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Sandro and Marg in France

24th August 2001

We had set off late this morning, 25th August 2001, from Calais. It is hot and we make good time down the autoroute heading to the Midi.

We decide to come off at Auxerre in the afternoon and explore the town. It is even hotter.

The town is wonderful, if a little deserted. There is a little antiques market in the main square and down the steep street leading to the river Yonne. A little window shopping, then we head for the Cathedral and eventually the river. We sit down at a café in a little square with a fountain, overlooking the river, but the service is non-existent so we walk on, past buildings with ancient exposed beams - some of which are ably assisted by "Acro" props! Then back to the centre for an espresso and a beer.

As this holiday is completely unplanned, we set about trying to find a hotel room. In the past, we had relied on chain hotels, basically because they were inexpensive and, er, predictable. Tonight, the IBIS was fully booked, but we had seen a very interesting, ivy-covered hotel nearby. Although we suspected that it would be beyond our budget, we had a look.

Yes, they had a room, would I like to see it?

The room was enormous, traditionally decorated and furnished, and with a modern bathroom larger than most of the IBIS rooms we'd ever stayed in. The windows opened out onto the front garden, then a (presumably) busy main road, but this was irrelevant - tomorrow was Sunday! At 470FF, this was a steal. 30FF for secure garage parking and 40FF each for a standard French breakfast.

The Hotel Normandie was a revelation for us: from now on, we will try to pick this type of hotel in preference to a modern, impersonal block.

Across from the Normandie was a very interesting restaurant - unfortunately, I can't remember the name. The menu looked wonderful, but, alas, it was fully booked. Perhaps next time, we'll book ahead!

On our way in to the town, during the obligatory couple of circuits looking for a parking place in the shade, we had passed a street with a few restaurants. They had been shut at the time, but we now headed back. Our requirements were tempered by the necessity for air-conditioning - even so late into the evening the temperature was still overpowering. A couple of the restaurants were closed for the holidays, but the one I'd really been interested in, the seafood restaurant, was open, air-conditioned, and had a table! We had an exquisite meal at La Salamadre.

The next day saw us take a detour to visit the Gorges d'Ardèche, then on to stop for the night in Avignon. A beautiful walled town, past home of the Popes, and site of the famous bridge (halfway) over the Rhone. (see: Our evening meal was marred by exhaustion, lateness, and heat. Because we wanted to take in as many of the town's sights as possible, we didn't have the heart to spend time looking for a really good restaurant: we knew we wouldn't be able to do it justice. We had a couple of steak and frites sitting outside under a large awning at a café (Café des Artes, Place de l'Horloge, 184FF incl. Aperitifs and wine), in the centre of the city. The restaurant is nothing to "write home about", but typical of the genre. The bustle of a busy French town centre makes up for any inadequacies.

The next day, we had lunch in Aix-en-Provence, in the town centre, overlooking the enormous fountain at La Rotonde. Aix-en-Provence boasts 20 fountains in its web site - it is an area replete with both hot and cold springs. There was an antique market in the street behind us, and again the heat was extreme. Marg was suffering, had lost her appetite, and was in no mood for hunting down anything special. Nevertheless, we (I) had an adequate meal, at a very reasonable price, in typically French city street café style (Le Palatino, Cours Mirabeau). House speciality Pizza, beer and half litre water: 103FF.

A very pleasant drive past Fréjus, hitting the coast at Cannes then pottering around Antibes left us the late afternoon to try and find somewhere to stay. After checking out three or four possibles (a very nice hotel at the top of a hill overlooking the bay was discounted because their rooms were not air-conditioned) we found a very presentable, small, family run hotel halfway between new and old Antibes. Hotel Petit Castel, 22, Chemin des Sables, 06600 Antibes (Tel 04 93 61 59 37) provided us with a very pleasant room overlooking the small terrace at the front where we took petit dejeuner. The big selling point, of course, was the rather efficient air-conditioning! The hotel had provision for private parking, as well as off-street parking at the side. However, I opted to forgo these, and leave the car on the main street, in sight of our room. This turned out to be a mistake, as the next day we discovered the car had been "keyed" from front to rear! The owners of the hotel were most distraught - they hadn't had anything like this happen before. 3 nights, for the two of us, including breakfast, came to 2028FF (£197.43). I found this remarkable, especially given the location, quality and the fact that it was the height of the holiday season.

On that first evening, we walked from the hotel, down to old Antibes, along the sea walls and past a very interesting restaurant overlooking the bay - we carried on, with the intention of coming back to this one if we didn't find anything suitable in Vieille Antibes, or Port Vauban. We didn't find anything, but unfortunately when we returned, we found it was completely booked. So back to the port. I must confess that my primary objective on this trip was to check out the boats, but Marg eventually dragged me back to the town, where we settled on La Braseria. A table on the street kept us in the throng, as well as the heat, but the meal was less than memorable.

The next day, we drove back west, towards La Napoule. I had had one of my earliest holidays, as a child, in this area and vaguely remember La Napoule - that and the fact that there were even more marinas and boats there was a good reason to go! A mistake on my part saw us take the mountain road instead of the autoroute - fantastic for me driving, but hell for Marg as a poor passenger! When we arrived, fairly late in the afternoon, we thought we'd have trouble finding somewhere to eat. Naturally, I gravitated to the marina, and there was a pleasant-looking restaurant nestled between the beach and the marina. Le Boucanier had finished the main menu, but were happy to rustle us up a simple meal.

