Yet another postcard from Dubai

It was early February and once again we were in Dubai, ostensibly to attend an exhibition onto which we’d tagged a few days’ vacation. Although it had been sunny at home, it had been very cold and a bit of warmth is always much appreciated at this time of year.

Twin Towers: one’s a hotel, the other’s government offices

We’d returned to one of our favourite hotels, one stop on the Metro from the World Trade Centre where the exhibition is being held. I had booked the flight and hotel well in advance, using soon-to-expire miles to upgrade to Business Class, as I knew it’d be my beloved’s first long-haul flight after his hip replacement. As they say: “The early bird catches the worm.” In this case, it was a great deal on the hotel room and flight.

The Museum of the Future under construction nearby

This time last year I’d watched the week-long Dubai Tour which has now been folded into the UAE Tour, starting later in the month. With no cycling to watch, what was I to do? How would I entertain myself?

Dubai embracing Chinese New Year

While my beloved worked, I whiled away my days around the pool, on the beach at Jumeirah or in the bookshop. Shopping holds little allure, particularly now the same shops are everywhere. I’m a huge disappointment to my two siblings, both dedicated shoppers. However, the opportunity to spend hours in a bookshop with English language books is too golden to pass up, plus this one in the Dubai Mall has one of the biggest selections of cookery books I’ve ever seen. And, yes, a few made it back to France in my luggage.

The fountains only dance at night, floodlit

Usually, during the exhibition I’ll join my beloved, and any clients, for dinner in the evening. But this time he had a colleague lecturing at the exhibition so I left the pair of them to entertain the clients.  This enabled me to chill all day and enjoy a spot of me time. Such a treat!

Like France, the UAE is big on civic art

I decided some pampering was in order, including a pedicure at a local beauty salon where I was the only Westerner. I was shocked at how rude the Middle Eastern customers were to the largely Eurasian staff. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you is my motto.

Hotel lobby early morning, embracing Saint Valentine’s Day

Of course, once the exhibition was over, I got my beloved all to myself. Typically in the evenings we’d dine at a few of our favourite spots plus try a few new ones. Thursday evening is the start of the week-end in Dubai and we managed to secure the last table at a restaurant adjacent to the hotel where we considerably upped the average age of its clientele!

You never know who you’ll bump into in Dubai!

It was a largely Mediterranean style menu with Asian overtones. We had a fantastic meal, definitely another one for our list. The only slight downside was the music. We loved their selection but it was way too loud, too loud to talk over. And, although we’ve been married for more years than I care to own up to, we still enjoy a good chat over dinner.

Brunching

The following day, I’d booked brunch at one of our regular haunts, the nearby Ritz Carlton. As you know, my beloved and I are keen brunchers. We brunch all over the world. This was on a par with its sister hotel in Chicago but with better weather and a BBQ. The seafood was superb and I much enjoyed the lobster. The trick with brunch is to wear comfortable clothing; I favour trousers with either loose or elasticated waists. You also need to pace yourself.

Lotus eating in style on Jumeirah Beach

We spent our last week-end largely lazing on the beach. The temperature was just perfect and it was fun watching the bird life. Aside from the gulls and ubiquitous pigeons, there were some hugely amusing song birds and one with an orange bum and Elvis quiff. I suspect the birds were on the lookout for leftovers from beachside snacks but most days there were slim pickings. The staff would quickly dart out to pick up the used plates as soon as any customers finished eating. Didn’t stop the birds circling, probably more in hope than expectation.

Not a bad view from the bedroom window

As you know, I love sunsets and sunrises. There’s something quite magical about sitting on a really sandy beach  – ours at home is stoney – to watch the setting sun. One minute the world’s aglow and the next minute the sun’s slipped below the horizon and darkness reigns.

Burj Al Arab from Mina A’Salam

Dubai lit up at night is also a sight worth seeing with its most prominent buildings lit up against the skyline. Although there are plenty of magnificent skyscrapers, my favourite buildings are the mosques with their traditional carved sandstone or tiles exteriors, domes and minarets. I also love hearing the haunting, five-times a day call to prayer.

Forthcoming delights

We’ve made many visits to Dubai over the years but have never ventured to Abu Dhabi. This time we visited both the Blue Mosque and the Louvre, but those visits are tales for subsequent posts.

