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Tour Report: Best of Eastern France

Once again, I am bowing to pressure (I am such a pushover!) and submitting a tour report. Our latest tour was Best of Eastern France. Let me start by saying, this is a wonderful tour. It helps if you either like wine, or just like learning. This tour is based on an older tour that was called “Villages and Vineyards of Eastern France.” Well. Villages, yes, a few. Vineyards? Oh, yeah. But teetotalers can enjoy the tour, as well. There's plenty to do, plenty to see, and lots to learn. This has rocketed to the top of the list as one of my favorite tours, right up there with Village Italy and the late, lamented Best of Florence. (Pause to insert a plea to RSE: Please please bring back the Best of Florence and Best of Venice. I promise we'll sign up.)

But I digress.

This first installment will be a general overview. Later installments will get more specific, probably going day by day, or at least town by town.

Our guide was Daniela Wedel. She has been a guide for RSE for years, and leads a number of tours in France, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. She is German, but has lived for some time in Provence. She also has spent time living in the US, and her English is good. She is charming, enthusiastic, and fun. She tossed in several unplanned events, including happy hours, and one tour of a sight that may eventually be added to the tour; more on that later. Our bus driver was Luc, a pleasant and extremely competent Belgian.

The tour members: Our group consisted of 28 people, mostly retired, mostly couples. There was one couple originally from South Africa, one couple from Puerto Rico, and a family, the parents of whom at least are from the Philippines. The age range was from the early 20s (the daughter of the Filipino couple) to the 70s. Most people were in their 50s and 60s. My DH and I may have achieved the status (?) of being the oldest people on the tour. We're not sure, and I never got up the nerve to actually ask Daniela.

The group was top-heavy with teachers and retired teachers, but we also had at least 4 physicians, one lawyer, a marriage counselor (he said he was off-duty on the tour,) and one accountant. Not everyone divulged an occupation, which is fine with me. Only one couple had never been on a Rick Steves tour; everyone else was an enthusiastic veteran.

Packing: DH and I each took an Appenzell backpack and one personal item. My personal item was a smallish cross-body bag I got as a premium for renewing our Sierra Club membership. DH carries an older laptop bag, without the laptop. This was his first time to use the Appenzell; usually he carries a smaller, lighter backpack that he's had for years, possibly since we were students. (Yikes!)

His Appenzell and laptop case each weighed in at 10 pounds. My Appenzell was 13 pounds, but my shoulder bag was only 7. Here's what I packed:

  • 3 pairs of slacks, including one very light, loosely cut linen blend, which I almost never wore because it was rainy and chilly much of the tour; of the others, one was a dark gray tweed, the other off-white.
  • 5 tops, 3 long sleeved, two short sleeved. One top was very heavy, the others were more lightweight. Mixed colors, but all went with my decidedly neutral pants.
  • one cardigan
  • one very light jacket
  • one windbreaker
  • 2 bras
  • 4 pairs of underpants
  • 4 pairs of socks
  • 2 pairs of shoes
  • 1 set of silk long underwear – which I was definitely glad to have in Chamonix
  • 1 set of “comfy clothes,” including a tee shirt and a pair of light jersey pants. These were my sleep clothes, as well as my lounging-around-the-room clothes.
  • 1 hat – a white fedora I picked up on a tour in England in 2016

I also had a rain jacket that I bought in France, on our tour just previous to this one, Paris and the Heart of France. (Tour report to follow. Eventually.) The jacket came in very handy, but was heavy and didn't fit into my bags, so I had to either wear or carry it whenever we traveled.

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Also in my bags were toiletries for both of us, our 3-1-1 bag, my supplements, useful odds and ends such as tweezers and a tiny sewing kit, my journal, and all the paperwork we would need. I also had a tablet that I brought to Skype with my dad, who gets very uncomfortable when I'm not home. My luxury item was a separate keyboard for the tablet. It added a pound or so, and took up valuable space, but it did come in handy when I had to send longer emails or handle business long-distance.

