I visited France for three weeks in the fall of 2003. I had already visited Scandinavia for pleasure, and Naples for business, and I decided that it was time to visit what I considered to be "mainstream" Europe. I bought a ticket to Paris, and reserved a hotel for a week. The plan was to spend a week in Paris and then....well, I guess I would figure that out when the time came.
Okay, I wasn't THAT disorganized. I had this vague idea of making my way down to the southwest of France, scoping out a few tiny medieval villages, and sampling the local cuisine. But I didn't really have a solid plan as far as this went.
My hotel was in Montmartre. Why Montmartre? Well, why not? :) If it was good enough for Amelie, it was good enough for me. Based on what I read in the guidebook ("simple but serviceable rooms"), the hotel was about what I expected; no pleasant surprises, but no nasty ones either (at least, I wasn't scared that I would be eaten alive by vermin when the lights went out). Montmartre itself seemed to be an artist's haunt - mostly for show, I'm sure, but interesting nonetheless. The area had the feel of a closely-knit neighborhood. Anyway, it was quite pleasant in its own way but extremely touristy. God, there must have been a crepe shop on every corner.
A note on maneuvering: am I the only one who finds European urban planning to be somewhat...lacking? I suspect this is simply because there is no European urban planning at all. A city with as much history as Paris isn't planned so much as pureed. Anyway, the practical upshot is that I found Paris difficult to navigate - even with a map! At one point I almost walked my way into Parisian suburbia because I had the map the wrong way. French roads - or is it all European roads? - have a nasty habit of changing names without any warning as you make your way down.
Parisians were not nearly as rude as I thought they would be. It would be a stretch to call them friendly but I think that's to be expected of any city with an appreciable size. I even got up the nerve to ask a few for directions and they seemed genuinely helpful. I checked my wallet and pockets later to make sure it wasn't a trick. It wasn't :)
This might have had something to do with my attempt at speaking French. My French is broken and bad, but it's there, and it's usable, and I think this made a difference. That being said, it was odd having to actually use it. I live in Montreal, where people will switch to English at the drop of a hat if they even suspect that it's your native tongue, not because they're trying to be snobs, but because, 9 times out of 10, a francophone's English will be better than an anglophone's French so that, as a matter of efficiency, it ends up being easier to talk in English. Not so in France. In France, I was in the odd situation of being an anglophone who knew French better than many French people knew English.
The subway system was certainly complex, but not quite so bad as I was expecting. There are maps everywhere, so that certainly helped. My hotel was about a stone's throw away from a subway stop as well, so that helped too.
A note about the food: no two ways about it, you get better quality stuff in France. The fruit is fatter, the cheese is tastier, and the bread is fresher - and available earlier in the day. One thing that let me down a bit was the distinct lack of cold cuts - ham is big over there, and it seems to be the only kind of meat that you put in a sandwich. Brie and ham is certainly yummy, and better than anything you could get here, but you get tired of it after a while. And I know that this will peg me as a North American, but soda isn't nearly as big a thing there as it is here, so there's not as much choice. Can you believe that they don't stock root beer?
Paris is extremely cosmopolitan - so much so that I found it a bit difficult to find traditional French restaurants. They were there, certainly, but I had to hunt them down. My favorite was Perraudin. The reasons are a bit complicated. First of all, for the record, I should probably say that I didn't have a bad meal in Paris. Everything was tasty enough, but Perraudin...it just tasted like there was a real chef in the back doing his thing. I never knew scalloped potatoes could taste so good. And the staff seemed genuinely eager to help.
This last part deserves some clarification. As I said, I didn't really find any rude Parisians, and this included waiters. But there was a certain attitude in French restaurants - it's nothing I could put my finger on - where, in the most polite way possible, the staff made you feel that you should be grateful for the food you get. It's not like they spit in your food or anything (I hope not)...it was just a vague impression I got. The staff at Perraudin, on the other hand seemed genuinely pleased to see you. As it happened, I was seated next to an American couple, and they seemed to get the same feeling.
(Side note: I mentioned the scalloped potatoes, but the Beef Bourgignon was awesome!)
