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|Touring France 2000|
Our three week holiday began well; it was an easy drive to Folkestone for the Tunnel. We were very impressed by the speed of loading and the comfort of the crossing in the two storey train carriages.
Our first night in France, at the Hotel Ibis in Rouen,was part of the package with the Eurotunnel. It is a standard modern hotel spoiled by extensive road works outside its front entrance. We walked into the town, just 10 minutes away. Rouen on a Sunday afternoon is very quiet. The cathedral of Notre Dame is superb; there was a free concert so we sat, listened, and admired the architecture. The old town is magnificent, with many tall timbered old buildings.
We stayed two nights in the Loire valley, at the Hotel Grand St Michel, in the grounds of the chateau of Chambord. The hotel is special because it is just a stones throw from the chateau, and some rooms have an excellent view of it. The chateau of Chambord is the largest on the Loire, with a 128 metre long faade and 440 rooms. The main building was begun in 1519, with an ornamental lantern tower as the central element of an elaborate array of terraces with their pavilions, chimneys, towers and turrets. The unusual double spiral staircase at the heart of the building leads up to the central lantern tower. From the parapet walk there is a good view along Le Cosson river, and across the park. The food at the hotel was always reasonable, but it has seriously improved. Worth a special mention was the venison pate, the civet de lievre on the first night and an excellent duck on the second.
The next day we visited the chateaux of Villandry, Azay-le-Rideau and Usse.
Villandry is one of our favourites. Completed in 1536, it was the last of the great Renaissance style chateaux to be built on the banks of the Loire. It is most famous for its unique and beautiful gardens. The gardens were designed on three levels - the water garden, the ornamental garden and the potager. The vegetable garden is particularly fascinating with its stunning displays of designer cabbages, leeks, beetroot, and a few pumpkins for Halloween. All these are planted into geometric patterns, surrrounded by neat short hedges.
Then we visited Azay-le-Rideau. The approach to the chateau is between two symmetrical outbuildings, with a central ornamental gateway. The chateau has the shape of an L, and is approached by a bridge over one of the branches of the river Indre. The initial appearance is graceful and very pretty, reflected in the water of the moat. The dominant feature was a large open staircase. Inside the rooms are furnished and there are a number of paintings and tapestries. The fireplaces again have the salamander theme, seen also at Chambord.
Usse is made of white stone with towers and pinnacles. It is said to be the model for the tale of the Sleeping Beauty. The interior of the chateau is furnished, with a number of large tapestries, especially in the long Central Gallery. The terraces and gardens were designed by Le Notre, but unfortunately were roped off when we visited.
The chateau of Cheverny was on our route south. The first view of the gleaming white stone and the unity of style is quite beautiful. It contains richly furnished rooms, paintings, gilded and decorated ceilings and beautiful tapestries. For example, the first room visited had paintings of scenes from Don Quixote on the walls, and a beautiful carved wooden display cabinet. Outside there is a hunting museum, and kennels with a pack of hounds.
Our destination for the next two nights was the Chateau de Nieuil, a member of the Relais and Chateaux group. Nieuil is a small village between Angouleme and Limoges. We had stayed at the hotel previously, in a lovely room in one of the corner turrets. This time we pampered ourselves in their best room - a 3-storey XIV century tower just next to the main house. When we previously visited, it had been an old chapel. Now it had been converted to have a lounge on the ground floor, then a bedroom on the first floor and an enormous bathroom on the second floor.
Dinner at the Chateau de Nieuil was a delight. We had been advised to take the half-board option, which allowed us to choose from the a la carte menu. So we standardised on the superb foie gras as a starter. On the second evening, which was our wedding anniversary, we were presented with a chocolate cake with a candle for us to blow out. The Chateau de Nieuil is rightly famous for its range of cognacs and brandies, and after dinner we were offered two glasses of champagne cognac. A perfect place for an anniversary.
The chateau de la Rochefoucauld is very close to Nieuil, and made a pleasant afternoon visit. Its original foundations date back to the eleventh century, with the towers being built in the fifteenth century and other parts in the seventeenth and eighteenth. In 1960 the foundations crumbled, dragging with it two of the towers and destabilising the whole building. It is now being restored, and there are a number of nicely furnished rooms, with richly painted ceilings.
