Smiling in Paris

European Trip Friday May 18

We woke up and packed our bags again, and decided to take the car to the bus area outside of Venice where we had noticed a parking garage so that we could head out to our next destination as soon as we were done in Venice. My intention was to buy some souvenirs/ gifts for family, and perhaps buy something made of Murano glass for us. We took the water taxi to the Rialto Bridge, on the way, we saw the early morning work of the city, trash barges, supply boats being unloaded, etc.  And of course, more beautiful ancient buildings along the canals:

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and then walked through the streets to San Marco Square, mostly window shopping.


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San Marco Square:

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At San Marco Square, we realized that we could go to the Arsenale area of Venice and see the boats and the old fortification of the city. So, we set off walking in that direction:




The races were scheduled to start at 2:00 pm, and we decided we were not going to stay for the races, but we had a great time looking at the boats and the small harbor where the boats are moored. We saw some of the large yachts belonging to the boat owners on the way.



We made our way back to the Rialto Bridge, where the bridge shops were open, and bought a few items. Sheldon ducked into a store quickly, and handed me a wrapped box that I later opened and found was a beautiful pair of earrings made from coral colored Murano glass beads in the shape of grape clusters.

It was upsetting to see so much graffiti in both Vienna and Venice, defacing these beautiful areas.

We finally got out of the city about 2 pm, headed towards Florence.

The drive was lovely, but I found myself dozing off every half hour due to having to take medicine for shingles pain. The sky was overcast with some drizzly rain, so the views were limited. Once we got to the Florence area, we realized that the hotel we selected was not too near Florence, but about an hour north in the Tuscan foothills. We arrived at the hotel outside Barga and parked on the narrow road outside the gates. A gentleman greeted us and we went inside the gates to check in. The hotel was spectacular. The original building was a stone building that had been used as a hotel with 2 guest rooms. Even the staircase was rough hewn rock.  The newer part of the hotel was built up the hill in stages, with the last stage being the top floor with a conference center and spa area.

After we checked in, we were shown where to park and the gentleman who had greeted us at the gate brought a golf cart and ferried our bags. This fellow reminded me of Jerry Lewis in his younger slapstick days, he kept saying ‘I’m sorry” and dropping things like our luggage and bumping into us in the elevator and getting into the room. We had a lovely balcony outside of our room overlooking a serene Tuscan valley.

We freshened up and went to dinner, which was served in the original building. The waiter had a pretty fair knowledge of English and served us a very nice local wine with dinner. There weren’t too many guests at the hotel, so dinner was quiet. Toward the end of our meal, another table in the room was filled with more English speaking guests.

Smiling in Paris

European Trip Thursday May 17th

We spent the morning touring the gardens at Shoenbrunn Castle, acres and acres of paths, statues hedges, and sculptured gardens. The gardens are open to the public and we saw lots of joggers, walkers and tourists. There is a structure on the hill above the gardens below which is a fountain that takes up about an acre. The size and proportion of these gardens was immense and hard to describe. We walked for quite a while without retracing our steps.


















We spent the rest of day driving from Vienna to Venice, still enjoying beautiful scenery of Italian mountains.


It shouldn’t have taken all day, but halfway to Venice, the check engine light came on again, so we called the European service department. The customer service skills of the service people can use some polishing, as the woman on the phone asked Sheldon, “What have you done to the car?” We found out that there was a service station about 50 kilometers behind us in Graz where we could take the car, so we turned around and went back. When we got there, the place was closed so we waited for a while and then called the Mercedes service number again. We were told the dealer is closed because it was a bank holiday, but the service person was on the way and should arrive any time. When he arrived, he ran the diagnostics on the car and found that the car believed there had been a loss of pressure in the fuel line but there was no evidence that this had actually happened in the fuel system itself. So, we concluded that the check engine light was not a serious issue and we could carry on with our vacation and get it taken care of later.

Due to the detour, we did not arrive at our hotel outside of Venice until 5:30 pm, but we found out the bus came by the hotel every 30 minutes and we could buy a bus/waterbus ticket good for 24 hours. We dropped off our bags and headed into Venice. At first, we had no idea where we wanted to go in the city, but once we arrived and started walking, Sheldon saw the signs for the Piazza San Marco and the Rialto bridge. Since we were there so late, we walked extremely fast to get to these places before dark. The light falling on the city from the sun low in the sky was beautiful, and even though I was walking fast, I still managed to take a lot of photographs of one lovely Venice scene, bridge or square after another.







