France 2016: Aix & the Côte d’Azur 

Note: this is part 3 of 3. Part 1. Part 2.

With heavy hearts we left our b&b, L’Ecole Buissoniere, and began our drive to the coast.  Our sweet hostess, Monique, sent us on our way with kisses on both cheeks and a box of cookies for the road.  Our destination was the French Riviera, or the Cote D’Azur, and along the way to stopped in the college town of Aix-en-Provence.


Aix is a charming town with a rich history and lively people-watching.  The Cours Mirabeau is the wide boulevard lined with trees, shops and cafes.  We stopped for lunch, did Rick’s walk and grabbed some treats for the road.

Within a couple hours the coast was in sight.  We inched along next to Nice’s Promenade des Anglais with the bluest water you’ll ever see just feet to our right and as we rolled our windows down to take in the sea breeze, we found it very difficult to mind the congestion on the road ahead.


Our home-base for the next couple days would be Villefranche-sur-Mer, a small town just past Nice.  We rented a tiny apartment just a couple streets from the water–it even had a little balcony on which we ate breakfast each morning.  (It even came stocked with the essentials–milk, orange juice, fizzy water, snacks, WINE!)  The local grocery store and boulangerie (bakery) were just steps from our door, which made it convenient to get fresh croissants and fruit each morning. We grabbed pizzas one night and sat outside watching the sun set over the water.


The next morning, we drove our rental car up above Villefranche to Eze-le-Village to explore.  We’d packed a picnic breakfast and scored a *perfect* spot (thanks, Rick!) overlooking the water (and the gardens of an incredibly high-end hotel).


We stopped for coffee at the Chateau Eza, which used to be the vacation home of the Swedish Royal family.  I decided to take a photo to use as my iPhone home screen; last year’s photo from Collioure was now outdated!  Surprisingly, our coffees at $6 each, were quite reasonable considering our view.


After Eze, we drove up to La Turbie, home of the Trophee d’Auguste.  It’s super old–built around 6 B.C.–as a monument to Emperor Augustus for conquering the ancient tribes in the Alps.  Apparently it’s famous for having a very large inscription on one side.  Seeing–and getting to climb up the ruins–was a highlight for Andrew.  Even I enjoyed the video in the small museum explaining the restoration work.


Afterward, we headed back down the hill and stopped at Fragonard, a famous perfumerie in France. We saw their small operation–everything bottled by hand–and enjoyed the tour very much.  Fragonard sources many of their flowers from the French Riviera area, which is why they have a location there.  Andrew and I visited one of their shops in Paris last year, but didn’t feel like we had enough of an understanding to appreciate a souvenir.  This year, I took home a bottle of their ‘bleu riviera’ and a matching make-up bag to remind me of the Cote d’Azur (blue coast).

That afternoon, we dropped our rental car off in Nice (after the perilous switchbacks in the hills and increased traffic from Provence, we were ready to be back to public transportation) and took a tram tour, stopped for beer and ‘socca’ (fried chickpea flatbread), and grabbed gelato at famous Fenocchio’s before hopping a bus back to Villefranche.

The next morning we took a train to Monaco (as in, the richest country in the world MONACO), home of the Monte Carlo casino and the Grand Prix. In fact, the Grand Prix had just wrapped up, and as we alighted from the train station we saw the remaining guard rails and expended tires being cleared away from the road.

Monaco is where the richest of the rich call ‘home,’ which really means it’s just an address–or where they dock their yacht–to avoid higher taxes elsewhere.  The number of luxury vehicles we saw (we aren’t talking Lexus and Audi–we’re talking Lamborghini and Ferrari) was astounding.

We stopped for coffee outside the Monte Carlo and popped into the lobby for a peek.  It’s perhaps the only casino NOT open 24/7; in fact, there’s a dress code after 2 p.m. and the guards made it seem like you might even need an invitation to play at a table!



Monaco is pretty tiny–less than a square mile yet the most densely populated country in the world–and we were able to explore it in about half a day.  On a future trip, I’d love to see the aquarium there.  We returned to Villefranche and spent a little time at the beach (check out Andrew in the water–he said it was freezing).


We spent the last day of the trip enjoying our little home-base, Villefranche, then heading into Nice for lunch and more walking.  We went up to Castel Hill for views, walked the Promenade des Anglais with more gelato from Fenocchio’s.  We still had a bottle of rose left at our apartment, so we grabbed some take-out Vietnamese food for dinner, found a secluded nook in the rock’s along Villefranche’s little port and enjoyed the faint nusic coming from a yacht in the bay.

