Only the Purest Will Do: Paso Robles Wine Country

As far as wine goes, Paso Robles, in the Central Coast of California, is fairly young. Even though the Franciscan Friars began making wine in this area in 1790, it wasn’t until 1983 that Paso Robles became an American Viticultural Appellation (AVA). There was a huge investment in this area beginning in the 1990s and in 2013, Paso Robles Wine Country was named Wine Region of the Year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

There are now 32,000 vineyard acres, producing more than 40 wine grape varieties including the area’s heritage variety, Zinfandel. An important factor that distinguishes this region is the distinct microclimates and diverse soils. Combined with warm days and cool nights, growing conditions are ideal.

Paso Robles Wine Country

Paso Robles Wine Country

Perhaps one of the most ecologically-focused wineries in this region is the Carmody McKnight Vineyard. Nutrient-based sustainability is at the heart of their vineyard practices.

And so, on a weekend in mid-January, shortly after a substantial rainfall, Mark Stine and I drove up from Los Angeles specifically to seek out Gary Conway, owner (along with his wife, Marian McKnight Conway) of Carmody McKnight. Mark had purchased Gary’s book, The Art of the Vineyard, and was interested in getting it autographed. The day was glorious with an azure sky marked by very few cotton balls of clouds. The hillsides were newly green, unusual in the midst of the great drought in California’s Central Valley.

The art of wine at Carmody McKnight estate winery

The art of wine at Carmody McKnight estate winery

As we headed out of Paso Robles into the mountains and valleys of wine country, we commented on the beauty of the light creating shadows on the sides of hills from oak trees stripped bare and resting for the short California Winter. The beauty was staggering in its simplicity … the green grass, bright in its newness, fading to a color reminiscent of the blue grass of Kentucky from the reflection of the sunlight, and everywhere along the hills and in the valleys, the branches of grapevines trained to grow along the wires.

Paso Robles Wine Country

Paso Robles Wine Country

Carmody McKnight Vineyards

Carmody McKnight was a pleasant surprise. Not really knowing about the vineyard, except from the story of Gary Conway’s book, we were immediately struck by the simplicity of the old farmhouse, kept as the tasting room. In 1972, while looking for land to purchase, Gary crash-landed in a helicopter and walking away from the accident, proclaimed that he would buy that property.

Carmody McKnight estate winery, farmhouse tasting room

Carmody McKnight, farmhouse tasting room

Gary Conway is what you would clearly call a Renaissance Man. He’s an actor, having starred in Burke’s Law and the 60’s cult Sci-Fi series, Land of the Giants. He’s a writer, artist (modern bold colors painted in oils, images that also adorn the labels of the Carmody McKnight wines), producer, activist and environmentalist.

The land on this 160-acre property was formed by three volcanoes and the natural grapes grow in the magma. The super soils are mineral and nutrient rich, which transfers to the grapes, fitting well with Gary’s passion for the environment and healthy food, and leading him to produce wine that is completely pure and natural.

Carmody McKnight vineyard, Paso Robles, CA

Carmody McKnight vineyard, Paso Robles, CA

There are no additives in the Carmody McKnight wines, no chemicals, no manipulation … pure, exquisite flavor comes through in each varietal. Truly the best wine is the “signature of the soil” and that is clearly apparent in these wines. Of all the wines we tasted, the intense, rich, complex flavors came through.

The Carmody McKnight website describes in detail how the mineral-rich soil contributes to the flavor of their wine as well as increasing its health benefits and enabling this vineyard to produce true Natural Wines.

Gary spent quite a bit of time with us, describing the wines and the production process. His comment, “I used to fight [fictional] giants, but now I’m fighting Corporate Giants” was a reference to his anti-GMO stance that’s pervasive in the US food and agricultural industry.

Mark signed up for the wine club partially because of Gary’s passion, the purity of the wine and the wonderful, bold flavors. From movements all over America, people are supporting local, organic farmers by buying their products and spreading their message. And it’s clear that our health and that of the planet is intricately linked to this movement.

Wild Coyote, House of Reds

There were a couple of other vineyards that Mark and I particularly enjoyed. Wild Coyote featured pure, unfiltered wines. Each wine we tasted was unique, complex and wonderful. I had a few bottles shipped, including a delightful Port. Oh, and, you can stay onsite in one of their five private casitas!

Entrance to Wild Coyote Tasting Room

Entrance to Wild Coyote Tasting Room

Kukkula Vineyards

Another must see winery is Kukkula with their beautifully constructed and energy efficient winery and tasting room. Their mostly estate grapes are organic and their blended Rhone wines rich and delightful.

Wine tasting at Kukkula Vineyards

Wine tasting at Kukkula Vineyards

Thomas Hill Organics

If you’re passionate about supporting restaurants that are organic and sustainable, there are many wonderful choices. Our favorite was Thomas Hill Organics, a beautiful little bistro and wine bar with unique menu items and ingredients sourced locally.

