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France trip - August 2012, Part I

August 30, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Two weeks in France with my wife Tamara and 7 year old Anne - sounds like fun! Anne is young but she's been somewhat prepared by my wife over the last several months through history books for children, books by Mike Venezia, cartoons like "Ratatouille" and "Hunchback of Norte-Dame" and stories by us. Anne also loves ancient Greek myths she read about a year ago and she applies this knowledge in museums with success that still amazes me.

This is what my photo system's life has been leading for: Olympus OM-D + 5 lenses, flash and accessories in a small shoulder bag. I even took 14-42 just in case since it's so tiny and light, although it won't see much light... Others include 9-18, 40-150, 45/1.8 and 20/1.7

Our plan is to first drive around to Normandy (with multiple stops on the way) and return to Paris (with a stop in Versailles), leave the car in Paris and use Metro and our feet. The plan is ready and it is a challenging! We'll see what we can accomplish. 

This is the first half of our trip, the drive. One website I found exceedingly useful in planning it is www.francethisway.com. All pictures from the drive are in this gallery

My wife was an avid traveler to Europe in her youth with her parents, and will visit Paris for the 8th time. She has not seen some of the places we're going to, including Amiens, Mont Saint-Michel, Fougères and Le Mans. Me and her went to Paris and Versailles 4 years ago (gallery) without Anne. Besides that I have not been to France.

A little poll about French people outside of Paris speaking English brought 2-2 results ranging from "sure, everybody speaks it" to "not any more than US people speak French." We'll see.

For geometrical reason (just because they're on the way) our first destinations are the great cathedrals of Saint-Denis, Reims and Amiens.

Day 1

Rented car with no problem (we reserved it as an automatic compact with Europcar) - ours is Renault Mégane - and we are on the road, no time to loose. Two little problems: I have a GPS in my phone (Samsung Galaxy SII with CoPilot Europe) but car charger does not charge it, we'll have to use it sparingly; there is a GPS in the car dashboard (which we didn't ask for) but it doesn't appear to work, instead it displays a message box and tells me in a pleasant female voice to, basically, go back to the airport. Annoying, but my wife says it's a breeze to go by signs. Going by printed direction in a place one's never been to is...not ideal, and the trip to St. Denis proves it. With a help of my phone and road signs we manage well enough although the number of streets closed to traffic that GPS suggests to take is staggering.


The impression the town center makes (I'm still not sure if it's officially a part of Paris, but I don't think so) is pretty depressing. There is some parking on the street and we should be close to the cathedral,  but a look around makes our look for an underground lot.

Cathedral of Saint Denis is a place where kings of France have been traditionally buried. The tombs are still there and some of them are pretty impressive. This is a great place to tell my daughter excerpt from France history, since she keeps asking, "And who is that?"

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It's past lunch time. We still need to have a lunch, drive to Reims and look around. At a nearby mall we got a sandwich, so-so. The woman spoke no English at all.

Once you get to A4 the road to Reims is easy, picturesque and uneventful. Anne is sleeping. GPS keeps inviting us to take every exit, fortunately exists are very rare; I have to read the manual to shut this thing off....


We liked Reims center immediately, especially after Saint-Denis. Spacious streets - one seems to be a shopping street with large modern tramways quietly moving around, another - a cobbled street almost with no traffic filled with cafes and restaurants. Anne is fascinated with the modern fountain.


A small opera house in Art Nouveau style


The Cathedral (Notre-Dame de Reims) has been the traditional place of coronation of French kings. It is magnificent and the street leading to it is very nice. Some stained glass windows are 20th century, including some by Chagal. The museum, however, is already closed and will be closed tomorrow, which is a pity.

Modern window by Imi Knoebel

Marc Chagal

We go through the cathedral, walk back to the street with the restaurants and have a dinner. The waiter doesn't speak a word of English, but sign language is accepted. I'm tired of it and attempt to order dessert by a complete French sentence - he only corrected me once, so there!

We return to the cathedral place after dinner. There is a movie shoot going on nearby.


Cathedral looks even better in the sunset, and there's almost no one around.