Can you do Paris in a week? The answer is a tentative yes, but it completely depends on what you want to get out of it - and how in depth you want your visit to be. There are museums to keep you occupied for a year, but the big ones - the Louvre, the Picasso museum, the Museum D'Orsay, the Rodin Museum - can be done in a couple of days if you don't stop too long on any one piece of art - and you won't if you don't know what you're looking at. Gawking at the major churches - Notre Dame, Sacre-Coeur, etc. - doesn't take very long at all, but opting for the guided tours obviously takes more time. For me, it was enough to stroll along the Seine.
When you run out of touristy things to do, there's always the nightlife. But as it happened, I was travelling alone, and I wasn't smart enough to book a bed in a youth hostel. This meant that I didn't have much of a night life (at least, until Nice). I regret this now, but I suppose hindsight is 20/20. In any case, I suspect that in order to experience the full impact of the place, you'd have to live here. Get a phone number, make friends, become familiar with the neighborhoods, etc. It's not something that's easy to do in just a week.
I spent about a week in Paris before I felt the need to move. I was pretty sure there was a hell of a lot more stuff to do, but I only had three weeks, and there was the rest of the country to see. So, I thumbed through my travel guide and settled on Blois, in the heart of the Loire valley. I chose Blois because it was close to the Chateaux de Chambord, the most famous of the Loire valley castles.
Blois had a pretty, medieval quarter. That being said, its tourist office needed better staff. My sole experience with rude French people involved the women in the tourist office in Blois.
As I said, my main reason for staying in Blois was to see the Chateaux de Chambord. So I thought, fairly enough in my opinion, that the tourist office would be a good place to find out how to get there. I walked in and proceeded to ask the woman staffing the desk, in my best French (admittedly broken, though that didn't stop Parisians from understanding me), the way to the castle.
"You just missed the last bus for today", she told me - in English.
This took me by surprise. I'm used to people switching to English where I live, but I had been getting used to conversing in French for the past week. And while people in Montreal will switch to English out of helpfulness, I got the distinct impression that she was switching to English out of snobiness.
I let it go, and continued to speak to the woman in French. "Est-ce qu'il y a un autobus demain, ou le jour apres?" I ask.
"No", she says (again in English), "The bus service to the castle stopped at the end of August."
Once again, this caught me by surprise. "C'est bizarre", I said, "because you just told me, not even 30 seconds ago, that I missed the last bus for today. Odd that the bus service should have ended a week ago, if I missed the last bus for today." It was early September.
She got slightly huffy, and explained that that the tourist bus service stopped in August. All that was left were public buses.
By now I was slightly exasperated, and asked, once again, if there was a public bus that goes to Chambord the next day. She looked at me as if I had lobsters crawling out of ears and said "But it's Sunday tomorrow! Of course there's no bus service!".
Defeated, shoulders slumped, head held low, I was about to walk out of the office, when the other woman cried out "Just a minute, monsieur!". It was at this point, and only at this point, that these women decide to crack open a bus schedule. Sure enough, there was exactly one bus that went to Chambord, the next day - Sunday! - at 2PM. Having established this, I then embarked on the arduous task of trying to extract payment information.
This might require some explanation. Let me repeat that there was exactly one bus per day that went to Chambord. If it turned out, for example, that in order to board the bus, I needed to buy a ticket halfway across town and present it to the driver, and if it further turned out that I would not be able to board said bus without said ticket, I would have had to wait a whole extra day before trying again. So I wanted to make sure of the boarding procedures before I attempted to board the bus. Did I buy a ticket from the driver? Did I pay him in cash? Did I have to buy a ticket somewhere else? Inquiring minds wanted to know.
The women did not understand my question. No, it wasn't my French because by this time I had given up and switched to English. They simply didn't understand what kind of information I was after.
When it finally dawned on them, they gave a belittling laugh and said "But...you buy the ticket from the driver! It's obvious...how else could it work?". I suspected these women had never left Blois. Grrrr.
Anyway...I finally made it to Chambord. Was it worth the effort? I suppose it was, considering I had never seen anything quite like this before. There's a tourist attraction in Toronto called Casa Loma. It's peddled as Toronto's only castle but it's actually just a big, old mansion built by a wealthy industrialist. Well...Casa Loma looks like a bathroom compared to Chambord. Words can't really do it justice.
