Without hesitating, nearly a year in advance, I signed up for an ACE CAMPS learning vacation that promised a week in Provence, staying in Julia Child’s home, cooking recipes inspired by the famous cookbook author and potentially hitting up some of her well traveled haunts as we explored the region. As I’d never been to the South of France before and am a huge Julia Child fan, I was all in.
If you haven’t heard of ACE CAMPS travel, it is a company out of Canada that offers small group, mostly educational vacations to interesting spots all over the globe. Their offerings are highly fascinating, unusual, centered around one theme or activity and a great way to travel alone but not be alone, with a friend or even to book out the entire trip as a family affair — as one family did for a second week at Julia’s house, and i thought what a great idea!
ACE trips are small group tours — we were five women and a chef/guide, the maximum that could fit in Julia’s house with shared accommodations. The itinerary was a good balance between far reaching tourist activities and cooking. After the first day of traveling around by car, it became clear that this trip had been planned by somebody back in Canada who wasn’t terribly familiar with the logistics of the local surroundings. The good news was, we discussed it over dinner that evening and after one phone call back to the main office, the group quickly agreed to change things up a bit picking out items from the original itinerary that seemed do-able, mixed with suggestions from our own research on the area. Everything we added to the itinerary was cost covered by the things we removed, the wine & food flowed throughout and all ‘n all, we had a great time — I think made easier by the fact these trips attract like-minded creative types. The head office just wanted us to be happy (this was a first time itinerary so learnings to be had) and our guide was endlessly amenable. She cooked amazing breakfasts each morning, cleaned up afterwards, planned and taught hands-on cooking classes every other day resulting in fabulous dinners, drove us around everywhere (not an easy feat if you’ve ever driven in the South of France) and handled all the details. Although on the costly side, I wouldn’t hesitate to take another of these vacations — indigo dying in Japan anyone?
So let’s talk Provence — Round-abouts abound and people drive like maniacs. I don’t know how people found their way around before GPS (even with it, we got lost more often than I care to admit), not to mention everything is hidden and if you don’t know about something, you’re unlikely to just stumble across it. Made me glad, I was traveling in a group, actually, and that we had the internet and GPS to help us find some good stuff.
Julia Child’s Home — Known as La Pitchoune, Julia vacationed here with her husband Paul and amazing a-list of guests rolling in and out on a regular basis. The 1500 square foot, 3 bedroom, quintessentially French cottage was built on the property of their friend and fellow cookbook author, Simone Beck. The Child’s visited often over a 20 year period up until the time of Paul’s convalescence in the 80’s. A few years ago, the property was purchased by a Smith College alum (where Julia attended) who turned it into a vacation rental and even runs her own cooking school out of the house — not associated with ACE CAMP.
Julia’s kitchen remains exactly as it was with all the original cooking instruments lining the pegboard walls, while the rest of the place was lovingly updated at some point along the way. On the coffee table is a little black binder with Paul’s sketched house plans that show the slight differences from then ’til now, detailed instructions on how to work everything in the house, and lists of where to go in the area to purchase just about anything complete with Julia’s opinions and notes on each, circa 1970. Adorning the mantle is a photo of her and Paul who have to be the cutest couple in the history of love.
Best Home Decor Shop — With designers amongst us, we were constantly on the hunt for great shopping. And I think we found what may be my favorite shop of all time in the little town of Mougins. Called Envers Du Decor, it’s a mother daughter affair with the most beautiful country French style furnishings & accessories you have ever seen. We all purchased something and one interior designer even arranged to ship a host of objects back to her studio in Chicago. I would go back just to shop here, if nothing else.
Eat the Socca — a local street food found at markets throughout the region made from chickpea flour and water, cooked on a flat griddle and dusted with sea salt. It is supremely simple and delicious! We found the best at the market in Valbonne (located just at the base of the stairs on the way up to the parking lot). It’s surprising that something as good as this hasn’t taken off in other parts of the world as a healthy treat — which just goes to show, you’ve got to travel to find the good stuff.
One Michelin Star — there are probably many Michelin starred restaurants in the area but one great original itinerary item I was thankful for, was dinner at Restaurant Lou Cigalon (an old-time restaurant recently taken over by a new chef). Just one year in and already star-adorned at the time we dined, the restaurant has just a handful of tables in a charming stone building along the main road in Valbonne. We dined in private and had a tour of the kitchen afterwards — up a narrow and winding staircase, clean as clean can be, no freezer, only a tiny refrigerator and a single chef for the evening. The food was amazing as were the local wines.
