Diana started the holidays a bit earlier, and spent a couple of days in Hungary and Romania visiting friends and family, eating her mum’s home-made meals the whole day (together with Viki). In between the meals, we did a couple of trips in the mountains around Oradea, before going back to Budapest. After a few very relaxing days there, she flew to Paris on Wednesday.
Sjoerd arrived the next morning, and we enjoyed Paris in a very traditional way: breakfast with croissant and 'pain au chocolat' followed by 'un petit café' at a local brassérie, a long walk through Montmatre and the beautiful Sacre-Coeur, and dinner with our friends Carole & Eric in a small restaurant at St Michel close to the Notre Dame cathedral.
The next day we decided that we didn't yet have enough of the touristy attractions, so we went for a long walk from the hip Marais area to the classy Place des Vosges, and then via Ile St Louis and the Rive Gauche area to the Eiffel Tower where we laid in the grass to work on our tan for a while. Does it get better than this? We realized that we felt somewhere between a local and a tourist - we knew all these places very well from the time we lived here, but we also enjoyed walking around and admiring the city like visitors.
On Saturday, we left Paris for the Netherlands, which took much longer than expected due to long traffic jams in the south of the Netherlands (for some reason they just closed down a highway for half an hour...). But when we arrived in Zutphen it was great to again see Sjoerd's parents, Nicky & Frank and little Nora.
The next couple of days we spent with long breakfasts, picnic lunches and nice dinners, and by driving around the beautiful country side - all in all a nice couple of days 'en famille'
On Tuesday we had a long drive from Zutphen via Luxembourg to Annecy in France. We arrived quite late and checked in at the Hôtel du Chateau, which is right below Annecy's castle and has views over the city. In the evening we had fondue Savoyarde (cheese fondue) which is the typical local food - it was quite unhealthy but tasted great! After dinner we made a nice walk through this beautiful city and along the border of its lake, including 'le Pont des Amoureux'.
The next morning we drove down to the Provence, where we visited several small villages north of Nice, including Digne, Entrevaux and Puget-Theniers. It was interesting to see how close these places are to the famous Côte d'Azur but are still quite laid-back. Many houses have their own olive trees and one family even gave us a bottle of home-made olive oil (the best we ever tasted!). In the evening we drove to the village of Castellane, which is the gateway to the famous 'Gorges du Verdon'.
The Gorges du Verdon is one of France's most impressive natural wonders and one of Europe's deepest and longest canyons. The green river cuts through the rocks and was sometimes 700m below us. The next morning, we first drove along the right bank, and made a few short walks (stopping every other minute for photos). It was very impressive, with massive rocks, sweeping views and many eagles soaring overhead. The river ends in the deep-blue Lac St Croix, where we turned and drove back along the (less impressive) left bank, on our way to Aix-en-Provence further south. Once there, we checked into the characteristic Hôtel Cardinal - a good choice with antiques and tasselled curtains everywhere...
Aix-en-Provence lived up to our (high) expectations, as it was a beautiful old city with romantic little streets, fountains at every corner and lots of bohemian chic. From the classy Cours Mirabeau in the center you can enter in any of its small streets and enjoy yourself getting lost in a beautiful maze...
The next morning we followed the walking trail in the footsteps of Cézanne (the famous painter who was a local here), which allows you to see where he lived, drank and painted. Afterwards we packed up and drove to Arles, another extremely charming city in the Provence and the residence of Vincent van Gogh. Once we got there, we first visited Les Alyscamps - a beautiful cemetery which was painted by both Van Gogh and Gauguin. Unfortunately the bad weather caught up with us, so we made a quick escape to the coastal town of St Marie de la Mer in the Camargue region (a popular sea resort) where people were swimming and sunbathing. It was nice to see the Mediterranean again :-) After soaking up the sun for a while, we went back and visited a bird park along the way where we made some great photos of local flamingos. We were surprised to see hundreds of flamingos here, as we thought they only live in the tropics... We also saw many of the local white horses, some used for rides and others roaming free.
Back in Arles, we checked in to the lovely Hôtel du Musée, and spent a few hours exploring the old city, with its Roman amphitheater and arena, and its medieval city walls, cathedral, small streets and squares with bars and restaurants. Really nice...
The next morning we drove via Nîmes to the Bourgogne region, about 4-5 hours north. We started at the northern part of Bourgogne, in one of most beautiful towns of France - Vézelay. This UNESCO World Heritage site is one of France's architectural gems. It's built on top of a hill around a beautiful cathedral, and is surrounded by a patchwork of vineyards, sunflower fields and fields with cows. Vézelay has a long history - it was the starting point for pilgrimages to Spain and was also the starting point for several medieval crusades.
