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Harvesting Grapes in Provence

Domaine du Crestet

When I booked a gîte for our week in Provence, I really had no idea what I’d done.

I knew I wanted to spend a week in Provence. I knew I wanted to stay in a gîte. And I knew that a gîte is a self-catering holiday home in rural France — that much I had learned on a previous visit to the south of France.

Beyond that (and a budget), I set no parameters in my search for accommodation. The place I ended up booking for myself and my friends was not our first choice or even our second choice. But when the owners of Domaine du Crestet sent such a friendly reply with so much detailed information to my inquiry about availability, we were sold.

Domaine du Crestet is a wine estate that dates back to the mid-1800s. Several stone-walled buildings have been converted into guest apartments and a home for the owners. The apartment we rented for the week was in a building that used to be a barn filled with silk worms.

Apartment

What I didn’t know about the gîte I had booked was that it is a working vineyard, known as a domaine. And, because it was a working vineyard, we had the additional bonus of a crash course in wine production as part of our stay.

Our education began the moment we arrived as a wine reception was underway for all of the guests. (Accommodation at this particular gîte was booked Saturday to Saturday, so all of the guests for the week arrived on the same day.)

It continued mid-week when we enjoyed for a small fee a wine-tasting evening put on by Paul, our host. He knowledgeably led us through nine different wines and sent each of us home with the remains of a bottle (or two) at the end of the evening. A few days later, with only one or two wrong turns, my friends and I were able to locate one of the châteaux on Paul’s list so we could purchase for ourselves several bottles of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine he had introduced us to.

But it was our final day at the gîte when the real learning took place. Paul offered us a deal: if we were willing to spend the day picking grapes for him and his neighbour, we would be treated to a picnic lunch as well as dinner at the neighbour’s home. It took my friends and me only a few minutes to decide. Although field work wasn’t exactly on our holiday agenda, we knew this was too interesting an opportunity to turn down.

Grapes

We were ready for work at 8:00 a.m. sharp. The vineyard was right beside the domaine, so we only had to walk out the door. Joining the three of us Canadians on that beautifully cool morning was a German couple, also guests at the gîte, whom we had met at the wine-tasting evening. Jean-Louis, the neighbour, soon showed up with his tractor and cart.

Jean-Louis spoke no English, so Paul translated for him. We were shown how to hold the bunch of grapes in one hand and the cutters with the other. No holding the stem ― that’s the way you end up cutting yourself. I paid careful attention. The cutters were terribly sharp and I began having flashbacks to my summers working at a tree and plant nursery that involved many long days of pruning pine trees.

Only grapes that looked good enough to eat went into the plastic containers; the dried or rotten ones were to be left on the ground. Once a container was full, we were to empty it into the cart.

Picking Grapes

Truth be told, picking grapes isn’t nearly as tough as pruning pine trees. Or picking strawberries or planting leeks ― all of which I’ve done for days on end. It would have been easier on me had I been a tad shorter (less crouching), and it also helps to have big hands in which to hold the grape bunches.

We hadn’t been picking long when Jean-Louis stopped us. He wanted to show us how he tested the sugar level of the grapes. First he crushed a few grapes, then he poured the juice into a gizmo that Google tells me was a refractometer. We took turns looking through the eye piece to see the sugar level for ourselves. The sugar level is an indicator of what the alcohol content will be of the wine produced from those grapes.

During another break, Paul had us walk over to the next vineyard where other neighbours were picking table grapes. These grapes were much sweeter than wine grapes, and instead of dumping the grapes into a cart, they were carefully placed onto cardboard flats. One of the pickers was Jean-Louis’ mother-in-law and we learned that she was going to be cooking dinner for us that evening. She kept handing us grapes to eat until we couldn’t eat anymore.

By the time we finished at Domaine du Crestet, the sun was high above us. We changed into shorts and put on sun hats. Our picnic lunch had been brought over by Jean-Louis in his cart, which was now half filled with grapes. We put the coolers and baskets in our cars, gave Jean-Louis a head start with his tractor and cart, and then drove over to his vineyard, about 10 minutes away by car.