Art & Architecture — located just outside the fortified and uber-touristy village of Saint Paul de Vance is Foundation du Maeght. A visit here was our addition to the itinerary and the highlight of the trip from a culture perspective. A mid-century, architecture dream come true with a sculpture garden by Miro, modern artworks and views to die for stretching all the way to the sea. This is a true treasure not to be missed!
Wine Tasting — We had two completely different wine tasting experiences complements of ACE CAMP planning. One, a tiny little family run vineyard producing a few thousand bottles a year complete with hand drawn labels by one of the brothers. High up in the St. Jeannet hills, Vignoble Rasse is a chance to taste wines made from the ancient technique of sun aging. The six of us sat around the matriarch of this family run operation, trying one wine after another with healthy pours, while listening to stories about each vintage all while overlooking the hills of vines as far as the eye could see.
Our second experience was a large scale winery that by contrast produces millions of bottles a year, Chateau de Berne in Lorgues — a commercial winery with a Chalet & Relais hotel & spa, a restaurant, a mammoth gift shop and regular tours & festivals on the property to keep the tourists coming throughout the year. But to our surprise, we received a great tutorial on how to taste wines, what notes were what and the signature rosé wines weren’t half bad. Their bottles, a patented square design, are beautiful and I may have one that I now use as a water bottle with a little glass stopper, since polishing off the original contents.
Vacherin Mont d’Or — cheese glorious cheese! This buttery and oh so velvety cheese is only in season a few months of the year starting in November. Actually Swiss by origin, our guide made sure we were well stocked in the house at all times. I think we went through at least 4 of the small rounds in their little spruce boxes (and I may have polished off another on my own in London the following week). If you’re lucky, Murray’s cheese shop in NYC may have some available if in season but it will cost you.
This, my friends, is how I prepare for a trip. Pins, maps, lists, more lists, spread sheets. I do my research. Make a plan. And then execute — albeit sometimes completely differently than planned. But for me, researching and planning is half the fun!
For this trip, I pretty much skipped the hotel research and requested bookings at two places I had pinned in my “one day” file figuring whichever could accommodate me would be the right place. That place was Santa Clara 1728, a small, 6 room, boutique hotel beautiful beyond compare — if minimalism is your thing (it’s mine but I know not for everyone).Pricier than my other option (and indeed pricier than many accommodations in a very affordable city), I was willing to take the plunge. Just look at that view! That bathtub! That dining room! In addition to all that unparalleled beauty here is what you get:
- An incredibly comfortable bed with a view, made with the most luxurious, crisp white linens. You won’t want to get out from between the sheets each day, but do . . .
- The best reason to get out of bed in the morning, has got to be the hotel breakfast. Normally I don’t advocate eating in the hotel but here my friends — do not miss breakfast! A multi-course affair served at a 20 foot common table: yogurt with homemade granola, fresh pressed juice — a different combination each day, fresh baked bread (honestly the best bread ever!) with your choice of cheese, jam, butter, curds or all of the above, a savory egg dish, followed by a fresh fruit course.
- The most beautiful collection of wares to eat and drink from. I was so taken I immediately researched the brands and ordered a teapot, drinking glasses and dishes for my own home.
- Free airport transfers in both directions. I love not having to worry about transport when i arrive in a foreign city.
- Home made cakes and savories each afternoon along with wine, tea or coffee as desired from the help yourself pantry. It can even substitute for a light dinner if need be — and indeed one night, a piece of lasagna followed by a slice of almond cake was just what the doctor ordered instead of a night out.
- A charming garden to read, chat, eat or just relax in.
- Kind owners who live upstairs with their family and promote a “my house is your house” type atmosphere.
- This is Europe — no AC at the inn. Which should have been OK for a late October visit except it was unseasonably warm with 97% humidity when I arrived. The rooms all have ample french windows for fresh air, but no cross ventilation. Copious amounts of raw wood in the rooms added to the humidity lingering. I would think high summer might be quite challenging.
- If you want to leave those windows open at night to take advantage of the fresh air, be warned there is an event venue across the street (which amounts to two car widths away) that can be quite loud. Two of five nights had very loud events, including a wedding that went until 4:30 AM. Even closing the sound proof windows and wooden shutters didn’t block out the loud music and booming PA system — and only resulted in a very hot room.
