Le splendide voyage

Reflections on exploration & travel


Leave a comment

For the love of French cheese and the Jura Mountains!

In France, the celebrated French love affair with cheese will in due course infuse the atmosphere of an expatriate’s everyday life.  As a matter of fact, a French cheese tray is a permanent fixture in home meal gatherings and restaurants. It is usually served after the main course and before dessert.

The author John Baxter, reveals a well-known narrative in his book “The Perfect Meal:” once, the legendary French general, Charles de Gaulle, while rejecting the idea of France being ruled solely by the communist party, made the following statement: “How can any one party govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheeses?” In reality, food and nutrition data chronicle that the variety of French cheeses seem to run between 350 and 400.  Still, some of my dear French friends love to say that: “There are 365 type cheeses in France: one for each day of the year!”

Whenever I visit a new region in France, I make a point to try one of their local cheeses. Apparently the commanding general and emperor of France, Napoléon Bonaparte, followed the same practice. In Burgundy, after learning to bypass the robust whiff of local cheeses, I fell in love with Époisses a cheese referred as the “king of all cheeses” and one of Napoléon’s favorites.  Historically, these cheeses were often produced in monasteries. Hence, it was our “friends,” the Cistercian monks of Citeaux who started the Époisses’ production in the 16th century and later handed the recipe to local families. Thenceforth, between Dijon and Auxerre at the village of Époise, this recipe has been followed whilst creating a most delightful orange/yellow rind cheese washed in marc de Bourgogne and that has a delicious ivory creamy center with rich and uniform taste. It sells inside a charming wooden box and it goes well with Burgundy’s red wines.

In the Loire valley, I tasted an exquisite goat cheese called Valençay.  By tradition, the cheeses of the Loire Valley use ash as a coating. The bluish-gray rind on the Valençay is no exception.  This cheese used to be molded in a perfectly shaped pyramid. However, a local anecdote describes that when Napoléon returned from his unsuccessful campaigns in Egypt, he stopped at the chateaux of Valençay.  When he was served this cheese, he was overcome with indignation by its pyramid silhouette, and so, he chopped off the tip of the pyramid. As result, the cheese has kept this cut-off-tip shape ever since.  Still, Napoléon continued to love this cheese as I do because its taste is slightly citric and it pairs superbly with Valençay Blanc (white) wine also from the Loire region. Another favorite cheese endorsed by Napoléon and Charles de Gaulle is the Mimolette from Lille area, Nord-Pas-de-Calais.  This is a very interesting looking cheese. It has the form of a ripe cantaloupe with a wrinkly crust on the outside and a bright ripe orange color in the inside. Its distinct taste is similar to the Dutch Edam.  A familiar historical account conveys that in the 17th century, Louis XIV, the Sun King, loved the taste of Edam yet he could not tolerate that it was produced in the Netherlands. Thus, he banned Edam from France and besieged his loyal cheese artisans to create the Mimolette. Since then, this new creation has a distinctively stouter appetizing taste plus it looks dashing on a cheese tray while pairing remarkably well with a Bordeaux red.

One of my favorite’s weekend retreats year-round is the region of Franche-Comté. On the ancient salt-trade route, I have routinely visited the quaint Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne village in the department of Doubs. This rural community clings to the widely forested woodlands in the Jura Mountains, a mountain range spreading predominantly from France to Switzerland whilst infiltrating Germany at a lower altitude. The village is idyllic and reserved for countryside lovers while generously offering health-boosting attributes like fresh air, tranquility and beauty just as the visitor’s senses are stimulated to a renewed vitality. Reasonably priced, private and comfortable loft style apartments can be found at “La Maison Rose” at 11 rue du Château.  These facilities present panoramic views of the hillside and cliffs. Another charming place in town is the “Residence de Vaux,” at 29 Grande Rue, an elegant bed & breakfast with period’s rooms and fresh baked breakfast.  Both are excellent based locations to explore the region’s attractions such as: the source of the River Lison (about 20 minutes from the city center) where you will find the cavern of its emerging birth even as the river cascades through a deep wooded gorge.  Well-marked hiking routes provide for a spectacular experience. On the other side of the village, up in the cliffs lies another equally beautiful source of water: the River Verneau with its own waterfalls and nature trails.  Also along the cliffs is a fixed climbing route, the Via Ferrata, a rather popular route with climbers. At Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne there is also opportunity during spring, summer and autumn for: horseback riding, canoeing, cycling, climbing, fishing, hiking, hang and para-gliding.  In the winter not very far from the city center, one can cross-country ski and for downhill skiing leisure pursuits, the ski trails of Métabief are less than one hour away. Other cultural centers nearby is the vilage of Arbois home of renown scientist Louis Pasteur.  You can visit his home and museum where the early experiments of pasteurization were performed on the wines of his own vineyard. Another interesting town is Ornans, where the river Loue runs through it and it is also the home of the French realist painter Gustave Courbet.  His riverside home in Ornans is a delightful place to visit.  Also, Nans (for short) is within a few hours from Geneva, Lausanne, Strasburg and even the Black Forest in Germany.

