Take a few basic ingredients: the beautiful countryside of SW France, historic sights, food & wine, value for your dollar. Mix together. Good, but… it needs a little something. We’ll add a few “spices” and give the experience some zing – a great Bed & Breakfast, delicious dinners with your hosts, a wine tasting seminar, cooking classes, a bread baking session, personalized winery tours. Throw in a “dash” of historic chateaux (Monbazillac & Roquetaillade), and a half day to explore St.Emilion. Mmm…now the trip has just the right flavor.
Today’s travelers are looking for different experiences on their vacations. Our challenge has been to design tours that combine relaxation, fun and learning, with reasonable prices. We incorporated suggestions from the owners of some of our favorite B&B’s into the itinerary of our Wine, Cooking & History Tour, described below. Read on, and see if you think our recipe is worth a taste.
Leaving the autoroute, we drive a couple of kilometers down a paved road.
“There, turn right – now!” The small “chambre d’hote” sign at the side of the road takes me by surprise, though I’ve seen it time and time again. The minivan being full of guests, my husband Dan (also known as the “chauffeur”) just raises an eyebrow and glares, quickly negotiating the turn onto the narrower country lane.
Arriving at the beautifully renovated farmhouse that’s to be our “home” for the next six days, our hosts offer us a warm welcome. Comfortable rooms, and a guest lounge filled with books and game boards, provide plenty of space to relax after each day’s activities. Those who decide to take a walk around the property will find horses, lambs, and chickens in and around the barn. Behind the house, a swimming pool beckons anyone still feeling energetic. The lounge chairs scattered around the edge of the pool are more my style. Wandering back into the house, everyone is soon drawn toward the dining room by the wonderful aromas that promise (and deliver) an evening of delicious regional cuisine and local wines. On those evenings when dinner follows one of Antoine’s cooking classes, tales of the “trials” of creating the dishes we’re now enjoying are added to the lively conversation. One of the biggest perks for me is that when I’m tired (and stuffed from that dessert I just couldn’t refuse), I have only to say “bonne nuit” and climb the stairs to my room.
Early one morning, we’ll join a retired baker for an interactive visit to his old bread shop. Until more modern, faster and less labor intensive methods became popular, he baked bread in a 200 year old brick oven. Four our visit, he begins preheating the old oven 24 hours in advance. Participants get a chance to assist him in the dough making, formation of the different loaves, and baking the breads. Once the breads have cooled a bit, we enthusiastically join him and his wife for a casse croute (snack) of the warm breads, cheese, wine, and paté.
One evening, host leads a wine tasting seminar. He instructs us on the different aspects of wine tasting, the flavors and characteristics of Bordeaux wines, and the types of grapes used to make them. The evening includes a fun exercise where each participant assembles their own wine using the local grape varieties. Tasting each wine at the end, produces more rounds of laughter and in some cases a few groans! During two personalized winery tours, we’re able to learn even more about the different production methods, and the work that goes into each bottle of wine.
About day three, usually while we enjoy one more cup of coffee before heading out for the day, someone will enquire as to where they can get an English newspaper. Several pairs of eyes turn incredulously toward the offending Type A, and silence reigns. “If no one is going to eat that last croissant, would you send it this way? Oh, and the apricot jam too?” This IS vacation, after all.
Half a day on their own exploring the old walled town of St.Emilion allows everyone to satisfy their own tastes. The steep cobblestone streets are filled with shops, many selling wonderful local wines and all the accessories that go with them. At my favorite shop, Les Dames d’Aquitaine, the owner will happily unfold numerous table linens to expose the beautiful patterns hidden in the middle. Bakeries offering tastes of still warm macarons, artisan’s shops and galleries also beckon. History abounds, with tours of the underground church carved out of rock by Benedictine monks, and a tower to climb that offers great views of the almost endless vineyards surrounding the town. Cafés and restaurants are scattered along the narrow streets and sunlit squares, providing ample opportunities for a leisurely lunch, or jolt of caffeine.
Hungry yet, or thirsty? Join us on April 3-9, 2006 (www.westwindtours.us).
For small groups of wine enthusiasts, we are also able to design tours with visits to a larger variety of wineries. We use several B&B’s – the farmhouse described above, a beautiful country home in the Medoc, and a small chateau that has a winery on the property.
Do you want to practice and improve your French? That too is possible.
For Bonjour Paris Premium Members, Westwindtours.com offers a $65 discount for credit card payments and $95 discount for payments to be made via check. If you are a Premium Member and are interested in a tour, send an email to http://einfo1.com/?group=bonjourparis.
By Joe Buckle
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