France: Food Tour of Aix

Day 14  June 15, 2012

Have we mentioned that the food is better in France?

Jim and I signed up for a culinary walking tour of Aix-en-Provence and this morning was our tour. http://tastesofprovence.com/ Our guide was from California, moved to England when she got married, and has lived in Aix for about six years. I’ll skip over her stories about the Greeks, the Romans, the building of the 200+ mansions on the orders of Louis XIV, and get right to the food. Our first stop was at the first pastry shop built in the “new” aka Louis XIV part of town. It is still run by the same family. The 75 year-old matriarch of the family is working the cash register and her son is the pastry chef. Compared to the shop of the MOF, these pastries were somewhat less ornate, but the beauty was nothing to sneeze at. We tried several savory pastries to begin our tour. When the kitchen was remodeled ten years ago, they had the exhaust fans in the kitchen vented to openings by the front door. You can’t walk by without being drawn in by the smells. http:www.//youtube.com/watch?v=DLtaszN9JcA

 

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We then headed to a chocolate shop, a coffee roaster, a cheese shop, the famers market, and a wine shop with stories and tastings at each. Since I don’t drink coffee, I had a hot chocolate that was in a tiny glass and was so rich and thick that the tiny spoon could practically stand up in it. At the market we were told the melons were really great so we decided to get one. We asked the farmer to select a melon for us and he asked when we were going to eat the melon so he could pick the correct degree of ripeness. It was perfect. The tour really was fun and gave us some insights into the culture of Aix.

All-natural macarons
All-natural macarons

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Roast that coffee
Roast that coffee.
Real. Not a painting.
Real. Not a painting.
Yes.
Yes.
Cheese? DOn't mind if we do.
Cheese? D0n’t mind if we do.

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You need something to drink along with that cheese. It would be rude to refuse.
You need something to drink along with that cheese. It would be rude to refuse.

We did a little shopping and we were surprised to find that some of the classic Provencal specialties were rather difficult to locate. While there are certainly some tourists here, it isn’t very “touristy”. We did a few other things this afternoon, but I want to save space to tell you about our dinner.

I read about Pasta Cosy quite a while ago and forwarded the reviews to Amy and Jim. This was really the first night in Aix that we’ve left our lovely porch by the pool and eaten out. I was worried that this tiny hole-in-the-wall place wouldn’t live up to the TripAdvisor recommendations. Perhaps the owner just paid relatives to write great reviews. It was all that one could hope and more. We started with several small vegetarian tapas dishes; goat cheese with vegetable jelly, dill crème brulee, olive panna cotta, gazpacho, Gorgonzola and pear wrapped in phyllo. Each was lovelier than the next. All four grownups ordered the famous pasta purses filled with pears and Gorgonzola. I will dream about this dish for years to come. It had toasted sesame seeds and a cream sauce that will take lots of treadmill miles to work off. The owner was outgoing and fun. We shared the desserts of a fresh strawberry mascarpone riff on tiramisu and a chocolate, coconut, hazelnut concoction that had people ready to write sonnets about it. We toasted the end of an incredible vacation. How come there is never an airline strike when you want one? We head home tomorrow.

Just sitting on the street outside of Pasta Cozy making more memories
Just sitting on the street outside of Pasta Cozy making more memories

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Wow. No. More. Words.
Wow.
No. More. Words.

In the end, France delighted us at every turn and exceeded expectations. We dream of returning to explore other regions.

Note: As of 2016, we have learned that Pasta Cosy has closed. We like to think that the cheerful owner has gone to live on a farm with many well-fed puppies and kittens where they spend their days frolicking in fields of lavender.

