France is a place of gentle beauty, where the play of light can turn the routine into the exceptional. My name’s Steve Smith, and for 25 years I’ve been introducing Rick to my favorite French people, and teaching him the Art of French living, while he taught me the science of guidebook writing. Together we’ve produced a variety of books, maps, phrasebooks, and travel tips to help you negotiate this marvelous country. France is filled with iconic sights and mesmerizing views. My job today is to help you sort through many of those, so that you can organize your trip to be the best experience possible for you on your trip, hopefully in 2015 or 2016. Let’s get oriented first.
France is central in Europe, in Western Europe, you’ll notice it just between Spain, with Atlantic to its west, the Mediterranean to the south, and Germany, Austria, Switzerland, to its east. It doesn’t suffer from the extreme heat of the South, nor cold of the north, so it’s a mild climate, things grow well there. Food, wine, think that.
It’s about 700 miles across from east to west and north to south. Were it a square, it would take about eleven hours to go to top to bottom or left to right. What’s astonishing about this country, is the variety of scenery that is packed within a country eighty per cent the size of the state of Texas.
For this country offers, from its northern monumental city of Paris, to the capital of the Riviera, Nice, in the south, pastoral landscapes, like this in Normandy, to rock sculpted villages of Provence hanging from cliff edges. Two distinctly different coastlines dominate the coastal region in France, from the rugged Atlantic to the west, to the balmy, warm seas of the Mediterranean to the south. Wouldn’t Central European countries love at least one coastline, France is blessed with two distinctly different ones. And if it’s the highest peaks in Europe that you must scale, you gotta go to France. France’s– Europe’s highest peaks are in the Alps, 15,700 foot Mont Blanc is resting there between Switzerland and France for you to visit. The Alps are just one of the main mountain regions in France, there are two others.
The Pyrenees form the mountain range to the southwestern corner of the country, guarding the border to Spain and Portugal, and the Massif Central Mountain Range harbors great canyons to the southeastern part of France, surprising many Americans as the destination for European outdoor lovers and thrill-seekers. Kayakers, whitewater rafters, rock climbers love southern France for that reason. France has a variety of each culture. Traveling between the various regions in France, you’ll experience different cultures and cuisines, as well as different scenery.
For one day you could be here, the northeastern corner of France, quaffing liters of beer next to these Germanic fellows, hearing a language that sounds very German, and eating sauerkraut smothered in ham, and potatoes, and sausage, in the Alsace in the northwestern corner of the country. The next day, maybe ten hours away by car, an hour flight away, you’d encounter lads like this who look more Irish than French, and they are because this is Brittany, whose history and roots carry that history with them. And here in this in this region of Brittany, their sauerkraut is crepes and galette for dinner every night. I imagine that most of these kids have never even seen sauerkraut in their life. Such is the cuisine so regional in France.
To the southwestern corner, where the locals look “muy Spanish” and Paella is on most venues and the fiesta– the siesta is still respected, to the southeastern corner where the– where France inherited its Italian heritage of “what me worry,” “what’s the hurry,” devil-may-care Italian sort of love of life attitude. And you’ll see this in the Riviera and the regions that border Italy, and you find fresh pasta in most shops, and windows, and in restaurants in this corner. Traveling through France then is like experiencing a variety of different countries in Europe within this small country, again smaller than the state of Texas. But France is more than just a beautiful place to eat well and drink well, for in many ways, the rich heritage of this country’s history is a yardstick of human achievement. For here, you can trace the whole of Western civilization from mesmerizing cave art 20,000 years old, to Roman ruins that rival anything that Italy has to offer, to feudal fortresses that rival anything that the rest of the European countries have to offer, like here at Carcassonne. All of this, in the country of France.
In the Middle Ages, France gave birth to Gothic architecture. stretching the– this technique of designing churches to stretch its ceilings taller and filling their windows with radiant windows of stained glass. In the 1500s and 1600s, engineers and architects design palaces by the hundreds like this, announcing France’s emergence as Europe’s first superpower, and richest country by far. Becoming the envy of kings and queens throughout Europe, where palaces like this at Vaux Le Vicomte, and certainly Versailles just outside the city of Paris.
In the 1800’s, France gave birth to impressionist art, and the foundation of modern art, and the way we think abstractly today, born in the roots of French soil. You can trace the origins too on your trip to France, all of this history staying within this one country, and maintaining that foundation. France today insists on remaining capital of art today, designing homes for contemporary artists throughout the country, and performing arts as well, like the Pompidou Center here in Paris. For many people, this range, or this combination I wanna say, of rich history, glorious scenery, great food and wine right sounds pretty tempting. And they would have been long ago, many times, were it not for the French. Waiters like this can seem intimidating, until you understand how this system works.
Understand that this waiters tip is included in the bill. You do not tip in French restaurants, maybe just a little bit if the person was nice to you, but you don’t tip. His tips are included in the bill so he’s not working for a tip, he’s paid to be fast and efficient. If you understand how the system works and you slow down, you’ll have that waiter eating out of your hand, by understanding the system and working with that waiter. Slow down, that’s the first rule of travel in France to me, slow your itinerary down. See fewer regions, more time in fewer region for France rewards the traveler who slows down.
Take time to sample the goat cheese from Jerry Garcia’s farm. If you’re moving too fast you won’t even see that he’s handing with that lovely piece of goat cheese. Connect with the locals. I offer opportunities throughout the book in France to make these connections. Go on a wine tour with Michelle in southern France, take a cooking class anywhere throughout the country, connect with the locals, with these fluent English-speaking people, and understand what matters to them about culture and their country.
And your trip will have an added dimension and become much richer for it. Traveling in France. Getting around the country is really about as good as it gets.
France is home to Europe’s state of the art bullet train system connecting all the major cities. Two hundred miles an hour whisking you from left to right, to up to down. And remember. the country’s only 700 miles across any way.
you can cover a lot of territory thanks to this technology. That’s the good news. The bad news is you have to reserve these high-speed trains in France and frankly anywhere in Europe.
It’s about $10 for a reservation, that’s no problem, but if you’re traveling with a rail pass, which is generally a good value for Americans, it’s heavily subsidized by the French government. The problem is that they limit the number of seats for pass holders on these TGVs, which means you just have to be on the ball. Book your train well ahead if you’re traveling with a rail pass, otherwise you don’t have to worry about it that much, or separate your rail pass from TGV trains and buy those trips when you’re in France. Local trains takeover will the where the bullet trains leave off, getting you to smaller towns and mid-size towns, and this will be most of the train riding you’ll do if you’re traveling by train in France. And minivans and regional buses take off where those trains leave you, allowing you to explore this marvelously, largely rural, country whether you’re driving or not.
These minivan tours that I’m showing you an example of here in the Alsace region are an opportunity, even if you’re driving, to spend a day with a local. With running commentary as you go, join other people and pile into his minivan. It’s anywhere from 40 to 80 dollars a day for this kind of service, you see, and if you don’t have a car it’s essential to seeing the small villages, caves in the Dordogne region or the D-Day beaches for example. France seems to me like it was made for driving. The country after Paris, between Paris and Nice, is largely– the highlights of this country are rural in nature. You’ll end up on a lot of small roads just like this.
Well maybe not quite this small, but the beauty of driving in France is a big — they drive on the same side of the road that we do, obey largely the same traffic rules that we do, and so much the country’s rural compared to Italy, or Spain for example, where cities dominate your sightseeing menu. In France it’s gonna be castles, vineyards, hill towns and the like. Making the advantage of a car terrific.
I think a great way to go when traveling to France is to mix high-speed train travel with car rental. A lot of people like to do that, why drive the eight hours from Paris to Provence? Take the two-hour bullet train, then rent a car from there, you see, unless you have things you wanna see on the way. There are a couple of key signs I want to remind you of today before you embark on your driving in France, and this is the most important one.
this signed is found throughout small roads and highways in France everywhere. It warns you that there is a radar coming, a camera box, that the speed limit is 50 miles, and if you’re going faster than that, in 130 meters where the camera is, you’ll get a ticket. And you ask yourself, how could anybody screw that up? You won’t believe how often they happen, how easy it is to do. And if you’re even going just 52 kilometers, two kilometers over the speed limit, that’s like a mile and a half, you’ll still get a ticket, and the biggest part of the ticket is the ticket itself, not the mileage above and beyond the speed limit. Pay attention to those radar signs, and buying gas is not as easy as it appears.
Understand I had this summer at our house in burgundy where I hang my beret in research season, and friends came to visit and rented a car and put the wrong gas in their diesel car. That’s not covered by insurance we found out, so I mean seriously understand that “gasoil” is diesel, it comes in– it’s always black or yellow on the fuel handles. Regular are the other red and green handles that you see. Diesel gas is far cheaper France, 20 to 25% cheaper than regular gasoline. Most for manual transmissions come with it.
It’s a good deal and the mileage is better, you want a diesel car if you can drive a manual transmission. If you insist on an automatic car, probably it’s going to use regular gasoline. Not the end of the world, the distances just aren’t that great in France. Even though they pay more than twice per gallon what we do, their cars typically get typically get twice the mileage, and again, the distance isn’t that great.
That’s what I’ve realized years of researching by train– car, pardon me. The problem of buying gas after hours is an example of the headache of traveling with credit cards today in France for some Americans, Credit cards work brilliantly at restaurants, hotels, shops, as long as there’s a person in front of you it’s just like here, but if you want to use ticket machines, pay toll booths because the toll roads in France aren’t manned anymore, or you might want to buy a train ticket from a ticket machine, or gas after hours. Good luck, unless you have a chip on your credit card and a four digit PIN associated with that, and even if you have that as an American, don’t count on it working everywhere. I don’t understand why that’s the case, but all of the researchers at Rick Steves have had that experience, so your best bet is to get that credit card, ’cause it will work much of the time, but also always have cash on hand to pay that toll road when you leave the freeway, or to buy gas when you need it and you’re almost out, right. Okay, sleeping in France.
sleeping is– around France accommodations are a remarkable range at reasonable prices. The mainstay hotels there are starred from one to five stars. The hotels we recommend and focus on in our guidebook are two and three star hotels. This is a two-star hotel in front of you in Honfleur, downtown Honfleur. Also we look for centrally located places, reasonably priced, family run whenever possible.
Two star hotels are simple, comfortable places, always private bathrooms. 80 to 100 dollars, outside the city of Paris, buys a two-star hotel on the average throughout the country of France. If you want a little bit more character and sometimes more comfort, three-star hotels stay $150 a night for a double room and it varies, more in Paris, buys you that much more comfort, sometimes. I want to warn you, three star hotels, I have listed many two star hotels that are better than three star hotels, trust the write-up in the guidebook.
Use a guidebook, use resources before you go. And even if you find your accommodations on your own, through other sources, use our books to know what you should be paying. We update these books every year, these prices should be accurate.
that gives you a good handle on appropriate price to pay. The interior, three 3 star hotels is cozier, sometimes on rooms as well. Four-star hotels are worth paying for, I think, when you get to sleep in a seven hundred fifty year old castle like this, but not just ’cause you need four stars. Trust me, three stars provides more than sufficient comfort for anybody in this room, and if you want to wake up feeling like a king in the morning this is worth paying for. Mix your hotel accommodations up.
