Languedoc wine region

A Rosé Holiday in Montpellier


The student-centric city of Montpellier is not what one assumes when you say you’re jetting off to the south of France. Typically, the exotic beaches of the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera), Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez fit the bill but for me and my crew, a short jaunt to the 8th largest city in France to sip rosé in the sun is just what the doctor ordered.

To start, Montpellier is perfectly located to get a quick taste of the fabulous Languedoc wine route. We started off with a half-day tour led by the friendly and knowledgeable Karina from Montpellier Wine Tours to visit two medieval, family-owned estates.

Montpellier Wine TourSet at the base of Pic Saint-Loup, Château La Roque’s entire biodynamic selection was perfect on the palate and we couldn’t escape without two bottles of Château La Roque Rosé 2015 in tow. Followed by Château de Lascaux, sitting amongst the dated stone walls in an old monastery, set the scene perfectly for our second tasting.

Château La Roque VineyardA short train ride from the city is the unpretentious colorful port town of Sète. Narrow canals create a maze around the old town, surprisingly busy for a Sunday when the rest of France shuts down. Families enjoyed ice-creams, as we parked ourselves in front of the foodie mecca Les Halles, to sip more rosé in the sun to the sound of locals playing music in the street out front.

Languedoc coastAfter a scenic walk along the Languedoc coast, we discovered a small, quiet beach. It was an ideal and unsuspecting place to grab a baguette, some cured ham and cheese to picnic, coupled with a light, refreshing rosé in the scorching heat. On our way back to town, it was only necessary to sit along the canal to soak up the last of the day’s sun and try the big fat locally farmed oysters, king prawns and mussels.

Seafood platter in SèteThe best part of Montpellier is not only the short 14k proximity to a stunning coastline but cycling there! A paved path with fit runners, wild horses and fishermen hug the lush green river Lez, topped with Lilly pads and flamingos and lined with bright purple, yellow and white flowers mixed with bright red poppies. We let our skirts flow with the wind as we rode hired bikes along the pathway to its mouth Palavas-les-Flots, and stopped along the way for yet again another indulging picnic and bottle of rosé to reward ourselves for the day’s efforts.

Cycling to Palavas-les-Flots

Montpellier wild horsesMontpellier is an interesting city for sure. A friend asked why go? There’s nothing there, he said. But if you like great wine, fresh seafood and fantastic weather, there’s nothing not to like. It’s a quirky and charming place, tattoo and piercing shops nestle up next to century-old buildings; student friendly cheap eats, kabab and bagel shops rival Michelin recommended bistros while street performers, hippies and homeless dogs roam the streets.

Place de la Comédie“Summer is for tourists, wine country is for locals,” Karina said. And I’d like to pretend just for a weekend I was both. Even better, Montpellier turned Sophie from a rosé sceptic to a convert. Nothing beats a rosé holiday!

We loved:
Glouglou: A cute wine bar with a large range of taste-to-pour varietals. The glouglou platter of oysters, salmon, cured ham, cheese and foie gras was a perfect snack to share post-wine tasting.

glouglouThym Et Romarin: An awesome recommendation from Karina, we had our favorite meal in town here with excellent service by Jean. The confit duck and baked camembert were a dream.

The Beehive Pub: Set in a charming square where local townsfolk enjoy a beer at any time of day, the selection of over 40 whiskies gave us no reason to apologize for enjoying a few post-dinner aperitifs at an English pub in France (gasp!).

Le Pré Vert: This beautiful brunch location has the most enormous, delicious salads. Think goat cheese on toast with orange slices and almonds; smoked salmon and trout with mixed vegetables; or pesto chicken and fresh mozzarella.

Grand Hotel du Midi:  Just on the cusp of the old town, this funky contemporary hotel was perfectly situated in buzzing Place de la Comédie in the heart of the city. Service was great, free-Wi-Fi, a friendly bar with a great selection and small balconies to enjoy the morning sun.

Grand Hotel du Midi

 

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For the Love of France


Within my first 6 months living back in London I have ventured over to France 4 times…it really must be love!

From the City of Lights in Paris to craft beer drinking Lille, to the castles of Loire and finally to the capital of gastronomy Lyon, I’m making a serious dent in becoming a Francophile. Who would have thought it?