France: Eze

Day 13  June 14, 2012

Not Unlucky at All 

We decided to head east this morning toward Nice (the Cote d’Azur/French Riviera) and beyond. (Just a quick note about our location – we’re in Aix-en-Provence, in the heart of Provence…the French Riviera is several hundred kilometers to the east) A friend of Amy’s told her about the town of Eze and said it was really unique. The GPS and the GUF (Guys Up Front) did a fine job of navigating us to Eze. We drove past Cannes and waved toward Brad and Angelina or whichever luminaries might be in town. We drove past the Nice airport where we’ll be on Saturday. (Heavy sigh.)

Eze has a 12th century castle that is high above the Mediterranean. We climbed up stairs and walkways to the splendid cactus garden at the top. The view of the sea, the homes, the islands, and the huge yachts was pretty amazing. Once again, thanks so much to Manci and her team for making my knee able to go up and down these hills. The hotel in Eze has “cheap” rooms for $550+ and small suites for $950. A glance at the lunch menu had a salad for fifty euros and one main dish for 150 euros. We walked on. If you’re interested in staying there, here’s the link. Tell us how it goes. http://www.capestel.com/fr/

Oh, Eze. Our minds travel back to visit you often.
Oh, Eze. Our minds travel back to visit you often.

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Let others spend their money in Eze, but wait until you hear about our lunch. We drove to the working-class town of La Turbie, next to Eze. http://www.provenceweb.fr/e/alpmarit/turbie/turbie.htm

After parking next to the Farmers Market, we went in search of a something interesting to add to our picnic lunch. We were fortunate to find a stand selling socca, a large “pancake” made out of chickpea batter and sprinkled with pepper – a specialty of the Nice region. The vendor made his last socca of the day and we retired to a small park down the street to eat this lovely concoction.

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Soca = super street food
Soca = super street food

This park we happened upon had a railing at one end with a view from 2,000 meters of Monaco. Jaw-dropping stuff. We lunched like kings and queens on homemade picnic food while enjoying a bird’s-eye view of royalty. Only in France.

Mighty fine view with a mighty fine picnic lunch
Mighty fine view with a mighty fine picnic lunch

We enjoyed another dinner on our beautiful terrace and tried to soak in all the wonders of the day. Tough work, but we’re up for it. Could someone please stop time?

 

France: Arles, St. Remi, and Wine

Day 12  June 13, 2012

Roadtrip! 

We headed westward this morning with maps and GPS in hand. Today the GPS lady was in a good mood and took us right to Arles as planned. Arles was founded by Julius Caesar, yes THAT Julius Caesar. They have a Roman theater and a Roman arena. We also visited the hospital where Vincent Van Gogh spent some time. http://www.beyond.fr/villages/arles-provence-france.html

The colosseum is still in use. It was built to last.
The colosseum is still in use. It was built to last.

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There is old. Then there is really old.
There is old. Then there is really old.

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We then headed to St. Remy which is where Princess Caroline of Monaco likes to hang out. We didn’t see her today. We arrived in time to visit the market and pick up some strawberries, sheep’s milk cheese, and some treats. The gentleman who sold us the cheese, gave Jim some lilies of the valley to give to me. Charming.

Apricots? Why not?
Apricots? Why not?
Sausage please
Sausage, please.

We then headed to the chocolate shop of Joel Durand. OMG! His chocolates are labeled with a letter or punctuation mark on top to identify which of the 30+ flavors each piece might be. The kind woman in the shop gave us a jar of praline lemon sauce to try in the morning.

http://www.joeldurand-chocolatier.fr/

France plus chocolate. It is a perfect equation.
France plus chocolate. It is a perfect equation.

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We thought St. Remy was beautiful and worthy of more time if we had more time to give it.

On our way down the tree-lined road toward “home” we stopped at a winery on a whim.

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The owner came out of the vineyard on his cart to give us a little tasting. Here we got photos of the vineyard, lavender, poppies, and olive trees. Did we mention the cloudless blue skies?

http://www.domaine-guilbert.com/

Two lovely wineries. Four happy adults.
Two lovely wineries. Four happy adults.

