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Nice to Paris: on not taking it easy in Eastern France

Nice to Paris: on not taking it easy in Eastern France

May 12th, 2009, 03:26 PM
  #1  
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Nice to Paris: on not taking it easy in Eastern France

I learnt something on this trip. It was supposed to be more of a restful vacation, and less of an “on-the-go” trek, than my usual trips. Almost four weeks in France - Nice (6 nights) - Grenoble (4) - Dijon (4) - Strasbourg (4) - Nancy (3) - Paris (4) with London (1, 2) bookends. Lots of lounging around, I thought. Lots of coffee stops. Turns out, that while I can veg out on the couch with a book at home, and do nothing quite successfully, I just don’t operate that way on the road. So instead there was a lot of walking around and sightseeing.

March 31st to April 2nd - RDU to Nice via London - Better a Boat?

Really, I should count the first two flights on this trip as successes. I arrived in the correct cities (London and Nice), on the correct days (April 1st and 2nd). My luggage arrived, intact, on the same planes I did. I even had three seats to myself on both flights. And yet, once again, I found I was thinking of crossing the Atlantic by boat instead of plane next time.

Admittedly, I had most of those thoughts while trying to sleep on the American Airlines flight to London. My back was not happy with the three seats I was using as a bed, even with the extra pillows under my spine instead of my skull. And dinner had been reduced to the point where it hardly counted as a meal. I would have eaten better if I'd just taken a sandwich on board. While I did get two or three hours sleep, enough that I stayed awake until bedtime in London, I spent a further two or three hours feeling miserable. And the flight ran nearly an hour late for both take off and landing.

Of course, I didn't try to sleep on the Easyjet Luton (think London north) to Nice flight. It's just that even a short flight takes so much time. Consider what this leg involved: walk to bus stop; take very slooow bus to St. Pancras station; trek the entire length of the amazingly long international platform to reach the regular trains (only taxis, not buses, serve that end!); take a train to Luton Parkway; wait 10 minutes for next shuttle to airport; wait three hours, including 15 minutes standing at the gate, for plane to take off (an hour late); fly to Nice; wait 15 minutes for incredibly crowded bus into town, and walk to hotel.

Flying time: 2 hours
Travel time: 8 hours

The good news was that since I boarded in Group A I was able to snag a window seat on the shady side of the plane. And since I picked one in the middle of the plane, and people boarded from both ends, I had the row to myself. And the views were great! We left England over Brighton, with a view of the white cliffs just beyond. The Channel was a pale Carolina blue, although there seemed to be a surprising shortage of shipping. But the best part was at the end, as we flew parallel with the coast, just out to sea, from Toulon to Nice, giving me a grandstand view of cliffs and coves and towns, and of the winding roads serving the otherwise hidden villas of the seriously rich. It was a great introduction to the Cote d'Azur.

But before the Cote d'Azur I had a short day in London. I had not intended to be in town along with twenty heads of state (or was it just heads of government?) and assorted protesters, but it turned out that the G20 meeting really had no effect on me. Aside from dropping any plans I might have had for visiting the (excellent) Museum of London in the City, and watching TV news coverage totally devoted to the Obamas, the (rather peaceful) demonstrations, and the rumored split between the Anglo-Americans and a Franco-German alliance, the only signs of disturbance I noticed came when I wandered through Trafalgar Square late in the afternoon of the 1st. Three TV vans were corralled on one corner, and a group of perhaps a dozen people were all that remained of the earlier demonstrators.

Instead of joining the street protests, I ate my favorite Pret a Manger crayfish and rocket sandwich while enjoying the fountains in Russell Square, before heading north to buy my ticket for the train to Luton and check out the bus situation at St. Pancras. Then I walked to the British Library, where I split my time between an exhibition of poetry for children (with a recording of T. S. Eliot reading one of his cat poems, and some neat illustrations) and a very informative display on book conservation (unbinding, cleaning and rebinding). Then I took a bus back to Russell Square for a cup of coffee.

Dinner was not as successful as lunch. I had decided to try the nearest Busaba Eathai restaurant - part of a new chain run by the same people as the Indian Masala Zone. I should have been wary as soon as I saw that we were expected to eat Thai food with chopsticks, as Thai people use a spoon and fork. In addition to less than inspiring food, the noise level was high and the seats lacked backs. I don't plan to return.

I stayed in the same Gower Street B&B as in November, the Ridgemount. Once again I was on the top floor, but I think the bathroom was a shade bigger, and my bed wasn't set under the sloped ceiling, so I could read in bed in greater comfort. The breakfast was an improvement over the one I had eaten at Heathrow, and there was free wi-fi in addition to the free PC in the lounge.

