Category Archives: Cultural Travel

French Wine Tourism

Romance and Wine in the South of France

Exclusive for Vagobond, story and photos by Linda Kissam

International Wine Travel

Many of us think we need to travel to Paris or Champagne to experience what France has to offer in the way of wine travel. I’ve been to both, and they were great for family holidays, but I find the small, less known wine regions featuring family owned wineries to be much more intriguing.

There’s a story behind these out-of-the way spots that call to the soul of people who love wine, food, and the soft adventure activities that support that mindset. And if you seek the unique captivating sense of discovering a rock star in the making, then I guess I now have your attention.

I often receive wine samples to review. I love that, but the true test of understanding a wine is to visit where it is made and to get to know the people who made it. As luck would have it I received an invitation from one of the most influential and visionary French vintners — Gerard Bétrand – to visit him on his turf – in the South of France. I would be his guest for 4 days to experience the food, wine and jazz Bétrand style.

Who could resist that invitation? Not me. In a few short days, I was off from San Diego, California to the South of France (SUD) to taste SUD wines as they are meant to be experienced. Follow along my friends and then recreate this trip for yourself.

I’ve interviewed my share of winery owners, winemakers and growers. Some have passion for the wine, some have dedication for the business of wine, some for the pleasure of wine…and then there are those that have the vision not only for the wine they make, but for the place that wine comes from. It does not take long to understand that I was in the presence of a man who could easily be called a wine visionary for the South of France. The man, his wines, and his wine region have presence, passion, and potential oozing from him.

Wine Travel in France

Gérard Bertrand owns five estates in what many consider the best wine regions of the Languedoc: Château Laville Bertrou, Domaine de L’Aigle, Domaine De Villemajou, Cigalus, and Cháteau L’Hospitalet. Each features its own terroir and wine program.

While I was fortunate to visit three of those Chateau’s, my main focus was on Château l’Hospitalet. Lying between Narbonne and the Mediterranean on what was once an island, Château l’Hospitalet Gérard Bertrand’s headquarters is comprised of 978 hectares of moorland and 82 hectares of vines in a beautiful sea-view location in the heart of the Coteaux du Languedoc – La Clape appellation.

It is 2.5 miles from the sea and 4 miles from Narbonne’s center. This facility is the perfect spot to base your 3-4 day exploration of the region. It is the third most visited tourist attraction in the region. The top two are the old city in Carcasonne and an African themed safari park. Those of you who favor or support Eco Tourism will be glad to know Mr. Bertrand has adopted a strict carbon neutral sustainable approach to his vineyard management while offering eco-friendly wine-tourism related activities.

The regional character of the Chateau L’Hospitalet will charm you. It’s Mediterranean hip, edgy and comfortable all rolled into one. Enjoy the pleasant atmosphere of the small modern bistro, the comfortable dining room, and the lounge bar for relaxing breaks and (in season) smokin’ jazz evenings. I especially appreciated the luscious meals and snacks made from regional products (olive oil, olives, jams, honey, etc.) The restaurant serves Mediterranean cuisine and premium wines. Unwind in the comfy lounge bar armchairs, enjoy some music, and taste some Tapas along with a glass of premium regional wine.

French Wine Tourism

Chateau L’Hospitalet has 38 spacious rooms accommodating 2 to 4 people. The hotel is set on a large property overlooking a small park-like area, gardens, and vineyards. All rooms feature lovely amenities such as spacious beds and flat screen TV’s. You’ll enjoy the swimming pool and the short walk to the tasting cellar. Get adventurous and take a hike up the hill for a breath taking view of the sea and surrounding vineyards.

Château l’Hospitalet definitely is a wine estate with a strong sense of self based on hospitality focusing on the Mediterranean lifestyle: cellar visits and tasting of course, but also make time for to explore the art exhibitions, crafts workshops and an annual jazz festival on the first weekend in August showcasing the facilities at the Château. Try booking your visit during the August Jazz Festival (held at Chateau L’Hospitalet) if you can. If it’s booked, try one of the local hotels located on small waterways and beaches where you can become part of the local scene. Don’t expect big fancy accommodations. Think small family friendly vacation rooms.

Barrels of Wine in France

A key focus of my short stay was a 3-day pass to the International Jazz event. Located on the Chateau’s property, the event is designed entirely to promote ecotourism. Five concerts, 6,500 attendees, 5 gala dinners on the Chateau’s gorgeous grounds, means this is THE place to be the first week of August. A typical night’s schedule includes a 7 p.m. tasting, 8 p.m. Mediterranean dinner created by some very talented chefs, a 10 p.m. concert, and a midnight after party at La Cave ? Jazz. Wow does not do this justice: spectacular maybe, or once in a lifetime perhaps.

This was their 8th annual festival, so I would expect it to go smoothly, but this was more magical than smooth. Think premium wines (I actually got to taste a 1936 Gérard Bertrand Rivesaltes- bottle 623 of 869), French food at its most local and finest, vineyards everywhere, the waft of sea air, a big French moon, and the most glamorous people ever as my dining partners.

