Saint-Cirq-Lapopie: A Medieval Gem in the French Dordogne

Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is a tiny village, population 220, in the Lot Department in southern France. This tiny hamlet is perched 400’ above the River Lot on a broad promontory overlooking a picturesque valley. Some years ago it was voted the #1 Most Beautiful Village in France. Consequently it sees a lot of tourists—so arrive early in the morning if you want to avoid the crowds!  

During the Middle Ages, the town became a center for woodworking and related crafts. Until the late 19th century, craftsmen could still be seen at their lathes and tables in the tiny shop fronts set in small archways sprinkled throughout the town. Today, you can see some of these craftsman’s tiny alcoves abutting stone cottages; many of them have morphed into souvenir shops or enlarged to form inviting restaurants or ice cream shops. Cottages lining the streets often have corbelled façades, exposed beams, or bays with mullioned windows popular in the Renaissance. The pedestrian-only streets are cobbled as you might expect in this medieval jewell that seems untouched by the passage of the centuries. The picture above shows a furry pup relaxing in a shady spot unafraid of being run over by a tourist’s BMW—one of the joys of travel to rural France in these historic villages.

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Still, there are plenty of eateries and boutiques nestled in the crevices of these ancient walls to satisfy most tourist needs. We spied a pretty rose covered terrace just above us as we wandered and decided to pop in for lunch. La Table Du Produceur is set high up in the nearly vertical village. It has seating for just 16 people and is rightly famous for its duck cuisine, specifically foie gras, plus other classic Dordogne favorites like cassoulet, as well as local wines from Cahors or Bergerac. As we always say, lunch is usually the best meal of the day in France—and this restaurant served up a perfect repast.

Afterward, you can pop into some of the charming ateliers or shops for some classic French shopping. Pick up some cans or jars of foie gras, country paté, baguettes, cookies, or fruit preserves, as well as wine and liquors, scented soaps and bath products, French clothing, Bric-à-brac, and other medieval souvenirs like candlesticks, bronze keys, and French baskets, just to name a few.  

Market day is Wednesday beginning at 4pm. We usually recommend trying to coordinate visits with French village market days. And this one draws both locals haggling over the fresh produce, fish, and game, as well as tourists from all over the globe enjoying the spectacle!

If you visit Rocamadour, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is just an hour’s drive away; it’s a good antidote to the crowds in the famous place of pilgrimage at Rocamadour. Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is on the D40 two hours drive from Toulouse and two and half hours drive from Bergerac in the Dordogne. It will not disappoint—and you may make some new French friends while you’re there!  

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Juicy Food Photography--Does it Make you Want to Take a Big, Delectable Bite?

French Scallops (Coquilles St-Jacques)

French Scallops (Coquilles St-Jacques)

Photographing food can be a tricky process, although certainly a delicious one. The shot above was taken in real time, in a real dining setting where no special lighting was used. At times like this, we feel a shot from above helps focus on the food, rather than the surroundings. (Sometimes an I-Phone’s special settings help with focusing. But if your real-deal camera is available with high-powered settings, it could even be more dramatic.) Our Moto: if you can’t resist it, shoot it!

French Macaroons, staged

French Macaroons, staged

The staged macaroon shot above allowed us to stage, light, and enhance the placement of the food, tablecloth, and plate for maximum attractiveness. But it definitely lacks the spontaneity of real food under real circumstances. They may look yummy (and they were); but it’s clear they were meticulously prepped for their “close up.”

Lyon, France Market Food Display with Shopper

Lyon, France Market Food Display with Shopper

Adding people to a spontaneous photo of food in natural light can be tricky. It may be hard to capture the food’s most appealing qualities without studio-quality light, but the spontaneity adds a human realism that can be missing in staged shots. The food is not as delectable as food “staged” on a plate, but the human interaction with the food makes a viewer “project” themselves in the shot, and therefore into the food buying experience.

