the lake district …

When I was invited to join in on a trip to the Lake District, the thought of having to acquire the appropriate gear to cater for all sorts of weather conditions – boots, waterproof shell jackets, layers, backpacks etc – was enough to make me think twice about accepting … right up to our arrival at Keswick where we eventually stayed for 3 nights. Oh, and who knew you can put Gore-Tex into so many things 🙂

Fortunately, on the morning day of our big hike, it was dry with improving visibility and we set off on our planned 16km route from the carpark outside Braithwaite to Grisedale Pike, and afterwards, to Crag Hill where we had targeted as our break for lunch. Everything was going well until cramping in a thigh muscle and a dodgy left knee compelled us to exit the hike via an escape route that descended towards the disused but still impressive Force Crag slate mine.

Note to self: when hiking and equipped with walking poles, don’t be a stubborn arse and not use them, thus putting avoidable strain on old muscles and joints 🙂

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champagne 2022 (part 1) …

When my sister requested a guided tour of the Champagne region this summer, I didn’t need much persuasion to oblige 🙂 Logistically, it had been a nightmare to co-ordinate annual leave and modes of travel – airline and Eurostar cancellations had been de facto over the holiday period, exacerbated by railway strikes which made it challenging to travel to airports/terminals. In the end, we decided to forgo our booked Easyjet flights and plumbed for a road trip by car, catching the early morning Eurotunnel crossing from Folkestone to Calais.

That eveing, as the skies were looking threatening, we ate indoors at our usual Brasserie le Saint Jean and walked-off dinner with the steep climb to the ruins of Chateau-Thierry.

Train troubles appear not to be restricted to the UK, and having picked up a very delayed David (who had unknowingly been press-ganged into being our wine guide for the weekend!) from the station the next morning, we proceeded directly to our lunch venue at the L’Auberge de Saint-Fergeux – a foie gras farm in the grand cru village of Cramant.

Whereas lunch was a great success, the planned visits to Eric Isserlée and Isserlée Père & Fils were not – both reception rooms were unresponsive to our calls despite door signs saying ‘Ouvert’. Fortunately, en route to our next stop, David spotted a busy visitors car park at Champagne Waris Hubert in Avize so we stopped for an impromtu, rather pricey, and frankly uninspiring 2-glass tasting at our first 100% grand cru village in Champagne.

After the customary if not obligatory promenade (or in our case, a drive!) along the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, admiring the distinct and lavish champagne houses on both sides of the road, we headed for the charming and my favourite hilltop village of Hautvillers – the resting place of one Dom Perignon, a monk of the Benedictine order and colloquailly given the title of father of champagne after having perfected the methode traditionelle of achieving a second fermentation in the bottle, thus giving champagne the nice, lovely bubbles that we have become accustomed to.

In the vinyards at Hautvillers, we discussed the French obsession about terroir, the fact that champagne can be made from three main grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Nor and Pinot Meunier), and that the classification for quality is based on the village where the grapes are grown – compared to say Bordeaux where the marker for quality is based on the property itself, which in turn is different to Alsace where it is based on the vineyard. For geekiness sake, I will be appending the lists of the grand cru and premier cru villages below. Oh … and if you’re wondering about my gesture in the photo, it was in response to the bet of a bottle of champagne that I had lost to David on a bit of champagne trivia … I was mistekenly convinced that there were more than 2 villages who have concurrently grand cru and premier cru classsifications for both white and red grapes but it turns out only Chouilly and Tours-sur-Marne qualify 😦

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Grand-Cru Villages

  • Ambonnay
  • Avize
  • Ay
  • Beaumont-sur-Vesle
  • Bouzy
  • Chouilly
  • Cramant
  • Louvois
  • Mailly Champagne
  • Le Mesnil-sur-Oger
  • Oger
  • Oiry
  • Puisieulx
  • Sillery
  • Tours-sur-Marne
  • Verzenay
  • Verzy

