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Aftermath.. by sadd3j

Once we learned that none of them are available at LCBO..

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YFA’s Travels – Europe 2010 (Part 6/?) by YFA

Wow… let’s hope I finish posting this Europe trip blog before I start with Asia…

December 30, 2010
We had a super early start this morning because we have a lot of ground to cover – probably the worst part of highway driving for this trip, as we head up and over the mountain towards the north where there were earlier reports of snowstorms and possible road closures. This is as far north as we’ll go in this entire trip, so if we survive driving through the snow/mountains (which was a real concern we had, that we would get stuck in the snow in the mountain with a stick shift) we should be fine for the rest of the trip from the snow. Our final destination for the day is Bordeaux, but in between the 7+ hours of driving needed to get there, we have a few stops along the Loire Valley to look at French castles, of which we settled on the largest Chateau Chambord, and the unique looking Chateau Chaumont. Both castles appear very photogenic in our online image searches, so those were our top picks amongst the many Loire Valley castles.

We left the hotel just past 8am, where we intended to get breakfast at the Subway (yes they exist in Europe too!) next to the hotel, but unfortunately the Subway doesn’t open until 9am. So we decided to skip breakfast and start driving north towards the castles. The drive was quite treacherous as it just rained and the fog hasn’t cleared, so the roads were wet and visibility was super low. After driving for 1.5 hours, we arrived at Chaumont, only to find it wasn’t the correct Chaumont… sigh navigation fail! poor driver :P. At this point I was so hungry so I decided to eat my leftover sandwich in the car from the day before. After driving for another 1.5 hour or so, I started to get this headache which I thought was from this early “intensive” driving, so we changed drivers so I could take a nap in the backseat.

The wrong Chaumont - but has a European village feel

After 1 more hour of driving, we arrived at Chateau Chambord, but I was definitely feeling under the weather – with a headache and an upset stomach. But despite all that, there is a gigantic castle in front of me, but unfortunately parts of the exterior is under construction, including the moat, so we didn’t get the nice photo where the castle is reflected in full by the water in the moat :(. We went to grab lunch in the stores near the castle, but my stomach was so upset by this point I didn’t finish my food. Combined with my headache, I almost wanted to go back and stay in the car – but how can I miss out on this opportunity to see the largest castle in the Loire Valley!

Back side of Chateau Chambord, but moat is under construction
Side angle of Chambord. Do I look ill?
Front view of Chambord
Front courtyard of Chambord - same French flag as the previous photo

Chateau Chambord features a double helix staircase (which was some ingenious design by the standards back then) that ascends to the exterior terrace on the 3rd floor rooftops. The castle was generally very cold (which doesn’t help my not-feeling-well-ness) and crowds huddle by the active fireplaces. The view was pretty nice and the castle featured some French historical exhibits, but I was definitely not in the mood to appreciate French culture and architecture at that point in time.

Single helix staircase (double helix is in the middle of the castle)
Urgh graffiti and construction!
Top of the staircase to the terrace
I'm so tall!
Is this pose less contrived?!
View of the terrace
Higher view of the single helix staircase and courtyard
Castle with its
Classic French architecture?

After Chateau Chambord, we drove to the real Chateau Chaumont – which requires a good 5 minute uphill walk to get to. In my condition then, I really didn’t think I could make it to the top when I feel like I could throw up any minute – but I toughed it out regardless and the castle is definitely more interesting looking than Chambord. I think the photos are better here just because there’s no construction ruining the sight :).

Chateau Chaumont!
Chaumont's Courtyard
Fireplace inside. Too bad the fire isn't on, I'm going to die...
Chapel with stained glass windows
Dining Room at Chaumont
Parting shot of Chaumont - if I look annoyed that's 'cuz I'm about to collapse to the floor

One thing I noticed across both castles is that while many rooms host historical exhibits, a fair amount of rooms (and there are plenty of empty rooms) are used as art exhibits to showcase art (there’s even a photo exhibit of Cambodia). There was even some post-apocalyptic art exhibit in Chaumont which was quite scary when you randomly stumble across it in a corner room.

