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Trip Report Sojourn in France Summer 2012

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In July and August this year we spent a month on a home exchange between Fontainbleau and Montargis, and also travelled to Brittany and Burgundy in that time.

Because we spent so long on this holiday, I won't give a detailed day by day report, rather just give you what to us were the highlights.

Our first day trip was to Saint-Remy-Les-Chevreuse, to watch some of the final day of the Tour de France. It was a full day out, but the cyclists went by in a flash!

We managed to arrive just before they closed off the roads, and plonked ourselves right at the roundabout in the middle of town. There was a handy low stone wall with room for us, two other grandparents, a grandma and granddaughter, and a young man. Our young man (OYM) turned out to be a chain smoker, and much to my amazement, DH managed to sit beside him for over 3 hours without complaint . . . our SIL was impressed by this devotion to the cause.

So we pulled out the camembert and mineral water, and DH popped across the road to the patisserie to buy a baguette. The crowds gradually built up, and entertainment was provided by the antics between various people versus the Gendarmes. These Gendarmes had a full time job with argumentative drivers who didn't want to be re-routed around the course. One bikie was still shouting as he drove away; one woman had her car in a car park blocked off by the barriers - she ranted and raved for so long that eventually a passing police vehicle picked her up. They must have taken pity on her, because next thing she drove back down the course in a different vehicle - with everyone cheering her!

Finally the caravan vehicles arrived with all their give away goodies. This is when OYM really came to life. Up until now he had sat very meekly and not said much, but he suddenly leapt to his feet and was literally jumping and diving for everything he could grab. This included snatching things from the ground in front of people's feet, including mine! I soon worked out that the only way to beat him was to put my foot on the goodies.

Grandma ended up telling him off, and after that he actually gave the little girl some of the things he didn't want. After the fabulously contrived vehicles had passed we all did some trade-offs; DH gave OYM a pack of cookies he didn't want and secured a red and white polka dot cap, and I inherited a copy of the daily Tour news that someone managed to end up with 3 copies of. So SIL and grandsons had a grab bag to fight over when we returned home.

After all that excitement we needed a good sit down and more refreshments - luckily the patisserie was still selling those delicious baguettes!

I was amazed to see that most of the crowd disappeared after the caravan had been through, and thought they had only turned up for the freebies, not to see the riders.

A couple of hours later I realised that they had sensibly gone home and watched the TV coverage, only to appear on the streets just before the main event.

The helicopters appeared overhead, and the racers arrived. It was literally over in a few seconds. I had thought they might have been doing a bit of a 'gentleman's ride' being the last day, but while they weren't going full pelt, they were really humming along. Apart from two stragglers, all riders went past in a blink of an eye, and that was it!

We even managed to get back home just in time to see the final presentations on the podium . . . a very satisfying first day to our French adventures.

Next I’ll tell about our favourite little towns nearby. Di

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    A day at the Tour is indeed an odd event (I did it, too, this year in Abbeville), and it's true that the locals don't have to wait by the road for the hour between the end of the advertising caravan and the arrival of the peleton. Same with me in Paris -- sometimes I have gone to see part of the event on the Champs Elysées on the last day, but then I jump in the metro to watch the final arrival at home, since you can see it so much better on television!

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    To continue our discoveries:

    Auxerre is a beautiful town. We visited because of a Stu Dudley recommendation, and we weren’t disappointed! Pick up the walking tour booklet from the visitor centre cost 1.50E. Follow the brass arrows set into the pavement, and see the river, cathedral is unusually light and airy looking, churches, half-timbered buildings, a most unusual clock tower in the centre of the old town, shops.

    For lunch we went all out with the Plat du Jour menu at a little cafe. Starters was a goats cheese salad (chevre chaud), main a succulent beef casserole, then dessert was a choice between raspberry sorbet with melon slices, and a delish lemon curd with raspberry coulis. So what with all that, plus an icecream mid afternoon, then little tarts after dinner, I swore off little somethings for a few days!

    Next day trip turned out to be a real WOW day! We've learned that Sundays and Mondays are best spent walking and exploring, as everything shuts up tight on those days of the week. Usually there's a patisserie and large supermarkets open, but that's about all

    So being a Monday, we headed south for half an hours drive to Montargis. The tourist brochures describe this town as the 'Venice of the South', and that's just what it turned out to be. We picked up a walking brochure from the tourism office (available in English & other languages); this took us on a 1 1/2 hour walk through amazing bridges, canals, old half-timbered houses, and of course all the gorgeous flower baskets that European towns do so well. They even had boats full of flowers in some of the smaller canals.

    The bridges ranged from those built hundreds of years ago, to the most modern glass and steel arches. We watched barges progressing up and down locks, and took more photos than all our previous days combined.

