On the French Riviera

I’m not sure what I expected, but French highways (and Italian) look a lot like what we travel in the States.

In thinking about this blog post, it occurred to me that though I never thought of myself as a “French Riviera kind of girl,” after our visit there last fall, I’d go back in a heartbeat.

The French Riviera is incredibly beautiful. Blue skies, even bluer Mediterranean water, sunsets that defy any camera to adequately capture them. Turn away from the water and there are hilltops covered in the tiled roofs of villas and, beyond that, mountains.

We included the Riviera on our “great French road trip” because getting that close and skipping it would be foolish, and we wanted make at least some some stops on the “art trail” in the South of France. (You may recall we had been making our way along the western coast of France, beginning in Rouen, then Normandy and Mont St. Michel, before heading to the chateaus in the Loire and then wine tasting in Bordeaux.)

After a beautiful cruise thru the French countryside, with the occasional walled chateau or abbey along the road, we found ourselves navigating in bumper-to-bumper traffic on ridiculously narrow streets, lined with parked cars on each side and street vendors selling everything from sunglasses to take-out dinners. Bikes and pedestrians criss-crossed our paths. What had we done?

Steve, after parking our car on a sidewalk (along with so many others) in Juan les Pins.

But wait, it gets better.

As we motored our way thru the congestion (it was Friday afternoon, the last Friday on the last weekend of the season as it turned out), we were trying to follow Google’s directions to our hotel in Juan les Pins, across the street from Antibes. Google meant well, but when she said turn left, she meant at the intersection we passed 20 yards ago. After a series of ridiculously convoluted detours, we finally pulled into a “parking space” on a sidewalk among a number of other cars and walked to the hotel. Then, having a somewhat better grasp of where to go, Steve moved the car to the underground garage where we happily left it until Sunday morning! (This park nd walk maneuver is one of our best tips. Sometimes finding someplace on foot is easier.)

Our room was large and lovely with a tiny balcony from which we could see the Mediterranean. We would be here for four nights. I don’t think we’d fully appreciated how much we had been “on the road” until now, stopping only for one or two nights along the way. And what a place to take a break. We walked down to the beach, found an empty cafe table, a glass of wine and just enjoyed the sunset. The next morning, after a leisurely hotel breakfast, we walked — yes, walked — about eight blocks, a little uphill and then down, and we were in Antibes!

The French Riviera is a string of cities like Nice and Cannes, and smaller cities and even villages along this lovely coast. We chose Juan les Pins/Antibes as a base because it was smaller than Nice and not as “high end” as Cannes. We could stay close to the water for a reasonable price. All of these cities are connected by a train line than runs frequently throughout the day, like a commuter rail. In fact on Monday, we walked to the station and took a short train ride to Nice.

This is Picasso country

Antibes was a fairly busy place on a Saturday morning, but we easily found our way to the Old Town with the usual tangle of charming, narrow streets and interesting shops. Our destination was the Picasso Museum.   (Actually, there are Picasso Museums all over France it seems. I have also been to one in Paris.)

This was on a Saturday morning and we had been taking our time, ooh-ing and aaah-ing over the Antibes waterfront and wandering thru the old town. We arrived at the ticket office just before noon. We walked up to the ticket wndow along with some other visitors only to have the ticket-seller (who on this day was apparently also the ticket-taker) announce to all those around, that it was his lunch time and he would be closing until 1:30.

This is so quintessentially french, you just have to go with it.

Just one view of the waterfront in Antibes.

So, we wandered back to a food market complete with a cafe, ordered a light lunch, and did some people watching. I checked out a brocante market and we got sidetracked by two wedding parties celebrating along the way. Back to the museum.

This particular museum is housed in the Chateau Grimaldi, a 14th Century Roman Fort turned museum in which Picasso enjoyed a work space in 1946. His time in this space was short, from September until mid-November, but his artistic output was remarkable. He produced 23 paintings and 44 drawings during this short time. Interestingly, he donated all this work to the museum, which eventually acquired much more, including sculpture and ceramics.

The collection here included a number of sculptures on a terrace facing the Mediterranean.

About Picasso. Although I am not a huge Picasso fan, I have come to genuinely appreciate his work and its evolution, as well as his influence on generations of artists. The range of his work extends from painting, drawing and sculpture to include set design and ceramics. I wish I pictures of his ceramics, they were stunning. (This is what happens to me. I get so busy looking that I forget to take photos!)

