Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula: Beauty and History Combined

Croatia is a fabulous country blending spectacular coastline, mountains, lakes and islands as well as Roman, Venetian and Austrian history.  Oh yeah, it’s also a southern Slavic country that was part of the former Yugoslavia and they produce outstanding wines!

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The wine cellar of Boris Lisjak a multi-generational producer in Dutovlje (L.Compisi)

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We enjoyed this delicious traditional Istrian lunch at Lisjak Winery (L.Compisi)

We began our visit to the Istrian Peninsula after departing the Ljubljana and the Julian Alps of Slovenia.  I do not believe we were prepared for the variety of terrain and the changing topography that we observed as we moved closer to the Adriatic.  Although the landscape remained hilly the mountains of the Alps disappeared in our rear view mirror.

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We drove by the Lipica stud farm where they breed Lipizzaner Stallions (L.Compisi)

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The hilltop city of Motovun in Istria. (L.Compisi

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An aerial view of Motovun (Courtesy of Hotel Kaštel Motovun)

We arrived at the hilltop city of Motovun in the early evening and had flash backs of pre-tourist Tuscany.  Beautiful hillside vineyards and a walled city with a castle on top greeted us.  Motovun only allows residents with small cars on their narrow streets so those arriving by bus had to carry/pull their luggage up the steep, upward sloping cobblestone streets for about half a mile.  Upon arrival at Hotel Kaštel Motovun we realized it was the castle we saw from below although clearly modernized cover the centuries and expanded into neighboring buildings. The views from the top are quite spectacular and we enjoyed an informal al fresco dinner overlooking the lush valley below.

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We stayed at the Hotel Kaštel Motovun for 2 nights (L.Compisi

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Some of the narrow cobblestone streets of Motovun (L.Copisi)

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We enjoyed this bottle of Teran wine with dinner in Motovun (L.Compisi)

The next morning we motored to Pula, an ancient city with extensive Roman ruins and history.  One of the six largest and best preserved Roman Amphitheaters outside the Colosseum in Rome is located in Pula.  Called Pulska Arena in Croatian, it is the only Roman amphitheater to have 4 side towers entirely preserved. The Arena was constructed between 27 BC and 68 AD, with interior elliptical dimensions of 435 feet by 345 feet and walls that stand 106 feet high. It could accommodate 23,000 spectators who would come to watch the gladiators do battle as well as the Christians being martyred with wild animals. Other Roman ruins exist but you will also find Venetian architecture in this very walkable city. We took full advantage of a city tour by a local guide who offered exceptional historic perspective to Pula.

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An exterior view of Pula Arena built between 27 BC and 68 AD (L.Compisi)

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The interior of Pula Arena (L.Compisi)

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Amazingly well preserved arena where Christians were martyred (L.Compisi)

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A Roman Arch in Pula and a more modern building side by side (L.Compisi)

The following day we motored to the Venetian-era seaside town of Rovinj.  The location is quite beautiful and situated along the Adriatic Sea. A favorite resort for eastern Europeans for many, many years, it has become extremely popular with western Europeans since Croatia became an independent nation outside the grip of former Yugoslav President Marshall Tito.

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The seaside city of Rovinj in Istria (L.Compisi)

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The very active fishing harbor of Rovinj (L.Compisi)

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One of the many seaside restaurants in Rovinj (L.Compisi)

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A beautiful church graces the highest point in Rovinj offering spectacular views (L.Compisi)

Aside from the mainland of Rovinj with its population of about 15,000, Rovinj has 19 islands of its coast. Of additional note, Rovinj is the in the top five tourist destination in the country partly because of the numerous pastel-colored homes ringing the beautiful and active fishing harbor. Getting to Rovinj by air requires flying into Pula or Trieste, the closest airports. Also, during the busy summer season there are high speed ferries from Venice as well as Ravenna and Cosenatico, all in Italy.

Please keep a digital eye for the next installments of this adventure through the former Yugoslavia including Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzogovina and Croatia.

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Posted in Adventure, Amazing Sights, Coastal Adventures, Croatia, Istria, Slovenia, Travel, Wine, Yugoslavia | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Surprising Slovenia: Former Yugoslav Republic is a True Hidden Gem

We’ve never been to Slovenia before this journey and now I wonder why.  Slovenia is an amazing country with its own Alps, lakes and nearly 30 miles of Adriatic coastline.  The country is situated in Central and Southeastern Europe touching the Alps and bordering the Mediterranean.  According to Wikipedia, over half of the country is covered by forests which were very apparent as we entered from Italy, on the west.  This makes Slovenia the third most forested country in Europe, after Finland and Sweden.  Slovenia is mostly hilly and actually very beautiful.  Once part of Yugoslavia (with Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro), Slovenia established its independence and sovereignty on June 25th, 1991 and joined the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004.

