France Submersion: Bayonne, Day 14

I am thankful a late morning has been planned for the group, for my previous night’s debauchery is not condoning an early wake up call. I eat a light breakfast of orange juice and yogurt and force myself on a morning stroll to the local indoor market. It is so refreshing to be around a culture who appreciates artisanal, seasonal, and natural products; I never tire visiting these shops.

At noon we are off for a leisurely adventure in St. Jean de Luz. South of Biarritz, it is a coastal city with gorgeous beaches, boat harbors, and an old water fortress marking the entryway for ships. It is Sunday and while most of the main stores are closed (the French take a proper work-life balance seriously), the streets are filled with families shopping and enjoying the warm weather. We stop at some benches beneath shady trees and eat a lunch consisting of tuna paninis, quiche, flatbread, eclairs, and gateau basque. Artists have set up stalls along the waterway and I take my time walking around admiring the paintings and looking at souvenirs.

We bound for a boat ride along the coast and are amazed at the gray stone cliffs holding back the green grass and white houses from falling in the sea. The cloudless sky ensures we can see the mountains in the background and the wind makes the perfect conditions for those sailing around us. Beach dwellers glisten in the sun and I am envious of their ability to cool off in the salty water below. For awhile, there is nothing but foliage then all of a sudden, on a turn, there is a château high above a rocky ledge, view unobstructed, encircled by grass, with cypress trees protecting it from the sun. Breathtaking. The rocking of the vessel acts like a cradle and most of us doze off on the return leg to the harbor. Although my neck hurts from it bobbing back and forth with the waves, my body feels better from the rest.

Dinner is at a restaurant around the corner from the hotel. There is one, long table jutting out onto the open patio and bottles of rosé and Chardonnay await distribution on each end. Cold plates of cured ham, marinated artichokes and peppers stuffed with cheese, sun dried tomatoes, grilled eggplant and zucchini, and sardine pâté and toast are brought out along with bread and butter. With it being such a hot day, we welcome the light starters. Main course is a seafood stew, similar to bouillabaisse, with sea snails, mussels, razor clams, fish, crawfish, shrimp, and langoustine. The tomato based broth is well seasoned but I get a crunch of sand and am put off. Downfall of eating things that crawl on the ground, I guess. The jolly host brings the ceramic bowl around the table multiple times, ladling out more until all of us have had our fill. He scoffs at the men who can only eat two instead of three servings, encouraging the females to take more even when we don’t want any. I am polite and submit to another.

There is a selection of desserts including chocolate cake, ice cream and apricot soup, berry crumble, baba au rum, and espresso gourmande. I like the sound of espresso and am happy with my choice when I see the plate has a small selection of lime sorbet, almond tuile, whipped cream, pistache macoroon, and sponge cake; apropos for someone who can’t make up their mind, always wanting a little bit of everything. We get up to leave and are stopped by the host and chef with a bottle of peche and framboise liqueur. They pour the think, aromatic alcohol into shot glasses and each and every person in the party indulges since it is the last night we will all be together. A ‘Bon Voyage’ if you will.

The streets are quiet and nothing like the night before. The group leaves for Spain tomorrow while myself and a couple others depart back to Paris or home. It is a bittersweet goodbye since I am not ready to end my cultural journey, but I miss home and am ready to hug my loved ones again. As I walk across the bridge, I notice the night has turned chilly with gusts of wind to match. I hope my last day in Paris will not be a stormy one!

France Submersion: St. Estèphe-Bayonne, Day 13

I sit under an open window staring out into the gardens while eating my breakfast of fruit, cheese, and ham. We travel to Basque country today and I admit, I am a little sad to say goodbye to Bordeaux. There is so much more to see and do and it is such serene country; I vow to come back.

It is a three hour route to the Atlantic coast metropolitan and as we drive, the pastoral settings transcend into forests of tall pines and marshes. This is duck country and most of the area is dedicated to producing France’s most prized meat rather than residences. Approaching the city, I notice a change in architecture from previous provinces. Most all of the houses are white washed with red tiles, even the apartment buildings, and what looks to be the original homes of the area are half timber style. For the first time while driving, we hit traffic and experience the rush hour of the area. Luckily the roundabouts prevalent in this nation keep the pace moving steady and within an hour, we are out.

Lucky for us, our bus driver has made arrangements to visit the world famous Hotel du Palais in Biarritz. Originally a holiday home of King Louis XIV and his wife, this grand hotel sits on the edge of the 19th century’s most desirable destination in the world. Replaced by Cannes and Monaco in the early 20th century, it is on the uprise again as France’s best surfing spot. Everything you can imagine about a historical French beach city, Biarritz is. Caramel sanded beaches, white villas on cliffs, gothic cathedrals intermixed with renaissance buildings, plus beautiful tanned people to match. The group is given a private tour of a suite overlooking the beach and at 6000€ a night, we joke about emptying our savings to cover the cost. The price is justified by a walkthrough of the chandelier entrenched lobby and visit into the elaborate gold trimmed dining room.

