Month: February 2014

Paris: A Bittersweet Ending

We were excited to get back to Paris because the trip was going to change course. It was going to be a bit more cultural and personal; just what we were looking for.

We took my parents to their hotel, dropped our bags and got cleaned up over a nice cold beer from the corner store. I was getting pumped up for several reasons. Julia has never met my French brother Vincent, who came to the US on an exchange program when we were both 14, and we have been going back and forth to stay with each other ever since, so I was excited to introduce them. We were also going to his parent’s house, which is where I have stayed in the past, so it was the first in-home experience for Jules and my parents. And lastly, Vince’s mom is one hell of a cook, so I knew we were in for some awesome French food and wine!

After Julia’s first white nuckeled ride on Paris roads driven by a Frenchman, we arrived at the house. We walk in from the cold air to a warm home filled with wonderful smells of food being cooked. Within two minutes we had drinks and hors d’oeuvre in our hands. We were also graced by Vincent’s girlfriend Swann who Julia made fast friends with. After we caught up on what we’ve missed in each others lives and we show them the video of the proposal, it was time for dinner. Four courses and five bottles of wine later we were full of marvelous French home cooking and I’m reminded why this feels like my home away from home.

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My parents get dropped off at their hotel by Vincent’s father, and we head to Vince and Swann’s place. They have a great place in the town of Montmartre where the famous Sacre Couer cathedral is and the Moulin Rouge is only a couple blocks away. Oh, and they have a view of the city, so it was a pretty damn cool place to kick our feet up for our few remaining days in France.

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That next day was the last day for my parents, so we explored the Louvre, saw the Mona Lisa and a bunch of paintings of naked babies and topless women.

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Above: I’ve seen this in person three times now and just now realized the model has both male and female parts. Did you ever think a solid slab of marble could look so comfortable though?

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No explanation needed.

We followed with a trip to the Champs E’Lysee and the L’arc de Triumph and ultimately to Sacre Coeur and the lookout point of Paris.

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We walked about the quaint hilltop town and the small cafe-lined town square which is famous for artists doing portraits of interested tourists and selling their art. We made our way into a nice little cafe off the beaten path for a quick lunch before heading back to Vince and Swann’s.

We have an ongoing issue with communication via electronics, as we have no phone and we need WiFi to connect to email, and you have to buy something somewhere to get their WiFi. We needed Vince so we could get into his place, but we had no way to get ahold of him. I kid you not, as we luckily stumble upon their place, Vince yells from across the street…he way just walking over from parking his car. It’s hard to explain, but the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We very well could have been stranded outside for hours. We get inside and we say a final farewell to my parents as they head on their way with the tools I imparted to them on how to navigate the mean streets (metro) of Paris. Now, it’s just us.

That night we had Raqulette which is one of my favorite meals when I’m in France, and now Julia is a big fan as well. Basically you need a delicious assortment of different thinly sliced meats, cheeses, boiled Yukon gold potatoes, some fancy mustards, and of course a fresh baguette. Then you take your own mini skillet that’s about 3in x 3in and place whatever combo of meat, cheese, and bread or potato into the skillet and place into the device within the heating elements. What comes out is a divine melted meaty creation.

On a side note, I’m writing this on a train going 186mph across Spain and I’m now craving Raqulette and there not a damn thing I can do about it. Anyway, it’s a total comfort food that’s perfect for sharing with a small group of friends and family on a cold night.

We woke up at our leisure that next morning and headed to a bakery across the street for some croissants before setting out for the day. We had decided to do something that usually flies below the radar when people visit Paris; the Catacombs. I have already been, so I was excited to see Julia’s reaction to being ninety feet below the streets of Paris in a dimly lit tunnel system filed with the bones of an estimate 6,000,000 people. Yes, it sounds creepy, and it is. If you’re claustrophobic, afraid of the dark, afraid of dead people, or any combination of those, this may not be for you. Basically as Paris was expanding in the early 1700’s they started running out of room in the cemeteries and there was fear of disease, so King Louis XIV commissioned the churches to exhume the bodies in their cemeteries for relocation. They excavated a huge tunnel system over a half mile long, over almost 100 years and filled it with bones. But they decided to be artistic with it. They made walls with the femurs and the skulls about five feet tall and made designs with them, and then backfilled about ten feet with the rest of the bones.

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As we walked down the dark corridors getting dripped on by the ground water coming through the rock ceiling that was about 3in above my head, Julia started getting freaked out. She had the camera on her and would take a picture into the rooms that had big locked iron gates to illuminate whatever may be in there. It would make for a perfect horror movie scene; the flash quickly illuminated the pitch dark room, only to see some unearthly monster lunging at you. Needless to say she was glued to my side. After she got used to it, she was off taking pictures and enjoying herself as usual.

