Normandy & the D-Day beaches

The American Cemetery in Normandy.

With the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion this week, I wanted to share our tour there when Steve and I traveled to France last fall. Normandy was at the top of our list of places we wanted to visit if we returned to France. We had missed it on previous trips, but, as I wrote in a short blog post here, “If I had a bucket list, the D-Day beaches would be on it. This is a piece of the American experience that I wish everyone could share.”

Our geographic base for this leg of the journey was Bayeux. On the way we stopped in Arromanches, where the Allies assembled a temporary, artificial harbor immediately after D-Day. I consider this one of those remarkable feats of military engineering. The Allies needed a place to unload tons of heavy equipment after the initial invasion, so they built one!

Arromaches was close to the D-Day beaches, but spared the heavy June 6th fighting. The British built huge concrete floating caissons which they then towed into place and assembled as the walls and piers of the artificial port known as Mulberry Harbor. Floating pontoons linked it to the land. According to Wikipedia, by June 12, 1944 — less than a week after the invasion — more than 300,000 men, 54,000 vehicles, and 104,000 tons of supplies had been landed. During 100 days of operation of the port 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of material were landed.

We visited the museum here that detailed all of this engineering and advance planning. My husband knew some of this; I must admit I was clueless before I saw it all diagrammed. (I’m not sure, do boys of a certain generation just know this stuff and the rest of us learn it later?) Arromaches gave us a taste of both how lovely these beaches are, but also how formidable.

The next day we were up early and walked the half-block our so from our hotel to the departure point for the various D-Day tour operators. Ours was a small group tour, maybe 12 of us in a van. The guide was a young man from Wales who told us he’d become fascinated by all aspects of WWII as a young boy when his grandfather began taking him to some sights. His knowledge was encyclopedic; clearly he was a very good student.

Our first stop on the tour was the German cemetery. (Yes, kind of a surprise!) As our guide pointed out, the German soldiers were not that different from the Allies. They were draftees called to serve. They weren’t all Nazis or particularly political. They were doing their job. And they died in battle, far from home, just like the Allied soldiers.

The 11th Century church at Angoville au Plain.

We stopped next at Angoville-au-Plain one of the tiny towns behind the beaches where paratroopers landed during the night before the invasion. Terrible weather meant hundreds of soldiers were dropped off course, totally missing their targets. Two of these paratroopers were young medics, 19 and 20 years old. Robert E. Wright and Kenneth J. Moore had been given two weeks of medical training. They jumped carrying packs of first aid supplies which they lost when they landed off course in swampy fields flooded by the Germans.

Undeterred, they made their way to the 11th Century church at Angoville-au-Plain. Using medical supplies they had recovered along the way, they hung a Red Cross flag on the door and worked for 72 hours straight on 82 patients, Allied and German, and lost only two men. They had only one rule: weapons must be left outside the church.

Their story really resonates with me. (I originally wrote about it here.) It says everything about soldiers doing their job, handling adversity, never giving up.

Utah Beach, Sainte Mere Eglise, & Pointe du Hoc

Utah Beach was the first actual landing site we stopped at. On a cool, windy fall day but with sun and clear blue skies, the broad beach seemed quiet, despite a number of small groups visiting. I think there is a sense of awe, knowing what happened here, and it doesn’t take much to imagine the beach and water teeming with men and equipment. And noise, it must have been deafening.

This was especially meaningful for Steve and me. My uncle had been assigned to a Patrol Craft, bobbing around in that rough water on Utah Beach, their job to pull injured soldiers out of the water. One of the few times Bill talked about it, he told us that at day break, the water was thick with all kinds of boats. Then the assault and the fighting began. He said that hours later, when they finally had a chance to look around again, the boats that had been on either sided of them, and many of the other vessels, were gone. “Just gone,” Bill said.

I stared out at that water for a long time.

Sainte Mere Eglise is the tiny village in the middle of the route Germans would have likely used counterattacking the Allied troops landing on Utah and Omaha beaches. In the early morning of June 6th mixed units of the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne occupied the town, making it one of the first towns liberated in the invasion. The events that unfolded, including one in which one paratrooper was caught on the church spire and forced to hang limply as though dead, were dramatically (though not accurately according to our guide) portrayed in The Longest Day.

St. Mere Eglise, where American paratroopers landed.

Lunch was a quick sandwich and coffee stop at a crossroads cafe that had once served Allied soldiers, as well as decades of French locals before that. The stop kept us “in 1944.”

Pointe du Hoc was the highest point along the coast between the Omaha and Utah landing beaches. In 1943 Germans troops built an extensive battery here using six French WWI artillery guns and early in 1944 began adding to the battery. D-Day plans included an assault by specially trained Army Rangers to breach the steep cliffs and disable the guns. The cliffs are formidable here and the ground atop them is pock-marked by bombings and gun placements. It’s rough to walk today, particularly in a sharp wind, and impossible to imagine how challenging it was on D-Day.

