With various transportation challenges and the ever-lingering Covid pandemic, my spring trip to Europe was a bit shorter than in past years and limited to one country: France. But boy did my travel companions and I make the most of it. I spent a week in Burgundy and Champagne, a week in Provence, followed by another week in Paris. Here are the places and experiences that I’m already reminiscing about:
Cluny Museum – National Museum of the Middle Ages
Paris’ Cluny Museum reopened its doors in May after two years, revealing a stunning renovation. Featuring art, furniture and household objects from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, its modern, airy spaces are grafted onto, into and around Medieval and Roman ruins. Entering through an all-new entrance and lobby, you’ll find completely reconfigured exhibits arranged in delicate, almost-floating glass cabinets atop concrete plinths. The museum displays far more items than I recall ever seeing here before. Plus, the lovely courtyard cafe, situated about halfway through the museum, makes a lovely espresso pitstop.
Domaine de L’Aqueduc Winery
This sleek winery sits about midway between the market town of Uzès and the magnificent Pont du Gard in southern France’s Gard department. They mix a lively batch of whites, tangy reds and poppy rosés. Also, they serve excellent hand sanitizer. But that’s a story for another time.
The Burgundy Countryside
Views from the slow train don’t get much better than in Burgundy. I won’t belabor the point since I wrote about it in last week’s email, but the rolling hills, tidy farms and lush pastures are mesmerizing. Dear reader, I was glued to the train window. Now, as much as I love trains, these pastoral views had me wishing for a rental car, so I could strike deeper into rural Burgundy.
Kicking Around Troyes Town
I didn’t know what to expect in Troyes, an under-the-radar market town in Champagne that’s overshadowed by nearby Reims. Well? I found a wonderful half-timbered paradise filled with churches and cafés. It may not be to everyone’s liking, as it has a bit of grit reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s imagined Ennui from his (admittedly, disappointing) film, The French Dispatch. But if a little grit invigorates you and you love a bustling café scene and wandering about swaying Medieval neighborhoods, then you can do far worse than little Troyes.
Sunset Hike to Cesar’s Camp
This off-grid ruin, a former Gallic stronghold conquered by Julius Caesar and garrisoned by Rome for centuries, made for an idyllic sunset hike. Located in the hinterlands bordering the Gard and Ardèche departments, a leisurely half-mile hike leads to a hilltop littered with ruined fortifications and village foundations. It holds no historical importance, which means you, like me, can have it all to yourself. Check out the view from my Instagram: instagram.com/p/CeqUWAgrcln
Picasso Museum, Paris
Housed in the magnificent Hotel Salé, the Picasso Museum is hosting an exhibit of portraits, sculptures, photographs and various items donated by his daughter Maya. The items explore the deep father-daughter bond and offer further insight into Picasso’s process and studio life.
Of particular note were the sketches and handmade dolls Picasso assembled from household items for Maya during World War II, when materials and toys were especially hard to come by. To me, these intimate works were as interesting an experience as viewing his “masterpieces.”
Tool Museum, Troyes
Carpentry. Joinery. Logging. Masonry. Blacksmithing. Roofing. Brickmaking. If any of these trades and how they were done by hand before the Industrial Revolution interest you, then you’ll love this museum.
Featuring wall-to-wall 17th- and 18th-century hand planes, hammers, chisels, saws, molds, pliers, anvils, augers and so, so much more, it’s reputed to be the world’s largest collection of hand tools. I shan’t challenge that title, seeing as it’s the only hand-tool museum I’ve ever been to. But I can attest to its thorough and brilliantly presented collection that comes complete with the most mystical and philosophical audio guide I’ve ever heard. Seriously. Here are a couple of gems:
“Tools look and sound like their makers.”
“Tools don’t just make objects, they make men.”
Villages in the Gard
Running kinda parallel to the Luberon but on the west side of the Rhône River, the Gard department is a little slice of Provence that’s technically more in Languedoc. Nowadays, it’s more culturally and touristically linked to its Provençal neighbors. The area is thick with wineries, vineyards, small towns, hilly hideaways and lots of amazing stone villages. Of its many fairy-tale hamlets, I can personally recommend Uzès (and its market), Saint-Quentin-la-Poterie, Aiguèze, Gaujac, Pouzilhac and Castillon-du-Gard.
Pont du Gard, France
I know, I know. How has it taken me over 20 years of traveling Europe to finally see this masterpiece of Roman engineering? It doesn’t disappoint. The dramatic arches, stacked three rows high, span a particularly lovely stretch of the Gard River between two steep bends.
Plus, there’s a great museum, one I had the privilege of visiting with my mother. We’re both museum aficionados and some of my fondest childhood memories are wandering museums and zoos holding her hand. It can be hard to resist the temptation to bypass the museum and sprint straight to the Pont du Gard because it’s not visible from the parking lot. However, my mom and I took our time wandering the elegant museum, and I suggest you do too.
With a 100-degree day closing in on Paris, I made the executive decision to whisk the wife, the boy and myself to the coast. There are several beach options, all in Normandy, reachable from Paris in a day. Resort-town Deauville and small-city Le Havre are popular choices.
But we chose the gritty, tattooed fishing town of Dieppe. With a huge pebble beach, soaring white cliffs and an easy train ride from Paris, we discovered friendly locals, great seafood restaurants, charming pubs and a cozy, uncrowded beach. And, of course, the suitably refreshing waters of the English Channel or La Manche, as the French call it.
The Normandy trains depart Paris from Saint-Lazare Station. We splurged an extra few euros for first class because…did I mention it was 100 degrees outside? The little extra space, better A/C and comfort proved a worthwhile luxury. The trains were super nice and modern. Four hours on trains and six hours lounging on the beach capped a perfect three weeks in France