Wine a dinner at Thomas Hill Organics

Wine a dinner at Thomas Hill Organics

Pasolivo Ranch

Another wonderful experience occurred at Pasolivo Ranch. As Mark and I were taking one of the many back roads to Paso Robles, we came across a beautiful olive orchard. We stopped in at the end of their day and the staff was gracious enough to allow us to enjoy their unique olive tasting experience. With pieces of a baguette, and a small plate full of various salts, herbs and spices, we dipped and tasted olive oils with flavors enhanced by our plate of options. Directed by our own “guide” and enhanced by our own imagination, we experienced some amazing flavors! My favorite (and I’ve already purchased more online directly with Pasolivo) was the Lime Olive Oil with Winter Ambrosia Vinegar (a seasonal option).

Outside of Pasolivo Ranch

Outside of Pasolivo Ranch

If you find yourself in the California Central Valley, definitely visit Paso Robles and its many vineyards and olive orchards of that region. It’s well worth the trip.

A gem of Cornwall … Mousehole: Where cats rule

If you were of a mind for a nice hike along the Cornish coast, you could leave Penzance and follow the South West Coast Path to Cliff Road. And in about 3.5 miles you’d find yourself in the charming town of Mousehole (pronounced locally as mowz-ul).

Mousehole's inlet

Mousehole’s inlet

Since we’re continuing on to Lands End and Sennen Cove, we’ve chosen to drive the short distance. The day is blustery with a backdrop of blue, dappled with pale grey clouds that keep us wondering how long the rain will hold off.

We park just to the east of town and walk in as the wind picks up. Mark, ever in need of a beach day, takes the steps down to the Wharf area where the tide is on its way out and some children are playing ball in the sand. We wave and take photos as he lays down, closes his eyes and pretends that the English coastal wind is tropical.

Beach day?

Beach day?

Back in the real world, Derek, Cath and I are targeting a few shops to browse through and pondering which quiet, charming lane will take us to the crest of the hill.

Flower pots on a wall

Flower pots on a wall

Mark rejoins us with a walking map of the town, so we follow his lead and head up a quaint side street where lovely cottages are interspersed with art galleries and craft shops. Nooks and crannies are filled with pots of flowers. Stone walls are splattered with wild flowers growing out of cracks and crevices as if Jackson Pollack had a hand in the coloring of this place.

A garden nook

A garden nook

A riot of color  (Photo by Mark L. Stine)

A riot of color   (Photo by Mark L. Stine)

Cats are sleeping in beds of grass, peering at us through windows cloaked with lace or slipping through alleyways with an air of disinterest. Reaching to pet a large black and white Tom perched on a rock wall creates a flurry of activity as he realizes he may have found a friend who will give him a nice pet, and so he follows us for a bit before getting bored. We haven’t seen a live mouse since we got here!

Sleeping cat

Sleeping cat

Standing guard   (Photo by Mark L. Stine)

Standing guard   (Photo by Mark L. Stine)

Mark leads us up side streets and back down curved lanes. All around this charming town we follow him, until we come to a set of stairs covered partially with moss. The steps are old and steep. A small water fall heads down the hill next to us as we make our way up and up. A wooden make-shift bridge crosses the flow of water, but we continue to climb.

The way across  (Photo by Mark L. Stine)

A way across   (Photo by Mark L. Stine)

At the top, we are greeted with a stand of elephant fronds as big as we are tall. A wide path takes us to a gate at one end, and so we turn and follow the path to the other side where we can see beautiful homes perched high on the hillside above the town with amazing views of the ocean.

Mousehole from above (Photo by Mark L. Stine)

Mousehole from above   (Photo by Mark L. Stine)

We walk this path for awhile, but see no other way down, so we head back to the steps and make our way back to town. As rolling dark clouds move in, we duck into Pam’s Pantry (3 Mill Lane) just as a light rain begins to fall.

Our timing is perfect and after a lovely lunch, we continue our walking tour by the sea where the wind is blowing and the gulls are soaring above the waves, catching the updrafts and laughing in the way that they do. Along the coast of this lovely village, poised above the sea, we are struck by the rustic charm and beauty of gardens. Closed off by low walls and gates, each appears to ‘belong’ to the cottage on the other side of the road.

Garden by the sea

Garden by the sea

A garden in Mousehole

A garden in Mousehole

The sun comes out briefly, creating diamond points of light that spark off of the many brightly colored flowers that thrive in the cool dampness that is England.

Crossing the causeway: St Michael’s Mount

From many places in Penzance, you can see St Michael’s Mount reaching majestically toward the sky, its flag flying proudly.

The castle is clearly visible walking across the Penzance harbor bridge on a sunny day, sitting atop its jagged slopes, catching the sunlight and beckoning you to climb its granite steps and walk among its ancient stones and tropical gardens.

