Saturday, March 29, 2008

Some tips for France, especially Brittany.

For your enjoyment or maybe even for your use! Friends of mine went on a first trip to France last year. They took 15 days and I told them for a nice flavor of France maybe split up the trip by 5, 5 and 5 days - 5 Paris, and then visit two other places for 5 days each. The below is some advice I've put together to help them out. Enjoy!

Here are some things I thought about which might help you with your trip coming up. I think Paris has enough going on that you could fill your days without even consulting a guidebook! If I think of unusual Paris things I will send those along later. The usual stuff you can’t help but find.

If you have time google the below places and see if they interest you at all. On my last visit to Paris I stayed at Agora St. Germain which is a short walk to Notre Dame among other things. Good location. Nice hotel – 3 stars I think. It’s not fancy but it’s clean. Don’t forget to get the Museums and Monuments pass – any metro station. This is more valuable as a line-jumper pass than actual money savings. You can look up the museums on the internet. Overall don’t bother to buy any tickets or passes until you get there though. It is a waste of time and one more thing to forget to pack.

I liked climbing Notre Dame for a good high-perch view of the city (included in pass). Also the Arch of Triumph is included – you can climb up there too. In Paris, don’t miss Angelina at 226 rue de Rivoli. You can do this before/after you walk through the Jardin des Tuileries near the Louvre. They have the richest hot chocolate you’ve ever had – get “L’Africain” hot chocolate. Yummy.

There is La Maison de Bretagne at 203 Boulevard St. Germain. This is a good place to check out tourist info if you are heading to Brittany from Paris as they seem to cover all aspects of a holiday in Brittany.

In fact, as a rule, whenever you get to a town, if you have time, check out the tourist office because they usually can tell you about unusual things to see or do. If you have time, Giverny, where Monet lived out the latter part of his life, is about 60 miles from Paris. It is really worth a visit and especially for Les Andelys, the town not far down the river which is where Richard the Lion Heart’s fortress is. The house/gardens are closed on Mondays. Many of his paintings were inspired there – the lilies, the red bridge, etc. You can see it all at his house.

If you are going to go to Brittany, a side trip on the way up into Normandy isn’t too far out of your way and would take one day (obviously you could stay a lot longer). In fact Giverny is on the way up to Normandy. You could at least see some of the Normandy beaches. If you go, you gotta have Crème Brulee while you are there (the best! Fresh cream) and also Calvados, the apple liquor which is a specialty in Normandy.

As you leave Normandy on the way to Brittany Mont St Michel is really worth a visit.

At Pointe du Grouin - on a reasonably clear day you can see Mont St. Michel across the water. Brittany and Normandy go together logically on a trip because they are next to each other.

When I left Normandy and kept going into Brittany, there is a really cool place to visit called Ploumanach where the Cote du Granit Rose starts – nice walking there. Along the way I found a really cool cliffside drive (near Perros Guirec I think) to follow as well as a 13th century Abbey. Abbaye de Beauport it was called.

Brittany is neat in that it’s more Celtic than French in some respects. It’s not classically French like you think of Paris or the Riviera or Provence. It’s more remote, wilder and less people live there. To me it seems like a great place to summer – lots of boating, some beaches (not going to be warm though!) and hiking and horseback riding and biking. In some ways it seems like New England to me – more rustic and rural than other parts of France.

Each part of France is quite unique. One thing though – Brittany seems to be more popular with Brits/French/other Europeans and not nearly as overrun with Americans as the other parts of France are so that may be appealing too. I have also heard from friends who went to France that the Dordogne was their favorite area – I have not visited there yet. I also really want to visit the Calanques sometime too.

One thing to note – if you use Michelin maps in France (recommended) the really pretty scenic drives are highlighted in green (I think) on the maps. The map key will tell you, but I think it’s green – they highlight the parts of the route which are particularly scenic and that is nice to follow along.

Try to research restaurants and towns with good ones in Brittany if you go there, especially when you get to the more remote parts of it such as Finistere (a part of Brittany). You will be there off season and I didn’t plan well and as a result lived on crepes and salads. Also note places close down midday. If you are hungry, best to eat at lunch time and don’t wait until 3 PM to start looking for food. Pont Aven was a good place to find restaurants as was Quimper and Vannes had lots of restaurants.

While at the tip of Brittany I stayed in Audierne, at a hotel called Le Goyen. It wasn’t far from Pointe du Raz (don’t miss!) and the horseback riding I wanted to do. I liked the hotel – my room was easterly facing over the water and I had a small balcony too. Horseback riding at Plogoff, where I rode near the cliffs of Pointe du Raz. They are easy to reach from Audierne: phone 0033/0298/706/740

How about hiking or biking in France? I know their hiking paths are well maintained – I haven’t done any major hiking on them though. There is a coastal footpath all along the Breton coast (Brittany) which you can pick up anywhere. (“Sentier de Grande Randonnée GR34”)Leaving Audierne, I also visited Pont Aven (artists’ village – Gauguin for instance) and Carnac on the way to Vannes.

You'll definitely want to see the Menhirs in Carnac. HUGE! These were seriously motivated people (or maybe aliens).

