Lisboa, Saturday: Castle, Rain, and Free Wine!

23 12 2010

Continued from here.

Following the band-bus ride, Nick and I slept like babies.  We awoke on Saturday morning to near-freezing temperatures, and gray skies.  I thought we left Paris?  No matter, It was time for more coffee and custard tarts.

Confeitaria Nacional

Founded in 1829, the Confeitaria Nacional is special not only for its vintage décor, but for the fact that they roast their own coffee.  It was ever so slightly more expensive than the other pastry shops we visited – coffee was 70 cents and our four-pastry breakfast with two coffees cost a little over five euros – but the quality was evident.  If I were to continue the rankings, I’d say these were the second-best pastéis de nata we ate, after Pastéis de Belém.

Custard tarts at Confeitaria Nacional

Nicely browned, flaky crust, creamy custard, and the cute, for-some-reason-makes-me-think-of-old-pharmacies surroundings made these tarts almost worth the extra 10 cents.

After breakfast we wanted to catch the famous tram 28 up the hill to the moorish Alfama district and the Castelo de São Jorge (st. George’s castle).  But when we finally found the right tram stop, it was already populated by more than a tram’s worth of tourists.  We waited a few minutes, then set off on foot, figuring that the uphill walk would warm us up as well as work off our breakfast.  It didn’t take too long before we arrived at the Sé Cathedral.

definitely NOT gothic

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Chartres

1 11 2010

Chartres is one of those places, if you’ve studied French for a long time, that you’ve heard about over and over.  It’s home to the best-preserved cathedral in Europe, which is also one of the purest examples of Gothic architecture, built relatively quickly between 1206 and 1260.  And it’s only about an hour from Paris. But I had yet to visit, until last weekend.

The catalyst that finally got me to hop on the train was an invite to a salon from Domaine La Beille.  A small winery run by a couple (he’s Australian, she’s French) in the Languedoc, not far from Perpignan and the Spanish border.  They make some nice wines, and I especially like the way they buck traditions to make single varietal wines in a country where blends are the norm.

Since the train tickets were a little spendy (14 euros each way), Nick and I figured we’d make a day out of it.  I researched some places to eat and made phone calls from the train.  I got a reservation at the first place I called, the Brasserie La Cour at the hotel Le Grand Monarque.

Table setting at Braaserie La Cour

After a short but cold walk from the train station, we walked into the elegant lobby of Le Grand Monarque.  Straight ahead was the airy dining room of the Brasserie La Cour.  Thus named because it is actually situated in the courtyard of the building, the space is very light.  It almost felt like we were dining outside, save for the fact that it was warm and we weren’t getting rained on.  So, better.  I was immediately charmed by the mini-baguettes that were part of the place settings at each table.  I was also a big fan of the little butter crocks, which contained perfectly softened butter.  (It’s a pet peeve of mine when restaurants serve ice-cold, rock-hard butter.)

Butter crock

Of course I had found out the local specialties before we headed to Chartres, and topping the list is a special pâté.  Pâté de Chartres is a rustic, meaty pâté with a hunk of foie gras in the center.  It’s wrapped in pastry and baked, then any space is filled with aspic.

Pâté de Chartres

Here it was served with a salad and a few pickled cherries on the side.  I liked the way the tangy cherries played off the richness of the pâté, but Nick wasn’t a fan.  (Of the cherries.  He definitely liked the pâté, and he also lucked out and got the piece with the big chunk of foie gras.)

Given the gray, rainy weather, for my main course I opted for the “Cocotte du jour,” which happened to be pot au feu – a French classic that consists of slow-cooked beef and vegetables in a rich broth.

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