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Where France is Frenchest

From David & Nicole














Paris - Normandy - Brittany - Loire : The first month

Well,  David and I have been in France for pretty much a month now, so we thought we'd better send an update on where we've been and where we're at now.

Our first stop was of course, Paris. We spent 10 days there which gave us ample time to check out all the famous sites (i.e. the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc du Triomphe...) as well as visit some places which aren't included on the well-beaten tourist track.

One such place was a suburb called Belleville. Apparently Edith Piaf was born in a stairwell there. A little grungy/ghetto looking at first, we soon discovered that Belleville is home to the largest group of artists living in one neighbourhood, in all of Europe. The day we visited happened to coincide with their Artist Collective's annual "open door" event. Basically all the artists open their homes and studios to the public once a year, so visitors can check out each place, chat with the artists and look at their work - for free. We saw some of the most amazing art work we've ever seen and got to see inside some really funky homes and studios.

In Belleville we also visited a restaurant called Kiwizine, co-founded by the caterer from our wedding and a Hamiltonian guy called Jono. Jono is the only other kiwi we've met since we've been travelling so it was nice to chat to him about his work with YWAM (Youth with a mission) and his life in France.

Highlights/Lol moments in Paris
Making friends with a Parisien lady on our flight to Paris, and having her show us another spot in her city not visited by tourists
Being mistaken for Alex and Sierra from X-Factor at the train station
Doing a bike tour of Versailles with an extremely enthusiastic and entertaining tour guide, and an Australian with a laugh like a chimpanzee
Photo-bombing a College's group photo inside the Palais de Versailles
Staying in Montmartre (home to the Moulin Rouge) near an award-winning bakery - amazingly fresh, buttery croissants every day!
Seeing paintings by the likes of Monet, Van Gogh and Leonardo da Vinci in-person (there were actually tears!)
Finding that wine is cheaper than water, beer is cheaper than a cup of tea (more of a highlight for David than for moi)

Not so highlight
Being sick in Paris with a flu virus, virtually passing out on the Metro before throwing up next to a homeless man eating his breakfast

So, after our time in the big city, we picked up our lease-car and headed for the countryside of Normandy. This region of France is famous for producing cider, calvados (apple brandy), caramels and soft cheeses such as the famous camembert. There is a type of grass growing there so green that it even puts some of NZ's pastures to shame! The happy cows munching on this grass produce lovely milk for the cheese-makers.

Our first stop in Normandy was Giverny, where we visited Monet's home and garden. Being late spring at the time of our visit, Monet's garden was in full bloom with the largest variety of peonies, irises, poppies and roses we've ever seen. Giverny itself is really pretty too, as residents have endeavoured to grow flowers in every available space, in keeping with the village's famous attraction.

From Giverny we headed out to Etretat, a little village on the Alabaster Coast. The beach in Etretat is framed by dramatic limestone cliffs at each end of the bay. It's kind of eerie looking but really stunning. Further down the coastline we visited Honfleur, probably one of the prettiest towns we've seen on our visit.

From Etretat we went back inland to a place called Livarot, which we'd been told was the best place to buy cheese, as opposed to it's more famous neighbour Camembert. We did a tour of a cheese factory there, along with some tasting and decided to buy a small round of livarot. That cheese haunted us for the next few days of our trip. It was so so smelly; it stunk out our whole car, particularly the stuff packed next to it, and the hotel room we stayed in that night. It was really tasty, but unfortunately we had to bid farewell to the final uneaten portion of it cos the stench was just too much!

Next stop was Bayeux; this first town in France to be liberated after WWII. From Bayeux you can drive out to the beaches of the D-Day landings. We drove out to Omaha beach where they say the most brutal battle of D-Day was played out. After a sobering visit to the Omaha museum, we drove out to the Normandy American Cemetery where something like 11,000 American soldiers are buried. It was actually a really special time to visit Bayeux and the beaches, as last weekend they commemorated the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Barak Obama, Queen Elizabeth and world leaders from Poland, Russia, Germany and of course, France were in town for all the festivities. While we were in the Bayeux, the town was buzzing with acitivity as residents spruced up the gardens; roadsigns and everything in preparation for the important guests.

