Weekend in Valencia

This year, to celebrate our 6th wedding anniversary we flew to Valencia. I hadn’t been since the student days and was curious to rediscover this city in Spain’s Costa Blanca. Especially with my adventurous Italian. We arrived on a Saturday and settled in to boutique hotel Vincci Mercat in the historic center. So how did we choose to spend 48 hours in this diverse city? By exploring and eating of course. It’s not everyday you’re in the land of paella… In addition to our favorite authentic Spanish dining spots, here’s my guide to this eclectic port city.

EAT LOCAL: For the best tapas head straight to Casa Montaña. Established in 1836, this local legend is both a tapas bar and a restaurant. We were lucky to find a table at the more casual bar, and loved every bite of of our seafood, meat and vegetable plates. If you’re looking for top paella, you’ll find it at La Riuà in the historic center or Casa Carmela on the beach. The latter is an institution and reservations are a must. Keep in mind paella is eaten at lunch and takes around 30 minutes to prepare. Well worth the wait!

EAT GOURMET: For our anniversary dinner we discovered Navarro, a real gem. This family run restaurant in the historic center dating from 1951, serves creative cuisine with all ingredients sourced from local markets. Whether it’s lobster paella or seafood salad with cucumber gelato, you will not be disappointed. One of the lovely sisters Guillermina, will make sure of that! Don’t forget to try their sangria, the best I’ve tasted.

SHOPPING: If you’re looking for specialties in the form of cheese and meat, head straight to the Mercado Central.  Over 8,000 square meters including a separate section for fish, you’ll find almost 300 vendors selling all local produce. Even if you’re not in the mood to shop or taste, walking around this market is an experience!

EAT SWEETS: A specialty of Valencia is a drink called horchata. This sweet milky drink is made from pressed chufas (tiger nuts). While drinking it you dip large finger-shaped pastries called fartóns, and enjoy! Horchatería de Santa Catalina is the best and most charming spot in town.

VISIT: Undoubtedly the most impressive place to visit is Santiago Calatrava’s City of Arts and Sciences. This entertainment-based cultural and architectural center merits an entire day, or weekend if you can spare it. You really do feel as though you’ve entered another world.

BEACH IT: What makes Valencia such a desirable city for both locals and tourists is its beach life. Only thirty minutes via bus from the historic center you’ll find yourself lounging on the beach. After a dip in the warm water, find a shady spot and enjoy a siesta, you’ll probably need it!

In other news, I’m honored to be nominated as best expat blog! Please take a moment to vote here. Merci!

Lisbon

We had been planning a trip to Lisbon for years, even before it became the city to visit. Somehow Italy and Spain always took precedence, until recently. A week ago we set off to discover a city, country and culture neither of us had yet experienced. We had no idea what to expect on this three-day jaunt to Portugal. All we knew was that Lisbon would not disappoint.

We arrived to our historic hotel in the Baixa district and began our tour, map in hand. Lisbon is by all accounts a walking city if you don’t mind the hilly cobbled streets. The views are worth the hike up!

A popular mode of transport in Lisbon, and one of my favorites, is the tram, dating back to the 1930s. This is definitely an experience, particularly tram 28 which snakes its way along many of Lisbon’s most vibrant districts. Tourists line up for the ride up the steep hill from Baixa to São Jorge Castle and Alfama district. We opted to walk and hop on at a later stop.

We spent an entire day exploring, or rather, getting lost in the Alfama district, a tangle of streets that come alive in the evenings with traditional Fado music. This quickly became our favorite area, along with the historic Bairro Alto and trendy Principe Real where we discovered local restaurants and fashionable boutiques.

I often had to stop and admire the glazed tiles lining many of the buildings. Inspiration for a future bag collection? These azulejos as they are called locally, originated in Egypt but it’s the Portuguese that use them most creatively. The Tile Museum just outside the city center, details five centuries of these decorative tiles.

What we discovered while wandering the city was how friendly and happy most people appeared to be. The atmosphere in Lisbon was light and welcoming. We also happened to be there on April 25th, their Freedom Day celebrating the 1974 Revolution that ended the dictatorship and started democracy. Even more reason for the locals to take pride in their capital city.

SLEEP: Alma Lusa translates to “Portuguese soul”, and AlmaLusa Hotel has exactly that.  This family run boutique hotel opened in 2016, perfectly positioned in the Baixa district, close to many of Lisbon’s attractions. Our luxurious room with a view of city hall was once a Moroccan showroom, with select elements still intact.

