Monday, October 25, 2010

Surviving Paris: Trains and Automobiles

In September, we spent a week in the Loire Valley of France. When it came time for us to head out to Paris, we went into Angers and booked tickets to Paris on the TGV. These high-speed trains have limited stops and reach up to 200mph. Woo-hoo!

I loved the TGV - the drive from Paris to Le Moulin took over 3 hours, much of it on country roads. The train trip took about 1 hour 15 minutes. Smooth as silk, easy as can be. Except luggage storage. We had two fair-sized hard-sided bags stuffed with wine and each was maxed out at 50 pounds. They weren't big, just heavy. Still, the luggage storage space was full with all 5 people in our compartment hogging it all. I can't imagine what it would be like when the train is full!

Helpful signs for the TGV.
One final note on the TGV - first class doesn't seem worth it. Second class can be fairly pricey as it is, so on the shorter trips, I would recommend skipping the deluxe accommodations. 

We arrived at the Montparnasse station on a Saturday afternoon looking forward to a couple days in Paris. It was our first trip to Paris and we were very excited. The confusion that day nearly killed that excitement (and my husband).

Leaving our TGV train, it was easy to find the taxi stands. All seemed to be going well. Our hotel wasn't far, but with two heavy bags we were advised by friends to take a taxi and skip trying to get through the Metro. Unfortunately, the fates were against us. After standing in line about 20 minutes with no taxis, a driver showed up and began to speak very excitedly in French. The man in the couple in front of us spoke some French and I overheard him saying the streets were closed, no one could get anywhere. Oh. Oh no!

In my other post, the The Kindness of Strangers, I wrote about this couple and how helpful they were that day. What I didn't mention was the joy of dragging heavy suitcases through the Paris Metro. I managed to get stuck in a turnstile once (the bag couldn't pull through correctly, had to be turned sideways) and I know we must have walked two miles in tunnels. The worst part was for my husband - there were stairs all over. Up, down. Up, down. He was carrying both suitcases up and down each set of stairs the whole way. Up, down, up, down. At one point I began to think we were trapped in a hellish maze of stairs and would never see daylight again.

We finally reached our platform (up some stairs, down some more) and took the Metro two stops to our hotel location. Yeah! We did it........except there were two final flights of stairs up to street level. My hubby is a pretty strong guy, works out all the time, and he finally broke just before we reached daylight. He had to stop after the first flight and rest. But - we could smell fresh air and we were determined to escape up into the daylight.

Deceptive picture: looks clean and nice smelling.

Thankfully our hotel was only half a block from there. But there were stairs into the lobby and down to the elevator. SERIOUSLY??

So - word to the wise - know what is going on in Paris on the day you arrive and do not attempt the Metro with heavy bags.

We recovered pretty quick from hating the Metro and Paris (hubby's first words about Paris "I hate Paris") and reached the point where we pretty much want to move there and live forever. But I will say the Metros have a bad habit of smelling strongly of piss. Nasty. Watch where you step. Overall though, they are easy to figure out and reliable and far better than a taxi.

Which brings me to taxis...goodness. We took a cab to the airport on the morning we left and it was crazy expensive. We left from near Notre Dame and it took about 50 minutes in traffic. The meter was off the charts. We expected this, but were not about to try the Metro and trains again and had requested a cab that would accept credit cards. When we arrived at the airport, the cab driver ran my card and said it was declined. Ok, credit card security probably kicked in - try another one. Declined. My husband tried two cards - also declined. I'm about to get violent with the taxi driver, clearly his credit card machine has an issue and he won't let us out of the cab. I finally get him to understand I needed to go inside the airport and find an ATM and he lets me out. Luckily, the debit card that had just come up "declined" really did work and I was able to withdraw some euro to pay the bill. I have no idea what would have happened had that not worked.

Next time I'll look for a pre-pay shuttle or something. Or maybe pack lighter and take the trains. But, you know, we really needed to bring all that wine back home. :-)

-- Happy Travels!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Random Photo: Beijing

Beijing is a striking contrast of the old and new - and personally I prefer the old. I'm a history buff, so I enjoy seeing the cultural history of a place when I travel. One of my best experiences when visiting Beijing in 2008 was wandering the hutongs near the Forbidden Palace. 

Hutong area, outside the Forbidden Palace
-- Happy Travels!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A country walk in France: Le Moulin Bregeon

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes video is even better. For the full details on Le Moulin, visit my blog entry here.

I fell in love with the French country-side on this visit and captured as much video as possible. The slower pace of life was charming, but I really enjoyed the ability to walk out into the fields and not hear cars and the hum of electricity. Instead I could hear the birds, the stream running over rocks and the farm puppy bounding through the bushes as she led us on our walk.

How I miss this place!

-- Peaceful Travels!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Clos Cristal: Growing grapes on the wall

The last winery we visited in the Loire Valley was Clos Cristal. This stunning property in the Saumur area grows primarily cabernet franc with some chenin blanc mixed in. One of the things that makes Clos Cristal unique is how they grow some of their grapes.

