Monday, October 3, 2011

Luke's Wallpaper Collection

Oh sure, other people go overseas and do stuff like jetboating and bungy jumping. We took photos of wallpaper. Like you do.

Fascinating stuff

Flowers In France

Some of the pics of flowers and other growing things I took during our month in France

Blueberries (?) at Chambord

Beautiful smelling old-fashioned rose at Ambois

Vegetable art at Chenonceau

Catherine de Medici's garden at Chenonceau

Sunflower at the Chenonceau kitchen garden

Chenonceau kitchen garden

Villandry love garden

Villandry "cloud" garden

A rose at Villandry

Pepper mint

Poppy and Bee by the road near Chinon

Cornflowers in the wild flower field on the Loire a Velo near Villandry

Grapes at Chateau Meyre

Thursday, September 29, 2011

145kph - 25 Sept 2011

25 Sept 2011
Warning. Your car may explode on this freeway
Travel day 1. The beginning of the long haul home. Today we tried to get up and leave early but the pleasantries of breakfast and packing got in the way. We were finally in the car by 10.30 and Monseiur GPS promotly put us on the toll road to Paris. This was not the way I'd planned to go but it turned out to be good due to the lack of traffic. It also helped that it was a Sunday so we had a good run without many trucks. The tolls added up to E50 - not cheap but a lot easier than the endless, time consuming small roads.

Luke averaged 130kph, up to 145kph at times, during which the petrol guage visibly ticked down. We zoomed past the usual French countryside, mourning the loss of such a nice day. But holidays have to end eventually.

The Paris part was beset by traffic jams and unfortunately Monseiur GPS took us on the inner ring road instead of the A86 so we lost a bit of time there. Spotted the Eiffel Tower, the Parthenon and Sacre Couer and in the distance, that's as close as we got to the city. It felt like a pity not to do Paris but we'd been there last trip and it was better to spend the time elsewhere.

We made it to the el cheapo Premiere Classe hotel by about 5.30. It was our cheapest hotel and it showed it. Corridors smelled of smoke, shower was tiny, planes flying overhead and the whole place was directly under huge high tension powerlines that actually buzzed. Very much The Castle hotel.

After a spot of repacking we headed out for dinner in nearby Roissy. It being Sunday most things were shut but we scored a win at a Japanese restaurant that had the best gyoza I've ever had. It was so good to not eat French food. Finally retired for the night at about 11.30

Beautiful Bordeaux 24 Sept 2011

24th Sept 2011

Woke to the pervading smell of pastries. Didn't want to get up so spent about an hour and a half in a pastry dream. Finally we went down for our provided breakfast. The Chateau breakfast room has one big table and 3 smaller ones which tend to insist you sit with strangers. We hogged our own 4 seater for most of the time but ended up chatting to an older American bloke called Geoff from Maine who had been on a holiday in Russia for almost a month. He was very interesting but we left him to his croissants after a bit.

Chateau Meyre and vineyard

Unfortunately the weather was cloudy and a little rainy. We hung around the room until check out at midday, playing on the internet. Today is Jim Henson's 75th birthday so we ended up watching muppet clips on Youtube instead of getting ready. Doesn't matter that you're in France, Youtube is still a time waster.

Finally got moving and made our way into Bordeaux, Monseiur GPS took us through the centre without too much difficulty. Got a free park at the Ibis and settled in to the room early which meant we were raring to go by 2.30.

The best decision of the day was to rent a bike via the City's free velo scheme. Took a bit to get going because we had to give it the credit card twice for a deposit. Also, the 2nd bike we chose was chained to another one, vandalism, so Luke had to start again. Still, the system is relatively easy for first timers and, of course, you don't need a stupid helmet so anyone can use it, including clueless Australian tourists. We saw lots of people hop off the tram, type in a number and cycle off, happy as a clam. It's free for half and hour or 2 euro after that.

Middle Eastern middle-of-the-street celebration
When we'd finally got 2 bikes ready to go, a commotion occurred in the traffic... 3 or 4 small cars roared off the bridge and into the nearby road honking their horns. Then they pulled up and stopped traffic (not good considering it's a large roundabout). More honking, lots of yelling and leaning out of windows and then we saw what was going on - a Middle Eastern style wedding. The bride and groom were heaved out of their convertible and suddenly a large crowd was dancing around them, cheering like lunatics, hoisting the groom on their shoulders and throwing him. I think they'd been doing this every 500 metres or so. We bemusedly watched on but most of the Bordeaux people were rolling their eyes. The people in traffic behind weren't too happy either. They'd only just got going again when a fire engine tried to make its way through. It was all very exciting.

