IF IT’S MONDAY IT MIGHT BE LIECHTENSTEIN!
This surely is one of the most unique trips one could imagine. First, there is the scope – ten countries in eighteen days. Then, there is the experience of great scenery, great food, great wine, and meeting many new friends. Jim and Marcia Wolfe have been our closest neighbors in Montecito, California for over 10 years. We have become very good friends and, on previous trips, have traveled many times with them both here in the U.S. as well as out of the country – Canada, the Caribbean, and Italy. Most of the trips have included stays in locations where they have had accommodations via their membership in travel clubs and home exchange programs. The home exchange program involves exchanging their home for an equal amount of time in other houses located all over the world (to visit the website and learn more about the program click here). Early last year Jim and Marcia asked us if we would like to accompany them in the fall to Austria and the South of France where they had homes for one week in each place. We readily accepted and began making plans. The trip would entail traveling by air to Europe and also include car trips and two trips via train and two trips via boat to other areas and countries, plus a trip to Madrid at the end (the latter for my wife, Laurie, and I because our airplane scheduling involved a direct flight to Los Angeles from Madrid).
As has been our custom on all of these trips, we have an established program for setting up the trips and dividing the costs. Jim and Marcia select the location and accommodations. They then consult with us on side trips, local transportation, etc. The out of pocket costs are shared. Laurie and I select and provide the wine. Also, because we have cooking facilities, at a new location we always make our first stop to buy provisions (mainly breakfast and dinners as we most always have lunch at a local restaurant). Laurie and I consult with Jim and Marcia and plan the menus for dinner and do most of the cooking. I then match a wine with each course for our dinners. So, it was this time as well. The main difference from previous trips was the scope of what we did as well as visits to some really great wineries. So what follows includes highlights of the many things that were packed into this brief journey. And, I would say that, without question, everything we did was so interesting that they merit more exploration and another visit. And, I’m sure that many of you can find a lot of things here that would be of great interest to you in terms of travel, food, and wine! Bon Voyage, Bon Appétit, and Bon degustation!
U.S., England, Switzerland, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Germany
Austria, Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, Monaco, Spain, and U.S.
U.S., England, Switzerland, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Germany
Our trip began with car transportation to Los Angeles for our departure to London on British Airways at 4pm Tuesday September 6. For many years we have used Tom Carroll, a local chauffeur, for trips to restaurants and the airport. He drives our SUV and always gets us there and picks us up on time with no hassles. He is the best. This is really a great luxury to not have to worry about getting into and out of an airport. And, so it was this time. We arrived relaxed at LAX and with no worries. The flight was one of the best we have had in recent years. The first class seating was excellent and very comfortable. The food was good as were the wine selections. We arrived in London at 10 am on Thursday where we had a four hour layover before boarding our connecting flight to Zurich. Our experiences over the years at Heathrow have not been wonderful. Problems with customs, baggage, and rude personnel have plagued our visits. In some respects it can be worse than a visit to a hostile nation. In addition, Heathrow now has a tax on any flights coming into the airport. We paid nearly $700 in taxes for the privilege of coming to Heathrow for a few hours to get our connecting flight. This is a good reason to avoid Heathrow which is exactly what we did on our return trip by flying out of Madrid. But, little did we know at the time that we were jumping from the frying pan into the fire! (More on that later!)
Landing in Zurich that afternoon we met our friends, neighbors, and traveling companions, Jim and Marcia Wolfe, picked up our car, and drove about 2 hours to our house in the small village of Gofis, Austria. It was during this time that we discovered that the GPS system in our car was set for a destination in Germany and was in German! We had no manual, did not speak German, and had no way to know how to turn the system off. So we traveled with our German friend in the car with us blabbing away the entire time! What a hoot! In our first outing in the car, we could not find the location of our house and it was getting late in the day. After asking for directions, we were escorted by some very nice people to our home. The home was modern and very comfortable with a nice kitchen. The setting in a small valley was lovely and very conveniently located to shopping and rail and auto routes.
