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32 new pastries! and other things we liked about Le Perche–a trip report

32 new pastries! and other things we liked about Le Perche–a trip report

Dec 3rd, 2007, 07:17 PM
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32 new pastries! and other things we liked about Le Perche–a trip report

A mention of Le Perche in a home decorating magazine, of all places, piqued our interest in this rural part of Normandy. It’s a natural park, and I guess they define park somewhat loosely, because after 10 days there I’m still not clear on its borders. It’s about 1.5 hours southwest of Paris. Chief towns are Mortagne, Belleme, and Nogent-le-Rotrou. You’ll find them on the map between Chartres and Alencon. Lots of beautiful countryside here.

We couldn’t find much info till the New York Times did an article. The area sounded right up our alley but wouldn’t zillions of NYT readers beat us to it? Maybe they did, but not in September. In 10 days in Le Perche and 5 in the Indre we saw only 1.5 other Americans.

Le Perche is famous for its Percheron horses (of which I think we saw one due to hoof and mouth fears.)

To make a long story short, we loved Le Perche. But I don’t want to oversell it; it’s not for everybody. You don’t buzz around from museum to chateau to fabulous shop, you saunter and savor Le Perche.

Rather than do a full-blown trip report, I’ll start with some details of our first two days in France (leaving out the harrowing moment in the check-in line at Dulles when my husband turned to me and asked, “Did I lock the car?”) and then skim over the rest of the vacation.
Coquelicot is online now  
Dec 4th, 2007, 06:01 AM
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Please tell us more. I am tentatively contemplating a trip to Normandy/Brittany and starting to gather ideas. I like being outside and in quieter areas. Thanks.
irishface is offline  
Dec 4th, 2007, 06:27 AM
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On our way to Le Perche.

No trip really starts till we get off the autoroute. That half-hour after we leave CDG we’re in autoroute purgatory. Even with downloaded driving instructions we find ways to go astray. We have to make split-second decisions and my navigational instincts are usually dead wrong. We don’t know how to turn on the rental car’s windshield wipers. The car stalls at lights, and first gear is–whoops!–really close to reverse. The sooner we get off onto smaller roads the better.

On this trip our first stop on the way to Le Perche was the Auberge du Prieure Normand in Gasny. We were driving an Alfa Romeo, more of a performance car than we’d ordered or wanted, and this mismatch was actually the major drawback of the trip. Europcar didn’t foresee the tight turns we’d have to make. But at this point it’s time for a welcome lunch break. We park the car--carefully, walk into the restaurant, and out comes the chef, out comes the waiter, and out comes the young trainee who handles the minor details to greet us and settle us in. Three people? For us? It’s got to be the Alfa Romeo, we decided. Now that we’re Alfa drivers, we’ll have to expect this kind of service. (Of course we got the same kind of service when we drove a Fiat Punto.) We had a great lunch. I remember a delicious sauce and wonderful butter, like a long piece of salt water taffy wrapped in foil.

We drove a few kilometres to take photos of a nearby mill restaurant, le Moulin de Fourges, recommended by a Fodorite whose name I can’t access right now, but thank you. (This possible lunch choice got bumped by the Bib Gourmand place, but I wanted to see it anyway. Very charming.) We chose Michelin’s green (scenic) roads toward our first night’s B&B near Lignerolles.

By mid-afternoon we were a little tired and crabby. The cure for that is always a patisserie, so we stocked up at Verneuil-sur-Avre and wished we had time to explore the town. It has an intriguing medieval center. We did battle with the telephone and got through to tell Mme Buxtorf at Le bois Gerboux that we were on our way and would be there in an hour or two. Oh, 45 minutes, she said, and gave explicit directions which worked, even though I hear French very slowly.

Arriving in Le Perche

Once we got off the N12 the scenery improved. We drove through a pretty small town, Tourouvre, and then a forest.At the end of a golden afternoon we arrived at Le bois Gerboux, a secluded house with a view of a hayfield and green woods. The Buxtorfs don’t farm but their neighbor’s field abuts their property. The farmer baled hay one evening. Fun to see. Mme Buxtorf was very helpful, even to the point of knowing which patisserie in Mortagne sells caramels au beurre sale. She told us about some nice walks in the adjacent foret domaniale.

The B&B has two guest rooms with a pleasant dining area downstairs, plus table and chairs on the lawn. We made tea and coffee and enjoyed our evening meal (food we’d bought en route) out in the sun. Then we walked to the top of the hill (village of Bubertre) along a sunken ancient lane. We fell asleep while planning the next day.

