We walked around neighborhoods including the Marais and stayed to the south in Courtyard Paris Arcueil. For the whole trip, since we had not planned out hotels for the most part, we would always try to book one for the next night. Finding hotels with free WiFi and a gym was always a priority. We found out that it works pretty well to book the next night's room each night (but not so well to find a hotel the same day).
One of the downsides of the trip was that there were a lot of people smoking in France. Although smoking is banned inside restaurants, it's difficult to get away because there is smoking outside and the distinction between inside and outside is almost always quite blurry and virtually all of the staff chainsmoke.
Another downside is that everything is quite expensive. Prices are in euros (~$1.40) but are still numerically 50% higher than the U.S. So things typically work out to double U.S. prices.
Finally, France operates on a schedule, and it's important to be in sync with it. Except in the largest cities, you can't get lunch except from 12:00 to 2:00pm, so don't miss that window! And during lunch, everything besides restaurants is closed -- even supermarkets.
We drove the autoroute to Blois and then took small roads through the Loire Valley, enjoyed driving on local roads buying bread and desserts, and stayed at the odd hotel Meteor Val de Loire in Amboise (it was an adventure driving around in the dark and rain trying to find it because we were looking up the wrong city).
In the morning we bought bags of good stuff from the farmers' market in Amboise (bread, honey and jam, cheeses, fruit, chicken and potatoes, ...). We would keep the back seat of the car stocked with bags of food for the entire trip and only ate out a few times.
Then we went over and toured the pretty castle at Chenonceau. It straddles the river Cher. That night, we stayed in downtown Bordeaux.
Large panoramic of the chateau (please click on it and use horizontal and vertical scrollbars to see the whole thing)
We started out by walking around Bordeaux a little. There are a lot of nice pedestrian-only zones and they were very crowded.
Then we drove about an hour west to the beach at Arcachon and the dune at Pyla sur Mer. We walked much the beach starting from Arcachon and heading south toward the dune over sunset. We were fascinated by a barnacle-encrusted log that was alive and pulsating with the creatures.
These pictures on top of the giant sand dune at Pyla were taken by/with the famous knife maker Richard Sossler (YouTube), who sold the last of his knives and retired in January. We enjoyed talking to him a lot. He walks on the dune every evening, taking sunset photographs. We had walked around 4 miles and it had gotten dark and he offered to give us a ride back, but we opted to walk back on the road instead because it was so nice out. He gave us a kiss on each cheek and left us with a couple of pieces of art made by one of his sons. They are hand-cut out of aluminum, painted, and baked.
We went on a tour and winetasting at Chateau Beychevelle, of the Saint-Julien appellation of the Bordeaux region. The tour of the chateau was fantastic, but the two wines we tasted were nothing special.
These deep, musty, mossy rooms are no longer used anymore.
Amiral is a cheaper wine they should never have started making in the 70's. Unfortunately, the chateau and its gorgeous grounds are now owned by a big Japanese conglomerate -- not very romantic.
Afterward, we went over to see what Chateau Margaux looked like. Of course we could not get in to taste the wine; that's available only to professionals. I wanted to get pictures of me standing next to the sign so I could show them to my good friend Mike Jackyra and gloat, but a few days later Mike died at age 61 from a heart attack, which I soon found out and became very sad. :( :( :(
Finally, we drove to St. Emilion and stayed at the Hotel Logis des Remparts, which had a fantastic garden.
Large panoramic of the hotel's garden, which looked out over the ramparts of the walled city (please click on it and use horizontal and vertical scrollbars to see the whole thing)
Next we walked around St. Emilion until dark (we sure saw a lot this day!) We had a fantastic gourmet dinner with wine at the restaurant/wine bar "L'Envers du Decor".
We got up late. Before we left St. Emilion, we walked another loop around the small city and took a few more pictures by day!
Then we drove to Clermont Ferrand. We thought we'd go through to Lyon, but we started by taking back roads and then I made a wrong turn on the autoroute that cost us some time (next exit to turn around in 19km!) Stopping here turned out to be fortuitous because it turned out to be probably the most wonderful and memorable place so far. We booked a hotel, then ended up extending it another day.
We got up early and paid an outrageous amount ($45) to visit the local gym for 1 hour before checking out of the hotel.