Our next stop was planned to be at Cahors, but we eventually stopped further south, at Castelnaudary, on the Canal du Midi. We chose the Hotel du Canal, a modern hotel with no restaurant but with a car park. Our ground floor room had a view straight on to the canal. Just 5 minutes walk away was the Hotel-Restaurant du Centre et du Lauragais, where we ate dinner : foie gras followed by Cassoulet. Cassoulet was invented at Castelnaudary; it is a classic warming dish of white haricot beans, pork, Toulouse sausage and either duck or goose.
It is only 37 kilometres from Castelnaudary to Carcassonne, which was our next stop. We arrived in Carcassonne in the morning, and walked up to the old walled town - la Cite. The ramparts are truly impressive. We walked everywhere, with hundreds of other tourists, past dozens of souvenir shops.
Leaving Carcassone, the road towards the Mediterranean follows the Canal du Midi and we stopped near Beziers to view the famous staircase of locks at Fonserannes. It was fascinating to look at the adjacent alternative water slope - a movable gate which proceeds up a concrete slope pushing a wedge-shaped "puddle" of water.
We were only 30 kilometres from the coast, and continued to the beach resort of la Corniche just south of Sete. Finding a room with a seaview and balcony was easy, and after a stroll on the beach in the sunset we settled into the restaurant. The Hotel la Conga is a member of Le Bottin Gourmande, and this promised good local Setois cooking, with tomatoes and saffron.
It was then onto the autoroute, exiting for Menton just before the Italian border. Our room at the Hotel Paris-Rome overlooked their quiet courtyard, and the Port of Garavan. The buildings in Menton are clean, well maintained and stately. There is a persistent atmosphere of affluence. On the hill above the town is Saint Michael's Basilica. It is baroque, dating from the 1670s. The sanctuary and the central naves were decorated with unusual red amaranth hangings made of Genoese damask.
We looked at several restaurants, searching for a bouillabaise, the famous mixed fish stew, but it had to be ordered in advance so that the ingredients could be purchased. We returned to our hotel and decided to eat in their restaurant rather than make the trek into the town again in the rain. The food was good, including fish soup and rougez - 8 little red fishes filleted and spread around the plate, with vegetables.
Other travellers had mentioned weather problems and we were shocked to hear the effect of the rains. Nice was under 2 foot of water. Turin had been flooded and was cut off. Our plans had been to cross to Turin, before continuing to the Italian lakes and Germany. We decided to stay in France.
We were now one week into our holiday, and two days ahead of our original schedule. Staring at the map, we wondered where would be nice to go. Then we remembered the Pont du Gard, checked exactly where it was, and headed back west, towards Avignon and Beaucaire to Remoulins. We found a room in the Hotel-Restaurant le Colombier, on the Rive Droite. The restaurant was very welcoming with a large wood-burning fire enclosed behind glass. Dinner started with another fish soup, which included cloves of garlic to spread across the toast. And the main course was a local speciality of lamb trotters.
The nearby Pont du Gard is part of a grandiose roman aquaduct scheme constructed around the year 19BC on the instructions of Agrippa. Its aim was to provide drinking water for the town of Nimes, from springs near the town of Uzes. The aquaduct is 50 kms long, of which the Pont du Gard is 275 metres long and crosses the River Gard at a height of 49 metres. There are three levels, the first level has 6 arches, the middle one has 11 and the top level has 35 arches. Since we visited in 1989, pedestrian access has been restricted. Previously it was possible to scramble up onto the top, and old postcards still show lines of people walking along it. Now access is limited to the tarmac road along the bridge at the first level.
Having heard about Uzes, we decided to visit the town. We saw the Tour Fenestrelle, which looks similar to the leaning tower at Pisa. It is near the cathedral of Saint Theodorit, which was founded in 1090 but suffered during various wars, and was rebuilt in the 17th century. The great organ is unusual and is said to be the most beautiful in France. Its wooden case is decorated with pearl grey paint, is delicately carved and has shutters.
