Lessons Learned in France

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A garden view of Chenonceau.

by Harlan Hague, Stockton, CA (first of two parts, continue to part 2)

When I do something really dumb during a trip, I say to my wife that after I have traveled a few more years I won’t do that. I have been traveling for over 40 years. Sometimes the lessons come hard, and sometimes I neglect to follow the lessons learned.

Our trip to France and England in April-May ’05 is a case in point. I learned a couple of lessons on the first day.

Lesson 1: If you are arriving very late at a destination that is new to you, do not plan to pick up a rental car in the middle of the night with the intention of driving to your accommodation.

I had pondered taking a taxi to the motel and picking up the rental car the next morning, but the motel manager had assured me by e-mail that the motel was so near the airport that I would have no problem finding it. You could even walk it, he said.

We arrived at the Toulouse airport at 11 p.m. The airport Europcar office was open until 11:30. On arrival, I got directions to the office and ran, but my informant was wrong. I then ran in the other direction and found it.

The rental was completed painlessly. Relieved, we proceeded to the baggage carousels and the next lesson.

Lesson 2: Don’t delay getting to the baggage pickup carousel. You may be surprised that the operation is efficient and that by the time you arrive, all of your fellow passengers have retrieved their bags and departed and your bags have already been removed and taken someplace known only to God.

I had an eerie feeling when we arrived at the baggage carousel and found only a few people standing by the baggage belt. The belt was not moving and there were no bags on it. It was midnight by now, and the baggage area was almost deserted. I looked around and saw no one to ask about the bags.

A place to rest in Monet’s garden — Giverny.

Through a clear plastic partition near another baggage area, I saw some bags that looked suspiciously like ours with their colored ribbons and straps. The officials were turning out lights and obviously preparing to leave.

I knocked on the wall and shouted through the exit bars. After an explanation in my basic French, I was finally permitted to enter and retrieve our bags. How they had found their way to this carousel remains a mystery.

Considerably relieved, we rolled our bags to our rental car, loaded up and drove away. After circling three times on the confusing airport roads, I found the exit. I had two sketched maps showing the directions to the hotel. They bore only the slightest resemblance to the streets that I now encountered.

On the third or fourth circling of a roundabout, my wife shouted that she saw the name of our hotel on a small sign. We circled again, and it seemingly had disappeared. Around again and it reappeared, but we saw it too late to turn. Around again and I turned off — right into the service parking lot of a huge, posh hotel. Out again and around one more time… slowly, slowly; never mind the honking horns. This time we saw the sign in time to turn off and found the motel and the next lesson.

Lesson 3: When planning to drive anywhere that you do not know intimately, obtain detailed maps in advance — at any price.

I had almost learned this lesson, having been burned on more than one occasion when driving in Britain with outdated maps, but when I planned this trip and saw the high prices of maps of France and England in U.S. bookstores and on the Internet, I decided to wait until arriving in each country to buy maps. Big mistake! There was no map of Toulouse available in the airport at midnight, so I had to wing it with the two sketched maps.

The next lesson will not apply to many, but it impressed me sufficiently to include here.

Lesson 4: Don’t make unusual arrangements for checking into an accommodation in the middle of the night after the front desk has closed.

A serene view of Chartres.

The motel desk closed at 11 p.m., but the motel manager had told us by e-mail that he would leave our room key on a table just inside the door to our room. The window adjacent to the door — the motel rooms had outside access — would be left ajar. I was to push the window open, retrieve the key and unlock the door.

I did not realize how bizarre this arrangement was until I was standing outside room No. 8, just about to put my hand through the window and wondering whether I had remembered the room number correctly. Happily, I had, and I slept well the rest of the night.

The next morning we were off to Carcassonne. It was a pleasant drive and we arrived without mishap.

In spite of the light rain and cold, Carcassonne was a joy. Our hotel, Best Western Le Donjon Les Remparts, was located inside the walls of the Old City, and our room had a view of the castle and a picturesque square below.

We walked the walls and visited the shops and museums. We will return to Carcassonne.

Preparing to leave, we came to the next lesson.

Lesson 5: Take great care when entrusting your car to a valet.

A guest at any hotel within the Old City walls cannot drive his car inside the walls during the day. He must park outside the walls in a designated area and the hotel will send an employee to pick the car up later. Our hotel had a parking lot inside the walls near the hotel, so the valet picked up the car on the evening of our arrival and parked it in the lot.

