Now that I’ve been home over a month and the experience seems like a dream, I’ve had time for my observations to crystallize. It was a different kind of traveling in that we returned to two cities that we visited previously, each once before. In the Loire, a new place for us, we found a quiet, inland beauty. This region of chateaux, wine, and cheese is saturated with history and tradition. I hope the young people don’t all move to Paris; some of the region’s towns are so small they don’t have cinemas. Paris and London juxtaposed reveal hugely different atmospheres. Though a beautiful, romantic city, Paris has a world-weariness that its young people, who are opening casual wine caves and rum-based cocktail bars, are trying to combat. I respect the country’s traditionalism, but I would hate to see ritual or conservatism strangle its culture. But Paris will always have wine, the best hangout spots (Canal St Martin, please; hold the Heineken) and miles of cafe seating facing the heart of the sun — maybe its rays temporarily quiet existential questions. London, meanwhile, feels vibrant and dynamic with its ever-changing skyline, street art, and easygoing dining conventions. It’s a city of contradictions: tea at the Ritz and packed Tayyab’s, stable ruins like Wilton’s Music Hall and spangly buildings that fry eggs. There’s good food and coffee now too! If only the city’s wealth would radiate outward to warm the rest of Britain — a hope of my friend in Cambridge. I have no cute sentence to sum up the trip. I am simply grateful that John and I could have these two weeks.
On Trip Planning
I feel rather proud of myself for planning the trip. I’m always nervous about things going awry and I wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t be dependent on a cell phone or wifi connection for getting around. To that end, I created a binder with three sections for each leg of the trip with maps, the itineraries, confirmations for transportation and AirBnBs, and my ultimate planning tool: Google Map print outs annotated with options for eating, drinking, nightlife, and sightseeing.
I spend months doing my research (not slavishly, just as I discover possibilities) and store them on a custom Google Map. Closer to the trip I break the digital map into manageable sections for printing and write in the names of the places, hours, admission fees, and any other handy information. The map serves not as a checklist, but as a window to a variety of options, providing cues to interesting neighborhoods. I’ve been perfecting this method for almost 3 years and it works spectacularly well. I also love having Google Maps in progress for future trips and even for the exploration of my own city. Time to consult the map of restaurants and bars to try!
During Monday’s breakfast, we saw the face of the illicit wine drinker and all had fun teasing him. There were the two American couples and a French couple from Lyon. The wife agilely translated each joke into French for her husband and then he would laugh. They were delightful people, but so much company unsettled me. After we thanked Florence for our perfect stay, I joked with John as we packed up the car that I had to get out — being surrounded by seven people at breakfast? Too much!
We saved the best for last: Chenonceau on the Cher River. As we drove into the estate and saw the vineyards, we thought, “This is it.” — the epitome of the Loire Valley experience.
The whole atmosphere elevates one’s bearing (but perhaps not one’s being. Something I thought about again in Cambridge. How does someone’s environment affect what he or she thinks of him or herself?). We walked down the tree-lined corridor to the large forecourt where swallows flew in and out of the Marques tower. Inside, I coveted the stupendous ceilings, floors, and wall coverings. By far, my favorite room was Catherine de Medici’s small library, all green and gold, with a window looking out to the river.
The Gallery she built on Diane de Poitier’s bridge ain’t so bad either. Through the free brochure, I learned that not only was Chenonceau used as a hospital in WWI, its location, straddling the Cher river, meant that in WWII:
the entrance to the Chateau was…in the occupied zone right bank…The gallery where the South door gave access to the left bank made it possible for the Resistance to pass large numbers of people into the free zone. Throughout the war a German artillery unit was kept at the ready to destroy Chenonceau.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
The joys of this sumptuous chateau thrilled us, but perhaps more entertaining were our encounters with the various animals on the grounds. I am still tickled by these frogs, ducks, and . . .
John also delighted the German couple who asked him to take their picture with his enthusiastic proclamation “Ausgezeichnet!” In exchange, they took this picture of us.
We’d had a glorious morning at Chenonceau and decided to eat at the cafe on the grounds. Off we went, then, toward the Loir River about 60km to the north.
When we visited Chinon the day before, I turned to John and asked him whether he felt compelled to hum the theme from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He hadn’t thought of it, but once I put the idea in his head he couldn’t get it out. As we passed through Montrichard, the ruined fortress reminded us again of Monty Python, so we made a short movie. The men at the bus stop across the street watched us.
We continued through the flat farmland for miles, but as we approached the Loir small mountains emerged from the landscape. Back Roads France took us to Lavardin, where a ruined fortress provided more Pythonesque inspiration and where the ancient murals in the Church of Saint-Genest (11th century) stunned us.
In Montoire-sur-le-Loir, a depressed-looking town whose central square had been turned into a parking lot, we found another Romanesque church with frescoes, but it required a key from the tourist office. We went back to the car and look at quick loop around Les Roches and the surrounding countryside. In Les Roches, homes built into the hillside looked abandoned and unkempt. We got out of the car briefly and then headed back to Montoire for a coffee. We were only 7 kilometers from Troo where we would be staying the night and it was still early for check in.
Our coffee in Montoire turned out to be one of the best cups of the trip. Joining us in the sun were two wirey bicyclists, two teenage girls smoking of course, and one elderly lady whom the proprietor helped cross the street. Afterwards John and I looked around the town a little more. We found the remains of a monastery and a museum of musical instruments (about to close so we could only get a brochure).
Once in Troo, we got honked at twice as we tried to maneuver ourselves in the correct direction after I realized we’d passed the street. Eventually we entered the beautiful grounds of L’île ô Reflets; the green gate opening like magic. The gentle, open-hearted Martial met us with his dog Dolly.
The guest house has five guest rooms, each dedicated to a theme in La Fontaine’s Fables. Our room in cheerful blue and white contained curtains, pillows, and upholstery with swallows and little birds for the story: “L’hirondelle et les petits oiseaux.” All but one room were on the second floor of the house and faced into a common room with comfy chairs, a pool table, and a mini-fridge. What a great place for bringing a bunch of friends for a party! We decided to have a snack of cheese, sausage, and wine while John beat me at pool (I only have a chance with it comes to board games).
We walked around the grounds to the narrow Loir river and introduced ourselves to the animals: chickens, goats, and geese. Martial gave us a good map and orientation to Troo, so we set off along the pedestrian trail and once in town followed the stairs up the mountain side to the panoramic view. Along the way we saw some swanky cave homes.
At the top of Troo is an old church, a few artists’ studios, and the talking well (puits qui parle)!
We took a different route down and found the bar/restaurant Martial recommended (there wasn’t much else open on the quiet Monday night). We enjoyed Affligem beer and the proprietor had no problem making us a vegetarian salad to share. He made up for the lack of meat with more chevre!
After dinner in the soft evening light we walked back along the river and took pictures of a herd of cows!
May I confess? I picked L’île ô Reflets simply because the website has a picture of a dog looking at cows. Troo totally delivered with these beauties!
When we got back and punched in the code for the gate, Dolly scampered out and started sniffing the trees. John tried calling her back in French, enticing her with a stick, taking hold of her collar, but none of these tactics worked. I slapped my thighs and encouraged her with “Come on! Let’s go!” in the higher pitched voice I use only with dogs — worked like a charm. Martial told us later she only understands English.
We saw Martial again and got to talking. He told us his plans for renovating the old mill building on the property into a hall for weddings and parties. He’s putting in a pool now and is slowly working on converting other buildings into guest houses.