We rode over the bridge and found ourselves riding along the beautiful, busy waterfront of Bordeaux on a Saturday afternoon. The Garonne river is huge and muddy, the tide causing multitudes of eddies as it goes in and out. There were sailing boats racing along its length and thousands of people were out enjoying the day, despite the clouds. We rode about 2 km down towards the revamped dock area, stopping at the "thin fountain" where a very thin layer of water covers a vast area of paving stones, creating a reflective surface. Kids love it. Every now and again it sprays a thin mist as well. The buildings along the riverfront are all majestic 18th century ones, very imposing and regular.

Free velo scheme bikes on the Bordeaux riverfront
I liked Bordeaux more than I expected, mainly thanks to the glorious riverside vibe. It was very relaxed and joyful. We saw people on unicycles, kids learning to ride bikes, rollerbladers, all kinds of bikes. The skate park was packed and we liked that there was a special area for small kids too.

Having done a reccie we then went to find the art gallery. Had to ride along the tramlines in places which I found very disturbing but lots of other people were doing it. You had enough warning that a tram was coming so you could get off but I was still panicked about getting my wheels stuck in the tracks. That and pedestrians who were very unpredictable.

The art gallery, presided over by a very snooty French lady who deigned to print out our free tickets, offered a short but sweet stroll through French art history. Saw some Titians, a Bruegel, some Renoir... the usual. A nice diversion, not too much art but enough to say I at least had SOME culture on this French trip.

Now THAT is art. Wedding photo in the background.
Just as we emerged a giant convoy of cyclists went by, part of an anti-climate change rally. Luke wanted to join in but by the time we unlocked the city bikes and got stuck in traffic we'd lost them.
In front of the Grand Theatre
We rode by the Grand Theatre and I watched the kids carousel without getting on, even though I wanted to. Didn't want to spoil the memory. Two older women paid their money and gleefully went for a ride on the horses. grinning like idiots.
I want to go on the merry go round!
Then we went back to the riverfront, uncorked a 375 bottle of rose and watched the sailing races as the sun set. We were the only ones drinking... I'm sure the French were looking at us sideways for such uncouth behaviour. Wine is for dinner, you silly sods!

After that we went riding in search of dinner, rode all the way down to the marina and back (again). When stopping to look at the menu of one restaurant, I was browbeaten by a haughty athletic man who was striding along in his skimpy shorts and Nikes, obviously training. I had pulled up and was about the park the bike against the railing but he walked straight at me and, panicking, I actually moved my bike out of his way so he didn't have to go around me. After it happened I felt silly for doing it. As we rode back towards the bridge we encountered him again. So I rode around him and slowed down, carefully getting in his way. We also did it again a bit later, heading straight for him and slowing down. Pathetic revenge really but it felt good.

Actually, Luke wants to go back to St Emilion so we can make a witty comeback to a shopkeeper who decided to make some comment about Australian losing the rugby. Not that we really care but it would have been soooo good to say... "Ah yes, but we did win the Tour de France this year." Hah! Take that, shopkeeper!

Finally decided on dinner at a smallish place, very nice. Luke had a Lillet which was like a martini. I had a kir mure which isn't as good as a peche one, even if it is proper and correct.

Eventually we made it back to the room quite late and retired to bed. I was about to go to sleep when large booming sounds occurred outside. It was midnight and Bordeaux were having fireworks. I have no idea why and I haven't been able to find out. Alas, the Ibis hotel at Bastide doesn't face the waterfront so we only had flashes in the sky and screaming teenagers nearby to go on.

All up I had a surprisingly great last day in Bordeaux, better than expected.

Vineyard Delights 23rd September 2011

23 Sept 2011

Wine tour at Chateau Meyre
Luke felt he was getting sick again so promptly took himself off to the doctor in St Emilion this morning with help from the caravan park Lily Allen, who wrote a long note for him and gave him directions. The glory of Google Translate. He got lost a bit but still managed to get in and out and made purchases of necessary drugs - much stronger and different antibiotics and scary lung anti-inflammatories. Third time's the charm.

