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Trip Report Trip Report: France, summer 2009

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This year we reversed our normal pattern of touring some part of Europe before going to our place in the Dordogne because we decided to go to Norway and figured that it would be better to go north in July rather than in late May or early June.

As in previous reports, I give costs for two so that readers might figure out what is possible and what is our level of travel. Our cost for the jump across the pond NYC-Paris Stockholm-SFO came to $1522, obtained this time through Expedia.

We left NYC to Paris on May 19th and left for Norway on June 29. We spent a week in Paris, staying at a friend's apartment who kindly moved out to her sister-in-law's apartment on the pretext that she had to help her prepare her own birthday dinner--the sister-in-law had been a restaurant chef before retirement. The apartment is on the fifth floor and fortunately we had access to the elevator. Our friend is 81 and she rents the apartment. The building was converted to condos, but she could not be kicked out because the conversion occurred after she was 65. But the building had no elevator until the conversion and only the condo owners had access to the elevator (it is accessed with a key). She has no right to the elevator because she pays no maintenance fee. Eventually a neighbor made a copy of his key and gave it to her, which is how we had access to the elevator. Her access to the elevator must be a secret de Polichinelle because the concierge has a set of our friend's apartment keys, including the elevator key. As a thank you, we prepared a choucroute californienne for her and three other friends--we could not fit more than 6 around her dining room table. The meal was a success. We started with an orzo, tomato, feta, dill salad, then on to the choucroute and finished with a mix of candied fruit and slices of fresh citrus (pink grapefruit and Navel orange).

At some point, either the first or second day in Paris, my wife developed a case of plantar fasciitis which became worse as our summer progressed. She never was a fast walker, but we were now much more limited in our touring. Our stay in Paris was leisurely. We visited the musée de l'immigration which had a photography exhibit on the Paris banlieu, although the most interesting part of the exhibit was a recent interview between the photographer (Jewish) and his father about the latter's war experiences--which he had never talked about before. I am not sure that the museum is worth a visit except if it has a recommended special exhibit; the building itself is well worth seeing. I had never been to Vincennes, so we went to see the château de Vincennes--its medieval component is probably the largest of its kind near Paris--and the nearby botanical garden where all the rhododendron were still in bloom. When in Paris we called another old friend of my parents and arrange to meet in the city. We decided to see an exhibit at the old Bibliothèque Nationale and introduced her to Henry Rivière (we learned about him on our trip to Brittany in 2003). The exhibit was on Henry Rivière and japonisme and had beautiful woodcuts illustrating the connection. We had lunch at a Thai restaurant on the other side of the park facing the Bibliothèque Nationale. It was quite good and reasonable. Another day we went to see the Utrillo-Valadon exhibit at a museum/gallery next to Fauchon. It did not increase my appreciation of Utrillo, some of the Aladdin paintings were interesting; she at least experimented with different styles.

Every year we meet my cousin and try to organize some sort of outing. We decidedly are unlucky in this respect. Last year we were doing a walk of Paris gardens in the seventeenth arrondissement when we were interrupted by a deluge. This year we chose to go to the Parc de Sceaux which we had never seen. We just finished our picnic lunch on a bench when the rains started. We visited mainly the château which is a 19th century copy of a 17th century château, not particularly interesting. The grounds are in the style of Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte. We ended the day eating at le Louis Philippe, 66, quay de l'Hôtel de Ville, 75004 Paris ($144.84 for 4), a traditional restaurant with the old-fashioned waiters--it helps if you can banter in French. We also met another friend for lunch at one of his favorite small restaurants--le Coude Fou, 12, Rue Bourg Tibourg, 75004 Paris ($125.95 for three), but I think that it is overpriced for what it is. On the other hand, it is in the Marais and close to the rue de Rivoli (web reviews are kinder).

That pretty much covers our stay in Paris. We could not do too much more since we had to spend a day organizing our meal at home.

