Fantastic French Vacation

It is known that France is a fantastic travel destination with many attractive places to see and the French is bestowed upon a special gift of gastronomy. But it was not till my husband and I vacationed in France for two weeks this June that I had a real taste of what it means, even though I had been to Paris several years ago. The truth is my French vacation was a phenomenal experience.

Flying into Paris, we picked up a rental car at Charles de Gaulle airport and drove straight to Giverny. After that, it was Bayeux, Omaha Beach, Mont Saint Michel, Loire Valley, Nohant, Les Eyzies, Sarlat, Beynac, Carcassonne and Nice. Returning the rental car in Nice, we rode the train to Paris and spent the last leg of our trip there. Every one of these places impressed me in their distinctive and unique way. It was a whirl wind tour where surprises never ceased; before I recovered from one amazement, the ensuing one would blow me away again.

From Normandy to Loire Valley and Nohant, we rolled through relatively flat tract but the landscape became more unpredictably varied as we drove from Nohant to Sarlat, Carcassonne and Nice, where roads curved and climbed and views layered and undulated. The scenery climaxed on the cornices between Nice and Menton with breathtaking vistas of azure Mediterranean Sea and picturesque French towns sprawling over tortuous and mountainous coastal line.

Diversified landscape certainly gives France commanding views and due boasting rights. But more thrilling are the human ingenuity and audaciousness that were present in everything we visited. From the thousand year old Bayeux Tapestry to the magical Abbey and town built on steep tidal island Mont Saint-Michel, from Chateau Chambord’s wondrous roof top to Chateau Chenonceau’s grand hall astride River Cher, from medieval town Sarlat’s beautiful honey-hued houses and its labyrinth of narrow passage ways to the mighty walls of Carcassonne, from magnificent Louvre in Paris and the treasured collections of art works and ancient artifacts it houses to Versailles’ grandeur and utter opulence, human creativity and brilliance wowed over and over again, equally admirable are the determination and effort in preserving these treasures. These achievements and feats from the past are such vivid history lessons that I can’t help but ponder over the long river of human development, from ancient time to Medieval, from Renaissance when humanism made its breakthrough to age of Enlightenment, from Romanticism to Realism of the present days.

France in the present day is a mix of new and old and every where we were, the roads were good and easy to navigate. The French is a proud people but friendly when approached with respect and most of them speak some English, which makes it convenient for us English speaking vacationers. At most of the places we went, we saw group(s) of children on field trip. The group we saw at Bayeux Cathedral was elementary school aged from England and the group we met and had a chat with at George Sand House Museum was middle school aged from nearby Chateauroux. These are some lucky kids.

Diversified in culture, the taste of France is diversified as well. While Paris offers choices with international infusion and menus in Cote d’Azur is heavily influenced by Italian flair, Cassoulet of Carcassonne and Dordogne’s gourmet are distinctively regional. One thing in common throughout our trip was that it was easy to find delightful culinary experience.

On the second day in France, we by chance bought two loafs of sandwiches of Salad, tomates, oeuf and Jambon (lettuce, tomatoes, eggs and ham) from a shop in Arrondches-les-Bains, a seashore resort town we drove through on our way to Mont Saint-Michell. It was simple yet so delectable that we were smitten. French boulangers are master bakers and freshly baked bread is the staple of every day diet. It is quite common to see loafs of bread carried in a basket or shopping bag or in hands or being chewed on by someone waiting in line for something. With bread that good, I can live on it with little addition. And indeed simple sandwiches became the staple of our lunch diet for the rest of the trip, sometimes eaten while waiting in line and sometimes while driving to our next destination. Pairing with the sandwiches were usually some pastries or deserts. French bakers make the best pastries and deserts. Be it from café, brasserie, bistro, restaurant, a museum shop or the boulangerie patisserie on the corner of the block, most delighted us and there was not one that did not satisfy.

The high of our culinary experience in France happened however over dinners. After the first long day of busy sightseeing, we stepped in gingerly and sat down for dinner at Taverne des Ducs in Bayeux, a restaurant recommended by our hotel Hotel d’Argouges. We had set-menu three course meals. I had starter of smoke salmon on salad and toasts, entrée of duck breast and creme brulee for desert, my husband, starter of pan seared snapper, entrée of veal and meringue for desert. None of the ingredients was new to us but somehow these same ingredients we had had before in one form or another turned out substantially better here. Everything was incredibly delicious and we cleaned up the plates overly well. Dishes like these are addictive; from then on, every day at dinner time we eagerly anticipated the decadent pleasure, pretty much abandoning the loose budget guideline all together. Some days we found matched pleasure, a couple of times it was surpassed and others not as good but none bad. Invariably we had plenty time every day to savor whatever we got because dinner here is a one-and-half-hour-minimum event.