He kept telling us that we needed to get married there. But we are married! We’ll get married again, we promised him, and all laughed. We enjoyed talking with him; he was so patient with John’s French and when John’s French and Martial’s English failed, pantomime worked perfectly. I communicate in smiles and laughs most of the time anyway.
The whole day had been beautiful and quiet. Troo seemed there just for us.
At breakfast the next morning, we had delicious bread, one loaf with lots of seeds that made me happy, and confitures made by Martial’s mother. He had even planted the cherry (or perhaps plum) tree that supplied the fruit.
Again our chipless credit card caused trouble. Martial’s machine couldn’t read the card so we followed him to Montoire where the bank’s ATM worked flawlessly. John and I held our breath until the cash came out. Martial encouraged us to try visiting the frescoed church again and pointed out the cafe where the key lives when the tourist office is closed. We said goodbye, shaking hands and kissing cheeks; we were parting from a new friend.
The keeper of the key was a formidable woman who seemed put out by our request. There was a fee attached which John wasn’t keen on, so we drove on to Vendome. I’m still a little regretful that we only saw frescoes in Lavardin and missed the others in the region, but now I have a reason to go back. And I need to follow Martial’s progress on the pool installation!
The small city of Vendome, birth place of Rochambeau, would have been much more charming in the sun, but even in the rain we enjoyed looking at its old churches and shops. I spotted a very modern-looking cafe where we had another excellent cup of coffee and found ourselves mesmerized by the dirt bike competitions on the TVs. It was the first cafe/bar of the trip we’d visited that had a TV. It may have been early on a Tuesday, but a few men were there to watch. We left before the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change” could become anymore lodged in our brains.
Before leaving town, we visited a bakery where the cheerful owner gladly had his assistant prepare us vegetarian sandwiches. We also bought an eclair which John put in his pocket and forgot about until I reminded him on the train. He still has melted chocolate lining his jacket pocket to this day.
In plenty of time we returned the car at the Total station to Mr. “Mister”. He called us a taxi; the driver, like the baker in Vendome’s old town, was supremely cheerful. We all laughed how with our French and his English it was best just to listen to music on the radio.
After another uneventful and punctual TGV ride, we were back in Paris. In some ways, John and I both felt relieved to be in a big city. Yet, part of me missed the greenery and cows, but our friend Ioanna made sure we didn’t look back. At the Abbesses station, we made the mistake of getting off the elevator too early. It was a haul getting ourselves and our bags up the winding stairs, but beautiful Ioanna was there to meet us!
It was a glorious reunion with much conversation and flowing wine! Ioanna took us to her apartment on the fourth floor. She gave us the bedroom and said it was either us or our bags — no room for both — while she would stay in the living room/office, which had a big window that I loved. John and I were fascinated by her typical Parisian kitchen, palatial compared to the one in our AirBnB. Her partner Francois does all the cooking with only two hot plates, small convection oven, and a blender. She insisted on our drinking filtered way (it tasted so good) and we set out!
For the whole afternoon we rambled through the right bank. From her place, we followed Ioanna (we would follow her anywhere) to the area near the Bibliotheque Nationale where a chain of covered passages offer elegant shopping (art, stamps, books) and shelter from the on-again-off-again sprinkles.
At a cafe in one of the passages, John and Ioanna drank Cote du Rhone, while I had a coffee. The waiter looked 14 years old. We walked through the Jardin du Palais Royal and made our way to the Marais passing near Les Halles where new construction is transforming the heart of the city (Ioanna doesn’t approve. It was pretty ugly.). At Le Petit Fer à Cheval, we escaped the rain and shared a small carafe of red Morgon. The place had an old-fashioned u-shaped bar, contrasting with the ultra-modern toilets — all steel like going into a space-aged port-a-potty. I felt mildly claustrophobic, but the bathroom is a sight worth seeing, vraiment.
John and I were revisiting some familiar territory from our last trip, but it was so much nicer to have a friend and guide with us. On rue des Rosiers, we ate at Chez Marianne for an afternoon snack. John and I shared awesome falafel and I helped Ioanna and John eat strudel and chocolate cake. They drank: gamay and rose. I had tea. Our waitress got in trouble for allowing John to order cake as part of his falafel formule. A very grumpy woman — overly tan, stringy and angular body, lots of necklaces, and dyed dry hair — gave the waitress and Ioanna a hard time unnecessarily. We didn’t let her ruin the good food and otherwise lovely afternoon.
We wandered the Marais with its narrow streets and hip shops, like Tim Bargeot. Ioanna pointed out where a former Jewish bakery, an institution of the neighborhood, had since been bought out and transformed into another boring clothing store. At least Place des Vosges hasn’t changed.
We took the metro back to Montmartre where Ioanna showed us two of her favorite neighborhood places that haven’t been entirely taken over by tourists or other “strange people”. Americans seem to be the only ones wealthy enough to buy real estate in the area and they don’t make an effort to become part of the neighborhood.
At La Mascotte, a beautiful Art Nouveau restaurant, Ioanna introduced John to the sublime (I’m told) pairing of oysters and Sancerre. I tried Sancerre and generic bar nut mix — that too was pretty good. I kept on the white kick and tried a white Cote du Rhone (stupendous!) and a Chablis. I also tried John and Ioanna’s reds (after they finished the oysters) and worked on my descriptions of the wines: the Cote du Languedoc I proclaimed “spicy plum”, while the Cairrane seemed more “grape crush.” John now looks to my palate for tasting notes. Recently out for dinner here at home I compared a wine to a dark brown room with leather chairs. I feel I have potential, but I must hone this skill.
We stood at the small, crowded bar of La Mascotte and watched the regulars, some of whom were rather eccentric. An unsteady man paid for his drinks entirely with coins and kept at the nut mix. He and a tall Asian woman, heavily made up with a mask-like face, kept going in and out of the bar. Another older man, happy and very friendly, kept trying to talk to Ioanna. She’s a magnet and three times while we were walking around Paris people stopped to ask her for directions. The bartender wasn’t Ioanna’s favorite. She’d been hoping another guy, apparently gay and flirtatious, would be on duty so she and I could be entertained by his interactions with John. Instead the bartender we had seemed to care little whether our glasses were empty or full. No matter, we’d all gotten to try excellent wines and oysters, which was the main point.
Ioanna took us to another bar, very quiet and nice. I thought about getting food, but that would have required sitting in the restaurant area. I took a break, while Ioanna and John had a little more wine. It was sometime after 11pm that we went back home with Ioanna and she made a big salad, brightly flavored with lemon. We ate bread and cheese from Lyon (she’d just been visiting Francois who was temporarily working there). There were radishes (yay!) and she opened for her and John (I was done) a bottle of Anjou. I’ve never had salad at midnight!
The next morning we all woke a bit bleary eyed and had yogurt, bread, tea, and coffee for breakfast. To get us moving, we walked to Cimetière de Montmartre. Though many famous persons call Montmartre their home, we did not seek out any particular tombs. In the Wednesday rain, we admired the stray cats and the funerary sculpture, new and old. Shockingly, an elevated roadway bisects the cemetery, while a nursing home overlooks it.
In the pouring rain, Ioanna showed us to the bus station and we used our last tickets from the carnet for the ride to Gare du Nord. We hadn’t nearly enough time with Ioanna. Our visit made her so happy that she would sporadically turn to us with a big smile on her face. If we can’t get her to the US, I guess we can go back. Hah!
The Loire valley is a whole region of scenic rivers, medieval towns, and Renaissance chateaux. Over the next two days, we sampled its bounty.