Jazz Night in France's Wine Country

The Jazz talent is handpicked each year by Gérard and his team. He told me he tries not to repeat any act so that each year guests can look forward to something new and exciting. Each performer had their own vibe and that made each show an experience in itself.

What wine travel adventure would be complete without a discussion of the wines? The wines bearing the Gérard Bertrand signature share a common identity: balance and elegance, they truly express the thoughtfulness of the winemaker and the South of France terroir.

There are 4 levels or ranges to meet the needs of the different markets:
1. Vins de Pays and Varietal Wines: pleasure guaranteed
2. AOC wines for more character and complexity: culture of flavor
3. Great wines: experience the emotion
4. Natural Sweet Wines and Sparkling Wines: region’s softer side

Gérard Bertrand wines win tons of medals bearing testimony to the consistent quality of his products. Awards include: the Paris Agricultural Show, the official reference in French quality wines ;the equally-prestigious Brussels Concours Mondial ; the Grands Vins de France Competition in Macon, Vinalies “OEnologues de France”, the Blaye Bourg International Wine Challenge, the Wine Challenge (UK and Japan), and the Anivit National Vins de Pays Competition organized by the Union of French Oenologist.

French Wine Tourism

As nice as it is to have all those words of praise from your peers, the true test comes in the hands of the consumer. Trust me; you’ll love any one of them no matter where you are on your wine journey – novice to aficionado. On a warm French evening under a romantic moon my favorites included Cremant de Limoux Brut, Natural Grenache (Organic), Cigalus blanc, and the yummy Gerard Bertrand Banyuls. These are great value wines and can be found worldwide. Conclusion? You haven’t completed your wine journey – be romantic or more pragmatic – until you join Gérard in the South of France at l’Hospitalet to experience his vision of ecotourism as you groove to sweet & sassy Jazz, dine in culinary excellence, drink inspired wines from sustainable vineyards, dance under French moonlight, and be pampered at the l’Hospitalet hotel. Check out the Gerard Bertrand Web site for other interesting events like the L’Art De Vivre in June and the exquisite Truffle Hunt in December. A vote santé!

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Izmir – Part 4 – Agora, Museums, and Kultur Park

Travel insurance might be a good idea if you want to visit Izmir’s museums in winter since they are empty and you are likely to catch a cold from wandering around the freezing halls.

But, all kidding aside, there are some nice cultural sites to visit in Izmir and while in the month I was here, I didn’t come close to seeing them all, I did get to see quite a few of them.

Kultur Parc izmirFirst of all, the Kultur Park. This is Izmir’s idea of Central Park. After Attaturk retook Turkey from the Greeks and then expelled the greeks, most of the center of Izmir was burned to the ground. In the place where all those houses had stood, there now stands a beautiful park. Since it is winter, the park is rarely full, but the dogs at least get the chance to enjoy the flowers.

Fuar Izmir, Kultur ParcIn the center is a tower that is used for bungee jumping in the summer (or so I was told) and what looks like yet another creepy and scary Turkish amusement park. I’m guessing that during the warm weather there are constant crowds here, but during my visits I found very few people and plenty of space. Inside the Kultur Park is the Izmir Museum of Art and History. It really is history art, don’t expect to find any modern displays here, but overall it was a very nice museum split into three buildings. Coins and precious objects, ceramics, and statues. Winter tarif is 3 TL.

Trade Fuar Izmir FairNeighborhood AgoraApparently the main reason the park exists is for the annual trade fair where it is rumoured that Turkey is the only country in the world that holds a trade fair where import vendors outnumber export vendors. Leave it to the Turkish bureaucracy to figure out how to make that happen.

Leaving the park you will find a 24 hour McDonalds and you can stroll through the eerie part of the city that will probably someday be the biggest, richest, most prosperous part but right now looks like the hole at Ground Zero two or three years ago.

Izmir AgoraWander for a mile or so and you will start to see signs for the Agora. The Agora was the ancient Roman marketplace. Remarkably well preserved and sitting right inside of a modern city. Very strange. I didn’t bother to pay to go in. Maybe someday I’ll wish I had, but frankly, I’m pretty sick of seeing Roman ruins. Doesn’t do much for me anymore. Wow! Doric columns.

The neighborhood up the hill from the Agora is much more interesting. This is not another rich neighborhood and the number of women wearing headscarves goes up by about 999% the instant you enter this area. The winding streets, coal chimneys spouting noxious gas just about at eye level, and women carrying water from public fountains is about as authentic as Izmir gets. These are real people, really living a really hard life. You still see the crows and apaches hanging out in tribes, but the poverty that they sit amidst reveals that the purchase of fake designer clothes is a priority and not a luxury in their minds. Look like a million bucks but not a dime in their pockets.

