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Driving A Counterclockwise Spiral Through Southwest France – Part lll

September 18, 2018

[This is the last of a three part series about a recent journey. French words are italicized; some, not all, are translated.]

This post is a few weeks overdue…

General location in France

The overall, brief but colorful, route

The final route segment

PART THREE: FOREST, SHORES, CITY

Soulac-sur-Mers

I pulled off a sweater, rolled up sleeves and began the 3.5 mile drive to Soulac-sur-Mer.

The roadside included pine and palm trees, sandy road shoulders and villas behind trimmed hedges, white wood fences or chains linked by squat brick columns. This made the locale appear to be a similar but slightly shaggier version of famed Cap Ferret further south. One bonus here: ample parking.

A scaled down statue of liberty as tribute to Marquis Lafayette

Near the Atlantic Ocean I found a museum run by the Memorial of Fortresses in North Medoc. Part of France was occupied by German forces during the Second World War, including the country’s coastal western strip. Resistance was organized and coordinated (including by the British) both in England and surreptitiously in France.

Inside I looked at old uniforms and guns and photos and maps in glass cases. There were hand grenades and medals and rusted pistols and drab olive green gas masks as well as buttons and belt buckles. Everything was aged and oxidized and most had been dug out of local salty sand. The curator at this little outpost sat me down before a small television screen that showed a black and white video of war footage in France. It was all people prancing with victory music and aerial shots of bombarded ships and capped French officers hoisting flags as American tanks squeezed along dirt roads. The black and white footage included medals pinned on soldiers, salutes, handshakes, marching in formation and roadside crowds cheering on French troops. If only victory had been that clean. The museum is a reminder of how heavily fortified and defended this peninsula was by Germans, as well as of bloody battles required to recapture this terrain.

Looking toward the distant Phare de Cordouan lighthouse from Soulac

One war story is that of Operation Frankton, where a group of 10 soldiers, led by the initiator of the plan—Herbert ‘Blondie’  Hasler—paddled five canvas canoes (each with two-persons) from the mouth of the Gironde Estuary to Bordeaux city, placed mines under German ships and then retreated to a northeastern estuary bank near Blaye before escaping on foot.

The operation was akin to the Doolittle Raid of Tokyo in 1942, when 16 U.S. aircraft bombed that city. The real damage was not physical but psychological—alerting enemies to unrealized vulnerabilities in the heart of their best defended positions.

Only four of these soldiers made it to Bordeaux to inflict minimal damage and only two—Hassler and canoe partner Bill Sparks—escaped. Two canoes, swamped by ocean waves, immediately vanished at the mouth of the estuary, and another six men were apprehended and executed. After the war Hasler organized, and participated in, a single-handed transatlantic ocean race between New York and Plymouth.

Fresh fish for sale

Outside I spied a blazing trio of flags—American, French and European. I pulled over to where dunes rose and waves roared. Here was a bronze miniature Statue of Liberty. Rescued from abandoned disuse in Paris in 1980, the statue now celebrates the Marquis Lafayette, who at 19 years of age departed France in 1777 to fight for liberty in America, then returned to France to participate in the Revolution. The statue was made from original molds used to model the actual Statue of Liberty.

A father walked his two young daughters, each three feet tall and wearing a turquoise bicycle helmets as well as mirrored sunglasses with colored frames. He carried their bicycles across the street into town. If not for victory, I wondered, what freedom would those children have now?

Beach art

I kicked off sandals and climbed dunes, toes squishing through delicious layers of warm and cool sand, and looked westward across waves, ever attractive and always inspiring. Soon I visited another beachside memorial that included four French flags and names, hundreds, inscribed on a black marble wall commemorating the 1944-1945 liberation of Point de Graves, this northernmost tip of the Médoc.

Soulac-sur-Mer is a regular beachside holiday town, stuffed with roadside parked cars and a waterfront with dozens of international flags. Along walkways and the main road moved morning joggers, a stylish young brunette in a polished black Mini, a stroller carrying a scared terrier in his arms and ample men with ugly, unkempt and unwashed Rastafarian braided dreadlock hairstyles—each moving arm in arm with a female mate, each resembling a runway model. Did I recently miss the onset of this bizarre latest trend?

At noon, I ordered an orange juice at Les Chiens Fous. From an outer table I watched a healthy parade of multicolored generations reveling in the wind bitten and sun soaked day, evincing joy and health and movement and some sensible disregard for social media for at least a few hours.

Soulac’s summer highlights include ample bicycling, family friendly everything, juicy fresh fruits and historical reminders of a darkly jagged history where liberty eventually prevailed over an industry of genocide. Times have changed, people have moved on, nations and identities have—thankfully—merged.

On the southern edge of the city I found a shack of a wine store. A glazed eyed man in a cap with a remote and faraway look melted into his lawn chair out front. I walked in.

Fresh from the market

A rotund and chummy woman appeared. We spoke. They sold two types of wine. One from Perpignan, on the other side of France; one from Castillon on the other side of Bordeaux city—itself far away.

I inspected the Castillon. Five euros for a bottle of red. And the Perpignan. Three euros a bottle for rosé. That included the cost of shipping it across the country. I decided to buy both to try. If the rosé was a go, perhaps California’s Two Buck Chuck may have met its match. I pulled bottles from the counter. Later I tried the rosé. Not Bad. Not good. Not really a surprise.

Montalivet

The beach of Montalivet, further south along the Atlantic coast, parallels thick pine forests and dunes demarcated by a long and shaggy wood picket fence. Here again there was bicycling for all ages, surfing, kite surfing, beach volleyball and beach soccer. The town’s abbreviation in ‘Monta,’ hence signs for Monta Surf School and Monta Pizza.

Pedestrian Avenue de L’Ocean was as jammed and sweaty as a summer outdoor concert. There were bikers in black bandannas, a skirted boy wearing a pearl necklace and a swarthy, bearded chap in a pirate’s hat. I counted 24 people in line outside the ATM. This crowded summer family scene with too many bodies hungering for fast food made me return to the car and get out…fast.

Montalivet – too crowded

The southern outskirts of Montalivet skirts several forests: Dunaire, Vendays and Junda. There are adjacent miles of bicycle trails, as well as a separate asphalt bicycle path paralleling the road through deep, dense, lovely woods—all a glorious escape after the pedestrian human zoo of Montalivet. Long distance bikers (many with children) moved with loaded panniers, while shirtless boys skateboarded. One couple picked roadside blackberries. The towering, expansive woods of the Médoc are a cathedral, a living and breathing respite from nearby sea tides of humans clustered on narrow streets. Although this road is a patchwork of asphalt repairs—a buckled, neglected semi-artery through the woods—it magnificently lacks bleating crowds.

Hourtin-Plage

I liked Hourtin-Plage immediately: a square grassy park, uncluttered side streets, dispersed groups of people with nothing to prove. I sat at a shaded table at Le Grillon Restaurant and ordered fresh tuna with herbal vinaigrette sauce and Château Pouyannne white wine from Graves—poured into a less than pretentious big bulb of a glass with the words Gallo Family Vineyards printed on the side. Then, aha! Once again: seated dead ahead—another lame knot of ugly and unwashed dreadlocks on an enervated youth eating lunch together with a ten star babe. What is going on, World?

Rated restaurants hope to neutralize unpredictability by providing consistently good food. Sometimes this works; not always. There’s strange, unpredictable magic in dining out. Michelin Star restaurants offer food that is visual artwork, although not always delicious, and staff can be as stilted as furniture in a doll’s house. Better to have good people, soul filling and reasonably priced fare that is delicious as well as decent wine (even table wine) with friendly staff who treat diners alike whether they are celebrities or off duty dishwashers. You can’t predict when you’ll find this confluence. This restaurant ticked those boxes, and was a pleasure to visit. The atmosphere was quiet and happy, and the staff unrushed but efficient.

For dessert I ordered a café gourmand (you don’t know what this is? It can change your life) before motoring south to Bordeaux city.

Bordeaux City

This has been a cracked and brutal summer with tree leaves, burnt and withering, turning yellow and brown mid August. August is an odd and mobile month in France, a time when train stations may close on Friday mornings (for whatever reason), when libraries often close for the month and school-free students with weird haircuts loiter and slouch and share lame jokes at train stations or on street corners. This is traveling season when commuters haul luggage more often than shopping bags and vines look trim and grapes full and dangling.

The Garonne River looked gloriously muddy, its shores a pastel of muck and weeds while beyond rose beautiful Bordeaux city spires and stately architecture, all as deliciously proportioned as a well decorated Christmas tree.

Spires in this city welcome you, a reminder that this was home of Eleanor of Aquitaine and centuries of medieval knights and troubadours, sword and ax fights and wandering bards. The spires piercing skylines are part of lithic architecture that curls parallel to, and along, the city’s winding waterfront.

I parked near the main railway station, Gare Saint-Jean, which is as much destination as thoroughfare. Here classical piano music rang out and the overall vibe was less raucous than stations at, say, Paris Montparnasse or Milano Centrale.

Out front were trams and a bendy bus departing for Place de la Bourse (5 stops). I boarded and paid. Away it whooshed and rattled along past road construction near Pont de Pierre, the stone bridge crossing the Garonne with 17 arches, one for each letter of Napoléon Bonaparte’s name.

