francophile-ing away the memories: the massif central and grenoble

When we left Paris, we rented a chic¬†Citro√ęn C4 Picasso minivan, or as they would call it in Europe, a compact multi-purpose vehicle. It was standard transmission and diesel, and Eli enjoyed driving it so much that we were scheming ways to sneak a¬†Citro√ęn back into the US with us when we returned home.

We headed straight south for the Massif Central, as we had only three days before we would be dropping our MPV off in Grenoble. We limited our time in the Massif Central to the Auvergne region, given that it was time that was limiting us. Upon arrival in the mountains, it was rainy and foggy and we couldn’t really see much of anything. We skipped ascending the¬†Puy de D√īme, since there clearly wouldn’t be much gained by doing that. Just south of the town of Le Mont-Dore, we got a bit lost as Google had tried routing us to the top of the Puy de Sancy, but although we tried our best, there was no driving up a ski mountain.

Our next attempt netted us a big-time winner. Our cycling book recommended trying the cheese in the nearby town of Besse. So try the cheese we did. We bought half a wheel of Saint-Nectaire, and ate it in only two sittings, I think. Maybe three. As Wikipedia affirms, “the cheese can go along with any kind of meal.” Truth.

France for me was all about the cheese. I think Eli would agree with me that it was one of the highlights of our trip. With practically every small village having their own specialty or take on the regional cheese, we could easily spend the rest of our lives in pursuit of trying them all. That would be an honorable pursuit.

By the time we found ourselves a stopping place for the night, several kilometers down the road and many calories of cheese down the hatch, the skies had pretty well cleared. This set us up nicely the next day for a gorgeous view of the surrounding countryside from the summit of the Puy Mary. While we saw many cyclists suffering their way to the top of the Pas de Peyrol, we took the easy option of the car, before breezing past the hordes of similarly car-bound tourists struggling up the ten minute quick sprint to the top of the Puy Mary.

At the top, we ate our favorite junk food of the trip, Belgix sugar waffles. We had first heard about sugar, or li√®ge,¬†waffles¬†on a Sporkful podcast, and were elated to find them at Lidl stores across Germany and France. As I sit and type about them I’m finding myself craving them more strongly than I was craving mac n cheese on our return to the States. I’ve been lucky to not really have any cravings (other than all the usual ones) during my pregnancy, and this is more of a sign that it’s tea time for me at the moment, but damn, I could really go for a sugar waffle right now — or a whole pack of eight. One day soon I’ll have to make them here at home. Meanwhile, I’ll eat five seven Biscoff cookies.

We took the scenic route on the way over to Grenoble, passing through farm country and lots of sunny small towns, including the fascinating Le Puy-en-Velay, shown above with the perched chapel. We didn’t take the time to stop and sightsee, although I wish we had. At least the internet can teach me that this chapel-on-a-rock is Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe, built on a volcanic plug 280 feet tall way back in 969 AD. Of all the towns we passed through on our trip, Le Puy-en-Velay may have been the most scenic, though this in part may have been due to it being so unexpected a sight. If a town wasn’t listed in our cycling book, chances were we knew absolutely nothing about it. Which made for a lot of wonderful discoveries.

And just like that, our brief time in the MPV was over, we had reached Grenoble, and it was time to split up.

Eli had been planning a solo overnight endeavor into the Alps for some time, using a route from our cycling book that ventured across several of the classic climbs from the Tour de France. He set out without the majority of his gear, so while he must have felt like he was flying, he was still a heavyweight on his steel bike compared to the endless parade of gram-shaving carbon aficionados that he saw on his two-day trek.

I remember hearing about how dirty Grenoble was when I lived in France in 2007. I think that descriptor is appropriate, as much of the city did seem pretty grimy. But Grenoble is more than that. It was in a really beautiful location, a basin with breathtaking mountainous views in nearly every direction. It takes mere minutes to hike up and out of the busy town on the north side of the Isère River, with continued climbing quickly being rewarded with beautiful views, ramparts, a fort, and caves Рthe Grottes de Mandrin shown below.

