Welcoming Service? Only if you don’t inconvenience the owner (B&B Maison de Carlotta, Aix en Provence, France)

This post shall be a vent of our not so pleasant experience at a bed & breakfast, specifically Maison de Carlotta in Aix en Provence, France.  I tried to post a review on TripAdvisor, but it seems my review is under detailed scrutiny by their staff as it has been over a week, and they haven’t finished reviewing (I am not sure honestly why though–it is not like I wrote any profanities or was just plain bent on bashing her at all—I just reported what the events of the experience were and yes, my unhappy opinion.  I’ll be really disappointed if they do not end up posting it…Hence though, the freedom of wonderful speech a la this blog 🙂

So having had wonderful experiences at B&B (Bed and Breakfasts) during our honeymoon in Italy, where we had our own spacious room with nice bathroom, and like other European hotels, shared a central breakfast area with other guests (but these were delicious homemade awesome breakfasts), we did not think much of booking a few B&B places on this recent trip to France.  Again, I used TripAdvisor as a resource since the reviews seem to be pretty spot on.  I was gravely mistaken (so again a reminder of reviews; they are only as accurate and consistent as the people who write them…and the irony is that oh how much a variety of people there are out there).

The initial booking seemed straightforward enough (a bit difficult with the language barrier via email to clarify the booking terms, but it was fine).  We would have a charming bedroom with private bath (HAH note! Did I say connected bathroom? Noooo and therein lies the rub. Our bathroom ended up being in the main hallway, with the toilet in a completely separate little room from the shower and sink room!)

Now I realize yeah, I learned a hard lesson there; I did not specifically ask “Is the bathroom “en suite”–connected?”  I had assumed (and ugh the ole adage applies: “Assume” makes an ass out of you and me) that “private” must mean connected to our room.  Anyways so this in of itself, separate from our issue with the owner, was a disappointing experience.  It is really uncomfortable to have to open the door to go out to use the bathroom, take a shower, wash your hands etc. each time, especially since the old doors squeak and make a distinct amount of noise enough to make you feel self-conscious that the other guests must think “Oh they’re using the bathroom again.”   This was especially uncomfortable during the morning breakfasts because our toilet room and our shower/sink room were located near (although THANKFULLY not in plain sight) of the main breakfast area.

(As an aside, there are only 3 rooms at the B&B).  Perhaps staying in a dorm-style kind of bathroom set-up may not bother some travelers, but considering the price I am paying (~$200 US), which would have enabled us to stay more comfortably at a 3 star hotel with much more privacy, we were pretty unhappy with it. In addition to my asking specifically if the bathroom was connected, for future notice, it would have been very helpful if the B&B website would have had some description of their rooms/bathrooms so that at least the visitor can know what to expect (especially those like myself, who may not know unconnected bathrooms do not fall under the realm of “private” bathrooms).

So, onto the meat of the issue. But I must provide background first– The day we are to arrive at Maison de Carlotta, we let the owner Aline know a few days in advance that we would probably get there around 7:00pm.  On that particular day, we travel from Paris (take a 5:00am train) to Avignon.  From there (highly recommended by the way) we rent a car and wine taste at the nearby famous Chateauneuf de Pape area.  On a side note, there are only 13 grape varieties allowed to comprise a true Chateauneuf de Pape wine–I cannot remember them…but there are 13 heh.

It was one of the highlights of our trip–meeting the winemakers, and taking a tour of their winery all increased our appreciation and understanding when it came to the actual tasting of the wine.  We had a nice lunch in the heart of the little village and then after a couple more wine tastings are on our way to Aix en Provence.  (More on this nice side-trip in another post).

We leave at around 5:30pm—and considering Aix is only about 45 minutes from Avignon, we believe we have plenty of time. (We will need to return the rental car at the TGV station at Aix and thats about it).  SO here is where Murphy’s Law occurs. We hit the crappiest traffic ever–like beyond your 405 traffic at 5pm.  We moved maybe 30 feet in one hour.   And seeing a few ambulances pass by, we assume hey its an accident. Yet after we see the ambulances return we do not see any relief at all in the traffic;  it still inches forward.  This whole time both we are using our iphones trying to navigate or find out why there is so much traffic.  Our batteries get pretty sucked up during this time (ahhh an important thing as you’ll see later).

