Saturday, September 2, 2017

2015: Laure's Surprise Birthday Destination: Colmar, France and Freiburg, Germany

One month until the little one was due to arrive meant that we had just enough time to make one more weekend trip. And this is my favorite type of trip; the mystery birthday trip. Q had a tall order to fill - finding somewhere interesting within driving distance (no flying this late in the pregnancy), and preferably somewhere we hadn't been before. He came up with a full extended weekend for us.
Road trip route.

First stop, Colmar, France

We had been to Colmar once before, early in the spring before the tourist season began. What a mistake. The whole place was deserted, shops were closed, the weather was cold and gloomy, and whole vibe of the town was utterly depressing. We ate lunch and immediately drove back home. We knew it must be better during the tourist season so we vowed to return.
Cold, windy, and deserted.

As expected, everything was much nicer in June. The streets were lively with tourists, flowers throughout were in spring bloom, the weather was bright and warm, and the shops were open. The small medieval town was a joy to wonder through. Since this is one of the few towns that escaped the bombing of the WW2, the center of town feels like you are transported back in time.
Not overrun with tourists but the place felt warm and cheerful.

We spent one night in the small town and were able to see many of its highlights. We had a few delicious meals and used the Rick Steves France book's self guided walking tour to get a feel for town and see its highlights.
Tucked away in the middle of the block, we found this amazing garden restaurant.
The largest lunch portion burger and potatoes I have ever seen. The baby and I tried but couldn't finish all this food.
The center of Colmar felt like a fairy tale village.
Historically this was the tanner's street.

Next stop, Freiburg, Germany

Just as spring rain shower arrived, we were on our way to Germany. We couldn't have planned the timing any better. During our drive, sheets of rain were coming down so fiercely that all cars on the autobahn were moving at a snail's pace - a bizarre sight to see on a road that doesn't have a speed limit.

Freiburg is a quaint small city with a young college feel. There isn't much to see besides the main Church/Minster but what little there was to discover we learned through the self guided tour in the Rick Steves Germany book. We're big Rick Steves fans if you couldn't tell.
Liking the young vibe in the Tapas Bar.
The Freiburg Minster is so large, I couldn't find a spot in the square to capture the whole building.
In the old town, the entrance to shops had their floor entrance decorated with its line of business.

By the early evening, the rain had stopped and everyone returned to the center of town to enjoy the warm spring night. We spent on evening wondering the historic center and soaking in the lively atmosphere.
Beer Garden in the center of the old town.

Side trip, The Black Forest

This day was originally planned as a lite hiking day but mother nature had other plans for us. With scattered rain showers throughout the day, we decided it would be best to do some joy riding through the black forest, visit the German Clock Museum, pop into a Ski Museum, and have a piece of black forest cake from several different bakeries.
Original ski touring equipment.
An unexpected find during our drive. The museum is housed in a cute chalet and housed more than we expected.
The coolest low tech alarm clock I have ever seen.
Blown away with the collection of Cuckoo clocks
Naturally, every bakery we stopped in had the Black Forest cake and each were delicious.
Another bakery, another cake to try.
And another.

I hate to say it but we were underwhelmed by how little we saw driving through the southern portion of the black forest. It was like a forest could have been almost anywhere; nothing too special. We would occasionally pass through a German village (and stop in a café for another piece of black forest cake) but no village was super charming. Perhaps this region is best enjoyed on a hiking trail rather than on the road.
Not too interesting but the roads were very well maintained.
One of the more interesting stretches of road.
Paying our parking ticket. Hehe, it says "Gute Fahrt!"

Friday, March 10, 2017

Paris with a bump

We couldn't resist one more kid free trip to Paris with friends. So once again we booked train tickets to the city of lights for a long weekend. I always thought of Paris as a place for young couple taking romantic walks, not wobbling pregnant ladies but Paris proved me wrong. I would even go as far as suggesting Paris as a possible babymoon destination.
Eight months and counting.

Like many of our trips to Paris, our plans involved a little bit of sightseeing, eating cuisine we can't find back in Switzerland, and shopping. Thanks to the low Euro value, it was perfect for stocking up on maternity/nursing clothes and baby gear.
Like many trip before, Vélib' was our preferred way of travel.

