One of our very best trips was this first one to France. I had taken excellent notes, at least for most of the way. We were living in Alexandria and had sold the Karman-Ghia for enough money to make the trip. My original plan was to land in Luxembourg or some such and tour northern France, but our travel agent called just a week or so before and said she had found a terrific deal on a flight into Nice. It was a fortuitous change. We used Karen Brown’s guide to try to make some advance reservations, but we were so close to departure date that only a few of them were taken. This was all before the days of the Internet, of course, so swift responses just did not happen.
We had a Michelin map, which I loved because they had “green roads”–those with exceptional views–and I had decided we would for the most part follow them. I knew very little about the Gorges du
Verdon, except that it was the “Grand Canyon of France,” so we picked up our little Opel at Nice airport and headed for Grasse.
After a few stops along the way, we took the left bank of the Gorges, and made our way to the small village of Trigance, dominated by a huge castle, partially in ruins, that also happened to be a hotel. We inquired about a room on the off-chance that there might be one, and there was–very small, “like a
monk’s cell” said the host, bowing wit his hands together as if in prayer. It was indeed small, but just fine for an afternoon nap before dinner to relieve the jet lag. Had a good dinner, a good rest, and woke up the next morning (a Sunday) ready to tour the Gorges.
As in Germany, we stopped in the village to pick up some supplies for lunch (much easier to picnic by the side of the road than take two hours for lunch in a restaurant). The shopkeeper told us her husband was American, and they had just moved back to France after spending six years in Berkeley. “I like better California,” she said, “but my husband likes better France.”
We drove the spectacular Gorges du Verdon, admiring the views, watching the cyclists and goats and wondering at the tiny farms across the river, just hanging on the hillsides.
We ended up at the village of Moustier-Ste.-Marie, the major town at the end of the Gorges. Touristy, but charming is how I described it
30 years ago. I had no idea how touristy it would get over the years, as we discovered on our return visit in 2010.
From Moustiers, we headed across toward Aix, and then on to Arles. In Arles we decided to look at the Hotel Jules Cesar, a 4-star Relais et Chateaux property (it’s still there) and they were able to accommodate us. The hotel was originally a 17th-century Carmelite monastery, and they put us in the cloister, looikng out on a little garden of its own. We had dinner at the hotel, and I actually took down the menu: I had a salad of endive, lardons, and mushrooms with a mustard dressing, followed by chicken in a cream sauce with tomato and spinach pasta, finishing off with cheese and a strawberry tart. Owen began with paté de foie gras, the na mousse de rascasse (fish), a main course of duck and with a side of stacked vegetables, and finishing with cheese and a lemon mousse. Next day, we toured Arles,
running into some rather loud French tourists at the arena.
We drove through Nimes and then headed for the Corniche de Cevennes, through the mountains, stopping for lunch in a rustic restaurant high up. Then drove to Florac, the jumping-off point for the Gorges du Tarn. We thoroughly enjoyed the drive along the Tarn, with all the small villages. One fascinating one was across the river, carved into the rock.
We passed Ste. Enimie and Ste-Chely and then arrived at the entrance to the Chateau de la Caze. We had hoped to reserve a place there for the night but never heard.
We went in to see if there was a room, and lo, there was. We thought it was the nicest place we had ever stayed–a 14th-century castle, complete with moat, a wonderful stone floor in the entrance. We had dinner there and it was wonderful–once again, I wrote down what we had. I had a paté of chicken surrounded by a sauce, tiny onions, carrot slivers, thinly sliced cucumber and white radishes. Owen had a salad that included paté and a mayonnaise of artichokes. For the main course, Owen had lamb in mustard sauce, and I had poached trout from the chateau’s moat, with a lemon cream sauce. For dessert we had chocolate marquise. After a walk we went back to the lounge and sat in front of the fire with Grand Marnier.
The next day we took a fairly extensive drive through the Gorges du Lot, ending at the ancient pilgrimage site of Conques.
On the way we stopped for picnic supplies and then set out across country to Rodez, where we turned and headed for Espalion, a town highly
recommended by the guidebooks. The town wasn’t that great, but the houses hanging over the river were fascinating, with stone ledges that apparently allowed people to get directly into boats. Shades of Venice.
We arrived in Conques about 4, hoping to stay at the Hotel St. Foy, but there were not rooms. We found a little hotel right on the river across from the town, which was very reasonable ($10, with dinner at $9).
Before dinner we walked through the town–including the cathedral.
Next day, we headed up the Lot Valley, to St. Cirq-la-Popie, one of the world heritage sites in France. Owen found a brass chandelier to buy, which I had to negotiate for (and carry through customs later).
Apparently we were able to drive the car down the narrow street to pick it up.
After St. Cirq, we headed up the road, and found a lovely hotel by the side of the Celé River, the Hotel La Pescalerie (no longer there, I think). Since it was still fairly early, we decided to go on up to see Rocamadour, full of tourists.
