Off-the-beaten path in France
Castles, crêpes, and charm await

By D. Fong

There is so much to do in Paris, but with limited time, you need to pick and choose. I spent twenty one days in France and five days in Spain.

BIKE RACE
Fortunately, we were there during the Tour de France, the most famous bicycle race of them all. My once-in-a-lifetime moment occurred watching the Tour de France on July 24.

I took the métro to Concorde, on the Street Rue de Rivoli. Once I disembarked, I was pressed in by a crushing multitude of eager spectators, and there were even people clinging to a lamppost. Some others stood on the ledges of the first level of a three story building, holding onto the bars.

My dad stood on a ledge and videotaped the crawling parade of sponsors and advertisements, with intense cheering from the crowd. After two hours of waiting, I finally pushed my way (or rather I was pushed by other people) to the front, wedged behind a metal fence. Standing on tiptoes, I held my digital camera up just in time and recorded the hundred or so bicyclists whizzing past. Lance Armstrong? Yes, I saw him, a little blur. The crowd cheering, the cameras snapping—the excitement was exhilarating, even for a cloudy, drizzly day.

The bicyclists soared down Champs Elysées and circled around the Arc de Triomphe 6 more times before the race actually finished. Ah, the euphoria of victory.

ARCHITECTURE

My family and I also headed toward Gare du Nord for some quick snacks. It is an enormous train station for trains heading north out of Paris.  Like all of other Paris’ buildings, this station has an antique façade. French people love their buildings so much that modern buildings are only allowed to be constructed on Paris’ outskirts. They feel they have a duty to preserve their history and culture.

Finally, a trip through the night to Trocadéro Square. A large platform, it has a fantastic view of the Eiffel Tower, which shimmers blinking lights every hour. The scene is breathtakingly romantic, if you ignore the other hundred people and vendors lounging around. Staring out into the night sky at the metal sculpture only enhances the dreaminess. If there had been a band playing a waltz, with couples and children dancing around on the square, this night would have been complete.

CHARMING LOIRE VALLEY

My family and I rented a car from Hertz in Paris to drive through Western France, which was relaxing, since we followed our own schedule. If you rent an automobile here, make sure you know how to drive stick shift. Automatic transmission may not be available.

I first caught a glimpse of Chambord, one of the greatest castles of the Loire Valley, when its turrets and soaring spires peeked through the trees. Tickets cost 8,50 euro for adults, and kids under 17 are free. This castle houses King François I and his family’s many apartments from centuries ago. A café, of course, is nearby, as well as several gift shops.

The pleasant sunny weather magnified the castle’s majestic appearance, the sprawling lawns, and the large moat in front. What I found most interesting was the double helix staircase, two separate staircases that wound around each other, which Leonardo Da Vinci designed for King François. Consequently, the king would be protected as he and his guest walked on separate staircases but could still converse.

The Loire Valley includes hundreds of large and small castles, but my family only visited the more famous ones. Nearly every village has some old noble’s château of its own, as well as its own history. The Loire River runs through the valley, providing picturesque scenery.

AMBOISE, THE CHARMING

We stayed at a cute and touristy town named Amboise. The smallness of everything charmed me: little streets, rustic two-storied homes with antiquated façades, little shops, the little grocery store, and the many cafés. After wandering around, looking for the tiny street signs posted on the buildings (not on lampposts), we finally arrived at Hotel Blason.

Built in the sixteenth century, it features an outdoor dining area, free Internet access, but no elevator. We lived on the third floor in a cramped room. No fun for five people. However, I still loved the idea of sleeping in a relic… think who might have lived here four or five hundred years ago!

When the sun sets at 9:30 p.m. (rather, the rest of the world follows 21:30 military time), there’s still plenty to do. Walk down the alleyways, and you will find many cafés to have a relaxing dinner. We chose Le Cadran, a pasta and pizza restaurant. I would still recommend this area because there were actually more local people eating here than tourists. Food in France and Spain is, in general, pretty expensive; these are not even fancy meals! Prices were approximately fifty to sixty euros for one meal for the entire family, about sixty to seventy US dollars.

My brothers ordered reindeer meat pizza. My dad’s pizza came with an egg yolk on the center, which you are obliged to pop and spread around like butter. It actually tastes quite good. I ordered pesto pasta, which didn’t have enough basil; it tasted like the olive oil and the parmesan cheese I poured on it. Later in the trip, my parents discovered less touristy restaurants facing the main street. Go to these instead.