Finally we get to this roundabout and get onto the main freeway and hooray! It is clear of traffic!  So on we zoom–we should be there in no time….but alas it is not to be…using our stupid google map gps, it directs us to the wrong train station —and so we get lost.  As in twirling around the loopy-loops like the ole movie European Vacation (I think, since we had done this last year in Italy as well, this must be a European theme for us…).  But its much funnier now than in the moment.  At least though, we do finally arrive at the train station—exhausted and a bit weary. We take the bus to Aix and our phones I think are about dead at this point.  But luckily (or so I think) I had looked up the “Maison de Carlotta” (unbeknownst to me, google had actually pulled up a Maison de Carla or something — which I had not realized until of course…we get there and see such a business does not exist)

But alas we walk about 30 minutes, lugging our luggage (after wine tasting and buying 4 bottles happily, we now see the error of our ways…) we find that, after a kind stranger with an iPhone directs us, the B&B is actually back where we had begun.  So with heavy hearts and heavier suitcases, we return back to practically where we started, and search on the street which per his google map, says our B&B is located.  No address number though, but we are hoping to at least see a sign —something to mark the door of this business (B&B is indeed a business right?).  Nope…none.  I am at this point cursing and flailing my arms to no avail “Where the f*** is this place??!”  So Alan suggests since he has a laptop, to go to a nearby cafe, with free WIFI and look it up and we all agree we need to get some water and some food anyway (its like 10pm at this point).

I make the grave error of emailing Aline, the owner to let her know that sorry we didn’t make it at 7 as originally planned; we had trouble getting there, we would be there as soon as we finished eating dinner.  It is a complete mistake (ah so clear in retrospect) because based on her behavior towards us thereafter, the email must really (my French must have improved) said to her “We had a wonderfully lazy time hanging around the town this afternoon and instead of calling you we were picking our noses for a good few hours, and then now we are going to make you wait longer since we have decided to have a 10 course gourmet meal–paired with wine of course.”

Oh yes.

So we arrive finally at long last at the Maison de Carlotta. To be greeted, by a wild looking Aline in her nightgown–initially we were weary and apologizing like “ahh finally we are here”–to be very startled as she began severely scolding us—“I am not a doorman–waiting for you–it is late! You said you would be here at 7pm and you did not call–it is very wrong of you! And then you go and have a niiiice dinner! (her arms motioning in a grand motion–this is where I interpreted she must have thought we had a 10 course dinner) she went on in more disjointed English but her point was well taken).

We apologized again, and then I made (again, damnit why did I decide to be frickin spokeswoman) the attempt to at least explain to her that, firstly we hit horrible traffic—to which she angrily waved her hand in dismissal–(I was very taken aback by how unwilling she was to listen to any attempt of an explanation). She retorted “You should have called!” and I tried to follow up with–“But, our phones ran out of batteries”–to which again she responded with another dismissing angry wave of her hand. It was like she was getting more and more angry with any offering of an explanation. She absolutely refused to hear ANY of it at all, dot com.

And it got to the point where she was literally shouting at us –and even asked “You are welcome to stay somewhere else!” To which, at 11pm, we of course meekly replied…”Uh no…”  I mean she had really made up her mind of the situation, chose and stubbornly stuck to the worst assumption of us, and refused to entertain the notion that wow, maybe just maybe, we really weren’t assholes and did try our best to get there—and though we made mistakes (as in should have PRINTED the directions instead of relying so heavily upon frickin technology and google maps)—we did feel sorry to have arrived so late, but it was not for a lack of trying!  Is it too much to ask for some amount of understanding from a proprietress of a business which collects money from traveling guests?  Is it not anywhere in your goal to try to make a guest feel a bit welcome? And to be aware that you know, when traveling in another country, crap happens and sometimes things don’t work out smoothly!  No….per her behavior it would seem, we were to be for the rest of our stay, esteemed as the misbehaving dumb, young, disobedient step-children.

