Saturday, March 31, 2012

Medoc & Margaux Wine Country - Chateau Giscours & Chateau Arsin

 Gardens, Wine & Chocolate!

Entrance to Chateau Giscours
The other day, 2 days before my mother was to leave, I asked her what she wanted to do for the day...what had we not done during her time here, that she wanted to do...Her comment - It would be nice to see some wine country.  Now around here..that's an easy thing to do...We are literally surrounded by some of the best wine area in France to our North, South and addition - Chateau Pape Clement sits smack in  the middle of our town - Pessac.  Because this was a last minute decision, I did a quick look on the Internet to see how we go about touring wineries here in France - imagining that it's different compared to my experiences in New York.

I quickly learned a couple thing to note:
1 - Wine touring season really doesn't begin until after April 1st or even the 15th
2 - Most vineyards (or Chateaux as they are called here) are often only open by appointment and one needs to call or email ahead to arrange a tour & tasting.

Chateau Giscours
The tourist office in Bordeaux recommended an organized bus tour or to head out to the Saint Emilion region as it's a little village and you can walk around yourself and most Chateaux have a branch store in that village.  Our problem, was I didn't really want to drive 45 min. East and just see one village.  I was more interested in seeing the countryside.

Grounds at Chateau Giscours
So the plan was to drive up to into the Medoc region -North of Bordeaux.  I hoped that even if the Chateaux's were not open, we could walk around  the gardens and grounds - some of which looked beautiful on the Internet.  My husband made a suggestion of Chateaux Giscours, as he was working on a committee with one of the owners. From their Internet site, it looked like we needed and appointment there too - but I hoped just to enjoy the grounds.

So off we went - Much to our delight, as we arrived at Chateau Giscours and parked, another small group of tourists like ourselves were coming out of a building.  They told us that tours were not available but the woman inside would do a tasting.  Sounded great to us.  Inside we were greeted by a delightful young women who offered us some of the Chateaux's wines.  She was extremely knowledgeable and we learned a lot not only about the different wines that are made at Chateau Giscours, but also about the French rating system (Grand cru classe, Cru Classe, Cru Bourgeois etc..), reputation of a vineyard, and the different appellation rules in France.  She even explained that Chateau Giscours had mapped out their soils to further understand their different grapes and tastes in each area.  This was probably one of the most informative and  interesting tastings I have done.  We were so appreciate for the discussion.  We were even lucky enough to taste a special wine that had been opened for one of the famous wine critics who had just visited earlier that week!

Tasting room at Chateau Giscours

One of the tasting rooms

Map of the different soils in the vineyards at Chateau Giscours

Another tasting room - Chateau Giscours

Looking out at the vineyards at Chateau Giscours
After our lovely tasting and wonderful conversation with Emilie at Chateau Giscours, we headed out and up toward the village of Margaux.  Margaux is another appellation area and home to many different vineyards or Chateaux in that area.  Just outside of the village, I pulled the car over to take the following photos.  It was one of those moments that you didn't know which view was the prettiest.  There are about 8 Chateaux located in the center of Margaux alone.  Stunning!

Another Chateau near Margaux

Standing outside of the village at Margaux 

Looking toward the village of Margaux

Another Chateau to our left

After enjoying and taking in the beautiful countryside, we headed into Margaux to find a restaurant for lunch.  At this lovely place, Restaurant La Savoie,  we enjoyed some wonderful fish and a heavenly dessert of Sabayon des fruits! (Warm fruit mixed in a light custard sauce)

So in perfect French style, as we were walking around the village after lunch, we came across this wonderful chocolate shop.  The chocolate was delicious, but the chocolate dress - Impressive!!  The dress had been created and worn at a Chocolate festival!

Chocolatier - Mademoiselle  de Margaux
The chocolate and wire dress!

As we left Margaux, we headed up North - further into the Medoc region - enjoying more of the countryside and marveling in the number of vineyards in this area.  Quite impressive!

As we drove a bit further North into  the village of Arsin, we came across Chateau Arsin which was also open for tasting.  Again, these grounds were great to walk around and so unique.  I loved the orange trees out front of the villa along with the statues and fountains.

Chateau Arsin

Orange trees in front of Chateau Arsin

Statue in the Jardin
Fountain in the Jardin of Chateau Arsin

This was a wonderful day!  Full of so many of my favorite things - great wine, beautiful scenery, lovely lunch and delicious chocolate!  I will remember this area and look forward to visiting some of the other Chateaux in the region - hopefully we will plan ahead next time and remember to make appointments!

Monday, March 26, 2012

It's beach time! - The Great Dune du Pyla

La Dune Du Pyla

This has is one of my favorite places!  I have visited it several times over the years and each time I go back, I still stand in awe and amazement of this natural wonder!!  This is the great Dune du Pyla - This is Europe's highest sand dune, measuring 107 meters in height.  It is also 2500 meters long.  It's located about 45 minutes West of Bordeaux on the Atlantic Ocean, sitting just South of the Arcachon Basin. For this post, I find it interesting to do a bit of comparison between my visit here last August and again last week.

