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TRIP REPORT: Paris, Bordeaux, Dordogne, Toulouse, Provence, and more

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Jul 23rd, 2017, 10:59 AM
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TRIP REPORT: Paris, Bordeaux, Dordogne, Toulouse, Provence, and more

This report is a continuation of a report that I started at the following link:

http://www.fodors.com/community/euro...m#last-comment

I've decided to start a new thread for a couple reasons. One, because France is by far the largest portion of the trip, so it seemed to warrant it's own thread, but more importantly, it feels like a completely different trip now that we have arrived in Paris.

Our first 10 days in London and Brussels felt like a typical vacation that we would take when we were limited to 10 to 14 days. Although enjoyable, we spent most of our time rushing from site to site, and eating out every meal, which gets tiresome after a couple weeks. Because of the lengthy nature of this trip, just over 10 weeks in all, we will be primarily staying in apartments from this point onward, where we can eat the majority of our meals in, and take things a little bit more slowly.

Our apartment is in the sixth arrondissement of Paris, about a one minute walk from the outdoor market that occurs three times a week on Blvd Raspail, which is located just north of the Rennes Metro stop, on the center median of the street.

Our first morning was a Sunday, which is when they have the organic market. What a pleasure it was to stroll slowly among the stalls, enjoying the sights, the sounds and especially the smells of the market. The scent of the chickens roasting on the rotisserie was intoxicating. My heart raced at the sight of the brightly colored fruits and vegetables; the fresh goat cheeses that are so creamy you could eat them with a spoon; the peonies exploding with color, and at €10 a bunch, vs. $10 a stem we would pay in Los Angeles. I don't know if it was because it wasn't too crowded, or because it was a beautiful summer day, but everybody was pleasant and smiling, the vendors as well as the clientele. I was so happy that nobody responded to my intermediate level French by replying in English! I'm really hoping to improve while we are here. We left the market with some perfectly ripe figs, some jambon cru and a couple small tartes aux tomates for lunch, as well as some glorious vegetables and a piece of roasted pork belly for dinner.

Why does everything taste so much better here than in the US? Is it because we pick our produce green and it "ripens" in a refrigerated truck, instead of on the vine or tree? Whatever the reason, the figs tasted like they were filled with honey, they were so sweet, and combined with the saltiness of the ham, it was almost like eating pieces of sweet and salty butter.

The pork belly was nothing like we are used to. First of all, it was sitting in the bottom of the rotisserie before we arrived, absorbing flavor from the drippings of the rotisserie chickens above. Also, it was about 80% meat and 20% fat, as compared to the US where it tends to be 50/50. It was super tender, just falling off the bone, so I would almost compare it to short ribs in that respect. With that and a mixed salad for dinner, we were in food heaven.

We are currently one week into a two week stay here, and we've had 16 of our first 21 meals in our apartment. A rotisserie chicken lasts us three meals, with the diced leftovers from the first dinner added to pasta with garlic, basil, tomatoes and cheese the next night, and over a salad for lunch the next day.

The apartment is very comfortable and in a great location, about equidistant from the Seine and Blvd Montparnasse. It's a one bedroom, with a small kitchen, and comes in at about 45 sq meters, which is just under 500 sq ft. This is more than twice as big as Paris hotel rooms we have had in the past. The owner has a very quirky sense of style. It looks like she bought old cabinets, doors, corbels and cornices from an old house that was being torn down, and felt she had to use each and every piece to decorate, logic or efficiency be damned. For example, all the flatware is behind a set of four accordion-style wooden doors on loose creaky hinges that must be folded back completely in order to be able to open the drawers hidden inside. It's like opening a series of Russian nesting dolls every time you want to get a spoon.

But I will say that the apartment is very quiet, as it's opens onto two central courtyards; the bed is comfortable; the hot water is plentiful; and there's even a portable air conditioner, which we made good use of a couple days when it was over 90 degrees F. And the location is perfect, close enough to be able walk or bike to any number of sites in the surrounding area, far enough away from the main tourist areas as to be a very calm neighborhood to return to at the end of the day. In fact the entire weekend after we arrived, right after the national holiday on July 14, the streets were so quiet and devoid of cars we could walk down the middle of Rue de Rennes and not see a car moving in either direction.

We have been taking advantage of the Vélib' bicycle rental system to explore the area. Even if you haven't done this before, you may have noticed that there are bicycle stations all over the city, most no more than 300 m apart. For only eight euro for the week you can have unlimited use of a bicycle so long as you return it to any location in the city within 30 minutes of taking it. If you want to keep going you can immediately take another bike after you've returned the first, and so long as you keep returning it within 30 minute increments there's no additional cost.

