.

The other nice thing about most of the restaurants we visited that I haven’t mentioned yet is that you can get a 500 ml bottle of wine (Maybe this is case across Europe. I remember it being this way in Spain too), in addition to full bottles or wines by the glass. This was the perfect size to share, but kept us from getting too tipsy to get up the next morning (this probably applies more to me than to Chester. I’m a lightweight). Sadly, though I didn’t take notes on any of the wines we sampled. They were all good—it is France, after all. Enough said.

I was going to try to do one post to recap everything for Paris, but this is getting long already. So, I’ll stop here for now. Macaroons for anyone who read this far 🙂

Opulence. And, Also, a Traffic Nightmare

For the next leg of the France trip, we left the Lorie Valley and began to make our way towards Paris, where we would be spending about four and a half days. En route, we stopped at the Palace of Versailles. As a side note, if don’t have a rental car, Versailles makes a great day trip from Paris, as you can be there in about 30 minutes by train.

A word of advice—If you plan to spend more than a few days in Paris, I would definitely recommend purchasing a Paris Pass, which can be used at Versailles and more than 60 other attractions throughout the city. The package includes a museum pass (which can be purchased for two, four, or six days) , a five-day Metro Travelcard, a two-day pass for the Paris bus tour, and a guidebook. Essentially, it covers all of your admission fees (and actually saves you quite a bit of money on them), and at many sites (including Versailles), there is a designated entrance for pass holders so you can skip the long, general ticketing lines.

And now, a word of warning—the Palace of Versailles is incredibly crowded. This is one of the places where you definitely need to be extra careful with your bags and personal belongings. The security guard warned us that there were a few pick pocketing incidents reported in recent days. At some points, it was difficult to see anything, and we were just kind of pushed along with the crowd from room to room. If you are patient though, and kind of hang back in each room, you can scurry up to the front when the crowds clear out. Props to the staff though, who were very accommodating when visitors with disabilities needed help. They spotted Chester with his crutches and took us up the freight elevator so we didn’t have to climb the stairs to start our tour, and they had designated guides to help those in wheelchairs maneuever through crowds so that they could see.

In terms of the history of the palace, Versailles started out as the hunting lodge of Louis XII. His son, Louis XIV moved there from Paris in 1682, making it the center of political power in France. He embarked on a building campaign over the years, which turned it into the largest palace in the world. In today’s money, the total building costs for the palace would be about $2 billion. The royal family stayed at Versailles until 1789 when the uprisings associated with the French Revolution forced them to move back to Paris, where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette eventually lost their heads.

The main highlights of the palace include the King’s Grand Apartments, the Hall of Mirrors, and the Queen’s Apartments. Opulence was the word of the day here (seriously. One of us said it every ten seconds). Every possible surface is covered with gold gilt. Don’t forget to look up, to see the magnificent frescos on the ceilings. Although much of the furniture was removed from the palace, and sold at auction during the Revolution, much of the original, lavish furnishings have been re-purchased by government under various restoration programs.

The Hall of Mirrors

The outdoor space is just as extravagant. The gardens cover about 800 hectares, and include more than 400,000 flowers and trees, and 50 fountains. We went at the perfect time of year, because everything was in bloom. On the day we visited, however, the fountains were not turned on (maybe because it was very windy and they didn’t want people getting soaked?).

Versailles is only about ten miles away from Paris, so we left around 4 p.m. for our drive to the city. This, we reasoned, would give us plenty of time before we needed to drop off our rental car to get gas, find our apartment and lug our bags upstairs, and maybe check out a site or two before dinner. We’d still have a cushion in case we got lost, too.

How wrong we were. The next four hours were the most stressful part of the trip.

Traffic going into Paris was like Schuylkill Expressway traffic times 1,000. At one point, it took us 30 minutes to go a mile on the highway. We got off the highway, thinking we might move faster. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper, and the drivers were very aggressive. Motorcycles, scooters, and bicycles came out of nowhere, weaving in and out of traffic and squeezing in between the lanes. Thank goodness Chester was behind the wheel, and was able to adapt to this style of driving pretty quickly. I just sat in the passenger seat, got a little carsick and tried to find a radio station that wasn’t playing Britney Spears’ new single (we heard it back-to-back on six different stations).

Mostly, I prayed that we would find a gas station (we did. My eagle eye spotted a sign that said “garage,” which pointed us down a narrow alleyway, to a parking deck that happened to have two gas pumps) and that we would get to the rental car place before it closed (we did. With no thanks to Google maps, which got us pretty lost). I was never so relieved to get out of a car.

