Friday, October 26, 2007

The Aunts in France - and One Uncle

Day #1

Well, the much anticipated visit of Aunts Carol, Anita and Uncle Dick added to the highlights of this years cruising adventures.

Mary Ellen and I took the Shenandoah north, up the Canal du Bourgogne, to Dijon to meet them when they arrived from Paris.

They arrived on the TGV on Friday morning. Uncle Dick commented in passing on the speed of the train and how the cars they passed en-route seemed to be “standing still.” When I told him that the cruising speed of a TGV in France was around 300 km/hr (180 m/hr) he was mightily impressed. Now understand, impressing uncle Dick is no mean feat. But, the train to Dijon-Ville did!

Then it was off to the Hertz office to pick up the rental car. Errrrr...except for the fact that Aunt Carol had missed that she was supposed to have reserved a car. “Oh, was I supposed to do that?” she asked. In France, or for that matter, most places other than in the USA, you just do not simply walk up to a rental car office and tell them you want a car. This is stuff that has to be “arranged,” well beforehand, requiring security clearances, embassy permissions, volumes of paperwork and the promise that you will give them your first born son! I have found that Hertz requires a minimum of this sort of thing.

C'est ne pas problem,” said my friend, the Hertz lady, “We have a Golf Plus zat you can 'ave and we will geeve you zee special weekend rate!” She likes me because I only give them about twelve thousand dollars worth of business a year. I am seriously thinking about buying a car...

A Volkswagen Golf Plus is, let me tell you, anything but a “Plus.” But, beggars cannot be choosers so we loaded up and headed out.

The girls decided to stop off at the Saturday outdoor Dijon market, so uncle Dick and I headed back to the Shenandoah to unload baggage. I was so proud of my sisters, only one bag each. Each bag weighed about 600 pounds! Of course, the single-edged razor blades, Lawry's Seasoning salt, jalopeno peppers, flip-flops and other sundry items unavailable here were included in those suitcases.

After lugging the suitcases onboard, quai-side, uncle Dick and I headed back to town to meet up with the girls for a leisurely lunch. We decided on an outdoor restaurant in a quaint little square and had one of our favorite French meals – pizza!

Day #2

We woke the next morning to a drifting ship. The overly rambunctious local youth decided sometime during the night that a single mooring line was sufficient for the Shenandoah and untied the aft line allowing the ship to drift into the mainstream of the canal.

No harm done, we headed to Beaune for market, lunch and shopping. Then back to the ship for dinner onboard and our own version of a Burgundy wine tasting.

Day #3

...found us in the miserable little Golf Plus again, but this time cruising the back roads through Burgundy. A friend recommended that we stop at the Château de Gevrey-Chambertin which we did and had a great time with the son of the current owner. He explained their small operation and the care they took to produce the small quantities of good wine every year.

Day #4

A nine o'clock lock time for the journey back to St. Usage.

(The statement, "nine o'clock lock time," makes me think of times friends and relatives have mentioned that they had a "tee time" they had to meet. I have never been a golfer, and to me the mere mention of the sport puts me to sleep immediately. So, I guess, instead of a nine o'clock tee time with a Ping driver, I have a nine o'clock lock time with an eighty ton boat - different strokes for different folks.)

The day started out a little foggy,

but quickly turned into one of those beautiful fall days that you remember as a kid. It's twenty-one locks back to home port and too much to do in one day.

Aunt Nita and Aunt Carol decided to do a little walking while the ship proceeded southward. It's pretty amazing, but you can actually walk faster from point A to point B on the canals than you can ride in a boat. This, of course, is due to the locks and having to slow, stop, go up, or go down, etc.

The aunts were able to get some good shots of the Shenandoah from the banks of the canals.

Although I have always encouraged nude barging, Uncle Dick was my first taker.

Hurray for Uncle Dick!

We decided to overnight at Longecourt, one of our favorite stops along this route, and get an early start the next morning.

Dinner onboard and waaaaaay toooooo much wine. But, as the sun set slowly in the west the evening took on an enchanted glow, perhaps again because of the wine!

Day #5

Arrived in St. Usage just after lunch. After a walking tour of the thriving metropolis of St. Jean de Losne and an aperitif in a quaint little river side cafe, we headed back to the ship for the final evenings festivities with the aunts...and one uncle.

