Archive for the ‘the world abroad (uber vay-cay!)’ Category

I got an email from my office’s principal a few weeks ago asking if I’d be willing to give a presentation on her behalf at a science and tech conference in York, England, as she had something else come up.  My initial gut reaction was…I can’t.  It’s so far away!  It’s so much pressure!  It’s so much to ask of Shane!

And yet…it’s so hard to imagine passing up an opportunity like this.

Shane agreed, I couldn’t let something like this slip through my fingers on account of a few measly jitters, so tickets were booked, slides were prepped, and I was off to merry old England!  There were a few tears at the airport curb as I said my good-byes to Shane and Juliette, but once I’d settled into my seat with my complimentary glass of champagne and queued up La La Land on my personal TV, I felt pretty grand.

I landed in London on Monday morning and immediately hopped on the Underground to catch my train to York.  It was fun, flexing my navigational muscles again – took me back to my study-abroad days when I trekked across Europe with my rail pass and my backpack!  Conference festivities began that evening with cocktails and dinner at Gray’s Court.  Some parts of this hotel date back to 1080 and I felt pretty fancy, wandering the historic halls with my Pimm’s Cup in hand.

The dinner host told me I could catch a taxi back to my hotel at the taxi stand around the corner, “just look for the church”.  Found it!

Tuesday was full of keynote speakers and breakout sessions and some pretty epic struggles to keep my eyes open.  The day ended with a formal dinner at the racecourse and while I did my best to hang with the Brits (those folks can drink!), I turned in earlier than most, wanting to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for my Wednesday morning presentation.

My Wednesday spiel on the Allen Institute went off without a hitch, and after dealing out a few business cards and bidding farewell to my London colleagues, I found myself with 24 free hours in England!  I took my time getting to the York train station, stopping every couple of blocks to snap a picture of a particularly charming old building or peer into a lovely old courtyard.

I rolled into London mid-afternoon and rushed to check into my hotel, as I had a FaceTime date with Shane and Juliette that I didn’t want to miss.  The time change made phone calls tricky, but I was able to catch them for just a few minutes before they headed out for school and work.  My eyes welled up with tears the second I saw their faces – I tried to blame my emotional state on sleep deprivation, but the reality was that I really, really, realllllly missed them.  I was comforted, though, by the fact that Juliette seemed to be enjoying Daddy-Jules week.

Once I’d cleaned myself up a bit, I laced up my tennis shoes and set out to make the most of my several hours in London.  It was a beautiful afternoon, and while I was tempted to stop and stretch out on a sunny patch of grass in St. James Park, I kept moving.

I made my way past the crowds surrounding Buckingham Palace and breezed by Big Ben on my way to the river.

My plan was to cross the Westminster Bridge and then follow the riverfront to the Tower Bridge, hitting the main attractions and any hidden gems along the way.

And I saw a lot.  The Golden Jubilee Bridge…

This quaint little plaza lined with quaint little shops, where I picked up a couple of trinkets for Juliette…

And the Tate Modern!  Shane and I visited this place when we were in London in 2003 and it stands out as one of my all-time favorite museum experiences.

I wandered a bit through the permanent collection, spending awhile in front of a beautifully crusty Dubuffet and finding myself inspired to get back into the print studio by this Lygia Pape woodcut.

Such drama in this building!

I eventually peeled myself away from the museum, grabbed a panini and a latte from a little cafe, and set off again.

England, you are too cute sometimes…

Something good around every corner!

The Tower Bridge is so perfect it hardly looks real – while walking across it, I expected a Disney princess to pop out at any moment.

I wandered into this pristine little courtyard and again felt slightly out of touch with reality.

And then back into the bustle of the city…

As I approached this crowd I wondered what all the fuss was about – were they in line for a show?  A new iPhone release?  Turns out it was just a bunch of merry Englishman enjoying a post-work pint.  It was 6 pm and the pubs (plus their sidewalks) were packed.

More fun surprises…

This Sauerbruch Hutton project is one I’ve seen in magazines many times over.  London is such a lovely mix of old and new.

I made it back to my hotel just as the sun set, feet aching but heart full.  Europe, I’ve missed you!

I had a couple of free hours on Thursday morning to take another stroll before heading to the airport, so I walked over to nearby Hyde Park to check out the flowers and hang with the swans.

