Wine Country Tour, Day Eleven: Sarlat

Three years ago, on our first road trip in France,,we somehow failed to find old Sarlat.  This time we were determined, so we scheduled a night there between Bordeaux country and Burgundy country.  But we had to get from one place to the other, and therein lies the joy of travel the way Anita and I do it.

Near Bordeaux is Saint-Emilion, a historic wine center in the Bordeaux region.  This was a Sunday and our timing didn’t allow a leisurely exploration of the town and its many wine chateaux, but a cemetery caught our eye.  Anita pulled into a newly plowed field and let me explore the cemetery on my own.  I think if I lived in Saint Emilion, I’d have to get chummy with this family:


Cemetery near Saint Emilion

When someone is buried here, family, friends, and business associates leave remembrances not just in perishables like flowers, but in permanent items, like tiles engraved with warm thoughts.  This family was clearly beloved by many.

Our GPS navigation system gave us options for how to route: fastest, most direct, ferries or not; that sort of thing.  Fastest usually maximized autoroutes (think interstate highways), but those are rarely the most interesting.  Now THIS is interesting:


Route to Domme

You learn to trust your technology on a road like that.  But in return, you get this:


Dordogne Valley farmland

We stopped off for a nostalgic visit to Domme, just across the Dordogne river from Sarlat, having spent a couple of nights there three years ago.  It’s a “perched village”, and from this perch, you get a spectacular view of the Dordogne valley:


Dordogne Valley, as seen from Domme

We did finally get to Sarlat, and as usual Anita had done an excellent job of choosing our lodgings.  We were a five minute walk from the iconic statue of the the three geese, representing one of the regional culinary specialties, foie gras.


The Geese of Sarlat

After a leisurely stroll and a small amount of shopping, we had dinner at Le Moulin du Roy (The King’s Mill), nestled in a small corner among buildings dating back to the 13th century.  It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.  Tomorrow is the longest drive of the trip, five hours to the heart of Burgundy, so today we’re in bed early.

Wine Country Tour, Days Nine and Ten: Bordeaux

We arrived in Bordeaux yesterday and spent the afternoon exploring the neighborhood of our hotel.  Today we got better acquainted with the city.  Near our hotel is one of the most popular attractions in the city, the Reflecting Pool (Le Miroir d’Eau).  The impression given by the name may well be the intent of the city and the designer, but in practice, at least during the weekend daytime hours, it is more of a family playground:


Reflecting pool, daytime

What child doesn’t love splashing around in water an inch deep, or in a fine spray of mist on a warm autumn afternoon?  But my own tastes run more to the tranquility of the night:


Reflecting pool, dusk

This is the largest installation of its kind in the world, almost 2/3 the size of an American football field.  It cycles about every half hour filling to its one inch depth, resting (or trying to rest) for 15 minutes, then emptying and going into the misting mode for about three minutes.  It’s a must-see if you find yourself in Bordeaux.

We are here, of course, because Bordeaux the city is the center of Bordeaux the wine region of west France.  We concentrated our exploration of this heritage by visiting The City of Wine, a new museum along the Garonne River.


City of Wine

We arrived about lunchtime, and guess what?  We had a chance to have wine with out lunch.  Check out the selection.  Not only is the wine itself a work of the vintner’s art, but some of the labeling is itself pleasant to look at:


Wine label art

The exhibits are interesting in themselves, but to this engineer, the use of interactivity was impressive: just wave your hand over an image, and it adapts to your own interests.  In addition to an exhibit on wine in the Bible, there was also an exhibit on “The Dark Side” of wine.  Something for everyone.

Like any major city, Bordeaux is about more than wine.  It has a long history, as illustrated by the Great Bell, built in the 15th century adjacent to the church of St. James.  (James is usually rendered Jacques in French, but James is the Gasconese form, the ancient language of the region.)


The Great Bell of Bordeaux

If you’ve been paying close attention to the skies in the pictures of this trip, it’s been fairly consistent that the days start out overcast and foggy, and clear up in the afternoon.

