Barcelona – The Chef’s Perspective

Here is a very special edition of our blog! An account of Barcelona’s Food Scene from the Chef’s Perspective. Enjoy!

What a culture shock Spain is. In a few short weeks, we have now gone from $15 beers in Iceland, to $8 beers in France, to now $2 beers in Spain.

Notable Restaurants – Poble Sec

Upon our arrival to Barcelona for a 2-week housesitting assignment, our host took us to their favorite local neighborhood spot, L’Avia, or better known to them Mario’s. On the edge of El Raval, this family run restaurant is a little gem with basically no menu. All the food is made ahead of time in large quantities and you order in a manner that is kind of like browsing through a pastry shop – “I’ll take one of those, a little of this and some of that”.  The food is the kind of Catalan cuisine you’d expect from your grandmother’s house, if you were a kid growing up in this region. Nothing fancy, just good ingredients cooked simply. An artist of many talents, the walls of this small place are covered with Mario’s own artwork and if you happen to come on a Wednesday around 3:00PM you can even here the restaurant broadcast his weekly radio show. At L’Avia it’s about the neighborhood and giving back.  Be prepared to drink as Cava is around 4.50€ a bottle and generally each diner is “gifted” a shot of the local liquor (or two) on the way out the door. Open from 11:00AM until 2:00AM, it’s definitely the spot to stop late night on the on the way to the bar, but for the paella you’ll want to arrive around 3:00PM and order a plate (for 5.50€!) right as the 3-foot pan comes off the stove.

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The BEST Patatas Bravas!

Right up the street from our housesit was an amazing little tapas bar, La Platilleria. Cheap drinks and great food – it is all you really need in this city. Since we arrived I’ve been seeing and hearing about patatas bravas, but as with many “famous” dishes around the world, there are so many places that serve terrible variations. After sampling her fair share of bad patatas bravas in her previous trip to Spain, Roxanne continuously refused to order them anywhere. Finally, I convinced here to order them here and we are so glad we did.  The first bowl came out – piping hot little pieces of deep-fried potatoes, julienned jalapeños, a chipotle sauce and a perfect garlic aioli. Exactly what this dish is supposed to be! (We ate here a couple of times and each visit called for 2 orders of Patatas Bravas!) Another regional dish done so well here was the Catalan tomato bread. You are given slices of bread, a garlic clove, a tomato cut in half, local Olive Oil and finishing salt to make it how you like it. Go heavy on the garlic, light on the tomato, whatever you like. This was by far the best way we had it in Barcelona.

Another local spot, Quimet & Quimet, is a bustling tapas bar. During one of our first nights in the area, we tried to get in but the tiny space was filled 3 people deep, shoulder to shoulder, and overflowing onto the street. If we were there for just the drinks it would be fine but we had heard so many great things about the food, we wanted to be able to relax and enjoy our experience. The next day we showed up for lunch and luckily got a spot right at the counter of the bar in this small 15×15 space. In cases on the counter in front of you is every possible canned or preserved item you could imagine from the region, and of only the best quality. Coming from the states anything canned we assume is the second-rate product because if it’s so good, why can it? In Spain it’s very different as they take pride in this food. At the product’s peak ripeness or season, it is canned to preserve the freshness and sometimes even improve upon it over the years, like a fine wine.

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The small bites are prepared to order right in front of you. We opted for Iberico cheeks with a piquillo pepper and potatoes, pickled mussels, tuna belly with uni, and a smoked salmon with yogurt and truffle honey. Everything was amazing, but the salmon was our absolute favorite. Slightly smoked salmon, the sweetness of the honey with the profoundness of the truffle, and the creamy yogurt to smooth it all out was the perfect mouthful. Delicious little bites to start the day, not to mention a pretty solid sangria as well.

During a quick stop at the local vermouth bar one afternoon, we heard a couple other “gringos” asking the bartender for dinner recommendations nearby and became curious as to he had suggested.  Since we were nearing the end of our two-week stay in the neighborhood, we wanted to see how our list compared and if there was anything thing we may have missed. Palo Cortao was one of his suggestions we had not heard of yet, so we decided we would try it for dinner. The namesake of the restaurant, DSC00017 (1)Palo Cortao, is a type of sherry so needless to say they had quite a selection. Of course we had to finish off the meal with a Pedro Ximénez (another great sherry), but before we get to after dinner drinks, let’s not forget the food. We started with marinated sardines (a dish we seemed to eat everywhere!) with local olive oil, orange zest and ginger, and they were phenomenal. Next, a grilled baby squid dish with pork belly and truffle emulsion. The squid were perfectly cooked and while the pork belly was good, it was a little too tough (or maybe I’m just a little partial to the way I cook it).  Finally came a braised oxtail with potato espuma and a very thick, rich jus. Delicious, just wish the potatoes has a little more texture to them, as they appeared almost liquid (a preparation we saw a couple of times). Great meal all in all – excellently priced and so close to home.

 

Notable Restaurants – Around the City

With the closing of El Bulli back in 2011, it was the end of an era. Ferran Adria was the man at the helm and his brother Albert was the pastry chef. A small restaurant secluded on the coast outside of Roses (and near impossible to navigate the one lane winding road) this dream team of chefs propelled themselves from doing zero people a night to being one of the originators of molecular gastronomy and the number one restaurant in the world for many years. It was here where, after a couple week stage, Grant Achetz learned the techniques that turned The French Laundry’s cuisine into what Alinea is today, and chefs like Jose Andres found their voice and went on to be one of the most successful and well know chefs in the world.

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In front of what was once the entrance to El Bulli

Within the next few years, Albert Adria set out to build his own reputation within the restaurant scene in Barcelona, and has definitely succeeded. His most popular restaurant, Tickets, is booked 2 months in advance as soon as the reservations become available. So we opted for nearby Nino Viejo and were not let down. A casual restaurant that focuses on small plates (like almost all of Barcelona), their menu was categorized by Butanes,

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Antojitos y Ensaladas, Del Mar, Tacos y Brasa, and Postres. All sold by the piece, in which you hand the waiter your paper “carte” with the quantity you would like to order – all delicious beyond belief. The night’s specials consisted of Bouqurones with a Tiradito sauce, and a house made tamale (which we both immediately knew we wanted).

After a round of amazing margaritas, one with sea salt “air” foam and the other al pastor style served in a taco shell shaped glass, the first course arrived and we were stunned. The texture of the masa in the tamale was like a perfectly cooked omelet, but so much lighter. Neither one of us had ever had (and didn’t think was possible) to make a tamale this fluffy – absolutely amazing! The Bouqurones were equally as delicious, swimming in a Tiradito sauce of aji pepper paste, leche de tigre, citrus and herbs. We finished the meal with their Al pastor and house tacos, which were both such flavorful bites that we had to get a second round of each.

Cal Pep, located on the edge of the gothic quarter, is very popular in Barcelona and has been for years. What was once a local spot for the freshest daily seafood, now has a line out the door with people waiting to be lucky enough to get one of the 18 seats at the counter and experience this wonderful food.  IMG_0841Upon squeezing through the front door, we probably stood waiting 30 minutes behind the full bar with a couple of glasses of blanc de blanc, watching to see when the next group would be done and we could finally have a seat. Once we sat there was no menu, just choose the number of courses and let the waiter take care of you. We chose 5 tapas and next thing you know the food started flowing.  Clams in a jamon broth, calamari fried so simply, tuna tartare, a potato and egg pancake (very traditional) with garlic aioli, and sea bass with garlic, roasted tomatoes, and potatoes. The clam dish was probably one of the best things we’ve eaten this entire trip, absolutely amazing, and as a whole the meal was top-notch. The whole time there seemed to be a sense of controlled chaos. With no menu and the waiter guiding you, as a diner you don’t really know what’s going on or how much the meal will cost. Sure enough when the bill came it was much more than we were expecting, but for such a great meal it was well worth it.

