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The stokebaileys practice their French from Sete to Paris, take a brisk leap into London, and dip their toes into Dublin. Sept. 06.

The stokebaileys practice their French from Sete to Paris, take a brisk leap into London, and dip their toes into Dublin. Sept. 06.

Oct 10th, 2006, 04:51 PM
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The stokebaileys practice their French from Sete to Paris, take a brisk leap into London, and dip their toes into Dublin. Sept. 06.

I had been to London and Paris, but never into the French countryside. My husband, whom I’ll call “Bob,” and our daughters “Mary Clare,” 16, and “Hannah,” 14, had never been overseas. The girls are homeschooling and have been studying French for years. Bob had four years of college French, and I can get by pretty well, especially on paper. In the depths of winter early this year, I decided the time had come. I got on the internet, discovered Fodor’s, and a rough plan began to emerge. Janisj and ira responded to my first question about how long to allow between flights in Dublin, and I knew then that we could run with it. I endeavor to book and plan the entire trip on the internet, without travel agents, and as frugally as possible within limits of middle-class comfort.

Dumb luck, guardian angels, and Fodors.com combined to help us have a wonderful trip. The homeschool angle made a fall trip possible, and I was prepared to say the girls were “privately schooled” if anyone asked; it’s true enough and sounds old-fashioned and grand, but no one ever got that nosy. We decided on September because the prices weren’t any higher than Oct., and there was the chance of a swim in an ocean, sea, or pool.

Mary Clare had expressed a wish to see a chateau. All Bob wanted was to set foot in Liverpool, point zero for lifelong Beatles fan. Hannah is always up for anything interesting. So Paris, the French countryside, and London it is. My family begins to suspect me of being addicted to Fodors.com. I find the planning almost as recreational as traveling itself.

I find a gite in Chaumussay, far southern Touraine, on the internet. www.lavillate.new.fr
We loved it there, and more later. adeben steers us to Sete—wow--and mpprh to Les Halles in Sete and then Aigues Mortes. Ahhh. Blackduff convinces me we need another night on the road to our gite, so I book at la Tuileries in Gluges: www.latuilerie.akoonet.com . A delight, and Bob’s favorite village. Robespierre suggests dropping our rental car off at Versailles; perfect once we got the luggage angle covered. WillTravel and nessundorma steer us towards Russell Sq, and we find Arran House Hotel on Gower Rd : www.london-hotel.co.uk , and ditto on loving it. Others recommend Lascaux II and Sarlat, and steer us away from Montmartre and towards the 7th/15th in Paris. We get Pimsleur French CDs from Amazon.com to help us become solid on the basics.

I book tickets at the Globe, St. Martins-in-the-Fields, an opera for myself at the Royal Opera House, and Ceremony of Keys. After waiting half the summer for Fall Paris Opera tickets to go on sail, I dawdle an extra 10 days until all the cheap and medium ballet tickets are gone. The girls, dancers themselves, refuse to let us pay $60 each for ballet. They continue to be the voice of moderation and economy throughout the trip.

ITINERARY: We will fly from St. Louis to JFK on AA, then to DUB on AerLingus and on to Carcassone by Ryanair. Rent a car in Carcassone, spend nights in Sete and Gluges before our week in Chaumussay gite. Drop car in Versailles, take RER to Paris for week in an apartment. Eurostar to London for 5 days, AerLingus to DUB, and then home the next day on AerLingus. A little over 3 weeks altogether.

As departure date nears, Bob tells himself he really must start brushing up on French. I become concerned about the young lady on the Pimsleur CD who seems hardly to know the man – calls him ‘vous’ and doesn’t know his name – yet is willing to be entertained alone at his place in the evening. My girls get serious about their wardrobes, and I discover my first expensive planning error: for some reason, in putting together the 4-dimensional puzzle of our trip, I had us flying LHR to Shannon, spending the night in Dublin, then flying out of DUB the next day. I knew the difference, had used both airports in the past, and even wrote ‘Shannon’ in my calendar. It costs ~ $150 to change the tickets to DUB. I begin to think a travel agent may have been worth it.

PACKING: We bring DK Eyewitness guides to France, Paris and London; heavy, but eventually we use them all a lot. I decide to buy heavy Michelin road atlas when we arrive, another good choice. The girls bring cameras and I bring minimal sketching and painting gear. Bob and Hannah have small soft backpacks. I bring my old but good quality softsided suitcase that splits a zipper between STL and DUB; one of our Restoration Hardware travel pillows is lost in that mishap (still not sure what else.) Mary Clare borrows grandma’s rolling suitcase; at first I scoff, then envy. My Ecco oxfords and suede flats prove good shoe choices, and cotton knit dress and separates, a linen shirt, cashmere cardigan, and lightweight raincoat work fine.

