By Laura Glendinning
Recently, we found ourselves in Montreaux, Switzerland for a travel convention.
In Montreaux you are on the shores of pristine Lake Geneva, on the Swiss side Friendly note: Switzerland is on the Swiss franc, not the euro. But it's 2019 and we did not trade any money in the age of plastic and chipped cards. You do get to choose which currency you want to be billed in when they run the card. I have no idea whether you can save a few centimes doing that. We literally just alternated the currency choice.
A weird temperature blip/micro-climate allows palm trees to grow along the shore of the lake. That means there is no winter freeze, but you can still take a little train up to the snow for skiing within 15 minutes. No time for that on this trip, so we settled for eating fantastic cheese (Swiss, of course, best I have ever had) and drinking shockingly good Swiss whites and light reds. A walk along the lake had us visiting the Freddy Mercury statue (always roses and offerings beside it). We’ll spare you our touring mistake and tell you to also go to the little music studio/museum dedicated to him. It was his, and Queen's, favorite place to record.
We heard about it after we left. Smart! By the way, a Montreaux visit means you will have “Smoke on the Water” in your brain for a few days after leaving town. They play it everywhere. If you always thought it was a deeply felt rock and roll tragedy that inspired those eternal lyrics, sadly no. Deep Purple wrote that song as they watched the local casino burn. Very possibly swilling Swiss wine as they scribbled the words.
After Montreaux we were due in Paris but had two days to spare. A look at the map revealed you can get from Geneva to Dijon via train really easily. And if you are in Dijon, you are in Burgundy. While in Burgundy you absolutely have to stay in the wine capital of the region, Beaune. So we did.
Spontaneously doing this is a good bet except in mid-November, when the famous wine auction is held, along with various exclusive dinners and tastings. For that you pre-plan for months and exchange a lot of emails trying to get invited to certain dinners allowing you to drink very very special wine. We'd recommend avoiding it, unless you are already in the wine business and can pull some strings for some party or dinner invites.
Using our multi country train pass, we made our way through gorgeous scenery. A chatty Brit who had moved to Normandy to marry a Frenchwoman saved us when one train was cancelled on our day of to-the-minute-changes. He assured us that the train we were eventually on would get us where we needed to go. "Don't worry about what they say about the stops. It does not stop". Either he was right or crazy. We preferred to believe he was right. We were not truly worried. European rail will always get you there. A cancelled train is always replaced. A stream of charming towns and mountain passes unfolded as we crossed into France. Finally, after the 20 minute or so local train ride from Dijon to Beaune, we walked in light March rain to the Tourist Office and picked up a local map. We easily found our hotel.
Medieval towns and cities are all walkable – only the very rich had horses. Before the era of the car you always got your 10,000 steps in, and then some, but walking in Beaune is a pleasure. As we often joke about European historical towns, you can't get lost if you turn left at the fountain and right at the statue of the guy on horseback.
From our eclectically luxurious hotel, Le Cep (adapted from 16th century buildings) we walked right to a tasting house (there are many), though did not manage to time our visit for a full tasting. As we strolled on we stopped in at the Hospice de Beaune, arguably the first charity hospital in France. The very distinctive tiled roof is a treasure and reflects the Flemish trading influence. Burgundy had always been a wealthy region, but with the 16th century royal preference for their wines, it went to the next level of prosperity and never looked back.
The Hospices took the very poor and put them in a clean setting with the best in medicine at the time. Well that was leeches and a pretty kooky diet, as we learned. At least they died relatively pleasantly in a clean warm bed - shared with about eight other people. How do you say “what does not kill you makes you stronger” in French?
Walking the town we also saw the venerable winemaking house of Joseph Drouhin. As good as the wine is, Drouhin has been made even more famous by the recent book “Wine and War”, a really gripping story about how the locals kept a lot of great wine out of Nazi hands, helped the French Resistance, and utilized the miles and miles of tunnels under the city to foil the Gestapo.
Speaking of tunnels, one of us took a nap (John), and the other one (me) got the last admission before closing at Caves Patriarche Pere et Fils. So a low season walk through dark tunnels, alone, I mean totally alone, in limited light doing a guided tasting triggered automatically by pressing a button. Awesome! The recorded voices discussing grapes and harvests echoed… echoed… echoed… and the sudden appearance of a staff member toward the end was positively terrifying. The fellow might as well have been Lurch saying "you rang" when he emerged from the shadows.
But do it. By all means. It’s a real chance to understand that below Beaune they are not kidding about the miles and miles and miles of tunnels.
The next day we had a chance to use Le Cep’s adorable Polaris buggy – a slow moving jeep you can drive off road through the vineyards. Just don’t run the grapes over and you are fine. You can drive it on main roads as well. At heart this is farm country, albeit really nice farm country dotted with castles and villages whose names evoke a walk through the Total Wine France aisle, reading labels. Cattle picturesquely dot the landscape. Kind of Black Angus looking. Mmmm. Beef.
Land clocks in at $67,000 an acre by the way. An earth clod stuck to your shoe is maybe $100 worth?
We stopped at a wonderful village wine shop in Pommard in the middle of rolling fields, planning to buy what the very knowledgeable employee recommended, right after we ate lunch. She helpfully pointed out the label protocol whereby you know a wine had a specific maker, and is not just a general release. We went back on time, after recalling her exact hours. Closed. The little dog who had been lounging on the next door patio was inside, too.
As always with travel, don’t wait. Do.
By the way the tension every season about what the weather will do to those very valuable Burgundy grapes is no joke. In the course of 48 hours we experienced, by turns, bright sunshine and 60 degrees, pouring rain, drizzle, and a freezing wind. If you did not know, French growers are not allowed to use irrigation or exceptional means to save the crop. And some areas are required to make their wine utilizing the stems. You can’t skip tannins because you don’t like them or don’t know how to work with them. No wonder big growers are buying Iand in Washington and California so they can relax, irrigate and skip the stems if they feel like it. Of course working with tannins that will allow a wine to grow in the bottle is why top Burgundy reds sell for thousands of euros. Note the maker's name below on a very nice bottle of Chablis.
Over our 2 nights in Beaune we dined at Michelin-starred L’Oiseau des Vins, which, perhaps due to being low season and less rushed, was a wonderful meal. Online reviews say otherwise about the place. You can be the judge. All we can say is one course involved a trompe l'oiel of what looked like a freshly laid egg in a nest but was in fact a soft poached egg, tinted perfectly brown, placed on fine noodles and topped with a very generous truffle slice. It probably took an hour of careful work. And just do the wine pairings they offer. You can’t go wrong.
Another night found us at a non famous local place (Ecrit Vin on Place Carnot) not far from the town carousel (a lot of French towns have a carousel, perfectly kept). Well, carousel is a French word, come to think of it.
French food is very specific to regions, so ordering beef bourguignon in Burgundy is what you should do. It was excellent. The wine by the glass was vin locale ordinaire – meaning nothing special. Just a really good red. Would you have the nerve to even make a local red and screw it up? Or sell a sad red in Burgundy? We also popped in at a wine bar with music, crowded with locals. A cheesemaker everyone seemed to know was walking through the place with a basket of hand-wrapped cheeses that basically sold out. NOTE: he didn't work for the bar - he was just a local going table to table selling cheese. And people were buying it! If the health department even pays attention to things like this locally, well, you know, I doubt they do. It’s Pierre! His cheese is great! Of course it’s clean. Don’t worry!
Paris was next, timed perfectly to walk in the March snow, something we had not seen in years. There is a fantastic tapas bar we discovered just off the Seine, in the 1st…. and that will be another little story we can tell.