France Day 5 – Dinner @ Sapore (Nice)

Nice is a beautiful city that we have not had a chance to appreciate much up to this point. When our ferry to St. Tropez returned us back to the port, I took the opportunity to snap a few photos. The streets have almost an Italian feel to it, which makes sense given the city’s proximity to Italy. We also read that Nice had once belonged to Italy, but at some point voted to become a part of France. It’s such an interesting historical factoid that I think I will research this when i get home.

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Tired from a whole day of walking and the five hours on the ferry, we were ready to hit our dinner spot, Sapore. Although there was again no one at the restaurant (probably because 7:00 p.m. was considered too early for dinner by French standards, only for old people and tourists), we had learned from lunch that the presence of a crowd is not necessarily the sole indicator of good food.

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The restaurant offers a rotating slate of tapas every 15 days, so we went ahead and ordered the “discovery” menu. We were first offered some small amuse-bouche items and some bread. The butter was infused with the herbs of Provence and was very delicious!

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The first trio of tapas to arrive were the bruschetta with raw tuna, salad with parmesan cheese, and the tomato tart. Each was delicious, but we especially loved the flavor of the tomato tart, with its flaky pastry base, incredibly sweet tomatoes and balsamic vinegar based dressing. OMG we could eat 10 of these little tarts every day!

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The next round of tapas were my selection of a moist and delicious grilled “loupe” (a type of white fish common in South of France, similar to sea bass), sitting on a bed of pickled cabbage that offered just enough tartness to offset any fishiness, and AK’s pick of a plate of wonderful beef carpaccio, which was light and flavorful. There was also a side dish of potato au gratin made in the shape of a rose – pretty, but nothing to write home about.

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We were offered two small desserts for the grand finale – a two-bite peach tart (the market did not offered apricots that morning, so this was a deviation from the menu), and a mini creme brûlée. The peach tart was amazing!!! Freshly out of the oven, each bite of warmth oozed sweetness from the peach mingled with the buttery flakiness of the pastry. The creme brûlée did not disappoint either! After cracking the hardened top shell, the fragrance of the vanilla bean custard wafted over, and each spoonful was thick and smooth. Dinner definitely ended with fireworks!

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Sapore
19 Rue Bonaparte
06300 Nice, France
04 92 04 22 09
www.restaurant-sapore.com

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France Day 5 – St. Tropez

Popularized by Brigitte Bardot in the 1970s, St. Tropez, a beautiful seaside town along France’s southern coast, has the reputation of being the hottest party destination for the world’s rich and famous. Part of its attraction lies in its difficulty of access – St. Tropez is not reachable by train, unlike much of the South of France, and driving is slow moving through the winding country roads. For those who can afford it, the most convenient way to arrive is by sailing into St. Tropez’ extraordinarily large natural harbor, which can accommodate private yachts of all sizes. Although I am not much of a party gal, I was still intrigued by the mystique of St. Tropez, so AK allocated a full day for us to visit.

Our ferry ride was scheduled for 9:00 a.m., but we woke up extra early to check out a well-rated bakery, Le Four a Bois, before our day trip. Unfortunately, other than a quiche, all of the other pastry items were unmarkable. It was definitely not worth getting up at 7:00 a.m.!

After that disappointing experience (though at least we ate breakfast), we arrived promptly at the old port in Nice to board the ferry. Our boat even resembles a small yacht, haha! Of course, the inside is another matter – definitely basic and no frills, though I appreciated the tables, which allowed me to nap for the entire 2 1/2 hour journey. Though long and tedious, the ride offered beautiful views of the Mediterranean. Once we landed, of course, there was once again tons of yachts docked at the harbor.

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After we disembarked, I was struck by how quiet and sleepy the town was. Where are the parties where $1,500 bottle champagnes were both drunk and sprayed into the crowd? (Truthfully, those types of excess are slightly off-putting, especially given the current state of the world economy.) We wandered around the streets, checking out the various shops. Unlike Cannes, whose streets were lined with high-end designer shops, St. Tropez is much more understated. Shops are tastefully decorated and, other than the shocking price tags (e.g., $100 for a beach towel), do not immediately strike one as expensive.

