03 January 2018

Travelogue Bordeaux 2017: We came for the wine and loved the food

One of my goals for the trip my wife and I took to France last autumn was to learn more about French wine. I've always felt uncertain about ordering French wine. Show me a wine list, and I can be fairly confident about picking a good wine from California or Italy or Argentina. But not so for the wines from France.

The irony is, on our past trips to France, we've always liked the wine with our meals. Often we would just order a carafe of house wine, and often it would be a Bordeaux. Then, when we'd return home, if I tried to order a French wine at a restaurant, too often it didn't live up to our expectations. So on this trip, we planned a 4-night stay in Bordeaux specifically to become more knowledgeable about the nuances of wine that's produced there.

During our stay, we did 2 wine-oriented day trips. One day we joined a bus tour to the Medoc region, where we visited 2 chateaus and tasted their wine. The first was Chateau D'Arsac and the other was Chateau Dillon. It was an interesting tour, and we liked the wine that we tasted at each chateau. But not so much that we wanted to buy any. The next day we took a train to Saint-Emilion. Saint-Emilion is a charming, quaint ancient city. There are several tasting rooms. But our best experience there was buying a picnic lunch at a boulangerie and then eating in the courtyard of a ruined convent where we bought a couple of glasses of wine.

Finally, I decided that the best way to learn about the wine of a region is to drink it with a meal.

Now, that's not to say that drinking wine was the only reason we came to Bordeaux. We also wanted to do some sightseeing. It's a beautiful city. Our hotel was in the city center which was very convenient. We were near many great restaurants. We were close to the river Garonne where we would stroll most evenings after dinner. All of the major sights of the city are nearby. And it was easy to get transportation when we needed it.

Sightseeing highlights: Musee des beaux-arts was a great little museum. When we were at the Louvre in Paris, we were disappointed that the wing with French landscape artists was closed. So we were delighted to be able to view so many at this museum in Bordeaux. The Palais Gallien is the ruins of a Roman amphitheater. We found it by accident on our way to the nearby Jardin Public (public garden). Both were worth seeing. The Porte Caihau is the ancient gate into the city from the river docks. And of course, the Saint-André Cathedral is an impressive site. 

Hotel: We stayed at the Quality Hotel Bordeaux Centre. I loved the location. The facilities were just average. Still, it was clean and reasonably priced. And the location was very convenient. 

Restaurants: I felt that the restaurants we visited in Bordeaux were better even than the ones we ate at in Paris. 

Les Voutes - We ate here our first night in Bordeaux. We liked it so much we came back on our last night. The food was excellent. On both visits, we ordered the fixed price menu which was less than 30 Euros. The decor was eclectic and a little funky. The service was efficient and accommodating. 

Tuna at Les Voutes

LouLou was recommended to us by the staff at the hotel. It was a short walk from the hotel, but when we got there (on our first night) they had no tables available. So we made a reservation and came back on our second night. The food was very creative and beautifully presented. The menu was hand-written on a chalkboard. My wife asked for English, but they didn't have one. I felt we could have gotten by. But our server insisted on reading each item to us. To make sure that we would not complain later if we got something unexpected. Fortunately, the menu was short enough, and we loved the meal here.

Chez Jean was a more casual restaurant. It was the only time I had steak frites on our whole trip, and it was very good. There was a chill in the air in the evening. But the restaurant had heaters, so we got a table outside, looking into Place du Parlement, a bustling square with an ornate fountain. I only had one problem. We were outside, and smoking was permitted. There were smokers on both sides of us, and I didn't appreciate the smoke that drifted across our table during dinner. 

We started every day with coffee and a croissant at Brasserie des Douanes. We had the same server every time (including the time we stopped in for a glass of wine and an afternoon snack). 

This was a great part of our trip. I'd happily return to Bordeaux sometime in the future. 