This put a crimp in my well-thought out plan to wash out each day’s clothes at night, let them get partly dry overnight, then bake them dry the next day in the trunk. (The back seat would work even better, but modesty forbids.) It worked best where the B&B had a heated towel rack. We had to resort to a laundromat only once.
Coquelicot is online now  
Dec 5th, 2007, 08:57 AM
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I bet it was Cigalechanta who mentioned the Moulin, because I remember at the time wondering if it was close enough to Giverney to find it for lunch. Was it?
hopingtotravel is offline  
Dec 5th, 2007, 09:00 AM
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Oops, sorry. It was impolite of me to forget to mention that I enjoyed reading that there are others who just like to wander. My DH would have gotten a kick out of the car.
hopingtotravel is offline  
Dec 5th, 2007, 09:51 AM
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Hopingtotravel, the Moulin des Fourges is fairly close to Giverny by car. It's a very scenic drive; there are lots of pretty back roads in this area near the Seine.

It sounds like you've had the same car troubles we had! Eventually my husband did bond with the Alfa Romeo. When he successfully passed a line of four cars (over my objections), I started calling him "Alfa male."

Coquelicot is online now  
Dec 5th, 2007, 02:09 PM
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Actually, we booked an Opal in Ireland and ended up with a free upgrade to a sleek silver BMW. He really liked driving that -- especially as during the hoof and mouth disease --there were fewer tour buses.

Looking forward to more of your report.
hopingtotravel is offline  
Dec 6th, 2007, 05:52 AM
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The next morning we were surprised to find two other guests at breakfast. We’d been sleeping so soundly that we didn’t hear them and their adorable dog arrive. Mme Buxtorf had thought we were English and provided cheese and rillettes for us. Mme's breakfasts had the best croissants we ate on this trip, from Tourouvre’s only boulangerie.

We started driving on back roads toward the market at Longny-au-Perche and right away fell in love. I'm not sure the US still has any unspoiled rural landscapes like Le Perche’s. We saw small farm fields with the winter crop coming up alongside deep green pastures where cattle of various breeds grazed, small streams running through wooded valleys, roads lined on both sides with tall hedges, and well-managed ancient forests. The vernacular architecture is quarried creamy or gray stone in a simple, solid style. Toss in an ancient mill and a village church now and then and we’re happy. When we got lost, we thought “We can’t go wrong; it’s all France.” Once we were in this mood, just about every place we went seemed delightful.

We drove through and walked around pretty villages we’d never heard of (and wondered why not?). Noce, Bonnetable, La Perriere, Courgeon, La Ferte Vidame, Losail, Mauves sur Huisne, Monceaux au Perche, Moutiers au Perche, Soligny-la-Trappe, St Victor de Reno, St Martin de Belleme, St Maurice sur Huisne, and Tourouvre. These villages all greet you with lavish plantings of annuals. All the mairies are covered with windowboxes full of flowers and the bridges often are flowery too. Not much in the way of commerce here, but some of these places have a market one day a week that’s worth a trip. At St Maurice sur Huisne there’s a really lovely garden open to the public--le parc du manoir des Perrignes. A visit there during the Journees de Patrimoine was one of my highlights of our trip.

Larger towns include Belleme, La Ferte Bernard, and Mortagne au Perche. Belleme and Mortagne are architecturally fascinating hilltop towns, fun to explore on foot, with knockout views. La Ferte Bernard calls itself Little Venice, a slight exaggeration, but it’s a nice biggish town with a medieval center and pretty streams. (There’s a super Leclerc there, my guilty secret. At home I rarely shop at the big chains, but in France I love to wander the aisles at Leclerc, Champion, or Super U.)

There were a few things we wouldn’t go back to. We didn’t like Nogent-le-Rotrou on our drive-through. We didn’t think the Ecomusee at Sainte Gauburge was a thrill. Remalard was merely okay, even though there is a very nice garden there (we saw les Jardins de la Petite Rochelle on the patrimoine weekend) and an arboretum which we couldn’t find.

Next installment will probably be food or lodgings or both.
Coquelicot is online now  
Dec 6th, 2007, 10:46 AM
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Wow, talk about timely. I've been reading my guidebooks, looking for Normandy destinations that aren't the landing beaches (which I'll do too). This area, and the Suisse Normande, sound like a good undiscovered place to explore. Looking forward to your next post.
KateIP is offline  
Dec 6th, 2007, 12:08 PM
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Thank you for this. Anselm and I have been talking about where we should go next, and I think I need to visit a place called Bonnetable, if only to take a picture of the sign. I am curious about the .5 of an American that you saw and where they left their other half.
MargrietVanderBanck is offline  
Dec 6th, 2007, 12:58 PM
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Very pleasant to read about this trip. France (and the rest of the world) is so much more than just "the major sights."
kerouac is online now  
Dec 7th, 2007, 04:01 PM
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Margriet, I hadn't thought of the "half" American in that way!
The "half" was a little girl from Texas with a French father and American mother. Maybe she's 100% French and 100% American.

