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. ūüėČ

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 Boquer√≠a 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‚Äôt mean to order (this wasn‚Äôt 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‚Äôt 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 ‚ā¨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 Gaud√≠’s eccentric and unfinished church, the Sagrada Fam√≠lia.

There is a lot that I can say about Gaud√≠’s unique masterpiece, but i’ll just leave it at this: Sagrada Fam√≠lia 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 Gaud√≠’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 Gaud√≠’s fault‚Ķ

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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‚Äôs 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‚Ķ

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Sagrada Familia 

I started the following day with a visit to Park G√ľell, another Gaud√≠ 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 Gaud√≠’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 G√ľell. Originating from Valencia, a town about 200 miles south of Barcelona, paella is a regional dish that‚Äôs 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 Ib√©rico 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‚Äôs 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 ‚ā¨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‚Äôt 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 Boquer√≠a), 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,¬†Ch√Ęteau 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 ch√Ęteaux we visited in France, and is perhaps one of my favorite ch√Ęteaux ¬†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¬†p√Ęt√© 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¬†Ch√Ęteau 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.

 

Road Trip Through France, Part 1

Culture, Photography, Travel

It was nearly three years ago that I first experienced France, in the city of lights, in a city I had never visited, but yet a city I already deeply loved.

I talk here about how nervous I was about our first visit to Paris. I had played it up so much in my head that the thought of it being anything less than magnificent was a scary one. Well, to my great pleasure, it was everything I had ever hoped it would be. The food was memorable, the people were lovely, the sites were breathtaking, and our overall experience was one I will never forget.

Wanting to experience this perfection all over again, for this trip abroad, instead of zipping all around Europe, we put roots down in one country and spent two weeks exploring some of the best sites and landscapes that France has to offer.

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Our trip started in the stunning Loire Valley where we spent our time ch√Ęteau hopping and exploring the lovely town of Amboise. Arriving in Amboise we were greeted by the cold and rain, but we made the best of our first night in France, bundled up in sweaters walking around town, and dropping¬†into a small cafe for crepes and onion soup.¬†After a good night’s rest we started our Loire Valley adventure with pastries and hot chocolate at our lovely¬†little inn, and set off to the first ch√Ęteau of our journey, the 17th-century mansion of Cheverny.

Arriving mid morning on a Monday we had Cheverny mostly to ourselves. Along with a few other tourists and roughly 110 dogs, we toured this grand establishment and walked the spacious grounds. After our tour around the estate, we enjoyed a visit with the Cheverny hunting dogs, and then moved on to continue our day.

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We left the property to find picnic supplies and settled down in front of an old church to enjoy our meal. We had been in France for less than 24 hours, but already, it was just as lovely as we remembered.

From Cheverny we headed to the largest ch√Ęteau in the Loire Valley and explored the massive palace of Chambord. Originally built as a hunting lodge, this 440-room palace¬†has a fireplace for every day of the year and is surrounded by Europe’s largest enclosed forest park, a game preserve defined by a 20-mile long wall.¬†

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We spent a couple of hours wandering the grounds and exploring the ch√Ęteau’s many empty rooms. We played around on the property’s¬†famous spiral staircase, and then, growing tired of Chambord’s massiveness, moved on to discover my favorite¬†ch√Ęteau, the dreamy and romantic Ch√Ęteau de Chenonceau. Gracefully arching over the Cher River, this 16th-century Renaissance dwelling¬†is¬†the kind of place I would happily call home.

As the most popular¬†ch√Ęteau in the Loire Valley, Chenonceau is well-known for crowds, but thanks to a chill in the air and a perfectly-timed rainstorm, we nearly had the whole place to ourselves, which only added to Chenonceau’s¬†charm.

We were welcomed into the¬†ch√Ęteau by a crackling fire in the entry¬†fireplace, and greeted in each room by¬†stunning arrangements¬†of flowers put together from the property’s gardens.¬†Each room we entered not only gave us a well-preserved look back into time, but also¬†flooded our senses with the smell of peonies, roses, and lilies. Jacob would chuckle at my excitement not for the centuries old art or architecture all around us, but instead, over the exquisite flower arrangements that adorned each room.