Palais Gallien - Ruins of a Roman Amphitheater 

02 January 2018

Taking a Train from San Sebastián to Bordeaux

If I had known how easy it would be, I would have more seriously considered taking the train from Paris to San Sebastian, rather than flying. I had read some reviews online that made me think that the Euskotren from Hendaya to San Sebastián would be unreliable. I recalled the hassles of using the commuter train from Naples to Sorrento and worried that the Euskotren would be like that. 

So as I explained in the previous post, we ended up flying from Paris to Biarritz and then took a bus to San Sebastian. Then, after our very enjoyable stay in San Sebastian, we had to figure out how to get back to France and to our next destination - Bordeaux. I was very frustrated and had gotten to the point where I considered renting a car one-way. Fortunately, my wife insisted that we ask for help. 

Our very helpful staff person at Lagazpi Doce reassured us that the best option was to take the Euskotren. She told us that the station was nearby and that since it was a commuter train, it would be a quick, reliable way to get to Hendaya where we could catch a TVG to Bordeaux (26€ apiece, first class, senior fare). Furthermore she noted that at the time we planned to travel, the train would not be crowded.

That’s exactly how it was. The Euskotren station was an easy 20 minute walk from Lagazpi Doce. The ticket machine offered instructions in English and took my American VISA card with no problem (2.45 € apiece). The train was modern and clean and comfortable and not crowded (at 10:15 am). When it arrived in Hendaya, the SNCF station was right there. 

Being nervous travelers, we arrived an hour and a half before the scheduled departure of our train to Bordeaux. There were no lockers in the station, otherwise we might have stowed our bags and walked through the town. So instead we went across the street and had coffee at Casa José. 

About 20 minutes before our scheduled departure, we went into the station. Our train was on the platform. We boarded and got settled in, connected to the WiFi and relaxed for our ride to Bordeaux.

01 January 2018

Travelogue San Sebastian 2017: What country are we in?

Technically, I suppose legally, our trip last autumn included 4 countries - France, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. But actually, the time we spent in San Sebastian really should have counted as a fifth country - Euskadi, the Basque Country. The food, the people, the language (sure, they all speak Spanish, but among themselves, they speak euskara) all are distinctly Basque. Even the name of the city is differentiated; call it San Sebastian if you want, but you'd better understand that locally it's called Donostia.

This was the second city in a long trip that my wife and I took. In many ways, it was my favorite. Getting here from Paris did present some logistical challenges. I considered taking a train. But that would have taken most of a day. So we decided to fly to Biarritz and then took a bus to San Sebastian. We had to get up early to get to the airport, and then after we arrived in Biarritz, we waited for about an hour for the bus. It wasn't bad, but in the end, we might have been better taking the train.

When we arrived in San Sebastian/Donostia, the weather was beautiful. It was much warmer than we expected for mid-October. So after checking in to our hotel, we headed straight for the beach. We didn't have swimsuits, but we did roll up our pants legs and stroll the beach with the cool waves washing over our feet. Idyllic!
Beautiful weather, beautiful beach

Unfortunately, the weather didn't stay so nice. When we woke up on Day 2, it was overcast and threatening rain. So we grabbed umbrellas and hopped on a bus to Bilbao (about 90 minute ride) to see the Guggenheim Museum. It was a fantastic museum and well worth the day trip. We didn't need the umbrellas that day.

There are 3 major hills in Donostia that surround the city and provide beautiful vista views of the town, the bay, and the ocean. During our stay, we hiked each one. On the day we arrived, after walking along the beach, we walked up Monte Igueldo. At the top of the hill is an amusement park. We weren't very interested in that. But we did enjoy the views. If you're not in the mood for a long walk, you can ride a funiclear to the top.

I noted above that threatening weather on Day 2 prompted us to take a day trip to Bilbao. The weather on Day 3 actually was worse. This was the day we chose for our second hike, to the top of Monte Urgull. It was my favorite. A trail near the boat docks in the harbor leads you to the ruins of an old fortress. At the top of the hill, amidst the ruins, is a very enjoyable museum. That was lucky for us, because it started to rain (and we had neglected to bring along umbrellas). We spent about an hour in the museum until the rain ended. It was very informative and enjoyable.

