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Cheese, Wine & Mustard: Two Weeks in Paris, Brittany & Bordeaux

Cheese, Wine & Mustard: Two Weeks in Paris, Brittany & Bordeaux

Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 04:31 AM
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Cheese, Wine & Mustard: Two Weeks in Paris, Brittany & Bordeaux

Holiday 2007 was a success and so it is with great pleasure that I type up this report of our trip to France—with a couple days in London thrown in for good measure. My wife, the lovely LaNita, and I spent August 24 – September 10 enjoying the many and varied wonders of France, from the glittering capital, to the gloomy northwest coast, to the sun-drench hills of the Bordeaux wine region. My apologies for taking a bit of time to write up this report and post it online, but as the reader will find, the wait is well worth it.

The European board has never been blessed with my trip reports, but others on this Web site have. I prefer to write my travel reports as a narrative of the voyage. There are a few reasons for this, but most predominantly I do this for myself and my family. One day, I hope to put all of our trips together into one collection so that it may be enjoyed by many. Thus, this will be a detailed account of our trip, and for some folks perhaps too detailed. However, in addition to my own history reasons, I also post these reports as a means of adding to the compendium of knowledge that is a travel board, so that others planning a trip to France may see my itinerary and perhaps enjoy a similar tour of France. Be forewarned, though, as a Word document, the trip report comes to 29 pages, over 16,000 words. One had best be in for the long-haul. If anyone would prefer not to read the report on the screen please e-mail me at ehazard at yahoo and I’ll be happy to send back a copy of the Word document.

After finishing the narrative, I’ll post a few tips and hints at the bottom. Also, for those that prefer the photographic medium, I have posted approximately 500 photos detailing our travels on my Webshots page: http://community.webshots.com/user/ehazard1. Not to worry, the photos are neatly characterized by region and organized into digestible chunks. Mercifully, I edited the photos from the more than 2,800 photos I snapped during the trip.
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 04:32 AM
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Courtesy of a weird kink in how we wanted to schedule our vacation time and how I was able to redeem airline miles through American, our trip began in London. This was fine by me, I have spent a lot of time there for work, and LaNita, had never been, so it was about time she had a chance to see it, albeit very briefly. We arrived on Saturday morning and were scheduled to leave the next Monday. Thus, in 36 hours we did what I like to call “The Japanese Postcard Tour,” where ones sees everything but does nothing.

For a couple quick nights in London, we stayed at the Melia Hotel Regents Park, which I secured on Hotwire before our trip. The location was a good one and the hotel was clean enough. We were also able to easily get ourselves to Waterloo Station for our Chunnel train to Paris. The train ride was altogether uneventful, the highlight of it for me was the uninterrupted reading time. To start the trip, I read George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris, which I enjoyed as I enjoy everything that Eric Blair’s nom de plume ever wrote.

We arrived at Gard Nord and the decision to take a taxi easily won out over schlepping our gear through the Metro. Despite the horror stories I had heard before arriving in Paris, I did not find the taxi experience to be a terrible rip-off. Our ride from the train station to the seventh arrondissement cost about 15 euros, which I considered to be reasonable, especially when considering the total taxi ride was only a little bit more than what two tickets on the metro would have cost us.

During our stay in Paris, I had selected the Hotel Londres Eiffel. The hotel first came to my attention by way of Rick Steves’ Web site. I then read a lot of wonderful reviews about the hotel, the hotel staff, the location and the room on TripAdvisor. I made my reservation through the hotel’s Web site, which I found to be relatively straight forward, only complicated by the fact that the reservation portion was in French. However, I was able to secure a superior room, with a view of the Eiffel Tower, which was confirmed the next day via e-mail by Cedric.

Indeed, the hotel met, and even exceeded, all of our expectations. The hotel is a charming little boutique tucked into a residential street in the seventh arrondissement, approximately six blocks from the Champs de Mars. Our room—number 62—appeared to have been recently renovated, with attractive wallpaper, a flat panel TV, free WiFi and overall very clean. Yes, it was a bit on the cozy size, but we managed to find a place for all of our luggage, and at no time did we feel overly cramped into too small of a space. Plus, whatever we lacked in elbow room, we made up for in view. Our room sat on the top floor of the hotel, with a view of the top half of the Eiffel tower and the residences immediately across the street. Every night we were able to watch the Eiffel Tower’s spectacular light show as we had our windows opened up, while we dined on fresh wine and cheese. When residents across the way would see the windows open, they would often give a friendly ‘bon soir’ to the hotel guests and even chat with people a bit about their trip, what they thought of Paris, were they having a good time, etc. We paid 180 euro a night.

The staff of the hotel was really wonderful, and I cannot stress enough how comfortable they made us feel. In particular, I want to recognize Arnaud. He was always present at the desk and responded to all of our silly questions and requests without hesitation or pretense. He understood that we were strangers in his city, and he wanted to ensure our stay was as comfortable as possible. In case anyone still has any questions about my feelings for the hotel, I would recommend it to anyone staying in Paris.

The local neighborhood was also a plus. The seventh arrondissement is predominately a residential neighborhood, and a very nice one at that. The end results is that one stays in the seventh arrondissement and feels as though they are more at home than in some Disneyland version of a vacation destination.

Upon checking in, dropping off our stuff and doing all the usual things one does after traveling for a few hours, LaNita and I went immediately to scratch off the number one attraction on our entire Paris to-do list: the Eiffel Tower. One reason I was so high on the Londres Eiffel was its proximity to the Tower, so we had absolutely no trouble finding it.

The Eiffel Tower is at once a staggering sight to behold and at the same time one that is so recognizable to all. Here stands a massive monument to man’s engineering ingenuity as beautiful as it is complex, which demands your attention the first time you stand within its shadow. Yet, as I walked to center myself midway through the Champs de Mars and put the camera up to my eye, the sensation of sighting in the tower for the first time is so familiar. Even though we have all seen these photos hundreds of times, finally snapping one’s own is a touristic right of passage. And just like every other tourist in the world, LaNita and I centered into the shot, spoke the international language for “excuse me, would you mind taking our photo,” and embraced each other in a kiss as the photo was snapped.

We enjoyed the view of the Eiffel Tower from various angles, before we crossed the street, and the Seine, to continue our exploration of Paris. One thing we did not do was actual go into the Tower. This was for a few good reasons. The first is the wait in the line to load ourselves into an elevator. Our time in Paris was precious, and anything that involved standing in line was immediately deemed not worth it by us. Second, was the cost of going up into the upper echelons of the Tower. I don’t remember exactly what the tickets were, but I believe they were something like 14 euro per adult. LaNita and I were much more keen to spend our money are a decent meal or a few bottles of wine than to go someplace tall. And third, we know that one day we’ll be back, and not doing things such as ascending to the top of the most recognizable tower in the world makes the return trip all that more exciting. I don’t believe in the once in a lifetime trip. After all, it wasn’t like I was being flown to the face of the moon. If we liked Paris—and in fact, we can now say we loved it—we’ll find a way to get back.

Across the Seine we found ourselves—as I am sure many tourists before us—at the steps of the Museum of Humanities, repeating the ritual of symbiotic picture taking with the other tourists enjoying the vista. From this point, we decided to make our way to the Arc de Triumph, selecting Rue Kleber as our conduit. Along the way, we stopped for lunch at Café Rouge, which was delightful and in such a great neighborhood. The rest of the walk was an easy one and in no time we found ourselves standing at the base of the massive Arc.

We did not go up to the top of the Arc de Triumph, and if anyone has any questions why, I direct their attention to the three reasons we decided against going into Eiffel Tower: the time, the cost, the inevitable return. From this point forward, the trio will be simply referred to as The Three Reasons Why. We did spend time milling about the base, taking photos of tourists who were taking photos of other tourists in some endless circle of meta-photography. Having seen this landmark, we continued our list of “must sees/must dos” as we strolled down the Champs Elysees toward Avenue Franklin Roosevelt and back across the Seine.

If the above narrative sounds dismissive, a bit of explanation is in order. LaNita and I tend to be intrepid explorers. France was considered by most friends and family to be our first “normal” vacation. That is to say, this was the first major vacation destination we had selected since our honeymoon that people had a) heard of b) could find on a map without navigational aides and c) been to themselves. The past two years we rode chicken buses through Central America, and previous trips had taken me to Armenia, Morocco, Brazil and Thailand, to provide some examples. Thus, to walk around a swirling vortex of mass tourism just doesn’t do it for us. Yes, the Arc de Triumph is pretty. But that’s about all it did for us. A walk down the Champs Elysees left us feeling a bit empty. It was like any other overly hyped commercial road in the world, full over global chain retailers and restaurants that are far from the best.

But, this is not meant to be indicative of our experience in Paris as a whole. Crossing back over the Seine, we found ourselves again in the seventh arrondissement, which we took the opportunity to stroll through to orient ourselves and get to know more intimately than the other neighborhoods we walked through. One lodestone that was to draw our internal compass needle was Rue Cler.

If one stays in the seventh arrondissement, it is impossible to avoid the mounds of praise which is heaped upon this little strip. Most guidebooks talk about it as though it is the second coming of la bonne vie or some peep into the typical Parisian’s life. Fair enough, I understand the need to sell guidebooks, and am generally pretty good about separating out marketing piffle from a true editorial attempt. If I may, a sample from Rick Steves’ Web site—walking down Rue Cler makes me feel like I must have been a poodle in a previous life. It's a cobbled pedestrian street lined with shops run by people who've found their niche...boys who grew up on quiche. Aproned fruit stall attendants coax doll-like girls into trying their cherries. And ladies, after a lifetime of baguette munching, debate the merits of the street's rival boulangeries.

While most of what we read sounded like hyperbole, nevertheless, Rue Cler was in our adopted neighborhood, we like markets, and it was on the way home, so we decided to amble down the street and see what all the fuss was about.

