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Trip Report France Trip Report: Paris, Normandy Coast, Lyon, Montepellier, and Provence

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We landed in Paris about 6pm on June 3rd after a pleasant flight on Virgin to London and a short hop to Paris on Air France. As soon as we landed I noticed a Facebook update from one of my cousins whose status update commented that “they don’t serve cold drinks with ice in Paris”. I immediately emailed him and found out that it was his last night in Paris and that he was alone. By 8pm we were all having dinner together at the lovely little café Le Hangar, near our apartment in the Marais. It was a little surreal to be eating dinner with him in Paris, due partly the serendipity of the situation and partly the jet lag. After dinner we wandered down to see Notre Dame, glowing in the evening light. It was a great way to finish the trip for him, and a great way to start ours.

On Friday we explored the area around the apartment. We had lunch in the beautiful Place des Vosges, at Ma Bourgogne, where we had previously had lunch in the rain, almost 3 years ago. For those of you who own the Taschen Paris book, you can look this up in there as well. It was hot and sunny, so we wandered around afterward and took in the medieval sites, the cool shops and edgy clients at the local hangouts.

One of the main things Sam wanted to do was go to the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the Petit Palais, so about 3:00 pm we found ourselves there, confronted with a 2 hour wait for folks without pre-purchased tickets. We decided to buy them from the FNAC instead, a multi-media and entertainment chain store in France, so we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the Tuilerie gardens and resting on the characteristic green metal chairs in the shade of the trees, but not before stopping off for tea at Laduree’ on Rue Royale, where we enjoyed the sumptuous desserts while sipping tea in the jewel box of a salon.

That evening, we went back to the Marais for dinner, and then wandered around the area afterwards. On previous trips we had only been here during the day, and we did not realize what a party area it becomes at night. People were packed into bars tighter than a Paris metro.

We discovered just what a party area we were in back at our apartment that night. Looking onto a small courtyard, our room had been quiet on Thursday night, but on Friday our neighbors decided to have a party until 4am. Although I had taken a sleeping pill and was slumbering away, Sam had not slept on the plane Wednesday night, or on Thursday night due to the time change so, after the 3rd night of no sleep due to the party, he was sick and exhausted. We decided that Saturday night would likely be no better and checked into a generic Crown Plaza on Place de la Republique, which I had found on the web. We marched past a demonstration in the square (there seems to always be a demonstration going on somewhere) and checked-in. That evening, we settled into a blissfully comfy bed, in the tomblike quiet of the hotel room, and awoke to a powerful, hot shower. Heaven! But I am getting ahead of myself.

Earlier on Saturday, we had met up with Martin and Henry, friends whom we had met in Italy 13 years ago. They were staying at a friend’s flat a few metro stops away, so we met them for lunch and went for a stroll along the Canal St. Martin, just north of Place de la Republique, which we have wanted to see since seeing Amelie skipping stones on it from the film of the same name. It was nice to stroll under the trees, since it was another hot sticky day, and really interesting to stand on top of the high, arching bridges and watch the boats going into the locks on the canal to be lowered to the next level. That evening, we walked about 15 minutes to the restaurant recommended by the hotel concierge, in the 10th arrondissement, northwest of the hotel. As we walked, the area seemed to get more and more sketchy, and we wondered if we were going the right way. Finally, we arrived at Julien, with its fantastic and well preserved art nouveau décor (www.julienparis.com/en). The food was good and reasonably priced, and though the waiters were harried and the kitchen slow, it was, overall, a quintessential Paris brasserie experience and we had a great time. It was even more fun after the waiter accidentally threw a menu at Sam and we all laughed, so he knew he loosened up and was more playful with us the rest of the night.

On Sunday we had lunch at a local café and parted ways with Martin and Henry. We then spent the afternoon riding rental bikes, which was fantastic! Paris has a system of bike rental stations scattered all over the city, each no more than 300 meters apart. For the price of a 1 euro daily fee, you can take a bike for free for up to 30 minutes, and 1 euro additional for each half hour afterwards. If you turn the bike in to another station before the 30 minutes are up, you can rent again for another 30-minute increment. It was a great way to explore a large area in a short period of time, and to rest our tired and aching feet.

Somehow we managed to find ourselves going in the direction of Montmartre. Since its uphill, we left the bikes in Pigalle, among the peep-shows and video arcades, and walked the rest of the way up. Although it was nice to see the view and the church again, I would not recommend going on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The Place Tertre was busier than Disneyland on the 4th of July, and Sacre Coeur was no better, so we made a hasty escape back to the relative calm of the Marais.

On Monday we decided to do a day trip and found ourselves on the train to Chartres to see the famous Gothic cathedral. We were told that we should go on the guided tour with Malcom Miller and we were not disappointed. Now in this 53rd year of giving tours and lectures on the cathedral, he is amazingly witty and informative, and sometimes a bit irreverent, and really made the place come to life, with his explanations of the stories illustrated in the stained glass windows and the statues lining the doorways; more than worth the 10 euro fee.