Domaine du Crestet and Vineyard

We parked our cars near an olive grove, put the coolers and baskets in the shade, then began picking grapes in this much older vineyard. But only 20 minutes later, Jean-Louis announced it was lunch time.

And what a lunch! We carried the coolers and baskets to the olive grove and sat down in a circle. Jean-Louis opened up the baskets and began passing out the food: two enormous quiches, baguettes, cheese, sausage, wine, water, more cheese, more wine, more quiche … I’m not exaggerating when I say it was the best picnic I’ve ever had. (And! We were picnicking in an olive grove!!)

Lunch in an Olive Grove

While we ate, we talked about grapes and making wine, with Paul doing all the translating from French into English and back into French.

And this is what I learned.

Most grapes in France are picked nowadays by machine. But young vineyards, like Domaine du Crestet’s, have to be picked by hand because the vines are so small. And the rows of vines in old vineyards, like Jean-Louis’, were planted too close together to allow the machines to pass through.

A vineyard can only call itself a château if it actually has a château on the property. Otherwise, it’s a domaine.

Paul and Jean-Louis are part of the same cave coopérative (cooperative cellar), which is why they were harvesting the grapes together and why it didn’t matter that grapes from two different vineyards were all mixed up in one cart. The type of grapes we were picking were called Grenache.

Jean-Louis was on the board of the coopérative, which is highly regulated. Members are told when they can start harvesting and when the harvest has to be finished by. The coopérative also regulates when the farmers can and should replant. The older the grapes, the better the wine but the lower the output, so at some point, farmers have to work out which is more cost-effective ― making more expensive wine, but less of it, or making less expensive wine, but more of it. Jean-Louis kept testing the sugar level of the grapes all day long and the sugar level of the grapes from his 60-year-old vines was nearly twice that of the grapes from the three-year-old vines at Domaine du Crestet.

Only once we’d eaten and drunk our fill, and had run out of questions, did we pack up the remains of the lunch and head back to the vines. This was the difficult bit ― who wants to do field work after a lunch like that? ― but we kept at it. I knew from my summers of working at the nursery and on an organic vegetable farm that farmers can be particular in how you work in their fields and Jean-Louis was no different. Paul muttered to me that he wondered if we would be able to finish that afternoon. It seemed like the rows went on forever. But then, all of a sudden, Jean-Louis announced we were on the last row. It wasn’t the end of the field, but it was the end of his vines. No fence, no marker, no nothing. I guess he just knew or had counted off the rows while we worked.

We had a drink or three of water from the bottles that were sitting by the dregs of our picnic lunch and then washed our hands, taking turns pouring water over each other’s hands. Jean-Louis drove off with the harvest and the rest of us admired the view for a while. It was a beautiful piece of land with a marvellous view of Mont Ventoux.

Mont Ventoux

When Paul figured we’d given Jean-Louis enough of a head start, we drove to the cave where the coopérative makes its wine. We passed Jean-Louis along the way, and after we parked our cars, Paul took us around to the back where all the grapes were brought.

So much activity! The place was abuzz with farmers and tractors and carts identical to Jean-Louis’. When Jean-Louis eventually showed up, he backed his cart into the correct spot (there was a board directing the farmers as each type of grape has to go in a particular place), then the cart was lifted up by a hydraulic control on the tractor and the grapes slid into a bin. A giant screw pushed the grapes towards a small opening at the opposite end of the bin. It took about 10 or 15 minutes for the bin to empty.

Delivering Our Grapes

We found out we had picked 2000 pounds. Jean-Louis joked that “real” pickers would have been able to pick 4000 or 5000 pounds, but Paul told us later that Jean-Louis was actually rather pleased with our work, given that we were novice pickers. He was also pleased that the alcohol content of our grapes was 14.1%, which apparently is pretty good.

More Grapes

After the grapes we picked were on their way, we were given a tour of the cave. Paul started, but then another guy took over, whom we later learned was the director of the coopérative. Compared to other caves I’ve toured in France, this one was much more modern with concrete and gleaming metal everywhere, and not a single oak barrel in sight. At one point, I was instructed to take a whiff of the fermenting wine. At first I smelled nothing, so I was told to sniff harder. And then … wow! The carbon dioxide emitted by the fermentation process goes straight to your brain. Powerful stuff, and lethal, of course, if you were to fall into the vat.

