Monday, March 23, 2015

Champagne supernova

On Saturday, we headed out of Reims and took the scenic route to Epernay, trying to follow the Route des Vins as much as possible (tricky since it wasn't signposted out of Reims, so we just headed towards a village that seemed good and picked it up at some random point along the way). Saturday wasn't quite as wonderfully sunny as Friday, but we still got some nice weather, especially for our lunch in Hautvillers, which was nice.

Stopped off at some random point on the road and hiked up to an old church on a hill (unfortunately closed) to take a few snapshots:

A pretty cool photo, if I do say so myself! It looks like we were up really early in the morning, but this is actually slightly later than the photo below, it was just really hazy down in the valley. Pity the vines are still bare!

I look like I'm wearing a romper

Pensive moment in the vineyard (or am I just trying to get my hair out of my eyes?)




We stopped off in Hautvillers and visited the grave of Dom Perignon himself, which was fun although the abbey where he's buried isn't otherwise especially noteworthy. But our lunch on the terrace at Au 36 was a highlight. The staff were actually very friendly and accommodating, which of course is not always the case in France, we shared two glasses of champers (plus an extra for me) for a very reasonable price, and they served up a delicious tapas-style selection of Reims specialities. The pâté en croute, boudin blanc and mini potato and ham galettes were to die for. And that giant pink thing on the side was a rose and raspberry macaron! Jules had the slightly less exciting duck platter, but I did let him try all of mine, so he didn't come out of it too badly.

Lunch

Wine tasting at Hautvillers - we tried chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier-based champagnes - it was interesting how different they tasted, with the pinot noir my favourite. Most champagnes are actually blends of two or three of these grapes ("assemblages")
Once in Epernay, we headed to the famous Avenue de Champagne, home of many prestigious champagne houses. Unfortunately it seems we were a little early in the season, as all of the beautiful ones pictured below seemed to be closed and were shut away behind elaborate wrought-iron gates (I poked my camera through). It still made for impressive viewing though, and it was nice not to be surrounded by coach-loads of tourists.

This one was the nicest, I think it's Perrier

The town hall

Part of Moët and Chandon's massive property, on both sides of the street. If you ever doubted there's money to be made in champagne, just come here and see the magnificent palaces the big houses occupy
We stopped for a tasting at one of the only places that seemed to be open, A. Bergère, and enjoyed a zero dose champagne in the sunshine and peace and quiet. I'm a little bit obsessed with zero dose sparkling wines, since having a fantastic (but, frustratingly, not for sale) zero dose Montlouis at the Tours wine festival. If you don't know, dosage is the amount of sugar added to the wine in the final stage, after they take the sediment out and before they put the cork on. Brut, the standard dosage you probably drink most often, can have up to 15 grams of residual sugar per litre, whereas zero dose (also called Brut Nature) has no added sugar and no more than 3 grams total. Apparently back in the day people used to like their champagnes ridiculously sweet - with up to 50 grams of sugar per litre, but tastes have changed and more and more winemakers are experimenting with low or zero dosages. This is apparently aided by climate change producing grapes with more natural sugar in them, thus eliminating the need for added dosage. The A. Bergère champers wasn't my favourite of the trip (that would be the 2004 Joseph Perrier we had at Le Foch) but it was interesting and I'd definitely love to try some more - I hate sweet wine!

Me and my zero dose
We then took a tour of de Castellane, which was not a name I recognised, but you've probably seen the white bottles with a red diagonal cross on them. They also have a very pretty building with a 66 metre-high tower (which we walked up, exhausting) - a former water tower. It was an interesting contrast to the tour I took of Taittinger with my sister. That basically just shows you the chalk cellars and it all looks very traditional and oldy-worldy. Although you go into the caves at de Castellane as well, you also tour through their factory and get to see the modern process of how champagne is made today. It would be interesting (although I suppose noisy) to see it during the week, when the factory is actually operational. They bottle a phenomenal amount each day, I can't remember how much, but tens of thousands of bottles every day from just one champagne house, and not even a particularly big-name one (although I think it is a very solid mid-range supermarket champagne).

