Navigating this blog!

October 25, 2010

By default, the posts on this blog are arranged in reverse chronological order. To read posts in chronological order, use the calendar to the right to navigate to the next entry: click on the next blue date following that of the current post. You can select a month (May, June, July, October) by using the previous-month and next-month links at the bottom of the calendar.

In order to help you find the various portions of our trip, here are some links to the posts which begin each section:

The beginning of our trip in Logan Airport

The start of our time on the road, heading east toward Verdun and Strasbourg.

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Wrapping Up: Italy

October 25, 2010

This is, for the moment, just a beginning of the post I’ll write about the final, Italian portion of our trip. There are many things to show you, so this will be a very long post!

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We left La Pyramide after lunch and wanted to get as close to Lago Maggiore as we could before stopping for the night. The trip through the very long Frejus tunnel was uneventful (beyond the enormous toll of 40 euros) and we were well into the no-man’s-land between Turino and the Lake by nightfall. We failed to find a decent hotel (and we’re not fussy!) in the only large town nearby and so had to proceed onward to the next exit 30 km farther down the autostrade. We got off and made our way to the small city of Borgomanero and tried to find a hotel there. After a half-hour and a gelato, we still hadn’t found any hotel in the city center; an inquiry pointed us toward the other side of town where, on the edge of town, sat what I’m certain was the only operating hotel in the city. In the morning, we discovered that we were half of the guest population! Definitely not a tourist destination!

We found a wonderful local restaurant where we ate dinner and lunch the next day (12 euros inclusive). Here’s the fusilli pomodoro on the lunch menu:

On the afternoon of our second day in Borgomanero, we headed out to Lake Maggiore. Very much a tourist trap! We found a just-barely-reasonably-priced hotel, moved in, took this picture out the window and then discovered that their wi-fi was “not working just now.”

We moved out immediately!

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As we headed from Lago Maggiore (we left about 4:30p having had no luck finding a reasonably priced place to stay — or, for that matter, any reason to stay) toward Lucca and the villa, it wasn’t clear just how far we could get before we’d have to stop. Although we could have made it to the villa by midnight, we were several days earlier than expected, so there would be no assurance that we would find the gate unlocked. So we did the very best thing under the circumstances and aimed for Recco, our favorite eating spot on the Ligurian coast, ten minutes south of Genoa. We got there at 8:30p and discovered that our favorite restaurant was closed for its weekly holiday. So we looked around and settled on staying at da Vittorio, more restaurant than hotel but Recco is not a hotel destination.

After unpacking, we went down to dinner and were happily surprised by the quality of the food. First, the town’s specialty: Formaggio col Formaggio a two-crusted sort of pizza with a local fresh cheese between layers of soft and flaky pastry:

Here’s what it looks like when served:

Then one of our favorites when in Italy, the fresh mushroom salad with shaved parmagiano, lemon juice and black pepper:

And two more favorites which we always eat when in Recco: the fresh pasta handkerchiefs with pesto:

and the pansotti, a local filled pasta with chard:

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The great advantage of staying overnight in Recco (which we’d never done) is that the next day you can go to your favorite restaurant in town, now open after its holiday. At Trattoria Vitturin, we had “the usual” (which we never tire of): the amuse bouche of fried dough crisps with herbs:

The fresh mushroom salad with parmiggiano shavings:

The malfatti pasta with pesto garnished with the traditional green beans:

An finally, the pansotti with walnut sauce:

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We had our last two weeks at the villa where we went to our favorite restaurants, relaxed, and, in the end, did some work (I made great progress on a new project to program a system for course websites for HILR).  Here’s the main room of the villa just before dinner:

The table in the garden set for lunch:

Working the kitchen preparing some melone for proscuitto — catch that very ancient stone sink, still in use!