Stay in one star, two star, three star, four star hotels. Really don’t insist on a certain level of comfort and your budget will be pleased for that, and so will your experience. Bed and breakfasts are marvelous options in France, and there are about 15,000 of them throughout the country. They’re mostly in rural areas so you need a car to get to them.
80 to $100 for a double most, for most of these bed and breakfasts that I list, will buy a room and breakfast. This is a big deal because hotels in France do not include breakfast as a part of their room price. You’ll save, because bed and breakfasts include breakfast, 25 to 30 dollars on the average for a couple per day for breakfast, by staying in bed and breakfasts, good value.
Apartment rental and home rental, this is the rage certainly in Paris today. everybody wants to rent an apartment and everybody wants to rent you an apartment. A apartment rental is relatively easy to do, whether you go directly to the owner, or the way I prefer, using an organization to inspect these places, and I write them up in my guidebook, in our guidebook on Paris to help you sift through the pros and cons. I can’t know all of these apartments because they change all of the time, unlike a hotel where it stays where it is and there’s 50 rooms 30 rooms, I can inspect that. I can’t do that for apartments, so you’re left to your own devices or the website reviews, client reviews to make that decision.
Apartment rental won’t save any money in Paris, certainly, compared to a nice comfortable hotel. You’ll get more space, a nice living room, and a kitchen, that’s the big deal. You can save some money on meals, certainly breakfast, by having your own cereal milk in the morning, or the advantage, I think, is you get to shop like a local, pretend that you’re a local, and bring stuff back to your kitchen and have to function that way, and cook maybe a few times. But it’d be a shame not even restaurants in France, don’t cook in your kitchen every night. Home rental throughout France is a great value, I think, compared to apartment rental.
They’re called ‘gite,” G-I-T-E-S, and there home rental is generally Saturday to Friday night’s, weekly only, and it’s a good value. Homes like this that you’re seeing here in the countryside are available throughout the country, but again its weekly only. Here you’ll spend about $1,500 on the average, and relatively high season for a three-bedroom two-bathroom place so if there’s three couples traveling together, that’s 500 bucks per week per couple, good value, plus you get a kitchen and lot of space to relax. Eating in France.
France should be sightseeing for your taste buds, that’s the reason you came. This is not a place to skimp on your sightseeing budget, and bakeries like this should be a daily stop on anybody’s itinerary. If you’re staying at hotels and breakfast isn’t included, bakeries in cities often offer breakfast deals for a fraction of the price. Yeah sure it’s a lot less than what you get at your hotel, but a lot of times you only have the choice of $15 for the buffet breakfast at hotel and that’s too much for you. Go to the neighborhood bakery, or certainly to a cafe to order your breakfast, and save lots of money and breakfast– break your croissant with locals. Lunches that bakeries like this offer, fresh sandwiches, if you look closely you’ll see them there, and treats throughout the day.
The fresh sandwiches for $5 apiece make a great, cheap, on-the-go lunch for many people. Cafes are the most flexible way to eat out in France. They’re open late, their hours are generally longer than restaurants, and more flexible menus for you to order from. And a cafe, perfect for bringing families and kids, you can order just snails if that’s all you want, or a salad or bowl of French onion soup, whereas at a restaurant or bistro, you must order at least a main course. You can split the first course or a dessert, that’s no problem, but everybody must order a main course.
You can– this is the kind of place that I look for naturally throughout the country places, where the chalkboard menu is brought to you by a waiter who smiling. There are two ways of ordering food at a French restaurant, understand this. The item, the object that he is showing you in French is called the “carte.”
Ordering from “la carte” means “off the menu” to us it’s a menu. If you order a menu in France, you’ve already ordered dinner. That’s a fixed price: two, three, or four core sequence of items for a set price that you’ve ordered. And that’s a great deal if you want that much food. Today in France, this never used to exist, most restaurants specialize in two course menus for about $25, tax and tip included.
That’s a good deal. You typically, and this is very common throughout almost all the restaurants, you can order a three-course. Appetizer, main course, dessert.
For two courses– and that would be about say, $30, I’m close– for two courses, for maybe $25, you get a choice of entree, first course, I’m sorry, and main course or main course and dessert. When my wife and I travel together, she does main course and dessert, I do first course and main course, and we split the first and the third courses, you see. And the best deal going, I think, today, are “plat Du jours” in French– in France. Most cafes and restaurants offer this, about $20, tax and tip included, that’s your dinner. Beautiful plates, garnished, that’s what a “plat Du jour” is.
Not part of a menu, it’s just “plat Du jour,” and often it’s better than the average item on the menu. Every so often, much like hotels, allow yourself to splurge a little bit in a French restaurant scene and enjoy the ambiance of this kind of restaurant. I list places that, mostly thanks to my wife, she’s a culinary expert, that she thinks are worth that kind of money. This is 48 euros by the way, for a four course dinner at a place like this. And you have to be willing to go with the chefs daring concoctions. Sometimes I don’t recognize what I’m eating but that’s okay, that’s part of the deal, isn’t it though.
So mix it up with restaurants also. Cafes, bistros, restaurants, and elegant restaurants are a nice way to go. Every so often do a picnic dinner, I think that’s a great way to go as well. If you’re traveling in the summertime, France is replete with vistas and benches to have picnic dinners on. Many people are perfect, love doing all of this– they’re perfect do it yourselfers.
They look to be their own guides, and all this organization makes total sense to them, and they love to take it on. Others are a little bit overwhelmed by the task. My friend Rick here lying on the floor of the Louvre Museum, right. For them, going on a tour, sharing their experience, but not the headaches of hotels, and, “how am I gonna get from point A to point B,” makes more sense.
And we offer tours at Rick Steves, we offer tours for people who– for whom want to travel in the style, stay in the kind of hotels I’ve just described to you, and sharing their experience. Our– it’s 25 people on the average on a tour that we offer, in 48 passenger bus, traveling from region to region with a Rick Steves trained guide, matched with a local expert everywhere. Together their teaching brings you great learning, and that is the hallmark of our tours, the most– the core to our tours then is teaching, and you’re learning. Group time and free time, you can learn by experiencing these great works of art on your own as well, can’t you. So we’re leaving you free time to explore on your own, whether it’s the art of living in “cafe au laits,”or art as I showed you before. We occupy about two– half of your time on our tours.
The other half you’re free to use our guidebooks and explore on your own. Our guide– we also use group time to take advantage of French’s cuisine, France’s cuisine, doing potluck picnics whenever we can. And we offer options in the afternoon, if you want to join us for a special wine tasting with translation that would be impossible, unless you spoke French, to do on your own, these are the advantages of group travel, I think. We offer three– four primary itineraries to enjoy the country of France. We have a week in Paris tour that runs basically year ’round. People love the week in Paris, you only unpack once, we stay in a cozy hotel in a great neighborhood.
Or my favorite, or the best if you’ve never been before, Paris and the heart of France. 11 days, featuring Burgundy, a corner of Burgundy, the Loire Valley, Mont St-Michel, the D-Day beaches in Normandy, Claude Monet’s gardens in Giverny, and four nights in Paris, as well. Our western France tour is 13 days, starting outside of Paris in Chartres, running through the Loire Valley, the Dordogne, Languedoc, and Provence, ending in the French Riviera.
Our West eastern France tour highlights the east, starting in the Champagne district, going through the Alsace, Burgundy, the French Alps, Provence, and ending in Marseille. The average price of a tour is about $300 a day and it includes everything but a few meals, your sightseeing is included, we don’t allow tips to the driver or the guides, that’s nice, that’s annoying, but everything’s included, there are no surprises, and that’s critical to Rick. All of the information about getting ready to go to France, that I have just explained to you, is included in our France guidebook, and much more. All– we even give you a diagram of a roundabout, if you’re driving, to show you how to maneuver those in your car, and much more detail and how to get from point A to point B. Paris, world capital, Paris, City of Light, world capital of fashion, art, literature, food, and all things fine that civilization has to offer. This is the highlight of anybody’s trip to France, probably, if they have never been before. Notice the city that you’re looking at here, the man– the beauty is man-made.
Notice the height of the buildings, eight stories, it’s a very human scale, and throughout the entire central part, city of Paris. Here pedestrians are treated to this sort of human scale that makes them feel good about walking from point A to point B. The city works well in any season, and a I’m not a big fan of travel in the off-season to every place, but cities like Paris, whether it’s summertime and the warmth of the summer in the city becomes like one big festival, and by the way hotel rooms tend to go on sale in the month of August, because Europeans don’t travel that much to cities at that time of year. This time of year, Paris looks like this in the fall, it’s beautiful.
All the trees are deciduous, they all change. The parks. Paris has– the amount of space devoted to people is remarkable in the city, and in the wintertime, my favorite time to go and I’m not kidding, is when the City of Light earns its name. Christmas in Paris or anytime near or after that, it’s a lovely time to experience the city, it rarely snows, the moderate temperatures of traveling in Paris can be compensated for with proper dress. Cafes, you’ll share them with the locals, and museums will be much quieter, naturally, at this time of year. I like winter travel so much that I read a whole chapter about it in the guidebook to help you understand why, and where, and what to do about it in Paris.
Consider that, flights are cheaper, hotel rooms commonly are cheaper in January, February, March, as well. Hotel rooms in Paris are smaller than the average, get ready for it. Book your rooms early, don’t wait.
I list places with great deals, 100 dollars for a comfortable double room, 125, are you kidding me? But you have to book those before other people get to them, there are only so many of them. I list hotels in four different neighborhoods because I– only four different neighborhoods, because I’d rather have average hotel in a really cool neighborhood than a really great hotel in a crummy neighborhood, think about that. So, the neighborhoods we list in Paris are the Rue Cler area, the pedestrian only shopping street that you see near the Eiffel Tower. The hip and trendy, if you’re young you want to stay out at night, Marais district near the Ile Saint-Louis, we also list hotels on the Ile Saint-Louis, as those areas are basically connected. The stately Luxembourg Gardens area, surrounding this beautiful park, I think Paris’ most beautiful park on the edge, on the Latin Quarter for those who want to dabble in all things Latin.
To the budget neighborhood of Montmartre. The further you get from the river, the cheaper hotels get in Paris. And Montmartre is a fifteen minute subway ride from the river, where along the river most of Paris’ sights reside, you see. Like about focusing on four neighborhoods is in each of those neighborhoods we list restaurants, lots of them, cafes, travel tips, allowing you to come home after a busy day of sightseeing and not need to take a bus or subway to a restaurant, or to go do something. You’re a temporary local in that neighborhood, post offices, and all sorts of things like this so that you can function as a local. Your learning is understanding what you’re looking at and why it matters.
This is why you came to Paris. Our books, I think, respect that by offering terrific information focused on your sightseeing. Our main guide to Paris describes 21 different walking tours of museums, neighborhoods, castles, and monuments, and 50 other sights with good descriptions, listed in that guidebook. Our Paris, Pocket Paris book on the other side, is for those with less time and shorter attention spans, it’s abbreviated. If you want that information, the main, primary difference in these two books; if you want those walking tours you need the main Paris guide. If you have other ways of getting that information or you’re taking a guided tour, don’t worry about it, buy the Pocket Paris book.