The best part of my stay in London, though, was the weather. I walked the streets in short sleeves at the very beginning of April! After my coffee in Russell Square I strolled across Waterloo Bridge to the South Bank, to check out the offerings at the National Theatre, and back over a pedestrian walkway beside Charing Cross railway bridge, with a stellar view of the Houses of Parliament. I hoped the weather would be as nice in France.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 12th, 2009, 04:51 PM
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April 2nd - 8th - Surprised by Nice - Part One

Just over 25 years ago I spent three weeks in the Cote d'Azur area, staying in the small hill town of Vence, and driving to IBM's La Gaude location on work days. Since La Gaude didn't allow weekend or overtime work without the plant manager's rare permission, we spent plenty of time exploring.

We went to Nice a few times, for meals, or to climb the hill and look down at the port, but mostly we went further afield - Grasse (perfume), Biot (glass) and Monte Carlo (excess). My memory of Nice was of a large and noisy and rather gritty city. Maybe it was then, but if so it's undergone a great clean-up job - now it's all wide, clean squares, big fountains, and pretty parks. Much to my surprise, I loved Nice.

Oh, in July or August, I imagine I'd hate the place, but at the very beginning of April the summer heat and crowds were still in the future. Not that the town was empty of tourists, and a big, apparently local crowd played on the hill overlooking the port on Sunday afternoon, but restaurants and cafes were still half empty, and the beach often deserted - I saw no-one brave enough to swim!

While the busiest pedestrian streets, especially in the old town, were wall-to-wall people on occasion, and the trams and buses perpetually crammed (what can they be like in the summer?) I had the sights pretty much to myself. And some were great.

My first morning I slept late - still not entirely over jet-lag - and then took care of some business. I had bought my transport pass for the Cote d'Azur at the airport (15 euro for seven days) but I needed to collect my train tickets, for the SNCF trains through to Paris, that I had bought over the Internet. Just as in Paris, the conveniently located SNCF boutique was full of people. But when I went over to the train station, there wasn't a single person in line. I had to show the credit card I had used to pay for the tickets, and even though it had been canceled by Citibank (possible compromise at the European clearing house), it sufficed to release the tickets. Of course, now I had to be careful not to lose them, but I wouldn't need to visit any more stations except to board a train.

I split the first afternoon between a museum and a park - the Musee des Arts Asiatiques (www.arts-asiatiques.com) and the Park Phoenix. The museum is no challenge to the excellent Musee Guimet in Paris, but I enjoyed both the building and its contents. The ground floor is a series of squares, which symbolize earth, the upper floor round, symbolizing heaven, and it's built over water. The collection is sparse - maybe half a dozen pieces per country on the main floor, but they are beautiful pieces, with explanations in English as well as French. Upstairs, the exhibition is devoted to Buddhism, and there's an option for a Japanese tea ceremony that I skipped.

For me, the most interesting items were in the basement, where I found a temporary exhibition devoted to funerary objects from the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.E.). I had always thought that the terracotta warriors in the first Qin Emperor's grave in Xi'an (210 B.C.E.) were a total outlier, but now I found out that they were exceptional in size, and certainly in quantity, but not in concept. Earlier burials had involved sacrificing servants to accompany the deceased, but then figurines had been used instead, along with horned guardians.

The park was mostly memorable for a musical fountain, and for the Florida turtles. It appears that the turtles turned out to be more fertile than expected, because their enclosure teemed with the creatures. The birds, some caged (owls), some not (peacocks, flamingos), came in much sparser numbers.

The next day I headed east towards exclusive Cap Ferrat, chatting while I waited for the bus with a young woman heading for her parent's house for the Easter break. She said that there weren't a lot of French people living on the cape these days. I got off on the isthmus that joins the cape to the mainland, to visit the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild (www.villa-ephrussi.com/en/ephrussi), built in the early 1900s for a seriously wealthy baroness (who seems to have been the product of some very close cousin marriages). After a seriously expensive coffee on the terrace I devoted most of my visit to the nine gorgeous gardens, all with beautiful sea views. The baroness's taste tended to the Louis XIV style, not my favorite, but I approved of the architecture, which gave the house plenty of good views, too.

I took the bus back to Beaulieu-sur-Mer for lunch (Salad Nicoise), before tackling the second villa of the day - the unique and altogether fascinating Villa Kerylos (www.villa-kerylos.com/en/kerylos). It was built for Theodore Reinach, a member of another banking family (and connected through his wife to the husband of Baroness Ephrussi), as a recreation of a Greek villa. Or a Roman villa, for that matter, it reminded me very much of the remains of the villas I saw last year in Herculaneum and Pompeii. There were modern conveniences - showers, for instance. But there were also very Greek floors, walls and even furnishings, including couches (much higher off the ground than I had imagined) for dining. Seems that bankers have been doing very well for some time....
thursdaysd is offline  
May 12th, 2009, 06:40 PM
  #3  
yk
 
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Oh thursdaysd - I'm LOVING this!

