Grande Mosquée de Paris

Culture, France, Photography, Travel

Though it is neighbors with one of Paris’ most popular parks, the Jardin des Plantes, the Grande Mosquée de Paris, the largest mosque in France,  is one of the few great attractions in Paris that isn’t always buzzing with tourists. In fact, besides for the tea salon, Moroccan restaurant, and hammam (Turkish bath) on the property, I think few people even realize that you’re able to visit the actual mosque itself.  

For a modest fee of €3 (€2 for students) you can escape the bustling city streets and retreat to a quiet, lush, green oasis filled with colorful mosaics and trickling fountains — and depending on what time you visit, you might even get to experience the mosque with the soothing sound of the call of prayer in the background, a rhythmic noise as enchanting to me as monks chanting their nightly vespers.

Besides for a few school groups, and maybe a couple of tourists here and there, my visits to the mosque have been quiet, and such a peaceful way to spend a few hours of my day.

As lovely as a trip to Notre Dame or any of Paris’ other great cathedrals, I think a visit to the mosque is an integral part of any well-rounded Paris itinerary, especially for anyone looking for an interesting and relaxing way to escape the crowds for an hour or two.

Once you finish your self-guided tour, snag a table at the lively salon de thé for a cup of sweetened mint tea (ordered table side) and a sweet treat from the pastry stand indoors, and continue enjoying one of Paris’ best overlooked attractions, a place so few tourists take the time to see. 

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Hours: Summer: Saturday-Thursday 9am – 12pm/ 2pm – 7pm ; Winter: 9am – 12pm / 2pm – 6pm
Entrance Fee: €3 per person / €2 for students

Snapshots from Italy

Culture, Photography, Travel

It wasn’t until arriving in Italy that I remembered just how much I love that country. Or maybe I remembered it after waiting two hours to pick up our rental car, driving an hour on terrifying, narrow, winding roads through the mountains (which Jacob handled like a champ), and was relaxing in the town center of Ravello with an aperol spritz in hand, but you get the point…

During our first visit to Europe where we spent one month traveling from London to Rome, we were lucky enough to get to spend two full weeks in Italy. From Venice, to the Cinque Terre, to Tuscany, Umbria, and many fun stops in between, we had the time of our lives seeing the land of my ancestors. With that said, naturally, we were thrilled when we received a save the date in the mail for Jacob’s cousin’s wedding, highlighting that it would be a destination wedding in the Amalfi Coast, a region of Italy we had yet to explore.

We were very excited to see family, and of course, to celebrate his cousin’s marriage, but also, we couldn’t wait to get back to the country we fell so hard for, four years ago.

Since the purpose of the trip was to attend the wedding, we spent most of our time hanging out in Ravello, the beautiful town where the wedding and its many festivities were held.  

Perched on a mountainside, Ravello offers some of the best views the Amalfi Coast has to offer, and since there’s no direct beach access, far fewer crowds – something Jacob and I both greatly appreciate when we travel.

Outside of three nights of lovely wedding festivities, during our time in the region  we visited a limoncello factory, saw the beautiful duomo in Amalfi, enjoyed foggy coastline views on a ferry ride to Positano, had the best lemon granita I’ve ever tasted, ate cones of fried, fresh seafood, strolled the quiet, romantic streets of Ravello, tasted local wines and cheese, and spent as much time as we could on our spacious apartment balcony, which offered sweeping views of the surrounding green mountains, and bright blue sea below.

After an unbelievable wedding celebration on Saturday night, we spent Sunday touring the ruins of Pompeii, rolled into Naples just in time for a Neapolitan pizza for dinner that night, and then spent our final day on Monday exploring the colorful neighborhood of Trastevere in Rome before flying home.

Next week, I’ll take you to one of my favorite overlooked attractions in Paris, but for now, enjoy with me some snapshots from Italy.

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Snapshots from Holland

Culture, Photography, Travel

Happy Monday, friends! 

I woke up early today for my French class, only to realize once arriving that today is yet another French holiday, meaning, the school was closed… 

It’s funny how in college I would get excited when class was canceled, but that’s not really the case today. This morning, however, I am grateful for a few hours of extra free time so I can finally go through pictures and catch up on my blog. 

If you follow me here, or on social media, it probably seems like all we do is travel. While it’s true that we do get to travel more now than ever before thanks to affordable airfare and train tickets, I promise that most of the time we live normal day to day lives. The hubs works more than I want him to, and I do my best to juggle work and learning French. If I posted about that every day though, I imagine I would have quite a few less followers…

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When we first started talking about moving to France, all I could think about was how often we’d get to travel. Knowing how close together everything is in Europe, and also how inexpensive and efficient the trains and planes are here (well, the trains are efficient at least…), I dreamt about all the weekend trips we would take. I kept a list on my phone that I was constantly tweaking, as I continuously thought up new ideas. When we arrived, I quickly learned that my “travel somewhere new every weekend” idea just wasn’t going to happen.

For starters, the hubs works most weekends, so he was out of most of these plans, and then more realistically, even cheap travel adds up. Furthermore, we have the pup to think about, and then biggest of all, I realized how much I didn’t even ever really want to leave Paris.

