November 25, 2016

Opera, Edible and non-edible stories

Opened in 2011, the restaurant of the Opera Garnier is located where the horse-drawn carriages used to drop off their passengers, coming for a performance. They say the design is modern but it reminds me of the seventies. This white soft cloud formation, floating above the guests like a phantom is disturbing me.
I am seated underneath in a confortable red chair wondering what the architect was thinking  when she got this idea of an undulating mezzanine with such protean curves.

Opera Restaurant

The assassination attempt on Napoleon III by Felice Orsini in 1858 outside the Opera House on Le Peletier Street acts as a trigger for the emperor to launch an architectural design competition for a new Opera House in Paris.
171 plans are competing. The selection of Charles Garnier’s project came as a surprise. The young architect ousts both the empress’s favorite architect and the one who built the original Opera.
Charles Garnier is relatively unknown and does not know much about acoustic matters but his design impresses for its strongly defined spaces, its stunning polychrome and the abundance of Italian references. Cherry on the cake, a secure and direct entrance is built for the Emperor.

Opera Garnier

The architect Garnier had originally planned to install a restaurant in the Opera House but for budgetary reasons, he was not able to complete it. I wonder what he would have thought of the current design.

The Opera is as well a classic French dessert made of layers of almond sponge cake known as Joconde Biscuit and soaked in coffee syrup, layered with chocolate ganache and coffee buttercream.
The paternity of this cake is unclear. Paul Bugat from the Clichy Pastry shop invented the Opera under the name Clichy in 1920. Then in 1955 Cyriaque Gavillon, pastry chef at the French pastry house Dalloyau, claimed the creation of the cake named by his wife after the Opera Garnier stage or maybe after the ballerinas, regularly customers at the pastry shop. In the sixties Gaston Lenotre contested the paternity of the Opera.

Back to my plate… I am curious to try the Revisited Opera cake by the Pastry Chef of the Opera Garnier.

Study case: The additional caramel thin layer is a nice find but it is overpowered by the strong flavor of the coffee butter cream. I think this modern Opera is too heavy. Maybe because it is missing a layer of Joconde biscuit… The classical Opera has three layers of Joconde biscuit.

Classical Opera by Le Cordon Bleu Chef

I have bad memories of the Opera I baked at school. I messed up the coffee butter cream. My batter was still too hot when I incorporated the butter and so… took a disastrous turn. Oui, merde!
And no time to do it again as I was hearing already in the background... « You have 10' to finish the montage and glaze your Opera!... » The butter cream was too thick to be spread smoothly and evenly... « You have 5' to clean your workspace and present your cake!... »
Dawn, I'm not running for Masterchef!... And the background finally shouted: Time's up!

And forget about the chocolate writing. Messed up or messed up, I choose the Queen’s highway. And, I submitted a flat and naked Opera. Oui, not very proud!

Should be versus Actual

However Charles Garnier was very proud of his project and specially the majestic staircase of marble, which divides into two divergent stairs that both lead to the Grand Foyer. The Grand Foyer is like the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. A lot of gold and a lot of mirrors.

Grand Foyer

People come to the Opera Garnier not so much for the performance but to watch people and to be seen. And the seats in the private box of the Emperor are the best seats to watch people but the worst seats to enjoy the show.

Auditorium - Private box of the Empress on the right & Marc Chagall's ceiling

Started in 1871, the construction of the Opera Garnier lasted for 14 years and the inauguration took place in 1875 after the fall of the empire. Napoleon III passed in exile, in England and never got the chance to enjoy the Opera House.

Aside from the big Story there are as well the little stories. 

My grand grand grand father Franz Benque (1841-1921) opened his first photography studio in the old town of Trieste, Italy in 1864 along with his father in law Guglielmo Sebastianutti (1825-1881). My grand grand grand uncle Wilhelm Benque (1843-1903) was the wild one, leading the unsettled life of a globe-trotter in Europe and Asia. 

Grand Grand father Ernst Benque
by Grand Grand Grand father Franz Benque
The history of the photo-house covered four generations of photographers within the family as Franz’s son, Albert (1873-1953) and his granddaughter Lilly (1913-1999) worked as well in the family business. They worked in Europe, South America and Asia and, participated to international photo exhibitions.