My recent trip to the Loire Valley was special. My mom made her way over from New Jersey for our first mother/daughter European adventure. What better way to spend the time then to hop on the Eurostar then travel through bright yellow canola fields into the city of Tours at the heart of the Loire Valley.

JoAnn Rose in St. Pancreas International

JoAnn Rose in St. Pancreas International

We trailed the internet in search of the perfect wine tour but it just didn’t appear to exist. In the end we booked with Loire Valley Tours, where we visited some of the famed castles in the valley and tried a few wines. We were joined by two 19-year-old American’s who were studying abroad, and I couldn’t help but smirk at their naivety, something that I swore I didn’t have when I was in their shoes back in my university days abroad in 2003. Even funnier was that the girls were studying French in Toulouse. Our driver Simon kindly pointed out that learning French in the south would be like learning english in Liverpool, the accent is just simply that bad.

Simon of Loire Valley Tours

Simon of Loire Valley Tours

Simon rudely wouldn’t assist us in making a dinner reservation, something that I would have thought is going above and beyond. He wanted to prove a point though, so as I hung up after nervously calling one of the best local restaurants in Tours to book us into dinner, he said, “See, do you now have a reservation?” And after I bashfully responded “Yes”, he said, “I told you so, this is 2016 after all and everyone in France speaks english.”

My favourite castle was Chenonceau, set over River Cher with immaculate gardens and a fascinating story as it was built by different women over the centuries.  I also enjoyed the day in the picturesque town of Amboise, visiting Leonardo de Vinci’s grave and home where he died, and the interesting lunch of pork belly at what one would assume was a tourist trap yet was strangely filled with locals at cave restaurant La Cave aux Fouées.

Our wine tasting at Caves Duhard was like nothing I had ever experienced before. No wine was made there, it simply was storage, but then again that’s what caves in France are perfect for. In fact, one of the oldest bottles they still had was from 1874. As we carefully walked along the dirt floor into the darkness of the depth of the cave, we passed thick green bottles stacked upon bottles, labelless, casually divided by a concrete wall with the name and year scribbled on a piece of wood. As I wiped dust off of a 1983 Vouvray, the year I was born, I contemplated buying it. Prices were very reasonable after all but following the brief tasting we had paired with some amazing local cheese I thought better of it and bought a cheap and cheerful Moutlouis to drink on a warm summers day. Note: I’ve already drank it and it was more delicious the second time around.

It appeared our answer to everything that weekend was “Bonjour”. More wine? Bonjour. Have a good evening. Bonjour. Where are you from? Bonjour. So as we made our way from Michelin-starred restaurants to boutique wine bars and said our bonjours, we took our last stop in Paris before travelling back to London for one more wine, escargot and beef tartare. Oh how French.

The following weekend I was on a flight with my friend Jake back over to France again, but this time to where it is oddly referred to as the stomach of France, Lyon! Oh, how I loved Lyon!

Shamefully I hadn’t done my research well enough in advance, and we arrived late Saturday afternoon on a bank holiday weekend to fly back again on Monday. I had planned it perfectly in my head, only to learn that there are no wine tours on Sunday and we wouldn’t arrive early enough on Saturday! So here I was, traveling to the famed northern Rhone Valley and there wasn’t an opportunity to taste the wine at a vineyard?! So not cool. But then again, if you don’t ask you don’t get and luckily I came across Vincent of Lyon Wine Tours, a young wine tour operator who kindly picked us up at Lyon airport Saturday afternoon and took us through elegant Cote-Rotie to try some perfect Syrah and Viognier. Oh and unlike Simon, he offered to make our dinner reservation. My only regret now was flying with carry on only as we couldn’t bring anything back!

Cot Rotie Condrieu

Cote Rotie Condrieu

But being in France’s foodie capital meant that the rest of the trip was all about eating, of course. From traditional blood sausage, the new superfood apparently, and the best potatoes dauphinoise I’ve ever had at traditional Lyonnaise eatery Chez Mounier. The real star of town however is Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, a famed gastronomic institution where locals come to gather not only to shop from each little storefront of over 48 merchants for cheese, foie gras, pralines, charcuterie and others but also to make their way from each small restaurant to the next, trying a new dish as each had its own speciality.

We desperately wanted oysters but found ourselves sat at the counter of Les Garcons Bouchers (The Butcher), ordered some of the finest steak and potatoes for breakfast, and had a friendly chat with our French neighbours who poured us bounty of their own wine as we must try it they demanded. Oysters would come next for lunch at L’epicerie before dining at Lyon’s famed chef Paul Bocuse’s brassiere, Le Sud.