This left me to clean the cabin which I did and Lily gave us a late checkout which helped. Near the restaurant they'd inflated the kids' jumping castle and it looked very inviting, much better than the washing up - until they started pressure cleaning it, plumes of water going everywhere. The park closes for the season on Sunday. The fun is over. It's an interesting thing in Europe, that they close down the resorts and caravan parks in October. Perhaps it's not economical to run it with so few people visiting but I always wonder what happens to the people who work there. Do they just holiday for the next 5 months or so?

They were deconstructing the mini-golf course as well, which meant we were the last people to have fun on it for the season. Quite the achievement.

We were finally on our way by 11.30.

Monseuir GPS got us lost again and we ended up going the long way to Avensan. On the way we stopped at a E.Leclerc to buy bread - took about 20 minutes and was rather painful. We ended up in the 10 items or less line which was dominated by hordes of young men buying sandwiches for lunch. We were also treated to the worst toilet ever, a self cleaning monstrosity that required squatting over a hole and which flushed the entire room after you left. EEK.

Inside the yeasty new cellar at Chateau Meyre
Drove around looking for somewhere to have French lunch. Castelnau looked rather dingy so we went back to Chateau Meyre to check in early. It was lucky we did - the English language tour started at 2.30pm.

It was very interesting, we were given info about grape varieties, production methods, terroir etc. shown around the cellars which smelled of yeast and then given a tasting of two wines. It was just us and 2 Japanese tourists. The guide was only 23, looked like Revenge of the Nerds crossed with a member of the country club. Thick glasses, sweater over his shoulder, green pants, loafers. He was very knowledgeable and liked to talk about marketing.

Nice barrels of oak
Chateau Meyre isn't Grand Cru and is never allowed to be. So they just try and make the best wine they can. It's here that the Cru system falls down, I think. It's possible that the Grand Cru wines just sit back and make money on their laurels, awarded in the 1800s based mainly on location. Meanwhhile, the wineries trying to modernise or try something new are held back. It's a wine version of the class system and I think it's rather dodgy.

Curtains match the wallpaper
Our room was small but flowery, wallpaper matched the curtains, if you know what I mean. And by that I mean that the wallpaper matched the curtains. Comfy beds. It was really hot and we chickened out on riding bikes around the vineyards. Luke did a lot of laying around feeling ill but we eventually took ourselves out for a nice walk around the vineyard at sunset, eating the grapes. You could taste the difference between different varieties on offer (merlot, cab sav, petit verdot). Some of the vines were 40 years old. We also admired the huge windmill that stood amidst the vines, labelled with the words "NOFROST". They use it to prevent frost settling on the buds in spring.

We were pre-booked at the Restaurant Savoie in Margeaux. It was expensive but we decided we were splashing out. The truffle ravioli with lobster I had was incredibly good. Not surprising, really.
Langoustine (lobster) with white truffle ravioli and black truffle ice cream
 I also had weird St Jacques crab with vegies, orchid flowers and oranage and caramel sauce, very nice. It's not often you eat orchids for dinner. Luke had foie gras and pigeon. Tasty. And one less pigeon in the world.

For my aperetif I orded a kir vin blanc with peche (peach). The waiter looked at me and laughed. He called a waitress over. She looked at me and laughed. Took a bit of prompting but they finally agreed to make one. Apparently kir vin blanc only has cassis or mure. No peche.

There is no peche. What is wrong with you that you would want peche? There is no peche.

I think, why would you stop at just 2 flavours? If you're going to put flavouring in your white wine, why not anything that takes your fancy? I asked the receptionist at the chateau the next day. She looked at me funny and said it was just not done. I pointed out that I'd had this drink at least 3 other times in other areas of France... it wasn't my invention. Obviously they're set in their ways in Bordeaux.

Luke ordered his first Martini blanc and it was spectacular. That's it, we're martini drinkers now.

