Many months ago—too many months ago—you read in this newsletter an account of an October 2013 visit to Paris. That piece ended with the three of us—wife Gypsy Feet, daughter/Jack Russell Terrier Princess P and yours truly, Wanderlust, packed and ready to depart the City of Light by car on a journey that would take us first to Louis XIV's monument to opulence, the Palace of Versailles. From there, we planned to continue westward on a leisurely drive, with an as-yet-to-be-determined overnight stop somewhere in between, eventually arriving at a château at a winery in the Haut-Médoc region north of Bordeaux. Life, it's said, is full of surprises. And so it was on that next leg of our Odyssey. That previous story ended with the words, "to be continued." Here then, at long last, is that promised continuation. We rolled out of bed early, grabbed a light breakfast, checked out of our hotel and caught a taxi to Gare du Nord, where we picked up our rental car, a GPS-equipped VW Golf. [Advice: If you ever plan to replicate a trip across France like the one I am about to describe, be sure to take along a reliable GPS. Otherwise…No, you don't want to know what "otherwise" entails; it's too frightening for words.] Miraculously, the entirety of our considerable collection of suitcases, bags and loose clothes fit inside the vehicle without blocking anyone's view out of any of the windows. Five minutes after leaving the parking garage at Gare du Nord, we were in trouble. Our GPS led us directly into the heart of a weekend street market, choked with the stalls of anxious vendors and throngs of eager-but-picky buyers. Half an hour later, we made it two blocks to the desired thoroughfare. By the time we reached the main motorway leading to Versailles, I knew our date with the Hall of Mirrors and the Petit Trianon was off. Bumper-to-bumper traffic heading in that general direction choked the road. Taking a quick peek at the GPS, I saw the familiar name of Poissy, famous in French history for a 16th century colloquy held there in an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile Catholics and Protestant Huguenots. That appealed to the historian in me, so I pointed the car in that direction and wrote off Versailles for another time.
Our stop in Poissy was short but memorable. Straddling the banks of the Seine, the city features worthy historical sights and some intriguing restaurants. We briefly considered having an early seafood lunch at L'esturgeon, but opted to hasten on in the direction of Chartres to see what we could find there in way of food and drink. On our next leg, the virtues of GPS announced themselves with great fanfare. There was a setting where you could choose to stick to the major highways or avoid them entirely. We chose the latter option. I doubt if we tried it again a hundred times, we could duplicate precisely the route we took to Chartres. Along the way—whatever way that was—we passed a lovely château that had the welcome mat out for any passers-by that cared to stop and visit for a while. I might have stopped, but we were past the château by the time I was able to hit the brakes, and turning around on the narrow road would have been problematic at best. Plus, le Basilique Cathédral Notre-Dame de Chartres expected us, and I dared not keep so grand a lady waiting. Considered the finest example of Gothic cathedrals in all of France, the one at Chartres dates from the 13th century and has been meticulously preserved. Its flying buttresses, stained glass windows and elaborately adorned façades are wonders to behold. We found a pleasant outdoor café on the square beside the cathedral and enjoyed glasses of wine and pastries before continuing on. By now we had a destination in mind for a place to bed down for the night: the Mercure Hotel in Poitiers, 280 kilometers to the south and west. It was well past sunset when we arrived at our hotel. Poitiers is one more historical, beautiful, unforgettable French city, situated atop a large promontory, with an old town area crammed full of Romanesque architecture and paved wall to wall with stones with hardly a tree to be found. Historically, Poitiers is best known for a nearby eponymous battle fought in 732 where the Frankish army of Charles Martel turned back the until-then-all-conquering forces of the Umayyad Caliphate.
Owing to our late arrival, our dining choices were limited. Luckily, we stumbled upon the Bistrot du Boucher, where not only the tastes but the appearance of our servings as well delighted us. The next day was a Sunday, and everything was closed, so instead of seeing more of the town, we entered "Angoulême" into our now-trusted GPS and headed in the direction of one more hilltop French city with a history a mile long. The view from that city's heights is intoxicating, and there's a plethora of beautifully-restored historical buildings to see. On a Sunday morning, however, our dining choices were even fewer than our dinner options had been the night before. We settled on espresso and pastries as the only customers at the first outdoor café we could find that was open and made do with that.