A friend who had just been in Barcelona in the fall sent me a list of the places he thought were great and worth checking it. Granja Elena was on the top of his list. Off the tourist’s beaten path in an old coffee bar on the backside of the Sants-Montjuïc neighborhood, is a
beautiful small restaurant in which the son took over the family business and turned it into probably the best breakfast/lunch spot in the city. We arrived around 3:00PM to a packed restaurant, tables full of people in business attire out for their “3 bottle of tinto” lunch. Luckily we arrived just as a table opened up and were immediately set up with a DSC00412 (1)bottle of Secrets Blanco Vino (chosen by our waiter and only 13€). This paired perfectly with our first course of cured tuna belly, fresh tomatoes and onions, dressed in what tasted like a white balsamic dressing.  It seems out of the ordinary to have tomatoes this good in march, but they were delicious. For the second course, we had clams in a braised white bean stew, a pairing that complemented each other perfectly. We were told we had to get the baby octopus with scrambled eggs and squid ink but it wasn’t available that day, so we opted for the suckling pig instead. It essentially was a slice of perfectly cooked porcheta with more of that potato espuma(!), a mustard seed infused honey, and red wine jus. We generally opt out of dessert as we are always left a little disappointed, but we decided to round out the meal with a pistachio tuille filled with a honey curd (which was almost like a marshmallow) and pistachio ice cream. Probably the best dessert we’ve had in a long time. So worth the trip away from the center of town, just be sure to get there early enough to secure a seat!

Right on the water in Barceloneta, Suquet De L’Almirall, has become very well known for their paella. We started with the traditional Catalan bread (like at every restaurant around here) followed by a salmon tartare with tzatziki sauce, capers and dill. Very well done and balanced, the perfect start. Then came the paella. At first glance, with a whole langostine right in the center, it looked like someone forgot it on the stove top 10 minutes too long and dehydrated the rice, but when we dug in it was delicious and cooked just right.  I haven’t had many paellas yet to compare, but this one was definitely a winner.

 

Pintxos Bars

The Basque Country’s version of tapas, Pintxos can easily be described as ‘tapas on bread’, but they’re so much more than that. Barcelona is full of bars piled- high with these little bites. All self service and between 1-2€ a piece, they are the perfect solution for an easy, casual, and inexpensive meal or late night snack (just be sure to keep track of your toothpicks so the bar staff can tally your bill at the end of the meal). We were lucky enough to be staying near the best spot for all the pintxos you could ever want – Blai Street. With easily 30 different bars serving Pintxos and Tapas, it’s easy to hop from one to the next to find a place and bite that suits your appetite.

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After sampling many of the places on Blai Street, La Tasqueta De Blai was hands down the best pintxo bar we found. Unlike many restaurants in popular tourist cities where quality generally takes a back seat to substance, this place goes above and beyond.  The type of ingredients like foie gras, fresh fish, and housemade sauces, shows that the staff actually takes pride to offer a quality product. No cucumber tomato skewers with dried up shit here.

 

Cheap Meals 

When traveling, it is unlikely that you will want to (or have the money to) spend eat meal sitting down for over an hour being waited on. The following are our recommendations for some great grab and go meals.

Cafe Viena Rambles – Maybe the only place on our list anywhere near Las Ramblas, this old prominent establishment was once rated the best Iberico Jamon Sandwich in the world by New York Times. While the sandwich was good, I don’t know that we would go as far to say “the best in the world”. Iberico, location and price can’t be beat.

Conesa Entrepans – Recently featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, this spot right on Plaça de Sant Jaume specializes in homemade sausage sandwiches, griddled to order.

El Pachuco – A small Mexican bar on the edge of El Raval and Poble Sec, and always overflowing with young locals. The Sopes cannot be missed – pilled high with your choice of meat on top a wonderful house made masa cake.

La Fabrica – With two locations in the gothic quarter, this quick stop is easy for a wide selection of Argentinian empanadas. Have them warmed up and eat at the counters or take them to go.

La Boqueria – The market is full of quick bites to grab as you walk around and browse all local products. Paper cups full of Iberico, Spanish cheese, and any flavor fresh fruit juice combination you can imagine! Head to the market as they are closing (around 6:00PM) for a deal on the fresh juices – we scored 3 different flavors for 1€!

Cerveseria 100 Montaditos – Not our proudest moment but with 1 euro jarras (mugs) of beer and 1 euro montaditos (little sandwiches), this Spanish chain restaurant is the perfect place for a quick recharge. Sandwiches are tiny (stick to the #1 – Iberico on a little warm bun with olive oil), but for 1€ they are a great midday snack.

 

Notable Watering Holes 

We were told about Doble during our day trip to Cadaques. This Amazing craft cocktail bar is the “off season” home to world famous cocktail master Manel Vehí (and winner of the international championship Mediterranean Inspirations 2015 by Gin Mare competition with a plankton infused drink). Doble offers a great menu with his best signature cocktails, elaborated with the last innovative cooking techniques and surprising textures. Creations influenced by his time with the Adrià brothers at El Bulli. He has since traveled around the world discovering ingredients and sharing his talents with chefs such as José Andrés and Grant Achatz, helping to develop the menu at Aviary (known as the best cocktail bar of USA). The cocktails less focused on the booze but on a seamless combination of world ingredients. An amazing experience, especially if he is there and you have a chance to sit at the bar and talk to him.

Another neighborhood spot in Poble Sec, La Confiteria, is a small craft cocktail and vermouth bar with décor that takes you back in time. Great flavor combinations and wonderful selection of vermouth, this place was always packed at night.

A surprising find in the Gothic Quarter, Alsur Cafè, is a late night coffee house and bar where locals gather to hang out on a quite night “in”. Their mojitos were great and only 3.50E each.

After wandering around the city all day, sometimes you just want to sit and have a couple beers. At La Sureña you can grab a bucket of 5 beers for only 4€, while overlooking the harbor. If you are in El Raval and want an authentic german beer hall style experience, L’Ovella Negra is the perfect spot (also offering cheap buckets of beer which are further discounted between 5-8PM)

 

Missed Recommendations

With just over two weeks in Barcelona we covered a lot of ground, but some how there is never enough time. El Rey de La Gamba on Barceloneta along the harbor and Quim Boqueria located in the market where two places that same highly recommended to us that we just didn’t have a chance to get to.

 

Our Stark Perspective (tips)

  • If you can, avoid the restaurants along Las Ramblas. They are grossly overpriced and not focused on quality.
  • Beers come in two sizes – Canya or Cana is a small beer (.2L) and a Doble or Jarra is a large beer (.5L)
  • Pintxo bars are a dime a dozen. There is minimal commitment so you don’t see anything you like, just keep moving to the next one.
  • Since the city is big, their midday siesta isn’t quite as “strict”. Many restaurants still do close midday and won’t open for dinner until 7 – 8PM.

Barcelona – Sunshine, Cava and Architecture

With just over two weeks in Barcelona on a housesitting assignment (more on that soon!), many miles of the city and its streets were explored. Beyond the well-known Antoni Gaudi architecture sprinkled throughout the city (Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera, Casa Batlló) below are our favorite highlights of our time wandering through the gothic quarter, strolling the beach, and hiking the hills of Barcelona!

 

The Markets

No trip to Barcelona (especially for a chef) would be complete without many trips to the markets. The most famous, Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, is situated about two thirds of the way up Las Ramblas. La Boqueria is one of Europe’s largest and most famous markets, with stalls selling any type of food product you could possibly image. Some small restaurants are sprinkled throughout and packed with people about 3 deep, just waiting their taste of some local fare. While the prices are inflated due to the heavy tourist presence, there are still some deals to be found – 2€ for 30 eggs (if you know how many eggs a day Drew eats this was a score!) or wander through around 5:45PM when the produce stands are trying to purge of their amazing cups of fresh fruit juice combinations (we got 3 cups for 1€).

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Our apartment was situated in Poble Sec, a great local neighborhood to the south west of Las Ramblas. The nearest market was Sant Antoni, filled with locals and much more authentic. The old original building is undergoing renovations so two temporary structures are in place, each spanning a whole city block. One of the structures is filled with clothing and household goods, while the other is centered around food. Some of the most obscure items could be found here.

 

Neighborhoods

IMG_0774One a nice sunny day there is nothing better than a glass of cava and walk down the beach. Barceloneta is the picture-perfect place to enjoy this combination. A triangular, mostly residential neighborhood surrounded by a sandy beach on the Mediterranean and side by side bars and restaurants along the harbor. Views of the modern gold casino structure are visible as you make your way down the boardwalk. On Sunday’s a lovely little market pops up featuring local goods and specialty food items. A go-to spot to relax and escape the city.

