Friday, July 31, 2009

Trip to France Day 2: Paris-Rouen-Chartres

Arc de TriompheWe didn’t wake up until 9 am, which threw our whole schedule off as we were supposed to be on the road by 9:30 or 10.

As there was nothing to be done, we went down to breakfast. At that point Hubby realized we’d made a massive tactical error the night before. He had booked us a “greedy stay” package which included breakfast AND dinner. But we totally forgot as we’d booked it back in March.

He asked the desk clerk about getting a refund for the dinner, but the clerk on duty wasn’t the decision maker. He said we could use it in the future, so we had him reserve us a table with one of the partner restaurants for Saturday when we’d be back in town before our flight home.

Really, considering I went into a total collapse during dinner on Sunday, it was probably just as well.

Then Hubby went to get the rental car and the first disaster of the day struck.
First, it took him forever to find the Avis location in the Place de Madeline. He said he wandered all around before finally noticing a telephone booth looking structure with a sign on it, which turned out to be an elevator to the underground office.

Then they didn’t have the GPS unit we had requested when we reserved the car. The reservation was flagged with a “request”, but it didn’t specifically say a GPS, so there weren’t any units available. Then the guy was like, “Oh, we’ll wash the car for you first.” So it ended up taking Hubby like half an hour or more to get the car. They did, however, give Hubby a slightly larger car, but we’re not sure if the price was the same or more than our reservation.

In the mean time, I was at the hotel gazing out the window at the lovely scenery. Finally, around 11 am, I decided I’d given him enough time and dragged our two suitcases, my backpack, and his laptop bag downstairs to check out.

That’s when the second disaster struck.
The credit card was rejected. I was very surprised, as I had called them two weeks ago when Hubby first left and told them about our trip.

So I gave him the back up credit card, that I had also called, and it was also declined.

He tried both cards twice with the same result both time. In desperation, I gave him the debit card, which worked. It was very stressful and embarrassing.

Hubby came tumbling in, declaring he was double parked, and we flew out to the car and loaded up. The stress levels stayed high as Hubby navigated through the crazy drivers. They do drive like maniacs, and the signage is very poor compared to what we are accustomed to, and the traffic lights are short things on the side of the road (not hanging overhead) making them hard to see. It didn’t help that we were both wound up. In the end, it was around noon when we finally got going.

On a positive note, we drove right by the Arc de Triomphe.

Fortunately, traffic thinned out pretty quickly once we got outside the city.

The Best Laid Plans
The plan was to swing through Rouen and see the cathedral Monet painted repeatedly, then go to Normandy to see the beaches where the troops landed during World War II, then head down to Chartres for our second hotel.

Can I just say France is as bad as New Jersey when it comes to both traffic circles and tollbooths? Good grief, I think we single handedly revived the French economy with the amount we shelled out in tolls for the week. I sure wish someone had been there to warn us. We probably would have rethought our itinerary if we had known.

I am here to tell you: The tolls on French highways are, literally, highway robbery!

I think we passed through at least three peage barriers on the way to Rouen. They ranged from at least 2 to 5 Euros each (I don’t remember and have blocked it out because it is so traumatic).

Since we didn’t realize what we’d gotten ourselves into, we paid the first few with cash, so we don’t have receipts (later on we started paying with the credit card). Oh, here’s a receipt from Paris to Montesson Nord for 5.60 Euro (about US$7.98. Actually, I think the exchange rate is better today than is was during our trip. figures.).

So right away we were saying, “OMG, we’re going to go broke paying these tolls.”

Hit the Highway
And, it seems to me, France is either toll roads or little local roads.

By contrast, in The States you can either take an interstate (like I-95), which will possible be a toll road. Or you can take a state route (like the Merritt Parkway), which will be free, but still fast.

In France our choices were the “A” highways, which were all pay; the “N” roads, which were secondary roads that went through populated areas and had lights, like Boston Post Road in CT, Route 206 in NJ, or El Camino Real in CA; or the “D” roads, which were little, rural, local roads. Although you could still zoom along those D roads at a pretty good clip in some areas.