That evening we were in for a good time as it was Swann’s father’s birthday. These people are awesome. A couple years ago they had me and my friend Elliott over while they opened their Christmas presents with family, and even went as far as to get us presents. This is the French family life that few get to experience and I love the fact that Julia got to experience it with me. Regardless of the major language barrier, we laughed and drank and tried to figure out what each other was saying. Julia, in her trial fashion was not shy and tried her best to communicate with everyone. By the end of the night we were crowded around the TV while Julia and Swann’s sister sang Karaoke together. It was a hell of a fun night and we didn’t even have to go out on the town.

We said our goodbyes and gave our most sincere thank you’s to Vince and Swann for letting us crash on their couch as that next day was to be our last in Paris. Yet it seemed as though the city did not want us to leave. I had used Vince’s computer the night before to upload the proposal video and failed to take it out, because I’m awesome like that. Vince and Swann headed off to work early that morning, saying goodbye one last time. As I began double checking our flight time for 5pm, Julia turned on the camera to view pictures and realized I forgot the memory card in Vince’s laptop. No big deal, I could just take the metro to Vince, meet him at 2 be back by 2:30 make it to the airport by 3 to fly to Portugal. Wrong.

It started off fine, then the lights on my train turn off and we stop in the middle of a tunnel. Not cool. We sit there for ten minutes before we moved again. We made it to the next station where they said everyone needs to get off the train as there was a “grave accident on the tracks”. The line was shut for who knows how long and I was still several miles away. Myself along with 100+ people make or way out and cross the bus stop. I wasn’t going anywhere soon. This big problem because I have no phone and no way to tell Vince that I will be late, and he planned to meet me next to the metro stop but couldn’t be there long because he was supposed to be inside working. I bit the bullet and hailed a cab. 12€ later I made it. And wouldn’t you know it, no Vince in site. After all, I was 30 minuets late. Men with guns blocked the metro stop entrance, and right as I was about to take a cab back, they let us into the metro. I ran my out of shape ass back to the house where Julia was waiting. We rounded everything up and made it to the airport with one hour of our flight time. I didn’t get the memory card, but we made our flight just in time.

We both were sad to be leaving such a great city and our dear friends, but we were excited to be moving on to Porto, Portugal. After all, once we get there we really are on our own. And may I mention that neither of us speak Portuguese. This should get interesting.

Bordeaux

Oh man are we behind on our posts!! This one is actually the third time I have written this post because it has not saved twice. When we first thought of doing a blog, I think we underestimated the ease the time it takes to put something interesting together. We’re both a bit hung over today, so it’s time to kick back, relax, and get some writing and planning accomplished!

Before I get to the content of the post, I just want to mention a theme that we’ll be touching upon in our upcoming posts. I’m pretty sure that Julia and I control the weather. Seriously. France is not known for dry weather in January, yet that’s what happened as soon as we got there. Bordeaux was having terrible rain for a couple weeks and it broke once we arrived and only let loose at night once we were inside. This lucky streak continues, mind you we are now three weeks in and have only had two days of rain (knock on wood)! OK, now back to your regularly scheduled program.

When we left off I had just proposed to the love of my life. We sat up late in our room in almost a surreal state, neither of us could remove the smile from our faces. We want to send a sincere thank you to all of you who sent us your positive comments, and to the 350+ people who liked our Facebook post, we were both surprised that so many people gave a damn. Honestly though, everyone’s support felt great and was the icing on the cake for the evening.

The morning after the proposal, we woke rather early to catch our 7:30 train to arguably the best wine region in the world, Bordeaux. Central France flew by as we continued exchanging laughter-filled glances over the previous nights events.
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Above: proof that we do write! This is on the way down to Bordeaux

We finally rolled into the station and made it over to the car rental building. After a rather confusing Franglish conversation about insurance with the rental company we made our way to the car. I had reserved a car that should have between similar in size to a VW Golf. What we got however, was basically a Smart car with a back seat. It literally took us five minutes to engineer a way to get bags and people into the car. The city of Bordeaux has had inhabitance since around 400BC, with most of its buildings having been built in the early 1700’s. As such, the streets were narrow one-ways and rarely in a strait line. After one quick loop, we decided getting the GPS was well worth it. Finally after about an hour in the cramped car we arrived at our mini châteaux in Cussac Fort Medoc on the left bank of Bordeaux. We were all pretty beat and the weather was starting to turn on us, so we decided to call it a day, grabbed some goods at the store and made dinner. This is a picture of a picture of the town we stayed in. Our house was the one with the gray roof on the very far right in the middle.

