France: day 7 & 8


So, here we were in Champagne. What to do first? First order of business was to have a look around the manoir where we were staying, to see how it looked in the daylight.

Okay, so that’s pretty nice then. That established, we set out. We had it on good authority that the nearby town of Hautvillers was nice, so we aimed for that. And nice it was. The town was very pretty, and very well kept-up. We strolled around, checked out some antiques, visited the little eglise which contained Dom Perignon’s tomb, took pictures of the surrounding countryside and sampled champagne at JM Gobillard & Fils. We ended up buying a bottle there as well.

We left there and drove toward Epernay, the central town in the area. We drove down the Avenue de Champagne where all the big champagne houses were headquartered, then drove half an hour or so to Chalons-en-Champagne. We had a middling lunch at a brasserie on Place de la Revolution, then drove back to Epernay. We booked in to a tour at the largest of the champagne houses, Moet & Chandon.

I wasn’t expecting much from the tour: a few token bits of info and a glass of bubbly and we’d be on our way. But I was pleasantly surprised. Except for a cheesy video, the tour was quite good. They took us down into the caves, explained some the terminology (I now know the difference between grand cru, premier cru and classic cru), showed us the vast expanses of bottles (there are over 100 million down there right now, some of which had been aging for decades), and so on. Very interesting and impressive. And they gave us a good glass at the end. Apart from the Dutch flying douchebag squadron which accompanied us on the tour, I was quite happy with it.

Tour finished, we returned to the manoir for a bit of rest (except my brother, who ran nine miles, silly boy) before going to the nearby Auberge des Moissons for dinner. It was an odd place…it seemed a bit of a tourist trap, and yet the food was pretty good. It was a bit more gastronomique than we’d been on the trip to that point, and I wasn’t sure what I was ordering 100% of the time, but my starter wasn’t bad and my red snapper was quite good. The cheese course was more than I needed, and my chocolate soup was just okay.

Highlights of the evening were around the table: my brother’s starter was bacon, foie gras, walnuts and tomatoes floating in a ‘broth’ of melted cheese diluted with cream. Nellie, on the other hand, got the truffles-and-champagne menu. All 11 elements of her 4 courses included truffles in some way, with varying success. Steak, potatoes and ice cream worked well; mousse and creme brulee most certainly did not. Still, for Nellie to *not* get a truffle-and-champagne menu would be like a koala turning down eucalyptus. We closed the place down, more or less, and drove home half-asleep.


Well-rested, we downed our breakfasts and set out to see more of Champagne. We took another branch of the champagne route, got some more great shots of the surrounding hills from the town of Champillon, and heard a rabbit get shot just near us. 😦

We ended up returning to Hautvillers and visiting the previous day’s producers so we could buy more of a particular bottle. We also did a tasting at another producer nearby. The champagne was so-so but the views…magnifique!

We set out to see more producers along the route, but about the time we hit the road they all closed up for the mid-day break. We drove around looking for another tasting venue without much success, though we did accidentally drive up to a spectacularly posh estate. We considered knocking on the door and asking to taste their demi-sec, but then thought better of it. We drove back down across the Marne to Damery and stopped for lunch at…well, at just about the only place we could find that was open. It was busy (good sign), open (a great sign!) and looked half decent, so we stopped. We thought we’d be turned away for lack of reservation, but with some wheedling they fit us in.

We had a beer and ordered some champagne, but after a while suddenly realized we’d been sitting there a long time without any food. Turns out they’d lost our order. There was a biker convention (61 people on motorcycles) which seemed to throw the kitchen into some disarray. They apologized and brought our courses quickly after that. Still, time was getting tight for my brother to get to Calais on time for his ferry crossing back to England.

Too bad we felt rushed toward the end, as the food was quite good. A big piece of ham from Reims in a puff pastry for our starters, wolf fish or beef or duck stew for mains, delicious chocolate dessert for most (or pineapple carpaccio for my brother) and, as I said, champagne from the very town we were sitting in. All excellent, and in a lovely setting (looking out at the little town straddling the Marne), but time was tight so we downed our coffees and took off.

We were dropped off at the manoir and said our goodbyes. As my brother prepares to move to Australia it’ll likely be some time before we see him again. But what a send-off it was; two great days of laughing and chatting and drinking great champagne in a part of the world that really does beggar the imagination.

