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. http://www.visitberlin.de/en/spot/book-burning-memorial-at-bebelplatz
  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. https://www.berlin.de/en/attractions-and-sights/3560266-3104052-brandenburg-gate.en.html

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. http://www.boulevard.berlin/

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://www.berlin.de/en/shopping/1761522-2947095-hackescher-markt-sh

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. http://www.remymartin.com/agegate/?u=/

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. https://www.hennessy.com 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. http://www.inter-iles.com/

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. http://www.russellandnewnes.co.uk/

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.

http://thewineboxporto.com/

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. http://www.sogevinus.com/lkopke

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.

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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. http://www.winequaybar.com/

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. http://www.sites-touristiques-ariege.co.uk/sites-touristiques-ariege/grotte-de-niaux

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. http://www.cauterets.com/en-ete/pont-despagne/ 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. https://www.tripadvisor.ca/Restaurant_Review-g187147-d4341374-Reviews-L_absinthe_Cafe-Paris_Ile_de_France.html. 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. http://www.brasserielecarnot.com/

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. http://lagrilladine.fr/

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. https://www.olivier-leflaive.com/en/

  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. https://www.levivier-restaurant.com/cuisine-gastronomique-etoile-restaurant-le-vivier-vaucluse/

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. https://www.viator.com/tours/Porto/Porto-Food-and-Wine-Tasting-Tour/d26879-5902FOODWINE

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. http://www.thewineboxporto.com/

 

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.

Top 5 Favourite London Must Do’s

I wanted to have a local beer and food and enjoy all the pub culture I could find.

London is a diverse and beautiful city and it is impossible to limit to just 5 things to do hence these are my top 5 favourite things to do… by all means do more.

  1. Visit London’s Southwark. The Southwark district is just south of the Thames and includes the south bank of the Thames. Any given day or night, you will find plenty to do. Most importantly it is extremely walkable and along the bank you are likely to IMG_3993find concerts, or other entertainment. It has food trucks, art institutions (Tate Modern) riverside pubs with rooftop patios, and more. walk from Westminster to Tower Bridge you can do the London eye, visit a public rooftop garden that serves alcohol, visit Borough Market and end at Butler’s wharf a shopping and food haven featuring new and trendy shops and restaurants in converted warehoused. My personal favourite is the OXO tower bar. It has some of the most inventive cocktails and best view of London. http://www.oxotower.co.uk/who/oxo-tower-restaurant-bar-brasserie/
  2. St. Paul’s Cathedral. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675, St Paul’s dominates the London skyline.Europe 2006 030 By far of all churches I have visited it is one if not the most beautiful. It is visually stunning and well worth the price of admission. The dome dominates the design and if you are so inclined, you can take the stares to the top of the dome and visit the whispering gallery. St Paul’s does have a worshiping congregation so taking pictures during a service can be considered rude. The service times are well posted so it is best to avoid that if you are just touring. https://www.stpauls.co.uk/
  3. Find a pub, authentic and local.The very thing i was most excited about the first time I visited London was finding a local pub. So much of what I had read or watched about British culture seemed to emphasize the importance of pubs. I wanted to have a local beer and food and enjoy all the pub culture I could find. Finding a pub in London won’t be a problem but finding one that serves great food can be a challenge. Several pubs cater to tourists or to the convenience food crowds. But finding a pub that serves local ingredients is a good sign. A few standouts for me have been the Red Lion, Ship and Shovel, Bear and Staff (touristy but good), Duke of York and my favourite St Stephen’s Tavern. St Stephen’s is just across the street from Westminster Palace (parliament). Still independent it serves the best cheese sandwich (with local cheeses of course) I have ever had. Could a cheese sandwich be that good you ask? Actually yes. http://ststephenstavern.co.uk/food-and-drink
  4. Go Horseback riding in Hyde Park. @benton8tor and I were visiting Europe once with my parents and I decided to give my my mom a belated birthday present riding horses in Hyde Park. She is obsessed with Hyde Park, horses and Royalty so this seemed the perfect gift. Hyde Park’s Rotten Row a horse riding trail in Hyde Park is where we went. thumbnail_IMG_6434Corrupted from Route de Roi, it became known as Rotten Row. Though not as widely used today, Rotten Row is still used for riding. The horses at Hyde Park stable are available for riding 6 months and then they have a 6 month vacation. Helmets and boots are provided so I felt authentic. It took me a bit to adjust to the English saddle my my horse and I bonded in no time. My horse was either afraid of pigeons as well or very empathetic as he seemed to take great lengths to avoid them. I wish I could say the same for those pesky birds which did not seem to want to share the space. Either way, our instructor led us on a beautiful ride and it is a wonderful way to experience a beautiful park. @benton8tor couldn’t join us due to his horse allergy, so he and my dad cooled their heels at the Swan pub on the north side of Hyde Park. The Swan is infamous for coining the phrase ‘one for the road’ as it was stop for prisoners on the road to the gallows. Despite the macabre history the Swan is a lovely pub to visit post ride! https://www.hydeparkstables.com/
  5. Cheese tour in Leadenhall. Leadenhall is the perfect stop for any history buff or Harry Potter fan. Leadenhall located in the city of London and has been operating as a market since the 14th century. IMG_0434Leadenhall is the backdrop for the Diagon alley scenes in Harry Potter. I have to admit, this was my main reason for wanting to visit and Leadenhall is worth it. It is beautiful with much of its old character on display. The Lambs Tavern is a great place for a drink while you wait for your piece de resistance, the Cheese Tour!!!! Yes Leadenhall has a cheese tour featuring some of the best local and international cheeses available. You can have a straight up cheese tour or with wine ( Obviously the one I chose) or even beer, port ect…  The guide knows her cheeses and wine and you can taste many cheeses you probably don’t even know existed. Well worth it. http://cheeseatleadenhall.co.uk/tours/