Once my friends invited me to a Franche-Comté fondue party in Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne. Subsequently, my visit to the Jura Mountains became a deliberate commission bolstering my quest to learn about French cheeses. For many centuries the Jura Massif’s cheese dairies known as fromageries or fruitières have produced one of the most popular cheeses in France: Comté.  You can easily plan a visit to these fromageries and fruitières in the region.  In Nans’ city center, there is such a facility where you can view the production of Comté (usually early in the morning). The cheese is produced exclusively from the milk of Montbéliarde and French Simmental breeds of cattle, grazing at no less than 400 meters of altitude. The Comté is a related to the Swiss Gruyère and is predictably aromatic with an array of subtle tastes such as the “fruitè” Comté which is more elastic to “salé” Comté more brittle.  After production, these cheeses are taken to climate-controlled maturing cellars to age for at least 4 to 18 months.  Certainly, this intricate process create a delicious cheese loved by chefs and gourmands all over the world. Comté also pairs perfectly with a vine from the Massif du Jura:  the regional Vin Jaune (yellow wine). This wine made from Savagnin grapes has a distinct nutty bouquet, with hints of almonds, citrus, salt and even anise and like the Comté cheese it is also aged in cellars in the Jura region.

Another superb unpasteurized cheese from the Haute-Doubs, Franche-Comté region is: Mont d’Or. This cheese was created in the 18th century to make use of the Autumn-Winter milk.  As such, Mont d’Or cheeses are usually produced from the 15th of August to 15th of March and sold during September 10th to May 10th.  This type of cheese is also exclusively obtained from grass and hay-fed Montbéliarde cows grazing at no less than 700 meters above sea level. Hence, when spending time in the region, a visitor will be able to observe these marvelous animals going through town and making their ascent into the hills… and it is beautiful!  Mont d’Or, quickly climbed to my list of beloved cheeses due to its creamy texture, Epicea pine tree scent and its yellow undulated rind, sold in a round wood resinous box.  It can be baked with cloves of garlic thus creating a superb first course. Once again, I recommend pairing this fine cheese with the Vin Jaune of Jura and equally established products of the region.

Traveling throughout distinctive provinces in France and learning about local cheeses can be a pleasurable task. Since an impeccable French meal with all of its many courses cannot be complete without the cheese platter, it is a worthwhile activity to discover how a traditional cheese tray should be displayed.  The tray should present and assortment of types of cheeses, consistencies, color, aroma, milk origin (cow, goat, ewe), and firmness.  Depending on the season it should also include side options such as:  dried fruits, fresh fruits like figs and grapes, nuts, sliced baguette, honey, dried meats, smoked sausages, Dijon mustard and local sauces.  Last but not least, pairing your handiwork with favorite regional wines…  voilà… a splendid cheese presentation will take center stage and delight your guests!

Advertisements


1 Comment

New discoveries along the “Golden Path”

My next assignment was going to take me to France. Thus, while researching multiple road maps, I decided to follow an unfamiliar road to learn more about the region.

The two greatest commodities in medieval times were gold and salt. For that reason, these materials  became chess pawns for the development of prolific trade routes throughout Europe. One of the best known routes was the “Golden Path” from Salzburg to Prague. Hence, this route became my chosen itinerary from Prague to Regensburg, Bavaria (Germany) and on to Salzburg, Austria.

At first, I was intrigued by the vast fields of yellow flowers abiding for several kilometers. Later, I found out that these yellow crops produce canola oil while the sunflowers produce oil and seeds.  On the side of the road bright orange, blue and red wildflowers provided inspiration for artists to take out their pallets. It was incredible to observe this natural landscape south of Prague. Close to Regensburg, I took a two day break just to walk along the River Danube and discover a series of picturesque hiking trails.

