Provence comme “A Good Year”

bnThe film where Russell Crowe plays a British investment broker who inherits his uncle’s chateau in Provence is one of our favourite movies. We like it for the laid back atmosphere and the lifestyle associated with living in Provence, all the while being surrounded by nature. Despite visiting the provençal region twice before, this was the first time that Gareth and I felt we were finally seeing la vrai Provence, comme au film. Maybe finally seeing rolling hills of lavender had a lot to do with it!  Believe it or not, we somehow managed to miss lavender season in both our previous trips to Provence!

Driving through Valensole, an area known for its lavender fields, I couldn’t help but get excited as we saw field after field of this plant at every turn.  The pictures below were taken near a town called Puimoisson, where we saw one lavender distillery and later met the owners who also run a small shop, La maison du lavandin, which sells everything lavender:  the flowers themselves stored in provençal style sachets, oil/perfume, soap (with different lavender oil content), and even lavender honey!

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Gareth’s aunt Maija spent the day with us as we drove through Valensole and the surrounding area!

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Family run lavender shop.  Chatted with the owners whom we found very friendly!

It would have been interesting to see the harvest, but we came a couple of weeks early. We’ll keep working on our timing!  🙂

On that same day, we continued to drive through Provence to the Gorges du Verdon, dubbed the “Grand Canyon of Europe”.  Neither of us had been to the one in the US, so we’re unable to compare, but what we did see was spectacular!

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Can you spot the 2 rock climbers?

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Swiss Chalet Obsession

bn…. and I don’t mean the restaurant chain back home!  ;p

We have now left Switzerland, but I feel that I must write about the ONE thing that I obsessed over during our 7-day stay there:  le chalet suisse!  Ever since our train ride from Montreux to Interlaken where I first saw these beautiful traditional alpine houses, I decided I would look for THE perfect one to photograph and print on canvas.  Last year during our visit to Strasbourg, it was the Alsatian houses that I obsessed over.  You know, the ones that look like they just came out of a fairy tale (see post on Fairy tale living à la Grimm).  And now, that picture of Petite France is hanging in our living room!

Before I reveal my favourite, here are a few pictures of other chalets that we saw:

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Taken in Brienz, a small town east of Interlaken. Check out the waterfall in the background!

The next two pictures were taken in Gruyères, where in general we thought the chalets looked nice, but simply lacked colour – planters would have done wonders!

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Imagine this with colourful flowers!

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Same here, but I especially liked the dark wood used in the construction of this chalet.  I had to run across a field to get close to this one, and almost trespassed to get a shot of the back.

And now…. my favourite:

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This was by far the most beautiful chalet we had seen, even with laundry hanging in the front!  It was also taken in Brienz, in a very narrow and short street called Brunngasse.  Apparently this street is very famous and has been dubbed “the most beautiful street in Europe”.  It’s funny because we were expecting to see a whole row of beautiful chalets, when in fact there were probably only 6 houses on that street.  If I remember correctly, 3 on each side.  Nevertheless, this one’s my favourite!

Getting to Know Gruyères

bnOur two-day séjour in Gruyères consisted of going to 2 cheese-making demonstrations and predictably, eating lots of cheese!  The first place we visited was called La Fromagerie d’Alpages, an old cottage from the 17th century which was transformed into a cheese dairy.  There we signed up for a dégustation (“tasting”) where we got to sample a few different cheeses made in the local region, and of course, some wine!

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Cheese ranged from Pétit Moleson, Vacherin Plaine to Brie de Campagne.   Vacherin Plaine is often found mixed in with Gruyère to make the famous fondue moitié-moitié (“half-half”).

Following the dégustation, we hiked from the fromagerie to the centre of Gruyères.  It took us about 3 hours, and along the way, we saw chalet after chalet and tons of cows!

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Gareth making friends!

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More potential friends!

When we arrived at the town centre, the first thing we did was try the famous meringue with gruyère double cream.  I’m not a fan of cream, but this dessert won me over.  The cream was so light and not at all sweet – very different from its North American counterpart.

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The feather light meringue just melts in your mouth!

