Author Archives: esimmeth

About esimmeth

I teach French and English at a public high school. When I'm not teaching, you'll find me reading, writing, cooking, thinking, and possibly compulsively straightening the sofa cushions.

Paris in The Rain

We had just one day in Paris, and we planned to make the most of it. What we didn’t plan on was…rain. It started drizzling during breakfast at the hotel, and by the time we were ready to head out, it was coming down pretty hard. We didn’t let that stop us from hopping on the metro, destination Notre-Dame de Paris and Shakespeare & Company Books.

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These signs — warning against the dangers of getting stuck in the doors on the Metro — never fail to amuse me.

The cathedral was just as gorgeous in the rain, perhaps even more than ever in a somber, grey way.

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Notre-Dame de Paris.

We wandered along the Seine for a while, dodging puddles and raindrops, and admiring the changing view from every angle.

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The famous flying buttresses, and a bridge overflowing with “love locks.”

Now I am going to insert a little PSA here: people, it’s time to stop with the “love locks” trend. The “love lock” trend involves writing your initials on a padlock, attaching it to a bridge, and throwing the key into the water. Sounds cute, right? Well, it was cute enough when there were a few locks on the Pont des Arts a decade ago. Today, every. single. inch. of every bridge in Paris is overflowing with the things, causing damage to the bridges as well as to the river below. So next time you’re in Paris, enjoy the view and a romantic moment with your loved one, but don’t get sucked into the love lock trend!

Rant over. Time for more pictures:

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Paris park.

As our feet were getting uncomfortably soggy, we decided to dry out at Shakespeare & Company Books. This English-language bookstore is a haven for literature lovers, with two floors overflowing with books, used and new, as well as an on-site library with cozy corners to sit and read. I curled up with a bound edition of 1850’s Harper Magazines and marveled at the line drawings of “Ladies Fashions” including whalebone corsets and hoop-skirts alongside verses by Longfellow. It was like a time capsule from another world.

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Shakespeare and Company Books.

Our feet somewhat drier and the rain slowing, we set out in search of the most beautiful café in Paris. We had stumbled on this café when we first visited Paris together years ago and stayed in a crumbling old hotel in the Bastille quarter. From the outside, it looked like any typical Parisian bistro, with the standard rattan chairs, red awning and bored waiters. But inside were the most incredible original Art Nouveau mosaics, as well as a particularly well-stocked bar. Finding one particular café out of the thousands in Paris, without knowing its name or exact location, would be like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.


Le Bistrot du Peintre (from their website).

And yet, we did find it, somehow: Le Bistrot du Peintre, 116 Avenue Ledru-Rollin. We stayed for a long, leisurely, and yet relatively light lunch of salad and charcuterie, a white wine and Irish Coffees to ward off the damp chill.

With lunch and most of the afternoon over, we began planning dinner: one ultimate feast for an unforgettable end to our trip. Since were staying in Montparnasse, we decided it needed to be in one of the formidable classic cafés on the Boulevard. Still craving seafood, we made a reservation at Le Dôme.

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Le Dôme, Boulevard Montparnasse.

Le Dôme was one of the first literary cafés on the Boulevard Montparnasse, and it was famous as a gathering place for artists, writers, and socialites throughout the 20th century. It’s fun to imagine Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound lounging at the next table. The place (and the décor) might be steeped in history, but the food and the service are anything but past their expiration date.

Once again, we ordered everything.

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Our platter of oysters.

We were seated in the enclosed patio, draped in red velvet curtains straight out of the Belle Epoque. We asked about the impressive list of oyster options, and our server kindly offered to bring us a selection of six different varieties. He explained that oysters are like cheese, with endless variation in flavor, texture, and style in oysters from different regions.

As we happily dived into our first oysters, we noticed that the meat was still attached to the shell, not loose as is the custom in the US. We both sat there awkwardly trying to free the osyter with our tiny forks, until our ever-helpful server came over and showed us how to cut the foot with the small knife provided. Apparently, this is the French style of serving oysters, meant to keep them alive and fresh until the very moment of consumption. He was right that the foot is the best part, sweet and meaty with a condensed flavor.

The oysters could have been a meal in themselves, but we couldn’t stop there: roast sea bream and a grilled Breton lobster were next, each wildly flavorful and perfectly prepared.

While we were savoring our meal, our server had been going from table to table inquiring whether they cared for a slice of their famous millefeuille for dessert. When he got to our table, the answer was a resounding bien sûr, in keeping with our tradition of always ordering the house specialty. We were glad we did: out came a towering slice of impossibly fine pastry sandwiched between layers of heavenly cream. We also had the gâteau moelleux (molten chocolate cake), because Drew said he had never had one (I think he just wanted his own dessert so I wouldn’t steal it all).

It truly was the feast to end all feasts, and the perfect finale to an incredible two weeks. We had eaten and drank our way around half of France. We were tourists of our own kind, not there to see the sights so much as to see where and how the locals ate and drank. It was a honeymoon after two wonderful years of marriage, waiting and planning and saving for this one epic voyage.

We never wanted it to end, but in reality, we were ready to get back to some level of normalcy. A good vacation should leave you at least somewhat ready for home, in my opinion.

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Final shot of the Hotel Mistral.

The next morning, Drew had a flight back to California, and I had a train to the Côte d’Azur where I would stay another week and visit friends there. I will tell you about my solo travels next week, although I have to admit they will not be as over-the-top as the last two weeks have been!



