Traveling Through France Without Reservations

Several years ago we took a family vacation to France. We traveled very spontaneously, meaning no reservations except in Paris.

This sort of travel is not for the faint of heart or those who like to be in control as it can be a most stressful way to travel. However, the rewards are doing what you want when you want which makes this sort of travel more adventurous and appealing.

Our trip encompassed three weeks of travel starting in Paris, then off to Reims, Colmar, Chamonix, Pietra Ligure, Antibes, St. Cirq Lapopie, Sarlat, Parthenay, Honfleur, and back to Paris.

Colmar Scott, Tamara and Scotty

Because each city is so remarkable and worthy of a visit I will expand on each so that in the event anyone is in the process of possibly going to France then hopefully I will have provided enough first hand knowledge to help in the planning process.

Let me start with saying that I absolutely LOVE France and if I could I would live there part time. It wasn't until this last visit that I realized why so many great chefs and artists MUST study in France. There is discipline and order demonstrated in every place I visited. From small towns to large cities - there is a way to do things that have worked for centuries and everyone abides by this rule. Thus the great chefs and artists must be disciplined to be successful and that is what you see being practiced by the French people on a daily basis.

After arriving in Paris we headed out in the morning to rent a car. Okay, many of you are thinking WHY? Because without a doubt Paris is the most difficult city in the world to drive in. But we needed to get out of the city, as most of our vacation was to be in the countryside. So after much determination we finally found the car rental agency (which was underground). Needless to say getting out of the city was a snap...

Our first stop - Reims. Located in Northern France in the Champagne - Ardenne region of the country. It is here that you will find the famous Notre Dame Cathedral which was the coronation site for the kings of France and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. We took Rick Steve's advice and stayed in a charming little hotel on a promenade which was walking distance to parks and town.

After our morning of exploring the Cathedral and town we headed to tour one of my favorite Champagne houses - Veuve Clicquot. Much different from a winery tour, all the Champagne houses have underground chalk tunnels which all connect to one another. Not only was the tour one I highly recommend, the best part of all was the tasting - need I say more? And the most important factor for producing sparkling wine in this region gives you the advantage of calling your beverage Champagne! Sparkling wine produced anywhere else is just, well sparkling wine...

As we drive to our next destination we pass through the rolling vineyard laced hills of Epernay. Our next destination is one of the most charming and beautiful towns in France - Colmar, a small town near the Black Forest with a tumultuous past as it has gone back and forth from being French or German a few times over the past several hundred centuries. This region is located in Alsace, which is famous for its Alsacean wines, charming half-timbered houses, Vosges Mountains, storks in steeples as well as small town charm. I never was a big connoisseur of Riesling wine as it is typically sweet especially if grown in Germany. However, the Riesling wine from France is definitely not sweet. I have seen some of the Alsacean wine sold through Costco and Trader Joe's from time to time and if you would like something a bit refreshing and crisp then you might want to sample this delightfully delicious wine. Our accommodations were arranged through my husband who found this wonderful place which accommodated the four of us quite comfortably.

Scott and Tamara at Epernay

After a few days in this region we headed to the Alps and the town of Chamonix where we ascended the Aiguille du Midi for panoramic views of the Swiss, Italian and French Alps. The greatest thrill was to gaze at Mont Blanc which is the tallest mountain in Western Europe. Mont Blanc is located in the Rhone - Alpes region of France and the mountains in summertime, or anytime, is another site that should not be missed. The Tour de France makes a visit every year to several towns in the Alps so when you witness the sheer immenseness and precipitous peaks of this area you will understand the amount of physical exertion required to ascend these mountain climbs. For example at Aiguille du Midi we ascended almost 10,000 feet in 20 minutes!!!!

Aiguille du Midi Scotty Mont Blanc Family at Mont Blanc

Instead of staying in Chamonix we stayed in a small town just a mile or so from the main town within walking distance to everything - the town is called Bosson and the Inn was Hotel l'Aiguille du Midi. It was here that we learned how to use a juice machine that provided us fresh orange juice and an egg machine for fresh eggs! In fact, each time we stayed at a new hotel we would scope out and find new cooking gadgets in the breakfast room which we hadn't seen before.

After chatting it up with some locals they said we should head to the Italian Riviera, since we would be arriving on a Saturday and the French Riviera would be jammed packed. So we drove through the infamous 7.25-mile long Mont Blanc tunnel which connects France to Italy under Mont Blanc. Our next stop is Pietra Ligure - I think we were the ONLY Americans here, and it was great! The warmth of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Italian people is always so welcoming. And the fresh and tasty, in fact, we went to the same restaurant both nights and of course, had gelato after and watched a comedy show in one of the plazas. Our hotel, which we found on our own, was the deal of the century, just $100 p/night for beachfront and ocean view -whoever said Europe is expensive doesn't know where to stay. In fact the only place we paid over $150 a night was in Paris! Since our last visit I believe the hotel is closed but there are many other wonderful places to stay with ocean front access and views. Oh, and for those wanting to visit Cinque Terra, it is located in the same province!