The pockmarked ground remains decades after the battle at Pointe du Hoc.

The American Cemetery & Omaha Beach

Our guide timed our visit to the American Cemetery for the hour when the flag is lowered at the end of the day. Walking to the cemetery I was tired. Despite lovely clear skies and fair weather, it was a very windy day, and we had already walked a lot. But I think I was also feeling emotionally spent. It’s not possible to walk these roads and towns without thinking of the people who came before. And not just the soldiers. But the brave French citizens who loved their communities and way of life, who were totally upended by the German invaders, many of them risking their lives working with the French underground, and who in the end so gratefully welcomed the Allies.

If you have been to the American cemetery, you know it is a heart-stopping sight. As a friend advised before we left, I walked down several rows of crosses. So often the men buried there would have died on the same day, or within days, and then there would be a few who died much later but whose families had chosen to bury them with fellow soldiers. If it hurts your heart to see so many losses, it also warms your heart to see them buried with their comrades.

We ended the day at Omaha Beach, and our guide took the time here to diagram, using a stick in the sand, exactly how the landings unfolded and how they fit into the great scheme of the entire D-Day invasion. (Again, he was just so knowledgeable!)

This tied things together for me. D-Day was a huge, complicated effort. A lot of things went wrong, but when that happened the soldiers on the ground readjusted and pushed on. That’s the story that stays with me.

I know this is a long post, but I honestly couldn’t figure out how to make it shorter. Thanks for reading through to the end. See you next time?

 

 

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Highs, lows, and our Notre Dame story

This photo and the one below are from April, 2015. We had just enjoyed coffee and croissants at a cafe behind Notre Dame and were on our way Saint Chapelle.

This week has been a lesson in the highs and lows of the human heart. On Sunday morning in Chicago we awoke to mid-April snow. Not flurries, not a dusting, but inches of wet, sloppy, slushy white stuff. In November we would have found it fun. But in April, on Palm Sunday, I didn’t get the joke at all.

In fact, I wanted to pull the covers over my head.

Instead we drank coffee, read the papers, and my husband turned on the Masters Golf Tournament. We got caught up in the drama of the last hole and Tiger Woods’ amazing finish. If you saw this, you know what I mean: sheer joy in every fiber of his being. The crowds and his competitors were equally jubilant. This was a moment Woods was afraid would never come. But it did. A testament to the simplest work ethic: never, ever, ever give up.

What an emotional high. If you watched him hug his children and his mother without feeling tears come to your eyes, you might be missing a heart.

Monday’s punch

I was in the car on Monday when I heard that Notre Dame de Paris was on fire. How is this impossible? Architectural icons don’t burn; they weather revolutions, plagues, World Wars and Nazi occupations. But this was real. When I got home my husband had the news on, and he said, “This is awful. It’s like Katrina. You can’t stop watching.”

He was so right. We watched it off and on throughout the afternoon, waiting for the firemen to somehow get on top of the blaze, to get it under control, but instead the fire kept growing, and we watched the spire fall. The news commentators talked about the added tragedy of this happening during Holy Week. And we looked at each other and recalled a family story.

Our Notre Dame story

Another springtime shot, on the north side of the cathedral looking towards the bell towers.

Seventeen years ago Steve and I made our first trip to Paris together. It was a little earlier in the spring and we got back in time to celebrate Easter with my mom, her brother & his wife. (Our kids were away at school.) This was well before smart phones and selfies and so we took along a stack of printed photos (remember them?) from the trip to share over dinner. And as the five of us poured over the iconic sights from Paris — the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph — my uncle studied one of Notre Dame and remarked that he had been there for Easter in 1945.

What? How could he not have told any of us this story?

Bill was a Chicago kid in the Navy who spent WWII on a small boat escorting much larger ships back and forth across the Atlantic. He spent a lot of time in England and then in Le Harve, France. It was hazardous duty, and like so many WWII vets, he had never shared much about it. But back to Notre Dame…

When we found our voices, we asked what he was doing there. Well, he said, he and several shipmates had leave for Easter and they ended up in Paris. On Easter morning they headed for church. They didn’t know about Notre Dame or go looking for it, it was just the church they found (as if you could miss it, right?) The locals welcomed these young sailors warmly as “Yanks” and led them to seats right up front. I suppose they represented the liberators.

I can only imagine Bill’s blue eyes and his Evangelical and Reformed heart taking in the majesty of Notre Dame: its cavernous space, monumental pillars, stained glass, row after row after row of seats. How can you even take it all in?

Since hearing Bill’s story, I have been to Paris on a handful of additional visits. Notre Dame is simply part of the city, part of the skyline, we’ve walked by it a hundred times (often noting the crowds waiting to get in and said we’ve been here before and we’ll come back at a quieter time), we had breakfast with friends in a cafe just behind it, we’ve admired it up close and from across the river. We’ve picked it out of the skyline from the Musee d’Orsay and Sacre Coeur.