Eli wasn’t the only one to go for a solo bike jaunt. I embarked on what I dubbed Baby’s First Bike Ride, because even though it was too soon to confirm my pregnancy, I KNEW. Or at least, I strongly suspected. Or at the very least, I hoped. But I knew.

I headed north from town into the Chartreuse Natural Regional Park, and tried to stick to a grueling (for me) pace as I climbed for what felt like forever to the summit of the Col de Porte, which has also been a featured climbing stage of the Tour de France, and should not be confused with the Col de Port in the Pyrenees (another Tour stage… which we later climbed –¬†stay tuned). It was so freeing to bike without being loaded down with my gear, but after all that saddle time with the extra weight, it was also strange and I felt somewhat wobbly.

Waiting for me at the top of the Col de Porte was a very welcome restaurant, and I fell hard for a big plate of fish and chips, and even harder for the two baskets of bread that I also consumed. Cans of Coca Cola were a frequent splurge for us in the mid-to-late summer stage of our bike tour, and my ability to drink so much of it surprised me given that I had always despised Coke. No longer.

My downhill return to Grenoble was a blast, and I cruised as comfortably fast as I would allow myself. After all, I was cycling for two now, and I had to at least be a little bit thoughtful. No more crashes.

So while I was having fun, Eli was having a blast. While the scenery I was experiencing was really pretty, his was jaw-dropping. Check out a few of the photos from his solo bike:

I did suffer a bit without him, though. I ate cheese with mustard for dinner. Cheese cut into triangles. Fancy!

Once reunited, we left Grenoble headed south and then west towards the lower part of the Massif Central, the C√©vennes. On our way, we saw a gorgeous gorge, and lots and lots of walnuts. Walnuts and walnut oil are a staple crop of the¬†Rh√īne-Alpes region, and I can confirm that they were especially delicious in a walnut tart that we savored along the way. Mmm, Baby’s First Walnut Tart.

francophile-ing away the memories: paris

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We rolled through Paris at the start of last August.¬†Throughout our bike trip, our most consistent navigational struggles (and wasted hours) involved finding our way into city centers from the countryside. There was either not enough signage – common – or too much signage – also common. So when it came to Paris, I wasn’t willing to waste half a day ¬†getting frustrated trying to find our way into town. We took a train from the Champagne-Ardenne city of Reims, a very nice place with loads of delicious affordable champagne that is unusually hard to pronounce if you are a confused American (think Rance… or Reams if you’re British and don’t give a shit about how other cultures pronounce things).

Before Paris, we had finished up a quick jaunt¬†that found¬†us biking¬†from Germany -> Luxembourg -> Belgium -> France in the space of a day or so, much of which was in the pouring rain. We had camped overnight in a weird wet forest in Belgium, after eating dinner in an overly-priced overly-fancy Chinese restaurant in Luxembourg, and failing to find a dry place to spend the night. While in the weird wet forest, our nightly tent entertainment of a Game of Thrones episode was interrupted by some dude walking by on the main road, intermittently yelling loudly. At us? We’ll never know. But it creeped me out.

Once in Paris, our prime objective was to dry out all our wet nasty gear. Luckily our cute little Airbnb, which faced the¬†√Čglise Saint-Sulpice in the 6th Arrondissement, had a washing machine and four functional windows that let us air out our clothes, our tent, our stinky shoes, our sleeping bags, and whatever else I’ve since forgotten about.
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I love Paris. I love the energy, and the Frenchiness, and all the delicious everything, the artwork, the general faded coloring of the buildings, the hordes of tourists who make it impossible to do anything if you show up somewhere after¬†9am. To be fair, we were there in August, busy tourist time. We had chosen to to arrive in France when we did to avoid potential Tour de France traffic, which can be crippling if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. But August is the month of vacations for everyone. While tourists flood into Paris, many Parisians make gallant escapes out of the city for much of the month. This means that of the beaucoup¬†chocolate shops and renowned¬†p√Ętisseries that I hoped to visit, most of the smaller ones were sadly closed.