Our parking garage was in the same building with a library and a school.  As we came out, this sculpture reassured me that I wasn’t the only one with the occasional “one of those days.”


Some days are like that

We will add a little bit to our wine tour tomorrow with a side trip to St. Emillion, a small village between here and Sarlat, our destination for tomorrow night.


Wine Country Tour, Days Seven and Eight

Three years ago when we first visited Mont Saint-Michel, we agreed that if we ever got the chance, we would spend the night “on the rock”, and this year we did.  Mont Saint-Michel is a remarkable piece of rock popping up out of the bay about a kilometer from the mainland at the boundary between the Bretagne (Brittany) and Normandie (Normandy) regions of northwestern France.  On the approach, you get a breath-taking look at it from a distance:


Before climbing to the top I believed what I read about the height of it–302 feet above sea level, or about the height of a 30-story building.  We had booked a room at “La Vielle Auberge” (The Old Inn); the information on the inn told us that our lodgings were not to be in the same building as the reception desk, but in one of the lanes in the village below the abbey.  Let’s play my own version of “Where’s Waldo?”.  Can you spot our room in this picture below?


Hint: above the cemetery to the right is a brown door.  By the time we had trekked up to the room level, we were a mere 72 steps up a series of stairs from the entrance to the abbey at the top of the mont.  But the reward was hard to describe:


I’m pretty sure the monks didn’t live like this.  The seagulls visited.  We watched the groups of schoolchildren having their ecological introduction to the bay surrounding the island (low tide, of course):


In the early days of the abbey, the pilgrims of the tenth century had only that option to reach their destination, since it was completely isolated from the mainland.  Today there is a restricted-access causeway and a high-tech dam designed to preserve the ecology of the area as nearly as possible to what it was in the early days.

There is a special little “ruelle” (tiny lane) that we had read about, and that I had managed to actually use to get to the “Grande Rue” (Great Street).  It’s about as wide as my shoulders.  I wouldn’t have found it if I had had a better sense of direction and not gotten lost, but there you go.  I don’t know if it was intended this way, but from the bottom, looking up through this little space, all you can see is the spire with the statue of Saint Michel:


After nightfall, I took my camera and tripod out to the causeway and got what I came for:


I am proud to report that, unlike three years ago, Anita went with me all the way to the top of the publicly accessible part of the abbey.  And this is why we aren’t fooled by that publicity about its being only 302 feet above sea level.  (Editor’s note: Anita is convinced it’s more like 10,000 feet, since she walked every step of it from the causeway up La Grande Rue, through a maze of stairways not unlike that of Escher’s famous drawing, all the way to the cloister garden, which was under construction.  That’s her story and she’s sticking to it.)

We are resting up in Nantes, on our way tomorrow to Bordeaux, one of the major wine centers of France.  Our legs will appreciate the rest.


Wine Country Tour, Day Six: Honfleur

After Paris, there is little doubt about Anita’s favorite place in France.  It’s on the left bank of the mouth of the Seine River, right across from the city of Le Havre, and it’s called Honfleur.  It’s home to Erik Satie, turn-of-the-20th-century composer of avant-garde music, as well as Eugene Boudin, 19th-century painter.  Today it seems to thrive on tourism, being just across the English Channel from Portsmouth.  It appears that the second language here is British, and most of the boats in the marina are British.


Honfleur marina

Because of this, the town has managed to preserve its sea-going legacy.  The little church in the center of the marina photo above was decommissioned long ago, but has been preserved as a museum dedicated to the memory of the seagoing men and their families who put this town on solid economic footing.

This is our third visit to Honfleur, and the first in the autumn.  Because of the earlier sunset time, we don’t have to stay up late for nightfall, when the marina takes on a different personality.


Honfleur marina after dark

Having dinner at dusk, waiting for night to settle over the water is a perfect way to end a day of driving across the French countryside.


