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Trip Report Our lovely French sojourn - a trip report

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This is a trip-report of our recent sojourn through the beautiful French countryside of central and southern France. We are a family with our two children, aged 8 and 12 years and I had planned this trip after exhaustive research on the Net and had chosen scenic places and hotels with character, which would appeal to us parents and our kids. We were not disappointed at all and our 9 day trip via train and car turned out to be all that we had imagined France to be! Might be a bit pls excuse me for the length!

We started off from Paris towards the volcanic region of Auvergne in central France. A 3 hour train-journey later we reached the chief city of Clermont Ferrand. After picking up our rented car at the train-station, we proceeded towards the medieval village of Saint Saturnin about 30 mins away. Though the pictures on the hotel website had prepared us somewhat about what to expect, but eventually on reaching the place and seeing the imposing chateau gates opening on their own and the driveway leading upto a magnificent edifice…..made us gape in astonishment and feel that we were headed towards Harry Potter’s Hogwart’s castle! Our host, Monsieur Penicaud had made excellent arrangements for our stay and we were given the Duchess suite which comprised of a drawing room, spacious bedroom, a small children's room on the tower -all beautifully decorated with period furniture. Though the rooms were old-style in appearance, we were absolutely thrilled to see free Wi-Fi in all the rooms, and latest electronic panels provided in the bathtub! There's an impressive garden and grounds for playing football and traditional games like croquet and ninepins.

In the evening we walked around the village with its medieval-style stone houses and tiny alleys. It so quiet around us that the only inhabitants seemed to be pet cats, each guarding his own territory! Cats seemed to be the favourites of the villagers and even our hosts had a pet cat named Tarzan whom my daughter soon befriended and stroked him all the time to form a delightful friendship! Our hostess, Madame Penicaud used to make excellent breakfast for us everyday which included fresh croissants, Auvergne's specialty cheeses- St Nectaire, Cantal and Bleu Cheese and delicious juices and jams. The couple's personal attention to our comforts and especially going out of their way to help us with suggestions on sightseeing options, restaurants etc made our trip all the more perfect!

The second day we drove to Vulcania Amusement Park –a novel volcano-based theme park which attempts to educate young minds about geology, the environment and about natural phenomenon like volcanoes, earthquakes etc. There were several 3-D/4-D shows featuring super-volcanoes erupting, expeditions to the centre of the earth, hissing dragons and journeys back in time to see how the Auvergne giants would have erupted when the land was alive with prehistoric creatures. The surroundings are very pleasant and we could spot several families just spend the whole day visiting the attractions, lazing about in the lawns and having picnic lunches.

We finished touring the park by afternoon and then proceeded towards the Puy De Dome volcano, just 10 mins away. To reach the summit one must walk…..and it’s a good 1 to 1.5 hrs climb over easy roads. We could see several elderly people sportingly doing the climb and were impressed with their stamina and attitude…..while younger people like us were huffing and puffing our way up! The views from the top are wonderful and we could see the pretty Auvergne countryside dotted with over 80 volcanic mountains and the busy town of Clermont Ferrand in the distance. One can see the remains of a Roman Temple called the 'Temple of Mercury' at the top and as we headed towards this spot, we saw colourful specs of yellow, red and orange dotting the blue skies...paragliders zooming over the mountainside to paint a pretty picture!

That evening we drove upto a nearby village named Ollieux and dined at an unpretentious little restaurant Maison De Monet. We were impressed with the variety of dishes available and the beautiful meal presentations and hearty flavours! Who needs a Michelin Starred restaurant we thought; as these simple country-inns left nothing more to be desired for!

On our last day in St Saturnin we headed out to Puy Sancy, the highest mountain in the Massif Central department with a height of 1886m. Monsieur Penicaud most helpfully gave us his own map and drew up a scenic route for us to reach the foothills of the mountain. Indeed true to his description, all along the route we were charmed by the green pastures, scenic lakes Aydat and the even prettier Lake Chambon, the impressive Chateau Murol and every twist and turn afforded delightful views of snow-capped mountains! We took the cable-car upto Puy Sancy (and I was secretly glad that there was no more huffing and puffing out here) and there was a surprise awaiting us as our children spotted a mound of snow on the top and dashed off to make snowmen and have a snowball fight! The snow and the sunshine provided a striking contrast and we were really lucky to get such blue skies and pleasant weather even in April.

That evening we took a tour around the castle, and Monsieur Penicaud took us around the several halls, bedrooms and chambers frequented by the Lords of the castle, regaling us with stories from the bygone era. Our hosts had painstakingly restored the rooms and bought tapestries, paintings and period furniture to match with the style of that era. One set of paintings caught our eye – the unusual fruit-and-vegetable portraits by renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Each of these series of 4 paintings titled summer, winter, autumn, spring depicted the fruits and trees of the season, amazingly blended-in to form portraits! The turrets of the castle afforded scenic views of the quaint village of St Saturnin and we heard more stories of how the soldiers would be camped in tiny rooms adjacent to the turrets and fire away arrows through narrow openings in the ramparts.

Our 4th day in France and we bid adieu to Tarzan (who sadly missed the friend who would pet him!) and Chateau Saturnin and took a train to picturesque Annecy located in the Haute Savoy region of western France. Annecy is located on the northern tip of Lake Annecy and is a charming town with pretty gardens, lakefront promenade and walking paths. Our 3 day stay at Palace De Menthon in the village of Menthon St Barnard was everything we could have wished for - stunning location, very comfortable rooms with great lakeside view, pretty gardens and quiet neighborhood.

