Last weekend I took a one-night trip to La Baule, a boardwalk town on the western coast of France. La Baule is so named, “the bowl”, because this area is seated on the coast of a large semi-circular bay. I was intrigued to go there by stories from a friend who spent a year of high school in the area. I was planning to walk off the train, onto the beach, and spend the greater part of two days sunbathing.
I spent a day in Bordeaux almost three weeks ago. I haven’t written about it before now because in all honesty, nothing very interesting happened on this trip. Originally I couldn’t decide between Lille, a city in northern France, or Bordeaux, located near the western coast. Several people told me to go for Bordeaux so I did.
In all fairness, Bordeaux would have been much nicer if it wasn’t raining. I spent the day ducking in and out of cafes, trying to keep out of the rain. The weather was quite miserable and far too chilly for July. I also had to get up very early to catch my train which didn’t help my energy level.
Bordeaux is famous throughout the world for the wonderful wine it produces. I knew before departing that I wasn’t going to see any vineyards – these aren’t located in the city – but I was hoping to find a generally pleasant and affluent atmosphere. When I stepped off the train I briefly thought I may be in the wrong place. The train station wasn’t anything unusual – not too pretty, not too shabby – but the area just outside as well as the surrounding streets were very sad and uninviting. I bought a map and began walking to city center, towards the famous Place Quinconces and the cathedral. It was a long, twenty minute walk down gray streets surrounded by rundown buildings and trash.
API took us on a one day trip to Giverny and Honfleur, in Normandy. Giverny is the place where Claude Monet lived while painting his famous water lilies and ‘pont du japonais’ impressionist masterpieces. Honfleur is a seaside port village that Monet often frequented. It’s old houses and cobblestone streets create a charming setting.
Our first stop was Giverny, a small French commune in the middle of the countryside that seemed to consist of only the Monet gardens and a museum. The water lily garden was absolutely beautiful. The sun was shining brightly that morning and all of the flowers, green leaves, and the lily pad speckled pond were truly a picture-perfect sight to behold. This is one of the places where I can truly say “it looks just like the picture!”. The flowers were so vibrant yet their positions seemed wild and natural. The pond was an earthy brown in some parts and a bright blue in others. The bridges and the small pathways added to the charm of the scenery.
Beyond the water garden – actually across the street, through a tunnel, and quite walk away – was Monet’s house and the expansive flower garden that sits before it. I’ve never seen so many flowers! There were rows and rows of beautifully colored roses, irises, snap dragons, and dozens of other plants that I can’t name. They were all arranged in straight lines with trellises and archways spread throughout. The colors were just unbelievable.
We were able to walk through Monet’s house but pictures were not allowed. All of the rooms were brightly colored with large windows, plenty of sunlight, and fresh air blowing through. The dining rooms was adorable with bright walls and wooden furniture and bright blue dishes and accents. It was the perfect country home. Giverny also hosts a museum of impressionism but we chose to spend more time in the gardens.
We got back on the bus and followed the road out to Honfleur where we were free to eat lunch and sight see. All of the houses in Honfleur appeared to be old brick or wooden structures. I adored the quaint styles, wooden trims, and colorful details.
Honfleur is also home to the ancient Church of Sainte Catherine, a wooden church dating from the 1400s. This building looks slightly dilapidated from the outside but considering how old it is, the structure is quite impressive.
Like most day trips, I would have enjoyed more time in both locations. I feel like I could have sat in the gardens in Giverny all day, just enjoying the view, the smells, the world. It seems odd to think that I was standing at the setting of some of the world’s most famous paintings. It was unlike any other church or monument or castle; the garden was a living place. It changes every season, with new plants and colors, but the landscape remains very similar to what it was nearly one hundred years ago.
API organized a weekend trip to the Loire Valley, the famous ‘Castle’ region of France. We lucked out with absolutely gorgeous weather on the first day…but had completely miserable weather on the second day. Still, I got to see Chateaux Chenonceau and Chambord again; I had seen them during my short tour in high school. We also toured Chateau Amboise, one had only looked at last time.
