30 December 2008


My kitchen at home.

So, what do I struggle with and miss while trying to cook in Slovakia?
  • Big rolls of Bounty Select-a-Size paper towels. I'm addicted.
  • Blue 3M Scotch-Brite sponges. MP has an imported supply, so I'm happy.
  • Big ovens. Not the norm here, and if available very expensive.
  • Ice maker. Europeans have never seen the point, I guess.
  • Grocery store coffee grinders. We keep trying, but even Starbucks in Vienna ground the beans too finely for the French press.
  • Big boxes of kleenexes. Even the Kleenex brand only has a few in each box and mostly you see the purse-sized packs.
  • Target and WalMart. One-stop shopping doesn't really exist in BA.
  • 24-7 grocery stores.
  • 90% lean ground beef. We had some custom-ground in Simmering, but it was really too lean; and don't they age their beef? It looks too pink and doesn't have the flavor of U.S. corn-fed.
  • Good bread. Forces me to bake my own. People should insist on good bread. Maybe no one but the French remember what it should taste like. And, in France bread is a national treasure...
  • Chicken stock. I would even settle for a mediocre brand. Again, forced to make my own. Produce is great here, and all I need are onions, carrots, celery, and parsnips along with a fat hen. And, the Slovaks know fat hens! Far more available than in the states because people here still cook.
  • Spaghetti sauce in jars. You find these tiny jars that don't taste very good. We get several and doctor them up by adding tomatoes, tomato sauce, wine, and garlic. Good, but not half as good as our doctored-up Prego at home.
  • Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. We get around this by using Bambino or baby cheese which comes in little red tubes--kind of like a white Cheez-Whiz--and dried pasta. The little ones like it, but at first don't trust it's whiteness, accustomed as they are to the fake-orange of Kraft.
  • Haagen Das, Ben & Jerry's, Dove. There are Magnum bars which are yummy, but this trip they don't seem quite as rich and over-the-top creamy as I remember--similar to what happened to Dove bars. Someone got cheap with the butterfat content.
  • Pam. MP has one can which I am guiltily consuming. Don't think I use it this often at home...
  • My kitchen. Yep! I have to admit that 5 weeks is a long time to be out of my element. I'm not tired of seeing new places and things, but I do miss the comforts of my kitchen.

28 December 2008


So what have I been cooking? As mentioned, Grandma's Christmas bread trees and muffins. Also, I bought a great new oval skillet/sauté pan at IKEA before Christmas--perfect for the Spanish-style omelets I have been envisioning. Think frittata and you will get the picture. I make one with onions, tomatoes, peppers, and bacon; and then, another with baby spinach, onions, and Slovak bryndza cheese [milder, but much like feta].

We have vegetable soup with our left-over beef tenderloin... And, creamy chicken, pasta soup that is so yummy and has fresh-squeezed lemon juice added just at the end. I also manage to make a pot of cream of chicken and mushroom soup with 5 leftover mushrooms and one chicken breast.

That's one of the things I love about soup--you can take a few simple or leftover ingredients and make it a meal. It works especially well if you have the ingredients for a proper mirapois--equal parts of finely chopped celery, carrots, and onions sautéed in extra-virgin olive oil or butter. When the onions are translucent you add some flour and make a roux , stirring over medium heat until the flour is cooked. You then thin it to desired consistency with a lovely chicken or vegetable stock and It's Soup! You can add your favorites and make it as chunky or smooth as you like--even pureeing with an immersible blender. Some mirapois have minced garlic added, but suit your own taste.

We have egg salad a couple of times. On Christmas Day we eat it topped with baby shrimp. MP spent 4 years studying in Norway and learned to love that combination. DM mixes up our family's favorite guacamole. We are missing the jalapeno peppers, so we use green and a few shots of hot sauce.

The night that CA and I babysit the grandkids we stir-fry some onions and sweet peppers with some spicy sausage slices and mix it all together with some white rice. Just to make it clear--we ate this spicy concoction. The little ones had their normal mac and cheese.

DM steered me away from the canned tuna at the grocery store, but when we were in Simmering near Vienna in Austria I did my normal label staring and managed to secure three cans of nice tuna fish, so there has also been tuna salad.

We've been talking about lemon tarts, biscuits w/ sausage gravy, and molasses cookies... MP asks about making BBQ pulled pork with the lovely pork loin roast her mother gave her. There is not commercially made BBQ sauce available, so I will have to figure something out with what's available.

27 December 2008


Can't help but chuckle every time I see the sign Ausfahrt in Austria. It indicates a vehicle exit, and the Americanized version is somewhat of an exit, too, isn't it?

LG was sick a bit when we returned from our three weeks in France and Spain. She keeps telling us that she is no longer girting, which is her version of the Slovak word for vomitting...

LG is all show biz. JA and KF are much lower key and as they grow up they will most likely end up as her cohorts in crime. She is the oldest and has the strongest "leadership" skills! LG isn't shy about performing, even with her as-yet limited talent. To our great and diabolical amusement, she always insists that we "crap" for her. "We are crapping..."

And, grandpa carefully compared two trendy shirts for JA while shopping at Du Pareil au Meme, finally settling on a very urban/trendy look to go with the "grunge" sweater jacket and cool scarf. Unfortunately, some French words don't translate as PC in American English. The little squishy guy's wonderful shirt announces "retard" in letters bolder than we would wish... With Latin the base language for both French and English, it makes sense that this French word meaning delay or lateness in America English refers to the developmentally disabled [now considered a derogatory term, but commonly used in the late 20th century. Never acceptable when used as a noun: retard; commonly and politely used as an adjective: "The child is retarded."].

26 December 2008


Just a few of the desserts from Christmas Eve at the Krupa home

So confusing... Did St. Mikulas, Baby Jesus, or Santa Claus bring these gifts?

Christmas morning. Decorations by LG...

Christmas Day + one...

Took JE, MA, and the squishy little guy to the airport in Vienna today. Sad to see them go, but they had been visiting for two weeks and the little guy was sick for two-thirds of the time. Wait until he wakes up in his own bed tomorrow morning! He will be so happy he might not leave his bed all day.

