Our in-house copywriter, Laura, has been looking pretty relaxed of late. Turns out, it’s France’s fault. Here are the highlights from her latest holiday in Northern France, covering Paris, Normandy and the Loire Valley.
Tell us where you’ve been…
I’ve been on a heavenly tour of North-Western France. We started off in Paris for four days, then got a car and took in the Loire Valley, Vouvray, Brittany and Normandy.
What was the highlight of the trip?
This particular trip had too many highlights to mention them all. Picnics by the Seine, exploring vineyards in the Loire…
Sitting outside street cafés with a pitcher of red wine and watching the world go by in Montmartre is one of my favourite things to do in the world, so needless to say we spent a lot of time doing that. My advice is to choose your café carefully, or you could end up in a tourist trap. As a rule of thumb, if you can see a tacky souvenir stand, pass it by. If you can see effortlessly chic old Parisian men sipping Pastis, you’ve got a good spot. You get such characters in those cobbled streets, lost tourists early in the evening, then the students animatedly talking and chain-smoking like only the French can, musicians, people protesting as the cafe owners tell them it’s closing time…
Also, discovering the Jardins du Luxembourg was incredible. I’ve been to Paris before but hadn’t ever been there. We went early in the morning and strolled amongst the iconic 1930s designed metal chairs, watching little clumps of people practising tai chi in the dappled shade of the orchard. As we sat admiring the symmetry and precision of the design, deep into pains au chocolat, part deux, we mused that of course we too would run or practice tai chi every morning if we lived here. Although realistically, we would be far more likely to enjoy multiple pains au chocolat as well, so the need to run would certainly be greater.
What and where was your best foodie moment?
We had an absolutely enormous and fabulous lunch under the wisteria at the Auberge du Thenay in the Brenne national park. It’s rural location with the outdoor dining area set next to a stream and a meadow was trés lovely! Pascal, the owner, resplendent in a Hawaiian shirt, sat down with us and insisted we try everything. After celeriac velouté, and a delicate crab salad with mango and broad beans, we were midway through a spit-roasted fillet of beef with gratin dauphinoise when Pascal proceeded to steal away my other half only to have him return, dismayed, plate groaning with yet more beef. We honestly thought we’d never be able to eat another bite. But, after a brief hiatus and a glass of wine, we somehow managed to squeeze in dessert… and cheese.
Favourite property that you saw, and why?
Well, I only saw one. But, it’s safe to say that it’s my favourite I’ve ever seen! The Secret Hamlet Estate in the Loire Valley is tucked away down a tree-lined track, which opens up to give you a first peek at the chateau. It’s understated but still grand, with vintage sun loungers and parasols in front for lazing by the pool. You can also choose to stay in the converted barns and farm buildings around the estate which are all so unique. Marie, the owner, has a wonderful eye for design and repurposing of old items from the estate. We were fortunate enough to stay in one of the new studios, which was made entirely from old doors! There is a river that flows along the bottom of the estate, that you can stroll or canoe along, it’s peaceful and so relaxed – I absolutely adored it.
Any stand-out traditions or cultural observations made in the area you stayed in?
Everyone that we met was so welcoming and smiley, eager to help us learn the language, their customs and enjoy their food! We certainly noticed a change between the Parisians and the people in the countryside, but I think that’s true with all places when you leave the big city. I also fell in love with the pace of life; the people we encountered seemed to take the time to enjoy their time, each other’s company and themselves. Nothing is rushed.
For anyone travelling to Northern France, what can’t they miss?
Drive along the coast from Mont St Michel to St Malo. It doesn’t get enough press! The landscape is so unique in that the land just seems to peter out into the sea, creating pools and streams into the wild grass. The light catches and reflects everything in the shallow, still water around the looming Mont St Michel, it’s really stunning. You should also stop for some of the freshest seafood you will ever taste there. The area is famous for it, and rightly so.
You should also definitely drink Champagne on the streets of Paris. Yobbish? Maybe. Fun? Definitely.
If this has whet your whistle for more things Français, check out our photographer Laeti’s foodie account of her time in the Dordogne, a local’s guide to the Loire Valley or learn more about Normandy, Brittany and Champagne.