This is a blog of the Jazzbeaux trip to France from August 25 – September 15, 2015. We flew to Paris, rented a car and drove through Normandy, Brittany, the Loire Valley, and Dordogne to Lyon; embarked on AmaDagio for a cruise down the Rhone to Arles; rented another car to fill in some sights in Provence on our way to Marseille; took the TGV to Paris and spent four days there before flying home. The following posts cover the trip day by day, with a final review of the AmaDagio cruise.
During the trip, Jazzbelle kept detailed notes and I took lots of pictures. After returning home, I revised the notes to remove names [to protect the guilty, as they say…] and put it in my voice to avoid confusion. Jazzbelle became “DW” in internet parlance [“Dear Wife”], and her cousin became “DC.”
My planning bible for this trip, as usual, was Rick Steves. I think the France book is a high point even for his always-excellent series. Every hotel and restaurant recommendation proved worthy, the sightseeing selections are high on everyone’s list but Rick gives more depth to his inclusions including guided tours of the major churches and museums and walking tours of many towns and cities, and the planning sections [e.g. “Whirlwind Three-Week Tour of France by Car”] are an invaluable starting point. My only complaint about Rick’s coverage of France is that you need to buy at least three books to get everything [the Paris book is more comprehensive than the Paris chapter in the France book, and the Provence book is much more comprehensive than the France book for that area].
Note that this blog is 3 pages. When you get to the bottom, there’s a button marked “Older Posts.” That contains the newer posts [I tricked the blog software to let me post from start to finish, the way I like to read blogs.]
We drove to Newark Airport, checked the large bags and proceeded to the Renaissance Hotel where we parked and jumped into the soon-to-depart shuttle. Arriving at the terminal, we ate our sandwiches from home and went through security. Boarding began early and we had a comfortable 767 (2-3-2). Food was decent and even though across from little children, we had a good flight. Unfortunately, we did not sleep – because Delta offered such great entertainment options [I watched Chocolat, in preparation for our visit to the Dordogne region where it was filmed.] Our flight took off on time and landed over 1/2 hour earlier than scheduled. Going through Customs took almost an hour, so checking the bags didn’t cost us any time.
We easily found Hertz and got a Peugeot 2008 hatchback which hid the luggage. A buzzy little creature with strange shifting and pickup, but it moved if pushed.
A nice day (sunny, mid 70s), we left the lot after 10 am and headed to Chartres. Paris roads are just as bad as L.A., etc. However, the drivers are very courteous and really seem to adhere to the rules of the road. Never heard them honk their horns. [This is a change from my last visit in 1967, when French drivers were convinced that you could only apply either the brakes or the horn – and routinely chose the horn]. We saw an unusual stainless steel sculpture on the roadside called Les Flèches des Cathédrales.
In Chartres we found the parking garage not far from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame and had a short walk uphill. Wind was very strong. The cathedral was undergoing major renovation so much of the nave was walled off – making it extremely difficult to get the sweep of the interior and to see the stained glass windows. The interior labyrinth was covered with chairs and we almost missed seeing it. But we covered every inch of the church, especially the restored choir area. We walked around town, saw the bucolic Eure River and Queen Bertha’s Staircase, and the first reminder of our trip last year walking the Camino de Santiago embedded in the sidewalk to mark the route from Paris to Spain. We had lunch at Le Café Serpente [where else would snake lovers eat?]: sandwiches on crunchy French bread hit the spot.
We then headed for Giverny and a delightful B&B, Le Clos Fleuri. Our host, Danielle, helped us with our bags and showed us our ground floor accommodations. We had sea bass en papillote at Ancien Hotel Baudy and enjoyed the company of a British couple dining next to us.
Rain! 60s! To Monet’s House and Gardens. Despite the weather, what a wonderfully rich experience! This is not the typical manicured estate garden but instead a lovingly cared for, lush array of dahlias, roses, snapdragons, begonias and the famous water lilies floating in their ponds with Monet’s boat nearby. One could feel his presence! We had been warned about the tour bus crowds, but were pleasantly surprised by their absence. We enjoyed wandering through his house not because it was architecturally pleasing but because it was a mini-museum of his paintings and those of his friends – Renoir, Cezanne, Caillebot, Morisot.
Leaving Giverny, we headed for Rouen. Our first stop was the Church of Jeanne D’Arc on the site of her burning (with a cross on the very spot). A modern work, it reminds one of ships and fish with roofing tiles like scales and several windows in the shape of Icthus and a ceiling like an inverted wooden hull. The shape of the exterior roof evokes the flames of the stake. But the severity of the sleek lines of the interior was softened by beautiful Renaissance stained glass windows salvaged from St. Vincent’s Church. Stations of the Cross were barely visible but I tracked them down—small crosses and candles on 14 consecutive pillars. We searched and found the baptismal font in its own special outpost off the chapel of repose. A shaft of light struck the font from the large round skylight soaring 40’ above. In the corner opposite the altar was an impressive statue of St. Joan next to a tree of votive candles, where DW lit one for the intentions of her brother Vincent. [A tradition she has established in our travels.]. Outside the church is another Statue of St. Joan.
