Seek the Sunshine – San Jose Weekend

Sometime around July in San Francisco, you begin to wonder if the yellow, life-giving disc in the sky is ever going to return. I once spent a 4th of July steps from where they shoot off fireworks unable to see them because of the San Francisco fog. When this happens to you for too long, as a San Francisco city dweller, you know you’re in need of a sunny escape.

Fortunately, the urban conglomeration of San Jose is not too far from San Francisco, and the sun always seems to shine over the capital of the Silicon Valley. So, rent your car and head out on the highway, humming “Do You Know the Way…” all the while. (To reduce your carbon footprint, this weekend jaunt, omitting the wineries I mention, can also be done on the train, as there’s Caltrain Service from San Fransciso to San Jose.)

Day 1: Do You Know the Way to San Jose?
If you wake up fairly early in San Francisco on a Saturday morning, you can have a light breakfast of toast/coconut/espresso over at Trouble Coffee, over on Judah, between 45th & 46th. Then, cruise down the Great Highway over to Skyline Drive, heading south through some beautiful forested areas, and the lovely town of Woodside.

On your left, a few miles outside of Woodside, your first wine stop will be Thomas Fogarty, which makes some great vino– especially their barberas if you’re a fan of those.  You can see how much the fog that plagues you in San Francisco contributes to some fine wine production when you taste the many varieties at Fogarty. (You can find Fogarty, along with the best driving directions to find them, online at:  http://www.fogartywinery.com/)

Keep meandering down Skyline, one of the world’s great drives. You’ll pass through redwoods, see scenic vistas of the Bay below, and a variety of flora and fauna.

When you get to Highway 9, turn, and head toward Saratoga. (Highway 9 is also known as Big Basin Way.) Your next stop will be the Savannah-Chanelle winery, a maker of some very nice wines, particularly reds. You can also snack on some salami and cheese for sale there, as the winery has a nice picnic area in front. (For some info online, see:  http://www.savannahchanelle.com/) From Savannah-Chanelle, you’re just a stone’s throw from San Jose, your final sunny stop.

If you left early enough and were leisurely enough at the wineries, you should be arriving in San Jose around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. Maybe earlier. You’ll be checking into the Fairmont, in downtown San Jose, which has great rates on weekends when the Valley’s business activities grind to a halt. The pool at the Fairmont is a fabulous place to soak in the sun. You will forget that the fog ever plagued you after an hour or two here.

Irish musician at O'Flaherty's
Irish musician at O'Flaherty's

After your swim, hit the showers and leave the hotel for the evening. (You won’t need to drive, which is nice if you plan to imbibe.) O’Flaherty’s Irish Pub at 25 N. San Pedro Street is a good time with good pub grub. The staff make you feel at home. There’s often music too. Visit online for more info:  http://www.oflahertyspub.com/

Should you tire of the flavors of Ireland, you can head around the corner to the Brit, or Brittania Arms, at 173 W. Santa Clara. The Brit’s a big pub, and often, has some DJ action and/or a BBQ on a nice back patio (http://www.britanniaarmsdowntown.com/) Once it’s time to hit the hay, you’re just a few blocks away from your comfy bed at the Fairmont.

Day 2: Sunshine & Science
Sunday morning, have breakfast in bed with the Fairmont’s excellent room service, or head downstairs to the plaza between the Fairmont’s main building and adjoining tower for some excellent European-style pastries and coffee. Then, hit the pool until you can’t stand the sun any more. (Though fleeing from the fog the morning before, the sun is hot enough in San Jose that you will soon tire of it. Or at least, your skin will.)

Once you do need some shade after your poolside stint, cool down across the street at the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation. In addition to some great exhibits about the business of Silicon Valley (clean rooms for micro-chips, body scanning, & more), there’s an IMAX theater with a variety of shows. You can even make your own customized Web page as a souvenir by using the museum’s special scanner system. To get the most out of your visit, plan prior using the museum’s Web site: http://www.thetech.org/

At the end of the day, hop on the 101 and get back to San Francisco in around an hour and a half. After so much sunshine, you may even be happy to see the fog.

Matanzas Creek

Just outside of bustling Santa Rosa, on a lovely road that showcases all that is good and rural about Sonoma County, sits Matanzas Creek. Matanzas has been a leader in efforts to preserve the beautiful Bennett Valley and get the area declared its own viticultural region.  For this alone, they’d be worthy of support. The high quality wine has always been another reason to keep coming back for more. 

For many years, Matanzas’ winemaker was a remarkable Frenchman, Francois Cordesse. M. Cordesse’s creations remain for sale at Matanzas and should definitely be snapped up when you visit. Apparently, Francois is now at Coppola which should result in some fine creations at that winery.

