Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The RED Tour

In a post that will chronicle a few assorted adventures in reverse chronological order (to make the acronym fit), I'm going to summarize our RED tour: the Rhein, the Eifel, and the Dom in Aachen. These all happened in September and October 2012 (we are terribly behind) when the weather in Aachen was still fair-to-great and immediately after our two week tour of Germany.

R is for RHEIN:

I'm looking at these photographs taken in mid-October with my mouth agape--the Rhein valley is SO gorgeous. This river cruise was another perk of being part of the Humboldt network--they brought many Humbolditians from around Bonn for a Saturday tour of the best of Bonn (and environs). The fall colors were just barely past their prime, but still breathtaking, made even better by the rugged hills on the east side of the river.


Seeing the castles atop the colored hills is certainly one of the highlights of my time in Germany. It's hard to beat castles on the Rhein on a perfect fall day:



At the end of our river cruise, we went to Drachenfels, the ruins of a castle on a hill just south of Bonn. The place offers excellent views of the whole Rhein area, and on clear days one can see the cathedral in Cologne, some 30+ km away. On the hilltop we managed to get a photo of us, together, for the first time in a while. (Also, the first picture of us with a really visible Sara Baby Belly.)


Having descended the hill, we took a (Humboldt-sponsored) guided tour of the palace Drachenburg, something we'd wanted to do since we visited there over a year prior when we were still German language students living in Bonn. We didn't take a tour at the time because they were only offered in German and our German was certainly not at that level, but Humboldt to the rescue! they arranged a behind-the-scenes, all access tour for us. I won't recap the whole experience (since we already wrote about it here), but there was one room we really wanted to visit that we couldn't the time before: the music room. This time we got to go in, which was really exciting because it has an organ. (I'm a sucker for chasing organs around Europe.) The funny thing about this organ is that it's a fake organ. It is, in fact, just the facade of an organ, placed in the room only as a very impressive decoration for guests. On top of that, the host (named Mr. Spinat, which our tour guide emphasized means Mr. Spinach) would "play" this fake organ for his guests, something of a organist/Milli Vanilli combo. Totally crazy, yet fantastic.


After the palace tour we went to a winery (surprise! Humboldt loves to take us to wineries) for a rather fun and tasty evening in the cellar. However, my favorite was the color-changing ivy on the stone outside. Fall in the Rhein area of Germany is absolutely gorgeous.


E is for EIFEL:

This year I turned 30 years old. While normally a cause for celebration--or at least a good send off party--this year we were on day two of our two week tour of Germany. Since we didn't really know anybody and didn't know the city we were in (I think we were maybe in Munich, but I'm not sure), we didn't really make much of it. To compensate, we rented a party house in the Eifel national park (just south of Aachen) and invited some 10 other people there for a mid-week getaway in early October. (October 3rd is the day of German unification, a national holiday, so we timed it just right.) The house was really large and perfectly suited to the 8 adults and 5 children there, with a small farm and play area just outside the door. The aesthetic highlight, though, was our "hike" in the forest. While not strenuous (see: 5 children), it was quite picturesque, with the leaves really changing and a reservoir alongside the trail.


Here is the Stapleton family, a favorite of ours in Aachen, hiking along the trail. (Except Timmy, who is clearly riding, and Aaron, who appears to be being dragged.)


And the rocks and the trees were just right. It was nice to just walk in nature for a little while, especially for us city folk.



D is for DOM:

Lastly, in early September the semi-annual meeting of the CHARISMA organization (an EU consortium which partly funds the cultural heritage research that I'm working on) was held in Aachen. As part of that meeting which I helped organize, we made arrangements to have a private tour of the Dom (the cathedral) of Aachen by a Dom historian. Not only that, but we got to climb into the rafters and topmost parts of the church which are normally inaccessible to the public. It happened to be a beautiful Friday afternoon that was perfect for taking pictures of our town. This is a westward view of Aachen from the Dom--the church in the background is the Jakobskirche, the spire of which we can see from our living room window.


And here is an eastward view of the city. The round building in the middle is the largest and most famous fountain in Aachen, the Elisenbrunnen. It has sulfurous water that can really make a stink in the summer.


Here is a northward view of the hills behind Aachen and the Rathaus (city hall).


A close up of a tower of the Rathaus.


And an artistic shot of the three different roofs that, all connected, form the iconic silhouette of the Aachen cathedral. This silhouette has really come to feel like a symbol of home for us here.


A bonus photo for those interested in the religious history of the cathedral: the Aachener Dom is a site for pilgrimages. Every seven years some fancy relics are brought out on display and loads of people come for a visit. (The next exhibition is in 2014.) Back in the day, before crowd control and things of that nature, the city/church did what it could to maximize visibility of the relics: they hung them out these windows of the church (now the little red door you see below). They would cover them with a shroud at night, then, during the day, the shroud would be removed for worship from all across the city. There were ordinances preventing the construction of buildings that would obscure sight of a given relic for some years. I don't know how long that lasted, but it's nice that it's all kept indoors these days. Also, the expansion of the cathedral itself would prevent sight of some of the relics' windows nowadays, something of a failure in planning I would say.