Last summer, while we were visiting family in Southern France, we decided it was time to bring our older girls for a visit to the Dune du Pyla.  We figured they were old enough to do it and would probably find it interesting.  I still laugh at my oldest daughter's initial remark when I said we were going to visit a sand dune..."Mom, I want to go the beach and swim, not go play in a sand pile."  Little did she know, that THIS sand pile was a natural wonder!  The following photo is the bottom of the dune last August when we climbed up with our kids (and a lot of other tourists!)

We have learned over the years, that in the summer it's best to climb this dune close to dinnertime, as it's often very sunny and hot mid-day!  So up we went...holding cameras and shoes.  My husband, the traditional Frenchman, chose not to take the stairs, but to climb up along the far right side the "natural" way with no stairs...At the time, I told him that he was nuts...if stairs were provided, then why shouldn't I take them, let alone hiking straight upstairs was exhausting enough.  The kids had fun, initially tried racing up the stairs, but found they needed to slow down as it was taller and longer than they thought.  I remember just looking at my older 2 girls and my 16 year old niece as they stood with mouths open staring up this hill of sand.  As we all got to the top, it just stretched out in front of us - and gave me that feeling of awe and serenity that I often get when I visit this dune.
View from the top - August 2011
View of the back side of Dune - Aug. 2011

What's utterly amazing about this dune is that it's just sand, sand and more sand!  The sand is the finest, softest sand I've ever felt.  I just learned the other day, that this is the finest grain sand found in Europe!  Just take your shoes off and scrunch your toes and it feels so good!  Looking out at this whole dune is like looking at a desert.
Looking South along the dune
My girls, my niece & myself

So, having just been to the dune in August and remembering how impressive it always is...It was high on the list of places to visit with my mother.  Since, the weather is warming up now in later March, I thought it would be a great place to go....Pick a nice sunny day and go hike up the dune...She could do it...the stairs wouldn't be too bad.  Well to my surprise - March is not June - The following photos shows how the dune looks from the bottom now - March 2012
Standing at the bottom of the dune

Looking up to top of dune from the bottom

I learned the hard way...that they only install the stairs in the summer!  So there I stood at the bottom with my 74 year old mother - telling her that the view on the other side is stunning...but not quite sure if we were going to see it!  Her first reaction was "Wow, but I'm not climbing that!".  I agreed, but then just started walking little, by little..I said to her - "Let's just go part way - at least you will be able to look back toward the forest a bit".  She agreed and followed...we made it to the half way mark, where the ridge line went left and sloped more gently up the dune...Once I got there, it didn't look that hard - but I still needed to not only convince myself that I could do it...but also convince my mother.  As luck would have it, there were about 4 school groups of around 25 students each who were at the bottom and started up the dune with their guides...of course we let them pass us..watching them trudge up the mountain!  But then I noticed that they left nice solid footprints in the would probably be easier to step in their prints than to make our I walked a bit - following the newly made pathway.  It was definitely easier...My Mother decided to follow and after 20 minutes we were looking down from above!!  More than we bargained for a hike - but wonderful all the same.

Here's the view in March 2012

Looking into the Arcachon Basin

Looking at the Atlantic Ocean
Back side of the the dune

The Ocean and other smaller dunes with waves further out.
Looking South- March 2012
This is exactly why this is one of my favorite places near water here in France!  It's stunningly beautiful and truly very peaceful.  We were fortunate on that Tuesday, that there were not too many people climbing and walking around, so it was very special.  Coming back 7 months later also showed me how much this dune changes with the wind & general erosion.  I can understand why each year they need to take the stairs's a constantly changing landscape.

I'm very proud of my 74 year old mother who made the climb up - and was definitely a great sport about it. She also agreed that the view and the dune itself was certainly worth the climb!  I'm looking forward to taking our next visitors up here and also again seeing how much it changes.

Why I love Sunday Afternoons - Parc de Majolan

Parc Majolan

It's Sunday afternoon...on a beautiful sunny day here in Bordeaux.  I thought it would be a lovely afternoon to take the kids out for a picnic and afternoon walk in a park.  My husband had a lot of work to complete this afternoon so it seemed like a good plan to be out and give him some piece and quiet.  Now this is one of the reasons I adore Sundays here in France...nothing is open past noon - so you are limited to just enjoying the great outdoors!  I love this concept and it's peacefulness.

So off we went today to explore another park in Bordeaux area.  I chose one I had hear a lot about - Parc de Majolan near Blanquefort - North of Bordeaux.  It's wonderful as it's only about a 15 minute drive from our house!  So I packed our lunch cooler backpack and off we went.

I was so impressed with this park!  It was stunningly beautiful and so different than any other park I've been in.  Not only was it the normal park, spread out over acres including wide walking trails through the woods and along waterways, but there were also some unique things to discover.

First we encountered some very friendly otters swimming in the water along the walkway.  They were obviously use to being feed bread as they were swimming right up to the shoreline looking up to all of us onlookers.  The kids loved watching them swim in circles.  I don't think we have even seen otters in the nature that come this close.