At Le Moulin du Fief Gentil in Blere, our host, Florence, gave us a wonderful breakfast with four homemade confitures, excellent croissants, goat cheese, and another regional speciality, rillettes. She and our Back Roads France book recommended visiting less frequented towns and sites: Loches, Montresor, and Chateau de Montpoupon, so that’s what we did on Saturday.
The market at Loches was hopping. We mistakenly bought a very expensive cheese (it was delicious and lasted us a few days; we got more than we meant to buy). John couldn’t resist a saucisson sec (though we later realized the knife we had wasn’t strong enough to cut it) and we had to try the fresh strawberries. After buying a baguette and a Provencal olive assortment with peppers and onion, we had our picnic items for later ready. At this market, one could buy almost any fresh food item from seafood to head cheese to steaming paella.
A lovely medieval town on the Indre river, Loches had very old-fashioned public toilets to match. A hard metal basin with foot grips sits over a hole. Still it served its purpose and I felt ready to explore the Cite Royale of Loches, the walled acropolis of the town containing a Romanesque church, chateau, and massive donjon. The entrance to the church is decorated with carved stone animals and mythical creatures; traces of the colorful paint remains and I was reminded me of Greek art from the geometric and archaic periods.
We drove east toward Montresor on the Indrois river to find a picnic spot. At a small convenience store, we bought other snacks: pistachios and peanuts. John picked out a beer and I understood the whole conversation John had with the cashier about the gorgeous weather. Little signs pointed us to a pique-nique area where lush woods met the parking lot of a small post office. This is where we learned the postal service uses Kangoos too!
A trail led us to an ancient Gallo-Roman aqueduct, but the path wasn’t well maintained so we ate at the tables off the parking lot. We got quite good at stuffing the bread with the soft cheese, olives, and roasted peppers. The strawberries provided the perfect dessert. More oblong than the strawberries I see at home, they nearly melted in our mouths.
We drove into Montresor proper and walked around the quiet streets for a few minutes. One restaurant was open and the whole town must have been sitting there enjoying the perfect Saturday. Even the cars were happy:
We spent the early afternoon at Chateau de Montpoupon, where part of the house is still reserved for the family. The chateau contains beautiful furnishings and some gorgeous ceilings, but the “touristic elements” felt very kitsch. When we walked into a room, a recording of a conversation, presumably of two former inhabitants, would play from hidden speakers. Above the stables, which were partially converted into a hunting museum, were the rooms showing the life of the huntsman, complete with manikins! Not again! The kitchen, however, was a highlight with its immensive collection of shining copper pots and we loved watching two horses grazing in the field behind the chateau.
It seemed appropriate to stay in a hunting state of mind, so we continued northeast toward Cheverny via Montrichard and Chaumont. John had hoped to get a picture of Chaumont, but we could see from the car that there was no view from beyond the entrance gate.
As we neared Cheverny, we saw more and more signs for different vineyards. At random, we decided to pull into Domaine de la Plante d’Or, whose logo is a salamander. We learned later that the salamander was also the sign of Francois I, an important king who brought Leonardo da Vinci to France and heavily invested in building and renovating chateaux in the Loire region. Philippe Loquineau, the owner of the winery, which his grandfather started, told us he spends a third of his time in the fields, a third in the cellar, and a third drinking. We laughed and thought that sounded like a perfect life, but he wasn’t so sure. He told us about the soil in Cheverny and Cour-Cheverny, the two local appellations, and poured us a few samples. I loved the Cour-Cheverny “Fleur de Lis”, which tasted like its name. He smiled and said it was a woman’s wine. Their “Salamander” wines are drier with stronger minerality. We were happy to buy two bottles, one of each variety, and wished him well.
We arrived at Cheverny around 4:30pm. I knew from Rick Steves that the estate’s hounds eat every day at 5pm, so we joined the crowd of mostly French tourists (we heard many at the Loire chateaux) to await the exciting moment. The dogs with their luminous coats, strong bodies, and giant paws knew dinner time was coming. They were barking and howling while the trainer disinfected the area where they would be eating.
The trainer laid out the meat and kibbles and the dogs started cramming themselves together on the stairs that lead down to the food. At 5pm on the dot, the priority hounds (I wasn’t sure what distinguished them — maybe something to do with the social order of the pack of 70 animals) got a head start and then . . .
By 5:03pm, the whole show was over so we walked to the chateau. Like Montpoupon, Cheverny is privately owned and the family still spends time there. Cheverny, built in its current form during the early 17th century, has remained in the same family almost continually since that time. The furnishings, painted ceilings and walls, elaborately carved fireplaces, and tapestries are to die for (none of our interior photographs came out). The family’s dish pattern features hounds. I loved the self-guided tour booklet too which offered “Did you know?” boxes with fun facts: “It was Louis XV who decided to place table forks with their prongs facing downwards as he was tired of snagging the lace on his sleeves.” or “The [bed] canopy and tapestries were used to keep the heat in.” Makes so much sense; I’d never thought about the practical reasons behind these textiles that seemed merely aesthetic items.
We visited the hounds one last time before departing. They were calm and happy. Poo was everywhere.
For dinner, we drove less than 20 minutes to Blois and parked in our first ever garage in a foreign country! (Once we were in a garage in Frankfurt, but a native was driving.) My Back Roads France book recommended a dinner spot with lots of vegetarian options, of which I felt in need. It was too early for dinner (not quite 7pm), so we walked around the small city through its open places and narrow streets to the grand chateau. I had a very good vibe from Blois; I can’t say why particularly, I just did. The same sort of feeling I had in Rouen. The smaller cities are very fun and if I get a chance, I’d like to revisit Blois when I’m not so tired and when it’s not so late in the day.
Shortly after 7pm, we walked into Le Castelet on rue Saint Lubin. As if some alarm had rung in everyone’s heads, the place was totally full within 30 minutes. All the diners, including ourselves, had three course meals meaning that there was probably only one seating per table. We left shortly before 9pm.
There were indeed many wonderful options for me, while John tried the day’s specials. For Lanah: veloute, a delicious pureed soup with a strong flavor of fresh peas, an omelette, and a cold strawberry soup with rhubarb cream, the dessert of the day and absolutely heavenly.
For John: beets with andouille sausage and chevre (he loved this and wished it could have been his main), rabbit with vegetables, and chocolate mousse.
As the sun set, we drove along the Loire River so serene in the twilight. We gave up on the Nostalgi station our car picked up so well. There’s a limit to how much Barry White and Abba I can hear in a day non-ironically, so John plugged in his phone. And that picture of Chaumont we wanted? Best done from across the Loire.
On Sunday morning, we again had a good breakfast and were joined by an older Texan couple. Their son, who wasn’t traveling with them, sounded like quite a character. He has a master’s degree from a Polish university and now works at a resort in Colorado. I miss overeducated bohemians — DC just isn’t the place for them.
We had a little trouble getting ourselves on the right route to Azay-le-Rideau. My 3′ x 4′ double-sided Michelin map came in handy as I directed us down two farm lanes. We stopped to let a peloton by and later I saw one cyclist’s gentalia as he stopped to pee in a field. We also passed this amazing property:
Eventually we were on a main road (thank you car GPS for pointing us in the right direction) and took a leisurely drive through village after village on the Indre river. All that water got me thinking about my pressing bladder. I spotted a park with a small shack, which had to be a bathroom. It was! A hole with foot rests just like Loches. I prefer much these to stinky, hot Port-o-pots. It was liberating not to wash my hands (there was no way to do so anyway). What obsessive American hygienic convention could I give up next?!
