Wednesday, December 14, 2011

France, 2011

October is a bit late to be going to Europe as it is rather cold but rates are low and few people are about!!  I chose the Jeanne d’arc hotel (  in the Marais area for my initial stay.  My first morning I visited Victor Hugo’s house nearby and afterwards had a standing room only lunch at l’avant-comptoir near the metro stop Odeon which was delicious.  It is a tiny little place with the “menu” items hanging from the ceiling.  My afternoon was spent at the Arts Decoratifs Museum (  on the rue rivoli with its exhibits of period furniture, objets d’art, tapestries, etc.  Dinner that night at Spring ( , a restaurant run by chef Daniel Rose from Spring in Chicago.  If you want to eat here you need to plan two months ahead!!  My prix fixe dinner of eggplant caviar, warm octopus salad, fish stuffed with foie gras, pigeon with a rich glaze and pear clafouti was quite nice. 

The next morning I took the RER to Fontainebleau Castle 55 km away and it was enchanting.  Constructed in the 12th century it was used by many kings.  In the 18th century Napoleon Bonaparte began to transform it into a symbol of grandeur after it had fallen into disrepair.   In the evening I dined at my favorite restaurant Le Salon d’Helene (  The prix fixe menu of little exquisite small plates was  absolutely delicious.  A few of the wonderful dishes were foie gras with fig confiture, eggplant ravioli with cepes, fish with leeks and caviar, squid with black rice and praline mousse with hazelnuts.

The following morning after a walk to the Arc du Triomphe and a wander down the Champs Elysees, I picked up my rental car and headed into Normandy.  I had purchased a TomTom GPS with a European map before I left the U.S. and it worked perfectly throughout my trip.  My first stop was Les Andelys (  where I climbed to up to Chateau Gaillard, a fortress designed and built by Richard the Lionheart and now an interesting collection of ruins.  On to Lyons La Foret, a charming little town with Normandy style half-timbered houses.  I stopped at a little café overlooking the square for a creamy lemon tart and café before visiting  the L’Abbaye de Mortemer, a former Cistercian monastery.  The ruins are interesting but amidst the grounds are 13 larger than life size unique wooden carvings of the kings and queens of France – very impressive.  Rouen was my final destination that day and my Hotel de la Cathedrale ( was right around the corner from the famous cathedral and a perfect choice.  Originally built as a Roman Catholic Gothic Cathedral it was added to in the Renaissance style.  The famous impressionist painter Claude Monet painted a large series of paintings of this cathedral during his lifetime.  Dinner at the two star Gill ( was salmon mousse in little porcelain spoons, scallops with mushrooms and butternut squash puree, chicken with truffle sauce, local cheeses and a medley of chocolate desserts.  After a lovely buffet breakfast I drove to the Abbaye de Jumieges founded in 654 and at one time numbered nearly a thousand monks.  The French Revolution ended its existence leaving only the impressive ruins to wander in.  On up through Fecamp to Etretat, where I hiked along its famous white cliffs to the Falaise d’Aval – a large arch.  After a warm sugar filled crepe I headed for Honfleur, an adorable port city where I stayed at L’Ex-Voto, a friendly little bed and breakfast inn.  After strolling along the little narrow streets, past the impressive cathedral and down around the port I had dinner at Le Breard ( which was outstanding.  The chef had spent time in Japan and it showed in many of the dishes from the appetizer sushi roll of salmon to the tuna three ways (tempura, rare with a wasabi sauce and grilled with soy dipping sauce) to the rare magret of duck with a maki of vegetables wrapped in nori!!  One of the chocolate desserts was tempura filled with melted chocolate.  It was one of the best meals I had on my trip.

After a warm crisp croissant and café I drove to Trouville and its twin city Deauville, both beautiful resort cities and then on to Houlgate with its quaint little houses.  I visited the Abbaye des hommes in Caen, a former abbey church finally donated by William the Conqueror inside which he is buried.  I drove on to Bayeux as I wanted to visit the tapestry before the museum closed for the day.  I first checked into the elegant Tardif Hotel ( nearby and spent a couple hours viewing the famous tapestry.  The embroidered cloth is nearly 230 feet long and depicts the events leading up the Norman Conquest of England.  There is also a museum upstairs which explains in more detail how it was made.  That evening I looked into the cathedral and then walked around the little streets and shops until I arrived at the quaint little restaurant La rapiere ( for dinner.  It was filled with people from everywhere and the food was excellent.  I chose foie gras de canard served with chutney and apple cakes, duck with pommes anna and roasted cauliflower, local cheeses and a crisp apple tart with cinnamon ice cream – really delicious!

