I Got A Kick From Champagne

“Burgundy makes you think off silly things, Bordeaux makes you talk of them and Champagne makes you do them. Think of silly things, Bordeaux makes you talk of them and Champagne makes you do them.”

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, French gastronome, (1755-1826)

After visits to BurgundyAlsaceCôtes du Rhône, and Bordeaux, how could we not visit this wine French wine region?  Champagne is located in in north-eastern France. Although it is doable as a (long) day trip from Paris (the region starts 120 kilometers/75 miles from the city) , I did it as part of a visit to the World War I battlefield of Verdun.   There were people on some of my tours that were out from Paris for the day.  Trust me when I tell you that with a driver taking them from one producer of Champagne to another, they were having a very, um, fun educational experience.

Champagne has 4 main cities: Reims, Troyes, Chalons en Champagne and Epernay.  Most of the guidebooks recommend either Reims or the smaller Epernay.  I wanted to visit the famous (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) cathedral at Reims, so I chose to go there.  If I’d had more time, I would have done the Champagne Tourist Route.  It covers more than 500 km between Reims, Epernay and the Côte des Bar, and has around 80 welcome centers.  Growers offer tours in personalized settings, but you need to be better organized than I was and arrange them in advance.  Squeezing it in at the last minute meant that I could only tour producers like Tattinger and Pomeroy.

Let me explain.  Like Burgundy, Champagne’s vineyards are classified as Grand Cru, Premier Cru or Deuxième Cru.  However, in Champagne this does not give an indication of the vineyard’s quality or potential.  It functions more as a means to establish the price a grower gets for his harvest.   The producer or skill of the wine-maker in Champagne means that it is possible to have an outstanding performer in a second classed village and a moderate grower in a higher classed Grand Cru (just like Bordeaux, but different from Burgundy).  Confused yet?


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St. Emilion, Where They Make The Nectar Of The Gods

 

I don’t want to bore you with stories of another medieval hill town or tales of wine, but on our ladies road trip, we fell in love with Saint-Emilion and I can’t help but wax rhapsodic about it.  It is a gorgeous medieval hill town made of limestone quarried locally.

Around 5,400 hectares of vineyards and many small châteaux surround it.   Saint-Emilion has all the accoutrements you expect in a cute french hill town, inviting squares, cute shops, cobblestones, music wafting through the air, flowers, fountains, light blue shutters that look great against the limestone…you get the idea.  If I haven’t already convinced you to endure one more hill town post, that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site probably won’t sway you either.

Saint-Emilion  has been located on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela since the 11th century.  As a result, many churches, monasteries and hospices were built there.  We’d heard that the bell tower of the St. Emilion Monolithic Church had the best view of the city and it was worth making the climb up the ancient winding stairs to the top of the tower.  We paid a Euro or two each and grabbed the key from the Office of  Tourism across the way.

The bell tower was built between the 12th and 15th centuries.  Not long after that, people started carving their names and dates into it.  I’m a sucker for ancient graffiti.  I loved searching for it and reading it. The best part though was the view. Heaven.

Unfortunately our, ahem, transportation challenges (broken clutch) prevented us from having more time to tour Saint-Emilion.  I’d hoped to see the vast limestone catacombs located under the city that contain Europe’s largest underground church.  They are supposed to be amazing.

Fortunately, we still had time to check out the romanesque church and cloister, shop for antiques (you know I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to poke around this cute store), have a nice meal, listen to some street musicians, stroll the streets and catch one heck of a sunset.  Not too shabby.

 

We Rocked The Boat – Our Boat Trip Up The Rhine

One of the Rhine’s most renowned sections is the Rhine Gorge in Germany (aka the Middle Rhine, Rhine Valley and Romantic Rhine). Technically, this area starts in Mainz and ends in Koblenz (that area is the stretch of the river designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site).   A boat trip down the Rhine is an excellent way to see the area’s magnificent landscape, towns, vineyards, castles and fortresses.   We’d heard that the stretch between Bingen and St. Goar (which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was particularly beautiful.   It was.

It’s UNESCO World Heritage Site means that there are no bridges.

Castles + vineyards + valley = storybook cute   There are at least 30 castles in the 66 kilometer (41 mile) stretch from Rudesheim to Koblenz.   Why are there so many castles there?

The Rhine has been a major transport route since Roman times.  Where there is money, there are those that want a piece of it.  River barons built the castles to impose tolls on the river traffic by controlling their stretch of the river.  If boat captains didn’t pay the toll, they would be treated to “complimentary room and board” in a dungeon until they paid.

