12 May 2014

Dream Vacation: Part 2, or In Vino Veritas

Our story left us driving through the south of France. The day after our impromptu visit of the Mediterranean, we migrated north to Dijon, driving through the French Alps and visiting Annecy along the way. In spite of the clouds and rain, the grandeur of the Alps was not lost. It's almost humorous returning to the Appalachians of the East Coast, which pale in comparison. The French Alps feature shockingly shear cliffs as the grassy, flat valleys give way to commanding bluffs, the greatest of which are still topped by ancient ramparts. These fortresses of old still overlook the underlying valleys, recalling a time when they offered refuge for the farmers from barbarians and intruders. The architecture and decay of the buildings show the slow progression of these hill towns down the mountains as increasing social stability offered greater freedom to expand away from the refuge.


Ancient ramparts top the cliffs above a small town.

We paused our migration in Grenoble for a lunch and quick visit around the town. What started as a small Gallic town has morphed through Roman influence, feudalism, countless wars and religious revolutions, two World Wars, and modernization for the 1968 Olympic Winter Games. This juxtaposition of old and new can be seen clearly in taking the modern glass bubble cable car up to the 16th Century Bastille. Unfortunately, due to the rain we did not have time to do this ourselves -- but if we had I'm sure it would have looked like this:

Walls that kept out intruders for thousands of years, and a cable car that carries thousands past those walls every year.

We continued pushing deeper into the Alps to spend the afternoon in Annecy. A picturesque city set on the beautifully azure Lac Annecy, Annecy's downtown district is cut apart by canals


The Palais de l'Isle was the castle for the Lord of Annecy in the 12th Century. Not exactly Versailles...

Playing peek-a-boo with the Château d'Annecy, the castle of the Lords of Annecy once they realized how tiny their Palais de l'Isle was.



We finished our northward migration and arrived in Dijon shortly after sunset and rested before a long day of exploring the city. La chouette, the owl, has long been the icon of Dijon, though nobody is entirely sure why. Long ago an amateur sculpted une chouette into the side of the main church, Notre-Dame de Dijon. Now the street along the church is Rue de la Chouette, and many references to owls can be found around the city. Like Arles, Dijon has placards in the sidewalk outlining a walking tour of the city, in this case marked by an owl.


In spite of its size, many parts of Dijon still reflect the provincial little town it once was. This inspired Hillary to live out her childhood dream of being Belle from Beauty and the Beast. The very first morning she may or may not have burst open the windows and started (quietly) singing, "Little town, it's a quiet village. Every day, like the one before. Little town, full of little people, waking up to say..."


 "Bonjour, bonjour! Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour!"

Then on our chouette-guided walk, we found this little square. Squeals ensued.

Ma Belle est plus belle

Dijon is home a ridiculous number of churches (we counted 6 in as many square blocks). Each is beautiful and unique. Lets count them together, shall we?











Very good, Ah-ah-ah!

If you know anything about Hillary and I, you know we love our victuals. And Dijon is known for some amazing selections of food and wine. Beyond the eponymous mustard -- and we did sample some of that, and let me tell you, true Dijon mustard puts to shame this yellow pretend stuff we Americans use -- we seriously enjoyed our meals in Dijon. One of our favorites was at L'Emile Brouchettes. After trying to parse what we could of the menu, we ordered "la potence de l'emile brochettes", trusting that what Google translated as "the gallows of Emile's Skewers" would not be quite so lethal as the name suggests. This meal was hands down one of our favorites in France. La potence, we soon learned, is reminiscent of a medieval spiked flail, hanging on a... well, a gallows, like you draw when you start a game of Hang-Man. The flail is stuck with chunks of marinated and seared steak which drip pure deliciousness into a bowl of jasmine rice. Onlooking this spectacle is a selection of sauces gathered on the base of the gallows. I have eaten steak prepared in almost every imaginable way, but this wins all the awards. As usual, we didn't want to be "those people" taking pictures inside the restaurant, so I made this extremely detailed representation:


The second portion of our culinary endeavors in Dijon was a venture into the heart of the ancient art of wine. Hillary and I have often gone winetasting through Virginia's "up and coming" wineries. Stateside, wine tasting frequently consists of sitting at a bar, and sampling 5-10 wines while snacking on crackers or chocolates. It's not uncommon to taste at multiple wineries in a single afternoon. In France, the sacred art of sustenance dictates that you spend the entire day consuming not only the food and wine but the aura and joy of leisure. Dijon sits in the north of the Burgundy wine region, home of the oldest and finest Pinot Noir and Chardonney this side of heaven. For Hillary's birthday I arranged a vineyard tour and tasting at La Table d'Olivier Leflaive, in the Côte de Beaune along the southern end of the Côte d'Or. Monsieur Leflaive personally escorted us through the vinification process, from stem to glass. The vines, like many in the region, date back to Roman era and have trunks as thick than my thighs (by no means petit!). Olivier is the third generation of his family to be cultivating and fermenting wine from the ancient vines, and his expertise was only outdone by his hospitality and friendliness. After the tour of the vineyard and cellars, we sat down for a 5-course meal with paired tastings. The sommelier, Regis, introduced each wine and discussed the intricacies of its terroir, vintage, and tastes. His passion and knowledge were incredible as he shared his life's work. Usually fans of bold reds, we were completely stunned at the complexity of the chardonnays grown at the top of the côte (where the roots must pass through layer after layer of clay and limestone to reach the water table) compared to the crisp clean wine from vines in the valley (where thanks to erosion there is a thick layer of soil on top of the shallow water table). This goes way beyond the merits of Yellow Tail and Barefoot, my friends, and even Virginia's oldest wines seem immature and shallow in comparison. Not wanting to disrespect their work, we refrained from taking pictures of the meal and tasting, and I don't think that if we had we could have captured this amazing experience in pictures even if we had tried.


