What Is Claret? The Question That Sparked A Tasty Adventure in Bordeaux

We’ve been watching British television and one of our favorite shows is “Grand Designs.”  The host, Kevin McCloud, kept referring to “claret.”  Being idiot Americans, we had no idea what sort of beverage it was (other than it was a deep purplish-red color).  Thanks to the magic of the internet, we learned it is “a red wine from Bordeaux, or wine of a similar character made elsewhere” (according to Merriam-Webster).  After that moment – and visiting France’s other wine regions (BurgundyCotes du RhoneAlsace, Champagne) – I wanted to go see what could make stoic Brits wax rhapsodic about this wine.  Luckily, it was pretty easy to convince Wildcat and Hokie to take an girl’s road trip.

A few hours into our trip, they might have started to regret it.  To get to Bordeaux from Geneva, you have to drive across all of France to the Atlantic.  We broke down in the middle of nowhere on our way (for more, check out their accounts here and here).  We arrived in Bordeaux just in time to get a good night’s sleep so that we could begin our “education” bright and early the next day.

Bordeaux is larger and more complex than France’s other wine regions.  It has  an astounding variety of different appellations (recognized types that correspond to demarcated zones that were established in 1855 by Napolean III) in part because the region is large.  It is also topographically and climatically diverse.  It’s soils are geologically complex and vary significantly from one appellation to the next.  Its location on the Atlantic coast and on rivers further inland (the Gironde River and its tributaries, the Garonne and Dordogne) creates dramatically different weather conditions across the region.

Bordeaux wines are all about blending.  Part science, part art, the results are pure magic.  The grapes in the blends should complement each other and make a complex, interesting, balanced and harmonious blend.  The goal is to make the blended wine better than the individual grapes that contribute to it.  In other words, the whole (the blended wine) should be more than the sum of its parts (the individual grapes).

The grapes most commonly used in blending Bordeaux wines are: MerlotCabernet Sauvignon and  Cabernet Franc.  The Merlot grapes give the wine color, roundness and suppleness.  The Cabernet Sauvignon grapes provide the tannins, the wine’s backbone and structure.  In young wines, it is very aromatic and provides increasing complexity as it ages.  The Cabernet Franc grapes add a gentleness, a counterpoint to the Sauvignon.

If you haven’t already guessed from the definition of “claret,” most of Bordeaux’s wines are red (around 85%).  Bordeaux is the world’s number one producer of both Cabernet and Merlot grape varieties.  Sante!

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Frankly My Dear Sarlat…

I went with Hokie and Wildcat on a road trip to Bordeaux.  I’d always dreamed of going to the Dordogne region of France so we made a couple of stops there too.  We heard that Sarlat-la-Canéda (commonly referred to as Sarlat) is considered one of the five prettiest towns in France.  While we have, perhaps, overdosed on cute French towns (Saint-Rémy de Provence, EguisheimSt. Paul-de-Vence, Vence, Les Baux-de-ProvenceEze, Avignon, Kayersburg, Colmar, how could we not give this one a go?

It has a traffic-free old town with cobblestone lanes and renaissance buildings with elaborate stonework.  Sarlat lives in its streets.  Cafes abounded. With wonderful weather and backdrops why wouldn’t you want to sit outside?  Walking Sarlat’s streets we saw mimes “warming up,”  artists working “en plein air,” and countless street vendors.  This mime’s warmup looked surprisingly like the warmups we did in my belly dancing class.   I wish I’d gotten it on video for you.

Foodies will be happy to learn that Sarlat is located in the Perigord area of Dordogne, an area almost 50% of the French believe has the best food in France.  Sarlat is known for its foie gras, while not my thing, they clearly do a big business it.  There are shops everywhere, a statute of geese next to the church and souvenir shops that sell goose themed paraphernalia.  Foie Gras (goose liver pate) is controversial.  We saw a flock of geese while in Dordogne on a farm.   In this area it is an age-old tradition called la garage.  The only thing we ate there was gelato.