The church is on the Place du Vieux Marché (the old market) with typical Norman half-timbered buildings, and the Gros Horlage. We moved along to the famous Cathédrale Notre-Dame [it began to seem that they are all called that in France], dating back to the 12th Century. Destroyed several times by invasions and wars, it is a living structure perpetually evolving. It has the highest spires of any cathedral in France. And finally we admired the bowed facade of St. Maclou Church.
We split a salad for a very late lunch at a restaurant that despite its name (La Creperie) did not offer crepes after 4:30. I had some strange cider [made a point to try regional specialties throughout France, with some hits and some misses].
We saw a bunch of Viking tour groups going through Rouen. They were all going in the same direction, on each other’s heels. Not good spacing to avoid congestion. [AMA did a much better job of spacing so we rarely saw the other tour groups during our cruise.]
We drove on to Honfleur to Hôtel l’Ecrin and dined at Bistro des Artistes, run by two women (and their adorable boxer who keeps the floor clean). What a meal! We shared paté on French bread with salad and then each had our own Veal Normande with Calvados cream. I enjoyed Gaillac red wine, a local appellation. Even though it was early in our trip, we knew that this was the best meal we would have! I’m a real foodie, who has twice been disappointed at Blue Hill at Stone Barn which IMHO doesn’t live up to its reputation – or prices. This restaurant is tops!
A bright, sunny day that started out with me being trapped in the bathtub! [Slippery feet made it seem too dangerous to climb out alone. DW helped me out]. We explored Honfleur after breakfast, and found the first of many carousels on our trip – also a Ferris wheel.
Our drive through the country rewarded us with sightings of cows, sheep, goats and horses. And fields of corn, sunflowers (raised for livestock feed) and vines. France is a pretty country with variations in terrain and lovely flowers like hydrangeas.
We next headed to Bayeux to visit the famous tapestry depicting the Norman invasion of 1066 by William the Conqueror. What a fantastic work of art, and history! Such an interesting museum! [But no pictures allowed]. We visited the Cathedral and a dentelliere where the art of lace making is kept alive.
When we arrived, the parking lot was a de factor old British car show: an MGTx (F?), an MGA, a Jag XK1x0, a Rover saloon [sorry, my knowledge of English cars is a little vague when it comes to exact models unless they say so in big letters!., and 3 Rolls Royces only the newest of which I would have recognized without the RR atop the radiator [I think that one was the equivalent of an “R-type Bentley” – I hope I don’t sound too much a fool with these vague descriptions!] But it was a stirring sight. And the smell, of course, brought back all those leaky clutch fluid smells of antique English cars. [I know I could be shot for this, but then we rounded the corner and saw the final and best-ever English sports car: a Mazda Miata!]
We drove on to Le Mont-Saint-Michel and stayed just off-island at Hôtel Le Relais du Roy. We checked in and then explored the area a little by foot and had dinner at Restaurant La Ferme. We both had rack of lamb but were disappointed with the meal, especially after the build-up about the unique taste of salt-marsh fed lambs.
Unfortunately that evening we spent a good bit of time looking for misplaced items [until Saint Anthony helped us out!] and got a very late start over to M-S-M. We disembarked the free shuttle bus and charged up the mont only to find the doors of the abbey locked in our faces. We then took the ramparts walk back down and I got lots of great photos of the mont lit up at night as consolation. [I’ll put those pictures in the next blog entry.]
We had a light breakfast and headed back to Mont-Saint-Michel via the shuttle. It was a beautiful, sunny day in the 80s. We climbed back to the top (400+ steps) and finally got to explore the Benedictine abbey.
We continued driving along the coast, behind the half-timbered houses of Normandy for Brittany, and had lunch in the seaport of Cancal at Le Narval restaurant, where I tried the famous oysters [now I can say I have had the best oysters – in Seattle and in Brittany – and I truly don’t like them] and DW enjoyed mussels. We drove on to Pointe du Grouin and spent time walking the path and enjoying the coastal view point, with one last look at Mont-Saint-Michel.
Facing a five hour drive to Amboise in the heart of château country, we decided to skip our planned sightseeing stop at St-Malo [my approach is to cram everything we might want to see on the agenda, and then cut the lower priority items as time demands]. We arrived at the charming, authentic but totally renovated Le Vieux Manoir, owned by ex-pats Gloria and Bob. This was their baby! She looks after her guests like a mother hen and her advice re restaurants and things to do was invaluable. Her breakfasts were memorable. In fact, even her table settings were a feast for the eye.
