Wednesday 18 July 2012

Next trip: One Day in Paris

I'm still working through the pictures from our last trip to Dorset & Normandy (a hectic work schedule is not helping!), but our next trip is upon us - a day trip to Paris!

It's a funny thing, because although I've always told visitors to London that  Paris can be a relatively easy day trip on the Eurostar, I've never actually done it that way. Every time Stephen and I go, we usually head off for the whole weekend, which is easy enough when you live an easy bus ride from the Eurostar terminal. So as a bit of an experiment this Saturday will be our first Paris day trip! We arrive at Gare du Nord around 9:45am and depart at around 8:15pm, not quite 12 hours in France's incredible capital city.

The process of planning out the day has been really interesting, not least because we've been before (and will go again no doubt!) and so we don't feel the need to try to do anything crazy like seeing all of the Louvre in 3 hours. Also, doing it this way means that we won't really have time for any evening entertainments (ballet, opera or concerts like the jazz festival - can I just say that I'm kind of gutted to be missing this again) let alone the famous French dinners. If you haven't ever been to dinner in France, it's hard to appreciate how much of an event a meal can be. We usually take the second seating at a restaurant (usually 8pm or 8:30) and stay until nearly midnight, which is totally normal. I'm not sure that even a 6pm seating would get us out in time to catch our train unless we rushed it, which is exactly the opposite of how to properly enjoy a French dining experience. Not that I'm worried we'll starve (going to Paris for us always revolves around food), but for first-timers going as a day trip, this is a serious downside. No doubt I'll ruminate more on the pros/cons of the day trip experience once we're back.

Going to Paris in July is also something of a gamble since it's on the cusp of the holiday season in France and many places start to close for the better part of two months. That also means that as the locals decamp to sunnier climes, the city really becomes very tourist heavy. I'm a little concerned that with the Olympics in London (and the easy train connections to Paris) that this will be even more hectic than usual, but we'll see. This is an experiment after all!

Anyhow, our focus for the day is going to be on some of the more out-of-the-way places we haven't been to yet, with the added advantage of not being in the prime tourist areas. In particular, Stephen is quite interested in seeing the Tim Burton exhibit at La Cinémathèque Française and if the weather turns out to be nice, I quite fancy Paris Walk's scheduled tour of the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise and/or maybe a boat tour along the Seine, which we've never done. If the weather isn't nice, then I have a sneaking suspicion a return trip to the Arts et Métiers Museum may be in order, plus maybe a wander around the National Library of France (I'll let you guess which choice is whose).

I'm also using this trip to try out a new travel planning tool, Tripomatic and below is the itinerary I've put together using their site (note: a lot had to be added manually as their preloaded entries not unsurprisingly focus on the standard tourist destinations - more on this later).

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No doubt plans will change as we get there and see what the weather is doing and also what we feel like, so stay tuned for what actually comes about!

Monday 2 July 2012

Dorset & Normandy - Day 10 (& 11)

For our last day in Normandy, the day dawned grey and threatening rain so we decided that something with more indoor options would be a good bet. So we headed to the ancient town of Bayeux, most well known for it's tapestry that tells the story of the Norman conquest of England. . .from the Norman point of view. Naturally, we headed there first and it was really very interesting. Fortunately for us it is still very early in the tourist season and so we got to take the audio guide tour at our own pace (during the month of August they disable the pause button on the audio machine to keep people moving). The richness of the colours and sophistication of some of the story telling techniques were incredible. The little museum behind the tapestry and the cinema were really very good (and bilingual, with good translations into English).

We spent a good several hours in the museum, after which the rain had stopped again just long enough for us to head over to the Cathedral, which of course would have been the original display case for the tapestry itself, way back in the 13th century. When we arrived, we caught the tail end of a wedding and got to cheer the new bride and groom. I always like seeing churches that still have a living, working life in the community. In and of itself, it was a fantastic place - you could still see the various stages of building and architectural features from some of the original Norman columns right through the Gothic revival and into the 19th century. All the stained glass was from the Victorian times. The whole town was really lucky during the 2nd World War, in being only very lightly damaged - the focus of the two sides being on the nearby larger city of Caen rather than Bayeux.