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Flowers aside, the architecture and history of this manor did not fail to wow me. We loved the views of the river and gardens which could be seen from almost every room, the creepy mourning room of Louise de Lorraine,  and most of all, the beautiful and historic kitchen.

Most other kitchens during this time were in a separate or semi-detached building to reduce the risk of fire, but because of its location, Chenonceau was one of the only ch√Ęteaux in the 16th-century to have a kitchen within the ch√Ęteau itself, and while that was cool and all, if I am really being honest, it was really all of the copper pots and pans and the gigantic butcher block that still has me swooning over¬†that kitchen today…

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Once the rain cleared we checked out the gardens and took a stroll around the tourist-abandoned farm. We watched ducks and smelled more flowers, and stumbled across sections of the property that very well could have used as movie settings for The Secret Garden. 

Having had enough ch√Ęteaux for one day, we headed back to Amboise where we enjoyed a bottle of local wine and a picnic before taking a bright, late-night stroll along the Loire. Hugging tight to stay warm, we watched the city¬†lights twinkle, reminiscing about our day, and looking forward¬†to the wonderful adventures in France¬†still¬†to come.

A Weekend on Padre Island

Culture, Photography, Travel

There are few things that rejuvenate me more than traveling. Whether hopping a plane for an extended trip, or packing the car for a quick weekend adventure, the level of excitement I feel over exploring a new place is always the same.

When we lived in Boston, traveling was easy. A trip to the beach was never more than an hour away, a trip to the mountains just a little more. We could be to the country in only 30 minutes, and often, our favorite adventures were had right out our own backdoor.

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Traveling in Texas hasn‚Äôt been quite as easy. Nearly four times the size of New England,¬†Texas travel takes much more time. We have a running list of places in the state we’d love to visit, but until we have the time for 7-10 hour drives, we‚Äôll just have to keep those trips on hold.

Bored with our frequent Hill Country visits but eager for adventure, with a forecasted 82 degree high, last weekend, we headed south to explore the Texas coast.IMG_0602

I’d longed to see the Gulf ever since¬†moving to¬†Texas. Only three hours from Austin, it’s a place I figured we’d visit¬†often. Well, it only took a year and a half living in Austin¬†to get us there, but at least we finally made it.

Though unseasonably crowded for the end of January, we were still able to find seclusion, and the relaxation we were after. Upon arriving on Saturday after a desolate drive, we ventured off road and took our car down the beach for a few miles to find ourselves a quiet spot. Tucked away next to the dunes we set up camp and spent the afternoon playing with Heidi, our beach-loving pup.

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Though Heidi deeply enjoyed the ocean, she more so loved the sand. She spent hours running and splashing, and making a mess digging holes. She chased birds and played football, and caked her face with sand. She was a mess, but hysterical, and watching her was my favorite part of the day.

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Once the sun hit the horizon, we settled in next to the fire with our dinner and mugs of wine. We stayed up late talking, watching the stars and listening to the waves. Come midnight, we finally crawled into our tent and went to bed, tired from the wine and conversation, and soothed by the sound of the wind and crashing water just feet away. IMG_9558

On Sunday we relaxed to an¬†interesting cycle of sun and haze. One minute it would be so terribly gray that we thought surely we’d be stormed on, and the next there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. This went on for a good hour or two before the sun finally won and kept the clouds away. Soaking up the sunshine and the cool ocean breeze, we spent¬†the¬†remainder of our morning reading and resting, before packing up and heading on our way.

On our way out we grabbed fried fish from a seafood shack in town and enjoyed it on the beach before calling it a day. Bidding Padre Island farewell, I inhaled the ocean air one last time, already longing for my next weekend away.

A Weekend in South Haven Michigan

Culture, Food, Photography, Travel

There’s something incredibly soothing about the faces of old friends. When life and career paths pull you so far away from those people you mesh with best, little can beat sweet reunions, where your paths cross once again, and where conversations ignite like no time has¬†passed between you.

Two weekends ago, the hubs and I caught an early flight to Chicago, where we were greeted by Sam, the first friend we made upon moving to Boston. Coming from Michigan, Sam arrived bright and early, excited to show us around his home state. We drove north, chatting and laughing at his silly puns, as if we only saw each other just last week.

