Monday, January 31, 2011

Neuquén - A Final (Wine) Taste

With each passing course Sebastian, the sommelier, poured us larger and larger glasses.  By the end of the meal, each course involved a small amount of food, and one or two full glasses of wine.  This, along with the outstanding food, was one reason we loved the tasting the menu and wine pairing at Butterfly.  The second reason was that Sebastian set into motion our most “Amazing Race”ish adventure to date.  It began with our mentioning that our trip back to Buenos Aires took us through Neuquén, the southern-most wine making region in Argentina, for a final go-round of our favorite Argentine activity: wine-tasting.

As we were leaving dinner Sebastian handed us a cocktail napkin with the name Hans Vinding-Diers and an email address.  We were to email this man, send Sebestian’s regards, and see if he would be able to give is a tour of either (or both!) of his award-winning wineries: Bodega Noemìa and Bodega Chacra.  He also mentioned that one of the wineries had a guest-house that was occasionally available for visitors. 

One more wine-tasting
The next morning, after pulling the crumpled paper from my pocket I emailed Hans sending Sebestian’s regards, our request to visit his wineries, and inquiry about the guest house.  Hans responded a few days later that we were welcome to tour his wineries, and, if we would like to, spend the night at his guest house!  Despite a heroic amount of googling, however, we could not find out any information about the guesthouse and before committing lingering questions plagued us: Where was the house?  Is this where we wanted to splurge on accommodations?*  Why has no one on the internet ever written about this place?

Putting our doubts to rest on the good vibe we got from Sebestian, in person, and Hans, over email, we accepted Hans’s gracious offer and wrote him that we looked forward to meeting him, and asked for some basic information - like how to reach the guesthouse.

The reply was odd.  Rather than give us an address, we were told to go to a particular parilla (steakhouse), the best in the small town where the winery was located, and when we were finished eating to have the restaurant call Oscar, who would meet us there, to take us to the guesthouse.  The adventure had begun.

Neuquén Itinerary
Jesse fighting with the bittersweet
emotions of being served mashed potatoes
(dream meal) by Via Bariloche, a bus company.
Ultimately, she took down the whole tray.
Our Neuquén itinerary was always a bit odd.  The plan was to take an afternoon bus from Bariloche to Neuquén (a mere five hours), eat on the bus, and spend the night in town.  The next morning we would take a bus or taxi to the airport where we would rent a car (because it was a Sunday none of the in-town local car rental shops would be open, and the airport rentals were also cheaper) and then spend the next two days wine tasting.  The first day would highlight the larger and more well-known Patagonian wineries along route 7 north of Neuquén, such as Fin del Mundo, Familia Schroeder, and NQN.  That evening we would drive east and out of the state of Patagonia and into the town of General Roca in the state of Rio Negro to spend the night at the guesthouse and following day at Hans’s wineries.  That evening the plan was to drive back to the Neuquen airport, and return the car at the Neuquén airport, ignore the 90 minute flight to Buenos Airoes and then take a bus or taxi from the airport to the bus station to catch our 13 hours overnight bus to Buenos Aires.  This is how one travels with time, but not money.

Day One
We set the alarm early in the six-person dorm room (three bunk beds) that we had to ourselves, in order to get to the airport, rent our car, and then get on the wine route.**  Getting to the wine-route required exactly one turn after we left the airport.  Actually, according to the local government it is the "Route of Wine, Apples and Dinosaurs - A route that combines the smells and flavours of this land, with an exciting palaeontological experience." Anyway, we only missed that turn once.  During the day we enjoyed tastings at NQN (especially because it was free) and then had a delicious pre-tasting lunch at Familia Schroder.  We shared one 3-course tasting menu that was probably enough food for three people.  At lunch we enjoyed some very large glasses of wine, including a few complimentary tastings during the meal! 
Tasting at Saurus (Familia Schroder)
After the formal tour and tasting (which was somewhat stingy) we made our way back into Neuquen to figure out how to get to this restaurant we were meant to have dinner and meet Oscar who would then show us to our cabin.  Because it was only 3 PM, however, we embraced our now-developed Argentine customs and decided to sit and have a coffee for an hour, or two.