We didn’t have time to drop our things off at the apartment, in the end, and although it wasn’t far from the rental car agency, we didn’t think we would be able to make it there with all of our stuff and Chester on crutches. So, we pleaded with a cab driver, who was none to happy about the short trip (i.e. measly fare), to take us, our two large suitcases, two duffel bags, and a pair of crutches to our apartment. I know, I know, I should have packed lighter, but it was a two-week trip, and I needed multiple pairs of shoes!

Anyway. After finally dropping off our bags at the apartment, we were starving, so we headed out to dinner at Le Relais de L’isle, which Trip Advisor lists as the number one restaurant in Paris. It was one of our favorite meals of the trip. The restaurant is very tiny—it only seats about 25 people total, and was full when we arrived for our 9 p.m. reservation.

One server expertly took care of all of the tables. I was amazed at how quickly she could run up and down the narrow staircase to deliver dishes from the kitchen. Looking back at the website now, it states that there is a jazz pianist at the restaurant, every night during the summer. I can’t actually remember if this was the case, but much of the décor in the restaurant has a jazz/New Orleans flavor to it, so that would make sense.

For the appetizer, I had a mixed green salad with warm goat’s cheese—you can never really go wrong with warm goat’s cheese, in my opinion. Chester was more daring and tried the escargot. He let me sample one, and then I kind of wished I had ordered it too! Everyone told me that they would be slimy, but they weren’t. They were topped with a buttery sauce that reminded me a little bit of pesto. For an entrée, I had the salmon, which was good, but the slightly sweet, creamy carrot puree that was served with it is what I really remember about the dish. Chester had the duck, which he said was a tad on the well done side, but still tender and flavorful. For dessert, we shared two classics—a rich crème brulee that had a hint of citrus flavor and a buttery, tarte tatin.

I would definitely recommend this restaurant–it serves simple, classic dishes, and proves that French food doesn’t need to be frilly or prepared by a big name chef to be absolutely delicious.

It Was Only a Matter of Time Before Someone Got Hurt…

Chester and the cool accessories he picked up in Amboise. People on the street thought his attempts at channeling a cranky old man were hilarious.

As you can probably tell from my previous posts about our trip to France, we spent a lot of time walking. This is usually our favorite way to discover a place, but this time around things were a bit more difficult. A few days before we left, Chester injured his foot—exactly how he did so is a mystery, but he woke up one day and could hardly put pressure on it. Because I’m a good wife, and I wanted to be sympathetic to his situation, I woke up at around 1 a.m. on the day we were leaving, and stubbed my toe on the oversized, plastic wheels of my suitcase, which was sitting in the middle of the bedroom floor (I blame the cat. I was trying to avoid stepping on her). We both arrived in France with slight limps (and my toe was a nice shade of purple).

But, we still managed to do everything on our agenda during those first few days of the trip. We just took things a little slower than we normally would and stopped for breaks more frequently. Chester fashioned a split for himself out of a nail file I had in my make-up bag and I just slipped off my shoe whenever we sat down. Chester was definitely in more pain than me—I seriously don’t know how he was doing it. I kept telling him what a trooper he was.

But, when we woke up in our creepy hotel on the fourth day of our trip, he was in a lot of pain. Probably because we were walking for hours and hours each day, sometimes on uneven pavements and steep hills, so his foot just couldn’t take it anymore. We decided that we would put off planned morning trip to one of the chateaus in the area in favor of a visit to the emergency room.  With the amount of pain he was in and the swelling that was going on, were kind of convinced that it might be broken.

We checked the U.S. Embassy website, and it told us that Tours (which was about an hour away from where we were staying) was the closest hospital with an English speaking doctor on staff. We called though, and that did not seem to be the case—Chester spent about 30 minutes on the phone with them trying to explain the situation, and they kept thinking that he was calling to pay a bill. So, we decided to just take a chance that the local hospital in Amboise would be able to help. Since we were in a small town, we reasoned, at least maybe we wouldn’t have to wait for hours end.

It ended up being the most efficient hospital experience ever—we were in and out in less than an hour. Foot injuries seemed to be the order of the day there, as we saw two other people leaving with casts. Chester had X-rays, and the nice English speaking doctor determined that his foot was not broken, but that he had a really bad muscle strain.  A nurse came in to tape his foot up, and we were sent on our way with prescriptions for anti-inflammatory pills, painkillers, and crutches.

We headed back into the center of town and had grabbed sandwiches while waiting for the pharmacy to re-open after the lunch break. We also stopped by Patisserie Bigot. This cute, family-owned café has been in business since 1913. Although the cases were filled with every type of pastry and chocolate imaginable, we zeroed in on the jumbo sized macaroons. The shell was perfectly chewy and the chocolate filling was rich, but not too sweet.

