Archive for October, 2016

Moving at impressive speeds, the French TGV train got us from Lyon to Aix-en-Provence in only 1h30 with a single stop between. Arriving at our most recent destination, we found that the information desk with 4 workers was empty, providing a perfect opportunity to make our next set of travel reservations. We needed seats from Aix-en-Provence to Bordeaux, and from Bordeaux to Paris. Looking at our hotel check-out times, we selected which trains we would take and locked down two adjacent seats for the Aix-en-Provence to Bordeaux trip. However, still a week away, the TGV between Bordeaux and Paris that we wanted was already booked solid. Alas, not all was lost, the train 1 hour earlier had seats available. We snatched them up and patted ourselves on the backs for being so proactive.

Outside the train station, we ordered an Uber as there was no simple bus route to our hotel and it was too far to walk. Uber also beats the pants off taxi pricing, and as a bonus you provide up front both your pickup and destination addresses, so you don’t really need to communicate with the driver through a language barrier. After a painless pickup and a 20-minute 30-Euro ride later, we were at our hotel. And what a hotel we were at…


Yes, they earned all the stars. And at check-in we realized that usually comes with a price. We had booked a “superior” room for our time here through for $189/night, but the front-desk listed the normal price at a whopping 365 Euros/night (at the time of this writing, 1 Euro = 1.10 USD). The room is gigantic, with a closet in an entryway, a large bed space with a queen mattress, and a private bath with both a Jacuzzi tub and independent shower stall. And that is only just the beginning, walk outside and you can enjoy the same gardens that Cezanne himself loved strolling about, admiring while accompanied by his easel and paint.







The interior was just as fine, but we’d have more time to explore that later, there was still some sunlight available for us outside. Heading off of the property and towards Central Ville, Aix-en-Provence’s “main drag”, we stopped at a few different stores and eateries, eventually having a lovely dinner on the edge of town. We went into town only a bit before it was dark, and picked up some wine along our way. We noticed a pattern, just about every intersection was a circle, and just about every circle has some sort of fountain or intricate work of art in the center. No wonder Cezanne called this place home.


We walked back to the hotel to retire for the night, stopping along the way to check out the Aix-en-Provence train station. You see, while we arrived into Aix via the TGV, that station is completely separate and a 20-minute car ride away. The station from which we will eventually depart towards Bordeaux is right in town, a 15-minute walk from the hotel. This is also the station we will use if we decide to visit other nearby towns, such as Marseille, in the next day or two. Hurrah for being proactive!

While walking back, another fact of Aix-en-Provence became abundantly clear, this is definitely a college town. With 75%+ of people walking around a similar age as us, the city has a very lively night life, with bars and brasseries overflowing with people and conversations into the streets. We found this to be good news, we could explore other areas during the daylight hours, and still feel comfortable walking around town late at night. Finally back at the hotel, we opened up the cremant we had picked up, and discussed tomorrow’s plans before hitting the hay.

We had decided that today’s journey would be to Marseille. We departed the hotel after some espressos (free with the room), and headed down to the village train station. We paid for a rail ticket, and boarded shortly after. About a half hour later, we arrived at a train station that very closely resembles those one finds in New Jersey.


It was warm and sunny on the coast, not a cloud in sight. Our phones reported 70 degrees, but to us it felt more like mid-80’s. We set off for Port Vieux (old port), down by the water. Along the way we saw what looked like a large cathedral in the very distance.


We thought to ourselves, “that’s probably very pretty with excellent views, but it’s too far away to walk.” We’ll revisit that. There were tons of quintessentially French structures along the route to the old port.




Nearing the water, it was afternoon, so we decided to find food before everywhere closed for the afternoon and didn’t reopen until 7pm. We found the cutest restaurant run by only two people, we imagined them as husband (cook) and wife (runner). Cait had a duck dish in fig sauce, while I got a faux-filet – the French term for a sirloin steak – which came with a delicious cream peppercorn sauce. While we ate, at least 3 people came through playing the accordion for tips. How delightfully French!

After paying l’addition and leaving, it was only a couple of minutes before we arrived at the water of the old port.


This turned out to be apparently a very popular area.



