A visit to rural Burgundy

Those of you who follow my Instagram may have noticed that I recently went away for a short visit to the countryside. More specifically, I went to a tiny village called Les Deschamps in Burgundy, one of France’s winemaking regions. It’s about a half-hour away from the smallish city of Mâcon in east-central France, which itself is 70 km north of Lyon and 150 km west of Geneva, Switzerland. This is where my friend Yukiko (the one who taught me how to make that amazing ramen dish) and her boyfriend were staying temporarily while housesitting for some friends. As the first blossoms appeared on the trees and a definite hint of springtime began to infuse the air, they invited me (with the owners’ blessing) to come and spend a few days with them surrounded by nature. Living as I do in a city and with zero green things visible through my windows, I could not resist!

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You will undoubtedly remember how much I love traveling in Europe by train (less so in the US, but that’s a story for another time). The ride from Paris to the Mâcon-Loché TGV station took only an hour and a half, the perfect amount of time to read a few articles in the new Véganes magazine. My friends then picked me up and we headed for the house.

I was captivated by both the old-timey charm and immenseness of this home, which is composed of two wings each with two or three storeys and an uncountable number of rooms. For someone like me who lives in a tiny city apartment (frustratingly without even a closet or storage space), it was somewhat disorienting, but in a thrilling way, to suddenly be surrounded by so much space. For perspective, my entire apartment could have easily fit into this house’s combined kitchen and dining room. It was a nice change.

The owners are in the process of preparing the house for sale, so I of course began daydreaming of what it would be like to live there.

Here are a few shots of the exterior.

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I believe the plaque in the above photo means that one of the previous owners of the home won 1st prize for their Beaujolais. About 95% of the land in and surrounding this village is covered with grapevines. The rest is covered by roads and random grassy plots. You’ll see the vineyards in a moment—first, let’s take a peek inside the house. I didn’t take too many photos indoors, but here are a few of the details that caught my attention.

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A beautiful old rug…

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The guest bedroom I occupied, with its beautiful ceramic tile floor and a spacious built-in armoire that took my breath away (remember, I’m someone without a closet at home). All these vintagey details made my heart sing.

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Sésame would have liked this regal chair, which has a certain air de famille. He’s not big on traveling (or even leaving the apartment at all), so I left him in Paris with a mountain of dry food and a friend coming to check on him.

During the house tour, we took a quick look into the house’s attic, which was suitably timeworn and full of antique things. It’s mainly a finished attic, with a series of rooms that seem to have been used as bedrooms at some point. The patterns of the fading, crumbling wallpaper suggest that this continued up until about the 1950s or 60s. Indeed, stepping into this attic felt like entering a time portal back to another era. I think that if I were to buy this house, I might leave these attic rooms as is, to preserve this window onto the past.

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If these walls could talk, I wonder what tales they could tell, and how many years of life they have seen…

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After a very delicious lunch of spinach soup seasoned with cumin and accompanied by potato salad, green salad, whole-wheat bread and various homemade tapenades, we set out for a walk among the vineyards.

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The overcast sky and misty hilltops created an interestingly ominous mood, as if nature were not quite ready to let us enjoy this early bit of springtime. The moors of Wuthering Heights somehow came to mind, and rambling along the paths in spite of the slight chill in the air and the threat of rainfall became a defiant act of adventure.

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We happened upon this friendly horse in a nearby field. We weren’t sure what she was being kept “for” and speculated that it could be to pull a plow through the vineyards, but a neighbor later told us that tractors can do all of that these days, even on steep slopes.

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A bit later, the sun decided to poke its face through the clouds for a bit, allowing me to get some warmer shots.

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Looking back at the entrance to the tiny village, which is composed of only some 20 houses. You no sooner enter it by car than you go past the “leaving” sign, which is the same sign with a red cross through it.

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To my great delight, this house (which seems also to be a winery) had a miniature replica of it out in front, complete with real terra-cotta steps and the frame for a gate without any gate. The only difference between the two is the addition over the garage on the life-size one. Can you guess what this little house was doing there?

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That’s right! It’s the mailbox.

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I now have a new reason for not being able to wait to have a house of my own: to create a miniature version of it!

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Strolling down the village’s mostly empty streets, we happened upon this sociable orange fellow. Shortly after shooting us this rather grumpy look, he flopped down on his back to show his readiness for belly scratches.