Once back in Paris, we decided to take advantage of our arrival back at Gare Montparnasse, by going up to the top of the Montparnasse tower. Although a blight on the central Paris skyline, you can’t beat the spectacular views of the Luxemburg gardens, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and the sky-scrapers outside the center at La Defense. You can even go onto the rooftop heliport! Worth doing if you are in the neighborhood.

Afterwards we hurried back to our apartment to get ready for our dinner plans with Laurent, a lovely French man whom I befriended several months ago on an Internet language exchange site, so that he could practice his English and I could practice my French. We had a fantastic dinner with him and his wife, Severine, in a typically French wine and cheese restaurant called Pain,Vin,Fromage (www.painvinfromage.com). We ate in the cellar, which is an authentic 17th century wine cave. Besides the beautiful vaulted stone ceilings, it was nice to be inside a nice, cool air-conditioned restaurant; and with no smoking now in Paris restaurants, it was that much better.

Although I had been doing quite well using my hard earned French in restaurants and stores, it was so much fun to have 4 solid hours of French speaking! Laurent spoke some English as well, and he seemed happier to do so after a few glasses of wine . Before that, however, Laurent gave us a great lesson on all the cheese in France, using a map on the menu, as well as explaining the differences between a fondue, raclette, tartiflette and aligot. In the end we ordered a platter with half goat and sheep cheeses, and half cow cheeses, from the southwest and southeast of France, and a fantastic tartiflette, with diced potatoes and melted camembert, with a crust on top, sort of like a French shepard’s pie, but much much better! Two bottles of Pinot Noir later, and everyone was feeling fine. This exceeded my expectations and we are looking forward to staying in touch with our new friends in France.

On Tuesday we took another, longer day trip, this time to the coast of Normandy. A few words about renting a car in the center of Paris…“Don’t!” OK, a few more. We decided to drive because we wanted to see various towns on the Norman coast, especially Honfleur, which has no train station. We rented from Hertz in the mall under the Place du Carrousel, which has the fantastic inverted glass pyramid by I.M. Pei, which mirrors the giant one in the Cour Napolean of the Louvre. You may also recognize it from the otherwise forgettable film, the Da Vinci Code. Anyway, getting out of Paris involved driving up the Champs-Elysees, which was actually quite fun, until we got to the largest, craziest traffic circle I have ever had the displeasure to negotiate, at the Port Maillot. It somehow managed to be both chaos and gridlock at the same time, as we attempted to go 270 degrees around the circle of 6 quasi “lanes” of traffic going at every direction, with no law or logic to guide them. It made our memories of driving in Rome seem like a stroll in the park.

Anyway, having survived that episode with car and nerves intact, (well, at least car) we proceeded to Honfleur, a charming medieval town by the sea, 120 miles from Paris, but a short 90 minute drive, once we were speeding down the Autoroute, just outside the city. Honfleur is comprised of quaint half-timbered buildings, some 5 or 6 stories high, surrounding a highly picturesque ancient harbor. After a tasty seafood lunch, we had a great time wandering the tangled streets and admiring the homes and businesses leaning at crazy angles due to their advancing age, as well as a unique double-naved church, made entirely of wood, but incredibly well preserved. We didn’t leave before sampling some of the local digestif, a strong distilled apple liquor called Calvados, a bottle of which Sam bought to enjoy back home.

After Honfleur we made a quick stop in Trouville and Deauville, two sister resort towns down the coast. Separated by a river, as well as social class, Trouville is the more “bourgeois”, while Deauville likes to think itself the “21st arrondissement” of Paris. We stopped briefly to admire the late 19th and early 20th century architecture and headed back to Paris.

The drive home was uneventful, although I started feeling a migraine coming on, but I knew we would be home soon so I waited to take my meds. This was a big mistake. Not only was the circle at Port Maillot a nightmare again, but it was also rush hour, and the circle at the Arch de Triumphe and Place de la Concorde were worse. As the time dragged on, my nerves became more frayed and my headache worsened. By the time I missed the entrance into the garage at Place du Carrousel, I was in tears. I ended up turning into a delivery entrance where we hit a dead end and Sam took over the driving. He skillfully made an illegal U-turn into the correct entrance and we took a cab back to the comfort of the apartment and a double dose of migraine drugs.

The next day we were greeted by rainy weather. As we had tickets to see the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the Petit Palais, we were not too concerned. The show was in a word…incredible! I am really not a big fashion person, but it was laid out so well, and the audio commentary was so good, both concise and informative, that you could not help but be impressed by the talent on display, or the impact that YSL has had on the fashion world. We spent the rest of the day wondering across to the 7th arrondissement, past the Hotel des Invalides, to Rue Cler, a pedestrian market street where we had lunch outside under an awning, protecting us from the misty rain. We wandered over to St. Germain de Pres to window shop, do some souvenir hunting and have hot tea and pastries until the rain let up a bit. After a stop at another branch of Laduree, we headed back to the apartment, where we are now packing and getting ready for dinner at Le Dome du Marais. Although we have enjoyed 99% of the trip, I think that this was probably the most pleasant day so far, just wandering around with no agenda, despite the misty weather.