Some of their pictures are part of the collection at the Opera museum. Between 1862 and 1890, they were taking pictures of actors, costumes and scenes… I saw some of those pictures at the Opera museum some time ago…

Hum… still seated on the confortable red chair at the Opera Garnier in Paris and thinking about how much History there is here…

November 04, 2016

When stories make great recipes

This week was easy-peasy. Two recipes that I did not find particularly difficult. Do not get me wrong; I did not have them perfectly executed but like we say in French: C’était pas mal, it was not bad.

First was the Passion fruit and Raspberry tart. The recipe is a sweet pastry dough filled with a passion fruit cream and a jellied raspberry coulis. One of the technique to master is the chablonnage. Chablonnage is a French culinary word to describe the action of coating a biscuit in order to keep it waterproof from any moist mixture that might come next.
For example, you may want to apply a thin layer of egg wash on the bottom of your raw pastry dough before to put it into the oven or in this case spread a thin layer of chocolate glaze before pouring in the raspberry coulis. That way, the biscuit keeps its crunch.

Passion Fruit and Raspberry tart

That was not a little mouse that bit into each of our tarts during the practical but a chef with a very sweet tooth. Sixteen tarts in a row to taste, review and give a feedback. The glazing is good but the crust is a bit too thick. Oui chef!

Then we had the Rum Baba. Let me tell you the story of the Rum Baba. The legend tells that Stanislas Leszczynski (1677-1766), fallen king of Poland and Duke of Lorraine would have find his Kugelhopf too dry one day and decided to pour some Malaga wine on it to give it some moist.

Kugelhopf by Chef Danniel

Another version of that story says that Nicolas Stohrer, the duke’s pastry chef invented the Rum Baba. He made that cake out of a dry brioche that was eaten in Poland for centuries at Christmas and Easter time and call Baba, a polish name for “Grand-mother”. The pastry chef got the idea of flavoring the dough with Saffron, of pouring Malaga wine on the cake and of serving it with a cream and dry grapes.
In 1725 Mary, the daughter of the Duke got married with Louis XV. She would not move to the Palace of Versailles without her pastry chef. So Nicolas Stoher came with her. Et voilà, the Baba is introduced to the court.
Five years later Nicolas Stohrer opens his pastry shop on Montorgueil Street, in Paris. His descendants substituted Rum for the Malaga wine and his shop is still open nowadays. What a story!

Mini Rum Baba by Chef Danniel

Back to the kitchen, the chef demonstrated both the Kugelhopf and the Rum Baba. We only did the Rum Baba in practical for the great pleasure of my mother. As I did not mention before, we are taking home the pastries we are making in the kitchen. I usually give them to our lucky neighbors but my mother held on the Rum Baba.

Rum Baba by Chef Sandrine

I thought I had poured too much Rum on my Baba as my thumb is way smaller than the neck of the bottle of Rum but apparently I did not pour enough.
Mum blind tasted my Rum Baba versus the one I got from the pastry shop. With a guilty smile she said she likes the one from the shop better because there is more Rum... She is sharper than the Chef.

Next week is going to be another story for another great recipe… maybe a recipe that you will have at your exam… this recipe comes up regularly at the examReally?

October 28, 2016

Back to school or, step into the shoes of a Pastry Student

Days slip into weeks. Weeks slip into months. And before you know it, I completed the Basic Pastry level at Le Cordon Bleu.
Now it is already time to go back to school and dig into the Intermediate Pastry level. We are going to kick into more sophisticated desserts and start to work with chocolate, the promise of a lot of fun and challenges.

Getting ready for school means having your tools box clean and organized, because in the heat of the action there is no time to look for your little offset spatula, your pipe number ten or your scraper.

The uniform is a serious matter. Any student who does not comply with the rules is going to be kicked out of the class, period! So make sure your ugly black safety shoes are polished, your pants are hemmed, your uniform vest is spotless and ironed and so the neck tie, the apron, the kitchen towel and the cap.