The pharmacy finally re-opened, and with crutches and “magic candy” in hand, we continued on with our plans for the rest of the day—a visit to the Chateau of Chambord. With 444 rooms, 85 staircases, and 365 chimneys, this is the largest of the 300 chateaus in the Lorie Valley. It was built by Francois I, as a hunting lodge (It also allowed him to be close to his mistress. How romantic.), but he actually stayed here for less than 40 days total. It fell into ruin for about 80 years after he died, and although his descendants undertook some restoration and expansion work, it was never fully completed. Some of the works from the Louvre, including the Mona Lisa and Venus DeMilo, were kept here for safekeeping during World War II and it was finally fully restored after that.

From the top terrace, looking into the forest.

After our visit, we drove to our next overnight stop in Blois. This town was so confusing to drive in, as the streets were super tiny, and the names changed midway down the blocks. We overshot the Hotel de France et de Guise, where we were staying, at least two times. By the time we checked in, it was getting kind of late and we didn’t really have much time—or energy—for that matter, to explore the town. So, we just stayed close by and had dinner at a place that reminded me a little of the Penrose Diner in South Philly (another hamburger for Chester and croque monsieur for me. Nothing really memorable). We were more than happy to head back to hotel, with its comfortable bed, air conditioning, and the BBC channel on television, after that.

I did manage to get a few photos from our hotel balcony. This is definitely a town that I would like to explore a bit more on our next trip to France.

Not sure what this buliding is, but I liked it.

Chateau de Blois

Even with our detour to the hospital, we still ended up having an awesome day. It could have been worse. At least no one lost an eye or something.

From the Farmlands to the Valley

On the third day of our trip, we hit the road early once again to make the trip to Mont Saint-Michel, our last stop in the Normandy region.

Mont Saint-Michel sits on an island in the middle of the Gulf of Saint-Malo. When this floated into view along the horizon, I was speechless. And, as most of you probably know, I’m rarely at a loss for words. I think it’s safe to say that this is one of the most magnificent sites anywhere in the world.

In the car, approaching Mont Saint-Michel.

Now, without the dashboard in the middle of the shot.

Mont Saint-Michel was originally used in the 6th and 7th centuries as a castle, a fortress against invasion, and a place where hermit monks lived. It became an important pilgrimage site for Christians in the 8th century, when the Archangel Michael (supposedly) appeared to St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, and instructed him to build a church on the site. When asking nicely didn’t get him anywhere, Michael burned a hole in St. Aubert’s skull with his finger, and the church was finally dedicated in 708 (I really must learn that trick). The monks built the site 500 feet high in the rock, to get as close to heaven as possible. Mount Saint-Michel became a major pilgrimage site, even though visitors had to navigate through quicksand and unpredictable tides to get there. During the French Revolution, the site was used as a prison.

With all of this beauty and history, it’s no wonder that, according to our Fodor’s guidebook (and Chester, who actually read it!) it’s the most visited site in France, after the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. It’s a bit easier to get to now, since there’s a nice causeway and parking lot, so getting there is a lot easier. But, you still need to follow the directions carefully when you park, or your car may be under water when you get back from you visit.

We made our way into the village which grew up around the abbey. Today, it’s lined with hotels, souvenir shops, and restaurants, museums, but with the crowds of people all around, it was probably very similar to what pilgrims to the site experienced centuries ago, as they made their way up the narrow, cobble-stoned main street leading up to the abbey and its church.

It’s best to stop for breakfast before you start the climb.

Rest assured, you can find the perfect gift here for the Michael Jackson fan in your life.

We finally reached the top, for our visit to the abbey.

On the abbey terrace, in front of the church, looking out into the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel. The little black spots at the bottom are some brave people walking back from that island in the center. This is kind of dangerous, because there is quicksand out there still, and the tides are very powerful!

The abbey church

I would like a cloister in my next house.

Not the best photo, but it's creeeeepy.

After our tour, we stopped for lunch in the village.

I was torn between a scallop dish, and the traditional fish stew of the Normandy region. I ordered the scallops, but the waiter bought out the fish stew. Something must have gotten lost in the translation. I was kind of glad for the mix-up though, because this dish was excellent. The scallops, salmon, sea bass and mussels in the stew were some of the freshest I have ever had. They were served in a creamy broth that had a hint of white wine and lemon.

If I lived in Normandy, this might be my go-to comfort food.

Chester had the pork chops, which were topped with bacon. You can never go wrong with pork and more pork. I like how they included about four carrots, just to break up the pork overdose.

