Thursday, June 25, 2015

Beautiful Briare

Pages From Jan's Travel Journal: April 21, 2015

When visiting France in April of 2014, I was amazed at the incredibly beautiful spring days following one upon the other like perfect pearls on a string. I was told that this wasn't quite normal, and that the weather can often be cool and rainy during that time. I was certain that in 2015, I could not possibly be so lucky. However, once again I awoke to yet another jewel of a day. As a Kansan, I appreciated every minute of that loveliness. We don't often have day after day of glorious spring weather. Instead, our springtime consists of a few lovely days broken up by thunderstorms and even tornadoes. Or sometimes, it's just plain windy. Or the temperature soars unexpectedly. Not so in the beautiful Loire valley. I'm sure that Darcy and Mathieu grew tired of my constant exclamations of wonder at the near-perfect weather we experienced. 

Our morning began with a visit from a friend, Tonio, who showed up at the door with fresh pain au chocolat. We had a nice visit with him over the pastries and coffee, though I wished his wife, Auralie, could have been there as well. After breakfast, Mathieu went on to work, while Darcy and I walked over to the market to pick up items for a picnic that we had planned with Mathieu's parents. We were to meet them in Briare later in the day after Mathieu returned home. 

When it was time for lunch, Darcy pulled out her tabletop grill, and together we cooked all of the bulgogi that we had been unable to eat the night before. It was a fun meal, and quite delicious! We had rice and vegetables to round it out. Of course, there was plenty of leftover pork, which would later go into Bento boxes.

When Mathieu returned from work, we gathered our picnic food, tablecloth, and other items and took off on a lovely drive to Briare. The population of Briare is around 7,000 inhabitants. Located on the banks of the Loire, it is a charming canal town. We found Thierry and Muriel near the Port de Plaisance, which was crowded with pleasure craft. The scene was lovely and peaceful. There were pots of flowers lining the basin, and on the boats we passed as we walked along the canal. On some of the boats, there were people lounging in deck chairs in the shade of the trees which surround the waterfront. 

Looking toward the waterfront along the canal in Briare, France.

There is a fascinating feature of the canals in Briare. It is a canal bridge. Not just a bridge over a canal, but a bridge which carries the canal itself, by means of a series of locks, up over the river and across. This amazing aqueduct was constructed in the late 1800s by Gustave Eiffel. There are towpaths on either side of it, which are now used as pedestrian sidewalks to traverse the bridge. We enjoyed walking the entire length of it. The views are lovely, though I was hoping that we would see a boat come through. At the far end was a large flock of sheep in a hillside meadow, and we could see the sheepdogs running about, directing them. Just below was another field of sheep, many of them with lambs beside them. Darcy commented that, if she hadn't seen the animals, she would have thought their bleating came from humans pretending to be sheep, because they made such funny sounds. They had high notes and very low tones, and one even sounded as if it were mooing! One of them was very hoarse and sounded rather pathetic.  

 The canal bridge was constructed by Gustave Eiffel.

 On the canal bridge, looking over the Loire.

It's a fascinating structure and worth a visit to Briare.

A lovely village scene in Briare, France.

We located a picnic table near the river, where we had a great time talking and eating. We were visited by a pair of ducks, begging for food. We laughed at the frogs, though we couldn't actually see them in the reeds, because they were serenading in such varied and funny voices (much like the talkative sheep). We saw a cormorant diving for food in the river. Our meal was good. We began with chips, olives, and crackers. We drank cider or fruit juice as we ate the chicken wings, potato salad, tabbouleh, carrot salad and sandwiches. Darcy had brought along baguettes from her favorite artisan bakery. One was a sesame bread and one a poppy seed. We had plenty of ham, pâté, onion jam, salami, Brittany butter, and Gouda cheese to stuff into the wonderful baguettes. We finished the meal with brownies. I'm so glad that I was able to enjoy the company of Muriel and Thierry again. They are Darcys family in France, and it's comforting to know that. It's also wonderful that we have become friends and I hope that one day they will be able to come to America.

