Back in September 2017, B and I went to France together.
Given that the trip was B’s first trip to France, my nostalgic return to a country where I’d lived, and our first time ever traveling together, it was exciting and daunting to contemplate. But happily the trip went marvelously, even despite me scratching the heck out of the rental car while trying to negotiate a narrow, curving, downward-angled parking garage entrance. The trip was too short, but at least it was good.
So here are some photos and anecdotes from the trip, rather belatedly!
First stop: 2 days in Paris. I had been going to skip Paris entirely when I first started planning the trip – when I was only going by myself – but when I mentioned this to B after it became a joint trip, he gave me puppy-dog eyes and said that he’d been looking forward to me showing him around Paris (a city I know fairly well, thanks to my year living near it). In that case, of COURSE we’ll go to Paris! … For a couple of days, at least.
While wandering around late one evening, looking for a place to eat, we ran across a place in this random alley-ish road, called Le Desnoyez. While a look at the menu was intriguing, we opted to keep walking… for about another twenty steps, when we decided that we were being dumb and we should go back. So glad we did! It was one of the best meals we had, in my opinion.
The place was tiny – it would have seated twelve to fifteen, I think – and the menu was very much of the “we have what the chef felt like would be good, and we have each dish until we run out of it.” The server warned us as we sat down that they only had one portion of magret of duck left, which I promptly ordered, since it had been what had caught my eye on the menu outside. It came with delicious roasted or braised eggplant – and I don’t even like eggplant that much! B had some grilled fish with black rice, and we both had a glass of interesting, unusual wine from the short-but-awesome wine list. I found out later that this place is on Paris foodies’ radar; I can see why!
We didn’t spend long in Paris, and we didn’t do a great deal that was super-touristy. We walked around; we took in the view from the café in the Institut du Monde Arabe. We lounged underneath a willow tree at the end of the Ile de la Cite; we had a picnic lunch (and did some more lounging) in the Tuilleries Gardens. We sat in cafes and bars and had drinks and inhaled a lot of secondhand smoke. We rented a couple of Velib’ and pootled around a bit. In short, it was a nice, low-key introduction to the city.
Next stop: 2 days in Toulouse. We went mostly to visit our friend from college, D, who lives over there. We also got to spend a lot of time with his daughters, the younger of which really took to B. She also fell asleep in my arms on the sidelines at a ballet studio, where she had insisted on staying to watch her big sister’s class while B and D ran some errands. Later we played hide-and-seek in the laundry-drying open-air top floor of their apartment building, and did a singalong over dinner.
Another evening we met up with D and went to this little basement-level restaurant with a neat, funky atmosphere. We were there because I absolutely positively 100% had to have cassoulet while in the neighborhood. So we had cassoulet – very tasty – and then… I think we got lured into having a couple of drinks of some form of potent, house-made or house-steeped liqueur at the bar? I definitely remember chatting with a very nice bartender, and having her pushing us to try… something? ::laughing:: Believe it or not, this memory loss has less to do with the potency of the drinks than with my gnat-brain memory.
I liked Toulouse. I hadn’t spent much time there in the past, and I guess two more days still doesn’t equal “much”, but I felt like I got to see more of it than I had in the past. I could see living there, were I to ever live in France again. The blend of small town and university city appealed to me.
Next stop: 3 days in the Dordogne. This was the part of the trip that I was most excited about. The Dordogne holds a special place in my heart – it was the first part of France I ever visited, back when I was a teenager – and I was really looking forward to introducing B to it.
We were based in the small town of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, a 10-minute walk below one of the many, many castles that dot along either bank of the Dordogne River. (Which, as I understand it, was a frequently disputed strategic line for hundreds of years of the struggle between France and England.) Our apartment was tiny, and apart from the damp issues, pretty much perfect. We used it as a base for exploring the area, and in the process discovered that neither of us really likes exploring by car – and that since we both knew that in advance, it was probably something we should have “discovered” through conversation beforehand, rather than after we’d already spent a day on it! Ah well! Now we know for the future.
We walked from Castelnaud to Domme one day, finding a neat rock-climbing crag just minutes outside of Castelnaud, enjoying the small roads on the way over, and a glass of wine and some violet (!) ice cream once we’d gotten there. On the way back, we navigated by Pokémon Go. I’m not kidding. It turns out that Pokémon Go’s maps are actually better than Other Leading Internet Map Purveyors’, and led us to take this tiny, at times-not-even-dirt-but-just-grass path that led through farmyards and orchards and yes, WAS public. It was beautiful, and B was very pleased (/smug) about Pokémon Go coming in handy. ::laughing::
As we walked along a small paved road in a valley, headed to a path up and over the hill that separated us from Castelnaud, we passed an old lady walking the opposite direction. She hailed us (itself an unusual occurrence in France, where my experience has been that people are perfectly friendly but don’t tend to strike up conversations with strangers passing on the street), and we stopped for what turned into a very interesting ten-minute conversation. (B was very patient and attentive, despite not speaking French; he later said that he was able to guess the tenor of the conversation by watching my face.) She was a charming, tiny woman, wearing a large straw hat with a fabric sunflower attached to it and bright pink lipstick applied rather crookedly, and carrying a shopping bag with groceries poking out the top.
