*Obligatory apology about how I am SO behind*
If this is not your first time to the blog, you’ll know I love nothing more than to rag on the French. I have an inside joke mainly with myself about how much I don’t get along with the French and I think it’s because I’m a one-two punch to their sensibilities. I’m a card-carrying Anglophile and I’m American so there’s basically nothing worse than that. I love to mock their haughtiness and disdain for exertion of any kind, and they systematically ignore me at restaurants and react with dead-eyed annoyance at my poor attempts to speak French. Thus we’ve established a working relationship.
At the end of the day, I of course don’t actually hate France. It’s a beautiful country and I once calculated that apart from cities I’ve lived in or where I have family, I’ve been to Paris more than any city on earth. Paris was the first place abroad I visited when I was 10 and I loved it; every normal human kid loves crepes and baguettes and even an ignoramus 10-year-old recognizes the Mona Lisa.
For me, going to France is like visiting a crazy relative you profess to hate, but couldn’t live without. Thus I rode into the preferred butt of my every joke, and the French greeted me as I could only hope: with apathy and upturned noses. It took me an hour to get out of the hellscape that is Charles De Gaulle Airport on an empty Monday night.
My first stop in France was Paris, which I’ll be passing through again twice for various logistical reasons before this trip is over, so I won’t talk about it at length now. The weather was largely crap while I was there and I spent a lot of time getting sorted out for the rest of my trip, so I didn’t see a lot of the city.
I’ve never really been a Paris person. I don’t see the magic that everyone else sees there and while I don’t dislike it, I’ve never totally meshed with the general atmosphere of the place. With a little more perspective now, I can appreciate its uniqueness. I’ve been to a lot of big cities in my life and in the last eight months, but there isn’t anywhere else that feels like Paris.
From Paris, I headed south, first to the Loire Valley.
Paris–Orleans–Noizay, 150 miles
Due to various wars and religious hubbub, the political center of France flipflopped between Paris and the Loire Valley for several hundred years, during which time various members of the gentry and the kings constructed elaborate chateaux in the area. Even when the capital was permanently returned to Paris by Francois I, French royalty and nobility still spent a lot of time in the more scenic Loire Valley, one of the most fertile areas in France known for its wine production in addition to its smattering of chateaux.
En route to the central part of the Loire Valley, I stopped in Orleans, a place known almost exclusively (if at all) for its association with Joan of Arc, who successfully inspired a military movement that drove out the British during an assault on the city during the Hundred Years’ War. Of all the towns I visited in the Loire, Orleans was by far the most lively and lived-in; during low(er) season, it becomes eerily obvious just how much the towns in this area depend on tourism just to seem populated, but not Orleans.
There are something like 300 chateaux in this area, many of which were taken over by the French government when all the nobility went bankrupt during the Interwar Period, but some are still privately owned and several are still in some capacity open to the public.
Because of its position relative to the road, Chateau de Chambord is the most dramatic of the Loire chateaux, and one of the more recognizable. It’s the only chateaux I visited that comes into full view from the road and it does so all at once when you come around a corner in a wooded area in the French countryside. It was a sunny day when I visited Chambord and the first full glance at it from the road was stunning.
Francis I is responsible for Chambord, which was never actually completed, and fitting of a king, it is the largest in the Loire Valley. No other chateaux looks like Chambord thanks to its very unique design, which is rumored to have the fingerprints of Leonardo Da Vinci on it. The big thing here is the double-helix staircase, which I don’t totally understand why we’re so impressed by this, but there it is. Through the center of the chateau, which is totally unfurnished today and not a particularly homey space, are two staircases that follow each other to the roof of the chateau but never meet. An impressive architectural feat to be sure, but the rest of the building isn’t exactly boring.
Chambord was initially designed as a hunting lodge. Francis was not the greatest hunter in the world, so large open tracks were cut through the surrounding forest so that animals would be exposed when crossing from one side to the other, making for an easier kill for the king.
Chateau de Chenonceau is the other BFD chateau in the Loire, dating back almost 1,000 years, but most closely associated with Catherine de Medici in the 16th century. Catherine was responsible for the addition of the great hall that extends over the river and remodeled the rest of the chateau to its present state.
Unlike Chambord, it’s been re-furnished and feels much more cozy and lived-in than the cavernous, cold rooms at the former. While there’s something a little artificial and Downton Abbey indulgent about recreating the original décor in these old chateaux, it makes visiting an infinitely more enjoyable experience. Perhaps Chambord is more “authentic” in its untouched austerity, but it just makes you want to get the hell out.
