Douro adventures

With the backdrop of the Tour de France happening in a fellow European nation not too far away, we spend our first morning in the Douro cycling through the vineyards.  Moving between vines, we appreciate that not all wine regions are the same.  The terraced Douro valley is particularly steep and manual.  The only way to strip the vines of their grapes is by hand – no machine can traverse these terraces.  We learn stories of people carrying incredibly heavy baskets up and down these hills.  We first imagine a peaceful ride through the area, but we soon learn that the slopes and the loose gravel make this morning more of an adventure and less of a stroll.  Luckily, the views have us stopping often to rest and take photos.

We seek adventure; however, we don’t always appreciate how much adventure we’re getting ourselves into.  We sign up for a three-quarter day canyoning trip near the Douro.  We’re picked up from the hotel after breakfast and driven through much of the countryside of Portugal.  We arrive at the side of the river and change into our wetsuits, harnesses and helmets, which we believe is more for form than function.  However, after only a couple meters into our excursion, we jump off a small cliff into the water.  Given my healthy fear of heights, the adrenaline high begins here and doesn’t stop until we arrive back at our car four hours later.  In-between, we repel down waterfalls, climb up waterfalls, scramble around rocks, cliff jump into river pools, and use moss-covered rocks as slides.  Not for the faint of heart.

As our reward, our guide brings with him a homemade, traditional Portuguese picnic with corn bread, cheese, sausage, and homemade wine, port and grappa.  Once we relax, we realize that we are very hungry, and truly enjoy our late afternoon picnic.

Port and cheese

Portugal’s staple foods are our favorite snack at home or abroad — cheese, bread, charcuterie, and wine.  Instead of a true dinner, one night in Lisbon we indulge in only these wonders.  From two different wine bars, one in Belem and one in Lisbon, we eat and drink and snack until we’re a little too full and very satisfied.

The cheeses come in all shapes and sizes.  There’s the swimming pool of creaminess, a.k.a. Queijo da Serra da Estrela; the pool cover is removed from the top of the cheese and replaced with a spoon to lather the nearest piece of bread.  There are harder cheese wedges, softer squares, and a pumpkin marmalade to garnish. The cheese plate at the second bar was too big to even finish.

Then there are the wines and the ports.  At 2 to 5 euros a glass, they are cheaper than most beer back home.  We start with whites such as Rabigato and Bical.  Move on to some of Portugal’s famous reds like Touriga Nacional, Baga, and Castelao.  And finally make our way to the ports — white ones, ruby ones, tawny ones, vintage ones.  We learn about the port making process, with its fortification, aging, and history.  And after sufficient tasting, we learn that we love the white tawny as an aperitif, an aged tawny as a digestif, and that in-between those times, anything goes.


Magyar Bor

French wines I knew a little about and Italian wines I knew a little about, but of Hungarian wines I knew nothing before arriving. This may be because their wine export levels are very low, but whatever the reason, Hungarian wines are very historied dating back as far as Roman times from when there are extensive records of vineyards. Today, the best known wine is Tokaji, the dessert wine. While touring the Budapest castle, Gabe and I spot a wine museum/tasting, and figure that it doesn’t hurt to explore further. We enter the museum, and maybe because the temperature was so nice in the cellar, maybe because they offered student prices, or maybe because we hadn’t enjoyed a degustation recently, we decided to tour the museum and try the wines. We sign up for the cheapest wine tasting including only three wines, but after making friends with our pourer, we received tastes of four great wines. And by tastes, we actually tried four full glasses of wine. As a result, we were more than ready for lunch upon leaving.

