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 Église 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 pâtisseries 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 – a 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.


We did the art thing a bit too. We visited the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée 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 Spätzle 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 Düsseldorf, and then to Köln (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 Römisch-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 Archäologische 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.

one day in copenhagen

I enjoyed four hours’ worth of torture so much yesterday while prepping my Swedish post that I decided to repeat the performance today. Much to my relief, the wifi was loads better, as was my intelligence when deciding how to upload the images. Meaning I didn’t have to upload each one three times. And so, all about our day trip to Copenhagen, which I’m excited to write about as it lets me reminisce on this fair city.

Copenhagen may possibly be the most enticing city to stroll through, at least of the large cities that I’ve visited (which are but a few). Modern Scandinavian architecture and buildings of all colors blend in well with the old. Church spires, and other sorts of spires too, entice from every corner, and each one is different. Each one is alluring, and we were drawn to them, forced to their bases by some sort of invisible magnetism. The one pictured above was my favorite; those creatures holding the spire up are but one of the reasons why I love this building. Such a curvy peculiar spire. I was able to find out what this building was called by going on the Maps apps on my iPad and doing a cool 3D flyover of the city. Do this yourself to feel the magnetic pull of the spires! Doooo it. 

This is the Børsen building, and it was built from 1618-1624 by King Christian IV. It was used as a commodity exchange center, and was once a place to go and be seen. According to the building’s website, the King’s soldiers could shut down trade if they wanted to “by marching through the building with drums and pipes.” And written records were kept of the merchants complaining about “loud people and drunken sailors.” Et voilà.

There seemed to be more bicycles than people in Scandinavia. The first photo in the above quartet was actually in Sweden, at the Malmö train station as we were locking up our bikes to take the train to Copenhagen. You are seeing free of charge two-tiered bicycle storage for commuters. And there was only one free space available! We had to lock our bikes to a railing.

After our near fiasco searching for trains that accept bikes in Sweden, it was nice to see trains that were clearly marked and showing that bikes are permissible onboard. In the third photo, another shot of a bike mob in a square in Copenhagen (please also note the very nice spire in the background). I kept taking flicks of large bike conglomerates, I just couldn’t get over it.

And in the last photo above, we stumbled across a trio of improv theater performers in a public garden in the early evening. We couldn’t understand anything that they were saying, but I don’t think that mattered much; I think much of what they were saying wasn’t proper Danish either. The theme of the performance was – how apropos – drunken sailors, or wannabe sailors, and a fancy smirky lady who makes herself known to the fellows and moves into the boat next door. Hijinks ensue. We didn’t stay until the end as we had a train to catch, but for zero comprehension, we laughed quite a bit, and really enjoyed watching. It’s those random little moments about traveling that I get so much satisfaction from.

We walked about endlessly through the city. My feet were definitely overtired by the end of the day, they hurt now just thinking about that day. For everything we saw, there were two or three ‘important’ touristy things that we missed I’m sure. We looked up dim sum restaurants, but the reviews were somewhat unkind and so we decided to skip that and choose something we stumbled across. Wellll, we stumbled across one of the dim sum places I had looked at, and I shouldn’t have heeded the reviews, because the food was pretty great. 

Magasasa was located in a somewhat salty warehouse district that was verging on overly trendy. The decor was sparse but welcoming, as was the waitress. I was most impressed by the availability of pu-erh tea on the menu (one of four options), and while the food took a while to arrive, it was cooked fresh for us and it arrived piping hot. I particularly loved the shrimp toast, or Sprød Toast Sandwich, pictured above. The Gou Bu Li Boller, minced pork and spring onion buns, were delicious too. And predictably, I also loved their Siu Mai and Har Gao, but that will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever eaten dim sum with me. Give me shrimps or give me other shrimps. Do not deny me shrimps.

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to take pictures of current or upcoming movies. It dates the trip, and makes it fun to look back on several years down the road and recall where I was when I saw the poster, and whether or not I subsequently saw the movie and if I saw it in a different place. 

When I visited France with my mum in 2003, that movie was Terminator 3, or Terminator Trois: le Soulèvement des Machines. When I lived in France in 2007, it was The Number 23, or Le Nombre 23. Jim Carrey’s creepy face will forever live in my memory floating somewhere around Montpellier. I never saw either of those movies but those are standout memories of my travels.

And so far on this trip, we’ve seen lots of movie options. Will it be Jason Bourne that lives in my memory? Tarzan? Probably not, because both of these are the same in English as they are in other languages. It may be Independence Day: Resurgence, which in Germany was Indepence Day: Wiederkehr. We even went and saw it while we were in Germany, although we understood even less than we did at the Danish improv performance. The only words I could comprehend were “OHHH MYYYYY GODDDDD,” which were conveniently left in English when dubbed.

Anyway, back to Copenhagen. It was lovely, and we had a great time. It was perfect for a day trip, and we whittled away the 500 Danish krone (75 USD) that we took out of an ATM for the day no problem. We even had enough for beers, and then other beers, and then a post-beer crepe and waffle. And then it was farvel Scandinavia.