Cannes: Far from the Madding crowd

The crowds are fierce in this Riviera hot spot in August. And, of course during its famous film festival when the world focuses on all the stars who pose on the red carpet at the Palais des Festivals.

View from the ferry

Cannes viewed  from the ferry

But, you can escape the masses and find tranquility amidst Mediterranean splendor just a short boat ride (20 minutes) away. We visited Cannes again this year to watch outstanding fireworks which are part of an international competition held every summer in Cannes. Fireworks are shot from numerous boats in the harbor and synchronized to music. Worth a trip!

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So too is a visit to the off shore islands (Îsles de Lérins): Île Sainte Marquerite and Île Saint Honorat. Last summer we hiked around Ste. Marquerite, the larger island, and savored an excellent lunch on the shore. This time, Saint Honorat, the monks’ island.cannes,14

Splendid. The tiny island has no cars, no hotels, just one restaurant, two shops –and monks. In 410 AD, Honoratus, a Roman noble who became saintly and sought isolation, is said to have chosen the island, then full of snakes and scorpions and thought to be haunted, as an ideal retreat. Visitors followed. A monastic order was established.

11th century fortress was connected to the original abbey by a tunnel.

11th century fortress was connected to the original abbey by a tunnel.

The monastery grew to become one of the most powerful in Christendom. Alas, peace and quiet did not last. Raids by Saracens and pirates in the 8th century took their toll, then later attacks by Spaniards. The monastery was closed in 1788, but reborn in 1859 when Cistercians took it over.

Today 20 monks live on Saint Honorat. In addition to praying, they cultivate grapes, eight hectares of vineyards, five for red wine, and three for white.

The monks' grapes were looking good.,

Monastery grapes are looking good.

We followed the mostly shaded trail along the island’s craggy coastline, past rocky coves, ancient chapel ruins, an 11th century fortress and cannonball ovens. These curious structures were used in the 18th century to heat cannonballs so they would wreck further destruction on the ships they hit.

VR inspects a cannonball oven.

VR inspects a cannonball oven.

Signs along the way remind you to keep quiet and to respect the religious ambience – no bare chests. Mediterranean vegetation – pines, herbs, eucalyptus – borders the trail and makes for interesting photos. Other paths lead through the island interior, past the vineyards.

Monks have been living here for 16th centuries. REspect

Respect the monks and their silence.  Be decently attired.  T-shirts and shorts obligatory.

It is truly another world: beautiful, peaceful and quiet. It was hard to fathom that those noisy masses on La Croisette, Cannes renowned boulevard, were not far away.cannes.5

We stopped to visit the current abbey church and the shop which sold mainly wine. According to a brochure on the island wine, it is “full of spirituality.” All the vintages are named after saints, but you will pay dearly for spiritual wine.   The cheapest we found was 26 euro, but most were far more expensive.

No wine bargains here.

No wine bargains here.

At La Tonnelle , the island restaurant, we each ordered a glass of the monk’s brew to accompany our lunch. A glass of Sainte Cesaire (Chardonnay) for me at 8 euro; a glass of Saint Honorat (Syrah) for VR at 11.80 euro. I found my wine too oaky and too Chardonnay. Vino Roberto’s was good, very robust. To take a bottle home: 33 euro. VR reasoned he could buy several good bottles back in the Luberon for that amount.canes.15

The lunch (we each ordered fish) was delicious.   People watching at this seaside eatery also gets high marks. Pleasure boats cast anchor off shore. A tender ferries passengers to the restaurant, a constant parade of the yachting crowd.cannes.8

Travel Tips:

Trip Advisor led me to the Hotel l’Olivier in Cannes, a small, family-run (22 rooms) hotel on a hillside overlooking the Med.   Our room was tiny, but our terrace with a superb view was perfect. The hotel personnel were all very warm, welcoming and helpful. It was a bit of a walk to the town center, but good exercise. The hotel has a small pool, flowered terrace for al fresco breakfast, and it’s quiet – a great escape from the chaos of La Croisette. A beach is also nearby. http://www.hotelolivier.com

Beach near the hotel

Beach near the hotel

Another Trip Advisor find, the Bistrot Saint-Sauveur in Le Cannet, a town above Cannes, where we had an excellent lunch. www.bistrotsaintsauveur.fr

La Tonnelle, restaurant on the island, www.tonnelle-abbayedelerins.com

A leisurely saunter around the island takes about 1 ½ hours. Boats to both islands run about every hour during summer months. Round-trip ticket to Saint Honorat, 14 euro (price for seniors). More information www.cannes-ilesdelerins.com

Island olive tree

Island olive tree

Don’t miss Today’s Taste in column at right: DILLY POTATO SALAD, my favorite potato salad.

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Tiny Aix – a French Island Paradise

This was my favorite of the recent visit to France’s mid-Atlantic coast. See previous post, “Discovering more of France,” June 2015. aix.blog7

Islands are intriguing. These chunks of land surrounded by water are a curiosity, and much more. They inspire and captivate our imagination, offering a unique way of life, a different state of mind.aix.blog11

The miniscule French island of Aix off the country’s mid-Atlantic coast is indeed an island pearl. Step off the ferry from the mainland and enter an enchanted world – no cars, little commerce, just one hotel. Aix has not been gussied up for tourists. It’s authentic with many buildings in need of a coat of paint. Its few shops seem to have changed little in decades. There are no fancy restaurants, no classy cafes – just a small number of simple eateries.aix.blog8

About 240 residents live on the island which is 1.8 miles long and .4 miles wide.   Of the permanent inhabitants, only 100 remain on the island in winter. In summer, between 4,000 and 5,000 tourists arrive each day to bike, walk, swim, fish and soak in the beguiling island ambience. Most leave in the evening. The nights are silent, magic.

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“I come here every chance I get. It’s a little paradise,” said Christine Lacaud who lives in Rochefort, a city in the Poitou-Charentes region adjacent to the ferry departure point in Fouras.

Island resident and historian Pierre Antoine Berniard sums it up: “When you take the boat and arrive here, there’s something different… Kids can play everywhere. There are no cars to hurt them. It’s really a privilege.”aix.blog4

I spent a night at Aix’s Hotel Napoleon, a charming abode with just 18 rooms and an excellent restaurant, Chez Josephine. Our group had come to admire the replica of the frigate Hermione anchored off shore before its April departure for an amazing journey to the U.S., duplicating a voyage of 235 years ago. During that epic voyage, the ship ferried Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic to help General George Washington and the rebels in the fight for American independence. (See previous post, “Hail Hermione,” May 2015)

Aix harbor decorated for the departure of the frigate Hermione to the US.

Aix harbor decorated for the departure of the frigate Hermione to the US.

The magnificent ship was just one attraction. We also biked. You can walk around the island in two to three hours, or take a leisurely horse-drawn carriage ride, but discovering Aix by bike seems to be the most popular. There are several bike rental depots. Ride through lush forests, marshlands, along a rocky coast, past pristine beaches and hidden coves. It’s tranquil, peaceful — and flat. Pedaling is fun and easy.

Plenty of bikes for rent on Aix

Plenty of bikes for rent on Aix

Stop for an oyster break. Aix’s one weather-beaten oyster shack should be on a movie set – the perfect oyster shack stereotype. Oysters are shucked on the spot. Order a bottle of white wine; sit outside surrounded by stacks of oyster-growing paraphernalia, bikes and the sea. Oysters have never tasted better.