- Two days a week, the largest flea market in Lisbon sets up on the streets of the neighborhood. Set up starts around 5:30 AM meaning once again, noise. The neighborhood becomes impassible other than by foot on those days until late afternoon.
- The rooms are natural light filled during the day but artificial lighting is as minimal as the design. Most are narrow spot lights, soft floor lights or otherwise non-existent. You’ll find yourself showering in the dark, struggling to put make up on (luckily I had brought a lighted mirror just by happenstance which turned out to be a godsend). You can bathe by candlelight if you supply your own matches.
- When I’m paying double the going rate to stay in luxury, I expect impeccable service. For the most part I would say the service was good, the small staff friendly. But something felt off to me in this area. Just little things that struck me again and again but were easy enough to ignore as I’m pretty self-sufficient. However, when at breakfast on my 5th day, I heard the guest relations girl telling new arrivals how they offer a day trip to Sintra with a lunch stop along the beach to guests staying more than 3 days, I was floored. Nobody offered any day trips to me.
Depending upon your budget and preferences, you may wish to check out The Lisboans. Well designed and appointed apartments that are more centrally located and offer a charming breakfast service of their own — a bag of fresh goodies left on your doorknob each morning — soon to be a part of a larger complex including a shop, restaurant and grocery. But as I said, Lisbon is a very affordable city and there are a plethora of lovely and surprisingly affordable accommodations to choose from all over town.
I tried not to make this vacation all about food for a change. Although a girl has got to eat! With the ample morning meal, I opted for just a small afternoon snack each day instead of lunch — more of that fantastic bread swiped from the breakfast table, a couple of egg tarts (don’t be fooled they are heavy little suckers) and one day, a chocolate sorbetto that might just be one of the best things I have ever eaten in my life.Thanks to my research I headed straight to a tiny little coffee/chocolate shop in Principe Real called Bettina & Niccolo (Rua da Escola politécnica 4). A place i easily would have passed by without having read about it first. Research pays! Imagine my surprise when I saw their chocolate was the same single origin chocolate from a small maker in Africa (turns out a previous Portuguese territory) that I had profiled back in 2013 here. They put that chocolate to good use with an entire chocolate menu. But trust me, order the sorbet. Somehow this made to order frozen concoction was both cool and warm at the same time. Incredibly rich but not overly sweet. For an afternoon treat on my final day it was between here and nearby Nannarella Gelati (another research find, seconded by my hotel staff). But I think I made the right choice!
From sorbet heaven I walked down the street (also downhill — well planned indeed!) towards downtown, stopping and shopping through a series of neighborhoods along the way. A nice stroll, I wouldn’t say the shopping is great but you will definitely find things to look at if not buy. Here’s just a handful of stores I can suggest:
Equador Chcolate Shop
Rue da Misericordia 72 — from their main shop in Porto these chocolate bars are filled with flavorful ganache inspired by local flavors (Port Wine, Cherry Ginja, etc…) and come beautifully wrapped. They were my gift of choice for friends and co-workers. And that white chocolate passion fruit combo is the bomb!
- Mini by Luna, Rua Dom Pedro V 74 — a sweet clothing, homewares and baby boutique mix with both local and international brands alike. I bought a recycled blanket from Japan (I’m a big advocate – if you see it, like it, buy it regardless of origin)
- Fabrica Features, Rua Garret 83 — on the 5th floor in the heart of Chiado above Benetton of all places, is this little design shop with a graphic leaning, specializing in Portuguese goods. It felt akin to a small, museum gift shop.
- A Vida Portuguesa, Rua da Anchieta 11 — with stores dotted around the city, it’s like a general store of all things Portuguese. Great for gifts and souvenirs from food to baskets to books and more . . .
- +351 Designed in Lisbon, Rua da Anchieta 7 – a local label of casual t-shirts and beach inspired clothing mostly for men but easily unisex.
