Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Chateaus and Wineries in France

Landing at Orly in Paris was a wonderful feeling. I knew I’d finally be able to see my parents! There was 15 minutes of free wifi so I was able to call them via skype. (FYI: I think the very generous wifi hacked my gmail account. Be cautious about airport wifi.) Our first chat was great. They had just picked up the rent a car from De Gaulle and were on their way to Orly to pick me up. The calls got progressively worse. Avis didn’t have a GPS for them to rent and the map was sketchy at best. The next call was about three minutes of me being yelled at because they were lost. It was making me very excited to see them…finally they found their way and found me. Despite the phone calls, I was very happy to see them.

Finding the hotel wasn’t much easier. It was just outside of Versailles in a town called Ville D’Avray. We stopped several times to ask for directions. Problem was no one spoke English. One guy drew us a map, but it didn’t make much sense. Finally, we found a guy on a bike and asked him for directions. He was so sweet and rode his bike to get us on the right street. And they say the French aren’t nice! It was great to find the hotel. We were only there for a night so we couldn’t settle in too much, but I was happy to see a real hotel (a nice one, too!) after so many hostels. We asked the woman at the front desk for a restaurant recommendation. She told us to walk down the street and that we’d find one restaurant but if you kept walking there would be several more. We walked and never found that one restaurant and the several more consisted of an Indian restaurant and an Italian one. We opted for the Italian. It was decent, but it didn’t really matter because I was just happy to finally see my parents.

The next morning we had a delicious spread for breakfast and we were off to Versailles. We had a devil of a time finding a parking space. Apparently everyone and their brother and us were looking for parking to go to the chateau. We ended up finding a spot about 20 minutes away. Once we parked we couldn’t figure out the meter system. Once we figured it out we realized we could only put in money for three hours. We took our chances and were off. We encountered a few more problems before even setting foot in the palace. For starters, the line was ridiculous. I guess everyone and their brother found their parking spot and was now with us in line. I ran up to the front to see if the tickets we’re purchased at the hotel required us to stand in the never-ending line. The security guard handed the tickets over to his coworker. Oh no, I thought. The coworker told me that the tickets had expired in 2008 and obviously weren’t good anymore. Thanks a lot hotel. My mom was waiting in line, so my dad and I ran inside to see what the ticket office could do. They couldn’t do anything, but we found out I didn’t have to pay since I’m a long term resident of the EU. The gardens were also free that day, so that was another perk.

I had visited Versailles two years ago when I was studying abroad. I can’t say it looked too different. This time, however I visited the gardens and Marie Antoinette’s Estate. Now I can say I’ve seen it all. No need to return and stand in that god-awful line again.

After Versailles we walked back in the direction of the car and stopped for lunch at Helio’s Café. We started talking with the owner and he told us he had just purchased a 1987 Cadillac El Dorado. When we told him how much gas it uses he almost had a heart attack. Gas is much more expensive here than at home. He decided that even if he couldn’t drive it that it would be pretty to look at.

From lunch we needed to go back to the hotel to discuss the little ticket mishap. They were profusely apologetic and frankly it’s probably a good thing we went back because I was able to look up directions to our next hotel in the Loire Valley on my droid. Thank god for smart phones. As my dad said, our smart phones paid for themselves because we were able to pull up directions for all of our France travels. Getting out of Ville D’Avray was a nightmare. There were zero well displayed street signs and we were on each street for about half a second before we needed to turn. It could have been a chase scene in a movie. Since I could only pull up the directions with wifi we couldn’t depend on my phone to tell us where we turned wrong while driving. So that meant we needed to be really careful. I have no clue how it happened, but we managed to get on the highway and to Noizay, our next destination. My dad said he had wanted to get there before sunset because he didn’t want to be searching for the hotel in the French countryside after dark. We missed it by a few minutes, but with a heck of a lot of luck made it there. With some more luck, they held our dinner reservations for us.