It soon came time for lunch, and we had our heart set on a restaurant off the main square, named simply “Le Bistro.” When we arrived around noon, there was no one at the restaurant, which for me is usually a bad sign. We also looked at the chalkboard that showed the daily lunch special, but the descriptions were very uninspired (“salad with goat cheese,” “salmon with vegetables,” “leg of lamb,” etc.). Obviously these people need some lessons in marketing, since we saw many walkers-by bypass the restaurant. We decided to stay, however, deciding to trust the positive critical reviews.

AK and I both ordered the 20 euro set menu, but my combination is appetizer (confusingly called “entree” in France) + main course, and AK’s is main course + dessert. The appetizer immediately grabbed our attention! It was a light arugula and tomato salad (my favorite!), mixed with balsamic vinegar dressing and some other yummy green sauce, topped with warm grilled bread and melted goat cheese drizzled with a bit of honey. The portion size was also huge – the hunk of goat cheese alone was enough to sell as a stand-alone unit at a retail store! Even sharing between the two of us, we were semi-full by the time we finished.

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Next came the main courses. AK had ordered the lamb chop, which was super tasty! It was grilled to perfection, and every bite was juicy and flavorful. Even the side of French fries was well-executed, with a lightly salted crispy skin that crunches as you bite into the pillowy potato inside. Yum!

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My main course was a salmon with wok-fried vegetables. Again, the grilling was executed perfectly! The fish skin was slightly crunchy with a concentration of fish oil, but the inside of the salmon was extremely tender. It was a most delicious piece of fish! The vegetables were wok-fried Chinese style and were a great complement to the richness of the salmon.

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The only let-down of our meal was the “flan patissier” – I thought this was going to be similar to Spanish-style flan, typically served warm in a caramel sauce (which I also grew up with in Taiwan since my mom and aunts loved making them), but this was closer to a cold custard. Though the dessert looked pretty, we did not even come close to finishing it.

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Despite the lackluster dessert, Le Bistro was a fabulous find and one of the best meals we had in South of France!

I had a chance to see the interior of the restaurant while visiting the ladies’ room before leaving (we had sat outside to blend in with the Europeans). It is very cozy, and you can definitely see the restaurant transforming into a see-and-be-seen type of atmosphere at night!

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We had read that St. Tropez is also know for a local pastry called the “Tropezienne.” Seeking this out, we visited a local bakery, La Tarte Tropezienne, and bought a “Mini Trop” (the regular-sized ones are equivalent to large pie slices). Sadly, it was nothing special – I liken the taste to two pieces of slightly stale macarons with some fresh cream in the middle.

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It took us a while to understand why the bakery is nicknamed the “beehive” – the entire store is swarming with honeybees! The bees freely roam from tarte to tarte, pastry to pastry. It was the most bizarre thing. I’m sure there is an explanation for this phenomenon, but we were not able to decipher the mystery. Look closely at the photo below – you’ll see many bees buzzing along happily!

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The afternoon sun had been blazing, so logically our next stop was a trip to the town’s well-known ice cream shop, “Barbarac” (meaning “ice cream” in Armenian), to cool off. It would appear that we are eating continuously, but that is not true! We just didn’t want to miss out on any local specialties. The ice cream was creamy and delicious, and definitely hit the spot.

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On the way back to the port to make our ferry back to Nice, we stopped outside of a famous night club called “The VIP Room,” where there was a huge wall showing all the celebrities who have partied there. It is definitely a who’s who of the entertainment world!

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After a whirlwind tour of St. Tropez, it was time to head back. Although it was beautiful town with gorgeous scenery, St. Tropez was not so extraordinary as to warrant such a long journey (and for those keeping track of the long-standing competition, San Sebastian in Spain definitely wins by a large margin). At least I can now cross it off my list of places to visit!