Once we got to Piazza San Marco, we worked our way back to the Rialto Bridge and found a cafe and had some dinner. The night was slightly chilly, but it was beautiful. During our walk through the city, we saw that the America’s Cup races were currently being held in Venice, and while we were having dinner, one of the British news crews sat next to us and we had a nice discussion with them.

After dinner, we took a night gondola ride from the Grand Canal through some smaller canals. It was quiet and peaceful and beautiful. The gondolier would call out at intersections to make sure nobody was traveling the cross canal.

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We opted for the water bus ride back to the bus station and took the land bus back to the hotel.

Smiling in Paris

Europe trip May 17- Venice eye candy

I am posting a bunch of pictures because there were so many beautiful ones!
The bridge from the bus station into the city- my first glimpse of Venice!
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One of the 423 bridges of Venice:

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In this one you can see a gondolier leaning on the rail next to his boat:

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The gondolas were all very 'tricked out'- lavish seating, gold painted details, a vase of roses. You can see some grafitti on the wall- one of the things that made me sad in this lovely city.

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One of the wider streets: More grafitti...

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It is difficult to appreciate the different colors of marble in this picture- there should be better ones in later blogs- it was breathtaking!

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Smiling in Paris

Europe trip Wednesday May 16

We woke up and had breakfast in the lobby- the food was plentiful and good. We had planned this trip to stay at hotels we are familiar with such as Courtyard, that way we are assured of a minimum quality and a possibility that someone may speak English. So far, even with non-English speaking people, we have been able to communicate pretty well. Sheldon had spent some time having the Mercedes technician come to the hotel and look at the car while we were out, getting hold of the service people in Austria was a bit frustrating. The weather was grey and overcast with a bit of rain. We decided to tour Schornbrunn Castle http://www.schoenbrunn.at/en.html 

which was about a block from our hotel, and then take the on/off tour bus around the city.

We weren’t able to take pictures inside the castle, but we have some of the outside. It was a cold damp day, clouds threatening.
This is a photo of the wooden floor tiles in the foyer of the castle:

There is such an abundance of wood in Austria that there are lots of things made of wood that you wouldn't expect.
More pictures of the castle:









After touring the castle we got on the tour bus. We got off the bus at the Vienna Opera house and then took a different tour bus on the circle tour of the Vienna area including crossing the Danube river. The bus was equipped with headphones (in several languages) so we could learn about the history of the places we were driving by. It was quite interesting, and a good way to stay dry and warm while learning about this beautiful city.
The outside of the Vienna Opera house:

Outside of the Opera House were men dressed in Renaissance-era type clothes, trying to seel seats (cheap!) to the opera. We declined the opera...and the symphony...and the other offers. We weren't sure what we would feel like doing later.

Building details from the bus:







The famous Vienna ferris wheel:

Close up of one of the cars- each car holds about 30 people:

St. James' Cathedral outside of Vienna:


After arriving back at the Opera house, we walked around the downtown shopping area, and stopped for lunch at a little restaurant down a side street. I bought a lovely scarf for myself and a couple of items as gifts. After we had lunch, we went to a little coffee shop for coffee and pastries.


It was great to people watch and get a feel for the downtown area. There was quite a mix of old and new. The St. Steven's cathedral was in the downtown area and is surrounded by new buildings. The building was surrounded by scaffolding and there was canvas covering the face of the cathedral. On the canvas was painted the picture of the wall underneath so from a distance it was difficult to tell that the wall was not showing. I'm glad they did that because it would have been a dissapointment not to have at least a sense of what the lovely carved stone looked like.

We then went back to the opera house and took some more pictures of the Opera House:
The foyer!!:
Then we caught the bus back to the castle, by then it was raining quite hard and we opted to have a quiet evening at the hotel. Dinner in the lobby restaurant was good and it was nice to relax a little bit. We called the Austrian Mercedes service person again, and she told Sheldon that the car had been repaired. Then it was early to bed to leave for Venice the next morning.

