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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you follow me on Instagram. you already know how excited I was when my copy of The Cook’s Atelier Cookbook arrived. The Cook’s Atelier is the cooking school I attended last spring in Beaune, France. I wrote about the one-day workshop, here, meeting Marjorie, her daughter Kendall and the rest of the class to shop the local market for ingredients, returning to their 15th Century atelier, and preparing and sharing a remarkable French lunch.
Like that day, this cookbook is much more than recipes. It’s a thoughtful treatise on French culture, particularly in the Burgundy wine country. Ex-pat authors and cooks Marjorie Taylor and Kendall Smith Franchini share their love and appreciation of all things French and the challenges of defining a business based on their passions for cooking and wine and then launching that business in their newly adopted country.
First, this is a lovely book, beautifully printed on heavy paper. (So French, I’m sure.) The photos are stunning, and document every aspect of their life, from the delicious food, to the countryside, the Beaune market, the local vendors they have come to appreciate and depend on, the elegant simplicity of their shop, kitchen and dining room, and, of course, the family at the center of it all. (If you have been to their shop, then you know the integral role played by Kendall’s husband Laurent and how sweetly their two young children occasionally appear in the shop or kitchen).
Lots of cooks, restaurants and foodies publish cookbooks. There seem to be at least one or two new ones each week. But few spend time on technique and ingredients (well, maybe the likes of Alice Waters and Julia Child). The Cook’s Atelier Cookbook stands far above these latest publications. Charming sections tackle the French larder, cooking tools, burgundy wine, the French cheese course, and traditional cooking techniques like frenching and tying a rib roast and trussing poultry. Recipes are grouped by season and compiled into menus, something I especially appreciate since I am notoriously uncertain about what really goes with what. In short, this is a cookbook you can truly learn from in addition to finding great recipes.
So, you may ask, what have I made? I’ve been making the French butter cake since I took the class. It’s simple and delicious, two prerequisites for French cooking. I’ve also prepared the grilled veal we made in class (and practiced the sauce technique with a few other cuts of meat). Now I’m working on the green garlic souffle. (Mine tasted delicious, but the presentation needs work. See below!)
I have added pastry tips and disposable bags to my kitchen equipment and tested them last week on gougers and madeleines. Next up? Coq au Vin. Marjorie and Kendall use white burgundy instead of red, and I can’t wait to try that.
What have I learned? Quite a lot. Fresh — which means seasonal — ingredients make a difference. Ask the butcher for help. Make sure you understand the recipe before starting. Gather all tools, prepare pans, and measure ingredients before cooking. Have fun. The story in my kitchen and yours is the same as the story in theirs — it’s about the family and friends around the table.
I couldn’t resist showing you a few more pages from the book. The photos are really beautiful. The first is their teaching kitchen and a corner of their shop where they sell their own lovely line of copper pots, along with kitchen tools and a carefully curated selection of wine. Below that is another shot of the book.
As I was writing this post I went back to the original from last June after my class there. In it I said I was smitten. Yikes! I am all over again. To learn more about The Cook’s Atelier, you can visit the website at www.thecooksatelier.com. The cookbook is available wherever books are sold, including Amazon.
Thank you so much for stopping by. I’ll see you again next time.
Despite our best intentions, including excessive hand washing and flu shots, I picked up this year’s nasty bug and graciously passed it on to my husband. Fortunately we were both able to take the anti-viral medicine and that, along with our flu shots, seemed to lessen the worst of our symptoms. But the lethargy that follows is daunting. I hope you’ll hang in here with me!
Before the influenza assault, I was planning on sharing a side trip we made to Lucca during last fall’s trip to Italy. One of the benefits of traveling independently is the freedom to tinker a bit with the itinerary along the way. And the more we have traveled, the more comfortable we are tinkering.
We had planned to take a train from Florence to Lucca, spend a day, attend that evening’s Puccini concert, and then take three more trains the next morning to spend a day at the Cinque Terra (and then three more trains back to Lucca) to spend another night before moving on to Rome. Was this overly ambitious? Absolutely.
(In fact, seeing this plan in black and white, I have to ask what we were thinking.)
We arrived in Lucca by train, walked from the station and over Lucca’s legendary ramparts to our hotel and promptly fell in love with yet another Tuscan town. Lucca was blessedly quiet after the tourist bustle of Florence, and despite a light rain, the city is made for walking and wandering. We knew right away that this was the ideal place to catch our breath before going on to Rome. The Cinque Terra would have to wait for another trip.
