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Archive for June, 2011

Lucerne (I prefer the American spelling, because I feel like it might annoy Shan), Switzerland was our first 1-night stay featuring an included dinner. I must confess, I don’t know much about Swiss cuisine beyond chocolate and cheese.

After consulting some culinary resources (not Wikipedia…I swear) I’m actually a little disappointed in our Swiss dinner. Switzerland is actually known for a few dishes.

One, rosti, is a potato favorite that Shan and I have prepared at home several times, without knowing the origin. It’s like a big hash brown potato casserole with cheese and goodness in it. We got mashed potatoes. Another, Zurcher Geschnetzeltes–it’s from the German region of Switzerland…can you tell?–is a thin-sliced tender veal dish with mushrooms and cream sauce. We got beef stroganoff.

I’m not complaining. Our meal was delicious. I just loved trying the traditional regional foods in England and France so much. I guess I was happier not knowing about the Swiss favorites that I missed out on. Damn you Wikipedia…I mean trusted culinary reference materials that are not a website.

Anyway, we had a delicious vegetable soup to start our meal, served with the biggest silver spoon I’ve ever seen. It was rich, well seasoned, and got our appetites in gear quite nicely. Then we were presented with the stroganoff. It was not, as many Americans think of it, ground beef in a cream gravy. It was, in fact, a more traditional stroganoff of sliced, stewed beef in a rich, dark brown demi-glace that was earthy and quite tasty. The stroganoff was served with piped mashed potatoes and a nice vegetable blend. It hit the spot, but was not quite enough food.

Luckily, we had dessert coming. It turned out to be a cute little ice cream dish, apparently hand-crafted for artful presentation to the tourists. It was refreshing, but only made us long for the Italian gelato that was to come.

All in all it was a nice meal, presented in a friendly, comfortable hall. I imagine the weary travelers of days gone by would have appreciated the comfort of a hot, hearty meal at the foot of the alps.

The next morning, we had a pretty simple buffet breakfast at the hotel, and then struck out on our own. After walking a bit, and heading back to the bus, we decided a little caffeine was in order. We stopped into Starbucks (I know…lame, but we didn’t have time to figure anything out) and ordered up some drinks. Just so you all know, Starbucks is expensive in Europe. A small Chai Latte and a small brewed coffee ran us about 8 Swiss Francs, which is like 10 bucks. Ridiculous. But man, did we need that jolt. Next stop…Venice!

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Europe Day 1&2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6, Day 7

For our morning in Venice, the whole group took a short walking tour through the streets and into a glass-blowing factory. As you may know, Venice is famous for its murano glass. First we watched this cutie (and veteran glass blower) create a simple masterpiece.

Then we got a little sales pitch and looked around the store awhile. The stuff is impressive, no doubt, but way beyond anything we wanted to spend. Instead, we left the glass factory and headed for St Mark’s Square where we decided to split ways for a bit.

Mike wanted to ascend St Mark’s clock tower and I wanted to shop. Besides, it cost money and it wasn’t worth it for both us to go up.

He took lots of pictures so I could imagine the view, and while he did that I had myself some lemon and strawberry gelato and bought a fun necklace. Then it was time to leave for the optional tour we had paid for. It was a ride to the island of Burano where we explored and had a delicious billion-course lunch.

On the water taxi to the island.

Burano is a really cool and really colorful island. We didn’t have a lot of time to explore, but enough to buy Mike’s mom a scarf made of the lace the island is famous for (his mom cat-sat the whole time we were gone – bless her!) and snap lots of pictures.

I’m on my tip toes and I still barely reach his shoulders.

After seeing what there was to see, we bought ourselves a couple cannoli (completely unnecessary after our billion courses, but it’s cannoli!) and sat under a tree to wait for departure time.

We rode the water taxi back to the bus and departed for Florence. We rolled into town in the early evening and basically went straight to dinner (this meal was included). All of our real Florence experience happened the next day.

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Europe Day 1&2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6

We opted out of the optional tour in Luzern (can you tell I prefer the native spelling?). It was extra money we didn’t think we needed to spend. The choice was between taking the optional – a train ride up a mountain – or explore the city on our own. With such limited time in such a beautiful place, we chose to stay down. We had to get up pretty early to get our bags on the bus, so we hit the streets before anything was open. No problem, we enjoyed the blues skies over the blue lake.

Then we walked over to the famous bridge. It’s a really long wooden bridge that is basically the symbol of the city.

We walked across and then checked out this arch our tour guide couldn’t stop talking about. Apparently it’s not an arch — it’s the old entrance to the train station. They built a more modern one and just moved this part of the building out in front.

It’s dirty little secret is given away when you look at the back. Boring boring boring.

After a couple hours it was time to meet the bus and on to Venice we went. As soon as we rolled into town, we hopped on to some gondolas!

This was part of an optional excursion we chose. It included gondolas, a walking tour and a water taxi ride. We figured it was a good deal to not have to figure it all out on our own with such a short time in the city. Plus, turns out our hotel was in the middle of nowhere it seemed, and those who didn’t take the tour had to go to the hotel and find their own way back to the canals.