Premier-Cru Villages

  • Avenay-Val-d’Or
  • Bergères-lès-Vertus
  • Bezannes
  • Billy-le-Grand
  • Bisseuil
  • Chamery
  • Champillon
  • Chigny-les-Roses
  • Chouilly en pinot noir
  • Coligny (Val-des-Marais) en chardonnay
  • Cormontreuil
  • Coulommes-la-Montagne 
  • Cuis
  • Cumières
  • Dizy
  • Écueil
  • Etrechy en chardonnay
  • Grauves
  • Hautvillers
  • Jouy-lès-Reims
  • Ludes
  • Mareuil-sur-Ay
  • Les Mesneux 
  • Montbré
  • Mutigny
  • Pargny-lès-Reims
  • Pierry
  • Rilly-la-Montagne
  • Sacy
  • Sermiers
  • Taissy
  • Tauxières
  • Tours-sur-Marne en chardonnay
  • Trépail
  • Trois-Puits
  • Vaudemange
  • Vertus
  • Villedommange
  • Villeneuve-Renneville
  • Villers-Allerand
  • Villers-aux-Nœuds
  • Villers-Marmery
  • Voipreux
  • Vrigny

capricious capri …

If retail therapy is your purpose to visit the island then the swanky boutiques on the main throughfare of Capri town will not disappoint … but you will first need to find your way to the funicular to take you uphill and leave behind the chaos at the port where hoards of day-trippers will be trying to locate the correct pier for boats to various destinations around the island.

As for us, we were in Capri for the Blue Grotto – a sea cave or water karst landform that is predominantly found in limestone coastal areas. But there was a predicted problem with our round-island ticket which included a programmed stop at the entrace to the grotto … and after circling the island and passing through the impressive I Faraglioni (Love Arch) and by Anacapri in the distance, the boat continued back to the port! After pointing out the rather important ommission in the itinerary to the crew, we were instructed to wait for the later direct ferry, which was scheduled to depart after lunch.

The Blue Grotto was truly fantastic! We were the first couple to transfer onto a smaller craft from our ferry – a wooden rowboat with a maximum capacity for 4 (excluding the oarsman) and sitting low enough on the water to allow it to be violently hauled through the narrow openning into the cavern. Once inside, it takes a second or two for your eyes to become accustomed to the darkness before you are lulled into a dreamy state of Azure-blueness while the skipper serenades you with Neopolitan folk songs. And to give you a better appreciation of what our senses were subjected to, I’ve included a 360° video clip of the experience where you can pan and change your POV at your leisure.

https://photos.google.com/photo/AF1QipNcP94yoPUvKQ_eN122MdC3FCWzwKYZDLb_f2UX

I had previously sold Capri to Mei as a place of luxury white-washed villas, sitting on lush terraces with gardens full of bourgainvillia and hibiscus, and orchards laden with pommegranites and figs. But the earlier confusion with the ferry meant we only had a couple of hours to explore the Giardini di Augusto with stunning views of the Faraglioni rock and the Via Tragara – a quiet, tree-lined lane which leads to the Belvedere scenic point overlooking the glorious Marina Piccola.

sorrentine birthday girl …

One word conjures up Sorrento … lemons! Whether on trees in the Giardini di Cataldo, in drink (the limoncello shop Limonoro is a must visit!), in soap and fragrances, or indeed in print on the beach towels, table cloths and dresses sold in the quaint shopping alleyways, the mighty lemon is omnipresent in all aspects of this town’s daily life.

In our quest to find a birthday dinner venue that incorporated lemons, we stumbled across Ristorante Pizzeria Tasso – but ended the evening disappointed on two counts: firstly, the lemon shrimp risotto we were promised by the English usher who persuaded us to make a booking the previous evening did not make an appearance, and secondly, when you order the pricey tasting menu on the advice of the restaurant manager -the dishes are ‘made from whatever chef found in the market that morning’ – we did not expect to be presented with a sample of dishes which we could have individaully ordered from the a la carte menu 😦

Our base at the Hotel Angelina was only a 25 minute walk to the centre of Sorrento along cute but well-lit alleys that brought us to the dramatic coastline of Sant Agnello, offering great views from the terrace and warm waters to (literally) dip our feet!

But the highlight of Sorrento has to be the Tavern Allegra, where we dined on two occasions, thus breaking a travel rule of not eating at the same venue more than once during the same trip. We found the service here to be personal and familial, the wine advice reliable, and the food deserving of the excellent online reviews, especially the spaghetti alla vongole which was simply divine.

And when we were not climbing trees in the park, or taking the steep steps to and from the ferry port, a tank of Peroni beer adequately lubricated the brain cells to plan our next escape from a hot and humid Sorrento … to the magical Isle of Capri.

the amalfi coast revisited …

When we last visited in 2007, I swore to never attempt the suicidal drive along the Amalfi coast again … so this time, in the air-conditioned comfort of a minivan and under the careful guidance of Robbie and ‘husband’-cum-driver Pasquale on the 1-day Amalfi Coast group tour from Sorrento, we were finally able to fully appreciate the splendour and beauty of the towns of Positano, Amalfi and Ravello … and the drive back to Sorrento via the SP1 mountain road, giving us stunning views of Vesuvius and suburban Naples.