Having seen Chambord, I eventually tired of Blois. Yes, there were other castles to see, but once again, I felt I needed a change of scenery. That, and each castle only had one bus a day to service it. I shook my head sadly at this and wished, not for the first or last time, that I had a driver's licence. So I thumbed my travel book again and settled on Bordeaux, hoping to take a wine tour.
Big mistake. There isn't much to say about this town. Bordeaux was big, dirty and ugly. Wine tours, as I should have guessed, were booked well in advance. I would have had to wait two or three days for the next spot, and there was no way I was about to spend two or three days in Bordeaux. Almost as soon as I arrived, I plotted for a way to escape.
After Bordeaux, my original plan involved scoping out a bunch of small villages in rural France from a central base. My goal was to edge my way into that region of France known as the Dordogne. This is French food country, popular for its cheese and truffles and foie gras. The guide book recommended Brive, which it described as an utterly joyless town - but very good as a if your goal is to explore the surrounding villages, all very beautiful, from a single hub.
I did a bit more research and found out that alot of these towns had no train station. The guide did mention sporadic bus service to some of the bigger villages, but the information was about a year old and, seeing how difficult it was for me to get to the Chateaux de Chambord, I had this nightmare vision of me ending up in Brive and not being able to leave for days. I decided to leave these little towns for another visit.
The Dordogne (Perigueux and Sarlat)
Of course, this left me with the question of where to go next. Talking with some people at the hostel, I mentioned my ordeal with Blois, my nightmare involving Brive, and my reasons for wanting to go there in the first place, and some of residents recommended Perigueux and Sarlat. These towns, as it turned out, were right in the heart of the Dordogne. And - joy of joys! - they actually had train stations. So Perigueux for my next stop it was.
My arrival in Perigueux started off one of the more pleasant weeks in my life. As I mentioned, these towns represented the reason I visited France in the first place. I'm a fan of just strolling around a town, gawking at the buildings. Perigueux is relatively large, but the old quarter still looked like it came from the 11th century - or at least it did to me, who knows nothing about these things. The copper tiled roofs were a sight you simply don't see in North America.
Sarlat was more of the same, except better. The medieval quarter in Sarlat had been beautifully restored; the buildings looked like they had been built in the 11th century, but they didn't look like they had last been cleaned in the 11th century. I'm a little suspicious when I hear something like "this 11th century building was restored in the 18th century...", but I'm told that most "restoration" involves cleaning up existing bricks and stones, as opposed to rebuilding the actual monument. So said the guide lady in Perigueux, anyway.
As for the food...well let's just say that I was fortunate enough for my stay in each town to coincide with their respective market days. This is especially important in Sarlat, since market day seems to be the focus of the town's social life. So, yes, I did try the foie gras, and the terrine de campagne, and 3 different types of cheese, and the confit au canard, and the truffle omelette. And yes, I loved it all. I left the cassoulet alone; I was saving that for Toulouse. I did not try the boudin. No, I've never tried boudin. No, I don't need to try boudin to be sure I won't like it. :)
I stayed in a youth hostel in Perigueux, but the hotel in Sarlat was 3 stars - and worth every penny! I think it was the most luxurious accommodations I had all trip. They had the closest thing I could find in France to a proper breakfast buffet. No hot food, unfortunately, but cold eggs, and ham and bread and cheese. And a TV in the room. Oh my god, TV! With English channels! Okay, it was only BBC Newsworld, but it was in English! I don't count CNN :)
I've said it before and I'll say it again: I wished I had a car. The bus trip from Sarlat to Souillac (where I caught the train to Toulouse) was very scenic. I couldn't take any pictures, though, because the bus was moving too fast. It was right in the middle of rural France and the country side is dotted with these little villages that look like something out of the Shire.
My next stop was easy. Toulouse was a must on my itinerary. for two reasons: Carcasonne and cassoulet. Oddly, Toulouse didn't seem to have a youth hostel. I did manage to find a central hotel, but it wasn't particularly cheap.
Toulouse isn't as old as Sarlat or Perigueux - the buildings aren't, at least - so it has a modern, but laid back feel to it. A lot of the city is made up of relatively new red brick, so it's fairly clean compared to, say, Bordeaux (shudder...the one blight on my trip. That, and the tourist office women in Blois. Shudder again). The town is home to a large number of students so the social life is lively and seems to center around bars and clubs.