And then, too soon and not soon enough, it was time to say my good-byes to England.  It was a long day of travel (again made easier by that complimentary champagne!) and I tapped my foot impatiently while waiting to de-board the plane in Seattle, wanting to get home in time to pick up Juliette from school.  I was desperate to get my arms around that kid.  Shane thoughtfully anticipated my desperation and was waiting with Juliette for me right outside of Customs.  Gosh, it felt good to hold the two of them close.  I was home.

I’m so glad I seized this opportunity, so thankful for the chance to put myself out there in so many ways.  There were times when my head ached with jet lag and my heart ached with homesickness, but those were relatively small prices to pay for the horizons I broadened.  What. A. Trip.

Indeed, yesterday was our last full day in Paris – as is usually the case with vacation, we felt like our trip was ending far too soon. We awoke to chilly gray skies but were determined to make the most of the precious time we had left, so we bundled up and took the Metro up to Montmartre to visit Sacre Coeur and walk the neighborhood’s charming streets and staircases. It was colder than we expected up on the hill, so we warmed ourselves in a cafe and then grabbed a glass of vin chaud (mulled wine) to go, wondering if 11 am was too early to start drinking wine, but coming back to the phrase, ‘When in Paris…’. We snaked our way down the hill, doing our best to dodge the tourists and enjoy the quieter side of Montmartre.

From there, we took the Metro south to St. Germain to visit Patrick Roger’s boutique – he is one of the most famous chocolate-makers in Paris, and I’d heard that his unique flavor combinations are not to be missed. We admired the life-size chocolate gorilla in the window, picked out an assortment of goodies to bring home with us, and then headed back out, thankful to see the sun poking through the clouds.

We had lunch at a cute little alley-side cafe, swung by Sadaharu Aoki for a caramel tarte (I know, I’m out of control), and then walked over the Jardin de Luxembourg to fully enjoy the sunshine that had now completely overtaken the sky.

We sat in our favorite spot and ate our tarte (which was buttery, sweet, salty, and delicious, by the way). I have so many good memories of soaking in the sun with Shane in this park. If I could take a piece of Paris and put it in Seattle, it would be Luxembourg gardens.

I could have sat there all day, but seeing as how we had only a few hours of daylight left, we peeled ourselves from our chairs and walked back toward the Marais, stopping on the Pont des Arts to snap a photo before the ‘So sad we’re leaving’ blues turned those smiles upside-down.

Shane wanted to rest for awhile at the apartment and I wanted to take one last stroll around Ile Saint Louis, so we parted ways and I set out for the little island. Since it was Saturday afternoon, the streets were crowded and busy, so I popped into Eglise Saint Louis to sit for a few minutes and enjoy the quiet of the empty church.

And a final spin along the tree-lined streets, which are so perfectly, quintessentially Parisian.

I headed back to the apartment to get Shane, and then we set out for the western tip of Ile de la Cite to watch the sun set over the Seine. I really don’t believe this spot can be topped on the romance-o-meter.

We had aperitifs on the sidewalk at La Comedie, the bar just downstairs from our apartment. I have really taken a liking to my pre-dinner Kir, and Shane is now a Ricard man all the way.

Our original dinner plans didn’t pan out, but we were happy to stumble upon a Marais cafe that we remembered really liking last time we were in Paris. Our table was cozy, the food was good, and we reflected on the highs and lows of the trip, feeling thankful for the over-abundance of highs we’ve enjoyed over the past two weeks.

We leisurely walked back to our apartment, enjoying the bustle of the Marais on a Saturday night – every seat was filled at every cafe terrace, music and chatter and weekend merriment coming from every bar and cafe.

The jazz club just around the corner from us offered free entry after midnight, so after getting our bags packed and the apartment ready for check-out the next morning, we headed over to the Duc Lombards to see if the band on stage that night was any good. And they were – we scored a great stage-side table, sat back, and enjoyed our last night in Paris with a heaping amount of ‘cool’.

I got up early this morning to take one last walk and say good-bye to the city. The sun had just risen, the streets were quiet, and as I walked past Place Vendome and through Tuileries to the Louvre, I took in Paris’ one-of-a-kind beauty with a little bit of sadness – it’s really tough to see this vacation come to an end. But through the melancholy, there’s a lot of thankfulness and joy, and a hope that one day not too, too far from now, we’ll be back.

