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Trip Report France, Ardennes and Champagne regions, September 2013

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We left Cleveland Saturday, 13 September 2013, at the scheduled time of 1538, a substantial improvement for United. Our initial flight was to Chicago on one of their newer 737.s and it was a very nice plane with more overhead storage than the older versions. The flight from Chicago to Paris was on one of the old 767's and arrived about half an hour early. We were in Business Class, and they have a remote at each seat that controls the in flight entertainment, and the reading lights. Mine didn’t work. I didn’t miss the in flight entertainment (I typically turn it off), but I did want to read and couldn’t. The crew tried to reset the control, but wasn’t successful. I entertained myself with my pc.

We had to temporize after arrival, as we were to pick up our car at Hertz at 1100. As usual when you leave extra time, we didn’t need it, as we found a working ATM immediately. The machine offered the option of converting the transaction (at $1.41 per Euro), or allowing your issuer to do the conversion (I monitor exchange rates, so I knew by bank would exchange at about $1.33 and took that option).

I have a Galaxy SIII smartphone, and I pay AT&T extra for roaming phone and data in France, but of course you don’t know if it works until you get here. Out of an excess of caution I brought an old unlocked cell phone, but I didn’t buy a Sim card on arrival, thinking it was only a backup and I could buy one later if I needed it. This turned out to be a mistake, as Sim cards are widely available in Airports, where someone will know how to speak English, but not widely available in the Ardennes, where few speak English.

In any event, we picked up our Hertz rental with only a few snags. First, they give you a section and number where it awaits. Who would have thought that E14 wouldn’t be somewhere between section D and section F. I finally found an attendant who directed us to our car. It is a so-called green car, A Citroen that runs on diesel. But all the controls and the manual are in French, which makes sense, but didn’t help me (I had taken French in the Cleveland Public Schools in third and fourth grade, but forgot all I had learned through disuse over many years; I now speak about as much as a conscientious tourist learns). I couldn’t start the car (because there was an interlock with the steering wheel, just like in the US; an attendant helped me. I couldn’t release the emergency brake (with a lever behind the gear selector, just like my Triumph back home; an attendant helped me. We were then off, with our GPS giving instructions, once we got outside of the garage structure. I was pleased to discover that you don’t forget how to drive a manual shift, even when you haven’t done it for twenty years or so. My wife, however, has declined every opportunity to drive. I was happy with the Citroen on our first day’s journey, as it worked well and the sun was out. However, after ten days of use, I have concluded that it is not safe, and would look for another brand.

To get from our gite to Charleville-Mezieres where the festival is, one drives through the Ardennes forest on roads that are narrow, twisty, and unlit. The spectacles, as they call them, often end after dark, The speed limit is usually 90 KMH, which means one often enters a turn without knowing how sharp it is, nor what is at the end. The car can handle this, but these roads often have slower traffic and cyclists, which complicates things. The flaw on the Citroen that soured me is that the stalk that raises or lowers the brights (by flicking) is also the stalk that turns them off (by twisting), and works the turn signals. If you flick the stalk, but are a bit off center, it will twist and you will be on a curvy black road with no lights. I think that is very dangerous and would avoid any car that works that way.

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    We had some delays due to construction, but generally had a good trip to Haybes, which is so small it isn’t on any maps. Suffice it to say that it is north of Charleville-M, near Belgium. We pulled up in front of our Gite and I grabbed the Galaxy SIII to call our landlord and tell her we had arrived. The Galaxy SIII said I could make emergency calls only, which is code for AT&T doesn’t work here. I found a bakery that was open, but the clerk didn’t speak English: I somehow persuaded her to make the call on her phone, and the landlord came and welcomed us.

    This Gite is exceptionally nice, with three bedrooms, a separate toilet room and a large bathroom. A TV room, kitchen with table, and a great room that overlooks a patio and a deep yard. It is very well decorated and a pleasure to come home to. The town itself is remote and almost exclusively residential with an Italian restaurant, a small grocer, and a couple of small hotels that have dining rooms (only one was open this late in the year). A car is essential. It is good for us because it is fairly Close to Charville-M, which had little housing available because of the Marionette Festival we came to see. This is a very scenic part of France, with a lot of forests, rivers, and hills. Very like the Ardennes part of Belgium. You can find it at WWW.gites-de-france-ardennes.com/fr/gites/312.html. There is no sports equipment store in Haybes, but I see a lot of people in the street dressed for serious hiking’ and a lot of hills and forests.