What else do you need to remember? Nails cut short, wear on a hair net, no ring, no watch, the student name badge stick onto your uniform, a spoon and a fork carried in the pocket of your uniform sleeve. Those are useful tools when comes the tasting at the end of the demonstration.

Today I let you step into my ugly black safety shoes. Ready?

Alors, c’est parti!... So let’s go!


Half an hour prior the beginning of the class we are already agglutinated at the door of the demonstration room while the chef’s assistant is preparing the ingredients. The chef is listing the technical and culinary vocabulary, as well as the different components of the recipe on the white board.
8 o’clock sharp the chef is opening the door and it looks like the first day of the big sales. We are all rushing in for the seats on the first row. Unbelievable. I should not tell you that, so I don’t. Still, the chef keeps an eye wide open. Uniform must be spotless and ironed. Always.

Mascarpone mille-feuille and Red fruits tart

The chef is usually demonstrating two recipes that are either completing each other: same components but different technics or, two recipes that are too simple or too complex to be reproduced in the kitchen by the students but that has a culinary interest. Something inspiring or mind opening. We will execute only one of the two recipes in practice.

Today we are going to see the Mascarpone mille-feuille and the Red fruits tart. Both are based on the Brittany shortbread pastry. The mille-feuille is usually filled with a pastry cream. But instead Chef Daniel decided to share the recipe of his Mascarpone cream, a real signature cream. Then for the tart, we are going to learn how to make a creamy red fruit mousse and a mock blackcurrant marshmallow. Fancy, no?

Fancy red fruits tart

We are only given a list of the ingredients and quantities and, this is up to us to write the method. The Chef demonstrates in French and I like when he suddenly switches to English and confuses the translator. I am a lucky girl to be able to understand both languages.
As a result my notes are a mix of French and English with a couple of incomprehensible drawings. And very important, I get the untranslated jokes. Peek into my messy notebook.

The messy notebook

After three hours of demonstration the smell from the oven is tickling our senses, it is time for tasting. Not to mention that the bowl of remaining fruits mousse was already passed around...


Next day is another day. Practice in the kitchen. Fun or stress? Chef Park supervises the practice today. I like Chef Park. She remains calm and in control when things get out of control in the kitchen.
The team leaders are preparing all the ingredients and equipment we will need. Meantime we are waiting at the door with our tools box, hat and apron on.
Chef Park opens the door and let us come in. She calls the roll, gives instructions for the execution and we are good to go. We have three hours to reproduce the Mille-feuille from the demonstration.

Flour fly in the air, dirty bowls are piling up, uniforms start to have raspberry stains… A student with a baking trail is shouting Hot, hot!... to make his way. 
Ooops, my inverted puff pastry should have been in the oven and I forgot it in the fridge!
I was so busy with my Mascarpone cream… Why is not it getting thicker? Oh no! I used 10 g of dessert jelly powder instead of 10 g of custard powder.
Eventually I managed to come up with a nice Mascarpone cream and a shiny puff pastry. I should have started now to assemble my Mille-feuille but I wanted to polish my craft and get a nicer caramelized puff pastry. So here I am with a blowtorch to caramelize the icing sugar that did not get caramelized in the oven… I realized I burned something when I started to smell it. My baking sheet got on fire and one of my puff pastry got a little sunburn. Camouflage, I will use it in the middle of the Mille-Feuille!

The clock is ticking. We need to clean up our workspace and present our dessert to the Chef for assessment. We are judged on Hygiene & Security, Organisation, Technical skills, Presentation, Attitude and, it is all going to be recorded in our student evaluation journal.
The practical was chaotic but good. No surprise, I need to improve my organisational skills.

Piece of cake, isn’t it?

October 21, 2016

Open House at Le Cordon Bleu Paris

Just for you, Le Cordon Bleu Paris is opening its doors today and I am going to be your tour guide. Ready? So please follow me.