Dinner at Honfleur

In case you’re wondering, Anita had that quintessential French dinner, hamburger and fries, and I had scallops and pasta.

After a good night’s rest, tomorrow we head down past the Normandy beaches to spend the afternoon and night on Mont Saint-Michel, as pilgrims began doing over a thousand years ago.  But more about that tomorrow.

Wine Country Tour, Day Five: Champagne

Last year, I decided Anita needed a champagne vineyard.  Most Americans have heard the expression “champagne tastes on a beer budget.”  That pretty well describes us, so what to do?  It turns out, through a miracle of modern marketing (here, for example), that you can get not exactly a whole vineyard, but a token presence in one by virtue of a three-year certificate of “rental” of a vine in a vineyard.  Close, yes?  Close enough to get discounts on the wine made there, as well as private guided tours and tastings.  Anita got her certificate and first bottle of champagne from her very own vine for Christmas last year, and her guided tour today.


Vines at Champagne Fresne-Ducret

We spent the misty morning at Champagne Fresne-Ducret just north of Epernay, about which more below.  It’s a lovely vine-to-bottle business operated by a young couple, Pierre and Daniella Fresne (pronounced like “friend” without the “d” at the end).  Daniella spent close to three hours with us showing us the vines and the wine-making process, as well as letting us sample some of the finished product.  From an engineering point of view, it was fascinating.  I didn’t know the mechanical aspect of wine-making was so complex.  All these high-tech 15-foot tall blending vats require significant skills to make sure the right blend of grapes is in each one for the several months required to move on to the next step in the process.


Champagne vats

On our stroll down the hill from the blending house to the cellars, I asked about the rosebushes at the ends of many of the rows of vines (now past their peak season, just like the grapes):


Rose Sentinels

It turns out that traditionally they were used as sentinels.  They were subject to the same diseases as the vines, but showed symptoms much earlier.  The grower could tell by glancing at the roses how healthy his vines were.  That seems to be a thing of the past, and now they either don’t exist at all or serve merely a decorative purpose.

In contrast to the sparkling tech of the blending house, the aging cellars were a study in low-tech dark, damp, coolness.  The wine, not yet bubbly, must spend a few years (usually four years or so from grape to retail sale) settling, called “riddling”.  These racks are specially made so the bottles can be rotated and the angle of tilt of the bottle can be changed slightly, from near-horizontal to about 45 degrees, over a period of many months, allowing the “lees” to settle out to the mouth of the bottle, where they can be easily removed leaving a pure, clear liquid.



All of this goes a long way to explaining the adage I mentioned earlier.  This much time and effort leads to high prices.  And in some cases, high prices lead to wealth.  Which brings us back to Epernay, where our B&B is, and where a few other little bungalows exist for the comfort of the large-scale producers:


Champagne homes

When you have a tower like this marking your presence, you can afford a home like those:


Castellane, Epernay

So that’s Champagne country.  When you find yourself in the north of France, dedicate some time to visit the area.  It’s a lovely day trip by car and if you want to spend a little more time, we can recommended a nice B&B.  Tomorrow we’ll visit Anita’s second-favorite town in France, Honfleur, on our way to Mt. Saint-Michel.  Come along with us.

Wine Country Tour, Day Four: Transition

I went to bed tonight thinking I’d skip the blog today, since we are without wifi in our B&B here in Epernay.  But the muse is upon me and so here I am, consuming precious data in my personal wifi hotspot brought to me by my smartphone and mobile carrier, and the thousands of software engineers that live only to keep me up at night.

Today we rented a car at the shopping mall under the Louvre and made our way to Epernay, in the heart of champagne country.  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  But at the car rental company, I discovered that Anita had stolen my credit card, cut it up into little morsels, and flushed it down the hotel toilet.  Doesn’t that sound more reasonable than my just admitting that I lost it it somewhere?  In any case, I couldn’t rent or drive the car.  Fortunately, Anita was at the ready.  Seriously, when you read the 3,000 year old passage about how a virtuous wife is worth more than rubies, it leaves out the three things that mattered the most to me today:

  • A virtuous wife is not afraid to drive in Paris.
  • A virtuous wife does not lose her driver’s license at a critical moment of a vacation.
  • A virtuous wife does not berate her husband for losing his.