In our first three days we have covered, by bike or on foot, the Montparnasse area to the south of us, the St-Germain-de-Pres area to the north of us, the Luxembourg gardens, and all around the Îles de la Cité and St Louis. It's been so nice to be able to come back to our place for lunch and dinner, and then head back out for a bike ride or a walk down the Jardin des Tuileries at 9:45pm, in time to see the color of the stone buildings change from blazing orange to a soft gold, as the late setting summer sun dips behind the grand arch at La Défense.
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Jul 23rd, 2017, 12:37 PM
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Looking forward to your report!
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Jul 23rd, 2017, 02:14 PM
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We spend a lot of time in Paris and are very familiar with all you are sharing.....I feel like I am there! Cannot wait for the next installment....
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Jul 23rd, 2017, 03:37 PM
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Our 1st stay in Paris was near Montparnasse & Raspail over 9/11 (interesting time to be in Paris for sure). Fun to relive the area with you.

Food heaven? Wow, do you have that right! Even the butter (much discussed here) is so much better in Paris.

Since 9/11 we have returned almost every Sept. returning to that area but mostly staying on Ile St. Louis. There's just something about Paris....it's the way we feel when we are there, can't explain it.

That said, many times we've added a train trip elsewhere in France.
My absolute favorite was to Toulouse & a stay in Sarlat in the Dordogne so I am anxiously awaiting your take on that area.

Great details...exactly what we are looking for on Fodors.
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Jul 23rd, 2017, 04:48 PM
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Russ so glad you started a new thread, as this sounds similar to our upcoming trip in September. I would have never found it under the more encompassing title. Looking forward to more.
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Jul 26th, 2017, 01:29 PM
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Thanks, everyone!

When we were in the planning stages of our trip to Paris, the thought was to take a French class every morning, and then do some sightseeing in the afternoon. This was in part the reason for the choice of location of our apartment, as it is near the Paris branch of the Alliance Française; However as we continued to research, we found that we could take two hours a day of private lessons for less money than taking a class, and it would be more personalized.

Our teacher, Caroline, is young, personable and has a logical and orderly teaching style which suits us. She goes to a lot of work to create a personalized lesson plan for each day and is very good at breaking things down so that we understand them more easily.

By our fourth day in Paris we had settled into a comfortable routine: get up and make breakfast; take the metro to the 11th arrondissement to have our lessons chez Caroline; lunch nearby or at our apartment; then go out for some sightseeing or activity in the afternoon.

One day our excursion was to the Paris catacombs. Fortunately I had purchased timed tickets online about a month before our departure, because when we arrived, the line for people without pre-purchased tickets was five hours long. Yes, you read that right...FIVE HOURS! Fortunately, we only had to wait for about 15 minutes.

We've been to ossuaries in various cities around the world, and they are always different. In Rome, as well as Kunta Hora in the Czech Republic (which I highly suggest you Google if you haven't seen it), bones are arranged in fanciful sculptures such as a coat of arms or a chandelier. In Palermo, The Convento dei Cappuccini has fully dressed skeletons affixed to the walls, surrounded by elaborate designs made from the bones.

What the Paris catacombs may lack in creativity, it makes up for in research and education. There was plenty of information regarding the quarries that were dug under the city in order to excavate the stone used to build Paris, as well as the eventual reinforcement that was required once subsistence eventually started causing sink holes, which threatened the city structures above. There was also a good deal of documentation in the likely causes of death and the process for determining this. Altogether a very interesting and educational visit.

Another day we visited the Fondation Louis Vuitton, designed by Frank Geary, to see an excellent exhibition on contemporary artists of South Africa. The pieces ran the gamut from whimsical to moving, represented by a wide variety of media including found object sculptures, painting, photography and video.

Having visited both the Geary designed Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, I was afraid that the building was going to be deja vu, but we were very impressed by the amount of outdoor space in which we could wander, especially on the roof, which really gave dramatic views of the external structure. Highly recommended for fans of modern architecture.

Our third excursion was to the Musee des Arts décoratifs, located in the Palais du Louvre, to see a Christian Dior retrospective that had opened recently. I'm not particularly interested in fashion, but Sam's been working in it for the last 30 years and he was very excited to see it (Plus it was his birthday, so that was his gift to himself). I have to admit that, despite my reservations, it was very beautiful and very well laid out.