After our visit to the Cathedral, we took a quick pit stop for crepes and tea/coffee to wait out the rain (very tasty!). Once it hit another pause we had just over an hour left before we had to head off to meet Patrick and Peggy for dinner, so we took a little DIY tour of Old Bayeux following a little trail of medallions on the sidewalk that took us through various historical features of the town. Really the whole town is a massive mix of architectural styles, with a long craft history including needlepoint and porcelain. In fact most of the house numbers and street signs were in locally made porcelain from the 17th century. Really beautiful. Still, even this early in the tourist season, the town was already starting to feel quite full and busy. I think we heard more English spoken in Bayeux than any other place since crossing the channel.

Then it was time to head over to the tiny port town of Honfleur for dinner with Peggy & Patrick. Fortunately, we got to Honfleur with just enough extra time to walk around the basin and visit the local parish church of St. Catherine's right before it closed (and obviously also was the site of a wedding earlier that day as they were still sweeping up flower petals). It was the most unusual church we've seen on this trip, having 2 naves and being built entirely of wood. I'm honestly not sure how it has survived this long (being wooden and next to the sea!), but I'm glad it was.

As we came out of the church, we saw our dinner restaurant (Côte Resto) right across the plaza and Peggy & Patrick coming around the corner. Talk about perfect timing! We were seated on the covered terrace, which proved to be a good thing as it started raining not long after we placed our orders! So we got to stay nice and dry while still enjoying the pleasant evening air. The food was amazing and service extremely attentive. Gib & Patrick chose an enormous (extremely fresh) seafood platter to share between the two of them; Stephen had a starter of salmon & scallop tartare, a main of turbot fillet and a dessert of mint ice cream; I had a half lobster (!!) starter, scallops for my main and double chocolate mousse for dessert; Cherrie had oysters to start, the same scallops for a main and the mint ice cream dessert; Peggy had a foie gras salad for a started and a really lovely chicken roulade as a main and the house ice cream sundae for dessert. All of this was topped off with a great bottle of Puilly-Fumé and teas/coffees. This was probably some of the most amazing seafood I've ever had (not surprising, being right on the coast!) and of course of the company could not be beat. We would definitely return.

From there it was just a little walk around the town and then back to Lillebonne to crash at the end of our last full day in Normandy. But what a day! We got to see so much, enjoy the hospitality of some truly outstanding people. Yet another place that would be great to return to, and easy enough to reach from London for a long(ish) weekend. With any luck, we'll be back soon! Perhaps in time to see the apple harvest for the beginning of the Calvados making process. . .

The next day would find us just packing up and chatting with Patrick and Peggy before heading off to the ferry terminal in Le Havre. Fingers crossed for a smooth crossing and easy transfer back to London!

UPDATE: The ferry crossing was indeed pretty smooth; not quite as tranquil as the one over, but still pretty good for the channel. We even managed to score a last minute inside cabin for £12, which gave us a place to stash our things, eat our picnic out of the way of the horribly smelling food in the onboard canteen, have a nap and a bit of privacy. On arrival in Portsmouth, a convenient shuttle bus was waiting to take us to the train station and we were on our train with time to spare - a good thing considering it was the last train to London! We finally arrived home at just before 1am after dropping Gib & Cherrie off at their hotel. Work on Monday is going to be a bit rough, but the memories of a great trip (and a tan!) should see us through. Look for pictures posted over the weekend!

Sunday 1 July 2012

Dorset & Normandy - Day 9

It was really hard to next morning to pull ourselves away from the gîte and Carole's wonderful hospitality, but needs must and we had promised to meet up again with Patrick and Peggy for lunch (pâté & cheese!) in Lillebonne before heading off on our next adventure. 