After we checked in to the nice Hôtel Compostelle, Sjoerd started to chat with some of the locals in the downstairs bar, asking for a good spot for scenic photos... And before we knew it, we were in the car of Jean-Yves, who drove us around for more than an hour, showing us all the best spots for great views on a sunset on Vézelay. Sjoerd repeated the same trip the next morning, for some sunrise shots of Vézelay above a misty valley. Spectacular
Bourgogne was a great surprise for us - especially the national park of Morvan. It was one of the most beautiful areas we have seen, with rolling hills, endless forests, rivers, lakes, white cows grazing in large fields, and beautiful villages dotted around the landscape. We couldn't get enough of it (but fortunately it was a very large national park!). In the evening we ended up in the village of Chateau-Chinon, on top of the hills in southern Morvan, with wonderful views from our hotel room.
On Monday it was time to leave Bourgogne for the region of La Loire, famous for the gorgeous castles spread out over the region. After a long but beautiful drive through the smaller roads of Bourgogne and La Loire, we ended up in Tours. For the next few days, we drove around the Loire region around Tours, Saumur and Angers, where we visited some private castles. Some of these needed serious renovation, but some where in excellent state with beautiful interior design (often those were used as hotel or for weekly rental). There were some amazing places, sometimes in a private park of over 100 hectares... But the weekly rental is often at least €4,500 :-(
We stayed a few nights in Saumur, which is a beautiful city at the Loire river with a huge castle, a famous equestrian school and many restaurants and bars. On Thursday morning we enjoyed the feeling of being 'free & easy' and only started making our plan for the rest of the holidays during breakfast... On the advice of the hotel manager, we decided to stay another day in Saumur to explore the Loire region a bit more. We visited it over 10 years ago when we lived in Paris, but only saw the highlights here - today would be a good opportunity to see some lesser-known castles. And it turned out to be a great decision!
While driving along the Loire river, we noticed houses built into caves in hills along the road. The spaces were left after people dug out blocks of white troglodyte stone to built houses and castles, and the caves are now used as secondary homes, for wine storage or for mushroom farming. The first place we visited was Abbaye de Fontevraud (of course built with troglodyte stones), which is the largest medieval abbey in Europe. It was an impressive and very well preserved complex (started as an abbey for both monks and nuns, and converted into a prison by Napoleon) and we enjoyed walking around for a while.
Next was Azay-Le-Rideau, one of the most famous castles here, which we had visited the last time we were here. It was great to be back and admire this elegant castle built on a small island in the Loire. It was a 'pleasure palace' only lived in during the summer.
After a leisurely lunch on the banks of the Loire, we continued with Langeais - a real fortress castle built for defense, including draw bridge and portals to throw stones and boiling oil. The interior is in very well preserved medieval style (one of the best in France) and it's famous as the location of the arranged marriage between Charles VIII and his child bride Anne of Bretagne in 1491, which gave France rights over the previously independent Bretagne.
The next castle was Villandry with its stunning gardens. We first visited the interior, which was well-restored but mostly offered good views over the gardens. Those were restored in the early 20th century, and the restoration work is still continued by the grandson of the owner. There are several different gardens, all with beautifully designed and maintained geometric shapes, such as the Ornamental Garden, the Water Garden, the Maze, the Herb Garden and the Vegetable Garden (with vegetables arranged by their color). They need a whole team of gardeners to maintain the 1200 lime trees, 250,000 flowers and vegetables and 52km of hedges, all with organic treatment. It was very impressive.
The last castle was Chateau d'Ussé, better known as the castle that inspired Charles Perrault to write 'Belle au Bois Dormant' (Sleeping Beauty) in the 17th century, while staying here. It was a beautiful castle with a strong 'Disney Land' look and the owner (who still lives here) clearly takes real pleasure and pride in restoring it and telling the Sleeping Beauty story (e.g., in the main tower, there were exhibits in every room with scenes from the story). It was very well done. The drive back to Saumur along the Loire was beautiful - we love this region!
On Friday 6 May we finally left the Loire region to head south towards Auvergne. After a couple of hours on the auto route through boring landscapes, we drove around Clermont-Ferrand into the volcanic national park of Auvergne, which was much more hilly and interesting. This area has seen many volcanic eruptions (the last one 7000 years ago) and it still visible in the sharp peaks and mountains, and black volcanic stones used for the houses. We first visited the Puy de Sancy, which is the highest peak in central France. It's a popular ski area, and we took a ski lift to get close to the peak. After a short but steep climb we were rewarded with great 360' views over this mountainous area. Afterwards we continued to Lac de Guéry a few kilometers north, where we found a nice 'auberge' (hotel) right next to the lake - this would probably give great views in the morning! We made a walk around the lake, up to a hill with great views on the lake and the surrounding hills, and walked around nearby Mont-Dore, which looks like a typical ski resort. We were surprised to see that they were selling piles of sausages and cheese at every second shop, and that every third shop was a pharmacy... Could there be a connection? :-)
In the morning (after admiring great views on the lake), we drove south via the curvy and scenic D36 road, and enjoyed spectacular views at every turn. We slowly made our way to the south of Auvergne, driving through nice villages along the way. By mid-afternoon, it was time to leave for our next destination: Chambéry in Savoie (in the French Alps). We arrived late but found a delightful 'chambre d'hôte', on a hill overlooking the valley at 10 minutes walk from Chambéry's center. Eric, the owner of this B&B, is a musician really knows how to enjoy live, e.g., in the summer he travels around small villages in the region as 'Eric le Troubadour' with an accordion and a donkey, to entertain the kids. Oh yeah, and he also offers homemade croissant and jams for breakfast in the morning :-)
On Sunday we went for a long drive around Lac du Bourget, which is the biggest natural lake of France, right next to Chambéry. We started with Mont Revard, which is a nearby mountain with magnificent views on the lake and the French Alps (including Mont Blanc). We could see boats sailing on the lake, and we could imagine how people here could have real 'joie de vivre' with sailing, skiing and good food...
