July 8, 2016

The beautiful lavender fields of Provence

Today we set off to the Luberon valley with the assistance of British Bob to view an iconic 10th century abbey surrounded by blooming lavender fields. For anyone who has viewed pictures of Provence lavender fields before in a calendar or on a poster has surely seen this abbey before; it's quintessential "Provence" at its best. We're about 2 hours from this part of Provence, certainly an easy day trip. Our timing has never been great to see the lavender in bloom as we've typically toured this area later in the summer or in a different season altogether, so it's finally something on my "bucket list" that I get to check off.

I'm convinced that British Bob is determined to make every road trip a "white knuckle" driving experience. We sailed pass Aix-en-Provence on the A8 toll road and then exited the super highway once we got into the Luberon valley. British Bob apparently has a fondness for farm roads; we were literally driving on barely-paved narrow roads between fields. How can this actually be a road meant for cars? Thank goodness we rarely encountered any other car traffic or farm equipment, but it was an unnerving driving experience to say the least.

I know what you're thinking -- it must be a setting in the GPS to avoid larger roads. We have checked and verified several times that the navigation options include ALL roads, so I'm unsure why British Bob is trying to turn our hair white and take us on the "touristic routes". He must know we are "stupid Americains". The actual road to the abbey was recently made a "one-way" road, which is a good thing given how narrow (and high) this "balcony" road was. But, we finally made it, and lucky for us, we arrived before the bulk of other tourists. Due to jet lag, we were up at 5:00 AM and after a leisurely morning, we still were on the road by 7:30 AM.


The first foundation for Sénanque Abbey was built in 1148 by Cistercian monks. Support from the local community enabled the monks to build the abbey church, which was completed in 1178.


Other structures at Sénanque followed. Among its existing structures, famed examples of Romanesque architecture, are the abbey church, cloister, dormitory, chapter house and the small calefactory, the one heated space in the austere surroundings so that the monks could write, for this was their scriptorium. A refectory was added in the 17th century, when some minimal rebuilding of existing walls was undertaken, but the abbey is a remarkably untouched.


We could have toured the inside of the abbey, but the crowds were starting to get thick and to be honest, it didn't quite seem worth the 17 Euros per person.

So we just enjoyed the surrounding area and walked along the back side of the abbey.


To be honest, I expected to see many more "fields" but we did see some additional fields in the area as we left the abbey on the way to our next stop, Gordes. That didn't stop us from taking over a 100 pictures of just the abbey alone - lol.

Just a couple of kilometers away is the hilltop village of Gordes. The view of the village from the roadway were stunning.
Apparently this village was occupied by the Roman Empire until an abbey was built by the monks in the 8th century. The castle was built in 1031 and later fortified in 1123.
During World War II, Gordes was an active resistance village. On 21 August 1944, almost a week after the beginning of the Operation Dragoon on the Provençal coast, a German patrol was attacked by the resistance, which the German retailiated the next day, forcing the locals to enter their homes, shooting those who were late or that were not cooperating, and started to shoot from the rock on the other side with a canon and destroyed a dozen houses. On the other side of the village, the rest of the troops set fire to houses and roads, blocking potential followers. More than twenty homes were destroyed. After the Liberation the resistance destroyed another part of the village, including the notarial house with all the archives. All of this destruction caused Gordon to be added to list of "stricken cities" of the Vaucluse region. By war's end, thirteen persons were killed or executed in Gordes, twenty citizens fell under the enemy bullets and five citizens were deported out of the country.
Until the 1960s, Gordes was a virtual ghost town of derelict buildings where locals led simple lives and had few ambitions. Then came the theater festival in Avignon, bringing directors who wanted to re-create perfect Provençal villages on film. Parisians, Swiss, Brits, and a few Americans followed, willing to pay any price for their place in the Provençal sun.
Today Gordes is renovated top to bottom and mostly inhabited by wealthy Parisian's and foreigners as property prices have been driven out of reach for the locals. All the new buildings in Gordes are made of stone and use terracotta roof tiles. No fences are allowed, only stone walls. These walls line the entire village and a lot of the surrounding roads leading away from it. We were amazed at the craftsmanship.
One of my favorite stores and SO cute!
After a lovely lunch, it was time to escape the hordes of other tourists and the heat, so we started the very LONG drive back to Plan-de-la-Tour. See, British Bob thought we really should see MORE of the Luberon and not only did we visit some more farm roads, we traveled along windy back roads across rivers, other hilltop villages, more farms, a couple of lakes, some forest and finally, the A8, but not until we had reached Aix-en-Provence, with is literally 2/3 of the way back to Plan-de-la-Tour.
I have a lovely, detailed Michelin map of Provence and it was my mistake that I left it on the table in our rental. Oops, my bad. So we were forced to wander and take the touristic route; probably close to 2 hours out of our way (or the 2-hour longer route). Ugh. Good thing Sean decided to cat nap in the car because I'm certain he would have become car sick with the winding, curvy roads we were on for at least half of the journey. But in British Bob's defense, we did drive through some beautiful scenery and some of the villages are definitely worthy of a return visit.
Á bientôt!