Paris by Night

We were sorry to say goodbye to Strasbourg, but we were both excited for the final step of our trip together: Paris. We had just one day and two nights to spend in the City of Lights, but we planned to squeeze every ounce of awesomeness out of the time we had.

We were staying at the Hotel Mistral in the Montparnasse district, once the home (and watering grounds) of many famous writers, artists and philosophers. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre actually lived at the Hotel Mistral for several years, keeping separate bedrooms to preserve their independence.

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Simone in the shower…

In a quirky décor touch, the famous philosophers’ faces graced tiles in the bathroom.

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Sartre over the sink.








And the bedroom was very, very pink.

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I loved it, Drew was meh.

But we weren’t there to hang out at the hotel. We set out in search of the best cocktails in Paris, specifically at Bar Hemingway at the Hotel Ritz. Sadly, it was closed for renovation!

We didn’t let that slow us down. We headed towards the Bastille, an out-of-the-way arrondissement where we had stayed on our last Paris adventures and which is known for its up-and-coming, under-the-radar bars and restaurants. We ended up at Calbar, where we expected to find a seafood restaurant but instead found world-class creative cocktails served up by barmen in their boxers (caleçon in French; cal+bar = calbar).

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Calbar cocktail

With eclectic décor, endless jars of spices and garnishes, an array of specialty liquors infused with unexpected flavors, and a clientele with a certain je ne sais quoi, you could easily have been in the Lower Haight (except for the fact that everyone was speaking French). We may have stayed a little longer than originally planned.

We eventually decided that it would not be a good plan to just have cocktails for dinner, so we set out in search of the seafood restaurant we had been looking for (turns out we were on rue Charenton, not rue de Charonne). We found the place we had in mind, but the kitchen was closing (it was nearly 11pm, after all). Hungry for seafood, we walked in circles for a while looking for some oysters, but every place we went was just closing. We may still have been on “the Spanish hour” for mealtimes, but French restaurants operate on a schedule, and it doesn’t involve feeding tipsy Americans at all hours.

Finally, we stumbled upon a Basque tapas bar with the kitchen open as long as the Coupe du Monde lasted. We munched on marinated octopus, salty croquetas and a heavenly tapenade while taking in part of the game and the animated crowd, including a mop-headed child of no more than five years swearing a blue streak at the opposing team. The game went into overtime and the place was still going strong when we finally left after midnight, just in time to hop a metro back to Montparnasse.

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Hotel history.

I had hoped to fit all of Paris into one blog post, but like we intended, we packed a lot into 36 hours. More to come tomorrow on our perfect rainy day in Paris!







A Full Day in Strasbourg

Strasbourg definitely deserved at least one whole day of exploration. After another amazing Alsatian breakfast, we hopped on a tram and headed downtown.

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Notre-Dame de Strasbourg.

We had a coffee on a café terrace just in front of the cathedral, giving us ample time to take in the full splendor of its intricate facade.

And the side view…

After we felt we had gawked at the cathedral’s exterior long enough, we decided to actually go inside. The interior was just as incredible as the exterior.

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Inside the cathedral.

Mozart once played a concert on the organ, which seemed to hover between the delicately fluted columns like an enormous gilt bird’s nest.

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You can see why the Reformers accused the Catholics of being over-the-top.

The Strasbourg cathedral is famous for its astronomical clock, which dates from the 14th century. Besides being very old and very intricate, its other claim to fame is its animated Procession of the Apostles. For two euros, we stood and waited with a crowd of tourists just like ourselves, mostly adults, speaking many languages, all with sore feet from standing around on the concrete for half an hour, waiting for a clock to chime.

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The Astronomical Clock.

At 12:30, the crowd fell silent, and every face turned upwards and expectant toward the clock as it began to chime, and we all became childlike with wonder. The crowd was almost as magical to watch as the clock.

An ancient wooden rooster at the very top crowed and beat its wings three times as the Apostles began to proceed in front of the Angel of Death. The figures’ legs moved with astonishing articulation, considering their clockwork dates from the 1800s. Two cherubs rang two little bells, and it was done. The crowd filtered back out into the cathedral or into the hazy sunlight.

For once, we stuck to our plan of having a light lunch: a salad without two pounds of cheese and sausage on it, and spaetzle with wild mushrooms. Jazz musicians busked on the corner, perhaps in town for the festival that would start the coming week.

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Petite-France seen from the “covered bridges.”

We strolled along the canal to what are known as the Covered Bridges, really the remains of 14th-century ramparts that have since lost their roofs (apparently a lot was going on here in the 14th century). Flowers trailed over the railings, reflecting the fanciful colors of the half-timbered homes that led right down to the canal, many with kayaks or rowboats tethered to their front steps.

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The cute factor was strong with this town.

We spent the afternoon being proper tourists for a change: browsing the boutiques, buying ice cream, having an afternoon drink on a café terrace. I even bought some postcards.

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A whole shop devoted to foie gras, which we somehow did not actually go into.

By late afternoon, it had grown oppressively hot and humid, so we did the only logical thing: find a bar with cool drinks (to hope for air conditioning would be asking for too much). The bartender even thoughtfully put ice in my glass of water without me asking, a rare and kind touch in Europe.

Not long after we ensconced ourselves in a booth, groups began to filter in and inquire about reservations. Turns out that the World Cup quarterfinals (I think that’s what it was, anyway) were about to begin. We sat quietly and observed as the barman turned away group after group wanting to sit in the booths next to ours because their view would be blocked once a large group was seated at the high table in front of the TV. We were happy to have a spot at all, and as the bar filled up, we just sat in the windowsill to see over the crowd.

