Eating Madrid

Well, first impressions after a night and a day or two. Madrid is amazing—seems more lively than Rome, Paris, or London, more restaurants per acre, more potential foodie experiences than any place we’ve been! “Living in the streets” is their motto and it shows. They say “an army travels on its stomach”. Well, so do we. Maybe jet lagged fogged impressions but seems this is a city we are going to love.

View from our hotel terrace in the Malasana district

We arrived at 10:30 pm at our beautiful very IKEA Nordic apartment in the Malasana district just north of the city center, unpacked, and went out to get a bite to eat not expecting much. Yes, we know Spaniards eat late….but 11:30 pm? Young people (and a very few older ones) everywhere. Malasana turns out to be a very hip twenty something mecca where we probably increased the average age ten years district wide.

Decided to eat at the first place we found — the funky La Pasa Gin Bar (the real name). Yes, a gin bar, and run by Dominicans (no, not the monks). The place was packed but our host found us a table—we were clearly from another planet and exotic to them. Ordered “gin tonicas.” In Madrid, this prompts a floor show. Did we like citrusy, dry, aromatic, spicy? We settled on one citrusy and one dry drink. Our server returned with two large goblets filled with ice and four gin bottles for us to smell and select. With a flourish he poured the selected gins (we opted for two different Spanish gins—we are in Spain after all) into the goblets each with different garnishes or aromatics — juniper berries in the citrus version and sour orange slice in dry. Each tasted totally different from the other. Gin and tonics back home pale in comparison.

Dry on the left and citrusy on the right

Yes, there was food—an eclectic mixture of Caribbean, Italian, Spanish and a small measure of Thai. Jamon croquettes, burrata cheese salad and chicken skewers on Thai rice noodles. Generous portions for sure. Food was good, gin tonicas great, people watching superb. Best of all, the Dominicans were great hosts.

So far have yet to meet any local who hasn’t squeezed out us of our very limited Spanish and added their slightly better English to engage us in conversation. Everybody is ready to drop everything and schmoze. Clearly they are charming us!

Next morning we had arranged a food and market tour. Always our preference to get to know a city first by its markets and food stores, and with an apartment kitchen we were ready to do some cooking. The historic sites can wait. Our guide turned out to be German—a charming young woman fluent in Spanish who had given up a career in finance in London to do this. It really is helpful in some ways to have a foreign perspective—she had gone through the learning experiences and was well aware of the cultural shocks you would find in Madrid.

We started the tour with Churros in a restaurant that had been in operation over 100 years, a plaque on the sidewalk outside announced — the city of Madrid’s tribute to the older establishments. Not normally a fan of churros, these were delicious! Ate every bit! And then wandered to a cheese shop that only sells small batch cheeses in Spain, even if the style of the cheese is French or Italian. The owner also makes his own butter and ricotta in-house. And then it was off to the market.

The highlight was Los Mostenes market near our apartment—a local covered market well off the tourist path. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but inside it was two floors of food stalls and small cafes with a stool or two offering specialties from around the Spanish speaking world. The prices were less than half of those at the famous San Miguel market. It was bustling with locals.

After chatting with the local jamon merchant (who was critical of the high prices of jamon in the tourist stores) and several other vendors she knew well, we stopped at the local fishmonger, bought some shrimp, calamari, and took them over to small counter restaurant in the corner of the market, where the owner pan fried them with a squeeze of lemon for lunch for us.

The options were endless

We were sitting next to a butcher still in his bloody apron who was on his lunch break. Local charm. We loved it and our three course meal — tortilla (a Spanish omelette), paella (the owner was not from Madrid so he was “allowed” to make paella) and our seafood which could not have been better prepared. We were also introduced to summer red wine — a fruity red mixed with sparking lemon soda — more commonly consumed than sangria. Again delicious.

We ended our first day armed with a list of restaurants to try, routes to walk and tips on how to navigate dining customs in Madrid. Obviously four full days and five nights in the city will be insufficient to do it all. Traveling on your stomach takes time.

We will simply be forced to return.

Kinvarra — location, location, location!

A friend of a friend who had grown up in Ireland, but now was a New Yorker had told us we would love Kinvarra, a small village outside Galway. He was right. Sitting right on the quay, the town’s history goes back to ancient times with a 16th century tower house, Dunguaire Castle, (a common residence for the medieval rich) which you can tour for €8 and a medieval banquet at additional cost— both of which we skipped, although we did walk around the castle. A few sailboats and small fishing boats were anchored in the bay or tied up to the quay. Picturesque to say the least.

The town itself consisted of just a few streets. But unlike some cute villages, there was nothing artificial about Kinvarra. The pandemic apparently had taken a toll given the number of shuttered businesses—a sign of very real world problems. Nonetheless, on the weekend the place bustled. Outside of the old town were some very nice, modern homes and a few early twentieth century estates. Ireland lost many of it humble nineteenth homes during the famine and period of widespread emigration. It lost many of the manor estates during the civil war and struggle for independence.