COUNTRY CASTLES

The next day we visited Château d’Amboise, a well-fortified castle overlooking the lazy Loire River. Tickets are 7,70 euro for adults and 4,50 euro for kids under 17. Large and hunky, the castle has few decorations. On top, there’s a stage for night shows, cannon stations, the keep (royal chambers), a creepy chapel, and gardens. The chapel is pretty small, with stained glass windows and some lizards and snakes engraved into the pillars to symbolize the fear of the devil.

Another interesting item was a model of Da Vinci’s military tank in the middle of the area. Cone shaped, it was originally designed to have cannons shooting from underneath the shell and also wheels to transport it around. An ingenious idea for the sixteenth century. In the keep, the royalty’s chambers are richly furnished, but less so than in the larger Château x. We climbed through the towers and looked out onto the Loire River. The slow flow of the greenish river reminded me to enjoy my vacation, to put aside stress wrinkles, school, and college applications.

For lunch we ate at Chez Hippeau, a hidden café. I ate La Fermiere (7,30 euro), a salad with mixed greens, tomatoes, ham, egg, cheese, corn, and vinaigrette. Everything tasted fresh and crisp.

Nothing really prepared me for our next stop- Château de Chenonceau, a castle built across the Loire River. Tickets cost 8 euro for adults and 6,50 euro for students and kids ages 7 to 15 Upstairs, there is a black room with black walls, chairs, ceiling, and bed. Queen Louise de Lorraine, widow of King Henri III, spent about 10 years mourning for her dead son, and lived in the black room until she died. On the lowest floor, we saw an enormous kitchen and cellar, for the servants, chefs, and butchers to hang out.

While iPod audio guides are available to rent for around 4 euro, wandering around without them was fine, too. Outside, we visited the queen’s garden filled with an incredible array of flowers and bushes. My brother and I sat down and sketched parts of the castle. My entire family rented two boats each for only 2 euro for half an hour, and we rowed on the river, around and underneath the castle. Rowing…good choice for a date. Ooh la la!

The rustic beauty of Château de Clos Luce, the next attraction, was the home of Leonardo Da Vinci, who became rich after designing better weaponry for the king. Indeed, Da Vinci’s home is lavishly furnished with elaborate tapestries, tables, and chairs.

Downstairs, you’ll find a collection of Da Vinci’s sketches, with models and explanations for each one. My favorite Da Vinci inventions were a suspension bridge, hydraulic power, ball bearings, a car, a bike, a machine gun, and a double hull ship. All along the walls of the home, there were also clear plaques stating Da Vinci’s famous sayings like "Study the art of science and the science of art." If you love art—and especially Da Vinci—visit the gift shop. I bought two posters of his work, each 7,50 euro. The genius Da Vinci: inventor, painter, and philosopher.

Château d’Ussé
. Think Sleeping Beauty, locked up in her castle. In one of the towers, wax figures portray the story of Sleeping Beauty. From its furniture to the winding staircase, this Château presents a nineteenth century romantic atmosphere.

This attraction costs three to five euros per person (usually, all museums have an adult and a youth price). Secluded in the woods, this castle has a mysterious allure that none of the other castles had. It’s about half the size of Chambord, with a dirt courtyard in the center, with the apartments in a U-shape around it. The most intriguing part was when we walked around the outside of the castle to the opening of a dungeon. A cave-like hollow, it was damp and creepy and had no electrical lights. I still found Château de Chenonceau my favorite castle, because of its unique layout over the river.

BRETAGNE, COASTAL REFRESHMENT

We left the lush Loire Valley and traveled to Loctudy, a very small town in Bretagne. Bretagne is located in the western region of France and has its own dialect, sort of a Celtic mix between French and German. Famous for its crêpes, Bretagne uses "black flour" to make the dough but it becomes tan when finished. Smooth and a little chewy, the crêpes taste best with Nutella, jam, or plain butter and sugar.

For breakfast, my mom’s friend treated us with crêpes, fresh orange juice, cereal, and coffee. Real coffee. I don’t think even Starbucks can match up to the richness in French coffee. The French call American coffee "sock’s juice" because it tastes so terrible to them!