The next day, our last in Antibes, we ventured back to Port Vauban, where I ogled the boats until my eyes hurt. From there back to the old town for our last meal there - we chose the Café des Chineurs, where we had a perfectly adequate meal. Marg was a little more comfortable, and managed to eat both a chicken dinner and a dessert.

After setting off for the trip home, our first stop was Montelimar. We had passed through the town on the way down, but at the wrong time of day - everything had been shut, and we were short of time. Marg was, however, determined to buy some nougat. We did, after stopping for a late - very late - lunch at Brasserie La Bourse.

We set off again for another fairly long, but high-speed, drive to Chalon sur Saône, where we found, eventually, a lovely little hotel, similar to the Normandie in Auxerre. Once a large family home, the Hotel St. Jean (24, Quai Gambetta, 71100 Chalon sur Saône, Tel.: 85 48 45 65, Fax.: 85 93 62 69) had been - and could still be considered - quite elegant. Our room, with double doors, and two windows onto the small strip of park between the hotel and the main road running along the Saone. The landlady, Mme. Tricaud, advised us that the restaurant area was on the other side of the river, just over the bridge. Sure enough, there were dozens of restaurants along the Rue de Strasbourg. We walked all the way up, but eventually decided on one of the first we'd seen, "l'île bleue"

Unfortunately, there were extensive roadworks being undertaken, and the morning after saw us woken early with workmanlike sounds. What was more entertaining was the incessant sound of a car alarm - when I investigated, it was due to a car being hoisted onto a tow-truck because it was illegally parked in the midst of the roadworks. An entertaining few minutes ensued, as we watched the proceedings from our balcony.

Chalons sur Saône is another typically French town, on a large river with pleasure and commercial traffic, beautifully kept and full of interesting buildings and sights. We couldn't resist spending some time in the morning going round the market. What a pleasure, what a wonderland in comparison to home: hundreds of different types of cheese, meats, vegetables. We came across smoked garlic in strings, home made bread, old men with stalls of vegetables, obviously from their gardens. We bought garlic, bread, some luscious tomatoes and French figs - eschewing the Turkish variety next to them. This shopping spree was to be a good move.

A brief exit from the autoroute to find a supermarket for cheap petrol, led us to an abberation - we actually stopped at a MacDonalds - ostensibly to use the toilets, but we had a burger and Big Mac to tide us on until the evening. Interestingly, I had been through Chalons sur Marne many times in the past, but had difficulty finding it this time. We were coming at it from an unfamiliar direction, and had a brand new French Map book - which listed the town as Chalons en Champagne!!!

That evening, we reached Saint Quentin. It was threatening rain, and we were fairly late. We had trouble finding a hotel, but parked up on the Cathedral carpark and noticed the Ibis hotel opposite. I booked in. We decided to have a walk around to try and find a restaurant, but had not much luck, plus it was getting colder, so Marg persuaded me that we should try the hotel restaurant. Now, we had had very bad experiences of hotel chain restaurants, so we weren't expecting much. Surprisingly, we had an excellent evening. Well done, Le Diamant, Ibis St. Quentin.

The next morning, we had just over an hour to explore - the weather had eased off a bit, and remained dry. We managed to find all the places we'd missed the night before, as well as the local market - we could have spent another couple of hours there shopping, but we had to leave.

We arrived at the coast with the best part of the afternoon to spend at the wine warehouses and Cite Europe. First stop was Sainsbury's, Calais, where we stocked up on Italian wines - Sangiovese, Amarone, Sicilian Red (Settesoli) and a few "novelty" wines, again as gifts. From there to the "Franglais" wine warehouse at Coquelles. An interesting place with many very inexpensive wines. We took a couple of cases (x6) of cheap Merlot and Cabernet from Audrien, a bottle of Cassis, a five-litre can of Becks (as a gift) and a couple of cases of St Omer beer. 467FF

Next to Cité Europe, where we wanted to raid Tesco, again for Italian wines: Asti, Chiantis, Pinot Grigio and a couple of liquers.

Before spending the last of our cash in Carrefour, we had an early dinner at Le Moulin a Bière.

Two days later, I was back in Luxembourg, on business. If I had played my cards right, I could have arranged to extend my holiday by a few days to go to this meeting! In the evening I arrived, I wandered round town taking advantage of the hold in the weather. It had been forecast to rain, but it was dry and mild so I walked round to see the sights. Bearing in mind I had to stay within the bounds of my expenses limit, I could only press my nose against the windows of some of the more interesting establishments. I eventually settled for L'Ancre d'Or, where I had a most excellent dinner, for a most reasonable cost.

Luxembourg was in the midst of "Schueberfouer ", though, unfortunately, I had no opportunity to experience any of this festival. The next day, again our hosts provided an absolutely excellent lunch for us. When I asked how come they had such good catering facilities at their offices, it was explained that for such meetings as ours they would select one of the local restaurants who would then provide the staff and the meal on site. They didn't tell us which restaurant was chosen this time.

Ah, how the other half live!


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