Postcard from Toulouse

Toulouse is typically a place we drive past on our way to the Basque country. I did visit it briefly in 2012 during the Tour de France but merely scratched the surface of this interesting city which immediately went on my bucket list for a return visit.

Seven years later, I’m partly fulfilling that wish with a few more hours looking around the centre of Toulouse, a rose-coloured gem, thanks to one of my beloved’s many business trips. However, it’s fair to say that it was more a case of what we didn’t see rather than what we did!

I always like to do a bit of research beforehand and discovered that Toulouse is one of France’s best preserved Renaissance cities. Pride towers dot the skyline. They were a sign of wealth when the merchants, known as the Capitouls, built their mansions in the city. Many are still private or have been converted to office spaces. Of course, if I see a door opening onto the courtyard of one of these impressive places, I’m honour bound to have a peek inside.

We had planned to spend the day in Toulouse and, although the sun shone, it was bitterly cold so we spent a goodly part of our time enjoying lunch! Once again we merely scratched the surface of this charming city. However, I did walk around an area in the centre that I hadn’t visited before, happily snapping away.

We started our perambulations in and around Place Saint Georges, formerly owned by the capitoulat of Saint-Etienne, a delightful square full of cafes and restaurants where everyone was wrapped up warmly and enjoying the sunshine. I understand the square has a bit of a grizzly past as it was previously used for executions. An impressive building, the Hôtel de Lafage, dominates the square and is illustrative of 18th century architecture in Toulouse. The hotel was built in 1745 on the site of some fire-ravaged houses for Count Henry Joseph of Lafage. Nowadays it’s apartments.

After lunch we wandered around the roads leading off the square but not any of the roads I’d previously visited. Of course, this means we’ll have to have a return trip to properly visit the town’s “treasures” specifically its impressive churches, in particular Cathedral Saint-Etienne, Basilica Saint-Sernin and Convent of the Jacobins. I’ve read that all of these played an important part of Toulouse’s tumultuous religious history.

I also missed out on Place du Capitole, the seat of the municipal government since the 12th century. While the sprawling neoclassical building with its eight columns representing the original eight Capitouls is impressive itself, it’s the interior 19th-century Salle des Illustres (Hall of the Illustrious) that is truly spectacular. In addition there’s a series of modern paintings adorning the ceiling of the arcade directly across the square from the town hall building.

Of course, if you say Toulouse most people think of aeronautics because the city has long been one of Europe’s most important centres for aeronautics and was the International City of Space in 2017. The massive La Cité de l’Espace has also called Toulouse home for the last 20 odd years and, as the name implies, it’s a small city of all things space including a full-scale 53m high replica of the Ariane 5 rocket launcher. There’s also a state-of-the-art planetarium which, along with Houston and Paris, is one of the world’s top planetariums – next time!

Another place I would have liked to visit is The Fondation Bemberg, housed in the 16th century Hôtel d’Assézat, which includes 30 paintings by the French artist Pierre Bonnard. So that’s another one for our next visit along with the Musée des Augustins with its impressive sculptural collection.

Visit to Goya Museum, Castres

Castres is a stop-over along the St. James’s Way (El Camino de Santiago) which developed from 9th century around the Saint-Benoît abbey (opposite the Bishop’s Palace). Its two claims to fame are as the birth place of Jean Jaurès, former leader of the French Socialist Party, and as the home of the largest French collection of Spanish artworks outside the Louvre.

Castres is a former textiles town which gained its first mechanised wool mill in 1815. Initially the town specialised in luxury cloths later turning toward those with considerably larger markets. Around 1860, there were 50 wool mills in town, employing 3,000 people. At the end of 19th century, mechanical engineering industries appeared alongside those of textiles, and Castres became a major arsenal for the French army during WWI, when it was by far the largest town in the Tarn.

Like many former textile towns in Europe, Castres’ economy has been hard hit by change. Plus, it’s located in a dead-end at the foot of the Massif Central, far from the nearest motorway. Fortunately, it’s only an hour’s drive from Toulouse. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that the gilets jaunes have been very active here.

I first visited Castres when it was a start town for the 2013 Tour de France. The Village du Depart was situated in the gardens to the rear of the Bishop’s Palace, which also houses the Goya museum. By chance in 2015 my beloved acquired a business connection in Castres where, over a week-end, we more fully explored the town though not the museum.

