From Cremant to Cloisters

A few weeks back Chuck came home from work with a beaming smile, a cute package full of movie gift cards and a bottle of bubbly – Sieur d’Arques Toques et Clochers Crémant de Limoux to be precise. It seems he was nominated by his peers at the office for doing good work (no surprise) and so his name was put into a monthly drawing. Once a month, a name is pulled from those who have been nominated and the winner takes home the prize – in this case, my husband with the gift cards and the bubbly.

Employee Appreciation

Employee Appreciation

Not being familiar with Sieur d’Arques Toques et Clochers, I went straight to the internet to check it out. (After, of course, a congratulatory kiss for my prize-winning husband.) As it turns out, the estate of Sieur d’Arques lies in the outskirts of Limoux, France – the town where the Benedictine monks of Saint Hilaire abbey created the world’s first sparkling wine in 1531. Thanks to my four years of grade school French classes, I knew that ‘Toques et Clochers’ translated to ‘Chefs and Steeples’ but I hadn’t known that this referred to an auction sponsored by Sieur d’Arques and held in the Limoux appellation every year on the Sunday before Easter. A leading chef (toque) invites wine makers from around the world to come and purchase barrels of wine. A share of all the proceeds from the auction go into a fund that is used to restore the steeples/church bell towers (clochers) in the appellation in an effort to retain the charm, character, and heritage of the area. What a great idea!

By now, I was fascinated with the bottle of crémant and was about to sign off of the web when I saw the map locating Limoux in its surrounding area. It is just north of the Pyrenees at the southern border between France and Spain and just south of the next largest city in the area, Carcassonne. Wait, is that THE Carcassonne?! The walled city that is the inspiration for my favorite board game of all time that bears the same name?! So it is! Now things were getting really interesting!

You can probably figure out what happened next. Carcassonne was pulled from the game closet and the bottle of Crémant de Limoux was opened while we played. A good time was had by all! What started as a simple gift for a job well done turned into a wee lesson in oenology, history, charity and geography as well as some game-playing fun. I’m sure I’ll never place another game piece in a Carcassonne cloister without thinking of the Benedictine monks of St Hilaire. And now there are a few more stops I want to make the next time we are in southern France. Perhaps we can swing a visit for the Sunday before Easter….?

 [By the way, the bubbly was quite enjoyable – crisp with an apple tartness. The perfect pairing with some good cheese and bread on the side. I’m considering tracking down some more for the next time we play Carcassonne with friends. It’s only fitting!] 😉

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Two Museums Worth the Return

Dire Wolf Skulls

Dire Wolf Skulls

One of my favorite museum experiences  on the planet can be found at the Page Museum’s La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. The whole museum is about all the different species (many now extinct) that they have excavated out of the tar pits found on the grounds of Rancho La Brea. In fact, to enter the museum, you walk right past a still-bubbling tar pit! Who knows what they will find in it some day but, for now, they still have plenty other tar pits being explored and excavated to keep the paleontologists busy and the museum displays ever-evolving.

Once inside the museum, there are the skeletons of Columbian mammoths, bison, condors and the California State fossil – the saber-toothed cat – to name but a few.  The entire rear wall is covered with the skulls of hundreds of dire wolves who met their fate in the tar pits. It is really quite impressive!

I have been to the La Brea Tar Pits at least four times in my life but still find it fresh and fun and a required couple of hours out of any visit to Los Angeles. When people ask me what to do in LA, it is the first thing that comes to mind!

California Sea Lion Skulls

California Sea Lion Skulls

Venturing north to San Francisco, the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park is high on the repeat visit and recommendation list too. The first time I ventured in was to see a temporary exhibit entitled ‘Skulls’ and I have now returned many times since.   These days though, a visit to the CAS is for all things living. From a magnificent multi-level rain forest to an aquarium housing nearly 40,000 animals to an exhibit in which you can feel what it is like to be in an earthquake to the living roof teaming with California native plants that provide habitat and food for native bees, birds and butterflies, this is a museum that is so diverse and interactive you could easily spend a couple of days taking it all in. Perhaps that’s why they offer after-hours nightclub experiences as well as sleepovers to extend your museum experience?!

No matter how long you have to spend, these are two California landmark museums worth the price of admission time and time again. Come. See. Enjoy. Return.

View of California Academy of Sciences from DeYoung Museum

View of California Academy of Sciences from DeYoung Museum






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Cars and Corks

For as long as I can remember, I have been filled with a great deal of wanderlust. When I was very young (think seven years old), I satisfied this longing to wander the world by reading about far away places and starting to learn French from a neighborhood girl who was studying the language in high school.

