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MEETING PAUL BOCUSE

1 Oct
My Pressed Duck Number

My Pressed Duck Number

There we were-unexpectedly personally greeted by Paul Bocuse at his eponymous restaurant as we ducked in from the sudden downpour. As a dedicated foodie, I was determined to make the pilgrimage to Paul Bocuse’s L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges near Lyon. If you are a lover of French food, he needs no introduction. His accomplishments and accolades are many including being named the “Chef of the Century” by the esteemed Culinary Institute of America at their Leadership Awards Gala on March 30, 2011. We had reservations for my son’s 21st birthday. Up to that point we had enjoyed a fabulous week in Paris, with fantastic food including the famed pressed duck at Tour D’Argent and many types of offal.

Once we got to Lyon, we sampled the delicious, hearty traditional cuisine Lyonnaise in the many convivial bouchons, all the while anticipating our evening at Paul Bocuse. We were surprised at the distance the restaurant was from the city, but enjoyed the cab ride through the countryside. When we arrived, we saw an unexpectedly colorful exterior on the building. Just as we were exiting the cab, the rain suddenly poured from the dark clouds. We huddled under umbrella provided by restaurant staff and scurried toward the entrance.

Paul Bocuse menu

Paul Bocuse menu

Once inside, we were immediately greeted by Paul Bocuse who shook our hands. I am not the least enamored by movie or sports celebrities, but I was so moved at personally meeting Paul Bocuse that I was speechless. Then I stupidly bowed to him and started crying. Everything that night from the food and beverages to the service were impeccable. I had labored through the French menu with my limited French, but my fluent son had no such problem. As we were leaving, they offered us a souvenir menu, which I took in English; it just didn’t seem right, though, to order from anything but a French menu at the venerable Paul Bocuse.

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Carcassonne: worth the trip?

4 Sep

Carcassonne Towers

I have long wanted to go to the historic, fortified walled city of Carcassonne, a UNESCO world heritage site, located in southern France, with its fairy-tale looking defensive double walls, castle, drawbridge, watchtowers and cobbled streets.  Not only was I fascinated with it, I had read about and seen enticing photos of the five-star Hôtel de La Cité, located in the heart of the medieval citadel, and relished the idea of staying within the walled city. The hotel has the traditional, comfortable luxury that I favor, with inviting outdoor spaces and great views of the expansive valley below.

 

I had initially flown directly from Alicante, Spain to Toulouse, in the region of Occitanie, scheduling the first three days in Toulouse. For the fourth day, I booked the Hôtel de La Cité. Carcassonne is only a short, scenic 40 minute train ride from Toulouse. Unfortunately, I misjudged how long it would take to get from my hotel in Toulouse to the train station due to having to navigate around the old town and to get a ticket for my dog from an agent. Fair warning, I was able to book my seat on the train via the internet but not for my small dog, which had to be done in person at the train station. So I took the next train, an hour and a half later, with my small dog, Pepper, (AKA Pimienta) in his portable, wheeled carrier.

Pepper (aka Pimienta)

 

The train station in Toulouse had a piano permanently located in the waiting area, and many people spontaneously sat down and played. It’s these little serendipitous things that contribute to my passion for travel. There was also a foosball table, which kids and adults stopped to play. Be aware that in many train stations in France you need to get to your train by walking under the train tracks via stairs. If you have mobility issues and/or a heavy suitcase, it can be challenging. Allow extra time or if you are disabled, request help when booking your ticket.

 

Barbacane alfresco dining

Whenever I take public transportation like a train or bus, I try to go one timeslot earlier than my needed arrival time, in case something like this train trip goes awry. So even though I left an hour and a half later than initially intended, I still arrived on time at the hotel where I had scheduled to eat at the hotel’s Michelin star restaurant, Barbacane. Lunch was in the lovely garden area with views of some of the wall, watchtowers, and the valley below where Carcassonne residents now live. The prix fixe three course lunch which included two courses, each served with a glass of wine selected by the sommelier to pair with the food. Water was included and a choice of dessert or a cheese plate at the end, all for a quality, reasonably-priced meal of €39. Pepper sat quietly under the table.

