One Night in Banyo

One of the other passengers echoed my sentiments when taking a look at the plane said ‘I like 2 pilots and 2 engines.’ Me too buddy, me too.

In 2012, My friend Lisa spent 4 months in Cameroon teaching violence prevention to girls so they could be leaders in their own right It was an amazing thing to do but it meant we missed her like crazy. Lisa’s mom is a Lutheran Pastor and had been supporting women in Cameroon to become pastors, which was no easy task. So in May 2012, with Lisa in Cameroon, and the Cameroon Lutheran Church ready to ordain women pastors, Lisa’s mom Carol was able to go to Cameroon. I of course decided I would go to, obviously.

This was my first experience flying Air France. I flew Air France from Montreal to Paris, and then from Paris to Yaounde. I t was going to be a lonnggg flight. Luckily for me Air France serves champagne, wine and cognac with every meal, even if you are in economy. and very fresh bread. Ahhh. Carol wasn’t really in a cognac mood so she asked for a tonic water. The flight attendant was amazing but he brought her back a bottle of gin with a straw and set it on her tray table and left. She eventually got her tonic as well, which it as it turned out we would need as we diverted to Douala for a few hours waiting or a thunderstorm to pass. Welcome to Cameroon in the rainy season.

We finally arrived in Yaounde after a very long flight and quite honestly I wish I could remember it more  but the only thing I truly remember is our trip coordinator telling us we would be flying to N’Gaoundéré tomorrow. To say I was relieved was an understatement. I had heard Lisa and Carol’s stories about the train. Technically it took 12 hours but often could be closer to 24. Lisa had never flown to N’Gaoundéré, only the train which she believes is an essential part of the Cameroon experience. She is right and she has lots of amazing stories (and video!) of the train but I was glad to miss. At first

The next morning we made our was to the private airfield to take our 6 seater plan to N’Gaoundéré. despite my hesitations about the train, I was privately hoping for the train at this point. thumbnail_IMG_6107Taking a tiny plane in a country I knew nothing about? huh, not so sure. One of the other passengers echoed my sentiments when taking a look at the plane said ‘I like 2 pilots and 2 engines.’ Me too buddy, me too.

However we sucked it up and got on the plane. The journey was smooth and countryside beautiful. I soon fell asleep and when I woke up I could see a very very angry loothumbnail_IMG_6104king rainstorm to the north, where we were headed. then lightning. I hoped my shaking wasn’t visible. I needn’t have worried, my 2 pilot friend was shaking Carols seat so badly she felt ill. Our pilot announced we would be landing at the Banyo airport tonight and we would make it to N’Gaoundéré tomorrow. So I guess the flights were 24 hours too albeit much more comfortable.

the airport turned out to be a strip of red dirt that the local kids chased the cows off of so we could land. the hangar turned out to be a patch of trees and 2 men were going to have to sleep in the plane in the thunderstorm as security.  This made me feel incredibly guilty as it should. I was headed for a warm dry bed.

the Banyo airport

Banyo doesn’t have hotel so we were staying with the local doctor and his wife. Despite being happy to avoid he the thunderstorm, I was feeling incredibly sad about not getting to N’Gaoundéré and seeing Lisa. But that’s the thing about unexpected detours, you don’t know what you are missing and I would have never seen Banyo otherwise. And Banyo is incredibly beautiful. the mango tree lined streets, the beautiful flowers, the banana trees, it was all stunning but nothing compared to the warm welcome we received. In fact this incredibly warm welcome was repeated in N’Gaoundéré as well.thumbnail_IMG_6102 Especially in the current political climate where there is much rhetoric about restricting people from entering nations of great wealth, I am even more amazed that we were welcomed so warmly and everyone was so willing to share whatever they had. This visit and its welcome stands out today more than ever. We toured the town, visited the local radio station that the residents had recently built. One of the DJs was pretty young ( 17 or 18) but was so happy because his parents in Nigeria could now here him on the radio (Banyo is very close to the Nigerian border). We toured the hospital, met more residents and came back for a dinner of pasta and salad. fairly non Cameroonian but with Cameroon mango so delicious that even 5 years later I am still disappointed by North American mangoes and bananas too. Cameroon bananas are amazing.

Unexpected detours make for strange bedfellows as well. Literally. One of the other women on the plane (KIm)  was on her way for the women’s ordination as well and had lived in various African countries.  she became my roomie for the night as Carol bunked with Bishop Elaine ( the female bishop! from Winnipeg). I would have never gotten to know Kim otherwise and she had a fascinating stories from her time in Africa and her current work and so on. After the very best shower of my life in thumbnail_IMG_6103a beautifully tiled bathroom we boarded the plan once again. This time we made it to N’Gaoundéré in time to see Lisa jumping up and down on the tarmac. I was thrilled to see her but now I wouldn’t have traded my night in Banyo for anything.

N’Gaoundéré is another blog in itself and I will reference wine but suffice it to say, the best wine was on the Air France flight.

In Camden Town

For those in the Real Ale Movement, the Bree Louise pub is where it is at. This pub is old school London but clean, very friendly and the food is out of this world

By now I have been to London roughly a dozen times and it never disappoints. London is full of things to do for the tourist and/or traveler, history buff, theatre buff, shopping aficionado, well you get. London is also big. It is very easy to stay in Westminster and think you’ve seen London. Mainly because you will have done so much!! Over the years I have stayed in Westminster, Bermondsey/Southwark, Kensington, tower Hamlets, and Bayswater. We have explored more. But I had never been to Camden and if I am honest had no real desire to go. I loved Westminster and its theatre scene and Southwark. I got comfortable.