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We made another stop and picked up some local olive oil and honey. With strawberries, chocolate, wine, bread, oil, honey, and cheese in tow, we decided it was time to not make any more stops and head back to Aix.  http://www.terresblanches.com/

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Luke and Rachel enjoyed some pool time while the grownups fixed another amazing dinner to eat in our outdoor dining room.

Just a simple dinner by the pool in France. Pinch me.
Just a simple dinner by the pool in France. Pinch me.

We discussed the highlights of the day and made plans to take another road adventure tomorrow. As I type this, maps are unfurled, guidebooks are being bedecked with sticky notes, and the GPS is being consulted about distances. Who knows what tomorrow may bring, but isn’t that part of the fun of a vacation?

France: Aix-en-Provence

Day 11  July 12, 2012

Getting to Know Our French Hometown 

Have we mentioned that the food is just better in France? It is also so very pretty. We hit two farmers markets today that could teach food stylists some lessons. The freshness, variety, and abundance make the difference. We bought cherries, tiny potatoes, fresh shrimp, and green beans. Dinners here at the house each evening have been an embarrassment of riches.

Need any spices?
Need any spices?

We stopped by the pastry and chocolate shop of Aix’s only MOF, a ultra-master pastry chef. For people interested in learning more about what is involved in becoming an MOF, we suggest the movie The Kings of Pastry. For only one Euro, we were able to buy the finest breakfast pastry with raisins and a creamy filling wound into a pastry so light that it would have flown away in the breeze if it wouldn’t have been impolite to do so. The memory of that snail-shaped pastry will stay with us when our diets start next week.

http://www.riederer.fr/

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Jim and I had lunch at an outdoor café that chilled bottles of wine in the fountain of the plaza. It all felt extremely French. We kept looking for Rick Steves and Samantha Brown to walk down the cobblestone path to film the next episodes for their travel shows.

Chilling the wine to the perfect temperature
Chilling the wine to the perfect temperature

We are so lucky to have these picture-perfect moments to remember when we get back to the prairie. It isn’t that there aren’t wonderful moments in our “regular” lives, but having these extraordinary events will certainly warm up some cold, dark winter afternoons for years to come.

This is another early-to-bed night to prepare for a roadtrip tomorrow. The pacing of the more intense days with some quieter time, is working well.

 

France: Cassis and the Calanques

Day 10  June 11, 2012

Calanques, Anyone? 

Perhaps the title made you curious or perhaps you already know what calanques are. So as not to embarrass anyone, here’s a definition. A calanque is a small inlet with very steep sides, kind of like a mini-fjord. We made plans to visit some of the calanques on the Mediterranean near the town of Cassis. With John, Amy’s husband, as our driver we headed out. We had a couple of maps and a GPS. Well, it seems that the nice woman who lives in the GPS really wanted us to tour Marseille on our way to Cassis. The GPS lady, who spoke only French, gave us such an interesting tour that we stopped to get directions from a human. Once again the kindness of strangers came to our rescue. The nice man led us out of Marseille and back onto the correct road.

The “adventure” of getting to Cassis was well worth the effort. Imagine the colors of the waters of the Mediterranean that you have in your dreams. Yes, those are the colors we saw. Cassis is a small-ish town that has grown around a cove. The cove is now lined with cafes, gelato stands, and lovely hotels. The café’s provide not only fine local food, but also views of the boats bobbing in the water of the cove. Spectacular!

Cassis
Cassis

A side note – the guide books all described Cassis as a rather small, sleepy fishing village/town. To our sensibilities, it was more like La Jolla – a swank, seaside resort. We were picking out potential retirement residences right and left. All of the charm of the French Riviera without all of the affectations. Just right.

After our lovely lunch and gelato chaser, we boarded a small boat for a tour to see three calanques. You were given the option to sit outside or inside. Everyone started outside and then when the salt spray got everyone’s attention, most folks moved inside until we got into the shelter of one of the calanques. The cliffs were white and contrasted beautifully with the green and turquoise water. Yes, it really as perfect as the picture you are creating in your mind. And the fact that it was sunny and 75° completed the perfection.

