Tour de France

Note: This post is WAY overdue.

So, Andrew and I went to France for a month last year.  (I actually uploaded all these photos last year after we got back, and then we threw ourselves into so much summer projecting and landscaping that I never got around to actually writing the post.  Blog fail if there ever was one.)

We left from Toronto International Airport about a week after I graduated from Buffalo State with my Nutrition and Dietetics degree.

We stayed for a few days in Paris after we arrived, and this was the view out our window:

  Andrew is quite the photographer (for real) and I made sure to get some shots with him in action.  While in the city, we did lots of sightseeing, including a trip to the Louvre, a chateau where we got to walk the grounds, see it lit up with hundreds of candles at night and a fireworks show, as well as all the other ‘Parisian’ things, like lunches at a sidewalk cafe and many, many museums.    One of our favorite things to do is buy ingredients for a picnic lunch and sit down somewhere surrounded by locals.  Here we are, behind the giant Sacre Coeur church (Basilica of the Sacred Heart), lunching on cherries, a baguette and a roasted chicken.  Gelato is and ESSENTIAL part of an European vacation.  On a daily basis.  The Centre Pompidou, which is a modern art museum and one of my favorites.  Sadly, not all the collections were open at the time of our visit…guess we’ll just have to go back!  The Eiffel Tower at night.  Truly one of the most amazing sights you could ever see.   Macarons from Gerard Mulot in Paris.  I don’t care whether they’re from Mulot or Laduree–they’re delicious.  After leaving Paris, we took a train to Rouen where we rented our car.  This was our first trip not relying solely on public transport and we loved it.  (At least I did.)  Andrew did an excellent job getting the gist of European cars and traffic signs, and I did my best to navigate.  Thankfully, Andrew loaded our GPS with our entire itinerary before we left, so all we had to do was select each destination.  I cannot even tell you how much that helped. Not only did it save time, it may have saved our marriage vacation–can you imagine us fighting over not finding a destination in the GPS every time we went somewhere??

Rouen is where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Rouen is in the north of France, in Normandy. Our trip basically took us counter-clockwise around France, started in the north and moving west, then south-central, then southeast and back north again.

    From Rouen, we drove to Honfleur.  The village surrounds a little basin on three sides and we had beautiful weather for walking and dining.  Honfleur is home to Saint Catherine’s Church, which is the largest church made of wood in France. Next, we headed to Bayeux, home home of the Bayeux Tapestry, which is a VERY long tapestry, embroidered by nuns, that shows the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England.  Very famous. When we travel, we often stay in small bed & breadfast-type places, or hostels, as opposed to what we would call a ‘hotel’ here in the states.  Check out our bed! While in Normandy (where we had very good weather, BTW), we stopped at the D-Day Beaches and American Cemetery and other sights. Breathtaking.  Emotional. Moving. I’m not usually one of those read-everything-in-sight at museums, but this one was different.  I could have stayed all day.  Their written descriptions, minute-by-minute timeline, displays and footage are incredible. 

While in Normandy, we also saw Mont St. Michel, and I can’t believe I don’t have a photo in here of that!  It’s basically a fortified island famous for the tides that used to prevent access during certain times of the day.  Read more about it here.

After Normandy, we headed south to the Loire Valley, we splurged and stayed at the Chateau de Pray.  Their Michelin-starred restaurant was perhaps the best meal of our lives.  It was so nice Andrew didn’t even bring his camera, so (sadly) there are no photos, but it was the most memorable dining experience of our lives.  Think little bits and bites of barely-recognizable foods that tasted so unique and delicious you could identify everything in it, but was unlike anything you’d ever had.  And that was just the pre-appetizer ‘amuse bouche.’ Four hours from start to finish.  The servers do everything but feed you; I don’t think we poured our own wine or even had to LOOK like we needed something before our waiter was at our service.

 Here’s a garden at Chateau Villandry: From the Loire we went to the Dordogne River Valley, which is known for its scenic topography, prehistoric caves and foie gras. We stayed at La Roque Gageac, which made us fall in love with France all over again.   One of the highlights of the Dordogne is visiting the market at Sarlat.  Our hotel in La Roque Gageac overlooked the river and we dined multiple times with this view:   In addition to canoeing along the river one afternoon, we also  visited a foie gras ‘farm.’ We were able to watch one of the feedings (definitely an experience–no ducks were harmed in the process) and bought some tins of foie gras to take home.

We climbed high in the mountains (in our car) and then climbed more on foot to reach Peyrepertuse, a Cathar castle in the Pyrenees.  We were SO HIGH.  And people were letting their children run wild all over the place.  Andrew and I joked that if this site were here in America, there would be guard rails all over the place, someone would die every year and there would be a lawsuit.

