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Trip Report: Paris, Alps, Côte d'Azur, Provence, Pyrénées -- 2018

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Sep 26th, 2018, 09:40 AM
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Trip Report: Paris, Alps, Côte d'Azur, Provence, Pyrénées -- 2018

This is the first part of our travels in Europe this past summer. The second half took place in Spain. But since I believe in giving readers an idea of cost, the first part of this report will be repeated for the next report.

We flew on United/British Air from SF to Paris with a change in Philadelphia and from Madrid to SF with a change in London. The total cost was $1691 for two, with the tickets purchased in February or early March for a June 20 departure and an August 1 return . Food was mediocre to worse than for the breakfast going east and the equivalent going west, with the exception of the London to SF dinner which was far better than airplane meals we can recall in the last 20 years. One quirk with the airline tickets. When checking in at the airport in SF and Madrid, we were unable to get seat assignments for the second leg of the flight. It turned out to make no difference. In both instances we were seated together and also from Madrid to LHR, but not from SF to Philadelphia even though it was the one time we used the on-line seat reservation system as soon as we were allowed (24 hours before departure).

We rented a standard shift Fiat 500 or equivalent through Autoeurope when it advertised sales (end of February I believe) and paid $221 plus $89 in road fees and local taxes for a 20 day one-way rental from Lyon to Biarritz. Our credit card carried the CDW.

We took the TGV from Paris to Lyon ($97). And we took a Flixbus from Biarritz to Bilbao for 22€. Prices are for two.

Our housing in Menton, through Home Away, cost us $445 for 5 nights.
Our housing in Bilbao, through Booking.com cost us $334 for 3 nights.
Our housing in Madrid through AirBnB cost us $326 for 4 nights.

The rest of our housing costs were cash transactions reflected in the following:

We had $6000 in our travel account, from which the CU deducted the first three or four weeks of credit card bills automatically and we withdrew cash as necessary. By the end of our trip we had $3200 left in the account but had to pay $3385 of accrued credit card charges. In other words, I calculate that our direct expenses in Europe were $6185.

This last figure is misleading. We had free housing for our 5 days in Paris, for four days in the Provence, for our three days in the Pyrénées, and for our ten days in the Asturias. It probably represents a savings of about $3000.

This was our first time in Paris when our friend was retired. It meant that we were able to spend more time together, she showing us the changes around the Forum des Halles, and on another day going to the Musée d’Orsay which was not crowded to see a temporary exhibit of “Wild Souls. Symbolism in the Art of the Baltic States”. Some of it was wild, and some nice landscapes in a \n early 20th century soft realism style. That day we also met up with another friend also staying with our hosts whose husband had designed and supervised the creation of the windows for a modern church
.
He also did the windows in Conques that I do not like because of their horizontal pattern which, in my mind, does not fit with the verticality the Gothic structure. From that church we walked to the art nouveau Notre-Dame du Travail with its steel structure interior and a façade which does not announce its interior
.
We also visited the Fondation Cartier which had a special exhibit by .Junya Ishigami titled “Freeing Architecture”; some interesting things and some which reflected wrong-headed conceits, a common problem in contemporary architecture. One day was spent in following a walking guide of green spaces through the Paris arrondissements, and this time it was the 13th and the 14th.

We had our traditional meal in a restaurant to see friends, as we try every year. Our treat, but their choice. This time they chose Les Pianos 26 rue Robespierre, 93100 Montreuil, France. Our experience was rather positive once the music (good live jazz but very loud) ended. It’s not a fancy restaurant, but the space is large and informal which is perfect for getting together to catch up on each other’s news. We also had our traditional get together with another set of friends in the suburbs—the couple and the friend live in the same town, have known each other since grammar school age, but see each other usually once a year, when we arrange for a for a get together, hopefully on a nice evening so that we can sit on his terrace and chat away the evening.

These are the Paris albums that cover this visit to Paris. In most cases only two or three pictures in the album apply to this trip:

https://flic.kr/s/aHsjpzN6AV
https://flic.kr/s/aHsjpvSqsX
https://flic.kr/s/aHsjpLgHj9
https://flic.kr/s/aHsjpyNMwP

On June 26 (it was not a scheduled strike day) we took the TGV to Lyon Part Dieu because that train station is on the east side of town and we were headed to Chamonix. We went to the Europcar counter and were given an upgrade to a Citroën C3 which was fine, giving us more than enough trunk space. Here are the two possible configurations with standard 22” suitcases:
or
.
But even a Fiat 500 would have been fine, since our 2013 rental could hold the same suitcases:
and I suspect that the car has gotten bigger since car models increase in size with age as we do. The Fiat, even if less powerful, might have been better for driving in the mountains, assuming that it is still smaller than the C3.