Budapest wine cellar

The whole event increased both our awareness and appreciation for Hungarian wines. I will attempt to provide at least a sense of the diversity and magnitude of these wines here. Within the country there are twenty two wine regions with Eger and Tokaj-Hegyalja probably being the most famous. Located in the northern part of the country, Eger produces the well known Egri Bikaver, or bulls blood of Eger along with some good whites (like the rest of the country). That said, Hungry’s most famous wine region is hands down that of Tokaj-Hegyalia located in the foothills of the Zemplen Mountains in the far north. The region provides the perfect conditions for noble rot to take place. Noble rot is caused by the friendly grey fungus called Botrytis cinerea. Under certain conditions, this “rot” can be quite harmful, but at other times, if picked correctly, grapes covered by this fungus can produce concentrated sweet wine. These botrytized, late-harvest grapes make the sweet wine that is so famous in this region. Know as Tokaji aszú, this wine was famously christened by Louis XIV of France.

Team Dégustation

Of utmost importance is how to pronounce our team name. Start out with a normal sentence like, “Right now, I am in the mood for…” or “Does anyone want to…” or “What do you think about…” or “Shall we find a…”. Make sure to prolong the last word of any of the above phrases, and then pause. Here comes the trickier part. Without mumbling and with an impeccable French accent, follow with DEGUSTATION said as quickly as possible. A benefit of mixing languages is that we get to use this word as almost any part of speech. Therefore, Team Degustation will degustation a degustation in a very degustation fashion. Degustation!

team degustation

Now for the varieties of degustation throughout the Loire Valley. There is Chenin Blanc degustation and Cabernet Franc degustation and Cabernet Sauvignon degustation and a little Chardonnay degustation. During each degustation we made sure to appreciate the color, nose, and taste of each wine. Katherine would flirt with the degustation server while Gabe and I would very gracefully swirl our degustation in our glasses. If there was a particular degustation that we enjoyed, the three of us would purchase a bottle to drink during our next picnic opportunity. Then we would be able to have a degustation picnic.

To save me the future trouble of recounting, I have used “degustation” 18 times or 7.5% of my total word usage in this entry, and I almost forgot to mention degustation means tasting in French.

Destination: Loire Valley

Bicycling through the Loire Valley occasionally stopping at vineyards and chateaus, feasting on French cuisines, and staying in cute hotels is about as enjoyable and romantic as it sounds.

Day 1: Getting to Tours

Accommodation: Hotel le Manoir in Tours

After picking up some more bread and cheese (and a couple pommes so that we felt a bit healthier), Gabe and I head towards the train station to meet up with Katherine, another friend who will be joining us at school next year. We had met Katherine only a couple brief times before, but we figure if she is brave enough to travel with us, we will probably be a fun group. We eventually find each other in the maze that is the train station, sit in a great pod on the train to Tours, and catch up on each other’s lives. After almost exiting the train at the wrong station, we make it to Tours, meet our trip manager and receive our bicycles. We have signed up for a self-guided tour and therefore are also given maps, directions, hotel names, restaurant suggestions, etc.

Tours is a cute even if touristy city. Many consider it as the main passage way from eastern to western Loire Valley. We cover most of the city after walking around for about thirty minutes, in which time we walk into the town’s 12th century cathedral and through its old city. There is a picturesque square in the old city where we find a cafe, order a couple drinks, and reflect on the French youth sitting around us.

Tours, France

Day 2: Tours to Azay le Rideau

Accommodation: Hotel de Biencourt in Azay le Rideau

Meandering through bike paths, the three of us stumble upon a small town where we find some more of the usual bread, cheese, and pommes. And after a short break, we continue on to our first chateau of the trip, Villandry. The castle is nice, but not as nice as the gardens with their well manicured mazes, vegetable gardens, and water presentations. Although most of the rooms come with descriptions of how and why they were used, we decide that it will be more fun to speculate about each room’s use. As a result, we end up passing through places such as the billiards room and the wine-tasting room. The rest of the ride takes us to Azay le Rideau, a very small and photogenic town where we enjoy a great dinner and a very nice hotel called Hotel de Biencourt.

