|Subject: October France Trip - LONG!|
Hi to All Ziners and Francophiles,
I am finally sitting myself down to recall the highlights of my recent trip to one of my favorite places in the whole world, with a younger friend, who did the driving once we reached Avignon. Since it was a first time in Europe for her, I had the pleasure of seeing her enjoy all the wonderful sights. I made myself take rather detailed notes, and am having to force myself to translate and record them now. (I'd rather be planning my next trip.) But I gain so much from The Travelzine and enjoy everyone else's travels and experiences vicariously so much that I do want to share. Once started I get carried away; for that I apologize.
Our trip was great, and I'm so glad we went when we did, especially with things in such turmoil in the Paris area now. We stayed in the 6th at Hotel Clement (on the recommendation of Linda, Don and other Ziners) and were very pleased. The room was typically small but had everything we needed, ample closet space, and the bathroom was all tiled, very attractive and appeared to be new. The front desk attendants were all very helpful about giving us directions and, with Gerard Mulot's pattiserie just down the block and a lovely mall, including a market, across the street, it was ideal. We tried the restaurant a couple of doors away for dinner the first evening, since we were too jet-lagged to want to go very far. Called L' Instant Gourmand, at 2 Rue Clement, we didn't expect a lot, but it was bright and cheerful, the young waitstaff the same, and we found the food (chicken en papillote, served with a beautiful assortment of vegetables/ dessert) to be extremely satisfactory, the wine quite acceptable, and it was 15 Euros each, including wine. It was so good we expected to go back, but kept finding new places to try, so we never did.
One of our finds was Brasserie Saint Benoit, just around the corner from Les Deux Magots (as you are facing it, go left to the first corner and turn right. It's across the street. The waiters were nearly all Vietnamese, very friendly, extremely efficient and eager to please, and the food was delicious, perfectly prepared and presented, the wine very good, and the bill around 70 euros for both of us, including dessert. Days we had lunch it was usually a baguette, cheese and a bit of wine, enjoyed in a park, so we treated ourselves at dinner and were always quite hungry after so much walking.
The location of the Clement is perfect, with a metro station just around the corner one block, but we walked to Notre Dame our first day and to the Louvre the second day - then from the Louvre to Tour Eiffel after a late lunch. (I don't recommend Cafe Marly there at the Louvre.) We had dinner at Leon's, around the corner from our hotel. Their specialty is mussels, but we had gambas and frites, which were very nicely done. The third day we took the metro and then the train to Versailles. I had been there several times before but, since Emily had not, it was a must, and she loved every minute. We had bought museum passes online along with our Sr. Rail Passes, so both the train and the entry fee were included. We took the little train over to the Grand Trianon for a look-see, and it was raining when we came out, but we had our raincoats and umbrellas, so no problem. We had light rains several times while in Paris, but never enough to limit what we did, and once in the South the weather was ideal - low 50's mornings, heating all the way up to 70 or so most days. (It was 51 degrees our first morning in Paris and, having left 102 in Texas, I felt like running through the street laughing it was so great.)
On Saturday, we headed for Saint Chapelle. I had missed it on earlier trips. If you like stained glass, and you have even a half day in Paris, you must go there. I've seen stained glass in cathedrals and basilicas all over europe but never anything to equal this. It's the story of the bible that encircles the chapel. It was built by King Louis IX to house the religious relics he had acquired (supposedly including the crown of thorns). The glass is truly exquisite and awesome. I didn't want to leave. But we went just down the block to the Conciergerie, which we also found very interesting architecturally and historically. One hated to think of poor Marie Antoinette imprisoned there prior to her beheading. We took the metro to Monmartre Sunday to visit the Sacre Coeur, after going to mass that morning at Saint Sulpice to hear the boys choir and then staying for the organ concert. Back to Notre Dame for the 4:30 organ concert. You might say we had a day of churches, and we aren't even Catholic
We had some great serendipitous things that just make a trip - such as a piano concert we just happened on. We had just come from the organ concert at Notre Dame late Sunday afternoon and saw the flyer. It was at "the oldest church in Paris - Saint Andre de Pauvre." With a bit of help, we discovered it was just around the corner a couple of blocks. Being early, we had seats right at the front. The pianist (Herbert du Plessis) was excellent, backed by six strings, with a very lively conductor in black tie and tails. The music, Chopin and Liszt) was spellbinding. Then we found a restaurant for our best dinner of the whole trip, and our only rude, snobbish waiter. But we were on such a high he couldn't spoil our day. We polished off a whole bottle of superior Bordeaux, which he had opened and then just sat on the table - never offered to pour any. I've never seen that happen at any restaurant anywhere. Two young Englishmen on one side of us got the same kind of treatment and were incensed. The French couple on the other side of us had excellent service and complimentary champagne after their dinner. It was obvious he just held himself above the tourists. The food really was excellent - the restaurant "La Bouteille D'Or," at 9 quai de Montbello, in the 5th, actually directly across the river from Notre Dame. We taxied back to the hotel, happy as clams. We left the next morning by TGV to Avignon.
