A Feast in Provence

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Bonjour! Tex and I recently had the opportunity to drive down to Southern France and explore Provence for a whole week. And what a feast for the senses it was—from the colorful Provencal markets to the fragrant fields of lavender to the salty splash of the sea. So tie a napkin around your neck, pull your chair up to the table, and I’ll serve up the details.

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Looking over the Luberon Valley from Menerbes

Note: For each list, the items are ordered chronologically.

Five memorable moments:

  • Driving and walking through the lavender fields ~ The first night, as we arrived in the area near the Valensole Plateau, we rolled the car windows all the way down and just let the aroma of lavender waft through the car. So much better than essential oils! We met up with our friends to catch the sunrise over a harvest-ready field of purple. Finally, we were able to find one of the main fields, where we quickly discovered an abundance of bees. Somehow we made the trek to the stone barn in the center of the field without anyone getting stung. I think we have Tex to thank, since he kept reminding us to keep our arms down by our sides in order to not attract the bees with our body odor. Haha!DSC02319DSC02257DSC02279DSC02222DSC02329
  • Breakfasting on the terrace of our Airbnb in Puimoisson ~ This was possibly our favorite Airbnb to have ever stayed in… Tex and I decided we liked it so much for two reasons: it felt like we were staying at our grandparents’, and the view off the plateau was stunning. We even spotted a hot air balloon taking off early that morning. As a bonus, our host provided some excellent tips about the area and a lovely breakfast of fresh breads and jam, along with freshly-squeezed orange juice and hot tea!DSC02358DSC02355
  • Kayaking in the Mediterranean and swimming in the Calanque d’En Vau ~ We reserved a two-seater kayak in Cassis (near Marseilles) ahead of time and showed up in the late afternoon ready to row. This was at the top of my to-do list before we made the trip, and it remains in my mind as the most fun we had, which is saying something. The waves were neither too fierce nor too calm (note that this is coming from a novice kayaker!). After a little over an hour, we arrived at the Calanque d’En Vau, a finger of turquoise sea trapped between two towering cliffs. We parked the kayak on the beach, munched on our snacks, and waded into the cool, clear water. There were no waves here, which made the swimming ever-so-enjoyable. I learned on this trip that I am an expert doggy-paddler… hmm.

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    One of those places where a photo does no justice.
  • Feasting on our market goodies at the campsite ~ For our last two nights in Provence, we pitched our tent at a campsite, which ended out being in somebody’s backyard. Honestly, though, it was great. We gathered up all our goodies from that day’s market and sat down for a refreshing picnic. Juicy white peaches, cantaloupe, heirloom tomatoes, fresh baguette, three big pats of chevre cheese, and—my personal favorite—eggplant and garlic chutney. Each bit so pure by itself but also very tempting in combination.DSC02502DSC02500
  • “Swimming” in the freezing cold river at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse ~ One day, we found ourselves with a free afternoon and bodies that needed a rest from the heat. After a little research, we settled down in a shady nook along the Sorgue River. We donned our swimsuits and prepared to feel the chill… But it was a chill we were ill-prepared for! I will say, I handled it better than Tex did. 🙂 He was already talking about hypothermia after two minutes of being waist-deep. Needless to say, we didn’t do a lot of swimming there, but we certainly did cool off and never complained about the heat again! Maybe this sounds like a terrible experience, but it was actually so funny and such a dreamy spot (outside of the water) that we think of it quite fondly.