I recently spent a pleasant couple of hours wandering around as its sole visitor, and thereafter the gardens. As I mentioned above, it’s housed in the splendid Bishop’s Palace, designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, one of Versailles many architects. It’s been a museum since 1840 but the Pierre Briguiboul legacy of 1894 (including works by Goya) determined its Hispanic vocation.

The collection has been enlarged over the years, notably from the Louvre itself, and now includes Spanish works dating from 14th century to the present day including some by  Vélasquez, Alonso Cano, Javier Bueno and Picasso. Though, on the day of my visit, the Picasso was out on loan.

The museum also has works of French artists who have copied or interpreted Spanish artists of the “Golden Age”, a Hispanic coin collection covering the Celtiberian period (100-200BC) until the reign of King Carlos IV (1788-1808), Iberian sculptures and a collection of arms. On my visit, there was also (fittingly) an exhibition of ecclesiastical robes.

It’s a perfectly charming museum although there’s not much here I’d willingly put on my walls, not even the Goyas. Afterwards, I took a turn around the garden (Le Jardin de I’Eveche) which  was designed around 1664 by Andre Le Notre, King Louis XIV’s gardener. The four quarter stylised flowerbeds consist of a Lys flower surmounted by a bishop’s hat, joined by an Occitan cross, invoking the association of Royal and Episcopal powers. The external box borders are heightened with trimmed yews of various shapes. This is a great example of 17th century French classicism inspired by the needle works of the women at court. The design is unchanged since the garden’s creation.

The Italianate Municipal Theatre also overlooks the gardens. Inaugurated in 1904, it was designed by the architect Joseph Galinier, a student of Garnier. The interior layout mirrors the “Opéra-Comique” theatre in Paris and its “trompe-l’oeil” dome dedicated to classic tragedy is quite eye-catching.

The houses on the other side of the Agout river from the gardens are nowhere near as attractive as those found further upstream in the handsome old town. These brightly-coloured houses, with corbelled façades and basements immersed in the river, have earned Castres the nickname of “Languedoc’s little Venice“.

The first houses along the river date back to the end of 12th century. For centuries they served as workshops for tanners, “chamoiseurs” and parchment-makers who used the water from the river to work the skins. The basements and sinks were found below, above the dryers or “soleliers,” between the two living floors. Faithfully restored, they are a photographer’s joy and provide a link to centuries gone by.

These houses are in complete contrast to the handsome stone properties which line the town’s main streets and border its main square, testament to the town’s former prosperity, overseen by none other than its most famous son, Jean Jaurès.

Visit to Musée d’Orsay

This is one of our favourite museums in Paris. Largely I suspect because it’s conveniently situated, you can see all the exhibits in a morning or afternoon, we adore the period its works typically cover (1848 – 1914) and the queues are never too long. We first visited it not long after it opened, thereafter at least annually and again on our most recent trip before Christmas where, despite overcast skies, we walked there.

The Building’s History

The building, the former Orsay railway station, is in the centre of Paris on the banks of the Seine, opposite the Tuileries Gardens. The station was originally constructed for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 though the construction of the Quai d’Orsay began back in 1708 near the Pont Royal, and was completed a century later in Napoleon I’s Empire.

During the 19th century, two buildings stood upon its site: the barracks for the cavalry and the Palais d’Orsay. Although the latter had originally been planned for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it eventually housed the Cour des Comptes (Court of Accounts) and the Conseil d’Etat (State Council). During the violent upheaval known as the Paris Commune in 1871, the entire neighbourhood was burnt down. For thirty years, the ruins of the Palais d’Orsay served as a reminder of the horrors of civil war.

After the 1900 Exhibition, the Gare d’Orsay then successively served different purposes. Most notably, it was used as a mailing centre for sending packages to prisoners of war during WWII. Then, after the Liberation, those prisoners were welcomed back there.

The station was saved from destruction and replacement following a revival of interest in nineteenth-century architecture when it was listed as a Historical Monument in 1973. Subsequently, the Direction des Musées de France decided to install a new museum in the train station to house art from the second half of the 19th century. In 1978 a commission was created to oversee the construction and organisation of the museum which was finally opened in December 1986.