The vineyards


The house

We ended the day with a drive through the hills, villages, and in some cases due to construction detours, literally through the vineyards of the Côte d'Or. 

Not a bad way to spend a birthday!

This concludes the second segment of our trip. The next day we boarded a TGV train and rode into Paris, the third and final segment. We'll return soon in Dream Vacation: Part 3, or, We'll Always Have Paris.

24 Apr 2014

Dream Vacation: Part 1, or, When we accidentally drove to the Mediterranean Sea

Anybody who knows my (wonderful) wife knows that she loves to plan. Parties, dinners, outfits. If the event is happening 9 months from now, she's been planning for 3. Back when we were dating we had a discussion about our top destinations for travel. We both agreed that a tour of France was the top desired destination, and that travelling there before we had kids would be ideal. Since that day, Hillary was planning our trip to France. When we married, we set up a long term budget plan that allocated money for travelling (among all the other important things too) -- since naturally Hillary had already planned a net cost for the trip. As time progressed we set the general date for Fall of 2014. Hillary's extensive experience in booking travel said that Christmas 2013 would be the right time to start booking flights and rooms for a Fall 2014 trip. So come Christmas we started looking at flights. Turns out that flights and rooms where significantly less expensive for March 2014 than for September 2014, so we decide to change our timeline (a chronic planner's worst nightmare). Hillary went into planning overdrive and setup flights, rooms, dinner reservations, and a general itinerary. Come late February Hillary had the big ideas planned and it was my turn to figure out the logistics. Train schedules, bus fares, rental car agreements. Then came March 18, 2014.

This is the story of our dream vacation.

This is Panda's 2nd trip to France. Our stuffed animal is more well traveled than most humans...

We flew overnight from DC to Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris and made our way to the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse or Train of Great Velocity) station attached to the airport. After finding the right platform and boarding our train (easier said than done when you speak very little of the language and don't know any of the city names), we enjoyed the 3 hour ride through the serene countryside while finishing up plans for our first destination, Avignon. Once at the Avignon TGV station, we found our bus, got off at the right stop, and strolled down Avignon's main road, Rue de la République. At the end of the rue we found the main square, and just off the square our 161 sq. ft. apartment.

The view from our apartment. Just to the right is the main square, just to the left is the Palais des Papes.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around Avignon and getting to know the feel of the town. The next day we set out sight-seeing. Avignon is most famous for being the seat of the Catholic Papacy for much of the 14th Century. The palace in which the 7 successive popes lived, le Palais des Papes, survived the French Revolution by serving as a jail and barracks and is also right off the main square -- in fact, Rue de la République and the main square where built (bulldozing the peasant homes that where there) so that the city might appear more majestic to those visiting the papacy.

Morning sun shines as the golden virgin watches restaurants setup tables in the church's square.

Hillary and golden virgin enjoying a beautiful spring day.

That's some good flying buttress right there.


Avignon is also in a central location within the region of Provence. From here we were able to drive ("Um hunny, what do you think that road sign means?") to other destinations in the region. Provence is steeped in a tumultuous history, frequently being captured, liberated, and recaptured over the past 3 millennia. Parts of Provence feel very French, while others are distinctly Italian, Spanish, Roman, or Gothic. The first place we drove to was Pont du Gard, the highest Roman aquaduct bridge ever built. Constructed in the 1st Century BC, it's also one of the most well preserved. 


Nerd alert: Note the ledges and notches built into the design to make scaffolding for maintenance easier.

After Pont du Gard we headed to the city of Arles. At the fall of the Roman Republic and the founding of the Empire, Arles was rewarded greatly for siding with Julius Ceasar during the civil war against Pompey. They were given an ampitheater, arena (which is still used for bull fights today!), aquaducts, and plenty of housing for the booming city. Much of this construction still remains today, in what is now a quiet, quaint town.


What you don't have a 2000 year old arena outside your home?

Panda, held captive in the slaves' quarters, awaits his turn for gladiatorial glory.

Arles was also home to Vincent Van Gogh in 1888 (and is forever home to his left ear) until he committed himself to an asylum in neighboring Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The city has placards in the sidewalk detailing a walking tour of the city, focusing on sites which Van Gogh is famous for painting.


Follow the yellow bricks to see the sights of the Fou Roux.