St Michael's Mount from Penzance: On a clear day

St Michael’s Mount from Penzance: On a clear day

On a day when the sun has taken leave, out of the mist and barely visible, you might be drawn by the myths and legends that surround the island. Pulled by an image of the Archangel St Michael, who appeared to fishermen in 495, you might find yourself dreaming of an ancient stone chair that still stands at the entrance to the castle.

Located on one of Britian’s most prominent ley lines, St Michael’s Mount is suffused in a spiritual energy both ancient and new.

Looking back on history

Looking back on history

On a beautiful sunny day, Mark and I set out to explore this historic and most magnificent of places. The Mount is open to the public and you can cross the bay by boat during high tide, or wait until the tide is low and walk in the footsteps of time across the cobblestone causeway. Mark and I choose to do the latter, and so we spend a memorable morning exploring the lovely town of Marazion, on the Cornish coast overlooking the island.

Munificent Marazion

On a hill overlooking the bay and St Michael’s Mount is the village of Marazion, Cornwall’s oldest chartered town. With a small town centre and winding streets sheltered by pristine cottages and row houses, Mark and I walk up and around to take in the history and architecture of this beautiful coastal village.

Marazion toward the bay

Marazion toward the bay

As we round a bend in the road, snapping photos of everything imaginable, we garner a smile from a pleasant villager crossing our path. She seems surprised by us and when I point to my camera and comment that everything here is so beautiful, she responds with a simple, “I live here.” I continue my chatter about the history and architecture and she points us to the top of the hill where we will find the oldest public building, the Friends Meeting House, and the beautiful Memorial Gardens.

View of St Michael's Mount from the Friends Meeting House

View of St Michael’s Mount from the Friends Meeting House

Marazion Memorial Gardens

Marazion Memorial Gardens

As we turn to walk up the hill, our villager calls out and asks if we’d like to see her house. She clearly thinks we’re trustworthy and from our conversation of historic buildings has decided to show us her own home. We enter through a carved iron gate to a garden area.

Gateway to the house

Gateway to the house

Our lovely hostess has traced the house, and its use, as far back as 1770. It was originally used as a tool shop and subsequently used by the current owner as she created costumes and stage sets for the theatre. The shop was then turned into a home, with the first level still used as a studio. The creative touches of our hostess are seen throughout the two floors of living space and the deck off the second floor. Two stain glass windows depict the life of the house and the life of our hostess. These are now part of the building and will remain into the future as historical reference.

History of the house in Marazion

History of the house in Marazion

We leave her planting flowers in boxes along the tiny road and walk to the town centre to check out some shops, including The Summerhouse Gallery where I discover the beautiful and vibrant gold-flecked paintings by local artist Kate Richardson.

Looking over at Marazion

Looking over at Marazion

We then head to the beach to see how far the tide has gone out.

A walk across the water

As the waters of Mounts Bay part, each end of the causeway becomes more and more visible. People gather on both sides stepping farther and farther into the sea as the waters recede.

Waiting for the tide

Waiting for the tide

We walk across the rocky beach and climb onto an outcrop overlooking the causeway to wait a bit longer for it to clear. The process is gradual and since my cousins will be arriving in the afternoon and I need to get back, we decide to see how deep the waters are along the walk. Mark springs across the cobblestones as waves rush over the top. I take off my shoes and follow.

Cobblestone causeway

Cobblestone causeway

The water is warmer than expected; the stones cool on my bare feet. I walk cautiously as the path is uneven. I feel the sun on my face, the salt water rushing across my feet and the tug of history pulling me onward toward St Michael’s Mount.

St Michael’s Mount

The castle that sits atop the granite outcropping that is St Michael’s Mount was originally a monastery, tied to the Benedictine Abbey of Mont St Michel in France, following the Norman invasion.

Since the 1650s, it has been home to the St Aubyn family, with James and Mary St Levan making their home here. James is the 12th generation of the St Aubyn family, and while they reside in the fortress, many other families live and work on the island, occupying the waterside cottages at the foot of the Mount.

Cottage by the bay

Cottage by the bay

In 1954, James’s great-grandfather gifted the island to The National Trust with a large endowment fund and a 999-year lease for the St Aubyn family to continue in residence. The property is entrusted to James and Mary who live within its medieval walls, hosting events and keeping its history alive.

After lunch at one of the island cafe’s, we take a walk around where the views out to sea are spectacular.

St Michael's Mount: Looking out to sea

St Michael’s Mount: Looking out to sea

The walkway up to the castle is steep and uneven, but once you arrive at the castle door, it’s a world unto itself. Historic artifacts within its walls have been well maintained and there are many items dating to the 15th Century, including the beautiful stain glass St Michael rose window in the Priory Church. Items found on the island are also on display from the Bronze Age. The plaster work in some of the rooms is remarkable; some with intricate carvings and others depicting hunting scenes.

Through the windows looking out to sea, it’s easy to get lost in thought and wonder at the lives of those who have walked these hallways before.

