Friday, December 24, 2010

A mouthful of a volcano and a week in Paradise, better known as France

Eyjafjallajökull. Say that three times fast. Or even one time slow. I could never quite get the hang of it. In case you don’t remember, that’s the Icelandic volcano that erupted in April 2010, spewing enough ash into the atmosphere to completely shut down European air space for several days. The Saturday after it happened was a beautiful day in London, with crystal clear skies completely unmarred for the first time by airplane trails. We walked around in Regents and Hyde Park for hours, soaking up the gorgeous sunshine until late afternoon, when we learned that the travel fallout from the volcano meant that Andrew’s parents had to cancel their entire trip to come see us and go to Paris with us and Monica and Graham. They rescheduled their trip for May eventually, but they had to cancel the rented flat in Paris that they had reserved, and for a while everything was utter chaos.

Luckily, Monica and Graham were not scheduled to fly over until a week or so later, so their flight to Paris was not canceled. Even though we couldn’t go with Linna and Walter, we went to France anyways, and Andrew and I had five days in the French countryside before meeting up with the Suttons for a few more days of holiday.

Andrew and I hopped on the Eurostar early on Saturday morning and had time to walk around near the St. Martin Canal and grab lunch at a cute little café called the Hotel du Nord (Andrew had pasta with spring vegetables; I had carpaccio). Then we picked up the rental car at the Gare du Nord, navigated Parisian traffic for about 30 minutes, and got the heck out of there. The weather was much warmer in France, and we rolled the windows down to enjoy the fresh air and blasted our music as we drove through the sunny countryside north of Paris. We both love Paris, but we were thrilled to finally see something of France that wasn’t Paris or Nice. It didn’t disappoint. Our first stop was Honfleur, on the Normandy coast. We strolled around the little harbor and stretched our legs, then got back in the car and drove along the coast, through the gorgeous, ritzy coastal resort town of Deauville, gawking at the nineteenth-century mansions that lined the road. Then we were back in rural France all the way to a tiny village near the D-Day beaches, where we camped our first night.

The village was so tiny there wasn’t a restaurant or even a grocery store, so we had to get back in the car to go wandering in search of food. All the other little villages nearby were like ghost towns, with no open restaurants or stores of any kind, and we began to worry we weren’t going to find anything at all, but eventually we found a restaurant that was still open, and it was serving local cuisine, too. Most places we had been in France we hadn’t come up against the language barrier too badly; most French people seem to speak a little bit of English, but this was not the case out in the tiny towns. We got by just fine, but it was harder than I expected to communicate with people sometimes. Case in point, the first restaurant in Normandy. I got a little bit frazzled trying to ask questions about the menu, but in the end I was able to order what I wanted. I had a salad with bacon and goats cheese, then some white fish with a creamy yellow sauce. Andrew had something with layers of potato, ham, and cheese. It was stereotypical French cooking with lots of cream and butter, but it was so tasty. And, despite all the cheese, we didn’t turn down the dessert and cheese courses. How could you? The restaurant’s setting was quite charming, and it was full of local families. Someone had even brought a puppy. I felt out of place because of the language but still right at home.

The next morning we got up early and headed to the beach. Omaha Beach. There were a few families flying kites and building sandcastles, and there was a place to rent kayaks, but it was hard for us to imagine using that beach as a beach because we knew it only as one of the places where American troops came ashore on D-Day. I was glad there weren’t too many people around. It was very calm and peaceful. We walked on the sand for a while, trying to imagine what it must have looked like with the German fortifications on the bluffs and all the amphibious boats out in the water. It’s a very wide, flat beach, and it’s hard to see how anyone could have made it all the way across without being shot. We went up to the American cemetery next. They had a very nicely done museum about D-Day and the war. The images of American tanks moving through the local villages were particularly striking. The village we had stayed in had such narrow streets there was hardly room for a car, much less a tank. Everything we saw in Normandy was so quiet and charming it was hard to imagine the whole area being in the middle of a war zone. After the museum, we went out into the cemetery itself. I knew what it was going to look like, having seen it in movies and TV shows, but actually standing there in the middle of all those white crosses was a very moving experience. It was absolutely beautiful, with the most immaculate lawn I had ever seen, and a view miles out over the sea. A fitting resting place, to be sure.