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Before moving here, I knew I loved Paris, but until living here, I had no idea just how much. Now, with each day that passes and the closer we get to leaving our beautiful Parisian home, I don’t want to go anywhere at all. I’ve come to love our normal, everyday routines. I like getting up on Monday mornings to go to French class. I enjoy my walks past Notre Dame with the pup. I love Sunday morning market visits with Jacob, where we fight with Heidi as she tries to eat fallen baguette pieces and market booth crumbs. It’s the “mundane” things that excite me, and I want to soak up every last minute we have left in this city before it’s time to go.

However, with all that said, there were two trips on my original list that I couldn’t wait to take: 1) a spring trip to the Netherlands to see the famed Holland tulips in all of their glory, and 2) a long weekend in Italy to celebrate our cousin’s wedding (photos coming soon). The Netherlands - 25

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Holland was everything I thought it would be, with the exception of Amsterdam, which we unknowingly visited on the craziest day of the year, King’s Day. Besides for that though, the towns we visited were charming, the people friendly, and the tulip fields lovely. It was an amazing feeling to stand alongside hundreds of thousands of one of my favorite flowers together in one place.

Our first stop was a visit to the Keukenhof Gardens, which is one of the largest flower gardens in the world. Featuring millions (yes, millions) of tulips, Keukenhof was a great introduction to Holland as we basically got to see tulips of every color and kind.

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From Keukenhof, it was off to our Airbnb for a relaxing night in after a long drive and tiring walk through the gardens.

For the first two nights we stayed in an Airbnb which basically sat right on a tulip farm, making my number one goal of visiting a field full of tulips easy. Truth be told, if you visit at the right time of the year, seeing the tulip fields isn’t hard to do as you’ll see them all over the country, but getting up close and personal with one can be a different story. Thanks to the proximity of our Airbnb, we were never more than a three minute walk away. 

Outside of our crazy day in Amsterdam (basically all that we accomplished there was trying to escape the crowds, which never happened, visiting the Anne Frank House, which was a really moving site to see, and purchasing 50 tulips for €12) the rest of our trip was relaxing.

Besides for frolicking through tulip fields, we took the pup to play on the beach (which she loved – though I imagine you’ll never be able to tell by the photos 😉 ) visited the quaint cheese-making town of Edam, strolled the picturesque streets of Volendam, and enjoyed a great harbor side brewery all to ourselves in Enkhuizen. 

Like with any fun vacation, we were sad for it to end, but when you live in Paris, it’s really never a bummer to go home… 

Until next week!

A Weekend in Barcelona Spain

Culture, Food, Food Photography, Photography, Travel

My trip to Barcelona was taken somewhat on a whim. After plans to go to Norway to try and see the Northern Lights failed, the hubs encouraged me to enjoy a weekend in Spain instead. I had long talked about going to Spain and was itching for a visit to somewhere warm. Knowing that Jacob couldn’t travel anytime soon, I happily took him up on his suggestion and started researching my options. A few hours later I had purchased my plane tickets, and not long after that, I was on my way.

Having never been to Spain before, and having never taken an international trip alone, I wasn’t really sure what to expect for my long weekend away. I wasn’t nervous about traveling by myself, more so just anxious about whether I would get lonely or bored, and if I am being totally honest, concerned about just how many tapas I could realistically consume on my own. 😉

I am happy to report that I never found myself longing for company, and I had absolutely no trouble at all putting away countless plates of food. My time alone was exhilarating and refreshing, and Barcelona had a certain charm that made me never want to leave.

My trip started with a visit to La Boqueria, a massive covered food market which is truly any foodie’s dream. I spent a few minutes wandering through a maze of cured meats, colorful juices, and fresh fruits and vegetables, before grabbing a spot at the bar at El Quim de la Boquería for my first round of tapas.

Struggling to keep my Spanish and French (and English for that matter…) straight, I ended up with a plate of patatas bravas that I didn’t mean to order (this wasn’t the only time that I would order incorrectly), but in the end, this was totally okay. I ate quite a few spuds that weekend, and those were certainly the best I had, so good in fact, that I can’t even remember what it was I was trying to order initially.

Alongside my patatas bravas were a plate of fried artichoke hearts, which are easily one of the best things i’ve eaten since moving abroad. I nearly cried tears of joy after my first bite. As I washed them down with a €3 glass of local cava, I couldn’t help but to think how coming to Spain was definitely a really great idea.

After picking up a bright pink juice from one of the stalls nearby, I rushed off to the next stop of my journey where I toured Antoni Gaudí’s eccentric and unfinished church, the Sagrada Família.

There is a lot that I can say about Gaudí’s unique masterpiece, but i’ll just leave it at this: Sagrada Família is an interesting church, and indeed beautiful in many ways. However, in short, it’s not my cup of tea. There’s something about Romanesque and Gothic churches that really inspire me, and I just couldn’t find that same sense of awe in Gaudí’s modern design. The construction probably had something to do with it, as well as being asked more than once to move for someone’s selfie, but hey, that’s not Gaudí’s fault…

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I found it slightly ironic that I left for this trip same day as International Women’s Day. To me, International Women’s Day represents many different things, but this year, it was a time to celebrate aloneness. So often I think women associate being alone as being a bad thing. We’re not complete without a significant other, we’re not capable of exploring a new place without a companion by our side, we’re not as strong of a leader or an influence on our own, etc.

