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Hi Terry,

My husband and I are from Singapore and we are planning a driving tour of France during the first two weeks of December.  We're in our mid/late 30s and have travelled a fair bit in Western Europe. We've seen most of Paris and given the weather at this time of the year, we felt that Southern France might be the thing for us.   We're trying to get a good variety of sights and experiences in our journey, while enjoying an unhurried and picturesque drive along the way.

We fly in from Paris around 28 November.  I'm thinking of taking a TGV to either Orleans or Tours where we pick up our rental car, then drive down to Bordeaux followed by Toulouse, Nimes, Avignon, Provence, Cannes and ending in Nice/Monaco to catch a flight back to Paris and then home.

What do you think of such a plan and how would you suggest spreading our time over the various locations?  Are there any areas you would skip or add especially considering the time of the year?  

Thanks a million in advance!

Answer
Hi . . .    Helene from Singapore!

Overall, as I understand, your roughly two-week plan for France sounds like it should work fairly well.  Early December is not an ideal time to see France at its "peak"  in weather and beauty, but you can make it work.  Below are a number of my notes for the Loire Valley, Bordeaux, Provence, etc.  Don't know if you have any interests for Sarlat and the Dordogne River Valley.  Stopping there could work out, maybe, if and if.   

Tell me more about your personal and travel interests!   How much are you interested in history?  Countrysides vs. cities?  Museums, food, wine, art, music, shopping, architecture, culture, etc.?  How much of it in a leisurely style versus fast-paced?  Then, with more detailed and specific information from you, I can make better, more specific suggestions on what best fits your needs and interests.

Does this start to help a little? What are your needs for added information?  Be happy to provide additional info and answer other questions after learning more from you.  Be sure to complete the evaluation section so that our "bosses" on this volunteer service know we are working hard to make inquiring minds as happy as possible. ENJOY!  Merci Beaucoup!

Thanks.  Terry Casey in Columbus, Ohio


HERE'S SOME BACKGROUND ON THE WONDERFUL LOIRE VALLEY:

This is the major chateau and castle country southwest of Paris.  It is easy to reach during the a day-trip from Paris taking the quick and comfortable TGV Express train to the Tours suburban station of the St Pierre on the edge of town.  Then pick up your reserved rental car.  See and enjoy the area.  Then drop your car off in the evening, returning back to Paris in only an hour without having to battle the big city traffic.  This  area peaked in power in the mid 1400's to 1700's period; Joan of Arc helped win battle at Orleans in 1429 that spurred power of French monarch to unify the country and drive out the English; Blois has population of 50,000; Tours has population of 130,000 with half-timbered houses on Place Plumeneau; priority for lunch or dinner at Chateau de Beaulieu (4 1/2 miles SW of Tours, 18th Century country estate, phone 47-53 20-26); among the top chateaus to see (all rated as three stars by Michelin Guide) that we have seen and loved are:

Azay-le-Rideau, 15 miles SW of Tours, built between 1518 and 1527 with Gothic elements combined with early Renaissance decoration set in wooded area surrounded by water on River Indre, "a romantic pleasure palace", exterior unaltered over centuries, open 9:30-6, night lumiere program during summer; called by Balzac as "multifaceted diamond set in the Indre";  PRIORITY

Chenonceau, 14 miles SE of Tours, built starting in 1513, structure stretches across waters of Cher River, early home for King Henri II's mistress; developed later by Catherine de Medici and five successor women associated with royal families, "a romantic pleasure palace", open 9:00-7 pm March 16th to September 15th, closes a little earlier late fall through winter, see first since it is closest to train station, avoid crowds and opens at 9 a.m., has one million visitors a year, and with the exception of Versailles, is the most visited castle in France; lunch or dinner at L'Orangerie on grounds.  www.chenonceau.com  SUPER PRIORITY

Cheverney, eight miles SE of Blois, privately held by family with lavish interior furnishings, rich tapestries, hunt tradition, built between 1604 and 1634, open 9:15 noon and 2:15-6:30 p.m.; kennel feeding time of 5 p.m., except 3 p.m. for Tuesdays and weekends. PRIORITY  

These other two are also rated as "three stars" by Michelin:

Villandry, 12 miles west of Tours, gardens are key focus, open 9-6 for chateau, last great Renaissance chateau built in Loire Valley;  Super wonderful gardens with many water features and other unique attractions!

