Do you remember 15 years ago, when calling someone still mostly meant using a landline? Video calling was just being invented; Skype was established in 2003, using peer to peer technology used by Napster and Kazaa, but did not become mainstream for a good 5 or 6 years. Fifteen years ago, I could never have imagined delivering a master thesis defense virtually (Mounting a thesis defence? Are catapults involved? I never seem to know the right terminology…). I’ve had meetings over Skype, even interviewed for jobs over Skype. I had the option of defending my thesis via Skype, rather than flying back to France, but all the technology in the world cannot replicate the experience of being there, so I chose to do it the old fashioned way. Come on, the virtual wine and cheese study sessions just would not have been the same!

An approximation of my 5000 km trip, starting from Paris, visiting Champagne, Alsace, Normandy, Bretagne, the Loire, Bordeaux, the Pyrenees, the Massif Centrale, Burgundy, and finishing in Lyon.

It was a little bit my farewell to France, actually. The whole point of this master’s journey was to be able to eventually put down roots in Canada. Literally, of course, which I was expecting to mean the end of European backpack vacations for a long while. I actually learned how to drive manual so I could rent a car (automatic is 4x more expensive, I kid you not) for three weeks and visit all the places I love, or had missed during my previous time in France. Three weeks, and 5000 kilometres (just over 3000 miles).

Gas is more expensive in France – 1.5 to 2x the price in Canada. But the cheese and wine are far less expensive, thus the universe maintains its balance.

And so, without further ado, here are some of the highlights of my four-wheeled Tour de France (Part 1: the North).

First things first, some vineyard views confirm that I am back in wine country, and the search for the Holy Grail (cheese!) is successful, phew! I’m staying in a little village in Champagne named Vertus, just south of Epernay and Reims. The middle top is a picture of the local church complete with swan family, while the below is a snap of my sundown-ish walk into the village. And though I’m a little jetlagged from the red eye flight, my host insists that I start my trip with a tasting. Ah, I missed you, France!

Vertus is actually just a stopover on my way to Alsace. It’s a short two hours from Charles de Gaulle Airport, far enough from Paris traffic, but close enough that I can take my time in case my initial experience on French roads with a manual car is somewhat traumatic. (Fortunately it is not. For me anyway, the cars behind me may have a different perspective.) I’m heading to Strasbourg the following morning, where the Christkindelsmärik or Christmas market has just begun. Apparently the Christmas tree was born here in Alsace – in the village of Selestat a little south of Strasbourg – and the first trees were decorated with red apples (symbol of temptation from the Garden of Eden). Now many of the market stands sell beautiful red ball-shaped decorations as a modern reminder of those red apples. They’re beautiful, so I pick one up to bring home. (And then smash it three weeks later when I’m packing up the car in Lyon. I remind myself that surely, it is better to have had and lost the red ornament, than never to have had one at all.)

The Christmas market in Strasbourg (top three pictures) where stands are set up in several of the big town squares, selling food and ornaments. It’s France, so there’s always a carousel somewhere. Below, the snow starts to fall as I visit the market in Obernai, a smaller village. One of my favourite foods from Alsace: choucroute! (sauerkraut) which you can barely see for the meat. And some geographical orientation, so you can tell where I am.

I head back to my old stomping grounds: first the village of Thann, to see the team, meet some goats and check out my favourite view in the whole region from the slopes of the Rangen Grand Cru. After that, I head back to Turckheim to Domaine Zind-Humbrecht to taste some wines and see how my palate has changed since last I was here. It would be nice to bring home the 2016s that I harvested, but alas, these Rieslings are notorious for long fermentations, if you remember. I do taste them, but they’re still in the barrels, and even if I ask nicely they will not bottle just one or two for me. I guess I’ll have to figure out how to come back for them… so much for this being a farewell tour! The 2015s are a pretty tasty consolation prize though. The Clos Hauserer Riesling 2015 is probably my favourite surprise: Clos Hauserer is a lieux-dit – literally a ‘named’ place which is considered to be quality wine, a tier below Grand Cru. (Alsace does not yet have a Premier Cru system, like Burgundy, but it is in the works, and the agreement of which as you can imagine, is highly political.) Back to the Clos Hauser – this is probably one of the sweeter Rieslings I’ve tasted at Zind-Humbrecht, but with a searing acidity that I find quite intriguing. It goes into my bag, along with a couple others.

