On the Road: Thanksgiving Weekend in New York

Going back to work after a holiday weekend is pretty much the worst thing ever. Okay, I’m sure there are worse things, which I just can’t seem to think of right now.  But, I’m glad to have this day over with.

Anyway.

Chester and I avoided Black Friday shopping and spent the day getting the house all festive for Christmas and went to see the Muppets (if you grew up watching the show, it’s a must see. I’m pretty sure I was grinning from ear to ear for most of it). Then, on Saturday, Bridget and I headed up to New York to shop, eat and most importantly, to see Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway. The weather has unseasonably warm around here lately, and while it doesn’t exactly feel like Christmas yet, it made for a great day of walking around the city.

After dropping our bags at our hotel, we headed over to Craftbar, for lunch/belated birthday celebration for me. Craftbar located on Broad is one of Tom Colicchio’s restaurants and is located on Broadway, near Union Square.

When we arrived around two, the restaurant was still serving their brunch menu, in addition to the regular menu of snacks, salads, pastas, and entrees. We both ordered from the latter. The server was really knowledgeable about the menu, including recommendations for cocktails and wine. He suggested a red wine for Bridget and helped me decide between the two cocktail options I was considering. I ended up with something that was similar to a Tom Collins, but had earl grey infused gin in it. Refreshing. I can’t remember the name of either. Sorry.

We split an order of pecorino risotto balls, which were served piping hot with a spicy tomato sauce. They reminded us of the rice croquettes that Bridget’s grandmother makes, but the gooey cheese was a nice touch.

For an entrée, Bridget chose the pork belly, which was served with brussel sprouts, poached egg, and sweet potato puree. It was really tender and pulled apart easily with a fork. I had the veal ricotta meatballs, which were served over house made spagehetti. The meatballs were light and delicate and the tomato sauce was slightly sweet. The only drawback for me was that the pasta may have needed to be cooked a bit more, as it was slight chewy.

They must have known I was coming, because the dessert list included a peanut butter and jelly sundae. The peanut butter ice cream, which was creamy and rich, but not overly sweet, was topped with grape jelly syrup (tasted exactly like my favorite Welch’s variety) and a generous handful of caramel corn, which added a bit of texture and saltiness.

Photo stolen from Bridget

For the rest of the afternoon, we burned off a few calories shopping, and then it was time to make our way over to the Broadhurst Theater for the show.

It goes without saying that Hugh Jackman is pretty adorable. And, also, really talented. He’s not just Wolverine, folks. He can sing. He can dance. He flirts with everyone in the audience and embarrasses late-comers as they take their seats. During the two hour show he performs some of his favorite songs from the likes of Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein and Peter Allen (whom he won the Tony Award for portraying in The Boy From Oz back in 2003), interspersed with antidotes about his life, family and career.

At the end of the show, he auctioned off two of his sweaty undershirts for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. He invited the winners backstage after the show to meet him, and Bridget and I almost took out our credit cards, but figured it would be difficult to explain the charge to our respective husbands (one shirt fetched $10,000 and the other $6,000).

On the way to the theater, we noticed that there was a Shake Shack right near our hotel, so we stopped there on the way back for burgers, fries, and shakes to bring back to our room. I’ve heard that Shake Shack was the inspiration for Stephen Starr’s Square Burger. This may be the case, but the Shack is a million times better.

The burgers were cooked to a medium rare, so they were juicy and flavorful. The fries were pretty standard—crispy and salty—but they were crinkle cut, so they get extra points in my book for the novelty factor. The vanilla shake has earned a place (along with Nifty Fifty’s, of course) on my list of best milkshakes ever. It was thick and creamy and I was so sad when it was all gone. I will be first in line when the Philadelphia location opens in Center City next year.

Amazingly, we woke up hungry the next morning and headed to Trattoria dell’Arte, right across from Carnegie Hall. This is one of our go-to places when we come up for a show. They have an excellent antipasto bar with just about anything you could ever want, from mozzarella, to Italian meats, to grilled vegetables. We opted just for brunch—light and sweet Panettone French toast for me, and rich spaghetti carbonara for Bridget (with the egg, bacon, and carbs, it does make a good breakfast dish if you think about it!)

And, with that, it was time for me to catch the train back to Philly and for Bridget to make the long drive back up to Boston. But, we’re already planning our next trip to see another show in the winter and/or spring (Book of Mormon and the upcoming revival of Evita are on our list).

