France Trip Wrap Up
Well just got back from a marathon one-week conference and two-week vacation in the land of cheese-eating surrender monkeys. To make things extra interesting, less than a week into the trip, the US and Britain started bombing the shit out of Iraq (or Irak in local parlance). As it turns out, and not too surprisingly, while there were some pretty shrill voices in the media about the war, most folks in France really didn’t care about it. Or care enough to make themselves a public nuisance. There were two protests that I witnessed while I was there: one, a march supporting teachers in Toulouse and the other, a "general strike" for all the cashiers in Paris. As for Irak? A couple musicians at the Place de la Capitole playing godawful Iraqi music and some graffiti in the Paris Metro. C’est ça.
Here’s our trip in 16 lines:
March 15-21: Toulouse. Saw St. Sernin, Les Jacobins, Pont Neuf, and enjoyed my conference
March 22: Drove from Toulouse to Ambrussum to Aigues Mortes to Arles to Aix en Provence to Nice
March 23: Drove from Nice to Eze to Monte Carlo to Roquebrune Cap Martin to Nice
March 24: Drove from Nice to Biot to the Gorges du Loup to Grasse to the Massif d’Esterel to Nice
March 25: Drove from Nice to Cannes, ferried to Ile St. Marguerite, drove to Les Calanaques then to Marseilles
March 26: Drove from Marseilles to Nice* to the Fontaine de Vaucluse to Avignon
March 27: Drove from Avignon to Pont du Gard to Nîmes
March 28: Kicked back in Nîmes
March 29: Drove from Nîmes to Toulouse, Flew to Paris, Visited Eiffel Tower
March 30: Gorgeous Day – Went to Versailles
March 31: Toured the Marais, Musée Picasso, Museum of Jewish art and History, Centre Pompidou
April 1: Les Invalides, Napoleon’s Tomb, Musée Rodin, Musée Orsay, Café aux Deux Magots, Baccarat Museum
April 2: Chagall Exhibit at the Grand Palais, Saint Chappelle, Pont Neuf, Louvre
April 3: Notre Dame, Opera, Epic game of 10-card Gin (Stu wins 505-425 after Barbie blows a 278-79 lead)
April 4: Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysees, Sacre Coeur, Montmartre, Aquaboulevard
April 5: Flew home
*Musée Marc Chagall was closed on the 25th… we also went to a Carrefour for snacks, which was cool
Quick Hotel Review:
Hotel Albert 1er, Toulouse: Great place. Recently renovated. Really nice front desk. Small rooms. Get a room with just a shower and a mini-balcony (#313). The rooms with baths have only partial curtains.
Hotel Albert 1er, Nice: No relation. Great location. A little run-down, but nice enough, with decent-sized rooms. The Brit running the front desk when we arrived was a pleasant surprise. Get a high room with a rounded balcony (#604); the view is amazing.
New Hotel Bompard, Marseilles: Nice place, beautiful garden. Way too far from the action of the Vieux Port. Wouldn’t go back for that reason alone.
Hotel de Mons, Avignon: Think of it as an experience rather than a hotel. Leave your luggage in your car and bring an overnight bag, if you can…no elevator. Great architecture is about the only reason to recommend this place, but it’s reason enough given its perfect location at the Place de l’Horologe and reasonable rates (at €52, the cheapest night of our trip).
New Hotel La Baume, Nîmes: Really nice front desk. Really awful rooms. First one was so ugly I asked for another one, which smelled like someone had died in there. Useless elevator, since there are still stairs to nearly every room. We decided to leave and stayed at the
Hotel Imperator Concorde, Nîmes: What a place. Classic glass-encased elevator. Great front desk. I walked in without a reservation, and they gave me two nights (Thurs. and Fri.) at €110 a night. Beautiful room – I’ll get a picture up soon – that had a list price on the door for €146. Great courtyard with a fountain and cisterns.
Sofitel Hotel Porte de Sevrès, Paris: At the end of the Balard Metro line in the 15th, this would not have been our first choice, but thanks to a PriceLine bid of $120 a night, we stayed at this marvelous hotel for seven great nights in Paris. Unfortunately oriented such that no rooms have a view of downtown, all you have to do is go up to the rooftop balcony to get a breathtaking view of Paris. My only complaint is that the room wasn’t really all that special looking…just a standard hotel room. Also, despite Priceline’s assertion, they only had a pool, not a jacuzzi. However, it was a $300 a night hotel room in a 23-floor, four-star hotel with a gorgeous lobby, 2 restaurants (one rooftop), and a fantastic library-themed bar with comfy couches surrounded by full bookcases. They also have one thing I didn’t even consider when getting a hotel in Paris: a concierge, which we visited more than once a day to help plan our trip.