I was in shock when we pulled up to the hotel. It was literally an old chateau that had been converted into a hotel. Our room was out of this world. We rushed down for dinner and didn’t have time to change our clothes, which was slightly embarrassing. While we were eating a gentleman walked by who was also wearing jeans. My dad commented and said, look we’re not the only ones wearing jeans. The only problem was that the other guy was American, too. I guess we stick out wherever we go. Dinner was amazing. We dined so well in France. It made coming back to Spain that much more difficult. After dinner we were all exhausted so we hit the hay.

The following morning we had breakfast in the backyard of the terrace. The weather was significantly warmer for France than usual, which made it all the more pleasant. Before heading out for the day we took enough pictures to make an album of the hotel and the surrounding grounds. When we were finally finished with our photo shoot we went into the town over, Amboise, to do some exploring. Our first stop was the Chateau Royal Amboise. There was a little chapel that my mom wanted to go into. It didn’t look like anything special. When we walked in we found out that Leonardo da Vinci was buried there. I could not believe that we literally stumbled upon his grave. The chateau and its ground were beautiful. It was fun to explore.

After the chateau it was already time for lunch. My mom and I picked up sandwiches at a little café and my dad bought ingredients for his own sandwich at the grocery store. We sat on some grass next to the river and enjoyed another delicious French meal and some sunshine.

If there’s one thing France is known for it’s probably wine. Needless to say, a winery was our next destination. From Amboise we drove up the road to Vouvray to the Marc Bredif winery. We got a tour of the winery. They had over 1 million bottles stored in a cave. It provides the perfect temperature. It was neat to learn about the wine, however I had a bit of a hard time understanding because our guide’s accent was so strong. After the tour we had a tasting. I wasn’t too big of a fan of any of the wines, but it was fun nonetheless.

I was looking through the guest book and came across this post. “Enjoy. Even though I cannot drink wine. Alexander Burke 12 years old 2010. P.S. I am standing here bored to death. HELP!” It was by far my favorite post. Poor kid.

On our drive to the Loire Valley we kept passing huge fields of vibrant yellow flowers. They were beautiful, so we wanted to find some more to take some photos. Why is it that whenever you’re searching for something you can’t find it? The flowers ended up being much further than we thought. I think we drove for about 45 minutes to find the damn things. I’m unaware of the exact name of the plant, but it’s used to make canola oil.

For dinner we went back into Amboise. We had a very difficult time finding the place thanks to our lack of a GPS. Once we finally found it we sat down to menus only in French with no one that spoke English. Well, let me rephrase that, they spoke very limited and incorrect English. I thought I was ordering chicken, but it was beef. It was quite the disappointing meal, but we didn’t shrivel away to nothing.

The next morning we were up bright to early to enjoy another beautiful breakfast on the castle’s terrace and drive to Burgundy, Chagny to be exact. The drive ended up being a little longer than expected, which tended to be the trend. I think it was around 4 or 5 hours. We waited too long to stop for lunch so everything was closed. Luckily we found a grocery store and bought sandwich supplies. This was the first time I was in a large grocery store since September. It was crazy. I couldn’t believe all of the options. It certainly beat my 3-aisle grocery store here. We ate our bread and cheese sandwiches on the terrace of the new hotel. After our very difficult day everyone was tired, so we relaxed for the afternoon.