The verdict? LaNita and I found the overall Rue Cler experience to be fair to midlands. Yes, the pedestrian strip has an air of traditionalism about it. We enjoyed walking into the cheese shop to buy a few samples for that evening’s meal. We were also able to find some nice wines and a little bakery which had just pulled a baguette out of the oven at about the same time as we wanted to buy one.

However, as we would find out the next morning when we returned to Rue Cler for breakfast, while some of the shops are great experiences, when one wants a nice meal, Rue Cler is little more than a pleasant place to meet fellow tourists. The restaurant we happened into to was filled with Rick Steves guidebook-touting tourists and the quality of the food reflected this. Admittedly, our sample size is small but my recommendation for anyone looking for authentic dinning experience: keep moving on.

Indeed, our first night in Paris we had no plans of spending anytime in a café or restaurant. Rather, we returned to our hotel room, with a baguette under one arm, our cheese in the other arm and two bottles in wine in hand. That evening, we opened our windows, ate our bread and cheese, drank our wine and watched as the Eiffel Tower would light up and sparkle every so often—every hour? every half hour? I am not really sure, we stopped telling time about the time we stepped on the train to come to Paris, and saw no reason to resume anytime soon.
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 04:32 AM
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Paris Day Two

My favorite part of traveling is the planning. As much traveling as I have done—I have now set boots to soil in more than 25 different countries—I have planned at least twice as many trips. When I am not traveling, I am planning my next trip and in the times in between both occurrences, I am reading about others travels.

So our trip to Paris had been in the planning stages since June of 2002. That summer, LaNita and I took off to Morocco and in the process transferred through Paris. We didn’t get out and look, but just being around the airport and looking at the people coming and going, gave me an idea that Paris was the kind of place I might enjoy spending some time exploring. So upon returning, I started reading some of the Forum posts about Paris trips, and even found a couple that I really enjoyed: ‘100 Great Things To Do In Paris’ and ‘Back From 2 Weeks In Paris…And Our “Loose Game Plan” Worked’ from the good old days. If the original posters are still hanging around the Fodor’s board, here is a tremendously big thank you for the great posts and inspiration.

Over the years, I amalgamated a collection of similar posts, ideas, suggestions, magazine articles, guide books, maps and sundry related to a future trip to Paris. In total, I would describe it as a loose confederation of nice ideas. Some people had detailed itineraries, others one of two highlights, and still others, had “loose game plans.” LaNita and I feel into the latter camp.

Our first day in Paris was our North day. We walked from our hotel in a generally northerly direction to the Arc de Triumph and then back. Now in the morning of our second day, we decided to do our East day. And there is a lot to see to the east. The plan was as simple as it was complex—walk toward the rising sun, and wander whenever something caught our fancy. The complication arises when trying to decide where the main points of focus would be, so we settled on walking first to Invalides, then along the right bank of the Seine until we arrived at Ile de Cite. Invalides was pretty though we didn’t spend much time here—see The Three Reasons Why—and in thus in short order we found ourselves walking along the river.

One favorite activity mentioned time and time again on this board and others is walking along the Seine. For the first 15 minutes or so, right after we walked across the Pont Alexandre III onto the other side of the Seine, I thought most people were out of their mind for thinking this. In those first few moments, the walk along the Seine was characterized by the incessant high-pitched squeals of the ubiquitous Paris motorbike and the exhaust-chocked air of the other cars whizzing by us to our immediate left. This was almost as romantic as a walk along the East River at about 14th Street.

However, we would soon discover why so many people wax poetically about their river walks, when we came upon the stairs that led pedestrians away from the din of traffic above toward the gentle lapping of the Seine of ancient bricks below. Indeed, the walk we took from about the TK bridge all the way to Pont Neuf and the Ile de Cite was very tranquil, very relaxing and romantic. I’d be lying if I said LaNita and I didn’t steal a smooch or two along the way.

The big destination of our East day was Ile de Cite and arguably the second biggest attraction in Paris—the Cathedral of Notre Dame. If one was to take an informal poll of what folks associate Paris with, no doubt the Eiffel Tower would be number one, and there is a greater than zero chance that this iconic Cathedral would be number two. And for good reason, it has been immortalized in fiction and brought to life on the big screen. And the name association with a certain Midwest US college I am sure doesn’t hurt either.

Landing on the city island, we ambled about the old winding cobblestone streets observing the river on both sides and the stately buildings that line the Seine. There are many notable sights on this most ancient of Parisian settlements—the Concierge, Saint Chapelle, to name a couple—which we gave a cursory viewing of on our way to Notre Dame.

Predictably, given the diminutive size of the Ile de Cite, we had no trouble finding the famed cathedral. On the outside, it is as impressive and imposing as every photo one has ever seen of it. “How much history has this cathedral seen played out at its doorstep?” I wondered to myself as I observed the many nuances of the imposing façade. “And how much history lies behind its doors?” was the question that filled my mind as we entered the cathedral.

But whatever magic filled my soul outside was quickly sucked out of me upon entering the church. Before us were endless waves of tourist groups and flag-touting tour guides giving explanations in a Babel tower of language creating a cacophony of noise. Around us, inconsiderate tours were momentarily struck by some stupidity on how to disable their flashes, as bulbs went off in all directions. The only way to see the structures inside of the church was to fall into a mass of humanity circulating in a counter-clockwise direction. To stop was to be pushed, shoved, crowded and otherwise violated. The only real solution was simply not to stop, not to reflect, not to meditate, but to continue on. To the next stop, to the next statute, to the next candle, to the next icon was our uninterrupted pace until suddenly we were sucked out of the cathedral by some unseen force of human explosion. And that was our experience of Notre Dame.

Walking out of the cathedral, we saw the entrance for the towers on the north side of the church. Even if we had enjoyed our visit here, The Three Reasons Why would have ruled out the time and effort to go to the top. As it were, for Notre Dame, there were Four Reasons Why we did not go up to the top, the last one being as simple as we did not enjoy our visit to the cathedral.

This is not to say people should avoid Notre Dame, quite the contrary. Notre Dame is a splendid looking building; an icon. Plus, it is in the heart of the city, so it presents no inconvenience. Thus, it is should most definitely be considered high on the list of activities one must do when coming to Paris. However, I believe people come to Notre Dame expecting something more—I know we did—some je ne sais quoi of spirituality. That is why I believe it is the cathedral for people that don’t know better. For those looking for a more intimate experience, they can be had in Saint Sulpice and Saint Germaine, and no doubt countless other cathedrals in the city. Indeed, it is the discovery of these special places that makes Paris such a great city. No one can dictate an itinerary of must sees in a place as grand as Paris. The sights that are not to be missed are those in which the visitor has a special connection. LaNita and I did not have that connection to Notre Dame.

Having had our fill of East for the day, we decided to head North into the artistic community of Montmartre. To get there, we opted for a ride on the Paris Metro. Living and working in Manhattan, LaNita and I consider ourselves something of mass transit aficionados. The saying really is true: If you can make it here (New York) you can make it anywhere. Thus, we had no trouble figuring out the Metro system. The machines were all easy to use and for those that may struggle with some of the more unfamiliar French terms, there are translation buttons available on the ticket machine. Once the ticket is purchased, we enjoyed riding on the trains themselves. A bit dated, and lacking air conditioning, the trains are nevertheless quick, efficient and an overall pleasant way to get from one part of town to the other in a hurry. Given the option, LaNita and I would prefer to walk ourselves crippled, but for a city the size of Paris, the train is a good option for some of the more far flung outposts.

There were two sights I wanted to see in Montmartre: Sacre Coeur and the Moulin Rouge. We started our tour to the hilly part of Paris at the Anvers metro stop and started walking straight up the hill. Immediately we noticed a different Paris. The pristine street had given way to a slight coating of grime and more storefronts were devoted to bargain basement shopping than in the other areas of the city we had seen thus far. This was encouraging to me, as I was hoping we would get off the Disney circuit and see how average Parisians live in the city. After all, if one wants to meet a New Yorker, don’t bother going to Times Square.

The walk from the metro station to Sacre Coeur is pretty straight-forward: head uphill. Eventually the narrow lanes give way to the green slopes of a park crowned by the billowy white columns of the majestic church above. From here it is a quickly climb up the stairs, dodging the various shady fellows who want to show everyone their string trick—as an aside, does anyone know what they are trying to do there? We didn’t feel like being bothered for money so we just blew them off—to the inside of the splendid cathedral. We enjoyed Sacre Coeur much more than Notre Dame. The cathedral was less crowded, no photography of any kind was allowed and the stained glass is breathtaking. Rather than being herded around the Stations of the Cross like we were in Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur gave us more of an opportunity to sit and reflect on the experience. Plus, the view over Paris from the top of the hill upon which the cathedral sits is really nice. The site gets definite thumbs up from us. We had the option of going up into the top of the church, but declined—re: The Three Reasons Why.

Montmartre as a neighborhood is held out as an artist enclave. One cannot read a description of the neighborhood without the names Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso being tossed liberally around. Famous landmarks are generally described as “the place such-and-such would sit in.”

I am by nature skeptical of former artist enclaves as modern tourist destinations. I find whatever creative energy may have once been present, is run out of such places by the encroachment of tourists looking for something. However, I’ll try just about anything once, and since we were in the neighborhood, LaNita suggested walking to the perhaps the most famous place of yesteryear inspiration: the Moulin Rouge.

To anyone who has not yet walked from Sacre Coeur to Moulin Rouge, it is perhaps best described as an outdoor museum to the history of human sexuality. One starts out with the basic shops dispensing condoms and the like and by the time the Moulin Rouge is in sight, one is treated to contraptions that were no doubt described by the Marquis de Sade as too painful. Interesting for sure to see, but not exactly what I came to Paris for.