This was the part of the trip that I think Cherrie had been looking forward to most - a visit to the little seaside town of Étretat. Gib, Stephen and I scrambled over the beach, through a little cave revealed at low tide and over to another beach to get a better view of some of the arches. Stephen and I then had a bit of a fail, scrambling up and over what we thought was a cliff side path, but what was actually supposed to be forbidden to people. Fortunately, someone had left a repelling rope attached to one of the more stable posts still remaining. Not something I would really advise others do - and for other English speakers, in France, the red circle with symbols inside means that passage to those vehicles (or people!) is forbidden! Ah well, we made it safe and sound back up to the top, which Gib went back throug the way we came (and already after only an hour wandering around the tide was already a foot deeper outside the cave than when we went though!) and then we all enjoyed just sitting on the beach for a while watching the paddleboarders and surfers playing in the crestng waves. Then a bit of goûter in one of the beach side cafes, set us up for the drive back to Lillebonne.

We spent the rest of the evening eating, chatting and drinking with Peggy and Patrick, which was fantastic as always. Even better since no one was driving, everyone could have a little tipple. A great end to another fantastic day! As I settled in for bed I also realised that we had but one and a half more days remaining! We'd been having so much fun that I had completely lost track of time. A sign of a great vacation, but with so much to see we would have to choose our next days' activities carefully. . .

Dorset & Normandy - Day 8

We woke up the next day to a wonderful breakfast with Carole - two kinds of bread, homemade yogurts and jams, plenty of tea and coffee. We had a good chat and then I went back to the gîte for a rest before Patrick and Peggy arrived to take us for a car tour around the Calvados département

Our first stop was Château de Crèvecœur, a medieval farm and tower part of which has been transformed into an oil museum (no, it didn't make much sense to me either). It was actually a pretty large site, which a huge dove cote (enough room for 3,000 birds), a barn, chapel, 2 houses for workers and the main tower within fortified walls. Set around a little river (probably a moat previously), we spent a very pleasant few hours walking around and exploring the site. We only got rained on a little, which, unfortunately, wasn't really enough to clear the air so it stayed quite humid. Fortunately, the sun also came out, which made for another nice (if a bit sticky day.

After a picnic lunch outside the château,  we headed through the countryside to the picturesque little town of Beuvron-en-Auge (more information available on the French wikipedia site). Stephen and I took a walk through town to the local church and cemetery. What was remarkable was that many seemed to enjoy good long lives, living well into their 80s seemed to be the norm and nearing 100 not unusual, even for those born in the 19th century! The church itself was rather cute, but there wasn't an organ which seemed odd. Then we rejoined the group for a mid-afternoon drink. Many had coffee, but I had a glass of menthe et d'eau (water with mint syrop), which was wonderfully refreshing on a hot day. We got up to head to our next stop just as busloads of other tourists arrived. Well timed!

Then it was time for the day's highlight (as if the others hadn't been wonderful!), a visit to a Calvados distillery - Brunel. Calvados is a type of apple brandy made predominantly in and around this region of France. We even had our own private guided tour, but sadly her accent was so strong and pronunciation so muddled that I didn't really understand much of what she said. Still, it was a pretty comprehensive tour, including not only all the steps of the spirit making process, but also visits to the distillation room (all of which was done in an alembic pot still) and the aging warehouses (amazing smell!). The video at the end was pretty terrible (more propaganda than actual information), but that was quickly forgotten when we moved on to the tasting! We tasted 2 kinds of Calvados made there (a 10 year and a 12 year), but the real stars were the Calvados derived spirits - Pommeau, a "Calvados exotique" and Creme de Calvados - and also a cider jelly that I had to have a bottle of. 

Patrick was fantastic trouper, forgoing the tasting in order to get us all back safe and sound to the gîte. We took another little rest and some blogging before another fantastic dinner where we were joined by Carole's daughter, Juliette. We laughed and talked in 2 languages well into the dark of the night, during which a thunderstorm helped clear the air and lower the humidity somewhat. By the time we all went off to bed, it was calm cool with nothing but the croaking of the frogs to disturb us.