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Aix’s deputy mayor, Jean Claude Poisson, told me the island doctor, who lives there year round, does big business in summer thanks to oysters. Tourists comb the shore looking for the mollusks and cut their feet on the razor sharp rocks. The doctor is kept busy stitching wounded feet.

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A wealthy American, Eva Gebhard Gourgaud, gets credit for Aix’s revival in the 1920s. The island, initially settled by monks in the Middle Ages, played an important role in France’s military history throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. During the Napoleonic period, several thousand troops were lodged in forts and barracks on the island. Napoleon even requested reinforcements of Aix’s fortifications after an island visit in 1808.

Carriage rides are popular

Carriage rides are popular

But by the beginning of the 20th century, the military presence was on the decline. The island was dying. A French journalist wrote a report on the island’s imminent demise. Eva, wife of Baron Napoleon Gourgaud who was a descendant of Napoleon’s aide, read the article, visited, and fell in love with Aix. ”She decided to buy everything.” Berniard said. She opened the island to culture and aix.blog6tourism.

A tourist favorite is the house where Napoleon surrendered to the English in 1815, and where he spent his last three days on French soil before being exiled to St. Helena in the South Atlantic. This year marks 200 years since Napoleon returned to France after nine months of exile on the island of Elba.

The house, which has displays on the Napoleonic era, is open to visitors, as is Aix’s Mother of Pearl House where proprietor Herve Gallet will tell you the fascinating story about the island and mother of pearl.aix.blog9

His parents moved to Aix in 1948, hoping to grow grape vines and sell wine. That failed, so they started making objects of shells collected on the beach to sell to tourists. That enterprise took off, and they expanded to make products of mother of pearl. “There are 148,000 varieties of sea shells,” Gallet said, “but only 16 can be used for mother of pearl.” Mother of pearl was imported from India, Mexico, Polynesia and other countries, since shells from Aix are not suitable.

Mother of pearl in the making

Mother of pearl in the making

Between 1720 and 1980, mother of pearl was a major industry in France, Gallet explained, with some 30,000 workers in the country producing buttons. On Aix, however, mother of pearl was used to make souvenirs and decorative items, not buttons. These are still made by Gallet. In his workshop he demonstrates the process of extracting and polishing mother of pearl from shells. His Mother of Pearl house is a type of museum where an audio guide and videos explain the biology and chemistry of sea shells. His shop offers an extensive range of mother of pearl products, from reasonably priced jewelry items to a mirror with a price tag of 1,750 euros.   I bought two pairs of earrings — a pearl souvenir from a pearl of an island.

Hotel Napoleon, http://www.hotel-ile-aix.com

Les Paillotes, island restaurant, http://www.restaurantlespaillotes.fr

In addition to the Hotel Napoleon, Aix offers numerous bed and breakfast accommodations. www.Iledaix.fr

More on Aix: www.iledaix.fr/?lang=en

The Ile de Ré and Ile d’Oléron are two other, much larger French islands off the country’s west coast. Both also offer beaches, biking, hiking, boating, fishing – plus more hotels. http://www.holidays-iledere.co.uk/and oleron-island.com

Try my aioli — the recipe featured in Today’s Taste in column at right.

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U.S.A. – Summer 2015

blog.32Chicago is definitely my kind of town. My visit to this dynamic city where I studied and worked for several years long ago was, for me, a highlight of our recent U.S. voyage. Husband Bob (Bicycle Bob/Vino Roberto) and I also enjoyed visits with friends and family in Virginia and New York City, attended a reunion in Maryland, shopped, ate good food — and had a grand time.

Bev in her garden.

Bev in her garden.

A former college roommate, Beverly, was my guide extraordinaire in the Windy City. Bev and I, both French majors, roomed together in the French corridor of a dorm in our senior year at Northwestern University in Evanston just north of the city. We were supposed to speak only French. (I think we broke that rule.) Bev went on to get a PhD in French, taught at Yale, but eventually moved back to Chicago. She lives in Lincoln Park, not far from where I lived when I worked in the city, and now works part time as a Chicago guide, giving tours in French. She knows – and loves – the city, and gave me an outstanding tour – in English.

So much has changed, and it’s all overwhelming, fabulous. Chicago, the third largest city in the U.S., has always been known for its bold architecture. The first skyscraper was erected in the city in 1885. Today its sky is the background for a blog.22myriad of innovative and beautiful tall buildings, including the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower and the second tallest building in the U.S. With 105 buildings at least 500 feet (152 m) tall, Chicago is said to have the tallest skyline in the country and the third-tallest in the world. A great way to see these buildings, and learn more about the city’s architectural history, is the architecture tour by boat on the Chicago River.   As our boat wended its way past one magnificent building after another, Bev’s friend and exuberant guide Judith provided fascinating commentary.

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Bev drove me through Hyde Park and parts of south Chicago, regions of the city I had never explored. I wanted to take a photo of Obama’s house, but there is not much to see. It is hidden behind lots of trees and bushes, and there are security barricades all around, as well as guards. We stopped at Frank Lloyd blog.robieWright’s Robie House, built in his Prairie style between 1908 and 1910 and now a National Historic Landmark. We stopped at another National Historic Landmark, a Henry Moore sculpture on the University of Chicago campus marking the site of the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction on Dec. 2, 1942.blog.moore

That’s what brought Bev’s late father, Ralph Livingston, a post-doc in physical chemistry, to Chicago. I asked Bev for the details.  “The code name for the research effort of what would become the Manhattan Project was the Metallurgical Laboratory (“MetLab”) and that’s where my dad worked doing experiments on radium, uranium, etc. He was in the “loop” in that he knew that they were working on an atomic bomb; many working on the Manhattan Project did not know the true nature of this “war effort.”

“In July 1945 when the first atomic test blast took place in Nevada, a number of scientists signed a petition addressed to President Truman, NOT to use it on a civilian population.  I have a copy of this petition which has my dad’s signature. Hiroshima was bombed on Aug. 6, 1945; Nagasaki on Aug. 9.”

This explains Bev’s ties to Hyde Park, where she was born, and the University of Chicago, where she did her graduate studies.

Northwestern campus with more construction underway.

Northwestern campus with more construction underway.

She led me on another excursion to the site of our undergraduate studies — Evanston and the Northwestern campus. Progress there is also monumental, with many new buildings, many built on land that was once Lake Michigan. The campus can only expand in the direction of the lake, so more of the lake has been filled to provide needed terrain. We walked by many old buildings which brought back many memories. We found the dorm where we originally met long, long ago.

Millennium Park, a park in the city center like no other city park, is my Chicago favorite, a showcase for state of the art architecture, lush landscaping and outdoor art. It’s fun with some surprising and amazing sights. Cloud Gate,

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commonly known as “The Bean,” is an elliptical sculpture which reflects the skyline and intrigues visitors who walk underneath and all around to take photos, often reflections of themselves.blog.31 Crown Fountain is another winner. Spanish artist Jaume Plensa is the genius behind two 50-foot glass block towers at opposite ends of a reflecting pool. Gigantic faces of Chicago citizens are projected on LED screens on the towers, changing continually, with water flowing from open mouths. You can be mesmerized for hours.

BB bridge leading to the Jay Pritzer Pavilion, right corner.

BB bridge leading to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, right corner.

We walked up the BB Bridge in the park to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a venue for outdoor concerts, both cutting edge architecture designed by Frank Gehry. We had hoped to take in a free concert, but rain drove us away after the first selection. Another day we walked a section of The 606, an elevated trail for hikers and bikers similar to New York’s High Line. It was built on a section of the Bloomingdale rail line no longer in use.blog.21

When I lived in Chicago, I loved the Art Institute, the second-largest art museum in the United States after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It has expanded, with a new wing designed by Renzo Piano. I did not have time to visit, a reason for a return to Chicago.