Outside de Castellane


We walked up a horrible spiral starcase to the first level of windows in the octagonal turret


I love my champagne friend!
View from the top - not hugely scenic, but the river was an amazing green colour
We capped off the evening with a tasting of six champagnes (between us) at C comme Champagne. I was really hoping for more of a guided/commented dégustation, which we didn't really get across the whole weekend. In fairness though, the bartender did give us a quick rundown of what we would be tasting at the beginning and then answered some of the questions we had. For example, I finally learned what makes some sparkling wines bubblier than others. It's not the amount of yeast or sugar, as I had thought, but how long they are aged. Wines that are aged for longer will have more delicate and fewer bubbles than younger wines. The barman sniffily commented that that's why Alsace wines are particularly bubbly - "they don't age them at all, amateurs". That actually makes sense to me, because I prefer finer bubbles and it does seem that you are more likely to get that with a more expensive wine, which of course means that the vinter has to be able to afford and have the space to keep the wines in the cellar for longer.

Our selection of champagnes for the evening
After getting up before 6 am on Sunday to watch the first (sadly, dull) F1 race of the season, we returned to C comme Champagne and A Bergere to make some purchases with the car on hand to haul our booty away, and then we headed back to Brussels so that Jules would have the time for a rest before having to drive back to Luxembourg (poor thing). On the way, probably the most exciting part of our mini break happened - an encounter with the largest wild boar in the world!!

His name is Woinic, he weighs 50 tonnes and was made out of steel by one dude pretty much just as a hobby over 11 years.


Pretty awesome



Excitement levels were very high for this boar encounter, I can tell you. What better way to finish off a lovely anniversary weekend?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Reims dreams

Can you believe last week was my one-year anniversary with Jules? Me, who looked most likely to die alone eaten by Bobby (the cat)? I know, me neither. It's been a great year, although obviously complicated by my moving to another country two plus hours away. Which sucks, but has some upsides. Like, with summer around the corner, I've decided to pretend that weekends in Luxembourg are me going to my rural retreat (it helps that Jules's apartment is awesome and has a huge terrace I'm dying to be served cocktails on). Who doesn't want to be cool enough to have a little pied à terre in an exotic European country? I can merrily pretend to be rich enough to be engaging in a little light tax evasion in my Luxembourgish pad, much fun.

So we decided to celebrate this milestone in style with a trip to that most festive of regions, Champagne. We took Friday off work and made a beeline from Luxembourg to Reims on a beautiful sunny day, to have an anniversary lunch at Le Foch, the restaurant I dined in with my sister when we visited back in 2011. In fact, Le Foch was really why we stayed a night in Reims - I had initially thought of doing two nights in Epernay, but I wanted to have lunch there and I didn't want Jules to have to worry about driving afterwards. It turned out pretty well, since there's not all that much to see in Epernay other than champagne houses (which are pretty cool) and we also had a nice drive between the two cities - but more on that next time.
In front of an unfortunately-scaffolded Reims cathedral - not a cloud in the sky

A row of different animal gargoyles

Beautiful arches recede into the distance inside the cathedral


I don't have anything appropriate to say about this. Let's just say you wouldn't get into a white van with this on the side (it says "Don't be afraid" by the way)
We had a more modest five courses this time (plus amuse-bouches and petits fours - there was also a cheese course but I didn't put a photo of that because it just looked like cheese), as opposed to the seven or eight of the full dégustation I did with my sister.
Amuses-bouche: foie gras and apple pannacotta, parmesan sablé and the most delicious tuna (? tasted like hamburger but I think he said tuna) with a pickle gêlée on top

Rabbit cannelloni - weirdly tasted nothing like rabbit, more like tuna (tuna confusion all round) but tasty

Red mullet

Venison with puree and acidic turnips - you wouldn't think a turnip would be so delicious, Baldrick would have a field day

Chocolate feuilletine with spun sugar: soooo good and crunchily delicious

After the cheese course, a pear wine smoothie

Not looking awkward
Lunch lasted about three hours, then we still had some time to walk around Reims a bit and visit Le Vergeur museum.