The next day we dared to take the car from the garage to the outskirts of Nice to visit the Musee Matisse.

Self portrait, 1918, in the Musee Matisse.

After a predictably adventurous drive, we arrived at the museum, where interestingly (ironically?) there was a substantial exhibit recalling the friendship and rivalry between Matisse and Picasso. (Did I say this is Picasso country?) Matisse and Picasso met sometime in 1906 at Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon. (Americans Gertrude Stein, her brothers Leo and Michael and Michael’s wife Sarah were important collectors and supporters of Matisse.) Picasso, who was 11 years younger, and Matisse were artistic contemporaries. One of the most interesting displays in the exhibit was a pair of black and white films of each of them at work on similar pieces.

Matisse was 48 and a successful artist when he first came to Nice in 1917. Initially he wrote that it rained every day for a month. He was about to leave when the sun came out and he was hooked by the light. He never really left.

 

After Matisse we headed further inland to St. Paul de Vence, hoping to at least have a drink at La Colombe d’Or, the restaurant where so many artists paid their tabs by offering a painting or drawing in lieu of money. Did I mention this was a Sunday? On the last weekend in September? Everyone in France goes out to lunch on Sundays, especially beautiful September Sundays. The views on the drive were breathtaking, the town was packed, and the restaurant was unapproachable even for a drink without a reservation.

We knew better, but in our “carefree vacation” mode we just assumed they would throw open the doors for Janet and Steve. Happily, we found a table in an outdoor cafe and enjoyed a delicious lunch and some serious people watching. But we found the town too crowded to enjoy. C’est la vie.

On our last full day on the Riviera, we took the train from Juan les Pins to Nice to explore the old town. It took less than 30 minutes and, once in Nice, there is a handy tram a block from the train station that runs down to the water, making several stops along the way. This was a day to walk and enjoy. Nice is very old and so close to Italy, that the influence is striking. Look at these pastel hued buildings, so different from the neutral stone in the rest of France.

 

This streetscape of fountains and park amid more substantial buildings is in the heart of the town near the water. Note the clouds: a change in the weather was on the way. Although the sun shone all day, it was much cooler by the time we went to dinner.

 

We enjoyed a delicious lunch at an outdoor cafe just off to the right of this photo.

This is the Promenade des Anglais. We walked here for several yards before I realized this is the idyllic spot where terrorists drove a huge truck into the crowds celebrating Bastille Day on July 14, 2016. Today the promenade is lined with bollards, but the horror of that night is hard to imagine in the midst of sun and sea.

 

As luck would have it, we were in Nice on the day of their regular antique market, which in this case was blocks-long, winding from one square to another. I was in heaven, Steve not so much. One of the most striking aspects of these markets is the age and provenance of the goods. There are chandeliers and gilt mirrors, confit pots, textiles and more that I have just never seen in a market in the midwest.

 

Despite our “longer stay” on the Riviera, we left the next day, promising ourselves to come back. In fact I would call this our “preview visit” to the Riviera. There is so much more to see on the art trail, we never got to Monaco or St. Jean Cap Ferrat or Cannes.

This is the mantra of our travels. And it is, I suppose, why we are totally unapologetic about returning to places that we love. There’s always more to see. What about you? Are you willing to make a return trip to a destination you really liked? Or do you feel each place you visit — in this country or around the globe — needs to be new? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Thank you so much for stopping by. See you next time!

 

 

 

 

 

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Lately: Reading, cooking, and decorating my way out of cabin fever

Spring can’t come soon enough.

I’ve lived in Chicago all my life and winter weather — including snow, ice and bitter cold — is something we just learn to live with. However, this year’s temperatures have challenged the hardiest of us. I honestly cannot remember a time when sub-zero temperatures and wind chill hit 50-below, when the Post Office announced it would not deliver mail and the garbage trucks simply stayed put and these lapses had nothing to do with two feet of snow on the ground.

As my grandson would say, it’s been epic!

Although we have certainly been able to get out for groceries, go to the gym, meet friends for breakfast, lunch or dinner, we have often done so in bitter cold or sloppy snow. With boots, gloves, hats, and scarves. This is fun and adventurous early in the winter, after a few months it gets old, at least for me. Most of all, there have been too many days when we just couldn’t go out. When no one could.