As I wandered around Barcelona, a city of 1.6 million people, in a country where I don’t speak the language, and in a town where I knew no one, I didn’t feel alone. In fact, I felt very much in the warm company of the 1.6 million Catalonians who surrounded me. I didn’t pity myself as I sat alone at a bar with enough tapas to feed three, or as I drank half pitcher of sangria on my own (the second occasion where my Spanish ordering abilities failed me). Instead, I felt exhilarated. I was visiting a place I had always wanted to visit, and enjoying something I truly loved. Why should being alone prevent me from doing that?

As I walked back to my hostel from the Sagrada Familia, I stumbled across thousands of other women as they celebrated all that International Women’s Day means to them. With the march taking place right in front of where I was staying, I first watched for a while from the street, and then spent my evening, alone, in the hostel, celebrating from the window. Again, something was telling me that coming to Barcelona was a really great idea…

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Sagrada Familia 

I started the following day with a visit to Park Güell, another Gaudí project. Though I enjoyed the main part of the park (the paid area), I loved the free trails and natural gardens that surrounded this area even more. Much of Gaudí’s work takes a naturalist approach, and what better way is there to experience nature in a large city than with time spent in a park? Being a perfect 70 degree day, I found a secluded bench with a great view of the city and relaxed in the sun until my next appointment.

Next came what was quite possibly my favorite experience of the trip – a paella cooking class in a lovely private garden just down the street from Park Güell. Originating from Valencia, a town about 200 miles south of Barcelona, paella is a regional dish that’s approached by Spaniards much the same way that Americans approach a backyard barbeque.  It is meant to be leisurely prepared over a glass of wine or sweet vermouth, and enjoyed alongside family and friends.

This “class” was actually called a “cooking experience,” and appropriately so, as an experience was exactly what it was. There was no formal training, per se, just 10 or so strangers who quickly became new friends, enjoying wine and tapas together, and learning a bit about paella along the way.

Our wonderful host shared with us her grandmother’s recipe, and we all cooked together in the backyard of her childhood home. We ate tapas, shaved fresh slices of Ibérico and Serrano ham, and learned the art of drinking from a porron, all before enjoying the fruits of our labor with a large plate of paella. I look forward to taking what I learned from this experience and to one day enjoying a backyard, paella barbecue with family and friends back home.

Full and sleepy from so much delicious food, I enjoyed a leisurely walk down a lovely route recommended by my cooking experience host, and then spent the next couple of hours resting at my hostel before venturing out to the old Gothic Quarter of Barcelona to see what I could discover there.

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Jacob and I have this thing when we travel in big cities where we will go out of our way to “get lost.” We intentionally take roads which aren’t the main route, and more often than not, our efforts pay off. Taking that same approach as I wandered around this historic part of town, I found myself in a number of quiet squares, and discovered many quaint streets. Eventually, I stumbled across the beautiful 14th-century Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, and settled in at a fantastic little wine bar across the square. Making friends with the bartender, I tried two fantastic Spanish wines, and jotted notes about my day on the back of a receipt while I let my phone charge behind the counter.

After a quick tour of the church, I stopped in for more tapas at a recommended spot down the street for yet another memorable meal. As I took a seat at the bar, the server’s first words were “I have just the perfect meal for one person.” After I made it clear that there aren’t really any foods I don’t like, the plates started coming…and it took a long while before they stopped. Some plates of tomato bread, clams, patatas bravas, fried squid, and a couple of other unidentified things later, I left overly full, but again, so happy for yet another great experience.

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Gothic Quarter and Playa de la Barceloneta

The last day of my journey started with, you guessed it, more good food. Having read about a place known for their croissants, I figured I would give it a try. I had been outside of France for three days at that point, and had started missing my favorite breakfast pastry.

Having the bar set pretty high after seven months in Paris, I was skeptical and only purchased one pastry. However, after just one bite, I regretted not buying two. Glazed and filled with mascarpone cheese, my croissant from Hofmann Pastisseria was one of the best things I ate all weekend. Half way through my first one, I had already made up my mind to go back for a second…

To burn off my pastries, I spent the next couple of hours walking around a new area of the Gothic Quarter, and toured another beautiful gothic church, the Barcelona Cathedral. Though there was a short line to get in, this cathedral was quiet, and evoked that sense of awe I couldn’t find at the Sagrada Familia. A €3 elevator ride to the roof made me love it all the more. Offering a fantastic view of the city, and no crowds, I spent half an hour or more on the roof enjoying the views and sunshine, and thinking about how I wasn’t ready for my weekend in Barcelona to end.

Growing hungry, I left the roof with plans to head back to La Boqueria for another round of tapas, but ended up stumbling in to a very Austin-esque coffee shop and decided to enjoy lunch there instead. I don’t know exactly what it was that I ended up eating (story of my life that weekend in Spain), but it was some sort of Asian rice bowl that was utterly delicious, and the kombucha I washed it down with also wasn’t bad.

Energized and ready to finish my off my weekend strong, I made my way to the beach to dip my toes in the Mediterranean Sea. After half a pitcher of sangria (I swear I only ordered a single glass – and no, I did not drink the whole thing), I headed back to my hostel to get ready for one last memorable Spanish meal.