From Kinvarra, we drove an hour or so to the Cliffs of Moher, to the Burren, Galway and Connamera. It was our home base for several days and worked nicely. There was enough to do in the village itself — a couple restaurants, a modern hotel done up to look old with a thatched roof, three or four coffee shops and several pubs filled with locals on weekend nights.

Again, on the advice of our friend of a friend, we drove to Connemara, an other worldly landscape of mountains, waterfalls, saltwater inlets, marshes, rock walls and peat bogs.

It wasn’t long before we were saying we had saved the most scenic for last and regretted we didn’t have more time to give to the area.

As we drove along, I could see some fields had sections which were lowered as though someone had dug it our for a foundation for a house. Then I noticed the color of the soil and saw a pile of carefully cut pieces stacked. Peat. Cut and drying for fuel. In the 21st century. I wondered if it was just nostalgia or if people still used the peat for heating their homes. It was clear that a lot of this land had been dug up and fairly recently. One of the frustrations of independent travel can be not getting answers to question like this.

Our friend of a friend had also said he didn’t care for Galway. We tended to share his impression, but we were there on a windy, wet Sunday afternoon. Our impression might have been different if we had been there in the evening for some of the traditional music. We did enjoy walking along the River Corrib, along the docks and the open air market.

We ended up the day at the Glenlo Abbey for dinner in a railroad car from the Orient Express Train. A bit kitschy, but fun. Allegedly the cars from the real train, plus one that had been used in the 1974 movie and one that had been used to carry Winston Churchill’s body back to Marlborough House. And the food was quite good and the service was superior!

Kinvarra was also recommended to us because of its music scene. And the main location for that music was right next to our temporary home. Unfortunately that building was undergoing a major remodel. And we never did find any other site that had traditional music.

BTW, the mussels at the Keough Restaurant were absolutely fabulous both nights we ate there. Tiny, tender and perfectly cooked, although with a different sauce each night. There’s also a very well stocked Spar grocery store for those like us who want to cook in. Prices for meat were comparable to home, but produce was top notch and much cheaper. Of course, we were there in time for the Irish spring lamb. I did feel a twinge of guilt after our meal whenever a saw a sheep pasture without any lambs.

From Cliffs to Burren

Like almost all places we visit that are super touristy, we got there early. There were only a dozen or so cars in the parking lot and a handful of tourist buses. Even so, we simply followed the stream of people heading into the 30mph wind and towards the Cliffs of Moher.

I’ve been told that a decade or so ago parts of these cliffs could only be seen from your hands and knees while you crawled along the edge. I don’t know if that is true, but I know I would not have been there had that been the case today.

When we bought our tickets at the gate, the attendant told us to turn right, or north for the better views. Of course, that’s what everyone had been told and it was pretty crowded. At the far end there is a gravel path but the sign saying “closed” caused us to turn around.

Instead we walked south, along a good gravel path, with some curious cows watching our progress. We probably walked, going both as far north as we did and then further south 2 or 3 miles, and we could have walked further, but we had more to see on this windy day.

We had approached the Cliff of Moher from the town of Doolin and missed the traffic and stream of tour buses. As we left the Cliffs and headed to Ennistymon we met bus load after bus load of latecomers who were about to join the ant hill march around the Cliffs. Get to the major tourist sights early!

A quick lunch in Ennistymon and we were off to our second destination for the day, the Burren Centre in Kilfenora. We asked for advice on a 3-4 mile walk in the area and we’re directed to Carran where we could park our car at a local pub, Cassidy’s, and walk a loop that is part of the Burren Way. In contrast to the Cliffs Of Moher, we had the walk to ourselves except for a couple of older women out for a stroll.

The ice age and receding glaciers did a number on Ireland, In the Burren it appears the glaciers simply rubbed the top soil away and exposed whole, round mountains down to the bare limestone. Erosion and water did the rest of the work to create an other-worldly landscape. I read where an enormous percentage of the native plants to Ireland survive in the cracks and crevices of the Burren.

There is also what is reported to be the remains of an ancient circle, in the style of Avesbury or Stonehenge, but smaller.

After the walk we enjoyed a half pint in the pub.

A day in contrasts, but the constant was the wind.

Walking maybe more dangerous

Walking around towns more than once I have almost stepped out into oncoming traffic. Checking over my right shoulder to look for cars just isn’t second nature to me. But now driving……we haven’t come close to making a significant mistake.

Driving is Ireland is not nearly as hard as you might think. And for this trip, we even drove a manual transmission, so hitting the correct gear (in a six gear car) took a while to master. Nonetheless, it was worth ever lurch and stutter start. We got up close and personal to corners of Ireland no one in a tour bus gets to see.

The roads in Ireland are very well marked. Between a good road map and a GPS system on a phone, we manage both small obscure country lanes (too small to really call them roads) as well as the motor ways. Sometimes we had to round a round-about twice to find the right exit. Sometimes we drove a few dozen yards in the wrong direction before finding a place to turn around and correct course. The famous Wild Atlantic Way (which is really a collection of scenic routes and not just one road) are clearly marked with a wavy blue line. Signs are also color coded.

