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Perdue en la France - a trip report of central France and Paris

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Hello everyone,

First on all, I want to thank all the people who offered advice when I asked for help in planning this trip this spring.

Second of all, I apologize because this will probably be way too long. I'll try to be brief but will probably fail.

Background:
Every once in a while I would check out various airlines' web sites, hoping to find an affordable fare. The good news was that I found a very good airfare in April for a time when I could travel. The bad news is that I had only 2 months to plan my trip, would be traveling by myself which was a first for me, and wasn't sure where I wanted to go in addition to Paris.

So I asked Fodorites for suggestions on where else to go. Ira suggested Auxerre. I looked up photos of Auxerre on-line and when I saw a photo of the abbey towering over the town by the river, I knew I wanted to go to Auxerre.

Originally, I had planned on taking a train, but several posters encouraged me to rent a car. I was a little leery of driving, based on my experience driving in Italy 2 years ago. But I was told that driving in France is much less stressful that driving in Italy. So I rented a car and although I got lost a lot (hence the title of
trip report - perdue means lost in French and one key phrase I used quite a bit while there was "Je suis perdue" or "I am lost.") driving in France is a snap after having driven in Italy. And at least I was geting lost in very scenic places.

For the next part of my trip, I wanted to see the gardens at Villandry. And, as long as I was in the area, I ended up going to other chateaux and gardens, and further west to Angers and finally dropping off the rental car in Chartres before going to Paris.


Dates:
June 12 - June 26. This is a great time of year to visit Burgunday & the Loire valley. The days are very long so there's lots of time for traveling and exploring. Also, there were very few tourists at any of the places I visited except for Vezelay and Azay-le-Rideau and even these two places weren't crowded.

Paris was another matter. The most touristed sites - the Louvre, the Eiffel tower, Musée D'Orsay were jampacked. But other sites, e.g. Musée National du Moyen Age and Musée Marmottan Monet, weren't overcrowded at all.

Flight:
Air France from SFO to CDG. The seats were the narrowest I've ever had to endure, as were the aisles. I was lucky in that I had the aisle seat in the center section and the man sitting next to me was 1) very skinny and 2) must have had a bladder the size of a bathtub, or he was wearing a catheter, because he didn't get up even once during the entire flight. I somehow managed to sleep, even though the stewardess kept smacking into me as she strode up and down the narrow aisle.

Rental car:
I had asked Fodorites on whether it was a good idea to immediately rent a car after landing. Based on their advice, I decided that driving immediately after landing was too risky. However, 1) I actually felt really good and 2) it looked like it was going to start pouring at any moment. So I went over to the Avis counter and asked if I could changed my reservation. No problem, the only additional charge was a drop-off fee, since I wouldn't be returning the car at the airport.

The problem was dropping off the car. The Avis web site listed the train station as the location. Not! The Avis office is located several miles away from the train station. Fortunately, a great college-age guy at the Chartres tourist office gave me directions and a copy of a map so I could find the place, located in the industrial section of Chartres.

Driving:
Driving on the major roads is very easy. The only initial problem was that it started to rain so hard that
I couldn't read the signs and ended up taking a wrong turn. It soon became obvious that I was driving towards Paris (lots of graffiti on the walls along the road) so I turned around, but first pulling over to wait for the rain to
slow down.

One piece of advice about signs on smaller roads in France. In the US, arrows point straight up to indicate that a destination in straight ahead. I never saw that in Burgundy & rarely saw it in the Loire Valley. Instead, the arrows point slightly right (if they're on the left side of the road) or slightly left (if they're on the right side of the road). Misunderstanding the meaning of the sign, I would turn & go the wrong way. I soon came across one of these arrows and there was no place to turn & figured out the correct meaning.


Sens
I decided to stop in Sens (it's on the way to Auxerre) and see the cathedral.

The front of the cathedral is being worked on so the one remaining tower (the other one fell down long ago) was wrapped in plastic. All the doors were closed & it was unclear where one should enter, or even if it was ok to enter. I noticed two women leaving via a door towards the side. This was the entrance. When you get to the choir area, there is a small note, only in French, saying that it's ok to tour the
cathedral as long as you're respectful.

There were two cleaning ladies, a few men doing some renovation work in the choir, and maybe a dozen other people in the entire cathedral. The only other cathedral I had ever visited before this was Notre Dame in Paris, and this
was such a welcome contrast from the mob scene there.

Next post: Auxerre

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    I like your style and look forward to reading more. "Lost" in France is not usually a problem. It's scenic! It's not like home! You just know that around the next curve will be a wonderful patisserie or a bridge covered with flowers.