 

Dog-friendly garden patio

 

After lunch, we went to my room, which was spacious, with elegant furnishings, a great bed and a menu offering a variety of pillows from which you can choose. Knowing I was bringing my dog, they gave me a room with stairs that led down to a garden area, where Pepper could do his outdoor duties. There also was a table and chairs on the upstairs patio. I was surprised and pleased to see they had a dog dish with water in the room ready for Pepper, the first time I have ever experienced that. And there was no extra charge for the dog, whereas normally there is.

 

After settling in to the room, I went out to explore the rest of Carcassonne within the walled citadel. The area is pedestrian with the exception of an occasional delivery vehicle, but it was very crowded with summer day trippers. There are a few buildings and museums worth exploring.

Saint-Nazaire

The Gothic-Romanesque Basilica Saint-Nazaire dates back to the 12th century and has beautiful stained glass. The rest of the buildings largely house touristic shops selling regional specialties including food (foie gras, cassoulet, truffles, and olives), local wines, knight-themed items, and cafes and restaurants.  It felt more like a crowded theme park than a historic site. I had only booked one night at the Hôtel de la Cité, as I first wanted to see if I enjoyed it enough to stay longer; I was glad I did. I considered exploring some of the other areas of Occitanie, but ultimately decided to head back to Toulouse and explore it further.

 

I used the internet to find a last-minute hotel reservation for the next three nights in a different area of Toulouse than my initial stay. After I arrived, I told the taxi driver the name of my hotel, he said it was just a short distance, waving his hand toward a large boulevard. So I walked, and walked, and walked. The hotel was not straight down the street, and I wandered for a while, luggage and dog in tow in the heat. I stopped for a cooling beverage, where I could ask the staff for directions. Feeling slightly refreshed and optimistic, I again set off for my hotel. An unexpected finding was that there were three hotels within a two block area that had the same name as the one I booked. Well actually, the main name was the same, with a slightly different second name. I finally found my hotel, which I initially found shockingly spartan after my stay at a five-star hotel. After I got over my initial dismay, I found the room adequate, particularly as I don’t spend much time in my room, and it was a dog-friendly hotel. I spent the next three and a half days in Toulouse exploring different neighborhoods, historic sites, and scouting out delectable food. I am already thinking about a return trip to Toulouse.

 

Toulouse Travel Tips

20 Aug

Capitole Plaza, my hotel on the right

Living in Spain provides me the luxury of being able to travel to nearby places, like Europe and Africa, at very inexpensive costs. I initially explored the idea of travelling in central Spain this August, but it was too hot, and then Prague and Budapest, but the direct flights from where I live were not available in August. Preferring direct flights, which have a decreased chance of delays, I explored other options and decided to go to Toulouse and nearby Carcassonne, which are at the base of the Pyrenees in southern central France, not far north of Andorra. The flight is only about an hour each direction, which cost me €61 each direction, and €72 round trip for my small dog, who traveled in the cabin under the seat in front of me. I spent a week in the Toulouse area.

 

Typical building

Toulouse is the fourth largest metropolitan area in France, and the Occitanie area (formerly Languedoc-Roussillon) in which it and Carcassonne are located is the largest geographical region in France. Toulouse is known as the “pink city,” due to the many buildings made of pink stone and bricks. It is a walk-friendly city with distinct neighborhoods, which are the types of large cities I favor. When I first arrived, I stayed for three days at the Grand Hotel Opera, centrally-located on the large Capitole Plaza. It was a good starting spot, with cafes and restaurants serving drinks, snacks and higher-end cuisine. I do not like shopping, but there were a variety of shops/stores on or near the plaza, surprisingly including a number of U.S. stores like Sephora and Foot Locker, and other popular European stores.