Driving out of Lyon was a pain because of road construction, confusing signage and my need to get used to a standard shift car now that I own an automatic. It meant that we arrived in Chamonix later than anticipated and finding the local road to our B&B was not obvious. Luckily I had printed out a blown up Google map.

The B&B was located in Les Houches, which is a “suburb” of Chamonix—in that narrow valley the towns just run into each other. We found the listing through a local organization called Gites de Savoie, which implies in this instance several things: French is essential for communication, no deposit was required, but we had to sign and return a contract all in French to the host. We did everything as required, and yet a couple weeks before our departure we received an e-mail saying that unless we confirm, the reservation was null and void. I quickly replied that I had assumed that returning a signed contract would have meant a confirmation on our part. For that reason I was a little anxious about arriving before dark at the B&B, incase the misunderstanding had not been cleared up, and I called to say that we were on our way.

The B&B was a couple of miles down the road from Chamonix proper. Nothing fancy, breakfast was plentiful in that one could have as much bread and home-made jam as desired, but no hot food, at least in the summer season. The guests included a couple of regulars: a bus driver who always stayed there when taking a tour that included an overnight in Chamonix and a French/Italian couple who every year drives from their home in Italy to their country house in Brittany via Chamonix.

We stayed in Chamonix only two nights. We ate at a fairly fancy resort hotel on the first night, where I was introduced to the taste of Génépi, a liqueur made from an Alpine flower, and the second in a middling restaurant in Chamonix proper. For our one day stay we took the Argentières cable car (on the other side of Chamonix) up to the snow fields and down again. It would be possible to walk except that my wife walks with a cane and has some other mobility limitations. Essentially we went to Chamonix as our starting point to take the Route des Grandes Alpes to the Mediterranean.

We had done the drive 51 years ago, and I wanted to do it again before the end of my driving days. I think that the drive itself has not changed much. But there have been changes in the scenery. For example, the col de l’Iséran is a desolate high mountain area, far above the tree line, but with chairlifts visible all around because it is part of the Val d’Isère skiing area. The road may also have been improved since it is part of the Tour de France every year.

The Route des Grandes Alpes is not a Grande Route des Alpes, meaning that some of the roads are very narrow, often barely two cars wide, often very steep and sinewy at the same time. It is for those who seek Alpine vistas and enjoy that type of driving. It also is not a single numbered road, its designation is not always obviously sign-posted, and taking a wrong turn does occur. I would have preferred the Fiat 500 to the Citroën C3 because of the narrow roads. There were many bicyclists on some stretches of the Route and we were passed by many motorcycles. Our purpose was to drive the road in two days, with stops to stretch legs, enjoy the views, purchase lunch materials and stop for lunch at locations with pleasant vistas.

Our overnight stop was in Briançon, a possible two night stop for anyone interested in Vauban fortifications. We stayed at a hotel right by the entrance of the old town coming from the parking lot above the town. It was a throwback to our old travel days, the type of hotel that would have been on budget traveling in Europe on $5 a day. The meal in town was adequate.

Here are the pictures for that portion of the trip, with the addition of Annecy from a previous trip: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmgg3YN

Our next stop, after more mountain passes, was Menton.

Our housing was pre-paid, it was an apartment one block from the beach. We called the manager in Italy, Menton is right on the border, who had someone meet us in front of the apartment. There was no parking garage, or if there was, we did not have access to it, but we were lucky as we were able to find parking nearby on an unmetered side street.

We had been in Nice before, and I believe that it is easier to get out of Menton than it is of Nice. The gardens we wanted to visit were between the two, and both have hill towns in their back country. Menton is smaller than nice and has fewer attractions in the city, although the city itself is quite attractive.

In Menton proper I would recommend seeing the Val Rameh gardens, the marriage hall decorated by Jean Cocteau located in City Hall (open when City Hall is open), the Jean Cocteau museum, and walking around the town, both the old one which is very reminiscent of Italy (Naples comes to mind, but without the garbage strike) and the part that was developed when Menton became a popular escape from winter conditions.

Word of warning about the Val Rameh gardens. It has different sections, one of which is a semi-tropical forest. As we walked through it, my wife complained of being bitten around the ankles by no-see-ums as we saw no clouds of flying insects, and yet she had at least a dozen bites that stayed visible for several weeks.