I think my first meal in Barcelona was probably my favorite, but what I loved about my last was the fact that many of the tapas served were actually meant for one person. Because of this, I was finally able to try a large variety of things without feeling like a total glutton (but really, what did I care?). After one more plate of fried artichoke hearts (which didn’t hold a candle to my first plate from El Quim de la Boquería), I toasted myself with one final glass of cava to commemorate a such great solo weekend away.

Not Home for the Holidays

Culture, France, Photography, Travel

The hubs and I have missed a lot of big family events since we first moved away from Arkansas, however, we’ve always done what we had to do to make it home for Christmas. 

This holiday season (2017) I felt a bit torn. In many ways I was my same ole jolly self, starting my Christmas playlist the day after Halloween Thanksgiving, watching Christmas movies on repeat, eating festive holiday treats, etc., but in others, I was slightly dreading my favorite day of December. 

Knowing, that for the first time ever, I wouldn’t be home for the holidays, I found myself a bit anxious over what’s otherwise a wonderful time of the year. Anticipating that I would need a good distraction on Christmas day,  I set out researching.alps hike - 1.jpgalps hike 2 - 1.jpgalps hike 3 - 1alps hike 4 - 1Alps - 38Alps - 43Alps - 54Alps - 34Alps - 18Alps - 36

Alps - 51Alps - 92Alps - 57Alps - 30Alps - 23A few years ago Jacob and I watched a Rick Steves’ Christmas special where Steves’ and his family spend Christmas day in one of the prettiest places we’ve ever been, Gimmelwald Switzerland, high up in the Swiss Alps. After finishing the special, in awe, we pledged to one day return and have a white Christmas in those lovely mountains. Little did we know then that that Christmas would come so soon.

Though it wasn’t the Swiss Alps where we spent our Christmas, i’d say the French Alps are sufficient for fulfilling that pledge, and they were just as pretty, if not even better, than the region of the Alps we explored a few summers ago. Alps - 41Alps - 35Alps - 26Alps - 59Alps - 27Alps - 2Alps - 52Alps - 15Alps - 17heidi alps 2 - 1.jpgWanting to have for the first time in my life a relaxing holiday, I got to work finding a place to stay where we could truly unwind. However, unfortunately, I quickly came to find that everyone else seemed to have the same idea. 

For a while it looked like we had two options: we could either stay in a small condo in a major ski town, or in an even smaller cabin in the foothills, likely away from the snow.

Wanting two things, well, really three, a fireplace, guaranteed snow, and seclusion, I persevered until the perfect option came about: Ma Cabane en Montagne, a lovely little traditional, eco-conscious log cabin located in the stunning Vanoise National Park. Alps - 8Alps - 65Alps - 61Alps - 62Alps - 73Alps - 77Alps - 66Alps - 68

heidi alps - 1.jpgAlps - 82Alps - 78Alps - 73Alps - 72Secluded, covered with a beautiful blanket of thick, white, sparkling snow, and containing a wood stove, Ma Cabane en Montagne was the perfect spot for us to spend our quiet holiday. The location was unbeatable, the cabin was cozy, and best of all, dinner (unfussy, yet delicious, traditional French Savoyarde dishes – think raclettes, fondue, sausages… basically good, hearty, and comforting mountain food) was included each night, taking any hard work off our hands, and allowing us more time to relax.

Though there were ski resorts nearby and plenty of Alpine activities available, we decided instead to take things as easy as possible, and really enjoy a low key Christmas break. Alps - 91Alps - 85Alps - 93Alps - 94Alps - 90Alps - 86Alps - 87Alps - 74Alps - 70Alps - 76Alps - 80Alps - 79Alps - 75Alps - 67We watched Christmas movies, read books, drank hot chocolate by the fire, went sledding, played with Heidi in the snow (who had never before seen such a thing, making the whole experience that much more fun), explored nearby villages, and on Christmas day, took a lovely hike through the mountains.

On Christmas Eve, the big night to celebrate here in France, we drank champagne and ate foie gras, steak, potatoes, chestnuts (literally roasted over an open fire), and cheese, and then fell asleep half an hour into Elf. On Christmas day, we slept in (a first for me!!), enjoyed a quiet breakfast, and then set off for our hike. We FaceTimed with family later that day, enjoyed dinner, and then fell asleep by 10. For the first time ever, it was a quiet, relaxing holiday, and really such a perfect way to spend the day.

Though I wouldn’t want to do it every year as we certainly missed family and friends, this peaceful way of celebrating was incredibly memorable, and such a nice change of pace. Here’s to more relaxing holidays in our future, and though a little bit late, a very happy new year for us all!

 

A Weekend in Normandy France

Culture, France, Photography, Travel

This time last year we were eating tacos in Mexico and hiking 14.5 miles through the beautiful Big Bend National Park. Today, I’m celebrating the holiday in my pajamas, reminiscing about the trip we took to northern France in September, and thinking about the BBQ we are going to eat tonight.