At least you got 3 seats to yourself on the AA flight! Mine was almost completely full, and while I had the exit row, I was next to a guy with terrible BO! However, I can sympathize lying across the 3 seats. I did that on my way back, but the contours of the seats make it extremely uncomfortable for lying down. I found myself waking up every 30 mins or so from either a sore back, or a numb arm.

The food on AA is now like the size of a microwave dinner. Surprisingly, it actually tasted decent on my flight home.

I think I had the crayfish and rocket sandwich from Pret last time I was in London, and I agree with you that it's pretty darn tasty!

How much is the rate at Ridgemount, if you don't mind me asking?

Looking forward to more!
yk is offline  
May 12th, 2009, 07:21 PM
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Why, thank you, yk!

I really shouldn't complain about the AA flight, I know. (And BO - that would be horrible!) In fact, that's the second time I've had a complete row to myself on the RDU-LHR flight - I'm worried it may get canceled!

I'm very fond of Pret - I wish we had one here. The crayfish and rocket was even better when it was crayfish and avocado, but I still make sure to get one each time I'm in London.

The Ridgemont site is here: ridgemounthotel.co.uk - it's now 55 GBP for an en-suite single. If you can go a little higher the Arosfa is just up the road and also nice, although I actually prefer the Ridgemount's bathrooms (a little bigger and not prefab). Bloomsbury is very convenient for the Piccadilly line to Heathrow, although I'm still hoping to get to try out LSE's new year-round accommodation - www.lsetopfloor.co.uk.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 13th, 2009, 05:52 AM
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I'm enjoying your trip report very much!
Ella656 is offline  
May 13th, 2009, 06:43 AM
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Thanks Ella - here's the next installment.

April 2nd - 8th - Surprised by Nice - Part Two

After a day of luxury (at least of looking at luxury) and sunshine, I headed inland by train (tinyurl.com/6aydq9) to the mountain village of Entrevaux on a grey, overcast, morning. The first half-hour was forgettable - apartment blocks and industry - but as we headed into the mountains the scenery got better and better (if you like mountains and rivers, that is), and houses scarce. Entrevaux climbs a hillside beside the river Var, but its castle sits far above, and I decided against the climb. I did wander round the village, all grey stone and steep streets, before taking the train back to the coast, where the weather had improved.

I had really planned to stay longer in Entrevaux, so I had an unexpected afternoon in Nice, which I spent on the hill where the castle used to be. I took the very convenient elevator up, but I did walk down. I enjoyed the artificial waterfall, and the views of the port (with an out-of-scale cruise ship dominating the posh yachts), and the families having fun. I watched some young men playing badminton, a game I hadn't seen in a long time, and boules seemed popular, too. On my way down I visited the cemeteries - one Jewish, one Christian - and finished a wander through the crowded old town with a citron presse at a cafe across from the Palais de Justice.

This part of France used to be part of the Kingdom of Savoy, only becoming French after a plebiscite in 1860, and the Italian border is very close to Nice. I had asked here about the virtues of a day trip to Italy, resulting in a couple of decisive "no's", and one equally decisive "yes". I decided to have look at Menton on the way, and then visit the Giardini Botanici Hanbury near Ventimiglia. My transport pass was good for buses as far as Menton, and I took the train on to Italy. The bus gave me a good look at Monte Carlo on the way - a view not afforded those on the train, as it traverses Monaco in a tunnel! (Having visited Monaco back in the 80's, I felt no need to stop off.)

I didn't care much for Menton, which had a much more "resorty" vibe than Nice, although my opinion might be influenced by the fact that someone in a passing car threw water at me. (Since it didn't stain and didn't sting I'm assuming it was water.) Ventimiglia, on the other hand, seemed to positively deter tourists. The information booth in the station was closed, and there were no signs (as there were in Menton) indicating where to find the T.I. in town. Nor did the only bus stop near the station have any indication of which buses might stop there, or when.

A couple of guys manning a parking lot pointed me in the direction of the T.I. But it had moved, and when I found it it was in any case closed for the afternoon siesta. I returned to the lone bus stop, where I was fortunate to find an actual bus, about to leave in the right direction. (If I had waited for the T.I. to open I would have missed the gardens, as there wasn't another bus for a couple of hours.) Although I am not a gardener (I have a black, not a green, thumb), I enjoy flowers, and spring is always a good time to visit gardens. This one had rather more cacti than I would have chosen, but was otherwise a pleasant place to spend an afternoon, with lots of fountains and gazebos and statues among the plants, and a cafe at the very bottom of the hillside with views of the sea through locked gates.

