Protected: Esmé – May-July 2020
On Wednesday afternoon we hopped on the Eurostar for a super fast 2.5 hour trip to London. We arrived in London at about 6pm and quickly made ourselves very popular with London commuters by jumping on a packed peak hour bus with our backpacks. Thankfully, we made it to our Airbnb in Stoke Newington unscathed and quickly set out to find dinner. We were tired and hungry so we headed to a nearby pub for a low key meal. The White Hart was everything you could want in a pub – warm and cosy and with excellent fish and chips. And proving that the world is tiny and Australians really do love to travel, as we were ordering drinks I ran into a friend of a friend who I knew back in Sydney.
On Thursday morning I thought I was meeting a friend, Lucie, for coffee at Ottolenghi in Islington, so I headed over there bright and early. Turns out, we mixed things up, and rescheduled for Friday at the very last minute. I grabbed a scone (my first in ages, and so good!), and a decent coffee and headed home to meet Dan at The Good Egg in Stoke Newington for breakfast. My friend Qi recommended it and it was delicious and cosy inside.
I was on the lookout for the perfect pair of jeans and London has no shortage of vintage shops so from brunch we walked over to Hoxton to do some vintage shopping (lots of fun but no purchases were made!). Mid afternoon we stopped to buy coffee beans and have a fantastic cold brew at Allpress (an Aussie spot!). By late afternoon we were famished so we opted for a very early pub dinner. It was so early that the place we’d be wanted to try wasn’t serving dinner yet so we walked around the corner to the Jolly Butcher. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the food was amazing and the beer was great (Dan had a milk shake stout that was a++). The fish and chips in particular were exceptional. From the pub, we headed home to get an early night.
On Friday we were up early to get to Ottolenghi to meet Lucie – for real this time! We had a delicious breakfast, a great catch up and we got to meet her month old baby, George. From Islington we headed to the Sir John Soane museum, at Lincoln Inn fields. We passed on buying the information booklet (just another thing to throw away!) but we regretted it once we made it inside the museum. It’s an incredible collection of odd bits and pieces in a house that Soane designed specifically for his collection. But there were no explanations of the exhibits so without a guided tour or book, we missed out on a lot of context. We didn’t linger very long at the museum, choosing instead to head for Lincoln Inn’s Fields, and Good & Proper Tea, via the Leather Lane markets. Kate and I went to Good & Proper Tea on our last visit to London, and had absolutely loved the crumpets, so I was excited to introduce Dan to this spot. The crumpets (Dan’s first) were great, though the service wasn’t the best and Dan’s coffee came served in a can (perhaps to be expected when ordering coffee at a tea shop).
Dan had to run an errand after lunch so I walked through the city and spent some time at the beautiful St Paul’s Cathedral. After meeting up, we caught the tube to the Houses of Parliament to meet an old friend from Sydney who works in the Houses of Parliament and was able to give us an amazing insiders tour. I’ve never paid a great deal of attention to the House of Lords and was pretty shocked by its opulence. From the Houses of Parliament we walked to Soho to get dinner at a great Sri Lankan spot called Hoppers. The food was delicious but our tiny table could barely hold the enormous platters of food we ordered and the music was so loud. Does this make as old people? Probably. We tried to find a quiet spot for a drink but the pubs in central London were overflowing and so we again called it a night and headed home.
We woke up to a beautiful autumn day on Saturday. We started out by walking over to Violet Bakery for a snack. We had a fantastic scone with apricot jam and thick clotted cream and a delicious cold brew and Dan had an egg and bacon (American-style) biscuit. British baking is just so good. The scone in particular was so memorable that I tracked down a recipe when we were back in New York, and have made these a few times.
In the afternoon, we met up with my cousin Alex and his fiancee Alana. We were early (!) so we sat down for a beer at the Cat and Mutton while we waited for them to join us. When they arrived, we wandered through Broadway market, grabbed some lunch and sat down to eat in the lovely London Fields park. In the evening we caught the tube to Brixton to meet up with Lucy, a friend from law school. We contemplated sitting down at Pop Brixton but it was jam packed so we opted for the quieter Fish, Wings & Tings in Brixton Village.
We had another early (for us!) start on Sunday morning as we had plans to meet my friend Qi for breakfast at Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch. The breakfast choices were simple (porridge, eggs on toast, bacon sandwich) but tasty, though the service was not very warm (nor were we, sitting outside on a cool autumn morning).
Though I loved the beautiful grounds (in a former school), we didn’t linger. Instead, we headed through the Brick Lane markets, ducking into a couple of great shops (I absolutely loved the Libreria Bookshop), before having a beer at The Golden Heart. We met up again with Alex and Alana in the afternoon, grabbing the tail end of the very cool Columbia Road flower market.
After a very packed few days we had an extra long sleep in on Monday morning and then I headed out for a long walk to pick up lunch from Violet Bakery (it is much (and unfairly) maligned, but their quiche was delicious). In the early evening we took the bus to Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields. It’s a small, privately owned museum that has been designed to evoke the life of a family of Huguenot silk weavers between the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. As we went in the late afternoon, the sun had mostly disappeared by the time we arrived and our tour was largely by candlelight. It’s a tiny museum, but it is intricately detailed and lots of fun to poke around. Having had our fill of culture for the day, we headed back to the Jolly Butchers to share an order of fish and chips for dinner.
Tuesday was our last full day in London, and we were up relatively early to do one of the things Dan was most looking forward to in London: a full English breakfast at Hawksmoor. We went all out – with eggs, bacon, hashbrowns, beans, tomatoes and so on.
From breakfast we headed over to the Wallace Collection, one of my favourite museums in London, before meeting up again with Lucy for a ferry ride to Greenwich. On the way to meet up with Lucy, I got the amazing news that I had passed the New York bar exam, so it turned into a celebratory excursion. We had a delicious, low-key afternoon tea at the (pretty hilarious) Fan Museum before heading back to Stoke Newington for a celebratory dinner. We headed to bed early, and I had my first excellent sleep in a while.
