2008 Trip to France and Belgium

This 1s our 25th Anniversary (in October) and a year ago we decided to celebrate it with a trip to France. This is a description of that trip and our planning for it. We will fly into and out of Brussels because we have friends in Belgium that we wish to see during the trip. We depart on 2 October and will return on 22 October.

Planning the Trip

1 July

We are going to France to celebrate, among other things, our 25th wedding anniversary.  We’ll also visit Belgium to see long-time friends there, and we hope to collect a small sculpture that we bought in Antwerp three years ago and expected to ship home only to find it cost more to ship than it was worth.  So it’s been cared for by a friend near Antwerp all these years.

As we’d lived in Belgium and traveled extensively in France, and now having the internet as a tool,  it should be easy to plan this trip. Not!  Initially the difficulties arise from not being able to decide where to go, as we’d love to return to the Dordogne, but as we were going in October we decide, remembering our first visit to those parts when many hotels and restaurants were closing for the season, that we might be a bit late to visit southwest France.  Next year we might try for spring in the Dordogne.  We booked our flights on 19 May.  (Later Delta made some changes in the schedule; the 11 am flight is gone, and we depart at 8:45, meaning 6:45 at the airport, leave home at 6:15 – and a six-hour layover in Atlanta.  And there is probably worse to come as the airlines downsize after Labor Day.  At least we will probably make our connecting flight!  As there is only one flight each evening, the consequences of not making a flight are quite serious.)

The Trip

Here is information, including photos about the trip.

October 3 - 4 — Arrival and Perrone

An uneventful flight;  we’re in Brussels, and, yes, it’s raining!  The Toyota Prius we’ve rented is ready in the parking garage a short walk from the front door of the airport…only later do we realize that the manual and the instruction card are only in French and we can’t find basic information.  What octane fuel do we need?  And at the pump we find octane measurements in Europe and the US are not the same; the European system gives a higher figure - 91-95 for regular, for example.  (Two weeks later we find that 95 will do; fortunately we only stopped to fill up three times in three weeks, thanks to the excellent fuel economy of the Prius!)

It takes a few minutes to become accustomed to the Prius, but it drives well and we set off in a drizzle towards Mons (or Bergen, as the road signs in Flanders insist on calling it).  An effort to have a coffee in Mons fails when we don’t have any coins for the parking meters in the city center,  which is a “blue zone.” (Attention! In blue or “payant” zones you must pay at a nearby machine and display the ticket on the dashboard, except on Sundays.  Most machines will not accept any bills.)  So, on to France!

October 5 — Drive to Rouen

Today we are enroute to Amiens on an appropriately grey autumn day, in a region where men fought to a standstill for months and years in the muddy trenches.  There are dozens of war cemeteries here, in a long loop, a remembrance circuit, and many more.  Today the fields are full of men with guns – and dogs;  they are hunting, what exactly we never discover but presumably some kind of bird.

Dick brought his GPS unit, a Garmin nuvi 660, into which he had installed a card with the complete map of Europe. It was very useful, even providing some laughs due to it's pronunciation of French street and road names. For example, "Rouen" was pronounced as "Rowen."

Amiens cathedral has a spectacular floor, full of patterns in black and white and a maze at the center.  There is little stained glass – too many wars fought here; nothing left.  We found a wonderful bustling bistro, the Jules Verne (in honor of the town’s most famous resident).  We arrived shortly after noon and luckily beat the rush. We didn't have a reservation and noted as we were shown to our table that many tables were marked as reserved. Within half an hour the restaurant was full and they were turning people away. The food was great and people watching was too. 

October 6 & 7— Rouen

Monday in Rouen.  Another grey day.   The cathedral is closed until the afternoon, so we focus on the wonderful clock arching over the street nearby and then wander down to the square where Joan of Arc was tried. On  being brought to the place of her imprisonment and trial, and threatened with the torture chamber, she responded:

 "I will tell you nothing more than I have told you; no, even if you tear the limbs from my body.  And even if in my pain I did say something otherwise, I would always say afterwards that it was the torture that spoke and not not I."

AuBois Chenu

Restaurant Au Bouis Chenu

A leisurely lunch in the restaurant Au Bois de Chenu, followed by a tour of the quirky maritime museum on the river, which was easily located on the map but almost impossible to get to – and well worth the effort to do so – for just the LEGO model of the port!

Armada in Legos

Lego exhibit in Maritime Museum


Rouen Photos

Despite an overcast day with off and on light showers, we were able to capture some photos to refresh our memories later on.

October 8 — Enroute Audierne

Enroute to Audierne and the southwestern tip of Brittany, Finistere (end of the earth).  Here the real countryside begins to appear, and bits of the coast.  The hotel we had chosen was not what we wanted, and happily we found a better one right by the port, where we could watch lots of little boats coming and going.  Le Goyen is a three-star and provided the best room we had on the trip..  We ate at the hotel that night and had a spectacular meal.  A little glass of salmon mousse dressed with pistou was especially memorable.

October 9 — Audierne and Pointe du Raz

Highlight of the day a drive out to the Pointe du Raz, the western-most part of France.  This spot reportedly gets a million visitors in the summer months!  We are practically alone, one of the benefits of off-season travel!  The sun shines brightly – in fact I find I’m slightly sunburned from walking the trail.  Lunch at the hotel in the Baie de Trespases, where bodies washed up from shipwrecks in the old days.  Today there are just a bunch of German surfers in body suits on the beach, and two young women who plunge into the frigid water in bikinis – to impress the surfers?