Breakfast Crepe with Honey and Orange at Canyon Villa, Paso Robles, CA

Breakfast Crepe with Honey and Orange at Canyon Villa, Paso Robles, CA

A chef’s artfulness with food can be a key component in beautiful food photography. A fine chef will make presentation a key aspect of his or her food presentation. When done well, a photographer’s work is half-way completed before you even focus the lens. When we see beautifully presented food like this, we almost always snap a shot!

Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato Sandwich at Great Maple

Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato Sandwich at Great Maple

Ultimately, food photography should make your mouth water. It should make you want to dive into your screen for a big, succulent bite. It if it appeals to your tongue (and your stomach), shoot it!

In Praise of Fondue

The Swiss are famous for fondue. While fondue is an apparently simple dish of melted cheese, there is much more to this gooey, chewy, melt-in-your mouth concoction that, when dripping off a bit of crusty bread or a delicate new potato, can bring tears of joy to your eyes—and fireworks to your mouth.  

Fondue is said to have first bubbled in the Swiss canton (state) of Valais. That is one of the few places in Switzerland where fondue’s main ingredients--white wine and cheese--are produced cheek to jowl.

Somehow someone had the idea of taking Swiss cheese, melting it in a pot, and adding a bit of this and bit of that until this superb pot of lickable heaven came to be a favorite all over the world. 

A basic REAL Swiss recipe for fondue includes these surprising ingredients:

  • 1lb Gruyėre cheese, grated

  • 1/2lb Emmentalee cheese, grated

  • A clove of garlic

  • 1 cup of dry white wine

  • 1 tablespoon of cornstarch (the Swiss prefer potato starch)

  • 1 teaspoon of lemon juice

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons kirsch

  • Ground pepper

  • Grated nutmeg

Clearly, we aren’t talking simply melted cheese. A good restaurant in Switzerland will get their cheeses from specific farms, often from pedigreed cows who munch on fine Alpian grasses and grains. Many fondue specialty restaurants will also have their own herbs and spices to add to their “secret” fondue recipe. Others will add a bit of panache with morel mushrooms like this tasty pot we enjoyed in Bern, Switzerland one evening during a thunderstorm. Other additives include brandy, bourbon, soy sauce, dried mustard, or Worcestershire sauce.

The ingredients may vary. But the method is straightforward. Rub the garlic clove around the pot and discard it. Melt the cheese and wine over a low heat for five minutes. Add everything else and stir for 10 minutes and serve. 

While we like cheese, this dish is almost addicting when paired with small potatoes, apples, cubes of bread, cherry tomatoes or pretty much anything else. Simply take your long fondue fork, spear your favorite bite, dip it in the gooey goodness, and pop it in your mouth. Follow each bite with a sip of chilled white wine OR a Swiss beer for an authentic finish. 

Place the fondue on a low light to keep the cheese soft and yummy. A good fondue can last for quite a while--and the social aspect of sharing a single pot with your nearest and dearest is one of the fine pleasures of this dish. You may not even desire an appetizer OR main course. Fondue will simply fill your every need—until the next meal!

Spear, dip, and enjoy!

Armagnac

Armagnac is a brandy distilled in the Armagnac region of France. The area was the first region of France to begin distilling liquor and this may be the reason it tastes so good. Armagnac is made from grapes you have likely never heard of - Baco 22A, Colombard, Folle blanche and Ugni blanc.

The Armagnac region is in Gascony, about two hours drive south of Bordeaux. The more famous region of Cognac is 90 minutes north of Bordeaux. Production of Cognac dwarfs that of Armagnac and therefore Cognac is more well known outside of Europe. Cognac is made from a similar line of grapes but tastes distinctly different from Armagnac.

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The photo above shows an aged Armagnac we spotted on the shelf at the marvelous Relais and Chateaux Hostellerie de Plaisance in St. Emilion late one afternoon. We were weary from a day of sightseeing and a tasting was in order. 

The date on the bottles of Armagnac show the year the liquor was put into oak barrels after distillation and the year the Armagnac was pulled from the barrel and put into the bottle. Armagnac matures and becomes darker and smoother the longer it stays in the barrel. The older the first date on the bottle the more expensive your drink will be. If the difference between the two dates is very great, you might be looking at a car payment to sample it. 