A twenty minute journey brings us from the coast to Bayonne. With the large L’Adour river running through it, it reminds me of a smaller scale Paris. Just grittier. Half timber four story houses lead travelers through narrow cobblestone streets lined with shops, cafés, hotels, and restaurants. Depending on what turn you take, the Gothic Cathedral St. Marie or the old citadel meets your eyes. We enjoy a mid day snack of hot chocolate at Chocolat Cazenave. The drink is frothy, rich, sweet, and served with a side of densely whipped cream (it must have had some butter in it), completely over the top indulgent. Some folks opt for the chocolate ice cream instead, which is silky smooth and just as decadent.

To egress the sugar comotose most of us are in, we visit the charcuterie shop Pierre Ibaïalde for a tasting and tour of their jambon and canard products. Run by a five person team, this facility does not ship or deliver anything making their items truly unique to Bayonne. The ceilings are entirely covered in hanging cured pig legs and sausages, estimated to be worth over 70,000€ at that very moment, and the shop entrance is full of rillettes, pâtés, and foie gras. Our lovely tour guide takes us upstairs to view the refrigerator where the initial curing takes place and the blood is completely drawn out, then to the room where the dry air cure happens for twelve months. We are given samples of the pork and duck saucisse as well as the sliced proscuitto. Simply spiced with salt, pepper, and espellette pepper (the region’s most famous spice), you can taste Basque in every chew.

Dinner is at a Cidrerie called Ttipia. There are large wooden tables and benches with barrels integrated into stone walls going up two stories, and wooden slats and beams as the ceiling. It is straight out of Bavaria and reminds me of a hofbräuhaus. We claim two tables by a dried corn wall and what is considered the star of the show (and really the reason why people are here): the hard cider drinking area. The floor is wet and buckets are below spouts centered in the middle of two barrels. There are two choices, German or French, and the rule is to pour as far away from the faucet as possible so as to create as much aeration and bubbles as possible. The drink looses carbonation quick so it is recommended to fill your glass only half full and return as needed. With this information, I am thankful to be so close to the beverage station.

Food is brought out family style starting with a salted cod omelette. Deliciously creamy with cheese and tomatoes, it is a nice start to the meal and a great accompinament with the sour cider. Another fish course is served next, with roasted garlic and green and red bell peppers whose drippings make for an incredible dipping sauce for bread. Oh man, so good. Third main course is grilled sirloin steak with gray sea salt. Kissed on the grill, it is medium rare with a black char crust and insanely flavorful. Dinner would not be complete without dessert and a large basket of fresh walnuts is brought out with a plate of sliced Manchego cheese and quince paste. The group is about ten glasses in at this point in time and having such a good time that we acknowledge, although not the most elegant nor expensive, it is the best dinner experience yet.

We exit the restaurant to a street spilling with locals drinking at bars. I pet a Weimereiner while following the group into one playing disco music and enjoy a drink or two while busting out some dance moves. Unfortunately, many of the spaces we visit are narrow so we bounce around until finding a large Irish joint giving us room to move and socialize. At two in the morning, I navigate my way across the bridge back to the hotel and fall on the bed, exhausted. This is going to hurt in the morning. I just know it.

France Submersion: Médoc Wine Country, Day 12

I open the windows and feel the fresh breeze of the morning air. A misty, gray haze has settled over the vines but the clouds are thin showing the potential of the weather ahead. Breakfast is a treat offering fresh fruit, eggs, chocolate cake, apple tart, yogurt, cheese, ham, croissants, and baguette. I am naughty and eat a slice of tart with yogurt.

At half pass nine we leave for Chateau Maucaillou, a leading winery in the region run by a family for five generations. The facility houses an enormous wine history museum comprising of five rooms describing the process of barrel and cork making, grape harvesting, and fermentation, in addition to olfactory games where you can smell all the different noses of wine (this part was super fun). We take a tour of the barrel room and taste the 2007 and 2009 Moulis, which are very good with cassis and red fruit tastes and slight cedar nose.

We stop at Fort Médoc for lunch and wonder around the buildings and rubbles, walking towards the river, taking pictures all the way. I help a friend pick wild flowers for a daisy crown and we sit down at picnic table ready for food. A simple sandwich of cured ham, lettuce, and cheese on baguette from a local boulangerie does the trick and as we eat, a pair of ducks quack next to us ready for scraps.

The bus takes the group back to the hotel to divide so that people can either go to a canalé demonstration or another winery. I obviously choose the winery for my next activity because after all, I do have friends in the pastry world who could teach me if I wanted to learn. It’s hilarious and somewhat scary being in a bus as wide as the streets and as we navigate through the small town center, I cringe a couple of times.

Entering the property of Chateau Lanessan is like entering a private community. There is a ‘modest’ (compared to the other ‘houses’ in the vicinity) English style manor fifty yards from the main road with the driveway leading to a cluster of buildings and a glass garden house. What used to be the servants’ quarters is now home to the wine makers’ workshops and the old carriage house a museum displaying old carriages used by the family one hundred and fifty years before. We take a tour of the vineyard and learn about the three general classifications of Bordeaux wine: Cru (the five top best rankings based on the original 1855 classification system), Cru Bourgeois (the left bank wines not included in the 1855 classification but nevertheless very good), and ‘Appellation’ (the least desirable, only noting the region where the wine was made). Trying to understand the Bourdeaux regulations on wine making (because each wine region in France has their own rules) is extremely intimidating and very complex. I have much to study.