Chambord, ten miles east of Blois, with curved exterior towers, double curved interior staircase and Italian influence, largest in Loire Valley with 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces, begun in 1523, can rent horses here to ride in nearby woods, downside: few furnishing on interior and big to see in short visit; royalty of this period did not keep their furnishings at each location, they moved rugs, tapestries, furnishings, etc. as they shifted from location to location; open daily 9:30-11:45 a.m. and 2-4:45 p.m.  Chambord is at a little distance from some of the other locations.  Large, but a little cold because it is not as well furnished and lacks some of the comfort and charm seen with other chateaus.  Their website:
http://www.chambord.org/Chambord-en-idm-1-n-Accueil.html

Local tourism office/site: www.holidays-loire-valley.com


MAJOR LOIRE VALLEY CITIES/OTHER OPTIONS THERE

ORLEANS: Once France's second largest city and now the vinegar capital of France, a direct result of the region's wine industry, Orleans was liberated from the British by Joan of Arc in 1429. Each year in May a celebration commemorating her exploits is held; the house in which she stayed during the ten-day siege of Orleans can be visited. The city also features the Hotel Groslot, a brick and stone Renaissance mansion which served as the Town Hall, and the Gothic Cathedral of St-Croix. Places of interest to visit in the surrounding area: the castles of Chamerolles and Sully-sur-Loire.

BOURGES: Located at the geographical heart of France, Bourges is a rich historical town of paved stone streets, medieval and Renaissance architecture, ancient ramparts and the remarkable Gothic Cathedral of St-Etienne which dominates the hilltop. Places of interest to visit in the surrounding area: the château o' Meillant, George Sand's House in Nohant, and Noirlac Abbey. And of course, Sancerre and its famous white wines.

BLOIS: Its famous castle has been linked throughout the centuries as the center of court intrigue during the 15th - 17th Centuries and with the history of French Kings. Its mixture of architectural styles is extraordinary: from flamboyant gothic to classical.  Nearby: the châteaux of Beauregard and Chaumont-sur Loire, which holds a famous International Festival of Parks and Gardens from mid-June through mid-October.

TOURS: At the junction of the Loire and Cher Rivers, Tours is a busy university town and the traditional point of departure for exploring the Loire Valley. During the Middle Ages, it was one of the great pilgrimage sites of Europe. Today, the city boasts wonderful Renaissance and neo-classical mansions, which are clustered around the famous Plumereau square, fine museums including a collection of craftsmen's masterpieces and the Cathedral of St-Gatien. Famous wine region, especially Vouvray, Chinon, Bourgueil... The most interesting sites in the Surrounding area are the châteaux of Azay IeRideau, which reflects on the river, Villandry, surrounded by Renaissance gardens, Ussé, said to be the original Sleeping Beauty's castle, Langeais and Loches, as well as the splendid medieval city of Chinon.

AMBOISE: Huddled under the shadow of its impressive royal castle, Amboise is a pretty town with white stone houses dating from the 15th century. Also of interest is the Cbs Lucé, the former residence of Leonardo da Vinci. A few miles away, the Château of Chenonceau, also called the Ladies Castle, has a famous viewing gallery, built by one of France's great Queens, from which to admire an impressive view of the Cher River.

Chinon: Its massive, 400 meter-long castle towers over the town’s medieval quarter.

Chateau de Chaumont: Its sets on a bluff overlooking the Loire. Its most famous feature is the luxurious Ecuries.

Chateau d’Amboise: The rocky outcrop on which it sits has been fortified since the roman times.

Musée des Beaux Arts de Tours: Tour’s Fine Arts Museum, housed in the 18th C. Palais de l’Ancien Archevéché, has an excellent collection of paintings from the 14th to the 20th C.