  From there we headed south to have a ‘vacation from our vacation’ in Collioure, which is close to Spain.  Swimming in the Mediterranean is phenomenal (you can see right down to the bottom!) but beaching it while traveling is always problematic–how do you get a towel? What about sunscreen? Will anyone steal your stuff while you’re in the water? We managed, although the rocks on my feet were particularly uncomfortable. And we did have the most excellent paella bought at the market minutes before it shut down for the afternoon.  We swung into Avignon, where we saw Pont St Benezet, a famous medieval bridge.  We spent a few days in Provence, where we fell in love with our b &b (L’Ecole Buissonniere) and dined at La Bastide Bleue.    Leaving Seguret, we stopped at a little cafe in Faucon to have lunch:  Our next stop was Beaune (pronounced like ‘bone’), in the Burgundy region, where we enjoyed sightseeing and lots of wine, including buying some to bring home with us.  Annecy is in the French Alps and is located at the northern end of Lake Annecy.  We rented bikes and took a boat tour around the lake.  It seemed like the kind of place you’d want to rent a house for a week for a vacation.  The French Alps were one of my favorite stops on the trip.  Chamonix, the little village below the Alps and a home base for climbers, was both quaint and a bit metropolitan.  It’s located where France, Switzerland and Italy meet; in fact, we drove through Switzerland to get there from Annecy. You could buy top-of-the-line climbing gear and outdoor apparel, yet find a hold-in-the-wall bistro for a bite and some beer with locals.

On our first day, we took the cable car up half-way up and then hiked from there to the glacier.

  Glaciers really look blue and we were able to walk around inside.  Crazy!  The next day, we got up SUPER early and were blessed with good weather (if it’s cloudy, it’s not even worth going up) and went all the way to the top of the Aiguille du Midi observational deck.  Other than in an airplane, this was the first time I’ve been above the clouds and it was absolutely breathtaking.  Perhaps the most amazing travel experience of my life so far. I couldn’t believe how high up we were, the thinness of the air–we were truly up above it all at the tops of mountains.  In fact, Aiguille du Midi is the starting point for climbers who ascend Mont Blanc, which is the highest peak in Europe.        From Aiguille du Midi, we hopped on another cable car and rode over glaciers to…   …Helbronner station in ITALY.    Unfortunately, Helbronner was experiencing white-out conditions, so no great views from here.   So we grabbed a cappuccino. In Italy.

After taking the cable car back to Aiguille and then riding the other cable car halfway down, we decided to grab lunch at one (of the few!) mountainside hostels.

  These hostels are mostly designed for hard-core climbers who have to get up to the mountain at wee hours, and are minimally (but surprisingly well) equipped.  I remember eating a giant salad topped with olives and cheese and melon and salmon, and then had a piece of homemade blueberry pie. And wine.   We stayed in Eguisheim in the Alsace region, which is also known for its wine. Also for the storks that make nests atop their highest peaks.  Check out the postcard-worthy photo below…Goggle ‘Eguisheim’ and you’ll see many like it.  Our hotel room windows are the ones in the upper left corner with the blue windows.  Colmar, which is also in Alsace and super quaint:  Kaysersburg, another super quaint village in Alsace:  Our last true stop was Strasbourg, which is on the eastern edge of France on the border with Germany.  It is most famous for the gothic cathedral that houses the astronomical clock.     We returned our car in Strasbourg, checked our giant bags for our flight home and took a train to Paris. I dined on thai food, Orangina soda (not super sweet) and a container of apple/chestnut sauce.     Outside of Paris, we stayed in our first (in like four or five trips!) actual ‘hotel’ in Europe. Ibis is a chain of discount hotels (similar to a Super 8 here) and we were astounded at the austere amenities, but all we really needed was a bed, a bathroom and the included breakfast was nice.  The next morning, as we arrived at the airport and approached the exact same Cafe Paul at which we grabbed coffee and sweets upon arriving a month earlier, I was incredibly emotional.  We’d just spent an enormously long amount of time together, on vacation, somewhere we truly love.  I’m almost embarrassed to say I shed tears, but I did.  The thought of leaving all of this behind made me so sad, but I take comfort in knowing this wasn’t my last visit to our beloved France. 

my stay-cation with emily

OK, so now that I’ve divulged my senior moment about losing my sunglasses, here are some highlights from my recent trip to Emily’s:

First, I arrived to the cleanest, freshest, calmest, most tranquil house I’ve ever entered, and there were even snacks and tea to welcome me!  Soft music was playing, candles were flickering and the lights were dimmed.  I mean, I guess bringing work home with you as a massage therapist may not be the worst thing in the world…  See it here.

