Friday, 27 October 2017

Saint Emilion - picture postcard wine stuff

Happy to pay a lot of money playing tourist? Want the maximum choice in good wines? Want them shipped back to your country without stress?

Visit the delightful medieval town of Saint-Emilion not far from Bordeaux in the South-West of France, just a 40-minute drive away.

 Here the vines grow right up to the ancient ramparts. Everywhere you look it's bucolic. Saint Emilion is not really a grand destination but it makes for a pleasant trip if you are based near Bordeaux and want a break from the city.

In this wine-obsessed part of France you'll discover the Grand Crus. This town and vinyard were awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999.

Excellent and varied wines are created here due to the exceptional soil and microclimate ideal for grapes. The grapes are mostly merlot, blended with cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon or malbec.

The place is full of underground tunnels made when extracting the limestone blocks used for building the town and some places in Bordeaux. Good wine, beautiful countryside, historic monuments and architecture and an enthusiastic tourism focus all combine to make the place a magnet for visitors.

Restaurants and cafes are back-to-back in this town which bears the name of a monk who is said to have accomplished some miracles in the eighth century. Saint Emilion's history goes back two thousand years. We took a pause in the central square. Drinks were expensive. I had a browse in the souvenir shop and was tempted by a number of quality things but time ran out and the shop closed before I could make up my mind. It's possible to go up the tower for a better view.

Lonely Planet has this to say... 

Yes, it's all designed to make it easy for you to part with your euros but still a special place to visit. They do tourism very competently.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Cognac - from one Frances to a Francois

This town owed its initial fame to being a supplier of salt but is today mostly known for French brandy production and King Francois 1er.
Francois 1er king of France and great rival to England's Henry VIII was born here in 1494. This statue to him in Cognac's town square shows him trampling his enemies - a nice bit of political propaganda for the times. It's obvious his ennemies were nobles by their clothes and armour. He was the first King of France from the Angoulême branch of the House of Valois, reigning from 1515 until his death in 1547. 
Francois had a notable military success at Marignano and a notable failure at the battle of Pavia on 24 February 1525 where he was actually taken prisoner, kept in Madrid and had to make major concessions, with his two sons being hostages in order to gain his freedom. Francois is always recognisable for his ski-jump nose. A great patron of the arts he brought the Italian renaissance to France along with Leonardo da vinci and the Mona Lisa. He built and renovated so many lasting French chateaux and monuments, in particular the grandiose Chambord that it's impossible not to come across his influence when travelling through France today.
Cognac is famous for the past 200 years as the greatest cognac producing area in France. I didn't have much time to spend here but did enjoy its quaint streets and interesting architecture. Driving around this area you pass several famous names in the cognac wine-growing industry. Vinyards are everywhere. And buying cognac is possible from almost every second shop.

For more information on Cognac visit:

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Jarnac - cognac and classic cars

Jarnac is a pleasant town on the banks of the Charente River in the new region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine. It lies between Angoulême and Cognac and can thus be expected to be obsessed with brandy. It certainly is, having the Courvoisier factory located centrally there as well as other cognac houses.

It's a tourist spot which likes to promote itself as the birthplace of former president Mitterand. Having learned that, I was determined not to visit the museum celebrating what I consider an immoral and rotten politician. For starters, he signed off on the Rainbow Warrior bombing and then denied everything and imposed trade sanctions on New Zealand. Still, ignoring that part of its history, I enjoyed my time in Jarnac.

The mairie puts a big effort into beautification of walkways and municipal gardens. I loved the little free lending library box where anyone can leave a book and others can choose one to take away and read; the whole thing based on honesty and a sense of citizenship.

There's no mistaking we're in cognac country here in Jarnac. Some of the buildings have been warehouses for this alcohol and they bear the tell-tale signs - black mould. This mould arises from the vapours of this double-distilled brandy. Passing by one of these buildings (still in use) I could actually smell the brandy inside, the vapours escape from every crack and pore. This is, of course, a dangerous situation as they could combust so stocks of cognacs are spread here over 11 sites in case of a disaster. That way not all stock would be lost in an explosion.

The mould starts growing almost immediately and nothing can be done about it. It must have quickly identified hiding places in the past.

We visited the Tiffon Cognac house which now markets under the name of Braastad. It shares town space with other famous cognac houses such as Bisquit or Courvoisier. The brand Braastad was created when a Norwegian named Sverre Braastad married into the Tiffon family. We were given an impromptu tour of part of the premises and explored tastings in the shop. Cognac is normally far too fiery for me to drink but I enjoyed the creme liqueur version. It's very like Bailey's Irish Creme but with more of a kick at the end.

The distilling and storage information was interesting. I noted some smaller wooden barrels with fancy plaques on them. Two of them contained private cognac created for Prince Albert of Monaco, one each for his children and named for them. This is not uncommon.

Elsewhere in the town is a well-appointed public swimming pool. For the first time since my one and only dip in the Mediterranean in 2011 I donned my togs and enjoyed some cool widths. I'm a poor swimmer but it was a clean and pleasant break in a hot afternoon.  Drying off, it was time to check out the collection of classic and vintage cars assembled for the weekend.

This display piggy-backed on the car race that would occur at Angoulême the next day. I don't know anything about cars other than appreciating some of the aesthetics so I'll leave you with an assortment of images to enjoy, and maybe identify.