Who: Genevieve Roberts (the author) and her husband, Chris Roberts, of Glen Allen, Va.
Where, when, why: We decided to celebrate my big birthday (50!) by visiting Paris and the Champagne Valley region in France, as well as Bruges and Brussels in Belgium. I love French culture and food and have had the opportunity to travel there on multiple occasions, but this was the first visit for my husband. We also decided, since we were in Europe, to take in a country and a couple of other cities that neither of us had been to but that would be an easy train ride away.
Highlights and high points: We traveled via tour van into the Champagne Valley region about 11/2 hours outside Paris and visited three vineyards where we sampled 12 different champagnes throughout the 11-hour day. We learned how champagne is produced and stored in dark cellars underground and how important the soil, temperature and rain levels are to the exquisiteness of the grape harvest. We even were treated to lunch in the home of one of the owners whose property had been in the family for hundreds of years. Needless to say, I found my new favorite drink and ordered a case to ship home.
Cultural connection or disconnect: The biggest disconnect we ran into was on our last day in Bruges. We were scheduled to take the train to Brussels in the morning, arriving in time to make our early afternoon tour. We learned late the evening before our departure that the train workers were considering going on strike but that we would not know more until the morning. We woke up, and our hotel concierge informed us that all was well. We arrived via cab at the train station only to learn that all the trains to Brussels had indeed been canceled because of the strike. Yikes, what to do? We called some car transportation companies and bus lines, but nothing would get us there in time. So we ran out to the taxi line at the train station and begged a driver to take us to Brussels. He agreed for a hefty price, but we made it there on time.
Biggest laugh or cry: When we landed in Bruges, it felt as if we had been transported back to medieval times. The buildings and churches were architecturally impeccable, undamaged by wars because of the double moats around the city. Horse-drawn carriages drove by regularly while we took in a romantic cruise on one of the many canal tour boats. Of course, we indulged in Belgian waffles and beer (just not at the same time). Our first night there we were exhausted and had just finished touring the Historium, a relatively new museum encompassing all things Bruges. Smartly, they have you finish the museum tour at a rooftop bar. We ordered a flight of beer since we were not sure which ones we would like, and sat overlooking the market square and drinking the most delicious beer on completely empty stomachs. The giggles started after the third glass — we were unaware that our Belgian beers had a much higher alcoholic content than we were used to in America. We took lots of silly selfies before we stumbled out to find our next destination, excited to try the next round of brews.
How unexpected: We love walking everywhere and taking in all the sights and sounds. We also like stopping for breaks and people-watching at outdoor cafes. We both noted how much better food and drink tastes in Europe. One day, we stopped at a cheese shop and bought brie and fig chutney, went to a local bakery and bought a baguette, and, finally, wound up at a wine shop and asked the shopkeeper for a great Bordeaux. Without hesitation, he handpicked one for only seven euros. We took our loot to our hotel room to snack on, and it tasted so good. We’re still searching for that Bordeaux and baguette back home.
Fondest memento or memory: Our dining experience at Monnaie de Paris was an unforgettable memory — we could not have imagined what a unique gastronomic experience we were in for. Three-star ratings from Michelin are difficult to achieve and maintain, and now we know why. We dressed up, took a cab from our hotel to the restaurant and, after climbing up an old rounded stone staircase, found ourselves in front of two large dark doors wondering what to do next. Before we could say anything, the doors magically opened before us, and we were immediately greeted by five people. They took our coats and swiftly escorted us to our table next to a floor-to-ceiling glass window overlooking the Seine. It was very quiet, with only two other couples in the same room as us. I squealed inside when they brought a little table for my purse. Each course we ordered was brought out by a different server, and we never had water with more “fines bulles” (tiny bubbles) before. What we thought would be a 12-course dinner turned out to be more like a 20-course dinner, with the chef’s specialties interspersed among our ordered items, including foie gras, lobster stew and lamb. Each course was accompanied by some little surprise, such as lifting a tiny cup of soup and finding caviar under it. After the fourth hour of eating, we began to tire and thought the meal was coming to a close. Then they began the four-course dessert process. After the five-hour meal, however, I felt like a queen and was pleasantly full, as each course was — in true French fashion — just enough to taste and not to overwhelm. It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Bon appétit!
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