Monday
Jul142014

July 12-14, 2014

Although the Hermod was supposed to finish the trip up the Rhone just South of Beaune, weather imposed its will and a deluge of rain led to rising waters and made it impossible to cross under many bridges between Lyon and Chalon. So, instead, the Viking crew arranged for a one hour bus ride North to Beaune, a leisurely walk through that wonderful town and of course, a wine tasting. The weekly market was bustling Saturday morning in Beaune and cheese, sausage, mushrooms and truffle offerings were almost too tantalizing for words.

We even met a border collie that was a trained truffle dog, who wanders the forests with his master and identifies the cherished fungi.

The wine tasting introduced the group to a number of pinot noir reds which are the hallmark of Burgundy.

Then, when everyone else visited the Hotel Dieu, a 14th century hospital founded by a local Beaune aristocrat who believed that the poor deserved as good health care as the rich! Novel idea, huh? Anyway, we had toured the Hotel Dieu when we were here 4 years ago, so, instead, we did what? Yes, we snuck off to another wine cave and tasted another ten fine wines that have made Burgundy the capital of the French wine world. Then. It was back on the bus to the ship in Lyon.

Our last dinner aboard was phenomenal. We started with escargot en croute, followed by deconstructed Beef Wellington. The Viking chef is really remarkable. He has been able to combine creativity in both taste and presentation.

As has been said before, all things must come to an end. So it was with our cruise up the Rhone river. Our trip with Marsha and Bill Adler was filled with laughter, cultural insights, plenty of wine and food and new friends. The intimacy of a small ship like the Viking Hermod with 120 guests lends itself to interaction, shared breakfast, lunch and dinner tables with stories of past experiences from different perspectives. All told, it was a luxury cruise through lands and landscapes that fascinated and inspired as well as inebriated our senses.

We departed the Hermod on Sunday afternoon and taxied to our temporary home here in Lyon called Grange De Fourviere. It’s a small B&B in one of the older buildings, at least the 1600s, overlooking the Soane river, The proprietor, Catherine Schilling, rents out two rooms in her apartment, each with a modern bath.

We immediately dropped off our bags and walked a short way to one of the most quaint, little neighborhoods we’ve ever seen. This section of Lyon dates back to the 14th century, has streets so narrow only donkey pulled carts could possibly walk it and, yes, all the streets and passageways are cobble stone. We bring that up for one reason only. Dick expressed in no uncertain terms both his appreciation for the cobbles and his distain for them at the same time. Sure they convey a bygone era of antiquity that brings romance to the walk, but they are the bane of the existence of one with an artificial leg. As he has learned long ago, bitching about it will not improve it, so the walk was slow but not abandoned.

In every direction there are secret passageways leading into shadowy darkness, and, specialty shops and restaurants with their shingle out above their outdoor tables. There were plenty of pedestrians on Sunday because this is a long holiday weekend featuring Bastille Day on Monday. So, family and friends were out in force making the neighborhood a bustling place. We stopped to sip some wine, weathered a short rain shower, then kept going until one of the eateries inspired.

We sat down in a classic so-called bouchon, which is essentially a little bistro, known for specializing in traditional Lyonnaise dishes. The chef’s signature dish is duck which is one of our favorites. But, first we were treated to some escargot, tender snails cooked in butter and oil with herbs. Then, the leg of duck was served with scalloped potatoes topped with wild mushrooms. We detected the chanterelles, but the others had never crossed our lips. It was exquisite.

Lyon is propitiously located right between the regions of Cotes du Rhone and Burgundy. Straddling these two prolific wine producing regions can lead to a bi-polar disorder. Happily, we both have avoided the dreadful diagnosis by simply ordering both wines.

After a good night’s sleep, we were treated to a lovely breakfast here at the Grange. The other guests who were from Belgium joined us and, of course, they spoke perfect English having lived in Philly for several years. Both work in the biotech industry concentrating on developing vaccines for the next pandemic. Very appetizing discussion!

After breakfast we boarded a double decker bus to tour around the city and take in the panoramic sights. We again visited the Basilica of Notre-Dame De Fourviere. The view from the hill top. overlooking the city of two rivers, was stunning. Of course, the Basilica is a dramatic architectural structure with fabulous mosaic art depicted on every wall.