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The next day, after spending the afternoon working on our respective freelance projects, we began to prepare the evening meal. A neighbor was invited to join us, so we wanted to be sure it was extra-nice. Yukiko made pasta with a homemade red sauce and a vegetable soup for the starter (they were divine).

No ideas for dessert that matched our somewhat limited ingredient supplies were coming easily to mind. But we did have a lot of bananas, and I recalled a photo of a dessert with sliced bananas on top that I had seen somewhere in the meanders of social media. Chocolate was another thought, since we had cocoa powder, so we decided to combine the two. It was something of an experiment, as I had never actually baked anything with bananas in it like this, and we were also working with certain restrictions because we had less sugar than we initially thought and no vanilla. But the main ingredients were there (whole-wheat flour, baking powder, cocoa powder and oil), and with the addition of some chocolate chips, the outward appearance at least was quite promising.

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To our relief and satisfaction, it tasted pretty good too! The banana chunks inside the cake (barely visible in this shot) helped add sweetness and are probably a good solution for using even less sugar. I may recreate the recipe for a future post if people are interested.

We asked the neighbor about the area’s special attractions, to see if there was something we could do the next day before my departure. He told us there was a wine museum nearby, but also mentioned a rocky hill where some prehistoric remains had been discovered in the late 19th century. There was a small museum of prehistory there, he said, and a hiking trail. As we’d all been on winery tours before and are not much into wine these days, the choice was clear: the prehistory place!

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La Roche de Solutré is located in the municipality of Solutré-Pouilly (you might recognize the second part of this name—this is indeed where Pouilly-Fuissé wine is produced). The limestone escarpment visible for miles around is famous both as a geological curiosity and as the site where, in 1866, vestiges of Upper Paleolithic homes, tombs and animal bones had been discovered. The site has even lent its name to a span of time in the Paleolithic era, the Solutrean period, and a controversial hypothesis suggesting that Europeans, not Native Americans crossing over from Asia, were in fact the first humans to settle the Americas (!).

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At the foot of the rock, built right into the hill, is a small bunker-like museum of prehistory. Staffed by a very pleasant receptionist, the museum offers a number of artefacts inside glass cases, an audioguide in several languages and a series of short films showing excavations over the years. There’s an outdoor area behind the museum where you can stroll among some orchids if you’re there at the right time of year (we weren’t, but we didn’t mind).

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After the museum, we set off on the hike up to the top of the rock. As we climbed higher and higher, we enjoyed increasingly beautiful views of the countryside below, all vineyards and cute houses. They looked more and more like a toy train town as we ascended. These photos sadly do them no type of justice.

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I’m such a city-dweller that I cannot even guess at the names of the plants we walked among as we made our way up and down the paths, but the air was scented with a lush fragrance of fresh balsamy vegetation that did me a world of good.

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The view from the very top, more or less. So beautiful. The top is as pointy and slippery as it looks from down below, by the way, and is actually a bit dangerous if someone is not completely looking where they’re going (a sheer drop on one side, and no guard rails on this kind of thing). Don’t let that stop you from visiting, but be a bit careful if you do.

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Solutré is also famous because former French president François Mitterrand (1916-1996) made a vow at the end of the Second World War to climb it once every year, around Pentecost, and kept this promise from 1946 until 1995, the year before his death. The hard-to-read monument above testifies to his pilgrimages. In this video, you can see some parts of his 1976 climb. Note that he is climbing the very steep path; today there is also a longer, much more gradually ascending path for less avid hikers and those of us who arrive without the right shoes.

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The rock viewed from another side.

Soon after we descended, it was time for me to get on another train and return to Paris, where an impatient Sésame awaited. It was a very relaxing and re-energizing little trip, exactly the kind I’ve been telling myself I should make more often. 🙂

Short days in Scandinavia

I usually spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve either in Paris or back home with my parents and sister. But this year, for something different, I went north to Denmark, where my brother is now living. To make things more interesting (and give my trip a much smaller carbon footprint), I decided to travel there and back by train rather than flying. This took me through Germany (with stops in Hamburg and Hannover), which was fun as I hadn’t been there for a few years. And as I also spent an afternoon in Malmö, Sweden (only a half-hour from Copenhagen by train), this trip took me to three countries, two of them new to me. I love this about Europe—with these relatively small nations (compared to the US), it’s so easy to cross borders and experience other cultures and languages.

