Tag Archives: Tourism

The Monarchs of Mexico

I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man? (Zhuangzi)

As I sit here watching my little girl on our baby monitor all cocooned up in her sleep sack, I’m reminiscing about our trip to Mexico City this past December. Since we traveled there to celebrate our anniversary, Matt and I surprised each other with special experiences in or around the city. I took him on a walking street food tour. He booked the excursion of a lifetime: visiting one of the winter stomping grounds for the migrating Monarch butterflies. The food tour was awesome, but I think Matt won this round.

Our tour was privately booked with Mexcity Tours, so we were picked up early in the morning from our hotel. Our original driver, Leo (the company owner), threw his back out, so he sent one of his other guides instead. Our guide, Luis, was a sweet and funny guy and we immediately knew we’d enjoy spending the day with him.

He drove us out of the city, beating most of the morning rush hour traffic, and up to Toluca. Toluca is the state capital of the State of Mexico (the state in which Mexico City is located). It’s also the highest city in Mexico and has one of the fastest-growing populations in the country.

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Toluca’s nickname is “La Bella” (the beautiful) and it has some gorgeous 19th century colonial architecture downtown. We didn’t have long to explore, but we were able to take a stroll through the Cosmovitral Botanical Garden.

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Gorgeous stained glass windows cover the ceiling and wrap around the building, lending a surreal feeling to the football field-sized greenhouse. Though just one long room, the more than 500 plant species growing there are arranged in delightful little gardens that showcase many of the native plants in Mexico.

After a leisurely stroll through the gardens, we hopped back in the car and continued on our journey up to the Piedra Herrada Sanctuary. Unfortunately our guide got a bit lost on the way, so we ended up taking a little detour through the Pueblo Magico of Valle de Bravo. Tucked away in lush, green mountains, this picturesque little town looks is the perfect place to get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. It perches above Lake Avándaro and would have been a lovely place to enjoy for a day or two if we weren’t on a mission to see the butterflies.

Eventually we got back on track and arrived at the sanctuary. Pulling up, we were greeted by a green pasture climbing up a hill to the edges of a thick forest. A barn with horses that are available to help you make the climb up the mountain sits at the foot of the hill. A little further up was a cluster of food stands selling traditional food. The smell of the cook fires dancing in the air was mouthwatering (and it didn’t help that we were extremely hungry by this point).

We opted to fuel up with a quick bite before beginning the hike up to see the butterflies on foot.

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Nopal and cheese quesadilla

Since we had baby girl with us, riding horseback was not an option. So, she hitched a ride in her carrier on mommy’s chest and pretty much slept the whole way up.

The butterflies nest in trees at the top of the mountain, so the approximately 4km hike is pretty much straight up. You should definitely be in decent shape if you decide to make the trip on foot. We were pretty much drenched in sweat by the time we reached the top, but the climb was worth it.

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The face of a man lugging a camera bag and diaper bag up the side of a mountain.

The butterflies nesting here have traveled nearly 2000 miles from the Eastern U.S. and Southern Canada. They arrive in November and stay through March. How they actually make it to Mexico is a mystery because those that leave the country in the spring are at least three generations removed from the ones that will come back in the fall.

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The yellowish-gold clusters on the trees are all butterflies!

The butterfly area was quiet and peaceful. We were instructed to talk only in hushed tones and to be as quiet as possible. Though a bit early in the season and later in the day, there were still a lot of butterflies floating through the air. The sound of their wings flapping was like a soft whisper of wind. We stood quietly in awe watching the majestic insects flutter around. Even baby girl woke up and was able to see some of the butterflies that landed on leaves near us.

Though they certainly don’t do justice to the experience, I’m going to let some of my pictures do the talking for a moment.

The experience of so much peace and beauty in the middle of the forest felt akin to taking a hot soak in a tub or drinking a great glass of wine; a moment of pure Zen in a crazy world. If you ever get a chance to visit one of the Monarch sanctuaries in Mexico, don’t pass it up.

Quick travel note: If you do go, be sure to tip your guide and food servers generously. There are about 75 guides that work at the sanctuary and they are paid about 100 pesos (or about 5 USD) per round-trip. If they are lucky, they will get in two round-trips in a day—so they work hard for the tips.

We tipped both our guide and the woman who served our food. The woman who served our food couldn’t believe we had given her a tip and told us she wished we could come every day. She and the others working at the food stands operate as a co-op, so they split any money that comes in each day. On the day we were there, it was us and one other couple, so you know they weren’t making much that day.

I don’t know what had us counting our blessings more that day; seeing one of the great wonders of nature or knowing we made the day of a hardworking woman at the sanctuary.

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Alpine Adventures

It’s a busy week in Toulouse. Not only did the first Starbucks in the city open this morning (complete with people lined up well outside the door for hours to be the “first in”), it’s also a week marked by ongoing protests over changes to France’s labor laws. The reform under debate makes it easier for companies to hire and fire people.

On Sunday as we posed for photos for our maternity shoot (more on that later), we saw a huge crowd gathered in front of the Capitole de Toulouse for a performance/protest. This week, many roads have been blocked as protesters parade up and down them rallying the public for their cause. The trains and airport are expected to have major delays the next couple of days due to the ongoing strikes. Not such a good week if you have to travel or get to a job on anything other than foot or a bicycle, but definitely interesting to see a part of the French culture played out on such a massive scale.

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Image from a protest at the end of April.

Matt unfortunately may have a long drive to and from work tomorrow if the strike disrupts traffic near the airport like the taxi strike earlier this year did, but we’re otherwise sticking pretty close to home this week. That makes it a perfect time to reminisce about a trip we took to Switzerland a little over a month ago while living in Germany.

When we moved to Germany, we immediately looked at a map to see what places we could squeeze in a visit to over that next month and a half. We only had a couple of free weekends to travel, but we did manage to check three more countries off our list: Luxembourg, Switzerland and Lichtenstein.