 Darcy, Mathieu, Thierry, and Muriel in Briare, France.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

L'île Charlemagne - More Than a Park

Pages From Jan's Travel Journal: April 20, 2015

Springtime in France! Is there anything better? Darcy and I had most of that lovely day to spend together. We had slept late, arising after Mathieu left for work. We breakfasted at home on some tasty marbled brioche, and then popped into the little neighborhood bakery. We purchased a couple of sandwiches and cans of Orangina, and walked a few yards to the bus stop near the Loire. Soon, we were on our way to Ile de Charlemagne, a wonderful lake and park nearby. 

What a pretty view! You'd never know we were at a bus stop.

I was very impressed with Ile Charlemagne. There is a trail that circles the lake, so Darcy and I began walking along, enjoying the fresh, sweet air and lovely views of the lake. As we walked, Darcy pointed out the many activities which abound in the park. There are kayaks and small sailboats for rent and there is a waterpark on a beach where one can rent a giant plastic ball in which to roll along on the water. There is a paintball forest, and another forest full of treetop activities such as rope bridges, nets to climb, and even scooters to ride in the air. On ground level were trampolines, basketball courts, ping pong tables, a pony club, and many playgrounds for children of all ages. We walked most of the way around the sparkling lake before seating ourselves upon a shady bench to eat lunch. We could easily have spent the day there!

 You can play in the trees at Parc Ile de Charlemagne!

 It looks like fun, but perhaps is not the thing for me.

A lovely scene at the lake at Ile de Charlemagne,Orléans, France.

We returned home via the bus, where we simply lazed around for a bit before Darcy had to leave for class. Before she left, we received some disappointing news. We had been planning a day trip to Yonne, Burgundy in order to view Guédelon, a castle which is being constructed with the same techniques and materials as were used in the Middle Ages. Due to a clerical error, Mathieu was scheduled to work on the day we had chosen to visit Guédelon. We were all a bit dejected, but it just couldn't be helped. We would simply have to put that little trip on the back burner and count on it next year. That castle isn't going anywhere.

For our evening meal, Darcy had planned a Korean dish called bulgogi. While she was still at the University, Mathieu started cooking the rice while I prepared the broccoli for roasting. At the last minute, we were pleased to learn that our friend, Arno, would be joining us for dinner. He and Darcy arrived within seconds of each other and we all sat down for apéro. Just as Darcy was about to begin grilling the marinated pork strips for the bulgogi, she realized that Arno would not have been able to eat it, because of a severe allergy to ginger. That required a quick change of plan - we ate the tasty roasted broccoli as an appetizer, and then strolled over to the Rue de Bourgogne to find a restaurant. We ended up at a Cambodian restaurant called Angkor and seated ourselves outside to take full advantage of the balmy evening. I chose the sweet and sour chicken, and was not disappointed. The dish was attractively presented in a fresh pineapple half with a tiny umbrella stuck into it.The ingredients were obviously of high quality and the dish was very well prepared. We were all quite pleased with the meal and had a lovely time. It was wonderful to catch up with Arno, as I had not seen him for a year. The four of us lingered over the meal, enjoying one another's conversation and another beautiful night in the heart of France.

Dinner at Angkor Cambodian Restaurant in Orléans, France.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Bring on the Barbecue (and a dash of Culture)

Pages From Jan's Travel Journal: April 19, 2015

Once again, I awoke to another to another glorious spring day in France! Happiness and contentment washed over me as I made my bed and opened the shutters to the morning sunshine. After a cup of coffee to further brighten my day, Darcy, Mathieu, and I walked over to the market to purchase items for a lunchtime barbecue. We also picked up some pastries for breakfast. I chose a Paris Brest, and even though it came from the supermarket and not a patisserie, it was still pretty good. I love that toasted almond flavor.

Paris Brest, a delightful toasted almond pastry.