A bit of background. Lucca was founded by the Etruscans and became a Roman colony in 180 BC. One of its claims to historical fame is as the host to a secret conference in 56 BC, at which Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus reaffirmed their political alliance. Although it was conquered by Napoleon in 1805, it had been the second largest independent city state (after Venice) for centuries.
Today it offers stunning churches, cafes and piazzas perfect for people watching, and one winding street after another to explore.
Unlike many of its Tuscan counterparts, Lucca’s defensive ramparts have survived intact and today are a 2½-mile walking/running/cycling ribbon than encircles the city. We walked a significant portion of it the second morning we were there.
Locals clearly savor this space, including this group playing cards at one of the picnic areas along the former rampart. Several women were walking or running the path with strollers. Can you imagine how wonderful living here would be?
San Giovanni Church hosts nightly concerts featuring the music of hometown opera composer Giacomo Puccini. Steve and I know absolutely nothing about opera, but thoroughly enjoyed a concert. Two opera singers, a man and a woman, alternately sang short selections from Puccini as well as a few other works. Their pianist also played two wonderful solos. They also performed together, including a beautiful finale and encore. San Giovanni is a wonderfully intimate venue (below) and they were clearly having as much fun as the audience. I’m sure their energy and joy in the music, as well as our seats in the second row (!) added to our enjoyment. As it ended my husband said, “This is one of the highlights of our trip!”
We had lunch at one of the many cafes that circle the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. In the second century, this was a Roman amphitheater. While we were there, a bride and groom arrived to take wedding photos. They were enthusiastically greeted and cheered by everyone and then serenaded by one group. How happy, I thought. This is Italy!
San Michele in Foro, dedicated to the Archangel Michael, is built over the ancient Roman Forum. This photo doesn’t begin to capture the beautiful detail on this church.
The Cathedral of Saint Martin, below, is the seat of Lucca’s Archbishop. Construction was begun here in 1063 and the apse with its columnar arcades and the companile are original.
The interior of this church is stunning, including a small octagonal temple or chapel shrine that contains the city’s most precious relic, cedar-wood crucifix and image of Christ or Sacred Countenance, reportedly carved by Nicodemis and remarkably transported to Lucca in 782. The chapel in which it rests was built in 1484 by Luccan sculptor Matteo Civitali. (Can you tell I love relic stories?)
Most of all, Lucca is a series of charming, everyday scenes.
And a few more:
We learned a valuable travel lesson in Lucca: sometimes it’s more important to stop sightseeing and just enjoy the moment.
How about you? Have you come across a travel destination where you just had to sit back and savor the moment?
What do you do after all that fun in Tuscan hilltowns? We took a deep breath, braved the tourists, and headed to the historic heart of it all — Florence.
We waited a long time to finally get to Florence. Then we simply fell in love with the city. Steve and I both love London and Paris, but Florence is special. It’s compact and walkable (like Paris), has a seemingly endless supply of history and museums (like London), and it has what I think of as art and attitude.
The art is everywhere. The attitude is a little tougher to define, but I think it’s the total of the food and wine, shopping and sophistication, and most of all the history that ekes out of every corner. Now I can also say it’s even better the second time.
Our first visit to Florence was packed; there was so much to see. We planned differently this time, so we could wander more. In fact, the first afternoon, we did just that. After checking in at the Pierre Hotel we took a walk, found lunch, window-shopped our way to San Marco and back. We returned to the hotel and discovered they had delivered a bottle of prosecco and some snacks as a “welcome back” since we had also stayed there last year. This would be fun!
Getting serious about the Medicis
Florence was, first, a well-established medieval city, until it became the birthplace of the Renaissance and the credit for this goes largely to the Medici family. It’s impossible to spend any time in Florence without running into (and trying to understand) the financial and political power of the Medicis. Starting early in the 15th Century and lasting into the 17th century, the family enjoyed both political power (without holding office) and cultural influence.
The family’s wealth originated with its successful textile trade, which lead to the Medici Bank, the most successful in 15th Century Europe. With money comes power. The Medici’s support of the arts and subsequent impact on the Renaissance is unrivaled, starting with Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, who commissioned Brunelleschi for the reconstruction of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in 1419. Cosimo the Elder (another early Medici) commissioned works by Donatello and Fra Angelico. Most significantly Michelangelo accepted commissions from a number of Medici, beginning with Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was also a patron to Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) for seven years.