Our first homemade panzanella (not quite as good as Maria-Grazia’s):

And, last but not least, our favorite lardo and salame toscano (both hard to find at a high level of quality):

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Can’t let you go without showing you our favorites at the local trattoria, hidden in the middle of nowhere (the long-haul truckers have no trouble finding it!).  First, the linguine alle vongole:

and the pizza mascarpone, speck, and rucola:

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Just to close the loop, here’s our baggage (90 days worth of clothing and three pounds of Italian lavender soap) coming home from the airport on the T:


Wrapping up: France

October 25, 2010

When we last checked in, we were in Barcelona having just lost 100s of euros to the very talented pickpocket who rightly sized us up as easy marks.

Rather understandably, we packed up and left town ASAP! Our next stop was the celebrated French sea-side town of Collioure, the site of many impressionist pictures:

We then zipped up to Albi with its great cathedral:

and a haut cuisine restaurant with a most picturesque seared foie gras with bacon entree:

Leaving town, we had lunch in a deserted field which made Deb very nervous (what if the farmer came?); and then the farmer did come, driving by on his tractor pulling a load of hay bales; and waved to us!

We detoured to look at the brand-new Millau autoroute bridge, the world’s longest:

You probably don’t want to see another picture of beef tartare but this was an especially nice one!

Then, on again to visit Dani and Rosine in Albon in the middle of the Ardeche (literally, the middle of nowhere — no wi-fi, no cell phone signal; just peace and quiet. Here we are about to sit down to dinner:

And shopping in the weekly market (all the cheeses were local, local, local!):

On the last day, Jeanne (Dani’s oldest) arrived with her four children (two missing!), with Leslie on the left:

The very last thing we did in France was to stop at La Pyramide in Vienne (one of the oldest of the three-star restaurants in France) to eat in the garden of the lower-priced bistro — nice meal!

See you when we get to Italy (in about four hours)!


More chateau, then Pays Basque

July 6, 2010

Saturday, July 3 – Capbreton: [Deb here] Our last day in La Rochefoucauld began with lunch with the Duchess where she served us duck confit, potatoes poached in butter, garlic, and herbs, and her extraordinary aubergines (a well-known Middle Eastern dish called “the priest fainted” for which we were promised the recipe):

B and the Duchess had a promising conversation about the possibility of architectural schools in the U.S. either inviting her to speak to the students or establishing an architectural school at the chateau. Here is a photo of the half-collapsed donjon from the exterior (where I.M. Pei’s glass tower will complete nine centuries of architectural innovation):

and the view from the interior courtyard of the half that didn’t collapse:

After bidding her farewell, we settled in at the Cafe des Sports in town where B and I could update the blog, look at the NYTimes, and have a couple of beers. It was approximately 4:30 before we departed and decided to make our way south toward Biarritz and St. Jean de Luz, just before the Spanish border. We made it as far as Capbreton, where we almost broke our record for not having a place to stay before 9:15pm — happily, the tourist office had posted the list of chambres d’hote outside the door. After several phone calls, we found a place which could be called, at best, adequate.


A very French interlude

June 20, 2010

Friday, June 18 – Sevaney (north of Nantes): What a day! We left Fontevraud-l’Abbaye after seeing the Abbey, another very thorough reproduction of an important ancient site. Unfortunately, my camera battery turned up dead so I don’t have any pictures!

We headed for Puy du Fou, an “attraction” considered “worth a detour” in the Michelein green guide. We arrived about 4p to find a gigantic amusement part, French style, with “spectacles” such as “Les Gladiateurs” and “Les Vikings”. We watched a fine falconry show with a dozen falcons swooping over the audience, several owls, and an eagle or two. We then watch the aforementioned rather hokey shows and realized how lucky we were that the main show (starting at 10:30p) was sold out. The demographic was similar to that at a state fair.

