A Wine Tour of France
"A Strategy for Touring with 2 Kids &2 Grandparents"
In 1998 we toured around France in a leased car with Timothy and Andrew, who were coming up to their fourth birthday. After a few weeks we teamed up with Louise's parents, Maree and Ern.
It was our third trip to France in the 90's - having previously visited in 1991 (en route to Budapest for work and play) and 1993 - where we spent time travelling with friends Martin & Joanne. This trip (1998), however, was to be our first visit with children - a whole new experience.
With the children on board, our strategy was to spend a reasonable period - a week or two - at each location -driving between each location with a long day of driving. This plan worked very well for both the 'experienced' Francophiles (us!) and the kids. The proceeding travelogue traces our 'journey ' with some commentary and lessons learnt over two previous visits.
This trip started and ended in Paris - the route travelling anti-clockwise - initially west to Brittany, south as far as Tolouse, then north, via Burgundy to Strausbourg. The final leg travelling west from Alsace, thru Champagne and back to Paris.
Why do we stick to wine regions ?
In our case, we love wine so it suits our purposes. However there are other reasons to use wine regions as your base for setting touring agenda - whether or not you are interested in wine - and that goes for any country. Our reasons - Well, wine regions -
. are invariably prosperous areas;
. have superior, and plentiful accommodation;
. have an above average number of all types of restaurants - normally of a good standard;
. are well prepared for tourists, without being necessarily 'touristy' - after all, unlike coastal towns, their primary industry is not tourism - its viticulture !
************ TIP *******************
Wine Tasting in France in General
You will be amazed how you are received at any winery if you go to the trouble of booking a visit -especially if you make contact from home prior to departure. Write or e-mail the winery explaining when you will roughly be in the region -they will likely give you a number and/or name to call when you arrive in the region. While this sounds like a bit of trouble, you will be treated like a VIP when you visit.
" Using the internet for booking accommodation"
Using the internet for any commercial transaction can carry some risk - however, our experience has been that accommodation booked over the Web has been more than satisfactory. Here are some starting points.
* Probably the best site we have used is run by a New Zealander, John Reece !
France the French Way - John has about 75 properties - in various regions - the advantage of his site is that he has personal knowledge of each of his properties. We rented a Paris apartment from him (Lacepede) that lived up to his promises. He furnishes you with an info pack tailored for the region - in all a very professional outfit. If you're not web enabled - Phone him on +64 3 355 5590.
* Gites de FranceB&B & property bookings
* France Villas - http://www.francevillas.com/indexuk.html
* More Gites (houses) - http://www.gite.com/gite.com/index.cgi
Chez OzAustralian site with small number of properties.
" Stay in One Spot strategy"
Spending time in one region - at one 'maison' or house for at least a week is a good way to experience the 'real' France. There are also some other advantages to this strategy -
* By not moving towns every day, you eliminate the overheads of getting to a town early, finding accommodation, loading & unloading the car, etc. Accommodation itself can take 1-2 hours to organize, even if you speak a little French and with the help of the local tourist office.
* It will allow you time to talk to the locals & find the good restaurants and places of interest, etc
* You can still see lots of different places by planning long day trips in various directions. The advantage is that you return to your house and everything is there! Using this strategy, I believe that you actually see more of the country than if you moved on each day.
* The house allows you more options if you choose to eat in - self catering is more of an option than it is in hotels and guest houses.
* you don't have enough time to spend a week in each spot, modify the strategy by staying for 2-3 days in each location.
"Chapters to Come"
Discuss the Epernay and Reims – Royal Champagne Htel ($$$) and other options
Discuss accommodation options
Initially we stayed in Bretagne (Brittany) at a farm run by Beatrice & Michel Allee at La Ville Heleuc in Plelan-le-Petit, which is near Dinan, about five hours due west of Paris. LVH link
Phone - (0033) 02.96.27.67.25.
La Ville Heleuc dates back to the twelfth century and has been lovingly restored by Beatrice and Michel, who purchased the property in disrepair some years ago. The guest accommodation is in a detached cottage where LVH's blacksmith resided many years ago.