Next stops when I get around to writing again…Lyon, Montpellier, and Provence.

Au revoir!

Russ

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    Since you will be there for a week, how about renting an apartment? So many of us who love Paris think that's the way to go. An apt. on Ile St. Louis has been our choice for our last 3 trips. Check it out!

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    Oooops!! I answered on the wrong question. Reading too many posts today.

    I was answereing bkel4464's question on where to stay, St. Germain or the Marais. I'll repost, sorry.

    BTW, russ---I am enjoying your trip report. Waiting for more.

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    No trip to Paris for me this year so I'm having to live vicariously though TR's :) Thanks so much for the recommendation for the Bread,Wine, Cheese restaurant. Looks like someplace to visit and enjoy next year.

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    Thanks for the feedback everyone. Continuing now with LYON:

    We left our Marais apartment on a drizzly Thursday morning to head for the Gare de Lyon, and the high speed TGV, bound for Lyon. As expected, it was fast, and comfortable, and we arrived in time for lunch. This was the portion of the trip where I had booked us in a generic American Hilton, as I had some points to use up, and a free room sounded good. After our apartment in Paris, it was nice to have air conditioning and reliable hot water. We had a nice room overlooking the quiet park with a view of the sea of the green treetops.

    After leaving our bags at the hotel, we took the bus 10 minutes to the center of Lyon, and walked another 10 minutes to Vieux Lyon, the charming old town of medieval and renaissance era buildings. The cobblestone streets are largely pedestrian, and the area is known for its traboules, or secret covered passages, linking streets by going through and between buildings. There is often a pretty courtyard or well to discover inside, and in many cases, you would not even know that a traboule was there, except for pushing on doors to see if they would open. After exploring a while, we had lunch at a traditional Buchon, which I would say is the Lyonais equivalent of an Italian osteria or an English pub, with simple, traditional food and drink. We shared a Salade Lyonaise, lettuce with croutons and lardons (kind of like bacon or pancetta) and topped with a poached egg, as well as country pâté, in which they serve you the entire loaf and you cut off as much as you like…delicious. Less exciting to me was the andouillette, a pig casing stuffed to the gills with chopped up organ meat. It was pretty gamey, but slathered in Dijon mustard, you almost didn’t notice.

    Sam wanted to rest in the afternoon, so I took to exploring the streets of the town center on my own. It has a really vibrant and active center, and reminded me a bit of Bologna, Italy when we lived there. Unfortunately, I had an unpleasant alteration with a little (*ahem*) doggy excrement and I really didn’t want to get on the bus back to the hotel. Then it started to rain and there were no taxi’s to be found. I was getting wet, and realizing what being up “s**t creek” actually felt like.

    I was waiting at a taxi stand devoid of taxis, with a French man in his 30’s ahead of me talking on his cell phone the entire time, when a taxi finally pulled up. The man must have taken pity on me, as he offered to share the cab with me so that I could get out of the rain. I happily accepted, which not only got me back to the hotel, but also gave me a chance to have a conversation in French again. His name was Nicholas, and he was a cordonniere, a shoemaker. He kindly invited me to come to his shop the next day for a demonstration. Once at the hotel, he wouldn’t let me pay for my portion of the fare. If you don’t believe in Saint Nicholas I would say that he is alive and well, currently working as a shoe maker in Lyon.

    We really enjoyed Lyon and had a full day of exploring the next day. Starting with the Place Bellecour, a huge place on the Presqu’ile, a peninsula between the rivers Rhone and Soane, we crossed over to the old town and took the funicular up to the Forvière district, in the hills overlooking the city. There, we stumbled onto the ruins of two Roman amphitheatres, left over from when Lyon was the capital of Roman Gaul, and which are still used for live shows. Next door was one of the best little local museums of Roman artifacts we have seen, set up something like the Guggenheim in New York, with a continuous spiral floor winding its way down through the exhibits. The highlights were the amazing mosaic floors taken from nearby Roman villas, and the models of the reconstructed amphitheaters, next to a large window with the real ones outside, for quick and easy comparison.

    We continued up the Forvière hill to the large Basilica at the top. Built in the late 1800’s, just after Sacre Coeur in Paris, this is a landmark that you can see from almost everywhere in Lyon, and was very impressive inside, especially the mosaics depicting biblical scenes covering the walls. Next door was a metal tower, cleverly called the Tour Mellalique, Lyon’s answer to the Eiffel Tower, which looks like they cut off the top 1/4 from the one in Paris and transplanted it to the hills of Lyon.

    We walked back down to the old town through a lovely park and ended back in the center. The only area left to explore in central Lyon was the Croix-Rouge hill, which is famous for housing the silk workers of Lyon two centuries ago, and has a marked trail of traboules. We happily spent an hour winding our ways through the hidden passages, and stumbling onto a store which specialized in 50’s and 60’s era furniture by French designers. It was like Design Within Reach, but in French! We had fun discussing design with the owner and we even found a version a red mid-century chair that we own, which we had heard was French, but weren’t sure until now. Hummm…I wonder if that means that this trip is now tax deductable ;-) ?

