October 13, 2013

Exploring Grenoble

After our first few days in this area of France - skiing, visiting Lyon, and more - we spent some time exploring our host's home town - Grenoble. Wandering around this small city is a delight! We began our day checking out the shops and architecture around the center of the city. The tight, narrow streets give the picture of a quintessential old European city. Old churches and houses still stand guard around small squares and the map is a labyrinth to explore.

We stopped at a small cafe for lunch - salads with mustard vinaigrette and bread - before going to my most anticipated stop of the day, a chocolaterie. Le Buchard is an adorable boutique chocolate shop and tea salon. With the brisk, winter chill outside, it was a perfect day for hot chocolate. We sat down in the salon and placed our order (classic hot chocolate for me and coffee for Jonathan). When our beverages arrived, they were presented like works of art - and they were delicious! My chocolate was rich and creamy with the perfect balance of chocolate flavor and sweetness. Before leaving, I went to the shop and purchased several bars and confectioneries to bring back home with me.

On a hill overlooking the city of Grenoble is an old fort, called the Bastille, that is now a park and a cafe. In the later part of the afternoon, we took the gondolas at the base of the hill to this park. The gondolas, referred to by our host as the "eggs", bring you on a short ride up the hill. As we rose in elevation, the city street view was replaced by the setting sun and mountains around us. From the Bastille, you can see the mountains that encircle this city. While we were up there, the snow covered peaks were painted intense oranges and pinks by the sun.

The view from the Bastille at sunset.
After it became dark, we met our host back home and headed out to enjoy our last evening in Grenoble. First, we went to a local wine bar, Le vin au verte, for a drink before dinner. Here, the proprietor serves local, organic wines (or biodynamic, as they refer to them in France) with cheeses and charcuterie. He recommended a wine from about 20 kilometers from this city. We relaxed and chatted alongside the other local patrons. The atmosphere was cozy and welcoming - it was the perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine and the company of friends.

For dinner, we went to one of my friend's favorite restaurants - Café Louis. To begin, we had a squid and salad appetizer. The seafood was perfectly cooked and the salad - like most salads in France - was tossed in a simple, but delicious vinaigrette. Next up, we shared a creamy green vegetable soup. Simple and delicate, a perfect soup for a winter evening. For the entree, we had grilled fish over vegetables seasoned with herbs de provence. The meal perfectly represented what I enjoy about French cuisine.

Grenoble is a city that I look forward to visiting again. Not only is it home to friends, but it is also a welcoming place where the beauty of French cuisine and culture is enjoyable, not distant or overwhelming.

October 6, 2013

Skiing in a Post Card

One of the things we were excited about doing in the Alps was skiing. Both Jonathan and I love the mountains, but neither of us had skied outside of North America before. So, even though it caused us to bring considerably more luggage, we hauled our ski (for me) and snowboard (for Jonathan) gear across the Atlantic with us.

The first mountain we visited was Alpe d’Huez. This is about an hour and a half drive from Grenoble and was home to the 1966 Olympics. My friend accompanied us and we left the city after breakfast and drove the winding roads into the mountains. After an hour or so, our GPS directed us to turn up a narrow mountain road. It was only one lane in each direction, appeared to only lead to a small village, and switched back precariously as it gained altitude. We followed the crazy curves back and forth and I dared not peek down the steep cliff at the edge. I think I held my breath the whole way...

Eventually we emerged at a large alpine ski resort. There were lodges, shops, cafes, and ski lifts and trails heading off in all directions. We unpacked, got our tickets, and headed up the mountain!
It was a perfect day - sunny, not too warm or cold, and not very windy. And the snow was perfect too - soft, groomed flakes and no ice. We started on the area of the mountain in front of the main lodge. After a few runs there we took a lift to another mountain peak. This ride to the other mountain has to be one of the most unique (and unsettling) chairlift rides I have ever experienced. First the lift brought us up over some buildings, parking lots, and flat terrain. Then it began descending sharply along the mountainside into a valley before reversing direction at the bottom to bring us up to the other mountainside.

Sometimes it felt like I was skiing into a post card!

This mountain peak had my favorite run all day - a long winding blue trail that circled the mountain giving you a panoramic view of the spectacular surrounding alps. After skiing for a few hours we stopped for lunch at one of the several lodges in ski resort. Lunch was definitely not what you’d get at a cafe at an American ski slope - fresh salads, pastas, and other warm entrees all served with beer, wine, tea, cocoa, or other non-alcoholic beverages. (Definitely a more civilized meal than bad pizza and burgers I’m accustomed to in ski lodges on the west side of the Atlantic!) We ordered salads with hot chocolate or tea and enjoyed our meal with fresh bread and a view of the alpine slopes.