    Lunch was at Brasserie Des Glaces on Place Mirabeau - the only restaurant we could find that was open, and of course we had to try their plat du jour. This time it was steak salad with pepper sauce, then a gorgeous dessert - coffee icecream in a little pot, with tiny morsels at the side. A 'fat lady' profiterole the size of your thumb, a petit four about 3 cm square, and a little layered chocolate around the same size. All that for 13 euros is hard to beat. Apparently every eatery has to offer a plat on their menu each day, and judging by others eating around us, it's very popular.

    This town is also famous for their sugared almonds, so the bill came accompanied by three of those.

    During our stay we had plenty of time to explore other towns in our local region. Here are our favourites:

    Ferrieres-en-Gatinais is a lovely medieval village. Holds Nuits de Ferrieres banquet and medieval re-enactment on Friday & Saturday evenings in August. Old abbey, church and fortification walls.

    Fontainbleu is closed Tuesday, so we purposely planned our first visit there so that we could avoid the large bus crowds that would undoubtedly descend on the town as well as the chateau There are large markets in the town square, and plenty of interesting shops to browse in. For lunch we bought baguettes and camembert, then crossed the road to the chateau and found a good seat in the chateau grounds. You can walk throughout the grounds and forest without paying an entry fee.

    On our next visit there, we set out early enough to arrive at the entry just as the doors were opening for the day. The couple of bus groups went in another direction, so we were very pleased to wander through before the crowds arrived. The audio tour lasted around 11/2 hours. It is a most impressive chateau; we only saw two floors of one wing, and those rooms were sumptuously furnished with all the usual gold finishes that royalty of those times had. Later that night, I realised that we hadn't taken the tour of the Napoleon Museum that was also included in our ticket - I think we were both 'historied out' by that stage!

    The little town of Moret-sur-Loing has two claims to fame: it’s one of the Plus Beaux Detours de France, and Alfred Sisley’s paintings of local churches and buildings. The staff at the Visitor Centre map & were very helpful, giving us a full historical background to the walking map that takes you on a stroll through the town past many of his favourite painting spots.
    They also had a free guide book of the Moret Seine & Loing region – highlights of that included Episy with a boardwalk through the marshes about 1km seeing wildflowers & insects, and Saint Mammes – large marina & weekend jousting on the water activities every Sunday June to September, and Sunday morning markets..

    Orleans large plaza, with an underground VINCI car park. Cathedral hung with colourful pennants & beautiful stained glass windows.

    Troyes (pronounced the same as Trois, the French word for 3). The town was interesting in parts, but as it was undergoing a lot of reconstruction, and had many empty retail shops we perhaps didn’t see it at its best. There’s a good walking guide and history booklet available from the Visitor centre. Troyes is where the name Troy weight comes from. It was a very wealthy area for cloth and hosiery manufacture, and the merchants came up with this way of weighing and accounting for all their gold. There was an excellent exhibition of Knights Templar artefacts - turns out they were very big in that area too

    Next we’ll travel further afield to the Burgundy & Brittany regions.

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    Very nice di2315. I do a lot of biking in the region you stayed and Ferrières and Montargis have been on my "to do" list for a while so thanks for confirming they are worth a visit. I've been wanting to do the medieval nights in Ferrières. I know the area near Moret quite well and I'm often in Saint-Mammes and Episy. Its too bad you didn't instead choose to visit Bourron-Marlotte, Montigny-sur-Loing and Grez-sur-Loing as they're much more charming. Grez and BM were once very important artists colonies. The tourist office in BM has brochures for themed walks through town pointing out where artists lived etc. (the sons of Renoir and Cézanne lived here). I'm just mentioning this for anyone else who may be visiting the area. There are some lovely restaurants in BM, not to mention in Moret as well.

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    Thanks for your additions, FMT. I must say, I did have some difficulty unearthing likely places to visit before we ventured out on this trip, so hopefully others will make some use of our facts here.

    The rest of our travels covered Burgundy, Brittany and Paris:

    We decided to take a one-night break, in the Cote d’Or region of Burgundy. The countryside is covered in vines, with many large and old wineries in all sides - some date back to 1500s, but most seem to have been going since the mid 1800s. I realised that it's around 150 years since my forebears were sent here to gain their wine making skills.

    I'd love to be able to find out where in this region they were living - will have to do some Ancestry sleuthing when we get back. We started around midday in the southern end of this route at Beaune; taking time to wander around this lovely little town and eat lunch at a café on the main square. Their cheese omelette was divine!.

    We then slowly meandered our way north all afternoon. We had booked a night at Fixin, a tiny village close to Dijon. Our accommodation was at Logis Hotel Chex Jeanette 55E per night. We managed to strike it lucky again with this choice. The building was ancient, but the room completely newly refurbished in an old-meets-new style. Brand new bathroom, comfortable bed - my style of luxury!

