Today we turn 300

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Since April 2011 there have been 299 posts to this blog so this one is officially number 300. Over the last 2 and a bit years we’ve covered our trip to Europe – which was the reason for starting this … Continue reading

Echoes of Champagne

A friend is planning a trip to Epernay, in the heart of the champagne region, during the upcoming northern summer.

This brought back memories of the time Jean and I spent in Epernay in the summer of 2007. We thoroughly enjoyed the experience, the cuisine and, of course, the champagne.

Grapes from the champagne region are special. The region is located around 49˚ north of the equator which is as far north as grapes will ripen. And the grapes inherently have a high level of acidity – ideal for sparkling wines in general and champagne in particular. As a result the town is home to many famous champagne houses.

We stayed at a boutique hotel just outside Epernay called Royal Champagne. Located on a hill over looking a valley filled with vines and with Epernay in the distance, it was the perfect spot to drink in the region.

The hotel was originally a coach house on the main road running east from Paris. It has hosted, among others, the Emperor Napolean, hence the designation “Royal” Champagne which has stayed with the establishment ever since. It was a magical place with a superb restaurant and a bar where the Emperor himself could have enjoyed a drink.

No trip to Epernay is complete without a tour of the cellars of at least one major champagne house. We chose Moët & Chandon who have 28 kms of  cellars running under Epernay. And somewhere in that 28kms is their tasting room with a very fine selection of champagnes to savour.

Most importantly the issue of pronunciation of the name is dealt with. The correct pronunciation is not “mo-way” but “mo-wett” or “m-wet“, as Claude Moët’s name is Dutch, not French.

That’s worth a toast – a votre sante!

A year ago today – triumph and tragedy

It began as a day like all others as the sun climbed over the Crete hills to the east – except that we were up early enough to enjoy the sunrise and completely confuse our girls when we gave them each a pat on the head and departed for Siena. We were cutting it fine and the mood in the car was sombre. There was none of the usual banter as we headed along the SR2 into Siena.

Thankfully we didn’t get stuck behind any of the local autobuses on the way and as we drove through the Porta Tufi and into the old city to park we had 10 minutes left for the walk to the Campo.

It was Rugby World Cup final day. Half a world away two teams were about to go head to head to determine who were world champions – our might All Blacks or the unpredictable and dynamic French.

We arrived at the bar in time to find a seat amongst the small but growing number of New Zealand fans and the far more numerous French fans. We ordered our usual RWC colazione (breakfast) – cappuccino and tea, followed by white wine and birra. The discipline required to start drinking at 8am was something we had mastered over the preceding 6 weeks as we had watched the pool games, the quarter finals and the semi finals. In fact we were well known in the bar and our order arrived at the table the same time we did.

The game was engrossing. What everyone expected to be an easy All Black victory became an arm wrestle with the French doing what they do best – being unpredictable and playing ten times better than they did in the early rounds of the tournament – and with 15 minutes to go the score was 8-7 to the All Blacks. The remained of the match was agonising with neither team able to get in the killing blow.

The tension in that little bar in Siena was palpable. The Kiwis had gone quiet while the French supporters were vocal as the underdogs refused to roll over.

Victory for the All Blacks, when it came, was more relief than triumph.

After congratulations all round we left the bar and stepped out into the sunlight of the Campo. We headed to our usual bar – Al Mangia – to celebrate with a glass or two of Prosecco.

At Al Mangia the talk was not of rugby but of motorcycling. Motorcycle ace and local hero Marco Simoncelli had died after falling off his bike in the Malaysian MotoGP earlier that morning and the bar patrons were noticeably affected. Simoncelli was just 24 years old.

It was, it turned out, a day of triumph overshadowed by tragedy.

In defence of photo albums

An early casualty of the digital photo revolution was the traditional photo album. During our stay in the UK and Italy last year I took 4,626 photos. Of that vast number exactly none have been printed out.

They are all stored on my iMac, and on two back up drives that sit humming away next to it. If we want to show people the photos we gather around  the television and run a slide show with commentary provided by Jean and I as our guest’s eyes slowly glaze over.

