Day on the Right Bank

Paris, France

Paris is well known for its patisseries, those spots where Parisians start their days sipping espressos and nibbling on croissants. This morning, we set out to experience a new patisserie – one pushing the creative boundaries. What we found was La Patisserie des Reves, where delectable goods are showcased under futuristic bell jars.

Pick out what you’d like and a complex pulley system gives you access to some mind-blowingly delicious treats.

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Ready to start seeing the sights, we made our way over to Musee Rodin. The Thinker was understandably a mob scene but we did have other outdoor works, including Gates of Hell, to ourselves (at least for a few minutes).

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From there, it was onward to Les Arts Décoratifs for a crash course in French furniture and design. These chairs were my favorite.

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We had planned on getting lunch at Café Marly but the outdoor seating was without shade – and on this almost summer-like day, we didn’t feel like baking. Instead, we spotted a Paul vendor, grabbed sandwiches and a park bench. Much better.

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Taking advantage of our time on the Right Bank, we hit up the Champ Elysess and the Place Vosages. We poked our head into a few shops and Char spotted this awesome truck at Goyard (unfortunately, think it was like 14000 euros).

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We wanted to grab a drink at the Ritz but were running late so headed back to the hotel. After last night’s dinner fail, the stakes were high. But Itineraires, a place recently reviewed by the Times, came through. The best dish was this mushroom risotto – covered in paper-thin sliced shrooms.

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Whoa.

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Birthday in St. Germain

Paris, France

The buzzing alarm wasn’t the most pleasant wake up call this morning but at least we got a decent amount of sleep. It was still dark as we made our way to the St. Pancras train station for our 7:22 am Eurostar to Paris. We watched the countryside whiz by and figured out our game plan before arriving around 11 am.

From Paris Nord, we took the RER – essentially the Parisian commuter rail – to St. Germain, a leafy neighborhood on the Left Bank. Our hotel, Hotel le Petite Paris lived up its name. While adequately trendy and modern, the rooms were tiny. Not that we intended on spending much time in ours. Paris beckoned.

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We threw our bags down and made a beeline for the boulevard. Char had, of course, compiled a complete list of stores that necessitated a visit, including Diptyque for some wild scented candles. There were lots of distractions along the way, including a tea and pain au chocolate at the iconic Café du Flore.

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My only request was that we stop at Deyrolle, a shop dating to 1831 and stuffed (literally) with taxidermied animals and all sorts of other strange curiosities. Char vetoed the stuffed anteater but we did find a set of old French gardening prints that we decided were coming home with us.

Being the foodies we are, we knew that we couldn’t come to Paris without eating at St. Germain at Le Comptoir, the buzzing bistro that has drawn accolades since opening a few years ago. The locals know it simply as Le Comptoir. Whatever you want to call it, we had heard much about celebrated chef Yves Camdeborde and decided to try our luck at snagging a seat for a late lunch. (We were told dinner reservations, and even prime lunch times, booked up weeks in advance.)

As luck would have it, a table had just gotten up when we arrived. We were handed menus, promptly realized that they were only available in French and our waiter spoke no English. Here’s what happens when you order a dish solely based on how the name and description sound like.

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No, I’m still not really sure what it was. Thinly sliced beef salad, maybe? Was it delicious? Absolutely.

Our grand tour continued as we crossed the river for a visit to Saint Chapelle. There are hundreds of beautiful churches in Paris but Saint Chapelle was Char’s favorite – plus, I’d never been. The line snaked outside but the worth was wait it. On this sunny day, the stained glass windows of this church (built in 1248) exploded with color.

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On our way back, we made a quick stop at the granddaddy of churches, Notre Dame, which took nearly 200 years to be completed. I’ll spare the history lesson except to say that the scale of this immense structure is difficult to put in perspective.

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Our walk home conveniently took us through Jardin du Luxembourg, where we stopped for a couple minutes on those iconic loungers.

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Back at the hotel, we rested, showered and changed for a big night out to celebrate Charlotte’s birthday. I’d read about a new bespoke cocktail bar called Prescription which had amazingly creative (and delicious) drinks. From there, the plan had been to get dinner at Huitrerie Regis, a well-reviewed oyster place.

Unfortunately, when we arrived, the lights at Huitrerie were out. Sure enough, closed. Oops. We made a quick change of course and settled into an outdoor table at a neighboring French bistro. Char ordered some oysters and a salad with bucheron cheese – and my steak frites was excellent. Crisis averted, day saved.