This particular winery creates four different wines: Château Lanessan (first wine), Les Calèches de Lanesson (second wine), Château de Sainte Gemme, and Château Lachesnave. We taste a 1997 and 2002 Château Lanessan and a 2006 Les Calèches. It is amazing to see and taste the difference the affect of age gives to wine. The older bottles are low fruit and tannin and have a earth quality to them like green bell pepper while the younger one is big red fruit and round tannin. Our guide picks up four Château Lanessan 1999 Deblos Bouteiller for dinner (apparently one of the best years in the area).

Our hotel is hosting an art cocktail party this evening and we are invited. I get dressed in the finest dress I brought and descend the stone staircase to the outdoor patio. Champagne flutes of orange and grapefruit rosé cocktails are given at a side table while waiters dressed in black and white offer hors d’voeuvres from silver platters. Every person in the group looks fantastic and we each look at each other with the expression ‘is this real?’. We are at a château in France, being served wonderful food, in surreal settings, with amazing weather, and looking the part. Words cannot describe how utterly spectacular this occasion is.

Dinner is a buffet, which isn’t memorable, but still good. Lamb with jus lié, sturgeon with red wine sauce, potato gratin, hericot verts wrapped in bacon, and petite fours of chocolate cake, raspberry Napoleon, and custard tarts make up the meal. We finish with café on the patio where we chat and laugh and watch the sky turn colors into darkness. A friend sets the mood and plays jazz from their iPhone and we all agree that this night will go down in history.

France Submersion: Vitrac-Saint Estèphe, Day 11

It is our last morning in the little town by the river, and I must say I am sad to say goodbye. It might not have been the most active place to be, but it sure was relaxing and ever so beautiful. A quick breakfast downstairs and we are off on the all day bus ride to St. Estéphe located in the region of Haute Médoc, Bordeaux.

The scenery moving to the Atlantic coast is not at all what it was like leading from the sea to the country, as there are more industrial looking buildings and new homes along the highway. Three hours into the drive, we stop at the world famous Grotte de Pair-Non-Pair to view a prehistoric cave. Holding carvings made 33,000 years ago during the Paleolithic period, we see a glimpse of what life was like before agrigarian society. We are not allowed to touch or photograph anything inside. Unlike other caves, nomads actually lived in this dwelling for periods of time, using the natural flowing pond located in the back for drinking water and an opening in the ceiling as a shoot for smoke. During this entire trip we have been surrounded by history but never like this before. It is surreal to see and touch what some of the very first humans on earth saw and touched.

Lunch is at the super store, Centre E.Leclerc in Blaye. Essentially a Costco meets grocery store, we are hesitant to eat there but the cafeteria is set up as a semi-buffet offering various salads and entrées made a la minute. A large sirloin steak cooked medium rare, a mound of canned green beans, rice pudding for dessert, with a bordeaux wine to drink, and I am all set for the next leg of the drive. Heading towards the river La Gironde, we cross over to Lamarque on a ferry and enter the peninsula of Bordeaux.

The flat landscape is covered in grape vines with lush forests dispersed in between. A vast array of châteaus welcome visitors and crosses stand in the middle of fields blessing the vines and wine to come. The sky is gray and rain is running across the windows humming me to sleep. The bus abruptly stops and I awake from a nap to see we have reached our hotel. My eyes are wide with disbelief; this cannot be where we are staying.

Château Pomys is gorgeous. The three story structure is made of white washed stone with the third story windows integrated into the dark gray roof. Six columns stand under a small overhang leading guests into the hotel and a gravel driveway encircles a green patch of manicured grass. A concrete and wrought iron staircase leads us to our room which is no less stunning with high ceilings, gray and silver wallpaper, and two windows overlooking the back vineyard. There is a duck pond in view and a stroll among the grounds reveals a large edible garden and coop of chickens. The winery is directly next door where we walk for tastings and an insider look into the pressing room. I am in heaven.

We have the hotel to ourselves which makes dinner a very private event. The three course meal is paired with the château’s wine in addition to others in the region. A basket of housemade puff pastry wrapped sausage (fancy pigs in a blanket if you will) is placed on the table along with a cocktail of rosé wine and pomplemousse (grapefruit) juice. First course is a choice between langoustine or foie gras and although the foie is tempting, I decide on the langoustine for something different. The salad is bare with the bursts of juice from the roasted bell peppers and tomatoes becoming the dressing, and the fresh shrimps wrapped in wonton-like paper crispy. The dry, local white wine is a perfect accompaniment and highlights the freshness of the dish.