Smiling in Paris

Europe Trip Tuesday May 15

We went to breakfast in the sunny conservatory room. The choices were too many to list, but I had a croissant with fresh strawberry jelly and a large plate of fresh fruit. They had several different juices- I chose apple, pear, carrot, and orange which was really delicious. They brought “fresh delicious Austrian coffee” to the table and we enjoyed our breakfast amid the spectacular view. It reminded us of our stay at the Ahwanee hotel in Yosemite where we stayed for a night a few years ago and were able to have breakfast while watching Yosemite Falls, and of the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire nestled at the base of spectacular Mount Washington. This was a similar experience of being nestled in such grandeur. Later on, while we were packing to leave, I saw a brochure in the room for a time share type of plan where one would visit the ‘Grand Hotels’ around the world. I feel so lucky to have experienced this wonderful place and hope I get the chance to return some day.

After breakfast, we wandered around the grounds and took some photographs and talked about our next stop on our big tour! Vienna!!
Me taking photos after breakfast:

We set the navigation system for Vienna, and headed down the mountain. As we got further down into the valley, the mountaintops became hazier and hazier. I am glad we had the views from the top, because the views from the valley, although spectacular, had a certain distant haze. Once into the valley, we hit the autobahn and headed east. Mid-morning, we decided to abandon the autobahn and take the more scenic route through the mountains. This allowed us to travel at low speed through one quaint town after another. The little Alpine villages all had common themes: incredible churches dominating the center of town, large sprawling homes with lots of wood beams and wood decks, colorful flowers planted in flowerboxes along the decks and beautiful architecture. Many of the homes had elaborate painting done around the windows and on the walls, and many also had names: Jan’s Haus, Stephan’s Haus, etc.
A typical village on our drive:

Once we were out of the mountains and into the valley, we were able to drive on the Autobahn. Austria had more tunnels through the mountains than we could count- an amazing engineering feat. Travel must have been extremely slow prior to the tunnels, sine the only way to get from place to place would have been over the mountains through the passes. I drove for part of the day, getting to drive the new car was great!

We stopped at an Austrian rest stop for lunch, the food was served cafeteria style and there was a huge selection. We took our trays outside and enjoyed watching a little bird come to the table begging for scraps. I fed him a couple of pieces of bread, and the next thing we knew, we were swarmed with little birds begging. Sheldon got up to use the men’s room, and the birds jumped right up on to the table to see if they could find food on his tray- it didn’t seem to matter to them that I was sitting 2 feet away!
More mountains on our drive:

View from the passenger's seat:



One of the towns we stopped in along the way:



During our drive, the ‘check engine’ light came on in the car, so we spent some time trying to reach the Mercedes European hotline in order to find somewhere to take the car. We ended up contacting the American European delivery center and found out that the European hotline is not able to be called from an American cell phone. We finally reached someone when we got to the hotel in Vienna. The hotel we stayed in was outside of the center of the city near Schoenbrunn Castle.

We got ourselves settled into our room, then took off to walk around the area and look for a place to have dinner. We ended up finding a place called Wienerwald which looked to be the Austrian equivalent of a Denny’s. The food was really bad and when Sheldon used the men’s room, he said it was incredibly filthy. After the Interalpin, it was quite a disappointment.

Smiling in Paris

Europe trip Monday May 14


Picking up the Mercedes and drive to Interalpen.

We had breakfast at the hotel- surprisingly good croissants, fresh fruit, espresso. There were lots of meat options for Sheldon and non-meat options for me. I kept an extra orange for the road and we packed and waited for our cab driver to take us to the factory. He arrived a few minutes early which was good because Sheldon had started trying to text him at about 8:45. Between Sheldon’s basic German and the driver’s few words of English, we were able to make it to the factory. The weather was perfect, sunny with a slight breeze and temperature in the 60s.

We arrived at the factory at 9:35 and waited for a few minutes until an English speaking service person was ready to process our car. While waiting we had a “Mercedes cocktail” – a juice mix consisting of mostly grapefruit juice. We took a stroll through the gift shop where we bought matching Mercedes windproof fleece jackets.