On the other side of the old port now, we decided to cut in a few streets and start to walk back. Along the way we found a pomegranate tree with a fruit low enough that I could grab it with a running jump. Nature provided an excellent tangy dessert.


It wasn’t too long before we were atop a small hill, and looking back at the old port, the views were becoming impressive.


Turning around, there was a set of steep stairs as the hill continued up, we decided we couldn’t turn back now, we had to see what was at the top. As we went, we soon realized the cathedral we saw earlier was at the top, and we were more than halfway there already. No turning back now!


Onward and upward we climbed in the sun & heat, until finally we made it to the top.


It was all suddenly so worth it.




The inside of the cathedral was almost as impressive as the view outside it, and on par with fourviere in Lyon.


We stayed atop admiring the views for a while longer, then decided to make our way back down the hill via a different path, no use in trudging the same ground twice while exploring.


We walked around the old port for a while longer, but as the sun was setting, we headed back to the train station to get back to our hotel. Once returned, we made reservations at the hotel restaurant. There we enjoyed a lovely meal fitting for a 5-star hotel, with Cait having a “suckling pig” stuffed with quinoa, and a filet for myself (hey – don’t judge – I’ve been looking forward to French steak-frites for a long time before this trip!) A Latin Jazz band played as we ate, next to a crackling fireplace.


I observed hotel staff restock the firewood at one point, bringing in the wood on a literal silver platter, just like we all do at home. After dinner, we visited the hotel bar, where for the first time in my life, I purchased a cigar (Cuban of course) with a glass of Havana Rum. We sat outside and puffed away on it, until at last it was far too late for us and we returned to the room to shower up before bed, lest we smell like smoke for the rest of the trip.

For the title of this visit to be Aix-en-Provence, we didn’t spend the majority of our days in this town. Today, we set our sights on Cassis. Catching the train and transferring at Marseille to another line, about 2 hours after we set out from the hotel, we were there… almost. The fastest walking route from the train station to the town center was about 45 minutes. But as ever eager adventurers, I plotted a different course away from main roads that took us through farmland and a forest.




Eventually, we found the town, and came down a path probably only frequented by the locals.


Et viola, we had arrived in Cassis!


We walked along the coastline, while many people bathed in the sea. The weather was absolutely splendid, still sunny and 70’s, and the water was quite warm to the touch.


All along the water’s edge sat bars and restaurants. We checked the hours, and as is typical in most of France so far, the majority of places are closed between approximately 3pm and 7pm. Looking at the train schedule for the Cassis station that was still a 45-minute walk away, the last train home would leave right at 10pm. So we decided if we found an eatery that would open back up at 7pm, we could take 2 hours to eat here and then climb back up the hill to get back home, with a little extra time just in case we were to take a wrong turn somewhere.

However, it was only 5pm, and after exploring all of the rather small town, we settled on a small bar that had local wines and half-bottles of champagne. While we were there, the sun started to set, and provided us with beautiful images I’ll remember forever.


…and the real star of the gallery…


While sitting there enjoying the sunset, a couple interesting occurrences transpired. First, a younger couple started making out sitting next to an older couple who couldn’t have cared less. Not the first time we’ve seen this in France, and we reflected back to dinner in Colmar with the Swiss couple telling us about visiting America. You see, they’d found a hot spring, and as such, disrobed and jumped in, only to be chased out and yelled at when happened upon. They also recalled going to the beach with a beer, and being told it was not acceptable, but after putting the beer into a brown paper bag, now all was well. This sight of the young couple making out (and they were really going at it) would surely have invited commentary in America, but here, c’est la vie. While we call ourselves the “land of the free”, other countries laugh at the thought and carry on with their lives uninterrupted.

The second interesting happenstance was that the bar proprietor lived in Bordeaux – our next destination – for 20 years before coming to Cassis. He lived right above the bar, so the view out his front window is literally that panorama above. He didn’t speak English well, so I was forced to test out my French, and it didn’t go half bad. He loves the weather in Cassis – other than January and February, it is pretty much sunny and 70 degrees year-round. In Bordeaux, he said to expect lots of rain, but I checked the weather report and it looks like we will somehow manage to avoid it, currently calling for upper 60’s and full sun for the duration of our time there. The rest of the conversation was mostly just him listing off delicious wines to try while there. I had found quite a kindred spirit.