Second course is a choice between beef cheeks or sea bass and since we are drinking Château Pomys Saint Estèphe 2009, I choose the beef knowing the big fruit tannins will compliment the flavorful meat. The plate looks like Stonehenge with pillars of shredded beef wrapped in the flour-like tortilla sheath used for the duck the night before, standing upright next to sautéed mushrooms and potato gratin. It’s very rich and delicious. Dessert is Bordeaux’s most famous pastry, canelé. I pour the salted butter caramel served in a teardrop vessel over the caramelized exterior of the grooved, bell shaped cake and dip my fork into the dollop of whipped cream. I have a moment. The texture from the crisp outside has become sticky chewy in my mouth and the moist interior melts away with each movement of my jaw. The juxtaposition of sweet and salty, of caramel and vanilla, of soft and hard; it’s simply superb.

I head back to the room and gaze out the window on the moon lit vineyards. I feel like a princess and am loving it.

France Submersion: Vitrac, Day 10

A leisurely day is planned for the group, with the highlights being a cooking demo from the restaurant’s chef and tasting at a local distillery. Making the most of this situation, I sleep in until eight and have a late breakfast. Enjoying a hard boiled egg with salami and a couple of cups of cafe, I feel energized and ready to seize the day.

Around ten o’clock we head into a room of the restaurant where renown Chef Philippe Latreille meets us for a demonstration. To our amazement, we are watching the preparation of all three dishes on the menu tonight, which has been specifically created for our culinary group to highlight the area’s most famous product: foie gras. He starts with the appetizer: a napolean of red wine and orange poached piece of foie gras with a puff pastry cracker, sautéed green apples, and orange juice reduction. He describes how he purchases the meat, and why he doesn’t believe in the commercialization of it (so happy to hear this part), in addition to the cooking technique he is using. He beautifully plates it and sets aside for everyone to photograph.

Chef then proceeds to de-fat duck breasts and roll the meat up in what looks like thin sheets of tortilla, which is actually just flour and water, into a tornado like shape. He cuts the mass into perfect cylinders and puts one in a cold pan with sunflower oil, explaining that if started in a hot pan, the outside would become too brown before cooking the inside. Meanwhile, he reduces cassis liqueur and white balsamic vinegar with chicken stock, and finishes it with pickled cherries. When all is ready, he sautés a small piece of foie in the fond from the duck tornado and plates it atop the duck drizzled with some of the sauce and cherries. My mouth is watering by this point.

He reveals the final course as strawberry soup. He brings out a plate of white strawberries and tells us they are specific breed of fruit which was thought to have been extinct until discovered in an abandoned farm in France. I’ve seen them at the French Laundry garden before but nevertheless enjoy the story. They are put in a bowl with cut red strawberries then covered in a reduction of cassis and peche liqueur. It smells sweet and fresh and encompasses the season around us.

After the class, the group divides into two so that folks can go canoeing along the river or have a relaxing day by the pool. I choose the relaxing day and walk over to a bar hugging the river, looking out onto a rock ledge. Beer in hand, I read and write, talking to friends in between. Lunch is on the patio underneath the canopy of Linden trees and is a mixed green salad consisting of green bean, tuna, and tomatoes. Nice and light, it is exactly what I crave after the heavy meal the night before. We are given a small cheese plate before dessert with slices of Tomm de Pyrenees , Brie, chèvre, and another semisoft cow one that tastes like fresh ricotta. After a couple bites of gateau noix (walnut) and a small cafe, I sit back and relax until we leave for the distillery at five.

It is only a short drive from the village until we reach Distillerie la Salamandre in Sarlat. Known for their eau de vie, walnut oil, and fruit liqueurs, this place has an incredible selection of alcohols. We take a tour of the facilities while the owner explains the difference between a liqueur and the French eau de vie (the former is sweet with intense fruit flavor while the later is related to brandy and high in alcohol). I taste a variety of beverages including quince, hazelnut, and walnut liqueur as well as a raspberry eau de vie which is so strong I can only stand a sip. Some buy spirits to take home but I opt for the walnut oil. A quick stop in the town center lets us have a view of the medieval architecture and see the local culture. There are shops upon shops full of foie, pâté, and liver related products which are conveniently packaged in cans for easy traveling. I buy a few for gifts, walk around the narrow, stone streets, and eat a walnut ice cream cone.

Dinner is an epic experience. The twenty two person table is beautifully decorated and centered in the sun room of a hotel next to the river. We are all dressed to impressed understanding that the meal we are about to enjoy is a special one very few people have had or will have. The poached foie napoleon is sweet but balanced with the rich, butter like quality of the meat. I almost think it has too much apple but I simply move the excess to the side and choose the amount on my fork to ingest. Main course is exceptional with the crisp exterior of the duck (perfectly medium rare on the inside), the tartness of the pickled Bing cherries, and the seared piece of unctuous foie gras on top. This is so mind blowingly good it feels wrong. Dessert is fine, with the white strawberries and almond tuile being my favorite parts, but overall a bit medicinal for my taste and nothing to write home about. I have had about four glasses (maybe more) of the Chateau Le Raz Merlot Cabernet blend from the Bergerac region and am ready for my walk.

I meander down to the playground and sit in the swing looking onto the bridge. The stars are out tonight and as I gaze above, I take a deep breath and think how fortunate I am to be here.

