Champagne: How to Add More Bubbles to Your Life

© Christy Destremau

© Christy Destremau

Did you know the heart of bubbly France is less than two hours from Paris by train or car? Arrive at the airport in the morning and you could be sipping a glass of Taittinger champagne for lunch along with your lobster salad or brie en croute.

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Reims is the busy center of the champagne region. Here, the top champagne houses have “show rooms” where visitors can learn the history of the champagnerie, tour the caves, and sample a bit of bubbly. (And of course buy a few bottles or cases.) These are some of our favorites.

The surrounding area around Reims is champagne vines and vineyards as far as the eye can see. The local rural hub is Epernay where some of the big houses like Moet & Chandon have tasting houses and tours. But many smaller producers carve out a place as well.

Our favorite champagne adventure, however, is exploring the picturesque champagne route for ourselves. Signs are easy to follow and you can wander this gorgeous, fragrant region at your leisure—with a few champagne tastings along the way. (Try to book in advance.)

There are also several affordable champagne area guides who speak multiple languages. They have a variety of offerings around the area and you can pick and choose depending on your budget. You can tour the caves, walk through the vineyards, see the bottling and riddling processes, see some high end estates or mom-and-pop vineyards, and everything in between. Naturally, you will taste a variety of bubblies as well as champagne-inspired cuisine like champagne sauce or champagne ice cream.

Finally, you may have the opportunity to learn the sabrage, the technique for opening a champagne bottle with a saber like our friend Vic here.

Don’t miss this intoxicating region if only for a day, a week, or more. Santé!

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The Dordogne Valley

There’s a fertile, ancient enclave in Southern France brimming with medieval castles, pretty vineyards, and a prehistoric history that offers some of the first glimpses of man. It’s called the  Dordogne Valley. It lies in central France just east of Bordeaux at the western coast. The Dordogne River flows west toward the sea from Dordogne Valley. It’s carved a marvelous broad valley of rich farmland that produces some the best vegetables, fruits, nuts, seafood and goose-based products like foie gras and pâté on the planet. 

Early mankind found it a welcoming place to settle. They made their homes in cave complexes such as Lascaux and Pech Merle which you can still visit today. Living must have been somewhat easy as these early humans not only hunted and created farmland, but also had time to colorfully decorate the walls of their caves with a variety of animals and other images using primitive paint colors and spit. 

Since that time agriculture—and wine growing—has flourished in the area. During the centuries, the land was much prized and warring factions (British, French, Iberian, Ottoman, and more) criss-crossed the land erecting castles, squabbling over land rights, and lusting after the riches of the area.

Today, there’s still a moderate land grab. But these mainly involve hungry real estate buyers hoping to land a second home or retirement abode in this land of plenty. We love this almost hidden gem of France. While Brits love to commute to the Provence of Peter Mayle fame, we especially enjoy the lesser known Dordogne for its rustic charm, fantastic wine, picturesque attractions, and fantastic food. You’ll find walnuts, wine, ducks, geese, truffles, foie gras, rustic bread, hearty cuisine, and other goodies for your home (or your castle) all through this charming region. All are prominently for sale at stores and markets along the journey. 

The major towns of the Dordogne are Bergerac and Perigeux. Each of these is maybe worth a visit if you have plenty of time in the area, otherwise we suggest avoiding them because they are cosmopolitan business centers missing the charm of the countryside. 

Instead, we tend to stick to the most interesting towns of Sarlat-et-Canéda, Castelnaud, Domme, Beynac, and La Roque-Gageac. Sarlat is the largest of the these and sees itself as the foie gras capital of the area. It’s also the one of the best-preserved towns in France, often used as a set for historical movies and TV shows. 

Sarlat is worth at least one visit. Market days are Wednesdays and Saturdays—and it’s worth visiting on a market day if you can get there early for the drama and excitement. You’ll see a wide range of products for sale and you’ll rub elbows with the local French who are shopping for groceries and home goods—an education in itself!  Sarlat on market day is very crowded, particularly in the summer where as many market visitors are tourists as locals. Plan on coming back to the town at dusk and stay for dinner. Better still, pick an accommodation in town and you won’t miss a minute of the action.