Izmir Ethnography MuseumGoing down the hill and back into the Konak area you can find the Archeology and Ethnography museums. Again, both were empty and since there was no one to sell me a ticket at the ethnography museum, it was gratis. This, to me was the best museum in Izmir. Not too fancy, not too opulent, just a very cool old house on a hill filled with the products and crafts of Izmirian people. Not only were the displays good, but the descriptions of how glass ‘evil eye’ beads are made, how felt was made, and more was actually interesting, well written, and for a geek like me – fun. I never knew how felt was made before.

Rose petals on the ground IzmirAfter the ethnography museum , I went ahead and skipped the archeology museum even though I longed to see more old coins and pottery shards like no one’s business.

I have the feeling that there are a ton of little galleries, great modern artists, and more in Izmir, but in the month I lived here, I didn’t find them.

ain of arabia

7 Weird Adventures in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

While in Kuala Lumpur, I did more than just drink beer and watch street walkers, I also saw some very cool places and attractions you might not have come across.

kuala lumpur old china cafe

The Old China Cafe

Old China Cafe was a great lunch of Malay-Chinese cuisine and had an interesting feel. Finding it was the hardest part but the guy sniffing glue on the corner pointed me in the right direction.

From their site:

This building was the guild hall of the Selangor & Federal Territory Laundry Association. The guild was set up at the turn of the century and moved to this part of Chinatown in the 1920s.
As the guild members prospered, the founding members moved to this building in 1930. The two large mirrors that face each other are traditional feng shui mirrors that Chinese believe would perpetually reflect the good luck when the first rays of the morning sun light up the interior.

Even the interior doors still have wooden latches. This type of pre-war (World War One/1914-1918) shophouses may not last forever. Already several in the neighbourhood (Jalan Panggong, Jalan Petaling and Jalan Balai Polis) have either been demolished or renovated beyond recognition.

Old China Café tries to maintain a semblance of the Chinese community’s old social life which will soon fade into history.

Kuala Lumpur Nature PreserveBukit Nanas Forest Reserve. Sitting in the center of ultra-modern, ultra-urban Kuala Lumpur is a rainforest preserve where you can hike across wooden bridges, see monkeys, and get your feet muddy on tropical trails. Since 1906 the 11 hectares of the preserve have been a beloved spot for locals and visitors to get away from it all by heading to the city center. Great trails and for tree lovers you can check the signage to discover Kapur (Dryobalanops aromatica), Keruing bulu (Dipterocarpus baudii), Jelutong (Dyera costulata), Meranti pa’ang (Shorea bracteolata) and Rattan (Calamus manan) and many other trees. A botanical herb garden, orchid area, nature center, and jogging trails all make this a more than worthwhile nature stop in the center of the city.

ain of arabiaAin Arabia is a completely weird idea to me. Sure, Malaysia is a Muslim country, but it’s not an Arab country. If, however, you want to experience the Arab world of the Middle East while visiting Southeast Asia, the place to head is Ain Arabia. The street is located at Jalan Berangan in Bukit Bintang. Oddly, the area seemed to be filled with mostly Arab tourists and I’m told that during the month of Ramadan, many Arabs come from stricter countries to avoid the enforced fast. Since I live in Morocco, I found the Sahara Tent Restaurant and the Berber laundry service to be more than a little bit odd.

indoor theme park Kuala LumpurCosmo’s World Theme Park gives you a chance to experience a theme park but without having to go outside so you can enjoy the air conditioning. The park is located at Level 5, Berjaya Times Square. It fills 380,000 square feet and has separate theme parks for adults and children called Galaxy Station and Fantasy Garden. Sorry, the Fantasy Garden is the part for kids…Still, you have to love indoor rollercoasters and a ride called the DNA mixer sounds like it is much more adult than it really is.

Kuala Lumpur Little IndiaLittle India. Indians are one of the three main ethnic groups in Malaysia so Little India makes sense. For those looking for an Indian experience without going to India. This works. Jalan Masjid India is one of the oldest parts of the city and dates back to 1870 when the Indian mosque was built.
Little India is the heart of a thriving neighbourhood built up around the mosque. It is filled with colourful flowers and garments and is easy to reach. Just get off the tram at Masjid Jamek Station or walk from China town.Bales of sarees, shops heaped with gold, traditional pharmacies and gorgeous glass bangles fill the shops and delicious aromas come from the many restaurants which offer tasty Indian snacks like samosa, ghulab jamun and vadai.

Hornbill at KL Bird ParkThe Bird and Butterfly Parks. The Bird Park and Butterfly house are located in the Lake Gardens, a 60-hectare reserve since 1888. It is the world’s largest free flight, walk in Aviary (of course I am the world’s most successful person named Vago Damitio, so superlatives should always be judged accordingly) . The butterfly park has over 6000 butterflys and more than 120 species…and they are alive not stuck to pinboards.

KL planetariumNational Planetarium. I’m a sucker for planetariums. I just love them. It’s the blue domed building above the Lake Gardens and has a space museum that includes replicas of ancient observatories. The planetarium shows were in English and not only interesting, but fun. Of particular note was the very nice juxtaposition of traditional Islamic architecture with the space age. Very nice.