A gentle knock knock on our door wakes us in the morning around 9 o’clock and a linen covered breakfast trolley is wheeled in. Laid out are glasses of freshly pressed juice, lightly warmed butttery croissants and pastries, along with freshly ground and brewed coffee.
Thanking and taking reluctant leave of our friends at Chateau de Montreuil, today we drive west to east through Picardie, Champagne-Ardenne to Lorraine where we spend the next 2 nights at L’Hotel La Residence, Nancy. Here we visit Place Stanislas, famous for its gilded filigree fountain, gates and majestic official buildings. The Musee des Beaux Arts is on the western side and also contains the Daum Glass Museum. The famous name of Baccarat is synonymous with high quality crystal with the town and associated museum a must see for us as we had visited the original Baccarat Museum in Rue Paradis, Paris way back in 1973. At that time we had made some special and much loved purchases. The pieces were expensive then, but today, buying anything is out of the question. The haughty shop staff also seem to have decided this on our behalf as we are totally ignored leaving us happily free to wander and enjoy the extensive shop displays at our leisure. A small nearby castle, The Baccarat Chateau, houses the Baccarat Museum where we follow the 250 year history of Baccarat crystal, reviewing ancient and modern techniques. Baccarat began as a glassworks in 1764 and it was not until 1823 that crystal production commenced, with the pursuit of quality and design leading to Baccarat’s international reputation today.
The next night finds us in Pulversheim at the Hotel Niemerich. This is between Guebwiller and Mulhouse. The distinct difference of this north eastern side of France, bordering Germany is immediately obvious in the architecture and the people, who are still welcoming and polite but much more aloof. A great mirage now appears in the guise of an extra day as somehow we think we have saved a day, but of course we haven't! We live in this state of euphoria for 2 days before realising it is just a mirage. If only we could go back 33 years when there were no bookings, but now we have to attempt to move our forward bookings on by 1 day. Mobile phones, my wife’s command of the language and the time of the year help us with this, although we are using our New Zealand roaming mobile phone so the bill waiting at home will be a bit scary. (advancing 3 or 4 years and the interchangeable simcard technology does away with this bogey).
The modern hotel, Le Dracy, at Dracy Le Fort is our next nights rest with the route passing through Sens and Auxerre. Hardly any time to stop and look but we did manage a very pleasant dinner at the Le Charme restaurant hosted by Corinne and Fabien Benoit.
The directions from the hotel are quite obscure, especially in the dark on unlit country roads so we are very relieved to see the light over the Le Charme roadsign. Just as well we had booked during the afternoon, as the dining room is almost full with locals as a lot of these ‘out of the way’ country eateries are. We do know, if the 'locals' are there it must be good and it is.
The schedule we have set ourselves is proving to be too tight and almost impossible to allow any daytime for brief side trips which beckon at nearly every roundabout. Simply covering the distance is a big enough goal for a day, with any 2 night stay a welcome relief. Doubling the time we have allowed would be ideal, but as is the case here, more time is not always possible, so the other option is visiting fewer places. Autoroute travel would certainly speed things up but is expensive and you see nothing. The Route Nationale roads are slow, taking time through small villages and mostly very interesting and picturesque, but our average speed is about 30kms per hour easily making a 300km day equate to 10 hours plus.
We choose Le Cadran Solaire bar-Brasserie in the busy Place Fleury for lunch in Beaune. The service is poor, but it is perfect for people watching and near the town market which is bright, picturesque and very interesting.
I am keen to visit the birthplace of photography, Chalon Sur Saone where Nicephore Niepce invented the photographic process in 1822, but died in 1833 before any official recognition of his research.
An hour in Tournus, on the banks of the Saone, includes a visit to the Abbaye St-Philibert which took more than a century to build (1008-1120AD). In the small square nearby, is Galerie Suzy Commaret,- Tapisseries & Poteries, it's floors covered and walls filled to the ceiling with shelves carrying all manner of textiles – tapestry cushions, rugs, alongside local pottery and ceramic ware. We have a happy time choosing a couple of cushions and a beautiful deep blue pottery jug.
The confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers mark our next destination , Lyon, which is a large city and the second economic centre in France. Presqu’ile and le Croix Rousse are the 2 ‘areas’ of the city – the first a peninsula formed by the 2 rivers and the second a historic industrial suburb famous in the silk industry. Fourviere, overlooking Presqu’ile and Croix-Rousse from the west, is unmistakeable with the ornate and stark white Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière. Our night's accommodation is in the Presqu’ile at the Hotel Celestins. Unusual as the hotel occupies the upper floors with offices on the first 3. Tiny one way streets are the norm through this area and arriving at our hotel is near impossible for 1st time Lyon arrivees. In the end I simply ignore the one way signs as we can see the hotel sign halfway down the street. We park next to the steel bollards which block any proper parking attempt and manage to unload our gear and ferry it into the small building foyer before the waiting car horns start. I think I am allowed all of 5 minutes. There is an enormous underground carpark nearby which gives the impression of being drilled with a giant posthole borer as the concrete vehicle floors descend in a spiral. We find parking on the third spiral which continues down, down, 4, 5... into the gloom. Finding the lift to ground level we are rapidly transported to the end of our street where the glass sided lift cage pops up through the sidewalk. We realise the answer is to park the car, ascend in the lift with luggage and walk the 50 metres or so to the hotel. At least we now know what to do on our departure.
