What a wonderful time we had in France. Here is what we learned:
- Northeastern France is a really muddy place.
- Having GPS makes a world of difference. Whoever rides shotgun gets to look out the window and enjoy the ride instead of staring at a map and turns are announced to the driver decently in advance of the move. Of course, it is important to do what GPS says to do. Our Serena, She Who Must Be Obeyed, generally knows our wants and needs better than we do.
- Serena can be a tad quirky; in her commitment to the shortest route she seems often to find the most eccentric route. Fail to follow her directions and she will always “recalculate”–but the alternative way may much longer. Roundabouts in France seem designed for returning one to the point where the wrong turn occurred.
- Once in a very great while, Serena will be wrong.
- You can’t plug both the iPod and the GPS into the rental car. Plug in the GPS and tune in to Nostalgi. If you are lucky you’ll catch Joe Dassin singing Salut les Amoureux, which is his lyrics and Steve Goodman’s tune, City of New Orleans.
- You can’t buy music from iTunes-France with an American account and the selection for Joe Dassin is much better on iTunes-France.
- Make the Office de Tourisme wherever you are the first stop and don’t plan on it being open between noon and two-thirty. If you aren’t sure where it is, pull over when you are a few kilometers from your destination and ask your GPS for the Office de Tourisme; otherwise just head to Centre Ville and keep an eye out for signs.
- Don’t settle on a parking spot before you get to where you are going; drive by your actual destination first. Chances are–particularly if it is something other than the height of tourist season–there will be ample parking wherever you are going.
- Keep a decent variety of change on hand because most parking involves feeding coins to a machine and the payant will not accept a two-euro coin when it really wants one euro, forty.
- You will have Internet access problems. Keep calm. There is bound to be a bibliothèque/médiathèque (a.k.a. public library) or a cybercafé somewhere that’ll do in a pinch.
- Pate de Fruit is the best candy ever. Keep a selection in the car, by the couch, and in the bag used for dragging around superfluous stuff.
- Don’t be a snob: buy your vin ordinaire, your plonk, your Chateau Thames Embankment, at the grocery store. Pick a price point under 5 euros and buy 2 or 3 different labels. As soon as you find the kind you like, stock up.
- Sniff around—I mean literally, follow the scent of baking bread—until you find a boulangerie-patisserie that bakes what it sells, and buy your baguette daily. The walk (or drive) in the cool of the morning as the birds run through their repertoire, is a pleasure of its own. A folding serrated breadknife with corkscrew is an incredibly useful travel accessory.
- The only kitchen staples necessary for a week in a gîte are: a tiny bottle of extra-virgin olive oil; a tiny bottle of good vinegar; a tiny pot of mustard; small shakers or grinders of salt and pepper. Those plus a pound of lovely local butter can transform whatever you have into gourmet eats, particularly if you splash in some of the plonk you are swilling while cooking.
- Plastic bags from shops and grocery stores are great for wrapping leftovers.
- Scheduling a fall trip to conclude before November 1 means never having to learn that some place is closed for the season. By the same logic, a spring vacation should commence after April 1.
- If you feed horses carrots and lumps of sugar every day they will look forward to seeing you.
Best of the Best, Fall in France, 2011
During this 21-day excursion we stayed in three gîtes plus one night in a B&B. We ate a meal out, which is to say in a restaurant, about once every other day or every third day. We spent a lot of time at World War One battlefields and monuments but dropped into some museums and churches and did a little shopping.
Comfiest gîte: Les Tilleuls, Hauteville, Pas-de-Calais
Best bed: Milleroses, Crecy-la-Chapelle, near Meaux
Most enthusiastic host and most important experience with WWI history that I could not have anticipated: gîte l’Alambic, Montsec, near Saint-Mihiel
Best croissant: Le Fournil Avenois, 62 Grand Rue, Avesnes-le-Comte (near gîte Les Tilleuls)
Best éclair : Boulangerie du Marché 6, rue du Marché, Crécy-la-Chapelle (near gîte Milleroses)
Best baguette: Hautbois Mikaël (a.k.a. Mike and Julie’s), 28 rue du Général LeClerc, Crécy-la-Chapelle (near gîte Milleroses)
Most entertaining way to buy a baguette: the bread and pastry truck that arrived at 8:40 a.m. at the doorstep of gîte l’Alambic every morning except Monday
Best chain grocery: Carréfour
Best meal: Le Broc’, 17 Place de Béthune, Lille, France—every menu item involves cheese!
Most surprisingly yummy meal: Restaurant Efes, Chez Hasan Kebab, 41 rue Saint Remy, Meaux. We were cold, we were tired, and it was a Sunday and a lot of places were closed. A beer, grilled lamb, couscous salad and a pile of hot frites could not have been better.
Most adorable server : Lucie at Chez Angelo pizza, 6 Rue du Général Leclerc, Crécy-la-Chapelle
Best radio station for car travel: Nostalgi. It fades in and out in hilly locales, and the programmer has a taste for Bee-Gees, it’s a great mix of French chansons and American golden-oldies.
Best city for an urban-fun kind of time: Lille—and Aline at the tax-refund desk in the Printemps department store is more helpful and way more friendly than any of the staff in the Office de Tourisme a few steps away.
Best—or at least most unexpectedly delightful—museum: Musée Bossuet, Palais épiscopal, 5 place Charles-de-Gaulle, Meaux
Best WWI memorial experience: Newfoundlanders, Beaumont-Hamel or the Yankee Division Memorial Church, Belleau
Best—well, most meaningful—WWI cemetery experience: Saint-Mihiel American Cemetery and Memorial, Thiaucourt, or Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial, Belleau