- Teresa Pavao, Rua de São João da Praça 120 — I found out about this artisan from the one fine dining establishment I went to during my stay. Every single diner inquired about the beautiful tiles and dishes the food was served on. Locally made, wonderfully minimal and modern ceramics with the workshop right in the Alfama district. (Closed Mondays)
The meal served on Teresa’s dishes at a little place called Leopold was phenomenal. An eight course tasting menu (plus a special treat) created in an open kitchen before your eyes from local ingredients. The restaurant is all of 4 tables, including a 10 seat chef’s table — making it easy for singles to partake. Heavily umami leaning thanks to an abundance of seaweed, each course was better than the last. The beef was the most tender I have ever, ever had. The mushroom broth with the fish — you’ll want to lick the plate. We were a collection of Brits, Americans, Italians and one Singaporian all enjoying the meal together. I would say the locals don’t know what they are missing out on. Sublime!
Lastly, what’s a vacation without a little pizza. Just down the hill from the hotel along the river (and often a cruise ship) is a nice little pizza joint with authentic Italian thin crust pizza of the knife and fork variety. The place gets mighty busy so be prepared for a wait. Restaurante Casanova, Av Infante Dom Henrique Loja
An absolutely beautiful city — Lisboa, Portugal. That is without doubt. Viewpoints galore overlooking red roofed buildings, the Tagus River — a river so wide it feels more like a lake or even the sea — hills and more hills, ancient architecture, cobblestone streets, tiled buildings, old fashion street cars . . . everything you would expect from a picturesque European city. And it’s small — just 800,000 population (similar to San Francisco) in it’s city center so easy to absorb. It’s for now, affordable as far as European cities go which makes it a hot destination. And that is where the city lost me just a bit. Even in late October, it was full of tourists. And when i say full — I mean everywhere, tourists walking without regard, back pack laden, down every street, every alley, speaking every language. I began to wonder if it was possible to have an authentic Lisboan experience. And I wondered even more what it must be like at the height of summer tourism season — my guess is a place i wouldn’t enjoy very much.
Not to say that I didn’t partake in tourist activities. Of course I did. The first thing I did after a quick shower was hop a Tuk Tuk for a tour around the old part of the city to get acclimated to the area where I was staying. Tuk Tuks are an easy way to get around the most hilly parts of the city and the drivers are well versed in history. So a quick hour or two gives you the basics. I did learn from my driver that what started as a single company with 9 Tuk Tuks a few years back, is now a competitive business of hundreds of Tuks Tuks vying for parking spots at all the best viewpoints and jamming the narrow streets all over the city. I even witnessed a Tuk Tuk robbery where a motorcycle wizzed between lanes of stopped traffic reaching into Tuk Tuks taking driver’s money as they went. When tourism is high so, unfortunately, is theft.
I also scheduled a food tour for my first afternoon. Often one of my favorite type of tours in any city, this one did not disappoint. And to be honest, I would never have known where to go in this city for authentic food just walking up and down the streets. To me, everything looked touristy in Alfama, a neighborhood where throngs of tourists were wandering the streets, souvenir shops abound and little old ladies sell low quality Cherry Liqueur (Ginja) off card tables down every alley. But Ruthy (pictured above) and her husband, guides extraordinaire, took our small group of six to a series of tiny little, family owned businesses tucked away in places I never would have found where we tasted cod delights, sardines, olive oils, cheese, sausage, desserts, coffee, beer, wine, quality cherry liqueur — I was happy, full and drunk for most of the afternoon. I promised Ruthy I wouldn’t share her secrets but I will say this — take the tour and indulge your inner tourist in a good way. You’ll also get a healthy dose of sights and history along the way.
I was in Lisbon for a conference and so happened upon my most favorite of places by happenstance — The Foundation Champalimaud. I liken it to the Portuguese Salk Institute. A biomedical research facility, housed in a modern architectural setting along the river at the far end of Belem where most tourists don’t venture. Not only is the building beautiful, with a stunning central water feature, there is a nearly hidden, small amphitheater overlooking the river that is as spiritual a space as I have come across in quite some time. I could have sat in that amphitheater for hours (and very nearly did), soaking up the sun, taking in the view and contemplating life. Bring a picnic or enjoy lunch next door on the balcony of the center’s cafeteria which is open to the public.
From here you are well poised to take in the Belem sights with the rest of the tourists — a jaunty walk along the river back towards town and away from the sun thankfully, takes you past the Belem Tower, The Monument to the Discoveries, The Maat (another stunning piece of modern architecture with a roof viewpoint not to be missed), The 25th of April Bridge, The Jerónimos Monastery. Then cross over the roadway to the center of Belem where there is an odd collection of museums on various subjects and the famous Pasteis de Belem — the original home of Portuguese egg tarts which are honestly, worth the hype and the wait in line!