In the café we began our internet search for the town of General Roca.  This seemingly straight-forward task took an interesting turn when our Google Maps search revealed that there was no town, just a single country road making its way through what appeared to endless fields.  Switching to a satellite view on the map revealed a very different picture.  The town, sprawled from both sides of the “highway” with small communities, unnamed streets, and even more dirt roads.  And all we had to do was find a man called Oscar, who would meet us at our dinner location and escort us to our accommodations for the night.
Day one took north along route 7
Day two took us east, on the road towards Buenos Aires
Sitting in the café, and somewhat discouraged, this seemed an excellent time to dip into our Skype credit and try to call our man directly.  The thing is, we never knew what numbers one has to dial when calling an argentine cell phone, from Argentina, with a US based Skype account.  After trying about 15 iterations of various country codes, city codes, cell phone codes, and more, a man finally answers.  I hopped out of my couch and exclaimed, “Oscar!?!” to which he replied in a flurry of Spanish.  Having solved our first problem, contacting Oscar, we now had a greater problem, we needed to get instructions and directions from him, in Spanish, over a crappy Skype connection.

Because it was only 3 or 4 in the afternoon we thought we would rather first go to the guesthouse and relax before having dinner at 10 or 11 (we had really embraced the culture).  This plan made sense before we knew where the guesthouse was, and how one gets there.  Eventually Oscar and I had a meeting of the minds.  We would drive to his house, instead of the restaurant, and then proceed directly to the guesthouse.  All we needed to do was find his house.  After making Oscar repeat his address for me a half of a dozen times, I was about 50% confident that I had the correct number and street.  But remember, Google Maps, only showed one road going though the town of General Roca, while the satellite view gave us a much more daunting, if not accurate, picture.

Where's Oscar?  

Map view

Satellite view.

With no other ideas of how to reach Oscar’s house, we finished our coffees, piled back into the car and heading towards General Roca, hopeful that someone would be able to help us along the way.  As we pulled out of Neuquen, Jesse, on a lark plugged the address into our GPS.  And, shockingly, it knew it!  We were saved without making one stop for direction!  Supremely pleased with ourselves (and our GPS) we drove the along the single road Google Maps knew about, until our GPS had us turn off the paved road into one of the countless, unpaved housing developments in General Roca.

As you might expect, it did not turn out as easy as we hoped.  As we winded up and down the dirt roads, with houses in various stages of construction all around us, the GPS seemed to be lost.  We were certainly lost, and as we got closer and closer to the “final destination” point on the GPS map, it was clear that we were being taken to the middle of a field.  The road into the field was totally overgrown and impassable.  And there was clearly no house, no winery-manger, and no Oscar to be found there. 

Again at a loss, we were somewhere in the middle of General Roca, possibly close to Oscar’s house, but equally likely nowhere near it, and we had no phone, no internet, no nothing.  We didn’t even know Oscar’s last name.  The prospect of asking someone for help finding Oscar’s house seemed rather low, in fact, asking anyone for any help would prove difficult as there were very few people out and about this random field we had just driven ourselves too. 

Neither Neuquen nor General Roca can
rightly claim to be the Big Apple.
Despite any large statutes they may erect.
We continued to drive around, trying to decipher the meaning of the numbers on the houses, but certain that this method was unlikely to yield much helpful info.  Eventually we drove past two men cutting their lawn with weed-wackers.  I pulled over and Jesse stuck her head out the window asking for help.  As she yelled out the window over the whine of their machines it was clear they could not hear us.  When the man eventually came over to the car, and Jesse began explaining that we were looking for Oscar, of the wineries (a ridiculous question, even in the small town of General Roca), and did they know him or the address we had.  He took the paper with the address on it, considered it and then replied in a flurry of Spanish that was totally meaningless to both of us.  In fact, he had not turned off his weed-wacker while he was speaking to us, so even if he told us in perfect English, we would not have been able to hear or understand him.  As he tried again and again to explain to us, and we again could neither hear, nor understand him, we kept gesturing that he needed to turn off his machine.  Eventually, he shut his machine, but his friend, a mere 5 feet away from him, did not.  We couldn’t hear a thing.  Despairingly, we shook our heads, thanked him and contemplated our next move.