The Medici impact on the church and royal houses in Europe was equally significant. The family produced three Popes of the Catholic Church, Pope Leo X (1513-1521), Pope Clement VII (1523-1534) and Pope Leo XI (1605) as well as two Queens of France, Catherine de Medici (1547-1559) and Marie de Medici (1600-1610). In 1531, the family became hereditary Dukes of Florence. In 1569, the duchy was elevated to a grand duchy and the Medici family ruled the Grand Duchy of Tuscany until 1737
So much for name dropping.
The Medici family, and its money, were behind many of the ionic structures in Florence, and we visited a number of them with a guide from Context Tours who took us through the San Marco Convent and Museum, the Medici Palazzo, Baslica di San Lorenzo, Medici Chapels, and the New Sacristy (designed by Michelangelo).
(Context Tours are perfect for independent travelers. Guides, or docents as Context calls them, have with MAs, Ph.D.s or other terminal degrees in their subject matter, tours are limited to 5 or 6 people. We were the only ones on this tour. We have also used them in Rome and Paris.)
The convent was one of our first stops. After a brief period of upheaval during which the convent (which was really a monastery for branches of the order of Benedictine monks) deteriorated, Cosimo di Medici the Elder commissioned architect Michelozzo to rebuild it. The result is an elegant but spare, Renaissance structure. Like other monasteries, the convent features two cloisters, a chapter house, etc. The friars’ cells are each decorated with a single fresco, many by Fra Angelico in collaboration with other artists. Cells are walled off but topped by a single trussed roof, and the entire structure is finished in white-washed plaster. It’s easy to see how the residents could pray and meditate in this atmosphere.
The convent was home to painter Fra Angelico and preacher Girolamo Savonarola (of the infamous bonfire of the vanities). Cosimo de’ Medici also had a cell in the convent, adjacent to those of the friars, for use as his personal retreat.
The Basilica di San Lorenzo was consecrated in 393 when it was still outside the city walls. Later it became the parish church of the Medici family, as well as the burial place for the family’s principal members. The current basilica is actually the “new” building, completed in 1449 (financed by the Medici family), well after Brunelleschi died in 1446.
The Old Sacristy was designed by Brunelleschi and is the oldest part of the present church. It is also the only part completed (in 1440) in Brunelleschi’s lifetime. The Old Sacristy contains the tombs of several Medici family members.
The New Sacristy was designed by Michelangelo. Work began on it in 1520. The artist also designed the Medici family tombs to be included, but did not supervise the completion of the project. This is a far more elaborate structure. I was especially struck by drawings by Michelangelo, discovered in 1976, on the walls of a concealed corridor under the New Sacristy!
The Medici Chapel, designed by the family working with the architects, and begun in the early 17th Century, reflects a very different aesthetic, featuring elaborate marble mosaics in a domed octagonal space. The octagonal shape is distinctive on the Florentine landscape. Family remains were actually interred in a crypt below the chapel.
After these heady lessons in Medici history, art and architecture, we thought we needed something more light-hearted, so Steve signed us up for a tour of the hidden stairways and spaces at the Palazzo Vecchio. (We did this the next day. Two tours in one day would have been way too much to wrap our heads around!) Most often known as Florence’s city hall, the palazzo was, for awhile, also a Medici Palace. But that’s another history chapter.
The tour begins with an introduction to the Florentine Guilds, or Priori, who ruled the city. In 1342 the existing building was enlarged to resemble a fortress, including the addition of secret stairways allowing guild members to come and go in the night. The tour guide escorted our small group up and down some of these stairways, which, of course, included passing in and out of a number of secret doors. We had toured the building before, so this look at its “inner workings” was especially fun.
My husband and I loved the idea of these hidden doors. If you have read Dan Brown’s Inferno, or seen the Tom Hanks movie, you undoubtedly recall the crazy chase thru the Palazzo Vecchio. Remember the scene above the ceiling of the Hall of 500? After climbing dozens of narrow stairs, we were up in a corner of it. The space was more cramped than it appeared in the movie, but still very cool to see how the Renaissance building was assembled. Alternating rafters support the roof above and/or hold the ceiling below. What genius Renaissance architects displayed!