A few superlatives:
Top 5 Meals in France:
1. "Cassoulet toulousian," Unknown, Toulouse: The signature dish for the city. Lamb, lamb sausage, white beans, and a rich brown sauce served baked in a casserole dish. Holy crap it’s good. My buddy Scott ordered the best version that I tasted in France, but I don’t recall where it was in Toulouse. The version at Julien in Paris is also excellent.
2. "Don Corleone Pizza," Le Danieli, Nîmes: Yes, a pizza. With bacon, sauteed onions, ham, multiple cheeses, and a cream sauce. Get the profiteroles for dessert. The tiramisu was to die for, also.
3. "Lapin dijonnaise," Le Bistrot de Papa, Paris: Rabbit in a thick mustard sauce. Mmmmm.
4. "Soufflé Prix Fixe Menu," Le Soufflé, Paris: Get the Fromage Soufflé as an appetizer, the Henry IV Soufflé (turkey and mushrooms in a cream sauce) as your entrée, and the Grand Marnier Soufflé for dessert. Trust me.
5. "Tarama l’aneth on a Pletzel," Sacha Finkelsztajn, Paris: We were touring the Jewish Quarter in the Marais hoping to get some sort of soul food breakfast when we came across Sacha’s place, which had been recommended in one of our books for her Yiddish cuisine. Tarama l’aneth is basically a dill cream cheese, although I think there’s some sort of fish buried in there. A pletzel at Sacha’s is a kickass onion roll. Yum.
Top 5 Old Places We Visited:
1. Palais de Papes, Avignon
2. Notre Dame and Saint Chapelle Cathedrals, Paris
3. Castle and Donjon, Roquebrune Cap Martin, Monaco
4. Ramparts, Aigues Mortes
5. Pont du Gard, Nîmes
Most Disappointing Museum: Musée Marc Chagall, Nice. Way too small.
Most Interesting Museum Exhibit: "Tim: Être de Son Temps," Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judiasme, Paris. Sadly, it’s temporary.
Least Impressive Ruins: Ambrussum
Biggest Surprise: Aquaboulevard, an indoor water park right next to our hotel (and half-priced admission of €10 through our concierge) has nine waterslides, three jacuzzis, fountains, a wave pool, and is open till midnight on Fridays. We spent our last night there.
Best Story from the Monte Carlo Casino: Admission is €10, which isn’t worth it unless you’re willing to gamble. Being ignorant in advance, we paid it and were greeted by 2 open roulette tables (minimum bet €10) and 1 open baccarat table. We got €100 in chips. Barbie bet €10 on the 3rd column. 33 came up, she won €20. I then bet the €10 on the 2nd column. 35 came up. I won €20. We walked away, admission paid for, she €10 richer, me with a €10 chip for dad.
Top 5 Recommendations for your Southern France Trip:
1. Rent a car in southeast France if you want to really enjoy it. Visit a Carrefour for the experience, the munchies, and cheap gas.
2. Use the Autoroutes. The time saved is worth the tolls.
3. EVERYTHING is closed from around Noon to 2pm, and most museums are closed either Mon. or Tues.
4. Roman Arenas are best seen from the outside. This is especially true of the ones in Nîmes and Arles.
5. It’s better to repeatedly circle a turnabout than to head off in the wrong direction.
Top 5 Recommendations for your Paris Trip
1. Stay away from the Chatelet Metro Stop in Paris. Barbie got her wallet pinched there from inside her purse. The police seemed unsurprised.
2. A four-star hotel is worth the money. Make standard reservations way in advance. Use Priceline at the 11th hour. As long as it’s on the metro (which it will be), you’ll be delighted. Use the concierge.
3. Get a Carte Orange subway pass and a Carte Musée museum pass.
4. If you hear about a "general strike," make no plans that aren’t walking distance from your hotel.
5. Plan your trip around the "open" days of each tourist site, and double-check the hours. For example, the Louvre, while closed Tuesdays, is open and fairly empty late Wednesday nights.