On the morning of our departure, a valet went to pick up the car. As we stood at the front desk, awaiting his arrival, the desk clerk received a telephone call. I understood enough French to figure out that all was not well with our car. It seems that the skylight had been left open and the inside was soaked from the rain.

Hotel employees outfitted the seats with plastic bags, and the seats dried out after about three days, mostly by transferring moisture to our clothes.

While the hotel staff was helpful and polite, they gave no apology, mistakenly assuming, it seems, that I had left the skylight open. I don’t know how one can avoid the pitfalls of the above lesson, but I mention it since I was impressed by the potential for misadventure.

A sightseeing break

The drive from Carcassonne to Salers in the Massif Centrale was without serious problems but not without missed turns and poorly marked detours. I had bought a map of southern France in Carcassonne, but it did not show the small back roads, which we enjoy driving.

Salers B&B.

Salers is a delightful medieval stone-built town that was soaked with a light cold rain during our entire visit — except for the last morning, which was glorious.

Our 18th-century B&B, Chez Prudent, was spartan but comfortable. Continental breakfast was served in the owner’s sitting room, with exposed beams and fireplace. From our window, we had a view of the valley below, often enveloped in fog. We tried one day to drive down to the valley, reputedly scenic and dotted with historic villages, but had to turn back at the solid wall of fog.

The drive from Salers to the Loire was less taxing since I stayed on the major roads, even taking the motorway a part of the way. We had reservations at La Bihourderie, a country place near Azay-sur-Indre, a small village so obscure that a petrol station owner only a few miles away had never heard of it. A tiny sign on the road directed us to the village.

The B&B is the property of an English woman and her French husband. From there we took a day trip to Amboise, where we toured the castle and walked along the river. Then we continued to Château de Chenonceau, one of my favorite places in the world. In contrast to a summer visit, this visit to the chateau was not crowded. We shared the long gallery with only four other people. 

The day was sunny and the gardens were delightful. Next we drove to Loches, where we toured the castle, walked around the town and had dinner at a typical French restaurant — Chinese — before returning to our B&B just a few miles away.

Leaving Azay-sur-Indre, it was a straight shot to Chartres. We visited the cathedral for the first time and enjoyed walking the lanes along the canal and in the Old Town. Then we were off to Giverny.

Giverny

We arrived in Giverny by late afternoon, giving us ample time to check into our B&B, Chez Boscher (also known as Le Bon Maréchal), on the corner of rue du Colombier and rue Monet in the heart of the village.

Carol and Harlan Hague pause for a spot of tea at Giverny.

In the waning light, we walked down rue Monet toward Monet’s house and garden. I wanted to see again the guest house where we had stayed years ago, Hotel la Musardiere (123 rue Claude Monet). I had the warmest memories of that visit and wanted to recapture the moment. It turned out to be a mistake.

The guest house was not at all as I remembered it. Too often we remember the romance of a place or an experience, blurring the reality. Never mind, we liked it enough to have a nice dinner there.

We were at the Monet house the next morning before it opened and spent hours in the garden and house. It is wonderful at every season. Thank goodness for digital photography, for I would have had to carry a backpack for all the film if I had relied on a traditional camera.

Leaving Monet’s garden, we visited the nearby American Museum of Art (99 rue Claude Monet), displaying the works of American impressionists, an integral part of a visit to Giverny. The museum gardens were wonderful, especially the tulips.

Leaving France

The drive from Giverny to Calais was to be a snap since the route was almost entirely by motorway. We stopped for refreshment at a pleasant motorway complex overlooking a natural reserve and reached Calais in early evening. We had dinner at a local pub, Café Folkestone — a bit smoky but with good grog and food.

The following morning we drove to the Hoverport for our trip across the Channel. Since we arrived on a Saturday, the Europcar desk was not staffed. I had been told in advance to simply lock the car and drop the keys in the box at the desk.

There was no area designated for parking Europcar vehicles, so I left it at a convenient spot and deposited the key. Done, but risky. What if a passerby bashed a window and Europcar billed me for the damage? I decided that I would balk at this arrangement in the future.

Relieved that I was no longer responsible for somebody else’s car, we pulled our wheeled luggage into the Hoverport and checked in.