Before you sip a glass of Armagnac, it should be caressed and warmed in the hand to release the subtle aromas and flavors that are hidden inside. The shape of a brandy glass is designed to capture and concentrate the aromas, so be sure to take your time and breathe deep. If you have tasted any kind of brandy and found it to be harsh, the quality is either poor or the product hasn’t aged for long enough. The glass being drunk above is from 1974 and it was very very smooth. I can’t imagine how the 1951, also on the shelf, tasted. I also couldn’t afford to find out. 

You will often see Armagnac on menus in France particularly with deserts. The photo below shows Armagnac being drizzled over a pastry while we were having lunch at the Jules Verne Restauant at the Eiffel Tower.  

If you have the chance to try Armagnac make sure you check the age of the contents. A few dollars more for an older vintage will reward you with a warm glow and a lasting smile. If you are in Paris some time and want to bring a bottle of Armagnac home with you, the food hall at Galleries Lafayette has an Armagnac Cave just for you. 

Vienna, Austria - part two

Part 2 of the Vienna guide looks at the cultural life of Vienna and places to rest your bones after long days of sightseeing.

Mozart.

Mozart is everywhere in the city. While Mozart was born in Salzburg he made his name composing music for wealthy Austrians, including the Emporor, who were living in Vienna. If you are a fan of Mozart’s music, or, you want to learn more about him, you could spend weeks in Vienna.

While Mozart at 34 died in 1791, he lives on in the form of his music, but also Mozart impersonators who wander the center of Vienna attempting to sell tickets to one of the many Mozart concerts that play in the city most nights of the week.

In fact, looking out of the window at the Hofburg Palace a Mozart can be seen resting and checking email on his SmartPhone.

Or, later, Mozart on his cell phone.

Mozart, Beethoven,Mahler, Strauss and other composers are in the blood of Austrians. While in the US or UK opera and classical music has a niche audience, in Austria classical music is widely loved. Concerts sell out and often mostly with locals. The Vienna State Opera is so popular seats are placed outside the hall and the concerts are broadcast to jumbo televisions to more anxious opera lovers who have paid to sit for the evening in the cold.

Vienna is famous for a couple of foods that have spread throughout the world. The Wiener Schnitzel, meaning Viennese cutlet, was invented in Vienna. You will find this dish all over the city, but, as often happens with iconic foods, the quality will vary, so go with care.

The second gift of Vienna to the world is the wonderful Sacher Torte. This classic chocolate cake is layered with apricot preserve and covered with more chocolate. It was invented by Franz Sacher for a Prince back in 1832. Slice of Sacher Torte on a plate with whipped cream is one of the delights of life and should be experienced by everyone. While many modern chocolate cakes are overly sweet, Sacher Torte is balanced just right. A hotel is now named after Sacher and it is a wonderful location to sample the cake.

Cafe culture is still alive and well in Vienna, but our favorite cafe in the city is the venerable Demel Cafe that is close to the imperial palace. We defy most people to walk past the store window and not stop for a look. Most people who stop will want to go inside and indulge. Demel has been part of the dining scene in Vienna since the time of American Revolution and it will be around for years to come.

Another favorite is Do and Co which is situated on the eighth floor in the ultra modern hotel across from the Cathedral. You can see St. Stephen’s cathedral reflected in the windows in the picture above. The service and food are wonderful, as is the view of the Cathedral just yards away across the square.

The other restaurant you may want to visit would be Labstelle. The restaurant is part of the recent farm to table movement and features produce that is grown within the city limits and all meat is raised locally. Austrian food is front and center.

Away from the center of the city and a good place to try if you are unsure what will tickle your pallet would be the Naschmarkt. This Viennese institution that has been a favorite since the 16th Century. A food market by day and an ecclectic collection of restaurants by night.

Vienna is a great place to visit and easy to get around. It should be one anyone’s European travel list.