This past spring, work brought me back to London so we decided to tack on a few vacation days at the end. However where I was presenting was by St Pancras Station. It wasn’t convenient to stay in Westminster so Camden it was. A couple of hours after I arrived, all I could think was why did I wait so long?IMG_0699 Camden has to be seen to be believed. At any given time of the day Camden High street ( and one you are over the bridge Chalk Farm Road is bustling. But not with the frenzied, focused energy you find in Westminster or the City. You get the feeling that people would actually stop to chat and a lot of them do. After the conference, we could really explore and we did.

For those in the Real Ale Movement, the Bree Louise pub is where it is at. This pub is old school London but clean, very friendly and the food is out of this world. @benton8tor nearly lost his mind at the beer selection which unlike other London pubs had a huge variety. Some from local brewers. Fun Fact Camden is home to local breweries, Camden Brewing. IPA, Bitters, the like. It is mainly cask ales. Side note: they also serve the best ploughmans with local cheeses.

If you are in the mood for pubs, Camden has lots to offer Some are a little rougher, (i.e. the Good Mixer, home to Amy Winehouse and Noel Gallagher) and it doesn’t accept cards but a fabulous spot for any music lover, full of history (and probably other things). It was in the Good Mixer 061, watching pool and listening to Camden’s own group Madness that we knew we were really here!  But the Lock Tavern was one of my favourites. It on Chalk Farm Road and Harmood. Harmood is the street where @benton8tor’s grandfather lived so it had special significance for him. It was still March and London was 21 and sunny ( I was both horrified global warming! and ecstatic sunshine!!! In March ! In London!!) so we could sit on their roof top terrace overlooking the famous Camden Market. They had a good beer selection too.

Camden Market, located in the old horse stables has to be seen to be believed. Not high fashion but trendy fashion forward shops alongside steam metal punk shops, shoe stores, food vendors of every persuasion, milliners, antiques, and tourist shops. A definite must do. I bought one of my favourite dresses ever in Camden street. @benton8tor bought a watch. Ben’s approaches to watches are not to tell time but rather do they look interesting or cool. So when he was looking at a rather interesting watch in a Camden store, I knew he wasn’t serious about buying it. Also it was 50 pounds. He ended up getting it for 20. 069Considering he didn’t really want it to begin with, I am not sure who won that barter. That said it is an awesome watch.

Though Camden was fascinating, it was new to me and new can be overwhelming. So when we met Ben’s cousins for dinner, I was relieved it was in Westminster. Alighting at the Leicester Square tube station, I took a deep breath, touristy, busy and full of energy I felt like I was home. I knew where I was going, where to find my favourite shops, pubs ect.. I relaxed. And dinner was a Joe Allens famous for its position in the theatre district and a good place to watch for celebrities. The food is good and wine list even better.

But back to Camden we went. We had little time left and new we couldn’t possibly do everything we wanted to. Gin tasting, a visit to the breweries, that would have to wait until next time. However we managed to squeeze in dinner at Chutneys a very delicious vegetation Indian restaurant. And my piece resistance, snack and champers at Searcy’s champagne bar in St Pancras station. Searcy’s manages to mix a 1930s art deco vibe with very modern decor, right in the middle of a train station. Literally right beside a train. We had some lovely champagne and we said our farewells to Camden.

We were in Camden 1 week after the Westminster Bridge terror attacks. Since then, England has suffered 2 more horrifying attacks. But the British culture of resilience and support is stronger. If you are thinking about visiting England, don’t be deterred. You would be far more disappointed not to go and despite media reports, there is a far greater chance you will be completely safe and have the time of your life.


Wine Not Strasbourg?

However my real disappointment came when I finally tried the cremants from Alsace back in Canada. not because they weren’t amazing they are! they are so amazing all I could think was ” I could have been drinking these the whole time.’

I can’t quite remember why I wanted to go to Alsace, especially Strasbourg but if I think back, it is probably because I love the French dish Choucroute garnie. IMG_6041Choucroute garnie is a regional dish from Alsace . It is made from sauerkraut, sausage and often ham hock, shoulder or even bacon. It is made with white wine (Alsatian of course) and it is all kinds of delicious. Enough of a reason to visit Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace for me.

If you visit Alsace, Strasbourg in particular, you could be forgiven for not knowing if  you are in Germany or France. Alsace through its history has been both German and French and both cultures have a historical and cultural presence in Alsace. The half timbered houses, meat and sausage heavy dishes speak to its German influences (as does the use of sauerkraut). The love of wine, baguettes and its tarte flambee/flammekueche suggest its French influence. Despite the name flammekueche is a onion tart dish with cream that reminds me more of France.

Strasbourg in Alsace is beautiful. The Petit France area in particular is full if life, good food and plenty of pottery that is beautiful and unique. (seriously bring and empty suitcase and buy lots of it!!!) the river in Strasbourg is scenic, and dotted with tons of little river boat cafes.

We didn’t eat here but it was a great spot to stop for a mid afternoon drink. Which I did of course. Strasbourg is also the host to the European Parliament . It is well worth a visit.

So obviously when we arrived  in Strasbourg we were on a mission. Te mission included eating as much local cuisine as possible, (check), buying as much pottery as possible (check and check) , exploring the beautiful city (check), and of course appreciating the Alsatian wine (check but really fail)

I love French wine and if you asked me, I would have told you I truly appreciated the wine from Alsace. And to be fair I did try it but as a person who doesn’t really drink white wine, I failed to understand what I was ordering and didn’t really take the time to understand and appreciate it. I quickly switched to back to reds (mostly from the Rhone) and carried on smugly thinking I had given Alsace wine a fair shot. I didn’t though.