We were sorry to see them leave the next morning when we put them in a taxi for Dijon and their train to Paris. Their visit with us was much too short and there were many more things we wanted to share with them here in our beautiful part of the Earth. Maybe next time...

I did notice that the wine futures on the New York Stock Exchange rose dramatically during the aunts visit. Was there any connection?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

We never know where the road will take us.

I am the travel planner. I like to have reservations and destinations. For me part of the fun is the planning – knowing what we can see, getting somewhere in the middle of the afternoon because we know how far we will be going and then exploring. For Dave, the adventure is the unknown – no plans, no reservations, and destinations to be discovered at the end of the day. It's not the best mix but it always works out in the end.

Day One had a plan – we were going to get on the highway and drive to the Gorge of Tarn which would have been about a five hour drive, getting us there mid-afternoon with plenty of time to explore. Luckily, I packed sandwiches. We got off the highway after an hour, took a detour through Roanne (should the captain ever want to leave the boat there – and just so you know – he will not) and headed in a southerly direction on the back roads. We drove through the village of La Chaise-Dieu and took a peek at the ancient Benedictine abbey and church; and the town of Le Puy–en-Velay, which is the starting point of one of the main pilgrimage paths in France and were amazed by the church of St. Michael perched on the tip-top of a rocky needle point.

We arrived at our destination at 7:30 in the evening. We did not experience the Gorge of Tarn at less than 60 km/hour. It looked really pretty though like a great crevasse carved deep into the rock with a beautiful, clear river running crisply through it. Reservation in hand, we stayed in a wonderful hotel where we had an excellent dinner but perhaps the piece-de-resistance was our room. We were on the top floor, all the rooms have a view of the river, but ours also had a small balcony and the sliding glass doors which opened onto the balcony, extended, in the form of a giant skylight, into the ceiling. The night sky looked like India ink with no light pollution, the stars were brilliant in their clarity, and we were blanketed by the milky way.

Day Two also had a plan – we were headed to Cordes-sur-Ciel, where we were meeting our friends Pam and John North. We opted for all back roads again as that is our preference and we didn't have all that far to travel. Our day began with a typical French buffet breakfast in the hotel, a toe dipping in the river for me, a fish sighting for Dave and off we went, headed toward Millau for a look at the extraordinary viaduct, which is the tallest suspension bridge in the world.

Our next detour was to Roquefort, home of the famous cheese. And did “ewe” know, it is made from sheep's milk? We arrived just as the local church bell struck noon, so in accordance with French custom, the cheese vaults were closed for lunch. We did find a shop with a mini-display of the cheese making process and of course we bought a few pieces of their brand of Roquefort - which we added to the bread left over from breakfast and had a picnic in a little park.

After our brief repast, we drove through the town of St. Affrique which I had seen written about somewhere but we couldn't figure out why. Next we stopped in Camares with an abbey that is now known as a capital for sacred music in France, and nearby we visited a newly constructed Russian Orthodox church built out of logs. We arrived in Cordes-sur-Ciel around 4:00 in the afternoon after a drive through the mountains with so many hair-pin turns that we could have been a French twist! Those roads went up and down and around and around, climbed steeply, dropped sharply and all with a string of impatient drivers within inches in front or back or alongside because they did not see this as anything but exhilarating – and death-defying - stunt opportunities. When we checked into the little house where we had reservations, we found that Pam and John were still out on a bike ride so we took ourselves to visit the town. Dave had researched this village and found it much heralded for it's population of artists and craftsmen; we think they left before we arrived, but it was a charming old walled town. The four of us had dinner in the village, wine back at the house and collapsed from all the fun.

