August 12, 2013

7 days in Paris

Our goals for visiting Paris were simple: Wander the city, spend some quality time with friends and of course hit up a few record stores and patisseries along the way.

Each day, we picked a different neighborhood and then just explored its streets with few plans or ambitions. When you travel this way, you never know what to expect. Sometimes we would find ourselves lost in random areas with nothing going on, but other times we would stumble upon treasures like the little shop that specialized in hand-cut puzzles or the chocolate boutique selling some of best-made chocolates in France or a really great bookstore.
Along the way, we hit up the main attractions (Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, etc.), but we didn't pressure ourselves to do it all. As our friend Morten put it, "When you visit a city, don't go see everything. That way, there's good reason to come back."

On our last night, after all our friends had gone and we were so tired we didn't feel like doing much of anything, we had a dinner reservation at Violon d'Ingres. It's a place where a friend we trust claimed to have had the best meal of his life. How's that for an endorsement? After eating there ourselves, we had to agreeit was better than we could've imagined. And so we stumbled on a vacation tip we'll definitely use again: Go out on a high note. We could have easily gone to any nondescript cafe that night and ended our trip by basically just killing time; instead, we had a mind-blowing meal followed by champagne on the house, and a walk to the Eiffel Tower (which we hadn't yet seen up close). Parisians were still out picnicking on the grass when the lights went on, and the tower twinkled like a giant Christmas ornament. It was like Paris knew we were leaving, and this was the perfect finale.

August 1, 2013

A Parisian picnic

With so many things happening in Paris, your entire vacation can become one giant to-do list if you are not careful. Eiffel Tower, check. The Louvre, check. Notre Dame, check. Words of advice: Don't let that happen to you!

Yes, it is wonderful to see the sites, but let me assure you, it's twice as nice to relax and try to experience the city as the Parisians do. And if you look up from your guidebook for one second, you will see so many French people in the summertime lounging on a grassy area or along the Seine enjoying a picnic with their friends. They must be on to something.

We decided to follow their lead one Saturday, and it turned out to be one of the best moments of our stay. We grabbed some friends: our favorite Danish family in from Brussels for the weekend. We found an outdoor market and purchased all the provisions one would desire: loaves of crusty bread, fresh summer fruit, a sampling of cheese and saucisson, olives, pate, pickles, wine and drink. Then we headed over to the Jardin du Luxembourg, a beautiful park with formal gardens that surrounds the Palais du Luxembourg. 

To finish your picnic on a strong note, pick up some dessert. (It's a must!) Earlier that day, we popped into Pierre Herme for a box of their macarons. I was blown away by the perfect texture of crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside plus all the unique flavor combinations: Apricot + Pistachio, Jasmine Flower, Caramel with Fleur de Sel, and Milk Chocolate with Passion Fruit, to name a few. Worth every Euro.

Jardin du Luxembourg
Rue de Vaugirard

Pierre Herme
Various locations throughout Paris

(Photos 4, 7, and 8 by Morten Greve)

July 26, 2013


With Evian being so close to the Swiss border, we decided to take a road trip to the city of Lausanne for some lunch and gelatoat Gelateria La Mucca, my favorite of the entire trip. But the best part of our day was spent at Lavaux, a wine region and UNESCO World Heritage Site above Lake Geneva. 
What makes the vineyards so striking is that they are planted on steep hills overlooking the water (the land was supposed to be unsuitable for agriculture, but monks started planting grapes here in the 12th century; some of the winegrowers' families have been here for 17 generations). We took a walk along the premises, which seemed ideal for a romantic stroll or maybe a picnic. But aside from a wedding celebration (which included a dramatic balloon liftoff) there appeared to be few people enjoying the sceneryor the wine.

Eager to sample the local flavors, we looked for a tasting room or something like it. Julien told us, though, that wineries here don't work like thatyou basically just walk into the winemaker's place and see if they offer you something. Seeing no open doors, we were going to give up, but Kayleen braved the awkwardness and knocked on a random locked door that looked anything but welcoming, on the off chance someone would serve us a glass.

So Kayleen knocked and a bemused lady and her dog came out. After asking if we were going to buy anything, she agreed to let us in. It seemed like she didn't know what to do with us. Apparently, most people just show up to pick up a case rather than sit around and drink a bottle.

The winemaker was not home, she said in French. Oh, and they only take cash, she said. That meant there was one bottle we could afford with the 15 Swiss francs we had between the six of us.  But there was no turning back at this point! So we sat in the cellar and sipped the wine, unsure if we were even supposed to be there. Eventually the winemaker did come around. He had to a lot to say. I couldn't understand any of it, but he made us welcome and capped off a winery experience unlike any other.

Lavaux Vineyard Terraces
Lausanne to Montreux, Switzerland

July 25, 2013

A new perspective

I am back in Southern California, and as my lack of posts would indicate, I failed miserably at blogging while on vacation. I was doing so well, but as the days went on, I found myself losing interest in the internet.