After settling in we set off for dinner. We were left a list of recommended restaurants in the area and chose one. Driving there we first came across another restaurant that was on our list by the name of Trovado in Sulz, Austria. It was only about 10 minutes from our house. And, being tired and hungry and a bit lost, we opted for the bird in the hand. What a fortuitous choice. We were greeted by a most charming lady named Sylvia and we became fast friends. She immediately sensed our desire to enjoy good food and wine and began making suggestions. I will go over our experiences later in the sections on food and wine. But, suffice it to say, it was such a wonderful experience that we enjoyed 4 dinners there during our stay and did not visit any other restaurants in the area. This is the kind of neighborhood restaurant that we all wish was in our back yard!
The next day, after talking to Sylvia who lives in Liechtenstein, we decided to head there. It was only a short distance to the border. Liechtenstein is a jewel of a country only some 62 square miles in size. The countryside is beautiful and everything is very clean and well maintained – a sort of miniature Switzerland. The Prince’s castle overlooks Valduz, and the vineyards and winery are below on the slope. We walked around Valduz and wandered up the hill through the vineyards towards the castle and winery. We stopped at the winery, but it was closed. Later, further up the hill, we had a great lunch at Restaurant Marée in the Park Hotel Sonnenhof. This is an absolutely stunning place. With our lunch we could not resist having a bottle of the local wine. It was excellent and inspired us to make an appointment and visit the winery another day. Later, we drove through the country in about an hour and marveled at the gorgeous scenery – mountains, pastures, hills, fields, vineyards, and small villages and towns. Everything was beautiful and so sleepy and peaceful.
After touring around a bit, we headed in the direction of home and took a slight diversion to visit the Rolls Royce museum in Dornbirn, Austria. Dornbirn is a town near the Swiss border and an unlikely place for what is said to be the largest single collection of Rolls Royces in the world. Amazingly, it is privately owned by one man, but is open to the public. The museum was first opened in 1999 and is housed in an old spinning mill that was built in 1862. It consists of a collection of some 90 Rolls Royces mostly Phantom I, Phantom II, and Phantom III cars from the period of 1925 to 1939. The Phantom was introduced in 1925 to replace the Silver Ghost and the Phantoms were produced until 1939 when the war broke out. There are also a Silver Ghost or two and a couple of newer Rolls Royces including a rare 1985 Flying Spur. There is also one Delahaye which is the only non Rolls Royce in the collection.
Many of the cars were owned by Royalty and celebrities. There is the Queen Mother’s parade car, touring cars belonging to George V, King Edward VII Prince of Wales, as well as cars that were owned by Lawrence of Arabia, Ali Khan, John Lennon, and Dictator Franco (to see more photos of many of the cars on display click here). There is a restoration shop with a fairly large number of cars under restoration. However, it appeared to me that most of the cars are in original condition. I did not see any that were restored to the highest level. But nearly all are very well preserved. The museum is on three levels and is very spacious. It is really amazing. Most of the cars are on the first two levels and a ballroom with lots of Rolls Royce parts and memorabilia is on the third floor (to visit the website click here).
We got off the main road as we approached Gofis where we were staying. Here the setting was very pastoral and dotted with small towns and villages and a blend of old and new buildings with many churches. There were small mountains in the area and distant views from some places of bigger mountains. The valleys were very green and again dotted with corn fields and very contented cows and other farm animals. We arrived home and then left for dinner again at Trovado a few miles away.