Windows to the sea

Windows to the sea

Outside, the sub-tropical garden, with its variety of exotic plants growing out of cracks and crevices and clinging to the granite hillside, is serene and magnificent. Flowers delicate in their beauty, yet sturdy enough to withstand the wind and weather of this island, flourish.

Looking down at the gardens

Looking down at the gardens

St Michael’s Mount is truly remarkable, filled with serenity and hope. For centuries, standing guard and looking out to sea, it whispers of magic and myth, of knights and kings, and of time—moving in a wave from past to present and on into the future.

 

Picture Perfect: St Ives

Nestled in the hillside of the rugged Cornish coast is the picturesque town of St Ives. Curving majestically out to sea, its landscape lined with cottages, its shoreline dotted with colorful boats of all sizes, it beckons you to walk her cobblestone streets and climb her wind-worn hills.

Boats in the harbor

Boats in the harbor at low tide

Before leaving for this trip, my friend, Colleen, suggested I connect with her cousin, Doreen, while I was in Cornwall. So after contacting Doreen, Mark and I walk the short distance from our cottage to the bus depot in Penzance for the 30 minute ride to St Ives.

The bus ride through the rolling hills and valleys of the English countryside is ripe with opportunities for photos, but our ‘drive-bys’ just can’t capture the beauty of this mystical land.

The St Ives bus depot is perched high above the bay providing a perfect opportunity to see the curving Southeast tip of the town as it juts elegantly into the sea. On the other side of the hillside, you can see the vastness of the Celtic Sea in all its splendor.

A hazy day in St Ives

A hazy day in St Ives

Doreen’s daughter, Janine arrives, walks over to us and asks, “Are you American?” I wasn’t expecting anyone quite so young, so after a bit of confusion, we begin our adventure and meet Doreen part way down the hill on our way into town.

Doreen has lived in St Ives for several decades, first in a cottage in town and now on its edge. As we walk arm-in-arm through winding back streets, past shops not yet open on this cold and windy Saturday morning, Doreen shares the town’s history and her story. It’s easy to see why she settled here and why she stays!

Winding street in St Ives

Winding street in St Ives

We arrive on the far side of town at a beach called Porthmeor. The sea moves from a pale green closer to shore, to a light shade of blue on this overcast day. As it touches the sky, the colors blur and except for the occasional darker blue hue, it’s difficult to discern the horizon where the Celtic Sea becomes the Atlantic Ocean.

An open-air cafe sits perched above the white sand beach surrounded by glass shielding its occupants from the wind coming off the surf. Colorful cabanas add to the ambiance.

Cabanas at the beach

Cabanas at the beach

The St Ives Surf School is holding court, decked out in bright yellow like a sunflower opening its petals toward the ocean waves. The students are paying close attention to the master as the waves lick the shoreline, begging them to grab their boards and enter the aquamarine world.

St Ives Surf School in session

St Ives Surf School in session

We head toward the island at the tip of St Ives. “The island” is not really an island, as it’s firmly attached to the mainland, however, it is surrounded on three sides by the sea. Sitting on top is  St Nicholas Chapel, dating to Medieval times.

Walking up the hill, precariously close to the rocky edge, we move around and up until we reach a fork in the path. The rocks are splattered with orange and golden lichens. Small pink, yellow and white wildflowers dot the landscape, appearing in the crops of grass and wherever they’ve managed to hang on. Sea birds fly and hang in mid-air, taking the up-drafts and diving into the sea.

Wildflowers at the rocky edge of "The Island"

Wildflowers at the rocky edge of “The Island”

Doreen and I continue around the island to the harbor side, while Mark and Janine continue up the hill to get a closer look at the one room granite chapel, stoically looking out to sea. Later, Doreen will tell us tales of how pirates used to land on the island, hiding their loot in caves to be transported inland, while the chapel was used as a lookout in an effort to prevent the smugglers from gaining access.

St Nicholas Chapel

St Nicholas Chapel

We wait for Mark and Janine and then head back down to the town, passing by the small protected Bamaluz Beach, past shops and rental cottages to the harbor, where we stop for lunch at the Lifeboat Inn.

Harbor with life boats

Harbor with life boats

Historically, St Ives was a fishing village. Today, it’s an artist community, the transition occurring around the time the fishing industry was declining and the new railway provided easier access. Artists came for the light and beauty of this village by the sea.

After a great lunch, we meander through the cobblestone streets and back alleys, wandering up and down the hills, gazing into shops and small gardens, tucked away in interesting places. We visit several art galleries, our favorite being the New Craftsman Gallery on Fore Street, where I admire a number of works by artist, Emma Jeffryes, and Mark purchases a couple of paintings.

A war memorial garden in St Ives

A war memorial garden in St Ives

It’s clear we could spend more time here, but we have plans for the evening, and so we say our farewells to our lovely new friends and catch the bus back to Penzance.

With its history, charm and beauty, combined with its many galleries, including the Tate opened by H.R.H. Prince Charles in 1993, we can see why St Ives is such a great tourist destination and why Doreen has spent so many wonderful years in this picture perfect place!