Proper British brunch in London

London, England

It’s been about two years since our last trip to Europe, so in celebration of Charlotte’s birthday, we decided a visit was in order this month. Deciding on our destination was actually quite easy – France in the fall. But in researching airfare, we saw that tickets into London were a bit cheaper, plus, Char’s friend Michelle and boyfriend, Will, offered to put us up. So, that’s where we found ourselves on this crisp Sunday morning.

We took the Picadilly Line to Gloucester Road and then hopped into a black cab to Michelle’s apartment. After a short nap, we headed out to check out the Clapham Junction neighborhood, with stops for Chelsea buns at Jamie Oliver’s place and a few shops.

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We hopped in Will’s convertible, took photos along the Thames and then headed over to the Garrisonfor a traditional Sunday roast. This is the British brunch, with thick cuts of prime rib, Yorkshire pudding and seasonal vegetables.

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Properly fueled, we walked through Hyde Park and made our way to Buckingham Palace.

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We self audio-guided through the Palace – Char says the highlight was Kate’s dress, which was on display and surrounded by ogling women. By the time we had left the royal grounds, late afternoon was upon us and we were pretty beat.

We returned to Michelle and Will’s place and ordered some Asian takeout. The overnight flight and time difference had us in bed relatively early. Plus, tomorrow morning we’ve got an early curtain call.

Better luck with beaches in Tavira

Lisbon, Portugal

After my fail yesterday with our trip to overly windy Ilha da Tavira, Char took control this morning to ensure our last day in Portugal would be spent on a proper beach.

And, unsurprisingly, she came through! It wasn’t clearly marked and there was a bit of a walk from the parking lot, but Praia do Barril was perfect.

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Our stomachs growling for lunch, we got back on the road en route to Lisbon. About two hours later, we dropped off the rental car at the airport and checked into adjacent the Radisson Blue.

We were tempted to head into Lisbon for dinner but deferred to burgers and beers in the Radisson’s bar. Our flight back to New York, via Philadelphia, departs at 10:35 am tomorrow.

An afternoon on Ilha da Tavira

Tavira, Portugal

After a day of lounging at the hotel, we were well rested and ready to roll this morning for the drive to our final destination on the Algarve, the town of Tavira.

It was only about 45 minutes, but not without its mishap. We had booked a room at Hotel Vila Galé Tavira – but it turns out that there were actually two Vila Galé hotels in Tavira. Who would have thought! (And, unfortunately, one was a lot nicer than the other, and we were staying at the not so nice one.)

The hotel wasn’t terrible, just a bit older and more traditional than what we typically stay at. Despite this (and perhaps most importantly), the pool was still nice.

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After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we drove and caught a ferry to Ilha da Tavira, a quaint, car-free island. The beach was beautiful but Char said it was too windy (it was) so we didn’t spend much time there.

Luckily, there was an early return ferry to the mainland, which we caught and then proceeded to catch the tail end of the setting sun from our patio.

Day of rest at Pedra dos Bicos

Albufeira, Portugal

It was nice to sleep in this morning – and also to know that we didn’t need to move on to our next hotel. (We’re averaging a new one each day, so we were happy to “settle” in for two days – it’s like a record for us.)

As part of our day of rest, we agreed to stay at the hotel and just spend time tanning at the pool and going for a walk down by the beach.

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The beach was covered in small rocks and colorful shells that Char collected.

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On our walk back, we saw these super cool lights set out by the hotel pool deck. We agreed that they would make a good addition to our (future) home patio.

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After showering up, it was back to braving the Brits for dinner.

Portugal’s prettiest beach

Albufeira, Portugal

This morning we set out on a mission – to find that elusive beach in the Algarve, the one that has made this area such a popular destination for pasty-skinned Brits in search of sun.

Armed with a map, Lonely Planet and some tips from the concierge, we hit the road under sunny skies with high hopes.

Driving through Lagos, we found it. We parked the car in a public lot, waked down a steep encampment and put down our towels. Here is was, Praia da Marinha.

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With sheer limestone cliffs, crystal clear, calm water (perfect temperature, too), we had found it. This was Portugal’s prettiest beach. We promptly agreed to spend the day here.

As the late afternoon approached, we continued onward to Albufeira, the next stop on our road trip down the southern coast. Our destination was the Hotel Aqua Pedra dos Bicos, a stylish hotel with sweeping ocean views and massive room numbers.

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It turns out Albufeira the town isn’t much – overrun by sunburned Brits. We tried our best to avoid it all but ended up watching a Manchester United football match and drinking Guinness. We tried!

