My first trip to France in May 2009 was a combination of business and pleasure.
I had to use my remaining 10 days of vacation by 31 May, and I had been looking for deals to Europe. Lo and behold, Delta Airlines came through with a really great airfare for its nonstop flight between Cincinnati and Paris.
Right around the same time, I was system administrator for a new software program at work, and we were rolling it out to our global organization, training our employees on its use and functionality. We had a factory in Pluivgner, France, and I got to thinking…
“Hmm… I wonder if my boss will let me stay longer if I do a little on-site training in Pluvigner?”
So I approached my boss, Larry, and began the negotiation. Let’s just say, I made it very easy for him to say yes. I was going to go to Paris whether or not I could add on the training session, so I offered to pay the airfare, if he paid for me to get from Paris to Pluvigner, and put me up with lodging and meals while I was there, and then get me back from Pluvigner to Paris. After that, I would take off on my vacation. My 10 days that I planned to be in France turned into 16 days when he said yes.
Fast-forward to a week before my departure… I’m walking through the halls at work, and I hear the plant manager, Joe, call out my name.
Joe had to go visit our factory in Pluvigner, and he learned that, just by pure coincidence, our travel department booked him on the same flight that I was on. There was only one little problem for Joe…
He had never been out of the country. Ever.
“You’ve been to Europe before, right?” asked Joe nervously.
“Good. I’ve never been, and I’m going to be your shadow if you don’t mind.”
“No problem. Glad to show you around.”
When I travel, I do my best to blend in with the clothes that I wear. Joe showed up at the airport in his Batesville Bulldogs T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. No… He won’t stick out in Paris. Joe was also carrying a backpack filled with snacks and candy to last him the week that he would be in France. Let’s just say that Joe is not an adventurous eater and he wanted some reserves in case he ran into too many escargot.
We arrived in Paris and cleared immigration and customs without a problem. The next stop was the train station right within CDG.
I gave Joe a quick lesson on how to ride the trains, as we would be seated in our reserved seats in separate cars. I was a bit worried as we had to change trains in Rennes, and I was hoping that Joe would get off at the right stop. He did.
While we were standing on the platform, a gentleman approached me and asked me something in French. I was clueless, so he asked, “Sprechen Sie deutsch?” I answered that I spoke a little, and he asked again in German. This time I understood him and was able to answer him, which just made my day.
The TGV high speed trains in France really are something else. You zip along at 300 km/h or about 186 mph with the French countryside just a blur as it passes by. The first time we passed another TGV train headed in the opposite direction, I had the pants scared off me. With 600 km/h of relative motion between two trains just feet apart, there’s this mini sonic boom that happens as the air compresses between the trains and rattles the windows–not to mention my nerves.
We arrived in Aurey (Pluvigner isn’t served by a rail line), and checked into our hotel. After getting settled into our rooms and relaxing, Joe and I met in the dining room for dinner. Let the eating adventures begin!!
As we wandered around the buffet in the dining room, looking at the various salads and other things, I could see Joe’s reaction wasn’t a good one. Nothing on the buffet table looked even remotely appealing to him. When I plopped a couple of escargot onto my plate, he blurted out, “What are you doing??? You’re not going to eat those, are you?!?!?” Yep. I was and I did. Joe turned three shades of green as I ate them.
The training session at the factory lasted for four days, and each day, someone from the office insisted on taking Joe and I out to local restaurants for dinner. It was great, and I do give Joe credit in that he worked up the courage to try many of the things put in front of him–escargot, prawns, langoustine, mussels. He rarely liked any of it, but at least he tried it and that, to me, is what travel is all about.
One of the classic moments with Joe was when we took a ride into the countryside after work one evening to check out the prehistoric stone alignments at Carnac. Think France’s version of Stonehenge.
As we drove into town, we passed what appeared to be some of the stones in fields alongside the road, but, not knowing exactly what we were looking for, we dismissed them and kept on going. Getting rather frustrated at trying to find these things, we pulled up to a gentleman walking his dog to ask for directions.
Initially, Joe was too shy to attempt to ask the guy where the stones were, but I encouraged him to give it a go as part of his European learning experience. He leaned out the window, extended both arms wide, and asked in a “Me Tarzan. You Jane,” kind of way, “Big rocks?!?” The gentleman smiled politely and pointed us in the right direction. Joe attempted to thank him in French, “Merci,” but it came out more like Elvis saying “mercy.” Again, I gave Joe credit for trying.