CASH MONEY: Couldn’t find an ATM at JFK that gave euros. The first one we saw at DUB had a long line and then didn’t seem to work. Another one did, after fiddling with amt. requested. Bank card and 2 kinds of chipless credit cards get us through the entire trip.

ARRIVAL: As we approach security in DUB, I start chugging my bottled water. The guard tells me not to bother. This, I tell myself, is more like it. We deplane in sun-drenched Carcassone, which must get quite a tourist boost from Ryanair: lots of British and Irish accents. Autoeurope turns out to be any of the 3 car rental agencies across the street, and we get our Renault Megane 6-speed. I develop a policy of making all big ticket verbal transactions in English, if feasible, and otherwise doggedly using French. I, who go for years without entering a McDonald’s or buying soft drinks, see the sign and have sudden craving for super large cup of Coca Cola. My family finds this amusing, so I ignore the thirst.

We head for La Cite, and are enchanted. Lunch in the sycamore-shaded square, the first left as you climb into the old town. (Or are those plane trees?) Window boxes full of flowers, pale green shutters open to french windows above. Waiter reminds me of Jean-Paul Belmondo, though I keep this to myself. 3/4ths of my family group tend towards culinary philistine end of spectrum, an ongoing trial to the other fourth (okay, me) as I am dragged past tempting plats du jour towards the economical and familiar. I skip the idea of authentic cassoulet I’d been planning all this time, and have a couple of cups of espresso. 24 or so sleepless hrs and two hrs of driving ahead make this seem like a good breakfast/lunch anyway. Bob and the girls tour the castle part while I buy a road atlas at the bookstore and then sit in the shade and people watch. Bob CAN’T BELIEVE how wonderful it all is. An advantage of not having done any of the planning: you get lots of surprises.

We head for Sete, via the Cap d’Agde, then west along the spit of sand between the Bassin de Thau and the Mediterranean, that wonderfully blue sea. The girls doze.

SETE: The Grand Hotel www.legrandhotelsete.com overlooks where two canals intersect, and has a lovely lobby, bar, and a high covered central courtyard. The walkway leading to our 3eme etage room made me the slightest bit nervous. We have a clean quad room with the standard French comfortable beds, and a view over the rooftop terraces to the south. Quai de Tassigny is lined with sidewalk restaurants on that Friday night, full of people chatting in French. Lights reflect in the canal. The next morning, we walk 3 blocks to Les Halles, the city had a wholesome feel, and we are blown away by the covered market. We split up and buy lots of things, including a plastic liter of Merlot from the plastic vat of the Vins Vrac man. The fruit was a revelation: Italian grapes with a flavor we couldn’t believe. Bob stands awhile and watches a fishmonger, bloody to her elbows chop steaks from a tuna.

stokebailey is offline  
Oct 10th, 2006, 06:04 PM
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Stokebailey, what a great start! I love the way you write. I'll be following your report. Lots of details, please.
moolyn is offline  
Oct 11th, 2006, 01:45 AM
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The girls, dancers themselves, refuse to let us pay $60 each for ballet. They continue to be the voice of moderation and economy throughout the trip.

That is VERY impressive!
Carrybean is offline  
Oct 11th, 2006, 11:27 AM
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Thanks, moolyn, for your kind and encouraging words. Your excellent adventures resonate with me, too.

And, carrybean, good of you to say so. They are good kids, and nice to their mother, though afflicted with two parents who aren't exactly MBA types, and unlikely to present them with any trust funds.

Onward into France:
My plans for tightly scheduled first two days were based on getting a fairly early start in the mornings, and don’t you think I’d have learned better by now? We enjoyed morning in Sete so much that we lingered awhile. Became concerned that the rear hatch of the Megane didn’t seem to lock, though the luggage was fully covered. No amount of button-pushing or manual-reading seemed to solve the issue.

We had originally planned to drive from Sete, past the futuristic architecture at la Grande-Motte, to the beach at Phare de L’Espiguette, and let Bob bird the Camargue while the rest of us lazed on the beach. That route took us past flocks of flamingoes wading in the shallows along the road, flying, standing on one leg and dipping their beaks with those improbable necks. We pulled over to observe them through binoculars, and the girls remained unmoved at the sight. (The natural odors are a bit strong along that stretch, and the noses of the young sensitive.)

PHARE DE L’ESPIGUETTE: We all got to the beach, paid a bit to park, left the luggage guarded by faith in luck and humanity, and walked across the bright sand. At noon on a beautiful Saturday we shared the beach with a scattering of families. I continued to feel a moment of surprise hearing even very young children speaking such fluent French!