Since then I have been taking the French Wine Scholar Course online through the Wine Scholar Guild (Yes that is an obvious humblebrag) and After studying the Alsace region. Well I knew nothing and failed to appreciate it even more! Alsace uses the German method of labeling ( that is putting the grape on the label) and use Riesling, Klevner, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir (to make whites and roses!! and a few reds) and Gewurztraminer as the main grapes. Few of the varieties are blended and if they are they are known gentil (contains 50% of the Noble grapes)or Edlezwicker which is blended with any Alsace grapes. Knowing and understanding the grapes (especially the blends) with the soil type and vineyard (is it a grand cru?) can make for a more pleasant wine drinking experience. For instance if you like Rieslings and blends, you may want to try a gentil. also the Alsatian wine glasses are beautiful. Short clear goblets with a green stem!

However my real disappointment came when I finally tried the cremants from Alsace back in Canada. not because they weren’t amazing they are! they are so amazing all I could think was ” I could have been drinking these the whole time.’ They were smooth, easy drinking but still sparking. Perfect for the warm summer day! I encourage everyone to try them, they are incredibly enjoyable and considerably less expensive. Also if you don’t enjoy the sweetness that often accompanies a prosecco or the crispness of the cava, the cremant from Alsace is for you! That said, If you like white, Alsace has truly amazing whites, which I have also since discovered.

However to truly appreciate the Alsace wines, take a road trip on the wine route down to Colmar. I know that is my plan for my next visit to Alsace, that an an empty stomach for the amazing food and empty suitcase for the pottery!

Bordeaux, Worth the Hype?

We were pleasantly unsurprised at their amazing wine selection. Yes these definitely are my people too.

By now, my love is of France and all things French is well documented. However I have always been reluctant to visit Bordeaux. There is no real reason, except the well documented rivalry between Burgundy (Bourgogne to be exact) and Bordeaux, my heart has always been with Bourgogne. Bourgogne is renowned for being a culinary and wine epicenter. The culture embraces , relishes and celebrates its famous dishes and wines with gusto. Food fads (looking at you quinoa) and calories counting don’t have a place in Burgundian culture. There wines and wine making are known the world over for their velvety smoothness, complexity and all around amazingness. So why would I go to Bordeaux?

Bordeaux and Bourgogne are the best known and most revered fine wine producers from France. They are held in the highest esteem (and price tags) the world over. Bordeaux is known for its Chateaux and large vineyards on the west and south (ish) corner of France. ( It is also known for the Merlot grape,as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon blanc) Bourgogne is known for its Domaines and small vineyards on the east and north (ish) corner of France ( it is known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes ). Both regions produce amazing and sometimes unpredictable wine. In short as the World Atlas of Wine states “If Bourgogne is sensual, than Bordeaux is cerebral.” So why would I want to go there?

Well as its turns out, World Atlas of Wine does not mean this as an insult, so the answer is lots and lots of reasons. Bordeaux is a wonder.IMG_4503 But just how did I get there? Well as it turns out @benton8tor has a thing for rather intense borderline insane drives. He wanted to drive through the Pyrenees and the best place to start from that has an airport connecting to Rome is Bordeaux (side note: It is Ryanair that flies from Rome to Bordeaux, though the staff are very kind, the airlines policies are terrible so there is a good chance you will pay another regular airline ticket price for extras, I DO NOT recommend them, there are many other airlines regular or budget that are infinitely better any one from City Jet, East Jet to Air France or British Airways, Many other better airlines fly to Bordeaux, rant over)

Arriving somewhat hesitantly in Bordeaux, my sulky mindset was determined not to like it. This took about 45 seconds before I changed my mind. 20160901_153038Arriving at the luggage carousel is a giant bottle of Bordeaux wine (yes it is fake). Could these be my people too? Bordeaux is a beautiful city, old with stunning architecture but surprisingly easy to navigate. Upon arriving at our hotel the Best Western Gare St Jean We were pleasantly unsurprised at their amazing wine selection. Yes these definitely are my people too. Our room was modern, clean and quite pretty. The hotel itself is full of old world charm and beauty. Just like Bordeaux itself.

We were able to settle in and the hotel staff recomended some wines from Bordeaux to start us off. Tasting wines from St Emilion and Pomerol on the right bank of the Medoc, I was surprised at how good they were. I had always believed unless you paid top dollar (which I can not afford) Bordeaux wines were boring. Not at all, these wines were amazing! Velvety and silky. I had to have more. I then tried a Saint Julien from the left bank. Also great, albeit different than the right bank with more tannins  and spicier? flavours present. What the what? Even more surprising I thought Bordeaux food was also rumored to be boring. Again not so, my amuse bouche snacks of olives, tapenades and nuts were surprisingly tasty. Bordeaux was slowly sneaking its way into my heart.

We toured the city and its quaint but robust shopping in the centre, beautiful churches and walked along the River Garonne. Walking along the river is not only beautiful there are some amazing almost hidden restaurants and wine bars to sample the amazing Bordeaux wine.

Cafe du Levant is a Belle Epoque esque restaurant near the train station. It is worth a visit for the decor alone but as I was starting to discover its wines were amazing. Stick to local specialties like steak with bordelaise sauce or fish.