Outside of the cities traffic was light. And Irish drivers seem to generally be pretty polite and courteous. Don’t think we heard one horn honk in the three weeks we drove the Wild Atlantic Way. We deliberately hit the major tourist routes like the Shea Head Way as early as possible to avoid any busses or crowds.

You do have to learn some vocabulary. “Traffic calming” signs mean speed bumps ahead to slow traffic down. “Go Mall” we soon learned meant slow down in Gaelic. The warning sign alerting us to “Horse Boxes” stumped us for a few minutes until we realized it was a reference to horse trailers. While we had been warned sign on the Dingle Peninsula would all be in Gaelic, the reality is there were plenty of signs in English and route numbers are still just numerals.

Driving on the “wrong” side of the road does take a bit more vigilance. The navigator has to help the driver when making turns. We refer to a left turn, as a “near side turn,” keeping the passenger or navigator “in the ditch.” A right turn is across a lane of oncoming traffic — what we call a “far side turn,” again with the reminder to keep the navigator near the ditch. In many ways, driving is light traffic is easier, as the car in front of you is a constant reminder of where you should be.

The narrow country lanes, often just a bit more than a car width wide, are lined by what appear to be soft hedges of wild rhododendron or hardy fuchsia. In reality, those bushes hide the stone walls which would not be the least bit forgiving should you tap one.

And we did run into an occasional farm animal on the road, but not nearly as often as we did in Scotland or Sicily. And the occasional biker or walker and baby stroller. We hopped on a ferry to cross the River Shannon and found the system less complex than at home.

The only real excitement we had was when we chose to drive out of Dingle over Conner Pass. The sign as you begin the final three kilometer climb to the summit was intimidating — but also reassuring as we knew it meant we would not be dodging buses and big trucks.

Once at the summit, the views in both directions were stunning. The work of glaciers thousands of years ago to the north and the town of Dingle on the bay to the south. The drive down the north side was definitely one car at a time in places, with a sturdy rock retaining wall on the cliff side and clear visibility of the road ahead.

Bottom line? Driving in Ireland is not that big a deal. Enjoy the freedom of going where you want when you want. Relax. You really can’t get too lost — you’re on an island.

Kinsale without Sunshine

Our refrain has been for three days, “that would be a gorgeous view if the sun would just pop out for a minute.” And “that would be a fun walk if the rain would stop.” Kinsale has a lot to offer even on a very wet June weekend. In the sunshine it would be hard to beat!

A medieval town, with bits of the original wall still standing, Kinsale is a touch point in Irish (and British) history. Walking the town you can hardly walk a short block without encountering a historical reference. A small pocket park marks the site memorializing the famine. Another has a monument to the War of Independence. And another to the maritime history of the town. Today it is filled with colorful shops and restaurants catering to tourists.

Situated near the entrance to a long, narrow bay, Kinsale is dominated by its harbor, its fishing fleet and pleasure boats. Working fishing boats still are tied up to the docks (and local restaurants brag about their fresh seafood) Lobster pots set alongside the boats. As we said, it would be incredibly picturesque if the sun were shining.

There are great walks to the north and south of town. The path along the south side of the harbor leaves town, climbs a bit past a group of homes (some quite modern and elegant) and becomes a pedestrian walking path out to Fort Charles. Between the slated-sided and typical whitewashed house, there’s a great view back at the condos lining Pier Road and the Kinsale Yacht Club.

A few kilometers from Kinsale is the Lusitania Museum and Old Head Signal Tower. The tower was built as part of an early warning system up the eastern coast of Ireland built to announce any potential invasion by Napoleonic forces in the early 1800’s and has been rebuilt and restored. Today the site also serves as a memorial to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and the interior of the tower is a small museum. Ships from Kinsale were among the first to the scene after the attack and rescued many of the survivors. The names of those lost are listed around the memorial. On a clear day you can see for miles from the top of the tower. We were a bit surprised the best views and a historic lighthouse are off limits as part of a private golf course. Obviously the tradition here does not match Scotland where even St. Andrews Golf Course was open to non-golfing walkers one day a week.

We kept waiting for the clouds to lift and see the Kinsale in sun light. Never happened, unfortunately. Maybe next time?

A Walk in the Wolds

Several years ago while in Scotland we met some folks who were hiking, pub to pub, through a section of Scotland. The idea intrigued us— slowing down the travel time, spending some time walking through the villages, meeting up with local walkers. But carrying a backpack with all our possessions? No way. Then a friend took a long walk through England and told about a local company that carried her bags from place to place and made lodging arrangements, leaving her just to lug a day pack. That we could manage!

We had never been to York and thought we wanted to walk for three or four days. We checked with one of many different companies that support this kind of independent walking trips and picked a 50 mile walk out of York — The Minster Way — a ramble from the Beverley Minster to the grand York Minster through the East Yorkshire Wolds. We signed up, booked our tickets and then Covid hit. Two and a half years later we boarded our flight.

