French Exploration

Cityscapes and countryside have much to offer



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When you visit, bear in mind that most Parisian restaurants close from 2 p.m. until 7 p.m., so plan accordingly. Of course, you can always grab a baguette or crepe on the street. 

McKenzie and Steven Lohbeck

After dinner, we paused at a watering hole, Le Blue Sky, located just a block from our flat. The place was occupied by two bartenders and a couple seated on stools at the bar. Presently, a young man — a friend of the bartenders — arrived and the unmistakable voice of Johnny Cash was heard over the sound system.

We discovered that French people love American music and many have a command of U.S. history. We engaged in an impromptu trivia night, played for drinks, and, I’m ashamed to say, we lost out even though all the questions dealt with American subjects.

Joined by the couple we encountered at the bar —  they were in their 60s and spoke little English and she had a crush on Steven, I swear — we all danced, laughed and enjoyed the music together. Our first night in Paris had been a spontaneous and memorable one.

Over subsequent days spent in the city, we visited Les Invalides, the Lourve, Versailles, Notre Dame, Sacre’ Coer, Luxembourg Garden, Catacombs, Arc de Tiomphe, Tuileries Garden and saved for last a show at Le Moulin Rouge.

See them all — and take advantage of guides and walking audio tours that impart in an enjoyable few hours information that would otherwise require days to assemble. These tours fill up quickly at certain times of the year, making reservations a good idea.

After Paris, we traded the city for the countryside, having booked a bicycling holiday through a company called Cycle Breaks. We boarded a train that carried us from St. Pierre Des Cor to our starting point.

Our reservations included accommodations, food certificates redeemable at highly recommended restaurants, bikes, maps and directions. Each day we biked 20-plus miles to a new destination while Cycle Breaks saw to our luggage.

In booking the tour, we had options: number of days, preferred stops, level of difficulty and a selection of hotels with different star ratings.


Day One: Arrive and Explore
Saumur, where the tour was to begin, was home to a solitary 14th century castle with octagonal towers and mullioned windows. At the National Riding School, also in Saumur, some of the world’s most talented equestrians performed exquisite dressage displays. The local white wine was reminiscent of the sparkling products of France’s Champagne region. This was a great town in which to sip and relax.

 

Day Two: Red wines and Royal Abbeys
We hopped on our bikes and headed to the Saumur Champigny vineyards and the magnificent Château de Brézé. At a distance the castle looked like just another huddle of Renaissance turrets, but inside there was about half of a mile of underground caves, which were home to everything from a bakery to wine bottles and even an icehouse. The cellars were captivating and so were the views from the vineyard slopes. Back in the saddle, a picturesque route led us on to Fontevraud L’Abbaye, one of the greatest monastic sites in Europe, where we spent our next two nights. This was our favorite destination of the tour. The 12th century Romanesque Abbey dominates the town — fascinating, vast and intact. It is the haunting resting place of members of the Plantagenet dynasty, including Richard the Lionhearted.

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