Our weed-wacker, however, had other plans.  He gestured that we should wait a moment, and then turned and ran off.  Literally, ran into his house.  We had no idea what would happen next.  And what happened was perfect, from the other side of his house, the man pulls out in a giant pick-up truck – the unpaved roads in Genearl Roca are bumpy, deeply pot-holed, and often covered in water – and tears off down the road waving at us.  We were unsure of what was happening, but it seemed, that he was planning on driving us to Oscar’s address!  As I shifted into first, and prayed not to stall as he was already getting ahead of us, and we bounced, rattled, and rolled in his dust for about a mile of sharp turns on the windy, dirt-roads.  Eventually he stops and we pulled up next to him.  Before we could even express our thanks he gave us a big thumbs up, and took off just as fast as he had come to our rescue.
Our ultimate destination.
General Roca looked nothing like this.
So we found ourselves, sitting at a corner in General Roca staring down the road we believed, based on the belief of our unnamed weed-whacking friend, Oscar lived.  We hopped out and began walking down the street looking for the numbers. No one seemed to post their address on their door, mailbox, or anywhere that would be helpful for two Americans wandering around looking for Oscar.  But, as luck would have it, right then an older man and his wife came out of their house.  Could it be Oscar?  Without any other option I walked up to him and asked, “Oscar?”  He paused, started at me for moment too long, and replied, “no.”  Our conversation (in Spanish) then went something like this:

Me: Oscar?
Elderly General Rocian:  No.
Me: Do you know Oscar?
Elderly General Rocian: Oscar so-and-so (naming some last name)
Me: I don’t know his last name.
Elderly General Rocian: Oscar, the very tall man?
Me: I don’t know what he looks like, I only spoke with him on the phone
Elderly General Rocian: Oscar who works at the winerary?
Me: YES!  Yes yes yes!  That Oscar!
Elderly General Rocian: Oh, he lives right down the street.

He pointed to the house down the street – got into his car and drove away.  Standing there, considering the surrealism of the past hour, we walked down to house, which did have a number (the same one Oscar had given me two hours earlier) rang the bell, and lo and behold, we had found Oscar. 

Just as before, Oscar told us to wait a moment, went back into his house, and then came around the corner in his giant pick-up truck.  Things were looking up because his truck had the winery’s logo on the back, and we ran back to our car to follow him to the guesthouse.  More dirt roads lead us back to the main road Google knew, and we were off.  We left the main road and began our journey through seemingly endless vineyards.  They were all identical.  And as we drove further and further our
We were getting close!
concern grew because the plan was to get the guesthouse and then drive ourselves back into town for dinner.  We were told the guesthouse would have some snacks, but not a full meal, (thus the reason to eat first and then meet Oscar) but there was no way could successfully navigate ourselves back to the main road, let alone to go to town and then find the tiny dirt road that lead to the winery.  We reconciled that at least we had some provisions from our previous few days including, what else, some ham, salami, and cheese.  We would make do.

Far away from the main road, and surrounded by grape wines for as far as we could see, Oscar made one more sharp turn and we pulled in to see a gorgeous house situated directly in the middle of a winery.  It looked like the label of a wine bottle.  The small cottage had multiple porches with comfy wooden furniture.  An old barn stood nearby.  As the trees swayed in the breeze the only thing you could hear were the birds chirping.  It was perfect.  And we hadn’t even been inside.

The Guesthouse
Oscar took us inside, and gave us a quick tour.  It was easily the nicest place we had stayed on the trip thus far.  With a full living room, office, and bedroom he invited us to make ourselves at home.  He opened the fridge to reveal the “snacks” that they left for us included 4 delicious quiches, a package of prosciutto, a cheese plate, two giant bowls of fruit, cereal, milk, coffee, tea,  and a full array of drinks – soda, beer, wine, scotch – you name it.  He told us that if we had any problems the care-taker lived just down the road, and that he would return in morning to collect us for the wine tastings and tours.  And just like that, he was gone. 