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An excellent view of the game.

As if on cue, a huge clap of thunder burst just as the game was about to begin. A pounding thunderstorm followed, but was not enough to drive away the crowds forming outside to watch through the window. The national spirit was strong enough to get even a confirmed non-sports-follower like yours truly cheering along. The atmosphere was especially intense since France was playing Germany, and we were at the very epicenter of the French-German rivalry.

France lost, badly, but the people of Strasbourg were gallant about it, and no cars were burned or even overturned.

Drew was on a mission to try one last traditional Alsatian meal, coq au Riesling. In this local twist on coq au vin, chicken is slowly braised in Riesling wine instead of in red Bourgogne. We were lucky enough to get a table at one of the most famous restaurants in Strasbourg, la Maison des Tanneurs.

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The Maison des Tanneurs.

This restaurant is housed in a historic building hovering over the canals at the entrance to the picturesque Petite-France quarter. It may have looked like a tourist trap, but the food, wine list, and service were all sublime.

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Riesling paired perfectly with our coq au Riesling, bien sûr.

Since it just so happened to be the house specialty, we both ordered the coq au Riesling with spaetzle. The meat was just as tender as in the coq au vin we had in Bourgogne, but the Riesling sauce was even more delicate and creamy.

It was a good thing we had a light lunch. Once again, we ate everything.

The proprietor met us at the door and asked how our experience was. There was only one word for it: extraordinary.

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Strasbourg streets.

The next day, we were headed for Paris. To us, Strasbourg was just as fascinating as the City of Light, perhaps even more so since it was new to us and so completely different from the rest of France.

There was only one place to go when we did get to Paris: over the top.

And oh, did we ever.

I will tell you all about it tomorrow!


Colmar and Alsatian Wine Country

On our first morning in Strasbourg, our hosts delivered breakfast in a giant market basket. Inside was a note tied up into a scroll detailing the contents of our traditional Alsatian breakfast: fresh-squeezed orange juice, a whole baguette, Quetsch jam made from a local variety of plum, fresh white cheese, granola and honey, Comté cheese and Black Forest bacon.

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A hearty Alsatian breakfast.

Fully stuffed and ready for the day ahead of us, we headed south about an hour to Colmar, a charming town in the heart of Alsatian wine country. Along the road, towering hop fields gradually gave way to neatly-ordered vineyards.

Colmar was a fairytale village, with colorful half-timbered houses leaning over shimmering canals and flowers trailing over every railing and windowsill.

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Outside the wine shop.

One of the most-decorated doorways was coincidentally a wine shop, so we went in o”just to look.” Once the shop owner realized that Drew was in the wine industry, he started pulling out bottle after bottle of local wines for us to try.

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A primer course in Alsatian wines.

Each wine was even better than the next, some dry and lean, others rich and sweet but with long, complex finishes. It was an excellent introduction to the range and quality of Alsatian wines, so different from the production of other French regions.

We found a winstub with a sunny patio for lunch, and ordered a salade alsatienne again, because why not, along with a flammekuche, a thin, savory tart with bacon and onions.

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Not the most photogenic of salads, it’s true.

After lunch, we had a tasting appointment at Domaine Marcel Deiss, a ground-breaking Alsatian producer. We met with winemaker Marie-Hélène Cristofaro, who explained the vineyard philosophy in lovely metaphor.

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Traditional oak fermentation barrels.

“The grape is like a pen that writes, but cannot decide what to write,” Marie-Hélène said to emphasize the importance of terroir in Marcel Deiss’ wines. To showcase the unique terroir of each individual vineyard, the grapes are hand-harvested and slowly gravity-pressed, with nothing filtered out or added in. All the elements needed to create an outstanding wine exist naturally in the grape; all they need is time.

What is most unusual in the approach at Marcel Deiss is that multiple grape varietals are co-planted in rows and then harvested and fermented together at the same time. This “field blend” approach was actually not permitted in the Alsatian appellation until just recently, with the greater emphasis traditionally being placed on the grape varietal rather than the vineyard. But to the current proprietor Jean-Michel Deiss, terroir is king.

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A geological sample showing the unique terroir of a Marcel Deiss vineyard.

As she poured each incredibly unique and rich wine, Marie-Hélène explained how the variations in soil type and history affected the wine each vineyard produced. A vineyard with Jurassic soil, rich in plant and animal fossils, might show a haunting petrol character along with exotic fruit varieties. Lighter limestone soils formed during glacial eras produce leaner, crisper wines with higher acidity and brightness. Volcanic soils result in rich, smoky wines, the memory of lava and fire. Terroir is geological history you can taste in a glass.

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Marcel Deiss tasting room.

Our master class in Alsatian wines completed, Marie-Hélène suggested that we visit Ribeauvillé, a nearby village famous for its 14th-century ramparts.

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Ramparts of Ribeauvillé.

As the hot summer sun started to dip below the nearby mountains, elderly ladies leaned out over their windowboxes to chat with the neighbors and to eye the wandering foreigners.

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Medieval home.

It was so picturesque, even Drew took a picture (not this one).

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The cuteness was off the charts.

Dinner (much later) that night was in yet another winstub. We ordered the marrow bones and a jarret de porc alsacien (pig knuckle in red wine sauce).

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We wondered…what kind of beast produced these giant bones?

Alsace was proving even more dangerous than Burgundy: singular wines, epic food, fairytale scenery, and an interesting nightlife were fast making Strasbourg our new favorite city. So much so that we decided to concentrate our whole last day in Alsace just to exploring Strasbourg. Read all about it in tomorrow’s post!