July 5, 2016

Summertime in the Côte d'Azure - yeah, we're here again!

It should come as no surprise to those who know me well that I just can't seem to STOP traveling to France. So here are we are again, after months of planning, enjoying the summertime weather in the French Riviera.

We had a mostly uneventful trip over the pond on a nonstop flight from Seattle to CDG on Thursday, July 1, 2016. Unfortunately, I was unable to use miles to upgrade to business class seats again this year, so we "suffered" in coach. We were able to purchase seat updates to Delta's economy comfort seats and lucky to get bulkhead seats again. Honestly, this really wasn't so bad; it certainly wasn't like the luxurious experience of business class, but we liked the extra room in front of our seats. It was nice to be able to get up and stretch or use the restroom without having to disturb anyone as there was plenty of room to walk in front of anyone seated in this 4-chair row.

We arrived in Paris with 2-1/2 hours to spare before our short flight on Air France to Nice. Never before have I encountered long immigration lines at this airport and there were hundreds of people in front of us in line. Given the recent terrorism activities in Europe, it's not surprising and a little comforting that extra precautions are being taken. However, after an hour had passed and we were still in line, we started to panic that we would miss our connecting flight.

It took almost an hour and a half to clear immigration. Thankfully our Air France flight was still in Terminal 2, however, it's a big terminal and we had to first sprint to collect our luggage from the Delta flight and then fly like the wind to the Air France gate so we could check in. We made the flight with 10 minutes to spare and were the last two people to board the flight. Whew!

I didn't sleep much at all on the flight from Seattle, and I barely had my seatbelt buckled before I fell into an exhausted sleep. It was a short flight though, and barely an hour later, we were landing in Nice. Given our late boarding in Paris, it wasn't a complete shock when one of our bags did not arrive in Nice. After waiting until every bag and passenger collected their luggage from the flight, we wearily found the baggage office to report Sean's missing bag. There were a couple of other passengers with us as well. We have been SO lucky with luggage in the past, so I suppose it was "due" that we would have delayed baggage.

Air France wasn't overly helpful with information and other than providing us with a claim number for the baggage, there wasn't much else to do but wait. In fact, according to the customer service rep on the other end of the telephone, she claimed she couldn't even find Sean's bag in the system using the barcode I provided from his luggage tag they affixed to his bag in CDG. Ugh.

Sean was distressed about his bag and the possibility that it might actually be lost forever (along with some recent new clothing and she purchases for the trip), but I was optimistic that this was simply a delayed bag and with frequent flights from Paris to Nice, its arrival was imminent.

We headed over to the rental car center where being a Hertz Gold club member had its perks; there were literally hundreds of people waiting in lines behind all the rental car counters and we simply just had to go upstairs and walk to the car; no paperwork, no waiting! Voila! and off we went.

Our destination was Plan-de-la-Tour, right outside St. Maxime. We stayed in this village two years ago and we were looking forward to returning; we loved this location and it's close proximity to St. Tropez. We brought along our Garmin GPS with a recent France map installed, but lucky for us, our rental had a navigation system that we did not have to pay extra for.

We plugged in our destination and hit the freeway. We weren't but a few kilometers from Nice when British Bob announced that we were taking the next exit onto a regional road. Not wanting to question British Bob, I complied, although my experience and gut told me this wasn't feeling right. I should have listened to my gut! Although British Bob got us to Plan-de-la-Tour, I suspect he took us almost an hour out of our way and took us on the "touristic" route instead of the fast-freeway route.