He had some good times with his cousins... Learned how to pick on those smaller and weaker than him--giving the littlest girl a shove every chance he got. :) Shocking to his parents, but teeny, tiny KF never knew what was going on and would always right herself and go smiling on her way. The little guy was appropriately disciplined--could (and frequently did) verbalize his sins, but when the opportunity again presented itself he couldn't resist a good shove in KF's direction. Wouldn't have been half so amusing if he wasn't such a compliant, sweet-natured little guy 99% of the time.

LG has had a big time with a new and larger audience. She fancies herself a singer--doesn't matter if she knows the words or the tune(?!) she just keeps on rocking. The really fun thing about her is that she LOVES to cook. At 3-1/2 she cracks fresh eggs flawlessly and needs to have her hands in every project happening in the kitchen. Christmas morning as I glazed great grandma's Christmas tree coffee cake recipe, she knew intuitively to put one gumdrop dead center on each of the rolls. A smashing success!

KF has been a delight. She began walking at about 10 months. She is such a tiny little girl and she considers herself on an equal level with the older two. She chases around the dividing wall, carrying a toy in each hand. She has a sweetly melodious little voice--inherited from her mommy--like angels singing. She sticks like Velcro to her mommy but has warmed up considerably to grandpa and I. Don't think she would settle down if left with us for a day, but we would be game...

This past week we've had lots of French press coffee and many Czech beers and regional wines were consumed. MA managed to get 9 beers and 13 bottles of wine (or some such number) into their luggage. He will be enjoying memories of Central Europe for many days to come and sharing his joy with family and friends!

MP's mom did her traditional over-the-top Christmas Eve extravaganza! All the traditional foods, including three entrees, soup, salads, and too many desserts to count. There was a wonderful multi-layered chestnut cake with meltingly, yummy buttercream icing. And, a similar coffee-flavored confection. There were two strudels--apple & cheese and poppy seed--and an endless array of cookies and sweets.

MP's parents always serve Nescafe with dessert. Yep! The instant kind. It is surprisingly better than you think possible. MA is a die-hard coffee afficiado, so I asked him to have a cup. He agreed, Nescafe works. Go figure. And I thought I needed to spend $3.70 on a Starbucks!

Christmas Day was just our famly--6 adults and 3 little ones. We had great grandma's coffee cake in the morning, guacamole, chips, egg salad, and shrimp cocktail in the afternoon, and dinner was salad, steak and pomme frites with a buerre blanc sauce--thank you MA!

The 26th is a holiday in most of Europe, so not much was happening in Vienna. We walked around the center of the city, enjoying the empty spaces and having time to explore all the side streets. The architecture is overwhelming! The area surrounding St. Stephen's Plaza [Stephensplatz] is usually crammed with tourists and we are too distracted to really take it all in. We found a Segafredo cafe for a melange and croissant, then later had lunch at the Cafe Europa--a chicken club sandwich for me and an array of sausages with a Kaiser roll and condiments for CA. I topped my meal with a Vienna coffee--black coffee topped with whipped, but unsweetened whipping cream. I appreciated that this cup was hot! I like my coffee hot, but the earlier Segafredo coffee was no better than lukewarm--I could almost just not bother with coffee if it isn't hot.

Tomorrow we may drive half way to Vienna to--big surprise--an outlet mall! First one ever in this area and a new concept for Europe. Shopping pretty much sucks in Slovakia and Austria, so my expectations are low...

Count your blessings, Americans. You have fantastic variety, the best quality and prices, and endless options of places to shop. Here you might as well forget about it if you are over a size 10, and most of what you see is either designer labeled or crap quality. I always wonder, "Where do the normal people shop?"

Part of the answer to my question is that people here need far less than what Americans "need." And, if they can afford it they buy excellent quality and far, far fewer items. I would love to shop that way, but told CA that for that plan to work I would need to buy far less for a long period of time and then buy the top quality. Otherwise, I might have to work full time to pay for my wardrobe. Marielle does not plan to work full time! In fact, she would prefer to only work for herself and not have to take any more contract work at any time! Maybe she needs to begin buying lottery tickets? Or, planning a trip to Vegas?

We're here for almost two more weeks. CA started teaching LG a bit today--numbers and connecting dots--and they had a big time. She gets easily distracted [normal for an active 3-year old] but her little mind is always racing and we think that if grandpa challenges her intellectually, we all will better survive her school holiday. We also plan at least one outside activity a day, if the weather holds out and we all stay healthy.

23 December 2008


Grocery shopping is always a challenge for me here. Sometimes I discover interesting new ingredients [like a balsamic vinegar reduction syrup] but most of the time I spend way too much time puzzling over the 4 or 5 kinds flour, and which milk is 2% and which milk is whole? We like half & half in our coffee, and they have something called coffee cream which fills the bill. Not that I can tell it says coffee cream, but MP tells me it does. It's even more interesting when I am on my own. Sometimes there are clues--like 12% on the small containers near the milk sounds like it will make our coffee creamy and not watery with milk.

Something I consider very interesting is that all milk here in Slovakia is packaged in cartons and does not require refrigeration until opening. I have seen this on offer in the U.S. but it certainly has not caught on. It is very handy if there are little ones in the house--easier to keep stock on hand in a pantry or closet and not be limited to refrigerator space.

We had decided on a very French bistro meal for Christmas day--steak with pomme frites and salad. We are pretty sure that the mystery sauce at Relaise l'Entrecote is a classic beurre blanc with a dash of mustard, and the reliable Better Homes & Gardens cookbook [my standard for almost 40 years] has a doable recipe.

Stores close on the 24th at noon, by law, and stay closed the 25th and 26th, so we need to power shop today to make sure we have everything we need for the next few days. MP suggests the grocery store Terno at Au Park [the first built of Bratislava's three malls] will have the best selection and variety, so we take two cars with three car seats out into the cold, cold day.