Whew! This is not all that we saw or did in Florence, but it gives you a good idea of how we spent our second visit in as many years. We enjoyed the fact that the city was somewhat familiar, we stayed in the same hotel (because we really love it!) and even ate at a restaurant we enjoyed last year. We also found some great new places. We ate lunch one day at the bustling the Central Market and I spent an afternoon at the Bargello. We spent a morning at the Pitti Palace (more Medicis) and found time to explore the tiny streets of the Oltarno. I think this second visit allowed us to “peel back another layer” on all there is to see in Florence.
What about you? Are there destinations you would happily return to? What about places you could happily say, “been there, done that” and move on? I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you so much for stopping by. See you next time!
Last month we took a terrific, three-week trip to Italy. And, yes, this was somewhat self-indulgent since we had been here just fifteen months before, but the stars lined up and the opportunity was there, so we went.
Our first trip was pretty straightforward: Rome, Florence and Pisa. (You can read my posts about it here and here.) This time our itinerary included Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, Tuscany, a four-night respite in Florence, a train to Lucca for a few days and, finally, another train to Rome before flying home. Our plan was to see a number of new sites and revisit Florence and Rome since they have so much to offer. Was this a lot to cover in three weeks? Probably.
It’s also too much for a single blog post.
I have been trying all week to write about it, but it just sounds like one of those long, boring slide shows your neighbor used to present about their 1964 trip to the Grand Canyon. I cannot do that to you. But I do want to share some fun bits and pieces, in separate posts. Consider this the first installment!
The heart of our trip was a stay in a rural B&B in Tuscany to explore the nearby hilltowns by car. Most Tuscan destinations are built on steep hilltops, the better to protect them from invading forces centuries ago. Part of the charm today is that they remain secluded, off the Autostrada, reachable by winding two-lane roads and/or a funicular. Tourist traffic is not allowed (and frankly, driving their tiny, twisting roads would be more than a little hazardous).
In Tuscany, we stayed at Borgo Argenina, a tiny hamlet of stone farm buildings dating to 998 and restored twenty years ago by owner/host Elena Nappa as a B&B. This was really an amazing destination itself, a little quirky, decidedly friendly, and a remarkable change from tourist-clogged sites.
Directions to Borgo Argenina instruct travelers to turn off the paved road onto the gravel one. Calling this gravel stretch a road requires a leap of faith. It’s a single lane, rutted and rocky, that passes first through some trees and brush and then vineyards. Eventually, the road dips down, then climbs up to the cluster of stone buildings that is Borgo Argenina.
The vistas are stunning (Elena knew what she was doing when she found it) and her hospitality is all you could ask for. Her welcome includes a history of the property, an introduction to the area, and an invitation to join a cooking class tomorrow night. Since we are checking in at the same time as a mother and adult son (from Pennsylvania and California, respectively) and just after a couple from Connecticut, Elena has made reservations for the six of us to eat that night in town at Locanda Del Tartufaio, known locally as Giorgio’s. Elena assures us it is easy to find since it will be the only place in town with lights on at that hour.
And so our adventure begins.
Steve and I settled into a two-room suite on the second floor of the original stable. The rooms feature massive ceiling beams, stone walls and 15th Century hardware on the doors. The plumbing is modern and the bed is comfortable.
Giorgio’s is everything Elena promised. Giorgio is owner and chef. He is also a truffle hunter and his menu will feature those delicacies (a bit of a challenge for a few members of the group who are not truffle enthusiasts). We are the first to arrive and, briefly, the only restaurant guests. It’s a little weird since Giorgio speaks no English, though he does have a server who, though far from fluent, is able to communicate with us. Soon, our fellow travelers arrive, as well as other diners. (All the tables will be full before the evening is over.)
Georgio only serves one menu per night, so there was no need to ponder choices. We just applauded them as they arrived: a selection of bruschetta and cheeses, many of them topped with delicately chopped truffles, a primo course of white lasagna made with homemade pasta and topped with truffles, a secondi of roast beef and roast pork topped by chopped truffles and herbs and served with fresh, roasted vegetables. We finished with a delicate cake topped by whipped cream and fresh fruit. (No truffles!) All of this was accompanied by a seemingly endless supply of wine and conversation. Three-plus hours passed in a flash!
The next day Steve & I drove to Assisi, one of the destinations on our Tuscany list. It was farther away than we realized, but a fairly direct route on the Autostrada.