    Finally, we ended up back at the Place Bellecour where we had started, and decided to hunt down the custom shoe shop where Nick had told us to stop by. Nick introduced us to his boss and we ended up getting a full presentation on the shoes that he was making by hand for a client in Colorado. It was really interesting to see the raw materials, like stingray skin, actually in the shape of a stingray (surprise!), with holes where the eyes had been. It was amazing to see all the work and craftsmanship that went into what unfortunately must be a dying trade.

    That night we decided to have a meal that was 180 degrees from our simple bouchon experience, but one no less typical of the Lyon. It was our first 3 Michelin star restaurant experience, at Paul Bocuse, and it wasn’t difficult to see what the fuss was all about.

    A twenty-minute taxi ride took us to a little village in the Lyon countryside, and we were greeted by the doorman dressed in full red and gold regalia. I have to admit that it looked a bit like he had gotten separated from his marching band. Inside, the maitre d’ and his team greeted us and whisked us to a table in what seemed to be the main central room, off of which a couple smaller rooms radiated. This turned out to be a perfect location for witnessing the choreography of the service, which was flawless; not in a theatrical way, no flaming crepes here. There was rather a clockwork like precision to the wait staff, where every need was anticipated, and help would materialize when needed, and vanish again without fanfare.

    Without going into excruciating detail on every course, suffice it to say that this was the most decadent dinner we have ever had, including the most tender and flavorful foie gras imaginable, a delicious lobster salad, Paul Bocuse’s signature red mullet with potato “scales”, a veal roast for two that was ecstasy, and an orgy of desserts which were placed on small tables surrounding ours on three sides and which was subsequently moved to each neighboring table when their time came. It really gave you a (slightly disturbing) idea of how royalty might have lived, with an over abundance of choices, and one thing more mouth watering than the next. It was truly a meal of a lifetime, and I now understand how he had maintained his 3 Michelin stars for the past 43 years. During the meal, we were completely surprised when the master chef himself came out of the kitchen and greeted every table at the restaurant. Overall, it was a very classy, delicious (and expensive) once in a life-time experience. The scary part is that I got the idea that the diners at table next to us were regulars. They probably just didn’t feel like cooking that night, so they were slumming it chez Paul.

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    I am loving your report-I can't wait to hear more. How ironic is it that with you doggy doo incident you end up sharing a taxi with a shoemaker?! You can't make up the stuff that happens for real on trips! Wish he had had some inside trick on how to avoid those kind of accidents. When I was living in the Marais, our local public service newsletter informed us that 500 people a year end up visiting a hospital because of such an encounter-unbelievable but true!

    Bocuse sounds amazing-I can't wait to hear more as you make your way to Provence (or should I say waddle after THAT meal) :)

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    Thanks for the feedback! Yes, I didn't actually think we would do some of this myself but I "rationalized" that the 3 hours we spent at Paul Bocuse might have cost about the same as a nice dinner and a play in LA, and we saved later on the trip by picnicing more on products from street markets.

    By the way, I just noticed at least 4 typos in my last posting. Oops! Sorr

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    Continuing now with MONTPELLIER:

    The next morning it was time to move on again, this time to Montpellier, just off the coast of the Mediterranean, in the Languedoc region, south of Nimes. We arrived just before lunch to our 1930’s two story maison turned auberge called Les 4 Etoiles (http://les4etoiles.com), where we spent two nights. It is situated one block away from a 17th century stone aqueduct, on a street with a mix of old and new buildings, just outside the old town. The entire top floor of the house is given over to a 4 room B&B, with a salon/kitchen dedicated to guest use, which was nice as the owners living quarters (on the bottom floor) were completely separate from the guest quarters.

    Pierre was a wonderful host, and it was another great opportunity for speaking French at length with someone, although he speaks English as well. This was probably our favorite of all the places we stayed, because we liked his blend of mid-century and modern style with in an old world home, as well as his personal attention and touches, from the baguettes, croissants and fruit salad waiting for us when we got up in the morning, to the Occitane bath products in the rooms.

    The historic center was a scenic 10 minute walk away alongside the aqueduct and through an elevated park with great views. The first day there was a street market under the large stone arches of the aqueduct, which we always like, so we shopped our way to the town center.

    We had heard that Montpellier was a pretty town, but we were completely taken back by how beautiful and architecturally homogenous the center was. It is not big on major sites, other than the very cool aqueduct, which is beautifully lit at night, and the triumphal arch leading into town, but it has a great ambiance, and lively atmosphere due to the resident student population of the local university. This was a nice complement the charming, winding streets and Parisian-esqe architecture. The best part is that center is completely pedestrian, so sitting at a roadside café doesn’t mean shouting over the passing traffic or inhaling the car exhaust (however, cigarette smoke is a constant). This was probably the best city for just random wandering, and we were happy to see a large number of rainbow stickers on shop windows and restaurants, reflecting the liberal and accepting attitudes of the local population.

