It was a match made in heaven and a honeymoon made perfect in France! My big fat (and grand!) Indian wedding was going to get bigger (and grander!) with post wedding celebrations continuing in France! We had carefully chalked out our route so as to incorporate the best of France in our 21 day Tour de France. After a lot of deep contemplation, we decided on our own voyage of discovery that would commence in Paris and wind its way through Dijon, Lyon, Annecy, Chamonix, Nice, Carcassonne, Bordeaux, the Loire Valley with the final au revoir to be said in Disneyland Paris! Our French Experience commenced on the flight itself. Having booked our tickets on Air France, our inboard flight experience gave us a glimpse of all things French!
Armed with Rail Europe’s super convenient Eurail pass, our internal travel was all but sorted. The Eurail Flexi pass is a handy companion for those wanting to discover Europe by train. The flexi pass provides the traveller the choice of hopping on and off trains within a certain time frame. All we had to do was reserve our seats at a nominal fee on high speed trains and we were set to discover all what France had to offer!
PARIS IT IS!
Our journey commenced in beautiful Paris. Half a day into Paris and we were already spellbound by the city. I was charmed by the beautifully preserved monuments that graced its avenues, by the vibrant restaurants and cafes that added life to the city’s pavements, by the chic Parisians who walked the streets with élan, by the Seine that wound its way gracefully across the city and shared an indelible association with Paris.
In the city for 3 days, we created our own memories of Paris. Our agenda was full of “touristy” things to do, such as a visit to the Eiffel Tower and taking in the breathtaking view of Paris (never mind the wait to get to the top!), a walk on Champs Elysees and a little bit of indulgent shopping, besides of course spending lazy afternoons sipping coffee at French cafes to fully enjoy the Parisian “feel” and the unique experience of creating our own perfume at “Fragonard”.
Paris has a plethora of hotel categories to suit every budget. Our choice was the elegant Intercontinental Paris le Grand, which embodies the true spirit of Paris. Benefitting from a convenient location, the hotel provides easy access to both monuments and the shopping districts of Paris. The elegant decor of our room led out to a balcony that afforded a view of the Eiffel Tower on one side and the Opera Garnier on the other. A room with a view indeed! The hotel is home to the reputed Cafe de la Paix, which is an institution in itself. Graced by the who’s who of chic Parisian society, it is ‘’the’’ place for a quick bite or for meals throughout the day.
A SOIREE ON THE SEINE
We added a bit of glamour to one of our evenings in Paris with a cruise over the Seine. For those wanting to combine the attractions of the city with a meal, a good option is Compagnie de la Seine’s Capitaine Fracasse two hour cruise. The tastefully done up interiors and tables with elegantly laid out crockery lent an impression of a beautiful floating fine dine restaurant. After having decided our menu, all that was needed was to lean back, sip a glass of wine and watch Paris pass us by. A perfect end to a perfect day in the City of Lights!
CAN CAN AND MORE AT THE MOULIN ROUGE!
We could not leave Paris without a visit to the Moulin Rouge. Promising complete entertainment, the Moulin Rouge is an animated spectacle comprising of bright lights, sounds and perfectly coordinated acts performed by a professional troupe. Conveniently located in Paris’s 9th arrondissement, it is easily recognizable by its trademark windmill, announcing its presence. Each act was as diverse and vibrant as it could get. Amongst all the acts, vivid memories of the French Can Can will always stay with me. The Moulin Rouge had us totally captivated and was a fitting way to say goodbye to Paris!
DIJON – A HISTORIC ENCOUNTER
A high speed TGV was waiting to transport us to the genteel city of Dijon. Train à Grande Vitesse or simply put, High Speed Train is a marvel of French technology. This wonder on wheels connects many of France’s cities and makes travel within France stress free. Our TGV had plush interiors and its windows afforded a view of France’s changing landscapes. A hot cup of coffee at its well stocked onboard cafe was just right to perk me up for our discovery of Dijon! 90 minutes later saw us pulling into Dijon station, all ready for our encounter with its famous mustard, creme de cassis, vineyards and heritage monuments.
The Sofitel La Cloche was our first introduction to Dijon’s historic background. Also known as a famous landmark of the city, the hotel is located in the city centre at a 5 minute distance from the station. Our cosy room which was charming and simple at the same time immediately appealed to us. We had a quick meal at the hotel’s Jardin de la Cloche. Overlooking a pretty garden, the restaurant proposed gastronomic specialities of the region, complemented with the finest wine that Burgundy is known for.