London is a wonderful city and these are just a few highlights. There is so much more to do in London but that is for another blog. Honorable mentions include: going to the theatre or enjoying high tea. Oh and for the wine lovers, don’t forget Gordon’s Wine bar South of Charing Cross!

Les Beaux Villages last one finalement!!!!

But for a true stunner of a village, you can’t beat Gordes. Gordes, also in the Luberon is literally set into a hillside.

By now, it is clear, I love visiting villages in Provence. Of all that I have visited, I chose my top 4 to highlight. So far I have covered Chataeuneuf-du-Pape (the must for wine lovers, Lourmarin ( A must of lovers of tranquility), and Cadenet ( A must for an authentic French village experience). They all are unique yet quintessentially Provencal. There are most likely no wrong villages to visit, It is Provence after all. I would recommend as well Sault, Orange, L’Ilse Sur La Sourge, St Remy de Provence, Lancon de Provence, Bandol, and Cadiere d’Azur. Though I haven’t been there yet, I hear amazing things about Lacoste, Roussillon, Apt, and Casiss. But for a true stunner of a village, you can’t beat Gordes.

Gordes, also in the Luberon is literally set into a hillside. If you didn’t have defined calf muscles before, a visit to Gordes will ensure you leave with them. To say it is hilly is an understatement. Parking is frightening at best and yes it is probably best to spare your ankles and wear flat shoes. But it is so worth it. Back in 2012, we arrived in Avignon and picked up our rented car. We piled in, ready to set off to Gordes. @benton8tor and I excited to see where some of the scenes from a Good Year were filmed ( the movies starring Russell Crowe is OK but scenery is stunning). My parents on this trip with us in 2012, were in the back. As we drove down the beautiful Provencal roads, more often than not surrounded by plane trees, I was super relaxed. “There is something wrong with the car”@benton8tor surmises. ” No there isn’t” I reply rather huffily. After all, I has markets to visit and wine to drink. “Do you hear that?” from Ben now certain a breakdown is imminent.I roll my eyes, my dad rolls his eyes and my mother pipes up “Yes Yes I hear it too! ” We stop they roll down to the window to discover the sound? La cigale or cicada one of the loudest insects in Provence. We still haven’t let them live it down.

We pulled into our B and B, La Burliere.  http://la-burliere.com/ Normally, I prefer hotels but this place was spectacular. Othumbnail_IMG_6415ur hosts were gracious, warm, and helpful. The property beautiful. Our room had a private balcony and my parent a private terrace. Each room was uniquely Provencal decorated with colours and artists of Provence. Breakfast every morning was delicious with homemade pastries, jams and juices. Seriously stay with them.

But onto Gordes for lunch. The approach to Gordes is nothing short of spectacular. There’s a perfect spot to pull over for pictures but if you are afraid of heights, well it is probably best to keep going

Gordes can be difficult to maneuver but it is full of shops and restaurants well worth the visit.Lavender is very easy to come by as is anything lavender scented.Gordes is a tourist attraction and caters to clientele with money so it can be expensive and busy. But worth it. Out lunch spot looked at first like a typical tourist store. Which it was selling local products. My mom wanted to go in to buy soap (which she did, several times) and we realized they had a patio out back.A patio that overlooked the Luberon valley with spectacular view. So we of course took a seat.I had a beautiful tomato salad. My mother had a ham and melon salad. Which became the bane of my existence as she swore it was so good that that is all she wanted to eat for the rest of the trip.Possibly forever. It has been 5 years, she still talks about it.

Gordes however does have many other restaurants and all that we tried were good. It can get busy and if looking for a quick snack it may be easier to try nearby L’Isle Sur La Sorgue. (also the McDonalds drive through gives beer, we didn’t eat there, just got beer) but for poking around and pure beauty, you can’t beat Gordes, so why not join, ’em?