On Friday we were up early to get a 6 am train in Feldkirch which was only a few miles away. Feldkirch is a picturesque town dotted with a mixture of old and new buildings, churches, houses, shops and a very nice train station. We grabbed a quick bite at the station and then we were off to Salzburg for a two day stay. We had purchased first class tickets for two train trips well before we began our trip. This proved to be a great idea and is a great way to get around. On this first train trip, the train was wonderful – very comfortable seating and very relaxing. The scenery along the way was beautiful. First was a series of long tunnels and rock faced mountains. Sometimes the tracks were very close to sheer rock that was covered with heavy steel wire fences to prevent erosion. Clearly the construction here must have been quite a challenge! Then we entered valleys that were very green with small fields of corn dotting the landscape and well as small houses and villages. Also, small orchards of apple and pear trees were interspersed with other row crops and occasional farm animals. In all there were 6 stops until we arrived at Innsbruck where the majestic views of the Alps were stunning and expansive. Leaving Innsbruck on the way to Salzburg, the views were varied and gorgeous. There were mountains, valleys, small streams and rivers, and in the flat lands there were pastures and small fields of corn everywhere. Cows, sheep, goats, and horses were seen in small herds during this part of the trip. And, they were often found close to small villages and towns, highways, bike paths, and walking paths. Also, along the way were views of distant castles and churches as well as massive towers supporting electrical wires and occasional views of the Salzburg river which became more prominent the closer we got to Salzburg. All in all, it was a magnificent ride and the time flew by. Soon we were in an industrial area and approaching Salzburg. This was a bit of a contrast as, for the first time, we encountered a lot of graffiti. But, that was soon forgotten as we entered the railroad station.
Arriving at 10 am in Salzburg, we walked a short distance to our hotel, the Crowne Plaza. It was very nice and very comfortable. Then we boarded the hop on, hop off bus for a tour of the city. We always do this first thing when we visit a new city. We were very impressed with Salzburg. In a beautiful Alpine setting, the commanding fortress on the highest point in the city dominates the landscape. Called the Hohensalzburg castle, construction began in 1077 and continued for several hundred years. It was built to provide protection for the city. Interestingly, it was never used for fighting off invaders. The only 2 times that the city was invaded it was turned over to the invaders without a fight. Beneath the castle, the beautiful Salzbach river bisects the city. This river was the main route for barges carrying salt. It’s history dates back for over 1000 years and it was a major point for collecting tolls as early as the 8th century. Salzburg literally translated means “salt castle.” The city is a combination of old and new. The “Old Town” has beautiful baroque architecture and is very well preserved. There are beautiful churches and buildings as well as modern shopping areas. In the mid-20th century, Salzburg was the setting for the film “The Sound of Music.” The Von Trapp family residence shown in the film is visible from a distance from one of the main boulevards and draws large crowds of tourists every year.
That evening we had dinner at the Castel de Panorama Restaurant in the Hohensalzburg castle overlooking the city and the Salzbach river. Sylvia had recommended this to us and had made our reservation. The food was good, and the wine ok, but the setting and the views were spectacular. That evening, as there is about 300 times a year, there was also a Mozart concert. Salzburg is the birthplace of Mozart and the concerts here are in a beautiful room considered to be one of the finest in Austria. Unfortunately we did not know about the concert until we arrived, and it was sold out.
Saturday we had a wonderful day in Salzburg. After breakfast, we walked all through the city and visited Mozart’s home and birthplace. It was very interesting. There are a lot of original things in both houses. There are chronicles of his life which are simply amazing in the sense that he spent so much time traveling and away from home from his earliest childhood. Also, there is his handwritten music, portraits done during the time that he was alive, lots of interesting facts about his life and the times in which he lived, and for me, maybe the most interesting thing of all, his piano. It is tiny! We had a pleasant early lunch in the old town section of the city, walked around and stopped for a mid afternoon dessert. Then we visited the farmers market where we bought provisions to take back for our evening meal. We had lots of choices – meats, cheeses, breads, vegetables, fruits, nuts, etc. Everything looked wonderful and we were very pleased with our selections. We also took a cab and visited a great wine store, Wineco. Wineco is a chain and this store had a large assortment of wines including many top Austrian wines. I bought a selection of mostly Austrian wines to take home to have with our dinner. We returned to the hotel to pick up our bags and then it was time to walk to the train station and board the train at 2pm for the trip home.