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The River Ljubljanica flows through downtown Ljubljana. (L.Compisi)

 Ljubljana, its capital, is quite vibrant and architecturally very interesting with much to see and do.  With nearly 300,000 people, Ljubljana is Slovenia’s largest City. Of special interest is dining along the river at the many cafes. Experiencing the farmers market in the downtown Market Square was eye-popping and made us wish we could buy fresh fruits and vegetables as well as fish.  Looked amazing.

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Beautiful offerings in the central market of Ljubljana (L.Compisi)

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The tree-lined river offers a stunning backdrop (L.Compisi)

Ljubljana Castle, which is high on a promontory overlooking the city, offers a great photo opportunity from below as well as from above.  The walk up to the castle is not overly strenuous but a tram is available as well.  Exploring the castle is very interesting with a museum and other interests.  The castle has two restaurants and a café as well as other amenities.

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View of Ljubljana Graf (castle) from one of its towers (L.Compisi)

The visit to the Ljubljana ‘Skyscraper’ is not the tallest building in the city but it was the first ‘skyscraper in Ljubljana. The restaurant at the top has wonderful views and besides the traditional fare serves a renowned cream pie.

The decadent cream pie at the Skyscraper (L.Compisi)

We had booked a ‘Food and Wine Tour’ that was advertised through TripAdvisor with a tour company called Viator.  Although our guide was quite knowledgeable, after having had a city tour the day before and an orientation tour the evening before we basically heard the same stories multiple times. The food and wine tour itself was lackluster although we got to taste four different wines and nine different dishes.  It was not memorable.

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Sparkling local wine and small bites along the river.(L.Compisi)

Where to stay: We stayed at the Hotel Mrak which is just on the edge of the old city with easy walking access to the city’s extensive pedestrian area. The Hotel Mrak is undergoing a needed room renovation and although we stayed in an older room we did see the renovated rooms which are sleek and quite nice.  It proved to be a perfect location to explore Ljubljana for the three days we were there.

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View of Ljubljana Graf from below (L.Compisi

After departing Ljubljana, with a bit of sadness, we headed for Lake Bled, the Bled Castle and the Julian Alps.  It was quite scenic!  The walk around Lake Bled is about 3 miles and we did it in a little over an hour and 20 minutes. There’s a chapel in the center of the lake which has its own myths and stories for weddings.  And the view from the castle is quite spectacular.

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Bled Graf (Castle) at Lake Bled (L.Compisi)

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The mythical chapel in the middle of Lake Bled (L.Compisi)

When we left Lake Bled we went to the Julian Alps which separate Austria and Hungary from Slovenia. We stayed in a small hotel with a view of the mountains that was quite picturesque and dined at a traditional restaurant that evening. The Julian Alps are quite beautiful and truly spectacular. We stayed at the Hotel Mangart in Bovec. The hotel is more than adequate and was reasonably priced.  Bovec is about an hour and a half from Lake Bled and is surrounded with activities of all kinds including a ski jump training area, Nordic Centre Planica, which was fascinating to watch.

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The dramatic Julian Alps in northern Solvenia (L.Compisi)

In retrospect, Slovenia was the biggest surprise on this journey through parts of the former Yugoslavia.  Everyone assures you that Croatia and the Dalmatian Coast are stunning, and they are, but we were very pleasantly surprised to experience the history and beauty of Slovenia.

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Fabulous Valpolicella – Our Most Excellent European Adventure: Part 2

After our delightful and brief visit to Lugano (see Part 1), Switzerland, we motored on through Lombardia, Italy toward the amazing wine country of Valpolicella. Along the way we stopped for lunch in Bergamo (less than 2 hours drive from Lugano) the fourth largest city in Lombardia with a population of about 120,000. Bergamo is a university town with a beautiful Città Alta (upper city) whose defensive systems are a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. It is also home to some amazing pizzerias which is why we stopped there.

