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Report 944: Our Month in France

By Ron Zolezzi from usa, Summer 2005

Trip Description: Mid August to mid September

Destinations: Countries - France, Switzerland; Regions/Cities - Loire Valley, Paris

Categories: Hotels/B&Bs; Foodie Trip; Sightseeing; Independent Travel; 2 People

Page 1 of 1: Our Month in France , Mid August/September 2005

This was a twenty-nine day trip: twenty-one by rental car from CDG to Tours, then by train to St-Jean-de-Luz and Paris. On the driving portion we covered a lot of ground, racking up roughly 3000km and touring a number of regions. We do a trip like this every year, and why more people don’t has always been a mystery to us, France having so much to offer.

We enjoy the driving, but are very careful in avoiding long drives between hotels, all of which are booked in advance and the driving routes from one hotel to another plotted as well. We carry two books of maps, the large spiral bound Michelin Motoring Atlas and also the pocket edition. Most of the hotels are selected from the catalog of Chateaux and Hotels de France.

Flew from SFO to CDG, where we had a fairly easy time although the Europcar counter was understaffed and we had quite a wait. But we made it out, and a little over an hour later we had checked in to the Chateau de Fere and were lounging by the pool, looking foreward to a pleasant evening and an excellent dinner.

This was our second stay at this very attractive and friendly hotel which is located approximately midway between CDG and Reims, ideally situated if one is driving east after a long flight. When I called for a reservation they asked, “Would you like the same room you had last year?”

The nice weather was fortunate, because at dinner time we were seated on the terrace, where we enjoyed apperitifs [Kir Royales for us] and appetizers and made our menu and wine selections before going into the dining room. A very pleasant custom. Tonight a French lady was talking very loudly on her cell phone, oblivious to the stares of the other guests (sound familiar)? The standout course of that dinner was duck flavored with raspberry and pineapple.

The next morning we were off to Reims, and with plenty of time to get there, we headed down through Chateay Thierry and then followed back roads along the River Marne on the way to Epernay. Our destination was the famed Boyer les Crayeres, where we had enjoyed a two day stay with marvelous dinners the previous year. An unafordable splurge, but one greatly anticipated. Our room wasn’t ready, so after having our luggage taken in we headed downtown for a nice walk and a light lunch.

Returning to the hotel we were shown to our room, which was lovely, decorated to the hilt in an African motiff. After a nap we went down to dinner and were pleased that they agreed to seat us in the main dining room. At the next table were a couple from England with two large golden retrievers (only in France). While the setting is incredible, and the orchestration of the service something to behold (although a bit overdone), the meal were served as compared to our previous ones was extremely disappointing.

The next stop was Nancy for two nights, and we decided to have our first picnic along the way, stopping at a supermarche for our usual fare, a baguette, cheese, sausage, two apples and a half bottle of wine. Picnics are not taken lightly. Our kit includes a tablecloth [from Provence], wine glasses, plates, utensils, etc.

We stayed on the Place Stanislaus, which is just breathtaking, one of the most beautiful squares in France. The golden gates are spectacular. We first rode the little tourist train to get our bearings, then did a lot of walking around town. Marvelous architecture. Enjoyed the lovely park. Had a lunch at the elegant Excecsior Flo and dinners both evenings at La Mignardise.

Leaving Nancy, we headed for Alsace, which surpased our expectations. Lovely quaint villages, the cities of Strassbourg and Colmar, flowers all over the place, vineyards galore in the valley and climbing the slopes of the surrounding hills.

First three nights at the Hotel Le Parc in Obernai, a lovely town and one which proved to be a convenient base for exploring the area. The Hotel is very nice, very well run. Lovely room looking out on the garden with beautiful fabrics and furnishings, very comfortable.