True to our heritage, we stopped for a bite to eat and discovered on the menu Tuna Tartare and Salmon Tartare. Having never met a raw fish we didn’t like we ordered both and can only say that the salmon just might be a featured first course at a future Gourmeight dinner….you know who you are.

Tonight, we go to one of Paul Bocusi’s brasseries that specializes in Northern French cuisine. Then, at 10:30, fireworks are expected as the French celebrate Madame Defarge’s most prolific day of knitting…..Bastille Day.

 Marsha just sent us a picture she took from the window of the Louvre in Paris, of the French military celebrating Bastille Day.

Saturday
Jul122014

July 9-11, 2014

We awoke to another, less than sunny, day on the luxurious Viking Hermod. As reported, the crew does a fantastic job of fulfilling every need of the 117 passengers aboard. Breakfasts, lunches and dinners are an exercise in self restraint gone bad. Aside from the smoked salmon, numerous cheeses and salami meats for breakfast are beautiful fruit, made to order omelets and of course anything your heart

desires and your stomach can withstand from the unlimited chefs menu. If it’s not poached eggs with toast, it is eggs benedict, and on and on. Same goes for lunches….it’s an anorexic’s nightmare.

As if we haven’t consumed enough wine already, this afternoon, we headed for a wine tasting in the Crozes Hermitage wine region. There we tasted a white wine and several reds all of which were made exclusively of Shiraz grapes. They were quite good, but we already had our hearts and palettes looking forward to the Burgundy’s that dominate vineyards North of here. After the tasting, we marveled again, at the rocky soil that predominates this Cotes d’Rhone valley.

 Then, as if our blood sugar levels weren’t high enough, we stopped at a chocolate factory that specializes in some of the world’s finest sweets. The owners of this massive chocolate enterprise have it right….give plenty of free samples and your customers will lose the will to resist. Virtually every delight was available for tasting, customers were clamoring with requests so much it reminded us of a futures trading floor where, instead of traders bidding for the best price of an orange juice future months in advance, there folks simply wanted more candy! When we left, instead of small pieces of paper littering the floor, there was only trashed pancreases belching out a gastric SOS! So, the group of us loaded back up in bus and returned to the Viking river cruiser armed to the teeth with chocolates.

The next day we joined a walking tour of Vienne and a mini train ride to Mont Pipet. The view of the town from the top of the hill was lovely. The town, one of the oldest in France, is small but quite charming.

In the afternoon, we sailed to Lyon, the gastronomic capitol of the world. Leading with our palettes, we joined the Viking chef for a tour of the upscale market (there is also a traditional open air market). There we viewed a host of individually-owned kiosks with all sorts of French delicacies and specialities, including snails ready to be cooked, frog legs, a variety of pates en croute, cheeses, meats -- it was endless. We bought some of our favorite cheese -- epoisses. The chef buys his supplies from this market. Dick viewed a fire brigade of fresh fruits, vegetables and other food stuffs being transferred to the ship.

That night Dick needed a casino fix so he headed off to Lyon’s Grand Casino. While he was expecting to meet James Bond, the poker players looked very much like any other poker players except he didn’t have the slightest idea what they were talking about. But in the game of poker, money does all the talking.

Meanwhile, back at the ship, the program director announced that, due to the unusually heavy rains, the Soane River has flooded and the ship cannot get under the bridges. So, we were told that we would remain in Lyon for the remainder of the trip -- not so bad really because Lyon is a wonderful city and we will still be able to do our excursion to Burgundy.

The next day, the tour bus escorted us through Lyon. We visited some unique art represented on the town’s buildings. The local arts group took over an abandoned building and painted the entire thing with pictures of people standing on balconies and peering out of windows. The people on the bottom floor are contemporary and those on the upper floors are from earlier generations. The building is quite spectacular.

   

We were then led to the "secret" area of Lyon.  The guide should us a large wooden door that looked like just an old door to a house.  But it opened to a passage way to the houses.  Apparently, the people didnt want others to know where they lived.  One house inside the passage was the tax collector house that had, of course, the highest tower.  The entire area was fascinating.

After the visit to the secret place, we traveled up to the highest point in the area to see the Basilica Notre Dame de Fourviere. The panoramic view from the Basilica was beautiful -- all the houses and other buildings are white, off-white or a variation of beige, with red roofs -- a gorgeous color combo.

The basilica has beautiful murals on the walls and the ceiling is almost too ornate.

