Wednesday, July 11, 2007


We took a day trip to the Champagne region during our 4 days in Paris. Figured, 3 days was good for me to explore Paris and Matt and Alex came up with the idea to tour some caves and do some wine tasting, or Champagne tasting I guess. Why not!
Alex and I met Matt in Savigny so that he wouldn't have to drive into Paris with the rental car. Paris drivers come up a close second in the craziness scale, next to those from Istanbul. I guess in a city of that many people and that many complicated roads, you have to be aggressive lets say. It wasn't too difficult managing our way onto Paris highways and heading east towards Eparny where we planned to visit Moet and Chandon. This happens to be the biggest producer of champagne in the world and makes a fancy bottle known as Dom Perignon (might have heard of him...). Unfortunately there was some construction on the highway so we were stop and go for a good hour and it took us a bit longer than we thought to get there. Alex and I were so sleepy cuz we went to bed so late and got up at 7 to switch hotels and get to Matt's. We kept dosing off in the car and weren't very good company for our driver!

So many grapes!

The drive through the country side is just gorgeous. Fields and fields of wine growing everywhere you look. It reminded me of the abundance of wheat fields in Alberta (wine fields...a little more cool though). Once we arrived in Eparny, it took a couple turns around the traffic circle to figure out where the tourist information center is. Naturally they were closed for lunch so we went straight across the street to Moet and scheduled ourselves in for a tour. We opted for the best one because really when you're in Dom's house, why would you drink anything less (OK that's not totally true cuz no one gets to drink Dom Perignon on a tour, rather we had a vintage bottle from 2000).

In front of the Moet and Chandon building.
The tour started out a bit cheesy with a video of what makes them the best. "Turning Nature into Art" is the slogan they used! It had some good info about the 3 grapes that are used to make Champagne (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier) and what makes this region different from others thus allowing them the coveted title of Champagne rather than sparkling wine. Everything is done by hand, no machines to harvest the grapes.

So here is what I learned:

The champagne region is located pretty close to the northern limits of wine producing grapes so its difficult for the grapes to fully ripen. The coolest thing about the area is that underneath the top soil, the ground is composed of chalk. And its the chalk that helps to absorb the heat from the sun and also retains the moisture in the soil. Its also used for the caves to keep them at a certain temperature ( I think he said 12*) and very damp. While we were walking through there was several occasions where water dripped on my head. The caves at Moet, were 28 km long, can you imagine getting lost in there. Our tour guide joked that for his training, they put him in the caves and wouldn't let him out until he knew everything about champagne.

They can fit 20,000 bottles in a cave.

Champagne is made by mixing the juice from 3 grapes in different proportions (50/30/20 for instance) and from a blend of years. There's an expert that mixes the combination to get it to taste like previous versions (lots on reserve for them to choose from). What makes it different from wine, is that after the initial fermentation in the big barrels, the wine is bottled and then they add some more yeast and sugar to the bottles to continue the second fermentation (this creates the bubbles). Depending on the amount of sugar they add is what distinguishes a brute, from a sect. The bottles are then stored in caves for a minimum of 3 years. A vintage is made whenever they have a great season and only use grapes from one year. Also the vintages are stored for 7 years. This doesn't happen every year and the last vintage is from 2000.

To get the residue out of the bottle, they take them from the caves and place them upside down and slanted in these wooden storage units. Then comes the Riddler, who turns the bottles a quarter turn each day for about two months I think. Imagine having that job, turning 100,000 bottles of champagne a day. He must have some strong wrists!

After all the residue has settled in the neck of the bottle, they take the bottles and freeze that top portion so that an ice cube forms with the residue, genius if you ask me. When they open the bottle, the ice cube shoots out, and they quickly cork the bottle so as not to lose any of the pressure (a machine does this nowadays). And bam, you've got yourself champagne ready for sale.

So after all this, we got to go to a nice room to finally taste some Champagne. We each got a glass of the 2000 vintage brute and the rose and it was very tasty. Of course they lead you into the store right after so the temptation to buy something is right there in front of you. We gave in of course! Oh and here's a tip; never wash your champagne glasses with soap because soap kills something on the glass that helps keep the champagne bubbling.

Sipping on some bubbly!

We wanted to do another tour but there just wasn't enough time because most places close by 5 or 6pm so we drove through the beautiful country side and made our way to a smaller producer for a tasting. This other place operated straight from their home and we did the tasting in the guys garage. He didn't speak a word of English which was OK for the guys but I got a bit bored while they chatted away...leading me to drink a couple more glasses of champagne.