We ended up taking our trip to Switzerland on one of our last weekends in Germany. Just a four-hour drive from Frankfurt, Zurich appeared to be a promising spot for a fun weekend. Plus, we’d been to pretty much all the border countries to Switzerland, so we couldn’t risk ending our time in Europe without checking it out.

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Did you know the Swiss use their own currency called the Swiss Franc?

We left early on a Saturday morning and were able to make it to the city by lunchtime. We checked in at Hotel Adler and went to grab a bite at the Rheinfelder Bierhalle. The restaurant got good reviews on TripAdvisor, noting that it appeals to both tourists and locals alike.

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Matt ordered some Swiss beer and I happily found an alcohol-free Apfelwein. I also ordered a traditional Swiss dish called a Rösti, which basically consisted of shredded potatoes smothered in cheese and ham. Waffle House ain’t got nothing on that dish!

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Following lunch, we headed to the Hauptbahnhof where we met up with the English-language city walking tour. Our group wandered through the streets learning how the city grew up to become a global center for banking and finance. The city was beautiful and clean and the Limmatquai River running through it only added to the city’s charm.

Following our tour, we made our way back to Hotel Adler to get ready for dinner. We booked reservations at Swiss Chuchi, the restaurant attached to the hotel specializing in Swiss cuisine. We were looking forward to a true, Swiss fondue experience—and we got it!

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We started with a steamy, gooey pot of melted cheese into which we dunked chunks of fresh bread. We accompanied this with a pot of hot oil, in which we cooked tender pieces of chicken, beef and vegetables. Everything was absolutely delicious and our server ensured we didn’t skip out on one of the best parts—the toasted cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot.

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We couldn’t just stop there—especially when our server recommended a dessert that wasn’t even on the menu: chocolate fondue. Yep, we rounded out our meal (and bellies) with a pot of creamy, melted Swiss chocolate into which we dipped chopped fruit (okay, we also scooped plain spoonfuls of the sweet stuff directly into our mouths).

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I’m honestly not sure how we slept that night, but somehow we managed to squeeze in a few hours of shut-eye. Good thing, too, because we booked a full-day tour to the Swiss countryside for Sunday.

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Zurich at night.

The next morning, bright and early, we got up and made our way to the meeting point for our “Heidiland” tour. The Zurich tourism office offers numerous awesome tours, from hiking up into the Alps to trekking out to the Rheinfalls (Europe’s largest waterfall). We opted for the Heidiland tour because we could not only get a chance to see some of the beautiful Swiss countryside, we could also check another country off our list: Lichtenstein.

Our first stop outside of the city was Rapperswil-Jona, also known as the “town of roses.” Located on the upper end of the stunning and massive Lake Zurich, this little town features a medieval castle, a Polish Museum and panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and lake.

We had time for a short tour through Altstadt before we grabbed lunch at the Café Conditerei Rosenstädter. Matt had cordon bleu and I sampled the Rosenstädter Käsekuchen, which was essentially a very cheesy and rich quiche.

From Rapperswil-Jona our tour took us deeper into the countryside, past snow-capped mountains, waterfalls and peaceful lakes to Heidiland. Located in Eastern Switzerland between Lake Walen and Sargansen, this area gets its name from Johanna Spyri’s book of the same name, Heidi.

Though definitely a tourist trap, Heidi’s village (Heididorf) is a cute place to visit especially if you have young children. You can see Heidi’s house and the feed goats and chickens happily strutting around the grounds. Even if the touristy stuff doesn’t get you going, the views of the surrounding mountains and countryside and the peaceful breezes playing through the trees provide a perfect setting to break from a busy life.

Our final destination on the trip was Vaduz, Liechtenstein. Never heard of Liechtenstein or heard of it but can’t place where it is? You’re probably in good company. So here’s your geography lesson for the day. Liechtenstein is a 62-square-mile principality sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria. It has an estimated population of 37,000 and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world.

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Castle of the royal family of Liechtenstein.

The country has a constitutional monarchy as Head of State and an elected parliament to enact law. The Prince of Liechtenstein and his family have a castle that overlooks the capital of Vaduz. We didn’t have a ton of time here, but that suited us just fine. Perhaps it was because it was a Sunday, but the city was pretty dead. We decided to just pop into a café for a quick snack and to chill out until it was time to meet back up with our tour.

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Vaduz Town Hall

Our drive back was pretty uneventful and I think both of us dozed off at some point. It was a long day, but so worth it to get to see more of Switzerland and add another new country to our list.

Later that evening we went to the Restaurant Zeughauskeller, which was recommended to us by a friend (mostly for the flaming beer drink which, of course, Matt had to try). The food was simple, but plentiful and delicious (including a choice of more than a dozen different types of sausage). Once again, we left stuffed and practically had to roll ourselves back to the hotel.

Monday morning it was time to get up and head back to reality in Frankfurt. Along our drive home, though, we noticed signs for the Rheinfall and discovered it was just minutes off of our travel route. So we figured, what the heck! Might as well.

I think Matt’s expectations were pretty low driving up to the falls because the land was a bit flatter there and he didn’t believe a waterfall there could be that impressive. What we found, though, pretty much knocked both our socks off.

As I previously mentioned, Rheinfall the largest plain waterfall in Europe. It is located on the High Rhine in northern Switzerland and it stretches some 450 feet wide and 75 feet high. The sheer power of the water cascading down the falls is breathtaking and there are multiple viewing platforms that let you get so close you could almost reach out and stick your hand in the flowing water.