I took the train from Ventimiglia back to Nice, as it was a lot faster than the bus. I was surprised to find the almost empty carriages fill right up at the Monaco stop. Apparently a lot of people commute from Nice to Monaco.

My last day in Nice, after checking out the crowded market, and trying a serving of socca, Nice's chickpea flatbread (verdict: not as flavorful as I expected), I went inland again, but only a little way, riding the packed local bus up to Eze. Although there are some good views to be had from Eze, one of the "perched" villages, it was also the most touristy place I visited, and I really can't recommend it. Not unless, perhaps, you want to spend a great deal of money to stay, or eat, at the Chateau de la Chevre d'Or (www.chevredor.com/uk/index.php). Or visit a lot of souvenir shops. Even the tour of the Fragonard perfume factory was a bit disappointing, as the real work is done elsewhere - although I did surprise myself by correctly identifying the eight scents we were given to try at the beginning of the tour (chocolate, rose, etc.)

I quite enjoyed my hotel in Nice, the Solara (http://www.hotel-solara-nice.cote.az...page_en_1.html), although my room wasn't much bigger than my single in London, and the elevator was out of action for most of my stay. I suppose I really needed the exercise, but since it meant climbing 88 steps to the hotel reception, and a further 16 to my room, I was extremely glad I had already gotten my luggage up before the breakdown! Really, my room was a good deal - en-suite, with a balcony, and just one long block off the Promenade des Anglais, it only cost me 50 euros. Since it came with a small fridge I was able to skip paying for breakfast, stocking up with orange juice and yoghurt from the nearby supermarket. True, the balcony looked north over the pedestrian Rue de France, and not south to the sea, but I wouldn't have seen the sea from a block inland anyway. And also true that the shower opened onto the bedroom, not the miniscule bathroom, but the shower curtain kept the water where it was supposed to be. I'd certainly stay there again.

I did not eat especially well in Nice. Perhaps I wasn't willing to pay enough? Breakfast was OJ and yoghurt, and lunch generally salad or sandwich. I did have one more memorable lunch, oddly for Nice, a galette (savory buckwheat crepe, native to Brittany). I enjoyed the galette enough I went back to the same place a few days later for dinner. Lunch was outside, with caged singing birds. Dinner was inside, with a collection of very old gramophones, and gramophone horns, including a beautiful blue one. Dinner also included a desert crepe, flambeed with Grand Marnier - definitely a good meal!

My first dinner, at the Safari on the very touristy Cours Saleya in the old town, included creme brulee. Instead of arriving with the top already caramelized, it came with a layer of alcohol, which my waiter set on fire. Very dramatic, but the edges tasted burnt. My last dinner, at La Cantine de Lulu in the shopping district, very quiet at night, featured an excellent veal escalope with cream and mushrooms, although the fried zucchini flowers were surprisingly heavy.

My two worst meals both came with interesting conversation. Both times a long-married couple at the next table decided they needed some new conversation and started talking to me (even though I was wearing my iPod earphones). The first couple were well traveled, the second not so much, but both times we talked travel, which I always enjoy.

All in all, I liked Nice more than enough to consider a return visit - I only explored to the east, not the west, this time.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 13th, 2009, 07:37 AM
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Couldn't agree more about Eze. I thought it was a complete waste of time. To make matters worse, we got there after the gardens were closed!

Last April in Nice, it seemed we couldn't find a decent meal under 35 Euro (my wife and I travel on a pretty tight budget). So, we ended up eating lots of salads, paninis, and pizza.

We also had a similar experience in Italy. We couldn't find an open T.I. in San Remo (not even in the train station!) and ended up wandering aimlessly for about two hours. It was frustrating but we managed to find some delicious gelatto.

Enjoyed your TR! Thanks for the post...
thill25 is offline  
May 13th, 2009, 07:47 AM
  #8  
yk
 
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I'm trying to read between the lines here... am I correct to say that your verdict of the sidetrip to Italy was a ?
yk is offline  
May 13th, 2009, 08:01 AM
  #9  
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yk - if I had missed the bus it would for sure have been a thumbs down! As it was, I enjoyed the gardens. I didn't spend long enough in Ventimiglia to render a fair verdict, but if I were planning this day trip again I'd probably try Genoa instead, or one of julia1's suggestions here: http://www.fodors.com/community/euro...e-169190-2.cfm. In other words, I won't return, and I can't recommend V. on the basis of my experience.