    The main square, Place de la Comedie is the liveliest spot, with a carousel and the requisite outdoor cafes, but we were pleasantly surprised by the beach volley ball tournament that was going on in the place, with the “beach” supplied by sand that was brought in from the coast, 12 kilometers away. It was a Saturday, so the temporary stands they had erected were filled with spectators watching the free matches, and all of the other squares and streets in town were teaming with students and town folk.

    Like Paris and Lyon, Montpellier also has rental bikes, but unlike Paris, the only ones available to tourists can be found at the tourist office off the Place de la Comedie. You can’t beat the price, 2 euro for the entire day. (One thing I forgot to mention in the Lyon section is that in order to rent the bikes from the kiosks in Lyon you need a “smart card”, i.e., a credit card with a built-in computer chip. We didn’t have one, so no bikes for us in Lyon.) We enjoyed riding alongside the aqueduct to a small park, and through the narrow winding streets of the city. Fortunately, it was Sunday by then, with very little foot traffic, as it would have been difficult to maneuver had we gone the day before. So if you are interested in renting, I recommend getting to the tourist office on a Sunday, soon after they open at 10am.

    The food was consistently good in Montpellier, in fact, better overall than in Paris, although I admit that I tend to be fonder of the fresher and less saucy Mediterranean cuisine of the south of France, than the more cream-based dishes of the north. The best meal there was dinner at Le Pastis (http://www.le-pastis.fr) where the owner/waiter served us menu of 3 fresh and inventive courses for 28 euro in a tiny but quaint room with stone walls. The appetizer of puree of fresh peas with a drizzle of crème fraise, was spectacular and the beignets were the best dessert of the trip. The runner up was lunch at Le Petit Jardin, in an absolutely beautiful garden setting, with food and service to match (http://www.cartesurtables.com/les-restaurants/montpellier/restaurant_le-petit-jardin-317.htm).

    The morning of our departure we switched from train mode to car mode, and picked up a rental for the remainder of the trip. I was so happy to do the entire transaction in French, positive that I had understood 99% of the conversation. They even told us that they had upgraded us to a “cabriolet” at no additional charge. Unfortunately, when we got to the car, I realized that cabriolet is French for convertible, and that we had a really cool but utterly impractical two-seater with a trunk the size of a large glove compartment, and no room for our luggage. I walked back to the rental desk with tail between my legs and explained that we had never learned the word for convertible in French class. We all had a good laugh and made a quick exchange for a tiny, but peppy little Clio with a big trunk, and we were on our way to Provence.

    As a closing note, for anyone already planning on visiting Arles or Nimes while in the south of France, I highly recommend that you stay a couple nights at Les 4 étoiles and visit Montpellier. For the moment it seems to be off the main tourist route, but it is well worth the slight detour.

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    Ugh! More typo's above. I need to proof read better. Anyway, continuing with the epic...

    ON THE WAY TO PROVENCE

    We had had rain at some point during 8 of the past 11 days, so we were ecstatic to have a clear sunny day as we headed west toward Provence, across the Camargue, the flat plain formed by the mouth of the Rhone river, and the largest river delta in Europe. Our first stop was at Aigues-Mortes (dead waters), which in the 13th century was the first Mediterranean port in France, but failing once it silted up and Marseille took its place. We love medieval fortified cities, and this was a fantastic example, surrounded by a mile of nearly intact city walls, with 5 towers and 10 fortified portes, it looks much as it did in the middle-ages.

    As soon as we arrived we did a tour atop the ramparts, from which you can see the entire city, as well as the surrounding countryside. In the near distance were enormous snowy mountains of sea salt being collected from the delta waters, salt being the most important harvest in the area. We spent a good hour exploring the walls and towers and enjoying the views.

    The town itself is quite small, so we were able to easily navigate it on foot. Lunch time was approaching, so restaurant hunting gave some structure to our wandering. The central square, while striking, seemed to be filled with tourist-oriented fare of seemingly dubious quality, but exploring further afield, we came across a small attractive restaurant under the shade of a wisteria vine, with the owner/chef sitting in front having his lunch. We tend to like smaller, owner run places, and we got a good vibe from him, so we came back right when they opened and were the first seated.

    I don’t mean to focus so much on eating, but the first week when we were in Paris, we were somewhat underwhelmed by the food. It had seemed really difficult to get good vegetables in the moderately prices restaurants where we ate, so I was thrilled with the grilled eggplant appetizer topped with pureed tomatoes, garlic and olives. This was my kind of food, and it was phenomenal. For our main course we had our eye on the shoulder of lamb cooked with garlic and herbs, but the menu said that it required a minimum of 3 people to order. No problem, they said that they would prepare one for the 2 of us. However, we were dumbfounded when they moved an empty table next to ours and then proceeded to fill it with a giant clay bowl of buttery mashed potatoes, another one with an enormous, fresh green salad, as well as an 18” platter of lamb with herbs and entire cloves of roasted garlic, which I imagine was the original portion for 3 people. After having eaten the delicious appetizer, I knew there was no way that we would finish this. I was wrong. We are rather thin people, and not the type to continue eating once we are full, but this meat was so incredibly flavorful, we didn’t stop until every last piece was gone. Satisfied and content, we continued to our last stop, Aix-en-Provence.