Four favorite towns:

  • Moustiers-Sainte-Marie ~ This town is nestled at the foot of a craggy, rocky mountain. It has everything an adorable town needs: a waterfall coming into the town center, painted china shops, plenty of stops for French cuisine, and a chapel built into the side of the mountain above. We were hungry when we arrived and sat down on a restaurant’s terrace that overlooked the waterfall. We ordered Filet mignon, thinking we were about to try the real deal; when it arrived, we realized we had overlooked that it was pork! Not exactly what we had envisioned, but still good. Later in the afternoon, when we had hiked up to the mountainside chapel, we witnessed a medevac helicopter perform a risky maneuver over the adjacent courtyard. It was the closest I’ve come to feeling like I was in the middle of a tornado. Tex was braver than I and stood outside the church building videoing it for the entire duration!DSC02343DSC02340DSC02341
  • Avignon ~ On our “flexible” day, we decided to drive up to Avignon and tour the Palais des Papes. In the 1300’s, the papal seat was actually there instead of in the Rome. This was news to us. We loved hearing all the history and seeing the functionality of the rooms in the Palais. Compared to the Vatican, the Palais des Papes offers a more raw look at the Pope’s everyday life and the important papal affairs. Most striking was the Indulgence Window, which overlooked the main courtyard. Here, the Pope would stand and offer forgiveness and indulgences to the crowds gathered below. After our tour, we ventured through the old city a bit, admired the medieval walls, and stuffed ourselves with some delicious pizza (who would think that cheese-less anchovy pizza could be so tasty?!)
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    The Palais des Papes
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    Indulgence Window

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  • Bonnieux ~ The views from the hillside town of Bonnieux were breathtaking and made me realize why Provence is beloved by so many. We made a pit-stop here as we drove to our campsite, but it would have been a lovely place to stay for a few nights. It was less crowded than Gordes (I can only imagine some of these tiny towns in a normal summer without COVID), and more authentic. We made the short trek up to the church for more views and some shade.IMG_20200723_142215IMG_20200723_144122DSC02466DSC02475
  • Roussillon ~ Every part of this town is tinted by the natural pigment found in the soil beneath and around it—ochre. With its reddish orange houses and streets, Roussillon stands out uniquely against the other towns of Provence. Tex and I took off on a morning stroll down the “Ochre Trail,” which showcases the many shades—rust, deep red, brick, burnt orange—of the small surrounding canyons. Then we snacked on some ridiculously good nutella beignets and made our way through the winding russet streets.DSC02525DSC02521DSC02516DSC02509

     

Bonus towns (that aren’t mentioned in my other lists): Valensole, MĂ©nerbes, Gordes and the Abbaye de SĂ©nanque…

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Valensole town center
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In Menerbes…

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Senanque Abbey
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Adventuring in Gordes

Three wonderful markets:

  • Saint-RĂ©my-de-Provence market (Wednesday) ~ Saint-RĂ©my was our first experience of a Provencal market, and it flooded our senses. We did a lot of bumping elbows and baskets with other market-goers. We sniffed our way through stalls of herbs, spices, garlic, and wide bubbling pans of paella. We listened to the sounds of accordian music and eyeballed stacks of colorful soaps and stands curtained by hanging tablecloths. We were in recon mode here, so we bought only a single cantaloupe.
  • Aix-en-Provence market (Thursday) ~ There are four different markets scattered about the town which make up the market day in Aix (pronounced “Ex”): the food market, the textile market, the flower market, and the antique market. We really took advantage of the free samples going on at the food market… In our defense, the chutney guy told us to please stay in front of his stand and to keep tasting so that other people would want to come by. And I’m pretty sure every time we stopped in front of this one cheese stand they offered us another sample of either cured sausage or aged cheese; it happened at least three times. We also tried lavender honey, juicy heirloom tomatoes, and another seller’s hazelnut salami.DSC02443DSC02444DSC02440DSC02441DSC02445

We enjoyed strolling down the long stretch of textile market, admiring the bright, floral Provencal fabrics and the linen blouses. I carefully chose my treasure to take home—a gorgeous oil cloth fabric, light green with stripes of blue and white flowers, to turn into some sort of tablecloth.DSC02439DSC02434DSC02432

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One fountain of many in the “Town of the Thousand Fountains” (Aix)

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  • Apt market (Saturday) ~ What makes the market in Apt so unique and charming is its sprawling nature. We kept stumbling onto more branches of the market as we continued our walk through the narrow streets of the town center. Stalls of handmade baskets, artisan breads, Marseille soap, and assorted pestos and tapenades were everywhere we looked. There was even a stand or two devoted to selling herbs de Provence, my new favorite herb mix. Just before we got on the road for our long drive home, we stopped at a bakery and bought a massive nougat-flavored meringue. It was as big as my face and much sweeter.