A few shots of the new place (as fate would have it, Emily and her husband bought their first house the same day we bought ours’ here in New York!):

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Just like Andrew and I, they’ve done a lot of updating their already move-in ready house.  They have plans for a new kitchen, soon.  I cannot wait to see what they pick!

After we spent a relaxing evening snacking, drinking wine, catching up and running some errands, we went off to bed WAY TOO LATE, yet woke up refreshed and ready for a workout.  I think that is one of my favorite things about Emily–she is as into working out as I am and is so creative with what she does.  She can get exercise out of anything, and we often make up our own ‘circuit training’ session at least once.  Saturday morning, after a leisurely breakfast with her husband, Dan, we bundled up and set out (extra sunglasses in hand for me) for Sugarcreek Metro Park, which seems to be a favorite location of ours.’  I’ve done 5ks here and we always seem to find ourselves there for a hike.

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After our hike–in which I wore my new YakTrax (metal coil-like rope you attack to the bottoms of your shoes to help in snow and ice) and Emily wore her snow boots.  The YakTrax one, hands down.  I could have run the entire trail no problem, while poor Emily was reduced to slipping and sliding.  We even got lapped by some little Asian women armed with both the proper footwear and poles!

Speaking of Asian…we headed out for Thai food for lunch!  Thai is definitely my ‘go-to’ food of choice.  Thankfully Andrew likes it, too.

Emily was a good sport and agreed to try the green curry with me–it was HOT.  And we got a 1 on a scale of 1 to 5.  I introduced them to Thai iced tea, which is such a treat for me.

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Next, Emily and I split off for some more shopping.  We found ourselves at Zebra Girl Boutique, which is owned by a friend of Emily’s, named Natasha.  It’s filled with fun accessories like jewelry, purses and scarves.  Natasha treated us like queens and I picked up some goodies and gifts. I swear, all I did was walk around the store and say (out loud), “That is so Carolyn” or “That is so Abigail.”  My sisters-in-law really like their bling.  And Carolyn has a thing for zebra stripes.  I may have picked up some goodies for them, too….

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That night, we’d arranged to visit our friends, Jen and Dave, and their almost-one-year-old, Aiden.  Their house is across the street from our old neighborhood.  We packed up our slippers (we like to make ourselves at home there) and some belated Christmas presents.

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Aiden may or may not have gotten ahold of my phone…

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Emily, the consummate ‘planner’ of the group (she blows me out of the water, folks), got our dinner ordered–and she makes it look so easy.  Funny anecdote:  While on our hike that morning, we had to institute a no-planning-the-next-workout-until-we-finish-this-one rule!  We just can’t help ourselves.

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We chose City BBQ–a favorite of mine–and got a small family pack.  We all fondly remembered the time we ate this same meal (plus Andrew), in this same living room, around a tablecloth-covered DOOR.  (I went and checked for the post–it was back in April–but no photos of door/table.  Sad.)

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The happy momma and poppa wearing their new gifts 🙂

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Remember I told you that Emily and I can come up with a circuit workout at the drop of a hat?  Well, we did just that on Sunday morning before church.  We drove to a local high school in hope of using their track, but found the gate locked and assumed it would be covered in snow, anyway, so we settled for the parking lot, instead.  We did laps around the cleared lot and alternated with calisthenics each time we rounded the car.  Thirty minutes later, we were bushed.

We all went to our church, Apex, and it was as if I’d never left.  I tell you what–I’ve never loved sermons like the ones I’ve heard here.  I’m definitely one of those ‘daydreamers/mind-wanderers’ in church (well, really, is there anywhere I go where I’m not already thinking of the next place/thing/to-do item?), but not at Apex.  Why can’t we find a church like that here (insert whiney voice)…:(

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We sat with another friend from our Bible study group, Brett, who picked up his two girls after the service.  They were a little camera-shy, but I was able to catch a few shots:

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Yet again, the girls broke off for some more shopping (we kidnapped Jen!) and the boys went home to take care of the kiddos.  At First Watch (a must-do for me while in Ohio) a sweet older lady pointed out we were all wearing scarves….PHOTO!

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Lunch of champions: some sort of veggie/egg thing covered in salsa and cheese, along with an english muffin and greens.  Sour cream ON THE SIDE.

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Back to the mission: YakTrax for Emily and SUNGLASSES for me!  Pardon the lack of smile/pose; Emily had the brilliant idea that I should take a picture of myself in the pairs I was trying on so I could compare them quickly.  Below is the winner 🙂

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While there, sweet Emily gifted Jen with a new–and bigger–purse (the one she’s been carrying around wouldn’t even hold my lipgloss collection).  Note the gray/green scarf–A Zebra Girl find and her gift from us.  Jen and Dave as new parents without family around don’t get out much, and are so, SO, SO (and I cannot stress this enough), SO low maintenance, I thought it would be nice to get them some things to wear on those rare occasions they DO leave the house.  A scarf for Jen (even childless Holly and Emily know necklaces and earrings are just baby playthings) and an athletic jacket for Dave.