The only good part about the weekend coming to an end was that I got to head back to the gym today. And, not a moment too soon.

On the Road: New Hampshire

When Chester and I are on vacation, we usually spend some of the time thinking about where we’ll go next. When we were in Pittsburgh over Labor Day, we came up with the idea of a trip to New England to see the fall foliage. We mentioned the idea to my BFF and her husband, since they live in Boston. Turns out, Bridget and Bill had the same idea for a fall vacation. We decided that we would all head up to New Hampshire and rent a cabin for a long weekend.

We flew up to Boston and then drove about two hours or so up to Lincoln, New Hampshire, in the White Mountains. Bridget and I had scouted cabins online, and I think we made a pretty good pick with Green Village Cabins. The cabins were pretty tiny, but clean, comfortable, and centrally located to all the major attractions in the area.

Then, we spent the weekend doing festive fall things.

We picked apples.

Took in nature at the Lost River Gorge and Caves.

Drove along the Kancamagus Highway.

Saw rainbows (three to be exact!)

Encountered wildlife.

Drove half-way up Mount Washington (it was too windy to go all the way up), the highest peak in the Northeastern United States. And nearly froze.

Of course, we ate. A lot.

Cider Donuts!

Before we left Boston, we stocked up on fancy meats and cheeses at Formaggio Kitchen. Combined with the apples we had picked, wine (for me and Bridget) and beer (for Bill and Chester), we had some pretty awesome nighttime snacks while playing Apples to Apples and Catch Phrase.

We were all kind of craving comfort food throughout the weekend. It must have been the chill in the air. Luckily, the vast majority of the restaurants in the area seemed to specialize in this type of cuisine. For lunch, we just grabbed whatever we happened to be near, but we had really good dinners each night.

On the first night, we ate at the Adair Country Inn and Restaurant, in the nearby town of Bethlehem. The restaurant is casual, but elegant, and its menu showcases local ingredients and specialties. We all ended up doing the three course menu option (you can choose as few as two courses or as many as five) which included an appetizer, salad, and entrée.  My whole meal was excellent, but I particularly enjoyed my spinach salad, mostly because it had dried cranberries, and the entrée, the Haddock New Bedford, which was lightly breaded with cornmeal, and served with a tomato, clam, and chorizo topping. For dessert, we all shared the apple-popover bread pudding. The texture was very light, and it wasn’t as sweet as some other bread puddings that I’ve had. The tartness and natural sweetness of the apples really came through, but it didn’t seem like there was a lot of extra sugar added.

Toasting the Weekend!

The second night, we went to the Common Man, which is actually a restaurant chain in New England. The rustic furnishings and homey feel of the place reminded me of the Cracker Barrel—which I hate—so I was a bit skeptical. But the food was far superior. The menu is pretty extensive, and features everything from soups and salads, to lobster mac-and-cheese, to ribs and steak. I had the meatloaf which was served with a rich tomato based pan gravy and topped with caramelized onions. I can’t imagine anything that would have tasted better after a day of being outdoorsy.

The Woodstock Inn Brewery was our final dinner of the trip. I think Bridget was probably the only one who was not totally happy with her dish—sesame maple scallops, served over linguine. It was…interesting, and not in an entirely good way (it kept making me think of that scene from Elf, where he douses his spaghetti in maple syrup). I enjoyed my chile glazed salmon, since it was a change of pace from the heavier dishes I had been eating. The Brewery also featured a selection of Wellingtons, which the boys both enjoyed.

On the last day of our trip, before getting on the road back to Boston, we sought out a pancake house. A lot of places had closed for the season, but, luckily, we found Flapjack’s Pancake House. Best. Pancakes. Ever.

Cranberry Apple Flapjacks

The whole weekend was very relaxing, but Monday rolled around so quickly, and it was time to go home. It was so nice to spend some time with our friends and I’m looking forward to being able to do it again soon!

On the Road: Pittsburgh

Well, fall is officially here. The school buses are back on the road to mess with my commute into the city, DSW is tempting me with e-mails advertising boots, and most importantly, the Pumpkin Spice Lattes have returned to Starbucks.

Over Labor Day weekend, we crammed in one last bit of summertime fun with a trip to Pittsburgh. We had been talking about going for a while and a good deal on a hotel through Hotwire sealed the deal. It’s really not that bad of a drive from Philly. We left at the height of holiday rush hour traffic on Friday, and made it there in a little over five hours. I think I only asked Chester if we were there yet ten times. I’m really not the best passenger.

