Quelle Surprise! Northern France

Discover an overlooked part of France with this short road trip.

Like a lot of folks, when I think of France, I start with the big hitters: Paris, Provence, the Riviera, the Alps, and maybe, if my mind is truly firing on all cylinders, I sneak a Lyon or a Biarritz in there somewhere. However, after my recent road trip in the North of France for the New Year, I can assure you that this part of France should be on everyone’s list.

It’s easy to get a feel for Lille

Coming from London via Eurostar, getting to Lille is a breeze. Just as you start getting tucked into your book or a nap, you’ve arrived! We stayed at the Grand Hotel Bellevue, which is located right on the large plaza in the center of town. Reasonable. Friendly staff. Big modern bathrooms. (If you like water pressure and have traveled in Europe, you will know why this is important). Terrific location. (The plaza-facing rooms have stunning views.) What’s not to like when you start things off that way?

Around the corner from the hotel, we took in Lille’s cute little Christmas market, which earned some kudos from The Guardian for being one of Europe’s best small Christmas markets. Perhaps the freshly steaming pony crap in front of a justifiably annoyed honey merchant put me off a bit, but having toured quite a few Christmas markets in my day, I wouldn’t say this is a principal reason to come to Lille.

That’s because there are many more excellent reasons to come to Lille. First off, the old town is one of the largest I’ve strolled around– full of every shop you could ever ask for, loads of restaurants, and tons of bars. (Being a university town always helps on the bar front.)  Everything is walkable, and the town is fringed by a vast expanse of green space. The architecture is particularly interesting: the best of French meets the best of Flemish. Bonus: there’s even an impressive (and unique!) Louis XIV star fort still in use as a military base.

One of the biggest art museums in France is also in Lille. It has a very fine collection of numerous eras and nationalities, giving you a great dose of art without overwhelming you. We saw a really interesting Millais exhibition there. (See what’s on when you want to visit here: http://www.pba-lille.fr/en)

The regional cuisine is a tasty and hearty mish-mash of French/Flemish. We ate dinner at Le Barbue d’Anvers, an excellent restaurant full of locals tucked away on a side street off the big plaza. Eating downstairs under the vaulted ceilings was very romantic, the service was excellent, and the food was top-notch. Try the oysters if it’s the right time of year for them, and the waterzooi chicken (a chicken stew) or the carbonnade (beer-braised beef.)

We picked up our rental car at the Lille casino and drove to Amiens (about two hours away). Amiens is a hidden jewel of a town, billed as the “little Venice of the North.” Now, a lot of European towns claim some kind of Venice honours, so I was skeptical. However, Amiens definitely delivered on the charming canals, windy little streets, and overall ambiance.

As it was still the festive period, Amiens Christmas market was in full swing. If you are into Christmas markets, this was one of the best I’ve been to in Europe: lots of great food, many shops stretching for about 2km down the main drag of town, a holiday tableau for

Holiday light show - Amiens
The light show in Amiens did not disappoint (Photo: Kathleen Oliver)

photo opps, and lively engagement among the local populace. A holiday highlight was the psychedelic light show on the front of Amiens cathedral. The French are always masters of lighting things, but if you ever get a chance to see it when they do a full-on light show, run, don’t walk to wherever they’re being illuminating (pardon the pun.)

In Amiens, we stayed at the Hotel Le Prieuré just next to the cathedral. Again, a great location, clean rooms, and amazingly helpful staff. The hotel reception pointed us in the direction of Amiens’ old town for dinner; their suggestion of dinner at Le Quai did not disappoint. Delicious dover sole, and if you’re a bit full of braised beef stews, some hearty main course salads can be found here. (In the summer, the terrace here must be amazing– right on a canal with a view of the cathedral.)

After dinner, we sniffed out a wine bar called L’Hexagone (14, rue des Sergents, 80 000 Amiens). This was truly one of the best wine bars we’ve been anywhere ever. Lots of interesting choices from around France, and quite a few organic/biodynamic wines all at very reasonable prices. The staff, again, were very friendly and very knowledgeable. It might be worth going to Amiens just to have a glass of wine here.

After a visit to the cathedral in Amiens, we headed off to Laon for lunch en route to Reims. The medieval part of Laon sits on a plateau above the surrounding region, hovering as if in air. The historic fortifications, epic cathedral, and teeny winding streets almost felt like a movie set– particularly because virtually no one was out and about. (It was a bitterly cold day and during the holidays, so I’m guessing things get livelier with the addition of sunshine and normal routines.) Laon’s definitely worth a visit for the cathedral alone, and if you happen to stop there, have a tasty lunch for a great price at Le Péché Mignon, just down from the cathdral (53 rue Châtelaine).