On Friday we took another tour of the city of Lyon. Lyon, located on the confluence of the Rivers Rhone and Saone, has always been a wealthy town. The silk trade transformed it into a textile center. One of the silk companies had an exhibition of  silk weaving on the boat. In town we were able to see the beautiful scarves made by the company.  We even saw the silk worms doing their thing.

We learned of a darker part of Lyon’s past. During WWII some 4000 of Lyon’s citizens were killed and 7500 others deported to Nazi death camps under Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, the “butcher of Lyon.” Nazi rule ended in 1944 when the retreating Germans blew up all but two of Lyon’s 28 bridges, which have since been rebuilt. In 1987, Barbie was extradited from Bolivia, tried in Lyon for crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment.

After the tour of the city, we visited the Musee des Beaux Arts. Most of the art is French, but we also viewed one early Rembrandt, a couple of Picassos, some Dutch and Flemish painters, including Bruegel and some sculptures by Rodin. The museum is in an 18th century convent.

Wednesday
Jul092014

July 7-8, 2014

Our first stop on our Viking river cruise was at the ancient city of Arles, France. Before the Romans took the town back in 123 AD, Ligerian and Celtic tribes controlled this Southern section of France. But, it was the Romans that established Arles on the map. They constructed a series of aquaducts providing water power to a complex of flour mills that became known as, ‘the greatest concentration of mechanical

power in the ancient world.” Even Vitruvius and Pliny the Elder acknowledged this technological advancement back in 25 BC and 77 AD.

In addition,, the Romans constructed a huge amphitheater that still occupies the center of the city and, of course, the ever present baths that Romans popularized thorough the Empire.

  We toured the Roman amphitheater where the gladiators did their thing. Today they hold bull fights and “bull games.” In the games, several special types of bulls are released into the arena where men with special instruments try to grab a ribbon from the neck of the bull. If they are successful, they receive a money prize. If they are not, the owner of the bull gets the reward..

The Saint Pierre church in the center of town was a beautiful example of Gothic architecture and the original wooden front door was in perfect condition.

Arles is filled with Vincent Van Gogh memorabilia. It was in Arles that Vincent discovered complementary color, cool and warm, primary and secondary. Although Vincent spent only one year in Arles, during that time he ended his long-term relationship with his best friend, Gaugin, cut off his ear in despair, was committed to a mental hospital all the while creating 300 paintings and drawings

Throughout Arles, there are examples of Vincent’s work -- in front of the first hospital where he was taken after his ear episode is a cement structure where Vincent’s painting of the hospital’s garden is reproduced. The painting shows the garden in Winter, while we were fortunate to see the garden in its summer splendor. The 3 trees depicted in Vincent’s painting are evident in the summer display.

   

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The subjects of “Yellow House” and “Café Noir,” also still stand with the little reproductions shown in front.

After the morning tour of Arles, Marsha and Gwen decided to tour on their own. They discovered that the Van Gogh Foundation had just opened 2 days before with 15 of his paintings. They even allowed us to examine them very closely and take pictures.  The museum also displays the books that led to Van Gogh’s discovery of color combinations.

On the top floor of the museum was a strange display by Thomas Hirschhorn called “Interior Van Gogh Alter.“ It was a mess, filled with slips of paper with Van Gogh quotes, small reproductions of paintings, tin foil ropes hanging from the ceiling. One display showed a Vincent painting of shoes side-by-side with mounds of shoes of the same type and color. Weird.

Back to the ship. The Viking long ship Hermod fulfills all of the expectations established by recommendations from family and friends. Our cabin is luxurious with all the amenities of a 5 star facility, the floor to ceiling windows looking out over the private balcony provide a great view of the passing countryside and the food and wine served is outstanding. The other night, for instance, we were served lightly cooked sea scallops with avocado sauce, then a perfectly prepared chateaubriand accompanied by a French Cabernet Sauvignon. We finished with a chocolate soufflé.

The 117 cruise passengers convened on the roof top after dinner to observe the ship approaching Avignon which will be toured before we drive to the town of Chateauneuf du Pape where we will attend a tasting of France’s most famous vintages.