Place de la Bourse

Near the water of River Garonne is Bourse, a wall of beautiful stone apartments and offices. Across the street is a sizable horizontal fountain with multiple jets that spray mist or flood the surface with water a half inch deep. Kids lay down and did snow angels and belly rolls and everything that makes parents cringe at seeing their children wallow on stone earth before a battery of strangers. Still, kids here are generally not bratty or loud or obstinate but whisper and sing and cuddle their parents with overt affection.

A tour guide who looked pre-teen carried a red flag on a stick and marched a group of visitors across Place de la Bourse, She was followed by a sizable woman and several youths attired with the latest style of backpack—basically pear shaped leather pouches on strings slung so low that they bounce off wearers’ rear ends.

Others drove rental bicycles over square cobbles, jouncing butts and boobs and halting to take toothy selfies. They’re all very stylish these French: couples with matching sailor shirts and a woman in debonair silver lace sandals pulling a chique but heavy chunk of luggage across cobblestones. This contrasted sharply to the attire I saw weeks earlier in the aisles of Walmart in rural New Mexico.

I moved by foot into the sunny heart of this magnificent city, compact and clique, global yet quintessentially French. Here is a smattering of public squares—places—that makes the city infectiously attractive: I begin at Place de Parlement with woofing dogs, two lost cyclists, a three year old holding her mother’s bouquet of flowers and roadside stone bollards linked by thick and weathered chains. I passed a parked pink Vespa near to where diners scarfed down plates of salad nicoise and drank golden ales and light yellow wines.

Then, up Rue du Pas-Saint-Georges with its abundant little eateries—terraced and table clothed—such as Le Saint Georges and Osteria Da Luigi. Next—past Place Camille-Jullian with an ancient Roman column and performing tightrope walker and trimly dressed ambling Asians who smelt of lavender.

For a light dinner I ate at an Asian restaurant across from Bradley’s Bookshop (‘Coffee & Tea Taste Better with a Good Book!’). This is the confluence of Rue Saint-Siméon, Rue de La Merci and Rue Arnaud Miqueu.

Earlier in the bookstore I had purchased a Jared Diamond book The World Until Yesterday as well as Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and three short stories by Nabokov and then walked outside and relished the gorgeous temperature. There on Rue Saint Siméon clunky dented bicycles were chained in twos, like drunken sentries, on metal rails and I noticed several American visitors dressed alike: sneakers, beige cargo shorts, gray t-shirts.

There I dined outside—à l’extérieur—and ordered Saké Teriyaki and a half bottle of Château Boyrein white wine from Graves and wallowed in the acoustic beauty of young French ladies chatting at the adjacent table. The dress and comportment of families and couples here was sleek and trim and bereft of loudness or bulk.

Eating with chopsticks, I noticed the constants of summertime: mirrored sunglasses, tanned legs, older wrinkled French wives sucking on vapes, short sleeves showing off intricate tattoos. Most families, even when herded on crowded streets, stayed harmonious and polite.

Even in the most hectored and aggravated cobbled intersections, stuffed with ambling bodies and toddling toddlers I was amazed to see driving school vehicles shunting along these rues (one came close to taking out the entire table of gabbing teens beside me).

If not full on savoir-faire on the part of visitors who obviously just arrived, they displayed a quiescent hush, as though in a cathedral during service. This toning down of loud voices showed respect for a location different from their home.

It is easy to love this city, including its understated power (three times it functioned as the alternative capital of France) and its yawning confidence—much like a Grand Cru Classe wine that commands a committed audience and generates a fat bank balance. A thousand years ago the Aquitaine was the veritable living Elysian Fields of Europe.

Without being reputed so, this city is also a pillar of style and fashion and architectural glory (dusted off by Mayor Alain Juppé, who led the cleaning of stone buildings since his election in 2006).

Next, up the main shopping street—pedestrian Rue Sainte-Catherine—which, near its northern (theater) end, is slightly inclined and heaved with swarms of pulsating humans, sweeping their own divergent paths, clutching plastic bags and bicycle helmets and with clicking heels navigating baby strollers and parading tattooed thighs or signal-red lipstick as they cooed and froed and peddled scooters or paraded along this artery, this aorta, of an ancient yet revitalized city. Tanned sisters bantered about lingerie before Yves Rochet while necklaced divas darted into H&M, and a snoozing, horizontal indigent—his cap and framed family photo propped up on the walkway before him—actually made money while he slept.

I diverted westward off Saint-Catherine along Rue de la Porte Dijeaux. At first the stone road was inclined in a steep V for drainage and had a whiff of urine but I sallied forth past the stores: Galeries Lafayette and L’Atelier du Chocolat (try a feuilleté blanc or Rocher Suisse Noir—sinfully delicious) and passed young ladies gandering at summer dresses in the window of Bimba y Lola.

This street / rue then intersected with Rue Vital-Carles, which offered an inclined gape at the rosary window and graceful spire of Cathédrale Saint-André. Here, a tram car passed—not the blocky stocky style like those from Lisbon but sleek and blue and whispering efficiently along rails tastefully embedded in stone pavement.

Here at the corner is Librairie Mollat—a book selling institution in the city with its blue tinged wooden window frames showing abundant titles (Varuna by Charles Frazier, The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse and A Column of Fire by Ken Follet).

Then, on foot through the ancient stone gate—Porte Dijeux, built in the 1700’s to commemorate the ancient western, Roman entrance to the city. Outside Le Bistro de la Porte drinkers at round marble tables languished with books and parfaits and eerie green cocktails while loud jazz throbbed through a cheery humid Friday afternoon.

I spotted second hand books for sale, including one on how to be a perfect gentleman—Le Guide du Parfait Gentleman—with a chapter titled comment être sexuelle (how to be sexual).

Place Jean Moulin gave a flurry of brazen impressions—gesticulating visitors wearing Hawaiian shirts and girls rolling cigarettes and every person in this open space belittled by the ancient, shiny, imposing spire of Saint-André cathedral.

Next, down Cours Pasteur—eerily empty at 4.51 on a Friday afternoon, past a bicycle store selling bangers and a vapid ‘international bar’ that can’t even attract locals. I sauntered through Place de la Victoire with its live Peruvian flute music, an Egyptian obelisk and a magnificent old stone Román door beside a sinuous street. I hiked along at a rare clip in order to drive northward to catch the ferry back to Blaye.

Then along Cours de la Marne past Marché des Capucins where strange spices, bizarre fish and esoteric vegetables flourish in cool interior stalls during weekends. From Bordeaux city I drove northward, through the famed wine country of Médoc (which I’ll omit, having covered it in so many other stories and articles).

The Ferry Home 

The road northward to Lamarque ran along groomed and clean roads passing well snipped hedges and grassy but mowed road shoulders. The church spire of Lamarque resembles a long bullet, or the capsule cover to a syringe.

Finally, homeward on the Lamarque to Blaye car ferry. The 3.45 p.m. boat left on time, pirouetted in sun dappled but muddy water and the day, with fresh breezes on that Friday afternoon in August was uplifting and, considering it marked the completion of this local driving loop—perfect.

During the 25 minute ride to Blaye I sat upstairs in sunshine where the sight of the nearing cliffside Citadelle looked beautiful. Perfect. Like home anywhere.

^  ^  ^

Thanks for tuning in again.

My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include sparkling wine from Trentino in Italy, why it’s worth visiting the beaches of Bordeaux, and a slice of Bali in Bordeaux.

Driving A Counterclockwise Spiral Through Southwest France – Part II

August 28, 2018

[This is the second of a three part series about a recent short journey. Part I is here, and Part III will come out next week. French words are italicized; some, not all, are translated.]

PART TWO: NORTH AND WEST.

The Big Picture – Location in France

It’s preferable to travel by train or bus or on foot if you are writing about travel. A car, obviously, needs to be driven. You can’t write while driving. You need to pull over. So, I often endlessly search for rest areas or alleys to pull into to capture notes and thoughts. All of this searching can suck away part of the joy of freewheeling and being on the road. Or else you can remember what you want to write about by constructing mental images—mnemonics (think of the book Moonwalking with Einstein). Years ago I once met and shared beers with a canoeist in Atchison, Kansas along the Missouri River. I had no recorder or notebook so configured his story mentally using a pyramid of interconnected images, then later transcribed our conversation, virtually verbatim, into a chapter.

Grapes from our Etalon Rouge vineyard in Four, near Blaye

The bizarre part was that he had worked overseas in Guam with land titles for 20 years, left his job, returned to the U.S., bought a canoe and launched into the upper Missouri River to paddle south before learning that the river had dams. Several. Each of them massive. Much of his expected river adventure turned into a series of lake water paddles.

The relatively short overall route along the Gironde estuary and in the Médoc

Back to France:

Regardless of the challenges of driving and writing, I continued on from the town of Blaye in southwest France, moving north.

I exited Blaye on an Ektachrome blue morning past the handsome slate spire of Château Lagrange and country roads with full, flourishing greenery and thick hedgerows. Around a country corner I passed Château Segonzac (near the final landing point for Operation Frankton canoeists during World War Two; more about that next week) across the street from a field of sunflowers.

The sunflowers of Charente-Maritime province

Here were reeds, plains, spires, fields filled with stubble and dirt clods, and cyclists moving along thin roads bordered by wild earthen canals. Along the Route du Marais and Route de Montalpin beside Canal de Ceinture, I saw—miles ahead—four white cylinders, like salt shakers from a cheap diner, marking the local nuclear power plant—the Centrale Nucléaire du Blayais. Located on a plain east of the estuary, this assemblage of four pressurized reactors comprises the local cathedral of energy.