EAT LOCAL: A pleasant surprise was O Cantinho da Rosa in Bairro Alto where we stopped for lunch. It was clear that locals were the main clients of this charming canteen. Never before have I tasted fresh sardines grilled to perfection! The dishes are ample, and the dessert is heavenly. Another local gem near Alfama is Zé da Mouraria.

EAT GOURMET: For innovative brasserie style dining Delfina is the spot. Elegantly set within the AlmaLusa hotel, their traditional Bacalhau dish is a must! Paired with local wines of course. If you’re in the mood for prime locally farmed meat, head directly to Vicente by Carnalentejana. The cave-like decor too is impressive!

EAT SWEETS: A trip to Lisbon isn’t complete without tasting the famous Pastel de nata, a Portuguese egg tart pastry. You can find some of the best at Manteigaria in the Time Out Market. Along with gelato and anything else your heart desires, both sweet and savory. There are even cooking classes offered.

DRINK: We happened to be in town during Lisbon’s first ever Cocktail Week. With so many bars (and very little time) we opted for rooftop views from recently opened Topo. I’ve also heard that Gin Lovers is another hot spot. Next time.

VISIT: One of the main attractions is São Jorge Castle, positioned on top of the city and restored in the 20th century. Belém Tower, a fortified tower and the Jerónimos Monastery not far from Lisbon are popular sights that we left for our next visit. We decided instead to take the train to the town of Sintra. Stay tuned…

 

 

Île de Ré

Is it possible to find the tranquility of the Mediterranean hidden in the Atlantic Ocean? Just west of La Rochelle sits the island of Île de Ré. Having heard much about this natural landscape boasting sandy beaches and 10 charming villages connected by cycling paths, I decided it was time to explore. This French summer hideaway seemed like the ideal weekend away. As is often our preference, we chose to visit off season.

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In just over three hours we arrived via train to La Rochelle. Since 1988 the city is linked to Île de Ré by bridge, providing easy access by car or shuttle bus. We chose the latter, since the main mode of island transport is by bicyle. No car is needed. The afternoon was cloudy and windy, with hints of blue setting the scene for the next few days. We chose to stay in Saint-Martin-de-Ré, the island’s capital and what is considered one of the most picturesque of the villages. We arrived easily by bus and settled into our elegant hotel on the harbor. As it was the weekend, the village was bustling with locals and second home owners taking advantage of the Indian summer. Nineteen miles long and two to three miles long, this small island with a population of 18,000, grows to 130,000 during the summer months. Soon, I would discover its appeal.

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The following day we rented bicycles and began our journey along the coast. Passing marshes and salt farms we made our way to the smallest of the villages, Loix. Thus began our love affair with the island. From there we rode south to Ars-en-Ré, a larger village with an active port. After lunch we met a few friends from Paris (fortunate are those with family homes in such a beautiful natural setting), and joined them at the beach near La Couarde-sur-Mer. On the path home, we rode through countless vineyards, the season’s harvest ripe for picking. The landscapes all so beautifully preserved. As the sun hung low in the sky, we had just enough time to get lost in the tangle of Saint-Martin’s streets.

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The next day we hopped back on the bikes, first stop: oysters. I was in heaven. We sat along the coast during low tide and feasted on tender shrimp and the freshest oysters I’d eaten since our trip to Cap Ferret. A glass of local white wine to compliment. Our next stop was La Flotte, another inviting port village. We were completely smitten by these picture-perfect villages; streets filled with shuttered homes in pastel shades of green, gray and blue; ivy creeping up walls and flowers growing around every corner. The charm was immeasurable. Our journey continued to a long sandy beach close to the village of Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré. I could imagine the surfing and kite-boarding during the summer months. But now it was just us, along with a handful of couples and young families, enjoying the off-season serenity. Perfect timing, if you ask me.

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When evening fell and it was time to return to Paris, we were not eager to leave the island and vowed to return. There were more villages to explore, more local pineau to taste and oysters to savor. I could now understand why Île de Ré was considered such an island paradise. A secret the French keep well, and now one I share with you. Here are my recommendations for island life in Saint-Martin-de-Ré.

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SLEEP: Hôtel de Toiras is a five-star Relais & Châteaux property located on the port of Saint-Martin-de-Ré, providing a luxurious setting for a weekend away, or longer. The rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated with old French charm. The entire setting is regal and elegant. Five years ago, the hotel acquired a beautiful old mansion and created its sister hotel, Villa Clarisse. Set father back in the village, this four-star hotel offers 9 rooms set in a lush garden with a pool. Either location makes a perfect home in the heart of the island.