So that first night I was just in shock–I couldn’t believe how angry she was and being shouted out/scolded is not a pleasant experience at all, considering this is supposed to be a vacation. And compounded was the bathroom situation.   But the worst of it though was the feeling of being misunderstood or thought the worst of—Yes we made the stupid mistake of not having the address printed out in the first place–and relying on our iPhones instead of solid good ole, printed-out directions and maps–and more so for not having called her earlier (when our phones still had batteries).  But man, we were just focusing on getting there!  Anyways we seriously considered staying at another place –but then after cooling down somewhat, and weighing the pros and cons (50% deposit non-refundable) we figure okay, sleep on it–water under the bridge–hopefully things will be smoothed over the next day.

Twas not to be so…

The next morning I am a bit weary about seeing her, but when I do I muster a “Bonjour” and she replies likewise, but pauses with a sarcastic smile and narrowed eyes “You know, I missed a dinner party last night because of you.”  And man, at this point in my head I’m thinking “WTF? Are you seriously bringing this up again? And what the hell do you want me to do about it? Crawl on my knees until you are satisfied that you think I am sorry?” And the kicker is I know she won’t listen to a word of explanation and so instead of replying with what I really thought, I again quietly said “I am very sorry…” Well, later on she came back, and we all started chatting –rather pleasantly actually and she actually referred to herself as a very “passionate fiery” lady–and referred to last night. Which I though oh good, humorous expressive fiery ladies –fair enough—I’ll not hold the grudge of her not hearing us out, if she is able to not take our arriving so late so personally anymore—Its all good then right? I think to myself, maybe that is her way of her showing that it was okay now.

Wrong.

So we go out after breakfast to the wonderful markets in Aix (check out my other post of Provence Markets) and then return in the late afternoon to rest a bit before dinner. Our other couple friend was already there and she had overheard (I don’t know if Aline knew we were there or not) Aline welcoming another guest couple, “Thank you so much for coming on time. I have these other guests, these Chinese American guests (oh yeah, she went there), that arrived so late last night without calling!”  To which the other guests responded “How horrible! That is so wrong!”  Great. We share breakfasts with the other guests in the morning–sooo now not only do we feel like we’re walking on eggshells around Aline and also are offended by her personally now talking shit about us to the other guests, we are now in addition, to feel awkward amongst these other guests whom we have to share such close quarters with!

Honestly, what is the purpose of specifically calling out our “race” (which we weren’t all by the way), unless it is to make a negative point against it? Because she could have easily said these other guests–and why bring up us while we’re still staying there to these other guests? Ahhh man an unpleasant personality to say the least.

So that was the straw that broke my back—Unfortunately the rest of our stay when near her, my stomach had some sour feelings towards her–And honestly just overall, I’ve never experienced something like this before and it really was just plain emotionally draining to be around such a negative vibe. Bleh.  I really tried to not let it get to me but when staying with such a person it was tiring.

The next couple of days all seemed “well” with her–she was nice enough–although when the boys came home really late one night, I didn’t appreciate how she immediately looked at me suspiciously asking “Who came home so late last night–was it you?”  And that was another thing–is this boarding school? The guys didn’t make much noise other than opening or closing a door–so why do we have to report to you what time we come and go?

Sigh overall a -5 out of hah positive 5 fuzziepotatoes. Would not stay there again. Would recommend only to retired couples looking to keep a schedule of 8am and be home by 9pm–and who would do a better job of arriving on time (i.e. aim to be in Aix by 9am..to allow for Murphy’s Law)

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Our day in Chateauneuf-de-Pape (say that 3 times fast!)