The actual walk began in Beverley. We were loaded with information — two published narratives, describing the walk. Four actual topographical maps charting our walk plus all the others in the area. One electronic version of a topographical map and, of course, Google maps. All were insufficient to get us out of Beverley. We were finally guided out by a kind gentleman walking his dog in suburban Beverley. A small celebration when we finally found the first of the signs directing the way.

At first it was a bit disconcerting to weave through a gate, reading the signs warning of bulls in the pastures, but they seemed pretty accustomed to the occasional walker to be even be bored by our appearance. That is, except for one group of young bulls, that began to run as we got close. Then they stopped about 20 yards ahead on the path, turned to look if we were still coming and would set off again. Eventually they turned and at a safe distance thundered past us. Soon walking among the animals didn’t cause us a second’s pause. Often despite the warnings, the pastures were empty.

The first two days took us through fairly flat, agricultural land — huge fields of wheat, rye and other grains plus pasture of caws and pens of sheep. Interspersed among the fields were small patches of trees and an occasional road or track for farm equipment.

Most of the path went right through the planted fields and up close and personal with the animals and around outbuildings for farms.

At one point the path led us into a field of wheat and appeared to stop. A couple in the distance waved us forward and with some trepidation for stomping on valuable wheat we proceeded. Turns out the couple was out weeding their field by hand, removing a noxious weed that is impervious to herbicides, or at least those that could be used in a wheat field.

We also ran into the estate manager for a large operation. He explained that much of the rye in the area could be sold at about $100 more a ton if used in energy conversion plants which operated in the area. And while potatoes were also grown in the region, the chalky soil spoiled their looks so they were only used for seed.

But these two encounters were the exception in the first 25 miles. Mostly we walked alone, not seeing a business, a cafe, a pub or any commercial business in any of the tiny hamlets we walked through until the end of the second day. We did pass through small villages, usually a collection of homes, farm buildings and a church.

That changed on the third day as we entered the most hilly and scenic part of the trail. Suddenly we started meeting groups of walkers. We all praised the weather (cool and mostly dry), agreed the sights were spectacular and lightly complained about the rigor of going up and down the hills. The complaints were warranted. Apparently, no one here believes in switchbacks so trails go pretty much straight up and straight down. A challenge for the knees, for sure.

It wasn’t all bucolic, however. While the trail was generally well marked, we did manage to get lost — twice. The first time was sheer stupidity. We had a visual image of our B&B for the night and manage to walk right past the place because the building closest to the road did not match our picture, despite the signage. Once again it was the kindness of strangers that got us back on track — this time a man out to get his day’s exercise on his bike. He pointed us in the correct direction with clear landmarks to watch for.

The second time we got lost was really not out fault. Our host at the previous night’s B&B dropped us off at the trailhead. Unfortunately she left us at the wrong trailhead and it took two hours and four miles of map checking, walking, head scratching and googling to find out where we were. At which point we abandoned the trail we had planned to walk and simply took the trail in front of us. The two trails intersected a few miles down the way, according to the maps. Crisis managed!

What were the highs and lows? The biggest problem was our own fault. We did not do enough research on the walk itself. Not until after we had booked the walk and been given the list of our lodgings did we realize how remote the Minster Way route was. We were booked into four places — a glamping site (turned out to be delightful) a Farm B&B (better suited for country house party than sweaty walkers carrying a bit of animal dung on their boots) a quintessential pub and a suburban home with a spare room. When we asked for some modifications in the accommodations, we were told that was all there was along the trail. After walking it, we believe it! One or two other pubs that might have been options went under during the pandemic.

Secondly, we had forgotten how tiresome it is to unpack each evening and repack each day. It is really a drag to live out of a suitcase, even if someone else delivers your bag to you. There’s a reason why we aren’t backpackers at home,

What did we love? The flip side of the remoteness was also a plus. When we paused in our walking, often the only sound to be heard were the birds in the hedgerows. A Northern Lapwing flew overhead and we could hear the wing beats. As casual birders we added nearly a dozen birds to our life list. The quiet, the peacefulness, time alone.

The landscapes seemed so vivid, often picturesque and sometime just plain stunning. As a fans of the new version of All Creatures Great and Small, we could easily envision James Herriot driving around there hills.

Would we do it again? Yep, but differently. Maybe pick a single place to do multiple day hikes out of over several days. Maybe rely upon buses or trains to move us through the less visually rich sections. (In East Yorkshire, taxis have become an endangered species since the pandemic and too scarce to rely upon). But our first taste of long walks in the British Isles definitely left us wanting more.

A Practice Run

Like so many people, for the last two years we hunkered down, stayed in our bubble and only ventured out for short, regional car trips. All that changed when we boarded the plane nearly a month ago for Costa Rica.