We started by talking about the US, once it came out that that was where we were from. She has a daughter who lives over here, and whom she had gone to visit when the daughter lived in San Francisco. The daughter lives in Florida now, and as Florida was about to be hammered by another of its yearly round of hurricanes, we spoke about staying safe and being with family during times like that. At some point, she mentioned that she had lost her husband eighteen months ago. I said that I was sorry to hear that. She nodded thoughtfully, and then said, “He beat me throughout our entire marriage.” And then told me about how she’d been forced to marry him – a guy twelve or so years older than her – as soon as she’d finished high school, despite her grades being good and her wanting to continue on in schooling, how she’d been forced to work on their farm and how awful life had been. She ended by saying, “My life hasn’t been a gift.” I think I may have managed to say something like, “Well, in that case, maybe I’m notsorry your husband died?” She nodded again, and then went on to tell me about how now she lived in this enormous farmhouse all by herself, with twenty-odd radiators that she couldn’t afford to turn on, and how no one came to visit her. She showed us her housekey, which was a huge ornate thing like you’d see as an illustration of the key to a castle or treasure chest in a fairytale.
It was quite the encounter.
We ate a lot of good food on this trip. (By the end of my time in France, what with one thing and another, I ended up ravenously falling on a fresh-made veggie rice bowl at a place in Tours, despite it being my last night in France, because I had just eaten too much cheese and bread and patéand rich food.) We had “picnics” for lunch and/or dinner often throughout the trip – we’d go to a boulangerie and get a baguette, go to a market and get an assortment of cheese and patéor salami, stop by somewhere and get a cheap-but-good (because it’s REALLY easy to do that in France!) bottle of wine, and then enjoy the heck out of it at whatever AirBNB we were at. I love Comtécheese, so we ate a lot of that. And a lot of Roquefort. One great market was in Sarlat, inside what looked to be a converted church, with hugepointed-arch metal doors at one end and all manner of tasty stuff to be had inside. Another favorite for me was the market we went to only a few hours after landing in Paris, where B got the figs. It was on the Right Bank and it was jam-packed and chaotic and marvelous.
We ate out, too, of course. One night in the Dordogne, we decided to go to Sarlat and have a three-course meal somewhere. We tried to pick a place that wasn’t too touristy, but hey, it’s Sarlat. The meal we had was very good in any case. I don’t remember all of what we had, but B’s confit of duck was better than my coq au vin, and best of all was a vin de noix aperitif! Pretty sure we had some fois gras, too, which was good but edging towards too rich.
We had one day at the very end of our trip dedicated to climbing in Fontainebleau. We knew that wasn’t anything like enough time before we went, but it was only when we got there that we realized just how laughably shabby an amount of time it was. In that one day, we were at the rocks from about 9 am to 6 pm, and although we climbed pretty steadily during that whole time, we climbed maybe – MAYBE – twenty percent of the climbs available in that area, which contained maybe – MAYBE – a tenth of the amount of climbs in the Fontainebleau area. It’s daunting to consider – but hey, at least we’ve got plenty to go back for!
Climbing at Font was surprising. First off, the problems are arranged into circuits, with each circuit color-coded according to difficulty. But a blue circuit, for instance (the color I settled into) contains problems that span a range of difficulty ratings from VB to V2ish (did I mention that Font problems are ass-kickingly difficult for their grade?). At first B and I tried individual problems that looked interesting, but later in the day we tried doing an actual circuit. We didn’t get very far – I think he finished the first five problems in a blue circuit and I did four of the first five – but it was neat to get a little insight into the deeper structure of the Font system.
And the rock! SO WEIRD! We were in the Roche aux Sabots/Cul de Chien area, and the rock was just so strange. Much of it looks like it’s been eroded by water, its shape is so sinuously curvy. And although this area is a beautiful beech-and-heather forest, you walk to Cul de Chien and suddenly you’re confronted with a sea of beach-quality sand. It was so different than my familiar old PNW granite.
One of the highlights of the day was when we moved over to the Cul de Chien area, to check out a famous problem, Le Toit de Cul de Chien. (It’s famous because it navigates a roof, which is a feature that doesn’t show up often in Font rocks.) There was a gaggle of climbers already gathered around the problem. They’d been trying it for quite a while already, and readily welcomed us into the group. (That’s one of the things I like the best about bouldering: how welcoming people are.) The vibe was really encouraging and energetic, and it got even me to try the problem, which was well beyond my capabilities. Neither B nor I got it in the end, but we both got a little further every time, and we got to see one of the other climbers finally get it, after having given up for the day and then having been lured back in by the energy around the climb.
We had fun, and left only reluctantly. I feel confident that a more extended trip to Font is in our future.
The same can be said of France as a whole: we had fun, and left only reluctantly. (Of course, B left earlier than me, but since I’ve already gone on for far too long, the story of my abortive attempt to cycle a section of the Loire a Velo bike path will have to wait for another time.)