My challenge is always how do I start. How do I tell the story? At times like this, with so much to say, I struggle to pull the pieces together, to find the voice that I want to hear in my head when I read it.
And there's the added challenge of my wanting the podcast to double as a blog update. Something that I've put off for two years.
Sometimes the best way is to just jump in.
Normally, except for a look back at the end of the year, my thoughts wouldn't be the focus of a podcast episode. But, there's not a lot that's been normal for the past 18+ months, and this is no exception.
What set all of this in motion is, after a few shorter trips over the first half of 2021, I decided to move forward with a three-week trip to Europe, then four days after my return home, traveling to Banff, AB, for an industry event.
I had struggled with the idea of traveling, but after a good bit of thought, I realized that things in Europe and Canada were no worse than my situation here in Texas, and some ways were better. That epiphany was the green light I needed to lead me to yes.
My motivation was coming from a couple of different directions…
With few exceptions, I hadn't been more than 30 minutes from home for almost 2 years.
I had a total of 8 nights in hotels in 2 countries - 2 in Lyon, Marseilles, and Bordeaux, France, and 2 in Rome, Italy - all expiring at the end of this year (2021), and I didn't want to ask for the favor of an extension. I tend to save the favor request for a rainy day, and while like had been a series of cloudy skies,
I didn't see rain in the forecast.
So, we stayed with our plan and off to Europe we went.
On a gray morning in late September, we landed at CDG just outside Paris. We had flown Premium Economy, so we were some of the early folks off the plane. Customs and Immigration were painless and quick, and the baggage claim wait was reasonably brief, so things were looking up. But then we exited the secure area, and our driver was nowhere to be found.
I had contacted him a month or so earlier to make sure he was still working and was he able to handle the transfer. He was slow to respond but said yes. My gut feeling was something was up, but I chalked it up to just being hesitant about traveling again.
I texted and called more than once, but after 20 minutes, I decided that he was a no-show and we were going to be taking a cab. In the end, it worked out fine, but inside I was hoping that this was not a hint of what the next three weeks held for us.
I had no reason to worry.
We arrived at our Paris hotel - the Paris Westin Vendome. I never tire of its location. Sitting on a corner just across the street from the Tuileries gardens, the Louvre a 5-minute walk, restaurants, sidewalk cafes, high-end retail, and more, all just out the door. Plus, my excellent and thoughtful Group Salesperson, Heike Strohmann, never fails to make me glad I stayed in her hotel.
I was happy to see that the hotel, while still in the process of recovering from being shut down during the height of the pandemic, was looking good and was busy with groups in-house. I can't tell you how good it made me feel to look at folks walking through the lobby with conference name badges hanging around their necks. Progress!
People were masked when indoors everywhere we went. I had applied for and received the EU "Green Pass" for my wife and me, and dining was easy with the pass. You showed it to the hostess and quickly shown to your table. No pass, no table. It was as simple as that.
Dining in Paris never disappoints, and Michele and I made a point of hitting some of our longtime favorites, but a treat was in store. My dear friend and DMC supplier partner, Paola Fedriga, owner of Paris based Metropolis DMC, invited us to join herself and her Partner, Martin, or Marty as we called him, for a special evening - dinner at her private club - THE CERCLE DE L'UNION INTERALLIÉE - a private social club dating back to 1917, in a building the once served as the home of the French president, who now live just a few doors down. The club has the Japanese Embassy on one side and the British Embassy on the other.
Toto - we are not in Kansas anymore!
I couldn't take any pictures of the building or its grounds due to a prohibition on photography. What I could do is enjoy the hospitality and an evening of good friendship. I loved it all.
And then, after three days in Paris, we boarded the TGV and were off Lyon for two nights at the 5 star InterContinental Hotel Part Dieu, Lyon, one of the hotels where I had a certificate for two nights.
When I began the process of booking our rooms for Lyon, Marseille, and Bordeaux - all InterContinental hotels, all 5 stars and all in historic buildings, 2 of which had been hospitals in an earlier life - I connected with a friend, Fiona McGrory, Key Account Director MICE for IHG, for help getting pointed in the right direction. That was a wise move. Fiona connected me with Emilie Depierrois, IHG Area Director of Sales for Bordeaux, Lyon & Marseille. I couldn't have asked for more.
Emilie had all the qualities one would want in a sales contact. Quick to reply, helpful, and easy to talk to. She helped make our stay at her three hotels special in the best sort of way - attention to detail.
As it turned out, she was scheduled to be in each of the properties at the same time we were there. I saw her in each hotel and we met for breakfast while in Lyon.
Now, back to the trip - our room at The InterContinental Lyon Hotel Dieu was a bi-level suite looking out on the river. Who doesn't love a suite!