Just amazing
Just amazing

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We had a much easier trip home without the excitement of an unplanned tour of Marseille. This evening we ate outside at the covered table by the pool. Sometimes we just have to stop to take in and memorize these magical moments. A gentle rain ended our lovely day. We are very blessed indeed.

 

France: Aix-en-Provence

Day 9  June 10, 2012

Chillin’ in Aix 

Today was our first full day in Aix. Jim and Cindy found the nearby pastry shop and picked up local goodies for breakfast. We took a walk into the center of the city in late morning and strolled the Cours Mirabeau – the stately boulevard that runs through the center of town. The street is incredibly broad with a wide area for strolling and another wide area for vendors to use on market days. We searched for the farmers market that the Internet had assured us was taking place today. We looked and looked but did not find it. Wandering can be such fun.

Cours Mirabeau
Cours Mirabeau

In France, stores close on Sunday, so we didn’t really have a Plan B to fall back on. We went home and had lunch, and the Weber kids played in the rather chilly pool. After a gentle afternoon of fun and rest, we ventured back into town to ask the Tourist Information people what our dinner options might be.

The French like to eat later – between 7:00 and 12:00. We grabbed pizza from a take-and-bake pizza stand (Pizza Capri) that turned out to be some of the best pizza we’ve ever eaten. As we have mentioned before, the food is just better here. http://www.pizza-capri.fr/

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It’s an “early to bed” night here as tomorrow will be a much more active day.

 

France: to Aix-en-Provence

Day 8  June 9, 2012

Toward the Sun 

At our royal breakfast this morning, our hostess commented on the beautiful sunny (but cool) day she predicted for Lyon today. She then said, “But you are going toward the sun today.” Before we headed toward the sun, we decided to visit the famers market by the river again as we had yesterday. Well, it seems that on Saturday the market is twice the size of the Friday market. It was huge yesterday and today it just went on and on. Choosing our goat cheese du jour was a challenge. We also got some smoked ham, an apricot tart, and some Napoleon cherries (Rainier cherries to us). Have we mentioned that life is mighty good?

Cherries, anyone?
Cherries, anyone?

Here are some general observations and generalizations that have come to us so far.

  • The handicapped in France don’t have it easy. Finding an elevator, ramp, or other adaptation is difficult. So travel in France when you’re healthy and fit – don’t wait!
  • Coral seems to be the color for summer this year. We’ve seen it in most dress shop windows and shoe or purse shops. I hope all of you are stylish. Neither of us is.
  • When people from France visit the USA and ride our trains they must think that they have stepped back in time. Our trains must seem just a slight step up from covered wagons. The TGV whisked us from Lyon to Aix-en-Provence in about an hour. Speeds must have been topping out at 200+ miles per hour. Whisper quiet and extremely smooth. And plush.
  • The French eat what is seasonal. This isn’t the time of year for brie so don’t even ask. You can live in a big city such as Lyon and never need to go to the supermarket – there is a farmers market every day except Monday (Mondays must be for leftovers).
  • The sound of church bells announcing the time makes a place seem more livable.
  • It’s worth it to travel one place for bread, another for meat, and another for pastry if all of the products are top quality. We Americans often sacrifice quality for convenience.
  • When people have to live in closer quarters – in flats in towns and cities – they interact more. Once you know your neighbor (and interact with them daily), it may tie communities together more closely than what we’re used to.
  • If you’re a vegetarian, a visit to Lyon might be a bit difficult.
  • French food is just better.

We met the Webers in Aix-en-Provence as planned and made our way to our new home. Here is the link that has pictures of the house.

http://www.francebound.net/property.php?id=51

It is tremendous and as outstanding as we have thought it to be for the past year since we reserved it. The kids have already been for a little swim. We ate out on the patio just as I have imagined us doing. Dreams do come true.