Sarlat has such nice buildings because it was loyal.  Huh?   What does loyalty have to do with pretty stone buildings?

During the Hundred Years’ War, Sarlat remained loyal to the French.  The French king rewarded its loyalty with money to rebuild the damaged town in luxurious stone.  Beautiful, long-lasting and fire-resistant…  Oh la la.  

We enjoyed strolling its streets and people watching.  It might be a bit touristy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a really interesting place to spend an afternoon.   I’m sure it’s even more beautiful in the evening when tourists like me have left for the day.

Nice, France Is Better Than Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo

I have a huge fascination with breakdancing (also known as b-boying or breaking).  Each time we see people dancing somewhere, I can’t help but stop and watch.  I love the sheer athleticism of it.  It evolved from almost every dance, acrobatic and martial arts style including: tap, jazz, capoeira, Balkan, ballroom, folk, shaolin kung-fu, circus and swing.

Breakdancing is popular in France.  When we were in Nice, we strolled the Pedestrain Zone of the Place Masséna.  It’s essentially the main square of Nice and center of all the action.  We encountered some break dancers (videos are all over YouTube) on checkerboard pavement and stopped to check them out.

Each time I watch break dancers, I am struck by the communal spirit that surrounds them.  It makes you want to learn how to do it.  Forget ballroom dancing, we’ll be taking this dance class instead.  It looks like a pretty good workout.

Being a former gymnast, I loved the power moves because they are particularly acrobatic.  It requires momentum, speed, endurance, strength, and control (like the flare, windmillswipe, and head spin).

Downrock (also known as footwork or floorwork) describes any movement on the floor where the hands supporting the dancer as much as the feet.  Common downrock moves include: the foundational 6-step, and its variants such as the 3-step.  Basic downrock is done entirely on hands and feet.  It didn’t take long for their moves to get way more complex and too fast  for the settings on my camera.

Freezes are stylish poses, and the more difficult require the breaker to suspend  himself or herself off the ground using upper body strength in poses.  How can you not love these creative displays of agility and physical strength set to music?

Well done gentlemen.

How Exactly Did You Plan On Ensuring Staff Wear Appropriate Underwear?

ubs

ubs (Photo credit: twicepix)

When we were preparing for our move, we tried to learn as much as we could about Switzerland.  We heard that they are pretty conservative and rule based.  We’d also heard that the way of doing business and the work environment would probably be different than we were used to in the US.  Nevertheless, we were surprised to hear UBS, a large Swiss bank, issued a banking giant UBS a 44-page dress code (a couple of years ago).  At 44 pages, it is (not surprisingly) quite detailed.  Staff was expected to:

  • Wear suits in dark grey, black or navy blue
  • Keep their jacket buttons closed.  When seated, they must always be open.  While on the subject of jackets, they were also required to completely cover employee’s rear (not a good look for a shorty like me).
  • Black knee-high socks were preferred.
  • Female staff’s skirts should reach the middle of the knee…
  • Underwear was supposed to be of good quality, easily washable and undetectable.  How exactly did they plan on ensuring this?
  • Trendy spectacles were forbidden.  While at it, the color of the metal on your glasses should match the color of your jewelry.
  • Men were not to wear bracelets or earrings, since this is Switzerland wearing wristwatches was encouraged… as long as it didn’t threaten safety.
  • Women were not to wear black nail polish or nail art… it has only become more popular since the probation was issued.
  • Men were not to have stubble or excessive facial hair
  • Men were from covering their grey with hair color

It also had other advice on a variety of subjects including”

  • Don’t eat garlic or onions to avoid bad breath
  • How to wear your scarf
  • When to apply perfume
  • The importance of well-trimmed and filed toenails.
  • Skin-colored underwear is recommended
  • Do not put much of anything in your jacket pockets to avoid deforming them
  • My favorite  advises employees to neother wash, nor iron their shirts themselves.