On Our Way to Alsace

Our last morning in Beaune, we had to take time out for an essential: laundry. One of the wonderful things about travel is that is makes even mundane tasks into an adventure. Laundry is a perfect example. You have to be able to locate a good laundromat, make change in a foreign currency, decode cryptic directions and get what is most likely outdated equipment to work, all without ruining everything you have to wear. I suppose you could just drop it off at a full-service place, but where’s the fun in that?

While our clothes were spinning, I set off to check out the Beaune market. Calling a French marché a “farmers’ market” doesn’t really do it justice. Most American farmers’ markets are destination shopping; you go because it’s more fun than Safeway. Yes, you can find fresh, decently-priced produce, but mostly what you find are expensive organic offerings, overpriced hummus, and maybe a couple of local cheeses. A French market is an institution. Although more and more French people are starting to stock up at supermarkets American-style, it is still traditional to frequent the local market for the majority of one’s produce.

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Whole black truffles at the Beaune marché.

A French marché is a full-on sensory experience. Every imaginable item is available: the most beautiful fresh seasonal produce in every shape, color, and variety; artisanal meats and cheeses; rows upon rows of little pots of spices you’ve never seen before; hundreds of different kinds of olives; animal parts you didn’t know could look so delicious. But there is also clothing, hats, bags, households items, gifts…it can be overwhelming. You have to jostle with the crowd and speak to the vendors, since they don’t like you to fondle their produce. Ask for a couple peaches, and the vendor (most likely an adorably toothless older gentleman) will ask you when it’s for. Say you want it for today, and he will carefully select a peach that is so perfectly tree-ripened that it practically oozes its sunny aroma right through its little paper bag. It bursts with flavor and juice and is the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted.

I need to go back to France now.

Once we dragged ourselves away from the stall with the melt-in-your-mouth Spanish ham, we loaded up our sparkling-clean laundry and hit the road for Alsace. We decided we might as well stop in Dijon for lunch, since it was (kind of) on the way. We settled into the terrace of a bustling bistro and decided to give some traditional Dijonaise cuisine a try. Let’s just say this: Dijonaise food is not light. This was the first meal to actually leave me in physical pain, and we hadn’t exactly been slacking in the food department. I blame our starter (which we shared, for the record!): a soup of escargots and croutons in a broth which was essentially a half-gallon of whole cream. And that was just the beginning.

We limped back to the car and decided it was for the best that we weren’t spending more time in Dijon.

Our “gîte” in Strasbourg was in fact a beautiful one-bedroom apartment recently renovated by its sweet owners who lived around the corner. The apartment was like an Ikea model home: everything new and sparkling clean and color-coordinated. I never wanted to leave. But there was a whole city to explore! We hopped on the tram and headed into town, not really knowing what to expect.

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Place Kléber, Strasbourg.

We landed in central Strasbourg right at the “golden hour,” that moment when the sun is just hitting everything at the perfect angle and everything is glowing. We wandered through narrow streets lined with half-timbered houses until we hit the canal that frames the city, and then we turned and wandered the other way.

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Bridges in Strasbourg.

Strasbourg, and Alsace in general, has a complicated history which involves being squabbled over by France and Germany for as long as anyone can remember. The result is a unique culture which is a blend of French and German influences. The architecture, food, and even the regional dialect are all distinctly different from the rest of France. Alongside the rich history and traditions of Alsace, Strasbourg is also a thoroughly modern city, with lots of Art Deco architecture as well as contemporary structures that somehow manage to flow neatly with the city’s medieval heart.

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Notre-Dame de Strasbourg (all the cathedrals are named Notre-Dame, in case you were wondering).

We walked around a corner and the cathedral popped out at us, seemingly out of nowhere. I will always have a soft spot for Notre-Dame de Paris, my first cathedral; but honestly, Strasbourg’s is truly amazing. Built out of pink stone from the Vosges mountain range, it looks like a stalagmite fell in love with spun sugar. The intricate details, as delicate as lacework, are especially impressive when you remember that its construction began in 1015 and was completed in 1439. Over four hundred years went into the creation of this masterpiece, a baroque organ concerto in stone.

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Half-timbered homes in Petite-France along the canal.

We could have wandered the streets of Strasbourg all night, but eventually we were ready to sit and attempt a “light” dinner, for reals this time. We found a winstub, a traditional Alsatian wine-centric restaurant, and decided to “just” order an onion tart and a salad.

To be fair, we had been warned about la Salade Alsacienne.

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La Salade Alsacienne, in all its glory.

We had, in fact, been told emphatically *not* to order what is essentially a huge ball of grated Gruyère and sausages on a minimal bed of greens. But we figured, pourquoi pas?

It was surprisingly delicious, and somehow not as heavy as it looks. The tarte à l’oignon was heavenly and also on the lighter side, caramelized onions and a flaky crust accompanied with some spicy greens.

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Tarte à l’oignon (onion tart).

And of course, it all played perfectly with a bottle of Alsatian Riesling.

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Alsatian wines don’t have to be sweet.

We closed out the winstub and rounded the evening off at L’Academie de la Bière, before hopping back on the tram for “home.” Strasbourg had already exceeded our expectations, and we had only just arrived!

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If we look a little puffy, well, that’s because we were. I blame Dijon.

Stay tuned for the continuation of our explorations in Alsace!