We wandered around the duty-free area and were dumbfounded to see the huge quantities of liquor purchased by Brits. I learned later that the duty-free prices on alcohol were so cheap in Calais that it was worth the trip from England just to buy liquor and never leave the Hoverport.

The trip across the channel by Hoverspeed catamaran — no more hovercraft — was uneventful.

Accommodations in France

Toulouse — If you need to be near the airport, Campanile Toulouse-Aeroport (3, Avenue Didier Daurat; online reservations can be made at www.holidaycityeurope.com/campanile-toulouse) is a good choice. It’s a convenient American-style motel that was surprisingly quiet for its location. Our room cost €71 ($93).

CarcassonneBest Western Le Donjon Les Remparts (2 rue du Comte Roger; www.bestwestern.com) is inside the Old City. Ask for a room in the old part of the hotel with a view of the castle. Our room cost €94 ($123); parking was an additional €10 ($13).

SalersChez Prudent (rue des Nobles; phone/fax +3 [0]4 71 40 75 36, www.chez-prudent.com [in French only]) was delightful, with small rooms and a typical, spartan breakfast. Ask for a room with a view of the valley. Current room rates are €37 ($49) for one person, €42 (455) for two.

Azay-sur-Indre (near Loches) — Set in fields of rape and sunflowers near the village of Azay-sur-Indre, La Bihourderie (phone +3 [0]2 47 92 58 58, www.labihourderie.com [in French only at time of publication]) is worth the extra few minutes’ drive to attractions on the Loire. Rooms run €40-€45 ($53-$59) for one or two people. I would recommend dinner at Auberge des deux Rivieres in the village.

For more information on this property in English, visit www.karenbrown.com (click on “France B&B” under “Places to Stay,” then on Map 3).

Giverny — Conveniently located in the heart of the village and easy walking distance from Monet’s garden and the American Museum, Chez Boscher (1 rue du Colombier) was a real find. We had the detached converted artist’s studio ($125 per night), the best choice for space and privacy, but if we pass this way again I will ask to see the rooms in the main house.

CalaisHôtel Richelieu (17, rue Richelieu) — plain vanilla but, for location, it is a good choice. The rooms on the front have a nice view of the park, but those in the back are quieter (€42-€59, or $55-$78, for one or two people). No lift.

(Continue to part 2)

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
A garden view of Chenonceau.

by Harlan Hague, Stockton, CA (first of two parts, continue to part 2)

When I do something really dumb during a trip, I say to my wife that after I have traveled a few more years I won’t do that. I have been traveling for over 40 years. Sometimes the lessons come hard, and sometimes I neglect to follow the lessons learned.

Our trip to France and England in April-May ’05 is a case in point. I learned a couple of lessons on the first day.

Lesson 1: If you are arriving very late at a destination that is new to you, do not plan to pick up a rental car in the middle of the night with the intention of driving to your accommodation.

I had pondered taking a taxi to the motel and picking up the rental car the next morning, but the motel manager had assured me by e-mail that the motel was so near the airport that I would have no problem finding it. You could even walk it, he said.

We arrived at the Toulouse airport at 11 p.m. The airport Europcar office was open until 11:30. On arrival, I got directions to the office and ran, but my informant was wrong. I then ran in the other direction and found it.

The rental was completed painlessly. Relieved, we proceeded to the baggage carousels and the next lesson.

Lesson 2: Don’t delay getting to the baggage pickup carousel. You may be surprised that the operation is efficient and that by the time you arrive, all of your fellow passengers have retrieved their bags and departed and your bags have already been removed and taken someplace known only to God.

I had an eerie feeling when we arrived at the baggage carousel and found only a few people standing by the baggage belt. The belt was not moving and there were no bags on it. It was midnight by now, and the baggage area was almost deserted. I looked around and saw no one to ask about the bags.

A place to rest in Monet’s garden — Giverny.

Through a clear plastic partition near another baggage area, I saw some bags that looked suspiciously like ours with their colored ribbons and straps. The officials were turning out lights and obviously preparing to leave.

I knocked on the wall and shouted through the exit bars. After an explanation in my basic French, I was finally permitted to enter and retrieve our bags. How they had found their way to this carousel remains a mystery.

Considerably relieved, we rolled our bags to our rental car, loaded up and drove away. After circling three times on the confusing airport roads, I found the exit. I had two sketched maps showing the directions to the hotel. They bore only the slightest resemblance to the streets that I now encountered.