Part II – Blaye to Le Verdon-sur-Mer

It’s been humming along since 1981, churning out thousands of megawatts and employing three hundred locals full-time. It produces a scant five percent of French energy needs and is poised across the estuary from Bordeaux’s Médoc, bastion of some of the world’s most renowned and expensive wines. One nuclear catastrophe there and, well, your precious bottle of Lafite might quintuple in value in the space of an earthquake. Is that possible? Who knows? Flooding in 1999 breached the walls and soaked the plant with 3.2 million gallons of floodwaters, while seismic shudders in 2002 threatened the integrity of its pipelines.

Countryside near Braud-et-Saint-Louis

Next, through the town of Braud-et-Saint-Louis, gateway to the nuclear compound, and except for a roundabout and an eerily placed set of emergency warning klaxons on the roof of the mayor’s office, I saw little else. Visiting the power plant is off-limits except during special visitor days, so I moved past this thunderclap of power en route to Mortagne-sur-Gironde.

‘The locks,’ ‘The port,’ ‘Everywhere’

Miles up the road I stopped at Saint-Ciers-sur-Gironde, a bustling hive and cluster of Tuesday morning errand runners. At the Super U I bought a two chausson aux pommes and a mango passion fruit smoothie for breakfast. In the check out before me stood a woman with two girls—likely 5 to 7 years old—with their new school notebooks and markers and, bizarrely, a paperback copy of The Disappearance of Josef Mengele by Olivier Guez. Light reading, not.

Five star Château Mirambeau accommodation

I next drove through a happy slab of slanted vineyards and open views and entered the province of Charente-Maritime and within yards saw the first field of corn. There were doves and cooing pigeons and semi trucks hauling hay bales in this twisted, hilly, little known patch of geography that sizzles with quiet landscape beauty. I then navigated through thin roads in towns such as Petit Niort and lively Mirambeau, with its purple window shutters and rows of thick eucalyptus trees.

Chalky cliffs outside Mortagne-sur-Gironde

Mortagne-sur-Gironde

There is an upper and lower portion to the town of Mortagne-sur-Gironde, the upper being a long row of sand colored stone buildings, the lower being a port, perpendicular to the massive Gironde Estuary, with dozens of boats and a few waterside restaurants. During the same December flood of 1999 that gnashed at the nuclear power plant near Blaye, the tempest ruined a polder at Mortagne, a 470 acre (190 hectare) crop of diked and reclaimed land. It was never fully reclaimed.

Harbor at Mortagne-sur-Gironde

The port is lively on a summer afternoon. I parked and walked past grassy spaces next to wooden gated locks, campers with fold out canopies and garishly colored lawn chairs, children dancing under trees, zones of poor internet service and a bikinied bicyclist taking selfies along a stone harbor wall. The Gironde is about a mile, or a kilometer and a half away, but the beauty of limestone bluffs meeting a silty delta next to prim and tended grassy parks with shaded benches makes this port attractive. A menu outside a linen table clothed restaurant gastronomique showed it was selling buffalo mozzarella gazpacho as well as duck cannelloni with herbs, but I decided to wait until the next town before lunch.

Little used side canal in Mortagne-sur-Mer

Talmont-sur-Gironde

Miles to the north, the view from the town of Chenac-Saint-Seurin-d’Uzet toward the town of Talmont-sur-Gironde shows a visually alluring angled slab of bright white sea cliff (likely limestone). This land includes cylindrical hay bales and mixed agriculture—dirty small sheep north of Mortagne, sunflowers, vines and muscular and cream-colored cattle chomping grass with fury.

Limestone cliffs just south of Talmont-sur-Gironde

In Talmont-sur-Gironde I sat in shade on a restaurant porch and ordered merlu (hake) fish and a Leffe beer, followed by an apple tart—tarte aux pommes—slathered with caramel covered ice cream.

Estuary view from Talmont-sur-Gironde

Whereas Mortagne is shaggy, Talmont is prim. Parking at Mortagne is free, but costs in Talmont. Campers and bikers and locals flock to Mortagne, while urban families and couples with convertibles trundle into Talmont. On busy summer days, Mortagne is a fiesta, while Talmont is a zoo. In Mortagne, lunch lasts an unrushed two to three hours, while in Talmont, four separate servers on a crowded patio cater to every need, as though in the U.S.,and whoosh out dessert before you even switch from drinking an entry beer to a glass of dry white wine. In Mortagne, the restaurant staff speak French; in Talmont they practice English, whether or not you like it. Mortagne is France; Talmont is California. And if both were in California, one would be Ventura, the other Newport Beach.

Typically bright colored shutters in Talmont-sur-Gironde

‘Now, coffee and bill,’ a server said loudly in English as he plopped both on the table before I’d begun downing the glass of wine. His action was polished, though slightly rude and harried.

Still, walking after lunch was golden. Views within and from little Talmont are splendid—mud flats and fluttering birds and tidal waters all somewhat reminiscent, on a minuscule scale, of Mont Saint Michel in northern France. Here there is wind, a balustrade of climatic temperance that mitigated an otherwise harshly hot week. This wind becomes a song in the ears—rustling reeds, licking tree branches, scudding cumulus and vibrating its bounty of peace. Clean air and clear vistas from the shores of Talmont: magnificent.

The church of Saint Radegonde in Talmont-sur-Gironde sits above the estuary

Estuary waters look muddy from here, though the sight of snow white egrets and the laugh of cycling couples is, in the wake of wine and beer and a seafood at lunch, sumptuous. Truth is, I love Talmont.

It’s a wee promontory around Saint Radegonde church, originally constructed in 1094, a time when Saint Marks Basilica was consecrated in Venice and just before work began on the Cathedral of Durham in northern England. The church and village jut into tidal waters and are riddled with cobbled alleys and little stores. I love its stony white paths, elevated trail above water and sight of seabirds on seaweed coated isles; the brazen blocky église, the photogenetically trim vistas and the myriad of colors on rock and soil and cobbles. There is a Venetian profusion of little alleys here (again, on a minuscule scale) leading to who knows where.

View from Saint Radegonde church of the Gironde estuary, in Talmont-sur-Gironde

Bicyclists of all ilk gather here, whether healthy and not, compelled by a shoreline visit that blends brutal history with skittish and deft scenes of nature. So, more power to both venues—Mortagne and Talmont, although I’d hate to see the ritual of a lazy two wine bottle lunch supplanted by Anglo Saxon infatuation with speed, table turnover, efficiency, profit and time.

This is also home to Les Hauts de Talmont wine, which produces biodynamic wines, including a 100% Colombard white, as well as a red and a rosé made from Merlot. Co-owner Jean-Jacques Vallée told me the story about these wines when we met.

Jean-Jacques Vallée is now co-owner of Les Hauts de Talmont wines

I left town but soon pulled over and parked in a park within the nearby villages of Arces-sur-Gironde because the church is a beauty, and I marched through a ghostly silent village, relishing birdsong interspersed with silence.

Church in Arces-sur-Gironde

Back in the car I listened to Gregorian music while passing slanted fields of sunflowers—tournesols—their heads pointed downward to avoid August sun in this land of escargot and pineau fortified wine and estuary sturgeon caviar and the summer clank and rumble of rubber tractor wheels and grinding motors.

Royan 

The next morning I woke to rain and soon dialed the car radio to a channel named musique (which was classique) and by 5.20 a.m. heat pushed into the car, forcing me to crack open windows. The scent and whoosh of nature zipped in and, combined with the beauty of outer fog sheets, felt uplifting.

Waterview from near the ferry port in Royan

I passed the lovely small beaches of Meschers and the long open sands of Saint-Georges-de-Didonne and moved into the cloying whiff of highway diesel outside the city of Royan. Many buildings in this city of 18,000 residents are concrete and rectangular and painted white with navy blue porch rails. Streets curl along with seaside topography and are generally wide and lined generously with trees. It’s a cross between some 1960’s Floridian beach architecture and that of a modern coastal California suburb. Strategically located at the northwest entry point to the Gironde estuary (largest in Europe), the city was 80 percent leveled by bombs during the Second World War, so the absence of medieval charm is understood. Parts of the city have a positive and prosperous vibe, with BMW sports cars sweeping out from occasional gated communities to secure family morning lattes.

A wooden walkway and a parallel stone bicycle path curl around the beach periphery lined with profusions of planted flowers. The waterfront here is a maintained and orderly, with an air of respect for health and fitness. At 7.00 a.m. both a gardener and a leaf blower were humming with industriousness.

Waterfront flowers in the city of Royan

I stepped into dawn light and the salty, invigorating scent of ocean air, then shivered in a cold 60 degree breeze while wearing shorts, sandals and a thin shirt. I sat on a park bench at an ocean point on Boulevard de la Côte d’Argent—reminded by its ocean freshness of California’s Laguna Beach or Ireland’s Salthill. (Another reminder of Laguna Beach: a conspicuous sign notifying that from April 1 to September 30th, no dogs are allowed on the beach.) A tractor was grooming the cove’s sand beside Casino Barrière and red-roofed waterside stone homes across this little bay—Plage de Pontaillac—appeared attractive and cozy. The memory of having packed a warm sweater in the car was welcome.