Paris to Penzance

Paris at the end of April is like a beautiful woman with no expectations nor knowledge of her beauty. Lush and full of hope, the trees reach out with their fresh new leaves spreading their joy to create shade. Flowers are everywhere, the scent of Jasmine filling the senses. Tulips seem to be never-ending with colors so vibrant they glisten.

The weather, on the other hand, is like a moody teenager, clouds rolling in at a moment’s notice saying to the sun, “Not yet!” and briefly wetting the landscape pushing people toward the ‘shade.’ But just as quickly, the sun cuts through and the landscape sparkles with freshness.

Tour Eiffel through the trees

Tour Eiffel through the trees

Mark trains in from Stuttgart for a brief 36-hour sojourn in Paris … only enough time to walk the Seine and get a sense of what one might discover in this ancient and beautiful city. Isabelle comes up from Montpelier and with Thom and Eric, the five of us meet for a last dinner. Tomorrow we all part, each heading in different directions.

EuroStar to London and beyond

Thom and Eric leave the flat very early. We awake in time to see them off and wait for Alec to arrive and retrieve the keys before heading to the Metro and Gare du Nord for our EuroStar train to London.

I had previously checked parisbytrain.com to get a visual layout of Gare du Nord to save time once we arrive. Even though I have been here a number of times, I know the EuroStar is boarded in another part of the station and we are short on time.

I’m excited about going through the Chunnel, but as we leave the blue skies of France and enter the darkness, I ask myself what I expected? It’s rather like taking BART beneath the Bay, from San Francisco to Oakland, but with a travel time of a bit more than half an hour. As soon as we emerge into the rain and mist, I know we’re in England.

We have about an hour to transfer from London’s St. Pancras station via the Underground to Paddington for the next leg of our train trip. We have a few delays, but finally make it with, oh, quite possibly three minutes to spare!

We are traveling to Penzance on the First Great Western railway stopping frequently along the way. The trip takes about five hours and is memorable for the beautiful scenery, particularly as we get closer to the coast.

English coastline heading to Penzance

English coastline heading to Penzance

There’s nothing quite so beautiful as the English countryside, with its rolling hills and lush, light green fields crisscrossed with full, dark green hedgerows. Entering the small quaint villages with brick houses and church steeples pointing to the sky seems straight out of a Masterpiece Theatre BBC mystery. Narrow roads with carefully manicured bushes and trees keep the curious from seeing beyond.

English countryside

English countryside

Our first night in Penzance

We arrive at our lovely three bedroom cottage at 33 Chapel Street that Mark reserved through Classic Cottages. It’s perfectly situated on the historic Chapel Street within easy walking distance of the town centre. With a view of the bay and its very own private garden, we couldn’t be more pleased.

View of the harbor from the 3rd floor bedroom

View of the harbor from the bedroom

Fresh tulips are on the dining room table, and in the kitchen, we find a tray complete with a bottle of wine, a fresh loaf of bread and scones. Tea and coffee are provided and in the refrigerator we find butter, milk and the incomparable Cornish Clotted Cream.

Tray provided by our hosts

Tray provided by our hosts

The house is cozy and comfortable, but since it’s already nearly 8:00 p.m., we put our bags away and head out into the town to check out the neighborhood and have some dinner. We find a food cooperative at the top of the hill, many interesting shops closed due to the hour and several open and welcoming pubs.

When did the English learn to cook?

Now before you think I’m being a bit cocky here, my mother was English, so I’m pretty familiar with the cooking.

We enter the Turk’s Head, a lovely, warm and lively pub with a back room of tables making up the restaurant. Mark orders Fish and Chips with mushy peas and I the Asparagus Risotto.

The fish is freshly caught off the coast, deliciously battered and perfectly prepared. The mushy peas are creamy, smooth and a perfect companion. The Asparagus Risotto includes small slices of asparagus, English peas, a hint of mint and toasted pine nuts. The risotto is creamy and perfectly cooked with just the right amount of seasoning. Topped with two crunchy and tasteful asparagus and sprinkled with Parmesan, it just may be the best risotto I’ve ever tasted.

Turk's Head dinner

Turk’s Head dinner

We return to our home for this week and settle in for the night.

An auction for charity

On Saturday night, Mark and I attend a charity Art Auction at The Exchange to support the Cornwall Hospice Care. Over 100 pieces from local artists are being offered with a percentage of the proceeds donated to the charity. After champagne, hors d’oeuvres and music in the cafe, we take a seat with our personal auction numbers to see what we might take home.

The auctioneer is hilarious. Forgetting his microphone cord and gavel, he chooses to “speak up,” and uses an ice cream scoop, banging it loudly on the podium to end each sale. His quirky method of engaging the audience, getting bidders to raise the price and forgetting where he is in the bidding process makes for a very entertaining and fun evening. Mark bids on several items and goes home with a beautiful, original signed watercolor.