After a  truly gourmet breakfast of local cheeses, cured ham slices, croissants, breads, homemade jams, fruits and rich café, I tried to visit the Belleroy Castle nearby but it was closed when I arrived.   Instead, I stopped in St. Lo, and walked around the remains of its medieval walls and into the partially restored Notre Dame Church before heading to Coutance famous for its many cathedrals.  Granville, the last city to visit that day, was charming.  The old part of the city is up on a hill and you walk through an ancient drawbridge to access it.  On to Hambye where I stayed at Auberge de l’Abbaye ( in the countryside a few hundred metres from hambye abbey which was closed when I arrived.  I drove 5 miles into Villedieu les Poeles for dinner as, unfortunately, the highly acclaimed restaurant at the auberge was closed on the night I was there.  In this cute little town famous for its copper pots I had a delicious entrecote du boeuf with béarnaise sauce (who makes that anymore!!!???) at Le Fruitier, a rather gaudy restaurant decorated in pinks and reds and my chocolate dessert oozing melted chocolate was also excellent.  

After breakfast alone in the dining room (since this was the off season I was often the only person staying at many of the inns I booked), I headed back into town where there was a cute little farmer’s market near the cathedral.  After a quick look around I drove on to Mont St. Michel.  Coming upon Mont St. Michel, a rocky tidal island, is breathtaking.   The Benedictines settled in the abbey in the 10th century and the island was an impregnable stronghold during the hundred years’ war, its ramparts and fortifications resisting all English assaults.  During the revolution, following the dissolution of the religious community, the abbey was used as a prison.  It is now listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.    I stayed at Hotel du Guesclin ( and had lunch at La Mere Poulard
(www.  The restaurant dates back to 1879 and is most famous for its grand omelettes several inches thick and cooked over the open fire – buttery, crisp and delicious.  After lunch I took a guided tour of the abbey and then spent about 2 hours watching the tides slowly come in as the sun set covering the land around the island.  A peaceful (since most people had left the island) dinner at Auberge de St. Pierre (www.auberge-saint-pierre) of foie gras de canard with fig jam and warm toast, rack of lamb with ratatouillle and tarte normande with caramel sauce. 

The next morning I drove to Dinan, a small medieval town with cobblestone streets and half timbered houses; to Saint Malo, a walled port city in Brittany in the English Channel; and ended up in Paimpol, a tiny port city.  I stayed at Pondevann ( , a delightful inn set in the countryside near a gorgeous lake.  I drove into Paimpol that evening for a fresh fish dinner outside overlooking the port.  In the morning, I was heading up to Perros Guirec and the cliffs of red granite when I had a flat tire.  I stopped at a little tabac shop to call Europcar and within an hour they had replaced my tire and I was off again.  I drove on up to Ploumanach and found the path leading to the pink granite rocks along the sea wall and up to the lighthouse – gorgeous.  From there I drove across the Quimper on the coast where I spent the night at the Manoir de Lanroz (  surrounded by lakes and countryside.  It was the best place I stayed during my entire trip.  Genevieve and Erik, the owners, were friendly and delightful and suggested I have dinner in Quimper at Ambroisie ( which I did and it was outstanding.  A tiny glass of gazpacho, a little spoon filled with crab to start followed by foie gras with roast apples, fish with artichokes and tomatoes, pigeon with phyllo stuffed mushrooms, cheeses and “baked Alaska” on a pool of chocolate sauce – divine.  The owners were waiting up for me to see how I liked it as they had never been!!!

Breakfast the next morning in the elegant dining room with the fire blazing and classical music playing was wonderful.  There was an apple cobbler and well as the usual croissants, homemade jams and fruit and the ambiance was unique and restful – I didn’t want to leave.  On my way into Quimper I stopped by the famous ceramic factory but it was closed until 2 p.m. so instead I visited the ceramic shop in town to get a feel for its famous porcelain and wandered the town a bit. 

As suggested by my hosts, I stopped in the medieval town of Locarn for a quick look around and then to Pont Aven,  a lovely little city where the Gauguin lived and painted.  I visited the Bois d’Amour which he loved and later sat by the quai and had a Crepe Bretonne – crisp with sugar before driving to Carnac, the site of more than 3,000 prehistoric standing stones.  These were erected during the Neolithic period (from around 4500 BC until 2000 BC) and easily accessible.  On to Rochefort en terre
before it got dark where I stayed the night at Le Pelican ( in the center of town.  The hotel is also known for its restaurant and dinner that night was delicious:  terrine of quail/fois gras/mushrooms, roast fish with sun-dried tomatoes and chocolate covered caramel mousse.

After breakfast in the morning, I drove to the large city of Rennes, visited the old part of town, the famous cathedral and found an enormous farmer’s market on my way back to the “parking”.  It started with fresh flowers and continued with fruits and vegetables, fish and ended in a hall filled with local cheeses, pastries and bread – what fun!!!  I drove on to the historical medieval castle of Fougeres surrounded by a moot and used as a stronghold and then to Vitre Castle nearby, considered one of the most beautiful fortresses in Brittany and also a personal residence.  I decided not to go inside Fougeres but held out for Vitre and was not disappointed – even the little city was delightful.  That evening I stayed at Hotel Ricordeau in Loue and dined in their elegant restaurant acclaimed for its cuisine.  I had squash soup following by scallops with Brussels sprouts leaves on celery root puree, fish with fennel puree, fennel jam and creamy risotto, local cheeses with arugula salad and chocolate tart with caramelized bananas.