Clearly a couple glasses too many!
Overall it was a really fun trip and so nice to get away from the fast pace of Paris and head to the country side. We had to say goodbye to Matt at the end of the day and headed back to Paris for one more night.

Matt, Alex and I among the grapes.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Bienvenue a Paris!

Just got back from my first trip to Paris and it was everything and more than I expected it to be. Alex and I decided to go there mainly because our friend Matt from Calgary is currently living and playing baseball just outside of Paris in Savigny (yes they have baseball in Paris). So it was a great chance for me to see the city, and at the same time hang out with Matt. Plus it helped that we had a 4 day long weekend from work!

Our Parisian Connection Matt and I.
Things didn't start out so well as our flight was delayed by over an hour (no clue why) and we didn't get into Paris until late Wednesday evening. We were worried that we might miss the last train into Paris from the airport but luckily we just caught it (that would have been one expensive taxi ride). The harder part was finding a taxi once we got into the center, to the point where we walked for about half an hour toward our hotel until finding one. I saw all these taxis flying by with lights on and then Alex had to patiently explain that in Paris the yellow light on top means they're taken. How about you just turn the light off like the rest of us??

Our first hotel was in the Bastille area. It wasn't anything fancy and after the first night I realized that for the price we paid, it was pretty good. My next trip to Paris though will be a couple stars up. Maybe I'm spoiled but having a nice hotel room makes the whole experience more enjoyable.
On Thursday we headed out early for our first Parisian breakfast, coffee and croissant. I really much prefer this than a big English breakfast in the morning, cuz I can still walk afterwards instead of feeling stuffed! Unfortunately, the weather was not particularly warm and it was pretty cloudy and windy outside. Poor Alex wore shorts and froze. Inside Notre Dame was quite nice, especially with all of the candles lit. There was a mass going on and I felt really bad for walking around the place being a tourist while people were sitting there in prayer. I wanted to go up to the tower but the line up was ridiculous and apart from me being an incredibly impatient person, we had the excuse not to wait because we had to meet Matt! Jeez its been 10 months since we'd seen him.

We went for a nice lunch with Matt in this little Brasserie. Thing with French restaurants, cafes etc. is that its all very cramped quarters. So you end up sitting prety close to your neihbors and every place we visited or walked by always seemed to be full. Us Canadians are used to a lot more space but I found it cozy being in a restaurant that was full and buzzing with converstation. It was also nice to listed to another language other than Czech, and French sounds so sexy. Throughout the weekend, I really wished I spoke French and thanked my lucky stars that I had Alex and Matt there as the French speakers.

On our way to the Luxenburg gardens we stopped off at a Patisserie (ha I finally figured out the difference between a Brasserie and a Patisserie) and grabbed some beutiful looking cakes. As we were ordering we beared witness as to how rude the French can be when this girl came up and asked one of the people working there if there was a toillette. Apparently she responded with "no, but you can go out there on the sidewalk," and then proceeded to laugh histerically! I guess you have to speak French to understand the full offensiveness of it but the guys understood it as pretty bad. Anywho, we enjoyed our treat in the Luxenburg gardens as I so wished for sunshine.

Yummy!The rest of the sighseeing day was spent walking from the gardens, through some nice parts of Paris, down to the Louvre, up the Chaps D'Elysees, and to the Arc du Triomphe (which was cordered off for some reason). I didn't realize how far apart everything is and what a huge city Paris was. We hopped on the Metro (packed to the brim like sardines, I'm surprised I didn't have a panic attack) and headed to a nice pub in the St. Georges district for Happy hour!! Believe me, this really counts in Paris where cocktails are 8 euros a piece. Paying half the price makes them oh so enjoyable!

The boys and I at the Louvre.

I was pretty much exhausted after happy hour, so all 3 of us retreated back to our hotel for a short rest before heading out for dinner in the Bastille area. We found this lively street packed with restaurants, clubs, etc. and stopped off in a Cuban place I think for appe's and a bottle of wine of course. Great place to catch up and discuss some future plans (haha all very uncertain). Matt headed off to catch the last train to his place but we learned the next day that there was a strike and the train didn't run so he got home at 4 am, woops, those French unions.