NEARBY CHARTRES CATHEDRAL
The world-famous Cathedral of Chartres which Rodin called the Acropolis of France, is a remarkable testament to medieval architecture. Musts include the sculpture, the 12' and 13' century stained glass and the collection of ancient musical instruments. The Old Town of medieval cobbled streets, gabled houses and charming footbridges lies at the foot of the cathedral.

LOCAL TOURIST OFFICES:
In each town and for many of the better villages, they will have a local tourism office.  You can use Google.com to search for that tourism office.  As example in the cute and historic town of Chinon (west of Tours in the Loire), you can do this Google search with these key words: "Chinon tourist office France" and it will yield this result for their local office:  http://tourisme.chinon.com/indexgb.php
Go to that site (or for whichever town you are seeking) and then you can contact them (probably by e-mail)  for the dates you are seek, type of accommodations, etc.   Some will have detailed info on the options there, etc.

In 2005, we stayed at Chateau Bournand, a 17th century restored chateau with seven-acre walled grounds and gardens, near Chinon and Saumur; the Tour de France passed in front of this Chateau, July 4, 2:36 pm.  We had three nights here.  It might be a little farther west than what some seek and like.  Website: www.chateaubournand.com
e-mail: chateaubournand@hotmail.com


BORDEAUX is famed for its wine and history. From the Grand Théâtre to the Palais de la Bourse, from the Place du Parlement passing the Porte Cailhau, formerly one of the main city gates, from the wide avenues of neo-classical neighborhood surrounding the Esplanade des Quinconces, to the narrow lanes of the Saint-Pierre neighborhood you will discover the history of Bordeaux, its grand families and celebrated guests.   Among the key options within the city would be: Musée d'Aquitaine housing a collection from prehistory to today; closed on Monday and public holidays.  Musée des Beaux-arts: A vast collection of paintings about the most important period of occidental art from the Renaissance to the 2nd World War; closed on Tuesday and public holidays.  Musée des Arts Décoratifs: in an 18th century mansion, a collection of furniture, ceramics, glass, wrought iron and plates; closed on Tuesday and public holidays.
With 113,000 hectares, the Bordeaux vineyards are the largest fine wine region in the world, including many speciality wines to delight gourmets or more curious palates.  Such great names as Yquem, Petrus, Margaux, Latour and Mouton are produced in this area.  There are over 13,000 wine châteaux just in Bordeaux.

For Bordeaux’s tourism office:
http://www.bordeaux-tourisme.com/index_uk.html


SOUTHWEST FRANCE HIGHLIGHTS/OPTIONS:
While there, we stayed overnight at the nearby Hotel Bônnet in Beynac overlooking the Dordogne River (hotel phone: 011-33-5-53-29-5001). The Sarlat-La-Caneda Market on Saturday is really great with its very attractive medieval quarter!  Hopefully Saturday will be one of your days there.

Sarlat-la-Canéda, or simply Sarlat, is in the heart of the wonderful Dordogne River valley areas in southwest France.  It is one of the most attractive and alluring towns with a population of a little under 10,000. Sarlat is a medieval town that developed around a large Benedictine abbey.  Because modern history had largely passed it by, Sarlat has remained preserved and is one of the towns most representative of 14th century France. The center of the old town consists of beautifully restored stone buildings and is largely car-free.  There are several large foie gras production places in the area and this adds to its appeal. They also produce other cherished products (confits, pâté, etc.) from these ducks and geese. It is that architecture and history as being the super-star for this great town.   Their town website: www.sarlat.fr

Among the other key options in the area are:

1. ROCAMADOUR- Perched on the side of a cliff with one of the most extraordinary sites in France, this village was one of the great pilgrimages in the Middle Ages.  This site is also a must-see at night.

2. BEYNAC - Large castle overlooking the Dordogne, it was the site of many battles during the Hundred Years War.

3. LES EYZIES - Known as the Capital of Prehistory, it has a famous national museum.

4. DOMME - Walled-town with spectacular overview of the Dordogne.  

5. ST-CIRQ-LAPOPIE - Village with a remarkable site perched on a rocky escarpment overlooking the Lot River valley.

There is also Cahors on River Lot, Cordes and a little farther away is the famed castle/fortress of Carcassonne;

There are other smaller castles, small town markets, wineries, etc.  It depends upon what you like to do and enjoy.  Just hanging out in and around Sarlat and doing nothing is fun and enjoyable.