Our next stop was 20 miles away in Bayeux. We had lunch at another restaurant specializing in the local cuisine and had another hammy, cheesy, apple and potatoey meal with some delicious local cider. We conducted the whole proceedings in French, which was most gratifying. Then we went to see the Bayeux Tapestry. I had heard of the tapestry and always thought it sounded neat, but I wasn’t prepared for how amazing it was. It was embroidered in the eleventh century, and it portrays the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror. It’s 70 meters long, and they have it displayed in a huge horseshow shape so that you start at one end and work your way all around to the other, reading all the panels in sequence. The animation, so to speak, is very detailed and lively. There are recognizable recurring characters, anatomically correct horses, meticulously drawn boats and weapons, and then a bunch of fanciful embroidery with mythical beasts and funny faces. The battle scene is impressively violent, with beheadings and everything. It was like a giant, ancient comic book. We loved it. One of the bits of embroidery we liked especially was a picture of Mont St. Michel, which was our final destination for the day, so we kept that image in mind to compare to the real thing.

We got back on the road, but took smaller roads rather than the motorway. We went through several charming towns and saw ancient city walls, imposing cathedrals, and lovely little gardens as we went. There was no traffic anywhere, and we were getting the hang of the French road signs, so it was a relaxing drive in the country all the way across Normandy. Finally we got back to the coast and started catching brief, tantalizing glimpses out across the water at Mont St. Michel. We were up on a sort of peninsula, and we had to drive down and around a bay to get up to the other little peninsula that Mont St. Michel was on. We checked into our campsite and set up our tent, then hurried out to get a proper look at Mont St. Michel during sunset. We were only a couple miles from it, so we walked all the way out along the causeway, and at our first full view of it our jaws dropped. It looks like a giant castle that was dropped onto the top of a huge rock out in the middle of the water. All around it for miles are flat sand beds (quicksand, if the Bayeux Tapestry is to be believed) and marshes, and then there it is, sheer rock with houses clinging to the side of it, and on top of it all, a massive stone abbey and cathedral. We kept stopping every few minutes to take pictures from the different angles that presented themselves. The sun was striking one side of it with full force, making the whole thing glow. We walked all the way out to the rock and entered through an enormous gate with a portcullis. Right away it reminded us of San Gimignano, the walled town where we stayed in Tuscany. There were shops and restaurants lining the narrow street as it wound its way uphill. We broke away after a while and climbed some stairs, and then some more stairs, and then some more stairs, to get up to the battlement, where we had views across the sands to the countryside all around. It was breathtaking. We took a bunch of pictures and played around in our play castle, then started walking back before it got too dark. We had a picnic lunch of crepes with ham and cheese, plus some celeriac remoulade and a bottle of local cider, then we put on our jackets and hats and went back to see the Mont under the moonlight. We didn’t walk all the way out this time, just stayed on the causeway, but I’m so glad we saw it at night because the whole thing was lit up with bright white lights. It was so surreal. We tried taking pictures of it, but they didn’t turn out very well because it was so dark outside. But I’ll never forget the sight of it.

The next day we woke up early again, packed up, had a typical French breakfast of coffee and bread with butter and jam, and drove out to the Mont so we could leave straight from there. It looked very mysterious in the thick morning fog, almost hidden in the enveloping grey. We headed straight for the abbey, which was already beginning to fill up with visitors, including a very large group of French high school students. We hurried to get ahead of them, and then we had the abbey almost to ourselves. We were familiar with the standard abbey setup, having been to Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, but this was laid out differently since it was on the top of a steep rock rather than in a gentle valley. There were lots of twisting staircases and thin windows to protect the occupants from sharp winds. I could see why they had so many enormous fireplaces, too, since it was very cold and damp inside the stone walls. Since we were so high up, we had spectacular views out to sea, and what with the whipping of the flags in the wind, it felt almost like we were on a massive stone ship. We left the abbey and wandered around the few streets and terraces, and then we left before it got too crowded. Already, by 11:00, the place was starting to fill up with busloads of tourists. We bid a final farewell to Mont St. Michel and drove into Brittany.

