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Monday, November 27, 2017

Getting The Car Ready For A Road Trip

This is a sponsored post.  All opinions are my own.

1.  Having a membership in a motor club gives us piece of mind when we are on the road.  Our membership costs $150.00 a year for the two of us.   When we need roadside assistance, it is only a phone call away.   A big plus to having this membership is that it allows us to call whenever or wherever we need help.  Less than a week ago our car was completely dead in our driveway.  Soko called the motor club and they were at our home within an hour to pick up our car.  Because we have the premium plan, we can have our car towed up to 200 miles with no expense.  They towed our car to their mechanics who had our car up and running a couple of hours later.  Their charge seemed reasonable for the repairs they made.  We could have had our car towed to any mechanic but as we are relatively new to our area, we don't have any mechanics we are loyal to yet so this was fine.  We would definitely not feel comfortable on the road if we were not motor club members.

2.  Checking the fluids in the car is on our check list before each road trip.  We check the oil, coolant, brake fluid and windshield wash.  If our car needs oil or is due for an oil change we will have the mechanic check the fluids and also check the belts and hoses.

3.  We check the air filter while we are checking the fluids and will replace it if needed.

4.  We always check the air in the tires before a long trip.  Usually the night before our trip we will fill up the gas tank and fill the tires with air if needed.  We always keep a tire gauge in the car in case we suspect we are losing air in a tire.  Also at this time, we check on the spare to make sure it's in there and that it's in good condition.  We were stuck once when we completely forgot to replace a spare tire that we used!

5.  If something has not been feeling right we get it checked out before we hit the road.  We once felt a rattling, like something was loose, under our feet every time we drove in our van.  We brought it into the mechanics before our road trip to have it looked at.  We were right.  It was the axle.  We were very happy that we didn't ignore the vibration we felt.  Well, the new rebuilt axle we had put on was defective and actually fell off as we were on our way to Ohio to meet friends for our annual camping trip.  It could have been worse for us if it hadn't fallen off when it did, just after we drove through a toll stop.  I hate to think what might have happened if the axle fell off when we were driving full speed on the highway.  Thank goodness for our motor club for picking us up, fixing us up and getting us back on the road.

6.  We have three cars so we always have to make sure we have the GPS and other travel necessities in the car we will be traveling in.  As long as we have our phones with us we won't get lost but we'd rather use the GPS.  We would definitely have to buy a phone charger if we realized it was not in the car.  I have a charger that also has an outlet for the computer now.  I would not be happy if I left home without this charger.  I always count on my sunglasses being in the car but when they aren't I have to buy a pair.   This must not only happen to me because there is always a sunglasses kiosk open at every rest stop on the highway.  We like to have a flashlight (so happy this on our phones) and an umbrella in the car.  I also make sure to replenish our supply of garbage bags and napkins.  We do a lot of eating and drinking in the car  a when we are on the road and need lots of napkins and garbage bags.  Soko still uses maps and likes to have them in the car so we check to see if the ones he needs are in the glove compartment.  (Go here to see how we organized our glove compartment.)   We also like having moist towelettes, aspirin and bandages in the car at all times.

7.  On the top of my list is to get the car cleaned before we hit the road.  I don't like having to sit for hours looking at the dust on the dashboard or pulling my drink out of the sticky cup holder.  I feel so much more comfortable starting out with the car washed, dusted and vacuumed.  Also, for safety reasons, the windows need to be free of dirt for better visibility.  We usually change the windshield wipers before a long trip if we need to.

That is our routine.  Do you have a road trip checklist?  We would love to hear from you if you see that we need to add something to our list.

If you are looking to buy a new car because your car is not road trip ready, go to Cars.com for a huge selection of new, used and certified cars.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

French Onion Soup - Getting Our Taste Buds Ready For France

I just recently finished researching Nice and Villefranche sur Mer, France for our upcoming Mediterranean cruise.  One of the things I really want to do in France is to have some French onion soup.  The people of France call it onion soup or rather soupe a l'oignon gratinee.  Thank goodness soupe looks like the word soup and l'oignon kind of looks like onion.   I think I can remember this.  I better or I will miss out on having the soup if I can't find it on a menu!  So now I have an urge for French onion soup and I can't wait until next September to have it.