Oh, oh! People in BA don't buy/cook/need steaks, so while there is a huge variety of pork and more goose than ever had a Mother there is no NY strip, filet mignon, rib steak, or T-bone. We think we find parts of the beef tenderloin and smuggly carry it home--bragging about the price.

21 December 2008


After four weeks of travel and very, very little cooking, when we reach Bratislava for our week together as a family I am happy to be the designated cook.

We did enjoy some casual meals/snacks in both Provence and Spain made from the fantastic market ingredients we found in Nice, Antibes, Aix-en-Provence and Marbella and Fuengirola. In our villa at Club Mougins, we had tiny radishes with fresh French butter, lots of olives and tapenades, sun dried tomatoes, more cheese than you would believe, great baguettes, and lovely wines--Provençal Rose, Beaujolais Nouveau, Champagne, and Muscadet. One night I took our left over rotissery chicken [which cost 9€, holy cow!] and made a version of creamy chicken pasta soup. And, at the Marriott Marbella Beach Club we had gorgeous roasted and salted almonds, dried fruits, more olives, and some fine Spanish wines.

But, that really wasn't cooking and I can really only happily go just so long without a productive and creative outlet. So, what to cook in Bratislava? We have worked in the past on adapting some American favorite recipes, so we first dig into that repertoire and then try to get creative. I found a yummy recipe somewhere on the Internet [Sorry, I forgot to make note of where and now I can't get back there to give appropriate credit.]. Most of the ingredients are universal, but the recipe does specify self-rising flour so we Googled it and found the following:

1 cup all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt

The French Cinnamon muffins were a hit and we made them a couple of days later with some dried papaya and mango added. MP decided to purchase muffin tins for her brother RK and his new bride, so I set to converting the recipe for both muffins and self-rising flour into metric terms. We mixed a batch of the dry ingredients and included it with the recipe as part of their Christmas gift.

2 C. Self-rising flour
1/2 C. Sugar
1/4 tsp. Cinnamon
2/3 C. Milk
1/3 C. Butter, melted then cooled
1 Egg, slightly beaten

1. Whisk dry ingredients together.
2. Beat egg, add to milk.
3. Pour milk mixture and melted, cooled butter into the center of the dry ingredients.
4. Stir just until dry ingredients are incorporated; batter will be lumpy. Do not over mix or the muffins will be pointy.
5. Grease muffin tin(s)--will make 12 generous if you fill each cup 2/3 full.
6. Bake at 425º for 15 - 18 minutes or until golden brown.
7. Cool 10 minutes, remove from tin(s) and proceed with topping.

While muffins are baking prepare:

1/4 C. Sugar
1 tsp. Cinnamon
Mix together and set aside

1/3 C. Butter, melted

1. Dip each muffin top in melted butter and then immediately into sugar/cinnamon mixture.
2. Enjoy!

19 December 2008

PARIS - The City of Light

Every night we fall into bed exhausted and determined to start tomorrow earlier. There just isn't enough time to take it all in. The sun hasn't been shining and there has been intermittent drizzly rain, but it just doesn't slow us down. Even, or especially on a cloudy winter day Paris is suffused with extraordinary light. Maybe because it reflects off the Seine? Of course, the Impressionists recognized it and captured it so well.

The Renaissance has umbrellas at the door for our use, and after losing mine the first day out it is one perk that we truly appreciate. There are other cool perks--the meltingly lovely chocolates at reception, the apothecary jars filled with gummies and licorices, the iced water with lemon or lime [that is waiting for us each early evening as we return to the hotel], the solid chocolate lollipops that are placed on our pillows each evening, the soaps and toiletries from Bulgari... We love it all. It is a pleasure being at this hotel.

We return multiple times to the BHV. CA enjoys his lunch with a rooftop view. I find soft wash cloths and hand towels in taupe, and grey-blue, and cream--shades of a winter landscape--to take to MP and DM in Bratislava. I spend too much on the perfect small steel spatula. And, find dainty aluminum bag clips that will remind me of Paris when I am in my own kitchen.

I look at knobs and hinges and fittings for doors and drawers and wish I could take them home. There are gorgeous fabrics and bed linens. Housewares are expensive... The quality is the best.

The BHV has gone upscale--designer labels abound in the sections of women's and children's clothing. The toy department is fantastic, and I indulge in one Moulin Roty creation for the new baby due in March.

We find several locations for Du Pareil au Même and finish our shopping for JA and LG. One afternoon on my own I find a location dedicated to just shoes and buy slippers for JA and KF, and pale pink dancing shoes for LG.

I revisit E. Dehillerin, but don't buy this time--baggage restrictions are a constant reality. I want the sleekly designed heat and fireproof oven mitts, but at 38€ each I will have to find something similar at home.

One afternoon I end up in an area that has multiple chef's shops and I indulge my fantasies, soon realizing that it is all available in the states and at better prices. Still, I have fun... And, I find beautiful decorator fabric--taking a card so that I can come back next time with measurements and plans.

I love the grocery stores--the neighborhood ones that carry the necessities that fill-in and round-out between market days. I find the chocolates that the Renaissance offers guests and buy one bag. Desperately wanting to buy 6, but keenly aware that even one kilo bag will challenge our packing. We want to buy coffee ground for the French press, but with our scanty language skills we are limited to looking at the labels and graphics and are never clear what is what.

We go to the Bodum store and buy insulated coffee mugs that incorporate the French press mechanism--one for MA and one for DM, and a smaller one for me.

I find Decathalon--a sporting goods store near La Madeline--where we shopped during our 1999 trip. I buy long sleeved t-shirts for the big boys and get a super-buy on a small duffel--it has become clear that I will need a carry-on to make it back to BA.

We find cafes when we are tired and/or hungry, or need a bathroom. A well-time café-crème can change your life, or at least your perspective, and give you energy for continued exploration.

17 December 2008


Exploring on my own this afternoon, I follow a tip from Clotilde on her Chocolate & Zucchini blog--searching out her Magic Baker Store, the tiny shop G. Detou at 58 rue Tiquetonne 75002 Paris (01 42 36 54 67). I get close, but somehow keep missing rue Tiquetonne, checking and rechecking my map. So pleased that I persevere as it is another charming Parisienne experience.

