Loire Valley

The Loire Valley…former playground of France’s nobility, now it attracts lovers of chateaus and, well, lovers of chateaus, the world over. But is that all there is to the Loire? Of course not, or else we wouldn’t have come here. I mean, Soph likes her chateaus, and she definitely wears the pants in the relationship, but to be able to drag me on a vacation where the only thing to do is look at glorified manor houses? Even I have some standards…

And standard number one is…goat cheese! Yes, the Loire is possibly the world’s finest purveyor of goat cheese. It’s so good that they even mold it into shapes before selling it to you! St. Maure is a cylinder; Valencay is a pyramid; etc. Not sure that it adds much to the taste, but it does make it just a little bit more fun to eat. Anyway - we were discussing over one of our fromage plates how it turned out that I, who never really ate cheese up until a few years ago, ended up being the one of us who now loves cheese (this was realized when I took seven cheeses from the dessert tray, and then stole one of Soph’s because I knew she wouldn’t like it). I mean - I hated macaroni and cheese growing up so much so that I don’t remember having actually eaten it. Maybe therein lies the reason? Not having my cheese taste-buds stunted by the green glop that is Kraft, I’m now able to enjoy the stinkiest of stinky cheeses? Probably not - but it’s been a fun progression to start with tame cheeses such as Gruyere, and on the second night in the Loire Valley to graduate to Roquefort, the king of moldy cheeses. I couldn’t have even smelled that stuff a year ago, but now - bring it on!

Regarding the rest of the food of the Loire…I know I’ve said this before, but the French really know what they’re doing when they cook. Once again, we had some crazy-good eating experiences, including the single best French Onion Soup the world has ever witnessed. The food is really at it’s best when mixing flavors, such as a venison with a raspberry and black pepper sauce, or a spiced chocolate mousse with cream, vanilla and burnt sugar. Best of all - we didn’t eat Asian food for five straight days! I think that’s a new record (although I’m writing this the day after returning, and Soph has already cooked us a full Korean dinner…)

That brings us to standard number two…wine! Ok, we’ve done a lot of wine stuff already, but the Loire is one of those underrated regions that produces some very nice wines, relatively cheaply, but doesn’t get much press. As such - we were able to visit some of the top producers here, tour their caves, and get really great wines for almost nothing. Of course, we had to fit them into our suitcases, which kind of sucked, but that’s all part of the adventure. The thing I really like about the Loire wines, however, is the sheer number of producers who have gone biodynamic with their processes. I don’t want to sound like a hippie or anything, but it’s kind of neat seeing a lot of younger vignerons having success with these types of methods. It generally takes them a few years to see the results, but many of the growers have found the quality of their wines has gotten better, and a handful of the top domaines here are now fully biodynamic. One of the first producers to do this, Domaine Huet, now even has tulips growing on their vines - the only place in the world where this happens. We ended up driving by their plots, and it was interesting to see theirs versus other growers in the same area who aren’t biodynamic, as the contrast is staggering.

Standard number three is, obviously - tuffeau caves! Tuffeau is a type of rock unique to the Loire; it’s fairly soft, and back in the day was extensively mined as a building material (for many of the chateaus, actually). Today, you have tons of caves from where it was excavated – caves which hold cool things like mushrooms and wines! We did a couple of tastings in tuffeau caves, which was neat because the temperature was perfect for wine storage. It was also perfect for fungus growing – some of the older bottles of wine were completely covered in mold! And while I generally don’t have much of an opinion on caves in general, these were fun, as you walked in on the ground level and the temperature was instantly colder, as it stays constant throughout the summers and winters.

All this fun stuff aside, the real draw of the Loire Valley is, of course, the chateaus…because really, who doesn’t like a nice chateau every now and then? And the Loire is filled with some of the best. Gothic spires, crazy gardens…one of them even had a working drawbridge! Of all the castles and whatnot we’ve seen, I think this was the first actual drawbridge; unfortunately there was no ogre in the moat, although there was a dude with a large nose who demanded a 10 Euro entrance fee, which at the end of the day is kind of the same thing.

While I don’t necessarily get into the whole “this chateau was given to this king’s mistress, and then the queen banished her to this other chateau” thing, Soph enjoys a lot of the political drama that comes with them. For me, I find them interesting because they’re basically castles that were built for comfort and beauty, rather than as defensive structures, which I think marks a major shift in how the role of government was being executed. Architecturally, most of the chateaus have some feature that is both unique and interesting, whether it be their location, the grounds / gardens, or even the floor plan. One of them, Cheverny, is still even being lived in by the owners! That said, the most impressive of them was, without a doubt, Chambord. Chambord was merely the king’s hunting lodge, and he ended up spending something like 60 entire days there in his lifetime. Interestingly enough, Leonardo da Vinci came and helped design it as he was getting older, and spent a few of his final years living here. As such, you have some features that are clearly ahead of their time. First, the inside is planned on a strict geometric basis, with all sorts of rooms upon rooms that allow not only for large gatherings, but also a lot of privacy. Then there is the double-helix staircase, which is designed in such a way that people going up will never pass people going down (it’s also set up so that a single lantern at the top of the staircase can light the entire chateau, or at least the main halls – which would have been very useful in the pre-electricity days). Finally, of course, is the view of the keep from outside. Chambord is so monstrously large and imposing, and so ornate, that you can’t help but gawk at it. It’s very impressive, and as such, I’ll just post some pictures, rather than try to describe it.