After well over a year of living in Germany, we've realized that it really feels like home. It's things like these--the Rhein, the Eifel, and Aachen's stunning cathedral--that help me see in part why we like this place so much now.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Eating Paris

You thought you had a delicious Thanksgiving dinner last year, I'm sure. Turkey, stuffing/dressing (technical usage hotly debated right now at the Meldrumhaus), pies. Well, I hate to tell you, but ours was probably better. You see, for Thanksgiving this year, Sara and I ate Paris. All of it.

I realize as I'm sitting down to write this blog experience that our picture-per-calorie-consumed density is depressingly low, primarily because I hate photographing food in restaurants. However, I want to describe this culinary adventure in some detail, with a few photos of some Parisian highlights (Versailles, Sacre Coeur, the Opera, baguettes) for good measure. Kudos to the diligent who read the descriptions of eating.

We arrived in Paris in the early afternoon, thanks to our speedy two-and-a-half hour connection direct from Aachen. After getting settled in to our B&B in Montmartre, we hopped on the Metro towards the 10th arrondissement--we had done some research and found it to be a place with a good restaurant density. We went into a taqueria--Candelaria--that featured the best tacos we'd ever had. They're not quite the earthy crispy tacos of Cactus Taqueria in Berkeley, but they were refined, small tacos in a soft corn tortilla that, to our sadly Mexican-food-deprived taste buds, were heavenly. We each had three plus chips and salsa and some agua fresca. It wasn't as cheap as Cactus (nothing in Paris is), but it was great. Probably better than San Francisco's Mamacita, our Bay Area alternative for fancy tacos.

We decided to walk to from the 10th down towards the Musee d'Orsay along the Seine. As we got close to the museum we started getting hungry (our tacos were small and we only had one snack on the way there)--since the museum was open late (Thursdays until 9:45 pm), we decided to stop by the chocolatier Jean-Paul Hevin for our first of three hot chocolate experiences. JPH was my least favorite of the three--it was thick and creamy but didn't have the chocolate flavor to support such a thick consistency. The cake there, however, was delicious. And beautiful. Sara's passionfruit-filled-meringue-y thing was light enough to offset the weight of the chocolate, while I, the glutton for punishment, ordered a dark chocolate-raspberry torte to complement my hot chocolate. Almost too much at one go, but I did the best I could--I ate it all.

We visited the Musee d'Orsay, which has a really fantastic collection and is set in a beautifully converted train station. Our favorites were some early 20th century works by George Desvallières. (I only know because I took a photo of the nameplate by a painting which is STRICTEMENT INTERDIT in the Musee d'Orsay, apparently.) My favorite is this (in small format):

Le Christ à la colonne by George Desvallières.
From the Musee d'Orsay website.

After our night at the museum, we went to the area near the Gare du Nord (North Train Station) for our Thanksgiving dinner at the very French sounding "Playtime." We chose Playtime due to its proximity to Montmartre, as well as its recommendation in parisbymouth.com (a highly recommended site for any foodie trips to Paris). We were super lucky to get our table for two (without a reservation) as two or three other groups were turned away immediately after us. I won't give all the details, but I'm about 95% sure that this was the best meal I've ever had. I had a fancy (though not Kobe) Japanese beef that melted on my tongue. Sara had a 14-hour slow braised pork (and she never gets pork). We we had a trio of small desserts with funky fruits. The server took 10 minutes to walk us through the menu and answer all of our questions. All this in a rather casual location (making it feel very homey): it was an absolute delight. It certainly wasn't traditional Thanksgiving fare, but it was a delicious, delightful, highly recommendable alternative.

Sated, we headed back to the B&B to refresh ourselves prior to our trip to Versailles. Before we left for Versailles, however, we stopped by a bakery (Boulangerie Mauvieux), which had won the 2012 award for the best baguette in Paris. (Note: this is a serious competition. Of the 180+ baguettes submitted each year, some 60 are disqualified for not meeting the requirements of the dimensions of the baguette.) We sat down in a park to enjoy our breakfast. These baguettes are really, really good. The texture wasn't so different from other good baguettes we've had, but the flavor was somehow richer and more developed. Speaking of richer and more developed...



...welcome to Versailles. The palace of kings, setting the standard for all the other Baroque palaces (of which we have seen quite a few), and only a 30 minute train ride outside of Paris. The iconic Hall of Mirrors is certainly impressive, though the tourists detract somewhat from its grandeur:


Marie Antoinette's jewelry cabinet was ornate (and next to a quick getaway door for her):


But perhaps the best part, despite the drizzle and cold, was the gardens. They are a huge, labyrinthine collection of trees, statues, and fountains, of which we could only explore a small part. It would be amazing to stroll around there in the summer (anyone up for a visit?), but even in the winter they were strikingly green.



