The Loire Valley and Paris, November 2016
This was a two week trip, and for something that long I could blather on for volumes. Instead I’ll just have a few mentions of the high points and do the rest with pictures. Or at least I’ll try.
Jeri and I had been to Paris three times before and each time we left we were sorry to go. I guess that’s the sign of a good trip. But we really wanted to do a longer more substantial trip to get the feel of the place.
That opportunity started to come together in early 2016, just before American Airlines devalued their frequent flyer program. I was able to snag, for November, a couple of award tickets (AKA free!) to Paris, flying out of Orange County to Dallas, then on to Paris all in first class. For the return I was able to do a Paris to London hop, then all the way back nonstop to LAX on American’s 77W aircraft, in business, which is a really sweet ride. So yeah, why not? All we needed to do was figure out what to do when we got to Paris.
We ended up planning 5 nights in the Loire Valley (3 nights in Tours and 2 in Chartres), then return to Paris and spend 8 nights there. The Loire Valley part was to get out and look at assorted chateaus and the Paris segment was in a really nice apartment in the Saint-Germain district.
After an overnight flight to Paris, we caught the RER train from the airport to the town of Massy, a suburb on the southerly side of Paris. Since the CDG airport is to the north of Paris, and the Loire Valley is to the south, there was no way in hell I wanted to drive anywhere near Paris. So we picked up our rental at the Massy station and hit the almost adjacent motorway. For a two hour drive. After only a few hours sleep. And did I mention in the rain? But hey, we were in France!
Weather for most of the trip was a bit marginal. It was generally pretty cold, with the highs in the mid-40s and rained almost every day. it wasn’t until the last two days that the weather got up to the 50s and the sun came out for extended periods.
Tours was a nice town and well situated in the midst of chateau country which was the primary reason I picked it. From Tours we ranged out to the east and visited the following chateaus on our first day, Château de Chambord, Château de Cheverny and Château de Chenonceau.
Chambord was really huge and with three da Vinci designed double helix stairways, so that was pretty cool. Cheverny was almost deserted and we had the place pretty much to ourselves. And Chenoneau, built out over and across the River Cher, looked like something out of a fairy tale. We had this fear, prior to the trip, that we’d get bored of châteaux and they’d all start looking alike (like cathedrals sometimes do). But in fact all those we visited were very different in their own ways and kept it interesting.
For our second day, we hit Château d’Azay-le-Rideau and Château de Villandry, both located to the west of Tours. While we could have seen even more, we wanted to reserve some time to walk around Tours and have a look at the cathedral.
Once we left Tours and headed towards Chartres, we stopped at a couple more châteaux on the way, Château Royal d’Amboise (With Leonardo da Vinci’s tomb) and Château du De Clos Lucé where de Vinci lived out his last years. The latter was actually the most interesting with models of some of da Vinci’s inventions scattered around the landscaped grounds.
Chartres was a real surprise, a wonderful town. I picked it for our stay merely as a sorta convenient base from which to visit the Fontainebleau chateau. However the entire old town portion of Chartres has been closed to vehicles and turned into a pedestrian mall. We spent a number of hours just checking out the shops (and patisseries!) and walking the city. It was probably the nicest small town we’ve yet visited in Europe.
We spent two nights in Chartres, doing a day trip to Fontainebleau and also walking around Chartres a lot. As mentioned, the old town area is excellent, and the Chartres cathedral was really nice too.
On the way back to Massy to drop off our car and return to Paris, we had planned on visiting the Chateau Maintenon. However there was some sort of special Christmas event going on that day so it was closed, and we got skunked there. But we walked around Maintenon until we got too cold and bailed. Once back at Massy we offloaded the car and caught the RER into Paris and walked to our apartment in the rain.
The apartment we snagged was just amazing. It was large, by Paris standards, and in a district surrounded by chocolate shops. The Gerald Mulot patisserie was only a block away and that became pretty much a daily trek. Next to that was an excellent covered market, Le Marché Saint-Germain, which kept us well supplied with cheeses and meats. This trip really was an adventure in cheese.
Our apartment was only a block away from the Luxembourg Gardens and we visited it repeatedly. It is a smaller version of NY’s Central Park, where by strolling through it you forget you are in a large city. We really loved this place!
Since we had already visited the Père Lachaise and Montmartre Cemeteries, we needed to hit up the Montparnasse Cemetery to finish off our “Cemeteries of Paris” card.
Rue Cler walk
We mainly did this because it was so prominently featured by Rick Steves and sounded like it had potential. It’s mainly a pedestrian only street with some mildly interesting shops. Neither Jeri and I thought much of it as it was fairly short and somewhat touristy. We had gone to Rue Montorgueil and thought that a much better street to wander. So this was a bit of a disappointment.