The only nudity I saw was among toddlers. I support the right of the non-trim-- even baggy, bony or obese-- to swim and sunbathe nude in designated areas. As I understand it, the object is the feeling of sun and water against skin, not a chance for strangers to critique one’s form. There may have been a naturalist area further down the beach, per Fodorite tip. I’m glad French babies get to do it, anyway. Hannah and I plunged into the somewhat chilly water, appropriately clad.

We spread out my raincoat as a picnic blanket and dug into our Les Halles finds, including chevre, merlot straight from the plastic bottle, and intensely flavored fruit. Foreign-shaped colorful kites flew behind us, and before us bright white sails, gulls, and all those changing shades of blue. (I tried to make the sea be wine-dark, a la Homer, but it remained brilliant. Probably the wrong time of day.) Small surf, and no tides.

We decided to all push on to Aigues Mortes together, Bob still requiring help with roundabouts and time flying. We skirted the edge of the Camargue, and saw both famous white horses and black cattle.

AIGUES MORTES: (St.) Louis IX , for whom our home city was named, built a fortress here in the 13th c. to launch a crusade, and people had been living and extracting salt here long before that. We see the salins flats as we approach. Lovely walled old city. I buy a folding Opinel knife that I carry in my bag, bring out for picnics, and again later upon trying to enter Ste.-Chapelle. (Sharp-eyed guard spots it on the xray: “Non,” says I, “Je n’ai pas un couteau!” And then, “Oh, yes, well, it seems I do.” Other guard remarks good-humoredly that it’s a French knife. I must sign it in and out.)

stokebailey is offline  
Oct 11th, 2006, 04:43 PM
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I'm enjoying your report, and eagerly looking forward to the next installment!
Keep up the good work!
marcy_ is offline  
Oct 11th, 2006, 05:15 PM
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This is a wonderful report - looking forward to the rest!
Sue4 is offline  
Oct 11th, 2006, 08:11 PM
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You are a wonderful writer! Your kids are lucky to be schooled by you. keep up the writing, please!
cabovacation is offline  
Oct 11th, 2006, 08:12 PM
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thank you, dears.
stokebailey is offline  
Oct 11th, 2006, 08:29 PM
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I'm enjoying your trip report, and looking forward to more.
noe847 is offline  
Oct 12th, 2006, 11:17 AM
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glad to see the local knowledge was useful !

mpprh is offline  
Oct 12th, 2006, 12:24 PM
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You gave us a hint that you are from Kentucky, so now, Stokebailey, in my imagination, I am hearing your marvelous prose made even more delightful by a Louisville accent...excellent writing-I am awaiting more of your family adventures.
LJ is offline  
Oct 13th, 2006, 02:30 AM
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This is getting unfair to readers.

It's now Friday 13th, and I'm still agog to hear how Bob set foot in Liverpool on an St Louis-NYC-Dublin-Carcassone-Paris-London-Dublin itinerary.

Parachute? We need to know.
flanneruk is offline  
Oct 13th, 2006, 09:30 AM
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Bless you, flanneruk; good point. If I'd know anyone would actually read the thing, I'd have paid more attention to logic, continuity, etc.

Now I find that kind words of encouragement have made me hesitant, kind of like the Harper Lee of trip reporters. Discouraging words would have been worse, so I'll get down at least through the French countryside and send it out.

Thanks, all.

stokebailey is offline  
Oct 13th, 2006, 09:59 AM
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You want discouragement? We'll do discouragement.

But get on with it. Now I know how that bloke on the New York dock must have felt when he sat there for weeks waiting for the last episode of "Little Dorrit"

You've got your priorities all wrong. Does feeding your family or earning a living really come before your readers?
flanneruk is offline  
Oct 15th, 2006, 10:04 AM
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Plus, I've had to watch a lot of baseball lately. You miss out on a lot of interesting conversations in St.Louis this time of year if you don't keep up with the Cardinals.

LJ, I'm afraid my accent is a generic average of the places I've lived, though I love the Louisville one.

BEFORE I GET TO THE PART THAT WOULD MAKE StuDudley SHAKE HIS HEAD SADLY, A BRIEF DIGRESSION ABOUT HOMESCHOOLING: I would never advocate homeschooling for everyone-- though it has been deeply rewarding for us-- but it is surely a boon when it comes time to travel. We have been able to camp in a CA state park eucalyptus grove overlooking the Pacific, with the whole place to ourselves in September, and visit Washington DC and New York as a family in early spring. The budget is far less than with two full-time salaries, of course, but oh, the freedom.

The girls both have parts in The Crucible next month, and brought their scripts along. Otherwise, we were able to soak up art, culture, history, geography-- not to mention French-- on this trip, with fine weather, a lot more elbow room, and no worries about missed schoolwork or assignments pending.