And there is also a tiny village called Maletable in Le Perche.

Okay, now to lodgings.

We like to stay in chambres d’hotes because it’s fun to talk to the other guests. Searching the websites of Gites de France (difficult though that now is), Alastair Sawday, and Karen Brown kept me entertained for months in advance.

Some of our most enjoyable times were the breakfast discussions with other travelers and the hosts themselves. My canned question to the French was “What do you think about the proposals of M. Sarkozy to change the 35 hour work week?” and we got quite a range of answers. (The shortest: "Napoleon!") Most people had an opinion and were eager to express it. I would have loved to be there to hear what they thought of Le divorce. They had polite questions for us Americans too. (We asked the English about their new prime minister, Gordon Brown.)

We had booked only our first stop, Le bois Gerboux at Lignerolles, for two nights. We liked it and asked to extend our stay through the weekend but could get only one more night. Friday and Saturday are booked way in advance (Parisians love this area), so we had to scramble to find new lodgings. Well, there’s always the car. And it almost came to that. It took the TI office many phone calls to find us a place for Friday and they struck out with Saturday. We kept calling till we found a country inn with a room left for Saturday night.

Luckily, we picked B&Bs in quiet locations. The warmest welcome we got on our trip was just west of La Ferte Bernard at Les trois merlettes de Villarceau. Lionel Neveu really has a gift for hospitality. He has turned part of a traditional Percheron farmhouse into a 3 room B&B. The south room has a view of the village on the opposite hill. Many of his guests are on their way to Le Mans. We were their first Americans. In addition to the usual breakfast, he offered us honey and hard-boiled eggs from his parents’ farm, along with prize-winning rillettes from a charcuterie in Bonnetable. He’s now renovating a hotel in Bonnetable with plans to open three of the rooms within six months and the rest as they are finished. Both days we stayed there, he got up early enough to drive to Bonnetable and get some work at the hotel under his belt, drive 15 miles back to the B&B, fix our breakfast, and join his wife Dorothee to chat with us--after which both of them went to a long day's work. My husband and I want to go back and stay in the hotel one of these days.

We lucked into a new place near Mortagne, Le gros chene. The website doesn’t do justice to the rooms, which are upscale but simple. M and Mme Pasquert did the renovations themselves, and she has an eye for style. We were their first Americans. They were fun to talk to, very interested in understanding Americans. We would like to understand Americans too, so that kept the four of us occupied for an hour or so. Their English and our French kind of met in the middle, though not always.

At L’auberge Brochard, the room was simple, the shared toilet was across the hall within hearing distance, and the shared shower/tub was down the hall. We haven’t shared facilities since our camping days. For one night it was okay. The food was so good I’d go back, but I’d ask for another room. Our fault probably for waiting too late to reserve for a Saturday night.

We spent a Sunday night in the very small village of St Germain de Martigny at La Blavetterie. (Can anybody translate this?) The room was small but pleasant. We would have shared a bathroom but were the only upstairs guests. The very nice owners keep a few goats, a pony, pinkish-beige ducks, and gray Australian geese. A tasty breakfast.

We took a side trip south of the Loire and I want to recommend a B&B near Loches (La bihourderie) but maybe I'll do a mini-report on that to keep this Le Perche-only.

Coquelicot is online now  
Dec 8th, 2007, 01:18 PM
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And now a word about restaurants and food.

Food is a big reason we travel. Before the trip my husband had pored over the maps of Michelin’s Bib Gourmand restaurants. Bib Gourmand indicates especially good value for the food Michelin generally seems to rank atmosphere over food but we say who cares about the decor; just feed us well. We mostly ate out at lunch to get the lower prices. Eight restaurant meals for the two of us (six lunches, two dinners) cost 312 Euros.

I tried 32 new pastries to add to my life list. We found good boulangeries-patisseries in all but the smallest villages. This, to me, indicates a high level of civilization. If a country can produce a Negresco, a Mogador, a Salambo, it ranks high with me. (My husband judges by the cheese standard.) I had been scheming to get us to Paris to check out the patisseries in “Paris by Pastry,” but there was no need. Le Perche satisfied me completely, pastrywise.

The high point of our dining out was not in Le Perche, but in the pretty dining room at L’Hermitage, a small hotel at Buzancais in the Indre. This was a Bib Gourmand. Lunch there was rich and delicious. We ordered Ris d’agneau. The waiter looked carefully at us. Ris d’agneau? Were we sure? We confirmed our order, thinking Riz, it’ll be like a lamb and rice pilaff. You probably know...we had ordered sweetbreads, our first ever. They were great. Maybe we shouldn’t have had the chicken liver appetizer.... We decided there must be no word for cholesterol in French.