Church at Chaumont's town
Blois (I think... I didn't take this photo as I'm passed out at this point)

After Chaumont, we hopped back into the car and started driving, with one short stop along the way at Blois, but at that point I was so tired and sick that I didn’t even bother getting out of the car. I napped the entire way to Bordeaux and when we arrived at the Hotel Restaurant Kyriad Bordeaux Lac (Kyriad is another big European hotel chain) I was completely passed out and struggling to stay on my feet as I checked in for our 1 room for 4 people for 2 nights. The room ended up being a room with a ladder up to a loft and contains 4 twin size beds. The room was incredibly small and we barely had room to maneuver with everyone and their luggage. After settling in, I picked the bed downstairs next to the bathroom and showered and went to bed, foregoing dinner. The 3 of them left for dinner somewhere and I was already passed out by the time they got back.

The reason I picked the bed closest to the bathroom was because I knew I had an upset stomach and needed quick access to the bathroom – and this proved to be a wise choice as around 12:30am, I woke up feeling queasy and ended up making my way to the bathroom (like 5 steps away) to throw up all the contents in my stomach into the sink. (I even managed to close the door before throwing up, but I think I woke up everyone else regardless). Good thing I found the sink in time before I threw up – otherwise cleanup would be quite an unpleasant experience (the toilet would be a better choice, but sink wasn’t too bad). I felt much better after throwing everything up, and was convinced it must be mild food poisoning from eating that sandwich earlier in the day. Lesson learned – be more careful of what you eat while traveling!

Feeling dehydrated and with a mild headache still, I went back to sleep praying that I’d be fit enough to sightsee Bordeaux tomorrow, and would make it back home without dying in Europe O_O.

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YFA’s Travels – Europe 2010 (Part 5/?) by YFA

Wow so long since I posted. I blame starcraft. And work I guess – less free cycles to do the write ups, but here it is!

December 29, 2010
We checked out of Hotel du Simplon early in the morning and I started the drive towards Dijon, which is the captial city of the Burgundy region. But before that, we drove through the Beaujoulais wine region, which is a famous French wine region in the Rhone valley. We had no target wineries in mind and in fact, couldn’t find anything specific in the guidebook, so we literally randomly drove around aimlessly looking for signs for the winery (which proves rather challenging for a new stick shift driver, as I often have to make quick stops and starts). We ended up finally finding one winery (Armand Charvet) near Morgon that was open (many of them were close) to let us do wine tasting after 1.5 hours or so.
Beaujoulais Region vineyard
Armand Charvet's Tasting Room - which is the basement (wine cellar) to the owner's house

We then continued on our trip towards Beaune, which was a planned intermediary stop before Dijon. Beaune is a very classy small town in the Burgundy region that once upon a time was the capital of Burgundy. The downtown, historical part of Beaune was paved with cobblestone which adds to the classy feel. There were 2 primary attractions we wanted to see in Beaune – the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune and the Patriarche. We decided to visit the Patrairche first because we expect a fair amount of drinking and we wanted to give some time for the drivers to walk off the alcohol before continuing on.
Church at Beaune. There's a large crowd so we went to see what's going on - turns out they are waiting for mass to start :)

The Patriarche is a winery with a giant underground cellar that I suspect covers a major chunk of the historical center of Beaune. Only photos can describe the vast amount of wine stored underground here. Note the cellar is actually very dark with minimal lighting (to not ruin the wine) and it is all underground – I think it will make a perfect bomb shelter in the event of war :).
Entry way with giant barrels - this is before we enter the underground!
Underground barrel storage
stacks and stacks of bottles of wine
Wine stored and sorted by year - all up for purchase
more underground storage in corners and crevices

At the end of the self guided wine caves tour, one of the tour guides gives us a brief introduction and history of the Burgundy wines. We then get to taste a wide variety of Burgundy wines (red and white) – the entire process is unique here because it is self-served (so you can pour as much as you want, but there’s 20+ kind of wines available). Obviously you can’t swallow all that wine, otherwise you won’t be able to walk out of the cellar in a straight line. They even had champagne available… we suspect it was not for tasting, but for cleaning your palette in between wines, so literally, we used champagne to rinse our mouths :).
Why, I'll help myself to some wine, thx!