Vienna, Austria - Part One

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Vienna Austria is one of Europe’s most interesting capital cities. The fact that it is also one of the least visited (compared to Paris, London, Rome, etc) makes it attractive to journey there any time of the year. There is so much to describe, we split this Vienna post into two parts. In this first part we will describe the major sights. In the second part, we will discuss cultural, dining, and wine items of interest.

Transportation. The airport is a short ride from the city and a system of underground trains makes getting around the compact urban area very easy. Underground stations are marked by a simple “U” and are very easy to spy from a distance. There are no turn-styles or gates to prevent boarding a train without a ticket. However, a ticket is required to ride the train in Vienna. This said, if you are caught riding the train without a ticket the fine is not cheap. The trust shown by the city to allow travelers to come and go “on their honor” is a first introduction to the gracious Viennese manner you’ll experience most everywhere you go.

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Sights. The photo above is of the Schönbrunn Palace which is a short train ride outside Vienna. Schönbrunn means “Beautiful Spring.” The Palace was the summer residence of the Habsburg dynasty that held the title of the “Holy Roman Empire” for around three hundred years until 1740.

Purchased by Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian II in 1569, the structure was originally used as a hunting lodge. The family enjoyed hunting in the countryside so much they would ride out from Vienna to hunt and “slum it” in a small mansion that was built by the previous owner.

Over the years, the Schönbrunn was expanded and reached its current state in the mid-18th Century when the Palace was expanded by Empress Maria Theresa, mother of Marie Antoinette (who was later guillotined during the French Revolution). Extensive gardens and fountains were installed and, in 1760, the Gloriette (above) was placed on top of the 200’ (60m) hill looking down across the gardens.

The synergies with Versailles are very close. Both palaces began as summer hunting lodges and were expanded over the years by royals who loved the countryside but wanted more elegance. Louis XIV expanded Versailles to its current size and Maria Theresa did the same for the Schönbrunn. (When you visit, you will see Marie Antoinette and the rest of her family depicted in pretty portraits spanning one whole hallway of the palace. Marie Theresa was a dutiful mother and birthed 16 children, 10 of whom lived to adulthood. She married off these children—mostly girls—to royals across the world, thus securing the Habsburg connection to many thrones.

With more than 1,400 rooms, the Schönbrunn Palace is worth exploring. The gardens and Gloriette make great places to wander around. Take a picnic and some fine Austrian wine with you and make a day of it!

The Habsburg’s needed somewhere closer to town to spend their winters, however, and the Hofburg Palace fit the bill. The Palace is in the center of Vienna, easy to find on foot. Hofburg means “Castle of the Court” and it’s easy to get confused between Hofburg and Habsburg. The Hofburg is now the residence and offices of the President of Austria.

It’s easy to spend a long morning or afternoon wandering the rooms and treasury in the Palace. The decor is beautiful and puts Austrian artistry on lovely display.

The third Palace in Vienna is The Belvedere, which is short taxi ride from the center of the city. Tip: if you look at a tourist guide of Vienna, the Belvedere will be depicted as close to the city center. But don’t be fooled—it’s quite a hike!

The Belvedere was built by Prince Eugene of Savoy who was the one of the most successful military commanders in the whole of Europe in the 17th Century. Prince Eugene led the armies that defended Vienna from the final attempt to conquer Vienna by the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Vienna.

The Palace is now an art museum and is the home of a lot of the work of Gustav Klimt from the early 20th Century. Again, the gardens are impressive. There is an upper Belvedere (shown above) and a lower Belvedere at the opposite end of the gardens. The gardens and the lower Belvedere is shown in the photo below, with central Vienna in the background.

If three Palaces haven’t quenched your thirst for history, one of the best museums in the world is also located in the center of Vienna. The Kunsthistorisches Museum is a marvelous museum that would take days to explore. The quality of the pieces rivals those of the Louvre in Paris or any museum in Rome or London. Kunsthistoriches means “Museum of Art History.”