DH carried all his clothes, (3 pairs of slacks, 4 shirts, 4 or 5 tee shirts, 2 pairs of shoes, undies, socks, comfies, a jacket, and a cap,) his supplements, plus the maps and guidebooks. On the way home he carried all the souvenirs and gifts, and I took the dirty laundry.

Hotels: For the most part, the hotels were typical RS hotels: small, centrally located, quirkily laid out, with a wide range of room sizes and amenities. The exceptions were the first and last hotels, which were business class. All were acceptable, and all served a good breakfast, mostly buffet style. Most of the hotels had elevators; I'm not sure about air conditioning (we never use it.) I do know that at least two of the hotels had a/c, because the housekeepers kept turning it on when our backs were turned.

I did notice the elevators this time, because I somehow did something unpleasant to one of my knees a couple of weeks before we left for France. Normally we use the stairs, but I had some trouble this time, especially walking down the stairs. I was actually embarrassed to use the elevator, but it did make the trip more tolerable. I think all the hotels except the ones in Chamonix, Vaison, and Beaune had elevators.

I'll add comments about some of the individual hotels as I go through the daily reports. I will say that my least favorite hotels were the two business class ones. They had plush, even opulent public areas, but our rooms at least were tiny and poorly laid out. They were also the only hotels in which we had maintenance problems, and the only ones where the staff refused to speak French with me.

I do speak some French. It's strictly utilitarian – no long deep conversations about philosophy or the state of the world. But it's not bad, and I appreciated the fact that at every restaurant, store, bus station, museum, and almost every hotel, the staff seemed delighted with my efforts and responded in kind, at least until it was obvious I was in over my head. I liked that.

That's enough for now; I'll add more tomorrow.

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7629 posts

You did it Jane! Gosh, that was fast (since yesterday)! Really enjoying it and looking forward to reading more!

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4448 posts

Frank, that's good idea, but I don't mind having comments interspersed with my segments. In fact, I find they help break up a long report. Thanks for the tip, though.

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217 posts

Can’t wait for the rest! Strongly considering this tour next year

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811 posts

thanks for the email about your previous tour. Hoping all goes well with England and going back again next year. Still have not had time to do London-7 day and our tour together Paris HOF. Trying to finish up on my scrapbook.

Loking forward to the rest of your report

Kim

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I think from here I'll switch to day-by-day. I may throw in a sidebar or two every now and then, as the spirit moves me or a topic seems to raise questions.

Reims, pre-tour: Reims is easy to get to from Paris. The TGV takes less than an hour to get there, and is much cheaper if you buy your tickets ahead of time. The tour hotel is an easy walk from the train station. There's a TI just outside of the train station that has good maps.

As is our wont, we didn't spend our pre-tour days at the tour hotel. We stayed in another hotel just up the block that was considerably less expensive, but also considered “business class,” the Hôtel Centre Reims. {I considered suggesting this one to RSE as an alternate choice for Reims, but the breakfast room was too small for one of our groups.}

We arrived Friday afternoon before the Sunday tour start, and found plenty to fill our time. We visited the Cathedral, the Halles Boulingrin market, the World War II Surrender Museum, and the World War I memorial. I had forgotten that the Germans officially surrendered to the Allies in Reims in May, 1945. The room where the ceremony took place has been preserved, and the museum is well worth a stop.

We also went to the Sound and Light show at the Cathedral Saturday night, and it was wonderful. A capsule history of the building of the Cathedral, its near destruction during World War I, and many coronations of French kings in between. After the spoken introduction, there is no narration, so language is not a problem. It does help if you know a bit of the history of the area, though. As famous guide Francesca Caruso says, “The more you know, the more you see.”

We also visited the Tau Palace in our pre-tour time. This is a wonderful museum, tied to the Cathedral. Unfortunately, there are almost no English descriptions of the exhibits. That is a real shame, because there are some amazing artifacts on display. Beautiful tapestries, and the lead-spewing gargoyles, taken from the Cathedral after it was heavily bombed in the first World War. The bombing caused the lead roof to burn; the molten lead coursed through the gargoyle drainage system, and the lead solidified there. Wow.