Bistro Restaurant
3 Place des Lices
83990 Saint-Tropez, France
04 94 97 11 33
www.bistrot-saint-tropez.com

La Tarte Tropezienne
36 Rue Georges Clemenceau
83990 Saint-Tropez, France
04 94 97 19 77
www.tarte-tropezienne.com

Barbarac
2 Rue Gen Allard
83990 Saint-Tropez, France
04 94 97 67 83
www.barbaric.fr/glacier-saint-tropez

France Day 4 – Dinner @ Oliviera [Best Tiramisu!] (Nice)

After a long, exhausting day traveling to St. Paul de Vence, we returned to Nice for a low-key dinner at a local mom-and-pop restaurant, Oliviera. Run by an elderly couple, this eatery consists of a small shop that purveys olive oil from all over France (including those made by the proprietor), and 8-10 accompanying tables scattered throughout the tight space for serving rustic French fare. Although the decor is basic, the shop exudes warmth and authenticity (as far as we can tell as tourists, haha).

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The menu is extremely limited, consisting of only 1 page listing exactly 12 items. The old lady cooks in the open kitchen, and the old man takes orders and answers phones. We begin with the eggplant (aubergine) appetizer, seasoned and drizzled with olive oil. Simple, but fabulous!

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For the main courses, I ordered the tagliatelle with pesto sauce and red peppers, and AK ordered the homemade sausages with lentils. Both were prepared simply (and with *lots* of olive oil) but really showcase the produce of this region (and are delicious!). I especially can’t over how sweet the red peppers are!

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The only dessert being offered that day was tiramisu. Now, I am not a fan of tiramisu, usually finding the consistency too mushy or the rum too overpowering. That night, however, we decided to give it a try at the suggestion of old man (it is hard to say no to a jolly old grandpa wearing farmer pants…). We were certainly not disappointed! The tiramisu itself had a perfect balance of flavor, without too much alcohol, the cream tasted extremely fresh, and most importantly of all, there was a secret ingredient – olive oil! When our tiramisu arrived, the old man appeared with a bottle of olive oil and started POURING it onto the plate. Seeing the panicked expression on our faces, the old man exclaimed, “Just try! You will see!” Well, he was right. The olive oil he paired with the tiramisu had undergone a special fermentation process, which allows it to bring out the sweetness of the dessert. Altogether, the unique flavor combination was just so delightful, with each element complementing the others. While I’ve had desserts before that incorporated olive oil as an ingredient (e.g., Sam’s Sundae at Bi-Rite Creamery in San Francisco, which is chocolate ice cream with bergamot olive oil, sea salt and whipped cream), none of them have been able to achieve the same level of harmony. I really think this was the BEST tiramisu I’ve ever tasted! (Second picture below shows how creamy the inside is…though photos really don’t do it justice.)

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We find out that in a prior life, this old man worked for years and years in the finance industry (though he denied this, “Don’t believe everything you read!”). Presumably, this is now a hobby for him. We admire the fact that he lives simply, has no desire to maximize profits and only serves what his wife cooks that day. It is worlds apart from the general commercialization of restaurants on both continents!

Oliviera
8 Bis, rue du Collet
06300 Vieux Nice, France
33 04 93 13 06 45
www.oliviera.com

France Day 4 – St. Paul de Vence

It is probably no exaggeration to say that St. Paul de Vence is one of the most charming villages I have ever visited. Because it is not coastal, the village is perhaps not as stunning as Cinque Terre, but picturesque in its own right. Perched on top of a mountain, this medieval town is about an hourlong bus ride away from Nice. To allow time for my 13-mile training run in the morning, however, we decided to leave after lunch rather than early morning.

Our journey to St. Paul de Vence was fraught with difficulties that day. First, we stood at the wrong location for the long-term bus pickup, even though we followed the hand gesture of the information booth lady and the location was confirmed by a separate bus driver. By the time we saw the #400 bus and ran towards it, it was too late. The driver had already left the stop and refused to let on any additional passengers.

We waited another half an hour for the next bus, and finally got on our way. Then, the worst part of the day happened – we GOT OFF TOO EARLY IN THE MOUNTAINS! As soon as the bus left and chugged along uphill, we knew we had made a mistake. As we looked skyward, we could see a beautiful hilltop village far, far in the distance, high in the clouds. Since it was already 4 p.m., we wondered whether we should even continue, or just turn around to get on the next bus go home. In the end, we opted to trudge along, me with my flip flops (my feet hurt after my run), and AK with his heavy camera bag and backpack. Luckily, we had a hearty lunch at the Chinese/Vietnamese place next to the bus stop, probably the cheapest meal we’ve had in France (big portions too – I just could not finish).