Friday, early day once again. Alex and I tried to go and see St. Chappelle but the line up was extremely long....pass. We met Matt by the Eiffel Tower and proceeded to take some classic pics by the enormous structure. Seriously, its huge and boggles my mind how such a thing was built. I didn't want to go up just then becuase I thought the weather would be better on Sunday and I wanted clear blue skies, didn't really happen though. Alex read up on Rick Steve's about a market close to Eiffy on Ru Cler, so we headed there and picked up some goodies for a Parisian picnic in front of Eiffy. I think that guy at the fruit stand ripped us off but the rasberry's were too damn good to complain too much. Oh and the cheese, probably the best brie I have ever had. I could quickly get used to living that lifestyle!

Our picnic by Eiffy!

Then we were off to Montmartre where the famous Sacre Coeur is located. I have to say I liked the church a lot better from the outside and the views of Paris were great. After Matt left, Alex and I walked around to the bottom steps and I witnessed one of the biggest scams that takes place in Paris. Right at the entrance to the steps to go up to Sacre Coeur, there is a bunch of black guys standing around. As you come up, they grab your wrist, or a couple fingers, and proceed to make a bracelet out of some string while you're stuck in this position. After they finish, they ask for some money for the "nice" bracelet they made you. Alex had told me about this but watching it in action is something else. I felt so bad for the people that they got a hold of cuz they seemed kind of helpless. And the ones that pulled their arm away seemed to really piss off these guys, and lets just say with 5 of them and one of you, its not exactly a toss up who would win the battle.

That night, we visited the Louvre for free (every Friday from 6 pm for people under 26). Saw the Mona Lisa, yes its an impressive painting but a bit smaller than I thought it would be and the huge glass pane in front kind of takes away from the beauty of it. We barely saw one wing of the huge museum and I was getting really frusterated because all of the paintings only had descriptions in French beside them! Even museums in flippin Slovakia have English translations (not grammatically correct I might add but you get the jist of it). I'm assuming this is done on purpose but it really took away from the whole experience from me becuase I'd like to know what I'm looking at, and what the significance of it is. We also saw the Venus de Milo statue, and the Egyptian exhibit which was pretty cool. The building itself though is a work of art and so ornate.

Three hours in any museum is enough for me especially after a day of heavy sighseeing. We took a walk across the bridge and went for a nice dinner. I wish I got to see more of Paris by night because it is so pretty but there just wasn't enough time and by night fall I was so tired.

On Saturday we took a day trip with Matt to the Champagne region which deserves a post on its own....
So I'd left Sunday for the Eiffel tower and to go shopping! I accomplished the first but again line ups. We made our way to the second platform by climbing the some 700 stairs. I'd definately recommend this option as it is cheaper, and most importantly, the line is shorter. Plus the stairs are manageable. I had to steady my nerves a little becuase of the height but I managed. Once you get to the second platform though its another line up for the elevator to the top. Did I mention how much I love waiting?? In all honesty it wasn't too bad and you have something to look at while you wait. It was definately worth it getting to the top and the views are even more spectacular from there. All in all it took us about 3 hours for everything.

On our way to Ru Cler again, I had what could possibly qualify as one of the most embarrasing moments of my life as I bailed face first right in front of a busy cafe. I don't get it; after what should be a simple little slip, my body reacts automatically by lurching me forward onto my hands and knees. Oh and this time I even had some side impact with a parked car. Alex was behind me and had a look of utter shock when I turned and asked for help in getting up. It wasn't so much my knees as it was my ego that was bruised. I walked so fast away from the cafe only to have Alex poke fun at me and comment on how impressed he was that I didn't cry! I should have charged for the show as I'm sure many people got a good chuckle out of it. Actually sitting here writing about it right now, I'm laughing as well but at the time; not so funny (simultaneously I am looking up lessons on falling gracefully as walking seems to be beyond me.)

We ended up spending a lot of Sunday on the Metro as everything is so darn far apart. Tried to go shopping at a big mall and apparently all the stores are closed on Sundays....darn, I was really looking forward to doing some shopping. I was determined though and made us trek back to Chaps D'Elysees where I proceeded to purchase a pair of sneakers at the Nike store. I've been looking for sneakers for a while so I was satisfied and ready to head back to Prague after that. We came back to Prague late Sunday night, and I'd never been so happy to see my bed!

