Category Archives: Wine

Being Threatened, Followed and Propositioned in Western Sicily

I’ve been having a wonderful time in Sicily despite the recent inclement weather. The sites are interesting and the people are very friendly, especially in the smaller towns and villages. There have also been plenty of Italian motorhomers around to make me feel safe. However, the far west of Sicily is proving to be a bit more malevolent, or maybe I’ve just been unlucky.

dscf5712I pull into the large port parking of Mazara del Vallo where two Italian motorhomes are already established and I set myself up facing into the strong wind. While I’m organising myself outside the motorhome, two young Italian men approach, one flashes an ID card and claims to be the guardian of the car park. I had read about these parking scams and so reply that I think it is municipal parking. ‘Si’, he responds and then tells me it is free but he is security. I feign ignorance and say that I don’t understand. ‘I’m English. Tourist.’ In the end they just walk off, never having even asked for any money. I know the weather will be awful so I can’t imagine anyone attempting anything and the encounter is so relaxed and casual, I’m not worried.

dscf5716The next day, I explore Mazara del Vallo, once an Arabic capital for the region. The narrow backstreets certainly give it a North African feel. I stumble across the Civic Museum in the old Jesuit College where I find displays of shipwreck treasure and piles of barnacle-encrusted amphorae. Next to it are the remains of the Chiesa Madre, open to the elements and continuing to collapse. Luckily, the cathedral is in a better condition with a richly decorated Baroque interior and ornately carved tombs.

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dscf5736dscf5706I move on to Marsala, determined to try some of the famous local product which shares the name of the town. The reason marsala wine exists is thanks to an Englishman. John Woodhouse visited the town in 1770 and, already having some knowledge of port, recognised the commercial opportunities in exporting this local fortified wine. The coast road is lined with large warehouses, some empty but some still operational. I find another English connection in the Chiesa Madre which is dedicated to the patron saint of Marsala, Thomas a Becket. When the Archbishop of Canterbury was forced into French exile in 1164 he was welcomed into the court of King William II of Sicily and, after his murder in 1170, King William II refused to marry the daughter of English King Henry II in protest. Only 7 years later and after the canonisation of Saint Thomas a Becket did the marriage finally take place.

dscf5748Like the rest of Italy, everything closes for a long lunch so I don’t venture out until 5pm and it is already getting dark. I’m on a marsala mission and, just beyond the Garibaldi Gate, I find Enoteca La Sirena Ubriaca. The bartender, Sonja, explains the different marsala products with the help of a chart painted on the wall behind the bar.

dscf5749She then offers me samples of the dry and the sweet versions of the wine. I much prefer the 7 year old sweet marsala and order a glass to sip while I chat to two charming young pilots who are also in town to taste the wine. Sonja treats us to a steady stream of spreads and pastes artistically applied to small pieces of bread and very useful in soaking up the alcohol. I’m quite taken with the spicy onion marmalade but find the almond and pistachio pastes too sweet and sickly, very similar to Nutella.

dscf5702The €30 bottle of marsala is out of my budget so, after saying goodbye to Sonja, I stop by another wine shop along the street where I locate a cheaper but equally nice wine. It’s at this point that I notice a man, who I had already seen outside the first enoteca, is now taking a keen interest in me. As I pass, he says something and then begins to follow me down the street, at a reasonable distance. I wonder if I am letting my imagination run away with me but I stop at the busy intersection by the Garibaldi Gate to confirm my suspicions. He is clearly stalking me and I have no idea why. Feeling like I’m in some Hollywood spy movie, I change direction a few times and dodge down some small side streets, eventually losing him but not the uncomfortable feeling that the incident has created.

dscf5829Moving on to Trapani, I spend the first day hiding out in MacDonald’s and the motorhome as the weather is appalling. Heavy rain and hail showers occur with little warning due to the strong winds which are carrying them across the Mediterranean. Luckily the next day is better and even the sun makes an appearance, so I get the chance to explore this gritty port town.