    La Guinquette de la Republique
    25, rue de la Republique, Aigues-Mortes
    No website.

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    PROVENCE – Part 1

    Our destination for the next 4 days was Aix-en-Provence, where we stayed at a charming B&B called Le Clos des Freres Gris, run by a wonderful Belgian-born woman, Caroline, and her French husband, Hubert (http://freres.gris.free.fr/new_page_2.htm). This was in a beautiful country home about 2 km outside of the city, and was intended to be the relaxing part of trip, lounging poolside and making short trips to Aix or having pleasant drives through the countryside to neighboring villages. We arrived about 5pm and spent an hour beside the pool resting from our drive before heading into town for dinner.

    We had previously spent one night in Aix about 12 years ago and had always wanted to go back. Like Montpellier, it is a lively town with a large student population, noted for a beautiful fountain in almost every square. Although we made a quick spin through the town after dinner we figured that we would spend more time there over the next 3 days.

    We awoke the next day to…surprise…more rain. As we had been on our feet exploring cities for the past 12 days, and we were tired of walking in the rain, we weren’t especially anxious to go into city exploration mode. So we got the bright idea of driving 180 kilometers to St. Paul de Vence, near Nice, to see the modern museum at the Fondation Maeght, which we had been wanting to see for some time. We figured it would only take 90 minutes on the autoroute, and that we would have lunch in St. Paul, see the museum and be back by 6pm, to hopefully clear skies.

    Unfortunately, halfway there we encountered rain so severe that we could not see the road in front of us. To continue to drive would have been incredibly dangerous, even going half the normal speed limit, so we decided to get off the autoroute at Fréjus and have lunch in the historic center, which we had never seen. While there, we discovered that the town has a lot of Roman ruins, including a Roman amphitheatre. The rain let up somewhat by the time we had finished lunch, so we decided to forge ahead, finally arriving at St. Paul and the Maeght about 4pm, much later than anticipated.

    Any doubts about going there that day were dispelled the moment we saw the grounds. All the gardens surrounding the modern building are filled with sculptures and mosaics from the likes of Calder, Miró, Chagall and many other luminaries of 20th century art. It was fantastic, even in the rain. The bright, light filled interior of the museum is packed with additional paintings by Braque, Léger and others. If you are a fan of 20th century art, then this is a must-see. We ended our stay at the bookshop, where we bought Miró and Calder prints advertising previous Maeght Gallerie exhibitions, which we really like.

    After the museum we spent a quick half hour exploring the town. Fortunately, just as we did, the rain stopped, so the picturesque narrow cobblestoned streets were empty, and it felt like we had the town to ourselves. Although very charming, we could tell from the mix of art galleries and restaurants that it was completely dedicated to tourism, given that it was only 20 minutes from Nice. We were happy that we saw it under these circumstances, rather than at the height of tourist season, when it most certainly would have been packed wall to wall with day trippers spilling out of tour buses and into the tiny streets. About 6:30pm we headed back toward Aix. Fortunately the sun wasn’t going to set until about 10:00pm, so we didn’t expect any problems.

    The drive was relatively uneventful, right until about the same place where we had exited on the way there, near Frejus. Again, the rain was coming down so hard it was difficult to see. Was it possible that it was raining this hard all day? Within a couple of kilometers we saw a van parked on the side of the road with an illuminated sign directing all traffic to get off at the next exit, warning that the autoroute was blocked at some point ahead. In front of us, a police car weaved back and forth with its blue light spinning, directing people off of the road. So we joined the long jam of cars exiting the highway, wondering to what fate the others that continued ahead were destined.

    We were directed to a one lane highway which paralleled the autoroute where we came to a dead stop…and waited…and waited. After a half hour of advancing by mere feet, cars started to turn around, hoping for an alternate route. Looking at the map, I noticed that a few kilometers north of us was a country road that we could follow, which would require us to pass through Draguignan. Heading in that direction, it was only a few kilometers before we ran into the same situation: a closed road and people turning around. The only option left was to try taking the coast route, a 4 hour drive in good weather, past Saint Tropez, Toulon and Cassis. Who knew how long it would take or what we would encounter? Too many variable with that option,so we finally decided to take our chances back on the autoroute. We got back on where we got off…and it was empty. It was so odd. There was no traffic jam, no road block, and only one lane out of three was closed, due to flooding. The only thing out of the ordinary was the number of emergency vehicles coming from the opposite direction, which we stopped counting after 27. What was going on?

    We got back at about 9pm and had dinner in Aix at Mitch (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g187209-d779386-Reviews-Mitch-Aix_en_Provence_Provence.html), another small restaurant housed in a historic building, but decorated in a clean, contemporary style. It was run by the owners Michel, and his friendly wife who waited on us. We liked it so much we went back again the next night!