As there are hundreds of chateaux in this area, there are more than anyone could or would ever want to visit in a single trip. Chateau de Villandry is known for its enormous gardens—not quite so impressive in rainy early April—and Cheverny has a very English feel to it. Chateau d’Azay-le-Rideau might be cool, but I wouldn’t know as the entire thing is completely ensconced behind restoration scaffolding at the moment. Beyond Chambord and Chenonceau, I found them to be somewhat interchangeable, which isn’t to say it’s not an interesting area to explore, but the general theme can get a bit repetitive after a while.
One of the more unique places to visit is Chateau du Clos Lucé, a relatively modest estate in Amboise that Leonardo da Vinci lived in for a few years until his death. The fact that da Vinci was not French is generously papered over to instead extol what a lover of all things French he was. Francis I invited da Vinci to France in 1516, and the Italian arrived with the Mona Lisa in tow, a copy of which is still housed there today, painted by da Vinci himself.
Because I’m writing this so long after the fact, I’ve now seen a lot of small towns in both Italy and France, and have a better understanding of the weirdness that is these tourist areas replete with once-bustling medieval and Renaissance villages. Without tourism, these areas would probably dry up and blow away, so in that sense, the revenue from visitors has helped preserve these bits of history that aren’t conveniently located in major European cities. At the same time, it can make the whole thing feel somewhat superficial.
Early April is only just the beginning of busy season in the Loire Valley, and in Europe in general, so you get a glimpse of what it looks like here when the hordes have packed up and headed home for the winter. The result is a little off-putting in that everything happening in this area is only in direct response to your being there, which is pretty much the opposite of what one hopes to find when traveling. This is definitely not unique to the Loire Valley; half the world practically operates on this kind of tourism-driven model, but it does make you appreciate the untainted liveliness of bigger cities, and the incredible rarity and authenticity of those small towns that exist without the tour bus crowd keeping them afloat.
Noizay–Beaune, 254 miles
Beaune (pronounced “bone”) is the unofficial capital of Burgundy and is surprisingly diverse for a town of 22,000. The central walled city is your classic medieval French village, but with a level of sophistication that is, unfortunately, likely only a product of the tourism industry in the surrounding wine region.
Beaune is a nice enough city to walk around, but it’s not really a destination in its own right. More a good base for exploring Burgundy than anything else. The one main tourist type attraction in town is the Hospices de Beaune, a charity hospital founded in the 15th century by a local duke in response to the violence of the Hundred Years’ War. This is actually surprisingly interesting and the organization is still in operation, though patient services have obviously moved to more modern accommodations.
The highlight of Beaune is probably Masion du Colombier. This is the kind of restaurant that if you’re in France, you drive here just for that. Given that the weather was crap the entire time I was in Beaune, that’s basically what happened. It’s one of those “oh, you have to try our celebrity chef in town” places, but it delivers. The food in Beaune is good, really good for a town of its size, but there’s a certain level of sophistication at Maison du Colombier that you don’t find anywhere else.
For a place that’s largely sustained by tourists, Beaune doesn’t feel touristy in that there appear to be actual locals here, something that can feel disappointingly anomalous in smaller European towns popular with foreign travelers. It was very early in the season when I visited, but I didn’t see any giant buses chugging into town and dumping groups of snap-happy amateur photogs to troll around town for a few hours before making the trek back to the Hilton. Stay tuned for more of that in Italy.
Beaune–Cluny–Lyon, 127 miles
Lyon definitely has a touch of second-city syndrome, which is both an asset and a weakness. Compared to Paris, it is pleasantly laidback. No one in Lyon seems too preoccupied with being painfully chic or fashionably apathetic, and it feels like a city for real people, not merely a space for the glitterati to descend upon. At the same time, it verges on trying too hard in its attempts to be Bohemian, but overall, Lyon is a totally approachable, very pleasant place, devoid of anything particularly glamorous.
Lyon is an old city with a long history, stretching back to the Romans, and it was not French until the 14th century. Trade brought about by the Renaissance made it an economic hub and it was known for its silk into the 20th century. The old part of town, Vieux Lyon, is on the west side of the Saone River and has gone the way of many medieval sections of modern French cities; though the buildings still retain some of their historical interest, the storefronts are now dominated by souvenir shops and places with authentic names like the James Joyce Pub and Pirate’s Candy.
Like every mid-size city everywhere, Lyon claims to have a great local arts scene, which is true enough. The shopping here is excellent with very few American chain stores making an appearance, so it has the edge on Paris in that regard.
On some things, the Lyon tourism board is a bit overzealous in its praise. There are several interesting open-air markets around Lyon, but do not be talked into making the trek to Les Halles. Once upon a time, this was the place to go in Lyon to see all the best fresh ingredients from the surrounding countryside, but they recently moved it to a new indoor space and truly, your local Whole Foods has more personality and cultural intrigue than this place.