The most well-known neighborhood of Barcelona, the Gothic Area, is the center of the old city. The quarter was built primarily in the late 19th and early 20th century, though several buildings date from medieval times. The Barri Gòtic retains a labyrinthine street plan, with many small, dark and cold streets opening out into squares. Brimming with charm and interesting architectural details at every corner, it’s near impossible to know exactly where you’re going and it is inevitable you will make a wrong turn. If you see something that you want or a store you’d like to visit, stop then as it will be hard to find it again.

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Just behind La Boqueria to the south of Las Ramblas lies El Raval, the grungy, young, “hipster” area – Barcelona’s most controversial and yet interesting neighborhood. It is certainly not the safest or the cleanest area in Barcelona but it does have a special personality and character all of its own. The area is historic, authentic and full of personality with a huge variety of cafes, restaurants and bars. We never once felt unsafe walking home in the evening, however for the warry traveler, they may find this area a little intimidating and best to explore during the day.

Our apartment was situated in the neighborhood now known as Poble Sec, a residential area at the base of Montjuïc on the edge of El Raval. Everything you could possibly need could be found in this area, especially wandering towards Mercat Sant Antoni. Local, warn, neighborhood feel with plenty to see and do, this felt like one of the best neighborhoods to escape the darkness (and tourists!) of Gothic/El Raval, while still being within easy walking distance. Not to mention, and of utmost importance, there were a ton of great restaurants to choose from, with some of our favorite meals coming from right in our neighborhood.

To the western corner of the city, high up on the hill was Sarrià – an easy visit after Park Güell. This lovely little area was the last of the independent villages annexed by Barcelona in 1921, which could explain why it retains much of the original flavor and personality of its streets and community. Sarrià has always been one of the city’s most prosperous neighborhoods and the area where Barcelona’s affluent classes chose to live. The traditional architecture of the neighborhood paired with the typical food market and century-old shops, felt very “French-like” and as though we had stumbled upon an entirely different region. (If you do venture up to Sarrià, Wall Street Journal once named Bar Tomas as best Patatas Bravas in Barcelona. An old local bar hardly changed by times, serves up fried potatoes with intense garlic aioli and chili oil. While not our favorite we consumed, they were still enjoyable).

 

View Points

Barcelona is nestled in a valley between two mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. This positioning gives visitors multiple opportunities for some amazing photo opps and spanning views.

Not only just a great view of the city, Park Güell is a public park to the west composed of gardens and architectural elements of Gaudí’s artistic genius and innovative structural solutions that would become the symbol of his organic style. Commissioned in the early 1900s, this design was far beyond its years and pushed every boundary of the time, taking inspiration from organic shapes, creating a series of series of new structural solutions, and adding imaginative and playful ornamental details. Tickets must now be purchased to enter the small monumental area where the majority of Gaudí’s work is on display, as tourists over the past decade began to destroy the park, taking pieces of the mosaics home as souvenirs. (Save 1€ and book your tickets online instead of buying directly at the park. The monumental area however is only a fraction of this vast park. Some of our favorite spots to explore where beyond the enclosure and provided amazing views of the city below. Bring a picnic and plan on spending a couple hours. (There are 2 Metro stops on the green line to reach the park. If you want the exercise, get off at Lesseps for a STEEP climb to the top).

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In the monument area of Park Guell

On the other side of the city, to the southwest, and just behind our apartment in Poble Sec is Montjuïc, a broad shallow hill with a relatively flat top overlooking the harbor and a sheer cliff to the east. A nice more-gentle climb to the top with its various gardens along the way, offers commanding views of the city. Upon reaching the top, the large fortress stands, dating back to the 17th and 18th century. It served as a prison (and was the site of many executions), often holding political prisoners, until the time of General Franco. A wonderful walk and an interesting area to visit on a nice day.

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The fortress at Montjuic

The Arenas de Barcelona at Plaça Espanya was a bullring built in 1900 in the Moorish Revival style, which has now been converted into a shopping center. The round rooftop offers 360 degree views overlooking Montjuïc and the southern side of the city. For free entrance to the rooftop, go through the mall and use the escalators to avoid the 1E charge for the elevator.

 

Museums

The Picasso Museum is situated in an old estate within the gothic quarter (part of the beauty of the exhibit) and houses one of the most extensive collections of his artwork. Over 4,000 works on display, most from his early life and depicting his relationship with Barcelona, it shows a completely different side of the artist than we know today. Not only does the collection make this museum special, but it was the first museum dedicated to Picasso’s work and the only one created during the artist’s life. Entrance to the museum is free Every Sunday after 3pm and all day on the first Sunday of each month, but be sure to book tickets online to reserve your spot.

Another notable museum in Barcelona is the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, which displays artwork from the 10th to the 20th centuries specifically from the Catalan region (which Barcelona is a part of). The stately building, the Palau Nacional, was the main site of the 1929 International Exhibition and again is part of the beauty of the museum. There are four permanent collections Romanesque and Gothic art, Renaissance, Baroque art, and Modern art which included interesting interior pieces from Gaudí and other local artists influential in the art nouveau movement. Entrance to this museum is free on Saturday after 3pm. Don’t miss a trip to the rooftop for views of the Olympic Park and Plaça Espanya.

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View from the roof of National Art Museum 

Carnaval

DSC00117Due to the timing of our visit, we happened to be in Barcelona during holy week in which they too celebrate Carnaval for 1 week only. Their Mardi Gras style street party was much more in line with how we imagined Nice was going to be. Every neighborhood celebrates individually, however the kickoff of the week brings everyone together in Plaça Sant Jaume for confetti cannons and the throwing of oranges (which has now been replaced by large orange balloons). Bands and dancers wander through the street before gathering in their neighborhood Plaça for a large party. Residents mark the end of Carnaval with the celebratory burying of the Sardine on Ash Wednesday. We were fortunate to stumble upon a couple celebrations, as we found the website to be really complicated and hard to determine exactly when and where the gatherings were to took place.

 

Day Trips through Cote d’Azur

With the French Riviera spanning far from Nice, we decided to see what other lovely towns were nestled along the rocky coastline of the Mediterranean.

Monaco

Whether traveling north by train (7€ each way) or by bus (1.50€ each way – bus 100 from Nice Port. Be sure to sit on the right side of the bus!) the views winding through the mountainous coast are absolutely gorgeous. We opted for the bus since we really had no timeline to get to Monaco on a Sunday when we knew many things would be closed. The bus route hugs the very edges of the coast and stops at some lovely little towns, just radiating with charm. (When we return to the French Riviera in warmer weather, we will be sure to stop and explore).

At last we arrive to Monaco and jump off the bus just outside the tunnel at Place d’Armes.  A couple hundred steep steps later, situated high upon “the rock” as the locals call it, is Monaco’s Palace and Monaco-Ville (or the old town) with sweeping views of both harbors and those infamous mega yachts!  At 11:55AM each day the changing of the guards occurs. While this is not the most elaborate procession I have ever seen, it is still interesting to witness age old traditions that remain today. Again, getting lost amongst the old streets is always enjoyable, and Monaco is no different (due to location on the rock, Monaco’s old town is much smaller than most). To the far side of the Place d’Armes tucked away is the Saint Nicholas Cathedral, the location in which Princess Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III in 1956. This roman catholic cathedral also contains the remains of many of the members of the Monaco ruling families, including Princess Grace Kelly and many of the Grimaldi family. A short walk through the lush St Martin Gardens, we arrive to the Oceanographic Museum and aquarium, established by Prince Albert I in 1910. This impressive building somehow defies gravity, towering far above the sheer cliff face and sea below.

