The whole France thing

1 04 2008

Captain’s Log- My Week aboard the Viking Burgundy

 

Day 1- Chicago to Avignon

            First of all, let me begin by explaining that I do especially enjoy traveling. I love wandering aimlessly through the shabby streets of a new city, turning a quiet corner, and seeing the great expanse of an open market or a bustling city center open up before me as unexpected as good airplane food. I relish in that, “How did you find this place” look that one receives from the befuddled café proprietor after finding out that this particular one is an American. A secret party, a locals only shop or neighborhood boulangerie, that certain risk you are willing to take because you either don’t know any better, or you don’t care about being turned away, scorned as an outcast, in a town in which you are already feeling like a man carrying a big sign that reads, “Take advantage of my relative inexperience and naïvety!” There is a change, not altogether unlike Shakespeare’s sea change as seen in The Tempest, that invigorates and inspires the hardened traveler, not just to see the Big Thing in each port of call, but to attach that experience to something uniquely outstanding and fresh that can become one’s own. While the Coliseum, the Great Wall, or the Great Barrier Reef are spectacular, they are of only tertiary concern to the truly enlightened voyagers of this planet; we seek a finer truth. No, I’m not better than you; I just prefer an outdoor sit and a glass of country wine at a quaint bôite on a hidden mews to the teeming throng of bleaters on the High Street buying post cards and 6€ bottles of water. So, that’s my angle, should you find my particular slant to be annoying, pompous, or even dumb, read on to fan your flame, or go away and leave me to my soliloquy.

            I forget that it is impossible to get anywhere. As easy is it can be to get from one place to another relative to generations past, it still sometime seems as though the transitional part of traveling will never come to an end. We left Chicago with very little fanfare, really, and boarded an Air France airbus 330 en route to Paris on the overnight flight. I don’t love the Airbus as a rule. I was not let down. While the service and the amenities about or flight were bordering on outstanding, it is only the person under 5’8” that will derive any comfort from the extremely cramped quarters afforded to the economy set. I have traveled fairly extensively and I have found that the KLM, Delta, and Air France group of jets to be the most scrunched from a comfort point of view. This, of course, is why they are so very successful as the bodies aboard are many, and compacted. Of course we were fed well:

1.    Salade de riz rouge et maïs au saumon fumé

2.    Pâtes fusilli servies avec sauce marinara aux legumes grilles

3.    Fromage et entremets

4.    Gâteau à l’orange et aux canneberges

… the wine was flowing, and the attendants were extremely accommodating when we would invariably spill orange juice, coffee, tea, and yogurt all over ourselves due to the whole, “my elbow is on your plate” and “your arm is on my lap” seating arrangements.  Bottom line: no sleep, lots of watching the plane’s progress on geo-vision.

            De Gaulle airport is interesting with its blend of old architecture and retro new design, and the many and varied denizens found within. We were greeted with the prodigious blasting of boat horns and whistles as some sort of strike was being perpetrated by the people who keep losing their jobs to automated boarding pass machines. They were very good about being quite silent in their gathering until a traveler would use one of the machines and then the hassling and haranguing would emerge full borne of some Parisian Satan in jacquard blue pantaloons. This persisted, annoyed, and then finally amused. We were not crushed when they were hauled off by the gendarmes.

            The local flying custom in Paris is pretty unorganized in that whole “no lines, people, just loudly cluster, shove each other, and intermittently fart silently and sip paper cups of cold espresso when you are doing it properly” way. Flying to Marseilles from Paris is kind of like flying from Chicago to Indianapolis, it’s a pain in the ass to drive and kind of a joke to fly, but I am a lazy American and I need to be catered to. The train is a better alternative, however, as the seats get smaller and the smell gets stronger as the flights get more commuter based.

            Taking one step outside upon alighting in Provence we were immersed in the cool, clean Mediterranean breezes that whipped around us gently. A short drive from the quaint and comfortable Marseilles airport to Avignon was really illustrative when considering the local foods and wines as the chalky, limestone hillsides were peppered with fresh bunches of thyme and lavender, and low slung, ugly knots of vineyards leaned steeply into the northerly mistral winds.

            It should be said that Day 1 was really spent over the course of two days not just one, but I believe in the whole a day is as long as you make it theory of living; so, no sleeping makes these two days equate to day 1. We met our boat docked along the Rhône around 4pm and checked into our staterooms, got the lay of the land, and sped out into the lolling Sunday afternoon, such as it was. Most of the shops inside the old walled city of Avignon were closed, but there were quite a few places open in the areas surrounding the Palais des Papes, Les Halles, and the Place de l’Horlage (they had a merry go round!). We tried going into the palace but it was a 20€ tariff and the day was getting on, so we skipped it, turned the corner, and discovered a huge wine festival called the Rhône Exaltation, which was also 20€, where a million or so Côtes du Rhône wine merchants were hocking there wares for the trade and the general public. As we turned away to go, scared off by the fee and the relative weakness of the US dollar, the ticket man called after us to say that the event was free after 5pm, so go on in. He handed us some engraved Schott wine glasses, some propaganda, and ushered us into the very Palais we skipped out on two minutes ago. So let me get this straight, we don’t pay 20€ to go to the Palais, but we do pay nothing to go to the very same Palais and drink a bunch of wine and have a spectacular time? Excellent. We only made it to three of the tables as the wine was fantastic and the camaraderie was even better. We met a young man at the 1st table, who’s name we did not get sadly, where whites were being presented under the headline, “Les Blancs de Gastronomie.” The wines were:

1.    Domaine Maby- Côtes du Rhône (CdR) 2007 Variations

2.    Domaine des Escaravailles- CdRV Rasteau 2007 La Galopine

3.    Cave Yves Cuilleron- Condrieu 2006 Les Chaillets

4.    Domaine de Bonserine- Condrieu 2006 Laurus

5.    Cave Desmeure- Crozes-Hermitage 2006 Cuvée Christophe

6.    Roland Betton- Hermitage 2004

7.    Domaine Jean-Claude- St. Joseph 2006

8.    Ferraton Père et Fils- St. Joseph 2006 La Source

9.    Domaine du Biguet- St Péray 2006

1st table, folks. All whites. Have any of you ever heard of any of these? Guess why? The French keep them all for themselves and give us either that which is priced too high or tastes too off for their purposes.

 

The second table was called, Les Blancs Frais aux notes d’Agrumes”, and it was more than agreeable as well. Seriously, how much marsanne and roussane can one drink without getting bored? (Truth be told there was some viognier and bourbelounc thrown in for good measure). Peep these:

1.    Domaine de la Grande Ribe- CdR 2005 Les Garrigues (Biodynamic)

2.    Domaine Pélaquié- CdRV Laudon 2006

3.    Domaine de Baeu Mistral- CdVR Rasteau 2006 fût de chêne

4.    Domaine la Fourmone- Vacqueyras 2006 Cuvée Fleurantine

(I have shortened this list to stop you from being bored and a hater)

 

The last table we visited was manned by the greatest Dutchman that has ever worked a wine event in France and been totally responsible for the semi-illegal importing of the Beaucastel cuttings to Tablas Creek in Paso Robles that I have ever met, Mike Rijken: “Les Rosés de Jardin.” Anyone that knows me should be questioning my sanity for waiting this long to get to the good stuff, to my baby, my friend, my summer fling, my assignation in February, the Provençal pinks. Oh, for a handful of olives! So it was that I drank the following delicious treatsies:

1.    Domaine Mousset- 2007 CdR Domaine de Tout-Vent

2.    Domaine Saladin- CdR 2007 Tralala

3.    Cave la Comtadine- CdR 2007 Perle de Rosé

4.    Domaine Maby- Lirac 2007 La Fermade

5.    Château de Ségriès- Tavel 2007

6.    Les Vignerons de Tavel- Tavel 2007 Cuvée Royale

It’s not bad work if you can get it. Drinking kickass Rhône wines in a palace in Avignon and not once did I sip some balls out CdP or a super crazy shiraz-style syrah from Hermitage. Yeah, for me. I love me. Best of all, I don’t wear the classic tell all tooth tattoo of the uninitiated lot that returns to their spouses, parents or whatever stained to the bone with the regal purple of doom.

            I do, however, return to the boat where we regale our new friends with our good fortune over some classic American cocktails like Stingers and some classically European cocktails like Asbach and soda (look it up). The boat itself is rather nice with a huge lounge with a panoramic view aft, and a large, elegantly appointed yet efficient and durable dining room astern. There are 132 guests aboard, so from a cruise standpoint it is small, but from a personal standpoint I couldn’t imagine having to parallel park it on Chicago Avenue during rush hour. Our stateroom is on the main deck and is simple, comfortable, and utilitarian, with the puny shower being the only point of any contention whatsoever; On the plus side, the shower is extremely temperate, and invigorating.

            The prospect of eating dinner upon a boat when the gustatory splendor that is France lies just ashore of it is mostly deflating. Imagine seeing Yankee stadium only from the outside, or going to Belgium and eating at McDonalds rather than having chips, mussels and a hearty Belgian Farmhouse Ale. We were skeptical to say the very least. Our fears, however, were quickly replaced with joy and wonder simply upon seeing the menu:

                        Chicken Liver Mousse with Mushroom Sauce

                        Clear Tomato Soup with Green Asparagus

                        Artichoke Tomato Confit & Goat Cheese in Puff Pasrty

Breast of Guinea Fowl with Parmesan Cheese Sauce, Vegetables Bouquet & Williams Potatoes (Shaped into a Pear)

or

Pan Fried Filet of Mahi Mahi on Watercress Risotto & Lobster Sauce

Crepes Suzette

The Wine list was well selected, diverse and suitable for the blow hard and the know it all (Haut Brion on the one hand and Zind-Humbrect Pinot Blanc on the other), and they did offer some local pairings for the dinner for the daring or uninspired. I was neither as the day was getting into it’s 46th hour, so I supped of the house white, a local CdR that snapped with a mineral freshness after a burst of tropical fruit at the onset. A digestif of Calvados, sixteen ibuprofen, and a handful of Valerian Root later found me in my bed listening to the hopeful splash of the Rhône through the crack of the window as we rode the current south down to the city of Arles. It was the sleep of conquering Romans, my friends, only to be disturbed by the buzzing of the Visigoth hordes that were stirring angrily in what was to become the beginning of my many tomorrows.