After checking in, we set off on foot to a restaurant recommended by the concierge - a few minutes later, we were being seated at L'Institues. After all that dusty travel - work with me on this - a glass of bubbly, then on to a bottle of Burgundy, a couple of amazing salads, then we split an order of sole meunière. We loved it all, but due to the late hour of lunch, we didn't have dinner that night. Too bad, as Lyon is considered the culinary capital of France.
The next day we did what we often do in a city we don't know very well; we did a hop on - hop off bus tour. Michele and I both view it as a way to get the lay of the land and understand our destination. It was well worth it. Lunch was nothing special, and once again, we ate late, so dinner was not on our radar. However, late that evening we did go to the private, guest only, lounge in the hotel for cocktails and light snacks. A wonderful way to top off the day.
The next morning, we were off to the train station for the next leg of our journey - Arles. Established as an outpost during the heyday of the Roman Empire, Arles boasts one of the most complete examples of a Roman coliseum in the world today. It's also the city where Van Gogh painted one of his better-known works, Starry Night.
For the next two days, our home, the Hotel Nord Pinus, was just across Place du Forum from the cafe captured in the painting. We had stayed here the first time we visited Arles, and it still had all the charm we remembered. Great staff and a location in the heart of the old city made this stay even more enjoyable.
One thing I often forget about France is that it is near impossible to get served after 2 PM. Lunch service is over, but wine is available, and we made the most of it.
For dinner, I made a reservation at a small restaurant just a 3-minute walk from the hotel - Allora. In addition to being the front-of-the-house staff, Christian was also the chef and owner. Starting with an incredibly tender ravioli, dinner just got better from there. I asked Christian for a wine recommendation, and he was happy that I bothered to get his opinion. He asked if I would be willing to consider something a little pricy. I said yes, and his face lit up. He immediately recommended a very nice Barolo (one of our Italian favorites), and it was perfect with our dinner — an amazing evening and food. Our only regret was we were not going to have the chance to return this trip.
Since we had been to Arles twice before, we didn't feel the need to rush out and explore. Instead, we settled for an expended walk through the neighborhood, discovering a small tapas restaurant, La Bodeguita. As we stood looking at the menu, a woman I suspect was the owner asked if she could help us. I took that as a sign that we should eat there soon I made a reservation for that evening.
We wrapped up the walk with lunch at Mécha Uma , a Japanese restaurant down an alley 1 minute out the door of our hotel. We started with Gyoza and chicken yakitori, then Michele had Yakisoba, and I had ramen, all washed down with red wine (Do you see a pattern here?). Dessert was ice cream from the shop around the corner.
After a post-lunch nap, we spent the balance of the afternoon sitting at a table on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, nursing a series of Gin & Tonics.
Dinner at La Bodguita was pleasant and hit the spot.
The next day was another travel day. We boarded the train and 40 minutes later we arrived in Marseille.
Our cab driver was quite a character. Chatty, inquisitive, and quick with a suggestion. He wanted to make sure we had the scoop on the restaurant scene. He dropped us at the InterContinental Part Dieu. A Grande dame hotel in a centuries-old building that, just as the InterCon in Lyon, started life as a hospital.
No suite here, but no complaints. Our room looked straight out to the harbor, and the local cathedral, Norte Dame, sat on a hill in the distance. Our balcony was wide and deep, perfect for setting out and enjoying the cheap bottle of wine we bought after lunch to bring back to the room.
Lunch was at Bar de la Marie, sitting about 50 feet from the water, looking out at the harbor. I had moules frites and Michele had spaghetti carbonara. Cheap wine and water. Bon! We tried to eat next door based on a recommendation from the hotel concierge, but it was booked with a private party of German tourists, and they couldn't take us. We were happy, so no disappointment.
Dinner- a bust. La Ruhl, though highly touted, didn't do it for us. Great view, service ok, food (once you get it) ok. Great wine. Out of control children. I won't be back.
Fun fact - we had the same taxi driver for dinner that had picked us up at the train station that morning. Chatty as ever. That took some of the sting out of the evening disappointment.
Day two in Marseille started with a walk along the harbor then a sightseeing tour on something you might find roaming the parking lot at Disneyland. Interesting, informative, and fun.
Day two also gave us one of the more memorable meals of the trip. We had dinner at La Ville, a very cool restaurant in the old city. We sat in the Garden. Technically we were sitting outside, but you had to look had to realize that. We loved it. We split a small pizza to start then Michele had veal Milanese w/ spaghetti w/ pesto. I had veal liver w/ mashed potatoes. Dessert was 1ea scoop of chocolate, coffee and caramel ice cream. A bottle of 2012 Chase-Spleen Medoc Bordeaux was so good. Not cheap, but worth it. All topped off with free limoncello!