Scenery-wise, the A and D roads were best. And they all actually moved fairly well where traffic was concerned (aside from a few memorable exceptions).

We stopped for lunch at one of the highway rest areas. Hubby got a ham and cheese sandwich and I chose a tomato and mozzarella one, which turned out to be a Panini, so they grilled the hell out of it. We also bought a Michelin map so we would have some idea of where we were going. French maps are about as good as French road signs. Which is to say, not what I’m accustomed to and a bit lacking in the detail I needed.

When we got to Rouen we could see the cathedral, but couldn’t find parking. Cathedral in Rouen We circled a few times, and then finally took a spot half on the sidewalk that someone else vacated. It was probably illegal, but we were back to being wired up and felt rebellious.

Hubby really wanted a picture of the actual cathedral as he’d seen the series of paintings when he was at the Louvre. His plan is to show his students images of the paintings, then his picture of the actual place. It was pretty impressive. We looked at two of the facades, but couldn’t go inside.

Pit Stop
And let me pause again to say that I didn’t encounter any gross restrooms when I was in France. Sure, the toilets looked different from ours, but the actual restrooms were no less clean than the average public restroom you would encounter in America. I also didn’t encounter any pay toilets (which made me happy, considering the contribution I was making to the local economy through my use of toll roads).

Schedule Change
Once we got back on the road, it didn’t take us long to realize that Normandy wasn’t going to happen. It was just still too far ahead and then too far from our hotel. It was very sad, as Hubby had been looking forward to seeing Normandy—being a history teacher an all. But we just didn’t get out of Paris in time to make it happen.

So we turned south and went straight to Chartres. Still, we didn’t tumble in until 7 pm or so. Luckily, it was staying light until around 10 pm and the French don’t eat dinner until 8 or 9, so we could still see where we were going and didn’t miss dinner.

When we got to the village, we swung through town and visited their cathedral. It was very nice, with lovely stained glass windows.

Then we got trapped in the parking garage. Yeah, finally, a parking garage. We couldn't figure out where to put the ticket so we could pay. Luckily, at first, there was no one behind us. I jumped out of the car to get a better look at the machine, which let me see a door into a room with vending machine things inside. When I went it they looked like payment machines, as I'd seen similar set up occasionally here in The States.

By now someone had driven up behind us. Ooops. So I went over and asked if they spoke English. The guy had a little English, so I asked, "How do we get out?" And he confirmed my suspicions that I had to take our parking ticket inside, pay, and get a new ticket. Of course, it worked like a charm and we drove off waving and calling "Merci! Merci!" out the window.

Maybe it's just as well we didn't find any other parking garages.

That's My Castle!
Chateau d'EsclimonteThis night, Monday, we stayed at the Chateau d’Esclimont. It was originally built as a lords castle in1543. Renovations were done in 1865, with some decorations that say “C’est mon plaiser” which translates to “It is my pleasure.” It was a functioning estate until 1968, and was sold and turned into a hotel in 1981.

It was beautiful! There was a moat (with koi fish and a bridge), turrets, high ceilings, rich decorations, and bathrobes for use during our stay. Turns out we had a suite, so we had a bedroom with views of the secondary buildings, a wee sitting/TV room in one of the turrets, and a lovely marble bathroom with a tub big enough for both of us. Um, hypothetically, of course. My only complaint was the bed was hard as a board. Hubby said that seemed the norm in France.

There were even dark Belgian chocolates on the pillows that had a picture of the chateau on them!

We ran around the room a bit, then changed into nice clothes for dinner at 9 pm. (See what I mean about eating late?)

Clothing Fit
Oh, and let me veer off and say I didn’t notice that the French dressed so much better than us. Maybe we were just in touristy areas, but I didn’t feel like a slouch at all. Sure the women in Paris had scarves on, but I didn’t notice anymore after we got outside the city.

Dinner Time!
My Chateau dessertOk, back to our fabulous anniversary dinner. In the whole dining room there were two other couples and a group of four. They all finished long before we did. Our meal took about two and a half hours. I kid you not.

