Friday, May 13, 2011

Touring the French countryside

As Greg had never been anywhere in France outside of Paris, I encouraged him to include some "small town" Europe sightseeing as part of our RTW trip. Since we were already up north, the easiest thing to do was go east to Alsace, on the German border. Also, because of Greg's interest in World War II history, the D-Day beaches in Normandy were already on our "must see" list. As usual, I had already been to both of these areas, but as they are unique, scenic and historic, I was happy to go back.

in the Petite Venise section of Colmar
As in Spain, we had to decide whether to take trains or rent a car. Again, we would have, on principle, preferred the train, however I will briefly describe why we opted for the car. To cover the area we wanted to visit, we would need to take a total of three train trips, not including necessary transfers where there were no direct trains offered: Paris-Colmar 145EUR/$214;  Colmar-Bayeux 174-232EUR/$250-333; and Bayeux-Paris 28EUR/$41. So the minimum train cost was $505. If we opted to stop in Reims, then the Colmar-Reims 100EUR/$147 and Reims-Bayeux 91EUR/$134 segments would not really affect the total cost of taking trains. However, we have to add the cost of a D-Day beach tour 80EURpp/$236 so the true total cost of traveling by train was $742. In addition, we would have skipped Rouen & Caen as we wouldn't have gone out of our way to visit either of those places by train.
Notre-Dame Cathedral in Reims
By comparison, a seven day car rental (Peugeot 207 diesel) from Sixt Rent A Car was $210.49. We ultimately drove 1700km, paid tolls amounting to $85.64, fuel $178.12, and parking $8.30. Include a ride on the metro to pick up the car ($4.96; we walked to the train station when we dropped the car off) and the total cost of driving was only $487.51.
approaching a town on the Alsatian wine route
The biggest advantage of having a car was the freedom to drive the Alsatian wine route, spend time in cities like Reims and Rouen, and tour the D-day beaches on our own. One note about types of vehicles: we initially requested a SMART Fortwo for our rental and were disappointed when there were none available when we arrived at the rental car office. However, as the rental agent reminded us, SMART cars were not made to drive high speeds and long distances on highways. After driving 1700 kilometers in seven days, I was grateful for the more powerful engine and extra space in our Peugeot!
Greg next to our rental car with Rouen's Notre-Dame Cathedral in the background
I will never forget the vivid yellows & greens of the canola and wheat fields stretching to the horizon on both sides of the highway during virtually the entire drive from Paris to Colmar. France's autoroutes are well marked and have frequent (every 20km or so) pull offs for picnic areas/rest stops complete with free, virtually spotless, modern squat toilets. There are also multipurpose service areas every 40+ km typically with one gas station + convenience store + restaurant. As noted previously in the driving cost, tolls on the privately owned autoroutes are fairly high. If you want to estimate costs before deciding to drive, there is accurate information in English on this website.
the perfect place for a picnic
One of the advantages of taking the autoroutes is speed (130kph) and a more direct routing. However, since we had to backtrack west after visiting Colmar, and had built in an extra day/night to break up the drive to Bayeux, we decided to take the more rural (and free) "national" roads for the second half of our trip. I think I only averaged 90kph and there were frequent, sometimes confusing, roundabouts to negotiate. However I learned to closely follow and trust the directional signs, and despite thinking several times that we had surely made a wrong turn, we always ended up on the right road.

