Executive summary: Elisabeth and I recently got back from 3 weeks in France. We're fine, had a good time, and our luggage eventually arrived. Everyone was quite polite, although presumably it helped that Elisabeth speaks French. This is good because my French basically consists of knowing that canard is duck but cafard is cockroach.
The Flight: July 24th we flew down to LA, waited a couple of hours at LAX and then got on our plane to Paris. We flew AOM French, which is a pretty small airline. This was part of a run from Paris to Tahiti but they refuel at LAX and it's pretty cheap to take just one leg of the flight. The flight was pretty uneventful except that I now have a real appreciation for just how small "charter seating" is and they already had a small bottle of wine packaged with each dinner. After 10 hours or so we landed at Orly airport in Paris. We found an ATM (we had some dollars but no travellers checks or French money) and was relieved to see that it worked. We picked up our little Fiat at Budget, and hit the road.
Beginnings: Now, it's not like we actually had hotel reservations or anything so we just headed towards Chartres, where we knew we wanted to start in the morning. We found an Etap on the outskirts of town, which is basically a Motel 6 -- $30 gets you a little clean room with no phone but there's your own little tiny bathroom with a shower. We grabbed the book listing all the other Etaps. Armed with this book (and later with that of a couple other similar chains) it's no big deal to find a hotel each day or call ahead a day or two in advance and get a room. This is a good car technique, because these places are always at the edge of town but if we were going by rail we'd usually want to stay in something closer. Suffice to say that in future nights we found places to sleep without too much trouble, although by the time August started it was easier to call ahead a day in advance because things were filling up.
Speaking of cars, French roads are pretty decent (thinking it might be otherwise isn't an American thing, it's a Californian thing. Even elsewhere in the US it's pretty easy to get disgusted with the roads when you learned to drive on 10 lane freeways. The main autoroutes are toll roads and pretty expensive but they drive pretty quick (limit's 130 kph, speed of traffic's around 140-150). If you have a decent map (get the big Michelin Road Atlas, vaguely similar to the Thomas Guide California book if you're familar with that) you can avoid these but they can be a lot faster. Driving in France is a heck of a lot easier than in, say Ireland where the roads are tiny and they drive on the wrong side of the road, but it's still pretty wacky. There are a lot of Germans and Italians on the road in August, they have roundabouts, and they don't really go in for road signs like we do. As a Californian one thing I miss are the little signs on the freeway saying what freeway you're on. Don't laugh - after negotiating some complex interchange it's great to get that instant feedback that you've done it right.
Chartres: Anyway, we found the cathedral at Chartres and it was everything we'd heard. It's just amazing. Everybody quotes Napoleon "Chartres is no place for an atheist" because he's right. This was great -- really our "We're not in Kansas anymore" moment. We knew we were in Europe.
Rouen: Next, we headed to Rouen which is where Joan of Arc was burnt -- they have a little area with red flowers to mark it. They have a nice flamboyant gothic church, a very modern church with stained glass windows salvaged from an ancient one (I think they put the glass somewhere safe in WWII but the old church didn't make it) and lots of half timbered houses. The cool thing to me about half timbered houses is that after 500 years or so they tend to lean in odd directions. They'd never get past any kind of building code.
Normandy: From there we went on up to Normandy. There's actually quite a lot to see in terms of invasion stuff. They have old fortifications, areas filled with craters you could drive your car into, the remains of the harbor they built on the spot, and the American Cemetery which is on a bluff just above Omaha beach is quite moving. They have the name, rank, unit, and home state on the crosses (or stars of David in some cases). It turns out to be a good thing we went to Omaha beach because when we got back our neighbor, who spent a few weeks there starting four weeks after the invasion, wanted to know what it was like these days. He hasn't been back since the war. One side note: there was a museum to the invasion and about half was "Other countries had collaborators too!" and the rest was "The resistance tried really hard! Really they did!"
