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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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Country Recap: France

While France might not have had the “wow” moments that other countries had, we still had a good time. We went straight up the country from the Catalan border with Spain to Belgium, stopping to take in the unforgettable sights of Paris and even have our own multi-stage tandem bike tour through the French countryside.

The food was delicious, yet simple: when in doubt, we just went to a bakery and bought a baguette. The French train system was equally simple, and public transport in cities was great in general. The language barrier posed a problem a couple times, as the French are very proud of their language and English isn’t generally spoken as much as in other countries. Still, after months and months of pantomime and pointing in Asia, we got by just fine.

Strangely, from here on out, the longest we’ll be in a country is five days! The trip really will be ending very soon!

Top three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Paris
  2. Biking in the Loire Valley
  3. The bread! French bread is so good, I probably shouldn’t eat it because I know I’m going to crave it after I’m gone. I love how bread is such an important aspect of French life. There’s a bakery on almost every block. Each evening you see people coming home with their daily baguette. If a restaurant doesn’t give you free, fresh bread, you’re allowed to be scandalized. No wonder they stormed the Bastille when they didn’t have enough bread!

Brad:

  1. Biking the Loire Valley. We had a nice tandem to stroll through this great place.
  2. Paris. I really liked the Montmartre neighborhood where we stayed.
  3. Our picnic lunches. We’d get ham, Edam cheese, a baguette, apples, dessert, and a small bottle of wine and eat in a park. Looking back, buying freshly baked baguettes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner was awesome (and cheap).

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Trying to sleep during the heat wave in Toulousse.
  2. General lack of “wow moments.”
  3. Leaving Paris.

Brad:

  1. The heat in Toulouse! Actually it was hot everywhere, but in Toulouse we didn’t feel like doing anything.
  2. Nantes. It was nice, but for whatever reason we didn’t really enjoy it as much.
  3. We lost one of our days in La Rochelle because of rain. It was a really cool city and I wish we could have seen more of it that first day.

Best meal?

Nikki: The bucket of mussels I had in La Rochelle.

Brad: The omelet served with fries I had for lunch in Paris.

Worst meal?

Nikki: The flan I ordered for dessert in Nantes. Completely wrong texture.

Brad: We ate at a kebab place and I had a sandwich that had some strange sauce on it I didn’t like.

Favorite person we met?

Nikki: Francois, the retired Frenchman who hosted us in Amboise. No idea what he was saying, but I know he was hilarious and kind.

Brad: Christine and Francoise in Amboise. They were very nice and funny.

Worst disaster?

Nikki: Definitely our “kitchen moment” in La Rochelle. We were staying at a place on Airbnb, and I asked Eric, the husband, if we could cook in their kitchen. He said okay, but when Catherine, the wife, came home, we found out it was actually not okay at all. We just tried to finish eating as fast as we could while Catherine yelled at Eric in French. Awkward.

Brad: Figuring out what to do with our luggage while we were on our biking tour. The bike shop said they do luggage transfers from one city to the next, but when I emailed them they said they needed at least 10 business days to arrange. (!) In the end, we just left our bags in the bike shop and returned to where we started and taking a train to Blois, instead of just biking straight there. So it worked out, but it was a pain.

Favorite place we stayed?

Nikki: Our studio in Montmartre.

Brad: We used Airbnb a lot in this country, and the places were all really nice. My favorite was our place in Paris. It was tiny, but it was in a nice neighborhood and cozy.

Worst place we stayed?

Nikki: Etap in Blois.

Brad: In Toulouse, where it was boiling hot, we slept in a loft without a fan. It felt like our hostel in Florence.

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: I really liked the city of Tours.

Brad: Our stay in Orleans. Although we didn’t do any touristy Joan of Arc museums, it was still a nice town to hang out for a day in.

Weirdest thing?

Nikki: The only weird thing I can think of is that, apparently, rabbit is a common meal. We never got a chance to try it, though.

Brad: All the gate jumping in the Paris subway. In our first half hour in the city, we saw four or five people climbing over the turnstyles and swinging doors behind them. And it wasn’t just homeless-looking people either. It appears to be a somewhat normal thing to do, and I only saw one person getting ticketed for doing it.

Statistics for France

  • Days in the country: 19
  • Places we stayed: 9
  • Rainy days: 1
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 4
  • Photos taken: 651
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 140, 22% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 15
  • Hours traveling overland: 16

Statistics for the Trip

  • Countries visited: 20
  • Days on the road: 372
  • Days remaining: 26
  • Places we stayed: 154
  • Rainy days: 58
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 44
  • Photos taken: 16,463
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 3,885, 24% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 51
  • Hours traveling overland: 805

Paris

In Paris we rented a cute studio apartment in the Montmartre neighborhood. Montmartre is more gritty than the central areas of Paris (you see a lot of litter and sex shops, for example), but it’s also a lively place with tons of cafes, bars, and boutiques. It used to be the creative center of Paris in??the 19th and early 20th centuries, but now I think the artists have moved on. Quite a few notable scientists and artists are buried in the Montmartre Cemetery, including Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone.??The cemetery is actually an interesting tourist attraction. Instead of graves buried in the ground, everyone is put in tombs above the ground. Many of the tombs are grand works of art with statues and stained glass. Some of them are so old and worn, we couldn’t even read what was written on them.