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Monaco’s new harbor to the South

After covering much of Monaco-ville, is was time to head to the harbor and get our first up close and personal look at the Mega-yachts and fancy cars that the city has become famous for. Since there was no cruise ship docked, we were able to walk out to the edge of the jetty and get a wonderful view of the old harbor and the buildings that overlook it. Walking along the harbor’s edge, you can just imagine the people who own these boats and the lives they life. Upon reaching top of the harbor, we were greeted with our first view of the Monaco Grand Prix circuit, outlined on the streets with red and white paint.  While the top of the harbor is probably the second most touristy place in the city (not on a Sunday in February), there were a few nice little places tucked behind which I am sure are bustling with people in the warmer months. If you happen to find yourself in the city around Happy Hour, the Brasserie de Monaco (right on the harbor’s edge) brews their own beer and offers 3.50€ pints from 6-8pm.

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Climbing yet another hill along the far side of the harbor (I’m beginning to sense a trend in many of these cities!) Monte Carlo was awaiting us along with Pointe Focinane, which in our opinion had the best views of the apartment buildings clinging to the cliffs and the main harbor below. On a clear day 3 countries – France, Monaco, and Italy – can be seen from this point. Continuing along the grand prix route, which takes a major bend just behind the casino, the Fairmont Monte Carlo appears along with the swankiest outdoor Starbucks and views of Monaco’s only beach, Plage du Larvotto to the north.

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Wandering the area around Monte Carlo is where the streets just ooze with money – designer shops at every corner, luxury
vehicles, and gold clad buildings. Tourists are welcome to take pictures of the vehicles, but don’t even think about touching one (the guards sternly scolded a woman for practically sitting on the hood)! The lobby of the casino is dripping with riches and if you bring your passport, you are welcome to enter the casino floor, although a little intimidating.

 

 

Given the season and the day of the week, like France many shops and restaurants were closed, so we opted to head back to Nice for the evening. A very easy and inexpensive day trip to see other parts of Cote d’Azur and experience a taste of the luxury lifestyle.

Antibes

Oh Antibes. I had heard such great thinks about this quaint little town south of Nice where a medieval wall separated the sea from the old town. Wonderful sweeping beaches of white sand and a multitude of restaurants and shops to choose from.

In an effort to save a couple dollars (we have many months to go!) we chose to take the local bus for 1.50€ each direction instead of the 8€ train. Unlike the bus to Monaco, Route 200 did not hug the coast and was a very local bus stopping every couple of blocks. Over an hour later we arrived to the city, and were greeted by the harbor which housed larger yachts than those we had seen in Monaco. It seems that this town just a few kilometers to the south is where serious buyers go to custom build, charter, or store their MEGA yachts for much less than the overrated Monaco harbor.

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The medieval wall of Antibes with the Mediterranean Sea crashing upon it

With the Mistral winds blowing at close to 40mph, we ducked behind the city wall to explore the old part of town. Much to our surprise there was literally NOTHING open. Maybe a dozen store and about half a dozen restaurants. Not even the Picasso museum was open on a Monday. I figured some things would be closed but not near this much. Due to the terrible winds, it was near impossible to get good views of the city and the sea from outside the wall so we were forced to wonder through the streets for a couple hours before grabbing a coffee, a couple beers, and heading back to Nice.

Antibes really looks like an amazing little town and we were so disappointed there wasn’t more for us to experience. The weather was a major downfall in spending more time wandering along the water and discovering some of its hidden gems (Supposedly many celebrities frequent Antibes to escape the high-profile locations like St Thomas and Monaco). We most certainly will visit Antibes again to sample the great cuisine their restaurants had listed, many using locally caught seafood from just outside their city walls.

Tip from a friend – Stop to eat at LE J (17 Avenue Dr Dautheville, 06160 Antibes, France) for amazing food and great staff.

 

Our Stark Perspective

  • Many of the towns in Cote d’Azur are easily accessible by train and/or bus. It might be much more worthwhile to stay in one central location and just day trip to many of the towns. We have been told the road connecting them is one of the most expensive in Europe to drive.
  • France SHUTS DOWN on Sunday/Monday and these towns are no different, especially in Winter.
  • The nicer beaches seem to be to the south of Nice, however they are much smaller than many US beaches.

 

Helpful Resources

 

Nice – Carnaval in Cote d’Azur

The French Riviera – with Nice at its core – is a world-renowned vacation destination where millions travel each year to experience the warm weather, great vistas, and beautifully fresh cuisine.

Maybe because it was February, maybe because it was Carnaval –  but we didn’t quite feel this way. We had such high hopes for a beautiful old world beach town and our first sight of the Mediterranean. While we certainly enjoyed our time away from the big metropolitan cities of the north (and finally getting a sun break or two), it was far from the pristine picture in our minds – grubby in spots, very commercial, and the beach made entirely of rocks.

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Venturing towards the water’s edge from the main commercial area of town (and the train station), the cute little old town of Nice was very typical of the many other old towns throughout the country. Small, dark, winding streets full of shops and restaurants in an old-world opulence kind of way. Getting lost amongst the cobblestone streets was part of the fun, as many of the stores in the heart of old town had local provincial goods.

The Markets

Every morning between 8:00AM and 1:00PM along Cours Saleya (a parallel street to the water’s edge where stunning arches allow the blue water of the Mediterranean to nod hello to those passing by) market stalls are set up selling wonderful local produce, meats, olives, sweets, and ceramics. Unfortunately for us, we did not have a well-equipped kitchen in our Airbnb or we would have taken full advantage of the beautiful goods and cook in a couple of nights (after all, the chef needs to keep up his skills rights?). Vendors are likely to make deals after the 12:00NOON cannon goes off- a LOUD boom notifying the vendors it’s time to begin packing up- which completely caught us off guard our first day in town! The beginning of the street hosts a flower market, Marche aux Fleurs, which stays open until around 4:00PM. I imagine each household in Nice always has a lovely bouquet on their table.

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The fun comes on Monday morning, when all the food items are put away and thousands of antiques are unloaded. Such a wide range of items from furniture and kitchen wares to weapons and old advertisements – I’m pretty sure we will be taking a trip back to Nice in the future to load up a suitcase or two! Because who doesn’t need battered up copper pots, mixed silver, and a vintage Chanel bag?

 

Château de Nice

Just past the dark streets of old town, castle hill rises straight up out of the Mediterranean waters. Taking advantage of the free workout, we climbed the winding staircases to the multiple vista points overlooking Nice’s red-tiled roofs and spanning view of the Sea. This site has been occupied since ancient times, more recently by a medieval castle which was conquered and dismantled by Louis the XIV in 1706. An absolute highlight of the city, this peaceful forested oasis peppered with ancient ruins and stunning views from all sides, cannot be missed!

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Cuisine

Ahhh the first taste of the Mediterranean. Gone were the days of preserved, rich and fatty foods. Bring on the fresh seafood and local produce!

La Merenda – 4 Rue Raoul Bosio, 06300 Nice, France

In this tiny little 24 seat restaurant, a 2 Michelin star chef gave up the “fame” and stars to open this location run by he and his wife. A small menu written in chalk, features dishes he feels like cooking up that day. We started the meal with the fresh Pates au Pistou (spinach pasta with French pesto), and it was some of the best we have ever had. Complex stockfish stew and tripe sausage, both local rustic specialties, did not disappoint. Our meal was finished with a plate of young goat cheese drizzled in Olive Oil. While the server had that rude French attitude we had yet to experience (and questioned our American palates multiple times which to us, was insulting) all the dishes were so simple, yet bursting with flavor. A top contender for best meal in France!

Boulangerie Jeannot – 8 Rue Saint-François de Paule, 06300 Nice, France

A lovely bakery just on the edge of Cours Saleya Market, perfect for your morning pastry or that afternoon espresso and savory delight. On par with some of our favorite spots in Paris, this busy spot did not disappoint. We especially loved the small breads twisted with items like jamon and cheese or gorgonzola and walnuts.

Nicoise Classics

You cannot wander the streets of old town and the market without running into about a dozen places selling Socca. This chickpea pancake is a classic Nicoise street food, chopped up and served piping hot from a huge round pan. Pissaladiere, another delicious classic, is a caramelized onion tart topped with a single olive. Both good inexpensive snacks to grab while bustling on to your next destination or exploring the streets when most other places are closed.