We quickly took him up on the instructions to make ourselves at home.  With the quiches, cheese, fruit and ham, and some bottles of wine, we set up shop on the porch to watch the sun set.  The spread was impressive, the scenery spectacular, and the wine delicious.  And to top it all off our only other companion, was a super-cute, super-friendly one-eyed dog whom we promptly named Pancho    It was one of those moments when the only thing you would change is to make it never end.

Our super-cute one-eyed pup!  

As the sun went down and we polished off the food and wine we sat on the porch, in the thoughtfully provided heavy ponchos, thinking how great our adventure had worked out.

A dream spread in Neuquén
A perfect sundowner at the winery. 
Day Two
Oscar, as promised, arrived the next morning at 9.  Despite the copious amounts of food in the fridge, he brought a dozen warm medialunas (croissants) and two giant jugs of coffee.   We sat on the porch in disbelief.  It was perfect.  Around ten we began our tour of the first winery, Bodega Chacra.  An American women took us on a tour of the vineyards and the production facility.  The tasting was fun and delicious – if a bit on the early side – as we always drink all the wine in a tasting.  We discussed their biodynamic wine-making techniques which are always interesting to hear about.

Morning at the guesthouse
After that tasting we headed to Bodega Noemìa, another grand prix where we chased Oscar (he in his giant powerful pick-up, and us in our tiny, underpowered Renault) down the highway and over gravel and dirt roads.  The tasting there, unknown to us, was to be over lunch!  After a quick tour of their production facility, including an interesting conversation in their science lab – where they do all the analysis of the wine – we headed to the wine cellar for lunch and the tasting.  Because the winery is in the middle of nowhere, we had no idea what to expect.  But the experience thus far, our expectations were high.  And unsurprisingly, they were exceeded.  Lunch was a full buffet of salads, spreads, and meat.  When we asked where all this food came from, the woman we were touring with explained that it was prepared by the other owner’s personal chef!  As we tasted the wine, and the food – both of course delicious – Han’s partner Noemìa (the other owner of Bodega Noemìa) joined us for lunch.  It was so fun.

The road to Bodega Noemia.
When it was all over we excitedly bought a bottle to remember what a fantastic time we had at the guesthouse and the two wineries.  Then, we drove back to the airport, caught a taxi to the bus station, and boarded our last overnight bus in Argentina as we headed back to Buenos Aires.  Thirteen hours later we were back to our November stomping grounds, with a list of restaurants that we wanted to re-visit to make sure they were as good as we recalled.

Some more photos are below; the rest of the Neuquen photos can be found here:

* The house turned out to offer outstanding value.

** We stayed at De paso Hostel, a very clean hostel run by a really nice couple.  We'd recommend it.  Check out their website, especially the "Why we are?" section.

The warm poncho from the guesthouse.

Jesse playing with our one-eyed pup

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Week Eleven Daily Journal

Don't worry --- we are safely out of Cairo and are now heading to Austria for some skiing!

Friday, December 10
El Bolson, Argentina

We ordered the "five sweets sampler" thinking it'd be dessert.
It was jam.

It was pouring when we woke up so we spent the morning in the cabin and had leftovers for lunch.  Finally we took the car out and drove to the Lago Azul lookout and then hiked up to the Cabeza del Indio, which ended up actually being a rock that looked like a head.  The rain actually stopped while we were there which was a nice surprise, and we finished off the excursion at a cute little teahouse where we had bread, jam and a submarine (a bar of chocolate dropped in hot milk). Later we went to the in-town location of El Bolson Cereveceria and then to dinner at A Punto, which was really good.  We finished up the night at the El Bolson jazz fest and then had some ice cream

Saturday, December 11
El Bolson & Bariloche, Argentina

The beach at Lago Nahuel,
right near our hostel.
Amy and Dustin cooked up delicious eggs benedict for breakfast (we will definitely visit your future b&b!).  After checking out of our cabana, we drove back over towards Lago Puelo.  We parked by a hanging bridge and took a hike along the river.  The trail was not often much of a trail and we did a lot of climbing over fallen trees, scrambling up muddy slopes and ducking under barbed wire fences. It was a nice hike though and we especially enjoyed the picturesque meadow with grazing horses and sheep.  Afterwards Amy and Dustin drove us up to Bariloche (thanks!) and dropped us off at Hostel Patanuk, which had awesome lake views.  We spent the evening sitting on the couch writing blog posts (and then sharing a pasta) at Santos, which had a great atmosphere and good (but not great) food.

