Monday, November 26, 2012

The Wine Cruise

Town center, Bordeaux

We have worked our way south from England, stopping in northeast France for two days, then two days in the Bordeaux wine region, two days in Bilbao, Spain and today we've landed at Vigo, still in Spain.

They call this an immersive wine cruise, but so far they've only served it in glasses and there isn't nearly enough in those to immerse yourself. To compensate we have done our best to drink as many of those glasses as we can.

Our first stop was Le Havre, which is a pretty dull port city. I am pretty sure even the City Elders realize this because the sign at the port brags that you are in Le Havre, gateway to Paris. Kind of like Hoboken bragging that it's close to New York.

This is the logical port to take some longish day trips to Normandy or Mount St Michel. We passed on both. I have been to many battlefields in my day, and have found myself completely unable to benefit from the experience. Where others see high ground and low ground and military advantage, I see hills and trees and beaches. My experience is almost always from reading the signs or books that go along with it. For that, it's not worth a long drive.

As for beautiful Mt St Michel, LK told me you had to walk about a mile from the parking area (which my London training made possible) but then you have to walk up about 300 steps - you know, like walking to the top of a 17-story building. Since LK didn't volunteer to carry me, I decided no old building is that beautiful.

So instead we walked around Le Havre, saw this amazing piece of architecture and realized that it ranked among the least attractive buildings we have ever seen. Its chief benefit seemed to be that it took your attention away from the rest of the city, which was very plain indeed. As our guide in Medoc the next day explained, "Le Havre was full of communists and they built it to look like East Germany."  Since this Frenchman's name was Boris, I took it that he knew what he was talking about.

Boris did give us a nice tour of the Medoc section of the Bordeaux wine region. We took three winery tours and discovered that all of them use big vats, oak barrels and machines that separate the stems of the grapes from "the berries", as they call them.

We also got to taste some beautiful red wine at these places, and unlike the Australian and American wineries, these folks weren't pitching to sell you some extra bottles. In fact, only one of them even had any you could buy since the other two used the traditional French system of selling their wine by the barrelsful to wine buyers who then did the bottling and marketing.

A great part of the day was meeting our new bff's, Dave and Beth. They are both optometrists (a flock of geese, a  herd of cows, a murder of crows, a spectacle of optometrists?) from North Carolina.  And they join a list of people who have made our travels so much more fun - Robert and Jaki, Wally and Judy, Tony and David - people who are interesting, make us laugh and always order another drink.

New bff's Dave and Beth at Chateau Phelan Segur

The four of us were on the same shuttle bus the next day to the city of Bordeaux and we ended up walking around the city together. The problem was that we had to return to the bus by 2:15 since the ship was departing that afternoon. Well, that wasn't really the problem. The problem was that almost everything worth seeing in Bordeaux didn't open until 2:00.

So we walked through the shopping district, skipped the river walk which would be lovely in the summer but was cold and windy on a gray November day, checked out a 13th century cathedral, and then gave up on trying to be good tourists and had some drinks at 11:30 until the restaurants opened at 12:30. By now you may be getting an inkling of why Dave and Beth are our new bff's.

To be fair, I am pretty sure Bordeaux would be a lovely place to visit in warm weather and without a tight deadline. And I should add that the restaurant we visited was lovely, and its sole English-speaking staffer wanted to be sure I wanted tripe for lunch making me realize that it has now been 47 years since I last studied French.

The next day brought us to Spain and a wonderful reunion with some long-time bff's. But this is long enough today. Bilbao and Vigo reports next time.

Also - as is typical this expensive and slow shipboard online system makes it impossible to upload photos. We will put them all up on Shutterfly when we are back on land.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The New Season Begins

Not Cherbourg. These are the umbrellas of Borough Market.

Welcome to Season Five of Fourth Quarter

(Deep Announcer Voice) "Previously on Fourth Quarter:"

Cut to DK on the floor after installing the TV. Close up of DK trying to figure out how to stand up from that position.
Cut to DK walking in the woods, iPod buds in his ears, looking completely lost, tripping over a tree root.
Cut to DK standing on one leg in front of the TV, with the Wii exercise trainer saying, "You are a little unsteady. That's not good for your back."
Cut to DK hurting his finger as he attempts to repair a toaster.
Cut to DK getting his hair cut and being somewhat surprised when the barber puts the mirror behind his head and he cannot see any hair there.
Cut to DK limping badly as he drags luggage through an Italian train station as LK says, "This isn't the stop for Venice."
Close-up of LK in Greenwich saying, "We've got to start walking more and get in shape."
Close-up of LK in Kingston saying, "We've got to start walking more and get in shape."