I looked all over the web to find an authentic onion soup recipe.  What I can gather is that Cevennes onions are used in France and I have never seen them in my local grocery store.  I have decided that my onion soup will not be authentic but it can be delicious!  Also, I found that no two recipes are exactly alike.  For a 4-6 person serving the recipes vary in amount of onions, from 4 onions to 6 pounds of onions, and beef stock, from 2 cups to 2 liters.  Also, different kinds of onions are used and the liquid can be beef stock, beef broth, water and chicken broth.  Most recipes call for freshly grated Gruyere cheese but some list Swiss or a combination of cheeses that include Parmesan.  One thing that most of the cooks agreed on was that the onions should be cooked slowly, to bring out their sweetness, until they are brown but not burnt.  But how brown is another debate!

This is the recipe I finally came up with.  It was delicious and satisfied my onion soup craving!


(Serves 4)


3 lbs. onions (combination of Vidalia and yellow onions)
4 cups beef stock
1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/2 cup red wine
3/4 tsp. thyme
1/2 tsp. salt
dash of black pepper
1/2 loaf of French baguette, sliced into 1/2 " pieces
8 ozs. cave aged Gruyere cheese, grated


1.  Melt butter in a large Dutch oven on medium-low heat.  Add onions and cook until the onions turn a golden brown.  It should take about an hour.   Stir often to keep the onions from burning and sticking to the bottom of the pot.

2.  When onions are done, sprinkle flour over onions and stir to coat.  Add the red wine and stir, about a minute or two, until you no longer smell the alcohol.  Add the beef stock, thyme, salt and pepper.  Cover the pot and simmer about 30 minutes.

3.  Lightly toast bread under the broiler.  

4.  Place ovenproof soup bowls on large cookie sheet.  Place a piece of bread on the bottom of each bowl.  Spoon soup into bowls.  Put one or two pieces of bread on top of each bowl along with 1/4 of the cheese.  Put bowls under the broiler until the cheese is melted and lightly browned.


Monday, November 13, 2017

Must See In Nice, France - Preparing For Our Mediterranean Cruise

The second port of our vacation in Europe, and our first stop after we board our cruise ship in Barcelona, Spain, is Nice, France.  Although our cruise itinerary says Nice, France, our port is actually in Villefranche-sur-Mer.  Our ship will arrive at 9:00 am and we will probably have to be back to the ship by 6:00 pm as it departs at 7:00 pm.  We will research Nice and Villefranche-sur-Mer then decide what we "must see".  Hopefully we have time for everything on our list.  If not we will follow the edited version of our itinerary.  What I really want to do the most in France is have some French Onion Soup!   

Port 2 - Villefranche (Nice) France

Nice is the largest city in the French Riviera and the region's biggest draw because of all it has to offer.  You can find museums, a beachfront promenade and much more.  We will travel by train from our port in Villefranche to Nice.  I heard that there will be a tourist information area at the port where helpful people will point us in the direction of the train station, or to any other transportation.  It should take us 10 minutes (2 train stops) to get to Nice's main train station, Nice-Ville.  To get to the start of the walking tours we would like to do in Nice, we will have to find the tram once we arrive at the Nice-Ville station.  We will take the tram in the direction of Hopital Pasteur which will take us toward the beach and Vieux Nice.

