You can say I’m a bit late in publishing this blog since this trip took place more than a year ago (ok 2 yrs), but with all that has happened in this country in the last couple of years, we could all use a reminder of what a beautiful place it is. In fact, one of the most beautiful countries I have visited. From the villages, to the lavender and sunflower fields, the beaches, or the large cities, it is truly spectacular.
I am certain that many of you balked at the title of this blog and thought ‘oh another American trying to squeeze as much as possible in two weeks.” Let me mention that we were two friends traveling together, and she is Dutch :). We didnt set out to see 20 cities but it happens when you are driving.
We have both been to Paris a few times before and spending too much time there was not necessary. But if you have never traveled to Paris, I recommend a good 3-5 days because the city and the surrounding area has so much to offer.
This trip began in Paris, headed south to Cannes, and back up to Paris. We stayed overnight in seven cities but along the way managed to stop at many of the small cities/villages along the way and enjoy the beauty each had to offer.
Although we got a much needed relief in the last 2-3 days, for the most part walking around temperatures of 88-100 was brutal. I’ve not drank so much water on a given day since my visit to Tunisia in July of 2013 (Talk about H.O.T!)
Day 1 – Paris
Paris is my favorite city in the world and it’s the only city I’ve visited more than twice. Many of the tourist attractions were not of interest to us, but at the end of my visit, I decided to go back to some of those that I hadn’t visited since my first visit nearly 15 years ago. If it’s your first time here, there are plenty of tours, hop-on/hop-off, and day trips to the surrounding area. If you are like me and don’t like tours, grab a map and hit the streets (or the subway), you can walk all the way from Notra Dame to Louvre, to the Eiffel Tower in a couple of hours. But visiting the Louvre will take you most of the day. There is so much to see in this city that I prefer walking around. I’m not covering Chateau Versailles here – but it’s a must see if you never have.
End of June to the first two weeks of July are the big annual sales in Europe. A great time to visit with an empty suitcase and a budget to shop. So that’s what I did! I stayed in the 8th arronidssement and found great shopping from Luxury brands to small boutiques around the La Madeleine area (you don’t have to shop on Champs Elycees if too crowded.)
Day 2: Chateau de Fontainebleau to Amboise in Loire Valley
The only royal and imperial château to have been continuously inhabited for seven centuries. Next to Versailles, in my opinion, this is the 2nd best castle to visit in France. Beautifully maintained with lots to see. You’ll need about an hour to visit it and see the grounds as well (that is if you are a speedy visitor like me.. otherwise take your time.) Try lunch in the nearby small downtown area. As for us, we stocked up for the road trip at the grocery store and hit the road.
We stayed at the Chateau des Arpentis, a 12th century chateau that has been converted to a hotel near the city of Amboise. We loved this place. It still had that old castle feeling but with a great view of nature, and a pool. But yes, with nature also come insects, so prepare yourself. Leaving the window open was not ideal, but I still miss the early am breeze and breakfasts in the garden..
[The bee keeper! As we arrived and parked our car, an old man, who turned out to be a bee keeper I suspect, greeted us and insisted I follow him inside what seemed like a barn. A little creepy but since it was right in front of the chateaux entrance, we took the chance. He only wanted to show us that they were making and bottling honey. Still a little creepy… but what the hay!]
The chateau location was also very central in the Loire Valley to visit other castles, and oh boy were there castles! I think France has one of the top two largest inventory of castles (England I assume is the other). You could spend a week alone just driving around the Loire to see castles. We chose four, the most famous in the area: Cheverny, Chambord, Chaumont, & Amboise.
Chateau D’Amboise, registered as a World Heritage site by Unesco, is situated on the Loire River is also home to DaVinci’s first burial site (in the small chapel), where he lived for a brief period of time and was granted the privilege by Francoise 1st to be buried here. His bones were eventually transferred to the St. Hubert Chapel.
Chateau de Cheverny, a beautiful and slightly smaller chateau, should take about 30 minutes to see. Definitely check out the huge picture frame in the gardens that provides a good photo op.
The chateau has some lovely gardens and a lake where you can hop on a small boat for a bit. This town is also small and not much to see. There was a really nice Tin Tin exhibition here and it really took me back to my childhood. I even picked up one of the Tin Tin books in French. I lost all but one of the ones from my childhood, when I left Iran.