The trip back was just as enjoyable as the trip over. It was a beautiful, clear fall day with the temperature in the 80s. The bald exposed tops of the Alps were visible in the distance in the early part of our trip. In the winter they would be covered with snow and dotted with skiers. We passed valleys with kayakers on the river, parachutists in the sky along with gliders and remote control airplanes. And, on the ground, there were sunbathers soaking up the sun. As we climbed into the mountains we could see small villages down below and we went through tunnels and deep gorges. There were small rivers and lakes and at times we were right next to the mountains on one side and looking down at a very steep drop off on the other side. This was quite dramatic. Then we began a descent and through a series of long tunnels before arriving at our destination at 6pm. We drove to our home. That evening we utilized our provisions and prepared a meal accompanied by our newly purchased wines. It was very relaxing and we discussed and planned the next few days of our trip.
Sunday was 9/11. This particular Sunday was the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It just so happens that five years prior on 9/11 we were in Tuscany on a trip with the Wolfes and were driving from where we were staying in Orvieto to St. Assisi. Nearing Assisi, we encountered a horrible traffic jam. There were massive numbers of people (including a lot of police) and a sea of cars. After several hours we finally made it to the city at the top of the hill only to find that there was no place to park and that the city was jammed with people everywhere. You see, we had stumbled upon an international peace march with hundreds of thousands of people! So with this in mind, we set off for our trip to Bregenz, Austria, on the shores of Lake Constance, wondering if we might encounter the same fate. We had planned to take a boat trip on the lake, but found that it was not that easy or convenient and decided instead to drive to Landau, a medieval city in Germany, only a short distance away. It is a lovely old town on the lake. We had lunch on an outside patio of one of the hotels. We walked around the small city and visited the town museum and two beautiful churches. Then we headed back to the restaurant at the modern casino on the lake for an afternoon coffee before driving back to Austria. That night we had dinner at home.
On Monday we were off to Liechtenstein again. There is no border patrol as you enter. The drive was beautiful and we went directly to visit the winery, Hoffkelleri Des Fursten Von Liechtenstein. This winery belongs to the Prince as do the surrounding vineyards. The winery visit was fascinating and the wines were lovely. During the course of our conversation at the winery, we were told that there were many instances of Russians coming to Liechtenstein with bags of money to buy land. This is amazing, but even more amazing is the price of 50,000 Swiss Francs per square meter! After our visit and tasting, we then walked to another other restaurant located within the vineyards named Torkel and enjoyed another great lunch with another bottle of local wine. After lunch, we walked around the vineyards and the town and then set off to visit a winery, Weingut Donatsch, in Malans, Switzerland. We were told at the winery that Weingut Donatsch was making some of the best Pinot Noir in Switzerland. Alas, it was not open. Then we went back to the Rolls Royce Museum again on the way home, but it too was closed. No matter, the drive was beautiful and the day was very enjoyable. That evening we were off to Trovado again for dinner.
Tuesday we again drove to Feldkirch. This time it was to take the train 7:30 train to Zurich. The scenery was spectacular and varied. Streams, pastures, a lake, and mountains all were visible as we rolled toward Zurich. The train station at Zurich is a beautiful large building. Arriving in Zurich we departed our Austrian train and boarded a double deck Swiss train for the trip to Lucerne. Again, the accommodations were very nice and sitting in very comfortable seats on the top deck over looking the countryside was really special. It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day with the temperature in the 80s. We went thorough tunnels and saw views of lakes and streams with mountains in the distance. There were houses and cottages interspersed with small orchards and gardens next to the lake. Later, we went through tunnels and saw some snow capped mountains in the distance. Nearer to the city there were houses, cows, pastures, forests, streams, and lake views. Summer homes and gardens dotted the landscape near the water and then through a tunnel, across a river, and into Lucerne. What a great ride!
We arrived in Lucerne just before lunch. And, after a short walk to the Renaissance Hotel to leave off our bags, we got on a small train for a trip around the city. The city was very clean and pretty with a gorgeous covered bridge adorned with flowers crossing the lake. Swans were swimming and dipping into the lake for tidbits. Later, we had a simple lunch at a restaurant on the edge of the lake and walked around before boarding a boat for a short tour. The boat dropped us off at the other end of the lake in a small town named Wigge. In Wigge there was an outdoor concert pavilion on the edge of the lake and we listened to a local band that was performing and enjoyed the expansive views as we awaited the return of our boat. The scenery was just beautiful and everything was very clean.