At some point in grade school, we learned that Pittsburgh was called the “Steel City” and as a result, I’ve always pictured that it would be grey, dreary, and a little boring. Over the years, though, the steel industry has waned, and Pittsburgh has morphed into a hub for education, healthcare, technology, and finance. The city has an interesting combination of old and new, modern and industrial, college students, yuppies, and blue-collar senior citizens. In many ways it is similar to Philly, in that it’s a city of neighborhoods, arts and culture, hardcore sports fans (every second person was wearing at least one kind of Steelers item), and good food.

We stayed at the Omni William Penn, which is located Downtown. Since this is the main business district, it had pretty much emptied out for the long weekend by the time we arrived. It does look like there are a few apartment complexes and condos popping up Downtown, so perhaps, a few years from now, it will be a bit more vibrant on the weekends! But, the hotel is in a good, central location, within walking distance of shops, restaurants, and theaters, so it makes a good base for exploring the city.

We arrived at the hotel just in time to head over to Market Square for dinner. The courthouse, jail, and city hall used to be located on Market Square. It was renovated a couple of years ago to resemble the pedestrian friendly plazas that you would find in Europe, complete with restaurants, cafes, and outdoor seating. Fun fact: the new Batman movie just finished filming there.

Market Square, by day. Looks just like Gotham City, right?

We had reservations at NOLA on the Square. I was excited to go there because I don’t really know of any good Cajun/Creole food in our area. We used to have a place in Media, the New Orleans Café, but that closed years ago. When we arrived at the restaurant, it was pretty crowded and there was a live band playing jazz music. They were very good, but it did make it kind of loud (I know, I’m old). Luckily, we were seated at a table towards the back of the restaurant, so that cut down on the noise a bit.

We ordered drinks—a beer for Chester, a cocktail for me—and they sat on the bar for quite a bit. When our waitress noticed, she was extremely apologetic, and then the manager came over to apologize some more and let us know that he was going to take the drinks off of our bill. We didn’t really mind, as we could see it was really busy, but yay for free drinks, and good customer service. I enjoyed my Toulouse Martini—a mix of Vodka, Ginger Snap, Pineapple Juice, prickly pear granita, Mint. It was a cross between a mojito and a cosmo, two of my favorite drinks.

For an appetizer, we shared the Crispy Fried Alligator, served with a spicy aioli and chives. I know that “tastes like chicken” is what people say when they don’t know quite how to describe the taste of something or they are trying to get you to eat something gross. But, seriously, I can’t think of another way to describe these little bites, except to say that they reminded me of chewy chicken nuggets. I didn’t dislike them, but I guess I was expecting that they would have a bit of a different taste. Perhaps they needed to be tenderized a bit more or the spice needed to be dialed down a bit for that to come through.

For an entrée, I was torn between the jambalaya and the catfish. I decided that the latter would be a better choice, since it was getting kind of late in the evening and approaching my bed time. I had never eaten catfish before—probably because I don’t really like fried fish, and that’s usually how it’s prepared. But, NOLA’s version is marinated in a flavorful citrus sauce and grilled to perfection. Whipped potatoes and grilled sweet peppers and onions were a nice compliment to the flaky fish. Luckily, Chester ordered the jambalaya, so I was still able to sample it. It was almost like paella. The cast iron dish was filled to the brim with rice, shrimp, scallops, mussels, and smoky andouille sausage. It was pretty spicy! The rice was cooked to fluffy perfection, and the seafood was tender, not rubbery.

With this satisfying meal, our trip was off to a good start. The next day, we woke up early to go to the Strip District. The Strip lies next to the Alleghany River, and is just a short walk from Downtown. Former industrial spaces and warehouses have been turned into markets—to me, it was a combination of the Italian Market in South Philly and the Pike Place Market in Seattle. Saturday is supposed to be the best day to go—everyone is out, and the markets are bustling.

 

We started with breakfast at DeLuca’s, one of the area’s most popular diners. The line out the door looked intimidating at first, but we really only waited about 15 minutes to be seated. Good thing, too, because it was blazing hot that day. I was so excited to see the sign in the window advertising iced coffee. I need my coffee to function in the morning, but in the 90 plus degree heat, the last thing I want it a hot drink! A few words of warning: 1) DeLuca’s is cash only, so make sure you hit an ATM before you go in; 2) If you are concerned about limiting your intake of carbs, fats, etc. in the morning, this is not the place for you.