France Submersion: Carcassonne-Vitrac, Day 9

I awake to a ray of light on my bed and, surprisingly, no headache. I open the balcony door and look out amongst the terra cotta roofs and castle in the distance. I feel like Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, wanting to yell out ‘Bonjour!’ to anyone who will listen but alas, I do not. This should be the only way to ever start a day. I am relieved to find the hotel’s buffet offering yogurt, granola, and dried fruit for breakfast and relish in the change of morning sustenance.

We hop on a large 37 seat passenger bus and embark on our day long journey to Perigord Noir: foie gras country. The bus is so large that we each have our own two seat area. Yes! We follow tree lined roads and learn that Napoleon actually started planting these for practical purposes to help guide travelers when roads were not so easy to find, or maintain. Before long, we reach our first destination, Sieur D’Arques winery. Known for sparkling wines, biodynamic viticulture, and use of the region’s grape Mauzac, it has a wide array of wines and a vast cave system for storage. We are led upstairs from the tasting room to a museum housing past wine making machinery and numerous posters and plaques describing the wine making process as well as grape varietals, terroirs, and climates of the region Limoux. I taste a Brut made with mostly Chardonnay that is high acid with pear and green apple notes, another Brut made with mostly Mauzac that is dry with slight musty notes, and a Fruitè that is sweet with raisins and crisp. We depart, thirsts quenched and minds full.

Lunch is at nearby Hôtel Moderne et Pigeon. Built in 1501, this once convent is a 14 room hotel with beautiful stained glass, tapestries, stone staircase, and stunning outdoor patio. Our table awaits us outside, beneath umbrellas, looking out onto a stone fountain installed on a pastel pink house decorated with growing green ivy. The Chef has prepared a three course menu specifically for our group, focusing on the regional cuisine and ingredients found in the area. We start with a salad of mixed greens, tomatoes, asparagus, boiled egg, Serrano ham, cured olives and pearl onions, along with roasted bell peppers. Nicely dressed, it is a simple way to open up the palate. Second course is cousoullett with duck, chicken, pork belly, and sausage. It is served in a ceramic baking dish and smells absolutely heavenly. I take a bite and immediately close my eyes, enthralled with the richness of the meat and unctuousness of the beans. I moan. This is the best thing I have ever tasted. Ever. But its not just the dish that makes this exceptional, its the entire experience. The sound of the water, the birds, the breeze, the plants, the sun with the wine, the food, the smell; it is complete harmony. I will never forget this meal for as long as I live.

Completely stuffed, we get back on the bus and commence the four hour drive to the next destination: Hautefort. I listen to music while watching the views pass by the windows. There are chateaus in the distance, farm houses amongst fields of crops and vines, cylinders of hay stacks, yellow and red wild flowers, and rolling hills leading to forests as far as the eye can see. Browns, greens, blues, reds, whites, and purples make up the color scheme and I feel as if I am in a the middle of a Monet painting.

We exit the highway and begin driving on a winding road through a forrest into a small town full of country cottages. Looking as though they have been there for hundreds of years, there is a mix of shingle and terra cotta roofs and some are made of bricks and others of rock. Vines climb their way up the sides of houses while purple and pink flowers grow below, in what makes for a majestically quaint landscape. Above everything high atop a hill, we see what we are here for, the Château de Hautefort.

Upon entering the gates of the castle like structure, we walk up the football length gravel driveway surrounded by manicured gardens and topearies. Built in the 12th century, the structure is larger than life with two towers extending back towards the main building that create an angular horseshoe shape facing the gardens and town below. Our tour guide takes us to the spaces open to the public including the original dining room encircled by paintings of previous royalty, the 2,000 sq ft court hall, and the kitchen two floors underground. Although a fire in 1968 destroyed much of the original interior architecture, the stone shell that remained has been intricately reengineered to its former glory.

It is eight at night when we arrive in Vitrac and check in to the Hotel Plaistance. Built on the side of a stone hill, some of the interior walls are rocks themselves and an outdoor patio is built around Linden trees for a canopy affect. My room overlooks the bridge extending over the river and I am memorized by how utterly charming this village is.

Dinner is a four course affair that is delicious, but utterly overwhelming after the large lunch still sitting in our stomachs. To start, there is a choice of mussel or cauliflower coup, served from a large silver bowl table side, followed by a duck salad. The greens are tossed with a mustard vinaigrette which perfectly compliments the salty duck prosciutto lining the edge of the plate. What makes the dish over the top, though, is the braised duck fanned out on top which is so tender and flavorful it is hard to stop eating. I try to pace myself with sips of Clos des Verdots Merlot.

The main course is duck confit, fried crisp, with a rillete stuffed mushroom and zucchini, baked apple, and duck fat scalloped potatoes. Rich and wonderful, we are so satiated from the day’s food most of us have to force it down. We take breathers and talk ourselves through each bite so as to not get sick. Dessert comes and I don’t know if it is because I am not hungry or it isn’t that great, but the nougat glacé is underwhelming.

To help our digestive track, a friend and I take an after dinner stroll over the bridge. Lights shine on the moving water beneath us and in the dark we can see a tiny playground nearby. As we swing (and hope that the set will not break under our weight) we reflect on our day, smiling and laughing at how magical it was.