If only the sun weren’t cutting the artwork in half for better viewing. But if you like what you see, these tiles are part of a collection available for sale at a little family run shop whose grandfather bought out stock of closing tile factories in the 1960’s giving them a collection of locally made tiles that are simply beautiful and a far cry from the typical reproductions sold in every souvenir and antique shop in the city.
Like always, I try to find the things that are a bit more unique in a city as I am not a good or typical tourist by nature. I don’t know if I succeeded in Lisbon or if it’s even possible. But I’m happy to share more about my finds in this beautiful city here and in subsequent posts.
Eco Tuck Tours, Lisboa
Several standard 2-3 hour tours available or custom tours for $60/hr
Easy to book online in advance (recommended) or hire a Tuk Tuk in any major tourist venue
Treasures of Lisboa, Food Tours
Book through Ruthy’s website directly (link above) or on Air BnB Experiences
Twice Daily, Mon-Sat $67 US
Champalimaud Foundation/Center for the Unknown
Avenida Brasília,1400-038 Belem, Lisbon
MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture & Technology)
Av. Brasília, Central Tejo 1300-598 Belém, Lisboa
11-7 PM except Tuesday
Cortico & Netos, Tile Store
Calçada de Santo André 66, 1100-022 Alfama, Lisboa,
Monday to Saturday from 10h-13h / 14h-19h
Tile Rooster Artwork: Down a little alley about a block east of Pasteis De Belem
Pasteis De Belem
Rua de Belém, 1300 – 085 Belem, Lisboa
Open Daily from 8-11
Everybody who sees the window shade in my office wants to know more about where I got it. I’ve shared the source before but something about seeing it in context makes all the difference. A stunning solution for hiding a most unpleasant view. And while shown above at night, during the day, back lit by the window, it glows like a light box — pretty fantastic I have to admit.
You too can install window shades or make murals, wall hangings, pillows, lamp shades, ceramic tiles and more from a plethora of images available at Surface View out of London. They hold the rights to images from many of the worlds great museums like London’s National Gallery the home of my classic image, “The Surprise”.
You can choose from one of their standard sized solutions (a slightly cheaper option) or customize to nearly any size, crop and finish. It’s really quite simple using their online design tool and although they say 14 day delivery, be prepared for a slightly longer production time frame (up to 4 weeks) if you’re overseas.
There you go. Happy Shopping!
Seems our friends over the pond are onto something that is brilliant . . . Champagne Pops! What could be better on a hot summer eve than Champagne in push up popsicle form? I want to have a party right now and serve these yummy treats. 37% alcohol, 57 calories and all natural ingredients.
I absolutely love these. Sadly they are only available only in the UK.
If you happen to be in Paris this weekend definitely make an appointment to go see the home and painting studio of Le Corbusier. And just in case you can’t make it there, here is a sneak peak how this master lived:
Saturdays only. For reservations, contact Fondation Le Corbusier
Sometimes the best point of view on a place comes from somewhere else. This guidebook to shopping in Paris was written by an Australian fashion blogger based in Melbourne and as far as I can tell, Australia is the only place you can get your hands on a copy. I found mine not in Melbourne, but Hobart at the State Cinema Bookstore (AUS $39).
What I love about this book is it gives well researched and proven itineraries for day long shopping excursions around different neighborhoods and includes opening hours, metro stops, web addresses, handy tips & reviews from a trusted voice and nearby distractions like cafes, gardens or even manicure spots. All in a well designed package complete with photos, maps, illustrations and a sense of humor. Exactly what every girl wants.
I’m madly devouring the contents of this book. Who knows, maybe a trip to Paris is in my future . . .
It meanders over the lake just a few feet above the water like a ribbon of granite and bronze with no apparent structure holding it in place — the setting for a simple amble across the water. From head on it appears to be a solid form while from the side, the individual balusters become apparent allowing for fragmented views of those passing over and the landscape beyond. It’s shear perfection. Beautifully conceived. Painstakingly detailed. And minimal to its core. I would expect nothing less from my most favorite of architects, John Pawson. Bravo!
Royal Botanic Gardens
Kew (10 miles from central London)
Open Daily 9:30 AM til dusk