Garden of the Hospital in Arles, site of the so named Van Gogh painting.


From Arles, we proceeded to drive into the Camargue, home of over 400 species of bird, an eponymous horse breed, and miles upon miles of shallow lakes and marshland. The Camargue is the delta of the Rhone river into the Mediterranean Sea and at almost 400 sq. miles is the largest river delta in Europe.



Our route through the Camargue didn't actually take us to the Mediterranean Sea, just around the river delta. However, after missing one of the turns on our scenic drive, we found ourselves arriving at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, an idyllic sea town known for it's ancient churches, beautiful coastline, and oh yea, the thousands of Romani gypsies who pilgrim there during the summer. Yes, I said, "sea town." This will be forever known as the time we accidentally drove to the Mediterranean.


Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a beautiful mixture of Spanish, French, and Italian influences. Quintessential Mediterranean town.


Oops, I knew I should have turned left back there.

We will return shortly (promise!) with Part 2: In Vino Veritas!

18 Feb 2014


I know. You don't even have to say it. We are probably the worst bloggers all time.

The things is, I didn't even feel bad about it for the longest time. Zero guilt. Free as a bird. Freed, if you will. Then my friend, Nancy, updated her blog for the first time in forever and pangs of guilt hit me hard. I thought to myself, "Ugh, I LOVE Nancy's blog! I had been wondering when she would update again." And then being the self-absorbed diva that I am I realized that mayhaps I had a few fans as well. 

So, my people, my wonderful fans, I present to you my life since August 2013 (good heavens...)

September was nothing exciting. The end.

October, however, we went to Vermont! Funny story about Vermont: When Andy and I were still in the early stages of our relationship I asked the cliche question, "If you could live anywhere, where would you live?," to which he replied, "Vermont." I just stared at him. Who the hell, especially at the age of 18, wants to live in a random state they haven't even visited before? I mocked him for years, because I thought Vermont was lame (sorry Vermont relatives.) After living in DC for a few years, though, you start to realize you really, really miss fall. The crisp air, bonfires, corn mazes, and foliage. Yes, foliage. Yes, I am a 68 year old at heart. I missed dying leaves so much that we planned a long weekend in Vermont.

So the first weekend in October, Andy, Fitz, and I packed up the car and drove up north. We made a pit stop in Princeton to visit our friends Nick and Andrea, students at the seminary there. It's nice to visit colleges for Fitz. Frankly though, Princeton is a little too weak for his short list. 


Total weak sauce, right?

After our short visit we headed up another 7 hours to the middle of the Green Mountains where we booked a cabin. We hiked, Fitz ran headlong into a screen door, we ate Vermont cheddar, Fitz got beaned in the head by a falling apple, we visited the Ben & Jerry's factory, spent time with my cousins in Burlington, visited the Von Trapp family lodge (it was raining so I declined running through the hills singing), drove through Smuggler's Notch, and just generally relaxed. We also observed that it's an ideal vacation destination for the 55+ crowd.


Southern view from our cabin's deck


Our All-Vermont dinner

The Ben&Jerry's MINI Vermonster.

4 scoops + brownie + cookie + whipped cream + banana + brownie bites + cookie bites + sprinkles. Roughly 3500 calories. 

The full Vermonster is 20 scoops...



Vermont is cool, I guess.

In November, we hosted Thanksgiving at our place for our fellow Thanksgiving loners. We also cut down our first real Christmas tree, which we soon realized took up approximately 1/4 of our living room. 


Um yea.


We really should have realized how wide it was.

In December, I flailed over how much I love Christmas. We had our annual Christmas movie marathon at the Arlington Drafthouse, where we built our annually award winning ginger bread house (not really, but Andy is a phenomenal ginger bread house builder).


This would cost $1.2 million in DC.

Then we headed to the Mitten to see family. Of course, when we get there the power went out 12 hrs later and that lasted for 3 days. Showers are overrated. We spent time with both of our families and ate a lot. We continued that tradition by hosting our annual NYE party when we arrived back in DC. The next day, as always, our aunt and uncle hosted a nice recovery dinner for us. 


Wait what? Eww.

In January we ran around like chickens with out heads cut off. Here was my travel schedule

Get home from Michigan. Host NYE party

One week later fly to Phoenix for 5 days. Eat In 'N' Out. Twice. In a row

Fly back to DC

Three days later drive 9 hours to Detroit for Kaitlyn and Kelly's wedding. See my best friends. Joyful flailing occurred. 

Drive back to DC

1.5 days later fly to Austin for two days for work. #forfreedom

Fly back to DC and trash the apartment and live out of suitcase out of laziness. 


I'd like to say we'll be better about blogging, that I'm a changed woman. That might be true. Time will tell. Truthfully, I love reading blogs but I feel weird writing one. Which probably means I just need to get back in the habit. We'll see. I might write more about ramblings (er, my opinions), things I'm digging, the meaning of life, etc. Stay tuned (but not too tuned, because I could totally drop off the face of the earth again. Let's be real. Sorry Pearl!)