Two worthwhile drives:

  • Route des CrĂŞtes at Verdon Gorge ~ Our Puimosson host recommended this scenic loop. “Route des CrĂŞtes” translates to mean Road of Ridges/Crests. The drive took only a little more than an hour and offered some incredible views over Verdon Gorge and the surrounding mountains. There are some tight curves, steep drop-offs, and bicyclers involved, and at one point the road suddenly becomes one-way. As long as the driver is not prone to freaking out in these sorts of situations, you should have no trouble. Hence, Tex drove. The route has several pull-offs for picture-taking and admiring the landscape.DSC02371DSC02387
  • North through Sault ~ This is the one area where we did not spend any time (except for driving through on our way home), but that I would recommend to anyone planning a visit to Provence. I was surprised to find that the lavender around Sault seemed to be even more abundant than the lavender on the Valensole Plateau. Based on my research, I think the lavender in this area is harvested slightly later than that in the regions farther south. So perhaps that could explain the copious amount of purple that we saw in late July. I squealed as we skirted around a vast valley—a patchwork of golden, lavender, and forest hues. The towns too struck me as charming, especially Sault and Montbrun-les-Bains.

The #1 pastry:

  • Pain au chocolat ~ Tex and I have definitively settled on our favorite pastry. We’ve been in France twice in the past month (11 days total), and we have started almost every morning with a delightful little thing called pain au chocolat. Okay, it’s usually two or three of those delightful little things… I know I have talked about it on the blog before, but now I feel like I can talk about this pastry as a connoisseur. We’ve had pain au chocolat at gas stations, cafes, hotels, and bakeries. The best one yet was in a nameless bakery in Saint-RĂ©my-de-Provence. If you want to find the most flaky, buttery, perfect-ratio-between-melty-chocolate-and-bread pastry, then go to 23 Rue Carnot in Saint-RĂ©my, walk into the little brown storefront painted with the words “Boulangerie Patisserie,” and buy some for both of us, please.

Bonus: An honorable mention of our travels is the city of Lyon and this eye-catching treat, called a Praluline. It is a heavy loaf of brioche studded with lots and lots of chocolate chips. We ate it for supper on our first night in Provence.

Y’all probably are thinking, “Man, this girl eats way too many carbs and too much chocolate.” I do. Especially when in France.

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Tex wanted to make an appearance on the blog 🙂

 

Portugal: Doors, Tiles, and Ovos moles

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A couple of months ago, I had the treat of visiting my dear friend and her husband who were living near Porto, Portugal. Though my primary goal for the trip was seeing and hanging out with her, I was, of course, ecstatic to explore another European country. They were such wonderful hosts to me and took me all over the place to experience everything Portuguese.

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Exploring Porto…
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One of my favorite pastimes ended out being scouring the surrounding areas for unique tiles and colorful doors. There is an abundance! The city of Porto is decorated everywhere with the iconic blue and white tiles, from the train stations to the church exteriors. But even in the smaller towns nearby, there is no shortage of intricate tiles in every color imaginable.

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In Aveiro

My other favorite pastime was— wait for it— eating! Big surprise. Thankfully, my friend and I have always shared a love for food, so I was never hungry. After they picked me up from the airport, we went into Porto and ate a massive, Porto-original sandwich, called a Francesinha. I think there were about four or five different kinds of meat inside, and the amount of cheese on top was crazy! In general, I found that Portuguese food is quite rich and hearty. The baked goods in Portugal are hard to beat. From the delectable pastel de nata to the traditional, pillow-soft, sweet croissant, Portuguese treats kept our tummies full in the time between meals. Oh and did I mention the churros?!? Interestingly, these Portuguese churros far surpassed the Spanish version. Lastly, I was obliged to try the strange but popular egg yolk sweet, called ovos moles. The town of Aveiro is known as the home to these little novelties. I actually liked it, much to my friend’s chagrin, ha!