The friendly otters

The girls watching the otters
Right up to the shoreline

As we walked further into the park, we came upon the Grotto or the caves.   This structure was man made back in the late 1800's.  I was so fascinated by the park that I returned home to search about it's history. This park was only recently acquired by the town in 1984.  Prior to that it was a private garden that was created and designed to demonstrate different garden styles and architectural wonders of the era.  It was also designed to mix buildings & structures in harmony with nature.  The grotto or caves designed to show how water can flow around, and through and be natural at the same time.  The gardens were also styled to be more English at the time - in harmony with nature as opposed to a French garden with a more ornate and sculpted feel.    The following photos hopefully show off this beautiful spot.

These structures were truly fascinating and so fun to take photos of..  Due to the age, one can't get all the way in and under but there were still many fun tunnels, lookouts and underpasses that the kids and I explored.  Again, this is why I love Sunday here!  I know that it often is easier to think about errands to do...but since everything is closed, it's great just to enjoy nature!

As we walked through the park, the kids also enjoyed perching on rocks, walking in some of the rock beds, and walking through some caves.

Of course, like many parks, we found a playground to stop at and also a fun area to eat our lunch.  We ended the afternoon at the cafe with ice cream!!  Great way to spend a Sunday!  Looking forward to finding more parks - but this one will certainly be hard to match.  I know we will definitely return for more exploring and hanging out.

I have to say the weather also made it also very special...end of March and almost 80 degree Fahrenheit!  Relaxing to return home to have a nice dinner and unwind.

Look at us...inside a cave
On top of a ledge - my three sweethearts!

Sisterly help

Ice cream is always a great treat!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Weekend in Stockholm, Sweden..beautiful city!

Took a brief sojourn in Stockholm, Sweden..

I spent last weekend in Stockholm, Sweden visiting my good friend and college roommate.  Hard to believe we have known each other 25 years now!!  Since my mother is visiting us here in France this month, we thought it would be a great time to take a mother/daughter weekend together.   We haven't done a mother/daughter weekend in ages!  Actually, it takes me back to my summers in college, when we use to leave my brothers and father for a weekend in the summer and go away together.  Nice times/fond memories.

So last we went.  For me, it was the first time I've been away from all three of my children in a few years.  I think the last time, my youngest, who is now 4 was just a baby.  My husband dropped us off in the airport in Bordeaux and off we went to Stockholm.  After a changeover in Paris, we arrived for dinner in Stockholm.  We were met by my wonderful friend, her husband and their young son.  It was so great to see them!  Especially, to start noting the differences between the American, French and Swedish cultures.

Old Town in Stockholm - Gamalastan

Main square in Gamalastan - red building had an awesome cafe

Kaffe Koppen menu...loved the language - Jatte Kanelbulle =Cinnamon bun
Kardemumma Kaka = Cardamon Cake

Spent a day touring the Old town - Gamalastan.  Architecture very different than France - fewer balconies and taller buildings.  The colors - Ochre, Barn Red, & blue were all over the city!  Even on a cloudy day was very colorful!  Now French pastry is one thing...but the Swedes make delicious Cinnamon rolls and Cardamon Cake.  Most every cafe had their own variety.  We definitely partook in this wonderful treat!  Enjoyed many different buildings, churches, & harbor.  Also noteworthy, the tour of City Hall where the Annual Nobel Prize award banquet is held each December - very cool!

A few other highlights are included below in the photographs.

 Nobel Museum
 Beautiful Swedish glass
The Dola horse - symbol representing Swedish culture

It was funny comparing the size of things...Here in France things are small...small houses, small apartments, small yards, small refrigerators, small ovens, etc...As an American moving to France, we down-sized...  In Sweden, it was larger again..taller houses, larger homes, bigger appliances.  Then again, as a culture, Swedes are taller people than the French. 

It was also interesting to see the Royal Palace and notice how fascinated the Swedes are with their royal family.  It reminded me of my days in England and their love of their royals!  But then again, the French seem fascinated with their President and his beautiful model wife, Carla Bruni.  It seems most cultures now a days look to their leaders, or stars to see what their lives are like...especially when it seems so different from most of our own.  

I think the other thing that I was very impressed by was that Stockholm actually sits on many different islands.  There is actually over 10,000 islands in the Archipelago that spreads out beyond Stockholm.  It made for some beautiful scenery.

It was also strange there for me as I don't know or speak any Swedish.  Totally least in France, I'm proficient enough in the language to understand signs, read and speak.  I was a fish out of water in Sweden...couldn't read most signs, let alone pronounce any word at all.  Luckily for us, our wonderful hosts are bilingual and as are most Swedes.  It's just a strange feeling when you can't communicate at all!  I also have to say, it's so nice to tour with natives to the area.  I learned a lot about Swedish culture, history and food.

So that's my observations in a nutshell - it was a whirlwind trip and these are just a few highlights...and things that stuck out in my mind.  I look forward to visiting again with my family in tow!

Fun memories and feeling lucky to be able to travel there this year.

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