dscf5780The streets are lined with crumbling palaces and churches giving Trapani old town an air of decay. As I walk by the gardens of Villa Margherita, I notice a good-looking, young man is following me. I stop and feign interest in a shop window filled with local football kit which forces him to make his move. All I catch is the word ‘bellissima’, which means beautiful, but when I reply that I don’t speak Italian, he scarpers. I guess I should feel flattered but actually the whole encounter seemed a bit seedy.

dscf5812Luckily, there are a few shining lights in the old town to take my mind off it, such as the 17th century Town Hall with twin clocks, and the Jesuit College Church, a feast of Baroque marble and stucco, where the staff make me feel like one of their flock and send me on my way with a little prayer card and some hope.

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dscf5815My walk along the breezy but deserted Lungomare (seafront promenade) is uneventful and my faith in Sicily’s friendliness is further restored when I pass through the fishing quarter and find a local fisherman mending his nets. I watch him for a while, then ask if I can take a photo, and he’s happy for me to do so. In my poor Italian, I ask about the black and white photos on the shelf behind him. His father and his brothers were also fishermen but he admits that the younger generation are not interested in the hard life of fishing. It seems to me that they are too busy scamming or propositioning the tourists!

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Romantic Road – Wurzburg and Weikersheim

On my way through southern Germany I have decided to follow the Romantic Road, a well-trodden route of medieval towns, fairy-tale castles and quaint villages, popular with artist, poets, writers and now international tourists.

dscf0695My journey commences in the large city of Wurzburg, situated on the Main River and surrounded by vineyards producing the local Franconian wine, which comes in a green bottle called a bocksbeutal, similarly shaped to that used for the French Mateus Rose.

 

 

 

 

dscf0675There’s a lot to see in this city and I start in the main square where, in front of the gothic Marienkapelle, a gospel choir are singing and praying. Further on, the bells of the domed Cathedral of St Kilian are ringing loudly and people are climbing up the steps and entering the massive doors. Passing the very ornate university buildings, I eventually arrive at the ornate Court Garden of the Residenz, a UNESCO World Cultural Property and former residence of the Prince Bishops of Wurzburg.

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residenz-ceilingThe palace was designed by architect Balthasar Neumann and work began in 1720. The result was 360 grand rooms and a large curved vault above the main staircase decorated by the Italian painter Tiepolo. Luckily, it was spared when British bombers destroyed 90% of the city in 1945.

I discover the history and visit the 43 rooms which are open to the public on a guided tour, which is in English and included in the price of my ticket. Although most of the rooms have been carefully reconstructed from old photographs, the furniture is original as the Wurzbug officials had the presence of mind to store it in case of damage during the war. Disappointingly, photography is forbidden, so the interior photo is not mine.

dscf0693The next day I follow a lovely path which winds between the defensive walls and leads up to the Marienberg Castle. It was also destroyed in 1945 but many years of reconstruction resulted in its reopening in 1990. However, judging from the scaffold-shrouded chapel, there is still much to be done.

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dscf0719From a terrace in the gardens I am rewarded with a wonderful view of the city and the glass-sided cruise boats which pass along the river far below, under the statue-lined Alte Mainbrucke, the ancient footbridge whose foundations date from the 8th century. It’s a popular place to hang out with a large glass of wine, while watching the sunset.

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After the big city of Wurzburg, the quiet village of Weikersheim provides a haven of peace. The 18th century palace is the big draw here, with over the top stucco work featuring a 3D stag and elephant, and a chain-suspended ceiling painted with hunting scenes.

dscf0745However, I’m happy enough to wander the cobbled streets admiring beautiful bronze statues and more modern, colourful busts of young women. I sit for a while in the market place with a cup of coffee and watch the hikers pass through. While I am following the Romantic Road in my Motorhome, others choose to cycle, or even walk, the 400km route.