EAT LOCAL: Le Bistro du Marin is THE local spot, located on the port. They don’t take reservations so prepare to wait by the bar, especially if you’d like to dine outside, or en terrace. Their hearty meat dishes served with delicious home fries and fresh fish specials are certainly worth waiting for! Not to mention their homemade profiteroles. Both lunch and dinner are served daily, closed Thursdays.

EAT GOURMET: Les Embruns is just behind the port and well worth a dinner reservation (you must book ahead as they get full very quickly). This is the place for seafood, with lobster salad worth ordering, and a variety of fish dishes on the menu. For 30€ you can try the tasting menu. It’s hard to go wrong in this charmingly kitschy restaurant. Open only for dinner during the high season, closed Tuesdays.

EAT OYSTERSRé Ostréa is a casual lunch spot along the bike path from Saint-Martin-de-Ré heading west. It’s hard to miss with its colorful chairs, always full in the high season. Here you can dine on an assortment of seafood, including of course, local oysters. The fresh shrimps too, are heavenly! All dishes are accompanied by a glass of local wine. This is a must stop while on the island.

EAT SWEETSLa Martinière is a family run ice-cream and pastry shop. It’s a MUST stop while on the island, though we missed out on this sweet experience since it was closed for renovations. Next time!

DRINK: Ile de Ré is not so much known for their wines as for the French apéritif Pineau, a blend of wine and cognac. As it’s a sweet drink, I quickly became a fan. You can taste it at any bar or wine shop.

CYCLE: With quite a few bike rental companies to choose from, I found Cycland to be one of the best, with a great assortment of bikes and locations in 9 of the 10 villages. Definitely use bicycles to get around the island!

VISIT: Ernest Cognacq Museum is a Renaissance style mansion highlighting the historical, artistic and military heritages of the island. Worth a stop for a quick history lesson!

 

Escape to Chantilly

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It rarely becomes extremely hot in Paris. But when it does, little relief can be found. Last weekend we experienced such a heatwave, called a canicule. That was reason enough to leave the heat and flee to the countryside. But who needs a reason. So we jumped on the train and in 30 minutes arrived to Chantilly. We first visited the château with my mom a few years ago, and knew one day we’d return. Now was as perfect a time as any. After a quick lunch stop we headed directly for our luxurious haven in the shade, Auberge du Jeu de Paume.

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This stunning five-star Relais & Chateaux property sits overlooking the majestic Château de Chantilly, bringing new meaning to the term ‘room with a view’. Our suite overlooked the English gardens. Immediately the late summer heat faded into the distance as I relaxed to the calming sounds of the fountains down below, and watched as the swan made her laps in the pond. A perfect weekend getaway.

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This four-year old hotel’s spacious rooms are fashioned with classic toile de Jouy fabrics and handcrafted woodwork, no details spared. The Hermès bath products in the marble bathrooms were a treat. Not to mention the decadence of the plush bed! We both slept very soundly, with the help of a little air-conditioning.

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After a morning of yoga on the terrace and a visit to the full-service spa and fitness room, we splurged on breakfast on our terrace. Heavenly! Not a soul in sight aside from an occasional triathlete running by in the gardens. Little did we know, it was the weekend of the Castle Triathlon Series. What a gorgeous setting! It almost inspired me to join for next year. (I’ll stick to yoga!)

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For dinner we opted for Le Jardin d’Hiver, the chic bistro featuring seasonal fare created by Arnaud Faye, 2* Michelin Chef at La Table du Connétable, their more elegant and gourmet dining option. What a decadent feast! We ended the night with a glass of wine on our terrace, beneath a starry sky. Ah, romance…

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What’s a trip to Chantilly without a visit to the château, a five minute walk from the hotel, and a stop for the very thing the town is known for, aside from lace that is. The BEST and original Chantilly cream is found at Le Hameau on the grounds of the château. (I could write an entire blog post about it, heaven on a plate!)

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The rest of our afternoon was spent watching the triathlon and cheering them on, picnicking in the garden, and admiring the history surrounding us.

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Before returning to Paris we made one final stop to the Grandes Écuries for a horse show and visit to the museum. Also known as the Living Museum of the Horse, here can be found the largest stables in Europe. It was constructed in the 18th century as an actual horses’ palace, how fancy! Growing up horseback riding and with a love for these gentle creatures, this was quite a highlight for me. I would gladly have galloped back to Paris.