Chateau de Chaumont, a 10th century chateau, is also near Amboise and worth seeing if you have the time. Not a huge chateau but well maintained and on top of the hill overlooking the Loire River. I think another one of Catherine De Medici’s residences. (That woman stayed at most of the chateaux in the Loire Valley and beyond..seriously.) If it interests you, there is an arboretum to see at an extra fee. I can’t comment on it, since we didn’t have the time (nor the interest) to visit.
We did, however, walk through the small Sunday antique flea market by the river since we had to park there and climb up to the castle, and I even did a bit of shopping in the antique toy car booth.
Chateau de Chambord, the grandeur of this chateaux is its exterior. It is a massive place where you can easily get lost. Every massive room (originally built to be a hunting residence) has a large fireplace and they all start to look alike. It is empty, so you can only appreciate its massiveness and the unusually designed staircase, which that has two entrances. This is significant because it is designed in a way that two people can completely avoid each other by taking the same staircase at the same time from the opposite sides.
I can’t really recommend this city as a must see place. It is most known for where Van Gogh painted his famous The Café painting, that café is now called the Vincent Van Gogh Café. The hotel where we stayed, the Julius Caesar hotel, I suspect the only 5 star hotel in the city, was decorated by La Croix. There is a Roman Theater in this city (as there are in multiple other locations in France) but if you’ve seen one Roman Theater, you’ve seen them all. So keep driving and don’t stop here if you don’t’ have to.
The drive between Amboise to Arles was the longest drive during this trip, six hours long. We picked Arles as the resting place before we head to Cote d’Azur.
Day 6-9: Cote D’Azur
We stopped at Cannes to meet up with several friends traveling here from various places. This was my second time to visit Cannes. The last time I was here was in the late 90s, was during the film festival. I was a student in France at that time with very little knowledge of the Cannes Film Festival. I couldn’t remember much but certainly staying at the J.W. Marriot on the strip beat the accommodations I had back then traveling on a student’s budget, and my companion, who loves to stay at fancy boutique hotels, finally realized why Americans love staying at luxury hotel chains like the J.W. She has converted since..haha!
While here, we visited St. Tropez, Antibes, Eze, Monte Carlo, and Monte. Antibes was very cute and charming with a long cafe/restaurant street that runs in the center of town. St. Tropez was overrated and nothing like what I expected. I suspect staying here on a yacht must have a different impact and perhaps the experience I was ‘expecting.’
Monte Carlo is a must see but for some reason each time I visit, I forget my passport, which is required to get into the casino. Next time! Walk around Monte Carlo a bit. One of, if not the smallest churches is located at the bottom of the hill near the casino. I remembered this church from my first time here. Visiting the palace and the changing of the guards is another tourist attraction- as I recollect from my first visit.
Monte is the last French city before Italy but again it felt short of the hype and the recommendations a friend had made. Not as charming as I expected. Eze, a charming hilltop town on the Cote d’Azur, on the other hand, did not disappoint. It is a must see! Wear comfortable shoes. Take time to walk up the cobble stone pathways of its medieval village to the top of the hill (nope.. no cars). Go to the Chateau de La Chevre (Golden Goat hotel) and have a drink in the restaurant overlooking the view.
Driving along the coast towards Eze, has a jaw dropping view! Don’t miss it.
Day 10: Gorde
Probably our most luxurious stay of the entire trip, though I had to laugh at ourselves, since we were the only two non-honeymooners or adults under the age of 60 staying here. A very nice resort and spa with a Michelin Star restaurant. It is too nice for just a one day stay but we hadn’t planned on more time here. The attraction of Gorde, is its medieval town with small narrow walkways from the bottom to the top of the hill. Our resort was on the nearby hilltop with a view of ‘Gorde’ itself. It was magical and charming.
You can also visit the Senanque Abbey only a couple of miles down the road if you are interested in the history, and also seeing some of the lavender fields this area is known for (with lots and lots of bees of course). Somehow you never see the bees in all the glossy pictures of the beautiful girl walking or jumping in the lush lavender fields. I wonder how many bee stings had to be photo shopped. Well, I took one too, but it just doesn’t look as glamorous, does it?!
The monks still live here and collect lavender, which is one of the top selling items of the region. But to go inside the Abbey, it is restricted to certain hours, and you must be decently dressed, so cover up if you intend to go here. Tourists and buses from nearby places flock here after 10 am. If you want to bypass the madness, go early.