Under strict orders [actually a legitimatly pragmatic and practical request due to baggage limitations and all our DPAM shopping for the little ones] I know I cannot buy much. I find vanilla beans far more interesting than I have seen in the states and also a bouquet of salt caramel suckers just right for the Christmas stockings waiting to be stuffed in Bratislava.

I plan to share the vanilla beans with MK--immersing them in vodka and stowing them under her stairs in a dark and cool place until in a magic four weeks she will find 1/2 litre of perfect vanilla for all her baking needs.

16 December 2008


New York Times

International Herald Tribune

A special dinner tonight. CA has booked reservations well in advance for Spring, a newly-discovered 16-seat restaurant run by American Chef Daniel Rose, who has come to Paris by way of Wilmette, IL. He's receiving increasingly positive and frequent reviews on this Montmarte location, and in early February 2009 will close for a short time and reopen in the 1st arrondisement. A huge step up, but he will keep it small, only increasing the seating to 20, but adding a wine bar and a larger kitchen.

15 December 2008

PARIS - Exploring

Neither of us wanted to get out of bed this morning! How sad to be in Paris and hiding under the covers, dozing away the morning. This is our fourth week of traveling and burrowing in is so, so tempting. I remember that if I open my eyes and start taking in my surroundings I can better ease into wakefulness. CA goes out to get a Metro pass and I start the shower…

14 December 2008

PARIS - A Rainy Sunday

photo by Kevin Nugent on Flickr

We sleep in a bit and then head for familiar territory--LeVallois. It is good to have familiar territory because it is a cloudy, rainy Sunday and we have no interest in the $40 breakfast here at the hotel. We have stayed twice at the Courtyard in Neuilly/LeVallois and really love the area and their Sunday market.

We wander about seeing more than we have ever seen before—wonderful cheeses, breads, pastries, seafood, meat, poultry, and produce. We sample a few beignets and buy a macaroon and a chocolate chip cookie for later. We head for Trebois, the neighborhood café and find a tall stool with a street view of the market. CA has hot tea again, and I will never resist a café crème.

We have so many memories of this village—the shops and parks, and the wonderful food we were able to buy and store in our suite at the Courtyard. This trip we are limited by staying in a hotel room with no refrigerator or microwave.

We wander through the Christmas market and see the best Santones we have seen on this trip. The prices are high, but so is the quality. Will we buy? We head back to the Anatole Francaise Metro stop and then to St. Lazare. Then Concorde, the Tuileries and back to the hotel. CA needs to rest as he is not fully recovered, but I head out toward the Marais hoping to find an open Pharmacie and some Ibuprofen.

I get sidetracked to the BHV—Bazaar of the Hotel de Ville—and never make it beyond. What an ideal place to spend a rainy Sunday. They have reorganized and spiffed up the BHV! I love this place and have to walk around every level and evaluate what I need. In the end I buy some tin bag clips—so cool and just 2€60 each--some plastic storage containers for MP, a high-end spatula for me, and some flashy and smashing, crystal-like ornaments for the little ones to hang on their trees.

Who knew there was a lovely café in BHV? You get a dazzling view of the rooftops of Paris. I opt for some cheeses and baguette, along with a Coca-Cola Light, but I could have roast chicken or beef, pomme frites or roast potatoes, an array of salads, pizzas, etc. There is beer and casks of self-serve wine… What a find! I am looking forward to bringing CA back for a low-cost Paris dejuener. And, that is almost an oxymoron.

When I get back to the Renaissance, CA is in front of the fireplace in the lobby chatting with a couple from Texas. We are soon joined by a British young mom and her 15 month old, Florence. Before long more than an hour has passed and we need to head upstairs to get ready for dinner.

Our Metro line takes us straight to the Champs Elysse and Relaise d’Entrecote. We have eaten at the one in Saint Germain, but this is more convenient tonight. CA is stretching his limits by contemplating real food. We opt for the prixe fix 22€90 steak and pomme frites with a half bottle of rosé from Provence. The food is good but the ambiance is low—surely our experience at the Saint Germain location was more genteel. We have enjoyed fond memories of February 2007--taking LG out for the day and then along to dinner so that DM and MP could have an extended date at the Louvre and around the city.

We compliment ourselves on making the most of a rainy Sunday and look forward to a week full of Paris delights.

13 December 2008

PARIS - Arriving

I don’t care how you plan it, traveling always eats up almost a whole day on each end of a trip. We head early to the aeroport in Malaga, although our flight isn’t until around 11:00am, BG and KG have an early morning flight to Madrid. Our Madrid to Paris flight isn’t until around 4:00pm, so a bit of a delay isn’t unsettling. CA has been sick for 24 hours—intestinal stuff.

We arrive for the first time at Beauvais airport about one hour outside Paris. A darling young French journalist shares our exit row [traveling mercies—we got leg room!] and commits to shepherding us through the connections in Beauvais. How sweet, but it was almost dummy-proof as Beauvais is the smallest airport we have ever flown in or out of! The bus has a huge blue sign declaring it to be a cheap 13€ ride to Porte Maillot.

We know Porte Maillot from previous trips to Paris and quickly decide to take a cab to avoid lugging our bags and carry-ons down and up too many Metro stairs. The Renaissance Vendome is between the Tuileries and Place Vendome, just down from Opera and La Madeleine.

We know immediately that this will be a great week—this is a quiet location surrounded by designer boutiques and residences. The lobbies and rooms are masculine and urbane. Our drapes and coverlet are café au lait tattersal check, the carpets are the same yummy tan checked with cream, and the sheets [too many threads to count—so-o-o- nice!] are also café au lait.
There is a very European feel to the room—cupboards instead of closets and drawers. Both the bathroom and WC are concealed behind frosted glass doors with heavy chrome hardware. We have a flat-screened television, and the management has left us gifts! Good gifts—a classy bottle of water, candies, chocolate lollipops, and a card “game” with Paris walking routes.