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    Thank you, PalenQ and Coquelicot (Nice screen name, BTW. I saw lots of coquelicots on my trip.) for the kind words. I'm trying to make this post as useful as possible, while occasionally allowing myself to rant or rave about something.

    Burgundy roads:
    I drove down local roads from Sens to Auxerre and recommend avoiding the highway as much as possible in Burgundy. Take the local roads instead. The scenery is a delight - a welcome change from the scenery around the airport. About every 5 miles you pass another scenic village. The only drawback during this drive was that I was finally
    starting to feel tired.

    Auxerre lodging:
    First night's lodging was Les Violettes. Since I had planned on taking the train, and the train arrived in Auxerre 16 minutes after the rental car agency closed, I arranged to stay here, in town, for the first night. If you need a place to stay in Auxerre and can't find something better, it's clean & decent and you could stay here.
    But you definitely could do better.

    I much preferred the B&B where I spent the next 3 nights: Chateau de Ribourdin (www.chateauderibourdin.com) which is a few miles outside of Auxerre. It's recommended by Fodor's and some posters here. M. Brodard was very prompt in responding to my e-mails, offered suggestions on places to visit, and patiently encouraged me to converse in my limited French. Breakfast included jams made from garden. (Okay, I skipped the rhubarb and prune jams - but the others were really good.) The room was nice & it's a pleasant location
    in the countryside.

    Auxerre:
    Friday Marché
    It's at Place de l'Arquebuse which was a few blocks from Les Violettes. You first see the outside stalls, which are pretty much limited to non-food items - mostly clothes. Then you go inside and I'd estimate there were about 50 to 60 food vendors. Along the periphery in semi-permanent facilities were bakeries, meat shops, etc. Spread throughout the center of the building was everything from fruits & veggies to jams & honeys. It was packed.

    What struck me as being different from food markets in California & from the marchés I've been to in Paris (Place Monge & rue Mouffetard)
    was the social aspect of it. Shoppers were talking to each other like they were old friends catching up on the latest news. If you enjoy marchés or if you just want to save money on food, stop by.

    Cathédrale Saint-Etienne
    Like the cathedral in Sens, the front was being renovated and it was practically empty inside.
    Unlike Sens, there's a parking lot in front of the cathedral. While this may be practical, it certainly
    lacks the aesthetic quality of having a plaza in front it as did the cathedral in Sens.

    Abbaye de Saint Germain
    I liked the cathedral but I think I liked the abbey even more.
    Visit the crypt and see the tomb of St. Germain and the faint murals on the walls. You have to take a tour.
    There were only 6 people in the tour I took, including the tour guide. The tour is in French but they have a handout in English and the entries are numbered so the guide could point to the paragraph that corresponded to what he was discussing. His discussion went on for about 5 minutes for every paragraph in the handout, so
    obviously the handout is nowhere near as detailed as the talk, but it's a help.

    Walking around
    The streets meander along and definitely aren't in straight lines. The tourist office gives out a map and there are markers in the pavement which you can follow as you go along to see the sights in Auxerre. It's easy to get lost (I speak from experience) if you don't follow the markers, but it's a pretty place to wander around.
    I did find a nice patisserie near the horloge. I think it was called Bon Pain de l'Auxerrois.


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    I went to Auxerre a few years ago and was really knocked out by the frescoes in the Abbey - among the oldest in France, and quite wonderful. Of all the churches I've been into in Europe, this was one of the ones that moved me the most. Highly recommended

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    Third day - here & there in northern Burgundy

    There is a Yiddish saying, "People plan, God laughs." That could be the traveler's motto, or at least mine, because I make my travel plans and things just somehow go in different directions, which can be a very good thing.

    I really wanted to see Abbaye de Fontenay. Although I would have liked to have traveled there via small, back roads, I thought that I would get lost. So plan A was to try to go there via Chablis, and visiting either Chateau de Tanlay or Chateau d'Ancy-le-Franc on the way there and the other chateau on the way back. Plan B was to take the highway south and visit the chateaux on the way back if I couldn't find the road to Chablis from Auxerre. I ended up going with plan E.

