Thursday, 13 December 2012

Lights, camera, Paris!

We've decided to do some Christmas shopping in style - so we've come to Paris - because what sounds better than "oh, we're doing our Christmas shopping in Paris"?

After missing this department store on our summer visit to this incredible city in July, we make a point of heading here this time.

The Bon Marché.

And the store is stunning - two buildings decorated up both for Christmas AND for their 160th anniversary. The store has a fabulous display in the walkway connecting the buildings that show all their historic logos over the years.

Each is marked with the year it was used, right up to 2012's anniversary one.

And back across the Seine to the two other department stores, Galleries Lafayette and Printemps. They have decorated the walkways and buildings with thousands of lights.

As well, Printemps had their windows decorated by Dior ("Hey Chris! Wanna deck the halls for us too?). The displays included moving puppets, ballroom music and giant hordes of people out front of each one.

Up the Champs Élysées the Cartier store was also dazzling in colour changing lights and brilliant white panthers perched on the buildings.

One end of the Champs has a huge lit Ferris wheel. The wheel was made up of enclosed we didn't freeze out little Canadian tooshes off...

...while being dazzled by the views over the city....

And up both side of the Champs (before the chic, mortgage-the-house-to-shop-at stores begin) is the Christmas Market. Hundreds of little white chalets sit side by side selling scarves, cheeses, candles, figurines, and a gallons of mulled wine to sip while strolling.

There's even a Canadian booth! So Parisians can stock up on maple candies, maple syrup and enjoy syrup on a stick....rolled right off some snow. It's the only 'country' booth - so obviously the French are enamoured with us....or at least our lumberjack shirts.

So we managed to put together dinner while we perused the wares. First we shared a bratwurst - grilled on a giant circular open grill you could have roasted a whole hog on. With the markets originating in Germany, much of the food is from the region.

The stand also had great condiment dispensers. You get food and a chance to milk the ketchup udder...

To warm ourselves up (as the temperature was around 4c) we split a ripping hot bowl of French onion soup. The stall had four giant copper cauldrons with gallons of piping hot soup. Once you ordered, your bowl was topped with big round croutons and a big scoop of shredded cheese. Soooo good....

For course one of our dessert selection we went with the Churros. The ones served here are shorter than the hockey-rink versions we're used to. But they serve them mini-donut style - they jam a paper cone full of big and little pieces and proceed to pore about a quarter cup of sugar on top of them.

Here's Cassie with her bouquet.

And to finish off with an intense hit of sugar - chocolate covered marshmallow towers. These were like the best Viva-Puffs ever. They come in different flavours including milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate-candy cane, gingerbread and hazelnut. Get the insulin darts out!

Another sugary option was "barbe à papa"...good ol' candy floss to us North Americans. We didn't personally take part, but did snap a photo of a guy who did. They sure don't skimp on the size in Paris.

While strolling along the market, you also get to see his sleigh...airborne. He and the reindeer are suspended a few stories up, on a zip line, so the sled appears to "fly" away after telling a story to the children below.

There is also a skating rink - complete with animatronic animal displays, club music and disco lighting as you circle around. Needless to say, being in France (where all kids play football) we looked like Brasseur and Eisler out there.

And our roundup of some unusual things seen in passing while in the City of Lights.

Chestnut roasting in shopping carts over cans filled with coal. The actual roasting of the chestnuts isn't illegal, but the selling of them (sans license) obviously is - so these guys had a look-out man who would give the signal and poof! they'd all skatter.

And if you really need a Nutella fix - the Bon Marché had you covered (probably from head to toe if need be)...

And one hip clothing store had a display of "American Food" - obviously imported directly from the USA. So if you need a toaster pastry fix while in prepared to shell out a ten'er.

And this is our final log entry...time to go home, pet our cat and see our families again. This has been an incredible experience (as if not working and making Europe your home for six months could be bad somehow). We've celebrated our birthdays over here and our 20th wedding anniversary.

Favourite memory? Too hard - there were so many incredible ones. Would we do this again?

Hell yeah.

Last food shot (couldn't resist) A/C's salmon in a buerre blanc sauce with creamy spinach (actually not too bad!):

Thanks for reading....
Cassie and Brad

Friday, 7 December 2012

A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum

Un petit blog post.