The first night we didn’t get there until after 7:30 and she got us into L’Alliance, a farm-to-table restaurant where as soon as we ordered dinner I had to run to buy tickets for A la Cour de Roy, the son et lumière spectacle at the château. [I got back before the appetizers were served, with front row seats!]. We both started with a soft-boiled egg fried in seasoned batter on salad with satay. For our main course it was veal with ratatouille ravioli and French bean puree. I had peach Napoleon for dessert and DW had apricot tart. Great meal!
We rushed off to the “spectacle” and were seated as it began at 10. We expected a sound and light show but this was a 90-minute pageant that involved half the town dressed in Renaissance costumes, complete with horses, dancing, and ending with fireworks. [It was all in French, but it was easy to grasp the story line about local hero François I: he slept with this woman, he slept with this other woman, etc. They left out the part where he died of syphilis]. They’ve been doing this show for decades, but this was the very last performance – next year they will have a new script [hopefully shorter!]
Hot!!! Reached high 90s with full sun! After a beautiful breakfast at Le Vieux Manoir, we attended 11:00 Mass at Eglise Saint-Denis and headed to our first château, Chambord. Built by François I [him again] as a hunting lodge, it is the largest of all the Loire châteaux. Wonderful in its architectural styling and planning, it is very simple yet has great variety in its design. It is decorated with tapestries and paintings all in prime condition. It boasts an interior double spiral staircase and several outdoor spiral staircases and is topped with a number of towers – each unique in its design.
We drove on to Chenonceau, the most popular of the châteaux. We approached the castle via a tree canopied allée. It is built out over the River Cher and has moats, rowboats for hire on the river, and two beautiful, manicured gardens – one for Henri II’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, and the other added by his widow, Catherine de’ Medici, after she kicked Diane out. DW had visited here 42 years ago and remembered the checkerboard floor of the great hall which spans the Cher. The rooms were decorated with bouquets of flowers. And it was one of the first buildings to house an interior, straight flight staircase. [We think of spiral staircases as fancy, but they were commonplace in the middle ages. Straight staircases take up more room, so they were a sign that you were really wealthy. Taste changes!]. After leaving the chateau, we headed for the gardens to take pictures, and then we heard them – hot air balloons – eight in all, rising one at a time over Chenonceau. What a sight! We could see the passengers hanging over the baskets watching everything below.
[My original plan was to start at Chenonceau and also include Cheverny and Chaumont in today’s schedule, but we were wisely counciled by Gloria that this was too much and that Chenonceau would be much more enjoyable late in the day after the tour bus crowds had left. She was absolutely right, and the balloons were icing on the cake! But we did sneak a peak at Cheverny through the fence.]
Returning to Le Vieux Manoir, we had a few minutes before our dinner reservation at Le Patio. Another fine meal! Free champagne started it off because we were sent by Gloria [it’s good to have friends in high places!]. Then an olive paté and an amuse bouche of pureed cantaloupe with a whip of red beat on top. I had escargot and mushroom tart as a starter [the French correctly call this the entrée, with the main course being the plat] and so that DW wouldn’t feel left out she was presented a second amuse bouche – chopped zucchini with whipped chevre. For the mains, I had red mullet [but, unlike Commissario Montalbano, I only had one portion] and DW had duck. We then explored Amboise a bit before heading back to the hotel.
Rain threatened but we escaped it until 7 PM. It was in the 80s. We drove through Tours so I could catch a glimpse of the building I had stayed and studied in while a Stanford student back in the ‘60s. We drove the river road along the left bank from Amboise straight to Tours – I can’t see how anybody sails any boats of any kind in that river: lots of islands, sand bars, and gravel patches.
We found our way to our third château, Villandry. A more manageable size building, and one that you could see people actually live in – including a family with kids (and toys). It is known for its acres of breathtaking gardens. All were very formal except the sun garden, which was more like Monet’s. Even the vegetable and herb gardens have a geometric formality. Very enjoyable – but we are glad we don’t have to weed them!
We had a very long drive to Montignac, where we wanted to scout out the ticket booth for tomorrow’s adventure. Having located that, we headed for Sarlat and the hotel Plaza Madeleine, our lodging for the next two nights. We unloaded our luggage in the rain and then parked our car on the street [the receptionist helpfully pointed out that the meters are free from 7pm to 9am, so we saved the cost of the hotel garage]. We donned raincoats and umbrellas for our walk to Le Bistro de l’Octroi. Friendly staff greeted us and we sat next to a warm French couple. DW enjoyed a green salad and Dorado with several accompaniments. I went for the high-fat diet of goose foie gras [not paté, the real thing], then duck. [This was the first of a string of days with foie gras, the regional specialty that was the biggest hit on the trip – don’t tell my doctor!]