In the morning, some of us had a brief game of “trying to open the rental car with the keys locked inside” and off we went to the market in Villefranche. Pam had heard that it was the biggest market in southwest France; if so, too bad for the markets of southwest France and that's all I have to say about it. We had a “market lunch” in the town – this means that it took two plus hours to have a lunch consisting of the “plat du jour” which was not written anywhere so we had no idea of what was to be forthcoming until we saw our neighbors plates. Then we were told that whatever they were having, the restaurant was now out of and did we want “tete de veau” or the sausages? Well – I don't know about you but I am never going to eat the head of a calf so I chose the sausages. Are you paying attention here? We are in the town with the “largest market in southwest France” and they are out of the plat du jour already – why couldn't they just go around the corner and get some more? Well, good question, as it turned out that they were out of the first course salad of lettuce, etc., as well, and we were given some sort of terrine of fois gras (for which this region is known). Ok – now they were out of the sausages they substituted for whatever we were supposed to have and we were served fois gras sausages with mashed potatoes. All in all, it was rather good. Dessert, as you might see coming, was not the same as everyone else's had been but some sort of something that I have now forgotten. For this we waited and waited, and finally were exhausted from the sheer pleasure of being finished.

Since we had no plan for the day – we said good-bye to Pam and John and headed for the highway. We drove southwest, around Toulouse – home of the manufacturer of the Airbus airplanes (Eurotrash, as Dave, a die-hard Boeing man calls them), and went to the charming area of Sauveterre-de-Comminges, at the foot of the Pyrenees. We stayed in an old hotel/inn in the country where we had a beautiful view of the mountains and enjoyed a delightful dinner in the dining room.

Day Three's itinerary only had a stop at Lourdes in the plans. I thought we were eventually headed for Biarritz, but that would have been two plans in a day which is excessive -- by two. We had no idea what to expect at Lourdes and I would say that we were exceedingly glad that we visited in September because we could see that in the high season months the potential for zillions of people to be there on any given day was probable. We visited the church, the grotto, and the shrine; lit candles, drank holy water, bought souvenirs, filled a gallon jug with holy water, got back in the car and headed west.

Quietly, the mountains loomed on the horizon; the countryside subtly changed as we entered into the Basque region near the Spanish border. The usual tan/mud color of the houses changed into white with red trim, roofs and shutters, the architecture changed from vertical to more horizontal. There were cows, tobacco, sheep, and eventually the town and road signs were in two languages, French and Euskara. This odd language, which dates back to Neolithic times, and is unrelated to any other languages, is important to the culture of the area. Our original destination was Biarritz but we were drawn further south to St. Jean-de-Luz, or Donibane Lohizune in Euskara.

St. Jean-de-Luz is a charming town on a harbor on the Atlantic coast. The beaches were wide and sandy. Surfers and swimmers and boats carrying passengers, fisherman, and cargo were busy competing for the waters. It was evening when we arrived and it took several tries to find a hotel room but we finally succeeded in finding a large and comfortable room in a very nice hotel just a block away from the beach. We walked several blocks down a main street for pedestrian traffic with shops and restaurants along the way, until we reached the harbor area where there was an abundance of seafood restaurants all offering the most beautiful array of food. The one we chose for dinner had this display outside, and Dave chose a tray with crawfish, shrimp, sea snails, oysters, langoustine, and a huge crab.

This was my dinner - it looked like a sick fish in a blanket - good thing it came with pasta!

In the morning we actually decided to stay in St. Jean-de-Luz for another day! We walked around the town, bought some of the local macaroons, looked at the boats in the harbor, ducked out of the rain into a sidewalk cafe for lunch. Dave went back to the hotel for an afternoon nap and I went shopping. I was fascinated by the Basque linens, many shops sold them and each shop had a different brand and quality.

They are as indigenous to that area as the provencal prints are to the south of France and the toile is in the north. The Basque “toile” as they call it there, is striped – sometimes in one color on a white background, sometimes many color stripes. The quality and the prices range from one end of the spectrum to the other. It is mostly sold as table linens – cloths and napkins and sometimes placemats. It is occasionally sold by the yard, but one store actually had it upholstered on furniture with matching blankets, towels, bathrobes, etc. If you're curious, look up

That evening we went back to the same block as the night before for dinner and chose a restaurant across the street where Dave had local oysters and fried sardines, I had moules a la crème . The rain of the day had stopped so we walked back to the hotel along the beach and stopped in a beach front restaurant/bar to watch the rugby game. It was over by the time we got there but the bartender introduced us to some tasty local wine, which was probably better than the rugby game anyway.

