Friday, July 30, 2010

Hugel & Fils

Well folks, I'm back to doing what I do best: tasting wines and getting tipsy.

Right in town is a tasting/sales room for Hugel & Fils wines, which apparently has been an Alsace winegrowing family since 1639. Their literature says in their cellar they have an oak cask which dates back to 1715.

I walked in during a lull between tour buses and I was the only one in the shop. As soon as the man who worked there and I got to talking about my love of botrytis wines, it was all over. I was walking out of there drunk or not at all. He brought out Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, of many different vintages for me to try.

The wines in question are called Selections de Grains Noble (SGN), which is the Alsace term for sweet wines made from late-harvest grapes affected by my favorite Noble Rot. Again, according to their literature, it takes a picker three hours to harvest enough of these special grapes to make one bottle of wine.

I couldn't help myself, and I bought a small bottle of their 2005 Gewurztraminer SGN. Because of its youth, the sugar hasn't completely integrated into the wine yet, so it has a more syrupy consistency than some of the older vintages I tasted, but I didn't find it sickly. The syrupy quality is nicely balanced by a bright freshness and acidity, flavors of dried and fresh apricots and peaches as well as honeysuckle and vanilla.

Even in this sweet wine, the character of the Gewurztraminer really comes out in a slight spicy quality which really adds a depth to the wine. The clay soil in which they grow this particular varietal also added a nice minerality to the wine, and hence another layer of complexity.

These wines can age for years, but with me and Steve around, it doesn't stand a chance!

Tomorrow, provided Steve is up to driving, we head to the Mosel region of Germany for a few days. Not sure of the internet situation there, but hopefully I will have another post for you in a day or two.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Go ahead, try to pronounce it: Riquewihr. I dare you.

Anyway, I feel like I am gradually coming back to life. Went for a nice walk along the Alsace Wine Route today. I didn't even mind getting rained on a little, it was just so nice to be outside, walking amongst the vines.

This wine route links 6 different towns, and takes you in and around the many surrounding vineyards. The only think I found a bit odd was that the route didn't actually take me to any wineries where I could go in and have a taste. The whole route is 15km, though, so it's possible that some of the other sections of the route do lead to wineries.

In any event, if Steve is feeling up to it, we are going to try to get on the road tomorrow and go visit a winery or two, so hopefully I will finally have some more wine notes for you!

Riquewihr is a very nice town, though it gets mobbed with busloads of tourists during the day. It also seems to have a bit of a bell issue.

Now I for one am a fan of church bells chiming the hour, but these bells are pushing it a little. They chime the hour starting at 6am. That's right, 6am. And their last hurrah is at 11pm. The most bizarre bell-ringing, however, happens at 10pm.

They chime the hour as always, and then go into an apoplectic fit of bell ringery that lasts about ten minutes, during which time they bing and bong, jingle and jangle at a volume that makes the eardrums bleed.

I'm not sure what the purpose of this 10pm fit is: Steve said often on Sundays, bells will ring for a long time in the late mornings as a call to church, but we can't figure out what's supposed to be happening at 10pm. Is there some significance to this 10pm bell extravaganza?

Is it to confuse people into thinking it's Sunday morning and somehow then subliminally remind them that this week they had better show up to church? Is there actually a 10pm service starting? Is it to wake babies everywhere and torture parents who have only just fallen asleep? Is the town full of very old, deaf people who need the bells that loud to remind them that while they're not dead yet, it is only a matter of time before the proverbial bell tolls for them?


Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Well, I don't want to be too optimistic here, but I think we may be starting to rally a bit.

Steve is still under the weather, but after a major crying jag this morning (mine), during which we tried to decide whether or not to pull the plug and head back to San Francisco, we decided to carry on a bit further.

It would be such a shame to miss Italy and not try to see some of the spectacular scenery we were hoping to see along the way. And since we haven't yet tried staying in one place, I think we would be stopping prematurely.

So we have decided to make a go for Norway, where we will stay for at least two-three weeks. That will give us a chance to relax and settle in a bit, and enjoy some quiet and natural beauty.

Just knowing we have three more nights here in Alsace is comforting. Neither of us has left the apartment today. We've done some planning, read, watched movies, done laundry, and it has been wonderful.

I think I forgot that sometimes it is possible to get sensory overload when traveling, and it can be necessary to just tune out, stay in and recharge before moving on to the next thing.

I'll be honest with you, it's been such a lazy day...I haven't even brushed my teeth!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What Now?

We are currently in the town of Riquewihr, which is a small Medieval hamlet in the Alsace region of France.

I have seen signs that some of the buildings and walls date back to the 1400's, which is pretty amazing.

The problem is, once again, we have hit a wall, and we have had to admit that, for whatever reason, we are just not enjoying this trip as much as we'd hoped. Maybe we just were too ambitious as far as the amount of time that we planned to be away, or maybe a trip like this wasn't actually what we needed at this point in our lives.

I don't know. I just know that at this moment, we are both physically and emotionally drained and exhausted, which is the last thing you'd expect to have happen when you're on vacation! But really, I suppose, this isn't a vacation. It's not like a week in Maui where you just sit on the beach and relax because you know soon you will be back in "the real world".

This is a whole different experience, and it's possible we have just hit our limit. As of right now, we don't want to do anything, we don't want to eat anything, we're stressed out trying to figure out what to do and where to go next, we're in and out of hotels and all over the place, and we're sick of the busloads of tourists which seem to be everywhere we go. In short, I think we're just tired. We seem to have hit our limit. I don't even feel like drinking any wine, which makes me incredibly sad. On top of which, we're both worn out from being sick.

Basically we have reached a bit of a crossroads: do we keep going and hope it will get better and potentially just keep sending good money after bad, or do we pack it in and head home and save the money we haven't spent for a fabulous trip to Tuscany or the Italian Lakes some time next year?