Fast forward almost fifty years and I can now say I have been very fortunate. I have had the opportunity to walk on all seven continents and work on five. As a result, there was a period of time when I thought a logical next career for me would be to share that wanderlust with others. I got my certification in tour guiding and started down the path of guiding tours.

What I found out rather quickly about guiding was that it wasn’t for me! It is a very different thing to lead a group of wanderers than it is to actually be the wanderer. An amazingly large part of the job revolves around knowing the locations of restrooms and coffee stops and being fact-checked by people in the group with smart phones! Oy!

While I was guiding though, I did my best to be prepared. There was great value in scouting out a location in advance if at all possible. It is for this reason and this reason alone that I took a couple of house guests to the Blackhawk Automotive Museum in Danville, California.

None of my little group of guinea pigs could be described as gear heads or even auto aficionados, but we all figured we would probably find something of interest. Having never been to the place, though, I wasn’t really sure.

What if this was just another car museum? You know the place I am talking about; the ‘museum’ that houses the line ups of old vehicles that look as old and worn as they actually are. Old leather is cracked and faded. Old fabric is stained and torn. Old metal is rusted and dented. All the specimens really have going for them is that they successfully avoided being put under the crusher!

It is with this apprehension that I went to the Blackhawk with house guests in tow.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I was optimistic that it would be a positive experience. After all, I don’t make a practice of taking guests to places they aren’t going to enjoy and the Blackhawk is affiliated with the Smithsonian so I was expecting it to be top of the line but, again, never having been there, it was a gamble.

As soon as we pulled in the parking lot and saw the high-end shopping mall that surrounded the entrance, I had a good feeling that the museum wasn’t going to be a dive. As we climbed the stairs past beautiful bronze statues and water features toward the bronze and glass museum structure, a sense of sophistication and class was building. As soon as we opened the doors to the Blackhawk and saw the polished marble lobby and a hint of shiny chrome gleaming through the doorway, it was obvious this was not your ordinary automotive graveyard of a museum. Even the quick stop in the lady’s room, where every stall had its own lit wall sconce, spoke to the elegance that was to be found in the exhibits.

1928 Mercedes Benz Model S Tourer originally owned by Al Jolson

1928 Mercedes Benz Model S Tourer originally owned by Al Jolson

While many of the automotive masterpieces are on display all the time, others rotate in and out as owners make them available for display. On this day, the first car inside the door was a one-of-a-kind 1963 Thunderbird ‘Italien’ concept car. Wow!

We found Cadillacs, Ferraris, Pierce Arrows, Alfa Romeos, Mercedes-Benz and more.

There was the all-aluminum hunting car for the maharaja of India complete with a rear seat gun support. Why it was bright red and not painted in camouflage, I’ll never know but I guess the maharaja was successful with it!

1934 Delage D8SS Cabriolet with Lalique Hood Ornament

1934 Delage D8SS Cabriolet with Lalique Hood Ornament

Other vehicles were sporting outfits and jewelry as fine as any Academy Awards attendee. There was a touring car that came complete with leather gaiters to cover the springs to keep dirt and debris from getting inside while driving.  Several of the cars even came with Lalique crystal hood ornaments that were spectacular pieces of art in and of themselves. Wow!

Every car in the place was in mint condition. We were told most had less than 500 miles on them. I was amazed to learn from an employee who was dusting one of the vehicles that they take them all out and service them regularly so every vehicle in the place is in top running condition at all times. Wow again!

1922 Renault Tea Service Creamer

1922 Renault Tea Service Creamer

Besides the cars, there is a collection of original gasoline pumps and other bits of automotive memorabilia such as the scale models used to train the Fisher Body designers and a sterling tea set creamer that was issued by Renault.

From the museum, we made a quick stop in Livermore wine country on the way home. I chose to stop at Cuda Ridge Wines for a wine tasting. The winery is named after the owners’ Plymouth Barracuda so it just seemed to be the right cap to place on an enjoyable automotive kind of day. Add on that the Cuda Ridge wines are all Bordeaux-style, superb specimens that are winners in their own categories, and the choice just seemed obvious. Here, too, we were not disappointed.

Next time you find yourself near San Francisco, make the trek east for a day trip. The Blackhawk Automotive Museum is well worth the journey and there is plenty of fine shopping, dining, wine tasting and other activities in the area to round out the day. You, too, can have a ‘Cars and Corks’ kind of day near the Bay.

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