It was finally nearing 7pm and so we stopped by the nearest restaurant that Google awarded a 4.3 star rating to, L’Oustau de la Mar. We were the first ones seated and to get our orders in, good news since we were on a bit of a schedule. We got a bottle of 2013 Domaine du Paternel which was out-of-this-world, and, being literally right on the Mediterranean coast, I opted for the grilled sea bass without hesitation. This time, it was Cait’s turn for a dinner of steak-frites. After some panna cotta for dessert, we paid our due and departed.

We made it up the hill and back to the station without issue, so we had some time to spare. Pretty much right at 10pm, the train picked us up. After a half-hour layover in Marseille again, soon we were on the train back to Aix-en-Provence. We arrived and walked back to the hotel, coming through the front gates just a few minutes before midnight.

There was still one thing left to do – we hadn’t gone swimming in the heated pool yet. The hotel staff tried to talk us out of it, not for fear of noise or anything, just safety. But we both know how to swim well and there’s two of us, so they eventually relented and opened the door lock to outside. We swam under clear skies, the night sky filled with stars, water perfectly warmed. After some time, we got out, toweled off, and after a few moments fireside back indoors, we were more than ready for bed.

Our last day in Aix-en-Provence, we got up on the early side, showered, and packed up our things. We checked out of the hotel and walked down to the train station by noon, soon to begin our 6+ hour train ride to Bordeaux, during which I finish this blog post. Ciao ciao Aix-en-Provence, your town (and those surrounding) are lovely, your weather perfect, and your people kind. We will certainly miss the southern French coast as we barrel forwards to our next destination!


After arriving at the Colmar station, we took the train to Mulhouse station, the next stop, only a 20 minute ride. We found the track for the TGV for which we had seats reserved, and waited for it to arrive. Boarded with our bags in the dedicated area, we took our seats and began the almost-3-hour ride to Lyon. Since we were caught up on sleep, we were able to stay awake and get some reading done. After arriving at the Lyon station, we made our way to the street and navigated the 25 minute walk to Hotel Le Roosevelt, home for the next 4 nights.


We dropped our bags and looked for food nearby, finding the aptly named Le Theodore restaurant in close proximity. After a dinner of filet mignon (cooked a-point [pronounced “ah-pwah”], meaning literally “on point”) and tuna steak (cooked likewise), we ordered a rum-based dessert that promised it came with a carafe of rum on the side. Sadly, it was a small supply…


Once again full and happy, we journeyed the arduous one-block trek back to the hotel and went to bed.

Ah, the first full day in Lyon. What to do, what to do. We thought we had 11am reservations at Cafe de Federations, but after crossing the mighty Rhone…


…we quickly realized our reservations were for noon, and for tomorrow. Oops. Oh well, we were nearby Lyon Vieux (Old Lyon) so we decided to do some walking around and sightseeing. Little did we know how far that would take us today.

We started by crossing over the equally-impressive Saone:


and we quickly ran into Lyon’s courthouse:


as well as a beautiful church, Cathedrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste:




The architecture around this square is extremely impressive.


We began heading up the hill towards fourviere and the views grew more and more impressive.


and at last, atop the hill, we stood face-to-face with one of the most impressive cathedrals we’ve ever seen in person, la basilique notre dame de fourviere.


The inside can take your breath away.


Each wall was adorned with 3 pieces of mosaic art. In this picture, you cannot even tell individual tiles from each other. The intricacy and detail astounds.


Then, walking out of the cathedral and to the side, one can see almost the whole of Lyon, as shot in this panorama. You might click it to view the full-size version, this thumbnail cannot capture the details we witnessed in person.


High atop the hill also sits a mini-Eiffel-tower, which seems to serve as an extremely multi-functional communications hub given it’s high position.


Continuing on, we passed what might be the largest cemetery I have personally ever witnessed.