Another excuse for traveling by rail was the chance to take a train that crosses the Fehmarn Belt strait by ferry! Yes, it drives right into the ferry at Puttgarden, Germany alongside the cars and patiently waits for the boat to reach Rødby, Denmark on the other shore 45 minutes later. During this time, passengers must leave the train and go up the stairs to the upper levels of the boat, where a plethora of duty-free shops and pricey food services can be found.

When you get this far north at the end of December, the days are pretty short—the sun sets at about 3:30 pm. I was hoping that it would still be somewhere in the sky for the beginning of our ferry crossing, but some technical delays meant that we couldn’t get started until around 4 pm. So my photos are a bit dark (click on them for a larger view), but for a better look you can also check out this short video that someone made in the summer.

A good share of the vacation was spent cozily on the couch, indulging in movies with my brother and his wife and kids, with candles and plenty of popcorn (this was where the mysterious Danish hygge was to be found, for me). We watched some Christmas classics, such as A Child’s Christmas in Wales and The Shop Around the Corner, and some of our childhood favorites including Coming to America and The Muppets Take Manhattan. But there was of course also a Denmark outside waiting to be discovered!

Because I was in Copenhagen right in the middle of the holidays (plus a Monday), most museums and restaurants were closed, but I did manage to stroll through the city streets and also explore a bit of Freetown Christiania, a self-proclaimed autonomous neighborhood that happens to lie within the borders of Copenhagen. One restaurant I did get to visit (twice!) is SimpleRAW, which I highly recommend. Despite its name, it does offer a cooked burger plus another cooked dish of the day (dhal, the week I was there), and hot drinks like coffee, tea and matcha latte, of which I was very glad as it really was SO COLD outside. Their raw lime cheesecake was simply divine.

The weather was gray and drizzly most of the time, but I still managed to get some fun and colorful photos. Here’s a selection.

I took one afternoon to go and explore Malmö, Sweden, which as mentioned above is only a short train ride (more trains!) to the east of Copenhagen. Trains leave in both directions several times per hour, and the cost is only around €10. I loved Malmö, a very cute smallish town with lots of old-timey charm. It didn’t hurt that it was also a nice sunny day.

Thanks to some advance planning, I managed to visit two vegan restaurants that were not closed during the holiday period. First, Lotta Love Açaí Bar, where I had—what else?—a huge açaí bowl covered with fruit, nuts and cacao nibs. And later, Vegan Bar, which is more like a restaurant with a bar in it and offers a range of super yummy burgers, including a portobello mushroom one. I also happened upon a thrift shop with lots of cute things (candleholders, clothes and dishes that would have been perfect for my food photos). It was sad, but probably also lucky, that I couldn’t buy anything due to insufficient room in my suitcase (and my apartment!).

If you ever visit Malmö, don’t miss Lilla Torg, a little square with a lamp installation that is lit both at night and during the day, but is most interesting after sunset.

We also took a day trip to Denmark’s second-largest city, Aarhus, to visit the impressive ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum. Established in 1859, it is Denmark’s oldest public art museum outside Copenhagen. It has been especially attractive to visitors since 2011, with the addition of the circular skywalk installation Your Rainbow Panorama by Icelandic-Danish artist Ólafur Elíasson. Inside, we enjoyed various exhibits on multiple floors, most of them featuring Scandinavian artists apart from a temporary exhibition devoted to works by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos.

The final excitement of my trip was the New Year’s Eve party with some friends of my brother, for which we made a huge dinner. My contributions included a spinach, red bell pepper and tomato quiche and some almond-apricot cupcakes decorated with toasted slivered almonds and edible gold dust. Everyone in the neighborhood was setting off fireworks the whole evening, but at midnight they multiplied their efforts by 10 and there was no break in the booming, crackling and colorful explosions of lights for a full 35 minutes.

Soon after that, I was back on the road (or rather, rail) again to return to Paris. I stopped for the night in Hannover, where I got to try out the highly acclaimed restaurant Hiller, and the next evening was home and reunited with Sésame, who greeted me with many kitty kisses.