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Francesinha sandwich

We did so many other things too. And I wish I had more pictures to share. The view of Porto from the Gaia side of the river is stunning. The narrow, cobblestone alleyways are enchantingly medieval. The Ovar Thursday market is a bustling place of trade. The expansive, sandy beaches are warm and peaceful in February. And I mustn’t forget to mention the very awkward experience of accidentally walking in on a small, private funeral and backing out slowly.

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View over Porto and the Duoro River
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The vast Ovar beach

Under the Maltese Sun

The copious amount of sunshine was just one of the many pleasures of our recent trip to Malta. Needless to say, I sunburned a little. We spent three wonderful days on that tiny island and saw it all… well, almost.

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Day 1 – Off-roading and jaw-dropping vistas

The theme of Day 1 really did seem to be off-roading. We had rented a little manual Kia Picanto, and Tex adapted to driving on the left side rather seamlessly. But our GPS directed us to take some very rocky paths (I won’t even call them roads). Somehow, we made it out alive and laughing and with somewhat higher blood pressures. Anywho, our first stop was to see St. Paul’s Island on the north side of the island. This is where they claim that Paul and Luke shipwrecked. You can read about it in Acts 27. While this stop wasn’t initially part of our itinerary, it ended out being one of my favorite things. Not only is it incredible to think of the apostle clambering out of a wrecked ship right there, but it is also a beautiful display of God’s creation. And as a cherry on top, we were the only souls there to soak it in that morning.

 

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A view of St. Paul’s Island

From there, we drove down to Mdina, an ancient city near the center of the island. This was the capital of Malta during the time of Paul and is likely the town where Paul stayed for much of his time on the island. St. Paul’s Grotto (technically in the town of Rabat, but within walking distance of Mdina) is the underground site claimed to have been where Paul founded the first Christian community on Malta. We purchased tickets at the Wignacourt Museum, which gave us entrance to both the Grotto and St. Paul’s Catacombs, as well as some WWII bomb shelters. The catacombs are early (4th century AD) Christian burial grounds, made up of innumerable tunnels and cave-like rooms. We had never seen any catacombs before, and these were remarkably fun to explore. One of the special pieces of architecture down there was called an Agape table. It was at this table that certain funerary feasts took place in honor of the dead.

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One more memorable stop in Mdina was an adorable tea garden, called Fontanella Tea Garden. It sits on the edge of the city’s high wall and overlooks much of the island. We ordered tea and tried a couple of their popular cakes, a strawberry meringue and a lemon cheesecake. I was quite pleased with the quick service and decent prices of this little establishment.

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A splendid tea
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From our table in the tea garden…

A bit after noon, we hopped into the car and headed towards the Blue Grotto on the southwest coast of the island. We were amazed at how easy it was to cover pretty much the entire island of Malta in one day, well really only 2 hours, of driving. Once we arrived and parked, we headed out to buy tickets for the much-sought-after boat rides into the Blue Grotto. I can only imagine the crowds there in the summer, but early February proved to be the perfect time to visit. For only 8 Euros each, we rode in a small motorized fishing boat out into the crystal Mediterranean and cruised through several grottos, including the Cat’s Cave, Reflection Cave, and of course the Blue Grotto. The light turquoise water that you can see in one of the pictures is caused by white sand on the sea floor reflecting light back up through the water. This was truly breathtaking.

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Heading into the Blue Grotto

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Our last destination for the day was the southern tip of the island, near Marsaxlokk. We took in some sun and watched the waves lap against the stony edge of St. Peter’s Pool. While I do wish it had been warm enough for us to swim, we were happy to be there with fewer people. We also visited the Salinas salt pans, one area of many on the island which have been used since the Phoenicians first established them. Still today, throughout the summer months, there are families that tend to the salt pans and harvest the sea salt after the water has evaporated.

