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Trip Report Trip Report: traveling through France, 2007

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This year we decided to get to our house in the Dordogne by flying from Edinburgh to Nice via FlyGlobeSpan ($278 at a DCC conversion rate--all prices are for two unless otherwise specified) and then pick up a car in Nice to drive to the Dordogne. We stayed at the Hotel Comte de Nice ($80 per night) where we had a back room recently redone. The 2 star hotel is in the process of being renovated, and while the rooms have been redone, the air conditioning is still not installed and our wooden shutters would not close properly because of decrepitude. We actually had a small apartment, two rooms with a kitchen counter (two electric hot plates, a sink and table setting for 4). Breakfast did not look fabulous so we skipped their breakfast, had coffee in the local café and then picked up a croissant in a bakery on our way to wherever we were going.

Scotland was particularly gray this year, and Edinburgh is architecturally severe, at least where we stayed in the New Town. Nice, by contrast, is a riot of pastel and late nineteenth century rococo. My wife felt much more at home in France (her words) where she does not speak the language than in Scotland. We liked Nice, our stay was too brief, and we plan to return, if only to visit the Matisse Chapel in Vence. We arrived late one evening and intended to visit the Fondation Maeght and the Matisse Chapel on the same day since one is in St. Paul de Vence and the other near Vence itself. Unfortunately we left a little late and arrived at the Fondation Maeght just as they were closing (we could have seen it if willing to spend only 30 minutes total) for lunch. So we had a mediocre lunch there--it is some distance from St. Paul de Vence--and then sat around until 2 p.m. when it reopened. By the time we left it was after 3:00 and then the bus never came, so we did not get to see the Matisse Chapel. Instead we walked around St. Paul de Vence--too much of a tourist attraption for my taste--and returned to Nice. Anyone interested in modern art, particularly Miró, Giacometti and Matisse should visit the Fondation Maeght which is an interesting building in a beautiful setting.

The next day we walked 20 minutes to Europcar’s downtown office (there is a charge of about 1 day’s rental for picking it up at the train station). We got a Peugeot 207 diesel ($734 for 24 days through Kemwel), which was big enough for us (for a size of the trunk see: http://tinyurl.com/yrlcw9). I recommend getting the smallest car possible for the sake of maneuverability. We then drove back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and on to the Matisse museum on the NE side of Nice. The museum is a jewel, set in a 17th (?) century Italianate mansion with rose wall and aqua shutters and well worth a visit. Leaving Nice is somewhat of a pain because there are no east-west roads except close to the downtown area. So we had to drive back into town and then out.

Meals: Our first meal in Nice was close to the hotel. It was OK, especially since we still could get something to eat around 10:30 at night, but pricey for what it was (Le Saint Germain-$70). But it would not be my first choice under other circumstances. I mentioned that the cafeteria in the Fondation Maeght is not very good and overpriced. For our second evening, we walked around the old town and chose a restaurant--I believe it was Le Bistro on the rue de France--which looked interesting--more meat oriented than the standard fish places (I did not trust my judgment in choosing the right one) and not a pizzeria--and had a good meal in their upstairs air-conditioned room.

We went to Nice simply because that was the only decent flight we could find from Edinburgh to France aside from Ryan Air to Beauvais. We have a friend in the Provence we had not seen in quite a while, and decided that it was a good excuse to drive through the Provence on our way to the Dordogne, which is what we did. The trip was just a drive through for the most part, so we have little say about the Provence. Our first day was a long drive from Nice to Apt, and I would definitely recommend the drive for those not wanting to go down the coast: N202 to the Lac de Castillon, D955 towards Castellane, etc. toward Apt. It’s N202 that is particularly beautiful, although there may be other roads just as nice in that area. For me, it was exploratory, in that I want to go back and visit some of the perched villages that we passed by and also do the drive along the Grand Canyon du Verdon. The next day we drove to Arles--another place to visit for more than the couple hours we were there--and Aigues-mortes. We did the walk around its ramparts with a major rainstorm threatening us, were not particularly impressed by the town, although it looks like market day could be interesting, and by late afternoon we were on our way towards the Languedoc. We took the wrong way around Montpellier, somehow driving through the town rather than by-passing it, and around 9 p.m. found ourselves in Bédarieux which looked like a decent sized town. The town was a jumble of one way streets--at one point we were not sure that the street was wide enough for the car--and we could not find a hotel. It was absolutely dead. We decided to drive on, and on the edge of town, by the RR station, we found a fairly new 2 star hotel, surrounded by what looked like terrain vague and a chain-link fence that enclosed the hotel and its parking lot--they gave us the code to open the gate and the front door of the hotel after 11 p.m. The room was clean, with hot water in the bathroom, otherwise a plain motel style, and cost us 43€ without breakfast. In ten years the hotel will probably be a questionable choice. The rains that would threaten or occur for the rest of our stay in France started that night. Bédarieux is a decent sized town, so we asked about it. It turns out that there were two more hotels in town, both closed down, one because the owner retired, the other because of health and safety violations. As for eating, we had two choices: a Chinese restaurant or La Forge (http://tinyurl.com/2lgtcy). We picked the latter and did not regret it ($86). Even if just passing through, La Forge would be a nice place for lunch. As for hotels, it turns out that the next town was a spa town (Lamalou-les-bains) with a few hotels available, although the big old one opposite the casino was closed and shuttered. We would have passed the town by the night before because the road does not go through it and we would have had no way of knowing that lodging would have been available. The next day we continued to Albi--exceptionally sunny and hot--where we picked up some cash, stopped at a roadside stand to get vegetables for the evening meal, stopped in one of the supermarkets in Sarlat for some other essentials and then drove to our house where we immediately made a ratatouille to offset the lack of vegetables while traveling.