The transformation of the station into a museum was accomplished by the ACT architecture group, whose proposal beat off competition from five others, largely because it was more respectful of the original architecture. The project highlighted the great hall, using it as the main artery of the visit, and transformed the magnificent glass awning into the museum’s entrance.

The museum is organised on three levels. On the ground floor, there are galleries either side of the central nave, which is overlooked by terraces from the next level which in turn open into additional exhibition galleries. The top floor is installed above the lobby, which covers the length of the Quai.

Exhibition: Picasso Blue et Rose

On our latest visit, the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée National Picasso-Paris were exhibiting works from Picasso’s Blue and Pink periods. It was the first major collaboration between the two museums, bringing together masterpieces while offering a reinterpretation of Picasso’s early years (1900-1906), a formative period in the artist’s career.

Although we’d recently visited the Musée Picasso, we’d not previously seen any of these works, which cast an interesting perspective on the artist, his earlier works and the other major artists who influenced him, such as Van Gogh.

We also reacquainted ourselves with the museum’s other works and, after a long morning gazing at masterpieces, headed outdoors for lunch. As a general rule, I avoid restaurants in the immediate vicinity – tourist traps – and head for a bistro bustling with locals. Suitably sated, my beloved headed back on the Metro while I decided to re-acquaint myself with the shops and galleries in St- Germain-des-Pres and the Latin Quarter.


Visit to Atelier des Lumières

Whenever we visit Paris, my beloved generally gets to choose which exhibitions and/or events we visit. This time he elected to visit a relatively new exhibition space in Paris’s 11th arrondissement – not an area we know particularly well – called Atelier des Lumières, Paris’s first digital museum of fine art.

Not quite knowing what to expect, we took the metro over to 11th in Eastern Paris and walked the length of rue Saint-Maur. We almost missed the former foundry had it not been for the long queue outside. This didn’t augur well, my beloved does not like to wait. Fortunately, the queue moved briskly and we were soon inside the large multi-sensory exhibition space operated by Culturespaces, called its “Workshop of Lights.”

The exhibition is dedicated to Gustav Klimt and a century of Viennese painting, includin works by Egon Schiele and Friederich Stowasser, better-known as Hundertwasser. There’s also a smaller studio given over to works by emerging artists.

Using state-of-the-art visuals and audio, the artists’ works are transformed as 140 video projectors expose their works onto and across 10 metre high walls over the vast 3,300 square metre surface area of the refurbished building. These fabulously colourful images provide an immersive and panoramic show to the sound track of music by Wagner, Chopin and Beethoven, among others, using an innovative motion design sound system.

It was a mesmerising digital display and we were transfixed as 360-degree views of the artworks flash across the walls. Over a period of around 30 minutes we’re taken on a journey round neoclassical Vienna. Our favourite  aspect was the exhibition’s attention to details, particularly with Klimt’s “golden” phase.

It’s difficult not to be overawed by the scale and depth of this multi-sensory exhibition. However, in my opinion, the best bit is that it makes fine art more interesting, accessible and available to younger audiences.

Postcard from l’île de la Cité, Paris

The flat we’ve rented in The Marais on our last few trips was booked, so we chose another one nearby, close to the Picasso Museum. A couple of weeks before our arrival, the owner advised there was a problem with the boiler and offered us a replacement (and much larger) flat on l’île de la Cité, on a small road just back from the Seine. We gratefully accepted his offer.

Rue_des_Ursins,_Paris_6_September_2015

The road was a total surprise. It’s a mixture of very old and new jammed into a rue just 113 meters long and four meters wide. Two blocks away from Notre Dame, Rue des Ursins is one of the oldest streets in the city and I understand it’s a popular photo location for fashion and bridal shoots.

We had some interesting neighbours. On the one side the Bureau of Naturalization, located within the Prefecture de Police. Looking closely at the building we could see it also housed the repair shop for all the motorcycle police in Paris. A pretty secure flat we thought except the prefecture closed in the evenings. 

Rue des Ursins Chapelle

On the other side is a seminary which also houses the remains of Chapelle Saint-Aignan.  At one time the island was full of chapels – 23 in fact. But revolutions and changing times have left only Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle and this one. The other occupants of the road include a reconstructed home with medieval touches, several apartment buildings and a lawyer’s office.