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Smiling angel


After sunset we walk around the same blocks - weather is gorgeous and we all agree: we do like Reims.


We stayed in Hotel De La Cathedrale, a small hotel right near the cathedral. It's alright for 2 star, the biggest inconvenience was a cumbersome shower. We didn't need an elevator, just took a couple of things from the big suitcase and left it in the car.  

Day 2

The plan is to drive to Amiens, look at the cathedral, drive to Rouen and see as much as possible there. Turned out GPS is not a touch screen, it's controlled by a separate set of knobs. We successfully muted it and started actually using it as GPS. Hurrah! The drive (about 180km) is nice and uneventful.


Amiens was damaged heavily in the World War II and the center was rebuilt so the buildings are not really old, the majority of the houses in the center are good looking brick buildings, and the flowers are abundant. 

The cathedral (another Notre-Dame) is the largest gothic church in France, actually, I believe, it's the largest gothic building in France. I wouldn't necessarily call it better looking than Reims, but it certainly is very large and imposing. As opposed to Reims, the cathedral square is closed from all sides by mostly brick and stone buildings, which makes for interesting acoustics.


It's about 12PM and we still have a drive to Rouen (about 120km) and ambitious plans for Normandy to accomplish, so we decided to make it to Rouen for lunch.


Rouen is a capital of Normandy and the original County of Rouen, the fief Charles the Simple gave to a viking named Rollo in 911 AD. The county was renamed to "Normandy", expanded and later converted to Duchy.

We stop in an underground parking lot right at the Place du Vieux-Marché, the place of execution of Jeanne d'Arc. This is where I understand that our Renault Mégane is truly not compact by french standards. Getting into a parking spot is a challenge and an annoyance. 

Place du Vieux-Marché causes a considerable enthusiasm in Anne, who has heard plenty about Jeanne d'Arc. In fact, before our trip is over we will have to explain numerous times why exactly we are not going to visit Domrémy, the village in Lorraine where Jeanne was born, now that we're in France. The square is surrounded with old houses and has a modern Church of Saint Joan of Arc (completed in 1979). The large stained glass window incorporated glass from the old church that used to stand there, damaged heavily in the World War II.


We have lunch at one of the numerous restaurants at the square. My dish comes with a side of ratatouille and it causes a lot of excitement in my daughter, thank you Pixar. She ate it and loved it, which is an extreme rarity with Anne. 

After lunch we stroll along Rue du Gros Horloge to the (yet another) Norte-Dame Cathedral. The street is filled with old half-timbered houses. Somewhat surprisingly, many if not all of them are not museums of any sort, but actively used residential houses.


The Rouen Cathedral, famously portrayed by Monet, is the place of burial for Rollo, the leader of the vikings who became the first normans, and William the Longsword, who greatly expanded Normady. The heart of the legendary Richard the Lionheart is also here, as well as the tomb of his brother Henry. 

The was a rehearsal in the cathedral: vocal, harp, cello and organ. Beautiful music and a great voice, don't know who it was.


The Church of Saint-Maclou is closed for restoration so we continue along a nearby Rue Martainville, another picturesque street.


Aitre de Saint Maclou is a former mediaeval plague cemetery, a grim place.


We book a room in a nearby 4 stars Mercure Hotel, highly recommended on tripadvisor, and walk back through the old town to Place du Vieux-Marché, where our car is. 

Palais de Justice:


Parking in a hotel has 2 floors: for small cars and for large cars. We get squeeze into a "large cars" section and spend a good 5-10min parking. The only way it's possible is backing up. Those beeping sensors in modern cars are annoying but helpful.

Day 3

The next 2 days are going to be busy: our plan for today is finish with Rouen and go though Pont-Audemer and Beuvron-en-Auge to Caen, and the next day go to Bayeux, Normandy landing sites and drive to Mont St. Michel.

Weather was very nice up to this point but the morning is rainy. Museums are closed (holiday) and we decided not to go to the Tour Jeanne d'Arc, the reviews are not that impressive. 


Pont-Audemer is a town located close to the road from Rouen to Caen. It has an old center with some canals and an old Saint-Ouen Church.
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Under one of the bridges my wife and daughter see a swimming rat, which makes this visit even more memorable for Anne.

