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Trip Report Paris, Sarlat, St-Remy (and overnight in Carcassone) - we loved it all!

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We just came back from our first trip to France. So many people on this forum helped me plan it...I hope some of the information below might help someone else just starting to plan their trip, especially if they haven't yet been to France. I tried to include some information on logistics etc. that I was looking for when I was researching our tripl

Timing: Lawyer husband was working on a case, so we got a LATE start each morning. That meant where other people might do three to four things in a day, we managed two. We also tend to take our time when visiting somewhere that we're enjoying and never make it to the next place on our list.

Planning: I rather obsessively planned these long lists of things to do in each of the places we visited. I knew that we would do maybe a quarter of the things I had on our list and this sure turned out to be true. We had a big discussion about how many paper printouts to bring. As we both brought Samsung tablets, I decided to print out the most important ones and then saved all of the documents on a small thumb drive. We then forgot to bring the adaptor that would link to the small drive. Duh. Luckily I had also saved the main ones with all my notes in Dropbox. Great, but you can only access with an internet connection.

GPS: We took our own Garmin and also the car had built-in GPS. I also had printed Google directions for the main drives between towns and was so glad I did. I also had paper maps from Michelin. It was great when they all agreed. Sometimes one of the GPS units was off, telling us to drive into a ditch or obvious wrong way. Was great to have the paper maps and also the road signs. We got to laughing every time we heard the phrase "recalculating...."

Electronics: At our small hotel in Paris, electricity is on only when you are in the room with a key inserted in the wall. There were very few outlets. This means you have to make choices about how to charge whatever devices you brought. We used our cellphones as cameras so wanted to keep those charged, as well as our small tablets. We had also brought cheap unlocked phones hoping to use them for texting or calling but never got around to getting SIM cards and probably wouldn’t have been able to keep them charged anyway. We kept in touch with people at home via email.

Driving in France: Used AutoEurope for the rental. Toll roads: you first pick up a ticket and then pay when you exit. Took lots of coins for toll roads. True that our US cards don't work at gas stations; make sure someone is there. Didn't try cards on toll roads. Someone told us that some of the toll booths took paper bills, but we didn't try this.

Language: Neither of us spoke any French before this trip, so we took a class and listened to language CDs. This gave us just the bare minimum to get by…I was able to order in restaurants, give simple greetings, ask simple directions, etc. Except for those that spoke English, we found France to be a pretty monolingual country. I speak German and husband speaks Spanish and we have used these languages often in other European countries as alternatives to English where needed, even if not the official language of that country. This is probably not the case if you go areas of France that border on Spain or Germany.

PARIS (5 nights):

Sunday: We took a taxi to our hotel (Hotel St Louis en l'Isle); about 60 euro. This small hotel was a perfect choice for us. Slightly under 200 euro and great location on the smaller of the two islands in the Seine. After checking in about 11:00 we set out and walked around the two islands in our very jet-lagged state. Saw Notre Dame from the outside but too long a line to get in. Took a boat ride from Pont Neuf for about an hour. Fantastic views and great way to get acquainted with the sights. Seeing Notre Dame from the Seine was fantastic. We then walked through the Latin Quarter for a while, finally ending up in Luxembourg Gardens. Chess players, children chasing their small rented sailboats with poles, Medici Fountain. Dinner at a small cafe facing one of the exit gates. Had to tell my husband how to say “Je sui desolee” as we were on the balcony of the café and he accidentally dropped a glass that almost hit the guy below on the head! Ice cream at Berthillon , which was so conveniently located right by our hotel…this became a nightly routine.

Monday: Visited the Memorial de Shoah in the Marais. Very sobering, but incredibly well done. Photos of many of the people who were affected by the Vichy regime; hard to believe what humans are capable of doing to others. France seems to be coming to grips with this even now. We walked around the lower part of the Marais, stopping for lunch and pastries at Au Petite Versailles de Marais (worth finding), walking over to Place des Vogues (Victor Hugo house unfortunately closed on Mondays) for a short nap. We then decided to walk up to Pere Lachaise cemetery, which was one of my dreams. Spent hours walking around this incredible place. Tombs and memorials packed together, small lanes under leafy trees. We found Heloise and Abelard's tomb, along with Chopin’s. His grave was piled with bouquets as it was an anniversary of some sort. Finally found Jim Morrison's...not a big deal if you can't locate it. We closed up the place...very sweet way of closing with staff ringing hand bells.