After leaving our rental car at the train station in Tours, we boarded a very crowded train for Paris. We arrived late afternoon and made our way to our very cute Airbnb in the Eighth arrondissement, an area I hadn’t spent much time in before. We were exhausted after a long day of travel, so for dinner we stayed local and had a cheap Lebanese meal nearby the apartment. When we got home, we cracked open one of the delicious natural wines that we picked up at Le Sot D’Ange while we were staying at La Jagée.
On Sunday morning we’d planned to go back to one of our favourite spots from our last visit to Paris, Holybelly. Truly the home of the finest pancakes on earth. Despite unbelievably heavy rain, the line for Holybelly was ridiculous. We had a quick coffee at a coffee shop that doubled as a beautiful design and homewares store, before having breakfast at Blackburn. The vibe was teetering towards Faulty Towers, with new wait staff still learning the ropes and an understaffed kitchen drowning under the influx of weekend brunch orders. But, it was good enough to keep body and soul together (as S Power would say).
We continued the greatest hits tour on Sunday evening, eating dinner at the bar at Buvette. It somehow manages to have a much softer, calmer vibe than its New York counterpart (perhaps due to the French capacity for patience that Kerri and Kerry were telling us about) and the food is better too. We had a delicious cauliflower gratin, a salty potato, lentil and smoked trout salad and hachis parmentier. Dan and I go in for tiki drinks and I think it’s safe to say that piña coladas are our thing so after dinner we were happy to return to another favourite from our last trip, Dirty Dick’s.
On Monday, we were determined to get our fill of pancakes so we headed back to Holybelly. We thought we were sure to avoid a line by by going for a late Monday lunch but we still waited 10 minutes or so for a table. Even so, it was very much worth it. You always worry going back to a favourite spot if it’s going to live up to expectations. The pancakes I remembered were so impossibly good that I was certain we were setting ourselves up for disappointment by returning but they were so! good! Ridiculously good. Paired with an oat milk piccolo, we were so happy to be back in Paris. (In fact, we ended up going back to Holybelly three times during our stay). I love the area around Holybelly, and we spent lots of time here during our stay, revisiting Du Pain et des Idées for my favourite croissants in Paris, and La Fontaine de Belleville.
We were enjoying hanging out in familiar spots so much that we decided to extend our stay in Paris. We’d originally planned to visit for only a few days, but we ended up staying for almost two weeks, seeing some new things, revisiting old favourites and doing lots of cycling. With the luxury of a long stay, we didn’t feel much pressure to go sightseeing. Instead, we got to take it easy, and do lots of exploring in the area around our apartment. We had a late breakfast one day at Léandrés after spending the morning attempting to bring the apartment’s hot water heater back to life (we finally succeeded). The empanadas we had were fine but the cakes were delicious. We had a chocolate banana loaf and a carrot coconut loaf. The latter was served with a slick of barely sweet cream cheese frosting on top. Such a genius idea. Other highlights included lots of cheese from Fromages et Ramages, wine at Comestibles et Marchand de Vins, and coffee from Cuillier Abbesses.
Mostly, we spent our days doing a lot of walking and cycling. We discovered Le Petit Grain, a lovely little boulangerie that we went to after a supremely disappointing lunch at a Vietnamese cafe. They make a fantastic lamington (what a thing to stumble across in Paris). From there, we walked to Père Lachaise Cemetery, a Parisian tourist staple that neither of us had ever been to before. Another lovely find of our stay was Mokonuts. I loved the walk to this spot – there are so many interesting shops nearby, and we picked up delicious pastries around the corner at Blé Sucrée (although they didn’t displace Du Pain et des Idées as my favourite in Paris) – and the vibe is lovely. The light is beautiful, and the food was delicious.
On Friday afternoon, after lunch, vintage shopping (Thanx God I’m a VIP is great!) and lots of walking, we found ourselves at one of our favourite stops from our last trip to Paris, La Barav. It’s a wine bar with a wine store attached. You can choose a handful of wines by the glass or a bottle from the store and they’ll serve it to you in the bar. It’s super low key and friendly and our experience this time around was just as nice as it was in 2016. We tried an unfiltered wine from Greece (delicious and the sommelier asking me it was ok to try a non-French wine was very funny) and a natural wine from Alsace. We drank our wine with rilletes for Dan and a whole steamed artichoke for me. We decided to split a baba au rhum for dessert and it was so good we ended up skipping dinner and ordering a second round of baba au rhum.
Bar Hemingway is another place we loved returning to. It must have some of the most expensive cocktails in Europe – 30 euros each – but for that you get a great vibe, lovely service, delicious snacky things like toasted almonds and olives, and great drinks. This time I had a whiskey, apricot and bitters cocktail. Served with a cherry, my favourite thing, it’s one of the best cocktails I’ve ever had.
On our last full day in Paris we caught the subway over to the 11th to try a sandwich place called Chez Aline that Dan found. This turned out to be one of the best meals we had on our travels; I think about it often! Each day they offer a handful of baguettes, a few salads salads, and dessert – all pretty simple and a bit messy but so delicious. Dan had a baguette with mackerel rilletes and pickled cabbage, I had one stuffed with thinly sliced chorizo and the most incredible tortilla, and we shared a bowl of rice pudding with vanilla and citrus for dessert. It’s not glamorous – the pudding was served in a plastic pink bowl – but even Dan, self proclaimed rice pudding sceptic, loved it.
We were lucky to have incredibly warm autumn weather, so from Chez Aline, we walked over to the Promenade Plantée. We had planned to walk from there, to the Pantheon, through the Luxembourg Gardens, and finish our day at the Musée du Quai Branley. But it was so hot, we reversed course and headed for the air conditioned museum instead. I wrote a paper about this museum as an undergrad, so it was great to visit for the first time. The space, and particularly the gardens are lovely, and it doesn’t really seem to be on the tourist trail so it was so quiet.