Either way, download our free audio tours in Paris to your device, if it’s a phone or any kind of application, or device, for free. You can do it on our website and you’ll get Rick’s voice narrating you through the Louvre Museum, the d’Orsay, and the palace at Versailles, and the historic walk in central Paris. I’m a big fan of local guides for your learning, not all the time, not every day, but they add a dimension to a tour that a book that you’re reading and a self-guided tour just can’t, you see.
So in museums like the Louvre, where you’ll have several English tours departing each day. They do a credibly good job. Or the d’Orsay, or neighborhood walking tours like here in Montmartre, where neighborhood walking organizations, my favorite is called Paris Walks, they offer tours every day. Meet at ten o’clock, virtually every day they do the Montmartre and the Impressionist neighborhood, but they do many others. It’s whoever shows up at ten o’clock goes on the tour, about $20 a person for two and half hours of a walking tour.
Pepper your trip with with walking tours like this when you’re in Paris. The Paris Museum Pass makes sightseeing a breeze for ninety percent of any of the museums that you’re interested in, are covered in this pass. Over 60 different sites covered with a museum. It comes in two, four, and six day increments, it averages about $15 a day, cost-wise. You’ll save money, no question.
The average site in Paris is 11 or $12, all you have to do is go to two sites, that day and that’s pretty easy to do and you’ve saved money. But the real reason to buy this pass is because you own it, and you have this pass, and you’ll dart into simple other museums that, well, Steve or Rick or Gene described in the book, but I don’t know if it’s not great, but I wouldn’t pay $10 for it, but I got the pass so why not, and you’ll be astonished at what you, what you discover in some of those lesser-known museums. The pass also saves you waiting time in line for ticket lines, but not for security lines, like this. This reminds me that the travelers greatest challenge today in Paris are the crowds at the key monuments, like Versailles or the Louvre. Thanks to growing economies in various parts of the world, more and more people want to see this grand city, and if you don’t pay attention, if you don’t read your guide book, you’ll end up here at Versailles on a Tuesday, when all the big museums in Paris are closed. “Hey, good idea, let’s go to their side at 10 in the morning.”
Not an original brainstorm, read your book, arrive after two, there’s no line. That’s not that hard to do, but if you’re there at ten o’clock what you gonna do? Tour the gardens first, Rick said that in his guidebooks. The gardens don’t get crowds, and then come back later to tour the inside of the palace.
Trust us and our guidebooks, really the best, probably, service we provide you with, how to avoid lines these days in Paris. Getting around this city works just really well, it’s a walker’s paradise, I think. It’s a flat city with the river running through the center of it, right. East to west to send river runs, anything to the right, if you’re on a boat, as the current goes as the right bank.
To the left, is the left bank. It’s a flat city, if you remember. Walking and human scale with these eight-story buildings, you don’t have these wind tunnels as we do in our high skyscraper cities, and it works well. Just to give you a sense of scale, walking from the Eiffel Tower all the way to the Louvre Museum is a little bit over an hour along the river.
Most of those sites that you want to see are also within a 10 or 15 minute walk of the river. You could walk a heck of a lot of the city, but you have to remember that once you get to the sight. you have to keep walking. So the subway system, Europe’s greatest subway system, it covers you everywhere you go in Paris. When you’re exhausted, there will be a subway stop somewhere nearby learn the words, “Ou est Le Metro, Monsieur, si’l vous plait?” and “Where is the nearest Metro stop?”
And you’ll be whisked home on a subway line. The subway in Paris works logically, it’s easy to figure out, and honestly gets you everywhere you want to go. But it seems a shame to me to be underground in this beautiful city, so I’m a big fan of using the buses when it makes sense. Bus 69 that you’re seeing here is one of those examples. You get beautiful views, and this bus connects the Eiffel Tower and the Rue Cler neighborhood with the Rodin Museum, the d’Orsay museum, the Louvre, the Ile de la Cite, and Notre Dame, the Marais district, and the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
This bus gets you to many of the sites that you wanna see in Paris. We liked it so much we wrote a self-guided tour. Start at the Eiffel Tower, hop on the bus and you’ll see when you cross the street, look to your left, now when you cross the street look to your right. For $2, for the price of the bus ticket, you get a self-guided tour through the heart of Paris. Only Rick would agree to that crazy idea of mine, and I know we’ve had happy readers that use that.
The best way to buy tickets is a “carnet” of 10. It’s really the easiest, most flexible way to go. They work on buses and on subways, though you can’t transfer between the two. You can transfer between buses.
You can split those ten tickets between two travelers or three travelers, children get a cheaper version of the “carnet.” “Carnet” means 10 of something in French. There are bus– transit passes, pardon me, that work on a weekly basis or on a monthly basis, but they are harder to use and to fit into your travel schedule. So for most people that is the best way to go.
The latest rage in Paris today is biking. 15,000 bikes are at your disposal in over 1000 different, not 1000, I don’t know how many different bike stands, allowing you to pick them up at one point and dropping them at another. The French, the Parisians have embraced this big time.
It’s used mostly by locals, but tourists can now take advantage of those bikes, even if their credit cards don’t work on them, by booking on the website or, and the reason to do this really isn’t a sight– to use this is a sightseeing instrument, if you feel like just getting out one day and taking advantage of all the bike lanes that have been built now for bikers, because of this point-to-point bike, it’s called Velib, built for locals. We can take advantage of it, rent a bike through one of the bike rental agencies agencies I recommend in the book, it’s easier that way, and go for a two hour ride if you want to. Ride between Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower and loop back on the other side, easy to do in a couple of hours. Historic Paris.
I’ve decided to organize my sight seeing for you today around my favorite four days in Paris, because of this way I can describe to you an example to organizing your sightseeing ahead of time, not just running out, “let’s go to the Louvre Museum, oh, oh, oh, the Orsay Museum’s close by let’s go there too.” Premeditated sightseeing, organizing your sightseeing plans ahead of time makes so much sense. Let’s go, and you’ll see how I do this.
Start with the city of Paris, Historic Paris, right, its grandest Gothic monument, recently cleaned, it looks just like this today, it’s glorious, as it stands. Started in the year 1163, taking over 200 years to complete. Imagine the medieval mindset then, it didn’t matter to them. The community built a cathedral like this, time was not important. All that mattered was contributing to the construction of this grand edifice of which they were so proud.Today, if my child doesn’t get on the internet in 10 seconds, we’re screaming. Our patience compared to medieval times is dramatically changed, isn’t it.
Put yourself in a medieval mood then, when you’re going to cities in Europe and Paris like this, and understand how different things were then, and try to grasp, oh, pardon me, try to grasp how differently they thought. You can climb, rarely does this– is this ever a possibility in Europe, climb to the top of the Gothic cathedral, yes you can it’s covered in the museum pass. The entry for the church itself, the cathedral, is free but I think this is the greatest view you have over Paris. If you have a Museum Pass it’s free, be careful, lines are long because the four hundred steps up naturally are winding and slow. Strategize when you choose to go up the tower, the South Tower of Notre Dame. Then tour the, drop down to the inside of this beautiful cathedral.
Our walking tour and our audio tour take, self-guided tours take you through it. A stone’s throw away, a long stone’s throw with a good arm, lies the Chapel of Sainte-Chapelle, still on the island of the Cite where the city of Paris was founded, between a split in the river Seine. This chapel that we’re looking at here today, almost smothered by the law courts of Paris, is the greatest example of Gothic architecture, if indeed the purpose of Gothic architecture is to stretch the church taller and to raise the windows using buttresses, and to fill the windows, pardon me, with stained glass to tell stories of the Bible. This has got to be the ultimate accomplishment. For here, at the Sainte-Chapelle, built by King Louis XI, the only sainted king of France.
Because he found the crown of thorns, he wanted an appropriate place to house them, that’s motivation. Took only six years to build this, compared to the two hundred years it took for Notre Dame, thanks to the king’s energy. Here, over 1,000 panels will tell you the history of Christian civilization, from the beginning of the world to the end of the world. Designed so, because when it was built in the 1200s, most people couldn’t read, they were illiterate. But they did understand symbolism, through those stained glass windows, you see.
Get out, get off the island after this, after Notre Dame and Saint-Chapelle, wander into the Latin Quarter, ties in perfectly, see the beautiful views of the flying buttresses of Notre Dame from the left bank. Wander deep into the Latin Quarter, so called because some of Europe’s first universities are located here, and the professors taught in the Latin language only and students lived here, this is still a student ghetto. Today the Latin Quarter is in Paris, check the pulse of your lost generation compatriots here at Shakespeare and Company.
In the early 1900s, thanks to WWI, the lost generation of people of Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and more, Aldous Huxley, Gertrude Stein, would gather here and try to figure out what sense of the world there was, and meet to discuss their writing. Further deep into the Latin Quarter, a few blocks away, you can dart into, with your museum pass, my favorite, one of my favorite, museums in Paris. This is the Cluny Museum, it’s the museum to medieval times in Paris.
Here, because you’ll see stiffer examples, lots of medieval relics gathered from monuments throughout Paris, like the heads here that you’re seeing here, were chopped off on the facade of Notre Dame, during the French Revolution. They are gathered here and on display for you to see today. You see, this is our historic Paris tour, celebrating the Middle Ages. The highlights though, of the Cluny Museum, are the several panels of original stained glass from the Sainte Chapelle church that I just showed you. These are original, 800 years old, posted about five and a half feet high so you can see them very closely.
You see, normally when you see stained glass, it’s so far away, “how could I possibly, without binoculars, understand and appreciate the detail?” Well you can at the Cluny Museum, you can actually reach out and touch these things, and see how heavy that lead is that they used in stained glass windows. The highlight for many is the series of six tapestries called the, “Lady and the Unicorn,” where a noble lady teaches unicorns about the senses of human touch, sight, smell, and taste.
Guided tour, self-guided tours, one of our self-guided tours in our guidebooks, city of Paris, Cluny Museum. End your day going local. Hangout at this park, the Luxembourg Garden. This will be a highlight that you haven’t anticipated.
Enjoy watching Parisians at play. Rent a little sailboat if you have kids, and even if you are a kid yourself, rent one at this point right here, and let it race with other people’s sailboats. There’s no shortage of activities for children in the Luxembourg Gardens, but mostly I just like to sit at one of those chairs and watch what Parisians do in a park, in the afternoon. You see, this is a perfect blend of heavyweight sightseeing sights, museums, neighborhood walks in parks, blended into one day.
Day two, We’re going to tackle the Louvre Museum and then sashay up the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. The Louvre museum. The Louvre is the palace of the kings and queens of France over the centuries. Come the revolution in late 1700’s when the museum was closed to kings and queens, it was turned into Europe’s first public art museum.
And today it remains as such, it’s though not designed as an art museum in the least bit, so that pyramid that you see, the glass pyramid was added in 1985 to rationalize the entry, and boy did that work. It’s a grand entry to a grand art museum that makes sense of getting between the various wings, you can’t imagine improvement unless you had seen it beforehand. With over 30,000 works of art, the Louvre Museum is a full inventory of Western civilization. From Mesopotamian artifacts 5,000 years old Egyptian mummies, to classical Greek sculpture, to Renaissance art, to Napoleonic art in the early 1800’s where the museum stops chronologically. Here we’re seeing the crowning of Napoleon by himself. No small ego there.