And then, we had some more cheese.

After lunch, it was back to the car for our three hour tour to the Lorie Valley. This region, located in central France, is known for being a production center of fruity crisp wines. Throughout the area, there are also many extravagant chateaus.

Our first stop was the town of Amboise, which was once the home of the French royal court. Leonardo DaVinci also came to live (and eventually died) in the town, at the invitation of King Francis I.

Château d'Amboise, home of King Francis I. Perhaps my summer home someday?

Clock Tower in the town square

Wine barrel garden. Kind of like my aunt's backyard in South Philly.

Dinner time rolled around, and for some reason, there was nothing that the both of us wanted more than a burger. We found a place in the main town square that served them. Strangely, there was a fried egg on top.

There is actually a burger under there. I swear.

As Chester said, “well, they tried their best.” It was good, but not great. I think Bobby Flay may need to consider going over there and opening one of his burger palaces.

While Amboise is a lovely little town, I would not recommend the Hotel Chaptal, where we stayed that night. This place has the distinction of being the worst hotel that we stayed in on the trip, and perhaps the worst hotel that I’ve have ever stayed in.

Bad hotels make Chester sad.

I’m 99% sure that we were the only people staying there, but they put us in a room at the furthest corner of the hotel, which we had to walk through dark, creepy hallways to get to. The room was stifling hot and I’m pretty sure that the mattress was carved out of stone.  Worst of all, it was eerily quiet. Well, except for the sound of bats outside. We slept with the television on that night.

Cows, Crepes, and D-Day

I tried really hard to think of three things that started with the letter C for this post title. I failed.

For our second day in France, we hopped in the car and made the trip to Bayeux to take a tour of the D-Day invasion sites.

On the way, we made a brief stop in Rouen, the historic capital of the Normandy region and the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. It was early on a Sunday morning and the whole town seemed deserted, until we reached the town square and saw that everyone was at the outdoor market, doing their shopping. Chester took some great photos of the yummy produce, poultry, and pastries that were for sale there, but the memory card from his camera malfunctioned and it won’t give our photos back! Womp, womp. We’ve sent it off to some computer geeks with the hopes that they will be able to recover the files. If so, I’ll share those photos in another post.

We had our only run in with law enforcement on this leg of the trip, when Chester made an illegal right turn. The police officer who pulled us over sighed and said “but of course,” when Chester indicated that he was American,  and then simply pointed us in the direction of Bayeux. I’m sure he was just glad we were getting out of his town.

We arrived in Bayeux and were picked up at our hotel by the guide from Normandy Sightseeing Tours for an afternoon tour of the D-Day landing sites. I would highly recommend this tour company. The guide was extremely knowledgeable about all of the sites and could answer any question that members of the group posed to him (I will admit that he looked really young, so I was skeptical at first!). The tours are conducted in small groups and it was nice to have transportation to each of the sites, as some of them are a bit out of the way from the center of the town and I feel like we might have gotten lost on the winding roads leading to them. The company offers tours of varying lengths—from a half-day, to a full week, as well as customized tours for travelers who want to cover specific sites, so there are a lot of options available depending on your time and budget.

As we started off on the tour, the guide provided a little bit of history about the Normandy region and talked at length about the different kinds of cows found in Normandy. The brown and white cows are Norman cows, and the black and white cows are Dutch cows, which were brought into the country because they could produce a larger quantity of milk than the Norman variety. The Norman cows, on the other hand produce a higher quality product. Nevertheless, you can see them all living together in harmony in hillsides throughout the region.

A Norman Cow. From http://wwiifoundation.org/our-mission/wwii-foundation-blog/

According to our tour guide, the cows even played a role in helping the American troops figure out where German troops were camped out during the war. The cows would simply stop in their tracks and stare at any people that happened to be around, thereby alerting the Americans to where the enemy was.

Anyway, enough about the cows.

We saw four sites on the tour: Point du Hoc, where American Rangers scaled 100 foot cliffs to dismantle German guns that could have fired on the forces landing on Omaha beach; Omaha Beach, the American Cemetery, and the batteries at Longues-sur-Mer, a German naval battery.

Looking out from a bunker at Point-du-Hoc

Cliffs at Point-du-Hoc

Omaha Beach

Memorial and Reflecting Pool at the American Cemetery

Crosses at the American Cemetery

Longues-sur-Mer battery

It is truly humbling to see all of these sites. Everything seems so peaceful now that it is easy to forget that some of the most intense fighting of World War II took place here, and that approximately 9,000 people were wounded or killed. Looking out over the rows of white crosses in the cemetery is both tragic and beautiful. Being there in person makes you feel very patriotic and makes everything you learned about in history class come alive. Even if you are planning a trip to Paris, try to make a day trip to Bayeux to see the D-Day sites—it’s only one or two hours away by train.

