We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . .
William Shakespeare, Henry V
This past May, as I’ve done annually for 20 years, I headed to Europe with a group of my closest friends. We hit Priorat, a wine region west of Barcelona. It’s always a quick trip. We leave on a Thursday and return on the Tuesday, but we pack a lot of living into our time together. The itinerary remains fixed: tour several vineyards; go on a few invigorating, often challenging hikes; eat and drink well; enjoy many laughs; and share the moments of our lives as we share the moments on our trips.
Somewhere along the line, we started calling ourselves The Travelers.
These trips began when my oldest friend from childhood, Mike, whom I met in 1979, started working for a law firm in Manhattan. Very quickly he made friends with a circle of fellow lawyers. In 1996 they decided to go on a quick hop over to Scotland around the Presidents’ Day weekend–propitious logistics as plane tickets to Europe in February run cheap and the Monday is a federal holiday. The excursion proved so popular that it became an ongoing thing.
Although I got to know Mike’s law firm pals, carousing with them many times in the city, I wasn’t aboard for the first four trips. But when they decided to go to Ireland in 2000, they extended an invitation because I was a “known quantity” and a bit of an expert on Ireland as I’d recently lived in Dublin for two years. I’ve made every trip since.
Since the Old Sod sojourn involving much Guinness and Irish whiskey, we’ve kept exclusively to the Continent, visiting only winemaking countries with France in the lead, Italy a close second, and Spain in third place. As the arrival of children made logistics increasingly complex, the trips slid into March, then April. Our last two elapsed entirely in May, necessitating short-sleeve shirts and sunscreen. No one complains.
For many years, The Travelers numbered seven, then we dropped to six. The same four of us have been making it happen for the last eight years. We call our stalwart roster The Core Four.
From an oenophile’s perspective, the regions and vineyards we’ve visited comprise the stuff of dreams. In France, we’ve toured Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Corsica, the Loire Valley, Languedoc, Provence, the Southern Rh么ne Valley, and the Northern Rh么ne Valley. In Italy we’ve been to the Alto-Adige, Piemonte (Barolo and Barbaresco), Tuscany, Umbria, Valle d’Aosta, and Veneto. And in Spain we’ve savored Sherry in Jerez, Cava in the Pened猫s, and powerful reds in Ribera del Duero and, most recently, Priorat.
Through work in the wine trade and the attendant connections several of us made, The Travelers have had the honor of meeting some of the world’s best winemakers, often the very best in their respective regions, such as Paolo De Marchi of the Isole e Olena winery in Tuscany, Giampiero Bea of Paolo Bea in Umbria, Danielle Meunier of Chateau Haut S茅gottes in Bordeaux, Marjorie and St茅phane Gallet of Domaine Le Roc des Anges in Languedoc, and the late Fran莽ois Barm猫s of Domaine Barm猫s-Buecher in Alsace (to whom we raise a glass in fond remembrance every trip.)
We’ve been received with great warmth, as well as a measure of curiosity and accrued respect: when we list for our winemaking hosts the fellow-vignerons we’ve met over the years, their eyebrows arch with approval. But it’s the genuine love of the winemaker’s art and our respect for their work that have won over even the most taciturn vigneron.
We don’t get the perfunctory tastings allotted tourists who pull off the road (sometimes there isn’t much of a road at all). We receive total tours with the vignerons, often beginning with a walk through prized plots of old-vine grapes, then a look at winemaking facilities and cellars, and, finally, generous samplings of the fruit of all that hard work: the wines. Many times the winemakers have taken us to their favorite local restaurant afterwards, where we’ve continued our happy dialogue over truly memorable meals.
To balance–somewhat–our rich board and overflowing cups, The Travelers have tackled some solid hikes. Back in my rookie year we slogged up Croagh Patrick, a desolate 2,507-foot mountain in County Mayo in the west of Ireland which has long been a pilgrimage site, some of the devout ascending the whole way on hands and knees. No one in our group could be called devout (unless devotion to Bacchus counts), but the hike was a penance: icy February rain driven by gusting winds pelted us sideways, but, as Edmund Hillary said to Tenzing Norgay as they summited Everest, we knocked the bastard off.
The Core Four bagged a more impressive summit in 2012: Mont Ventoux. The 6,263-foot “Beast of Provence” may be best known as the scene of one of the most grueling stages of the Tour de France, a climb which claimed the life of British cyclist Tom Simpson in 1967 (OK, along with amphetamines and alcohol). This poet appreciated a much earlier ascent on foot by fellow bard Petrarch back in 1336. We walked up in three and a half hours, knocked back a bottle of Cotes du Rh么ne (which I carried, thank you very much), and, with gravity assisting, made it back down in three hours flat. Earned our steak frites that night!
For sheer aesthetic pleasure along with rugged rucking, nothing beats the GR trails of Corsica, especially on that sun-drenched Mediterranean day in March 2004. The seven of us joyfully pushed above treeline, loaded for bear with local provisions: freshly baked breads; wax paper-wrapped rounds of Brocciu Corse and herb-encrusted Fleur du Maquis (or Brin d’Amour), the island’s two most renowned cheeses; dried sausage and cold cuts; and bottle after bottle of Patrimonio, the juicy dark red wine from the island’s northernmost appellation. Everyone carried their share that day!
Last year, under clement Umbrian skies in May, the four of us walked alongside a Roman aqueduct, past olive groves with their silver-grey leaves flickering in dappled sun, a simple out-and-back from the hilltop village of Spello–a day fixed in my mind like a blessed, impregnable refuge, a memory which sustains me like a sip of some elven elixir.
Wine and food, as well as forced marches, figure prominently in our tradition, but we realize with greater clarity each year that the biggest reward of our trips is our own companionship, an elite forum of discourse and disclosure that is our ever-deepening friendship. Over 20-plus years, a lot of life has happened to all of us, the gamut of human experiences. As a poignant example, recently, in the intervening year between our last trip, three of the four of us lost our dads.
The Travelers is a portable refuge as well as a moveable feast. We pool our experiences, our insights, and our compassion. We are friends in whom each one of us can confide in the true sense of that word: with full trust. We travel exceedingly well, flowing effortlessly like a school of fish. We discuss history, philosophy, literature, music, film, economics, politics, and the law. We share the dynamics of our families and relationships. And we recount the stories, tell the tales, and laugh till it hurts.
* * * * *
The long, sheer wall of stone cliffs that form the flat-topped heights of Priorat’s Monsant mountains beckoned to us, a primeval challenge and our latest opportunity. As we scaled the ramparts of what I deemed the fortress of the gods, our conversation continued despite rigorous hiking over rugged terrain and hand-over-hand climbs up vertical chimneys. Especially on these semi-technical pitches, we had to trust each other and work together. The Monsant expedition was the most demanding–and rewarding–hike we’ve ever done.
On the drive back to Barcelona that evening, listening to Houses of the Holy as we surveyed landscape vistas reminiscent of its cover, the mood in the car was positively electric. We still had Wednesday–one more full day and night–to enjoy in the Catalonian capital, but we were making damn sure we’d reach the city by ten o’clock, or what they call “dinnertime” in Spain.
We’re actually getting better at these trips as we get older. And each year The Travelers venture abroad it feels more and more like we’re coming home.
2001 Alsace/Mosel River Valley
2007 Burgundy/Lyon/Northern Rh么ne
2008 Bilbao/Ribera Del Duero
2012 Avignon/Southern Rh么ne
2016 Valle d’Aosta
2017 Loire Valley