Guided by Marc, we walked out into the vineyards. The land slopes up slightly to the forest at the top of the hill and the views are spectacular. But you'll notice something odd as you look over the vineyards, there are walls built in them and there are grapes growing on them.

The founder of Clos Cristal, Antoine Cristal, decided to try something new when he was building out his vineyard. Using walls that run east-west, he planted vines on the north side of the wall and pushed the main trunk up through the wall. The leaves and grapes grow on the south side of the wall. What does this do exactly? The roots stay cooler due to their northern exposure, while the grapes get the most sun. The wall retains the heat of the day, causing the grapes to be exposed to higher temperatures than regular vines. This causes the fruit to mature faster. The winemaker allows the grapes to begin to whither on the vine - they dry out to the point of looking very raisin-like and are still able to be harvested a few weeks before traditional vines.

This on-the-vine concentration of the grapes produces incredibly robust cabernet franc wines. Only xxx cases are produced a year and "Le Murs" was a pleasure to taste. Of course I bought a couple of bottles which I will horde in my cellar for as long as possible! The traditionally grown cabernet francs at Clos Cristal are also superb and their Chenin Blanc was a pleasant surprise. They don't grow much of the Chenin Blanc, so if you can find it, I encourage you to buy it.

Something else I learned: you'll notice their sign says "Hospices de Saumur". I was fascinated by this concept in France. The founder died without children and left his vineyards to the hospital. The hospitals use the vineyards as a way to generate income to run the hospitals. I am guessing this brilliant idea helps provide good medical care for everyone in France, though from the American viewpoint I can see some teetotalers arguing that the hospitals sell wine which ensures they have patients in the future. Whatever belief you hold on this subject, I encourage you to visit Clos Cristal for the lovely scenery and the beautiful wines.

For a video tour of the vineyards, check this out:

-- Happy Travels!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Le Moulin Bregeon - Loire Valley, France

I find it hard to gather the words to explain the experience at Le Moulin. Located between Noyant and Vernantes, south of Tours, 30 minutes out from Saumur and located in the tiny village of Linieres-Bouton is Le Moulin Bregeon. An old water mill used to grind grain, has been converted into a ... well, I'm not really sure it fits in any class of accommodation. It akin to being invited to the country home of your dearest friends who wish to make your experience one you will never forget.

Le Moulin Bregeon and the stream running under the building.

Resident Chef Pascal, is truly amazing. Assisted by sous-chef Elissa, he treated us each night to a four-course traditional French country dinner. We had cauliflower with smoked duck, confit de canard (duck confit), boeuf provencal, apple tarte tartine, lentil puree soup ... and that is just a sample! Everything was in season and most of the ingredients were from the gardens there on the farm. One morning at breakfast Elissa asked if we wanted an egg - when we said "yes", she headed out to the chicken coop to see what was available! They focus on local ingredients, seasonality of the food and dishes seeped in tradition.  The chefs truly live the "farm to fork" concept and beyond, gathering ingredients locally and from the farm, composting all the food waste and using it in the organic gardens, shopping only at local farms and markets and then being there when you taste the food to tell you about the dish. It was truly a culinary experience beyond belief!

Afternoon snack - simple elegance
Our suite was on the second floor of the Mill and was stunning. Old gears from the days when it was a working mill remained in the ceiling. The stream still runs under the mill and we could hear it in our suite. The furniture were all antiques, right down to the linens on the beds and the tiles on the floor of the bathroom. There are no TV's, clocks or phones in the rooms. There is a hair-dryer if you ask for it - but don't expect a coffee maker or a mini-bar. The kitchen is just right downstairs, make yourself at home! (Which I did one night, searching for a glass of water). Speaking of water - the tap water is safe. I swear it must come from a spring because it tasted better than many bottled waters.

Our suite - master bed
Our suite - second bed
The bath. I fell in love with this sink!
Big enough for two - but there is a rain shower also!
If you truly cannot disconnect from the digital world, you can cross the bridge over the stream and head into the living room. If it is chilly, Bernard will have built a fire and you can relax there and get on the wi-fi network. Just do take a moment to notice all the interesting items on the walls and in the glass cabinet. There are surprises everywhere.

Le Moulin isn't just a refuge for people, but you'll notice the animals have free reign also. There are a flock of geese who will not ever be part of dinner, ducks who swim in the stream, Mona the mascot dog and her two puppies, the chickens and the goats. Explore the outlying buildings and take some time to walk along the stream. It is a peaceful and amazing walk. We had the chance to walk at midnight, under the full moon, with one of the puppies guiding us. It is a memory I will hold dear - it was simply enchanting!