So here, in Montmartre standing in front of the Moulin Rouge, having walked here from Sacre Coeur, I was left to wonder, why do people insist on coming here to neighborhoods like Montmartre to sit in a café some artist may or many not have drawn in? While there may have been some historical context in such a place before, by now it is all lost beneath the patina of mass tourism. At no point from walking to Sacre Coeur to the Moulin Rouge did we feel any desire to stop in any of the cafés we happened upon. The phenomenon is not a uniquely Parisian one, it is found in any city of note around the world. Where once there was an affordable place for artists to practice their craft today stands a monument to gentrification.

The problem is that the café that once was there, is now gone. Ernest Hemmingway in A Moveable Feast, describes it best. “[H]e asked me why I liked this café and I told him about it in the old days and he began to try and like it too and we sat there, me liking it and he trying to like it…”.

So rather than sit in Le Chat Noir or others like it, trying to like it, we just settled for not really getting the bohemian vibe that once existed in Montmartre.

From here, we decided to spend the waning sunlit hours exploring the Tuileries Gardens. The lighting was just perfect while we were there and we took some wonderful photos. Mostly though, we just strolled aimlessly until we happened upon the front door of the Louvre. No doubt, people will wonder why we did not go into the famed museum, to which I can only offer that our travel ethos is different than others. The biggest reason though is because some day we’ll be back, and when that day arrives, we’ll enjoy our time in the Louvre. For this trip, our first to Paris, blessed with nice weather, LaNita and I took advantage of the outdoor museum that is the magnificent city of lights.
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 04:33 AM
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Paris Day Three

LaNita and I are power tourists. We don’t spend a lot of time in any one place and rarely if ever make it to the end of the “recommended” minimum amount of time a guide book will prescribe for a city or region. In all the times I have described our trips to friends, family and complete strangers on the internet, I have not yet encountered others quite as independently quick to get through a destination.

So it would normally be at this point in a trip that we would make the effort to get out of town, or look for a change of scenery. To some in Paris, this might present a good day to go to Versailles, to break up the city sights a bit. However, since we would be renting a car the next day and driving all over terra franca, LaNita and I decided to see something a bit farther flung within the boundaries of Paris: Cemetery of Père Lachaise.

Cemeteries are more of LaNita’s thing, but I find them interesting as well. This one contains the graves of some rather famous people, plus it is in a neighborhood of Paris that normally I doubt most tourists would bother to wander to—the 20th arrondissement. We had no trouble finding the cemetery, going a Google search the night before and writing down the Metro directions. For those keeping score at home, the cemetery is approximately four blocks from the Philippe Auguste Metro stop. If one gets turned around, simply ask one of the shop keepers for directions. As I said before, there is not much reason for a tourist to be wandering through this neighborhood other than the cemetery, so they’ll know what you are searching for.

Aside from being a massive cemetery, with beautifully sculpted tombs and ancient pathways, the cemetery also contains the final resting places of some very notable names: Jim Morrison, Rossini, Fredric Chopin, Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde and Molière to name but a few. Entering in the main gate, detailed maps are available at the visitor center. My suggestion for anyone considering a visit to Père Lachaise is to sit down with the map and circle the graves of most interest. Then do a simple connect the dots to maximize efficiency. Otherwise, one ends up wandering from one end to the other to see one grave at a time, which tends to be a bit exhausting.

Even with a plotted course, LaNita and I were unable to spend too much time in the cemetery due to sheer exhaustion. Some folks may choose to not believe in forces and energies which act upon us in ways we are not meant to understand. I am not here to preach some hoodoo but rather to say for all of the positive energy we had experience through Paris thus far, these was definitely a lot of—dare I say it—dead energy behind the cemetery walls. LaNita and I both found our feet heavy after only a couple hours exploration, and a general feeling of fatigue wash upon us. We knew we needed to return to the city and so we boarded the Metro and began an exploration of the South, or as it is more commonly referred to in Paris, the Left.

We took the Metro to the Censier Dauberton stop and got off to explore the Latin Quarter. There was no grand plan other than to eventually walk back to our hotel, so we decided to stop for a bite to eat first. While I had a menu translator in my Lonely Planet phrasebook, I decided to ignore it in his café, which turned out to be a very bad decision.

In typical Parisian fashion, we sat down outside only to be ignored by the wait staff. Eventually, we flagged a waiter down, who threw two menus at us and then promptly disappeared again. The inability to find someone to take our order can be a bit frustrating and is particularly frustrating when one is hungry. This is an example of the latter.

Not knowing exactly what I wanted, I looked over to see what my neighbor was eating, only to see a tasty looking sausage. Being the adventurous sort, when our waiter finally reappeared, I asked what that was, to which he pointed to the menu at the andouille, but then just as quickly shook his finger and in pidgin English said, “I recommend the steak.”

Fair enough, I am sure the steak is lovely, but I am in Paris, I see Parisians eating at this café, and I would like to have a go with the local fair, so I insisted on the andouille. With a look of resignation, the waiter gently shook his head, and confirmed, “un andouille,” as he walked off.

Indeed, I was in for a bit of a shock when my food arrived. While the sausage looks pleasant enough on the outside, once cut into, the smell that arises quickly reveals its dirty secret. Andouille is sausage made from tripe, otherwise known as pig guts. But, seeing as how my arrogance got me into this mess, I was determined to make the best of it, and have this tip for anyone in a similar predicament: put as much mustard on every bite as possible. This almost makes the taste bearable. Of course, I also suggest looking up what is pointed to on the menu before charging in.

After lunch, we took a leisurely stroll through the Latin Quarter. Our meandering path eventual led us to the Luxembourg Gardens. Like most everyone else that visits the well-manicured, well-kept lawns, LaNita and I also enjoyed our time here. After walking through the eastern part of the Latin Quarter, the Luxembourg Gardens provided a nice resting spot as we plotted out our next destinations. From here we decided to make a right turn, heading through the heart of the Left Bank to eventually find ourselves along the Seine.

This path would take us to two famous churches, although for two different reasons: Saint Sulpice and Saint Germaine. The former was mentioned in some fiction book and I suppose people come here to see what the fuss is about. However, if there is supposedly a crowd here, it wasn’t present during our visit. Part of this may be in part to the renovations that had taken hold of the outer façade of the church. We had no trouble working our ways inside though, and were able to enjoy a rather quiet environment in which we could spend time admiring the many impressive stained glass windows in Saint Sulpice. After the Disney-fication of Notre Dame, this was more in line with what LaNita and I were looking for in our experience of a French cathedral. We were able to sit down on a chair, look up at the stained glass windows and enjoy a few moments quiet contemplation.

A similar experience was had at Saint Germaine, which is Paris’ oldest cathedral. Again, there were but a few visitors to the church, giving LaNita and I time to enjoy the impressive interior in quiet reverence. To those looking for cathedrals which have not been turned into amusement parks, Saint Sulpice and Saint Germaine are wonderful. Both are located in the heart of the Latin Quarter, surrounded by beautiful buildings and are easy to find. The interiors are exquisite, even if there is some remodeling happening on the exterior.

That night, after enjoying another quiet bottle of wine and some fresh bread in our room, LaNita and I took a night walk. We started at the Eiffel Tower, and wander down to the Alexandre III bridge, which is lit up gorgeously at night. There, under the full moon, we sat and watched from a distance as the Eiffel Tower broke into its starlit dance. We felt as though we had the perfect send off from the wonderful city.
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 04:33 AM
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On Briton Shores

Paris was lovely, and LaNita and I wished for more time in the French capital, but the reality of our trip is that we wanted to experience a wide range of France, not just the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings of the capital. So for the bulk of our trip, we would be at the mercy of the roads and our ability to navigate said roads. France has so much to offer, from beautiful blue waters of the Mediterranean, to the soaring peaks of the Alps, to the beautiful valleys of the Loire. However, there were two regions in the particular that held a spot of intrigue in my mind: Brittany and Bordeaux.

I have had Brittany high on my travel radar since March 2006 when I read a story in that month’s National Geographic about the world’s Celtic people. The evocative language and compelling story captivated me. Contained in the story was a map of Europe’s Celtic regions, a large swath of which was on the northwest of France. I was intrigued by the idea of a combined French, Celtic experience and so the location was stored in the mind. Once France became a reality for us this year, there was no longer any question; I would want to spend time in Brittany.

Before leaving the US, I had purchased a rental car through Hotwire at what came out as a rate of 23 euros per day. The car rental was through Hertz. We arranged for pick-up of our car at Charles de Gaul airport. Yes, I understand the airport was a bit out of our way, but given that I could easily pick up the car and get out of Paris without driving through the city, I did not mind the inconvenience. Plus, if we have been so motivated, we could have easily gotten to the airport by the RER. Turns out we weren’t that motivated, and opted for the lazy route of airport shuttle at a cost of 19 euro per person.

To help navigate through France I enlisted the aide of two resources: viamichelin.com and the Michelin fold-out travel map. Prior to our departure, I printed out point-by-point directions on viamichelin.com that proved to be exceptional. At no point did we get seriously lost following the directions, and we found the level of detail to be comforting. For those moments when we wanted to deviate from the main path, the Michelin road map proved to be an invaluable resource. However, I found driving in France on the balance to not be too terribly difficult. The roads were all well maintained, and well signed. As an American, one road infrastructure concept I am not that familiar with is that of the roundabout. However, these devices, combined with multiple signs at each possible turn make finding one’s destination rather easy. The trick is to know what town lies between oneself and the ultimate destination. Thus, even if you don’t see the specific road, or even the end destination, you can get a sense of being on the right track. The added bonus here is the sense of discovery one feels when driving on the proverbial road less traveled.

