Finally, an update! Long overdue, I know. But between Italy, Romania, Greece, coming back to France, and preparing to move to Bordeaux on Thursday… life has been outrunning me for about a month now. To really do the last four weeks justice I would have to write a book. For now, I’m settling for a few paragraphs.
We can start with Italy, the first country on the Master Vintage program’s tour. Keep in mind, the three and a half weeks I was traveling was with a group of about thirty five other students from a university in Angers, France. They are all studying various aspects of wine making from enology to marketing. Of the thirty five students, 17 different countries and close to ten languages are represented. Luckily, English is one of those languages spoken by all.
Travis, the other student from Cornell (and only American) joining me on the program, and I left Toulouse the morning of the 26th of June. We took a train from the Toulouse station to Piacenza, Italy. I won’t take the time here to detail that day, but I will tell you it was twelve hours long involving three trains and playing charades with several Italian train conductors. Regardless, we finally reached Piacenza that night and met up with the rest of the group at our hotel. The next morning we were off and running with an introductory lecture at the local university on Italian wines and the commercial market.
The basic idea of the three weeks was to tour wineries in all three countries and compare and contrast operations, marketing, vine techniques, and management strategies. Wineries in all three countries varied in size from ten hectares to several thousand. So we would get to a country, get on a bus, visit a winery, get back on the bus, usually drive for an hour, visit another winery, drive a few hours, stop at a hotel for the night, wake up, get on the bus, drive another hour or so, visit another few wineries, stop at another hotel…. And so on. Although it was a lot of time on the bus, never staying in one hotel longer than two nights (except in Greece when we based our excursions for the week out of a hotel in Athens), I appreciated how much of each country we saw in a week. No day was similar to the one before and all the people we met astounded me with their generosity and willingness to share their life with us.
Italy was beautiful and by far the most similar to France in terms of culture, geography, and language. It was also HOT. Pushing 40 degrees Celsius everyday, I could jump in an ice cold shower fully clothed and 15 minutes later be completely dry. Aside from that, I loved Italy. The wineries and vineyards we visited that week were in the beautiful, rolling hills of the Piemonte region. We also saw bigger operations in the flatlands of Emilia Romagna and vineyards nestled into the foothills of the Alps in the north.
My favorite spot, however, was not any of these wineries. One night, driving on the big highway that winds through the Alps just south of Austria and Switzerland, we stopped in a small, mountain town. After stowing our bags in our rooms for the night, several of us headed out to find dinner. The town isn’t very big, probably four or five hundred people, so we quickly found a pizza and pasta restaurant with menus in either Italian or German… needless to say we just ordered a plain pizza in broken Italian and enjoyed the views of the Alps surrounding us. After dinner we headed toward the center of the old town, containing a cobblestone square and a modest gothic church. After reaching it, we noticed a few side streets winding up the hill so we took one and decided we couldn’t get lost in a town that size. We ended up halfway up a small hill on the west side of the village where we could overlook the entire valley, bathed in the warmth of nighttime street lamps. The stars overhead were bright and easily visible in the emptiness of the mountains. If Thomas Kinkade had been standing there with us I don’t think even he could have done it justice.
Next on the list was Romania. We hopped a plane from Venice to Bucharest and arrived within a few hours. If I had to pick a favorite country of the three, it may have been Romania. It was dirty and poor, there are more starving dogs roaming the streets in packs than people, and farmers still herd sheep and drive their crops to market with a horse and cart. Yet, Romania felt like home. They are hardworking people, living close to the land, with a fierce sense of nationalism. Their meals, if they are well off, consist of no less than three courses and the lay out for breakfast could be mistaken for dinner at a restaurant.