The outings from Menton took us past Monaco to the Ephrussi de Rothschild mansion and garden and the Kérylos mansion near-by. Both of these are examples of how in this instance the 1% Jewish families lived at least part of the year. “[Kérylos] was built in the early 1900s by French archaeologist Theodore Reinach, and his wife Fanny Kann, a daughter of Maximilien Kann and Betty Ephrussi, of the Ephrussi family.[2] Madame Fanny Reinach was a cousin of Maurice Ephrussi, who was married to Béatrice de Rothschild. Inspired by the beauty of the Reinach's Villa Kerylos and the area, they built the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild at nearby Cap Ferrat.” We had lunch in the mansion, sitting out on the terrace. One of the few times we decided against a picnic lunch, and it was very pleasant. The Kérylos mansion is how Reinach thought a Greek mansion should be, and his furniture is inspired by Greek representations of furniture. One curiosity are three legged tables found in various rooms—I am not aware of ancient Greek decorations that included pictures of tables. The Ephrussi de Rothschild mansion is for me ironically inspired by furniture of the Ancien Régime.

Another outing took us to Biot and Grasse. After getting off the toll road directions get very confusing and we spent a fair amount of time driving around in circles before we reached Biot. It's a pleasant hill town with a small museum featuring the production of large ceramic jars—Ali Baba jars if you know the story. The technique is interest: an interior wood frame is used, constructed in such a way that it cam be taken out of the jar once it’s dried, around which a think rope is coiled unto which the clay is attached and smoothed out on the outside. Once dried, the rope and wood are removed and then the jar is fired. This is the result:

In the flatter area between Biot and the sea we found the Fernand Leger museum, which is a little jewel. I am becoming more and more partial to simple boxes for modern museums. Such examples are the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, the Vesunna Gallo-Roman Museum in Périgueux, the Cocteau museum in Menton and the Leger museum. Most of the collection in this museum is of Leger’s work, although there are some works from his colleagues and friends.

We probably did not give Grasse the time or attention it deserves. It was toward the end of the day, which had been a hot one, and we were not interested in perfume or Fragonard. But we did see the regional museum in an old mansion which is a very minor museum. What we saw of Grasse was between the museum and the parking garage at the edge of the old town. My wife was struck by the fact that the old towns in Menton and Grasse still had noticeably dilapidated housing, in contrast with Provençal villages or towns like Périgueux in the Dordogne. Here’s a contrast between two alleys in Grasse, next to each other:
and

Our final outing from Menton was a drive into the back country to two villages mentioned in Michael Busselle’s Discovering the Villages of France which can include a plus beau village but in this instance gave examples of small hill-top villages that have not yet made the tourist list. And there is little to find there: a café, maybe a small librairie that might also contain some tourist items. In Lucéram the church was locked and we would have had to ask for the key down in the one open store, but we were too late for that. These villages are about 30 miles from Menton, but so isolated and on hilly terrain that my wife wondered why anyone would build a village there.

The one memorable meal we had in Menton was in the Mirazur restaurant, http://www.mirazur.fr/ It is very expensive birthday splurge, worth every penny. The third photograph in the Côte d’Azur album was taken from our table. My wife misread the prices and the menu we chose, and it was not until we left the restaurant that she discovered that this was perhaps the most expensive restaurant we ever ate in ($641), and that includes French laundry, Eleven Madison Park and the Herbfarm in Seattle. Here’s the menu:

Here are the pictures of the Côte d’Azur:
https://flic.kr/s/aHsmnMCCar

From Menton we drove to the Provence staying at a friend’s house near Apt. We revisited some locations we had not seen in years (Roussillon, Vaison-la-Romaine) and new ones such as Banon. Vaison-la-Romaine was a big disappointment. The upper old hill town is dead in the middle of the day and the lower town’s main street was turned into a pedestrian walk that has only tourist shops. The presumably more interesting part of the Roman ruins was closed for renovation. We did not stay long. Roussillon did not change much in appearance, but the trade is much more oriented to tourist visitors; it was market day but there were few vendors catering to local buyers. The same was true of Bonnieux where we picked up an olive tree platter inexpensively. For ;what I consider a traditional market oriented toward the local population, I would go to the Apt market, which is spread out all over the inner town. Apt also has a potter who creates beautiful traditional pottery, unfortunately not to our taste, but the craftsmanship cannot be denied. We had a very nice dinner at Alex Resto in Cucuron, sitting by the pond, but the drive across the Lubéron at night is not for the timid. From Vaison-la-Romaine we drove along the northern side of the Mont Ventoux to Aurel (nice view over the valley) and then to a friend’s house about 15 km. to the south (we had to meet at a crossroad so that he could guide us to his house). We went back to that area, stopping in Banon which has an épicerie with its local goat cheese in various stages of ripeness, and a butcher with interesting dried sausage, things perfect for a picnic. The town itself is worth a walk to the top. On the way back hope we stopped at le Colorado Provençal in Rustrel

Here are the pictures of the Provence which combines those taken in previous trips:
https://flic.kr/s/aHsjrfsgek

We left the Provence and drove straight through to Foix where we stayed overnight. Our evening meal was at the hotel. The next morning we visited the chateau and an abbey church which had some nice carvings and went on to Argelès-Gazoat, stopping on the way in Saint Bertrand de Comminges which is definitely worth a visit. We stayed at a friend’s house and took day trips into the mountains. One was to Cauterets and Pont d’Espagne, where we walked up to the bridge and then took a chairlift to an overview from which we took a 20 minute walk to the lac de Gaube. The walk was on fairly even terrain so that it represented no problem for my wife. Throughout our stay in the area there were clouds that crowned the peaks, with occasional sunshine peeking through.