    The village had a couple of hotels, a little church, a few houses and that's it - took us all of 10 minutes to 'do the town'! The church bells did strike each hour not far from our bedroom window, but must have stopped before midnight, as they didn’t disturb our sleep. The dining looked top class, but we decided to drive into Dijon to have a casual meal, and see the town without the daytime crowds (you must be catching on by now – we prefer the sights without all the bustle!).

    The meals we were served at l’edito Braserie & Café, 2 place Darcy in Dijon were absolutely the most humongous meals you ever did see! DH had a hamburger, which you'd expect to be large by the time they add all the trimmings. I ordered Normandy Potato with chicken breast and mushroom sauce. It came on a hot cast iron platter - the potato must have the size of two clenched fists before it was cut into four wedges, then a full chick breast on top, then all covered with a rich cream and mushroom sauce. It was melt-in-your-mouth delicious, and I ate as much as possible, and gave half the chicken to DH, but the plate was still 3/4 full!!!

    So after that effort we needed a long walk around Dijon; I discovered that's an ideal time to gaze in the patisserie windows - when I couldn't possibly be tempted to eat anything more. It was also an ideal time to see the town as the day had cooled considerably, and the streets weren't as busy with tourists and workers.

    We realise how spoilt we have been up till now, most of our time has been spent off the main tourist trails. This area was full of local and international holiday makers, which I guess you have to expect at this time of the year.

    Our second short break was 3 nights in northern Brittany.
    This time our accommodation was so abysmally awful that if we hadn’t pre-paid on a no cancellation web booking, I would have packed up and left after the first night. Up till now all our Logis Hotel stays throughout France over many years have been delightful, but this one definitely let the side down. Lesson learned: make sure you check the on-line reviews before making a booking!!!

    We stayed near the railway station – a short walk into the main area of Dinan. This is a stunningly beautiful small town; another of Les Plus Beaux Detours de France. The old medieval town centre is full of quality artisan shops, music and features and old clock tower. The visitor centre guide gives a couple of different walks you can take, including one down to the Old Port. There’s a 1 hour boat ride that takes you from the Old Port, past Lehon and through a lock. 12.50E per adult.

    You can also do a cruise from Dinan to Dinard 2 ½ hours one way. The Rance River has beautiful scenery.

    Our favourite place for dining was at the Old Port, at Le Cottage 78 rue du Petit Fort. Their plat du jour menu was so delicious, we returned the second evening for the same meal. The steep walk back up into the main town was good exercise after all that fine dining!

    Dinard is a larger town, right on the coast. When we arrived the beachfront was already set up with glamorous pale blue & white striped beach tents. Here we happened across the best markets ever – top quality knitted garments, leathers, and unusual gift lines. The markets are held on Tuesdays around les Halles area.

    We took a promenade around the cliffs at the eastern end of the main beach; lots of little swimming beaches and views across the bay to St Malo. There are very grand 1800s houses built all around the seafront - this was THE place to be seen in those times.

    That night, we set the alarm, to make sure we were among the first to arrive at St Malo. We parked right outside the town walls, and started a walk around the parapets. This was quite magical - the only people we were sharing the walk with were a few joggers and the street sweepers.

    On the inner side we had a birds eye view of the city coming to life with shops and cafes opening up, and on the outside we could see all the action in the port and on the beaches. The tide was right out as we passed an ocean pool complete with high diving tower. When we returned to this spot about an hour and a half later, the entire pool and chain surrounds had disappeared, and the diving tower was not far above water level! We've since been told that St Malo has the greatest tidal differences in all of Europe. The walk takes about an hour, but we paused for coffees and lunch breaks on the way.

    By the time we had seen enough, and were driving away, the usual lunch crowds were pouring in, with a traffic jam that went for several kms along the feeder road. At the end of the day, we both decided that today was the highlight of our travels so far.

    Another must-see is Mont Saint Michel – it’s an imposing place, being so cut off from the mainland. I knew that there was a shuttle bus to transport visitors out to the Mont, but hadn't realised that it was a good 15 minutes walk from the car park to the shuttle, then it drops everyone a good 15 minutes walk from the entrance gates. Quite a number of people chose to also walk the extra 40 minutes along the causeway the shuttle took. It was a very hot afternoon, so we took the easier option. Late afternoon is a good time to visit; when the worst of the crowds are gone.

    When we arrived the tide was right out, although just starting to come in again. By the time we had sat in a cafe for a cold drink and some R&R, they had opened the sluce gates on the tidal control barrier – this helps control the level of sludge that forms in the tidal channels around the island; quite a complex mechanism that I'd not heard about before.