This museum, to remind you we provide self-guided tours in our guidebooks, the audio tour that you can download onto your phone or tablet works very well for the Louvre. There are local guides as well, and crowds can be an issue here. If you want to get closer to the Mona Lisa, you want to strategize when you enter this museum. And yes, the Mona Lisa does look a bit smaller than people realize she’s going to be when they see her in person. Go at night if crowds are a problem.
It all depends on the time of year you’re going. I would go at night even if there weren’t crowds, because the museum on Wednesday and Fridays is open till 9:30 at night. So go about six. everybody else is tired, they’re going home, they’re done, they’re going to cafes, they’re done.
Enter the museum then, then exit when it looks like this. It’s glorious at night. I’m not making this up, and even if you don’t go to see the museum on the inside, make sure to pass by the Louvre to see the glistening, glimmering pyramid from the outside, glimmering from the inside. Then spend the rest of your day going a couple stops up the Champs-Élysées, world’s most famous boulevard, climb up the 420 steps covered in the museum pass to Europe’s grandest triumphal arch, the Arc de Triomphe. Yes, built by Napoleon, two times larger than anything in Rome, and sashay your way back down, crossing side-by-side, using our self-guided tour of the Camps-Élysées as you do. Passing by over-the-top, opulent shopping stores like this, some of which you need an appointment to enter.
How about that, you want to buy a dress, “I’m sorry, do you have an appointment?” I’m not kidding. And stop to enjoy a cafe at this grandest of Europe’s boulevards, paying more than you ever should for a cup of espresso, 10 euros. $10.00, call it.
That’s crazy, on one hand, on the other, how many times do you have a chance to sit and watch the conveyor belt of European traffic go by. And know also that the waiter won’t bring your bill until you ask for it, so bring postcards, or write in your journal. Two hours later that 10 euros is a pretty good investment of your time.
He or she who comes home with the most money doesn’t win. Allow yourself some silly expenses once in awhile. The Champs-Élysées is brilliant at night.
If you have to choose and you only have one time you can go, go at night. You can still– the Arc de Triomphe is open till 10:30 or 11:00 at night, depending on the time of the year, and it truly does glisten any time of the year at night. My third– day three is my favorite day in Paris, impressionist Paris day. We’re gonna explore the hill town where the artists gathered during the late 1800’s, and then visit the three art museums that house their collective genius.
This is a cool day to put together, and you should think this way. Wandering up then to this hill town here, that until 1870 was not Paris, but its own city. A wall separated that hill town from the city of Paris, and behind that wall laws were different. Rents were cheaper, tax was not booed, people were happier.
Buildings like Sacré-Cœur were built, by the way, not so interesting on the inside, you can tour it, our book walks you through it, but beautiful views from the steps in front of this Neo-Byzantine church. But the neighborhood behind it feels distinctly apart from the rest of Paris, and the artistic heritage, cheaper rents that drew the likes of Auguste Renoir to paint the spirited people here. Again, drinking, dancing, having fun, because it wasn’t that much fun down on the flatlands of Paris.
And dazzling, symbolic, “ooh, la, la,” red windmill. In late 1800’s this was more scary, and daunting to the French, and the Eiffel tower built in about the same time was, because they had never seen the can-can done before. It drew the attention of certain artists that you know, Toulouse-Lautrec, for example, and this was earth-shattering, and pushed I think it pushed art to another level. I mentioned before we do a self-guided tour of the Montmartre neighborhood in our book, but Paris Walks does a brilliant– this is one of the ones I would highlight of theirs, or anybody give you a walking tour because it really brings it to life, so many of the stories come to life of that hill town.
Then spend your afternoon touring the great museums, again, that house their art. The Orsay museum is a converted train station, brilliant home. Now it is right on the Seine River, housing all the great, the greatest collection of impressionist art, from Monet to Manet, Manet to Monet, pardon me, I reversed that. To Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, and everybody in between. Across the river you’ll enjoy the– fans of Claude Monet can make their pilgrimage to the Orangerie, built precisely to hold the panels, eight panels, of his water lilies. Painted at an elderly age when he had cataracts and could barely see, these are remarkable accomplishment of this artist.
15 minutes, the other direction from the Orsay museum, you can pay respects to the man who did for sculpture what Claude Monet did for painted art. Auguste Rodin. His works are thoughtful and romantic. Each one of them.
This is typical of impressionist art. The greatest sculptor since Michelangelo. Again, walking tour in our guidebook. This museum seldom gets too crowded, and you can tour just its gardens if you want to for a couple of euros, or spend ten, or your museum pass to get into the interior. Day four, the Marais district.
This is cool, backdoor, hip, trendy Paris example of seeing Paris it’s trendy finest. This is medieval Paris at its best, with stone walkways all centered around Paris’ greatest square, I think, the Place des Vosges. The oldest square in Paris as well, in the heart of the Marais district. It’s also the center for Jewish culture, Jewish people. Until WWII, the center, the largest concentration, in fact, of Jewish people, lived in Paris.
Monuments, then, to their deportation during WWII, when 76,000 Jews would be deported from the city of Paris to concentration camps, is well commemorated at the Mémorial de la Shoah. As well as, there’s a brilliant, relatively new history museum to Jewish culture, and it highlights their contributions to western European culture. Many people come to the Marais district though for the modern art that’s possible to see here. And here, at the Pompidou Center, at the end of the eastern, well the western end of the Marais district, wandering through, you can tour Europe’s greatest collection of modern art.
The museum itself is fun, escalate to the top, it’s all glass windows, and you have brilliant views over the city of Paris, while “wham, bam,” you get a sample of the greatest modern artists today, in one floor of one museum. Thanks to the brilliance of the co-author, who is sometimes silent, Gene Openshaw, we have a guided tour to this, and many other museums in Paris, to help make sense of this abstraction in art. Just a few blocks away, covered in the museum pass by the way, is the recently reopened museum dedicated to Pablo Picasso. 400 works of his, in the greatest single collection anywhere in Paris are now– is now open again, covered with the museum pass, and ready for you to visit. End your day with the capital, in my opinion, the greatest monument to the Belle Époque in France, The opulent Opera House.
Paris’ Opera House, built and finished in 1875, where once you enter, you can tour on your own or with a tour, a couple times a day they offer guided tours. You will find, right away, that the point of this theater was to impress you, and it was more about being seen than seeing whatever the play was when you came, or the Opera. It was all about how you looked, how you appeared, and its surroundings that you got to enter and and have your intermission in.
If you’re not properly dressed, “oh, go today,” If it’s Opera season when you’re there, it’s well worth attending one and being able to sit in this auditorium where only 2000 seats are. And it’s easy, it’s not that hard to get tickets. If you’re not properly dressed, why you can go right next door to the Galleries Lafayette, built at the same generation that feels like an extension of Opera House, another Belle Époque structure, and enjoy its grand perfume floor, the greatest I’ve ever seen in a department store, and shop for your own gown. Also, what I like about the Galeries Lafayette, in many department stores in Paris, they leave their top floors open for free with rooftop view terraces. This is the back of the Opera House right there, you’re staring point blank at it.
And cafeterias to provide cheap meals for people in those departments stores. The Eiffel Tower. You can’t leave Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower, there’s no way. I save it for the end, before we head to Normandy. Europe’s tallest structure for a long time, that 1,000 foot, 1,063 foot Eiffel Tower, the greatest view from it is the Place Du Trocadéro here, and here’s a tip, if you read your guide book, there’s a little museum off to the left side dedicated to the architecture and monuments of France. I love the museum, included in the museum pass, you never pay the 11 euros or dollars to get in, but with the museum pass maybe you’ll go.
What’s cool about it is there’s a cafe right here on the outside that nobody knows about, with this view of the Eiffel Tower. It’s called the Cafe Carlu. Now you know. The greatest view from the Place Du Trocadéro of the Eiffel Tower, and it’s a crowded site. This is not the line waiting to get the tower, this is waiting for the fireworks to explode on the 14th of July, when they were lit off from the Eiffel Tower. But the Eiffel Tower is Europe’s, oh no– France’s most difficult site to get into, if you don’t come prepared to wait an hour and a half in line, which is a lot of time out of a day in your time, book ahead.
You can reserve your elevator up to the top three months ahead of time. The problem with booking ahead, that far ahead, is you don’t know what the weather’s gonna be, do you. You may go on a rainy day, bummer, but at least you’ll get up the tower.
My advice is that you can climb– that you can stand in line, there are certain times a day that are quieter, or walk the stairs up to the first floor. It will take you about 10 minutes, you’ve got to have energy to do so, you can also climb to the second floor. Those are the two greatest viewing platforms anyway, for a fraction of the price of getting up or booking a reservation.
And then from there you can take an elevator all the way to the top if you want, you have to buy your way from there. But go late in the day whenever you go, Go late in the day watch as the sun goes down, and the city sparkles below, then exit the Eiffel Tower when it’s glimmering at its best. Without question, whether you go up the Eiffel Tower or not matters little to me, because there’s other great views of the city of Paris, but there’s nothing like seeing this monument lit at night, every night of the year, looking this way. All the information I’ve just given you, and a lot more is provided in our guidebooks, the Paris book or the Pocket Paris guidebook.
Normandy and the Loire. If you’ve never been to France before, these two regions are the second-most, and third-most important to see after Paris. And they loop into a perfect route, combining with the city of Paris.
For about 10 days, you can combine Paris, and the Normandy area, Loire, and maybe even a corner of Burgundy if you want, but I’d dart back to Paris probably after that, traveling on my own. Let’s travel west of Paris, following the Seine River then, and get into the Normandy countryside. Both of the regions, Normandy and Loire, are actually very close to the city of Paris, and easy to access. Following the Seine River west about an hour, takes you to the “Camp David” of impressionist art, or Claude Monet’s home, where he spent the last 40 years of his life cultivating his art and his garden. It’s a remarkably beautiful place to be, and it’s open until November. It’s gorgeous anytime of the year that it’s open, seven days a week now, it’s easily daytrip-able from Paris.
Train to a short shuttle bus, or bicycle rental, if you want to, for the four kilometer last stretch done by bike or bus to get to these gardens. It’s crowded, its popular, so strategize your sightseeing when you go. It’s about also halfway to the coast of Normandy, and my favorite first night stop outside of the city of Paris, in the seafaring town of Honfleur.
With over a thousand years of seafaring history, sailors sailed from here to discover Canada, Quebec, and the St. Lawrence waterway for example, all from this little tiny town of Honfleur. Which today just seems like an adorable place to hang out, and enjoy its cute buildings, and see its principal site of 100% wood Gothic church, where if you turn it upside down it looks like it would float on the on the ceiling because it was built from shipwrights, remember the history of the city. Honfleur is also a favorite of Impressionist artists, who loved to paint the beaches nearby.
Remember you’re on the coast of Normandy, where the Seine meets the Atlantic. Luminous light drew their attention, and Eugène Boudin, favorite son of the city Honfleur, has a museum dedicated to him today. Lovely, easy, sample of the impressionist art inspired by this town, but mostly Honfleur is a lovely place just to hang out, just to get over jet lag if you just recently arrived.
Have a crepe, remember, you’re in Normandy, Brittany. Crepes, anything with apples, cider, Calvados, cream sauces, or seafood makes sense. An hour and a half south of Honfleur, the gorgeous cliff of Normandy line the D-Day beaches that looked entirely different seventy-two years ago. Here, museums, monuments, cemeteries litter the landscape, paying homage to the British, Canadian, and American soldiers whose courage landed successfully the greatest amphibian invasion of history. It’s a remarkable accomplishment.