We both agreed the Rheinfall was a surprisingly wonderful way to end our trip to Switzerland. I think lyrical poet, Eduard Mörike, sums up the experience of witnessing the falls perfectly:

“Hold your heart, oh traveler, tightly in mighty hands! Mine nearly descended, shivering with pleasure. Restless thundering masses thrown upon masses, ear and eye, whither can they save themselves in such an uproar?” (Translated from German)

On Castles and Chasms (or a Weekend-End Trip to South-Central France)

“Looks like you’ve made the American version,” said my oh-so-hilarious doctor at my 32-week scan. He’d just informed Matt and me our petite not-so-petite little girl was already weighing in at an estimated and whopping 5.7 pounds. Yep, our feisty, little, French-made bebé, who punched at the ultrasound wand while the doctor was trying to take her measurements, is in the 96th percentile for babies in the same week of gestation. It seems like she may be taking after her daddy’s size and her mommy’s temperament.

I can’t lie and say I’m not a little nervous about the high likelihood of giving birth to a big baby, especially given my towering stature of just under 5’4”. Thankfully my doctor is onboard to let things progress as naturally as possible and avoid a C-section unless absolutely necessary. His pragmatism is much appreciated, especially in a country where it’s perfectly acceptable to smoke with small children in tow, but where the pharmacist will scold you for picking up a doctor-prescribed vaccine that she feels you shouldn’t take during pregnancy. True story.

Third Trimester

With all the extra weight piling up in my belly, I sometimes find it amazing I can even drag myself from bed and walk upright these days, but somehow I managed to pull it together this past weekend for a fun adventure with our Irish friend, Fio.

I first met Fio five years ago in Atlanta and we quickly became close friends. She was there for work, but unfortunately her job sent her back to Ireland after a couple of years. We’ve stayed in touch since she moved back home and she even came to Atlanta a couple of times. Matt and I finally made it to Dublin to visit her last August and she returned the trip this past weekend.

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While pondering how to entertain her, I saw an advertisement in my French class for a trip to Rocamadour and the Gouffre de Padirac. Our hotel had also been advertising both locations as great day-trips from Toulouse and the pictures of the Gouffre (which translates into “gulf” or chasm”) promised a visually stunning experience. They weren’t wrong.

The Gouffre de Padirac is a cave that features a giant chasm (the rim measures 325 feet around) and visitors can descend approximately 246 feet via stairs or elevators to admire the sky through the gaping hole above. A statue by Belgian sculptor, Isabelle Thiltgès, calmly watches over guests passing through the chasm into the cave.

Legend has it the devil formed the Gouffre with the kick of his heel in a challenge to Saint Martin. He told the saint, if he could cross the abyss, Lucifer would gift him the souls of the dammed peasants he was about to drive straight to hell. St. Martin, filled with faith, spurred his mule who made a tremendous leap and miraculously made it to the other side. His hooves left an imprint in the rock that you can still see today.

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Look closely and you can see the hoofprints.

 

After checking to ensure the Gouffre was pregnant-lady friendly, the three of us decided to go ahead and book tickets online. If you go visit the Gouffre, I recommend doing the same. By the time we got there on Saturday morning, there was a long line just to buy tickets—and the tickets are time-stamped to allow only a certain number of visitors in at a time. So you could end up waiting around all day for your tour if you don’t plan ahead.

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The drive to the Gouffre took us about two hours and, along the way, we drove through some incredible and ever-changing French landscapes. Lush farmland turned into rocky hills dotted with heather and a gorgeous, flowering yellow plant I don’t know the name for. Eventually those hills and deep valleys became covered with vibrant, green trees and the rolling landscape stuck with us until we reached the Gouffre.

Getting to the Gouffre was pleasantly easy. There were plenty of signs directing us as we got closer and luckily parking there was plentiful and free. Since we already had tickets in hand, we ate a quick picnic lunch in our car before heading up to the Gouffre. Our tickets were for the 1:15 timeslot, so we had a few minutes to stare down into the gaping chasm before descending, via lift, 246 feet to the first observation point.

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After admiring the incredible view of the blue sky above us, we descended via the stairs the rest of the way down into the gently lit depths of the cave. Water splashing and pooling at the foot of the stairs formed a stream that we followed as it widened into a crystal-clear subterranean river. Ancient stalactites and stalagmites sprung up from the cave ceiling and floor like massive statues.

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The cave, which reaches a depth of about 338 feet, was cool and peaceful, even with the number of people walking through it. Cave temperatures are a steady 13ºC year-round (which must feel amazing in the dead of summer) and the waters in the cave are a brisk 12ºC (that’s about 53ºF).

Our walk eventually took us to a boat dock where we hopped onto a small, metal boat for a guided float down the river. The tour of the river and the area of the cave that followed was conducted in French, though you can request a guide book in English. After a week of intensive French lessons, I understood a bit more of the guide’s description than I probably would have before, but we definitely haven’t covered scientific and geological terms yet. Luckily our guide was kind enough to translate some of his description into English during gaps in his spiel.

After about a 10-minute float down the river, we reached another boat dock and got out of our boats for a guided tour of some of the chambers deep within the cave. Photos and video are not allowed after getting in the boat, but the Gouffre website has some images to give you an idea of the pure beauty of the cave (though they honestly don’t give it full justice). This is the only part of the visit where a lift is not possible and visitors have to climb 150 steps up and down to view what is called the “Salle du Grand Dôme.” The guides stop along the way to provide information, though, so even at nearly eight months pregnant, I was easily able to keep up.

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We don’t normally get souvenir photos, but since we couldn’t take pictures at this point it was worth the 9€.

The formations in the cave in these chambers are absolutely breathtaking and the water is so gorgeous, it begs to be swam in (though it would probably result in a shockingly cold experience). We all agreed it was an amazing experience.

It’s hard to follow such natural beauty, but after we left the cave we decided to take a short detour on the way home to see Castelnau-Bretenoux Castle. Perched high up on a hill, the 13th century castle looked like it had hopped from the pages of a fairytale onto the French countryside.