With my two navigational resources and rental car keys in hand, I set out from Charles de Gaul for Dinan, a walled medieval city in Brittany. The trip from Paris to Dinan was estimated to take 4 hours, driving mostly on toll ways, denoted as “A” roads on the map. To break up the trip, I decided to make a stop in Giverny, the Normandy town that was the home of famed impressionist painter Claude Monet.

LaNita and I found the drive to Giverny to be quite delightful and altogether not too complicated. From the A13 expressway, we were easily able to find our exit and after a few circles on the first roundabout we came to, we found the roads to the town. Once there, the town is pretty straight-forward—to this I attribute it mostly to the small size of the town—Monet’s house-cum-museum is about 500 meters from the parking lot, while there are other museum devoted to the American painters from the area as well.

In the interest of time, we decided to concentrate on Monet’s home and his tranquil gardens. We found the tour of the home to be just ok, as it was quite busy, but the gardens were fantastic. Even with seemingly large crowds, we found a few moments of peace walking through the assorted flora. After wandering through the garden, one comes upon the path to Monet’s famed pond, where he spent many an hour gently floating in his rowboat, painting the reflection of the pink clouds against the lily pads lazily lying on the water’s surface. The area around the pond was like an impressionist’s painting come to life, with beautiful willows dipping to the water’s edge at one end of the pond while the other end is spanned by Monet’s famous Japanese bridge. Overall, the visit to Giverny is easy and well worth the time and expense—even though I don’t remember exactly what admission cost, I remember it not to be excessive.

Calmed down and overall tranquil from our visit to the gardens, LaNita and I set out for the 3 ½ hour drive from Giverny to Dinan, in Brittany. The vast majority of the drive was done on the A13 expressway, which were efficient, clean and altogether a pleasure to drive on. Viamichelin’s directions were extremely helpful, pointing out to us the location of speed cameras, how much tolls would be, expected costs for gasoline and distances between turnoffs. To help pass the time, we played a derivative of the license plate game, trying to determine what EU country various letter denoted on the yellow license plates. We also had fun saying out loud every French sign we encountered. I know it’s silly, but it helped us become familiar with some the terminology used on the roads. The best way I could describe the drive is uneventful, which is exactly the way one wants a long drive in a foreign country to be.

We arrived in Dinan that afternoon at approximately 4 pm and were immediately in love with the ancient city. The walled medieval city is charming and aesthetically pleasing. LaNita in particular was awe-struck to see how well preserved the town was. For the next four nights, we stayed at the Hotel Arvor. I came upon this hotel primarily through Fodor’s guidebook, but I also read good things about it on TripAdvisor.com and on Fodor’s forums. The location of the hotel is great, only a few blocks away from the city center. The hotel offers free parking for guests, which is a plus; though the downside is how tight a squeeze parking can be, particularly if one arrives after 7 o’clock at night. The staff at Arvor was very friendly and always willing to answer any questions we had or offer their help. All of that said the rooms of the Arvor are a bit spartan. LaNita summed it up best when she felt as though she was staying in a dorm. The halls are dimly lit and the rooms lacking any interesting details. However, for the price (68 euros per night), the place cannot be beat. So long as people understand there isn’t much to the place, then I highly recommend it for all the reasons listed above.

Arriving in the city around 4 pm gave us just enough time to get good and lost while searching for our now nightly staple of bread, cheese and wine. Unlike the Paris, once one finds themselves in the more out of the way places in France such as Dinan, you had best stock up on all the necessary provisions before settling down for the night. Almost universally, stores close at 7 pm. We were fortunate enough to find the wine store close by—at 6:30 pm—the local baker—at 6:45 pm—and the cheese shop—at 6:59 pm, kept open thanks to the gentle persuasion of my lovely wife—and assembled the necessary provisions for our evening. Once the clock struck seven, though, the town became shuttered. While having the town generally to ourselves has its upsides—the quiet streets, lamp lit and deserted casting an eerie timeless feeling on those walking about—it also has its downsides—every single noise is amplified by the cobble-stoned roads and ancient rock walls. At first, we had a romantic idea of sleeping with our window open, so we could gaze out of the softly lit street and the bell tower visible from our room. This lasted about an hour as we were constantly being awaken by the high-pitched whine of the motorbikes—unfortunately, this is ever-present in France—the dinging of a delivery truck going into reverse, someone practicing domestic violence with the kitchen’s cookware, slamming car doors, and just about every other nocturnal noise one can imagine. The closed windows did little to keep the noise out, but we were able to remedy the problem with a little white noise courtesy of a French alarm clock we purchased at the local SuperU. All of this is not meant as a complaint more than as a word of caution. If one is a light sleeper, it would be worth the investment to buy some manner of soothing noise device and bring that to Dinan.

Dinan proved to be a wonderful base for exploring Brittany and the surrounding environs. The city is charming and not too overrun with ugly British tourists—Saint Malo and Mont-St-Michel, I’m looking in your direction—well located to the sites of note people will want to see and well supported by good highway infrastructure. Our first full day in Dinan, LaNita and I did the Rampart Walk that is outlined in the main Dinan tourist brochure. The walk takes approximately two hours and involves walking the circumference of the old city. We enjoyed seeing the fortifications, admiring the view over the River Rance and found the walk to be altogether very pleasant. This is definitely a must for anyone that finds themselves in Dinan for at least half a day.

Following the Rampart Walk, we did a bit of shopping in the local shops, where I stumbled upon what would be one of my major souvenir finds of the entire trip: moutard aux algaes. Inside a Brittany local store, I found this curious little jar of mustard along with various seasoning ingredient used to prepare seafood dishes. I like mustard, and LaNita and I had been subsisting on a diet of bread and cheese, so I thought I’d take a flier on this interesting blend. Later that day I would not be sorry, as I consider this to be the greatest mustard I have ever had the pleasure of placing on my tongue. Before we were to leave Dinan, I would return to this store and purchase as many jars of the mustard as I could find—by my count, at least a dozen—which led LaNita to comment, “You look like an addict.” Since we have been back in the States, I’ve enjoyed sharing my find with friends and family. This is a good thing, because my other major souvenir purchase of the trip one would have to pry out of my cold, clammy, dead hands.

The other treat LaNita and I found in Dinan were various takes on seafood. We stumbled into a small storefront which sold all manner of canned seafood. We purchased canned tuna and salmon pâtés which we would spread on our daily ration, sometimes to mix with the aforementioned mustard.

Not only did we get to experience some of the local flavor for which Brittany is famous, but this strategy also helped us to keep our food bill down. We even developed an additional money saving strategy. Each morning, we would have breakfast at our hotel. The breakfast was standard fare—croissant, jams, yogurt, baguette, coffee—and generally cost 7 euros per person. As one can see from the list, there were a lot of carbs in that meal, and generally more than LaNita and I could eat comfortably. However, there was no sense letting good food go to waste, so we would save our baguette for later in the day. As hunger found its way back to our stomachs in the late afternoon, we would pull out our baguette, mix it with a can seafood or local deli meat we purchased at any of the numerous supermarkets and enjoy a little break in our day in the nearest green space.
Little did we know as we first started doing this, but this is rather typical of the locals as well. Throughout France, we would see folks enjoy an early afternoon repast that was eerily similar to our own traditions.

Our tour of Dinan pretty much took half a day. I suppose one could spend longer in the town, but as mentioned previously we tend to power through tourist sights. Since we had a car and daylight until about 9 o’clock every night, we set off for one of the local curiosities: Fort La Latte. LaNita found a brochure for the castle in our hotel lobby and it definitely looked interesting, trying to find anything about it in the guidebook was an exercise in futility, there was nothing.

The drive to Fort La Latte was a nice one, and it gave us a chance to get off the French highway system for the first time to see what the local towns looked like. From Dinan, the drive was approximately 45 minutes, and we seemed to have no trouble finding our way there. Putting into practice what I had previously learned, I kept following signs pointing me towards the towns closest to La Latte. Eventually, we saw signs for the Fort and its surrounding peninsula, Cap Frehel. The Fort was easy to find. There is a large parking lot and then a walk of about 500 meters on a well marked path. The first sights of the Fort are breathtaking, which is the reason we came in the first place. It is perched precariously on the rocks above the sea, with only a drawbridge connecting it back to the mainland. LaNita and I spent approximately two hours climbing all over the Fort, scrambling up to the very top of the ramparts, for the view of the surrounding seascape. There were other tourists at the site, but not too many as to be a distraction.

Afterwards, we drove to the edge of Cap Frehel and took a short walk to the lighthouse perched there. The weatherscape was best described as moody, and the wind was beginning to pick up, but the walk to the lighthouse was well worth our time. As one approaches the edge of the cape, one is treated to a dramatic view of waves pounding on rock, reminiscent of the California coast. LaNita and I were both in awe of how well the gray sky, green grass, pink granite and turquoise waters came together to form some sort of moveable feast for the eyes. Not wanting to leave the scene before we had to, we drove a little ways down the cape until we came onto a safe turnout from the road. There we opened the back hatch of the rental car, spread the algae mustard and tuna on a baguette and enjoyed the sights, sounds and smell of the sea for which Brittany is famous. For anyone in Brittany, Cap Frehel is not to be missed. Not only is it easy to reach from Dinan or Saint Malo—or even Mont-St-Michel for the Normandy tourists that are looking to continue along the coast—but it also consumes as much or as little of one’s time as necessary. LaNita and I spent approximately 5 hours in the immediate area, but we could have easily truncated the visit down to 2 hours if we were in a hurry.
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 04:33 AM
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Oysters and Castles

The next day we had planned on visiting the northeast arc of Brittany—and a little bit of Normandy as well—with a driving tour of Mont-St-Michel, the coast and then on to Saint Malo. We got an early jump on the day and had no trouble driving the hour or so to Mont-St-Michel, the imposing abbey-on-a-rock that just out of a tidal flat just inside the Normandy line.