A WALK THROUGH TIME
A former residence of the Dukes of Burgundy, Dijon is like paradise found for history lovers. Its streets are flanked with architectural well preserved jewels in the form of monuments and buildings. The Arc of La Porte Guillaume marked our entry into the Old City of Dijon replete with cobblestoned streets, medieval building and monuments untouched by time. We visited the Palais des Ducs with its myriad wings and courtyards. It houses the Musee des Beaux Arts or the Fine Arts Museum which is supposed to be one of the richest museums in France. A visit to the roof of Philippe le Bon’s Tower gave us a bird’s eye view of this regal city.
DISCOVERING THE VINES
A wine tour and a visit to the famous Château du Clos de Vougeot was next on our schedule of activities. Our guide drove us through quaint villages and the rain kissed roads of Marsannay and Chenôve. Our visit to the Château du Clos de Vougeot was most memorable. Known as the birthplace of the wine tradition in Burgundy, it is the headquarters of the world’s largest wine brotherhood, ‘’Les Chevaliers du Tastevin’’.
SILK, GASTRONOMY AND LYON!
Images from the city were still fresh in my mind as we boarded our train to Lyon. The good part about the Eurail Pass is that on trains where reservations are not compulsory, we had the flexibility to choose a train of our choice to Lyon. Since the route was frequented by high speed TGV and regional trains, we opted for a regional train to add to our kitty of diverse experiences.
My pre trip reading on Lyon had us wanting to try out Lyon’s famous cuisine as it is known as the Capital of Gastronomy. A meal at La Mere Brazier (2 Star Michelin restaurant), one of Lyon’s most famous addresses completed our quest for a taste of Lyon’s fine dine cuisine. For wine lovers, Lyon is also the perfect gateway for the discovery of the famous Beaujolais route and the famed Cotes du Rhône. Foodies should not miss a meal at its bouchons or traditional eateries.
Lyon also had a thriving silk industry and this only inspired me to take my better half to the famous Maison des Canuts which is a silk conservatory and also a perfect place to shop for an assortment of silk products such as ties, scarves, and other goodies of the silken kind!
Its cosy cobblestoned streets tempted us to discover France’s largest single collection of Renaissance buildings which does justice to its UNESCO World Heritage Site distinction. All the sights and sounds of Lyon can be discovered by the ‘’Only Lyon City Card’’. This handy card provides access to the key attractions, museums, certain shows and guided tours. What attracted us the most about Lyon were its murals that adorn the walls of its buildings and relate the history of the city.
Our reminiscences of Lyon cannot be complete without a mention of our accommodation – Cour des Loges. A collection of four of the finest Renaissance houses in Old Lyon, this 5 star luxury hotel totally lived up to its promise of a sublime experience.
SERENE EXPERIENCES IN ANNECY
The search for some peace and quiet led us to tranquil Annecy. A two hour car drive from Lyon found us amidst the best of nature’s unspoilt beauty. Think of a picture perfect setting – a lake with mountains in the background, that is alpine Annecy for you!
We had planned to visit most of the town by foot. Picturesque Annecy is intersected by small canals and flower decked quays. Our eventful day included a visit to the 12 century Palais de l’Isle which is an island fortress in the River Thiou and offered splendid views of the old town.
It is extremely easy to like Annecy with its bustling streets, delightful street cafés where you can watch the world go by. We were booked at the Imperial Palace, located on the banks of the Lake. Our deluxe room afforded stunning vistas of the lake best enjoyed from the room’s balcony. A perfect day in Annecy ended with a meal at La Voile, the hotel’s restaurant that serves authentic French cuisine.
CAPTIVATING EXPERIENCES IN CHAMONIX
A two hour car ride away from Annecy brought us to Chamonix. Nestled at the foot of the majestic Mont Blanc, the town buzzes with activity all year round and ensures that there is no dull moment during your stay here!
To fully enjoy Chamonix’s vibrant character, we had booked our stay at the Grand Hotel des Alpes, a charming 4 star located in the city centre. This cozy hotel is located very close to Chamonix’s main attractions.
AN ALPINE WONDERLAND
Chamonix unravelled its facets to us on our stroll around its city centre. Its Restaurants propose the best gastronomic delights of the region, its shopping outlets are temptation enough for those who cannot resist picking up trinkets or souvenirs wherever they go (including yours truly!), it offers hotels with spa facilities for those who want to relax and rejuvenate. We were pleasantly surprised to find a Casino as well as several bars and lounges to party the night away!