We are going to take the next few days here in Alsace to just rest and relax, cook our own food and see how we feel.

It would just be a shame if we were unable to enjoy somewhere like Italy because we're too burnt out.


Ham and Cheese

So now Steve is sick again.

We both seem to be getting bad tummies a lot on this trip, and neither of us gets sick that often.

We have good hygiene and we're not eating anything strange, or at dodgy places, and we're drinking bottled water. It's very bizarre. And, to be honest, a bit disheartening.

It's hard to enjoy a trip when you're spending half your time in the can. I of course, wonder what I've done wrong, or if I'm being punished somehow.

The easiest thing to do, however, is to blame The French. It does feel to me that there's a bit of a hygiene issue here, and lack of basic health guidelines in restaurants. There are still bizarre toilet arrangements in some restaurants where the sink that everyone uses to wash their hands after using the bathroom is just opposite a urinal, with no doors for privacy.

Nothing that comes out of a refrigerator here seems to actually be cold, and just this morning, I went to a bakery to get a roll, and I asked the woman what the different kinds of breads and pastries were, and instead of just pointing to them as she described their contents, she touched them. All of them. And when I chose one, she ignored the tongs that were hanging right next to her and just grabbed it with her hand and shoved it in a bag.

This pastry of course is now known as The Hand Danish, and though I tried to not be Sterile American, I could only eat a few bites of it.

Don't even get me started on the girl at the sandwich counter in Paris who had her finger in her ear while taking my order. She, a least, used tongs, though God only knows where those had been.

And while I'm ranting, what is the deal with the fricking ham and cheese in this country??!! Every sandwich counter, every pizza, every meal, consists of some version of ham and cheese. Can they eat nothing else here??!!

If you want a sandwich from any of the millions of shops here, you can get ham, or ham and cheese, or cheese. Or a different variety of cheese with a different kind of ham. Maybe with a tomato. And butter. Always with butter. Which, I'm sorry, adds no flavor, only gobs of fat, which goodness knows you sure need because you're not getting enough with the ham and cheese!!! Have they never heard of mustard??!! Or turkey? What's wrong with turkey?

Although, now that I think about it, with the refrigeration here, or lack thereof, turkey would be a bad idea.

Maybe that's why all you can get is ham and cheese. Both of these items have already been aging at room temperature for years, so a bit longer sitting between two halves of a baguette isn't going to do any harm.

You just can't get away from those two items; crepes, croque monsieurs, even the special Alsatian pizzas all have some version of ham and cheese on them.

It's just too much. I think I can safely say, if Steve and I never see another ham and cheese sandwich again, it will be too soon!

As you probably can tell, we need to leave France.

I'm back!

Well, I must apologize for the absence of the past week. There are a few reasons for it:

First, we went to Strasbourg, France for several days and had no internet.

Second, while in Strasbourg, I got sick again.

Third, we were in the midst of yet another trip-related meltdown.

Let me say right off the bat that Strasbourg is beautiful. It is a small-ish, kind of sleepy town with a river running through it. It is a bit like a mini-mini Paris with quite a bit of Tudor thrown in. As you can see from these photos, these buildings would not be remotely out-of-place in Stratford-upon-Avon in England.

The people in Strasbourg are also very nice, and genuinely happy to try out their English on you.

Part of the problem when we were there was that it was in the 90's and very humid, which made walking around town more laborious than it otherwise would have been.

I am not sure if it was the heat combined with not drinking enough water, or if I ate something that, due to heat and dubious French refrigeration, was not in the bacteriological state it should have been, but either way, I got sick.

I woke up Thursday morning with a very upset stomach and it just went downhill from there. Now I don't want to disgust you with too many details, but let me just share that I have not thrown up in 24 years. That's right. I just don't do it. Ever.

The last time I threw up was when I was 14 and I was about to start my first rehearsal for A Midsummer Night's Dream. That weekend, I had babysat for three young children, and during the course of the evening, the kids decided that it would be fun to put one of their wastebaskets on my head. I immediately removed it only to have them inform me that the girl had just the day before been sick in it. I earned my $10 that night, I can tell you.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a major fear of vomit. It had actually grown into quite a big phobia over the years, to the point that I actually went for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to see if I could get over it.

This was in Charlotte, NC, and the therapist, in addition to doing some odd thing with vibrating orbs in my hands (maybe she confused therapy with massage therapy), told me to rent all the movies I could think of that had scenes with vomit in them and watch those moments over and over until I was no longer upset by them.

This therapy didn't really cure my phobia, to be honest. I am, however, very familiar with The Exorcist now.

Anyway, long story short, after 24 years, I got sick again, and I did actually think as it was happening "You know, this really isn't so terrible, why have I been so frightened of it all these years?"

So maybe there will be a positive long-term outcome of getting sick; maybe I just won't worry about it so much anymore.

In the short-term, however, it triggered a pretty major bout of anxiety, because not only had I gotten sick, but I also had to get on a train for Paris the next day because we were meeting our friends Paul and Christen there.

Suffice it to say, the Paris weekend was not all I'd hoped it would be, as it took me a while to feel better again.

I can pass along information about the terrific hotel we stayed at in Paris, however. It was called the Hotel le Petit Paris, and it is in the 5th Arrondissement around the corner from my favorite Luxembourg Gardens.

The hotel opened in September 2009, so everything is very new and clean. The decoration is pretty great, I don't know exactly what you'd call it, but I would describe it as contemporary, modern but with some old-fashioned touches thrown in.

Not only was it modern, clean, and centrally located, it was also super quiet, and the beds were amazingly comfortable. The bathrooms are pretty cool looking too. All this, and the staff were incredibly nice and helpful, and the rooms are air-conditioned.

I'll include the website in the column to the left so you can check it out.

This post is getting too long, so I will continue in another one.

Monday, July 19, 2010


People are very fit here. The folks who seem to be local all look skinny and muscley and like they spend every hour of every day hanging off the side of a mountain. Even the dogs are fitter than any dogs I've ever seen anywhere else.