 

Carnaval

dsc09397-1European Mardi Gras – a two-week celebration full of entertainment and energy. While it was not quite what we had expected (a full blown nonstop street party), the two parades that we attended were still enjoyable. During the day, the flower battles featured floats dripping with fresh arrangements and young women dressed up in a themed costume complementary to their float. The excitement of this parade is the throwing of flowers into the crowd (by the end their floats are completely bare of any bloom!). Between each float a troop of performers from drum lines to traditional Bolivian dancers, entertained the crowd.

At night, the parade route comes alive with multicolored lights and patrons in costume. 17 imaginative floats, this year in the theme of the King of Energy, proceed around the route showing off a year’s works of artistry. The floats were incredible, many as tall as three stories and one float even close to 50 feet long across multiple wheeled platforms! Political Satire is also a common subject for many of the floats, this year featuring Donald Trump, The US and China, as well other European political leaders. Many of the same performers from the flower parade were positioned between the evening’s floats, but outfits and routines altered for the high-energy festivities

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Unfortunately, the world is a changed place this year especially in Nice where a terrorist attack last summer has left the city on edge for large gatherings such as “the biggest carnival celebration in Europe”. Due to this, security was heightened, and the parade was contained to a small circular area around Place Massena. It was a relief that no one seemed apprehensive, and at no point did we feel nervous. It is our hope that these events will become a distant memory and Carnaval can return to the large open celebration it once was!

 

Our Stark Perspective (Tips)

  • We wouldn’t make a trip to Nice especially for Carnaval, but if you happen to be in the south of France, be sure to check out the much more entertaining light parade in the evening and for less than half the cost!
    • Buy a standing room ticket in Zone A to get the best action and views of the floats and performers.
  • Accommodations near the water or in old town will allow for a much better and more authentic feel of the city.
  • If you can, take advantage of the market – especially sampling the socca and fresh olives.
  • While the weather may be mild, it can still get chilly in the winter evenings. Spring and Fall would be the best time to visit, to avoid the huge tourist crowds.

 

Useful Resources

 

 

 

 

 

Lyon – Millions of stairs and Michelin Stars

If Paris is the heart of France, Lyon is certainly the stomach. The chef and I arrived, prepared to eat! Our first day in the city lead us down the main streets of town in search of the gastronomic glory it had become known for.

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Chef Paul Bocuse, based in Lyon, is known as one of the most prominent chefs associated with the nouvelle cuisine – a less opulent and calorific style than the traditional cuisine classique. It was he who began the movement in French cooking to stress the importance of using the highest quality fresh ingredients. His restaurant ‘Auberge du Pont de Collonges’ just north of the Lyon town center has retained their 3 Michelin stars since 1965. He is also the name sake of the Bocuse D’or, also in Lyon and held every two years, a live culinary competition where twenty-four of the most promising chefs in the world experience two days of intense competition – a “Culinary Olympics”.

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Drew with Paul Bocuse depicted in one of the cities many murals

But back to the city of Lyon! There was a different feel here, one of young modern urban culture. The streets of the main downtown area were filled with 20 and 30 somethings, strolling from one music or rock shop to the next and a tattoo shop every couple of streets.  An interesting contrast from the main arrondissements of Paris, and certainly from the other neighborhoods in Lyon where the French classic chefs and their patrons would reside.

dsc09116We found our way to Le Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse – a gourmet market with stalls selling some of the best French foods in the world – the nicest looking cheese, meat, sweets, wines, amazing bakeries, and fresh seafood. But unlike many of the other markets we had come across in France, this one featured small restaurants bustling with locals on their lunch break. A visit to Le Halles would not be complete without a purchase from Mere Richard, famous for its Saint Marcellin cheese – a specialty of the Rhône-Alpes region – and revered throughout France. A coupe other things to indulge in Lyonnaise cuisine, like some foie gras, and we were set! Again – another trip, we would have left with lighter pockets and a bag full of gourmet products!

After taking in the sights and smells we were starving, having decided not to eat at the market due to the amount of people in each restaurant stall. We wandered over to LEpicure 8, a laid back casual spot for students with great tartines such as warm pear with chevre and honey. A wonderful break from the hustle and bustle of the city and the market. Leaving completely satisfied, we took the Finacular to La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière, situated high on the hill on the west bank of the Saone river, to get the best sweeping views of all of Lyon before headed back to the AirBnB to relax before dinner, indulging in some of our market goods.

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The view of Lyon and the Saone River

For dinner we found ourselves at Le Balthazart – a small place on the hill with Bib Gourmand Michelin recognition – and kitchen full of women! (The chef does happen to be a man, but I guess he has formed a staff of all women. A nice surprise, especially for France). At 30 Euro per person, their Prix Fix Menu (popular at many French restaurants) included 3 courses of seasonal, delicious, and well thought out menu items. A wild game and foie terrine and a lovely squash soup with mussels started out the meal.  For the main courses, an excellent variation on a Shepard’s pie (In France?!)  made with confit lamb and dried fruit and Cod ala plancha with sweet potato and crab coconut cromesqui, was just as delectable. To finish off the meal, the Salted Butter Caramel ice cream with a gooey chocolate cake, was not only the best dessert on this trip, but a top contender for best ice cream we’ve ever had.  The food was great! Innovative, beautiful and exceptionally well priced. Certainly worth a visit on a trip to Lyon. Not quite ready to turn in for the evening, a visit to Soda Bar offered the perfect nightcap – a small trendy bar with inventive cocktails and a nice atmosphere.

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Day 2 was yet again centered around food! Our first stop for the traditional French breakfast of pastries lead us to Boulangerie Saint Vincent for literally the best croissant I have EVER had! You absolutely cannot miss the ‘les brioches pralines ou chocolate’. It was so good, I forgot to take a picture before devouring half. Due to the boulangerie’s location, a stroll through old town which dates back to pre-roman times, was a great way to see the buildings before the tourists begin to fill the streets. But not soon after, it was time for lunch!

 

La Bijouterie was the first time in the trip where we would break from “local” cuisine. This tiny restaurant with fogged up floor to ceiling windows, only opens for a couple of hours at each service. Wonderful little dim sum bowls featuring homemade sauces just exploded with layers of flavor. Two kinds of rice, natural and mushroom, steamed in a banana leaf and served fresh out of the basket. It was a welcome experience.

Another walk, this time to fully explore the streets of old town of Lyon and take in the sights of such unbelievably old and well-preserved structures. Lyon Old Town (Vieux Lyon) is France’s best concentration of well-preserved Renaissance buildings, built when the city grew rich from trade fairs and banking.

After the positive experience at La Bijouterie, we took the sous chef’s (and many others) recommendation and headed to Café Sellion for our last dinner in Lyon. This restaurant is no different that the transformation happening throughout the culinary world, a young chef moving away from the classics and opening the door for nouvelle cuisine. With a very small prix fix menu of 2 options per course, it was very easy for us to order each item on the menu that evening.

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The amuse of cockles, grapefruit, and chowder broth

An amuse of cockles, grapefruit and chowder broth was easily the best thing we ate all night. A perfect couple of bites with tremendous flavor. But like many of these new progressive menus, the harmonious flavor combinations took a back seat to odd pairings, ingredients, and techniques. While in winter fresh ingredients are not as abundant as warmer months, the innovative uses like pomelo 4 ways on the fish dish, including huge pieces of the bitter rind, just seemed to miss the mark. Our server was very soft-spoken, forgetting half the components on the dish, and spoke very little English. This paired with the fact that we were unable to distinguish half of items on the plates, left us unsatisfied and a slightly confused, not the what we were hoping for on our way out-of-town. Plating was beautiful and we applaud the creativity, however a few tweaks would have transformed the menu.

dsc09161No trip to Lyon would be complete without a meal at a certified Bouchon Lyonnais.  Before catching the train to Nice, we headed up the hill one last time (Did I forget to mention that Lyon has a MILLION stairs!) to Daniel et Denise. This brassiere was exactly what Drew thought we would find more of in Paris. Small family run, a couple of front of the house staff, and all the French classics on the menu. We were the only ones in the restaurant under the age of 50 and speaking English, a true sign we had found a local spot! Local “Silk Weavers” Stew, a boiling hot pot of pork cheek, pork rind, thick-cut bacon and Lyonnais sausage, and Lyonnais salad were accompanied by sides of crispy potatoes and a pasta dish of the day. A traditional and delicious end to our gastronomic discovery of Lyon.