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Wine and Choucroute of Alsace

dscf0421I climb over the Vosges Mountains and head out of the pine forests into the wine valleys. My destination is Mittelbergheim, a small village with a Germanic name and 20 wine producers hidden along its narrow medieval streets. After parking up at the edge of the village with views across the vineyards and to the Haut Andlau Castle which proudly overlooks them, I wander into the village in search of the wine for which the area is famous. They use several grapes here – sylvaner, gewurztraminer, muscat and pinot noir to name a few.

dscf0426The village is littered with ancient wooden wine presses, deep wells and dovecotes, and the entrances to the wine makers are adorned with stone arches bearing the crest of the family business. It seems as though everyone must be out in the fields harvesting the grapes, but eventually I find Caveau Gilg which is open for tastings and they are keen for me to try as many as possible.

dscf0431I first try the cheapest and the grapes which are growing next to my Motorhome, the sylvaner. It is light and very drinkable and well within my budget. Then I try the more expensive Grand Cru version, which is made with only the best quality grapes, grown on slopes with the best soil and sunlight. It’s better than the cheaper version but I’m not encouraged to buy it. Finally, I try the sweetest, the impossible-to-pronounce gewurztraminer. It has a wonderful, perfumed lychee smell which makes a big impact, and while the taste doesn’t live up to the promise, I decide it is still worth the €9.25 price tag.

dscf045010km north of Mittelbergheim is the fortified town of Obernai. Firmly on the tourist trail its street are overflowing with white-haired, wine-quaffing coach parties and families visiting for the day from Strasbourg. A tacky tourist train chugs through the backstreets and the shops are selling all manner of souvenirs stamped with “Obernai”.

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dscf0457I suspect it may be hard to find a good restaurant specialising in Alsace cuisine and Trip Advisor has already warned of the rip-off prices and poor standards. In the end, I opt to dine in Winstub la Dime, a traditional restaurant down a quiet side street which offers a lot of local specialities. There’s the flammekueche (a bit like a pizza), the baeckeoffe (pronounced ‘bake-off’ – a slow-cooked meat casserole), Fleischnacka (a savoury Swiss roll) and kougelhopf (a brioche loaf with raisins and almonds). I take the easy option and order the tourist menu which is not cheap at €19.90 but includes three courses. Before my food arrives, I am given a small dish of pretzels to nibble with my wine and some warm ciabatta bread rolls. The starter is a huge piece of onion tart with a side salad. It’s hot, fluffy, light and delicious and my sylvaner wine is the perfect accompaniment.

dscf0459When my main course of choucroute arrives I assume that they have made a mistake because the mountain of cabbage, sausages, gammon and potatoes that they place on the table couldn’t possibly be for only one person. I’m defeated before I even get half way through and have to ask for a doggy bag. My meal is rounded off with a home-made traditional French dessert of Ile flotant (a floating island of soft white meringue on a sea of cold custard).

After such a filling lunch, I feel compelled to take an afternoon stroll up to the peaceful surrounding vineyards. There’s a lovely view of the town from the War Memorial but unfortunately the tourist train arrives and my meditative state is broken by loud German voices and the click-clack of camera shutters.

 

 

 

 

Chateaux and Champagne

France is well known for its amazing chateaux and its expensive sparkling wine, and within my first week I have sampled them both.

dscf0087Chateau Pierrefonds sits high above the town like a fairy tale castle. Carefully restored in 1857 by Viollet-le-Duc on orders from Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie it seems so extraordinarily perfect that it could be a film set. Indeed it has been used for exactly that purpose during the Leonardo DiCaprio film ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ and the BBC TV series ‘Merlin’, where it represented Camelot.

dscf0064The extremely long Worthies room with its medieval decoration and Viollet-le-Duc’s fantastical gargoyles and statues are the highlights and a cellar full of funerary sculptures is rather spooky and disturbing (they were originally on display at Versailles). Special exhibitions give insight into the architectural restorations of Viollet-le-Duc, who also worked on the Cite of Carcassonne, as well as the world of magic lanterns, which were used to produce ghostly images in theatrical shows at the end of the 19th century.

