Dinner in French

St. Emilion was a pleasant place to visit for a couple of days. Wandering the cobbled streets, sketching the view from the high parts of town, tasting wine at one of the more reasonably priced wineries made for a relaxing respite before the next stage of our road trip. We ate and drank well, but were eager to travel on to the Château de Crécy in Romagne, in the Entre-deux-Mers region south of Bordeaux.

Our GPS unit, which had been so cranky on the drive to St. Emilion, got over it and proved to be exactly the tool needed to find our way deep in the French countryside. After the petite village of Romagne the roads grew progressively more obscure. Reinvigorated, the GPS led us straight to the château…well, with one u-turn since we initially sped past the modest drive to the property.

Approaching the entrance, we tried to guess the age of the long, rambling building. Pots of geraniums were clustered along the stonewalled footprint. Shutters and doors were painted in that shade of blue reminiscent of the Mediterranean Sea. Wine barrels striped in white and bright pink delineated the parking area.

As we walked towards what appeared to be the front door of the chambres d’hôtes, a tall, blond woman stepped out to greet us. It was Martine, the owner of the bed and breakfast and the person with whom I had corresponded in the weeks before our arrival. Speaking in French, I introduced Bill and myself. She nodded with a perky smile and responded in that rapid French that leaves me bewildered. “Oh, Madame” I said, “Je parle un peu de français. Répétez moi lentement, s’il vous plait.” The look in her bright eyes expressed understanding and some disappointment as I explained that I spoke little French and needed her to speak more slowly.

Martine nodded and repeated her words, first in French, then in hesitant, careful English. She explained that when she decided to become an innkeeper she started studying English. Almost with one voice we said, “C’est très difficile!” Yes, it is very difficult for adults to learn a foreign language.

The door opened right into the front room or lounge as they referred to it. We felt at ease the moment we walked into the space. Pale gold limestone walls supported the low-beamed ceiling. Bookcases stuffed with well-worn books and intriguing small pieces of art flanked a huge limestone fireplace that anchored the wall to our right. Comfortable looking chairs cozied up to a coffee table.

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Against the back wall stood an ancient cabinet that appeared to house stereo equipment. Next to it an open doorway led into what I suspected by the fragrances wafting into the lounge was the kitchen. A long plank table that appeared to be much older than the house took up most of the left side of the room.

Registration was simple and then Martine ushered us through her office into a hallway and up a very narrow, steep staircase. Our room must be in the attic!

What a surprise when she pushed open the door! The space was light and airy and decorated in cool blues, beiges and whites. There was a definite sense of the Mediterranean in the little collections of shells and sand dollars scattered on the tables and the seascape paintings on the walls.

The reservation included dinner for the two nights of our stay and Martine told us it was served at 6 pm. She added, “Please join us before for a little wine.” After unpacking the few items needed for our short visit to Romagne, we plopped on the soft bed for a nap.

Refreshed, it was time to head downstairs. As it was a cool evening, a fire had been lit in the large fireplace. The coffee table held baskets of crackers and nuts. From the corner by the dining table, a tall multi-branch standing lamp cast an amber light over the room. We felt at home in one of the warmest and most welcoming places we had ever stayed.

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We met Bruno, Martine’s husband, partner in running the bed and breakfast and vintner of the Château de Crécy. He spoke less English than Martine, but the lack of a mutual language did not prevent him from being hospitable and friendly. After he poured us each a glass of white wine, he pointed to the label on the bottle and indicated that this was his own product, made from grapes grown on the estate.

Bill spied an assortment of CDs piled on the cabinet that held the stereo system. He gestured to Bruno, “Jazz?” Bruno grinned and shook his head yes. Soon the two were happily sorting through the disc collection to come up with some pre-dinner music. Their love of music connected the two despite the fact that neither of them understood a word the other was saying.

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As we relaxed before the warmth of the fire, thumbing through a couple of books of French photography, other guests arrived. An SUV pulling a trailer with a very large sailboat pulled into the drive. The woman driver and two middle-aged men hopped out and entered the building. They were all apparently former guests as Martine and Bruno greeted them with kisses on both cheeks.

The three nodded to us and accepted wine from Bruno. I tried to introduce Bill and myself, but my accent may have flummoxed the newcomers. Finally, the woman peered at me with a raised eyebrow and asked, “British?”

