Thursday, June 21, 2012

Really Wrapping It Up - Trees and Other Good Things

We've put the prettiest of our photos in a gallery of best shots. Here are just a few final thoughts on what we saw.


Paris: We liked it, but didn't fall in love with it. Partly it was the crowds: even in shoulder season the famous parts are just crammed with tourists from noon on. Cannot imagine what it would be like on a hot July day. Our advice: get to anything famous before it opens; see that one thing in relative comfort; spend the rest of the day in a park or in a café. (Or better still, a café in a park, as found in the Tuileries and Place des Vosges.)

The central part is for the most part bright, clean and walkable, and with lots of trees (see below). Some streets are lined with unbroken rows of identical six-story stone buildings and these can seem forbidding—especially with no sun. The suburbs, as seen from trains going in and out, get a bit sketchy with heavy graffiti and dingy streets, but no more so than any other metropolis.

We found no trace whatever of arrogance or hostility in the French who meet the public. On the contrary, every single clerk or waiter was at least polite, and often graciously helpful. This could be because we knew the magic words: the cheery Bonjour Madame/Messieur the moment you meet their eyes. They always respond with a musical (descending major chord) Bonjour, Messieur'dame and everything is fine from there on.

Our accents improved steadily and we could measure our progress by waiters' reactions.

First week: David: Un café crême. Server: Un... David: Un café crême. Server: ah, café crême, d'accord.

Second week: David: Un café crême. Server: Un café crême? David: Oui. Server: d'accord.

Third week: David: Un café crême. Server: Oui. Et pour Madame?

It was a big achievement when the waiter did not feel a need to echo your order back for confirmation.

Other Towns

Marian booked this tour into nine (9!) towns besides Paris. Of these, our favorites, worth recommending to other tourists, would be Dinan, Bayeux and Nantes. Dinan was just a fun place to walk around, with its medieval walled center; we also had the best meal of the trip at the "Fleur de Sel". Bayeux is centered on a gorgeous cathedral, but has the tapestry and is a convenient base for the whole D-Day thing. Nantes is not the prettiest place, but we enjoyed the treasure hunt for Estuary Art, and it has the amazing Brasserie La Cigale (not to be confused with a completely different place in Paris), the amazing Elephant (when it's working) and it's a good base for countryside and coast trips.

The Countryside

France is a big country (largest country in the European Union, twice the area of Texas) and this trip covered one small corner of it, the regions of Normandy and Brittany. But here are our strongest impressions of that corner:

  • Trees!
  • Green!
  • Tiny roads!
  • More trees! and Greener!

We thought New Zealand was green. Normandy and Brittany in the spring are even more saturated with shades of green. New Zealand stays ahead in the scenery race because it mixes in snowy mountains. France is definitely altitude-challenged. The hills of the Coast Range back of Palo Alto would qualify as a major mountain chain in France. But goodness, was it green.

The other thing: trees. The French love trees. They plant them (we saw new tree plantings at Mont St. Michel, in Tuileries, and in Nantes) and once they're grown, they prune them into amazing shapes. They line all their major streets with trees; they plant straight lines of trees across the countryside and along any lane. The trees grow to amazing sizes. Every day we'd be stunned by the size of a chestnut or a lime or something we couldn't identify.

The tiny roads thing could have been a problem without the GPS. There seemed to be a lot more of these little tertiary roads than there were in Germany. Every village has a snarl of tiny streets and between villages is a spiderweb of ten-foot-wide paved lanes. With the GPS, this was just an amusing adventure. "Oh look, she's guiding us between a farmhouse and its barn, how interesting." Anyway, these roads are maintained beautifully. Just as in Germany, if we saw a pot-hole it was worth a comment.

Trees, trees in hundreds of shades of green, and cute little villages connected by a web of tiny roads. That's the lasting impression of Brittany and Normandy for us.

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