It started with quite a bit of history on Dior's pre-designer life, including an art gallery that he opened in Paris, where many painters who went on to become famous surrealists first displayed their work. They were even able to display many of the actual paintings that were shown back then, which were loaned by private individuals as well as museums in Paris.

Of course the clothing was the main event and there were literally hundreds of examples on display. The finale was in an absolutely gorgeous room with two story ceilings that had projections of constellations, nebulae, clouds and other dreamlike images, which reinforced the theme of the show - Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams.

That evening we went to our first dinner out in a week, at a restaurant called Châteaubriand, in the 11th arrondissement. Although very simply decorated, all of the creativity was saved for the menu, which included five amuse bouches, an entrée, a main course and two desserts. There is one prix fixe menu and it changes daily so you're never sure what you're going to get. The one item that is always on the menu is a desert which involves an egg yolk that's encrusted with sugar sitting on a small cloud of meringue. Meant to be eaten in one bite, it's a bit like an intense crème brûlée, without the brûlée.

The next night we went out to dinner again at a restaurant called Boutay, with two friends of ours who we did not know we're going to be in Paris until a week before, when they mentioned it on Facebook. It's always fun seeing a place you love through the eyes of somebody seeing it for the first time, so we really enjoyed hearing their impressions of Paris, as well as of Italy from where they had just come, and which we know well.

Now that the weekend had arrived and there were no lessons, we almost didn't know what to do with ourselves, so we went really crazy and decided to go to two museums in one day (clearly my definition of crazy has changed since my 20s).

The first museum we went to was the Musée des Arts et Métiers, a sort of Museum of Science and Industry, chronicling the evolution of a wide range of technologies, starting in the 13th century and ranging to the present. This includes printing presses, looms, bridge building, deep-sea diving, automobiles, manned flight, computers, and space travel.

The final room is a beautiful decommissioned church, which contains an example of Foucalt's pendulum, conceived to prove that the earth rotates. It also has a variety of airplanes suspended from the ceiling, that you can view up close by ascending a metal scaffolding located in the center of the room. The juxtaposition of the ancient church, with the modern inventions inside is very striking.

The other museum we visited was the Musee de la Châsse et de la Nature, which is surely one of the most original museums we've ever been to. Displays are artfully arranged for aesthetic appeal more than by a particular theme, so a series of bird paintings may be accompanied by a large stuffed polar bear raised on his hind feet and appearing to smile. Another display might be a picnic table covered with a red and white gingham tablecloth, set for dinner with fine China, flanked by two full-size stuffed apes.

It's really quite difficult to explain but, but the quirkiness comes not from the items themselves, most of which are works of art in their own right, but from the unexpected combinations used in their display. A fascinating day.

The weather the next day was turning out to be a nice, so we decided to spend most of it outdoors, after first stopping for a drink at Le Train Bleu restaurant, located in the Gare de Lyon. The ornately painted rooms depicted over 40 cities and regions in France and is at once over the top and stunningly beautiful.

From there it was a short walk to the Viaduc des Arts, in the 12th arrondissement. This is a beautiful park that was created on the raised former railway line near the Bastille, from which the New York highline must have certainly gotten its inspiration. It's a wonderful way to walk through a green space filled with flowers and trees and have a 3-story view of all of the adjacent architecture. Underneath the former rail line, the arches of the viaduct have been enclosed and are filled with shops, making excellent example of repurposing existing architecture instead of demolishing and rebuilding.

So that ends our first week of two in Paris. Coming up next: A bit of Brittany.
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Jul 26th, 2017, 09:26 PM
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Nice reviews of places and museums we have never seen.
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Jul 30th, 2017, 07:03 AM
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A BIT OF BRITTANY: Dinan, St-Malo, St-Suliac, Fougères and Rennes

Several months ago, when I was arranging our itinerary, I had Brittany on the schedule, as it's a place that we've never been. However, as is always the case, there was more that we wanted to see than we had time for. So as a compromise to eliminating Brittany completely, we decided that we would do it as an overnight trip from Paris.

We took the new, faster TGV service from Paris to Rennes, which started this year, cutting the travel time from two hours to an hour and a half. From there we picked up the world's smallest rental car and made our way 30 minutes to Dinan, a postcard pretty village on the way north toward Saint-Malo.

My original plan was to have lunch and spend an hour exploring the village, but there ended up being a lot more to see than just the pretty half-timbered buildings, including a climb up the clock tower for spectacular views, as well as a walk along the ramparts, with gorgeous views down to the port along the Rance river, and across the valley.