Hiking times on signs or in maps are not at all the same as in the US. Back home, if a sign says that a walk can be done in 20 minutes, that means that it will usually take me and Steve about 10.

Here, a hike that the sign said would take 50 minutes took us well over an hour. These people don't hang around. They don't walk, they power walk. They Nordic walk; everyone carries massive poles and they swing their arms and puff their chests out and give you dirty looks all at the same time.

I asked the guy at the front desk of the hotel for a nice walk that would take about an hour. He sent me up the North Face of the Eiger, and expected me to be back by lunch.

Our last Swiss town which we visited today is called Pfingstegg, and it afforded some pretty spectacular views of the valley below. It was sort of a perfect finale to our time in Switzerland: the sun was shining, the temperature was about 75 degrees, there was a light breeze, paragliders sailed in the distance, and we had this amazing view before us of mountains, glaciers, thick green grass, the river and the villages below.

It would have been an absolutely perfect day had my beloved hubby not spilt an entire beer stein directly into my lap at dinner. He couldn't have aimed it better if he'd tried. It was quite an impressive cascade that came toward me, and I couldn't even move; all I could do was stare at it in fascination as it poured over me, foamed up and then settled deep into my jeans and the lower part of my shirt.

The hotel was just a little too far away for me to want to walk back, change and then return to the restaurant. Plus it was still warm out so I decided just to sit with it through the meal. My legs got very cold at one point, but then I didn't notice it too much.

The worst part came after the meal when I had to walk back to the hotel. I hadn't had that sensation since I was about 5 years old, and I couldn't get my leotard and tights off quick enough and just wound up peeing my pants.

I was too embarrassed to tell my teachers so I just put my pants back on and waited for my mom to pick me up. As she followed me out, she asked why I was walking so funny. I told her I had sat in a puddle.

To her credit, she didn't call me on it, but since I'd been inside the school all day, and the outside of my pants were dry, I'm pretty sure she knew exactly what kind of a puddle it was I was talking about.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sour Puss

Now, I feel that it has been a little while since I have complained about something of a cultural nature (the expense of Switzerland doesn't count. I don't know why, it just doesn't), so here I go.

What is up with the Sour Puss faces here? ?!! I mean seriously, would it kill these people to smile? Just a little one?

It was one thing in Paris, where they just kind of pretend you're not there, but the German-Swiss folks here, my god, what is going on?

They make eye contact, and then they give this look like you've just kicked their dog or thrown a flaming bag of poop at their door. They just look like the most miserable people on the planet. But they don't actually seem to be miserable when it comes down to it.

I see them, two seconds after giving me death-ray eyes, laughing with their families, and the waitresses at the various restaurants we've been to, once they had looked at us as though we were two turds with hats on, became super pleasant and even smiled a few times.

It's obviously just not a cultural thing here to smile when you pass people on the street. I know that I certainly didn't when I was living in Brooklyn. In cities, you just have to have your fight-face on, but here, in a little sweet village, where everybody's on vacation, why not a little smile of acknowledgement as you pass each other?

I've already gotten used to the fact that a line isn't really a line, it's just a bunch of people pushing past each other, but the sour expressions really are starting to piss me off. There's something really angry and judgmental in the expression, at least that's how it feels to me.

I even got this nasty look from a freakin' eight year old girl on a train, and i was so sick of it I almost shouted: "You want a piece of me??!! Come on!!!", because I was pretty sure I could take her.

Maybe we overdo it in the States. I know I sometimes do, with the smiling and the being super nice to everybody, sometimes I can feel like I'm running for Miss Congeniality. It can be a lot of effort. I imagine when people pass me here and I smile at them, they think I'm insane, or else already a little drunk.

I think there should be some middle ground. It doesn't have to be Miss America smiles, but something a little less "I could kill you right now" would be nice.


We have had a wonderful couple of days in Switzerland (in spite of the expense of the place), exploring some lovely small villages and seeing some great sites.

Wengen is a very nice pedestrian-only village which sits on a mountaintop at 1274 meters. To get there, we took a train, then a small ski gondola, followed by a larger ski gondola.

I had never been in a small ski gondola before, and it was very cool, but Steve, forgetting who he had married, made the mistake of telling me the delightful tale of the helicopter that flew too low and clipped a gondola wire sending many people crashing down a mountain to their deaths. Why, why he ever told me that story I will never know.

The ride on the big gondola was the best, though, because it was a cloudy rainy day, and the gondola started very high up in total cloud, and then descended through the layer of cloud to the green valley below. It was very Lord of the Rings.

Today we went to what I think is the most beautiful Swiss town yet, called Lauterbrunnen (this photo as well as the one at the top), which is just Southeast of Wengen. This town is known for its waterfalls, and they really were everywhere. The woman at our hotel suggested we walk to a place called Trummelbach Falls.

I was expecting to walk through the woods into a clearing where a large waterfall fell into a glittering pool and people surrounded it saying oohhh and ahhh.

Boy was I wrong. This place is a major tourist attraction, with bus and carloads of people flocking to it. I can honestly say I have never seen anything quite like it in my life. They talk groups of you up in what feels like a cross between an elevator and a gondola up into the side of a mountain. It was kind of like what I imagined going into a mine shaft would be like.

When you get out of the elevator, you then walk up loads of steps which are essentially cut into the mountain, and the most amazing waterfall I've ever seen cuts through this mountain in incredible ways.

This is no peaceful waterfall; it is crashing, spraying, slate-colored water, twisting, turning and cutting its way the mountain with an immense show of power.

According to the website, the Trummelbach is actually made up of ten glacial waterfalls, and it alone drains the glacier walls of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau mountains with an astounding 20,000 liters of water per second!