After our happy sun filled days in Italy we head back to France. We drive along an autobahn past Monaco and drop down to Antibes - another hidden gem. Sure everyone has heard of Cannes and Nice - they are nice if you want to "see" the guber rich, but Antibes has a soul that the other towns don't possess. In Antibes you will be on the Mediterranean in the famous Cote d'Azur province. Great people, great weather, beautiful homes and parks - this really is an area not to be missed. Another charming hotel, found by us and right on the sea within walking distance of 'Old Town."

After much thought and discussion we decide to go to the Dordogne, specifically St. Cirq LaPopie. Now out of all the places I have visited in Europe this region is my ultimate favorite - you are not far from the sandy coastline of the Cote d'Azur, yet are in the Midi Pyrenees and Dordogne region which are famous for many outdoor activities, gorgeous countryside, Castles, home to many artisans, the River Lot as well as the prehistoric cave dwellings which date back 15,000 years! We had no place to stay, but when dining we asked around for lodging and luckily were introduced to a family who rented a few rooms in their home to tourists. This family was five generations living in the same house!!! Almost unheard of here in America, but this is what you find in Europe - people who establish roots and don't leave, and why would you? St. Cirq LaPopie is considered to be the Most Beautiful village out of the "most beautiful villages in France."

St. Cirq LaPopie St. Cirq LaPopie

We stayed in this region just three days, but I know someday I will be back. This area is simply amazing with castles around each rivers bend, breathtaking scenery and dotted here and there with the highest concentration of "the most beautiful villages in France." We visited Castelnaud, which is a medieval feudal castle, and Chateau de Milandes, which was the home of the famous and much beloved entertainer Josephine Baker. We overnight in Sarlat at a gorgeous Relais and Chateau hotel.

Castel Naud Chateau del Milandes

As we say farewell to this most beautiful region of France we head towards our next destination, Mont St. Michele. But along the way we stop at one of the most thought provoking and interesting WWII sites I have ever experienced. I have been to many WWII sites but none like this. We stop at Oradour which is an actual town left intact after the German soldiers gunned down the majority of its inhabitants and burned down the town after V Day. Needless to say this was a somber experience and for someone who was not alive during the war it really gave me a lot of perspective to walk through the remnants of a town that once was filled with life. I highly recommend a visit to this memorial to anyone.

Because of our extensive visit at Oradour we decide to spend the night in Parthenay which is located in the Poitou-Charentes region of France. The drive was charming along little country roads where we saw many traveling bike riders. We stayed at a little two star hotel where I had one of the best meals in ALL of France - Hotel du Nord.

The next morning we rise early so we can arrive at Mont St. Michele, another UNESCO World Heritage site, before the tides come in - low tide is 8 miles wide and you can't get to the island if the tide is high!!! I am happy to say we DID climb to the top of the abbey, most people do not. And I do understand why - it is a steep climb to the top! Next stop are the beaches in Normandy. When you visit in person your perspective and admiration for the allied forces will change forever. As you gaze at the massive desolate beaches your thoughts transcend to an earlier and much scarier time in history, when the allies landed on June 6th 1944. You can try and envision how the soldiers felt when they landed on the beach and saw the daunting task at hand, as they clambered up the hills with no coverage in sight for as far as you can see. All the while fellow soldiers are being massacred left and right. And then the joy of conquering the enemy here which historians say changed the tide of the war forever. All I can say is that anyone who visits this memorial will cry and feel an overwhelming sense of pride for these brave and courageous men who gave their lives for freedom.

Family at Normandy Graveyard

After a full day exploring this area we spend the night in Honfluer which is a short distance from Paris. We rise early in the morning to visit Monet's Giverny Gardens and then the Palace of Versailles. The gardens were impressive and beautiful, but OMG the Palace of Versailles shouts "Revolution," and opulence as you have never witnessed in your life! Luckily both of these sites can be visited by day from Paris - they are NOT to be missed!

Versaille Fountain

And you ask about driving into Paris? Well with much trepidation we managed to land directly at the hotel with one try! It was a miracle, however, when we dropped the car off it did not have any gas and we sure were not going to fill it up as we knew we would never be able to navigate the streets better than our first go round.

In hindsight the only thing I would do differently is stay 45 days instead of 22! We visited most of the "top" sights in France unbeknownst to us.

I am counting the days 'til I start planning my next trip. Oh and for those interested in real estate - I found a great site and the prices seem pretty reasonable!

Au revoir,

Joyce Craddock