We left Paris going west with the intention of visiting the Golfe de Morbihan area of Brittany. We picked up our Kemwel rented car at Europcar near the Porte Maillot and drove off to Giverny to see the Monet garden. We had rented the smallest car possible and they gave us a Peugeot 107 ($434 for 14 days plus a $32 road tax). The trunk would hold only one of our standard traveling suitcases which can seen in the first picture here: http://europetogo.yuku.co...r-trunk-size.html. I did not bother to take a picture because I believe that the trunk size would be unacceptable to most readers. We were happy with the size of the car. I would recommend a stop at Giverny for anyone driving west from Paris. Any season will do with the possible exception of winter. In the spring the site is full of school children, but I suspect that in the summer they are replaced by tourists, of which there were plenty in June. I must admit that I do not find the garden in front of the house particularly appealing even though its flowers are gorgeous. It is much too linear, planted as if it were a vegetable garden; it has no spatial design although the flower combinations are obviously thought out. Count on being pushed and crowded out by tour groups when visiting the house itself.

Accommodations and Meals:
I had made a list of B&Bs where we could possibly stay during our travels. Because we were going toward popular areas (D-Day beaches, Mont St. Michel), I specifically researched locations that would be a little out of the way. I relied mainly on Gites de France (http://www.gites-de-franc...es/fr/chambres_d_hotes), but also used France Voyage (http://www.france-voyage.com/) which has fewer choices but some are in towns and the web site is friendlier. Our comfort level includes the "2 ears of corn" accommodations, which usually means an en-suite bathroom with shower but generally without a bathtub; and no AC. What we found might not suit everyone or might not be available to everyone because a certain fluency is necessary to make the phone call--in most instance an e-mail reservation was not available, besides, we were calling the day of our arrival. In addition, I have the impression that none of the hosts this year spoke anything but French. Breakfast is continental. Given these potential limitations, I would recommend each and everyone of the B&Bs we stayed at, in spite of possible quirks here and there. All of the B&Bs were spotless.

Our first stop was with Mme. Berthelin, Marie Thérèse, in 27370 Amfreville la Campagne, tel: 02 32 35 70 81. The cost per night was 37€ (the exchange rate hovered around $1.40 to the euro), no meals were offered, the W.C. was in the hall but the bathroom (shower, sink) was en-suite. This was the only ever B&B that did not offer any soap or shampoo. We asked for some (we had forgotten our shampoo in Paris) and she provided some, claiming that it was not part of the room according to Gites de France. The room was in the attic, along with four other rooms, accessed by an outside staircase to a large balcony fully covered by the roof. Breakfast was downstairs in her living/dining room. The B&B, although it has a street address, is in the countryside. We had to drive 10 km. to the nearest restaurant. Of the three recommendations she gave, only one was open--a hotel/brasserie (le Grand St. Mar, Neubourg, $50) that had decent steak (we rarely order steak).

Our second stop was with M. Henry Merienne, le Point du Jour, 11 rue de Mausson, 53220 Pontmain, tel.: 02 43 05 00 83. The cost per night was 40€ and we stayed two nights. The couple who ran the place had been farmers who used to stay in B&Bs when they went on vacation. When they retired, they decided to open a B&B just to maintain contact with the outside world. They leased out their farm, purchased a house at the edge of town, remodeled it, changing the upstairs to rented rooms. When we arrived they were playing cards with their neighbors, invited us for a drink and conversation. Like all the French we met, they love Obama. Pontmain is a pilgrimage town with an outsized basilica and attached buildings, one of which may have been turned into a hostel. The only restaurant they recommended was a "social" restaurant where the staff has one type of handicap or another. The food was OK, the service terrible because our waiter was clearly uncomfortable with us and simply averted his eyes so as not to see us, speak to us or take our orders; I suspect that he was borderline autistic. The next night we ate in Fougères, le Haute Seve ($136), 37, Boulevard Jean Jaurès, 35300 Fougères, which is the only restaurant in its class in Fougères according to a passerby who stopped and recommended it although out of his price range (he ate there once, paid by someone else) while we were looking at its menu in the afternoon. The food is excellent and well worth the price.

Our next night was in a hotel in Vannes. We arrived on a Saturday night and could not reach any of the B&Bs. We figured that in any case chances were that they would be full. It turned out that it was for the best. The B&B I had as my first choice was on the wrong side of the Golfe de Morbihan--west of Vannes is better than east of Vannes, and the B&B we finally obtained had been full on Saturday night. The Golfe de Morbihan has a lot of weekend visitors--with the autoroute it takes only 4 hours to get there from Paris. The Hotel Manche Océan ($93) was a two-star hotel near the préfecture within close walking distance of the old town. It was fine. I stupidly paid for parking because all street parking is metered, but it does not apply on Sundays, and I forgot that.