For pictures of that part of the trip go to: http://tinyurl.com/2c3tbo which also includes photos from previous trips. In viewing the pictures, I believe that it is best to see them in the large format.

As far as the weather was concerned, we had un été pourri (we even had a rare, albeit very small, rain the day after we returned to SF). Normally the farmer cuts our hay field in June and he did not get to it by the time we left the Dordogne on July 6. We do not know if he ever got to it. This was not weather conducive for touring, and the only real touring day we did was a ride down to Sarlat (there was a nice Giacometti exhibit in the bishop’s palace) and then a visit to Castelnaud castle where it rained while we were looking at the indoor exhibits. Castelnaud is not as hokey as I feared and is more than a medieval war museum; it has some extensive explanations on the medieval kitchen and its ingredients, but no translations. Otherwise most of the time was spent doing work around the house. We arrived and wanted to do a laundry. The machine was broken, the drum would not turn if a single piece of laundry was in it, although it turned with water in it. The machine was 30 years old, so we decided to replace it. That took a couple of days of comparative shopping and we finally settled on a washing machine in Conforama which was about 100€ cheaper than what was available elsewhere. Free delivery and they would take away the old machine: Great! but delivery is limited to certain days of the week for each sector of the Dordogne, and their schedule was full, so we did not get delivery until the day before our departure; that was the most expensive laundry of our life. We replaced a panel of fibro-ciment with a piece of glass, which turned out to be cheaper than anticipated. I lazured (protective stain) the exposed wood on the house, dug a small ditch to drain the rain water away from the house, weed-whacked the grass around our house because the person who was supposed to do it did not understand how much he had to do and when he came to do the rest, his weed whacker died on him--the grass was as high as the hay on the field around us and a lawn mower would not be able to cut it.

Food: We had some interesting home cooking. Our house is limited to two top burners, so baking is out, and we adjust our cooking accordingly. We invited the friends who keep an eye on the house over, and served them Devil on Horseback, which, we discovered, is known in France as un poulet sans tête; the English title is more poetic. It’s a dried prune wrapped in bacon and preferably grilled, although we fried it because of the rain (We later repeated it for a party in SF, over the grill, and everyone except the vegetarians were wild about it--the simplest dish got the most rave). We found that demi-sel is the closest equivalent to American bacon. We also served a SF cioppino, adapting the dish to local fish and crab (we substituted rock crab for Dungeness crab), and that went over very well. It meant getting up early the day of the meal to go to Leclerc near Périgueux, because that was the only place that could guarantee fresh seafood at a better price than the fish merchants in Périgueux itself. We discovered that the French rock crab (tourteaux) has a much tougher shell than the ones we get in SF, and I had to use a hammer to crack it. Another evening we served what we thought was a standard French soup to another neighbor who ran a café in northern France until she retired, and she insisted she wanted the recipe of this new soup...that had come straight out of Julia Child: cauliflower soup.

The hamlet had an al fresco meal for 80 catered by the local butcher. It was a fund raiser for a local association and I probably would not have attended had I known what the initials stood for: Veterans of the Algerian War. It was a mediocre affair, they ran out of wine (!), our end of the table did not get some of the side dishes because they ran out. The meat was very good, but that was hardly a saving grace. For the price (20€ per person) there are better restaurant meals. Or one could find a more Brueghelesque hunting club meal like this one: http://www.fodors.com/forums/pgMessages.jsp?fid=2&tid=34541928, whose menu is included in my Dordogne album.