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Amazing Pizza array in Bergamo (L.Compisi)

After lunch we continued on for another hour and a half to our destination of San Pietro in Cariano near Verona and our favorite Bed and Breakfast ‘Relais de Charme’ La Caminella. We had previously stayed at La Caminella and were excited to be returning.

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La Caminella B&B (L.Compisi)

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View of Countryside from our room La Caminella (L.Compisi)

Our hosts, Andrea and Raffaella, and their three children, offer exquisite rooms, breakfast and hospitality. Since our last stay, Raffaella has begun here own wine program producing several wines from Valpolicella. If you have never lodged here before you will feel like family by the time you depart.

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Breakfast at La Caminella (Courtesy their website)

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Our room – Ripasso Suite (Courtesy La Caminella)

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Our hosts (l-r) Andrea, Raffaella and Asst Mngr Francesca (L.Compisi)

La Caminella is very well situated to visit Verona, only 20 minutes away, or the local wineries of Valpolicella. Bardolino or Soave, and even Lake Garda (only 30 minutes’ drive). We had visited Garda and Verona on a previous trip so our focus this time was wine and the glorious countryside.

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Lake Garda (L.Compisi)

Valpolicella is known for its very unique wine making process of Appassimento and Ripasso which involve drying or partially drying the grapes as a means of intensifying the flavors of the Amarone and other Valpolicella wines. The principal grapes used in these red wines are Corvina Veronese, Rondinella and Molinara (and more recently Oseleta). Surprising to many, Valpolicella ranks just after Chianti in total Italian Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) wine production.

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Masi food and wine (L.Compisi)

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Enjoying the Masi Experience with our host Elisa Venturini

The Masi Wine Experience was an amazing winery tour and tasting that we were fortunate to enjoy.  The Boscaini family, currently headed by patriarch Sandro Boscaini, have owned the property since the end of 18th Century.  Our host, Raffaele Boscaini, and his able marketing and sales manager Elisa Venturini provided an exceptional tour and tasting at the main estate but also included a visit to a newly acquired Tenuta near Lake Garda and the family estate of Count Serego Alighieri (direct descendent of Dante Alighieri) which the Boscaini’s manage and market on behalf of this ancient Italian family (21 generations on the estate – since 1353).

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Sandro Boscaini signing Mr. Amarone (E.Venturini)

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Raffaele Boscaini guiding our tasting (L.Compisi)

The Masi wines are widely available in the United States and one of our favorites is the affordable blend (Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara) Campofiorin. It is rich, round and velvety, but has sufficient strength to pair with red meat (only $18 on Wine.com). Its big brother Amarone della Valpolicella Masi Costasera runs a bit higher, between $56-65.

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Masi Experience Tasting Room (L.Compisi)

Of course if you are not a wine lover the proximity to Lake Garda and Verona (home of Romeo and Juliet) offer many, many exciting tourist opportunities including the Opera at the Verona Arena. The Opera setting at the Arena is magnificent. The festival starts late June and continues until the last week of August. A reason to visit in its own right!

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The Roman Arena in Verona (L.Compisi)

Keep an eye out for subsequent postings about the rest of our Most Excellent European Adventure including Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Provence.

Posted in Adventure, Amarone, Italian Wines, Italy, Lombardy, Travel, Valpolicella, Veneto, Wine, Wineries | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lugano Switzerland – Our Most Excellent European Adventure: Part 1

We just returned from nearly a month in Europe. The next series of posts will highlight our travel adventures and offer tips, tricks and recommendations on our favorite ways to enjoy these amazing locations in Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and France.

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Lake Lugano is as beautiful as any of Italy’s great lakes. (L.Compisi)

We flew non-stop from San Francisco (SFO) to Zürich (ZUR) in about 11 hours. We planned on not wasting the day getting over our jet lag in Zürich, and got our rental car, (we used Hertz), to continue on to Lugano, Switzerland (2.5 hrs. away). That was the first of many good decisions. Our flight landed in Zürich at 10:10 am (local) and arrived in Lugano around 2 pm. The challenge was to remain awake until 8:30 pm to help us sleep through the night. That strategy worked for us.

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Hotel Victoria au Lac is charming and ideally placed (L.Compisi)

Our hotel in Lugano was Hotel Victoria au Lac in Paradiso, the small city along Lake Lugano. Although the hotel is showing its age and is a bit thread-bare, the location is stellar and quite adequate. It offered a complimentary breakfast and free wifi in our room. Hotel Victoria also has paid parking underground across the street (a huge plus). Additionally, it is within walking distance of the Lugano city-center. The lakeside promenade was beautiful and offered restaurants, museums, gelato stands and so much more. It was mid-June and the weather was warm and delightful.