From the dock at Bingen, we could see something that looked like the Statue of Liberty.  We weren’t far off; it was Rüdesheim’s Niederwalddenkmal.  Built by Kaiser Wilhelm I from 1881-3, it commemorates the founding of the German Empire after the end of Franco-Prussian War.  Essentially, it sits near the French border and serves as a warning to France that they will get another whooping if they try to invade again (or at least that’s how it was explained to us).

The toll tower “Mäuseturm,” known as the Mouse Tower, was the first sight we saw from the boat.  The name comes from a legend in which the tower belonged to a cruel ruler who oppressed and exploited the local peasants. in his domain. During a famine, he refused to distribute any of the tower’s grain supplies to the starving peasants.   When they threatened to rebel, the ruler tricked them, telling them to wait in an empty barn for him to come with food. He ordered the doors barricaded and set fire to the barn, commenting “hear the mice squeak” (referring to their cries).  Returning to his castle, an army of mice began to swarm him.  He fled to the tower, they followed and ate him alive.  Yikes!

We barely had time to listen to the story before seeing our first ruin, the ruin of Ehrenfels Castle (Burgruine Ehrenfels).  The rapid succession continued for the rest of the trip.  Wow!  We were amazed.

Built in the early 1300’s on a strategic hilltop, is Burg Rheinstein.  Prince Frederick of Prussia bought the castle and rebuilt the castle in the 19th century.  Nearby the impressive medieval Burg Reichenstein is a now a modern hotel.

Burg Sooneck, also known as Saneck, Sonneck and Schloss Sonneck (click on the link to find out its relationship to Swiss history and the Battle of Sempach), was an infamous haunt of the river’s robber barons. The Crown Prince of Prussia, Frederick William IV, and his brothers Princes William, Charles, and Albert bought the completely derelict castle and rebuilt it as a hunting castle.

The tiny town of Niederheimbach has the 13th century Heimburg Castle and the little church called St. Mariae Himmelfahrt.

Lorch is a small town that has a lot for its size.  You can easily spot it’s church, Pfarrkirche St. Martin (Saint Martin’s Parish Church), from the water.  In the 18th century, the witch’s tower served as a sort of jail for wrongdoers and “witches”.  The Nollig ruins (Ruine Nollig on the Rheinsteig trail), overlook the town and are the remains of the old town fortifications on the rugged ridge.

Bachrach is over 1,000 years old, and I thought we were getting a little long in the tooth.  Just like the house of an octogenarian, it accumulated bits and bobs over time (the walkable city walls, 16 watchtowers, the picturesque “Malerwinkel”, the ruins of St. Werner’s Chapel).  Stahleck Castle (Burg Stahleck), one of the most photogenic castles, sits on a hill above.  It was destroyed by the French in 1689 and is now a youth hostel.  I’ve stuck him in some cheap hostels before, but never a nice one like this.

We Had Fun Storming Bellinzona’s Castles

From Lugano, we took a day trip to Bellinzona.  Bellinzona’s three medieval castles (Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello and Castello di Sasso Corbaro) and their fortifications are among the most important examples of medieval defensive architecture in the Alps. These fortifications are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Living in Switzerland, we have castle fatigue.  Poor us.  We happily forego an opportunity to see castles if they aren’t great.  My buddy Rick Steves’ has a list of Europe’s 10 best castles.  I’ve been lucky enough to see a fair number of them and some others, like Windsor Castle, that didn’t make his list.  You can’t swing a dead cat in Switzerland without hitting a castle or the ruins of one (sometimes they’re cooler than the ones still standing).   As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Bellinzona’s castles were supposed to be pretty good and they were definitely worth the trip.

Castelgrande is Bellinzona’s oldest and largest castle.  It overlooks the Old Town. They have built an ingenious elevator/stair system that allows to visitors access the castle from the rock underneath, from inside.  It beats the old school method of scaling the walls.  Castelgrande has a little museum with a cool video that documents Bellinzona’s history and the history of its castles.

Wear whatever you want, but I’d imagine that it is hard to climb the ramparts in these bad boys.

The castles of Montebello and Sasso Cobaro are up the hill above the town.  Although floods destroyed a large part of the medieval fortifications, large chunks of the immense wall remain.   You can see them the photo above.

If you were to ask an eight year-old to draw a castle, they would draw Montebello.  It looks like your stereotypical castle. We climbed the ramparts, posed on the drawbridge and enjoyed the wonderful views.  Montebello’s interior buildings contain a museum with archaeological discoveries and artifacts from Bellinzona that date back to Roman times.

