France 2016

Two years ago we went to Italy for a family vacation and it was awesome.  For almost a year Nancy’s family has been planning a trip to France.  Greg and Maggie got a chateau in Mercurey for a week and invited everyone to come along.  An offer like that is hard to refuse so Nancy and I were in.  We left on Friday July 1st for Paris, direct flight of course.  Wheels up at 5:25pm and landed at Charles de Gaul airport at 6:55am the following morning.  We attempted to sleep on the flight but on a flight like this it was near impossible.  We managed a few hours of broken sleep before we landed, went through customs and got the rental car.

Before heading to the chateau with the family we stopped at the Palace of Versailles to walk around.  It took a while getting in because of security but it was pretty amazing once we got through.  The tourists from China were pretty bad, just like at the Vatican.  Always on their phone taken stupid pictures, videos and selfies plus just pushing everyone out of their way.  The palace was pretty amazing despite all the people in it.  It reminds me of the Vatican in fact.  Lots of people, narrow hallways, just a cattle call getting people through the rooms.  We finished in the Hall of Mirrors and shortly after that we found an exit.  It might have been nice to see the rest of Versailles but we had had enough of the crowds and wanted some fresh air.  Thankfully the gardens are HUGE and provided plenty of room for everyone.  Since we arrived when it opened the gardens where still pretty empty.  I was a little disappointed that none of the fountains where on but by the time we left, someone had flipped the switch.  Very impressive fountain displays considering how old they are.  We even found a water display timed to music which was really cool.

We could have spent all day here, just relaxing in the gardens but we had to drive ahead of us to Mercurey and Château de Mercurey.  This part of the journey was certainly an adventure.  You just take the A6 out of Paris so it was pretty straight forward.  We wanted some drinks at one point and got off the highway, mistake.  Not only did we not find a gas station to get drinks but we couldn’t get back on the A6 towards Lyon.  Once we got that outta the way it was another 2 hours before we got off the highway.  The in-car GPS took us off the highway pretty early but it ended up being for the better.  The rest of the way to the chateau was all through the country side and small villages.  The scenery was amazing.  It might have taken a little longer but it was certainly worth the extra time.

While excited to arrive at the chateau we were dog ass tired when we did arrive.  That first night we kept it pretty low key.  The family had dinner already prepared and we didn’t even have to help with cleanup.  Everyone was very understanding of us being up for about 30 hours at that point.  Being the troopers we are, and wanting to acclimate ourselves as quickly as possible to the local timezone, we stayed up for several more hours relaxing by the pool smoking cigars.  I made it to about 10:30 before I had to call it and Nancy was not far behind me.  That first nights rest was pretty amazing I must say.  The temps are very low at night so we slept with all the windows open.  The next morning it was great to wake up in the Chateau. In this part of France we are at a much higher latitude so it is cooler then home, chilly almost.  We left the balcony doors open all the time, at night it gets to the 60’s, perfect sleeping weather. We also had a balcony so I often smoked a little cigar with some coffee while over looking the vineyards as the sun rose casting the perfect light onto the village.  Amazing.

The long travel day on Saturday meant it was a lazy chateau day on Sunday.  We only got out of the house to visit the market in Chalon-sur-Saõne which was cool.  The market is right in the town square near the river and main church.  Nancy and I decided to cook dinner for everyone Sunday night and managed to get everything we needed from the market.  We got pork chops, fresh vegetables and some amazing fruit.  Even found some strawberries like I did while in Mirano, Italy.  For me the coolest thing we found in the market was a local craft beer maker.  He was offering three kinds, Ambeer IPA, Blonde, and an English Brown Ale.  Talking to him he was certainly passionate about his craft.  He kept wanting to tell us about the different beers and their flavor profile but Nancy and I didn’t really care.  It wasn’t a question of which one we were getting, we were getting all three. That night Nancy and I cooked a great meal on the grill for the entire family.  It was a great meal and it was wonderful to cook for everyone as a thank you for inviting us along.

Tuesday was all about wine.  The owner of the chateau, Christophe, is a wine nut and offers a tasting to guests that stay at one of his four chateaus.  Greg signed us up for the extended tasting and I must say it was pretty damn amazing.  We have been to many tastings before, we live in Loudoun County after all.  This was something completely different.  In his chateau he built a wine cellar in the basement and it currently has almost 9000 bottles.  We started in the cellar and he must have talked for an hour about the wine in his collection.  Going over how to store it properly, how he built the cellar and how his collection started.  He then went into some of the specifics of his collection.  When you hear him talk its some pretty amazing bottles he has collected.  I can’t remember the local vineyard but it took him 20 years to get on the list and even then the allotment is under 12 bottles a year.  This year he has been notified he is only getting 6.