After lunch we spent the afternoon skiing and enjoying the opportunity to be in such a beautiful place! I hope to be able to return to Alpe d'Huez sometime soon...

August 15, 2013

A Day Trip to Lyon

On our second day in France, we drove to Lyon. My friend whom we were visiting had been previously to this city and wanted us to see it. The day was cold and overcast, but we bundled up to ensure we'd enjoy the visit.

Lyon is larger than Grenoble and is located where the Rhône and Saône rivers intersect. The buildings sprawl out beyond the banks of both rivers, with the oldest part of town at the base of a hill on the north bank of the Saône River. At the top of the hill overlooking the old city is a large cathedral.

Café de La Ficelle
We began our visit at a cafe near the tram that transports visitors and residents to the cathedral and surrounding neighborhoods. Since it was chilly outside we needed a warm snack before exploring the city. We ordered a tarte tatin and crepe to share with coffees and hot chocolate. Tarte tatin is a dessert from this region of France made by caramelizing apples and then baking them in the oven with pastry on top. After baking, the pastry is served upside down with the apples on top. The crepe was okay, but the tarte tarin was delicious!

 Cathédrale Saint Jean-Baptiste
After our snack, we took the funicular up the hillside to the cathedral. The wind was colder at the top, but the view of the city stretching out before us was worth it! After checking out the city from above, we walked around the church square, took the obligatory photos, and visited the cathedral and the chapel. Both spaces were peaceful and filled with the comforting smell of candle wax burning.

A narrow cobblestone street in the old part of Lyon.

Soon we headed back down the funicular and were wandering around the narrow streets of the old town. It was like a labyrinth of small squares, narrow streets, covered passages, and courtyards. The streets were filled with people browsing tourist shops and enjoying this beautiful city. Even on a cold, gloomy winter day like this one, the bright hues of the houses almost glowed.

Le Bouchon des Carnivores
After the sun set, we found a cozy bouchon to go to for dinner. A bouchon is a restaurant that serves traditional Lyonnaise food, which is hearty and perfect for a chilly winter day. When we arrived, the restaurant was quiet, as we were well ahead of the normal dinner crowd in France. We ordered local wine and relaxed, enjoying the warm reprieve from the damp cold weather outside. I ordered fish and endives, while my dining companions ordered meat dishes. The thing I liked most about food Lyonnaise food is that is was comforting and delicious - perfect for cold weather!

After dinner, we walked out into the dark streets. The city was now shrouded in a thick fog, giving it a mysterious air. The city lights glowed in the mist as we made our way back to our car, ending our visit to Lyon.

Nighttime in Lyon...

April 6, 2013

Grenoble - Visiting Friends and Discovering a Destination

Some trips are about the destination, others are about friends. Our recent trip to France was for the latter, but along the way we discovered a great place to visit. While my general geography of Europe is good, I am still filling in local details through my travels. During this trip, Jonathan and I visited friends, went to a new country (Switzerland) together for the first time, and became familiar with the region of France that touches the Alps.

A few years ago, a friend of mine moved from New York City to Qatar for a while for work. From there she moved to Grenoble, France. Along the way she got married and has created a new home in this city in eastern France. So, we flew to Geneva, drove down to France to visit her and her new husband, and went skiing in the amazing mountains nearby.

Grenoble is situated about an hour and a half south of Geneva between the Alps and two other mountain ranges - the  Vercors and the Chartreuse. We arrived in the city in time to sit down to lunch and start catching up with our friends. I think one of the best ways to get over jet lag is to go for a walk. So, after lunch and relaxing a bit we headed out to get a tour of our friends' new city.

Grenoble was larger than I expected but old city center where our hosts live is compact and very walkable. Instead of wide boulevards like Paris, the streets are narrow, but clean and bright. There are several small plazas and parks hidden among maze of streets. On a hill above the city there is an old fort, called the Bastille, that once protected this region. Today it is a park that visitors can access by hiking or taking a gondola. But, for our first day, we stayed down on street level. We walked around the old part of the city, passing churches and through the plazas. We stopped to take photos and visit shops. A few hours later we were back at our friends apartment for wine, dinner, and sharing recent stories and news.