Le Vergeur museum
This 13th-16th century building houses the collections of Hugues Krafft, the rich scion of a champagne-cultivating family who owned the house in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a keen traveller, photographer and artist who was passionate about both preserving Reims history (he salavaged many pieces from the ruins after WWI) and collecting items from his travels in central and east Asia. Surprisingly, from the limited number of his own works on display in the house, he was also quite a gifted photographer. I suppose you always think these types will be a bit dilettantish and do these things because they have the leisure and money to, not because of any particular talent, but I was impressed. The house was left more or less as it was in his lifetime, at his request, so it offers a different perspective than your traditional museum. It's accessible (I think) only by guided tour. We were the only ones on the tour, which was nice, and our guide was very informative and knowledgeable.

AND there's a collection of some 50 original Dürer woodcuts and engravings. My favourites, the Apocalypse series, were taken from a book printed in 1511, but which was subsequently unbound so that you can see all of the woodcuts at once. It was incredible that these were 500 years old but looked just like new, and they were actually presented in a normally-lit room, not the semi-darkness you often find with old books and manuscripts. They reminded me a lot of the Apocalypse tapestries at Angers. No photos were allowed inside the museum, especially of the woodcuts of course, but there's some photos on the website here and I would recommend checking it out if you're in Reims - not too big either, so you don't get exhausted!

PS I know "Reims dreams" only rhymes if you mispronounce Reims. Or dreams.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

We even have the sun in Belgium

"We even have the sun in Belgium" - that's what my boss says every time the sun appears, which is actually more often than the dire stories about Brussels weather would have you believe. He also says "see you later alligator, after a while crocodile" (yes, both halves) almost every time he leaves a room. The 90s are alive and well here in Brussels.

While winter wasn't particularly onerous this year - I think it snowed three or four times here, without really sticking - I am a happy camper because Spring is most definitely springing! Today it was sunny and 16 degrees, perfect weather to explore the EU quarter and even enjoy an icecream in the park.

Buildings around the Schuman/Ambiorix/Marie-Louise area

Lots of countries have their embassies around Marie-Louise Square, although I don't know if this is one


The EU parliament building


Parc Leopold II

Place Marie-Louise - I looked at an apartment in one of the (less attractive) buildings facing the square. Spacious but pricey!



Statue in Place Marie-Louise


Did you know there's a piece of the Berlin Wall outside the EU parliament?
Yesterday was also nice, and we started off the day with a visit to the newly-opened Chagall exhibition at the Musée des Beaux Arts. This runs until the end of June, so if you're planning a trip to Brussels in the next few months, it's worth a look. It includes over 200 works, so definitely substantial without being overwhelming. There were a few too many people there, on the second weekend it's been open, but not too crowded. And since we're friends of the museum, we got to go for free :) Our favourite works were the series of illustrations he did for the fables of La Fontaine - I'm currently in the middle of collecting a faience dinner series also featuring the fables, so it was cool to see them in a different medium. I'm just sorry they didn't have prints of them for sale in the gift shop!

One of the illustrated fables. Source
After the museum, we walked down to Place Saint Catherine to try Ellis Gourmet Burger; Pretty good, although I had a bit of burger envy since I think Jules's bacon burger was a touch tastier than my chicken burger. I was too scared to order the bacon burger since in these fancy places I always worry they'll come out bloody unless I order well done, in which case it'll probably be fried to a crisp. But Jules's medium-cooked burger was actually fine.

We were also in the neighbourhood last week, to grab a bite at Nordzee (quality was a bit off this time) and do some shopping. We used to drive in to the centre, but this week and last we took the metro and it is actually really fun to wander around on foot and not have to worry about parking and finding our way (particularly for poor Jules). It was sunny last weekend too, and we walked up from Saint-Catherine to the Mont des Arts. Brussels isn't walkable the way somewhere like Tours is, of course, but it is actually really easy to walk around large chunks of the centre. Yay for compact European capitals!