France Submersion: Cerebère-Carcassonne, Day 8

The sun has barely risen when we wake to catch an early train to Carcassonne. We drag our luggage up the town’s stone stairs, hugging the viaduct leading to the station. As we depart on the three hour ride, the sun glistens over the sea and we say goodbye to the coastal villages passing by our windows. Morning dew rests on the grape vines and fields in the distance while dark clouds hang back, forecasting rain for the future. The Pyranees mountains slowly peak through the air, signifying the change in terrior and climate. A Gothic church stands in every town we ride through, and I cannot help but think about the history of the area.

It is lightly misting when we arrive to our destination. After checking in to the hotel across from the train station and Canal du Midi, we walk through the narrow streets of the town heading towards the main attraction: Citè Mèdièvale. As we cross the l’Aude bridge, a fortress appears on the hillside. I have seen pictures of places like this but have never actually felt one. And what an overwhelming feeling it is.

Constructed in the 12th century, this enclosed village was built utilizing an existing stone wall engineered by the Romans one thousand years earlier. During the 16th century, King Louis IX fortified it into the grandeur that is seen today. Open passageways lead to more passageways now filled with restaurants, shops, cafès, and museums. It is like a being in a historical amusement park. Sans rides. Before entering the castle, we head into a cafe for lunch. I order a fromage, champignons, and jambon omelette with salad; shockingly well prepared for a tourist site eating establishment.

Walking into the stone walled enclosure is like going back in time and the dreary weather only adds to the ambiance. Cream and white stone blocks make up the walls and floor, which is smoothed with divots from years of being walked on. You are guided up and down stairs into rooms with ancient relics, gargoyles, and carvings and walk out onto ledges overlooking the city below. With a 360 degree view of Carcassonne and the encircling hills, I understand why the people of generations past built here. As if on cue, the clouds part and the sun shines through on us. It is crystal clear with a mild breeze and perfect for a leisurely stroll back to the hotel. I buy some nougat at a candy shop and proceed down the hill, admiring the scenery.

To make most of the change in weather, we take a boat ride on the Canal du Midi. What is known as the bridge between the Atlantic ocean and Mediterranean sea, the man-made river relies on numerous lock systems to operate. Although gorgeous, with oak and plane trees lining the water’s edge and birds chirping above, it is a very slow moving affair and boring. I kick myself for not bringing a bottle of wine. Two hours later we return somewhat rested but ready for afternoon naps. Our guide surprises us with ice cream and once I finish my mint chocolate cone, I am definitely ready for that nap.

Dinner is at a restaurant down the street called Chez Fredo. Specializing in Italian fare, our personalized menu features a tomato egg tart with olive tapenade and salad as first course, a boneless osso bucco and house made fettucini for second, and finally, a whipped vanilla mouse “cake” on a bed of ladyfingers with raspberry sauce and sweet whipped cream for dessert. I feel strange for eating this type of cuisine in France but quickly get over it since Chef has done an amazing job and the food is mouthwateringly delicious. Of course, the meal wouldn’t be complete without the region’s wine (Limoux), which is flowing in abundance.

Since dinner turned out to be only two hours instead of three, a group of us decide to head out to a local cafe for drinks. Spilling out into the streets with tables and chairs, the open air standing bar is rowdy with laughter and alcohol. The bartender is celebrating his birthday, and consequently drunk, but very happy to see new faces. We order Pelforths and converse amongst ourselves at a table, enjoying the atmosphere. Feeling rambunctious, I order “shooters” for a couple of us and watch in shock as the bartender pours absinthe, vodka, and tobassco into shot glasses. I can tell its going to be a long, fun night.

France Submersion: Cerebère, Day 7

The weather is cool as we wake and head down to breakfast at La Dorado, the hotel’s restaurant and the place we dined at the night before. It is French contenintal style with the normal baguette, croissant, cafe, and juice offering, but I am pleased to find that the croissant is perfectly done with a crispy exterior and soft, chewy center. I eat it hungrily.

Today we venture two towns over to Collioure, an area famous for inspiring the Phobism art period. As we walk from the train station to the center, the Sunday market is in full swing and we meander in with the locals. Charcuterie, cheeses, rotisseries, baked goods, bags, jewelry, nuts, fruits, vegetables, plants, flowers, and much more are set up on tables for what seems to be for blocks. As we leave and round the corner, the Mediterranean sea greets us in between stone dwellings and a castle. Truly breathtaking, I gasp at the storybook setting, eyes wide and full of excitement. There is literally* a stone walled castle sitting at the edge of the beach, a clock tower across the harbor chiming the time of the day, and clusters of brightly colored houses lining the cobblestone pathway with cafes and art galleries occupying the first floors. It is everything you could imagine a historical French seaside village to look like. Absolutely amazing.