When the tour was over, we went around to the front of the cave where the wine store was located to taste some wine and so Jean-Louis could choose one for our dinner. He bought six bottles and then whispered something to Paul, who later told us Jean-Louis had asked him if he thought six bottles would be enough for the evening.

Uh yes. It most certainly would be, as I was about to find out.

But the story of how that wine tasted — and dinner with Jean-Louis and his family — will have to wait until my next post.

Grapes and Vines

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Art Talk: Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel

Yup, it’s another post about hotels, but this time I’m not recommending a place to stay. This post is about yet another art exhibition ― one that I stumbled upon when I was at the Vancouver Art Gallery to see Persuasive Visions.

The exhibition takes its name from the 1932 film Grand Hotel, winner of that year’s Oscar for Best Picture. One of the characters in the film keeps muttering, “Grand Hotel … always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”

Huh. Yeah, right.

Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life, seemingly an exhibition more appropriate for a museum than an art gallery, looks at the history of the hotel through the lens of four themes: travel, design, social, and culture. Displays include scale models of some of the world’s most architecturally impressive hotels, such as New York’s Waldorf Astoria and Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. There are photos and memorabilia about the development of Canada’s tourist industry, thanks to the Canadian Pacific railway hotels (“If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists”), and the development of the same in the United States, courtesy of Highway 66 and motor hotels. Did you know the InterContinental luxury hotel chain was founded by Pan Am? I didn’t.

The exhibition also looks at hotels as agents of change concerning race, class, and gender. The Algonquin Hotel in New York, host to the 1920s writers group known as the Algonquin Round Table, was one of the first hotels to accept solo female guests. Duke Ellington was known to prefer touring overseas because hotels outside of the United States weren’t segregated.

And, finally, hotels are explored as centres of culture: the aforementioned Algonquin Hotel in New York, gathering place of New York’s literati, the Chateau Marmont, home to film stars during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and Hotel Imperial Vienna, focal point of Vienna’s coffeehouse culture.

Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life will appeal to anyone interested in travel, and is on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery until September 15.

Grand Hotel Atrium

Hotel Five

Remember when I wrote that I don’t blog about the hotels I stay in, because they’re nothing to write home about?

Hotel FiveWell, I’m going to have to eat my words, because this is another post about a hotel ― which makes for two posts in as many months.

The hotel I am recommending is Hotel Five, a boutique hotel in central Seattle.

It’s got location: it’s in Belltown, an area just next to Seattle’s downtown core, which makes it walking distance to the major tourist attractions, as well as a good selection of restaurants, bars, and shops.

RoomIt’s got service: our room was ready when we arrived (post–cruise ship disembarkment) at 7:30 a.m. We were fully expecting to be dropping off our bags and not having access to our room until much later in the day, so we were pleasantly surprised to be given room key cards upon our arrival. And shortly after we checked in, the front desk called our room to make sure we were happy with our accommodation and to ask if there was anything we needed. I’ve never experienced that kind of service anywhere I’ve stayed. (Maybe I’m staying in the wrong hotels!?)

And it’s got style: the rooms were cleverly decorated, and the bathrooms new and modern.

I didn’t book this hotel; one of my travelling companions did. Note to self: get my friends to book my hotel accommodation more often.

Elevator Doors

Magnolia Hotel and Spa

Magnolia Hotel Sign

When I travel, I try to arrange a home exchange, but when I’m not successful in finding one that suits my destination or my dates, I stay in hotels. I haven’t been blogging about the hotels I stay in because, to be quite frank, I usually bunk down in budget hotels that aren’t anything to write home about.

The other weekend I went to Victoria to visit a friend who was there on business, and I stayed with her as her guest at the Magnolia Hotel and Spa. This hotel is most definitely not a budget hotel and my two-night stay there was a real treat for me.