Day 1, Sunday: We moved from our hotel to the tour hotel, the Continental. Our room was on the top floor, and under a slanting roof, rather like a gable. Which meant whoever slept on that side of the bed (moi, I'm afraid,) had to slither into bed because the room wasn't much wider than the bed itself, and anyone who sat up without thinking it over first, (moi, again) got a nasty bump on the head. Oh, well. Not a problem. The tippy desk and non-functional desk lamp were problems, but not major. I did take the desk lamp down to the office, and they promised to repair or replace it. We never saw it again.

We met our group at about 5:00; I've already sketched them for you. What I didn't mention, though, is that the group bonded almost immediately. Some groups gel, others don't. This one did. Since 26 of us were tour veterans, guide Daniela didn't have to spend much time explaining how RSE tours work. We did notice that she seemed to have trouble taking control; the members were talking, sharing thoughts, and bonding so intensely that many of them were ignoring her. Not a good thing, but she laughed it off.

The group dinner was at a restaurant just across the street from the hotel, so the orientation walk was postponed until the next day. Instead, we all marched to the Grand Café, where we had a nice dinner. I had some good mussels; DH had cod. Wine was included with this meal, I believe. The group split up after dinner; some people had only arrived that day, and many were tired. We went for a walk, then back to our hotel.

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978 posts

Oh Jane, I am dearly enjoying your posts! I really appreciate your giving useful details (gabled ceiling!) and wonderful observations ("lead spewing gargoyles!!"). Thank you so much for the time and thought that you are giving for these posts! I can't wait for the next ones! (signed: another Jane from OK)

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Jane! Thoroughly enjoying your detailed report so far. Appreciate your enthusiasm. Looking forward to the rest of your journey! Thanks so much for sharing.

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Day 2, Monday, Reims: We had a good breakfast at the hotel, typical European hotel breakfast: cheese, cold cuts, a selection of breads, juice, milk, water, coffee or tea, jams. I don't remember if they had cereal, but I think they did have boiled eggs.

After breakfast, the group went on a walking tour of Reims. This was very interesting. As you may know, Reims was heavily bombed in the first World War, nearly obliterated. Only 70 buildings in town were left undamaged; most were destroyed. The mayor at the time said, in essence: “No restrictions. Build.” So the town is a delightful mix of building styles, including as you might expect, Art Nouveau and Art Deco, but also lots of throwbacks to earlier times. So there are half-timbered houses, and houses that look like small castles, all cheek-by jowl throughout the “old” part of the city.

Our guide Daniela's background is in art and art history (did I mention she used to play pro basketball?) so we got an in-depth lesson in studying architectural types. “What style is that building?” ”Art Deco.” “Yes, but why do you think that?”

{When DH and I went for a walk later that evening, we found ourselves exclaiming delightedly as we identified characteristic architectural elements. Once again, “the more you know, the more you see.”}

After the walk ended at the Cathedral, the group disbanded for lunch on our own. DH and I ate at a Middle-Eastern fast-food place on the main drag, where we had good lamb, in a sandwich for me and on a kebab for him. And wine, of course.

After lunch, the group regrouped, and took a city bus to the Martel Champagne outlet in the city itself. This is no longer a working winery (champagnery?) but functions as a combination museum and tasting room. We toured the cellars, learning about how Champagne is made as we went. Then back upstairs to taste and compare three Champagnes. I'm reluctant to admit this, but as much as I love wine, I don't much care for Champagne. Some of the folks on the tour were more appreciative, and I believe a few bottles were purchased.

We were on our own for the rest of the day, and several of us opted to walk back to the hotel, rather than catch a bus. It was our first chance to spend some time with some of our tour mates, as we met up serendipitously on the walk home. And we got to see a part of town that the tour doesn't cover.

We were on our own for dinner {we have a favorite Reims restaurant: Le Gaulois, not far from the hotel. Good food, good service, outside seating for people-watching, and not very expensive.} Then it was back to the hotel to shower and pack and get ready to leave the next day.

Edit: I removed the line about the shower not working; that was on our earlier tour!