We decided this was a good time to finally visit the Louvre and the Orsay Museum. Who knows if our little one was going to be able to tolerate visits to the museum - so it was either now or maybe in 15 years. Soon after Q and I got to the security line at the Louvre, we were led by security to the front of the line. Turns out pregnant ladies and their partners get to skip the line! At the Orsay, we were led to the priority line! Even at the Bastille Sunday Market, I was waved by a vendor to the front of the line to buy produce. And at a busy espresso bar, with stand up counters, an employee of the shop offered me her stool. People even offered me their seat on the Metro. I thought Parisians never give up their seats on the Metro. Who knew the French have a soft spot for pregnant ladies?
Saved hours thanks to the bump.

No one pulled out the red carpet for me once we got inside the Louvre - I still had to elbow my way to the front of the ever present mob to see the Mona Lisa. We kept our museum visits short and focused. In our usual fashion, we followed the Rick Steves free audio guide through the Louvre and the Orsay, hitting the major highlights. His self guided tours are meant to roughly be one hour long, which is as much culture we could fully digest at a time.

We enjoyed seeing the highlights of the Louvre but really enjoyed the Orsay. The Orsay is in an old train station and many of its original architectural details can still be found throughout the museum. The main view greeting the visitors definitely left an impression on us. Our favorite floor would have the be the Impressionist Gallery on the top floor. That floor changed us into Impressionist fans.
It's either now or who knows when.
One is never too young for the fine arts.

Something Q might be a little embarrassed of is that when I go to Paris, I go shopping.... for American items. I always stock up on granola (which is almost as good as what I can get in San Francisco) and pick up a few other hard to find items like aluminum free baking powder, specialty baking supplies, and make-up. Sometime I even go to the GAP to feel like I'm back in the US.
It might be overpriced but it's cheaper than a flight to the US.

We also eat closer to our US diet in Paris. Burgers are all the rage and so is brunch. We also got some decent ramen. But of course we left room for great french food and drinks - virgin drinks for me.
American sized brunch.
Hard to find places like this in Switzerland.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Lyon: the so-called capital of gastronomy

In the last few years, I had heard rumors about a city that some claim to be the gastronomy capital of the world: Lyon, France. This is the type of rumor that calls for some on-the-ground fact checking.

So last May, Laure and I met up with our good friends Andy and Sarah to check out the food scene. We also sprinkled in with some sight seeing. At that point, Laure was pretty far into her pregnancy, and this trip worked out really well for us.
Lyon's old town, a.k.a. "Vieux-Lyon"

Our apartment in the Old Town ("Vieux-Lyon")

As usual, we tried to stay as centrally located as possible. After some research, I found the two promising areas:
  • the old town Vieux-Lyon that has cute historic buildings and narrow cobblestone streets but is a bit touristy, and
  • the newer downtown Presqui'Ile, which many argue is the real heart the city where many of the locals hang out nowadays
We finally decided to stay at the old town so we could immerse ourselves in the fantasy of living in a snapshot of the past.
Our awesome little apartment in the old town.
Getting some R&R before we head out.

In hindsight, we found ourselves coming back often to the up-and-coming restaurants of the Croix-Rousse neighborhood, which is located up on a hill with some nice views and less crowds. On our next visit, I would be tempted to make that our home base.


A bouchon is the title of certified traditional restaurants in Lyon where you can find traditional local dishes for a decent price. I've read that many of these bouchons have become tourist traps, but with some research, I believe (or hope) we were able to avoid those.

We had our first lunch at a bouchon named Le Bistrot de Saint Jean. It was a super casual place with friendly service.
Le Bistrot de Saint Jean
Quenelle is a fish dumpling in a Béchamel based sauce.
I thought it was a bit heavy for lunch!

My overall favorite traditional dish from Lyon was the Lyonnaise Salad. At first, I didn't bother paying much attention to it because it's "just" a salad. For that reason, I didn't even bother taking a photo. But as we realized how heavy most other traditional dishes are during our trip, the salad became a staple for many of our meals. I haven't been able to find it outside of Lyon, but it should be fairly easy to make it at home.
The Lyonnaise Salad became my favorite traditional dish from Lyon.
Photo credit: recipe by Sara Kate Gillingham

Miniature and Cinema Museum (Musée Miniature et Cinéma)

Although we didn't want to make our trip about museums, there was one that piqued my interest: Musée Miniature et Cinéma. It turned out to be a worthwhile visit. The museum contains many boxes of miniature sets with amazing detail. I recommend checking it out when you are in the old town.
These half-meter long miniature sets contained amazing details.
Even the lighting is done very well.
Miniature set of the museum in Jurassic Park.
There were several of these restaurant sets. Even the tiny guitar looks real.
Here is another miniature restaurant.
Just kidding, that was actually a photo of...