Pontaillac Beach in Royan

At 7.08 a.m., men in their 60’s were going swimming (freezing!) or bicycling and a 30 some year old woman, all togged out in sports wear and strapped with some electronic health monitor, went for a very slow stroll. The breakfast porch of four-story and three Star Hotel Miramar looked inviting, but I whiffed the scent of fresh croissants from down the street and hunted the source on foot, still shivering.

At pâtisserie-boulangerie Chocolat’in, on Rue de la Plage, I bought a roll filled with chocolate chips, then sat on another bench near seagulls and strollers. I eyed the northwest elevated edge of the cove with its two dozen painted white wooden fishing shacks. Here be palm trees, joggers and slow rolling waves during the easy morning transition to dawn.

Bakery delights in the city of Royan

I soon meandered along a park profuse with geraniums and roses. This square—Mado Maurin—includes a curling bike path near a pizzeria. Standing youths wearing suede jackets finished their breakfast pastries and then, in bare feet, push started a friend’s Fiat near the Surf Club Royan. I was underdressed but excited about the up coming ferry ride across the yawning mouth of Europe’s largest estuary. The car ferry, known as le bac in France, next departed next at 9.00. I paid at the entry booth, parked next to vehicles with snoozing vacationers, then went for a walk.

Anchored close to the Captainerie building bobbed tugs and massive catamarans, sleek yachts, rubber dinghies with heavy engines and sailed fishing boats.

View of Gironde estuary from south of Royan

I wondered why this northern ferry cost 50 percent more than the ferry between Blaye and Lamarque further south. After departure, I realized that it is, in comparison, an asphalt highway compared to a dirt track, a Marriott versus some Motel 6. You pay at a booth from your car window before even entering the dock space, are assigned a waiting line, and eventually drive straight on to park. Simple. No ejecting passengers who have to walk aboard on foot, no maneuvering 180 degrees before being barked at to reverse into a narrow back slot and then having to stand in a line to pay. The indoor waiting room of this northern ferry includes not just a coffee machine, as in Blaye, but a cafe staffed by two selling an ample range of drinks and snacks.

Northern Médoc

The ferry departed at 9.00 to a massive horn blast, then aimed at the far shore with its sloping green grassy sand dunes, a point of natural beauty. Westward and within the ocean stands the towering white Phare de Cordouan lighthouse, oldest in operation in France. It was first built by the Black Prince Edward of Wales in the 1360’s, about the time the bubonic plague ended, the Chinese Ming dynasty began, the 100 Years War raged, Pope Urban V tried moving the Papacy back to Rome from Avignon, Muscovites built a Kremlin Wall around their city to oppose Lithuanian invasions and the Thai Kingdom conquered (once again) Cambodia.

Pointe-de-Grave on the ‘left bank’ of the Gironde Estuary

Waves on this crossing are oceanic, not estuarine: whopping great swells that lurch stomachs and shift stances only minutes after departure. The bac pivots up down and sideways—like a traveling fairground ride—impacting platoons of passengers: capped grandpas, cuddling lovers and families munching baguettes. After twenty minutes it threaded a needle between concrete pillars and entered the modern harbor at Pointe de Grave. Vehicles and dozens of bicycles disembarked, including families and a lean bronze muscled couple paddling tandem with backpacks.

Point-de-Grave harbor

I soon stopped across from LeClerc supermarket Le Verdon-sur-Mer and walked across the street to Epicerie Chez Cathy—small and stocked with fruit and veg. There I bought a peach from a prim and polite young lady and outside saw a beautiful roadside counter of fish on ice garnished with greens. Two energetic women at this mobile poissonnerie—Bateau Cassy—sell maigres, bars, dorades, and soles, all festooned with slices of lemon. Both businesses—Cathy and Cassy add a local market dimension to the looming adjacent chain store.

Next, south to Soulac-sur-Mer, and then onto Bordeaux City.

 

Driving A Counterclockwise Spiral Through Southwest France

August 21, 2018

[This is the first of a three part series about a recent journey. Parts two and three will come out next week and the week after. French words are italicized; some, not all, are translated.]

PART I.  HOME GROUND.

The Shape Of A Short Trip.

The Big Picture – location in France

Inspiration to explore my neighborhood came from writer Paul Theroux. I first heard of this author when I took a train from El Paso in Texas to Mexico City with a backpack, decades ago. I paid 36 dollars for a 36-hour train ride in an old 1940’s American train caboose with my own cabin, including toilet and bed. A conductor walked along the hallway swinging a silver pail and selling iced beers. The train sometimes stopped in the middle of nowhere and we’d step outside and buy homemade tamales from kids.

During this trip I met a house painter from the highlands of Colorado. He suggested reading The Old Patagonian Express—By Train Through the Americas by Theroux. I did. Years later, the author’s writing inspired me to join the Peace Corps. I ended up in the same African country where he served—Malawi—and on the same month that we volunteers arrived an article appeared in National Geographic, written by Theroux, about his revisit to that nation. This curiously timely coincidence encouraged me to continue wandering. I savored his book Riding the Iron Rooster—By Train Through China while malaria ridden in a village without electricity or running water south of Chitipa in rural Malawi, and years later while working in the desert outback of Namibia, Africa, relished The Happy Isles of Oceania.

Theroux’s latest travel collection is Figures In A Landscape—People & Places. I read it weeks ago. In one essay he mentioned a desire to explore his neighborhood and I was seized with the sudden certainty to do alike.

The relatively short route along the Gironde estuary and in the Médoc

How to explore my neighborhood here in southwest France? First, my vintage, bulletproof Mercedes that once belonged to the Nigerian ambassador in London now lacks air conditioning and the motor is prone to overheating. This means I can’t travel too far during any brutal August day because the heat—la chaleur—will be sweltering and may cause engine problems. Yet I had to get beyond known terrain. Before plotting a route on Google maps I did so mentally. Locations to visit unfurled like a counterclockwise semi-spiral across the provinces of Charente-Maritime and Gironde. The trail resembled a snail’s curl, or the cross section of a squashed croissant. When I looked at a map this little route was not a spiral so much as a reverse P, or a capital Q. Finally, I plotted this tour on Google and the shape of the journey resembled a tilted slipper, or an amoeba with a flagella tail. Perhaps a partially peeled banana. In some regards, then—yes—a spiral.

But, seriously, who cares?

I stuffed a sweater and corkscrew and extra iPhone batteries into a cotton shoulder bag and throttled off at dawn, beginning the wonky semi-spiral path leading, of course, back home in time for weekend parties. The route began at Saint-André-de-Cubzac, headed north through hometown of Blaye, upward to coastal Royan, across water by ferry to the Médoc, southward past beaches and then on to Bordeaux city.

On y va. Let’s go!

Part l – Saint-André-de-Cubzac to Blaye

Saint André-de-Cubzac, Bourg, Corniche de La Gironde

I entered Saint-André-de-Cubzac at a traffic roundabout with a statue of a leaping dolphin wearing an angled red cap, because this is the birthplace of ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. I then slipped into a parking space outside the gare—train station—and wandered off to hunt for the morning market.

Linked to a major motorway as well as a railway line, and located on the Dordogne River, Saint-André is a gateway to greater Bordeaux city. This town has long been a center of commerce. Twelfth century rulers built north-south and east-west roads (known as the ‘cardo’ and ‘decumanus’–terms invented by clever Tuscan Etruscans) with a church at the intersection. It was pivotal for trading wine with those living in that angle of land between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers known as ‘Between the Rivers’ or ‘Entre-deux-Mers.’

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Birthplace of Cousteau

Streets here hum and moan and screech with traffic—chortling semi trucks and belching SUV’s. These pass handsome buildings assembled from tan sandstone. Many rues include clusters of hairdressers, banks and real estate agents.

I passed a jogging girl and a man painting the iron rails around his garden. An ambulance driver honked at his friends. But where was the market? Better still, where could I get a mug of coffee? I walked past the stone Justice de Paix building where a woman dressed in orange pulled her matching brick colored shopping trolley, obviously heading to (or from?) some market. I followed.

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Quiet street in Saint-André-de-Cubzac

Streams of strollers coalesced near Place Raoul Larche, where I entered Bar Brasserie of Cafe de l’Hotel de Ville across from a charcuterie. There I ordered a grand cafe crème from a stout, affable tanned man who, when I asked est-ce que c’est un marché aujourd-hui? nodded and replied simply, oui, then pointed in the direction from where I just came.

Merde. Which means, shite. Had I somehow missed the market?

Market fresh

I sat and sipped the bitter morning brew on an unkempt terrace littered with ciggie butts. Knolls of grass poked through cracked masonry where roots, long ago, heaved through bricks.

Yet, aha! There was another road leading slightly uphill and to the left. I finished the coffee and moved that way past Le Rolling Snack, the Boucherie Fortin (‘entrecôte bordelaise Euros 1.90/kg’) and found a sign: Marché Réglementé (regulated market) outside a parking lot where stalls covered in white canopies stood.

Although not as picturesque as a market in, say Sarlat-la-Canéda or Périgueux in the Dordogne, the wares were fresh and the sellers flashed friendly smiles. There were covered stalls and portable refrigerated counters and food for sale included massive green grapes, fig jam, sweating watermelons and Madagascar crevettes (shrimp). There were sesame loaves, firm ‘haricot’ beans and skinned rabbits – heads and bulging black eyeballs still attached. A uniformed pair of Police Rurale officers patrolled, and the sun began baking shoppers by 10 a.m. I heard the scoop of ice and vendors whistling and the eternal trio of farewells, spoken together: ‘merci, bon journée, au revoir.’ I bought a loaf of pan muesli from a smiling dark haired beauty with turquoise painted fingernails.