Argelès is a spa town with a casino, and could be used as a base to visit some of the better know sites in the Pyrénées: col de Tourmalet, Pont d’Espagne, Gavarnie. Its weekly market is large and is more than tourist stuff. Other bases could be Luz Saint-Sauveur or Cauterets, although the latter town is best only for Pont d’Espagne. We had a very nice meal at the Restaurant Au Fond Du Gosier.

Another day trip was to the lac d’Estaing and towns on the way. Our Parisian friends who own the house in Argelès but were not there guided us with notes to the various sights and eating places in the area. One can drive close to the lac d’Estaing, and again the terrain is quite even in spite of being at high up in the mountains.

We left Argelès to go to Spain, and could not take the col d’Aubisque road because of major road construction close to the western end of that road. From the col de Soulor we took a départementale which was very narrow with occasional horses and cows wandering on the road. It was one of our more white-knuckle roads. It took us all day to get to our destination—Baztan-Bidasoa— via Saint-Jean-de-Pied-de-Port.

These are the pictures for the Pyrénées, which exclude the French Basque area:
https://flic.kr/s/aHsjqcM8HD

Last edited by Michael; Sep 26th, 2018 at 10:30 AM.
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Sep 26th, 2018, 10:11 PM
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Just loved your photos. The landscape is just breathtaking. I will never drive in Europe, so realise I won’t easily see these areas - nice to see them vicariously, though.
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Sep 27th, 2018, 09:22 AM
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Originally Posted by Adelaidean View Post
Just loved your photos. The landscape is just breathtaking. I will never drive in Europe, so realise I won’t easily see these areas - nice to see them vicariously, though.
Some of the areas, such as Chamonix, are readily accessible by public transportation. In the Pyrénées, Gavarnie and Pont d'Espagne are readily accessible by public transportation.

Last edited by Michael; Sep 27th, 2018 at 09:45 AM.
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Dec 1st, 2018, 12:24 AM
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I'm beginning to plan a trip to this area, and can't thank you enough for your detailed and informative TR, Michael -- wonderful! As just one example, the Leger Museum had been on my "maybe" list, and has now moved up to my "if-at-all possible" list. Much appreciated!
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Dec 1st, 2018, 04:45 AM
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Public transportation in the Pyrenées is a lot better than most people probably think it is. We were all over this area last winter by train and the Bus à Un Euro.

I realize it was only a passing mention, but Vessuna in Périgueux is one of the most amazing museums I have ever set foot in.
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Dec 1st, 2018, 10:53 AM
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Terrific photos!. I see in the Cote that you also stopped by the Matisse Musee, Vence and Antibes. (Note that getting out of central Nice is much easier if you take the underground tunnel Liautaud that takes you to the A8 directly).

I've not been to Luceram, but I heard their claim to fame is a festival with Nativity Displays this time of year. For others that might be reading, although it is easier to drive to get to the hill towns (we have a place in Nice), you can get to some of these places by train or local bus -- Biot (some nice restos there) and Grasse, for example, and even some of the towns up from Menton are reachable via train. I find Grasse a little more gritty on the edges than the other major towns in the Cote -- I hope you continued just beyond to spectacular Gourdon and the view of the Gorges du Loup.
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Dec 1st, 2018, 05:46 PM
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Originally Posted by gooster View Post
Terrific photos!. I see in the Cote that you also stopped by the Matisse Musee, Vence and Antibes. (Note that getting out of central Nice is much easier if you take the underground tunnel Liautaud that takes you to the A8 directly).

I've not been to Luceram, but I heard their claim to fame is a festival with Nativity Displays this time of year. For others that might be reading, although it is easier to drive to get to the hill towns (we have a place in Nice), you can get to some of these places by train or local bus -- Biot (some nice restos there) and Grasse, for example, and even some of the towns up from Menton are reachable via train. I find Grasse a little more gritty on the edges than the other major towns in the Cote -- I hope you continued just beyond to spectacular Gourdon and the view of the Gorges du Loup.
The Nice sojourn was from a different trip, as were most of the visits to towns in the triangle between Nice, Antibes and Grasse; only Biot, the musée Fernand Léger and Grasse were part of our last summer's visit. The photos are labelled by date, but that information is missing from the existing slide show--you can see it by clicking on the individual photos.
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