On the Fourth of July, while most of America was barbecuing and lighting fireworks, we were on the bus in the middle of the Romanian countryside. With the nearest city more than two hours away in any direction, we opted to stay the night in a large house/gas station/bar owned by the manager of a winery we had toured earlier in the day. The bar happens to be off the left wing of the gas station and directly under where our rooms were located. Knowing we would not get any sleep with the sound of loud Romanians pounding their mugs of beer on the bar, out of tune with the lively polka-like music coming out of the ancient stereo, we decided to join them. And what a Fourth of July it was. We met several Romanian farmers, none of whom spoke English except for one man who spoke close to five words, which consisted of ‘jump!’ every time we were supposed to kick our legs to the music, ‘New York City!’ whenever he saw me, and ‘America!’ whenever he saw anyone else. His wife was also the one who spent the better part of an hour showing us how to dance like proper Romanian women, arms crossed, shoulders straight, bouncing in place, legs unhinged at the knee, kicking left, right, up and back at different intervals.
After the mild culture shock of Romania, Greece was it’s own breed. Unlike the previous two countries, we stayed the entire week in one hotel in a shady part of Athens. Drug dealers openly sold their goods on the street, prostitutes cat called anyone within ear shot as soon as eight pm every night, and I saw more homeless people than Italy and Romania combined. Yet, I could walk for 15 minutes down the main street around the corner from our hotel and be surrounded by Americans in the square below the hill from the Acropolis. And the touristic part of Athens was stunningly beautiful with an old-world feel. Roman ruins dot the hills and if you close your eyes for a moment you feel like you will open them to an Athens run by the world’s oldest society once again. It was a strange dynamic.
Our professor in Greece (we had a different one meet us in each country) felt that because Greece was a hot country and we had been virtually homeless for two weeks, we could use a break. So everyday he scheduled us two winery tours in the morning and an afternoon at a different beach. It was a relaxing week and a great way to wind down the three-week trip. We walked all over Athens, stopping in every little shop we found, and also visited the new Acropolis museum and the Acropolis itself. Coming from a relatively new continent such as America and being in Greece, so rich in history, was breathtaking for me. I could spend a year pouring over the old texts and studying the thousand-year-old sculptures in the city.
Our study trip ended on Sunday the 17th of July. Yet, some of us weren’t quite sure we wanted Greece out of our system so fast. So we found a ferry to Spetses Island, off the southern coast of Greece, and decided to soak in the sun and ocean breeze there for a few days. Spetses, as I’m sure is true with most of the Greek Islands, is a little piece of heaven. It has one road, about an eight km circle, and most of the island is uninhabited except for the beautifully restored old mansions and vacation homes surrounding the port on the south side of the island. Spetses also has close to 15 beaches. Wanting to see all of them, but not willing to walk in the heat that was bearable only because of the ocean breezes, we rented motorized scooters. Scooters and quads are the only form of transportation on the island besides the taxis… horse drawn carriages. Unfortunately, even these three days came to an end and we found ourselves back on a ferry headed to Athens once again.
At the Athens airport, I finally split from my new French friends and found myself alone for the first time in three weeks. Wanting to save money, I decided not to pay for a hotel room Tuesday night and instead pulled out a jacket and towel from my suitcase and bedded down against a wall near the Departures desk. You wouldn’t believe how many people opt for sleeping in airports; it’s a relatively safe option and totally free of charge. Next time, I’m bringing a sleeping bag and a pillow.
My flight arrived in Paris Wednesday afternoon and I wandered the streets, with my suitcase in tow, for a few hours before taking the night train back to Toulouse. After two solid days of travel, I moved back into the student dorms I had been living in three weeks earlier. I have a meeting with the French office of immigration on Wednesday afternoon and if that goes well, I move to Bordeaux on Thursday to start my internship. I’m so excited for this next adventure; Bordeaux is a wonderful region with rolling hills and 18th century castles nestled into woods and vineyards around every turn.
Although this may have been the longest blog post in the history of blogging, I barely scratched the surface of the past month. It was a whirlwind of an experience, and I met so many genuine people. We are truly blessed to share this beautiful world together.