Au revoir, Paris. You’ll be missed.

We got up late on Friday and decided to skip breakfast and instead head straight to Place Monge to pick up the fixin’s for a lunchtime picnic. This plaza market has a great mix of vendors, and after perusing all the offerings, we settled on a rich little hunk of chevre and a couple of clementines (we’re trying to eat healthy here, after all). We picked up a baguette from a boulangerie around the corner and set out for Jardin des Plantes to find a spot in the sun where we could enjoy our mini-feast.

The cheese was amazing – creamy and pungent and perfect spread on a properly baked baguette. And for dessert, la piece de resistance…a Marie Antoinette from Carl Marletti. This was possibly the best bite of anything I experienced all week – light and crispy on the outside, chewy in the middle, filled with juicy raspberries and fluffy rose-infused cream, sweet, tart, lovely, mmmmmm…

We walked off about 2.5% of the calories we’d just consumed by taking a stroll through the park. The gardens are admittedly much prettier in the Spring, but still, the late-blooming dahlias were beautiful and the sunshine felt so, so good.

From Jardin des Plantes, we walked back across the river, stopping to admire the view of Notre Dame from Pont de la Tournelle, and then refueling with a noisette (espresso with just a splash of cream) at a little cafe on Ile Saint Louis.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around St. Germain, popping into Saint Sulpice to take a look around and then visiting La Maison du Chocolat for some…’souvenirs’.

We rested at the apartment for awhile, but I quickly began to feel antsy (might need to cut back on that caffeine and sugar…), so I headed back out to catch the last rays of the day’s sunshine, walking along the Seine and enjoying the view of Pont des Arts in the warm, evening glow.

We ate dinner at Cafe Moderne in Bastille, loving the old-school brasserie vibe of the place. And for dessert? A vanilla tarte we’d picked up from Pierre Herme, paired with a glass of wine and a movie – we were due for some veg time. Really, I should have spent the evening on the treadmill to counteract the 6,000 calories I consumed that day, but when in Paris…

After grabbing our morning croissant from a nearby boulangerie, we set out toward Notre Dame to enjoy the sunshiny day from the top of the towers. I had forgotten what a spectacular view you can get from up there – perched above the rooftops, smack dab in the middle of city, you can see most of Paris’ major monuments. Seeing the famous gargoyles up close is pretty fascinating, too – each one is different – some resemble birds, others are little gnome-like men, and my favorites are the dark little Gollom-like creatures.

After a lunch of roasted chicken and bouef bourginon at Les Philosophes (our favorite Marais cafe), we took the Metro to the Champs Elysses to do some walking. We gawked at the price tags in the Louis Vuitton windows, took a peek at the Arc de Triomphe, and had had enough of the grand boulevard – this is one area of Paris where I never quite feel at home, so I was happy to hang a left and head toward the river.

We stopped at Nouvel’s Musee du Quai Branly to admire the impressive green wall.

And because we once again found ourselves so close to the Eiffel Tower, we walked over to the Champs des Mars to lounge on the grass and enjoy the sunshine.

After a power-nap, I was ready to go again, so we walked over to the Pompidou (conveniently just one block from our apartment!) to do some art-gazing at my favorite museum. They are currently showing an exhibition of Edvard Munch’s work that is a-mazing – Shane walked out of there saying he had a new favorite artist. We spent an hour or two wandering the halls of the permanent collection and I visited a couple of old favorites, fondly remembering the days when I’d check out the museum every couple of weeks.

We had a great, although way-too-filling dinner of couscous and lamb at Chez Omar that night, happy that we were able to squeeze into one of their last tiny little tables before a line formed outside the door. We ended the night at the courtyard of the Louvre – these buildings are nothing short of majestic at night. And the sky was especially cool that night, dark with fluffy white clouds (props to Shane and the shot below – he’s a stud with our new little point-and-shoot!)

It’s easy to see why this is on Shane’s Paris-Top-3 list, isn’t it?

Time flies in France – I can’t believe how quickly the days change as our week in Paris slips through our fingers. But we’ve been making the most of each day, seeing the sights, eating the food, drinking the wine, and ultimately remembering that this trip is about restfully enjoying where we are.