 

 

Paris – Walking off the Calories

Paris – The city of lights. The city of love. The Heart of France.
There are a million sites and sources on what to do with your time here – a French New York City with world-famous places and beautiful architecture. But we went for 1 real reason – to eat and absorb the culinary scene that’s arguably the basis of all western cuisines today. So instead of reiterating what many others would say, here is our culinary point of view (with a couple other non-food related notable findings) as we spent a week walking and eating throughout this magnificent city.

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Restaurants Recommendations

Ahhh the food…. Some not so good, some AMAZING! As with any big city and especially one where food is so highly acclaimed, there will be may places that cater to the tourist palate and aren’t quite up to par. They may talk a good a good game, but as always it comes down to execution. Here are a couple of places we thought excelled!
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The Frenchie Bar (5 Rue du Nil, 75002 Paris) – The amazing owner from Le Coq Rouge in Reims, yet again did not fail us. He sent us on a quest to find this small wine bar up in the 2nd arrondissement (they also have a sit down fixed price restaurant, a takeaway storefront, and now a wine shop all on the same street). At 6:30pm each night the doors open to this lovely hidden gem of a wine bar. Rustic and warm, the interior features communal high tops and an open kitchen. Behind the glass, 3 chefs intricately prepare wonderful small plates that were some of the best we had our entire week there. This place is not to be missed during any food lovers trip to Paris!

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L’Avant Comptoir (3 Carrefour de l’Odéon, 75006 Paris) – Creperie in the front (takeaway only) and standing tapas bar in the back. This small place hangs their menu from the ceiling and features some French style and traditional Spanish tapas. Great little nibbles for your mid-day hunger when wandering around Le Jardin du Luxembourg.

 

L’Assiette (181 Rue du Château, 75014 Paris) – Traditional French Brasserie filled with locals! Cozy and casual (although the woman next to us was dripping in Chanel jewelry and designer clothing) this lovely little spot served up an amazing Cassoulet – bubbling hot and filled with a wonderful mixture of meats

La Brasserie de l’Isle Saint-Louis (55 Quai de Bourbon, 75004 Paris) – Another French classic brasserie (this time filled with the typical French servers and GIANT espresso machine behind the bar), we were pleasantly surprised by the steak frites served with caramelized shallots and the onion and bacon “tart”. Beef Tartare was being prepared tableside at nearly every other table – a specialty of the house I can imagine.

dsc09089Les Fables de La Fontaine (131 Rue Saint-Dominique, 75007 Paris) – Michelin 1 Star Restaurant serving a 25 Euro lunch, what could go wrong? This little place offered up beautifully plated food and great flavor. And for the price, it couldn’t be beat. *Many places offer a set prix fixe menu, in which the dishes are already decided. We ended up going with one set menu and 2 al la carte options so that we had different dishes*

Pastry/Sweets

On every block, there are at least 2 boulangeries (bakeries) and 1 passelling sweets, chocolate, or macaroons. Nothing is better than walking up to the local bakery, buying a fresh baguette, and devouring half of it before you even get back to your apartment. While we had our fair share of mouth-watering pastries (honestly how could there be a bad butter flakey croissant?), the below were exceptional!

Du Pain et des Idees (34 Rue Yves Toudic, 75010 Paris) – With a line out the door, and rightfully so, this place should be sought out. Specializing in “pinwheel” pastries, this amazing patisserie had many flavors to choose from. We settled on the Praline version and it was absolute heaven! I am glad this was not near our apartment, or I would have been there every morning and sampled them all.

Pierre Hermé Paris (multiple locations) – What’s a trip to Paris without purchasing some delicate Macaroons? Pierre Hermé was awarded the title of World’s Best Pastry Chef in 2016 by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. His shop features interesting and innovative flavor combinations, which were a treat to enjoy.

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Food markets

With the best ingredients stemming from every square mile of the country, Paris has some amazing establishments dedicated to the regions’ finest. The sights, the colors, the smells, the quality – these markets were a food lover’s dream! (Too bad we have a long way to go on this journey, or our suitcases would have been full!)

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Galeries Lafayette Gourmet (35 Boulevard Haussman, 75009 Paris) – This multi-level food hall reminded us very closely to Eataly, only focused mainly on French ingredients. The displays so beautiful – everything from mounds of colorful spices, to the best dry aged meats, and legs of pate negra hanging from the ceiling – you feel bad disrupting them in order to purchase what they have to offer.

La Grande Épicerie de Paris (38 Rue de Sèvres, 75007 Paris) – smaller, less crowded and a little more approachable, this gourmet market does not disappoint. A staple stop on every trip to Paris!

Culinary Streets

Although the sights and smells of gourmet foods can be found on every street in Paris, there are a couple notable streets where the industry has found its niche. At each store front you can find either a café, brasserie, or merchant proud of their local ingredients. A feast for the eyes, and hopefully the stomach.

  • Rue Cler (7th arrondissement)
  • Rue Buci (6th arrondissement)
  • Rue Montorgueil (1st/2nd arrondissement)

Other Sights & Activities

Despite what the chef may have liked, our trip to Paris could not have solely been spent hoping from one restaurant to the next, filling our stomachs with yet another traditional French dish. Many of our days were spent walking through neighborhoods taking in the architecture and ticking off the “must sees” on your first trip to Paris. Below are a couple other places we felt were worthwhile.

Palais Galleria – Not only is Paris a food capital but it is also a fashion capital of the world. Having a bachelor’s degree in Fashion, this was on MY must do list. Beautifully preserved garments, some dating back to the 18th century, this collection of garments told the story of French fashion and its notable designers through the 1990’s. The museum does not take long to go through, so if you are in the Trocadero area and enjoy fashion – I highly recommend it!

Fontainebleau – By the end of the week, we had explored pretty much all of the notable arrondissements in Paris and were looking for something a little different. In lieu of the Versailles day trip, we decided on Fontainebleau – a château said to have inspired Versailles, with a fraction of other tourists. We boarded Train R out of Gare de Lyon’s main platforms and within 50 minutes we arrived to the local station where a quick trip on the city bus dropped us off at the château.

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The Throne Room at Fontainebleau

As we wandered our way through staterooms and halls once occupied by the kings of France dating back to the 1100’s, often times we were the only ones in the room allowing us time to take in all the intricate details. In the warmer weather months, the grounds feature ponds, gardens, fountains, and a huge forest with walking trails. This château was equally impressive and for only €11.00, was certainly a day well spent

  • The City of Fontainebleau is a quaint town with a main street riddled with shopping and restaurants. Trains run every half hour back to Paris so some time can easily be spent wandering the streets.
  • We stopped for lunch at Bistrot 9, a small place situated on a side street just before the entrance to the grounds. This authentic French bistro served up some delicious plates of French classics. (The Beef Tartar was the best we had all week and the baked camembert with honey… need I say more?!)


The Louvre
 – This museum goes without saying, it’s worth a trip. In for some inclement weather? A full day can easily be spent wandering the thousands of rooms. We were fortunate to hit the days just right and scored free entrance. Given the timing of our visit, we concentrated on Decorative Arts/Europe – an in-depth continuation of our trip to Fontainebleau . With so much to see it can be quite overwhelming, so focus on the collections that interest you most.

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Until next time Paris! We will be back!

Our Stark Perspective (Tips) –

  • If you plan on doing a lot of walking, purchasing the 10 Pack of tickets should be sufficient for a week in the city. If you plan to go to Versailles and/or Fontainebleau, purchase the week pass (Navigo Découverte) is worth the extra cost.
  • Trocadero is the best view of the Eiffel Tower and can be easily reached on the metro. Best advice I ever received – the first time you see the Eiffel tower up close and in person, do it at NIGHT! It’s magical (Bonus – At the top of every hour it twinkles)
  • Many local businesses are closed either Sunday or Monday (sometimes both).
    • Except in the tourist areas where hours are continual – businesses generally close around 2 or 3, before reopening again around 6. For restaurants, many stop serving lunch at 2 and do not open again for dinner until 7 or 8pm.
  • Bus Route 72 (you can use a regular transit ticket to board) runs along the Seine and is a virtual rolling tour of Paris, connecting many of the main sights. While we did not get to take advantage this trip, it is a great way to see the city of lights especially at night!
  • 95% of the city’s museums are free on first Sunday of every month. If you are able to coordinate your schedules around this, it could be a large savings.
  • Supermarkets with great ingredients are plentiful. To save a couple of dollars during the day, stop in a purchase some cured meats, cheese, and fresh-baked bread to assemble your own sandwiches, just like they sell on the street.