“No, Madame, we are American.” To my embarrassment only English words could escape my lips. Madame lifted her shoulders in a little shrug and turned away. Hmm…this could be an awkward dinner.

We climbed back upstairs to change from our traveling clothes to something dressier for dinner. I dug out my French-English phrase book and stuck it in one pocket of my jacket. In the other pocket went my tiny Larousse French dictionary.

At the table, Martine directed each of us to a specific seat. We sat nearest the kitchen and across from a young couple. The three older people we had met earlier were seated a bit down the table. We greeted the young man and woman and were relieved to find they both spoke excellent English. She was from Paris and he from Ireland, but they lived and worked in Brussels. As they introduced themselves in French to the other three who responded with enthusiasm, I sighed. Oh, to be able to converse in this beautiful language! 

Dinner began with the freshest foie gras one could imagine. Both flavor and texture were impeccable…buttery, savory, meaty. Bruno told us with hand gestures that the liver came from one of his home-raised geese.

Our hosts served us a main course of succulent pork roast with roasted vegetables. Throughout the meal we drank the wine Bruno made from grapes grown on the chateau property. Each wine, white, rose or red, complemented the food perfectly.

As appetites became sated, conversation picked up. I put down my fork and listened to the banter. Here and there words were discernable, then phrases. It seemed the topic was the entrance of countries from Eastern Europe into the EU. The young woman across from me noticed my attempt to follow the conversation and pointed that out to the others. Soon everyone was speaking a bit slower and watching to see if I understood what they were saying. At moments of comprehension, I nodded and they smiled and continued to direct the conversation towards me.

After a while, I grasped much of what was being said with the exception of the words spoken by the Irishman. Between his rapid French and his strong Irish brogue, he left me in the lurch whenever he opened his mouth. Fortunately his female companion was gracious about translating.

The lively conversation continued through dessert, a tart, juicy apple cake accompanied by more wine. By now, I was braving a few comments of my own. As we have noted throughout our travels in France, the citizens of that country are very pleased when one attempts to speak their language. They will not hesitate to correct grammar errors, but in the end they are generous with compliments. As we got up from the table the older woman said to me with a warm smile, “Madame, vous parlez français très bien!” How kind of her to say I spoke French very well, when my abilities were sadly deficient!

Smiling back, I replied, “Merci beaucoup, madame, un peu!”

Château de Crécy, Lieu-Dit Jeanmot, 33760 Romagne. +33 (0)5 56 23 68 71

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Relaxing Retreat in St. Emilion, France

Lodging in St. Emilion is expensive, but we found a not too badly priced small hotel for our two-night stay in 2012. Maison de la Commanderie is ideally situated on a narrow street overlooking the central part of town. We were immediately taken with the area around the hotel including the vineyard across the road.

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Parking was available in the free public lot next door.  Two potted plants and a steep step mark the entrance to this boutique hotel. Once inside we found that the lobby felt like a welcoming yet chic living room. The owner, Laurent, greeted us and immediately took charge of our bags, which was a good thing, as our room was located up two flights of a narrow and tall-stepped stairway.

On-line photos often don’t do justice to hotel rooms and this was definitely the case at the Maison de la Commanderie. Our room, Chambre des Ecuyers, was on two levels with a small sitting room and a large modern bath on the lower floor. The sleeping level was up a short flight of stairs to the loft. The décor was sexy, with touches of purple and lavender, light fixtures dripping crystals and an interesting mix of antique and ultra-sylish furnishings.

The bed was super-comfortable with luxury linens and ample lighting for reading. It was nice to have a spacious bathroom with an up-to-date standing shower and all the amenities one could want…shampoo, conditioner and fancy soap.

Breakfast was a delight, out of this world pastries baked by the owner served with jams and jellies lovingly prepared by his mother. We enjoyed sitting at the long table in front of the ancient limestone hearth. Laurent charmed us with his friendly and easy-going manner. He was very helpful with suggestions about restaurants and not to be missed sights in the town.

Free Wi-Fi with a good signal was available in our room and in the lobby.

All in all, a relaxing and restful place to stay and if we return to St. Emilion we would book here again.

Maison de la Commanderie, 3 bis rue Porte Brunet 33330 Saint Emilion, France. 