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Day 3, Tuesday, Verdun and Colmar: Breakfast at the hotel, then out to the street to meet our bus driver Luc and load the bus. Daniela wanted an early start, since we have an appointment with our local guide in Verdun, as well as a reservation at the museum there. But we're short two buddies! We waited, they didn't come. Their friends tried phoning, them; no answer. Daniela finally asked the hotel management to go bang on their door; she accompanied them, of course. No response. By now we were all getting worried, especially their friends. (They were part of a group of 4 traveling together.) Just when Daniela was asking the staff to break into the room, one of our group got a call from the missing: “we're on our way.” Whew, it was just a case of oversleeping, but now Daniela and Luc were edgy, and we were 30 minutes behind schedule. But we were all relieved, and off we went. And as someone noted, there were two names that everyone knew now!

Off to Verdun, where we picked up local guide Ingrid. Verdun, for those of you who may have forgotten, is one of the best examples ever of the senselessness of war, especially as it was practiced in the early 20th century. This battle between the French and the Germans in 1916 lasted 10 months, with at least 750,000 casualties. Heavy long-range guns were used, which led to the destruction of the countryside and several villages. When the battle finally ended, the French had regained what small bits of territory had been lost in the course of that year; no other meaningful result.

{The number of casualties has been modified; I mistakenly typed 70,000 instead of 750,000, and someone (David & C) caught the error.}
The memorial site has a fine documentary film, with actual footage from the time. The most chilling part of the entire place is the ossuary – millions of human bones are stored reverently, but with small windows for viewers to see. Bones are still turning up in the fields, and are added respectfully as they are found.

Now somber we retired to the town of Verdun itself for lunch. We had pre-ordered a light lunch of salads and sandwiches, all of which were good. A limited amount of wine was provided. It was good, too.

On to Colmar, a beautiful town in the Alsace. We checked into the Hotel St Martin. I didn't make any notes about the hotel, so it was fine. The building dates from the 14th century. Our room opened onto the main street, but wasn't too noisy. I think this was one of the hotels where the staff kept turning our air conditioning on. I finally figured out to set it at the highest possible temperature, then turn it off. They got the hint.

It was group dinner again, this time at the Rapp hotel and restaurant. Dinner was good: gazpacho, fish, a potato cake, ratatouille, and a good Pinot Gris. Pinot Gris is grown in this area, and evidently if you're going to try it, try it here. Then back to the hotel. A number of our folks (including my DH) stopped along the way to enjoy a local group of folk dancers, who meet regularly. I opted to return to the hotel, but as it happened I could see and hear the dances by leaning (just a bit) our of our window.

A good day.

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2199 posts

We will be in Reims this September, so I especially enjoyed your post about Reims.

Can't wait for the next installment!

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Trayla, we just loved Reims. There is so much to do and see! Don't miss the huge Halles Boulingrin Market. Lots of goodies there, including prepared food. That's where we went back for lunch that day.

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Day 4, Wednesday, Colmar: Breakfast at the hotel was good. After breakfast we joined local guide Muriel for a city walk. She was good, sharing interesting tidbits about many of the buildings. One of my Forum friends, who took this tour a couple of weeks before we did, emailed me that Colmar was “Super cute... Like Disneyland on steroids!” I'm not sure about the Disneyland part, but she's dead on about cute. Lots of half-timbered buildings, lots of color. Evidently painting the buildings in bright colors is a fairly recent thing, done to attract tourists. And look cute.

Colmar is the home town of Frédéric-Auguste Bertholdi, the sculptor of our Statue of Liberty, and you'll see his works all over town. It's also home to the Unterlinden Museum, which houses Grünewald's magnificent Isenheim Altarpiece. This is where our guided tour ended, and where Daniela took over. Remember, she's an art historian, and spent a fair amount of time educating us about the altarpiece, explaining the iconography. For those of us who are art lovers, it was a real treat.

We were then dismissed, free for the rest of the afternoon. Many of us stayed at the museum, enjoying their massive collection of ancient church art, as well as some definitely modern pieces.

DH and I headed back to the hotel neighborhood, looking for lunch. We wanted something typical of the region, and found it just down the street from the hotel – again, visible from our window. I had a savory tart, and DH had a buckwheat crepe with local cheeses (galette savoyarde.) We enjoyed a bottle of cider with our meal.