When we were called over to the desk, the first thing she asked was for us to give her our receipt of order. I searched through all the papers I had been sent and did not have it. She gave us a very disappointed expression and said “Dat is ok, I will get a copy.” When she came back with the copy, we thanked her, and she said “Of course, that is not as it should be, but we now have vat we need”. She then sent us to wait in the customer observation area, where we could overlook the garage where deliveries to customers are made. We spotted our car immediately and tool some pictures. Our car is at the far left:



There was a lounge with coffee, pastry, fruit and snacks. There were cool stools with the Mercedes logo on the foot rests:




Many locals were there- the locals bring their license plates with them to pick up their new car and then just drive out. One of the reasons we had to wait was for a courier to bring our license plates from the German equivalent of a DMV. We watched several people getting their cars: a Mom with 3 kids getting a van (3 car seats!), several people getting Smart cars, and many people looking like this wasn’t their first Mercedes.
Smart car delivery area:

It was a pretty big deal to us. Another English speaking assistant came and explained the numerous features of the car. She also took a picture of us with our car, I guess we weren’t the first customers who wanted that- she grabbed her camera and had took the shots and had hard photos back to us in about 90 seconds.

The on board computer system is incredible. It will take me a lot of time to learn to use it. The explanations and questions took long enough the we missed the English language factory tour, so we decided to take advantage of the free lunch voucher that we were given in our package. We had a very nice lunch and even sampled a glass of local red wine. Most of the local wines are varieties that are unfamiliar to me, but the wine was a nice light red.

Then we were on the road:

Next stop was the Interalpen Hotel in Telfts Austria. This hotel is a 5 star resort nestled in the Alps. Part of our European delivery package was a free night at a hotel. We had numerous hotel choices, including hotels in Stuttgart that we could have used Sunday night, but we chose to use the free night on the night after getting the car instead. We set our destination in the on-board navigation system and headed out. We stopped at the Austrian border and bought a 10 day pass for driving in Austria, which is required. The drive to the hotel was one spectacular view of mountains and villages after the other. Sheldon did the driving which gave me the opportunity to enjoy the scenery.

Arriving at the hotel, the garage entrance was a little confusing, we parked the car and started to walk into what looked like the lobby when we realized that it was not a lobby, but a spot to drop off luggage and have the valet park the car.



Our luggage was loaded onto a luggage cart and we went up the elevator to the lobby and checked in. The hotel was built in the grand hotel tradition with sweeping wings and large open common areas, but with modern amenities and modern building techniques, since it was built only 27 years ago. Our ‘room’ consisted of a foyer, a bathroom with a soaking tub, shower, double sinks and a private toilet area. Further down the hall was a ‘changing room’ with closets and a twin sized bed. The main room had a large bed, a seating area and a table area. The balcony overlooked the back grounds of the hotel and the vistas of the mountains.
Bathroom:

Large room:

Changing room:

View from the road on the way up the mountain to the hotel:

View from the balcony:

The desk clerk had encouraged us to use the spa area, so we put on our bathing suits, our spa robes and slippers and headed down to the spa. There were relatively few people there for the number of rooms, and we found our way with assistance to the ‘salt pool’, a pool kept at body temperature and salty. The attendant requested we wear no bathing suits in the pool, so off went the suits as we descended the steps into the pool. If you lie back in this pool and let your head fall back so that your ears are underwater slightly, they play whale songs under the water. The room is cave like and dimly lit. It was very refreshing for us.

Afterward, we made our way to the large solarium room at the spa and sat on lounge chairs for a few minutes enjoying the view of the trees.

Then, time for the 5 course dinner included in the package for the hotel. The first course was the salad bar with incredible choices of fresh greens, fruits, nuts and a display of about 50 different cheeses. The bread choices were beautiful, ranging from hard black bread rolls to light airy croissants. An assortment of yogurts, salads and pastries were also displayed. Of course, it was hard to choose, but we managed! The second course was a choice of a fish cake or chicken breast. I had the fish cake, a piece of fish about 1 inch oblong served very artfully with a white rounded piece of something resembling a small block of tofu. I asked the waiter and he said it was buttermilk. I took a small bite of it and it was quite yummy but passed on any more than a small taste since I don’t normally eat dairy foods. Course three was the soup- a mushroom broth or a cucumber crab cream soup. I had the mushroom and Sheldon had the cream soup. We had ordered water, and a bottle of mineral water was brought and our glasses kept filled by the waiter. Sheldon ordered a glass of wine and had the waiter bring the chef’s choice for his main meal. The main course was veal for Sheldon and asparagus for me. The asparagus was several thick white asparagus cooked to a perfect consistency served with a garnish of carrots. Delicious. The servings were very small, but perfect. I remembered the 5 course dinner I cooked a couple of years ago and realized that I should have had a much smaller serving size for that many courses. Finally, we were brought the final course, I had a lemon sorbet with a chocolate torte and Sheldon had kiwi and tonka fruit with sauce. The waiter then invited us to sample the cheese bar but we passed and walked around the lobby for a few minutes, then headed to our room to bed. A long beautiful day!

