I didn’t include Mont St. Michel on my “55 Ways to make the most out of my last 90 days in France” list, because I didn’t think it was realistically a place I could visit this year. Mont St. Michel is in Normandy, in the middle of nowhere on a semi-isle at the edge of the sea. Really, the only feasible way to get there is to drive and since I don’t have a car in France I long-ago crossed Mont St. Michel off my list of possibilities.
Happily, the couple we stayed with in Brittany mentioned that Mont St. Michel was on our way back to Flers and they offered to take us there! You can’t imagine how exited I was to see this site. Mont St. Michel is the second most visited part of France, after Paris, and is a religious site that draws pilgrims to this day. According to legend, Saint Michael slayed the dragon on this site in ancient times, and later his angel appeared and instructed the bishop to build an abbey on the island. The first chapel was built the same year, in 708 and the site is still impressive!
We were only able to spend about an hour here, so this place is definitely still on my “to-visit” list for a future trip to France. For an abbey built on a small semi-isle, there is SO MUCH to see. Mont St. Michel deserves an entire afternoon (or even a full day trip) and next time, I plan on giving it the attention it deserves.
I’ve put off this post for awhile, because how do you write about such an amazing region? After the south of France, Brittany was the most beautiful region I visited and it was hands down the most interesting, history-wise. Being in Brittany felt like being in a mythical legend or fairy tale. Everything is green and magical-looking.
In fact, I loved Brittany so much, I visited the region twice in my last two months in France! Because my words couldn’t possibly do such a magical place justice, I’m giving you photos!
Two weeks ago, I took a day trip to Paris. The goal – see the Tim Burton Exposition at the Cinémathèque Française.
We had bought our tickets in advance, which turned out to be a really splendid idea because, while you could buy tickets at the door, the wait to get in was over two hours!!! Come to find out, the French really love Tim Burton.
The exposition was fabulous – with original sketches, drawings, photography, sculptures along with all sorts of treats from Burton’s entire filmography. If you love Tim Burton and will be in Paris between now and August – this exposition is definitely a must-see! Or, if you love Tim Burton and are lucky enough to find this exposition in a town near you next (it started at MOMA in New York, who knows where it will go after Paris) – GO SEE IT. If not for the massive crowds, I could have happily spent all day wandering the exposition – it was like an up close and personal look into Tim Burton’s mind and imagination.
My one complaint about the exposition, is that there were no photographs allowed. The reason, I suspect, is because they wanted you to buy a book on the exposition in the gift shop afterwords. That was a disappointment, but all the more reason to go see the exposition live, since I don’t have photos of the event to share with you, my online friends.
Last Saturday, I was back in Paris. The goal? Explore a new museum! Namely, the Marmottan Monet Museum. It’s in an area of Paris I had never been before, and this is something I love about Paris – even when you think you know it well, there are always new and gorgeous quarters waiting to be stumbled on.
After we emerged from the metro, we were greeted by a lush, blooming park! Even if you don’t have any desire to check out the Monet Museum, this park would be a lovely place to spend the afternoon! Tons of walking paths, and some play areas for children. There was also a larger than life statue of Jean de la Fontaine (famous French poet who reinterpreted fables as poetry… Shown here with The Fox and the Crow).
Just across from the museum, there was this nifty merry-go-round. Man-powered, and each child gets a stick (lance). As they go around, they try to catch little metal rings in their “lance.” Super cute~
But anyway, back to the museum. Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside. It’s not a huge museum, but there were several well known works by Monet and other impressionist era artists. The musuem (I think) was once a house, and its grand without being intimidating.
A definite highlight for us (because we are SO cultured) was the gift shop! There were all kinds of fun things to play with, and Becca and I both left with Chalkboard mugs (Yes, that’s right. Chalkboard mugs. You can even write on the handle!!)
Continuing in my efforts to “profiter” of my time left, I hopped on a train last weekend and met Lauren in Caen to rent a car and take a tour of the Normandy coast. Our original plan was to head up to Cherbourg, but after some reflection and discussion, we decided that Étretat might be a more worthy end goal. After seeing Étretat, I’m fully convinced we made the right decision.
As I said, we rented a car in Caen and headed up the coast – our first stop was Trouville, ancient home of French author, Marguerite Duras. We walked the beach, saw a bit of the town, and then moved on.