The goal of our whole trip was spending New Year’s Eve in the capital of champagne: Reims. After lunch in Laon, we got to Reims in just about an hour.

En route, as with most of Northern France, you pass a lot of monuments to battle sites from World War I. Road sides are fringed with ridges from trenches, the ruins of battle boxes, and countless cemeteries large and small. The magnitude of “the war to end all wars” cannot be escaped. It all has a sobering effect even in the giddy heart of champagne-land. As it’s the 100th anniversary of the last year of World War I, I plan to go back later this year solely to visit all the sites.

Once you get into Reims, it’s hard to be somber since immediately upon arriving in the city you are greeted by numerous champagne houses, three of which are part of the wider UNESCO-listed world heritage site in and around Reims. Ancient Gallo-Romans once mined chalk from the Reims hills, which ended up making perfect champagne cellars for the likes of Taittinger, Pommery, and Ruinart. To visit these and have a tasting, you need to make an appointment in advance. It’s a bit pricey, but worth it.

Stained glass – A must-see (Photo: Kathleen Oliver)

I should list all the other sites you should see in Reims: the art museum with David’s assassination of Marat, the site of the German surrender which ended World War II in Europe, the stunning stained glass in the Cathedral…but you can get all that info from the tourist office. The one place you have to add to your Reims itinerary is the Bistrot de Forum (6 Place de Forum). This became our home away from home in Reims, the meeting point where we got a coffee with friends in the morning and where we ended the evenings over beer, wine, and champers. The staff here took us under their wing and made us feel like regulars. You could see from the active local patronage that this warm, collegial service was the norm, rather than the exception. (Note: this is also a great place for snacks throughout the day– harder to find than you think even in a larger French town like Reims).

Beyond snacks, eating out in Reims is a lot more of the Northern/Eastern French vibe of ham, onions, potatoes, and cheese in various combinations. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) A beautiful brasserie with such regional favorites is Brasserie Excelsior. If you’re hankering for something to change things up, the Italian restaurant, La Villa, does not disappoint: an amazing space and some of the best Italian food any of us have had in a long while.

For Reims lodging, we stayed at the lovely, well-situated Grand Hotel des Templiers. Complete with a decent pool and sauna to paddle/sweat off the champagne-fueled excess, the hotel was a perfect base for exploring Reims. (When you book, request a room in the historic main building.) The staff, again, could not have been more friendly or helpful.

If you’re catching a theme here across all the places I visited in Northern France, it’s the people. There are a few places I’ve been–anywhere on Earth– where I have been so universally greeted with a smile and a helpful hint or two about what to see/where to go. As always, it’s not the booze, great food, and historical interest that make for a great trip, but the people you meet along the way.

On reviendra. (Bistrot de Forum, you’ve been warned.)





Travel Advent #1: Creche, creche, baby

An amazing European mini-world…

‘Tis the season for all sorts of good stuff, and in keeping with that spirit, I plan to showcase some of my favorite Xmas and holiday awesomeness from around the globe for the next 25 days. To start off, nothing says Christmas like miniature nativity scenes (aka “crèche” in French). Europe really goes nuts for these, with everything from the Baby Jesus to working windmills to the village pub (often replete with little mini-village drunks, if you’re really lucky).

One of the best places I’ve been for crèche sighting is the movie-set village of Roquebrune Cap Martin, nestled between Monaco and Menton. The good citizens of Roquebrune go all out for their crèche displays,  with hundreds tucked throughout the village and a walking route along which you can discover them all. Think of it as a Baby Jesus treasure hunt. We found them in windows, in plant pots, in light fixtures– some even have special lighting and music just to set the mood.

After your Baby Jesus treasure hunt, don’t miss the exhibition of award-winning crèches. These are complicated, detailed dioramas whose creators have spent lifetimes creating their mini-worlds.  I had a nice long chat with an experienced (and passionate) crèche creator on one visit, learning exactly how to create mini-trees that accurately reflect the surrounding region from dried moss and wine corks. I have not tried this at home. Yet.

This year, from December 9 to January 7, more than 300 mini-nativity scenes will be yours to discover all around Roquebrune village. (There may be more figurines in the crèches than village residents, but I’m no census-taker.) Christmas eve, there are plans for a living crèche in addition to the walking route, and interactive activities where you may be able to get creative with your own crèche.

If you’re down in the Nice/Monaco area, it’s definitely worth a look. More info on these and other Xmas activities here.