Marsannay and One Last Day in Beaune

At breakfast, we chatted with the gîte owners and the French family whose Weimaraner had, depending on whose side you were on, either attacked / or was attacked by the house cat. Apparently, there was no physical damage to the cat, but the emotional trauma was serious. The Weimaraner, who caught the worst of it, was recovering.

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We were headed up to the very northern tip of the Côte d’Or to Marsannay-la-Côte, where we had just one tasting appointment at Domaine Sylvain Pataille. First, we stopped to pick up Danielle Hammon of Le Serbet (Becky Wasserman Selections), the legendary import company who was our connection to most of the wineries we were able to visit. Danielle had been there at each of our tastings in Burgundy except for Bernard Moreau, acting as a liaison and occasional translator, although all of the winemakers spoke excellent English. For me, Danielle was also an excellent role model for how to taste professionally — swishing, savoring, and spitting with gusto, asking intelligent questions, and yet never letting anything go to her head. Also a Bay Area native but living in Beaune for the past three years, we enjoyed her company and her insider perspective on life and wine in Bourgogne.

Sylvain’s brother Laurent met us in the simple underground cave and began drawing off barrel samples of Chardonnay and Pinot from vineyards with names as intriguing as the flavors they produced: La Charme aux Prêtres (The Priest’s Charm), Clos du Roy (The King’s Enclosure), Les Grasses Têtes (The Fat Heads). We also sampled four Bourgogne Aligotés from four separate parcels, fermented and bottled separately, an unusual project that showcased the versatility of this little-known varietal.

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The cave at Sylvain Pataille, featuring barrel art by the winemaker’s little daughter.

Pataille is doing quite a few things that could be considered unusual; for one, he is experimenting with not sulfuring his wines to allow for the most natural expression of terroir possible. He also produces a rosé that is aged in oak barrels for two years, which is very rare for rosé wine. The “Fleur de Pinot” offered the fruit and floral qualities one expects from a rosé, but with beguiling vanilla and spice flavors that would make it excellent to pair with food.

Our next appointment was back in Beaune for lunch at Ma Cuisine with Paul Wasserman of Le Serbet. Ma Cuisine is probably the worst-kept secret in Burgundy; practically every person we spoke to did not just recommend but rather insisted that we go to this restaurant. Visiting Ma Cuisine with Paul made the experience even more fabulous, not only because he himself is fabulous company, but also because he knows the owners, knows the menu by heart, and speaks French as if he’s lived there his whole life (which he basically has).

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A “nerdy” bottle.

We ordered everything.

Foie gras with crispy sea salt; roast chicken with flash-fried white truffle; roast pigeon with plums (it was my first time trying pigeon, and it was incredible — somewhere between quail and duck). Naturally, we needed a bottle of red as well as a white, and with two wine geeks at the table, we ordered two “nerdy” bottles: a 2003 Meursault Les Tessons from Domaine Roulot, and Moreau’s Chassagne La Cardeuse 2011. I didn’t think I really “got” the red in particular until I had it with the food and then…I did.

And then, two hours later, there was dessert. Paul insisted that we go over to the dessert area, where the proprietress introduced us to an array of tartes and cakes that were just crying out, “pick me!” A tart-sweet apricot tarte and an almond-cream-pastry confection were the show-stoppers in an epic meal.

We more or less waddled out into the daylight and wandered around Beaune in a lovely daze. We got some culture at the Hospices de Beaune, which is even more beautiful inside than out:

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Inside the Hospices.

Then we strolled through the shops and took in the local color:

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The sign said Don’t Touch.

But deep down, we both knew we were just biding the time until we could drink again with relatively clear consciences. Honestly, there isn’t that much to do in Beaune besides wine: it’s why everyone is there.

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Drew getting serious about wine, finally.

We found what we were looking for at La Maison du Colombier, a “gastro bar” recommended by Paul Wasserman for its wine list as well as its tapas.

We focused on the wine.

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Bottle #1.

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Bottle #2

Once we drank up an appetite, we went with “simple” dishes: a marinated octopus that melted in your mouth; a Spanish ham as sweet and creamy as marzipan.

Sitting on the terrace on a warm summer evening, as the sun went down, I could have gone home right that moment, and gone home happy.

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Beaune by night.

But there was so much more to come…

And that means more for you, to come (probably) tomorrow!

Beaune, Part Deux: A Master Class in Burgundy

After a hearty breakfast of ham, cheese, and croissants at the gîte, we set off for Vosne-Romnée, a tiny commune about 30 minutes north of Beaune that is home to some of the most famous vineyards in Burgundy, if not in the world.

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Clock tower in Vosne-Romanée.

Our first stop was at Domaine Gérard Mugneret, which just so happens to be the next-door-neighbor to a little establishment known as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. More on that later.

Pascal Mugneret led us down a short flight of stairs to the simple underground cave and began to expound on the importance of terroir in his winemaking. His goal as a winemaker, he said, is to stay out of the way of the terroir, and to let it speak for itself. He explained in detail the differences between the various soil and rock strata in the area and their role in creating the complex yet elegant Pinot Noirs that make the region’s wines world-famous.

Wine-tasting in Châteauneuf-du-Pape had been a fairly laid-back affair, even at the world-class Château de Vaudieu; in Burgundy, I was learning, wine-tasting is treated reverently, almost like a sacred ritual. The winemaker spoke in hushed yet passionate tones about the depth of soil, clay, sand, and limestone in each parcel we tasted from. We were largely tasting barrel samples of the still-aging 2013 vintage, each with its own distinct personality, bright red fruit playing against gripping tannins.

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Drew posing for the obligatory tourist shot in front of the Montrachet vineyard.