Castelnaud and Beynac are medieval villages nestled along the Dordogne River. Each features a medieval castle with a great view of the river—and a history worthy of a BBC drama. During the Hundred Years’ War, these two castles changed hands multiple times between combatants. Even if you abhor history (and the working trebuchets still on display), they are worth a visit for the view of the river with its canoers and boaters or beautiful hot-air balloons floating overhead.  

Along the same section of the river is the most ancient town of La Roque-Gageac, which is practically carved into the hillside. This village is often cited as one of the most beautiful in France. It’s a perfect place for lunch at a cafe that has a view of the river or for glimpsing unusual visitors like these German bikers (in their 60s!)

La Roque is also a great place to get a river cruise on a gabare(sailing boat). A gabare is a traditional Dordogne River vessel that were used in the old days to carry agricultural products and wine from the Dordogne area to Bordeaux for export. A cruise takes an hour or so and a commentary in English is available. If a gabare isn’t energetic enough for you, renting a kayak and sailing down the river is a favorite pasttime. The renter will pick you up down river and bring you back to La Roque. 

Last but not least, you can book a spectacular hot air balloon ride in Beynac (and elsewhere in the Dordogne). While this is one of the more expensive adventures in the area (approx. $150/ea) floating above the river as the sun comes up or goes down is one of our most memorable experiences. With museums, cave complexes, outdoor markets, fantastic food, and affordable local wine, the Dordogne has everything for a relaxing vacation of a few days or a week. 

California Wine Tasting

It’s a proven fact—at least according to our taste buds—that wine tasted at the vineyard source seems richer than the same wine consumed at home or in a restaurant. This is probably a situational prejudice that has to do with vineyard eye candy, wine bouquet aromas, and conviviality of the experience. If we admit it, we love to taste most ANY wine at the source because it makes such a delicious memory. 

This isn’t to say that wine sold by the bottle or case at your favorite wine outlet is of lesser quality. But tasting wine at its birthplace, often poured by the makers themselves, enhances the experience of the coming slurp. A knowledgeable server with a story or two adds to the wine’s allure—and you may fall in love instantly the minute you take a sip.   

 California has some very fine wine tasting venues. (We may be writing a few of these posts since you could probably taste wine all over the state and take years to do it.) When tasting in Northern California’s Napa or Sonoma, Central Coast’s Paso Robles or San Luis Obispo, or down south in Temecula Valley, it’s easy to drive along the main routes and veer into a winery to sample the publicwares. 

 We’ve found that a little research and a few dollars toward aprivatefood and wine pairing or barrel tasting can net you a much more fulfilling experience, however, depending on your time and budget.

For example, the private tour and tasting at Far Niente in Napa is by appointment only. The tasting includes a range of their best wines paired with food, an extensive tour of the winery environs, and a wander through the vintage car collection of founder Gil Nickel. The tour lasts 90 minutes and costs around $50. 

 Justin Winery in Paso Robles is another chance to move above the usual. While drive up tastings are available, Justin offers a range of personalized tastings at the Château that are well worth the small group experience.  

When we wine taste, we typically schedule nor more than two tastings a day with lunch in between. This keeps us safe on the road and makes sure the tastings don’t blur together. (Remember to spit; you don’t have to gulp down every drop!)

In future postings, we’ll share some of our quirkiest experiences tasting wine all over the world, including France, Switzerland, Germany, England, Spain, and more. But tasting at your local winery can be just as fun. 

Sip and Enjoy!

 

In Praise of Fondue

The Swiss are famous for fondue. While fondue is an apparently simple dish of melted cheese, there is much more to this gooey, chewy, melt-in-your mouth concoction that, when dripping off a bit of crusty bread or a delicate new potato, can bring tears of joy to your eyes—and fireworks to your mouth.  

Fondue is said to have first bubbled in the Swiss canton (state) of Valais. That is one of the few places in Switzerland where fondue’s main ingredients--white wine and cheese--are produced cheek to jowl.

Somehow someone had the idea of taking Swiss cheese, melting it in a pot, and adding a bit of this and bit of that until this superb pot of lickable heaven came to be a favorite all over the world. 