First, Assisi struck me as pristine. Other Tuscan towns had similar hilltop locations and were essentially all stone, but none of them were as bright and white in Frances Mayes’ famous Tuscan sun. Assisi is not only the birthplace of St. Francis; it is also the birthplace of St. Clare, founder of the Poor Sisters, later the Order of Poor Clares. Despite the crush of tourists we experienced elsewhere, Assisi was surprisingly quiet. I don’t know if we should attribute that to visiting on Sunday or if it is simply the temper of the town.
The cathedral is stunningly simple, inside and out, honoring the beliefs of St. Francis. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside. Although I would have been happy to wander the lanes of Assisi for a few more hours, we really had to head back to the B&B for our cooking lesson with Elena and the rest of her guests.
Elena began her class by walking all eleven of her “students” out to her garden to harvest some herbs, taste some grapes and talk a little more about creating the garden out of the rubble that was there when she acquired the property. Once we were back in her kitchen, she set us to work, washing and trimming basil for pesto, stringing beans, and browning chicken. The real treat of course was learning to make fresh pasta, mixing flour and eggs by hand on her wooden pasta board, then kneading the dough before letting it rest under a damp towel.
As we cooked we shared our travels, drank wine, and took turns with the actual pasta-making. Here’s the finished meal, below, just before serving it around the massive farm table in Elena’s kitchen. It was as fun and festive as Giorgio’s, perhaps more so since there were more of us.
During our 2016 trip to Florence we took a day-trip that included a drive through the Clay Hills, a tour of the Abbazia de Monte Oliveto Maggiore and lunch and wine-tasting in Tuscany. It was a perfect blend of history and culture. So we contacted Roberto Becchi of Tours by Roberto again. (Roberto is a guide recommended by Rick Steves; you may have seen him on one of Rick’s shows on Italy.) Roberto is passionate about history, Italian winemaking, and Siena’s superiority over Florence. (We also found Borgo Argenina via Roberto’s website.) He is fun, knows the best winemakers and the tiniest towns. His tours are limited to eight travelers. A day with Roberto is a personal tutorial rather than a tour.
We started out in Montepulciano, with a short walk thru some of the town’s oldest streets. Although the earliest settlement here dates to Etruscan times, the town was essentially Medieval, then given a Renaissance facelift as evidenced by the more elegant facades added to the medieval structures. (Renovation is hardly a new concept!) Montepulciano was both an ally and a possession of Florence. (Before we checked into Borgo Argenina, we spent one night just outside Montepulciano. We had a delicious dinner at Restaurante Al Quattro Venti on the same square, right.)
Montepulciano is home to the famous Nobile wines, made by individual vintners according to the parameters established by a consortium. While we were in town we visited the centuries-old caves (and tasted the wines) of the De’Ricci winery. The six-story building, whose oldest caves date to the Etruscans, is supported by a huge network of vaults and arches. This construction and the size of the barrels were all astonishing. Roberto pointed out this is Renaissance construction on top of Medieval buildngs.
Next we traveled to the Tornesi winery in Montalcino. Tornesi has been in the same family since 1865. In 1967 Gino Tornesi registered his vines as Brunello, becoming one of the first members of that consortium as a producer. His son Maurizio started the production and business side in 1993 with his first Rosso di Montalcino and his first Brunello di Montalcino. Maurizio showed us around, his daughter led the tasting and we met his mother! This is truly a family business, and I was struck once again by the hard work and commitment to a quality product that the best wineries embody. Wineries are so much fun for us to visit, but some much work and commitment for the growers and winemakers.
Tuscany takes time. It’s easy to start with a list of hilltowns, plot them on a map, and start driving. But if you rush thru the towns too fast, you run the risk of missing the essence of the Tuscan way of life and the people. We had several other towns on our “list” — San Gimignano, Volterra, and Pienza to name just a few, but along the way, we tossed them aside in favor of enjoying where we were at the time. For example, we skipped San Gimignano last year and wanted to get there this time, but then we turned the wrong way and ended up in Rada. It’s tiny and scenic and there were just a handful of other tourists there. We loved exploring its cobbled streets, window shopping, and had a wonderful lunch. In addition to the usual leather and cashmere shops, Rada is home to a handful of artisans whose galleries show and sell one-of-a-kind ceramics, sculptures and even clothing.