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Once a grand and lordly home for the Barons of Castelnau de Bretenoux, it was abandoned in the 18th century. It wasn’t until 1896, after a fire destroyed some of the living quarters, that it was purchased and revitalized by Jean Mouliérat, a Parisian opera singer. He donated the castle to the State shortly before his death.

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Today, visitors can meander through the courtyard, peek into the castle chapel and climb the artillery tower to take in beautiful views of the rolling hills and valley surrounding the castle. Guided tours lead visitors through Mouliérat’s living chambers that have been kept exactly as they were when he and his wife lived there.

Though it certainly didn’t have the stunning natural beauty of the Gouffre, who can say no to a quick tour of a French castle? Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.

That concluded our long day (and my energy). Miraculously I managed to stay awake the entire drive home, but dinner was definitely takeout pizza picked up by my sweet and sympathetic husband. Perfect end to a perfect day.

Micronation, Macro-Fun: A Day in Luxembourg

One of the best things about living in Europe is the ability to visit so many cities and countries on our bucket list. We’ve even discovered some amazing places we didn’t know should be on our bucket list. Take Luxembourg for example. We knew it was a small country sandwiched between France, Belgium and Germany, but we had no idea this little gem would turn out to be such a fun place to visit.

As I mentioned in my last post, we took a short trip to Luxembourg City the weekend before my dad passed. Just about two hours from Frankfurt, we figured it would give us a chance to take our minds off of the current stresses in our lives.

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We left late on Friday night after Matt got off work. After doing some research on TripAdvisor, I booked Hotel Simoncini in the heart of Old Town. It didn’t have parking (we used the pay lot next door for €38/day), but it was centrally located to the main tourist attractions and breakfast was included. We didn’t have a real plan for what we wanted to do, but the Luxembourg City Tourist Office was right behind the hotel, so we figured we could just walk there in the morning and see what they suggested.

Saturday morning dawned on grey and a little chilly. We grabbed a quick breakfast in the hotel before going in search of the tourism office. It was located on a little square right around the corner from our hotel and we were delighted to find a farmers market to walk through on our way there. Stalls of tempting foods and gorgeous flowers beckoned us, but unfortunately we had no where to store anything, so we restrained ourselves to just looking and not buying.

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In the tourism office, we found and booked an English walking tour of the city for the afternoon. Since we had plenty of time before it started, we decided to wander around a bit on our own and check out the beautiful bridges and park that were not part of our afternoon tour. First, however, we sought out Am Tiirmschen, a restaurant recommended to us for dinner by the tourism office. Though they weren’t yet open, we were able to book a reservation for later that night.

Dinner arrangements made, we headed to Vallée de la Pétrusse, a park that stretches along the Pétrusse river offering beautiful running and walking paths. The view overlooking the park was absolutely stunning. We could peer down into the valley below us and see a river running through lush greenery that was popping with early spring flowers. In the distance, light glinted off the towering structures of Luxembourg’s modern skyline, contrasting with the charming, traditional structures comprising Old Town.

It started raining softly as we walked through the park and, at one point, small flakes of snow even started falling. Fortunately the precipitation didn’t last too long, though the grey skies stuck around the rest of the day.

After strolling through the park, we made our way back up to the city streets and went in search of someplace for lunch. We stumbled across a Chi-Chi’s (a popular Mexican chain restaurant where I grew up in the Midwest which I thought was out of business but apparently now only operates overseas). Though it was tempting (I mean, who doesn’t want a good fried ice cream?) we ended up selecting a restaurant with an interesting looking menu that included a lot of “meats on a stick.”

We took a little break after lunch. At six months pregnant, I still had a lot of energy but the walking tour was supposed to take three hours, so we figured it wouldn’t hurt to save our feet for that stroll.

We met up with our tour group near the tourism office at about 3:00. Our guide was a wonderful native of Luxembourg who spoke perfect English and sprinkled in plenty of good humor and anecdotes. He took us all throughout Old Town, highlighting things like the Palace of the Grand Duke (Luxembourg is a Grand Duchy), the old city walls and the ruins of an ancient castle that was torn down to make it easier to defend the town.

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Ruins of the old castle that was torn down to make it easier to defend the city.

One of the most interesting things about Luxembourg is the mishmash of cultures and languages that make up the area. Over the years it has been invaded by and passed back and forth between France and Germany, resulting in a very multi-cultural and multi-lingual country. It didn’t gain full independence until the 1839 First Treaty of London. Natives typically speak French, Luxembourgish, German and English.

One of my favorite parts of the tour was seeing and walking in the footsteps of Melusina and her husband, the king. I was first introduced to the story of Melusina through the Philippa Gregory novels I love. Legend has it that Melusina, a mermaid,  fell in love with a mortal-a noble knight named Count Siegfried. She married him on the condition that every Saturday she must be allowed to be by herself.

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Sculpture of Melusina

The count initially went along with her request, but his friends eventually egged him on and planted seeds of doubt about what she was doing on her own every Saturday. He spied on her through the keyhole in her room and saw her bathing in a tub—and she had a long fish tail in the place of her legs. In shock, he cried out and Melusina was swallowed up by the earth. It is said she has been sealed in a rock known as the Bock and only reappears once every seven years.

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Inside the Bock Casemates.

The ability to walk in the footsteps of the heroes and legends of many of the books I read is one of my favorite things about traveling. The stories and books I’ve read come so much more to life when I can walk in the footsteps of the protagonists—even if they are just myths or fiction.

The walking tour consisted of lots of climbing and descending, but I made it! I can’t say I wasn’t hurting after, but I was able to keep up with everyone else all three hours—stopping just once to rest on a bench after climbing to the top of some of the old city walls.