Representing the best of French technique with some of America’s best fruit, Francois’ wines for Matanzas are all great, embodying the unique terroir from which they grow. Francois’ sauvignon blancs and merlots (in particular merlots from the Jackson Park vineyard) always delight.  (The 2006 Jackson Park merlot drinks very nicely; I also just sampled a 2006 cabernet sauvignon that was pretty darn good, particularly with full-bodied cheeses.)

The winery’s higher end productions from their “Journey” label are worth trying and showcase Francois’ best handiwork for the vintages he produced. The 2007 chardonnay is everything a chardonnay actually should be: a balanced, delectable sipper with a pleasant creamy, roundness to it that plays off the light tang of the fruit. (Sorry to report, but I am not a fan of the extremely bad habit California producers have gotten into over the past decade, in which chardonnay tastes like an old, wet oak plank smeared with butter flavoring.)

The 2007 Journey Chardonnay is darn near perfection and has cellared well.  The really nice lady at the tasting room said that Francois, the wine’s maker, thinks it could be put away very nicely for up to 4 years. (That is, if you can avoid the obvious temptation of drinking it now, but as we’re in 2011, you have an incentive to drink it now, given the tasting room lady’s guidance). My mom and my step-dad enjoyed it as they’re both fans of French white bordeaux.

Though there’s no longer a Frenchman at the helm, Marcia Monahan is now creating for Matanzas. In August 2011, I tasted the fruits of her labor in the form of a highly drinkable and pleasantly crisp sauvignon blanc. It’s nice to know that the winery has a history of featuring female winemakers; the incomparable Merry Edwards also once created for Matanzas. I look forward to seeing what Marcia creates from the amazing fruits of Matanzas terroir.

Though some things have changed behind the scenes at Matanzas, others remain the same on the front-end. The staff are always friendly and really helpful. There’s none of the pretention that, sadly, permeates so many other wineries, particularly those in Napa. The folks at Matanzas like and enjoy wine. They want you to like and enjoy it too.

Enjoyment is further enhanced by the beauty of the Matanzas property. The deck is a great place to sit and sip surrounded by lovely greenery, with sweeping views of the lavender gardens and the mountains across the way. The bocce ball court is another fine spot, perfect for a picnic and a glass or 2 of one of the refreshing whites or roses made at Matanzas. There are a few additional picnic tables and benches tucked away around the gardens as well, should you wish to enjoy your wine outdoors in a more secluded way.

In keeping with enjoying the Wine Country lifestyle, Matanzas hosts many events for the public and for members throughout the year, most notably, their legendary Lavender Festival. Be sure to take a look at their Web site for the events schedule and plan your visit so you can take part. If you live in San Francisco, Matanzas is also one of the best wine clubs to belong to, both because of the excellent wine and the great member events throughout the year.

Matanzas is located at 6097 Bennett Valley Road, on the outskirts of Santa Rosa.  More info, including listings about events is at: http://www.matanzascreek.com/ Get there quick so that you can get a bottle or two of Francois’ divine creations and eventually say, “I got this wine before he became truly famous….” (That is, if you can manage not to drink these delightful wines now.)

Art & Cafes in the Marais…& a Late Night?

Among many fine walks in Paris, a nice stroll around the Marais is a great way to spend a day…and a late night. Enjoying everything below at a leisurely pace and discovering some new places along the way should take you a full morning and well into the afternoon. Or, just stay all night for when the neighborhood’s bars and cafes really get going. Walk to the Marais along the river, or take the yellow Metro line (Ligne 1) to St-Paul.

The neighborhood’s name means, “Marsh,” as the area was a wetland in the 12th century. There are many fine examples of stately architecture in the Marais, as the neighborhood became a royal one in the 14th century, when Charles V moved the court here. From the end of the 16th century to the 17th, the Marais experienced its glory days as the center of Parisian intellectual life. Those glory days ended when Louis XIV changed the focus of power by moving the royal court’s home in Paris to Tuileries.  

Decline continued until a few decades ago, culminating in the Marais’ being a pretty run-down neighborhood. Like a lot of places with architectural potential that have been forgotten, artists poured in, taking advantage of the then cheap real estate, fixing up a lot of the cool old buildings. If you peek in courtyards and windows, you can see a lot of lovely old architecture– cobbled alleys, wood-beamed ceilings, a cozy Parisian style. The Marais now houses Paris’ gay and Jewish neighborhoods.