Cabin fever is no joke.

When I look back at what I have done lately, most of it has been centered on coping with cabin fever. First, of course, I read. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee was a book club read and, like so many of them, it pushed my typical reading choices. This multigenerational story about Koreans living in Japan (where they were viewed as second class citizens) recounts one woman’s life decision and the repercussions on her family for generations to come. I knew very little about the history of either country, so this was especially eye-opening for me. Pachinko was a little tough starting, but ultimately a compelling read.

Then I read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Never assume. This was appearing on so many reading lists, I thought it would be one of those best seller/easy/fun reads. It was all that, but more. Eleanor is way more complicated than the heroine I was expecting. Yes, she has an amusing lack of social skills. Then she crosses paths with co-worker Raymond. (I know, this is sounding contrived, right?) Slowly, their growing friendship begins not only to reveal her terrifying past, but also the importance of human connections.

I’ve moved on now to House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea. I’ll keep you posted, but so far, so good.

I’ve been cooking

In fact, I cooked so much I had to start passing out “samples.” I made Ina Garten’s Winter Vegetable Soup twice in one week. It was just that good! I made the first batch per all of her instructions, minus the pesto which I did not have. The second time, I tweaked the recipe a bit, substituting potato for some of the squash. It was just as good! (I did take Ina’s suggestion to use homemade chicken stock, and I do think it makes a huge difference!)

Since we really can’t live by soup alone, I also made beef burgundy and a batch of meatballs. I would have continued, but the freezer was quickly filling with the soup, homemade stock, etc.

So I turned instead to decorating…

And I re-hung this gallery in the stairway to our finished basement. I am the only child/only grandchild and therefore keeper of family photos. My mother-in-law also passed along boxes of photos to me. These riches are compounded by the fact that my dad was quite the amateur photographer. He had a small darkroom in our house and he enlarged/cropped and otherwise tweaked his own photos as well as old negatives that my mom unearthed. It was a lot of fun for all of us. But it also resulted in a lot of photos. I’m really drowning in prints, often multiples of the same image (though I am increasingly successful at weeding those out!).

Some of these have been hung here right along, some have been displayed on tabletops, others were stashed in the back of closets, behind dressers, under beds — you name it. Would it surprise you to learn I have a few more to add to this? My goal has been to save the best and get rid of the rest. Let’s just say I’m making progress.

My Instagram feed

And, yes, I’ve spent far too much time this winter on social media, which for me is Instagram. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that my IG feed is pretty narrow, no celebrities, few FaceBook friends, a lot of designers and lifestyle bloggers. I’ve saved some screenshots, so I could share my favorite finds.

Anyone who has successfully grown a geranium in a porch pot is desperate for spring and the garden season after a winter like this. If you love gardening or decorating, I encourage you to follow Jenny Rose Innes, from Bowral, Australia. Her home(s) are stunning and her gardens beautifully lush. I was initially struck by the brick path in this image (I love the way it periodically cuts into the beds on each side), but I also thought that if my garden just looked this good in green, imagine how it would look when those plants bloomed!

 

I often think that “go big or go home” is a good rule in decorating. Look at the impact this big but simple bucket of lilacs has on this room. It’s not overpowering (though the fragrance must be wonderful), it’s placed to be seen but not in the way, and it beautifully balances the stone wall, wood floor, and baskets.

 

Elizabeth blogs at blueandwhitehome.com. Both her blog and her IG feed are populated with beautifully-appointed, mostly blue and white rooms. She’s traditional, sometimes with an edgier feel, and her daughter, who also contributes to the blog, has a similar aesthetic. Elizabeth also generously introduces a number of her favorite designers, like Caroline Gidiere Design. (Yes, I’m a little obsessed with this room: the gallery, the blue and white and that green!)

 

 

James T. Farmer is an interior designer, gardener, author and speaker whose work is always infused with a gracious, southern sensibilty. His IG is as likely to feature photos of his dog, whatever he’s cooking or eating, and/or his extended family and friends as it does images of his design work. This image says it all! (Check out his latest book, A Place to Call Home.)

 

 

Wouldn’t you love to attend or host a dinner party featuring this lovely table? Enough said.

