A Travellerspoint blog

August 2010

RIOJA WINE AND CORK TREES

We crossed the Pyrenees through the long Somport tunnel and could not believe how the country on the Spanish side is so arid in comparison with the lushness of France. The dryness was suddenly relieved by the incredibly turquoise blue water of the Yesa Dam. We wondered whether it was radioactive, as there was hardly any sign of human habitation along its shores!
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We passed Pamplona, with only days to go before the annual Running of the Bulls Festival.
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Villages such as this one, Berdun, are built on hilltops.

Villages such as this one, Berdun, are built on hilltops.


IMG_2913.jpgLots of windpower in N Spain although La Mancha is much further south!

Lots of windpower in N Spain although La Mancha is much further south!


Our first campsite in Estella had a swimming pool, which was a great relief after the long, dry and hot drive.

We then had 2 days in Logroño, the capital of the Rioja wine region. Our campsite was conveniently located, 10 minutes walk from the centre of the old town, next to the sludgy river Ebro. We visited the cathedral de Santa Maria de la Redonda to try to escape the oppressive heat.
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The highly ornate wall behind the altar was awe-inspiring, and worth paying 1 euro to light it up.
IMG_2944.jpgIMG_2947.jpgBeautiful statues but no tombs like the English cathedrals.

Beautiful statues but no tombs like the English cathedrals.


An artwork attributed to Michelangelo is kept securely barricaded behind the altar, but we declined to pay to light it up.
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A meal at a pavement cafe was good value [€9.90 for 3 courses with bread, a bottle of water and a bottle of wine] and enough to lay us out for the rest of the afternoon. Oh, la siesta is a wonderful idea!

The next day we wanted to visit a bodega [winery] to sample the renowned Rioja wines. In Spain one has to make an appointment to taste wines! The first two bodegas David phoned only had tours in Spanish that day, and “no” we couldn’t just come and taste! We were given an appointment at Bodegas Ontanon for 12.00, and arrived to find an extremely plush, family-run establishment.
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Our guide gave us a fascinating tour for an hour.
The cellar where the Gran Reserva is left to mature in bottles for 3 years, after being in oak casks for 2 years.

The cellar where the Gran Reserva is left to mature in bottles for 3 years, after being in oak casks for 2 years.


The many beautiful sculptures and stained glass artworks throughout the cellar were specially created to reflect the Greek mythology of viticulture.
IMG_2955.jpgA Centaur, with Oinopion, son of Dionysius and Ariadne, on his back.

A Centaur, with Oinopion, son of Dionysius and Ariadne, on his back.

Persephone is credited with giving birth to the first grape pip, and this beautiful statue shows her breast-feeding it.

Persephone is credited with giving birth to the first grape pip, and this beautiful statue shows her breast-feeding it.


Both sides of her face, light and dark, representing summer and winter seasons, are reflected around her on the marble walls.

Both sides of her face, light and dark, representing summer and winter seasons, are reflected around her on the marble walls.

The love story between Dionysius and Ariadne.

The love story between Dionysius and Ariadne.


IMG_2971.jpgBacchus

Bacchus

Ganymede, the cup-bearer of Zeus, provides the link between the cellar and the outside world.

Ganymede, the cup-bearer of Zeus, provides the link between the cellar and the outside world.


The wine-tasting itself was an experience to be remembered; our guide, Jesus, showed us in detail how to taste their Reserva 2001 for 30 minutes, then produced some tapas, after which we had to taste again and see how differently the wine tastes. We only tasted two wines, but how heavenly they were! We could only afford to buy three bottles of the good stuff, which we decided to keep for our birthdays.
Relaxing with a beer later in Plaza San Augustin to beat the heat.

Relaxing with a beer later in Plaza San Augustin to beat the heat.

We still had two days of hard driving before we reached the Algarve. Central Spain is very arid and the roads very straight and long.
Vineyards in the Rioja district.

Vineyards in the Rioja district.

Poppies amongst the wheat.

Poppies amongst the wheat.

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Our Molly [GPS] again let us down by taking us around in circles, looking for our campsite near Plasencia, which was our half-way stop between Logrono and Albufeira. When we eventually found it, more by luck than persistence, we were pleased to find a shady pitch and a large swimming pool. That night we both got massacred by mozzies, and David started the runs for the next 5 days.
Millions of cork trees in Spain and Portugal along our route. Many have been harvested, the lighter the colour the more recently harvested.

Millions of cork trees in Spain and Portugal along our route. Many have been harvested, the lighter the colour the more recently harvested.

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Ubiquitous olive plantations.

Ubiquitous olive plantations.

Storks are everywhere, and structures are often erected to encourage them to nest.

Storks are everywhere, and structures are often erected to encourage them to nest.