I forgot to mention the goats. At one of the train stations, there are goats, just hanging out everywhere. The sit, they stand, they run, the chew things, they try to smoke people's cigarettes, and they poop and pee everywhere. Very un-Swiss.

I believe I also forgot to mention that the transport pass which allows you access to the trains, busses and gondolas in the area cost 500 Swiss Francs for the two of us. That's a lot of Bratwurst!!!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Budget Buster

My God, Switzerland is expensive!!

You always hear that that is the case, but I had no idea just how true it was until recently.

It is, of course, beautiful, and spotlessly clean. Everywhere. Even public toilets in train stations, tourist attractions, are spotless. The streets are clean, there is no paper anywhere, no garbage out of place, no dog poop even. I think that Swiss dogs have figured out how to produce poop that evaporates the moment it hits the ground.

But all this cleanliness and beauty comes with a price: the public toilets at the train station cost 1.50 Francs; parking at the train station in Bern cost 28.00 francs for a few hours!!! An average main course at a restaurant costs around 30.00 francs, and that's at the cheap places.

The train and cable car system in and around Grindelwald is 50 francs each way, for a ride that might only take 30 minutes! To go up to the Jungfraujoch, which is called Top of Europe, costs 163.00 Francs per person! That's just for the train ride to get up there! If you want to drink a small bottle of mineral water while you're there, it will cost 5.50 francs. For a teeny bottle.

As I mentioned, expensive.

But all that aside, it is a beautiful place. On our way here to Grindelwald, we stopped in the beautiful city of Bern (this photo and the one above). This place was like a postcard, with shops and cafes all along the cobbled streets, a terrific clock tower, and a beautiful river.

This cafe was my favorite. One guess why.

After that, it was off to Grindelwald, which is a small mountain town near Interlaken. It's one of the few towns in this area where you can drive your car (many of the smaller mountaintop towns are pedestrian only, and you have to park your car down the mountain and take a train or cable car up. We would have loved to stay in one of those towns, but we just have too much stuff.).

We took a pretty incredible train ride up to Jungfraujoch, as I mentioned, which is at the top of a mountain at 3954 meters. The most amazing thing to me, however, was the fact that the first train up to the top of this mountain was built in something like 1905. That's just crazy!

It's a massive complex up there: complete with ice palace and ice carvings, multiple viewing stations, restaurants, one of which is Bollywood, an Indian Buffet, and snow-play area with innertubes.

It was incredible to go from the heat wave to snow and wind and temperatures of about 35 degrees.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Gstaad and Montreux

The road to Gstaad.


This photo has nothing to do with the car in front, or with Gstaad, but if you look at the hillside off to the left, on both sides of the trees, you can see grapevines. It's kind of hard to tell from this photo, but the vines are planted on extremely steep slopes. I imagine that this is partly just because that is what the terrain has to offer, and partly to maximize drainage and sun exposure. I know that in Germany, people who work in the vines (which are also grown on incredibly steep hills) have to be harnessed to the land above to prevent them from falling to their deaths, and I imagine here they must have to do the same.

On the way back from Gstaad we decided to stop off in Montreux. The view from the walkway along the water is beautiful, a bit like the French Riviera.

As luck would have it, we arrived in the midst of the Montreux Jazz Festival. Even the crowds were Swiss: so organized and well-behaved! Extraordinary food stalls with everything you could imagine cooking in enormous copper pots.

We got some noodles and sat down on the rocks by the water with a whole bunch of other people. We wound up chatting with a woman from across the water in France.

Amazingly enough, she had been to the United States: to Manhattan and North Carolina, of all places. She declared Manhattan to be fabulous and NC to be full of Rednecks.

The Doldrums

I think we have hit a bit of a down patch, both of us.

Suddenly we find ourselves looking at each other with panic and saying, what the hell are we doing??

We have no jobs, we have no home, we are spending money on hotels and food, and trying to stay within a budget while visiting some of the most expensive places at the most expensive time of year, and we meet people and tell them how wonderful San Francisco is and then turn to each other and wonder why we're not there?

It's hard not to start questioning motives, and wondering if this trip was just an elaborate way of escaping "real life", or facing hard questions about what we want to be doing with our lives!

And I know, sitting there in your day jobs reading this you must think "Oh, boo hoo lady, how hard it is to be in Switzerland, how I pity you", and I don't blame you, but all I can say is, this is how we are feeling.

I think we might be suffering a bit from the "If this is Tuesday, it must be Geneva" phenomenon, where aimless travel starts to feel a bit mindless. Because after a while, let's be honest, cities start to all look alike, as do mountains and ski towns. And so much unscheduled time can start to feel like all you are doing is "filling time" to get to the next place.

I'm all for mindless escapism, but that seems to have a two-week limit, where it can be wonderful and rejuvenating to just lie on a beach and not think about anything or do anything other than feel the warm sand sifting through your fingertips, and listen to the sound of the ocean. But that can only get you so far.

So the question becomes, do we need to make the trip more purposeful, more active? Should we be finding short internships somewhere, where we can get to know some people, and explore a craft or hobby? What about the language issues? What would we do? Wine is obvious for me, but for Steve? Cars? Bikes? Where? What?

I think we also have put a lot of pressure on ourselves with regards to this trip: it was going to be the best thing we'd ever done in our lives; we were going to discover our true callings and purposes in life; we were maybe even going to be inspired by one location and decide to live there for a while.

So there's no pressure there or anything. When we have down moments, I think we both start saying to ourselves that if we aren't having the best time of our lives at every moment, then why are we spending so much money, and maybe it was a mistake and should we keep going, blah blah....

I don't know what the answer is.

Does anyone?

Stop worrying about the money, thinking too much and just enjoy ourselves? Maybe...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Swiss Miss

After leaving the insanity of Clos des Nutjob, we had the brilliant idea of driving directly to Geneva, Switzerland, without having booked anything ahead of time.