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We were so desperate we even tried to hitchhike, but I guess we didn’t really know how to do it? No one stopped, or even slowed, to give us a ride. But eventually, we arrived on foot (without blisters). It was like a pilgrimage!
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The village consists of a labyrinth of steep, winding cobblestone streets, lined with rows and rows of art galleries on each side. It is an art lover’s paradise!

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Much of the old city walls are still visible today, including some old cannons that were probably used to fend off invaders. I wish I had done more reading about the history!

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We really could have stayed here longer to enjoy the village life, but since we didn’t get there until past 5 p.m., it was soon time to go home. Best part is that we survived the day without any harsh words to each other, despite the circumstances. That is probably the best accomplishment of the day (rather than the 1-hour hike uphill)!

France Day 3 – Dinner @ Restaurant Alto [previously Cafe Boni] (Nice)

At the end of a long day sightseeing around the South of France, we always return to Nice to enjoy a leisurely dinner. After hitting Cannes and Antibes earlier in the day, AK and I headed over to Cafe Boni for our 8:00 p.m. reservation. What happened next was not leisurely at all! We arrived at the address only to find that it is now called Restaurant Alto, and Cafe Boni was nowhere to be found.

We popped our head into the restaurant, and the nice owner told us that Cafe Boni is a sister restaurant, but it has moved. AK suggested that we just eat here, and owner even sat us down at a table. However, I was concerned about being a no-show for our original reservation and insisted that we leave right away. Despite our/my rudeness, the restaurant owner was nice enough to give us directions. Unfortunately, after wandering around the streets of Nice for a frustrating 30-40 minutes, we finally gave up and return to Restaurant Alto. Yes, it was embarrassing to have to grovel back, though a part of me questions whether he gave us the right directions in the first place. Hmmm…

Restaurant Alto is actually very cool and modern inside, showcasing lots of French and American movie posters and concert memorabilia. The owner explained that they serve French-style tapas, which was a good way to sample the different flavors of the region. Perhaps because our expectations were low, we ended up loving the food! My first tapa was an egg casserole with cream of black truffles. It turned out to be my favorite small plate of the evening – the aroma of the black truffles was intoxicating, and the perfectly poached farm egg paired well with the cream. I devoured this dish in minutes!

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Next came the salmon tartare, which also tasted extremely fresh and is accompanied by wonderful olive oil and cherry tomatoes. (I’ve noticed that tomatoes in Provence are usually really sweet!)

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The main starch dishes followed. I ordered an Italian-style pasta done simply with tomatoes and olive oil, and AK ordered a risotto with baby mussels and octopus. Both were delicious, but I was especially impressed with the risotto. I am not usually a fan of mollusks, but these mussels were amazing! I kept spooning off more and more of AK’s dish – a true sign that I liked it.

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The last tapa of braised beef rib seemed almost too much, but we managed to push through to finish this last dish.

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Dessert was a hunk of warm Piedmont cheese drizzled with honey and crushed hazelnut. Since we had pre-ordered it, we were forced to tackle it as well. (Had we know the portions were substantial, we probably would have skipped this.) The flavor was nice and reminded me of a very similar traditional Catalan dessert of cheese and honey we’ve had in Barcelona.

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Despite the snafu with the address mix-up, we ended the night with a great meal. Sometimes the best planning can’t beat good luck!

Restaurant Alto
21 Rue Barla
06300 Nice, France
09 52 11 58 18

France Day 3 – Cannes & Antibes

The beauty of being in the Côte d’Azur (the Mediterranean side of the South of France) is that most cities are a short train ride away. We woke up bright and early to catch the 7:25 a.m. train from Nice to Cannes, best known for its international film festival held in May of every year. You can tell by the light at the main square (Messena Square) in Nice, our home base, that the sun is not fully out yet.

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After a short half-hour train ride, we arrived at the famous city of Cannes and started our visit on the glitzy beach, La Plage de la Croisette, lined with rows after rows of beach chairs and umbrellas. Instead of watching the skimpily dressed sunbathers (why do European men all wear speedos?), I was drawn to the “candy” sculptures all along the beach, each painted in the flag colors of a particular country. We spotted one for Turkey first, then further down one for the United States.