We could easily spend 10 days in Lyon so our 2 days flash by. It’s easy to find Lyon intensely interesting and we leave reluctantly but much more easily than our arrival, with our knowledge of the car park access.
On the road, destination Carpentras, but STOP, what’s this, a Gendarme waving us down. ‘ Pardon Monsieur, la route est fermé.’ We hadn’t factored in the annual Lyon marathon, in fact we hadn’t even heard of it at all and the closed road is the only way south. ‘Is there some alternative Officer?’ ‘Non, attendez’. Wait, but for how long? We pull off the road and consult our numerous map books, deciding our best option is to return north until we can find the southerly Lyon bypass.
A bright star in the day is a wonderful ‘by chance’ lunch at La Récré in the small town of Tain l’Hermitage, on The Rhone just north of Valence, an area in the heart of Rhone Valley wine country and I spot a well known wine shipper’s name in large letters, a la Hollywood, settled amongst vines on a nearby hillside.
The Safari Hotel at Carpentras is alright, albeit unusual, having a closed down feel with the pool empty and full of leaves. We wonder if we are the only guests. However, the staff are attentive and explain their season doesn’t come alive for another couple of months, as we are quite near Cote d’Azur, with many seasonal guests visiting the southern coast from this base. We understand perfectly and enjoy our night including an excellent dinner in their attached Safari restaurant – open just for us I think!
Aix en Provence is a city where time must be spent, there is so much to see. Our hotel, the historic, charming Le Manoir (now closed) is hard to find, being in the centre of the old town, guarded by many skinny one way streets. When we do, thankfully we approach from the correct direction, so no angry horns blaring, and we can’t believe our eyes, there is courtyard carparking - a rare treat being able to park, deal with luggage and check in, all at a leisurely pace.
Le Manoir boasts a 14th century cloister which skirts a large internal courtyard. We start our day with a charming breakfast under the cool stone arches. After Paris, Aix is the most relaxed part of our journey with no car to worry about, simply strolling the old town, spotting a likely lunch or dinner venue then returning to our large ensuited room at Le Manoir. Leaving day is a little nerve wracking again, as we deal with the maze of narrow streets needing to be negotiated before reaching the city outskirts, though this is made easier with the directional sense gained from walking.
We head for Antibes for the night, which will take us east towards Nice and through famous Riviera towns – Le Lavendou, St Tropez, St Raphael and Cannes. This part of France is a favourite from the past and we are keen to see it again. First, Le Lavendou where we had stayed at the Auberge de la Calanque – is it still there, does it look the same? Maybe we could have lunch there? Memories flood back; the Auberge is much the same, with it’s commanding position overlooking the harbour and marina. Lunch is not possible as the restaurant is closed for pre season renovations. Not to worry as a couple of likely marina venues are open. Better actually, as we can look back towards the imposing frontage of the Auberge and even make out our room from 1973. We had stayed for several days then, visiting Grasse and the Verdon Gorge from here. We recall a day trip to Ile du Levant, just off the coast, where on arrival at the small jetty the ferry was greeted by several island residents. It took us a few minutes to realise they were all naked! We hadn’t appreciated that the island was a nudist colony! The Ile du Levant is not on our current list – not that we have the time anyway. The Riviera coast road is spectacular and again we can just imagine James Bond throwing his DB5 through the many curves. Our Scimitar was much more like the DB5 than this Clio – powering out of the bends in overdrive third was hard to beat in those days. Watching out for cyclists, who are plentiful in 2005, and egocentric, we are wowed again by that view, out over the impossibly azure blue Med.
Antibes is a delightful small, old town right on the coast, near Juan les Pins where many well known ‘celebrities’ stay. A funny, Karma related thing happens in Antibes. We arrive at our hotel, Le Relais du Postillon, a fairly basic, but very adequate 2 star. A motorbike parked in the foyer is interesting. Le Patron books us in then asks where our car is. We explain that we found excellent parking just around the corner. He says; ‘ Oh non Monsieur, pas la, vous sera remorqué car il ya un marché le matin’. A timely warning to move our car to secure parking before settling down for the night as, if left, it would not be there in the morning because of the weekend town market. We attend to this advice before dinner, retiring to our room towards 10:30. The room is comfortable with a small ensuite attached, but the between room walls are paper thin and our amorous neighbours keep us ‘entertained’ most of the night. We are feeling fairly ragged in the morning, but revive when the owner hurries in with fresh croissants and strong espresso. In the next five minutes our bedroom neighbours arrive for breakfast. They are English and she says ‘I need something from the car, back in 5 minutes’. She is back under 5 minutes in a panic as their car is gone – ‘remorqué pour la marché’. The owner grins at us, rolls his eyes at them saying ‘ Je suis tellement désolé, parfois ils remorquer la voiture a Marseille’. ‘Oh my God’ she says 'towed to Marseille!’ Karma indeed!