The place is definitely rustic French country. It's not 5-star, so you won't find a spa or heated swimming pool although the family does have a sauna you can use - and a dam that serves beautifully as a country swimming pool. The cottage is serviced by a working kitchen (important when one's tour is being financed by Aussie dollars!), a dining area, two bedrooms & upstairs is the lounge room with TV (but its all in French, of course!).
We were surprised to find how much there was to do in the area. It's not far from the coast, so if it's a warm day lazing on the beach is tres pleasant!
Beatrice & Michel are great hosts. We received welcoming drinks upon arrival. On another occasion we were invited over to their residence for drinks & treats, and again for gallettes & crepes (the former being savoury crepes - a speciality of the area!) on another evening. On a beautiful Sunday they invited us on their boat, a yacht (nothing too grande, after all they're not related to Packer - or de Gaulle) and sailed up the River Rance - thru a number of locks - towards Dinan. We supplied the Champagne and vegemite, and Beatrice supplied the food for our sumptuous lunch served in the galley. What a way to spend a Sunday! Bliss. Drinks and ice blocks at the Yacht Club (its no CYC) upon our return.
I don't know if all their clients get the same treatment. Perhaps they took a shine to Timothy & Andrew (they're available for hire - with guardian in tow if required!). But we could not fault them as hosts - they made our stay memorable - it really felt like we were living & experiencing France. It was with a somewhat heavy heart that after nearly two weeks, we packed our Renault and prepared to head south. In their typical generous style, Beatrice and Michel presented us with a travel pack of LVH produce - Honey, some lollies and Creme du Mures Sauvages. Au revoir La Ville Heulec !
"The road to Bordeaux"
By any standards, Bordeaux is a large regional city - it has been one of France's major trading ports for hundreds of years. Its name is synonymous with red wine. Yes, you will see that common theme flowing through all our travels.
The shopping in Bordeaux is great and not just for wine. There are many sophisticated, beautiful buildings and boutiques which make shopping a pleasure, even for non-shoppers like Louise. The city, which is serviced by a number of malls without traffic access, has many interesting sights and buildings.
Here we stayed at a restored 12th century farming priory - Le Prieure St Quentin de Baron - about 25 minutes east of the city. It is owned and run by expatriate Pom, Susie de Castilho - a talkative and pleasant host. The main buildings are surrounded a number of fruiting Walnut trees which were productive during our visit.
http://www.holiday-rentals.co.uk/index.cfm/property/2698.cfm - Phone +33 557241675).
The five acres of wooded land around us bore much wildlife - we even spied a deer and fawn one evening. They naturally treated our feeble attempts at capturing them with total disdain, after all these animals are use to being hunted by French farmers with loaded guns. The threat of two three year old boys & one hesitant mum leaping with arms flagging and cat-calling through the woods just didn?t compare. Luckily we didn?t have a video camera. The Priory is large, with three separate bedrooms, lounge & kitchen. There is however a smaller studio with kitchen facilities & B&B is available.
St Quentin is in the middle of a large wine producing area of Bordeaux called Entre-Deux-Mers - literally 'between two rivers' - the Gironde and the Garonne. This huge area produces mostly white wines of average quality. We were buying perfectly acceptable Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc from a local producer for about five dollars. However, the 'big hitters' of the Bordeaux wine trade are but a short drive.
From the Priory it is a pleasant drive to St Emilion - a medieval town with steep cobblestone streets and of course, wines to taste. Even without the wine St Emilion is a truly beautiful village. On a previous trip we stayed overnight at Chateau de Roques, a working winery just out of St Emillon. At that stage it was in the midst of being renovated. The room was comfortable and quite large. Unfortunately we had arrived too late for dinner, which looked great judging by the other guests in the cosy and welcoming dining room. Breakfast was excellent and served in a downstairs communal room. However, after breakfast we went on a tour of the Ch?teau including the cellars. During a recent expansion dig for the cellars the owners had uncovered what they claimed were pre-Roman ruins - foundations of a building/farmhouse. Great stuff!
" Tasting Wine in and around Bordeaux."
The wine merchants who have traditionally controlled the Bordeaux economy have not created great wealth by giving away wine - hence don't expect to see rivers of free wine flowing down the streets !