Smiling in Paris

Europe Trip Sunday May 13

As we headed towards Europe, I sensed that there was light out the window, so I lifted the shade to a spectacular and fast motion sunrise- somehow traveling towards the sunrise at 600 miles per hour makes it happen a lot faster! Breakfast on the plane was pretty much the same as dinner- steamed vegetables, a roll and applesauce. We flew over the North Sea and as we had a long descent I was able to watch the barges going all different directions and several windmill farms as we continued east. Flying over the Netherlands, the countryside is criss-crossed with hundreds of canals, and the farms had incredible stripes of colored flowers interspersed with brilliant green grass. Landing was smooth, and we deplaned to catch our next flight to Stuttgart 1 hour later. Sheldon seemed very hurried to get to our next gate which was all the way across the airport. I thought an hour was plenty of time, but I am glad we didn’t dawdle. We made steady progress from one side of the terminal to the other, and since we had to go through a passport check, we made it to the gate just in time to board the flight. I was able to look out the window at some more spectacular countryside during the flight.

Once we landed in Stuttgart, we made our way to baggage claim and out of the airport. We found a taxi that would use our pre-paid voucher to take us to the hotel. The driver knew very little English and Sheldon’s high school German came in quite handy. At the hotel, the driver asked us if we needed a ride to the Mercedes factory in the morning, and we said yes. He asked what time and Sheldon told him to come at 9. I kept saying come at nine, which seemed to confuse the driver. Sheldon told me I was saying “no”, not “nine”, which in German is noin. (I think I should let Sheldon do all the talking in Germany).

At the hotel, it was nap time. Our bodies were telling us it was 3 am. After about a 3 hour nap, we headed out to find some dinner. We found an Italian restaurant called The Flying Ship. It struck us as funny to find an Italian restaurant in Germany with an American name. I ordered water, and they brought seltzer water, no ice. High school German didn’t teach Sheldon how to ask for regular water. But it was refreshing, and we were able to order a pasta dish for me with no cheese successfully. The crusty bread they brought was really, really good. We headed back to the hotel and went back to sleep until we both woke up at around 3 am feeling pretty refreshed.

Smiling in Paris

Europe trip Saturday May 12 2012

We spent Saturday morning finishing packing and getting wine ready to send off to a couple off competitions with deadlines while we are gone. During preparations, both printers at the house ran out of ink, so running to Staples for ink cartridges became one of the errands of the morning. Another errand was to run by the eye doctor for contact lenses because I hadn’t realized I was using my last pair. We were able to get everything completed and ready for mailing on Monday and out the door just a few minutes behind schedule. We read that we should be at the airport 150 minutes ahead of time for international travel, so with a 2:00 pm flight we aimed to arrive at 11:30am. While dropping off our bags at the desk, we saw a sign that said they accept luggage up to one hour before take- off.

The security line at the international terminal at SFO was one of the longest lines I have been in lately, so I was glad we had the extra time. Once we got through security, we stopped and had lunch at one of the venues at the airport. I also stopped at a newsstand and got some life savers for the ride. The lines were long everywhere at the airport, at one point a woman plowed ahead of me at the restaurant, and I said, “excuse me ma’am, but I was ahead of you in line”, she said “I am only buying water” which, of course, is exactly what I was doing. She was apologetic, and I felt bad for being annoyed.  Later, while waiting for our flight at the gate, the same woman was waiting in the crowd. It isn’t like me to ‘call someone out’, and it made me feel embarrassed.