Beuvron-en-Auge is a small village about 20km from the road that has many half-timbered houses. On the second thought, we have seen so many half-timbered houses in Rouen and Pont-Audemer that we decide to go to Caen directly to be there by lunch time. The road is beautiful with some hills and villages full of flowers on the way. Grazing cows and horses always go high on Anne's list.


Today is a holiday and we found a parking right at the canal, near both Mercure and Ibis hotels. Mercure here is expensive, more so than in Rouen, so we're staying in Ibis today. It's past lunch time but we find an open crêperie nearby. An old lady doesn't speak any English and quickly gives up her attempts to understand my wife's requests about milk temperature for Anne. A young girl (probably a granddaughter) helps, she has better English and nicer disposition :) Looks like we intruded a bit, as they are having lunch too and the only customers are us. The food is delicious, I love my buckwheat crepe with duck in some white sauce.

Caen is a capital of Lower Normandy. It was the capital and, apparently, the preferred place of William the Conqueror. To patch up relationships with the Pope William and his wife Matilda commissioned two monasteries in Caen, Abbaye aux Hommes (where William is buried) and Abbaye aux Dames (where Matilda is buried). There is also an impressive castle, built by William the Conqueror, although, since it was built before the conquest, it would be more correct  to say William the Bastard.

It's a nice walk from the hotel (close to the southern point of the castle) to Abbaye aux Hommes. 


Abbaye aux Hommes, a quite magnificent romanesque building.


The chateau:

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Nice looking gothic Church of Saint-Pierre is right there neat the castle.

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At the end we even managed to walk uphill to Abbaye aux Dames after dinner.


Checked the forecast - the end of the week promises to be very hot, about 95F, maybe we should reserve a hotel in Versailles with AC. I'm worried because that will be Saturday night in the middle of August - sounds like  a busy time. We tried to reserve Ibis in Versailles from the front desk - booked out... Oh-oh.

Day 4

We are actually ahead of schedule, now that we saw all we wanted in Caen, and we're off to Bayeux, which turns out to be a short drive.


Bayeux is famous for the giant 11th century tapestry telling the story of the conquest of England by William. The tapestry was commission by (at least most scolars agree it was) by Odo, Williams' younger half-brother, who was the bishop of Bayeux (made bishop by William), participated in the Norman conquest and the battle of Hastings and organized building of Bayeux Cathedral.

The tapestry is enormous. Yes, we read the dimensions before, but actually seeing it is different. 

Bayeux is another town with a very cute center and plenitude of flowers, and I'm saying it with nothing but admiration. 


A building with a pond and a lot of flowers is actually a restaurant.


Bayeux Cathedral


Lunch time. Anne is having a "not gonna eat anything" mood... After browsing around we come back to the place with the flowers and the pond, which turns out to be a creperie. We like it very much, although Anne still complains the crepe was too sweet. The view and surroundings are very pleasant indeed.


When planning our trip we did not take into account the traditions of french restaurant service. I can't say it's slow because it really isn't, until they actually serve the food. After that waiters assume that we want to enjoy our food and the restaurant atmosphere for a while. We actually do, however it's the afterwards that becomes a little tight; it's almost 3PM and we have a lot of places to go to, since it only makes sense to go to Mont St. Michel in the morning.

Omaha beachNormandie

The drive is longer than it should be since most of it is by the local roads. The towns on the way are charming, as they were on the way from Pont-Audemer to the highway...

We are on the Omaha beach, looking at the memorials and the beach and trying to imaging the troops going forward. 

_8160312 _8160308 Next stop - the American Cemetery. An awe-inspiring place. I'm generally reluctant to go to cemeteries as a tourist, it almost seems a sort of invasion of privacy of the people who come there for personal reasons, but that doesn't apply here. American Cemetery gets to you even despite the crowds.

_8160315 _8160319 It starts drizzling, that wasn't in the forecast. Next stop - Pointe du Hoc.

Pointe du HocNormandie

This is another remarkable place, both because of a seemingly impregnable coast and the leftovers of German defences and the grandiose view. Anne has read about Normandy landing, we are telling her the story of taking Pointe du Hoc while walking. The wind is strong and cold but at least the rain is light.