Impressions of Penzance

Penzance is a fishing village located along the southeast coast of Cornwall, tucked away in Mount’s Bay, which faces the English Channel. In early May, even though Cornwall is a temperate climate, the weather is cold and blustery. The rain has held off, but I feel like I’ve stepped into the land of Winnie the Pooh!

Despite the chill, Penzance is a lovely town. Possibly best known outside of the UK for the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, Pirates of Penzance. However, this seaside town has nothing to do with pirates, although we did see several references including the Penzance Sailing Club, which uses a skull and crossbones as its emblem.

During our week-long stay, we walk the streets, finding hidden nooks and gardens and interesting historical sites. The cemetery in St. Mary’s church is very old, the markers blotched with moss and lichen, many lined with vines. Wild flowers are growing everywhere as are Palm trees. (Mark knows the scientific names of the palms, including the true palms home to this area and those imported from other parts of the world.)

Harbor through Chapel St. archway

Harbor through Chapel St. archway

St Mary's Church

St. Mary’s Church

St. Mary’s, located across the street from our cottage, sits high above the town and can be seen from practically everywhere, making it very easy to find our way home.

Top of St Mary's Church

Top of St Mary’s Church

The Jubilee Pool, an Art Deco seawater lido built when Penzance was a prosperous seaside resort is closed. Located between the promenade and the harbor, it experienced extensive damage from the horrendous storms that battered many parts of the UK and Europe this winter.

Jubilee Pool

Jubilee Pool

Nearby to our cottage we discover the Morrab Gardens, home to sub-tropical plants that you won’t find elsewhere in England.

Morrab Gardens

Morrab Gardens

Morrab Gardens: Pond

Morrab Gardens: Pond

There are wonderful galleries, boutiques and museums that will keep us busy. With an easy walk to the bus station, Penzance makes a perfect home base for jaunts to other parts of Cornwall.

A Farewell to Paris

As our final days in Paris have come to an end, I thought it prudent to list a few places to visit, items of interest and tips that I haven’t covered in previous posts.

Paris: A bit about the Sixteenth

Our flat in Paris was located in the fashionable 16th arrondissement. Alec met us at the flat and gave us a quick tour, letting us know how things worked. Well, if truth be told, he really just pointed things out, making sure we knew those items of key importance like how to log on to WiFi. In the kitchen, he pointed to the coffee machine, then told us the oven door was broken. He would try to get someone in to fix it soon, to which I replied: “So, no soufflés then?” I believe my humor was lost in translation.

Paris flat: Living room

Paris flat: Living room

The neighborhood had everything we needed within a block and a half of what we discovered to be a very posh Paris district. Early in our stay, as we were discovering our new neighborhood, we kept having discussions about the cost of things, particularly coffee and the prix-fixe lunches. It appeared as if prices had gone up substantially since we’d been here last. For example, a café crème at a bistro called aéro close to the Marché de Passy cost €4.80, while our memory had the same as €3.20 less than two years ago. At the top of the price range was a Tea Salon around the corner from our flat at €5.

We had taken a “walk” through the neighborhood using Google Earth before we got here, so we had a pretty good idea where to go and quickly found everything we would need for our stay. However, you can’t get a feel for the prices of items until you sit down and order.

Purchasing fish for our dinner party

Purchasing fish for our dinner party

Fromagerie

Our neighborhood Fromagerie

Wine shop

Our neighborhood wine shop

So, after our initial shock at the cost of a café crème, we decided to do a little research, which mainly consisted of a Metro ride to another part of the city where we had lunch and a café crème (€3.50). The total cost of breakfast [Le petit déjeuner: tartines (slices of toasted baguette) with butter jam and café crème] for the three of us in the 16th was €30 compared to €21 in the 8th arr for lunch. As the days went by, we quickly switched to espresso.

A Google search revealed through Wikipedia that the 16th arrondissement has “long been known as one of French high society’s favorite places of residence (comparable to New York’s Upper East Side or London’t Kensington and Chelsea).” It is, in fact, France’s fourth richest district for average household income. And, combined with the south of the 17th and the Neuilly-sur-Seine, it’s the most affluent and prestigious residential area in all of France.

Private residence in the 16th

Private residence in the 16th

It’s a beautiful area, quiet and alive with history, museums and parks, beginning at the Trocadero and heading South and West (on the right bank of the Seine). Our flat was close to the Metro, had a view of the Tour Eiffel and was a very short walk to outdoor markets and to many parks that are so abundant in the city of light.

Off the beaten path: Paris

Butte aux Cailles:
This lesser-known neighborhood has the charm of a small village with interesting cafés and boutiques. The architecture includes art deco as well as small cottages.

Restaurant along Rue de la Butte aux Cailles

Restaurant along Rue de la Butte aux Cailles

Les Bijoux de Nico: We stopped at this jewelry shop and spent some time with Sebastian looking at the beautiful and unique jewelry that included wonderful silver (argent) pieces made by the Touareg people (nomads of the Sahara).