The frogs and water maidens in the above photo made us smile (none of the fountains was actually spouting water at the time), and the fountain of children (and made for children) below was under repairs.


We were most impressed by the huge fountain/pool to the north (?) of the palace, dedicated to Neptune and his watery minions. The wall-sculpture was replete with intricately carved details, but one could hardly make them out for the distance--the pool separating you from being able to see the sculpture is some 60 feet wide and 100+ feet long.



Right next to the Tribute to Triton (I made that name up) is this great fountain with a dragon who is either in serious pain or laughing hysterically. Can't tell which.


A little rain at Versailles can't keep Sara's smile down.


On our way out of the gardens, we stopped in the palace for hot chocolate number two at the world-renowned Angelina. This chocolate was seriously great (and sipping it inside of Versailles didn't hurt). It was thick like JPH, but had so much more flavor--it really tasted like drinking a melted chocolate bar. They served our two cups' worth of hot chocolate in a single carafe, and two ramekins of whipped cream. It was a meal unto itself (even though we got other food there, too), which was good because it's not cheap to eat inside of Versailles--this hot chocolate runs about $10 per cup. Definitely worth it at least once.

After our Versailles excursion, we came back to the city hoping to take a tour of the Opera. Alas, the last tour concluded an hour before we arrived, despite our previous research indicating that it'd be open.  (I suspect that there was a performance that night, causing early closure for tours.) The exterior, however, is stunning, laden with tributes to music and musicians. The sky, really twilight, was made this deep blue by a few spotlights on adjacent buildings. Absolutely memorable. (The blue really is true to color, at least on my screen.)


After a few moments at the Opera we did something crazy. Hoping to catch an English movie (something we don't get so often in Aachen) and still eat at a reasonable time, we walked essentially the length of the entire city. (Okay, I just checked google maps: really only 3.1 km, but after a whole day at Versailles it felt like the whole city. Especially for Sara, who was carrying at the time a 1.25 pound baby in her belly.) We got to the area of our restaurant and decided to see the movie first, so we walked an additional 1.4 km to see "Argo." It was great--definitely worthy of best picture. We then walked back to Clasico Argentino--an empanada/Argentine gelato place that really was the whole reason for our trip. We hadn't had empanadas for a long time, despite their being the featured food at our wedding in 2008. These empanadas were great--the filling wasn't quite as flavorful as some homemade empanadas I've had/made, but the masa (dough) was superb: perfectly golden with just the right crunch and flavor. The gelato was good-not-great, but, overall, our Friday in Paris was superb. We slept well that night.

The next day, being our last in Paris, we got up to explore Montmartre some more, including the iconic basilica Sacre Coeur.


Sara and my brother Jaren had gone inside once about a year prior when we were last in Paris, though I stayed out to watch the luggage. This time, we climbed the dome of the basilica (climbing church towers is a pastime of ours) for a beautiful view of the city--the ceramic chimneys on each roof really get me.


On our walk toward (a failed attempt at) brunch, we stopped by the bakery that had won the 2011 award for best baguettes in Paris. Sadly, they were closed. However, three storefronts down the road we stumbled upon the 2010 winner (which we had not previously researched), and grabbed a couple. Here is me in my best Parisian-with-baguettes pose:


These baguettes were the best bread I've ever tasted. I can't really place it--the 2012 ones were great, too, but these just seemed a little more nuanced and a marginally better texture. We ate one baguette in Paris and brought one home.

We then walked to our pre-researched brunch place, but it was totally full that day. (We love the culture of going out for breakfast/brunch, which doesn't really exist in Aachen, despite it working against us this time.) So we carried on our walk to a second-tier lunch restaurant we had found, Le Petit Cambodge, a Cambodian restaurant. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. We had rice vermicelli bowls chock full of veggies and beef--something like Bowl'd in Albany, CA, but with noodles in lieu of rice. We also snagged a fancy "Cambodian" dessert: sliced bananas cooked in coconut milk topped with toasted peanuts. This was awesome. So light yet satisfying, we make this one at home with some regularity now.

We walked down to l'Orangerie museum--a small gallery that focuses on late 19th and early 20th century paintings that you can really get close to. A highlight was the temporary exhibit of works by the Belarusian Chaïm Soutine. His expressionist portraits were particularly delightful, as you can see here.

Just before our return journey, we stopped by one more chocolatier: SIP. (It's just called "SIP".) I think this one was my favorite of the trip: a balance between the under-flavored JPH and the overly rich Angelina. Sara still preferred the Angelina to SIP. However, we agree that our US favorite--Jacques Torres in New York (of course with a French name)--holds its own with, and perhaps surpasses, its Parisian competition.

All of that and we've still only scratched the surface of Paris, though after the second visit it feels like a good scratch. We had previously seen the Eifel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Rodin museum, and our culinary tour of Paris added to our love of the city. We spent a huge sum on eating all of Paris, but it was totally worth it--definitely one of the best Thanksgivings I can remember.