The great news is the museums that exist in the sights describe this so beautifully well to travelers, particularly we Americans. Here’s a point of time where we’re involved in Europe’s history, in a very favorable way. Museums dot the landscape. This is my favorite. The largest is in the city of Caen, it’s a great WWII museum, no question about it, but I’d rather be here, right on the beaches, at Utah beach.
This is the Utah Landing Museum, only reopened two years ago. Built over a German bunker, you pop out, it does a brilliant job explaining the strategy that had to happen for paratroopers, the line behind the lines, for ships to do their work, for landings to happen, just all had to happen just right on time. It’s a gripping event that these museums describe to you beautifully. All of the equipment you’ll see, depending on the museum that you’re looking at, from all the airplanes, I don’t care if it’s a B-52 or a duck, they have a lot of ducks, the floating duck ships that we use today, tanks, jeeps, they’re all on display somewhere for you to see, along this fifty-mile stretch of the D-Day beaches. It’s such an important sight that I highly recommend hiring a local guide. And this is not a cheap event, if you’re traveling on your own, join a group minivan tour for about $100 for the day.
Private guides run 400 to 500 dollars for the day, right, for your family and you, yes. But if you’re gonna ever spend that kind of money, here is the place in France to do so, because no matter how good I think my description is in the guide book to these D-Day beaches, there’s no way that I can do justice like Dale Booth does, or Paul Woodadge, or Stuart Robertson. These guys are writing books about it, and you can ask them any questions you have, and you can’t imagine what your questions are until you go.
There are three key sights that you must see along this fifty-mile stretch. Arromanches, the epicenter of the attack, where the allies figured that we couldn’t– they couldn’t take an existing port because they were so fortified by the Germans and protected, that they built their own port overnight. Towing, at Arromanches, 17 old ships, 115 huge, football- sized blocks of concrete across to surprise the Germans, and arrange them in an arcing-fashion in the harbor to be a breakwater. They were supposed to last a few years, they’re still there today.
This is the view from last year that I took. A remarkable accomplishment. Imagine boats with floating pontoons coming to the shore, and within one week, the port Winston, named for the genius of Winston Churchill whose idea it was, offloaded over 3,000 troops, 100,000 tons of material, and 60,000 vehicles to support the inland invasion. We had a foothold, finally, in Western Europe.
Remarkable accomplishment, there’s a cool little museum right there to tell you the history of that particular event, and that harbor. The Pointe Du Hoc is another important sight, the number two for you to see on the D-Day beaches. For here, this cliff separating Utah from Omaha Beach on the D-Day beaches, juts out far into the cliffs and housed six 155-millimeter guns. I’m not a military expert, but I know that they could range 13 miles out into the sea. In order for safe landings to occur, and for this successful invasion, they had to run the Germans off that cliff with six guns like this.
And so, backing up, the rangers scaled those cliffs, the US Rangers, 200 of them, imagine at low tide, because they had to using ladders and grappling hooks from London fire departments, in one of the most gripping events in Normandy D-Day invasion history. That’s after we bombed the smithereens at the top of the site, hoping to destroy those guns in any case, but the Rangers had no idea what they would find when they got to the top. it is a gripping sight to see. And the American cemetery, where 10,000 almost Americans lie today. Crowning white crosses and Stars of David, crowning a beautiful bluff above Omaha beach, the eye of the storm of the D-Day invasions. And the visitor center today presents travelers with a great– different than the museums, it has artifacts, personal possessions of the fellows who lie in the cemetery, establishing for you, as a visitor, a personal connection to these people.
Their names, the state they’re from, what mattered to them, letters to their parents, and this kind of thing. The American cemetery is a powerful sight for us to visit. Just six miles inland of the D-Day beaches, the city of Bayeux lies in perfect state of repair because it was the first to be liberated, it wasn’t bombed in the war. And in that church, the Grand Cathedral of Bayeux, “Notre Dame de Bayeux,” this tapestry hung for a long period of time, commemorating an entirely different invasion.
70 yards long, about a meter high, a yard high, the Tapestry of Bayeux told the story of a reverse invasion across the Atlantic, of William the Conqueror’s victory in 1066 over Harold in England at the Battle of Hastings, just off the D-Day beaches. Oh and it’s– the museum where it’s located today, presents this tapestry, one of the greatest documents we have from the middle ages, in a beautiful fashion for you to visit today. Allocate a whole day to the D-Day beaches at least, then your morning and early afternoon to Bayeux, then head out for an hour and a half south, down here to the Mont Saint-Michel. A headache to get to unless you have a car but it’s doable. Read the book, it is doable if you don’t have a car, it’s manageable, but you need to plan ahead here. And that Europe’s greatest tidal change region.
This island abbey, for a long time an island abbey, sits as a reclusive place for monks to get away from the madding crowd, but in the 1800’s, it was no longer an island. This causeway was built to allow us to come and access the island, so they didn’t have to muddy their feet in the mud waters when it was low tide. 10 years of planning and work have destroyed that causeway, and created an entirely new bridge, which today is done.
This was two years ago when I took this image. That’s gone, that bus over here is on this bridge, allowing the water to circulate around the island again, re-creating its island fashion. That’s a remarkable accomplishment, and for me, as a guide book writer who sees it all the time, it’s thrilling. I think so many sights in France are getting better every year because of the investment of the government. Half of the height of the island abbey at Mont Saint-Michel is man-made.
When you see it, it’s a remarkable accomplishment. 1200 years old, one civilization built on top of the other, higher and higher they built. Arrive after five, or you’ll run headlong into this group of people. Don’t arrive before five, simple, it rhymes. Arrive after five, and you’ll have the city to yourself, the island abbey, all the streets, pardon me, to yourself.
Spend the night, five different hotels are available at reasonable prices on the island, or where the shuttle buses leave from on the mainland to get you across. The shuttle buses run to the island, I should tell you, every couple of minutes, so staying on the mainland works just as easily. But the key is to see this beautiful abbey late in the day with no crowds, or first thing in the morning when it opens. It’s also open late at night in the summer months, with logs, and fires, and classical music playing if you want to tour it, but the idea of spending the night is so you see it looking like this. Every day of the year, this beautiful monument is illuminated like this.
If you came between ten and three, imagine what you would have missed. That’s Normandy too. It’s about a four to five hour car– call it five hours car, six hour train ride, to connect Mont Sainte-Michel in with the heart of the Loire Valley, then a couple hours right back up to Paris, by the way. This is the happy hunting grounds of kings and queens of France.
Because of its strategic location, in the Middle Ages and 1400s and 1500s, over 1,000 castles are built in this region. It’s crazy. Hunting was the sport of the day and age, the king, this is the king’s palace, hunting palace of Chambord, we’ll get you more detail in a moment.
It’s popular because so many people wanted to rub shoulders with a king. Because of all those castles, many of them have been turned into hotels ’cause they can’t all be open to tourists for visiting, so here’s your chance to stay at a château and eat goat cheese. This is the– if you love goat cheese, the Loire Valley is probably the greatest region for goat cheese. It’s also popular for trout and “pate de pork,” kind of a pate of pork.
Bike riding is a romantic notion in the Loire Valley, it sounds great to travel, to ride your bike between castle to castle, until you get on that bicycle seat, if you haven’t ridden for a while, and realize it’s an hour and half ride from this castle to that castle. Go ahead, if you want to, but my advice is to take it easy, take a minivan tour if you don’t have a car, they work very well. Trains work well in the Loire Valley, believe it or not, mixing in with buses to get you to the châteaux and stay in Amboise or take a car, rent a car. Many people rent a car just for the day. Amboise is on the Loire River, on the Loire River, the largest river in the area, is the best base for, I think, for seeing the chat– the greatest of the châteaux.
This is the king’s palace, and it’s a lovely little town with lots of hotels and restaurants that we recommend, and the highlight for most sightseers in the little town of Amboise is the home of Leonardo da Vinci. Few people know he ended the last several years of his life here, brought up by the Renaissance King of France, Francois I, just to be smart for him. That’s pretty cool, “just be smart for me.” I’d like somebody do that with me someday. You can– the Clos Lucé is the name of his home, and that’s nice to visit, and memories of Leonardo da Vinci are interesting, but what really matters is that in the basement, and in the huge park around, they have reconstructed the inventions of this genius who died over 500 years ago.
And you’ll see tanks in the background, helicopters, the invention of the helicopter, airplane flight, as you wander through this museum and you wonder, “how did he come up with these ideas?” It’s a remarkable understanding of the genius of Leonardo da Vinci. With a full day outside of Amboise, two, maybe three, châteaux for big people is the recommended dosage. Start with Chenonceau. Arrive before nine, leave Amboise at 8:30, arrive about quarter of nine here, and beat the crowds.
This is the full package, this is the grandest of the Loire Valley châteaux: Chenonceau. It has beautiful gardens, gorgeous interior with good audio guided tours for you, we also cover it in our guidebook, it has the whole package of the sights of a livable château. By the way, in the summertime the gardens are open till late at night. Consider having dinner at one of the restaurants I recommended in Chenonceau, then wander in for $5 and enjoy just the gardens, and the reflected light of Chenonceau at night. The king’s palace, Château Chambord, is about 45 minutes away, only way to get here is really a minivan tour, or your car, or scheduled buses from the city of Blois.
Anyway, 440 rooms, 365 chimneys. You could have a fireplace in a different room every day of the year. This is the king’s castle, it’s his hunting palace. He never spent very much time here.
The rooms are big, the place is big, so the crowds aren’t a problem. Doesn’t matter when you go. Make sure, whatever you do, get to the top rooftop, and explore those chimneys that received 365– spires, pardon me, chimneys’ worth of fire, and understand why they were there. Plan your own hunting attack.
Hunting is a winter sport, the trees are deciduous. It’s a lot easier to see those animals when the trees are empty of leaves, isn’t it. Thus, people come and hunt in the winter time, and they need heat, and they need tapestries guarding their walls to make it worthwhile for them to go. End your day, maybe, at the Château de Cheverny, a lovely, intimate castle where the duke– the count still lives on the corner right side, and still today you can tour the bottom two floors. And get the best sense of the French hunt by visiting in the afternoon, and seeing the feeding of the 80 french blood hound dogs, every afternoon of the year at Cheverny. That adds a dimension and a statement to your sightseeing of the Loire Valley, and understand the importance of the hunt.
Ninety minutes away, if you have another day for your sightseeing in the Loire Valley, the beautiful city of Chinon lies on the Vienne River. Feudal castle, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II, ruled a swath of Europe not seen from England to southern France, southwestern part of France in the 1200s. Joan of Arc, in the 1400s, would come and stay at this castle in Chinon, To encourage Charles VII to rally the French against the English, and kick them out of France for once and for all, and the feudal fortresses is there for you to visit today. There’s really not a lot to see there, unless you like just the memories of those two powerful women, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Joan of Arc.