Once on the plane, we took our seats- I had checked our seats the day before and we had an aisle and a window seat with an empty seat between us, but at the last minute, we had someone come to sit in the middle seat. Since I am happy with a window, and Sheldon is happy with an aisle, we just settled in for the 9 hour flight. I looked out the window for the first few hours of the flight. I had a spectacular view of Lake Tahoe with snow capped mountains all around it, and then we headed north to some really beautiful countryside. Snacks and hot towels were passed around by the attendants. The vegetarian meal was pretty good- steamed vegetables, a decent roll, and salad. Somehow, I had ordered ‘strict vegetarian’ meals for both Sheldon and myself, but he was good natured about it. Later he said the food was good but not filling enough. As we got towards the east coast, the flight attendants requested that we close the shades- they dimmed the lights so that we could have the experience of ‘night’ for a few hours before landing in Amsterdam. I reluctantly closed my window shade as we were flying over what I think was Hudson Bay. I was able to doze off for a short while.

Smiling in Paris

Winery Rituals

It is funny how rituals so easily become part of our lives. There is a certain comfort in the actions of repeat activities.

On Sunday, getting ready to open the winery tent for tasting, I rushed through laying out the brochures, setting up the till, and putting up the tasting card signs. The part I never rush through is opening the wine.

First, I selected the bottles. One of each, 5 varietals. After setting them on the bar top (in order, whites to the right), I removed the foils. If you are very careful with the cutter, you can get a perfect round of foil from the top of the bottle. If you miss a spot on your circle around the bottle, you have to tear the top of the foil off. It is impossible to tear the foils perfectly, so if you don't get the circle, you get an assortment of jagged edges. Once all the foils were removed, I started pulling the corks. Putting the corkscrew in each cork and feeling the firm sponginess of the cork in each bottle, one by one I pulled the corks. Reds first, so they could breathe for a few moments before I tasted them. As I pulled out the corks, I sniffed each cork in turn, delighting in the unique aroma of each of the wines.

Once the bottles were opened, it was time to taste. I love tasting wine, and on the week-ends we are open, I taste but do not drink the wine. I have developed my own technique after watching a couple of sommeliers do their own version. Starting with the first white, I poured between 1/2 and 1 ounce in the glass. The French Colombard has a sparkly look, held up to the light it looks crisp and clean. Next I sniffed, taking in the scent of the grapes and the wine, appreciating the slight citrus scent of the 'nose'. Swirling the wine in the glass increased the scent. The swirling, smelling and looking may not be totally necessary to check to make sure I haven't opened a 'bad' bottle, but it is an important part of the ritual for me. I love large glasses for wine tasting so that plenty of swirling and sniffing can be done.

The last step was tasting- I took the whole amount of wine in my mouth, a rather large sip, and held it in my mouth for a moment. This gave me the rush of the taste of the wine and a sense of the mouth feel. The French Colombard is the wine equivalent of a cool glass of lemonade on a warm day. After I held the wine in my mouth, I swished it around (sort of like mouthwash) then spit it out. After I spit it out, I enjoyed the lingering taste (the finish) in my mouth.
 
I repeated this for the other 4 wines I was pouring, enjoying each wine in turn without drinking any of it.

Ready for business.
Smiling in Paris

Anniversary week-end


We had a wonderful, relaxing week-end for our first anniversary.

Started the day by driving tractors:


Then we stopped by Echo Lake where we have some friends who have a vacation cottage built on the rocks. We had a nice visit with lunch from the grill and a glass of nice Chardonnay before we headed out for Lake Tahoe.

After checking into the hotel, I was able to satisfy my urge to roll some dice (and won!). We ended up having dinner at the casino buffet because the better restaurants were all booked, sharing the space with a big wedding party. I wondered if the guests had to pay for their own buffet...

Sunday, we drove around Lake Tahoe, stopping for some pictures. The altitude was rough >7000 feet, I had a hard time catching my breath with ANY exertion. Emerald Bay was breathtaking:



We ended up having lunch at a lovely restaurant outside of Sacramento- I fell in love with the fountain there. I'd love to do something like that in the tasting area at Lightheart Cellars. You aren't even aware that the parking lott is just on the other side of the fountain.



My good friend Bonnie visited Sunday evening, we had dinner at a nice Japanese place near the house, sat around the pool and drank some wine. The hot tub heater was replaced on Saturday, so we were able to have a hot tub for the first time in many months!