View of Brussels from the Mont des Arts


The Old England building, which now houses a museum of musical instruments

On the tenth floor of the museum is a terrace which you can access without paying for the museum. We went up and took some photos, but it was really crowded and smelt like eggs, so we didn't stay for a drink. Maybe if you're looking for a spot to chill mid-week though

Buildings on the way up the Mont des Arts

Going back in time a little bit, the most notable things to happen in my life of late (explaining the radio silence on the blog) are that Jules fixed my shower - THANK GOD, because I suffered through a whole winter of a shower with all the power of the Mannekin Pis and frequent cold spells thrown in to boot. If only I'd known that all it needed was the head changing, we would have done it long ago! But I thought it must be something more serious (plus it got steadily worse over time), since I still don't understand how that affected the temperature?? And thing number two, I got a chic table and bar stools to sit in the corner of my living room so I don't have to always eat my meals on the couch like an animal. (I mostly still eat my meals on the couch like an animal, but I like looking at my fancy new table.) Here it is bedecked with roses and champagne on Valentine's Day (lucky me!)


And just to underline the lovely weather we're having at the moment, a couple of photos of the snow in Luxembourg from a month or so ago. Pretty, but I'll be glad to enjoy some more sunshine and blue skies from now on!

Walking the dogs on a sunny but cold day in Luxembourg

Early-morning panoramic view from Jules's back terrace

 Okay, that's a wrap! I am out of the habit a bit of doing these sorts of everyday posts, but then I thought life in Brussels is not every day for everyone, so maybe some of you will be interested in what there is to see and do in these parts (thinking especially of my mum and sister who will be visiting separately and sans moi over summer!) Very excited for March, trips to Champagne and Tours coming up, followed by Easter travels in Alsace, Freiburg and Lake Constance. Yay!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Boxing, chocolate and tombs: Marrakech days three and four

I'll try to wrap up my last two days in Marrakech this time. On Tuesday our first port of call was the Bahia Palace, built in the late 19th century by one of the Sultan's Grand Viziers and dedicated to one of his wives. As with the Museum of Marrakech, it seems like there's going to be more to see than there actually is. As with all the other buildings we visited, the elaborately-decorated walls and ceilings are beautiful, but there wasn't anything else in there to see.

The courtyard of the Bahia Palace - hard to photograph due to all the greenery


Ceiling in the palace



More ceiling
So again, it was pretty early when we left the palace and set out for the Saadian tombs. First we stopped off in a shop where I wanted to buy a little present for Jules. In another of those trademark magic Marrakech moments we've all come to know and love, Liz and I had a whispered conversation as to whether the shopkeeper was watching porn on his laptop. We couldn't see anything, but some of the noises going on where a little explicit. In the end, we decided it was probably a sex scene in a movie rather than porn, as the background noises changed to something else, but it was still a bit dodgy.

For some reason, we still persisted with the transaction, and here was my chance to bargain. There are no price-tags or anything, so I just fixed an idea in my head of how much I wanted to pay and was surprised when the guy's opening offer came in well below that. I still bartered him down a bit for form's sake, but I didn't bother pushing too hard. It wasn't until after we left the shop and Liz remarked I'd given in easily that I realised it was actually ten times what I thought I was paying. D'oh! You'd think I'd be able to keep in my mind a (rough) exchange rate of 1 euro to 10 dirhams, but apparently not.

We then proceeded to get pretty lost in the Mellah and Kasbah neighbourhoods trying to find the Saadian tombs. One guy was very insistent that we turn left down a certain street, but with the help of a map, we were sure we should go right. Right turned out, as he had said, to lead not only to a dead-end but also a large refuse heap. And then we had to go back past him to get out again, giving him the opportunity to say "I told you so". Ironically, however, he was *still* lying about the way to go - the tombs were actually hidden away back the way we came.

The 12th Century Bab Agnaou gate, near the Kasbah mosque and Saadian tombs

The Kasbah mosque

Me, rocking it
First, a quick lunch break at the trendy-looking Kasbah café directly opposite the tomb entrance:

Lunch

Liz and me at lunch

I was a little obsessed with the storks we could see from the roof terrace


View from the roof terrace where we had lunch. The Saadian tombs are back there
And then on to the tombs themselves. Again, smaller and less interesting than you might have thought, but with some pretty decorations. They date to the 16th century but were only rediscovered and restored in 1917. About 60 members of the Saadi Dynasty are buried here, although there certainly aren't 60 tombs on display.