As nice a day as we had, the end was a little bit rough as we missed the last bus that would take us back home.  Unfortunately, this meant a 2-hour, mostly uphill hike back to Moléson where we were staying.  After a gruelling hike, when I saw this map showing that we were finally home, I just HAD TO take a picture:

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Note to self: Next time, mind the bus schedule!  😉

Funky Chocolate Fun!

bnOn our second day in Interlaken, we went to a chocolaterie called Funky Chocolate Club Switzerland.  And no, we weren’t there to BUY chocolate… we were there to LEARN how to MAKE it!  🙂   With the Swiss being known for amazing chocolate, we thought what better way to experience and appreciate le chocolat Suisse but to experience making it firsthand!

The first step involved mixing/tempering the chocolate, which proved to be tricky business:  there are certain temperatures you need to reach while mixing, and going slightly over or under can result in not-so-perfect looking chocolate [which you will see later ;)].  We started off with melted dark chocolate at 45 degrees celsius called “bain marie” – the base of our chocolate mixture.  We then tempered adding 7 dark chocolate pieces, then tempered again.  Once the desired temperature of 32 degrees celsius was reached, we added more bain marie and tempered again.

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Me working hard tempering.

After reaching the final desired temperature of 30 degrees celsius, we started piping into the chocolate mould.  Note that tempering took a while, with lots of snacking in between – there were 5-6 types of chocolate on the table available for us to snack on!

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Gareth working hard piping.

We then got to decorate our chocolates with various patterns, nuts and spices:

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Gareth’s design with giraffe patterns, lots of nuts, cranberry and chili flakes.  He believes his is superior than mine.  😉  You be the judge!

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I used spider pattern and some almonds.  The bottom one is supposed to say “mange-moi” but it looks more like “mango moi”.  It’s been a while since I’ve baked so my piping is pretty rusty!

Here is what they looked like once they hardened and were wrapped:

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Check out the massive hole in my first one – lol, I guess I didn’t pipe enough chocolate in that mould!  Gareth wins?  😉

I have to admit that it was a very quick introductory class to making chocolate, but the instructor made it really fun!  As you can see, my apron is the dirtiest out of everyone’s – including the two kids when they had theirs on.  That’s because the instructor decided he’d wipe his spatula on my apron just for kicks!

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We all became certified Swiss chocolatiers that day!  😉

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Gareth and I with the very funny class instructor.  He told jokes left, right and centre and made the whole hour class very entertaining!

Alpine Living

bnExactly one year since our last trip to Paris/Strasbourg, Gareth and I find ourselves back in Europe!  For the first time, we are visiting Switzerland, land of alpine goodness.  🙂   We started our trip in Lausanne, hoping to take it easy while trying to get over jet lag.  We then took a day trip to Montreux to see the famous Château de Chillon.  I have to say that after seeing Koenigsbourg in Alsace, every other castle we’ve laid eyes on just pale in comparison.  Probably not a good thing, but that’s how we’ve been feeling.  🙂

The interesting bits of the trip started in Interlaken, a beautiful town sandwiched between two lakes and surrounded by the famous mountain trio of Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger!  We were able to find an airbnb place very close to the centre of the town, while still being nestled in a quiet neighbourhood.

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View from our room.  It was amazing waking up every morning to the sound of birds chirping!

It wasn’t until our train ride to Schnige Platte (another mountain in the area) that we were able to fully take in the beauty that is Interlaken.  We were able to do this in slow motion as the train did not go more than 12km/h (it ran on a cogwheel railway).  Here are a couple of pictures taken while we were on the train:

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Town of Interlaken surrounded by Lake Thun in the west and Lake Brienz in the east…. and mountains everywhere else!

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People who were brave enough to do the actual hike to Schnige Platte, instead of taking the train!

When we got to Schnige Platte, we followed a trail to get from one of the peaks to another. It was a nice hike as we got to see the Alpine Garden along the way – see below the small white and purple flowers!  It might not look like much trying to get to the peak on the left, but it actually took us about an hour to get up there!

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Here is us at the top of that peak, with a view of Interlaken on the right:

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Gareth was actually very happy to have reached one of the peaks despite looking angry in the picture! 😉

The whole hike probably took us 2-2.5hours – going from one peak to another and back down to where the train dropped us off.  I have to say that the weather was on our side that day.  Just after we finished the hike, it started pouring!  That was the story with Interlaken during our stay – not a day went by without rain!