Sunday, December 12
Bariloche, Argentina

Chocolate sampler
After a mediocre (D)/bad (J) lunch at Rock Chicken (basically Bariloche fast food), we took the public bus over to Cerro Otto, and took the gondola up to the top.  The views were great but it was freezing and so windy, and the tourist area at the top (complete with rotating restaurant and art gallery featuring a replica of michelangelo's David was beyond touristy.  We decided to hike down instead of take the gondola.  We walked down a bit on the road until we came across the park ranger station and met park ranger diego.  We chatted and shared a mate.  We continued down the road until we reached a refugio.  It wouldn't be open for 10 more days but the people working on it directed us to the trail.  All was going well until we missed a turn and found ourselves in a creepy, silent forest with a human grave (of a guy who had died in august 2010 on his 21st birthday) and a scary abandoned shed.  After half an hour of searching around we finally located the path and were happy to get out alive.  The rest of the hike down was steep but nice, especially the meadow at the bottom.  Later we went into town and sampled some of the chocolate for which Bariloche is famous.  Our favorite - the dark chocolate almond and pistachio clusters from Mamushka.  The worst - the Johnny Walker filled milk chocolate.  I've never seen Dave gag from whiskey before.  That night we went to Butterfly for one of the best meals of our whole Iives.

Monday, December 13
Bariloche, Argentina

Along the route you could stop
and pay to have your photo taken with a St Bernard.
Today we rode the Circuito Chico, the scenic road that wraps around and between lakes and goes by the famous Llao Llao Hotel.  We took the bus to kilometer 18 (our hostel is at km 1) and got off at the bike rental place.  It wasn't until the day was over that we realized we had gone to the wrong bike place (ie not the one we had made a reservation with), oops.  We ended up spending the day with the people renting bikes at the same time - Molly and Rachel, and Dan and Caitlin.  It was a fun day but hard, over 30k with lots of big uphills.  The scenery was gorgeous.  We met up with the group for dinner at a Mexican place and then a drink at an Irish pub, and finally went to bed exhausted.

Tuesday, December 14
Bariloche, Argentina

We decided to take it easy and recuperate after the big bike ride, so after Dave made us some delicious eggs for breakfast we took the bus out to Cerro Campanera.  We had been told it was a 30 minute hike so while our new friends Chewy and Ben took the chairlift up, we decided to tackle it.  It was true that it was short, but it was straight up.  We rewarded ourselves at the top with spectacular views and an amazing piece of apple strudel with whipped cream.  On the hike back down, Dave and i disagreed on which path to take when the trail split, so we each went our own ways.  Needless to say, J made it quickly down to the bottom while D ended up on a totally overgrown trail that dumped him 2k down the road.  JSR!  We took the bus into town and did some errands (bus tickets, supermarket, chocolate) and then headed back to the hostel and cooked a delicious stir fry for dinner.  Then we lay awake until 4:30 am listening to hundreds of Argentine teenagers party and scream outside the club up the block.  Awesome.

Wednesday, December 15
Bariloche, Argentina

We headed out with some people from our hostel to catch the 10am bus to Cerro Catedral, the main ski mountain in Bariloche, for the hike to Refugio Frey.  There ended up being 8 of us hiking together, and it felt like a great accomplishment when we finally reached the Refugio after a dicey river crossing!  After enjoying the delicious chicken sammys we had made and brought and checking out the area near the Refugio we headed back down via an alternate route.  All was well until we reached the bottom (a total 20k hike) and learned we had to hike an additional 3k to get to the bus station.  Ugh!  We enjoyed a much needed empanada while waiting for the bus and when we got  home pretty much just got in bed and watched tv.