Lyon is also very proud of its traboules, series of small passageways between buildings in the city center used by merchants for hundreds of years. That sounds awesome, but what it translates to are small, sometimes covered cobblestone alleyways, something that is completely ubiquitous in any European city. There’s also something called La Confluence, which is advertised as a sexy, outdoor shopping and dining space for cool people; it is in fact a new, if slightly nicer than average, outdoor mall.
More than anything, Lyon’s claim to fame is that it is the “gastronomic capital of France,” something there seems to be near-universal consent on. I didn’t know this before I came, but Google “Lyon” and all you will hear about is how amazing the food is and how everyone else in France can just weep into their aprons about how much they fail in comparison.
I have literally no idea whatsoever why anyone thinks that.
Lyonnaise cuisine is entirely unique from what you typically think of when you think of French food, and it has an unusually storied history. Lyon’s southern central location in France puts it at the confluence of the country’s best food regions, and great local ingredients are easy to come by. In addition to the traditions that developed among royalty, there is a whole cuisine unique to Lyon that came about in the 19th and 20th centuries in bouchons—cozy, no-frills eateries designed to serve the working class. Meals were prepared by local women and became the definition of rustic comfort food.
All of that is well and good. Typical Lyonnaise cuisine definitely reflects this humble heritage and there’s a story here that you don’t always find in regional cuisines. Most of the dishes are centered around offal (organ meat) and employ potatoes, heavy sauces and gravy, and cheese liberally. Quenelle is the ultimate Lyonnaise dish, a creamed fish dumpling thing that has the consistency of tofu, served with a thick brown sauce.
This is definitely not my idea of delicious food, which is fine and not a comment on the overall quality of the food in Lyon. But when I started hunting around for why Lyon is considered such a great food city, basically what I could find is that this great chef Paul Bocuse has set up shop here and has a bunch of good restaurants, and a ton of other restaurants in the city have Michelin stars, all of which serve this traditional cuisine.
If you’re a person interested in the history of cuisines and you find Lyonnaise cooking to be delicious, then you’ve come to the right place. But calling Lyon the gastronomic heart of France is like calling Mississippi the culinary capital of the U.S. because they make good barbecue. You want to eat Lyonnais cuisine, you’re set. Anything else—Italian, sushi, a decent cup of coffee not from Starbucks, anything French that’s not strictly Lyonnaise—and you’re out of luck. The pastries in Lyon are excellent, and if you’re shopping for yourself, the fresh cheese and vegetables and breads are incredible, but name a city in France were that isn’t the case. It seems to me that for whatever reason, the Michelin guide has been star-struck by Lyon and every travel writer and foodie has just fallen in line lest they question that the emperor has no clothes and be proclaimed a culinary degenerate.
From a tourism perspective, Lyon’s problem is relative. You probably won’t come all the way to France to go here, when you have the allure of Paris or the natural beauty in the south of France or the wine regions in the center of the country. Of all the towns and cities I visited in France, Lyon feels the most livable and its charms are subtler—great for residents, slightly less so for tourists. In other words, Lyon is a city for the patient traveler who loves organ meat.
Lyon–Gorges de l’Ardèche–Vaison-la-Romaine–Le Barroux–Avignon–Aix-en-Provence, 249 miles
From what I’ve seen, Provence is easily my favorite region in France. Whether or not this actually reflects reality, this feels like a region that has a sense of purpose beyond the tourism industry and this is partly true, given that every other bath product and condiment in France is produced here. Far from the gut-bomb cuisine in central France, there are definitely elements of Mediterranean cuisine and a more coastal culture here, though very little of the region is actually on the coast.
There are dozens of small towns in Provence, many of which have Roman and/or medieval sections that are still well preserved, and they seem to all have basically the same vibe, so it’s hard to pick the wrong one. I stayed in Le Barroux, which if you’re fine with staying in a one-restaurant kind of town, then this is the place. Most towns in Provence have some sort of tourist presence, but certainly not Le Barroux, which is as sleepy a French village as one can find. Forty-five minutes is more than sufficient for exploring the whole place on foot, but the natural setting is utterly picturesque.
Nearby is Avignon, a place probably best known for its tangle with Rome 700 years ago. From 1309 to 1377, the papacy was housed in Avignon after Clement V became pope in 1305 and chose to stay in France rather than move to the Vatican. Seven successive (all French) popes followed his lead. The still-standing, ultra-Gothic Palais des Papes, was the center for the French papacy, a structure equal to the Vatican in its subtlety and modest size. Aside from that, the town center is lively with tourists and locals alike, and they have an awesome local market (are you listening, Lyon?).