After the tour of the cellar, we went to the tasting room.  The tasting ended up being six bottles of some very old wines.  We tasted a 1960 Champagne, 2001 white, one red that was from 2003, another red from 2011, some late ’80’s sweet wine from the west coast of France and finally a port from Portugal barreled in 1967 and then bottled in 2012.  All of the wine were fantastic and we ended up buying four bottles, two reds and two whites.  I am not a fan of whites but the one we tasted was really good.  I certainly have a better appreciation for vintage wines after this tasting.  Christophe explained the whole process of what happens when you age a wine and why it is so much  better after several years.  The big thing for reds was the tannin.  The aging process lowers them significantly, making the wine taste better.  You also reduce the levels of sulfites which are there to preserver the wine.  This experience was the highly of Mercurey for me.

The following day started early with a balloon ride over the country side and local villages.  6am came early but worth it once we lifted off.  I even helped in getting the balloon ready for launch by holding it open while it filled with air.  The early morning start in the calm cool air allowed for a magical lift off.  The wind was very kind to us and our pilot, Pierre, said we lucked out by going over so many villages.  We eventually landed in a far flung village in a farmers hay field.  After we packed the balloon up we headed to the local church, Église Saint-Maurice, on the top of the hill to celebrate our successful trip in typical French fashion with champagne.  We even got a certificate of our trip which was really cool.

Later that night we had a four course meal prepared by a Michelin rated chef, Thomas who is a local caterer that Christophe recommends.  We got to pick the meal and I was very impressed with everything he cooked.  It was plated well and served by wait staff which was a nice touch.  For this evening we drank a red from 1985 which was in the pre-pack Greg got on our arrival to the chateau.  After the tasting early, I had a much better appreciate for this vintage red.

Wednesday was a real excursion day for us.  We split from the family and headed to Dijon on our own adventure.  Here Nancy wanted to see an owl on a church and rub it with her left hand which is good luck.  We parked in the city center and started our hunt.  We had a spot on the map but this ended up being the end of the trail which we didn’t know at the time.  We realized quickly that this was not the spot so we followed the markers on the street.  This was a great walking tour of the city.  We eventually got lost when a square the trail led us to was completely demolished and the trail went cold.  After an exhaustive search was just decided to get lunch at La Comedie and continue the hunt later.  Lunch was great sitting at the outdoor cafe watching the people. Both our meals where fantastic and because this is France, Nancy smoked after the meal.  Thankfully Dijon has an official app with the Owl walking trail marked on it.  Come to find out, the trail picked up about a half block directly behind us which was nice.  We eventually did find the owl and rubbed it for good luck like so many travelers before us.

The famous owl of Dijon. It has been taken up as the symbol of the city. It is said to be good luck to make a wish while rubbing the owl with your left hand.

With that accomplished we continued to just walk around the city and explore.  Eventually we decided on heading back to a small square we walked past earlier.  It was just after two when we arrived so all the restaurants where closing up.  We just wanted a drink and found a guy that was helpful.  He kept telling us that all the restaurants are closed and there was a fast food place just down the road that would be opened.  We had to explain we just wanted drinks and he said “oh wet bar, right there” and pointed to the next restaurant over.  Here at O’zaviat we drank a couple local beers and did some people watching.  It was great just hanging out in the square watching the city around us.  We had the times so I was able to smoke a cigar.  The bar tender even brought us some olives and garlic in lemon oil which paired perfectly with the beers.  So far most of the beers have been blonde, farmhouse and Belgium styles, not my favorites but decent.

That night we headed back to Chalon-sur-Saône for dinner with the family.  It was our job to find a place on the small island which is known as restaurant island because on one small street it is just jammed packed with restaurants.  It was a mess trying to find parking but once we did we strolled down the street looking for a placed for the entire family.  One lady literally laughed in our face when we wanted a table for 11.  That place wasn’t busy all night so their loss for not wanting to seat us.  We found Chez Jules which was accommodating and ended up being fantastic.  Nancy and I both got the four course fixed menu which was great.  We finally got to taste the famous Bresse chicken for the entree, it tastes like chicken.  To me it was nothing specially but still a good meal.  Getting back to the house that night was an adventure as the garaged closed at 8pm and we didn’t know it.  Thankfully someone let us in and we were able to get out.