Our rendez-vous with Europe’s highest alpine summit – the Aiguille du Midi was set for the following morning. The highlight of this journey is the cable car which is one of the highest in the world at an altitude of 4810 metres. The view is one of the best we had seen – the Mont Blanc range resplendent in all its glory. Snowfall at the Aiguille du Midi added the missing element to this picture perfect postcard.
A charming rack railway ride from Montenvers whisked us to the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice). The Mer de Glace is France’s largest glacier which also offers panoramic vistas of alpine peaks.
Before bidding farewell, we headed to the Chamonix Amusement Park, for a ride on the Luge or the Alpine Coaster. A two person sled, running on a rail track, we were prepared for an adrenalin pumping experience. Zooming past hairpin bends, sharp twists and turns, there were many heart stopping moments during the ride. It was just the perfect way to end an action packed adventure sojourn in Chamonix!
A POCKETFUL OF SUNSHINE IN NICE
The pristine snow capped peaks of the Mont Blanc gave way to sunny Nice. A well frequented tourist destination on the French Riviera, the city is a representation of all things Mediterranean. Azure skies, deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, its delectable Cuisine Nicoise, all lend credence to this feeling. Our beach holiday had just begun!
MUST SEE NICE
The sea holds you captive in Nice. To fully appreciate this phenomenon, we took a stroll on the famed Promenade des Anglais – Nice’s most famous landmark. Running parallel to one of the most stunning bays in the world – the Bay of Angels, this famous boulevard is also lined with hotels, cafes, boutiques and restaurants and art deco buildings. There was so much to see and do in Nice! Vibrant Cours Saleya in Old Nice lured us for a discovery. This famous fruit and flower market adds colour to the streets and is a must visit. An interesting way of discovering Nice is by hopping on to Les Trains Touristiques de Nice. The mini train chugs across Old Nice and an entertaining 50 minutes can be spent discovering Nice’s attractions!
We decided to “hotel hop” in Nice this time by staying in two different hotels. Our first hotel was the Splendid Hotel and Spa. The hotel is located in the upscale district of the Musicians and is just 400 metres away from the sea. Our deluxe room was spacious and had a balcony which overlooked the city.
The feel good accommodation experience continued at Hotel Boscolo Excedra, located on Nice’s central boulevard. This 5 Star hotel houses elegant interiors done up in the Belle Epoque style. Our room was tastefully done up in shades of ivory and white. We enjoyed the pleasures of a lazy afternoon at its SPA which offers a host of treatments and packages for those in need of some R & R!
MEDIEVAL GLIMPSES OF CARCASSONNE
After a fond farewell to Nice, it was back on the train again for our next stop – Carcassonne. The walled city of Carcassonne is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is built over the ruins of an ancient Roman fortress, known as La Cité. A walk around the old walls of the majestic fortress took us back to what life could have been in medieval times. Interesting fact – Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves was filmed here. A diehard fan of Kevin Costner, I was already beginning to like this town! The streets of the walled city are dotted with restaurants and boutiques selling reminiscences of Carcassonne.
The Hotel de la Cité was our home during our stay in Carcassonne. Located within the heart of the medieval town and exuding an old world charm, the hotel offers comfortable and spacious rooms. Lovely hard-wood flooring graced the living room of our suite, extending on to a private terrace for two, providing stunning views of nature’s best on display.
This retreat to Carcassonne was just right. After having visited France’s cities, mountains and beaches, this was the one experience that added a touch of the medieval to our honeymoon in France!
IN WINE COUNTRY – BORDEAUX
It was time for us to experience France’s pride and joy – wine! The TGV from Carcassonne was taking us to the heart of wine country – Bordeaux. We were looking forward to lush vineyards, wine cellars, a bit of history, and of course lots of wine!
A WELLNESS ESCAPADE
A surprise was in the offing for me! My better half had reserved one night for us at the very exclusive Sources de Caudalie, a luxury wellness retreat just 20 minutes away from Bordeaux. Nestled in the lush vineyards of Château Smith Haut Lafitte, a wonderful feeling of serenity enveloped us as we approached the hotel. The landscape is stunning, miles and miles of verdant vineyards for as far as the eye can see. Housing 49 rooms, each room is strikingly different from the other, but embodies a rustic feel. We celebrated our stay with a drink at the hotel bar, French Paradox. A glass of the region’s best red added colour to our evening! What must not be missed at les Sources de Caudalie are its signature Vinotherapy treatments which are based on the usage of grapes and grapevines. The soothing treatment had us completely recharged for the last leg of our French honeymoon!