Returning early evening to the hotel, we ventured out for a short walk. We chose another restaurant, again overlooking the lake, but this time from the other side. The food was not remarkable, but the night time views of the lake, city, mountains, and sky with a full moon were just spectacular.
On Wednesday we had breakfast at the hotel and then were off for the train station for the train to Zurich at 10:30. The weather that morning was cool and overcast with a bit of rain. It was the only day on our trip that was not filled with sun, but it was still pleasant. At the train station, things were a bit confusing and we looked for the information counter. We found it, but it was mainly for getting information on tickets and there was a long line of people waiting to buy tickets in the line and you had to take a number. Had we waited we would have missed our train even though it was not scheduled to depart for another 30 minutes. But, we managed to find our train and soon were headed to Zurich. Along the way we again enjoyed the views of streams and the lake with small sheds scattered along the edge of the water and gardens everywhere.
There were also tunnels, and arriving in Zurich at 11:30, we had a few hours before boarding our train to Feldkirch. We took the opportunity to walk through the old town (which was directly across from the train station). The old town was really beautiful and we chose to have lunch at a lovely Italian restaurant and had a wonderful simple meal. Arriving at our house in the late afternoon we began packing up for our early morning departure. We then headed off to Sulz once again for our last meal in Austria.
The first part of our trip was coming to an end and the next day we would be leaving for France. Our trip to Austria and Liechtenstein had been memorable. Initially, we did not know what to expect, but it was a really pleasant surprise. Austria was lovely and very interesting. Liechtenstein was an even bigger surprise and a real delight. It was absolutely beautiful, not crowded, impeccably maintained, and the people were really friendly. It is a real jewel and a great place to visit. We were a bit nostalgic that evening, but we were also eagerly awaiting the second part of our trip which was only hours away.
Austria, Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, Monaco, Spain, and U.S.
Thursday we were up very early and left at 5am for our drive to the Zurich airport to catch a 9am flight to Nice, France. Arriving in Nice, France at 10:30, we got our rental car. And, like our last rental car, we were soon to discover that there was no manual and the setting for the GPS was in French so we once again had no GPS. That was to make for some interesting times further along in our trip! But, for the first drive we had great directions and drove about 1 hour to our house in Le Trayas. It was a beautiful home on the side of the mountain with expansive ocean views. It was also very spacious with lovely grounds, a pool and spa, and very good cooking facilities including an outdoor grill. After getting our baggage inside and taking a quick look around, we drove a very short distance to Théoule-sur-Mer. Here we had a lovely meal at a restaurant perched above the sea. And, after lunch, we went shopping for our breakfast and dinner provisions at the nearby Géant Casino. Without question, it is one of the greatest food markets I have ever encountered. After a major shopping spree, we were loaded with wonderful wines wines and a large assortment of great foods and headed back home to prepare our evening meal. Later we had a very relaxing evening enjoying terrific food and wine in our dining area overlooking the sea.
On Friday September 16 we were off to the Cote de Provence for our first winery visit at Chateau Sainte Roseline. The drive through the seaside towns on the way to the péage (the French name for toll road) was lovely. (Incidentally, the péage’s in France are some of the best roads in the world.) The quick trip on the péage accounted for the majority of our 2 hour trip. The mountains we passed reminded us of Arizona with their rugged red stone façade. Interestingly, it is those same mountains with the red stone that extend down to the sea all along the Côte de Azur. Exiting the péage and driving through picturesque small towns and vineyards, we arrived at Chateau Sainte Roseline and were greeted by the sales director and the owner. The unexpected surprise was the visit to the Chapel which is located on the grounds next to the winery. It was beautiful and very interesting.