Chris and Mathilde were expected for lunch, so we spent a bit of time straightening the house. Darcy and I assembled the barbecue grill and carried it and a bag of charcoal down the stairs to the courtyard below. That charcoal was not in the form of tightly compressed bricks like we use at home. It was in the natural wood shapes, which meant that some of the smaller pieces kept dropping through the grate. Darcy made a tray of aluminum foil, into which she poked holes for ventilation. We piled the charcoal back on and managed to ignite it with no trouble. When our guests arrived, we put the marinated pork steaks onto the grill and as they began to sizzle we sat down to have a beer and some chips, but we soon discovered that the coals were out. I had neglected to open the bottom draft! Darcy and I took the steaks upstairs to cook. At least they had been over the charcoal long enough to acquire that smoky flavor we liked. Meanwhile, Chris and Mathieu had managed to get the coals going again and had put the sausages on to cook. When everything was ready, we sat down to a feast of tender pork steaks, Toulouse sausages, roasted potatoes, and broccoli raisin salad. Everything was quite tasty and we enjoyed visiting around the table as we passed the dishes around for seconds. We finished the meal off with refreshing ginger floats. 

Chris, Mathieu, and Mathilde in the courtyard. 

After Mathilde and Chris had departed, we spent a pleasant hour talking to Craig. Then it was time to leave for an afternoon concert, which featured music played on a beautiful harpsichord. Darcy had been tutoring English to the talented musician of that instrument, Beatrice, who teaches at Julliard. She was accompanied by her husband on the violin, and there were two other musicians as well. One woman played a cello and the other sang. They did many numbers together, and though I did not recognize most of the compositions, I enjoyed the concert immensely. 

Leaving the music hall, we went out to dinner at a sushi restaurant. I am not a big fan of sushi, but there were many other delectable items on the menu. I was quite happy with the dumplings, sweet fried noodles, and cheese maki. We watched a movie after we returned home. All in all, it had been a fun and relaxing day.

Travel Tip: If you take prescription medication, it is a good idea to pack a paper copy of your prescription. It will be much easier to get the prescription filled should you need to. Make sure you also have your doctor's name and phone number.

Friday, June 19, 2015

No Wonder I Smile

Pages from Jan's Travel Journal: April 18, 2015

Simply incredible! I enjoyed every minute of that wonderful day. We began with a trip to the produce farm to see just what might be available. As it was early in the growing season, we were expecting radishes, strawberries, and perhaps some early peas. When we arrived, we discovered that the only vegetables available for picking were the little red radishes. We picked quite a few of them and then purchased a few other items in the farm store, among them a bottle of delicious pear juice. We then drove over to Le Clerc to complete the weekly grocery shopping. After the groceries were unpacked and put away, the three of us set out for a day of adventure.

 We enjoyed picking these tiny radishes.

The farm has a nice selection of local produce.

Darcy and Mathieu were truly pampering me and were willing to do whatever I suggested. I was overwhelmed by their generosity. As we drove toward Bitry to visit Mathieu's parents, we made a stop in Gien. It's one of my favorite places along the Loire. We walked about in that lovely town and visited one of my favorite shops, Leonides, the Belgian chocolatier. I purchased some tasty pates des fruits, and we also enjoyed some of their fabulous ice cream. The crunchy hazelnut flavor I chose was excellent!

Our next stop was Sancerre, which sits high on a hill, overlooking a lovely valley planted with crops and many vineyards. The wide, blue Loire could be seen in the distance. The town itself is very hilly, with beautiful architecture and winding cobblestone streets which twist and turn through the village. After walking around for a bit, we found a table at a cafe on a hotel terrace overlooking the valley. We ordered some of the local white wine, which was delicious, and we also enjoyed a snack of sausage, bread, and tapenade. It was so wonderful being in this beautiful place with two of my loved ones. As usual when I visit France, I couldn't seem to stop smiling. Before leaving Sancerre, we popped into a wine shop to sample a few vintages before purchasing some to take home.

Enjoying a glass of wine in Sancerre, France.

 Darcy and Mathieu in Sancerre.

A beautiful view in Burgundy, France.

Soon, we continued on down the road and passed through a town where Mathieu had attended high school. I believe it was called St. Cyr en Loire. As we drove out of the village toward Burgundy, the scenery became even more beautiful. Gently rolling hills were softened even further by lush green fields and the large cultivated patches of colza, which has brilliant yellow flowers. It is a popular crop, grown for the oily seeds. Soon, Mathieu pulled the car over next to a crumbling ruin that he and Darcy had wanted to show me. I wish I could remember the details of when it was built and by whom, but I know it was ancient and yet lovely. The old tower is now in the process of being shored up and possibly restored. After a peaceful interlude spent exploring, we continued our little journey.