After a morning spent on Pinot, we headed south to Chassagne-Montrachet for some Chardonnay at Domaine Bernard Moreau et Fils. One of the “fils” (sons), Alex, led us through an incredible side-by-side comparison of a dozen wines from Premier Cru vineyards, each with a unique nuance of minerality and acidity. Once again, the importance of terroir was stressed, and its effect was clearly noticeable with each wine showing its own distinct flavor profile character thanks purely to the expression of the soil, rocks, clay or sand it grew out of. Each wine rang its own pure note, clear as a bell: Meyer lemon, pink grapefruit, crisp pear or creamy vanilla, often with differences of just a few feet between rows or parcels to create a profoundly different experience.

We were on a tight schedule that day, so we went for a “quick” lunch (only two courses, sigh) at Auprès du Clocher in Pommard on the recommendation of Alex Moreau. The grey, chilly morning had given way to a stormy afternoon, but the rain just made our coq au vin that much more satisfying. The wine-soaked chicken fell off the bone into a rich broth of bacon, mushrooms, and vin rouge that paired naturally with an excellent bottle of Bourgogne. The chef greeted us warmly as we were leaving, wishing we could have stayed longer.

Our next appointment was at Domaine Comte Armand just across the way, where we met the newly-fledged winemaker, Paul Zinetti. Paul had just taken over from Benjamin Le Roux, who had recently departed to focus on his own projects. The new winemaker was clearly crestfallen over the recent hailstorm which hit that region of Burgundy especially hard, ruining as much as eighty percent of the crop in some areas. Paul was stoic in the face of (potential) adversity, however, and cheered up especially when discussing his Aligoté wines, a traditional yet lessern-known white varietal grown from old vines in tiny quantities. The Pinots we tasted, barrel samples from 2013, showed intense tannic structure and elegant minerality that will surely make a great name for the next generation of winemaking at Comte Armand.

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The barrel room at Benjamin Le Roux.

Our last stop was, ironically, at Benjamin Le Roux’s own eponymous winery in Beaune. Benjamin discussed the vagaries of the wine industry, not just in the fluctuations, of nature, but also in human variables such as changing global demand and palates. He also expressed the importance of balance in a winemaker’s personal life, saying that while his wines might be like his children, his actual (human) children will always come first. Zen lessons to round out a day that was the equivalent of a master class in Burgundy.

After a day full of wine, Drew just wanted a beer; we lounged on a café terrace while France won a match in the Coupe du Monde, moving into the semi-finals. All of Beaune erupted into a makeshift parade, fans of all ages with painted-blue faces, French flags, and streamers marching in the streets and honking car horns in celebration.

Still half-full from lunch, we ended the day with another “light” dinner of escargots and steak tartare, both Burgundian specialties. Escargots are not something I would want to eat every day, but raised on fine herbs and drenched in butter, they are not unlike mussels but earthier, as is to be expected.

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Evening in Beaune.

Finally, we headed back to the gîte to drink a bottle of Gigondas and watch a terrible movie dubbed in French. The usually sleepy placed had become a veritable war zone, with much screeching over the owners’ cat who had apparently gotten into a scuffle with a new tenant’s Weimaraner. Once the wailing subsided, we enjoyed a quiet evening, with an awful movie made palatable by an awfully good bottle of wine.


On The Road to Beaune

On a blustery, grey morning, we loaded ourselves into the Schtroumpfette and headed for Beaune, capital of Burgundy. We couldn’t resist stopping for lunch in Lyon, since it was roughly half-way. We once again “took the scenic route” and ended up driving through all of the villages of Côtes-du-Rhone Villages. Once we figured out how to get to the autoroute and how to successfully pay for gas, we were on our way.

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Olives are a must with a crisp white wine at lunch.

We found our way to a little Bouchon Lyonnaise, a small restaurant that serves typical Lyonnaise dishes, and ordered the kidneys and sausage Lyonnaise. Our server brought us some delicious olives while we started in on a nice white Saint Véran, a taste of things to come.

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The Salade Lyonnaise tastes even better in Lyon.

Naturally, we both had the Salade Lyonnaise, with crispy lardon (like bacon, but so much better), buttery croutons, and a perfectly poached egg. Leave it to the French to make a salad sinful.

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This was the extent of our tourism in Lyon.

Our goal of eating Salade Lyonnaise in Lyon accomplished, we hit the road for Beaune. Out in the heartland of France, golden sunflower fields flashed by, alternating with herds of creamy-white Charolais cattle and rows of wheat and corn. A powerful thunderstorm roared through, the sky dark purple and rain beating down in sheets. We would later learn that this storm brought devastating hail to the vineyards in Southern Burgundy, the third year in a row that the crop has been all but ruined in some areas.

Sunflowers and storm clouds.

Sunflowers and storm clouds.

We were staying in Ruffey-les-Beaune, just outside of Beaune, in a gîte (essentially a bed-and-breakfast) operated by a very helpful couple. Our room was decked out in Soutwestern style, complete with sombreros, an actual western saddle, and fake cacti.

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We felt right at home.

Next, we headed into central Beaune to explore. The heart of town is centered around the Hospices de Beaune, a charitable hospital built in 1443 by a wealthy chancellor as a “Palace for the Poor.” The historic building is now a museum, with a modern hospital just outside Beaune funded by an annual wine auction.

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The Hospices of Beaune.

On our host’s recommendation, we stopped into the Café Bélèna for a “light” dinner of charcuterie and more white burgundy, followed by a marc de Bourgogne and sorbet floating in crème de cassis. We were not very good at the whole “light dinner” thing.