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Monument to those who died in World War l

This market square—a parking lot that sometimes transforms to a social quadrangle—is bordered on three sides by flourishing trees and on a fourth by a community center. It provides a lively gathering point for neighbors and shoppers inspecting colors and shapes and textures of unpackaged wares. Here, twice weekly, locals bond with market vendors under the lash or scorch of outdoor weather. These open-air markets excel not just as shopping venues but as places to share news with neighbors and even, for a stranger such as myself, making me feel suddenly welcome.

I returned to the car via back alleys, then drove north through Saint Gervais past the twin stone round towers outside Château de la Brunette. This road passing vineyards, la route du vin de Blaye et Bourg, wends over speed bumps through the town of Prignac-et-Marcamps, where a side road leads to Grotte de Pair-non-Pair. I had visited that site before: a 65-foot long cave where generations of Neanderthals and (later) Cro-Magnon humans lived. Protected from weather, wolves and bears, generations lived here until some 20,000 years ago and carved images of mammoths, rhinos and giant deer on walls.

Vineyard on the Gironde estuary

Bourg

Then into Bourg, a special place not only because of wines (think Châteaux Gros Moulin, Mercier and De La Graves) but also because the curling blacktop road down Rue des Douves leads to an ancient port on the Dordogne River, once a keystone for Roman and medieval commerce. The city is also called Bourg-sur-Gironde, although this is technically incorrect because it sits along the Dordogne River, and not the Gironde estuary. Hundreds of years ago, before the estuary silted up and moved the confluence of the Dordogne and Garonne rivers four miles (6.5 kilometers) upstream and north, Bourg was on the Gironde. That’s why it was built as a fortification, in order to view and defend the entire estuary. No longer. You can call it Bourg-de-Gironde (‘de’ instead of ‘sur’) because it belongs within the administrative department that also happens to be named Gironde, but locals might not warm to that. Save yourself a hassle if you visit and just say Bourg.

Bourg seen from the port – foreground building used to be for doing laundry

This city was once, centuries ago, a stopover on the timber route, when inland and upriver trees from the forests of Cantal—between Bordeaux and Lyon—were shipped downriver for making leather or barrels or the supports for coal mines in boats called gabares. After delivering their wares, these boats were axed up as firewood or fencing and the pilots jogged back upstream to their homes to repeat the process. The Dordogne River was only navigable for a few weeks each year, and during then hundreds of boats floated downstream to deliver their sellable goods.

Today Bourg is quiet and peaceful and soaked with history, whether of medieval carpenters building catapults for castle invasions or of passing boats with quarried sandstone moving from Saint-Émilion to Bordeaux to provide construction materials for that city’s cathedrals and châteaux.

The town includes a covered structure that was was 18th century water pool, a communal laundry point. There is also a beautiful arch, made both from natural limestone and masonry that covers a sloping pedestrian walkway. From the upper ramparts (below tree cover and the shadow of a church spire) is a strategic view of the great, glissading, often log-bloated waters of the Dordogne River miles south of where it merges with the Garonne.

Inside the cool, peaceful and ancient public laundry house in Bourg

You stop in Bourg. You don’t stay in Bourg. Beside the attractive port and lovely ivy and flower coated walls there’s little to do except visit the glass walled wine bar—Maison du Vin—when it’s open on Fridays and Saturdays in summer, or the annual Nuit de Terroir food, drink and music festival organized each August by the region’s young winemakers on lovely castle grounds.

Still, the frequently blazing blue sky and curious tinny tinkle of church chimes, combined with the swearing of a harsh fisherwoman by the waterfront, and the chance to circumnavigate this pleasant petit ville on foot past water vistas make visiting Bourg well worthwhile.

The inclined and one-way main street, with tea shops, wine stores, a boucherie and several closed boulangeries (bakeries) is both attractive and somehow sad, a reminder of an era when there were more prosperous locals, and fewer indigents on the dole (au chômage) littering local cafes. During the past two centuries the population of Bourg plummeted by one third. Somehow, this town makes me lonely. Yet, friends who moved here from Australia or Bordeaux city tell of gregarious locals making them feel welcome, and of their appreciating quietness and calming vistas.

Flowers in Bourg

Several pedestrian and driving conduits link Bourg’s upper town and its lower port—stone channels, chutes and staircases. This town is a historical gem. But it is the hinterland of Bourg more than the city, the swelling hills and steeples and lost roads and sprawling vineyards and wine producers across miles of this ancient locale that give not only grace but economic agricultural abundance to this region.

I stopped at the winemakers’ crêperie restaurant near the water, avoiding the larger chain restaurant slightly uphill (a garish concoction of electronic menus and TV screens, food that appears to have been defrosted via microwave and staff who, at best, are disinterested). It was 11.43 a.m. The crêperie owners, a couple biding time on their porch, told me, after inquiry, that they would open at noon—‘midi’—and obviously cared not a fig about possibly seating me earlier to offer a pre-lunch aperitif.

Across the street I peeked inside a refurbished restaurant with a menu that included roasted goat cheese salad, moules (mussels) and dessert. I sat, ordered a glass of white wine from Château Mercier and food. Splendid.

Roasted goat cheese salad, moules and Sauvignon Blanc wine

After lunch I moved toward Blaye along the lower shoreline routes, Pain de Sucre (sugarloaf) followed by the Corniche de la Gironde. Here cute stone homes are separated from waterside gardens, transected by an old and thin rolling road. A woman in a rainbow red dress set glasses and cutlery on a garden table for lunch in proximity to where summer apartments—gîtes—are rented. Further ahead and behind the vines of Château Tayac, a stone roadside porch overlooks the estuary waters toward Bec d’Ambès, the point where the Garonne and Dordogne rivers merge and mate to form their mightier offspring, the Gironde Estuary, which flows north to the Atlantic Ocean. On this tongue of land, unfortunately, rest an ugly set of refinery tanks that should to be relocated.

This is close to where I live in the city of Blaye. I used to drive here and go running because the energy of open space and waterside vineyards and the confluence of rivers always churns out optimism and upwelling, a countryside certainty that just as seasons follow each other and plants bud once again after winter, life will continue regardless of financial or emotional worries, and irrespective of whether we hunt for certainty in a universe where that is elusive and slippery at best, and likely nonexistent.

Next, I passed the glinting church of Bayon—a gorgeous cluster of sandstone shapes: block, cylinder, column. Originally built in the 12th century and again a few centuries ago, the structure is a visual beacon of form and finesse, conspicuously seen from across vineyards.

The sweet little church of Bayon

Again, a thought arrived: what is a confluence but birth? A reminder that parents die and then only offspring exist. Just as rivers merge and parents mate, both produce downstream, or future, manifestations, whether estuary or child. And an estuary eventually flows into the ocean—itself a broad and almost boundless recipient of every confluence on earth, a possible metaphor for afterlife where the outpourings of every terrestrial river on this planet coalesce and mingle and one day evaporate to precipitate and transform, again, to some new and gurgling stream.

Along the corniche run gleaming sandstone houses with painted pastel shutters on a band, a belt, a strip of human habitation between estuary waters and nearby cliffs. This is a breezy land where residents tend to tend gardens, take walks in local hills and sometimes ride small skiffs in the flowing estuary.

My heavy (remember: bulletproof) silver Mercedes passed through villages and locations with gendered names: (masculine) Le Rigalet, (feminine) La Mayanne and sexless Marmisson. Here water splashed over reed covered rocks and a few marine engines throttled and I passed the still masted, though rusted withering shipwreck of the Frisco—scuttled in August of 1944 two days before Bordeaux was liberated from German occupation. During the war, these waters were riddled with mines to prevent invasion of of occupied Bordeaux city.

The ‘Frisco’ – scuttled in August, 1944

This journey takes place through both the ‘left bank’ and ‘right bank’ of the Gironde Estuary. Basically, left means west, and right means east, while the Gironde Estuary originates from two tributary upstream rivers mentioned earlier—Dordogne to the east and Garonne to the south (and, eventually, also east).

But what is an ‘estuary?’

It’s basically where a river meets the ocean, a combination of freshwater—from rivers—and saltwater—pushed upstream by oceanic tides. The constant smashing of river and tide churns up the water bed, spewing out nutrients on which marine life thrives.

The Gironde is the largest estuary in Europe, and the impact of salty tides is felt 100 miles (160 kilometers) upriver from the Atlantic Ocean. The estuary, by definition, runs from the mouth of the river at the Atlantic southward to the Bec d’Ambes (remember? Dotted with petrochemical storage tanks), the point where the Garonne and Dordogne meet.

This estuary is 47 miles (75 kilometers) long and 7.5 miles (12.5 kilometers) at its widest point. When you consider its total area, the waters of the Gironde at any moment form a region larger in area than Malta or Barbados, Guam or Andorra, or the Isle of Man and pour a quarter million gallons (one million liters) of freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean every second.