 An ancient ruin in Burgundy, France.

If walls could talk!

That was the first time I had been to Bitry while it was still fully light. We had arrived around 6:00 and were met boisterously by the two happily barking, wriggling Boxers, Roxy and Rouky. Muriel and Thierry greeted us warmly and welcomed us inside, where I knew we would soon be indulging in a delicious home-cooked meal. We began with glasses of Kir and lots of tasty accompaniments: pistachios, crackers, tiny cubes of cheese, sausage, and even sushi. We talked and laughed for a long time. Since I had never seen Thierry's greenhouse, a few of us went outside for a tour. There were approximately 2,000 plants, most of which were cactus, which Thierry hybridizes. He is also an excellent photographer and I truly enjoy looking at the beautiful photos of his cactus flowers. My mother, Ruby, enjoys them also and when I mentioned this to Thierry he said that he would create a hybrid in her name. I was very touched by that. At one point, I asked Thierry if he ever ate any of the cactus fruit. He got such a horrified look on his face and I just knew he was thinking, "My babies!". But be did manage to find a couple that were barely ripe and we sampled them when we returned to the house.

One of Theirry's beautiful blooms.

Our meal continued with a tasty salad of mache, which I believe is also known as lamb's lettuce, that was tossed with crisply fried lardons and a lemony dressing. Next came more wine and the main course. It was tender roasted pork and new potatoes in a savory sauce that was perfect for sopping up with hunks of crusty baguette. Then, more wine, and the cheese tray! There were five different kinds of cheese: a goat cheese, a mild blue cheese, Camembert, a mild, firm cheese flavored with toasted cumin seeds, and a white cheese which had a stripe of ash going through it. I wish I could remember the names of all of them. I sampled them all except for the goat cheese, as I was already familiar with that one. Soon, a beautiful apple tart was brought to the table and we were served glasses of Vouvray to go along with it. We ended that divine meal with tiny cups of espresso. Oh, my, what a memorable meal that was. We had lingered over it for hours, and had to leave for home shortly afterward. What a fantastic day! 

 Muriel, Theirry, and Roxy, our genial hosts.

 Fantastic roast pork and potatoes.

Last, but not least, a delightful apple tart.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Mother - Daughter Time

Pages From Jan's Travel Journal: April 17, 2015

Finally, Darcy had a day off! She was finished with work and school except for a couple of times when she would need to be present for makeup tests with certain students. We slept late and after Darcy finished work on a paper she was writing, we headed out the door to go shopping. I was looking for baby clothes to take home to some of my nieces and nephews. There seems to a baby boom going on in our extended family. It was so nice to wander the shops with my daughter, talking and laughing, savoring every moment together.

A friendly neighborhood kitty.

Darcy had some business to attend to at the prefecture which would take a while, so I walked over to a cafe across from the cathedral, where I enjoyed a cafe creme while doing a bit of people-watching. I was quite content. After Darcy returned, we strolled over to a wonderful bakery on Rue de Bourgogne where we picked up some sandwiches for lunch. Darcy chose the duck breast with herbed cheese and fig jam. My sandwich was pate and onion jam. Both were on crusty baguettes and were quite good.

We shopped a bit longer and then headed home to prepare the crepes for our evening meal. We made buckwheat crepes for the savory gallettes and some wheat flour crepes to be filled for dessert. It was fun taking turns swirling the thin batter around on the pan and watching the stack of finished pancakes grow higher. 

It was fun to make crepes with Darcy.

When Mathieu came home from work, we persuaded him to bring the car around so that we could all go to Mr. Bricolage and pick up a patio set that was on sale there. Now that Darcy and Mathieu have a semi-private courtyard, they were in need of furniture to place outside. The hardware store is on a pedestrian street, so we had to carry the patio table and the four chairs to the parking garage nearby. A couple of men appeared out of nowhere and began to assist us, though we were doing just fine on our own. One of the men was very drunk and kept speaking to me in rapid French. All of a sudden, he leaned over and gave me a hug and planted a big kiss on the top of my head! The other man asked Darcy, "So, how do you like your new dad?" I was shocked and Darcy and Mathieu were angry, but I felt the best thing to do was simply laugh it off. We continued on to the car and stuffed the furniture in. Darcy volunteered to walk home, since the table and chairs took up most of the room in their small car. The traffic was so heavy that, even though we had only a few blocks to travel, Darcy actually beat us home!

