Cityscapes and countryside have much to offer
We teamed up with Expedia.com to share this guide to Paris and the French countryside.
After an overnight, trans-Atlantic and most sleepless flight, I remembered the advice that my husband, Steven, and I received for combating jet lag:
Power through the first day, don’t take a nap and go to bed early.
Following that prescription was easy enough. We were pumped about being in Europe — Paris, no less — for the first time.
We relied upon Uber throughout our stay in the city as a way of making up for lost time. (Our itinerary was set back two days when we discovered upon checking in at the Tallahassee airport that Steven’s passport was expired.) And, although a more expensive option than taking the Metro, Uber dodges language barriers.
We simply typed in the addresses of our destinations.
We had a list of must-see stops and a “B” list of lower priority sights that we intended to visit as time allowed, but first we dropped off our luggage at the flat we rented off Rue Delambre. Veteran travelers had told us that renting a flat versus a hotel room would enable us to enjoy a more genuine French experience.
Our place was located in the city just east of the Luxembourg Garden, tucked between a coffee-and-book store and a florist and featured a private patio. After a bite at a corner café, we hit the streets, headed to the Eiffel Tower.
I encourage anyone visiting Paris to walk as much as you can. The streets are lined with impressive architecture and there are flowers everywhere, including balconies with their hanging baskets of blooms, vegetables and ornamental plants.
The smell of the city is fresh and crisp. The lush grass in front of the Eiffel Tower invited us to relax and enjoy the view. This is a great place to unwind, people-watch and pick up some authentic French food from a food truck or stand.
A Big Red Bus tour of the city helped give us a feel for the lay of the land and provided us with historical facts and passing views of sites where we planned to spend more time later on. Plus, we tacked on a few sites that were not already on our lists.
Dinner was at Le Parc aux Cerfs, a restaurant that we stumbled upon during a walk. A traditional French venue, it has menus in both English and French and would prove to be our favorite.
When you visit, bear in mind that most Parisian restaurants close from 2 p.m. until 7 p.m., so plan accordingly. Of course, you can always grab a baguette or crepe on the street.
After dinner, we paused at a watering hole, Le Blue Sky, located just a block from our flat. The place was occupied by two bartenders and a couple seated on stools at the bar. Presently, a young man — a friend of the bartenders — arrived and the unmistakable voice of Johnny Cash was heard over the sound system.
We discovered that French people love American music and many have a command of U.S. history. We engaged in an impromptu trivia night, played for drinks, and, I’m ashamed to say, we lost out even though all the questions dealt with American subjects.
Joined by the couple we encountered at the bar — they were in their 60s and spoke little English and she had a crush on Steven, I swear — we all danced, laughed and enjoyed the music together. Our first night in Paris had been a spontaneous and memorable one.
Over subsequent days spent in the city, we visited Les Invalides, the Lourve, Versailles, Notre Dame, Sacre’ Coer, Luxembourg Garden, Catacombs, Arc de Tiomphe, Tuileries Garden and saved for last a show at Le Moulin Rouge.
See them all — and take advantage of guides and walking audio tours that impart in an enjoyable few hours information that would otherwise require days to assemble. These tours fill up quickly at certain times of the year, making reservations a good idea.
After Paris, we traded the city for the countryside, having booked a bicycling holiday through a company called Cycle Breaks. We boarded a train that carried us from St. Pierre Des Cor to our starting point.
Our reservations included accommodations, food certificates redeemable at highly recommended restaurants, bikes, maps and directions. Each day we biked 20-plus miles to a new destination while Cycle Breaks saw to our luggage.
In booking the tour, we had options: number of days, preferred stops, level of difficulty and a selection of hotels with different star ratings.
Day One: Arrive and Explore
Saumur, where the tour was to begin, was home to a solitary 14th century castle with octagonal towers and mullioned windows. At the National Riding School, also in Saumur, some of the world’s most talented equestrians performed exquisite dressage displays. The local white wine was reminiscent of the sparkling products of France’s Champagne region. This was a great town in which to sip and relax.