Vines and landscape of rural Bourg

Twenty thousand years ago, when much of Europe was coated in ice, the ocean was hundreds of feet lower and this river valley held a mere trickle. But the climate warmed (gosh, without even fossil fuels or highways), waters rose and because Bordeaux city needed defending, forts such as Bourg and Blaye were crafted by stonemasons on limestone cliffs.

The Gironde has been a navigation and trade route since the Bronze Age, when copper flowed in from Spain, tin from Cornwall, and—later—wheat and flour were exported to Rome. From Spain came ham and olives and from northern Europe leather, wool, meat and dried fish, all gleefully traded for hogsheads of wine. But the wedding in 1152 of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henri Plantagenet, future King of England, drove a boom in trade as wine began flowing to England with accelerated gusto. True, it stopped flowing for awhile after the 1453 Battle of Castillon (which ended the 100 Years War), after which the French booted the English out.

The lands around these waters buzz with life. Today the estuary’s marshy environment is a place of cattle herons, white storks, black kites and coots. Here are threatened pond turtles, as well as deer and wild boar. These waters run below a migratory axis for 130 birds species who alight to feed and mate and rest.

Blaye

Blaye, a city of some 4,000 residents is where I live. It has gained recent popularity, although was historically always strategic, being an estuary crossing as well as located along the route of commerce flowing from the interior of France and Bordeaux City (via the Garonne River) to the Atlantic seaboard as well as the world. It’s also a wine haven (both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, while visiting Bordeaux, visited Blaye by boat) and a strategic military point (every king of France, except one, has visited).

Blaye at high tide

Between 1685 and 1689, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban—engineer, architect and author—oversaw the construction of the Citadelle of Blaye, a defense fortification that incorporates earlier forts and castles from as far back as the eight-century into its design. Built on 94 acres (38 hectares) that incorporated a village, this handsome lithic defense perches on a cliff above the estuary. It was a garrison for soldiers as well as a strategic canon perch (along with Fort Médoc on the opposite bank, and Fort Pate, on an island in the estuary) to thwart potential invasions of Bordeaux city to the south. The entire complex is now a UNESCO heritage site. Today it includes stores and restaurants, and holds fairs related to gardening, antiques, classic cars and wine.

Blaye (pronounced blYE), a town exposed to tides, is itself tidal with rhythms of change—whether quiet dark months of winter interspersed with bright summery crowds flooding to the international horse jumping days in July, or restaurants closing and being replaced, or the September grape harvest, a pinnacle moment, being matched by the equally buoyant wine tastings of April. There are tides of population movements: visitors, moving residents, cruise ship tourists gaping in shock at seeing lampreys and eels and horse meat for sale at the market.

View from the Citadelle to the city of Blaye

There are free concerts on Sundays in August within the Citadelle, before magnificent views of the estuary—packed with faces both never seen and familiar. French is the rooted language in Blaye and to live here, you need some facility with that tongue, which means you actually need to grow roots to be a part of the fabric, the cultural warp and weft, of this locale.

What was once a significant medieval garrison (Blaye comes from Blavia, meaning the ‘Road to War’) as well as a hub of commerce now relies economically on wine production, jobs at the up-estuary electricity power station and tourism.

It’s easy to be at ease here. Within minutes from the front door I can stroll to the post office, bank, dry cleaners, boulangerie, fromagerie (cheese store), fruit shop, newsagents, bookstore, barber, coffee store, wine store and a half dozen restaurants. The vast inner open space and parkland of the Citadelle are a seven minute walk away and within three minutes I can step onto a ferry to the Médoc or wheel a bicycle onto a path leading eight miles (14 kilometers) northward through vines.

From the Citadelle, the view of the mile long Estuary and its islands Paté and Patiras is uncluttered and inspirational. This estuary, according to a local artist, is ‘the Mississippi Of France,’ and the right bank (here) includes amazing wine values. Which is why I’m publishing this little travel story on my blog instead of on Forbes: I don’t want anonymous hoards to show up and start unpacking.

2016 Château Puynard at La Cave wine store in Blaye

There are ample festivals throughout the year for food and music and wine. Youth adore the annual Black Bass Festival, though fortunately it’s not held in Blaye, but somewhere out in the bush. If you play one song on stage there, you’ll acquire serious cred and likely be guaranteed a bevvy of groupies for life. I’ve never gone, never will. Not my scene. This year the listed bands include Hangman’s Chair, Psychotic Monks, Swedish Death Candy, Cannibale and I am Stramgram. Not exactly my playlist. But, hey, enjoy.

Here are moonrises and views of the estuary, inexpensive delicious wines, local seafood that sells for a fraction of most city prices, ample festivals and sound and resonant country roads to travel on by bicycle or vehicle or motorbike and enjoy peace, quietude, cafes with shots of espresso along fecund, burgeoning, lively and blossoming acres of fertile countryside. Here you live, love, spare a moment to reflect on life, starlight, long meals and ample camaraderie over a bottle of Etalon Rouge or Peybonhomme Les Tours wines to keep your soul ticking, satiated, insulated from mainstream politics and juiced up with the sight of phases of the moon.

If I could bottle and sell this experience, I’d make enough to retire here.

Thanks for checking in. Recent Forbes articles include pieces about Ruchè grapes in Piedmont, Italy, social entrepreneurs gathering at Windsor Castle and a lively new book about cocktails.

 

Missouri Wine Has A Long History

July 31, 2018

Recent Forbes posts I’ve written are about wines from Sicily and Puglia, as well as from Prosecco country in northern Italy. There is also a review of a lively new book about aperitifs, by Kate Hawkings.

Now, heartland wines …

I stopped to visit friends Barb and Andrew in Kansas City, Kansas

I recently drove across part of the United States to transport books to a cabin I own in a remote portion of the state of New Mexico.

The trip was both reinvigorating and mind clearing.

From Columbus, Ohio, I spent days driving across parts of the Midwestern and Southwestern U.S. states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, where I finally unloaded books. I then spent a night on that land, and later at the property of friends who own a new ranch where they produce ‘grass fed/grass finished’ beef (apparently the demand for this beef is too high for them to satisfy).

Norton, the Missouri state grape, produces a hearty red wine

Much of the portion of this journey crossed parts of the geographical and cultural ‘heartland’ of the United States, which few people associate with wine.

Yet in the past they did, and may well do so again.

As mentioned in my book Vino Voices—Wine, Work, Life, before Prohibition (which basically outlawed alcohol in the U.S. between the years 1920 and 1933) the state of Missouri included the second largest winery in the U.S. It was named Stone Hill Wine Co., and was located in the town of Hermann. It was reopened in 1965 as Stone Hill Winery, and now thrives. Back in 1915, it sold wines with names such as White Pearl, Starkenburger, Ozark Queen and Sweet Scuppernong. The property included a nearby forest as well as a sawmill and the owners produced their own barrels. Stone Hill then sold 1.25 million gallons of wine a year, which won prizes in Paris, Vienna, New Orleans and Buffalo. Even earlier, in the mid 1800’s, a greater volume of wine was produced within the state of Missouri than in any other U.S. state.

In June of 1980, the first American Viticulture Area (AVA), [similar to a European wine appellation], was established. This defines required practices for producing wines within certain geographical regions (if they are to be accorded with AVA status). The first ever AVA status in the U.S. was conferred on the region of Augusta, Missouri. It was only eight months later that the second AVA was established—in Napa, California.

Because of Missouri’s sometimes harsh continental climate conditions, grapes here include those from both vitis vinifera (European) and vitis labrusca (American) vine species, and grapes are often clones. Popular grapes include—for whites—Traminette, Chardonel, Vignoles, Vidal Blanc; for reds they include Norton (Cynthiana), Concord, Catawba, and Chambourcin.

Today, Missouri’s wine industry is worth more than $1.5 billion annually.

According to the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, between 1995 and 2015, grape production increased in Missouri from about 2,400 tons to 5,500 tons. During that time, the land bearing vines soared from 900 acres (360 hectares) to 1,700 acres (690 hectares). Today, the most planted grape vines are Norton (20%) followed by Vignoles (15%), Chambourcin (10%) and Vidal Blanc (8%).

Apparently July 21st has been designated as ‘Junk Food Day’ and a published guide pairs Norton with Nacho Cheese and Corn Chips, Traminette with Caramel Corn, Chardonel with Buttered Popcorn (note the prevalent role of corn in day-to-day life in much of the U.S.) and Chambourcin with Chocolate Sandwich Cookies, or Oreos. (French friends may not understand this celebration, no doubt.) A handy online map of Missouri wine trails breaks the state into 11 distinct regions, and identifies 65 wineries in a state that is about half the size of Montana, twice as large as Portugal, or roughly the same size as either Cambodia or Uruguay.

Les Bourgeois Winery in Rocheport, Missouri

[I wrote about wines from Missouri before, in this article, and in this.]

While passing through Missouri, I stopped for a wine tasting (spitting only—no swallowing while on the road) at a winery named Les Bourgeois, off Interstate 70 Highway.

Below are tasting/value notes for wines tasted at Les Bourgeois. On a 100 point scale, wines here rank between 89 and the early 90’s.

These have been ‘value-evaluated’ (which relates overall quality to local price per bottle) as ‘superlative ♫♫♫,’ ‘excellent ♫♫,’ or ‘good ♫,’ based on my own proprietary Vino Value algorithm that matches subjective input (taste) to local bottle prices. Prices are local.

Solay – a blend of white grapes

2017 Vidal (white). $25. [Good Value ♫]

Nose and taste like a cross between Chardonnay and Viognier. Grapefruit on the tongue; an acidic mouthful.

