Travel Journal

France Road Trip, Paris => Nice, 9/26-10/3

(Thursday 7 October 2010) by Joanne Chang
Hi all! I haven't written since Venice so it's time to play catch-up...this is going to be a long one, but it'll be worth it! :-)

9/26-9/27 - Paris.
Arch de Triomphe, Paris
Arch de Triomphe, Paris

After Venice I fly to Paris to meet George (9/26). Due to public works, none of the trains are running from the airport and it's raining...the bus/metro journey takes 3 hours before I make it to our rented flat just before midnight. Thankfully George is there, waiting with a warm smile, a bottle of Bordeaux and a hot meal. We spend the next day exploring, starting atthe canals in the 10th district where our flat is, to the Arch de Triomphe, down the Champs Elysee, to the Eiffel Tower, down Rue Cler, and back to our neighborhood for a glass of wine at the Hotel du Nord. I'm excited to see Tartare de Beuf on the menu at the brasserie we stop at for lunch, soon realizing it's on the menu of every restaurant serving any type of French food. Portions are huge (all meals in general) and tartare is typically heavy on the pickle/sweet relish...dare I say I prefer the way we do it in the States? Oops, sorry. For dinner we head to the popular and recommended Montmartre street. I'm not sure what the fuss is about, the only place that catches our eye is a train caboose-turned pizzeria but we have to leave because they're playing American honky tonk music very, very loudly. Cute place though. We find a standard brasserie instead, I polish off a giant sized nicoise salad and George has his first Croque Madame.

9/28 - Road trip! Paris to Beaune.
Jo, George and our Castle for the night
Jo, George and our Castle for the night

We get a late start out of Paris, but those yummy ham, egg and cheese crepes outside of the Gare du Nord make it all worth it. We drive straight through to Beaune and learn about the price of gas in France and the tolls!! Our first toll is 20 euro, leaving us incredulous (makes the 50 cent tolls in Chicago seem like...why bother?). Our accommodation is in Moux, halfway between Beaune and Nuit St George. It's an old castle called Le Manoir Equivocal set on a large farm, and we have the entire place to ourselves. They only have one (gorgeous) guest room and it's huge, with enough hardwood floor space to hold a small yoga class, vaulted ceilings, Asian furnishings and a fireplace. Really? The inn keeper, Irene, is in her late 20s and has just returned from 3 years studying in Shanghai. The castle is a historic property that's been in her family for many generations, left untouched until recently when she took ownership and started to renovate. She doesn't plan to offer more rooms; the charm is being able to stay in your own private castle (yep, it's pretty awesome) and her goal is to convert the barn on the property into a Chinese cultural arts center where students can come learn, work, and create. Yep, pretty awesome. I decide I need to go back there someday.

Dinner is in a wine cave at La Cave de Arches in Beaune and we go to town. Escargot, risotto with seared tuna and foie gras, steak tartare (done right and paired with perfectly cooked potato slivers), salmon, cheese plate, Burgundy wine, and creme brulie. The cheese plate includes brie, epoisse, and an even stinkier cousin of epoisse. The wine is super yummy, from a local region called Monopole that I've never heard of. Earthy, bright and fresh. Mmmm, one of the most memorable meals of my life.

9/29 - Wine villages and Dijon.
We are late risers in France. We find Irene just before noon with breakfast prepared in the also-gorgeous dining room, with a crackling fireplace, Chinese furniture and big wooden communal table. She serves up a beautiful breakfast, with homemade tart, chocolate croissants, yogurt and chutney, bread with preserves and honey and nutella (!) and special Chinese green tea. I can't believe the experience we're having, or the environment surrounding us. It's one of those "is this real life?" moments. Yes, it's real life, and it's mine, and how incredibly lucky am I?
Where wine was invented, Le Clos Vougeot
Where wine was invented, Le Clos Vougeot


After breakfast we head back up north to visit Nuit St George and other tiny wine villages, and Dijon. The day is overcast but the countryside is beautiful, and it's harvest time- crowds of workers in the vineyards picking grapes and working their butts off. We visit Le Clos Vougeot, where they say wine was invented by monks experimenting with potions and such, and meander through small villages (some, like Marsonnay, are dime-sized), and I'm enchanted by the beauty, simplicity, and timelessness of these villages known by some as the greatest wine regions in the world. George is eternally patient as I peruse wine store shelves, admiring the bottles like pieces of art, wine I've only heard of and never seen. I finally buy a White Burgundy, St Aubin 1er cru. We save it for later.
We don't make it to Dijon until 5:30. It's quite a nice city, in fact I can see myself living there if I ever get the hang of speaking French. It's old and charming but big with a castle marking the center of town, and nice restaurants, cafes, shops and modern conveniences easily accessible. Unless it's Wednesday (which it is)... On Wednesday, restaurants aren't open. Don't let the sidewalk signs and chalkboards with daily specials fool you, they never take them down. We search awhile for food, ultimately confused by the appearance of advertising and menus inviting us to eat when they're closed. We end up with snacks from the grocery store, picnic at a cafe, and head back to Beaune for the night.

I'm in love with this wine country. I decide, again, that I need to return with more time to explore and be immersed in the culture.