Walking Tour 1 - Promenade Des Anglais Walk is a straight mile walk down the beachfront that starts at Hotel Negresco.  You have to be a guest of Nice's finest hotel to enter but if you confidently walk in and explain, when asked, that you are going in for a drink or for shopping you should be let in.  One of the things we will be looking for, if we make it past the doorman, is a huge chandelier that is made up of 16,000 pieces of crystal.  Also, in addition to historic and modern art to enjoy, there are bronze portrait busts of Czar Alexander III and his wife Maria Feodorovna.
Across the street from Hotel Negresco is Villa Massena a palace built for military hero, Jean-Andre Massena and his family.  The admission price for the Massena Museum is 6 Euro for adults.  If you are a fan of Napoleon and Josephine, you can see lots of their belongings including Josephine's cape and tiara and Napoleon's death mask!  The gardens that surround the palace were designed by Edouard Andre, the landscaper who designed the gardens of the Monte-Carlo Casino.  The gardens are free to enjoy.
The sea will be on our right as we start our walk down The Promenade.  We will take our pick of a number of rocky beaches to enjoy.  The average temperature in Nice in late September is low to mid 70's.  It won't be warm enough to swim, but we will definitely find a spot to sit and relax.  I will make sure to bring an empty water bottle to collect some sand.  (Look here for a craft idea using vacation sand.)  There are several beach restaurants on The Promenade.  I will be keeping my eye out for French Onion Soup!  At the end of the walk is Albert I Park.  We are excited to enjoy this park with many statues, sculptures, fountains and even a tiny bronze Statue of Liberty.

Walking Tour 2 - Old Nice Walk is a leisurely hour walk through Nice's old town.  It starts at Place Massena and takes us down several streets until we get to Castle Hill. Place Massena, with it's checkerboard pavement, is a 30 acre square where we will be looking for a towering modern swoosh sculpture, men sitting on top of high pedestals (they are lit at night which make them look like they are floating above you) and finally Apollo holding his beach towel.  We will have to walk past him to get into the old town.  
Rue St. Francois de Paule will take us into the heart of Vieux Nice.  On this street we can peek into the Alziari olive oil shop that has been in operation since 1868.  La Couqueto is also on this street and is a shop that sells santons (hand painted clay figurines).  We may have to buy a thing or two here.  Further down the street, we will pass Nice's opera house and admire the beautiful facade and what I am most excited to find on this street is Patisserie Auer's chocolates.  I read that Queen Victoria occasionally shopped here.
Cours Saleya is Nice's main market square.  You can find produce and flowers here.  The flowers that they sell are are the ones they use to make perfume.  I can only imagine how heavenly it must smell in this part of town.
Rue de la Poissonnerie is where we will be looking for Adam and Eve.  We will have to look up at the first floor of the first building on our right as we turn onto this street to see them.  We will also be looking for a small church, Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation.  It's the most popular church in Nice because it is dedicated to St. Rita.  She is the patron saint of desperate causes and desperate people and she has a special place in the hearts of the locals here.
Rue Droite is where we will be looking for Espuno's bakery.  Their house specialty is a tart that is stuffed with Swiss chard, apples, pine nuts and raisins.  It sounds like something we really should try but it all depends on how much chocolate I bought and ate two streets back!  Also on this street is Eglise St-Jacques.  Like St. Rita's church, it is a Baroque style building.  The definition I found for Baroque is "richly decorated with many ornaments, stucco, false marble, cherubs and medallions."  It sounds like a lot to look at.  It will be fun to compare the two churches.  There is a mansion, Palais Lascaris, on this street.  It houses a collection of antique musical instruments on one of its four levels.  There is a charge (6 Euro) to go in.  We may check it out if we have time.
Place Rossetti is the end of this walk.  We can check out the Cathedral of St. Reparate and have a gelato at Fenocchio in this square before we head back to Villefranche or if we have time, we can venture up Castle Hill first.

Castle Hill offers sensational views from the top of the hill.  We can either climb up or take a free of charge elevator up.  Besides for the views, there is a park, playground and cafe at the top.

Our port city is Villefranche-sur-Mer, a small town with narrow streets and a beach.   The promenade that leads to the beach is lined with fancy seafood restaurants.  There is a town square, churches and a castle to see.  There is also a grocery store in the town that I would love to get a chance to shop in.  If we have time to kill before our ship leaves this port we will definitely stroll around the town and beach. 