IMG_8766

The medieval-style building on the corner by the stairs looks like a well-preserved ancient hôtel particulier but it was built in 1958 by architect Fernand Pouillon. A stair leads to a wood, gothic-arched door. The windows above are stained glass. On the other side, the garage door looks like an ancient wood entrance to a fort but holds two cars and is an underground entrance to the hôtel.

IMG_9008 (Edited)

Just past the faux medieval house is a jardinette, a small triangular garden. It is the smallest garden on the island and one of the smallest in Paris. It features two tiger head fountains, a tree and flowers that change depending on the season.

Chapelle Saint-Aignan, founded in 1116, was built in classic Roman architectural style with columns and rounded arches in white stone. The chapel was shut in 1791 and transformed into a barrel store. It did not fare well in the following years and today only the nave is left. It has been restored and seminarians of the diocese generally use it for private worship.

Ursins isn’t even the street’s original name. Indeed it had several when it was part of Port Saint-Landry, the Paris’s first port until the end of the 12th century. Around 1300, three streets had the name Ursins leading from Port Saint-Landry onto the island. They were all named after the hôtel des Ursins once owned by the family of the same name. Its next owners were French who managed the merchants of Paris under Charles VI (1380 – 1422) through Louis XI (1461 – 1483).

In 1881, the names of the other two streets were changed, leaving only this short street running between Rue le la Colombe and Rue des Chantres and parallel to the Quai aux Fleurs. The road’s at the old level of the banks of the Seine and the lowest street on the island.

Rue des Ursins now

At the street corner with Rue des Chantres is a placard that indicates the height of the Seine flood in 1910. The simple green sign says “CRUE Janvier 1910” with a line marking the flood height. Humorous graffiti adds “Poisson” and a happy face, referring to the fish that were no doubt swimming in the flood. Plus, the street sign has had an “O” added in front of “Ursins”, making it read Rue des Oursins. Although technically it translates as “street of sea urchins,” there are pictures of happy, cartoon bears by the name plates, making it a “street of bears.” We saw neither during our stay.
Rue des Ursins 1900

Standing in the street, it’s easy to imagine its history from early sailing port to bustling stores supporting commerce into the city. Even though you can’t buy anything or eat on this short street, it’s a great place to see the blending of old and new Paris. Fortunately for us, there was a great bakery and an excellent small neighbourhood bistro just around the corner.



Cosseted in the British countryside

I’m a big fan of The Four Seasons, not the four violin concerti by Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi, but the hotel management group. I’ve been fortunate to either stay in or visit a number of their hotels over the years – far too many to mention. You may find this surprising since I’m usually banging the drum for small, family-run businesses and these guys are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Or are they? I find that thanks to their excellently trained staff and philosophy, I always feel cosseted in their hotels.

The hotels they run are oases of tranquility with all the bells and whistles one’s little heart could desire. Despite the large throughput of guests, staff miraculously remember your name, and particular likes and dislikes. Nothing is ever too much trouble, not even my regime. The hotel whipped me up a scrumptious vegan afternoon tea at the drop of a hat!

I booked the hotel over a year ago because the wedding we were attending, which was a short car ride away, clashed with a Classic Car event at nearby Goodwood. I was also pretty certain we’d be the only wedding guests staying at this hotel thereby obviating the need to socialise further. I wanted a restful and relaxing week-end with my beloved which would serve as an early celebration of our (41st) wedding anniversary – where have those years gone? And, I think it’s fair to say, we achieved that.

We did however bump into someone we knew. Spookily, we’d only been talking about him five minutes before and were surprised to see him. I think that surprise was reciprocated though, of course, he may’ve wondered why his ears were burning.

The hotel grounds were enormous and despite my beloved’s leg, which was still painful, we had a very pleasant meander. We also enjoyed looking at the car porn. A number of guests had driven their Classic Cars to the event and you could see by their immaculate state that these were their pride and joy – all that gleaming chrome and immaculate paintwork.

We were not familiar with this part of the country, so spent an afternoon pottering around nearby Farnham, a pretty market town with bags of history, lots of interesting buildings and a good selection of shops and restaurants, the latter with many vegan options. Having eaten in the hotel restaurant on Thursday evening, we ate in Farnham on Saturday. No need to eat dinner after the mid-afternoon wedding luncheon on Friday, though we did have a couple of glasses of Rioja in the bar before retiring.