    I couldn't find the correct road in Auxerre, so followed the signs to the highway, but somehow missed the route to the highway. Just as I was about to turn back and try to figure out where I went wrong, there was a sign pointing the way to Vézelay. I am flexible and also was tired of being lost so, fine, I decided to visit the chateaux tomorrow and go to Vézelay and then the abbey today. After driving towards Vézelay for about 10 minutes, I come across a sign for Chablis, pointing to a narrow road on the left. I turn left. I am proud of myself for managing to get back to plan A. I am looking forward to seeing
    the chateaux. I am looking at the clock in my car. I am realizing that I will get to Chateau de Tanlay just in time to miss the last morning tour. And it's 2.5 hours until the next tour. So much for plan A. But I keep driving and a little while later I see another sign for Noyers, pointing to the right. I turned right. And that is how I ended up stopping in Noyers and traveling to Abbaye de Fontenay as I had originally desired to - via small, back roads.


    Noyers:
    Noyers has a lot of half-timber houses. It's been designated as "one of the most beautiful villages in France." It's great that this buildings are in such good condition. But, seriously, there isn't much to do here.

    While researching my trip, I came across a post by Stu Dudley saying that it takes about an hour to visit here. He was traveling with someone else and I probably would have spent about that much time if I wasn't traveling by myself. But I found
    that 20 minutes was plenty, although it is a good spot to break up the long drive from Auxerre to Abbaye de Fontenay.


    Abbaye de Fontenay:
    The abbey was turned into a paper mill after the French Revolution. However, the buildings were left intact. In 1906, Eduard Aynard started to restore the abbey. His family continued the restoration and still own the property. About half of the buildings are closed to the public, but you can see their exteriors, and I wonder if his family lives in them as there was a car parked outside one of the buildings, as well as a patio set. But there are still plenty of interiors to explore, as well as the gardens. Although the interiors of the buildings are empty, it still gives a feeling of what it must have been like to be there when it was a monastery. With all of the trees surrounding the abbey, it also gives a sense on how the monks were
    isolated from outside society. There's also some interesting information on how the forge functioned, using energy from
    the stream to power a humungous hammer.

    Chateau d'Ancy-le-Franc:
    The tour is in French, but there's so much to look at that I didn't particularly care that I didn't understand much of what the tour guide was saying.
    The chateau is in amazingly good shape and fully furnished. The exterior of the chateau is almost austere, but the inside is extremely elaborate.


    I arrived at chateau de Tanlay a few minutes too late to catch the the last tour. I guess I'll just have to go back some day. ((a))

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    Troyes
    Troyes is delightful. Go there. Preferably on a Sunday.

    Troyes is about a 90 minute drive from Auxerre and I hadn't planned on visiting there during this trip - but had hoped that I would eventually visit there should I ever be so lucky to return. But today was another of those "People plan,
    God laughs" days. It was raining and I wanted to go someplace with plenty of indoor activities so I changed my plans and spent the day in Troyes. I am so glad that I did.

    All of the stores in Troyes & quite a few restaurants are closed on Sundays. But that's ok, you can always shop someplace else another day and it results in 1) uncrowded touring and 2) plenty of parking. I parked next to the cathedral - for free. Anyone who has had to try to find parking in France will understand how wonderful that is.

    Another reason to go on Sunday: You can hear the organ in the Cathédrale St. Pierre-St. Paul. I arrived part-way through the service, at the start of the offertory. (I still can't get over that you can walk into churches in France during services. They are so accomodating.) The music during the service was nice. However, the
    recessional was absolutely amazing. It conjured up visions of the Phantom of the Opera. It not only worked as a recessional, making you feel like you should get out of your seat and move, it practically felt like your spirit should jump up and soar. It was so good, I felt like applauding at the end or it, but figured that I shouldn't clap at the end of church services. It was so good, other people did applaud.

    Musée d'Art Moderne
    I never understood what people meant when they described a museum as being "intimate." Now I understand what they mean. This is an intimate museum. It's small, uncrowded (referring to both the number of people there and the artwork
    - there is a large amount of space between the paintings, so it feels spacious and uncluttered) and you can get very close to the artwork.

    The building itself is gorgeous. Once upon a time it was a bishop's palace. Then there are the views from the windows. Look out one side & you see a courtyard and the cathedral. Look out the other side and you see half-timber houses.
    And then there's the art!

    Restaurant
    I usually pick up food at farmers' markets, but I walked by a creperie which had a glassed-in section, like a greenhouse. So I could see inside & there were plenty of people who really seemed to be enjoying their food. And I'd never eaten a galette. I went inside and got a seat in the corner of the glassed-in section, looking out over some half-timber houses and a church which I couldn't see very well since it also was under renovation. (What was it this year with all this renovation work? The only church that I have a photograph of the entrance from this trip is Notre Dame in Paris.)