Looking down from the chateau on the village of Rocamadour–second most visited site in France
Next day, we took a leisurely drive to Cahors, famous for its bridge and its dark red wine. We bought some shoes and a bottle, and then went on to see the
Chateau de Mercuès, a hotel then and still one. Owen wanted to stay the night, but I thought that it would put us too far behind schedule. We did stay there 30 years later, and it’s a lovely place. So we headed up the Dordogne to see the town of Domme, and then on toward Souillac. We stopped at the Hotel La Terasse, an old monastery covered with ivy the dominates the tiny village.
The next morning we headed off to see the Chateau de Montal, an elegant house with a lovely boxwood garden. We basically had a private tour. From Montal, we visited the little town of Ste. Cere, picking up some things for another roadside picnic. I should mention
that all the way along, Owen was checking out antique shops, though the pickings were slim. The next castle to see was Hautefort, a magnificent fortified castle with extensive formal gardens surrounding it. After touring the castle, we headed for the hotel that
I wanted to try, but it was full for the evening. The desk clerk made a reservation for us at Le Chapelle de St. Martin, a very nice chateau hotel above Limoges. An excellent dinner that Owen said was his favorite of the trip, but I didn’t write down what we had.
At this point, my notes get very sketchy. You do tend to get tired on these excursions, so all I know is we stayed at a fairly wretched hotel near Poitiers, and then went on up the road toward St. Savin, a small town where there was a kind of flea market, and where there were very lively games of boules going on.
We watched them play for a while, and then drove around and around trying to find a place to stay. We di, but I didn’t write it down–all I have is “a pleasant cheap place above Moulins,” town on the way to Bourges that did have an interesting cathedral, where Owen insisted on being photographed in the pulpit. It was, I think, on an earlier trip to England that he first wanted to have his picture taken in a pulpit, but by this time it was a given that we would get into every pulpit he could in every church or cathedral we visited on every trip. So I have to include several pictures, all of which were taken around this time. It may even be that one was taken in the magnificent cathedral of St. Stephen in Bourges. Anyway, we visited that cathedral and walked through the old town of Bourges, which is half-timbered and stone, and was getting ready for some kind of festival.
From Bourges we went across country to Burgundy, ending the day in Vezelay. We had wanted to find a room at L’Esperance, the hotel and restaurant of Marc Meneau, at the time one of the better-known chefs. No room, alas, but I did try to use my French, and the lovely young woman at the desk called me back as we were walking away, and suggested that we might like to stay up in the town at a place called the Residence-Hotel Le Pontot. Then she asked us if we would like to come back for dinner, and of course we said yes. The hotel was a lovely chateau, ordinarily not open on Tuesdays, so we were delighted–we were in a former ancient kitchen that had been fixed up beautifully. Dinner at Chez Marc Meneau was, in our opinion, the best we had ever had, and we have talked about it for more than 30 years. I began with an amuse-bouche of smoked fish, followed by what looked like brown eggs in an egg cup. But the waiter cut open the top of the “egg” and it was melted butter, into which we dipped the perfectly-done white asparagus that I associate with France. Then we had vieal, larded with truffles, and served with very thinly-sliced sauteed potatoes. Then there were candies and dessert.
Next morning we had a delightful breakfast in the garden of Le
Pontot and the owner showed us around the house. A lovely stay in every way.
Then we headed down the main road to Dijon, through the Burgundy wine country, stopping to taste and buy three times, once in an impressive chateau with the patterned tiles typical of the region on the roof.
We also stopped in a micro-winery–really a garage where the grandmother pasted labels on the bottles. We bought a bottle from her.
We ended up in Fleurville, staying at the chateau, which we did not like. But it was one that had taken our reservation, and we ended up in an argument with the owner about the validity of our voucher. From there we went on down, stopping at Cluny and passing through Lyon, and then off the main road to the Chateau d’Urbillac in Lamastre.
A really pretty place up on a hill. Then next day down to Gordes and Les Baus before getting to Avignon, where we stayed in an old mill that was also a Best Western. We did visit the pope’s palace and had a lovely dinner on a hillside, but it’s all memories here, so I don’t know how we found it or how we got there.
Gordes is a beautiful town–we visited it again when we went to France later, though we did not go to Les Baux again. It wasn’t all that interesting.
From there, we headed along the Med, stopping at St. Tropez, then on to Vence, a few miles outside of Nice. We stayed at a nice old
hotel, and had a good dinner there (I remember a great fireplace at the end of the dining room with spits roasting all kinds of things). In walking around the town we met an American guitarist who invited us for a drink at the house he was staying in. He recommended a restaurant at the lower end of town and we walked down to get a reservation, which I did in French. The chef, who was the only person there at that time of the afternoon, asked where my family was from. I said–for the fun of it and because I hated to say we were American–that my family had originally come from Alsace. He said “I thought you had a German accent.” Proudest moment of speaking French. We stayed in Vence for two days, traveling down the mountain road to Eze and on into Italy, because Owen wanted to add another country to his travel list.