Inside the Saadian tombs

Now home to kitties

The 'room with the twelve columns', the most beautiful of the tombs, houses the grave of the sultan's grandson



Shortly after taking this photo, this turtle totally bailed off the side of the tomb and then tried to style it out by eating grass with his bum sticking up in the air

Full disclosure, this is where it gets mildly embarrassing. Remember how before I said we stumbled across a supermarket selling Galaxy chocolate out near the Jardins Majorelle? Well, we just saw the little bars they keep by the checkout to tempt you with, and for whatever reason, we just grabbed one milk and one caramel bar each. (I don't know what Liz was thinking, I'm pretty sure I just didn't want to grab a hundred bars and look like a massive pig in front of an actual thin person.) But when it came to eating the chocolate back in the hotel, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth that we missed the chance to get more. So it was that we ended up spending a pretty big chunk of the rest of the day trekking back out to the suburbs to go in search of more Galaxy chocolate.

Remember that Simpsons episode where Homer sues the all-you-can-eat seafood place and then Marge breaks down on the stand describing how they drove around looking for somewhere else to eat and finally went fishing? Yeah, it was pretty much like that.



(Can't find the whole clip, unfortunately.)

We walked back into the city from the supermarket, in the Guéliz district. This was where we got the most hassle, and it was even more disturbing when the guys were following us because it was just a non-descript suburban area with no clues as to where we were or where we were going. Eventually, though, we did end up back walking through the souks to Jemaa el Fna. We ended up in one shop where the guy had a whole wall of photos of famous people who had visited his shop. For some reason, the three he pointed out to us in particular were John Major, Jimmy Carter, and... Michael Stipe. Well, why not?

By the way, as well as being stalked by random men, everywhere I went in Marrakech I was also stalked by shoe-shine men. They ignored Liz's trainers of course, but were drawn like catnip to my admittedly slipshod boots. They would clap their brushes together and call out to you, starting out with the innocuous call of "shoe-shine, shoe-shine" but then progressing on to "your shoes are dirty!", "you need to clean your shoes!" which would just crack Liz and me up. It was true, my shoes were dirty, and I'm a disgrace to my family. But I wasn't about to get them shined in Marrakech where the next minute they'd probably end up filthy again. It did have the effect of making me buy some shoe polish for once in my life when I got home though!

Nut seller in the souks
As evening drew in, we grabbed a drink on a terrace with a great view of the square down below. As night falls, it gets ever livelier, with everything from acrobats to amateur boxing going on, and best of all, being up on the terrace means you can watch it all without being accosted or having to cough up money for the privilege.
View of Jemaa el Fna from the roof terrace (roof terraces are big there)

At night you could really see clouds of smoke rising up over the square



A taste of the atmosphere in Jemaa el Fna (sorry, they get pretty blurry when Blogger compresses them, but it's mostly for the general noise and so on):

video

Acrobats performing in the square:

video

The amateur boxing match - which lasted about two minutes, as opposed to the hyping of the event which was about twenty. Liz and I had much discussion about whether one of the fighters was a woman. I think yes, on video evidence, right? I'm not sure who won, but the whole thing seemed a lot flailier than a professional bout.

video



Liz went home early on Wednesday, and as I said, I'd had enough of the hassle by then, so I spent my day getting a massage in the morning (the woman spent a disappointingly large proportion of the time massaging my legs - outside of a sports massage, surely everyone just wants back? - and threw in a bit of gratuitous boob-touching, but otherwise it was okay) and then just sitting in the sun on the terrace at the hotel, reading and drinking wine. Frankly, I needed a bit of R&R (and sunshine!) at this stage.

Action donkey shot from when I ventured out in search of food

A glimpse of the mountains behind the markets on my last full day

Then on Thursday, it was time to wend my way home, not too sorry to see the back of the place, as you will have gathered, but with lots of stories to tell!