It’s remarkable how quickly a vacation can begin to seem like distant dream. Sweetie and I returned home yesterday from our France adventure and have spent today doing laundry, pulling weeds from our overgrown garden, making lists, resetting body clocks and preparing to go back to work tomorrow.
As I’ve been moving through these tasks, I’ve been remembering the highlights of our holiday and thought it might be worthwhile to make a list of our favourite restaurants, places to stay, activities and shopping opportunities. If you’ve never been to France and are contemplating a trip, this may be useful. And even if you have, you can never have too many recommendations for places to eat and to stay.
- Our original plan was to fly to Paris in economy class. After our plans were delayed, we started watching for seat sales. Air France offered 50% off business class seats and their premium economy class. Within days, Air Canada matched the business class fare. It was a splurge but one that was well worth it. We will start watching for seat sales again for our next European adventure.
- I booked our rail tickets between Paris and Caen through Rail Europe. You can book well in advance. If it’s too early to book, you can give Rail Europe your email address and they will notify you as soon as you can book.
- We booked our rental car in Caen with Enterprise. They offered the best rates and are one of the few rental companies that provide both standard and automatic transmission vehicles. We chose to take the train to Caen, then rent there rather than try to navigate the chaos of Paris. We have since learned that you can rent a car at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and avoid the city if you plan to use Paris strictly as a jumping off point… something we might do on our next trip. Most rental cars have GPS systems in them but you might want to bring your own just in case.
- We found driving in the countryside relatively easy and most roads well-marked. We also purchased a book that included road signs since they are not the same as in North America. Roads in most cities and small towns are narrow and you need to stay alert. Also, pay attention to the amount of time you have on your parking ticket. French police waste little time in towing cars that are overdue. We watched them ticket a car in Paris and within minutes, it was being towed. It was a little smart car so the tow truck driver just pushed a couple of wheeled dollies under it, then pushed the whole car on to the trailer bed.
- To get to and from the airport, we had too much luggage to use the Metro so we arranged a car pickup with www.Parishuttle.fr. They were great, met us as we were leaving the luggage hall, escorted us to a very comfortable vehicle and found our apartment easily. We booked our return trip to the airport at the same time as booking our arrival trip and we did all before we left Canada. The cost was 80 euros each way but again, from our perspective, well worth it. The Metro is cheap and efficient if you have minimal luggage.
- Get a subway map as soon as you arrive and buy your tickets 10 at a time. Each subway line is numbered. You figure out direction by looking at the station at either end of the line. We never bothered with taxis.
- Plan to do a lot of walking and get good shoes. Whether it’s cobblestone streets or sandy beaches, shoes with good cushioning and arch support are a must.
- In Paris, we rented an apartment through www.adrianleeds.com. Adrian is an American who has lived in Paris for almost twenty years. She has a whole slew of apartments for rent which you can check out online. You pay half the rental fee upfront, the remainder when you arrive. Adrian or one of her staff meet you at the apartment, show you where everything is and how everything works. You can make free phone calls anywhere in North America from the apartments. Internet is included as well. The apartment we chose, Le Provencal, was in the Marais district and was an excellent location. There were good cafes, groceries and shopping all within an easy walk. The apartment was extremely tiny though and three stories up from the ground floor with a narrow winding staircase. Next time we will pay a little more for a slightly bigger space and an elevator. And we will bring less luggage. Each apartment has a washer/dryer combo machine but they are not terribly efficient. And don’t do laundry the night before you leave because it won’t be dry. Bring your own shampoo. There may be some, there may not. Cost was 155 euros a night. Cheaper in low season.
- In Caen, we stayed at a small boutique hotel run by master chef Ivan Vautier. The hotel was simple, modern and well equipped. There were elevators! And air conditioning! And luggage racks, big fluffy towels, bathrobes, slippers and very nice toiletries and soap. The hotel is on the outskirts of town so you need a car. But you can drive to the city centre in about ten minutes and there is lots of available parking. Cost was 120 euros a night. Breakfast is another 15 euros per person if you want to have it in the hotel. There is no room service and no lunch service.
- Once we left Caen, we wanted to try a bed and breakfast near the D-Day landing beaches. We found Le Manoir du Quesnay online. It was built in the 15th century and has several large bedrooms in the manor house, several more in the moat house. The rooms are a good size and have en suite bathrooms, some with soaker bathtubs. The plumbing, heating and electricity were all installed in the early ’80s and while they may not be the most modern in design, they are quite functional. The owners are delightful… friendly and helpful. The manor is part of a working farm and there are even a couple of horses on the property. Breakfast is of the continental variety… warm fresh croissants with jam, marmalade, unsalted butter, toasted baguettes, fresh squeezed orange juice and good strong coffee. The croissants and baguettes are picked up fresh each morning. Guests also have the use of the sitting room and a television room with a 50 inch flat screen tv. If you’re lucky, your hosts might even light a fire in the monster fireplace. You do need a car if you plan to do anything away from the manor during the day. Excellent restaurants, shopping and other activities are ten minutes away. Cost was 120 euros a night. We will happily stay there again.