We could get used to this.
We could get used to this.

France: Lyon

Day 7  June 8. 2012

Only Lyon

We decided last March when it was our real anniversary, and a certain knee was immobilized, that we would celebrate our anniversary in Lyon. We couldn’t have had a lovelier anniversary than today. Our breakfast would have made royalty blush. We were led into a beautiful dining room with a fireplace and a 14-foot ceiling. The table was set with the following: four types of bread, three types of pastries, six types of cheese, fresh-from-the farm-market yogurt, three types of jams, currant syrup, freshly squeezed juice, and a warm molded rice pudding. The vase of lovely roses completed the picture. It was a wow.

Breakfast is served.
Breakfast is served.

We headed to the farmers market along the river. Cheeses, meats, fruits, vegetables, bread, and flowers made for a colorful picture, but we knew we had another market on our schedule so we refrained from making any purchases. We used up a few calories to walk over to the oldest part of town and tour around a bit before catching a bus to the top of hill to see the view, the basilica, and the Roman amphitheater.

A mighty fine Basilica overlooking the city
A mighty fine Basilica overlooking the city

Heaven can mean many things to many people, but we came mighty close to our idea of heaven at Les Halles de Paul Bocuse. Paul Bocuse is France’s most famous chef and is widely credited with the gourmet movement of the past 50 years in France. The hall is an indoor market containing the highest quality artisan foods one could ever imagine. We wandered up and down the aisles and kept taking pictures of the displays. Each vendor was determined to outdo the next. The desserts were like jewels and the fish were displayed in patterns on the ice. The dozen or so cheese shops made our heads spin. We wanted to just set up camp there. Finally we selected a goat cheese that was slightly aged and had a hole in the center. It looked rather like a deflated donut. We also got some shrimp in a curry sauce and a chocolate-filled cookie. We headed over to the old part of town and had a little picnic sitting by a fountain. Life is very good.

I dare you to click on this link without drooling.

http://www.halles-de-lyon-paulbocuse.com/

Heaven. We're in heaven.
Heaven. We’re in heaven.

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After lunch, we wandered through the old part of the city – Vieux Lyon. We searched for traboules – ancient passageways through, between, and under buildings that were used for several purposes. Since they often lead to little courtyards within buildings, one purpose is to allow light into enclosed spaces that otherwise would be dark. In some parts of the city, traboules were used by silk workers to transport silk cloth across the city without getting it wet, going from one traboule to the next. During the Second World War, resistance fighters used their intimate knowledge of traboules to escape from German soldiers.

Yup. Lovely in every way.
Yup. Lovely in every way.

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More food news – we found a glace (ice cream) shop with about 75 flavors (tomato and basil ice cream, anyone?) and had about the best ice cream break one could imagine. Almond gelato and macaron gelato. Outstanding!

After a short rest back at our “home”, we went to a traditional Lyonnaise bouchon for our anniversary dinner. One must be careful what one orders at a bouchon, as they specialize in what can politely be called offal. Cindy played it safe with salad lyonnaisse and onion soup. Jim has eggs poached in melted St. Marcellin cheese and a pike quenelle in crayfish sauce. Cindy kindly donated the lardons from her salad to Jim, and he mixed them into the cheese with poached eggs, forming what may be the greatest breakfast dish of all time. “I shall dream of this for many years,” says Jim.

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Dinner in a bouchon
Dinner in a bouchon

 

 

France: to Lyon

Day 6  June 7, 2012

Au Revoir, Colmar! Bonjour, Lyon!

We were lucky to be in Colmar for at least one morning farm market. After our breakfast, we hurried over to the old section of Colmar to see what they were selling at the market. The first things we saw for sale were mattresses. Go figure. Anyway, we bought cherries, goat cheese (no surprise there), fresh bread, garlic and bean spread, and olive sausage. The sausage was sort a leap of faith since it wasn’t even closely related to sausage you would find at a grocery back home (an explanation is required here – it is dried sausage that has been aged; rather strong tasting and a bit “gamey,” but delicious nevertheless). We also stopped at “local” pastry shop a few doors down from our Colmar home to say goodbye and get a pastry for the train trip.