2016 Solay (white). $20. [Superlative Value ♫♫♫]

Like a crisp Sauvignon Blanc on the nose. Brittle, crisp and tart in the mouth.

2016 Chardonel (white). $25. [Excellent Value ♫♫]

Ash and pears on the nose, meringue pie and chewy bananas in the mouth.

2016 Traminette (white). $25. [Good Value ♫]

White flowers and a massive hit of lemon drops on the nose. Candy cane in the mouth.

Image is titled ‘Discombobulated,’ and is by Bill Manion

2015 Syrah. $25. [Superlative Value ♫♫♫]

Cherries and cherry cough drops on the nose. Black and white pepper in the mouth.

2015 Norton Premium Claret (red). $25. [Excellent Value ♫♫]

Leather, ash and smoke on the nose, though subtle. Acidic with mild lemons in the mouth.

2016 Noiret (red). $25. [Good Value ♫]

Like a sweet Tempranillo. A stiff taste of wood in the mouth is offset by decent charcoal aromas and spice.

Below is an extract, about Missouri, from my book Vino Voices—Wine, Work, Life.

This piece includes the second half of a chapter about Stone Hill Winery. This ends a segment about co-owner Jon Held, and then includes an interview with their South African winemaker, Shaun Turnbull. [My writing is in italics; interview quotes are in non-italicized font.]

We return to the winery and enter a large tasting room. I look at photos on the wall. There is an award for Small Business 1982, presented to Jon’s parents by President Reagan in the Rose Garden.

Jon stands behind the counter and pours wine together with Shaun Turnbull. Shaun and his wife moved from South Africa five years earlier to work at Stone Hill. Shaun is young, tall, black-haired and wears a brown t-shirt. When Jon could find no local winemakers with the experience he desired, he recruited Shaun from South Africa.

Shaun:

I come from close to Stellenbosch in South Africa. Grew up there. College as well. I saw my future in the States. I’m pretty much a rock spider—an Afrikaaner who doesn’t speak very much English. I was brought up in Afrikaans culture, but also subtly with the westernization of South Africa. We seem to fit more in American culture than our own South African culture.

It’s pretty easy to make wine anywhere else in the world, but it’s not easy here. To make decent quality, you really have to know what you’re doing. It’s phenomenal. Pretty much the whole spectrum of wine styles is out there. Like Traminette and Vignoles grapes, which are very diverse. You can experiment and that’s really exciting. You don’t have to think inside the box. There’s always some new variety that pokes its head out that suits our climate. There’s a whole big pot of stuff you can work with.

Missouri River and bluffs

The climate for grape growing, for winemaking, that’s challenging. Last year, October; cold, wet, we never saw the sun. It was like living in the northwest. Raining all the time. The leaves were falling off and turning yellow. That was quite a challenge. Sometimes you can plan a harvest and what you’re going to do. But here it’s like four seasons in one day. The weather can change like that. You’ve seriously got to make decisions on your feet according to what we get.

What drew me also was that it was a relatively unknown wine region. There’s no vinifera grape varieties in it. The size of the operation also blew me away for a Midwest winery. Just seeing all the equipment and the amount of effort that goes into producing. It’s not just a fad. I come from an area and a wine growing culture where it’s very, “Oh, wineries, cool, let’s try that.” But business wise, they were run like a hobby. But you come here and see this and you’ve never heard about it. But it’s a success, and there’s potential. It’s also a niche. It’s got its own identity. It’s kind of an angle. It’s unique. You don’t want to get ridiculously commercialized. You want your identity.

We try to keep our grapes from Missouri. I like that idea, keeping your own identity. Some producers around here, they’re buying straight from California to make a Cabernet or Pinot Noir. Why do that? It’s just another bandwagon.

Vines belonging to Stone Hill Winery, Missouri

We descend to visit the old vaulted cellars.

Shaun:

These are the old cellars, dug out by Germans. Think it took them eighteen years to dig. Imagine them by candlelight. They didn’t have electricity back then. This is the Apostle cellar. Used to have twelve big casks, and every cask had an apostle carved on it. Prohibition destroyed most of it. Legend goes that some of the barrels got saved and put on a train and shipped off to Germany, but nobody really knows. I like drinking red wine. I like making red wine. I like thinking about red wine. Believe me and my wife, if it’s ninety, one hundred degrees out there, we’ll drink red wine. We really enjoy red wines. I seriously like coming up with the best red wine in the bottle, making red wine from beginning to end. I’m not one of those winemakers who likes the limelight. I like spending time in the cellar, the creating part. I enjoy that.

Winemaking is a very patient process. You can think a lot about it while you make it, while you wait for it. You can ponder on it. You really think about what you’re doing and how it’s going to turn out and what you need to do. Wine is like an oil painting—you’ve got layers and layers to make it more complex. The more complex the wine, the better it’s going to be.

What’s winemaking all about? Balance. What’s grape growing all about? Balance. You want balance at the end of the day. In your vineyard, you want balance and vigor. With canopy management, with crop load, everything’s got to be in balance. When it comes to the winery—acid, sugar, complexity, flavoring, density. All that’s got to be in balance.

It can be frustrating. You’ve got to take a lot of care with this product because it’s a living, breathing entity. It’s got microbes in it—bacteria, yeast. You can spoil it easily. You could lose some complexity, some of the fruit aroma. You’ve seriously got to be very careful. One of Missouri’s challenges is to get educated people into the industry. The key wineries, they’ve got educated, experienced people. The reason? They’re business owners and do not treat it like a hobby.

I didn’t want something to tie me down in the office. I wanted to create something and knew I may as well use my God-given gifts; my palate and nose. I’m from the suburbs and had to compete with a lot of guys coming from the agricultural community. That’s what drove me. I really wanted to make it and prove to myself that I can actually do this. I never look back.

Eventual arrival in southwest New Mexico…

Thanks for tuning in…

A Quick Spin Through North, East and Southern Europe

July 10, 2018

Summer is in full gear, and wines are flowing.

There have been few posts in the past month, as I was traveling a bit to northern, eastern and southern Europe. But before I get to those lands and wines…

First, a few recent Forbes posts are here, which include a quick spin through some shining wine regions of Hungary as well as southern Italy, a stellar wine meal with Angélus wine in Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux, and dinner at a beaut of a new restaurant in Paris. There’s also coverage of the Volvo Ocean Race from Sweden, as well as new maritime technology that includes ‘self-docking’ boats that may bring cocktail hour even faster on the seas.

Also, our Etalon Rouge 2016 red wine (100% Cabernet Sauvignon) has been bottled, and it’s the best yet—even better than 2015. As you can see in the photo below, U.K. wine writer and television personality Oz Clarke truly enjoyed a glass when we spent time together in Hungary recently.

Wine author Oz Clarke enjoying Etalon Rouge

Other good people met in Italy, including press, television and blog journalists from Italy and the U.S. also enjoyed glasses of the rouge.

Media personalities in Brindisi downing Etalon Rouge

Skipper Caudrelier

And, as you might remember, French Skipper Charles Caudrelier is seen here holding a bottle of Etalon Rouge from our meeting in Hong Kong back in February.

The news?

His Dongfeng team won the Volvo Ocean Race a few weeks ago in The Hague, Netherlands. Big victory. The New York Times included a full page spread about the story.

Also, if you are interested in my blog about publishing and ways of thinking, click here for today’s post from Roundwood Press (usually posts alternate each week between these two blogs, but this is a ‘loss of synch summertime,’ and for today, they come together….).

 

 

 

Now, a few unusual and worthwhile wines to try.

Visits to various locations in the past month have involved sampling multiple stellar vintages.

Those travels, with endless miles and meals and information overload (and constant note taking) within a short time mean it’s now time for much appreciated R&R back here at home base in Blaye, France.

It also means days of eating only fruits and vegetables and reducing coffee and wine intake to revamp the body.

We’ll start with Hungary.

HUNGARY

In Budapest, a funicular leads down to the Danube River

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Vineyards of the Somló region in Hungary

Vineyards of the Tokaj region of Hungary

Vineyards of the Hungary’s Eger region

A brief overview of Hungarian viticulture:

Wines here are generally increasing in quality, and younger winemakers are more focused on quality than quantity; reds make up 40% of wine production, and the best grapes generally include local Kékfrankos, often blended with international grapes in order to make Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone style wines.

Dry whites are dominated by Furmint (which is also the basis for the famed Tokaji sweet wine) while Viognier, Olaszrizling, Juhfark and Hárslevelü are also nudging up in quality.

Recently in the Eger wine region, ‘bulls blood’ blends (such as the reds mentioned above, with Kékfrankos as a base) known as ‘Egri Bikavér’ have been joined by white blends known as ‘Egri Csillag,’ which means ‘the star of Eger.’ Such wines must include juice from at least 4 white grapes, of which Carpathian Basin grapes should comprise at least 50%, while international varieties can make up the balance.

Budapest and the countryside are beautiful and the people are warm and friendly. Because winters are cold, try visiting in spring or summer. Also, boating on Lake Balaton is excellent.

One Hungarian winemaker in the Somló region names his 500 and 1500 liter oak casks after Hungarian kings from the past. One of these (or so he told us) was named Viagra (as seen on the label of a bottled barrel sample in the photo above, bottom right; notice Oz hovering nearby?).