The city below is a lovely town just to spend time in and I like it as a base for touring châteaux on this side of the Loire region. It’s also a good base for nearby visiting châteaux of the garden varietal. Here at Villandry, if you’re into gardens and even if you’re not into gardens, you gotta see this– I mean this place is remarkable. Herbal plants planted according to medieval monks ideas, and vegetables, and ornamental gardens at the Château of Villandry here, give the traveler a lovely example of another aspect of château life. The Château of Azay-le-Rideau floats gorgeously in a reflecting pond, and is open most nights of the year, many nights, I should say, in high season until late, with the sound and light show, and its remind– that’s also close to Chinon.
This reminds me that many châteaux– several châteaux do the sound and light shows for you, and they’re interesting, they’re not overwhelming, but they’re interesting, but they certainly extend the traveler’s day. This information for the Loire and the Normandy region is all covered in my– in our guidebook on France, and again, these two regions coupled together with Paris make for an ideal 10-day trip, particularly if you’ve never been before. The Dordogne, and the Languedoc.
Seven hours south of Paris, the city of Sarlat is the heart of the Dordogne region, another three hours south from there, Carcassonne is the capital site for the Languedoc area, taking us all the way to the border of Spain. The Dordogne, the lazy Dordogne River is often, this region, American’s favorite place that they had never heard of, or been to in France, when they go, for it’s simply beautiful. Stone palaces, stone fortresses, pardon me, guard above the lazy river.
Walnut orchards, tobacco fields, and sunflowers carpet the valleys below. Traditions run deep here. Walking– passing your neighbor walking his geese in the evening is not an unusual event in the Dordogne region.
And remember, this is the land of stuffed geese and duck liver, foie gras, and confit de canard, or magret de canard, duck and goose, are very present on your menus at night in this region. Sarlat, 10,000, 15,000 person town makes a great base, this is a largely very rural area. Only recently was there a freeway that led to the Dordogne region.
Sarlat is a seductive tangle of cobblestone alleys and gold stone buildings. Entirely free of cars, except for one main street that intersects the city. You’ll find, two days a week, it’s Europe– France’s greatest market day, and it covers and fills all of the pedestrian-only lanes, it seems, and squares in the town of Sarlat, making it lovely. There’s no important sight to see in the town of Sarlat, it’s just a beautiful place to be and to base yourself for great sightseeing. We like the market day so much there, if you’ve seen the TV show that I’ve done with Rick, we take you through, and in our guidebook, we do a self-guided tour through a market day, Wednesdays and Saturdays in Sarlat.
Arrive on a Tuesday night or Friday night, and wake up to the sounds of the market being established. Anything you see in the market should be fresh, you should be looking for it on your menu that dinner, at night. And again, Sarlat makes a lovely place to stay. I’d recommend three nights here for all there is to do within a short distance of the town. If you don’t have a car, a minivan tour is essential.
There’s no way public transit’s gonna get you to the great sites around, unless you choose to take a canoe trip down the lazy river. This is one of Rick’s favorite things to do. Whenever I travel with him we always make time to canoe down the Dordogne River. For here, you can spend two hours, four hours, all day if you want to, sauntering down different parts.
They’ll drop you– pick you up in Sarlat, if you don’t have a car, and then drop you at the river and allow you, and it’s a fat, very slow-moving river, to sight-see from a canoe. Stop at Castelnaud, here. Wander to the top through the village and check out one of France’s greatest monuments to the the Hundred Years War. The castles in the Dordogne, then, have a lot of history related to the Hundred Years War. Every room in the Castelnaud castle has war– military inventions, and crossbows, and such from the Middle Ages. It’s a great education if you’re into warfare, and the catapults are the capping part from the top of the castle.
Then continue on your canoe to the town of Beynac. Slide your canoe into this town, wander the top of this castle. That Castelnaud castle was British for a long time, Beynac here was French, and they fight each other for a long time. And climb to the top that castle for grand views. We list the chateau of– the castle of Beynac.
This region of France is famous for having more artifacts from prehistoric times than anywhere else in the world, and nowhere else is it accessible as well as it is in the Dordogne Valley to see this incredible concept of art from 20,000 years ago. When woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers were prowling the earth, cavemen were painting inside caves. And we can see four of those original caves today, if we plan our time well. First I’d start at the Museum of Prehistory in the town of Les Eyzies. Over 400,000 years of history are covered pretty well in English, they do a good job translating in English.
With eighteen thousand artifacts, this is a good basis of understanding prehistoric art. And if you can’t get to this museum, read the exceptional passage and introduction to this form of art that Gene Openshaw wrote for the France book. That gives you an understanding and a sympathetic view to these people. And, as you approach the caves, understand that they painted deep inside a cave. In limestone caves you needed this kind of rock for this to occur, often prowling in six miles 15,000 to 20,000 years ago with lamps made of animal fat, I guess, I understand, to paint on the walls. There are four caves I mentioned before where you can see the original thing and you have to be organized and on the ball to do so.
This is the entry to the Font-de-Gaume cave, the greatest of them all, and the hardest to get into. I won’t pretend that it’s going to be easy for you to get into this, but, by the internet, if you do well ahead, you might get lucky and find a spot, or show up very early in the morning, and I mean six o’clock early for nine o’clock opening, and hope for the first spot available in line that day. I think that’s crazy. Because, nearby, the caves of the Rouffignac, where a train takes you three miles in the cave, passing ice age bear scratches on the walls as you go, and seeing black outlines of woolly mammoths like this.
It’s a gripping site, and easy to get into is the cave at Rouffignac. Pech Merle, about 45 minutes to the south, add color to what Rouffignac did with black and white, and paintings of horses. You have to imagine all these different animals painted. And imagine this, this is one of a kind, where a man blew with a straw, probably, paint around his hand or her hand, incredible. Pech Merle, this cave with original cave art, can be booked rather easily, 500, 600 people are allowed in on a daily basis, that’s pretty good. Most of these caves have very limited numbers of people who are allowed in.
Two hours north of Sarlat lies the powerful village of Oradour-sur-Glane. Here, halfway to the Loire Valley, good stuff on your way if you’re ready for it. Four days after the invasion of D-Day, looking into town on June 9, looking very much as you see it in this image, was invaded by Nazis. All the people, 642 people, were rounded up, taken to the church, machine-gunned to death, and then burned, left under a blanket of ash as the whole town was. The fact that that happened really wasn’t so unusual in WWII, just ask Italians and other French.
What is unusual, is the French left the town exactly as they found it, exactly on June– and you’ll see what it looked like on June 10, 1944, clearing out so that tourists could see a little bit. You can see the light rail line, or the tramway, that led to the big city of Le Monge nearby. Walk by rusted out cars, bicycles left positioned against the sides of walls, sewing machines inside of buildings. It’s a powerful sight to see, and the reason it’s kept, of course, by the French government for us to see today, is to remind us that this happened, and that it should never happen again.
Sadly, in the 1990s in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we know that genocide occurred again, so I’m glad that they still keep this going. And it’s a powerful site for you to see, with a great museum that introduces you to the event and why, why, why, why, why this would have happened. Two, three hours south of the Dordogne region, the grand feudal fortress of Carcassonne lies with accepting is the capital, to me, of sightseeing of this cool region that blends French and Spanish culture. Wines in this area are coarse and heavy. I love the wines made from the Languedoc, and I love touring the walled city of Carcassonne.
Arrive, again, much like– arrived after five, and– otherwise it’ll be very crowded behind those walls. There are four or five hotels within the walls, and several with views just outside the walls. Spend the night in it or close.
Arrive at the end of the day, tour 80% of the walls, there are three levels of walls that protect the city, started by the Romans, in Carcassonne. You can wander 80% of them for free, and then have the famous dish, the local dish of the area, cassoulet, a Roman concoction of mutton, pork, sausage, goose, duck, and white beans. I call it a fancy “weenies and beans dish,” my wife calls it fattening. This is the traditional dish though, of a peasant cooking in the Languedoc area, matched by a very coarse, heavy red wine, mind you, that’s heavy for France’s heavy red wine, then get out and see Carcassonne at night. The same walking tour you may have done in the daytime is entirely different at night. Camelot lies beautifully illuminated every day of the year, and again, if you don’t spend the night here or nearby, you won’t see this, and I’d say, arguably, it’s not worth going.
it’s too crowded in the daytime, it’s just– I wouldn’t go. Nearby, sights in the Languedoc area, just adjacent outside of Carcassonne, that remind us of Provence, but this is southwestern France, that’s southeastern France, lie in memories of the Cathar people, a heretical group of Christians who grew in numbers from 11 to the 13th century, who were chased out by the Pope and the king of France, and the ultimate collusion to rid the church, first of all, of a competing, ever increasing in popularity, religious approach to Christianity, and the King of France saw the advantage of a land grab to the southwestern corner of France. And together, after the genocide, if you want to call it that, the Crusades preached against the Cathar people, who hid in villages just like this.
It’s a gripping history that you’ll see a lot– read a lot about in the Languedoc area. After that, the last Cathar was killed burned, at the stake in 1301, the French took control of this region, adding it to their ever-increasing country size. Minerve, here, is the village that you can see, and the castles, the Cathar castles as they’re called today, where they ran to hide, to escape. They were pacifists, they were vegetarians, they didn’t fight, the Cathars, they didn’t have a chance against French the army, you see.
Peyrepertuse is this castle, even if the Cathar history is not that interesting to you, the incredible construction of this castle 4,000, 3,500 feet high in the Pyrenees Mountains near Carcassonne, about an hour and a half away. Beautiful drive that I narrate in the guidebook between Carcassonne and there, follow the route I recommend . These were originally built as outposts to protect, there are about 12 castles, the Maginot Line, I call it, of the 12th century, to protect what is today Spain from what is today France, you see. The Cathars just simply occupied deserted castles. Another hour away lies the beachy hill town of Collioure, a perfect place to take a vacation from your vacation on this western swing through the southern-western corner of France. Collioure, most Americans have never heard of, yet it has France’s best, most moderate climate year-round.
It’s a gorgeous little fishing village, or really, resort town, with a lovely old city here, a chateau of its own, and a beautiful church. But really there’s no sight, no turnstile worth paying for, worth crossing. This is a chance just to sit on the sandy beach, drink the local wine vignoles or their white or their red wine from Collioure, and imagine how close you are to Spain. Eat something Spanish.
Here, it’s only a couple hours by train to Barcelona. If you drop your rental car here, you can train to Barcelona and continue your trip into Spain if you want to. Collioure makes a great stopping off point then for that.
The Languedoc and the Dordogne, together, are remarkable sights in the southwest corner of France. Let’s explore the eastern corner of– side of this country. I’m not sure which side of France I like better. My house is here, in the Burgundy region on the eastern side, but boy, every time I travel through the west, and the places that I get to go every year, I’m never sure where I’d live if I could choose again. But the eastern side, we’ll start in the Burgundy area and cover Burgundy and the Alps, which adjoin each other, basically, for a great central eastern look at this region– at this side of France, I should say.
Here you go, two hours by bullet train, four hours, at least, by car. Believe me I know, I’ve done this a lot of times. From Paris Airport to Beaune, and the capital of the wine country in Burgundy, another couple hours up, three hours up to the heights of the Alps in Chamonix, again, not faster by train this time, because local trains takeover, although certainly doable in a day, let’s get going. In Burgundy, the countryside is sophisticated and calm as the residents. If you’ve come to see quintessential France, you’ve arrived at the right place in Burgundy, for here, the landscapes are crisscrossed with canals and beautiful canal boats like this, I just grabbed that one in the guidebook by the way.