In Brittany there is a special pottery called Faïence. There is a factory in Quimper which is a larger town in Brittany. You can get knockoffs all over – for fun I got dishes with my cats’ name on them. Who knew Cecily and Ophelia were popular names in France. (Cecelie and Ophelie).

Heading back east - I LOVED Vannes. Brittany itself is set up into 4 separate areas, the Morbihan area is on the way to Paris and has Vannes which is usually really high on French “great towns to live in” lists. Plenty of places to eat and shop.

In Vannes I stayed in Villa Kerasy which was great. My room was called "Pondichery". The owner had spent much time in India (he is from Lorient in Brittany, which was a major port for the Eastern trading) and he decorated the hotel to reflect the tastes he picked up there.

I wanted to do a three hour bay cruise tour of the Golfe du Morbihan while I was there but the hotel was so busy when I checked out I had to wait – I zoomed down to the boat slips and I drove up to see them throwing the ropes off the boat. I ran to the dock, and waved to the folks sitting there on the boat which was already about 20 feet away from the pier. So if you get there, see if you like the boat cruise and don’t dally because they don’t wait or come back.

Other stuff I think is cool – how about looking up the various UNESCO World Heritage sites and visiting the ones where you will be? I haven’t done this on purpose but once I looked at the listings on the internet I found I had seen a bunch of them anyway. This might be worth it to go visit things you might not otherwise drive out of your way to see. They are literally all over the world and France has a lot.

One other thing I had to mention – if you don’t see the Loire Valley and its chateaus I’ll be bummed! It’s kinda/sorta on your way (driving) to Provence if you leave Brittany and head southeast – I don’t know what the roads are like though. You won’t do it a lot of justice if you zip through in one (long) day but it’s still really interesting and beautiful – plenty of wineries (and you can do a vineyard drive or bike ride…) and lots and lots of castles. Overall the food there will be better than in Brittany (anywhere in France, it will be better. I wasn’t impressed with the food there really). And you won’t find wineries in Brittany (at least not good ones). It would be a good alternative to Brittany if you decided to do that instead. Also bear in mind Brittany is a lot more west and it’s still north so driving to Provence afterwards will take longer than if you just left Paris and headed straight south (or went to Loire Valley instead). Paris – Avignon is 6 hours of driving (it is three hours by fast train). From Brittany it will be a lot more – I’d say likely at least 10 hours if not more, driving although you’d likely see more cool stuff. is a great place to figure out routes and times. Some times I’ve picked up a car, used it, dropped it off, taken the fast train to another spot, and gotten another car for sightseeing. That might save some time too for you.

You won’t run out of things to do in Provence. The sun is out a lot – the lighting is wonderful (another reason artists love Provence) and there are lots of wineries, olive oil, great food, stunning sights to see – the lavender comes out in July – I still haven’t seen that yet other than the late season stuff. I think a cooking class would be fun, haven’t done that yet though.

Arles has a lot of Roman things to see (a great arena – I saw bullfights there) and don’t miss Pont du Gard – also Roman. Nimes has a Roman arena as well (I didn’t go there).

If you want a really nice place to stay check out Patricia Bach’s home in Maussanne: I stayed there once and on a second visit just went to her home for lunch. She is American but has lived overseas most of her life as has her husband. The place is gorgeous and she is a great cook too, in fact, she used to have week long cooking classes, maybe she still does. I have not spoken to her in a long time.

I also went horseback riding there, starting from St. Remy (also might be a nice base to stay – I stayed there once too). It’s not far from Arles, either. Pretty drive. If you go horseback riding there, make sure to ask for the 2 hour ride because they will take you up into the mountains (the Alpilles). Beautiful sights and I think you either get to the top by foot or by horse – I didn’t see many regular roads up there. I would kind of like St. Remy as a place to stay better than Arles but that’s me – it’s a short drive to get to Arles anyway. And Les Baux is close by too (where the dead city is I told you about). There are also Roman ruins near St. Remy, too.

I have heard good things about this hotel: but have not stayed there yet – maybe another time. I had dinner in Uzes one night which is a village worth a look, too.

Vaison la Romaine (heading up north) is definitely worth seeing (I think Patricia Wells’ home is there – one of them anyway) and this area also has a lot of wineries.

Chateauneuf de Pape is worth checking out for sure. B&Bs etc outside of Paris check out:

One very good website for Provence: you may decide to make your whole trip here once you start poking around.

If you fly in and out of Paris, and, the south is your last stop, I’d drop the car down south and take the fast train to Paris OR Nice has easyjet to Paris or you can just fly home from Nice. I wouldn’t backtrack-drive just to fly home.

Ok I am running out of steam. This is a good start anyway. No matter where you pick you will have a great time and see cool stuff.


BaileyZimmerman said...

What a lovely itinerary!!

We stayed in Perros Guirec...loved the area....the Rose Granit Coast was surreal!

Joyrenee said...

I stayed in a youth hostel near the Bastille in 1994. These photos bring back wondeful memories. I like the photo with three different obelisk-like objects. You've got quite a good eye and the photos reflect that, along with a bit of wonder and whimsy. Paris was a constant source of miracles and surprises to me. Thanks for the wonderful photos.

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