From the museum, we walked into the Seventh, picking up treats from two more spots we’d enjoyed back in 2016 – Aux Merveilleux de Fred for insanely light meringue and cream puffs, and Sadaharu Aoki for macarons (the yuzu – so good!). From here, we actually jumped on metro hoping to make it to the Pantheon before it closed, but we were too late. Still, we had a really nice evening, walking back to our apartment past Notre Dame and through the Marais.
On our final morning in Paris, we had breakfast at Holybelly, picked up lots of pastries from Du Pain et Des Idées, and then headed to Gare du Nord to jump on the Eurostar – we were London bound!
A beautiful weekend at La Jagée
We dropped our bikes off in Tours and picked up a rental car for the next few days so that we could see some of the quieter and smaller villages of the Loire. We took the back roads home to Saumur (slower but prettier and I wasn’t keen to brave the motorways on my first drive on the wrong side of the road in over a year). For dinner we decided we deserved an indulgent meal so we headed back to Le Pot au Lapin. Dan had a steak with the best fries, I had salmon and we shared a bottle of local red. If there ever was a day to have dessert, it’s one where you’ve ridden 80km so we didn’t hesitate to order creme brûlée and panna cotta.
The next morning we had coffee and breakfast at home, packed up our car and headed off. Our destination for the next few days was the gorgeous La Jagée (more on that in a moment) but we wanted to make the most of having a car so we again opted for the back roads and headed to Chinon. The drive through vineyards and tiny villages was beautiful, particularly as we were hitting peak fall. Chinon was lovely too. We enjoyed walking around the medieval town before picking up some a few things from an unfussy and delicious local bakery and sitting down to lunch. Lunch was fine but obviously not memorable as I have absolutely no recollection of what we ate. But sometimes a mediocre meal that keeps body and soul together is all you need – the pressure to make every meal of your travels an outstanding one is so overwhelming!
After lunch we set off on the short drive to La Jagée, one of the stops we were most excited about. La Jagée is owned by Kerri and Kerry, the parents of one of my friends back in Sydney (hi Ash!). They’ve spent the last year turning the 17th century manor (perhaps the hunting lodge for the local château) into a beautiful and relaxing getaway in the Loire. Our king size bed was a dream (ha). After over two months on the go, we enjoyed staying in such a comfortable, warm place and Kerri and Kerry couldn’t have been better hosts. They were so generous, inviting us to eat with them for both nights of our stay and giving us great tips on what to see in the area. They are both fantastic cooks and we ate and drank so well (it was also so nice to have company as we’d been travelling solo since Shanghai!).
On Saturday morning we enjoyed a delicious breakfast, including muesli (which I was so excited to see after a couple of months without it!) and incredibly creamy local milk (heaven after the uht that is everywhere in Europe) and some of the best croissants we ate in France. After a pretty slow start we made our way to the local castle, Le Château d’Azay-le-Rideau. It’s smaller in scale than Le Château de Villandry but no less lovely. Both the building and the grounds were beautiful and I loved getting to peak into a very old school kitchen. We stepped just outside the castle grounds for lunch at Restaurant Côté Cour, recommended to us by Kerri and Kerry. We’ve loved the set lunch menus that we’ve encountered in France. For 15-20 euros, you get at least two courses. It’s generally a pretty simple and quick affair but always satisfying and it’s so great to see what feels like the entire country pause for a proper lunch. Lunch at Côté Cour turned out to be one of the best lunches of our time in France, with lovely service, beautiful fresh food and such a light and modern space.
Wanting to squeeze as much as possible into our stay, after lunch we stopped at Le Sot de l’Ange to try some natural wines. We ended up taking half a dozen bottles home with us. It was a few more bottles than was sensible given that we had to get them to Paris on the train but it was worth the hassle as the wines were delicious. Over a month since we left the Loire and nearing the end of our travels now and we have one last bottle to share this weekend!
After stopping at the winery, we had the stamina for one more stop so we made our way to Le Château de Saché to visit the Musée Balzac. Not having read any of Balzac’s works, some of the museum’s exhibits were lost on us but we did enjoy the lovely home and the beautiful gardens. We crammed quite a bit into our day so from the museum we headed home to rest before dinner and make more travel plans (including a pretty last minute decision to cancel our Italy trip and head for London instead!).
On Friday night we sat down to another fantastic dinner cooked by Kerri and Kerry, including delicious local wines, huge bowls of mussels (just coming into season!) and an incredible dessert of tiny sweet strawberries, fresh cream and meringue. We stayed up much later than we usually do chatting with our hosts and so we slept in on Saturday morning. After finally mustering the energy to get up, we had another delicious breakfast of croissants, baguettes and butter, and muesli. After packing up the car and saying a reluctant goodbye to La Jagée and the Loire, we made our way to Tours to drop off our rental car and hop on the train to Paris. We had a very squishy and sweaty train ride as the train was so crowded and we were lugging our backpacks and that box of wine but we made it to our Paris Airbnb in one piece by early evening, excited to hang out in one of our favourite cities.
Loire Valley – Saumur
For the past couple of months we had been traveling at a mostly breakneck pace. Along the Trans-Siberian, we had a relatively structured and organized journey, pre-purchased and non-refundable train tickets made that a necessity, but after leaving Russia, arriving to Copenhagen then Barcelona, the rest of our trip was up in the air.
One constant of our trip was that wherever we were, irregardless of nation or continent we were in the city. Me and Anna are without a doubt city slickers, but after months of concrete and right angles, with the warmth of the Indian summer waning into the fall and winter, it only made natural sense to want to spend some time in the natural world. Ill-equipped for going camping or mountain climbing, we unfortunately had to settle for a couple of weeks of relaxing and drinking wine in Loire Valley.