A long walk down a steep cobblestone street will take you down to the old port, which is even more beautiful than the upper part of town. We were pleasantly surprised that the town wasn't completely overrun with summer holiday trekkers on this late July day. All together we spent four very enjoyable hours there before moving on to Saint-Malo.

We arrived in Saint-Malo about 5pm and discovered that this was where the summer hoards were hiding. Fortunately we were able to escape the worst of the crowds by heading up to the top of the imposing ramparts of the old, fortified city. We were thankful that the sun doesn't set in mid-summer until almost 10:00pm, as we had great light for a long, leisurely walk a top the walls, from where we took in excellent views of the city, the very busy beaches and the ocean. After exploring the city a bit, we had a delicious dinner at L'absinthe Cafe, still making it out on time to see the sunset over the ocean.

When we went to Mont-St-Michele several years ago in July, we stayed over night and had the island almost completely to ourselves in the evening, once the day trippers departed. Unfortunately, that didn't turn out to be the case in St-Malo, as it seems to be a popular overnight spot for larger tour groups. Overall, I thought the city was definitely worth seeing for the history and the imposing city walls, although I would recommend seeing it out of season.

The next day we had a full schedule planned, before our plan to drop off the car in Rennes in time to make a 4:50 train. The first stop was nearby, in St-Suliac, rated as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. This sedate, charming fishing village sits right on the water and is a delight to wander around. The pretty and well maintained stone houses were fronted with towering hollyhocks in bloom, as well as some of the most insanely beautiful hydrangeas we've ever seen, with colors ranging from the typical pink or blue, to a shade of deep Concord grape purple that seemed positively unreal. Many of the homes were adorned with old fishing nets hanging from windows or walls, in case it wasn't clear on what the main economy was originally based.

Form there it was about an hour's drive to Fougères and its spectacular castle. Built in 1166 and in amazing condition, it is one of Europe's largest medieval castles. We spent about 90 minutes walking the ramparts and going in the various towers and learning about the history. We were surprised that there were not more visitors to this gem of a castle, as it was the highlight of our brief trip to this small part of Brittany.

We had hoped to get back to Rennes with more time to explore but arrived back about 90 minutes before our train departure time. This gave us only enough time to do a quick spin through the old city center, admiring the tall, skinny half-timbered houses, many leaning at alarmingly precarious angles -- but I'm sure we'll be back some day to explore more of Brittany.

Coming up next: Our final 3 days in Paris
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Jul 30th, 2017, 09:26 AM
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Not to criticize your choice of the Raspail bio market, but I have lived here 10 years and have never gone there.
So, I went this Sunday...
Prices are astronomical, compared to the other markets in Paris.
I bought 2 peaches and a small tomato, which cost me €5.50.
Then I got in line for the rotisserie chickens - but quickly fled - because a man paid €24 for a rather small whole chicken.

I'm sorry to see tourists being suckered into going here and paying unnecessary prices.
But I'm glad you enjoyed your chicken, anyway.
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Jul 30th, 2017, 09:48 AM
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Love the castle at Fougeres, over the years took my father there and then sister and her family, always empty (unless there is a concert on) the size absorbs people.
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Jul 30th, 2017, 11:30 AM
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That's so odd Fuzz, we paid only €9 for our chicken, which was slightly more than at our local Franprix. Maybe that was a different vendor - or perhaps the guy in front of you was just especially annoying ;-)

@Bilbo - that must be it, because it felt like we had stumbled onto a well kept secret.
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Jul 30th, 2017, 09:36 PM
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No, only one chicken vendor, and that was the price.
It was, of course, a free-range chicken, but still...
Les prix ont flambé apparament.

I go to Auguste Blanqui market, which has 4 rotisserie vendors - all different prices - bio, normale, Tandoori...
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Jul 31st, 2017, 12:22 AM
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Wow, that is insane. We bought the chicken on a weekday, so it probably wasn't bio, but at least it was reasonably priced.
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Jul 31st, 2017, 03:17 AM
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That's why - the bio market is only held on Sunday mornings.
Too bad you had to suffer with an "inferior" chicken ��

There is no excuse to pay a fortune for an organic rotisserie chicken.
But people do flock here...
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Aug 1st, 2017, 05:28 PM
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Our final three days in Paris seemed to fly by, with French lessons every morning and some sort activity in the afternoon. On Wednesday we went for a stroll down Faubourg Sainte Honoré, which is generally not my thing, but Sam wanted to see the Hermès store since he used to work at the one in Beverly Hills. I mentioned this fact to the associate who was selling a bottle of cologne to Sam and he threw in a bunch of samples. We also stopped by Colette just to see it before they close this year. I was happy that we escaped with only a €25 purchase.