To end our first day in this region of France, we went to one of our friend's favorite cafes for another glass of wine. Le Zinc is a cute neighborhood bar with friendly service. After experiencing less than cordial service and the impersonal feeling of Paris, Jonathan was intrepid about returning to France on this trip. However, after seeing the kind manner of people in businesses and cheerful attitude of people on the street in Grenoble he was happy to be experiencing a different side of France.

March 31, 2013

Visiting El Born and Santa Maria del Mar

One last post from Spain... When I travel, I am often reminded how fortunate I have been to be able to visit so many different places around the world. One of those moments was visiting the church of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona. This church is very old. Construction on it began in 1329 AD; however, mentions of a Santa Maria del Mar in this area date back to 998 AD. Located in the El Born district of the city, this church stands tall next to the medieval buildings that line the streets.

Santa Maria del Mar

We came upon Santa Maria del Mar on our last day in Spain, at the end of a fantastic road trip. Inside the church was illuminated only by light coming through the stained glass windows and the many candles people had lit. There was a calm hush to the atmosphere. I am not a religious person, but there is something about the tranquil mood in this ancient church that I found very comforting. Jonathan went to light a candle and I sat down and gave thanks for having the opportunity to visit Spain, this city, and this church. And I hoped to have the privilege to return someday.

After visiting the church, we spent the afternoon meandering the narrow, crocked streets in the remainder of the El Born and Barrio Gothic districts of the city. These neighborhoods were definitely my favorite parts of Barcelona. They were away from the traffic and wide boulevards of l'Eixample and the other more hectic areas of the city. And even with signs of the modern world slipping in here and there - a parked scooter, a bathroom design store (selling flush toilets and other bathroom items) - walking through this area really feels like stepping back in time.

A narrow street in El Born.

El Barrio Gothic and El Born districts are wonderful places to spend an entire day - walking around; visiting the small shops; and taking the time to stop for a cafe, glass or wine, or a snack. Exploring these neighborhoods was a perfect last day in Barcelona!

March 26, 2013

More from Barcelona - Tapas and Chocolate

There are a two more places to talk about in Barcelona - and they are both food related...

First is a tapas bar where my husband Jonathan and I had one of my favorite meals in Barcelona, Tapaç 24. Located just off Passeig de Gracia, this fashionable tapas bar had a busy, vibrant atmosphere. The night was mild and we were able to get one of the restuarant's sidewalk tables.

Olives and vermouth
Pan con tomate

We ordered a variety of different tapas to share. We began with olives and vermouth. We got two types of olives - simple green ones and others that were stuffed with anchovies. Olives have always been a favorite food of mine. As a child I used to like eating the black pitted ones by putting them on my finger tips. Since then I have grown to enjoy all olives and these were no exception. And like at Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, olives and vermouth were the perfect way to start our meal at Tapaç 24. The only variation here in Barcelona was that we also had pan con tomate. This is a crisp bread rubbed with tomato and served with olive oil and salt and is a speciality of the region.

Grilled shrimp
Arroz negro

To accompany the rest of our meal we ordered a local wine from the Cataluña region. It was served in an unlabeled bottle with the year (2009) handwritten in silver marker. Since Barcelona is located on the Mediterranean Sea, the cuisine here focuses primarily on seafood. Then we got fried sardines. Like when we cooked this type of fish in San Sebastián, these sardines were fresh not preserved. They were light, crispy, and delicious. Next we got grilled shrimp and langoustines served with an orange sauce. Finally, our last dishes were arroz negro (rice cooked in squid ink) and tripe (for Jonathan). The local wine paired well with the food and both were excellent. The seafood was all local and therefore extremely fresh - not frozen or transported in from distant locations. This focus on local and intense attention to detail about all things food related in this city translates to amazing food!

Langoustines with orange sauce
Tripe (for Jonathan)

To finish our meal at Tapaç 24 we shared chocolate mousse served with olive oil, fleur de sel, and baguette crisps. It might sound like an odd combination, but it was wonderful. The chocolate mousse was thick and smooth with a rich milk chocolate flavor. It was placed in three scoops on the plate and sprinkled with fleur de sel. The grassy olive oil and salt complimented the rich chocolate, while the bread was a perfect crunch.

Chocolate mousse 

Next time I'm in Barcelona, I will definitely return to Tapaç 24 for tapas and chocolate mousse.