The museum was opened 1891 by Emperor Franz Joseph I. The Emperor wanted to get the extensive treasures that belonged to the Habsburg’s on display for the public to enjoy. The art and artifacts are fascinating—definitely worth your time. The majestic architecture is worth wandering through.

Be sure to dine or stop for dessert in the delightful museum cafe. Here, you can get a cup of indescribably good Viennese coffee topped with the the most delicious whipped cream you will ever taste! The ornamental dome of this classic Viennese cafe is shown below.

Across the courtyard from the Kunsthistoriches is the Natural History museum. This museum was built at the same time as the art museum and the buildings are similarly styled.

If you’re looking for something more spiritual after exploring the power and glory of the Palaces and museums in Vienna, St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the center of the city is an enclave of calm. As you can see from the photo below, the roof is beautifully decorated in colored tiles that are reminiscent of the brightly colored roofs in Burgundy.

The Cathedral was begun in 1137 and completed in 1160 which is remarkably fast for most medieval museums around Europe. The Cathedral sits in an large open square surrounded by shops, hotels, and restaurants. This leads us on to Part Two of this Vienna post.

Champagne: How to Add More Bubbles to Your Life

© Christy Destremau

© Christy Destremau

Did you know the heart of bubbly France is less than two hours from Paris by train or car? Arrive at the airport in the morning and you could be sipping a glass of Taittinger champagne for lunch along with your lobster salad or brie en croute.

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Reims is the busy center of the champagne region. Here, the top champagne houses have “show rooms” where visitors can learn the history of the champagnerie, tour the caves, and sample a bit of bubbly. (And of course buy a few bottles or cases.) These are some of our favorites.

The surrounding area around Reims is champagne vines and vineyards as far as the eye can see. The local rural hub is Epernay where some of the big houses like Moet & Chandon have tasting houses and tours. But many smaller producers carve out a place as well.

Our favorite champagne adventure, however, is exploring the picturesque champagne route for ourselves. Signs are easy to follow and you can wander this gorgeous, fragrant region at your leisure—with a few champagne tastings along the way. (Try to book in advance.)

There are also several affordable champagne area guides who speak multiple languages. They have a variety of offerings around the area and you can pick and choose depending on your budget. You can tour the caves, walk through the vineyards, see the bottling and riddling processes, see some high end estates or mom-and-pop vineyards, and everything in between. Naturally, you will taste a variety of bubblies as well as champagne-inspired cuisine like champagne sauce or champagne ice cream.

Finally, you may have the opportunity to learn the sabrage, the technique for opening a champagne bottle with a saber like our friend Vic here.

Don’t miss this intoxicating region if only for a day, a week, or more. Santé!

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The Dordogne Valley

There’s a fertile, ancient enclave in Southern France brimming with medieval castles, pretty vineyards, and a prehistoric history that offers some of the first glimpses of man. It’s called the  Dordogne Valley. It lies in central France just east of Bordeaux at the western coast. The Dordogne River flows west toward the sea from Dordogne Valley. It’s carved a marvelous broad valley of rich farmland that produces some the best vegetables, fruits, nuts, seafood and goose-based products like foie gras and pâté on the planet. 

Early mankind found it a welcoming place to settle. They made their homes in cave complexes such as Lascaux and Pech Merle which you can still visit today. Living must have been somewhat easy as these early humans not only hunted and created farmland, but also had time to colorfully decorate the walls of their caves with a variety of animals and other images using primitive paint colors and spit. 

Since that time agriculture—and wine growing—has flourished in the area. During the centuries, the land was much prized and warring factions (British, French, Iberian, Ottoman, and more) criss-crossed the land erecting castles, squabbling over land rights, and lusting after the riches of the area.

Today, there’s still a moderate land grab. But these mainly involve hungry real estate buyers hoping to land a second home or retirement abode in this land of plenty. We love this almost hidden gem of France. While Brits love to commute to the Provence of Peter Mayle fame, we especially enjoy the lesser known Dordogne for its rustic charm, fantastic wine, picturesque attractions, and fantastic food. You’ll find walnuts, wine, ducks, geese, truffles, foie gras, rustic bread, hearty cuisine, and other goodies for your home (or your castle) all through this charming region. All are prominently for sale at stores and markets along the journey. 