Another little side trip, this time to Arles.

It really seems like this area of France is littered, littered we tell you, with huge Roman buildings. Here we are at another arena. The town of Arles is currently in the process of restoring their arena - although they still use it currently for bull-fights and concerts. One quarter of the outside of the arena is near-newly sparking cream. One side is covered in scaffolding and the other 50 percent is greyish, rounded rock (but still looking quite structurally sound.

This shot of one of the main entrances also has the tower reno down by those crazy medieval guys.

Making your way through the town is quite easy - thanks to several types of visual guides laid out as a walking tour of the town.

1) These classic marble ones laid into the pavement and cobblestones lead the way on the Roman ruin walk through Arles.

2) These newer signs are found on the sides of historically important buildings (causing you to pause and LOOK! at interesting sites you might otherwise zip by).

3) And for the modern touch....full LCD screens with French and English. Most with write-ups about the buildings they are located on or historic features of nearby architecture (and the odd one with advertising).

Et tu Bill Gates?

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Square Meals

Back at the market again...but eating AT not buying FROM this time.

We've decided to partake in the Saturday custom in town of 'doing' the market (buying, perusing or both) followed by settling down around 12:30 to enjoy lunch at one of the many cafes either in the main square or somewhere along the circle road around the town.

Last week we opted for one on the south side of the market - Café de l'Oustal. Truly it's nearly dinner theatre as the lunches are considered the main meals of the day and you get to watch the vendors take-down their incredible site to see. Hundreds of bags/purses crammed into banana boxes and loaded into mini vans and double long seafood stalls "transformer-ized" down to half their size and trailered out by trucks.

The meal we had was excellent and accompanied by a nice bottle of house red wine for a steal (although that's the common theme for wine in France). Brad had the pavé de boeuf (with sauce poivre -pepper sauce- in the small jar), grilled eggplant/peppers and zucchini and scalloped potatoes (a nicely drier version than at home).

Cassie had the gratin de brandade epinard - creamed cod with olive oil and milk, baked with cheese and spinach. This dish was perfect with the little bit of coolness in the air (and the fact we weren't able to secure seating under one of the outdoor heaters).

And this Saturday's meal. We opted for the north side of the square - enabling us to see the vendor-van ballet of removing the basket stall, housewares dealer and pasta maker. Our restaurant of choice was Terroirs - we nestled up to the side of the building, basked in the sun, with the building protecting us from the wind - perfect. Eating outside. December 1st for Pete's sake!

Cassie had the smoked duck with mushrooms and spinach on toasts.

Brad went for the smoked salmon with sauteed onions on toasts (and a pomme de terre of significant size aussi).

Dessert was a must (well, for Cassie at least). Fromage frais -think super thick yogurt- with salted caramel sauce.

So. Good.

And then we rolled our après-marché full tummies back to the apartment...for a nap.

Gators and Gladiators Oh My!

So out and about in our little Fiat (Brad getting in as much fast, zippy driving as he can) we cruised through the town of Vers. Small cute name, small cute town. But we did get a little turned around trying to get out of town.

And ended up driving beside the quarry for the Pont du Gard (giant aqueduct that carried water from Uzès to Nimes). The road was carved out of the rock...literally, we're not trying to be literarily eloquent.

And a shot of said quarry. They've been bringing out big rock from here since Roman times (now it's a teensy bit more mechanized). On the road leading up here, a few of the houses had 'fences' constructed out of blocks that were 3x3x5...feet! So yeah, they're not picking them up at Home Depot.

Which is a nice segue into posting about Nimes (said destination of water carried by the aqueduct, made of the stones).

One fun story on Nimes - Levi Strauss used fabric from Nimes (serge de Nimes) to make the work-pants he sold. The fabric was blue and the 'serge' part was dropped - put 'em together and whaddya got? Denims!

And now the more educational history (but Coles Notes version) on Nimes - it was a Roman village whose plots of land were given to legionnaires as thanks for their participation in the Nile (as in Egypt) campaigns (as in Julius Caesar's). Which gives the background to Nimes' symbol - a crocodile chained to a palm tree. And the symbol is everywhere.

On posts throughout town...

On pavement markers...

Forming the fountain in one of the squares...