I'm afraid we napped away the rest of the afternoon, until it was time to meet the group for happy hour and another group dinner. Dinner was very good. I had some lovely veal – unusual for me to order meat; I generally go for fish or seafood. DH had salmon choucroutte – yes, salmon with sauerkraut. It's much better than it sounds. We spent quite a bit of time getting to know our tour mates, especially a couple the wife of whom I had met on this Forum, and with whom I had been exchanging emails for some time.

Then back to the hotel – it's been a long day.

Day 5, Thursday, Colmar, with side trips: After breakfast at the hotel, the group walked to the bus, which took us to Castle Haut-Koenigsbourg, an imposing medieval structure high up in the Alsace. The castle had been restored by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1899, and has been well preserved. We had an entertaining guided tour, then were left with a bit of time on our own. We would have appreciated more free time in the castle itself, to enjoy the many artistic and architectural features. But the schedule called!

We were turned loose in the village of Eguisheim for lunch; we found delicious food at the cafe A Edel. After our lunch stop, Luc took the group to Domaine Stintzi for a tour and wind tasting with young owner Olivier. He has taken over the family vineyard and winery with the retirement of his grandfather. The wines were very good. Local guide Andorra had led us through the vineyards, pointing out details and explaining how the local growers worked their fields. This was a great stop.

Back to the hotel to pack; we're leaving tomorrow. But first DH and I took off on our own, wandering some back streets where we found a good restaurant, Le Flamm's. Again, we had regional specialties and a good local wine. Then back to the hotel.

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826 posts

Thanks, Jane. I took this tour when it was Villages and Vineyards. It has always been one of my favorites for the sheer diversity of locations. I am enjoying your report. Hope to get back to Colmar in winter sometime.

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Day 6, Friday, Beaune: Up early, breakfast at the hotel, walk to the bus. Daniela had suggested a “surprise” for today, a deviation from the printed schedule. And a dandy it was. We took a detour to the Royal Salt Works at Arc-en-Senans in Eastern France. She described this as a kind of utopian community, but our wonderful local guide corrected that impression. It was indeed a salt factory, but it was also a planned community that was intended to be pretty much self-sufficient. We saw how the salt was made, which involved long pipes made at first from tree trunks, then from lead, which brought the brackish water from nearby salt marshes. The water was then evaporated, and the salt harvested.

What was particularly interesting was the architecture, and especially the architect. The complex of buildings was designed by visionary architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux in the years leading up to the French Revolution. It is truly beautiful, with some innovative designs. M. Ledoux barely survived the Revolution – he had too many noble customers and patrons to suit the Revolutionary mobs, and was forced to retire. In his retirement he took to designing ideal types of buildings, based on ancient philosophical premises such as Platonic ideals. One of the buildings at the salt works is full of tiny models of his designs, none of which was ever actually built. There's another room that is full of models of structures he did build before the Revolution, which were definitely ahead of their time. He eventually published some books on architecture, and was able to support himself and his family.

This was a very pleasant place, with gardens, walks, and even a cafe. There were plenty of places to have a picnic lunch, and the café served wine. :-)

Then it was back on the bus, and off to Beaune in Burgundy. We were booked into the Hôtel des Remparts, a Rick Steves favorite. This is an interesting hotel, and a lot of people don't like it. The rooms are scattered in several different areas, including a tower, and vary wildly in size, comfort, and accessibility. It was our third time here. The first time we had one of the tiny rooms at the top of the circular staircase. The second time we had what the proprietor called “the honeymoon suite,” which was huge, on two levels, with lots of extras. This time we were on the second floor, in a nice room with windows on two sides, giving us a cross breeze. People who get the tiny, low-ceilinged rooms tend to like the hotel less. But we have always enjoyed it, regardless of our room assignment. It's so Rick Steves!

After we had checked in, Daniela led us on a walking tour of the main part of town, ending at the Hôtel Dieu. This is another wonderful place. It was built in the 15th century by one of the local bigwigs as a hospital for the poor. It is well worth seeing, and beautiful interpreted. The building itself is beautiful, with a distinctive tiled roof. And the hospital is very impressive. It was run by nuns for centuries, and was in use until recent times.

