From Brussels we dropped down to Alsace to begin our bewildering immersion into the wines of France. What we learn is that each wine region (and there are many of them) has a distinct menu of wines that is unique and specific to that region. The challenge of 300 different kinds of beer seems like nothing compared to this. While trying to familiarize ourselves with the wines of Alsace, visiting wineries gives us a good excuse to go to a lot of picture-perfect towns such as Kayserberg, Eguisheim, Riquewihr and Turckheim.
From the Alsace region, we head to Beaune in the Burgundy wine region. Beaune is an upscale refined city where it seems like every other business is either a popular restaurant or a wine merchant. Once again, the search for great wine leads us on dreamy autumn drives through hillsides of bright yellow and red leafed vineyards. Stopping periodically along the almost deserted vineyard backroads, we grab tastes of some of the leftover harvests. Eventually, though, we get a taste of what winter is like here when we wake up to a prediction of early-morning snow flurries...in October! Our host mentions that her sister is happy at the prospect of an early winter since she likes cold weather, though our host is clearly not of the same mind having just spent the past year in temperate southern Italy.
We are more than happy to follow the sun and head further south from here to Vaison-la-Romaine. From our second-floor room, we look below to an olive orchard surrounded by rolling hills, and with Mont Ventoux in the background. Here the 57-degree weather feels practically tropical. No longer in wine country per se (though there are still plenty of vineyards), we switch to visiting hilltop towns such as Les Baux and open air markets like the fabulous one in L'Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue. The markets give us the opportunity to become connoisseurs, if not of wines, then of local apples, cheese and charcuterie. In Tourettes, we pass by a big plywood box, roughly 5 feet square and deep, filled with freshly harvested eye-catching big red apples. We purchase three of them, but later regret not having bought many more. Juicy, crunchy, and so bursting with flavor, they take the award for the best of many excellent apples we have tasted on this trip, including a variety here called Arianes which had previously been the winners.
In Vence, we find ourselves happy to be up in the hills, way above all the traffic in Nice and Cannes. Traffic is particularly hideous because of a new shopping mall debuting right between Cagnes-sur-Mer and the road leading to Vence, which apparently nobody realized was incapable of handling the additional traffic. We wonder why anyone would put up with such dysfunctional infrastructure until we remember that we live in Los Angeles.
Aix-en-Provence has us guessing why Rick Steves snubbed this city by not including it in his book on France. It is certainly "pretty" enough for Rick. Is it too commercial with all the multi-national companies here like Benetton and Sephora and Baby Gap? Or is it too lacking in medieval castles? Whatever. We enjoy a stroll through their huge market, sampling some hot roasted chestnuts and listening to the many street musicians along the way.
Over a glass of Sangria, our host in Carcassonne effuses for close to an hour about the magical spell this town holds over him. Though I don't think we are ready to sell everything and open up a B&B in Carcassonne, we have to agree that it is a totally unique and thrilling experience walking between the walls of this 14th century hilltop castle-fortress when they are lit up at night.
We journey on to a far less touristed area near Jumilhac-Le-Grand in the northeastern corner of the Dordogne region to visit friends and enjoy some gourmet home cooked meals. We enjoy the great company of our hosts who even take us mushroom hunting in the woods. It was sad to see thousands of chestnuts just lying on the ground here, knowing that in a few short weeks, we will be paying plenty just to buy a handful of the little devils to flavor our turkey stuffing.
After more tree hugging and canoeing in the lower part of the Dordogne, we are joined by our friends Denise and Angie from LA. We move on to the Loire Valley together to explore the chateaus. It is clearly past the tourist season now. We walk along one of the main streets of Chinon trying to find a restaurant that is open, only to see shuttered up store fronts and "for rent" signs. After a drive along roads lined with plane trees filled with green, yellow, red and brown leaves that swirl in the wind as they fall, it's nice to find parking places close to the chateaus and no lines at the ticket counters.
Given time, everything becomes history, and historical sites and artifacts eventually become tourist attractions. In Normandy, we find, in addition to the major WWII memorials, many small, private museums. Pieces of the pontoons and other now-rusty debris used on Omaha and Utah Beach have been rescued from local junkyards and restored so that the amazing effort of D-Day can be a little bit better visualized. Nazi bunkers, artificial harbors, 155mm guns, Higgins boats and Sherman tanks, as well as the many stories of the soldiers who fought here, many of whom died in this invasion, fill our minds and hearts and camera roll before we head back to the U.S. on Monday.
Cover page: "We've come for your liver." A visit to a foie gras farm...actually, these geese have a better and longer life (free range in the rural countryside, organic feed, average life of 6 months) than a Purdue chicken (housed indoors in claustrophobic pens, fed and injected with god knows what, average lifespan of 2 months)