After our guide dropped us back off at the hotel, we ventured into the center of Bayeux to walk around and have dinner. Bayeux was the first city in Normandy, having developed in the Middle Ages, and was also the first city in France to be liberated during the war.

For dinner, we went to L’Insolite, a creperie. Many of our restaurant recommendations, including this one, came from Trip Advisor. It didn’t really steer us wrong the whole trip and is a great way to narrow down restaurant choices in a place like France, where there are so many options to choose from.

We sampled one of the signature products of Normandy, cidre, which is produced from fermented apples. It was light and fizzy, but didn’t make me feel tipsy.

We each ordered a galette, which are large, thin pancakes made of buckwheat.

The Popeye, with spinich, mushroom, cheese and egg.

Chester's Forrester Crepe, with mushrooms, egg, and the best bacon ever. It's actually more like ham.

Then, we split a dessert crepe, with favorite combination of bananas and nutella. The batter had a nice lemony flavor and was not as heavy as some of the crepes I’ve had here at home.

We walked off dinner a bit by strolling around the center of town. Bayeux has a beautiful cathedral in the center of town. (Side note—all of the cathedrals I saw on this trip reminded me of Pillars of the Earth, which talked extensively about the building of cathedrals and how towns sprung up around them. Excellent book, so-so miniseries).

Exhausted from another full day, we headed back to our hotel to rest up for our drive to the Lorie Valley, the next stop on our trip. If you like bunk beds and extremely small bathrooms, the Premiere Classe is for you.

Obviously, Chester likes bunk beds.

Flowers and Food in Normandy

Travel can be ridiculous sometimes. In order to get a decent deal on a flight, we ended up flying from Philadelphia to Chicago, and then back the way we came to fly to France. After a seemingly endless flight to Paris with obnoxious college kids, we were relieved to pick up our rental car and head to Northern France and the Normandy region to start our trip.

Normandy may be best known for being the site of the D-Day landings during World War II, but it’s was also a hub for impressionist artists, like Monet, Sisley, and Renoir. With its rolling cliffs along the coast, beautiful landscapes, quaint towns, and granite architecture, it is easy to see why they all felt so inspired by the area. In addition, the area is known for being a major center for the production of butter, cream, cheese, and apples.

Our first stop was the town of Vernon, about one hour away from Paris. Vernon is a small town, filled mostly with shops and restaurants, but it’s a good base to start a tour of Normandy, since it is accessible to a lot of the major sites in the region. We checked into the Hotel d’ Evreux and Chester lugged our two suitcases up a very narrow, winding flight of stairs. The hotel is kind of old–the rooms are on the small side and some of the furnishings need to be updated (we were grossed out by the fact that there was a wooden floor in the shower stall and both wore flip-flops while showering.)–but the staff members were all very pleasant and didn’t seem to mind when we arrived a bit early for check in.

I am annoying and made Chester pose in front of all of our hotels. Just because.

Since we actually didn’t feel all that jet lagged, we decided to head out to see the first item on our itinerary, Giverny, to see Monet’s house and garden. This was one of the sights that we were looking forward to the most, and it did not disappoint.

Monet lived in Giverny for more than 40 years, until he died in 1926. He first noticed the village while looking out of a train window, and rented and eventually purchased a house and surrounding land there. He also had a passion for gardening, and created the flower garden and water lily pond, based on the design of Japanese gardens, which served as the subject of some of his most famous works. Walking into the garden is like stepping into one of his paintings. There is so much color everywhere (pink figures prominently. Yay!)–you just don’t know where to look first. Although it was pretty crowded the day that we visited, the gardens felt very tranquil and tucked away from the real world. It is easy to see how he found this place an endless source of inspiration.

You can visit the house to see Monet’s private apartments and studio. My favorite rooms in the house were the dining room, with its cheerful, bright yellow furniture, and the kitchen with its cool blue tiles and copper pots lining the walls. You can’t take pictures inside of the house, unfortunately, so here are a few I found on another blog (smart idea to buy the postcards in the gift shop!).

From http://www.galenfrysinger.com/france_giverny.htm

From http://www.galenfrysinger.com/france_giverny.htm

After leaving the house, we strolled through the single “main street” of Giverny, which is lined with bed and breakfasts and art galleries. Towards the end of the road, we came upon Monet’s church, and visited the monument where he and his family are buried.

Poppy field near the house. Later in Paris, at the Musee d'Orsay, we saw one of Chester's favorite Monet paintings of this field. Pretty cool.