 

Day 2 The City of Arles

            I was rudely awakened by sound that I was unfamiliar with. It was an ancient and unholy creaking. The sound that The Rack might make just after its master cranks that final turn of the screws. Wood and Iron, concrete and concrete, with only some dirty water as a lubricant squawking away somewhere close, in the dark, and I can’t take not knowing any longer. I look out the window. Exactly four inches away from my face is a dripping wet concrete wall and we, the ship and its inhabitants, seem to be sinking into it as a sinner is assuredly slowly leeched into Hell’s maw. “What the…?” Seems the only and most operative words to choose here. See:

IMG_1308.JPG

Yeah, so we were in a lock being lowered down about 30 feet. It was a pretty tight squeeze. I spoke to the captain later on that day and he told me that about 1 in 5 vessels have minor “problems” making the boat squeeze in just right. Thanks. Rain, also, was our friend this morning. A quick breakfast of traditional euro-fare and we stepped into Arles like a great mass of multi-colored beetles weaving their way across the kitchen floor, our tapestry of vividly hued umbrellas and rain slickers reflecting and refracting variously as we huddled together against the winds.

            Dog poop. It’s pretty much everywhere here. I decide to step in it early, just to get it over with, and this turns out to be a pretty sound move as the streets and sidewalks are paved with the alluvial river stones of the Rhône. These smooth stones and the rain combine to make a reasonably slick walking surface, so a little bit of poop will serve as a nice adhesive when things get really dicey. I, of the poopy shoes, do not fall down on this day.

            Arles was once a huge Roman city that boasted one of the largest Coliseums in the empire, a vast theater, and a sprawling community. The ruins are everywhere, and spectacular. Of course, many of them have seen better days; the most impressive of these missing monuments to excess is the bridge of Arles which was bombed during the German occupation of WWII…by us, of course. The stone lions that guard the entrance to the city remain, as well as the stanchions mid-river, but the rest is lost to the Rhône. Van Gogh did some of his most impressive things here, like sell his only painting, remove his ear, and recover in a hospital, and his house has been blown up, too.

            It was Monday, which means that the whole of France is recovering from whatever it was they all did on Sunday when the whole place is shut down, so very scarce were the opportunities for entertainment. We met some nut job local lady that has a bunch of cats (duh), we saw a church that was unreal, the coliseum, theater and a bunch of stuff that inspired Van Gogh to do his whole thing. This was all very nice, of course. The local patois is an unusual blend of French, Catalan Spanish, and “ooh-la-la.” It is the Provençal dialect and it is very confusing from a poor French speaker’s point of view. “Hola” is kind of used. Generally, I didn’t know what anyone was ever talking about, except in short punctuated spurts during transactions at shops where I could get by knowing how to buy something by saying hello, good-bye, thank you, and the name of the object I was buying. Pretty savvy, actually. I felt like a real Frenchman wandering the poop peppered streets of Arles carrying a baguette, drinking an occasional Fischer’s ale. That is until I tripped up a set of stairs and sent the entire contents of my backpack flying all over Provence. A 90% recovery was made, and only a few Alrésians had the view of my folly, but I did lose my camera, which was a nice touch on day 2, and led to an amazing standoff between a gruff bartender and myself that went something like this:

Bartender: Bon Jour.

Me: Je n’est parle pas Français.

Bartender: Ungh. Je n’est parle pas Anglaise.

Me: Non?

Bartender: Non.

Me: C’est bon, au revior.

Bartender: Ungh.

 Consumed were the aforementioned Fischer’s and the following:

            Domaine de la Forêt VdP Rhône 2007 Rosé (sexy and delicious)

NV Sekt-Vertribes GmbH, Trier Deutchland, Trocken (sexy and delicious bubbles)

Domaine Trimbach Ribeauvillé Riesling Reserve 2005

Food Highlights:

            Potage Parmentier

Cauliflower Gratinée

Cream of Green Peas with Lobster Dumpling

 

Day 3 Avignon, Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, Orange & Vivieres

Back in Avignon on Tuesday and the city is now bustling. Inside the old walled city there is life and energy everywhere. The Palais is buzzing with students on field trips, the hum of old codgers in their euro-rascals, and the clip clop of shoes on the old cobblestone walkways. The Mistral is really howling now, and we almost get heaved over the side of the Palais Jardin walls high atop the Avignon riverside while admiring the Villeneuve tower and bridge. We explore Les Halles and all of its wonderful smells, sights and curiosities, wishing we weren’t full up with breakfast and were glad to see that the Château de Beaucastel is equally expensive here as it is in the states. 61€ for the CdP blanc, wow. I did not buy it but chose instead a Tavel Rosé, which seemed only prudent as the 2007’s are out now and drinking beautifully. I still haven’t seen any Domaine Ott in any shops, but all of the other classics are popping up now and again; the search will continue.

            We boarded a bus en route to Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe and the tiny hillside roads were silly with rocky, gnarled vineyards, with the bud break just barely visable on some of the more exposed vineyards, an angry hand reaching out of Hell, but petrified by the sun’s splendor. The vines here are all trained low and loose so that they resemble either a large medieval drinking vessel, or the aforementioned demon claw. The shaky roads wend through the vineyards and we narrowly bussed ourselves through the medieval straights until we finally settled at Château la Nerthe, where we were largely unimpressed by the hospitality, first and foremost, and the uneven wines with various bret here and oxidative leanings there were not top rate. I do, largely, like the wines from this Château, so I will chalk their cowishness up to being young and foolish.