Our primary guidebook on this trip was Fodor’s France guide book. In the opening pages of the Normandy section, the guidebook includes a quote from one of the forum participants. The quote—truncated here from what was published—says, “I believe you make a mistake if you do not spend a night at Mont-Saint-Michel. The Mont is completely different after the daytrippers leave in the late afternoon. In the early evening you can see the tide come rushing back in to make the Mont an island again—this alone makes staying into the evening worthwhile.” Even though we would not be staying overnight at Mont-St-Michel, we were eagerly looking forward to experience what would appear to be such a magical place. Unfortunately, The magic wore off for LaNita and I the minute we walked through the front gate.

Yes, Mont-St-Michel is beautiful. Yes, Mont-St-Michel sits on a large rock in the middle of a tidal flat that observes some of the largest tidal movements in the world. Yes, the abbey at the top of the rock is well worth the trip. But Mont-St-Michel is something else above and beyond all of that: a tourist trap.

Upon entering the front gates of the abbey on the rock, one’s senses are immediately assaulted by the garish trinket shops and tourist restaurants that line the walkway to the abbey’s front door. The walk is further complicated by the shoulder-to-shoulder nature of the narrow alleyway. Any attempt to escape this gauntlet is thwarted as there appears to be only one real street to the front door of the abbey.

The miserable walk up the abbey, though, is worth it. Once inside the abbey—which is to say, once one has paid the admission of six euro per person—Mont-St-Michel reveals its secrets and its charm. The abbey is a delight to wander through and the views afforded from its many vistas are truly stunning. LaNita and I spent about two hours poking our head into narrow passageways and posing for photos with nothing but the horizon behind us. If it wasn’t for those moments, I fear I may have done something I regret while caught in the maw below.

Yet, the abbey closes at a reasonable hour—presumably about the time all the tourists leave—so I am left to ask, what becomes so special about Mont-St-Michel when all of the day trippers leave? Do the shuttered trinket shops burst into life and do a re-enactment of the Nutcracker? Do purple unicorns emerge from the mist and fog of night and bestow some form of blessing on everyone sleeping in the inn? Does Poseidon himself stroll out of the English Channel to usher in the return of high tide?

Assuming the answer to the above rhetorical questions is no, then the best I could offer for a Mont-St-Michel recommendation is to say, yes, go see it. However, don’t make it the focus of a day, or even, go out of one’s way to see it. There are much more impressive sights to be had in France in general and Brittany in particular—yes I know Mont-St-Michel is in Normandy, technically. As for staying overnight, I don’t see how it adds anything to the experience.

From Mont-St-Michel, the next stop on our coast drive was Cancale. In this seaside hamlet, LaNita and I had planned to give up our lunchtime diet of bread and butter for a special treat: fruits of the sea. In planning our day, I had read great things about Cancale, both in the guidebook and on various forum postings. LaNita and I are both big oyster lovers and the book promised us we would not be disappointed.

The guidebook and forum posts are spot on with this recommendation. Not only is Cancale an easy drive from Mont-St-Michel, but sitting on the waterfront, one is afforded a view across the bay of the dramatic island abbey. We arrived in the picturesque fishing village during low tide, which is the perfect opportunity to view how oysters are harvested from the sea and kept so fresh. It would appear that after the oysters are dug up, they are kept in a number of wooden crates scattered on the ocean bed on the north side of town. Local oystermen then harvest them as the need to satisfy briny palates arises. With some of the most dramatic tidal movements in the world, LaNita and I were easily able to watch this whole operation as though someone had pulled back the sea like an extra layer from the bed.

For lunch, we selected the last restaurant on the cornice—Chez Something-or-Another—and sat down for our first real meal since arriving in Brittany. I had a wonderfully fresh assortment of the fruits of the sea that included oysters, snails, prawns, and cockles. LaNita had a rather large oyster platter. Afterwards, we allowed our sweet tooth to take over and we each enjoy a fresh made for us crepe. Price of the meal was about 50 euros total.

After lunch, we continued our drive along the coast route toward Saint Malo. The views were again beautiful—though not quite as dramatic as Cap Frehel—and we were afforded a rare glimpse of Brittany sunshine, which revealed a color of blue in the sea I didn’t think existed before. If there is one thing to be said for Brittany, the coastal views do not disappoint.

Unfortunately, Saint Malo would end up being the biggest disappointment of Brittany—this is saying a lot when compared to the Bois d’Amor, which we get to a bit later in the story. Walking the ramparts of Dinan, one can actually have moments of solitude, which are important to reflect upon the enormous history of places such as these. No such nook or cranny existed for us during our very brief stay in Saint Malo. Rather, we found a town completely overrun with British holidaymakers that took the ferry to France and never bothered to see anything beyond the immediate reach of their hotel. Yes, the ramparts are attractive and particularly dramatic during low-tide, but what good are these qualities when one has a bratty English tot yelling in their ear? Saint Malo makes me ask out loud, what is it about tourists that make them lose all common decency when surrounded by other tourists? Based on our experience, the best way to see Saint Malo is in the rearview mirror.

Perhaps if we had enjoyed our time in Saint Malo, the last bit wouldn’t have ticked me off so bad, but as it turns out we didn’t, so I ask the reader to prepare themselves for a bit of nastiness. After spending approximately an hour dodging the crowds at Saint Malo, we returned to retrieve our car in the parking lot. Parking was not much of a problem once we figured out the convention. In the parking lot like Saint Malo the convention is to take a ticket, park the car and pay for the length of time one is there. As we arrived at the car, I made a horrifying discovery. Somewhere along the ungodly walk through Saint Malo I had lost my parking ticket. The first question one has to ask is why did I have my parking ticket on my person to begin with? The second question is what to do when the parking ticket is lost? We went to the validation booth and managed to call an attendant who informed us that the privilege of losing our ticket would cost us 21 euros. (I feel a point of comparison is necessitated here, an hour of parking costs about 2 euros). LaNita was livid—sample quote from her tirade, “where is that little man, I want to ring his neck, this is a rip off”—but I took a much more sanguine approach: when parking one’s car in France, leave the &*#^ing parking ticket in the car. To say the least, the 45 minute car ride back to Dinan was a rather quiet one. I suppose it is hard to talk through the seething anger.
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 04:34 AM
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The Other Side of the Peninsula

We rounded out our tour of Brittany with a drive across the peninsula to Pont Aven. Admittedly, this is not a drive most folks in Dinan would undertake, but as Texans who now live in Manhattan, LaNita and I looked forward to a good ‘ol fashion drive. From Dinan, there is simply no fast or easy way to get to Pont Aven, so we took a lot of small roads and traveled at small speeds. Total travel time was approximately 2 ½ hours—one way. Like I said, this is not the typical day-trip from Dinan.

The drive revealed the other side of Brittany, both geographically and culturally. Pont Aven sits on the southwest coast of the Briton peninsula and is famous for the eponymous artistic school established there by Paul Gauguin. The drive took us from dramatic, cliff-strewn coast, through hills and forest, to the coast on the other side which would appear to be more pacific—admittedly this observation is based on a day trip.

Culturally, for the first time we were able to see what we thought would be obvious to us here: Celts. All we had read about Brittany prior to our arrival was how this was the Celtic the region was. Yet, during our time in and around Dinan, it wasn’t that Celtic. Sure, the architecture tends to be different in Dinan than say Paris, but we had a hard time sorting out where all the Celtic heritage was. It wasn’t until we began trekking across the peninsula that we saw it. Town names become unpronounceable—not that I think French town names are easy to begin with—and spelled out in two entirely different tongues: French and Celt. There is definitely more of a celebration of a Celtic past the closer one gets to the other end of the peninsula than in Dinan. This is a useful tip for anyone interested in seeing this part of France and mistaken that it can be found in Dinan.

We also experienced our first full Sunday in France. For those unaware—as we were unaware—France pretty well shuts down on Sunday. Gas stations, wine shops, supermarkets, shopping malls all close, or at least they are all close until 2 pm. After that, we were able to find some stores that would open. Thus, if one is to be in France on a Sunday, and does not want to be at the mercy of the French work schedule, it is best to stock up on provisions the night before.

Pont Aven is a charming little town and well worth the day trip. There is a beautiful river running through the city, with all sorts of small waterfalls and cataracts throughout. All of the storefronts and homes are well maintained and for anyone that likes bridges, Pont Aven will not disappoint. LaNita and I enjoyed our lunch by the riverbank and then spent three hours, or so, wandering through the town, taking our photo on the bridges, poking our head in the few shops that were open before 2 and enjoying the lovely flowers planted throughout the city.

One interesting tidbit from the day was the Bois d’Amor. Even with only a limited command of French—and my command of French is at best limited—one could decipher this to translate into the Woods of Love. Sounds romantic right? Well if that is the conclusion one draws, then I am afraid to say it is incorrect. LaNita and I were sucked into doing a walk through what we thought would be a romantic setting. And presumably it would be romantic, if the trails were not littered with crap—and in this case, I mean crap as in feces—both animal and human. After walking along the river for a bit, being careful not to step into a big pile of poo, the trail suddenly takes a right turn and then disappears into obscurity. One would be wise to take that as a sign to simply head back, unfortunately LaNita I were unwise. We continued along what looked like the path—and indeed it was—until the trail headed back down by the river again right toward the sewage treatment facility—folks, I can’t make this stuff up. The trail then circles back to where we began showing us the finest rundown warehouses the other side of the river had to offer. In short, enjoy Pont Aven, but skip the walk through the woods.