I need dinner and CA needs to try to eat something. He has been holding it together all day choosing to forego any nourishment other than a bit of a sandwich in Madrid and some hot tea. It is already close to 9:00pm so we head to the rue de Rivoli just opposite the Tuileries and find a typical French café where we order chevre chaud salad and roast chicken and pomme frites. I can’t resist a café crème, even though it is late.

It feels so, so good to be in Paris again.

10 December 2008


Marriott Marbella

The Best Stuff:

  • sunny and warm
  • almonds
  • olives
  • tapas
  • sangria
  • market days
  • Mediterranean Sea with the mountains above
  • cork oak trees
  • pueblo blancas
  • fresh, fresh seafood
  • it's snowing in Chicago, but 60 degrees here
  • poinsettas - fresh and lush
  • Spanish architecture
  • the drive to Ronda on A369
  • Marriott's Marbella Beach Club
  • daily maid service

Best towns:

  • Cabopina
  • Puerto Banus
  • Ronda
  • Marbella
  • Fuengirola


  • Getting on the A7
  • Finding authentic Spanish food


  • Marriott's beach
  • restaurants & chiringuitos closed for holidays/season
  • folk art and ware is expensive touristy crap

09 December 2008


Sunday market in Marbella

Tuesday a.m... It is raining! I google Marbella weather and they promise scattered showers and temperatures near 60 degrees. We get a call from Madrid--BG has made his connection and will be in Malaga just after 11:00am--and so we grab our umbrellas and head to the Fuengirola market.

Parking is crazy, so CA drops KG and I off giving us 20 minutes to shop. We dash for the food vendors and check out the first available olives. We need to replace the very bitter olive mix we bought in Marbella. This time we will taste before we buy! And, we LOVE the large, salted almonds and want more. The third booth we check out has a beautiful selection of olives, dried fruits, and almonds. We choose 4 kinds of olives--green, spicy green, black, and green stuffed with almonds. We each buy a large bag of salted almonds, and then a communal supply of dried fruits and a mix of fruits and nuts.

We head for our point of rendezvous with CA. I am sidetracked for a moment by some brightly painted ceramics. Then, we are off to the airport in Malaga to pick up BG and then on to Nerja.

We explore the streets of Nerja, check out the Balcony of Europe, and find a cafeteria for a bad lunch. Not my choice... I had my eye on the very European restaurant on the Balcony... But, this is a group effort and I concede. I won't eat bad food again.

We return to the Marriott in Marbella [Elviria] and BG is dazzled by the resort and our accommodations. We allow him a nap since in the past 8 days he has flown Chicago to Paris to Miami to Paris to Chicago to Madrid to Malaga.

Dinner is again a challenge because so many of the restaurants have closed for the holidays. We end up in the just so, so cute port of Cabopino at Albert's, a very Victorian waterfront restaurant--GO FIGURE. Our waiter is from Budapest, an I.T. guy. Jobs are scarce these days in Budapest, so he headed for the coast of Spain to earn some money in a beautiful spot. Monday, a bank holiday, he was skiing in the Sierra Nevadas. The cuisine purports to be Mediterranean and we have openers of tiger prawns or green salad with apples and avocados, and then dine on pasta, sea bass, or chicken breast wrapped around ham and asparagus... The food is good and the singer is very talented. She favors Karen Carpenter songs.

Today we sleep in a bit and then head to Ronda, where bull fighting began. The season lasts only the month of September, but Andrew Forbes has written accolades on the scenery to Ronda from Marbella and inspired us to try both roads. We take the A377 north from Manilva and then the A369 south to San Pedro. The A377 is longer, curvier, and the most beautiful. We have to stop twice for breathtaking views and then restrain ourselves from stopping more.

We take a cafe break in Gaucin where I find cute [secret] gifts for my big girls, and then arrive in Ronda in early afternoon. BG doesn't want to waste any time eating, so we share a baguette sandwich and not much more. We cover the old city--enjoying the views. We again find a small cafe for coffee--very local--before heading back to Marbella.

A Marriott employee had recommended La Taberna Del Pintxo in Puerto Banus for tapas, and the timing is right to give it a try. We love the restaurant, the pintxos [tapas], and the beer, sherry, and wine. The self-serve cold tapas bar is perfect as we can see before we buy--and they look as good as they taste! We also order some hot dishes: jamon con queso y tomate, pisto con huevo, patas bravas, pollos de champinones, i.e. [roughly] ham and cheese on toast, ratatouille with a fried egg atop, spicy potatoes, chicken fillets w/mushroom-cream sauce].

Cool way to keep track of the costs--each cold tapas in the self-serve area has a different skewer, based on price. You leave your skewers on your plate and the waiter tallies the charges.

BG & KG are buying so why not dessert! I order chocolate con horno and since it takes quite awhile to appear, our waiter treats us each to a lemon sorbet. My dessert turns out to be a molten-chocolate cupcake with pistachio ice cream, toasted pistachios and a drizzle of chocolate sauce. Our waiter delivers it with 4 spoons--smart guy!

Instead of heading back to the Marriott, we stop for awhile at the Corta de Inglesia--a one-stop shopping experience that includes both high-end and lower-end goods in different areas of the building, along with groceries, housewares, etc. Wal-Mart marries Nordstroms.

A great day. Unsure what the plans are for tomorrow. Maybe Granada. Maybe not.

08 December 2008


Marbella, Old City
Saturday is a travel day—Marseille to Madrid with a 5 hour layover in Madrid where we meet up with our friend KG and the final flight to Malaga. Our bags arrive, the car is ready, and CA drives the A7 30 km toward Marbella and the Marriott Marbella Beach Resort. The resort is actually just a bit before Malaga on the Mediterranean near a village called Elviria.
Marriott seldom disappoints and on arrival we are delighted. Everything is beautiful—two large bedrooms with two large bathrooms, a full kitchen with a granite bar that opens into a full diningroom and livingroom, with a nice-sized terrace overlooking magnificently manicured gardens. If you squint to the left, you can see the sea.