But this one loses a bit of that exotic, tropical feel with the accompanying flocked Xmas tree...

But the big site in Nimes is the arena. And it really is a spectical (as most Roman sites are) - standing in the middle of town with traffic driving by a few feet away. It's incredible to think how long these monuments have been standing for. Although monument is a misnomer for this arena - as it's still frequently used for bull-fights and concerts.

And a nice shot of Brad in an interestingly named part of the arena - the vomitorium. No really! It's not that bad! It's Latin! It means to spew forth...okay, maybe it is that bad. But they were so named because they exited the crowds quickly (as fights would break out if people were held up...much the same as hockey and soccer games of today eh?). So here's Brad being spewed out.

And from spewing to snack food. OK, so my Nimes segue was way better.

At the adjacent cafe when we stopped for coffee. If you want a snack - handy vending machines are right beside the tables!

Or this one of you're in the mood for something else.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Religious experience

And now for the cultural aspects of Barcelona.

1) Religion of architecture

Barcelona is home to many incredible works by very famous architects, but it's mostly Gaudi that people associate with. His yet-to-be-finished final work is the Sagrada Familia - the large Roman Catholic Church which began construction in 1882 (although Gaudi came on board a year later and added his signature style).

Here is a photo of the 'Passion' facade as we strolled up to the church through the adjacent park.

With new work happening everyday, the latest statue installations are easy to see against the weathered, older parts of the church.

This picture shows the contrast of the different styles of each of the church sections - the darker, weathered part is the Nativity facade and the angular portion on the left is the main Naive. The spires are topped with sculptures of fruit.

And this is the fourth, unfinished side of the church. When it's completed (estimated at sometime in the 2030's....exactly as Gaudi had thought over 130 years ago) it will depict the 'Glory' - man's place in creation.

Seeing the church, along with other Gaudi buildings is quite amazing. It's interesting to think what the city council of the time thought when tenders were put out for architects.....there must have been some pretty open minds. Good forsight though - in 1999 Barcelona won the Royal Gold Medal for award usually reserved for a single person.

2) Religion of shoes

Spanish espadrilles to be exact.

By some fluke we happened upon the store while winding our way through the Gothic Quarter. Cassie had it on her "hit-list" of places to see in Barcelona - but with those highly UN-detailed tourist maps, you're never 100% sure where you are exactly in a more medieval street layout. None the less, at the sandle store we arrived.

The store, La Manual Alpargatera, dates back to the 1940's and they stock an incredible amount of espadrilles (or, in Catalan, espardenyes). They have the classic flat, slip-on style (in a rainbow of colours) and a beautiful selection of wedge-heel ones with various embroidery and coloured ribbons for lacing up.

There shouldn't be a problem finding your size or colour as one wall of the store is the entire stock of the basic espadrilles.

And here's a shot of two things - Brad waiting very patiently for me to pick out my three pairs (two basic ones and one wedge heel) and the classic glass display cases of the other "dressy" styles).

And then onto the final religious experience of our visit...

3) Religion of Tapas

Quimet & Quimet

Tapas bars are everywhere in Barcelona, from tiny bars with barely four stools lined up in front of the beer tap to large, modern restaurants with both indoor bar seating and outdoor patios (some even had a very Cactus Club feel to them...with full colour photos of each dish and specials on sangria jugs....not that this is a bad thing).

But we were after something a little....cosier.

So we sussed out this place:

Located just a few blocks from our hotel, we strolled over, arriving just as the doors had opened for the evening service (19:00). Arriving another hour later may mean standing on the sidewalk and having to elbow your way back into the tiny restaurant to order food and replenish drinks.

The walls are lined, to the ceiling, with bottles of every type of liquor....all for sale, with the price written in chalk right in front of it. There are no seats and only three, small tables to perch your drink and plates on.

We eased into ordering by getting two half plates - one seafood and one meat....and a platter of fried potatoes as suggested by the waitress ("very Mmmmmm", she said). The seafood is canned, which in Canada makes it a bad thing, but here in Spain, they can the GOOD stuff!

Seafood: anchovy wrapped olive, razor clams, baby clams, soft squid and mussels.
Meat: cured ham, house pâté, foie gras, onion confit, sautéed mushrooms and a chestnut...all drizzled with a truffle vinegar.
Potatoes: essentially giant, thick chips...but lightly salted and drizzled with a honey-vinegar.
Washed down by glasses of rose cava and house beer.