Azay-le-Rideau turned out to be not only a chateau, but an adorable village where John did a stellar job parallel parking the Kangoo. He’s dreamt since high school French class of coming to this “jewel of Renaissance architecture” (as described by the brochure).
I kept expected a guard to come out of the woodwork to chastise John for posing with the chateau, but no such thing happened.
Of particular note is the chateau’s loggia — a fabulous open-air staircase, apparently “one of the first French examples of a staircase with straight flights place in the centre of the main building, and not, according to medieval convention, in an attached tower.” Each square of the loggia ceiling has a portrait inside.
John and I were also entranced by the sounds of bats in the attic where the impressive timberwork, dating from 1522, is visible (learned all this from the brochure). Hear the twittering bats here.
John’s dream fulfilled, we walked back through the village, had an ice cream, and set off for Chinon. We’d been in the car for less than a minute when John pulled over. “Get a picture of that” he said pointing. “What the flowers?” Then I saw it.
He couldn’t decide what was better Azay-le-Rideau or this 1954 Jaguar.
We drove south to Chinon, a medieval town famous for its red wine (I find it rather thin and prefer juicier reds). With vineyards on all the slopes above the Vienne river, this was the kind of Loire Valley town we’d imagined. The main route took us right to the parking lot above the fortress that overlooks the town. John and I expected to spend a short time exploring Chinon’s ruined fortress where Knights of Templar were imprisoned in the 14th century and where Joan of Arc first met Charles. It turned out to be a huge place and a primer in defensive architecture with its five towers. By the end I couldn’t climb up or down any more staircases. Those knights must have been beasts to wear all that armor and climb all those stairs. Here are a few pictures of this amazing site most of which was built in the 12th century and then expanded over the centuries:
Unlikely the cushiony Renaissance chateaux we’d been seeing for the last day and a half, this place seemed wholly medieval: stark stone, impossible spiral staircases, cramped rooms everywhere except in the “logis royaux”.
It was approaching 3pm and we still hadn’t had lunch! We started to walk down the steep hill to the center of town and then decided to drive down and park by the river. Again, I applaud John’s parking abilities. After a handful of pistachios, we set out in search of lunch.
Chinon was a quiet town with incredible medieval buildings. We followed Rick Steves’ advice and ate at a wine bar where John got the charcuterie plate and I the cheese plate. I think we both wanted something more substantial, but were unable to walk another step (next door was a Tex-Mex place called “Tennessee”). The owner set John up with two reds (one local wine called “La Diablese”) and me with two whites, a nice white Chinon and a magical Chardonnay: La Margelle from Chateau de Fosse-Seche. Neither John nor I saw when or how he dripped wine down the front of his white shirt, but he did. More amazingly, he had an extra shirt in the car.
Our plates arrived. John tried blood pudding for the first time and I nearly reached my cheese saturation point.
After eating, we looked around the wine shop and talked to the owner about what seemed to be his real passion, electric guitar. He had his there with him!
We walked through town and then along the river back to the car. It was time to start driving back east. We followed signs to Usse for a quick picture and cold drinks at the snack bar in the chateau parking lot. Then on to Villandry, heaven for gardeners!
We bypassed the chateau and savored the gardens. People were lounging by the fountains, dipping their toes in the water; there’s a garden for children and a labyrinth. Villandry of all the chateaux encourages you to relax and watch the swans (Thought I would say “smell the roses”, ey? We did that too.)
We weren’t entirely ready to leave, so we sat outside under an umbrella at the cafe just outside the entrance. We watched an old man smoke his pipe while he talked with his friends, an old couple with a very cute dog. The couple smoked cigarettes. A shock to me since I so rarely, if ever, see elderly people smoking. A group of college kids at the table next to them puffed away as well. I live in a smoke free bubble so going to Europe startles me every time.
I had no idea how to get us from Villandry back to Blere. The Michelin map frightened me with thick red veins all leading to Tours, like some congested heart. Rick Steves threatened hell fire on any driver who dared to cross city. We put our faith in the GPS and told it to avoid toll roads. On a Sunday evening, Tours proved easily navigable. We were on the industrial, modern, and very ugly outskirts. There were actual stoplights, no roundabouts for a time. We arrived safely in Blere and decided to stay in town for the night.
The French truly have a passion for plants. We walked by this gorgeous garden on the way to dinner:
Blere is a small town with a WWI memorial and a square with a church. Dinner options included the pizza place, the kebab place, and on the square we could choose from the bar tabac where all the kids who constantly ride motorcycles hang out (we would learn more about this dirt bike and motorcycle obsession in Vendome); a cafe that was closing up for the day; and Le Cheval Blanc, an elegant hotel with a traditional restaurant, which came highly recommended by Florence.
We anticipated that we’d be dining at Le Cheval Blanc and subsequently dressed more nicely and even showered. The welcoming host and hostess (whom I named Gerard and Hortense) did everything from busing to recommending wine. Most importantly they assured me that a vegetarian entree could be prepared. I loved the dining room done in black and white with hot pink accents. John had the fish special (dos de bar) and I was delighted with my vegetable risotto. We had a white Chinon wine (I think chenin blanc), but the best part of the meal were the desserts. My strawberry-rhubarb concoction showed off the chef’s skills with foam, glassy sugar shards, and little dots of rhubarb puree. John’s chocolate-coconut dessert was like a candy bar cake. We had fun watching Crepes Suzette made table side for a large group of Germans (coincidentally, there was also a large group of Germans at the restaurant in Blois the night before). They got louder the more they drank. At the table behind us a couple decided on cheese for dessert and Hortense rolled out the great cheese board kept under a glass dome. When she opened it, a waft of intense curd perfumed the air. The husband ordered a glass of amber Calvados. We ordered coffee with dessert which slightly perplexed Hortense, but no matter. Over the trip, we learned that this is an American habit. After our dessert, came another small complimentary dessert: little meringue puffs and chocolate-covered fruit, all surprisingly light. Gerard was happy that we were happy and encouraged us to write a review so more Americans would come to his restaurant and hotel.
Back at the mill, John went to the communal refrigerator to pour himself a glass of our wine. The one he picked up was open and a small amount was missing. Apparently the son of another American couple had mixed up the bottles. It was my Fleur de Lis!
We had two goals for sightseeing in Reims: visiting the cathedral and sampling champagne. After breakfast at home, we set out for Gare de l’Est and drank coffee while we waited to get on the train. On the TGV, I observed three men in their late 30s who sat around a table. They must have been musicians as they kept passing around a score and fancy headphones, while discussing the music. One man was a classic nerd — a little skinny, basic wire frame glasses, careless about his appearance. Another was a goof, always cracking jokes with more fashionable glasses (big plastic frames) and unruly hair. The third was athletic with radiant skin, classically handsome, always snacking on a piece of fruit. When they got off the train, he had the fold up bike. The 45-minute ride flew by.
Though it was only 11am, John’s appetite was stirred as we walked from the station down the main street lined with restaurants. I gave him some bread to gnaw on and we continued through the shopping district, past a glorious Art Nouveau theater in disrepair, before arriving at the grand Cathedral, built in the 13th century and the site of the coronations for the French kings.
Of course, a church has been on this site for much longer; Clovis, considered the first king of what we now call “France” and the first ruler to unite the French monarchy and the Roman Catholic church, is said to have been baptised here in 496.
The cathedral features a mix of old and contemporary stained glass, including work by Marc Chagall. I took particular delight in a window from the 1950s celebrating the wine traditions of the region.