 

 

Finally, Joni Webb — whose awesome blog Cote de Texas is, well, awesome — posted this image (and several others) of an apartment belonging to the late Lee Radziwell. Is there anyone else out there, of a certain age I suppose, who heard a door quietly close at the news of her passing?

 

 

And that’s my lately. What are you doing to combat cabin fever?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time?

 

Seventy

Cruising into a new decade?

I celebrated my 70th birthday last month. Seventy. Seven-zero. Who thinks about turning seventy, at least much before they are 69?

When she called on my birthday, my friend Becky asked if I was saying the number out loud. (She celebrates her 70th birthday this week.) Hmmmm. It did kind of stick in my throat temporarily. Like a new year or a new address, seventy takes getting used to.

I am trying to wrap my head around this number. Honestly, I find 70 to be something of a surprise. How did we get here, I asked Becky? I don’t feel much different from my 50’s. I suppose it’s another riff on “where did the years go?” (The week before my birthday, Steve and I celebrated our 45th anniversary and the week after our son celebrated his 40th birthday — talk about being gobsmacked by ridiculous numbers!)

In my family, we own our age. We celebrate with parties and cakes. Although since my birthday comes on the heels of the holidays and in the midst of what my mother used to refer to as the “January festival,” I am increasingly inclined to let it slip by. Not because I dislike birthdays (the other option is not at all appealing), but really because the month is just. too. crowded.

This year, however, the question of celebrating or not celebrating isn’t the issue, it’s the number. It’s potentially intimidating!

But, it turns out, seventy is sort of trendy.

“Inside the List” in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, makes the same point. Nancy Pelosi was just re-elected as Speaker of the House of Representative. She’s 78. In January Glenn Close won a Golden Globe for Best Actress. She’s 71. Jessica Benett’s essay in the January 8 Times, “I Am (an Older) Woman. Hear me Roar” ticks off the names of a number of women and even more statistics that support “our” growing power.

As Mary Pipher points out in “The Joy of Being a Woman in Her 70’s“, “There is a sweetness to 50-year-old friendships and marriages that can’t be described in language. We know each other’s vulnerabilities, flaws and gifts.” That was the lesson of my 50th high school reunion, where one friend pointed out that it’s oddly comforting to be with these people who had shared so much of our daily lives, often from kindergarten or first grade all the way through high school graduation. We weren’t all best friends, or even friends for that matter, but we were classmates. In it together.

Pipher believes that some of the strength and resilience of our older selves is credited to “a shelterbelt of good friends and long-term partners.” I second that.

There are losses, some expected and some not. When I mentioned to my family doctor that I had suddenly and unexpectedly lost a dear friend, he gently pointed out that I was getting to an age when that would happen. When my friend Barb’s mom passed away a few months ago, I realized she was the last of “that generation” in my life. My parents and in-laws, along with the aunts and uncles and family friends that made up that generation that provided the buffer between us and mortality, have been slipping from lives for some years now. It is what it is.

But life goes on. I have been blessed with grown up children who are fun and interesting, a pair of grandsons to keep me on my toes, and a wide circle of interesting friends. Steve and I are planning some new travels once his chemo is in the rear view mirror. I have always been a glass-half-full kind of person.

Perhaps as Steve says, 70 is the new 50!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

Google & Giverny

 

We started planning our month-long trip to France somewhat whimsically, by listing all the things we wanted to see if and when we went back Giverny, home of artist Claude Monet and his famous garden, was close to the top of my list. Fast forward to our itinerary and Giverny was a logical first stop when we arrived in Paris last September. It’s a relatively short trip from the airport and a logical first stop as we moved toward the coast to Rouen and Normandy.

Most travelers arrive in Giverny by train from Paris. The guidebooks are full of tips on how to do this. Others take one of the many bus tours that originate in the city. But, since we were picking up a car at the Paris airport, we would be making the 70 km trip on our own. How hard could this be?

All roads do not lead to Giverny. In France, road signs point to the next town no matter how small it is, rather than the next landmark site. (This is an important lesson for drivers there.) Although everyone goes to Giverny, it’s not immediately a road-sign destination.