It has been a few years since we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving the traditional way, with huge plates of food, naps, and watching football with family and friends, but that’s okay. Though I miss loved ones back home, being in France certainly makes up for the lack of turkey and stuffing on our agenda today. However, I still intend to make a pie and a nap is definitely in the plans…

With that said, reminisce with me for a moment with snapshots from our trip to Normandy, where we admired Monet’s lily pond in Giverny, sipped calvados where the Seine river meets the English Channel in Honfleur, visited the D-Day landing beaches and paid our respects at the Normandy American Cemetery to the 9,385 Americans who were killed during the invasion of Normandy, learned about the Battle of Hastings admiring the Bayeux Tapestry, toured the beautiful Bayeux Cathedral down the street, wandered the narrow, sloping streets of the medieval island town of Mont Saint-Michel, swooned over eerie, foggy views of the surrounding mudflats, and lastly, toured the magical Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, an early-medieval monastery perched on top of a hill in the center of the island.

Whether your day is full of food, adventure, relaxation, or reminiscing, may it be a day of gratitude and love. Happy thanksgiving!

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Bonjour From Paris

Culture, France, Photography, Travel

When so much has happened since your last blog post, it’s really hard to just dive right into a new one. Even with the best intentions to write about our travels, share tasty recipes, and update you on other fun life updates, my schedule the last few years hasn’t really allowed me to do so. However, I expect that to change over the course of this next year.

Since it’d be impossible to cover everything that’s happened since January 7th, 2017 (the date of my last blog post) in just one post, let’s just jump ahead to the biggest news of all…

Two weeks ago yesterday, the hubs and I MOVED TO FRANCE.

That’s right. From Fayetteville, to Boston, to Austin, to PARIS, we’ve made our biggest move yet, and it has been a whirlwind of a process as well as a total dream come true.

In short, in May Jacob was awarded a grant to fund dissertation research for his PhD, and since most of the manuscripts he needs to study are here in France, fast forward four months, and here we are; two excited expats with just a few suitcases of belongings living in a 193 square foot apartment smack dab in the middle of the city…

The process to get us here hasn’t always been easy and many tough decisions had to be made along the way, like giving up a great job, leaving behind friends and family, and temporarily saying goodbye to our best girl, Heidi (the dog). However, this is only one small chapter of our lives (we’ll return to Austin August 2018) and we couldn’t be more excited to be here.

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Since arriving our time has been filled with long walks, buttery croissants, endless baguettes, cheap (but delicious) French wine, amazing ethnic foods (of all kinds), riverside picnics, beautiful sights everywhere we look, museums, churches, leisurely reads in the parks, lovely fall temperatures… the list could go on and on. But also, let’s not to forget about stressful apartment hunting, language barriers, lots of work for the hubs, sleepless nights on an uncomfortable pullout couch, homesickness, missing our girl terribly, and SO MUCH cigarette smoke.

Really though, the few negative asides, being here so far really has been a dream. While we long to be reunited with our girl (she’ll arrive in just a few weeks!) and to move into a space a little bigger than what we’re in now (We’re moving into a more permanent space in October that’s a whopping 484 square feet!) I say to myself at least five times a day “What!? I live here?!” because being here truly is surreal.

I look forward to the adventures we’ll go on this next year, the memories we will make, and blogging about it along the way. It’s good to be back.

Until next time, mes amis!


In a city like Paris, there’s literally always something to take a picture of. With that said, I have unfortunately missed the opportunity for some really great photos these last couple of weeks, simply because I don’t carry my camera with me 24/7. HOWEVER, there is one thing I do always have on me, and that’s my phone. For live updates, funny crisis moments, and more beautiful Parisian sights, be sure to follow me on Instagram, @jndoss. 

Thanksgiving in Big Bend, Pt. 2

Culture, Photography, Travel

Though day one of our Big Bend vacation was one of our trip highlights, days two and three certainly did not disappoint.

On our second day, after a foggy, relaxed morning at the campsite drinking coffee and eating pumpkin pie, we headed down the mountain to explore the valley below on our first ever desert hike.

A moderate hike to a series of prominent volcanic dike formations, the Chimneys Trail is well-known for Indian rock art marks at the base of its iconic, chimney pinnacles. Surrounded by various types of cacti and other short, brushy desert plants we were unfamiliar with, the first bit of this hike was interesting, but in all honestly, I was over this hike halfway before it was done. Once we made it to chimneys and explored the petroglyphs and evidence of camp settlements, we high tailed it back to our car and ventured on to the more exciting part of our day.

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From the desert we headed along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive for more beautiful views and a visit to the Santa Elena Canyon. Towering 1,500 feet over the Rio Grande, the Santa Elena Canyon is one of the most dramatic canyons in the park, and was a breathtaking site to see. We’d originally planned to take a rafting trip down the river through the canyon, but not wanting to jam pack our schedule, we decided to save that trip for our next visit. Now after seeing just a glimpse of the canyon’s beauty, that’s a rafting trip I can hardly wait to take.

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On our third and final full day in the park, we woke before the sun and set off for one of the most challenging and rewarding hikes I have ever done. The South Rim Trail,  a strenuous 14.5 mile loop along the south rim of the Chisos Mountains, was well worth the 2,000 foot elevation gain, steep and never-ending switchbacks, and a nerve-racking bear encounter.