The drive took about 7 1/2 hours, and as I have mentioned, Steve has to do all the driving since I can't drive the manual. It was a lot of driving for him. And the GPS took us to City Center which was, to put it mildly, skeevy.

Even in this part of town, all the hotels were full, and the ones that weren't had rooms starting at 350 Swiss Francs.

It was suggested to us that we drive to Lausanne, a half an hour away, since we might have better luck there. After a few dead-ends, we finally landed in an Ibis Hotel chain, just outside of Lausanne. The hotel is surprisingly good. The room has a bit of a dorm-room feel, but it is super clean and functional. And there is free WI-FI in the lobby and bar.

Did I mention that it is spotlessly clean. This is why I have begun to love the Swiss. Everywhere is so clean. The garbage bins in the cities are clean; the park benches which in most cities are covered in bird poop and graffiti are clean; the phone booths are spotless and do not stink of wee.

Ah, Switzerland. And the people here are so nice. They don't mock my French, or Steve's, but are also more than happy to speak English with us, and we have started chatting spontaneously with people next to us at restaurants, who have given us suggestions of other places to visit while we're here.

They put Americans to shame in the foreign language department. The two women we spoke to last night at dinner spoke fluent French, German, English, as well as some Italian.

I finally got to see what all the fuss is about as far as Geneva is concerned. Beautiful waterfront area. (Also photo above)

Geneva: Sponsored by Rolex.

Lovely Lausanne at night.

We will be heading to the mountains soon so I can eat fondue, chocolate and yodel with the Swiss Miss.

Clos des Crazies

I have lost track of the days, but a couple of days ago, we left the lovely Chateau Biac to move to the Saint Emilion region of Bordeaux, and to stay at a bed and breakfast called Clos des Saveurs, in a little town called Gensac.

The b & b stands at the end of a long narrow drive, and was purchased two years ago by an English couple who used to run a restaurant in London. To say they were odd is a bit of an understatement. It's hard to describe the oddness, but trust me, it was there.

The woman had flaming dyed purple-red hair, and she is one of those slow-talking-starers. I'm not sure if you know what I'm talking about, but she stared at us relentlessly while we were talking, with a strangely judgmental look on her face. Then, it would take her longer than it should have to respond.

It sort of felt like words went into her ears, then found their way to her brain, she deciphered what you'd said, judged it harshly, said several nasty things in response (internally), decided she couldn't say those things, and came up with something else.

And there was nothing actually wrong with her, so it's not like I'm being mean to a slow person, she was just odd.

She also looked at my boobs a lot. Every woman out there will know what I'm talking about when I mention the face-to-boob eye-flick that all men do: where they look at your eyes for a bit, and then periodically, glance down at your bosom and then back up to your eyes.

To all the men out there: we see you. You're not as fast as you think you are, and we always know when you have looked at our bosoms. Always. We just don't say anything.

Anyway, she kept doing that to me. It might have been because she was very short, and basically my chest was right at eye-level, but still, it made me uncomfortable.

Anyway, we went into Saint Emilion, wondering if we had made a mistake coming to stay with them, and worrying that I was going to wake up in the middle of the night to find her standing over me, all crazy-eyed, hair on fire, eyes fixed on my twin peaks.

Saint Emilion (also pictured above) is an absolutely beautiful town, complete with cobbled streets, church, and shops. Wine shops, hundreds of them. I would say that 85% of the shops in this town were wine shops, completely devoted to Bordeaux area wines. It was fantastic. But alas, pricey, and since we are traveling in a heat wave with no fridge, now is not the time to buy wine.

Upon our return to the no-tell motel, we actually had a wonderful evening.

Well, first, Steve went for a swim in the pool and set an alarm off. Apparently, to prevent children drowning in pools, it is French law that pools be equipped with motion sensor alarms that produce a prison-camp screech whenever anyone goes in the pool.

The man who runs the hotel with crazy lady, seemed very perplexed by the notion that Steve had gone swimming, despite the fact that it was 6,000 degrees outside and that he had only a few hours earlier been going on to Steve about the pool and how it had just been cleaned and how nice it was, etc.

Anyway, since the owners had previously been restauranteurs, one of the special things they offer is a three-course meal, cooked by them for you alone. We sat outside in the garden, and the he-owner put the television out the window so we could watch the World-Cup final, which was quite fun.

The meal, I must say, was wonderful. It started with slices of Serrano ham, duck, and crevettes, beautiful fresh bread and house-marinated olives with garlic and rosemary. That was followed by a cold melon soup shot-glass. Then onto the main: sea bass on top of a bed of ratatouille in a seafood stock, salad and roast potatoes. And a bottle of white wine. Dessert was ice cream, trifle and a key lime pie with a creme-brulee sugar crust. Honestly, I could hardly eat any dessert because I was so full, but it was really an extraordinary meal.

Then came the night. It was boiling, absolutely stifling, and we couldn't open the windows because of the mosquitoes. On top of this, poor Steve was too tall for the bed, and with the footboard firmly in place, he couldn't put his legs straight without hanging over the side of the bed.

I haven't mentioned this yet, but the hotel has only four rooms and we were the only people in the place. All of the other rooms were open, and we seriously debated just sleeping in another room, but we decided to suffer through.

In the morning, Steve told the woman that he couldn't sleep because of the footboard, and asked if we could move to another room. She said we could but would have to pay more. Steve replied that he didn't want to pay, he just wanted to sleep.

She then informed us that we could pay or leave. So....we left. Not before she informed us that many tall people had slept in that bed and not had a problem; she informed us of this fact about 17 times. She also said that she couldn't move beds from one room to another, though neither Steve nor I had EVER suggested that. When Steve went to pull the car up to the front door so we could pack up all our luggage, she ran outside, hair flying. I think she thought we were about to do a runner.

I also think she thought we were trying to scam her out of a nicer room. I also think she was....nuts.

Anyway, we packed up and left.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Enter Roundabout

If I thought the English were obsessed with roundabouts, they are nothing compared to the French.