There are indoor and outdoor pools, a mini-mart, a lovely restaurant and a carryout pizza/sandwich shop. Just a short stroll toward the beach, there are two chiringuitos where we can have fresh seafood and paella.

Sunday is fair and sunny, and by noon we are on our way up into the footfhills to picturesque Benahavis for a Spanish lunch. Our waiter brings bread, olive oil, and pâte as we peruse the menu. We choose gazpacho, seafood soup with just a touch of saffron, and a lukewarm(!) salad with julienned vegetables and lovely tuna for starters. Then, sautéed chicken breasts with wonderful olive oil and garlic and the fish-of-the-day with a shrimp sauce. Each plate includes a potato, baked, smashed at bit, and then deep fried in olive oil; and mixed green vegetables.

We wander through the streets, walking off our meal and enjoying this Pueblo Blanca. By the time we wind our way down to the A7 it is 5:30pm and, while we check out Puerto Banus, everything but the restaurants are closed and will be again tomorrow for a bank holiday—the Day of the Immaculate Conception.

Back at our villa, we each find a quiet corner or beach and settle in for the evening. There is no room for dinner, so we postpone our paella for one more day.

We wake up Monday to rain and wet and fill our time brewing coffee and making toast. We have yummy raspberry jam from the local supermercado. We discuss our options for the week ahead, and as soon as the weather clears a bit we head for the market day in Marbella.

We meander through a maze of vendors selling wonderful fruits, vegetables, olives, sweets, pastries, and spices. We choose large salted almonds, dried papaya and pineapple; macaroons, and lovely fried dough dipped in chocolate or filled with sweet cocoanut. We get sweet red cherries, tomatoes, and radishes. There is also a flea market with knock-off designer purses, wallets, and belts. They are very bad knock-offs and no one is tempted. I buy tights for the little girls and two poinsettias for our villa.

Poinsettias are used as border plants here—such a great seasonal touch. There're also twinkling white lights scattered around the resort property, and each town hangs lighted garlands over the main shopping streets—we saw the same in France.

We search out the old city and are delighted by the narrow, cobbled lanes and alleyways lined with brightly-painted buildings with ironwork balconies and flowers and plants in containers everywhere. We stop for tapas and enjoy sangria with our shared small plates. There are artichokes with anchovies, meat balls in tomato sauce, chicken curry, aged goat cheese, and sausages simmered with onions. A black & white Illy coffee—espresso with a scoop of vanilla ice cream—is the perfect ending.

Marbella is a lovely seaside community and we wander down the promenade where we see vendors roasting fish over open fires on the beach, cafes, and bikini shops. The sun is shining brightly over the Mediterranean and the promenade is lined with well-manicured topiary trees. It's a good day to be in Spain.

Tonight we plan on paella from one of the three chiringuitos on the beach just down the lane a few hundred meters,but for now we have again found quiet spots for individual activities—the things you do on a beach vacation.

05 December 2008


Vieux Villages, Mougins, France - SN at the Scene...

We take our time this morning repacking and sorting through, taking a final stroll around the grounds before leaving Club Mougins. We’ve saved Marseille as the last stop on our tour of Provence. We will explore the old city and seafront, and tonight we will stay near the Marseille airport. CA and I fly late-morning to Madrid/Malaga to the Marriott Marbella Beach Resort, while SN2 fly from Marseille to Paris and home to the snow and chill of a wintery Chicago.

SN1 can’t resist taking the scenic route through the hills in Mougins, and then onto the A8 and onward to Marseille. He has been our willing and competent driver this week throughout the cities, villages, and countryside of Provence. We have had some interesting and hilarious experiences with the narrow, winding roads and frequent roundabouts and he is unflappable and kind and self-effacing. As we head along the A8 on toward Marseille, SN1 compliments the French on their good driving habits. He says that they keep right except to pass, even on six- lane highways. They don’t weave through traffic, lane jumping, and cutting people off. However motorcyclists are another story! They must follow a different set of rules of the road than the auto drivers. They zip up from behind on your right and your left; they zoom between lanes and seem to consider the white lines to be a special motorcycle lane…

We reach Marseille and the drivers here seem to have an entirely different mindset. They are crazy! Pedestrians beware! The cobbled roadways are weaving and narrow, following ancient oxen paths with buildings so close to the road that there is barely space for our small car. There are one-way streets and dead ends. You have no right-of-way here.

Vieux Port [the old port] is jammed with boats at anchor—a forest of masts and lines—and ferries for island commuters and ones for tourists, too. Overlooking the blue, blue Mediterranean, the hillsides surround on three sides and are crowded with terra cotta-roofed, ancient buildings, clad in aged and sun-bleached white stucco. The harbor is lined with cafes and restaurants and we walk along, reading menus, and contemplating lunch. My plan was bouillabaisse, but we quickly realize that every tourist wants to try the bouillabaisse, and the restaurateurs have the upper hand. None is on offer for less than 38€, and because my tolerance for any form of fish or seafood is low, the plan is revised…

We walk nearly around the harbor, through the Christmas markets, and up and down a few streets above the harbor. We decide that lunch can be light as we have a celebratory dinner planned for tonight. We opt for pannini’s at a Lina’s and find it a comfortable place to eat, relax, and reminisce.

After lunch we head for the Cathedral of Notre Dame, climbing and winding through the old streets and the questionable neighborhoods where buildings and retaining walls are graffiti-covered. Just at dusk, we take a different street to walk down to Vieux Port, where we find the winds have picked up--a Mistral has kicked in just as the sun has gone down. It's the “magic hour” and the harbor is awash in soft, receding sunlight which bounces off the water and reflects back against the aged buildings. It's magical.