Le Comptoir du Vin

For our first dinner, we decided to go to Le Comptoir du Vin, which is a small down-to-earth restaurant run by a chef named Daniel Perrier in a tiny kitchen with the help of a single waiter. We were surprised at the gigantic portion sizes, which we struggled to finish considering that traditional Lyonnaise food was not so light.
The massive beef tartar at Le Comptoir du Vin.

After dinner, we walked around Lyon and watched the crowds on the bustling Friday night. We came across a cool fountain statue named Fontaine Bartholdi by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who also designed the statue of liberty.
The horses of Fontaine Bartholdi look like they are snorting steam out of their noses.

Farmer's market and cappuccino at Presqu'île

We started our second day by checking out the farmer's market at Presqu'île, which is the heart of the new town area.
Farmer's market at Presqu'île
This was the first time I found macarons at a "farmer's" market!

If you've travelled with me and Laure, then you know that we like to start our day with a good cappuccino. We typically read a few blog posts written by coffee fanatics in order to find the best spots for coffee. In Lyon, the choices are much more limited than other metropolitan cities like Paris that have more quickly embraced the espresso coffee trend. But one place that stood above all others was Mokxa cafe.
Mokxa cafe provided a decent cappuccino.

Traboules du Vieux Lyon

Another cool touristy thing to do in the old town are the Traboules du Vieux Lyon. The traboules are labyrinthine paths through the old town that residents used to access the river and silk workers used to transport their silk without getting wet. During World War 2, some members of the Resistance against the Nazis used traboules to escape the Gestapo.

Traboules du Vieux Lyon

We found most traboules using our guidebook, but you can probably find a full map of them somewhere online.

Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse

Now is as good of a time as any to talk about the legendary local chef Paul Bocuse, who is no doubt part of the reason some regard Lyon as the capital of gastronomy. Bocuse played a significant role in a then-new style of cooking named nouvelle cuisine back in the 60's. He has also taught many other very influential chefs that made their own marks in culinary history. Nowadays, many things in Lyon are named after Bocuse including...
Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse

Les Halles is an indoor market place in the center of town with many high quality food stalls. We took this opportunity to buy picnic ingredients including cured meats and cheeses.
We got good recommendations for our picnic cheeses.

Les Halles also has a few small restaurants serving prepared food. We took this opportunity to indulge in escargot and wine.
Buttery escargot.

La Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière

After a quick nap, we took a funicular up to a popular basilica on the hill overlooking the old town.
Andy and Sarah...
and Laure and I at Place de Fourvière.
The basilica is ridiculously over the top flaunting the wealth of the Catholic church.

After snapping a few photos and checking out the basilica, we found a park bench where we could enjoy the goodies we bought at Les Halles market.
Picnic at the park.
Good food with great friends.


Lyon has some pretty cool murals throughout the city that are worth visiting. Going "mural hunting" also gives you an excuse to explore different the city. And if you're not paying attention, you may overlook them for being real architecture -- especially at night!
La Fresque des Lyonnais is the most famous mural. Unsurprisingly, it features Paul Bocuse.
Laure outside a nearby bistro.

My favorite mural is the Mur des Canuts, which celebrates the silk workers (or "canuts") in the neighborhood of Croix Rousse. This mural is especially realistic at night because they use real lights to highlight the corresponding lights in the painting. The mural is updated periodically to match the surrounding changes made to the neighborhood.
Mur des Canuts is especially realistic at night.

Le Canut et Les Gones

On our second night, we dined at Le Canut et Les Gones, which turned out to provide our overall favorite meal in Lyon. This cozy and thoughtfully decorated restaurant offers deliciously tasting and beautifully presented dishes.
Salmon as a perfect cuboid.
Juicy duck.

What I liked about Le Canut et Les Gones is how its dishes highlighted each individual flavor of the ingredients. In contrast, other restaurants with more traditional dishes usually merged a lot of flavors into a powerful combination, which is less interesting in large quantities.
I think this was an Ile Flottante, but I don't see the custard underneath.

So, is Lyon really the capital of gastronomy?

I don't believe any single city can really hold the title as the capital of gastronomy. Different cities have different specialties, and different people have different tastes.

That being said, Lyon offers hearty traditional dishes as well as more sophisticated modern dining at a nice budget. If you want to get fancy, there is also Paul Bocuse's legendary restaurant that has consistently received three Michelin stars for over 50 years. But you're more likely to find us at Le Canut et Les Gones instead.