Here is a description taken from the Chateau Sainte Roseline website:
“Chateau Sainte Roseline is a property dating back to the tenth century. It was founded by a hermit named Robaud who decided to settle there, attracted by it’s calm beauty and the presence of an abundant spring. Roseline, the daughter of the Marquis of Villeneuve (Lord of Les Arcs), was the Mother Superior of the abbey from 1300 to 1329. Being very pious and generous, she made a lasting impression on the local population and it was an obvious step to name the property after her. She was sanctified in the 19th century and her body is laid to rest in a glass case in the vineyard’s chapel…. This place of worship is a real work of art, but above all it is a renowned pilgrimage site. Since 1329 it has harboured the venerated saint’s body, which is dressed in priestly clothes and laid to rest in a glass case. Many great artists have celebrated the life of Saint Roseline : Marc Chagall, with an remarkable mosaic representing the Angel’s Meal. Jean Bazine and Raoul Ubac, with their flamboyant stained glass. Diego Giacometti, with a relief sculpture and a bronze lectern. An altarpiece of the Bréa school represents Saint Roseline and her parents, the Marquis and the Marquise of Villeneuve, in a nativity scene….”
Another interesting fact is that Roseline died on 17 January, 1329 at the age of 66. Five years later she was exhumed and her body was discovered to be intact, her eyes open and with full clarity. Her body was laid out for display and worship. And, she remains in the Chapel today (to view the Chateau Saint Roseline website for more on the chapel and sanctuary click here).
At Chateau Sainte Roseline we tasted some wonderful wines and learned a great deal about the winery and the area. After our visit, Adeline treated us to a lovely lunch at a nearby restaurant in the ancient village of Les Arcs. From there we journeyed home, stopping again for more wine and food at the Géant Casino. At home in Le Trayas we had a very relaxing dinner as we continued to talk about the wonderful day over numerous glasses of Côtes de Provence rosés!
On Saturday we drove an hour or so to the ancient village of Mougins. We parked at the bottom of the hill and walked up to the village. There were lots of people and cars. We did not know it at the time, but when we arrived we discovered that there was a food festival. In fact, it was the 6th annual food festival. Stands had been set up at the entrance to the village with foods, wines, and various other things being sold. The stroll through the village was invigorating and very interesting. We had a lovely lunch at L’Amandier De Mougins sitting on the terrace overlooking the valley and mountains in the distance. After lunch we took another stroll around the city and picked up some Côtes de Provence wines to have with our dinner. We then walked down the hill to our car and drove back to our house to begin preparing for our evening meal.
Sunday we decided to drive along the coast to St. Raphael. It had rained very early that morning, but was clear and a bit cool when we left. The drive along the side of the mountain overlooking the Mediterranean Sea was stunning. The mountains running to the sea had the same red coloring as we observed on our inland tour through the Cotes de Provence. We drove for over an hour passing through several small towns before arriving at our destination which was distinguished by a large church tower that could be seen from quite a distance. St. Raphael is a small city that is very beautiful and situated on the sea a short distance from St. Tropez. We walked around, had lunch and decided to return on another day for a boat trip to St. Tropez. We had to leave in the early afternoon to get ready for our dinner that evening at Mirazur in Menton, France near the Italian border. Thankfully, we had arranged for a driver. It was about a 1 ½ hour drive, but had we been driving I don’t know if we could have found it! And, upon arrival, it was only a very short distance to the Italian border so we asked the driver to drive us across the border and back. Why? Just because we were there!
Monday it was back to the Côtes de Provence and visits to three wineries. Our first stop was at Chateau Esclans which was recently purchased by Sasha Lichine, the son of Alexis Lichine, and former owner of Chateau Prieure Lichine in Bordeaux.
From there we went to Chateau de San Martin where we had a wonderful visit and tasting with the owner Adeline de Barry. Like Chateau Sainte Roseline, which we visited earlier, this Chateau is one of the 14 Grand Cru Classe estates in Provence. It is very historic with a most interesting history and the wines are wonderful. Afterwards we had a delightful lunch there with Adeline and her mother. It was a memorable experience.