We had called three chambres d’hôtes from the tourist office in the park and found them all booked. Then one called back to say that he could accommodate us, so we got instructions for meeting at the tabac in the middle of his village, some 20 kms away. He was difficult to talk to over the phone and when we arrived for the meeting, he wasn’t there. After some more telephone calls, we met and were led on a drive far into the country. As we pulled into the remote farmhouse, we discovered that there was another car also following. That turned out to be a French family of three who were shown to their room first. When our turn came, there was no room in the inn, and our host offered to call a neighbor. We decided that he was sufficiently unstable that we were better off somewhere down the road and we thanked him and left.

This put us on the road to Nantes at 8:30p and we set a new record of not having a place to stay until we arrived here at 9:30p, a small town of no consequence but several hotels. We got a room immediately and repaired to the local creperie for a long-overdue dinner.

[We have some pictures in Deb’s camera which we’ll insert here at the next opportunity.]


Vaux-le-Vicomte is the greatest!

June 13, 2010

Friday, June 11 – Paris: Well, everything averages out after all! We left Dani’s at 10am for a day trip to Vaux-le-Vicomte arriving at 11am in full glorious sun.

Excuse my enthusiasm, but V-le-V is, by a significant amount, the best tourist site I’ve ever visited (second place goes to Abu Simbel) and today was just about a perfect visit. You may remember that V-le-V was built in the 1660s by Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s finance minister, and was in effect the warm-up project for Versailles with the same team: Le Vau (architect), Le Notre (gardens), and Le Brun (painter).

For some unknown reason, there were very few adults visiting — perhaps 150 all day. But this was offset by the number of very young schoolchildren who had been bussed in for a field trip. From the point of view of the children, the trip was to an outdoor place where running and screaming was beyond the teachers’ control. In the end, it was easy enough to avoid them.

We were greatly amused to see that the gardeners used modern tools to trim the hedges and that they could take the necessary electricity with them:

Since we didn’t leave until 4pm, we had an extremely thorough visit. We started by renting a golf cart to tour the gardens for an hour and a half.

There was a good exhibit later in the chateau which answered my question about how much earth had to be moved to create the perfect symmetry of the nearly-mile-long vista from the far end of garden back towards the chateau.

After a poor cafeteria-style lunch, we toured the chateau itself where the rooms are in fabulous shape and a significant amount of labeling has been done since my last visit. One thing neither of us had done before was to climb to the top of the dome to look out over the grounds. Even better than the view was the chance to see the timber construction of the dome closeup.

We then returned to Paris having decided to try one of the restaurants within a two block radius of Dani’s. Each of these is an admirable example of the type, and we wanted to go away with warm feelings about eating in an unpretentious and unheralded Paris restaurant. No such luck. We selected La Belisaire:

and had a “raviole” of young leeks (really a sformato) with lobster (here with the pasta pulled back to display the interior):

The best part was the “chip” of fried julienned leek:

Then some badly overcooked salmon:

And ill-trimmed faux filet with marrow bone:

Definitely not a meal to write home about!


Lazy Sunday: laundry and a rebuilt chateau

June 7, 2010

Sunday, June 6 – Puligny-Montrachet: We looked forward to a very slow day today and we were right. After waiting in the square in the neighboring village of Meursault for some bar to open to have coffee (finally at 11:15a just before church let out), we headed for Chagny where we were told there was a laundromat. In fact a very good laundromat!

While our clothes were getting clean we explored the large Sunday market, bought some mushrooms (note that the morels are from Canada!!)

and were amused to see the seller of live poultry.

When the clothes were dry, we went on to the chateau of Rochepot built in the late Middle Ages and enlarged to splendor in the 16th century. Unfortunately, abandoned by the foreign owner after the Revolution and used as a source to stones for much of the village. In the late 19th century, two Frenchmen decided to restore it with mixed results. From the outside, its an impressive example of its type.

On the inside, the prevailing notions in 1890 of what the renaissance should have been like crowds out anything close to the authentic. But a knock-out 1910 kitchen ready to feed an army. Nice view of the countryside from the ramparts:

We closed out the day with some strawberries from the market and a half-bottle of Crement d’Alsace which we’d been carrying around for too long.