We stopped in another walled town, Dinan, for lunch. We walked around the oldest section of the city for a while and stopped in a few shops that sold local specialties. There were entire stores dedicated to different kinds of canned seafood. There were lots of bakeries selling local butter cookies (sables, like the sand all around). There were crepe shops. There were chocolate shops. And all in beautiful, old, leaning buildings. It was classic France, completely unlike anything we had seen in Paris. I really wanted to get some moules frites for lunch, and we found a promising looking restaurant and went in. We definitely made the right choice. Andrew got mussels cooked with white wine and onion, and I got mine with cider, onion, and a bit of cream. We ordered a bottle of cider, which they served in wide ceramic mugs. While we were enjoying the best mussels ever, and more fries than we could possibly eat, a group of priests came in for lunch. They were wearing really old-fashioned Dominican frocks, but they also had iPhones. It was a funny contrast.

After lunch we got back on the road, because we had to drive all the way to the Loire Valley that afternoon. We drove past more fields than I could count, and it all started to blend together in my mind. I think I fell asleep for a little while. But eventually we got to Angers, a large town with craggy stone walls and an ancient castle that we glimpsed from the road. From there, it was supposed to be a short drive to our campsite for the night. We only had the name of the village, so we drove there and hoped to find the site along the way. We didn’t. Andrew found someone to ask for directions, and he sent us out of town one way, but after 20 minutes of driving we still hadn’t found it, so we stopped somewhere else and I asked for directions. The woman spoke a tiny bit of English, about as well as I spoke French, but she was very willing to help. She and her husband discussed the matter, then she called a friend, and finally she drew me a rough map with landmarks to look out for, including “Le Grand Canard.” I thanked her profusely and got back in the car. Well, her directions weren’t that great, and we ended up on a tiny road next to a farm with several menacing dogs and a rather surly young man who wasn’t well pleased by my asking for more directions. He sent us away without any real help. But we soon found yet another person to ask for directions and, wouldn’t you know it, he was actually English. He knew the English couple who owned the campsite and he sent us right there. And the grand canard turned out to be not a giant duck, but a giant duck farm. Apparently we were staying in a big foie gras area. I sent some silent pity to the ducks as we passed by. Eventually we got to the campsite, where we were welcomed most heartily and kindly, with mugs of milky tea. We set up our tent in the camping field on this couple’s farm, and played card games and drank some wine in the setting sun. Then we had another nice little picnic with supplies from a grocery store we had found on the way. As we were cleaning up afterwards, one of the owners came over and asked if we’d like to join him and his wife for a glass of wine by the fire. They were so nice, and we talked for a few hours about local history, places we had all travelled, and how things were going in England. They shared with us a bottle of wine they had gotten from a friend in the area. It was from his private cellar and was unlabeled, so we didn’t know what we were drinking, but it was delicious. They were some of the kindest, warmest-hearted people we had ever met. We were almost sad to leave the next morning, but it was time to get into the valley and see some castles.

First we drove to Fontevraud Abbey, which was an enormous abbey complex built in the middle ages. It is still very well preserved, and the main sanctuary is very impressive, a towering, shining white façade standing out against the green of the surrounding fields. Inside we saw the tombs of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionhearted. Eleanor is a fascinating figure, and I was inspired to learn more about her. The rest of the abbey was beautiful and peaceful, as usual. The one really unique feature we got to see was the kitchen, which was built in an octagonal building with huge fireplaces in four of the sides and vents rising from each angle straight up out of the domed roof. From the outside it looks like some sort of abstract, geometrical turtle armed for battle. After the abbey, we drove through the countryside, which was very different down here, much more green than golden Normandy. We made our way over to Chinon, which is one of the big wine towns in the area, and found lunch at a sidewalk café. Andrew had a croque monsieur while I had a delicious green salad with lots of tomatoes and eggs and thick, mustardy dressing, and we shared some Chinon rose wine in the sunshine surrounded by beautiful old buildings with a view of the local chateau. Heaven. Afterwards we drove through vineyards and forests on our way to Villandry. We stopped briefly in Azay-le-Rideau to see the chateau there, but we couldn’t afford to pay admission for all the chateaux in the area so we just peeked at the front of it and moved on to Villandry.