From there we went to Chateau Roubine, another of the Grand Cru Classe estates of Provence. And, like our other visits, we had a wonderful time tasting wines and talking with the owner, Valérie Rousselle. Again, it was just a fabulous time (to read my article Three Cru Classé Ladies of the Cotes de Provence click here). On the way back home we planned to make a stop that had been suggested by Valérie. It was only a short distance from Chateau Roubine and on our way to the péage. But, we got really lost and wound up in a forest on a small dirt road that kept getting narrower and narrower. Remember, we had no GPS! But, after turning around and getting off the dirt road, we managed to somehow get to our destination, the Maison des Vins des Cotes de Provence (regional wine shop). Here there was a very large selection of Cotes de Provence wines available for tasting or purchase at the same price charged at the wineries. So we bought a few more bottles of Cotes de Provence rosé to enjoy with our evening meals. This was a really lovely day. We thoroughly enjoyed everything and especially the wonderful people and their wines. Then it was back to our home that evening to prepare another meal and settle in with a good supply of Cotes de Provence rosé!
Tuesday we were off to St. Raphael at 8am to catch the morning boat to St. Tropez. The drive down the coast was very scenic and the boat trip to St. Tropez was beautiful. The arrival into St. Tropez also was spectacular with distant views of the old fortress. We walked around the harbor and into the interior of the city. The interior is crisscrossed with small walkways and alleys and lots of small shops including many restaurants. On the outside the ocean views were stunning and there were also some spectacular yachts that were moving in and out all during our stay. At mid-day we were ready for lunch and chose a restaurant overlooking the harbor. It was an inexpensive, but amazing meal featuring some of the best shell fish I have ever had! We were all very impressed with the food.
After lunch we walked up to the Citadel and enjoyed learning of the history of the fort which was erected in the early 1600s. It was most interesting and featured a chapel, dungeon, well, barracks, and, of course, a massive perimeter wall. The views from the hill were spectacular. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking through the city and went shopping for more food and wine before boarding the boat back to St. Raphael and then driving to our house in Le Trayas.
Wednesday we drove to Eze a small village overlooking Monaco and visited the great hotel and restaurant Le Chevre de Or. It is spectacular and the views are magnificent. After lunch we drove to Monaco where there was the annual Yacht Show. It was extremely crowded. Large white tents were erected all around the perimeter of the harbor and the harbor was jam packed with yachts of all sizes, but mostly BIG! Finding it impossible to park we drove around a bit and then headed back home to get packed and prepare the last meal of our trip.
Thursday we were again up very early for the drive to the Nice airport. Laurie and I had a mid morning flight to Madrid, Spain and Jim and Marcia had a flight at about the same time to the Ukraine to visit their son and his family. The flight to Madrid on Iberia Airlines was challenging. Thankfully we were early because it took 10 minutes to check in each person! The plane was crowded and to top it off only one bag on the entire flight to Madrid arrived with the plane. Fortunately, it was one of our three checked bags and the one that contained our clothes, but not our toiletries. It was only after an hour or so and a lot of excuses, that we finally learned that all of the other bags were still in Nice and would be arriving later at an undetermined time. Most of the people on the plane arrived in Madrid with no baggage! Two funny guys traveling together joked (at least we thought it was a joke) that they would have to go naked. I guess we were lucky to get our clothes! We took a cab to our hotel with our one bag in tow.
Our hotel, the ME, was gorgeous and very well situated in the Plaza de Santa Ana near the Plaza Mayor. After upgrading, we had a very nice room overlooking the square, and the hotel staff began the task of calling to find out about our luggage. We left for a quick 1 hour tour on the hop on hop off and walked around the area near our hotel.
The Plaza Mayor was only a short distance and was reminiscent, if not as spectacular, as San Marco Square in Venice. Here we had a very pleasant lunch at small café on the square. Returning to our hotel we found out that our luggage would not be arriving until late that night and we had a 9pm dinner reservation so we had to go shopping for some toiletries. Later we took a cab to Santceloni on the Paseo Castellana where we had a fantastic meal. It was the best meal of our trip and one of the greatest meals Laurie and I have ever experienced.