Thursday, December 16
Bariloche, Argentina

Today we rented a car to do the famous Siete Lagos drive.  The day started off sunny and the scenery was gorgeous.  We stopped in Villa Angustora for a delicious parilla lunch.  As we continued on the drive the weather got really crappy and the road turned to dirt/gravel.  We stopped in Villa Trafew for a coffee and continued the rest of our drive.  We finally got back to town around 7:30, dropped off the car, shopped around for a backpack and went to dinner at Boliche de Alberto, the pasta restaurant recommended by Tanny and many others.  We had delicious gnocchi and a giant lasagna.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Siete Lagos, or, Lake Overload

The Siete Lagos is a well-known drive through the Argentine Lakes District. 

View Siete Lagos in a larger map

After reading four posts on Bariloche, are you a little bit sceneried-out?  Well, after living those posts, and more, we were feeling the same.  The overcast, threatening weather didn't help.  But, the Siete Lagos was a "must see," and a "can't miss," and it had been a while since we'd enjoyed the freedom of the open road.  So we rented the cheapest car we could find and set out to see some more spectacular views.  Booooooring.

Our Chevy Corsa not only lacked power windows, AC and a radio,
it also lacked POWER STEERING!!!
We were not aware such cars existed anymore.
And we are lucky Dave has such strong manly arms.
There's really not much to say about the trip - the scenery was obviously gorgeous, we ate steak, we stopped at a charming teahouse, it poured rain - so just enjoy some photos below.

The open road, not a car in sight.
All the other people must have looked at the weather forecast.

A very windy self-portrait.

Too much dead cow will make you fat.

Our tasty lunch.
Sitting here in Egypt (the land of rice and pita) writing this post, I am drooling for a delicious jugoso bife de chorizo.

This bridge seems unsafe.

The weather is getting more and more ominous.
A stormy look-out point.

You can see more photos from our Siete Lagos drive  by clicking here.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Refugio Frey or Refugio Heaven

Happy Birthday Howie!!

The view from Refugio Frey

Refugio Frey is iconic among visitors to Bariloche.  A mountain hut situated among impossibly gorgeous scenery on Cerro Catedral (Bariloche's main ski mountain), hikers, trekkers, and even supertrekkers (that would include Dave, but not Jesse) arrange entire vacations to make this hike.

It can be done in one or two days (you can camp or take a dorm bed in the hut, or you can enjoy the comforts of your hostel room, guess which we chose) and it is well worth it.

The hike up passes you over rustic wooden bridges, mountain streams, and endless wild flowers.

Fun bridge crossings

Full, flowing streams
And endless wildflowers
Along the way (or in fact on the bus to the trailhead) we met a number of other hikers who we walked and walked and walked with. Sometimes we hiked quickly, other times, a bit slower (hi Meital) but it didn't matter because with the good company and stunning scenery there was no need to rush.

Our hiking friends Meital and Michal.
(this is actually a celebratory, end-of-the-hike photo,
despite the fact that the bus station was actually another 3 KM down the road) 
After about 4 hours of hiking, including a perilous stream fording with the Refugio in sight, we had finally made it to the top.  And then, basking in the sun, drinking in the scenery, and thinking it couldn't get any better the barmaid came out with a round of icy cold, artisanal keg beer.  Were we are Refugio Frey, or in Refugio Heaven?  It may have been the best I ever had.  When it hit my lips - wow - speechless.
Artisanal beer on tap!  At the top of the mountain!
Supposedly, they bring it up by donkeys.
At the top we hiked around the lake and took some fun photos.  The walk down was still ahead of us.

The hike down took us along a lower route. More gorgeous scenery, including a troop of Chilean boys who ran past us shirtless.  [JLM: Mmmmmmmmmmmm (except for the fat kid pulling up the rear].

Jesse crossing the bridge, with the Chilean crew "patiently" waiting behind her.

The final tally was about ten hours on the trail including a lengthy lunch stop. We estimated it was about 20-25 KM, no supertrek, but hardly shabby.

100% JDMesh recommended.

The rest of the photos can are here, but before you go, here are some maco flower shots: