By late winter, 2000, the fois gras supply was running low. What’s more, Andrew’s friends Anita and Michael’s sabbatical in Paris would end in June. The lure of lodging in the city of lights, in spring, overcame us.
Saturday May 27
We catch our usual(!) Friday evening flight to Paris, arriving around 8 a.m. We reach Anita and Mike’s flat in the 11th arondismont by 10 a.m. Twelve-year-old Paul is excited to show us to the local Saturday morning market. We get cheese, bread, and pate for lunch. Then Andrew and I venture out to Fnac at the Les Halles shopping center for a road atlas for our driving trip during the week. We stop in at the metal sign shop where we found some fun goodies last time, but nothing strikes our fancy. Fnac is so jammin’ we can’t tolerate it for more than the time it takes to find a good atlas. We’ll do a CD run later.
Back at the flat I take some anti-cat allergy medicine and a jet-lag-induced nap, then whip up a big batch of guacamole that is a major success. Anita and Paul have made couscous and chicken for dinner. Anita’s niece Amy, stationed in Germany with the Air Force, arrives for a visit in time for dinner. She can’t reach her sister-in-law, where she was planning to stay, so she bunks in Anita and Mike’s flat too.
Sunday May 28
We all go to one of the big flea markets on the edge of the city. The flavor of the sprawling market and the array of junk is similar to what you’d find in the US, but we still find gems of euro-kitch here and there. We manage not to buy them, however.
Andrew and I take Paul to rent bikes for the afternoon. We, and his father, insist that he wear a helmet like us even though “nobody in Paris wears them.” We cycle along the Seine to the giant Ferris wheel at the Twelleries. We ride the wheel and see the view, and also see a storm rolling toward us from the west. It’s coming so fast that by the time we get back to the bottom of the wheel it’s upon us. We shelter with the bikes under an overpass on the Seine road. Not the tunnel where Princess Di’s Mercedes crashed.
We get back to the rental shop relatively dry and pause to watch a pro-marijuana parade at the Bastille. Then we plunge into the Metro station and Paul shows us his shortcut. The Paris Metro is notorious for long, complicated connection tunnels between platforms. Paul’s sneaky trick, which other people seem to know too, cuts the trip by about 1/8 of a mile of walking. Back at the flat, most of the family has gone up the street to the neighborhood brocante (a communal yard sale). We find them there and wander up and down the aisles of worn clothing, souvenir plates from Baden-Baden, and scratched LPs. Leaving there, Andrew and I wander on to a nearby park with a hill that affords a pleasant view. We pick up guacamole makings and wine, and head back. We all go out for Chinese food at a local restaurant that Mike and Anita have been wanting to try. The food is quite good, although Paul, a vegetarian, is alarmed to realize that the sauce in his tofu dish is pork-based. It makes him feel a little ill.
Paul has been a vegetarian since he was five. He says, “one day I asked mom if the meat she had served me was a dead animal. She said it was, and I said I didn’t think I wanted to eat it.” He’s stuck to that decision. But he’s interested in the culinary arts, and bright enough to realize that he’ll never make it as a chef if he can’t handle meat. Andrew and I found him a very informed resource for selecting pates, hams, and other prepared meats at the markets. Not to be outdone in the French food department, Henry, 5, is something of a gourmand without even knowing it. At the ecole maternal he’s served a four-course lunch every day. He especially likes the double dessert days, when the cheese course is yogurt, which he regards as a dessert.
Monday, May 29
Andrew and I take a bus to Gare du Nord to pick up our rental car. I get to drive us out of Paris, which is no worse than driving in Manhattan. Our exit takes a while in heavy traffic, but eventually we’re zooming down the highway. We stop for lunch in Gien, south of Paris. The restaurant we choose uses assorted dishes from the local ceramic factory. The patterns are charming. Over dessert, described as “white cheese” and really a bowl of sour cream served with sugar, we resolve to do some shopping before we leave town. We find the ceramics outlet store and I do some damage to my credit cards.
The chateau Blankafort is a blue and white fairy castle with moat and drawbridge. We peek in through the closed portcullis, but there’s some sort of renaissance faire going on in the courtyard and we’re not interested. Aside from the goat girl on the train in the Loire, we’ve found modern people in costumes to be far too touristy to be tolerable. In college I very much enjoyed the play acting of the Southern California renaissance faire (when it was in Agoura), but when I’ve visited the one in New York in recent years I’ve found it just a little to weird. But I digress. We admire the chateau’s walls from the outside and walk through the adjacent village.
Our next stop is Verrerie, a family-owned chateau where we listen to a long, taped introduction while sitting in the chapel. The steeple of the chapel was built leaning into the wind, so it’s forever crooked. We find out, because while we’re there some guests drive up, that part of the chateau is available as a B and B. Now that would be nice!
We drive on to Bourges and find our hotel in town. After settling in and squeezing the rental car into a tiny garage, we set out to find dinner. We tour the old city and choose a restaurant with a goose dÈcor theme. The meal is lovely. The entertainment by the tense mother and daughter at another table is fun. We are also amused to note that the toilet is located through a door that is also the emergency exit.
We wander the streets, stopping to admire the beautiful cathedral lit up for the evening.
Tuesday, May 30
First thing we return to the cathedral to see fabulous medieval stained glass windows. With the sunlight behind them the deep blues and reds seem to vibrate with life. The cathedral also houses an antique astronomical clock. The original movement has been removed from the ornate cabinet so we can see it, while an operational replica chimes quietly every hour.
We stop by the Palais Jacques Couer, he being an important figure in the area. But it’s already closed for lunch by 11 a.m. So we do a little power shopping in town, then head out of town. We stop at another privately owned chateau where funding falls far short of rehabilitation needs. The frescoed gallery, done by students and showing scenes of other famous chateaux, is deteriorating and there’s no fix in sight.
Lunchtime arrives and we need gas. We stop in a small town and have to eat at the only open restaurant, and linger over our beer until the only gas station re-opens. There are self-serve gas stations, but they require cards that we don’t have.
Refueled, we drive on to Vilencay. Here we are issued audio tours in English that take us through room after room stuffed with furniture and art. The audio tour offers many sidebars, but after the first one or two we stick to the main narrative in order to complete the visit within a reasonable time. We’ve got to move on to Chenonceau to see it’s long gallery built over a bridge across the Indre river. We also see several rooms with furniture and decorations, as well as the kitchens, which are built over the river so they have both a water source and easy cleaning and disposal.
Now we’re getting pressed for time, and have to roar around Tour to get to Villandry before they close the gift shop. We make it, and power shop for items that we passed up on our previous visit by bicycle. The garden is open for another 30 minutes, but as it’s raining we don’t buy tickets. We head north across the Loire to find the tiny village of Homme and the Vieux Chateau hotel. We don’t see signs for the hotel, but the map indicates ruins just outside of town. We go to them and sure enough, that’s the place. We drive into a big, empty yard surrounded on all sides by what look like farm buildings. There are several doors, none of which is obviously the main one.
Andrew wanders in the rain and finds a note on one of the doors addressed to him. The proprietress had to attend to an emergency and will not be able to make dinner for us. Our room is number 4 and the key is in the door. There are good restaurants in Homme.
We’re certainly glad we didn’t arrive by bicycle, we’d have broken into the kitchen before heading back out into the rain. But first we had to find room 4. Eventually we figured out that the guest rooms were through the door with the note, and found our room in an upstairs back corner. It was a lovely, big room, complete with stuffed animals and a live cat in residence. We evicted the cat.
We drive back to Langais on the Loire for dinner in a hotel restaurant. Looking out at the lovely garden and lively dining room, we regret not staying there.
Wednesday, May 31
Breakfast is disappointing. We’re glad the proprietress was unable to cook us dinner. We head back to Langais to tour the chateau there. We see many furnished bedrooms and some significant art and antiques, but mostly it’s the usual chateau fare. The view of the village from the battlements is lovely, and the garden is inviting.
Next we drive back toward Homme to a small chateau that isn’t in the books. We noticed it advertised by road signs each time we drove through town. We’re the first tour of the day. A student volunteer shows us two wings of furniture and decoration. The third wing is off limits since the owners live there.