Next plates were four montaditos (round toasted pieces of bread topped with various fillings - about the size of a small half-bagel)

Cockwise from top left: Anchovies on tomato jam, topped with olive tapenade. Mussels topped with caviar. Prawns with creme fresh and caviar on a roasted red pepper. Codfish with black and green olive tapenade.

As we ate and drank, locals stopped in for a quick drink, bite and short chat with the owner/manager. Although we weren't the only tourists there, you could tell most of the clientele were locals. It was great to not only enjoy the food, but the experience of a traditional tapas bar.

For €30.
No kidding.
Two half platters, four montaditos and three drinks.
Start the car!!!

Sunday, 25 November 2012


Sigh. Another town, another market to try - oh the hardships.

(And by the way, BCN are the call letters for Barcelona....not Brad & Cassie Niessen...but it did seem kinda cool though ;-)

Barcelona's permanent covered market is La Boqueria. It is a bustling building in the same vein as the Granville Island market....but as an older, wiser big brother. And this isn't just a market for tourists (although the front two stalls are certainly there to draw us in). As we walked the aisles, gazing at the wares, we were jostled about by short Spanish ladies tugging loaded handcarts from one vendor to another with their daily shopping. And the site of a chef strolling around, sampling freshly sliced cured meat was not uncommon.

Smack dab in the middle of downtown, off the pedestrian walk of La Rambla.

A beautiful wrought iron entrance sign welcomes you to the market.

And just to the left of the main entrance, a more North Amercian welcoming sign. We assumed that the company found it better to pull people in saying they sell coffee to dunk-into....versus the actual item to be dunked?

The selection of fruit was amazing, such is the blessing of the southern location. And it was both the selection and literal size of the fruit that was huge! They certainly know how to showcase their products.

And it was mushroom season. Where the stalls weren't overflowing with fruits, they were laiden with a huge variety of mushrooms.

The seafood was located in the centre of the market - where the straight aisles suddenly curved into a huge oval - all covered in whole fish, filets, fresh prawns, crabs, cockles, seemed endless.

The charcuterie vendors were numerous as well, with many selling various cured and smoked styles of ham (Iberian, Serrano....). You almost can't see this vendor amongst all his hams...but he's slicing off pieces for a client to try.

When you read about the market on various websites, everyone says "great place to get juice!". And they are not kidding. What should be explained is this - almost every single fruit stall (and there are quite a few) sells fresh squeezed juices. And each of them has, at least, a dozen flavours (kiwi-coconut, banana-dragon fruit, papaya-pineapple, the list seems endless).

It's hard to's our tip though - bypass the stall at the front as most others in the rest of the market sell the juice for €1 (cheaper than out front). Yes, a glass of fresh, squeezed juice for a euro! Needless to say Cassie had blackberry-coconut coursing through her veins after a few days.

And it's not just your thirst you can quench at the market. There are lots of stalls to grab food for eating right away. 'In a cone' seems to be the transport method of choice when taking the food to go. And hey, can't argue with a good blend of ease in both portability and edibility. This was a cone filled with fried meat fritters, pickles, potatoes topped with a fried quail egg (wink, wink, Irene).

And from the charcuterie, two simple cones - one with Iberian ham and one with manchengo cheese slices....doesn't get much more Spanish than this (although a cup of Sangria would have been great...but then I would have needed another hand...)

On our last day we opted for tapas at the market. The tapas are great because if you only want a snack, the portion size is perfect (or, if you're like us and want to sample a bunch, then you can!). And most of it is on display as if your Catalan isn't up to snuff....your pointing finger probably is.

Soft squid draped with a slice of roasted green pepper on toast, Spanish spinach omelette with bruschetta, and ham croquettes. I'm sure I don't need to say it was was so amazing, there were four croquettes and I only managed to get the camera out when half were gone....

The meal was made even more memorable sitting beside a dear old lady, taking a break from her shopping and snacking on a slice of omelette and a coffee. As you can see from OUR drink selections, we bypassed the coffee and opted to wash our food down with a beer and a cava....hey we're on holidays!