Americans love travelling and we often run into fellow American tourists on any trip. But it is a rare first that we’d run into someone twice. Having just flown into Paris and waiting in line for rental car at CDG airport, we met fellow North Carolinians Tod and Sherry, who had been vacationing in England the previous week with their daughters. What an odd that we met them again in Normandy, the day we were visiting Omaha Beach and American Cemetery at St Lauren. While we ran into fellow Americans at almost every site, at the most popular sites such as Paris and Versailles, notable addition to the tourist throng were Chinese, in large numbers. Just Versailles alone, I loosely counted seven or eight groups. Valerie, the inn keeper at Hotel Panoramic in Nice, mentioned most of her guests are from China. It is also interesting to note that sites such as Mont Saint-Michel, Les Eyzies, Sarlat, Beynac and Carcassonne were visited predominantly by Europeans.

I am always diligent in documenting my travel with photography and very quick in finding things worthy of a snap. Click, click here and click, click there, I usually end up with a large stock of photos. My tally for this French vacation comes to, 2189, not including the dozens of duplicates and accidents removed to save space. They are my treasure trove of fine memories. But I realize no photos can do enough justice to the real things, you have to be there in person to fully appreciate them. Still with the hope that my photos would help you refresh your memory or inspire you to see these places yourself one day, I will post series of photos in chronological order.

P.S. A few practical notes.
Destinations: With so many fantastic choices, it is tough on settling the itinerary. Sometimes it is easier to go with a tour group. But it’s been difficult for me to find a prepackaged itinerary offering exactly the destinations and schedules that I want. And I do not mind the effort on researching and putting the itinerary together. In fact, I love the process because it is a great learning experience that increments my understanding and appreciation and extends the whole experience. My trip was packed this time and I was quite tired at the end. But I would do it over again. You know what you like and your time frame and the wonderful internet is free and willing to help you put together something you desire. It is also a good idea to use Excel sheet and/or Word kind of tools to organize research and trips. If you have any question, feel free to send me a comment.

Transportation: Roads are good in France and trains are convenient. We did car and train combo and it worked out perfectly for our itinerary. Even though the parking hassle did arise once in Nice, but the benefit of driving way outweigh that. I loved the freedom in time management and the surprises we ran into on route to destinations.

Food: Almost all hotels offer continental breakfast, fruits, yogurt, cereal, fresh bread and pastry, hard boiled eggs, milk, juice, hot tea, coffee and some ham and/or salami as well. I prefer having breakfast at the hotel because it is convenient, time-saving and I get a balanced choice that includes yogurt and fruits that help keep one regular. Lunch is easy, grab a sandwich on the go or something, like a yummy quiche, from a boulangerie patisserie. There are shops and café at every site offering some items or others. Dinner is important. We did run into a couple of good places ourselves but the best flavor came from places recommended by our hotels. So ask for recommendations by hotels or other locals.

Hotel: The best values go fast so book as early as you can. Tripadvisor.com is a good place to start your research. Rooms in Paris are likely to be small unless you spend $300 and up. Expect bathrooms to be small throughout France, unless it is a top rated luxurious and therefore quite expensive hotel. Not all hotels offer 24 hour reception that we are used to here in US. So mind your schedule and call ahead to arrange things with hotel if you are coming outside of the reception windows, or you’ll be locked out. As a side note, it was my observation that majority of toilet stalls were small, be it at a hotel, an eatery, a shop, museum, road side rest stop, airport or paid public toilet, with the exception of American Cemetery in Normandy.

Paris: I would not recommend driving in a place like Paris. Metro and RER train will get you to places. It is a better deal to get the Metro pass in Paris and it is available at many Metro stations. Our 5 day pass cost about €28 each. The museum pass is also a great deal. We needed a four day one which is not available so we got the 5 day pass which cost €50 each. Even so, it was still a great deal. If we had bought tickets separately, it would have cost us more. The museum pass is available at Paris Tourist Office near Louvre museum and maybe other sites too. The other benefit of the museum pass is that it saved us time by avoiding the long lines at most of the sites.

Journals and photos for each site are coming in subsequent posts.

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