The Moulin Rouge is just a couple of minutes away from the cemetery. Today it’s more of a tourist attraction than a scandalous cabaret, but the red light district of Pigalle is only a block or two down the road. From there, we walked up to the??Sacr??-C??ur Basilica, a white domed building on top of the highest hill in the city. It has impressive views of Paris.

We visited the typical sights as well. Notre Dame, with its dark, dungeon-like interior and huge stained-glass windows, is one of my favorite cathedrals. We saw the??Arc de Triomphe during the day, at sunset, and at night. One afternoon we bought a blanket and had a picnic beside the Eiffel Tower. We walked along the Seine and to the Louvre. (We didn’t actually go in the Louvre, though. At this point, we’re pretty tired of museums.) Each night we came back to our apartment, cooked dinner, and listened to French radio stations. It was like our own little home in Montmartre.

One thing about Paris that really stands out to me, besides the beautiful buildings and romantic atmosphere, is its diversity. I don’t know the exact figures, but there are many immigrants living there. Just walking around we saw all different races and religions. On our first day we ran into a parade and celebration of??Ganesh Chaturthi, a Hindu holiday. The first time I was in Paris, I wandered into an open-air market and suddenly felt like I was in Morocco or Algeria. The various ethnicities are interesting, especially since most people don’t think of them when they imagine Paris.

Llamagoose’s Tour de France

To experience a bit of the French countryside, we rented a tandem bicycle and rode through the Loire Valley. The Loire Valley is known for its ch??teaus, vineyards, and quaint villages.?? France even has a directory of its most beautiful villages and many of them are located in this beautiful area.

We picked up our bike in Tours and rode out to a bed and breakfast outside of the town of Amboise.?? At first we were on a bike path sandwiched between the Loire River and a highway, so it wasn’t especially quiet.?? Eventually, though, the route curved away from the river and took us on the peaceful country roads.?? We spent a couple of hours riding through farms, vineyards, fields of wildflowers, cobblestoned villages, and the occasional ch??teau.?? It was almost exactly the same as I had pictured in my head.

I had communicated with Christine, our host at the bed and breakfast, entirely through email and she had always written back in perfect English.?? I even thought she might be from England.?? So I was pretty surprised when we rolled up the driveway and she could barely speak any English at all.?? She told us she’s taking lessons, so I’m assuming her teacher must help her write emails.

Leonardo da Vinci’s mansion in Amboise

Her husband, Francois, didn’t speak a word of English, so we had quite a language barrier.?? Despite that, they were both very kind and helpful.?? Francois turned out to be quite the jokester, making us laugh just with his actions and expressions and the bits and pieces Christine could translate for us.?? They also had a 17 year old dog, Maestro, so we had excellent company in Amboise.

Our original plan was to bike from there to the city of Blois, but the price of a luggage transfer was outrageous (180 euros!).?? Instead, we spent two nights at the bed and breakfast, then rode back to Tours and took a train on to Blois.?? It worked out fine and we enjoyed our little jaunt in the Loire Valley.

France

At this point, I would say that France has been fairly underwhelming. It’s not that we don’t like it. ??It just hasn’t impressed us as much as, say, Italy or Russia. Since I don’t want to be a Debbie-Downer, I’ll tell you about the good parts.

We enjoyed a beautiful train ride from Barcelona up through the Pyrenees to Toulousse. Once we were there, we couchsurfed with Louis, a 22 year-old avid skydiver who owns his own catering company. The first night we were joined with two other guests, Patricia and Fernanda from Brazil. They are both currently living in France and were just taking a weekend getaway. Louis had to work most of the time we were there, but he did spend one afternoon showing us “The Pink City,” which is Toulousse’s nickname because of its red and pink brick buildings.

From there we moved on to Bordeaux, a well-known wine center that has a fairly heated rivalry with Paris. In contrast to Toulousse, all of Bordeaux’s buildings are white. There are many shops along its cobbled streets and a large part of the city is a World Heritage Site. It was extremely hot while we were there, so we both decided to get haircuts. My hairdresser didn’t speak English, but I’m still happy with the results.

After that we went to La Rochelle, which is about the cutest French seaside town you can imagine. It’s a major port city and we saw many expensive yachts floating in the harbor. There are several lighthouses and medieval defensive towers along the coast. They also have excellent and cheap mussels, which we discovered at lunch one day. I ordered the??moules frites??and was very surprised when the waiter delivered an entire bucket of mussels to our table. They were by far the best mussels I’ve ever had, but I was stuffed before I could even see the bottom of the bucket! Brad joined the efforts and we did get them all eaten, but I think we had to spend the rest of our day digesting.

So, since we’ve had fun and seen some nice places, you might be wondering what the problem is. The truth is, we don’t really know. We like France, but we just don’t love it. Like Malaysisa, it’s lacking the “Wow!” moments. In the next few days we’re going to ride a bicycle through the Loire Valley, so maybe we’ll change our minds, but at this moment, I would have to say that we should have spent more time elsewhere.