When the patio set was unwrapped and placed in the courtyard, we went upstairs for drinks and chips before dinner. The savory ham and cheese gallettes were wonderful! We enjoyed dessert crepes of strawberries and whipped cream, drizzled with chocolate. My, they were tasty! Darcy also made one of chestnut paste and chocolate and Mathieu concocted a Margarita crepe. That was a fun meal.

 A mouth-watering dessert crepe.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Little R and R

Pages From Jan's Travel Journal: April 16, 2015

It was another great day of R and R for me! I was settling quite comfortably into my home away from home. Every day had given me a more relaxed and refreshed attitude. Since Mathieu did not have to work, we had coffee together before he set out for a doctor appointment. I walked several blocks to revisit a favorite bakery. It was the one closest to the apartment that Craig and I had rented a couple of years ago. It was hard to choose from the glass cases filled with delectable treats, but I selected a couple of lemon tarts and then slowly made my way back, enjoying the spring weather and the lovely views of the neighborhood.

 A delightful lemon tart.

Beautiful flowers in front of a church in Orléans, France.

Mathieu returned home, limping from some minor surgery on his foot. I gave him one of the lemon tarts and he presented me with a rustic pastry that he said was one of his favorites. It was a dense, chocolate pastry, not too sweet, and was studded with chocolate chips. It had a pleasantly chewy texture. After Mathieu had rested his foot for a while, we went out for lunch. Our destination was Oh, Terroir, where we both chose burgers off the menu. The restaurant has become very popular, and Mathieu helped several people who were not familiar with the computerized ordering system. I know he was relieved to finally sit down! My cheeseburger was delicious. It had a thick, melting slab of Cantal cheese on it, along with fresh greens, roasted tomato relish, and Bearnaise. Mathieu had chosen the barbecue burger, which had the same kind of tasty cheese and greens, with the addition of barbecue sauce and a sweet onion jam. He gave me a taste and I liked it even better that the one I had ordered. I have never had a bad meal at Oh, Terroir.

Burgers at Oh, Terroir in Orléans, France.

On the way home, we stopped in at L'Occitane en Provence, where I did a bit of shopping. Once Mathieu had rested his foot again, we set out in the car for Le Clerc, a large grocery market that Mathieu and Darcy like. It is a huge place, with very reasonable prices. I enjoyed looking around and shopping a bit. I picked up a few gifts for people at home and also some yummy items for Darcy, Mathieu and myself. We bought some Snickers ice cream bars as a surprise for Darcy. It was the first time we had seen them in France.

Darcy returned home from work feeling lighthearted, as it was her last day on the job before spring break. I told her that to celebrate, I wanted to treat us all to dinner. Darcy chose a Korean restaurant called Kogi. It was apparently one of their favorite restaurants and we were greeted warmly upon arrival. We started with cocktails, and then an appetizer of miso soup followed by a salad. I had never eaten Korean food before and so I took my daughter's advice and ordered a main course called bibimbap. A very heavy and very hot granite bowl was brought to the table, filled with a sizzling combination of rice, bean sprouts, Japanese cucumber, kimchi, spinach, shredded carrots, and pork. A fried egg topped it off, and was quickly stirred into the meat and vegetables. There were some tasty sauces to accompany the dish, which was delicious and quite filling. It was a fun evening and we all had a good time. When we returned home, we watched a movie and enjoyed ice cream bars for dessert.  

Dinner at Kogi in Orléans, France.

Friday, June 12, 2015

No Plans? No Problem!

Pages From Jan's Travel Journal: April 15, 2015

How wonderful it was to sleep late, with no one to take care of but myself! I had no worries and no responsibilities. Ah, vacation! Don't we all need time to relax and recharge? Unfortunately, both Darcy and Mathieu did have responsibilities. They had left early for their respective offices while I blissfully slumbered. I was on my own for most of the day, but that didn't bother me. I knew I could find plenty of things with which to occupy my time. On such a gorgeous day, even just a long walk would be a pleasure. I never tire of looking at the lovely architecture of the old stone buildings in Orléans.