Lastly, I have to say this one more time…we once again had good experiences with the French. We even took a wine tour in French, although it was more like a half of a wine tour, because midway through some other English-speaking people showed up, and the guide thought it would be easier to just give the tour and switch between languages, at which point her French became completely unintelligible to the non-native speaker. Still - good times!

Next week: Chamonix!


This is now our third city-trip in Germany, and Berlin is so shockingly different than the other two German cities we went to that one would wonder how they’re related. In some ways it’s like any other European metropolitan city, with huge malls, neo-classical facades, and a well-maintained metro system. However, once you start looking, you find so much more...

While I don’t want to get into the political and economic history of what occurred there over the past 60+ years – mostly because people will inevitably disagree with any interpretation I give – I do want to point out this is precisely why it’s an interesting city from a travel perspective. Clearly there is a difference between the east and the west, although massive construction has significantly blurred that line in the past twenty years. However, Berlin’s true appeal today is how it has culturally handled that transition. What you had were two sets of people who were exactly the same but, because of where their houses / apartments were located, they were split. Almost fifty years later they were put back together, but in that timeframe they went in drastically different directions. So what happens now?

Well, you get a massive artistic explosion, for one. From architecture to music to fashion to just about anything, Berlin is not only on the cutting edge, they’re driving it. The number of modernist buildings is staggering; the entire city seems to be a playground for progressive architecture. Every street has some concept-building begging to be looked at, from small row apartments to large office buildings, and you could probably spend weeks trying to see them all.

Galleries and studios also proliferate, many of which have extremely interesting stuff. For instance – there’s a clothing store that, on the main floor, is just an empty white-plastered room, no signs or anything, and a lone staircase heading down. If you take the staircase, you get into this immaculate basement with crazy men’s/women’s clothing from local designers. In addition, you see a lot more Eastern European influence in many of the stores, which rarely ever makes its’ way into Switzerland or the US.

Another way in which Berlin is setting itself apart from the rest of Europe is in the bar / club scene. The only way to truly describe it would be as “completely out of control”. Any type of music you want to hear is being played somewhere – opera, jazz, alternative, balkan electronica – you name it. Just walking into stores you hear styles of music you’ve never even considered. This all leads into a lot of unique venues and concepts. For instance, one bar we went to was full of nooks and beanbags, which was great for lazing around with your honey! Another bar we went to was basically an art squat inside an old shopping mall that was apparently in the process of being demolished when the squatters took it over. There was graffiti everywhere and a couple of metal-working studios attached to it; you just don’t find this kind of thing in other cities!

Then the club scene…well, first of all, I’m too old for clubbing. However, Berlin is known for having the best clubs in Europe, if not the entire world, so of course I made Soph go to one with me. And of course, the first one we tried to go to, they took one look at us and said something in German that probably translated as “too old”, and wouldn’t let us in. Luckily there was another one up the street, and while we didn’t get any younger on the way there, they were letting everyone in, so it worked out. Good night – we made it out well past 3am!

As a side note, many of you are probably wondering how I was able to convince Soph to go to a club that plays electronic music. The answer is simple – I took her to get Asian food for lunch both days. Marriage is all about give and take…

At the end of the day, would I recommend Berlin? Actually a tough question; in some ways, it’s the most exciting and vibrant city we’ve been to, possibly anywhere. The energy is contagious, and the sub-culture is so far past any other city that it’s not even funny. That being said – if you take that element away, Berlin is just another city, albeit with some really cool architecture. The main sites are interesting enough that it’s hard to skip those in favor of exploring the rebuilding and soon-to-be gentrified neighborhoods – however, a good number of other European cities also have “main sites” that are just as interesting, if not moreso. However, what’s going on in parts of East Berlin is what makes it unique – which makes sense, because it’s still trying to catch up to the west. Buildings are being torn down and replaced; low rents are attracting international talent; I mean, we had coffees in a minimalist concrete-furnitured organic coffeeshop. Where else will you find something like that? That said, it will probably all be gone in another twenty years and replaced with a Starbucks. Speaking of which - check out how crowded the one below is!

Next trip: Loire Valley!