Time to join BB/VR in Winchester, Virginia, where he was visiting his son Rob and grandsons Samuel and Lang. I left Bev’s townhouse at 11 a.m. and did not arrive at Dulles Airport outside of Washington, D.C., until 11:30 p.m. that night. I was traveling by air – not car – although a car may have been faster. I spent most of the day in airports or in a plane that never took off. Delays due to bad weather and mechanical problems, I was told. Give me the TGV (France’s fast train) any day!

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Sam, BB and Lang

In Virginia we took the boys on a delightful but short hike in the Virginia State Arboretum, following a trail bordered by grandiose trees. We encountered few others in this peaceful wonderland of nature. It’s another place that merits a return visit.

Campfire at the reunion featuring a guitar player and Somemores

Campfire at the reunion featuring a guitar player and S’mores (roasted gooey marshmallows sandwiched with chocolate between graham crackers– an old Girl Scout favorite.)

Next stop Adamstown, Maryland, where my Peace Corps training group, Brazil 1966-68, was holding a reunion at a camp and retreat center.   Rob and the boys joined us and, when the rain stopped, had fun in the pool. I met old friends, attended some interesting lectures and presentations, including one on the Peace Corps today which, like Brazil, is not the way we knew it 49 years ago.

Mark and moi.

Mark and moi.

En route to the reunion, we made a detour to La Vale, Maryland, the home of German Life, a magazine I write for.   At long last I was able to meet the editor, Mark, in flesh.   Ours has been an email and occasional phone call relationship for at least 12 years. Mark went overboard and treated us all to lunch for making the trip. Thank you, Mark.

Marian on right.

Marian on right.

I left the reunion site for a lunch break to reunite with a high school friend, Marian, who divides her time between residences in Bethesda and Annapolis, Maryland. She filled me in on news of other classmates.

Visits to New York City

Kellie

Kellie

are always superb. There we have the good fortune to stay in step-daughter Kellie’s beautiful apartment in Soho. Kellie had a dinner party one evening so we could meet some of her friends, and see BB’s nephew Joe and his wife Hsinn,

The 9/11 Memorial was a must on our New York agenda. Names of the 2,977 victims of this horrific tragedy are emblazoned on bronze plates attached to parapets of the walls that surround two rectangular pools, one for each tower destroyed in the attack. It is a beautiful, but chilling monument. Looming above the memorial is the new One World Trade Center (Freedom Tower), the tallest building in the U.S. We passed on a visit to the Memorial Museum as the entrance waiting lines were very long.

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No lines at the new Whitney Museum of American Art, an interesting structure with intriguing outdoor spaces, and amazing art. I conquered the subways and went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So much to see, and all terrific. Must go back there, too.

Rooftop terrace at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Rooftop terrace at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

We joined Kellie and a friend for Shakespeare in the Park (Central Park) and a performance of The Tempest. I met Michaela from  Switzerland Tourism for lunch. Thanks to Michaela, I have been on many wonderful press trips to Switzerland.

A closing word on food in the U.S. We have often complained about the high costs of almost everything in France. No more. The dollar’s recent surge has, of course, made things cheaper for us here. We were shocked at some U.S. prices: $14 and up for a glass of wine in NYC; $10 for 2 cups of coffee. Restaurant prices vary, of course, but eating definitely seems cheaper on this side of the Atlantic. In the U.S., a restaurant bill is just the beginning. You need to figure another 20 percent for tip, then a percentage for tax. On the positive side, we found some clothing bargains, and BB came home with a new toy, a MACbook.

A wonderful trip, great to see family and old friends, but it’s good to be home. We just wish this heat wave would end.

For more photos of my U.S. trip, keep scrolling down.

For a super architecture tour of Chicago by boat: Chicago Cruise Line.

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Gardens in Millennium Park.

Gardens in Millennium Park.

No comment.

No comment.

BB, Lang, Sam and Rob enjoy pool at reunion site.

BB, Sam, Lang and Rob enjoy pool at reunion site.

“Through the Looking Glass” at Metropolitan Museum of Art

Kellie's dinner party

Kellie’s dinner party

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Under The Bean.

Under The Bean.

Along the Chicago River

Along the Chicago River

More Chicago

More Chicago

Climb a wall in Millennium Park.

Climb a wall in  Maggie Daley park next to Millennium Park.

Boat harbor on Lake Michigan

Boat harbor on Lake Michigan

Whitney Museum of American Art

Whitney Museum of American Art

Discovering more of France

Poitou-Charentes? I live in France, but had never been to this region on the country’s mid-Atlantic coast.   When invited to join a press trip there last April, I quickly said yes.

Fireworks fete the Hermione.

Fireworks fete the Hermione.

The pièce de résistance of the trip was the frigate Hermione, the replica of a French warship that ferried Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic in 1780 to help General George Washington and the rebels in the fight for American independence. Our group joined festivities celebrating the ship’s April departure for the US, duplicating that voyage of 235 years ago. (See previous post, “Hail Hermione”).

That was exciting, but so too was discovering this part of France which is not on most visitors’ travel agenda.   Islands, beaches, canals, pleasant cities, incredible seafood – and Cognac. Poitou-Charentes offers all, and the price is right – less than in those tourist havens such as the Riviera. Following are highlights of my trip.

Savoring oysters on the island of Aix.

Savoring oysters on the island of Aix.

The miniscule island of Aix was the trip favorite. It is so special it deserves its own blog post. I’ll be writing all about this petite paradise in the future, so be sure you are a Tales and Travel subscriber so you don’t miss it. (Sign up – upper right hand corner)blog.16

Marais Poitevin. It was like being lost on a jungle river, even though the trees on shore are poplars and ash, not tropical varieties. We were on a flat bottomed boat gliding through this marshland known as Green Venice. “People do get lost. Even boat drivers get lost,” said our boat pilot as he maneuvered our craft through the confusing maze of canals. There are 40 kilometers of navigable waters in the Marais, and there are signs along the canals, nonetheless it is blog.17daunting. In April, it was a green haven of tranquility with the only sounds those of birds or the splash of a frog jumping into the water. The canals were built by monks in the 12th century to drain the marshes for agriculture. Today they are popular for tourist excursions. You can row your own boat and test your navigation skills. Or, try to punt. The boats can be propelled by a long wooden pole – not easy. Boats with guides who do the work are also available.

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La Rochelle harbor

La Rochelle. I could not stop taking photos of this seaside city whose Vieux Port or Old Port is perfect subject matter with two ancient towers guarding the entrance.   The Saint Nicolas Tower and the Chain Tower were built in the 14th century and served as key defensive bastions to the city for centuries. A third blog.6tower, the Lantern Tower, is the oldest lighthouse on the Atlantic coast. There are splendid photo opps from the rooftops of the towers which can be visited, as well as along the broad walkway around the harbor where everyone likes to stroll and where outdoor tables at restaurants and cafes are popular.blog.9

La Rochelle was known as a rebel city. It was Protestant in the 16th century when the rest of the country was mainly Catholic. The historic old town’s medieval houses, private mansions from the 17th and 18th century and vaulted stone arcades are also worthy of photos. And, all those fish in the city’s Aquarium, rated France’s best aquarium by Trip Advisor.blog.13

Jarnac and Cognac. We sank into oversized soft leather chairs in the dimly lit room whose décor spoke of ancient wealth. We were given blindfolds, told to cover our eyes, relax and concentrate on the scent being sprayed around us.

