July 15, 2022: Paris “The French Trip” exceeded expectations. Laissez le bon temps rouler indeed! Two months exploring France, Luxembourg and Belgium was wonderful, and was not nearly enough.
The French Trip
Why France? Quand le vin est tiré, il faut le boire, as the French say. “When the wine is poured, it must be drunk.” And the wine was (figuratively) poured, with COVID receding, borders open, and spring in the air. What better place to drink up the joie de vivre (joy of life) than France?
The history here is amazing. We found a thousand year old tapestry with connections to D-Day, Robin Hood, the Magna Carta, and Ancient Greece. We researched “what caused WWII” and traced the thread back to the Roman Empire. Learned that medieval silk printing technology led to modern film technology. Also, how wine funds hospitals – and monarchies. And finally, the special relationship between France and the USA, from the Lafayette and Washington’s friendship in the revolutionary war, to the Statue of Liberty, to D-Day and NATO to saving the vineyards from phylloxera. Slow travel through France is an amazing way to get an immersive, liberal education.
Also in 2017 we visited one of the most awe-inspiring sites, the Chauvet Cave Paintings. The oldest of these are about thirty-seven thousand years old… mind-boggling. Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog is an excellent documentary on the subject. What we saw were replicas – the originals are sealed off for protection.
This trip, however, we were able to visit several caves in the Dordogne region: at Font-de-Gaume, Rouffignac and Pech Merle. Seeing these scenes that our ancestors painted by flickering torchlight 29,000 years ago was a moving experience.
French Food and Wine
The French say, “du pain et du vin, c’est la vie du pèlerin.” Bread and wine, it is the pilgrim’s life. It is certainly a big part of our travel lives! The gastronomy has been great. The more we travel, the more we learn that high-end cuisine has its roots in “making good with what you have.” We’ve had some disappointments (here’s looking at you, Andouillette). But mostly, it’s been amazing. The regional passion for their local products – cheese, fish, truffles, duck, sausage – is impressive. Nearly every town has a weekly outdoor market. There are generally far more locals than tourists.
And we drank great French wine and spirits: Beaujolais, Burgundy, Champagne, Calvados, Loire, Bordeaux, Cognac, Languedoc, Cassis, Cote du Rhone, Haute-Savoy and Rhine. I’m no closer to being a wine expert, but I do know what I like now!
One of our favorite dining experiences was at La Corrone (The Crown) in Rouen. Julia Childs had her first French meal here and was inspired. I read her book “My Life in France” last year. Did you know that in WWII, she and her husband Paul were both in the OSS, precursor to the CIA? It was a surprising and delightful read.
And while we are nearby, why not…?
French is commonly spoken in several nearby countries, so we added those to our itinerary. Tiny Luxembourg was a surprise favorite. In Belgium we loved Bruges, known as the “Venice of the North,” for its scenic canals. Brussels, not so much. Tiny Andorra was an interesting stop, as was Liechtenstein.
Speaking of Speaking French…
No, we didn’t learn to speak French. We got by with a friendly smile and few key phrases. The most important was: “Je suis desole. Je comprend un petite peu Francais. Parler vous Anglais, s’il vous plait?” (I am sorry. I understand little French! Do you speak English, please?). I could usually fumble about half-way through this phrase before I am interrupted by the other person saying “I speak English.” Merci Beaucoup!
The French Trip Highlights
While unhurried, we covered a lot of ground on this trip – twenty-seven cities in five countries. Unwritten posts played in my head as we drive down narrow farm lanes. Translating the ideas from “thoughts to dots” wasn’t a priority, as our itinerary was full. With the luxury of a few weeks here in Croatia though, I’ve started to catch up.
Here are “appetizers” from the trip. If the bold title is underlined, click to see a meatier “travel byte” post!
Bastille Day – The 14th of July is celebrated in grand fashion in Paris, with military parades, fireworks, and an all-night party. This is the French National Celebration, also known as Bastille Day, akin to the USA’s 4th of July.
It was a terrific light and fireworks show, starring of course the 133-year-old Eiffel tower. We walked about two miles home after the show to our apartment, and the Paris streets were alive with after parties until late. Fantastic!
Giverny – Claude Monet’s gardens in Giverny inspired his impressionist painting for more than forty years. “My Garden is my most beautiful masterpiece” he said.
We visited his home and garden in May, and found it inspiring as well.
“I must have flowers, always, and always.” ― Claude Monet
Calvados – this is a high-quality brandy made from apples (and sometimes pears).
It is AOC, so producers can only brand it “Calvados” if it is produced in the region and with specific standards.
Distillers have been working in the area since at least the 700s. Today, producers will use dozens of specific types of apples to get the right taste.