Food, glorious food:
- Bread comes with everything. Ask for a carafe d’eau if you want water. It’s hard to find bad wine or coffee in France. If you like dessert and coffee, consider ordering the café gourmand if it’s offered. You get coffee and a sampler of desserts! Don’t plan on supper earlier than 7 pm. Most places won’t serve dinner before that.
- Café Camille, on Rue Elzavir at Rue des Francs Bourgeois in the Marais district of Paris. Very friendly staff, excellent tomato mozzarella salad and steak frites with béarnaise. Decent wine list. We ate there twice. Reasonably priced.
- Chez Omar on Rue de Bretagne near Rue Charlot, Marais district of Paris. Mediterranean food. The first time we ate there, Sweetie ordered lamb and I ordered couscous. I also had an avocado with shrimp appetizer. The lamb dish was three enormous chops. The couscous was enough for two people. We shared it on our second visit and still couldn’t eat it all. The couscous comes with a platter of couscous, a tureen of winter vegetables in broth and meat of your choice if you want. Try the fresh mint tea. Reasonably priced.
- Café Charlot at the corner of Rue Charlot and Rue de Bretagne, Marais district of Paris. This is a popular place. Lots of tables inside and out. Busy people watching going on. We had two lunches and one supper there, partly because it was a 60-second walk to our apartment and partly because we liked it. They make excellent eggs benedict and eggs Norwegian. I wasn’t big on their omelette but Sweetie liked it. They also make fantastic burgers and a really nice chicken risotto dinner. We wished we had had more than one dinner there. Nice ambiance in the evening with light jazz. Very reasonable.
- Publicis Drugstore on the Champs Elysees near the Arc de Triomphe. Fantastic ice cream and sorbets! It bills itself as a Drugstore Steakhouse. I can’t comment on the steak but they did have a pretty decent croquet monsieur.
- Le Dome du Marais on Rue des Francs Bourgeois. Excellent food. More pricey than the cafes but still reasonable. Excellent wine list too.
- Ivan Vautier Restaurant in Caen. Michelin starred restaurant in the hotel. Expensive. We had rack of lamb with figs. Fantastic. Sweetie said he’d have been happy with just the carrots, which if you know Sweetie and vegetables tells you how good they were. Lots of little bites of appetizers of unusual tastes. A tomato sorbet to clear your palette… very refreshing. Chef Vautier has cooked for heads of state. If you really want to spend a lot of money, you can order the Heads of State dinner in advance.
- Le Vaubon in Port-en-Bessin on the northern coast of France. Fish is caught fresh here each day and beautifully prepared. The rest of the menu is traditional French cooking.The restaurant is quite small and very casual. Reasonable.
- Le Pommier on Rue des Cuisiniers in Bayeux. Another great meal. A bit pricier. I had duck a l’orange… quite nice. Pleasant ambiance. You can see the Bayeux cathedral from the windows.
The 70th anniversary of D-Day is next year and all through Normandy, plans of remembrance are well underway. Regardless of when you go, a visit to the Juno Beach Centre in Courseulles-sur-Mer is a must for Canadians. There are a few Canadian war cemeteries but sadly, they are not easy to find, unlike their American counterparts. Make sure you look up their locations on-line in advance… they can be deceptive. The American war cemetery at Omaha Beach is stunning. Le Memorial in Caen is a museum devoted to history and peace and covers not only the period leading up to and including World War II, but also the post war period including the Cold War. Well worth the visit.
Shopping in Paris:
Monoprix is a department store that has several outlets around the city. It’s fairly inexpensive and you can get just about anything you need there. BHV is quite large and more expensive than Monoprix but if you have the patience, you can find good stuff. There are lots of nice little shops throughout the Marais district.
Galeries Lafayette and Le Bon Marche are beautiful but quite expensive.
A few other bits and pieces:
We had a small fold up backpack which we took everywhere. Handy for maps, camera, small purchases, light jackets that could be rolled up, umbrella as needed. I borrowed a small purse with the strap reinforced with metal so it couldn’t be cut. Sweetie had a small pouch that he could thread his belt through for money, keys, credit cards. His pouch had a special pocket designed to prevent identity theft which is where the cards went. You can buy these online at www.magellan.com.
Before we left Canada, we bought a transformer as well as a plug adapter to charge cellphones, tablet, e-reader etc. Turns out all we needed was the plug adapter. If the voltage on your charger says 110-240 volts, the transformer is unnecessary. Wish we had known that before carting it to France.
Fodor’s was a very helpful travel book to take with us. Came with quite a decent city map of Paris and a subway map. Provided good background and tips for sightseeing. Since this was Sweetie’s first trip to Paris, he wanted to do the greatest hits so we planned accordingly and Fodor’s helped.
There’s so much I could add to these lists but I did say this would be our greatest hits so I’ll call it a night. Happy travelling!
- Paris cheat sheet: Autour du Monde conceptstore (30smagazine.wordpress.com)
- Where to Stay in Paris on Your Holiday (ratedapartment.wordpress.com)