Notre Dame is Paris.

And clearly it will be repaired and rebuilt and continue to play its Parisian role. In the meantime, it hurts the heart to think of its blackened walls and collapsed roof. At the same time we’re heartened by its resilience. Icons can be fragile, it seems, and that should give us pause.

What about you? Do you have a Notre Dame story? I’d love to hear it!

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time.

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!

 

 

 

 

 

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!

Two from the road in France

Most days in France began in a local cafe. In some places, we had a favorites we went to daily, like this cafe in Beaune, where the waitress began to recognize us and our order!

If you follow me on Instagram, you know my husband and I are just back from a month in France. (I know, a long trip with the luxury of time, something one doesn’t often do. We are very lucky to have had this opportunity.)

Briefly, we flew into Paris, picked up a car, and headed to Giverney (Monet’s home and garden), the Normandy beaches (D-Day landings), Mont Sainte Michele (more history), Bordeaux (to taste wine), the Loire (for chateaus), Antibes (the Riviera, the Mediterranean and the art trail), Beaune (we love it) and finally Paris (always a good idea). In the weeks to come, I’m sure I’ll bore you with too many tales tales and too many pictures, but for now I want to share two “travel shorts” to give you a taste of our trip.

First, Normandy

If I had a bucket list, the D-Day beaches would be on it. This is a piece of the American experience that I wish everyone could share. We took a highly-recommended D-Day tour, which I’ll write more about later, but now I want to share just one stop. Angoville-au-Plain is one of the tiny towns beyond Utah beach where paratroopers landed during the night before the invasion. The military assignment was to control the nearby Cherbourg to Paris route important to German defenses. The terrible weather the night of the drop, however, meant hundreds of soldiers were dropped off course, totally missing their targets.

The church in Angoville-au-Plain, France, that housed a first aid station for Allied and German soldiers on D-Day. Some pews still bear the blood stains of injured soldiers. Two German soldiers hid in the bell tower for two days before surrendering to the medics.

Two of these paratroopers were young medics, 19 and 20 years old. Robert E. Wright and Kenneth J. Moore had been given two weeks of medical training. They jumped carrying packs of first aid supplies which they lost when they landed off course in swampy fields the Germans had flooded. Undeterred, they made their way to the 11th Century church at Angoville-au-Plain. Using medical supplies they had recovered along the way, they hung a Red Cross flag on the door and worked for 72 hours straight on 82 patients, Allied and German, and lost only two men. They had only one rule: weapons must be left outside the church.

We heard many amazing stories during that tour, but for whatever reason this one really touched me. I used to think of D-Day as a single, heroic, necessary event, but when you look closer (as so many professional and amateur historians do), it’s also thousands of acts of bravery, heroism, determination and ingenuity.

(Both Wright and Moore continued to serve throughout the war and have returned often to D-Day observances at Angoville-au-Plain, where the immediate community, and the wider D-Day community, has been generous in preserving and restoring the church.)

Behind the scenes at Versailles.

Versailles is the over-the-top palace used by a string of French kings who tired of life in Paris. It’s a 30-minute train ride from Paris, or you can take one of a variety of bus/van/private tours there. I visited 20-odd years before on my first trip to France with my teen-age son. We took a bus tour (which we both hated). It was a cold day, and Versailles was crowded. Frankly, it was nothing I wanted to repeat, so on subsequent trips, Steve and I always talked ourselves out of Versailles. However, we thought early October might be a better time and Steve found a “skip the line” tour of private rooms offered by the chateau for a mere 10 euros each.

This was the best investment we made on the trip!

What we thought would be a 45-minute tour of private rooms in the chateau was actually 2-1/2 hours with a Versailles curator. There were only about 15 of us in the group, making it easy to see the rooms and ask questions. The curator was a charming, knowledgeable historian committed to educating us about the fine points of 17th and 18th century court life. And we learned a lot!

The Versailles commode that found its way to a Rothschild collection, then to a German general, and now back to Versailles.

One of the private rooms we visited was the King’s library. It was, of course, grand and gold, but our guide brought it to life by pointing out this commode, made for the palace but sold off with all the other palace furnishings after the revolution (the new government was desperate for money). It was acquired by one of the Rothschilds. But then, during WWII when the Germans began confiscating the best of European art and antiques, it was acquired by Hermann Goring. It has only recently been returned to Versailles (“Thanks be to God,” as the curator said.)

Some of the King’s book collection is behind those glass doors next to the commode. Our guide pointed out that the volumes include Captain Cook’s diaries from his explorations of the new world. (I considered pressing my face closer to the glass to see better, but was afraid I would set off an alarm! On the other hand, Captain Cook!!!)

Can I just say that these are the travel moments I treasure, little vignettes that make history or culture come alive. Along with memories like the starchy French waiter who cracked a bawdy joke, the Brits we shared an al fresco lunch with in Ste. Emilion, and hands-on lessons in French cooking, they are the best souvenirs.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time?