After the Patriarche, we went to the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, which is a former charitable almshouse with interesting decor. Unfortunately the weather was crummy and it was raining/foggy most of the time, so the outdoor photos didn’t turn out too well.
Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune
Unique rooftop patterns
How did I take one from the display case?!
Pretty decor
Even the ceiling is decorated with paintings
when the lights turn on...

After leaving Beaune, I drove to Dijon (yes I drove the entire day for Day 5), where we did our typical sightseeing of palace and churches (at this point they all seem to look the same and sound less and less interesting). Dijon seems a bit more historical and there is some uniqueness to it – for example, we saw a church with gargoyles along the exterior ledge. The wetness here worked to our advantage – it was very misty and the lighting turned out really nicely, with this… mystical feel to it.
Dijon in the mist
Church in the mist!
Nice elaborately decorated archway
Rows of gargoyles
After the rain... Dijon city square
Streets of Dijon with Christmas lights still up

Our Lonely Planet guidebook pointed out there’s some owl statue hidden in the town where people touch it for wisdom or good luck (or something along those lines) – so we set out to find this magical owl statue… except we walked all around the address it should be located at but couldn’t find it. And then we noticed there are numbered plaques and directional arrows with an owl symbol on them – so we started following these arrows which took us on some scenic tour around the city. We reached all the way up to 15 I think but got so hungry so we just gave up finding the owl at the end and went for dinner.
Owl No. 9, on the ground
Where does the wise owl lead?

We drove to the other side of town for dinner and I had my last try for beef (since Burgundy beef is supposed to be good) – and it tasted OK – but still not particularly special. So much for beef in France! They did serve some mash potatoes that had Dijon mustard in it (how sad, I think that’s all the city is famous for, its mustard) which was quite unique.

As an aside – when I tried to find street parking near the restaurant, the only spot I could find was cars parallel parked along this narrow street, where they had to park with half the car (2 wheels) on the curb – so I followed suit and did the same thing – it was incredibly challenging since I had to a) parallel park to my left; b) run the car up the curb, so need to have enough speed and momentum, without crashing into the car behind me; c) not stall the car with all the braking and turning 😛 but I did it! I’m now a true European driver… just don’t try this back home.

Anyhow, after dinner we went to our hotel (Campanile Dijon Centre – Campanile is a pretty big hotel chain in Europe) and crashed for the night, since we have a long day tomorrow – and when the trip went south for me!

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post-tremblant by teewee

I am no where near as diligent as yfa and his detailed writeup… maybe i’ll add a few more later..

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YFA’s Travels – Europe 2010 (Part 4/?) by YFA

December 28, 2010
Today marks the first “big day” of our European trip, as we focus on what our primary goal of this trip is – to wine and dine! We have reservations at Paul Jaboulet Aîné in the morning, and a reservation at Pic at night, which I’ll go into great detail later – but first the wine.

Paul Jaboulet Aîné is one of the bigger brands of the Rhone Valley but unfortunately their vineyard is closed (for renovations or for holidays, don’t remember) but their wine cellar is open for free tasting – most of the wineries and tasting rooms actually offer free tasting around France, just to entice you to buy their wine. Paul Jaboulet Aîné’s wine cellar is called Vineum (vin is wine in French, in case that wasn’t obvious) and is located in Chateauneuf-sur-Isere near their winery at the famous Tain l’Hermitage region. The cellar is in a large cave like structure with giant wooden doors paired with automatic sliding glass doors, as seen in the photos.

Paul Jaboulet Aîné's Vineum

Each of us got to try two reds and two whites (out of the 8 available on the dispenser for tasting), and all my friends pulled out their wine tasting notebooks and starting taking wine testing notes… me, I just drink… what a noob… haha. Their most famous red wine is “La petite chapelle” which was pretty good. Also tried some of their whites as well, which I’m not a big fan of in general. We couldn’t get a (paid) tour of the cellar because we only have a group of 4, and they need reservations of groups of 5 minimum.