Lovely Romanesque chapels like this one in Brancion, and hill towns far off the normal beaten path. And of course, the cuisine is world famous, snails cooked in garlic sauce, Coq Au Vin, red meat from the Charolais cattle, the white cattle, simmered in red wine for hours. Coq Au Vin, rooster cooked in red wine for hours. “Oeufs en meurette,” “Oeufs en meurette,” if you’re French, “oofs,” if you’re American, phonetically, is my favorite of those dishes, and those are eggs, poached eggs, again, served in a red wine– cooked in a red wine sauce. There’s something about red wine in this area, isn’t there. Beaune, I mentioned before, is the perfect base for touring the Burgundian area.
This is twenty minutes from our house and I spent a lot of time in the city. It’s a lovely, quintessentially French town of 25,000 people, and capital of the wine industry here. So there’s many chances to taste wine in the town of Beaune. It works well even if you don’t have a car– does the Burgundian– does Burgundy. Its most famous monument, there’s one sight that’s important to see outside of the wineries, for most Americans, and that’s its medieval hospital here, that I’m showing you.
The Hospices de Beaune. You’ll see medieval– other examples of the Middle Ages in churches, and castles, hill towns, and walled cities, right, but rarely will you see a hospital from the Middle Ages, particularly one as glorious as this one. How is it, that this classically, by the way, tiled Burgundian roof and hospital is in such great state of repair kits from the Middle Ages? Mind you, Middle Ages is when the nurses were where nuns, and the primary antidote to any cure was bloodletting.
When you travel through this museum you get to see examples of the– what looks like a caulking gun. They would let blood from people’s heads, and of course, as a modern-day person, you realize that you were far better off in the Middle Ages outside this hospital, rather than within, because the idea of infection had not yet arrived, and oftentimes two to three, even, sometimes patients would lie these narrow beds. But the reason this hospital looks like this today, is that it was used as a hospital until 1971.
That makes it remarkable alone, right, incredible, right. And it’s unique in the world because of its financing technique, method of financing. Every year, over the hundreds of years that this hospital’s existed, when people died, they would donate their land if they were saved and it felt like they were well-treated at hospital, to the Hospices de Beaune, and to the nuns, etc.
That land eventually grew great wine. That means that this hospital is one of the greatest landholders of vineyards in Burgundy, and every year they do an annual selling of their wine, it’s the famous wine that determines– auction that determines the price of wine throughout the world, almost, the auction in Beaune, every third– it’s coming up– third week of November. Anyway, that’s fascinating.
Beaune has great market days two days a week, Wednesday’s and particularly Saturdays. I love the Saturday Market in Beaune, we never miss when we’re there. The best thing to do, I think, the best place to rent a bike in all of France is in Burgundy, because short distance from Beaune, easy to do, great guys running the bike rental store, in a couple miles you’re there, in the villages, along these wine service roads. Cars don’t use these roads, maybe tractors do if they’re tending to their grapes. Bicycle riders have free run then, throughout the vineyards, running wine village to wine village, it’s a glorious area, the prettiest vineyards, I think, in France are here in Burgundy. And stop to taste along the way if you want to.
I wouldn’t drink too much if you’re riding your bicycle, but I’m probably feeling better about that than if I were driving a car. So I list two different bike loops that you can do, because it is early so easy to do. And bike-only lanes, and paths, and well signed paths allow you to do so. The importance of abbeys in Europe and in France’s history come to life more in Burgundy than anywhere else, thanks to the Abbey at Cluny, the most powerful abbey in Europe’s history, which had over 2,000 dependent churches and abbeys based on it, and vied with the church in Rome, St. Peter’s, the Vatican, for power for a period of time. We have Burgundy’s importance with abbeys like this one, and this one, at Fontenay, is maybe one of the best examples, perfectly preserved, for you to visit today, to understand. This is a Cistercian abbey.
St. Bernard, thanks to him, constructed in the 1200s, and from the 1200s and 1300s, this abbey flourished, all the way, really, until the French Revolution. For 700 years, this mini city gathered the knowledge, and kept the knowledge that was lost after the fall of Rome, and the barbarian invasions, and the Dark Ages. Monks retreated to places just like this, or the island abbey of Mont St. Michel, to study the workings of the clock, to illuminate manuscripts, to study metalworking, the first forge in European– in Europe arrives here at the Abbey at Fontenay, and thanks to abbeys like this, Europe, and France in particular, makes it through the Dark Ages.
People start moving back into cities, thanks to the techniques, the study of wine and cheese in particular, at abbeys like Fontenay. And here, just an hour outside of Beaune, you can get that sense of life. My favorite site in France today is being built. The Castle at Guédelon is a daring move by the French private enterp– entrepreneurs.
Imagine building a castle using, from the 1200s, blueprints that we have, drawings designed in the year 1200, from the king Philip the Fair. Imagine building a castle using only the tools and techniques of the year 1200, and building it taking forty years. They’re twenty years into it today at Guédelon, what you’re looking at here. Nobody knows of this site, it’s kind of in a remote corner of Burgundy anyway, we have deviated two of our tours to visit it, we think it’s so important. The reason they did this, they’re building this castle, is to learn.
There’s so much we don’t know, ironically, about the construction of medieval castles, and it teaches– they’re learning as they go, and also it’s a great showpiece for children, for tourists to understand, to see how rocks are taken right out of the quarry nearby, and and then dressed into squares and rectangles, and then pulled up the squirrel wheel, continuing the structure, taller, and taller, it’s all happening in front of your eyes when you visit. Is it at the Castle of Guédelon, that’s Burgundy’s latest sights. For many people though, that’s nothing compared to being face to face with the awesome Alps. Whether you’re in Switzerland, or France, or Italy, the Alps are one of the more remarkable mountain ranges in the world, and here there’s, I don’t think there’s a better place in Europe to appreciate the drama of the Alps, and the glaciers that you can see flowing down from the high Alps in France, just two and a half hours east of Beaune, of Burgundy. Here, melted cheese matters.
You won’t find this in most– I mean there’ll be fondu places, but this is every restaurant in the Alps, where you’ll find fondue, melted cheese, right, or raclette, or tartiflette, which is my favorite, and if you’ve never heard of tartiflette, it’s scalloped potatoes with melted cheese. It’s always melted cheese over the top. All of these dishes, of course, keep people warm in the winter in this cold climates, there’s a reason for it. A lot of cows produce lots of cheese in this area too.
Two sights I recommend, two cities for basing yourself, or for appreciating the French Alps. The most beautiful city in France, and I think maybe arguably in Europe, Annecy, pronounced, “ahnsee” here. 50,000 people laced with canals, arcaded walkways, a glorious situation, town, on the lake Annecy. The Alps are a little bit in the distance, they’re not right there for you to hike up right in front of you, but for a lakeside visit of the Alps, Annecy competes very favorably with any Swiss city, from Lucerne to Geneva, that I’ve ever seen, with a fraction of the price for hotels, and better food and wine anyway, right. Here you can travel around the lake, there’s a path that goes halfway up the lake. Rent a bike.
Everybody’s renting bikes here these days, it’s like Greenlake. Ride around the lake halfway, 45 minutes or so at an average pace, then pull your bike onto one of the steam ships that runs about every two hours, and come back rolling your into bike to the city of Annecy via boat. Or rent a paddle boat, but get out into the lake a little bit. Lakefront Alpine sightseeing is brilliant in the city of Annecy, but if it’s the Alps in your lap that you must have, if you need to go hiking, if you need to stand face to face with those glaciers, and the highest peaks in Europe, then to Chamonix you must go.
Chamonix Mont Blanc, as it’s called, is a town of about 2,000 people, whose entire existence has always been devoted to exploration of the mountains. In the late 1700’s, early 1800’s, when the mountains became no longer obstacles in the way, but obstacles of desire. “We’re gonna tackle that mountain and climb it because it’s there.”
Chamonix was perfectly positioned to do so. And today, every every street name in the town of Chamonix is named for a famous mountain climber. People come to Chamonix from around the world to study the heroic list of climbers, to understand what they did. And by the way, traveling in this city, in the French Alps, they do a brilliant job of explaining the history of mountaineering, as well as the history of the, of glaciers and their current status today, but we’ll talk about that more.
But for you, the most incredible thing you can do from the downtown of Chamonix is to ride a cable car up to 7,000 feet, then transfer to another one to get up to 12,800 feet to the top edge of the side of the Mont-the massive Mont Blanc. 12,800 feet. Dress warmly. This is open most of the year, by the way. Then, from the rooftop– I love this next slide– from the– the French are crazy, they’re nuts.
Only the French would build a glass platform hanging from the edge of this building that you’re looking at, with a three thousand foot drop below, to allow tourists to do this. This started just last year. I thought the tour office was kidding me, and then I went back the next year and I saw it sure enough. Wow, this is incredible, and there many other things to see a 12,800 feet right next to Mont Blanc, but the greatest thing you can do, and there there are expositions of mountaineering, and of glaciers, and of this kind of thing here, really, and restaurants, and the whole thing, but the greatest thing you can do, is hop into one of these little teacups, and travel at 12,500 feet, or 800 feet, with you and your partner, they can fit no more than four per car, and crossover to Italy. We used to have to say, “bring your passport,” and then drop down the other side if you want to, on a similar looking cable car, down into the Italian city of Courmayeur, off to a Aosta, A-O-S-T-A, a beautiful city, and onto Milan, if that’s what you want. There can be no greater European border crossing than this that I’ve just showed you.
At 12,000 feet you’ll pass the Matterhorn on the left and all these– I’m serious, Switzerland is right there. Wow. That’s worth going to Chamonix alone, I don’t know anywhere else in the world that does that.
Then drop back down, on your way back down to Chamonix, get off halfway, that I mentioned where the transfer was, and hike Chamonix’s– this region’s greatest hike. From the Aiguille Du Midi, which is what that great lift is called, to the Mer de Glace glacier here below. Eight mile long, one of the greatest– the greatest glacier in the French Alps.
Drop down, anyway, drop down to the cogwheel train to take you back down to the city of Chamonix. That’s about a three hour hike for anybody. Rapid walkers can do it in two hours. But it is– it undulates, up and down, but it’s a brilliant hike.
If that’s too much hiking for you, throughout, just above the city, there are easier trails that I describe in the book, to get you up to some of these chalets with great views, and a glass of wine, or hot tea, or coffee. Just enjoy the mountains all around you without so much effort. On the opposite side of Chamonix’s valley, there are lifts and cable cars taking you on the mountains that hem it in on the other side just as well. It’s a little bit claustrophobic in Chamonix, because you’re surrounded by high mountain peaks. Burgundy and Chamonix and the Alps, pardon me, the French Alps, combine together for a brilliant five or six days of your time on a trip to France.
Provence and the French Riviera anchor the southwestern corner of your trip here. It makes a grand finale in the southwestern corner. Provence provides a splendid recipe of arid climate, seas of vineyards, fields of lavender, sunflowers, so good and great cities and villages, that we had to write a book just dedicated to this one region, the size of the state of Massachusetts, is this little region of Provence and the French Riviera. It features great cities like Arles, a principal Roman city on the Via Domitia that connected Italy with Spain. Here in Arles, 50,000 people, you can explore its Roman history which is– its heritage is shown beautifully.