AIGUES MORTES TO THE DORDOGNE IN A GORGEOUS BLUR. StuDudley had been so generous as to email his Languedoc/Dordogne itineraries, and I had mapped a route through such ‘must-do’ towns as Ste.Eulalie. But by the time we tore ourselves from Aigues Mortes, though, we had quite a few miles between us and our beds in Gluges. So in the interest of making time, we took the autoroute north through Millau, then hung a left towards Rodez and Figeac.

Once off the autoroute south of the Lot, things became greener and more pastoral. Around each bend, we came upon charming villages, well-tended farmhouses, picturesque churches. Bob wanted to stop and walk around just one of those beautiful medieval towns, thinking there couldn’t possibly be anything as good further on, but the rest of us held firm. Luckily I was at the wheel for this stretch, and I assured him that there were PLENTY of equally fine towns all around where we’d be staying the week. We pushed on.

Dusk had just deepened into darkness when we descended N 140 into the Dordogne Valley, crossed the bridge, and saw the turnoff into Gluges. From photos on the Tuilerie website, http://www.latuilerie.akoonet.com , I knew that the chateau backed against the cliffs just east of town, so I made a right at what seemed to be the only street through town. Up through a tight spot, we found ourselves in what seemed to be an impossible position, with a steep climb ahead, a wall on one side and a very short distance between the wheels and a dropoff on the other. A woman emerged from her house, and I got my first chance to say, “Nous sommes perdus!” to an authentic French person. Encouraged by her cheerful confidence that I could do it, and woman driver solidarity, we squeezed up and through and along the cliff road to our chambres d’hotes.

The website gives an accurate idea of how lovely this place is. We had connecting Margot and Charlotte rooms on the premiere etage, accessed by a winding stone staircase in one of the towers. Both large rooms have new and good quality bathrooms, the rooms are furnished with antiques, and everything was beautifully clean.

M. Raynal is a sociable and gentlemanly sort, and he steered us a few minutes up to Martel for supper, since the restaurant in Gluges had a wedding party that night. Martel is a beautiful town http://perso.orange.fr/serrier/Martel . We stopped near the traffic circle at what seemed to be the only open restaurant, and sat on the terrace with a young family and a group of teenagers having a Saturday night beer, pop music emerging from the kitchen. I had the plat du jour, canard roti, and the others had pizza. I begin to realize that France must be well-supplied with dark, handsome waiters with soulful eyes, and it surprised me that in the depths of the kitchen in such a place there would be the kind of genius who could produce my meal. Crème brulee for dessert, and I let everyone have a bite (they wouldn’t take a second bites, probably out of politeness). After supper, we walked around the old town and realized there were at least a couple of other attractive places to eat on pedestrian streets. The girls, weary of quest for perfect aesthetic experience, say our meal had been just fine, and I agree.

When we got home, we threw open the windows and let the moonlight and night air stream in. The views from our windows were wonderful. The French aristocracy really knew how to live.

After a fine breakfast in the dining room, M. Raynal gave us a quick tour of the orangerie, and then we walked through the sycamore allee and down a lane to the village. The priest and a few parishioners hurried towards the church. The area in front of the old church is named Place Edith Piaf, and a plaque says that she adored the village. We do, too. It’s too small for a bakery or other commerce, and is set against the cliffs on a little rise above the Dordogne flood plain. The Tuilerie and Gluges would be a great base for bicycling that part of Quercy and the Dordogne.

stokebailey is offline  
Oct 15th, 2006, 10:25 AM
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PS: La Tuilerie had a perfectly good marked driveway off N140, if we'd gone just a little further.
stokebailey is offline  
Oct 15th, 2006, 10:33 AM
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I'm enjoying this. It's great that you were able to distill some of the best advice from our most helpful Fodorites and turn it into a good trip.
hopingtotravel is offline  
Oct 15th, 2006, 10:45 AM
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I'm enjoying this report too. I also bought my opinel knife ( but several years ago) in Aigues-Mortes where we spent a few nights to tour the Camargue.
I've spent a month in Liverpool visiting friends so look forward to that part.
cigalechanta is offline  
Oct 15th, 2006, 02:15 PM
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Now I know how Dickens would have felt if he'd had to insert a chapter in the middle of Little Dorrit explaining that he was going to have his heroine marry an attractive younger man, not the fatherly one.

Bob made it to Liverpool, but the girls and I never did. It would have taken quite a few wild horses to drag me away from 5 short days in London, in order to view the building where Ringo attended kindergarten (or whatever). (No offense, Ringo!)

Bob was in 7th heaven, though, loved everything about it, and after returning from his day there made another late night trip to Abbey Road.
stokebailey is offline  
Oct 15th, 2006, 03:25 PM
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Wonderful reporting. Thanks so much.
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