    We were early to bed as I was tired from all the driving. Sunday we explored the town; they had a small festival by the river, and it was a very relaxing day. We also drove to Verdun to see the memorials. It was not crowded, but there were a decent number of visitors, surprising to me since the battles there were so long ago.

    Monday we went to Charleville-Mezieres to arrange tickets for the Festival Mondial Des Theatres De Marionnettes. Www.festival-marionnette.com I had some difficulty reading their material on-line, so decided to buy live. It went smoothly as one lady at the desk spoke English, but some of the shows (spectacles, as they call them) were already sold out. They have 97 spectacles, with companies from around the world, and a large number of shows of interest that are not spectacles, and have no admission charge. It was hard finding parking as this is a busy city, but they say they have a parking area for the festival; we’ll see if it is adequate. When I first read about this festival, it had earlier dates, and I rented my gite based on those dates, but now it has been pushed back a few days, so we will miss the last two days, but still I think we will have seen a great deal.

    Tuesday, I asked my GPS for a nearby electronics store, and it led me to one 8 km away; more precisely, it led to to where one had been. It was gone, but there was another a few storefronts away and they had a man who spoke English and knew what a Sim chip is, so he fixed me up and now I can make calls. That is a great relief because when we leave here, I have to call the landlord in Reims and tell him when we will be arriving at his gite.

    Wednesday has been largely rainy, with a few hour of sunshine. I am not sure this is typical, because we hear locals talking about the strange weather. I any event, we drove to the nearest boulangerie and stocked up for breakfast tomorrow. Then we went to a new supermarket, but it lacked some of the deli items we wanted to make lunch. We also found an Aldi’s, but it’s selection was about the same. We did pick up some ham, cheese, and a tomato, and made our own lunch at home, as we have not yet found a café. In the afternoon, we drove to
    Charville-M for practice and to try and find parking venues for the spectacles. We found one, but the largest one did not appear to be where their map said it was, so we may have some difficulty there. The drive itself is very scenic, largely through forests where the speed limit is 90 KPH, but a safer speed is 60 KPH. I had to pull over every once and awhile to let the crazies past. This evening we ate at one of two restaurants in Haybes, a pizzeria that also has some salads and pasta dishes. A huge tomato/buffalo mozzarella starter (we split it, and were still stuffed), two pasta Bolognese entrees, a beer and a half liter of house wine was 27.50 Euro, and the meal was quite good.

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    It is now Tuesday aweek, and we have been busy at the Festival. Some days we have seen three Spectacles, which is a challenge because they are all over town. The acts are from around the world, but one of the best we have seen is from the local academy. We have spent a lot of time at Place Ducale, which is ringed by bars and restaurants, as in many European towns. They also have a lot of street acts which are quite good, but not many good marionette acts. Puppetry and what I would call modern dance and gymnastics without music is very popular, and often very entertaining. Last night we saw our first spectacle (A Winter’s Tale) that made extensive use of marionettes, but their legs did not work, and much of the hand action was abetted by the operator. It was a very good presentation, but the old-time operators I love to watch let the marionettes do their own thing, and I’ve been told that learning to make a marionette walk is the epitome of skill, and takes years to learn. I miss it.

    Wednesday was the last day we had events scheduled. The morning spectacular was very good. By mistake, we went home and missed Peer Gynt in the afternoon. Passing through Femay, we saw a farmers’ market and stopped in to get the makings of lunch. We got a nice melon and a burger, which we took home and split. It was good, but I’m not sure it was beef, as we see cheval often on menu’s here. We also enjoyed some perfectly ripe pears. We did laundry in the afternoon, then set off to find a restaurant for dinner, but the three or four we stopped at were closed, or out of business (my Garmin constantly nags that my maps are out of date, but roads don’t move, so it still works. What is apparently out of date is its listing of merchants, which is a handy feature). I finally returned to Le Saint Hubert, an old hotel in Haybes that we had eaten at before. We had an enjoyable meal of a half liter of water, a half liter of red house wine, Mijote de Boeuf a l’Haboise (a local beef stew) Boudin Blanc de Haybes Cuit au Four (a very good white sausage), one chocolate Sunday and a small glass of Calvados. It was a very pleasant meal, although they cook their vegetables here (and everywhere we have been on this trip), a bit longer than I like), and the cost was only 51.5 Euro.