Thursday was another chill day at the chateau.  Nancy and I tried to hit a winery but by the time we got ready it was noon and that means everything was closed.  Getting use to the schedule of things was proving difficult.  At this point we just decided to stay pool side for the day.  This allowed me to catch up on my writing and smoke cigars all afternoon.  I eventually did go for a walk around the village.  I wanted to check out the small cemetery next to the chateau and find my way to a statue of the Virgin Mary I spotted at the top of the hill.  What I eventually found was a small trail that actually lead me to summit.  The top of the hill had some great views overlooking the village below.  It was a good walk before the boys dinner later that night.

Dinner tonight was going to be extra special.  On Sunday when Nancy and I cooked I proposed the idea that the boys cook a meal and I must say they delivered.  They had to shop for and prepare the meal themselves and it was fantastic.  Joey said they had no problem at the grocery, only weird thing was the butcher looked at them funny when he explained how much steak they wanted.  To our surprise the meal was plated.  The entire family was blown away by the food.  It was probably the best home cooked meal we had all trip.

Friday no one went anywhere.  For the Free’s it was the last full day in France before they set off for home.  They where going to spend Saturday at the airport hotel for their Sunday flight home while Nancy and I would continue onto Paris for several days.  As such, everyone just wanted to relax and not do much.  Greg wanted to go out to Chalon-sur-Saône for dinner but no one was buying it.  That night I believe was the first night all 11 of us were sitting down by the pool.  Most nights everyone would spread out and do their own thing but this night, everyone gathered around and talked as a family.  We really didn’t go out with a bang that night, didn’t even stay up that late.  Saturday we had to be out of the house by 10am and it was a 3 hour drive to Paris for everyone.  Being responsible sucks sometimes.

Saturday morning came faster then we wanted.  We had already packed but since I am not a morning person, it took some time to get going.  It was a quick breakfast, packed the car and we were off to Paris for several days on our own mini vacation within the over all vacation.  We started driving and talking about what to do first and a plan quickly formed.  Nancy wanted to visit the Champagne region of France so I found Troyes.  It is a Medieval city and famous for it’s exposed half wood building….and the champagne.  When we arrived it was before noon so the city was dead, even for a Saturday.  The bistro we found online didn’t actually sell wine by the glass so we moved on and found another placed to grab some lunch and a drink.  We couldn’t spend more time here but it was a nice detour on our way to Paris.

Once in Paris we checked into the hotel and I was off to drop the rental car off.  Now I don’t drive stick, in fact the most I have ever driven stick was while in Italy on our last European vacation.  Let me tell you it was interesting navigating the city.  I stalled numerous times in the middle of an intersection to the annoyance of those behind me.  I would take a deep breath and just try again.  Eventually I made it out of town and onto the highway towards Charles de Gaulle Airport.  From the airport it was a quick train ride to Châtelet-les-Halles Station and a leisurely walk to the Paris Marriott Opera Ambassador Hotel.

Our time in Paris was a mix of planned events and just hanging out.  Nancy wanted to see Jim Morrison’s grave so Sunday we went to Père Lachaise Cemetery to check it out.  They actually had it blocked off with a guard posted.  Nancy was telling me that over the years they have had a lot of vandalism.  In fact the headstone was removed because of graffiti.  We also saw Oscar Wilde’s grave and the “Aux Morts de la Commune, 21-28 Mai, 1871” To the Dead of the Commune which is a tragic store.  The place is a little creepy, it is a cemetery after all, but it was fascinating walking through the place.  This is a very old cemetery so you have some graves sites that are dilapidated and old next to brand newer ones.  Lots of family tombs and in one area they have a huge section for cremations.  There must be tens of thousands of people cremated and interned and barred at Père Lachaise Cemetery.  There is a small church in the middle with two smoke stacks, looking at them they will cremate the remains right there before internment.

The top part was added later by a wealth benefactor to Oscar Wilde’s original tombstone.

No trip to Paris would be complete without a stop by the Louvre.  This is a giant museum with thousands of items on exhibit.  Everything we read said to have a plan of attack and to do your research before going and I must agree with that.  The collections are so vast it is impossible to walk the entire museum in one day and really enjoy it.  We had two major objectives while at the museum, to see the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo.  Both were pretty easy to find thanks to our map and for the Mona Lisa, there are signs on the walls pointing you to the exhibit hall right from the main entrance.  Supposedly if you stair at her long enough, she will talk to you.  Both Nancy and I tried this but eventually gave up.  The crowd of rude people was just to much so we gave up.  Another cool thing we found was the original foundation of the Louvre which started off original as a castle.  They didn’t find this section till recently and it’s pretty cool.  You get to walk through what was the moat of the castle.  The walls must be 40 feet high and who knows how thick.  We spent several hours in the museum and eventually got tired and decided to head out.  I could certainly go back and spend another day or three here.  We didn’t even hit the Medieval or Egyptian sections and only scratched the surface of the Greek/Roman areas.  Simply an amazing place and total worth your time for a visit.