Starting off brushy and dry in the basin of the Chisos, the hike soon turned green as we quickly ascended a couple thousand feet into the mountains. Next to cacti we saw Pines, as well as Firs, Aspens, and Maples. The first couple of hours our feet saw red dirt, and then suddenly the bright colors of Fall.

Finally, when we thought our knees could no longer take it,  we made it to the mountain ridge where we were rewarded with panoramic views of the mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert. Fighting with the fog, we took our time on this part of hike, resting and eating lunch, and peeking through the clouds into the world below. Then, just before we descended the mountain, the sun finally won, offering us front row seats to Big Bend’s most stunning vistas.

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Though the second half of the hike was just as pretty as the first, I barely remember it as I was just ready to get off the mountain. With a bad knee, hiking downhill is much worse than going up, and if we’re being totally honest, we both just couldn’t wait for a burger and an icy cold beer.

The last mile of the hike I felt exhausted, yet energized, as I powered my way back to the car proud of what I had just accomplished. After a visit to our campsite and a quick decision that we were too tired to cook, we headed to the Chisos Mountain Lodge and ended our adventure with that well deserved burger and beer.

We went to bed that night exhausted and sore, and woke the next day surprisingly rested. Trying to extend our trip just a little bit longer, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of pancakes and bacon, and then eventually, knowing we had to go home, packed up camp and made our way back to Austin.

Though I was tired on Monday and still a little sore from our hikes, our short trip to Big Bend was well worth it. Each year our Thanksgiving celebrations seem to get a little more unique, and I am totally okay with that. A plate of turkey and stuffing is just as good in the great outdoors, if not even just a little bit better…

 

 

 

 

Thanksgiving in Big Bend, Pt. 1

Culture, Photography, Travel

 

The first time I ever experienced a major holiday away from home was our first year living in Boston.

Though my heart longed to spend that Thanksgiving with my family, knowing we’d  soon be heading home for Christmas, we instead went to New York where we spent the holiday with some of Jacob’s relatives.

That Thanksgiving was a bit unusual for me as we celebrated as a party of 10 or so,  instead of a party of 50, but it was quiet, and relaxing, and truly one of my most memorable holidays.

Living in a big city at that time, I was quite used to cooking in a kitchen the size of a closet, so spending a long weekend in a spacious, country home was a dream. I still remember vividly making my first totally from scratch green bean casserole, and some amazing brussels sprouts dish I prepared from one of Jacob’s aunt’s magazines.

I spent most of that day in the kitchen with his aunt, laughing and talking and getting to know her more closely. By the end of that day I no longer felt so homesick, and settled in that night grateful for family, when the rest of mine was so far away.

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Last year marked another interesting holiday. Back to a small celebration, we spent Thanksgiving here in Austin with our pup, my parents, and their small dog L.E. A table of four felt so small, but it was a memorable experience to be able to cook my first full Thanksgiving meal and host my own family.

The turkey was flavorful and moist, the pumpkin pie was divine, and again, the peace and quiet was amazing.

Growing accustomed to these small and peaceful Thanksgiving celebrations, this year, we decided to have our most untraditional Thanksgiving yet, spending it in the desert for a long weekend of camping.

Still wanting a somewhat traditional holiday, I decided to cook a full Thanksgiving spread before we left town to enjoy on Thanksgiving day. Having roasted a 12 pound bird (for only two people), preparing stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, a casserole, and a pie, I had big expectations about our Thanksgiving meal, and even bigger ideas about what this blog post would look like.

I envisioned pictures of our plates with jagged mountain peaks in the background; shots of the cheese course centered on the picnic table surrounded by cups of wine. I thought i’d show artistic photos of our tent and the campfire, and then talk about how fun and manageable it was to celebrate a holiday in the great outdoors.

This is not how this post is going to go.

Instead of  this romanticized, idealistic Thanksgiving I had envisioned, we spent the holiday in Mexico, where we had our most memorable Thanksgiving yet.

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Settled in Southwest Texas, Big Bend National park features sweeping desert landscapes, dramatic canyons, rugged mountains, and shares 118 miles of its park boundary with Chihuahua and Coahuila Mexico. Knowing that there was a border crossing located within the park, we knew that stepping over into Mexico was something we wanted to do during our trip, we just didn’t expect our time there to be all that is was.

An isolated and primitive outpost amidst a vast wilderness, 150 miles from any major town on either side of the border lies Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico.

Once a town of around 300, because of the border closure in 2002 (due to the events of 9/11), by 2006, the population of Boquillas dropped to around only 90 residents. Eleven years later in 2013, the border reopened, helping to revive Boquillas’ population, which is now home to about 200 people.

Besides for two small restaurants and one bar, there’s not much to see or do here, but wanting this tiny tourist town to succeed, the Mexican government has done what they can, providing supplies to fix older buildings, and paint to freshen up the look of the place. And finally, in 2015, solar panels were installed so that residents could enjoy reliable electricity…

Our journey to Boquillas started at the U.S. Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry where we learned the rules about crossing over into Mexico (don’t bring back alcohol, rocks, etc…) From there, we hopped an “international ferry” and were transported 15 yards away across a knee deep river. After politely saying no to a man with a burro offering us a ride, we walked the quarter of a mile into town and started our adventure in Mexico.