Au revoir, France!  A bientot!


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.


Can you believe this was our view from our room:


(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:


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:


The view from our balcony to the patio:


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


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.


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).



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.


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.



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.







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.


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.


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


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.


France 2016: Paris

Note: this is the first of three posts about our trip this summer.

Andrew and I didn’t plan a vacation for this summer–much less one of our epic European whirlwind tours–but sometime this Spring we called an audible, decided our backyard project could wait a couple more weeks to start and bought two tickets to Paris.

We left May 18 from Toronto and by the time the plane took off, we were so ready for a vacation we thanked our lucky stars we’d decided to get away.


After we landed the next morning in Paris, we bought Navigo passes for the Metro.  Andrew had even brought teeny tiny headshots of both of us from home (to affix to each pass) to save time.  We napped for a couple hours that afternoon before grabbing some to-go food to eat in a park before touring the Marmottan Museum, which is a collection of Monet’s paintings.  Our view from dessert that evening: the Eiffel Tower at night.


The next day, we shopped for breakfast items (we were staying in an apartment this time!) on Rue Cler, a street known for its food shops.  Every morning, Andrew ran down for fresh croissants, which felt like quite the luxury.



One of our highlights in Paris are the arcades, which are covered passages filled with shops and restaurants on either side.  Last year, we found a small shop that sells antique postcards, and we made it our mission to find one for every city in France we’ve been.  We stopped there again this year to add to our collection that hangs at the top of our stairs in the house. Other souvenirs from Paris included some books, a few prints to frame, and–of course–the guides from each art museum we visited.

Speaking of art museums…  One of my favorites is the Centre Pompidou (below), which holds contemporary and modern art.  It’s modern and high-tech looking, with an exterior escalator.  (I also love the Orangerie, Musee D’Orsay and the Marmottan as they all have large works by the Impressionists.)


We chose the day with the best weather to visit the Palace of Versailles, located outside of the city.  The chateau was King Louis XIV home-away-from-home and is hugely famous for its Hall of Mirrors and gardens.  The gardens include multiple giant fountains,  the Petit and Grand Trianons (‘mini’ palaces) and paths and Marie Antoinette’s 12-building ‘peasant farm.’  We spent the morning in the palace, then ate our picnic lunch near the fountain of Apollo and then toured the gardens and fountains until our feet felt as if they might fall off!  No wonder–my Fitbit logged 36,000 steps that day!





After we got back to the city, Andrew and I headed out for a special event called the ‘Night of the Museums,’ in which many museums were open for free.  I love that Andrew does such extensive research before our trips so we can take advantage of things like that.  We started at the National Archives, where we saw Napoleon’s will and Marie Antoinette’s journal from the French Revolution.  We grabbed takeway food from a local falafel stand (one we visited last year!) and watched a fire show with a crowd of locals.

Another ‘local’ event we took advantage of was hearing a concert at Sainte-Chapelle, a small but beautiful chapel.  We’d visited it last year, but we heard about the concerts this Spring during our French language classes and thought it would be a neat thing to do.


Other highlights included trips to the Picasso Museum and the Musee d’Orsay, both of which we left wanting to visit again!  We’d been to the Orsay before, but this time we focused more on the top floor with the Impressionists, and still didn’t get enough.

Food is a big thing for us on our trips; choosing our restaurant and meals is such a cultural experience, not to mention ordering in a foreign language.  We loved people-watching over cafe creme (coffee with milk) at Cafe Cler near our apartment, Bistro Saint Dominique where Andrew tried beef tartare, Cafe Constant for its traditional French cuisine with a modern flair and notoriety (the chef’s own cookbooks lined the walls), Cafe Angelina and its famous ‘Mont Blanc’ dessert and the bistro in Les Halles where we shared a meat and cheese platter for dinner over wine.  And, of course, fresh croissants every morning.


On our last night in Paris, I insisted we walk by Notre Dame and go to the little cafe (called La Brasserie d’Isle Saint-Louis) with the red awning that serves Berthillon ice cream on Isle Saint-Louis.  We’ve been every time we’re in Paris, and walking the bank of the river, in sight of a lit up grand cathedral, is just about the most romantic thing you’ll ever do.


Part 2 of our trip coming soon!