The view from our bathroom window early one morning
With amazing surroundings, isolated from the world and stunning food, Le Moulin Bregeon still wouldn't be half the experience it is without the people who pull it all together. Pascal and Elissa bring cooking and dining to life. They clearly have a passion for what they do and instinctively know what is right (and wrong). If Pascal does not publish a recipe book soon, I will be very angry with him! Jonathan is a gracious and entertaining host - we were sincerely flattered by his request to visit him in his atelier in the village and learned a great deal from him about modern architecture. The daily operating of the Mill could not happen without Bernard. He is grace under pressure and makes it all seem easy while being truly charming and welcoming. He was there to match the wines to our food, he set an amazing table with centerpieces he found on the farm (grapevines, chestnuts still on the branch), helped us find tickets for events and advised us on places to visit.  And last, but certainly not least, our friend Adam: he was full of energy, sincerely accommodating and resourceful, and willing to answer our endless questions. He made us feel completely at ease and went out of his way to make sure all the details were perfect for our visit.

As we left the Loire Valley on the TGV train headed for Paris, I was quite sad. I was leaving friends who I won't see again for some time and who I will dearly, dearly miss. Which gives me all the more reason to plan the next visit!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Exploring Loire Valley: Wineries near Saumur

Living in California, I have a definite bias toward California and Pacific Northwest wineries. I adore American wines - they are close to me and familiar. After traveling in Italy, I was able to round out my wine tastes with some Italian wines that I enjoy. French wines have remained a mystery to me, mainly due to their astonishing price point here in the U.S. and the fact that I know very little about them.

Now with friends living in France and a couple of friends in the wine business, a rather ad-hoc trip to the Loire Valley sprang up over the summer. Not only were we headed to France, but we were going to the lesser known (in the U.S.) wine region. So - let the adventure begin!

Loire Valley is mainly a cabernet franc and sparkling wine (Cremant de Loire) region. Chenin Blanc turns up (especially in the Cremant), depending on the area. We spent most of our time in the Anjou region of the Loire - this Valley is much, much larger than I expected!

Mmm... look at all those bottles aging and waiting...
So let's start with our first day: We left the Mill and went into Saumur on the Loire river to visit Les Caves de Louis de Grenelle. Not much of a looker from the outside - it is in town - but the staff were very helpful and the sparkling wines were superb. Then came the surprise - the actual caves. Dug out of limestone for building the chateau, they are massive and very, very extensive. I could have wondered in here for days, but we had more places to visit....

Next up was Chateau du Hureau, where cabernet franc is the ruling grape. The Chateau sits up on a hill with the caves dug into the cliffside. It is a beautiful place that produces bold, robust wines. Cabernet franc is not an easy grape to grow and seems to be one that needs to be aged to bring out the subtleties in it. For American palettes, accustomed to cabernet franc turning up only as a blending grape, these French wines may be a bit startling. A good cab franc really needs food to bring out the nuances and showcase what is best about it.

Our final stop along our Saumur path was Chateau de Villeneuve. This winery focuses on organic growing and produces superb Saumer-Champigny reds and an excellent dessert wine.

The wineries of Saumur were an unique experience for me. The red wines being used in the tasting rooms were all young. While drinkable right away, you could tell they would benefit from aging. The sparkling wines of the region were a delightful surprise. The best part of it all: the most expensive bottle was 17 euros. Most bottles were under 10 euros. Now if it weren't for those pesky customs rules coming back to the US....

-- Happy Sniffing, Swirling, Sipping!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Château du Petit Thouars: Wine and Twitter

It started with a tweet from our friend, founder of Corkbin: she mentioned we were going to the Loire Valley in September and she quickly received a response from @ChâteauPetitThouars suggesting we visit their winery while we were there.

It turned out the winery was in our area, so we decided to make sure we stopped by. Once we found the turnoff, we drove up a lovely tree lined driveway.  Chateau du Petit Thouars sits up on a the hill at the end of driveway with astonishing views from the top. The grounds are immaculate and the chateau appears to be very well maintained.

We were greeted by Gwendoline Pinard, daughter of Michel Pinard, the winemaker at the Chateau. She provided us a tour of part of the chateau - absolutely gorgeous! I was completely envious of the library and took tons of pictures. I may just sneak back and move in there...the dining room alone was enough to convince me.

After the tour we had our wine tasting across the courtyard. Cabernet franc is the ruling grape in Loire Valley, but we did start with two sparkling wines. Both were delightful though I preferred the Cremant de Loire Brut over the rose. Rose's tend to suffer from my American bias against them - I think "too sweet" and syrupy due to all those bottles of Gallo running around in my Mid-western background. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find the roses in Loire were dry, not sweet.

The tasting room
 My favorite was the Touraine 2005. I was impressed by how smooth it was, though I think it will benefit from a bit more aging. In general I found the tasting wines in Loire to all be a bit young - probably a factor of cabernet franc and the style of wine-making in France. Since I have a hard time not drinking wine if it is in my house, I need the older wines right away.

We truly had a wonderful visit - and it was the power of social media that brought us to this place.  We would not have found the Chateau without Twitter. It is an interesting meeting of the old world and the new when social media allows a winery to reach a potential audience and customers.  Traveling wine tasters are alerted to places they may not have found in a guidebook. Overall, it feels like a good thing all around. If you have an iPhone (and Android devices soon), check out the Corkbin App. It brings this theory to another level, allowing you to see what wines people near you are drinking and their feedback on them.

-- Happy Travels!