The Eiffel Tower, probably the single best icon of architecture in the city was Tuesday.  I didn’t schedule this to early so we had plenty of time to walk up before we had to be at the tower.  It took a while to get to the top but it was a worthy journey once we made it.  Paris reminds of Washington DC in that there are very few tall buildings.  It seems like most cap out around 8 or ten stories which isn’t high at all.  I believe up until early this century the Eiffel Tower was the worlds tallest building in fact.  Needless to say, it has some spectacular panoramic views of the city skyline.  Just like in Seattle at the Space Needle, I got a little woozy when I would walk towards the edge.  It’s hard to explain, I don’t feel sick and I know I won’t fall off but my head just starts going funky.  Let me tell you it was weird taking pictures from the edge.  Up at the top they have a small champagne bar so of course we got a couple glasses and made a toast.  Totally over priced but is pretty high up on the coolness scale.

Later that afternoon we went to the catacombs just down the street.  We missed going to the ones in Rome so this was my first opportunity to see such a thing.  I was shocked at the number of bodies buried in the catacombs.  My French is not very good but it appeared there are different sections for different churches and different years.  Many of the sections are artfully stacked making the design of a cross, a building and one was even of a heart.  It was very somber walking through the narrow passageways.  We noticed that many of the sections are blocked off and I guess you have to be on a special tour to see those.  Without the lite path and some closed gates, it would be very easy to get lost down there.

The rest of the time in the city we would spend walking around visiting all the cool cafes and bistros that dot every street corner.  There is certainly no lack of places to eat and drink.  I feel we drank, smoke and ate our way across the city.  It was so much fun just sitting at the small tables watching the Parisians do their thing.  While you can’t smoke in doors, it is expected that people outside will be smoking.  Ashtrays are on most tables and if not, the wait staff would immediately bring one over when they see the pack of cigarettes.  I was also able to smoke my cigars without anyone giving me grief.  In the States, you would get a lot of dirty looks from people but not here in Paris.  As for the food it was all fabulous.  Some of the meals where different but none of them where bad.  It’s a foreign country after all.  If I wanted to eat American food I would have stayed home.

The coolest place we found we didn’t actually eat anything at, The Cricketer.  Earlier while walking around I found a stationary store that happened to be closed, surprised, so we headed back towards it.  We also wanted to stop by The Cricketer, a place that is closed on Sunday’s by the way, which is an English pub.  I got my pen and some kick ass stationary while Nancy went to the pub.  When I walked in we were the only ones in the place and I thought they where going to close, it was just after 2pm after all.  The cook, Ross, said they are open but that it’s just quite.  Ross and Teabou the bar manager where awesome.  We hung out at this place for hours just chatting with them, drinking beer.  The selection they had was the best beer in all of France, the Tiny Rebel Hadouken was best over the whole trip.  It was a true IPA and the first bitter beer I found in the whole country.  We also found Brooklyn East IPA which was another rare find. In general conversation we found that George Clinton and P-Funk was playing Monday night at a local venue.  It took a little arm twisting but I managed to get Nancy on board for seeing the show, it’s George Mother Fucking Clinton!  The show was not sold out but pretty packed for being Paris.  Total random find of the whole trip seeing George Clinton at Le Trianon.

Almost as quickly as it began it was time to pack up and head home.  Our last night was pretty low key, I think the entire trip was finally catching up to us.  Paris was a great city and offers lots of things to do.  Over our four days I feel we only scratched the surface of what is possible.  We will definitely come back for a second visit.  I could just spend days walking the city and hitting all the cafes; eating, smoking and drinking my way through different neighborhoods.  Then there is another day at the Louvre, the aquarium, going up and down the Seine River, hitting one of the other dozen museums, the cathedral of Notra Dome….I could go on and on.  France was great, a beautiful country with friendly people.  The city is very walkable and the metro system is top notch, the perfect way to get around.  It was clean, prompt and easy to navigate.  The food is spectacular, history, culture and let’s not forget about the wine.  I see why France is the number tourist destination in the world.  Till next time Paris…..