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Dreaming of the Perfect French Meal

I am planning a dinner party and part of the process involves scanning cookbooks, magazine and on-line resources for recipes. But, none of the written lists of ingredients and detailed instructions capture for me the essence of my favorite meals.

Thinking about some of the meals we ate during our last trip to France in 2012, one aspect that they had in common was the use of fresh, local ingredients, prepared simply, but served with style. We’d come away from a meal in St. Emilion or Bordeaux or Paris feeling that the chefs had done their very best to make us feel cherished as diners. Eating French food one really feels the love that went into the preparation. That realization gives me an inkling of what I need to do to create a menu that I hope will make our guests feel the same way.

In St. Emilion one of our very best meals was at Le Giron’ Dines. We arrived just about half an hour before closing, but no matter. The delightful hostess assured us, “Pas de probleme!” It would not a problem for them to serve us a three-course lunch late in the day.

IMG_1235Our meal began with a salad of very young baby greens, just plucked from the garden at the back of the café. Accompanying the salad was a gently roasted red pepper, not really a surprise, as one tastes many of the flavors of Spain in southern France.

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Our main course was duck breast, cooked to   crispy-skin, succulent-meat, pink-in-the-middle perfection. The duck breast nestled on a bed of quickly sautéed vegetables that included one of my favorites, sliced fennel. The fried potatoes that finished off the course were amazing, delicately crunchy on the outside and feather light inside.

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For dessert we ordered a dense dark chocolate cake accompanied by a spoonful of salted caramel gelato. Heavenly combination!

We decided to splurge on an after lunch drink and ordered glasses of liquor wine, listed on the menu as a favorite of Thomas Jefferson. Whether or not this is true, the flavor was extraordinary, full of fruit and just sweet enough. We are not usually fans of dessert wine, but we would drink this again and again. And, of course, they served us a complimentary cheese course!

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The menu for our next dinner party may not be as elaborate as the food served by the charming ladies of Le Giron’ Dines, but it will include fresh ingredients prepared with love.

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GPS or Bust

In 2012, we were eager to explore the region of France east and south of the city of Bordeaux. Checking our favorite on-line travel sites, we discovered a bed and breakfast on the outskirts of the village of Romagne. It was situated in a vineyard in a rural area far from major towns. In their confirmation email, the owner stressed, “You will require GPS navigation to find us!”

Taking the admonition to heart, just before we left for Europe we purchased an inexpensive Garmin GPS unit. Neither of us had used GPS before, relying instead on auto club maps in the states and Michelin maps in Europe. We decided to test out the device on the drive from Bordeaux to St. Emilion, our first stop before Romagne. We had a map of the area, but this seemed like a good place to get some practice before heading south later in the week.

Before leaving the parking lot of the rental car agency in Bordeaux, I plugged the Garmin into the power outlet and turned it on. It took a while for it to download maps of France, but no matter. The rental car attendant was educating Bill about the operation of our car. This trip we rented a Citroen Picasso that must have been designed by someone in the spacecraft industry as the controls looked nothing like any car we had ever driven. As Bill speaks just a little French and the attendant spoke no English, it was a lengthy training session.

Just as Bill decided he was ready to say au revoir to his trainer, the GPS revealed a screen where I could type in the address for the Maison de la Commanderie, the boutique hotel where we would be staying in St. Emilion. A map of our immediate area popped up on the screen. A female voice with an English accent mispronounced the street we were to turn onto, but no matter. We could see the first street sign from the rental car lot.

We trundled across the bridge over the Garonne River and merged onto the highway towards St. Emilion. Traffic was swift, but light. At the beginning of November, the vineyards were green-gold. Hues of scarlet and orange crowned the trees. We drove with windows down catching whiffs of acrid smoke from burning leaves. It was a perfect day for a road trip.

For many miles, our GPS unit was silent as we sped along towards the wine country. Two hours or so into our trip, the Garmin began issuing frequent commands. “Take the first exit on this roundabout! Rue St. Germaine!” “Take the third exit on that roundabout! Boulevard St. Pierre!”

Sometimes it took the GPS device so long to spit out the road name that we had to whiz around the roundabout more than once. After years of driving in France we were used to that. Roundabouts are a bit like a car-driven merry-go-round. Round and round and round we went! The GPS wasn’t so sanguine. At every missed turn that British voice snarled, “Recalculating!”