Villandry is a beautiful chateau, but it is particularly famous for its gardens. They are laid out, Renaissance-style, in giant geometrical patterns. We climbed up to the top of the hill first to get the lay of the land, and it was hard to believe what was right before our eyes. There were squares laid out with hearts and diamonds and circles and fleurs-de-lys, there were dozens of fountains, there were blocks of orange flowers and blue flowers and mazes of green; according to the guidebook there were literally millions of different plants laid out at our feet. We enjoyed the view from above, but we wanted to see it at ground level, too. We spent a couple hours just walking through all the different sections, sitting by a fountain here, walking through a hedge maze there. The flowers were beautiful, but I think my favorite section was the vegetables and herbs, which were laid out in as intricate a pattern as everything else. After our grueling tour of the gardens we refreshed ourselves with some ice cream, then drove a little ways more to our next campsite, just across the river from Chenonceau. We had a really nice spot right on the Cher river, and we could just see a corner of the chateau under a stone bridge from our tent. We went out for more provisions and had another relaxing picnic dinner that evening and played cards late into the night.

The next day was Chenonceau day. This was the chateau I was most excited about seeing, because it is built across the river on huge stone arches. We walked there from our campsite and were actually hot for the first time in months. It was so sunny almost the whole time we were in France; we couldn’t have asked for better holiday weather. We had found another grocery store in the morning and picked up food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so we packed a picnic lunch to take with us. We bought a bottle of wine on our way and enjoyed an al fresco lunch of brie and apple sandwiches on the lawn outside the castle gates. I don’t think I can adequately describe the absolute joy of being in such beautiful surroundings and feeling such a sense of freedom and well-being as we experienced there. You may think, what’s the big deal; it’s just a picnic. But it was the food and the weather and being away from work and being able to spend every minute of every day with Andrew, doing whatever we wanted, going wherever we wanted. I was blissfully happy at that moment.

The chateau was pretty swell, too. There had been an older chateau built on that site on the banks of the river, but some aristocrat bought it during the seventeenth century and expanded it out into the river, several stories high. It looks like something out of a dream. We wandered all over the castle, in drawing rooms and bedrooms and dining rooms and art galleries. The best parts were the parts right over the river, though. The main floor of the chateau, extending the entire length of the building, is a long hall with windows every couple of feet looking out over the river. Underneath that floor, set into the supports of the giant arches, are the kitchens, and they were fascinating. They were built down below so that they could receive their supplies directly from boats on the river. There were huge fireplaces and rows of gleaming copper pans. I loved imagining the feasts that were prepared there. Chenonceau had lovely gardens, too, and we walked around some more, had some ice cream, and made our way back to the tent for an afternoon nap. We woke up to a very strange sound that turned out to be a hot air balloon floating down the river, very low to the ground. We saw dozens of them in the valley, but none so close up as this one. That night was our best picnic dinner, with potato salad, green salad, sausages, and cheese. We sat by the river and soaked it all in.

The next morning we packed up the tent and drove to Amboise, another pretty riverside town with a massive stone castle. We didn’t go in the castle, but we did go to the house nearby where Leonardo da Vinci lived for several years. They had reconstructions of some of his wild inventions set in a garden. It was a little bit cheesy, and we began to feel like they thought Leonardo da Vinci had invented everything, ever, but it was neat to see the machines. We also enjoyed wandering around Amboise. It had one street in particular that was lined with food shops of every variety. We bought some luscious little strawberries, which we ate by the river, and had coffee and pastries at a café in front of the castle. Then we got back on the road to Tours, going past several vineyards along the way.