Just a cute house in the neighborhood.

I began the day with fresh coffee and a slice of marbled brioche before setting out to do a bit of shopping. I mostly just "window shopped" while browsing in Halles Chatelet, Monoprix, and Mr Bricolage. At a bookstore, I found a cute Paris coloring book, or adult color therapy book, as they are known now. I planned to purchase one for each of my sisters. I am still using the one that Darcy gave me a while back. It contains page after page of stained glass windows to color. At CarreFour I bought a small bedside lamp for "my" room, along with a basket of fresh strawberries, a demi baguette, and a jar of pork rillettes. I rode the tram back to the apartment, where I munched happily on my little lunch, texting Craig, who had just gotten up. The poor guy wouldn't be starting his vacation for a while.

A perfect little lunch.

After lunch, I tidied up and then attempted to take a nap. I didn't fall asleep, but it was nice to rest in my lovely, cool room. Mathieu returned home around 4:00 and we had coffee together. When Darcy returned, we enjoyed an apero of cold drinks accompanied by sausage, cheese, and some of the snack mix I had brought from Nifty Nut House in Wichita. Darcy and I had fun preparing a vegetable roulade for supper. She thinly sliced strips of beautiful heirloom carrots that were purple, yellow and the classic orange, along with zucchini and eggplant. I arranged them in a puff pastry crust atop a layer of creme fraiche and Dijon mustard, placing the veggies in an ever-growing spiral. This was topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a few dashes of salt and pepper. After baking, the dish was garnished with fresh herbs. It was as tasty as it was beautiful! We ended the meal with plump, fresh strawberries dipped in a rich chocolate ganache. 

A temptingly delicious veggie roulade.

We finished our day with a board game and a sitcom before heading off to dreamland. It had been a rather uneventful day, but sometimes that's just what the doctor ordered.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Relaxing Spring Day

Pages From Jan's Travel Journal: April 14, 2015

I awoke to a beautiful sunny day. Sadly, Darcy had left the house early for the office, but Mathieu and I enjoyed coffee together and then walked across the square to the little bakery for our morning pastries. Mathieu selected a marzipan pig. I chose a raspberry and cream tart. After more coffee to go with our pastries, we set out for a walk along the Loire. Though still early, it had already warmed up enough to leave the jackets at home. We didn't go far, but it was peaceful and lovely down by the river. 

Breakfast pastries.

 A family of geese on the Loire.

Around 11:00, I made my way to the tram, which is a mere three-minute walk from the house. I was headed for the university where I would meet Darcy for lunch. She had packed Bento boxes for us that morning and we planned to eat in the office while chatting with some of Darcy's colleagues. A man on the tram attempted to strike up a conversation with me, but when I explained to him, in my halting French, that I didn't understand, he soon gave up and left me alone.

This is where Darcy's office is located
 at the University of Orléans.

The campus was looking very pretty, with most of the trees leafed out and wildflowers growing haphazardly across the new grass. We had a fun lunch, but soon I had to leave so that my daughter could get back to work. I walked over to Parc Floral, and spent several very pleasant hours wandering in that beautiful botanical garden. It was still a bit early for most of the showy flowers, but I enjoyed the tulips and other early bloomers. I visited the spring, which was quietly flowing as it has been for who knows how long? I stopped at a concession area and ordered a glass of fruit juice, which I sipped while sitting at a lovely shaded table. The cool breeze was refreshing and carried the heavenly scent of flowers. A group of young children, along with their chaperones, went past, giggling and shouting as they pedaled their rented four-wheeled bikes. It looked like a fun way to see the park.

A tree in a basket at Parc Floral.

I met Darcy back at the tram, and we rode home together. Mathieu was waiting for us. We had a little snack and then bundled poor Azur into his cat carrier for a trip to the vet. It was time for his annual shots. He was not a very happy kitty, but he soon settled down once we were home again.

For our evening meal, Darcy cooked a wonderful dish of pasta with roasted chick peas, cauliflower, and broccoli, all seasoned with freshly grated Parmesan. It was delicious and I plan to cook it for the family at home. Mathieu made ginger floats for dessert. The rich vanilla ice cream and spicy ginger beer were a perfect combination.