Rue des Cinq Diamants: Make sure you walk down this interesting street and some of the narrow cobblestone passages.

Cobblestone street in Butte aux Cailles

Cobblestone street in Butte aux Cailles

Chez Gladines: We stopped at this incredible Basque restaurant for lunch. The food and service were excellent and the atmosphere was alive with energy. {Be prepared for a wait, but it’s definitely worth it).

The bar at Chez Gladines

The bar at Chez Gladines

Chez Gladines in Butte aux Cailles

Chez Gladines in Butte aux Cailles

[To get there: Exit the #5 Metro at Place d’Italie and walk down Rue Bobillot, taking a right onto Rue de la Butte aux Cailles.]

Musée du Vin:
This Museum of Wine takes you on a tour of the history of winemaking in France. The museum is located in quarries from the 15th century. The site used to be an Abbey where the brothers produced wine from grapes grown on the hillsides of the Seine. The historic significance of the building and ‘cellars’ makes for a unique and interesting tour.

Wine tasting: Following our tour, we decided to sample three different red wines and ordered a cheese plate to go along with it. Our host made some suggestions and paired the wines with specific cheeses for a most interesting and delectable tasting experience.

Wine tasting at Musée du Vin

Wine tasting at Musée du Vin

[To get there: Located in the 16th arrondissement near the #6 Metro Passy station. Address: 5, square Charles Dickens.]

Parc Monceau:
This is a lovely park with beautiful landscaping, hilly outcrops, curved walkways, interesting statuary and architectural features. It was early in our trip and one of the first really warm days when we traveled to the Parc Monceau in the 8th arr. The park was alive with sun worshippers lounging in the open grassy areas, reading books or talking to friends, their faces turned to the sun and their arms bare to capture the warmth of the day.

Pond at Parc Monceau

Pond at Parc Monceau

Garden view at Parc Monceau

Garden view at Parc Monceau

[To get there: The main entrance to the park is outside the #2 Metro Monceau station on Boulevard de Courcelles.]

Le Jardin Alpin:
This tiny hidden and many times overlooked park can be found in the midst of the left bank’s Jardin des Plantes. Le Jardin Alpin is a wonderful place to go for a bit of quiet solitude in the midst of the vibrant and bustling city. Lush and beautiful, the variety of mountain flora is remarkable (over 2,000 species) due to the microclimate created by its small valley and surrounding trees and bushes.

[To get there: Exit #5 Metro at Gare d’Austerlitz. Located at 57 Rue Cuvier. Go through the tunnel that runs beneath the main path of the Jardin des Plantes to enter the Jardin Alpin.]

Using the Metro

Packets of 10 or 20 tickets: You can get nearly anywhere within Paris in 30 minutes. Unless you plan to jump on and off of the Metro pretty regularly throughout your stay in Paris, it is more cost effective to purchase packets of 10 tickets rather than the day passes.

Paris Metro App by MX Data: This is a very helpful App and is easy to use. Simply enter your beginning Metro stop and where you want to end up and it displays the route, including the number of stops, changes and the estimated time. [Notes: When searching or using the type-ahead function, you must include the French accent marks (i.e., use Hôtel de Ville vs Hotel de Ville). You may have to scroll (or copy and paste from the internet) to find the one you want. Also, be mindful of the start and end points so you know in which direction to go.]

Chips in credit or debit cards

Some cards won’t work unless you have a chip. In Europe, there is a PIN associated with the chip to help prevent fraud. You may find it difficult to use American cards without chips in some circumstances, for example, in the Metro ticket machines. When using a card with or without a chip, tell the cashier it’s an American card and you will need to sign for it. It also may take longer to process.

For petrol, we were not able to find a station that would take any of our cards, with or without a chip. We were looking for petrol on a holiday, so no one was on site to take cash. When we asked about the credit cards at the nearby town of Sanserre, we were told that the stations only take debit cards with chips. We had to drive to the toll road to get petrol with cash from one of the open stations along that route. It was a good thing we weren’t close to empty, although we did need fuel for the long drive back to Paris.

Time to go

We had an amazing month in Paris!

We focused on many out-of-the-way places that I had not seen in previous visits. We shopped at outdoor markets in various parts of the city, had our breakfasts and dinners in our flat and met up with friends. We had two dinner parties where I was able to create some unique dishes paired with some excellent French wines.

We saw the city blossom in a Spring of rolling white clouds and cool days. For the most part, the rain held off until the end of April. When the sun appeared, the days were warm and the jackets came off. The flowers changed and the leaves on the trees went from small, brilliant greens to large Summer shade.

Paris flat: Courtyard early April

Paris flat: Courtyard early April

Paris flat: Courtyard mid-April

Paris flat: Courtyard mid-April

Paris flat: Courtyard late April

Paris flat: Courtyard late April

It was an amazing Spring and a truly remarkable experience. And in the end, we felt quite at home in this most remarkable of cities.