We left Tuscany assuming we will return to see more another time, which is pretty much our travel philosophy. After Tuscany, we made stops in Florence and Rome. (Look for future blog posts on those destinations.) We had visited both before, but really thought there was much more to see and we were so right! There’s a lot to be said for returning to a destination when you are even just a little familiar with it.
I could not wait to plunge into our recent travels in France to tell you about Castle Sercy, here, and my day at The Cook’s Atelier, here. But then I thought I should backtrack and give you a look at our trip overall. It was more than castles and cooking.
A few years ago we took a river cruise in France that traveled north from Arles in Provence to Salon sur Saone in Burgundy. We had a wonderful time, we just didn’t have enough time in many of the places we stopped. There were other sights like the Pont du Gard, and towns, like Aix en Provence, along the way, that we never got a chance to see.
We knew we would go back — soon. Then my son introduced me to Ina Caro’s book, Paris to the Past, in which Caro and her husband retraced French history by daytripping via train from Paris to various cathedrals and castles. They did this in chronological order starting with the oldest sight. Since we had already visited Notre Dame, Saint Chapelle and Chartres, I wanted to visit a few more sights on the list.
Burgundy is home to countless small wineries that we could only sample by visiting ourselves, and Steve was eager to do that. I had discovered The Cook’s Atelier in Beaune (a town we loved on our first visit) and was determined to attend one of their daylong cooking classes. If we started in Reims, we could visit the cathedral where centuries of French kings were crowned.
After a few days in Burgundy, we planned to drive south to Provence, exploring more hilltop towns, visiting markets, and, yes, getting lost on more back roads, before dropping the car off in Avignon and taking the train to Paris.
Our travel misadventure adventure begins
We flew into Paris and, on a chilly, drizzly morning with virtually no sleep on the overnight flight, proceeded to drive to Reims in our rented Renault Clio. We paid extra for a GPS system, but never really figured out how to use it, which explains how we ended up heading towards Paris instead of Reims. Fortunately, even my seriously limited French revealed we were going in the wrong direction. Pull over, pull up Google maps, and recalibrate. (This is a little jingle we would oft repeat!)
Here’s what we learned about driving in France: In addition to being in French, the road signs did not indicate direction. Alas, we midwesterners are used to I80 West, I65 North and so on. Not so in France. Keep your eye on the Google map. And here’s what we learned about roundabouts: keep going around until you are sure of the exit you want to take. If you make the wrong assumption and take the wrong roundabout turn off, you can go many kilometers before getting a chance to turn around on these narrow country roads. Tollroads are nice, but not typically very close to the towns you really want to see. (And the country roads are indescribably scenic and fun to travel!)
After our stop in Reims and catching up on our sleep at a hotel in Troyes, we visited the Abbey of Fontenay on our way to Beaune. Founded in 1118 by Saint Bernard as a Cistercian abbey, Fontenay is one of the oldest in Europe. Cistercians vow to live a simple life in poverty. Their monasteries were self-sufficient. By 1200 the monastery was complete and able to serve as many as 300 monks. Despite its initial success, the abbey was attacked and pillaged in the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion. The monks left during the revolution and the property was turned into a paper mill by the Montgolfier family (of balloon fame). Today it is privately owned. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.
True to the abbey’s orders, the buildings are remarkably simple, sometimes even stark, but they feature beautifully vaulted ceilings and generous doses of graceful symmetry.
On to Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy in eastern France. It is also home to the Hotel Dieu, a 15th-century former hospital that is now a Museum. We had toured the Hotel Dieu on our first visit (an intriguing sight), but we were anxious to explore the town, sample the legendary wines, and I would spend a day cooking.
As we explored Beaune on foot on the day before my cooking class, we stopped by The Cook’s Atelier to introduce ourselves. My husband asked about nearby wineries and Marjorie’s son-in-law graciously arranged for us to visit Chateau Pommard, one of the oldest in Burgundy and just a handful of miles away. (And, yet we got ridiculously lost in this tiny town, so much so that we had to call the Chateau and say “this is where we think we are, how do we find you?”)
Although the estate changed hands a few more times and is now owned by an American, it has remained complete and has benefited from significant improvements to the estate management and the winemaking. Pommard wines are known worldwide for their quality, and the tour and tasting was simply wonderful.
By now we were becoming more comfortable with driving in France. We still got lost (often!), but we took it in stride and felt free to stop, take pictures and make impromptu changes to our so-called itinerary. This is what we were hoping for!