UBS may sound familiar because it has been in the news when it was bailed out in 2008 (after losing around 21 billion Swiss Francs) and for its long running battle with US tax authorities.  Perhaps the tomeic dress code was an attempt to improve its image.  It has since been somewhat revised.  Although when I go into a UBS, I don’t see much color…

My Visit To Dubai’s Jumeirah Mosque

Located in the concrete filled coastal residential area of Jumeriah, the mosque’s elegant ornamentation and greenery makes it stick out.

Dubai is filled with mosques.  Nevertheless, all but one of Dubai’s many mosques are closed to non-Muslims.  The beautiful Jumeirah Mosque isn’t just open to non-Muslims, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding gives free tours of it.   After a nice visit to the Centre the previous day (highly recommended), I had to do it.

Muslims wash before praying so in Dubai you see wash stations outside mosques.  You also see bidets in bathrooms (and even hoses next to toilets) to make washing feet easier.  It makes sense to clean before entering a mosque as Muslims touch their heads and hands to the ground while praying.

Shoe’s aren’t allowed inside mosques.  I left my shoes at the door.  Although the cat in the background kept trying to sneak into the air-conditioning, cats aren’t allowed inside mosques either.

Even though it was 48 degrees Celsius (118.8 fahrenheit), I covered up as required.  I had the lady tie up my headscarf for me and swear it instantly made me feel another five degrees hotter.  You don’t realize how cooling a breeze on your neck is until its covered.  I have to admit, I wasn’t disappointed when it loosened.  As I didn’t know how to do it properly myself, this is how it ended up.

The mosque was pretty.  After seeing so many churches in the same style on our European travels, the different style and layout was refreshing to the eye.

I visited Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding the previous day, learned a bit and enjoyed the dialogue.  The “tour” was a little different.  It was more like a session aimed at educating people about the basics of the religion and dispelling common myths (all in 45 minutes).  Although the ladies who conducted the session did a good job and injected a good amount of humor into it, I didn’t enjoy it as much as lunch at the Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.

The clock showing the times to pray that day. Muslims pray five times a day: before sunrise (where the prayer reminds people that prayer is better than sleep), noon, in the afternoon when your shadow is approximately equal to your height, just after sunset, and in the evening.

I did learn a bit (which I’m assuming is the official line) about the Emirate’s approach to Islam.  Officially, it supports a moderate interpretation of Islam.  I imagine it would be difficult to remain a global center for business if it appeared did otherwise.  Examples they mentioned in support include:

  • not rejecting the validity of other faiths when they are “of the book”
  • not forcing women to wear coverings outside of church, both women cited the practicality of wearing such garments in Dubai but said they don’t wear them in other places  (one lady said the robe would soak up all of London’s rain)
  • most Emiratis don’t have more than one wife (divorce is permitted)
  • the government distributes guidelines for religious sermons, and
  • texts of sermons are submitted for approval

What We Learned About The Area Where There Was Mine Violence When We Visited South Africa

We were saddened to hear that at least 30 people died at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana, South Africa this week.  When we were in South Africa (road signs, Braai, Fences in South Africa, Bongwe, Kliptown, Planes Trains and Automobiles to South Africa, Pilanesburg, We Saw Lions, Grateful) we went by that mine.  It is enormous and it was the only man-made thing of any real size for over an hour.

Driving near the mine, we were struck by the area’s poverty and lack of infrastructure.  Our guide explained to us that locals have not really profited from the mine’s success and the high price of platinum over the previous decade.  Local communities still face a lack of employment and agricultural collapse.  Sewage backs up and spills into rivers, there are squatter camps, and the locals have a myriad of health problems.  The large well lit and fortified mine, stood in stark contrast to the poverty of the surrounding area.

 

Although I couldn’t find any pictures I took of the mine itself, these were taken in the surrounding area.  For some beautiful pictures of the nearby National Park, check out our photos of Pilanesburg.