Tuesday: We strategized about what two days to use the two day museum pass we wanted to get. You need to use it in subsequent days. As the next two days were supposed to be rainy and both the Orsay and Louvre were open we decided to use it today and tomorrow. This morning we went to Sainte- Chapelle. We bought the pass there and used it for entrance. I had also found out via a Fodor suggested website that there was a concert tonight....Vivaldi Four Seasons. In our morning visit we were awestruck by the gorgeous stained glass radiating jewel-like colors in the morning sun, in spite of the fact that there was some renovation of some of the windows going on and the Rose Window could not be seen. How incredible to return in the evening to hear glorious music!! Am listening to the CD we bought as I’m writing this report.
After seeing Sainte- Chapelle we walked over to the Orsay. The line to get in even with the pass was super long but we waited for about 45 minutes. We had wanted to see some Van Gogh paintings and noticed that there was a special exhibition (I forget the name; a writer and Van Gogh with theme "suiciding by society" ). Stupid me...I assumed the exhibition would have prints of his work so we should head to the regular collection for the originals. We did see some Van Goghs and many other wonderful works, but on the way out realized that most of the permanent Van Goghs were in the special exhibit. We were in a little bit of a time crunch due to the Vivaldi concert so had a decent dinner at Orsay first.
After the concert we headed to the Latin District again for some fondue. Another beautiful late night walk home by the Seine. Everything...bridges and buildings...lit up and lovely. This was my favorite part of our Paris evenings.

Wednesday: Today we had just one thing we wanted to concentrate on...the Louvre. I had read about going in by the Carousel entrance so we headed to Rue Rivoli. The entrance was easy to find but it did seem bizarre to head downstairs to the Louvre through a series of shops. Don’t get stuck in the long line headed Museum Pass (the first line you see). This line is to buy the pass. Also - if you want an audio guide you FIRST need to buy a ticket for it. You then use the ticket to pick up the guide. We didn’t realize this, but didn’t want to wait in a long line for the audio guide line so did without. We managed fine without it. We spent NINE hours at the Louvre, closing it up at 9:30 as Wednesday is a late night. Sometimes it was a little confusing as to what was where, but we managed to see most of what we had hoped to. The Winged Victory statue was under renovation, so did miss that gorgeous piece. Walked back via St Germain and into the Latin Quarter again…very lively late in the evening.

Thursday: Montmartre area today. This was our only Metro trip (we got off around Anvers stop). I had printed out a walk from Frommer’s that took us up and around via Rue des Martyrs so that we approached Sacre Coeur from the top and missed the trek up via the stairs. It was drenching rain today as well as super windy, so we were happy to get in to see the church. I would have liked to see it from the front, but at least this way we skipped fending off the "bracelet people” that grab your wrist and tie a bracelet on before you can pull away. Sacre Coeur was impressive even though much more recently built than I had realized. We also visited the crypt underneath. It was interesting but not something I would recommend as a “must do.”
We found the last vineyard in Paris, as well as the small cabaret Au Lapin Agile (that the many artists would frequent). We also wandered around Saint Vincent cemetery (I do have a thing for old cemeteries!).
Have to admit that I was a little disappointed in the Montmartre area. It could have been partly because of the drenching rain and wind blowing it in your face (haa) so that we didn’t wander as much as we wanted to. Montremarte was PACKED with tourists in the narrow streets, making it difficult to winnow your way through them all, which I found very off-putting. We had dinner and then found a bus to the Louvre.
We spent the evening walking around the Tuileries Garden (wonderful) and ended up at Place de la Concorde. Walked a short way through one of the allees bordering the Champs Elysees, with the Arc de Triomphe in view. We could also see the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Walked between the Grande and Petite Palais(s) and over Pont Alexandre, which is one of the most spectacular of the Paris bridges. Gorgeous gilt-enhanced scuptures on the bridge. Noticed that the Petite Palais had a great exhibit of the Swedish painter Larsson (sp?) which I would have loved to have seen. So many things that we didn’t have time for. One last walk home along the Seine…such a great experience.