As the sun came up the next day if was once again time to make our way to the train station for the next leg of our journey - back to Paris, where we were met at the station by my friend, Paola, who drove us 60 miles out in the French countryside to her family country home for two nights. Perfect timing!
The centuries-old farmhouse and adjoining barn/garage had all been restored under Paola's direction and were so much more than I might have expected. Paola had brought her dogs. Three rescues, all clamoring for attention and affection, and while all were small in stature, they were big in personality - especially the one Paola calls the Migrant.
Paola’s partner, Marty, joined us in the country and we spent a wonderful two days, with a full day devoted to touring the local sights which included a visit to a centuries old church, half standing in still in use, and half bare flying buttresses including a trip to an incredible farmers co-op grocery (think cheese, fresh meats, fish and anything else you can imagine.). From there is was on to a small cafe along the river in Nemours, where we were joined by Marty. Low key, simple and very satisfying.
It's hard to say no to lunch with friends in France.
The next day started early, as Michele and I were, in the middle of a rail strike, were catching a train (fingers crossed) back to Paris then connecting on to Bordeaux. As it turned out, our trains were some of the only ones operating that day.
With that I'll bring Part 1 to a close. Part 2 arrives soon. Really. I promise.
Yes, those are lyrics from Proud Mary, so if it gives you an Ike & Tina earworm, I'd say I'm sorry, but I wouldn't be sincere.
In late August 2019, Michele and I, plus our friends, Andy and Jackie Schwitter and Jim & Deborah Nugent, two couples that we have traveled with extensively over the past 20 or so years, took a 7-day river cruise aboard the Crystal Bach. We were sailing the Rhine River from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam. The Bach is a 106 passenger, 6 star, all-suite luxury river cruise ship just celebrating its second birthday. The cabins were huge, 253 sq. ft. (A quick check of one of the competitions new ships that tied up next to us in port one day had cabins of 150 sq. Ft. 103 sq. Ft. smaller!!) with king bed, large bathroom with walk-in shower, walk-in closet, and sparkling wine refreshed in cabin daily. Throw in the unforgettable food; warm, friendly, knowledgeable staff in both the restaurant and the lounge; and an all-around VIP vibe for guests from every walk of life, and the Bach earned its place on my best experiences list.
As a group, we started in Paris and, after a few days, took the TGV to Basel. Basel was charming on a level that I didn't expect. We loved it. The old city is primarily a pedestrian zone, so walking was pleasant and care-free. We were able to board the ship in Basel, starting at noon. Not wanting to miss a moment, we arrived around 12:15, boarded, began with a glass of bubbly, and were checked in and assigned our cabins. The first order of business – lunch! This introduction to the skills of the culinary team did not disappoint. While I can't remember what was on offer that day, I can tell you that every day there was a well-stocked salad bar with at least three types of lettuce, and a host of options to make the salad your own. Once you cleared the salad bar, you had three, and often four, entrée choices, numerous vegetable sides, three different dessert choices, and cheese if you were so inclined.
After lunch, it was up one level to the lounge to make the staff's acquaintance and get a grasp of our options. There was no need to worry. I kept testing the quality of their martini's and am happy to report that every one I tasted was as good or better than the one before it.
Don't feel like a cocktail? No worries - there was an extensive wine by the glass list. I was partial to a California Pinot Noir, and most anything you could want was there. If you felt to need to upgrade your wine or liquor options, it was available for a fair price. No one in my group felt the need. We were happy with the choices available to us.
While Breakfast and lunch were primarily buffets with ala-cart options, dinner every evening was a plated affair. You ordered from a menu of that evening's options with a suggestion of red and white wines to be paired with dinner, all part of their all-inclusive offering. Again, if you felt the need to trade-up, the option was available.
During our daily stops in port, there were sometimes up to four activity options included as part of our cruise. You made your activity reservation on-line long before you left for Europe. Once again, if you wanted something other than the regular offering, it was there for you for an additional charge. We never felt the need and were happy with our options.
Tours don't do it for you? How about sitting on the top deck as we sail the Rhine past the Lorelei, with castle upon castle coming in to view on an amazingly beautiful stretch of river? Would that work?
There was something for everyone, and it was all of a quality that made you feel good about your decision to sail aboard the Crystal Bach.
And if you are wondering, this was not a comped or discounted trip. We all paid the same as any other guest. If you are questioning whether we felt it was worth it, one of my friends remarked that we took advantage of so much that was part of the cruise price, he couldn't figure out how they made money on us.
I had to order another martini to ponder his comment.
Now, back to Ike & Tina.