First night dinner proved to be a disappointment; the cuisine was both marginal and highly overpriced. So on the second night we drove into town. Couldn’t find a parking place near the center, so kept going and ended up at a little family run Italian place. Returning to the hotel after dinner we experienced a “first.” We couldn’t find it! The signs we followed earlier in the day seemed to have disappeared, but after several tries we found our way. We returned for dinner the next night and parked downtown after the meal and had a very nice walk.

On the second day we drove down the D35 (the little road to the east of the D422, the Route du Vin), visiting the villages along the way and returning on the autoroute. On the next we visited Strassbourg, taking the little tourist train by the cathedral and then retracing much of the route by foot, enjoying a nice lunch along one of the canals. This is a beautiful city, and the large crowds of tourists did not inhibit our enjoyment of it.

Leaving Obernai, our plan was to drive over the mountains on the Route des Cretes to Thann, our next two-night destination to the south. However, a heavy overcast had set in and the mountains were heavily shrouded in clouds, so we headed down through the valley instead. Our hotel, also named Le Parc, is a very attractive older place. Lovely painted ceilings in the public areas and Louis IV period furnishings. After dropping off our bags we headed into town for a walk and a light lunch. By that time the skies had cleared somewhat, so we drove up in the mountains and enjoyed some spectacular scenery. Very good dinners that night and the next in the quiet and very elegant dining room.

Following day sightseeing took us through several very pretty villages, notably Eguisheim, on the way to Colmar. This is a wonderful city to explore, and although a light rain was falling we did quite a bit of walking around and admiring the lovely architecture. There are cruises on the canals in little open boats, and the passengers had their multicolored umbrellas open, a memorable sight.

Leaving Colmar, we took a wrong turn, and after observing some much different looking road signs, came to the brilliant realization that we had wandered into Germany. The navigator (yours truly) was rather red-faced at this slight mistep, or perhaps as a result of having too much wine at lunch.

Next up on the itinerary were two nights on the way to Lac Leman (Lake Geneva), and we had picked the Hotel Le France in Villers-le-Lac. Following a very scary drive through a pea soup fog, we arrived late morning at the rather unimpressive looking hotel to find out from a note taped on the door that reception was closed until 3 pm. Sneaking in through a side entrance, we were even less impressed after looking around and decided to continue on. Later we would leave a phone message, and they were nice enough not to charge us.

We ended up in Switzerland, at the Hotel Beau Rivage at Lake Neuchatel. This is a rather upscale splurge hotel, right on the lakeshore, with a very nice restaurant, and we enjoyed our stay there. Room price question at the reception desk: “Is there perhaps a less expensive room (like in the basement)?”

Onward to Lac Leman, which is gorgeous, and the Hotel Restaurant du Port in the little medieval village of Yvoire. This proved to be one of our favorite places, which we luckily had booked for three nights.

Often the most difficult navigating challenge is finding the hotel, and today this was the case in spades. At both openings in the walls of the village, with streams of daytrippers walking in and out, there are signs saying that no cars are allowed. After a lot of wasted time driving around, we learned from the Tourist Office that you are allowed to take your car into the village and down to the port [duh!] where the hotel is located at the water’s edge to unload your luggage. There is parking in a private garage back up on the main road.

The charming hotel has only seven rooms, and ours with its own balcony with table and chairs overlooked the lake, the docks for the excursion boats and the yacht harbor. This was the view we enjoyed with our picnic lunch.

Later, going down to dinner, we were greeted warmly by the proprieters, then shown to our table and ofered complimentary champagne. There was a pretty good crowd seated in the indoor and outdoor areas, and a convivial atmosphere with everyone having a good time. Obviously this was the place to be. Perusing the menus we decided on the specialty of the house, fillets of perch au citron. First a bowl of salad from which we served ourselves. Then two heated trivets placed on the table, and subsequently were brought a large platter of the fish and another of pomme frittes, along with bowls of a delicious sauce made of lemon, butter and heavy cream. This rather simple fare along with a light dessert was the meal we enjoyed each evening and it was terrific.

On the ensuing days we took a boat trip to Lucerne and made excursions to Geneva and to Annecy.