October 10 - 11 — Pont Aven

By now we are feeling fairly desperate, as we have not seen a laundry or dry cleaner since landing over a week ago.  Pont Aven, the next destination, is a small town, and sure enough, no laundry.  So I start washing out by hand.  Fortunately the room has two old-style heaters that generate enough warmth to dry our “smalls” and keep us warm – day temperatures are fine, in the sixties, but the night drops to the mid-forties.  This was another pleasant hotel, discovered by accident in a guide to hotels dispensed by the Brittany tourism folks – it’s not listed in the Michelin. We eat lunch here two days running – most enjoyable, to sit alongside the river and watch the ducks and gulls.  The most expensive meal of the entire trip is here – at the Moulin de Rosemadec, where we dined 18 years ago!  In those days the dollar was worth something. The lovely little chapel at Tremalo is still there, open – and unguarded.   This is a very small detour, not listed in many guides, but well worth the trouble to walk or drive out from the center of Pont Aven.  The carvings on the ceiling beams are extraordinary. 

Pont Aven Photos

Pont Aven is very relaxing to visit with lots of photo opportunities, as well as places to shop.

October 12

Driving most of the way to Paris – choosing not to drive all the way in on Sunday night – we stop at Nogent-le-Rotrou, should have continued on to Chartres.  A Sunday night in a small town with absolutely nothing open – even the bistro at another hotel closed at 7 p.m.  So we eat crackers at the bar in the hotel.  Can’t recall anything quite so depressing in Spain – there is always a bar open with something to eat!

We did stop for lunch in a small town right off the autoroute, Vitre. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to explore because it looked like an interesting and pretty town to visit.

DSCN1274

October 13 - 15 — Paris

Although Dick was worried about driving into Paris, we had our trusty GPS and it worked like a charm.

The hotel (La Bretonnerie) was very good value for Paris: extremely helpful staff, a pleasant breakfast room, and lots of newspapers available – UK, Spain, French, Herald Tribune.  Good WiFiconnection – no extra charge, the case everywhere in France with the exception of the inexpensive hotel in Dinan, Paris is wonderful, as always.  Near the hotel was a Pylones shop, also found on Ile St. Louis – delightful whimsical stuff.  Here we saw friends and walked and walked. I went to an art gallery in the 11th to see an exhibit of art about Obama. No museums!  Best restaurant – Au Bascou in the third, French Basque cooking on Rue Réamur 38 (42-72-69-25), closed on weekends.

October 16 - 21 — Antwerp

On the way from Paris to Brussels to switch the car – or as it turned out to just change contracts, keeping the same car - we stop in Cambrai for a quick coffee – the menu looks very tempting – amazing how a tiny café in a tiny town can come up with such a tempting daily menu! –then head on to Zaventem and the airport.  In Zaventem itself we note an Italian restaurant as we drive in, and after we switch out the car we have an exceptional lunch there – the Wine Gallery – with simply divine sole meuniere.  After the short (45 km or barely 30 miles to Antwerp) we unload at the hotel and think about our options. Eventually we realize there’s only one choice, and return to Dock’s Café  where we eat at the oyster bar, and watch the oyster barman preparing incredible seafood platters.  Extraordinary.  Don’t miss this if you go to Antwerp!   

The hotel is part of the US Holiday Inn Express chain, and it does offer a complimentary and substantial breakfast – but otherwise certainly does not remind us of the HI-Express experience in the US.  Incredibly thin towels…no closet or chest of drawers – and most annoying of all, a charge of 12.50 euros a day, per laptop, for internet access, despite not indicating any such charge in the room information.  (The same problem occurs again in Brussels at the HI-Express at the airport.  I regret now not having done my homework about the airport hotels rather than assuming that the Holiday Inn Express label would carry the same level of comfort that it does in the US.  The Antwerp hotel was not entirely satisfactory but the Brussels one was exceptionally awful!)

October 21 - 22 — Goodbye to Brussels

See the remarks above about the airport hotel.  I’m still steamed about the horrible experience in this hotel, for which we paid over 200 euros or $260 dollars.

Reflections

Do not assume that Holiday Inn Express in Europe conveys the same level of comfort as HI-Express does in the US.  By contrast, Best Western in France was a cut above the Best Western experience in the US – each was comfortable, very French, and good value.

In Antwerp I also had an episode of cystitis.  In a remarkable bit of good fortune, I went to a pharmacy nearby, where the pharmacist said he recognized the symptoms and the needed treatment – antibiotic – but could not provide anything without a prescription.  He referred me to a clinic, the Mediport, just a block from the hotel, where sailors from the many ships arriving in Antwerp could seek medical help – along with retired sailors, and anyone who was in need of help.  So I went there – waited for 45 minutes, saw a very helpful young doctor (all in English, this is an international operation), got a confirmation of my problem and a prescription – for 30 euros.  Back to the pharmacy, and problem solved! I was very lucky to find help within a few minutes of recognizing my problem.  I’ll be more alert to medical/pharmacy sites in the future!


© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Richard W. Tripp, Jr.