To find a hotel we headed for Saint Pons in the Ardeche, about 30 kms west of Montelimar. As we drove into the charming hilly french countryside, and the road became narrower and narrower, we wondered whether it was a good idea. Fortunately when we arrived at the Hostellerie Gourmande Mere Biquette there were rooms available. We chose a ground floor room with patio and superb view across the valley. It is unbelievably peaceful there. For dinner we began with the local speciality - caillette. This in vaguely similar to a faggot, and was presented cold in slices. Then we had civet de biche. Having chosen the cheese option, we then finished with an Assiette gourmande for dessert. There were portions of all the desserts, accompanied by fresh fruit and home made icecream.
We wanted to explore the area, so planned a meandering route north, stopping at the spa town of Vals-les-Bains. In October it was very quiet. There were large, well tended gardens on both sides of the river, and a Casino. In the summer you could imagine hordes of visitors enjoying a gentle stroll and taking the waters. Continuing north through some spectacular hills, we reached chestnut country at St Pierreville. We visited the chestnut museum, with three short films describing different aspects - from the work in the terraces to the recipes for chestnut cakes and crme de marrons.
We wondered about staying in Tournon, a large town on the western bank of the Rhone, but instead crossed the river and eventually found a modern hotel in Pont d'Isere. Unusually it had "Parking Ferme". Its car park was locked securely at night, had a very high fence, an electrically operated gate, and the owners german shepherd dog added to the overall feeling of security.
We were eager to reach the Hotel de l'Abbaye in Talloires, under 200 kms away. The direct route goes through the Chartreuse forest to Chambery, and then alongside the prettty Lac du Bourget, to Annecy. Tallories is a small lakeside village dominated by the group of hotels owned by Pere Bise, and the old Abbaye. We had stayed at the Hotel de l'Abbaye in 1984 and the food from the gourmet menu had been memorable. Its presentation, our first experience of synchronised tureen lids in time to emotional classical music, had left a powerful memory. The cooking was excellent too, with melting pastry in an enormous apply pie made specially to order. When we arrived to check in we were told that our room was available, and that they could not provide dinner in the evening, due to a very large booking which had taken over all the restaurants. Having explained that our booking was because of the cooking, not the accommodation, it was eventually agreed that we would go elsewhere and return the following day. We were very disappointed, and left.
A quick exploration of Talloires showed that the Hotel la Charpenterie had nice rooms available, and its restaurant was open. We celebrated with a bottle of sparkling wine, and sat admiring the view of the lake from our balcony. Having seen the menu at the Abbaye, we chose something local for dinner - a cheese fondu with mushrooms, made with Comte and Beaufort cheeses and local Apremont wine.
The following morning was clear and we drove to the viewpoint at the Col de la Forclaz. Although partly marred by cloud, there was a spectacular view the length of the lake towards Annecy, and the hills beyond.
We continued to Annecy, and walked through the lakeside park to the wharf where the large trip boats moor. We took the classic photograph of the Palais de l'Isle, said to be the most photographed monument in France. It is an unusual triangular building, in the shape of a ship's bow. As we walked along the canalside pavement we could see signs of a local market, with lots of colourful flower stalls, and then fruit, vegetables, fish, meat and cheese stalls.
We returned for the second time to check in to the Hotel de l'Abbaye. We had hardly opened our car door when gold braided staff arrived to welcome us and carry our bags. Our room, number 27, had a beautiful view across the lake. It was the same room we had in 1984. It seems that the rooms with direct lake views are less desirable because they do not have a balcony. And because of the problems, we were only charged 740FF instead of the proper rate of 990FF.
The weather was still mild and we lounged in the private beach area until tea time. Part of the time was spent watching fishing off the end of the pier. There were no scheduled boat services in October, so the lines were allowed. One fisherman pointed out a mean black carp which was prowling the shallow waters. Other fishermen had got bored and were playing boules on the gravel footpaths. We looked in the keep net and noticed a bottle of Champagne sharing the cool water with a few small fishes.