 

Before I arrive at vacation destination, I try to get a basic familiarity with the areas and places I would most like to visit. I am a foodie, so I read up on the typical regional cuisine, recommended restaurants, as well as live entertainment. Obviously once I arrive, I get a better feel for the area, and make my plans accordingly, but I leave room for a great deal of spontaneity which can result in serendipitous finds. One such occasion occurred when I walked to the local fruit and vegetable market, where I decided to have lunch at one of the many nearby restaurants. I noticed it was cloudy and looked like it could rain, so I found a restaurant, Le point Gourmet, with a good awning coverage of the outdoor area, and most importantly, good food.  I was too late to get the daily special of duck hearts, fresh from the market, as they were already sold out. But my duck breast, duck-fat fried pommes frites (French fries), and salad were delicious.

 

Seafood pasta

While sitting at the restaurant and waiting for my food, it started raining. Many of the diners not under cover frantically arose, trying to grab food, beverages and belongings. Most handled it with aplomb and humor, but one family where I was dining, got into an argument with the owner, which became quite heated. After they diners left, the French owner, who spoke very good English, (I only speak English and Spanish), said the three patrons were blaming him for the rain, and he replied he was not God. He correctly mentioned that there was only a brief rain, and the patrons nonetheless said they would not pay for the food. There was some more heated discussion, with their continued verbal attacks and complaint about their mother being disabled, to which the owner said his wife, who was still working long hours at the restaurant, had cancer. They finally left. The owner then told me the following story: “God made France, with beautiful landscapes, oceans, vegetation and so on. When he finished, God said, France is perfect, everything. It is too perfect, so I am going to put French people there.” Hilarious!

 

Salade Gourmande

The food in the Toulouse area is regionally-based, as is common in Europe. They are famous for their cassoulet, foie gras, sausages, many types of offal (veal kidneys, gizzards, hearts, and sweetbreads), fantastic variety of cheeses, predictably delicious bread and baked goods. Most places offer quality, affordably-priced prix fixe menus, not as inexpensive as where I live in Spain, but far cheaper than you would pay for comparable food in the U.S. Also, the regional wines are excellent, usually inexpensive, and frequently available in varying amounts like 15 ml, 50 ml, and 75 ml (respectively, a glass, a little more than a half bottle, and a full bottle.) For those who live in Spain, Toulouse does not cafés on every block or even several on every block like there are in Spain, which I realized when I looked for a place to duck into when it started to rain.

 

Statue Joan of Arc

The other thing I did not anticipate were the operating and closing hours for businesses, with many shops closed either in the afternoons or early in the evening, and also many places, including restaurants, are closed on Sundays, holidays and during parts or all of August.  I failed to check the holiday schedule before I booked my vacation, only to learn that there was a religious holiday, Assumption Day, in which many businesses were shuttered.

 

The Toulouse and greater Occitanie area offer numerous entertainment and outdoor activities. In Toulouse, there are the expected ancient and historical buildings and museums. There was a jazz concert series during the summer featured such icons as George Benson and Wynton Marsalis. The Garonne River and Canal du Midi offer great spots for events and leisure. There and in the Montagne Noire, nearby mountain range, offer opportunities for outdoor and physical activity enthusiasts. Winery tours in the region is another popular and easy day trip from Toulouse. Toulouse also boasts Europe’s largest space center, which also offers venues oriented toward children.

 

Garonne River

After my first three days in Toulouse, I took the short 45 minute train ride to the walled city of Carcassonne, where I spent the night, at the fabulous 5-star Hôtel de la Cité and ate at their Michelin-star restaurant, Barbacane, which I will write about in a subsequent blog post. I also plan to share my restaurant reviews from Toulouse which I will publish on TripAdvisor: they recently reported I have over 100,000 readers of my reviews!

Quality, Bargain Travel within Europe

8 May

Water Wheel: Treviso

While I loved my new life as an ex-pat in the lovely Mediterranean village of Altea, Spain, I relish the opportunity to affordably travel to other destinations. For my most recent trip, I went to Venice, Paris, then back to where I live, with all three flights costing only 150 Euros.

 

There are many low-cost options available for transportation and accommodations. My original plan was to go to central Spain to the historic, beautiful and interesting cities of Salamanca (with arguably the most beautiful plaza in Spain), Segovia (with its intact Roman Aqueduct), and Avila (with its intact medieval city wall), all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Spain has the second most UNESCO World Heritage Sites, after China.