The next day we drove north along the coast, sped through Biarritz, which was the summer home of Napoleon III and Princess Eugenia and is now a playground of the rich and famous. Even on a weekday at the end of September, it was crowded and we were thankful we had chosen St. Jean.

We meandered along, stopped for lunch in a small town that reminded Dave of the movie Deliverance, explored a few beach towns, and drove by an absolutely huge sand dune, the Dune de Plya, which is the largest sand dune in Europe. It is 3 km long, 500 meters wide, and 107 meters in height! Around the corner is the town of Arcachon, which is were we decided to stay for the night.

Arcachon is thirty-four miles southwest of Bordeaux and is situated on a bassin, or bay, just inside the Atlantic Ocean. The bay is surrounded by towns on all sides with all sorts of boating and water sports available. There is an island in the bassin which is a preserve for birds, but my favorite feature is the oyster beds. We had seen oyster beds last fall on our trip to the Med, but these are much bigger. The oyster seeds are placed in the individual owners beds at low tide and there they grow until it is time to harvest them. All the work must be done when the tide is low. An interesting feature of this bay is that at high tide the bay covers an area of 150 km2, and 40 km2 at low tide. There are small little towns next to Arcachon that have all the oyster boats and the huts where they prepare the oysters for seed and harvest; there are restaurants there and shops to buy the oysters, as well as an oyster museum. We do own the dvd “Ostreiculteurs Du Bassin D'Arcachon” for any of those of you who might wish to consider oystering as a second career.

We took a long walk into town along a boardwalk, chose one of the many restaurants, had dinner, oysters, as you see, for Dave. He thought they were distinctly different from the oysters in St. Jean-de-Luz; there are of course, hundreds of oyster varieties within the three broad classifications: Pacific, Olympia and Atlantic; but each grouping is then further broken down to the very shore from which they are harvested.

On the walk back through town, we found a little local bar which was selling postcards so we went in, bought postcards, drank wine, met some interesting people and walked back to our beach front hotel where we had a view of the bay and could hear the sound of the waves on the beach. In the morning, at low tide, we could see the oyster beds in the distance.

Our next destination was Limoges, home of French fine china and porcelain. We buzzed around Bordeaux and Bergerac, homes of the fine wines. We did try to stop at one vineyard but when we missed a sign, we gave up and pressed on. We made it to Limoges in the early evening and stayed at a Mercure hotel right downtown. We found a cafe nearby for dinner and an ice cream restaurant for dessert. The next day we found new dishes for the Shenandoah at the Menard de Noblat outlet store and we headed for Nevers.

Dave wanted to see Nevers which is on the Canal Lateral a la Loire, and the Loire River. We arrived, as usual, around 5:00 p.m. on a Friday night without a reservation or clue as to where to stay. Well, we needn't have worried about where to stay – the moral of that story is never stay in Nevers without a reservation. Off we went in an easterly direction at 6:30 with about a cupful of gasoline in the car with the gas stations closing at 7:00. Fortunately the next little village had a gas station so our options opened up a bit from our thoughts of spending the night roadside in the car with our leftover half empty box of macaroons.

About 15 minutes further down the road we passed a small inn which had not only a room available but also a dining room. Dinner was served at 7:30 and the room was full. Dinner was excellent, as was the 26 E bottle of wine that we had. Dave was so inspired by the company at the next table that he bought a second bottle of wine to share with them – and guess what? The gentleman was an ex-British Airways pilot! The talk flowed, as did the wine, probably because it was my turn to buy! Oh well, what can you do? There is no such thing as dinner without wine in France.

The last leg of our journey home took us through the town of Autun, where they were having a market. Needless to say, we stopped and I equalized our excess of the last night for the next few days by buying a case of wine from a local vintner – Pinot Noir at 3.00E a bottle – it would have been 2.50E if you bought it directly at the vineyard. It was amazingly good and a fitting last purchase as all's well that ends well!

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Inside Story

(Clicking on the photos will give you larger images.)

As you know, curiosity got the cat, and the Shenandoah does have its own chat – albeit a rather "stiff" one as he is painted on an ancient, wooden wine barrelhead and imprisoned under a wine glass; the latter not being all that unusual in Burgundy.