On our last day, the weather once again turned beautiful. We set out to walk around on Monte Ulia. It was a nice walk and the area is noted for its hiking paths. But we felt the views we'd already seen from Igueldo and Urgull were nicer.
Pintxos at Casa Alcalde

Hotel: We spent 4 very nice nights at Legazpi Doce. The room was comfortable. The wifi was reliable. The staff was very helpful. When we made our reservation, there was a special offer to include free breakfast (and a discount on the room rate) for paying in advance. Guests who took advantage of this offer got coupons for breakfast at a cafe across the street, BideBide. It was a good and hearty breakfast. Our room faced onto Legazpi Kalea ('street' in Basque). It was a fairly busy street and somewhat noisy during the day. But it got quieter at night.

Food: We got very enthusiastically engrossed in the pintxos (Basque tapas) culture. There are so many pintxos bars in the Old Town that it's hard to know where to begin. Based on a Tripadviser review, our first stop was Bar Sport. We arrived late afternoon, shortly after it opened and asked the server for a tutorial on ordering pintxos. He was very helpful and gave us good advice. It was a good thing we came early because we walked by again later in the evening, and Bar Sport was jam-packed. You couldn't even get in the door.

We ended up eating pintxos for dinner every night. They probably weren't the most balanced meals of our trip. But we were satisfied and it certainly was inexpensive. I liked Bar Sport the best, and we did return there on our last night in Donostia. My wife liked Casa Alcalde best, and we ate there twice. We also had pintxos at Izkina (the bar, not the restaurant) and another bar called Mendaur (which was our least satisfying of the bunch).

Nightlife: One evening after dinner, we dropped in at Altxerri Jazz Bar. It was a very enjoyable venue and we heard an exciting, energetic Cuban singer. I had a cocktail. It was good, but kind of expensive. My wife had a nice glass of local wine that was delicious and inexpensive. I know that San Sebastian hosts an annual jazz festival. I had kind of expected we'd be able to find more jazz venues. But during our stay in October, Altxerri was the only one we found.

Cuban jazz at Altxerri
In many ways, our stay in Donostia-San Sebastian was my favorite part of the trip. I've recommended it as a destination to friends, and I'd gladly return someday.

31 December 2017

They Do Love Their Water Sports in San Sebastian Spain

During our stay in San Sebastian last October, we were amazed by the prevalence of water sports that we saw. We knew that the city's beaches are part of its appeal. So we expected to see swimming and surfing, which we did. But we didn't know that we'd see so many people participating in so many different water sports in all kinds of weather.

Sailboats racing about on a rainy day
The weather was beautiful on the afternoon we arrived in San Sebastian. We had expected cool weather, so we did not bring swimsuits on this trip. However, we did roll up our pant legs and wade in the refreshing sea water. As we walked along the beach, we watched several people in kayaks rowing back and forth across the bay. My wife and I both do some kayaking at Island Lake in Minnesota. For us, it's just a leisurely way to get out on the water and enjoy the scenery. The kayakers we saw in San Sebastian were serious rowers. We were impressed by how fast they went.

The next day, the weather turned grey and threatened rain. We carried umbrellas as we walked along the Urumea River that runs through the middle of the city. Despite the unpleasant weather, we saw several rowers sculling up and down the river.

The following day the weather was even worse. We imprudently neglected to carry umbrellas and got rained on during our hike up Monte Urgull (one of 3 high hills that provide vista views of San Sebastian, its bay and the ocean beyond). The rain didn't dissuade us; we were already committed to the hike. But we were surprised to see small sailboats racing back and forth in the bay.