 

Piazza San Marco

However, getting to those locations from where I live is not easy to do in a timely manner via train or flight. I did not want to rent a car or take ride-sharing Bla Bla Car. As I did not want to spend many hours to get to my destinations, I looked at the direct (non-stop) flights that departed and arrived from the two airports closest to me, Valencia and Alicante. Originally I found direct flights from my preferred airport of Alicante to many destinations, and I decided to go to Venice, then Paris, then home to Alicante airport. I also checked for airlines and hotels that accepted dogs, as I initially planned to take my small dog, Pepper. I subsequently decided not to take him because it would preclude us from going to events like the ballet in Paris, or restaurants which have only indoor seating.

 

Often flight, bus and other transportation schedules within Spain and Europe are not published until a few months before departure. Whereas my initial search found direct flights from Alicante to Venice, when I went to book it, there were no scheduled flights for March, none until July. Being flexible and willing to search for other options can yield reasonable alternatives. I was going to meet my son in Venice on a Sunday in March, and all the flights with more than one leg took a ridiculous length of time. I then found a flight the prior day, a Saturday, to Treviso, which is only a mere 30 minutes train ride to the Venice train terminal for only 3,40 Euros. I decided to get a hotel in Treviso, “The City of Art and Water,” that Saturday and explore the town, which has interesting history and culture. The next day, I strolled around town before heading to Venice. Of course, I had researched, and where necessary, scheduled all the connecting ground transportation for the whole trip. That was not necessary for the train from Treviso to Venice. In Italy, (and some other European countries), after you purchase your ticket, you must validate it in one of the machines on the wall or you risk getting a large fine when they train staff check your ticket.

 

As private water taxis are very expensive in Venice, as are taxies in Paris, I scheduled them on Alilaguna, a group water taxi for about 14 Euros one way and 25 Euros roundtrip, and Blacklane for a roundtrip private transfer from Paris Orly airport to our hotel in the Plaza Vendôme area for about 50 Euros each way.

 

One unexpected issue we had on the flight from Venice to Paris on Transavia was just as we got to the staff to present our boarding passes we were told we could only have one carry-on, and that we would have to put any other items including my purse in my carry-on suitcase, which was already stuffed full. I had to throw out a few items in order for my purse to fit. All three flights were about two hours. It was the first time I had taken low cost airlines, and found them organized, and comfortable enough.

 

We enjoyed stops in historic churches, art museums, live music venues, and public gardens. Included in this article are some of the interesting sites we saw on this trip.

 

For me, one of the many considerations, albeit not the most major, in making a decision to move to Spain was the ease and cost of travelling to relatively nearby European and African countries.

 

 

 

Terrorism and Travel

22 Mar

Gothic Sainte-Chapelle stained glass

A shooting involving a terrorist at Paris’ Orly Airport, while I was going through the security check there, was an anticlimactic end to my 60th birthday celebration in Venice and Paris with my middle son, Michael. Orly is France’s second largest airport. Just before I was scheduled to board my flight home to Alicante, Spain, I noticed the departure gate had changed to the downstairs departure area. As I tried to go to the new departure gate, the airport security officers told me there would be no more flights that day from Orly. Without explanation, they corralled us into the far half of the boarding area, not allowing anyone to leave. The televisions were switched off, and the departure screens frozen, which continued for several hours. We never received any notification from airport staff as to what was occurring, but I googled “Orly news” where I learned that a terrorist had tried to wrestle a gun from an airport police officer, and that he was shot. I did not learn the details until after returning home. Even though I had been told around 845 a.m. that there would be no further flights from Orly that day, around mid-day, without any speaker announcement, the boarding boards were turned back on, although without accurate, updated information on departure times. We finally boarded and departed around 330 p.m. As I write this on March 22, 2017, there has been a terrorist attack in London near the Parliament, and possibly inside.