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St. Peter’s Pool

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The Salt Pans

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After a very long walk to a highly-reviewed and very much closed restaurant, we stopped at a little seaside joint in Marsaxlokk to eat. Tex had quite a plate of pan-fried calamari, and I had some yummy fish-filled ravioli.

Day 2 – The Maltese Capital

We spent all of Sunday in the capital city, Valletta, which boasts of forts, gardens, and long hilly streets. The two main things on our agenda were Fort St. Elmo and the Palace Armory. And of course, some renowned pizza.

To start off our morning, we began walking along the city wall towards the Upper Barrakka Gardens. I think we could have stayed in the gardens looking across the Grand Harbor all morning and never have gotten bored. Plus, it helps to have a walking encyclopedia like Tex to tell you all you need to know about the Great Siege which happened there.

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Looking across the Grand Harbor
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Upper Barrakka Gardens

We continued along the wall until we reached Fort St. Elmo (which was closed for another couple hours), and then walked into the old city center to the Palace Armory. The Armory seemed to be a fairly extensive collection, exhibiting everything from real Knights’ suits of armor to early guns. By this time, we were famished and rolled on down to Sally Port Pizzeria. I ordered the La Vallette pizza with Maltese sausage and goat cheese, and Tex had the Genovese pizza with pesto, parma ham, and “too much green stuff” (haha!). There weren’t any seats available at the restaurant. So we carried our pizzas down to a bench by the fort, tore the napkin in half, and devoured the pies while hungry spectators eyed us.

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Next, we finally made our way to the historical Fort St. Elmo. Some crazy things happened there. During the Great Siege, where the Ottomans were surrounding the Knights Hospitaller who inhabited the island, the Ottomans succeeded in taking Fort St. Elmo. The Ottomans subsequently slaughtered the defenders and floated their bodies across the Grand Harbor on wooden crosses. Some Knights who still remained in another fort, which I’ll discuss later, answered their foes with cannonballs made of the heads of Ottomans. Pretty gory and sad.

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View from the fort

To end the day, we roamed the streets of Valletta, poked our heads into a couple of churches, and grabbed some pastizzi to take back to the apartment. Traditional Maltese pastizzi are crunchy, flaky pastries filled with either ricotta or mushy peas. When still warm from the oven, these little things are delightful!

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Inside the magnificent St. John’s Co-Cathedral

Day 3 – A Place Called Victory

Well, actually, it has been called Birgu for its entire history and was renamed Vittoriosa about five centuries ago. Depending on who you are talking to, the town could be called either of those names. Personally, I like Vittoriosa, because it seems a fitting name for such a gloriously lovely town. Vittoriosa is built on one of the main peninsulas in the Grand Harbor and is known for its strong fortification, Fort St. Angelo. The town had a very medieval feel, with pale yellow stones paving the streets and covering the sides of houses. The Fort itself was more charming than an Italian villa. So charming that I told Tex he should become a Knight so that we could live there. (There is one resident Knight of the Order of St. John who has the privilege of doing so!)

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Defending Fort St. Angelo

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This is where I wanted to live in the Fort…

Fort St. Angelo was the fort I mentioned above where some knights remained after St. Elmo was taken in the Great Siege. It was here that the knights prevailed, hence the town’s name Vittoriosa.

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A quiet courtyard in the Fort

To wrap up our time there, we visited the Malta at War Museum, where we donned some hard hats to explore another underground network of bomb shelters. Malta was very heavily bombed by Axis planes during World War II, because of its critical location in the Mediterranean. The museum provided a unique look into the lifestyle of Maltese civilians during the War. Finally, we stopped in the town main square at the Café du Brazil, which served up our favorite meal of the trip… Maltese rabbit ravioli!