Every half mile (sometimes .2 of a mile) our GPS chimes "Enter roundabout". I just don't understand it. You never get to gain any momentum before you have to slow down and hurl yourself treacherously around and around in a circle before flinging yourself off.

And the French, I have to say it, are terrible drivers. They do not always yield to traffic already on the roundabout, and they do not always signal when they exit it, so you never know what the hell is going to happen to you.

Even on the freeways, they don't signal, they change lanes right into you, and they cut right in front of you as you exit the freeway.

Here is an example of the kind of warning the French drivers need. Where we ate dinner last night. On a river.

What happens to a car when you drive off a pier. In case you weren't sure.

Chateau Biac

Here is the wonderful Chateau Biac, where we are staying at the moment. This is the view from halfway down the driveway. We are staying in a section of one of those buildings.

The view from one of our bedroom windows.

The view from the other.

Youmna and Tony purchased this property four years ago, and since then have been working (and investing time and money) to repair all of the buildings, replant and maintain the vineyard, and turn the property into a producer of fine Bordeaux wines.

They have, I believe she said, 8 hectares under vine (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot and {Semillon for the sweet botrytis wine they make}).

She took us down to see the winery, and to witness what they have done there in such a short time is amazing. They had to replace the roof, chip away the cement from the original stone, install toilets, showers, kitchen and changing rooms for the workers, install air conditioning, plumbing, drainage, a water treatment facility, as well as the computerized center that controls the temperature in each of their stainless steel vats. Not to mention purchasing all of the vats, barrels and bottles!

They are hoping, when the vines mature enough and they are up and running at capacity, to produce around 40,000 bottles a year.

Stainless steel vats.

Youmna giving us a barrel tasting of 2009 Merlot.

Chateau Palmer and Chateau LaGrange

Yesterday we went to two other wineries in left bank Medoc communes.

The first one we visited was Chateau Palmer.

Like most Bordeaux wines in this region, the predominant grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Chateau Palmer is in the Margaux commune of the Medoc, and these wines are considered more "feminine" than those of Saint Estephe (where we went the day before to tour Cos D'Estournel).

Our tour guide attributed this femininity (a certain round lushness in the wines), to the fact that Palmer uses a higher percentage of Merlot in its blend than Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot is known to impart a round smoothness to wines (although, after telling us this, we observed that the 1996 Palmer we tasted was actually 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot). Perhaps it is not so much the quantity of the Merlot as it is the quality.

I had been told this about France, but I had completely forgotten how proud each winery and wine region is of its individual product, and of the different soils and terroir that make their wine different (and, of course, better!) than the wines of another region.

We saw this everywhere we went: people sharing with us the details of the type of soil they had in their vineyards, and why that type of soil is so great for the vines. Palmer for example, had sand and rock soils.

Another fact I had forgotten, is that France is not alowed to irrigate their vines. This returns to the idea of Terroir, and the notion that whatever nature gives you that year is what you have to deal with, and what gives such a strong character to each different vintage.

This year, for example, they had a cold wet spring. Since vines are pollinated by wind, the damp caused the pollen to stick to itself rather than to blow away in the wind, which has led to poor pollination of the vines. That combined with the cold meant that Palmer's Merlot vines currently have sparser, smaller grapes, which means that the winery is going to have to cut off a lot of clusters to allow the remaining ones to produce better quality fruit.

Finally, it was time to taste: She started us on a 2007 Alter Ego, which is the "second" wine of the Chateau, or rather the wine that they felt was good, but not good enough to be their main wine.

This wine was 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine was created, in many ways, to compete with the New World Wines, because it is lush, fruity and ready to drink now, with black and red fruits and chocolate notes.

The 1996 Palmer she tasted us on next was a completely different animal, in that it had much more earth and mineral in addition to the fruit, with notes of mushroom, damp earth, smoky leaf-pile in addition to the rich cassis and black currant fruit. The Petit Verdot also added spicy notes of licorice and floral. Just 5% really adds depth and complexity to the wine.

From what I can gather, it seems that Cabernet Sauvignon gives the backbone and structure to the wine, as well as age-ability, while the Merlot gives softness and plushness and the Petit Verdot adds depth and spice. Massive generalization, but you begin to hear similar comments made when touring these wineries.

After that tour we moved on to Chateau Lagrange in Saint Julien. Again, different soil types, different terroir, different flavors to the wines entirely.

Chateau Lagrange was purchased in (I believe) 1983 by a Japanese beverage company, and they brought in all the latest technology. It is pretty amazing to see these 18th century Chateaux with all these massive stainless steel tanks, and computerized panels which control the exact temperatures of each tank during fermentation.

Here is a picture of what essentially comprises the first few meters of soil there. You look at these rocks and think that nothing can grow in there, but the vines thrive in it, and the red rocks, apparently, are the most prized for adding an iron minerality to the wines.

What I found interesting here is that the grapes they use for their main wine, Chateau Lagrange, come from the older vines, most of which are about 45 years old (apparently Merlot vines can still produce beautiful fruit at 100 years), while the grapes for their second wine, Les Fiefs de Lagrange come from the younger vines.

This reinforces something I learned earlier that the older vines tend to produce superior fruit.

Both of the Lagrange wines have a significantly higher proportion of Petit Verdot in them, 14% in the 2008 Fiefs de Lagrange and 13% in the 2002 Lagrange. These wines definitely had much more pepper, clove, allspice and floral (violet/rose) than the Chateau Palmer wines.

Overall, the tours we went on so far have been really enlightening, and I'm looking forward to Monday when we will explore two Chateaux from Saint Emilion, on the Right Bank.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Cos D'Estournel and Chateau D'Yquem

Yesterday we did the first of our Bordeaux wine tours.