On the way back to our car, we stopped for ice cream. It’s funny to me that this was our first meal in France, but we know how much I love ice cream, so it was fine by me.

That night, we ate dinner at Le Relais, the restaurant in our hotel. The restaurant showcases the traditional, hearty dishes from the region. Like many of the restaurants that we visited during our trip, the menu listed two prix-fixe menus (with a starter, main course, and dessert) at different price points. Although some restaurants did offer a la carte pricing, when we converted the Euros to dollars, the prix fix options tended to be the best value; even with wine, most of our dinners ended up to be the same or less than we would spend for dinner here at home. For the starter, I had the rillettes of salmon and cod. Rillettes are basically like a pate, but richer, because the fish (or pork, goose, rabbit, etc.) is salted and then cooked with some type of fat, until it becomes like a paste. It’s served cold and spread on toasted bread. If that sounds kind of gross, let me assure you, it wasn’t. In fact, it tasted a bit liked canned tuna (which I happen to like) Chester had the chicken liver pate, which was a bit like foie gras, only not as smooth and a little bit gamey tasting.

The main courses were the highlight of the meal for both of us, I think. I had the lamb stew with apples. The lamb was so tender that I didn’t even need a knife to cut it—pulling it apart with my fork seemed to work out just fine (I know, I’m classy). The sauce was rich and buttery, but the apples gave it a nice sweetness. I didn’t get to have beef bourguignon on this trip, but this was a close enough substitute. Chester had the strip steak, with camembert cheese sauce. The meat was seasoned well, but we both learned after this meal that you have to ask for your meat to be cooked medium rare, so that it comes out perfectly medium. Asking for the meat to be cooked medium resulted in it being a bit on the well done side. Both of our dishes came with mashed potatoes—I’m not usually a fan of plain mashed potatoes (mashed sweet potatoes or garlic mashed potatoes are another story), but I would eat the mashed potatoes in France by the bucketful. All of the mashed potatoes that I had there were just the perfect texture—not so finely mashed that they were like baby food and not so coarsely mashed that you got chunks of potato in each mouthful—with the just the right amount of salt. They actually tasted like potatoes, if that makes sense (and, I realize it probably doesn’t).

For dessert, Chester opted for the cheese plate, since we were in dairy capital of France. The server had a cheese board with six options, and Chester eliminated three right away since she said they were kind of strong. I’m not sure of the names of what we had exactly, but one was similar to cheddar and the other was similar to goat’s cheese. I had chocolate mousse cake, with that was filled with pears in the center. Liked most of the chocolate I had on this trip, that which was used in the mousse was rich, but a touch on the bittersweet side, so the pears provided a nice sweetness. If you find yourself near Vernon, I would recommend checking out this restaurant, even if you aren’t staying at the hotel, as it’s a lovely place to sample some of the specialties of the region.

Our meal was heavy, but after being up and traveling for as many hours as we had been by that point (I’m bad at calculating the time change—it was probably like 36 hours or something?), it was just what we needed to put us right to sleep so that we could get up early to hit the road for a full day of sightseeing in Bayuex the next day.

And, We’re Back!

One of the many, many self-portraits that we took on this trip.

Bonjour, friends!

It’s hard to believe that two weeks can go by so fast, but I guess they can when you pack so much into them! We arrived home from our trip to France on Saturday (after a very long travel day that involved three flights), and it was back to reality as of yesterday.

So, exactly where were we for the last two weeks? Short answer: everywhere! Here is a map showing the main cities that we visited (you can click the link underneath to make it larger):

[googlemaps http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?hl=en&ie=UTF8&msa=0&msid=216370950227771703899.0004a59c66788cf77e27e&ll=46.284523,3.312378&spn=6.302924,8.096924&output=embed&w=425&h=350]

We started in the Normandy region, and then headed to the Lorie Valley, and on to Paris. Then, we flew to the Marseilles to hang out in the south of France. From there, we visited several towns in Provence before making our way to the French Rivera to visit Cannes, Nice, and Monaco. We were in a different city almost every day of the trip, except for Paris where we stayed for about 4.5 days.

We had a car for our travels through Normandy and Provence, and Chester did an amazing job of getting us where we needed to go and negotiating the round-a-bout turns. He was only pulled over once, early on in the trip, for making an illegal right turn while we were en-route to Bayeux. The police officer was not surprised at all that Chester was American, and just let us go. Driving in Paris was pretty scary. The streets are narrow and the names change right in the middle of them, and the drivers are ridiculously aggressive. It was like driving in New York City, times 100. I was so relieved when we got to drop our rental car off. As for me, I did pretty well with my navigator responsibilities on this trip, if I do say so myself. I think I only fell asleep on the job twice.