Wine and spitter

The Vineum is located approximately 1 hour south of Lyon, and the girl driver drove this stretch as she notified me ahead of time I’ll have to do the drive tonight back home after dinner since she’ll be in heels :P. Despite not having to drive, I didn’t really want to get tipsy at 10:30am in the morning, so I ended up spitting out most of the wine into their spit bucket after tasting it.

After Paul Jaboulet Aîné, we wanted to taste more local wines, and pretty much “randomly drove around” following signs to local wineries. We ended up at a local winery by the name of Domaine des 7 Chamins. The gate was opened but all the doors were closed, but we drove in anyway. An old lady came out to see what we were doing (4 Chinese people! Good thing we were nicely dressed and not bum-looking), and with our broken French we explained we wanted to do wine tasting, upon which she fetched another lady to open up the tasting room for us. A this point, the experience is so local, everything is conducted in French with no expectation anyone can understand English.

Domaine des 7 Chamins
Domaine des 7 Chamins's Vineyard. Hey I'm looking at the camera!

After this ad-hoc wine tasting (and more spitting), we proceeded to the local town of Tain l’Hermitage, where all the major Rhône Valley wineries are located. The backdrop of the town are hills of vineyards with signs like “Paul Jaboulet Aîné” on them. We stopped by the HQ store of Valhrona, which is apparently a world famous chocolate manufacturer (claims the girl that spent 10 weeks studying at le Cordon Bleu baking in Paris). According to wikipedia, “Valrhona focuses mainly on high-grade luxury chocolate marketed for professional as well as for private consumption. Though considered one of the foremost chocolate makers in the world, Valrhona is in roughly the same price range as Godiva and Neuhaus.” so I guess my friend knows her stuff :). Like the Theo chocolate factory in Fremont, Seattle which I’m sure t.ha is familiar with, there’s free samples around the store. Maybe I’m biased, but I did find Theo chocolate to be slightly better than Valhrona – maybe just my personal preference.

Inside Valhrona
Tain L'Hermitage. Photo seems a little darker than I thought, need some more PP!
Little church with the bridge as a backdrop
On the bridge at Tain L'Hermitage

After Valhrona, we walked around the small town of Tain l’Hermitage, posed for a lot of photo ops around town, and then went to another local restaurant for lunch across the street from Valhrona. It was a very local restaurant that looks like a house converted to a dining hall, and as we walked in, everyone in the ground floor dining hall stopped eating and stared at us 😐 – I guess a recurring theme of this trip is that the places we go to A) do not have a lot of Asians, let alone Chinese; and B) don’t have a lot of young people, so we definitely stand out. For whatever reason, the server led us to the dining room upstairs, where we had the entire room by ourselves, which is fine by us. The food was not bad – surprisingly good actually for a small town local restaurant, (just don’t get beef…) and it was another typical slow French meal where a 3 course lunch lasted us from noon to 3pm. Maybe it was the wine, (we ordered a cheap bottle of table wine) but we definitely loosened up and had a lot of fun in what we called “the upper room” by ourselves.

Dessert for lunch - forgot the name already - something float - but it was good!

After lunch we walked to another big Rhône Valley winery’s tasting room – Chapoutier. The wine tasting guide we had spoke proper English (with a small French accent, makes the experience all the more authentic) and we were able to try and experiment with a number of wines (again, for free), including Hermitage, Crozes Hermitage, Cote Rotie, etc. We even had the luxury of doing a cross-year tasting, where we tasted their Hermitage (I think) across a few different years, from 1990 (I think, this is where taking notes would have helped) to 2007 (selected years, not every year). There was definitely a noticeable difference in the bouquet and the taste of the wine – I definitely come to appreciate what it means for wines that are “not yet ready” for drinking. And while we’re at it, we tried some whites as well, and here I think I’ve found my favourite white (so far) – a 2006 Chapoutier Chante Alouette – (yes, specifically the 2006, we did cross-year tasting as well) – the bouquet was SO GOOD I just kept smelling the glass again and again.