Antibes is another of our rare 2 night stays so we can fully enjoy the waterside location and the many small artists' studios spread through the narrow streets. Not many cars venture through so it is great for walking. We can't resist buying a couple of small original watercolours of Antibes, knowing we will cherish these back home.
We have 1 more night in the southern, Mediterranean part of France and we arrive in Avignon late in the afternoon. The next morning we are up and out early to view the Palais des Papes and the Pont d’Avignon. No time to do justice to the beauty of Avignon as we now need to make up the ‘spare’ day we created for ourselves in Lorraine. Unfortunately we must drive from Avignon to Biarritz on the southern autoroute, a distance of about 800kms. A boring but fast drive costing around €60. The little 2 litre Clio handles this beautifully, frugally and comfortably. The little Reno diesel is made for this driving – humming along at 120kms/hour for hours on end. We take a break at a couple of the many autostops on the autoroutes, finding very acceptable fresh lunch choices, snacks and unexpectedly good espressos. Our only regret is having to bypass Andorra which was a favourite from our 70s travels. A must for next time.
Biarritz, on the Atlantic coast, will be swarming with UK and European tourists from late June onwards through the summer but being here in April it is quiet as well as being a pleasant temperature. A strong Basque influence is very obvious from the colours, architecture and food. It is here that we first try a Basque cake (Gateau Basque), which has a luscious pastry cream or preserved cherry filling enclosed in almond shortbread. We didn’t spend much time here in the 70s so have allowed 2 days this time. Of course not really long enough, but sufficient for us to visit markets, walk the beach and ascend the spiral stairs inside the lighthouse at the northern end of the beach, with its terrific 360 views.
Bordeaux, the capital of the Aquitaine region of the Atlantic coast beckons us north for a 2 day stay in one of the major wine capitals of the world. A short river cruise aboard ‘Ville de Bordeaux’ on the Garonne occupies the afternoon and gives us a brief look at the older part of the city.
Bordeaux is impressive, warranting much more time which as usual we do not have. On day 2 we decide to visit a famous wine industry name, one of many in the area, St Emilion. A beautiful small village, touristy – yes, but not overly so and not so busy at this time of the year (April). A vine covered courtyard with a little tucked away cafe beckons us at lunchtime. A glass of the local vintage, tomato, cheese and basil tartine followed by an espresso picked from a gourmet list of 10 different local coffee roasters. Our choice, although expensive, is dark, chocolatey and delicious - perfect.
On our final leg back to Paris, coming to the end of our ‘retour en France’ we have a couple of important visits on the way. The first is Saumur on the Loire where we nostalgically revisit Veuve Amiot and are pleased to see little outward change, then and still now, it is an obviously modern, flourishing vintner. We recall the Loire being a bit of a puddle in 1973 but not today – plenty of flow with a strong current. The graceful arched Saumur bridge brings us directly to our hotel. The Loire Valley is known for its Chateaux, many very imposing with lovely manicured gardens, nearly all worth a visit. On our list to see now is Chenonceaux and Chambord. Chenonceaux because it is beautiful, being built to straddle the Cher river and we had visited it previously at night for a ‘son et lumière’ – sound and light show which was spectacular. It is a small graceful Chateau surrounded by mature trees and well kept formal gardens.
Chambord we hadn’t been to before but chose to on this visit staying in the grounds at Hotel du Grand St-Michel, hunting lodge type accommodation, with the imposing Chateau framed in our bedroom window. We are able to enjoy this impossibly ornate rambling, huge structure with turrets, staircases and chimneys all over the place, as guests are free to wander around it at night after the main gates are closed to the public. Dinner that night is fantastic and beautifully served, though the dining room festooned with deer and boar trophies, is not our thing.
We are definitely not looking forward to our last hours in France, to be spent at an airport Holiday Inn, negotiating Paris traffic, arriving at Charles de Gaulle and vehicle return. In the end we don’t do too badly, only ending up with mildly tattered nerves soon soothed by a cool glass of rose.
We have covered just over 6000 kms in 5 weeks, such a short time to enjoy all that France has to offer. But as we had planned, we have at long last revisited many places and relived some of the experiences which make up our happy 33 year old memories.