We had a really nice dinner at a small family owned restaurant in Gorde. So fresh and delicious but I don’t recall the name.. sorry!
Aix en Provence
Loved this cute town and I actually found some really nice shopping here. In retrospect, we probably should’ve booked one of our hotels here and stayed for a day. But we stopped here for a few hours before heading to our next destination. Lots of eateries, shopping, and yes, lots of lavender for purchase. There is a lot more history to explore here, so spend a day and do some research before getting here. Cézanne is the artist most associated with this city.
Visit Hotel de Caumont – Art Center and discover the history of this place that used to be a resident.
Antique capital of France. If you want to do some antique shopping, this is the place. Not only it had a very large Sunday market, but there were antique shops everywhere. A cute canal runs through the town and shops, restaurants etc. are situated along this canal.
Unplanned and unaware, we arrived here during the theater festival. The old town was nearly shut down to traffic during the two week long festivities. You need a letter from the hotel or a permit to enter the city walls with a car (or park outside of the walls if you can). The town and its street, some so narrow that I had to close my eyes as my friend navigated though them, EXCEPT, I had the map and had to navigate her.
It is a fun time to be here. The city is lively but extremely crowded. You can attend most performances for very little $$. Since my french speaking abilities are comme ci comme ca, we chose a low budget performance by three actors: History of Music, where these actors used a number of musical instruments to guide us through birth of music from the days of the caveman to modern times. I was cute and entertaining. We were not disappointed.
As you dine or relax throughout the old city, actors & performers perform select scenes from their plays, in front of eateries or in town squares to gather interest and encourage attendance to their shows.
We enjoyed a lovely stay at a bed & breakfast (No 15 or N15) ran by an Italian woman, who spoke multiple languages. Ate some really great food in the neighborhood at her recommendation and that’s a stretch for me, since I’m not a big fan of the French cuisine.
One restaurant I recommend is 83. Vernet. Big place, great food and good people watching.. but it seemed like they were in NO hurry at all. Don’t go here thinking you’ll eat soon, you may just die of starvation. Read my full review on TripAdvisor.
Day 13-14: Lyon
I loved Lyon! Although we were expecting some major shopping here, as everyone had recommended, we didn’t find much to get excited about. Most of the shopping was limited to small brand chains and even some of the big brands or the ‘large’ department store, didn’t carry much inventory. But it is a very lively city in the evenings. During the day, especially when hot, it’s pretty dead. Take your siesta here. But when the cool breeze of the evening arrives, the cafes, restaurants, boat bars/restaurants on the river are full of young, college kids, since Lyon is a big university city, (and that usually translates to cheap drinks.)
Visiting the old town (Viuex Lyon) and the Saint-jean cathedral on top of the hill is a must. What a spectacular view of the city and the charming old city below.
[The blackout that didn’t phase anyone! On our last night, while having drinks by the river, most of the city had a blackout. It was dark as far as the eye could see but no one left the bars or restaurants. As we began to walk around making our way back to the hotel with the assistance of our iPhone flash light, seemed like no one was bothered. For us, it made for some really entertaining stroll along the streets.]
I tagged on 2 additional days to spend a little more time by myself in Paris, since it is my favorite city. I spent a day exploring the Jardin du Luxembourg (and it’s museum) in the 6th arrondissement, lunching in a hopping cafe in the St. Germain district , watching the beautiful people walk by, and finally took a break on the banks of the Seine River and even had a chance to see a commercial or magazine shoot in progress, which was taking forever? All they had to do was take a few steps together toward the camera. 45 minutes later, I left and they were still at it.
Of course, I shopped some more in Paris. To a point that I feared my suitcase wouldn’t close and it didn’t until I threw out some pf my older clothes! What’s a girl to do?!
Day two I decided to visit the places I hadn’t visited since a decade ago. I walked from the Louvre to the Eiffel tower, Notre Dame; and also, for the first time, I took the boat tour on the Seine. I didn’t want to take part in this touristic activity, but my feet were killing me, it was hot, and I couldn’t shop anymore – my suitcase had forbid me so! At midnight, I ran out of my hotel to sit by the Seine River and watch the Eiffel Tower light up for a few minutes. I figured go big or go home. Be that tourist this time.
[Side note: Another day trip, which I took many years ago from Paris, and still recommend is Chartres. It’s a small town near Paris with a famous cathedral.]