    The next morning, Caroline at our inn asked us if we were OK and said that she was so worried about us. Apparently, there had been massive flooding and the news had reported several deaths, with the worst of it centered at Draguignan. We were devastated at the news, but incredibly thankful that we had gotten back on the autoroute when we did, and not tried to proceed through Draguignan. My heart goes out to all the families in Provence affected by this tragedy.

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    I finally read about it when we got home a few days later. There were not too many details, but it was horrifying. I feel so badly for the people there. It was unbelievable at the time, and even more so now.

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    Took a while to get to the next chapter.

    Provence – Part 2

    The weather was forecast to clear up later that day, although it was still dark and rainy. Being optimists, we decided to head to Cassis, a small fishing village on the coast east of Marseille. Fortunately, the skies cleared just as we arrived and it turned into a gorgeous sunny day, with clouds only to provide picturesque contrast to the blue sky.

    Cassis could not be more beautifully situated, nestled in a bay surrounded by the Calanques to the west, fiord-like limestone cliffs, and the dramatic rust colored “cretes” to the east, with an imposing fortress on the hill overlooking it all. As soon as we arrived we sought out a boat tour to the Calanques, which was not difficult to find, as the entire south side of the marina is lined with them. Since they all were about the same price and went to the same places, we chose the smallest boat (12 people max vs. 70) for a more intimate experience.

    There are a total of 8 Calanques, but we were going to see only the first 3 during our hour long trip. We left the picturesque marina at 11am and drifted past the multi-colored buildings which line the marina on one side, and the working fishing boats on the other. It was a vantage point from which to see the charming town from the sea, with the mountains sounding it like a natural frame.

    The first two Calanques, while very beautiful, were not nearly as dramatic as the third, which our boat captain claimed was the most stunning of the 8. There as even a beach which you could reach by hiking 90 minutes from town. Had we had more time, a hike to the beach and a swim would have been a great way to spend the afternoon.

    After a disappointing attempt to get authentic Bouillabaisse at a marina side restaurant, we decided to drive the “route des cretes”, a steep and narrow road up the rusty cliffs to the east, which are billed as the highest in France. If you are afraid of heights at all, I don’t recommend it, especially as you drive along the sheer drops with no guard rail between you and the blue sky above and the blue sea below; however, if you do go, the views are absolutely spectacular, both west, in the direction of Casis, as well as east toward Toulon, Hyeres and St. Tropez beyond. This turned to be the highlight of the day.

    The next day the spectacular weather continued. We had had enough of cities (even Aix was starting to feel too big) so we decided to do a drive through the hills towns of the Luberon, through the mountains to the north of Aix. On the way we stopped at Silvacane Abbey, built by the Cistercian monks around the same time as its more famous sister at Senanque, just outside of Gordes. We really liked the bare, simple halls and church, as well as the modern art sculpture of an enormous face of rusted iron in the garden. In fact, everywhere in Provence, from St. Paul to Aix and beyond, we really enjoyed the obvious appreciation for the visual arts, modern as well as classic.

    Continuing north, we stopped for lunch at Bonnieaux, before continuing to Menerbes, Gordes and Roussillion. In Menerbes, made famous by Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence” books, we took a stroll around the very charming town with fantastic views, stopping to peer into tiny shops or galleries. One small one that caught our eye featured white and rust colored terre cuite pottery, made by hand by an amiable French woman in her 80’s. It was another opportunity for me to practice my French, and she turned out to be incredibly interesting, and even interested in us. She had moved to Menerbes from Paris many years ago, and recounted the liberal, artistic and intellectual life she had led in the Marparnasse area of Paris at that time. Soon we were talking about Sartre and Camus, and I told her that I had commented in my French class that I had wondered what good it would do me to learn about French philosophers just to travel in France, yet here I was, having a semi-coherent conversation with her. I wish we could have chatted all day, but we had to get going, so we bought a small clay plate as a memento and continued on our way. This was one of those moments that I long for when I travel. Making a connection that I know I’ll never forget.

    We had been to Gordes and Senaque before, so we just made a cursory stop at each. We ended up at Rousillion, which is unique in this area for having been built out of the ochre colored stone, quarried from the area. It was a pleasant and beautiful little village, and made a great last stop before we headed back toward Aix, at about 7pm.

    After having toured small villages all day, we were not so enthused about having dinner again in Aix that evening, so we were trying to think of a small town to stop in on the way back. At just that moment, we saw a chateau to the right with a sign pointing us to a small village called Lourmarin. Nestled in among the vineyards and olive groves, this quaint cobbled-stoned village was noted on entering as one of the most beautiful in France. We did a quick spin through town and settled on a place for dinner, on a quiet and secluded little square, and it was excellent. While the pork rillette I started with was outstanding, it was the aubergine millefeuille that made my mouth sing. A whole eggplant was cut into thin slices, but still connected at the top to retain its shape. Between each slice was placed a mild but delicious goat cheese and a tomato slice, and then it was baked slowly in the oven until sweet, tender and delicious. Finally, it was placed in a pool of pureed tomato and garlic. It was a slice of Mediterranean heaven. Sam had a perfect meal for the indecisive. A sample platter of every entrée in the house: a salmon and a pork rillette, a courgette panna cotta, and various other Provençale specialties. Our waiter was fantastic, born in Puerto Rico to a French father, he spoke perfect French, English and Spanish, and kept us entertained all evening.