Gabe on a bike

Villandry, Loire Valley

Day 3: Azay le Rideau to Chinon

Accommodation: Hotel Diderot in Chinon

Now with soarer butts from spending copious amounts of time aboard a bicycle, the tour through Loire continues on day three. Disappointed by our lack of degustation yesterday, we begin the day by tasting wine within the first hour of our ride. We stop at Pascal Pibaleau Vineyard, located at 68 route de Langeais just outside Azay le Rideau, and instead of trying several wines, we are poured a sample of what seems like 15 wines. The wines are locally grown, so we buy a bottle because the bottles are inexpensive and the tastings are free with a purchase. Afterwards, to be careful not to bike under the influence, we walk around the vineyard for a little while enjoying the sunshine before continuing on our way.

Next stop is Château d’Ussé. The approach to the castle is as magical as even Disney could’ve dreamed. We bike down a long straight road surrounded by green on every side and the castle growing as we near. And any castle that inspires one in a Disney movie is worth at least checking out. As we walk through the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle, we are bit concerned by the excessive use of manikins in each room, but eventually we realize that the displays help us piece together what we remember from the old movie.

After arriving in Chinon but before finding our hotel, we stop for one more degustation in a wine cellar that has been carved into the mountain next to Chinon’s large fortress. As we taste the big red Cab Franc wines from M Plouzeau Vineyard, which is located next to the Chateau de la Bonneliere, Katherine chats with the server in French and Gabe and I try to stay warm in the chilly cellar. One château, two degustations and a day filled with more bread, cheese, and pommes makes us very happy as we arrive at Hotel Diderot in Chinon , from which we can see pieces of the Vienne River.

Playing in the vineyard

Chateau d'Usse

The view from the bike

Day 4: Chinon to Saumur

Accommodation: Hotel de Londres in Saumur

We get a bit lost at the beginning of today’s journey; however, we make sure to at least keep biking in the correct direction and eventually we find the path. Our first stop is at the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud and its surrounding town, where we meet an aesthetic refugee. He enthusiastically approaches us with a book in one hand and his other outstretched, and then immediately offers that he labels himself as an aesthetic refugee. The three of look at each other, think the same thing, and then ask what exactly that means. Apparently, when he has lived in other parts of the world including northern California, walking around felt like having forks stuck in his eyes. The architecture was all haphazard, ugly, and incoherent. France on the other hand, and even more specially Fontevraud, is his escape from all that is aesthetically unpleasing. After a short talk about what makes French architecture so appealing, we part ways confused as to what has transpired because he did not try to sell us anything, convince us of anything, or capture any of our contact information.

The clouds loom as we leave this small town, but just as it starts to rain, we find another conveniently located degustation, where of course we stop for a taste. With pouring rain outside, we taste a couple more Loire Valley Cabernet Franc wines. We try to buy a bottle and set up a picnic in the winery; however, this apparently is not allowed (the picnic-ing that is). We are then forced to put on our rain gear, mount our bikes, and ride maybe 100m to the nearest cafe, where we each enjoy a hot drink with our previously purchased bread, cheese, and pommes. Our French touring meals had a very distinct pattern– bread, cheese, pommes, repeat.

We finish the afternoon by bicycling through the Saumur-Champigny vineyards before arriving at the medieval town of Saumur where we enjoy one more degustation before going to the grocery store to purchase some food for dinner at our hotel.

Wine tasting in the Loire Valley

Day 5: Leaving Saumur

Katherine, more than anyone, is a bit anxious to get back to her long lost love, Paris. Gabe and I could’ve used some more Saumur (pun intended), but we are flexible and so we all board an early train as we leave the Loire Valley behind us.

Three Amigos on Bikes

Figuring out France

Deciding where to go in France is not an easy task as France is about 80% the size of Texas, and Texas is a big state. Not only that, France also has enormous variety in its different regions and the only narrowing factor I began with was that I wanted to go somewhere that included wine. In France, this criteria is only slightly limiting. But then the challenge became to decide between the many regions that served such historied wine: Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Cotes du Rhone, Languedoc-Roussillon, Loire Valley, Provence, and Corsica. Before deciding where, in my bad habit of being distractingly methodical, I needed to figure out how I was going to pick. Should I choose based on the type of wine? Was I more interested in the big Bordeaux reds or in the classic Pinot’s from Burgundy? Should I choose based on scenery, on ease of travel, on reputation? Maybe choose Burgundy because my favorite wine tasting fact is that they have long-necked bottles, and when I see them I immediately guess Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, depending on white or red. I’m kidding about this one, but figuring out where to go was initially a struggle.