A basic REAL Swiss recipe for fondue includes these surprising ingredients:

  • 1lb Gruyėre cheese, grated

  • 1/2lb Emmentalee cheese, grated

  • A clove of garlic

  • 1 cup of dry white wine

  • 1 tablespoon of cornstarch (the Swiss prefer potato starch)

  • 1 teaspoon of lemon juice

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons kirsch

  • Ground pepper

  • Grated nutmeg

Clearly, we aren’t talking simply melted cheese. A good restaurant in Switzerland will get their cheeses from specific farms, often from pedigreed cows who munch on fine Alpian grasses and grains. Many fondue specialty restaurants will also have their own herbs and spices to add to their “secret” fondue recipe. Others will add a bit of panache with morel mushrooms like this tasty pot we enjoyed in Bern, Switzerland one evening during a thunderstorm. Other additives include brandy, bourbon, soy sauce, dried mustard, or Worcestershire sauce.

The ingredients may vary. But the method is straightforward. Rub the garlic clove around the pot and discard it. Melt the cheese and wine over a low heat for five minutes. Add everything else and stir for 10 minutes and serve. 

While we like cheese, this dish is almost addicting when paired with small potatoes, apples, cubes of bread, cherry tomatoes or pretty much anything else. Simply take your long fondue fork, spear your favorite bite, dip it in the gooey goodness, and pop it in your mouth. Follow each bite with a sip of chilled white wine OR a Swiss beer for an authentic finish. 

Place the fondue on a low light to keep the cheese soft and yummy. A good fondue can last for quite a while--and the social aspect of sharing a single pot with your nearest and dearest is one of the fine pleasures of this dish. You may not even desire an appetizer OR main course. Fondue will simply fill your every need—until the next meal!

Spear, dip, and enjoy!

London Top Tips

London is one of the top vacation destinations in the world. The reasons are simple: London is a cosmopolitan destination with great hotels, regal sight-seeing, well-known history, world class shopping and, to top the lot, they have award-winning live theatre where some of the most famous stars in the world “trod the boards.”

As the UK heads toward Brexit in March 2019, London and the UK overall will still be an attractive place to vacation. The British pound will fall against the US dollar more than it has already, allowing your travel money to go further. 

Famous London locales include: Tower Bridge (shown), Tower of London, Houses of Parliament, Westminster and St. Paul’s Cathedrals, Covent Garden, Buckingham Palace, The London Eye (below) and many others. 

For visitors, London is very easy to navigate using the Underground or “Tube.” When you first look at the Underground map, it may be easy to get overwhelmed. However, the routes are colored, easy to follow, and the stops are clearly marked. You could spend a week in London and see most of the popular attractions using just a couple of tube lines: Piccadilly and Circle. Buy an Oyster card from any newsagent or store and fill it with £20 (~$25/30). Then use the card to come and go as you please. £20 would last two to three days in our experience. 

Staying in London can be expensive or cost-effective depending on the level of luxury you chose. Cheaper hotel rooms are often small and cramped however, particularly when you arrive with a gaggle of suitcases. Lower priced hotels may not offer a bathroom in your room so it’s best to check in advance. Higher end accommodations may be pricey but desirable for their proximity and ease. As with any hotel choice, location is important. We recommend staying somewhere in the “West End” near theaters and central to most of the top tourist locations.

While British food sometimes gets a “bad rap,” it is easy to find tasty, inexpensive fare (like the Yorkshire pudding lunch shown) or multi-course haute cuisine anywhere in the city. Checking sites like Trip Advisor is one simple way to plan your selections. We also use Google Maps on our iPhones to search for restaurants and cafes nearby; these are handy because they list ratings and offer quick reviews, good and bad. One of our favorite dining options is Rules. Rules is the oldest restaurant in London, but the food is tip top and not too expensive. Service is top notch also, and if you talk to your waiter, you will discover the upstairs bar where Kind Edward VII entertained his lady friends back in the early 1900’s. (He came and went through his own entrance.) 

Top Sights & Activities 

·     St. Paul’s Cathedral. This is a marvelous building and our favorite church anywhere in the world. A climb to the top of the dome is 500+ steps, but there are stops along the way to rest and recover. One of these is at the Whispering Gallery when you can stand on one side of the gallery with your friend or loved one on the opposite side and you can each hear the barest whisper. Your reward for making it to the top is a view of London like no other in the city. 

·     The London Eye. This is massive wheel situated by the river Thames is one of the top attractions in London. It makes a stellar viewing location to see the city from different perspectives. You can book ahead (link) to avoid lines and there are many options including a Champagne toast as you ride the wheel. 