A copious breakfast was included in our room rate and my beloved enjoyed a full English most days while I enjoyed the selection provided for the hotel’s Middle Eastern guests. Fresh fruit, moutabal, salad and hummous for breakfast may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it certainly floats my boat.

A late check out allowed us to fully enjoy the hotel’s facilities, particularly in the Spa, before tucking into Sunday afternoon tea in the library ahead of our departure. It was a lovely three-day break and we enjoyed chatting about France, in French, with some of the staff, one of whom came from Nice.

When we checked out the receptionist asked me which other Four Seasons we’d visited. It was only as I started rattling them off that I appreciated just how many of them we’ve stayed at, or eaten at, and I thought about why. Largely because it’s a brand I trust. I know what I’m going to find, that’s often very comforting because I so don’t like surprises.

Looking back on our trip to Saint Jean de Luz

Saint Jean de Luz is a fishing port on the Basque Atlantic coast and a famous resort, known for its architecture, sandy bay, the quality of the light and cuisine. The town is located south of Biarritz, on the right bank of the river Nivelle, opposite Ciboure. The port lies on the river estuary while the resort nestles in a sheltered bay, just a few kilometres from the Spanish border.

The town’s wealth stems from its port and its past, as a fishing town and a haven for Basque pirates. Indeed, English sailors used to call Saint Jean de Luz the “Viper’s Nest”. The town’s prosperity peaked during the 17th Century when it was the second largest town in the region, just behind Bayonne.

The town is renowned for its royal wedding connections as Louis XIV married Maria Theresa, the Infanta of Spain, on 9 June 1660 in its cathedral, the main door of which was subsequently bricked off allegedly so no other couple could walk in their footsteps.

We’d previously visited the town on earlier trips to the Basque country, and had ridden all along the coast in both directions, but had wanted to stay here again for a few days to better get to know the town and enjoy the facilities of its Thalassotherapy centre in our hotel.

It might seem odd that, living as we do on the Med, we head to the Atlantic coast for a vacation but it is quite different. Saint Jean de Luz has a real bucket and spade family holiday feel to it, largely because of its beautiful sandy beach, which our stoney beach at home really doesn’t invoke.

We spent our five days here just pottering about, enjoying the fine weather, the beach, our hotel, the market and the largely pedestrianised town. We ate breakfast each morning in one of its many excellent patisseries, enjoyed lunch either in the hotel or out at another restaurant while dinner was largely a glass of wine and some tapas while listening to/watching entertainment put on by the town. While we much enjoyed our stay, five – seven days here are sufficient to really get to know the place.

Reflecting on our trip to Pornichet

We had gone to the start of this year’s Tour de France because it wasn’t far from La Baule, a place both of us had visited as teenagers. I’d enjoyed a delightful last holiday with my parents and sisters while my beloved had less pleasant memories, something to do with the sanitary arrangements! I booked a spa hotel in Pornichet in the bay of La Baule primarily because it directly overlooked the beach. I was after a few day’s rest and relaxation, particularly for my beloved.

I was interested in the history behind the original building and learnt that it had been built of granite in 1868 by a Belgian Viscount, in the gothic style, and christened Chateau des Tourelles by the locals on account of its circular towers. It was subsequently acquired in 1882 by a French arms manufacturer for 40,000 Francs. On his death in 1904, his son Louis Flornoy inherited the property but was forced to sell it, due to mismanagement of his fortune, to M Legrand, a local newspaper owner.

In 1938 the mayor of the 12th arrondissement in Paris acquired it to provide holidays for disadvantaged children. In 1940, without so much as a by your leave, the German army occupied the building. Post-war, it once more welcomed holidaymakers from Paris for the three months of summer but in the 90s it fell into disuse and was closed. A family company, which already owned a couple of spa hotels, thankfully rescued it some 15 years later.

The new extension has been grafted onto the original historic building in a wrap around style which doesn’t swamp its beachside facade. Its bedrooms are spacious with large balconies, most of which have a sea view. The hotel’s main attraction is its thalassotherapy spa which proved beneficial for both my recently injured hamstring and my beloved’s still recuperating leg. We whiled away many an hour in its salty, warm waters.