Wine tasting in Chateauneuf-de-Pape was one of the highlights of our overall France trip!  When planning the trip, since it would be our first trip to the land of foodie/vino heaven, it was a bit intimidating trying to determine which regions to hit, since there are so many famous ones to choose from: Champagne, Bordeaux, etc..But at the same time,we needed to fit it into our itinerary, or rather overall “trip goal,” of experiencing France’s city-life (Paris), a taste of a typical Provence small town/village in the countryside (Aix) and lastly –our favorite type of town–one right by the sea (Antibes).

And of course within this overall goal, heh perhaps most importantly, we wanted to try the region’s different types of food and vino! (making a first-time visit to another country requires some strategery indeed).  So, not knowing much about French wine at all, I relied upon my numerous hours of reviewing travel books and sites and one region that kept popping up was Chateauneuf de Pape.

We took the early train from Paris to Avignon (about 2 hours via TGV), then we rented a little “bean car” –although not so bean-like–twas a Ford Focus (actually the Euro version is quite nice!) for the four of us.  From there we headed to the nearby medieval village of Chateauneuf-de-Pape, passing by rows of grapes and greenery.  It is actually quite easy to wine taste since there are numerous wineries closeby (instead of say, having to drive miles out to each one).   First we parked in a convenient (and free!) parking lot, then walked up to the the main village area. As with most medival or old towns, Chateauneuf-de-Pape is built on top of a hill overlooking the nearby lush green countryside and sparkling Rhone river.

(I’m just going to refer to Chateauneuf-de-Pape as CDP from here on out 🙂   CDP is a cute, very small and quaint village with picturesque rustic buildings dotted with wooden-shuttered windows (its a wine taster’s paradise since almost every other place is a wine tasting shop. But, I prefer visiting the actual wineries for a more intimiate experience).

We had a classically French breakfast of a pastry (flakey buttery savory quiche) and cafesitting outside to enjoy the vivid blue sky and bright sun—It was a very nice and warm welcome to Provence, coming from the more gloomier/drizzly weather in Paris. And Alan and Mimer were kind enough to share some delicious macarons they’d purchased in Paris, from this famous and legendary pastry chef Pierre Herme, (http://www.pierreherme.com/?___store=english&___from_store=french).

When biting into the little “cookie sandwiches,” you first bite into a thin crisp shell which gently collapses into puffy “cookie innard” and then you get to the airy sweet creamy filling.  I never cared much about macarons in the US, but I suppose that is because the ones I’ve tried are stale-like crunchy and almost chalky textured. Ah, how one’s mind opens from traveling heh.

So! Vat did we learn from our winery tours and chatting with the wine staff? (By the way, its always fun to chat with the locals—getting to know the people and also learning about the wine).  Chateauneuf-de-Pape wines must be made by combinations of only 13 grapes–any other kind, and its not CDP. Can I remember which types of grapes? No 🙂 But I think after tasting so many CDP wines consecutively, my taste buds are starting to get the hang of what aspects make up a wine from this region.

On a side note, man, learning just one region–CDP–reinforces the saying (can’t remember the more eloquent way of saying it) but “the more you know the more you realize how much there is you don’t know.”  But that I think, is what makes wine-tasting so fun–the variety of flavors are so infinite, due to the different combos of grapes, regions, weather patterns, soil, fermentation process etc. that you’ll always be able to taste something different and also gain a better understanding of the characteristics of a type of wine. Heh and of course another fun thing about wine:  As with life, the more you experience, the more more you learn— So salute! and git to learnin about them grapes!

Sol Del Sur Bistro – San Juan Capistrano, California

I’ve been coming to this restaurant as a central meet-up with my dear friend Dmoo who lives in Irvine, for a couple of years now.  I’m not quite sure how we found it–but just that we would always try and find some restaurant that offered a unique menu vs. the typical run of the mill stuff–and of course within reasonable prices (8-10+ for small plates, teens to mid-20s for generous portioned entrees).  In fact the more unfamiliar and exotic sounding menu items, the better!