Unfortunately for me, we were off too soon to to the Pyrenees ( but not before sampling the Sauternes YUM!!!) and I was full of regret, regret for my snobbish preconceived notions preventing me from going to an amazing place, trying amazing wine and tasting amazing food. Regret for not enough time and most of all regret for not having enough time to visit the chateaux,  the villages and taste more wine.

Bourgogne has my heart but Bordeaux? Well Bordeaux has found its rightful place there too. Both regions are a love letter to wine and too life. Neither should be missed and with that, Bordeaux, Toute le monde.

Ich Bin Ein Berliner

I was hooked, just what was this city? A hot bed of intolerance? (yes during the Nazi regime) a hotbed of acceptance? (yes currently and before World War II) Producer of some of the greatest minds/artist and / theologians? (all yes)

As a kid growing up in the late 70s (a very little kid) and 80s, Berlin was a city divided. Technically it was West and East Berlin but as a Canadian during the cold war, we viewed it as free (the West) and oppressed ( the East) . This view was no doubt influenced by media but also the omnipresent image of the Berlin Wall and the terrible stories about what would happen if you tried to cross it. My Auntie Barb, the truly most glamorous worldly aunt I had was on a European tour in 1977. In my small Manitoba town, my brother and I would wait for her postcards from exotic postcards from places like Greece., while my grandmother fretted about her whereabouts and when she was coming home., And when she did finally come home, my grandmother fretted about why she ate so much foreign food now. It might have been feta cheese. Auntie Barb visited a lot of European cities that year, but her stories about Berlin stuck out, especially as I got older. My dad distinctly recalls her telling us about having to surrender her Canadian passport at Checkpoint Charlie to visit East Berlin. This is why my aunt was so awesome. Most North Americans wouldn’t even bother. But it hooked me and I started to wonder if I would ever visit Berlin.

Fast Forward to the 1990s. The Berlin wall came down in 1989 and by 1990, Germany was reunified. The fall of the Berlin Wall was one of the most famous historical events of my youth and I still remember watching it happen and being ridiculously happy even if I didn’t really know what it would mean. In the 90s I was also a university student who rediscovered the movie Cabaret which is set in Berlin during the Weimer Republic. I was hooked, just what was this city? A hot bed of intolerance? (yes during the Nazi regime) a hotbed of acceptance? (yes currently politically and before World War II) Producer of some of the greatest minds/artist and / theologians? (all yes) Still I never thought I’d get there.

So in 2014, where did I find myself? Berlin of course!! Berlin is a city like no other. Munich, one of my favourite cities embodies Bavarian Culture that many of us believe is German. Germany is very different from region to region but Berlin stands alone. A truly fascinating city that should be on everyone’s must do list.

There is so much to do, how do you start? I would strongly recommend a Walking Tour. Yes it will cover the recent history we are so familiar with, Nazism, the death place of Hitler, World War II, Communism, The Wall, The fall of the Wall etc.. But also the Weimer republic, the cabarets, the acceptance of the LBGTQ Community, Martin Luther and the Reformation,  Fredrick the Great, Kaiser Wilhelm, Albert Einstein and more,

I wanted to see Berlin for all of its history and it certainly doesn’t disappoint however despite my wanting to discover the older history, 3 things stood out that are still more recent.

  1. On Unter den Linden, Bebelplatz, near Humboldt University memorializes the book burning started by the Nazis. An empty bookshelf meant to hold 20,000 books (that were burned ) is visible through glass in the ground. Many of these books were written by Jewish writers. It is supported by the quote’ First they burn books, then they will  burn the people.’  by the writer Heinrich Heine over 100 years before World War II. It was one of the most chilling, heartbreaking sites that I have ever seen in the midst of one of the most beautiful streets in the World.
  2. Museum Island. Berlin is a cultural nexus. There is so much to see from Lutheran Cathedrals to amazing museums with Prussian artifacts to Egyptian treasures. The museums themselves are stunning. With bullet holes in the columns still visible reminders of the Battle of Berlin. A must do.
  3. Potdsamer Platz and Brandenburg Gate. Potsdamer Platz is not that interesting of a street. It is full of glass, chrome, opulence and money. It has a beautifully maintained green boulevard and some remnants of the Berlin Wall.

    It is fascinating because just under 30 years ago, Potsdamer Platz was the infamous no mans land The side of East Berlin that was empty and full of stone. Also infamous for trying to cross it may cost your life. 30 years late, it tells a story of a different Germany w10393151_403940179744942_6716812741640472551_nith only the green boulevards left to tell the story it may not have always been a commercial epicentre. Brandenburg Gate, the ornate, beautiful gate synonymous with Berlin was behind the gate in East Berlin, with no care or access. Now Brandenburg Gate is restored to its former glory and the symbol of a reunited Berlin. Visiting in 2014 during World Cup, Brandenburg gate was THE place to watch the game full of energy and pride. To top it off, Germany won.

Berlin however is more than its recent history, so take the time to find out. Boulevard Fredrichstrasse Restaurant  has been in business sine the 1920s.  10438992_10152516782655535_2669096692882747273_nIt tells the story of a changing Berlin while still keeping that 1920s vibe alive and well. The food is out of this world as is the wine.