Realizing that we didn’t feel at all like going out for dinner again tonight, we dashed back into town to find a store that was still open. We managed to locate a boulangerie just outside of Epernay and picked up enough to snack on in the evening when we got peckish. All that was left to do in Champagne was pack up, relax and get ready to start part two of the vacation: Paris.

France: day 5 & 6


Mylene’s breakfast spread was a bit more elaborate than the others, and the dogs joined us as we ate, which I loved. We said our goodbyes and got on the road early. Today, we decided, the toll roads would be worth it. We had a long way to go. We had no plans other than to drive to Arras by dinner time, and possibly to stop somwehere in Rouen for lunch. We made such good time on the autoroute that we decided not to stop for lunch, but to punch straight through, stopping only for a bathroom break and some road snacks.

We hit the outskirts of Arras before 2pm, so we decided to go visit the Vimy Memorial right away rather than drive out the next morning. A quick adjustment to Carmen and she had us there, along with a few Canadians and a boatload of kids on school visits. Note to self: stick to visiting things early or late in the day when there are no screaming tweens.

The memorial was absolutely breathtaking, and the ground around it gave a hint of why that monument was there: what normally would have been rolling hills for the sheep to graze on was, even nine decades on, blistered with holes and craters from artillery. However, it should be noted that the sheep were still grazing there, which was somehow pleasing. The ground at the nearby replicas of the trenches was even more decimated, especially the three huge shell craters. Also, the woods around the site are still off-limits, as there’s a danger of stepping on unexploded artillery shells. Anyway, we spent quite a bit of time inspecting the memorial and the trenches. On the base of the memorial names were engraved of the Canadian soldiers who died in France and didn’t have proper burials, including one B.M. Dickinson. Not someone from my immediate family, but there are only so many Dickinsons in Canada.

Swinging back to Arras was easy enough, but finding our hotel was quite a pain. There’s no sign or indication on the outside, nothing that could be seen from a car to suggest that it was our hotel, so we drove around looking for parking. None was found, so we parked far away, then tried again, then parked again, then finally found it on foot. Then it was the ordeal of pulling the car up on the curb, lugging all the bags in, driving down the hill to find more parking, and walking back to the hotel. There are advantages to staying in a downtown hotel, but convenient parking is not one of them. The hotel was lovely, though, less like a B&B and more like what we pictured a French hotel to be. Carrying all the heavy bags up two flights of stairs seemed worth it when I could eat a still-hot pain au chocolate sitting in the window above a busy street & plaza.

That night we walked around Arras a bit, around the two main squares which had been destroyed in WWI but rebuilt later. We had dinner at a fancy brasserie on one of the squares, La Clef des Sens, which turned out pretty good. Nellie loved her meal. Mine was…interesting. I ordered a local specialty, which I learned the next morning had been tripe sausage. So, you know, that happened. Also, my chocolate mousse was maybe the richest thing I’ve ever eaten. I had to order a coffee just so the overwhelming sweetness left my mouth. Thus began my passionate week-long affair with coffee. And thus ended our evening.


We didn’t realize until we were in Arras how close we were to another (now-)Canadian memorial site: Beaumont-Hamel. Because we’d freed up our morning by visiting Vimy the day before, we decided to sleep in and then take the slightly scenic route to Reims, passing Beaumont-Hamel. It was almost as moving as Vimy, and still had the feel of a battlefield…scarred ground, trenches, barren plain and even a replica of the danger tree. It was also the first time I realized how compact these battlefields were, and how close the trenches were.

As we drove along the road south from Arras, the Somme valley was a steady sequence of memorials and military graveyards. We stopped at one large one containing many British and Australian markers, but also some Canadian. Many bore no name or nationality, but simply read ‘A soldier of the great war, known to God’.

The rest of our drive to Reims was uneventful. We parked, walked down the Place D’Erlon to have some lunch (mussels and beer!) at Le Grand Café and enjoyed the sunshine. We tried visiting Taittinger but the caveau tours were finished for the day, so we retreated to the cathedral.

Reims Cathedral, where French kings were crowned until the early 19th century, is enormous and really quite beautiful inside. We got some good shots, especially when we both spotted the sunlight streaming into the apse. I should point out that I don’t actually know whether we were standing in the apse, I just live the word apse.

We picked up supplies and left Reims, driving into the Champagne countryside. We arrived at our next lodging — Manoir de Montflambert — amidst the rolling hills covered in vines and settled in our room. It was nice to actually unpack for once…we’d been doing nothing but one-night stops, so being able to hang things and stretch out (we had a suite) felt like luxury. Oh yeah, and the mini-fridge contained five bottles of champagne when we arrived. My brother arrived several hours later after driving from London, and we sat up for a while eating, drinking and entering the usual silly zone we hit when we’re together. We all crashed at the same time, looking forward to the day we had planned.