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Notice in the photos the number of yachts dotting the seascape – not only are the harbors along the South of France packed to the hilt with yachts of all sizes (some impressive ones up to 3-4 stories high), the streets of Cannes are also lined with yacht dealerships and service shops. Maybe one day we can afford one? (That would be never, haha).

Pretty hungry after wandering around a bit, we stopped to eat breakfast at a cafe, Le Festival, normally a star-studded gathering place during film festival season. Each chair at the cafe even has the name of a celebrity who supposedly visited the cafe. Although our chairs were well-situated for people watching, we did not spot any stars… 😦

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Having feasted on another plate of pain au chocolats, we headed over to the main attraction – the location of the annual Cannes Film Festival. The concrete building was rather unimpressive, lacking any cool architectural details. (I’m sure it will probably be dressed up for the main event, but that may be akin to putting lipstick on a pig.) Although we were blocked from even approaching the building due to preparations for an upcoming event, AK and I had fun posing behind some movie boards.

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After a quick lunch at an Italian eatery (Le Brulot Pasta Restaurant), we hopped on the train again for Antibes, a small coastal town known for its small but well-curated Picasso Museum. It is a beautiful coastal town, smaller, warmer and much more relaxed than Cannes.

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The museum, previously a studio that Picasso used for 2 months to paint, has stunning views of the sea. It is no wonder that Picasso was able to create such joyous pieces such as “Joie de Vivre” (the “joy of living”) here in Antibes!

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France Day 2 (Second Half) – Nice

Nice, a bustling large city on the Cote d’Azur, is a sparkling gem along France’s Mediterranean coast. Our hotel, Le Meridien, was ideally situated at the very beginning of the Promenade des Anglais, the main boulevard that runs along the beach (yay for Starwood points!). On this stretch of the promenade, we see lots of bikers, joggers and rollerbladers. It is certainly a gorgeous scenery to exercise to!

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There is much to see in Nice, but since we were based here for the remainder of the week, we felt no rush to sightsee right away. Instead, we snapped a few photos of the city center.
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We also discovered that Internet access at our hotel costs an exorbitant 19 euroes per day. Thankfully, there is a McDonald’s right next door with free Wi-Fi (though as we will discover later at times the download speed crawls along at a snail’s pace, taking as long as 5 minutes to upload 1 photo to Facebook). This particular McDonald’s has a McCafe, which actually looks very fancy – you would not know you’re looking at the interior of a McDonald’s!
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Dinner was at La Merenda, considered exclusive only because of its ridiculously small size. There are only two seatings, and each time accommodates only about 8 small tables. We walked there at 6:15 p.m. and were able to snag a reservation for the 9:00 p.m. seating that day.

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We ordered off the daily menu written on a chalk board, which changes daily.
I selected the ratatouille as a starter, and AK ordered the fried cauliflower hearts. It was the most amazing plate of ratatouille I have ever had!!!
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Main entrees consisted of beef tripe, cooked nicoise style, for me and homemade sausage for AK. Both tasted very much like the cooking of Southern France – hearty, flavorful, and plentiful. It’s the taste of harvest and abundance. Although I enjoyed the flavor of the tripe, it was a bit heavy for me to eat the entire plate for dinner.
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Deciding to be adventurous, I ordered the local pie made from Swiss chard (I thought I heard the server incorrectly), pears and figs. Despite the off-putting color of the greens, my piece actually tasted really good! I give myself extra points for being adventurous tonight!
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La Merenda
4, rue Raoul Bosio
06300 NICE
Siret 502 508 997 00017

France Day 2 (First Half) – Aix-en-Provence

First full day in France! It’s starting to sink in that I do not have to go in to work today. Instead, I will be strolling around Aix-en-Provence looking for the best boulangerie to start off my day. My stress level has slowly melting away with each day of leisure I enjoy, recovering from the stress and hardship of our international trip (and daily grind).

First order of business – the hunt for breakfast! Based on the recommendation of the Pudlo guide, supposedly what “real” French people use, AK brought me to Philippe Segond’s Riederer patisserie near the town center. The store was chockfull of mouthwatering pastries, cakes and chocolates, and the variety was stunning. I also can’t believe it’s been open since 1780!