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Further south, a few kilometres outside the town of Fere-en-Tardenois, I find the old castle which was badly damaged during the revolution and the first world war but is slowly being restored, or at least maintained in its current state. It has a fascinating access via a 16th century two-storey gallery, not unlike the one at Chenonceau but a lot shorter. A complimentary leaflet explains that the original castle was extended by Francois I to impress his guests. Nowadays guests stay at the neighbouring luxury hotel which overlooks the old castle moat.

dscf0156I’m not that fond of champagne and my budget can’t really stretch to a bottle but, as I’m passing through the region, I decide to stop and find out more about the bubbly stuff. My introduction begins at the Epernay Tourist Office at the start of the Avenue du Champagne where top producers, such as Moet and Chandon, have their factories and offer tours which cost as much as a bottle of the end product. Luckily for me, two lesser known producers are offering free tastings in the Tourist Office, and whilst I am not enamoured with the champagne, I do learn some basic facts. 320 champagne houses are allowed to produce over 300 million bottles each year from the grapes grown in the region. Champagne is actually a mix of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes, which surprised me as the latter two are both red grapes and champagne is normally very pale in colour.

dscf0183The next day I visit the Cite du Champagne, a new guided tour offered by the house of Collet. Kevin, a smartly dressed young man who looks more like a visiting banker than a tour guide, takes me down into the cool cellars below the vineyards to explain the process of making champagne. It actually involves three stages, including a double fermentation and an expulsion of the yeast sediment after it has been allowed to settle in the neck of the bottle. Upstairs, a museum houses all manner of traditional equipment used for making champagne and old photographs help to explain how the methods have evolved over the years. However, the grapes are still picked by hand, though these days by Eastern European labourers.

champagne-revolution-1911I also learnt why the Champagne region is strictly controlled and was surprised to learn that it was historical and not economical. In 1911 the local vine growers, already suffering from the devastating phylloxera disease which destroyed many vines in the late 19th century, became unhappy with the local champagne producers who began importing grapes from other regions to make their champagne. On the 11th April up to 6,000 people marched through the streets of Epernay and Ay, torching many of the warehouses, destroying equipment and the stored bottles of champagne. The Maison Gallois (the current site of the Cite du Champagne) was razed to the ground.

In 1927 and 1936 very strict regulations were introduced to restrict the production of champagne to the local region. Luckily there are still plenty of large and small producers to keep their clients happy.

 

In Search of a Good Lunch and a Local Liquor

Alghero is the main town on the west coast of Sardinia. With its walled seafront old town and a cosmopolitan new centre, I had hoped to find a good restaurant for lunch.

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The old town eateries are renowned for their seafood but they are also very expensive and, out of season, unlikely to be serving fresh produce. I followed a hand-drawn map on a chalk board which led me to the restaurant Teatro, close to the old theatre as the name suggests, and boards outside offered tempting Sardinian feasts, such as roast lamb on a bed of myrtle leaves. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any of the local specialities and the fact that the chef and waiter burst from the restaurant, armed with big sticks and chasing a rat the size of a rabbit didn’t really entice me to eat there.

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The tourist office recommended a small restaurant called the Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons – like the Vivaldi music and not the pizza!), but it was located down a dirty side road of the new town and wasn’t really any cheaper than the tourist traps in the old quarter.

In the end, as I walked back to the car park in defeat, I spotted some umbrellas and a sign for Taverna Catalana. The builder’s trucks parked outside told me that this would not be expensive and a blackboard offered a dish of the day with two side dishes for only €10. What I got was an enormous plate of steak, fries and grilled vegetables. The local Ichnusa beer was the perfect accompaniment.

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By evening I had moved on to Stintino, a lovely fishing town in the far north of Sardinia, and was struggling to find a place to park for the night due to all the unwelcoming “no camping” signs. It was dark and I’d just decided to seek out the local Carabinieri for advice when I spotted a sign for the port (always a viable option), though the steep dirt track leading down to it almost put me off. Luckily, I was warmly greeted by Maximilliano who offered me a safe place to stay for the night and some welcome conversation. But I had a yearning to try the local liquor made from wine and myrtle berries.