Carcassonne – About 1200 years ago, Charlemagne’s army besieged La Cité for a year. The defenders were nearly starving when Madam Carcas fed the last of the grain to the last pig, and threw it down at the enemy. Believing that their siege had failed, they left in frustration. La Cité sounded it’s bells in victory. Soon after, the city name was changed to “Madam Carcas-sounded-the-bells” (Carcassonne).
The story is probably not true, but it makes a great tale, nonetheless.
Kevin does some challenging adventure nearly year. This year’s is his toughest, and he continues to inspire (you got this, Kevin!).
We weren’t quite as ambitious in our Mont Blanc plan, and so tackled only the Lac Blanc (White Lake) section. And we used La Flégère and l’Index chair lifts to get up to the starting point!
Mer de Glace – is the largest Glacier in France, a beautiful and foreboding place.
Mary Shelly visited in 1816 as she eloped with her husband, Percy. She was writing “Frankenstein” at the time, and in her story set the fateful meeting of the Doctor and his monster here on the Glacier.
Our hike was not so fateful; we enjoyed a blue skies, wildflowers, and lively marmots.
Annecy – I had high expectations for Annecy. And Mark Twain summed it up best:
“ …Then at the end of an hour you come to Annecy and rattle through its old crooked lanes, built solidly up with curious old houses that are a dream of the middle ages, and presently you come to the main object of your trip–Lake Annecy. It is a revelation, it is a miracle. It brings the tears to a body’s eyes it is so enchanting.”
Beaune – Beaune is the heart of Burgundy (Bourgogne) wine country.
We biked from Beaune to Santenay through vineyards and villages on a dedicated cycle, walking and wine worker route. A a bee swarm swirled in front of the church steeple, and flowers bloomed along the lane.
A lunch of coq-au-vin (literally “rooster in wine”, cooked long and low to tenderize) fueled us for the ride home.
Dijon – the city famous for mustard!
Nobility in the 1600’s loved spicy mustard, and Dijon had exclusive production rights in France. Edmond Fallot remains one of the few traditional moustarderies (yes, that is a French word ), with with herbal, fig, wine varieties. They even have a mustard vending machine!
P.S. yes, I looked for Grey Poupon. No luck.
Verdun – Verdun is beautiful, but with a dark history. It gives rest to more than 300,000 who lost their lives here in WW1. In the cellar of Douaumont Ossuary lies – quite literally – a jumbled-pile of unidentified bones.
Ironically, the 843 A.D. Treaty of Verdun dividing Charlemange’s kingdom among his grandsons set the divisions that resulted in many of the European wars, including the Napoleonic Wars, The War of 1870, WW1 and WW2.
Normandy American Cemetery – the land is hallowed by those who gave their lives on the beaches just beyond. The French donated this ground to the US in perpetuity as a memorial.
As we gazed, the silence was rent by the shriek of fighter jets in formation, racing overhead. One peeled away in the “missing man” formation. My heart nearly stopped.
We found US flags and “thank you” posters throughout Normandy. The sacrifice is not forgotten.
Oradour-sur-Glane – June 10, 1944, the Nazis murdered 642 civilians and burned the entire village, hoping to instill submission by fear as the allies advanced after D-Day. The village remains untouched as a memorial.
On the pretense of searching for resistance weapons, the Nazi separated the men into shops, and the women and children were locked into the church. The men were gunned down, and the church burned down with all inside.
Reims – at busy Roosevelt High School, a side door leads to a museum.
Here, Eisenhower’s Allied Command set up shop in a few classrooms. In this room, the Germans signed unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945.
The room remains untouched since, with original maps still showing 1945 troop positions still on the wall.
Bruges is known for its beautiful canals, old city and of course Bengian beer!
We were fortunate to catch live jazz in the cellar of De Halve Maan (The Half Moon) Brewery. It was about 40 locals and us, down the stairs and through a hidden door at the back of a store-room. Great musical talent from Brittany, Portugal, Italy and Belgium, what a treat.
Yes the beer was excellent too!
Reims Cathedral is where, for centuries, the Kings of France were crowned.
Joan of Arc prophesied that she would see King Charles crowned here if he gave her an army to defeat the English invaders, and (by God) she did.
Reims is also the capital of the Champaign region, so of course, we drank bubbly while sitting in this square!
Rouen is where Joan of Arc was martyred, burned at the stake.
Captured by mercenaries in battle, she was tried for heresy by French collaborators of the English. The trial was one of the most well documented in history, and was politically rigged. The verdict was overturned a few years later, and Joan sainted. She become the national symbol of France.
This graceful church on the site of her death, with a simple memorial outside on the site of the pyre.
