A Tale of Two Hotel Rooms
As we arrange ourselves and stride out into the cobblestone streets of Ay, we witness a tall, strikingly beautiful woman standing by the Mercedes that we have commissioned to take us to the winery at Pierre Gimmonet. Apparently she will be our driver, and in this regard is not unlike the female version of George Michael in the Father Figure video. Her blonde curly hair cascades neatly over a tough-looking black leather jacket, while her red lipstick lightly stains the lit cigarette hanging from her mouth. She speaks very little as she opens the door for us and pulls the car out towards a destination that I can only assume is the one we’re intending for.
Though I urgently want to close my eyes and get a bit of sleep during the drive, I can’t help but steal glances at her in the rearview mirror – until she catches me and I revert to staring blankly out the window. I keep trying to come up with something, anything, to say to her, but am not successful in this undertaking and instead opt for complete, somewhat awkward silence. Joel seems wholly unmoved by the whole situation. When we arrive at our destination, she turns around and stares at us with her bright blue eyes, highlighted with a goodly amount of mascara, while still not speaking a word. As I watch the car peel off down the windy little country road, I actually consider the possibility that it may have been a dream all along.
Alas, I am called back to reality when we are greeted at the door by the winery manager and led to a lavishly appointed living room to await the arrival of vigneron Didier Gimmonet, who is currently on his way back from the vineyards.
At this point, fortunately, Joel confirms the ridiculousness of the taxi situation, likening the mysterious driver to Lady Gaga’s character in the Telephone video, though I still prefer my George Michael parallel. In the meantime, a little background for you on Didier Gimmonet – a third generation winemaker who is very well-respected amongst grower producers throughout Champagne, with his oldest vineyards located in Cuis, Cramant, and Choiully – which all within the Cote des Blancs AOC. He almost exclusively grows and is a master of the Chardonnay grape, producing wines that are, according to importer and guru Terry Theise, “Suave, creamy, and refined, with a soft minerality dispersed throughout the fruit.”
Didier arrives; apologizing straightaway for being late though we were unaware there was any kind of timetable in place to begin with. He is tall, perhaps in his late forties, dressed in casual yet well-fitting clothes, with the mud from the vineyard clinging to his navy boat shoes. His English is faultless as he urges us to sit down and get ready to taste through a lineup of eight wines that he has put together. We begin with the Brut NV as he scrutinizes the expression of the house and of its vineyards, and the features of great Champagne.
Joel begins with virtuous intentions, taking two sips and discarding the rest into the spit bucket that Didier has provided. By the second glass, however, it becomes apparent that restricting is a lost cause and the bucket is forgotten about. After all, no one is driving – we let Bizarro George Michael Gaga take care of that.
During the next two hours we work our way through each of his different cuvees. He is captivating and I find myself hanging on his every word. He prefers to pick his Chardonnay grapes before they become too ripe, encouraging the signature “minerality” that his wines are known for. He pulls out a bottle that is unmarked, with exception of the word “Paradoxe” handwritten on it. One of the very few wines he makes with Pinot Noir, it is a rich and fruity style that I like to call a “breakfast quaffer.” After all, what goes better with Ho Cakes than Champagne?
The 2002 Millesime de Collection, Special Club Brut is the hands down favorite for Joel and I. 2002 was amazing vintage to begin with, and despite consuming quite a bit of bubbly thus far, this wine stands out as utterly superlative, with bracingly fresh acidity complimented by creamy layers of toast and apples.
The day begins to take on a warm, happy pinkish hue as we near the end of the lineup, a perfect foil for the rainy, overcast skies over the vineyard. We remorsefully inform Didier that we are due to catch train to Paris en route to the city of Tours, and he insists on arranging a car service to the station for us. I request to purchase two bottles of the 2002 Special Club, but when he comes back with the bottles packaged up for us he dismisses my offer for payment with a wave of his hand.
“A gift, to thank you for selling my wine” he says, while concurrently pouring us each another glass to sip as we await our coach.
Upon reaching the station in Epernay, Joel recurrently marches us up and down numerous flights of stairs, claiming the whole time that he knows “where the fuck we are supposed to get our train.” By the time we reach the correct platform, I’m sweating and feeling as if my heart may implode/explode. Granted, we have amassed a significant amount of Champagne that we are lugging around, adding to our encumbrance, and I am also beginning to question my need to have packed so many goddamn pairs of shoes. Once on board, the Tranny Boss nods off while I “lighten the load” a bit by cracking one the bottles and sipping discretely until we reach Paris, where we hail a cab to another station across town on our way to Tours.