Eric takes a selfie at blind cognac tasting.

Eric takes a selfie at blind cognac tasting.

Then, take a sip of cognac and identify the flavor that matched the aroma. Three sprays. Three aromas: vanilla, candied orange and Iris flower. They were all pleasant, but my taste buds failed. However, I loved the cognac, Courvoisier XO which sells for 135 euro per bottle.

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The sensory tasting experience at the Courvoisier Chateau in Jarnac, home of the eponymous cognac, was a treat. We learned all about cognac production, from the grapes and soil, to barrels and aging to the double distillation process that results in this potent elixir. We toured the cellars whose treasures include a bottle from 1789, and one valued at 6,900 euro.

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Three major cognac houses (Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin) are located in the nearby town of Cognac. Courvoisier, a smaller company whose major market is the United States, is known as the brand of Napoleon. The emperor visited a wine and spirit company in Paris owned by Emmanuel Courvoisier and an blog.30associate in 1811 and is said to have taken several barrels of cognac with him to exile on the island of St. Helena. The English officers on board the ship transporting him to the island enjoyed imbibing the brew and named it “the cognac of Napoleon.” Much later, in 1869, Napoleon III granted Courvoisier the title “Official supplier to the Imperial Court.”

The Napoleon museum at the chateau has a hat of Napoleon’s, as well as a strand of his hair in a frame.

Rochefort is a pleasant city on the Charente river 20 miles from the Atlantic whose 17th century shipyard is where the ship Hermione was reconstructed and where she will reside when she returns from the US voyage in August. Louis XIV, France’s Sun King, wanted supremacy on both land and sea. His adviser and prime minister, Colbert, chose Rochefort as the site of a shipyard. Through the years, some 550 ships were built there. bldg.blog.We visited the Corderie Royale, the royal rope factory, an astonishing structure, 374 meters in length, where we learned how rope was made. The super long building was purpose built to manufacture the vast quantities of rope needed for the rigging of sailing vessels.   Its length enabled it to produce rigging for the length of the frigate’s anchor cable. Because it was constructed during the same time as the Palace of Versailles, it is called “Versailles of the Sea.”

In addition to the Corderie and naval dockyards, Rochefort has a bizarre bridge, the Transporter. The aerial structure, a metallic platform on pillars high above blog.4the river, was built in 1900 and designed to be raised so ships could pass underneath. Only two dozen transporter bridges were ever made, with eight remaining. This is the only one in France still functioning.

Poitiers. Our visit to the regional capital of Poitou-Charentes was brief, but we did get a look at its outstanding church, Notre Dame la Grande and its elaborately sculpted façade. And, the Baptistery of Saint Jean which dates back to the beginning of Christianity and is one of 80 town buildings classified as historical monuments. The wall paintings from the 12th an 13th centuries are remarkable.blog.20

Travel Tipsblog.18

Poitou-Charentes has miles of golden sand beaches as well as miles of bike routes. More on the region at www.visit-poitou-charentes.com

Many excellent hotels in the region, with some  offering  double rooms for less than 100 euro per night. Hotels I can recommend:

Hotel Le Ligaro in Jarnac whose owner is Irish: http://www.hotel-ligaro.com/

Hotel des bains, Fouras (adjacent to Rochefort):  http://www.grandhotel-desbains.fr

Hotel Champlain, La Rochelle, (lots of old world flavor, beautiful gardens): http://www.hotelchamplain.com

Hotel gardens

Hotel gardens

Hotel Mercure Poitiers Centre (church converted into ultra modern, trendy hotel): See web site for Accor hotels, http://www.accorhotels.com

Poitou-Charentes seafood is sensational —especially the oysters.

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Courvoisier offers a variety of tours and tastings, www.courvoisier.com

Happy Travelers in Poitou-Charentes.

Happy Travelers in Poitou-Charentes.

  Try my raspberry tart — the recipe featured in Today’s Taste in column at right.

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Hail Hermione: historic tall ship sails to US

Photo by Francis Latreille - Association Hermione La Fayette.

Photo by Francis Latreille – Association Hermione La Fayette.

He took the thin threads in his hand, then twisted and twined the beige hemp fibers with his fingers, again and again, until they resembled a string. In the 17th century, this was the first step in making fat and sturdy rope at this Corderie or rope making factory in Rochefort, France, where the ancient process is demonstrated for visitors. Some 40 men did nothing but twist and twine hemp all day to make the rope used in ship rigging and rope that could carry a ship’s boatbanchors to the bottom of the sea. One of those ships was the Hermione, a French warship that ferried Marquis de Lafayette across the Atlantic in 1780 to help General George Washington and the rebels in the fight for American independence.

The mighty ship has been reborn and is now en route to the U.S., duplicating that voyage of 235 years ago. Craftsmen, artisans and technicians have worked for more than 15 years on a reconstruction of the Hermione. Completed in 2012, the replica Hermione looks every inch like an authentic tall ship. Throughout June and early July it will stop at 12 different ports on the U.S. east coast (See schedule below), before returning to its home port in Rochefort in August where it will be open to visitors.

Francis Latreille - Association Hermione La Fayette

Francis Latreille – Association Hermione La Fayette

I had been invited to Rochefort, a pleasant town on the Charentes River 22 kilometers from the France’s mid-Atlantic coast, for ceremonies celebrating the Hermione’s departure in April. Another journalist and I were even scheduled to go on board and have lunch with the crew on departure day. But, at the last minute, French President Francois Hollande decided to board the vessel and bid the crew farewell on this epic journey. We were bumped. Our dedicated guide tried to convince the ship’s staff that we were as important as Hollande — to no avail.

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Mark Jensen, 57, is one of three lucky Americans who were chosen to be among the crew of 80. I spoke to him on the phone. ”It’s a dream come true for me….It’s very exciting. We are remaking history,” he said. Jensen, who has been working on ships since the age of 12, now has a sailboat in New York City which he charters. “I am looking forward to bringing back to life the story and friendship between Washington and Lafayette, their deep desire for the freedom of individuals,” he said.

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While it was disappointing not to board the ship, it was thrilling to see the magnificent three-masted frigate, the French flag fluttering from its stern, anchored off shore the tiny island of Aix the evening before its departure. Trying for a closer view, all sizes and types of smaller craft surrounded the proud and regal vessel as if paying honor to royalty. On shore a TV crew set up amidst lots of admirers with cameras. Dismal skies did not dampen the excitement.

Pier on the island of Aix.

Pier on the island of Aix.

The original Hermione was equipped with dozens of cannons and could cross the Atlantic in two months. A small group of French enthusiasts spent two decades planning and fundraising for its replica. Construction started in the dry dock at Rochefort in 1997 and dragged on for 15 years due to costs. Money had to be raised while construction was underway. The end product: an almost perfect replica with complicated rigging, multiple sails, impressive paintwork on the hull and numerous other genuine details.

Of course, it’s not an exact replica. “I would say that we have achieved an unprecedented level of authenticity, but we still had to conform to modern health and safety legislation and there are fixed requirements for vessels wanting permission to sail across the Atlantic,” the ship’s captain, Yann Cariou, told a reporter for the newspaper, Connexion. For example, the cannons are

Anchor cables were once made of rope.

Anchor cables were once made of rope.

lightweight and non-functional. The rigging is made of traditional hemp, but the sails are synthetic which makes them stronger and easier to handle. Steel has replaced rope for the anchor cable.