Bayeux – gives home to the amazing Bayeux Tapestry, now nearly 1000 years old.
Created around 1070AD, the tapestry is 75 yards long and reads like a comic strip. It tells the story of the Norman Invasion of England by William the Conqueror.
Ironically, Bayeux is only a few miles from Normandy beach, were the Allies, including the English, landed nearly 900 years later to liberate Normandy. Bayeux was one of the first cities liberated by the allies.
Mont St. Michel – more than 1000 years old, the abbey features prominently on the Bayeux tapestry. William the Bastard (later, the Conqueror) came for advice and blessing before invading England.
The abbey was once (appropriately) named “Mount Saint Michael at the Peril of the Sea”. At high tide, it becomes an island; at low tide you can walk to it on the shifting sand of the bay floor.
Early morning vespers in the abbey, with the rising light, are magical.
The Loire Valley – the Loire was the playground for French nobility for centuries, with hundreds of chateaus and vineyards gracing its rivers.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s final home was Chateau du Clos Luce in nearby Amboise. In 1516, the French King Francois I invited him here, where he spent his final years inventing.
Sarlat-la-Caneda – Sarlat is the beautiful little capital of the Dordogne region.
We spent a day canoeing past stony villages on the Dordogne River, and also enjoyed a local fair, complete with sheep, cows, horses and rabbits.
Sarlat is know for its goose and duck foie gras (literally “fat liver”, just like Mardi Gras is “fat Tuesday”) and also confit, or “preserves”, made out of all the other parts and stored in the fat. Yum, but don’t eat too much or you will be fatter than the geese.
Paleolithic Cave Paintings – France is home to incredible cave paintings.
At the grandest (Chauvet and Lascaux), you can see magnificent replicas – the originals are sealed for preservation. However, at Font-de-Gaume, Rouffignac and Pech Merle, you can walk the original caves.
Seeing these scenes painted 29,000 years ago is a haunting experience.
Bordeaux – France loves wine, Bordeaux’s are arguably the best.
We visited St. Emilion on a holiday weekend, less than ideal timing, but we found this quiet spot. Haut Medoc (upper Medoc) was a bit shabby with occasional great chateau’s. The wine there, however, was excellent.
Haut Marbuzet was our favorite. The flamboyant owner, Henri Duboscq (Forbes interview in the link), gave us a signed copy of his book while flirting shamelessly with Jean.
Biarritz – a surfer’s paradise in France, who knew?
The city itself is quite “ritzy”, with expensive shops and hotels. Real surfers can’t afford to stay here.
Like them, we instead moved further down the Basque French Coast to Cibourne and stayed on the beach.
I had a nice run along the sea wall and had it published with Great Runs, how cool is that?
Lourdes – in 1858, the Virgin appeared 18 times to peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous. She charged her to tell the people of the need for prayer and penance, and for a chapel to be built. Many thought Bernadette mentally ill, but she was eventually validated and canonized.
Today, Lourdes is one of the most visited Roman Catholic shrines in the world. The skies were swirled and mystical on the day of our visit, and the crowds just returning to seek healing at the grotto spring.
The Spanish Pyrenees – en route to Andorra on the French-Spanish border, we drove for three hours through the Pyrenees mountains dividing the countries.
Our rewards were winding, climbing, and falling roads watched by free range horses and cows that grazed among the wildflowers.
Hiking here would be beautiful. This will play into our 2023 plans!
We overnighted in Andorra-la-Vella, the capital. The highlight for me was a morning run, high above the city on the Rec del Sola (sunny side) trail. It winds along a small canal high above the city center with great views. I shared the path with a few locals and a stray cat, and one fellow runner.
Collioure – one of our new “favorite places”. The city unexpectedly delights, with quiet pebble beaches and stone architecture.
Most visitors here come from France and Spain. Our AirBnB apartment guide gave instruction in four languages – none of which were English!
We met a mother-daughter team at the market selling their family wine. Each wine is named for a family member – Chloe is dry, while her mother Christine is, of course, sweet.
Calanques at Cassis – we hiked the Calanques (inlets or “fjords”) near Cassis earlier this week.
After 2.5 miles up and down slippery rocks in the hot sun, we arrived at this beautiful and already crowded beach.
Next time (tomorrow perhaps) we will kayak out and arrive before the crowds!
Whew! Quite a list, thanks for sticking with me. I hope you enjoyed!
Itinerary and Journey Map
If you are interested in a similar trip, the attached PDF itinerary is an excellent place to start. Also below is a Google Map of our approximate route and stays, which you can view and add as a layer in your own Google Maps.
For more about this journey, check out our related Travel Bytes below!