For Sarlat, their tourism office is:
www.sarlat-tourisme.com/en
Contact them and let them know your specific interests and needs.
For the larger area, check at:
www.dordogne-perigord-tourisme.fr  


PROVENCE: WHY IT IS A GREAT PLACE?  ITS WONDERFUL OPTIONS:

Why do people love Provence?  It is a region having a love affair with the land, earth and environment.  The landscape is lush and verdant.  Open-air markets have baskets of fresh herbs, fruits, flowers, fabrics, etc.  The colorful spirit of the Mediterranean fills the air.  Provence is nature at its purest.  The sky is a piercing shade of blue.  Fields are abundant and the air is clear.  The climate ensures that spring, summer and fall yield magnificent and varied harvests.  Throughout France, Provence is known for the best of everything natural.  People in the area take great pride in these natural traditions for what they grow and how it is prepared in each village and every kitchen.

LOCATION: Provence has at its southern edge the famed Cote d’Azur with its wonderful coastline along the Mediterranean Sea.  Generally Provence is consider the area east of the Rhone River with the Alps being the eastern border.  Provence enjoys a southern sun that shines 320 days yearly, giving the region blue skies and mild temperatures year round.  It is most picturesque in the spring with its flowering trees and shrubs.  Summer offers local markets full of fresh harvests.  Mid July is when the lavender field are in full bloom, filling the country air with a soothing fragrance.  The Mistral winds can bring icy temperatures on bright sunny days. Getting lost can be fun in Provence.  You can stumble across a charming village, history abbey or great tree-lined roadway.

KEY PROVENCE LOCATIONS:
AVIGNON is "one of the great art cities of France".  Its old part of town has the Papal Palace, seat of Popes 1309-1377, street musicians perform near palace; art museum in Place du Palais open Wednesday through Monday, population of 87,000, town is on Rhone River. Once the religious, political and financial capital, Avignon is today a cultural capital and plays host annually in July to the largest festival of live theatre in the world. It has some of the best example of Gothic architecture in Europe.

AIX-EN-PROVENCE (population of 143,000) with Cezanne's studio on the road to Entremont; university town founded 122 B.C. as first Roman settlement in Gaul, near thermal springs, dining at Gu et Fils. An elegant and beautiful town, the visitor will enjoy discovering its ‘thousand fountains’ as he or she roams through its labyrinth of narrow streets. Aix-en-Provence is also renowned worldwide for its unique classical music festival.

Car travel to such nearby areas as ARLES, highest priority area city with Roman ruins, including 20,000 seat arena where bull fights are held in the summer; founded 49 B.C. by Julius Caesar, population of 52,000, Van Gogh's former home. Tarascon has its 15th century castle. LES BAUX is a very neat medieval village with great views that has no major population now, but tourist flock to soak up its history and great views. You should dine right near there at L'Oustau de Beaumaniere for ONE OF THE BEST MEALS YOU CAN HAVE IN FRANCE (lunch is more affordable).

This website gives some excellent info on the area, plus this excellent Michelin two-star rated dining place:
http://www.relaischateaux.com/en/search-book/hotel-restaurant/oustau/region 

NIMES was settled 121 B.C. and has a population of 140,000. Around the time of Julius Caesar, Nimes was a bustling city on the strategic Via Domitia linking Rome to Iberia/Spain. Nimes's arena, temple and nearby aqueduct are among the best-preserved in all of the former empire. Cars are banished from the compact old city dotted with other ruins, enhancing the feel of yesteryear. The Maison Carre is an almost impossibly pristine Roman temple.