A woman in red meets us in front of a storefront, introducing herself as the tour guide for the next hour. We walk to what she calls the old ‘door’ of the town where prints of Matisse and Durian paintings are posted. She proceeds to describe the images, explaining the similarities and differences of each and how both represent the core of Phobism art. Deliberate brushstrokes of yellow, pink, red, blue, and green, the illustrations looks simple yet refined, depicting the serene setting of Collioure with emotional intensity. There are multiple plaques located throughout the village and as we walk up and down the narrow stone walkways lined with bogonvilla and jasmine trellised houses, you can feel the energy of the walls and gain a true sense of what Catalone culture is all about.

Each location offers a different setting of which the painting was inspired from. The guide’s hand gestures and body movement while describing each piece shows just how passionate she is about her home and art, and looking around you can see why. I feel so fortunate I am able to experience this. At the end of the tour, we enter the famous bar Les Temples for a quick beer and viewing of the art paneled walls. For hundreds of years artists have paid for drinks with tokens of their trade, which has made way for quite the collection.

Around one in the afternoon, we take the train back to Cerebère
for lunch at Restaurant de la Plage. I share a vessel for two of mussels and fries and drink a glass of house vin blanc. Most likely harvested from nearby Spain, these bivalves are salty, lightly sweet, creamy, and delicate. I dip my fries in house-made garlic mayonnaise and sip the broth infused with the natural juices of the mussels out of the empty shells. Our guide orders the dessert ‘i’ll flottante’ for the table, which literrally translates to “floating island”. Like eating sugary air drizzled with caramel and placed a top a sweet, milky sea, this poached meringue is a wonder. My eyes roll back. This is heaven.

After a quick break where some of us read, drink, and catch up on email, the Chef of La Dorade holds a paella demonstration for the group. His French is fast and movements even quicker. I help him zest some citrus and separate some eggs where I accidentally drop one on the table. Oops! He shrugs his shoulders, wipes the mess into a bowl, and continues on. I am relieved there is no yelling.

That night, we feast on a paella dinner. Starting with marinated anchovies and escabeche sardines, the fish is mild but salty and paired perfectly with roasted peppers, fennel, eggplant, raw spinach, and olive oil. True tastes of the south and Mediterranean. The pièce de résistance is the large, cast iron paella dish brought to the table for family style eating. There are large and small prawns, chicken breast, octopus, pork shoulder, mild sausage, onions, bell peppers, saffron, paprika, shellfish powder, and short grain rice. Very good ingredients but, sad to say, surprisingly bland. With a little help from salt and pepper and a glass of Côtes du Roussilan, the flavors come through and I eat an adequately sized portion.

Dessert is creme brûlée, French style. The custard is cooked the way of an ice cream base (creme anglaise), brought to a very frothy state, then put in baking dishes to refrigeratd for 24 hours. It is light, a bit grainy from the sugar, but incredibly soft and sweet. Topped with cherries, raspberries, and blueberries, it is a summer in a bowl. To our surprise, the hotel owners bring out a cake known as ‘gateau basque’ for celebration of a friend’s birthday. Moist and bursting with almond flavor, I indulge in a slice. I am officially done for the night. Roll me to bed: I’m full. Literally and figuratively.

France Submersion: Paris-Cerebère, Day 6

I wake up to the sounds of activities in the street below and light shining in from the open balcony door. A full nights rest has me feeling nice, and I proceed to finish packing before getting ready for breakfast. I never thought I would hear myself say it, but I am tired of bread and butter. During the morning, that is. I crave eggs and bacon and make the executive decision of indulging in chilaquiles the morning I return to California. Nevertheless, I eat my baguette and drink cafe as I know I will not be eating much while traveling.

After a bit of souvenir shopping, the group gathers at noon and heads to Gare de Lyon where we catch the train to Cerebère. I am thankful for a window seat on the top floor and excited to see the French countryside. As we depart the city, there is a drastic change in scenery. The large buildings are the first to go as they gradually turn into graffitied apartment boxed buildings, then leave the landscape giving way to nothing but green pastures. White cows dot the flat fields and Italian cypresses outline the roads leading to farm houses. We are officially in the country.

The villages we pass are picturesque. Cream colored cottages and red terra cotta roofs, there are only a couple clustered at any given time, with small farms and cows neighboring them. White stone ledges line the mountains in the horizon with evergreen pastures below and blue gray clouds above. Castle like structures can be seen in the distance and I imagine how life was centuries ago, centered around these old buildings.

As we progress through the four hour rain ride to Beziers, I buy a Cabernet-Merlot wine and photograph as much as I can. The wine is nothing special, but the images around make up for it. As we make our way to the coast, the architecture drastically changes and the houses enliven with bright colors. Painted pinks, oranges, blues, yellows, and greens, palm trees and pools are everywhere. Dark, stormy clouds hang above and the rain starts to pound on the windows, waking folks up from their naps. A quick stop at the station for a train transfer and we are on another two hour ride to our final destination, Cerebère.

Words cannot describe the little town by the seaside. Built on cliffs with a small bay enclosed with a man made rock ledge, there are only two restaurants and you get the feeling everyone knows each other. To get to the hotel, we follow the stone viaduct pressed against the cliffs, and make our way to the rocky beach. The hotelier is charming, welcoming us with a smile and making jokes with his accented English. The hotel is behind the main square and our room, being on the first floor, looks out onto some trees and a cobblestone pathway. It has the charm of a countryside villa with 15ft ceilings, blue and white bathroom tiles, and windows opening inwards to fully let in the ocean air. Oohing and ahhing, we are giggling with delight.