After a morning visit to Du Pain et Des Idees on Wednesday morning for chocolate-pistachio pastries and ham-and-chevre breakfast buns, we took a walk down Canal St. Martin and then hopped on the Metro to spend a couple of hours walking through Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise. It might sound strange that one of my favorite places in this city is a cemetery, but truly, you haven’t seen the best of Paris until you’ve walked down the winding, tree-lined cobblestone streets on a sunny Fall day. We shuffled through the leaves, noting of the old, crumbling gravestones with dates from the 1800’s, and shiny new granite ones with dates from only a couple of years ago. There is so much character and history in this place.

After leaving Pere Lachaise, we did a little more walking around Belleville and then caught a train back to the Marais to grab a sandwich and rest our feet at a bench in a little plaza near the bakery. Shane headed back to the apartment after that, but I had a one-track mind and hopped back on the Metro with a mission:

Yes, eight brightly-colored, light and crispy, pretty little macaroons from Laduree. Macaroons are one of those foods I love to look at as much I as I love to eat (well, almost). We’re still working our way through all the flavors, but right now the front runner is the black currant violet. Or the salted caramel. Or the orange blossom. Ah, well, why play favorites?

Seeing as how Wednesday was Shane’s birthday (yes, we’ve both aged in style on this trip), we made plans at a nice bistrot in Montparnasse for dinner that night. And from the escargot to the tender fish to the chocolate tart and cheese plate for dessert, the evening was perfect. We left the restaurant and were surprised to turn a corner and see the Eiffel Tower just down the street, so rather than heading back to the Metro, we wound our way through the quiet streets and arrived at the tower just in time to catch it’s hourly sparkle.

We stood there for awhile and watched it shine, fitting right in with all the other cheesy couples that hug while gazing at Paris’s most famous monument, but I didn’t care – I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the birthday of my most favorite person.

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Today was a rainy day – perfect for sleeping in, hanging out at the Musee d’Orsay, cafe-sitting, doing a little shopping on Rivoli, and then having a warm, cozy dinner at a little creperie in Bastille. Creperie Bretonne was one heck of a find – homey and friendly, with crispy-edged, soft-in-the-middle buckwheat galettes and rich, chocolate-filled dessert crepes. Mmmm and hmmm…

While I was chowing down on my banana/chocolate/ice cream crepe, Shane was indulging in a little digestif – a cold, sugary absinthe pour.

We left the restaurant full, warm, and happy – the rain had stopped and we took a walk through the quiet streets. This city just glitters on a night like tonight.

Our apartment is just a couple blocks from the Seine and Ile de la Cite, so a quick stop by Notre Dame may easily become a nightly ritual this week.

Bonne nuit, Paris. Oh, and merci.

We’ve been in Paris for two days now, and all I can say is…I’m so happy. I don’t mean to get super-gushy and go all Franco-phile every time I talk about Paris, but I can’t help it – I just really, really love it here. As exciting and as fun as it is to see new places and experience foods and sights for the very first time, there’s also something really special about visiting old favorites. And so Shane and I have spent the last couple of days doing our favorite things in my favorite city.

Eating Berthillon ice cream along the banks of the Seine.

Standing the courtyard of the Louvre, gawking at its massive perfection.

Enjoying surprise sidewalk performances, like this little orchestra at the Palais Royale.

Gazing at Paris rooftops (I’m kind of obsessed).

Walking through the city at night.

Picnicking at the Jardin de Luxembourg,

and then watching the old men play bocce ball.

Drinking aperitifs at sidewalk cafes.

And generally loving life in the City of Light.

We arrived in Lyon on Friday afternoon, a little bummed about saying good-bye to Bruges, but looking forward to seeing what France had in store for us. From the moment we popped out of the train station, I was immediately taken aback by just how big the city is – people crowded the sidewalks, tall buildings dominated the skyline, streets were jammed with cars and buses and motorcycles. We definitely weren’t in small-town Belgium anymore… But I quickly got over my shock and after checking into our hotel, we set out to see what Lyon had to offer. We were hungry and looking to grab something quick; luckily, no one does a good, simple sandwich like the French do. We popped in Kayser bakery (this well-reputed chain has been taking France by storm), ordered a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches and a couple of tarts, and then found a spot in a nearby plaza to sit, eat, and people watch. I’ve missed the taste of a good tarte citron – nothing else like it…

Energized by our carb-heavy ‘snack’, we headed west and decided to tackle the hundreds of steps that lead up to Fourviere. After what felt like a never-ending climb, we finally reached the top and took in the view of the city in the evening sunlight. Lyon’s cityscape is so different from Paris’ – the red tile rooftops were an unexpected surprise.