Le Cordon Bleu Paris

Did you know Le Cordon Bleu institute was founded in 1895 in Paris by the journalist Marthe Distel and Chef Henri-Paul Pellaprat? Me neither.
Marthe Distel started the culinary magazine “La cuisinière Cordon Bleu” that she soon after supplemented with cooking classes. It got so popular that she teamed up with Chef Henri-Paul Pellaprat to open the first Cordon Bleu school in Paris.
Today Le Cordon Bleu is a worldwide network with 35 schools across the world welcoming students from all over to learn Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management. Art comes from creativity, speaks to our senses, conveys emotions and, opens heart and mind. I like the idea of touching people’s heart with only flour and chocolate… In a kitchen we can all be artists. It is very powerful and inspiring.

The campus

Back to our topic. The school takes up 4,000 square meters, with 7 practical rooms, 3 demonstration rooms, a wine cellar for the wine programs, 6 regular classrooms, a workshop for amateur culinary classes, a vegetable rooftop garden… as a former accountant, I still like numbers very much.

Time to head toward the Epicure classroom where you will be presented a culinary demonstration and a food & wine pairing.

Chef Philippe Groult, awarded with the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (One of the Best Craftmen in France) medal will tell you that the best chefs in the world are not necessary French but they learned the French culinary techniques and adapted to their local products and own culture.
Most of our chefs have a long professional experience in France and abroad as well. Chef Groult worked 10 years in Japan and 5 years in Hong Kong, Macao and Shanghai to enrich his culinary experience.

The passionate Chefs

Today Chef Maxim Baïle will conduct the cuisine demonstration with a Red mullet fillet on the skin, sauce with Provence flavors and heirloom vegetable. Meantime the Pastry Chef Xavier Cotte will demonstrate Macaroons filled with Chocolate under the watchful eye of Franck Ramage, the Head of Wine department for a food and wine pairing.

Let the show begin!

On the left Chef Cotte is starting the meringue for the Macaroons shells. “For a nice shell, avoid to put too much cacao, pistachio or any other ingredient in the shell. It is better to play with the ganache for the flavor…”

Chef Baïle is cleaning the fish on the other side of the working table. “The Red Mullet is more fat than most fishes. The flesh is very delicate so you need to stab as less as possible not to damage too much the flesh… A good cook doesn’t waste and will use the remains of the fish to make a sauce…”

“So I will use coloring for the shell instead of cacao powder…”

The forgotten vegetables

… “For my recipe, I want to use forgotten vegetables such as Jerusalem artichokes, rutabaga and parsnips. Our grand parents were eating them a lot during World War II; they got tired of them and wanted to forgot them…”

And the head of wine department steps in. “The wine expert must know the dishes in order to find the best wine to compliment the food…”

Chef Baïle has all his ingredients ready and is starting to cook. “The vegetables must be steamed. If you blanch them in hot water, the flavors are going to disappear in the water…” Chef is adding salt, sugar, pepper and oil with the vegetables. Then he covers the vegetables with a baking sheet to keep the flavors… “Always start with oil and finish adding butter at the end…”

Red mullet fillet cooked on the skin, sauce with Provence flavors and heirloom vegetable

The wine expert is not missing a thing of the show. “If the texture of the fish is delicate, the wine must be elegant and fine. If a meat is cooked for a long time you will use a powerful wine… Here we have a Provence flavors with the tomatoes and olive oil, so I will go for a wine from Provence…”

… “This is my personal belief, the ganache should not be sweet. Macaroons are usually too sweet and people don’t like macaroons because it is so sweet. I like a Chantilly Ganache without sugar…”

Chef Baïle is preparing purple potato chips using naturally purple potatoes. “The purple fruits and vegetables are healthy like blackberries, blueberries, aubergines or blood oranges. They contain an anti-oxidant…”

The Earl Grey ice-cream with a playful smile

The Macaroons are ready and Chef Cotte is plating the macaroons with a scoop of Earl Grey ice-cream with a playful smile. And, this was not planned. The wine expert explains he receive the recipes in advance in order to study the ingredients and choose the right wine. “The tea flavor is not a problem but the ice-cream is, as it numbs the taste buds. So we will serve the wine before…”

Chocolate Macaroons

Now it is time for the tasting. First the wine to prepare the palate.
“This wine from Provence is special. This is not a fruity wine but a wine with a touch of minerality. The saline hint in your mouth is very rare and comes from the environment. This wine is from the Porquerolles island where the soil is very mineral…”

Food and Wine Pairing

And then the Red Mullet with the forgotten vegetables is served. This is so refined and different. Next will be a red wine to pair the chocolate macaroon and the tricky ice-cream. I am very impressed with the ice-cream. Very creamy and flavorful.