SARLAT and the Dordogne (5 nights):

Friday: I had pre-purchased train tickets to Brive, leaving Gare Austerlitz. We took a taxi from the hotel and for a short while were stuck behind a construction vehicle blocking the entire little street…make sure you account for stuff like that in Paris. We had second class seats, assigned, and sat across from a very nice older man who gave us lots of advice after seeing us looking at our map.
The AutoEurope office was easy to find, and the drive to Sarlat was easy. As our inn La Lanterne was in the medieval city, we parked the car up a slight hill (avoiding the pay parking along the street closer to the inn). We were SO happy to have selected this inn. The location was perfect for walking into the old city and we loved the English couple who ran it. We spent our evening in Sarlat walking around after dinner just in awe of the beautifully preserved medieval village.

Saturday: Missed market day in Sarlat as one of my “must do” experiences in this area was to canoe the Dordogne River and the weather looked good today. Our innkeepers gave us directions to Canoe Vacanses, which was a great company to use. We decided on a canoe rather than a sit-on-top kayak. We put in around La Roque-Gageac and met the van around Les Milandes. This was a two-hour paddle, and in retrospect wish I had set up the longer one. Easy paddling along the gorgeous peaceful river, your eyes feasting on the small village of La Roque set along the river and the castles of Beynac and Castelnaud looming from the hills. This trip is just indescribably beautiful and peaceful. One of the highlights of our entire trip for me; every bit as wonderful as I had hoped!
We then spent several hours walking around the picturesque riverside village of La Roque Gageac. Besides Sarlat, this was my favorite small town we visited. It’s bordered by the Dordogne River at the base and the cliffs at the top of the town. There are various small ways to wander above and I think we walked every one. Many of the houses at the top of the village are actually built into the cliffs; just incredible. You can also see several structures built high into the sides of the cliffs (hard to believe and we wondered how on earth people did this so long ago).
Back to the inn and another dinner/wander around Sarlat. We had dinner in Sarlat every night of our stay as it was so peaceful walking to dinner from the inn and wandering the streets in the evening after all the many tourists left.

Sunday: Drove to Domme, wandering around this beautiful bastide town and enjoying the spectacular views of the valley. We especially liked walking through the Jardin Public and along the small path that borders the village.
I had copied a hike from the book “Walking in the Dordogne” by Janette Norton. Great book, but I need to give her an update on the Domme walk. We found the start of the walk, using the yellow hiker’s slashes indicating the way. However, when we got to the 5th point where you needed to “walk down a narrow path winding down the hill” it was so overgrown that it was impassable and actually marked with a yellow X rather than a slash. Back up to Domme.
We then decided to go to Marqueyssac Gardens, as there was a cliff-side walk we could take to replace the Domme hike. We spent the rest of the afternoon here, as usual closing it up. There are three walks to take…sort of easy, medium and hard. We went the harder way, which walked along the ridge and to the highest points of the area. This was more like walking through beautiful woods rather than a traditional garden (although there is incredible boxwood topiary at the bottom). Incredible views.

Monday: Drove to Montingac to get tickets to Lasceaux II for the cave paintings. The Tourist Information office was easy to find. There was an English tour in the afternoon, so we spent a few hours walking around the town of Montingac. It’s set along the Vezere River. We crossed the bridge and wandered around the upper town. Several people downplayed this town, but we really enjoyed it. The river is beautiful and we walked up to the old chateau on the side of the hill. Very atmospheric walk around the (now closed) chateau. We walked a path next to the old chateau gardens…very cool. Several interesting old houses and you end up in the Montingac cemetery…awesome for me. Very interesting comparing traditions in how different cultures honor their dead. In Jewish cemeteries it’s traditional to leave a pebble or stone on the grave to mark your visit. In most of the cemeteries we saw in France there were garlands of ceramic flowers left on the tops of the horizontal tombs, as well as ceramic plaques with greetings written on them.
On the way back along the path, we met a French hiker who was doing one of the pilgrim way hikes…he wanted to take our picture, saying we were the first people he had seen on his hike. We exchanged pics with Jean-Yves and chatted in our limited French. After Lasceaux, we headed to Le Thot, which had videos recreating some of the ways it was thought that the paintings were done. We were lukewarm about this visit and wished we had done it before rather than after seeing the cave.
We then visited Chateau Losse, which was close by. We loved visiting this small castle/chateau. Beautifully preserved both inside and the gardens outside. Sits along the Vezere River and has beautiful views.