The chapel of Notre Dame de Fourviere was amazing – I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything so incredibly ornate.

We began our descent as the sun set, winding our way through the narrow staircases and streets.

After doing a little more wandering, we headed in the direction of Brasserie Georges for dinner. We seen a recommendation to check out this ‘grand cafe’-style restaurant for good Lyonnaise cuisine. Sadly, I think our over-indulgent bakery visit earlier in the day had taken away much of our appetites… Still, we enjoyed our meal and a nice little chat with an older French couple at the table next to us. I boned up on my French and translated the gentleman’s tips for Shane on proper aperitifs and digestifs. By the time dinner ended, we were exhausted, so we scouted out a metro line that would take us back our hotel and fell into bed, stuffed and sleepy.

Our first stop on Saturday morning was the large indoor food market across the street from where we were staying. Row after row of cheese, meat (everything from cured sausages to entire rabbits, fur and all!), baked goods, jars of foie gras, delicate little chocolates and sweets…it was a sight to behold.

It was early and we weren’t quite ready to venture into stinky cheeses and pates, so we just grabbed a croissant and a yogurt and headed toward the river to find a place to eat. Oh, and I also snagged three perfect macaroons, since when in France, I have dessert after breakfast, lunch and dinner…

Shane had read the night before about a cluster of ancient Roman ruins up near Fourviere hill and wanted to check them out, so we headed back up (this time by tram) to see what we could find. We came across a large stone amphitheater and a number of crumbling old walls just behind the church we’d visited the night before. Some of this stonework was literally thousands of years old. Blows my mind.

Curiosity satisfied, we took another winding street down the hill and pointed ourselves south, walking along the Saone River.

I was interested in checking out the Lyon Confluence, an area near the converging Saone and Rhone rivers that is home to a lot of new architectural developments. It was quite an experience to able to walk from Roman ruins to rows of ultra-modern metal-and-glass condos.

This building in particular caught my eye (whose eye wouldn’t it catch?!). Funky, bright, patterned, and bold – I like it.

While I was having my little architectural geek-out, Shane was camped out on a bench in a nearby park – that warm Lyon sun, paired with the first Wifi signal we’d been able to find in France, and he wasn’t in any rush to go anywhere else.

However, we did have one last sight we wanted to see, and so we caught a tram to the north end of town to stroll through Parc de la Tete d’Or – Lyon’s largest park. And it was huuuuge, containing everything from English-style gardens, to ‘African plains’ containing giraffes and brightly colored birds, to wide-open expanses of bright green lawn. We camped out on the grass for awhile and watched the people go by.

Our day ended with dinner at Chez Jul, a little river-side restaurant with a tasty looking menu and an open table (after being turned away from three different restaurants for not having reservations, we were thrilled to find a place that could seat us). After hearing all the talk about Lyon being the culinary capitol of France, I felt a lot of pressure to partake in an earth-shattering meal. I ordered the duck, Shane ordered the fish, and I kept my fingers crossed. And the food was indeed good. But it wasn’t the meal to end all meals. I was disappointed for a moment, and then I remembered, I’m in France. And having a fabulous time with my very favorite person. Disappointment averted; it was still a great night. Oh, and for the record, the cheese plate we ordered for dessert was actually pretty killer.

We enjoyed a slow walk back to our room, taking in the view of the city at night. We’d be catching a train the next morning, so we said our au revoir’s to Lyon, reflecting on what a full day it had been.

Next stop: Paris. Yes.

We were up early on Thursday to eat at the B&B’s cozy little breakfast nook and plan out our only full day in Bruges. The town is small and completely walkable, so we left the agenda fairly loose and decided that we’d spend most of day just wandering, stopping for tea or beer or frites or waffles whenever we needed a break. Our plan did not disappoint – everything in Bruges, from the canals to the parks to the simple sight of a bike propped against an old brick wall, was just so…perfect.