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It was quite a long walk from the Minolo Port into the town centre and the streets were deserted, except for a few fishermen down by the boats and a few fruit and veg shops which were still open. Eventually I found La Piazzetta Bar down a side street. A very bright, white and airy bar compared to most of the tabacchi I usually end up in. The mirto (which is available in red or white) was served from the freezer but it certainly warmed me up inside due to the alcohol content of 32%. It was the perfect end to a gastronomic day.

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Monteriggioni and the Assassin’s Creed

The small walled town of Monteriggioni is just 20 kms to the north west of Siena. It was built in the 13th century as a fortified outpost for the Sienese during the wars against Florence and was referenced by Dante in his work “Inferno”.

As with circling round

 Of turrets, Monteriggioni crowns his walls;

 E’en thus the shore, encompassing the abyss,

 Was turreted with giants, half their length

 Uprearing, horrible, whom Jove from heaven

 Yet threatens, when his muttering thunder rolls.

(Translated by Henry Francis Cary during the years 1805–1844.)

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Except for some minor restoration in the 16th century, the 570m of external walls and 14 towers remain unchanged and it’s possible to walk along part of them. I actually enjoy walking around the outside where they are bordered by vineyards which produce the local wines. Entry to the town can be made through two gates, one of which opens out into the main square, surrounded by restaurants, shops and a small church.

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On seeing signs for a free museum, I am intrigued to see what lies inside. What I discover are a few scenes of knights, some helmets to try on and a pillory where an Italian family are posing for photos. The museum is really nothing more than a trick to get you into the souvenir shop where they are selling toy weapons, trinkets and T-shirts with Assassin’s Creed pictures. It now becomes clear that the online information about the town’s history that I found was really the plot for a computer game.

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Next door I find a cellar filled with wine and local food products where Seila, the sommelier, allows me to try some delicious rose wine and some strong pecorino cheese. When I leave with my purchases, I find a handsome young man, dressed in a suit, playing classical music on his cello in the middle of the square. “That’s the theme to Lord of the Rings”, Seila informs me, and somehow I’m not surprised.

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Lake Garda and the German Invasion

DSCF6016When I decided to stop at Lake Garda on my way to Venice I thought it would be a peaceful place to stop for a few days. Little did I realise that October is a popular month for German motorhomers and caravanners to visit and sample the local food and wine.

Camping San Nicolo in Bardolino, on the south east shore of the lake, was chock-a-block with Germans. In fact the staff were rather surprised that I was English and equally amazed that I was travelling alone.

DSCF6013On the first day I decided to walk up to the Zeni Winery to try the local Bardolino wine. After a small and informative museum there was an area for sampling and buying their products. 14 of the cheaper wines were offered for free on a self-service basis, while the more expensive wines were served at a counter for a small fee. I managed to try 8 of the free wines but didn’t really like any of them and poured most of the samples into the spit bucket. Meanwhile, the Germans were knocking back everything on offer, piling boxes into their cars and driving off drunkenly to their hotel or campsite.

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DSCF6069The best way to explore the largest lake in Italy is by boat, so I took the early morning ferry to Sirmione, the most southerly of the Lake Garda towns. As I walked from the dock to the striking Scaligera Castle, I was relieved to hear more English being spoken and as I climbed up the tall tower for some excellent views of the promontory, I bumped into several Asian families.

 

DSCF6115Lazise is an impressive walled town just south of Bardolino and its narrow, cobbled lanes are lined with restaurants, souvenir shops and gelaterias. A huge, noisy morning market, stretched out along the lakefront was just beginning to pack up when I arrived, but beyond it I found the tranquil gardens circling the outside of the impressively thick walls. It had been a hot and tiring day so I indulged myself with some of the soft and smooth ice cream before the final leg of my boat tour back to Bardolino.

 

 

DSCF6134 (2)In the central church of San Severo, I attended an evening concert by the Bardolino Philharmonic, a 30-member choir accompanied by an organist and featuring an operatic soloist who happens to be the aunt of the campsite receptionist. For an hour they presented a wide range of pieces from Bach to Verdi and even Ennio Morricone’s theme from the film “The Mission”. However, it was the spiritual setting with its backdrop of religious frescoes which made it a magical evening.