Once arriving to town and checking in with customs, we decided on one of the two restaurant choices (both I believe are owned by the same family, serve the same food,  and are are literally just across the dusty road from each other), and grabbed a spot outside in the shade to enjoy the views and excitement.

For lunch we had tacos with teeny fried flour tortillas and a plate of tamales, and washed it all down with a couple of potent margaritas. We enjoyed live entertainment, AKA a man with a very out of tune guitar, made friends with strangers (who just happened to originally be from Austin), and enjoyed the company of a lively local.

Esteban was the man who originally offered us a ride on his burro, and after spending lunch talking with him, I was disappointed we didn’t accept. Over a peach juice and a couple of Carta Blancas, Esteban told us about his time in Boquillas (he has lived there his entire life), about his mountain guiding services, and about how he walks four days through the desert each year to the nearest town for some extra work.

In the midst of all the hatred we’ve seen towards immigrants and minorities this election season, Esteban was a breath of fresh air. His authenticity and kindness was refreshing, and our time spent with him was one of the best parts of our day.

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After buying a copper scorpion from Esteban and bidding him farewell, we left with our new Texan friends and their guide to take a short tour of the town. We saw the small church and school, water supply tank, and solar panels before finding ourselves in the town’s only cantina where we enjoyed more good conversation over a couple of shots of Sotol. Coming from an unmarked bottle behind the counter, similar to tequila, Sotol is distilled from the dasylirion wheeleri plant native the Northern Mexico. It was smooth, tasty, and was probably safer to drink than the water. Even if the bottle did look a little sketchy…

After an hour or so of getting to know our new friends and a round of Carta Blancas, we hurried our way back across the river, just barely in time for the border closing, and continued our random Thanksgiving day at some hot springs nearby.

Finally, around 7:00 pm when the sky grew dark, we drove the hour back to our campsite to enjoy our Thanksgiving meal. After quickly reheating the food I worked so hard to prepare, I took one lame picture of my plate in the dark, and then crawled into the tent for bed before 9:00. By the time Jacob had returned from cleaning the dishes, I was sound asleep, dreaming of tacos, and our Thanksgiving adventure in Mexico.

Dordogne France and Anniversary Waffles

Culture, Food, Photography, Recipes, Travel

To think that Dordogne almost didn’t make it on our itinerary is a shame. Protected by its relative inaccessibility, the region of Dordogne is full of unspoiled beauty and sites unlike anywhere else in France.  Filled with prehistoric caves, rock-sculpted villages, and the best foie gras in Europe, Dordogne was an easy area to fall in love with, and the perfect place to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary.

A near five hour drive from Amboise, we took our time getting to Dordogne, enjoying the views and stopping for a roadside picnic lunch of baguette sandwiches with pork rillettes, whole grain mustard, and cornichons, and the best market strawberries on earth for dessert.

Arriving in the region in the late afternoon, we started our Dordogne adventure with a scenic drive through the eastern part of of the area, wandering through the sleepy towns of Carennac, Loubressac, and Autoire, and pausing for a Belgian pint in the well-preserved medieval town of Martel. After our drive, we made it to our bed and breakfast nestled near the river in Castelnaud, and it was there where the true magic of our Dordogne adventure began. IMG_0224IMG_0280IMG_0227

IMG_0260IMG_0303IMG_0339Our stay at La Tour de Cause was nothing short of perfect, and it’s partially because of this inn that Dordogne will forever have a spot on our itinerary each time we visit France. Our room and the grounds were lovely, the food was impeccable, and the inn owners had a gift for making us feel right at home.

After forcing ourselves from the too comfortable beds, we’d start each day with freshly squeezed orange juice, ripe cheeses, buttery croissants, homemade jams, creamy yogurt, decadent hot chocolate, and some other French or Belgian delight perfectly prepared and served by Igor and Nico, our hosts and new friends.

We’d sit around in their stunning  kitchen long after we’d finished eating, sipping our coffee and chocolate, chatting, and finalizing plans for our day. After breakfast, we’d slowly get ready and enjoy some time on the patio, before venturing out into the countryside to explore the best sites this part of France had to offer. IMG_0717IMG_0706.jpg

IMG_0795IMG_0772On our first full day we explored the nearby town of Sarlat-la-Canéda where we shopped the stalls at the bustling Wednesday market. As one of the most important market towns since the Middle Ages, not only did the Sarlat market offer us a wonderful culinary tour of the area, but it also offered a downtown rich in architecture and history, a great introduction to this historic region.

At the market we bought cheese and cured meats, tasted walnut liqueur, and spoke to the merchants in broken French. We stocked up on foie gras and terrines, and purchased fruit, wine, and baguettes for lunch. When it started to rain, we ducked into the church to sit and pray, before heading on to the more adventurous part of our day.

Once the rain passed, we headed down the road to start our nine-mile, lazy canoe ride down the scenic Dordogne river. Paddling at a relaxed pace, we took in views of lush forests and towering limestone bluffs, and then of castles and cliff-dwelling villages.

IMG_0389churchIMG_0445IMG_0420IMG_0466IMG_0541IMG_0594Docking our boat at the foot of the first village, we stepped onto dry land to explore the beautiful town of La Roque-Gageac, a quaint little place where we later returned for our anniversary dinner. From there, we paddled on past Castelnaud, where our bed and breakfast was located, before ending our excursion with a tour of one of my favorite castles, the mighty 12th century fortress of Beynac.