It is a very cute little place, located in the Marbella Shopping plaza–a quiet residential strip mall actually–conveniently located a minute off the freeway.  The decor is warm (I suppose you can’t get too much warmer than orange walls–but in a good way!) and casual.  I’m not sure if its because we always meet up on “off days” such as Tuesdays, or Wednesdays or even Mondays–but it seems to be always run by the chef/owner/waiter himself!  He does a great job at all posts, truly a one-man show.  In fact, I don’t think I know of any other mom and pop (pop only in this case hehe) that is so rustically run–which! makes me feel good about being able to write such a good review about his place (I figure these smaller businesses need all the help they can get in this economy).

I always am excited about trying new and interesting combos of ingredients–and even though perhaps some combinations may not be something I find myself craving later on (usually only comfort-type foods do that for me), I certainly appreciate the novel experience of expanding one’s taste buds.  Heh which is why I enjoy trying different foods–well just plain food in general–it is something that you must without fail consume to survive. Thus, might as well make the most of it and enjoy it!

Overall, I’d give it about 5 out of 5 fuzziepotatoes – for a casual, intimate and adventerous dining experience.

So! On that note, here was our dinner tonight:  And I gotta say, the most funky intriguing thing was the dark chocolate covered blue cheese ice cream—delicious (but you have to love blue cheese).  It was creamy sweet with the classic pungency of blue cheese but mellowed by the icey coolness, and went surprisingly well with the dark chocolate shell.

Les Papilles Restaurant (2nd Night in Paris)

Now this place, was one of our favorite meals during our entire trip.  The charm and warmth of the ambiance, with its rich dark wood tables and walls lined floor-to-ceiling with bottles of wine, along with the lively welcoming service, all contributed to why it was one of our favorites–But heh, of course most importantly it was the food!

The food was rustic (which is when the food just makes your tummie feel warm and comforted and the flavors are pleasingly familiar) yet elegant and well thought-out (as in, you could tell the chef cleverly combined ingredients and flavors to achieve a purpose).

I think even more amazing is that all of this is accomplished by a young chef (only 27) who turns out all of the courses for his restaurant, from a small little galley kitchen with one assistant!  His timing and execution is even more impressive considering these limited resources.

Overall I would rate this 5 out of 5 potatoes, since it comprises to me at least, an ideal combination of an intimate and stylish ambiance with an awesome tasting menu filled with comforting flavors, excellently and creatively executed. Ahh…I wanna go back already.  Enjoy the photos!

The Gorgeous Outdoor Markets of Provence and Southern France

Ahh one of the happiest things for my eyes to behold are rows of freshly picked, brightly colored, seasonal vegetables and fruits, piles of homemade cured meats, freshly butchered meats and tempting collections of cheeses (oozing rich bries, herb crusted chevres etc.), as well as gorgeous spreads of freshly caught fish and shell fish.  These markets made me imagine how awesome it would be to just wake up, stop by the market—pick the freshest best (great quality–indeed the French are discerning with their produce) ingredients for a yummie dinner.  In fact these markets have inspired us to make an effort to get to our local farmer’s markets (see, one of the great things about traveling–inspiring us to appreciate or seek out new things at home).

Aix en Provence, France

We went to the Tuesday (several large markets) market in Aix en Provence which goes from about 9:00am to 1:30pm. Fwet and I gathered a few things to make a little picnic on a bench on the main people-watching and tree-lined street, Cours Mirabeau.  We bought the staple freshly baked French bread (people really do just carry around a loaf of bread!–I would say…it would be the U.S. equivalent to seeing people with Starbucks cups.)  We also bought marinated baby octopus..or rather squid…in herbs, baby pickled onions, and artichokes and the most beautiful large vibrant red tomato (man….sadly, most tomatoes available to us here in the states are pitiful watery things compared to the distinctly flavorful tomatoes over there).

On a side note, this would be a super easy and most importantly heh, economical method of eating on the cheap (too bad we spent so much on dinner, this wouldn’t have helped).  Because just spending say, about 10 bucks you can happily feed two with the nice selection of French goodies from the market.