Mouthwatering isn’t it? I know. I am going to study for the Pastry diploma but learning cuisine is very appealing too. Oh! And, I am so interested in the oenology initiation program…

I hope you enjoyed the visit.
Thank you for coming and I will see you next week in class.
Remember to wear black socks. Uniform must be clean and ironed.
- Yes Chef!

October 14, 2016

Chasing my wild dream

7am – Akti Olympion beach, Limassol. The sun just rose. The beach starts bustling with the early birds who would not miss their daily swim. Flippers on. The water always feels cold at first. A small group of elderly women already in the sea, busy in their morning conversation, looks at me and smiles:
- δεν είναι κρύο!, it is not cold
Jump into the water. Oh! είναι πολύ κρύο!, Oh! The water is very cold.

Credit Photo: Giannis Papanastasiou
Giannis is one of those early birds, you can see wandering on the beach at dawn with his camera. Thank you Giannis.

Fast motion to warm up and, I am gone for a wonder. I will be swimming from pier to pier, and back. The soft lapping of the sea is calming. From far away I can hear the singing of a group of women exercising in the water. A couple of men are fishing from the jetty. Suddenly a fish flying out would surprise me and I would swallow water. The sun is slowly warming up the surface of the sea.
Where else in the world can you grab your flippers, and go for a swim in the ocean, before going to the office? What a nice way to start the day.

The mind at peace, I am wondering how life will be after Cyprus. We have been here for five years already and, time has come to spread our wings. What if everything is possible… because everything is actually possible.

Those little daydreams in the deep blue took me far: I want to live by the ocean in a warm and sunny place and I want to open a Pastry Boutique.

A Pastry Boutique, do you ask?

Well, as far as I can remember this pastry comic book, “Desserts en Bande Dessinée” was my first pastry book and, I think it is the seed of my wild dream.

“Desserts en Bande dessinée” by Hélène Vincent

I was about ten when this book got me started. I was baking Tarte Tatin, île flottante, Tuiles aux amandes, Quatre quarts and other classic French desserts over and over, week ends after week ends. Then I grew up and the passion for baking turned silent.

When living abroad I like to miss France: the food, the culture, the history but not the desserts. And, satisfy my sweet tooth with French pastries can be a challenge at times.
So I put my apron on and got back in the kitchen: macarons, Tarte Tatin, fruit tarts, clafoutis and macaron often… nothing fancy but something sweet and familiar.
Soon the pleasure of baking and experimenting new recipes took over my craving for a nice pastry and I started to feed my co-workers with lime cheesecake, galette des rois, some more macarons...

Pistachio macarons

And now, what?

Now I am dreaming of a place where you would feel home, you would come to enjoy a traditional French pastry, you would meet like-minded people… Or maybe today, you just would like to be surprised with a dessert inspired from one of my trips?

How am I going to get there? I don’t know. Am I scared? Yes, I am. Pursue that dream is going to be a long journey. There will be setbacks, some challenges, some doubts and maybe I will fail but there will be satisfaction, fulfillment, excitement, and passion.

I am jumping into the water.

I have been an accountant for long enough, and I now want to be a tremendous Pastry Chef!
So after twenty years, I am back to school, attending Le Cordon Bleu Paris to prepare a Pastry Diploma, first step towards my wild dream.

The water is only cold at first.

September 30, 2016

“The best place in the world is righ here” by Francesc Miralles

Life is not always sweet and sometimes seems like an absurd tragedy. We are told that time is healing but is it really time ? Or rather our ability to switch our point of view so the unbearable becomes bearable ?

Iris loses her appetite for life when her parents die in a car accident until, she pushes the door of a mysterious coffee shop « The Best Place in the World is Here »…

The owner is special and so the place. The tables have magic powers. There is an attractive italian involved. A pocket watch that does not give the right time. A touching story about a parrot who says « I love you ». You will learn the Art of Haiku. A promise. And a happy ending.

