Today we turn 300


This gallery contains 191 photos.

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!

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.

Our night in the Alps

Girls relaxing in our room at La Ferme de Cortanges

After our trip through the Alps from Italy we stayed at a Bed and Breakfast in the small village of Cernex located in the Rhone Alps region of France, very close to Switzerland and only about 30 kms from Geneva.

Our hostess was the lovely Rachel Schneider at the beautifully presented La Ferme de Cortanges or Cortange Farm in english. It is an old farm house which Rachel and her husband have restored and turned into a thriving business.

Every room of the seven room establishment was dressed differently and all were located around a comfortable central salon.

For dinner Rachel recommended a local restaurant which served traditional french cuisine. The team headed there for a delightful meal – €41 for four courses plus a bottle of excellent white wine.

After a wee taster from the kitchen of Mussel Soup I tried the fresh oysters and Jean tried the fresh salmon. Both were great. The oysters weren’t quite Bluff Oyster quality (for non New Zealand readers Bluff Oysters are from the deep south of New Zealand and available each year for a limited season. they are fat and full of flavour – for kiwis the benchmark by which all other oysters are measured).

For mains we couldn’t pass by the Boeuf with Bearnaise sauce which was followed by a selection of cheeses from the cheese cart and then souffle with fresh berries for dessert. All stunning.

It was the first time we had taken the girls to dinner in a formal restaurant for a while and, thankfully, they behaved.  Daisy even took a shine to the young couple sitting next door to us and spent time starring at them as they ate.

I didn’t want to ruin their illusion but the Boeuf and Bearnaise sauce on their plates had more to do with that than anything else.

Next day it was fresh fruit, croissants with homemade jam, and a mix of cheese and salami for breakfast then back into the car for an early start as we headed deeper into France.

The drive to France

Apologies gentle reader, it has been nearly a week since our last post in Positano. I am writing this on Sunday morning in a hotel room in Troyes in France, just 3 hours south of Calais and with three days before we cross the channel to England.

In the last few days we have stayed a night in the Rhone Alps a few kilometres from Geneva, a night on the Portofino Coast and two nights in Rome.

With between 3 and 5 hours driving each day the last few days have been a blur of motorways, tunnels, mountains and fields.  The temperature has dropped from Positano’s warm 18 to Troyes’ chilly 2 degrees. Jean took the dogs out for their morning constitutional around 10am and returned declaring its “ski field” cold outside. As proof, if any further is needed, she then broke out the gloves, coats and woolly jumpers for the day.

I have a feeling that the girls will be wearing their new Italian coats for their walk. You haven’t heard about the coats? I’ll make sure to post some pictures later for your amusement.

Also I’ll be posting stories about Rome in winter, the trip through the Alps to France, the place we stayed on the Portofino Coast and a wee video we made about driving in Positano, all in the next few days.

As soon as I write them.

I Mondiali di Rugby – Galles v Francia

We spent ninety minutes this morning sitting behind some very nervous frenchmen. They had arrived at La Birerra in Siena to watch the first RWC semi-final and went from ecstacy when the Welsh captain was sent off to despair when Wales had a chance to win the game in the last few minutes.

Or, in their words – from “allez, allez, allez” to “sacrebleu” and back again.

Relaxing on the Cote d’Azur

Before leaving New Zealand we had planned a weeks stay at Villefranche sur Mer on the coast just west of Nice. It was an ideal place to drop off our Peugeot lease car and collect our Renault lease car and to take a 4 day break from our holiday.

A holiday from our holiday if you will.

We stayed at our old favourite Hotel Welcome, right on the water, and were joined by Mike, Charmanie and James who had arrived in Nice a few days before us. This break was a chance to explore Villefranche a little more, sample some of the local cuisine, spend some time at the beach and soak up the atmosphere of the French Rivieria in peak season.

In the week we did all this. What else did we discover?

1) Much like other places some food is good and some isn’t

2) Meals tend to be less expensive and better quality further from the waterfront

3) The exception is La Mere Germaine right on the waterfront which we tried. Great food since 1938

3) Sitting on a beach is therapeutic no matter where you are in the world

4) The majority of French women have an urge to go topless on beaches. Some really, really shouldn’t

5) French service is more surly than Italian service but does warm up if you become a repeat customer

6) The girls are welcome everywhere we are which is great

7) Chateau Eza is always a great place for a drink – which costs about the same as a meal anywhere else.

Three countries in three days

It’s been a hectic week. Starting last Saturday we headed home from Slovenia to our cottage in Tuscany. Two days later we headed north to Nice on the French Riviera to swap cars – and spend 5 days at Villefranche Sur Mer with Mike, Charmaine and James – then it was back home on Friday.

Daisy takes everything in her stride

Time for a cup of tea and a lie down I think.

Next – Italy

Good weather has followed us through France and we are now relaxing – even more than usual – on the Cote d’Azur at our favourite Cote d’Azur hotel – Hotel Welcome at Villefranche-Sur-Mer.

The view from our room at Hotel Welcome.

In the last four days we have driven the length of France from Calais to Nice with stops at Lille, a rather special Chateau in the Champagne region which warrants a post of its own, and in Lyon.

Our trusty Peugeot has served us well and is now covered in a broad selection of French bugs and insects.  It has used two tanks of gazoil (diesel) – at about twice the price of diesel in New Zealand so don’t complain about high petrol prices folks. We have overtaken about 10,000 trucks on the trip and been overtaken by about the same number of flying Porsches, Audis and BMWs.

We are now only a day or so away from our home for the next 6 months and are looking forward to settling into a place for longer than one night and being able to unpack properly.