On that legendary voyage in 1780, the Hermione had a crew of between 200 and 240. It took 70 sailors just to raise the anchor. Lafayette was content. “She sails like a bird,” he said.

Fifty-six members of the current crew of 80 are volunteers, with one third being women. All had to achieve fitness levels required to climb the rigging and manage the sails in all weather conditions.

A visit to Rochefort’s Royal Rope Factory (Corderie Royale) is a perfect introduction to the world of ancient warships. After demonstrating hemp twisting, guide Olivier sets a machine in motion that takes the twisted twines and makes a fatter cord. Young members of the audience get a chance to help out with the braiding machine. Nearby his colleague Nicolas shows off his knot tying skills. There are some 3,854 different types of knots, he says. He has mastered 100.rope.1

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, prime minister and adviser to King Louis XIV, chose Rochefort in 1666 as the ideal place to build a shipyard and establish and maintain a navy. The arsenal, which includes the Corderie, grew through the centuries with the addition of other workshops, warehouses, forges and more. Before it was closed in 1927, some 550 warships were constructed at the arsenal. The Corderie, 374 meters in length and the longest factory in Europe, was purpose built to manufacture the vast quantities of rope needed for the rigging of sailing vessels.  Its length enabled it to produce rigging for the length of the frigate’s anchor cable. Because it was constructed during the same time as the Palace of Versailles, it is called “Versailles of the Sea.”bldg.blog.

You can track the Hermione’s progress with a series of videos and webinars at Facebook.com/hermione.voyage and at the official site, hermione2015.com

France’s mid-Atlantic region which includes Rochefort offers numerous other attractions and a wealth of outdoor activities. Bicycle around its offshore islands or through “Green Venice” (Marais Poitevin). Taste and learn about Cognac. Explore other towns such as La Rochelle and Poitiers. Enjoy miles of beaches.

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See below for Hermione’s schedule of US visits.

Yorktown, Va., June 5 – 7

Mount Vernon, Va., June 9

Alexandria, Va., June 10, 11

Annapolis, Md., June 15 – 17

Baltimore, Md., June 19 – 20

Fort Mifflin, Pa.,   June 25

Philadelphia, Pa., June 26 – 28

New York City, July 2 – 4

Greenport, NY, July 6, 7

Newport, RI, July 8, 9

Boston, Mass., July 11, 12

Castine, Ma., July 14, 15

The ship will be back in Rochefort on August 16.

Barcelona — from modernisme to modern

Barcelona — Antonio Gaudi. The city’s artistic son, genius architect and builder, has given the Mediterranean port a host of astonishing edifices admired by millions of tourists every year.

Roof of Gaudi's La Pedrera

Roof of Gaudi’s La Pedrera

I was recently one of them. I have been to this energetic city, the capital of Catalonia, one of the richest and most highly industrialized regions of Spain, several times. This time I met friends from the Ski Club of International Journalists (SCIJ) who had spent a week at the ski resort, Baqueria Beret, before coming to Barcelona.

New design museum, Disseny Hub Barcelona

New design museum, Disseny Hub Barcelona

You never tire of this city where progress and change are on a rapid march with dazzling new architecture and the renovation of old neighborhoods and old treasures. Exuberance is in the air.

This visit focused on both old and new.sagrada.f Gaudi’s masterpieces, especially the still-unfinished Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) church, draw most of the 7.4 million visitors to the city of 1.7 million each year. It’s like no other church you’ve ever seen: bizarre, weird, wonderful. Sagrada Familia was the last and greatest work by Gaudi, who died in 1926 in a streetcar accident before the church was finished. Completion is on the agenda for 2026 – 2028.

Gaudi’s style was known as modernisme, the Catalan version of Art Nouveau or Jugendstil. It’s a decorative, organic style featuring sinuous curves, stylized creatures, floral motifs with an aversion to straight lines and symmetry. Sagrada Familia reminds me of someone gone mad with Play Dough — a facade of sculpted, molten stone, towers, spires topped with sunbursts, symbolic flora and fauna. Giant pillars rise out of turtles’ backs ending as palm trees topped with fronds. An angel swoops out of a green granite fir tree. Not your typical church. Unfortunately this time the lines were long for an interior visit. We chose not to wait, but I will go back to Barcelona.

Facade of Casa Batllo

Facade of Casa Batllo

Husband VR/BB and I did visit the Casa Batllo where, thanks to the audio guide that comes with admission, we learned fascinating details, not just about this apartment residence that Gaudi remodeled, but also about him. From the heating system to the swirling décor, from the furniture to the wood work, Gaudi‘s genius mystifies.

There are numerous theories about Gaudi, an enigma of a man who was very religious and a loner. He gave no interviews and had no close friends. He never married, became a vegetarian and never left Spain.   What influenced his wild, exuberant, puzzling style?

Roofof Casa Batllo

Roof of Casa Batllo

On previous Barcelona visits I marveled at Parc Quell, the Gaudi park that has a Disneyland quality to it with fanciful fairytale gatehouses, a dragon guarding a staircase, a cavern of columns supporting a mosaic ceiling and much more. La Pedrera, a revolutionary house Gaudi designed, is another wonder to visit and reveals Gaudi’s engineering talent. It is supported only by columns – no interior load-bearing walls. The roof with its sci-fi chimney pots is a favorite to photograph.

Facade of Palau de la Musica

Facade of Palau de la Musica

Gaudi was not the only master of modernisme to leave his mark on Barcelona. Lluis Domenech i Montaner, a rival architect, gave the city the Palau de la Musica, my favorite Barcelona treasure. Ceramics, wood and glass were used to create what must be the world’s most original concert hall. The vast ceiling is lavish and complex, a ceramic dream of roses and peacock fans and detailed mosaic tile work dominated by a stained-glass sun encircled by a chorus of angels’ faces. The stage, backed by a relief of 18 muses playing instruments, is flanked by a sculpted stone forest. It’s all gloriously over the top. This time I attended a concert there and had ample time to contemplate the joyous surroundings. blog.5 And, I visited another newly opened work of Domenech i Montaner – the Sant Pau site, a complex of buildings that makes up the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, until recently a working hospital. I joined friends for a guided tour of

SCIJ apero at Sant Pau

SCIJ apero at Sant Pau

several of the structures all connected by underground passageways. More marvels of modernisme – domes, gabled roofs, decorative panels, sculptures, mosaic murals, stained glass.

Sant Pau

Sant Pau

Our visit also included a stroll through the narrow streets and alleys of Barcelona’s Barri Gotic, the Gothic Quarter. Tucked away in this medieval maze are interesting shops and restaurants. The Picasso Museum is deep within the neighborhood, and since there were no lines, although we had visited it on a prior Barcelona trip,  we decided it was worth a repeat. I am a Picasso fan. This museum’s comprehensive collection of the artist’s early works is enlightening and illustrates his ever-changing styles.blog.23.webjpg The outstanding Gothic cathedral was another repeat visit. I wanted to see if the gaggle of geese was still at home in its leafy cloister.  No doubt different geese, but a few of the big birds still reside there. They are said to be descendents of geese originally kept by Roman soldiers to act as sentinels and make a ruckus if intruders approached.blog.24

We strolled on Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s Champs Elysees, and ducked into La Boqueria, the city’s famous Market which dates to the 13th century and has unfortunately become a top tourist attraction. Tour buses deposit their passengers at the entrance who then pack the aisles between the gorgeous displays of hams, sausages, fish, etc. and stop to take selfies. Stall owners have been complaining that they block the aisles and drive down business. Serious shoppers can’t get through.blog.28.webjpg I made the mistake of buying several packages of pricey vacuum packed Iberian ham and sausage there. The contents were very disappointing. They may have been packaged too long ago, or were of inferior quality for dumb tourists. I won’t shop there on my next visit, but instead buy at the Mercat de Santa Caterina, a newer market but with much of the same.

