A NORTHWEST FRANCE ROAD TRIP: BEYOND THE CITY OF LIGHTS
Last week I joined a fellow travel blogger, Whitney from The Blonde Atlas, for a road trip to discover some of the most incredible towns not too from Paris. I've always heard of the iconic landmarks and regions such as Étretat, Le Mont Saint-Michel, and Loire Valley, but what I didn't know, was how conveniently close they are to Paris. We rented a car with Europcar and set out for a 4 day adventure around Northwestern France through Normandy and down to the wine and chateau region of the Loire. As much as everyone loves Paris, it's also great to see what else the region has to offer. You could spend months exploring but we narrowed it down to just 4 days. We indulged in world acclaimed French cuisine, wandered around ancient medieval towns, ate more croissants than I ever thought possible, and marveled at some of the worlds most fascinating places.
The dramatic chalk white cliffs of Étretat have been on my list for a long time. The seaside was first made famous when various impressionist painters such as Claude Monet painted the breathtaking town. There is a cliffside golf course overlooking the quaint village that rests on the turquoise seaside. In Northwest France, Étretat is located only 2 and a half hours from Paris Orly Airport. Although the entire coastline is stunning, we loved getting to sit and admire Falaise d'Etretat- a giant archway lurking over the sea and Chemin des Douaniers which is the perfect spot for a picnic and snapping some photos. We drove up to the gorgeous church "Chapelle Notre dame de la Garde" for a look out over the beach and cliffs. Be careful on a windy day, as the cliffs are steep and gusts of wind can come out of nowhere.
The gorgeous boutique hotel resides high above the village with views overlooking the sea. The 150 year old, ivy covered, building is fascinating with endless parts to explore. The luxurious rooms are spacious although private feeling with separate entrances. All the rooms have different themes and special character with bold and vibrant decor. The gorgeous pool and terrace have posh lounge beds and the best views in town. It's only a 2 minute drive into the town center or a nice walk that puts your right in the middle of the village. Our dinner and breakfast were incredible- as you would expect from any French cuisine. The breakfast buffet was decadent and the croissants literally melt in your mouth.
LE MONT SAINT-MICHEL
I had one of those "pinch me" moments when I stood in front of the island of Mont Saint Michel on the evening of Summer Solstice, watching the sun set at 10pm. We left the dinner table and sprinted across the long bridge to get to the perfect spot for photos. The famous island has a medieval village topping it that you can see from miles away and sits right where Normandy and Brittany Merge. The brilliant Abbey is perched on top, watching over from high above. The island is tiny but incredibly charming with plenty to do with tons of restaurants, cafes, crêperies, and museums about the endless fascinating history. Only about 40 people actually live on the island! It dates back to the 8th century AD and was build about .6 miles off of the shore, making it difficult for intruders to invade. The high tide only comes up about 4 times a year, leaving salty marshes for sheep to graze (they say it's the best tasting lamb in the world due to its high quantity of sodium intake.)
We stayed at the well known La Mere Poulard right on the island. The Eric Vannier's Group owns 30 establishments on the island such as many hotels, world renowned restaurants, and 3 historical museums. The company is almost 130 years old and has really kept the authenticity of Mont. Saint-Michel. La Mere Poulard's muse - the cook Annette Boutiaut (today known as Fanny Boyet) became famous for her renowned soufflé omelette and buttery biscuits which are eaten in over 70 countries in the world since 1888. From the entrance of the hotel you an see the cooks preparing the food in the same traditional way over a fire and wearing the classical outfits from back in the day. Annette was responsible for the "magic book" where she carefully detailed her cooking inventions totaling in 700 recipes. Inside the walls are lined with photos and signatures of all the famous celebrities where nearly 3,500 have visited. While preserving the historical character- the hotel has kept things like the copper pots and pans, pops of reds, and delicious food to adhere to the details of the past. The group has options to stay on or off the island if you want to be on the mideivel island, or if you want to be further back to admire it.
I discovered Loire Valley while doing a work exchange program after college. If we've ever met, there's a good chance you've heard me talk about living there. It follows the Loire River that flows down from Paris and is covered with lavished chateaus, castles, vineyards, and endless charming old villages. The region includes several famous towns such as Angers, Tours, Orléans, and Saumer. The fertile valley is also known for its artichokes, fruit orchards, and asparagus fields amongst many other things. Some will recommend a day trip here from Paris but I highly suggest at least staying 3 days (although, one could easily spend years here with all there is to explore.) The region is quite large (nearly 1000 km) and most of the chateaus are fairly spread out so planning a route is usually helpful.