The major towns of the Dordogne are Bergerac and Perigeux. Each of these is maybe worth a visit if you have plenty of time in the area, otherwise we suggest avoiding them because they are cosmopolitan business centers missing the charm of the countryside. 

Instead, we tend to stick to the most interesting towns of Sarlat-et-Canéda, Castelnaud, Domme, Beynac, and La Roque-Gageac. Sarlat is the largest of the these and sees itself as the foie gras capital of the area. It’s also the one of the best-preserved towns in France, often used as a set for historical movies and TV shows. 

Sarlat is worth at least one visit. Market days are Wednesdays and Saturdays—and it’s worth visiting on a market day if you can get there early for the drama and excitement. You’ll see a wide range of products for sale and you’ll rub elbows with the local French who are shopping for groceries and home goods—an education in itself!  Sarlat on market day is very crowded, particularly in the summer where as many market visitors are tourists as locals. Plan on coming back to the town at dusk and stay for dinner. Better still, pick an accommodation in town and you won’t miss a minute of the action.

Castelnaud and Beynac are medieval villages nestled along the Dordogne River. Each features a medieval castle with a great view of the river—and a history worthy of a BBC drama. During the Hundred Years’ War, these two castles changed hands multiple times between combatants. Even if you abhor history (and the working trebuchets still on display), they are worth a visit for the view of the river with its canoers and boaters or beautiful hot-air balloons floating overhead.  

Along the same section of the river is the most ancient town of La Roque-Gageac, which is practically carved into the hillside. This village is often cited as one of the most beautiful in France. It’s a perfect place for lunch at a cafe that has a view of the river or for glimpsing unusual visitors like these German bikers (in their 60s!)

La Roque is also a great place to get a river cruise on a gabare(sailing boat). A gabare is a traditional Dordogne River vessel that were used in the old days to carry agricultural products and wine from the Dordogne area to Bordeaux for export. A cruise takes an hour or so and a commentary in English is available. If a gabare isn’t energetic enough for you, renting a kayak and sailing down the river is a favorite pasttime. The renter will pick you up down river and bring you back to La Roque. 

Last but not least, you can book a spectacular hot air balloon ride in Beynac (and elsewhere in the Dordogne). While this is one of the more expensive adventures in the area (approx. $150/ea) floating above the river as the sun comes up or goes down is one of our most memorable experiences. With museums, cave complexes, outdoor markets, fantastic food, and affordable local wine, the Dordogne has everything for a relaxing vacation of a few days or a week. 

California Wine Tasting

It’s a proven fact—at least according to our taste buds—that wine tasted at the vineyard source seems richer than the same wine consumed at home or in a restaurant. This is probably a situational prejudice that has to do with vineyard eye candy, wine bouquet aromas, and conviviality of the experience. If we admit it, we love to taste most ANY wine at the source because it makes such a delicious memory. 

This isn’t to say that wine sold by the bottle or case at your favorite wine outlet is of lesser quality. But tasting wine at its birthplace, often poured by the makers themselves, enhances the experience of the coming slurp. A knowledgeable server with a story or two adds to the wine’s allure—and you may fall in love instantly the minute you take a sip.   

 California has some very fine wine tasting venues. (We may be writing a few of these posts since you could probably taste wine all over the state and take years to do it.) When tasting in Northern California’s Napa or Sonoma, Central Coast’s Paso Robles or San Luis Obispo, or down south in Temecula Valley, it’s easy to drive along the main routes and veer into a winery to sample the publicwares. 

 We’ve found that a little research and a few dollars toward aprivatefood and wine pairing or barrel tasting can net you a much more fulfilling experience, however, depending on your time and budget.