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View from our balcony at Hotel Victoria au Lac (L.Compisi)

We had a delicious and quite delightful late lunch at Ristorante Cafè Retrò, just across the street from our hotel. We had pizza (the first of many on this multi-country adventure) and it’s was very good. Equally delightful was the Valpolicella Ripasso wine from Italy that we enjoyed.

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Delicious food and wine at Ristorante Cafè Retrò (L.Compisi)

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Located just across the street from Hotel Victoria YUM!! (L.Compisi)

After walking the length of the promenade and up 125 steps to keep ourselves awake, we decided to head back to Café Retro for an early night cap. The staff (Stanley) and the owner, Matteo, did an amazing job in making us feel like locals by offering finger foods with each bottle of wine we purchased.  No need for dinner!

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Stanley (above) and Matteo made us locals at Ristorante Cafè Retrò (L.Compisi)

The next morning we woke, had a delicious breakfast at the hotel (which we shared with the very fat birds on the veranda) and headed for our next stop.  Here we come Valpolicella, Italy.

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Our breakfast companions at Hotel Victoria au lac (L.Compisi)

Posted in Adventure, Amazing Sights, Italian Wines, Switzerland, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur: Part 3 – Avignon

Avignon, a fortified city in southeastern France’s Provence region, and Capital of the Vaucluse Department, is set on the Rhône River. It was the seat of the Catholic popes from 1309 to 1377 and remained under papal rule until becoming part of France in 1791. This legacy can be seen in the massive Palais des Papes (Popes’ Palace) which is surrounded by medieval stone ramparts in the city center.

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Palais des Papes from the ground (L.Compisi)

Perhaps because of the Papacies presence, Avignon has been a center of art culture and commerce for more than eight centuries. The amazing stone walls which surround much of the city offer a stunning backdrop to the wide Rhone River which is coursing toward the Mediterranean. In the middle of it all is the historic and beautiful palace.

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The Palace is immense as each pope seemed to want to add his own touch by building larger and opulent buildings extending the size of the Palace.  The daytime palace tour is worth the cost as you can wander for hours from chapel to living quarters to roof tops which offer splendid views of the Rhône and the city.

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View of the Rhône from Pont d’Avignon (L.Compisi)

Also worthwhile is the tour of, ‘the most famous Bridge in the world’! The Saint Bénezet bridge, also known as Pont d’Avignon, was completed, the first time, in 1185 to span the Rhone River. Only a section of this UNESCO World Heritage site survives today. The bridge was made famous by the children’s song “Sur le pont d’Avignon”. The views of the Rhône River and the Palace from the bridge are spectacular.

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The Palais des Papes from the Saint Bénezet bridge (L.Compisi)

Avignon offers excellent dining and cultural opportunities and one could spend days there exploring. If you are visiting between mid-August and the end of September try to experience Les Luminessences D’Avignon, a truly spectacular sound and light show within the Palais des Papes walls. The event is nothing short of fabulous and has both French and English performances every day during this late summer 6-week period.

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Les Luminessences D’Avignon Courtesy gettyimages (Jean-Marc CHARLES)

Check back as we return to Provence, among other destinations, in the weeks ahead. We will certainly offer new insights, photographs and joys of travel.

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A Sip & Savor Experience: B Cubed

We just completed a very serendipitous experience this evening with a last-minute tasting at Healdsburg’s newest tasting lounge. Barrels, Brews and Bites is the brainchild of founder and proprietor Saunda Kitchen.

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Self-described as ‘A Sip & Savor Experience’, the menu offers the opportunity to sample small plates, Bitty Bites, as well as slightly larger plates, Bigger Bites.  We sampled a few.

The ‘Crispy Prosciutto Cups’ came filled with whipped Goat Cheese, Berry Compote and Jalapeño. Just the right combination of sweet and savory. The whipped goat cheese had a slight sweetness which was further augmented by the berry compote. This was juxtaposed with the saltiness of the prosciutto and the bit of a kick from the Jalapeño. We also sampled the ‘Lil Cluckers Deviled Eggs’ with bacon jam and Jalapeño. So far, all delightful.

