Cherchez Le Pain
The last time I saw Paris was 1984. Heartbroken after a 6-week European journey with Monsieur Wrong, I stayed with dear friends and mostly moped around missing most of what the City of Lights has to offer. I returned this Spring with a sympatico traveling companion and no particular plans. We stayed with my same dear friends at their 8th etage apartment near Montmarte, a 1 km walk past the wall of the Cimitière du Nord to a major Métro stop.
Our hosts fed us pain au chocolat and introduced me to the civilized dining tradition of fromage avec salade, served after dinner and before dessert. They helped with tourist information (“which museum do you want to stand in line in front of?”) and weather reports (we experienced an unusual phenomenon, la neige roulée – like soft hail).
Line at the Beauborg
Line at the Musee D’Orsay
One of our few goals was to visit E. Dehillerin near Les Halles where chefs have been buying cooking supplies for just shy of two centuries. While in the city center, figuring out where we were provided much of the entertainment as we wandered past rue Jacob in the Marais and stumbled on Shakespeare and Company in the 5th arrondisement. Don’t bother with Les Halles – it’s now just like any American mall.
E. Dehillerin near Les Halles
After a few days in Paris, we picked up a car at Gare du Nord (it sounds so easy, but the car itself was in the bowels of the Gare and required taking tickets to open gates and reinserting them to open new gates as we spiraled up to finally exit into the traffic of Paris, sacre bleu!).
Nevermind; the sweet-voiced GPS (borrowed from our hosts and programmed for anglais) guided us on the Boulevard Périphérique, then south past huge fields of yellow rape and around innumerable round-abouts toward St. Lactencin (southeast of the Loire valley) to visit a long-time friend and his lovely wife. Both artists, they’re living in and restoring a 150-year-old country home that had been in his family since it was built. Since their English was limited, but much better than our French, we muddled through quite happily in franglais, although we were never quite certain how much was understood. Our fluency and bonhomie grew with each verre du vin.
Field of Rape
St. Lactencin Farmhouse
St. Lactencin Farmhouse
Near St. Lactencin, we spent an afternoon watching gulls do what comes naturally in Spring at Parc naturel régional de la Brenne and picked up chèvre and a baguette at the outdoor market for the journey to Bretagne. Our hosts supplemented our hamper with yogurt, homemade coing gelée (quince jelly), and jambon – une grande pique-nique.
South of Orléans, we ventured to Loches (a medieval town on the Indre river near troglodytic caves that can be seen from the road), Château de Chambord (recently famous in flood photos), and Château d’Azay-le-Rideau. It was nice to see the ubiquitous restoration efforts, but scaffolding presents challenges to photography.
Château de Chambord
Château de Chambord
At this time of year, it’s possible to book lodging just one or two days in advance allowing flexibility in your itinerary. We aimed to stay in Candes-Saint-Martin on the south side of the Loire river, but found a more affordable B and B on the north side in Chouzé-sur-Loire. The place was slightly creepy due to abundant taxidermy, but our host, Sebastian, charmed us and made us an excellent dinner of soupe au pistou, seafood pasta, and gâteau au citron. Compared with dinners prepared by our friends, it was on the light side. What, no fromage? Sebastian spoke English well and advised us to go to Candes-Saint?Martin on our way to Château de Brézé. However, between the cool, dripping weather and our excitement to get to Brézé, we neglected Candes-Saint-Martin. The Château de Brézé was first built in 1060 AD and then rebuilt in the 16th and 19th centuries. It has a Renaissance exterior and a deep dry moat, which is accessed from the 12th century troglodytic understory of the château.
Château de Brézé from the bottom of the dry moat
Château de Brézé
Château de Brézé
It was not a long drive from Brézé to Vannes and our nondescript hotel, located in the center of this medieval town and across from a bakery with a line out the door. (This would be the place to get pain au chocolat and a baguette in the morning.) We followed the dining recommendation of the front desk clerk, who made our reservation and pointed us in the right direction. After a walk in the gardens, we found our way to the restaurant and were served by an animated, multilingual, and gregarious waiter, who made theater of our dinner. We had our first huîtres of the trip and sublime crème brûlée.
The next stop was Rennes, a medium-sized city that seems like a stop-over on the way to somewhere else. But the sun shone after some days of grey, and we found it a lively place. Young people swarmed a few of the smaller streets, which harbored a music festival, and crowds sat on the ground or at dining tables enjoying beer, wine, and the local cuisine. We were charmed by the pretty parts of the city, especially the Parc du Thabor and a lovely marina where families strolled. It was after all, Spring, and the garden displayed a huge variety of tulips and flowering trees in its 10 hectares. Our hotel, The Magic House, named its rooms; we never did figure out why ours was le Big Lebowski. Was it the giant sweater hanging on the wall or the long staircase to the loft with the low beam at the top?
May is full of French holidays, and Brittany was crowded with French sightseers and school groups. I stood out as a foreigner in my wide-brimmed sun hat. Later, I asked my Parisian host, a physician, Is there no melanoma in France? Yes, she said, but we don’t wear hats. C’est comme ça.
Apparently I live under a rock because before this trip I hadn’t heard of St. Malo with its beautifully restored walled old town (a key setting in Anthony Doerr’s recent best-seller All the Light We Cannot See) or nearby Mont St. Michel (a UNESCO world heritage site). Since both were highly recommended, we booked two nights in St. Malo in a baronial manor house. The dining room was full of lodgers at breakfast, including the guests who stayed in a gypsy-like caravan in the back garden. The croissants were so good we wanted some for the road and were directed to a bakery a few hundred meters away. The abbey at Mont St. Michel has stood since the 9th century most likely because of its setting at the peak of a tiny island with sand and sea as its moat. A town grew up around it that now supports the tourist trade. Walk up or out to get away from the shops; the island and surrounding beach are even more beautiful from a distance.
Mont St. Michel
We drove back to Paris via Chartres, the start of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostelo, only a 913 km walk that you will have to map out yourself since most of the French part of the route is now highways. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres is a lovely place to contemplate making the journey. Maybe another time; now we go back to our Parisian friends for a few more days and then return to the US, reality, and the presidential election. Non!
What to do with our remaining time in Paris besides continue our search for even more perfect baguettes? Paris had become warm and sunny. We went with our friends to the Cimetière du Montparnasse to see the Niki de Saint Phalle sculptures. This is what people in their sixties enjoy; that, and a bit of lunch near the corner of the Jardin du Luxembourg where the bee hives sit. Later we had dinner at the Grand Palais and took an evening stroll through the Place de la Concorde – currently home to Paris’s anachronistic giant ferris wheel.
Paris Ferris Wheel
On the last day, we visited Sainte-Chappelle, the less famous church on the Île de la Cité, where soaring stained glass windows tell every biblical story or so it seems. I made a feeble attempt at shopping, trying on shoes in the Robert Clergerie shop in the 6th arrondisement (trop d’euros!) and hunting for chocolate. I would have happily spent my euros on cute French shoes, but unfortunately they had none I liked in my size. It was too hot to buy chocolate and carry it on the Métro, so I left Paris with nothing bought but a few bars of soap. In the airport, La Maison du Chocolat sold me 35 euros worth, which amounted to only about 2 dozen (spectacularly delicious) pieces.
Alas, it was bittersweet to leave my friends, the City of Lights, la belle France with so much still to see and do. Maybe I’ll go back for an extended vacation; let’s see how the election turns out.
All Photos by Fred Cohen/Fred Cohen Photography