The Cutest Post Yet (Or At Least The Furriest)

Here, people take their dogs everywhere: into restaurants (you’ll see them sitting under the table), on buses/trains, etc.  They go everywhere, but there are rules.  Dogs must be registered, chipped and in some cantons, you pay taxed on them.

I have heard that you can make it a condition of your work contract to be allowed to keep dogs in your office!  It is not unusual to see dogs quietly resting under a desk at offices or shops.  They are welcome on the tram.  Usually they are extremely well-behaved.  Once, a friend did see two dogs scuffle on the tram.  Naughty puppies.

I guess it’s cooler to have your dog in the back of your 4-wheeler than carrying it because it can’t walk anymore.  We see this embarrassing sight frequently on the streets of Geneva.

You see dogs in bars and casual restaurants.  Dogs here have to go to obedience classes and pass a test, so most are incredibly well-behaved.  Often, I won’t even realize there was a dog lying under the table until its owners get up to leave.

As I said, there are rules.  Many places, dogs must be leashed.  There are places where dogs are prohibited from doing their business.  If your dog poops, you are supposed to pick it up.  Too many people in Geneva have problems with this last one.  If you visit, watch your step.    Someone let their dog do this right by the exit from baggage claim in the airport.   You cannot be serious!

Our Balade In Bellinzona

 

Bellinzona would be epic (and possibly ruined) if it were located on a lake.  Instead, it is strategically located at the confluence mountain passes and near others (NufenenSt. GotthardLukmanierSan Bernardino and the Poebene).  At one time, it was the capital of the region.

Bellinzona’s Old Town is graceful and enchanting.  It has beautiful, ornate merchants’ houses, stone gateways, wrought iron balconies and peaceful courtyards.  It is car free.  If you ignore the other tourists strolling the alleyways, it is easy to transport yourself to a bygone era.

It’s not glitzy, but its richly decorated patrician houses, beautiful churches and charming streets are relaxing and seductive.  You can literally feel your blood pressure drop.  Walking the streets, you want to stop, enjoy the atmosphere and take in all the colorful details.

This peacefulness is ironic.  Bellinzona doesn’t derive its name from its beauty (Belle or Bella), but from “zone bellica” which translates into “war zone.”   The main evidence of the city’s turbulent past are its castles and fortifications which are just outside the old town.

 

Tales From The Crypt

Geneva is old.  Really old.  The Allobrogians built a fortified settlement in Geneva that was conquered by the Romans in 120 BCE.   For me, pre-Roman = old.  Located at a strategic location between Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) and the Rhone, Julius Cesar came to Geneva on his Gallic campaign in approximately  58 BCE.   From the 1st to 4th centuries, they built a large building close to where the St.-Pierre Cathedral now stands .

Under the St.-Pierre Cathedral, in the crypt is an archaeological site.  The foundations of those original buildings are still there.   You can see the layers of building.    In the photo above, you can see the original monk’s cells on the left.  Cozy.

The site is massive, with many levels.  Some of our guests missed seeing an entire part of it when they took a wrong turn.

When I went back to look for them, I stumbled upon this gentleman (or lady).  The  hole is from the excavations searching for his or her head!

With so much history piled up in one spot, they have a handy color coded system to help you determine the age of what you are seeing.  The colored sticks correspond to different time periods.  

There’s plenty of evidence of the Romans, from mosaic floors to coins to wells.

I don’t think the coins at the bottom of this cistern date from Roman times.  I tossed one in.  It couldn’t hurt.

In the 4th–5th century, as Christianity spread across the Roman Empire and the  cluster of buildings on the hill began to include places of worship.  In 443, the Burgundians (a tribe of barbarians who invaded) took over Geneva. They made Geneva one of their capitals and the city contented to develop.  The site also developed encompassing multiple uses.

