Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Bruges by Night

One of the best decisions we made on our journey through the Netherlands and Belgium was to spend a few days in Bruges.  I had heard it was a day trip but decided to stay for a few nights with my husband.  Truth be told, we could have easily spent several more days here.  Bruges is one of the most well preserved towns in all of Europe and as you explore, you can almost imagine what life was like hundreds of years ago here.  Some of the common laws in place to maintain this atmosphere inside the walls are are: no neon signs, no  traffic lights, height restrictions on buidlings, and no asphalt or paved roads.  Since it so popular as a day trip town, when the hordes leave at 5 PM, a sort of peaceful hum takes over the town.  That was my favorite time to explore the streets and the canals and bridges.  As darkness fell, the bridges and buildings were illuminated with the most romantic glow of lights, mesmerizing us into a Belgian haze.  Just say no to day tripping-stay for a few nights!

A View to Die For

In the middle of a 2 week long trip to crowded Italian cities, there were 2 glorious days in the largely undiscovered Cinque Terre.  Just like its name says, there are 5 Lands (towns), perched on the mountainous, Italian rugged coastline.   In the two days on the hiking trails I could count the other hikers on 2 hands.    It was a joy to be so alone amidst such stunning scenery.  The views of the Ligurian Sea are breathtaking and the approach to each town, jaw-dropping.  The  landscape,  punctuated with houses of color---red, yellow, ochre—all look like they could crumble into a pile and tumble into the blue sea at any moment.  The Five towns each have distinctive features but they all have one thing in common -- Fantastic views…….This view of Manarola was taken from a special perch—the local cemetery.  Seems that the dearly departed were afforded the best views!

A Sip of Provence

Although this was my second trip to the region of Provence, I had not yet
ventured to the famous wine center of Chateauneuf-du-Pape (CNP).
Translating directly to "new castle of the pope", this town had once been
the site of the fortified summer home of the Avignon Popes.  Clearly, the
clergy were not tee-totalers, even back then.  Who can blame them?  Even men
of the cloth needed something to help cool them during those sweltering
summer Provence days and warm them when the fierce mistral winds came.

I start my ascent to the heart of the town, which seems to stretch from the
base of the hill, straight to the sky.  Passing sign after sign luring
tourists in for degustations (tastings), it is comforting to know that I do
have a destination with a name, referred by the proprietors of the lovely
B&B where I am staying in Carpentras, Chateau Talud.  Following signs for
Cave du Vergers, I continue upward...and upward...and upward.  Just when it
seems that there is nowhere else to go, the ruins of the ancient Popes
castle are looming in front of us.  All that remains of the fiefdom is one
crumbling, stone wall, perched overlooking a vast valley of patchwork
vineyards and fields.

The caverns of Cave du Vergers are here.  The collection of wines at Cave du
Vergers is exceptional and unlike other vineyards here.  While other local
vineyards showcase only what they grow, this collection represents the elite
of the region-almost like a "best of" compilation.  Les Caves are carved
into the white speckled ochre rock at the top of the hill that crowns this
vintage town.  They date back to the Roman-Gallo period and consist of five
vaulted rooms that are joined together by narrow arched doorways.  Walking
through the entrance, a soothing, chill greets you-and if you are visiting
anytime between May-October, this can be quite refreshing.  Scattered
throughout the cave are crates of wine, random dusty bottles and artifacts
that depict wine-making from the old days such as ceramic storage containers
and antique wine bottles.  Most interesting are old vats that the Romans
used to stomp the grapes after harvesting the crop.

The wine steward/sommelier, Jean-Baptiste, as it turns out, is a delightful,
funny, young and hip Frenchman with not only a passion for wine but also a
knack for teaching the basics and recounting the fascinating stories of this
wine region.  

He sets up large, crystal goblets and shares with us at least
6 wines (mostly reds) and we swirl, sniff and sip our way gleefully through
all of them.  There is a stainless steel spittoon built into the weathered
bar but we can't bear to part with even a sip of the nectar.  Jean-Baptiste
explains what makes CNP unique in the vintner's world.  The vine beds are
covered with rocks, which during the colder months, absorb the heat from the
sun during the day and then continue to provide warmth and promote growth
through the cold, dark nights.  This simple process allows for almost 24
hour growth cycles and has increased the amount of wine that CNP can
produce. Another important fact I learned is that white wine contains
approximately 20 times more sulfides than red wine.  Sulfides are
preservatives that prolong the life of the wine.  Unfortunately, it is the
sulfides that are responsible for the unpleasant headaches that linger after
a few glasses of wine.  So, the moral is, if you are going for the cheap
stuff, do it with red, not white.

That night, as I lay comfortably cocooned in a four poster bed, the mistral
winds began to blow.  Blow is a misnomer for what the famous 80-100 mile per
hour winds really do here.  There is actually a howling in the air.  The
locals say it is a sign that there will be clear skies and no rain for the
days ahead.  Filled with wine and surrounded by a romantic wind, I am lulled
to sleep, dreaming of adventures ahead.