The road narrowed as we wound through countryside of sunlit hills and shade-dappled valleys. Neat rows of grapevines disappeared into the horizon. We slowed through tiny villages where stone houses clustered around barrel filled warehouses. Farm vehicles lumbered onto the highway forcing us to drop speed.

Finally, the GPS instructed us to turn onto a road that was bounded by high limestone walls on either side. In the distance we could see a church tower, but otherwise our view was limited to asphalt and stone. After a half-mile or so we emerged from the walls and found ourselves at yet another roundabout. “Take the second exit!” directed the Garmin. We could see that it led straight into the parking area of a commercial building.

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“That can’t be right!” we both muttered and kept driving around the roundabout. On our next circuit, Bill took the first exit. This road led us away from town and back to the countryside and to a dirt track that looked like someone’s driveway. We ignored the Garmin’s cries of “Recalculating! Recalculating!” and found our way back to the start of the limestone walled road.

There was no spot to pull over to peruse our map, so at the roundabout Bill took the first exit again to give me time to figure out the route. I hurriedly studied the Michelin map. “Take the third exit this time! It looks like that road leads to the far side of town. We can park somewhere there and walk to our hotel.”

Back down the limestone road, to the roundabout and out the third exit we went. Garmin shrieked, “Recalculating, recalculating, recalculating!” I ripped out the power plug.

Our new road did lead us to the other side of St. Emilion. We clattered to a stop in a rock-strewn parking lot on the outskirts of the town. Nearby, I glimpsed what looked like a gate, very narrow and overhung with creepers at the nearest side of the lot. An ironwork door sagged from one side. A rusty-brown arrow-shaped sign with white lettering stated: “Centre-Ville.” Bill combed his beard with his fingers and grimaced, “There’s no way we’re going to make it through that gate!”

I had to agree. We were driving a full-size Citroen and even though it was slim for an American car it was a behemoth by French standards. At the far end of the parking lot was a wide alley that also appeared to lead in the general direction of the Centre Ville or center of town. We saw no other entrance into the town proper. Bill shifted back into drive and crept towards the alley.

A middle-aged couple jumped in front of the Citroen, waving their arms. “Non, non monsieur!” We gaped at them. The gentleman rushed to the driver-side window. With hand gestures, he indicated that what we took to be an alley was actually a broad, but steep stairway!

I held up the map showing the circled location of our hotel. The man thrust a finger in the direction of the gate, “La, c’est la!” We were dubious, but the man nodded vigorously and his wife joined in.

We murmured, “Merci beaucoup, madame, monsieur!” Cheeks ablaze, we slid down a bit in our seats. I crammed the GPS device into its carrying case and shoved it into the glove box. Bill backed up and crawled through the gate. It was a tight fit, but our car squeezed through without scraping. We noticed that the gate while very narrow was quite tall.

Parking in the first lot we came to, we sat for a moment, catching our breaths. Then we both began laughing so hard the car shook. On foot, using our map and seat of the pants rather than GPS navigation we found the four-room hotel where we would spend the next few days.

In chatting with the strapping blond owner, we discovered that one wall of the ancient building dated to the 14th century. In that era our hotel had been the home of the knight of the town. Now the tall, narrow gate made sense. A perfect entry for a knight on a charger!

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Ancient St. Emilion is a town made for walking, not driving. We left the car parked for several days and explored the winding, cobblestoned streets on foot. Our GPS device remained in the car…resting up for the trip to Romagne.

Maison de la Commanderie 3 bis rue Porte Brunet, 33500 Saint-Emilion, France. Tel.  +33 5 57 24 26 59.

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Another Reason to Love the French

Upon arriving in Paris in October of 2012, my husband Bill and I immediately transferred to a flight to Bordeaux. We had visited that lovely southern French city in 2009 and were eager to spend more time there.

One of the male flight attendants welcomed me on board with a friendly twinkle in his eye. As I arranged my belongings I chuckled, “How nice to have a man other than my husband pay such attention to me!”

After we reached altitude, the attendant sauntered to our row near the front of the plane. “Madame, it is good to see you again. How are you?” he asked. I was nonplussed at first. I studied the handsome, blue-eyed, dark-haired man who possessed that urbane air typical of Frenchmen of a certain age.