After our tour, we headed back to our hotel and cleaned up a bit before making our way to the restaurant. At Am Tiirmschen, We were able to enjoy some local delicacies, including Judd mat Gaardebounen (a smoked collar of pork with broad beans) and Bouneschlupp (green bean soup with sausage).

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We ended up having to cut our trip short and drove back early the next day, but not before we enjoyed mass at the Notre-Dame Cathedral. It was one of the most interesting masses we’ve ever attended as it was conducted in three languages: French, German and Luxembourgish. I was able to follow along with the French and German a bit and Matt could understand some of the French, but even without being able to translate perfectly, we still enjoyed the mass.

Though we really only spent a day in Luxembourg, we truly enjoyed it. The city and country may be small, but they have so much to offer.

A Tale of Three European Christmas Markets

I think I’ve dreamt about visiting a German Christmas market since I was in high school learning German and studying the country’s customs and cultures. Visions of stalls piled high with sweets and festive treats filled my head. The image of lights twinkling and decorated trees towering over snowy streets beckoned me from afar.

Once we realized we’d still be in Europe for the holidays, I began my campaign to visit the German Christmas markets. I’m sure Matt got tired of me constantly reminding him that in December, come hell or high water, we had to go to the markets. Fortunately, he was a good sport about it and, as soon as we were able to figure out where we’d be the last month of the year, we began planning a Christmas market excursion.

We landed on Munich after reading about how beautiful its annual market is and learning that it was just about an hour from Salzburg—so we could do both a German and Austrian Christmas market in one weekend! But wait, you say, that’s only two markets. You’re right, but I can’t leave out Toulouse. So here is my tale of three European Christmas markets.

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Starting in mid-November, we noticed that Christmas lights were being strung from buildings, streetlights and trees. It seems Toulouse doesn’t hold back when it comes to Christmas decorations!


December 1, our wait to discover what the city would look like once the lights were turned on was over. After the sun set that evening, the city lit up in twinkly lights—from our location at the edge of the canal all the way to the Capitol in the center of town.

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The Christmas market is set up in front of the Capitol. Row after row of tightly packed stalls beckon visitors with brightly woven scarves, sweet little toys and local delicacies. The air is fragrant with the smells of grilled sausage, roasting vegetables and hot, spiced wine.

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We’ve been down to the market several times since it opened and have indulged in some of the mouthwatering dishes being served up steaming hot there.

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Mince pie–technically we ate this dish cold.

 

Our favorite? Aligot. Aligot is a heavenly mix of potatoes, cheese, garlic and cream. Crème fraiche is beaten into mashed potatoes and cheese until they are creamy and can practically stretch to the sky when you pull out a bite with a fork. Sure, there’s probably about a thousand calories in a serving, but one bite and you really don’t care.

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With the music, the food, the lights and happy people milling around, the Toulouse market really does make it feel like Christmas.

Salzburg
Salzburg, Austria is perhaps best known as the birthplace of Mozart and the filming location of the Sound of Music. It also has a beautiful and cozy Christmas market. Tucked near the Alps, the highest peaks of which are already covered in snow this time of year, the gorgeous old city boasts not just beautiful views, but incredible buildings as well.

The house where Mozart was born.

 

The Christmas market is in the old town (near the house in which Mozart was born). It stretches for several blocks near the Dom du Salzburg, a gorgeous and impressive cathedral that has been damaged (or burnt down) and rebuilt several times since 767.

Inside the Dom du Salzburg.

 

Gaily lit stalls offer all sorts of beautiful, handmade Christmas ornaments, tempting sweets and festive baked goods.

 

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Like the Toulouse Christmas market, there is plenty of good food filling the air with aromas that make your belly rumble. We enjoyed a fresh pretzel (I adore pretzels) and sausage, along with Glühwein and Kinderpunsch (the non-alcoholic “kid-friendly” Glühwein). We also picked up some Lebkuchen (German gingerbread) to enjoy later.

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The Salzburg Christmas market was the most romantic of those we’ve visited. All it needed was a little snow and it truly would have been a fairytale experience.

Munich
Munich has more than one Christmas market. We ended up visiting three in one weekend—so technically this is a tale of five European Christmas markets.

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The first we went to is probably the most well-known. It fills up the blocks surrounding the Rathaus-Glockenspiel in Marienplatz. IMG_0598

Once again, stalls are filled with every kind of Christmas decoration and treat you can imagine. This one gets extremely crowded, though, so be prepared to be patient if you visit.

Here we enjoyed roasted chestnuts (yup—exactly like the song, except I don’t think they really cooked them on an open fire) and a Schokokuss (creamy marshmallow in a thin chocolate crust), as well as sauerkraut mixed with homemade potato noodles. We washed those down with Glühwein and Kinderpunsch.

The second market we visited in Munich was the “Festive Middle Age Market” located at Wittelsbacherplatz. A fair number of men and women were wandering around this market dressed in middle age garb and a stage featured a performance from a magician of sorts (we watched him pull yards of rope from his throat and stick nails up his nose).

The goods in the stalls here were more like what you would find at a medieval fair—princess crowns, leather goods, spices and more.

The food here smelled incredible. We ended up getting a wild roast pig sandwich (which I didn’t really like, but Matt enjoyed).

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The third market we visited in Munich was at Tollwood—the same grounds where the annual Oktoberfest is celebrated.IMG_5039

In addition to stalls, this market featured huge tents. In one there was a craft bazaar, in several others there were stands selling all kinds of international foods and in yet another there was a stage with a band performing.

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We enjoyed Ethiopian dishes for lunch and washed those down with apple fritters dusted with sugar. Yum!

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We soon had to head to the airport, but our hearts were filled with Christmas cheer and our bellies with way too much good food. It was an amazing weekend and the German and Austrian Christmas markets turned out to be everything I ever imagined–and more!

A Day at Mont-Saint-Michel

It’s funny the difference a few days can make. Just last week we were making plans to pack our bags and move to Germany. This week we are settling in to France for another few months. It’s a long story that involves visa delays and last-minute scrambling (neither of which was from our end). Suffice to say we are extremely disappointed and quite frustrated.

Still, if you have to be stuck somewhere for an undetermined amount of time, Toulouse is a nice place to be. We’ve made the best of the situation and even picked up a Christmas tree from Ikea to focus our energies on other, more fun things.

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Over the weekend we were able to divert ourselves touring Normandy and the Loire Valley. Our first stop was Mont-Saint-Michel. Since it was an eight-hour drive from Toulouse, we started out after Matt got off of work last week and stopped halfway for a night in La Rochelle.

We didn’t have much time to see the city, but from what we could tell La Rochelle was a lovely old town perched on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. The white stone buildings were tightly packed together and many of the streets were barely wide enough for a car to drive down. Our hotel was right near the port, so we did get to capture a few nice pictures first thing in the morning.

We headed up to Mont-Saint-Michel first thing in the morning. This abbey and surrounding village sits on an island just 600 meters from land. At low tide the island can be reached on foot, but when the tide is high, it is entirely surrounded by water. This feature gave the Mont a unique defense advantage and protected it from many would-be attacks.

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Today, there is a road leading out to the Mont that makes it accessible no matter the tide. We followed that road into the village, stopping to admire the surrounding landscape and sheep along the way.

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IMG_4658Mont-Saint-Michel dates back to 708 when Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, had a sanctuary built on the top of the mount in honor of Archangel Michael. It soon became a popular spot for pilgrims.

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In the 10th century, the Benedictines settled in the abbey and a village began to form beneath its walls.

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During the Revolution and until 1863 the abbey was used as a prison. It wasn’t until 1874 that it was classified as a historical monument and reconstruction on the abbey began.

Today it is listed as a UNESO World Heritage site and it attracts millions visitors from all around the world every year.

We grabbed a quick bite in town before making our way up the stone streets to the abbey that overlooks the rest of the island.

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We found a beautiful, little church along the way.

Eventually we made it to the top of the Mount and purchased our tickets to tour the abbey.  We started the tour with a slightly closer look at the spire on which St. Michael is perched overlooking the fascinating old town below.

If you squint, you can almost see St. Michael at the top.

We continued making our way through the abbey church (which was built in the year 1000) and continued through the cloisters and other rooms. Since the abbey was built up over a number of years, many of the rooms were constructed in different centuries. As old as much of it was, the inside of the abbey was remarkably restored.

The views from the terraces offered stunning views.

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It took us about an hour or so to wander through the many rooms, but we picked a good day to go.

Perhaps it was the weather, or the fact that it iwas off-season (or maybe a combination of both), but there weren’t many people visiting the Mont that day so we could tour at our own pace.

Mont-Saint-Michel was on the bucket list of places we needed to visit before we left France. We have more time now than we originally expected to explore this great country, but it was fun to spend a day touring one of the most iconic sites in France. Do you have recommendations on other places we should visit? Leave them in the comments below.

Our northern France tour continued in Bayeux. That story is coming soon!

Nothing Miniature about This Tasty Adventure

Is there anything better than spending a Saturday eating chocolate and marveling at a miniature universe? We didn’t think so—and apparently many visitors to Hamburg don’t think so either.

Miniatur Wunderland and Chocoversum are two of the highest rated tourist attractions in Hamburg on TripAdvisor (numbers 1 and 27 respectively). Since it was yet another drizzly and cold day, we decided they were perfect activities.

We started by heading to the Hamburg Tourism office at the Hauptbahnhof and there we purchased a Hamburg Card. The one-day ticket is an “all you can ride” buffet for the train, bus and ferry—basically allowing you to go anywhere in the city you want under one card. It also offers discounts at museums—like the ones mentioned above.

We took the train to the Meßberg stop and fortunately found Chocoversum pretty easily. What is Chocoversum, you might ask? Well, it’s a chocolate lover’s dream come true. It’s a museum dedicated to the creation of chocolate.

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Guides take you step by step through the growing, roasting and making of chocolate—and you get to taste the chocolate each step of the way (starting with the bitter bean and finishing up with a candy bar).

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Did I mention you also get to decorate and take home your own chocolate bar?

Photo courtesy of HACHEZ CHOCOVERSUM GmbH
Photo courtesy of HACHEZ CHOCOVERSUM GmbH

The museum does most of its tours in German, but there is a tour on Saturdays around noon in English (check this link for times/dates before you go). We took the tour in German so I could practice. We also had a little guide book in English to help us follow along. If you can’t understand German, I’d recommend making sure you get on the English tour.

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We even tasted chocolate right from this machine where it mixes and smooths the treat. It was heavenly!

Our guide was great! She was funny and sweet and took the time to check with Matt and me to see if we had any questions in English after her explanations in German. As a group we were tasked with naming our chocolate—and everyone decided to call it Georgia Rain (Georgia for Matt and me—I think they took pity on us the only non-German speakers—and rain for the day in it).

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After the tour, we took our time walking through the gift shop and picking out some sweet treats to take home. They have everything from truffles and hot chocolate to beer and chocolate scrubs. Absolute heaven!

Photo courtesy of HACHEZ CHOCOVERSUM GmbH
Photo courtesy of HACHEZ CHOCOVERSUM GmbH

It was getting late and we had more on our agenda, so we made our way to Miniatur Wunderland (the world’s largest model railway exhibition according to the website), walking this time in hopes of seeing some place we could have a proper bite. Our lunch at this point was a belly full of chocolate. Not that I’m complaining.

Miniatur Wunderland is in the warehouse district right next door to the Hamburg Dungeon. Luckily there was a little restaurant right across the street where we ordered a Flammkuchen (kind of a flatbread pizza–I would have taken a picture, but it was already in my stomach by the time I thought of it). It merely whetted our appetite at that point, but we wanted to have enough time in Miniatur Wunderland, so we sucked it up and went across the street to get tickets.