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    Saturday we were up and packed. I estimated the drive at 2 hours (which was correct) but since I had told the owner that we would arrive at 1400, we waited until 1030 before leaving, and drove slowly enough to enjoy the scenery. We planned to find lunch along the way, but there were almost no places to eat, and we arrived at the gite in Cernay les Reims about 1230. We drove throughout the village, but found no restaurants; we did find a nice patisserie and bought a few items. We parked outside the fence (it locks) outside the gite, and I called the landlord, but my locally sim chipped phone kept rejecting the calls, in French so fast that I couldn’t begin to understand it. At that time, my smartphone wasn’t working either, so we just waited around until 1400, when the landlord showed up and let us in. The gite is a duplex about a mile outside of the village, with good access to Reims, and is very nice. A large dining/living room with a wood stove, a small modern kitchen. A large bathroom with separate toilet room, and two bedrooms. It seems almost new, and my wife particularly liked the washer and drier. You can see it at http://en.gites-de-france.com/holiday-rentals-Cernay-les-Reims-Cottage-LE-CHARME-gites51_b2013.1.G400.G.html/owner-website. I liked the Wifi, as I was able to contact AT&T, who found that a block I had asked for when I wasn’t using roaming service had not been removed when I added the roaming service, and fixed it immediately. We then went to find an ATM, more pastry, and a meal. We found a patisserie in Reims for the pastry, with an ATM right next door. Our technique at an ATM is that I make the transaction, while my wife gets in the way of anyone who is trying to spot my password. Sure enough, a lowlife tried to get to the left of me, and she blocked him. He then moved to my right and tried to point out how I had to push the buttons, while leaning across me with his right hand resting on the slot where my card was about to come out. I doubt he spoke English, but he understood having his fingers grabbed, and we parted with me still having my card. Something like that can sour you on a town, but we were in a rather seedy end of town and I hope it is not widespread. In any event, we didn’t find a market and had dinner in the gite with some of the food we had brought from Haybes.

    Sunday we hung around the gite until 1230 as the pilot who is to take us on a balloon ride was supposed to call and tell us if the weather was good enough for the 1700 ride. He didn’t call, so I called him and got an answering machine. Shortly thereafter a lady called and said the winds were too high so they would be rescheduling. We hopped in the car and tried to find lunch, but almost nothing was open on a Sunday, nor were the grocers. There was a farmers’ market in Reims, but I could not find parking in the neighborhood. We parked elsewhere and walked around, but at least in that area there were no cafes. We tried a bar, but they said they served no food, and referred us to another bar down the block that did. So my wife had a salad, that was not bad; I had a croque Monseur that was ordinary, and we had two good beers, all for 24.90 Euro. We had checked the nearby supermarkets and they were all closed on a Sunday, so we went back to the gige. For dinner, I said we would try one restaurant (it was closed) and then go to a McDonalds we had seen. So we ended up taking home McDonalds food in this epicurean center. It tasted like American McDonalds food, I guess, since I have avoided such food for years, and was so big I couldn’t eat the whole burger.