The Loire Valley is one of the most magical places in France. It’s lush landscape and plentiful forests are fed by several rivers, cutting through the countryside and turning the trees and grass a beautiful green. Our first stop was Chateau Chenonceau, the subject of many French class projects and presentations. It was a beautiful day, warm almost to the point of summer with sun pouring from the sky. It was kind of bizarre to get off the bus and know “I’ve been here before!” (we even stayed at a hotel across the street from where I stayed in high school). But the Chateau has changed somewhat from what I remember in high school. The entrance gate is different and the gift shop isn’t in the old tower anymore but next to the ticket desk. The audio tour is done on old iPods and the kitchens seemed different. The grounds were absolutely breathtaking with the flowers and trees all in bloom. The sun made everything so much more beautiful. To give a little history, Chenonceau is called “le chateau des dames” because its history was determined by the women who ran it. It was built by Thomas Bohier for his wife then given to Diane de Poitiers by King Henri II who kept her as a lover. After his death, his wife, Catherine de Medici repossessed the chateau. It then passed on to the Dupin family and finally the Menier family who ran it as a hospital in World War II. The two-floor gallery of the chateau, originally a bridge, connected the occupied and unoccupied zones of France during the war. This truly is my favorite chateau, crossing the River Cher and sitting proudly between it’s two famed gardens and fountains. I was pleased to learn that a regional train runs by the chateau, making a long day trip possible in the future…
After Chenonceau we toured a mushroom cave and another champagne cave. Because we were not in Champagne, the cave cannot legally produce champagne (champagne can only come from Champagne) so it is called ‘sparkling wine’. They described the fermentation process again and the guide, who was not remotely happy to be giving a tour, showed us around the caves. We enjoyed another tasting before departing. The mushroom cave, although a little bizarre was made enjoyable by the sheer passion of our guide, whom I have lovingly dubbed “The Mushroom Man”. He was so proud and knowledgeable of all his mushrooms, showing us the roots, the soil, and the rocks all with his tiny headlamp. He told us a sad story of how a company in the Netherlands invented a system for growing mushrooms in an artificial above-ground cave (like a greenhouse). China purchased the technology from the Netherlands and now traditional mushroom growers cannot compete with the exports from China. He said his cave used to produce over 170 kilos a day and now they only grow about 50 kilos a week and sell only to regional upscale restaurants. The mushroom cave was very dark with very low ceilings. But the Mushroom Man was awesome.
The next morning brought us to Chateau Amboise, where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last few years of his life in France. We toured the chateau with a very nice guide who was giving her first English tour. It was interesting to learn about the history of the chateau and how drastically it has decreased in size from it’s original plan. The chateau was built on a very high hill and used a moat and towers for defense. According to the story, da Vinci was buried in a church that once stood on the Chateau grounds. The church and much of the chateau was destroyed during the revolution and later da Vinci’s body was exhumed and moved to the chapel. There are contradictory accounts claiming that da Vinci is buried elsewhere in Europe.
After seeing the chateau we walked around the adorable town of Tours and ate lunch in a pleasant bakery. By this time it was raining quite heavily but view of the river and the old buildings was worth standing in the rain for.
After a short bus ride we arrived at Chateau Chambord, the most famed of all the chateaux (although I think Chenonceau is by far the crown jewel). Like most of the chateaux, Chambord was built for the king’s enjoyment. This one in particular was a hunting lodge which is made evident by the sheer size of its grounds (I was told that the parks surrounding Chambord are larger than all of Paris proper put together!). The celebrated double-helix staircase, designed by da Vinci, sits proudly in the center of the chateau. If two people walk up it’s two different sides they will never cross paths until they ascend at the top! As we wandered around we had trouble keeping our paths straight – the chateau is so large and it was almost impossible to navigate. Like the last time I visited, I was most impressed by the rooftop; the ornate chimneys and sculptures make the top of the chateau look like a tiny city.
Last weekend I enjoyed a lovely day trip to Champagne. Although the weather was less than desirable seeing the countryside for a bit was nice. We toured two champagne caves, Maison Taittanger and Maison Mercier, as well as the Cathedrale of Reims.
Taittanger is a very old champagne house that grows three types of grapes. Our tour included a video of the history of Taittanger and an underground walking tour of the champagne cellars where the drink is fermented. Taittanger was extremely interesting because the cellars are located in the limestone mines that were dug centuries ago below a church. Apparently the limestone keeps the caves at the perfect temperature and humidity level for champagne production. There were Gothic archways and old stone staircases and statues tucked into the corners of the ceiling. We learned how champagne is made, which grapes produce champagne, and how the bottles must be tilted and turned at different stages to produce the right mixture and eliminate the sediment. At Taittanger all of the bottles are turned by hand. Several times a week the ‘riddlers’ come into the caves and individually turn thousands of bottles, changing the angle of their tilt, and maintaining the caves. We tasted the standard bottle of Taittanger, cold and fresh. I purchased two demi-bottles.
The second champagne cellar we visited is that of Mercier. Mercier is a larger brand of lesser quality; I’m pretty sure this champagne is exported to the states. The tour at Mercier felt a bit like a Disney Land ride. We first took an elevator into the caves that passed before a two-way mirror, illuminating puppets and models of the surrounding grape fields. Then we sat on a small choo-choo train while driving through the caves and listening to an audio tour. The bottles at Mercier are turned by machines and their caves are famous for the precise grid of the tunnels. Mercier is also famous for the giant barrel that was displayed at the World’s Fair, competing with the Eiffel Tower for the most interesting exhibit. It took twelve oxen to pull this huge piece of art. Another tasting followed the tour and while I found Mercier sweeter, the Taittanger was richer in flavor.
In between the two tastings we stopped at the Cathedrale de Reims, the old, giant cathedrale where all but one of the French kings were crowned. Reims was very, very tall. From the outside, the facade is modeled to look like Notre Dame de Paris but the insides have apparently been modeled after the cathedral at Strasbourg. Reims is famous for the being the place of the baptizing of Clovis, the first King of the Francs, and the site of coronation for centuries to come. Currently, the church is displaying stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall, the same person who painted the new ceiling of the Paris Opera House. It was a breathtaking church that completely dominated all of the surrounding buildings of the small town.