            Sadly our time in CdP was limited, and we shushed off to Orange through vineyards vast and pimply, and roads best not traveled by bus, which was of course our vessel. In Orange we saw a very old arch d’triomphe from 26BC ish. Ish, they said, while parading us about its many fontanels and tweedle-ee’s. Actually, its was pretty freaking impressive. After the rock, we returned to CdP and the very twee port of that region. It was a pier, some rocks and a very large sign, with a gravel road connecting it to the rest of the world. Upon boarding we were afforded the unique opportunity of having the boat compact itself into the smallest possible version of itself in an effort to avoid being lopped off at the neck by a very short bridge from the Middle Ages. Bloody Romans and their ingenuity have inconvenienced us all yet again. Couldn’t they have imagined the boats would get bigger and the air would be more elaborately gelled up high? Duh.

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Neat, huh? After that the upper deck, a carafe of local Rosé, the Mistral and I fought it out for supremacy until a victor was determined. The results are as follows:

            1st Place             Le Mistral

            2nd Place            The Upper Deck (largely unharmed)

            3rd Place             Myself

            4th Place             The Carafe of Rosé

Dinner was a bizarre affair. The food was wonderful, but I went off on a social tangent that was largely resultant in everyone finding me disagreeable and convoluted, an opinion of myself that I happen to agree with more often than not. I went off on any number of subjects that I had no real privy knowledge about and behaved badly with no real prompting or encouragement. The end result was a totally wasted experience of drinking a Sancerre, 2005, but Pinot Noir. I remember the color, almost pink, but a hint of real ruby, and the smell (not unlike the SB) of Flintstones Chewables, an unripe fruit salad, and the crispness of fresh apple orchards on the first autumn weekend of the year. You know, that zingy snap of old, mixed with the promise of real decay and mushy leaves, peat, firewood and mushrooms that paint experience more that some sorry canvas at that weekend you spent at Chataqua.

            When I stopped bitching about the state of affairs on the Fox network and settled into my early dotage, I managed to order a Marc de Borgogne from Joseph Drouhin as a digestif. Party. This was the real shizzle, and it made everyone at the table blush for fear that their Cognac was less manly than my Burgundy. I assured them that their Hummers were safe and sound in storage and that the 17 year-old boys they hired to keep them clean and well running mechanically would never deign to abuse their trust by doing donuts on the Superintendant of their school district’s front lawn or by driving them into the pond just off the green of the 7th hole at the Glenview Club. No, never, I assured them. TMI, I felt later, as the Marc began to wear off.

            At 11.30pm we docked at Viviers, an ancient, puny, and delightful town that we ambled through by the light of the gas lamps only. The town, by this time, was quite asleep. In fact, the first seven residents we saw were cats, and it took quite some time to accumulate that total. The main goal in Viviers was to see the famous Cathedral. It is famous for being the smallest Cathedral in France, which is, I was soon to discover, akin to being the smallest Wal-Mart in Texas. As far as Cathedrals in the dark go, it was lovely, the town was picaresque and unique, but it hardly seemed small to me. I was glad I went, however, as it seems stupid to travel 4000 miles and not soak up every last piece of every last thing available. When the boat stops, I get off. When it threatens to move, I jump back on. So it was that I boarded the boat yet again, this time en route to Tournon, just across the river from Tain l’Hermitage, and I would not be missing this. GN.

Day 4 Tournon & Tain l’Hermitage

            This does not suck. As we reach the northern Rhône around lunchtime, the granite hills become more and more pronounced and extreme. The Rhône Alpes are framing the scene like snow-capped garrisons at the gates of the realm. We pull into Tournon amidst extreme and terraced vineyards bearing the name of their owners, the familiar M. Chapoutier and Paul Jaboulet with their names in bold block on the walls of the enclosed vineyards staking their particular claims, and announcing their presence boldly. On the west side of the river is Tournon, a quaint little hamlet that boasts some spectacular sheer cliffs and the ruins of castles, towers and fortresses that have been built into their walls. The city center is so very French it is almost hard to believe it. Boldly colored buildings queue tightly against each other along the main street facing the park and the river, and cafes line their ground floors with seating for thousands in small tables along the square. Everyone here owns a Westie and no one speaks English which means that whenever I reach to give a little guy a scratch on the head, I say something stupid like “where is this dog’s pantry?” rather than asking if they mind if I fuss with their animal.

            Across the river via an expansive footbridge is the city of Tain, which has pretty much engulfed the wine vineyard area known l’Hermitage, and become the home to the wines produced in that area. Two huge mountain peaks rise up out of the village, and vineyards cover the greater part of their expanse. At the top of the more northerly peak is a small chapel, upon which I have set my sights for the day. After wandering around town for a bit, we find the path that wends through the vineyards and up to the summit, or one of the paths. We plod along up the steep climb through little patched vineyards here and there, that dot the area like little gravesites on Boot Hill, until we reach a sign that basically reads, “you are doing it wrong, turn around or you will be castrated by an elephant,” which we do not heed. We have seen no other people, and fear not. As we reach the summit we realize that we have stumbled across one of the manor houses of Jaboulet and their family vineyards. Woops. We snap a number of vista photos, take it all in for a second, and then plunge back down into the village where we stop for a bathroom break at Les Caves de Tain, a local winery and tasting room. This place was great, and the attendants could not have been nicer or more helpful. We ended up buying a few bottles there just because everyone was so cool, and their tasting room so friendly. To their credit, the wines were outstanding, and they even had some bottles of the spectacular 1998 vintage left from a few appellations. We opted for the following bottles: (All Cave de Tain)