    The only people sitting next to me in this corner were a 30-something man and his preschool-aged son. Dad looked like he was sent by Central Casting to portray gorgeous French hunk. Long and unruly hair and beard. He was even wearing
    a turtleneck. Son looked like a real-life 4-year-old version of the kid from the movie "Jerry McGuire." There is something incredibly cute about a preschool boy saying "Ooh la la, papa."

    So I even had entertainment with my meal, watching them share a jam and whipped cream crepe. I had a
    vegetarian galotte with some trepidation as it's really easy to serve bland vegetables. Not this galotte. The vegetables had been cooked in something and were extremely flavorful. With coffee, it was just under 10€. I would have loved to have had a desert crepe, but I was just too full. I think it was called Crêperie la Tourelle (definitely Crêperie and Tour were in the name) and it was near the main square with the merry-go-round.


    Musée St-Loup
    During the French Revolution, a great deal of artwork and other property were taken from the estates of the rich. A portion of this booty makes up the Musée St-Loup. It does rather have the feel of being somebody's attic - albeit an attic filled with centuries-old artwork and furniture. This was the only place I visited in Troyes that I wasn't thrilled with, but then I'm not a big fan of 18th century portraits.

    There were some interesting exhibits. I swear there was something that looked like a giant sized (6-8 feet long) hobby horse. Except it was a lion instead of a horse, and instead of a place
    to sit on top of the back, there was an opening on the back with a seat inside it. There was a sign, but only in French, so I have no clue what this could possibly have been used for.


    Other interesting sites: Ste. Madeleine (interesting rood screen) & Basilique St. Urbain. AND plenty of neat-looking old houses, easy to navigate streets, and a covered market (unfortunately, the Troyes web site listed the wrong opening times for Sunday - it's only open until lunch - so most of the vendors had closed by the time I got there).

    One caveat: All of the churches & museums are closed between 1PM and 2PM. Everything is closed between noon and 2PM except for the Musée d'Art Moderne is open between noon and 1.



    Abbaye de Pontigny
    I stopped here on the way back from Troyes. I don't know much about this church but was fascinated by it.
    Although the church isn't in great shape (with what looks like water and mold damage) the interior is still furnished - and what furnishings - 17th century choir stalls, altarpieces in the chapels that are carved with biblical
    scenes e.g. the last supper, the holy family. (Some photos at
    http://preview.tinyurl.com/5b3z2b)

    The abbey at Fontenay has most of the original buildings and they have been well-restored, but they lack interior furnishings and they are no longer being used as a religious institution. Pontigny only has the church, and it certainly could use some work - but it has such an interesting interior plus it's still a church. Visiting both of them gave me a better feeling for how wonderful these abbeys must have looked and functioned in their prime.

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    Thanks, Kerouac. I'm trying to include information that I would have liked to have known before I left.

    I'm also trying to find time to write the trip report. At the rate this is taking me, I'll be on my next trip before finishing this.

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    thanks for providing some very useful information on some little known spots. One of the best things about this forum is finding out about new possibilities in areas you might not have considered until someone posts and describes them in glowing terms. New entires for "the list". Thanks.

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    Hi Shanti-

    Any chance you'll finish this trip report?

    Did you end up going to Angers/Saumur? Would love to read about your visit there.

    Also, did you have problems with the luggage storage facilites in Angers train station? (You asked about it in another thread.) It looks like I may need to use it on my upcoming trip, so I want to make sure it's still available @ Gare St Laud in Angers.

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    Oops! I've been negligent about continuing my trip report - so here's another installment.

    Day 5: Miles to go before I sleep

    Today I traveled from Auxerre to the Loire valley. I had originally planned on stopping in La Charité sur Loire and Bourges on the way, but since I didn't make it to Vézelay due to the rain I also stopped there today - which
    meant that I ended up going to too many places and traveling too much. That's too bad, as all three places are worth longer visits.


    Vézelay
    First time since I left CDG that I overheard heard people speaking English. They even were American.
    I almost felt like going up to them and saying hi, just for the chance to speak English again.

    There's lots of info about Vézelay on Fodors and I can't think of anything original to write but want to add to the chorus saying that Vézelay is absolutely, utterly stunning. It looked like what I think the abbey in Pontigny could look like if it were restored well.

    One aside about traveling during the middle of June. I think this is the official school group visit season. There were a group of preschoolers leaving as I got there, plus two older school groups while I was there. I also came across quite a few school groups at other sites I visited this week. Is this the end of the French school year and
    teachers and students just don't feel like being in the classroom any longer?

    La Charité sur Loire
    This is the third World Heritage site in Burgundy. (The other two are Fontenay and Vézelay.) It's not
    near any other tourist sites so it doesn't get many tourists. At least, not on the day I was there,
    when I saw maybe six other people the entire time I wandered around (not including people working on reconstruction).