The miniature version of Hamburg's warehouse district.
The miniature version of Hamburg’s warehouse district.

We had a bit of a wait when we got in there, so we got some fries in the waiting room/café (fortunately they were full-sized and not Miniatur).

Miniatur Wunderland is a world of model trains, replications of real life cities and a marvelous depiction of what the imagination can do when unleashed. Currently there are eight theme worlds spread between two floors representing Switzerland, Bavaria, Knuffingen (and the Knuffingen Airport), Central Germany, Hamburg, Scandinavia and America. Several more (including Italy) are under construction.

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Some 215,000 figurines are staged throughout the model layout, each helping bring the worlds to life.

In addition to trains making their way through the worlds, many other elements are animated as well, including concerts, boats and even a working airport.

It was easy getting lost in the amazing exhibit for several hours.

It's always interesting to see what stereotypes and politics countries pick up on each other.
It’s always interesting to see what stereotypes and politics countries pick up on each other.

Wandering around a miniature world is hard work and we were really hungry when we left, so we stopped at yet another brew house. I, once again, got sausages. Matt, however, ordered our server’s suggestion (neither of us understanding what she said). It was an entire pork shoulder roasted in its own casing.


We made our way home shortly after dinner to prepare for our big day ahead: Berlin! Adventures from there coming soon!

Adventures in Hamburg: The Stadtrundfahrt

Ich spreche nur ein bisschen Deutsch. I speak a little German. For the first time since I started studying German, I was actually in Germany. The only problem was it had been about ten years since I last took a German class.

Starting as a freshman in high school, I took five years of German. Towards the end, I was pretty good, but I certainly got rusty over the course of a decade of not using it.  Surprisingly, once I was in Germany, the language started coming back to me pretty quickly. I guess it’s just like riding a bike…

We arrived in Hamburg late on Wednesday night–just hours after finding out Matt had to travel there for work. It was a bit of a whirlwind getting there– packing, booking and jumping on last minute flights. As we drove through the dark, damp streets to get to our hotel,  though, I started falling in love with the city. At night, it was quiet and peaceful and the damp sidewalks glittered from the lights of the shops, hotels and houses.

We checked into the Mariott Hamburg, a lovely hotel located right in the center of town. I was quite giddy about actually being in Germany, but the warm, comfortable beds soon lulled me to sleep.

It rained and was very chilly our entire trip, but that didn’t stop me from going out and exploring. After Matt left for work on Thursday morning, I booked tickets on a hop-on hop-off bus to get my bearings of the city.

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The pickup was at the Rathausmarkt, so I walked the quarter mile from our hotel to the bus stop and soon found myself staring in awe at the beautiful city hall. It towers above an open square where the Christmas Market and other events are held. At the edge of the square, shop keepers in small kiosks were setting up for the day to sell beer, big, soft pretzels and, of course, sausage.

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It was a bit confusing at first to find the pick-up spot (there’s a big bus stop at the same location, but the hop-on hop-off bus pickup is a couple hundred feet away from it) and I had to wait a bit for the first bus to come by. The rain was really starting to come down and the Starbucks across the way looked so inviting, but I didn’t want to risk missing the bus. So I waited.

The tour itself was okay. The guide did a little in English and a little in German, so I tried to catch as much as I could from both monologues. His energy was about as dull as the day itself. Still, but bus went by all the major sites. Even with the steady rain and grey skies, it was still easy to see that Hamburg is a beautiful city. Some of the notable sites included:

  • Reeperbahn—a street famous for its sex shops and brothels, as well as for its connection to The Beatles. Before they became world-famous, The Beatles played in several clubs around the Reeperbahn. Today The Beatles-Platz, a plaza designed to look like a vinyl record , stands in their memory at the intersection of Reeperbahn and Große Freiheit.
  • The Fish Market-According to the Hamburg tourism site, this market has been around since 1703 and it’s supposed to be an incredible site to see (unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to visit this time). The fish market is open every Sunday morning and features everything from fresh seafood to exotic fruits and teas from around the world.
  • HafenCity-Hamburg will be hosting the 2024 Olympic games and they’re already hard at work getting ready, HafenCity will feature the Olympic Stadium, Olympic Village and more. It will also have new work-live-play neighborhoods to keep the area thriving beyond the games. I didn’t get out to explore there, but it looks like it’ll be a really nice area when finished.
  • Speicherstadt-roughly translated this means the “City of Warehouses.” This is the old warehouse district–and it’s reported to be the largest district in the world. It is a beautiful area of long brick buildings and channels darting between the streets. Many top Hamburg attractions, including Miniatur Wunderland (which I’ll write about later) and The Hamburg Dungeon are located here.
  • Binnenalster-one of two man-made lakes created from the river Alster. The lake was reportedly created to serve as a reservoir for a mill. It’s a beautiful lake with gorgeous views of the Hamburg skyline from the opposite shore.
  • Rotherbaum Quarter—a borough of Hamburg filled with some of the prettiest houses and mansions in the city. Many of these houses are built along the Außenalster lake (the upper of the two man-made lakes).

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One of the beautiful houses half-hidden by the treas.
Hamburg has an interesting history. It has burned to the ground multiple times (most recently in a siege during World War II. The airstrikes were so bad it caused a massive fire tornado that destroyed most of the city). So, much of it is reconstructed or fairly new.

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It’s a clean city with lots of green space. In fact it’s considered one of the greenest cities in Europe, with 20 percent of it being public parks and gardens. So it makes for a very beautiful city—especially in the fall with the leaves changings. Fun fact: Hamburg also has more bridges within city limits than any other city in the world and more canals than Amsterdam and Venice combined (thanks Wikipedia).