The weather started out overcast and damp but cleared as the day progressed and hit the upper 70s. We started off with a good breakfast at our hotel and were out the door before 9 because we had to move the car from its free spot, try to find the laundry that would do our wash while we were buzzing around the French countryside, and get to the ticket office before they sold out for the day. We dropped off the clothes and headed to Montignac to buy tickets for Lascaux II. As it turned out the end of August also meant the end of the crowds, so we got into the 10 am English tour. Lascaux is a cave with a rich history of prehistoric, Cro-Magnon paintings on its walls. Tourism started to damage the paintings (humid breath, pathogens carried in) so they used laser-mapping to make an exact replica of the cave chambers and the vibrant paintings of bulls, horses, stags, etc. [“Lascaux II”]. We got to experience a perfect replica, while the original is preserved for future generations – win-win!
We then proceeded to Les Eyzies [pronounced Laze-Ay-Zee] to the Pôle International de la Préhistoire, a museum dedicated to prehistoric people and events [free, and skippable].
We continued on to Beynac, a medieval Dordogne village. It is a well preserved stone village and we climbed steeply to visit Château de Beynac, one of the most imposing castles in France. What a trek! What a view! We had a lovely salmon lunch at La Petite Tonnelle.
We drove on to La Roque-Gageac and walked along the river before driving on to a roadside view of Château Montfort. The climate here can support the growth of tropical plants. Then we visited a small church dedicated to Saint-Caprais, in the countryside near Carsac. It was a blend of Gothic and Romanesque and modern. And it is an active parish with a number of ministries.
“Home” to Sarlat to regroup and then take a walking tour of the downtown area. [We have clean clothes!]. [This section and pictures will be in the next blog post.]
Dinner was at L’Adresse near our hotel. We both started with duck foie gras and then had sea bream for our main course. DW finished with Cabecou (goat cheese) and mesclun and I had with crème brûlée with fresh raspberries. Tomorrow we leave the Perigord region, and its delicious foie gras [so we thought…]
To catch up on the last post, here is our walking tour of Sarlat: We started at the Place du Peyrou and the House of Etienne de la Boëtie. Then we really enjoyed the Cathédrale Saint-Sacerdos, which obviously had a bishop in tune with Vatican II when he redid the sanctuary and seating. It had a great sense of space and is one of the few cathedrals we can imagine worshipping in. The walking tour continued with the Lantern of the Dead, Rue de la Salamandre, Place de la Liberté, and Place du Marché aux Oies [geese – foie gras goes back a long way here]. And we saw street entertainers not yet ready for prime time.
Sunny day in high 70s. Today was a day of driving over 400 km from Sarlat to Lyon. We opted not to visit several mountain villages in Eastern Dordogne, as we would never have reached Lyon in time to return our rental car. DW took a 15 min. nap while I drove, then she took the wheel again so I could navigate our way into the city.
I did everything I could to have the right credit card for Europe, and finally thought I had succeeded with Barclay Arrival Plus. It is Chip and PIN, although it defaults to Chip and Signature at most places. It does work as PIN sometimes, but French toll booths absolutely refused to accept it. Thank God we always had enough cash! There were three toll stations (each on different days) that charged us almost 20 Euro, and many others that charged 3-4 Euro. Total outlay over 8 days of driving [2,000 km] was about 80 Euro.
We arrived in Lyon in the afternoon and saw the AmaDagio docked across the Rhone [with the APT banner affixed, as this week has been one of their cruises].
We checked in at the Globe et Cécil, tanked up the Peugeot [paying outrageous downtown prices] and got lost several times trying to find Hertz [luckily the gauge still read “full”]. Returning by Métro was no easy task till we actually bought our Carnet de dix [credit card didn’t work again] and found the correct platform for our train. Then it was a piece of cake.
We went walking around Vieux Lyon with the help of Rick Steves and explored the Cathédrale St-Jean [John the Baptist] – which was under renovation, so we had no idea what the sanctuary and transept look like. Nor could we really see the stained glass windows above. [Photos of Lyon in next blog post.]
We arrived early for our dinner reservation at Joseph Viola’s Daniel et Denise restaurant – and a good thing as several large groups kept trooping past us into the small dining room next door. I don’t know where they put all the customers. Must have been trap doors! We both got the local specialty Quenelles de brochet sauce Nantua, which is sieved-pike dumplings, served in a bowl of seafood bisque. The side dishes at this restaurant are always home fries and mac ‘n cheese (no matter what you order). DW got a green salad to start. I ordered the four-course menu, choosing foie gras en croute as my starter, and ending with white cheese with sugar and cream, and tarte tatin. The foie gras and the quenelles were great, but the white cheese was bland and the tarte tatin disappointing [it was the authentic French upside-down caramel concoction, not the American sliced-apples on top variety; call me a parvenu but I prefer our way…]