ITALY

Palermo, Sicily

The countryside outside Sicily’s capital city of Palermo is gorgeous and includes such lesser known grape varieties as, for whites: Insolia, Catarratto, Grillo; for reds: Frappato and Nero D’Avola. The two with the strongest characteristics appear to be Insolia for white (think zesty lime and tangerine), and Nero D’Avola for red (think smoky and oaky aromas, and licorice and chocolate tastes).

On the southeastern coast of mainland Italy is the Puglia region, still seeking its own contemporary identity to present to visitors. It, too, offers wines from grapes you have likely never heard of (but don’t turn them down if someone thrusts any under your nose, preferably with a plate of steaming pesto risotto). Here, enjoy white wines made from the Minutolo grape (think flint and apricots) and red wines made from the Susumaniello grape (scent of charcoal and taste of blackberry pie).

Italian food, as always, blows visitors away. There’s detail, pride and a shovelful of sparkling flavors in every mouthful. Certainly, France, I love your magret canard (duck breast) and chocolatines, but when it comes to pasta, prosciutto and cinghiale wild boar, the descendants of the city of Rome should gastronomically lead the way.

Far to the north in Italy, in the Veneto province, the wine region of Conegliano-Valdobbiadne (which is now all classified at the highest DOCG level for quality) produces excellent Prosecco, but also a few (unexpected) stunner reds.

From the video below of a Valdobbiadene winemaker, you now know it’s encouraged to play with your food: create a little volcano in your risotto, then pour in Prosecco.

Who said growing up wasn’t fun?

Finally, as for caffeine in Italy, remember that no milk is allowed in a coffee beverage after 11.00 a.m. unless you’re at an airport. Consider it illegal. Seriously. I tried to order a cappuccino one evening near Palermo, but a local advised me that such an the act was treasonous, posing risk of imminent deportation.

Be forewarned, and instead, down an espresso.

Swimming pool at Baglio di Pianetto guest house south of Palermo, Sicily

SWEDEN

Just a quick note from the southwestern portion of this island riddled land…

Recently I enjoyed dinner with friends at The Grand Hotel of Marstrand, which is on an archipelago island northwest of Göthenburg. We traveled there via boat for almost an hour. This place is especially popular during the abbreviated Nordic summer here, and the wine and food pairing were excellent. Dinner included their famed langoustines, together with wine poured from a magnum of Alsace Riesling from Gustave Lorentz, as well as a Pinot Noir from Hahn Family Wines in Monterey County in northern California.

Both wines were excellent and the food and setting unique and splendid.

The takeaway came from speaking to a local, who told me that Sweden now produces its own wines.

That’s right! Swedish wines.

I’m working on sampling a few bottles to provide feedback. Soon enough.

Thanks for checking in again…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quirks And Qualities Of Life In France

June 5, 2018

The park within Place des Vosges, Marais, Paris

First a bit of news – weeks ago I had the fortune to be invited to Abruzzo in Italy to receive an international wine writing award (‘Parole di Vino,’ or ‘Words of Wine’) from Il Consorzio di Tutela dei Vini d’Abruzzo. Several of us, including Emanuele Gobbi (Spirit of Wine journalist), Giorgio d’Orazio (independent Abruzzo journalist) and Stevie Kim—Managing Director of Vinitaly International, received awards.

Grazie Mille…

Abruzzo is gorgeous, and the quality of life there is yet untrammeled by hoards of visitors.

More splendid news: our Etalon Rouge wine was just named by the U.K. Independent newspaper as one of the ‘wines of the week,’ within the Top Ten ‘Esoterica’ bottles at the recent London Wine Fair. Huge News!

Sadly, however, a rapid and vicious hailstorm more than a week ago damaged a massive amount of grapes in the Blaye and Bourg wine regions where we live (Etalon Rouge, fortunately, was not impacted). Some vineyards were completely knocked out. When the damage is better assessed, I’ll provide more information.

Now, a little about life in France….

Recently, I got lucky with trains.

Fortunately, the rail transportation strike did not take place last Wednesday, although it did on Monday and Tuesday. ‘Lucky’ because that let me travel to Paris for an appointment. The railway strike, which has lasted for months, is still on. Schedules have evolved a pattern: roughly (though not always) three days of strikes are followed by two days of trains. This cycle repeats—endlessly.

This strike—la grève—affects terrestrial transportation arteries that impact daily lives of millions of commuters who rely on them throughout France. It will apparently continue for at least another month. Perhaps more.

Looking out from Bordeaux’s train station – Gare Saint Jean

A national airline strike has also been going on for months. Air France canceled flights by the bucketful. I recently walked into Bordeaux’s airport to catch a KLM flight and the terminal was a ghost town. Only one ticket counter was open. After checking in, the airport seemed to be all mine: empty coffee stores, ample seats, no check out line after buying the Financial Times and passing through security was a breeze.

Flying the skies above Bordeaux and the Garonne River

Weeks ago I boarded a BA flight from Bordeaux to London. It was delayed for one hour—exactly—because air traffic controllers, not pilots, had decided to stage their own little strike. For one hour. At lunch time. Perhaps someone wanted more time for dessert and coffee? Although this had a minor impact on my schedule (I was late for a wine tasting—hardly a dire event) that was not true for a friend destined to Hong Kong via Heathrow for an important wine sales presentation. All because of a one hour strike. Ouch.

Lunch setting at the new Anne Restaurant of Pavillon de la Reine Hotel in Paris

This is all part of life in France. Call it cultural. As with any location, there are benefits and pitfalls of living here. Certainly, wine here is inexpensive and delicious, police are rarely militant about whether you actually halt at a stop sign (and—bizarrely enough for the linguistically proud French—these are actually red, hexagonal and include the English word ‘Stop’) while the selection of cheeses at any market is dizzyingly attractive.

Americans often gripe of encountering aloof or snobby Parisians. This would not happen if they merely dropped a polite ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’ in French. The exception is not in the city, but in the countryside—if you attempt to get a seat (and food) at a rural restaurant at 2 pm. Otherwise, the French are disarmingly charming and friendly.

Here is what I love about France: watching female bicyclists in Bordeaux—elegantly dressed, casually insouciant and capable of navigating, with aplomb, narrow twisted alleys in the company of snorting vans and gnashing dump trucks, all while displaying kittenish and coy zeal, as though auditioning for a Vogue photo shoot. It’s art.

Also: boulangeries and patisseries (the two differ) with their sinfully fresh, artful concoctions laid out each morning before the parade of burly farmers, female fishmongers and suited lawyers who march in to order their quotidian share of pain raisin or campagnarde (a type of baguette) or endlessly woven layers of scrumptious mille-feuille. And those chocolatine aux amandes? Dangerously delicious.

There is also lunch.

Ah, lunch in France. Legendary.

More ritual than meal, really. Baguette and bottle of wine and perhaps olives, but at least olive oil. A cork pops from a bottle of rosé and conversations stream, then torrent while plates appear with steamed white asparagus and grilled duck (topped with a nodule of foie gras), or roasted veal or pasta with slivers of salmon sprinkled with turmeric or tarragon. Then more corks pop and the Rhône Valley red begins to flow.

The French also have time.

Very important.

There is always time in France for conversation and friends. My friend Gabrielle is busy running her own wine consultant business: teaching classes, writing for Le Figaro, consulting for restaurants and appearing on a TV cooking show. Last week she booked dinner for us at a new restaurant, named ‘Anne,’ within a five-star hotel off Place des Vosges in the Marais (she prepared their wine list).

As always, when we met, she relaxed, never checked emails or took phone calls and instead engaged in witty, charming discourse over at least three courses and three bottles—Chablis, Bandol and Bordeaux—during a meal with digestifs that lasted, well, six hours (okay, a fourth bottle and the chef ended up at the table). Each time we meet, she has time. Like most French, she truly, irrefutably, inarguably and uncompromisingly has time for other people in this fleeting, precious, mysterious and limited concoction we call life.

 

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My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include pieces about how biohacking may change the health industry, wines from the Canary Island, a Sotheby’s wine auction in London and white grapes you have likely never heard of from Abruzzo in Italy. And more about that Parisian dinner to come.

Finally, a quick video I shot on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands some weeks ago. I’m including this of Pablo Matallana because he produces excellent wines—though only 500 reds a year and 70 whites. At 10 Euros a bottle? A steal.

As always, thanks for checking in.

 

 

Photo Splurge – Canary Islands and Madrid Countryside

May 15, 2018

It’s been awhile since posting – mostly due to travel. This post will include only recent images taken on the Canary Islands as well in the countryside around Madrid.

Recent Forbes posts I’ve written include text, and some are:

Why The Vines And Wines Of The Canary Islands Will Twist Your Head With Surprise

Why Swiss Wines Continue To Impress

Wines From Madrid Are Not What You Expect

The Entrepreneur Streamlining The Sale Of Top Wines

Why The Wine Vintage Of 2017 Has A Dual Personality

A Cookbook Created From Picnicking In Paris

Why Bhutan Is Still Out Of This World

 

Now, Photographs taken recently.

Lanzarote Isle, Canary Islands (Spain)

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Tenerife Isle, Canary Islands (Spain)

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Countryside surrounding Madrid (Spain)

Again, thanks for tuning in.

Forthcoming posts during the coming months will include a few doses of Italy as well as a European city more renowned for lager than for wine…

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