Driving hairpin turns while dodging oncoming traffic (especially the motorcyclists) when sleep deprived isn't a fun thing to do. I'm pretty sure we drove to Barcelona and back before we actually arrived in Plan-de-la-Tour. I really hate British Bob and want to smash him into a million pieces.

Finally we arrive and quickly connect with our vacation rental landlord at the designated "waiting spot" so he could lead us to the house. We are literally less than a mile from our previous rental, so we are both thrilled with the location as we are very familiar with the area, so c'est bonne!

Our maisonette is lovely, with a beautiful pool and outdoor space, just as described in the VRBO listing. You can view the listing here.

We paid 2500 Euros for 2 weeks. The location is fantastic and the owners are very nice. It's also very private and quiet here.

It was almost 90 degrees when we arrived and although the pool looked inviting, a shower and nap was in order and we did exactly that. We slept for about 2 hours and as soon as we were up, we started making calls as to the status of Sean's bag. The good news is that Sean's bag was found and was actually on the next flight from Paris and already received in Nice. Unfortunately, there was no option to actually GET the bag. The bag was already picked up by their courier service for dispatch to us in Plan-de-la-Tour with estimated arrival 24-48 hours. What???? You are kidding me right now, right? "Oui, Madame Toly, zest iz zee estimate for bag delivery. C'est impossible to contact courier; you must wait."

So the plan was we were being held hostage at our villa until some unnamed courier called us to tell us they would bring the bag during the 2-hour window they would provide. There was no way we could have them just leave it at the airport for us to pick up, nor any way we could pick it up ourselves in Nice at the courier's office. NO WAY. As you can imagine, this really stressed Sean out.

So I left Sean at the villa while I went to the local Carrefour supermarché to shop for stuff like rosé and coffee - you know, the necessities! So for the next several hours, we were tied to our phones waiting for "the call." We forced ourselves to stay awake until the reasonable hour of 10:00 PM and off to bed we went.

Through some miracle I actually slept until 5:00 AM, which is a huge milestone for me; I'm usually up at 1:00 or 2:00 AM on the first night after a long-haul trip. I get online and through some sleuthing actually discover the name of the courier services that Air France has entrusted our bag to. Unfortunately, they only have a "contact us" form on their website so there's no way to actually call them the old-fashioned way. So we wait.

It was another hot day and this beautiful pool is staring at us, so I decide to go purchase some swim trunks and a t-shirt for Sean so we can at least lounge in the pool while we wait for that stupid phone call. Finally at 1:30 PM, my phone rings and through some combination of my bad French and his poor English, we confirm the address of our villa and he says he'll be there within an hour. Hoorah!

9 phone calls later from Mr. French, he admits that he can't find Plan-de-la-Tour (never mind the villa) and he asks if we can just meet him at "Mack Donalds" in St. Maxime. Um, OK. (so much for the promise of "we'll deliver the bag to you at your rental villa". Well, I don't know where McDonald's is, so I ask him if we can meet at the Carrefour. He agrees and I tell him I will be there in 5 minutes. He says "I vill be in zee vite van". OK!

Sean and I arrive at the Carrefour and see 6 white vans (none of them had any signage on them). We drive past all of them and some of them have nobody inside. Sean gets out of our car with his baggage claim slip in hand and starts knocking on van windows "do you have my bag" kind of like the nursery rhyme "are you my mother?". One guy actually told Sean "yes" and when Sean asked "is it in the back" he says "yes", but then when Sean started asking more questions, he kept nodding his head and saying "yes." Me thinks he no unnerstand what ze Americain says.

Then my phone starts ringing and Mr. French asks me "where are you? I am here. Right in front." I explain we are also "here, right in front." We get out of our car and start flapping our arms like crazy people and when Mr. French tells me he still can't see me, I ask "are you are the Carrefour by Aqualand, the location I told you to meet me at?" Siliencio. Then, "oh, I'm at a different one." I am literally pulling my hair out.

OK, please go back to the Mack Donald's and I will come to you. I google McDonald's and voilia!, it's literally down the road. Boy, I really love technology! It sure makes things so much easier!

Off to Mack Donald's and we connect with Mr. French and Sean is back to being happy and not in despair over his missing bag. Now we can finally get on with our vacation!