The following morning I went to see Carcasonne, as it's only an hour or two away by train. For those you don't know, Carcasonne is a town that still has most of its old medieval battlements. When you approach "La Cité" (the old town) from a distance, it looks like something out of a storybook. The kind of place an evil stepmother would trap a princess - that sort of thing. It's looks so much like you would expect a medieval battlement to look like that it seems almost contrived.
Inside the fortified walls, Carcasonne looks for all the world like a theme park. Soooooo many post card stalls and soooo many restaurants. I felt like I was in Disneyland. Tack city. I went back to Toulouse a couple of hours early.
I had dinner in Toulouse that night (I refused to eat in Carcasonne). The city seemed super keen on duck. And then, of course, there was the cassoulet...
Cassoulet deserves its own paragraph. This dish seems to be on every single menu in Toulouse. I think it's a specialty of the region. It's a kind of casserole made with white beans, sausage and confit au canard, all simmered together in some kind of (very tasty) brown sauce. Instant heart attack in a bowl; I suspect this stuff is worse than poutine. I mean, to give you some perspective, have you ever actually seen confit au canard? It's duck preserved in a generous dollop of its own lard - and they're not skimpy on the lard. The confit goes into the casserole, where the fat melts and flavours the dish. And I will bet money that the sausage is anything but lean. Dangerous for your health, but seriously good stuff. I only had the nerve to try it once.
My original plan did not involve Nice. I'm not a huge party-goer, and I got the distinct impression that there wasn't much to see in Nice except...parties. But, since I skipped the scenic village tour around Brive, I had some extra time on my hands. So...what the hell.
I was smart enough to stay in a youth hostel. I think Nice would have been unbearable otherwise. Yes, I think the place I eventually settled on takes the prize as the grungiest place I stayed in all trip - nay! my life! - but the people were friendly, and I was included in every social event, so I'm willing to forgive the dusty sheets. And without the social scene I would have gotten bored fast.
I did the usual tourist stuff. I saw Monte Carlo. I saw some Ferraris. I visited a topless beach (not quite what I was hoping for. Shudder). At the hostel, I tried to dazzle a pretty Swedish woman with my keen insight into Swedish current events, which I had just recently absorbed from the BBC channel in Sarlat. She was unimpressed. Sigh.
At night I joined most of the hostel as they went bar hopping. I hadn't had a night out in a long time, so this was fun, though I'm pretty sure the bars catered specifically to tourists (a bar named "Wayne's"? In France?). I ended up getting separated from the group with another guy (I forget his name) and that very same Swedish lady that I failed to impress (her name I remember - Sophia). Good thing too - as I mentioned, I'm absolutely horrible with the roads in France, and this time I didn't even have a map. Sophia managed to find her way back to the hostel fully drunk, though. Impressive, that.
Back in Paris
Well, all good things must come to an end. My plane ticket had a return date on it, so, eventually, I had to say good-bye to Nice. I bought the final train ticket of my trip. I was told that the train from Nice to Paris was a bullet train, but it didn't seem particularly fast to me. Either it wasn't a bullet train or bullet trains just don't really go that fast.
And at this point, there's not much left to tell. Back in Paris, I got myself a room at a youth hostel in the Latin Quarter, and kicked myself for not staying in one the last time I was here. It's giga-cheaper, and a lot more social. My first stay in Paris might have been a bit livelier if I had gone with a hostel. You live and learn.
For dinner, I chose the only restaurant that really stuck in my mind the last time I was here - Perraudin. Hell, it was in the area. And, oddly enough, the same people I talked to the last time were back - three weeks later. Don't ask. We left in utterly opposite directions. The meal was excellent; I learned what proper tarte tatin tasted like. Belly full, I went back to hostel and promptly fell asleep.
That is, until I was woken up by a loud knock at my door...
No, it wasn't a thief. It was a resident who was just starting his trip. He had heard from my roommate that I had visited the Dordogne, and he wanted to know the sights. So I did my best to explain what little I could. He seemed satisfied with what little knowledge I was able to convey.