Busy week again this week as we have Kent visiting us from Cairo and then head out for Croatia on Saturday morning. I can't wait to lay on a beach!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

My Family Visits

It had been 9 months and 4 days since I headed out of Calgary this past Friday and way too long since I had seen my family. I figured that since they were making the effort to come and visit me in Prague on their way to Croatia, I might as well do something special for them as well. So a couple of weeks ago I decided that I would go to Munich and surprise them at the airport. I'm quite impressed with myself that I didn't allow it to slip in the many conversations before hand as I directions for how they should get to Prague. I had a bit of a scare cuz I called to buy a bus ticket to Munich 4 days before hand and Student Agency was all sold out, thus squashing my wonderful plan. But with the help of some folks I found out that Eurolines has another bus leaving from Prague to Munich at midnight. FYI, don't ever take a night bus anywhere, especially when you have a woman in front pretending not to notice that you have told her numerous times to move her damn seat up. Seriously, that's just common courtesy. I had another scare when I arrived in Munich and realized that the bus does not stop at the airport, rather that I had to figure out the metro system at 5 am with no sleep and no knowledge of German. Getting quite good at reading these metro maps but 8 euros to get to the airport...seriously?

I arrived at the airport at 630 am, T minus 6 hours until my family was scheduled to arrive. Found myself a half descent bench and tried to sleep a bit but to no avail as the loud speaker kept turning on to remind people to keep an eye on their belongings.... OK we get it! The rest of the time I spent walking around the airport, reading and thinking how badly they needed a hostel at an airport for situations such as mine. Just a bed for a couple hours, that's all I'd need. Hmmm this could be a potential business plan for me in the future.

My heart was pounding so hard as I waited for my family at the arrival gate and of course they took their sweet time. Not to mention they went out the opposite side of where I was standing. Never mind. Despite the lack of sleep, the surprise was totally worth it. They had no clue I was coming and several happy tears were shed.

The drive back to Prague was interesting as we tried to figure out who was smarter...the car navigation system with German orders nonetheless, the printed Michelin maps or yours truly. Took a combination of all 3 but we figured it out. Alex was so good to us and had dinner prepared and waiting for our arrival. Everyone was pretty exhausted so we packed it in and headed to bed after dinner and a short walk to the old town square.

On Saturday we did the most intensive sightseeing tour that I have yet to give to any of our visitors. At least 5 hours of all of the major sights (Charles Bridge, Castle, Old Town etc.) with a couple breaks for pivo in between. Can't have it any other way. Anela still doesn't believe that I can drink beer and STILL thinks it tastes gross even though Czech beer is way better than Canadian. That evening we went out for dinner at this nice restaurant called Mozaika and even took a metro to get there. Quite the sight for me to see my dad taking the metro! All of them were so impressed with how steep the escalators are but I think I've just gotten used to it and don't really notice these things anymore.

Toni and my parents packed it in for the day after dinner, and Alex, Anela and I went out to meet some friends of ours at a cocktail place. We had two of our good friends leaving to go back home; Helena from Norway, and Claire for the UK. Sad to see them go and they will always be a part of my memories from Prague. On another note, many of the boys were very excited to finally get to meet my sister whom they'd seen pictures of. Yeah I think I don't need to explain much....I had my eye on them though.
Sunday was a lot more relaxed. We sat down for a long time for breakfast at a French style cafe. Don't know if the long time was by choice or because the waitress was so darn slow! Then we took a walk around the Jewish district and off to Letna park for some beers at the beer gardens. Alex and I love going here because it has some of the best views of Prague and its also a great place to relax. After a couple beers we decided to take a boat trip on the Vltava. I've been meaning to do this for a while so it was a great opportunity to enjoy it with everyone. I guess you get what you pay for because the trip costs about 12-15 dollars Canadian per person and lasts for an hour. Beers on the boat however were ridiculously over priced. The boat we took takes you under the Charles Bridge with good sights of the castle, then back the other way for half an hour. The weather was perfect though and offered more photo ops, as if we hadn't already taken enough!

Everybody was in the mood to try out some traditional Czech goulash so we went to our usually touristy but yet Czech style restarant in the Josefov district. Lets just say that we all ate way more than we should have and had to retreat back to my apartment for a nap. At night we went for a final stroll and grabbed ice cream. I suggested that we walk down to the river so that they could see the castle at night and to our surprise there was fireworks beginning just as we arrived. We were so close to them and the display was absolutely beautiful and lasted about 15 mins. My dad kept saying "OK that's it" and then they would start again. Some tourists asked me if I knew what the fireworks were for and I said that it was for Canada day which is totally false but it fit the occasion.
I had to say goodbye to them on Monday morning until I meet up with them in Croatia in a week or so. I really didn't want them to leave because the weekend was just so much fun and it was great to get to be with family again. Can't wait to join them for more quality time.

I'm off to Paris tonight for 4 days with Alex. Its my first time in the city so I am very much looking forward to it. Will try to update next week. Bone Voyage!