Pont Aven was to be our last major stop in Brittany and I will say we planned the length of our trip to this region just about perfectly. If we had spent another day, I fear the region would have become repetitive. Beautiful coastlines are wonderful to see, but we were in this trip to see much more than just the coast of France. The next day we would be off for the wine region.
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 04:34 AM
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Touched By The Hand of God

After spending five days in the coastal moodiness of Brittany, LaNita was ready for some warm sunshine and to be quite honest, I was looking forward to putting shorts on. In the entire time we had been in France, and we were now entering our second week in country, the weather tended to be on the cool side. Daytime highs struggled to get to 70—yes I know they measure all of their temperatures in Celsius there, but for an American writing observations on weather in France, you just have to deal with Fahrenheit—and the evenings have thus far required long-sleeved attire. LaNita had a harder time with this than I, for she had neglected the pack anything heavier than a light-weight cotton pull-over. Perhaps this is why she was ready to be on the road.

Today we were to drive from Dinan in Brittany to Saint Emilion—or more specifically Puisseguin—in the Bordeaux region of France. Thanks to my trusty viamichelin.com printed directions, I expected a ride of five hours, mostly on express toll roads, and once again I was not to be disappointed with the results of both the directions, nor expectation of the driving time.

The drive was uneventful, again the result ones hopes for when driving such a long stretch in a foreign land. The scenery was again beautiful and we were able to observe the climate generally give way from a more northerly feel to a sun-drenched one. Accenting this feeling was our first sighting of sunflowers approximately half way between Dinan and Saint Emilion, which was followed shortly thereafter by our first sighting of the star attraction of the region: the wine grapes. It did not take us long to see—and later to taste—why Louis XIV has said this region of France had been touched by the hand of God.

Truth be told, the entire reason LaNita and I found ourselves in France this year was due to a bottle of Bordeaux, vintage 2000—well actually, due to a lot of bottles of that particular vintage. During the cold winter months early in 2007, when I would bundle myself against the cold, I found comfort in the bottom of the bottle that contained the velvety smooth nectar for which these appellations are known. Finally, when LaNita and I became serious about vacation planning for the year, I decided I liked drinking all manner of wine from this region, and thus, I would very much like to find out exactly why that was.

Deciding to take a tour of a French wine region is easy enough; there are plenty to satisfy the desires. However, I didn’t want just any wine region, I wanted the best, and thus Bordeaux it would have to be. At first blush, it would appear the easiest way to accomplish this would be to arrive in the city of Bordeaux, arrange for a decent hotel, perhaps a car rental and let the grapes fall as they may for the next week or so as one bops in and out from chateau to chateau tasting the fruit of the vine

But, as I began to investigate the options available to us in the region, I found a trip to Bordeaux could be as complex as the wine placed in the bottles there. What type of wine would I be seeking out? Was I interested purely in wine tasting or would I also like other activity options? What premium was I willing to place on staying in a chateau? Did I really want to base myself in a large city such as Bordeaux, or would I prefer a smaller, perhaps more historical town?

I am not quite sure how to place a value of the variables that factored into my calculus of available options. It seemed as though my mind changed from day-to-day during the initial planning process. Yet, I continued to return to Saint Emilion for a few reasons. One, the city was a historical site in and of itself, which photos had revealed to me to be quite charming and quite complex. Two, of the various Bordeaux appellations, I had a particular affinity for Saint Emilion. The wines from this area tend to be drinkable a bit earlier than say Medoc, yet they are the hearty wines which I enjoy; full-bodied, fruit-forward, Merlot-heavy blends. Three, even though staying in a chateau is not uncommon in France, I seemed to have great difficultly finding my ideal chateau. What an innkeeper would tab as a chateau was to me a bed & breakfast. Yet, outside of Saint Emilion I happened upon the Web site of Chateau du Roques, which sits in the Saint Emilion satellite town of Puisseguin. A few reference checks of the place on TripAdvisor, a Fodor’s search or two and my search was over. We would be spending six nights in this chateau, concentrating on the wines of Saint Emilion.

We arrived to the Chateau shortly after 3 o’clock in the afternoon, just perfect for checking in. The cloud-covered skies we had left behind in Brittany had been replaced wonderfully and wholly by the sunshine filled azure skies of southwest France. Per a post I had previously read on TripAdvisor, I had requested room 12 for our stay. This is one of the largest rooms in the chateau with gorgeous north facing windows that offer a wonderful view of the vineyards in the area. The room was well apportioned, and the furniture did a good sense of conveying the history of the chateau. While the bathroom had beautiful ceramic sinks, it lacked a true shower.

After checking in, and notifying the front-desk that we would be dining at the chateau that evening, we decided to explore the immediate grounds and nearby roads. To prepare us for just such an adventure, I had printed out a few maps, courtesy of Google Maps before I left the states. I found these maps to be quite accurate, and LaNita and I had no trouble ambling along the ancient roads that criss-cross this corner of France. The rolling hills, perfectly manicured vines, small terra cotta chateaus and indescribable amalgamation of smells put LaNita and I in an altogether different plain. Rather than ruin this rare state of Zen we found ourselves in, we decided to retire back to the chateau for the remainder of the afternoon, curl up with a good book and patiently wait dinner.

If there is one drawback to Chateau du Roques and the surrounding area it is the location and lack of services. If one does not wish to drive to Saint Emilion or Libourne, then you are confined to the offerings of the Chateau. For this reason, we opted to dine at the restaurant that evening. The menu was a fixed 25 euros per person. As I have noted on most of our trip, we had avoided eating out, the expense would have been more than we could have borne and it would have cut into our wine budget. For this evening, though, we were ready to have our first real sit down dinner since we had arrived in France. Our dinner would turn out to be first rate. The courses were all well prepared, the service was good and the atmosphere was tranquil. Plus, the entire meal was complimented by a bottle of wine from one of the nearby chateaus. Even if plans do not call for one to stay at the Chateau, I would highly recommend dinning at the restaurant, and if possible, combining it with one of the frequent wine tastings. But I’ll get to that a bit later in the tale.
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 04:34 AM
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Saint Emilion

A recommendation to all those that find themselves in Saint Emilion; do what you can to get there in the morning, preferably around 10 am. This ensures adequate parking and plenty of time to see what you want to see. On the days we were spending significant time in Saint Emilion, we found that as we went to leave around 2 or 3 o’clock, the parking spots were full, and most cars were parked in endless lines along all the various country roads that lead to town.

Our time in the Saint Emilion region was our time to slow down and relax. As much as this report has thus far been a whirlwind of activity, LaNita and I chose this region to experience the joie de vivre. We fell into a predictable pattern over the next few days. As the sun’s rays first touched the vineyards outside of our window, we would rise. After the customary carb-heavy French breakfast at the Chateau, we would wander into Saint Emilion to enjoy a couple hours in the old town.

Saint Emilion is a small town, but there are plenty of diverse activities to keep one busy. Our first morning in town, we acquainted ourselves with the local tourist office and for one euro obtained a key to the bell tower. For all the bell towers that we skipped due to The Three Reasons Why, this one was everything that we had waited for. At any given moment, there are only about three keys floating about, so one is guaranteed a little bit of alone time at the top of the tower. The view was outstanding, as the early morning sunshine was washing over the surrounding hills covered by vineyards.

We also opted to take a morning tour of the various underground bits in Saint Emilion. If one has not gathered as much already, LaNita and I abhor package tourism and will generally shun tours. In our experience, we generally don’t enjoy the tours we go on. This was unfortunately another one where enjoyment would be a fleeting hope. The tour took us through the hermitage of Saint Emilion, the underground catacombs and the monolithic church. Having seen some incredible monolithic churches in Armenia, I wanted LaNita to see one, thus the only reason we signed up for the tour—the only method of seeing the impressive church interior. Much to our chagrin, there was only one tour a day in English, so all of the English speaking tourists get grouped into a massive tour, which was too large for anyone to enjoy the sights we were seeing—in all, I would say there were perhaps 40 people along for the tour. After enduring the tour, I would recommend participating in a language group other than English. The tourist office will provide you with an English description of everything on the tour.

Yet, it was not the crowd, per se, that made this tour unenjoyable, but a certain element of the crowd—unruly children. We had kids climbing on the stone coffins, throwing coins into ancient springs, climbing around in catacombs and being completely and utterly disrespectful to this holy place. Please parents, I beg you, out of reverence, when taking your children on tours such as these, do what you can to keep them respectful.

Aside from the ancient beauty of the UNESCO World Heritage town of Saint Emilion, one would be remiss not to notice that every other store is a wine store. There are two in particular I would like to mention.

On our first night in the region, we rushed into Saint Emilion to buy a few bottles of wine for that evening. We essentially walked into the first store we came upon—Comptoir des Vignobles. The owner was helpful, providing us with three bottles for tasting. One bottle in particular was a 2003 vintage by a new vintner, which he expected I would like a lot, provided I gave it ample time to breathe before tasting it. His assessment was accurate; the wine was incredibly complex for such a young wine. And just as he predicted, I returned to purchase a few more bottles to take back home with me. If anyone is interested in the specifics, a Google search of the store name will bring up his Web site. I highly recommend paying him a visit.

The other is the store in which we spent the most, but also had a great experience: Ets Martin. The store employees were very accommodating, allowing us to taste a number of different wines all for free. Then, they arranged to have the bottles shipped back to us. The shipping was a tad expensive—80 euros for 12 bottles—but Ets Martin waived the French taxes, thus giving us an immediate 20% discount on our purchase. This almost made the shipping charges a wash. Once back home, I was contacted by the courier company. I had to pay a duty of about $30, and once our wine was released by the FDA, it was delivered to our home. All the bottles were carefully packed in Styrofoam and arrived in perfect shape. True, the price we ended up paying per bottle was a bit more than if we had walked into a local wine shop in New York. However, we were able to find some bottles that are not imported to the US—or at least not sold in any store I have seen—and we have a personal connection to the terroir and the grapes inside. Some may choose to spend their money on souvenirs for the wall; we choose to spend money on souvenirs for the cellar.