France: day 3 & 4


We had a few nervous moments with the car but, after a tasty (local and organic) breakfast we got underway with all systems go. Knowing we might not have time to stop for lunch (or, if we do, much time to eat dinner that night) we swung by a Leclerc store and bought the essentials: ham, cheese, jam, wine and baguette. By the way, in our first 48 in France we saw half a dozen people walking down the street carrying only a baguette. We’d see a dozen more over the next week. The French really do like their baguette.

We decided to stop at Chateau de Villandry, famous for its lovely gardens. In fact, we didn’t even visit the inside of the chateau, we just walked around in the massive gardens outside. There were lots of ornamental gardens, including a maze, but there’s an actual working farm portion too…they were harvesting vegetables when we visited. There were also piles of fish in their moat, which was weird…they come right out of the water looking for food, with their dead eyes, like a doll’s eyes…uh, ahem.


We kept driving, now right along the Loire. We saw a heron and the odd roadside cat and some kind of nuclear steam cloud (don’t ask) and navigated around a detour. That was to become a recurring theme. We finally reached the tiny town of Candes-St-Martin at the confluence of the Loire and the Vienne, and parked the car so we could walk to the hill above the town for a great view of the surrounding countryside. We got another great view when we walked down the riverside.

We kept heading west along the Loire and realized, just as we’d reached the town of Saumur, that we’d somehow missed the Chateau D’Ussé entirely. We didn’t spend much time in Saumur as we were tired and hungry and late and lost, so we ate lunch at some awful touristy place right next to the chateau.

We decided to skip the rest of the drive along the Loire, to Angers, and just bust north toward our next B&B. Carmen took us a crazy route (we told her to avoid toll highways, but still…she had us on some pretty hardcore back roads), and it didn’t help that we kept hitting detours, including a visit from the Gendarmerie. Eventually we got on to progressively bigger highways, and after a few minutes on our first autoroute we were in love. After driving 40 km/h through driveways and farm lanes all day, doing 140km/h in a straight line was pretty sweet. After a long day of driving we finally reached Les Blotteries.

This was probably my favourite place of the whole trip. The house and farm were lovely, but the owner, Jean-Malo, and his dog (Madame Plume) made us feel like family the minute we arrived. We didn’t linger long that night as we decided to drive the 10 minutes to Mont Saint-Michel so we could take pictures of it at sunset.  We had to stop along the way to let a herd of sheep cross the road. Jean-Malo later insisted with a smirk that they just do that for the tourists.

We made our way back to Saint-James for dinner at the Lion D’Or, where we sampled wine from Saumur (the town redeemed itself!) before returning to Les Blotteries for a good night’s sleep. I actually didn’t want to leave the next morning after breakfast (and great conversation with his other house guest) but when the time came Jean-Malo sent us off with two bottles of locally-made apple juice, directions for a much prettier drive than we’d planned and a fresh croissant for the road. I missed he and Plume the moment we pulled away.


However, we had new adventures to get to. We took the scenic route Jean-Malo suggested, driving up the Atlantic coast toward Granville (with a semi-frantic detour in search of diesel) before turning northeast.

We stopped in Bayeux to see the famous Bayeux Tapestry and have lunch. It is at this lunch that I got myself a baddass mofo sunburn. From there we drove the short distance north to the Juno Beach Centre, a museum dedicated to the Canadian participation in the D-Day landing as well as all Canadian troops who served in WWII.

We arrived just in time to make the 3:00 tour, which is good, since it included a tour of the bunker on the beach. We find out about the museum, the sculptures, the bunker, the town and the beach itself. It’s not a bad little tour, and I have to admit to some chills when standing on the beach. There were tourists and fishermen walking up and down it when we were there, but standing at the water’s edge and looking toward the beach, it’s hard to believe someone actually mounted a successful attack that way. I couldn’t even imagine what it must have been like.

Tour finished, we called ahead to the next B&B to let them know we were coming. I had that conversation entirely in French, and realized I must be getting better at this. Five minutes later we were at the Le Mas Normand, meeting Christian and Mylene and their dogs.