Helpful Resources

Reims – Champagne, France: Underground Chalk Tunnels filled with Golden Bubbles

Upon arriving into Charles de Gaulle Airport from the snowy, icy Iceland morning we boarded the local TGV high-speed train for a quick 50 min trip to Reims, the epi-center of the Champagne region. Gone were the days of preserved seafood to withstand the winter and a language we couldn’t barely comprehend. Hello golden bubbles, fresh baked carbs galore, and the beginning of our culinary exploration.

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The Notre Dame of Reims

First things first, we headed to the closest Champagne house to find out that there were no more English tours for the day. While this was not the ideal scenario, the guide quickly sent us in search of our first glass of bubbles at a local wine bar, ran by two young men in their early thirties. Sounds right up our alley!

It’s 5pm at this point and we stroll up to LE COQ ROUGE. No one is inside but 2 men and a small boy, sharing conversation and espresso. We pop our head in and ask if they are open. Why yes – but the kitchen does not open for about another 3 hours (Our first experience with the European timetable). We sit and enjoy a couple glasses of wine, the first a taste of the local gold, Champagne. After asking where we should go for dinner, the owner advised we should stay but we would have to come back around 8. Heading out for a quick stroll to see the town in the evening, we return for dinner to a completely full restaurant.

The food was OUTSTANDING! A 22/23 year old young woman chef with the drive to explore beyond traditional French cuisine. On the menu – Incredibly deep Bone Marrow roasted to perfection with Herbes de Provence, Rich Pork Rillette mixed with Coffee (a combination that soon grew on me), Jamon Croquets (mini grilled cheese filled cured ham and bits of winter truffles), a fresh fish Sole terrine (who does that?) with vegetables in a puff pastry crust, and for dessert a rich molten chocolate cake and homemade ice cream. Words can just not describe the tastes and smells coming from our plates. Tired from an early morning flight and being in slight food coma, we headed back to our Airbnb still talking about the outstanding dishes we had just consumed.

The Champagne Process in a Nut Shell

Before visiting, neither Drew or I had any real knowledge of how Champagne differs from the production of “still wine” – so here is our quick review for you!

  • 3 grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier) are harvested from each Cru or village in the Champagne region – the villages that produce the best quality grapes are called Grand Crus.
  • Every single vineyard and varietal is kept separate – they are crushed immediately and put stainless vats for the first fermentation process.
  • Blending is then done with these still wines to ensure the product is identical from year to year (a process that could utilize over 200 different wines!)
  • Once blended, the wine is bottled and yeast and sugar are added or a second fermentation (finally causing the bubbles). The bottles get stacked into the caves sideways to begin the aging process. Once the yeast dies, sediment forms and releases flavor. Champagne can only age if there is sediment in the bottle.
  • After aging is complete (a minimum of 15 months), the bottles then begin the riddling or turning process to move the sediment into the neck of the bottle. For the best bottles this is still done by hand by a Riddler.
  • With the sediment in the neck and a ton of pressure built up, the bottles are turned upside down and dipped into a bath to freeze only the tip of the neck, capturing the sediment in the ice.
  • The top metal cap is released, the ice shoots out expelling all of the sediment, and a small amount of sugar and champagne are added back in. At this point the bottles get corked and are now ready to consume!
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A Diagram showing the aging a riddling process. As the bottles are turned by the riddler, their angle in the rack gets more severe so that the sediment ends up in the neck.

The Champagne Houses

During our time in Reims we were able to visit 3 of the main Champagne Houses – TAITTINGER, G.H. MARTELL, AND G.H. MUMM. Each tour was uniquely different which allowed for a rounded view of both past and present production techniques. Underneath Reims is a web thousands of pyramid shaped chalk tunnels. This chalk was quarried in order to build the city and is also why the soil in the region produces varies for the growing of the champagne grapes. Today these medieval tunnels store millions of Champagne bottles in optimal conditions, a constant cool temperature (11-12°C) and level of humidity (90-95%).

TAITTINGER – 1932

The Taittinger headquarters sits on the site of a 13th century Abbey which was destroyed during the French Revolution. The caves below were used by the monks for the storage of their wine, and today it is where Taittinger’s premier label is kept aging for up to 10 years. Over 3 million of these bottles are turned by hand by 2 riddlers. Their caves were magnificent and it was great to see the product amongst them.

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At the end of the Taittinger Tour, enjoying a glass of their bubbly!

G.H. MARTEL – 1869

Martell had some of the oldest caves, dug between the 4th and 15th centuries. With modern technology they have since moved production away from the original caves in Reims. The tour of this house served more as a museum, showing some of the original equipment.

MUMM – 1827

Mumm was situated a little outside of the center of town, but this was due to the fact that all production is done on site (except crushing which is done as close to the vineyard as possible). This was the largest facility that we toured, around 25 million bottles produced each year! The city of tunnels underneath their headquarters were newer than the others, but VAST. There are so many meters of tunnels that they treat it as a city, giving each a “street name”. The too had a large collection of old production equipment which served as a museum. Overall a very nice tour of an impressive company.

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Aging bottles at G.H. MUMM

 

Most of our time was spent wondering around this lovely city (we had the BEST cured ham and chevre cheese panini from a tiny little shop down the street from the basilica). Quaint but bustling with locals on Friday night and Saturdays. On the way to dinner Friday evening in the Boulingrin area, we stumbled upon the Reims start of the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique. All over Europe, cars that took part in the actual Rallye Monte-Carlo from 1955 until 1980, leave their city and all convene in Digne les Bains at the same time for the start of the years race. What an incredible event to have just come across! We had a lovely time in Reims and look forward to visiting again, when the grapes are growing and we can explore further Champagne houses. Now on to Paris!

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One of the classic cars in the Rallye

Our Stark Perspective (Tips):

  • It is a very quick train ride from Paris, but save some money by getting to the center of town via the tram from Champagne TGV, instead of switching trains.
    • There are also two bus companies (similar to Megabus) directly from Paris for much less.
  • Reims has a Notre Dame, just like Paris. The exterior of the Reims Notre Dame is more ornate and Drew actually found it more impressive than Paris.
  • Food was hit or miss. Whatever you do, go to LE COQ ROUGE. Boulingrin is a good area for a wide variety of restaurants, frequented by the locals, however we had a couple dishes that weren’t so great.
    • LE BOCAL is a seafood in the area which we were told was great. Both nights they were full, so try and make reservations ahead of time – even just by walking in.
  • Spring/summer is optimal time to go, as this month many of the Champagne houses were closed. While there will be more tourists, the vineyards will be lush and all of the houses open for tours.

Iceland – Natural Beauty and Expensive Beer

4 days in Iceland – what an experience that was! While the weather may not have cooperated as we had hoped (No, we did not get to see the northern lights….) the country is full of natural wonders that one would have to travel far and wide to see.

Reykjavik 

We started our trip with 2 days in Reykjavik, the country’s capital and most heavily populated city. Arriving on a 6:00AM flight on a Sunday, we hopped on one of the two private bus companies with service to downtown Reykjavik. By 8:00AM we were in the center of town with over 2 hours left of PITCH BLACK conditions, as the sun doesn’t begin to rise until around 10:30AM in January. Starving and exhausted, having slept maybe a couple hours on the flight, we were in desperate need of a cappuccino and a bite to eat. Fortunately we stumbled upon what seemed like the only shop open at this hour – SANDHOLT. The bakery was buzzing with people and we soon devoured two delicious items – the BEST yogurt parfait I have ever had, served with an amazing raspberry compote and house made granola, and a multigrain “bread” with cottage cheese and delicately smoked local salmon. Delicious!