(Deep Announcer Voice) "And now, Season Five of Fourth Quarter."


"Donald, we've got to start walking more and get in shape," LK said to me before we flew out of Hobart last weekend. I appreciate the theory. Like all older people, I have learned the benefit of walking - more stamina, better lung power, increased flexibility. And like most older people, I also have learned that the leg muscles ache more than when you were younger and they wait to have their greatest revenge when you're sound asleep - which also happens earlier than usual because you're so bloody tired from walking.

Nonetheless, as we begin another of our epic tours of the world, LK has approached this walking business with the relentless insistence of a drill sergeant. We are in London for a few days before getting on a wine immersion cruise (much more about that later).

On Day One, we needed to visit a shop to get some things we had left behind. Turns out the nearest one was 1.2 miles (almost 2 kM) away in Covent Garden. "We can walk there," she said. And she was right. London's pretty flat, the weather was cool enough to make it ideal for walking.

"You know we've got to walk more to get in shape before our tour," she added.

Into the season at Covent Garden

So we walked. I discovered that it is possible to raise a sweat in 50 degree weather and that even walking on flat land my legs can start aching. It was OK, though, and we forgot about all that pretty quickly when we discovered that the markets at Covent Garden were in full holiday swing. It was fun and ultimately tasty, as we couldn't resist taking some of this incredible paella they were making as we wandered by.

We had decided to grab a show at one of the nearby theatres and after wandering aimlessly, we finally bought a newspaper and checked out what was playing. We were in the mood for an oldie-but-goodie -- Phantom of the Opera -- and got excited to see that Spamalot had just re-opened the day before.

Finding a half-price ticket booth, we scored the quinella. Cheap seats to the 2:30 matinee of Phantom and cheap seats (only six rows back!) to the evening Spamalot.

"We can walk to the theatre," LK decided. Which was fine, except my left hip started aching, my right calf started cramping (the same muscle that I had torn during the Venice trip so I was a bit careful when I felt it twinging). So baby steps (or, more properly, old man steps) through Trafalgar Square to Her Majesty's Theatre for Phantom. It was fun to see it again, even if it seemed a bit like watching a movie you loved 20 years ago and finding it not quite the same as you recalled.

It was nearly 5 when Phantom ended and LK decided we had plenty of time to walk back to the hotel, now about 1 1/2 miles away. After showers we fortunately didn't have time to walk to the other theatre, so we took a taxi. Only to find out that the show started a half-hour later than the ticket stated. I could see LK fuming, thinking we could have walked and by God we should have because we need to get in shape.

Needless to say there was no option about taking a taxi back to the hotel. So after another half hour (in which we passed Big Ben for the third time that day), we got back and ordered room service. I can't say I took pleasure in the fact that LK complained that her feet hurt and that she feel asleep before room service was delivered. Well, I could say it, but if I did I would pay the price when she reads this.

Yesterday we decided to check out Borough Markets near London Bridge. Only 2 miles (3+kM) away our faithful Google map said. I assumed LK's sore feet meant we could take a taxi. She decided to wear different shoes and said we should walk, pointing out that we needed to get in shape.

The market was great, and the food in the stalls was way too tempting. In fact, it was so tempting that we decided we'd just do a nosh in our room for dinner. So we bought approximately enough pate and sausage and cheese and tapenade and hummus and fig jam and bread (sour dough and fruit) to feed the twenty people we could have invited to join us for the nosh. I believe we spent about as much as you would at a 5-star restaurant for dinner.

Anyhow, the best thing that has happened on this trip so far occurred as we were leaving. LK was proposing that we could take a slightly different 2-mile route back to the hotel and see more of the river when a fat blob of water landed on her head. And then another.

"Oooh, starting to rain," I said. "I don't think we want to get soaked this far from the hotel. Better grab a taxi."

She saw through me, of course, since she always sees through me. But she didn't argue when I flagged down a taxi.

"Looks like you're just going to beat the rain, " the driver said as we got in. He didn't realize but that comment guaranteed him a healthy tip.

Borough Market:

First stall - French cooks dishing up duck and foie gras

The healthy stuff we didn't buy
We were quite disappointed they didn't offer the $20 Meal Deal