Also The TV tower is a reminder of Berlin and its history. Commissioned by Communists and built by Christians, when the light hits it, a cross is visible. Despite its hidden messages the TV tower is a wonderful sight to behold on its own.10356209_10152516782015535_8613507653599588717_n

Also worth a visit is Hackescher Markt A wonderful market with unique and interesting restaurants, beer gardens,local crafts and boutiques. It is in an older part of East Berlin on the U Bahn as a stop. @benton8tors favourite part of Berlin. ps://

Berlin in 2017 is a very different Berlin than that of my childhood.  Berlin, its every thing you hope it would be, a city that has been the centre of almost any type of history to keep standing, learning, remembering, and thriving. Oh and avoid Checkpoint Charlie, once the fearful scary checkpoint into East Berlin, now a bizarre macabre Disney version of what it was but don’t avoid East Berlin by far the most interesting, culturally fascinating and resilient part of the city.

Sea, Seafood and Service in La Rochelle

La Rochelle also stood out for its service, beauty and food. If you are in the area or even if you are not, it is worth the trip.

As more people know by now, I love France and its wine. Well love may be too weak of a word, Obsessed? Adore? all apply.  A friend once asked me why did I keep going back to France, as there are so many other places to see (she is right and I plan to see them) but my answer? There are so many places in France I haven’t seen. Which is true. Many people pick Paris, The Cote d’Azur or Bordeaux off and then are done with France. And there is so much more to see.

So back in 2014 on a visit to France, I decided I needed to see new parts of France. So we decided to see Paris (again), La Rochelle, Langedoc, And Burgundy (I know, I know but I added Bourg en Bresse so that was new) I can’t remember exactly why I picked La Rochelle except it was on the Bay of Biscay and close to Cognac for @Benton8tor.

So setting out from Paris, @benton8tor agreed to drive through France. I told him it was a 2 and a half hour drive. Sure it is closer to 4.5 hours but…Side note: Being slightly less truthful the time it take from point A to B is not advised. The driver can get a bit cranky that you sleep while they drive for hours. Arriving in La Rochelle, we immediately headed for the marina. The marina is beautiful as is thumbnail_IMG_7759the old city with its arches and interesting shops.I was excited for La Rochelle as I love seafood and it is plentiful! I have often visited seaside towns only to be disappointed by the  options available. Not so in La Rochelle where my only regret is that I didn’t eat more. Our first night we spent around the marina where there are restaurants galore. This can be tricky as many of them cater to tourists so you will need to watch for quality. We picked one which promised the freshest and best seafood. They didn’t lie.Our dishes were amazing. Well most of our dishes. @Benton8tor loves salt and thumbnail_IMG_7763often seasons his dishes before tasting as he assumes they haven’t added salt. On this occasion he did just that. as he starts to eat he tells me ‘ its good but a little sweet, I need to add more salt’ Which he does, and continues to eat it and complain about the sweetness. Finally after the third time he tries the salt shaker. Sugar not salt. The server was mortified, Ben was gracious and I just laughed and laughed, felt guilty and then laughed again. he had better luck our final night when we wandered away from the marina past the museum and found a wonderful little restaurant with lovely wines from Bordeaux and the nearby Loire valley and even more fabulous amuse bouches.

But there is more than just seafood in La Rochelle. It borders the cognac region to the southwest and Rochfort is a few minutes drive to the south. In La Rochelle Pineau is widely available. Pineau is an aperitif made with cognac and has a variety of flavours and is the aperitif of the Charentes Maritime region (LA Rochelle is the capital). I strongly suggest trying as many as you can! The flavour range from fruit flavours to sea salt and caramel. And if you are this close to Cognac, take a day trip. Only an hour away, Cognac is worth a visit and as I mentioned before Remy Martin gives one of the best tours available.

We stopped at Remy Martin. Prior to that visit, @benton8tor was a Courvoisier cognac drinker. He says drinker, I said snob but you know potato/ potato. Afterwards he had a new appreciation/love for Remy Martin. Not only were the cognacs impressive, anyone working at Remy Martin from the chef, to the cashier to the tour guide has a love, understanding and passion for the cognac and the process of making the cognac. Some of the cognac was hundred of years old. Those cognac makers knew they would never get to taste the finished product that is now worth thousands on the market. Unfortunately that cognac is not included in the tasting but we tried!

Hennessy is also worth a visit.Not quite as luxurious a tour as Remy Martin it is still informative with great tastings. Cognac the town is easily walk able thumbnail_IMG_7762and quite beautiful. I had the best croque mousiuer sandwich in Cognac.

Back in La Rochelle, it is also worth noting that its situation on the Bay of Biscay makes for a fascinating boat tour. We booked a day trip to ile d’Aix Island. That is a blog for another time but I would say definitely take the tour.

La Rochelle also stood out for its service, beauty and food. If you are in the area or even if you are not, it is worth the trip.

Port, Portugal’s Wine Gift to the World

Port is a fortified wine from Portugal. If it isn’t from Portugal, it isn’t port.

I was out for dinner last night with some friends and we were chatting about my recent trip to Portugal and the port tastings. As my friend noted, her dad loves to finish a meal with port but she hasn’t been able to develop a taste for it. ‘ Why do you like it’ she asked as I ordered a Taylor Fladgate 10 year old Tawny to finish the dinner. It was this question that inspired this post. Why do I like port? When did I start to like it? It is a good question, one I am not sure I have the answer to. One thing is for sure, I didn’t always like port, in fact for a certain period of my life, I am quite sure I hated it. In fact bad port ( or port posers) can often taste like sugary cough medicine but good, interesting ports, well they can blow your mind. Port is a fortified wine from Portugal. If it isn’t from Portugal, it isn’t port.

I can pinpoint when I started dipping my toe in the port waters, and it wasn’t in Portugal but a small town in Suffolk England, Bungay. It is the town where @bentn8tors grandfather retired and we were visiting old haunts back in 2015. Maybe it is because it was rainy, maybe because it was cold and maybe just maybe I have associated ports with old English manor houses, smoking jackets and fires that when passing the Russell and Newness wine shop advertising port tasting I convinced @benton8tor we needed to check it out.