Day Two: Red wines and Royal Abbeys
We hopped on our bikes and headed to the Saumur Champigny vineyards and the magnificent Château de Brézé. At a distance the castle looked like just another huddle of Renaissance turrets, but inside there was about half of a mile of underground caves, which were home to everything from a bakery to wine bottles and even an icehouse. The cellars were captivating and so were the views from the vineyard slopes. Back in the saddle, a picturesque route led us on to Fontevraud L’Abbaye, one of the greatest monastic sites in Europe, where we spent our next two nights. This was our favorite destination of the tour. The 12th century Romanesque Abbey dominates the town — fascinating, vast and intact. It is the haunting resting place of members of the Plantagenet dynasty, including Richard the Lionhearted.
Day Three: From Plantagenets to Power Houses
It was tempting to spend a day leisurely exploring the amazing monastic city of Fontevraud l’Abbaye, but we chose instead to ride to the waters of the River Thouet. We discovered the massive, fortified château town of Montreuil-Bellay. The castle combines solid medieval styling with Renaissance flair, including 650 meters of medieval walls with a drawbridge and 13 interlocking towers. Like its many highly decorated rooms and delightful gardens, it’s a truly impressive sight.
Day Four: Legends and Legacies
The beautiful Loire Valley landscapes led us toward the River Vienne where the royal fortress of Chinon promised another formidable medieval encounter. First though, we were charmed by the fairytale gardens and legendary stables at the Château de Rivau. In Chinon, we made the most of our night by wandering through the tiny historic streets, stopping for a delicious glass of wine — from Chinon’s very own vineyards — on a café terrace.
Day Five: Colleges and Caves
Leaving the medieval splendor of Chinon, we pedaled back toward the Loire, itself. The magnificent collegiate churches at Candes-Saint-Martin on the way to Montsoreau, another lesser-known but still very impressive medieval town whose château-bastide almost has its toes in the waters of the Loire. From there, the route led us along the river to return to Saumur for our final overnight, passing troglodyte sites which are home to everything from the locals themselves to much-prized harvests of Saumur Champigny and even champignons!
Day Six: Back to Paris
We spent the final day and night of our trip in Paris. After a week of biking, we craved luxury and indulgence. We spent the day walking down Avenue Champ des Elyseés, a street full of high-end stores. I picked up a purse and a bag from Luis Vuitton, we went to Musee dal L’Orangerie, ate dinner at a delicious Italian restaurant called La Bocca Della Verita and spent the night in a small boutique hotel.
One last enchanted evening before crossing the pond once more.
What to Pack for Paris
- Comfortable, stylish clothing that is ideal for walking around. No jean shorts!
- Rain jacket
- Be prepared to wear layers. (Temperatures vary greatly in the course of a day. A backpack large enough to accommodate your jacket is a good idea.)
What to Pack for a Cycling Holiday
- Knock-around tennis shoes
- Rain jacket
- Riding gloves
- Cycle outfit for each day
Tips and recommendations for eating in France:
- Learn enough French to read the menus. French-language menus typically have more options and less costly options available.
- Relax and plan on spending two to three hours for dinner. Most small restaurants have one waiter or waitress serving the entire establishment. They want you to take your time, and you will be forced to whether you like it or not.
- Get out of your comfort zone. Most restaurants are small and they don’t waste any space. You will be sitting inches away from the next table.
- Order things you wouldn’t normally order. My husband and I went with the recommendations of our waiter or waitress and were disappointed only twice. Even at that, we experienced two dishes we never would have tried otherwise — and lived to tell the story.
- Order all courses. Portion sizes are small, making it possible to enjoy bread, appetizer, entrée, desert and wine and still feel satisfied and not too full. It is expected that you will opt for all courses, so don’t be disappointed if you order only an entrée and you think it’s too small.
- Try local wines with each of your meals. Take advantage of experiencing wines that are unique and affordable. There were even times when wine was cheaper than water.