ONWARDS TO BORDEAUX
After a relaxing stay at Les Sources de Caudalie, we were on our way to Bordeaux. Friends who had visited before, had already informed us of all what we should be doing during our stay here. This included visiting the historic UNESCO World Heritage monuments of Bordeaux. We discovered that the Bordeaux World Heritage Site is the largest urban entity to be so honoured. My shopaholic friends who shared the same habits as I did, recommended a visit to the Golden Triangle formed by the Allee de Tourny, the Cours de l’Intendance and the Cours Clemenceau. Our perfect visit to Bordeaux was enhanced by a stay at the recently renovated Hotel Burdigala. This classic deluxe property is located in the heart of the city and was a convenient option to easily access the sights and sounds of Bordeaux. A bit hard pressed for time, we regretted not visiting St Emilion which houses underground monuments, the Bay of Arcachon a charming resort, or the upscale seaside resort of Biarritz which is a watering hole for the rich and the famous! The well-known adage, ‘’There’s always a next time’’ was our consolation!
CHÂTEAU COUNTRY – THE LOIRE VALLEY
The discovery of magnificent French châteaux led us to the verdant Loire Valley. Our reliable TGV whisked us to St Pierre des Corps in the Loire in just under 2hrs 30 minutes. We were all set to discover the two most well known châteaux of the region – le Château de Chenonceau and le Château de Chambord.
A ROYAL RENDEZ-VOUS
The emblematic Château de Chenonceau shares a very special association with women who have played an important role in the history of the Château since time immemorial. This royal Château has a spectacular setting – two gardens with flowers in full bloom, the Cher river and the avenue of trees that lead us to the Château.
We toured all of it, the bedrooms of the queens and the mistresses, the study room, the library and walked across the long chessboard floor gallery where our guide enlightened us with stories of feasts and royal parties and also the fact that the gallery was in fact used as a banquet hall. Traces of a feminine touch throughout the château were visible, with flower arrangements in each room, adding to its elegant appeal.
A TRUE MASTERPIECE OF FRENCH RENAISSANCE
Le Chateau de Chambord showcases the best of French Renaissance. Its magnificence is unparalleled. It was the idea of François I to build a grandiose hunting lodge. He left no stone unturned in making this happen. Do not miss the double helix staircase which can be climbed by one person and descended by another without the two ever meeting each other. The Chateau de Chambord is a perfect representation of two best pleasures of François I, hunting and architecture. If you happen to visit between June and September, the Chateau has a Sound and Light show, ‘’Chambord, Rêve de Lumières’’ which brings alive scenes from the Renaissance days. A veritable opportunity to relive the glory of Chambord!
After a wondrous tour of the two Châteaux, we headed to the busy university town of Tours for a stay at Hotel L’Univers. Enjoying a city centre location, this is the oldest hotel in Tours and is looked upon as an institution, rather than a hotel.
A MAGICAL GOOD BYE IN DISNEYLAND
We tried to avoid it, not think about it, but the day finally arrived. Our last night in France was upon us. 20 days of enjoying the perfect French vacation were coming to an end. We had decided that our last night in France would be a spectacular one. We wanted to be amused, entertained, the works! Our place of choice, Disneyland Paris!
The last journey on the TGV was memorable. We were getting used to the speed, efficiency and the steady reliability of France’s train network. Train travel seemed a very convenient way of getting around France and a must do recommendation to our gang of friends planning a visit to France.
We descended at Marne la Vallee, the station for Disneyland Paris. There is a convenient shuttle service provided by the hotels inside the park for its visitors. Our shuttle transported us to Sequoia Lodge which is reminiscent of an American style mountain lodge, The hotel was an ideal choice for us, as we wanted to be inside the park and in the thick of things!
Disneyland Paris was all out to impress its visitors. The park is divided into 5 “lands”: Main Street USA, Frontierland, Adventureland, Discoveryland and Fantasyland. Each of these lands has rides and attractions based on its central theme. Our adventures included thrilling rides on the Big Thunder Mountain Ride, Pirates of the Caribbean and Space Mission 2. We shouted, screamed with gay abandon and held on to each other for dear life through these exciting heart stopping rides.
AU REVOIR AND A BIENTÔT!
The taxi came to a stop in front of CDG airport the next day. The honeymoon was actually over. It was time to get back to routine, to life as we knew it. Our new life together had started with a discovery of a country that we had always wanted to visit, of its cities, its towns, its villages, its landscapes, its famous art de vivre. There was a strong association that we felt with France and saying goodbye seemed more than a little difficult!
We had already decided to come back. There was so much more to see. There were places waiting to be discovered, many more different facets of France waiting to be unravelled. It was not a final good bye, just a see you soon!