My trip proceeded toward the Alps as I entered the Bavarian’s Berchtesgaden National Park, Germany.  The eastern, southern, and western boundaries of the park shape the border between Germany and Austria. Again, numerous and amazing hiking trails are available for a traveler to inhale the magnificence of the park. In particularly, the center of the park is identified by a large lake called Königssee and also by the church of St Bartholomew patron of alpine farmers and dairymen.

After a few days in this idyllic sanctuary, I proceeded to one of my favorite cities, Salzburg (Salt Fortress) in Austria. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birthplace was famous in medieval times for its salt production collected from the neighboring Alps.  The city is usually inundated with tourists during the summer season or during music festivals, yet in early spring it was quiet and ready to be discovered. Hence, I pursued a walking tour for awhile to learn about its history and visit Mozart’s home and then with confidence, I proceeded on my own following its the narrow lanes, its baroque architecture, its gardens while looking into the hills. At some point I had to whisper “…the hills are alive with the Sound of Music…” Indeed, the popular 1965 motion picture, The Sound of Music, was filmed in Salzburg and proximate locations. The first scene in the movie starts on a mountain with Maria (Julie Andrews) singing with open arms, pirouetting, embracing life and the wholesome resplendency around her… that scene took place in Mellweg, about five miles or so from Salzburg.

With that kind of introduction, I knew I had chosen the right itinerary and decided to stay for a few days.


Leave a comment

Welcome to Central Europe, Prague, Czech Republic

One day, I was visiting a Czech colleague and she asked: “This is your first time in Prague, isn’t it?” I replied:”Yes, this is my first time in Eastern Europe.”  During my childhood, anywhere east of the iron curtain and within the Soviet bloc (even after it was dismantled) was considered east.  Nevertheless, Prague lies just above the “western” Austria and also has borders with Bavaria, Germany. Certainly, throughout the centuries, these nations belonged to powerful empires!  Hence, as we continued our conversation, my friend began a detailed geography lesson.  She opened an historical atlas which displayed the multiple regional configurations during the course of time.  She ended with a generous smile and said:”Welcome! As you can see, you are now in Central Europe!” Duly noted!

When visiting Prague it is important to keep in mind the numerous touristic attractions that are available such as: Old Town Square with the astronomical clock, Charles Bridge, the Prague Castle, an array of beautiful churches, a cruise & brunch on the river, haut couture shopping at Parizska Street, or shopping along Na příkopě and ending at the modern Palladium shopping center. At Na příkopě, the latest movies in English can be seen at the Palace Cinemas Slovanský Dům. The tour would not be complete without sampling traditional Czech cuisine at the “Bredovsky dvur” restaurant, on Politickych veznu.  A true bohemian taste is offered throughout their menu, such as their appetizing fare of pork and duck with stewed cabbage, potatoes pancakes, and sauce. All of these spaces are small introductions to the assorted flavors of Prague and will leave a pleasant still-life imprint of the trip. However, if time constrains are unimportant, then walking unhurriedly through the streets of Prague will bring a broader historical and cultural awareness.

Prague rests on seven hills or perhaps nine depending on the contributor of the information. They are: Hradčany, Vítkov, (Opyš), Větrov, Skalka, (Emauzy), Vyšehrad, Karlov and Petřín.  The significance of this information is that from each elevation a different side of Prague is revealed.  The same is true for the architectural influences converging at every square and street corner.  Blocks of graceful structures and styles adorn the city: the Romanesque style can be seen in some of the Basilicas, the Charles Bridge and main battlements are Gothic, the baroque style can be identified at Troja Castle and Saint Nicolas Church, and the neo-Renaissance style shapes the National Theater. Still, there are a few unattractive and utilitarian buildings which the locals may refer when giving directions as “…it is near that dark soviet looking building.” Nonetheless, other buildings are unique and project an unexpected diversion from the norm as seen in the postmodern creation, the Dancing House (1996), with towers nicknamed “Fred & Ginger,” designed by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunic, and the most colorful Synagogue in Prague, the Jubilee Synagogue,  built in pseudo-Moresque style in 1906.  

While embracing the reminiscences of several eras with judicious elegance, Prague, the city of a thousand spears, will enchant the traveler through its arches, passages, and architectural landscape making it impossible to think of future commitments, at least for the moment.


Leave a comment

Trains, Snow and Dr. Zhivago

On March 2010, as I admired the Florida sun setting in the firmament, I received a phone call announcing that my next destination was Prague. I was not simply going for a visit; I was going to live in Prague for at least 8 months. My lips greeted the news with enthusiasm and soon I began to read all about the nation and its history. Two weeks latter my plane landed in a familiar territory: Milan, Italy.