Montebello’s museum also had weaponry.  I had to get a picture with the gun that was about my size.  Who in the heck was large enough to fire this thing?

Magglio, the Luger and Sneaky Pete, got disbelieving looks and thumbs up from people when we told them we hiked up to Castello di Sasso Corbaro.  It was a beautiful day and the views were even better.  From there, you could easily see the mountain passes come together just north of Bellinzona and why it was so strategically important (click here for a panoramic view).

 

What’s Latin For Roman? Finding Out All About Ancient Rome In Arles

A model of Roman Arles

You can’t swing a cat in Arles without hitting Roman ruins.  I badly for anyone who wants to undertake a building project there.  They must expect to uncover Roman ruins when they start digging as they are everywhere.

They pop up on random streets and sections of viaducts decorate the middle of traffic circles!

Around 200 B.C., the Romans extended their empire into what is now southern France.  At the time, it was inhabited by the Celtic Gauls who resisted Roman domination.  Rome wanted control of the region to ensure the continuity and security of their supply lines to Spain.

In 56 B.C. Julius Caesar’s legions kicked the crap out of the Celtic Gauls.  Romans took control of the territory.   As a result, some of the most significant Roman towns outside of Italy are in the south of France.  We saw the Pont du Gard, the amphitheater and triumphal arch in Orange a month earlier when we visited with family.

The Roman Empire was huge.  We’ve seen Roman ruins in Portugal, England, Germany, and they are all over  Switzerland.  Geneva was a Roman town; there are at least two sites with ruins within a mile of our flat.  As a result, we are in danger of giving you Ruin Fatigue (a real illness) from tramping around so many of them.  The Roman ruins in Arles are some of the world’s best (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and we felt as though they were still a must-see.  We were right.  He says that they were the bomb.com.  Please bear with us.  I swear, we won’t post about them again for awhile.

Roman Museum in Arles (Musee de L’Arles Antique), is filled with models and artifacts from Provence’s Roman era.  This modern museum displays ancient artifacts from Arles.

lead bars

One of the most famous items in the museum is a copy of Venus of Arles.  Found in 1651 by workmen who were digging a well, it is a Roman copy of Greek statue (possibly the Venus of Capua).   Louis XIV liked it and snagged the lovely lady to decorate Versailles.   Post-revolution, it belongs to the Louvre.

Louis XIV thinks I’m hot!

While the objects were cool, the best part of the museum was how they put the items in context and explained the region’s role in ancient Rome.  From showing how the covering went on the amphitheater to explaining how viaducts worked.  It was Ancient Rome 101.

The amphitheater is the largest Roman building in Gaul.  Compared to the collesium in Rome, it is tiny.  Nevertheless, we’ve been to professional sporting events in much smaller venues.  They still hold bullfights there!

After seeing bullfights in Lisbon a few years back. We felt badly and rooted for the bull. Seeing what the animal went through made us wary of seeing another. Sorry. There won’t be any bullfight coverage.

During the 
middle ages, the arena was used as a fortress; people lived inside using its giant walls for protection.  There were 212 
houses and 2 churches inside!  Those were cleared out 
when restoration began in the 1800s.

My dad complains that thousands of people watch sporting events, but the opera can’t draw the same crowds or support.  The amphitheater seats 20,000.  The Theatre Antique (the theater) seats a mere 12,000.  Apparently sports were drawing larger crowds than the arts as far back as the Roman Empire.

Switzerland’s Panoramic Train, The Bernina Express

When you look at advertisements for Swiss trains, you often see pictures of a train crossing an imposing stone viaduct through the mountain wilderness.  This photo is on the Bernina-Express, the Rhaetian Railway, from Graubünden to Veltlin.  The portion between Thusis and Tirano is a UNESCO world heritage site, the third train to receive such an honor.  It received the distinction for its combination of engineering and impressive scenery.

Completed in 1910, you can take it from Chur (on the Albula Railway), St. Moritz or Davos, to Tirano, Italy.  On the way, It passes through 55 tunnels, crosses 196 bridges and overcomes gradients of up to 7%.  Incredibly, it does it all without the benefit of a cogwheel drive (rack and pinion).

The Bernina Express, which is one of Switzerland’s special panoramic train journeys.  The cars have larger windows to for a better view of the amazing scenery.  I hear that in the summer there are open air trains.  They would be great to avoid the glare.