There are a few restaurants I would mention.

Le Bistro de l’Octroi (http://www.lebistrodeloctroi.fr/perso-23217.htm) had been mentioned, so we decided to try it when we were in Sarlat. It was not expensive but the prix fixe ($40.43) was not that good nor interesting: a boeuf bourguignon which was too salty. That meal was no better than what I have eaten at the Auberge de Mirandol or La Bedaine, and these two offer more for a slightly higher prix fixe. It may have been an off-day, but I have no reason to try again.

We chose L’Imaginaire (http://www.l-imaginaire.com) in Terrasson for a birthday meal ($217). We opted for the most expensive meal, which was a tasting menu according to the chef’s inspiration. The service was impeccable. The restaurant has a nice atmosphere. The food was very good but not overwhelming, I would go back but order a standard menu which would then reduce the price of the meal considerably.

La Meynardie (http://www.en-dordogne.fr/paulinoix/) ($122) is in a beautiful setting, the dining room is charming and would probably qualify as romantic for those seeking such a setting, although not as romantic as the Moulin de la Gorce (see: http://www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=2). The food is very good, but does not quite match l’Imaginaire, and the service is definitely inferior. We went there for an anniversary, and the drive takes us about an hour. We enjoyed it, but would not do the drive again. If we were around the Sarlat area, we would consider it for an upscale lunch or dinner. I would do the drive for l’Imaginaire, but it is closer to our house anyway.

We had a lunch at a charcuterie/traiteur in the middle of the old town in Périgueux. It’s called Pierrot Gourmet, 6 r Hôtel de Ville 24000 PERIGUEUX. Some tables are shared. It is good food, not particularly cheap, but not expensive either. The owner and his wife are characters. Definitely worth a lunch stop after shopping at the market.

I took a grand total of 4 photographs this time, but include them in my continuing Dordogne album: http://tinyurl.com/yq8wqv

We left the Périgord and took two days to go to Paris. On our way up we stopped at the prieuré d’Orsan (www.prieuredorsan.com) to visit its re-creation of a medieval garden. It turns out that it is also a 6 room hotel with restaurant, serving mainly vegetarian food from its garden. We just had coffee and some homemade sweet which was not extravagant. But the menu looked interesting (62 € per person) and we might have been tempted except that we were to see our friend in La Borne and anticipated spending some time with her that day rather than arriving late in the evening. On the whole pushing toward preciosity but the stop is worth it just to see the extensive garden.

Our friend spends half the year in La Borne which is a village of potters (http://henrichemont.info/gres.htm) between Bourges and Sancerre. It is in the middle of a forest and has always been a village of potters. With industrialization and standardization, the village withered away until a man named Digan revived the potting industry in the village. Many of the potters use the old kiln whose bricks are practically glass lined from the glaze laden fumes of years of firing as their show rooms. It is one of the rare villages on France were the showrooms are not locked and are unattended for the most part. Our friend walked us around and took us to la cathédrale de Jean Linard (http://henrichemont.info/archi.htm#jlinard), which should be seen for the incredibly wild imagination of its creator. It is a cross between the Watts Towers and a Hundertwasser building. For our evening meal she grilled some pork chops in her fireplace, threw in some potatoes in the ashes and we sat around the fire eating and talking. As good as any restaurant. The next morning she gave us her key to her place in Bagnolet (métro Robespierre in Montreuil) and we took off for Paris.

These pictures are of the Berry plus others from previous trips in the Loire valley: http://tinyurl.com/ys4jys

We arrived in Paris on a Friday evening, presumably going against traffic. On the way we discovered that our Visa card without the puce will not work in an automated toll booth and there are strong warnings about backing out. So we sat there until an attendant was able to help us. Going to Bagnolet was easy, as was getting the luggage in the house. Driving from Bagnolet to the Gare de Lyon was a real pain, particularly once by the train station. We were coming from the north, which meant that we had to cross the wide avenue (Bvd. Diderot) to get to the rue de Bercy. Traffic was heavy, cars were honking and the street turn was not obvious. I continued on the Bvd. Diderot and about a block down did a probable illegal u-turn and then a right on rue de Bercy. We found the parking garage, drove down four levels until we found the parking slots reserved for Europcar, noted the number of the space and turned in the keys to the attendant upstairs who was not interested in checking the car at all. It all turned out fine.