Barcelona’s best and brightest

vegnews-december-2016-450x600bA few months ago, I had the chance to spend three weeks in sunny, veg-friendly Barcelona. I owe this good fortune in part to my choice of career, since in the freelance life there isn’t all that much to stop you from packing your bag and heading somewhere new—like a turtle with its shell, you really only need your laptop with you (although mine feels about as heavy and cumbersome as a person-sized turtleshell).

The most tangible result of my stay in Barcelona is the VegVacations feature I wrote for the December 2016 issue of VegNews, which has just come out. In it I describe Barcelona’s main attractions and neighborhoods and recommend some things to do and nice veg eateries to visit.

Barcelona certainly has some beautiful architecture, fascinating museums and great restaurants. But what I’ll remember most fondly, what made my stay truly meaningful, are the great people I met there. Some were locals, some expats. All were warm and welcoming individuals, each using his or her own talents to make the world a better place for people, animals or both. I’d like to introduce a few of them to you.

Petronila — organic coffee from a women’s cooperative in Guatemala 

12196263_1662468663994708_3128329899023612902_nPetronila is a lovely person in many ways, but one of her best qualities has to be her great patience. As she was my host in Barcelona, we had many opportunities for small conversations between our various comings and goings, and she handled the many gaps in my rusty Spanish with good humor. She even managed to make sense of what I said when I accidentally inserted Spanish-accented French words into my sparkling conversation. Hats off!

As we shared our backgrounds, Petronila, who comes from a coffee-growing region of Guatemala, told me about the coffee import business she was in the middle of launching: El Café de Petronila. All organic and fair-trade, her coffee is sourced from a cooperative of women coffee farmers in Guatemala, helping ensure a decent income for these rural workers. The company name Petronila chose has special significance, for it not only refers to herself but is also an homage to the grandmother for whom she was named. Below are a few photos she sent me of the coffee farmers at work. The coffee, in case you were wondering, is smooth and delectable!

Roberto — messages of hope for animals on T-shirts and billboards

dsc_0219bIt was at the Feria Vegana, Barcelona’s twice-monthly vegan fair, that I first met Roberto. It took some time before I could approach the table where he sold his screen-printed T-shirts, since quite a few people were already crowded around it when I arrived, rummaging through the stacks in search of the perfect message, color and size. When I finally pushed my way through, I understood better—these were some cool designs!

Roberto began his screen-printing business, Serigrafia Vegana, about two years ago, first selling his merchandise only at fairs and then branching out into online sales as well. Most of his designs center around the idea of animal liberation, with elegant illustrations of birds flying free and messages reappropriating traditional sayings involving animals. One such phrase is Fueron felices y comieron perdices, which literally means “They were happy and ate partridges”. Often appearing as the last line in a happy ending to a fairy tale, it is equivalent to our “And they lived happily ever after”. The updated, kinder version on Roberto’s shirts is Fueron felices y liberaron perdices (“They were happy and FREED partridges”). That’s more like it!

A native of Uruguay, Roberto has been living in Spain for 10 years but doesn’t believe in artificial borders and prefers to consider himself a citizen of the world. Fair treatment for immigrants and refugees is another cause that’s dear to his heart: one of his bestselling T-shirt designs reads Ninguna persona es ilegal (“No one is illegal”).

In spring 2016, together with three other local activists, Roberto launched the Liberación Animal Ahora project to raise awareness of animal suffering by placing billboards in the Barcelona metro. Similar display campaigns in other countries, including France this past summer and right now, have proven effective at reaching large numbers of people. Funds to rent the advertising space were raised in just 13 days through donations from people in the animal-rights community, and Canadian photojournalist and activist Jo-Anne McArthur granted the campaign the right to use a poignant image of a veal calf from her We Animals project. The billboards went up in May and the campaign was a success, bringing the plight of animals to the awareness of thousands of metro users every day.

Side note: The Feria Vegana is a fun event to visit if you happen to be in town when one’s taking place. People from the city’s vegan community bring home-made food, clothing, jewelry, soaps and other items to sell, and there’s often live music too. For those of you wanting to practice your Spanish, it’s also a nice chance to meet locals (many people also know English, and I even happened upon a French speaker there). Check their Facebook page to find out when the next one will be. In the meantime, a few photos:

Àlex — a sanctuary for abandoned and homeless cats

a_salvadorI learned about El Jardinet dels Gats, a cat sanctuary in Barcelona’s old town, on Facebook while planning my trip and immediately contacted them to arrange a day to stop by. I met with co-founder Àlex (pictured here) and Venezuelan-born volunteer Johanna, who showed me around the sanctuary and explained its history and how it operates.