We walked behind the mammoth cathedral and found two restaurants. One was fully booked, but the other had two free seats at the bar. Two servers and the one woman behind the bar (she seemed like a manager) were in constant motion for the hour or so that we were there. The place was packed for lunch and the older couple next to us at the bar followed the prix fixe lunch menu with plate after plate coming out for them. John and I were happy with giant salads and marveled at the competence and efficiency of the manager. This is a woman truly entitled to her legally-required month of vacation.
During the course of the day, we stopped in three establishments (lunch, break, dinner), each serving Grimbergen beer. John tried a different variety at each place: blonde, ambrée, and abbaye.
After lunch we visited the Saint Remi Basilica, home of the relics of Saint Remi, the bishop who baptised Clovis. We continued walking away from the historic center into the newer parts of town that seemed much less welcoming. After a couple consultations with the map (I recommend writing to the tourism board before the trip. They sent me a handy map and brochure.), we arrived at Taittinger! We had a short wait in a large perfectly white room before the next tour. After a video, our fabulous guide Audrey led the group of 12 down to the ancient cellar. She expertly walked up and down the narrow spiral staircase in her high heels.
The tour fascinated us first because we had no idea how time intensive the production of Champagne is and second because Taittinger’s caves started as Roman quarries and later were used by monks whose abbey was once on the Taittinger property. There’s tons of graffiti in the caves from all eras.
The yeast is removed by freezing the tops of the bottles. The ice containing the yeast is removed, the wine topped up, and the bottles corked and labeled; these processes are done by machine.
At the end of tour, Audrey led the group to the pristine tasting room featuring a display of Taittinger’s specially designed bottles for the World Cup (they are the official champagne of the event). She also imparted us with the following wisdom: the bigger the bottle the better it tastes (the biggest is called Nebuchadnezzar – 15 liters, but a magnum is just fine). John and I paid for two tastings. We both had the Brut — their signature champagne — and then chose two to share. I chose the Prelude, a blend, and John the 2006 vintage. All were lovely and not overly dry; I should have taken more notes. We were both slightly alarmed thinking about how little solid ground was underneath us with all those caves!
Afterwards we walked to the Reims Automobile Museum, whose collection also included bicycles, motorcycles, and toy cars. It was an impressive assemblage and some museum studies person could write a thesis on their use of manikins.
We were slowly making our way back into the old town and visited a small art deco masterpiece, a library funded by Andrew Carnegie. It’s just behind the cathedral and worth a peek.
By the Hotel de Ville, we sat for coffee and beer and wondered about the place across the street called “Bar Club.” The late afternoon took us to the Porte de Mars, a Roman triumphal arch from the 3rd century.
We wanted to eat dinner before taking our train back to Paris, so we found a place on the main pedestrian street, sat in the sun, and had flammkuchen and pizza. On the train home, John was tortured by the sounds of crunching and rustling plastic bags. I try to travel with earplugs all the time (even at home — I keep them in my purse), but I forgot them for this daytrip.
Since Gare de l’Est wasn’t far from where we stayed the last time, we went to say hello to the Canal St Martin and the restaurant we ate at on the first night of that trip. It was a beautiful night and all the kids were out on the canal drinking Heineken or Kronenburg. We continued to rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud where all the bars proudly list their rum-based cocktails. I went looking for two specific music clubs, but couldn’t find them. Instead we stumbled upon Pili Pili, where the Black-Flag-shirt-and-suspender-wearing bartender made us a mojito and Cuba Libre with Havana Club rum. There was a picture of Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks on the wall and the whole bar got super psyched when “La Bamba” came on. Surreal and so awesome.
We kept walking for another 30 minutes and visited Le China to say goodbye. I was hungry again and devoured vegetable dim sum. John had a Manhattan and we watched the two girls DJ-ing. I could live the rest of my life without hearing “Love Shack” ever again, but I forgave them.
The next morning we gave our farewells to the Bastille neighborhood by buying almond and chocolate croissants and chocolate madeleines at a beautiful boulangerie and visiting the market at Place d’Aligre one more time. John took me to Bistro du Coin where he’d been getting his coffee most mornings. At Montparnasse, we bought lunch to eat on the train to Vendome.
We arrived at 1pm and all of the passengers disappeared immediately into cars and buses and then we were the only people left in the station. I wasn’t entirely sure how we were going to get from the TGV station to the rental car agency. Once we realized that taxis don’t appear automatically, we walked back into the station and an agent came to our rescue by calling us one. We were to pick the car up from a Total gas station. A very busy man did the paperwork at lightning speed and referred to John only as “mister”, while his large dog (part pit bull) slept in the office. Finally, he hooked us up with . . . a Renault Kangoo, the same vehicle the postal service uses.
We had no trouble finding our way to Vouvray where we got a real education at Domaine Marc Bredif on the Loire River. Because of our timing, we did the tasting first and then took a short tour with Nathalie. Our guide for the tasting was a young man who grew up in the area. He started us off with sparkling Vouvray (which I didn’t know existed — why is this amazing stuff not common in the US?) and then the still Vouvray. He showed us how well the wine ages with a 1988 vintage and a younger private reserve. Then he moved to their sweet wines, a recent Nectar and an aged Nectar from 1990, made with grapes harvested at the very end of the season when the sugar levels are highest. We also tried two Chinons, red wines from a region southwest of Vouvray.
During the tour of the caves, dug right into the hillside, we saw the room where the vintners have stored bottles from the best vintages. Like something out of Indiana Jones, arches were cut into the walls all the way around the shadowy circular room with the vintage years painted over top the arches. A large stone table sits at the center. Only four bottles remain of 1874. We bought a bottle of the sparkling and the private reserve from 2009 to take with us!
It took some finagling, but we found our way to the bed and breakfast in Blere around 5pm. Le Moulin du Fief Gentil proved to be another fabulous recommendation from Rick Steves (he sent us to Marc Bredif too where we met another Rick Steves-reading couple). Here is the view behind the old mill building.
For dinner, we drove about 20 minutes north to Amboise, located at the widest part of the Loire River. It was easy finding parking and hungry as we were, we ate at the first place, L’Ambacia, that had something vegetarian. I had a croque chevre, foreshadowing the fact that in the next few days I would eat enough goat cheese for a life time. It was delicious and I enjoyed a local Chardonnay wine as well. John had a burger, which was satisfying, but he felt very disappointed in himself for getting something so familiar.
Then we wandered the town, took pictures of the chateau, and watched the swallows flying around the towers. After a good walk, we had crepes at L’Amboiserie for dessert. John’s crepe had chocolate and lots of chantilly cream, while mine was a Calvados flambee (tasty, but without as much fire as I’d hoped). The waitress wore leather pants which did not go unnoticed.
At the end of a long, but good day, we opened our sparkling Vouvray back at the mill pond and enjoyed the quiet night.
John and I never truly thought that we would go back to a place, but when we decided to return to Paris, three years after our first trip there, we knew that the goal would be to achieve a better balance between wine bars and museums, cafe-sitting and “must see” checklists.
Gare du Nord seemed a baffling labyrinth, even compared to the sprawling Charles de Gaulle airport, which at least possesses decent signage. Sleep-deprived, we arrived at the train station around 8am and spent an inordinate amount of time looking for the luggage check. In my Dramamine haze, the lockers posed a greater challenge than a Rubik’s cube and then John couldn’t figure out how to get the door open to leave the cage-like area where the lockers were. Miraculously, we found ourselves near Chaumont-Buttes around 9am (Damn our chipless credit cards! John’s French did him well in ordering a carnet of metro tickets). We followed a walking tour from an Eyewitness Guide book to look at houses in the neighborhood before entering the park. We saw impressive ivy and a lovely community garden on a hillside that looks out to Sacre Coeur.