Our legs are tired and we are ready to leave this labyrinth. The GPS saves our bacon, efficiently directing us out of the old city and toward the airport. Maggie shines as she leads us to a hotel. As we enter the carpark, an airline captain climbs out of his car and heads toward reception. CA and SN1 strike up a conversation and James vouches for this hotel--the rooms turn out to be basic and dorm-like with another small utilitarian bathroom where you have to choreograph your movements just so, whether using the facilities or the shower. James, the pilot, also suggests a restaurant across the street where we can have our last dinner together. We spot him as we enter the restaurant and visit a bit. Later he offers to interpret the menu for us and then sends us a bottle of the house red wine. A very nice man—from South Africa, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and also the U.S. There are surely stories there to tell…

Dinner is familiar French food--entrecote [grilled steak], roast chicken, boudin blanc w/ carmelized pear and fois gras, and grilled bacon-wrapped shrimp. Although this is a chain restaurant, the food is good and we end our week together on a celebratory note.

Tomorrow there will be new adventures.

04 December 2008


The Italian Riviera

SN2 haven’t really seen Nice--arriving at the aeroport and driving just to our hotel last Saturday before continuing to Mougins. Since today’s weather is gorgeous, we go early to Nice to visit the Fleur aux Marche, wander the streets, walk the Promenade, and window shop.

At the market we buy salted pistachios, pecans, and also fresh mushrooms for tonight’s chicken soup. We drink coffee, take pictures, and soak up as much as we can… The sun is bright and warm in the Place Massena and we find delicious baguette sandwiches at an outdoor café. We walk through Galleries Lafayette and then down rue du Massena for a few blocks before finding yummy gelato.

Soon we are on the A8 east and heading to the Italian border. The mountains and valleys are terraced with beautiful homes leaning out and over the deep blue Mediterranean. The views are spectacular—villages clustered on the hillsides and overlooking the sea. We drive with great anticipation through San Remo, park in Bordighera, and then discover the Italians have different rules than the French. We have barely adjusted to the 12:00 – 2:30pm lunch break, and now we find the Italian shops and businesses are open from 8:00am – 1:00pm and then not again until 4:00 – 8:00pm. We window shop and find an Illy café where we settle in for our café crème and ciocolatta chald, and also discover the very best cannoli in the world live right down the block [a few moved on with us!].

No matter where we have roamed through Provence we have never been disappointed with any café. They are conscientiously clean and the wait people are kind and tolerate our attempts at French—single words and simple phrases—punctuated with hand gestures and plenty of “pardons” and "merci’s.”

Driving to the Italian Riviera is a joy and the villages on the Mediterranean are quaint and lovely. We always check out the real estate offices wherever we wander, and here we find the prices to be much less than anywhere we have been in Provence.

We wind back up the hillsides and head to Mougins where we buy butter and baguettes to go with our dinner of chicken soup and cheeses. We also have leftover, tiny radishes to eat with salt and buttered baguette slices—and Clementines and chocolates; Beaujolais Nuveau and Champagne. Our last night at Club Mougins and we are living the good life, French style.

Tomorrow we explore Marseille and my first bouillabaisse ever…

03 December 2008


Sainte Roseline Winery - near Les Arcs, Provence, France
Up early and a bit of laundry--4€ to wash and 2€ to dry. How nice to have clean pj’s, sox, and jeans. CA and I agree that clean clothes seem to weigh less when folded into the suitcase. We are limited to a mere 33 lbs/1 bag/person for our next three flights, so every ounce counts.

As the clothes dry CA and I hike down the hill to a café for café crème at a neighborhood café. There are stacks of French magazines and newspapers to peruse… We check out a children’s shop and then up the hill to rejoin SN2. The plan today is locate a winery or two as an excuse explore the countryside a bit.

We head to Le Muy and Les Arcs and find Château Ste. Roseline, which fulfills even our highest expectations of what a French winery and vineyard should be—handsome and substantial, landscaped with Cyprus trees, vines, fountains, and large clay Provençal pots of miniature trees and flowers. The stucco is russet and warm, the doors and windows are grand. Across the winding road are vineyards and olive trees with snow capped mountains on the horizon.

Again, we underestimate the French regard for the lunch break. It is 11:55am and the tasting room closes from noon – 2:30pm. We are invited to return for a 2:30pm tour and tasting. For lunch we decide on a recommended café in Les Arcs, but first we drive around and up and down enjoying the olive groves and vineyards, the rolling hills and the sun reflecting off the snowy peaks.

In Les Arcs, Le Cabanon - Restaurant-y Traiteur is a small local café with a menu of simple regional food--seafood, pork, beef, pizzas, and cold salads. We choose pizza—Neapolitan, Mediterranean,and Margharite. It’s so very enjoyable to sit back and appreciate being a part of the Provençal lifestyle, if only for a moment...

We do some quick talking at Château Sainte Roseline, as we have missed the 2:30pm tour, but after a few moments our guide/salesperson relents, and we are given a personalized tour—nothing sleek or choreographed—just the four of us. We step over the hoses and around the barrels and stainless steel vats, being careful not to slip in the wine spills. We learn about the grapes/raisins and the wines—white can be from either or both white and red raisins. For the white wines, the skins are removed from the raisins before pressing. In the past rosé was the final pressing--not so great--after the best of the juice was extracted for the reds. Recently, Provençal rosé has become increasingly appreciated locally and abroad, so now the first gentle pressing yields the rose--the quality is clear and fine and the color is the palest peach. Lovely. Then the raisins are pressed for the reds…

Château Roseline produces three levels of wine for a total 140,000 bottles a year. For the premiere wine--Cuvée Lampe de Meduse--the grapes are picked by hand, a requirement to qualify for the sought-after wine awards.

Correcting a misconception, we are told that wine acquires the subtle flavorings of chocolate, raspberry, nut, and other underlying tones solely from the oak barrels, with no influence from the fields and trees and earth that surrounds the vineyards.

After the tasting, our guide recounts the legend of Sainte Roseline and encourages us to visit the Chappelle where the saint’s fossilized body rests in a Plexiglas coffin. It seems that Sister Roseline witnessed a couple of miracles during her early life, and then was herself a miracle in death. The legend says that five years after her death, her relatives decided to dig her up and move her to the family plot, and when the casket was opened the body was completely intact. Eventually the miracle of her preservation received enough attention that she was declared a saint--her exhumed body remains--encased in Plexiglass--a visible sign of the phenomena. It is gross, but we took a very quick look before moving on.