First off, let me say that wine tasting and touring is a completely different animal here than it is in Napa and Sonoma:

First off, many of the Chateaux and vineyard properties are gated, with locked gates, and you often can't even get in without an appointment. For both of our tours and tastings, we were the only ones there.

Second, they don't charge you for the tour or tasting, at least the two we went to so far didn't; that might not be true for all of them.

Third, they don't have a tasting room. The woman at Chateau D'Yquem didn't even know what that was, we had to describe it to her. So you can't just walk in off the street, pay money and taste a sampling of all of a certain winery's wines.

Fourth, a lot of the Chateaux don't even sell their wines on the property. You have to buy them somewhere else.

In an effort to keep the posts short(er), I won't describe in detail both wineries from yesterday, I will instead just talk about Chateau D'Yquem (photo above), since that visit was absolutely fascinating.

As I believe I have mentioned before, I am completely obsessed with the botrytis (noble rot) sweet wines, and Chateau D'Yquem, it seems, produces some of the best of these wines in the Sauternes area. I have not tasted loads and loads of Sauternes, partly because they can be pricey, so I can't say for certain if they deserve their reputation and pricetag, but all I can say is, I was impressed.

I knew that trying to make a botrytis wine was difficult, because since the fungus is naturally occurring, the wineries cannot know if they will have a proper infestation of it or not from one year to the next, but I never realized just how complicated and how exacting making these wines is.

Chateau D'Yquem uses Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes for their sweet wines; on the property, there are different sections of soil, so some of the grapes are growing in clay soil, some in limestone, some in gravel and, I believe, some in sand, though I will have to double-check.

The Sauvignon Blanc grapes and the Semillon will taste different, depending on which soil they have grown in, which adds depth and complexity to the wine.

When it comes time to pick the grapes, that's when things get complicated. First of all, there can be three different types of rot that will infect a cluster: grey rot, which turns the fruit to dust; sour rot which causes the fruit to burst and turn to vinegar; and finally the botrytis, or "noble rot", which shrivels the fruit but turns it to sugary deliciousness.

The pickers must be able to distinguish which rot is which, but it doesn't stop there. Botrytis infects a grape cluster at different rates, so the picking of these grapes can take up to 11 different passes.

The pickers will look at the bunch, determine which sections of the cluster have just the right amount of rot, cut those away, and leave the rest. They will return multiple times to pick additional clusters as the rot develops on them. Interestingly, the woman who took us on our tour said that very often the women pickers do a better job of cutting away just the right section of grapes due to usually having smaller, more nimble fingers. It's more like having to be a good seamstress than a picker.

Each time the botrytis grapes are picked, a fermentation is begun, separate ones for the Semillon grapes and Sauvignon Blanc. This means that at some points they can have up to 40 different fermentations happening, since there is a different one for each day of picking and for each grape varietal.

The fermantation must be stopped at just the right time to maintain the right balance of sweetness, acidity and alcohol. The wine is then blended, aged in new French oak barrels (each barrel is only used one year for the sweet wine, after which it is used for the dry wine they also produce), and blended again.

After learning all of this, I suddenly felt that maybe the steep pricetag wasn't so steep. Then came time for the tasting.

She gave us a taste of 2007, which is one of the less expensive vintages, but was absolutely delicious nonetheless. Sweet, but not too sweet, with a bright fresh acidity, and amazing notes of dried and fresh apricot, honeysuckle, and vanilla. I would drink this as an aperatif, an appetizer wine with foie gras or cheeses, and as a dessert wine.

In fact, let's be honest, I would just stick a straw in the bottle and drink it all day. It's absolutely delicious. And it can be both a drink-it-now wine and an investment. Because of the balance of sugar, acid and alcohol, these wines age beautifully. Our guide said she tasted a 1904 D'Yquem and it was incredible. Some day...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Heat Wave

Hello from the Bordeaux region of France.

We are staying at the beautiful Chateau Biac in the small town of Langoiran, in part of an old stone cottage complete with small kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, living and dining room.

It is part of a larger complex and winery which we have not toured yet, but plan to before we leave.

I will include pictures later, but right now we are too busy melting to even go outside to take any shots. It reached 100 degrees today, and yesterday it wasn't much cooler. Of course there is no air conditioning, and we don't even have a fan, so let me tell you, it is hot in the room at night.

It's also airless because we can't keep the windows open because then the mosquitos get in, so the windows are closed all night. And, because of the heat, the bugs are coming out in droves. Last night we had a line of tiny ants going from under the front door, all the way across the living and dining room, to a hole in the stone wall.

There were multiple large beetles sashaying along the floor, too, but by far the worst moment came when I was rinsing my mouth out over the sink after brushing my teeth, leaning forward, and a millipede came out of the emergency overflow hole in the sink, almost right up into my face.

I shrieked, I really did. In nine years of being together, Steve said he'd never heard me make a sound like that before.

I'm not normally afraid of millipedes, but that sucker came dangerously close to jumping into my open mouth, and of course, when i saw those tentacles appearing, the first thing I thought was that it was a big roach.

And millipedes move fast, they move really fast, and I'm sorry but all those legs are a bit creepy. And as I sat in bed reading, I couldn't stop myself from imagining that as soon as the lights went out and I fell asleep, that millipede and maybe a few of its friends, were going to crawl into my ear and burrow into my brain.

Needless to say, I got up and watched a movie.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Are you Out There??

To anybody out there reading this blog, I would LOVE to hear from you!!

Would love you to post your thoughts, observations, questions, reactions, ideas, in the comments section.

You don't even have to create a google account or sign in; you can simply choose to comment as Anonymous, and then, if you want, sign your name at the end of your comment, or don't!

Please let me know if there are any ways I can make this blog more comment-friendly.

It means so much to me to know you're out there!!

Thank you for reading...

Paris Wine Toes

This is a photo of the Eiffel Tower from my room last night. Not too shabby. Though I was reading my book today (I am currently reading Spies of Warsaw by, Alan Furst; very good book), and came across the quote "...beautiful places [are] hard on lonely people".