We thought, for those of you who have not (yet) been aboard, you might like to see the interior of the ship.

Our tour begins on the foredeck with two wonderful lounge chairs, the perfect place to nap, sip wine, and spy on the neighbors. We then proceed aft to the wheelhouse with the built-in seating for six, table, and the navigation station.

Below, we'll start with the forward queen-sized guest stateroom, then a birds eye view of the twin-sized guest stateroom; both with ensuite bathrooms.

Next is the "state of the art" galley with granite counters, a Bosch dishwasher, a five burner Bosch gas cooktop with a wok, two Bosch ovens that do all sorts of things we have yet to figure out, and a full-size Fisher & Paykel refrigerator with freezer.

Along the port side is a mahogany bar that alternates as a cocktail bar, coffee bar, and/or computer station. Underneath is a large wine rack.

The main salon is furnished with Italian leather sofa, chair and ottoman. There is a folded dining table hiding behind the chair for the rare occasions that we may want to use it. As storage space is minimal in some ships, every inch is put to creative use. Behind the sofa is a full size inflatable six-man life raft, two hula hoops, a tool kit for hose fittings, a box of champagne, art supplies and other assorted paraphernalia.

Behind the cabinet doors, below the chat, are full-sized Bosch washer and dryer; and there is a lovely large flat screen TV complemented by two DVD players for American and European dvds. Music is provided by an iPod with speaker system, or the iMac computer itself.

Aft of the main salon, and under the wheelhouse, is the engine room.

Behind that is the captain’s stateroom with queen-sized bed.

Welcome aboard!

Thursday, August 2, 2007


We spent last week tied up at the port in Dijon. Dijon is a great city – wonderful restaurants, a huge market on Friday and Saturday, lots of interesting shops, churches, and very convenient to the Burgundy wine country. Dave's friends, Bill and Kinou Ray, came to visit for the weekend. Bill steered us to a very interesting restaurant, sort of hidden in an alleyway (as several of the good restaurants are), on Friday night.

Saturday we all went to market and contributed to a "boat-cooked" feast on Saturday night.

Here we all are in a restaurant in the square where we had lunch on Saturday after the market.

I think Dave is doing a duck imitation in his photo but one can never be sure:

Bill and Kinou left after Sunday brunch and the four of us set off to explore the wine country. We have driven miles and miles through all the domains you might recognize: Nuits-St. George, Pommard, Beaune, ... and have not stopped, even once, to taste the wine at a vineyard! I think that sets some sort of record.

If, however, you are interested in tasting wine at the very beginning of the process, you may wish to respond to the ad for grape pickers; it is apparently very hard work but you are rewarded with a meal at the end of the day. I think it would be a fun thing to do – to actually experience the wine from the moment the grape comes off the vine and begins its journey toward the bottle.

We found an amazing overlook where we had a view of the vineyards, village and valley.

On Monday we went to Beaune where we had lunch and did a bit of shopping. Beaune is the center of the Burgundy wine area and the Hotel Dieu which is famous for it's colorful glazed roof tiles and annual wine auction as well as its historical significance.

After lunch we visited the Chateau de La Rochepot, which is a 13th century fortress that you enter via two drawbridges.

On Tuesday, we headed west and went to Vezelay. Vezelay is known for its basilica, La Madeline, which was founded in 860 AD as a monastery, and houses relics of St. Mary Magdalen; it is home to the Monastic fraternities of Jerusalem and we were fortunate enough to be there during a service.

In 1979 UNESCO declared the site of Vezelay to be an official part of the World heritage. The village is truly amazing. It is charming as well, with delightful boutiques and a grand assortment of restaurants; we, experiencing French cuisine in all it's grandeur, all had pizza for lunch in a beautiful restaurant.

Wednesday, John and Mona left for a couple of days in Paris before heading back to the States.

Dave and I spent the rest of the day, and Thursday, enjoying Dijon before leaving on Friday for the trip back to St. Jean. We found a charming restaurant on the market square on Thursday night where we had a fabulous dinner (salmon for Dave, and chicken with a mushroom champagne sauce for me) and bottle of wine.

Armed with bottles of Dijon mustard (a la Canada) for my son, we headed back to home port.