Anyway, we hopped on a gondola with four of our tour friends and rode around the canals.

Check out our badass gondolier:

We even had these guys in a nearby gondola serenading us with song. And accordion-playing.

After the ride, we walked through the streets with the tour guide until we hit St Mark’s Square where were set free to explore for awhile.

After about an hour, it was time to meet up with the group to hop a water taxi back to the bus.

We checked into our hotel and went immediately to our included dinner, and then off to bed to rest up for a fun-filled morning in Venice!

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Europe Day 1&2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5

We took the coach from Paris to Luzern (aka: Lucerne), Switzerland. We were running a little behind schedule that day, so by the time we got to Luzern, we felt a bit rushed. The coach dropped us off in the center of town and we had about an hour to shop and explore before we were picked up again. Mike and I used the time to check out a couple shops, but mostly we sat by the gorgeous lake and enjoyed the sun.

We did manage to score a little Swiss chocolate to enjoy with our view.

When we were picked up, we checked into our hotel, then the tour guide walked us up to Lowendenkmal, a monument that
commemorates Swiss soldiers and guards.

Then it was dinnertime. In Luzern, we had a dinner included in the tour so we got to eat with all of our travel companions. In the cities that we only visited for one night, it was nice to have the included dinner and not have to spend time figuring out food. Plus, by then we were getting chummy with some of the others, so it was fun to share a meal.

That’s it for Day 6 though. It was a bit of a drive from Paris to Luzern, so there wasn’t a lot of time to do much once we got there.

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From merry old England we moved on to the country that gave the world a food service industry…France!

First of all, if you don’t know, France is the country that developed what we know of as a restaurant today. Before the French started eating out in the 1700’s, the only way you ever ate without cooking your own food was if somebody you knew cooked for you, or if you paid someone to cook for you. This might happen at an inn or tavern while you were traveling, but if you were local you stayed at home or dined with a friend. But you didn’t go into a restaurant and eat off a menu. Not until France. The French chefs of the late 1700’s, most notably King Louis 18’s pastry chef Antoine Beauvilliers who opened one of the first restaurants in Paris. I also must mention the chef that developed the modern restaurant kitchen set-up and staffing structure, Georges Auguste Escoffier.

Ok, now that your history lesson is complete, on to our culinary experience!

We arrived in Paris on a Sunday evening. Good for traffic, bad for food. We had a little over an hour to find dinner near our hotel before our optional excursion. The only two promising places we saw were a small brasserie, which was closed, and a pizzeria, which, hello, we were going to Italy later on the trip. And so, we walked. We passed a McDonald’s–side note, according to our tour director, in France McDonald’s is called “Mc Doe’s” because the French insist on being different–which we refused to step into, hungry as we were. Then we passed a suspicious looking middle-eastern restaurant with a menu we couldn’t read. Finally, we saw a less suspicious looking middle-eastern place with a friendlier menu and a friendly looking staff. We also ran into a couple from Arizona that were on our tour, so we figured we’d give it a shot and at least we’d discover the food together. It turned out that they had a combo meal of sorts, so we both got a pita sandwich, frites (French french fries), and a can of Coke. Shan got chicken, and I got the traditional gyro meat. Both were delicious with a little tzatziki (cucumber sauce) and hot chili sauce on them. And, most importantly, we successfully ordered and ate in a country that doesn’t speak English (a first for me).


The next morning, after breakfast at our hotel, we were off to experience Paris. One quick story about breakfast first. Shannon took a hard boiled egg, but decided she didn’t want it. As is our custom, I agreed to eat it. Upon gently cracking it, I realized it was, in fact, a raw egg. We did not see any source of heat for cooking a raw egg at our continental breakfast buffet. What the hell? Anyway, due to poor planing, we skipped lunch at the Louve, and were starving by the time we were left on our own. We stopped at a little cafe on the way to Notre Dame and had a late lunch. We got a huge bottle of water, and then ordered Croques. Shan had a Croque Poulet (chicken) and I had a Croque Monsieur (ham). Both were made with a hearty, rustic bread called Pan de Campagne, then layered with tomatoes, meat, and a rich white cheese, then heated and melted under a broiler. Ours came served with a small fresh salad and baguette on the side. They were fantastic. The ingredients are so fresh and simple that you can’t help but enjoy them. It was a truly restorative meal.

After some additional walking around and a realization that we did not fully appreciate how hot 28 degrees celsius was, we made it back to our hotel and prepared to go out for dinner. For dinner, we went back to the brasserie that was closed the night before, and found a nice table for two along the street. Our waiter, who thankfully spoke pretty good English, helped us select a half-bottle of red wine and an appetizer of prawns and avocado. The prawns were fresh and well-cooked and the avocado was creamy and delicious with some crusty bread.