            2005 Crozes Hermitage Blanc (AOC)

            2007 Rosé de Syrah (VdP)

            NV Yrisé Vin Mousseaux Syrah Rosé (VdT)

            The only downside to this purchase was that now I had to carry them with me all about the place as we were pretty far from our base of operations and had not yet climbed up to the wee chapel as I had planned. So we trudged on. We met a horse pulling a plow, a dog eating an orange, and a man moving another horse pulling a plow all of whom were frightfully polite and certain to wish us either a good day, or good afternoon. Whoever said that the French were rude or spoiled or didn’t like Americans probably didn’t say, “Hello” when greeted, or at the very least didn’t come to Tain. Our principle observation about this part of France thus far was the total and utter absence of advertising signage along the motorways and throughout the towns. How very pleasant.

            So we braved the hillside. It was steep. It was rocky. It was probably an ill-advised move for two Americans in the wrong kind of shoes that don’t normally go hiking, were unfamiliar with the area, and had no cell phone. In fact, we were advised against it by our ship’s Captain. As usual, it was windy, too, which only complicated things. On our ascent we commented as to the likelihood of it being easier to get up this thing than down it. As we approached the summit we were breathing hard, and the ground was less certain. Our steps were short, calculated, and slow. When we turned to look back at our conquest, we were stunned to see the whole of the Rhône open up before us in all of its glory, and the nearby Alpes proudly fortressing us in our place with their snowy, ancient might. The grade downward seemed far more extreme than it did going up, but we were content to worry about that a bit later, and grab a quick sit atop this beautiful slice of France. At the top lies a very small chapel, no bigger that a single bathroom, with an altar, a window and a door, and the finest view in town. The chapel is dedicated to St. Chrisopthe, said to be the original hermit winemaker who planted syrah on this place many centuries ago. The vineyards are still here, under the aegis of Chapoutier, and still producing syrah, although with a far greater return. The harvest and management of this place must be some sort of nutso undertaking, as many of the vines are in some of the most inhospitable locales I have ever seen. No wonder the wines can drive such a king’s ransom.

            On the way down we slipped and scurried, we saw some bottling going on in the facility of Chapoutier, spied my father asleep in a tour bus in the town square, exhausted from the trip to the Vahlrona chocolate joint, met another three Westies and exhausted their owners by asking them stupid questions in French “How much asparagus can this automobile wear on Friday?” When we arrived on the Viking we regaled our fellow travelers with the story of our mighty hike, and were forced to show photos many times to prove that we did actually do it.

            Dinner was “international” which meant a great deal of Eastern European cuisine as that is where the majority of our staff is from. It was fine all told, but I have been happier with the regional fare by and large. We tried a local wine that night from Cave Jean Michelas, a St. Joseph from 2005 that was pretty good. A bit of a whopper for my taste, but I could really taste the potential. I’d love to try some older vintages while I am here, but they really haven’t been available except in wallet busting price categories. With the poor US dollar and my dislike for anything crazy expensive anyway, this seems more and more unlikely as the trip bears on. As I type this, we creep slowly along the Rhône at night, and I can see several swans with their bottoms in the air, long necks craning under the surface of the river looking for sleepy fish. It is a weird sight, but I am somehow not driven to fits of laughter. It is Vienne tomorrow, but more importantly, it is the Côte Rotie and Condrieu for this guy as I plan to strike out on my own without missing the boat, getting lost, insulting anyone holding a weapon, or fall in the tricky and very overfull Rhône.

Day 5 Vienne, Ampuis & Condrieu en route to Lyon

            I pretty much drink all day and it is beginning to become a problem. I feel great as the day is winding down. I mean spectacular. I am the last man standing, the one that everyone can count on for camaraderie, the guy with a smile on his face and a good recommendation at the bar (they seriously should be paying me, I’ll check on that), but today I feel like I just finished pledging a fraternity at the College of Wooster. I am having a blue day. Its raining, cold and I am largely hungover. The staff thinks I’m nuts for trying to get to Condrieu and I am beginning to believe them. I get a late start and limp out to the office of tourism in Vienne, where I couldn’t have been more pleased with my man there. He sorted us out for a cab, and assured me that we could get a great bottle or two, see the vineyards, and be back before the ship set sail for Lyon at 12.15. A tall order, my friends. The driver spoke no English, and I speak no French, as we know, so the whole “getting there” thing was a bit blurry. I didn’t really know where to tell her to drop us off and that was her chief concern, of course, so we were pretty much at an impasse. She wisely dropped us off at the office of tourism in Condrieu (ended up being closed) and set her off on her merry way having dispatched of the awkward luggage she had been toting. We wandered aimlessly for a bit and then agreed upon a plan of loose threads and intents which took us to the famed winery of Georges Vernay, which was also closed. However Mr. Vernay came to the door, told us why they were closed and apologized for the inconvenience of our 4000 mile journey, and gave us some advice about how to spend our time in Condrieu, brief though it was. It seems that everyone has shipped off the better part of all of their ‘06’s and the ‘07’s are not being bottled yet, meaning the tasting rooms have been shuttered until May or so.