Bayeux: On to Bayeux to see the tapestry. It has a rather skewed version of what happened when William took over England in 1066. This is where we hit our first real group of tour bus people. They're really irritating. You'll have some site all to yourself, and this bus will pull up and suddenly 50 people hit the bathrooms. When they finally finish up they'll run through the place at double speed because they have to be back in an hour and they all cluster together so wherever they are you can't see anything. The really really popular sites have rows and rows of buses and get totally insane as a result. Luckily a number of cool things don't have enough parking/bathrooms and so the tour busses skip theme entirely. But what all this would mean is that sometimes we wouldn't run into anybody else that was obviously not French for days and suddenly we'd be surrounded by tour guides running around and speaking English, Italian, German, Japanese, Spanish, Russian. . . and even French. An example of this is Mont St Michel which is a very cool Abbey on an island (well, sometimes it's an island. Depends on what the tides are doing). It has great parking. As a result, the road up to the Abbey is what Rick Steves calls "the most touristy street this side of Tijuana". As you climb the hill it's really interesting -- the prices of the bathrooms and the cokes change with altitude.
Loire valley: From there, we went on to the Loire valley and saw various chateaus. They're these huge houses owned by the pre-revolution kings, dukes, etc. Some are in better shape than others, but the best ones are just amazing. In one the descendents of the original family live on the 3rd floor. The original family had been on good terms with the local peasants and weren't killed during the revolution. They actually have a few recent wedding pictures and so forth scattered around, which is a nice touch. And they still keep 70 hunting dogs. You haven't lived until you've seen 70 hounds being fed 35 chickens.
Parts south: Still working our way south, we entered the Dordogne river valley. Basically it's just this nice area with some medieval towns and so forth. There's Foie Gras and other goose products everywhere. There are also some pretty amazing cave paintings. There are still a few caves where you can get a reservation and see 15,000 year old bison paintings. And they actually look like bison. :) Note that the most famous Lascaux is closed to tourists so they have a fake cave you can go into and see something close. Seems kind of silly to me.
By now things were getting pretty crowded -- most of France takes August off and heads south. As we headed south with them, it got hotter and a little harder to get rooms but it still wasn't a big deal. However, most of the Etaps were full and we ended up staying in Ibis and Comfort Inn hotels, which are a little nicer but a fair amount more expensive -- $50 or so. It was also getting hot. By the time we were in Carcassonne (an amazingly intact and preserved 13th century walled town) we really weren't all that far from the Spanish boarder. It's very odd to be driving down the freeway and have the next big town be Barcelona. In Carcassonne I had the 2nd best duck of my life. We also had a little excitement with the hotel, where he thought we wanted rooms for 10. We never did figure out why. He wasn't that upset to have 4 rooms suddenly free up -- they were gone by the time we got back to the hotel after dinner.
Speaking of the duck, French meals tend to be rather long drawn out affairs.
If you want fast service you're in the wrong place. You have to just keep
telling yourself that they're that way with everybody and they're not being
rude by their standards. However, if you ate more than one big meal a
day you would end up fat and out of time. This means we'd pop into a supermarket
once a day and get fruit, cheese, bread, juice, etc. and picnic for the rest
of the day. It worked out really well -- all the food was great.
In small town supermarkets the fruit was as ripe and good as a farmer's market
here. And while the pasteries weren't any better than what you could get
in any good bakery here, there were no bad bakeries. And there were bakeries
everywhere which kept the cost down. So for a couple of bucks you could
get a big bag full of all kinds of goodies equal to what would probably cost
10 times that much at a good bakery in Berkeley or something.
Provence: So we turned to the east, following the Mediterranean coast. In the Provence region we visited Avignon (home of the extra free bonus pope), Arles (roman ruins) and the Pont du Gard which is a chunk of Roman aqueduct. It looks a lot like a bridge and can still be used as such. Don't if you're afraid of heights.
Nice: So it just kept getting hotter and hotter and we were really hitting our limit of historic stuff. In Arles I hardly wanted to see another carved rock (and I love stone carvings). Time to hit the beach. We got a reservation for two nights in Nice. Nice was really different. It's right next to Italy, and I think in August half the population is Italian. They drive that way, anyway, and the town isn't really set up for cars. I've never been so afraid to drive in all my life, and I grew up in LA and drive fairly often in San Francisco. The real point of Nice is that it has this "beach" that's 5 km by about 50 feet. I say "beach" because it's really made up of smoothish rocks. There's a walkway above the beach and you can just kind of walk up and down people watching. They also have lots of chairs on the walkway. If you like people watching (especially cuties) it's pretty cool.