We knew that the hotel was fairly empty, and only two other groups were dining. We were surprised that the chairs at our table had been placed so that we had our back to everyone else, facing the window, rather than into the room. The room was stonily quiet, and then others arrived and their noisy conversations intruded. Just a little classical background music might have helped mask their conversations. The whole ambience was so different from our previous visit. We still persisted with the 540FF Gourmet Menu for dinner. It was the most expensive meal of the holiday, but did have 6 instead of the usual 4 courses. We both began with Foie gras d'oie poele, then one each of Noix de Saint-Jacques grilles aux cepes de nos montagnes and Epigramme de Saint-Pierre, jus de fenouil au beurre fume, caviar d'aubergine et socca croustillants. There was then a Granite a la vieille prune, to prepare for the main meat course. We both chose Medallion de biche grand veneur, Tatin de pommes en l'air et navets caramelises. Finally there was the usual cheese board, and the choice of desserts. The food was well cooked and was presented on a range of pretty porcelain plates which complemented the dishes. But the theatrical impact of the previous visit was missing.
Next day we headed back into central France, choosing the meandering road from Annecy to Pont d'Ain, and local roads to Beaujeu, a small town on the edge of Beaujolais. In the wine tasting cellar there was a wax effigy of Anne de Beaujeu, with an invitation to throw coins for good luck. We found a room at the Hotel Anne de Beaujeu. When we parked at the hotel we saw a little painted stone statue - a smiling fellow with open arms and the remains of a bunch of grapes. His name was Gnafron and there was a local group working for his restoration. The hotel food was good and we savoured our first taste of snails of the holiday - cooked in local red wine, followed by rabbit as main course. And there was an excellent cheese trolley parked at the bottom of the stairs.
Next morning, our drive around Beaujolais criss-crossed the Route des Vins, and during the day we visited all the appellations : Chenas, St Amour, Cote de Brouilly, Chiroubles, Julienas, Moulin a Vent, Regnie, Fleurie, Morgon and Brouilly. We were keen to purchase some wine, so stopped at the Cave de Julienas, and found the restaurant Chez la Rose in Julienas had rooms. Our room was in the auberge, and looked out at the side towards vineyards. Dinner begin with snails - Escargots de Bourgogne en petite casserole, served with a creamy sauce in little copper saucepans. Then we followed it by chicken : volaille fermiere a la crme aux champignons des bois, and veritable coq au vin de Julienas. We were asked to specify our dessert at the beginning so that it could be prepared to order - individual apple pies.
On Monday morning there is a market in the centre of Julienas, and we headed for the cheese stall. Then we drove to Cluny to see the remains of the impressive and important abbey. Founded in 910 the famous Benedictine Abbey reached its climax towards 1100. Sold as national property at the end of the 18th century, the great abbey church was used as a stone quarry, and partly destroyed between 1798 and 1823, leaving only the southern wing of the great transept. We also looked at the HARAS, the National Stud Farm, which was founded by Napoleon in 1806. It was next to the ruins of the abbey, and had pretty gardens. The stallions are mainly lively thoroughbreds, but there are also some ponies and draft horses.
We were then on the edge of Macon wine country. We had read about the Chateau d'Ige in the Relais and Chateaux group, and we were delighted that there was a room. The room had a red patterned material on the softly padded walls, matching the curtains and bedcovers, with a view to the back of the chateau. We quickly asked to stay for 2 nights, and this was later increased to a third night once we had eaten their superb meals. The local cooperative, the Cave des Vignerons d'Ige, is just a few minutes walk from the hotel, and we bought three wines : the Macon-Ige Blanc which had won prizes, the Macon-Ige Chateau London and the Macon-Ige Sous la Roche.