But the activity that amazed me the most was river surfing on the Urumea. Our last day in San Sebastian provided a return to beautiful weather. On our morning walk (intending to hike up Monte Ulia, the second of the 3 hills), I was fascinated to observe how the high tide allowed ocean waves to roll into the mouth of the river. It's a phenomenon I've never seen before. But as interesting as that was, it was even more amazing to see people surfing up river on the waves! They were on stand-up paddleboards which they rowed into the waves as they broke. It was a truly singular sight. (Sorry, no photo. But you can read more about it by clicking this link.)

Sculling on the Urumea River

28 December 2017

Travelogue Paris 2017: Getting comfortable in familiar settings

My wife and I have been to Paris often enough now that we sort of feel at home there. Well, if not actually 'homey,' at least familiar enough so that we can wander through neighborhoods with a sense of familiarity. So when we planned our autumn trip to Europe (and Morocco), it was an easy decision to begin in Paris. There's a direct flight on Delta from Minneapolis to Paris. We flew overnight and arrived mid-morning. After clearing customs, we arrived at our hotel late morning. The friendly staff let us check in early. So we had a chance to unpack and relax before setting out. But even if they hadn't, we could have just checked our luggage and gone out to find a cafe for lunch.

The last time we were in Paris, the weather was ugly - cold, windy, rainy, we even had sleet one day. So this trip was sort of a do-over, and the weather was much more pleasant. In mid-October, we expected it to be cool. Normally it would be. But for the 4 days on this trip, we enjoyed unseasonably warm weather.

Our hotel for this trip was Les Dames du Pantheon. We loved it. I gave it 5 stars on my tripadvisor review. Some of the rooms have a view of the Pantheon, and it is very impressive. In the evening, young people gather in the square in front of the Pantheon, and I suppose it could be a little noisy. Our room, facing a side street, was nice and quiet. But for us, the main appeal was the neighborhood. It's close to Notre Dame, The Luxembourg Gardens, the Latin Quarter and many excellent restaurants. But it's far enough out of the hubbub of the Left Bank to also be quiet and relaxing. We also really appreciated the staff. They were friendly and accommodating.

Having fun at Aux Trois Mailletz

Aux Trois Mailletz: We have come here multiple times on previous trips to Paris. Usually we just come for the music and generally entertaining experience. On this trip, we decided to also have dinner. The food was good. Nothing to rave about, but flavorful and satisfying. We ordered a bottle of wine, which we sipped with dinner and throughout the evening listening to the piano bar performers. We asked our server to take a photo. As we posed for the shot, other patrons started calling out 'bise, bise!' It took us a while to figure out they wanted us to kiss. (I definitely have to improve my French.)

La Maison de Verlaine: This is a friendly, comfortable neighborhood restaurant that we 'discovered' on our previous trip to Paris. We enjoyed it so much that we paid a return visit in 2017. Still very satisfying and enjoyable.

L'Orangerie: My wife and I saw this restaurant while strolling through L'ile Saint-Louis. It looked appealing, so we made a reservation for dinner. It fully lived up to our expectations. We both ordered off the 3-course menu (a good value for 35 Euros). Our food was delicious and attractively presented. The service was attentive without being obtrusive. We did note that on the night we dined there, most of the other guests were speaking English. A casual conversation with the diner at the next table confirmed that the restaurant is popular with business travelers.

Le Coupe-ChouThe staff at our hotel recommended Le Coupe-Chou for our last night in Paris. It was 3 blocks away and highly recommended. It was just what we wanted. The restaurant was quiet and warm. Service was efficient and accommodating. We both decided to order off the daily menu - 3 courses for 33 Euros. However, I wanted a different dessert. No problem. The server pointed out that I could have the entree and main course for 27 Euros and then order my preferred dessert ala carte. For the record, my dessert was figs poached in red wine and honey. Delicious. Just one observation, however. It seemed like most of the patrons were speaking English. That's not bad, and it certainly isn't a negative as far as a dining experience. But my guess is that locals tend to steer English-speaking guests to a restaurant like this because it does accommodate us. So if you're looking to immerse yourself in Parisian ambiance, you probably won't find that here. 