On Tuesday the ship went back to Avignon and we had an opportunity to get a better appreciation of the Pope’s Palace. For a hundred years there was a rival papacy housed in Avignon, resulting from competition between France and Italy. Avignon is called the City of Popes because it was home to seven pontiffs from 1309 to 1377. To prove its supremacy over its neighboring country, France built this enormous structure. With 15,000 square meters of floor space, it is equivalent in size to four Gothic cathedrals.

We were particularly impressed with the kitchen. They set the fire in the middle of the stone floor, contained by a stone fence-like barrier. The chimney is 40 feet high in a cone-shape. They hauled as many as 6 cows up to the kitchen, several stories above the grounds, through the window. According to our ship’s information sheet: “At the 1344 coronation of Pope Clement VI, 7428 chickens, 101, 3443 fowl, 1500 capons, 1195 geese, 1023 sheep. 914 kids, 111 oxen, 101 calves, 60 pigs, 15 sturgeon, 300 pike, 10 tons of sugar, 50,000 tarts (not prostitutes), 95,000 loaves of bread and 42,000 gallons of wine were consumed.”

The other room that particularly impressed us was the bedroom where the walls were covered with what looked like wallpaper, but which was, of course, elaborate painting. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed.

In Chateauneuf du Pape, we visited one of the region’s 350 vineries for a wine tasting. Sampling their white first, then, the crème de la crème…..the red wine that is each year blended with as many as 12 different locally grown grapes to accomplish the famous Chateauneuf du Pape. This name actually means the Pope’s new house, which was constructed just above the small town of the same name. our guide discussed the various techniques employed to make their unique wine, including culling schedules, exacting time schedules for exposure to the fine French oak barrels and of course, he discussed the terrior which includes climate, terrain and soil types. We have never seen vineyards like this before. The vines are surrounded by river rock that has been deposited by the nearby Rhone river over the past 10,000 years. In all of Chateauneuf du Pape we never saw one square inch of actual clay or soil….nothing but smooth river rocks for miles.

We tasted a 2009 and 2006 Chateaunuf d’Pape and just those couple of years were represented in a different bouquet as well as smoothness highlighting the distinctions that are achieved with just a short aging process. Thus, Bill purchased a 2005 which we dedicated to the evening dinner. Superb.

 

Sunday
Jul062014

July 5-6, 2014

The dinner we had at a restaurant directly across the street from our Torino hotel was both elegant, perfectly presented and delicious. We began with a veal tartare (do you get the idea that we love raw meat) and a cuttlefish carpaccio. Both were so good, time stopped for a brief moment. Then, we had a tender veal filet and a bowl of homemade ravioli. All were accompanied first by Prosecco and then Barbera d’Alba red.  After dinner we walked down to the Po River, beautiful at night.

The next morning we boarded a train to Chambery, France and instead of going over the Alps, we went through them, tunnel after tunnel. We switched trains to Lyon and then again to Avignon. There we stayed in a caricature of a classic French boutique hotel. Tiny with even tinier rooms--Dick could not turn around in the bathroom so he simply backed out. We went for a short walk around the Avignon square which is the center of the yearly Avignon theater festival currently playing. The restaurants had names such as “Comedie” and “Acteurs” and we witnessed a number of flash mobs of actors and singers promoting their shows.

Later, also in the square, we dined on salmon tartare and foie gras while sipping a fine Viognier. With our veal we finished with a Chateauneuf du Pape.

After a lovely French breakfast in the tiniest breakfast room imaginable, Gwen went for a walk outside the Walled City to look for our Viking ship. She did find the boat, but more amazing, as she walked near the river coming the other way were our newfound Canadian friends, Silvester and Lucja, that we met at Paolo Manzone B&B. When they caught sight of each other, they simultaneously burst into laughter and marveled at the serendipity.  We knew they were planning a trip to Chateauneuf du Pape, but neither of us knew we were both going to Avignon. Astonishing.

Next, we boarded our Viking River cruise ship and awaited our rendezvous with Bill and Marsha Adler. We won’t need to get our “sea legs” since the river waters are perfectly tranquil. Our cabin has a nice balcony so we can sit and watch the French countryside. We currently have a beautiful view of Avignon from the balcony. 

We were sitting on our balcony, waiting for Marsha and Bill Adler to arrive. When we saw them we ran to the gangplank and greeted them.

We had lunch with the Adlers on the outdoor aft lounge and then Gwen and the Adlers took a walking tour of Avignon, with the group with our individual transmitters so we can hear the guide. Marsha and Gwen didn’t hear much because they were chatting most of the time, while Bill was in front taking in everything, as usual. We will be getting our orientation later today and we cast off tomorrow morning.