Eastern France: We went up the east side of the country a lot faster than the west. We drove past Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. The big highlight would be the Burgundy region (looks a lot like Sonoma -- grapes everywhere) and the Alsace region (Colmar is another cool little town; Strasbourg has an amazing Cathedral). In Strasbourg I realized we could pretty much throw a rock and hit Germany. I instructed Elisabeth, my very favorite wife, to navigate us to close to the boarder without crossing it. I'd never crossed a border by car and didn't want to deal with it. Well, she got the first part right. We crossed a bridge, and oops, we were in Germany. After a few turns we ended up in the middle of town, never having passed through any kind of official border crossing -- but all the flags and writing were German. We got back on the bridge and reentered France -- and hit a border check. Great. Luckily he just waved us through because it's not like we had our passports ready or anything.
Verdun: Next we visited the area around Verdun. In WWI the French and Germans spent a couple of years killing each other over a couple of miles of land. You can still see the effects on the landscape, including trenches and old forts and so forth. To me, the most important part would be a French cemetery that has 15,000 crosses of known dead but even more impressive above it is l'Ossuaire. It's a mass grave to the unknown soldiers. 130,000 of them, both German and French all mixed in together. It's a big building, and you can walk around inside the 2nd floor. The 1st floor has the bones, and there are windows on the sides so you can see in. Each window shows something different, depending on what they put where. A lot of areas it's just kind of random bones and fragments and skulls and so forth. Other parts somebody got a little organized and stacked up a couple of thousand femurs.
For some perspective, including soldiers who died from illness, car crashes, etc. just about 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam war. I don't know offhand how many names are on the memorial in Washington, but I think it's closer to 50,000 even. Not only were way more people killed in WWI, but they have 145,000 bodies in one place, 130,000 of the unidentified, from what was basically a failed flanking maneuver and not the main thrust of the war.
The eclipse: So at this point by an amazing coincidence (and some nice NASA web pages) we were near the centerline of a total solar eclipse, the day before the eclipse. The problem is that the eclipse generated a ton of press -- they had constant articles, handouts on the freeway, etc. They were really afraid of a lot of car accidents when the sun suddenly went away a little after noon. All trucks had to pull over for an hour or two; that sort of thing. There were no hotel rooms to be found for hundreds of miles. In addition, Germany and England were covered with rain but France wasn't quite so bad, so lots of people went to France that didn't intend to. We all slept in our cars in odd places. Elisabeth and I picked a nice Aire, which is a kind of rest stop with a gas station and nice toilets and what amounts to a 24 hour 7-11. It wasn't so bad.
We drove fairly far to the west, where the weather was supposed to be best, in time for the eclipse, and parked at a MacDonalds that was almost right on the centerline. A lot of folks had the same idea and the place was packed with grubby people grabbing some food (not to mention the bathrooms) before the eclipse. The locals were amazed and astounded to see the place so busy.
As it turns out the clouds obscured the sun during totality but it was still very cool. It goes from "day" to "night' in about 5 seconds which is pretty freaky if you can see the sun or not. Of course, right after totality ended the clouds broke and so forth and we did get to see the sun about 99% covered and good views thereafter as it returned to normal. So all in all the "eclipse thing" was a lot of fun but we didn't get the whole experience of the stars coming out, seeing the corona, etc.
Paris: After that, we got rid of the car and stayed in Paris until it was time to fly home on the 15th. I'm not really sure what to say about Paris except that it has lots of stuff to do, the people weren't as nice as the countryside but were nicer than New Yorkers, and the subway works fine. But to me all big cities are pretty much the same. The one bit of advice I'd offer is to get a Museum card at any Metro station. Skipping past the 2 hour wait to get into the Louvre was well worth the tiny extra amount of money even if you don't see anything else. And by the time you're done going to the Orsay, the Sewer tour (with real raw sewage!) the tower at Notre Dame (get up close and personal with the beasties) and basically anything else in Paris other than the Eiffel tower and Disneyland you'll save money too.
And Home: On the 15th we hung out in the Jewish Quarter because it was near our hotel, being Sunday nothing much else was open, and the food is darn good until it was time to head to the airport. We arrived at LAX at around 1:00 AM local time, along with every child in France. Or so it seemed -- apparently the whole plane except four of us were families on their way to Tahiti for their six weeks off. The four of us got off the plane; the plane left. With our luggage. Oh, dear. Now, if they never got us our bag back it wouldn't be that big of a deal because we only had one bag with four rather stinky outfits but darn it they were our stinky outfits.
Suffice to say that our luggage had a great time in Tahiti for about a week,
but I'll let it send the trip report for that. It did eventually make
it back to Oakland on a United flight and United was kind enough to call us
and let us know that our bag had arrived safely.