Last month I joined a small tour group for Discover France, part of the Explorer series through TopDeck, a British travel company specializing in travel tours for ages 18-39. Of the 12 of us on the tour, eleven hailed from Australia; I was the only American. Because we visited so many places, I’ll write about my favorite spots during the trip.
The first 2 1/2 days were in Paris. It was wonderful to be back where I’d been a summer study aboard undergrad student 8 years ago. (More on that later) Our hotel was near the La Fourche Métro stop. On the first full day, I started off the day by attending 10:30 am Sunday Mass at St-Michel, a short walk from our hotel. After Mass, I returned to the hotel, grabbed my camera, and set out. In the Métro station, I bought a 2 day unlimited pass, good for riding all the public transport in Paris. It was a great investment! I visited a few places I’d missed as well as a few new ones. At the ticket office at Invalides, I bought a 2 day Paris museum pass good for visiting a number of participating museums.
On the road
Bayeux: I had seen the famed tapestry depicting the 1066 Conquest but hadn’t seen the town on my previous visit 8 years earlier. The old town is small and can be quiet during off season. Because the Germans occupied the town during WWII, it was spared destruction when Allied Forces arrived in June 1944. The cathedral is magnificent to visit. You can see double portraits of William the Conquerer and Queen Matilda on the main doors.
Château de Chambord: This magnificent château was built for King François I, now a national museum. I really loved touring this place–the rooms featured portraits of the members of the French royal family, art, furniture, and other decorative objects. There is a small church adjacent to the château; it’s worth visiting too.
Hennessey in Cognac: Here we took a tour of the production warehouses and had tastings of cognac. I didn’t know how much time and vintages are used to produce cognac. The older vintages (some dating back to the 18th century) are locked in a separate storage room. You can buy cognac in the factory store.
Bordeaux & St-Emilion: It was fun discovering the history in both of these towns as well as sampling the famed wine. We visited a winery in St-Emilion and spent time exploring the town. The monolithic church can be visited by guided tour only which can be reserved at the visitor’s center. Also in town, there’s one building dating back to Roman times! There are steep cobbled streets so I had to be careful walking on it. Back in Bordeaux, I visited the cathedral and the Aquintaine History Museum which is housed in an old university building. The permanent exhibit is free and provides a fascinating history of the region.
Carcassonne: Home to a well-preserved medieval fortfied castle and battlements. We stayed at the historic Hotel Terminus overnight in the ‘new’ part of the city.
Avignon: Former home of the papacy during the 14th century. The papal palace and its environs are fascinating to explore.
Annecy: This was the last stop on our tour. Either from the historic château overseeing the city or by the lake, the views of the French Alps are fantastic. We ended the our last night together here as a group with dinner followed by drinking at a local pub.
Back in Paris after the tour ended, I stayed at the Hotel Minerve on Rue des Ecoles, not far from the famed Université de Paris IV–Sorbonne or simply known as La Sorbonne, in the Latin Quarter. I passed the evening in the Latin Quarter, walking around and had dinner at a café. A wonderful ending to the trip!
Earlier I mentioned this was my 2nd time in Paris. In July 2004, I was a summer study aboard student through the American Institute of Foreign Study (AIFS); French language classes for foreign students were offered at the Sorbonne. When I completed the summer program, I had enough credits to declare a French language minor. My time at the Sorbonne was worthwhile. Although I’m still not fluent in French, I’ve had the opportunities to practice my speaking with Francophone patrons who’ve come to the library. (Note: Entry to the Sorbonne and its other academic buildings is restricted to those with valid university id or by prior arrangements; this is enforced by their security officers)
During my free time, I explored Paris, and visited a number of popular sites. I also went on a day excursion to Chartres and a weekend excursion to St-Malo, a port city in Brittany, and its surrounding environs. Going to Paris remains one of the best things I’ve done as an undergrad.
Part 2: France in travel books and music
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