CHÂTEAU DES BRIOTTIÈRES
This château was truly one of the most incredibly places I've ever been. We drove through thin, winding forrest lined roads only to pull up to the grand, extravagant grounds of the estate. The 7th generation chateau is located in the beautiful Anjou in Northwest Loire Valley. The historically rich establishment dates back to the 15th century where it now possesses 250 acres of land. The family home has 10 huge bedrooms- each one unique and fitted with enchanting antiques, luxurious linens, free standing bathtubs, and big windows to admire the grounds from. The Château has several different living rooms for different parts of your stay. We sat down in the Salon Vert with the owner for an aperitif before dinner to learn more about the history of the captivating mansion. You can also find your self wandering the Grand Saloon and Billiard Room admiring old family photos and furniture dating back to the Napoleon era. We enjoyed a beautiful dinner in the dining room with the other guests- classical music played, wine was poured, and you feel like you've stepped back centuries ago to a brilliant time. Afterwards, we found ourselves meandering the grounds. There are ample gardens to explore, a heated pool to lounge by, chickens roaming and horses playing in the distance. There is also a tennis court, bikes to borrow, and boundless woodlands to get blissfully lost in. There is also an old converted green house called The Fruitier that was built in 1850 with 6 more comfortable yet deluxe bedrooms- it's perfect for family reunions or for a group of friends to rent. On the grounds there is also a log cabin which is hidden amongst the forest and a perfect little place for privacy. The cabin has a bathtub at the foot of the bed, a sauna, and wood burning stove. We were woken up on our morning of departure by the most heavenly smells from the breakfast being cooked- homemade baked bread, fresh squeezed juices, French cheeses, meats, fruits, and of course the famous warm croissants.
There is something about Paris that just immediately captures your heart. Whether it's the chic Parisian fashion, the influential artwork, the quaint streets, specialty food markets, and cafes- you could wander forever. Time and time again, it never gets old- the twinkling Eiffel Tower at dusk, the artist boutiques high above at Montmartre, or a canal cruises along the Seine river. Other than exploring all the famous landmarks, museums, and cafes, my favorite thing to do is just grabbing a baguette, bottle of wine, cheese, and fruit to enjoy with friends on the lawn of the Eiffel Tower to watch the sunset.
We stayed at the chic Parisian boutique hotel in the bustling and stylish 2nd district. What we love about the area is that it isn't as touristy as some of the others. You get the quick impression you're living as the other Parisians do, surrounded by cafes, flower shops, and little markets. Since we were there on a weekend in the summer the streets were lined with people enjoying the summer sun on the patios that spill out onto the sidewalks. We easily found Casaô, as our email directions are precise and straightforward, where you enter in a personal pin number to get into the building and your room. The hotel feels secluded and posh with modern and swanky design elements. All the rooms have big windows, flooding the rooms with light and allowing you to watch the street of Rue Montorgeuil below you. The district around the hotel is one of the oldest in Paris yet has kept its historical charm but boasts new and fresh shops, trendy bars, and young start ups. In the mornings you can enjoy a traditional Parisian breakfast and an ambassador will provide you with tips and advice about what to do during your time in The City of Lights.
One reason I love living in Europe is because of the incredible public transportation systems. BUT when I want to have the freedom of stopping and taking photos wherever I want- road trips are the best bet. We rented our car from Europcar at the Orly airport and headed straight to Étretat, stopping along the way for photos of the adorable villages, colorful summer sunset, and the castles that you could catch glimpses of in the distance. We were able to drive to both sides of the town and park right in front of the entrance to the hiking trails- saving ourselves time since we had less than a full day in the town. Driving in France was super easy- as the country roads are relaxing and the highways are basically just like in the states. It's important to remember to ask for an automatic car if you don't know how to drive manual (such as myself.) I love renting a car because I usually have heavy camera equipment in addition to my clothes which can become a nuisance after having to lug it up and down tons of stairs at the train stations. I would suggest getting an additional GPS if the car doesn't have one built in since a lot of times the data can be spotty out in the countryside. I also love getting to make my schedule and route as I go, instead of relying on train times that can often be delayed. A lot of the "off the beaten" path destinations can only be reached by car and those are the ones that I of course love to photograph the most. In a lot of cases renting a car between several people can be cheaper than the train tickets as well.