For all of its glorious history over many centuries, the city is perhaps best known today internationally for its annual celebration of comic books, the Angoulême International Comics Festival. Every year they award la grand prix de la ville d'Angoulême in recognition of some artist's body of work or lifetime achievement in the world of comics. My favorite winner of all without a doubt is the 1999 laureate, Robert Dennis Crumb, better known to rock-'n'-roll aficionados like myself as "R. Crumb," the mad genius who designed such masterpieces as the artwork for the album cover of Cheap Thrills, the magnum opus of Big Brother and the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin's screeching anthem, "Piece of My Heart":
Didn't I make you feel like you wanna own me – yeah! An' didn't I give you nearly everything that a woman possibly can? Honey, you know I did…
I want you to come on, come on, come on, come on and take it, Take another little piece of my heart now, baby!…
Leaving Angoulême for Médoc, we cheated and took the motorway. We were running behind schedule, such as our schedule was, and needed to make up for lost time. That resolution didn't last long. An hour or so later we passed a sign pointing to Cognac. "Let's go there!" Gypsy Feet cried, and Princess P and I agreed. We took the next exit, entered "Cognac" into the GPS, and headed off into the unknown countryside of France. By the second turn we were driving down dirt paths that only the cows, local farmers and our GPS knew existed. Undaunted, we put our faith in our equipment and soldiered on.
Reaching a crossroads, we found a sign reading "Remy Martin" and pointing off to the right. Our GPS insisted we go straight, and we obeyed its command. Reaching the top of the next hill, we parked the car beside a medieval cemetery encircled by high rock walls and took in the panoramic view of the surrounding valleys. In the near distance we could make out what must have been the home of Remy Martin. Whoever's home it was, it was lovely to behold, even from afar. In Cognac we strolled around looking for a suitable place to have lunch and settled on a pizza restaurant with walls covered floor to ceiling with mirrors. The pizza was tasty; the endless reflections in the facing mirrors were dizzying. From Cognac we pointed our charger in the direction of Blaye, where we caught a ferry across the Gironde to arguably the finest region for red wines in the world, the Médoc. There you will find many of the great appellations: Haut-Médoc, Margaux, St-Estèphe, Pauillac, St.-Julien and Margaux. Our home for the next three nights would be a room at the château of a noted producer of Haut-Médoc. With the story of how that came to be I will close this episode of our adventures in France. In August 2013, I was on a business trip to Beijing. Needing some items impossible to find in a Chinese store, I took a taxi to Wal-Mart, not far from the city's famous Silk Market. Finished with my shopping, I headed back out to the street with the intention of walking to the Silk Market to shop for gifts for Gypsy Feet and Princess P. The oppressive heat and humidity quickly put an end to that foolish notion. Looking for some form of relief, I spotted the marquee for the Beijing Sofitel. Like a heat-seeking missile closing in on its target, I headed straight there. Inside I passed the bar area, where a wine tasting was going on. Paying the cover without bothering to ask the price, I found a table with open bottles and clean glasses and helped myself to the grape juice. The person who sold me my ticket explained that each table was the domain of a different vintner from France, and that if no one was there to serve me, I should go ahead and help myself. Someone knowledgeable would join me shortly to explain the glories of the particular medicine I was sampling.
Moments later, a young Frenchman arrived and introduced himself as the head of marketing for Château Meyre, a producer of Haut-Médoc and Margaux from the Bordeaux region. In 10 minutes I learned more about Bordeaux wines from him than I had accumulated previously in my entire lifetime. Our conversation wandered here and there and eventually touched on my work and travels. When I mentioned I was going to be in Europe that fall, he invited me to come visit him at the château. One thing led to another led to another and, in the last week of October 2013, the three of us drove through the gates of Château Meyre and checked into our room. [To be continued...]