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There was even a farmer pig lollipop that was so cute!
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We ordered two pain au chocolats (chocolate croissants) with our morning coffee, and they were delicious – crispy exterior that almost “cracks” with each bite, which reveals the soft, layered buttery interior. Each bite was a slice of heaven!
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I was intrigued by a particular pastry named “Castel” and bought one to go. It did not disappoint! Similar to a mille-feuille, the Castel has a thicker cream consistency intermingled with crunchy nougats, pralines and almonds. It probably would have tasted even better if we did not have to eat it on the run, haha.

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AK and I also had the opportunity to wander around the small town and check out the specialty shops, such as ones devoted exclusively to olive oil, candies/pastries and, of course, macarons! Each store had its individual character and exuded oodles of charm. It is simply impossible to buy everything! (This is going to be a common lament on this trip.)

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We also passed by such famous joints such as Les Deux Garcons (no relation to Les Deux Magots in Paris, I believe), a cafe that used to be frequented by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Edith Piaf, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Must have been nice to be part of the intelligentia back in the day! The gate below the beautiful clock tower included a plaque commemorating the liberation of the town by the 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. army at the end of World War II. It nice to see that such things are remembered!
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As pleasant and relaxing as Aix-en-Provence was, we had to say goodbye to it after too short a stay to embark on the 2 1/2 hour train ride over to Nice, our base for the next five days. We loved the laid-back ambiance of Aix and would definitely return next time we are in South of France!

Riederer (Philippe Segond)
67, cours Mirabeau
04 42 38 19 69
Aix-en-Provence
http://www.riederer.fr

France Day 1 – Travel to South of France (September 10-11, 2011)

San Francisco –> Paris –> Marseilles –> Aix-en-Provence

After months of planning the logistics, the day has finally come for us to travel to France! We started our journey at the crack of dawn to catch our 6 a.m. flight to Miami, from which we fly to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. The excitement started as soon as we landed in Paris – so many of the fabulous food stores have outposts at the airport! First up was Laduree, which had a full-sized storefront near our terminal, F30. When I tried to take a photo, the sales lady aggressively yelled “NO PHOTOS!” Is that any way to treat a future customer? Luckily, I was able get one in before she shooed me away…phew.

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We also visited La Maison du Chocolat and purchased a small box of six bonbons for enjoyment later. One of my fondest memories from my first trip to Paris was randomly stumbling upon La Maison du Chocolat on a rainy day. I was alone, and the store looked inviting, emanating a soft, yellow warmth in the gray. After an initial gasp at prices that appeared astronomical to a student, I overcame my disbelief and bought a small bag of chocolate-covered almonds dusted with cocoa powder. My first bite was unbelievable – the crunch of the shell, the purity of the chocolate, the depth of the flavor combination. At that moment I finally understood the allure of an unadulterated piece of refinement. And with that, my first real taste of French epicurean culture.

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Lunch consisted of two small slices of quiche and two bottles of water – a whopping 20.40 euros (or about US $30). At least it ended on a sweet note – our loot plus a strong cup of illy espresso.

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After a 5-hour layover, we get on our flight to Marseilles, then onto a bus to Aix-en-Provence, a charming university town in the heart of the Provence region. By the time we checked into the Hotel du Globe, a basic but centrally located hotel, it was late afternoon and time to hunt for dinner!

Unfortunately, because it was Sunday, many of the restaurants AK had researched were closed. After wandering around the main square (off Cours Mirabeau), we settled upon Le Bistrot des Philosophes (very a propos since AK used to be philosophy major).

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I ordered the risotto with fish, which was creamy and delicious, though a bit heavy on the sauce. The fish was flaky and cooked to perfection, however.

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AK ordered the braised duck, which was yummy as well.

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Although the house wine was just average, we thoroughly enjoyed our first dinner in France and looked forward to more!

Hotel du Globe
74, cours Sextius
13100 Aix-en-Provence
04 42 26 03 58

Le Bistrot des Philosophes
20 Place Forum des Cardeurs
13100 Aix-En-Provence
04 42 21 64 35