This gorgeous park in the northeastern corner of the city has the best features of public spaces designed in the Victorian era: faux Roman monuments and grottoes, water works, bridges, huge lawns. Gaggles of French children on field trips busily completed scavenger hunts, while scoffing teenagers hung out on the rocks at the park’s highest point. Meanwhile, older Asian women performed their morning exercises and all the joggers were out. In the park’s large grotto, a woman was either practicing her operatic singing or had volunteered to provide atmosphere. And we saw not one, but TWO cats on leashes.
No matter how bucolic a landscape, one always needs to meet that basic need: finding a toilet. Just outside of the park, we spotted one of Paris’s many self-cleaning units. I made the mistake of entering directly after a man had exited without realizing that the contraption goes into a cleaning mode after each patron. Before I knew it, the toilet folded up and water started gushing in from the floor. I was in such a state of shock and confused emotions (how will I get relief?) that I stood frozen in the hope that it might be a short-lived cycle. It was not. After two more waves succeeded in soaking my shoes and dampening my pants nearly up to the knee I managed to exit. No picture can fully capture the situation, but fortified as I was with so much Charlie Chaplin I laughed off the experience as something out of Modern Times. I eventually dried off and enjoyed using a hair dryer on my shoes when the opportunity presented itself about 4 hours later.
Since we were in the northern part of the city, we again hopped on the metro and rode all the way to the Basilica of Saint Denis, the French equivalent of Westminster Abbey.
It was once a Benedictine abbey, built in the 5th century and later rebuilt in the 12th century in the early Gothic style. The free brochure, from which I am getting all of this information, says: “Most of the kings and queens of France were buried here from the 6th century onwards.” In the crypt, we saw where the remains of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette lie, while the main level of the church is filled with amazing examples of funerary sculpture from the earliest recumbent styles to Renaissance monuments (such as the tomb of Louis XII and Anne de Bretagne pictured above). The tomb of King Dagobert (d. 639) is also here.
We chose to ignore the rumbles of hunger and headed back to Gare du Nord to pick up our bags and check in to our AirBnB place near the Bastille on rue de Charenton. We went on a short walk to orient ourselves around the neighborhood and ate lunch at Bistrot du Peintre (Av. Ledru Rollin) with its gorgeous Art Nouveau bar, cheesy music selection, and friendly wait staff. Our hearty meal — eggplant lasagne for me and saucisse fraiche for John accompanied by Cotes du Rhone wine — revived us for more rambles along rue de Charonne where we found a fabulous comic book store, BDnet, which must be a French chain. Nerds unite! John had no problem getting advice from the clerk and bought some books by his favorite désignateur, Boulet, whose books aren’t here in the US.
After a break back at the apartment, we took off again in a different direction and followed the southernmost part of the Canal St. Martin from the Bastille to the Viaduc des Arts.
We spent a short time huddled under a bridge with other pedestrians trying to dodge the pouring rain, but soon it lightened up and, peering in the windows of the artisans of the Viaduc, we salivated over restored paintings, lamps that doubled as sculptures, and 900 Euro ukuleles.
The Promenade Plantée makes use of the old railway on top of the Viaduc and inspired New York’s Highline. Again we saw lots of joggers, two boys practicing martial arts, and countless roses. Who’s this dapper gentleman?
It was time for a good sit down, so we exited the promenade and found our way to Le Baron Rouge, a tiny wine bar by Place d’Aligre. I tried a glass of Petit Chablis and John a Chinon. I had not even the strength to bar hop. We walked down rue de Lappe, lined with dark bars (reminiscent of Bourbon Street without the strip clubs), but I wanted the sun. Feeling very tired and utterly defeated when I realized I’d forgotten a critical piece to our plug adaptor, I took a nap. John, meanwhile, scoped out the neighborhood and found us our first stop for the evening.
On our street: the back of the Opera Bastille, a small hospital, a high school and metal stands plastered with EU-election posters. There was also Nebbiolo (67 rue de Charenton), owned by the enthusiastic Frederico. His adorable “Cave Italienne – Table Piemontaise” sold Italian wines by the bottle and had approximately 15 seats (including the bar). We sat at the bar around the corner from three Parisians in love with Aperol spritz. Frederico gave us two Italian reds to try and made sure we ate well with his specials: radishes and fresh ricotta, peppers with anchovy cream (for John only), fresh pasta and pesto. A young female relative helped in the kitchen and Frederico gave her pointers on how to make the perfect Aperol spritz (they must go through a ton of the stuff). I was so happy to have radishes! It reminded me of home.
Knowing I didn’t want to venture far, John took me a few more doors down Charenton to Le China, one of the coolest bars ever. All the lights are red; there’s a 1940s vibe and a cocktail menu longer than the Homeric catalog of ships. I had my first Mai Tai ever – superb pineapple flavor! – and John drank “Hemingway’s Last Stand”. We were thoroughly entertained by watching the two bartenders make drinks. The girl was a novice and still learning what went in what, so we made sure to let her know that we really liked what she made for us. I was thrilled by the complimentary bar snacks: fresh cucumber and carrot sticks for dipping in a sesame-soy sauce flavored hummus (it may not have technically been hummus, but it’s the closest comparison).
That was the first day.
The next morning we visited the market at Place d’Aligre and bought apples, yogurt (quite challenging to pronounce in French), and croissants. We ate the croissants on a bench on the promenade and ate the yogurts back at the apartment. On a leisurely walk we went from the Bastille to Notre Dame where we stumbled upon “Le Fete du Pain”! Children were learning how to shape dough at one booth (here’s a girl with flour on her chin), while at another an old baker flirted with women by playing up the sensuality of his wares and teasing them with samples. The smell of all that bread was amazing!
We visited the Archaeological Crypt of Notre Dame to see remains of Roman and medieval houses, before continuing our walk toward the Pantheon on the left bank. On the way we stopped in a tiny, jam-packed electronics store that had the just the thing we needed to charge our camera and phones.
John shook his fist at the shrouded dome of the Pantheon, but he was easily consoled with beer at La Gueuze just down the street. I rested my feet and drank, what else, a gueuze.
We rambled through the Luxembourg Gardens and then northward to a sandwich shop I’d heard about through the blog of chef and food writer David Lebovitz. Apparently Cosi is a hot lunch spot and we dutifully waited in line (there was no place to wait inside) for our “Cheesy English” (roast beef and cheddar) and “Naked Willy” (ricotta, zucchini, walnuts, and peppers) — quite an embarrassing order to place. We ate our sandwiches and apples from the market by the Seine and watched one of the sellers of vintage print materials (books, pamphlets, plates) try to catch an old magazine before it flew over the railing onto the quai below. He managed to collect it a few minutes later.
We visited the Rodin Museum a short distance away, where the gardens were the highlight. In the new building with the gift shop, the museum has a gallery for special exhibits. The temporary exhibition showed the parallels between Rodin’s sculptures and Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, namely their approaches to texture, light, and form. I’d only seen Mapplethorpe’s work in books, so it was a treat to see large prints of all the beautiful bodies. In the 18th-century mansion, smaller sculptures are on display, but the Hôtel Biron itself is so interesting in terms of its wall decorations and design that I marveled more at the mansion than at the sculptures. The mansion was also very hot, so we escaped to the large garden and sat to rest our feet. We saw a few people walk by into the very back of the garden, but they never returned. Perhaps there’s another exit, we thought! We got up to investigate. The back garden turned out to have lots of reclining lawn chairs — so that’s where they all went — they all went to sleep.