Parts of the trip involved getting lost in small towns, getting in the credit card lane to pay the toll and finding that our cards didn’t work (much to the annoyance of the highway staff people who had to come out and take the Euros we were frantically waving around) and lugging bags up multiple flights of stairs to get to our (sometimes very random) hotel rooms. All of it was fun. As a bonus, we even got to make a visit to a French emergency room when Chester hurt his foot. In spite of him having to spend part of the trip on crutches, we got to see so many amazing sites and do so many cool things.

Most importantly, we ate some excellent food. I think I got through quite a bit of the items that I mentioned on my wish list of things to eat. In making our plans for restaurants to try, the only thing I requested is that we avoid had things that would be frilly or fussy. I didn’t want to eat anyplace that was known for weird things like green pea foam and the like. We chose some really good places (with the help of Trip Advisor) and everything that we had consisted of simple, fresh ingredients that were prepared and presented well.

This being a blog about food, I wanted to take photos of all the amazing things that we ate, but I didn’t want to be that crazy tourist. So, I tried to limit my photos to the exterior shots of the restaurants we visited and only took food photos in the more casual restaurants or those that were so crowded that no one would notice me being a freak.

I plan to write a bunch of posts to cover what we did, ate, and saw and to share some photos. In the meantime, here are some general things I learned—food related and otherwise—while visiting:

1. The French are lovely people. Forget all the stereotypes that you have heard. If you are nice to them (for example, if you say “Bonjour” when you go into a shop and “Merci” when you leave), they will be nice to you. They’ll even put up with the fact that you don’t know a lick of French and will try to help you. They will however, look at you like you are slightly crazy, when you try to talk to their dogs (I couldn’t resist. They were all so cute).

I guess even the dogs give you the side-eye when you try to talk to them. This one was hanging out at the first hotel we stayed at in Vernon.

2. The French have no regard for their own personal safety. Or, maybe they are just fearless. They walk or bike right out into the middle of the street, into oncoming traffic. Or, they weave in and out of heavy traffic, in the narrow space between two lanes of cars, in the crowded tunnels of Paris. While I seem to have no problem jaywalking at home, I was scared! We sought out crosswalks and waited on the sidewalk until the little green man told us we could move.

3. The French adore eating. It’s an experience for them even to sit down in a café for a cup of coffee and a croissant at breakfast. They linger over meals in restaurants. It’s not like here where we sometimes eat on the run (in fact, I didn’t even notice a place where you could get a cup of coffee to go, unless you went to a Starbucks) or have the server drop the check off at the table before we’ve even finished the last bite of dessert. They’ll order the cheese course and the dessert course and they don’t even seem to feel guilty about it. I was filled with regret if I ate dessert two nights in a row. Next time I go, I’m definitely eating more. I think I walked off most of my meals anyway!

4. No one is fat in France. A paradox, when you consider my third point. Okay, maybe I saw two or three overweight people. But, for the most part, everyone is thin and chic looking, in spite of the fact that they seem to clean their plates at each meal. Walking, biking, and chain smoking must allow them to accomplish this.

5. Paris is not the only reason to visit France. I will say when I thought of our trip, this was the part that I got the most excited about. But, there were so many other parts of the trip, to my surprise, that I loved just as much (or maybe even a little more). Don’t get me wrong me, Paris truly lived up to the hype. It is, in my opinion, the most beautiful city in the world and was the most perfect place to celebrate our first anniversary. But, I was so glad that we had the chance to see so much more than that and to drive around and just take so much in outside of the city.

6. Steven Seagal is huge in France. Seriously. Every time we turned on the television, one of his movies was on.

7. French radio only plays  music in English that has explicit lyrics or is otherwise inappropriate. they are also huge fans of Brittany Spears’ new song, Till the World Ends. I’m pretty sure that we heard that song six times in a row at one point when we were shuffling through various stations.

8. If you have to visit an emergency room in France, try to do so in a small town. You’ll probably be in and out in 45 minutes. We visited the hospital in Amboise, and can verify that there is at least one English speaking doctor there. Another tip—don’t listen to the U.S. Embassy website when they tell you that there’s one in Tours—we called and that seems to not be the case.

9. Related to number seven is the fact that every third person in France has some kind of foot injury. I attribute this to all the walking up hills and cobbled streets that they do. We saw so many people in casts, on crutches, and leaning on canes. Chester was right on trend with his injury.

A crutch is one of the must-have accessories in France. Chester fits right in, and can even do tricks with his. He actually did steal this move from someone else, though.