Typically, if the opportunity is available, I prefer to use ground transportation. Thus, at “Milano Centrale” railroad station, I bought a one way ticket on a sleeper train to Prague. The convoy’s trajectory encompassed four countries: Italy, Germany, Austria and Czech Republic. At 15 minutes before departure, a melodic boarding call alerted everyone to take their places. The individual quarters were comfortable and I received a small “bon voyage” basket filled with fresh fruit and cheese. These little morceaus were welcomed since the journey was about 14 hours long. However, since I slept for the most of the trip, it was pleasant way to travel.

The trip began uneventful and I woke up early in the morning to change trains in Munich. Then, somewhere after the Austrian/Czech border the train came to a halt.  I communicated in German and a crew member answered me politely using an unusual blend of Czech and German languages. Thus, my hazy appraisal was: a rail malfunction had occurred, we were asked via gestures to come out of the train with our luggage and … wait. As we disembarked and unloaded our luggage, we identified that our minute train station was an open structure. A Swiss passenger looked at me with admiration and stated: “Such a little woman and such large suitcases…”  I replied with a mystified smile as our empty train moved gradually away from our view.

There are moments in life when after completing a task, you lift up your eyes and you finally take notice of your surroundings. At that instant, all I could think was: Doctor Zhivago! Do you remember when in the film doctor Zhivago the train halts in the middle of nowhere and all around are endless fields of snow?  There I was, consuming the same magnificent view, inhaling the crisp air and yet able to feel the frail warmth of the sun. Certainly, this interlude was lasting!

The passengers were a medley of British families on holidays, a group of Swiss backpackers, different groups of lively Italians, old, young and even a priest. Without much awareness, all passengers had stacked their luggage neatly on the edge of the field. Hence, as I sat quietly on my suitcase, I did not worry. I was well prepared! In Milan, I had bought a jar of olives, a Swiss chocolate bar, 2 Kiwis, a baguette, 2 bottles of water and a book on “The Comprehensive History of the Hapsburg Empire.”  Yet, my deep thoughts were interrupted when everyone started to share their commodities with glee and rich conversation began to thrive. Two young Italian minstrels seized their guitars and started to harmonize sounds of love and bliss.  As result, this meeting of nations together with the “breaking of bread” allowed two hours to elapse swiftly, and then modern Daimler buses arrived to our rescue. Once inside the bus, we were offered delicious hot chocolate, coffee and tea. Finally, we were on our way to Prague.

Map & Compass


Leave a comment

Le Splendide Voyage

Throughout my childhood, my imagination was captivated by stories of adventuresome individuals and their discoveries of distant lands. My fascination was certainly brought to life when at age 10, I was able to be part of a transoceanic voyage from South America through the west coast of Africa, to the Canary Islands all the way to Scandinavia and finally arriving at the Port of Hamburg (ger. Hamburger Hafen), Germany. This seafaring adventure was one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me. Thus, such early experience was the pivotal element in fostering my love for travel and a yearning to see the world.

My travel’s recollections compel me to make a distinction between two words: “traveler” and “tourist.”  In my opinion, there is a remarkable divide between these two terms and paradigms. Dictionary definitions state that a traveler is: a person who travels, or has traveled in distant places or foreign lands.” I would further speculate that a traveler is a person who journeys for an extended interlude of time, and who has the curiosity and perhaps the courage to experience different cultures, lands, tastes, and smells etc. Thus, the traveler’s discoveries evolve with each experience as every place has its own unique “language” for communicating their story and authenticity.

In contrast, the word tourist has been defined as: “as person who visits a place; a vacationer.”  The term may imply a short cycle of time and a brief encounter with culture. It seems that the aim here is not necessarily to engage with the new surroundings or customs.  Rather, the essence of this experience is based on pleasant instances where nominal cultural exchanges are the norm.

In retrospect, I have followed both paradigms intuitively by tailoring the best approach to circumstances of the journey. Thus, with a camera in hand, I have aimed to re-frame the visual dialogues that have generously dwelled within my personal chronicles. However, in my heart, I will always be a traveler whose memories remain souvenirs of time, places, individuals, cultures and incidents that are relevant to me.  These have enriched my soul while educating my senses and intellect to cherish with passion a montage of memorable explorations and discoveries.