Joe had to return to Paris and the U.S. the day before I did, so we did a quick refresher on his train riding skills. He was even able to spend a night in Paris on his own and survived it. I, on the other hand, spent another evening exploring the Brittany coast and checked out the small fishing village of Saint-Cado. In the middle of the estuary on a teeny island, someone built a small house. Talk about being isolated from your neighbors.
15 May 2009
My vacation began that Friday afternoon with a trip back to Paris and my hotel, the Hotel Aviatic, in the 6th Arr. not far from the Luxembourg Gardens and the Montparnasse Station. The hotel is a boutique hotel with only about 40 rooms that were quite charming, and the staff was more than friendly and helpful.
On my walk from the Montparnasse station to the hotel, I caught my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, and I knew that I had to check it out shortly after getting settled into my room.
When I’m in a new city, I like to walk to get a feel for the layout of the city and all that it has to offer, so I walked 3 km through the neighborhoods to get to the Eiffel Tower. I’m sure I made a few wrong turns along the way, but that allowed me to see even more of Paris.
The Eiffel Tower, up close, is indescribable. And to stand directly beneath it, looking up… Well… Simply amazing.
Interestingly, I had no burning desire to stand in line for several hours to go to the top. Instead, I wandered around the Champs de Mars and across the Seine to the Trocadéro to get the best views of Paris’ iconic tower. And the tower lends itself to romance, and there were couples in love all around, holding hands, kissing, and posing in front of the tower. Standing there alone, I thought to myself, “Boy, this sucks.”
Hungry, I started back to the hotel and found a nice restaurant about a block away from it and had a great dinner before calling it a night.
16 May 2009
The day started out overcast, chilly, and with a light drizzle, so I thought it would be a perfect day to begin exploring a few of the wonderful museums in Paris.
I managed to figure out how to use the Paris Metro system, and landed near the Musée d’Orsay where I bought a museum pass for the next few days.
I wouldn’t realize it at that moment, but the Musée d”Orsay would top the list of my favorite museums in Paris. First, the fact that it’s in an old, converted train station won points with me, but the art of the impressionists was quite something to see up close. The originals of all these iconic images were right there, and you could walk up to within inches of them. The other thing that surprised me was that we were permitted to take photographs of them all (no flash, of course!).
A good friend of mine told me that a “must see” was Sainte-Chapelle, a small church not far from Notre Dame cathedral. She was absolutely right. The stained glass work in the main chapel is stunning. To enter the main chapel, you have to climb a spiral staircase up from the entrance level and, to a person, you could hear an audible reaction as they first set their eyes on these works of art.
Afterwards, I went across the isle to Notre Dame to see the granddaddy of all cathedrals, at least in Paris. From the outside, it’s magnificent with all of the stone carvings adorning the façade, but the simplicity of the inside caught me off guard. I was expecting something much more ornate. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still quite interesting but just different that what I envisioned.
It was time to head back to the hotel and to get dinner along the way. I walked through the Latin Quarter and found a nice little restaurant, and after dinner, walked through the Luxembourg Garden before crashing in the hotel for a short while to rest.
At sunset, I knew that I wanted to head back to the Eiffel Tower for some night shots of it, so I hopped on the Metro and watched the tower come alive as darkness fell. It was quite special to see all the flashing strobes light up at the top of the hour, and to watch the rotating beacon at the very top pierce the night sky.
17 May 2009
This was going to be another museum-filled day. I had to get my money’s worth for the two day pass, after all, right??
My very first stop, right at opening, was the Louvre. Once inside, I did like every other tourist and made a bee-line for the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo statue. Of course, that made for a very crowded experience at both, but it was worth it.
The Louvre is gargantuan, plain and simple. So are many of the canvasses that the paintings are on–I didn’t expect some to be nearly 20 x 30 feet or so. The figures on them are larger than life.
One of my coworkers back in Pluvigner urged me to see the Egyptian collection, as it’s one of the best outside of Egypt. He wasn’t wrong.
I made my way over to the Musée de l’Orangerie where Monet’s famous water lily murals are displayed in oval rooms. When you stand in the center of the oval and look at the paintings that surround you, it’s very easy to transport yourself into the gardens at Giverny.