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Next time you are doing some type of travel, be it a multi-country adventure or a weekend getaway, check out AirBnB. Registered users post up their homes/condos/apartments/tree houses or whatever for people to use. It is typically cheaper than a hotel and you can stay in some really cool places. Ours was the châteaux for a small winery built in the 1800’s for around $50 a night. Our host was great, leaving some food and a bottle of wine for us on the kitchen table. So seriously consider using this program for your travels, we had a great experience and plan on using it again soon.

Working in the wine industry, I had the opportunity to make some great contacts all around the world, and Bordeaux was no exception. In Bordeaux there are five wineries called “first growths” which means that they are there best of the best, and they’re what Cabernet producers aspire to be like. Of those five, I got us private tastings at three, which was awesome. The picture below is not one of those five. They still make good wine though.
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We started at Château Mouton Rothschild which wound up being our favorite. Our wonderful hostess Viviane spent over three hours walking us around the vintage, vat room, cellar, private art collection, and museum of their labels. The label museum was neat in itself because it held original sketches and art by the artists who were all influential, including Picasso. We finished with a tasting of their wine, which was delicious. Thanks again Vivian!
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Above: Entrance to wine making facility
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Above: Fermentation tank room, the tank lids are on the floor and the vats are 10ft tall and are one story down as shown below
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Above: “Racking” a painstaking process of removing sediment. Once the wine coming out starts being cloudy with sediment, they stop and the remainder gets re-filtered elsewhere
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Above: Mouton’s cellar with wines dating back to mid 1800’s
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Time to taste!

Following Mouton, we had our afternoon appointment with Château Lafite Rothschild, which is generally regarded at the top winery in the world. With the minimum bottle going for about $1000, they’d better be doing something well. This place surprised me, we were expecting the pomp and grandeur that we experienced at Mouton, but it was much different. It was old and it looked it, with the underground facility having mold covered walls and musty air. However, I can respect that. None of these wineries accept visits unless you are in the industry, so very few people get to visit, so they aren’t set up for it. What they are set up for is making kick ass wine, which doesn’t require pretty painted walls. Again we finished with a tasting in the coolest barrel room we’ve been to. We had a 2001 vintage, which to them is still to young, but I thought that it was still drinking very nicely.
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Above: Lafite’s private cellar. Again with wines back to mid 1800’s
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Above: still using an old school method of clarifying called fining. They mix egg white to the wine in the barrel, it absorbs the larger particles and they do a final racking to remove the eggs.
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Above: Anyone who’s seen grape vines in the US knows this is now what vines typically look like. All the vines in Bordeaux are very low and many planted on berms for drainage and it’s helps with keeping the rootstock warm they claim
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Above: Lafite’s awesome barrel room designed by some fancy architect guy
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We forgot to mention Julia had her own Château in Bordeaux… Ya, I’m a lucky guy.

Again we dined in. Julia made a tasty dish of pan fried chicken and cous cous with a touch of mint and bell pepper. We washed down with… you guessed it, Bordeaux. However after drinking the wine that we had that day, it just seemed like glorified grape juice. We thought the house was going to blow over as we were getting very strong winds that night, up to 50mph gusts. In a drafty 180 year old house with old single pane windows, this is less than ideal. We did however survive our last night in Bordeaux. In the morning we had a nice quick tour of the wine making facility of our host’s winery. We then had to play life-size Tetris to get all of our stuff in the shoebox with wheels.

On our way back to the city of Bordeaux we had our last appointment at Château Margaux. This place was kind of a middle ground between Mouton and Lafite in regards to its fancy appearance. Unfortunately they were doing a bit of construction so we didn’t get to see the entire facility. And just like the previous two wineries, they had bottles in their cellars that dated back to the early 1800’s. I know that sounds crazy, but if the wine is re-corked every thirty years or so, it can stand that test of time. No, this does not work with your bottle of Menage á Trois. Back to Ch. Margaux, we concluded with a tasting of two of their wines, which surprise surprise, were awesome and silky on the palate.
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Above: This is the châteaux on the property, and yes, the owner does live there, when they’re not at their place in Paris. Hastag Mustbenice.
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Above: Château Margaux barrel room
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Above: About to do some tasting

We bid adieux to Bordeaux, which we shall return to one day, however we’ll wait until it’s closer to harvest so there is more excitement in the towns. All in all it was a great experience, one that very few people get to partake in, and while it was pretty slow going, it was relaxing.

But for now, it’s time to get back to the hustle and bustle and the bright lights of Paris to finish up our last few days in France.