As much as I enjoyed our aimless wandering with all its charming surprises, I did have one non-negotiable must-do item on my list: get chocolate. And not the stuff from one of the tourist-targeted ‘Choco-holic’ shops, but the extra-good stuff. Shane had done a little research and recommended that we walk a little ways off the beaten path and check out Spegelaere on Ezelstraat. We walked in and were immediately overwhelmed by the smell of rich, cocoa goodness and the sight of rows upon rows of carefully prepared bonbons and truffles and solid bars and little squares filled with all sorts of gooey surprises. I practiced an amazing amount of self-restraint and asked for just two small boxes of assorted goodies (although for a moment, I did do a quick mental inventory of my suitcase and wonder if I could throw away a pair of shoes or leave behind a couple of pairs of jeans for the sake of making space for sweets). I tore into the first box about a half a block from the store – and from the first, melty, liqueur-filled bite, I was hooked.

We had lunch at a little cafe and did a little more exploring – by late afternoon, I felt like we’d walked down almost every street in the town center. We had seen our share of quaint street fronts and picturesque stretches of canal and were ready for a new perspective.

And so we headed over the church at the town square and bought our tickets to climb the 360 steps to the top of the tower. By the time we reached the lookout, I was breathless and tired, but the views from up there made the effort well worth it.

We left the church knowing that we had just a precious hour or two of sunshine left in the day, so we wound our way over to Minnewater Park for one last stroll, soaking in the gorgeous Autumn evening.

That last tour-de-Bruges left us tired and thirsty, and so we were happy to score a couple of chairs at a crowded cafe terrace from which we could catch the day’s last rays of sun and sip on some Belgian elixirs.

We ended the day with a romantic dinner at de Bottelier, a homey canal-side restaurant near our B&B. We shared a plate of pasta and a delicious regional baked fish dish, topped with tomatoes and peppers and all kinds of herbs. We drank wine and shared our thoughts and impressions of tiny Bruges. The verdict, out of 10 stars? A solid 11.

A three-hour train ride brought us to Bruges on Wednesday. We were thrilled to be in the land of chocolate, beer, and crispy frites – I couldn’t imagine a place more well-suited to our tastes. We rolled our suitcases through the winding, cobblestone streets and made our way to our bed and breakfast, a little bummed by the rain that seemed to have followed us from Amsterdam, but struck by the beauty of this old, frozen-in-time town. We checked into our perfect room at Speelmansrei B&B and then headed back out in search of a pre-dinner snack. Our noses led us to the frites stand at the market square, and then, in a moment of sheer glory, the clouds parted and the sun began to shine on charming Bruges.

We wanted to throw up our arms and dance in the middle of the crowded square, but instead chose to dart toward the canal and see if we could snag a spot on one of the town’s boat tours. Within 30 minutes, we were seated in a little motor boat with several other sun-giddy tourists, and we were off. There are not words to describe the beauty of Bruges. Shoot, there are hardly photos to describe the beauty of Bruges. But this is our best shot:

We hopped off the boat with “is this place for real?” grins plastered across our faces, eager to check out more of the town. It felt like every corner we turned revealed some new picture-perfect setting.

Luck (or tourists’ intuition?) led us to a perfect little bridge just in time to watch the sun set over the canal. There was no one else around and we felt like this magical scene belonged just to us – I’m tucking that evening away in the never-ever-forget memory bank.

After watching the sky drain of its color, we walked over to Cambrinus for dinner – Shane read about this place online and was immediately sold when he heard that their beer menu boasts over 400 selections. I didn’t believe it, until they handed us the novel that is their beer list and we saw the endless rows of bottles stocked in cases behind the bar. I froze in a moment of option-overload and just ordered a glass of the draft blonde, but Shane asked for a recommendation and ended up with a bottle of Malheur – one sip of its rich, caramel-toned goodness and he had decided he was drinking the best beer ever.

We dined on a giant bucket of steamed mussels, paired with onion soup and another round of beer. Life is so, so good.

And to think that our first six hours in Bruges were just a taste of what the following day would hold (stay tuned)…