·     The Tower of London. The Tower is a must see for a tour of the dungeons, museum, and million-dollar Crown Jewels. Book ahead if possible.

·     Westminster Cathedral. This ancient abbey is the main church in London, situated yards from the Houses of Parliament. The church contains the remains of the great and the good of the British nation, including writers in Poet’s Corner and scientists from Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking. 

·     Thames River Cruise. A refreshing glide across the water is a great way to see London from the venerable Thames. Cruises stop at a number of places, which allows you to explore on foot, then hop back on the next ship when you are ready. 

·     Harrods Department Store. This shopping grand dame is the be all and end all of London shopping. Even if you are not into high-end shopping, pop down to the basement level to experience the massive food halls. These boutique eateries and food/coffee/wine/tea shops will wow you with their glamorous, often affordable, choices. The cafes and restaurants are relatively expensive, but it is worth your time and money to have a coffee and “biscuits” in one of the world’s top retailers. If you visit during the holidays, you will be bowled over by the holiday options. 

·     Selfridges Department Store. This sister shopping venue was made famous again with the recent TV series. The store is on Oxford Street is a great place to explore, sample, and blow your budget. Other shopping streets such as Bond Street, Carnaby Street, and Regent Street are all close by and worth a visit. 

·     Theatre. London has some of the most affordable live theatre options in the world. You can get tickets in advance or go the “hot tix” venues to find great deals on last minute seats. 

When you visit London next time, be sure to have a pint, eat a bit of toffee pudding, and see a play. Cheers!

Paris Top Tips

Going to Paris? Research, Trip Advisor, and simply asking travel pals can net you some advice nuggets. But take it all with a grain of salt. Trip Advisor reviews tend to be geared to the budget conscious. High end travel pros may direct you to the grandest of the grand on the other hand. My advice? You typically get what you pay for—and if you don’t fork out some euros In Paris you’ll have to be happy with what you get.

Top tip therefore for Paris: ALWAYS MAKE A RESERVATION and GET TICKETS IN ADVANCE. Many foreigners still expect to wander into a venue and get a great table overlooking the Left Bank or the best room in a hotel. But Parisians—and smart travelers—know to make reservations early, get concierge help, and plan in advance for trains, plane, cars, tours, museum visits, wine tastings, cooking adventures, and more.  

Here’s a short list of some of the places and spaces I frequent while I am there. I generally follow this rule however: try one new place for every tried and true favorite. 

Breakfast: Angelina’s, Poilâne, Erik Kayser, Bread & Roses, Coffee Parisien, Frenchie to Go

Lunch: Angelina’s, Framboise, L’Avant Comptoir, Les Cocottes, Taillevent, Les Fous de L’île

Bistros or Restaurants: Bistro Paul Bert, Cuisine de Bar, Le Timbre, Ma Bourgogne, Septime, Georges, Chez Paul, Aux Lyonnaise, Le Fountaine de Mars, Le Soufflé, L’Estrapade, Chez L’Ami Jean, anything on Rue St. Dominic (Left Bank) 

Medium-Priced Hotels: Lyric Hotel, Hotel du Louvre, Hotel Langlois, New Orient Hotel, Hotel Beaubourg, Hotel Madeleine Plaza 

High-End Hotels: Four Seasons Hotel George V, Hotel Le Six, Hotel Luxembourg Parc, The Ritz, Hotel Plaza Athénée, Mandarin Oriental, Le Bristol Paris, The Peninsula Paris, Le Meurice, Park Hyatt Paris (go to any of these for an aperitif to “live the life” if you can’t afford to stay overnight)

Apartment Rentals: parisaddress.com, parisstay.com, parisvacationapartments.com, vrbo.com 

Museum Must-Sees: Louvre, Orsay, Pompidou, Grand Palais, Petite Palais, Rodin, Carnavalet, Pantheon

Walks: Paris-Walks, Discover Walks, New Paris Tours, Hidden Paris, CityFreeTour

Sights: Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Louvre, Champs-Élysée, Arc de Triomphe, Luxembourg Gardens, Marais, Catacombs, Palais Garnier, Versailles 

Shopping: Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, Le Bon Marché, shops along Rue Saint-Honoré, Saint-Germain-des-Prés and any place on the Left Bank. Also Daiwali--my fav scarf store

Street Markets: Rue Cler, Raspail, Mouffetard, Bastille, Montorgueil