The best way to start a day in the Marais is to go see the Musee Picasso, 5 rue de Thorigny, just a short walk from the St. Paul Metro stop. Go in the morning, during the week, as it’s usually less crowded. Weekends during tourist season are almost not worth going, as the crowds detract from the beautiful space and the art itself. Call or check online before you go, as it might be closed on certain days or for an event (http://www.musee-picasso.fr/)

The museum’s building itself, the Hotel Salé, is amazing, dating from the 17th century. Among many roles over its long life, the building was once, most notably, the Embassy of the Republic of Venice, long before the country of Italy came into being.

The art collection more than suits its impressive, monumental home. The collection is a well-edited review of Picasso’s life work, comprising every period of his epic, prolific career. This museum is also one of the only times you may be grateful for the taxman. Picasso’s heirs had to pay back taxes to the French government, a debt they settled by giving up this amazing cache of artwork from one of the most original artists the world has ever known.

After you visit the museum, eat lunch, hang out at cafes, and check out the cool galleries and stores that make the Marais one of Paris’ best neighborhoods. Stay for a late night too, as the Marais is also at its best into the evening hours. 

Rue de Rosiers is worth checking out. It has a lot of really great Jewish restaurants with wonderful Middle Eastern food for a quick lunch or supper.  

On or directly off rue Vieille du Temple, one of the main streets in the Marais, you can take in the galleries, the funky shops, and the café life:  

  • Café Tresor is on a really sweet alley, (5 rue du Tresor), right off Vielle du Temple. Awesome café food for a light lunch. A lot of artists/models hang out here at night, but there’s always good people watching here.
  • Café Amnesia (42 rue Vieille du Temple), is one of the most popular gay hangouts in the Marais, and also fantastic people watching. 

Not too far from rue Vielle du Temple:

  • Open Cafe, (17 rue des Archives), is one of the most popular gay spots in Paris, particularly in the evenings. Gay or straight, it can be awesomely fun here on a warm summer night.  
  • Lizard Lounge, (18 rue Bourg-Tibourg), draws a large straight, Anglo-American expat crowd, and can really get going in the late evenings.
  • DOM, a groovy housewares store, is like a French Urban Outfitters without all the clothes. This is a good place for funky souvenirs and gifts. (21 rue Sainte-Croix-de-la-Bretonnerie.)

Cafe Mabillon – Good at All Hours

When I first started going to Cafe Mabillon, I thought it was actually called “Jour et Nuit” (tr: “Day and Night”) as this was stenciled prominently on the window. This actually meant, “pretty much open round-the-clock” for coffee, pre-dinner drinks, and the occasional Beaujolais Nouveau tasting at 4 a.m. (Note to interested parties: Beaujolais Nouveau tasting in the wee small hours = bad idea after a night already spent enjoying wines, cocktails, and beer all over Paris.)

Mabillon’s a great location for the sport of people watching, perfect for observing a great assortment of folks stroll by: students from the universities in the area, a variety of international tourists, supermodels heading over to the Lipp, merchants from the neighborhood, and Parisians who find themselves looking for a post-movie refreshment after taking in a film at one of the nearby cinemas.

Of course, doing this over a kir always improves people watching. Just remember what I said about the Beaujolais Nouveau.

Located at 164 Blvd. St-Germain in the 6th arrondissement.

Legendary Paris Cafes – La Flore & Deux Magots

Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir
Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir

When you think of Paris, you can’t help but think of all the writers and intellectuals who dreamed in, dreamed of, and dreamed up the idea we all have of Paris. If you’re familiar with writers and intellectuals and find yourself in Paris, you also can’t help but think of Sartre and Beauvoir, that iconic, unconventional couple whose life-long personal and intellectual relationship defined multiple eras of Paris, existentialism, and the role of women in modern Western societies– just to name a few of their light contributions to history and modern thought. The fact that they did much of this thinking and writing in cafes just makes them that much more endearing.

Even if you’re not into pursuits of the philosophical variety, you will greatly enjoy two of the most historic cafes in Paris, conveniently located just a block or so away from one another, on the same side of the street.  

The first is Café la Flore. It’s a bit packed and slightly pricey because it’s a legend and absolutely worth it. Have an espresso on the terasse or inside. Of course, anytime’s a good time for a kir. They will pour the wine into the cassis right in front of you at your table, where you can also enjoy a hard-boiled egg, per that rather curious offering at many traditional cafes.  Sit back, and people watch. Write great thoughts in your journal or on some postcards. If it’s a good enough place for Sartre, Beauvoir, Hemingway, and so many more– it might just work to inspire you.