Originally, our plan was to eat lunch in Honfleur, but the main road was closed and after attempting (and failing) to follow the detour twice, we stopped at this cheesy (but delicious!) chain restaurant called “The Buffalo Grill.”
I could write an entire blog about The Buffalo Grill. Its a French chain restaurant imitating the big American chain restaurants (think TGIFridays or Ruby Tuesdays), and they do a GREAT job! From the moment I walked in to the restaurant, I felt like I was back in America, only a strange America where everyone speaks French.
They’re cowboy-themed and serve your basic burger & fries type of fare. I ordered the Frenchy burger, and it may have been the best burger I’ve ever eaten. And instead of offering ketchup with the fries, you can choose from 15 different types of sauces, including BBQ, Roquefort, etc… DELICIOUS!!!
It was also the quickest meal I’ve ever eaten in France – they really nailed the timing of an American restaurant too, we ate within an hour, which is nearly impossible in a real French restaurant.
After our lunch detour, we decided it would be best to head straight to Étretat. It was cloudy Saturday morning, but cleared up by the time we got to Étretat. Friends, if you’re ever in Northern France, take the time to stop here. It was breathtaking! The cliffs are amazing, I could have spent all day just taking in the views, listening to the waves and the gulls’ cries, basking in the sun and breathing in the salty coastal air.
Once you are on the cliffs, there are all kinds of paths you can walk around and down again. And, without any of the annoying (but perhaps handy?) guardrails you would find on the edge of American cliffs.
We stayed in Étretat all afternoon, and I would definitely go back. It’s amazing how much beauty there is to see in this world.
Oh, and one last thing – We rented a diesel for our travels, and it was surprisingly fuel-efficient. Why don’t we use diesel more in the USA? We drove 230 KM and used only about 1/8 of a tank – definitely worth the 10 euro upsell (especially since fuel doesn’t come cheap here – that 1/8 tank cost 23 euros!)
I’m a little ashamed to admit that since being in France, I haven’t really explored many cities in my region. Yes, I’ve been to Amiens, Pierrefonds, Paris… There are plenty of little towns around, I just haven’t taken the time to see them.
Well, finally, I can tick one off my list – Laon! (Temporary) home of my friend and fellow language assistant, Natalie.
I had been warned that Laon is a little country town (think, French white trash), but I did not realize that Laon is also BEAUTIFUL. It’s truly a medieval town, perched atop a mountain surrounded by some gorgeous views of the French countryside. Here are some of the highlights from the day…
*Regarding the cows on the cathedral, there is actually an old legend to explain the livestock. According to the story, Oxen were used to haul materials for the cathedral up the hill, but even the oxen weren’t strong enough to get the stones up the hill/cliff. Then, a super ox appeared and with his help. they were able to get the needed materials to the building site. But as soon as the work was done, he disappeared as suddenly as he’d appeared. So, the livestock on the cathedral pays homage to the magic super ox.
We (naively) did not consider that other people might have the same idea as us on a beautiful spring Saturday in March, so though the goal was to tour two champagne caves during the course of the day, we were only able to tour one. We did see about 4 caves from the outside, and since Reims is not that far from Compiègne, another day trip may happen before I leave.
Still, it was a great day. I woke up early and Becca and I took the 9:00 AM train to Reims. At 11:00 AM we were in the city, and since the Tourist Office chose that exact moment to close for lunch, we walked to the nearest cave, Charles de Cazanove, to see if they had any availability to tour the caves at 11:30. Miracle of miracles, they did!!!
To start the tour, we watched a short video about the production of champagne. Then, we were taken on a tour of Charles de Cazanove’s facilities to check out the different steps in action. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize until AFTER the tour that pictures were allowed (note to self: it’s always worth asking!!), so I have no pictures to share from the tour. Charles de Cazanove is a part of GH Martel and is one of the smaller caves in Reims, but they still produce 3 MILLION bottles of Champagne annually!
After the tour was my favorite part, the “dégustation” (tasting)! We tasted three different types of champagne as part of the tour, and each “taste” was a full flute of champagne! The first kind we tried was a “brut,” which is evidently best used as an apéritif (before dinner drink). The second was a rosé, which should be served with desert. The third was a “millesime” which we were told can be served as you would red wine (ie, with red meat).