 

The service is brisk and the interior no-frills. The menu features the usual hearty breakfast fare, including stuffed omelettes, waffles, crepes, and breakfast burritos. Two of the signature items include the mixed grill (sausage or ham with veggies, eggs, home fries, and toast) and ice cream sundae pancakes. I had the cinnamon-raisin French toast. The bread, which was Italian style from Mancini’s a local bakery, was very good. But, I still prefer my French toast bread to be a bit thick and spongy, so that it can really take on that eggy, custardy, taste. But, the raisins did provide an extra bit of sweetness. Chester had a corned beef omelette with a side of thick-cut, crispy bacon. The eggs were cooked to fluffy perfection, and as you can see, the portion was so generous that it nearly took up the entire plate!

Yes, ten pats of butter came with my three slices of French Toast. That's just crazy.

After breakfast we walked through the neighborhood, to browse stands and shops selling fresh fish, meat, poultry, produce, Italian, Asian, and Polish specialties, art, antiques, and Steelers gear. If we weren’t going to be staying for a couple of more days, I would have loaded up on cheese and fresh pasta from the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company. Side note—it literally just occurred to me that there was a small fridge in our hotel room. Now I’m kicking myself. Someone should sign me up for their Cheese of the Month club for my birthday—they deliver.

Later that day, we headed up the Duquesne Incline, which provides the best views of the city skyline, bridges and rivers. The Incline was opened in 1877, to carry cargo and residents up Mount Washington, and has become one of Pittsburgh’s most popular tourist attractions. The fare to ride each way is $2.25; make sure to bring exact change! The cable car only goes about five miles an hour and is really well maintained, but it is a little scary to think about what would happen if a piece of wood split or a cable broke. Yikes. So, don’t think about it, and just enjoy the view.

View from the Top

Later that evening, we met up with my friend Megan, whom I met while working at Drexel. We actually started our jobs on the same day in 2007, but I lasted a bit longer than she did. We met up at a bar downtown called the Sharp Edge (it had a really extensive beer selection) and I filled her in on everything she missed out on at Drexel. It was great catching up with her (and now she need to come visit us in Philly!)

Megan has been a long time resident of the Pittsburgh area, so she gave us great suggestions about what to do and where to eat. In addition to, NOLA on the Square Megan suggested the restaurant went to our Saturday night—Meat and Potatoes—which was probably my favorite meal of the trip.

Meat and Potatoes is Pittsburgh’s first gastropub. Its menu features updated takes on simple classics, like pasta, chicken pot pie, burgers, and hot dogs. The interior is elegant and cozy—almost like a Parisian bistro—with dark wood trimmed in gold, mirrors, and cushy armchairs at the dinner tables.

It's hard to get a decent photo of this place. It's located inside of a theater.

I can never pass up mac-and-cheese when I see it on a menu. Meat and Potatoes’ version was the best that I have had in a long time (aside from Chester’s mac-and-cheese that he only makes during the colder months). The elbow macaroni, cooked to a perfect al dente and topped with crunchy bread crumbs, was the perfect vehicle to hold on to the tangy taleggio cheese sauce. The bits of ham and peas provided a nice balance of salty and sweet and since they were evenly distributed throughout, all of the flavors were included in each bite.

I devoured the appetizer sized portion, served in a little cast iron dish (and seriously considered asking for seconds), and still had room for my mushroom burger. If Meat and Potatoes had a location in Philly, their burgers would give Jose Garces’ and his Village Whiskey and JG Domestic a run for their money. The burger was a perfect medium rare. It was so light—almost like biting into air (that analogy probably makes sense only to me). It hadn’t been overworked or over seasoned, so the juiciness of the meat, the earthiness of the mushrooms, and the nuttiness of the Midnight Moon goat’s milk cheese could be fully appreciated. The shoestring style fries were a bit soggy but I was so full by the time I got to them so I didn’t mind leaving them behind.