Pottery and pools

Lagos, Portugal

The day started off overcast, no rain thankfully, just lots of clouds as we set off in the Opel for the cliffs of Cabo de São Vicente. Along the way, a mosaic of plates on a building bordering the road caught our eye.

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We pulled over and stepped into a massive warehouse filled to the brim with pottery of all shapes, sizes and colors. Overwhelmed, we wandered the aisles before finding a few souvenirs and gifts to take home.

Our next stop was Cabo de São Vicente, a quaint seaside town built into the hillside that is officially the southwesternmost point in Portugal. We spent an hour walking around but with the wind picking up, decided to cut our time short and get back on the road.

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It was another 45-drive to Lagos, a rapidly developing beach city, and home to our hotel, the Villa Gale Lagos. This was a sprawling hotel, with the requisite weird and trendy lobby that characterizes many of the places we decide to stay.

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Outside was a massive pool. We’re talking three or four interconnected pools and perhaps 200 chaise lounges. Thankfully, the place was practically deserted so we settled in.

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We grabbed a late lunch at a British pub a short walk down the beach – it was so good that we tried to return for dinner. Unfortunately, it was closed, and the seafood joint our hotel recommended didn’t look great (we were seated, looked at the menu and promptly walked out).

We ended at a local Italian place in town. Super casual and not particularly tasty. Oh well, you can’t win them all!

Portugal, from north to south

Sagres, Portugal

Dawn was almost magical this morning. We awoke to chirping birds outside of our window and the sun rising over rolling vineyards for as far as the eye could see.

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We fueled up on a big breakfast of eggs, toast and jam as we prepared for a day’s drive of traversing Portugal. It would be a good 6-hours from Porto south to the Algarve, our destination.

Setting out a little after 10 am, the roads returning to Porto didn’t seem nearly as treacherous. In fact, highways here in Portugal are in nothing short of perfect condition. Nicely leveled, newly paved, bright lane markers. And no cops, which meant that we watched much of the country whiz by, only stopping occasionally for gas, snacks or one of the many tolls.

(Portugal’s top-notch highway does system comes at a cost – our tolls ran us nearly 50 euros for the day.)

As we entered the Algarve, which is more broadly defined as the Southern coast of Portugal, the landscape quickly changed to a rocky coastline, akin to New England.

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Finally, we arrived in Sagres, a small town nearly at the southern tip of Portugal. Checking into our hotel, the Memmo Baleeira Hotel, we could have been in South Beach. There were lots of weird artifacts in the lobby that Lottie played around with, including these cool lights.

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We threw our stuff down in the room, grabbed a couple of beers from the minifridge and made our way to the hotel’s sprawling back lawn.

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This is what we have traveled all day for.

Sputtering into the Douro Valley

Mesao Frio, Portugal

It was another beautiful morning — sun shining, not a cloud in the sky — as we walked to a café across the street for bicas and chocolate croissants heated in a panini press (genius and dank).

After spending yesterday tasting the wines of Portugal, our plan today was to drive into the heart of the Douro Valley, the source of all of those grapes. We started by following the meandering Douro River out of Porto; as the frenetic city fell behind us, the terrain changed and we soon were surrounded on all sides by lush, terraced rolling hills of vines.

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Meanwhile, the Opel Corso was anything but impressed with the terrain. The hairpin turns, coupled with the steep climbs, had her gasping for air as our RPMs sat just underneath the red line. Unsurprisingly, the check engine light soon came on. Charlotte turned to me.

“What if we break down?” she asked. Looking around at an entire area that was named a Unesco World Heritage site in 2001 — just one sweeping vista after the next — my response was simple: “Think we’ll survive.”

And we did, soon turning onto the long driveway of Solar de Rede — a pousada (state-run) hotel just outside of a town called Mesão Frio — that was housed in an historic old building with impressive views all around.

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Our huge room was a short walk from the main lodge, set among the hotel’s own vineyard. From our porch, we could see an occasional train chugging alongside the river; in the distance, a church bell marked the hour. (Note also the twin beds provided in a “double room” — this is truly a European phenomenon.)

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We spent the rest of the day at the pool, soaking in the 90-degree temperatures and picking our lunch — a handful of free Valencia oranges — right from the trees. As the sun began to set at around 9 p.m., we cracked open a bottle of red wine, snacked on some jamón and took it all in.

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We both agreed that, indeed, this wouldn’t be a terrible place for the car to die.