A Weekend in the Country: Part 2, Troglodytes

A different kind of cave

I awake early to a silence so profound for a moment I forget where I am and wonder what has become of the kinetic city. The sun reaches its fingers across the sky painting it a myriad of pale colors as it does so. From the courtyard, the morning doves begin to chatter and I realize that the music of these French doves is much louder and the deep-throated cooing is a trifle more insistent.

After breakfast, Dolores and I head out toward Doué-la-Fontaine. We have decided to check out the famous troglodyte caves of the Loire Valley.

Millions of years ago, the sea covered this part of France and upon its retreat, it left a thick bed of white stone called tuffeau, the same stone that exists underneath Saumur. Soft and easy to carve, many buildings in the Loire Valley are built using this stone. One of the caves we will visit dates to 600 and it’s said that the quarrying of the tuffeau initially created the cavities that would become the troglodyte caves and homes.

We follow the river, heading west out of St-Martin-de-la-Place to a small village called Les Rosiers-Sur-Loire where, as its name implies, we see roses upon roses flourishing. Here, we cross the river and head south through the beautiful valleys lush with bright yellow rapeseed.

Rapeseed

Rapeseed

La Cave aux Sculptures

Upon entering the very small, but clearly ancient village of Dénezé-sous-Doué, we see a sign for La Cave aux Sculptures and make a last minute decision to stop. We head into a small wooden structure and pay for tickets, purchasing our tickets (at a discount) for a later tour of the Troglodytes et Sarcophages.

As it turns out, we are the only people here in this fairly small cave that dates back to the era of Catherine de Medici when the stone masons would meet secretly in the shadows and confines of this cave, making political statements in the form of these sculptures that line the walls of the large inner sanctum.

Unknown man

Unknown man

The young woman from whom we purchased tickets appears and serves as a spontaneous guide. She tells us the story of how the caves were hidden for several hundreds of years and discovered by two local children. She points out the ‘more important’ sculptures and reveals their meaning. These have been identified by archaeologists through carbon-dating and based on the political intrigues of that time period, the stories have been woven of these amazing works of hand-carved scenes.

The King's mistress

The King’s mistress

Our guide speaks to us about the lack of funds to continue excavating this particular site and how she is trying to draw attention and support to save the sculptures that are deteriorating due to the humidity in the open caves. It’s obvious that she is passionate about the past, this place, and preserving it for the future. It would be an excellent project for a university anthropology department and we leave with a sense that her optimism will be met with success.

Sculptures deteriorating

Sculptures deteriorating

Troglodytes et Sarcophages

We continue into the larger town of Doué-la-Fontaine, stopping for lunch and then skirting the carnival (American Circus) blocking several streets for entertainment on this Easter weekend. We wind our way through narrow streets to an extremely old area of town with walls dark and rustic that clearly have been standing for centuries. We park and head into the caves of the Troglodytes et Sarcophages, which date from the sixth century and were initially used in the carving of sarcophagi for the wealthy.

Main room with stone carvings

Main room with stone carvings

This cave is sandstone and we join a tour where the guide is speaking French to a number of tourists. Throughout the tour, he clarifies a few things to make sure we are following along. He speaks of the history of this place, painting a portrait of the past and describing those who worked in the caves and those who sleep in the coffins. He continues the story through the Norman and Viking invasions, speaking about the security that the people of this village found below ground and how they reconstructed the entrances to create a barrier that ultimately ensured their survival. And, he spoke about a return to the caves during WW2 where some villagers returned temporarily to the old Troglodyte ways.

Entrance to the chapel

Entrance to the chapel

This place was beautiful, much larger than we anticipated and filled with many more stories than we had expected. The cave openings now bring in the sunlight and reflect off the pale surfaces of stone, creating a golden glow through many rooms. Moss grows heavy in some areas creating an almost lush environment and an energy that resonates with the past.

Le village troglodytique de Rochemenier

As we head north, a short detour finds us at our final stop, the underground troglodyte village in Rochemenier.

This village is now set up as a museum of sorts that includes approximately 20 rooms and a very large underground chapel. The village presents the lives, complete with photographs, of those who lived here well into the 1930’s. Two ancient farms, replete with animal pens, can be viewed, along with the homes of those who were part of this thriving underground village.

Courtyard between dwellings

Courtyard between dwellings

At the end of the self-guided tour, we see two updated homes that are reminiscent of Earthships introduced in Taos, New Mexico, which are mostly built underground with only the front visible and facing the sun.

These newer, more modernized versions of the troglodyte homes are not quite as sustainably-designed, but with the consistent ambient temperatures below ground, you can see how one could easily be comfortable here.

Front of modern troglodyte home

Front of modern troglodyte home

While there are many, many more of these troglodyte dwellings carved into the rocks and slopes of the landscape of the Loire Valley, we felt that we experienced an excellent overview of the types of caves available and we drive back to our hotel excited about sharing our experiences.