Chester, in the meantime, got to have bone marrow the way he likes it—straight from the bone. Eating bone marrow is quite a process. You dig it out from the bone, spread it on grilled bread, and top with onions, salt, and gremolata. The three bones provided a generous serving, so you will probably need to ask for more bread to go with it. Chester thought it was “heavenly”—according to him, this is the way to eat bone marrow (not stuffed in a burger). And, you can trust him. He is a connoisseur of this kind of stuff. But, I did not like the fatty texture and the greasiness that lingered in my mouth after just a small bite. I guess it’s an acquired taste. For an entrée, he had the strip steak, which was served with a mix of red and green peppers and corn. Strip steak can be a tough cut of meat to prepare, but this version was tender enough to cut with a fork and well seasoned.

Finally, for dessert, we shared the chocolate pot de crème. I loved that it was served in a mason jar. I was surprised by how rich it was, given that it was made with milk chocolate instead of dark (which seems to be more popular lately). It was served with a slightly sweet, fresh whipped cream was the perfect end to the meal.

The service was a little bit uneven—we waited a really long time between each courses (my fries had probably been sitting for a while, I guess). The restaurant was full and there were a couple of larger parties. It seemed like maybe they could have used a couple of more staff members on duty. By the end of the night though, I was in a food coma, so this didn’t really bother me as much as it might have.

On Sunday, we slept in, and then went to back to the Strip District for lunch at the original Primanti Brothers. Since 1933, Primanti’s has been making its signature sandwiches, which consist of meat, cheese, tomato, cole slaw, and French fries, sandwiched between Italian bread. Like DeLuca’s, there was a brief wait at the door. But, once we were seated, our server took our order right away and our sandwiches arrived at our table in less than ten minutes.

Chester went for pastrami and I had salami. I expected not to like this sandwich. But, you know what? I did. The French fries were not greasy at all and the vinegar based cole slaw was a nice change of pace from the traditional variety that drips mayo all over your hands and makes the bread soggy. I surprised Chester and myself by eating the entire thing. Yes, I beat him in a sandwich challenge, for the first (and probably only) time ever.

After lunch, we went over to the Andy Warhol Museum, which I highly recommend. I’ve always been fascinated by him and the way that he embraced culture, media, celebrity, business, etc. and made art that accessible—and more often than not controversial. It features seven floors devoted to his paintings, drawings, films, and items his massive collection of “time capsules,” which hundreds of cardboard boxes filled over many years with all types of ephemera from his daily life. One of the most memorable exhibits is the “Silver Clouds,” an installation that he designed for a gallery show in the late 1960s. It’s a room full of rectangular mylar balloons, which are blown around by a fan. Guests step into the room and can actually interact with the work. There were a ton of little kids in there, but the grownups—like me and Chester—couldn’t help joining in as well. Video below, so you can see what I mean (there aren’t any people in it, but you get the point.

When we left the museum, we took a stroll along the riverfront. There are miles of trails, green spaces, and public art all along the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. The baseball and football stadiums, hotels, and the headquarters of major corporations (such as Del Monte and Starkist) line the area. Small boats were docked all along the way, and people were hanging out on their decks eating, drinking, and playing cards. The trails also seem to be a destination for runners, bikers, and kayakers. It was vibrant and busy, and it made me wish (as I often do) that Philly would develop its waterfront in the same way.

It rained off and on throughout the afternoon. At one point, we had to duck into a hotel and hang out at their café until things cleared up. After the rain, we stumbled upon Rib Fest which was taking place at Heinz Field. Dozens of nationally known rib vendors were participating, and despite of having eaten a huge lunch earlier, Chester was lured in.

Chester tried ribs from Texas, and these from North Carolina, which he liked better because they weren't too smoky.

On the way back to the car, we stopped by to visit Mr. Rogers. If you grew up watching PBS like I did, you must stop and see him. Although, he does look a bit like Alfred E. Newman here.

Won't you be my neighbor?

For our final dinner in Pittsburgh, we went to the East Liberty section of the city to try out Spoon. Apparently, the local, organic, farm-to-table angle is making its way out to Western Pennsylvania as well. Pittsburgh Magazine named Spoon one of the best new restaurants in the city last year.

The interior of the restaurant is very…zen, for lack of a better word. Warm lighting, earth tone décor, and plush chairs. Even our waiter was very mellow. Chester theorized that he had been hypnotized by the music, which was the kind of stuff you would hear in a spa. It was very relaxing and a change of pace from the other places we ate though, which were loud and on the crowded side.