Figs poached in red wine and honey, at Le Coupe-Chou


Besides Aux Trois Mailletz, mentioned above, which was both dinner and entertainment, we also made our way over to Sunset Sunside for a late set after dinner one night. There was a local jazz trio performing some pretty hard-driving music. Despite being jam-packed, the people in the audience listened attentively and appreciatively to the musicians. They were great. We only heard one set and then everyone left. Early, we thought, for Paris. 

27 December 2017

I almost decided to get rid of my Jaguar

It was Christmas Eve Day. My wife and I had plans to meet friends for a movie and dinner. I opened the garage door and hopped in the car. I pressed the start button. All I got was a sickening "thunk, thunk." The electronics started flashing error messages on the dashboard. It was obvious that the Jaguar would not be our sleigh ride on this Christmas Eve.

Flashback: When I retired, I bought a new 2014 Jaguar XK. I have coveted Jaguars ever since I became acquainted with them in the mid-1960s, in fact since before I even had a drivers license. But over the years, I always had other, more practical priorities, like paying for college, getting married, buying a house, having kids, saving for their colleges, saving for their weddings, saving for the grandkids colleges ...
Me and my XK

My wife gets the actual credit for the Jaguar that's parked in our garage. She's the one who encouraged me finally to start a dedicated account to save up for a Jaguar. And by the time I retired, it was enough. I debated whether to buy a restored vintage XKE like I fell in love with 50 years ago. But I'm sort of mechanically challenged, and I knew I wouldn't be able to keep an old Jaguar running on my own. The XK model design was reminiscent enough of the XKE. So I decided to get a new one, anticipating that it would be more reliable mechanically.

Don't get me wrong. It's been pretty good. The only thing that's ever caused any serious trouble has been the electrical system.

Eyes Wide Open: I've always heard that the electrical system is fussy in a Jaguar. About once a year, I discover that the battery has drained unexpectedly and without any apparent cause. It happened earlier this fall. When I took the car in to have the show tires put on (yes, I do drive it all winter in Minnesota), I asked the mechanics to check it out.

The verdict was that the battery was starting to get weak. "It's rated at 800 cold cranking amps, and the meter shows it putting out 600," the mechanic told me. He said that should be ok. But since the car was still at the dealer, he could put in a new battery, if I wanted, for $500. I gulped at that. Yeah, maintaining a Jaguar isn't cheap. But $500 for a car battery? That seemed unreasonable. So, I declined.

Now, when the car wouldn't start earlier this fall, my son-in-law lent me his jump starter. And that worked! The car fired up. I drove it around to recharge the battery, and I hoped that everything was ok. As insurance, I went out and bought a jump starter myself.

Not good enough, apparently. When we got home from a very nice dinner with our friends, I plugged in the jump starter that I bought so that it would be fully charged by morning. On Christmas morning, I went into the garage, hooked up the jump starter, got into the car and pushed the start button. All I heard was the same sickening "thunk thunk" and the electronics went berserk again. Frustrating, but it was Christmas Day. I didn't really need to be driving the Jaguar anywhere. And I knew it would be next to impossible to get someone to come out and help me get it started.

I thought, maybe my son-in-law's jump starter was more powerful. So later in the evening, I went over to his house and borrowed his Stanley JumpIt again. I charged it up overnight. On Tuesday morning, I hooked it up to the car. Much to my chagrin, still no action.

My Jaguar dealer provides emergency roadside assistance, including jump starts. I did have to call them one other time when the battery drained. I knew that it would be a long wait, so I decided to try one more thing. My local hardware store opened at 8 a.m. I ran over there and bought jumper cables. Came home and hooked up my wife's Honda . The Jaguar did turn over. But not with enough oomph to get it started.