It was obviously surprising to Ben that I would want to taste port but he gamely accompanied me. I will also point out that he got easily distracted in the shop by the whiskies, leaving me mainly on my own with the proprietor to taste the ports. And it was a fabulous experience. Port actually varies exponentially in flavour. I learned the difference between ruby and tawny ports that 2 months later I promptly forgot. (but I know again now). We went home with a port that tasted like drinking Christmas cake and paired beautifully with blue cheese. Or so I thought @Benton8tor hates blue cheese so he can’t back up my claim. Probably because it isn’t meat.

So fancying myself a port expert I served a port at my wine club that could be best described as Buckleys cough syrup. It was then I realized if I was going to dish out money on port and enjoy, I better figure out what it is. Flash to Portugal April 17 ( a mere 4 weeks ago) We are in Porto the heart of the Douro Valley and port country and I recommend these 5 tours/ tastings to help anyone understand and grow to love port.

5. The Douro Valley wine tour

The Douro Valley is beyond beautiful and that alone would make it worth it but the 3 tastings on this tour were fabulous.224 Often favouring smaller producers, you can really get a taste for the Douro Valley wine but more importantly the port. We had 3 stops and tasted a total of 12 wines (4 of which were wine and 8 were port) I quickly discovered that tawny ports get their flavour from the process of the wine making and time spent in oak barrels. Also I infinitely  prefer tawny’s to ruby ports which I found sweeter and less complex but also less strong in taste. Also there was such a thing as white port which was also delicious.

4. The Wine Box. Located just off the Douro River in Riberia District of Porto, the Wine Box is a fabulous place for wine tasting. In fact it is where I would take my wine loving friends to taste Portuguese wines and warm up their palates for the ports that followed. Beautiful, cozy and full of choice, it is a great stop for wine tasting.

3. Sandeman With a port house in Porto but also a port house in the Douro Valley, Sandeman is one of the bigger producers of port. It also offers beautiful views of the Douro Valley or if in Porto a fabulous tour. There are many times available for English tours and Sandeman is easily identifiable for the black capes

( Porto university students were them and inspired the capes in Harry Potter) and black hats. Sandeman also produces a wide range of ports, beautifully served. The 20 yr old tawny remains my favourite.

2. Kopke Port House is right along the river and though smaller than Taylor or Sandeman it has a fabulous introduction to port. 170Rather than pay for a tour, it is set up like a restaurant and you pay for your tasting. Their port menu is extensive, interesting and bold. They will pair your choices with chocolate to enhance your experience. It makes a huge difference and if you want to start understanding port, this is the place to go.The staff really know their port and will do their best to introduce to it and help you enjoy it.

1.The Wine Quay Bar. By far my favourite Porto wine experience. Located on the Douro River but slight elevated, the Wine Quay Bar has the best views, best service and best selection of wine. Since we were in Portugal I wanted to drink Portuguese wines but also I wanted to know more about them. The sever asked which wines I usually drink and I told her French, Rhone or Provence are my favourite (that I can afford ahem Burgundy). She then recommended a couple of wines from the south of Portugal and her recommendations were spot on.

view from the Wine Quay Bar

the wines were beautiful, well balanced, bold but not overpowering. Later I asked her recommendations for port and she again was spot on with a white port and a beautiful tawny. Bonus points, they give all their guests water pistols to keep birds away from stealing food. As a bird phobic, i was elated.

There are many Ports, Port houses and tasting opportunities at home and when traveling. I strongly recommend a port tastings as an introduction, especially paired with food (or you know a rainy English day). But I also recommend Porto to try Port, all the Port houses are there (there are so many try as many as you can!) We often don’t get all the interesting ports or smaller producers in Canada so visit Porto,iIntroduce yourself to all the different types of Port and enjoy a fruitful relationship. And apparently bad puns.


Out of Your Comfort Zone

It is good to go out of your comfort zone. You may find a new favourite and if you don’t well you will still have a good story and the reputation of being adventurous.

Most times when traveling, you will be out of your comfort zone a little. Different culture, different food, maybe different flora and fauna, even where you stay. Sometimes it it mildly out of our comfort zone, sometimes a lot. I think it is important to be pushed out of our comfort zones. Its how we learn and grow. Some experiences are good, some not so much but I learned from each one. This does not apply to phobias however.

I take the stairs more often than the elevator, always like the aisle seat in a plane. Open spaces are comforting, closed spaces are not. That said I have a  long term love affair with history (historical geography if I was to be honest and yes I realize how deeply uncool that sounds to most people except other historical geography buffs) The point of this diatribe is back in 2016 @benton8tor and I were planning our summer vacation in France and he had found this amazing site the Caves of Niaux nestled in the Pyrenees. 20160903_154650The Caves feature prehistoric paintings that can be viewed in small groups. Note they fill up fast and when we booked, the English tours were sold out. So we booked the French tour. My historical geography self really wanted to see these paintings. The side that hates closed spaces? Not so much. On our way to the caves I kept thinking, what if it collapses and we re trapped?, what if we get stuck? what if I can’t breathe? and other sorts of ridiculous thoughts. Upon arrival I looked at the entrance and thought ‘Oh hell no, I will wait in the car’. Then I saw a mom with her baby strapped to her ready to go on the tour and realized I was being truly silly. So I sucked it up, my nerves jangling I got ready to meet certain death (I thought).