One of the many canals in Hamburg.
One of the many canals in Hamburg.
After the tour, I began meandering back to the hotel, looking for a place to grab a bite to eat along the way. Two things I found interesting in Hamburg—there were a surprising number of places that only took cash and there were very few ATMs (at least compared to Toulouse and what I was used to in the U.S.). I did find an ATM after a little bit at the post office and eventually found a café where I sat down to one of the best bowls of vegetable soup I’ve ever had (they called it Minestrone).

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The area near our hotel was chock full of great shopping, so I enjoyed strolling through the streets after lunch and window shopping. I eventually made it back to our hotel and dozed until Matt got home later that afternoon.

Being the beer lover he is, Matt had a list of breweries to visit, so for dinner we decided to go to a brewery. We ordered mugs of beer, a bowl of beer cheese soup and two plates of hearty German food: sausage, pork schnitzel and potatoes and sauerkraut in a couple of different forms. The food was delicious and we left with full and happy bellies.

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We ended our evening pretty early that night, both exhausted from the last minute scramble and because Matt had to get up to work the next morning. I went to sleep with a smile on my face from a great first day in Germany!

A surprise trip to Hamburg

Dear readers, please forgive my lack of posts this week. On Wednesday we found out my husband had to travel to Hamburg, Germany for work–and he had to leave that night!

Being the amazing husband he is and knowing I’ve been dying to visit Germany, he booked me a flight and let me tag along! 

Since he is working, I’m doing a lot of my touring solo (a first for me–overseas anyway!). Luckily I have a basic understanding of German and most people here speak English anyway, so I’m making out quite well!

I’ll share stories and more photos when we get back to France, but here are a couple of photos in the meantime. Bis später!

   
   

A Cheesey Day in Montauban

Southern France in fall has proven to be very beautiful. The leaves are changing, the weather is mostly mild and the fruits and vegetables are a gorgeous mélange of autumn hues.

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While the slow shift of seasons is similar to what we were used to in the U.S., the decided lack of fall marketing is quite different. The stores here aren’t filled with plastic pumpkins and silk leaves to create that perfect fall look at home. The cafes don’t hawk pumpkin drinks or pumpkin treats. There are no “pop-up” Halloween shops. In fact, if it weren’t for the changing leaves and cooler mornings, it would almost feel like summer never ended.

I’ve come to terms that this year we will not be going pumpkin picking or to any haunted houses and the only pumpkin treats we’ll get to enjoy are those I make from the ingredients I brought back from the U.S. Instead, we decided to embrace fall in France with open arms, starting with a tour of a dairy farm in Montauban.

Montauban is a gorgeous old French village about 45 minutes north of Toulouse. A group of us decided to go up there together this past weekend to have lunch and visit La Ferme du Ramier, a family-owned farm where they make their own cheese (and other dairy products).

None of us had been to Montauban yet, so we were all pleasantly surprised to discover a red-brick town perched on the bank of the Tarn River. The city is the second oldest bastide (fortified town) in southern France and dates back to 1144.

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Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption de Montauban

We parked and walked through the narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants to head to the place Nationale (central square). The square is lined on all four sides with arcades (17th century arches and walkways) which used to provide shelter for market traders. It was quite lovely and reminiscent of a similar square we’d seen in San Sebastian.

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We grabbed lunch at one of the little restaurants on the square and took our time to enjoy the company, scenery and gorgeous day.

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Unfortunately we didn’t have time to walk around and explore after lunch as we had to be at the farm by 4:00. La Ferme du Ramier offers walk-in tours only on Wednesdays and Saturdays at that time, so we didn’t want to be late.

From Montauban, we headed out into the countryside; the homes grew further apart and buildings gave way to trees and rows of grapevines turning autumn hues.

We pulled up a bit early at the farm (they started the tour promptly at 4:00), so had to wait a few minutes. Luckily there was a pen with farm animals (including a hissing goose, a fuzzy little chicken that I never could get a good picture of, a black pig and a friendly donkey) that entertained us for a bit.

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I call this one the muppet chicken! Unfortunately I couldn’t get a good picture of the front of him.

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It ended up being a bit less crowded than I expected (especially compared to U.S. pumpkin patches and apple orchards in the fall), but a couple more families eventually showed up. At 4:00 sharp we began our tour.

The first stop was a small barn where we were shown a movie (in French) about the farm and cheese making process. Though we understood perhaps every third word, we knew enough about cheese making to follow along.

We then went back to the pen with the farm animals, where we (and the children) were given an opportunity to pet the pig, sheep and donkey.

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Next we were taken into the bigger barn on the property and were able to see all the cows. There were baby cows (just days old), teenage cows and mama cows who went on their own into the milking stalls.

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This cute, little guy is only a few days old.

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The milking machines were very impressive. They are fully automated and use lasers to identify the teats and line them up with the milkers. The machines operate 24 hours a day and the cows make their way into the machines on their own.


From the milking pens, we turned around and were able to look into the room where the cheese is made.

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This is where the magic happens.

We then went into the cheese cave where filled with floor to ceiling rows of the aging dairy product. It smelled very strongly of ammonia, so, even though I adore cheese, it was only possible to stay in the room for a few minutes.

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Finally, the piece de resistance! After seeing where and how the cheese was made, it was time to taste the goods. We tried each of their four cheeses and a little bit of their fresh milk. The cheeses were all pretty tasty and ranged in firmness (mild to fairly hard) and pungency (mild to quite strong). We opted to buy a cheese of medium firmness and aroma and a Raclette (the perfect cheese for melting into gooey goodness).

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Once everyone in our group had loaded up with cheese and other dairy products, we piled back into our cars and headed back into Toulouse. It was getting a bit late, so we agreed to meet up after dropping off our goodies and walk to a restaurant. For some strange reason, we were all craving burgers.