François Pralus was wide open, so we visited and left with a Chuao chocolate bar and one of their famous pralulines Рa buttery brioche studded with rose sugar-coated almond and hazelnut pralines. I was over the moon.



We visited the Catacombs of Paris, which I had tried to visit in a past life before iPhones and constant internet, and had shown up on the wrong day when they were closed. After waiting in a miserable line at the Eiffel Tower for 90 minutes without any sign of anyone being admitted (due I think to a suspicious package terror incident the day before), we abandoned ship and made our way to Catacombs, where a 2+ hour admittance line greeted us. I didn’t really mind the wait, I knew it would be worthwhile. Eli grabbed us some sandwiches from a Paul bakery across the street, and we chatted a bit with some friendly British women on holiday from London for the weekend who were next to us in the line.

And sure enough, the Catacombs were spectacular. If endless piles of artfully-placed human remains are your thing, plan a visit of your own. The climate in the tunnels makes for a nice change from a sunny August day, another perk.


Whether eating in or dining out, we ate so very well while in Paris. I couldn’t get enough of the charcuterie and soft cheeses, paired with fresh tomato and cucumber, olives, and quality french butter, and topped off with several bottles of bubbly that we had purchased in Reims, as well as the dregs of a bottle of peach liqueur from the Mosel River area in Germany.

We had our share of mini French coffees, giant salads, more baguettes, and more soft cheeses.

There was a Pierre Hermé shop mere blocks from our Airbnb, and I waited in a lengthy line there before interacting with a charismatic yet condescending employee who was frustrated that I needed two minutes to decide on the eight flavors of overpriced macarons that I wanted to try. Of the Fall-Winter 2016 collection, standouts included the Jasmine Flower & Jasmine Tea, Fresh Mint & Red Berries, Lemon & Flaky Hazelnut Praline, as well as their signature Salted-Butter Caramel. And yes, I kept the flavor card that they gave me with my purchase, so that I could accurately reference these tiny confections over half a year later.





Of all the fine dining, the highlight for me was dinner at Huguette, Bistro de la mer, a seafood restaurant in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, again just blocks from our Airbnb. We split a bottle of crisp white wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, which apparently is now known as Occitanie (since the end of September 2016). We feasted on two varieties of oysters, as well as cockles, clams, and shrimp. It was an incredible, truly memorable meal.

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We did the art thing a bit too. We visited the¬†Mus√©e d’Orsay and the¬†Mus√©e de¬†l’Orangerie, primarily for the Impressionist paintings. It’s insane how cell phones have transformed art galleries. Everywhere we went, people were taking endless photos like the apocalypse was about to arrive, crowding each other and shoving their phones as far forward as they could to capture every masterpiece. I took a few pictures, mostly of the few I unexpectedly¬†loved and the uglier paintings that made me laugh (see top painting, above).

When it was time to depart Paris, we rented a minivan, shoved our bikes and gear into the back, and ventured south towards the mountains, with the first stop being a stroll around the grounds of Fontainebleau. This last picture makes me smile, as I was so slim and fit, and I could still wear those pants, my favorite pair of Silver corduroys that have since bit the dust. We took one final wonderful memory away from Paris, which set the tone for the rest of our trip and largely explains why I fell off the radar and have failed to blog again until now. We conceived a child, a child which has since spent the better part of 2,000 miles riding along with me on a bicycle, has been sick with me on a dozen-plus ferry rides, has made a transatlantic flight back home, and is now seven weeks or so away from sprouting into a unique little lass of her own.

Paris je t’aime.

german and determined


Germany was beautiful. And it was just as much a cycling Mecca as sources had led us to believe prior to our arrival. There are cycling routes everywhere, and they are all well-labeled. I would go so far as to say there are even too many labeled routes, as the propensity to label everything tended to leave us wholly unprepared outsiders confused and lost due to the endless route options. With better information on the cycling routes, or preferably a map, we would have better known what was up.