It is nearly dusk as we drive pass the olive groves and vineyards and head south to Saint Tropez to view the playground of the rich and famous. Our little hatch-back curves and winds down toward the sea. We are wishing that there was enough light that we could appreciate the Mediterranean views, but the night lights of the seaside villages glitter welcoming from below.

We arrive and wander the streets working our way down to the docks to ooggle the big boats that sail under flags of France, Spain, Britain, etc. We window shop at the designe boutiques and soon find a small market and buy carrots and leaks for the chicken soup we will make later tonight. CA scouts out the perfect café and we cozy in for for coffee, hot chocolate, and thè.

SN1 delights in driving toward Mougins, up the narrow roads through switch backs with some excitingly, narrow misses. The city lights aginst the black, black sky are spectacular--Saint Tropez, Sainte-Maxime, Saint-Raphael.

We wind up the narrow roads to Club Mougins and end this special day with the perfect dinner of baguettes, cheese, fruit, and chocolate. Bonne Nuit.

02 December 2008


Aix is pronounced“X”...

I am the first up this morning and from our terrace there are still the twinkling lights of night as the sunrise falls softly over the mountain tops and valleys of Mougins and Grasse. The air is brisk but dry and there is the promise of sunshine. CA decides to dress quickly and join me on a walk into the village to the boulangerie for some real coffee—Illy this time. We buy a mushroom quiche, two pamliers, and an almond sable. We carry back an espresso for SN1 as SN2 enjoys tea.

Fortified, we head for the A8 and 25€40 in tolls [round trip] to Aix-en-Provence. Forever I have been intrigued by Provence, and almost forever I have wanted to visit Aix-en-Provence. I mean, who can resist a French city with such an interesting name.

Everyone who talks about Aix talks about the market, and that is today’s main attraction. The market extends from the Place de Verdun along the Place des Prêcheurs to the Hotel d’Ville. Every product’s origination is noted, and most are from Aix. We are offered artisanal cheese and a wide variety of sausage. We taste a lovely, unfiltered extra-virgin olive oil and delicious €60 for 100g fois gras. In addition to food and flowers, there are small antiques and cheaply-made imported textiles and clothing. We find a round Provençal tablecloth made in Avignon and look forward to entertaining at home with Mediterranean and Provençal recipes.

We stop in a boulangerie for directions to a suitable café. Mademoiselle speaks little English and I speak little French, but she makes herself understood and we wander deeper into the old city to find a plaza lined with restaurants and cafes. The plat du jour is rib eye steak with mushroom sauce and yummy pomme frites. I choose a morel omelet with a salad of mesclun with vinaigrette. Espresso is the grand finale and it is time we meander back through the winding, cobbled streets to the car.

A quick stop at Champion in Mougins for provisions, then two baguettes from our local boulangerie and we are home and ready to nibble and reflect, satisfied with our day. Tomorrow we will search out a few wineries and revisit Nice. Maybe San Remo in Italy on Thursday…

Bonne nuit.

01 December 2008


Everyone sleeps in a bit. Chris and SN2 walk to the village to buy bread, eggs, bacon, sausage, cheese, coffee, etc. Our coffee maker makes lousy coffee. Missing the French press…

The plan for today is to tour locally, starting with Vieux Villages Mougins [the old village]. We have driven up and over and through these cobbled streets, narrow and winding, but on foot we take the time to appreciate the details of these gorgeous stone buildings with weathered shutters. Vieux Villages sits high above modern Mougins with views of the snow-capped Alpes-De-Haute-Provence [the high Alps of Provence] and the verdant and rolling Esterels. Tile-roofed villas and homes are terraced into the hillsides, and the landscape is punctuated with tall, narrow Cyprus trees. The panorama is breathtaking.

Tiny patches of green herbs and gentle flowers peek through cracks in the stone walls of the village. Windows and doorways are utilitarian works of art. Small, picturesque terraces and courtyards are tucked between and behind these ancient buildings.

It is low-season so many of the restaurants and shops are shuttered for the few weeks until Christmas or into the new year. And, it is the rule rather than an exception that shops are closed for le déjeuner from noon to 2:30pm. Lunch in France is an important and leisurely event, often beginning with the local rosé and ending with an espresso or café crème.

As we arrive in Cannes, we are more interested in the coffee than in lunch. We walk along the promenade and the rue Félix Faure and find an Italian café for chocolat chaud and café crème. They have the tiniest WC! It is spotless, functional, and appreciated. Our pretty young waitress and handsome barman recommend four restaurants in the oldest part of Canne. We spend the afternoon wandering the narrow, winding, sloping streets and the Christmas market along the harbor. The young women at the tourist information center give us directions to the restaurant locations we want to check out, and we spend the next hour reading menus, comparing prices, checking the ambiance… Everywhere is quaint, charming, and pricey. We have a difficult time deciding but have time to procrastinate because nothing opens for dinner before 6:30pm. The French no doubt consider it very gauche to eat that early, but… We consider Chez Vincent & Nicholas, l’Olivier, l’Auberge Provençal, or Mi Figue – Mi Raisin, and all the restaurants in between. At the end of the winding rue du Suquet, we discover a tiny wine bar and the wine sommelier/owner. He recommends a Sancere, a Rosé, and a local red.

We relax, unwind, and smile a lot. Rested and hungry, we wander down the rue, reviewing the options. As we pass Les Marais, the aggressive young waiter calls a greeting and prods a bit… Why not? Sure. And, we enter the tiny 16-seat restaurant. Our entrees are fois gras with fig confíture, or a salad with smoked salmon. For the main course we choose prawns Provençal, a mixed grill, or sea bass. Dessert is crème brulée or triple chocolate gateau with crème Anglaise and a dark chocolate truffle. A fine meal. So very French and Provençal.

As we leave Les Marais our young waiter dreams of visiting New York City and asks if it is really true that in Chicago the temperature sometimes drops below 40 degrees. He is disbelieving.

A full and delightful day and we head to our villa exhausted and ready for sleep and then tomorrow to Aix-en-Provence.