Oysters at L’epicerie, Lyon

Oysters at L’epicerie, Lyon

The city itself is picturesque, with an Old Town, cobblestone streets and all, and a huge cathedral, Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière,  at the top of the hill which makes for a great afternoon hike in between all the wine and food tasting. There’s also plenty of shopping and nightlife, but who needs that in a culinary haven such as Lyon.

The Gambrinus’ Stein (Lille, France)


We find ourselves in the small city of Lille in the French Flanders, far enough north to neighbor the Belgian border and thick with Flemish influence; food and architecture included.

Nicole Vecchio Bryce and street art; Rue de la Monnaie, Lille, France

Nicole Vecchio Bryce and street art; Rue de la Monnaie, Lille, France

“What do you mean you’re going to drink beer and not wine,” my mother questioned. “I thought you were going to France?”

Within the proximity of Lille (pronounced lee-eel) there is a growing trend of microbreweries and beer fooding i.e. beer pairing is a very real thing. We might as well be in Belgium. But we are not. My sister and I dash through customs at London’s St. Pancreas International and zip through the Chunnel into northern France. Only a mere hour and a half later we are on Lille’s doorstep. It’s noticeably colder than London and we immediately complain.

Rue de la Monnaie, Lille, France

Rue de la Monnaie, Lille, France

Luckily the city is quite small and manageable for anyone easy on their feet. Within 10 minutes walk we arrive at our hotel in Vieux Lille (Old Lille). This is where things start to appear picturesque and around every corner I squeal “OMG, but isn’t it just so cute?!” My sister Nicole only then grasps that we are in a foreign country and English isn’t the first language. I greet the receptionist with a confident yet mispronounced bonjure and after entering the smallest elevator on earth we land in our immaculate room. Oh Europe I’ve missed you!

 

We only had a few hours to kill before our grand beer adventure but managed to, what we had initially assumed, see it all. In Vieux Lille we mastered the narrow cobblestone streets and took random turns trying to get lost but actually found our way amongst the cute local shops, craft beer sellers and row upon row of exquisite restaurants. We rode bikes through the windy garden paths of Jardin Vauban, sipped Belgian beers alfresco in La Grand Palais square, and snacked on local specialities like beef tartare, Welsh rarebit and waffles with Nutella. Yum!

At 4 pm we stood in front of the tourist office in anticipation to meet our tour, the beer tasting treasure hunt The Gambrinus’ Stein, organized through the craft beer tasting tourism group L’Echappee Biere. Young Aurelie and her companion Olivier greeted us and whisked us away to our first stop, the unassuming Theatre Cafe, to explain how the game would work. The bad news, Nik and I were the only people on the tour so we weren’t going to make friends as we had hoped. The good news, we couldn’t lose as we had no competitors!

The Gambrinus' Stein, Beer Treasure Hunt

The Gambrinus’ Stein, Beer Treasure Hunt

We were handed a booklet that explained it all. 4 bars, 3 hours and a series of clues to get us from one to the next. The clues weren’t googlable and were intended to have us experience the city by observing the elements so easily overlooked when just passing by. This is what made it both interesting, and yet so damn hard! We snorted with confidence that 3 hours would be a breeze, yet 3 hours and 15 minutes later I was texting Aurelie that we couldn’t locate the final bar.

In addition to the clues such as “once on the square that makes you cry when you cook, keep going straight. If you see a beer shop you are following the correct path,” there were also hints, historical notes and riddles. We would receive extra credit for social sharing photos of key points of interest (and smart marketing on their behalf), and once we made it to the bar would hand over our ticket to the barman who was already expecting us and complete a questionnaire on the given beer color, country of origin, ABV and style. Clever little game don’t you think?

La Grand Palais, Lille, France

La Grand Palais, Lille, France

Into early evening it grew dark and the game intensified as we peered at etchings in the architecture, storefront names and church nuances. But it was fun! At the final bar Olivier met us to go through our answers and rewarded us points, as if we had been competing against others. It was cute and humble and as we sat and chatted about where we should go eat charcuterie and sample some French wines (heaven forbid) I fell even more in love with this small little company of friends who invented a game to educate tourists on not just their city but the world of beer that is so prevalent in it. Their website states, “there are more than 40 breweries in the Nord Pas de Calais, and approximatively 150 in Belgium.”