This did not matter (ha!) because we decided to let Google Maps lead the way. We also turned on the voice (a feature we had not used in the past) and away we went, figuring “she” would not lead us astray. (“She” because we used the default female voice, though after a while “she” acquired new, unflattering nicknames. Steve would have switched to the male voice, but wasn’t sure if someone at Google had a dark sense of humor and the male voice might decide “Hey, I’m a guy, you’re a guy, you don’t need directions.” )

Google Maps did exactly what we wanted: got us out of the Paris airport without accidentally circling around Paris, which is what happened last year. As an added bonus, Google Maps would continue to direct Steve even if his navigator (me) fell asleep, which also happened last year.

But on the way to Giverny, Google led us to a cow path between pastures.

Not the cow path, but one of the roads that leads to Giverny. Everything here blooms!

There were a few things about Google that we didn’t realize. Google defaults to the fastest route, even if it is only a minute faster to exit the “A” route and travel down a one lane donkey path between farm fields. After getting us out of CDG, Google could have sent us down the A13 to Vernon, across the Seine and directly to the Monet Foundation. But she guided us west to a four lane route, then to a couple of 2 lane routes, before finally telling us to turn down what appeared to be a cart path between corn fields. Steve decided that wasn’t going to happen. Google re-directed us to the next turn, another cart path. We couldn’t do that either because there was already a car parked on it, the driver looking at his cell phone and scratching his head. Instead we drove on to Vernon, recalculated using the word “Monet” as the destination, and in 5 minutes we were there.

Another key lesson in Google directions: choose the most specific destination.

Monet lived here!

 

This bed was blooming in purples and white.

Monet lived in the house at Giverny from 1883 until his death in 1926. Located between Vernon and Gasny, the property included a barn that he used as a painting studio. As his prosperity increased, Monet acquired more land, including garden space, and built a greenhouse and another studio. Work on the lily ponds began in 1893 and he began painting them in 1899. The resulting large-scale paintings were his work for 20 years; the completed paintings hang in the galleries Monet designed for them in the Orangerie in Paris.

Most of the guidebooks are quick to point out that the gardens at Giverny are at their best in June and July. That may be true, but they are absolutely not the least bit disappointing in September. Look at these blooms — waves of blue, purple, yellow, red, and pink flowers, sometimes sorted by color and sometimes mixed together, dahlias as big as dinner plates, mums, lilies, and many others I cannot name.

And then there were the roses, so many roses, not just in “the gardens,” but lining the paths around the restaurants, lift shop, etc.

 

It’s hard to catch on film what a riot of color and bloom some beds were.
The flip side of all this color was green. Moss and lawns, the water lilies, because there were only a few blooms there this late in the season.
And then look at this stand of bamboo.

I was prepared for Monet’s gardens, but totally blown away by his home.

Nothing fancy, Monet’s home in Giverny was sized to accommodate a large family.

His study is papered in paintings, floor to ceiling, in a room with light and of course views of that garden. His collection of of Japanese prints lining the walls of the narrow hallway and stairs (these are not grand spaces).

This kitchen with the tiles and the stove.
A big, bright yellow dining room with a large table but not an ounce of formality. This is where family and friends shared a meal. How about that painted floor?

Back to Google

After Giverny, we hit the road for our hotel in Rouen. Back to Google. Steve keyed in the destination using the hotel name in Rouen, about 60 km to the west. Google selected the same hotel name, but in a different city, about 50 km to the east. About 10 km later we turned around.

In the coming days we traveled to Arromanches and Bayeux without much trouble; Steve is sure we went through some narrow roads that were totally unnecessary, but the scenery was nice. On our way to Mont-Saint-Michel, Google had us turn onto another cart path. We were pretty sure the major road a few hundred meters ahead was what we wanted, but Google took us on a merry run through the cornfields before leading us to the correct.

This is when we began listing our “Google lessons.”

  • There is no option to tell Google to stay on the major highway when possible. Why, you might ask? Certainly we asked that a lot. We have no answer and doubt Google has one either. Interestingly, there is an option to tell her to avoid major highways. This is great if you want to wander the backroads and I understand doing so from time to time. It’s not so great if you want to find the town you are going to stay in before dark.
  • Sometimes Google has no clue where you told it to go, but will give directions to somewhere, regardless of whether it’s anywhere near your desired destination.
  • Sometimes Google was simply wrong; “take the fourth exit at the round-about” when there are only three exits. Or “take the second exit at the round-about, when the second exit goes into a shopping center or is simply the wrong road.
  • Google gives turn directions based on street names. This works well in U.S. cities, but not always in Europe. At roundabouts, the French list the exits in terms of the town you will be heading toward and/or the route number, not the street name. And Google sometimes goes completely astray pronouncing names. Since we almost never saw a street name, it didn’t really matter, but the pronunciation sometimes gave us a good laugh. Near Antibes, Google told us to take the exit to Nice (not “niece” the French city, but nīce, as in how nice is that) and to exit onto Rue-de-la-Europe (as in your-roup-pey).