Our room was tiny, but wonderful…we could see cows out one window, dogs out the other and the courtyard through our little dutch door. We didn’t have a chance to sample Christian’s cooking, so we had dinner at some bistrot in the town. When we got back to the B&B we weren’t tired, so we bundled up and sat in the courtyard and drank a bottle of wine like the party animals we are. The Belgian couple and American couple went to bed early; the two Canadian couples rolled home last, and we slept like the dead.

France: day 1 & 2


After a long and unpleasant flight (I couldn’t sleep and the food was rubbish) we landed in Paris. I was trying to stay lucid long enough to pick up the rental car and let Nellie, who’d at least managed a few hours of shut-eye on the flight, drive to Chartres. All went well and we got on the road soon enough, thankfully with a GPS to show us the way. We named it Carmen. Carmen the Garmin.

After fighting through Paris traffic we took the relatively smooth road to Chartres, about 90 minutes from Paris, and parked the car. We had several hours to kill before we could backtrack to our B&B (because really, all we wanted to do at this point was sleep) so we had some lunch at a brasserie on a square, struggling to adapt to having to speak French all of a sudden. After lunch we found the famous Chartres Cathedral.

It’s an impressive building, both inside and out, and one of only two I was interested in seeing on this trip. After seeing it we wandered around Chartres a little more, picking up some food for the evening since we knew we wouldn’t stay awake long enough to eat a proper dinner. We got back to the car and drove the half hour or so to our B&B, La Ferme de Bouchement.

When we arrived there was no one there to answer the door, teaching us a valuable lesson for the rest of the trip: always call ahead to a B&B. We waited for a while, knocking on various doors and windows, until finally one of the owners arrived. This is where my cloudy brain really had to switch back to French mode, as Didier didn’t speak very much English at all. However, I understood everything he said and we managed to get the car parked and bags up to the room. The grounds were lovely with cats, a dog and several ducks inhabiting the back yard. We snapped some pictures, then laid our weary bones on the wonderful bed and went to sleep.


Nellie and I being the planners that we are, we’d begun adjusting our body clocks a week before leaving, so that (sleepless transatlantic flights aside) we wouldn’t have jet lag. Thus, we sprung from our beds ready to bust south toward the Loire Valley. However, after eating breakfast and meeting Didier’s wife, we learned another valuable lesson: B&Bs in the middle of nowhere don’t often accept credit cards. Duh. So we drove about fifteen minutes north to a little town (and sadly forgot to bring one of our cameras as we parked right next to a half-standing medieval tower…hard to describe but it was very cool) to find an ATM, took out some cash and sallied forth, nearly an hour later than we’d planned. No matter, we didn’t have far to go that day. We took the scenic route (through Beaugency) to Chateau de Chambord.

Chambord is one of the largest and most magnificent chateaux along the Loire valley. We took our time there, getting plenty of good shots inside and out, including the double-helix staircase in the centre of the chateau.

In that picture I was shooting up through the center of the staircases, toward the sunlight. Speaking of sunlight, it’s worth mentioning: for the entire two weeks we were in France the weather was spectacular. The first week it was sunny and in the mid- to high-20s, and only in the last few days did it become overcast and go as low as the mid-teens. The only rain we saw was light mist one day while driving. We never got a drop of rain on us the whole time.

Anyway, from Chambord we drove to Blois for some lunch. It was a lovely city, at least the small bit that we saw from our touristy cafe and the ramparts overlooking the river. We accidentally ordered too much wine, so Nellie had to drive the rest of the way whilst I got good and tipsy in the afternoon sun. Good times. Anyway, from there it was a short drive along the Loire to our next B&B, which wasn’t very easy to find, but was well worth it.

The Chateau de Nazelles, across the river from Amboise and at the top of a hill, is actually a reconstructed old castle. Our room, the Troglodyte suite, was carved into the side of a hill, so I guess that means we slept in a cave. The place was lovely, lots of greenery and old walls and animals about, and modern luxuries like wi-fi and a place to keep drinks cold. With a great recommendation from one of the owners, we had a fantastic dinner just down the road at the Auberge de Launay. It set the bar very, very high for the rest of the trip, and establishes a go-to wine region for the rest of our time in France: Chinon.

The next day promised to be a bad-ass haul along the Loire and all the way up to Basse-Normandie, so we digested our food as quickly as we could and hit the sack.

Au revoir, France

Home again. Tired, off-kilter and not looking forward to all the stuff I need to do, but man…what a great trip.

We’ll sort through all the pictures and everything soon. For now I’m just trying to stay awake long enough to watch the hockey game.