Every Thursday, a nearby town called Pont-L’Abbé hosts a local farmer’s market. Cute, with food, jewelry, clothes, tablecloths, underwear in little booths everywhere. Farmer’s markets are common all around the French countryside. The town developed around the river and its ports, eventually charming people with its specialty shops and cooler weather.

My parents bought three pretty tablecloths, the most expensive one costing around 40 euro. For pottery, the best teapots, cups, jars, and plates comes from Limoge. All the commercial pottery/silverware stores steal their ideas from this town.

STRANGE "MENHIRS"

Back in 6,000 B.C., the Celtics erected many menhirs all along the Bretagne coastline. A menhir is a large pointy rock sticking out of the ground. My mom told us that in one experiment, it took five hundred people to help erect one menhir. The menhirs are really quite amazing.

With help from friends, we visited three menhir sites. The first was found in an ancient cemetery. A grave site included one boulder laid out across two other boulders, forming a table. Underneath the "table," there used to be a large urn with ashes and bones of the dead person. The "table," called a "dolman," also used to be covered by a large hill of dirt. Outside of the hill, there used to be a wall surrounding all the dolmans, with holes cut for entryways.
The second menhir site was more interesting. As we walked into the jungle-like forage, my mom’s friend gestured a "Sshh" sign. Beware of the wild boars. Watch out for Asterix and Obelix (popular Gaul heroes of a French comic book who liked to hunt boars). Don’t scare the faeries dancing around the menhirs. There were three thin menhirs, about the same height and size, perfectly aligned in a straight line. My mom thought that this represented the Trinity: God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as one.

The final site was a tribute to the god of fertility. All around, there were round boulders symbolizing testicles. There was only one menhir here. Hundreds of years later, farmers did not like what the boulders stood for and tried to destroy some of them.

BEACH TIME

The Bretagne coastline features about 16 miles of beaches, and they not crowded at all. We took a nice break between attractions to enjoy lunch on one of these shores. The fine white sand and breeze felt exhilarating. At the water’s edge, there was an old bunker the Germans had left behind in WWII - history up close. Giant patches of smooth rocks and thousands of clam shells lying around amazed us all.

Word has it that the most western tip of Europe, Point du Raz, offers an extraordinary view (Portugal is currently the actual tip of continental Europe). Your options for the hike: going by foot (à pied) or by shuttle. Naturally, we chose to hoof it, and we walked near the rocky edge to the point itself, an ensemble of jutting rocks. The vast openness of the ocean, the brisk breeze, and the setting sun provided a fantastic picturesque scene. There’s also a lighthouse near the point, a shining beacon of safety. Lots of gift shops and cafés with unique items, like recipe place mats and cool sailor-type outfits.

The Tour de Finistère arrived near Loctudy; it’s a sailboat race lasting around five days and goes around the western edge of France. We ate dinner at Descente des Marins Lesconil, which was a little on the expensive side. Everyone had marinated mUsséls except for me. (Of course, fries came with them). I had the St. Jacques, a custom salad with diced bell peppers, corn, greens, tomatoes, and big scallops.

The best part about summer here is the traditional folk dancing. A little festival was set up beside the harbor full of colorful boats. Hundreds of people were around the center stage, listening to a live band. The band mates alternated between playing the guitar, the violin, the bagpipe, and trumpet. French people learn these dances at school, and people of all ages joined in little circles or partners and had fun. My parents and their friends jumped right in. This is what experiencing a new culture is all about.

PARIS, THE BEAUTIFUL

When we finally returned to Fontenay-aux-Roses, a town on the outskirts of Paris, we are able to stay at an apartment my mom’s friend had kindly lent to us. The next few days, we were off to explore the glories of Paris.

The Centre Pompidou (free for people under 17) was a disappointment compared to the Reina Sofia museum we saw in Spain. The only art worth mentioning is the building itself, which seems to be turned inside out. The tubes and metal bar structure have no walls to cover them. There is also a red zigzag escalator running diagonally across the face.

I learned how to make a floppy rose out of almond paste at the Clémenceau Boulangerie, a bakery owned by another of my mom’s friends. He and his family showed us the steps on how to make bread (pain), as well as how to make English Cream, a delicious dessert. After we sprinkled almonds on top and decorated it with melted chocolate, we feasted on our creations.