After a stroll through the Place de la Concorde, I landed at the Arc du Triomphe. The view from the top was a decent reward for climbing the 284 steps (50 meters / 164 feet) to get there. Gasp. You had a great view of the Champs-Élysées and the Eiffel Tower from there.
Having gotten my money’s worth out of the pass, I was ready for a break from sightseeing for a couple of hours. I wandered back to my hotel, grabbed my dirty laundry, and headed to a laundromat about 4 blocks from the hotel.
Now many would ask, “Who takes time out of a visit to Paris to do laundry?!?!?” I do. It’s a great way to experience some of the local culture, as you’ll meet Parisians doing their weekly chores, too. Plus, it allowed me time to do a little guide book reading and to get caught up on my post card writing. The other reason? I travel light and had already run through my week’s worth of clothes. It was that, or start recycling underwear and socks.
I dropped my clean clothes back at the hotel, and headed out for some more sightseeing. Remember, sunset in Paris in May is around 9:30 PM, so you have plenty of time to play in the city.
I returned to see Notre Dame at sunset and into the night. It’s lighted quite dramatically.
18 May 2009
My last full day in Paris was spent back on the Ile de la Cité, hanging out in the little park at the very point of the island where the Seine splits.
I had lunch in a nice little cafe where the waitress was very friendly. However, at the table next to me were four Americans who were the epitome of the “ugly American” tourist. They were just downright rude to the staff, and there was no need for that whatsoever.
The rest of the afternoon, I simply wandered the neighborhoods of Paris, well away from a lot of tourists. I found the Poilâne bakery that I had seen featured on a travel show back in the US. It was a tiny, tiny shop, filled with amazing artisan loaves of bread. One thing the French do better than most anyone else is bread. I bought a small loaf, and that was my snack for the afternoon, and for the road trip that I was to begin the next day.
Stereotypes exist for a reason. Often times, they’re based in reality, and that was the case with Paris. The City of Light. The city of love, baguettes, and even an errant beret or two. You even hear tell of the seedier side of Paris; the scammers, pickpockets, gypsies, smelly subways, and rudeness. Fortunately, I missed out on most of that. What I did witness, was usually when I was riding the Metro. A woman in one of the tunnels on the way to the platform just squatted down, lifter her skirt, and started peeing right there, and on one of the subway trains, there was a band of gypsy musicians playing their accordion and tambourine, asking for handouts.
As I learned from my coworkers, the French are very direct people. They tell you like it is, and often that comes across as rudeness. No where in my travels did I encounter a single rude shop owner, restaurant staff member, or other person.
In the end, Paris won me over. It’s truly an amazing city that I would return to over and over again.
Normandy & Brittany
19 May 2009
When I made my rental car reservation, I decided to pick it up from Orly Airport south of Paris on the premise that I would be heading more to the south for the rest of my vacation. But enough people at our Pluvigner office convinced me that I really needed to explore the Brittany and Normandy coast. That made for a fun drive across the outskirts of Paris from the south side to head north.
One of my French coworkers insisted that I make my way to Étretat, a small village of about 1,500 people on the English Channel to see the beach with its white, sea-carved cliffs. The half-timbered homes and narrow streets leading to the beach area were quite charming. The beach itself, however, was wide but certainly not what I expected. Rather than sand, it’s covered in stones polished round by the wave action. The cliffs? Magnifique!
I managed to find a small hotel with a room available for the night in the town of Arromanches, home to a D-Day Museum. Unfortunately, it was too late to enter the museum, so I just had a pleasant dinner and called it a night. Besides, my main focus for the next day was going to be the American Cemetery and Omaha Beach.
20 May 2009
A nice museum greets you on the way into the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, and it was well worth the visit to learn about the D-Day invasion and the history of this sacred spot. When you leave the museum and walk into the perfectly manicured burial grounds, you cannot help but be moved. It’s an overpowering experience to stand before those thousands of white crosses knowing what each and every single one of them represents. Equally overwhelming is walking onto to Omaha Beach and looking back up the hillside that the D-Day troops had to overcome, all while on the wide-open beach without a stitch of cover from enemy fire. How they made in-roads against such odds is beyond me, and a true testament to the pure grit and determination of the Allied troops.