Positano, in addition to being uber charming, is also known for its high quality linen – so having purchased the obligatory presents for grand nieces/nephew, we fought our way through tourists and porters, snapping the picturesque alleys of overhanging wisteria and bougainvillier, stopping for a granita to cool down in the 32°C heat before heading down to the black sanded beach to catch our ferry to Amalfi. Positano may be the epitome of postcard prettiness, but as I shared my previous observation with a fellow traveller in our group, it is best appreciated from the sea.

The town of Amalfi once boasted a population of over 70,000 until the Venetian Republic and a tsunami in 1343 reduced it to no more than local importance. Today, only St Andrew’s cathedral provides a compelling reason to visit. On the other hand, a street food lunch of fritto misto from Cuoppo d’Amalfi satisfied our hunger and a less traditional but super expensive lemon sorbet equally quenched our thirst.

The 25-minute drive to the hilltop town of Ravello invariably involved one-way traffic controls on very narrow roads and numerous hairpin bends. Despite the paralysing heat from the scorching afternoon sun, the mood in our minivan was lifted by Bocelli’s Con te partirò (Time to Say Goodbye) wafting from the minivan’s speakers, luring us into an emotional grand finale to our tour. After a brisk walk around town, passing Villa Rufolo which is now home to the Ravello Festival (aka Wagner Festival – it was here that the composer felt most inspired when writing the Parsifal), we sought refuge under the shade of the abundant umbrella trees surrounding the main square … but not before we were randomly photo-bombed by a tourist!

The drive back to Sorrento afforded great views of lush, green mountain tops, vineyards and the unmistakable double-peaked sleeping volcano that is Mount Vesuvius … and as I continued snapping the beautiful landscape, Mei had already begun to wonder about dinner 🙂

auxerre …

I last visited this town some 20 years ago but the memory of the tagine we enjoyed in one of the many morrocan restaurants here still fills me with anticipation! This time, the visit was short and served as a convenient lunch stop/break (at Chez Louise) on our way back to Paris.

Auxerre has not changed much, but somehow the colombage (half-timerbered) houses now seem to ooze more charm than I remember.

from white gold to golden wine …

A last minute panic to find a COVID test centre brought us to Salins-les-Bains where the presence of salty waters here – explained by the existence of a sea which covered Jura over 210 million years ago – became salty through contact with rock salt and then, by pressure, rose up naturally on surface to give birth to salty springs. The salt or so called “white gold”, obtained by evaporation, accounted for half of the region’s income and rose to became the second town of the region Franche-Comté.

No trip to the Jura is complete without a detour to the mecca of vins jaunes – Château-Chalon. The town itelsf sits proud atop terraced gardens and provides commanding views across a patchwork of vineyards below.

Jura’s vins jaunes – of which Château-Chalon is considered the finest example – are unique to the region and must be made exclusively from Savagnin grapes which are late harvested (but not botrytized) to ensure maximum ripeness and flavour. Often compared to sherry, vins jaunes are oxidatively aged under a blanket (or voile) of naturally developing yeasts.

Just for the sake of frivolity, we ventured as far as Lons-le-Saunier, home of la vache qui rit or laughing cow cheese. Here, we discovered that Swiss researchers (who had finessed the pasturisation process to ensure the resulting soft chesse can travel) and pioneering product marketing strategies of the founding Bel family (who had based the logo on a travelling meat wagon during the first World War called “La Wachkyrie”, itself a play on the word for Valkyrie) created a global brand that is as infamous for taste as it is famous for covenience.

chasing waterfalls …

The Jura is known for vin jaune and Comté cheese but where you have mountains, you invariably find waterfalls … and the ones here didn’t disappoint especially when there hasn’t been much rainfall recently.

Baume-les Messieurs is undoubtedly the jewel in the Jura crown and we ended a long day of mountain hiking with ice cream at the cirque – a horseshoe shaped canyon just a short drive from this pretty village.

cave art …

No trip to Perigord is complete without a visit to see the (replica) parietal wall paintings at Lascaux dating back to the Magdalenian era some 20,000 years ago i.e. about 15,000 years before the Egyptians figured out how to build pyramids and long before the Chinese worked out how to eat with two bamboo sticks. Artistic composition, IMHO, hasn’t progressed much since 😉