We were going to Tours to pick up Monica and Graham, and we got there with just enough spare time to walk through the main town square and see the fountains and the Hotel de Ville. Then we went to the train station and waited for their train. The train came, and everyone got off, but there was no sign of Monica and Graham. We figured they must have missed it, so we waited for the next train from Paris. But they weren’t on that one, either. We were starting to worry, and we didn’t have any way to reach them, but then my cell phone rang and it was Monica, asking where on earth we were. We were in Tours, at the train station, I told her. So are we, she replied. I ran all over, looking for her, then had her describe her surroundings. It turned out there were two Tours train stations, and they were at the other one. So we ran back to the car and got over to the other station, where we found them waiting patiently. Relieved to have found them, we got back on the road one more time, to drive to Bracieux, a village near Blois, where we were staying for two nights.

Bracieux is a pretty but unremarkable town, but the location was good and the hotel was very comfortable. We got there in the evening and walked out in search of dinner, thinking we would just find something quick, but there were only two restaurants in town. We picked one that seemed to have decent prices, and they let us have a table even though the kitchen was about to close. We ordered as quickly as we could and then settled down for dinner. And what a surprise! It turned out to be one of our favorite meals ever. It included two amuse-bouches, one a little shot of pea soup, I think, and the other a little tasty morsel of something (Monica remembers mushrooms) on a spoon. We were pretty excited at this point, since we could tell this was a really good restaurant. We all had a great time tasting each other’s food and talking about all the flavors and the wine and sharing stories of our travels in rural France and their travels in Paris over the last few days. Some of the dishes I remember are a gorgeous, pale green asparagus soup, a dish of seafood in a light, creamy broth, roast pork with luscious potatoes, and a cassolette with snails under a giant dome of puff pastry. Every single bite was delicious, and the fact that it took us by surprise only added to our enjoyment. Thanks, Monica and Graham!

The next day we all went to Chambord, another chateau. I saved this one for when Monica and Graham joined us because it looked like it was going to be the most impressive chateau of all, and that was absolutely the case. It was built as a hunting lodge, but it was the most spectacular castle I have ever seen. We went all over, learning about the history of the castle and taking in the architectural details, including the double-helix staircase and the incredibly complicated roofline. I can’t believe how well all the chateaux have been preserved. It was especially fun to see the castle with Graham, since he was on his first trip to Europe. I hope we showed him a good time.

We had a picnic lunch on the grounds of the chateau, then went for a drive through the country, stopping at a vineyard for a wine tasting. We made our way to the town of Blois in the afternoon. We parked on one edge of the old city and walked up the hill, where we found yet another castle, as well as an attraction commemorating one of the town’s native sons, a magician named Houdin (Harry Houdini was a big fan). It was a house with several large shuttered windows that opened every hour on the hour to reveal large audio-animatronic dragons that popped out of the windows and moved their heads around, with creepy music in the background. It was so weird. We walked around the old city and along the river for a while and had a drink in a café in the square. Then we headed back to Bracieux. On the edge of town was a chocolatier with free samples, and we tasted chocolates there from all over the world. When dinner time rolled around we walked up to another restaurant we had noticed on our way back from Blois. It was really good, too, although not quite as exciting as the one the night before.

We had to leave the next morning to turn in the car in Paris, and we got back without a single minute to spare due to traffic. The moral of this story is: never drive in Paris. But we still had the whole afternoon to spend in Paris. Almost everything was closed for May Day, so we did a lot of walking, shared a bottle of wine under the Eiffel Tower, and pretended not to speak English when gypsy beggars walked up to us. We caught the Eurostar back to London that night. Monica and Graham spent a few days with us in London, and we did all our usual tour-guiding, which we were getting pretty good at by then. One night they cooked dinner for us at our flat, with the most amazing panzanella, lamb with rosemary, potatoes gratin, and asparagus, with original cocktails to start and sorbet to finish. The moral of this story is: have Monica and Graham to stay at your place! We had a fantastic time hanging out with them in France and back in London, and we were sorry to send them back to San Francisco.

Photos are here: and here:

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