The Loire Valley is quite a large area (in fact most of the central Loire has become a UNESCO World Heritage site) and there are many places we could have ended up, but we decided on Saumur, small enough have a rural feeling but large enough to be able to get around without needing a car. The place we chose in Saumur also had bikes for us to use (cycling about cities is one of our favorite past times).
On our first night of dinner in Saumur (our first destination), we overheard two British expatriates discuss (rather pretentiously) how the French spoken in the Loire is French at its most beautiful. Beauty of course is in the eye of the beholder, but perhaps the French spoken in the Loire is perhaps the most pure. Due in part to its central location, the Loire is often known as the cradle of the French, and has remained very French throughout much of history, uninfluenced by the Brittans in the Northwest, the Germans in the Northeast, and the Italians throughout southern France.
The next day we decided to give the bikes a try. After carrying them out of cold and cobwebby cellar we were off to the town center, but then we weren’t. My bike pedal fell right off after going about 10 meters. Bikes put back, and we marched by foot to the city center.
The edge of Saumur is end capped by a large Chateau along a hill, we were told to admire it from the outside (we did) but not to bother going inside, we spent most of our time instead going about the town center about a 1.5km walk from the apartment. With lots of cute shops and restaurants, we could tell we had arrived towards the end of the season, a lot sparser than would be during the high tourist season we walked about at a relaxed pace exploring the city comfortably amidst a sunny, crisp fall afternoon.
After walking about we picked up some general groceries at a nearby Carrefour, and I picked up some artisanally made pork rillettes at a local butcher, while Anna acquired some hard comte at the cheesemonger right across. Arriving home in the afternoon we spent the evening drinking wine and cooking a lovely pasta dinner.
One of the nice things about the Loire is that they’ve built long stretches of cycling lanes that allow visitors to cycle along the river and make excursions at many of the chateaus that are sprinkled across the entire region. Unfortunately our “included” bikes were (to quote Ken Pogson) not going to pass muster. Searching for bike shops ended up being much more challenging than expected, most had closed for the season! There was only one shop left open, and it was their last day. If we wanted to rent a bike, it would mean returning it to their headquarters in Tours, nearly 80KM away! We decided we could do it.
After getting the bikes we decided to do a ride to the Abbey de Fontevraud, about 15km away, of course if this was a struggle, getting Tours would be… questionable. Fortunately it was smooth riding for most of the journey, we decided to have lunch at a local restaurant just outside of the abbey. What we thought would be a relatively quick lunch ended up taking more than two hours. Course after course of meats, cheese and desserts served by the mere of the restaurant (who helped me with my awful french pronunciations) we were quite full, but had the perfect excuse of riding all this way to justify our gluttony!
Stuffed and puffed we biked the rest of the short distance to the Abbey a place Anna had been really wanting to see. The Abbey was a beautiful stop, constructed in a Roman style, the space has a history of nearly a millenia. A worthy stop if you’re ever in region. After riding to the abbey along a busier path north of the river, we rode back along a secluded path south of the river home, the red evening sky cutting through the fall leaves. Our test run was a success.
We spent the next few days relaxing in Saumur, while getting the necessary resources for a long ride to Tours, namely baguettes, butter and cake. The couple of days went quickly and the next morning we got up just at sunrise and set off on our all day bike ride.
The air was cool and crisp (ideal for cycling) and a light cloud cover kept the sun from beaming on us through most of the ride. The landscape more than we had expected, parts of the ride were through beautiful fall forest with the river beside us, other portions went through lovely small towns. Nearly the entire ride was along separated paths, and if not, along very small winding residential roads. After the journey it’s clear why its such a popular cycling journey.
We reached the halfway point after riding for a little under three hours just a bit after 10am and decided to stop along the road by a small open field to have some lunch, we were pretty chuffed to have made it all that distance. After some baguettes, rilletes, butter, cake and a lot of water, we were off again.
It was a relatively short ride for us to make it to our first and only stop, the Chateau de Villandry, which had an amazing garden, beautifully sculpted and vivid in color. The Chateau even had its own hedge maze (nothing to the level of the Shining, but still). We spent a bit there, I took a nice fall afternoon nap on a bench while Anna did the full walk. After leaving the Chateau, we rode a bit up the hill to a cute restaurant inside what looked like a small farm, the food wasn’t the best we had, but the service warm. Conversing with the owner we learned she had an American father and her daughter was currently in NYC. Small world.
The rest of the ride was uneventful, in a lovely way; calm quiet and relaxing. The only interesting point was when we reached about 10kms out of Tours we were spooked by the sight of black smoke ahead of us along the path. As we approached, we realized we were passing a Romani settlement, as there were a platoon of caravans leaving the area, with what looked like police that were clearing the space out. Some googling taught us that there were perhaps hundreds of thousands of Romani in France often setup in urban camps like the one we had just passed, with unsurprisingly, a conflicted history with the French government and local peoples.
Once we passed through the camp it was smooth sailing to Tours with heaps more traffic, but fortunately for us we were only a short ride to our return destination. We arrived, dropped off our bikes to a very friendly serviceman who wished us well and we were off to get our car and our next destination in the Loire.
We woke up early on Monday morning to get an 8.25am train out of Barcelona. Six hours later and we were in beautiful Lyon. We landed with the coolest Airbnb, complete with palm tree printed wall paper, beautiful high ceilings and windows opening onto a very typical French street. We were so happy to have ended up at such a lovely spot and we spent lots of time enjoying it over the next few days. We both caught bugs in Moscow and it really lingered for Dan so that by the time we arrived in Lyon, we were pretty sure that he had bronchitis. As Dan was sick and I had a work deadline coming up, we spent a lot of time doing not very much at home.