And so I have found a virtuous wife.  You guys out there are probably squirming with jealousy right now.


Thanks to GPS, we found our way back from the Louvre to the hotel, recovered our bags, headed off for our drive to Epernay, wandered…  No, the French have a great word for it.  The word is flaner; it means to stroll, to amble, to give the appearance of aimless wandering when in fact one knows what one is about, but one has the time to do it slowly and with grace.  We flanered around Epernay for a while before finding our B&B, and our back yard:


The quiet is intense.  I listened carefully and the only sounds I could hear were the birds discussing the arrangement of their winter nests.  The grapes have been harvested, the leaves of the vines are abandoning all hope for the winter, and life is good.  And I have a chauffeur for the rest of the trip.

Wine Country Tour, Day Three: Victor Hugo and Nuit Blanche

We started our day today by walking around the corner of Place des Vosges and spending some time in the house where Victor Hugo lived for 16 years.  If that name is new to you, I recommend to your attention his two most famous novels: Notre Dame de Paris and Les Miserables.  But he was about much more than epic novels.  He was a master poet.  He never got over the tragic drowning death of his beloved daughter Leopoldine, dedicating a book of poems to her (Contemplations).  But fortunately he had other children, and his last collection was fitly titled How to be a Grandfather.  I never knew about this collection until today; it’s now on my wish list in case my grandchildren want to get me a how-to book.  This is a detail from a painting of his grandchildren in his apartment-become-museum:


L’art d’être Grand-pere (The Art of Being a grandfather)

He used his stature as a writer (novels, poems, stage plays) to promote causes.  In addition to promoting the idea of a “United States of Europe” long before the European Union came into existence, he also helped raise funds for the poor children of Guernsey, England, where he lived for several years.  One of his attempts was to get three of his writer friends to contribute an inkwell and a pen, and he had this writing table made to put in a fund-raising auction:


Four-inkwell writing table

There were no takers in the bidding, so Hugo bought it himself.  What do you suppose it would fetch today, this table with inkwells and pens used by Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas, George Sand, and Alphonse Lamartine?

The apartment contains several busts of Hugo, all oversized.  I wondered if this was because he himself was bigger than life.  At his funeral two million people lined the route of the funeral cortege from the Madeleine church to the Pantheon, where his remains were laid to rest.  This one bust, by the remarkable French Sculptor Rodin, captures for me the tiredness of a sensitive poet finally weighed down by the burdens of a life well lived.


Victor Hugo by Rodin

After a good nap (and wee visit to the Coco Chanel center, where we managed to escape empty-handed), we took ourselves to Notre Dame for the weekly organ recital, followed by a taste of Nuit BlancheNuit Blanche is literally “white night”, but it is a euphemism for what Americans call an “all-nighter.”   This event lasts from 7pm to 7am, and is marked by free street performances, open museums, and special exhibitions. Weeks ago, my intent was to stay out most of the night, sampling as much as possible.  The realities of a pair of feet seven decades old took over, and we cut ourselves off after trying to figure out a special event involving large lighted letters.  Here, you are invited to text your name to a special number and the operators will spell it out for you.  In the ten minutes we were there, it never quite happened.


I write your name

A later event was to let the observers vote on a message to be spelled out for aliens to see and perhaps guide their actions.  The candidates:


And here are just a couple of random street art observations:

Well, Paris is fun, but we’re billing this trip as a wine country tour.  Tomorrow we’re off  to the heart of Champagne country, where the highlight will be a visit to Anita’s vines.  I’ll explain that on Monday, when we actually get to see them up close and personal.