Tain L'Hermitage - the town itself. Note the funny looking trees that you fon'dt find in N.A. Also Chapoutier is to the left.

After tasting a lot of wine (I was definitely tipsy at this point despite spitting a lot of the wine out), we left Tain l’Hermitage and left for our final destination of the day – Valence. Valence is the capital of the department (province) capital of Drôme, and is formerly known as the “Duchy of Valentinois” (for you Dominion players). We were pondering why Valence is so famous, so the cooking girl emailed one of her professors (who grew up in Valence) and asked – apparently Napoleon stopped over here for a night on his way back from exile or something, and that is a huge deal -.-!.

Valence at night
Frozen Fountain at Valence. Goes to show how cold it is.
Downtown Valence
Church in Valence. The church was closing and the lights were pretty much out, friend's Nikon shot this at... ISO 22500 or something ridix. So grainy!

After some regular sightseeing (every European town has a palace and a church, we concluded) we headed to Maison Pic for our dinner reservation where the girls went in to change while I napped in the car. This is the night where we reserved a Michelin 3 star restaurant (Michelin stars only go up to 3) and is the fine dining highlight of the trip! We decked out for this dinner – as we should since we ordered the multi-course sampler meal, which along with tips and champagne (which we started off with, so classy) and NO WINE, came out to EUR €231.25 per person. The other guy friend in the group ordered the classic multi-course sampler which contains traditional favourites (and more exotic ingredients in general) and his bill came to EUR €356.25!

Fancy dinnerware. How do you use a plate shaped like a UFO? Apparently you don't - they take it away from you before you get your food, decor only!
Would you like some champagne to start? Yes please!

A little history on Maison Pic – the grandfather of the current chef opened the restaurant, received 3 Michelin stars but ended up losing it, and the restaurant was picked up by his son, who regained the 3 Michelin stars but ended up losing them some years later, and now the 3rd generation chef, Anne-Sophie Pic, regained the 3 Michelin stars again in 2007. She is apparently the female cook to garner this award for the first time in 50 years!

The display of Michelin books at the entrance to Maison Pic
Madame Pic herself!

I’ll let the photos of this super expensive meal (hopefully the most expensive meal I’ll have in my life) speak for themselves. My overall thoughts were the dishes were very unique and “challenges your palette” as my foodie friend put it. It definitely worked on very unique and distinct combination of tastes in each course (though we found it was a bit “heavy-handed” in that regard) and… a lot of resemblance to Chinese food taste -.-!. In fact, when Anne-Sophie Pic came out from the kitchen to make rounds and chat with all her guests in this exquisite restaurant, my friend actually asked her if her cuisine has any Chinese influence 😛 (the answer was no). As she was going around the tables, I made the joke (to my friends only) that maybe we can ask her if we can get a photo of us… with her taking the photo, haha :P.

Dinner - courses from both menus
Pre-pre-dessert, the cheese cart
The dessert they light on fire in front of you

The dinner, being French, was insanely long, and clocked out to 5 hours, with lots of waiting in between courses. Dreading the 1h drive back to Lyon, I was prepared to leave past midnight, and when they took away our main course, and started to serve dessert, I was thinking “finally” only to find out there is pre-dessert and a cheese cart before the final dessert -.-!. Being true to our Chinese roots, we paid the entire meal – which came to over €1000 Euros – in cash :P. Someone in our group made the observation that this has been a day where our meals total value were exponentially increasing – we started off with €10 McDonald’s breakfast, and then €100ish for lunch (total bill amount), and ended our day with a €1000ish bill :P.

Decked out and checking out from Pic

The drive back to Lyon was tough (you know me and food coma, which is why I typically drive in the mornings and pass the keys on to the other driver in the afternoon), but no stalling, and safe parking :P. We got back pretty late (at least 2am) and we’ve an early start tomorrow as we leave Lyon to continue in our wine and dine adventure!

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