Tuesday: Beynac castle and village. This is a VERY steep town, as the castle is set on a hilltop glaring at Castelnaud castle on the opposing hill across the river. The Dordogne divided the English and French territories during the period of the Hundred Years’ War, and the communities switched from English to French many times depending on which side dominated. Beynac castle is well preserved, and well worth a visit. We followed our innkeeper’s advice to park at the top of the town by the castle, but we decided to walk down the very steep winding path through the village to the river. There is a way to hike from Beynac to Castelnaud per Rick Steves, but we couldn’t immediately find it and it was threatening rain so we decided to have lunch by the river and drive to Chateau des Milandes instead.
Chateau des Milandes was the home of Josephine Baker, a black chanteuse who was a great success in Paris in the 30’s. She became a French citizen due to the racism in the States, adopted a number of children of different races and then was active in the French resistance. Des Milandes is a beautiful castle, but also very interesting as it had numerous costumes and displays regarding Josephine Baker’s life.
There was also an amazing falconry show at the castle, which should not be missed. Two falconers showed a number of owls, falcons, other raptors and even an American eagle….swooping and landing at various points where you could see them well. All of the birds were in excellent health and you could visit them after the show, although we felt a little sorry for the eagle. A 16 year old female who has probably known no other life, so I hope she doesn’t miss life in the wild.
Last dinner in Sarlat; we were very sad about this. It’s amazing how many English speaking people have homes and often inns in the Dordogne area. One of them jokingly called it “Dordogneshire.”

Wednesday: Drove to Carcassone for a one night stay. We decided to stay off the toll roads at first, and enjoyed some nice countryside until we got into a slog of slow traffic and rather industrial areas…in retrospect should have taken faster toll roads as it took way too long to get to Carcassone.
We stayed inside the walled town of Carcassone at the Hotel Donjon (the cheaper of the two interior hotels). You need to find the free parking lot right outside the walls, where a woman gave us a parking permit and called the hotel porter to take our bags directly to the room. We walked through a gauntlet of tacky souvenir shops to the hotel and then walked around town. Reading about Carcassone, people seemed to be in two camps…either loving it or hating it. During the day is it packed with visitors. We didn’t get in to see the chateau or walk the ramparts as both were closing when we arrived. So far I had a slightly negative impression, although there were some nice towers and fortifications.
That all changed when we took an awesome walk after dinner. We ate at Adelaide (the only Rick Steves recommendation I used on our trip; it’s also my grandmother’s name so I was predisposed to like it). Really special. We then found the way to walk on a path between the outer wall and the inner fortified wall. We walked around the entire walled city. Awesome! Made the trip to Carcassone worth it. The wall was beautifully illuminated and we were the only ones there. Gave you a much better appreciation of the fortifications and all of the details making up the construction of the walls and towers. I loved this evening.

Thursday: Drove from Carcassone to St Remy de Provence. Much better drive this time on the toll roads. We stayed at Le Maison de la Line in St Remy and loved it. It was a large property with several smaller houses with rooms. Very peaceful and walking distance to everything.
We walked to Saint-Paul de Mausole, Van Gogh’s psychiatric facility. Along the road to it we saw many “easels” of his paintings. Once near it, we sort of circled around this high wall thinking we had found it. There was an opening and I followed several people in. A nurse in white uniform came out and in heated French let me know that I had wandered into a functioning psychiatric facility….oops! She was very nice when I explained where we wanted to go and directed us. Whew. The facility was beautiful and had lots of information not only about Van Gogh, but psychiatric treatments of his day. One room had these bathtubs with wooden covers and just enough room for a patient’s head to poke through. They somehow thought that by pouring cold water over the patient’s head it would distract them from “crazy” thoughts. There was a lot of information on Van Gogh’s symptoms as well. You had to feel so sorry for him as he was so lonely and craving companionship, yet drove people away with his “fits” and bizarre behavior.
Afterwards we continued walking to Les Antiques (a beautiful Roman arch marking the entrance to Glanum) and then over the road to Glanum itself. Glanum looked incredible (an old Roman city) but was closed by the time we got there.
We had dinner in the old part of St Remy at Les Olives. Our server didn’t speak English at all, which was great, making me practice the French I did learn. In the French class we took we learned a little ditty that French schoolchildren learn and at one point we had the server and the host singing with us…so much for the “snooty” French!