The tour was really informative (and tasty!) and my only regret is that the bigger champagne houses had already booked up for the day, so we did not have an opportunity to compare. At least we did see some of the bigger houses from outside, and because our return train went through Champagne-Ardenne, we also got to see some of the French Champagne countryside (which is beautiful).
One of the stops on mine and Jason’s Epic European Engagement Vacation was AMSTERDAM!!!! I’ve been insanely curious about this city my entire adult life and was super psyched to see if all the rumors you hear about the city were true.
We wanted to really experience Amsterdam, so of course we stayed in the center of the Red-Light district. The hotel was called, “Hotel Royal Taste” and if you’re ever looking for a not-too-expensive place to stay in the naughtiest section of the city, I highly recommend it. The staff was super-friendly, even letting us access our room hours before official check-in time, the decor was nice, and the beds were incredibly comfortable.
After spending two days and nights in Amsterdam, I’m happy to report that Amsterdam even exceeded the rumors – in a good way, to be sure! Here are some of the things that struck me the most:
(1) Amsterdam is an incredibly BEAUTIFUL city!!! There are canals everywhere – during the day the quaint houses are reflected on the water and at night the city lights turn the canal into a star-studded night sky. I loved the architecture and for it’s size and reputation it’s also a pretty clean city. In some of the old churches, there is this bell instrument called a carillon, and throughout the day you can hear it’s melodious chimes. We spent an awful lot of time just walking around, taking in the beauty of the city.
(2) The red-light district is, literally, filled with red lights. … Well, sort of. Prostitution is legal in Amsterdam, and the way it works is women rent out window space – the rooms are bordered with red curtain, which can be closed when the woman is working or off-duty. At night, the windows are lit up and the light reflects off the curtains, hence the name, red-light district. Interesting fact about the prostitutes – because it is a legal profession, they pay taxes the same as everyone else AND have health benefits. You’re not supposed to take pictures of the window so I didn’t, but I did find this one online which is pretty accurate:
(3) One of the first things people hear about Amsterdam is how liberal the drug laws are. No, not everything is legal – but several substances have been decriminalized and there are 200 “coffee shops” throughout the city that serve more than just coffee. There are also seed shops that cater to those interested in growing their own marijuana and “smart shops” that offer a wider variety of herbal energy-enhancing substances, aphrodisiacs, and even some mild hallucinogens.
Despite this (or perhaps because of this?) very different perspective on drug use (and how to deal with abuse), Amsterdam has fewer regular drug users than many other countries. According to Wikipedia (which is always correct, right?), “9.5% of young adults (aged 15–34) consume soft drugs once a month…less than in the UK (13.8%), Germany (11,9%), Czech Republic (19,3%), Denmark (13,3%), Spain (18.8%), France (16,7%), Slovakia (14,7%) and Italy (20,9%)” Wikipedia further reports that the percentage of occasional users who transcend to “problem users” is also well below the average of the same compared countries. Though the American government continues to push the “War on Drugs” started by Nixon, Amsterdam is a good example of the theory that there are better ways to deal with addiction than prison.
(4) There is plenty of interesting history and culture in Amsterdam. The Dutch East India Company was headquartered here. Anne Frank hid for years here (and wrote her famous journal) before her family was caught and sent away to concentration camps. Rembrandt lived here. Van Gogh painted nearby. As I learned during our trip there, to see everything Amsterdam has to offer, one really needs more than two days.
As everyone who is friends with me on Facebook well knows, Jason was recently here on vacation to visit me (and finally see Europe.. and to accomplish something else, but more on that a bit later.)
He arrived in France on March 1st, and after a quick jaunt over to the Eiffel Tower, we headed to the Paris catacombs to explore!
Some history on the Catacombs on Paris – The French name is “les Carrières de Paris” which translates to the Quarries of Paris. They’re actually a network of tunnels and subterranean passageways dating back to the Roman-era that were converted into a mass tomb in the 18th century by the order of the Lieutenant General of Police and the General of Quarries. From what I’ve read, the reason for their decision was to prevent disease in the city caused by improper burials and mass graves in churchyards, so bones were moved from graveyards into the abandoned quarries.
The Catacombs tour only allows access into the quarries under the 14th arrondissement, but there are other quarries under the 5th, 6th, 12th, 13th, 15th, and 16th – in total, over 300 km of underground tunnels!!! It is illegal to access the massive, non-public areas of the catacombs and according to one website, there are special police who patrol the quarries. But, there are secret entrances throughout Paris and people do enter illegally for various reasons.