The other local merchant that deserves recognition is the local Web bar. It is run by an ex-pat New York couple that was looking for a different way of life to raise their family. Thus, with no contacts in the area, they arrived in Saint Emilion and set up an Internet café. Presumably there is not another one in town, or at least we didn’t happen upon one. Their café is extremely clean, with both French and American keyboards, the latter being a blessing for anyone cursed with trying to type English on the former. In addition to offering Web access—including free WiFi for those with their own laptop—they also operate a bar servicing light fare, coffees, teas and wines. LaNita and I spent a couple mornings here catching up on e-mail and relaxing as we waited for the town to open up, which generally doesn’t happen until noon.

The mornings in Saint Emilion were relaxed and primarily devoted to exploration in the town. Our afternoons were then filled with slow drives through the narrow paths in the environs. Generally, we would arrange to visit a chateau or two, to taste the wine and talk to the vintner. This is an easy enough process once one learns the rule—always call ahead. We had no luck just popping into a chateau and finding someone to speak to. For the most part, these are small operations, so the winemaker is more than likely out among the grapes rather than sitting in a cellar waiting for someone to pop by. Calling ahead was easy enough—there are innumerable guidebooks which list all the local wineries that speak English—and everyone was happy to receive us. If anyone has any further questions, I suggest asking the local wine merchants what vineyards are the easiest to visit. Alternatively, there are tours arranged through the local tourist office.

Visiting the chateaus and speaking to the vintners is an experience not to be missed by anyone that fancies themselves an oenophile. Every winemaker we spoke to was more than happy to answer all of our probing questions, show us the various bits of their operation and allow us tasting of a number of different vintages. This is to say nothing of the fact that one is enjoying arguably the world’s finest wines in one of the most beautiful settings in the world. Our morning drive from the Chateau in Puisseguin down to Saint Emilion, through the rolling hills and along side timeless, well-manicured vineyards would become one of my favorite drives in the world. Sometimes there are no English words to describe a truly French experience, this is one such instance.

As enjoyable as our mornings and afternoons were, in the evenings we got to taste all that is right and good about this region. On a fairly consistent basis, Chateau du Roques would sponsor a wine tasting in their cellar. The wine tasting is usually conducted by a local freelance wine merchant—in our case, the gregarious Stephan—who would bring three or four local bottles for all to enjoy. The tasting costs five euros a person, unless one opts to purchase a bottle or two—or four, or five—in which case Stephan is happy to forget the tasting fee. Most nights there would be LaNita and I and perhaps two other couples. In all, we did the tasting three times—the average about every other night of so—and tasted a total of 10 different wines from the immediate area. Stephan knew all the winemakers for the vintages he poured and after he got to know us, he would ask us to try some wines that were not as largely produced to see our reaction. For our last night in the Chateau, Stephan prepared a special selection for us to taste, one which he referred to as “the tsunami,” the taste of which will not soon be forgotten by this palate. It was a great experience, and if anyone finds themselves in the area, I suggest spending an hour or so going through the tasting.
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 04:34 AM
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The Dordogne

The region though was not all about wine tasting. For one day, LaNita and I drove about two hours east to the Dordogne region. The guidebook heaps mounds praise on the region and its small towns perched about the eponymous river, so we thought we’d give it a peek. What I expected was to find yet another part of France I would enjoy, and a part I wouldn’t get to explore as much as I would have hoped for, and thus the foundation would be laid for a return trip in the near future.

We had a full day to explore the region, and based on what I had read, the first stop on our itinerary was Beynac-et-Cazenac. From Saint Emilion, the drive took us through Bergerac and was generally not an easy drive. The roads were of the two lane variety, which up to this point had not been a problem. However, this particular day would have appeared to be a fete to slow moving vehicles. Every time we would pass someone, luck would have us behind someone even slower. So in total the drive to Beynac took approximately two hours.

However, we were richly rewarded for our patience the beautiful rock faced town perched high above the Dordogne river that is Beynac. We had little trouble parking in the car in a municipal lot right past downtown and then proceeded to walk up the sheer face of a mountain that is covered in a cobblestone street. Blessed with a beautiful, cloudless day, our hike up the hill was rewarded by a beautiful citadel crowning the mountaintop with sweeping views of the river below. While we didn’t go into the castle for The Three Reasons Why, we found a path at the top of the hill that took us past a small cemetery and to the end of the cliff overlooking the Dordogne river. From here we could spot beautiful chateaus sitting gracefully alongside the sparkling river. We then walked back through the town. Overall, our experience in Beynac is that it is a wonderful town, with a beautiful view and just the right mix of tourists so as to not be overrun. We spent about two hours there and felt as though we saw what there was to see.

From Beynac, we continued to follow the Dordogne river to the town of Sarlat-la-Caneda, the capital of Périgord Noir. The majority of breathless language in the Dordogne section of the guidebook seems reserved for Sarlat. LaNita and I came into the town after a wonderful serene experience in Beynac and were immediately greeted by a sight that generally makes us turn and head the other direction: tour buses parked on the side of road. Indeed, we drove through the town, but didn’t see anything that compelled us to stop. Sure, it looked nice, yeah there is a cathedral, oh look a market on a cobblestone street. But, by this point in the trip we had seen everything Sarlat had to offer already. The only thing we could figure is that Sarlat offered it in a different locale. Plus, the former passengers on the tourists’ buses were now the present pedestrians crowding the streets. We decided to try our luck with a place a little bit further flung: Brantome.

The drive from Sarlat to Brantome is a lengthy one that can be a tad confusing particularly in Perigueux. While our roadmap showed a direct route from Perigueux to Brantome, our experience didn’t reveal it. Rather, we ended up going a bit of the long around, heading toward Nanates and doubling back through Thiviers. While this definitely added some time to the drive, it also added some beautiful scenery through some quaint little towns, so we didn’t mind the diversion at all.

The scenery of the drive was eclipsed only by the town of Brantome itself. Much like our experience earlier in the day at Beynac, we found a small, delightful town with a good mix of tourists so as to not be overrun. Whereas Beynac was perched on a cliff, the main attraction in Brantome is the monastery cut into the cliff. Seeing as how this would be a last stop for the day, LaNita and I paid the 5 euros per person fee and took the self guided walking tour through the caves quarried into the cliff by the ancient monks. The history of this sight suggests that perhaps Brantome was the first monastery in the world and the walking tour—replete with English descriptions at each of the more than 25 markers—took us about an hour.

Following the tour through the monastery, we strolled along the river and canals that circle Brantome proper. Much like Pont Aven in Brittany, we enjoyed the many and varied bridges adorning the waterways and found the walk along the river to be quite tranquil. Overall, Brantome was my favorite stop on our Dordogne day.
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 04:35 AM
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Paris Redux

Saint Emilion is wonderful and we really enjoyed our time in the region. I had made a reservation that would have kept us in the Chateau an extra night, and the original plan was to drive toward the coast to visit the famed sand dunes of Arcachon. But we were feeling a bit rural weary and decided to cut our stay a day short. Chateau du Roques was understanding and allowed us to cut the trip short without any penalty for the extra day we had reserved. That afternoon, I called up the Hotel Londres Eiffel, who had a room for us and, recognizing my name from the previous stay—my last name is unforgettable—they took us at our word that we would be arriving the following afternoon.

Ready to be back in the city, LaNita and I got an early start on the day for the long drive back to Paris. The drive back to Paris was uneventful until we stopped for what I thought would be the last time about an hour outside of Paris to gas up and stretch. As we were pulling out of the station, French on motorcycles were signaling wildly to me and then pointing to the front tire. Getting out of the car, I saw what all the commotion was about—a flat front tire. One French motorcyclist thought it apropos to let out a subtly “Oh la la,” to describe my predicament. But LaNita and I were determined to be rid of the rental car, flat tire or no, and fortunately “fix a flat” is universal. So with a tire full of spray in goo, we pushed ahead.

Somewhere along the five hour drive from Saint Emilion to Paris I made the decision to drive into the city, check into the hotel, drop off our stuff and then drive out to the airport to deposit the car. Living in New York for more than four years, and having had a car for some of that time, I thought how hard could it be? A city is a city and if one can drive in the capital of the world, then surely one can drive just about anywhere. Anyone who has ever battled for positioning in the Holland Tunnel queue on a Friday afternoon has definitely earned their service ribbon I reckoned.

So with LaNita manning the map and me manning the wheel, we made our way into Paris and onto the Periphirique, the ubiquitous circle road that wraps around any French city of note. While our first visit into Paris was for us to be tourists, our return trip was for us to claim this proud city as our own. Living in Manhattan, LaNita and I are natural city dwellers and thus Paris at once felt like home. Where stood only a week and a half ago strange, unfamiliar curiosities had magically been transformed in our minds as landmarks. I exited the Periphirique, drove along Avenue New York and the Seine until I came to the Eiffel Tower, where I only had to hang a left to be back in the cozy confines of our neighbor: the seventh arrondissement.

However, if I thought my New York driving experience would save me in the center of the beast, I was to soon be proven wrong. As familiar as everything may have been to us now, none of this changed the fact that I still had to navigate through the city. The city of narrow streets, one way roads and parking that is at best a suggestion. People have since asked me if I think driving in New York is more difficult than Paris to which I answer absolutely not. The reasons are simple. New York was almost, kind of, designed for a car. Paris was designed for midget horse wagons. So a few—actually many—traffic laws were bent as I found my way back to Rue Augereau and the familiar façade of the Hotel Londres Eiffel. There at the desk was Arnaud who was surprised to see us again, but happy that we had returned. He was there to greet us with a smile, our new room key in hand. We had in fact returned home and it felt good.

But while our luggage may have been home, we still had the sticky wicket of the car return to deal with. The car had got us this far, and now for the final challenge, the drive through the center of Paris to angle for the airport. To do this, I did what seemed like sure madness at the time, and in reflection is actually a sign of advanced cases of dementia; I would drive through the Arc de Triumph to get back to the Periphirique.