Continuing on the theme of sweets and chocolate, the last place I want to share is a chocolate shop and patisserie called Bubó. Located on the narrow streets of El Born close to the Church of Santa Maria del Mar, this beautiful little shop and cafe is a required stop of all chocoholics visiting Barcelona. We wandered upon it on our last afternoon in Barcelona and stopped for a snack. Bubó is the cutest shop and the pastries and chocolates look more like works of art than food. The only problem at this place is deciding what to get. There are so many beautiful sweets to choose from - classic pastries, small cakes, macaroons, chocolates, and more. I probably walked around the shop at least a half a dozen times admiring my options before selecting a small chocolate cake. To accompany our beautiful chocolate snack we also ordered two glasses of cava.

Mid-afternoon snack at Bubó - chocolate and cava!

We then took a seat in the shop and waited for our snack. Soon our snack arrived. The cava was served with strawberries floating in it. For the pastry I selected calling it a chocolate cake does not truly describe this delicacy. It was rectangular with crisp wafers on the top and the bottom and chocolate praline and mousse in between. It was crowned with a thin chocolate wafer. It was almost too beautiful to eat, but only almost. After admiring it for a moment, I took a bite. It was lovely - rich, chocolatey, and nutty. This was either the most decadent snack ever or a case of eating dessert before dinner. I savored every bite and enjoyed sharing this perfect afternoon interlude with Jonathan.

Attention chocoholics: next time you're in Barcelona, stop at Bubó for a snack.

March 15, 2013

Tapas and Flamenco in Barcelona

El Xampanyet

Of course, like other cities in Spain, Barcelona is home to many, many tapas bars.

Cava and tapas at El Xampanyet

On our first evening we had dinner in el Barrio Gothic (the Gothic Quarter). Here we began at El Xampanyet, a small tapas bar specializing in cava (Spanish sparkling wine, similar to champagne), anchovies, and other canned seafood. The place was packed, but the staff helped find a small table for us. We ordered two glasses of cava and a variety of anchovies, canned mussels, and other preserved fish with a few sun-dried tomatoes. The seafood was nothing like I expected. Like the anchovies we had in San Sebastián, these were bigger than the variety Americans have become accustomed to hating on pizza and had a delicate pickled flavor. The canned mussels were preserved with pimentón (Spanish paprika), had a more meaty texture than a fresh cooked mussel, and tasted like smoke and sea. There was also some delicious salmon and the sun-dried tomatoes were some of the best I've ever had. And everything went perfectly with the cava.

The second tapas bar we visited, Tapeo.

After eating our small tasting plate, enjoying our cava, and watching the crowd at El Xampanyet, we headed to the next stop on our tapas crawl. While our first stop was planned, the remainder of our evening was serendipitous. As we walked out into the street, Tapeo, another tapas bar across the street and caddy-corner caught our eye. After checking the menu we went inside and took a seat at the bar. This place focused more on gourmet or artisan versions of traditional Spanish tapas.

Vino tinto y pan con tomate
(Red wine and Catalan bread with tomato)

To begin at Tapeo, we ordered glasses of local red wine from the Cataluña region. Next, we got pan con tomate (a traditional Cataluña bread rubbed with tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil, and seasoned with a bit of salt). While in this region of Spain I became accustomed to having this delicious bread with every meal except breakfast! We also ordered asparagus with romesco sauce. This is a sauce made with almonds or hazelnuts, roasted peppers, garlic, olive oil, and sometimes tomato. And, last, Jonathan ordered butifarra, a dish made with white beans and sausage. (The version of this dish here was served with truffle aioli.) The romesco sauce excellent and tasted of rich hazelnuts and sweet peppers with a subtle bit of garlic. It was perfect with the asparagus, wine, and bread. Jonathan thoroughly enjoyed - and ate every bit - of his beans and sausage.

Asparagus with romesco sauce
Butifarra (white beans and sausage)

After our tapas, we headed back out into the maze of streets that is Barcelona's Barrio Gothic. Soon another serendipitous event occurred. A caller at the door of a dimly lit performance space suggested we attend their flamenco show. Seeing this type of music and dance live had been on Jonathan's list of things to do, so we halted our tapas crawl and went to the show.

The theater / performance space (Espai Barroc) was in the courtyard and foyer of building that probably dated from medieval times. Inside the theater, several people were settling into chairs around a small stage. We found two empty seats close to the stage, got a glass of wine that was complementary with our admission, and settled in to await the start of the show. Luckily our timing was perfect and a few minutes later the lights dimmed and the performers emerged on the stage.