The following night we stayed with Suzanne Tanguy, Kerino, 56950 Crach, tel: 02 97 55 06 10, e-mail: kerino@wanadoo.fr (120€ for two nights). While we got a room the day we called, I would recommend reservations. The Tanguys converted their cow barn when they retired, creating 4 one room apartments, each with a deck, out of the barn. The downstairs contained the living area with kitchen and bath, and upstairs had a room with a double bed. The deck had a table and chair. The rooms were either rented out over night or could be rented as gites. They claimed to have been the first ones to have a gite in the area 20 years or so ago, and then expanded when they retired. One night we ate in Auray (le Sinagot, $66), right on the port. Good food, great service as if the waitress really liked her job; I think that I had ray that night, with a wonderful scallop hors d'oeuvre (that I am sure of) and my wife had mussels--a no need to mention restaurant the night before claimed that they were out of season. The next night we ate in l'Ostrea ($140) in La Trinité sur Mer. The food was presumably fancier but in fact it was not worth the price differential--we must be partial to bistro cooking.

The following night we were in Guérande, stayed and ate at the Hotel des Remparts ($131 for room and dinner). The food was very good, well worth the price, the room was probably the least desirable of our trip. It was not really bad, but if staying in Guérande, something within the ramparts might be more desirable.

We then stayed with Bernard Lhommeau, Fontenay-le-Comte, 02 51 69 85 75 (46€) in an old farmhouse that is now in the middle of town. It is practically facing the main square of the town with car traffic zooming by, but the rooms are on a level below (hence cool with two foot walls) facing a private garden and a quiet street. In this instance we had a private bathroom but off the entry way which was shared with another room. M. Lhommeau rents also on long term to individuals who work in Fontenay during the week and go home for the weekend. We asked for recommendations of restaurants with local food and ate at Fontarabie ($90) which featured eel and frog's legs from the local marshes.

We then went to our place in the Dordogne. During our stay we ate relatively little in restaurants. The two that are worth mentioning are L'essentiel in Périgueux ($172), for which reservations are recommended, particularly on market days. The food is excellent, and for one who prefers plain fruit for dessert to any other concoction, I was blown away by their desserts. We also made reservations for l'Auberge de la Truffe in Sorge ($157) which was very good (and gave us much better service than in our preceding visit a couple of years ago, although the patronne is no more accueillante than before). The food is traditional and one goes there for the foie gras and other regional specialties. Here is what we had:

1 Lillet Blanc 4.00
1 Kir 3.00
1 petitie crudités 8.00
1 escalope de foie gras 23.00
1 magret de canard sauce périgueux 22.00
1 mignon de veau morilles 22.00
1 soufflé chaud au Grand Marnier 10.00
1 café bar express 2.70
1 decaféiné 2.90

Total 109.60€


On our way back to Paris we stayed in Culan. The town did not have any appealing hotels, but we saw a sign for a chambre d'hôte and went 8 km. into the countryside to come up to a refurnished barn with 5 cars in front of it. I thought that it was full, but it turned out that there was plenty of room So with stayed with M. de Forge for 42€. It has the best bathroom of the trip, with bathtub and separate W.C.. We asked if he had many vacationers staying and he said that it was not really a tourist area, and it was mainly people passing through, or people staying for a few days while looking at property with the possible intent of buying a vacation home. They recommended a restaurant as the best in the area on the other side of Culan where we were the only customer for the entire evening (it was a Friday) with so-so food.

We subsequently stayed a couple of nights with our friend in La Borne before leaving France.

What we visited:

After Giverny and our overnight stay in Amfreville, we drove to Beuvron en Auge, which was disappointing. This plus beau village is a tourist attraption [sic]--we could not even find a decent grocery store in it. We did pick up a couple of bottles of local cider, but I was generally unimpressed by the town. We also drove up to the chapel in Clermont en Auge. It does offer a nice view and would be a nice picnic site. There is a web site that lists all the plus beaux villages in France (http://www.villagesdefrance.free.fr/), but from my experience, using something like Discovering the Villages of France by Michael Busselle is much more rewarding because he includes places that are not designated as a plus beau village and are thus somewhat off the beaten tourist track.