 

 

Friday
Jul042014

July 4, 2014

Happy Fourth of July.

Last night, our last in the wine country, we decided to try a little local trattoria, perched on the main road in Serralunga. We parked the car and walked over to a table in front of the restaurant, right on the street. A girl, seated with her boyfriend at another table, came over to help us with the language. She said the chef, an 85 year old woman, makes home-made regional dishes, So, she called the woman over and proceeded to order. Little did we know that she ordered “the works.” She took off on a motorcycle with her boyfriend and we awaited our dinner while sipping a nice bottle of Nebbiola d.Alba. Even the tiniest restaurants have good wine lists -- Barolo was even on this list.

First the antipasti were delivered, consisting of a mound of salami and prosciutto crudo. Then came a plate of veal in tuna sauce that was absolutely delicious.

After that a bowl of anchovies in olive oil and herbs was set before us.

We were starting to get worried. As we dipped our bread in the olive oil, the waiter arrived with a plate of what looked like steak tartare, but which was actually raw ground beef with sliced lemons and parmesan.

 We grabbed our dictionary to see how to say “No More.: But before we could get that out, waiter put down a huge plate of tiny ravioli plin and a dish of zucchini with hard boiled eggs. We told him: “No piu.” In the end, most of the dinner was good.

This morning, neither we nor the heavens (a light rain covered the Serralunga countryside) were happy to say our goodbyes to the Paolo Manzone Vineyard, Elisa, its manager and ever smiling host, or two fellow guests we greatly enjoyed visiting with these past couple of days….Silvester and Lucja Grabowiec from Ontario Canada. But, off we drove to our next destination, Turino.

The drive was only an hour and a half, but we admit, there was a bit of trepidation when we approached Turino, since those scratches on our side view mirrors would likely be costly. And, while we had gotten an estimate from a Peugeot dealer of 150 EU to replace the mirrors, our limited language skills enhanced our sense of vulnerability when negotiating the damages.

As a last ditch effort to cover all bases, Dick called American Express to see if our Platinum Card might have some supplementary insurance coverage. They happily the said YES! So, the slightly acidic taste in our mouths about driving through the all too narrow streets of Castigliano Falletto quickly disappeared and our rental return lacked virtually all potential drama.

We caught a taxi to our downtown hotel, Alpi Resort. True to the reputation of Italian city driving, our taxi driver raised the hair on the backs of our necks when driving like a skilled lunatic through the busy, competitive streets of Turino. The Hotel Alpi Resort is not a typical hotel with curbside reception counters. No, instead, there is a little door bell along the sidewalk that calls up to the proprietors. They instructed us to come to the third floor. Inside this little alleyway, was a door and an elevator that looked like one out of the movies. We have seen such “retrofitted” elevators before. Yes, in Florence four years ago the proprietors squeezed an elevator into a centuries old building. This one was smaller and even more strangely romantic with a double wood door inside a steel one and hardly space for two people. It delivered us up those three flights and the unusual entrance quickly became welcoming.

From our room we can see the River Po that is at the end of the block. It brings to mind our vet, Luke DelPo (meaning “from Po” in Italian).

Minutes after we got settled in our room, we headed off by taxi to Eataly. We have been told that Turino and the viscinty is the home of the “slow food” movement begun twenty years ago in response to the first MacDonald’s hamburger joint opened near the Spanish Steps in Rome. So we quickly sat down to eat slowly.

Eataly is a fascinating slow food superstore which has counters dedicated to various Italian dining traditions. There’s a pasta counter, a fish and seafood counter where you select from every imaginable type of fish on ice and they prepare it for you. Then there is a antipasti counter that prepares fresh slices of Parma hams and prosciutto accompanied with hundreds of options for cheese. There is a pizza counter with every flat bread wish you every dreamed about. And, of course, all counters serve a nice selection of local wines by the glass or the bottle. In an act of self restraint, we opted to share a bowl of pesto pasta accompanied with a glass of Roero Arneis white.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the couple we struck up a conversation with next to us was from Holland. Those Dutch are everywhere and never deny Dick’s eternal quest to make new buddies.

Tonight, we walk down to the old city square a couple of blocks away and look for the next reportable adventure. Arrivederci.