Our day started right with a delicious lunch and a pint at a southern Michigan brewery. After filling our bellies with delicacies and laughs, we continued our reunion with another round, in the beautiful, sunny 75 degree weather, playing cornhole and enjoying¬†each other’s company.¬†pup
The reunion quickly doubled as we welcomed friends from Wisconsin, and said hello to the newest member of their family. Cornhole and drinks continued, as we enjoyed the sun, running around in the grass with Francis, our friends Matt and Sophia’s adorably handsome son. And again, just like with Sam, it felt as nothing had changed. Our conversations still flowed just the same as they did in Boston at the local pub at 1:00 am, but this time, we just had another Von Rueden there to love.

That night, the last of our group made it to town, along with their pup who made me wish desperately  that our Heidi girl were small enough to fly. We sat outdoors wrapped in sweatshirts and blankets, chatting until late into the night. My heart was full, and the weekend had only just begun.

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Saturday morning we enjoyed coffee and donuts scrunched in on the living room couch, watching the pup and babe play. After a lazy morning, we walked to farmers market, where we picked up local treats and food for dinner that night. From there, we made our way into a little pizza shop near the water, where we ordered some pies to go, and enjoyed them together watching the boats in the marina sail by. We continued our day with naps and books on the beach, and splashed in the cool Lake Michigan waves. Time moved slow, but ever too quickly, as I savored those moments on our much needed weekend away.

That night we cooked together and ate blueberries by the handful and drank cocktails and local Michigan beer around the fire. We played games and shared stories and celebrated milestones and announcements. We reminisced about our time spent in Boston, and laughed about that things that happened that day. I cried a little when I went to bed, feeling exhausted but grateful for the weekend, and excited for the moments that were still ahead.

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Sunday was my birthday, and I celebrated the best way I knew how. I slept in and ate brunch and sipped spicy Bloody Marys as I watched the rain. We visited a cidery, and then another, and then ate a bagful of cider donuts to soak it all up. We ate Mexican food and drank margaritas and then watched the sunset from the pier. I ate birthday cake ice cream from Shermans and went to bed before midnight, feeling overwhelmed with love and grateful for such a wonderful day.

Monday, our last full day in town, we ventured into Grand Rapids where we visited Founders, a french bakery, and then had another round in a local micropub. We ate truffle frites and pickled vegetables, and again laughed until it hurt. We spent our last night together circled around the table, and then again around the fire. We stayed up way too late, enjoying the cold air, and the good company.¬†I knew that tomorrow our trip would end, and I sure wasn’t ready.

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On Tuesday morning¬†after saying our goodbyes, I spent the next two hours reflecting on our weekend on our drive back to Chicago.¬†In her books, one of my favorite authors, Shauna Niequist (who ironically spends her summers in South Haven, a fact I knew but didn’t realize until long after booking our trip), discusses the importance of doing what you must to make your way to friends around the country when life spreads you far apart.¬†Recently listening to her discuss this, I found myself in tears as I mourned¬†over the fact that many of our closest friends are so far away. Though sad for that short moment, my pain quickly turned to joy, as I eagerly thought about how soon¬†we’d be able to follow Shauna’s advice, and gather with dear friends in a place that she calls home. I thought about this on¬†our drive to the airport, realizing what a beautiful time the weekend was to reconnect¬†with familiar faces, igniting something in¬†my¬†soul, and satisfying my¬†deepest longing for familiarity.

You may have noticed I’ve been absent from this blog for far to long. Part of that has been an issue with time, as I’ve struggled this year to balance work, fun, and settling into a new city. A greater reason though was inspiration. My traveler’s heart sat too still this year, and I found myself in a downward spiral. Every time I would sit to write, the words I wanted to say wouldn’t come. It wasn’t until two Saturday’s ago, when I sat with friends in Michigan around a table, that I realized that my desire was still there.¬†I became a blogger among those friends, and it was them who reminded me that my passion for blogging never went away. It just took adventure and their familiar faces to get me there.

Until next time!