From there we went to Bayeux and were overwhelmed by the Bayeux tapestry. It is a must for anyone passing close to that area. It is contained in its own museum. Headsets are handed out and are really necessary to know the story told on the tapestry. But one should see it twice. Once through the audio program, instead of existing, one should go back to the beginning and admire the work itself without all the background noise. We were lucky in that there hardly was anyone in the room when we did it a second time.

From Bayeux we drove toward Fougères. The château is more impressive from the outside than inside, for it is mainly an empty shell; all the residential elements disappeared a long time ago. However they had a clever way of showing what it must have been like before the buildings disappeared. We were in Fougères on market day, and oyster were on sale. We picked up a dozen, purchased a cheap oyster knife and a cheap kitchen towel and had oysters for lunch. The next day we had crêpes in one of the restaurants recommended in the Michelin Green Guide. Near Fougères we visited the Parc Floral de Haute Bretagne which I recommend for garden lovers, although in concept it is less impressive than Vastérival (see my Ghent, Normandy & Brittany report). On our way to Vannes, south of Rennes, we stopped at the Manoir de l'Automobile in Lohéac. Compared to the Grand Prix racers on exhibit, there are few antique cars. This is for lovers of power cars: Maseratis, Lamborghinis and the rallye cars of the 60s. But it also has exhibits of carriages (town & country) and re-creations of shops (grocery, pharmacy) from around 1900. The museum is part of a complex which includes a race track.

Vannes has a nice old town but its port is less attractive than La Rochelle's or St. Martin's on the Ile de Ré. Half a day wandering through the old streets should do it. Our B&B to the west of Vannes was perfectly located to see the main sites of the Golfe de Morbihan: the alignement de Carnac (the town has a nice market) and other prehistoric sites, the presqu'ile de Quiberon, taking a boat ride on the Golfe de Morbihan, and generally enjoying the maritime scenery.

Heading south toward the Dordogne from the Golfe de Morbihan we drove to Parc Naturel de Brière which is a large marshy area. We stopped at the Ile de Fredun which is aiming to become a plus beau village. The museums were closed for lunch and the town was not particularly interesting, although thatch roofs are everywhere. We drove off, stopped a few miles down the road on a village square which had picnic tables and then drove to Kerhinet on the west side of the marsh. This is a restored village as most inhabitants abandoned it to work in the factories in nearby St. Nazaire and other cities. But in its restoration it is more interesting than the Ile de Fredun, and would recommend this stop, more convenient to the coast at any rate, to the other location. It has a two-star hotel in a restored farmhouse, another one is a museum, with a exhibition room which held, when we were there, a local photography club's photos of the salt marshes in different seasons.

We stopped overnight in Guérande, located above the famous salt flats. The town is surrounded by its fortification, and has been fairly well preserved, but is of little appeal in that all the commerce within the walls is oriented toward tourism. If I went to that area again, I would choose to stay in le Croisic, which is also touristy, but is also a fishing village with a criée (fish auction). From le Croisic down the southern coast of the peninsula, it is reminiscent of the Carmel area. For W.W.II buffs there is a big coastal block house that can be visited. Our next stop was Fontenay-le-Comte, just an overnight stop on our way to the Dordogne.

We did relatively little touring in the Dordogne. One day was spent visiting the Cingle de Trémolat (I recommend a picnic lunch overlooking the Cingle) and Limeuil. Unfortunately we were there on a Saturday, so the garden which also offers a view over the Dordogne was closed. We also visited the Château des Milandes, a must for Josephine Baker fans and interesting for its birds of prey demonstration. On the way to the general area we stopped in Montignac to buy food for our picnic lunch and discovered a canoe rental place just below the lower bridge. We might do that trip some day to St. Léon-sur-Vézère. Our other trip was to Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne (definitely worth a stop), with a stop in Martel (recommended) and a visit of Castelnau. The château is not as interesting as Fontenelle and is more impressive from a distance than what is offered inside. The nearby village of Bretenoux is a bastide with a nice square, but not much else.