So, we spent our time wandering the streets and parks of Condrieu, finding steep vineyards nestled into craggy hillsides, a wicked old cemetery at the top of the city, a long stretch of cherry tree groves and a lovely waterskiing cay in the river that was a bit of a surprise. After a bit of wandering we stumbled upon a state of the art wine bar and retail shop with some fantastic old vintages of everything Rhône, a very fancy tasting dispenser, and some kind gentlemen working and offering us advice. We bought a bunch of stuff, which we hope to consume before we leave, but this is becoming a daunting task. They told us how to get back to Vienne via bus at about a fifth of the price of the taxi we took to get here. On the bus ride home, we passed below the stunning Côte Rotie and all of it’s majestic and evil slopes, through the charming village of Ampuis where E. Guigal calls home and owns most of the city square, and finally lurched into Vienne just in time to catch our ship before it lumbered towards Lyon. Along the way we sipped at Condrieu (2006 Domaine du Montellet) and noticed that the river has now narrowed dramatically and the rocks have given way to tall trees and groves of apples. As the wine bottle emptied and the area near the city began to close in on us, we settled into a much needed afternoon nap. I dreamed of little Sumos running and jumping through the vineyards of Tain, and of possibly not coming home to start work on time. I’m sure that everyone would understand, right?

We are quick to realize that up until this point we have been visiting towns, villages, hamlets, and shanties, as Lyon is quite spectacular in its city-ness. Divided into two principle quarters, the old and new, Lyon is a jewel, like Paris with a working sanitation committee. High above the old city is the cathedral Notre Dame de Fourvière, aptly referred to as an “upside down elephant” because of its soaring four towers at the corners. The inside is a magnificent mish mash of architectural styles, stained glass, mosaics, and statues meant to impress and intimidate the local god fearing. I must say, sitting there amongst the humble, I was in awe. I asked myself how on earth this could have been put together, and further what a person would have thought about its completion 500 years ago or so. The end result was that I was more impressed by Man’s achievement than by god’s splendor, which was probably not the point of the whole spectacle, but it was truly a colossal work of art and mighty show of strength.

To ease the pain of marching up the very steep incline to get up to this area, the Lyonnaise have constructed a funiculaire, which is a trolley that is tethered to a cable, and built with the seats and cars at the steep angle of descent or ascent. It is pretty amazing, and the whole trolley system is dug into the side of the cliff like a mining shaft.

On the low side of the cliff there lies yet another amazing tribute to the ingenuity of the Roman, a set of two amphitheaters from the 1st century BC. There really aren’t enough adjectives to describe what it felt like to trod upon these old stones and grasses, to view the stage, walk the loge and just sit and overlook the city imagining some production of Eurpides with flaming stage props and primitive clangings of sound effects. We took it all in, became depressed about that which we may or may not leave behind, and sped down the hill. As we crossed into the new part of the city we stopped to watch the swans fight it out against the strong current of the river, listened to the buzz of the city as it puttered against its own set of gravities, and wandered back to the ship, exhausted, and ready to begin this trip’s dénouement.

At dinner we began to dig into our surplus of wine’s without much regard for the food we were to consume with them as we do not intend to worry about transport for our beverages apart from their being consumed and processed by our natural mechanisms. Steak Tartare opened the evening’s proceedings, and we paired it up with another bottle of the sparkling syrah from l’Hermitage, and it was pretty spot on as fair as a wine and food pairing went. After that, we just sort of punted, and the wind was against us, the ball was slippery, and the d line were all eleven feet tall. The soup: Best Soup Ever

            Curried Fruit with Crème Frâiche

I would have killed for some Riesling with this, but we just skipped the wine altogether, happily, blessedly, to no deleterious effect. Mostly banana, some peach, and just a very faint and subtle touch with the curry produced a truly lovely balanced dish. I have the recipe; I will share it if you give me money.

            After that things got a bit fuzzy. Châteauneuf-du-Pape with lamb entre-côte, Some Bordeaux with the same lamb, someone cracked open some sparkling, a blanc de blancs, I think, from the Loire oddly enough. Crème caramel and Calvados, fromages and Calvados, and then some Calvados to wash it down made for an early turn in time for this guy, and a long day ahead. I was violently disturbed sometime in the night by a heavy thud and grind. I popped up and looked out my window to find another boat quite attached to us, and an equally confused old man looking right back at me through his open blind, probably disappointed that I was not a buxom young lady fresh from the shower. Back to sleep then, such as it was, and the wonder of another day lying ahead of us here in Lyon.

Day 6 Lyon and the Saône River

            I sleep in late today and skip breakfast in favor catching up on my sleep and address my constitutional needs. It is a long time coming. I realized that my zeal for life has put me at odds with the very notion of taking a vacation; I needed to relax. The events of this morning will do nothing to help that need.