For example, the private tour and tasting at Far Niente in Napa is by appointment only. The tasting includes a range of their best wines paired with food, an extensive tour of the winery environs, and a wander through the vintage car collection of founder Gil Nickel. The tour lasts 90 minutes and costs around $50. 

 Justin Winery in Paso Robles is another chance to move above the usual. While drive up tastings are available, Justin offers a range of personalized tastings at the Château that are well worth the small group experience.  

When we wine taste, we typically schedule nor more than two tastings a day with lunch in between. This keeps us safe on the road and makes sure the tastings don’t blur together. (Remember to spit; you don’t have to gulp down every drop!)

In future postings, we’ll share some of our quirkiest experiences tasting wine all over the world, including France, Switzerland, Germany, England, Spain, and more. But tasting at your local winery can be just as fun. 

Sip and Enjoy!

 

London Top Tips

London is one of the top vacation destinations in the world. The reasons are simple: London is a cosmopolitan destination with great hotels, regal sight-seeing, well-known history, world class shopping and, to top the lot, they have award-winning live theatre where some of the most famous stars in the world “trod the boards.”

As the UK heads toward Brexit in March 2019, London and the UK overall will still be an attractive place to vacation. The British pound will fall against the US dollar more than it has already, allowing your travel money to go further. 

Famous London locales include: Tower Bridge (shown), Tower of London, Houses of Parliament, Westminster and St. Paul’s Cathedrals, Covent Garden, Buckingham Palace, The London Eye (below) and many others. 

For visitors, London is very easy to navigate using the Underground or “Tube.” When you first look at the Underground map, it may be easy to get overwhelmed. However, the routes are colored, easy to follow, and the stops are clearly marked. You could spend a week in London and see most of the popular attractions using just a couple of tube lines: Piccadilly and Circle. Buy an Oyster card from any newsagent or store and fill it with £20 (~$25/30). Then use the card to come and go as you please. £20 would last two to three days in our experience. 

Staying in London can be expensive or cost-effective depending on the level of luxury you chose. Cheaper hotel rooms are often small and cramped however, particularly when you arrive with a gaggle of suitcases. Lower priced hotels may not offer a bathroom in your room so it’s best to check in advance. Higher end accommodations may be pricey but desirable for their proximity and ease. As with any hotel choice, location is important. We recommend staying somewhere in the “West End” near theaters and central to most of the top tourist locations.

While British food sometimes gets a “bad rap,” it is easy to find tasty, inexpensive fare (like the Yorkshire pudding lunch shown) or multi-course haute cuisine anywhere in the city. Checking sites like Trip Advisor is one simple way to plan your selections. We also use Google Maps on our iPhones to search for restaurants and cafes nearby; these are handy because they list ratings and offer quick reviews, good and bad. One of our favorite dining options is Rules. Rules is the oldest restaurant in London, but the food is tip top and not too expensive. Service is top notch also, and if you talk to your waiter, you will discover the upstairs bar where Kind Edward VII entertained his lady friends back in the early 1900’s. (He came and went through his own entrance.) 

Top Sights & Activities 

·     St. Paul’s Cathedral. This is a marvelous building and our favorite church anywhere in the world. A climb to the top of the dome is 500+ steps, but there are stops along the way to rest and recover. One of these is at the Whispering Gallery when you can stand on one side of the gallery with your friend or loved one on the opposite side and you can each hear the barest whisper. Your reward for making it to the top is a view of London like no other in the city. 

·     The London Eye. This is massive wheel situated by the river Thames is one of the top attractions in London. It makes a stellar viewing location to see the city from different perspectives. You can book ahead (link) to avoid lines and there are many options including a Champagne toast as you ride the wheel. 

·     The Tower of London. The Tower is a must see for a tour of the dungeons, museum, and million-dollar Crown Jewels. Book ahead if possible.

·     Westminster Cathedral. This ancient abbey is the main church in London, situated yards from the Houses of Parliament. The church contains the remains of the great and the good of the British nation, including writers in Poet’s Corner and scientists from Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking. 