    In retrospect, when you stay in an apartment or a gige, they traditionally want you to arrive on a Saturday, and Saturday and Sunday are not good days for shopping for groceries in many places. We could easily have stopped at the grocery in Haybes and stocked up and avoided this problem. Live and learn

    Monday morning we breakfasted on our last scraps of food, then went to a Carrefours in Reims, about 6K away. It was actually something of a shopping center, with many stores including, apparently, two supermarkets. We looked all over for a cart, before realizing they are kept in the parking lot. You put a euro in to unchain your cart, and you get your euro back when you rechain the cart. They had a good selection of foods and nice looking produce. We found marinated artichokes, but couldn’t find marinated olives, which is a favorite for us. Best was that they had clementines from, as I recall, Africa, which are bigger, sweeter, and jucier than the ones we get at home, which are, I think, from California or Spain. We then went home and made sandwiches from croissants and savored a clementine

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    It was a sunny afternoon, so we went to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame, which was showing its stained glass brilliantly. This is in a much better section of town, so we spent a lot of time in and around the cathedral. We had dinner at L’Alambic, that has a lower level made from an old wine cave. We had soupe of the day (pumpkin) and fish of the day (I forgot to ask) and both were quite good with skilled blendings of tastes. A liter of water and a half bottle of nice Reisling brought the tab to 61.80 Euro.

    Tuesday we toured Canard Duchene in Ludes. They have many prestigious wine houses here, but most were in Reims. I picked this one because they are in the middle of the vineyards, and their tour covers both the vineyard (if weather is good) and the cellars. It was an interesting tour and they were very willing to answer our questions (there were just we two on the tour). The tour costs 10 Euro each, and you sample a flute from a variety of their blends. And the scenery in that area is nice. We bought a couple of bottles to bring home.

    Wednesday we set out to visit Troyes, which is said to be an hour and a half drive. Unfortunately construction in Reims confused my GPS and I, and we ended up going back and forth between two points about six times. Turnabouts are convenient, but the signage is often lacking with perhaps two exits marked A4 and I kept taking the wrong one until I deliberately took a wrong one and ended up right. So we ended up getting to Troyes just before noon, and the museum I wanted to visit closes between noon and 1400, so we had a lot of time to tour and eat lunch and get lost. I finally asked where the Musee de Art Moderne was and received instructions. We went where directed a found a building marked Musee (right next to the impressive cathedral which we had to visit; Joan D’arc wasn’t there that day, but had been a few centuries earlier. It turned out we were at the Musee Saint Loup, which has a lot of archeological finds and older paintings. We actually enjoyed it (they had a lot of gargoyles) and left to get home for dinner. Only in reviewing my notes did I realize we hadn’t seen the museum we had planned, only a couple of blocks away, and didn’t have the time to go back.

    Dinner has been a consistent problem here; many restaurants appear to go out of business but remain listed. Calling ahead works if they don’t answer (but one worried that one called too early). We investigated five restaurants Wednesday without success. Finally we found one at the grand hotel continental and made a reservation, but road work delayed us and another place down the block called the grand hotel nord delayed us further. The grand hotel continental was very accommodating however, and welcomed us when we finally got there. The meal was excellent. We had chestnut soup with truffles, then a plate of salmon with vegetables in butter sauce that was memorable. The desert was, I think, profiteroles, small pastry shells filled with ice cream and drenched in chocolate and whipped cream. Something like that isn’t on my diet, but I couldn’t resist. Since this was Reims, we had a half bottle of champaign with dinner. Quality, preparation and service was excellent; I can’t recall a better meal. The bill was 106 Euro. The GPS routed us home without going through the construction, but the last 6 KM was challenging as our gite is out in the country where the roads don’t even have lines, and it was a very dark night.

    The grand hotel continental is on Place Drouet d’Erton which was lined with restaurants and would be a good area to wander if you find yourself without reservations.

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    Thursday morning was cold, so we spent some time at home planning our meals for the rest of our stay. I didn’t want to eat at a restaurant Friday dinner, as we would be leaving early Saturday (it is about two hours to CDG if you don’t get lost). We planned to visit the local pattiserie, then go to a grocer for fixings for dinner, but the patisserie had some nice sandwiches, so we bought one of them and saved part of a trip. In the afternoon it was warmer so we went to visit St. Remi’s, our last objective. It was easy to find but parking was at a premium. I found a spot about three blocks away, but didn’t know the name of the street. One of the nice things about a GPS is that you can mark and name a spot, so you can find your way back. St. Remi’s was impressive, but the cathedral Notre Dame was a much better visit.