 

There is no place in the world in which one is free from the possibility to violence, terrorism or even natural

Sacré Couer

disasters. In 1998, not long after the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, my oldest son and I went to Nairobi and then on safari the Tsavo Park area. Of course, at the time, we didn’t know that the attack was part of an organized terrorist organization. Not long after an American Airlines flight crashed in Queens, a borough in New York, in November 2001, only two months after New York’s September 2001 attacks, we flew to Europe. It was initially speculated the crash could have been a terrorist attack, but it was later determined to be caused by human error. During a tour of eight African countries, while in Bamako, Mali, the nation’s capital, we stayed at a hotel, where several years later, in spite of security, Islamist extremists took 170 people hostage, shooting 20.

 

Enjoying live classical and Brazilian music at Venice’s Caffè Florian, reported to be the oldest café in the world, dating back to 1720

That said, as a psychologist, particularly a forensic psychologist where we rely heavily on statistics, I make informed decisions based on statistics rather than irrational fears. By far, I have a significantly greater chance of being killed by violence, particularly in the U.S., or by disease, or accidents. I choose to live my life with joie de vivre, focusing on relationships, food, culture, adventure, and curiosity. And if I should meet my end in a travelling accident, for me, that is far better than being holed up in my home or a bunker, or living my life in fear. To that end, I will be providing future blog posts on my Venice and Paris trip, and am providing a sampling of those photos here.

Travelling Solo as a Female

24 May
altea

Altea, Spain

Travelling alone as a woman is something I take for granted. And moving solo from the Central Coast of California to the small Mediterranean town of Altea Spain was not something I considered that challenging, other than the practical logistics. Therefore, I have been surprised when I have received many comments telling me how “brave” I am.

Adventurous with wanderlust, yes, but brave?

 

I have travelled to almost 40 countries worldwide, many times solo and also with my three sons while they were children. When reflecting on those travels, I tell myself I must have been crazy to take one or all three young boys by myself to places such as Kenya, Australia, Italy, France,Turkey, Belize, Jamaica, Mexico, etc.

 

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Family swimming at Palapa Bar, Ambergris Caye, Belize

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Palapa Bar: Ambergris Caye, Belize

As I prepared to move to Spain, I chose to sell my large home, luxury car, and virtually everything I own, except a few kitchen items, but most importantly, family photos and videos. I was overwhelmed with the many photos and videos, which were too numerous to transport. I decided to have them scanned but because there were so many I had to choose which ones to take. I experienced unexpected happiness while reviewing our family travels. Travelling with children can obviously distract one from paying attention to environmental cues, but I guess I was lucky.

 

As a retired forensic psychologist who evaluated and testified on violent and sexual offenders, I am by no means cavalier when it comes to personal safety, particularly as a single woman. Here in Altea, I am often out late at night, as are many other females. Whether female or male, it is important to first know the safety of the area where you are. Certain cities are well-known for pick pockets, assaults, etc., and certainly researching the crime and safety of your destination should be an important part of travel planning. And go with your gut. If you suddenly feel an uneasy or fearful feeling, react accordingly. Do whatever will restore your sense of being safe by doing such things as getting to a safe public place, or hailing a cab rather than walking.

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Palais Garnier: Paris Opera House

 

Some advocate finding a travel partner if one is a female travelling solo, but I would rather travel alone than risk having a toxic travel partner. That is exactly what happened to me when I took a rare cruise which started in Rome and then went to the Aeolian Islands. LuLu, who I had met on a Greek Islands cruise, was interested in going on the Italian cruise. The tour started in Rome. During a private tour (her demand) of the Coliseum, she repeatedly interrupted the tour guide, telling her to move on. Both the tour guide and I were shocked at her rude behavior. The tour guide said she had never seen anyone that rude. Not one for conflict, I disengaged myself from LuLu as much as possible the rest of the trip, which was difficult as she was my roommate.

 

Travelling alone enables me to more easily meet people, something I increasingly relish. Coming full circle, today I am waiting for the arrival of my 20 year-old son to my home in Spain. He will spend the summer with me. I hope we can travel to some of Spain’s many historic and beautiful sites, that is, if I can pull him away from the young ladies.