Mercat de Santa Caterina

Mercat de Santa Caterina

And I will return to two super restaurants, finds of my Finnish friend Terttu who has a friend who has written a Barcelona guidebook.   Details below.

Barcelona’s vibrancy gets under your skin.   It will beckon you back.

Travel Tips

Les Quinze Nits Restaurant. No reservations accepted here, and there is usually a waiting line. No wonder. Three course lunch menu with wine for 20,95 euros per person.   Bob and I chose the “rare tuna with pumpkin puree and olives” — the best tuna I have ever eaten. Located in the Placa Reilal just off Las Ramblas. The restaurant is large. The line moves quickly.blog.seafood Salamanca, seafood restaurant in the Barceloneta area. Bob and I went for paella which was good, but Terttu and Mikko chose the mixed grilled seafood platter. We were envious – a huge quantity of excellent fish and seafood.   Almirall Cervera 34, www.gruposilvestre.com

blog.29.jwebpgShopping. My trip souvenirs are usually edibles. However, in Barcelona I could not resist Desigual, with vibrant, fun and colorful fashion. The popular Spanish clothing manufacturer was founded by a Swiss. There are shops throughout the city.

Be On Guard. Theft, especially of tourists, is rampant in Barcelona. We were continually warned to be cautious and guard all belongings. We were and did. None in our group had any problems.

The Barcelona Tourist Office web site, www.barcelonaturisme.cat, has a wealth of information, including details on

Security patrol

Security patrol

museum and transport passes, on line ticket purchase and more. To avoid long waiting lines, buy tickets to popular attractions on line. Pay a visit to the main office at Placa de Catalunya for more help and information.

Take the Train.There is now service on France’ fast train, the TGV, from many towns in southern France to Barcelona. Aix-en Provence to Barcelona, 4 hours.

For a taste of Barcelona, try the recipe featured in Today’s Taste for Puerros Gratinados al Roquefort (Leeks Au Gratin with Roquefort)

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Keep scrolling down for photos of more of Barcelona’s sights.

Placa Reilal

Placa Reilal

Street entertainment on Las Ramblas

Street entertainment on Las Ramblas

Sant Pau

Sant Pau

Barcelona beach

Barcelona beach

Architect Frank Gehry's fish at the seafront.

Architect Frank Gehry’s fish at the seafront.

Barcelona's huge flea market has moved and is now under a huge mirrored ceiling.

Barcelona’s  flea market has moved and is now under a huge mirrored ceiling.

Spanish ham at La Boqueria

Spanish ham at La Boqueria

Catalans hope for independence and often display their flag.

Catalans hope for independence and often display their flag.

More modern art

More modern art

Cuisine Club Med

Beef filet Wellington, salmon tartare, grilled scampi, mussels, duck à l’orange, scampi papparadelle, involtini di prosciutto con spinace (ham rolls stuffed with spinach), numerous cheeses, at least eight different flavors of ice cream, an assortment of pastries akin to that of a Parisian pastry shop.salmon

And, those were just the highlights of the offerings at a recent Club Med St Moritz dinner. (See recent post, “Club Med St. Moritz,” February 2015) There was more — an assortment of salads, risotto, numerous tempting vegetable concoctions…veggies

Who counts calories at Club Med where the food is truly over the top, and one of the resort’s many attractions?  At St. Moritz, you could eat almost all day, beginning with a breakfast featuring the usual cereals, fresh fruits, freshly squeezed orange juice, breads, omelets, cheeses, cold meats, and eggs cooked to your specifications. One morning a chef was making donuts on the spot. Another morning he was filling freshly made croissants with jams or pastry creams. I indulged, figuring I’d burn up the calories on the ski slopes.food.8

But then came lunch and dinner and more in between. At the club restaurant both lunch and dinner feature copious buffet selections, from several tables laden with cold delicacies, a line of various hot foods, a table of cheeses then on to the gorgeous desserts. At winter Club villages such as St. Moritz, there are usually Club restaurants on the slopes where skiers can have lunch, again a buffet of numerous hearty offerings. Club Med St. Moritz has two mountain restaurants.food.10

Whether at lunch on the mountain or dinner in the club restaurant, will power failed me. I could not resist. I had to try as many different enticing edibles as possible (too many). But, I did take mini portions.  Nonetheless the calories piled up.

Since St. Moritz is a winter club with most guests on the slopes during the day, a hearty après-ski snack awaits every afternoon – mini sandwiches, crepes or waffles, also made on the spot. Then, beginning about 6 p.m. the snack selection is put away and a copious assortment of pre-dinner hors d’oeuvres – and I don’t mean potato chips and peanuts — fills the tables in the lounge.

It’s all so good and tempting. How can you pass up fresh oysters, foie gras, roast suckling pig? I can diet when I get home, I reasoned.food.5

The Club at St. Moritz has a capacity for about 550 guests, and it was at 90 percent occupancy during my February visit. Preparing such an incredible variety of food for all these guests on a daily basis has to be daunting. Giuseppe Apicella, assistant restaurant manager at Club Med St. Moritz, says organization and team work are essential. Each member of his team of 23 cooks, including four fulltime pastry chefs, knows what he or she has to do, he said. “For this reason, all is perfect. We aim for perfection.”

Sandro, left, and Giuseppe.

Sandro, left, and Giuseppe.

Quality ingredients are also a must. “All the products are the best we can get,” said Giuseppe. “The oysters are very fresh and from Holland.” (They were excellent.)food.1

The cuisine of the region is not neglected. Be it Martinique, Mexico, Greece, China or Switzerland, Club restaurants always include local specialties. At St. Moritz, truffle fondue is offered. This required an advance reservation, and there was an extra charge. But, raclette was served one evening — no extra charge.

Swiss Raclette

Swiss Raclette

St. Moritz is close to the Italian border and most of the kitchen staff is Italian.   “I prefer cooks from Italy. They are the most professional in the world,” said Giuseppe, a native of that country who worked at his family’s hotel- restaurant in southern Italy before joining Club Med three years ago.berry

So, it’s no surprise that Italian specials predominate at this mountain club, mainly served in the Italian restaurant adjacent to the main dining room. Fresh pasta with various sauces, pizza and other Italian favorites were on the agenda. You could try these, as well as the buffet in the main restaurant.

clubmed.9Beverages – as much as you want all day. Machines are at your disposal for coffee, soft drinks and juices. Cocktails and wine are offered at the bar. And, wine with dinner – as much as you want.

There is no extra charge for any of the above – all included in the Club Med package price.

“You have to wonder how they can offer all this food for the price,” commented my friend Gerlinde. “I paid 5 Swiss francs ($5.20) in town for just a cup of coffee.”

Indeed mind boggling. And, fattening. Even with the skiing, I gained a few kilos. I am still trying to shed them….but the delectable food adventure was worth every bite.food.7

My all-inclusive ski week at Club Med St.Moritz cost 1,141 euro. Ski and boot rental extra. Gerlinde and I shared a room.