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After dropping Jen off at home, Emily and I made a mad-dash to Trader Joe’s so I could stock up on our favorites.  Good news!  We have not one, but TWO TJ’s coming to Buffalo soon!  The one that’s led the rumor mill will be located on Niagara Falls Blvd. up in Amherst (read: FAR), but there is talk of another and–dare I hope–to be located in the Southtowns.  It cannot get here fast enough.

After a light baked-potato-and-salad dinner at the homestead, Emily and I again ventured out in the cold–this time for ice cream.  Just like First Watch and TJ’s, I can’t go to Dayton and NOT stop at a Graeter’s.  I had anticipated getting a kid-size scoop of black raspberry chip, but splurged on a sundae.  I consider it a personal victory that I didn’t finish it.

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Our evening consisted of magazine reading under a blanket with a well-known holiday classic movie on in the background.  Who can name it???

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Monday morning we did 45 minutes of P90X yoga, which just about killed my arms, and then we showered and got ready to depart (me) and work (Em).  I packed up my TJ’s loot–mostly frozen fish, their awesome Orange Chicken and wine, as well as some dry-goods favorites like fig butter, sunflower seed butter and red quinoa tortilla chips–and loaded the car.

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Emily and I did a light lunch at Tropical Smoothie–we split their fish tacos and a ‘Health Nut’ smoothie–before I left.  It was so nice to have some time to sit and chat and not rush out the door!

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After only a couple hours into the trip I needed a comfort/coffee break, and snapped a photo of my new sunglasses in action.

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And healthy snacks!  Veggies, hummus, TJ’s sweet and salty trail mix and an iced coffee (it was warm that day!).

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My last stop: Chick-Fil-A in Erie.  Normally we drive home on Sundays, and they are closed.  But not this time 🙂 I got my usual: two-strip kid’s meal with lemonade and bbq, polynesian and ranch to dip.  I also mix mayo, ketchup and hot sauce for my fries.  I learned it while we lived in New Orleans (that, and a ketchup/mustard/mayo/Tony Chachere’s seasoning combo dip) and whip it up every time.

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By the time I got home, I was READY to be home.  I missed my Andrew, but enjoyed my relaxing-try-not-to-plan-too-much trip to Emily’s.  My next one can’t come soon enough.

BPO Summer Nights

Andrew and I enjoyed a concert last night at Knox Park, in East Aurora, put on by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.  They do a few free outdoor concerts each summer, which serve as fundraisers and a way to bring culture the those who wouldn’t otherwise attend.

The selections were mainly from major motion pictures–from ‘Jaws’ to Pixar’s ‘Up’–which I enjoy the most.  It’s neat to recognize the themes from Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park.

We’d stumbled upon the BPO performing in a park last summer in South Buffalo (while we lived at the hotel) while out on a walk with Hadrian.  Obviously, we were really kicking ourselves that we hadn’t known about it earlier.

Well, this time we were prepared!  (Love the new shirt, by the way.  Thanks, Mom!)

I was feeling very bourgeois and so brought a baguette, salami and special strawberry chardonnay cheese (for me, obviously), along with a selection of veggies and hummus, cherries and a little angel food cake (for Andrew).  We had wine to drink, and it was wonderful.

I was in a quandary; do I bring the wine bottle or not?  I didn’t; I poured about half into a smaller container and packed all the food in Tupperware.  I shouldn’t have stressed; there were more people there with wine bottles than you would believe.  Bourgeois indeed!

But oh, to have had a cute little picnic basket (or at least the innards of one; I have a beautiful market basket I used) and a way to have kept just one bottle cold–do they make single-bottle “wraps” or something to chill a bottle?  I settled for Tupperware, which may not have been uber-classy, but served the purpose and provided a stress-free transport.

It was a beautiful night, and we ended up randomly finding some of Andrew’s co-workers in the crowd, and so sat with them, which was nice.  The weather was perfect, parking was effortless (for the most part) and the music well chosen.  If we had ended our night here, it would have been a success.

But no, we embarked on the biggest dichotomy (good word, thanks Ben!) of all; we packed up our wine and cheese and headed with Andrew’s friends to the Wales Center Hotel…you don’t have to drive far outside of East Aurora to get to hickville.  Let’s just say Julie’s cute yoga outfit was “overdressing,” let alone Andrew’s button-up, linen shorts and sandals.  We weren’t in Kansas anymore…  It was all-you-can-eat wing night there, the girls’ softball team was raising money and us girls managed to drag out a game of pool WAY longer than it needed to be.  Hey, at least the wings were good!