Realized I forgot to mention that I also visited Villefranche-sur-Mer, which I've seen suggested as an alternative base to Nice. I thought it was interesting for a couple of hours, but I don't think I'd want to stay there unless it was only one or two nights or I was in an apartment - not enough options for dinner.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 13th, 2009, 09:03 AM
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I'm really enjoying your report, thank you.
Nikki is offline  
May 13th, 2009, 01:53 PM
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What a great report! Can't wait for more...
shormk2 is offline  
May 13th, 2009, 03:09 PM
  #12  
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April 8th - 12th - Grey Grenoble

Nice joined Lisbon, which I visited last fall, in my personal pantheon of “cities that make me smile”. But I had thought six nights there would be plenty, and it was time to move on. When I started planning this trip, my first candidate for a destination to follow Nice was Chamonix, reputed to have stunning mountains and mountain views. A little research, however, established that I would arrive too early in the year for hiking, and I certainly didn't want to ski - I think mountains are for hiking up, not sliding down. Instead I picked Grenoble, which sounded like a place I might want to live - surrounded by mountains, built beside a river, with universities and high-tech industry.

The mountains were as advertised - visible from all over town, some of them snow-capped. The river also existed, but with heavy traffic running along both banks. The castle on the north bank (www.bastille-grenoble.fr ) hardly even looked like a castle to me, having been built in the early 1800s (as protection against an attack from the Duke of Savoy). These days it mostly served to spoil the view on that side of town. A ride on one of the trams established the existence of both the university and some of the high-tech industry, but in uninspiring 1960s-style buildings.

All-in-all, Grenoble disappointed me, and promptly fell off the "might-like-to-live-there" list. A beautiful setting, but the gem was flawed. I should have stayed longer in Nice...

Getting to Grenoble from Nice took most of a day. I had wanted to head north on the mountain railway to Dignes (the one I took part-way to Entrevaux) but the bus I needed to take onward from Dignes left ten minutes before the train arrived! The SNCF route avoided the mountains by heading west to Marseilles before turning north - admittedly the coastal views, easily visible from my upper-deck window seat, were excellent. But north of Marseilles, at Valence, I had to change to a hot and crowded bus for the last hour into Grenoble. The scenery, mountains everywhere, was great, but I was very glad to arrive!

I had quite comfortable quarters, in a Citadines Apart'hotel. While my room seemed dark, it came with broadband Internet, CNN and BBC, and a kitchenette. Laundry dried well, and even the sofa bed turned out to be comfortable, although the second bed, which pulled out from below the first, might not have been! You'd be hard-pressed to do any real cooking in the kitchenette, but I managed salad and bread and cheese for dinner three nights running, along with coffee, juice and yoghurt for breakfast.

I found a shop, La Talemelerie (www.achat-grenoble.com/talemelerie ), that made good bread, with some whole-wheat flour, and since I love cheese, having access to French cheese at reasonable prices made it easy to skip a few restaurant meals. I did eat a couple of good lunches at a busy cafe, Pain & Ce, which offered good tartines (open-face sandwiches) and salads (I have fond memories of a tartine with duck, cheese and fig).

I visited the not-so-scenic castle by taking the cable car across the river and up the hill, but this was a mistake, as the cars were basically glass spheres, and vertigo set in! I made sure to walk back down. I also visited most of the city's museums. I quite enjoyed the one on life in the Dauphinois region, although I noticed a distinct shortage of English in the section on industrial life (fortunately my ability to understand written French is considerably better than my ability to understand spoken French). The impression I got of life in the mountains was pretty grim.

The Musee de la Resistance et de la Deportation de l'Isere had English translations, and although it mostly consisted of photos and papers I found it quite evocative. The Musee de l'Ancien Eveche, with the remains of Roman-era walls and a 4th-century baptistery in the basement, and a reasonably interesting historical collection in the former bishop's palace upstairs, made a happy contrast. The town itself, which hosted the 1968 Winter Olympics, had some pretty parks, but I found the buildings mostly grey and uninteresting even in sunshine.

Although I hadn't actually been bored in Grenoble, I was ready to move on.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 13th, 2009, 03:36 PM
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Absolutely delightful report.

I agree about Ventimiglia, and San Remo's not much better. There is very good food to be had along the coast, though.
StCirq is offline  
May 13th, 2009, 03:48 PM
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Thanks StCirq - praise from such a good writer is very welcome!

Food wasn't a centerpiece of this trip, and probably if I'd been willing to spend somewhat more I'd have eaten much better. If I go back to Nice I think I'll try harder to find an apartment, and then add an occasional restaurant splurge to the bread and cheese.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 14th, 2009, 02:50 PM
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April 12th - 16th - Delightful Dijon

I traveled from grey Grenoble to grey Dijon, but what a difference! True, the sun showed up on day three, but I was loving Dijon before that. Although the buildings tended to grey and cream, with grey roofs, they were from many different periods, from half-timbered through baroque to neo-classical, with plenty of decoration.