El Jardinet dels Gats (Catalan for “the cats’ little garden”) is a non-profit organization founded in 2008, when the sanctuary was set up in the yard of a former kindergarten. The El Jardinet team rescues stray and abandoned cats from the street and gives them a temporary home in the garden, where they are fed and cared for by sanctuary volunteers and staff from a local veterinary clinic. At first, incoming cats can be quite wary of humans (with good reason!) and shy away or hide, but most eventually warm up to their caregivers and end up becoming socialized. After some time in the garden, cats move on to foster homes, where they continue to be socialized until they are adopted. The non-profit occasionally holds special events to raise funds and adoption fairs to help find new families for its cats.

Since its founding, El Jardinet dels Gats has rescued and saved over 1,000 cats. If you’d like to make a donation to help them help more cats, please visit this page. The cats thank you!

Tim and Julien — eco-friendly business reviews and sustainable massage services

15032838_1114068485336895_6601207520169929573_nI met Tim online prior to my trip as I searched for interesting veggie-type people to hang out with, and got together with him and his partner Julien one evening for dinner at the amazing Rasoterra. As we chatted and sampled each other’s dishes, they told me their story. They moved to Barcelona two years ago (Tim from Belgium and Julien from France) and have been loving it there, thanks in large part to the city’s relaxed pace. Soon after their relocation, Tim founded Good Goal, an independent site offering unbiased reviews of eco-friendly, sustainable and community-oriented places in major cities around Europe. These include craft beer makers, vegan and slow food restaurants, hidden green spots, specialty coffee bars, slow fashion shops and green hotels. The site also features a blog, and Tim has recently launched a series of pocket guides to sustainable options in various cities.

Julien runs a massage institute, Under Pressure Massage, with a sustainable, eco-friendly approach, using only organic massage oils and creating a relaxing ambiance with candles he makes himself from recycled oils. He offers various types of massage (Californian, Ayurvedic, Thai and more).

Ales and Laura — healthful living-foods cuisine prepared with love

Ales&Laura-PetitBrot.JPGAmong the many restaurants on my itinerary, one of the ones with the highest recommendations from local friends was Petit Brot (Catalan for “little sprout”), a living-foods eatery and cold-pressed juice bar with a focus on optimum nutrition but also a definite flair for flavor and creativity. After my very tasty and colorful lunch (a beet soup, curry over cauliflower rice and a raw version of crema catalana), I chatted a bit with the owners. Ales, who hails from the Czech Republic, and Laura, a native Catalan, first took an interest in a different way of eating after seeing a video featuring Gary Yourofsky. As they were especially intrigued by the health benefits of juicing and a vegan diet, they soon began investigating raw foods. This led to their opening a restaurant of their own in Barcelona. Now, more than one year on, their business is flourishing and the lines at the juice bar are getting longer and longer as locals and tourists alike flock to Petit Brot to experience this type of cuisine for themselves.

Slowly Veggie

This last item isn’t about anyone I met, just a cool find that I wanted to mention. During my stay in Barcelona, I learned about a Spanish version of Slowly Veggie, a newish vegetarian/vegan food magazine we already had in France in a French version. I soon found a copy at a newsstand in the Gràcia district and of course could not resist adding it to my collection of food magazines from around the world. The concept is great for people who are just discovering plant-based eating, since the first half of the magazine features vegetarian recipes and the second half vegan ones—allowing people to get an idea of both. The photography is beautiful and quite a bit of creativity seems to go into the dishes. Slowly Veggie is also available in German, Italian, Romanian and Polish. If you speak any of these languages, check out the sites as there are some free recipes there. Here are a few of the dishes that caught my eye. Perhaps they appealed to Sésame, too… in any case, he was kind enough to help me with this photo shoot back home in Paris.

Barcelona is a truly beautiful and very veg-friendly city with a dynamic community of people working toward a more eco-conscious and compassionate. Perhaps you have read my VegNews article, or even feel inspired just by this little post. Either way, I highly recommend putting Barcelona on your list!