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It's past 6PM and we are tired but we have to get closer to Mont St. Michel tonight so we don't lose any time tomorrow morning. We will have to find dinner near a hotel. We find an Ibis hotel past Avranches in GPS. It would be nice to get to Genêts for a sunset view of Mont St. Michel, but with the drizzle visibility remains poor.

Oops, Ibis is booked and so is the nearby Formula 1. It's almost 9PM and we are kind of hungry and it's kind of getting dark although the rain stopped. Here is where CoPilot EU and the blackberry with phone service helped. We found a room in Hotel Altos in Avranches - a very clean 2 star hotel with very helpful staff. It's away from the center of Avranches and it's 10PM so we decide to skip dinner. I got some yogurt and juice from the the gentleman at the desk and we had some chips... There is an "Astérix et Cléopâtre" cartoon on TV. We are familiar with Astérix and Obélix by a comic book from a library and Anne loves it, French language notwithstanding.

Day 5

Mont Saint-MichelNormandie

First thing after breakfast -- leave for Mont Saint-Michel. About 25min drive, with some glimpses of the magnificent island. There used to be a parking lot near the island, but not anymore. The only accessible lot is on the mainland and there is actually a little bit of walking to do even to the shuttle, along cafes, shops and restaurants. Not something we expected, but at least the view from the parking lot is classic. 


Despite the crowds the wait for shuttle is minimal and soon we are near the island. The weather is predicted to go up to 86F. The morning was chilly but by 10AM it's sunny, bright and warm.

_8170339 Mont St. Michel is a special place and a difficult one for an amatuer photographer since there are beautiful views everywhere and yet you've got to watch where you're going not only because of abundance of people around you, but also not to stumble on the way up or down along the cobbled street or a staircase.

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We finally reach the monastery and start the tour. Sorry, but the word magnificent comes to mind frequently in Mont St. Michel.

_8170361 So, the views from the terrace are magnificent...

_8170367 _8170382 Some people are walking on the sand, I hope they know the tide schedule. 

_8170373 This guy probably lives here. He knows what he's doing. 

_8170380 Not sure about them...

_8170374 We visit cloisters and various rooms in the abbey.

_8170387 _8170399 Out of the abbey - the way down is easier. The number of souvenir stores is staggering...

We are back on shuttle, the wait is, again, short. Of course it doesn't have an AC and the heat is in its 2PM prime. Time for lunch. We find a restaurant that looks promising, but all places inside are taken. The food is pretty good although this time the service is slow and the sun now shines directly on yours truly. By the time the nearest table frees and I'm able to move away from the sun I'm half cooked myself. We are finally out at about 4PM and back on the parking lot. Oh, yes, the view...


The heat is considerable and we are happy in the air-conditioned car. Next stop is Fougères, a town in Brittany with a promising looking (on the photos) castle. It's not a long way, about 50km. The problem is, I know from reading about it (on francethisway.com) that there is a "new" town, located on the hill and an "old" town, but I don't know for sure which one is regarded to be the center of Fougères. We'll see...

Fougères, Bretagne

Turned out the center is where the main church is, and that's in the new town. A nice looking square and a nice looking church, a quiet town, or, at least, a quiet part of it this time of day. Everything looks pristine... No signs to "chateau" or "fort" or anything of this sort on the highway or the streets. Fortunately, in the church (I believe it was Saint Léonard Church) there was a girl who spoke some English and explained to me how to get to the park behind the church and walk downhill to the castle, and she even had a very simple tourist map for it. The park behind the church is simply beautiful, with a little pond and stunning view of the hills, castle and old town. 

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One thing I can say: I did not plan this right. We should not have come here after walking all across Mont St. Michel on a hot day. Of course, my wife refused to go to the castle and back uphill and I understand her. All Anne is trying to do at this point is find shade. Even trying to drive there and then taking a tour is going to take significant time, and we still have to drive to Le Mans and find a hotel there. We enjoyed the view some more and proceeded.