It was kind of funny though because yes, embracing our asian-ness, we had cameras out and were snapping photos of everything such that one bewildered and humorous French lady inquired upon us, “But why are we taking photos of the fish? Have we not ever seen fish before?”   To which I replied…indeed we have seen them before but…just not in such a fashion…(I didn’t have the mastery of the French language to get into “well our fish are packaged in sterile saran-wrapped packages caught who knows when and shipped from who knows where).  I suppose though, it might be similar to seeing someone taking photos at a Costco (since I think they might regard it as a marvel, being so huge and selling bulk stuff—compared to their small relatively tiny markets).

Antibes, France (Cotes de Azur/ French Riviera)

Towards the end of our trip, Fwet and I made it to the beautiful, quaint seaside town of Antibes.  Now THEY had a nice market–it was every single day from about 8:00am to 1:30pm! And located right beside the Marche Provencal (I know I’m missing a few accent marks and special “c”) are gourmet dedicated specialty cheese stores and meat stores.

Here we saw our dear friend…Mr. Truffle. Hahah and you know while we were there we mis-read the sign as 80 Euros–but now just looking at the photo, we seemed to have missed the third digit–the first one—5; Hence…580 Euros for a nice fistful sized chunk-o-mushroom.  The mushroom man allowed us to have a heavenly whiff of the perfumed earthy fungi. Sigh…

Le Chateaubriand – Restaurant (Our First Dinner in Paris!)

So after a lovely 24 hours worth of traveling–we were zombies by the time we arrived in Paris.  Luckily we were able to take a nap before our reserved dinner at the much anticipated (per Pellegrino’s global restaurant list, 6th restaurant in the world) Le Chateaubriand.

I had heard that (thanks to the Travel Channel) Paris, France indeed being most known for serious dinners with jacket and tie requirements, stiff and formal etiquette, now had a series of chefs rebelling against this idea and instead, embracing a much more down-to-earth style of food, ambiance and (lucky for us) cost. Le Chateaubriand seemed to me, to be such a place.   The ambiance reminded me of a bustling, bistro with warm lighting and an intimate ambiance.  Tables are close to other diners (which actually facilitated a nice chat with two Australian girls sitting next to our party) but I didn’t mind it. Our party consisted of myself, my hubbie and his best friend with his fiance.

Upon first entering the restaurant, you see the bar on the left side with a chalkboard scribbling of vin selections–and even a list of affordable bottles (from blanc, rose to rouge) for 30 Euros.  Feeling the happy excitement (which I think is what hits you the first night arriving into another country) of finally making it to Paris, we decided to begin with a round of sparkling Rose.  (As an aside, regarding Rose wines, our previous notions were of too sweet bleh versions of this–from our limited Californian perspective. And yet we had heard in France, the Roses were actually quite delicious and complex and not at all like their same-named sweet California versions. SO! We wanted to give this Rose a try–and heck bubbles always adds a nice celebratory component to any beverage heh.)

We were then presented with “zee menu” heh, le carte ahem to be exact, of the day–It would be a chef’s prix fix menu which we could elect to have with or without paired wines. (Its actually nice to not have to choose sometimes, and just purely enjoy and anticipate the chef’s selections which undoubtedly must be based on the freshest ingredients of the day–since the menu does change, I think daily).  We decided against the wine pairing since we were enjoying the sparkling rose so much and ordered another round, followed by a bottle of Rouge vin (from the 30Euro menu…hey, we were on a budget).

Overall—This restaurant had unique and interesting, even experimental combinations of dishes which made it fun to anticipate what the next course would bring.  I would describe the flavors as modern and even edgy.  Sorry about the dim photos (I may replace with Fwet’s nice camera’s images but these taken from my point and shoot must suffice for now. Enjoy!)

As for the overall rating, I give it 4 fuzziepotatoes out of 5:  The dishes were very creative and interesting in addition to being well-executed (perfect crisp skin and tender soft meat).  But, if this makes sense, I feel like the meal appealed more to my intellectual side rather than good ole warm tummie satisfaction heaven (which the restaurant we ate at on the 2nd night inspired–I’ll have to add that review soon!)

The Menu (Le Carte)