Merci bien Sou!

bnAs Gareth was only able to take time off from work on Friday and the weekend, I had to figure out how I would spend my time in Strasbourg.  However, instead of signing up for tours, I decided to meet with locals for an opportunity to practice my French.  Yes, I did it through that conversation exchange site again, which I started using when I was in Lyon in 2013!

This time around, I was fortunate to meet Sou, who has been living in Strasbourg all her life.  I met with her for the first time on Tuesday and spent a couple of hours walking around Petite France – half the time speaking in French, the other half in English.  It was interesting exchanging stories about culture and life in our respective countries – it really put things into perspective for me.

On Thursday, Sou offered to accompany me to Kehl, a town in Germany about 20 minutes east of Strasbourg by car.  We went to the town centre and Sou pointed out that many French people actually come to Kehl to do their groceries!  I didn’t realize that there’s such a price difference in things like food, given that both France and Germany use the same currency and are not that far from each other.

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Jardin des Deux Rives is a park shared between Strasbourg and Kehl. The Passerelle Mimram is a bridge that links the French side to the German side of the park.

On Monday, prior to leaving for Paris, I went to the Musée du Pain d’Épices with Sou and her 4-year-old niece.  The museum is located in Gertwiller, about half an hour southwest of Strasbourg by car.  This town is known for specializing in the production of pain d’épices, literally “spice bread”, which is loosely associated with what we know as gingerbread.  However, Sou mentioned that unlike gingerbread, pain d’épices may not necessarily contain ginger.

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Screen up top tells the story of the arrival of pain d’épices to France.

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Reminds me of Charlie’s Chocolate Factory! 🙂  Check out the gingerbread wall behind us!

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Advent calendar in the form of pain d’épices.

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Connected to the museum is a factory where the Fortwenger brand of pain d’épices are manufactured.

Some finished products!

Some finished products!  Made me want to start baking and decorating again!

Strasbourg Walking Tour

bnLooking at the masses of tourists taking pictures of Cathédrale Notre Dame and Petite France, it becomes obvious what visitors come to see in Strasbourg.  Granted, these two attractions are more than enough to get Gareth and I to fly 4,000 miles across the Atlantic.  However, because of this, it’s easy to overlook other interesting aspects of Strasbourg.  Here are a few things that we learned on Friday during our walking tour:

La Marseillaise, the national anthem of France was written overnight in Strasbourg by Rouget de Lisle.  Since it was written in Strasbourg, one might wonder why it wasn’t called La Strasbourgeoise instead.  Apparently, the original title of the song was Chant de Guerre de l’Armée du Rhin (War Song of the Rhine Army), but later became known as La Marseillaise when a troop of soldiers from Marseille were heard singing it on their way to Paris.

L’Aubette – where the magic happened overnight, resulting in what became France’s national anthem.

The printing press was developed in Strasbourg by Johannes Gutenberg.  This led to the first mass production of books in Europe.  The statue below, located in the centre of Place Gutenberg, depicts the great inventor holding what appears to be the first page of the Bible.

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Finally, what we found most interesting was the story behind the Monuments Aux Morts de Strasbourg (War Memorial of Strasbourg) located in Place de la République.  This monument is a tribute to the fallen soldiers who fought for Strasbourg.  According to our tour guide Gabriel, Strasbourg changed hands countless times between France and Germany.  Due to the long-standing war between these two countries, the inhabitants of Strasbourg at times fought as French soldiers, and other times as German soldiers.  In fact, to give us perspective on this crazy ping pong game that Strasbourg had to endure, he told us that his great-grandparents changed citizenship 5 times during their lifetime!

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Mother holding her two fallen sons.  The two sons represent fallen soldiers of Strasbourg – those who fought as French soldiers while Strasbourg was under the French regime, and those who fought as German soldiers while Strasbourg was in the hands of Germany.   The two sons are unclothed to signify that in death, they are equal.  There is no distinction whether they died as French soldiers or as German soldiers.  In the end, they all died fighting to defend Strasbourg.