The main eglise ancienne downtown.
Another old church. It didn't seem to be a common tourist stop and the locals were staring hard as we took pictures of the very nice stained glass.
Walking back, Patty fell in love with this cream colored Mulhacen Derbi.
Then we decided to find the highest volcano in the adjacent Parc naturel re'gional des Volcans d'Auvergne and drive to it. I thought it would be impractical to take a hike there because it was already 4pm, but we found a promising looking road in the shape of a spiral on the GPS map and headed for it. It turns out we could drive most of the way, then take a pleasant (but quite steep) two-hour hike to the top of the Puy-de-Do^me.
Radio tower and other views from the top
On the way back to town, Patty spotted the first restaurant, and the fact that it was Michelin rated. We slammed on the brakes and went in to eat. We were the only ones there, and had a fancy dining room all to ourselves, along with high end service and gourmet food. They had no Michelin stars because that requires a full experience (good parking, etc), but they had a "two forks" rating for the food, which was the best we'd had so far.
That night we drove all the way to Lyon and stayed in the Hilton.
Patty gave a talk in the morning at the supercomputing conference which paid for her airfare. Right after that we didn't waste any time leaving Lyon (for another time) to drive to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, with stops along the way in two scenic cities. The first was the flowery medievel city of Perouges:
The second was Annecy, the "Venice of France". Here we did a lot of food/dessert shopping and had a nice lunch of galettes. We found my own cafe :). We only briefly visited Lac d'Annecy (Lake Annecy).
In Chamonix-Mont-Blanc we stayed in a fantastic little ski hotel. It was unbelievably pristine with softwood furniture and tile floors without scratches -- surprising given the abuse it must take in the winter from the skiers. We had a requested a view of Mont Blanc from our room, and got one! Attempted night shots:
There was so much to do in Chamonix we again extended our planned stay for another night. We went twice to the fancy dining room that had an expansive and delicious breakfast buffet. Some day shots from the hotel room and downtown:
We followed the tour advice from the hotel front desk. The same advice was in the tour books. What you do is take this gondola half way up the mountain, then take another gondola the rest of the way, then go back down to half way, get off and hike 2 hours to a city called Montenvers, then take the train back down to Chamonix. The experience was awesome. We just couldn't stop taking picture after picture. The French sure have a way with building amazing structures like this (la Tour Eiffel, le Viaduc de Millau, etc).
Large panoramic from gondola station on top (please click on it and use horizontal and vertical scrollbars to see the whole thing)
More pictures from the top. Glaciers, snow with people tracks, buildings and structures, ice tunnel...
Pictures from the hiking portion
In Montenvers, there is the third most important glacier in France, which is called the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice). It has been receding quickly like the rest.
We got up early and drove 3.5 hours to Beaune.
On the way out, I had a right-of-way snafu in a construction zone in one of the roundabouts, and collided lightly with a motorcycle! :( It was the leader of a group of 5 or 6 bikes. Two pieces of plastic on the nice Yamaha 750 tourer were cracked and crazed. The rider was disappointed, but ultimately very forgiving and humorous about it, and he wouldn't accept any money. When he found out we were from the U.S., he assumed we must be very rich (as many French seem to think), and joked that I should fill his three luggage cases with cash.
In Beaune, we rented a couple of bicycles and got started around 4pm along a 20km times two out-and-back bicycle path that goes through various cities with winetasting (Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet and Santenay). We got as far as Puligny Montrachet where we tasted a flight of three chardonnays and two pinots. The pinots were very good and we bought a 22 euro bottle for later.
Patty's road (the name is her birthday)
We returned the bikes the next morning and took off, and only then decided to visit Fontainebleau instead of spending the last day in Paris.
The castle is right off downtown Fontainebleau. It's enormous, as various monarchs (Francois, Napolean, etc.) kept adding wings to it, to the point where there are now 1900 rooms. After walking around downtown Fontainebleau, we toured (one wing of) the chateau.
Large panoramic of the chateau and a small(!) section of the garden (please click on it and use horizontal and vertical scrollbars to see the whole thing)
We stayed at the airport Sheraton the last night and flew home in the morning.
It was tough to see such a wonderful vacation come to an end!