I left Grenoble for Dijon on Easter Sunday, which meant that there were fewer trams than usual in Grenoble, and that the free bus that runs rounds the center of Dijon wasn't operating at all. I had bought a first class ticket for the train to Dijon, for probably the first time ever, but it was only a few euros more. I shared an old-style six-seat compartment with an elderly French woman going to spend the
afternoon with her son in Lyon. Even though she only spoke French, I was able to learn that she had done a lot of traveling, including a trip to Uzbekistan, which is very high on my wish list.

In Dijon I trekked into town to my hotel, as the otherwise helpful T.I. lady near the station told me there was no bus. I subsequently discovered a perfectly good bus, which would have gotten me very close to my hotel, the Jacquemart, a tolerable two-star in the very center of town. I enjoyed the good-sized bathroom and the free wi-fi, but found the lack of view and limited daylight depressing.

While I knew that I wanted to stay somewhere in Burgundy on this trip (food! wine!), I had been undecided whether to pick Dijon or Beaune. The consensus here had been in favor of Dijon, and I'm glad I followed the advice. Dijon was almost completely shut down for Easter Sunday and Monday, but at least its museums were open, and I found many, many interesting buildings to photograph. I actually cut short my day trip to Beaune, as I ran out of things to do, and the town itself proved much less interesting than I expected.

While I didn't particularly enjoy the art in the Musee des Beaux-Arts, I had a good time in the Musee de la Vie Bourguignonne, especially on the first (second) floor, which featured reconstructed shops. I also spent an afternoon following the "owl walk", that connects the major sights. Dijon has adopted the owl as its symbol, as there is a little statue of an owl (at least, I imagine it once looked like an owl), on the side of the Notre Dame church that is rubbed for good luck. The T.I. sells a pamphlet for the owl walk, and there are little triangles with owls set into the pavement along the route.

Tuesday I went to Beaune, with two objectives: visit the much-photographed Hotel-Dieu, and indulge in a tasting session at the Marche aux Vins. Both activities were big successes.

All the photographs show the tiled roof of the Hotel-Dieu, with its colorful patterns, but I found the interior even more interesting. Built in 1443 as a hospital, it seems little changed, and the founders, Nicholas Rolin, Chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy, and his wife, provided more than beds and food and care, paying for great art and elaborate decoration. I particularly liked the fantastic animal heads either eating or supporting the roof beams. The most famous painting is a polyptych of the Last Judgement by a Flemish artist, now housed in its own room in dim light. It is an impressive work, but I would have thought the visit worthwhile just for the building.

I lunched on the plat du jour at a small place in the middle of town (http://www.restaurant-lebistrotbourg...ndex2-eng.htm# )- good sauce, OK meat, overcooked veggies - but would have enjoyed it more without the guy with the videocam. Not content with photographing his own food and companions, he seemed to want to photograph everyone else in the place, and I do not like having my picture taken! Especially when I'm trying to have a peaceful meal.

After lunch I walked over to the Marche aux Vins, where 10 euros bought me a tastevin and the right to taste 15 Burgundy wines - three white, the rest red. A tastevin is a small, shallow silver dish, and I found it hard to judge color, even when holding the dish up to a candle. Yes, a candle - the tasting is in the former Cordeliers church, but it's dark. Of the three whites I liked the Marsannay, not a name I recognized, but could have passed on the pricier Pouilly-Fuisse and Meursault. However, I really liked the most expensive red, a Corton Grand Cru (42.60 euro), and the Volnay (33.00), but wasn't overwhelmed by the Nuits-Saint-George Premier Cru (40.70). I though the prices quite reasonable, but had no intention of buying and having to lug bottles around. And since I had two cases of wine already cluttering up the kitchen floor, I didn't need to send any home!

Since I was careful to actually drink only a little, I was able to walk the ramparts round the town center after I left the Marche. Where they weren't private, that is. The center of town was crowded, with several groups in evidence, but the ramparts were almost empty (aside from a lot of parked cars).

Besides the wine tasting in Beaune, I had hoped to arrange a tour of the vineyards through the T.I., as the tour companies didn't book singles. This turned out to be a problem with the T.I. too, and then the tour I had first hoped to join was canceled. I finally wound up with two guides and a minivan to myself. I suspect this was only possible because one of the guides was in training. I was glad that it worked out, as I thoroughly enjoyed the tour - it was, for instance, very obvious how the composition of the soil changed over just a short distance. Of course, so early in the year, the vines were just sticks, but I saw the strange, top-heavy vehicles used to drive along the rows without touching the vines, and one Percheron horse pulling a plough.