However, if you are diligent and have done a little research, you will be able to taste a representative sample of the region. While individual producers may or may not welcome wine travellers - you will not be greeted with a range of twenty or thirty wines - la Tyrrells or Gallo. Monsieur Winemaker may only have one wine to sell - after all, this is Bordeaux - what were you expecting a nice wooded Chardonnay ?
Your best chance of tasting a few wines is to find the appellation or region's wine tourist office - this will have been established by the equivalent of the local winemakers Chamber of Commerce - and will normally sample and sell wine from various wineries within the micro regions. Bordeaux has many of these - the best we have tried are -
* Pauillac Office de Tourism (main street Pauillac) - for a small fee you can sample some very good wines from Pauillac - suffice to say this region produces some of the greatest red wines in the world. http://www.pauillac-medoc.com
* La Maison de Barsac - they have some of the great wines of Barsac and Sauternes (dessert style) on tasting - and will book a visit to a nearby winery. We experienced the height of vintage at Ch. Beychereau -a medium sized commercial winery which did have a number of wines for tasting & sale. Nearby, a good place a visit is the wonderfully named Chateau Simon at Barsac.
* Maison des Bordeaux et Bordeaux Superiere at Beychac. A marketing arm for hundreds of smaller makers and some lesser regions of Bordeaux. Includes a high-tech virtual vineyard tour. http://www.maisondesbordeaux.com/
The parent of all these is the Maison du Vin (1 Cours du 30 Juillet) in central Bordeaux - it will refer you to all these smaller maison, make bookings at wineries for you (do this if you want to get serious) and supply maps and guides.
There are hundreds of individual vineyards and wineries - book a visit at least one of the more famous premier crus - my favourite is Ch. Mouton Rothschild (Pauillac) which includes a wonderful museum/gallery put together by the fabulously wealthy Rothschild family.
"To the heart of France – the Perigord"
On this visit, we do not take in Provence and the southern coast of France. This was a deliberate strategy to cut down on miles and to steer away from tourists as much as possible. The Cote d'Azur is perennially crowded and Peter Mayle has ensured a constant stream of English tourists to the small and beautiful villages of the Provencial countryside.
En route we spent a little time wandering the Saturday markets of Bergerac. Initial impression is that as we enter the heartland of agricultural France, these medium sized towns (Bergerac is about the size of Dubbo in Australia or New Braunfels in Texas) are a great source of fresh regional produce. We bought some duck pate (Crutons du Canard), fresh bread and local wine and cheese in the markets to produce a memorable lunch taken in the local park. We also purchased what I must rate as easily the best strawberries I have ever eaten - unfortunately we had left the markets by the time we discovered how good they were.
Our next stay is in a grand converted mill - Le Moulin de Pic in the sleepy village of St Denis Catus (46150) - just north of the wine and trading town of Cahors.
The Mill is owned by an English lawyer, John Tyzack and his family - who have spared no expense in its restoration. They are based in England and the mill is managed by an off-site local caretaker. It can sleep about twenty people - and the grand dining table can also accommodate this number. The main bedroom is a truly regal room - more impressive than many of the castles we have visited - and it has a surfeit of reading rooms and living space (http://website.lineone.net/~johntyzack/).
I will quote from Le Moulin's web site in summarising the Lot Valley. In general, the Lot Valley offers a central launching pad for a huge array of day trips - we are, after all, very much in central France.
The fascinating old market town of Cahors, almost surrounded by the River Lot, offers the visitor a vista of old buildings and streets to explore. Many of these date back to Roman times and include the famous Pont Valentre. The market and local vineyards are well worth a visit.
The Dordogne, Rocamadour and the Gouffre de Padirac are some 40 Kms to the North. Further west to is the capital of Black Perigord - Sarlat - one of my favorite French small cities. The city centre which hosts great markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays (see spice picture at top of page), is a collection of wonderfully preservered buidings and winding coblestoned paths. Try and visit early or on a non-touristy day (if possible) - and promise that you will wander away from the main square - up and down some of the steep residential areas on the edge of the shopping precinct - the buildings in this region really are stunning.
"A Taste of Burgundy"
Burgundy is probably the most intense of France's vineyard regions - nowhere else is wine and viticulture taken quite so seriously!