Very few places in Provence require more than a day to explore at most, but everywhere I went was a nice place to walk around for a while and stretch the legs. Having a car and no set agenda is the way to go.
Aside from Marseille, Aix-en-Provence is the most “real” city in this region, though it’s really an overgrown college town. All the ingredients for a Provencal town are here—sun-speckled alleyways, shady piazzas with sprawling cafes, great local markets, souvenirs involving fresh lavender and lemon in some capacity, fountains, flowers, etc.
Aix-en-Provence has a bit of a star-studded history, but it’s refreshingly down-to-earth compared to France’s nearby coastal cities like Cannes and St. Tropez. Paul Cezanne was born and died in Aix, and his hillside studio is still there. Hemingway used to skulk around the bars, as he did, and Emile Zola spent much of his childhood and sporadic periods of his adult life in the city. Aix is big enough that you avoid the tourist trap problem; parts of town, notably the iconic pedestrian boulevard Cours Mirabeau, have fallen victim to the t-shirt shop phenomenon, but the city is still mostly the domain of its student population and other locals.
Aix-en-Provence–Monte Carlo, 122 miles
Monte Carlo is everything that is ridiculous about the world in one place, but I love it anyway. Though I loathed Dubai, it’s impossible for me not to compare it to Monaco. Both are primarily about the worship of all things ostentatious, and Monte Carlo is in some ways just as showy as Dubai. But Monte Carlo has class, a word that is totally alien in the UAE. Yes it’s all stupidly huge yachts, designer stores, insanely overpriced restaurants and bars, and a monument to what bottomless bank accounts can buy, but even among the hordes of drooling tourists splayed over the hoods of Ferraris and Bugattis, there’s something refined about it. That mid-century, Grace Kelly on the French Riviera vibe is alive and well.
For a country that’s smaller than Central Park, Monaco has an interesting history. It’s mentioned in various ways in Greek mythology and Hercules allegedly used to hang out here. During the 13th century and for the next few hundred years, Monaco was governed by a Genoese family and it was at different points Spanish, French, and under the control of different Italian city-state groups until it gained its independence 1861. A few years later, the ruling Grimaldi family, who have more or less been in control of the area since 1297 until today, stopped collecting income tax and the country has been a tax haven for the rich and indulgent ever since, funded largely by the profits from its famous casino.
I don’t exactly know what anyone really does here besides luxuriate in their wealth and wait for the Grand Prix to roll around in May, but I find it so much easier to laughingly accept their general frivolity than I did in Dubai. If nothing else, the setting in Monaco is hard to beat; for such a miniscule country, they’ve landed themselves a great piece of real estate along the French coast with an enviable coastline set against sharp cliffs. This is completely a matter of personal opinion, but something about Monte Carlo is just so elegant to me, even if the constant rumble of sports car engines and ridiculously overpriced everything is certainly worthy of an eye roll or two.
I’ve long conceded that France is just not my cup of tea—one that you can NEVER get to-go. I’m too type-A for the culture and that’s my loss, I suppose. Few cultures appreciate art and beauty and genuinely good food like the French, and American culture could use a dose of that. Much as we mock the infamous “French work week”—I unfortunately have to count myself and Jeb Bush in the same group here—there is a certain value to that, to making time to enjoy something in life that isn’t work or watching professional sports. So for that, I admire them.
But if you thought you were getting out of this post without me getting in one last dig at the French, well, you thought wrong.
There’s seemingly endless conversation about what “good service” means in France, particularly in Paris and particularly in restaurants. Americans are always ranting about how bad it is and other “in-the-know” American travelers are forever chastising everyone else for being so obtuse as to bring one’s cultural preconceptions abroad, which is, in itself, a valid point. But in my experience, at your average French shop, restaurant, whatever, service is inattentive and just snobbish. This isn’t America. I don’t expect someone to greet me with a smile and check in with me five times while I’m eating. I frankly find that practice annoying. But I also refuse to defend bad service as an interesting cultural difference when rudeness is, in this case, completely universal. If you’ve eaten in Paris or tried to buy something in Paris, you’ve experienced it.
I have no patience for this because there is no excuse for it. Tourists are mouth-breathing, sweaty, annoying people who trudge into your city and talk too loud and stand in the middle of the sidewalk in packs and just generally act like fools, but the minute you’re willing to forfeit all the tourism dollars that Americans bring into Europe, you let me know, France.
For totally unfair and biased reasons, everything that annoys me in France I indulge completely in Italy. Service is still terrible, Italian men are obnoxious, nothing is efficient, everyone smokes, but for no good reason, they totally get away with it in my book. Two posts on Italy to follow shortly.