Visite a la fabrique de Cointreau

I wrote a post in FRENCH for the blog that the language school runs.  I am posting the translation here, but you can hop over to the CLE blog to see the original!

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We love the Chateaux of the Loire region, but we are interested in the wine and spirits the region offers as well.  So, when we discovered that the Cointreau factory isn’t far from Tours, I absolutely wanted to visit. I like making a margarita on the weekend, and learning about new cocktail preparations.  And, since Cointreau, an orange liqueur and the original triple sec, is so expensive at home, we’ve never even purchased a bottle, even though every cocktail recipe that requires triple sec suggests Cointreau as the highest quality option.  So I thought an afternoon at the factory would prove to be interesting.

For the excursion, we rented a car, since we wanted to see different parts of the region that are difficult to access without one.  After a visit to the town of Angers, we took the car to the outskirts of town where the Cointreau factory is located.  I made a reservation by telephone (all in FRENCH!) before arriving, since it is obligatory to have a reservation in order to complete the 10 euro tour and tasting.

The guide explained the ingredients in Cointreau to us:  three different types of dried orange peel, neutral alcohol made with beet sugar, and water.  The whole factory smelled like fresh, sweet orange.

After the visit, that we completed in FRENCH!, we enjoyed a tasting of three different types of Cointreau.  First, we tried a long drink cocktail called the “Cointreau Fizz,” that was made with Cointreau, fresh lime juice, and sparkling water.  Not as good as a margarita, but also less potent, and refreshing for a hot day.  Next, we tried a few sips of Cointreau Blood Orange, and Cointreau Noir.  If you like cocktails, and want to experience a unique visit to the region, I recommend the Cointreau factory.  And, the best part, you can buy a bottle of Cointreau for about half the price of a bottle in the US.

Azay le Rideau

For Andrew’s birthday last week, we decided to make the most of our afternoon after class.  First, we ate a formule of gallettes and crepes for lunch, washed down with apple cider from the Brittany region of France.  If you ever visit Tours, we can highly recommend lunch at Le Timbre Post.  Featuring a neat small space adorned with memorabilia through the decades from the Poste (mail delivery system) in France, and staffed by two efficient men: a server, and a chef, the restaurant serves lacy buckwheat crepes stuffed with ham, emmentaler cheese, mushrooms, and sunny side up eggs.  The dessert crepes are simple and delicious: sea salt caramel, 72% dark chocolate, or butter and sugar.

After lunch, we took the local train to visit Azay Le Rideau chateau.  We didn’t realize that the chateau was a 2km walk from the train station, but that worked in our favor, as we walked off a little of our lunch, and revived after dozing sleepily in the sun on the ride over.

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While we didn’t have any expectations for the chateau, it has ended up being one of our favorites!  A “reasonable” size mansion, surrounded by a gurgling stream and an English garden, provided the perfect afternoon to celebrate a birthday.  I especially loved the chaise longue chairs in front of the chateau.  While the grounds of other castles in the region feel distinctly off limits since they are so carefully manicured, this property invited guests to rest a while, enjoy the view, read a book, and disconnect in a way that set it apart from some of our other visits.

Canoeing on the Cher River

Friday afternoon, Isabelle, the director of CLE Language school, led a group of students on a canoeing adventure.  We canoed 12 km down the Cher river, paddling underneath one of the most impressive chateaux of the region: Chenonceau.  Though we didn’t go inside to explore the interior, it was obvious our vantage point from the river provided the best views of the castle from the outside.

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I felt like Pocahontas bravely kayaking into uncharted territory: “It’s just around the riverbend!”
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Chenonceau: We paddled underneath!  Also, this castle was used as a hospital during WWII. Pretty cool!

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Les amoreux – as Isabelle and Marc say

I paddled in front and Andrew directed the canoe.  I’m sure that I did quite a bit more paddling than Andrew.  Every time I turned around to check, he was taking a quick break!

After the 3 hour adventure on the water, Isabelle efficiently guided us to the nearest riverside garden bar.  With an overlook of the water, a drink in hand, and a snack, we were quickly revived.  We tried a few of the region’s specialties, including pulled duck (it looks like BBQ pork), fois gras, and goat cheese with more duck meat mixed in.  We both decided we’ve had enough duck for the trip!

If you ever visit the Loire Valley, a water ride on one of the rivers, whether by boat, canoe, or kayak, is definitely recommended to take advantage of the best views and breeze from the water!

