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.