Our four days passed far too quickly and we merely dipped a toe into the Tour as opposed to slavishly following every stage. We pottered along the seafront and around the small town of Pornichet but there was little need to leave our cocoon, our haven of tranquility. The beach in La Baule was pretty much as I remembered it, wide, golden and sandy, but nothing else in the town struck a chord with either of us.

We had lunched at the hotel on arrival. It had vegan options on the menu and the food was excellent. No need to stray too far for sustenance though we did try out a couple of the patisseries in town. Well, it would’ve been rude not to! As soon as we learnt the hotel did Sunday Brunch, we booked a table. This turned out to be a very fortunate move as Brunch was extremely popular, and not just with residents. As you’d expect, it included plenty of fresh seafood including oysters.

It’s a hotel we’d happily visit again, though next time I’d fly to Nantes and hire a car. It’s really too far to drive. The trip confirmed my happy memories and dispelled my beloved’s less than memorable ones.

In praise of our recent trip to Rioja

Architecture and Scenery

On our most recent trip, my beloved and I were very impressed with Rioja, a gorgeous region in northern Spain. We’d previously ooohed and aaahed over its more recent architectural delights such as the Frank Gehry designed Marques de Riscal winery and hotel which the sun tints every shade of wine. Though it’s not the only amazing combination of wine and architecture in Rioja. At the foot of the Sierra de Cantabria mountains, there’s the cedar clad Ysios winery which has an undulating roof, designed by Santiago Calatrava. Plus the late Zaha Hadid created a decanter shaped annexe for Bodegas Lopez de Heredia’s winery.

This time we visited the picture-perfect, old walled town of Laguardia, set atop a hill in the middle of a valley, with the Cantabrian mountains in the background. It’s surrounded on all sides by vineyards which offer a glimpse into the region’s wine making past and present. Founded in the 10th century as a defensive town for the kingdom of Navarra, this undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in the region.

Apart from Laguardia’s two metre-high, 13th century defensive walls, its other main feature is its underground tunnels which kept its inhabitants safe during battles and allowed them to escape into the surrounding hillsides. Once the town no longer needed these for its strategic military position, the locals decided they were perfect for storing wine. We visited the tunnels under our hotel and they were the perfect temperature for storing wine, but I found them a bit claustrophobic.

Our hotel overlooked the town’s main square containing both the old and the new town hall buildings. On the new building, there’s a quaint pendulum clock where three figures come out to dance to a traditional song at certain times of the day. Crowds gather just before they’re due to dance. On either end of  the main street, there’s a church. On one side is the church of San Juan, a Romanesque building, and on the other, the church of Santa Maria de los Reyes, which has an impressive Gothic facade.

We much enjoyed meandering around the town’s narrow walkways and in the gardens outside the walls which contain a bust of local lad, the fabulist Samaniego, and a dolmen.

Food and Wine

The food in Rioja lives up to the wine that accompanies it. It’s fabulous on every level. In Laguardia alone there are 50-odd small pintxos bars plus a number of local restaurants, including the one in our hotel. I’ve previously written in praise of the food in Spain and it’s particularly true of the food in Rioja.

The region produces red, white and rose wines in its three principal areas: Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa much of which is subjected to the Rioja Protected designation of origin.

Rioja Alta

Located on the western edge of the region and at a higher elevation than the other two areas, the Rioja Alta is known more for its “old world” style of wine. A higher elevation equates to a shorter growing season, which in turn produces brighter fruitier flavors and a wine that is lighter on the palate.

Rioja Alavesa

Laguardia is in this area and, despite sharing a similar climate as the Alta region, the Rioja Alavesa produces wines with a fuller body and higher acidity. Vineyards here have a low vine density with large spacing between rows. This is due to the relatively poor condition of the soil with the vines needing greater distance from one another and hence less competition for the nutrients in the surrounding soil.

IMG_7654 (Edited)

Rioja Baja (Oriental)

Unlike the more  continental climates of the Alta and Alavesa, Rioja Baja is strongly influenced by a Mediterranean climate which makes this area the warmest and driest. In the summer months, drought can be a significant viticultural hazard, despite irrigation. Summer temperatures typically reach 35°C (95°F). Baja wines are very deeply coloured and can be highly alcoholic, with some wines reaching 18%. They typically do not have much acidity or aroma and are generally used as blending components with wines from the other areas.

It’s time to put my hand up and admit we did bring a few bottles of Rioja back to France with us.