Not surprisingly I was wrong wrong wrong. The caves to this day stand out as the most beautiful sites I have ever laid eyes on. Sheep, bison, fish and deer painted on the walls. Old symbols telling a story I can not know. All I know is that art has survived since 1200 BC and I can still view it today. The site is well maintained (telephones in case you get stuck!!) and the paintings are in excellent shape. This is because they do an excellent job at maintaining them and this does mean no photography. This does mean however, you can connect with art and history from a time that seems almost unfathomable. The caves are wider than I  would have thought with some tight spots. The Caves of Niaux remain one of my most favorite and inspiring travel memories.

Sometimes being pushed out of your comfort zone doesn’t give you the best experience. Also in 2016, @benton8tor really wanted to see the Pont d’Espagne in the Pyrenees and hike it. I looked at the website and agreed. Of course I did there was a bar at the top and bottom. My kind of hiking. We arrived and it was very busy. We took the chairlift to the top. They told us we could return that way too. I was puzzled,’ why not walk down’, even though even on the ride up it was definitely steeper than I thought. 20160902_163719At the top we walked a super well marked path to the bar. So far so good. We stopped at the bar on the lake with crazy beautiful views. I was relaxed and happy.We then started down. I quickly realized I was out of my element. It was challenging and not well marked. And quite solitary. As an extrovert I found that the most troubling. At one point we got off the path and I used my superior understanding of geography to get us back on. No I didn’t obviously I completely freaked out. @benton8tor to his credit kept his calm and tried  to calm me as well. He was more successful at staying calm. I heard voices and scrambled/ran so fast towards them it would make your head spin. When we finally came to the end we stopped at the second bar ( I totally get why they are here now, your nerves really need it) I ordered my wine and tried to appreciate the beauty around me. My experience wasn’t quite over. My ego took such a beating that it still hasn’t recovered. a the table next to me was the same woman I had seen at the top, Considerably older and I believed in worse shape, she had beat me down the mountain.  Lesson learned. All said and done, I am glad I did it as it was so beautiful but I think I am better suited to guided hikes if at all.

This past month in Portugal I was out of my comfort zone again. @benton8tor wanted to rent a scooter to see the island we were currently on in the Azores. ‘Sure’ I said secretly praying for rain as aren’t these scooters death machines? The scooters were 125 cc. I wasn’t sure what that meant but I was certain it was bad. Again I was wrong. He was so excited, he booked it well in advance and the day came. Of course it was bright and sunny. So off we went. It really is an amazing way to see the sites. About 20 minutes in and I never wanted to travel by car again. When we got home, I have spent many nights trying to convince @benton8tor to buy a scooter. Stay tuned.

Sometimes it is convincing the people with you to go out of their comfort zone. My mom was not always the most adventurous eater. In fact I have it on good authority (my dad) that in Ireland once, she ate a turkey sandwich every night. So in Carcassone, France with my mom we are going out for dinner. Every restaurant we stopped at she vetoed. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘There is nothing I’d eat here’ she tells me.’They have gazpacho’ I say. “I hate gazpacho” she lies back to me. After 5 restaurants (all of which served gazpacho but no turkey sandwiches) we finally agree on a restaurant. This may have been due to the fact and that it was raining and she was carrying 27 bars of soap that she bought (really it was 27 but I still suspect more). Nevertheless the restaurant was cozy, old with amazing wood beams and welcoming. Probably because I was in a jerky mood, I ordered gazpacho. “Try It”I told my mom and probably to get me off her back, she did. ” it’s good’ she says surprised, ‘I do  like gazpacho.’ Cue eye roll.

It is good to go out of your comfort zone. You may find a new favourite and if you don’t well you will still have a good story and the reputation of being adventurous.


Vines and Voyages 5 Fav Restaurants in France

Le Vivier is nothing short of amazing and considering it is a Michelin restaurant, very affordable. The food is updated Provencal. I had a green tomato gazpacho that was out of this world

Often when travelling, deciding where to eat can be a challenge. Maybe you have done your research, read the reviews, and made your plan. There is a lot of value to this approach. You are less likely to be disappointing and it can save time but… you can miss out on lesser known amazing restaurants, you can be disappointed and maybe once you are actually travelling you feel like trying something different. Or maybe you take the other approach and decide to ask locals once you are there or simply scout around looking for a restaurant that looks good. Whatever the approach, they all have benefits and drawbacks.

Eating in restaurants and trying different foods is one of my favorite reasons to travel. In France especially, the food is usually fresh, seasonal and regional. Asking for recommendations is key and staying away from restaurants in tourist areas (i.e. Eiffel tour) is key. I have put together a list of my top 5 favorites.

5. Cafe L’absinthe Paris France. Located in the northern part of the Marais, Cafe L’absinthe is a very local bistrot. The service is especially friendly, the atmosphere cozy and the wine delicious and inexpensive. The food is solid. I had the charcuterie and @benton8tor the lamb. Also try the absinthe!

4. Brassiere le Carnot in Beaune, France has the classic French feel. dark wood, french lighting and wine served in beautiful porcelain jugs. thumbnail_IMG_0704Beaune in the heart of Burgundy is the center of Burgundy’s famous wine and the epicenter for Burgundy’s legendary gastronomy. Burgundy is famous for bœuf bourguignon, Coq au Vin, and more. Le Carnot features local ingredients. In the summer the gazpacho is amazing along with the jambon. Beef tartare is a don’t miss.