    It isn't in as good shape as Vézelay and it needs restoration work - it's centuries old and certainly looks like it in some spots. One of the gardens literally only contains weeds. But parts of it are gorgeous - there's some exquisite carvings, for example. And it is being restored. One interesting difference is that this church has new stained glass windows. Although the style is different, the windows are beautiful.

    It was interesting seeing these abbeys as well as Fontenay. They were similar in many respects, yet so different in how well they had been maintained over the centuries.



    Bourges
    It started raining again after I arrived here and I had to keep traveling, so I didn't spend much time here - I pretty much limited my time here to visiting the cathedral so I can't make many comments except 1) the cathedral is awesome and 2) take the highway - the local roads are congested and there's no scenery to mention, it's pretty much urban sprawl.

    I was wrong, I can add one other observation. I stopped by Maison de la Forestine, a candy shop. Forestines are a type of candy that is a specialty found in Bourges. The candy shop is delightful, full of colorful and pretty candies and containers, with impeccable
    service. It just seemed like an ideal vision of what a candy store should look like. But I can't say that the Forestines were anything special. Next time (should there be a next time) I'll try something else.

    Next installment: I'm finally on my way to the Loire Valley. The rest of the day didn't go as planned.
    Although everything worked out well in the end, it was the one lousy experience I had during the trip. That's probably why I haven't gotten around to continuing my trip report.
    Well, that and being forgetful and lazy. ((A))

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    Congratulations on such an amazing journey thus far! Your experiences with the highs and lows are fantastic and a great achievement and you have saved the best for last ... Paris! This is the perfect time of year to see this most beautiful city as many of the Parisians are away on their extended annual holiday so the city is less crowded but just as resplendent. The weather has been lovely and the sidewalk cafes are virtually on every street just begging you to enjoy. So have a wonderful time in Paris as you wind up this trip of a lifetime and drop me a note if you need anything while you are here!

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    We ran into lots of 'school-age' visitor groups on our trip in mid-May. What I noticed most was how well-behaved they were compared to what American kids would act like on a similar field trip!

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    From now on, I'm only staying places that have positive reviews - either via guidebooks, or other renters' evaluations. Because the week before I left, I decided to stay for one night at Clos Mony because it looked cute and it was next to the chateau de Chenonceau. A few days before I left, I received an e-mail confirming that I could have
    a single room.

    I thought it was strange that they didn't ask for a credit card number and tried to phone them while
    in Burgundy. I had arranged to be able to use my cell phone in France via AT&T. I had phone coverage at the beginning of the trip and at the end of the trip, but it didn't work during the middle of the trip. I kept getting a message saying that
    all lines were busy.

    So I drove to Chenonceaux, figuring that I had an e-mail confirming my room. Big mistake. After all my stops, and getting lost on the drive
    to Chenonceaux, I arrived at Clos Mony about 8PM. The place was packed. When I said that I had a reservation, the proprietor denied it and was extremely belligerant when she insisted that I wasn't
    supposed to be there. She did not, however, act at all surprised to see me - which I would think someone would be if someone without a reservation showed up at their doorstop.

    I didn't know what to do. I didn't know enough French to argue with her and -what good would it have done, I couldn't make her kick out someone else and give me their room. So this was the crappiest moment of the trip. I was tired, didn't have a place to sleep, and honestly
    felt like throwing a tantrum - but I was traveling solo so there was no one else to take care of arrangements. If I wanted a place to stay that night, I was going to have to figure it out myself.

    I looked at the Fodor's guide book which listed two B&B places. I called the first and got their answering machine. Although I prefer staying in apartments or B&Bs, at this moment I really liked the idea of hotels which have staff that answer the phones. Then it dawned on me, I had a reservation for the next two nights at Hotel Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud.
    It was two hours away, but it was a hotel, and someone would answer the phone. So I called and they had a room. I told them it would take me two hours to get there and they said they would be open. Fortunately, they didn't tell me that the desk closed at 11PM so I didn't have much margin for error.

    I zoomed down the highway and, with a bit of delay trying to find the hotel in the dark (as it was located on the abbey grounds, behind a wall with a closed entrance made it a bit difficult), I finally pulled into the parking area, grabbed my purse, and walked about a block to the office. The office staff was extremely helpful. I then went up
    to my room, too tired to get my suitcase, and collapsed, fully clothed, onto the bed and slept a very sound sleep.

    Next: A delightful day in the Loire valley

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