The traffic in the Arc de Triumph roundabout could best be describe as the result of a tornado picking a fight with a hurricane, only not quite that organized. There are approximately eight lanes of traffic feeding into the roundabout and I can only say approximately because there are no lanes painted on the road to delineate what might be a lane and what might not. Coming in from the Champs Elysees and needing to get only to Grand Military boulevard on the other side, I devised a rather simple strategy. LaNita would watch my right side, with up to the millisecond status reports and I would try not to kill anyone in the other 270 degrees of vision LaNita would not be paying attention to. I was fortunate to have already gone through the roundabout once when we were shuttled to the airport to pick up the rental car, so I knew that in fact it could be done. What I was less sure of was if it could in fact be done by an American.

But as my typing this report testifies, perhaps against the better hope of the entire French nation, I did in fact make it through the gauntlet of intra-trafficinal fortitude. Once on Grand Military boulevard, I was able to easily find the turnoff for the Perphirique, which got me back onto the well-signed, well-maintained French highways. From there, the rest of the ride to the airport was a breeze, and LaNita and I were finally rid of the morass of the rental car.

Now sans baggage, both physically and emotionally, we opted for the RER back into central Paris and then back to the hotel. We found this process to be straight forward, and I would say to anyone with a light pack and an intrepid sense of adventure to give this a go for transport into the city. Throughout the airport terminally, the direction to trains back to Paris were well marked and we had no difficultly figuring out the ticket purchasing procedure.

Interestingly enough, the first bistro we had stumbled upon in Paris would return to our minds as the best. We again dined at the Café Rogue on Rue Kleber. This time, the setting was different, for this time there were actually Parisians joining us on this gorgeous late summer’s evening. Indeed, August was now a memory and the Paris that is notoriously devoid of life during that holiday month was now reborn anew with the return of its lifeblood. We felt altogether different about the city sitting in the café, almost feeling as though we now were above just tourists, but now closer to residents. Residents, that is, that possess only a limited command of the lingua franca.

We walked back to our hotel after the fully satisfying meal; taking in all the wonderful sights that make Paris is the late summer such a magical place. There was a smug smirk on our face as we walked beneath the Eiffel Tower again, this time observing young lovers seeing it for the first time, just as we had not a fortnight ago. The trip had come full circle geographically, but we had traveled to an entirely new plateau in our soul.

Back at the hotel we settled into our room—this time number 34—and enjoyed a shower again—albeit one that is diminutive in stature—and went to finding English on the television, or at the very least a nice rugby match. While we were unable to find rugby on TV, I did happen upon the Patriots v. Jets NFL match-up on tape delay complete with French announcers. We would soon be home, but I couldn’t help myself, I had to watch.

For our last morning in Paris, we decided on breakfast at the only café we really liked in our immediate neighborhood, Café Dome. There is absolutely nothing spectacular about this place, but the wait staff understands the American diner and does what they can to make one feel at home. Coffee comes quickly, waiters politely follow-up with inquires about a refill during the course of the meal, and once the food is finished a bill is produced without prompting. Now this is what I call service.

Today would be our walk South day, the one direction that did not receive much attention from us during our previous stay in the city. Montparnasse is a part of Paris that lives on in the artistic world and so we set out to see what we could find. Overall, I was rather under whelmed by the district of the city, and we spent only a couple hours looping through it. The highlight of the walking tour was the train station, where LaNita found a bathroom—albeit one we had to pay to use—and I found a large advertisement featuring the world’s ugliest man: French rugby star Sebastian Chabal. If anyone has any doubts about my claim, please do a YouTube search and those doubts will be answered. The man is a monster.

LaNita had a few extra landmarks she wanted to see before heading back and all of them dealt directly with the late, great American writer Ernst Hemmingway. During the trip she had consumed Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast, a book about the great influx of artistic talent that found itself in Paris during the 1920s. She wanted to see the street he lived on during his early years and to visit the Café des Lilas, which Hemmingway describes as the “only decent café in the neighborhood.” Plus, we had to pay our respect to Mike Ney, who inspired Hemmingway and kept him company as he wrote The Sun Also Rises.

Our respects paid, we wound through the Luxembourg Gardens and into the Latin Quarter. It was a perfect Sunday stroll, one filled with no expectations. This is really the only way to really enjoy Paris, allow the city to lead you where she wants. Don’t fight her advances, but rather allow yourself to be seduced by the siren’s song which arises from her enchanting neighborhoods and hidden treasurers. One cannot pre-plan a trip to Paris. Yes, there are sights which must be seen, but it is the sights that aren’t seen by everyone which makes the city special to each of us.

After wandering aimless through the Left Bank and the Latin Quarter, we crossed the Seine to see where the road to the Paris Opera house might lead us. Shortly after crossing the bridge, we heard an incredible celebration, drums beating, singers belting out tunes, revelry up ahead. Of course, we had to investigate and to my utmost delight, what did we find? The Brazilian Independence Day parade was in full force.

What will be helpful to the reader is to know that I am a student and speaker of Portuguese, specifically of the Brazilian variety. This is a result of a lot of work I have done with the Brazilian capital markets participants. Thus, finding the Brazilian parade, in this city I felt at home in, was the perfect conclusion to our trip. Where else in the world can an American speak to a Brazilian, in Portuguese, why enjoying a French day? Only in Paris, our new home.

3 October 2007
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 04:35 AM
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A few hints and tips:
• If anyone has an American Express card and plans to use it, good luck. I found AMEX to be accepted at about half the places I had hoped to use it. Our backup was a MasterCard which we had no trouble with.
• Paris is a walkable city. Take advantage of this and try walking between sights rather than taking a cab or the Metro.
• Fun things to shop for in Paris. Codeine and Roger & Gallet.
• We found a Starbucks at Place Victor Hugo. There’s also one in between the Opera House and Concorde.
• If one is renting a car, be mindful not to let the gas gauge drop below half-a-tank. We had a car that took diesel, and had a difficult time finding a diesel selling station in the southwest.
• The Euro is strong and the Dollar is weak. I can’t offer anyone help here, just bend over.
• When you are back, write a trip report. No matter how large or small, it helps add to the knowledge. Let people know what you enjoyed and what you didn’t like. No trip is perfect and sometimes the hardships are what make the reflection so much fun.

Also, I mentioned our main guidebook for this trip was Fodor’s France. We had the 2006 edition, but having returned to the bookstore shortly before our trip and leafing through the 2007 edition—which has the exact some cover on it—I saw nothing of note that would have convinced me to purchase the new edition.

After working with Fodor’s guidebook to plan the trip and then as a guide during the trip, I cannot recommend it. Overall, I found the guidebook to be extremely thin and altogether a bad compendium of French suggestions. Below are a few of my complaints about the book:
• There was no map of the Paris Metro
• The street maps of Paris are awful. We supplemented our walking with the City Insights map of Paris, which I highly recommend.
• The lack of details about historical monuments. One example: Saint Germaine is mentioned as the oldest church, and then they never bother to tell you when it was built.
• There was no mention at all of Montparnasse.
• There was no mention at all of Palais Royale.
• There was no mention of Cap Frehel or Fort La Latte. The fort is well worth the trip—and I would argue infinitely more interesting than yet another chateau or castle, which are detailed to often in the book—while Cap Frehel is a beautiful bit of coastline within easy reach of a lot of the more popular spots listed in the book.
• The maps contained in the book for Brittany were functionally useless.
• Mont-Saint-Michel is a tourist trap. It would be nice to have a little heads up.
• There were no maps for exploring the appellations of Bordeaux.
• The book spent zero time explaining how to visit a chateau in Bordeaux. It tells you about one road to drive on in Medoc, but it fails to mention if someone wants to really experience the French wine culture, a phone call is necessary
• Arcachon isn’t even mentioned. I guess the tallest sand dune in Europe isn’t worth column space.
• If you are driving in France, and you want to know what a road sign means, the book will be of no use.

Now that I have detailed all the things missing from the book—keeping in mind these are just the things missing from the parts of France we were in—allow me to tell everyone what the book deemed worthy of three full pages: Disneyland Paris. Further, the book actually offers a recommendation to eat at Disneyland Restaurants and to stay at Disneyland Hotels. All of this is necessary in the guidebook?

For those reasons, I cannot recommend the Fodor’s book.
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 07:52 AM
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Nice report for Bordeaux--I haven't gotten there yet.

I think you live in my neighborhood and/or frequent my bar and sometimes brunch spot. (I gleaned this when I was looking at your trip pics)
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 12:52 PM
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Even though I labeled this part of the report broadly as Bordeaux, I don't feel as if I really went to this region. Rather, I tell everyone we spent time in Saint Emilion. Thanks for the kind words though.

Also, we live in lower Manhattan below WTC. But we eat/drink in LES quite often. No doubt, you and I are close by.
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Old Oct 3rd, 2007, 11:58 PM
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Very enjoyable to read, travelbear. Well done.
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Old Jan 6th, 2008, 02:07 PM
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Bookmarking to read later. Looks like an interesting report!
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Old Jan 6th, 2008, 03:33 PM
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Thoroughly enjoyable! Somehow I missed this when you first posted. As we plan Normandy and Brittany in May, your info is valuable -- especially on the area around MSM, Dinan, etc.
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Old Jan 6th, 2008, 04:08 PM
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Interesting report. Thank you.

Too bad you skipped Sarlat.

Diesel (gasole) is the most widely available petrol in the SW of France.
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Old Jan 16th, 2008, 07:55 PM
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Entertaining, honest & informative report, travelbear. I don't know how I missed this, but it sure is a good read. Thanks!

And I'm with St. Cirq-give Sarlat a try on a "non" market day in mid to late September...Exquis, mon amie!
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