We weren’t far from rue Cler, a mostly pedestrianized foodie street. We ate an eclair at a bakery that had a few tables outside (it was chocolate on chocolate and so rich), before visiting the cheese shop of Anne Marie Cantin around the corner. In this small, beautiful shop, we were not supposed to touch anything. I realized that I know nothing about French cheese and my mild fear of soft cheeses (they tend to be funkier than hard cheeses) started churning. I spotted a hard cheese that turned out to be delicious and we also bought a sampler of three cheeses (goat, blue, and something brie) and yogurt for the morning. Though the woman working in the shop was very kind and patient with us, we both were totally intimidated.
The ride on the metro and subsequent naptime provided much needed rest. John slept a bit longer so I surprised him by arranging all the items for our dinner. He bought a wine from Nebbiolo, one of the ones we tried last night, and somewhere along our adventures that day we picked up a loaf of bread. I found the tomato in our apartment, which also had olive oil, vinegar, and dried oregano. The goat cheese, the little round one in the picture, was so hard! We weren’t sure how to eat it.
I had a music evening plotted for us around rue de Charonne. First we went to Le Hotel at the end of a cul de sac. The place had two rooms and we found two little cubes to sit on by the window looking on the street. We drank a white wheat beer, very refreshing, and felt like we were some place on U Street in DC. Lots of guys with beards and hats. We saw a cello and guitar set up on the tiny stage (about the size of my dining room table) only a few inches above the floor. Our scepticism melted into pure delight when the two guys started playing about 15 minutes later. The guitarist’s voice was a little like Jeff Buckley’s and the guitar and cello worked well together to produce atmospheric, dreamy rock.
As it got closer to 9pm (still light outside!), we moved to L’Atelier Charonne, a traditional jazz club with lots of seating for dinner. We sat at the bar where the super nice bartender made us feel at home. I was still hungry and ordered risotto with mushrooms and later for dessert we shared a mille feuille (Napoleon). John had an excellent Cote du Rhone rose!
The Ben Toury trio played that night. What a good time! Piano, bass, guitar. Toury sang and played the piano like a demon and wore two tambourines on his right leg for keeping time They had a gypsy violinist friend in the audience who came up now and then. The music went everywhere — blues, New Orleans, gypsy jazz. Truly awesome.
I swear I saw a guy who was hanging out at Le Hotel appear at L’Atelier Charonne for his shift. He changed his earring from a flashier hoop to a discrete stud. I’m sure of it.
We ended the night at La Mécanique Ondulatoire, where a punk band was at it downstairs with a 10 euro cover. We stayed in the upstairs bar with the cool retro furniture and Edelweiss beer.
We got ourselves to bed not too late. The next day we would be visiting Reims!
In the following posts, I’ll share stories and pictures from my and John’s trip to France and England, but first the facts:
Trip length: 16 days from May 12-27, 2014 Number of places stayed in: 7 Stairs climbed: countless. All but one place required stair climbing and twice we were on the top floor. Pounds of goat cheese consumed per person: 17.3 Trains taken: 7 Seatless toilets used: 3 Harris Tweed vests purchased: 1 Roman ruins spotted: 2 Cows counted: impossible to say Miles driven in a Renault Kangoo: 604 Vineyards visited: 3 Beer festivals attended: 1 Musical acts seen or heard: 11 if we include the chorus of drag queens dressed as nurses singing “Happy Birthday” on the street in Soho and the ubiquitous accordion players on the Paris metro Stray cats petted by John: at least 2. He probably touched more when I wasn’t looking.
Since we’d spent a lot time on the coast during our first two days in Normandy, we decided to head inland on the morning of the third day to the Pays d’Auge region, known for its cider producers and cheese makers. We started the day in Clermont-en-Auge, where one can see a panorama of the verdant farmland.
We headed down into the valley to our first market town, Beuvron-en-Auge, just as the shops were beginning to open up. John and I visited a few and bought some provisions for a picnic lunch to go with our Bayeux cheese. We also got some Camembert and rhubarb nectar for the next day. And I bought a straw hat! My hands were full with our grocery bags so John put different hats on my head until we settled on this one:
After leaving town, we followed the Cider Route and found a roadside picnic table to enjoy our cider, cheese, bread, fruit, and, for John, terrine. Afterwards we drove on to another market town, Cambremer.
We felt we’d had enough of the countryside and craved a relaxing afternoon by the sea. It was an easy drive to Deauville, one of the older, gentile resort towns. We didn’t take many pictures in Deauville, because we were too busy window shopping! We found a lovely main street with boutiques and restaurants. John bought a dashing summer hat and we bought some chocolates filled with assorted liqueurs. At the center of town, we stumbled upon a market. People were selling everything: cheese, lingerie, barrettes, rare books, seafood, wigs, you name it. Deauville also has a large harbor, a casino, and, outside of town, a racetrack — all the essentials for a good resort town. We had to get back to check on the parking meter and though I was sorry to leave this fun little town, I was happy to spend the rest of the afternoon on the beach near Le Mas Normand. On the way home, we drove through many small, seaside resorts, each with their own charm.
On Gold Beach, it was windy by the water, but we found a spot protected by a sand dune where I read for a bit. We had made up our minds to eat at the restaurant near the beach, whose little spinning “PIZZA” sign looked like it might blow away at any moment. The dining room was dark, but homey. John and I were relieved when another couple came in and at some point an older woman, who must have been a regular, appeared for her dinner. I decided to try a different regional cocktail. This time: kir Normand, cider mixed with cassis. It was so tasty, I had two! And luckily not too much alcohol was involved. The best part about this place was that they played great music from the 1930s and 40s. We heard Bing Crosby, Louis Prima, and many others, while we looked at the curious decor, a mix of rustic work tools and posters advertising American cars from the 1950s. We both had salad and crepes that night before walking back to our room at Le Mas Normand and trying to figure out how we were going to sleep when it was still light out at 10PM.
The next morning we packed up the car and headed northeast to Etretat. The drive took about 2 hours. We hit a few toll roads and at one point, John pulled up to the wrong gate. The machine wanted a ticket, but we had none! Where had then been an opportunity to get a ticket? He pressed the help button, explained to the attendant that we were confused Americans who didn’t know any better, paid the 3.30 euro toll, and off we went.
Many French had this Friday off as a holiday, so everyone else shared our idea of spending the gorgeous day at Eretat, where white cliffs meet the sea. It took quite some time to get a parking spot and to walk to the water, but the beautiful sight that greeted us suddenly made all the trouble worth it. We joined the crowds and began climbing the cliffs for an unparalleled view of the shore, seagulls’ nests, and the sharp ends of the green earth. Up here, the wind blew hard as we trepidatiously peered over the edge. Of course, a little fear didn’t stop us from crossing a wooden bridge to one of the rocky outcroppings. Although we could have walked farther on to the next cliff, it was time for lunch. We found a spot on the stony beach, out of the wind, and enjoyed a reprise of yesterday’s picnic.
Following the Seine
We had planned to visit Fecamp, another town farther up the coast known for the production of an herbal liqueur called Bénédictine, but since so many people had the day off and were spending it on the water, we skipped Fecamp and headed inland. At Caudebec-en-Caux, we caught up with the Seine.
I’d read about an old abbey, still in working order, called St. Wandrille, south of Caudebec-en-Caux. John let me wander around, while he searched for coffee. I saw some ruins of the old church, the abbey’s fields and sheep, and the abbey shop, which sold the usual monastic products, like beeswax, honey, and sweet alcoholic beverages. I felt a bit uncomfortable creeping around the silent grounds without knowing where I could or could not go, so I left rather quickly.