Since we were in the area, we decided to have lunch at the Ritz bar, which we found has a beautiful outdoor patio. We were happy that they had a couple affordable lunch options, although beverage prices were insane. We did share an amazing tarte tarin, probably the best of the trip so far.

On Thursday we trained to Fountainbleau to see a couple friends of ours who live there, so we went a couple hours before to see the chateau and the lovely gardens. Afterward L picked us up in his car and we went to his house where we had an aperitif with him and his wife. He explained how difficult it was trying to fix up the house, as the city controlled every aesthetic decision; on account of the historic zone he was in, being so close to the chateau. I found it odd that they would not let him repair his shutters, but instead wanted him to replace them with aluminum shutters. Doesn't seem very of the period to me, given that the house was built in 1882.

We went to a nearby restaurant for dinner, which happens to also be where they had their wedding reception years earlier. There is a lovely view of the Seine, which looked as calm as a lake, flowing by in its natural state this far from Paris.

After dinner we had our first minor mishap of the trip, as the train service was cancelled between our station and the next, so we had to be bussed part of the way. Nothing tragic really, but it doubled our time to get back to and hour and a half, and we fought to stay awake before getting home and passing out.

Friday was really just about getting packed and ready to go. Despite the fact that this was our longest stay in Paris, I can't believe how fast two weeks has flown by, but we are excited to be going to some new places in the next couple of weeks, namely Bordeaux and Toulouse, as well visiting some old favorites in the Dordogne and Lot.
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Aug 1st, 2017, 05:40 PM
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Love Paris and appreciate all the detail in your TR. Looking forward to the rest. We'll be in Toulouse and the Dordogne in Sept. so hoping to pick up some tips.
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Aug 2nd, 2017, 05:06 AM
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<>

WOW! That would have been about 70 cents in our local market. Amazing.
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Aug 2nd, 2017, 01:25 PM
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Thanks for sharing, I'm looking forward to continuing traveling through you!
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Aug 2nd, 2017, 04:55 PM
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Enjoyable report, Russ. Thanks for all the detail! Could visualize a lot of your explorations in Paris. Sounds like a great trip.
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Aug 3rd, 2017, 05:19 AM
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Bordeaux

We took the new TGV service from Paris to Bordeaux, which as of a month ago travels non-stop on new dedicated tracks, cutting the travel time from 3h20 to about 2 hours. Unlike the Rennes trip, this train had brand new cars, and we were happy to have been able snag comfy first class seats for €29 each by buying 3 months in advance.

We had read a lot of good press about Bordeaux over the past couple of years, but even so, we were pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed the city. Our apartment was recently redone and was quiet and comfortable , with a/c and all the mod cons. It was located in the old center, from which we could walk everywhere.

Most of the buildings have been cleaned in the past few years, and positively glowed in the late afternoon light. In fact, when we came across buildings that had not yet been cleaned, the difference was dramatic, with a couple centuries of accumulated grime hiding the buttery color of the natural stone.

We were pleasantly surprised that the entire historic center is closed off to cars, which makes it very pedestrian friendly. There's also a very modern tram system, the sleek silhouette of which is very striking against the old architecture of the city.

We picked up a map at the tourist office and did a walking tour of the city, which covers the major sites, such as the old city gates, one of which includes the Grosse Cloche. It also takes you through the impressive Place de la Bourse, with the relatively new Miroir d'Eau, a shallow fountain that reflects the images of the buildings in the place angeles d was very popular with adults and children alike splashing around on these hot summer days.

Possibly our favorite site was the Grand Theatre, built in 1780, now the home of the national Opera of Bordeaux and the national ballet of Bordeaux. Inside the theater were several modern art installations, which were very interesting, especially in the neoclassical setting. The highlight was a walk onto the darkened stage of the theater lit only by black lights. On the floor were thousands of specks of glitter, which gave the appearance of walking on the night sky, festooned with stars. The artist had also lit each seat in the auditorium individually and then connected the lights to a computer program which would randomly illuminate or darken each seat individually, creating a series of patterns that reminded me of pixels from the old digital displays of the 1970s. At the end they illuminated the entire auditorium so that we could enjoy the architecture and the beautifully painted ceiling.

The next day was spent primarily at the the Cité du Vin, a museum with interactive displays focused on the history, making and tasting of wine. Kind of an adult Disneyland, without the human-sized mouse -- but with wine.

So with all our train trips behind us, tomorrow we begin the next stage of our travel, when we pick up the car and head for the Dordogne.
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