This little book is a philosophical and poetic tale to be read with a cup of hot chocolate when the sky of your life is grey.

Hot Chocolate at Ladurée

The loss of a loved one made me face my own mortality and reassess what I value in life. Tomorrow is not granted. Before my last sunset I want to :
  • Inspire and make a difference
  • Chase my wild dreams
  • Travel
  • Be in love and,
  • Live fully...

« Enjoy the little things, 
for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things » - Robert Brault

September 21, 2016

It was written...

Paris, 19th of February 2011

Since the beginning, it was written...
I had to go to Kongolo,
And you flew me there.
You were flying low for me,
But I fell asleep and missed it all...

I offered you clementines in Kalemie.
I heard a polite "No",
While you were saying "Yes".

I left Congo without seeing you again,
But it was written...
I had to see you again.

In the shopping mall of Kampala,
We met each other again,
We said Hello.
I passed my way, you passed your way.

But, having no more patience,
God or destiny,
Tied up our paths
Because it was written...

So there we are again,
Face to face in Kampala,
In this shopping mall again.

Later we had to be apart again:
You in Israel and I in La Reunion,
You in Chad and I in Paris,

But God or destiny,
Had tied up our paths,
And we could not be separated again,
Because it was written...

... Because it is written,
We will meet again,
Sometime, somehow,
Somewhere in the eternity.

September 05, 2016

A blue summer in the Mediterranean

The summer is over. Today is a rainy day. And, tomorrow I am back to school.
This year the summer was blue. Intensive blue vacations. From the sky to the sea. From my mask and snorkel to my flippers. Everything was blue, blue, and blue… outrageously blue.

Northern Coast, Cyprus

After living in Cyprus for five years, it was good to return and reconnect with well-known faces. Not so many changes since my last visit in February: the sea and the sky remain blue, new restaurants at the old marina are now open; we are still driving on the wrong side of the road. I am a visitor and no longer a resident. Is that making my perception of the island different?

I came back to familiar places and witnessed how life unfolds.

Alagadi Beach, Cyprus

Alagadi Beach. A young boy runs into Erkon’s little shop and hands him a white polka-dot black shoebox to be delivered to the daughter of the Turtle Paradise’s owner. He is dating her. The restaurant is next to Erkon’s shop and sometimes he hears their phone conversations.
At this age, they are just in love and don’t know how to behave towards each other. Love is like an electric shock. And it takes a lifetime to know what to do with it.
Erkon brings her the shoebox. Is the shoebox contain a gift?
The young boy is already gone. Erkon comes back. They just broke up and the shoebox contains her belongings. A broken heart at the Turtle Paradise.
It was last summer. I wonder where they are at a year later. So much had happen since last summer.

I came back to places I thought I knew. I drove so many times on that road along the northern coast of the north of Cyprus. But this summer I got introduced to a new one further down. Off-map and untraveled. We don’t see, when we don’t look.

Northern Coast, Cyprus

This old coast road feels like a trip in the past. No traffic, countless potholes. Time has stopped. A few locals climb down to a hidden beach with turquoise blue water. A flock takes over the asphalt before the shepherd re-establishes orderliness, sort of.

Northern Coast, Cyprus

Then, there are those places I have been willing to go but never been. Done, now.

Latchi, Cyprus

And so the places I discovered only by wandering around and getting lost. So many of them.

Somewhere around Pano Akourdaleia

Around Pano Akourdaleia


And you think you know Cyprus? No way!

When you find your groove it is already time to fly back home. On the way, I stopped over in Greece. Thessaloniki looks retro. Lot of shoe stores, many pastry shops. Your eyes see what you look for, isn’t it?

Pastry shop in Thessaloniki, Greece

Caramelized Belgian milk chocolate - Mango

For a good reason I drove all the way down to Lefkada island. A five-hours drive through mountains for the promise of a dip into a turquoise-blue sea. No disappointment.

Lefkada, Greece

Grilled sardines and very garlicky tzatziki on the top of that.