The most thrilling part of cycling these German routes, for both of us, was hands down the varied terrain of the cycling network. We pedaled over the freshest, smoothest Tarmac. We passed oak logs piled down along a muddy double track forest road. We snaked our way across country lanes, through a narrow rooty single track in an ancient woodland, and perhaps most memorably, across several miles of rural road that was pure sand and nearly impossible to traverse. I’m grateful to Eli for having the foresight to purchase the Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires that have seen us across 6000 km of riding without a flat between the two of us. The tires are heavy, thick, and have proven to be boss hogs. 

We saw as much in Germany as we could within our travel timeframe of just over two weeks. We arrived in mid-July and set our sights on the city of Braunschweig. We had never heard of Braunschweig (Brunswick in English) before meeting a German family while in Sweden who invited us to stay with them at their home were we to pass through. So we made Braunschweig a destination, which proved to be the best decision we made on the entire trip, as we spent several welcoming days and nights with this family, learning about German culture and customs, and also learning importantly that chanterelle mushrooms are called pfifferlinge in German — and they are just as delicious as they are at home.

Germany was about currywurst, and Bitburger beer, and the search for the perfect cream puff, and our continued obsession with waffles.  We spent a whirlwind day in Berlin without the bikes, where my favorite activity was downing massive plates of deliciousness at The Sp√§tzle Club, and my least favorite activity was watching Trump’s live confirmation as the 2016 Republican nominee for prez.


After leaving our friendly Germany family, we headed west towards D√ľsseldorf, and then to K√∂ln (Cologne). Our stop in Cologne was an eye-opening few days, and I think we visited more museums there than we have on the rest of the trip. Cologne was a large Roman outpost in ancient times, founded in the 1st century AD and formerly known as the mouthful that is Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium. One of their principal industries was glassmaking, and the region was prolific. The amount of glass that has survived intact for that many years just floors me,  and the care that must have been taken when excavating these pieces at archeological digs to keep them in one piece? It’s truly remarkable.

Cologne was heavily bombed during WWII, with 95% of the city center destroyed, but the city has recovered beautifully. I can’t recommend the Cologne museums enough, and so much has miraculously survived the destruction. The Wallraf-Richartz Museum is a compact art museum with (too) many religious paintings and a lovely collection of Impressionist-era works. I love art museums small enough for me to see everything without succumbing to exhaustion. The R√∂misch-Germanisches Museum contains relics dating back to the city’s founding, including the aforementioned large collection of glassworks, as well as an ancient mosaic from Roman times still in its original location, old jewelry, pottery, stone tablets, and a hell of a lot more. Three hours passed quickly while we explored the museum.  My favorite stop was at the Arch√§ologische Zone, underneath the historic town hall (Rathausplatz), which houses the partially excavated Praetorium. The Praetorium was home base to the Imperial Governor of CCAA back in Roman times, although if I’m remembering correctly there are building remnants that predate Roman times. Archeological excavation is ongoing at the present time, although what they’ve already unearthed is fabulous, and walking through the ruins gave me a great sense of what used to exist. Signage in English is sparse at times, which is the only downside. This museum also houses more glass, pottery, mosaics, and other finds from the dig onsite.


From Cologne we headed south along the Rhine River. Suddenly we were surrounded by hordes of cycle tourists, including a granny who passed me and left me feeling disappointed in myself until I realized she was riding an e-bike. There were so many cyclists that the campground in Koblenz herded us all into a small patch of turf rather than allowing us individual sites, resulting in us having neighbors mere feet away on all sides. And hilariously, by the time we leisurely rose at 8:30 or so the next morning, most of them had already packed up and gone.

Off of the Rhine we continued our up-river stroll, this time on the Mosel River. Surrounded by vineyards and ripening grapes, we succumbed to an alluring guesthouse/restaurant and spent the better part of a day enjoying the fruits of their labor, while watching a constant stream of spandex-clad fit people cycle past on rented tandem bicycles. 


If there’s one thing I’m glad we’re not doing on this trip, it’s riding a tandem bike.