We did go into the cemetery and walk around. The headstones and mausoleums left great impressions, with some families beginning plots in the 1700’s. After walking inside for about an hour, we had still not hit any of the sides, and we returned from whence we came. Descending back down the hill, we were witness to many views we found beautiful, yet likely just part of everyday-life for a citizen of Lyon.








From far north atop Croix-Rousse, we descended once again and headed back to the hotel. But crossing the river Rhone again, this time north of where we started, we were next to the Parc de la Tete d’Or, which was definitely on the todo list. It didn’t take long before we were glad we took the time.








Soon the sun started to set on us, but it only made the park even more majestic.




It was getting dark, so from the park, we walked the 15 minutes back to our hotel to wind down. All in all, about 11 miles of walking all over Lyon, in no particular efficient pattern.


Exhausted and quite frankly a little sore, we looked for a dinner spot near our hotel, but this being Sunday in France, very few were to be found. We stopped at the Japanese restaurant Nikko right near the hotel, then headed back and very quickly passed out cold.

Walking… if there is to be a theme for our time in Lyon, it is walking. Iliotibial bands tight and feet blistered, we awoke and headed over for our actual reservation time at Cafe de Federations. After a lovely meal of way too many appetizers, pork sausage in a red-wine sauce, and chicken in a vinegar sauce (almost like a vindaloo but not nearly as spicy), we headed out. Crossing the Saone once again, we wandered around Lyon Vieux again, eventually stopping at a wine bar where we enjoyed some delicious Hermitage vintages. Heading back, yet another beautiful church was along the way.


We continued up the hill towards Croix Rousse once again, and stopped to look back and take in the sight. What a city…




Along the way we picked up a Beaujoulais wine and a pinot noir bubbly, as well as a peppercorn sausage, so we stopped briefly at the hotel to drop off our plunder. Bubbly in the minifridge, we set out again, there was no time to lose, sunset was arriving again soon. We headed back to the Parc de la Tete d’Or, on our first visit yesterday we only glossed the surface by walking the perimeter of their lake. This park is so large that it is also home to the largest free zoo in all of Europe. We passed by their botanical gardens…


…and many other beautiful sculptures along the way.


Finally, we made it to the zoo. However, it was already too late, the park’s zoo closes rather early, 5pm most of the year and 6pm in April and October. Many animals were housed outside the zoo gates, however, so we still got to see quite a bit.


We walked back to the hotel and searched for a place for dinner. Finding La Table 101, we set course and got there just as they opened at 7:30pm – very fortunate as there were only a couple of unreserved tables available. There we had a delicious meal – several courses, and all so gorgeously plated one felt bad eating such works of art.


^ That’s lobster, crab, and caviar with a carrot puree.


For main courses, we both went with the duck, but served different ways. Of course it was cooked a point. It all went down so easy, and then onto dessert. I had a caramel chocolate bar with coffee ice cream, while Cait just couldn’t refuse the souffle.


^ I can’t even begin to describe that souffle. A large dish, but so light and airy, after finishing one isn’t sure they had dessert at all, except perhaps for the warm fuzzy feeling inside.

Fat and happy, we walked back to the hotel for bed, and to prepare for our last full day in Lyon. While laying in bed, some severe thunderstorms passed by, providing a perfect ending to the day as rain pattered against our window.

Waking up on the later side, the skies were dark and the rain was still coming down hard. We checked the forecast, it wasn’t going to stop. On with the rain jackets! But first, a bit of housekeeping – we found during our travels a laundromat on the same block as the hotel, so we stopped by, paid a few Euro for the use of a large machine, threw all our clothes in on a heavy-duty cold cycle, and wandered around for a while. Returning to throw it in the dryer and eventually to fold the finished clothes, we were ready to wander. Today’s mission – walk to the point where the Saone river merges into the Rhone. It was a hike, about 1h15 of walking along the river bank, but as always, Lyon is there to provide exceptional views.




Finally, we made it. The picture doesn’t really do the experience justice. The water wasn’t particularly violent when it merged, but there was something about the volume of liquid merging that a still photo just can’t capture.