We have lost the tactile fun that is a photo album – and we were reminded of this when my brother and his wife visited last weekend. They had just returned from a trip to Texas and the East Coast of the USA. Upon returning, brother Geoff had taken the memory card from his camera to the local photo printing place and returned with 6×4 glossies. All of which are now in photo albums.

Going through them was a pleasure. All of us huddled around the albums as they were passed around. Fingers pointing at certain shots and describing the situation that went before or after. Turning pages to connect one shot with another. We spent an hour going through them and didn’t realise where the time went.

So here’s the thing. If you’ve got all your photographs sitting on hard drives or CDs of DVDs, go non-digital and print off an album or two. I intend to.

The book of the blog

I started writing this post as an endorsement of a fantastic service for turning your blog posts into a book – Feedfabrik.com. But I’ve just learnt that, due to problems between the partners, they have stopped taking orders, their website is offline, and it is unlikely to return anytime soon.

I first used Feedfabrik last year to produce a simple black and white book of the first 100 toscanakiwi posts which we had delivered to our cottage in Tuscany. We carefully carried it around Europe on our travels and it’s sitting, slightly battered and beaten up, in the bookcase next to me.

A month ago I ordered two volumes of blog posts (about 200 posts in all) hard bound on high quality paper and in full colour because they produce the pictures that go with blog posts as well as the writing. The books arrived last week and they look absolutely stunning.

It is a real shame that others won’t be able to make use of this excellent service in the foreseeable future.

Our thanks to the team at Feedfabrik.com. We love your work and hope that you’ll be back soon.

One year ago today

This time last year we had taken a break from the hectic pace of Tuscany, packed up the trusty Peugeot and headed north to France – the Cote d’Azur to be precise.

We had arranged to swap cars in Nice returning a slightly beat up Peugeot 308SW and picking up a brand new shiny Renault Megane Estate. Jean’s sister, brother-in-law and their baby James had been staying in Nice for a week relaxing so we met them and then moved about 10 minutes along the coast to the small seaside village of Villefranche sur Mer.

With bustling Nice on one side and glamorous Cap Ferrat on the other it always amazes me that this seaside village retains an air of calm and relaxation. There is nothing better than a quiet morning cafe at the hotel followed by a wander through the local markets and lunch on the Quai de l’Amiral Courbet with the sea lapping at your feet.

The panorama shot (made up of 6 individual photos covering 180 degrees) is taken from our balcony at Hotel Welcome, an institution in the village and a place we’ve stayed every time we’ve visited – which must be half a dozen times in the last decade. The Hotel has a wonderful manager who speaks excellent english, has a wonderfully dry sense of humour, and is a keen rugby follower. Even in August last year he was picking a France versus All Blacks Rugby World Cup final and an All Black victory. An easy one was his pick.

A view of Villefranche sur Mer with Cap Ferrat in the background

Eating out in Calais

Calais is not the greatest place on earth. In fact it’s somewhere that you pass through rather than stay. We stayed for two nights on our trip north from Italy in December because the girls needed to pass a vet check before entering the UK – a worm tablet and a dose of Frontline, €110 for that, merci.

We stayed in the old part of Calais and, as the weather was cold and wet, didn’t venture far from the hotel.

On the first night we asked the hotel receptionist where we could eat. She recommended a bistro down the road so all four of us went out for dinner. A few metres down the road we found Au Vieux Fourneau. A small and quaint bistro exuding French charm and on a cold wet night it looked very welcoming.

The service was that wonderfully aloof French style where you should feel grateful for being served – not a great start. But then there was the food.

It was really good. I mean really good.

To be honest it was not what we were expecting. We ordered from the set menu and received a complimentary “chef’s bite” to begin. Jean had a homemade terrine for her entree while I tried the fish pie. Mains were a Salmon Penne and a deconstructed Shepherds Pie. Desserts were the inevitable Creme Brulee and a very tasty Red Berry Crumble.

None of these bland descriptions come close to doing the dishes justice. This was French cuisine to a very high standard. Washed down with a half bottle of red and half bottle of white, it made for a very pleasant evening.

The girls behaved themselves sitting quietly under the table so all was well with the world. We were so impressed that we returned the next night and sampled more from the menu.

The cost for this three course meal? Look at the pictures and let us know what you think.