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That is the long and short of our most recent adventure. Thank you for taking the time to read it 🙂

Penny-Pinching in Strasbourg

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In October, we took a little camping trip over to the Black Forest and spent a day on the other side of the border in Strasbourg, France. I expected Strasbourg to be very German. And it is… But it certainly has a French feel too. Anywho, I thought I would share what we did and how we pinched a few pennies along the way.

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Crossing into Petite-France

Penny-pinching tip #1: Take your car. And take your tent. This has become one of our favorite ways to travel in Europe. We have camped in the Wachau Valley of Austria, the Netherlands, and now the Black Forest. Camping does not have to limit you to outdoor activities (though that is something we enjoy). A tent can also be your base from which to explore the bustling towns of Europe. Heck, you can still pack a nice sweater or a dress. I’ve done it. Europeans tend to pamper their campgrounds, which does annoy me sometimes, but I know a lot of people might prefer it. There are also Airbnb campsites, which is what we did this time. And we ended out spending for two nights probably half of what we would have spent on one night in a hotel. As an added bonus, you get to take in all the beauty of nature.

Additional advice: Park at park-and-rides in larger towns and cities. And then take advantage of the tram or bus system. This is usually cheaper than paying for parking in the city center… and less stressful, in my opinion.

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We happened upon this lovely church, after getting caught in the rain.

Penny-pinching tip #2: Go out for one big traditional meal, instead of three meals a day. This is a tip we also implemented in Ireland. I would especially recommend making lunch your big meal, because menus tend to be cheaper. So real question– how do you get by on one restaurant meal per day? My answer– bring snacks from home to tide you over and/or go to the grocery store and cook for yourself. On our Black Forest trip, I made these pumpkin energy balls, packed some homemade biscuits, and brought along a couple other snacks. So breakfast was covered, and the snacks pretty much got us through lunch (I must admit that they were supplemented by a few “pain au chocolats” that we picked up from a bakery as soon as we got into Strasbourg).

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Mouth-watering French pastries

The meal that we ordered that night in Strasbourg still makes me laugh. One of the must-have regional dishes is called “choucroute,” French for sauerkraut. It’s ironic because we live in Germany, the land of limitless sauerkraut, and yet on our little excursion into France, what did we order? Why, choucroute! I have never seen such a massive pile of sauerkraut. They served it warm with a few different pork cuts and potatoes. It was quite hearty and delicious.

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You might not be able to tell… but there is a huge pile of sauerkraut underneath the meat!

Alternative to PP tip #2: Street Food! This is another of my and Tex’s favorite ways to eat plenty without breaking the bank.

Penny-pinching tip #3: Be a low-maintenance traveler. This is one that I am still working on… Ahem, yes, I did ask Tex to buy us some [DELICIOUS] lemon shortbread cookies at a specialty cookie shop. But honestly, it is not very difficult to spend an entire day just wandering the streets of a lovely European town, without spending money. Soak in the architecture, even of commonplace houses. Feast your eyes upon bakery displays. Walk on into that beautiful cathedral or through that peaceful park. Be a person who can appreciate things without having the thing. I’m preaching to myself here.

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Strasbourg’s charm did not disappoint. We promptly found the cathedral, which was stunning. It actually may tie (with St. Peter’s Dom in Regensburg) for my favorite cathedral. I am so glad that we decided to wait in the long line to go inside. Entry was free! We meandered through the streets surrounding the cathedral. All kinds of signs and banners decorated one of the streets, and countless bakery windows were filled with every manner of sweet treats and breads.

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Inside the lovely cathedral
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These beautiful stained-glass windows!

Next, we decided to visit the most famous and historic part of town, Petite-France. Half-timbered houses, adorned with flower boxes in the windows, lined the edges of the canals. We strolled over cobble-stoned footbridges and gaped at the quaint beauty surrounding us.

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Half-timbered buildings and canals in Petite-France

Those are all the penny-pinching tips that I can think up right now. Hopefully, I’ll have more soon ♥