Now we know why everyone loves Provence…
Before we knew it the road from Burgundy led to Provence where we finally saw the Pont du Gard, visited Aix, and fell in love with French markets. Provence is absolutely charming and prettier in person that any picture. Really. We just let it unfold in front of us as we traveled.
One of the charms of driving on our own was the freedom to stop and explore, as we did here at Seguret, stopping for a leisurely lunch in an outdoor cafe overlooking the French countryside.
Our plan was to stay in L’Isle sur la Sorgue for a few days (so we could attend their big Sunday market which includes antiques) and then move on to St. Remy. Both towns provided a great base from which to visit other hill towns. (And we did a lot.)
L’Isle sur la Sorgue is larger and has a working class vibe. The town owes its early prosperity to the Sorgue River, which served it well defensively centuries ago, and for the industry and trade the river offered. A number of working waterwheels remain in the heart of town
Today it’s home to many antique stores, typically only open on the weekend for the market (though I’m sure they do considerable private business the rest of the time). In the few days we were there, the people and pace seemed to pick up in anticipation of the Sunday market. We stayed a few miles from town and the hotel advised us to arrive in town on Sunday well before the market opened to assure parking. We did, though parking proved not to be a problem (or maybe we were just really early). So, we grabbed cafes and croissants from a boulangerie and enjoyed the activity as the vendors set up their wares.
I was especially eager to see what the antique dealers would offer and was not at all disappointed. There were linens, dishes, knickknacks, books, paintings and prints, and furniture, some of it just barely vintage but much of it centuries old. Centuries! I think the prices were fair and dealers were willing to bargain, I just had no idea how to get a lot of it home in a suitcase!
As much fun as the markets and specific sites were, driving almost daily through the French country side was just as much fun.
When we moved on to St. Remy I was reminded of the visit we paid a few years ago to the nearby Asylum of Saint Paul Mausole where Vincent Van Gogh went to recover his health; he improved here, and enjoyed an especially productive period, completing almost 150 paintings and a number of drawings from May 1889 until May 1890. (You may can read my post on that here.) One of the disappointments in the last visit was not spending time in St. Remy. This time we stayed in a charming, old hotel on the square. (In France, old means no elevator. We counted 69 steps to our room!)
We loved the weekly market in St. Remy. Like the others it was a colorful mix of fruit, vegetables, sausage, cheese, spices, baskets, t-shirts, linen towels, handmade soap, and local artists. And I’ve probably left out a few categories. Despite the obvious merchandise aimed at tourists, it’s important to remember that most French residents shop these markets weekly for food and to catch up with neighbors. It’s very much a part of the culture.
One of the side-trips we took from St. Remy was to Aix en Provence, a scenic drive on a warm day. I expected Aix to be pretty (and it was) and knew it played a role in the art community (you’ll see that), but we were totally unprepared for how big and bustling it was, especially on its market day (unplanned on our part). The traffic was like rush-hour gridlock. We worked our way towards Paul Cezanne’s studio, found parking in a nearby hospital lot, and walked the rest of the way.
The studio was so worth it. Cezanne had many studios over the course of his career, but this was his last and he had it built to his own specifications, a small, two-story structure on a hill in what was then the outskirts of town. The painting studio, above, was on the second floor, and though he worked every day, he often left the studio and worked outdoors. In October 1906 Cezanne was working outside the studio when the weather turned stormy. He worked for awhile anyway, then decided to go home. Unfortunately, the artist collapsed along the way. A passing driver took him home. He died of pneumonia a few days later. After his death, the Cezanne family simply locked up his studio. After a time the building was sold to a writer, who only used the first floor, leaving all of Cezanne’s art materials undisturbed upstairs. Eventually, Aix grew, and the structure was scheduled for demolition and redevelopment. A group of Americans banded together and saved Cezanne’s studio, donating it as a museum to a local university. The easels, paints, palettes, props, coffee cups – everything in the studio – are as Cezanne left them. Amazing!
After our stay in St. Remy, we dropped our car off in Avignon and took the train to Paris for our last few nights in France. I’ll post about that later. We have been to Paris a number of times, so this was more relaxed than earlier visits, seeing a few sights, shopping a little and enjoying French cafes.
Thanks for stopping by and reading and — hopefully enjoying — this loooong post. See you next time!
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