By the 9th century, cluster had grown significantly and undergone fundamental changes.  Three places of worship and annexes were built in the 4th–5th centuries.  These early christian churches have been extensively excavated.  In the 7th–8th centuries, a larger cathedral was erected.  In 1000, a monumental crypt was added and the choir extended.  The bishop built a himself a residence, a palace for him to live in.  Of course he did.

 

Scams, Easier Than Working For The Money

Men with friendship bracelets in front of Milan’s Duomo wanting to make new friends

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”  – Albert Einstein   Where there are idiots, scams abound.  We’re almost all guilty of it at one time or another, turning off our brains when we go on vacation.  Heck, it’s part of the reason people go on vacation.  Because people walk around like pigeons, scammers abound in tourist destinations.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about shell games.  There are many other frauds we’ve seen or heard about anecdotally from friends.

When we were in Milan, he laughed at me when I yelled at people who would not leave me alone.    They kept trying to tie a string friendship bracelet around my wrist.  If they got it on, they would then demand an exorbitant amount for it.  If I didn’t want to pay, they would ask for the bracelet back.  Giving it back is often difficult because they will tie it extremely tightly around my wrist.  If I didn’t pay, they might rip it off and demand I pay them “compensation.”  I didn’t want any part of it.  Plus, it makes me uneasy to have something tied around me with a stranger holding the end of the string.   It would seem intimidating to have someone able to yank on my arm like that.

Later that day, someone asked him the time and then tried to make friends with him while he was waiting outside for me.  He didn’t pull his hands out of his pockets to reveal his watch and let it be known that he was in no mood to chat.  The man got aggressive, but he stood his ground and responded calmly but firmly (with a little bluff of his own that made the guy hightail it out of there).  When there are bell towers with clocks all around, someone who asks the time is trouble.

In Paris, a common scam is to approach someone in the street offering to sell a gold ring they have ‘just found on the pavement’.  This happened to a friend of ours who told them “we just saw you drop it.”  Usually, these gold rings are nothing more than a cheap piece of metal, perhaps even a plumbing pipe joint ring.   The prettier and more distracting the scammer is, the more likely an accomplice is also picking your pocket.

In Madrid, we had a friend get her purse stolen from inside a restaurant.  I thought I was being careful, but someone at the neighboring table stopped someone in the midst of grabbing mine.  We’ve had a friend lose an iPhones from her table when it was sitting right next to her coffee.  Just because you are “safely” inside a restaurant (or a museum), doesn’t mean that someone isn’t just as likely to steal from you.  We’ve heard of people using newspapers, flows, etc. to distract and cover up these thefts.  We’ve even heard of the thieves looking like fellow tourists.

Pickpockets and bag snatchers are everywhere.  They can strike at anytime, but you are an easy mark when you are distracted.  Friends got their pockets picked in Paris while exiting the subway.  Someone stood in front of them trying to get on and blocking their way.  An associate took advantage of this slowdown and distraction to remove their wallet.  Another friend had bags stolen from in front of the hotel while loading their taxi!

Sometimes the money takers wear uniforms.  Remember to validate your train passes in Italy, even if you have a specific seat number on a specific train.  A few years ago we made the mistake of not punching our ticket in the machine at the end of the line.  We’d just bought the tickets and with assigned seats on a specific line….  Needless to say that crying didn’t work, only cash was accepted by the conductor, the “receipt” was illegible, and when he came back through to discuss the problem with us, he wasn’t wearing any identification.  Yep.  I’m still sore about it.

In Geneva, I have seen the same extremely pregnant woman begging at the bus stops around town for the past year.  Although time has passed, her pregnancy has not progressed.  Her baby is probably setting a Guinness World Record for the most time in utero.

Also in Geneva, I had a woman try to show me how to work the public transport ticket machine at a bus stop.  She demanded money for her “services” and was very persistent.  In French, told her to go…  You can feel free to do it in the language of your choosing.