Time to call in a pro. I dialed the roadside assistance number. Of course, I waited on hold for 20 minutes, but finally someone came on the phone, took my information, and put in a service call with a local provider. Ah, but now, I started to run into my own schedule conflicts. I had a couple of appointments to take care of, and the time that the auto service guy could come out wouldn't work. So I told them to just wait a day and come on Wednesday.

It was while I was running my errands (in my wife's car) that I had my moment of doubt. "What's the point of having a beautiful, high-powered car just sitting in my garage?" I said to myself. It's 4 years old, just over 30,000 miles. I wondered what I could get if I tried to sell it. But what would I replace it with? I liked the Volvo I was driving when I got the Jaguar. Maybe I'd get a new Volvo. Or maybe I'd shop for an electric vehicle.

Wednesday morning, a tow truck that was arranged by the roadside assistance service pulled into my driveway. It took 3 tries. But finally after 4 frustrating days, the Jaguar fired up with a throaty roar. I guess she'd just been sleeping.

As I drove up the street, on my way to get a new battery, the car surged ahead, as if to complain: "What am I doing on this suburban street? I should be flying down the highway."

I felt that familiar thrill. I'm driving a Jaguar! And all thoughts of getting rid of it evaporated.

29 November 2017

A visit to 2 small museums in Paris

There are many reasons why my wife and I keep coming back to Paris. One of them is the immense variety of things to see and do there. Every time we return, we have a list of favorite places to see and things to do. But we also have a companion list of new things to visit and do.

Ossip Zadkine, a sculptor's self-portrait. 
The itinerary for our October trip included a pair of small museums that we'd read about - Musee Zadkine and the Musee d'Art et d'Historie du Judaisme. (Both, by the way, are recommended by a French blogger who I follow. Her name is Clotilde Dusoulier. She calls her blog Chocolate & Zucchini.)

Our plan was to go to Zadkine first. It's located close to the Luxembourg Gardens and only a few blocks from the hotel where we stayed. This fit our plan of old and new nicely, since the Gardens are on our must-visit list. So on a bright Monday morning, after getting checked into our hotel, we strolled across the Gardens to find the museum. 

It turned out to be not that easy. We had the correct address. We even had it on Google Maps, but somehow walked by it without noticing. When we finally got reoriented and found the door, we were chagrined to realize that the museum is closed on Monday. Well, no matter. We had plenty of things to see on our list. 

We almost decided not to come back. That would have been a bad decision. On Wednesday, after a breakfast of espresso and a croissant, we made our way across the Gardens again and were pleased to find the doors open and welcoming. We did have one more glitch. Musee Zadkine is usually listed as a free museum. But on our visit, we had to pay an entrance fee of a few Euros. It turns out that there was a special exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the artist's death. 

The artist, Ossip Zadkine, was born in Russia in 1890. He studied in London and moved to Paris in 1910. His home and studio now is the site of the museum that features his sculptures. The special exhibit was particularly fascinating, since it included works by many other artists who influenced Zadkine. These included Pablo Picasso and Auguste Rodin. 

Many of Zadkine's pieces are displayed in a quiet garden surrounding his studio.
While the Musee Zadkine exceeded our expectations, the Musee d'Art et d'Historie du Judaisme was ... not disappointing, but also not quite as engaging as we had expected. In fact, if you look at the museum's site online, I think it's more interesting than the actual museum. 

I hope that doesn't come across as too harsh. We did enjoy the museum. It does exactly what the name describes - it provides a broad historical perspective on Jewish history beginning in the Biblical era. It appropriately has a focus on the history of Jews in France, but not exclusively. 

It's located in the Hotel de Saint-Aignan. (The museum's web site provides an interesting history of the building.) Our visit provided us with a nice cultural break after spending the morning sightseeing and shopping in the Marais. (The museum's web site explains that the Jewish presence in the Marais dates back 700 years, but with notable gaps during periods of anti-Semitic persecution and expulsion.) 

The courtyard leading to the entrance of the Jewish museum.