summer destination, Atlantic Coast of France

I stopped going to the Côte d’Azur (the French Riviera) about a decade and a half ago. Too crowded, too expensive, too built-up. But throughout the 1990s I went regularly, stealing away on the night train that departed from the Gare d’Austerlitz. My destination was always Nice (I adored that city), but I explored other towns strung like pearls along the coast: Cannes, Juan-les-Pins, Antibes, Cap Ferrat, and Menton near the Italian border. There was something romantic, dangerous and thrilling about those night trains. You never knew who you were going to meet in the corridors at midnight; you never knew with whom you were going to share your sleeping compartment (six bunks, called couchettes, to a compartment; you had to climb up a little ladder to get to the top bunk.) It seems funny now, the idea of sleeping with complete strangers in a stuffy train compartment. Towards the late 1990s the train company had the good idea to create “women’s only compartments” which locked from the inside.

But the Riviera lost its allure for me in the 2000s. The place had become over-run with tourists and both crime and prices increased drastically. Modernization attempts killed the sleepy charm that had once lured me there. So I switched coasts and discovered Arcachon, Cap Ferret (not to be confused with Cap Ferrat), La Rochelle and the Ile de Ré, all sparkling summer destinations on France’s western side. For visitors to France I still recommend the Côte d’Azur, but not in July and August. As for those night trains, sadly they’ve been phased out.

La Rochelle or Arcachon are good starting points, both little gems and both leading to beautiful islands: the Ile de Ré from La Rochelle and Cap Ferret from Arcachon. There’s also the Dune du Pyla that’s worth visiting, a massive sand dune and famous tourist destination that receives a million visitors per year.

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At the foot of the dune, numerous campsites are nestled in the pine forests. It should be known that French campsites are far from rustic. No canoeing, setting up tents and fighting off black flies and racoons like I used to do in Canada. No roasting weenies and marshmallows over a campfire while sitting on a log singing Kumbaya. The French like their comfort; they also like rules, confined spaces and organized group activities. A decade ago, when the kids were little, we spent one July at a campsite located at the foot of the Dune du Pyla. It’s called Les Flots Bleus. We were assigned a mobile home on a patch of earth measuring roughly 20 square meters.

It was fun (and funny) to watch the French in a different habitat. No matter where they find themselves, they adhere to strict meal times. Lunchtime is lunchtime and at noon sharp you could smell the beginning of meals being cooked inside the mobile homes or on barbecues outside. Tables were set, wine bottles were uncorked and simple lettuce salads with home-made vinaigrette were prepared. Camembert was unwrapped and meat was grilled. People strode by carrying baguettes, purchased at the on-site and all-important boulangerie. I admire the French for their food and meal discipline. Living in France taught me how to eat properly. The number one rule? No snacking between meals!

In the afternoon, groups formed to play pétanque under the trees while the kids headed to the pool, the beach or the giant dune. To see my past posts on Arcachon and Cap Ferret, go up to the top right hand corner of this blog and type Arcachon into the Search box. Here’s a video of another Atlantic island I’ve yet to explore:

 

the lovely Loire

 

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Throughout the month of May we have four public holidays in France: May1st (Labor Day), May 8th (1945 Victory Day), May 10th (Day of Ascension) and May 21st (Pentecost). And every May the French combine those paid holidays with vacation days and take off in droves. Some of the destinations my work colleagues are heading to are Marrakech, Jakarta, Brittany, the Basque region, London and Copenhagen. If I wasn’t already booked for Lille on May 19th and Portugal in early June, I’d return to the Loire Valley because the magnificent formal gardens at the Château de Villandry are a must-see, again and again.

I’ve published this post before, but due to popular demand I’m posting it again –

A few years ago I spent a long and lovely weekend in the Loire Valley, home of chateaux, vineyards and fruit orchards. From Paris I took the train to Amboise where my friend Andrew, an Englishman who lives in the region, met me. Amboise is a pretty riverside town with its own chateau. Here’s how UNESCO describes the Loire region: “an exceptional cultural landscape, of great beauty, comprised of historic cities, villages and great architectural monuments.” And it’s true. There’s a softness in the landscape: the rolling of its gentle hills, the meandering of its rivers and the richness of its fertile soil that all converges into one glorious package that’s called the garden of France. And home of Kings since the 10th century.

From Amboise we drove to the nearby village of Loches where Andrew knew the owners of a bed and breakfast establishment. It was an excellent recommendation.

I stayed in the Sforza room and had the whole upper floor to myself. There was a sloping roof and dormer window that opened onto the river and a park beyond. The clean air and nocturnal silence that pervades the village Loches was like manna from heaven. I couldn’t get enough of the fresh country air nor the gentle burbling sound of the stream that flowed beneath my window, stark contrast to the metallic whine of scooters and cars that flow beneath my window in Paris. Even though the nights were cold, I slept with the window wide open. Here’s the view from the Sforza room –

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The two gentlemen who run the B&B couldn’t have been more charming and hospitable. Jean-Claude is originally from Paris and his business associate, Moha, from Morocco. Every morning I’d come downstairs and a smiling Moha would greet me with “Bonjour Mademoiselle!  Avez-vous bien dormi?”

“Did I sleep well?” I replied, “I think I died and went to heaven!” A generous continental breakfast was laid out on the table: yoghurts and jams home-made by Moha; croissants, breads and lots of good coffee. We were only three guests that weekend, so Jean-Claude and Moha (and their little black dog) joined us at the large table. We engaged in lively conversation. It’s rare that innkeepers in France sit down and join their guests at table, so I appreciated their warmth and company.