We then slowly made our way down to Aix-les-Bains, from where we took a boat across the lake towards the Abbaye Le Hautecomb. The views from Aix on the lake and mountains were spectacular! Afterwards we drove around the lake to Chanaz, an old village close to the lake, where we bought some delicious nut oil and nut jam from the local mill. Diana much enjoyed being back in this area, where she spent a year studying (and skiing) more than 10 years ago - it was still beautiful!
The next day we woke up on time for a trip to Annécy, Evian and Yvoire. We started with Annécy, where we made some walks around the old city and the lake, before driving around the lake to visit some small picturesque villages. The water was clear azure blue and there's views on the mountains everywhere, but we still prefer the Lac du Bourget as it's less touristy and bigger.
Next we drove to Evian, home of the famous mineral water next to Lac Leman, which is shared by Switzerland and France. Lac Leman is not as nice, as it's not surrounded by mountains, but we enjoyed walking around the old city and topping up our bottle with water from the spring! Later we drove to Yvoire, an extremely picturesque village between Evian and Geneva. We truly felt that time had stopped somewhere in the Middle Ages, and we spent quite some time admiring the views on the village, castle and the lake. In the evening we went back to Bourget-du-Lac, to see Diana's business school and for dinner with view on the sunset over the lake. It was beautiful, quiet and amazing...
On Tuesday we drove back to Paris to finish our 'Tour de France'. After 6,500 km in three weeks, we safely returned our dirty and dusty rental car at Gare du Nord, and took the metro to our hotel. The hotel was close to the famous Rue de Mouffetard, which is blocked for cars, has a street market in the day and transforms itself into a dining street in the evening.
On Wednesday morning we had a coffee in the exclusive Plaza Athenee hotel, in a side street from the Champs-Élysées, and spent the rest of the day walking around Paris to soak up the atmosphere. On Thursday we went to the Louvre museum, to admire their 17th century Italian works, as well as the highlights like 'Joconda' (as the Mona Lisa is called in Italy) and the statue of the Venus of Milo. And of course the building itself - magnificent! In the evening we met Carole & Eric and Diana's old friend from Chambéry Christelle and her new boyfriend Yoann. It was an extremely nice evening in a great vegetarian restaurant.
On Friday we walked around Paris (can't get enough of it) and in the evening we met Marcus (from Diana's AIESEC France team), Barbara and their two daughters for a 'soirée crêpe' at their place just outside Paris. With a special machine, we prepared 'crêpe salée' and 'crêpe sucrée' and together with a couple of bottles of cider it made for a great evening. Laura (3) and Julie (1) were really nice kids, and especially Laura impressed us by dancing and posing the whole evening, insisting that we take photos of her and seriously reviewing the photos to see if they came out well :-)
On Saturday we met Morgan, Simone and their kids Emma and Noah for a picnic lunch at the best spot in Paris: Champs de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower. The weather was good, the company great and everybody was out in the sun - what a great way to spend an afternoon! Afterwards we took the Bateaux-Mouches for a one-hour boat trip over the Seine, to see the city from a different vantage point, then walked over the Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe, which we climbed to get stellar views over Paris. With the sun setting over the city, we had magnificent views all the way to Sacre-Coeur, all the 12 boulevards radiating from the Arc and of course the Eiffel Tower. Wow!
After a quick dinner on the Champs-Élysées, we went to see Midnight in Paris, the latest film by Woody Allen which was the opening film for this year's Cannes Film Festival. It was a perfect movie to watch in Paris, and it put us in the mood to walk around Paris for a couple of more hours :-)
We walked along the Seine, admiring the glittering Eiffel Tower, until the magnificent Pont Alexandre III in front of 'Hôtel des Invalides' with its golden statues. Close to the bridge, we saw long long queues in front of the museums of Le Grand Palais and Le Petit Palais. It was the European Night of The Museum, and all of Paris was spending Saturday night in museums, even queueing up for an hour in the middle of the night to see some exhibitions. We skipped the long queue and went to see a smaller exhibition in Le Grand Palais about the life of Picasso - sometime after midnight. This city is unbelievable!
We have always been in love with Paris, and this trip only made it stronger.
Paris je t’aime, and we’ll back!
For more photos, click here.