Friday: Arles, as my husband wanted to see more Van Gogh. There are a series of easels of his paintings set up where he actually painted the scene so you could compare past and present. Our innkeepers warned us to look at the “Yellow Café” but not actually eat there. We got a pass that allowed entrance to 5 monuments/museums. I forget the name of the two museums, but both were great. At one they had a special exhibit of actual Van Gogh paintings (incredibly, there are none of his paintings in either St Remy or Arles, where he painted hundreds of masterpieces). There are also a number of Roman ruins in Arles and we saw several.
Have to admit that Arles was not my favorite town. It was packed with tourists, rather “gritty” feeling and lots of traffic. We walked along the river a bit, but it was not as much of a peaceful pretty river as a commercial/transport river. Also, there was a strong Le Mistral blowing (a periodic wind they get in the area that just about blows your ears off). Arles was much better in the evening after the throngs disappeared. Streets quiet, you could walk through the old part of the city more peacefully, and kids came into the plazas to play.

Saturday: Our last day in France. We debated between going to Avignon to see the Pope’s Palace or driving to Uzes and seeing the Pont du Gard aqueduct on the way or going out to La Camargue. After the intense day in Arles, we opted for being out in nature and the fresh air. Great choice! La Camargue is a large wetlands known for wild flamingoes, white horses and black bulls. We saw them all. I remembered reading about a bird reserve (Parc Ornotholologie du Pont Gau or something close to that). It was absolutely amazing. We spent all day there.
This is a birder’s paradise. There are many paths to walk and we took them all (maybe 6 km total). At the start there are several small islands with large bushy trees. The trees are packed with nesting birds…everything from huge heron nests to large and small egret nests. There were many chicks and parents flying about bringing food back for them. All birds were living in harmony without regard for species…we could learn from them. There were flocks of flamingos all over. It was an incredible sight to see them fly…brilliant colors under their wings you never get to see as most often they reside in zoos and never fly. We also saw a larger mammal we would call a nutria, and this darling little snake. What an awesome experience and a fitting end to our wonderful trip.
In St Remy we ate at a wonderful restaurant recommended by our innkeepers – Restaurant Marilyn. This is really the only restaurant we tried that I would recommend. Wonderful food and lovely servers. Although they spoke little English, they did offer an English menu when we had some trouble trying to figure out what several of the dishes were. Great experience.

Sunday: We flew out of Marseilles into Heathrow and then home to San Francisco. I completely forgot what a zoo Heathrow can be. We had a two hour layover and almost missed our flight. Had to take at least two buses to get to various places and then encountered the biggest line of people I’ve ever seen. We would have been stuck in London if it were not for an official that called out for people with flights taking off soon…he pulled us out of that line and into a “fast track” line. We would have been OK, but the scanners pulled my husband’s backpack out to search. It sat there and sat there while we tried to find someone to search it. No one seemed especially concerned that we might miss our flight. We finally made it with only minutes to spare.
A fantastic trip though. Made us realize we should have gone to France years ago and not worried so much about the language. We got along fine with our limited French. It was rather surprising, though, that few people spoke anything but French and some English. We have German and Spanish as our other languages and have used those to communicate in other European countries even if it was not the official language of that country. I did use German once after hearing a French clerks speaking German to the family in front of me in the line, but that’s the only time. We had nothing but positive encounters with the many French people we met on the trip, however, finding none of the “snooty” attitude that many Americans accuse the French of exhibiting. I’m already thinking of when we can go back!

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