It’s also an inexpensive place to stay with great hotels and restaurants in remarkable price ranges. The Ancient– Antique Museum of Arles presents its Roman history. Look at how little the city looks to have changed, let’s look backwards. Here it is today, this is what it looked like in a model in this museum that I’m showing you, two thousand years ago. Geez, I wish every city had a museum like this, that presented what the city looked like in its heyday, you see.
And then from the model of the city of Arles, there’s the arena, there’s the theater, the Roman theater, there’s the forum, and then you go model to model over, and see all of its great monuments, Roman monuments, in this museum. It’s a great way to start your Roman lesson 101. Then get out in the city of Arles, and see the real thing, whether it’s its great theater, its Roman arena that could handle 25,000 gladiator crazy fans two thousand years ago, and enjoy it’s market days.
Two days a week where you’ll feature its fine olives, a feature of the of the Provence cuisine and tapenade. The market days throughout the region of Provence are terrific, and Arles has two of them, has two days of the greatest of them. Vincent van Gogh spent– dropped down– came down to the city of Arles when he was just 35 years old, hoping to jump-start his career, his artistic career and a social life. Coming from the flatlands, and the Grey skies of Holland, he was bowled over by everything Provencal. The wind, the sunshine 350 days of the year, and he lived here for 18 months, sadly. And this is the region, when he lived here, that influenced his art so greatly, and the paintings that we see, that we love of Vincent van Gogh’s were painted when he was at his time here.
Productive artist he was, cranking out a masterpiece every two to three days during his time here. There are very few of his paintings, maybe one or two, left that we can visit, depending on the year, in the city of Arles, but you can go in the footsteps, a tour, of Vincent van Gogh, and stand where he did, you see, and look on the edge of the river, of the Rhone River, over the city of Arles, and watch Starry Night over the, over the skylight and see what he say, it looks just the same today. Twelve different panels are positioned in Arles, taking you on the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh, showing paintings of what you’re looking at that he painted in his style. I’d love that.
Half an hour north of Arles lies the walled city of Avignon. Behind its powerful walls lies an interesting history. Avignon is twice the size of Arles, with more of a sophisticated look and a great vibe from its market squares. It’s a young city, it’s a student city, with very little to do in terms of sightseeing. This is the sight in Avignon, and I actually think it’s a rather mediocre one, though historically, it’s critically important. This is the Pope’s palace in the year– in the 1300’s, for almost a hundred years.
The Vatican was moved to southern France, and the entire city of Avignon was given a makeover. Nine popes ruled from here in the 1300’s. You can tour the inside of the Pope’s palace in Avignon, it’s largely vacant rooms, with not a lot of things to see, but the history is interesting. That said, you get a lot of history by staring at it from the outside, if you want to, as well. “Sur Le Pont d’Avignon, on y danse, on y danse.”
You can walk on this famous medieval bridge if you want to, once 3,000 feet long with 22 arches, there are only four arches left to cross. Avignon makes a brilliant base for those who don’t have cars for sightseeing in the Provence area. Buses and trains get you out to see its most important sites, and those would be the Roman sites nearby. The Pont Du Gard is just 45 minutes by bus, 30 minutes by your own car, probably, from the city of Avignon.
Here the greatest Roman aqueduct that we get to see today in Europe. Carried nine million gallons of water a day across this aqueduct, along a 30 mile channel, to serve the important Roman city of Nîmes, dropping one inch for every 350 feet as it went. It’s a remarkable accomplishment that two thousand years ago this bridge was built, this aqueduct, before the invention of gunpowder, gunpowder? Mortar. I’m getting tired. Before the invention of mortar, so these stones are just positioned into place perfectly.
Still today, floods happen on a regular basis in southern France. Modern bridges wash away, Roman bridges lie intact. The Nîmes, the city of Nîmes, that the Pont Du Gard served, has one of the greatest Roman monuments, the Maison Carrée, the best-preserved interior, a brilliant Roman arena nearby, about half an hour from Avignon by train.
Half an hour north, the city of Orange offers Roman sightseers the best preserved Roman theater of Antiquity. Easy by train to visit, 10,000 people could attend a Roman play, opera, or musical here and experience remarkable sound effects, thunder, lightning. Go to visit the theater of Orange to appreciate what the Romans were capable of. For many people, the most important part of traveling in Provence is getting out onto the roadways, like this, and escaping the madding crowds, and getting out to explore the gorgeous, arid landscape dotted with olive trees, vineyards.
We do a self-guided driving tour through the Cotes Du Rhone vineyards in the France book and the Provence book. Friendly, easy-going tasting places like this, and hill towns like this likely, like Le Beau, the powerful hill town of Le Beau. Or France’s answer to Tuscany, the Luberon hill towns of Gordes, or my favorite, Roussillon, with cozy squares, and lovely places to spend the night or at least some time, before heading off onto the French Riviera.
Just a few hours east of these hill towns that I just showed you, and the city of Arles and Avignon, lies the French Riviera. Attracting cruise ships, sun worshipers, and travelers, with a surprising array of sights for you to visit. The city of Nice is the epicenter of this area, with its best– with France’s second best and most easy to use airport, lots of people fly into Nice and out of Paris or vice versa. It’s half an hour for all that we cover, for all that’s interesting on the French Riviera, it’s half an hour from Nice to Antibes by train, and about the same distance to Monaco at the eastern edge.
Don’t bring your car. If you’re renting a car, rent it when you’re ready to leave, if you have a car when you arrive, drop it off right away. Public transit in this area is brilliant, and the penalty for trying to drive in this compact area is high. Nice is the fifth-largest city of France, it’s a gorgeous city that’s really cleaned up its act in the last five years, thanks largely to its tramway system, where all of the cars were taken off the roads that it goes near including great squares.
Until this tramway was built just a few years ago, the Place Massena here had cars racing right through it. Today it looks like this, and at night it looks like this. How pedestrian-friendly, and how– what a change to the character of Nice, this is, and for me, as a guide book writer, to see some place change that, well, that I used to not look forward to going to is a joy. Stand up on Castle Hill, and admire the fact that just below you, the old city of Nice is very Italianesque when you wander through it. And we do a walking– self-guided walking tour through the city of Nice, the old city, that looks more, really, looks like it could be in downtown Rome. Well until the late 1800’s this was Italian, it was part of a principality owned by Italy.
So the food, the architecture, feels very Italianesque in Nice. Market days, the Cours Saleya is the heartbeat at the center city of old Nice. The Promenade des Anglais is essential for understanding that the history of the city began, really of importance, about a hundred years ago, when Russian and British tourists started to come here to escape their dreary winter weather.
You can– we do a self-guided walking tour in our guidebook, taking you along the Promenade des Anglais, which looks like this today by the way. Sunny weather, probably 65 degrees, something like that, nobody’s lying on the beach. Come in the summertime, it looks a little bit different, doesn’t it.
Who would do this? Lie on rocky beaches like this? The French don’t care, it doesn’t matter. They rent lounges, and chairs, and such to avoid the rocks commonly, but for you, put yourself in one of these lovely chairs and just let the scenery in front of you pass by, and enjoy the Promenade des Anglais.
The Riviera is France’s greatest corner for understanding contemporary art. There it drew artists, thanks to WWI, post-WWI, a variety of artists from Renoir to Marc Chagall, whose museum we’re looking at, to Pablo Picasso, and many others. And there is a museum dedicated to each of those artists along the Riviera, several of them in the city of Nice alone, here the greatest museum that you want to see is dedicated to Marc Chagall, who painted a series of 17 paintings, just for this museum, inspired by the Bible, passages from the Bible. This is a brilliant museum and we take you on a self-guided tour through it, thanks to the genius of Gene Openshaw, again, with the help of Rick Steves. I just get to update it when I go.
The other museum nearby, just a couple of minutes away, is dedicated to Henri Matisse, who lived just before Marc Chagall, died in the early nineteen hundreds. And he painted in an abstract style, his museum, the museum dedicated to Henri Matisse is less compelling to me, less essential for your visit. Though if you’re a Matisse fan you must go visit, right. Dedicated the church, the Russian Church in Nice is an interesting site to visit, without question.
Here five hundred families doled together their money to build this church, well thanks to the czar principally, the 500 families who lived in Nice year round used this is a place of worship. And it’s a fascinating– it’s the greatest, probably the greatest Russian Orthodox Church outside the country. Fascinating place to visit.
Day trips from Nice are easy. Thanks to buses and practical trains, you can go next door, 15 minutes away, to the lovely city of Villefranche-sur-Mer, where many people prefer establishing their home base, because it’s so quick to get into downtown Nice, if you want, and then get away to this lovely little small village for their Riviera experience. Buses and trains connect it to downtown Nice on a regular basis in one direction, in the other you can walk along beautiful seafront promenades, across to the Peninsula of Cap Ferrat. Visit the remarkable Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, with seven different gardens, gorgeous interior, but the gardens are what it’s all about. Looking to Monaco on one direction and Villefranche the other, have dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, the Plage de Passable here, with views back onto Villefranche.
It’s about a 45 minute walk, taxis will take you there in about 10 minutes. Having dinner, watching the light of Villefranche come on, on the beach, is a marvelous experience to have. And what to eat?
In Nice, bouillabaisse. Anything from the sea is very expensive, bouillabaisse is, but there are cheaper versions like bourride, B-O-U-R-R-I-D-E. Anything shellfish from the Mediterranean makes logical sense to order in this region.
End your sightseeing on the French Riviera at the– if you see it once, that’s enough, but you gotta go there– Principality of Monaco. This principality, just 30 minutes outside of Nice, another twenty maybe from Villefranche, is where 30,000 Monegasques live today, most because of the tax-free status, income tax free status. You’ll want to tour the rock, Monaco-Ville.
There are two principal parts of this small little principality, I think it’s 30 kilometers, it’s smaller than Edmonds. It’s its own country, but it uses French currency and a lot. Visit the rock, the Monaco-Ville, where Prince Rainier’s palace, now Prince Albert’s palaces, remember, married Grace Kelly, and arrive before noon every day for the changing of the guard. Which is sort of silly to contemplate that a country this size has a changing of the guard, and all of its pomp and circumstance, when you consider there are more people in the Philharmonic in Monaco than in the army.
I like that, alright. Then cross the port here, where race cars have raised since 1929 up and down these hills, doing 78 laps in the Monaco Grand Prix, and find the neighborhood of Monaco called Monte Carlo. And here, the casino ( online casino in Canada offer first deposit bonus and sign-up bonuses) is the main site, right, this is the if they build– “if you build it they will come,” structure in Monaco, built as a economic investment plan where you can feel downright James Bond-like after two o’clock. Anybody can enter, it’s free now to enter the gaming rooms, but you have to dress up and look as nice as you possibly can. Shorts are not allowed, tennis shoes, and this kind of thing. Wear the best thing that you brought with you and spend your last night, maybe, on your French experience in this glimmering city of Monaco.
It’s glorious at night. Easy to get back to your home base in Nice or Villefranche-sur-Mer. Well, this southeastern corner of France is covered perfectly well in our France book, but even better in our book that dedicates itself to Provence and the Riviera. All the information is updated on our website, information about our tours.