We can't wait to see all these amazing sites.  Any other suggestions you might have would be greatly appreciated!

Monday, November 6, 2017

Must See In Barcelona, Spain - Preparing For Our Mediterranean Cruise

Our dream of taking a Mediterranean cruise is coming true next year.   I'm not sure how long we've had this vacation on our bucket list but we actually have reservations on Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Seas and I can't believe it!  Now we need to figure out what we want to do and see.  I am armed with my Rick Steves' book Mediterranean Cruise Ports, recommendations from friends and, of course the web, and ready to start the planning, researching and preparing for the trip.  Our cruise ship is leaving from Barcelona, Spain in the late afternoon on a Sunday in September next year.  We will plan to leave from Miami on the Thursday before so that we will be in Barcelona no later than late afternoon on Friday.  It will not only get us to Spain in plenty of time to get to the cruise port but will also give us time to tour Barcelona.  We heard it is a beautiful part of Spain and we can't wait to see it.

Our plan is to research every port we will be stopping in and make a list of things we would like to see, do or eat there.  Then we'll figure out how much we can squeeze into each day.

Port 1 - Barcelona, Spain 

1.  Watch locals as they join hands and dance the sardana in front of the cathedral on weekends.  It's a dance that is a symbol of national pride and unity for the Catalans who have been campaigning for 150 years for Catalunya to be independent from Spain.  We would love to experience this important cultural tradition.   This event happens every Sunday at noon and it lasts about 2 hours.  We will be boarding our cruise ship then but we might have a chance of seeing the dancing on Saturday evening.  It is occasionally danced on Saturdays especially if there is a celebration.  There is a festival, La Merce, that happens every year in late September.  This year the festival was held the 3rd weekend which is when we will be there in 2018.  The festival dates are not set for next year yet but I think we have a good chance of being there for it.  I'm hoping the sardana will be danced in addition to the other festivities.  If we are lucky enough to be in Barcelona when this festival is being celebrated, we will also have a chance to see another Catalan tradition, the castell.  This is a tower made by people standing on top of one another and is 10 humans high!  That would be a site to see for sure.  We are crossing our fingers.

2.  Sagrada Familia is a temple that was designed by the truly unique architect Antoni Gaudi.  He worked for 43 years on it until he died.  The temple is currently 70% finished.  It is estimated to be done in 2026 which would be 100 years after Gaudi's death.  Gaudi's buildings can be seen all over Barcelona but the Sagrada Familia is called his masterpiece.  Go here to see photos of this magnificent building and I think you will put it on your list of sites to see in Barcelona.  If you are trying to fit a visit to this amazing site into your itinerary, figure that you will be there about 2 hours.  To save time and money, consider ordering entry tickets before you leave home.  You can place your order here and print your tickets.  Make sure you put a note on your packing list to bring your tickets so you don't forget them.

3.  The Picasso Museum is located in Barcelona because this is where Pablo Picasso lived between the ages of 14 - 23.  This is where his career started before he went to France where he joined the Cubism movement.  The Cubisim art style is what I think of when I think of Picasso, the portraits that are broken up and reassembled in an abstract way.  The true Cubist 3-D paintings are not at the Barcelona museum although you can see a later variation of this style.   Instead, this museum focuses on Picasso's early works right before he moved to France and  became one of the best known artists in the world.  I think that it would be very interesting to see what his style of painting was before Cubism.   If you are thinking about adding the Picasso Museum to your itinerary, allow yourself 1.5 hours of time to check it out.  Also, note that the museum is closed on Mondays.  There is free admission to the museum on Thursdays from 6:00 pm until 9:30 pm and on the first Sunday of each month from 9:00 am - 7:00 pm.  It won't be possible for us to go when the admission is free so I might consider buying our tickets ahead of time here.