After you’ve finished your coffee or kir, stroll over for another libation at the Deux Magots, a cafe equally as historic, and linked with the Flore through the activities of both cafes’ celebrated patrons. During one of the most epic periods for these two cafes in the period between World War I and World War II, if you were with your wife or hubby at the Flore, you’d have your mistress/mister be next door at the Deux Magots, ducking in and out of both to keep your appointments. Now that’s efficiency! (I’m not suggesting you try that today, but if you feel so inclined, there’s a historic precedent for pulling that off here.) Sometimes, there’s music in front. And, for a very long time, the cafe has awarded the Deux Magots Literary Prize. (If you drink at a cafe with its own literary prize, kind of makes drinking wine in the morning seem a bit less shifty, right?)

Honor your own inner intellectual over a few drinks at  Café la Flore, 172 boulevard St.-Germain, and the Deux Magots, 6 place St.-Germain.  Both in the 6th arrondissement. Online, the Deux Magots has a great Web site that you can peruse before you visit: http://www.lesdeuxmagots.fr/index.php

Pont Neuf – Sunset & Evening Boat Cruise

Pont Neuf and Ile de la Cite
A Great Place to Catch a Boat & Enjoy Wine

Some spots on the world are well-visited because they’re magic. Pont Neuf and the Seine by night are two such places. (If you’re visiting Paris for the first time, the following is a great way to start your trip the first evening you arrive.)

First, buy your tickets for a night-time boat cruise on Vedettes Pont-Neuf. You can do this online (and often get a discount) or you can show up in person. (If it’s a tourist time of year like summer, be sure to get your tickets extra early, as the night-time cruises sell out fast.)

Head down to Pont Neuf before sunset, with a bottle of wine or champagne in hand. Because King Henri IV commissioned Pont Neuf, his statue sits atop the bridge, in front of the stairs that take you down to the boats and park below. Henri IV’s nickname was “Vert Galant,” (Green Gallant)– an allusion to his sexual powers and overall vigor. He was a “notorious romantic,” euphemistically speaking. (Allow that to inspire you for your evening as you see fit.)

Pont Neuf, in spite of its name meaning “new bridge”, is actually the oldest bridge in Paris. The beautifully carved faces seem alive, showcasing an exquisite range of expression. When commissioned over four centuries ago, the bridge’s architect/designer was asked to showcase government ministers and those popular with the court. In a fit of artistic pique that can still induce chuckles across the ages, a few condemned people and murderers were thrown into the gallery of faces. As is common, it’s hard to sort out the criminals from the statesmen.   

After studying a few of the bridge’s faces, stroll down with your vino to the tip of the Ile de la Cite, the island that really started the whole Paris thing way back before Romans, Franks, and the rest.  Sit back and relax while watching Paris go by, and you may learn one of the reasons why that song’s called “La Vie en Rose.” (The sky can turn an amazing pink, and this vantage point is perfect for getting a great vista of a Parisian sunset.)

Once the sun slips below the horizon, head over to Vedettes Pont-Neuf and board your boat. The French are masters at illuminating their public buildings and bridges. Paris, a city so beautiful by day, is 1000x more beautiful by night from the water that is its heart.

For boat tickets, cruise over to http://www.vedettesdupontneuf.com/

Best Fondue & Lively Atmosphere in Montmartre

Though often full of tourists of all stripes, the Refuge de Fondues still draws its fair share of French, and it is the French who are, in fact, the folks who took me here in the first place.

It’s popular with most everyone who visits, as the Refuge is an awesome and funny place. You will surely strike up conversation with someone next to you as, quite frankly, it is so packed, you have no choice. The proprietors also do what they can to keep the conversation and good times rolling. (Such as asking 10 people to stand up and move down one seat to accomodate a few other visitors, all while happily passing hot oil and molten cheese briskly around the room.) 

It’s only about 18 Euros for the entire menu which includes a kir to start, lots of good little appetizers, beef or cheese fondue (which is very very good hence the popularity), followed by your choice of cheese or fruit salad for dessert (though you can have other desserts) AND (why this is a supremely funny place) a baby bottle—yes—baby bottle full of white or red wine. Even if you don’t drink, you will walk out laughing. I have brought everyone who has ever visited me in Paris– of all ages– and they have all loved it. (There’s something very special about watching your parents drink wine from a glass baby bottle, which cannot be explained in mere words.)

If you have to wait to get a table or even if you don’t, go to the bar right next door and have a pre-dinner drink (“apero”). The cute little bar is a pleasant Montmartre haunt, typical of the many small, convivial bars that you can find throughout the neighborhood.

Get your cheese on at the Refuge de Fondues in the 18th, 17 rue des Trois-Freres (between rue Yves le Tac and rue la Vieuville), Metro: Abbesses or Anvers. You must make a reservation: 01.42.55.22.65.