    La Place des Délices, Place du Moulin, rue du Temple, LOURMARIN. The best meal we had in Provence.

    Up next, the last day in Provence. The final chapter.

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    DH and I made Montpellier a base and also loved it. We sampled cheese at one of the shops on a Saturday morning whilst the whole town was out doing shopping-a lovely town. We also watched from a cafe as the student demonstration passed on the Egg. DH noted that the older folks must have been profs....with tenure!

    Very enjoyable report-thanks.

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    Provence – 3rd and final part

    We awoke on our last day in Provence to a perfect sunny morning. Why did it have to wait so long! But we were happy to finally have breakfast outside on the pretty terrace of our rustic and charming B and B. The other guests were happily taking photos among the flowers, and even took our photos and emailed them to us, as we never seem to have photos of both of us at the same time.

    We were scheduled to leave by TGV from Avignon for the return to Paris, where we were crashing for one night before our flight the next morning. So, we decided to work our way there slowly, taking the scenic routes through the Parc Naturel Régional des Alpilles.

    Exiting from the autoroute, we headed toward Eygalières, stopping off along the way at St. Sixt, an isolated church positioned on a stark hilltop, which afforded us beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. What a perfect day for a picnic, we decided as we continued into town and noticed an outdoor market in the center. So we stocked up on some duck saucisson, fresh goat cheese so smooth you could eat it with a spoon, a fresh baguette, a bottle of wine and a bag of cherries, likely picked that day from the groves in the surrounding area that were laden with fruit.

    Although we had been there before, and knew we would not have time to visit this time, we decided to head toward Les Baux-de-Provence, a small touristy village, with a castle on a high butte in a picturesque state of deterioration. The roads through rolling green vineyards were breathtaking, contrasting with the jagged grey stone mountains, and we decided on the spot to spend our next France trip in the area. Once Les Baux came into view, we found a clearing in an olive grove with castle topped butte in one direction and rolling vineyards in the other, and we happily consumed our market goodies. After lunch, we continued to St. Remy, a nearby town with an attractive center that was good for wandering, and we had the best ice cream and sorbet of the trip: cassis and blackberry for me, pine nut and pistachio for Sam. I’m stilling craving it now.

    We arrived at the TGV at 4:00 for our 4:30 train, which was departing on time according to the departure screen. I was relieved because we had made reservations for a nice dinner in Paris, since it was our last night. Unfortunately, the 2.5 hour ride became a 4 hour ride (no real explanations, other than “circulation” issues), and the line at the taxi stand at the Gare de Lyon took 45 minutes to get through. It was quite a shock to be back in bustling, cold, drizzly Paris, after warm, sunny Provence from earlier that day. By the time we got to the hotel it was 10pm and we just went to a local brasserie for dinner. After dinner, we walked to the Seine for one last look at the Eiffel Tower, before going to bed. We were surprised to see bumper to bumper traffic on the Champs Elyseés, and the streets filled with people celebrating the victory of Algeria in the most recent World Cup game. After France’s embarrassing loss earlier in the week, the victors were really savoring it (I won’t go into French history and politics, but let’s just say it was more than just a game to them).

    As we walked back to the hotel, we did what I imagine many people do at the end of a successful vacation. We started planning our next one!:-)

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    What a great report, thanks so much!

    I knew I'd love it when I read in the first paragraph that you ate at Le Hanger, one of my favorites and not much written about it.
    Your french cheese restaurant was on my list last Feb, but sadly we didn't make it, sounded wonderful, must go next time.

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    Loved your trip report!

    Brought back lots of great memories of our trip last year. We spent a great week in Paris. 2 perfectly sunny weeks in Provence. Spent a day in Cassis and lots of days in the Luberon villages. My trip report touched on a lot of the places you visited.

    The road trip in the rain sounded quite scary.

    Thank you for your interesting and detailed report. I too am planning my return trip

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    Enjoyable report. Sounds like this was mostly a very good trip--how lucky you avoided the flooding at Draguignan.

    I was in Aix years ago but never Montpellier, which has always interested me. Do you have a preference?

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    Thanks everyone for your replies! Leely2, it's difficult to choose between Aix and Montpellier. They are both beautiful and lively university towns.

    I would say for the first time vistor, who doesn't speak any French, Aix would be easier. It has a lot of beautiful fountains, tons of restaurants, has a lot of famous connections to the art world and is close to a lot of other major sites.

    Montellier for me was more fun this time, because fewer people spoke English well (but English is spoken, so don't worry if you don't speak any French at all), but it was just as beastiful and lively as Aix (except on Sunday, when it was very quiet, which I also liked). The only down side is that it has more urban sprawl around it than Aix, which would make it more difficult to base yourself in if you were trying to do day trips by car.

    So, although I preferred Montpellier on this trip, as a base for exploring, I would go with Aix.

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