Victor Hugo wrote about the catacombs (and used them) in his book, Les Miserables, bodies of the dead from riots were put in the catacombs in 1788, in 1871 a group of monarchists were killed in a chamber and during WW2, Parisian members of the French resistance used the tunnel system!
And now, on to more photos!
A warning: From the photos, you may be able to tell that the Catacombs are not for the faint of heart. They are also not for the weak of body… You go down 130 steps to enter the catacombs, and up 83 to exit. And, you’re in the tunnels for 2 km… If you become claustrophobic easily, this would be a hard tour to finish (I’m slightly claustrophobic and there were some difficult moments for me). But, this is a really cool piece of Paris history, and if you’re in Paris and have the time (and courage!) its not to be missed!
1. Take a French class at UTC (local university in Compiègne)
2. Eat boeuf tartare… After all, this is my 3rd trip to France, it’s past time I try to figure out why this dish is served in restaurants and loved by the locals.
3. Try every type of pastry available at my local patisserie… At least once.
4. Go into the local bourcherie on Rue St. Lazare and buy… something.
5. See the castle at Chantilly.
6. See the Picasso museum in Paris.
7. See the Paris Catacombs.
8. See the Cluny Museum in Paris.
9. Tour some champagne caves in Champagne.
10. Read Jonathon Livingston Seagull, in a brasserie, with my journal at hand, while sipping an espresso or some red wine.
11. Repeat, substituting Jonathon Livingston Seagull with the book of short stories I have by Flaubert.
12. TOUR THE PALACE IN COMPIÈGNE!! (I seriously cannot live here for 8 months and never see it).
13. Go to Quick, and try one of these.
14. Eat at a French McDonalds… Answer the question – is it superior to American McDonalds?
15. See La Delicatesse in theatres. (If I’ve missed the Delicatesse, substitute with another French movie.)
16. Read about/follow the French elections happening in April.
17. Climb the towers of Notre Dame de Paris.
18. Spend an afternoon (day?) at the Centre Georges Pompidou.
19. Spend an afternoon (or 2?) at the Louvre.
20. Spend a nice spring afternoon at the Rodin Museum and gardens in Paris.
21. Spend a day getting lost with my camera at the gardens of Versailles.
22. Go to a French doctor… compare social healthcare to America’s broken system.
23. Go to a French dentist for a cleaning… make similar comparison to # 22.
24. Get my haircut at a real French salon
25. Go to a real waxing salon for a professional leg wax.
26. Go to Le St. Clair one Friday night to see if the French can Karaoke even half as well as Americans can. For an optimal experience, drinks should probably be consumed before heading to the bar.
27. Walk around Ile St. Louis in Paris and gape at all the nice old mansions.
28. See a cabaret show at Le Lapin Agile in Paris.
29. Spend an afternoon at the Marmottan Monet Museum.
30. Visit St. Chapelle in Paris.
31. Walk around Place des Vosgues in Paris.
32. Have some hot chocolate at La Durée on the Champs Elysées.
33. Take a quick peek at Hotel de Crillon in Paris (it’s in my book)
34. Walk by the Taillevent Restaurant in Paris (also in my book, but unless prices have gone down substantially since the book was published, I will NOT be eating here).
35. Take a day (weekend?) trip to Nancy – see the city and the Place Stanislas.
36. Take a day (weekend?) trip to Lyon.
37. Buy Julia Childs’ The Art of French Cooking, from Shakespeare and Company in Paris.
38. Learn how to cook at least 1 thing from that book.
39. Learn how to make at least 1 kind of French pastry.
40. Eat at Turtle Pizza.
41. Drink wine while walking along the Seine in Paris.
42. Read La Bête Humaine, by Emile Zola.
43. Be able to jog my entire jogging route without switching to walking.
44. Find a yoga class in Compiègne, and go at least once.
45. See Cherbourg with Lauren!
46. Read Le Tour de Monde en 80 jours, by Jules Verne.
47. Check out Jules Verne’s grave/house in Amiens.
48. Re-read le Petit Prince – preferably in a park or on a cafe terrace on a sunny afternoon.
49. Get a tattoo.
50. Visit Amsterdam.
51. Go to a real French dinner party.
52. Visit Natalie in Laon.
53. Eat more macarons.