We crossed back over the Rhone and headed back towards the hotel, searching for somewhere to eat dinner along the way. We found a creperie en route with an astonishing 4.9 star rating. We stopped in, after another hour of walking. For dinner, we got a large fondue pot with salad, charcuterie, and a basket of fresh sliced bread. Mark my words closely, this is all I ever want to eat for the rest of my life. I’ve never had such a delicious fondue before. For dessert, I had a couple scoops of house-made mint chocolate chip ice cream with an espresso, and Cait got a dessert crepe – the creole – served with banana, hot chocolate sauce, Chantilly cream, and rum which was promptly set ablaze on the plate. Settling up on the cheque, we walked the 10 minutes back to the hotel and began to pack up our things – tomorrow we have one more stop in Lyon, but after that, we check out of the hotel and head over to Aix-en-Provence.

You’d think there wouldn’t be too much left, but no, we barely scratched the surface of Lyon. Waking up early, we finished packing our final things, checked out, and left our bags with the hotel. We walked down to Les Halles de Lyon, a large building with many individual vendors inside, resembling what Americans might call a shopping mall.


We walked around inside for a half hour or so, somehow still astounded at how much the French love their wine and cheese shops. Oh and chocolate, lots and lots of chocolate. Charcuterie and seafood too. We stopped at one of their bars and tried some more Beaujoulais wine, delicious as always. However, noon approached and we had train reservations, so we headed back, picked up our bags, and walked them over to the station. Riding the train out of town, we looked back on the last several days, having thoroughly enjoyed Lyon while covering tons of ground.


There was so much more we could have seen and done, but we felt accomplished, if not a little worn out, and looked forward to our next stop!

Since I still have a write-up of our Italian honeymoon sitting in the “Drafts” folder from 2 years ago, I thought I would take a different approach and document our latest trip as we travel. We left Newark NJ around 6pm on Oct 18th and landed with the sun still not risen in Frankfurt, Germany on Oct 19th. Red-eyed and groggy, we were determined to stay awake and make it through the day. We went through customs without issue, activated our EURail passes, and caught a train one stop to Mannheim. There, we hopped over the platform to a train bound for Basel SSB in Switzerland. A short layover there and we caught the train to Colmar. About 4 hours after reaching Frankfurt, we had arrived at our first destination.

Having traveled in Europe before via the EURail pass, we immediately went to the ticket office staff and booked a reservation for the train we would be taking to Lyon 3 days later.


We walked the 15 minutes with our bags from the main station to our base camp for the next 3 nights, Hotel St. Martin.


This place was great, centrally located, with very pleasant and helpful staff. We dropped our bags and decided we needed food, stat. Right next to the hotel we went to Alsako and had our first experience with what the French call a “tarte flambe”, which closely resembles pizza. This meant we needed to burn off calories so we walked around town to get familiar with the area. There is a very pleasant area right near the hotel, “petite Venice”, and it is exactly what one might picture:


We picked up a bottle of wine and dropped it off in the hotel mini-bar fridge for later. Being in the hotel room, we started to get dangerously sleepy again but it was only about 5pm, so we mustered up the courage to leave again and headed straight for a cafe where we got some cappuccinos. This proved to be very helpful, soon we were feeling wide awake again. We walked around a bit more before ending up at Pub James’On. Here we got a couple pints of a Colmar-local stout, and soon came to learn of a new tradition we’d never heard of before – with the purchase of any drinks, the owners walked around with tarte flambe and sandwiches which patrons could enjoy – free of charge!

We didn’t stay there too long before leaving again to walk around some more. We happened upon an adorable wine bar named “L’un des sens”. They had an impressive wine list and lots of little food dishes available designed to pair well with your wine. We got a plate consisting of 4 local cheeses and fresh bread. What surprised us the most was their Munster cheese – not at all like what one gets in America – quite creamy, and with a strong odor not totally dissimilar to blue cheese. Apparently this is due to the fact that many of their cheeses are made with raw milk, something that is difficult – if not impossible – to obtain in the USA.

There was another cheese there, which unfortunately shall remain nameless. We loved it, creamy and spreadable with a salty taste, it went down way too easy. We spent the remainder of our time in Colmar searching for this same cheese but came up empty, which might be good all things considered. The closest we discovered was one from Mount d’Or on the French side, but it wasn’t exactly correct.