4.  The Ramblas Ramble is one of two self-guided walks that Rick Steves recommends.  This walk takes you down Barcelona's main boulevard.  This walking tour starts at the top of the Ramblas and takes you all the way to the opposite end.
    A.  Placa de Catalunya - This is a very lively 12-acre square plaza where you can find fountains and statues and Art Deco buildings.  This is also where you find transportation if you need it.  The Metro, bus, airport shuttle and Tourist Bus stops are in this area.  The locals congregate here to watch soccer games on big screens and also to enjoy outdoor concerts and festivals.
     B.  Fountain of Canaletes - This black and gold fountain has been around for more than a century.  It is said that you are ensured that you will return to Barcelona one day if you have drink from this fountain.
     C.  Rambla of the Little Birds - At one time this was where you would see kiosks that sold many different types of animals that you could buy and keep as pets.  The animals have been replaced with shops selling ice cream and souvenirs.
     D.  Betlem Church - This church, constructed between 1680 - 1732, is dedicated to Bethlehem and locals enjoy the nativity scenes that are displayed at Christmastime.
     E.  Rambla of Flowers - A colorful block where locals go to not only admire the beautiful flowers but also to buy seeds to grow their own vegetables.  I will be stepping into Gimeno's which is a cigar shop to look at the cigar boxes they sell there.  Sounds like a perfect souvenir for our cigar-loving family members!
     F.  La Boqueria Market - You can find all kinds of fresh foods.  I will definitely be getting some kind of fruit here.  I know when I have eaten fruit in Japan it has always been better than what I eat at home.  The peaches, especially, are the most delicious I have ever tasted.  I am very curious about what kind of fruit is popular in Spain.  I also will be checking out Pinotxo Bar to have something to eat and to find Juan.  I heard that he loves having his picture taken if he's not busy serving food to hungry shoppers.
     G. Heart of the Ramblas is a small, lively square where I will be looking for a mosaic on the ground that was created by abstract artist Joan Miro.  Her art can be found all over the city.  It will be fun to spot her work here and there.  I know to look for the La Caixa bank logo she designed.  This is where the best stretch of the Ramblas ends.  We will decide at this point if we want to continue or take the Metro back to Placa de Catalunya.  We're hoping to have a day and a half to spend in Barcelona but if we have less time, we will head back to do the second walk, Barri Gotic (see below), so we won't miss out on seeing that part of town.
     H. Placa Reial is a town square that has both old-fashioned bars and modern taverns with patio seating.  I will be looking for Gaudi's first public works, two colorful helmeted lampposts.  As we head back out to the Ramblas, I will be looking across the boulevard to find an apartment building, Palau Guell, another Gaudi project.
     I.  Raval Neighborhood - This is where you can find creative and elaborately costumed human statues.  They have to audition and register with the city government before they are allowed to perform here.  If you throw them some change they may entertain you.  The Drassanes Metro stop is here (or you can look for Bus #59) which will take you back to Placa de Catalunya.
     J.  Columbus Monument is a 200-foot column dedicated to Christopher Columbus.  He came to Barcelona after his trip to America in 1493.  There is a tiny elevator inside the monument that will take you to the top where there is an observation area.  You can buy a ticket for the ride up inside the base.  I would love to enjoy the view of the city but the words itself ,"tiny elevator", is making me feel claustrophobic already!
     K. Waterfront is where you can board a harbor cruise or shop or just watch the busy maritime zone in action.  You can see a historic schooner, the Santa Eulalia or take a walk down the promenade to see the iconic sculpture, Barcelona Head.