Chinon

On Saturday an unlikely group took a train ride together to visit the small ville of Chinon. A man originally from Taiwan, now relocated to Boston where he practices general medicine, a nurse practitioner from Washington DC, Barbara, a Swiss teacher studying in Tours as part of her professional development program (WOW!), and Bill, from Australia, joined us as we ventured to Chinon, a tiny town on the Cher River.

Highlights from Chinon included a relaxed four-course lunch with our new companions, and learning how to geo-cache with Barbara.  The view back on the chateaux and the town from the opposite side of the Cher river was spectacular, too.   After visiting the chateaux (which we preferred viewing from the exterior, as opposed to the tour inside), and after losing a member of our group who wandered off unknowingly, we all recognized that our growling tummies could be put off no more.  Thankfully, on our way to lunch, Andrew relocated Jack enroute to our destination, and our group of 6 reunited. Lunch at Au Chapeau Rouge started with a petit amuse bouche, followed by a fois gras portion for both Andrew and me.  For the main course, fish from the river Cher, along with mushrooms and other veggies, arrived bathed in a burgundy sauce.  After our cheese plate, my favorite course arrived:  chocolate ganache with saffron ice cream.

 

We all decided that quick spin through town would help us digest our rich lunch and wine, so off we went, me as “madam-guide” as Bill dubbed, and Barbara ever snooping around for a geo-cache treasure. We even took advantage of the Chinon Jazz festival while visiting. Even though rain interrupted the jam session, we enjoyed jazz on the river, too.  A lively group played melodic jazz music in the afternoon from a boat parked on the Cher, and when weather threatened to end the party, the group just moved under a cluster of trees, and started again.  Most interactively, they proceeded to lead the crowd on a jazz march through town, stopping every 200 meters or so to finish a song, and then moving along through the streets again, so even folks who opted to stay home could hear the music from their windows and balconies.

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Jazz dans le bateaux
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Jazz dans la rue
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Should we eat at Chapeau Rouge? Should we not? Where do we go?

Most impressively, though our group of wayward traveling friends were almost all anglophones, we managed to speak mainly French the whole day!  While Andrew thinks the amount of distressingly poor French might have caused him to regress in his abilities, the comprehension level was just about right for me!  Anyway, I appreciate how others are willing to play along with the immersion experience, and recognize that when learning another language, the other second (or third, or fourth) language learners can often be the most sympathetic listeners, and provide the most appropriate input.

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I think the look on my face explains just about how well we communicated during our time together!

Le Chateaux de Langeais

After morning class, we zipped over to the Hardouin boulangerie (our favorite bakery in Tours – it comes highly recommended), bought baguette sandwiches for lunch, and set off for the Tour train station.  Our afternoon adventure took us 25 km from Tours to a small town in the Loire Valley called Langeais.  Once we crossed the Loire River, the train arrived to the Langeais station in minutes, and from there, the Langeais castle was a 5 minute walk away.

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Flowers blooming everywhere!
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Le Chateaux de Langeais

IMG_2822IMG_2812Langeais is smaller than Tours, but offers an easy afternoon getaway.   The garden featuring plants from medieval times caught our attention especially.  People in the middle age munched walnuts to keep their hair from falling out, and cooked onion to settle the flatulence caused by legumes.  We took notes so we’ll be able to incorporate some healthy habits into our diets!  We’re looking forward to comparing Langeais with the Chateaux de Chinon, which we’ll see tomorrow. For now: Je vais au lit:) A bientot!

L’ecole Française

Our first week at CLÉ French language school in Tours is almost over!  We calculated that today we probably experienced 10 hours of French immersion (6 hours of class + 2 hours at dinner + 2 hours with other students).  I’ve learned a ton of vocabulary, but of course can’t quite fashion all the words together to make a logical sentence every time.  By dinner time, my ability to express a thought in a complete sentence was fading!

A day in Tours at language school starts about 8 am at breakfast.  After using my back teeth to jackhammer through toasted pain for breakfast, we scurry off to school (about a 12 minute walk).  Class takes place in the morning – two 1.5 hour sessions cushioned in the middle by a short but sweet café pause.  On Tuesday and Thursday, everyone returns to the school for afternoon workshops, amounting to 6 hours of class on those days. Atelier caught me by surprise – this vacation includes more hours of schooling than I realized!

This week, our afternoons have included lunch en restaurant, sandwiches on the terrace, a jog along the Loire, a beer or two in Place Plumereau, a visit to the Cathedral St. Gatiens, and strolls in the old ville.