Playa Potrero

We had traveled to CR five years ago and spent a couple weeks before hopping on an adventure cruise —a few days in San Jose, then some time near Monteverde and finally a week in Potrero on the Nicoya Penensula. Definitely whetted our appetite for more Pura Vida. So back we came.

While it was a return trip, it was also a chance to exercise our flabby travel muscles. In two years we had forgotten a lot and some of those automatic responses to travel challenges had faded.

What did we re-learn?

We tend to be independent travelers, charting our own route, picking our own accommodations (generally various vacation rentals online), driving our own car and making our own discoveries — both good and not-so-good. Nonetheless, there are times to turn to the experts. A good reminder.

Talk to the locals and the local ex-pats. From them we learned the best day trips, a reliable fish vendor, and where we could hire a boat and guide for kayaking. They tipped us off to good restaurants, beaches for body surfing or walking.

Talk to your fellow travelers. We had forgotten how much you can learn from them. As our trip wore on, we remembered the value of asking them questions about what they’ve done and seen and where they were going next? Next to locals, ex-pats and or a concierge, they can be sources of great information. Who knows! You may end up making new friends. So bring some business cards so you can share them and stay in touch. We forgot that, much to our regret after we met some great people.

Sure guidebooks often have some of this info, but they are always at least a year or two out of date. Case in point: a guidebook published three months before our trip said to never under any circumstances drive the short cut over the Monkey Trail from Liberia to Potrero. Forging a river and 11 kilometers of a rutted dirt rollercoaster road with steep cliffs was not advisable, the guidebook said. We heeded that warning and took the “safe” 90 minute drive. When we asked an ex-pat about that, he laughed. Maybe during the rainy season you might want to avoid the road, but not during the dry winter months. Maybe if you had a low-slung fancy sports car. We drove it. It was now paved.

Entirely paved. At time rather steep, frequently marked with potholes and narrow, but also scenic and cut the drive to Liberia in half. That river? Hardly a trickle.

Ex-pats and locals know their neighborhoods!

We did run into a small herd of cattle and their sabanero (cowboy) at the end of the trip, but by the end of our month driving around cows on the roadway felt pretty ho-hum.

Find a concierge or local fixer. Many of the vacation rentals are managed by a local person or a company who can provide services well beyond fixing broken showers. Someone who acts as a concierge can help you avoid mistakes and connect you with the right people for what you want to do. This trip our “concierge” ended up being an ex-pat who rented us our golf cart ( She became our go-to person when we wanted to go kayaking, needed a guide for birding as well as a list of good restaurants, and explained the process for getting the required COVID tests to return to the USA. And when we needed a medical clinic, she was there to guide us (that’s a story for another day).

In Costa Rica, the guides are trained (minimally a two year college program) and speak excellent English. Our guide, Gravin, was a jewel. He took us on two birding trips — one up the Tempisque River estuary and to a private nature preserve, Bijagua Ranas, between the Miravallas and Tenorio Volcanoes. Both were stunning trips made even better by his connection to the uber-local guides he regularly worked with.

The Bijagua Rangas volunteer guide, Ishmael, on the far left and our regular guide, Gravin on the far right
While we are pretty casual birders, we have to admit we probably wouldn’t have seen most of the fifty different species of birds we saw in Costa Rica without our guides. They are worth what they charge plus a generous tip!

Those packing lists? Revise them. Add masks. And hand sanitizer. In Costa Rica you are expected to wear a mask indoors and everyone does. You are asked to wash your hands or use sanitizer before entering a store or restaurant and most people do. Not a bad idea where ever we are traveling these days.

Even the hardware store had hand sanitizers!

Remember the stores back home aren’t the only ones experiencing shortages. And some items are much harder to find outside of the US. We packed back-up batteries and memory cards for our cameras, but forgot about the flashlight and other little electronics that might need new batteries during a month long trip. AA and AAA batteries were available in grocery stores, but that was about it in Costa Rica. We never did find one battery we needed.

And pack less. Be brutal, particularly if you are staying in vacation rentals with washing machines. We will be returning with a couple things we never wore. We had forgotten how few things you actually need and how great it is to travel light. And depending upon where you are going, plan on buying some common things locally. Going to a hot, sunny and heavily touristed area, we chose to buy most of our sun block there. (We’ve gone through two good sized bottles in a month.). Beside, shopping for the mundane is exotic in a different country and part of the fun.

We’re heading home shortly, but ready and better prepared for our next adventure now that the pandemic seems to be a bit under control or at least manageable with some common sense precautions.

Bon Appétit in Provence

For too many years on various trips to the south of France and parts of Italy, we were frustrated by seeing the tempting food in the markets and having no place to cook. Not to mention in France, the wonderful boulangeries, boucheries, fromageries, charcuteries, poissoneries, and pâstisseries. We remedied that by staying in vacation rentals and Airbnb’s with well supplied kitchens. But this time in the south of France, we decided to up the ante and take a cooking class. What could be more fun? Fall’s bounty in the markets, picking up some tips from a local expert, and topped off by eating a great lunch we had made.