We started with kir royal (champagne with raspberry) for an aperitif. They also randomly brought little appetizers—a small toast with a slice of lox and cream, a ham and cheese petite fore, and a stuffed cherry tomato.

For my starter I had asparagus soup. It had a dollop of cream in it and four spears wrapped in a strong cheese on the side. Hubby had a rabbit thing that was in a little round tower—it had shredded meat at the bottom, a layer of spices, and goat cheese at the top.

(In France the appetizers are called entrees, because they are your entrance to the meal. The main course is called a plat. But dessert is still dessert!)

When we finished those, the waiters randomly brought us little shot glasses filled with radish mousse. It was yellow, light as a cloud, and very yummy.

For my main course I had lamb with polenta and figs on the side. Hubby had ordered the beef (which was filet mignon) but they brought him the veal sweetbread instead.

The presentation was great. Our main courses had the classic metal covers. Two waiters brought them out, placed them in front of us, then nodded at each other and lifted the dishes simultaneously.

And we said, “Um, that doesn’t look like beef.” And they said, “It’s the veal.” And Hubby said, “I ordered the beef.” And we could sense their panic. So they went out in the hall (our table was right next to the door) and we hear a bit of a commotion, then our main waiter came back and said “5 minutes on the beef, sir.”

In the mean time, I was chowing down on my delicious lamb, because why let it get cold? Hubby’s steak came and was very yummy as well. Of course, Hubby had also ordered a wonderful bottle of red wine.

For dessert I had “Les Bocaux d’Autrefois” which was translated on the menu as “The Jars.” It was three little mason jars slightly larger than a big shot glass. One was vanilla crème brulee, one was a plum pudding with whipped cream, and the third was strawberry salad with mint. After the waiter put the plate down I heard a crackling sound. I realized it was the strawberry salad. So I ate a spoonful and it exploded in my mouth like Pop Rocks! I was cracking up. Of course Hubby had to try some too. We were giggling our heads off, so it’s good we were alone.
Hubby's Chateau dessert
Hubby ordered Le Chocolate Crème Brulee au Poivre. He had a chocolate crème brulee with a piece of gold leaf on top (!), a chocolate club sandwich, which was slices of sponge cake with mousse, and a scoop of chocolate ice cream. There was also a little plate of three random little pastries. And a bowl of creme angles. And can I say, the world needs more creme angles?

Anyone who knows me, especially anyone who has ever gone to a restaurant with me, knows I’m a pretty small eater. In fact, Hubby says he can tell when I really like a dish because I’ll eat all of it.

Well, I really like this dinner because I absolutely gorged myself. Really, I felt like a little snake. I was sure I wouldn’t have to eat for three days after that meal. And yet it was so good, I just couldn’t stop myself. Hubby felt the same way. It was like that gross scene from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, only we didn’t actually explode.

We were pretty happy all we had to do was stumble upstairs to go to bed.

But The Day Doesn't End There
I think I had regular tea with dinner because I couldn’t fall asleep to save my life. So I snuck into the sitting room, closed the door, and watched BBC Worldnews while I knit. (We watched a lot of CNN International and BBC Worldnews on the trip because they were the only English language channels.)

I finally fell asleep around 2 am.

Then the fire alarm went off at 4:30 am.

I called the front desk. She said, “Yes, I’m not sure what is happening.” So I asked if we should evacuate. She said, “Yes, I would prefer it.” In the mean time, Hubby was stumbling around getting dressed. He peeked out in the hallway and said there were no other people in the hall. By the time I had managed to get dressed the lady came up, heading straight for Hubby, and said it was a false alarm. The whole thing kind of reminded us of The Shining. I mean, it was a big place, and we were the only ones on the floor?!

It was a little hard to fall back asleep.

1 comment:

  1. Can I just say that I am loving your trip so far, even though the "traveling" part doesn't seem to be going so smooth! Now I know why you were complaining! My goodness - the tolls must have been crazy!

    The places you stopped sound lovely, and the dinner? Holy Heavens - it was like I was eating it myself!

    And - Alarm at 4:30 a.m.?? UGH! Hope you got to catch up on your sleep the next day (which I still need to read).