I love this view, about a quarter of the way up the Rangen slope, looking back at Thann. The boys take me to meet the new team members, the goats who are grazing on a much higher and steeper parcel above the chapel. Inside the cellar, I notice that this year they’re marking the zodiac signs of the harvest date for each barrel for biodynamic data collection (the sign for Taurus is marked in red chalk). Clos Windsbuhl is another one of my favourites; the 2016 promises to deliver as always. Last and certainly not least, the line up of the 2015s.

The next morning I take my leave of Alsace, and head to France’s northern shore. I’ve had the Beaches of Normandy on my bucket list for several years now, but it’s not public transit friendly, so with the car, I can finally make this trip. My first stop is Juno Beach, where the Canadians landed on D-Day. The beach is deserted, sombre, quiet. Surreal. It’s easy to imagine what it might have been like, and the war museum there does a good job of painting a vivid picture of what it was like for those first soldiers to jump out of the landing boats and into the water to start the assault. I generally know what happened that day, but the overarching conclusions of the history books do little to tell the whole story of how difficult, and how devastating the attack in Normandy was for the Allied troops. I alternate between spending time on the beaches themselves and visiting the various museums describing the events of each specific battle. The whole day on the beaches is moving and intense; Juno Beach and the 360° experience at Les Arromanches are the two I connect with the most, and I linger there longest. But the scene of rows upon rows of crosses and Star of David headstones at the American Cemetery near Omaha Beach is a stark reminder of the lives lost, and stays with me long after I walk away.

On the left, the memorial at Juno Beach (above), where all the names of those who died there are captured on a small army of these stone monuments (below). In the bottom left, our orientation in France. In the centre, Juno Beach itself is quiet and relatively undisturbed. Below, the 360° movie experience in Arromanches is an equally powerful experience. To the right, the view overlooking Arromanches-les-Bains where remnants of the floating harbour designed at Churchill’s instruction still remain. Below, this poignant sculpture at Omaha Beach is called Les Braves. It represents the Wings of Hope, ‘Rise, Freedom!’ and the Wings Of Fraternity. Finally, rows of headstones at the American Cemetery.

After my day on the beaches, I head to Bretagne to visit some family friends (who may or may not be single-handedly responsible for inspiring my love of wine and wanting to live in France!). On one of my early backpacking trips around Europe I went for a visit, thinking it would be just dinner, and ended up staying for a week! The ‘seed’ of retiring in France with a vineyard was planted then and has slowly evolved over the years to the current dream of doing it now (and in Canada) rather than waiting for retirement.

Visiting Philippe and Brigitte in Pluduno is always a good time. They’re organizing the upcoming weekend to the Loire, so it’s important that we make sure our tasting skills are up to snuff!

Each year Brigitte organizes a wine pilgrimage to the Loire Valley, to taste wines from Vouvray, Bourgueil, St Nicholas de Bourgeuil (an actual appellation, not just for sacramental wine…) and Chinon. I have been once before, two years ago, and wrote about it in this previous post. They’ve been making this trip for over 20 years now, so everyone has the routine down pat: the white wines of Vouvray on the first night, and the red wines of Bourgeuil and company on the second, interspersed with hearty eating, drinking and even singing in between!

The weekend opens in the caves of Vouvray, where we are tasting every kind of Chenin Blanc – sparkling, dry and sweet. The mold on these bottles in the Vouvray caves and the barrels below in caves below a Bourgueil vineyard show that humidity levels are just right. The caves of Bourgueil also play host to sumptuous meals of oysters (from Bretagne of course!), fire-grilled steaks and potatoes. This fortifies us for the afternoon to bottle and then we return to the caves for dinner. One final walk in the vineyard by the old windmill to clear away the cobwebs before we all disperse.

This is a great way to shake off the nerves leading up to the thesis defence. At this point I’m not even halfway through my tour de France, but I’ll save the next stop – Bordeaux – for a separate post.

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