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Château de Chenonceau

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Moments upon arriving to Château de Chenonceau, this majestic castle with its immaculate landscaped gardens, captivated us both. Set upon the River Cher, I now understood why this was the favorite château of many. This 16th century marvel of Gothic and early Renaissance architecture stood tall against gray skies, the Marques tower across the bridge from the château. What adds to the unique history are the women who called this their home. The favorite residence of Catherine de Medici, while Diane de Poitiers was its mistress. But it was Louise Dupin who saved the château from destruction during the French Revolution, stating that “It was essential to travel and commerce, being the only bridge across the river for many miles.”

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The interior of the château was equally regal. The grand ballroom once held festivities organized by Catherine de Medici in honor of her son King Henri III.

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Catherine de Medici’s Renaissance bedroom was outfitted with rare Flanders tapestries from the 16th century, and a painting by Correggio representing ‘The Education of Love’.

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To prove his devotion to both his wife and his mistress, King Henry II gave them each a garden. This one was Catherine’s, a design of 5 lawns centered around an elegant circular pond, “intimate” at 5,500m2.

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Diane’s garden, composed of two perpendicular and two diagonal paths bordering eight large, lawned triangles is 12,000m2 in size. Each season reveals a variety of blossoms.

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It was difficult to leave this stunning landscape and the stories it told. With one last glance we bid farewell.

a taste of Beaune

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Last spring I discovered Dijon and became enamored with the Burgundy region. This year it was time to visit the smaller town of Beaune. Our first stop was Hotel Le Cep, a historic mansion where King Louis XIV once slept. This family run 4-star hotel boasts 16th century courtyards with rooms and suites decorated in endless charm. My Italian and I immediately felt at home as we were warmly welcomed by gracious owner Jean-Claude Bernard, who spoke of his family hotel’s rich history. Just outside Le Cep’s doors, Beaune awaited to be explored. Where to go first? We headed directly to the Tourism Office to consult the experts.

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Our main objective being to discover and taste the local specialties, we headed straight to the prestigious wine cellars of Bouchard Père & Fils, once the ancient castle of Beaune. Touring their cave, we found select wines aged over 100 years! Needless to say, those we tasted were quite a bit younger. Here began a weekend of tasting some of the best wines in France.

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Saturday morning the sun shone brightly and we met our new neighbors at the local market. I’ve been to many markets all over the country, but this one appeared to be straight out of a film set. Were we the extras?

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Our next stop was mustard factory Fallot, the last independent family mustard mill in Burgundy. We were met by Marc Désarménien whose family had started producing Fallot mustard in 1840. The mustard making process is a fascinating one as we learned, being led through the factory, chewing on mustard seeds along the way. Afterwards, tasting the dozens of flavors of Fallot mustard was an experience! My favorites being the classic grainy variety with white wine, followed by walnut, and honey and fig.

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Wine and mustard aren’t the only gastronomic delicacies that have put Beaune on the map. This town too is a haven for haute cuisine. Where did we choose among the many options? Here’s my short list:

La Bussionière: Charming husband and wife run restaurant that recently moved into the center of Beaune. Selection of fresh local produce, creating delicious regional dishes.

Loiseau des Vignes: One of highly regarded Loiseau family restaurants, awarded a Michelin star in 2010 under chef Mourad Haddouche, adjacent to Hotel Le Cep. A gastronomic paradise, with 70 wines served by the glass.

Le P’tit Paradis: An intimate restaurant in the heart of the town for over 20 years, where seasonal tastes mingle with inventive dishes. Outdoor terrace for spring and summer dining.

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When not wine tasting or dining, we were educating ourselves to the history of Beaune. It was in a walking tour with history buff and wine expert Kim Gagné that we learned the most. She brought us to the famous Hospices de Beaune, also called Hôtel-Dieu. Built in the 15th century and once a hospital mainly for the poor, it’s now a museum. Every November, an important charity wine auction is held within this historic building.

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Before heading back to Paris, we decided a tour of the vineyards would prove the best lesson of all in wine culture. Our lovely guide Brigitte from Vineatours picked us up at Le Cep and into the villages and vineyards we drove, passing Pommard and Volnay along the way. We stopped at a private vineyard and tasted a small production of premier and grand cru, increasing our home collection of Bourgogne wines.

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This charming town had won my heart. Filled with the sensations of Beaune, and plenty of mustard and wine, we boarded the train back to Paris, a quick 2 hour ride. Next time we vowed, we’ll return for a biking tour.