On our first evening in the city we walked a short way to dinner at Le Comptoir du Vin. Our meal couldn’t have been a better welcome to France. The atmosphere was so good – very local and very casual (by the time we left, the chef was smoking cigarettes with diners behind the bar). The food was great too. We ate steaks with a delicious mustard sauce, beautiful salad leaves and crispy roasted potatoes. Our meals were served with thick slices of bread that we watched our waitress cut from a huge loaf on the restaurant bar. We shared a carafe of wine (“un pot”) and for dessert we had a baba au rhum. The baba au rhum at Continental Deli in Sydney is one of the best things I have ever eaten and while this version was not quite so incredible, it was delicious – a rum soaked brioche with a drizzle of berry coulis and a thin custard. Sated and happy, we practically rolled home to bed.
On Tuesday morning we had plans to head to a nearby brunch spot but when we got there we realised that it is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. We headed to a back up option only to be told that they do not serve food before midday. We had sort of better luck at option number three (La Boîte à Café), ending up with perfect coffee and an impressively good scone. Still hungry but realising that breakfast in France is rarely more than a coffee and some bread or a pastry, we decided to be patient and get an early lunch instead. We occupied ourselves by doing a very long walk through the centre of Lyon, along the river banks and through a well known food market at Quai Saint-Antoine. Food markets are so beautiful in France and this time of year seems particularly lovely, with late summer and early autumn fruits and vegetables to be found (artichokes, figs, stone fruit and raspberries as well as mushrooms and oranges).
We had lunch at a bouchon called Au Petit Bouchon Chez Georges. It was warm and cozy inside and we enjoyed chatting to a French American couple sitting next to us. But we did make a strategic error, going for a set menu lunch instead of ordering a la carte. None of the dishes that we ate were particularly good and as we watched the meals come out, we thought the other options looked so much better. The next day we had lunch at a contemporary, modern bistro called Bel Ami that was much more satisfying than Chez Georges. We again had an amazing set menu, this time for less than twenty euros. The fresh fig tart that we had for dessert was particularly delicious.
Dan slept in on Wednesday morning while I went for a walk. I love being out and about in a new city early in the morning. I picked up croissants and pain au chocolat from a boulangerie and more fantastic coffee from La Boîte à Café and we had a delicious breakfast at home.
As he was sick and I had work to do so we spent the afternoon at home, snacking on some delicious pastries that I bought at a boulangerie near our Airbnb (we were on a mission to eat as many croissants as possible while we’re in France). Again foiled by opening hours, the restaurant we had planned to visit for dinner was mysteriously closed. After lots of walking and stressing about every restaurant in Lyon closing before we found somewhere to eat, we ended up at Le Pailleron for a very traditional French meal. Lyonnais food is delicious but soooo heavy and I’ve found that being a vegetarian in France is much harder than anywhere else on our trip, with the exception perhaps of Mongolia.
We didn’t have time to do a tonne on our last day in Lyon – just pack and head to an early lunch. Thankfully we were able to squeeze this in, as lunch at Chez Paul turned out to be a highlight. Although bouchons originated in Lyon, so many of them seem to serve almost exclusively tourists now and they risk stagnating. But although no doubt Chez Paul sees its fair share of tourists, the food was good and the vibe was fun. When we sat down there were already three enormous bowls of salad at our table (a delicious white bean, a beetroot, and a lentil salad that even Dan ate enthusiastically) and we simply helped ourselves as we pleased. Our mains were great (a braise and a steak) and for dessert we again got to help ourselves from an enormous creme caramel and huge bowls of stewed apples and prunes in red wine. The prunes were incredible and I will never understand why people do not eat prunes more enthusiastically. They are so good. We finished up our time in Lyon with an excellent coffee at Slake and then it was off to the train station for our train to Saumur, a small town in the Loire.
Our flight to Barcelona was delayed by an hour and the train into the city took forever so by the time we made it to our Airbnb it was almost 6pm. We gave ourselves a few minutes to do absolutely nothing (exhausted after a very steep climb to our apartment) and then headed out for dinner to Gràcia, about a 20 minute walk from the apartment. Gràcia was my favourite part of the city the last time I was here with Kate so I was excited to spend some more time there. Tired and not wanting to do a tonne of research about dinner options, we headed to one of my favourite spots from my last trip, La Vermu – a vermouth and tapas bar. It was every bit as lovely as I remembered, with delicious vermouth for only a couple of euros (served with a couple of olives and a wedge of orange), potato chips doused with chilli vinegar, and lots of different types of anchovies on offer. We walked home via the quiet streets and lovely squares of Gràcia, picking up an ice cream along the way.
We had a very slow start to the day on our first morning in Barcelona, opting to get sandwiches at a local bakery nearby. Although we weren’t staying in the hippest part of Barcelona, it was really nice seeing a much more local, tourist-free side to the city. It was also insanely inexpensive. We had two beautiful baguette sandwiches and an enormous fresh squeezed orange juice for less than 10 euros. We enjoyed our food so much that we actually started our day here every day of our stay. One of us would walk down to pick up sandwiches, coffee and an assortment of pastries and then we’d hang out at home with our breakfast before heading out into the city late morning. It was a really lovely routine and I certainly didn’t tire of trying different Spanish pastries. Our favourite was somewhere between a doughnut and a brioche and lightly dusted with sugar. At only 25 cents for two, it was hard not to enjoy at such a price. The bakery even had a whole grain croissant which sounds impossible but was delicious.
We didn’t tend to eat big meals in Barcelona, instead opting to bounce between tapas bars (and we found some great ones). On our first day, we again walked to Gràcia where we had anchovies (fried this time), Spanish style tomato bread (pan con tomate) and our first order of patatas bravas. After lunch we walked to an ice cream store called Parallelo. It has an insanely high 4.9 rating on Google and I seriously questioned how it could be so good but the pistachio ice cream was incredible (so good in fact that we went back after dinner that night).