Dinner is directly across the beach at the center of town in the hotel’s restaurant. Multiple Côtes du Roussillon sit on tables dressed for our twenty person party. We start with raw oysters. With a squeeze of lemon they are briny, salty, and completely delicious. Next is a seafood soup. Prawns, mussels, octopus, and clams sit in a creamy herb broth. So fresh, so delicate, so uncontrived, I taste the scent of the town and understand what this region is all about: wine, food, ocean, and simplicity. I am taken back, completely in ecstasy.

Dessert is pear and cassis sorbet. Bright, tart, fruity, and intense, it’s a balanced end to a light meal. We take a bottle of wine to the steps of the beach, and enjoy the next hour skipping rocks in the water. I feel a calm and happiness wash over me, appreciating life for what it is, at this very moment in time.

France Submersion: Paris, Day 5

Feeling completely rested after a full nights sleep, I make my way down the five floors of spiral stairs to the breakfast area. I butter a nice piece of baguette, drink my cafe noir, and speak with some of the group before heading our the door for a nice walk around the block. After the past four days of stimulation, I enjoy the solitude.

At 930am, we jump on the metro for a visit to Musée Jacquemart-Andre in the 8th district. An incredible mansion nestled amongst the Parisian apartment buildings, it was the home of an upper middle class couple during the late 19th century who decorated it with treasures from their travels. Massive tapestries line the windows, beautiful 16th century paintings hang on the wall, and Italian frescos decorate the ceilings. It is as if we have traveled back in time and can feel the energy that used to live in 1894. I walk through the mansion, listening to the stories told through the handheld audio cassette, completely enamored with what I see. Multiple Botticelli works are in the ‘Italian lounge’ and numerous Madonnas encircle windows, for the family’s favorite type of art was Venetian. Words cannot describe how incredible this piece of history is and how lucky we are to experience it.

Lunch is at the museum’s cafe in what used to be the mansion’s dining room, which is no less spectacular in design. Quiche with tomatoes and mozzarella is ordered for the table and is plated with a lovely salad dressed in shallot vinaigrette. I enjoy espresso and vanilla ice cream for dessert and afterwards try to walk off the dairy while shopping for souvenirs. I can’t help it; no matter how full I am I can never pass up dessert.

We head back towards Gare de Lyon for an afternoon Seine river ride. It’s probably the most touristy attraction we have gone to thus far, and I admit I am sort of embarrassed, but once on the boat and moving along I find myself enjoying the time. French children are out on a school field trip sitting next to us, taking pictures along with the tourists, laughing away, and screaming aloud under all the bridges we travel through. It is hilarious. We wave to those walking and sitting along the pathways of the rivers and gaze at all the incredible architecture encircling us. After an hour, the tour ends and the group parts ways to find their own adventure.

A friend and I decide to visit a well known charcuterie shop in the Latin Quarter: Maison Verot. Pâtés, salamis, confits, rillettes, sausages, and terrines fill the store and we are completely overwhelmed. We order boudin noir, rillete, pâté en croute, and something else that looks delicious but we cannot pronounce while having them vacuum seal some salamis so that we can take them back home to enjoy. Spending 15€ on a link of salami never felt so right. With beers in hand, we pick a wonderful spot by the Bastille canal to enjoy our snacks and watch the locals sun bathe and socialize while eating. Perfect Friday afternoon.

It is our turn to partake in the traditional style French restaurant tonight and dinner is at A Le Biche La Bois down the street from our hotel. What is known as the epitome of French meal, there are four courses: entreé, plate, fromage, and dessert. Although the terrines on the menu sound fantastic, I opt for a lighter option and order a tomato salad. Very fresh and simple, I can’t help but ogle over everyone else’s choice of the house charcuterie special. Next course is veal scallopini with mushroom sauce. It is cooked perfectly pink and so tender I barely to press on my knife to cut it. The cabernet sauvignon from the is a great match to the richness of my main course and I sip in between bites to truly experience the flavors on the palate. A plate of fries arrives to the table on a very large silver platter alongside a dish of mashed potatoes and garlic. More like a whipped, creamy, dipping sauce, it is so good I scoop some on my plate and proceed to dip my veal in it. By the time the cheese board is brought to the table for serving, we are so full that we hesitate to order but do so anyways. I have a wedge of compte and a soft, cow milk cheese called Ponte Trevec. A bit funkier than its sister Camembert, it’s creamy and quite tasty. As everyone orders sorbet for dessert, I choose the creme caramel. Why not? Exactly like flan, it’s light, smooth, with a light nuttiness from the caramel and portioned enough for me to finish. I swear I must have a hollow leg.

We walk to the Siene and see the top of the Eiffel Tower glowing in light. As we meander across the bridge and round our way back to the hotel, some decide to continue the night while myself and a couple of others decide its time for bed. We travel to Cerebere tomorrow, a seaside village near the border of Spain, and I need to pack. Aurevoir Paris!