The Magnolia Hotel and Spa is rated by Tripadvisor.ca as the # 2 hotel in Victoria and # 11 of the Top 25 Luxury Hotels in Canada. The room my friend and I shared contained two queen-sized beds made up with fluffy white duvets and a mountain of soft and hard pillows to suit any preference. The ensuite bathroom was the size of my kitchen at home, with a soaker tub and separate spacious shower, and was fully stocked with Aveda bath and hair products.

Magnolia Beds

Turn-down service included chocolates on the bedside table ― very good chocolate, I should add. I enjoyed the best sleep I’ve had in months and did not want to get out of bed come morning. My friend took advantage of the spa facilities and went for a massage to help her get over her jetlag.

The complementary breakfast was continental, but don’t think small when you read “continental.” Served buffet style, it included your choice of carb (croissants, toast, waffles, oatmeal, and a variety of cold cereals), yogurt or made-to-order smoothies, fresh fruit, cheese, boiled eggs, and cold cuts. After my arrival on Friday night, my friend and I caught up on each other’s lives over drinks and tapas in the hotel bar, the Catalano Restaurant & Cicchetti Bar, which sources its seafood and produce from local fishers and farmers.

The Magnolia Hotel and Spa is located one block from the Inner Harbour. I highly recommend it.

Magnolia Hotel and Spa

The Sylvia Hotel

The Sylvia Hotel is a small beachside hotel in Vancouver’s English Bay with a long and storied history. These photos were taken when the hotel is at its most colourful —in the fall, after the ivy has turned red.

The hotel has some other colour as well: Errol Flynn was a frequent guest and there is an urban legend that he died here. Team Russia, including (it was rumoured) the Russian hockey team, stayed at the Sylvia during the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

The Sylvia Hotel has overlooked English Bay since 1912. Originally an apartment building, it was converted to an apartment hotel during the 1930s and to a full-service hotel after World War II. Its name is taken from the daughter of the building’s original owner. Until 1958, the Sylvia was the tallest building in Vancouver’s West End — hard to imagine today as the eight-storey building is dwarfed by the condo towers that surround it.

Two of my home exchangers came to Vancouver for family weddings and found the Sylvia most convenient for other members of their families to stay. It’s a lovely place to go for breakfast — I recommend the Beachside Benny — and the hotel is also the setting of two children’s books about a resident cat named Mister Got to Go.

Home Exchanging 101

So many people have asked me how I got into home exchanging that the topic deserves a blog entry all on its own. Home exchanging is exactly what it sounds like: you exchange homes with another person who lives in a different city or country from your own. Now, if you’re the type of person who gets uncomfortable (Baby Bear–style) at the thought of someone sleeping in your bed or eating from your porridge bowl, then home exchanging is probably not for you. If not, then read on.

I started home exchanging the year I wanted to meet up with family members in Amsterdam in August, and then join some friends for a long-planned trip to Italy in October. I couldn’t afford to fly back and forth. Since I can work anywhere I have an Internet connection, I looked into renting an apartment for the month of September. That, too, was a bit beyond my budget, so I signed up with a home exchange site. These sites typically charge you a fee for posting your profile, but everything about the exchange is arranged privately between you and your swap partner. I posted my photos, wrote up a description of my home and a few details about my neighbourhood, and then … I waited.

I was shocked and pleasantly surprised to receive my first home exchange offer within days. After some back and forth negotiations and a phone call, my partner and I agreed to exchange for a month. Both of us were “home exchange virgins,” but speaking with him on the phone helped alleviate any concerns I had.

The key to home exchanging is to be flexible. I had dreams of spending a month in a Parisian garret, but “settled” for my first offer ― a house in Zaandam, only a twelve-minute train ride from Amsterdam. I say “settled,” but it wasn’t, really. It was a great offer. I spent four weeks in that house, and then went on to London where I’d arranged a swap with a couple who had a family wedding in Vancouver. Since then, I’ve done four more exchanges. Not all of them were long term or overseas ― a friend and I once spent a weekend in Portland, Oregon, and my closest exchange was in Victoria, BC.

My temporary home in London

Home exchanging is perfect if you’re interested in experiencing a foreign city “as the locals do.” I loved shopping in the supermarkets of London’s East End and in northeast Paris ― far from the tourist zones ― and commuting home at the end of a day of sightseeing along with the Londoners and Parisians heading home from their offices. That’s not to say all home exchanges are out in the suburbs ― far from it. One of my exchange homes in Paris was only a ten-minute walk from Notre Dame.