We spent the afternoon at home, taking care of some life admin and getting stuck into some remote work for me, and then headed out around 6pm for dinner. We ended up at Bar Pietro (again in Gràcia), where we had seen patrons spilling out onto the side walk the night before. It was so good! And again, unbelievably cheap. Wanting to try a few different spots, we had a quick snack at another tapas bar called Raspall. It was inexpensive but the food wasn’t great and so we didn’t linger. At this point, we were exhausted and not keen to wait for a table at a restaurant but still peckish so we got another scoop of ice cream at Parallelo (chocolate this time) and headed home.
Thankfully Raspall turned out to be the only disappointing tapas experience we had in Barcelona. We ate so well there! We discovered a great spot a short walk from our apartment called Bodega Casas. We enjoyed small glasses of vermouth with soda and lemon, a huge plate of cheese, more tomato bread and a few different types of anchovies and sardines. Dan even tried some olives. We didn’t just eat in Barcelona (though that did take up much of our time). We also spent so much time walking, exploring the alleys of the El Raval and La Barceloneta, fuelled by coffee from Syra and an ice cream at Kate’s favourite store from our last visit.
We also timed our stay in Barcelona to coincide with a huge festival called La Mercè which kicked off on Friday and ended on Monday with the feast day of Our Lady of Mercy. On Friday there were lots of free concerts and performances scheduled across the city and we decided to head out to just soak up the vibe and see what we found. We started with a long walk from our apartment past the Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau. I’d never heard of this site before and I wish we’d gone in! It looks fascinating and the walk there, high above the city, had incredible views of Barcelona out to the water. We stopped for a snack at Veiga bar Tapas Cerveceri (some of the best food of our time in Barcelona) and then wandered over to another part of the city called Eixample. By the late afternoon we were ready for another snack so we stopped in at Senyor Vermut. We had a hilarious time at this spot. We sat at the bar drinking vermouth and watched everyone around us eating patatas bravas. We figured they must be a house speciality and so we ordered some. As we were eating, we watched a man filming in the restaurant and we figured he was a travel blogger or youtuber. It turned out that he is an “influencer” and runs a social media and youtube account about the best patatas bravas in Spain. When our patatas arrived, he asked if he could film us eating ours for his next youtube video (he also said that Senyor Vermut is one of the top five places for patatas bravas in Barcelona). We agreed (and fully expect to hit the big time as social media stars any day now).
On Saturday, after our usual breakfast, we walked past the Arc de Triomf through to the Parc de la Ciutadella, which had a huge food market and lots of performers. From there we wandered through the narrow lanes of the Gothic Quarter and El Raval. While the streets are beautiful, the number of tourists was oppressive. We stopped into the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, which I’d heard was stunning (and it was beautiful) but it was packed with people using the space to hang out and escape the heat and crowds outside. We found the food options to be so much more expensive and not as good too. We stopped into Bar del Pla, which is very positively reviewed, but the service was pushy and the patatas bravas were probably the least enjoyable of our stay.
Keen to find somewhere more relaxed to hang out, we walked towards the water to see if we could get a seat at Cervecería Vaso de Oro, a beer and tapas spot recommended by a friend of Ben’s. The food and service at this tiny narrow bar was spot on and we ended up grazing here for hours. We tried Manchego (one of my favourite cheeses), delicious Marcona almonds, anchovies and Dan ordered some blood sausage. We saw lots of people ordering what looked like a simple almond cake and never one to turn down the opportunity to try a new cake, we ordered a slice. I love simple snacking cakes, free of icing and perfect for shaving off a slice here and there and this one was exceptional.
After dinner we headed back to the Gothic Quarter for one of the main events of the festival: the Correfoc (or fire run). Groups of residents from each part of the city dress up as devils to parade through the city accompanied by drummers. As they walk, they hold spinning frames packed with fireworks above their heads (here are some photos). I did not fully anticipate the intensity of the parade until we started to line up and saw plenty of locals wearing goggles and long sleeved hoodies so as to avoid being burnt by the displays. It was lots of fun and an incredible sight to see fireworks lighting up a street into the distance but I am a chicken and it was a little scary seeing and hearing huge quantities of fireworks exploding so close to us. We are not crowd people so after an hour or so of the parade, we headed we headed back to Gràcia to end our night with something much more chilled. We had a beer at Bar Pietro and a final vermouth at La Vermu. I tried a clara (a lemon soda / beer combo) for the first time and then it was home to bed after a very long day.
On Sunday, we woke up to a very sleepy city after the intense partying of the night before. Dan felt really off, with his cough still lingering, and I had work to do so we picked up our standard breakfast from the bakery nearby and spent the day at home.
A restorative three days in Copenhagen
On Saturday morning we woke up at the horrible time of 4.20am in order to get to the airport for our 7.40am flight to Copenhagen. We landed in Copenhagen at 9am and headed straight to our Airbnb in Vesterbro. Though the apartment looked really nice online, it turned out to be even better than we expected. It had lots of lovely pale wood floors, an insanely comfortable bed and a great kitchen. Although it was hard to leave, we headed out for brunch at Mad & Kaffe, where we loved our coffee and brunch boards. I was particularly excited by the sight of an avocado, delicious sourdough bread and Danish cheese and butter. Dan’s breakfast also included a dessert of vanilla custard, stewed rhubarb and shortbread that was soooo good.
After breakfast, we hit the shops nearby (so good and very expensive) and stuck our heads into a few coffee shops and bakeries, getting to know our neighbourhood. Then it was home to rest after our insanely early start. In the early evening we walked over to the Meatpacking District, a former industrial site that is being revamped with cafes and bars. It includes some of Copenhagen’s most famous beer spots, including Warpigs, but we opted for tacos at Hija de Sanchez instead of beer. We’d heard so many good things about this taco place, which is owned by a Mexican woman who was previously a chef at Noma, and were pumped for our first Mexican meal in ages. People told us before arriving that we’d be shocked by how expensive Copenhagen is. Perhaps one of the good things about living in New York is that you don’t get sticker shock very often because everything is so expensive there. So we generally found the prices in Denmark to be high but not crazy. Having said that, our meal at Hija de Sanchez was the one exception! A few tacos, a side and a drink was about $50! Though the tacos were delicious, it didn’t feel worth it given that we were eating from paper plates and scrambling for a table.