We are staying with Marc and Armelle near the center of Tours.  Dinner each evening is ‘al fresco’ in full view of their blooming rose garden.  Armelle prepares dinner for 7:30, and so far we have feasted on the French versions of grilled sausage, chicken pasta with mozzarella, eggs and sausage, white asparagus, roasted fish, lots of salad, fresh fruit, and a gateaux a citron.  A bottle of rosé always shows up at the table, too!

Tomorrow, to celebrate a successful first week of class, we plan to visit Chateau de Langeais.   This weekend we’ll also participate in our own “Tour de France” by hopefully biking to Chateau du Villandry.  Bon week-end!

In the beginning…

I guess it’d be only fitting to document some of our Camino adventures here. I was looking back through the archives of this blog the other day, and noticed a post from 2012, mentioning how one day we’d like to make the pilgrimage.  Less than two years later, we’ve finished our long-dreamed of adventure, and after a month off the Camino, I hope I can offer some interesting and useful insights into the experience. 

St. Jean Pied de Port

We started our pilgrimage in the traditional location, just over the border into France in the town of St. Jean Pied de Port. Situated in the historic Basque country, St. Jean espouses traditional Basque architecture highlighted by the cleanliness and care found in French villas. 

Panorama of St. Jean

We stayed our first night in a hostel here, and since it was still a somewhat novel experience, I look back on it as one of the more cozy and caring establishments in which we over-nighted. 

8 to a room, Andrew took the top bunk 🙂

Some highlights from this hostel included a get-to-know you session before dinner led by the hospitalero (those who run the hostels on the Camino) team, a vegetarian meal with curry sauces and roasted vegetables abounding, a dorm room of only 8, and a generous breakfast provided. Along the Way, commodities like these would soon become scarce, and the distant memory of a clean, well-run albergue, would surface later, reminding me I should have been more grateful for the “amenities” at the time. 

Most guidebooks, and even those who have completed the journey, warn that the first day is by far the most challenging day of walking. This is based on the fact that you climb virtually straight up for the first 20 km of the day’s hike, and complete a steep descent for the last 4km down into the Spanish hamlet of Roncesvalles.  There is only one café along the way for a warm-up rest, and the weather can be brutal, even in June.  I’d argue that the first day, while it is a test of your physical endurance, is not the ultimate difficulty described by some.  I found the first day to be full of unexpected surprises, and that the excitement and adrenaline of starting a trip you’d planned and saved for for so long to far surpass the steep inclines and aching knees on the descent. Further along on the Way, putting one foot in front of the other became not only a physical trial, but a mental one as well. Fatigue and routine are much more demanding to overcome than a single ascent. 

Some thoughts that have stuck since this day, June 4, 2014: 

Stop at the 8km mark in Orisson for a coffee

The 2 euro café con leche stop was well worth the overpriced beverage, as it was our only real rest stop between 8:00 am and 4:30 pm. 

Before the rain began

I am shocked by how cold we were on June 4th. Lulled by the warmth of the beginning of summer vacation in the states, this is still technically Spring, and we shivered and shuffled our way through blasting wind, forty degree temperatures, razor like rain on our faces, and foot-deep mud-ravines. None of us was prepared for these types of conditions. 

Near the top of the ascent. Frozen, angry red knuckles from the wind.

The omelette sandwich prepared for our lunch by the hospitaleros was the grossest baguette and egg concoction I have ever eaten. Hungry, cold, hoping to warm up in the emergency shelter located on the Spanish side of the mountain, I am sure my body temperature dropped even further when I quit moving. The lunch was supposed to give me energy to continue, but it only made me feel worse! My jaws couldn’t chomp through the chewy, tough resemblance to bread, and my throat wanted to spew up the dryness of it. 

On the way down the “easy” path

Why did the sign tell us that the upcoming descent was the “easy” way down? 

Bone grating against knee bone. Lots of mud.

Have you seen the movie the Way? Where Emilio Esteves’s character dies crossing the Pyrenees the first day of his pilgrimage? I scorned this story-line, ensuring others that there is no way you could die on the Camino by getting lost or falling. I now understand perfectly well how this could take place. Fog, rain, little to no visibility, and fatigue could all lead to wandering off the trail and never finding it again. Take my word for it, it is definitely a plausible story line. 

Why did it take us so long to finish this stage? 8:00 am to 4:30 pm, really? 

My legs don’t hurt quite as badly as I thought they would. 

Historic monastery, our albergue for the night

I don’t have to sleep in a bunk bed tonight?  What a deal!

Third floor dorm room

Where is the advil?