On the third or fourth circling of a roundabout, my wife shouted that she saw the name of our hotel on a small sign. We circled again, and it seemingly had disappeared. Around again and it reappeared, but we saw it too late to turn. Around again and I turned off — right into the service parking lot of a huge, posh hotel. Out again and around one more time… slowly, slowly; never mind the honking horns. This time we saw the sign in time to turn off and found the motel and the next lesson.

Lesson 3: When planning to drive anywhere that you do not know intimately, obtain detailed maps in advance — at any price.

I had almost learned this lesson, having been burned on more than one occasion when driving in Britain with outdated maps, but when I planned this trip and saw the high prices of maps of France and England in U.S. bookstores and on the Internet, I decided to wait until arriving in each country to buy maps. Big mistake! There was no map of Toulouse available in the airport at midnight, so I had to wing it with the two sketched maps.

The next lesson will not apply to many, but it impressed me sufficiently to include here.

Lesson 4: Don’t make unusual arrangements for checking into an accommodation in the middle of the night after the front desk has closed.

A serene view of Chartres.

The motel desk closed at 11 p.m., but the motel manager had told us by e-mail that he would leave our room key on a table just inside the door to our room. The window adjacent to the door — the motel rooms had outside access — would be left ajar. I was to push the window open, retrieve the key and unlock the door.

I did not realize how bizarre this arrangement was until I was standing outside room No. 8, just about to put my hand through the window and wondering whether I had remembered the room number correctly. Happily, I had, and I slept well the rest of the night.

The next morning we were off to Carcassonne. It was a pleasant drive and we arrived without mishap.

In spite of the light rain and cold, Carcassonne was a joy. Our hotel, Best Western Le Donjon Les Remparts, was located inside the walls of the Old City, and our room had a view of the castle and a picturesque square below.

We walked the walls and visited the shops and museums. We will return to Carcassonne.

Preparing to leave, we came to the next lesson.

Lesson 5: Take great care when entrusting your car to a valet.

A guest at any hotel within the Old City walls cannot drive his car inside the walls during the day. He must park outside the walls in a designated area and the hotel will send an employee to pick the car up later. Our hotel had a parking lot inside the walls near the hotel, so the valet picked up the car on the evening of our arrival and parked it in the lot.

On the morning of our departure, a valet went to pick up the car. As we stood at the front desk, awaiting his arrival, the desk clerk received a telephone call. I understood enough French to figure out that all was not well with our car. It seems that the skylight had been left open and the inside was soaked from the rain.

Hotel employees outfitted the seats with plastic bags, and the seats dried out after about three days, mostly by transferring moisture to our clothes.

While the hotel staff was helpful and polite, they gave no apology, mistakenly assuming, it seems, that I had left the skylight open. I don’t know how one can avoid the pitfalls of the above lesson, but I mention it since I was impressed by the potential for misadventure.

A sightseeing break

The drive from Carcassonne to Salers in the Massif Centrale was without serious problems but not without missed turns and poorly marked detours. I had bought a map of southern France in Carcassonne, but it did not show the small back roads, which we enjoy driving.

Salers B&B.

Salers is a delightful medieval stone-built town that was soaked with a light cold rain during our entire visit — except for the last morning, which was glorious.

Our 18th-century B&B, Chez Prudent, was spartan but comfortable. Continental breakfast was served in the owner’s sitting room, with exposed beams and fireplace. From our window, we had a view of the valley below, often enveloped in fog. We tried one day to drive down to the valley, reputedly scenic and dotted with historic villages, but had to turn back at the solid wall of fog.

The drive from Salers to the Loire was less taxing since I stayed on the major roads, even taking the motorway a part of the way. We had reservations at La Bihourderie, a country place near Azay-sur-Indre, a small village so obscure that a petrol station owner only a few miles away had never heard of it. A tiny sign on the road directed us to the village.

The B&B is the property of an English woman and her French husband. From there we took a day trip to Amboise, where we toured the castle and walked along the river. Then we continued to Château de Chenonceau, one of my favorite places in the world. In contrast to a summer visit, this visit to the chateau was not crowded. We shared the long gallery with only four other people. 

The day was sunny and the gardens were delightful. Next we drove to Loches, where we toured the castle, walked around the town and had dinner at a typical French restaurant — Chinese — before returning to our B&B just a few miles away.