The bill came to about E120 with drinks (a small 375 bottle of Margeaux red which was E23). Expensive but good.
The vinyard with Chateau Meyre in the background

The view of the vineyards from our window

Went to bed very late and didn't sleep too well, thanks to all that alcohol.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fine Wine

At the Le Savoie restaurant in Margaux, drinking the cheapest wine on the list. As you can see, it was surprisingly good,

Friday, September 23, 2011

St Emilion Wine-a-rama 22 Sept 2011

22 Sept 2011 St Emilion

We headed up to the little town early in the hope of getting it all done in half a day and then doing a bit of vineyard cycling in the afternoon, especially as the weather is still sunny and quite warm.

View from the church tower

This plan went out the window when we booked into the only English language tour of the monolith underground church at 2pm. So we ended up with 3 hours to waste in the village. It wasn't such a bad thing. We strolled around, looked at old buildings, poked our heads in the various shops and strolled some more. The Tour du Roy tower looks as though it should have John Cleese on the top, blowing raspberries at the English Kin-niggits.

As with every French tourist village, there are 20 shops all selling the same thing. In this case it is St Emilion wine. We encountered one bloke ina  very small shop who made a good joke... he spotted that I didn't speak French and said "You're the first one." He had an Asterix moustache.

After dismissing several touristy style restaurants (with only outside dining in the smoke) we went to a rather small place down the hill. Straight away the waitress spoke English, mainly because she was English herself and had only been in France for 2 months. She was a sommelier and her partner was a chef, they were making their way in the wine region. Our lunch was fab, I had foie gras on toast with cremant. We were seated near some nice English people who agreed not to smoke on us.
Mmm, foie gras

It's very close to harvest at this point, the vines are very heavy with purple grapes, there are lots of people out picking and the roads are full of little tiny one man tractors pulling trailers full of grapes.

The church tour was OK, rather credulous about the various micraculous claims of St Emilion. We were taken down to his hermit cave where a rock ledge was his bed and a chair carved in the wall is said to help with fertility. I sat on it in a skeptical manner.

We were also shown a 13th century church which still had some of its frescoes thanks to the protective smoke that occurred when it was used as a barrel cooperage after the revolution. We couldn't take a photo but one of them featured a "photobomber" underneath the image of the saint and patron (you can almost make it out in this pic, first fresco on the left).

The guide only gave us a short time in the catacomb and ossary which was frustrating as that bit is always interesting. There was a whole arm of it where she said "You may quickly look down it if you like" and that was the best bit... bloody guided tours.
Sneaky ossuary photo
The underground church was rather impressive but as it had been used as a gunpowder factory in the revolution it was light on for decoration. The "St George and the Dragon" carving high on the wall was impressive.

After wandering around in search of "le veritable macaroons" we encountered an Australian accent talking authoritivately about Merlot. Turns out a bloke from Adelaide gives tastings and sells Bordeaux wine in his own shop in St Emilion. We put the hard word on him for some info and a tasting and were thus treated to an hour of standing around tasting rather expensive Grand Cru wine. He did ignore us when a richer customer came in but he was nice enough.

The one thing we learned is that St Emilion has created a new class of wine, "Grand Cru Classe" which is given to wineries that consistently make good wine for 10 years in a row. This is an impressive improvement on the "Cru" concept which mainly relies on location and - I think - allows producers to be lazy and rest on their laurels.

We tasted wines from E15 to E59, the expensive one just tasted expensive. They were all mostly Merlot but there were great differences in taste and style. I liked the "L'essances"(?) because the impressive oaky smell was totally different from the subtle taste. We ended up buying a couple of bottles but we got a lot of entertainment out of the shop so might as well.

Ripe grapes ready to be picked
We found the authentic macaroon shop and they didn't sell singles which was no good as we couldn't be sure they wouldn't include the mysterious European stinkbug taste thatseems to find its way into some sweet things here. Instead I went back to a standard Macaroon shop and bought some which were normal and nice.

After a rest Luke and I retired to the mini golf course for a round of stupidity. Averaged a par of about 20 per hole, I suspect. Didn't help that half the fibreglass greens were on quite the angle but we had a lot of fun.

Dinner was the last of the pasta and bacon and sauce. We have a bit of leftover food, will just have to throw it all away, I guess.

Tomorrow we go to Chateau Merye for more wine tasting and then we're on the home stretch. I'm actually feeeling a bit homesick now, ready for my own bed and some steamed vegies.