For dinner, we ate at Mythos, a Greek restaurant near the St. Michel fountain. For a 11 euro special, I ordered salad, chicken kebab, and flan. The food was slightly overcooked, but I had fun communicating with the Clémenceaus in English, French, and Spanish.

During the summer, Paris holds celebrations along the Seine River. I wanted to see Rock en Seine, a rock concert, but it was scheduled only for August 25 and 26. It’s perfectly safe and enjoyable just to walk along the river at night, passing the Notre Dame.

I had the great opportunity to visit the Notre Dame on Saint Mary’s holiday durng a mass. I marveled at the beautiful stained glass windows, the tall naves, and at the enormous organ. Plasma screens were set up around the sanctuary for visitors to stand and watch. Bishops walked down the long aisle, waving incense around. A solemn choir sang hymns. The atmosphere was dim and stuffy, but I was honored to be here.

We visited the Musée Du Louvre (free for kids under 17 on Sundays), which was extremely crowded and uncomfortable. I found the Musée D’Orsay (free for kids under 17) more enlightening, a museum filled with impressionist, naturalist, symbolist, and neo-classical art. I could hardly believe I was looking at the actual paintings of Monet, Van Gogh, and Renoir. The emotions captured within each moment are priceless. At the back, there is a cross section model of the Paris Opéra House, so visitors can see the intricate network of rooms underground. Don’t miss out on the gift shop; there are posters, agenda books, books, and many other neat souvenirs.

This it it: the actual Paris Opéra House. Where the Phantom of the Opéra story took place. It is absolutely amazing; Napoléon built this for himself. The grand staircase, frescoes, long hallways, gigantic mirrors, gold chandeliers, and rounded sculptures were stylishly decorated. Inside the theatre, the boxes and seats are laid with lush red velvet. Above, a magnificent chandelier hangs; it weighs approximately 8 tons! Nearly all ballerinas hope to someday perform on the prestigious stage. I wish I could have attended a real Opéra .

Shopping at the Galleries Lafayette is a don’t-miss experience. It exceeds all expectations of the generic department store; this one has class. In the woman’s department, there is an enormous stained-glass dome. On the second floor, clothes and shoes made by top designers (Christian Lacroix, Jean Paul Gaultier, Lanvin, to name a few) were displayed. Haute couture is taken seriously here.

Parisian fashion boutiques along Champs Elysées is also extraordinary. I could only window shop. This famous street stretches from the Concord obelisk past the Arc de Triomphe. Large trees and walkways on each sides provide for a comfortable walk.

By far, the greatest lunch I have ever eaten took place at Café De L’Homme, next to Trocadero Square. On my parents twentieth anniversary, we splurged and ordered delicious dishes. Normally, people have reservations, but it was lunchtime, and we were lucky. The waiters were amiable, and we sat outside, in a shaded corner.

I loved the full view of the Eiffel Tower against the overcast sky. Incredibly romantic. I ordered crab, potato, and ham pasta, which turned out to be more in the arrangement of a cake. Each layer had mouth-watering sensations of garlic, lemon, and crab. I savored every bite. My mom ordered raw beef; it came with salad in the center, and vinaigrette was dribbled on. My brothers both had jumbo shrimp with risotto, a specialty. My dad ate seasoned fish. I would recommend everyone to eat here; it’s definitely worth the money.

The cultural shift from America to France was exciting. I really appreciated the charming stores, the bread, the cheese, and the wine. I do miss greeting people wth "Bonjour," and immersing myself in the country’s spectacular love for the arts. As my family arrived in New York City, I was at once thankful for this awesome opportunity.

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NOTEWORTHY INFO:

*Dorling Kindersley Travel Guides for France and Spain- We bought ours for $17.99 each. It is extremely useful because it categorizes each region of the country with its own shopping, art, history, and other festivities. There are large pictures of the famous landmarks, like the Sagrada Familia. At the back, there are listings of hotels and restaurants in major cities, along with ratings, prices, and availability of other conveniences; there are even maps of the métro systems.

*The only time we used the web was for Hotel Blason in Amboise; see http://www.amboise-valdeloire.com  and found its listings of recommended hotels.

D. Fong is a senior at a Bay Area high school. She is managing editor for the school paper as well as co-editor of its literary magazine. She loves creativity and hopes to pursue a career in journalism or English.

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