Snippets of the flamenco performance.

The musicians - guitar player and percussionist - began to play. Rhythm and melody filled the room. A singer soon joined with the haunting lyrics of the flamenco gypsy ballads. After some time the highlighted performers of the show joined the musicians on stage - the dancers. There was a pause in the music and then the male and female dancer began the sensual steps that make up flamenco. Their movements conveyed energy and emotion. Their focus and precise steps captivated the audience, including me. And their feet became part of the music.

March 10, 2013

Visiting Gaudí in Barcelona

Rarely is a city so defined by one artist or architect. Often there are several monuments or important buildings designed or created by one individual, but these are alongside others, both famous and unknown. However, the city of Barcelona is different. Yes, its streets are lined with buildings by many architects, but the work by one individual dominates that of all others. And the buildings designed by this artist are unlike any others. These houses, churches, and buildings seem more suited to exist in the imagination than a busy urban setting. And, of course, the artist in question is Antón Gaudí.

As I have said previously, I prefer wandering city streets to visiting the hallowed halls of museums. Because of the numerous fairy tale facades created by Antón Gaudí the streets of Barcelona truly have become a museum. Gaudí lived in the beginning of the 20th century and was a prominent member of the Modernista (art nueveau) movement in Spain. The designs of his buildings are very flowing and mimic the patterns of nature.

Casa Batlló or House of Bones

We began our Gaudí tour on Passeig de Gracia a few blocks from our hotel. The first house we came upon was the Casa Batlló or House of Bones. The facade of this building tells the story of Saint George and the Dragon with the windows and balconies representing the bones of the dragon, the colorful tiles its scales, the roof its tail, and the chimneys the sword of Saint George. The inside of this house is open to the public to tour, however, we elected to move on to the next building.

Casa Batlló or House of Bones

Less than a block away is Casa Milà, better know as la Pedrera. This is a large, sand-colored apartment building crowned with chimneys that look like something directly out of a Star Wars movie. Nothing is square or symmetrical in this building and the balconies are adorned with wrought-iron banisters shaped like leaves and vines. Again, there is a portion of this building that the public can visit, but we opted to admire it from the sidewalk.

Casa Milà or la Pedrera

The balconies of la Pedrera.

The next stop on our architecture tour is often referred to as Gaudí's masterpiece, la Sagrada Familia (or the Church of the Sacred Family). Even after seeing Gaudí's other works and photographs of this church, nothing could have prepared to see it in person. This building truly is like no other structure in the world. First, construction continues on it to this day. When he designed it, Gaudí wanted the building of the church to be funded solely by donations and so when it is completed it will have taken over a century to construct. Next, the design of the facades of la Sagrada Familia cannot accurately be described in words, it is best to just see it.

La Sagrada Familia

Construction continues at la Sagrada Familia.

Is it beautiful? Is it gaudy? I will let you judge that for yourself.

A tree with white doves on one of the facades of la Sagrada Familia.

The final stop on our architecture walk around Barcelona was Park Güell. Designed by Gaudí as a gated community that never came to fruition, it is now a city park. Located on a hill above the Eixample neighborhood of the city, it boasts impressive views of Barcelona and the Mediterranean Sea below. The majority of the structures that are located in Park Güell were intended to be community gathering places - park benches, a covered area to house a farmer's market, a school, a church, and more. Everything is covered in bright-colored tile mosaics giving the park a playful, happy atmosphere.

A gingerbread looking building at the entrance to Park Güell.

The day we were at Park Güell was beautiful and sunny. It was filled with people sitting on the benches, wandering about, and enjoying the view. It was a perfect place to pause and reflect. We sat down to relax and be thankful for being able to visit an amazing destination like Barcelona and for having the opportunity to travel around Spain.

The ceiling mosaic in a covered area that was intended to host a farmer's market at Park Güell.

So, what impression did Barcelona's famous architect, the city, and the country of Spain have on me? I can't say I love Gaudí's work; however, I can say I will never forget it. And while there are many other places in the world I have enjoyed visiting or hope to see in the future, I cannot wait to return to Spain.

March 7, 2013

Images of Boqueria Market

In my last post I had a hard time deciding which of the many photos we took at Boqueria Market to include. So, I decided to share more. Here is a larger sample of the bounty of this amazing market in Barcelona!

Candy fruit pâtés
Colorful popsicles

Adorable marzipan fruit