I make my grand entrance to Montparnasse Station by quickly causing a scene at the restrooms, where I carelessly ignore the 50-cent fee to use the facilities and am met with a very loud “MONSIEUR?!!?!” by the attendant as she points harshly at a pile of coins strewn out in front of her. Undeniably, I’m a bit tipsy, so my knee jerk reaction is to giggle in her face, which seems to both cause bewilderment and also confirm that I am an idiot American tourist who simply doesn’t know any better.
All this bad noise leaves me utterly ravenous, so we decide to hit the first café we see for a quick lunch. We are seated in booths made of orange Formica, and greeted by our waiter – who is a spitting image of Ted Nugent, albeit a touch goofier. My ham steak with Madeira sauce is unquestionably passable for train station fare, but Joel’s pot pie with duck is actually pretty damn unreal. He eats with a smug grin on his face, knowing that he has been consistently out-ordering me so far on the trip, and as I choke down two skunky, luke-warm Heinekens I begin to re-assess my game plan to turn my fortune around.
Before boarding the train to Tours, I notice a kiosk called Zuma Juice, which appears to be the French equivalent of a Smoothie King. Personally, it is my stance that fresh squeezed vegetable juice can forgive almost all sins, as there is no easier and more efficient way to mainline a bushel of kale straight into your bloodstream in under two minutes. I quickly place my order for the “Detoxe,” a concoction of cucumber, kale, spinach, parsley, apple, and ginger, in the “Mega” size. After downing it in what feels like one long gulp, I am now prepared and re-invigorated for the journey ahead.
I rapidly nod off as the train to Tours heaves into motion, and remain knocked out except for a brief wakening to observe a landscape of rolling hills and distant farmhouses on a cold afternoon.
I am still bleary from my snooze as we reach the city and are forced to once again lug our heavy bags towards what we distinguish to be a taxi stand. I wait with our belongings as Joel goes back into the station to use the restroom, only to realize, after 20 minutes of searching, that there isn’t one. He shows back up, looking discouraged, a sentiment that is only amplified by the fact that we can’t figure out where the fuck to actually stand to hail one of the infrequent-at-best taxis. Thirty minutes later, when we finally get our cab, Joel looks to be in a world of distress. I rattle off the address of the hotel to the driver, and am feeling slightly troubled when he begins consulting a map, not a great sign.
I should clarify what is going on with the hotel situation – about a week prior to the trip; I finally received confirmation for our appointments at wineries in both Saumur and Vouvray. The city of Tours is a perfect base of operations to access vineyards all over the Loire Valley, but I wanted to set plans in stone before looking into accommodations. My first choice, the Hotel L’Universe, is booked solid for both nights that we will be in Tours. Additional searches for higher-end lodging continue to come up empty handed.
Wanting to get the process over with, I commit the cardinal sin of consulting Trip Advisor to see which hotels in the area were rated the highest. The Etap Hotel consistently garnered five star reviews, and the snapshots revealed clean, modern rooms that, according to their website, were “perfect for three travelers,” and equipped with “two and a half beds.” The low pricing makes me a bit nervous, but I decide to take a chance and book the room. Who knows, maybe it’s a hidden gem of sorts?
Ten minutes into our taxi ride, it becomes glaringly apparent that we are headed towards the outskirts of the city. Not long after, we find ourselves entering “North” Tours, a part of town which appears to be centered around a mall plaza. We pass a few car dealerships and a Kentucky Fried Chicken before arriving at the Etap, which essentially resembles a La Quinta.
Check-in confirms my doubts about the Etap, or as it would be referred to from this point on, IKEA. While inspecting our quarters, I begin to question the array of substances being abused by whoever coined the phrase “perfect for three people.” The “half bed” is actually a fucking bunk bed, and the decor very much resembles what I imagine a Swedish prison to be like.
Due to being on the verge of a very ugly bladder explosion, Joel says very little until he is given the opportunity to use the magic water closet. Once he is back to normal, it takes us each about 3 minutes to decide that IKEA will become our storage unit for the evening, which, given all the Champagne bottles in tow isn’t actually a bad thing, and begin searching for a more comfortable spot to lay our heads in the actual city of Tours.
After I damage the arches of my feet attempting to climb into the bunk bed for a photo op, we pack up, bid adieu to IKEA, and cab it back downtown. Our spacious suite at the Hotel Mondial, located right in the center of Tours, affirms our acquisition of a second hotel room.
Boasting a much better location, with a beautiful view of the central square (plus no sign of any furnishings from the Fjellse or Leirvik series), the Mondial is far more conducive to what we’re trying to accomplish here. The concierge is quite helpful, and as he give us several recommendations for dinner he prompts Joel and I to ask the age-old question, “Gay or just European?”