ST. REMY has its Roman ruins, a population of 9000 and is the setting of world-famous literature.  Saint-Remy is one of the most representative of Provençal towns and allows the visitor to appreciate the true charm of this oft-celebrated region of the country. It comes as no surprise that Saint Remy, like Cannes or Saint Tropez, is a destination for many well-known personalities.  This Gallo-Roman village is on the plains 20 km south of Avignon. Residents more recent than the Romans include Dr. Schweitzer, Dr. Nostradamus and Van Gogh. The picturesque, old village is protected by the circular 14th-century wall which is lined by its protective circle of buildings.  Its dolphin fountain is located in the shaded square in front of a 16th century old convent.  This is a busy, active village, with a good selection of restaurants and hotels for the traveller. Among the shops are a few with some regional pottery, including some beautiful sunflower plates influenced by Van Gogh.  The road between St. Remy and the autoroute (at Cavaillon, 17 km to the east) is a scenic drive out of the past: the road is lined by plane trees.

PONT DU GARD (Roman aqueduct/bridge) to the west of Avignon is a must see with its well-preserved history and beautiful setting. Saturday AM market at Uzes near Pont du Gard can be totally charming and wonderful.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape translates as "New Castle of the Pope" and is entwined with papal history. When in 1308, Pope Clement V, former Archbishop of Bordeaux, relocated the papacy to the city of Avignon, future "Avignon Popes" did much to promote wine growing, especially the viticulture in the  5–10 km north of Avignon area close to the banks of the Rhône River.  The blend is usually predominantly Grenache for this area. Wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. has promoted the wines of Châteauneuf and helped inflate their populartiry and price.  A 2007 New York Times story noted: “A good Châteauneuf-du-Pape is first and foremost a wine-lover's wine. Other wines can give you gloss and symmetry, the sort of good looks that are obvious even if you aren't much of a wine drinker. But Châteauneuf does not lend itself to smoothness and polish.”

Try good Provence website of:
www.provencebeyond.com

Try Avignon’s official tourism office:
www.avignon-et-provence.com

For St. Remy:
http://www.saintremy-de-provence.com/anglais/ssomm.htm

COASTAL SUGGESTION: The old village of Eze, along the coast between Nice and Monaco, hangs up in the mountains above the water and crowds. It's wonderful to visit. Great, great views! Totally charming! Have lunch or dinner there at one of the two great eating places and feel like you're sitting on the edge of paradise!  We ate at the Château Eza.  Its website: www.chateauezarestaurant.com.   At 1,407 feet above the Mediterranean, Eze offers commanding views of cliffs, sea, sprawling estates and off-shore islands. The village's narrow streets or more really paths among the buildings lead to the Jardin Exotique  It is a maze of paths flanked by mammoth flowering plants and spiky cactuses.  For about $3, you can walk up to the best view on the French Riviera. On a clear day, you can see Corsica!  It does not get much better than Eze.  Their tourism office:
www.eze-riviera.com

CONGESTION, TRAFFIC WARNINGS: Be properly warned that Nice, Cannes, Monaco, etc. can and will be extremely crowded during their peak tourism periods.  Lots and lots of people (both residents and visitors), too many cars, too few highways and limited land between the mountains and sea to hold all comfortably and easily.  The movies have made these large cities seem attractive and appealing.  Do not Cary Grant and Grace Kelly seem to be having fun there?  So glamorous and exciting?!  For movies, they make it seem so wonderful.  If you are rich and in the “best, right” areas, it can seem and be wonderful.  BUT, that congestion might be a turn-off.  It depends on what are you expecting, seeking and willing to pay for to hang with the rich and avoid the mobs in these famed areas.


CAR RENTALS OPTIONS:
We have had excellent success with
www.autoeurope.com
Their phone toll-free is 1-888-223-5555 (North America only).
There are also rail-auto plan options through raileurope.com
Avis has lots and lots of location around France and Europe.
Don’t assume one price will be the THE PRICE, best price.  Make an advanced booking at a good price, but keep check back as different specials will come up, especially in these fast-changing economic times.

WEB-MAPPING FOR FRANCE:
Use this website to get any detailed maps you need. Scroll to the bottom of the page and follow the directions with your details on where are coming from and going to. It will give both graphic maps and written point-by-point driving instructions. You can also look lower on the page for other options such as a shorter route in miles that might take more time and be more "scenic".
http://www.mapquest.com/maps/main.adp?country=FR
or
http://www.mapquest.com/directions/europe.adp?do=nw

RAIL SCHEDULES: You can go to this website
http://www.raileurope.com/us/rail/point_to_point/triprequest.htm
or
www.raileurope.com
and check all of the various train options, timings and costs on rail travel within Europe through the "schedules" option on their web page.  For some routings, such as Avignon to Barcelona or Nice to Rome, it will not yield results.  You will be need to break it out into separate routings such as Nice to Genoa, then Genoa to Rome.  Great, very useful site!