More on Club Med: http://www.clubmed.com. More on St. Moritz: www.stmoritz.ch

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Celebrating Lemons and Bicycles

menton.9.aFruity floats, gigantic citrus creations, fabulous flowers. The annual Menton Lemon Festival (Fête du Citron) is an explosion of color, scents, and scenes in honor of the city’s prized small yellow fruit.menton..13

We were enthralled with it all during a visit many years ago, and returned a few weeks ago to survey the scene of dazzling orange and yellow sculptures once again.menton.15a

This Riviera city, the lemon capital of France on the border with Italy, has been celebrating the lemon with festivities every year since 1929. The festival attracts some 230,000 visitors who come to admire 145 tons of citrus fruits which make up the creations and exhibitions.

This year’s theme, the lemon in China, featured a mammoth dragon, a pagoda, a temple, animals and more all made of lemons and oranges.menton.2a

The exhibits are set up along the Jardin Biovès, a long promenade lined with the colossal fruit constructions. An elevated ramp in the middle is especially popular with the camera crowd who line the steps for overall shots of the scene. Stands selling the fruit, citrus liqueurs, soaps, jams and postcards do a brisk business.menton.17a

Menton’s microclimate with more than 300 sunny, temperate days per year is ideal for growing the tangy fruit. There are some 80 varieties of lemons, but it’s the Menton lemon that is prized by chefs for its perfume, distinctly flavored zest and pulp, and high sugar content. While the lemon gets top billing, oranges play a leading role in the gigantic creations.menton.16.a

We had previously visited Menton, my favorite coastal city, in January. See  post, “French Riviera: Magnifico Menton.” The city, which was originally part of Italy, became the property of Charles Grimaldi, Lord of Monaco, in 1346. In 1848 it broke away from Monaco, becoming a free city, and in 1860 it became part of France. By the late 19th century it was on the map as a popular tourist spot on the French Riviera.menton.1a

This time instead of staying in Menton, we crossed the border and spent three nights in Sanremo on the Italian Riviera. It’s just a 45 minute drive from Menton, and a lovely town on a coastal bike path. That was our plan – get back on the bikes.SR.5

Husband, formerly known as Bicycle Bob (BB), was an avid cyclist. He seems to have lost interest in pedaling, even though he invested in a snazzy, expensive bicycle a few years ago. His passion has become wine, so I call him VR (Vino Roberto). I miss biking and the great rides we have taken over the years — in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Holland and France.bobbike

Let’s not give in to old age. Let’s get moving again. He agreed and we had a wonderful, easy ride on the bike route from Sanremo to San Lorenzo al Mare, about 18 kilometers, then back to Sanremo and another 4 kilometers in the other direction to Ospedaletti.SR.blog.7.ajpg

Old railroad tracks were converted into the wide coastal trail, used by walkers and roller bladers as well as bicyclists. It meanders through Sanremo then down the coast. No hills. No need to downshift. There are plenty of spots along the route complete with benches where you can rest and enjoy the scenery. And villages (Bussana, Arma di Taggia, Santo Stefano al Mare) for a refreshment stopover.bike

We had a fantastic and bargain lunch at Café Emy by the beach in San Lorenzo al Mare. The insalata frutti di mare (seafood salad) was huge – a meal in itself. My spaghetti frutti di mare was the best I have ever eaten (see photo).spaghetti

A unique aspect to this bike route is tunnels – several. The most famous and longest is the Capo Nero tunnel along the section Sanremo-Ospedaletti, 1.75 kilometers long. It has been converted into a memorial of sorts to Sanremo’s most famous sporting event, the cycling classic Milan-Sanremo. For more than 100 years, the race has been the first important contest of the cycling season. It will take place on March 22 this year.

Every bay of the tunnel is dedicated to a specific year in the history of the race, with some basic facts about that year’s event written on one side, with tidbits SR.blog.9.ajpgand anecdotes on the other, in both Italian and English. I was too busy pedaling to read it all, but did try to catch some phrases to break up the monotony of the dismal tunnel trek.

Total ride: 45 kilometers. It was a success. And, so was the hotel where we stayed. Fabulous. With just four rooms, the Villa Rita can’t really be called a hotel. The house sits just above the beach within walking distance of the town center. Our room had a large terrace and lovely views. I was in heaven, lying in bed, enjoying the sea view from the window while listening to the restful sounds of waves slapping the shore — and contemplating future bike rides.

breakfastVilla Rita: www.villaritasanremo.it

Menton Lemon Festival: www.fete-du-citron.com/ The festival takes place the last two weeks of February.

Ristorante Bar Emy, Via Al Mare 1, San Lorenzo al Mare, Italy, ++ 39 0183-91314SR.1a

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Club Med St. Moritz: A winning combination

clubmed.8I love Club Med. The love affair started way back in the ‘70s when my friend Irene and I, both late 20-somethings, set off to the Club in Martinique. Fabulous. The next year we tried the Club in Cancun, Mexico. Even better.   Good times were had… even a tad on the wild side, but we were young.

Since living in Europe, I’ve been to several clubs in the Alps for skiing, most recently St. Moritz, Switzerland. Husband VR no longer wants to ski, so I joined my friend Gerlinde from Stuttgart and her son and daughter-in-law, all downhill skiers who have been coming to Club Med St. Moritz for several years.

Although much has changed with Club Med since its earliest days back in the 1950s when it was known as haven for swinging singles, much is the same.St. Moritz.fone 187

It’s the perfect all inclusive vacation – food, beverages (including wine and cocktails), lodging, use of sports facilities and lessons, evening entertainment – all for one price. Rental of ski equipment, however, is extra.

“You can be here for a whole week and not spend any extra,” said Patrick Franck Oberaspach, the chef du village (manager) of the St. Moritz Club. My only

Patrick and Basile

Patrick and Basile

additional expenses, not including ski and boot rental, were a few cups of coffee in the town, and some special bandages for a blister caused by my ski boots.

Clubs are now family oriented, with many clubs, including St. Moritz, having a Mini Club for children. The kids are entertained, taken to the slopes, given ski lessons. They, and their parents, love it.

And, Clubs are no longer just for the younger set. I was overjoyed to find so many older GMs (at Club Med, originally a French enterprise, guests are Gentils Membres or nice members). I may be old, but there were plenty even older than I. Most, like me, were Club Med repeats.

Patrick noted that during the week I spent there, 60 percent of the 540 guests were repeats. Colette, a woman from Nancy, said she has been coming to Club Med St. Moritz for 40 years. “I switched to cross country 10 years ago. Downhill skiing was too fast. Now I snowshoe,” she said.

Club Med offers rental equipment and instruction in all of the above. Since my new knee performed so well on the slopes last season, I signed up for downhill. Gerlinde, an excellent skier, and I chose group level 4. The Club divides skiers into 6 categories, with 6 being the top for those hard core, off-piste daredevils, i.e. her son Tobias.

For non-skiers, there are plenty of high altitude trails in the snowy mts.

For non-skiers, there are plenty of high altitude trails in the snowy mts.

We started out with a group of about 10 others, all good skiers and mostly much younger. Our monitor, ski instructor and guide, led us down the perfectly groomed slopes at a fast pace. No breaks for hot chocolate, photos or admiring the scenery. I kept up, but was more than ready for the lunch break at the Club’s mountain restaurant.

After lunch, the monitor mentioned that a couple from the group (older like me) was switching to a slower group 4. Lest I expend all my energy on the first day, I followed. A wise move as the new group 4, all good skiers but most in my age range, did ski a bit slower. A few days later Gerlinde also joined the slower group of senior citizens.

After lunch rest at the Club's mt. restaurant.

After lunch rest at the Club’s mt. restaurant.

But, we were hardly a group of turtles on the blue, baby slopes. We kept on the move, whizzing down red slopes and even an occasional black run. Our fellow skiers were all very fit. Joggers. Serious cyclists. Cross country as well as downhill skiers.