Some funny stuff is here in the park. Right near the back wall of the church there is a "falling rocks" sign. Near the sign there is a "broken" bench and telephone cabin with plans growing all over them. That is hilarious! Hey, since we are in Brittany, does it mean that is an example of British humor?

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My original plan included a visit to Vitré, another old town, but it was clear even before the trip that it was unlikely to happen. Maybe some day we'll revisit Fougères and go to Vitré then.

The autoroute goes south-west from Fougères to Rennes. The way to Le Mans is south-east and thus goes partly by local roads and through some very picturesque towns. I had to stop in this one.


It's all built of similar looking old stone houses and I would have loved a half an hour photo stroll there, but decide against it. The shadows are extremely harsh and it's unlikely I would've come up with something great. After the trip is over I tried to remember the name of town but it's all blurred now. Could it have been Dompierre-du-Chemin? It rings a bell but I'm not sure...

The road is very picturesque, and this is really good-bye to the little villages that made our drive so colorful sometimes, because from now on until Paris we'll be traveling by major highways. Grazing cows are still frequent on the fields nearby, although today they're mainly trying to get to the shade. "You've seen so many cows they must be tiresome to you by now," - says Tamara to Anne. "Year, right..." - my thoughts at the wheel. "They starting to be..." - mumbled Anne. That's from the child who usually looses the sight of a great building if a dog is passing by :)

Le Mans, Maine

We found an Ibis in CoPilot, which is located just across the river from the old town. Somehow there is a free parking on the street; tight, but we squeezed in. The price is right, the room is actually not that tiny.

Although most of the step-by-step details of our trip were designed by Tamara using Michelin guides, on a high level the first week of the trip, the drive, was mainly scheduled by me, and it was a somewhat rushed job. Le Mans looked like a good stop between Mont St. Michel and Versailles. It has some remains of a Roman wall, which should be interesting, and St. Julien Cathedral with a celtic menhir propped to it, something we haven't seen and should cause some interest in Anne, considering her acquaintance with Obélix.

Turned out (it was a pleasant surprise to me) that Le Mans also was a city favored by many members of House of Plantagenet, including Geoffrey of Anjou, the founder of the dynasty, his son Henry II of England (first Plantagenet king of England, who was born here) and his family, including Richard I the Lionheart. Richard's widow, Berengaria, lived in Le Mans after his death. So there is a very nice "Plantagenet town" located on a hill near the Cathedral. That is were we went to walk around and have a dinner. At 6:30-7PM it is still very warm, but the next two days forecast, 95F and 96F, doesn't promise much relieve.

We walk to the Roman wall, which is impressive, and proceed uphill.



Plantagenet town is very nice, at this time there are very few people around. We are hungry and quickly find a restaurant. The menu is complicated, there are no English translations and nobody (except, as turned out, the bartender, who knew a couple of words) speaks any English. Tough, but with some help of a dictionary, we manage. We can order food in broken French (and can point too :), the most difficult part was to understand what it is that the dish describes. Believe it or not, but the dictionary had quite a bit of problems too. We did very well I must say, and the food is delicious. After dinner we continue our stroll. The shadows are long by now, and it's good.


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At night there is a show that is called "La nuit des chimeres", the night of chimeras. It's a number of light shows projected on the Roman wall, Cathedral and it's surroundings, and parts of the Plantagenet town. We assume they'll start soon after sunset. Waiting...


They start much later than we expected, at about the same time in all places as far as I can tell, about 10:30-11:00PM, and the shows in different places seem to be completely separate and unrelated. Looks very impressive! Albeit some of it may not be what I'd recommend right before bedtime. 

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Tonight we're going to bed around midnight. 

Day 6

Today we woke up late, naturally. The plan is to revisit the Cathedral and go inside, and walk around Plantagenet town again. And make a photo with the menhir, of course.

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The drive from Le Mans to Versailles is the longest on our way, about 200km. The closer you get to Versailles the more traffic pattern begins to resemble big metro areas in the US. People are driving in the left lane, behaving more erratically.