Olivier handed over our “winning” prize of a large quadruple Trappist. Aurelie shortly followed with a second bottle, saying there was one for each of us. When we tried to resist that it was all just too much, she replied “for my bad English.” Her English was great by the way, and we even appreciated that our booklet was in English as well.

Grand Place, Vieux Lille

Grand Place, Vieux Lille

For 25 euro what an amazing journey. We were educated, awarded beer, and taken to some amazing, unique and colorful bars that we would have so easily overlooked if not had been recommended by locals.  I won’t spoil it for you, but I would definitely recommend you give it a go next time in Lille although I’m still unsure if Gambrinus ever found his stein!

We ended the evening with the most exquisite steak with bearnaise, frittes and a cheese and charcuterie board at La Part de Anges followed by a few glasses of burgundy at neighboring wine bar Monsieur Jacques with a big smile and a day well accomplished.

Steak and Frites at La Part des Anges, Lille

Steak and Frites at La Part des Anges, Lille

Uncovering an England I Never Knew


So what’s it like to be back in London? This loaded question keeps being asked yet I’ve quietly gone about my transition landing in the Big Smoke undetected as if I were a phantom. No Facebook broadcasting, Instagram snapshotting or even blog writing. Gasp. But that doesn’t mean I’m holed up in seclusion exactly.

Because honestly, being back in London simply just feels like home. I feel normal as if I haven’t lived away from the US for close to five years and on the other side of the world gallivanting around the South Pacific.

Strangely, for the first time in all my times moving abroad, I don’t have the overwhelming anxiety and confusion over moving somewhere new. There is no culture shock, which even surprised myself. It’s such a massively refreshing feeling to know where to go and what to do. I know to stand on the right on the escalators, how to weave in and out of chaotic commuter people traffic, which sandwiches at Pret are my favorite and which ready-meal curries to avoid. I was elated last weekend to be even more in my element at Hawker House, a foodie night market with craft beer and hipsters in East London.

Street Feast, Hawker House

Street Feast, Hawker House

I’m heading up a marketing team at a tech start-up in trendy Richmond, and enjoying the fact that after 8.5 years with one company I’ve landed in a role that ticked all my boxes: start-up, newly created position, leadership opportunity, fun culture, technology focused and international. This means I’ll get to travel to see family and friends in New York more regularly and continue to go exploring in Asia and beyond.

I’ve taken the leap as an ‘adult’ to live alone in a one-bedroom flat in my old, posh stomping grounds of Nottinghill. This is the hardest transition of all as I’m used to my social calendar being filled months in advance and friends to dine with all nights of the week. With a long commute and late working hours coupled with my poor cooking skills I’ve decided in such a multi-national city that I should be living with flat mates again to meet people and explore new areas. I’ve landed on Clapham Junction, a middle-class neighborhood south of the river that will get me to work, the city or my friends in East London in about 20 minutes. It’s full of restaurants, nightlife and boutiques and even better, infiltrated with Aussies so I may just feel even more at home once I move at the end of December.

I’m also experiencing a very strange gravitational pull toward France. This happened while visiting Paris again recently in August 2014, and then I fell in love with Bordeaux in July 2015. As I begin to learn more about French wine I find myself planning on how to get to each unique region over time. Only two weeks ago I found myself back in Paris with two Australian friends hopping between arrondissements, sipping wine, eating fondue and waiting in an extremely long line to have my breath taken away at the magnificent view from the top of the Eiffel Tower. I never expected to say that it was so worth it.

In fact, I have a feeling that Paris will substitute what Sydney was for me in Australia; An opportunity to jump over every few months and catch up with an American friend just living the life like a local. We’ll see. For now though, I’m already booked to head over to Lille in January and Lyon to taste the wines of Cotes de Rhone in May.