I would hardly call myself a lonely person, and I love doing things on my own, but there is something lonely about seeing these beautiful sights by myself, and not being able to share them with Steve, or a friend, in the moment.

The daytime is easier; I am quite happy wandering around in my own world, reading my book over a meal or an espresso. But when nighttime comes, I feel a bit more uncomfortable. There is something about going out to eat dinner by myself that feels awkward; harder to just read my book in my own world. And I am not adventurous enough to go to a wine bar by myself at night, because (and maybe I flatter myself here) I don't want to get chatted up by random people, especially not in French. Is that lame of me?

I know I should just enjoy it, though, because over the next 4 months Steve and I will, I'm sure, drive each other crazy, and we will wind up begging for a few days to ourselves.

Anyway, I spent the morning at my favorite museum in Paris, the Musee Rodin. It was pouring rain outside when I went, which on the upside was very atmospheric but on the downside, it may have made the museum busier.

And the humidity, my god, the air was so thick I could barely breathe. I don't want to sound like a spoiled American here, but a little air conditioning goes a long way. It doesn't even have to be cold, just get some airflow going. Or just a fan, how about that? Just a fan on rotate so that the air actually moves in the room. Just a suggestion.

After that I went to a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant. Yep, you read me right. Conveyor-belt sushi. I had read about it in my Zagat guide, and the place was absolutely packed. The way it works is this: You sit down at a seat which faces a moving conveyor belt. The chefs prepare various dishes and then place them, covered with clear plastic covers, on this conveyor belt, and you just grab whatever looks good to you. The plates are color-coded, with each color being a different price. When you are ready to leave, the waiters simply add up how many of each color you had and voila, your bill!

Now since it was warm out and since it is, after all, conveyor belt sushi, I didn't actually eat anything raw. I did, however, have a lovely crunchy cabbage salad, a veggie roll, and a cooked salmon and tuna roll. It was just what I was in the mood for, since I just couldn't face another heavy meal.

Today I also went to the Musee du Vin. This was, I have to say, the oddest museum I have ever been to. The audio tour was so strange I wondered if it was a joke. The museum is basically a restaurant with some tunnels leading off to the side. These tunnels contain a lot of wine-making and grape-growing paraphernalia from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The audio tour felt to me as though it had just been recorded that morning by some girl with a microphone in her living room. I could hear her turning pages, taking deep breaths, and at one point sighing, as if she was bored out of her mind.

Every so often, something she said would be punctuated by loud classical music, the same bars each time. The music would suddenly start playing, and then would just as suddenly cut out. At first I thought it signified a transition to the next display of the tour, but that turned out not to be the case, as when the music stopped, she started talking about items displayed in the cases back where I had previously been standing.

And it was just so poorly organized that I had no idea what I was supposed to be looking at when. The tour gave you no real clue. She would say: "Items 2, 12, 85 and 16 were used for decanting in the 18th century", and I would be struggling to locate these items which were, of course, nowhere near each other, and were sometimes in different cases, so I was whipping around trying to locate things, giving myself whiplash.

As soon as I had located at least one of the items she referred to, she had already rattled off 16 other items I should be looking at, and then the music would play.

Then there were wax-people displays set up, one of which showed Napoleon and two other dudes, standing amongst wine barrels. The audio for this was: "Here is Napoleon. He liked wine." And the music played.

I just didn't understand what was happening.

By far the best moment came when I reached the corkscrew display, and the audio mentioned that the cork became the preferred preservation method, replacing hemp, muslin, paper and toe.

I'm sorry, did she say toe? Now I'm sure that word is probably spelled differently and means something else, but it was too late; I was off.

I couldn't stop imagining all of these wine bottles corked with the toes of vintners and their families. How relieved they must have been to see the cork become fashionable. Now the mystery of the toe-less winemakers of the 18th century has been solved.

Friday, July 2, 2010

London for a Day

Yesterday found us back in London for the day and night. We spent the morning at The Cabinet War Rooms Museum. If you are ever in London, it is really worth a visit.

The museum takes you on a guided audio tour through the rooms that Churchill and his various strategists, advisors, cabinet members, secretaries, typists, etc, used as their war command center throughout World War II. The rooms are located deep underground near 10 Downing Street, and are fortified with concrete and steel, to protect those within from bombs.

What I love most about this museum is that on the day the war ended, people who worked in this space literally turned out the lights, locked the door and left. And everything that was down there just stayed as it was.

Some of the rooms were later cleared out before the space became a museum in the 1980's, and so these rooms have been faithfully recreated to match photographs, but one room in particular, The Map Room (my favorite), is exactly as it was the day the war came to an end. Even down to the sugar rations of one officer that were found in a desk drawer.

I just love to think of that when I look at this room, that everything here is just as it was on that historic day. The string on the maps, the push pins, the books and phones, the strategic logbooks, the code scramblers, the desks, chairs, everything, still somehow holding all the fear, the effort, the tension and finally, the elation and relief that this room once contained.

It just really felt like stepping back in time, being in these rooms, imagining all that had gone on in them for so many years, while bombs exploded above them, and the city crumbled while still struggling to stay alive.

Pretty amazing stuff.

After visiting the War Rooms, we did what anyone would do, and we went to a fantastic wine shop. Berry Bros & Rudd. Talk about stepping back in time: this shop has been there for 312 years. In the same space. I have included a link to their website on the left-hand side of this blog in the Sites I Love, Things I Mention section. Take the virtual tour of the shop, because you can see the underground cellars, function rooms and classrooms that you cannot go to when you just pop by the shop.

Today, I am back in Paris, and will be here until Wednesday. Already, it feels like the time on this trip is flying by. I am in a very large business hotel which I booked through Priceline. The room is clean and a bit spartan, almost like a very nice dorm room, but this view from my window....what can I say?