My dad had picked up a bottle of wine for us to enjoy prior to yet another amazing dinner. We had reservations at the hotel restaurant, which happens to be a world-renowned restaurant. Dinner at Maison Lameloise was by far the nicest meal I’ve ever had. We started with several tasters. They brought out steak tartar, foie gras and several other bite sized pieces to try. Then they brought out a lobster puree. Then we got the appetizers we ordered! It was a lot of food. We all got escargots for an appetizer. It wasn’t prepared in the traditional way and to stay with the theme, it was out of this world. For my main meal I had lobster with a mashed potato puree. Absolutely divine. This place didn’t miss a beat. They brought out another small taster platter for dessert, but it didn’t really catch my fancy. We had ordered a passion fruit soufflé and a chocolate dish. The chocolate dish was great. I didn’t really like the passion fruit flavor, but as far as soufflés go, my parents said it was wonderful. We stuffed ourselves silly. The food was so rich that we needed to take a long walk through down to try to feel better. We ended dinner very late at around 12:15am. We were only a little way into our walk when all of the town lights went off. I was trying to take a picture without the flash and stand very still so it wouldn’t come out blurry. I thought one of my parents was trying to play a trick by waving their hand in front of my face. Nope, the town lights were turned off! It was beyond creepy so we power walked as fast as possible back to the hotel. So much for trying to walk a bit of dinner off.

Sunday was Easter and we were afraid everything was going to be closed. Luckily, the Sunday market wasn’t closed for the holiday. According to our hotel the weekly market typically brings in about 5,000 people, which triples the size of the tiny town. The vendors’ products really ranged. There was clothing, bread, roast chicken, live chicken (not for long,) fruits, veggies, flowers, etc. You could find anything there. We saw a guy walking around gingerly carrying a box with several holes cut into it. I knew it had to be an animal. We walked a little further to find all kinds of animals, ducks, rabbits, chicken, geese, etc. There were a ton of little kids looking at the animals. I have a feeling they didn’t know it was dinner.

We ate lunch outside at a restaurant across the plaza from the hotel. During the trip my parents had a bit of a hard time getting their languages right and often resorted to Spanish. It makes sense because when you’re in a foreign country it’s natural to go to the foreign language you know, and that was Spanish for them. So for lunch my dad ordered the “poulet burger por favor.” It became a running joke. I think I heard more por favors, gracias, and aguas that I do here in Spain.

After lunch we drove to Le Chateau de Meursault for some more wine tasting! It began with a quick self-guided tour detailing the history of the winery. It also included the owner’s art collection. The wine there wasn’t great either. We came all the way from the US/Spain to the wine capital of the world to find mediocre wine. Who knew that was possible? The bottles that we had at dinner were always great, though. Maybe the wineries were just using their cheap bottles.

From the wineries we drove in Beaune, an old medieval walled city. We just walked around and explored. It was a really cute place. After exploring Beaune for several hours we headed back to Chagny and stopped at the restaurant we had tried to go to the day before for lunch that was closed. It was very another delicious meal. (Note: France is dangerous to one’s pant size.)

When we got back to the hotel we packed and went to bed. The next morning it was time to head to Paris. The drive was longer than we had expected again. We encountered the most bizarre situation at one of the gas stations. We pulled off the highway to find everyone sitting on/near their cars at the gas station. They were blocking off all of the pumps! It looked like the store part of the gas station was open, but we couldn’t use the pumps. I have no idea what was going on. We decided that we had enough gas to make it to the next station, so we were on our way. I have never seen anything like that though.

At the next gas station I was surprised to see several hole-in-the-ground toilets. I didn’t think Western Europe had those anymore. When we finally got to Paris my mom and I brought all of our things up to the apartment my parents were renting. The travel agent met us there and showed us around. It was a really cute place. Since I hadn’t eaten enough over the previous few days all I wanted was a crepe before leaving. We dropped the rental car off and were in search of crepes. The walk from the Eiffel tower to the Louvre (where I had remembered seeing all of the crepes stands two years back) was much further than I remembered. We also had a few other setbacks. A woman pretending to be deaf ripped off my dad and my mom lost her jacket. It wasn’t exactly the greatest introduction to Paris. In the end I didn’t find my crepe. We had to take a cab back to the apartment so I could take the bus to the airport.

It was an amazing trip to France. I hope to return there some day (this is becoming a theme.) France is just one of those places you could spend weeks exploring. It was special to be with my parents, however we all dearly missed Liza. I’ve got my fingers crossed that we can all visit her in India, but I’m not holding my breath.

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