The bed and breakfast Nancy Coffey had recommended near Avignon just could not have been nicer or the owners more wonderful. The place and the people are charming and unbelievably accommodating. They met us at the Hertz office to show us the way to their place, and we liked it so well we cancelled our last two nights in Nice and returned to the B&B, realizing it would be so much more convenient than driving from Nice to Agivnon to turn in the car to get the train back to CDG. They insisted on preceding us to the Hertz office and then getting our luggage to the train and ON the train, then stood and waved us off. Per my doctors, I was not supposed to be lifting luggage - period! Well, that is way too limiting. The trains were the biggest challenge, especially with their quick stops. But we were so blessed with friendly, helpful French people, who bailed me out at every turn. My obvious age had to have something to do with it (and it's about time it paid off), but we were just so impressed. It had it's very trying moments, and I learned a lot about myself - mostly what I just physically am beyond doing. I cannot hustle luggage - even the one bag . So, realistically, I will be limited to tour groups, cruises or my winning the lottery so I can hire a young hunk to handle bags and ease the way for me. But I hasten to add that we walked so much and climbed so many stairs I came home two pounds lighter, in spite of all the croissants, pastries and fabulous food.
The day after we arrived at the B&B, we learned that the trains were on strike. Close call! Then we headed to Avignon. The rail protesters were there in force, had taken any available parking and tied up traffic. It was a nightmare. After driving around for more than an hour, we finally went inside the walls and eventually used a parking space that was just being vacated, but the machine wouldn't take our money for parking so we were afraid to stay there very long. We walker down to the Papal Palace and I enjoyed cappucino while Emily toured the Palace. Emily was rather disenchanted with Avignon at that point, so we retrieved the car and headed out and made our way to Arles. Parking was a problem there as well, but we did get to the arena, and that was the main objective of that visit.
After three days in Chateaurenard (at the B&B), we drove to La Garde Freinet, which was quite a treat. Freida, our Travelzine friend who lives there, very generously showed us around and even took us to the Saturday market at Saint Tropez, which was a place I'd not made a point of experiencing on previous trips because of its reputation as a haven for the rich and/or celebrities, as well as ridiculous traffic. But in October, the traffic was very manageable, parking available, and we thoroughly enjoyed the market. Brought home some of the best tapenade I've ever had, after sampling several varieties made by the same vendor. Frieda also introduced us to fougasse and rustide, which I could not remember having tried before. Since I'm such a bread freak, and both were so delicious, I got out my bread cookbook on arriving home and plan to bake fougasse on my next day off. She also introduced us to Soup au Pistou, which was just SO good, and I found I had the recipe in one of my Provencal cookbooks, so I've already made it, and we loved it. At the market, I bought a cashmere and silk sweater for my daughter at an excellent price - actually did a bit of Christmas shopping there. They had such a huge variety of merchandise available, as well as fabulous foods. But there is always that limitation of what is going to fit in your luggage.
We also visited the little town of Collobrieres, the chestnut capital (along with La Garde Freinet) of France. It was the time of year the chestnuts are harvested and used in every imaginable way. I must say the chestnut ice cream was absolutely to lust for. In Paris, I had chestnut crepes as an entree, and that was a real treat. I even brought some home, shelled, cooked and vacuum sealed, for my niece who loves to use chestnuts in the stuffing for their Thanksgiving turkey, but finds them devilish to shell.
On the way back to Chateaurenard and the bed and breakfast, we detoured to Chateauneuf du Pape, had lunch and visited a winery for a tasting. That the Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc I had been searching for at home, but it was 57 euros/bottle. There are so many wines I enjoy that are much less expensive that I didn't invest. Prior to leaving, we had invited our hosts to be our guests for dinner when we returned on Sunday. They had been so helpful and were such good company. Their favorite place in Chateaurenard was closed, it being Sunday, and we went to Graveson for dinner at Auberge de la Candeliere, which (as the name suggests) also houses a candle factory. There were few diners, but the food and wine were very good. I had an appetizer of thinly sliced, herbed, grilled eggplant, with a layer of chevre mousse (to die for). The bill was only 112 euros, including dessert and wine, quite modest for such a nice evening and lovely ambience. It is a matter of minutes from Avignon, St. Remy and not too far from Arles.
The next day we enjoyed just driving and absorbing the countryside and wound up at Les Baux, which is always interesting. I've never found really commendable food in the area that I could afford, so we went back to Chateaurenard, picked up quiches, salad, wine and lemon tarts for a picnic supper on the terrace....a lovely way to spend our last evening in Provence.
When we arrived at CDG, it was quite a trek getting up three levels and to the shuttle stop for our hotel to pick us up, but once again we had the help of a very nice Frenchman who had sat across from us on the train, and knew his way around. We made a mistake in choosing to have dinner in our hotel. It was the worst meal of the entire trip and not the way to end such a "delicious" trip, but we made up for it the next day on Air France, having invested FF miles to fly first class. We had flown over on Delta Business Elite, and I must say it doesn't compare well to AF First.
All in all, it was so great. I know that I have repeatedly used every superlative I know, but that's how memory serves me. I cannot imagine anyone having the joy of visiting France and returning with negative feelings about the people and/or the country. I just hope I live long enough to get back to visit the Loire one of these days.
Lou Lakeway, TX