For a few days, I’d had an itchy, red rash on my right hand. By this point, it was starting to burn and lotion was no longer helping to soothe the skin. Eager to be out of the car for a bit, John suggested we go into a pharmacy. I hoped for something like a CVS with over-the-counter medications, but this pharmacy appeared to stock mostly prescription grade items. We found an ointment for plant and insect bites, but it wasn’t possible simply to buy it. Like every other customer, we had to have a consultation at the counter (which explained why the line was so long). Unfortunately, John’s vocabulary didn’t include words like “rash” “itchy” “from a plant?”. The pharmacist didn’t speak any English and she wanted to see my hand. She disagreed with our choice of ointment and seemed to be telling us something about the sun… After an awkward few minutes, she gave up and let us buy what we wanted. I did keep my hand out of the sun, which helped immensely (I decided to interpret her that way).
Although my hand was still causing me some distress and John still hadn’t found any coffee, we tarried on to the evocative ruins of Jumièges.
Started in 654, the abbey survived the Viking raids and lasted many centuries until the French Revolution, when the abbey became a stone quarry. Damn those revolutionaries, they ruined everything! Still, the abbey remains an impressive structure. Its steeples are gone, but the towers remain, stretching up to the sky. We wandered around the grounds to try to imagine the Benedictine abbey in its original splendour.
Across the parking lot, we found a cafe and had some beer (John) and ice cream (me). It had been a long day in the hot sun, so we headed straight for Rouen, where another B&B was waiting for us.
Joan of Arc Died Here
Thankfully, there wasn’t much traffic going into Rouen, a city whose heyday was during the middle ages. I knew navigating a medieval city with narrow, one-way streets would be tricky, but I hadn’t expected those streets to be on a 45 degree incline (this was in the northern part of the city, where our B&B was). Subsequently, it was quite an adventure finding our way Le Jardin en Douce (next time we will definitely take the train). We accidentally crossed the Seine, so John made an illegal U-turn and followed the bridge back over. Miraculously we found ourselves on the correct street and spotted our next turn…except that left-turns were prohibited there…so, yes, another illegal U-turn. Oh, whoops, what was that a police station that we just made an illegal U-turn in front of? Where are the roundabouts when you need them?! We found our street, turned right and started up the hill. Despite the fact that the Google map print out I had didn’t label all the streets and despite the fact that not all the streets had identifying signs, John guided the car to the B&B on an impasse off a ridiculously tiny street fit only for sledding.
We were both frazzled and tired when our host came out to greet us. Marc Lafont has a beautiful garden and house looking out to the hills of Rouen. After the tour, John went out in search of drinks and I read in the garden. He returned triumphant having found the shop our host recommended. He bought some cider, beers, and fruit juice for the night and next day. Tempted as I was at first just to call it night, after some cider and a bath in the airy bathroom with a tub and skylight, John and I felt sufficiently rested to walk down to Rouen.
On the way to the town center, we passed the industrial train station and houses of the sort we’d seen all over Normandy, especially in the coastal towns, made of bricks and unidentifiable rubble. The builders, however, had done an artful job, not unlike the bone stackers in the Paris catacombs, of creating attractive patterns with their materials. We also passed the dungeon tower where Joan of Arc was held before her death (sadly, we didn’t make it to the market area where she was burned).
I loved the cramped, medieval streets of Rouen with crooked, half-timbered houses, reminiscent Alsace and Germany. And for as sparkling clean as the ornate Parliament building and the famous cathedral were, the other churches in town were black with pollution. Despite its abundance of chic boutiques selling designer clothes, faience, and antiques, Rouen was rougher and dirtier than Paris, but curiously, these flaws gave it a special charm (kind of like how Baltimore is called Charm City).
On one of the little streets, we found a restaurant called L’Enfant Terrible, where I had arguably the best baguette of my life. This was our last real dinner in France, so we each ordered wine and two courses. What I liked too was the ambience. We sat outside with many other couples and families. The table to our left was occupied by a mother and son, only to be replaced by another mother and son. At the large table to our right sat a good-looking couple with their three teenagers.
As the sun began to set, we walked over to the astronomical clock and then began our ascent up to Le Jardin en Douce.
The Ugly American
Our very last day. Whenever the end of a trip approaches, I always have trouble savoring the last day; it’s like I’m hurtling toward the end and I’m already worrying about the airport and returning the rental car instead of staying in the moment. We got up early and enjoyed a marvelous breakfast prepared by Marc. He set out some bread, jams, fresh melon, and yogurt, only to be followed by an orange marmalade crepe. Although his hospitality, lovely house, and delightful breakfast deserved to be appreciated to the fullest, our itchy feet got us out the door quickly. I think Marc was a bit shocked by our abrupt departure, but we were anxious to get moving and find our way out of Rouen.
Driving out of Rouen turned out to be a much less stressful experience than driving in. Soon we were high above the Seine and on our way to Les Andeleys.
Like Jumièges Abbey, Chateau Gaillard has a long history, including a stint as a stone quarry. Built in 1196 by Richard the Lionheart, the castle sits above the Seine and overlooks the beautiful river valley.
The chateau grounds were fun to wander around, especially because of the pretty flowers. John even saw some lizards crawling through the high grass.
After an hour or so at Chateau Gaillard, we headed to our final sightseeing destination a bit farther down the Seine: Giverny.
A Day with Mr. Monet
After a few days around the peaceful countryside and coastline of Normandy, the tiny town of Giverny, which is dedicated to serving tourists, was a bit of a shock. Suddenly, we were back to tightly packed crowds (unlike Etretat where there’s room to roam) with cameras glued to their faces. I was never more relieved to have bought a ticket in advance than on this hot, sunny Saturday.
As expected, the gardens were beautiful (I was delighted to find that the waterlillies were blooming!) and Monet’s house adorable. I loved the colors inside the house; for example, the dining room was a cheery yellow and the kitchen covered in blue tiles. The creaky stairs got me thinking though…what wear-and-tear the house and grounds must suffer with everyone tromping through.
After touring the gardens and house, we were quite hungry. Luckily there’s a restaurant every few hundred yards and we managed to get a table right away. During lunch, it was fun watching all the gardening clubs and older ladies visiting Giverny for the day.
Waiting for Godot
And then we made the sad journey to the Hyatt by the Charles de Gaulle airport. Of course, I was worried about getting to the hotel, but we managed splendidly. The hardest part was driving to Terminal 2 to return the car. We needed to fill the tank, but we had no idea how to get to the gas station we could see off the ramp across from the ramp we were on. Then, the horrors of the Death Star-style parking garage. After turning in the keys, we took the airport tram and then the Hyatt shuttle. Finally, check in. It was about 4PM, so we joined the other hotel guests in passing the time by reading, drinking, and watching TV. I couldn’t decide whether it was a lazy dream or an existential nightmare. Where were we? Really? Was there actually a ballroom dance competition going on with people walking about with numbers on their backs? But since the bed was super comfy and the heavy curtains blocked out the 10:30 sunset, I honestly had no complaints.
People ask me about this trip and I don’t know what to say. What part do I tell them about? The amber glow of the Eiffel Tower, the nameless dead of Paris in the damp catacombs, the opulent Opera Garnier, the turquoise waters of Brittany, the shadow of Mont St Michel against the tranquil mudflats, the terrifying cliffs of Etretat, the glorious roses of Giverny? I’m so thankful to have had the chance to see this beautiful part of France and to have observed (and even experienced a little bit) the easy way of French living: good food and drink, the outdoors, friends and family.