This time I really need to get home. Or maybe not. After a few sunny days in Paris, the weatherman forecast clouds and rain. I remembered I have not seen yet the temporary Picasso exhibition in Marseille so I packed my bag again. Picasso is a genius.

Marseille's Calanques

Here I am on the road again touring the south of France and visiting old friends. What a bliss to explore Marseille’s Calanques. Hiking shoes, small backpack, swimsuit, flippers. And, the further you walk, the biggest is the reward: an isolated rocky inlet with only a few people. Chrystal-clear and blue sea…

Marseille's calanques

The deep blue is calming when,
The heart is still crying…

March 07, 2016

Road trip in Namibia – Part I

Sossusvlei, Namibia
Credit Photo:  Enrique García Photography
Africa is my soft spot and I am always excited to go back, regardless of the daily challenges (electricity breakdown, water cuts, limited internet connections, blazing sun, dust, rutted roads, chaotic public transportation, misunderstandings, poor infrastructures, Kafkaesque situations…) that leave me perplexed or upset.

But at the end of the day I am happy to be here. I like the simplicity, the ingenuity, the generosity of the people I had met. I always come back refueled with a greater sense of what is important: live in the moment, family and community come first, there is always a solution.

This time my African adventure is taking me to Namibia starting alone with a road trip to the Namib Desert.
Yes, alone. I am going to drive about 1,200 kilometers round trip to see the beautiful sand dunes in the Namib Desert. Everything can happen. The best as much as the worst. Is that safe for a woman to travel alone in Africa? What if you get a flat tire? What if the car get stuck in the sand? What if you get lost? What if… Everything can happen and I will be just fine.

So here I am at Windhoek airport, after 24h spent in planes and airports to get here. Nonchalance, dry heat, dusty horizon, stony hills. This is Africa. As part of the Ebola monitoring, another medical form to fill up. My partner in adventure is going to be a Nissan X-Trail 4x2. Now seating at the wheel, not feeling very bold.  I think this car is almost twice the size of my petite Peugeot. I have butterflies in the stomach. I look left. I look right. 

The epic road trip starts at this very moment when I hit the B6 towards Windhoek where I will spend the night. 40 kilometers to go. The road goes through a flat and mesmerizing landscape with only dust and bush for as far as the eye can see. The sky is dramatic. So when the sun is starting its descent it is absolutely stunning. The last rays of light pierce thick dark clouds and the horizon is incandescent. I get overwhelmed with feelings of peace and freedom

Only a few cars every now and then remind me I am not the only witness of this raw beauty. There are as well some warthogs popping up, prancing about along the road and disappearing as fast as they appeared. This is going to be an unrivaled journey.

Once at the hostel it did not take me very long before I meet my new fellow travellers for the next days. Who doesn’t want to go to the Namib Desert? We agreed on an itinerary and set a departure time for the next day.

This morning the headline on Sky News is the poisoning of lions in the Masaï Mara, caused by shepherds who wanted to protect their cows. Some claim that this illegal action will harm the reserve and so the tourism industry; against those whose survival depends on their herd.

Cinnamon pancakes for breakfast and we left.

The Spitzkoppe, Damaraland

We first head east towards Swakopmund. One of us suggested to make a detour and pass by the Spitzkoppe, nicknamed the Matterhorn of Africa. So we did.
This 1728m high sharp peak rises miragelike in the dusty plain of Damaraland. Very dusty plain.

Sometimes we stop and there is no one but us marveling at this unlimited and wild space. Sometimes we stop and a horde of kids pops up from nowhere, runs to us laughing out loud for a gift, money, some attention or satisfy their curiosity.

The Spitzkoppe, Damaraland

Overnight at Swakopmund, a surreal remnant of the German colony. This blend of German and African culture on the African continent is like an anachronism to me. It feels weird.

We inflate again one of our breathless tires and start our driving through the Namib Desert. The journey itself is worth the destination. Hours of driving on an arid land with mind-blowing landscapes from infinite dusty plains to rocky hills and a few cactus.