So Peter did some research and found a Irish woman, Petra Carter, who runs a small cooking school, Le Pistou, in Uzes near where we were staying for ten days. A former B&B owner and a sixteen year resident of France, she was a wealth of local knowledge. She taught a variety of classes. Foods of the south of France for tourists, and Lebanese or Indian for the locals in the winter months! Apparently, the locals get enough of Provençal food at home and in the restaurants and are desperately looking for some variety.

Our group of four arrived promptly at 9:30am, and we met the four other students—a couple from Canada, a woman from Australia, and a woman from Alaska. Petra acted more as a hostess at a dinner party than a teacher or task master. She carefully introduced each of us to the others, and to her assistant, and generally chatted us up. Lots of laughter. Introductions complete, we put on the aprons and took our seats along a long stone counter.

First on the cooking agenda was a twisted tart of sun dried tomatoes and fennel seed. The French do have the best pastry in the stores’ refrigerator cases. Nothing like the tubes of Pillsbury dough we see at home or the frozen rectangles of Pepperidge Farm puff pastry. The array of choices in France is inspiring — all butter, whole wheat, gluten-free, low-fat or whatever. One variety is appropriate for pizza crusts, another for a sweet tart and some are more like puff pastry. I was familiar with the options from our previous trip to Provence and had made an open face tart our first night in Uzes with some creamy goat cheese and zucchini. Petra’s version was something else, using an all butter round puff pastry. One student spread the topping of sun dried tomatoes blended with a bit of olive oil and bit of minced garlic on the bottom crust that sat on a piece of parchment paper. Then, after laying the top round in place, our instructor carefully sliced the tart and showed us a technique for twisting it to create a fancy shape—like a sun with radiating rays. No surprise—the French name: Tart du Soliel. Given the quality of the pastry in France, we were told home cooks often make a variation on a tart for a light meal or with a sweet filling for dessert. All in all, a pretty easy and impressive dish once you know the techniques. Of course, the challenge at home will be getting the pastry.

With one appetizer in the oven, the vegetables for our lunch were next. A pile of unblemished, fat fennel bulbs. Bright red peppers with some slight scarring from the summer winds. A bowl of big red tomatoes, the kind we can only get from our own gardens or in the farmers’ markets. She demonstrated the technique for cutting each. Fennel bulb in thin wedges, being careful to keep a good bit of the core in each wedge to keep it intact. Cutting the red peppers through the stem but leaving it in place so the pepper won’t collapse during roasting. Tomatoes cut and seeded, as Petra didn’t want too much liquid in the final dish. And then she turned to vegetables over to us to replicate her example.

As we chopped away, Petra gave us a history lesson on the cuisine of southern France. Not surprisingly, it was largely dictated by the warm weather crops that grew well here— tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, olives. (Many would say more Italian than French.) Not much butter or cream or rich sauces we associated with the French high cuisine. The big meal of the day was lunch. Without ovens in their homes, women cooked the family meal in the ovens of the boulangerie after the bread for the day was done. (And the men, our host noted, usually sat around drinking Pastis, the anise flavored liquor of the region). So the backbone of Provençal meals was slow cooked and oven roasted foods. Salads only arrived with the tourist onslaught.

The fennel wedges were tossed in a single layer into a sauté pan with a good drizzle of olive oil to brown. No salt. A little pepper. And then arranged in a circular pattern in a shallow baking dish. Topped with a bit of fennel seed and more olive oil and popped into the oven, to be garnished with bits of fresh fennel fronds when it came out. The halves of peppers were placed in a deeper dish. The tomatoes was tossed with olive oil, capers, some pepper, Herbes de Provençe, and spooned into each pepper. Then a teaspoon (or a bit more) of home made red wine vinegar was added to each pepper. And it, too, went into the same oven with the fennel.

A question about her favorite olive oil led to an impromptu tasting. She brought out four bottles. Poured a bit of each in small bowls and asked us to taste. The flavors ranged from light and subtle to peppery or vegetal. And prices ranged from 7€ to 15€. Her advice? Buy to best you can for cooking (be a bit extravagant) and a little better for finishing. And the olive oil tasting led to an olive tasting and a lecture about those canned black olives that kids put on the end of the fingers. They may be forever banished from our house after Petra explained how they are made — picked unripened & very green, pitted, bathed in lye and soaked in rusty water! Yes, rusty water, to turn them black. Delightful, heh!? No more black olives on my pizzas!

And of course there was a cheese dish — in fact, three. Midway through our cooking, out came some cheese Petra had made. One was a simple spread of strained yogurt to which she had added pink peppercorns and cardamon. She had a second variation with cumin and coriander. Both served on slices of baguettes. She showed us her collection of vintage molds for the cheese (which set us out on a mission to find one to take home) but confessed to generally just using wire mesh strainers. As we munched away and sipped champagne, she demonstrated how to marinate aged goat cheese rounds in olive oil and spices. And she told us that the best and cheapest containers come from Ikea, no less.