3. Still in Beaune La Grilladine offers amazing set menus featuring Burgundy classics. Both the restaurant and the patio offer a lovely atmosphere.Europe June 2010 393 The bœuf bourguignon is delicious as is the parsilined ham.. @Benton8tor swears by the perfectly cooked Charolais beef and scallops. My dad loved the escargot and my mom had the underrated chicken in mustard dish ( You are close to Dijon so…). The wine is incredible ( you are in Burgundy after all) but ask the servers for recommendations to pair to get the best wine experience. My dad and I had wines from the famed cote de nuit which we loved. Desert for me was pears poached in the the burgundy wine. Definitely check it out.

2. Olivier Leflaive. Well we are still in Burgundy. It is a culinary hot spot so it makes sense. If you are violivier-2siting Burgundy make sure to check out Olivier Leflaive. located in the famed Puligny-Montrachet village and appellation, Olivier Leflaive is vineyard, hotel and restaurant and is not to be missed. The 5 courses were paired perfectly with some of the best wines.2014 We started with the lightest gougeres and moved on to a ham terrine with mustard sauce.We also enjoyed a amazing carrot souffle, chicken and desert. We upgraded to the 7 tasting with our meal which included a a few grand and premier crus. Looking for a wonderful French experience, try Olivier Leflaive.

  1. Leaving Burgundy fr Provence, My favourite French restaurant to date is Restaurant le Vivier in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is amazing. @benton8tor had researched Michelin starred restaurants and we decided to give it a try. Away from the main drag in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue le Vivier is nothing short of amazing and considering it is a Michelin restaurant, very affordable. The food is updated Provencal. I had a green tomato gazpacho that was out of this world, followed by a bacon, mozza and tomato soup. My pork course was amazing and my peach and chocolate desert with raspberry sauce was incredible. @benton8tor nicknamed it the space odyssey dessert as when you poured the raspberry sauce on the chocolate sphere, it opened to reveal a peach based dessert inside. The wine was Provencal, light and easy drinking. @benton8tor opted for a rose and pigeon pie. His dessert featured violets from the neighboring Langedoc. the patio overlooks the river and the service is perfect. You won’t be disappointed.

There are many other amazing restaurants in France, I didn’t get to mention but asking locals, restaurants featuring regional specialties, or just going to the market yourself, you are sure to enjoy France and its its world famous food.

Porto, A Gastronomic Delight

So if you are so inclined to do this tour, go with an empty stomach and open mind and you won’t be disappointed.

Visiting Portugal wasn’t really on my radar 10 years ago. However a a friend of mine is from Portugal (her family) and they go back often.After hearing her talk abut it for years, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t wanted to visit. This year I was lucky enough to visit. The big question is where to go. Lisbon is an obvious option as is the sunny south coast. But for my first foray into Portugal, we chose Porto. Porto is located in the Douro Valley ( the stunningly beautiful Douro Valley but that is for a later post) and the home to Portugal’s many famed Port Houses. Since I believe wine is a food group, Porto it was.

Arriving in Porto in early April is a good time. weather is warm but not too many tourists yet. @benton8tor and I often like to start a visit to a new place with a food tour. It is usually a good way to get to know a city, find out where and what you might like to eat, and get a feel for the culture. Luckily in Porto it was a food and wine tour. Yes, yes ,yes. Sure it started at 9:30 in the morning but whatever, I am sure they wouldn’t start with wine until lunch (OK i thought 10:30 but I was wrong it was 10!). Of all the things to do in Porto I can’t recommend this tour enough.

We met our tour guide Sara (one of the best guides we have ever ever had) at 9:30 and started with a coffee and Portuguese pastry the famous Pastéis de Nata.thumbnail_IMG_6752 It was so good that a seagull even stole one from the table next to us. Our guide then led us to the Porto Market which was an amazing experience. So much fresh food, fruit, seafood, cheese, wine and tons of souvenir type gifts including tea towel, wine openers and other knickknacks with the infamous rooster on them. we then proceeded to a local specialty shop with cheese, wine, and meats. After trying several cheeses and meats, we got to sample the world famous ports including a white that was sweeter and more interesting than I would have thoughtthumbnail_IMG_6766.Afterwards we had my favorite stop of the tour Where we tried the infamous bifana, a slow cooked pork sandwich flavoured with spices and a sparking green wine that is considerably lighter than i thought. ( the wine isn’t green, it is named for the region) from there we headed to the absolutely breathtaking Porto train station. Though Porto itself is full of beautiful blue tiles on the building, the train station’s tiles are truly a work of art with each section representing a portion of Porto’s history. From there we stopped at Casa Leandro a small cafe off one of the busy tourist streets. Here we tried a local liqueur with anise and a traditionalthumbnail_IMG_6788 codfish cake, from there we headed to the Wine Box to taste local wines (My first red of the trip, delicious! Also it as noon so I didn’t wait to long) and more ports. Tawny ports especially the longer aged were emerging as my favourites.


From there we reached our last spot, a tiny tucked away cafe just off the busy tourist area by the river. Walking in is like walking in to someone’s kitchen. Here we really sampled some Porto delights including a black eyed pea salad, olives, the amazing Portuguese bread, and a delicious meat dish which we found out afterwards was chicken gizzards. Sara, our guide had not only given us a great intro into the food and wine of Porto, she gave us a sense of the city.

So if you are so inclined to do this tour, go with an empty stomach and open mind and you won’t be disappointed. They say you should always leave wanting more, though I had no more room for food, I definitely have more room for Portugal and there is so much more to see (looking at you Lisbon) . So it is safe to say, we’ll be back.