We have a light lunch in Borguille and make a dinner reservation at a guide-recommended restaurant, then we drive up to Montgeoffery. This stately home offers a fine selection of furniture, clothing and decor.
We just miss the last tour at Le Lude, so we wander in the garden and moat. We’ve established the three-chateau per day limit.
After a stop in the hotel we go to dinner. We are entertained by two English couples in the dining room describing their vacations to one another. The wait staff seems understandably impatient with them. The food is lovely, but does not agree with me and I’m up half the night.
Thursday, June 1
I skip most of the bad breakfast. We pack up and move on to Chateau de Luynes, another lived-in castle with high walls, a moat, and clear evidence of the different periods in which it was remodeled. Inside the small courtyard the front facade has two very different characters, one in stone, the other brick. Inside, the rooms have a lived-in feel — because they are. This, and the guide’s sense of humor makes it a more interesting tour than some.
The second chateau of the day is Champchevrier, the “hunting chateau.” As our tour crosses the large yard, our guide points out a group of three people walking in the distance and says one is the owner. Champchevrier maintains a pack of hunting dogs, all of whom cheerfully howl for the visitors. We are shown carriages, rooms of furniture, and clothing on display in the public rooms. The tour is in French, and the printed English information is dreadfully inaccurate. [Champchevrier figures, anonymously, in one of my Avengers fan fictions.]
Our last Chateau is Beauregarde with its portrait gallery and delft tile floor. This large hall is considered a French national treasure for the more than 300 portraits of historical figures on it’s walls. The tiles on the floor represent the arrangement of an army, from cavalry to musketeers to generals to camp followers. Our guide rattles on, and on, and on about the portraits as we progress slowly down the gallery. Small children grow restless. Then big children get antsy. We finally sneak out, look at the other four rooms that are open to the public, and make our escape.
I drive us back to Paris where we pause outside the flat so Andrew can drag our bags upstairs. I have to keep adjusting the car’s position to avoid traffic. I’m tired. It’s hard.
We return the car to the Gare du Nord, take a taxi back to the flat, and have a calm supper with Anita and Mike.
Friday, June 2
It’s power shopping day. Anita and Paul accompany us to the kitchen supply shops, then Anita heads home and Paul comes to the silver shop, the miniature shop, and the jewelry shop. Paul charms the lady in the silver shop with his fluent French and she gives him the silver plated fork that he’s found in the bargain bin. As a surprise I bought him a fork and spoon set that he liked in the by-weight bins, so he finds himself all set for supper. He tries to be charming at the jewelry store where Andrew is buying a watch. We tease him that his odds of getting a free watch are somewhat slimmer than a free fork. Next he leads us to a big, beautiful food market where we stock up on goodies to take home. They scoff at my four bags of extra long spaghetti.
Back at home Anita has whipped up crepes for dinner.
Saturday, June 3
Off to the local market for more provisions, then Andrew and I go to the Paris Sewer Tour, which was on our list for a while. It was disappointing. We rent bikes again and take a tour of the 13th and 14th arrondissements that’s not too strenuous and quite interesting. The bike mechanic who rides along smokes most of the time. Our guide is not great, and does the narrative in both English and Danish, as, by some odd coincidence, she’s Dutch and so are many of the riders. Someone asks for French as well and she refuses, restricting us to two languages.
We stop at Monoprix on the way home and I get a chariot de marche to use as an extra carry on for my china (this wheeled bag turns out to be very useful for laundry at home). We’re late getting back to the flat and Anita is concerned that we need to get to the restaurant for dinner promptly. We shower quickly and set out. It turns out to be a restaurant that Andrew had read about last time we were in Paris. We hadn’t wanted to travel to it that trip. It’s marvelous-worth the journey to the 5th.
Sunday, June 4
We make a morning run to Fnac on the Champs Elysee for CDs (the other Fnacs are closed on Sunday). Back at home we make up care packages of our provisions for the plane and for carrying home. Michael calls us a cab to the airport, and, sadly, we’re off.