Leaving Azay-sur-Indre, it was a straight shot to Chartres. We visited the cathedral for the first time and enjoyed walking the lanes along the canal and in the Old Town. Then we were off to Giverny.

Giverny

We arrived in Giverny by late afternoon, giving us ample time to check into our B&B, Chez Boscher (also known as Le Bon Maréchal), on the corner of rue du Colombier and rue Monet in the heart of the village.

Carol and Harlan Hague pause for a spot of tea at Giverny.

In the waning light, we walked down rue Monet toward Monet’s house and garden. I wanted to see again the guest house where we had stayed years ago, Hotel la Musardiere (123 rue Claude Monet). I had the warmest memories of that visit and wanted to recapture the moment. It turned out to be a mistake.

The guest house was not at all as I remembered it. Too often we remember the romance of a place or an experience, blurring the reality. Never mind, we liked it enough to have a nice dinner there.

We were at the Monet house the next morning before it opened and spent hours in the garden and house. It is wonderful at every season. Thank goodness for digital photography, for I would have had to carry a backpack for all the film if I had relied on a traditional camera.

Leaving Monet’s garden, we visited the nearby American Museum of Art (99 rue Claude Monet), displaying the works of American impressionists, an integral part of a visit to Giverny. The museum gardens were wonderful, especially the tulips.

Leaving France

The drive from Giverny to Calais was to be a snap since the route was almost entirely by motorway. We stopped for refreshment at a pleasant motorway complex overlooking a natural reserve and reached Calais in early evening. We had dinner at a local pub, Café Folkestone — a bit smoky but with good grog and food.

The following morning we drove to the Hoverport for our trip across the Channel. Since we arrived on a Saturday, the Europcar desk was not staffed. I had been told in advance to simply lock the car and drop the keys in the box at the desk.

There was no area designated for parking Europcar vehicles, so I left it at a convenient spot and deposited the key. Done, but risky. What if a passerby bashed a window and Europcar billed me for the damage? I decided that I would balk at this arrangement in the future.

Relieved that I was no longer responsible for somebody else’s car, we pulled our wheeled luggage into the Hoverport and checked in.

We wandered around the duty-free area and were dumbfounded to see the huge quantities of liquor purchased by Brits. I learned later that the duty-free prices on alcohol were so cheap in Calais that it was worth the trip from England just to buy liquor and never leave the Hoverport.

The trip across the channel by Hoverspeed catamaran — no more hovercraft — was uneventful.

Accommodations in France

Toulouse — If you need to be near the airport, Campanile Toulouse-Aeroport (3, Avenue Didier Daurat; online reservations can be made at www.holidaycityeurope.com/campanile-toulouse) is a good choice. It’s a convenient American-style motel that was surprisingly quiet for its location. Our room cost €71 ($93).

CarcassonneBest Western Le Donjon Les Remparts (2 rue du Comte Roger; www.bestwestern.com) is inside the Old City. Ask for a room in the old part of the hotel with a view of the castle. Our room cost €94 ($123); parking was an additional €10 ($13).

SalersChez Prudent (rue des Nobles; phone/fax +3 [0]4 71 40 75 36, www.chez-prudent.com [in French only]) was delightful, with small rooms and a typical, spartan breakfast. Ask for a room with a view of the valley. Current room rates are €37 ($49) for one person, €42 (455) for two.

Azay-sur-Indre (near Loches) — Set in fields of rape and sunflowers near the village of Azay-sur-Indre, La Bihourderie (phone +3 [0]2 47 92 58 58, www.labihourderie.com [in French only at time of publication]) is worth the extra few minutes’ drive to attractions on the Loire. Rooms run €40-€45 ($53-$59) for one or two people. I would recommend dinner at Auberge des deux Rivieres in the village.

For more information on this property in English, visit www.karenbrown.com (click on “France B&B” under “Places to Stay,” then on Map 3).

Giverny — Conveniently located in the heart of the village and easy walking distance from Monet’s garden and the American Museum, Chez Boscher (1 rue du Colombier) was a real find. We had the detached converted artist’s studio ($125 per night), the best choice for space and privacy, but if we pass this way again I will ask to see the rooms in the main house.

CalaisHôtel Richelieu (17, rue Richelieu) — plain vanilla but, for location, it is a good choice. The rooms on the front have a nice view of the park, but those in the back are quieter (€42-€59, or $55-$78, for one or two people). No lift.

(Continue to part 2)