·     Thames River Cruise. A refreshing glide across the water is a great way to see London from the venerable Thames. Cruises stop at a number of places, which allows you to explore on foot, then hop back on the next ship when you are ready. 

·     Harrods Department Store. This shopping grand dame is the be all and end all of London shopping. Even if you are not into high-end shopping, pop down to the basement level to experience the massive food halls. These boutique eateries and food/coffee/wine/tea shops will wow you with their glamorous, often affordable, choices. The cafes and restaurants are relatively expensive, but it is worth your time and money to have a coffee and “biscuits” in one of the world’s top retailers. If you visit during the holidays, you will be bowled over by the holiday options. 

·     Selfridges Department Store. This sister shopping venue was made famous again with the recent TV series. The store is on Oxford Street is a great place to explore, sample, and blow your budget. Other shopping streets such as Bond Street, Carnaby Street, and Regent Street are all close by and worth a visit. 

·     Theatre. London has some of the most affordable live theatre options in the world. You can get tickets in advance or go the “hot tix” venues to find great deals on last minute seats. 

When you visit London next time, be sure to have a pint, eat a bit of toffee pudding, and see a play. Cheers!

Paris Top Tips

Going to Paris? Research, Trip Advisor, and simply asking travel pals can net you some advice nuggets. But take it all with a grain of salt. Trip Advisor reviews tend to be geared to the budget conscious. High end travel pros may direct you to the grandest of the grand on the other hand. My advice? You typically get what you pay for—and if you don’t fork out some euros In Paris you’ll have to be happy with what you get.

Top tip therefore for Paris: ALWAYS MAKE A RESERVATION and GET TICKETS IN ADVANCE. Many foreigners still expect to wander into a venue and get a great table overlooking the Left Bank or the best room in a hotel. But Parisians—and smart travelers—know to make reservations early, get concierge help, and plan in advance for trains, plane, cars, tours, museum visits, wine tastings, cooking adventures, and more.  

Here’s a short list of some of the places and spaces I frequent while I am there. I generally follow this rule however: try one new place for every tried and true favorite. 

Breakfast: Angelina’s, Poilâne, Erik Kayser, Bread & Roses, Coffee Parisien, Frenchie to Go

Lunch: Angelina’s, Framboise, L’Avant Comptoir, Les Cocottes, Taillevent, Les Fous de L’île

Bistros or Restaurants: Bistro Paul Bert, Cuisine de Bar, Le Timbre, Ma Bourgogne, Septime, Georges, Chez Paul, Aux Lyonnaise, Le Fountaine de Mars, Le Soufflé, L’Estrapade, Chez L’Ami Jean, anything on Rue St. Dominic (Left Bank) 

Medium-Priced Hotels: Lyric Hotel, Hotel du Louvre, Hotel Langlois, New Orient Hotel, Hotel Beaubourg, Hotel Madeleine Plaza 

High-End Hotels: Four Seasons Hotel George V, Hotel Le Six, Hotel Luxembourg Parc, The Ritz, Hotel Plaza Athénée, Mandarin Oriental, Le Bristol Paris, The Peninsula Paris, Le Meurice, Park Hyatt Paris (go to any of these for an aperitif to “live the life” if you can’t afford to stay overnight)

Apartment Rentals: parisaddress.com, parisstay.com, parisvacationapartments.com, vrbo.com 

Museum Must-Sees: Louvre, Orsay, Pompidou, Grand Palais, Petite Palais, Rodin, Carnavalet, Pantheon

Walks: Paris-Walks, Discover Walks, New Paris Tours, Hidden Paris, CityFreeTour

Sights: Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Louvre, Champs-Élysée, Arc de Triomphe, Luxembourg Gardens, Marais, Catacombs, Palais Garnier, Versailles 

Shopping: Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, Le Bon Marché, shops along Rue Saint-Honoré, Saint-Germain-des-Prés and any place on the Left Bank. Also Daiwali--my fav scarf store

Street Markets: Rue Cler, Raspail, Mouffetard, Bastille, Montorgueil