It’s an adventure, right?

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time!

What I’m keeping in the New Year

I know. I’ve been missing for awhile, but now I’m back. And I’ve been thinking, where to begin?

My husband had unexpected surgery in mid-December. (Think Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And this is a guy who does not smoke, never worked in a coal mine or the chemical industry. His cancer was found as accidentally as RBG’s.) This was discovered very early, and Steve is making a phenomenal recovery. That’s most important. But our holiday took on a new shape. (Remember last year when I wrote this post about flexible holiday traditions?) There was no annual holiday open house and my traveling wineglasses stayed in storage. I never did send Christmas cards. Instead of the merry chaos of Christmas morning in Ohio with our grandsons, our daughter stayed in Chicago with us and we FaceTimed the rest of the family. (We also laughed, cooked, and opened presents.) It was simpler, and frankly I wouldn’t have had the energy for our usual festivities. It was a different Christmas, but certainly not a bad one. Sometimes you just need to roll with it.

What I’m keeping in the New Year

Moving on, I am admittedly abysmal at New Year’s Resolutions. It isn’t just that I don’t keep them, I sometimes forget what they are! So this year I thought about what I would keep in the new year, rather than what I would change.

My “theory” is that you/I can come up with great ideas, improvements, interests or even skills any time during the year. And when they work for us, we should keep them. So, without further fanfare, here are my first five “keeps” for 2019:

#1 This Blog. Although I have been known to lapse a bit at writing, I’m not even close to giving it up. This is so much fun! I love my readers and I love writing. And, of course, it turns out I always have something to say! Steve and I are working on a few more travel posts (How I wish I was on the Riviera now. It’s so cold here). Then there’s some cooking and some reading. And sooner or later, there will be spring and a whole new season aptly named “gardening.”

#2 While I’m in an electronic mode, I’m also continuing with Instagram. I just genuinely enjoy this. Admittedly, I have curated my feed to things I like — food, travel, decorating, gardening and books. (And I suspect the abiity to curate what you see may be the attraction for me!) But, I have made a number of IG friends, some who share wonderful bits of history or books in their feeds, others who share the highs and lows of their gardening, decorating and cooking efforts. Look for more about them in an upcoming blog post. (Follow me here.)

#3 Traveling more and keeping it personal. Some of our best times in France (and travel tips) were the result of locals and other travelers. Rick Steves says it best here but learning to travel with an open mind and heart is so much more rewarding and fun than worrying about the best table at a restaurant or what constitutes a 4- or 5-star hotel (which in Europe at least will not be the same as it is in the states anyway!) I’m not big on checking places off a bucket list, but I do want to meet the people and see how they live,

#4 Closer to home, I have a confession. I honestly don’t like to clean house and so for now, I’ll keep my cleaning lady. Sometimes I think it’s just the two of us here, I can certainly make the time, I should save the money and do my own cleaning. But the truth is, I just don’t like to do it. And she is much better at this than I am.

#5 I’m trying my best to keep up with my book groups, as well as things that pop up on my own “reading radar.” Have you read Educated by Tara Westover? It’s Tara’s personal memoir of growing up on an Idaho mountain with her survivalist family. She was homeschooled for most of her life but eventually found her way to BYU, Cambridge and a PhD from Harvard. (If that doesn’t entice you to pick up this book, I’m not sure what will.)

That’s the high and the low of my keepers for 2019. What about you?

Thanks so much for stopping by. I look forward to seeing you next time!

The chateau that wasn’t & the wine that was

The vistas in St. Emilion are truly picture-postcard worthy. Narrow, cobbled streets run uphill and down and vineyards surround the town.

Did you hear the one about the independent travelers in France who made an unfortunate hotel choice, changed their itinerary, and discovered Bordeaux gold?