The final cheese dish was only slightly more complicated—a round of Camembert (a cow cheese from the north of France—the local cheese is either sheep or goat) placed in its original wooden round box with the lid used underneath for more support. She cautioned us to make only shallow slices in the top of the cheese before turning the task over to one of us. Her intention had been to top the cheese with a liqueur, hazelnuts and honey but then remembered one of us was allergic to nuts. No problem! The recipe was altered. A splash of kirsch, sprinkle some barberries, a bit of honey and fennel seeds on top and bake that little treasure in its wooden box. Word of warning. For this recipe only use the wooden rounds that have staples in them; glued ones will fall apart.

All three of the cheese recipes were more about a technique which you could vary either the herbs, the spices, add nuts or honey and just enjoy.

The surprise of the day was the dessert — an olive oil chocolate mousse. Yes, olive oil. Dairy free and absolutely silky. The technique was similar to a standard mousse. Separating eggs, carefully adding the yolks to melted chocolate and the olive oil, whipping the whites and folding them into the chocolate. In a twist on flavoring the chocolate with a bit of vanilla or a liqueur, she had us grate a tonka seed (reputedly a hallucinogen in larger quantities) into the mixture. Subtle and delicious. Spooned into tiny demitasse cups.

And meal was rounded out by flambéd prawns and grilled razor clams with garlic crumbs. We were each given a handful of prawns and told to remove both veins. Petra fussed about the quality of the shellfish, not sure it was as fresh as she would have preferred. She showed us how to loosen the long narrow razor clam from its shell and open the shell up so it could be filled with bread crumbs tossed with garlic and olive oil. While the clams went under the broiler, she quickly sautéed the prawns and then taught one of the least experienced cooks how to flambé using Pastis. Frankly after tasting the prawns, her concerns about their freshness was unfounded, and it was the best use of Pastis ever! Only a subtle licorice flavor permeated the prawns.

And after all the food was prepared, laid out on a buffet, the plates were filled and wine glasses topped off, we sat around the table for more than an hour and half, eating, sharing travel and food stories, learning more about the politics and real estate of Uzes. We left with cheek kisses all around almost six hours after we started.

By the way, Petra made sure we did the cheek kisses the right way, but also cautioned us, hugging in France between friends is just not done. All the kissy-kissy stuff is fine, but bodies should never touch. Good to know.

Ah, la belle France.

None for the Road: wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Sometime it is best to leave the driving to someone else. And probably a day centered around tasting the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of those occasions. So we hired a guide we found online (after doing our due diligence of reading reviews, studying the website and cross checking on other sites) for a day, roughly seven hours, including a lunch break.

There was a time when we would have eschewed hiring a guide, figuring a good map (or navigation system) and a good guide book were enough. Then a friend and fellow traveler bought us a food tour as a present when we were in Aix-in-Provence. A couple hours with an American expat convinced us there was more to see than we were aware or that guidebooks could provide. And since then we have hired guides for a specific purpose at different points in different trips. And always it was been a good value.

In Paris we not only tasted the baguettes, fromage and pátê, but learned the etiquette of these specialties and where to find some of the best in a city that sometimes considers tourists fair game. It was a no brainer to hire a guide to kayak through the Sian Ka’an Biospere in Yucatán; it was the only way to see the area. When we didn’t rent a car in Cape Town, South Africa, our options to tour the region was a big tour bus or a guide. Not a difficult choice at all.

We told our guide Alain we wanted to focus in on Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and maybe a winery specializing in rosé, if time allowed. In the summer some of the wineries are open to tourists, but we were tasting in the fall when some of the smaller wineries shut down so all hands could focus on the harvest. Having a bilingual guide also meant we had a translator when the wine maker’s English was limited. And perhaps most importantly, we could taste wine without worrying about driving; we left the driving to Alain!

Alain picked us up at our temporary home and off we went to visit three different wineries — a large operation that fits your mental image of a French winery, a smaller winery that had recently been acquired by E. Guigal and then a real “mom and pop” operation. At each stop we were largely the only ones there — we saw only two or three other visitors all day, and a couple of very cute dogs.

Our first stop was a small winery that offered both white and red Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We really enjoyed the Viognier, and that was the first — but not the last — bottle we bought to enjoy over the next week.

The second winery, the largest, grew all of the thirteen grapes that may be included in a Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend. Before tasting we walked among the barrels and learned a bit about some of the older machinery that years ago was pulled from vineyards to vineyard to bottle the wine.

We were able to walk among the vineyards in front, just a few acres which produced one of the bottles we bought. The pickers were just finishing for the day. Our guide told us most of the pickers in this region are Spaniards who come to France for the higher wage (9€ an hour) while still retaining their health care and social security benefits which are universal through the EU. The inferior grapes (which looked fine to our untrained eyes) were left on the ground as only the best grapes made it into the baskets. The vines were picked clean and had been pruned earlier in the year to produce a smaller quantity of higher quality grapes.