After visiting the American Cemetery, I drove west into Burgundy to see Mont Saint-Michel, an abbey located on an isthmus/island that was built beginning in the year 709. (High tides cover the isthmus leading to the rock, transforming it into a island. Even today, there are warning signs in the parking lot urging drivers to know the timing of the tides, lest their cars get submerged.)
A small village developed at the base of the abbey, and walking the very narrow cobblestone streets past many of the modern shops and restaurants was a real treat. Perched high atop the abbey, I could see the Brittany countryside to the south, and the wide expanse of sand uncovered by the low tide.
One of the culinary highlights of the region is the lamb. What makes it special is that the sheep graze on the grasses that are sometimes flooded with salt water at high tide, and that is said to impart a unique flavor to the meat. I’m not a huge fan of lamb, but I went ahead and tried it–it was delicious.
Loire Valley & Burgundy
21 May 2009
Continuing on my giant, counter-clockwise loop around north-central France, I left the coast and headed inland to the Loire Valley to see some of the chateaus there. I’ll have to admit that I wan’t overly impressed with the region. I don’t know. It just didn’t do much for me. Chenonceaux has the famous Château de Chenonceau that straddles the River Cher, and it was fun to wander the grounds and tour the interior of the chateau.
22 May 2009
Beaune, in the east central part of Burgundy, was the next stop on my route.
I’m no expert, but Beaune seemed to be the capital of the Burgundy wine region, with wine shops around every corner. I thought that the prices for the wine might be a little cheaper because I was where the wine was produced, but that didn’t seem to be the case. I know that Burgundy wines are well-respected around the world, and prices of 30 to 60 euros per bottle weren’t uncommon.
As I wandered through the narrow streets of central Beaune, I passed a cheese shop. But the fun and interesting thing was that the aroma of all these wonderful cheeses could be smelled 15-20 feet outside the entrance of the shop. That’s my kind of place! The stronger and stinkier the cheese, the better.
I did spend some time at the Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, a hospice founded in 1443 to serve the destitute of Burgundy. It was quite well preserved and well worth the time going through it.
Later in the evening, I was searching for a restaurant where I thought I might be able to find some true boeuf bourguignon. (When in Rome… Right?) There was one restaurant that was recommended, so I stopped in and quickly learned a lesson in French dining. When you get a table in a restaurant (or at least that restaurant), you have it for the entire evening. All the tables were full, and I was out of luck. Luckily, I did manage to find another restaurant that would have me, and was able to get my authentic boeuf bourguignon.
23 May 2009
The next morning, I hopped into my car for a tour of the Burgundy countryside with its vineyards scattered on every hillside. I skipped breakfast at the hotel and opted for stopping in a bakery in a small village outside of Beaune. Language was a bit of an issue for me, but I somehow managed to buy a petite baguette that was about the size of a small souvenir baseball bat, and that turned into my breakfast and midday snack. (Forget about tracking carbs in France–French baguettes are to die for.)
I only toured a couple of wineries, and some of the centuries-old wine presses on display made me marvel at the craftsmanship and skill that went into creating them.
Later in the day, I began the last leg of my journey north to Versailles, just outside of Paris.
24 May 2009
Versailles boggles the mind. Truly.
Taking the advice of every guidebook on the planet, I arrived well before opening hours only to find myself in line with a thousand or so other tourists who also heeded the advice to arrive early. The wait wasn’t that bad in the end.
I picked up my audio guide and waited for my designated start time. Wandering through the halls and rooms of the palace, and learning about their history was quite interesting. Given all the opulence, however, it’s easy to see why the French revolted against their rulers in 1789.
My ticket include a tour of the grounds as well, and that particular day, they were operating the main fountains outside the palace. Everyone was taken by the sprays of water as the pumps were turned on and the classical music played over loudspeakers hidden in the expertly manicured shrubs.
The gardens at Versailles were so large (just under 2,000 acres), they could fit half of Batesville into them. Mind boggling.
I didn’t know what to expect on my trip, but I was more than pleasantly surprised throughout.
My coworkers were friendly and gracious hosts, but I also learned that their directness came from a regional pride and fierce sense of independence that those living in Brittany have. Having that perspective made me understand why they said and did the things they did.
Paris was the highlight of the trip, with trips to Normandy and Brittany coming in a close second. Burgundy was high on the list, too, but I’m not so sure I would return to the Loire Valley again. I can’t wait to go back.