After the appetizer, Shannon got a grilled steak with bearnaise sauce and frites on the side. She was a little disappointed with the steak, at which point I joked that maybe it was a horse steak. This is actually a thing in Europe. In France especially, the sale of horse meat is up 7% from last year. We’re pretty sure it was beef though, since most menus specify cheval in they are serving horse. So, it was just a so-so beef steak. The frites were delicious though. I had confit de canard (duck cooked in duck fat). It was delicious. Terrible for my cholesterol, but delicious. It came with some roasted potatoes that were crispy and well seasoned. A wonderful meal. For dessert, we ordered creme brulee. What else can you have to end your last meal in Paris? It was decadently sweet and smooth. The perfect end to a meal.

Overall, I give our Paris culinary experience a big thumbs-up. Also…gotta love modern art!

Next stop…Switzerland. We may or may not have eaten chocolate.

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Europe Day 5: Paris

Europe Day 1&2, Day 3, Day 4.

Our only full day in Paris started with a drive around the city in our coach. Again, this was essentially the exact same tour we PAID for the evening before. We drove by the Arc de Triomphe, only this time we didn’t stop.

Then stopped at the spot with “the best” view of the Eiffel Tower.

After driving around awhile longer, we ended up at the Eiffel Tower. We had paid for another optional tour that included entrance to the second floor of the tower and a guided tour (and admission) to the Louvre. It was worth every penny to bypass the looong lines at both.

Here’s one negative about traveling in this way — waiting for the idiots who can’t read a clock. There were two women who were consistently late and the rest of us had to wait and wait and wait. Annette, our tour guide, would give us explicit instructions on where and when to meet, and they could never seem to manage that. We waited far too long for them at the Tower, and that was not the first nor the last time.

Anyway, our local guide at the Louvre was kind of hilarious. His name was Patrick and he was oh so French. He was kind of dick to anyone who got in his way, so we started saying, “Patty Badger don’t give a shit.” Get it? Like the honey badger video? Yeah…

I didn’t really feel the need to visit the Louvre again, but since Mike had never been, and it came in the optional package with the Eiffel Tower, we went for it. Patty Badger walked us around and showed us all the obvious things – Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, etc. Want to see how cool I was in my tour listening gear?

The optional was worth it, but there was a major case of bad timing. There was no mealtime planned into the day, and we were all starving by the time the Louvre tour ended. Mike and I left the museum to find food, and we were nearly to Notre Dame before we found a comfortable cafe. It was the best meal of my life, I swear. Mostly because I was famished. I’ll let Mike tell you about the food, but look how happy I am to be in air conditioning with water and food. Ah the simple things.

After lunch we visited one of my favorite places, Notre Dame. It’s still as breathtaking as I remembered it. We didn’t bother with paying to go up into the belfries, but the line to get inside (for free) moved fast.

If you’re ever in Paris, I highly recommend this stop. Afterward, we sat by the Seine and planned our next move.

We took the Metro up to Montmartre to see Sacre Coeur, and by the time we got there I had a killer headache. We made a series of mistakes that day that lead to an unfortunate situation.

A) We didn’t drink enough water.
B) We didn’t eat lunch until about 3pm (not our fault).
C) We wore jeans because we thought it was going to be much cooler.
D) We did not bring our baggie of medicine.

When we got to Montmartre, we tried to hunt down a pharmacy, but failed. So rather than climb the stairs to the cathedral, I nursed my achy head and feet while Mike made his way up.

Then we quickly made our way back, via Metro, to the La Defense area, where our hotel was. We were told the hotel shuttle picks up at a particular Metro stop, but when we emerged, there was no way to tell where the shuttle might be. We were in the middle of a huge plaza and I wanted to cry at that moment. Remember… tired, hot, dehydrated, massive headache? It was a bit of a hike, but we did manage to walk to the hotel where we rested before seeking dinner.

I don’t even like red wine, but this stuff was good:

 

And that’s pretty much it for Paris! We were so drained that day that we went to bed somewhat early and left first thing in the morning for Switzerland.

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Europe Day 1-2, Day 3

We had to wake up god awful early on our second morning in London. They coach was leaving at 5:30, so in order to pack up and eat breakfast, I don’t even know, it was way too early. We still didn’t know anyone from our tour, so it was all a little awkward – the breakfast, the getting on the bus, finding our seats. We had assigned seats, which was nice, but within an hour some poor dear in the back was really sick, so we switched with her. Good thing – it lead us to meeting the two couples we hung out with almost all week, Ty & Richie, and Natalie & Eric.

We took the coach to Dover where we boarded a ferry to cross the channel, then took a different coach (this time with our permanent driver, Antonio) to Paris. We opted for the option Paris by Night excursion because last time I was in Paris, I wanted to do a night tour and never did. Unfortunately this optional excursion was a big fail and not worth the money. We drove around in the coach, but it wasn’t even dark. Not even dusk. And we ended up doing almost the exact same drive the next morning for free! We did get a river cruise too, but it was so windy that we were all freezing and couldn’t enjoy it. At the very end of the tour, it finally started to get dark and some lights came on, and we did get to see the Eiffel Tower twinkle. But still, not worth it.

From the Paris by Night tour:

 

(See how light it is? I’m annoyed about that, plus I’m freezing. This is not a good look for me.)

(I love this one of us.)

Even though the optional tour wasn’t work the cost, it’s Paris and it was beautiful. I just love this city, and the rest of our time there was wonderful.

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