The best part about the Bernina Express is the dramatic change in scenery during the four-hour ride.  It starts in  near Heidiland in Chur.  You pass farms, cows and even vineyards.  Not long after, the train hits the Domleschg Valley (famous for Turner’s romantic paintings of it).  The valley is strategically positioned on the route to three main Alpine passes (the Splügen Pass, the San Bernardino Pass and the Julier Pass) and is rich with castles that were built to control these trade routes.

For at least 20 minutes, there is always a castle in view.  We oohed and aahed over the castles, having no idea just how much cooler it was about to get.

Landwasser Viaduct

Landwasser Viaduct (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rhaetian Railway Glacier Express on the Landwa...

Rhaetian Railway Glacier Express on the Landwasser Viaduct entering the Landwasser tunnel Français : Un train franchissant le viaduc de Landwasser et entrant dans le tunnel du même nom, sur la ligne Glacier Express des Chemins de fer rhétiques. Español: El tren suizo Glacier Express cruzando el puente Landwasser y entrando al viaducto del mismo nombre. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the Domleschg Valley, the train climbs to the famous Landwasser Viaduct shown above.  Constructed from stone, it is one of the world’s most famous railway viaducts and in most Swiss tourism brochures.  Built in 1902, it necessitated the development of new construction methods.  They didn’t use scaffolding.  Instead, they built steel towers and covered them in stone.  Notice the sheer drop exiting the tunnel?  Construction started there!

Unfortunately, these were the best shots I could get.  I love to take pictures and hate to sit still, but was worried about being rude leaning over people.  The guys above had no problem leaning over groups of four to film or get their shot.  After seeing everyone else out of their seats snapping away, I decided to get up and stand in an empty area.  My pictures improved dramatically.  I’ll post more about the journey tomorrow.

A Two-Minute Tour Of Antwerp

He worked the morning after the Groezrock Festival.  With afternoon flights, we didn’t have much time to enjoy Belgium.  Regardless, he wanted to see a little something on the way to the airport and we had to transfer trains in Antwerp.  He’d never been before and wanted to check it out.  We got off the train, headed to the tourist information office for a map and headed on a whirlwind walking tour of Antwerp.

Antwerp’s famous zoo is immediately outside the grand train station.  The diamond district and the Antwerp Diamond Museum are also there (Antwerp is the world’s main center for cutting and polishing diamonds).  It was an easy walk through the main shopping district to the old town.  It was a nice walk although I would have preferred a stroll and window shopping to hoofing it.  Antwerp is trendy and has tons of shops from all over.  You could spend a lot of time and money shopping there.

It was a gorgeous day and everyone was trying to take advantage of the wonderful weather.  It is in Belgium after all.   They looked like they were having a delightful time.  Passing tons of cafes, fry places, praline shops, we soooooo wanted to stop.

Unfortunately, this was the closest we got.  We had to keep moving, see the city and catch a train to get to the airport.   There was no time.  Curses!

If you look hard at the top of this picture, you can tell that only one of the two planned towers was completed. You can see it in some of the photos below.

Instead of having a wonderful Belgian beer, we went to church.  The Cathedral of Our Lady was old and pretty with a lot of paintings that we didn’t have time to properly appreciate.  They have a fair number of works by Peter Paul Rubens (whose house/studio in Antwerp is now a museum), as well as paintings by artists such as Otto van VeenJacob de Backer and Marten de Vos.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Next on the list, the Grote Markt.  It’s a jewel of a main square.  It has the Brabo fountain which has a statue of a guy throwing a hand.  I’m not kidding.  Check it out.

According to legend, a mean, nasty giant controlled the nearby river traffic.  He extorted ridiculous tolls and cut a hand off hose who refused to pay.  Silvius Brabo, a Roman soldier, managed to kill the giant by cutting off his hand and throwing it in the river.  Wonderfully ornate guild houses in the Flemish Renaissance style surround the square.

Antwerp is the second largest port in Europe.  I would have loved to sit and watch the river traffic.  We could see workers readying boats for river cruises.   I think you could spend a nice afternoon strolling the river walk or taking a cruise.  Instead, we headed back to the train station.

Heading back to the train station, we passed The Steen.  Unfortunately, this is all we got to see of t’Steen, what remains of Antwerp’s old castle.  All in all, it was a wonderful little detour.  Although there were a lot of things we didn’t get to see and do in Antwerp, we are lucky to have been able to see the things we did, especially on such a nice day.

Oh yeah, we saw a Spartan too.  Rock on.