Spoon has an extensive wine list, with many options available by the glass. I had the St. Chapelle Riesling, which had a nice combination flavor combination of peach, orange, and honey. The latter made it a bit heavier, and not bubbly, like other Riesling I’ve had are. But, I really liked it.

I decided that I needed to go lighter with some lighter options after all of the rich foods that I had been eating over the past couple of days. Luckily, Spoon’s menu had quite a few options, including salads and fish, to choose from.

I had the Caesar salad for an appetizer, which was pretty basic. I would have rather had the “bacon and eggs” that Chester was having. A soft-boiled egg sat atop a thick slab of pork belly. Asparagus and hollandaise sauce accompanied the dish. It was a creative concept that was perfectly executed.

Bacon and Eggs at Spoon.

Source

For an entrée, I had the halibut wrapped in bacon. Halibut is the kind of fish you can do a lot with, since it will take on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with. It was topped with a bright pesto sauce, and the combination of the salt from that and the smoke from the bacon provided a great flavor. It was accompanied by homemade ravioli and vegetables. The thin dough and light mascarpone filling kept the ravioli from being too heavy. The server poured a flavorful broth over the entire dish when it was served, creating a kind of soup. Chester, on the other hand, was a bit disappointed in his Kobe beef burger. It had been overcooked, and as a result was quite dry and lacked the rich, fatty flavor that Kobe beef should have. The parmesan and herb fries, with an earthy truffle dipping sauce, were the best part of his dish.

As you know, I normally always go with the chocolate option on a dessert menu, but the lemon cheesecake caught my eye. I’m glad I changed things up. As you also know, I’m a sucker for a cute presentation; I loved that the cheesecake lacked a crust and was served in a demitasse cup. Mascarpone cheese, (which I think pairs really well with lemon) was topped with an intense lemon curd. Homemade white chocolate cream puffs and raspberry jam accompanied it. Chester went for two kinds of sorbet—peach and strawberry lemonade. The peach was our favorite, but both had a nice, refreshing tang. It was a nice ending to our weekend getaway.

As you can probably tell, Pittsburgh has a lot to offer you if you are a foodie. You can sample so many different types of food from ethnic specialties to comfort food classics that hearken back to the blue-collar days of the city. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how much Pittsburgh has to offer, and I think it’s poised for even greater growth and development in the near future. It’s worth the trip—so go!

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.

Okay, almost every second. The roommate situation at the apartment was really annoying. When we’re on vacation, we like to be up and out of the hotel by pretty early in the morning so that we can cram as much as possible into the day. However, waiting for the mountain man to vacate his bedroom so that we could use the shower really cramped our style. And, Chester was still dealing with his injury, which slowed his morning routine somewhat. So, we ended up getting out of the apartment on most days later than we would have liked. Mornings were kind of stressing us out.

Outside the apartment

But, do you know what made us happy? Breakfast.

We discovered a little café down the street from the 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.

Full, and in a better state of mind, 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 Rue Beaubourg, 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).

So excited for Mickey D's!

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 Disco Ball.

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!

We finally made it to 35 Rue Beaubourg in the Le Marais district of Paris. We were greeted by Domingo, our landlord, and learned that:

  1. Domingo had accidentally overbooked the apartment, and a guy “from the mountains” was staying in our room.
  2. Due to this situation, we would have to stay in Domingo’s room, while he slept either on the couch or at one of his other properties.
  3. Domingo’s bedroom was the only one that did not have a bathroom en suite. Therefore, we would have to wait for the other occupants to vacate their rooms before we could shower (luckily, the toilet had its own little closet, in the hallway).

Domingo assured that the mountain man was leaving in two days, and then we could move (In the end, due to another calendar mix-up, it was actually three nights. But, by then, we were used to brushing our teeth in the kitchen sink). It was either this, or we could walk to another apartment about ten minutes away. We decided to suck it up. The apartment was in a good location and was actually quite nice, if you didn’t mind the photos of Domingo and assorted naked men everywhere (yes, even in the room where the toilet was). Whatever. We were just ready to be settled for a bit.

Domingo showed us to our room, and explained which light switch was for the lamp, and which one was for the disco ball.

Randomly, this was also in the room.

The Palace of Versailles, this was not.

Anyway. After the tour, 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.

We arrived back at our apartment, full and exhausted. Of course, I had already forgotten everything I learned about the lighting system, and spent several confused moments trying to get the disco ball to calm down.

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.

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.