Still peckish but keen for an early night, we headed home via a Danish supermarket (again, one of my favourite things to do!) to get supplies for a cheese plate (I did my best Kate P). We got an incredible smoked cheese, anchovies, fresh apples, smoked herring, rye bread and delicious salted butter and turned it into a very nice night cap. I also found rum balls which I think might be a thing in Copenhagen?
We woke up on Sunday morning and after sorting out bike rental, peddled over to breakfast at Grod. Dan had a huge chia bowl while I had porridge (rather salty, as is common here I think) with skyr, granola and the most insanely delicious apple vanilla compote I’ve ever tasted. We also had an iced coffee with caramel sauce. Dan ordered it without realising that it was sweetened and we thought it might be too much but it was sooooo good. Very much like a Vietnamese coffee, it was faintly sweet and caramelly but still undoubtedly bitter coffee. Yum! At this point we decided that we were deeply envious of the Danes.
After breakfast we wandered around Norrebro, stopping in at lots of super cute stores. We also headed into Assistens Cemetery, a beautiful intensely green park and cemetery. From there, it was time to caffeinate so we made a beeline for Caffeine 22. Like all Copenhagen cafes it seems, this one was beautiful and the coffee was great. Wanting to spend more time cycling through the city, we decided to cycle across the city to Frederiksberg Gardens. Given that travelling is all about squeezing as many meals into a day as possible, we picked up some pastries to enjoy in the park at Andersen & Maillard. When we arrived, we saw a few people enjoying “coffee soft ice” – a coffee soft serve made by the cafe with waste from their other products – milk foam from steamed milk, pastry crumbs and coffee grounds. It looked so good we sat down for a few minutes to share one. It was easily the best soft serve I’ve ever had.
Fully caffeinated and very full we headed for the park, which also houses Frederiskberg Castle. This was one of my favourite places in Copenhagen. I loved its slightly unkept vibe and its intense green colours. We explored for a while and then sat to inhale our extremely tasty pastries. From there we cycled to a nearby wine bar, because what are holidays for if you can’t have a glass of wine in the mid afternoon? A lot of Copenhagen wine bars are closed on Sundays but we found the excellent Falernum. We had some very funky German red and a mackerel rilletes. Delicious and very relaxing.
After splashing out on mid afternoon wine and given that we had the use of kitchen for the first time in ages, we decided to make dinner at home. We choose this delicious pantry pasta and had such a nice time staying in. We contemplated going out for a post dinner drink but the apartment was way too cozy. On Monday morning we opted to stay in again, enjoying delicious smoked fish, Danish cheese, butter and bread, apples and rum balls.
From there, we headed to Indre By to get coffee at Forloren Espresso. It had a simple, cosy vibe and we enjoyed the coffee prepared by the unbelievably precise barista. Dan had a pour over that the barista described as having notes of very ripe pineapple and cocoa powder. I had a great cortado, the first milky coffee I’ve been game to try for weeks. I attempted a cappuccino in Russia a couple of times but I found the milk (uht I think?) to be undrinkable so I stuck to black brews. From coffee, we shopped and wandered. Parts of it were more touristy and busy than we go for but it was fun window shopping and next time I definitely want to go up to the top of Rundetårn. Before heading home we picked up some more pastries to snack on later (this time from the Copenhagen staple, Meyers Bageri) and then we had a slow cycle back to our apartment with a detour for a hot dog for Dan at John’s Hotdog Deli.
After resting for a couple of hours, we started our evening at a very simple and unpretentious wine bar around the corner from our apartment. Aperitif checked off, we cycled over to my favourite part of the city (close to Grod and Andersen & Maillard) to have a drink at Brus and get pizza at Bæst. I had a tiny grapefruit ipa and Dan tried a local beer and we sat outside on the nicest autumn evening (we have been so lucky with weather so far). They had old fashioneds on tap so we shared one before we finally made our way to dinner at Bæst.
I was ready to dismiss Bæst as a hipster hangout without substance, particularly when it look ages for our waiter to arrive with a menu but this place ended up blowing us away. The tomato pizza in particular was stunning. Maybe the best pizza of my life?!
On our last morning in Copenhagen, wanting to squeeze as much in as we could, we woke up early to get smoothie bowls and porridge at Bowl Market. Smoothie bowls are one of Dan’s favourite things and we hadn’t had one in months. After breakfast, Dan headed home to finish packing and I went to pick up some snacks for our flight from Brod, a bakery I’d really wanted to try. I settled on a croissant and the same Danish pastry we’d tried the day before, which is covered in poppy seeds and layered with a little sugar, salt and jam. Delicious. I also picked up a coffee to go from Enghave Kaffee next door. I hope we will get back there one day as the coffee was SO good and the vibe was warm and cozy. And with our snacks for the plane sorted, we returned our bikes and headed for the airport, very sad to be leaving Copenhagen. We didn’t do much “sight seeing” in Copenhagen and I can’t wait to get back to explore the Design Museum and the Louisiana Museum in particular, but a slow few days with lots of cycling and delicious food was so needed after a great but pretty intense trip through Mongolia and China.
We arrived in Saint Petersburg in the evening, after a zippy four hour trip, and walked over to our fantastic hotel. It was immediately clear that Saint Petersburg had a very different vibe to Moscow. Although parts of Moscow felt much more European than we expected, it still had a very visible Soviet presence. We saw almost none of that in Saint Petersburg. No doubt as you get further away from the old centre things modernise, but just about every pocket of the city that we went to felt like it hadn’t changed since the revolution. And it’s beautiful! Like Venice but without the grittiness and tourists. Still, clearly the food has changed – we spent our first evening at a restaurant that served only hotdogs and champagne (presumably not a Soviet era staple). We had both hotdogs and champagne, with a side of fantastic sweet potato fries, and then ended our evening with an excellent night cap at the rather austere Orthodox.
