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Trip Report Paris/the Dordogne/Brittany/Normandy/Bruges+Brussels

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We spent a month in France, from mid-May to mid-June. Most of this time was a driving trip in (and between) the Dordogne, Brittany, and Normandy. We finished with a couple days in Bruges and flew home from Brussels. Instead of a day-by-day recital, I want to describe just the highlights and lowlights.

PARIS: This was not our first time in Paris. Mostly we were there to see my husband's relatives (where we ate well). We stayed at an apartment in the Marais.

Highlights: Musée Rodin, its blooming rose garden and relaxing "park"; the view from the top of the Centre Pompidou and lunch in the restaurant; young Parisian male who helped us when we figured out we were going the wrong way on the metro

Lowlights: crowds in the Marais; the Pain Quotidien on rue des Archives (meager assiette with stale bread for 16E); our rental apartment (to be reviewed on www.slowtrav.com when I can get it to work)

THE DORDOGNE (based in Sarlat) :

Highlights: the Dordogne was all highlight, all the time. We loved Sarlat and our stay at Les Cordeliers (which I will review on Tripadvisor). I tried to capture with the camera the charm of wandering in Sarlat at dusk, the street lights just coming on, but failed. This whole area was charming. I decided it was like a fairy-tale, small in scale with castles and cottages and forests and villages and rivers. We had a very memorable (and surprisingly inexpensive) dinner at Le Presidial, eating outside in the garden, a great rareity in medieval Sarlat. Our first stop was the Jardin des Marqueyssac, which gave us an overview of the Dordogne valley, an excellent preview. (We had lunch there overlooking the view per Stu Dudley's advice.) Other highlights: the ice cream at Hotel du Chateau in Beynac and lunch in St-Léon-sur-Vézère at a little shack behind the town on the banks of the river, a surprising good meal at a picnic table outside.

And one memorable moment: we stopped in St-Crépin-et-Carlucet to see the petite Lacypierre chateau. Old St.-Crépin is very small, a church and 2 or 3 houses, and very pastoral. As I sat there thinking it could be 500 years ago, not much seems to have changed, a fighter jet roared low overhead. Wonder what they would have thought of that, 500 years ago.

Lowlights: not having more time; getting lost leaving Brive after we picked up our rental car

ANGLES-SUR-L'ANGLIN/ST.-SAVIN: Given we had a long drive from the Dordogne to south Brittany, I looked for a nice intermediate stop to spend the night. And fell for the photos of Angles. The owner of our hotel there recommended at stop at a church in nearby St. Savin, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Highlights: another whole package of highlights. We stopped at St.-Savin en route and were blown away. The abbatiale (abbey church) has a ceiling painted with scenes from the bible. And the whole interior: the walls, the columns, are painted, these with abstract pastel patterns. I especially loved the columns. We got great photos of this place, better than any I see online. (Our photos will eventually be posted.) This is in my top 3 churches, along with Monreale and Durham Cathedral. Angles is a very cute little town, with a river and a castle. And we really liked our short stay at the Relais de Lyon d'Or.

Lowlight: we didn't get to the roc-aux-Sorciers, a prehistoric sculpted frieze.

BRITTANY (based in Locmariaquer, Pont-Aven and Dinan):

Highlights: acres of megaliths at Carnac; panoramic view of the port from Dinan and the walk down; Ecusson Rosé (pink cider); Vannes, Pont-Aven

Lowlights: crowds in Dinan; traffic deviation (detour) approaching St. Malo that forced us into a traffic jam

NORMANDY (based in Villerville, south of Honfleur, and Canteleu, a suburb of Rouen):

Highlights: Bayeux Tapestry; cinema in the round at Arromanches, showing scenes from D-Day; gothic churches in Rouen; one-day driving tour of the Pays d'Auge, especially the super-picturesque chateau, St-Germain-de-Livet, (checker-boarded walls, a moat with swans), and Beuvron-en-Auge; Honfleur; tiny La Bouille and its ferry across the Seine; good Italian restaurant, Il Parasole, in Trouville; good lunch at Le Pommier in Bayeux

Lowlights: rain, the uninteresting new town of Canteleu

BRUGES/BRUSSELS:

Highlights: Côte du Canal B&B in Bruges (canal-side garden); good dinners at de Schaar in Bruges, Ogenblik in Brussels (both need reservations), also good ice cream/gelato at da Vinci near Eiermarkt in Bruges

Lowlights: rain, crowds in Bruges; kind of ill-kept Belgian countryside. Also the train conductor warned us to watch our bags closely in the Brussels station.

MISC.:

General highlights: all the many pretty villages, with old stone and/or half-timbered houses. Riding the trains (in first class) is relaxing and peaceful. I do so enjoy watching the countryside flow by, getting glimpses of small towns and people's backyards. When we were driving, the roads were generally very good.

Warning: Easter being late this year, we happened to be in touristic spots for Ascension and Pentecost. To my surprise, these are government holidays in anti-clerical France. Many people travel on the long weekends and some even take the whole stretch as a vacation. Our hostess in Bruges told us these 2 weeks are the busiest time of her year. So if you are planning to travel to popular destinations during this time period, book early and expect crowds.

GPS was very useful, especially wending our way into a strange town.

All the travelers in Brittany seemed to be English or English-speakers. Maybe that's because it was May. And there were tons of mini-RVs. Are they driven by the English?

Our Europcar rental came festuned with a sticker across the back window: "Another Happy Europcar driver" or words to that effect. Also had a sticker on the gascap reminding us to use diesel. Both of these made it obvious it was a rental car and thus maybe full of stealable luggage. We made several stops en route with the bag-filled car. Nobody stole our luggage, but we don't like having to take extra care. I reported this to Autoeurope, through which we rented. No response. Also the drop-off point for Europcar at Lille-Gare Flanders is not a storefront, but a shared lot. There's a red sign labeled SNCF in big letters with small logos for the various rental companies that share the lot. Since we'd picked up at a storefront in Brive, that's what we were looking for. That sign was very hard to see.


CONCLUSIONS:

Brittany was forgettable. We liked Normandy in spite of the weather we had, because there was a lot to see. But we probably won't return. However, we're ready to rgo back to the Dordogne at the drop of a hat. Everybody who said you need a least a week for the Dordogne was right. Better two weeks.

Disclaimers: We live close to the Pacific Ocean so not so thrilled by sea coasts. Plus I find I enjoy a place a lot more if it's sunny when I visit.

We prefer staying in the quieter areas of Paris, like the 7th or backwaters of the 5th.

Thanks to Stu Dudley for his detailed guide for the Dordogne and its restaurants..

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