We had to turn in our car in Brive, so we also spend half a day there. By returning one car at 10 a.m. and picking up the other one at 4 p.m., we saved a day's rental (the total 32 day rental for our entire trip in France would still exceed the credit card coverage should we damage the car). The second half of our rental cost us $492 for a Renault Twingo or equivalent and we were given a VW Golf diesel. We received a final billing of $83 which represents the road tax and the train station pick up. An extended aside: It tuns out that aside from major cities (I am familiar with Nice and Paris in this respect) chances are that the in-town pick up in the provinces will qualify as being at the train station, even if it is down the street from the RR station, as in Brive. Thus Brive, Périgueux, and Limoges all have RR station pick up only, no true in town pick up, and there is a 32€ fee for that levied by the town. On the Autoeurope and Kemwel web site, there is a distinction made between in town and RR station pick up. We could have avoided that fee by reducing our total rental time by still another day because we then could have kept the car we rented in Paris until we returned it in Orly (no fee for returning the car at the airport). If these types of fees and extra charges bother you, plan accordingly.

The Brive museum is worth a visit if you happen to be there, but we had already seen it. The Brive archives had an exhibit of family life from the late 19th century until the present, most of it in photographs: class pictures, weddings, family gatherings, etc.

We do our weekly shopping in Périgueux, preferably at the Wednesday market (the good fish man is there, in front of Saint Front, only on Wednesdays). From the square in front of the cathedral one takes the rue Limogeanne into the old town and at the first intersection there is a store which sells dried figs, prunes, pears and now strawberries stuffed with foie gras and then glazed. Others do it, but they were the first and it is still the best. Not cheap (3.50€ each, if I remember correctly); the originals (figs and prunes) are still the best, and one will do for two. Farther down the rue Limogeanne there is a cutlery store which provides excellent service. We walked in looking for a stainless steel equivalent of the Sabatier chef's carbon steel utility knife we have. It does not exist; even Sabatier now uses the heavy German design. But the man behind the counter knew his knives, and once we finished our discussion, he produced the knife that would fit our purposes, which was a Haiku Chroma knife. It probably cost as much or more than in the States ($120), but he knew how to describe the use of the knife and how its intended use was different from the standard Wüstoff/Henckels design. It is a wonder: it slices tomatoes as if they had no skin. If anyone wants to consider a Laguiole or Nontron (the Périgord knife), that store is the place to look.

We took a leisurely return to Paris. Stopped in Aubusson and visited a couple of small ateliers where we were explained the finances and techniques of weaving. The appeal of weaving goes up and down. It was high in the 1960s and 1970s with resurgence of the taste for homemade items, but has hit a low spot in the last twenty years, although it seems to be picking up again. As for the technique, a tapestry that is meant to be hung should be woven sideways so that the wool threads will ultimately be vertical; otherwise the tapestry will begin to sag as the horizontal wool threads weigh down on the cotton threads. We stopped for the night near Culan and visited Meillant and the Abbaye de Noirlac. I am not sure that the abbey is really any more interesting than others elsewhere in France even if the Green Guide gives it three stars, but Meillant is definitely worth a visit as well for the château as its grounds and the miniatures in one of the estate buildings. I would make a detour to see it.

We stayed a couple of nights with a friend in La Borne and from there visited Guédelon in Burgundy. For me it was the second highlight of our touring in France this summer. The first one was Bayeux. The Golfe de Morbihan is nice, with attractive elements to be seen, but it is no more attractive than La Rochelle and the Ile de Ré, although quite different. Guédelon (http://www.guedelon.fr/) is a unique site. As explained on the web site, it is a castle in the making, using exclusively the techniques that existed in the Middle Ages, with all the attendant trades that are required: rope making , tile making, carpentry, stone cutting, etc. All done on site. The man who was making beams from logs said that it was the best job he ever had; it was the first time he was truly happy with his work. He also gets 4 months paid vacation in the winter when the site is shut down. He can cut a 12 foot beam with hand tools in about 7.5 hours when he is not interrupted. Safety shoes must be worn by the workers where normally required, hard hats are hidden under straw hats, and scaffolding must meet modern requirements. I suspect that visitor interest also has determined the sequence of construction. Thus the outer walls will not be finished until the inner dwellings are built. Nonetheless, it represents the type of building or rebuilding that one would like to see in château restorations such as Beynac.

We stopped in Fontainebleau on our way to Orly. It is different from Versailles because it represents several centuries of occupation, from François I to Napoleon with Louis-Philippe's heavy involvement in restoration. We did not use the guided tours to see the private apartments, which I understand were Napoleon's. From Orly we flew to Norway.

Photographs of this trip can be found here: http://travel.webshots.com/album/573914074zHYdWs

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