Hiking to the tip top of town, we enjoyed our walk up the narrow cobblestone roads, surrounded by historic homes and rose covered buildings, before being rewarded with sweeping views of the river valley area below.

Nestled 500 feet above the Dordogne River, Château de Beynac was used as a defense fortress by the French during the Hundred Years’ War, and having been recently restored,  gave us a great glimpse into what life might have looked like in this area during that time. Much different than the newer, more luxurious palaces we saw in the Loire, the fortress of Beynac was one of the coolest châteaux we visited in France, and is perhaps one of my favorite châteaux  I’ve seen in all of Europe thus far. IMG_0671

IMG_0621IMG_0617IMG_0645IMG_0659IMG_0656IMG_0629Winding down from a fun-filled day, we made our way back to our bed and breakfast where we had one of the best meals we had during our entire stay in France. Starting with aperitifs and hors d’oeuvres on the patio, I knew right away that our decision to stay in for dinner was the right choice. Igor and Nico serve up a lovely breakfast, but it’s dinner where their talent is truly able to shine.

Gathered around the kitchen table with Igor and Nico and two other guests, we enjoyed herring crostinis with creme fraiche and fresh dill, duck pâté croquettes topped with fried parsley and lemon, sausage stuffed quail with a wine and fruit reduction, sauteed zucchini, and a melt in your mouth polenta. The wine flowed freely, the conversation never stalled, and before we knew it, we were no longer a table of strangers, but instead, a table of friends.

After dessert, more wine, and then a pot of tea, we collapsed into bed, happy and full, and never wanting to leave. france wafflescave

tree.jpgDay two of our Dordogne adventure was another special one as it was also the day of our 5th wedding anniversary. As if dinner the night before hadn’t already been perfect enough, we were greeted at breakfast that morning with cheers and music and special, anniversary waffles. With Frank Sinatra’s Love and Marriage playing in the background, we celebrated with our new friends, feeling loved, and so happy to be in France.

Though maybe not the most romantic way to celebrate an anniversary, we continued our day and our Dordogne adventure by exploring the region’s biggest attraction and touring two of the hundreds of prehistoric caves that are scattered around the area.

The first cave we visited, Lascaux II, is an exact replica of the area’s most famous cave, Lascaux. Just feet away, the original cave was closed to the public in 1963 to help preserve the art. After being discovered in 1940, changes in the environment caused by human visitors did more damage  to the art in the 15 years it was open to the public than in the estimated 17,000-20,000 prior. This cave is most famous for The Great Hall of the Bulls, a section of the cave which depicts colorful paintings of bulls, equines, and stags, as well as the largest painted animal discovered so far in cave art, a 17 foot long bull. Next we saw original and newer (though certainly not new! est. 13,000 years old…) cave art at Rouffignac, which is well known for its engravings and drawings of mammoths, bison, horses, and other large animals. Our visit to these caves was a highlight of our trip, and though maybe not romantic, was a wonderful way to celebrate our anniversary. 

After our cave excursion we enjoyed a late picnic on a quiet riverbank next to an 11th century Romanesque church, before heading back to our bed and breakfast for a nap, and then on to another memorable French meal.

While I would be happy celebrating marriage anywhere on earth with my dear hubs, our 5th wedding anniversary is definitely a day I will never forget, and it’ll take a lot to top this year’s memorable celebration. IMG_0864IMG_0844IMG_0817IMG_0849On our third and last day in Dordogne, we cracked open a bottle of Chimay before noon, and enjoyed one more chat with Igor and Nico gathered around their kitchen table. We talked politics and about our work, and most importantly, about food. I shared with them some of my favorite recipes, and walked away with some of theirs. Too quickly the bottle was empty and the hour was late, and we still had one last castle to visit before leaving for our next town. Sadly saying our goodbyes, we packed the car and went down the road to visit Château de Castelnaud-la-Chapelle before heading on our way.

I cried a bit when leaving, sad to move along so soon, but also excited for what was next to come. I read the paper Igor had given me,  a recipe for the waffles we enjoyed on our anniversary, and smiled knowing we’d forever be able to have a bit of Dordogne in our lives, wherever we may go.

My new go to waffle recipe, these are great for breakfast, dessert, or a late night snack. Though I call them anniversary waffles, they’re really just a great Belgian waffle recipe that came from some amazing Belgians in France, perfect for anniversaries, or any weekday or weekend meal. We like them best warm and very crisp, served with a smear of apricot jam, and washed down with a chilled glass of champagne.

Anniversary Waffles 

Makes 9-10 Waffles 

2 cups flour

1 cup milk

3/4 cup water

3 eggs

10.5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1.5 teaspoons dry yeast

1 tablespoon sugar

dash of vanilla (optional)

dash of salt

In a large bowl, mix together sugar, water, and yeast, then mix in all other ingredients, except for the salt. Loosely cover batter and rest in the fridge for 12 hours.

After your batter has rested, mix in a dash of salt, and cook waffles according to your waffle maker instructions. I like to cook mine on the hottest setting, allowing them to become extra crisp. Serve with powdered sugar, syrup, or my favorite, a high quality jam.