Now we had four nights on the way to the Loire Valley, the first two booked at Le Vieux Moulin, located in the little town of Bouilland just north of Beaune. We were drawn by the reputation of the Michelin* restaurant and were pleased that lunch was being served when we arrived. Unfortunately, the meal was not to our liking, and we decided not to stay.

We ended up a short distance away at the Hostellerie du Chateau Sainte-Sabine. The XVII century chateau proved to be a good choice, attractive period decor, spacious grounds and a very good restaurant. During our stay we sampled the marvelous counryside, visiting Semur-en-Axois along with a couple of chateaux and had a nice picnic.

Onward to the northern edge of the Auvergne region and the Chateau Ygrande, a little west of Moulins. This is a very comfortable hotel with a large equestrian center, with nothing much to do nor places to go, a great place to relax. Pleasant walks, lounging by the pool, a nice horseback ride enjoyed by Mary. The chateau is high on the crest of a hill, and lunch and dinner were served out on the terrace, overlooking the fields, the pond and the valley and distant hills to the west, as romantic a setting as one could conjure up.

Three days to go on the driving portion of our trip as we headed toward the little town of Bléré in the Valley of the Loire, home of Le Cheval Blanc, the little two star hotel with the famed Michelin* restaurant.

This is a very welcoming hotel with an utterly charming staff, and I was probably the first person to call for a reservation on the day they reopened earlier in the year. Twelve rooms upstairs, dining inside or in the narrow garden leading in from the back entrance; also a swimming pool across the street which was much taken advantage of during our stay.

Bléré is on the River Cher just down from Chenonceaux (due south of Amboise a little ways) and well located for getting around. One of the things we made sure to do this time was to revisit Valencay, our favorite chateau.

For dinner each night we had the 38€ menu, and they were by far the best of our trip. Here’s an example.

First the appetizer with my Kir Royale. Four, actually, each in their little dish or cup: a puree of cauliflower, tiny escargots in a buttery sauce, a carpaccio of salmon and a little foie gras. Along with this a delicious cheese puff. Then the first course, langoustines in a dreamy sauce of lemon and butter, generous portion with a vegetable and a little starch. The main course was medallions of veal. Rich sauce with mushrooms, accompanied by potatoes, vegetables and a kind of frittata. Portions again generous and the cheese cart declined.

For dessert I ordered the assiette gourmand, the assemblage of desserts I noticed being served at the next table when I dined there the previous year. The large plate was covered with a dome comprised of strands of caramelized sugar and contained seven items: mousse of chocolate, another of raspberry, a creme brulle and a nougat glace in the shape of a heart, a cookie in the shape of a flower and a couple of little sorbets. This called for a coulis of some kind, and there were three separate ones in little cups on a side dish: apricot, strawberry and raspberry; also a creme anglaise.

On the last day we drove to Tours to drop off the car, walked around and had lunch, then took a train back to Bléré. Next morning we caught the train and were on our way to St Jean de Luz, by way of the TGV at Pierre-des-Corps, where we spent four very relaxing days.

St Jean de Luz is a very charming little Basque town on the south Atlantic coast of France and a truly marvelous destination. We like to stay at the Grand Hotel, a splurge but a convenient one, located right on the beach and the promenade. The center of town is a short walk away, its pedestrian streets filled with numerous shops and good restaurants. Lots of activity, people having a good time. We had most of our dinners at La Portua, one of the several on Rue Republique offering indoor and outdoor seating, where the exuberant proprieter always gives us a warm welcome and a good table.

One thing we like doing on our trips is as little as possible, and this particular town is ideally suited for that most pleasurable pursuit.

From here we took the TGV direct to Paris, ending the trip with a four day stay in our favorite city. Per our custom we stayed in the 2nd at the Hotel Vivienne, where the staff is practically like family, and had most of our dinners at Le Vaudeville and a couple of excellent lunches at Le Souffle.

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