Into the Loire Valley – first stop Saumur Castle constructed in the 10th century and recently restored. This lovely old castle has a dungeon and watchtower and houses a unusual museum of the horse.  The nearby L’Abbaye de Fontevrand founded in 1100 was majestic and extremely interesting to visit.  It became a double monastery with both monks and nuns on the site and it is easy to imagine them wandering the lovely gardens.   The Chateau d’Usse was one of the loveliest castles I visited and was the inspiration for Charles Perrault’s “sleeping beauty”.  That evening I stayed near Azay-Le-Rideau at Pom’Poire ( , a charming inn overlooking some lovely gardens.  As the restaurant was closed I went into town and found a little French bistro filled with people and enjoyed ripe melon slices with local cured ham and a delicious pave du boeuf with cheese sauce.  In the morning after another wonderful breakfast alone in the dining room of croissants, pain au chocolat, home jams, fresh fruit, cider and strong French café, I visited the Chateau d’Azay-Le-Rideau, a splendid fortified castle built on an island in the Indre River.  After stopping to see Alexander Calder’s mobile in Sache, I arrived at the Castle of Villandry and its famous gardens.   The kitchen gardens are planted in a rotation of more than 40 types of vegetables arranged with regard to color, form, etc.  A fascinating experience.

I took the long picturesque road to Sully sur Loire, passing many lovely castles along the way. I spent the night at La Closeraie (  with its delightful staff and had a delicious dinner (fish filet with crisp skin and vanilla crème brulee) at the charming Cotes et Jardins ( nearby.   That night I slept extremely well in my cosy little room after a nice hot bath…  In the morning, I visited Chateau Sully Sur Loire, an idyllic little castle surrounded by a moot containing numerous tapestries.  and period furniture.   With good luck, I arrived at the L’Abbaye de Saint-Benoit-du-lac (  at 12:00 p.m. just in time for the Gregorian chant service  which was awesome!  The Abbaye is beautiful and 50 monks live inside in silence.  I stopped by Briare to see the famous aqueduct designed in part by Gustave Eiffel beween 1896 – 2003 which was unique and ornamental.   My last stop of the day was Gien to visit the porcelaine museum and to purchase a plate or two.   It started to rain so I was happy to finally reach Les Conviv’hotes ( , a charming bed and breakfast in the old part of town of Chartres.  I parked my car in the locked garage and walked to Le Grand Monarque ( where I had an elegant dinner composed of a tiny glass of gazpacho, zucchini “pasta” stuffed with crab, carpaccio of fish with tiny cauliflower forets, foie gras with mushrooms, langoustine tails with caviar, fish with bread crumb crust, roasted pepper dice and baby spinach, duck with pistachio crust, local cheeses, chocolate decadence and petits fours.  Carefully following my map and asking a person or two along the way, I found my way back to the hotel.  In the morning after a wonderful breakfast of homemade bread, jams, fruit and croissants, I walked to the enormous Chartres Cathedral built in the 12th century.  The majority of the original stained glass windows survive intact and the exterior is dominated by very impressive heavy flying buttresses.  I left town about 9:00 a.m. and returned the car in Paris

This time I stayed two nights at the Studio La Garconniere (  in the Marais area, a very small but cute little room with hot shower and stove.  Lunch late that day at Les Fables de la Fontaine ( was absolutely delicious!!!  The daurade (fish) was served with a butternut squash sauce and risotto and dessert was a crisp little cake surrounded by poached fresh figs.  I took the metro to La Musee de la Musique ( to see the Paul Klee Polyphonies exhibit but didn’t quite “get” the it so was given a free ticket to return the next day.  I leisurely walked back to the studio and later that night sat at the counter in Les Fines Gueules (  and enjoyed my warm chocolate cake before calling it a day.

My last day in Paris was a full one.  I spent the morning at the La Musee National de Ceramique-Sevres which contains collections of earthenware, faience, porcelain and pottery from around the world.  Lunch at les papilles (  was a delicious rack of lamb with winter vegetables and rice pudding for dessert.  In the afternoon after a quick walk in the Luxembourg Gardens nearby I went back to the La Musee de la Musique and am so glad I did!!!  The permanent collection is 5 floors of instruments from all over the world.  There is also a free audio guide so you can listen to the sound of any instrument that has a number as well as watch videos showing people playing their native instruments in their native countries – it was one of the best museums I have ever been to!!!

Dinner at L’Ardoise was a nice ending to a great trip and my 3 course menu of mushroom and foie gras ravioli/bass with caramelized leeks and crisp onions/chocolate tart with Crème Chantilly was just as delicious as the dinner I had here last year.
C’etait un Bon Voyage!!

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