Accommodation can be quite expensive but is naturally available at all levels. Our accommodation which was found thru the internet was a converted Mill - yet again ! Not quite as grand and luxurious this time - but very comfortable and perched right on one of the many canals that snake thru France and Burgundy in particular. The nearest village was the picture postcard Santenay - a wine village of great renown - perhaps 80% of the town's commerce being wine related.
Burgundy is full of important Roman and medieval towns - one such Roman city is Autun, flanked by wooded hills overlooking the valley of Arroux, established by Emperor Augustus some 2000 years ago. The city has substantial parts of the roman wall intact, as well as the beguiling 'Temple de Janus' huge walls built as a temple to an unknown god -perched in a cosy residential area of Autun. In all, Autun is an interesting city which doesn' always feature in tourism guides - but is well worth an extended visist.
Major Burgundian cities include Dijon and Beaune - both beautiful cities and worthy of a visit. My preference is for the latter which carries its 'Wine Capital' tag well - if not a little smugly. Beaune is a food and wine heaven - every little bistro offering high quality local specialities - and many shops having a wine emphasis -wine memorabilia and accoutrements abound. Beaune's Saturday morning markets are amongst the best and most colourful I have attended.
The are many wine cellars around the city - most of them charge a tasting fee - and offer a range of wines from all around burgundy. Louise and I have visited the -Marche aux Vins- (rue Nicolas Rodin) - http://www.marcheauxvins.com/ - on a number of occasions - a stone's throw from the magnificent architecture of the Hotel Dieu. Housed in the 13th Century Church of Cordeliers and its evocative candle lit cellars, the range of wines here range from ordinary (but perfectly acceptable) Bourgogne and Aligote, to premier crus from Pommard, Chambertin, Richebourg and other sought after communes. A complementary tastevin (metal tasting cup) is included in the entry price and provides a touch of local authenticity - however my preference is for glass when it comes to wine tasting - take your own and don' let the manager see you -or you'have your glass confiscated by the 'glass nazis'!
The A6 road south from Beaune towards Santenay must surely be one of the great wine drives on the planet. Glorious vine-filled hills cascade on both sides of the road. Here, one drives through some of the most the world's most prestigious vineyard properties. You can sniff the wealth and affluence emanating from the famed terroir. Take a day to meander thru the small but welcoming wine villages - Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Pulugny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet all with their own character - and all representing the best of burgundy in wine terms. While individual wine houses abound, the local co-operatives often represent the best tasting opportunity - the friendly co-op at Chassagne-Montrachet one such example.
"Alsace - French or German ?"
The wine road between Colmar and Strausbourg (N83)is a stirring combination of idyllic, geranium-filled Alsatian villages and delicious white wines - Rieslings and Gewertztraminer being my personal favorites.
However, possibly the most compelling travel activity is to observe the fusion of French and German cultures.
Many older people in the villages along the Rhine speak German as a first language - and this region of France seems to have less people who speak English (or partial English).
The food here is quite different from anywhere else in France - German-style sausage, charcoutrie and kuglehopf are unique in French cuisine - but don't leave the area without trying some!
My favorite town of the region is the historic and beautiful wine village of Ribeauvillé, which has a long and colourful history. It has been in the hands of various owners over the past thousand years - Dukes of Alsace, the Counts of Eguisheim, the Emperor of Germany and the Bishop of Basel. However, it was the Counts of Ribeaupierre who were the last lords of the town before the Revolution. They had a tradition of celebrating travelling musicians and actors - a history which is still observed in Ribeauville - especially on September 8 each year.
Other villages worthy of a visit include -
.Bergheim - heading south, this is where the beautiful wine country begins - observe the magnificent gatehouse on the eastern end of the town.
.Kayserberg - some of the prettiest timbered houses exist in this historic and strategic village, home of Dr Albert Schweitzer. See if you can find the famous well with the following good advice -
"Do you drink water at the table -
It will chill your stomach.
Drink with moderation old and subtil wine.
I advise you to do as such and as for me, leave the water to the side..."
. Riquewihr is probably the best preserved of the wine villages - reputedly many of the buildings have not changed since the Middle Ages. It is also the most 'touristy' town - the crowds through the village can be huge - especially on weekends. Advice ? Get there early - before 9:00am - and you will see a charming village awake.
Discuss Haut Koesenberg + Strausbourg, etc