    Our final two nights of this French sojourn were spent in Paris – a city we’ve visited many times before, but still there are unexplored corners and sights to see. We stayed in the Mercure at Gare du Nord – not the most inviting area of Paris we knew, but it was so convenient for our journey on Eurostar that we were able to overlook this fault. There was a Metro entry right outside the hotel door, and main station just across the road.

    The weather for these two days was extremely hot – 42 degrees C – so we were so glad to have air conditioned rooms to return to several times throughout the day.

    The highlights of Paris this time for us were L’Opera Le Palais Garnier; - what a supptuous building! the building interior is so spectacular. We'd only seen it from outside before, so this was a real eye-opener. As well as the ornate interior, I particularly enjoyed their display of costumes from some of the operas. Their use of colour and fabrics was quite breathtaking.

    Our other discovery was the Petit Palais fine art museum – apart from the exquisite artworks and objects on display, the building has a beautiful art deco staircase in black wrought iron work. We relished the air conditioned comfort of this building – in fact I had to laugh when we went out into the street and saw so many people just flaking with their feet in any available fountain . . . if only they’d realised that they too could have enjoyed all that cool air, and all for free! There’s a nice little café in a courtyard inside the museum as well.

    I must say, we did feel a tad cheated when, in the first restaurant we walked into in Paris, the waiter asked whether we’d like a menu in English! After spending the past month dining in all manner of eateries around the country, probably mangling the French language every day, it felt like a bit of a cop out to just revert to using English as a matter of course. I guess that’s one of the reasons we do enjoy to get out into the countryside and make believe that we’re part of the locals.

    I hope you've enjoyed sharing our travels, made all the richer thanks to the advice and suggestions from other Fodors members.

    Di

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    What a wonderful trip. We spent a month in SW France in 2010, and look forward to doing it again one of these days. You get so much out of seeing the real life in a country, and feeling less like a tourist.

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    What a wonderful holiday you had! I love that part of France, and spent 2 weeks in Burgundy a few years ago, as well as 2 weeks in Brittany. I especially liked Burgundy, and really want to go back. I, too, thought Auxerre was a beautiful town. I had 2 nights there, and wanted longer.

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    A very useful report thanks Di and like your writing style and the variety of places visited [spent a pleasant afternoon in Moret last year and very interested in your and FMT's insights of that area for possible future exploration].

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    farrermog - Here's a couple of my reports about exploring that area covering some of the villages mentioned:

    Moret-sur-Loing, Montigny-sur-Loing, Bourron-Marlotte, Grez-sur-Loing and Nemours: http://tinyurl.com/c6deuw5

    Moret, Fontainebleau, Saint-Mammes, Thomery:
    http://tinyurl.com/6d7a9jn

    Fontainebleau, Barbizon, Milly-la-Forêt and some other quaint villages and a couple of châteaux (Moigny-sur-Ecole, Oncy-sur-Ecole and Noisy-sur-Ecole aren't in this report but are quaint villages to drive through):
    http://tinyurl.com/6aksvbd

    A little further afield the medieval town of Sens is nice and they have a good museum there. The cathedral in Sens is said to be the very first of the gothic cathedrals. Just south of there Villeneuve-sur-Yonne is supposed to be nice. South of Milly-la-Forêt Malesherbes is supposed to have a nice château or two.

    Also, a little further north you can visit the château of Vaux-le-Vicomte and Provins is about 45km from there. Here are a couple of reports about that area:

    http://tinyurl.com/6cau3rv

    http://tinyurl.com/7xa5eok

    My overall thoughts on this area is that it is certainly not spectacular like places in Burgundy, Provence, Dordogne, the Alps etc. but if you'd like to remain close to Paris and see some pleasant countryside and quaint villages then you can find those things here.

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    Many thanks FMT - I'm an avid follower of your excellent reports here and elsewhere, but good to have this very accessible area brought together so well here, thanks; at this stage of my travelling life I'm finding I'm increasingly drawn to so-called 'less spectacular' areas (and the villages don't even have to be quaint!).

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    Thanks farrermog. If you go to my proboards site you'll find all of my reports there in one place and most of them deal with the area around Paris, roughly within 1-1/2 hours by train. The site is www.frenchmystiquetours.proboards.com.

    Sorry for hijacking your thread Di. I promise to stop now. :)

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    Sounds like a great trip. It brought back memories of places we have visited. We really enjoy Burgundy and have spent four weeks in different parts since 2006. We also enjoyed Auxerre on a day trip in 2010. And in May this year we went to Troyes for the day. Our experience was similar to yours with lots of work going on in the centre.

    Earlier in May we spent a week near Dinan and visited St Malo and MSM. So I enjoyed reading your impressions. We too enjoy the 'quiet delights' of the countryside and the small towns and villages away from crowds. With the exception of Paris of course!

    You have some lovely memories to store away.

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