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 🙂

 

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 ♥

Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart

Anyone remember the old cartoon Anastasia movie? I made Tex watch it with me a few weeks ago, because he had never seen it. The result: I’ve now had the song “Paris (Par-ee) holds the key to your heart” stuck in my head for basically a solid month, in anticipation of our trip to the City of Lights.

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Let’s start with the gritty truth. Paris is crowded as all get-out. And it has been romanticized beyond any hope of actualization. And ultimately, it (along with any other place) does not hold the key to your heart, or at least not mine. I was reminded once more of our human expectations for the world to satisfy the longings within us, and how they will always remain unfulfilled. Only when we turn to the Maker of all and the Lover of all mankind, can we truly live abundantly and be made whole.

That being said, we did have a lovely time in Paris over New Years. I’d like to share with you some of the things we did…

Day 1: Versailles

>> After stopping for the night at a French gas station and bedding down in the back of our car (which was its own little adventure), we made our way to the Royal Palace of Versailles. What a grand place. It was filled to the brim with paintings and sculptures, rich floral draperies and rugs, fine furnishings and lavish chandeliers. Ever since I first read about Versailles as a child, I have wanted to see the Hall of Mirrors… Being there and imagining it full of great lords and ladies decked out in their finest– wow.

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The Hall of Mirrors

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>> Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the day was the fact that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were almost completely glossed over. Though we saw painting after painting of Louis XIV, also called the “Sun King,” and others much more obscure (to us, anyway) in the royal lineage, I truly don’t remember seeing a single one of Louis XVI and only a couple of his famous queen. The audio guides also said next to nothing about them. We were able to walk down about a mile from the palace to the Petit Trianon, where Marie Antoinette spent most of her married life. It too surprised me. This queen known for saying, “Let them eat cake,” lived a much less frivolous existence than I had ever imagined. The two-story house boasts a very minimal ground floor with empty stone walls and a tiny but tasteful upstairs suite as sleeping quarters. During her time as queen before the Revolution, she had a small, fairy-like hamlet built along with a small functioning farm. This was within walking distance of her home, and was delightful to see.

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At Marie Antoinette’s hamlet

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>> The two of us were famished by the end of the day’s constant walking. So we stopped at a small bakery on our way to the car. That bakery is where I found my new favorite pastry: pain au chocolat. This croissant-like bread filled with soft, but not completely melted, chocolate might be Tex’s new favorite too. So stinkin’ good!

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Day 2: The Louvre and a full-course French meal

>> We learned the public transportation system fairly quickly, as our hotel was in the nearby town of Meudon. This has become one of our favorite things in all the big cities. Using buses and trains to get from one place to the next still feels like a grand adventure, and yet is also far less stressful than actually driving through the center of Paris with a confused GPS. We bought a 2-day city pass for both of us, which allowed us to hop on any subway at any time. That is definitely something we would do again.

>> We spent nearly 7 hours perusing room after room in the Louvre museum, and still didn’t see everything. I had no idea how huge that place is. It’s hard to even know what to write about it, because there was so much. Some of our favorite exhibits were the medieval and Renaissance Italian paintings, the ancient Egyptian artifacts (and real mummy!), and the ancient Persian art. It is just amazing how old some those things are and how well they have been preserved. Tex really loved seeing all the historical depictions of various battles and military heroes. My personal favorite was Carpaccio’s The Sermon of St. Stephen, which I would highly recommend looking up since I don’t have a good photo of it.

 

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A real Egyptian mummy… Sorry if that is too much.

 

>> For our big French meal, I had done hours and hours of research, probably too much honestly. I had originally decided on a restaurant called Benoit, but some planning complications made us change our mind to Chez Paul. You can see their menu here. It’s a little hole-in-the-wall French bistro in the Bastille district, and was more reasonably priced than others with more limited menus. For an appetizer, we both ordered escargot… and loved it! The snails came without their shells, which made us joke that maybe we looked too American for the “shell-on” experience. Ha! For our main dishes, Tex ordered a veal kidney dish and I had rabbit legs stuffed with goat cheese. Mine was delicious, and Tex liked his, so I won’t go into any more depth on the kidneys… Blergh! For desserts, we got profiteroles with chocolate sauce and the apple tart, both of which were very tasty.

 

 

Please forgive me for the poor food photography going on… But I had to share!

Day 3: The Eiffel Tower and a stroll through the city

>> A chunk of the morning was spent waiting in line for the Eiffel Tower. I really think we could have saved a decent amount of time if we had bought tickets ahead of time. Now we know. But seeing the the tower’s structure and going up to the top was actually more impressive than either of us were expecting.

 

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Our view from the top!

>> We used the rest of the day to see as much of Paris as we could. The Arc de Triomphe was accompanied by Nutella crepes, Notre-Dame Cathedral was followed by a peaceful walk in the gardens behind it, Sacre Coeur was an adventure by night that involved about 10 flights of stairs.

 

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Sacre Coeur in Montmartre district

>> At midnight of New Year’s Eve, we wanted to see the Eiffel Tower lights twinkle. So, we prepared a small French picnic for our supper. We walked into a “Fromagerie,” or cheese shop, and walked out with some of the yummiest cheese I have ever tasted, a pretty strong Gruyere. I wish I really knew how to talk about cheese, because this was seriously wonderful. So we stuffed that into the backpack, along with some fresh baguette and lemon-flavored chocolate from a 400-year-old chocolate store. Somewhere along the way, we ran across a Christmas market, which was selling a yummy-looking potato and cheese dish. We decided to try it– “tartiflette” they call it. Finding a bench near the Eiffel Tower but away from the crowds of people, we sat down to our small feast. This was one of my favorite moments.

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Tartiflette

>> The final moments of our time in Paris were spent in a crowd of at least 100,000 people waiting for the midnight twinkling of the Eiffel Tower to usher in the New Year. A few seconds later, we were speed-walking to the nearest metro station in hopes of beating the masses. Which we did.

That is a rather long summary of our trip! Thank y’all for reading, and I hope that this new year will be one of blessings for you.