The Panthenon, where France’s important people are interred, was somewhat of an afterthought. Turned out to be so worth it though. It was a surprisingly grandiose structure with crypts in the basement and a Foucault Pendulum running in its center.
Museum of the History of Medicine was an offbeat little museum we visited in between the larger items. It’s in Paris Descartes University in what used to be the medical school. It was one very ornate room with a collection of old surgical instruments and other medical paraphernalia.
The Museum de Arts et Metiers was another wonderful surprise. It’s a collection of all things technological. Tools, measuring devices, industrial techniques, old cars, bikes and aircraft, something for everyone. And it’s huge. Took a long time to get through it.
Paris Sewer Tour
OK, this didn’t stink as bad as you’d think. But it did stink some. Jeri made some noises initially but calmed down. It was pretty fascinating to see how Paris started dealing with sewage very early in its history. The tour is self guided and leads through former (big) sewer lines (there were boat tours up until 1975). I suspect the Parisians have a wicked sense of humor about this as all their information displays were sitting on a large grating beneath which a very visible shit river ran. To look at the exhibits you had to be standing over the shit stream.
Le Bon Marché
A huge department store (covers two blocks) and competitor to Printemps, which we had visited on our last trip. Sort of like Bloomingdales and Macys. Of the two I think we liked Le Bon Marché a bit better due to its wider food offerings. And it was only a 10 minute walk from our apartment.
So we made the long Metro slog out to the Saint-Denis Basilica where all the kings and queens of France are buried. Marie Antoinette is there. A really neat place which we had almost all to ourselves.
The Louvre, late
We had been thinking of heading to the Louvre on Wednesday evening when it’s open late. But we had a very full day and decided to just walk instead. Passing by the Louvre we decided to check it out and see how busy it was….and it wasn’t. I just walked right up to an open ticket window and got us a couple of tickets at the spur of the moment. The inside wasn’t zombie-apocalypse empty, but it was close. As a point of reference, we were able to just walk right up to the Mona Lisa and gawk. No crowds.
Because we really hadn’t planned to be there we had not planned an itinerary. As a result we just wandered aimlessly looking at whatever we came across. A really different and enjoyable way to visit the Louvre.
Saint-Germain district food tour
We’ve had good luck booking food tours when staying at various destinations and our luck continued here. It was seven of us, and a guide, walking around the Saint-Germain district for over three hours learning about and sampling chocolates, meats, cheeses, breads and wines. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Like in a shop that sells nothing but cream puffs….
Hey, what’s not to like about thousands upon thousands of bones? So we finally made it to the Catacombs and it was definitely worth the visit. In my various desert wanderings I’ve managed to come across a variety of bones (mostly non-human) this was a real anatomy lesson. For me, seeing tibias up close and personal was worth the price of admission.
Archeological Crypt of the Parvis of Notre-Dame
This archaeological site is under the plaza directly in front of Notre Dame. It’s a collection of excavations that date back to the Roman settlement of the Ile de Cite. And while it’s a tourist nuthouse just 15 feet overhead in the Notre Dame plaza, the Parvis site is quiet and lightly visited.
We finally made it to the big two hot chocolate joints in Paris, Berthillon and Angelina. Split decision here. Jeri preferred Berthillon mostly because their process is to give you the basic ingredients (chocolate liqueur, hot milk and whipped cream) and you mix it as to your liking. Angelina, OTOH, gives you a single pitcher of lava-thick chocolate with only a side of whipped cream to slightly damp down the experience. Being the lazy ass that I am, and having a preference to drink rather than eat chocolate bars, I lean toward Angelina.
I will add that I’ve had many years training in the ingestion of copious amounts of sugar, and have seldom hit my limit. But I did here, at both places. Of course having a dessert in ADDITION to the mugs of hot chocolate might have had something to do with it. In any case, you might want to consider ordering an insulin syringe on the side when trying the hot chocolate at either place.
Christmas market (Le Marché de Noël)
This is the season for Christmas markets in France and we hit a couple in Paris. These are pop up stalls selling lots of foods and fairly tacky gifts. There is a very large one along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées which we saw last year at the very end of its run, but this time we were able to see it fresh. This one was big, with over 200 vendor stalls.
Overall, an excellent trip despite the challenging weather. After now having been to Paris twice in one year we sort of have a good feel for the place and have seen what we’ve wanted to see. In general, we really like it a lot, despite all the people (by “people” I mean crowds. The Parisians we met all were really nice). It’s walkable, with outstanding food and plenty of things to see. The biggest negative we ever came across was when we wanted to use the metro during the busy periods and it would be jammed. But we’ve enjoyed France as much as Italy, and that’s saying a lot.
So we’ll be back…and in the not too distant future….