Namib Desert

Very few drivers on the road that we greet like we would with old friends. This ride is an invitation to daydreams and mind wanderingOoh! A mysterious biker in black just passed by and said hi… this one was not a daydream...

The tourists mass together by the Tropic of Capricorn sign for a selfie or group photo to immortalize their passing.

The locals – zebras, ostriches, and antelopes - don’t seem to pay attention to our visit. They ignore cars, and the dust that comes along.

Solitaire. What an interesting place. A settlement lost in the open desert. Our tire is still breathless. Are we going to make it to Sossusvlei, our final destination?

I had no choice but to share my giant chocolate chip muffin with the birds. Probably more birds in that place than the number of inhabitants, unless they are the inhabitants. Very hungry ones.

On our way back I went for the giant apricot jam sandwich biscuit, whose both ends were dipped into chocolate. They tend to bake extra large pastries in this small place. This time I shared with this little squirrel. It is a squirrel, right? Yes, I think it is.

Right on time to check in at Sesriem, the gateway to the sand dunes of Sossusvlei. Can’t resist the beautiful chalets facing the silent and mysterious desert plain, so no camping for me tonight, and not either tomorrow night. I am spoiling myself!

Sossus Dune Lodge
View from my balcony in the morning
The next days are going to be all about marveling and wandering in such an inspiring place.

Sossusvlei - Dune 45
The experience of a private sunset over a sand sea:
One hour before dawn we are passing the entrance gate of the park
45 km to drive in the darkness before reaching Dune 45,
A bevy of tourists is already climbing the 150m-high dune
Most stop and seat right where the edge starts 

Sossusvlei - Dune 45
But it takes only a few meters further to find an unspoilt spot to seat
And enjoy a private sunset
The wind murmurs gently but the silence is deafening,
The sun rises slowly and the light uncovers the shapes and colors of the dunes,
The sand warms up our bare feet as the sun rises
Because dunes are being revealed one after another
I just walk further on the edge of that Dune 45 for another private sunset
The sand rolling down under our feet sounds like the sea running through the pebbles
Endless wander and exploration of the untouched and changing dunes

Sossusvlei - Dune 45
Credit Photo:   Enrique García Photography
How long did we stay on the top of the Dune 45? I don’t know. When we started to slide back to the car the crowd had left, running to the next dune. We stayed there another moment still hypnotized.

Sossusvlei - Dune 45
Sorry for the profusion of pictures, but this place is really special. And no words or pictures can actually describe how it felt to have witnessed that sunrise. We all felt very privileged to be there.

And the show is not over. Next is the Dead Vlei, part of the Namib-Naukluft park. Another inspiring place, where you can contemplate for hours and feel at peace.

Dead Vlei
Credit Photo: A wandering kiwi
This clay pan was once a shallow pool. Now this is how it looks like after the climate changed and the trees died.

Dead Vlei
But do not stay too long after noon though as the sand become so hot that you take the chance to caramelize your feet and/or bottom depending on how you decide to slide down the sand dune. I speak from experience here. 

Dead Vlei
That day was our last day together. We shared a last sunset, exchanged email addresses and said goodbye. Some would go back to Windhoek, some would head south, other would decide as the day goes.

The last sunset at Sossusvlei
Hard to leave such a place so I decided to extend my stay for one more night. Now I want to see the sand dunes from a different angle: high up, from a hot air balloon

Breathtaking. Only the breath of the balloon disturbs the silence, when the pilot insufflates more heat in the balloon.

Soft landing and champagne breakfast in the middle of nowhere.

Time to head back to Windhoek. I got my breathless tire fixed. I got some food and water for the way in case the desert would not let me go.
At the exit gate the guard introduces me to Junius. He works at the lodge I was staying at and needs a lift to Windhoek. All right, let’s go!
“Oh, and one of your friend is waiting for you at the petrol station…” he added. Very pleased to see him again. More time to philosophize and set the world to rights between two daydreams.
Now we are good to go, so let’s go!

Time is flying when the company is good. I’m already back to Windhoek to pick up my sister at the airport. We are going to explore the north to meet up with the Himba tribe. 
Everything can happen; my sister is a serious adventurer. Are you ready?