The next day was our day to walk the city. It was a gorgeous fall day. The weather was warm with a nice breeze and the sky clear and beautiful. We sent off on a short walk to the Prado Museum where we spent a couple of hours walking through (and getting lost) in the world’s largest art museum. The scope and grandeur of the museum is simply awesome. We concentrated most of our limited time there viewing the special exhibit that was on display at the time of our visit. It was entitled “Rome, Nature and the Ideal, Landscapes 1600-1650.” It was very impressive in scope and it was fascinating to see how various artists were interpreting their surroundings in these early paintings.
Wandering through the museum, one thing caught my eye. It was a painting of a lovely young Spanish girl with a parrot perched on her hand. The painting was beautiful, but I was mainly struck by two things: First, the parrot was an African Grey. We have an African Grey named Bacchus. We have had him since he was hatched 12 years ago. African Greys are amazing creatures. Alex, an African Grey who passed away in 2007, was tested at the highest level of intelligence of any Non-human form of life (the level of a five-year-old child). He was immortalized with his obituary in The Economist magazine. Founded in 1843, this was the first time The Economist had ever carried an obituary on a Non-human (to read the obituaryclick here). Second, the painting was very old. I think maybe the 16th century. To know that African Greys were already a known quantity that far back in time came as a surprise to me. So I got a lot out of this painting that was only 1 out of nearly 8,000 in the museum. In fact, it is amazing that I even happened to come across it. But, what I did not get was the name of the painting or the name of the artist! We left the museum and wandered around for awhile marveling at the grandeur of the city and the architecture. It was a beautiful fall day and it was great just to stroll along and soak up the sights.
After a brief stop for lunch we walked to the Buen Retiro Park in the middle of the city very near the Prado Museum. It encompasses some 350 acres in the middle of the city. The walkways are varied with many statues, buildings, a lake, and lots of trees and vegetation. It was a warm day with a nice breeze and the time spent in the park was magical. It was a delightful way to spend the afternoon.
Arriving back at our hotel late that afternoon, we were informed that there were some repairs that had to be done to the hotel plumbing and that we would have to vacate our room. Unfortunately, what they had available for us was small and with no view. We negotiated the return of the money we had paid for an upgrade, but that was the best we could do. They did offer us dinner in the hotel, but after looking at the menu, it was not what we wanted. We were looking for some traditional Spanish food and had already made a reservation so we declined. That evening we had a meal at a nearby Tapas restaurant that had been recommended by the concierge.
The next morning we got up, had breakfast in the hotel, and took a cab to the airport for a mid-day flight to Los Angeles. The Madrid airport is large and very modern. But, because it took a long time to get around we did not have much time there before lining up to board the plane. There were two lines that were divided. One went only to the front of the plane and the other went only to the rear of the plane. For some reason, the Iberia airline personnel had all the people in the line to the back of the plane board first. The rest of us, in the other line to the front of the plane, had to wait about ½ hour before we were allowed to board. Many of the frequent flyers in our line were furious. But, as we were to learn, this was only the beginning of a terrible flight. In fact, our “Business Plus” flight home on Iberia Airlines was the exact opposite of the flight over on British Airways. And, it was the second worst airline trip of my life. The first was a “First Class” trip on Alitalia a few years ago. There was nothing good about that flight except that the plane did not crash and our luggage did arrive. Other than that, the personnel were downright nasty; the airplane was in terrible condition with seats that were worn out and all kinds of squeaks and noises that persisted without interruption throughout the flight; the food was absolutely disgusting; and the wine was terrible. I vowed after that trip that I would never fly Alitalia again! On this Iberia flight, the seats were not that comfortable, and everything else was even worse. This included rude personnel and poor food and wine. After the 12 hour flight, it was great to arrive in Los Angeles before dark and meet Tom for the trip home. Iberia now joins Alitalia on my “Don’t Fly” list. And, despite the Iberia experience, we were very happy to be home and reflect on our great trip.
END OF PART I. STAY TUNED FOR PART II COVERING FOOD & WINE.