5.  Barri Gotic is the second walk.  It starts at Placa de Catalunya and weaves around the town.    You can go here to look at maps of the Barri Gotic area.  I am using the map in my Rick Steves book and his suggested walking tour.
     A.  Avinguda del Portal de l'Angel is a boulevard where you will find the most expensive shops in Barcelona.  There are high-end Spanish and International chains.  I will be doing a lot of window shopping only here!
     B.  Church of Santa Anna is a Romanesque style church.  This architectural term is given to buildings that were erected in the 10th - 12th centuries.   Some of the characteristics of Romanesque construction, and things I will be looking for when I walk through the church, are thick walls, round arches and sturdy pillars.
     C.  Els Quatre Gats is a restaurant that Picasso frequented and he also designed their menu cover.  Although you can enjoy a snack, meal or drink here, people are welcome to come into the restaurant just to admire the menu cover.
     D.  Fountain - Barcelonans got their water from this fountain, and fountains like this one, as recently as the 1940's.   I will be looking for the ladies carrying jugs of water, in blue and yellow tilework, that is somewhere on this fountain.
     E.  Placa Nova - There are two huge towers here that were once a part of an entrance gate.  On the opposite side of these towers is the Catalan College of Architects.  Picasso's art depicting Catalan traditions including the sardana dance, music and bullfighting can be seen on this building.
     F.   Cathedral of Barcelona is where I will find Catalans dancing the sardana if I am lucky enough to be here at the right time.  The style of this cathedral is Gothic which is a style of architecture that got popular after the Romanesque period.  I will be looking for pointed arches, robed statues, decorative molding on the windows, gargoyles and bell towers with winged angels.
     G.  Casa de l'Ardiaca is a mansion that now houses historic documents but once was the residence of the archdeacons.  It is free to enter so we will definitely be checking it out!
     H.  Monument to the Martyrs of Independence was erected to honor five patriots who were strangled for resisting Napoleon in 1809.
     I.   Placa Sant Felip Neri is a plaza which Catalan school children use as their playground.  In this square is the Church of Sant Felip Neri.  You can see where the building was damaged by bombs during the Spanish Civil War.  There is a plaque on a wall that is to the left of the church door that has a list of 42 victims of a 1938 aerial bombing.  Most of the victims were children.  So sad.
     J.  Jewish Quarter is called El Call which comes from the Hebrew word kahal which means congregation.  This is where you will see narrow alleys where 4,000 Jews were forced to lived.  There is a small synagogue, Antiqua Sinagoga Mayor, that you can tour.   Their synagogues were only allowed to be as big as the smallest Christian church.
     K. Carrer del Bisbe Bridge is a bridge that connects government buildings to what used to be the Catalan's president's residence.  Although the bridge looks medieval it was constructed in the 1920's.
     L.  Placa de Sant Jaume is the central square of Barri Gotic and is where two of the top government buildings are - Palau de la Generalitat is where the govenment offices are and Barcelona City Hall.  Above the doorway of the Palau de la Generalitat building is Catalunya's patron saint, St. George (Jordi) slaying a dragon.  I will be looking all over Barcelona for the very important Catalan symbol, the dragon.  And I heard that there is excellent gelato around here somewhere so I will also be keeping an eye out for Gelaaati di Marco.
     M. Roman Temple of Augustus - I will definitely be going into this temple as it is free, except on Mondays.  There is not much left there to see but the huge colums that are there date back to the first century B.C. which is as old as Barcelona is.
     N. Placa del Rei is where the Royal Palace is.  This is where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel welcomed Christopher Columbus home from his discovery of the New World and gave him the title "Admiral of the Oceans."
     O. Barcelona History Museum is where Rick Steves walking tour ends.  The name of the museum describes itself and is mostly a collection of objects discovered during archaeological digs.  The highlight of the museum is something that I will not be able to do because it is underground.  I hope Soko will go to enjoy the underground maze of Roman ruins.  If he ever finds his way out of there, we will head back to Placa de Sant Jaume to find the Jaume I metro stop to get back to where we started, Placa de Catalunya.

Are you planning a vacation to Barcelona?  Are you dreaming about taking a trip here one day?  I hope you found some information here that will help you when you start to make your plans.

Have you been to Barcelona?  Did you see, do or eat anything that makes you hope to get back there one day soon?  We would really love to hear from you!