We decided that our first evening should be the simplest menu, at 200FF. There was a plate of appetisers while we decided our choices, then two little white tureens - one of hot soup and the other of cold. We began the meal itself with snails - Poelee d'escargots au Pain d'Epices, Pommes de Terre ecrasee aux Fruits Secs, Emulsion de Persillade. There was then a red Macon wine Sorbet, followed by duck ( Filet de Canard Roti, la Cuisse Mijotee dans un Jus au Foie Gras, Girolles ). There was a choice of cheese board or the speciality of the house : Mille Feuilles de Roquefort au Pain d'Epices Grille, Vin Reduit, Petite salade de fruits secs. Well, you have to try the speciality. In fact, it was nothing like a millefeuille puff pastry, but was a sandwich of alternate layers of gingerbread and roquefort cheese. It sounds unusual but is a very good combination of flavours which we will try when we get home. While we prepared for dessert we were offered a pancake, filled with apples and pears and tied like a bag. We are accustomed to little appetisers while reading the menu, but a pre-dessert was a new and excellent idea. Several of the desserts are ideal for chocoholics, and I was recommended the warm chocolate cake with icecream which was lovely. So was the hot orange and Grand Marnier souffle, served with a scoop of sorbet. A small plate of sweets arrived with dessert, and then another different plate of sweets came with coffee. We were overwhelmed.
Because we were staying more than one day the hotel offered immediately to loan us books about the local area. One book was about the local historic churches, and another described the chateau of Cormatin. We were also given a map, which took us north from Ige to Aze and Blanot, then across to Cormatin.
We reached the Chateau of Cormatin just before lunch. Visits are a mixture of self-guided and guided. We joined the guide just before 12 to visit the parts of the chateau which are otherwise locked, and then wandered around the rest, and the grounds. Although the entrance is closed at lunchtime, if you are inside then you can stay. We explored the remaining furnished rooms on the ground floor, ventured down to the prison and cellars, walked around the vegetable garden and across to the maze, and climbed up the staircase in the ornate aviary for a view over the gardens.
There are many Romanesque churches, like Saint-Martin of Chapaize, in the region. One of their characteristics is the style of the belfry which recalls campaniles in the Lombardy countryside. The building of the church began in 1030, with changes in the 1150s, the beginning of the 13th century, and then in the 15th century. But the original outline of the church has barely changed.
That night we explored the next menu. It was 310FF for three courses, or 260FF for two. We now knew to expect the appetisers and the little white tureens. So we were doubtful we would do justice to all three courses, and we decided to make our choices from the second and third courses. Our meal began with fish, sandre. Then we both tried the lamb ( Carree et Noisette d'Agneau Rotis, Mijotee de Pieds de Porc au Romarin, Pommes Lyonnaise) . The really excellent cheese chariot followed with nut bread. We were prepared for the pancake pre-dessert, but tonight it was a little excellent chocolate concoction. And finally, we both had Orange and Grand Marnier souffles. Is it possible to ever get tired of such good food ?
The following morning the weather was wet with bad visibility and we headed for the vineyards of Burgundy. We left the autoroute at Marsannay, and followed the Route des Grands Crus back towards Beaune. We stopped at Fixin to get our bearings before moving on to visit neighbouring Gevrey Chambertin. We continued south, and intended to visit the chateau of the Clos du Vouguet, but it had just closed for lunch. The chateau was built by Cistercian monks and is now the headquarters of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. Its 13th century cellars and wine presses are supposed to be impressive. We parked in the midst of the grape vines, looking down on the chateau, and ate lunch. It was soon time to move on, through Vosne-Romanee, and then to Nuits St George, returning to the main road at Aloxe-Corton.
It was then only a short distance to Beaune. The famous Hotel-Dieu, or Hospice de Beaune Hospital, was built in 1443 to alleviate poverty and famine. The centre of the hospital, the Great Hall of the Poor, was opened in 1452, and then restored in 1875. The multicoloured roof tiles create extraordinary geometrical patterns. From Beaune the main road heads towards Pommard and Chagny, but we turned onto smaller roads. We stopped for a few minutes at a superb viewpoint, just above St Romain, before heading back to Ige.
For dinner we were invited to eat in the original dining room with the old fireplace. Tonight it was back to the 200FF menu, but with new flavours to appreciate. As a starter there was the Gelee de Poule au Macon Blanc, Vinaigrette de Lentilles et Jambon cru. The main course was Saumon cuit au four a la Graine de Moutarde.