Other good Bib Gourmand meals were at Diane de Meridor in Montsoreau and Auberge du Prieure Normand in Gasny (neither of these are in Le Perche). We tried a few Bib Gourmands that were just okay–they’d knock the socks off any place near us, but in France we get picky.

I had wanted to eat lunch on a sunny terrace overlooking a stream. Near Mortagne, at the end of a narrow road, was Les pieds dans l’eau. Its terrace overlooking a small lake filled the bill. The food at this place was so good we went back for lunch a week later; by then it was cooler and we ate inside in a high-ceilinged room full of chatting, laughing people on their lunch break–some in business attire, some casual. Three guys in the kitchen and one waiter kept the food coming for about 25 people. They worked efficiently and didn’t rush anybody.

Our Saturday dinner at l’Auberge Brochard near St Victor de Reno was good too. At 7:45 we were the first patrons (at home we’re having a post-dinner nap about that time) but more and more people kept coming. The last to arrive was a family with two young kids, about 9:00. From our room upstairs (shower and toilet down the hall) we could hear happy diners till about 11:00. My dessert here was wonderful--mi-cuit chocolat, like a rich moist cake, with chocolate sauce and pistachios and a scoop of glace--caramel au beurre sale. Anything with caramel au beurre sale thrills me. When we checked out the next morning we were given two flat caramels, also delicious.

A lot of our meals were just bread and cheese. When we weren’t gorging at restaurants, we were visiting markets. The markets in September aren’t what they were in full summer, but we usually came away feeling like successful hunter-gatherers. At Tourouvre there were Mara des bois strawberries and peches de vigne. Loches is where we met up with our favorite cheesemonger. It’s probably the biggest market we visited on this trip. The market at Sille-le Guillaume (Wednesday) was pretty big, and there was a monster cheese truck.

We found a farm near La Perriere with a pre-Revolutionary oven still being used to bake bread and pizzas twice a week from wheat and vegetables grown on the farm. Everything we tried from Ferme La Grande Suardiere was satisfying. This summer there was so much rain that some crops drowned. These folks put up plastic tunnels; the tomato and pepper and other plants inside were the size of young trees and still full of vegetables in September.

Toward the end my husband complained that we had more restaurants untried than days left.

He lost a little weight on this trip. Unbelievable.

Coquelicot is online now  
Dec 10th, 2007, 03:06 AM
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Very interesting report.
You know how to travel!
Askar is offline  
Dec 10th, 2007, 07:10 AM
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Coquelicot, you're definitely our kind of travellers. Your description of the markets confirms that this is a cooking from a suitcase destination, so I've been checking out possible holiday rentals on FrenchConnections.co.uk and Gites-de-France.fr. There are possibilities.
MargrietVanderBanck is offline  
Dec 10th, 2007, 08:50 AM
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Thanks for your comments. I hesitated to write a trip report since I wasn’t sure that where we went would interest people. Not everybody is as easily entertained as we are. This was very rural France, nothing dramatic, but it was one of the most satisfying trips we’ve done. Less driving than usual, most of it on back roads with wonderful scenery, and good food everywhere we went. Our biggest excitement was finding a good pastry shop and driving to whatever village had the day’s market.

I wore comfortable clothes every day and no one gasped at my footwear. I never put on the skirts I took along and didn’t even dress up for restaurants. That’s another plus for staying in the country. Even Saturday night in a restaurant (well, it was very rural) nobody was really dressed up. The best-dressed people we saw were the two women whose gardens were on tour.

One of my big treats was seeing two special gardens open for the Journees du Patrimoine. Another was seeing giant loaves of bread, maybe 3 kilos, that had risen slowly and then were baked in a wood-burning oven till the crust was thick and dark. The guy at the market at Longny sold these by the slice. They were great, not the type of bread the French are used to these days, but my favorite of the trip.

My husband enjoyed learning about rugby on TV. We are soccer-deficient at home (no cable) and were delighted to watch our favorite team, Barcelona, and our favorite player, Ronaldinho of the long hair and headband, win a Champions League game. Later that night I thought I saw Ronaldinho crossing our room. It was my husband on his way to the bathroom with a towel over his head.

We always check out the local libraries to see what’s what and read our email--we could read but not send email from libraries. Who knew Danielle Steele is popular in France?

Our pre-trip planning involved tracking down potential lodgings (we booked only the first two nights), the daily markets, and Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurants near where we’d be. We tried researching the Journees du Patrimoine but couldn’t get enough information online. We also like to plan our trips around watermill inns, Most Beautiful Villages, villages fleuris, and the green roads in the Michelin road atlas.

Margriet, you have me wondering what might be in the markets in France right now. Have fun with your planning. Do you use the Alastair Sawday website? It was my last winter's entertainment--such charming descriptions of B&Bs, hotels/chateaux, and gites. We stayed in at least two places from his guides and they were fun.
Coquelicot is online now  
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