Next up we visited Mont Saint-Michel, a massive 11th century abbey constructed on an island off the North-Western coast of Normandy. (11th century for goodness sake!) Seeing Mont Saint Michel appear on the horizon was like seeing a ghostly mirage in the distance - it truly looks like something out of a fairytale. The island is connected to the land by a causeway so you can either catch a shuttle bus out there or walk when the tide's out. We chose to walk so as to really take in the amazing view of the island.

In one of the tiny villages near the Mont we found the German Cemetry. In contrast to the American Cemetry where there were loads of visitors, there was hardly anyone else there at all. A very somber place; but we found it to be a beautiful and respectful memorium to the German soldiers who had fought and died in France.

Highlights/Lol moments in Normandy
- Getting a 250 euro room for just 70 euro - they asked us what price we wanted to pay!
- Overhearing an American guy in the middle of a medieval city ask "Where is the nearest McDonalds from here?"
- Hilarious British B&B hosts at Mont Saint Michel
- European speed limits - 130km on the main highway
Not so highlight

- Stinky cheese
- Wearing all our clothes at once cos of the cold (we were prepared for summer)
- Being screamed at by an irrate French woman after we entered the wrong lane on a toll bridge, Oops!


After our time in Normandy we had the goal of driving to Touzac, a tiny place in the Lot Valley (which is where we are now) in one week. In that time we covered three very different regions - Brittany, the Loire Valley and the Atlantic Coast. So here goes...

In Brittany we briefly visited Josselin, Vannes, and Sarzeau. A couple of things Brittany is famous for foodwise are crepes and buttery biscuits. You find crepes all over the place in France, but the crepes we tried in a tiny place in Sarzeau were by far the best we've eaten - and the cheapest too! We had a hilarious time staying a night with a French couple in Brittany who spoke no English and were partially deaf. It made for quite the interesting (if not painful) conversation over breakfast. They said our French was good, but maybe cos that was because they were hard of hearing??

From the rugged west coast of Brittany we headed inland to Chinon, a beautiful town in the Loire Valley. The Loire Valley is famous for its chateaus, and Chinon is particularly famous for having Joan of Arc swing by there to give an encouraging word to future King Charles the VII. In Chinon we struck it lucky by arriving there on the "battle of the bands" day where different fanfare bands (kind of like small, funky brassbands) walk the streets playing their music before coming together in the evening for a "battle". It was such a fun event, and everyone came out to listen to the bands thrash it out by the riverside. Being in chateau-land we stayed in our most extravagant accommodation yet - a 14th century stone mansion replete with canopy beds, creaky sprial staircases and massive fireplaces. Must be blimmin freezing in winter is all I can say!

From Chinon we decided to drive to Cognac as our final stopover before Touzac. However Cognac was very underwhelming - just not appealing at all, so we looked on our map for somewhere on the Atlantic Coast to go to, and decided on a place called Royan (mainly cos it was fairly close and we were over driving.) Royan doesn't appear in any guidebook, but yet we turned up on a late Sunday avo to find this place packed FULL with people. It basically looks like a French version of the Gold Coast minus the crazy high-rise apartments. It had a really laid-back, cheerful vibe and it seems that a lot of French go there just for the weekend. By the time we'd had our dinner and headed along the restaurant strip on the water's edge, the streets were virtually empty! It was a nice surprise to stumble on this place and see the Atlantic for the first time, so we were a  tiny bit sad to have to drive inland again the following day.

So, that brings us to where we've been staying for the last couple of weeks doing our 'workaway' stint. We're staying with a lovely French/Welsh couple, working four hours each morning in exchange for board and food. I'll go into more detail in a separate email, cos our time here has been really cool - so different to travelling around all over the show and being a tourist.

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