Beaune isn’t much of a nightlife town, so we headed back to the gîte to prepare ourselves for the packed day of wine tasting ahead. Beaune, part two to follow tomorrow!

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Beautiful Beaune.


Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Part Deux

After a day packed with incredible wine tastings, we decided to get some culture at the Pont du Gard. This incredible Roman aqueduct should have been a 25-minute drive from Avignon, but we took the scenic route (aka, were just a little lost).

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The “pont” or bridge is actually a Roman aqueduct.

It is hard to convey the immensity of this structure without actually seeing it in person. Its three levels of perfectly-symmetrical arches reach 160 feet high, and it is part of a 31-mile structure that was used to carry water through the villages of the Roman Empire in what is now the South of France. It is an impressive feat of ingenuity, especially considering it was built without modern technology. Seen up close, it is beautiful and mysterious.

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The pictures really can’t do it justice.

On our meanderings in search of the Pont du Gard, we had passed Tavel, a village that is famous for its rosés, so we decided to have lunch there. The Auberge de Tavel was one of the only places open for a late lunch in the postage-stamp of a village; everything else was shuttered tight against the hot afternoon sun.

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Tavel is a tiny, picture-perfect Provençal village.

The Auberge de Tavel did not disappoint. The dishes were all exquisite, and just kept coming, starting with an amuse-bouche of crème de courgette with chèvre whipped cream:

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Yes, chèvre whipped cream.

Our main courses of guinea fowl stuffed with olives and a crispy duck breast were followed by a pre-dessert of crème brulée presented in a perfect eggshell:

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The pre-dessert-dessert.

Having dessert and wine at lunch means you must also have coffee. And with the coffee came yet more mini-desserts, tiny jellies and chocolates:

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Things were starting to get a little extreme.

Sitting on the sunny patio surrounded by flowers and trees blowing in a gentle breeze, savoring a local rosé, it was a truly perfect meal.

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Vineyards in Tavel.

After lunch, we decided we needed to walk it off with a stroll through the vineyards. Some of the best rosés in the world come from Tavel, including the incredible Domaine de la Mordorée, which is apt to convert even the staunchest anti-rosé wine drinkers. We love it and wait eagerly for it to become available in the U.S. every year.

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We had to at least visit Mordorée, even if we didn’t go in.

Since Drew had already tasted this year’s release, we decided to try something different. We stopped into a tasting room and sampled three wildly different Tavel rosés, from light and airy to rich and robust. Tavel is known for producing rosé wines that are meant to be paired with food and that can even be aged like other French wines, although in our experience they rarely (never) make it to the “cellar” (our closet) simply because they are just too good to resist!

Back in Rognonas, we went for a dip in the hotel pool and shared the lovely, lean “mystery bottle” from Julien at Domaine la Barroche. As the sun started to go down, we were still stuffed from lunch, so we went to watch the Coupe du Monde at our new favorite bar.

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Café de la Bourse, we will be back one day.

After closing out the bar and the one pizza place open in town at 11pm on a Saturday night, we decided we had gotten the most out of Rognonas and were ready to be off to our next adventure in Burgundy!

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Rognonas had a lot to offer for a tiny town.


Châteauneuf-du-Pape: Modernity Meets Tradition

After two whirlwind days in Catalonia, we were off to Avignon, the heart of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, to taste some incredible wines.

We are both used to traveling in Europe on a tight budget and taking public transportation everywhere. This time, with our goal of getting out into the countryside and vineyards, we decided to rent a car.  Yes, it was a stick shift, as most European cars are, and no, that was not a problem for either of us (my current car is manual). We definitely had our share of adventures with driving in France for the first time, although no accidents occurred!

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We nicknamed the car Schtroumpfette (Smurfette in French).

After settling into our auberge in Rognonas, a little town just south of Avignon, we headed into central Avignon, a stunning medieval city with well-preserved 14th-century ramparts and the Palais des Papes as its focal point. This immense palace is built directly into a massive rock outcropping, with narrow city streets spiraling outward from its base. We wandered up through 700-year-old streets to take in the view from the palace steps.

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Sunset over the Palais des Papes.

Feeling adequately cultured, we settled into Cuisine Chic, a tiny bistro tucked into a corner beneath a 7th-century church. Our server presented us with the interactive menu on wireless tablets, providing links to information about each of the wines on the list. Cuisine Chic embodies what I love so much about France: in the shadow of a 1300-year-old church is a restaurant playing with modern technology, and not just in the menu format. The melange of tradition and novelty was equally apparent in the cuisine: our starter of foie gras cured in cognac accompanied with a salad of edible flowers and truffle whipped cream melded traditional flavors with novel presentation and techniques.

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Almost too beautiful to eat. Almost.

Yes, I said truffle whipped cream.

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Drew was very enthusiastic about the truffle whipped cream.

We decided we would make it our mission to eat foie gras as often as possible while in France. Mission accomplished for Day One!

The next day we got up relatively early for our tasting appointments in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The coffee at our auberge was an odd shade of grey, but the croissants and home-made jams made up for the unconvincing brew. Our first stop, Chateau de Vaudieu, was just outside of the tiny village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

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This was not actually the driveway.

We managed to find the place without using GPS, although we did at first turn down what we thought was the driveway but which turned out to be a tractor path. La Schtroumpfette was not amused. This minor detour did draw our attention to the incredible soil the vines were growing out of, or rather, the lack of soil — the vines were growing directly out of huge, jagged chunks of hard limestone rocks. The difference between French and Californian vineyards was immediately obvious — no pampered, fertilized and watered fields here.