“Quite well, thank you. We’re very happy to be on our way to Bordeaux.” I paused then as a memory flashed before me, “We have met before, haven’t we?”

He smiled again. “Yes, madame, I recall that you and your husband were on my flight a few years ago. I fly this route regularly and I remember certain passengers.”

Memories of the mild flirtation we engaged in on the previous flight drifted into focus. We began a similar banter. He was interested that we were returning to Bordeaux for another tourist visit. We exchanged stories of favorite places in that city. I kept thinking, “Isn’t it about time for Bill to go to the lavatory?”

But, the flight was short and Bill was also enjoying the occasional conversation with our attendant. I couldn’t help smiling at the little glow this Frenchman’s gallantry had lit in me.

The flight over the French countryside to Bordeaux is one of my favorites. I feel like I am flying over a patchwork quilt of greens and browns embroidered with tiny roads and petite villages and thumb-size castles. Fluffy clouds look like tufts of cotton batting escaping from the quilt.

As one approaches Bordeaux the countryside changes a bit. The fabric of the landscape changes to corduroy rows of vineyards and orchards. Soon a silvery ribbon appears, twisting and tangling through the verdant fields. From directly overhead, the silver melts away to reveal the milky silt-laden Garonne River.

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This year we reserved a hotel room near the center of the city. I couldn’t resist booking at the Hotel Sainte Catherine, just off the Boulevard Sainte Catherine. Dropped off by our taxi at the edge of the pedestrian zone, we walked the short distance through the shopping district to the hotel. We found our room to be up-to-date and stylish with what used to be uncommon in France…a huge, modern bathroom equipped with an enormous walk-in shower. Fluffy towels, high-end toiletries and a hair dryer ensured we’d have nearly everything we needed during our stay.

As we unpacked our very small suitcases, I made a list of a few things we needed to purchase in Bordeaux. First on my shopping list was a curling iron. This trip I was not planning to suffer bad hair days.

A couple of days into our 2009 trip the temperature skyrocketed and the humidity rose with it. I was frantic to swoop my lank, sticky hair off my neck and into a ponytail. Somehow I had arrived in Europe without a single elastic hair band. Alas, in France, it is not obvious where one can buy such a thing.

We wasted hours searching for hair accessories throughout the downtown shopping district. Finally, in a boutique nestled down a side street, I located a silk-covered elastic band. Adorned with a mother-of-pearl ornament, the band was much more fashionable than the plain one I sought. But it held my hair back just fine. For our 2012 trip, I packed plenty of hair bands, but left my curling iron at home.

Based on that shopping experience, I knew that we wouldn’t find hair products, much less a curling iron, at a cosmetic store, a pharmacy, a perfume shop, a department store or a grocery market. So where do French women buy curling irons?

Downstairs I started to ask the front desk clerk for advice but stopped short. Would a woman who wore her hair casually tousled in a way that whispered, “I spent my two hour lunch cavorting with my…hmmm…sexy flight attendant boyfriend” even need a curling iron?

And how does one say curling iron in French anyway? Maybe while we rambled the nearby shopping area we’d run into a store that carried curling irons.

As it turned out there was a beauty supply store just a few blocks away. We could see through the window that it seemed to be stocked with all manner of hair care appliances and products.

Bill and I entered the store and spotted just inside the door a shelf stacked with many different brands of curling irons. Success! This was so easy! I called out “Bonjour, Madame, Monsieur!” to the two people standing near the counter.

As I studied one of the wealth of choices, the shop girl clattered over to me in her four-inch heels. “Non, Madame, trop chaud!” I must have looked puzzled. She repeated herself, shaking her curly head and appearing quite anxious. Finally, I got it. To Bill, I murmured, “She is saying it is too hot!” I tapped another box. She shook her head.

Finally, I screwed up my courage, “Avez-vous un autre? Pour moi? Pas professionel?” I figured out that the curling irons on the shelf were for stylists and so thought that by asking for something that wasn’t for professionals she would lead me to the curling iron I needed.

She wrinkled her pretty brow and called to the manager at the register. He strolled over to assess our situation. It appeared that he had dealt with this request before. “Oui, madame, tous ceux ci sont trop chaud pour vous!” He waved his arms to take in all of the merchandise.  “C’est tout pour stylists professionels!”

