Book Review: Rick Steves’ Sicily 2019

When Andrew and I found out Rick Steves’ book on Sicily–the first ever–wouldn’t come out in time for our BABYMOON, we were dumbfounded.  How would we plan our trip? (OK, who am I kidding?  Andrew plans the trips.)  Should we scrap the Sicily idea in favor of returning to a favorite destination, like Paris or Florence? In our 12 years of traveling, we’ve never gone to Europe without a Rick book, and I’m not about to start now.  I furiously emailed Rick’s people and publisher, detailed our plight and even attached the photo of ourselves with Rick when we met him in Civita in 2013.  I begged politely requested an advance copy of the book in exchange for a review on the blog…and within days I had a link to the rough draft in my inbox.  All the praise hands!

If you’ve never used a Rick book (that’s what Andrew and I call them) for planning and on your European travels, you are MISSING OUT, my friend. Continue reading “Book Review: Rick Steves’ Sicily 2019”

France 2016: Lyon & Provence

Part 2 of our trip:

We left Paris on Tuesday, May 24 and rode a train to Lyon, about 300 miles outside of Paris.  Lyon is known for its cuisine and its history of silk weaving. It features a funiculare that takes you to a church and ‘old town’ with the ruins of a Roman amphitheater at the top of the city.

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Can you believe this was our view from our room:

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(Not the same church at the top of the city; we stayed just outside Place Bellacour in the modern town.)

While in town, we began with a walk to orient ourselves and then lunch.  I was dying to try the ‘salade Lyonnaise,’ which are greens topped with hunks of bacon, croutons and a poached egg.  We toured a museum of Roman ruins (obviously a highlight for Andrew), but I was more intrigued by the fashion show going on one level below us.  I got to chat with a young woman studying costume makeup and design whose work was featured in the show.

We chose a Rick Steves’ recommended restaurant for dinner, Les Lyonnaises, and we sat family-style, shoulder to shoulder with boisterous locals, some of who were ordering bright blue shots…on a Tuesday night.  I tried the epitome of Lyonnaise cuisine, a quenelle brochet, which is a fish souffle of sorts, served with a creamy red sauce.  It was absolutely divine.

The next morning, after walking the La Croix-Rousse district (known for its history of silk-weaving and garment-making), we toured a tiny silk-screen printing shop, where we saw first-hand how authentic screen-printing is done.  It’s incredibly labor intensive and I came away with a beautiful scarf as a treasured souvenir.  On our way out of town, we picked up our rental car:

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Finally!  The part of trip Andrew and I may have been looking forward to the most–our stay at L’Ecole Buissonniere.  We stayed there for one night on our trip last year, and it was not enough.  Not even close.   Our hosts, John and Monique, greeted us warmly with wine and olives.  It’s the most bucolic little b&b in Provence with only 4 rooms for guests.  They have a small pool, an enchanting patio and their hearts are as big as their arms are wide when they embrace you and kiss your cheeks. If they hadn’t had a room available, we may not have even made the trip across the pond!

Directly translated, L’Ecole Buissonniere means ‘to play hooky’ and is a play on words as the b&b is located in the town of Buisson.

Our room:

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The view from our balcony to the patio:

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The view from our other balcony, a field of grape vines:

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Just like last year, our first dinner in Provence may have been the most memorable of the entire trip.  John suggested we try Cote Terrasse, in nearby Seguret, and after an eventful drive (a story that can only be told in person, sadly), we arrived just in time for our reservation. As the sun set on the terrace and we sipped our wine, we both basked in the glory of vacation.  We’d left busy Paris behind us, broken in the rental car and we had five glorious days ahead of us in slow, warm, sunny Provence where the most important part of your day is hitting a different town and choosing a cafe for lunch.

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While farmer’s markets here in the States are often on Saturdays, markets in Provence vary by village and can be on any day of the week.  In fact, if you stayed in the region for seven days you’d probably be able to hit each village’s market at least once.  We started in Nyons, a nearby village, for their market.  Markets in Provence are a high highlight of any trip, and are a cross between a farmer’s market (including fresh fish, live chickens and prepared foods) and a flea market (with everything from handmade purses to famous Provencal table linens and knock-off purses).

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In Nyons, we picked up the ingredients for a picnic lunch and took it back to L’Ecole Buissonniere and ate on the patio.  The b&b is even equipped with a ‘summer kitchen’ with a small fridge, stove, sink and tableware. Chilled wine can be found at any grocery store for a couple euros.

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After lunch we headed out on a driving tour of the region, where we saw hilltown after hilltown after hilltown.  These tiny villages, built into the sides of hills, were originally situated that way for protection; now they’re often inhabited by fewer than 25 people and might be some of the most quaint places on earth.

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The next day was my birthday!  While being on vacation in Europe sure is a fantastic way to spend one’s birthday, it can easily turn into just another day of sightseeing without any of the typical well wishes from friends and family.

After a day of wine-tasting (and buying), Andrew took me to a small pizza place for an early dinner before our evening plans.  He even shooed me away to the bathroom so he could ask the waitress to put candles on my dessert (in French, of course).  When I came back out and sat down, out came the chef himself and the entire village square got in on the singing of ‘Happy Birthday,’ some in English and some in French.

This year, Andrew decided to make my day extra special and–after much hemming and hawing–bought us ticket to see Alexis Gruss equestrian horse ‘circus’ show.  Not only was the show amazing–it took place in the ancient Roman amphitheater in Orange, a town about 30 minutes away, which is one of only two amphitheaters in the world still standing with its stage.  It was magnificent.

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The rest of our stay in Provence was a mix of scenic drives in the countryside, visiting small town after small town (see the just-starting-t0-turn lavender, below) and more market days.

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We stopped in to Isle sur la Sorgue, which holds happy memories for us as it was the place where a kind and proud Frenchman loaned us his car years ago so we could see the many beautiful towns in the area (the trains had been on strike at the time).  Isle sur la Sorgue is known as the largest of the markets in the area and for its antique shops. We toured the market and ate lunch at Cafe du France, where I had a salad with shrimp, foie gras and smoked duck.

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We popped into Roussillon, known for its distinct red color.

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That night, at John’s recommendation, we ate at Le Comptoir de Les Vocones in Vaison la Romaine, where I ordered what he recommended: the lamb sweetbreads (neck muscles) served in a brown sauce with fresh pasta. Delightful. Andrew and I surprised each other by ordering the exact same dessert: a crepe with salted caramel ice cream, caramel sauce and whipped cream. Taken from my journal: ‘It might have been our favorite sweet of the trip.’

Andrew wanted some night shots of the ancient Roman bridge in Vaison, so we wandered the town in the dark.

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Brussels – January 2016

About a week after I got back from Beijing, I went on another trip with mom, this time to Brussels, Belgium.  Brussels is home to NATO, the EU and world-famous beer and chocolate.

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Here’s mom, coming through Business Class with the sundae cart!  (I swear, ice cream on airplanes will never get old to me.)

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We took off in the early evening from Dulles and landed at about 6:30 a.m. local time in Brussels.  Yet again, I did not sleep on the plane.  I just cannot sleep on planes.

After waiting for what seemed like forever in customs (which I’m sure was even worse for mom, who had worked the flight and isn’t accustomed–ha!–to waiting with all us regular travelers and is usually whisked through border control and onto a bus to her hotel) we hopped a train to get us to the hotel.

Neither of us is especially good with directions, and despite having found where our hotel should be on one of my Rick Steve’s maps, we were hopelessly lost after exiting the train station. (I missed the part in the guidebook where Rick says Brussels is one of the hardest cities to navigate, and it didn’t help that there were multiple exits to the train station.  Really makes me appreciate Andrew’s pre-trip planning and inherent sense of direction.)

Our first stop after refreshing our clothes in the hotel was the Grand Place, which is the central square of the city and its most famous sight.  Mom’s layover in Brussels is only about 24 hours, so we had no time to waste!

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Mom has a friend in Brussels who joined us and took some great photos as well.

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We were blessed with a beautiful and sunny (if a bit chilly) day, and didn’t really have much of an itinerary.  My only goals were to 1.) eat a waffle, 2.) bring back beer for Andrew,  3.) buy chocolate and 4.) see SOMETHING of note.  Perhaps in that order.

After a little exploring, we took a train to the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History hoping to climb up for great views and photos, but were disappointed to find out the once-free museum was no longer.

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Instead, we walked the long way back toward the center of town, passing the European Union headquarters building and other notable buildings.

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Our destination was the Royal Museums of Fine Art, where we spent a couple hours seeing both ancient and modern art.  I enjoyed it very much.

After saying goodbye to mom’s friend, mom and I shared a waffle (topped with whipped cream, Biscoff spread and cookie crumbles!!) and headed off to buy beer to bring home to the hubbies.  While you can purchase many of the same Belgian brands (Duvel, Chimay, Leffe, etc..) here for $4-5 per bottle, you can get the same at their grocery stores for like 1 Euro (approximately $1 currently).  Super cheap.

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We also made sure to stop by the Manneken Pis, which is a (surprisingly small) statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain.  It’s one of the main sights in Brussels (there aren’t that many to begin with), and he’s often dressed in some sort of costume, the schedule of which is actually regulated.  Today, he was naked.  Mom bought a package of Manneken Pis chocolates, and I made sure to bring a couple home to give to those would would appreciate the little guy.

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That evening, we saw the Grand Place all lit up and bought our chocolate at Leonidas, which mom asserts is the best chocolatier.  For about $8, I was able to fill a small box to the brim with all sorts of flavored and filled milk and dark chocolate goodies–I couldn’t believe how many pieces I got, perhaps as many as 20.  Absolutely delicious.  Note to self: next time mom goes to Brussels, ask her to get more!

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For dinner, we both enjoyed the specialty of the area, ‘moules frites,’ which is french for mussels and fries. So, we had ‘mussels in Brussels.’ (Little known fact: it was the Belgians, apparently, who invented fries. Not the French.)

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We just about collapsed at the hotel that night after all our walking (Fitbit said 26,696 steps!) and packed up our things.  After a shared in-room breakfast, we rode the crew bus back to the airport and I got dropped off to check-in while the rest of the crew headed to the plane.  Thankfully, this time around I was able to proceed to the gate and even treated myself to a tube of Guerlain’s KissKiss lipstick, (Duty free!)something that caught my eye in a magazine and I’d been looking for since.

I got on the plane no problem (what a relief), landed at Dulles and was able to spend a little time with mom before I caught the last flight out back to Buffalo.  It was a great (if short) trip and I was glad to have met all my above-mentioned goals: Andrew loved his beer, I loved my chocolate, mom sent me home with pre-packaged waffles (yay!) and I saw multiple sights.  Now, I just need to take Andrew so he can experience it for himself.