The land here is broken up into many, many small plots, with each owner trying something a little different in the way of pruning and fertilizing. Some are even going organic. Away from the main road we drove through charming little villages and past some chateaux before reaching Nuits St. George and a couple of tastings. Here I found some of the reds too tannic, but I suspect they were just too young.

I spent that afternoon on a tour of Dijon arranged by the T.I., advertised as an opportunity to taste some of Dijon's specialties. Unfortunately, it seemed to be more an opportunity to buy them, as we spent way too much time crowded into small shops while tour members bought mustard and gingerbread (pain d'epices). I waited outside, trying to adjust to the information that Dijon's mustard seeds now come from Canada.

So, the wine in Burgundy worked out quite well, what about the food? Unfortunately, many places were shut Easter Sunday and Monday, although the dinner I ate in a touristy place near the carousel (Au Moulin a Vent), boeuf bourguignon and white cheese with cream, was really quite good. The next night I tried snails for the first time, but I found them singularly uninteresting. My best meal was at Le Bistrot des Halles, by the impressive iron and glass market hall. The cappuccino de potimarron et fumette du creme de noix was delicious, and fun - served in an oversize wineglass and decorated with crisp-fried strips of prosciutto. The main course was biche (which turned out to be female deer) in a deep, rich sauce perfectly balanced by a puree of apples and red fruit.
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May 14th, 2009, 02:51 PM
  #16  
yk
 
Join Date: Jan 2004
Posts: 24,274
Hi thursdaysd, I am interested in a few housekeeping questions, if you don't mind...

1) How did you decide on the cities you went on this trip; what was the reason behind choosing them?

2) Any particular reason why you picked April?

3) I take that you speak/read French. Do you think it'll be difficult for non-French speakers to replicate your trip?

4) How long in advance did you book your lodgings, and did you book your train tickets in advance (or did you have a railpass)?
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May 14th, 2009, 04:07 PM
  #17  
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yk - you may be sorry you asked, this could get long!

I didn't do a lot of forward planning for this trip. BA kept sending me emails about great rates to fly to London, and I finally succumbed. (Although it turned out to be cheaper to fly AA from RDU instead of going to Washington to catch the BA flight.) Leaving at the end of March/beginning of April was a matter of getting the good rates. However, I knew I didn't want to be in London at the beginning of April.

I needed somewhere further south, but I'm not that fond of Spain, and I had recently visited Portugal, Italy and Greece, so it seemed time to go back to France. I picked Nice because the guide books said it had reliably good weather, and decided to work my way up the eastern side of France to Paris.

Grenoble was a place I thought I might like to live, then Burgundy and Alsace were both wine and food areas. I picked Dijon over Beaune and Strasbourg over Colmar based on discussions here, and because they had more to do if the weather was bad. Then I read that Nancy was the home of French Art Nouveau, and I certainly couldn't resist that! Paris was a given - I had been there in November in very cold weather, and was hoping I could go back and do the outdoors things I had had to pass up then.

I supposedly learnt French a long time ago in school, but I was never very good. I can read it fairly well, and I seem to speak it better than I think I can, but when I get a flood of French in response I'm lost! But I think a non-French speaker could replicate my trip quite easily. You might want to take a menu translator, and it always helps to greet people in French.

I booked my plane tickets and Eurostar right at the end of January, and had everything else booked by the end of the first week in February. I booked my train tickets in advance on voyages-sncf.com - you get better rates if you book early.
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May 15th, 2009, 08:23 AM
  #18  
yk
 
Join Date: Jan 2004
Posts: 24,274
thursdaysd - thank you for taking the time to reply. I am always curious as to how people choose their destinations (and I don't mean the Paris/London/Italy Big 3). Those fare sale emails are dangerous! I get at least several a week from AA, and honestly, I just delete them without opening them these days.

As a side note, if you travel to Europe at least 2x a year, you should be able to get at least Gold status with AA if you fly AA exclusively, plus a couple AA domestic flights.
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May 15th, 2009, 01:38 PM
  #19  
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April 16th – 29th – Strasbourg: A Stunning Cathedral

I left Dijon on a grey, rainy day, although I never actually got rained on myself. The TGV from Dijon to Besancon zipped along too fast for me to really appreciate the scenery. I had only five minutes for the change at Besancon, but that was plenty of time – walk into the main hall from platform 1, turn round, read the departure board, and head down the stairs on the right to reach the correct platform. The regular express to Strasbourg allowed me a better look at the countryside and for much of the way the railway ran beside a river and canal. I noticed, as I had on the ride to Dijon, a lot of mistletoe in the trees – hadn’t this been Druid territory?

Strasbourg revamped its train station in honor of the TGV, and in addition to a long, curved glass frontage, escalators take you down into the depths to catch the trams into the center. Unfortunately, Lonely Planet’s map showed a non-existent street (it would have gone right through the cathedral!) and I had a little difficulty finding my hotel.