We did have a problem with the apartment. It is carved out of a former warehouse that is perpendicular to the street with a courtyard next to it. One needs to get into the courtyard and then go to the condo. I had only one key, the entrance to the courtyard is by code, which I was given. However, because of the dodgy neighborhood, some people use the dead-bolt on the courtyard door after 11 p.m. So we arrive at the door around 11:30 and have no way to get in. We had to find a telephone booth, which we found on a square, and called our friend to ask tell her the problem. She called a neighbor who did not answer the phone. Tried to call another one. The first person heard the message on the answering machine and opened the door. Lots of apologies on both sides, one for disturbing the other, the other for the dead-bolt. He told us that he would give us a key the next day, he would be there all morning long. The next morning he was not there. Another neighbor was there, who happened to have moved in three months before and had the same thing happen to her. She gave us her telephone number in case it should happen again. Fortunately it did not.

The neighborhood is definitely mixed. The café at the corner is run by a Vietnamese family--they recognized us by the second day and knew our order: a double express. Across the street there was a building from whose upstairs window Africans were smoking in the evening; during the day it looked like an abandoned building. The clientele in the café and a mix of old Frenchman who definitely were on the lower echelons of society and of rough Eastern Europeans (Poles? Russians?). Two blocks down was the main street of Montreuil which has a heavy African population, and a very good croissants at the local boulangerie-patisserie by the métro station.

We did some of the passages again and found ourselves in a horrendous downpour by the Palais-Royal. We decided to take the garden walk ion the 17th, met my cousins at the appointed place and had to end it halfway when we reached the Square des Batignolles when it started to pour. We ran to a café where we stayed for about an hour waiting for the rain to stop. We’ll have to redo the tour under better conditions. One day we ambled around the 7th to look at some art nouveau building and then went to the rue Cler to see what it is all about since so many tourists rave about it. It is very pleasant, with some excellent food shops, but not worth a detour. We were meeting a friend at the Musée du Quai Branly (aka MQB). The museum specializes in what is now called les premiers arts and has an incredible collection of objects from its former colonies. North America is less well covered, although it has a few buffalo robes that are impressive, one attributed to a donation by Père Marquette. The building itself is interesting, set in extensive greenery with its building wall along the street completely covered with plants. It is well worth a visit. But if one wants to see such objects treated as works of art, one should go visit them in the Louvre--I am assuming that the exhibit was permanent. That collection is much smaller but very carefully selected for its esthetic appeal. To get to it one should use the Porte des Lions entrance (we didn’t) which is much less crowded than the pyramid. Our last museum visit was Arts et Métiers (http://www.arts-et-metiers.net/) which is fascinating for those interested in old technology and transportation systems.

Food: I can’t give a blow-by-blow description of all the meals we ate, in part because I do not remember the name of one of the restaurants in the Odéon-Luxembourg area, and also because I do not write down what I ate. But here are the four places that I do remember:

MQB: I had the African BBQ chicken, and it was the least of the lunches the three of us had both in taste and in quantity. In any case, it is expensive for what it is: $71 for three light lunches. If I had a choice, I would go into the 7th, away from the Seine and look for a restaurant there.

Auberge DAB near the Porte Maillot: A large upscale brasserie (the waiter claimed to receive tips equal to the price of the meal from Arab clients--my cousin fell for it and left a 20€ tip) which we never would have chosen on our own. We went with our cousins and because the restaurant does have seafood, ordered a seafood platter for two which was more than enough for the four of us ($170--I believe that the platter itself was 98€). It had what I consider the standard problem of such platters: the shrimp and crab tend to be overcooked. But it is a good group activity and as finger food it eliminates a great deal of the potential food etiquette questions.

Chez Michel (http://tinyurl.com/2ywr4f): Probably the best meal we had in Paris this time. Reservations are a must. Our French friends who chose the place told us that it is impossible to go to a decent restaurant without reservations because the Americans and Japanese have discovered them. The wine list is interesting as it contains wines from small unusual wineries. We had a very acidic wine which was fine with the fish dishes we had. It is a Breton inspired restaurant (in spite of the reviews claiming a Norman source) and the best dessert is the Breton cake. For what it is, it is not very expensive ($206 for four).

Musée des Arts et Métiers: The Sunday brunch, all you can eat, costs 15€ per person including juices, bottled water and coffee, but excluding wine. It is quite nice, with a variety of salads, cold cuts and pastries. I recommend it.

This trip’s pictures were inserted in my ongoing Paris album: http://tinyurl.com/34evao

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