Nowhere near Roquebrune? Make your own holiday mini-world. Dried moss, corks, and a whittling knife are recommended.


Marais place to stay near the Place de Vosges

Looking for a good place to stay in the Marais? Check out the Jardins du Marais hotel. Within a short stroll from the lovely Place de Vosges and all the merriment of the Marais, the helpful staff will help you have a great visit to Paris.

Paris hotels can be a bit, well, tricky. A favorite can quickly become a has-been and even a favorite can be too small, too old, or too “European” for some tastes. (Especially American ones.)

Louis XIII in the Place de Vosges
Louis points the way to a good hotel in the Marais

So, while I have a few other standbys for Paris jaunts of all shapes and sizes (and budgets), there’s a nice place in the Marais very near the perfection that is the Place de Vosges, appropriately called The Jardins du Marais.

As is so important in the strollable City of Light, there’s the hotel’s amazing location. While I have a personal connection to the more sedate 7th, the Marais is a center of many things cultural (the fascinating Carnavalet Museum, the newly refurbed and oh-so-popular Picasso Museum) and definitely some great nights out.

With a groovy lobby area and cool courtyard for convening with fellow travellers, the rooms at the Jardin du Marais are unusually spacious for Parisian hotels. (The room I stayed in even had a mini-kitchen.)

And beyond that, there was the welcome. The staff were beyond helpful. From check-in to baggage dude, everyone went out of their way to give you a hand. In great English and multiple languages too, should you not be proficient when you parlez Francais.

I snagged a deal on Orbitz when I stayed, but the hotel also has special offers when you book direct.

Here’s the info if you want to go:
The Jardins du Marais
74, rue Amelot
75011 Paris France

Design Hotel in Paris’ 15th

Sublim Eiffel

If you’re looking to stay in a place with good rates and some design flair, without a lot of the usual scenesters and tourist sprawl that accompanies those things, check out the Hotel Sublim Eiffel in Paris’ very residential 15th arrondissement. Should you stay out well past your bedtime as often happens in Paris, the rooms are wonderfully dark and quiet for some good do-do action. (NB: “Do-do” is French for “sleep” and is not related to the American “doo-doo,” which does, admittedly, happen in hotel rooms, but let’s not discuss that here.) 

On my recommendation, some friends of mine recently stayed at the Sublim. They also loved it, attesting to the hotel’s excellence and value. Of course, immediately after that, the hotel appeared in a major newspaper’s write-up of “hidden gems” among Paris hotels. Hopefully, this won’t ruin the vibe or the value.

The Metro stop SEVRES-LECOURBE is right in front of the hotel making it easy to get around Paris. However, the hotel is also an easy walk from the Eiffel Tower, the wonderful market at Motte-Picquet, rue Cler,  Invalides, and the Musee Rodin.

Address: 94 Blvd. Garibaldi (15eme)
URL: http://www.sublimeiffel.com/

Stroll in the 7th Heaven

Paris’ 7th arrondissement is home to impressive government buildings and embassies, loads of iconic and lesser known monuments, some great museums, really nice architecture, good shopping, and lovely garden spaces. In spite of its hauteur and occasional pretense, the 7th is, in general, a condensed version of all that is wonderful in Paris all in one quarter. If you do all of the following, this will take you an entire day long into a very pleasant evening.

(1) Start your day at Cafe Roussillon, on the corner of rue de Grenelle and rue Cler. Have a coffee and a tartine (bread with some butter and jam) while standing up at the bar, where you’ll pay less than if you sit down. (A rule at all cafes, not just this one.) Sometimes, they’ll have other pastries, depending on what’s available, but a tartine and coffee is a very typical way to start the day.

Next, (2) proceed down the rue de Grenelle toward the gold-domed Invalides, and walk partially around the structure to your left, checking out the buidling’s impressive exterior, passing by the looming cannons, lovely stretches of green grass, and sweet garden areas. Long a military hospital for injured soldiers, Invalides is now better known for one of France’s more famous warriors: Napoleon. 

You can visit the inside of Invalides a bit later after you stop and smell the roses (if they’re in bloom), at the (3) Musee Rodin, 79 rue de Varenne.  The Musee Rodin has one of the most beautiful gardens in Paris, and even features its own rose variety, the Rodin Rose. Of course, in addition to flowers, the Musee Rodin is a showcase for a sculptor who changed the art form, Auguste Rodin. It only takes an hour or two to visit, and you can get tickets online in advance through the helpful Web site:  http://www.musee-rodin.fr/welcome.htm  

You won’t be able to miss the French government buildings on (4) rue de Varenne near the Musee Rodin, such as the Hotel Matignon (the official residence of France’s Prime Minister) and France’s Ministry of Agriculture. Occasionally, security will be a bit of a hassle on the rue de Varenne because of the profusion of government offices and embassies in the area. If there are any protests involving angry farmers from the French countryside, you should definitely try to take in the action that will transpirin front of the Ministry of Agriculture– particularly if you get to see the Ministry entrance blockaded with potatoes or manure.