Normally when we leave we rush away, but today we were loath to depart. We wanted to stay to try the local specialities on the lunch menu. We started with Tournedos de Pied de Porc aux Noix, salade d'Herbes a l'Huile de Noisette. This was two warm patties, made from various finely ground parts of pigs trotters. We followed it with rabbit - Fricasse de Lapin aux Pruneaux et Gingembre, Pates Croustillantes. There was then cheese - but with this menu it was Fromage Blanc a la Crme, accompanied with a range of little dishes : salt, pepper, sugar, herbs and others. Finally there was a choice of two desserts. The Chocolate Mousse Amer, Glace Reglisse with chocolate dentilles croustillante was a fantasy for chocoholics. The two enormous scoops of mousse were matched with a fine icecream, and decorated with long chocolate crispy fingers. The alternative, Parfait glace au pain d'epices was also served with the long chocolate fingers.
We reluctantly settled our bills and headed to Tournus and the motorway north. The Champagne area starts around Bar-sur-Aube, which is just over 200kms from Tournus. There is an enormous forest, the Foret d'Orient, and we stayed in Mesnil Saint Pere, on the Lac d'Orient. The Lac d'Orient is a busy water sports centre between April and September, but the lake is emptied in the winter. The village was full of beautiful half-timbered houses, a mixture of old and new.
After leaving the Lac d'Orient, we continued towards Epernay, using local roads. This took us through Troyes, the ancient capital of the Champagne region. Again the typical style of building was half-timbered. The River Seine, and a small canal, flow through Troyes, and we found our road towards Sezanne would follow both the river and the canal. At Sezanne we saw hillsides covered in Chardonnay vines, but then it was back to farming until the outskirts of Epernay. To the east of our road, between Epernay and Vertus is the Cote des Blancs, which produces Blanc de Blancs Champagne. We stopped 8kms before Epernay, at Moussy, surrounded by vines. L'Auberge Champenoise is a large hotel on the main road, with a restaurant extension which has two storeys of modern rooms above it. We stayed for our last two nights.
Being in the Champagne region, we had to order a glass of Champagne as aperitif before dinner. Vincent d'Astree at Pierry was the house Champagne. We chose the Menu du Terroir, although there were two other cheaper menus, and several which were more expensive. We began with a pancake filled with snails and mushrooms - a good mixture. Then we chose a fine rabbit as main course.
The next morning we set off along more of the Route Touristique du Champagne, but along the banks of the River Marne to Dormans. This part of the wine route is planted with Pinot Meunier. We stopped to admire the Chateau de Boursault, built by la Veuve Cliquot in 1845. At Dormans we retraced our path over the River Marne to Verneuil. Continuing on the north bank we saw a lock cottage and turned off at Vandieres to investigate. The top lock gates were open, but no boats appeared, so we moved on. At nearby Chatillon-sur-Marne there is an enormous statue in honour to Pope Urbain II, who came from the area and who initiated the first crusade. The statue is on a hill, and there are excellent views down to the valley in all directions. We continued following the wiggling narrow roads until Epernay. We wanted to get there in time to visit the cellars of Mercier. They did an excellent tour which includes a laser-guided train through their tunnels, although we had to wait ages for an English-speaking tour.
The next day it was time to head home, but there remained one wine route to explore, between Epernay and Reims. Leaving Epernay the road keeps close to the canal, until Marault-sur-Ay. Then it turns away into Pinot Noir country. There are stones at the edge of the grape vines proclaiming the owners - Veuve Cliquot, Pommery etc. We passed through Bouzy, famous for its red wine, which is also used to make rose champagne pink. Verzenay has an interesting museum, in an inland lighthouse, as well as a picturesque windmill owned by the Mumm champagne house. We were curious about the mountains of vegetables at the side of the road, between the vines. We had asked about them at Mercier and were told they were beetroot but they were obviously white. We decided they must be sugarbeet.
It was then just 280kms from Reims to the tunnel - about 3 hours driving. We thought it was wet and windy as we approached the coast, but it was only when we saw the length of the queues at check-in that we realised something might be wrong. There were problems with ferries. We were lucky, and were put onto the 16.21 train, one hour ahead of our booking. On arrival at Folkestone, it was very wet. We were lucky again : part of the M25 was closed later, and the whole journey from Folkestone up to the M3 junction was quite difficult.
Peter and Pauline Curtis
Most recent significant revision: 11th December, 2000