Therefore, it felt natural to take a step back and instead of deciding where to go, I should decide what I wanted to do for my tour de France. And that’s when I realized what I had just said! It’s my tour de France, and it probably makes most sense to do something that involves being on top of a bicycle. Ever since the “extra bone” in my right foot got too much for me to run, I’ve gotten more and more into cycling. Also, having lived in the Bay Area for a while, it turns out that bicycling is the thing to do, so in the year before this journey, I got myself a pair of those attractive compression shorts, a bright cycling shirt, and a bike. Taking this passion to France made a lot of sense and I was going to try and see if I could make it work. My first step, as it has been for many areas of my life recently, was to consult I found Lonely Planet’s “Cycling France”, hit Add-To-Cart, and with my Amazon Prime account, the book showed up on my doorstep two days later not having to have paid tax or shipping. (Sorry for the Amazon endorsement, but I’m a bit of a fan.)

Back to the issue at hand, I figured out how my new book was organized, stared at the map on the front cover for way too long, and continued to narrow down my options. When all else fails, my practice with standardized testing has taught me that I should start with the process of elimination. Although Champagne will always be one of my go-to drinks, the region for which this sparkling wine is named did not offer the diversity in terrain that I was looking for. Maybe if Dom Perignon was having a sale, I might be able to be convinced otherwise. I could rule out Lorraine because why go visit the side kick when I could go to the main event, Alsace. Who chooses Robin when Batman is an option? The Bordeaux region was also eliminated early because although it probably offers my favorite varietals, it will probably also be the place where many wineries require reservations and no price tag looks anywhere near reasonable. Also, the climbs in the Pyrenees region were probably more than I was hoping to scale. This left the following possibilities still in the mix: The Loire Valley, Alsace, Burgundy, and Provence. Somehow, I was I able to condense the whole of France into four regions. Now for the hard part.

A couple days after narrowing my choices down, I was watching my favorite television show, Chuck, and it became obvious. My favorite C.I.A. Agent had his next assignment take place in the Loire Valley of France. Coincidence? Probably, but I went with it anyway because at that point I needed some arbitrary way to choose.

Andiamo a Roma

After a bus ride form the Airport to Piazza Cavour in the center of Rome, I meet up with my good friend Gabe. We were both classmates at university and will be starting school together in just a couple months. But before that, we will be traveling together first bicycling through the Loire, then farming in Northern Italy, and later jumping from Amsterdam to Prague to Budapest, finally ending up touring around Sicilia.

Gabe has been living in Rome for the last year working half the time in an Italian kitchen and the other half of the time organizing elaborate Italian events and holidays. When he picks me up, he is carrying several bottles of wine that a client gifted him as a thank you. He calls up Sam, his good friend in Rome who picks up some delicious steaks and meets us at Gabe’s apartment. Both Sam and Gabe demonstrate their cooking skills as we savor the rich, full-bodied reds that complement the steaks perfectly. Rome starts as food, wine, and friends.

In the spaces between picking up some food, eating and catching up on each other’s lives, Gabe points out some of his neighbors, including the Pope. We walk through the Vatican, which happens to be the view from his apartment window, and I start to soak up the immense amount of history packed into a relatively small space. After dinner, we celebrate one of Gabe’s friend’s birthdays in the middle of the Circus Maximus, where I imagine Ben Hur racing around us. We follow this with a visit to the pub affectionately known as Mafia Bar, a hole in the wall karaoke place full of Italians that stays open well into the morning. We leave to the sun rising in the distance, pop into a bakery for fresh morning pastries, and head to sleep.

Veiw from Gabe's window
View from Gabe's window