The next day we drove to Chamonix-Mont Blanc, clicking pictures all along the freeway, as we spotted Mt Blanc and the other mountains of the French Alps. We took a funicular train upto Aguile De Midi mountain, which we had heard had an ice-grotto cave and access to the glacier. Unfortunately the ice-cave was being renovated, so we had to make-do with just a distant view of the glacier below. The rest of the day we spent walking around Chamonix village and shopping for souvenirs in the colourful shops dotting the lanes.

The evening took us to Annecy town and we decided to take a boat-ride on the lovely blue waters. A young boatman drove us around in his motorboat and then sportingly allowed each of us to take turns at the wheel. A bright evening sun, azure lake in the background and colourful tulips in the paths next to the lake afforded brilliant pictures and my daughter happily obliged to pose for them. We discovered a very good restaurant at the neighbouring village of Veyrier Du Lac called Hotel Les Acacias which served delicious meals with truly beautiful presentation of the dishes. The icing on the cake was a desert called Café Gourmet which was a tray lined with tiny cup of bitter espresso, home-made pastry, a dollop of icecream, cookies and nougat chocolate…all a part of a single desert! That day onwards we would order ‘Café gourmet’ at every restaurant we would go to and realized that each restaurant had its own unique improvisation of this desert!

We drove to Geneva the next day, a mere 40 mins away. The iconic fountain Jet De Eau greeted us at the lakefront and we spent several delightful hours on the lakeside promenade, took a toy-train ride around the lakeside and finally stopped at the Plage or small beach where our kids frolicked in the sand and played in the play-area.
That afternoon we had an experience of a lifetime - paragliding at Doussard! These are tandem gliders and children are given hang-gliders while adults are given paragliders. Each person is accompanied by an expert guide who carries the equipment to the top of a mountain and after tying the harness and giving preliminary instructions, they basically run and jump off the mountain edge. The wind was very good that day and the next 30 mins were an exhilarating experience of first soaring several feet higher and then descending smoothly over Grande Lake and Petit Lake in the southern part of Lake Annecy. There are cameras fitted to the hang-glider and the panoramic views from the camera are simply outstanding! Especially delightful was to see the wonder and excitement on my children’s faces as they bravely tackled the sheer drop and the flight …enjoying every minute of it!

The 6th day of our trip and we headed towards the French Riviera and Nice. This was the longest train journey we had and the 7 hours with a stopover in Lyon seemed unending. Still I tried my best to occupy the kids with ‘Eye-Spy’ and other mind games and reached Nice station around 3pm. We rented a car and headed towards Cagnes sur Mer on the top of a mountain where our hotel Marc Hely was located. This was a basic B n B in comparison to the other grander hotels that we had stayed in…but nevertheless it had very spacious rooms with a good view overlooking the valley, a small swimming pool and a helpful hostess.

The next day we headed towards Marineland in Antibes – a place which I had planned for my kids long time back. As soon as we entered the park, cute sea-lions and otters greeted us and entertained us with their mannerisms, yawns and photogenic poses! We then ran from one show to another where otters, dolphins and whales displayed amazing feats of acrobatics and synchronized swimming. So well-trained were they that they even participated in humorous antics and comic gestures that generated a lot of laughs and applauds. The later part of the afternoon was spent in one of the nearby beaches..but sad to say the beach experience wasn’t at all what we had hoped for…as they were too small and teeming with sun-tanners with hardly any place for us to sit.

Anyways our children were happy to jump into the sea and after an hour of splashing about, we called it a day and went off to explore the artistic village of St Paul Vence.
This fortress-village of St Paul is still preserved as a medieval village with not a single modern structure in sight. It is a pedestrian zone with cobbled-stone paths and maze-like alleys and one has to climb uphill amidst stone houses lined with numerous boutiques selling paintings, glassware, clothes and sculptures. We walked all around the fortress walls catching sights of Côte d'Azur, views of Porte De Nice in the distance, the chapel, cathedral, fountain, towers and several statues and interesting sculptures suspended over our heads. Earlier during my research about the place, I had read of zillions of tourists crowding the place during summers but luckily for us it was pretty empty and provided a perfect romantic atmosphere.

Our final day in France and we drove to the tiny principality of Monaco, the second smallest country in the world after Vatican. The town was gearing up for the famous Monte Carlo Grand Prix to be held later during the month and all the roads were lined with welcome banners, tires stacked on both sides, viewer’s stands and handsome policemen guiding traffic and telling them about the newly setup one-way roads, in preparation for the big event. We took a city-tour on the cute toy-train which took us through the Monaco Palace, St Nicholas cathedral where Grace Kelly had married the reigning monarch Prince Rainer , the famous Monte Carlo casino (shown repeatedly in Bonds movies like Casino Royale, Never Say Never again and Golden Eye), the garden Jardin Exotique and the snazzy harbor with its luxury liners and super looking yatchs.

We later went to visit the hilltop village of Eze, which was rumoured to have one of the best views of the Mediterranean from its vantage position. The village boasts of luxury resorts with medieval-style facades and steep prices. The village was very similar to St Paul Vence with its alleys crammed with quaint boutiques, art shops and galleries, but sadly somehow the views of the Mediterranean didn’t seems as fantastic as the brochures made them out to be. Maybe because we had already visited a similar place in St Paul Vence and maybe because we had seen the Mediterranean more up close at Monaco and Antibes… this place somehow missed working its charm on us. We soon made our way back to St Paul Vence and after sauntering through the art-shops, buying a few more paintings and knic-knacs called it a day. We had a lovely dinner in the wonderfully situated restaurant Le Tilleuil and caught a beautiful sunset.

The next day we bid our final adieus to France and promises were made to learn a bit more of French and revisit this beautiful country again, which had preserved its medieval heritage so well and had left its countryside beauty unspoiled.

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