Walking back toward rue Cler around the side of the Invalides you didn’t see on your way over to the Musee Rodin, take in more vantages of the impressive, gold-domed structure. Even if you’re only mildly interested in the military and/or megalomania, (5) Invalides is worth a look inside for its fascinating military museum, and, of course, Napoleon’s tomb. The military musem has an impressive array of weapons from the Middle Ages and a very robust set of archives relating to the Second World War. Different themed exhibits also appear throughout the year. More info in French (with some in English) is available online at:  http://www.invalides.org/

After viewing government power, military history, and loveliness for the morning, head back to (6) rue Cler for your lunch. Rue Cler is an amazing market street, with several wonderful shops for buying picnic items. There’s an array of small shops from which to select your perfect picnic lunch: cheeses, fruits and vegetables, breads, sausages, and more are there for the buying. For wine for a picnic (or for any reason), be sure to visit Le Repaire Bacchus, at 29 rue Cler. In addition to a diverse selection of regional French wines, the staff are very helpful, and they give great advice about good wines at every price point. If you don’t travel with a cork screw, they’ll open your picnic bottle for you.

On a picnic weather day, the (7) Champ de Mars is very close by– a perfect grassy spot for a picnic and a nap in the sun between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire. “Champ de Mars” means “Field of Mars.” Named for the God of War, military drills were once practiced here. Now, rather than war exercises, you’re now likely to see a free concert put on by Paris’ local government in the summer, or some folks from the neighborhood playing petanque or card games among the gravel alleyways under the trees. (Petanque, or boules, is similar to bocce, except the balls are metal and there are different rules of scoring according to the region in France you’re from.) It’s great fun to watch experienced players play petanque, particularly if they’re older and they’re playing for money– which helps you learn more colorful French phrases than you were probably taught in high school French class. 

Eiffel Tower in Autumn
The “Grotesque” Eiffel Tower

Of course, if you haven’t done it yet (or, if it has been a while since you did), you should go to the top of the (8) Eiffel Tower once you’re finished with your picnic and nap. Though touristy for sure, it’s popular because it’s a beautiful marvel of engineering with stunning views over Paris.

This opinion wasn’t always shared, however, and the Eiffel Tower was often decried as a monstrosity after it was first constructed for the Universal Exposition (a world’s fair of sorts) by Gustave Eiffel in 1889. (In other parts of Paris, you can also admire Gustave Eiffel’s work at the Bon Marche department store and Credit Lyonnais bank, where he built the metal structures. Across the Pond, he was responsible for the internal structure of the Statue of Liberty.) Only built to last 20 years, the Eiffel Tower proved useful as a radio tower during the war years of the early 20th century so the Eiffel Tower was able to defy its critics to become the landmark we all know and love today. The evening lights are a treat to see from other vantage points all over Paris. For history and visitor info in just about every language of the planet (along with some interactive items for children), take a look at: http://www.tour-eiffel.fr/

By now, you should have worked up a bit of a thirst, so stroll back to rue Cler and head to (9) Cafe du Marche  to sit on the terrace  (or stand at the bar for a lower price) and enjoy an “apero,” or “aperitif.” This pre-dinner cocktail time is essential in France, and usually consists of ordering a kir or two, along with some nibbly snacks–typically nuts, some sausage, or small cubes of cheese.  At Cafe du Marche, this wine accompaniment generally takes the guise of some zesty sausage. (If you’d like to split up your apero time at more than one place, the Roussillon, where you started your day, has some really good apero-snacks as well. Last time I visited the Rousillon, there were some very good, reasonably priced cod fritters which at least 3-4 people could share.)

Should you feel like classic, easy cafe food for dinner, then be sure to stay and dine at the Cafe du Marche, especially if it’s a warm evening and there are abundant people-watching opportunities from the terrace. However, there are numerous options for good fare in the 7th, all within very easy walking distance from rue Cler. A few of my favourites are:

  • Restaurant Samo – a Korean restaurant that is one of the best places in Paris, or anywhere, to eat
  • Thoumieux – a traditional French brasserie, at 79 rue St.-Dominique, online at: http://www.thoumieux.com/