We settle in once again before striking out to get a lay of the land. My advice to anyone planning on traveling in France would be not to assume that a goddamn thing would be open between two and five in the afternoon. This is an ideal time for you to catch up on sleep, make expensive phone calls, raid the mini-bar, or play Angry Birds.
Because we’ve still got about an hour before anything opens for dinner, we duck into a small tavern to kill time the best way we know how – in the form of a tall, ice cold Kronenbourg. The place is empty, save for a single, outlandish looking old man hunched over his beer. As we finish our drinks, Joel steps outside to make a phone call and I ask to settle the tab.
The old man, immobile until this moment, perks up when he hears the rustling of cash in my pocket. I’ve recently been to the ATM, and he glances at me just as I pull out a sizeable stack of Euros. I see his eyes widen, and he looks me up and down a couple of times, but then faces back to his beer with a defeated look in his eyes. I can only assume that he was thinking “Man, if this were twenty years ago I’d have beaten this fat fuck within an inch of his life and spent all of that money in a whorehouse.”
After further incinerating the spirit of an already broken eighty year-old man, I feel much better about myself and realize, with great excitement, that it is finally time for dinner. The concierge’s first recommendation is closed for a staff party, so we hoof it across town to Le Turon, a tiny bistro nestled in an alley teeming with bars and restaurants.
The first order of business is a chilled bottle of Alexander Monmousseau Vouvray “Turonien,” a crisp and refreshing Chenin Blanc from a local winery. Our server, a good-looking blonde woman who is maybe in her mid-thirties, seems quite taken with us, or me in particular for whatever reason, as Joel points out. I, on the other hand, am quite taken with my first course of soft poached eggs with slabs of seared foie gras, served with crusty, chewy baguette, while Joel is equally enamored with his salad topped with chicken gizzards and smoked duck.
As we pour the last of the Vouvray, we transition into a bottle of Chinon Reserve. Yet again, when I order the bottle the waitress appears to be so excited that I half expect to get a hug. I’m as confused as Joel is, but I guess I’m happy if she’s happy, so we press on. The Cabernet Franc ends up being perfect with the next course, a salad layered with thick, streaky bacon and crispy parcels of tangy goat cheese, or as the English translation on the menu suggests, “Crusty farm goat cheese.”
During the next intermission, I make my way to the restroom, only to be confronted by our server en route. As it turns out, she is the owner. I ask her name, and her response sounds a lot like “Kirsch.” Not wanting to resort to butchering it while mumbling, I try to get her to spell it for me, and her response of “C-T-S-R-K” does not improve my predicament. I introduce myself in French and she tells me that I talk “Way too fast,” but that she is really excited that we have come. When I get back to the table I describe the transaction to Joel, and we settle on Ke$ha as a reasonable substitute for her very hard to pronounce name.
Joel’s entrée of Gigot de sept heures, or “Seven hour lamb,” is without a doubt the single most tender and delicious preparation of this animal that I have ever experienced It literally melts away at the touch of a fork, lacquered with a thick, silky sauce that tastes like pure demi-glace. It is served with a side of roasted potatoes and carrots that are ever so slightly scented with cumin, definitely warranting a second bottle of Chinon.
Once entrees are cleared, we relax for a bit and finish our wine, pouring a very large glass for Ke$ha and inviting her to sit with us, as the din of customers has begun to wind down. We chat for a bit, before moving on to a three stage dessert, beginning with a glass of brilliantly sweet Vouvray Moelleux. Next is an apple crumble with salted caramel butter ice cream, though I admit to being tempted by the crème brulee simply because the English translation on the menu reads “Burned cream with flavors of the moment.”
I am very much craving a glass of Absinthe, and though they do not have any on hand Ke$ha presents us with an impressive list of Armagnac, from which I let her choose me any one she wants. I begin to tell her about the nature of our trip and Joel goes outside for a smoke. When I mention that we will be visiting Saumur in the AM, this somehow registers to her as “I’d like to come back again for dinner tomorrow night,” to which she excitedly nods her head and asks what time I would like to make a reservation for. We agree on 9:00, and she promises that next time she will “Have a bottle of Absinthe, just for me to keep.”
Joel offers no resistance when I tell him of our new dinner plans for the following evening, and we leave Le Turon in search of a nightcap, but unfortunately the city is beginning to close down though it is only midnight. This is of no concern, as I have a bottle of Champagne in the room and, to be honest, It may be beneficial to actually get some sleep before our long excursion to the country in the AM – followed by my date with a bottle of Absinthe at 9.