Now I understood. All of the curling irons were too hot for me. This was a shop for professional stylists only. They stocked nothing they would trust me to use. The gentleman folded his well-manicured hands at his trim waist, tilted his head to one side and gave me a sad smile.

He read the dismay on my face, because he turned back to the counter, gesturing for me to follow. He scribbled a name on a pad of paper and held it out to me. I read what he had written. Apparently there was a Carrefours supermarche nearby and there I could find a curling iron suited to my styling skills. “Merci, Monsieur, je comprends.” It felt smart to say I understood his note.

The manager took me by the elbow and led us to the doorway. He pointed first at the tram pulling away from the stop outside the door, then down the street and held up three fingers. Only three stops! I smiled and nodded. He wrote the stop names on the slip of paper and handed it to me with a flourish.

I thanked him for his kindness. He responded with a slight lift of his shoulders. “De rien! It is nothing!” As the manager held open the door for us, I glanced back at him and caught the twinkle in his eyes.

Ah, Frenchmen!

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Hotel Sainte Catherine is now the Quality Hotel Bordeaux Centre, 27, rue du Parlement Sainte Catherine, Bordeaux, France, 33000. Tel. +33 (0) 5 56 81 95 12

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Update to: Luggage Woes and a Solution

I posted this blog in 2012 before we left for a seven week trip to France, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. I thought I should share our experience with these suitcases. It was pretty much a disaster…no matter how we rearranged clothes and shoes in the bags, they continually tipped over. We struggled with them through train stations and along cobbled streets. When we got home, we returned them to Macy’s for a full refund. This next trip we’ll be using our older TravelPro two wheel bags. Those have been a success on many domestic trips, so fingers crossed they’ll do the job for our seven-week trip to France and England this spring!

Tonight, I am checking off some of the last tasks on our agenda before our flight to Paris in about sixty hours and the start of a seven week vacation in Europe. Seems like we always have more to do than time available, but we are not yet in panic mode. The fact that we finished about 75% of our packing helps a lot. The suitcase thing had us stymied for a while. With Bill’s torn meniscus still healing, it seemed prudent to travel with lighter luggage and less clothes. Our friends see us as very light travelers, but a long autumn into winter vacation makes maintaining that reputation a challenge. Winter clothes are bulky and we need a few extra items for the expected cold weather, such as snow boots, scarves, gloves, hats and long underwear all of which take up space and add pounds.

So, we started by purchasing light weight hard-sided polycarbonate bags by one of the big names in the luggage business. We hoped we could get away with two pieces of luggage, a twenty-inch carry-on bag and a checked twenty-five inch bag. The idea was to split our clothes between the two so that in the unlikely event that the large checked bag was lost in route we’d still have things to change into when we arrive in Bordeaux on Tuesday.

These first bags were super light-weight, but fully packed they felt flimsy. The two halves of the larger bag sagged away from each other straining the zipper.  The handles on both bags were too far from the center which felt awkward and the pull handle on the smaller bag was balky at times, not always locking in place securely.

Our itinerary includes five rail trips and I expect to be the one hefting the luggage aboard trains at most stations. Loaded with only Bill’s clothing the larger bag weighed in at twenty-three pounds. By the time he packed his snow boots and I added my clothes and shoes we figured the bag would weigh twice that. There is no way I can or want to lift more than thirty pounds, so between the flaw in our basic concept and the unsatisfactory construction of the two bags, we decided to return them and come up with another solution.

Back to the store and we headed for our favorite brand, good old Travelpro. They now offer a very lightweight soft-sided spinner. At twenty-one inches, the WalkAbout Spinners are a tad large for carry-on luggage, but we planned to check at least one bag anyway so we are okay with checking two. We grabbed a couple of these plus a two-wheeled carry-on tote to hold the essentials for our first night. Based on where we are now with packing, it looks like these three bags plus a nylon soft tote for scarves, hats and gloves will do the job for us.

The Travelpro bags are heavier than the polycarbonate hard-sided luggage, but they are really sturdy which is the reason we have stayed with this brand for so many years. The material is durable and water repellant, the wheels seem robust and one very nice feature is that there are three handles, one on the side, another on the top and a third on the bottom. I expect that will make handling the luggage much easier.

Note that I am not compensated in any way for offering my opinion on Travelpro luggage, but I am very happy to share my experience with these bags!

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