All had been to Club Med St. Moritz many times. It’s the slopes, as well as the Club, which draws them back. “It’s a very empty ski area which is fantastic in the Alps,” said Patrick. “You usually queue half of the ski day, but not here.” He’s right. No lift lines during my visit. Others praised the meticulous grooming of the slopes.   A cross country skier, who has been coming back for 20 years, called St. Moritz “the best in Europe” for that sport. “The Swiss keep the trails in beautiful condition.”

No crowds on St. Moritz slopes

No crowds on St. Moritz slopes

Gerlinde loves the area for skiing.   “No beginners on the slopes. Few snow boarders. No young, crazy skiers.”

Our ski group was German speaking. However, the club has multi-lingual monitors. In addition to German, there were French, Italian and English language ski groups.

People contact is another Club plus. In addition to skiing with others, you may sit with them at meals, socialize after skiing, join them at après-ski entertainment. Club Med staff, Gentils Organisateurs (GOs) or nice organizers, mingle with guests, dine and party with them.

Gerlinde, who came alone to St Moritz for her first few visits, said, “Even if you come alone you will find friends.”

Snow polo on St. Moritz's frozen lake.

Snow polo on St. Moritz’s frozen lake.

Back when Irene and I went to Martinique, we quickly found friends and more. Irene signed up for sailing. I went for scuba. We joined a Yoga group. We played volley ball. I participated in a French conversation group. We met interesting people from distant lands. We had fun, so much that we extended our stay for an extra three days.

Club Med is no longer a French company having recently been purchased by a Chinese conglomerate. Patrick does not expect big changes. He pointed out that Club Med has been partners with the Chinese firm for some 10 years. “They guarantee that we can continue as before,” he said.

Admiring the scenery on the trail at Muottas Muragl.

Admiring the scenery on the trail at Muottas Muragl.

There are now 70 Club Med villages around the world, including three in China. Future plans call for opening three new resorts each year as well as closing some that are no longer profitable.

Patrick, 42, began his Club career as a ski teacher many years ago on the St. Moritz slopes. “I gave ski lessons to kids who now come with their kids,” he said.

clubmed.1As chef du village, one would expect he’d be busy, but I had to wonder if he ever slept. One frigid morning we bused to an adjacent ski area. Patrick was on hand dispensing hot chocolate — with a shot of schnapps if desired. He greeted guests as they filed into the dining room at dinner each evening. He was the MC and sometimes an actor as well in the after-dinner shows, a Club Med tradition.

After dinner fun.

After dinner fun.

What keeps him with Club Med? He has always enjoyed mixing with the clientele. “The Club Med staff don’t stay apart. You discover lots that you would not normally discover. You have lots of interesting conversations. It’s quite enriching to work in this environment.”clubmed.6

And delicious. Be it a summer or winter Club Med, the food is fantastic, and yet clubmed.9another reason the Club has so many fans. St. Moritz cuisine was amazing. It deserves its own blog post. Stay tuned.

My all-inclusive ski week at Club Med St.Moritz cost 1,141 euro. Ski and boot rental extra. Gerlinde and I shared a room.

More on Club Med: http://www.clubmed.com. More on St. Moritz: www.stmoritz.ch

Today’s Taste features that spicy North African dish, Tagine. Click on photo at upper right to see recipe.

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More horse racing on the lake. The "carriage" behind the horse is on skis.

More horse racing on the lake. The “carriage” behind the horse is on skis.

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French Riviera: Magnifico Menton

It’s easy to understand why artists, film stars, royalty, politicians, Russian oligarchs – and plain old folks like us –are enamored of the French Riviera. The scenery, that seductive combination of mountains and sea, is the stuff of glamorous coffee table books. Add to that plenty of sunshine, good food and happy faces.coast.7

VR and I would like to join those happy faces someday, downsize and move closer to the sea.   With that long range goal in mind, we set off to Menton last week. It is the last city in France on the coast before the Italian border. At times, you’d think you were in Italy. Lots of Italian spoken, restaurants featuring Italian specials, more joie de vivre. Even though that’s a French term, the Italians seem to have lots more of it than the too-often dour French – in my opinion.coast.1

Menton has a lovely stretch of beach (stones not sand) bordered by many turn of the century mansions, not unlike Nice, just smaller. Skinny streets in the Old Town, as well as long sets of pebbled steps, climb to an imposing Italian Baroque church, then onwards to a chapel and even higher to a cemetery. There’s a busy pedestrian shopping street, an old covered market hall, and a well known museum dedicated to the works of artist Jean Cocteau. The city is also known for its gardens which we will visit next time.coast.4

We found many restaurants closed for the season in January, but thanks to the advice of a woman at the tourist office, we had a wonderful fish dinner (Branzino sotto sale). Sea bass baked under a mound of salt which locks in all the coast.3moisture. Owners of the Coquille d’Or restaurant, the chef and his wife, are Italian. Our waiter was Italian.  The fish – maybe it came from the Italian Med.

Ventimiglia, the town just across the border in Italy, has an enormous Friday market, a source of fashion bargains and more. Parking is always a nightmare, but our Menton hotel desk clerk suggested we take the train. Perfect and only 11.20 euros round trip for both of us. This time the market was a disappointment, perhaps because it’s too early for spring fashion, too late for winter?? I did find a few cheap treasures.

Then, a return to a waterfront restaurant we had found on a previous visit for another amazing meal. VR went for grilled fish.   I chose spaghetti frutti di mare, chuck full of mussels, clams, a few shrimp and some unknown critters.coast.5

Before heading back to our abode in the hinterlands, we joined members of the American Club of the Riviera for an outing in Nice. A guided visit of the Musée Masséna preceded a gourmet lunch at the Hotel Negresco. The museum, a sumptuous Belle Époque villa on the Promenade des Anglais, was built between 1898 and 1901 by Victor Masséna, grandson of one of Napoleon’s marshals, and a collector of precious objets d’art.coast.12

More opulence next door at the Hotel Negresco, another Belle Époque gem (1912). According to a guidebook, it is “one of the great surviving European palace-hotels.”   I was delighted to see a gigantic Niki de Saint Phalle Nana adding a whimsical touch under the Baccarat chandelier hanging from the dome in the Salon Royale which was built by Gustav Eiffel’s workshops.coast.6

By the time our excellent lunch (gazpacho, lamb and apple crumble) ended, clouds put an end to the sun’s rays.   No chance for good photos of Nice’s new addition, the Promenade du Paillon, a strip of parkland between the city center and Vieux Nice (Old Town). We did saunter down the Promenade des Anglais, along the sea, then crossed over for a walk to the giant Ferris wheel at the end of the new reflecting pool.coast.9

We’ll be back in Menton at the end of February for its Lemon Festival (14 Feb.-4 March) www.fete-du-citron.comcoast.8

More on Menton: http://www.tourisme-menton.frcoast.13

American Club of the Riviera: americanclubriviera.com

Restaurant Coquille d’Or: xx 33 (0) 4 93 35 80 67coast.10

More on Nice www.nicetourisme.com Nice’s Carnaval celebration, lots of fabulous flowers on parade and more, takes place from 13 Feb. – 1 March.   See my previous posts: “Nice Carnaval,” Feb. 23, 2009 and “Nice- Enchantment on the Riviera,” Jan. 12, 2012

Since I am in an Italian mood, and since a hearty soup is perfect for these cold winter days, Today’s Taste features one of my favorites, Minestrone.   See Recipe column at top right.coast.11

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