I disconnected, and you know what? It felt like the good old daysremember the time before iPhones?and I found myself interacting with the world around me, feeling zero obligation to document it or turn away to find out what all my friends were doing. I was enjoying my time in France without wondering in the back of my head if I was experiencing a "blog-worthy" moment. I was Very French, non?

The experience was refreshing, empowering, wonderful.  I love how traveling gives you a whole new outlook on lifeisn't that the whole point of getting away in the first place?

July 11, 2013

The French Alps (part two)

After our last "stroll" through the French Alps, we were mentally prepared to tackle our next big Alpine adventure. "The hike is going to be the same intensity, but longer," Julien explained, as we packed up baguettes and filled our bottles of Evian water (straight from the source from the fountain in town!). It wouldn't be too hard, right?

The hike kicked our ass immediately. We walked straight up an exposed mountainside, a luscious green hill whose beauty barely masked its intensity. As we rose higher and higher, huffing and puffing the entire way, we passed cows with bells around their necks and patches of leftover snow.

When we reached the top, nearly 2,432 meters (almost 8,000 feet) above sea level, we were greeted with...clouds. So, unfortunately, there was no view to see. (Apparently, you can see Mont Blanc on a clear day.)

The brave ones from our group (not me) climbed up the side of a cliff to the scary summit to touch the cross on top of the mountain. After that, we were patting ourselves on the back. The hardest part was over...or so we thought.

That's when the hike went downhillliterally. The hill was so steep that I was basically crab-walking it on the way down. The trail kept disappearing on us, and after a while, we realized we were in the wrong valley.

We bumped into a farmer who said we probably missed the trail because it was covered in snow, something that happened all the time. He kindly gave us some water and guided us on how to get back. "It's not a nice walk," he told us, and it wasn't. We had to duck electrical fences, walk through a soggy swamp, lunge up a vertical hill, walk through a cow pasture, then finally limp down a long knee-killing decline, the majority of which was spent slapping mosquitoes off our arms, legs and back. When it was all said and done, we had hiked 8.9 miles in 6 hours, up and over two mountains, extending our original hiking plans by about two hours. Where we ended was not where we began, so Dan and Julien had to trek another mile or so to pick up the cars.

It was definitely the hardest hike I have ever done in my life. I was happy that we did it, but boy, I was more happy to be done with it!

Les Cornettes de Bise, France

July 8, 2013

The French Alps (part one)

From Evian, our host Julien suggested that we take a drive to the mountains, maybe enjoy a little stroll while we're up there. I think Julien has a different definition of "stroll" than most people because suddenly we found ourselves zigzagging up a steep incline through fields of wildflowers, clamoring up muddy hills and over a knocked down tree and huffing and puffing up a giant flight of stairs in the middle of the forest. Let's just say that one of us was wearing the wrong kind of shoes for such an adventure. (That would be Dan, who, with his more traditional notions of strolling, was not so pleased to have his beloved checkered Vans get caked in mud.)

After a grueling 45-minute climb accompanied by some mild grumbling, we found ourselves on the top of the mountain, where we instantly forgot our shoe troubles and all the hard work it took to get there. It felt like we had stepped right into a postcard. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking.

"Just so you know, this is the easy hike we'll be doing on this trip," Julien told us. "The next hike will be a lot harder."

Considering I thought our stroll was pretty challenging (even with the right shoes), I am nervous to find out what that means. To be continued...

Tréchauffé Alpine Pasture
Route des Chalets | Tréchauffé | 74200 La Forclaz | France

(Second photo by Nien Lam)

July 6, 2013

Welcome to Evian

In the middle of winter, our friend Julien reached out to us and a few New York friends and suggested for 4th of July, we come stay at his parents' home in Evian, France, (yes, where the water comes from). The home, which used to be an annex of a hotel, is right on the Lac Leman, known as Lake Geneva to us Americans, with the French Alps behind it.

It's nearly impossible to refuse an invitation like that one, so here we are, months later, with our good friends at this beautiful place by the lake for a French summer vacances.

If our first few days are any indication of how things work around here: The day starts off with some perfect bread from the bakery across the street (une traditionelle bien cuite) topped with butter and homemade preserves that are almost honey-sweet. There might be some traveling around town a trip to the farmer's market, maybe some sightseeing. But back at the house, we find ourselves sitting around the picnic table enjoying giant hunks of cheese, a varied selection of sausage and endless glasses of local wine.

When we become bored of that, we take a plunge into the chilly waters of Lake Geneva. The first two seconds of immersion are a total shock to the body, but once you fight off the urge to swim back to shore, it actually feels quite invigorating; a nice jolt to counter the jet lag. Afterwards, we warm up in the sun, and maybe after that, we'll have a late dinner and watch the sunset, which doesn't happen until almost 10 o'clock at night.

I have to admit: It's a nice way to live.