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Finally, at the end of the second day we arrived in Albufeira, in the Algarve region of south Portugal.

Posted by davidsandi 10:40 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

TWO NIGHTS WITH FRANCE PASSION

Our first night after leaving Bob and Bear, we stopped at Chateau la Piolette SE of Bordeaux.
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We took a wrong turn to a Chateau Prioulette, then had to ask for directions to la Piolette. We were warmly welcomed by the wine farmer and his wife, Alain and Dominique, who are 3rd generation on the farm and very sad that their kids are not able/interested to continue the line. They did not speak a word of English, but we managed with our limited French. She presented us with a chilled bottle of their dry white wine for supper, which we had on some picnic benches overlooking the vineyard, while we watched 2 pairs of hoepoes scratching amongst the vines.
IMG_2844.jpgSandi, thrilled to discover that Toulouse-Lautrec used to live nextdoor!

Sandi, thrilled to discover that Toulouse-Lautrec used to live nextdoor!

We had the use of a very nice shower/toilet built specially for campers next to the wine shed. In the morning she gave us a private wine-tasting and we bought some of their delicious wines before moving on. She also gave us the remainder of the bottles we had tasted! Such generous and friendly people, and altogether a lovely experience!
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We spent a couple of hours of the morning walking around the old village of Cadillac and visited the Duc's Chateau.
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Every room had a huge ornate fireplace.
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Tapestries in blue and gold adorned the high walls.

Tapestries in blue and gold adorned the high walls.

IMG_2874.jpgIMG_2876.jpgSome of the wooden ceilings are ornately decorated.

Some of the wooden ceilings are ornately decorated.


Help, I'm starving and can't get out of my bedroom!

Help, I'm starving and can't get out of my bedroom!


A curved, solid stone stairway for use by the servants.

A curved, solid stone stairway for use by the servants.


In restoring the building we felt the French "sanitised" much of the reconstruction to look nice, thereby losing much of the authenticity. This stairwell had not been restored, and looked real, but was barred to the public!
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The garden at the back of the chateau is another missed opportunity, as it is neglected and inaccessible.

The garden at the back of the chateau is another missed opportunity, as it is neglected and inaccessible.


This road in the town has been lived in since 1280 AD.

This road in the town has been lived in since 1280 AD.

We then headed down to the Pyrenees and Molly [our GPS] got us completely lost in the hills. We then retraced our steps and followed the limited directions in the France Passion book and found the farm [When in doubt read the instructions!]. It was a ramshackle place up in the foothills of the Central Pyrenees, with sheds filled with old farm wagons and wheelchairs going back at least a hundred years. No wonder it is called a "Conservation farm"! The farmer's wife welcomed us and spoke several languages including English. She invited us to gather mushrooms, and even gave us some much-prized Boleto [also known as Cep] for our supper!
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The toilet hut was quite a way through the long grass and quite wild! Sandi opted to hold on! As we settled down for the night a buck came grazing nearby.
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So, our first two host-sites with France Passion were lovely but very different. We think it has the potential to allow one to experience rural France in a very close-up and informal way.

We spent the morning in Lourdes, enjoying the market and marvelling at the excessive symbols of religiosity on sale everywhere, before setting out to cross the Pyrenees.
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Posted by davidsandi 10:25 Archived in France Comments (0)

SUN AND RED SQUIRRELS IN VENDÈE

Our friend Bear contacted us while we were in West Yorkshire, to ask if we could extend our stop-over with them, to look after the cats and booked guests for a week, while she visited her very ill mother in Sheffield. We crossed the Channel from Dover and, having landed in Calais, we set off on the long road to Vendée. We were amazed at how much of the land in France is used for agriculture; maize, sunflowers, wheat, beets, rape-seed, fruits and vines, and beautiful, sturdy charolais cattle everywhere.
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Not only was the French terroir enticing, but we witnessed the most spectacular red sun sinking slowly down as we approached Rouen. We wanted to park in an Aire for the night, but in order to find one we had to get onto the peáge autoroute. We eventually found one and settled down for the night [the toll cost us €11 but the parking was free].
En route we crossed the mighty Loire river.
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We arrived at la Maison Neuve the next afternoon, and soon our chums, Bear and Bob, were finalising their plans to catch a plane to Leeds and a ferry to Plymouth. Having been primed by Bear regarding the needs of their expected guests we were to mind, we looked forward to meeting them. Once we had greeted the French ladies for the chambres d’hotes and given them their breakfast, we welcomed a young English couple booked into one of the gites [holiday cottage]. All that remained of our duties were to water the garden and feed the cats, birds and squirrels.
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The courgettes grew so fast they became marrows in the blink of an eye.

The courgettes grew so fast they became marrows in the blink of an eye.