Before leaving for France this fall, my husband read somewhere that Paddy O’Flynn’s in Saint-Émilion is a must-see stop in Bordeaux for wine tasting and a cave tour, but with all the planning for our “great French road tip”, he forgot about it long before we left home. Then the fates intervened.

Wine tasting was always a part of our itinerary, so Steve made reservations for us to stay at a country chateau about 20 minutes from Saint-Émilion, and reserved tastings at two recommended wineries that were less than a stone’s throw from some Grand Cru Classé producers. We left our lovely hillside chateau in the Loire, stopped to learn about Cognac, and late in the day arrived at the country chateau. It was a spectacular flop, a one star disappointment rather than the three star country estate we had been expecting. So we kissed our euros goodbye (it was too late to cancel that reservation) and drove on.

(This was a first for us as independent travelers, and in retrospect, it had to happen sooner or later. Not every website review/picture/description lives up to its hype.)

This is a typical street view in Saint-Emilion.

Now, however, it was Friday night, getting dark, and we had no place to stay. Trustworthy hotels in Libourne and Saint-Émilion were full. It took a couple of hours, but we ended up with a room at a clean, comfortable, chain-style hotel about 40 km away in Bordeaux. We had some dinner and started over on Saturday morning. And we tweaked our itinerary over breakfast.

As a bit of background, Saint-Émilion is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with Romanesque churches and ruins along its steep and narrow streets. Vineyards were first planted there by the Romans in the second century. Eventually, monks who settled in the 8th century launched commercial wine production. Today it is one of the principal red wine areas of Bordeaux, producing primarily merlot and cabernet franc grapes.

Isn’t this charming? Saint-Emilion oozes charm at every turn of its narrow, cobbled streets.

Because our hotel was farther afield than planned and we were now traveling a slightly different route, we cancelled our tasting reservations. We would get to town too late for the first one, and would be moving on to Sarlat-en-Canada (where we had new hotel reservations)  mid-afternoon and miss the second one. But we would get to do some tasting in Saint-Emillion.

On our initial picture-taking walk through town and purely by accident, Steve saw a small building with some signage in English and walked up to read it. A man on the inside greeted him through the open window and invited Steve in to talk wine. And that was how we met Paddy O’Flynn. If you read about him, Paddy came to Bordeaux from Ireland many years ago to source wines to sell back home. His first store opened in 2000 in Limerick (Now he has several stores in Ireland. They’re on our list when we finally make it to Ireland), and in 2014 opened his store/tasting room in Saint-Émilion.

Paddy is friendly, funny and a wonderful story-teller. He also knows wine. Much more than a salesman with a storefront,  Paddy knows the vineyards and producers, does blending for some of them and himself, and reputedly has some of the best wine caves in Saint-Emilion.

Steve and I with Paddy O’Flynn and Pilar.

Given that Steve was just another guy who walked past the store, Paddy spent significant time with us talking about his love for wine, offering tastings on excellent wines from both Burgundy and Bordeaux. We also met Pilar, his partner/fiance. (Interestingly, they were leaving in a few weeks to get married in Pilar’s hometown in Spain. Timing is everything. If our trip had been a few weeks later, we would have missed a great wine experience.)

The wines were, as a reviewer put it, extraordinary at ordinary prices. After a couple of hours of visiting and tasting (and buying) we decided we’d taken up more than enough of Paddy and Pilar’s time. We went off to find lunch. (Where we ran into a delightful couple from Wales who also have a home in France.)

We still haven’t toured any of the caves in Saint-Émilion. Guess we’ll just have to go back again.

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time?

 

 

 

Stopping in Cognac for cognac

Like vineyards everywhere, these were really gorgeous, especially in the fall. We visited in mid-September and workers were picking and pressing grapes during our visit.

My husband, Steve, wrote this post. He discovered we’d be close to the town of Cognac and the opportunity for cognac tasting. It was a delightful detour, spent with a charming couple and offering insight into French culture. I hope you enjoy it!

Every once in a while, you get to do try unexpected and it’s totally fun. Okay, this wasn’t exactly unexpected since we had to plan cognac tasting several weeks in advance, but the decision to do it was not on our original “bucket list” for France.
Cognac grapes still on the vine. They taste really sweet!