WEATHER/BEACHES FOR THIS AREA?  It is NOT always hot and perfect beach weather during all months of the year in this region, especially in the November to April period.  Also, the beaches are not all perfect, nice and sandy, gently sloped, etc., as some have experienced in Florida, the Carolinas, California, etc.  The movie images paint a perfect picture!  BUT, in many areas for some months, the beaches can be rocky and the weather mostly in the 50's and 60's.  Sunny, probably.  Windy, maybe.  Not trying to be negative, just realistic!  Timing in this area is important!  Movie-like expectations must be matched with reality and your timing for visits in this area.  Also some of the best beaches in a few peak areas are reserved for private hotel or resort use only.  Not all of the best beaches are open to the general public.


DINING:  Assuming you're not looking for the high-end, pricy places, the great news is that most any place will be very good to great to excellent. It's hard to have a bad meal in France!! The secret is to do some asking where you are staying and/or of others you meet there for their local suggestions. Then apply the eyeball test! If it looks touristy and the people sitting there (or the staff) are bored and uninterested, then that place probably should be avoided. If it looks like there are locals there and/or they are enjoying it, then it will probably be very good. Or maybe even better!

Here's a good "balancing suggestion" for saving your dining budget. Grab your lunch at one of the many bakeries/boulangerie/patisserie shops. Most are very cute and wonderful. Great breads! Get a sandwich, pastry, drink. Maybe some cheese. Other nice fresh things. Maybe spend only $4-5-6 a person. Eat in a park area or bench in Paris or the country side. Like a little picnic! Saves money and time during a busy day. Allows a little more budget for dinner in the evening.

FINAL KEY POINT: Read up, in advance, with such books (maybe from your library) as Eyewitness France (great maps and pictures) . . . or the Michelin Green books . . . to help you target what you most want to see and enjoy to fit your needs and taste. Don't wait until you get there to decide what you want to do. And be flexible. There could be strikes, rain, etc. that will require you to be able to adjust quickly to take advantage of your best available options each day.  

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Terry Casey

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Most experienced for Paris, Loire Valley, Provence, Dordogne, Alsace, Burgundy, Normandy and Reims/Champagne Country. Terry likes helping travelers get trip "flow and pacing" right so your adventure is neither . . . a bore, NOR a blur! Make sure your timing works, fitting your interests, tastes, personal experiences and needs. Terry has planned and done great trips to the Baltics, Russia, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Ireland, England, Austria, Italy, Czech Republic, Hungary, Greece, Norway, Turkey and Switzerland, plus South America and Cuba. Did wonderful April, 2007, week in Paris, summer 2008 southern England trip, summer 2010 fjords/North Cape, Norway coast, etc. Has visited twenty=two different countries in Europe. You can check out our Norway coast/fjords adventure with lots of great pictures from last summer at: www.boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=1227923 This live/blog has gotten nearly 52,000 views. For Villefranche, ports in Italy and along the the Croatian coast, you can check this live/blog. We are now at 42,762 views here. www.boards.cruisecritic.com/showthread.php?t=1426474 France is great, but these other parts of the Europe are wonderful, too!!!

Experience

There is much post 9-11-2001 worry about travel to Europe, but all reports and experiences say things are fine, with proper care and planning. From wide travels in many parts of Europe in 2005- 2008, my personal experiences are that things are good there and reasonably behaving Americans are treated well. See, enjoy the world and experience its great diversity! I have visited 20 countries in Europe and know that there's lots there to see and do. PROVIDE KEY BACKGROUND INFORMATION with QUESTION: To help me answer your questions better, please provide some info on your past France/Europe travel experiences, ages, general budget range, personal travel style/interests, number in your party, what you most want to enjoy and see, etc.

Education/Credentials
Ohio State University grad

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