Au revoir!

September 1, 2015

A magical evening at La Chèvre D'Or - or where we finally had foam!

When I started researching our trip this year, I wanted to add in some "fine dining" to our itinerary. After a little research, it was clear that the destination was La Chèvre D'Or.

Sean and I both sold a kidney so we could afford to order the "tasting menu" at La Chèvre D'Or, a 2-star Michelin restaurant in the hilltop village of Eze, situated between Monaco and Nice. I'm just kidding about the kidneys, but it might be a future plan so I can experience this place again. Like tomorrow. In a word - OMG.

Our dinner reservation wasn't until 8:30, but we arrived around 7:00 PM so we could enjoy the magnificent views from the garden and an appertif from the terrace as the sun started to set. The views were amazing and the gardens did not disappoint. Apparently Walt Disney spent quite a bit of time in Eze and particularly loved the jardin boutanique.

Sean was particularly fond of this oversized chess set and I kind of had to drag him away from wanting to play a game.

The garden was terraced down the hillside with many picturesque stone steps, rod iron railings, fountains, sculpture and lots of bronze statues of animals. I suspect you could spend a couple of hours just wandering the grounds around the hotel.

The sun was starting to set, so we headed back up to the top of the hillside to enjoy the view from the terrace while drinking an appertif. Not wanting to blow our budget on our appertif (bottles of champagne started at around $350), Sean had a beer and I enjoyed an Apperol Spritz, seemingly a popular choice given the number of others I saw being served.

Soon it was time to be seated at our table. The dining room is small and intimate with approximately 10 tables, but each with a spectacular view of the sea.

This was the view from our table (we could see the "golden goat").

I'll add another one from later in the evening after the sun has set. The view truly was spectacular.

Now is the time you should stop reading if you don't want to overdose on my own version of food porn. I know it was tacky, but I took pictures of every course so I could remember forever this magical evening. And perhaps try and recreate the fantastic dishes at home. Did I mention we finally had foam? Sean has been teasing me for years that I have never made a culinary foam for a dish after watching many seasons of "Top Chef" and seeing various types of "foam" being served atop delectable dishes by the contestant Chefs. Loved the drawing on the menu.

Once we were seated, the sommelier approached us with the wine menu that was the size of an Encyclopedia Britannica. I was a little nervous about asking for his recommendation because I was afraid of the bill! What if he chose a wine that was $400? $1200? They had wines in that book that were thousands upon thousands of dollars. After a brief discussion about what we were planning to eat and our tastes in wine, he recommended a French pinot that was a "reasonable" 120 Euros per bottle. I might have swallowed just a little bit, but no coughing. Sean and I were joking around later saying we'll probably see that same bottle of wine at "Total Wine" for $12 per bottle. Hah! If so, I'm buying a couple of cases. It was really lovely; nice and light, dry and a bit fruity.

We had already decided before our arrival that we were going to order the chef's tasting menu. After all, we were dining in a 2-star Michelin restaurant and we wanted to experience dishes we would not normally order. I won't share the price with you per person because my Dad will be reading this and I want him to continue to live for a long time and not choke on his coffee or have a heart attack, so we'll just leave that detail out. I will disclose that I have never spent this much money in my life for a meal, but I will say absolutely it was worth it and when can I go back?

Our first course was the "amuse bouche" (a starter to "amuse" our palettes). Starting from the red bite in the left corner, it was something creamy and cheesy? with some kind of tomato coating; almost like freeze-dried; but it completely melted in your mouth. The "cone" was made out of phyllo dough and filled with some kind of spinach and topped with a creamed "something delicious" and the last one was something creamy on a parmesan shortbread. Horrible descriptions I know, but it's kind of a blur now.

They had the most creative way to serve some of the dishes. It's hard to see in the photo, but there was an outer ring, then a small plate that was placed inside the ring and then lifted out using a specially designed fork (there are two tiny holes on the plate) to whisk it away. Ingenious!

The service was amazing. We wanted for nothing. I loved the little glass domes that covered each course and like a well-rehearsed symphony were lifted away at the same time. (This wasn't our dish, but I found a photo on the internet so you could see how cute they were). I'm pretty sure I need some of these cute little glass domes.