            We take to the streets, refreshed and renewed, and speed to the pedestrian walkways of Lyon in search of local pastries, pates, and charcuterie, and to spy that one angle of the city that has been patiently waiting to be observed and praised. It is a lovely day outside, the sun id shining, the Mistral is turned down to about 6 or so, and we are refreshed in the traditional sense of the word. Old Lyon is charming with narrow alleyways as streets, and one after another of them opening up into polite little squares housing thin shops and cafes, and chatty Lyonnaise calling to one another in exaggerated voices through windows and up façades. We braved a few shops, popped in and out of wine stores looking for the elusive Domaine Ott (I did find one bottle, but it was a white wine!) and any other local Vdp that piqued interest. The Cru Beaujolais were of particular interest as we were nudging up against that region in Lyon. The ship was sailing at 12.45 so we were pressed for time and getting pretty hungry. We decide to have some Moules Marinieres and Frites at a local shop along the University road. As we sat and enjoyed the day, the time was going by too quickly, and we realized we had only four minutes to get our Mussels, eat them, and then race across town to get to the boat lest we spend 450€ on a taxi ride to Villefrance-sur-saône, which seemed a bit excessive. We explained to our server that we had to leave in the best we could manage with broken French, paid the bill, and made to leave when we heard from behind us, “Monsieur! Madame! Arret!” and saw a man carrying a HUGE platter covered in tin foil, running down the street. He had packed them all up for us and explained that the sauce was sloshing about pretty good so we should be careful. Running. To The Ship. With a HUGE platter of mussels (and frites), all while causing the boat to be delayed because we needed to get our bivalve fix. So, imagine me now power walking across Lyon, an American uneasy, with a HUGE platter of mussels splashing over the edges of the platter onto shoes and pants of anyone within a few yards, and a boatload of people watching my progress as I fireman’s relayed myself across the Pont Université right in their sights. I thought for sure that the spanking machine would be up and running for our antics, but it was not so. We were but four minutes late and the boat enjoyed an on time anchors aweigh, although the guests did have a hearty group bellow at my expense. The mussels, by the way, were awesome. We had a few carafes of the house Rosé and sat quietly by the open window of our stateroom watching as we turned away from our old friend the Rhône river, and headed into Burgundy on it’s main water avenue, the Saône. “Au reviour, Rhône!” we said only half kidding as we did feel as though our trip is inching ever closer to its end as we creep towards Beaune.

            Along the Saône we are immediately struck by how quickly the scenery changes from harsh craggy hillsides to verdant, lush mountainsides. A mere ten minutes outside of Lyon and we pass by the legendary restaurant of Paul Bocuse that bears his name. It is multi-colored and sort of garish outside; it looks kind of like the fanciest circus tent in the world. We float by and I imagine all of the foie gras and coq au vin going on in there with drool beginning to run visibly from my agape pie hole. As the day wore on the landscape opened up a bit to reveal the local breed of cows, famous for their beef and milk, grazing and nibbling on things as we lumber past. Goats and horses take a more defensive stance as they spy our craft, and the swans continue to make their best efforts against the rush of the river. The sunset, as it began to blanket the sky, was a real jem. Through narrow groves of trees we were able to catch this masterpiece as it sank beneath the emerging hillsides of the côte chalonaise. Of course I idiotically erased the photos I took of it, which were Pulitzer worthy, while strolling through the open market in the old city of Beaune so I cannot share with you in the splendor of this night. In fact, I inadvertently erased about 80 pretty good pictures through an amazing series of misguided keystrokes and clumsy thumbings. Typical.

            Dinner was fabulous, highlighted by a series of pranks perpetrated by the wait staff on your truly as a reminder of my afternoon folly. All of my courses were preceded by a small plate with say two shelled peanuts on it and a note that read “this is what you get when you make the boat late,” and the like. After five courses of this it became quite hilarious, and the rest of the boat took great pleasure in seeing my raspberries received in the public square. Nothing like a public flogging to raise the spirits of the local villagers, right.

            After dinner a few of the lads and I pooled our wine, vowing to drink it before the end of the evening. We enlisted the help of anyone that chanced to pass by our cabin’s open door, and did quite well. It was almost, dare I say it, a boat party. We drank sixteen bottles of wine all told, and probably lost track of a few, and I am quite the worse for wear as a result. The last bottle, why do we always wait until the end to drink the real dandies, was a 2001 Pommard from Joseph Drouhin. I believe it was fantastic, but truth be told I don’t rightly remember. I would have assumed that we didn’t drink it were it not for the cork I found in my pocket this morning. The end of the evening found about eight of us on the main deck of the ship howling at the moon and making public jackasses of ourselves. It could not have been more than 40ºF out there, and I am surprised that I did not lose my wallet, iPod, or shoes considering my condition this morning; all of these items I found on my person when my coffin lid creaked open what seemed like five minutes after I entered it. The rest of the night was spent not so much sleeping as lying in my bed not exactly being awake. The morning wake up call came very early. The only thing that really got me off of this boat was that outside the ship was the town of Chalon-sur-Saône, and beyond it, the Côte-de-Beaune; Pinot Country.

 

Day 7 Chalon-sur-Saône and Beaune

            I saw Pommard, Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny Montrachet, Meursault, Volnay and Beaune. I saw cows. I drank Aligoté, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Gamay. I drank a Flagey-Echezauex, a Clos Vougeut, a Bâtard-Montrachet, an Aloxe-Corton and a Chambertin. I should probably say no more. The beauty of these wines is found throughout, they were magnificent. Sure, the fact that I was drinking these wines at all, much less in the Côte d’Or, did have something to do with it. But I was quite hungover, and believe me it took some kind of herculean effort to put that first glass to my mouth. I did, however, persevere in the most honorable sense of the word, for everything I have ever stood for as a human being occupying space on this planet. I knew what I was fighting for. I chuffed down a gruyère and ham baguette, bought some stinky goat cheese from the region at the open market, and a pâté en croute that was allegedly à la Beaunoise tradition from the charcuterie shop on the square. A turn through the Hotel Dieu (pretty unreal considering it was built in the 13th Century) and some paces through the tiny streets of the old city and I was feeling straight again. The wine did help. The city, like so many of these old hamlets, was once all stuffed into the walled part of town, but this one had a moat! The moat is, of course, no longer needed, and they have filled it in with grass and petite gardens, but it was cool to imagine the “hmm”s from a potential invader when considering a siege. I mean, we’ve come all this way, the last thing we want to do is get our feet a bit wet, right.