So as a newly arrived expat I’d only be staying true to form if I devised my ‘must-do’ list or what others would deem as a bucket list. So here it is:

  • Uncover an England I’ve never experienced before
  • Hot-air balloon over Cappadocia, Turkey
  • See the Northern Lights and Fjords in Norway
  • Go to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland
  • Eat dumplings in Hong Kong
  • Drive down the coast of Ireland
  • Eat kimchi in Seoul
  • Learn French/Italian wine
  • Create amazing, lasting friendships
  • See family/friends more regularly

Bordeaux, My Gastronomic Adventure


But why Bordeaux? This was the response I received when going over my itinerary for #Eurotrip2015. London was a no brainer and Croatia has been on my bucket list for years. But as more and more people questioned my French destination of choice I was starting to get nervous that I had overlooked something obvious. Was Bordeaux no good? I mean sure, I much prefer Burgundy wines but then again I’m sure Bordeaux won’t be that hard for me to swallow.

Katrina Miranda in Bordeaux

Katrina Miranda in Bordeaux

Is it an oxymoron to say the city is both medieval and young at the same time? It’s active, vibrant and lively contrasted against dark ancient stoned walls, gothic churches and quiet narrow alleyways. Katrina described it as monotone: brown river, cream buildings, grey cobblestones. But it’s 9 pm in the summer and there is no sign of dusk. University students quickly scoot by on skateboards and sit outside smoking cigarettes while drinking espresso at cafes next to tattoo parlours, vintage shops and guitar stores.

Rue Sainte-Catherine, one of the largest pedestrian-only shopping streets in all of Europe is its main artery running through its centre. Cheap city bikes can be rented from all corners of the architectural haven and are used by both locals and tourists to navigate the shadowy historic maze. It’s a very liveable place for sure.

Both a city and a region, Bordeaux provides fresh, delectable food and well-produced wine to every doorstep. On the Garonne River’s left bank sits Medoc, it’s gravel and clay producing deep, full bodied cabernet sauvignons while on it’s right the clay and limestone in St. Emilion produce juicy, fruit-forward merlot. My glass is never empty and then I understand. Bordeaux is my gastronomic adventure.

Garonne River Bordeaux

Garonne River Bordeaux

The oysters are so fresh you order them by size – medium, large or extra-large. There is only one option: raw. The seabass comes with its head intact but with the right movement the flesh softly falls from the bone while the salmon carpaccio melts on my tongue. The cheese is aged and my monsieur croquet strong and heavy, the traditional way. The pate is thick and rich and the generous sliced baguettes are endless. There is no Maille mustard to accompany it. That’s only for Paris and we’re in Bordeaux after all. My favourite meals were the chevre salad with honey and walnuts while dining al fresco at Karl and beef tartare with watermelon and roasted tomatoes at the modern French bistro Le Chien De Pavlov.

The only way to truly experience it was to aimlessly wonder and get lost amongst the streets, stopping every few hours to try a new delicacy and to sip a new wine while watching the locals carry on with their lives. The second day we rented bikes, which gave us the same freedom to explore but allowed us to delve deeper into the city streets, to the botanical gardens, and over the bridge to the city outskirts.

Isabel from Bordeaux Tourism was friendly and helpful and booked us on a wine river cruise later that evening. It was like a disorganized frat party for old people – chaos to consume as much wine as possible while Jerome the wine maker from Chateau Madran rambled on in French and we sat observing with our crusty bread and orange cheese just taking it all in, not understanding a word.

Jerome from Chateau Madran

Jerome from Chateau Madran

And then there was the highlight, Rustic Vines and the Famous Monk Tour the following day. Run by two Kiwi’s, Scottie the hottie educated us on the 60 appellations of Bordeaux, the rigid rules on how to blend the wine and the 10,000 plus chateaus in the region. We visited the picturesque medieval town of St. Emilion, mingled with Hugo in the cellar of Chateau La Gaffeliere to learn about French oak and sampled Grand Cru Classe from Aussie Gregg at Bordeaux Classique wine store. Richard, the only Australian chateau owner in Bordeaux confirmed that the French don’t believe in ghosts so he wasn’t concerned for his 15th century property Chateau Melliac. In his garden we picnicked on melon, jamon, cheese and macaroons. Richard told us he used think that Australian wine was everything until the French showed him their art and he had never looked back. I now feel way more confident knowing what to look for when choosing French wine.

I almost could have had one more day. Eating my croissant while waiting for my flight to London I realised then that Bordeaux was it, the grown up Europe I had been envisioning. Bordeaux left me with a smile. It’s safe, I felt confident, people were friendly, there was no crime or begging plus it is a foodie paradise. I would recommend to anyone to have a visit.

Lisa Vecchio, St. Emilion

Lisa Vecchio, St. Emilion; Courtesy of Katrina Miranda