We so enjoyed being back in Vendée, just loving the relaxed lifestyle. Contrary to our previous visit, when we were escaping the Venetian freeze at New Year, the weather was hot and bright all week with the temperatures in the 30s.

We're not sure who was enjoying the sunshine more - us, or the darling moggies.
Flattened by the heat

Flattened by the heat

We started doing Qigong [thanks to Simon's instruction] in the back garden, facing the river, with the solid farmhouse behind us. Perfect placement!
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La Maison Musings ......... To stand outside at dusk, at about 9pm, and soak in the simmering end of the day, is heavenly. There is a calmness, in spite of the beads of sweat on the skin and the buzz of myriad flies and bees [frantically finishing their business before the light goes]. Occasionally there is a slight breeze, wafting the scent of lilac and roses from the climbers around the door. The Little owl and her fledgling scrutinise the courtyard, from the safety of the chimney pot, “chirring” raucously whenever a cat saunters into their sights. Then without a flutter, they glide into the chestnut tree nearby.
Lord of "Owl" he surveys.

Lord of "Owl" he surveys.


Long shot of Captain Inscrutible.

Long shot of Captain Inscrutible.


The light finally fades and even the hum quietens down, as one reluctantly steps back inside.

We picked the last of the cherries with a long ladder, and clusters of blackcurrants, which were delicious as a coulis with crème fraiche. Enjoying leisurely, late suppers in the big farm kitchen is bliss, especially the very affordable crevettes, duck a l’orange and galettes. We also really enjoyed visits to the French supermarkets, picking out the delicacies we had been hankering after since our last visit. What a pleasure to savour these treats again, but this time in the sunshine, under the umbrella, with the cats snoozing nearby or flirting with us for tidbits .
IMG_2711.jpg IMG_2792.jpgIMG_2789.jpgApple tart making, with evidence of our personal red wine tasting in progress.

Apple tart making, with evidence of our personal red wine tasting in progress.

We came down one morning to make tea, and saw the baby red squirrel, who had been keeping its distance, way up the drive at its own tree-trunk feeding hatch, having a feast on the bird feeder outside the kitchen window. Such a thrill!
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It was soon joined by its mother, and we revelled in the spectacle, taking lots and lots of photos.
Mama peanut cruncher.

Mama peanut cruncher.

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Red squirrels are almost extinct in Britain, as they have been squeezed out by the hardier, and more aggressive, grey squirrels.

On Saturday we visited the market at Fontenay-le-Comte, which was bustling and far bigger than the one we had visited in winter.
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We had some delicious [if somewhat light] galettes for lunch, in the shady garden of a little restaurant. Since the temperature had soared to a very humid 38 °C, we needed the shade. Even the pastis with ice-cubes and cold water didn't help to lower the internal temp!
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The charming young English couple staying in the gite introduced us to France Passion, a different approach to camping. It requires an annual membership, which allows for an overnight stay on selected French farms and vineyards. You simply choose a site, arrive and greet your hosts, and stay overnight for free! While some sites are grand and provide well for campers, other sites have rather limited facilities. It promised a fun way to meet the locals and get away from the big campsites.

One sunny afternoon we went for a walk in the Mervent forest, where we had picked holly in the winter. We had just been reading about snakes and snake-bites in France, so Sandi was adamant about keeping to well-defined paths, while David poo-pooed the whole idea - in spite of there being a dead snake on the road en route to the forest. Portent of things to come, or self-fulfilling prophesy? The path we chose started out well, but soon became quite rustic. Suddenly there was an almighty rustle in the leaves to one side and Sandi saw a sturdy silver-grey whopper of a snake disappear beneath the leaves. slaty_grey_snake.jpg
Much to David's dismay that was the end of the walk in that part of the forest! The rest of the walk proceeded rather sedately along an open bicycle track.

Bob and Bear returned at the weekend, and we started on the long journey towards Portugal and our time-share week. We had planned to visit Provence for a few days en route, but since our 2-day Vendéean stay had extended to a week, Plan-B was implemented. Provence would have to wait for our return from Spain. Fortunately we managed to secure a campsite near Avignon to coincide with the change of plans.

Our last supper in the Vendée was with friends, at a Pizzeria - not a Nye-favourite option [due to David's cheese and wheat allergies], but it was fun, even though we had hoped to finally get to eat at Le Donjon. We were amused to see that all the pizzas and pasta dishes were presented with a raw egg yolk on the top! This caused quite a bit of consternation at our table, as it was definitely not to everyone's taste. Maybe Italian food should be confined to Italian cooks?!

The journey back to La Maison, for our last sleep before hitting the road again, was illuminated by a beautiful full moon.
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Posted by davidsandi 10:11 Archived in France Comments (0)

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