Our final stop was the most modest winery, Tavel, specializing in rosé. The motif was a woodcock, a local game bird that the founder of the winery had enjoyed hunting. Now too elderly to be actively engaged, the operation of the winery had been left to his daughter-in-law and granddaughter after his son had passed away. And it was quite good, definitely better than their other wines.

Part of the challenge of wine tasting in this part of France is the tradition of lunch being the major meal of the day. And since most of the wineries would be closed from noon to 2:00 or 2:30, we had to pause in midday to do the same. Our guide asked what kind of lunch we wanted and delivered us to a lovely place in the shadow of the Avignon’s Popes’ summer castle. After all, the region derived its name from being the Summer home of the Pope!

Between winery stops, Alain gave us a bit of history of the region, recommended other villages to visit that were not typically on the tourist route and provider some insider tips on the area. Although I think he might have been a bit surprised at how taken we were at the first winery with the resident dog.

Earlier in our trip we had met a young couple from Manhattan who were driving themselves and tasting wines along the way. They had booked most of their visits in advance and were on a tight time schedule. They probably tasted far more wines than we did, but maybe they missed much of the French experience of savoring the good things in life.

Budget Business class?

Who doesn’t want to sleep on those long overnight flights to Europe? As we’ve gotten older and more spoilt, we’ve tried with mixed results to use miles to get to Europe in comfort. And it seemed to be getting harder to reclaim those miles for international trips. So we jumped at the chance to buy a business class ticket on La Compagnie.

La Compagnie advertises itself as a “boutique” airlines. In their terms “boutique” means small (70 passengers total), great service (one flight attendant for every ten rows), but not all of the amenities of a big, swanky outfit. The airline has been operating for a few years, mainly a Newark to Paris flight. We heard a Newark to London flight had been abandoned, but that a new flight to Nice was just starting up. For about $1200 each we booked two tickets in mid-September, 2019.

The 11:30 pm departure wasn’t a problem and meant we could have flown in to Newark the day of our departure. Instead we opted for a weekend in NYC, got a late checkout from the hotel, had quick bite to eat in the theater district, saw Broadway matinee performance, 6:30 dinner reservation, picked up bags at hotel and took Lyft to the Newark Airport ($75). Got to the airport around 9:30 pm. The airline said we could have checked in as early as 9:00 but that we had to be checked in 50 minutes before the flight.

Check in was really really easy…no one else there at all. Not a person. Two staff to check us in And they directed us to the Art Lounge, a facility they share.

The Art Lounge is a little shabby if you are used to the ones the big international carriers have. The furniture definitely needs updating. The lounge is small but a major part is sectioned off for La Compagnie. We had our choice of seats, and plenty of room to spread out. The food options were decent — a couple hot dishes, cheese and crackers, basic booze options. Nothing to compare to the top of line lounges but more than adequate for an hour or two wait.

The lounge sits outside of security! But that’s not a problem since you get to use the priority line. Good thing, as the regular security line was immense. They announced in the lounge when it was time to go to the gate, about a half an hour before boarding. We went to the gate at about 10:20 which turned out to be way too early since we didn’t actually board until 11:10.

The international departures area in Newark is a total zoo—crowded beyond belief. The situation was complicated that evening because a Norwegian flight boarding next to us had been delayed and people were very cranky. And there was a British Airline flight delayed as well with people camped out on the floor.

However, the boarding was lightening fast. We were in the plane in what seemed like seconds and completed the boarding and closed the doors before I could put my things away. None of the usual people bumping into you as they they try to get by you. And before we were completely settled in our seats, the flight attendant came by with sparkling wine or juice.

The plane is great—-reasonably new, obviously modern, quite clean, very spacious. Much better aesthetically than the usual crowded business class sections on British or Air France. Seating is two and two. There are three sections with a lot of space between them. This flight was 2/3’s full so there were three flight attendants—one for every 15 passengers, all French, all very charming. There are three bathrooms, one in front, two in the middle, so you are never more 6 rows away. The entertainment system is definitely heads above other business class airlines. It is a very large, super light tablet that you can either have in front of you or slide out and set on your tray. Better noise cancelling headphones as well. The seats are a little smaller and perhaps a bit firmer than other business class seats, but still very nice. Not quite full flat beds, the seats reclined to about 175 degrees. A full size pillow and a very comfortable quilt made for a very pleasant, if short, night’s sleep. It was lights out with everyone fed just a bit more than an hour after takeoff.

The food options for our late dinner were a choice of salads — rare beef or a lobster — on a bed of greens with salad, a chocolate cake and a roll. And the drink choices were not as varied as the big airlines offer, but we were satisfied with our cognac. Breakfast options include an omelette or France toast with some very sweet, ripe fruit. And both meals were nicely presented.

Our arrival in Nice was as smooth as our departure. We whizzed through customs using the special lane for La Compagnie and elite class flyers (just had to present our boarding pass). There weren’t too many planes arriving when we did, so it wasn’t that big of a deal, but it could have been.

All in all, the experience was definitely worth the price. And we will be watching this airlines for future travel to Europe.