            The vineyards were all very low slung which was a surprise to me after seeing so many vineyards trained up several feet in the US. Also, most of the Grand Cru Vineyards were on the valley floor, rather than the hillsides, which makes sense considering the relatively cool overall temperature here and thus the need for longer exposure to the sun. Lost of limestone here as expected, and a very pronounced expression of pride in the terroir evidenced by the care and stewardship of just about everything here. The bottles for most of Burgundy are produce in Chalon, the corks are processed in Mâcon, and every winemaker seems to have some little secret friend that provides some kind of service for the winery via back alley handshakes and palmed Euros by the murky light of the gaslamp.

            Now the immediacy of our end is upon us. As we return to the ship there is a series of colored luggage tags waiting for us, coded to assist in organizing the bags to their destinations, and the final statement of accounts has been slipped under the door of our stateroom. Losing the photos from yesterday and this morning on top of this looming last act was incredibly depressing as I will be unable to recapture what I have lost. I am usually really bad about having a camera around and I have been trying to stop this on this trip, snapping away happily as I meander through France (I suppose the losing of camera one, and the stupid erasure of the contents of camera two are the possible reasons why I usually don’t carry a camera). So without the photo record of this day 6, I feel as though it mightn’t have even happened. So sad.

            I’ve decided to pack up my belongings, shuffle through all of the papers, flyers, maps and other spillage I have collected, and see what matter, and what can be left behind. All the maps I’ll keep, some of the funny notes the staff have left for me, I’ll keep as well. The propaganda from the Rhône Wine Exaltation I will keep, too. It seems a pile of receipts, on board scribblings and directions will line the waste bin on this day. Rummaging through the maps gives me an enormous sense of longing and the miserable feeling of dread endings. As I finish packing I am finally struck with the realization that the holiday is over.

            In the lounge they have set up a Q&A area so that everyone can get their accounts settled, flights and bookings confirmed, and mingle amongst the guests for one final goodbye, an exchange of business cards, email addresses, etc., before heading down to the dining room for the “Captain’s Dinner,” a semi formal event meant to close the book on the trip with a big shebang. At cocktails the mood was sullen, the Program Director played a slide show of photos she had taken of the guests during the trip, I managed to make the show twice, which was flattering I suppose, except that I was wearing the same sweater in both shots. Eh, my steamer trunk was held up in customs.

            Dinner was tremendous. During the course of our menu, the entire staff was trotted out for our inspection, and to receive a rousing ovation for their hard work. The tried and true Baked Alaska was given a boat twist, sparklers instead of flaming meringue, which makes sense, and the clapping and marching continued on. The Baked Alaska was wicked, too. Really good. I never need a dessert again, or ice cream of any kind. Stab me if you see me with it, or contemplating it, or even suggesting that ice cream is delicious. I am unhappily sated of cow product, both liquid and otherwise.

            Everyone was walking around the dining room pouring their remaining bottles of wine for anyone with an empty glass, and there was a real spirit of friendship on the boat. I saw bottles ranging from the most humble country wine to the fat Bordeaux of legend and Amex black cards. We tried everything that was offered and did some free pouring of our own. Usually, I didn’t know what I was drinking because it seemed the pourer didn’t know what he was pouring, or couldn’t pronounce it anyway. One wine that struck me was a red burgundy that someone offered up as a Bordeaux from Châteauneaf-du-Pâpe. I don’t even know where to start with that particularly obtuse mess. I smiled, raised my glass to the bottle and cried, “I love that stuff!” The lies we will tell to not become engaged in that conversation, such pith. We ate with our friends Fred and Anne, a couple living in Cambridge, England that will be moving back to Minneapolis in April. I should like to see them soon.

            The staff, having made me their official guest mascot and whipping boy, presented me with a chef’s toque that they had all signed and offered me their good will upon. A very nice gesture, really, despite all of the badgering I endured to receive it. Everything was good-natured, and I really didn’t mid all that much. In fact, it isn’t that bad to be know by everybody on my little boat for doing nothing particularly spectacular. It is probably like being the Governor of Rhode Island, or the President of Andorra.

            After dinner a few of us hit the lounge for one last digestif and a chance to squeeze a few last hands before our departure. Some passengers were being ushered off of the boat and towards their homes or next destination as early as 2am, others at 5am (that’s my lot) and the rest by 8 or 9, so the bar was pretty empty.

 

 

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3 responses

2 04 2008
Tim Z.

Asbach! Yummy! I had my first at the ripe old age of 8…and my second, third, etc….

2 04 2008
d

i was a hater before you even left; the likelihood of a shortened wine list changing said jealousy is minimal, so just give me the whole shebang.

31 03 2009
Mike Rijken

Dear Wine friend,

I just found out about your commentaries given over de Rhone Exaltation that you visited in March 2008.
Thanks for the comments. If you ever back with winelovers, let me be your host on Wine Safari.

Sincere Greetings Mike Rijken

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