As you probably already know, the Loire Valley is known for several gorgeous wine regions: Muscadet, Sancerre, Vouvray and Pouilly-Fumé to name a few.  Loire wines tend to have a characteristic fruitiness with fresh, crisp flavours.  My favourite red wine from the Loire is Chinon, so Andrew drove me to the town of Chinon, an unassuming place located on the banks of the Vienne river. What a treat! I was determined to unearth some exceptional (but reasonably-priced) bottles of wine to take back to Paris with me. In the center of town we found a caviste, an independant wine merchant, with a tasting room. Sitting at a long, hand-hewed wooden table, we proceeded to sample glass after glass of Cabernet Franc, a black grape variety for which Chinon wines are known.

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Because there are so many chateaux in this region, it’s a good idea to do your research before going so as to not waste time wondering which one to visit. The weather being beautiful, we wanted to stay outdoors so decided on the Château de Villandry, famous for its gardens that comprise an ornamental garden, a water garden, a medieval herb garden, a vegetable garden and a maze. For two hours we wandered in the sunshine, marvelling at the landscape design and the history of the place. We’re talking 16th-century and this is what I love about France (and Europe in general): the commingling of past and present, modern and ancient.  

Here’s what the brochure blurb says – The Chateau of Villandry is the last of the great chateaux built during the Renaissance in the Loire Valley. The sober elegance of its architecture combined with the charm of its outstanding gardens illustrate the ideals of the Renaissance and the Age of the Enlightenment on western European thought and design.

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The next day we drove to Tours to lunch in a lively bistro named Le Chien Jaune (The Yellow Dog.) The food was decent, but nothing to rave about. This place is more for atmosphere and good wine. Tours, the principal city of the Loire Valley, makes a good base from which to visit the surrounding chateaux and vineyards. From Paris Montparnasse train station, the Loire region can be reached in only one hour and 12 minutes on the TGV fast train.

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All in all, a terrific weekend. I’m eager to return but, comme toujours, other regions and other countries beckon.

the Molitor, a Paris institution

Piscine d'Eté

Isn’t this a gorgeous photograph?  In the upper left background you can see the glittering Eiffel Tower.

And what is the Molitor, you might well ask.  Why, it’s the city’s most fashionable swimming pool, darling, and it has quite a history.  Constructed in 1929 in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, it was intended to resemble an ocean liner, with different levels, white railings and circular windows.  It’s a marvellous example of the Art Déco style of its time.

Future Tarzan actor, Johnny Weissmuller, was a lifeguard there.  He spent a season giving swimming lessons and rescuing damsel bathers in distress.

The Molitor is also remembered by Parisians for its transformation into a skating rink in winter.

“I remember a confined, very crowded place”,  reminisces Corinne, a Parisian schoolgirl in 1958.  “We used to turn endlessly, bothering each other.”

“It was a place where rich kids from the 16th arrondissement and Boulogne-Billancourt picked each other up.  All the girls wore crew neck cardigans buttoned on the back and Hermes scarves crossed in the front and tied up on their backs.”  Chic !

molitor skating rink

By 1989, though, the 60-year-old pool fell into ruin. The city of Paris didn’t have the funds to renovate, so it closed.  It became a venue for raves and a canvas for graffiti artists.

molitor graffitti

Oddly enough, 4 years later another famous swimming pool in Paris – the Deligny – which was a floating pool on the river Seine, would sink.  I used to go to the Deligny when I first arrived in Paris in the early 1990s.

But all’s well that ends well, my darlings.  Today the Molitor is swank – restored back to its former glory, but with a modern twist.  It’s part of a hotel.  A luxury hotel.  For many Parisians, though, it’s an unaffordable luxury. People can use the pool if they stay at the hotel (from 215 euros per night), join the Molitor club (3,000 euros per year) or pay for a one day membership (150-180 euros).

Here’s a beautifully-done video of the pool’s history and its sparkling new life today. Watch how the Molitor re-invents itself over the decades.  Chic !

a summery slice of life – the Atlantic coast of France

A few summers ago I went to Arcachon, located just south of Bordeaux on the Atlantic Coast. It’s a favorite seaside destination of mine, easily accessible by a direct high-speed train from Paris. France is blessed with three coastlines: the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the English Channel.

Here’s a two-minute video of the jetty which stretches out over Arcachon Bay. Just beyond is the island of Cap Ferret. I can smell that fresh, ocean air and hear the gulls wheeling overhead right now.

 

Below is a post with photos of Arcachon and Cap Ferret, as well as a good hotel recommendation.

https://julietinparis.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/arcachon-and-cap-ferret/

Arcachon and Cap Ferret

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Arcachon is a medium-sized beach town situated south of Bordeaux and north of Biarritz on France’s alluring Atlantic Coast.  Across the bay of Arcachon is a peninsula called Cap Ferret, not to be confused with Cap Ferrat on the Mediterranean. Covered with pine trees and sand dunes, it is reachable by boat. 

Arcachon August 2013 019You’ll find more Bordelais here than Parisians because a sizeable chunk of the Bordeaux bourgeoisie have summer homes in Arcachon and Cap Ferret.Arcachon August 2013 136The weather was perfect: hot and sunny every day, but always a cool wind blowing in off the ocean.Arcachon August 2013 109

The moment I stepped off the train (3 and a half hours direct from Paris on the high-speed train, TGV) I could smell the briny sea air.  What a refreshing change from the polluted smog I’m forced to breathe in Paris!  The Hotel de la Plage was perfect. Located between the train station and the beach, the rooms were air-conditioned, sound-proofed and very comfortable.  I paid 123 euros a night which are high season rates.  http://www.hotelarcachon.com

click on links below to continue and to see Cap Ferret