directional signs for the D514
By slowing down to enjoying the beautiful scenery, we also had the opportunity to more closely observe the French country way of life.For example, one morning we drove through a very small town where I noticed practically all the residents standing outside their houses or at the end of their driveways/sidewalks holding baguettes. Apparently we had just missed the daily bread delivery! And, despite seeing hundreds of signs warning of deer along the roads, I only saw one dead deer but numerous dead hedgehogs. Maybe they need to change the signs?!
you'll spot people carrying baguettes everywhere in France - even to church!
Finally, after not eating a single, proper restaurant meal in Paris, we indulged in Alsace & Normandy. I reminded Greg that trying the local cuisine is an important part of traveling and he had no problem splurging (compared to our typical food expenditure) on some really tasty food & drink. Photos certainly don't convey the delicious aromas and flavors of the meals, but you can get an idea of some of the things we ate by reading my daily log below.
tarte flambee for Greg & escalope veau forestiere for me with an Alsatian Pinot Blanc at La Maison Rouge in Colmar
4/22 Long but beautiful 6 hour drive to Colmar in Alsace. The brilliant yellow canola contrasting with green wheat and brown freshly-plowed fields was breathtaking. Colmar is picture-perfect as well. Ate dinner at Maison Rouge (tarte flambee nature + escalope veau forestiere w/spaetzl + 50cl pichet pinot blanc).
4/23 Great day of sightseeing on foot in quaint Colmar and another great Alsatian meal at Schwendi  (roesti forestiere + choucroute garni + 50cl Paulaner Dunkel + 50cl Fischer). Followed a self-guided town walking tour (in the Rick Steves guidebook), visited St Martin's Cathedral and the Unterlinden Museum (free audioguide with admission) with fantastic Martin Schongauer etchings and the incredible Isenheim Altarpiece. Isenheim altarpiece demonstration
4/24 Enjoyed a quiet Easter Sunday in our little studio in Colmar and worked on blog posts, photos, etc. Our only sightseeing was the Dominican Church to see Schongauer's La Vierge au Buisson de Roses. Cooked pasta dinner in the apartment.
4/25 Left at 9:30AM to drive to Reims. Took the scenic route to avoid tolls. Followed the Route des Vins d'Alsace then crossed the Vosges Mountains; arrived in Reims at 2PM. Ate our picnic lunch at the Chambres d'Hote after chatting with the owner, Claude, in French for over an hour. Spent the rest of the afternoon sightseeing in Reims: Roman ruins, Musee de la Reddition, Notre Dame Cathedral - where there is a giant mechanical spider, made by French company La Machine, to celebrate the cathedral's 800th anniversary as well as the inauguration of the city's first tram. Ate dinner at 3 Brasseurs brewery (choucroute garni + their Brune beer).
4/26 Took the N13 from Reims to Caen. Left Reims at 10am; stopped in Rouen for 1.5 hours to eat a quick lunch and sightsee. We arrived at the War Memorial at 5pm, two hours before closing time. It was not very busy and, in French, I mentioned to the ticket seller that Greg & I were unemployed (I had noted on their price list that jobless people get in free). After a brief chat, she decided to let one of us in free, thus saving us 18.50 euros. Finished the short drive to Bayeux but had trouble finding the hotel because the directions we got from Google Maps were completely wrong! Finally checked into hotel at 8:30PM. Ate dinner at adjacent Campanile hotel restaurant (andouille w/fries).
4/27 Got Greg's hair cut (most expensive of the trip). Stopped at tourist info office to pick up free walking tour map. Ate nice lunch at Le Drakkar (10.90EUR 3 course menu: tarte, fish, dessert). Did the self-guided Bayeux walking tour, found all but one of the designated sights. Went to grocery and bought Domaine du Lieu Gosset cidre fermier de Normandie, Maroilles cheese and pork sausage to bring back to the hotel for dinner. Stored leftover cheese outside on window ledge because it was so stinky!!!
4/28 Spent about 8 hours visiting the D-day sites: Arromanches, Longues-sur-mer, US Cemetery, Omaha Beach, German Cemetery, etc. Returned to Bayeux hungry (we didn't stop for lunch) but had to wait for restaurants to open at 6:45PM. Ate delicious dinner at La Fringale (15.50EUR 3 course menu: 6 escargot, tripe a la maison Caen, tarte aux pommes + 50cl pichet cidre).
4/29 Left the hotel at 8:30 to start the drive back to Paris. Only made one stop to eat a quick snack and fill up with gas. Sat in stop & go traffic for almost an hour upon reaching Paris city center. Finally arrived at Sixt rental office at noon. Walked to Gare du Nord and asked if we could exchange our tickets for an earlier train but would have had to "trade in" for only 50% of their value then pay full fare for the replacements. Walked to a nearby Chinese restaurant and ate lunch, then killed time talking about our future travel plans. The train ride to Brussels took less than two hours on the super fast Thalys (we topped out at 296kph).

Alsace: Colmar
Champagne-Ardenne: Reims
Haute-Normandie: Rouen
Basse-Normandie: Bayeux & D-day sights


  1. I have no words for how much I love this post. And your blog . Everything I've read.
    trip to Europe

    1. Thank you! I'm so glad I took the time to write for all of these years. I'd never remember all of these details otherwise!