On our first morning in the city we started with a great breakfast at Bonce. Dan had a proper English breakfast, I had oatmeal (which was served with a spoonful of melted butter on top) and we shared some more fried curd cheesecakes (sirniki). I think these were my favourite yet. They were so delicate and came with a delicious berry and cherry sauce. The coffee was also great. After breakfast we walked and walked along Saint Petersburg’s very charming canals, past the Church of Savior on the Spilled Blood, St Isaac’s Cathedral (where we had planned to go up to the colonnade but it was closed for the duration of our visit), and Kazan Cathedral.
Mid-afternoon we hopped on the subway and made our way to the State Museum of Political History of Russia. The Museum was excellent. We spent hours here and left only when we were very much in need of sustenance and a chair. The museum carefully described the gradual and then very hasty demise of the Romanovs and life in Soviet Russia (things came to a hard stop at Putin). It was interesting to get a glimpse of how Russians view the last 100 years or so of their history and I was particularly surprised by how critical of Stalin the museum’s commentary was (though perhaps I wouldn’t have been if I knew more about modern Russian history).
From the museum we walked through the very trendy Petrogradsky where we had an extremely late lunch / early dinner at an Italian restaurant (aptly named Italy). Is there anything better than a big bowl of pasta to lift spirits? I don’t think so. Somewhat refreshed, we made our way back to our cute hotel room to rest for a few hours before a late dinner nearby at Pelmenya, an inexpensive dumpling place packed with Russian speakers. We tried an interesting beer and a Georgian wine and dove into a variety of dumplings. They were good but (never thought I’d write these words) not as good as Yekaterinburg!
On Thursday morning we started our day by getting completely saturated in a rain shower on our way to breakfast. We pressed on, thinking it would be just a brief shower (it wasn’t in the forecast!), and it just poured and poured. By the time we arrived at Coffee 22 we were soaked through. Despite our sogginess (and probably to the dismay of the cafe staff), we sat down to breakfast (and dried out relatively quickly in the warm cafe). Dan tried another interpretation of smoked salmon and zucchini pancakes and I had a Spanish tortilla and salad (excellent). For breakfast dessert we shared more sirniki or Russian fried cheese cakes (this time with some lemon in them and served with jam and honey).
From breakfast we went to do some shopping in the hip area around Kazan Cathedral and then we walked over the Palace Bridge to the Peter and Paul Fortress. We walked around the walls of the fortress and then headed into the Peter and Paul Cathedral. I’d been curious about the church after seeing the tall spire from a distance (still the tallest structure in Saint Petersburg and also the oldest landmark) but didn’t realise until going in that it was the burial place for Russian royalty starting with Peter the Great (even the Romanovs have since been buried there after their bodies were discovered). What was more surprising to me was the fact that the tombs were above the ground scattered around the interior of the church. No doubt the result of my heathen tendencies, but Russian churches are confounding to me. Apparently services are still held there – something I cannot imagine given the presence of the tombs.
We ate lunch at a nearby restaurant called Koryushka where we decided once and for all that herring is definitely not as delicious as mackerel or anchovies and that Georgian food is too cheesy. We did however enjoy the view across to the Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace and the other diners were good fun. It was obviously a business restaurant and we sat opposite a table of men who lived up to Russian vodka drinking stereotypes. They offered to buy us a round of shots but we declined (I think we’d need to spend some more time in Russia to truly appreciate the value of a mid-week lunch time vodka shot).
We took a long walk home via Bonce (to pick up some of their honey cake – delicious!) to chill out and get ready for our evening plans. On Thursday night we went to see Cinderella at the Marinksy Theatre (Dan’s first time going to the ballet!). The theatre itself was incredibly beautiful and the ballet was enjoyable, although I do prefer the more athletic and modern style of the New York City Ballet. Cinderella was a bit naff! They’re obviously trying to bring ballet into the digital age as they used a combination of traditional sets and projections but it was all pretty out of date so it ended up looking very 1990s clip art. After the ballet we wanted something quick and close by to eat so we ended up at an Irish pub called Molly Shelter. The food was fine (the hot chips were amazing) and the negroni was good too (impressively good given that we were in an Irish pub in Russia).
On our last morning in the city we started slow with lots of donuts from Пышечная (Pyshechnaya), a St Petersburg institution and their veeeeeery sweet coffee. The donuts were good, and such a bargain at only 20 cents each, but we later discovered that they are much better fresh from the fryer (we went back for a second round which we inhaled in the cafe). We combined old and new Russia, pairing our cheap donuts with third wave coffee from Skuratov (certainly much more expensive but so worth it in comparison to the sweetened instant coffee from the donut shop).
On Friday afternoon we headed to the Hermitage. As to be expected, the crowds of people were huge, although we climbed to the top of the Winter Palace and enjoyed going through the much quieter collections of Iranian and Turkish art, ceramics and textiles. Having housed Russian royalty for so long, I was hoping that the museum would include a lot more social history than it did. Even with an audio guide, many of the exhibits went unexplained and there was certainly no context. The Hermitage collection is contained in five buildings (the Winter Palace is the main and most famous). We couldn’t get to all of them so after a couple of hours in the Winter Palace we opted to head to the General Staff building, which houses the Hermitage’s modern art collection. I’m so glad that we came here. The collection was interesting and the building itself was beautiful and light.
On our last night in Moscow we had dinner at Mayak, a typical Soviet style bar (so the patrons told us). The staff spoke no English but warmly recruited some young guests to help us. They pointed us to their favourite meals and told us which vodkas to order. The food was acceptable (the herrings in particular were nice) and incredibly cheap and we loved soaking up the vibe. It was a very cosy and suitably Russian end to our Trans-Siberian experience.