After planning our itinerary, and rearranging, and re-planning, and re-rearranging some more, I noticed that the drive from the Loire (chateau country) to Saint-Émilion (for wine tasting) passes right by the town of Cognac, home of cognac, the drink. I have never thought much about cognac. I was vaguely aware that it is a type of brandy and we have recipe or two that call for flambé-ing a small amount of brandy. Since I am kind of a pyromaniac and enjoy flambé recipes (or torching creme brûlée, but that’s another story) we always have some brandy on hand. But we really just use it for cooking. That’s about all I knew about it.

We were planning on wine tasting in the Bordeaux region and I started thinking: Cognac is a spirit, Scotch is a spirit. If we were going to Scotland I would no doubt stop at a distillery for a single malt, so why not find out what cognac is all about. 

So I did a little more research. I thought we would prefer to visit a smaller producer instead of one of the cognac big boys (Courvisier, Hennessey, Martel and Remy-Martin). We enjoy doing the same in Napa for wine tasting. I found a half dozen small producers who had excellent reviews (both for visits and for product). I settled on Cognac Bertrand mostly for the product reviews.

Bertrand is out in the country about a half hour south of Cognac, surrounded by fields of grapevines. It was one of the few places that Google maps got us to on the first try. We were greeted by Thérèse Bertrand whose family has been running the distillery since at least 1731 (per the earliest records). She turned us over to her American husband, Seph, for the tour and then she took over again for the tasting. 

Since we had never really tried cognac as a standalone drink, we had no idea what to expect from the tasting. Janet and I agreed if we didn’t like it at all (and it would probably be bad form not to buy anything), the worst case scenario was that we would buy an inexpensive bottle for cooking. 

My worry was for naught. The distillery setting was very picturesque, Thérèse and Seph were friendly and gracious hosts, the tour was interesting and informative, and the Bertrand Cognacs were excellent, no make that spectacular. My only regret was that I couldn’t be sure the suitcase would hold more than one bottle.
This is the Charentais copper alembic still required by law to distill cognac. The French government is very protective of the traditional cognac process.

A little cognac background: Cognac is only made from a specific list of grape varieties. In order for it to be considered a true cru, the wine must be at least 90% Ugni blanc (known in Italy as Trebbiano), Folle blanche and Colombard. The remaining 10% of the grapes used come from a longer, specific list. Unlike wine grapes, Cognac grapes are harvested by machine, pressed and allowed to ferment for two or three weeks before being distilled to extract the water. Distillation takes place in traditionally shaped Charentais copper alembic stills, the design and dimensions of which are also legally controlled. Two distillations must be carried out; the resulting eau-de-vie is a colourless spirit of about 70% alcohol. It’s important to note that this entire process is shaped by french law, which therefore protects french culture.

These are some of the barrels in the early stages of aging,

After distillation comes aging. By French law VS is aged a minimum of 2 years on Limousin oak (I have no idea what Limousin oak is or what makes it the wood of choice for the barrels, but they were very specific about it) and VSOP for 4 years. Napoleon and XO used to have the same requirement of 6 years but that changed just this year and XO is now aged for at least 10 years. Those are minimum aging periods. Bertrand’s product is aged 5,10, and 20 years for the VS, VSOP, and Napoleon Cognacs, and 30 to 35 years for the XO. Interestingly, Bertrand sells roughly 90-percent of its product to one of the big cognac producers after the initial aging, keeping the remainder for its own label. Thérèse and Seph told us that most vineyards/distillers do the same thing.

Decades of barrels are stored in this building, one of the oldest on the property.

We tasted the VS, VSOP, XO, and a Pineau. We had never heard of Pineau before. It is a blend of grape juice and eau de vie (eau de vie is what the they call the result of the distillation, which means water of life). Pineau is served as an aperitif and was too sweet for our tastebuds. The VS, VSOP, and XO are a different story.  No two are the same, the aging definitely changes the taste. Each one in the progression was better, richer and more refined than the one before, the XO being my favorite. Thérèse explained their view of the best use for each cognac: VS for cooking, VSOP for cocktails, Napoleon and XO for more serious sipping (like in old movies, by the fire, in a balloon glass).

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit, the distillery, the cognacs, Thérèse and Seph, all of it. I can’t recommend this side trip enough. It’s one of those places you might never consider and drive right past, but it gave us a wonderful look at french life and culture. I guess the road less traveled comes to mind. It happened for us several times on this trip.

Happy travels!