Obviously, the other benefit of home exchanging is having free accommodation. That’s not to say you don’t have to do a bit of work. I use each home exchange as an opportunity to do a massive spring cleaning and to make sure everything in my home is in good repair. On the other end of the exchange, you have to clean your partner’s home before you vacate it. The deal is you each leave the other home exactly as you found it.

Keys are exchanged in person, sent through the mail, or left with a neighbour. I prefer to meet my fellow exchangers in person, simply because they are all such interesting people, but when circumstances don’t allow it, I can’t say not meeting my exchanger detracts from the experience.

Still interested in home exchanging? Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years:

1. There are dozens of home exchange sites out there; choose one that suits your interests and needs. Some, for example, cater to particular types of travellers, such as teachers and academics who have similar holiday schedules. Be sure to do some sample searches to make sure the site you sign up with has enough listings in the areas you’re interested in travelling to. I thought it would be easier to find a long-term exchange with another single person, so I signed up with a site that caters to singles. However, the site had so few listings that I received only one offer through it, whereas I’ve had dozens of offers through a second site I signed on with. Guess which one I’m still with?

2. Read each profile carefully before sending an exchange offer. I was surprised to get an offer from a family who wanted a house with a pool ― clearly they hadn’t read my profile! I myself have learned not to contact people with school-aged children because my preferred travel time is in the fall, when kids are in school.

3. Think of ways to make your offer sound more attractive. If you have a young child, advertise your home as baby-friendly to make it more appealing to other young families. Like animals? Offer to cat- or dog-sit if your potential swappers have a pet.

4. Be flexible and plan ahead. I can’t emphasize this enough. Arranging a home exchange is not like booking a hotel. If the location is important to you, offer a lot of flexibility in timing. If getting an exchange for a particular date is critical, be open to locations that might not be on the top of your list. When I was searching for an exchange in Portland, I had specific dates in mind. To sweeten the deal, I offered my potential swappers the choice of staying in my home during the weekend I wanted to stay in their house, or for an entire week in the summer when I was going to be away visiting family. They took the week and arranged to visit a daughter who lived out-of-state the weekend I and my friend stayed in their home. They thought they got the better end of the deal, but I was happy because I got my swap on the exact weekend I wanted.

5. Be clear about all expectations. Are long-haul flights involved? Confirm your dates before booking flights and, after booking, confirm your flight dates and times with your swap partner. Want to have friends or family members visit you at your swap home? Ask for permission before you invite guests to stay for a weekend or longer. Under what circumstances would either of you back out of the exchange? Make sure you have similar expectations about what you would do and what you would offer in compensation. After four successful, problem-free exchanges, I was shocked when a home exchanger told me I’d have to vacate her Parisian flat only days after my arrival. We had agreed to a three-month exchange, but hadn’t discussed any what-if scenarios. When personal circumstances required her immediate return to Paris, I had to find a new place to live ― or return home. Fortunately, I found another suitable home exchange within a week, but that was a close call on my part. In future, I will be much more careful about discussing all aspects of the exchange with my swap partner.

My Parisian kitchen

6. Once you agree to a swap, prepare your home. Put away any belongings you don’t want your swappers to use. Make sure everything is in working order. Leave written instructions for how to access the Internet, and how to use the TV, stereo, and appliances. Leave an emergency contact number. Make some room in your closets and clear out a dresser drawer or two, especially if it’s a long-term swap.

7. Be a good host. Leave plenty of brochures and perhaps a guide book of what to see and do in your home town. I also provide transit schedules and take-out menus.

8. When you arrive at your home exchange, expect to be a little self-reliant. There’s no concierge to call when you can’t figure out how to turn on the stove or if the hot water goes off. Also, after swapping with bachelors (twice), I’ve lowered my expectations about what a well-stocked kitchen contains.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to reply to my latest exchange offer: a beach house in southern California for eight weeks next summer.

The exterior of my building in Paris

The exterior of my building in Paris