9/30 - Beaune to Marseilles.
Des Cascades, South of France
Des Cascades, South of France

On the way to Marseilles we drive through Cote due Rhone and Chateauneuf du Pape. It pains me a little not to stop, but we have limited time. We do decide to stop at Des Cascades in La Roque, a small detour from Marseilles, and it's so worth it. Beyond the little town of Saint Gervais, past the little bridge, is a vast, wide open space with incredible rock formations that you can hike over and into, intricately weathered over the centuries by the water circling through them. It's breathtaking, and I wander around in amazement, lucky to be alive, to be experiencing something this beautiful and natural and real.
Little port, Marseilles
Little port, Marseilles


We arrive Marseilles in the evening. Our place is the Hotel Peron, located on the water but away from the large touristy port. Tripadvisor reviews are harsh, calling it run down, dirty, 'stay away!' but I thought it looked charming and George is down to check it out so we do. It's perfect for the occasion. We choose a smaller room with a terrace and view of the sea, port and monument. Everything is super old, the bathroom doesn't have a ceiling or a door, and no, it isn't spotless, but it's adorable in its own way. The staff is super friendly, from the man who carries my suitcase up 5 flights of stairs to the woman who runs the place, and with endearing enthusiasm gives you the full run down of what to see in town. I think about interrupting to tell her we don't have time for all these things, but it's so fun to watch her mark our map with different colored pens that I can't stop her. Which is perfect, because she remembers that on October 1, they open up the road to the famous Calanques (Mediterranean fjords) - so we can visit by car instead of hiking. The Calanques from Marseille to Cassis are known as the best examples in of these rock formations in the world.

Dinner in Marseilles is another one for the books. We intend to go to Fon Fon, near our hotel in the little port for Bouillabasse, which originated here, but it's 47 euro for one person. I refuse to pay that much for seafood soup. (Other restaurants have even more expensive Bouillabasse, what in the world are they putting in that soup?) instead we go to the pizzeria across the dock, and have the absolute freshest oysters, raw mussels, tuna, and fois gras ravioli you can imagine. We wash it down with local white wine topped off by nightcaps of cognac and armagnac, and feel sorry for the people who spent the same amount as we did on one bowl of fish soup. Suckers! ;-)

Calanques, Marseilles
Calanques, Marseilles
10/1 - Marseilles to Nice.
On the way out of Marseilles we stop at Les Goudes, a small fishing port on the far west end. Another yummy meal of Mediterranean goodies- monster prawns, brandade, roasted red peppers, olives and anchovies, octopus salad, baked oysters, fresh bread, and lots of olive oil. We drive up to the Calanques, and it's undeniably beautiful, with views of peaks and valleys, the water far below, narrow winding roads that I refuse to drive down...if someone's coming up the opposite way you have to reverse up hill...no thanks. It's also very peaceful, very few people around and for awhile it's as if we're on our own private mountain top.

We get to Nice at night, driving mostly through the hill towns with more countryside and vineyards. France, is like one big vineyard. Nice is our final destination, and we're here for two nights, staying at the Petit Palais in the residential area of Cimiez. It's an old mansion overlooking Nice and the sea. The room is nice, with a little garden patio, but the staff are generally rude. We don't care, we just laugh about how the French word for "No" is "Non!", and to say it right you have to kind of scowl and wrinkle your nose.

10/2 - Nice.
Yay, the sun is out! We hit the famous food market on the Cours Saleya and made a picnic lunch of cheese, prosciutto, baguette, fruit, yogurt, preserves and olives. We sit on the rocky beach and eat happily, pretending that the rocks are good for our backs (they actually kind of hurt, but I'm too satisfied to complain). The waves make the most beautiful sound as they rush over rocks at shore, a natural percussion. The rocks are pretty, different colors and designs, and we play with them for awhile, picking out favorites and making them dance, and watching them balance each other.
Jo and George, Nice beach
Jo and George, Nice beach

After the beach we walk around the port and head up many flights of stairs to what used to be a Chateau, and is now a nice park overlooking the sea (ps, if you want to have a picnic in Nice, this is the cozier option). It's now turning into evening, and we're both a little sad that the trip is almost over. George leaves tomorrow and I move on to Italy, alone. Alone! It now seems like crazy talk. This is so much fun, why would I choose to travel alone? Hmmm...

But first, one last dinner, and it's a good one. Pain de la Table, a really cute place with communal tables, veggies fresh from the farmers market, fresh fish and traditional French fare like duck tart with brandied apples. I order the world's largest vegetable basket and it's kind of a spectacle but I am in heaven. Everything is perfect, down to the numbers on our seats. We enjoy a long, leisurely dinner before calling it a night, our last night, in Nice France. (ps, apparently they have a restaurant in LA too, Shane you should try it!)

Playing with shadows, Marseilles
Playing with shadows, Marseilles
10/3 - George leaves for SF (or tries to)
At 10:40 I run out to the overlook and wave goodbye to a plane taking off from Nice airport, but George isn't on it. Sadly, he'll spend the night in Frankfurt due to flight delays. And I'm on my own now. Yikes! The solo Jo travel adventure begins here. Where will I go? How long will I stay? Who will I meet? What is my intention? I feel sad, and scared, but only for the moment (ok! It takes a couple days). I am doing what I want to do, what I need to do. I am starting over, and my future is unknown. It's wide open, and it's all up to me. To Italy!

 


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