I stayed at the Hotel Suisse (www.hotel-suisse.com ), mostly because it advertised that all the rooms had a view of the cathedral. I certainly had a view of the backside of the tower and spire, but I’m not entirely sure that it made up for the size of the room. Or, more precisely, for the amount of floor space. The room could have been a reasonable size for a single, but a very big bed took up most of it. Still, the location was good, the staff were friendly, and the breakfast buffet included three kinds of cheese.

My partial view of the cathedral, although lovely, really didn’t prepare me for the effect of the whole building. When I walked into the Place de la Cathedral and saw the glorious western front rising higher, and higher, above me, all pink sandstone and detailed carving, it took my breath away. In fact, I actually sat down for a galette and coffee right there on the square, just so I could sit and admire it. And then I went over to the T.I. and bought a souvenir book, something I hardly ever do.

I had considered staying in Colmar instead of Strasbourg, and Colmar did make a good day trip, but as soon as I saw the cathedral I knew I had made the right choice. I had a nice time walking round it on the outside, and then following the tour from my new book through the inside, where I admired the soaring nave, and the elaborate organ case, and the stained glass. Not to mention the beautiful pillar of the angels and the pulpit. And then I had a great time at the Musee de l’Oeuvre de Notre Dame, where I had an up-close look at some of the original statues from the cathedral, which had been replaced by copies.

I saw quite a bit of Strasbourg’s museums, as the weather wasn’t too good. One reason for my picking Strasbourg over Colmar, as with Dijon over Beaune, had been the greater number of things to do if it rained. I even took a look at the Musee d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, where I admired the building, and enjoyed a special exhibition on color, although not, as usual, the permanent collection.

I spent a longer, happier, time at the Musee Alsacien, the folk museum, and at the excellent historical museum, where I learned quite a lot about Strasbourg’s illustrious past as an independent city. The Decorative Arts museum, in the former bishop’s palace, was a series of rooms decorated in period style, and the Archaeological and Beaux Arts Museums in the same building would not have held my interest on a fine day.

Fortunately, I was granted enough sunshine to fully enjoy the Petite France area, which, despite its name, looked rather Germanic to me. The half-timbered houses, upper stories projecting over the lower, looked like they should surround the cathedral, which was mostly built during 13th and 14th centuries, but Petite France was actually a short walk away, among a series of canals. The whole area looked like the illustration to a fairy story, and had plenty of cafes and restaurants catering to the inevitable crowds.

Colmar, too, a short train ride south of Strasbourg, had more than its fair share of photogenic half-timbered buildings. It was the kind of place that makes me glad I have a digital camera, as I would run out of film otherwise. I did get off the streets long enough to visit the Musee d’Unterlinden, home to the much-praised Issenheim Altarpiece (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isenheim_Altarpiece ). Created around 1500, it’s a remarkable depiction of religious scenes that looked to me like they were designed to frighten you into faith. Definitely a masterpiece. Definitely not a pretty picture.

The Alsace region, of course, is famous not just for having been tossed back and forth between France and Germany, but also for wine. However, I had just indulged in wine tasting and vineyard visits in Burgundy, and Alsace also offers foie gras. I’m probably going to upset any vegetarians reading, but I am very fond of foie gras. And since it wasn’t ruinously expensive in Alsace, I indulged myself at several meals.

One of the best meals was the first, at Strissel (www.strissel.fr/FR/accueil.php ), in an historic building near the river. While the main course wasn’t special, the half portion of “Foie gras d'oie ‘maison’ gelée au Gewurztraminer et toasts” was delicious, as was the white wine the waiter recommended as an accompaniment. I should probably have gone back, instead of trying other places, as I found Chez Yvonne unfriendly, and Gruber Journale rushed and noisy. Lunch in Colmar, however, at the Palais des Ange, starring salad with foie gras, would also have tempted me to return if I’d been staying in town.
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May 16th, 2009, 07:13 AM
  #20  
yk
 
Join Date: Jan 2004
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Hi thursdaysd, still enjoying your report immensely. I just realized I had missed you Dijon section (I had just posted right afterwards). Thank goodness I scrolled back and found it. You description of all these places make me want to go buy a plane ticket and head over there right away!

The altarpiece at Hotel Dieu in Beaune is by Rogier van der Weyden, and I'd love to go there to see it at some point. (I like Netherlandish/Flemish paintings.) There is also a famous painting of Chancellor Rolin with the Madonna, painted by Jan van Eyck, at the Louvre. Perhaps you had seen it when you were in Paris.
http://tinyurl.com/oxr8kp

I hope you'll be posting links to your photos from this trip?
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