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The vines were growing out of hard chunks of limestone.

When you talk about terroir in France, you are literally talking about rocks. We will discuss this in far greater detail when we get to Burgundy. In the meantime, we should also mention that Chateau de Vaudieu is actually a chateau — a real one built in the 18th century out of the same white limestone the vines were growing out of.

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The Chateau de Vaudieu is the real deal.

Laurent Bréchet, manager and proprietor, welcomed us and proudly showed us the facilities, once again a blend of tradition and modernity. The original underground cellar is still in use for barreling, but a newer addition houses cutting-edge cement Tulipe fermentation tanks, the first to be used in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

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The 18th-century barreling cellar provides humidity and reduces evaporation.

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The Tulipe tanks provide state-of-the-art fermentation conditions.

The name Vaudieu comes from the original name of the vineyard: Val de Dieu, or Valley of God. The harsh, rocky terrain hardly seems fit for one of the premier vineyards in the world, but these conditions are exactly what makes Vaudieu’s wines so unique and memorable. The large chunks of white limestone impart a creamy minerality and intense acidity to the white wines in particular. The reds are grown in sandier soil for an elegant marriage of varietals with strong tannins and spice. With austere growing conditions and extremely low production, the wines are focused and memorable, the essence of their origins.

Our next appointment was at Domaine la Barroche.  Pulling into the address we were given, we were sure we were lost — we found ourselves in the driveway of a typical village house, with a little garden and someone pulling up on a moto just behind us. No sign, no chateau, no vines to be seen. But the someone on the moto confirmed that this was indeed Barroche, and we followed him into the garage, where Julien Barrot, winemaker and son of the proprietor, ushered us into the facility.

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La Barroche’s facilities were simple, but the wines were complex.

We climbed down a ladder from the garage to the cave, a simple underground space with several enormous traditional oak fermentation barrels and a couple of newer stainless-steel tanks. While La Barroche’s facilities were basic, the wines were anything but simple. We had stumbled onto a special opportunity: Julien and a circle of CdP winemakers were gathering to taste through all of the Barroche vintages side-by-side, from 2003 to present. There were over twenty wines in all.

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Julien Barrot setting up the tasting.

The winemakers stood in a circle around the table, spit bucket casually placed on the floor, as they dissected and discussed each cuvée in hushed tones that gradually grew into a party atmosphere. These were wine professionals, but there was a lot of wine to taste, after all. The wines were fascinating. With such a wide range of vintages and cuvées came an equally wide array of experiences, from dark and rich to lean and focused. At one point, maman Barrot brought out a huge sack of sliced baguette to help soothe everyone’s palates. FInally it was time to adjourn for lunch; as we headed out, Julien handed us an unmarked bottle of house-blend white “just for fun.”

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Drew with the infamous ladder — turns out, we could have just gone through the garage door.

On Laurent Bréchet’s recommendation, we hopped over to Gigondas for lunch, where we found a shady restaurant terrace offering grillades and rustic local rosé, summer in a glass. Gigondas is a tiny mountain village nestled under Les Dentelles, jagged mini-mountains that give Gigondas a unique elevation and cooler climate that is worlds away from the sun-baked quality of Châteauneuf.

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View from the main square of Gigondas.

While we were in the neighborhood, we stopped into Domaine des Bosquets, the brother winery to Vaudieu, managed by Laurent Bréchet’s brother, Julien. Bosquets is a rule-breaker, offering a wonderfully crisp, almost saline white in spite of the fact that the Gigondas appelation does not permit white wines. A similar attention to quality was evident in the rosé, which provided further evidence that rosé is not “just for girls.” The reds were rugged, like the terrain they hailed from, but with elegant layers of fennel and dark fruit, the result of sandy soil with good drainage. Soil is everything in France — every serious winery will proudly exhibit columns excavated soil and rocks representing their unique terroir. Sun, wind, rain, all contribute, but it is all about the rocks at the end of the day.

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Domaine des Bosquets, or “the little forests”.

After a long day wine tasting, we were ready for dinner. A restaurant down the street from our auberge was offering an aioli, which in French culture refers not just to the mayonnaise-garlic spread, but to the vast platter of steamed seafood and vegetables which is served alongside it. We weren’t totally sure what all of the things were that we ate, but they were all amazing.

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I don’t even know what all these things are, but they were all amazing.

After sufficiently stuffing ourselves with seafood, we decided to see what Rognonas had to offer in the way of nightlife. The answer was: one glorious dive bar.

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Rognonas is a small town.

Rognonas obviously doesn’t get many American tourists. We were definitely a subject of curiosity sitting on the terrace, drinking pastis and trying unsuccessfully to blend in. Evidence of improved Franco-American relations: over ten years ago, when I first came to France, nearly every French person I spoke to wanted to know: What do you think of Bush? What do Americans think of French people? Now, in 2014, we were asked: What do you think of pastis? Do you know George Clooney? You know, “waters?” (Apparently Clooney is omnipresent in French ads for Nespresso coffee machines asking, “What else?”). No, we didn’t know George personally, yes, we (or rather I) liked pastis, our bar tab was shockingly low for the number of demis and Mauresques consumed, and we found our way home happy and exhausted.

This post has gotten extremely long, so Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Part Deux will have to wait for tomorrow! If you are still with me, dear reader, I appreciate you. Here is one last photo for today:

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If you understand why this is funny, comment on why. If your sense of humor is as dark as ours, you win!