The TGV was lovely. The seats were very plush and comfortable. The train made so little noise that we had to look outside now and then to be certain we were moving. As we darted through the countryside, it was striking to find every parcel of land was “touched” by humans. If there is “wild” France someplace, we haven’t seen it. The countryside was lovely and the crops seem to be doing well.

Lyon is a BIG city. We pulled into the station and had to navigate the crowd from the TGV station to the local trains. We did really well and managed to follow our host’s directions for the two train stops and transfer. We did especially well with her directions that said when we got out of the subway to look for the big statue and “walk in the direction the horse’s tail is pointing.” Our home for the next two nights is in a third floor apartment on a wide pedestrian shopping street. It is just lovely. We feel like locals already.

http://www.lachambredhugo.fr/

Follow that tail!
Follow that tail!
The view from our apartment
The view from our apartment

After getting settled we headed out for what turned out to be not what we expected. We thought we’d take a boat tour to get oriented to the city. The fact that it was rather sunny and warm made being on the water seem very appealing. We sat in the second row and were thinking that we were going to be pretty much alone on our lower level of the boat. Moments before we were to pull away, we were joined by a wedding party of about 25 men, women, and small children. The bride, in her wedding gown, was African American French and the groom, in his tux, was African French. About two-thirds of the way through the tour, the bride got up and was given the mic and led us all in “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” One of the bridemaids then led us all in a rousing rendition of “Down by the Riverside.” It was a hoot.

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The first real rain of the trip so far caught us by surprise and drenched us on our way back to the hotel. We dried off, changed clothes, and headed out to dinner. We found a lovely street with nothing other than open-air cafes. We chose the one we were standing in front of when another downpour came. It was fine and we were grateful to have avoided ordering some type of organ meat by accident. The menus in this part of France are riddled with parts of animals we don’t normally choose to eat. I’ll not go into more detail on that.

We have a full day in Lyon tomorrow. It is the gastronomic capital of France, so we should have a great time – barring downpours!

 

France: Equisheim and Colmar

Day 5  June 6, 2012

Charming to the Max

Colmar is feeling like our hometown. After our morning croissant and fig yogurt, we headed across town to the covered market where we picked up some fresh fruit, veggies, and goat cheese for a picnic lunch later. We then stopped by the Unterlinden Museum to see the Isenheim alterpiece. http://www.artbible.info/art/isenheim-altar.html They had very helpful audio tours in English. I know Jim will cringe when he reads this, but I’d describe it at a giant 16th century pop-up book (Arghh – this is Jim, cringing). The whole thing folded open in various ways.

Unterlinden Museum
Unterlinden Museum

We headed over to Equisheim (pronounced here as Eggies-hime) – one of the local wine villages – for a little walk around and our picnic lunch. At last! Storks! The little town had four stork nests with watchful parents and growing chicks. Equisheim takes charm and really works it. The town is built in concentric circles and every place you look is more charming than the next. We assume this is where Disney came for ideas when building the France section of Epcot.

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Storks. Storks. Storks.

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After a little rest, we headed out to the center of Colmar in search of Hansi signs. Hansi created metal signs over some of Colmar’s shops in the early part of the 1900s using delightful pictures to explain what the shop does. This search was really just an excuse to walk around the city again.

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After walking for a long while we stopped to have some tarte flambeé, one of the local specialties. We ate at Schwendi Bier Winstub. The tarte is a VERY thin round crust pizza-like concoction with crème fraiche, ham, onions, and cheese. Mighty nice.

Flammekueche
Flammekueche

We’re going to miss Colmar and it’s winding maze of streets. It has been a good home for us. Tomorrow we head to Lyon on the TGV bullet train.