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lavender fields from Gordes

 

Les Beaux Village Encore of Course

Cadenet is one of those villages often overshadowed by its more famous and well known neighbours. For that very reason, Cadenet shouldn’t be ignored.

Still on the beautiful Village theme from Provence, we have Cadenet. 10 minutes south of Lourmarin, Cadenet is one of those villages often overshadowed by its more famous and well known neighbours. For that very reason, Cadenet shouldn’t be ignored. http://www.provenceweb.fr/e/vaucluse/cadenet/cadenet.htm

A village of roughly 4,000, Cadenet is known for its lake, chateau and basket weaving. Of all the villages I have visited in Provence is is by far the least touristy. In fact on the day we visited (en route to Lourmarin) we only stopped in because we heard it was market day. Unlike many of the other markets, we actually had room to movethumbnail_IMG_6383. It was a fairly big market with all the usual draws, fresh olives, lavender, local cheese, amazing bread and pastry and in season produce. It also had the usual household goods and clothing and mostly importantly  for @benton8tor, Laguiole products. http://www.laguiole.com/index.php?language=en We had heard about Laguiole products courtesy of Peter Mayle books of course and now here were were. We must have walked up and down the market 7 or 8 times, stopping at the stall each time before Ben finally made his choice. When I asked him back in Canada about his favourite thing he bought, it was his Laguoile bottle opener and knife.

That isnt the only reason to visit Cadenet of course,20160905_114558 It is hilly but easily walkable, mainly locals and beautiful patios to enjoy a refreshment. We chose the bar du cours and the service was lovely and perfect for people watching. Cadenet is small but beautiful with excellent local products and a distinctly tourist free vibe.. Cadenet is well worth the time and effort so take time to check it out.

 

Les Beaux Villages Encore

So I figured if Peter Mayle lived there, then Lourmarin must be the THE place for the best, most fresh, most authentic food, the best wine, the most interesting people, the most authentic village, and the most beautiful.

In my last blog, I highlighted my favourite and the most beautiful villages of Provence, France, in particular Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Keeping with the theme, today I am going to highlight the beauty of Lourmarin.http://www.provenceweb.fr/e/vaucluse/lourmari/lourmari.htm Lourmarin is also located in the Vaucluse department of Provence about 40 minutes north of Aix en

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Chateau de Lourmarin

Provence. If I am completely honest, my desire to visit Lourmain was not based off some great local knowledge or heavy research into beautiful French villages. It was simply that the author Peter Mayle lives nearby. For anyone who has ever read a Peter Mayle book, it is almost a guarantee that you too will fall in love with Provence from the words on the page. So I figured if Peter Mayle lived there, then Lourmarin must be the THE place for the best, most fresh, most authentic food, the best wine, the most interesting people, the most authentic village, and the most beautiful. I also somehow hoped I would meet Peter Mayle an we would quickly become best of friends, united in our adoration of France. Shockingly that didn’t happen. I know, i was surprised too.

But we did visit Lourmarin and it absolutely was worth it. Lourmarin is a quintessential French village. After parking the c20160905_124219ar (with fairly ample parking for a village) we strolled towards the village centre. @Benton8tor who finds my Peter Mayle fascination the tiniest bit obsessive was gobsmacked. ‘This place is beautiful’. Lourmarin is beautiful, postcard beautiful and it has the unique ability to be busy but somehow feel both languid and chill at the same time. The perfect place both introverts and extroverts. We spent a bit of time poking around the various shops. Lourmarin has beautiful shops with unique items but runs to the more expensive side. Though small, it has plenty of options for shopping. We walked up to the Chateau de Lourmarin.http://www.chateau-de-lourmarin.com/home/. It was well worth it. The Chateau is often home to concert series and Lourmarin hosts it own summer music  festival. There is a local products souvenir shop on site an of course a wine store with degustation! IMG_4904We walked back to the centre for lunch. Our first choice looked great and was full but weren’t super eager to give us a table. Our second choice turned out to be delicious. It was just a croque monsieur (a more decadent grilled cheese) and fries but it was good. The bread was amazing. Ben seemed to be especially interested in the mayonnaise they provided that was made with Dijon mustard. However when it comes to fries, I am am old school North American all the way. Ketchup for me! and to their credit, they had it and served it to me.

One of the more strange things about Lourmarin seemed to be that they had 3 or 4 random (not stray ) dogs that would just roam the streets. I loved it! Nary a pigeon in site that way. Lourmarin is known as one of the most beautiful French villages for a reason. It is in the foothills of the Luberon, so the countryside is gorgeous, local wine delicious and very friendly.Even if you don’t meet Peter Mayle, it is well worth it.