Arrived in Versailles on schedule, which is past lunch time :( The heat is raging :(( Tried a hotel, were offered 2 rooms (for 3 people) with fans, no AC. Yeah, thank you very much. Why don't we try Ibis, which is splendidly located, just in case... Voila, they got a room for us. Tiny, with a miniscule bathroom, but with a real shower, AC, power outlets and everything we need. I guess they don't make all rooms available for reservations. Parking in the underground lot is a pain in the... finally done. By the time we finish with lunch it's past 5PM, let's see some palace...

The walk is not that pleasant and looking at the palace we are facing west, which gets us the sun in our eyes. Finally we turn back after I make sufficient number of shutter clicks to convince me the evening wasn't wasted. Tomorrow we'll need to get up early...


Day 7

Best view of the palace is early in the morning. I'm taking a couple of snaps while ladies are finishing breakfast.


Packed and checked-out, tickets ready, we are there about 20min to 9, but there's a very sizable line already. The plan is to go through the palace first, then see the fountains, go through the gardens and walk to the Marie-Antoinette's Hamlet. Anne is really excited about seeing the Queen's Hamlet, this story got her interested. We don't mind at all, since on our first visit to Versailles (without Anne) we didn't go there and it became open sort of recently so Tamara has not seen it during her previous trips. The palace also sounds good to Anne, I guess just the name "Hall of Mirrors" makes a girl want to go there immediately :) The wait proves to be not that bad and soon enough we're in the palace.


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There is some modern art shapes displayed in the rooms of the palace. The design does not mesh well with baroque interior IMHO. At the end of the Hall of Mirrors there are 2 giant women shoes... made of pots and and pot covers... A true sign of victory of the French Revolution methinks!


We are out of the palace and under the sun just in time for the fountains. They look beautiful but Anne starts misbehaving. She hates the heat, her dark glasses and her cap. "Look at the beautiful Neptune fountain!" - we say. "This is NOT the Neptune fountain! Where is Neptune?!?" - she yells in frustration. Come on... But the brief checks confirms that her comment is correct. This is called "Leto Basin". We find Neptune Fountain on the map - it's out of our way - and plan to get there on the way back.

Once we reach the trees we can walk in the shade. It's still hot, but tolerable and we can see plenty - thanks to the vastness of the space. The trick is to get Anne out of the shade for pictures, with the Apollo Fountain, for example. 


We come to Petit Trianon and find that to get to Queen's Hamlet we need to enter through it, and it opens only at 12. It's 11:50 and we wait.


The walk is not very long and most of it has some trees. The village is indeed beautiful, with a nice pond, we see several birds.

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We are back at Petit Trianon and decided to get refreshments and water at the cafe. Oh, why not, let's get some food, we share a baguette sandwich, Anne gets a pastry.

It's a reasonably short walk to Grand Trianon and we go there.

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The way back is hot and we are, basically, walking in the shade of tall trees just outside of the palace gardens. We finally come to the Neptune Fountain. Now where is Neptune? Wait... that's actually what is called "Dragon Fountain", Neptune is a little further, under the bright sunlight... Come on, we've come this far, we go there and I make some pictures...


The way back is hot and tiresome but satisfying.


Well, that's it, isn't it, the only thing to do is to drive to Paris and get rid of the car. We'll eat in Paris. The drive is uneventful and we arrive victoriously to the Arc de Triomphe (appropriate...) and to the Belfast Hotel. The hotel looks like an antique building with antique furniture, antique cloth wallpaper and new bathrooms and TV set. We got a "view" room. Well, let's see, it's the 5th floor... Ah, both the Arc and Eiffel Tower. Splendid!

We take some rest and make ourselves go out. Tomorrow high is predicted to be 87F, which sounds good after today's 96F. We go around Arc de Triomphe, down Champs Elysees, find a restaurant that serves an apricot wine aperitif, so good that after trying my wife's I ordered one too. By the way, we came back to this restaurant on our last day in Paris and ordered the same aperitif and, while good, it wasn't the same heavenly ambrosia, which shows how much walking in the heat improves quality of refreshments.

Our stay in Paris deserves a separate blog entry ==>

The "English speakers poll" turned out to have produced perfect results, as our experience returned the same 50% statistic - 5:5. Better have a couple of french words ready, although actually speaking French is not required :)





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