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Prosciutto Cups and Deviled Eggs (L.Compisi)

To keep things a bit simpler the team refers to themselves as B Cubed. This helps! The ‘B Cubed Flat Bread’ was our second treat. Margherita, with Roasted Chicken and Cilantro Paste was our favorite of the evening. The Rosemary Marconas (a type of gourmet almond from Spain whose popularity is on the rise. The texture is closer to that of a macadamia nut) in the pesto were a taste treat. This dish can also be ordered with short ribs and gouda instead.

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Flat Bread with Roasted Chicken (L.Compisi)

Our next taste was the ‘Taco Trifecta’, a B Cubed version of street tacos with a choice of short ribs, Chili Verde, shrimp or veggies. We tried the first three while substituting lettuce for the tortillas.  Very accommodating by our server but probably a mistake. The tortillas would have certainly provided a much more satisfying textural combination.

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Taco Trifecta with short rib, shrimp and chili verde (L.Compisi)

The final taste was real treat.  Chocolate Mousse with a fruit jam and crème fraiche. Very yummy!

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Chocolate mousse (L.Compisi)

The Bitty Bites and Bigger Bites comprise about 14 choices with pricing from $8 to $20. The recipes are all Saunda’s and are tried and tested.

The wine and beer offerings are all local. The wines from around Sonoma County were generally small lot producers (Peterson, Smith Story et al) with a diversity of varietals. Same for the brews, which included about 6 or 7 choices. Again, pricing and serving sizes allowed for sampling.

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Located at 335 Healdsburg Ave (L.Compisi)

 

Saturday, June 9th is the Grand Opening (11am to 7pm) and Ribbon Cutting celebration (5pm). Take advantage of this opportunity to discover this newest Healdsburg Sip & Savor Experience.

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Days and Hours: Open Monday-Saturday 11am-7pm. Sunday Brunch Day 10am-4pm. Unique concept joining local craft beer, hidden gem wine & savory food pairings.

Posted in Culinary, North Coast, Sonoma County, Wine | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur: Part 2 – Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Part 2 of our journey to Provence focuses on Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a commune in the Vaucluse department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in southeastern France. Famous for its eponymous red wine, the village lies about 3 kilometers to the east of the Rhône and 12 kilometers north of the town of Avignon.

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Grenache Grapes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (L.Compisi)

Charming, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, (literally, “new castle of the Pope”) takes its name from its relationship to the Avignon Papacy (1309 AD to 1376 AD) and particularly for the Chateau built on a hilltop of the village in the 14th century for Pope John XXII, the second of the popes to reside in Avignon rather than in Rome. The ruined medieval castle  dominates the landscape to the south. Interestingly, none of the subsequent Avignon popes stayed in Châteauneuf but after 1378 the anti-pope, Clement VII, sought the security of the castle.

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The interior of the Château (L.Compisi)

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The remaining walls of the Château (L.Compisi)

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View from the Château overlooking the vineyards and village (L.Compisi)

Today, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, is recognized as one of the most renowned appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC – an official French wine region certification) of the southern part of the Rhône Valley. Vineyards are located around Châteauneuf-du-Pape and in the neighboring villages of Bédarrides, Courthézon and Sorgues between Avignon and Orange. The rocky vineyards cover slightly more than 7,900 acres. Nearly 3 million gallons of wine are produced here each year. More wine is made in Châteauneuf-du-Pape than in the entirety of the northern Rhône region.

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Reflecting on the 800 years of Papal history (L.Compisi)

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A small tasting room in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (L.Compisi)

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Big farm equipment moving through narrow streets (L.Compisi)

We had the very good fortune to experience a tasting and tour at a family owned winery in Châteauneuf-du-Pape named Domaine de la Charbonnière. We had met Véronique Maret in Paso Robles, California in 2016 at an event called Hospice Du Rhône. Véronique and her sister Caroline were in the middle of crush when we arrived but they were very gracious and showed us around. The operation was similar to what we are familiar with in California and the wines were delicious.

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Domaine de la Charbonnière was a delight! (L.Compisi)

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Véronique and Caroline Maret run Domaine de la Charbonnière (L.Compisi)

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Traditional 1200 gallon (4500 liter) French oak foudres  (L.Compisi)

We were so enthralled with Châteauneuf-du-Pape that we will visit additional wineries and villages during our upcoming visit to see the legendary lavender fields.

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Beautiful Provençal Lavender (L.Compisi)

Posted in Adventure, France, French Wines, Provence, Rhône, Travel, Wine | Tagged , , | Leave a comment