    On returning home, I called Les Crayeres for a dinner reservation. This is a luxury hotel with two highly rated restaurants. It was easy to find and had valet parking. The ambience and service were superb. They recognized that we didn’t speak French, and were very helpful with explanations. We had two menus and it is hard to say how many courses certainly more than five, as they often brought bonus treats between courses. The main plat was grouse. The waiter explained each course as it was served (they actually have multiple waiters serving, with the serving covers removed concurrently. The portions were small, but very well prepared, The menu was 150 euro, each, and we had a liter of water and a 75cc bottle of blanc de blanc grand cru, with the total just under 400 euro. I know that price is high, but the food and experience were memorable, and I’m glad we went. I like champagne with a meal more than I thought I would.


    Friday we stayed home, doing out washing and getting everything packed for an early departure. We went to bed early and were up early for our final breakfast. The drive to CDG was uneventful, except for a couple of times I got off the tollway to fuel up where there were no stations. Did I mention that we were flying UNITED AIRLINES, which has a place on their website that is supposed to list the departure terminal, but which they consistently leave blank, as they did this time. I had gone to the CDG website and found the terminal, but that is extra work and there is no reason but incompetence that an airline should not provide necessary information.

    The information was necessary because we had taken a Hertz rental, and you are supposed to return it to the proper terminal garage. Neither Hertz nor the airport website told how to return the car, but an old posting on Fodor’s told us what signs to look for. Hereafter is what we did, but not necessarily what is right. We followed the signs into the parking terminal, but observed that the signs listed about 5 rental companies. We drove around for a while, but could find no clear rental return area, so I parked and locked the car, wrote down the number of the parking space, took our luggage and started looking for a Hertz counter. The only one we found was in the arrivals section, where we had picked up the car originally. The agent took our papers and remarked that we had parked in a space of another company, but apparently realized that I was incorrigible, gave us a receipt, and let us go.

    Our initial flight on Lufthansa to Frankfort was very nice. Frankfort had a lot of steps to navigate, and I was dragging a roller with valuables we didn’t want to check, so I was often struggling, but was often helped by younger passengers. The flight on United from Frankfort to Washington was less pleasant. And at Washington our flight to Cleveland didn’t have a plane available, so we were delayed three hours.

    This was our first trip in recent years away from larger cities (other than Switzerland which has such good public transportation everywhere that you don’t need a car). Driving was not difficult, but the signs were often not clear. I loved the traffic circles; it seemed a very efficient way to handle intersections and I would like to see them in the USA. Both gites we used were very nice, quiet, and reasonably priced. The festival was very enjoyable, as was Reims.

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    Thanks for taking the time to write this really complete and interesting report, particularly about eastern France for once, which few American tourists actually bother to visit (at least compared to Normandy or Provence). You have confirmed once again my dislike for GPS navigation compared to the excellent maps that are available. I was obliged to use a GPS in Brazil last week (outvoted by the group I was with) and it consistently sent us in the wrong direction or totally lost track of us.

    I hope you didn't miss "the biggest boar statue in the world" on the road to Charleville!

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    Thanks for such a good report. I enjoyed reading it as I was in France during the time you were there (Paris and Brittany). I agree that the roundabouts are good for giving one a moment of breathing space to decide which way to go.

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    I do not understand the comment about the lights on the car. As far as I can remember, my last three cars have had all the light features on one stalk. I thought that was standard.

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    What a comprehensive report. The festival sounds interesting and a great experience.

    We really enjoy staying in gites. We have not had a problem finding supermarkets open on Saturday, but have often found them closed on Sunday. As our changeover day is Saturday, we always go prepared for a couple of days in case the supermarket in our new place is not open on Sunday. We have been caught by a public holiday though [ May 1 ], so now we find out when they are before we go.

    Happy travels.

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    I have three cars: one American (possibly Canadian, there is some dispute over that); one German; one English. None of them has the on/off control on the stalk that controls the brights and the turn indicators. And at least six times on this trip we found ourselves in a forest without lights because the stalk rotated when I dimmed the brights. I call that a design defect.

    Other than that, it was a good car. You wouldn't have known it was a diesel, which is a great improvement over diesels I drove many years ago.

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