Oh, I almost forgot about the bread. They offered us a selection of warm breads, which included a mini baguette, a roll that looked like a cinnamon roll made out of croissant pastry, but instead of cinnamon and sugar filling, was filled with olive tapenade (that was my favorite) and some other kind of roll that neither of us tried.

Our next course was a vegetable medley of both raw and cooked vegetables (served cold) atop a delicious puree of eggplant, then topped (from a cute little white pitcher) with an aged Barolo vinegar. Divine.

Our next course was the only one that I didn't really love. It was a Scottish bay prawn that might have been raw served atop a gelée of some kind; then a dollop of some famous caviar. I tried caviar for the first time in high school at the insistence of my English teacher Mr. Bumstead during a Shakespeare course and I disliked it then, so this was definitely something I would not have ordered. But I did try it and I ate most of the prawn and gelée, but only a smidge of the caviar.

This next course was divine and I completely forgave the chef for feeding me fish eggs. It was a sautéed zucchini flower stuffed with goat cheese, oregano, lemon confit and served atop a tomato coulis.

Our view continues to take my breath away. We noticed one of the yachts below had a disco ball of sorts on - must be party night on his boat!

Our next course was a wild Mediterranean sea bream (similar to a sea bass) that was poached in lemon oil, served with pureed celeriac (which tasted kind of like a pureed parsnip, but sweeter), and a cream made from a Japanese citrus fruit (unsure the name) that was heavenly; on the side is an Oyster ravioli. This dish was worthy of licking the plate. I seriously did not want to leave anything behind.

This might be the point in our meal when we said "what the hell" and ordered another bottle of that delicious French pinot.

Now here's where our food went from fabulous to "I think I just felt the earth move." Marinated and pan fried foie gras served atop a fig compote and artichoke ravioli with parmesan foam. Foam! It was incredible. Simply divine. So yummy, so yummy, there's a party in my tummy!

This next course made Sean practically sing opera at the table. As a side note, our wait staff were really getting a kick out of us Americans. Our enjoyment of our meal was written all over our faces and they were cracking jokes and laughing right along with us. We even got a "that's what she said" joke from one of our attendants. This is in stark contrast to the diners behind us who barely ate any of their food and wanted to make changes to each dish they ordered. They clearly were not having "the best meal of their lives."

This next dish was milk-fed smoked and grilled lamb chop served with lemon confit, roasted fig and a delectable little spicy pork sausage. There was some kind of creamy sauce atop the fig, but unsure what it was. On the side was a bowl of a cold chickpea soup with some deliciousness with it that I forgot to take a picture of. I wanted to pick up the little bowl and drink it -- it was that good. And whatever sauce that was on the plate I wanted to lick clean as well. Seriously YUM! Probably the best lamb I've ever had. Where do I buy milk-fed lamb? Sean is wondering why I never roast figs. So. darned. good.

Next up, a delightful little bite of goat cheese that was slightly sweet, served atop a compote of olives with fresh olive oil poured on top. They must use a lot of tweezers in the kitchen to so perfectly garnish these cute little plates. I thought there was also something with the olives on the bottom - something fruity, but I can't remember.

Now we're "transitioning" to dessert. This was a vanilla sorbet on top of a fruit compote; not sure what kind of fruit - fig? The sorbet was creamy like a gelato and really, really, good.

This dessert just blew us away. Roasted cherries, with a layer of white chocolate, pistachios and mini little meringues. And something saucy - maybe a cherry reduction. Sublime. So good I wanted a huge bowl of it to take home. I loved the different textures of the soft cherries with the nuts and meringues. So clever.  And it was beautiful. I love beautiful food.

Sadly, we're just about done. We were both very full, but not in a bad way. Definitely satisfied and stuffed. Just when we thought we were actually done, they rolled over a dessert cart with delectable little chocolates. I forgot to take a picture of these little heavenly bites, but I had a dark chocolate mint bite and Sean had a lemon one at their insistence. Apparently we could have tried as many as we wanted (I think there were about a dozen varieties) but we were both too full to really indulge ourselves in more than one. It was the perfect ending to a spectacular meal.

We both had an espresso and marveled at what just took place. So lovely. Truly the most spectacular evening and one I shall never forget. Sean said he felt "ravished". It was worth every single penny and an experience I hope to share with others in the future. To quote Arnold, "I'll be back."

À bientôt!