10. Don’t expect Starbucks-sized coffees at any of the cafes that you might visit (unless of course, it’s a Starbucks). Even if you ask for a “grand café,” you will only get a cup slightly larger than a thimble.

It's really more like a tea cup. Pinkie up is appropriate.

11. Butter is not generally served with bread. I was kind of looking forward to having bread slathered with real butter on this trip, and I think we only had it twice on this trip. However, butter was pretty much the base ingredient for most of the sauces we had at meals, and the bread comes in handy for soaking that up! Speaking of bread—a baguette is kind of like an accessory for most of the locals that we saw. No matter what time of day, everyone seemed to be carrying a baguette around.

12. Northern and Southern France are very different in terms of the people, culture, and even the way the language sounds. In the South, it sounds like people are speaking Italian. While the north seemed more laid back and down-to-earth to us; parts of the South of France are like Rittenhouse Square or Fifth Avenue on steroids.

13. Ikea is very popular. I lost track of how many we saw in our travels and many of our hotels were fully furnished with Ikea items.

14. Climatise is the most beautiful French word ever. Basically translates to air conditioned. I loved seeing this on the signs outside our hotels.

Thinking about food had made me kind of hungry, so that’s all for now. Needless to say, after two weeks of amazing food, it’s disappointing to have to resume my routine of Lean Cuisine lunches. Off to the microwave I go.

Bon Appétit!

Macarons

Macarons: One of the many reasons I'm counting down to vacation. Photo taken from: http://blog.purentonline.com

In less than two weeks, Chester and I will be on a plane to France for vacation. I am ridiculously excited. We’ll be spending two weeks there, visiting various places, including Giverny, Aix-en-Provence, Marseilles, Monaco, and Nice, various small towns along the way, and, of course, Paris (where we will celebrate our first anniversary on June 4!).

When we go on vacation, Chester usually ends up doing most of the planning. He organizes each day in a spreadsheet, makes lists of places to eat and maps out the options, and finds the best deals on hotels. If he ever gets tired of his full-time job of analyzing data all day, he would make an awesome tour guide (he definitely wouldn’t be the kind with a huge umbrella though). But mostly, I’m just along for the ride (this is particularly true when we’re driving. I’m supposed to be the navigator, but the truth is I’m horrible at reading a map and usually just fall asleep in the passenger seat).

All of this probably makes me sounds lazy or disinterested in our trips. But I find that when I don’t know exactly what we are supposed to be doing, I get a lot less stressed about getting from place to place by a certain time. I think Chester would also agree that this makes me a whole lot more pleasant to vacation with.

Although I haven’t done a ton of research, there are definitely things I cannot wait to see and do during our time in France. Visiting Monet’s house, hanging out in cathedrals and museums, breathing in the smell of lavender in Provence, hitting a flea market in Paris, driving through small towns to visit chateaus, and people watching in Monaco are currently at the top of my list.

Mostly though—and this should come as a surprise to no one—I’m excited to eat. And, I plan to try everything. It’s a good thing I’ve stepped up my gym visits in advance of this trip, and that we’ve got a lot of walking planned during it.

In no particular order, here are the things I’m most excited to try. Of course, I’ve had some of these things before, but never in France (edited to add: boldfaced items are the ones I checked off my list!):

  1. Macarons—in as many flavors as possible. Ladurée in Paris is apparently THE place to get them, so I will be making a stop there.
  2. Cheese—Wikipedia told me 400 varieties of cheese in France, so I can pace myself and try 28 per day for the duration of our trip
  3. Foie Gras—yes, I know how they make it. Yes, it makes me sad. But, it’s so yummy.
  4. Bread and/or pastries of all types
  5. Chocolate
  6. Steak frites
  7. Bouillabaisse
  8. Croque Monsieur—just like grilled cheese only better
  9. Crepes
  10. Escargot—they drown them in garlic butter, apparently, so maybe I’ll forget what they actually are.
  11. Seafood—from the French Rivera
  12. Fresh fruits, veggies, butter, and eggs—I don’t eat the latter two in my real life, but they are sooooo delicious and a fun splurge for me when I’m on vacation. I still talk about the butter and eggs we had in the Scottish Highlands when we were there for my BFF’s wedding two years ago.
  13. Beef Bourguignon—because I love Julia Child, and this is one of her signature recipes.

I love Julia because she's a messy cook just like me. And, also, because she acts kind of crazy and/or slightly drunk in the kitchen.

Ooof. I’m stuffed already.

Have you been to France? Do you have any recommendations for us about things we should see, do, and/or eat? Spill them!