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Hallgrimskirkja Church at dawn
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The view overlooking Reykjavik from the top of Hallgrimskirkja

Day was just starting to break when we left so we headed to the famous church – Hallgrimskirkja to watch the “sunrise” (on a nice day take the elevator to the top of the clock tour to get a 360 degree birds eye view of the downtown speckled with it’s brightly colored buildings). The rest of the day was then filled with wondering the main local shopping street of Laugavegur, exploring downtown near the harbor, and comparing the two stands (Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur and Pylsuhusid Hot Dog House) which serve the local delicacy of Icelandic Hotdogs – something which felt very similar to the Pats and Geno’s cheesesteak battle of Philadelphia. Nestled near the bottom of the street leading up to Hallgrimskirkja was SMAKKBARINN, a restaurant advertising Icelandic tapas. We stopped in for dinner and were able to sample traditional Icelandic dishes served in small mason jars – perfect for a couple of those items you just aren’t so sure about. Our selection of tapas included Minke Whale, Smoked Lamb, traditional Icelandic Meat Soup, Langoustines, Lamb Hearts, Goose Confit, Pork Belly, and Cured Salmon – Hey, when in Rome, or in this case, Iceland! The best part of the meal was the AMAZING local beer we discovered, Einstök White Ale – slightly like a more robust and much better Hoegaarden. I Just hope then when we get back to the states we’ll be able to find it.

Day 2 brought a TON of rain so we ended up dodging in and out of stores and museums – The Viking Settlement Exhibition and the Maritime Museum. Happy Hour (a must in Reykjavik) brought us to Public House Gastro Pub where we indulged on our new favorite beer and yet another local delicacy, Puffin! (This was actually very good, served cured with a blueberry sauce). Continuing with our night’s food tour, we headed to dinner at Resto at which we had our best meal in Reykjavik – Salmon tartar with egg yolk, caviar, blistered cherry tomatoes, seaweed salad, and beets, as well as Bahadur Saltfiskur (dried salted cod which has been rehydrated and baked) with onions, chorizo, and a pesto style salsa verde. This place was a hidden gem as it is off the main street and we highly recommend it to anyone traveling to Reykjavik!

The Golden Circle

Tuesday started our excursion out to the natural sites of the island traveling along the Golden Circle and the South Coast.  After picking up our rental SUV, we headed north on the most heavily traveled route, the Golden Circle. First stop was a vista overlooking the lake at Pingvellier National Park. Winds and rain kept our visit very short (should you visit in winter, bring serious RAIN gear and warm layers!) so we continued on for about 5 minutes until the rain began to slow. Stopping at Parking 3 we hiked down a small path through the cracks in the earth until we stumbled upon Oxarafoss, a small – to Iceland’s standards – waterfall. Well worth the rugged and icy terrain!

Next stop was GEYSIR, the name sake of all the Geysers in the world. What was once a very active and magnificent geyser, now only goes off after an earthquake – if we would have read the signs upon entering the area we would have not wasted a painfully cold 25 mins waiting for the thing to blow! There is however another small geyser in the park, STROKER, that goes off every 8-10 mins. If you’re photography skills are good enough, you just might get a picture of the water bubble before it’s about to burst!

Very near GEYSIR is GULFOSS – Iceland’s Niagara Falls. This huge two-part waterfall is an important part of Iceland’s history and folklore, including a love story, and is absolutely breathtaking. In the summer months you can hike far out to the edge of the falls, something we would have loved to experience. With a long drive to our stop for the night, we headed south passing through a little town called FLUDIR. Had we done our research a little better, we really wish we would have stopped at the SECRET LAGOON. This natural hot spring pool is lesser known than the Blue Lagoon and looks amazing!

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Drew and I in front of Gulfoss

The South Coast

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Drew and I in front of the Basalt Columns

After a somewhat sleepless night in our Church turned Airbnb in the middle of nowhere Iceland (ask Drew about that one!), on to the South Coast we went. Since the black sand beaches were our top priority we headed to the furthest point of VIK, making sure to visit REYNISDRANGAR and REYNISFJARA.

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The contrast between the black sand and turbulent white water can hardly be caputed in a photograph and feels as though you are living in a black and white movie! The Basalt columns at REYNISFJARA were so unique, making us very glad we traveled all that way.

 

We were yet to make it to a natural hot spring since we made the decision to forgo the Blue Lagoon due to the outrageous prices and sheer number of people. At dinner in Reykavik we had overheard a group talking about this hidden pool in the middle of the mountains. Sold! So the hunt for SELJAVALLALAUG began. Down a gravel street (242) off Route 1, we drove to the end and parked. There were 8 other cars but no one in site. We must be in the right place so we starting hiking down a barely visible path towards the mountains. After about 20 mins crossing a stream and scaling the edge of a mountain, we rounded the corner on this tiny little pool and changing hut completely surrounded by mountains. Now this was not a HOT Spring, the 1 degree Celsius air temperature drastically cools down the water, but it was warm enough for us to take a dip staying huddled around the warm supply pipe. Being a girl who has been in the water my entire life, this was one of the most amazing life experiences for me!

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Beautiful scenery on the walk to the hot spring Seljavallalaug
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Enjoying my swim at Seljavallalaug

The long road back to the Airport had us racing the sun to stop at the last remaining waterfalls, SELJALANDSFOSS and SKOGAFOSS. Both equally impressive due to the shear size and amount of water flowing over the cliffs, and it’s winter!

One final stop for dinner lead us to the town of SELFOSS where we stopped at TRYGGVASKALI restaurant, where we had our best meal in Iceland. Scallops and Cauliflower for me with Pomegranate and Tarragon puree and Icelandic Lamb (finally) for Drew with Carrot puree, gratin of potatoes, spinach, and parmesan cheese, and root vegetables. A true culinary gem in Iceland and a must stop along the south coast!

Winter finally hit as we raced to the airport in snowy conditions, climbing a huge mountain between SELFOSS and REYKJAVIK (I would have loved to see the terrain in the daylight). Thank you Iceland for your natural beauty! Now on to France for a weekend in Champagne, Cheers!, before our first housesit in Paris for the week.

 

Our Stark Perspective (Tips):

  • Sunday is the only day that public transportation from the Airport is not available in the early morning.
  • Iceland may be cheap to get to, but everything is VERY expensive.
    • We did not need to covert money to Icelandic Kronas, as we used Credit Card everywhere!
  • The beer they serve in convenience stores is not really beer, 2.25% at most.
  • Drink at Happy Hour, where beverages will likely be 50% off.
  • In Iceland the weather patterns are very erratic! They have a saying, if you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes. This could be for the good or the bad….
    • If you are traveling in the winter – bring serious rain gear including lightweight pants and warm layers!
  • Unless you are exploring the highlands (Golden Circle is not considered the highlands), you do not need to rent an SUV – even in the winter months.
  • Make sure you have at least ¾ of a tank of gas before heading out on the golden circle, as the stations are FEW and FAR between.
    • Getting gas is also an adventure as their card machines require pin numbers. You have to go inside and purchase a prepaid card and then use that at the pump.
    • As of January 2017 – Gas was about $8USD per gallon!
  • If traveling the South Coast, and either A) want to splurge for a night or B) are heading back and want the best priced happy hour we found – Stop at HOTEL RANGA between Hella and Hvolsvollur… This place was amazing!

 

Helpful Resources:

iheartreykjavik.net

Northern Lights Forecast Map 

Iceland Road Conditions 

 

 

 

Our New Adventure!

In a few short days we will be leaving the US to embark on a 6 month journey exploring and tasting our way through Europe.

Early in our relationship, it became apparent that we both love to travel, experience new cultures and try new foods. We never like to frequent the same place twice and are always looking for the next place to adventure.

Drew has dedicated the past 10+ years to being an executive chef and opening multiple restaurants, sometimes working 16 hour days, 7 days a week, for months on end. Due to the crazy schedule, the restaurant life does not allow for ample vacations and extended time together. Now that we are newly married, both having taken a step back in our careers, we find ourselves in the perfect position to explore the world together, living and embracing the cultures (and cuisine) which so greatly impact his profession. (In fact, Drew is even  looking to secure some intern opportunities at local restaurants to further his craft)

Having experienced local life in Europe once before while studying abroad, I know how much of a positive impact that can have on a person. I am eager to share that experience with Drew!