We walked back to the hotel, opened up our now-chilled bottle of wine, enjoyed, and went to bed.

Flash forward 12 hours, we woke up still feeling a little groggy but mostly caught up (I for one don’t think I slept a wink on the plane ride). We wanted to catch a bus to Riquewihr so we headed to the station. Timetables couldn’t be found online, so when we got there and found the place where the 106 bus stops, we were a little disappointed to find it only ran every 2-3 hours and we had just missed it. Rather than rush ourselves in Riquewihr, we took a photo of the timetable and decided to try again tomorrow if we could make it there by around 11am.

We took the opportunity to explore areas of Colmar we hadn’t reached the day before. We saw a lot of beautiful architecture as we went.




I quickly formed a habit of stopping to read every single menu along the way, one wants to make the best culinary decisions possible at all times. We found a delightful cheese & sausage shop and picked up a small bit of each for later in the hotel. Stopping by a small wine bar, we practiced our French on the very friendly owner who helped us out as much as she could. For dinner, we headed to a place right across the street from our hotel, named Schwendi Bier Und Wiestub. There, we ran into a lovely older couple from southern Switzerland and chatted for far too long about our respective countries. Turns out it’s not only Americans who think Donald Drumpf is ridiculous. This couple was long retired and owned a small camper van which they took on holiday whenever the mood struck. This time they ended up in Colmar as there was construction on their street at home, and they didn’t want to be bothered with the noise. Clearly they had life figured out.

Retiring back to the hotel after a gigantic meal, we picked up a fresh (still warm!) baguette and enjoyed it with our wine, cheese, and sausage.

The next day, our last full day in Colmar, we got up on the earlier side, having recovered from our sleep deprivation. We got ready and went right to the station where we caught the 106 bus. Arriving in Riquewihr a little before noon, there was a chill in the air, so the first order of business was to secure some warm nourishment. We stopped at the charming Hotel-Restaurant Au Cerf


We had French onion soup (turns out they just call it onion soup here) and some pumpkin bisque. Also interesting, their cheesy bread was served a la carte, not in the soup as is tradition in America. After a meal of baeckeoffe (French casserole dish – Google it) and venison stew, we continued back on our tour of Riquewihr. We decided to go top-down, so we climbed the hill. When we got to the top of town, we noticed a small dirt path continuing up the hill. Determined to burn off our most recent calorie binge, we continued up until we came to a small clearing on top of the hill. What a view…


We went back down the hill and into town, and read every menu and stopped in just about every wine bar / tasting room we could find. Hours later we went back to catch the bus, but with the chill in the air growing more intense, we needed something warm. Enter a new concept for us – “Vin Chaud” – literally, “Hot Wine”. Red wine served warm and spiced up like apple cider back home, it more than did the job. We caught the last bus home and rushed back to our hotel, we had dinner reservations for 8pm at Maison-des-Tetes.


What a meal. First the book of wine, no not a “wine list”, a literal book of wine. Then the food, I lost count of the courses – amuse bouches consisting of an herb medley served on a flat pretzel, a radish mousse, beef tartare, cabbage wrapped in smoked bacon, and pea soup. Then came our frog’s legs, our fist time enjoying such a dish. It came two ways, one with a sauce in a dish with some pasta, and the other breaded and fried like one might picture a buffalo wing. Delicious, a little chewy texture, but thoroughly enjoyable. Dinner consisted of two courses, we had the pigeon and the rabbit, the cook was perfect. Finally a dessert of chocolate ganache with coffee ice cream and we were ready to figuratively roll downhill back to the hotel. But it wasn’t over – with the cheque (or l’addition as they call it here), more desserts came out – a chocolate truffle, marshmallow made with Gewurztraminer wine, lemon macaroon, madeleines, and a woven sugar treat. We paid and stumbled back to the hotel, where we had a little bubbly digestif before passing out.

And that brings us to today, still digesting from last night – though that didn’t prevent us from picking up a chocolate croissant on our way to the station after packing up and checking out of the hotel. Sitting now where we first started, on a bench right next to the Champ de Mars, and saying Au Revoir to Colmar!