The Hôtel Dieu also houses some amazing works of art, including Rogier van der Weyden's Last Judgment altarpiece, itself worth the price of admission.

The group disbanded here, and DH and I headed to the nearby Notre Dame church to see the tapestries depicting scenes in the life of the Virgin, and for me to try to find a Mass to attend this weekend. (No luck there; the only one that fits our schedule is way out of town.) But the tapestries are charming, and worth a visit.

We joined the group that evening for dinner together, which was pretty good. There was some wonderful smoked trout, and some good fish. For dessert I had a big bowl of fresh fruit; everyone else was stuck with some kind of cake or ice cream. :-) We also ordered a local Chardonnay, which is what you get if you order a local white. It was good, much better than California Chard. (Sorry.) Then a long walk, and back to the hotel.

Another great day.

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I'm enjoying your post of the Eastern France tour. My husband and I took this tour 2 years ago. I'm actually working on my picture scrapbook right now, so I'm enjoying all the details of the tour. It will help me when I write in all the little tidbits of this tour. We loved it. Colmar and Chamonix were our favorites. I'm also one of those people who didn't like the hotel in Beaune. The staircase seemed very dangerous. Also, nothing in our room worked, the AC, the hairdryer and the blinds in the window were all broken. Also had a very moldy shower. We got to visit Keysersberg, which you didn't list. That was a great town. We could have spent more time there, it was very cute also! I'm looking forward to the rest of your trip report. It's very entertaining.

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Thanks, everyone for your comments. I'm loving doing this, because it's reminding me how much I enjoyed the tour.

I'm in a bit of a time crunch today, but I'll try to slip in another post or two.

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Day 7, Saturday, Beaune: We had some free time this morning, so we lollygagged around the room for a while, then went down to breakfast. This is, I think, the only tour hotel that does not have a breakfast buffet. The tables are set with baskets of bread, jams, butter, a little cheese. The staff brings coffee or tea. I don't remember what else was served; perhaps someone can refresh my memory here. I think juice was available, and a basket of fruit?

After breakfast, DH and I headed to the Saturday market, on a mission. My watch had quit on me earlier that week, and efforts to get it repaired in Colmar had come to naught. So I needed a cheap watch, and DH was on the lookout for a particular kind of belt he likes that is always easier to find in Europe. And we were both successful! I got a simple, but functioning watch for €7, and he found the belt he wanted. Getting the right size belt and the kind of watch I wanted tested my French, but it all worked out.

Then it was back join the group for the day's excursion. Another dandy! Luc drove us to Chateau Rully, where we met Raoul, le Comte de Rully. Yes, a real live count. The Chateau has been in his family since, I believe, the 12th century. I think he said they are the original owners, and it has been in their family for 60+ generations. We had a tour of the chateau, which was very interesting, followed by a wine tasting. Yes, the family owns vineyards, as well. The wines were quite good, but pricey. However some of our members did purchase a few bottles.

After the tour, we regrouped on the grounds for an amazing (I use that word too much, don't I?) picnic laid out by Daniela while we were taking the tour and sampling the wines. There were meats, cheeses, salads, olives, pickles, nuts, breads; it just went on and on. And it was all wonderful. It was a good chance to sample some local meats and cheeses.

{I have since heard, from a friend who took this tour earlier this year, that one reason RSE keeps using the Hôtel des Remparts in spite of the complaints is because they let the guide use their kitchen to prepare the picnic. Just tossing that in...}

After this lavish lunch we waddled back to the bus, and headed back to Beaune. I do believe DH and I napped that afternoon, instead of exploring more of the town.

We were on our own the rest of the day. DH and I did finally stir our stumps enough to get out and walk around town a while, then find dinner. We had dinner at Le Vintage, on the main square. I had a lovely salade bourgignone, which included escargot and jambon persillage; DH got the menú – a set three course dinner with escargot, braised lamb shank, and a chocolate dessert. And local wine, of course, including one of the count's wines. It was all good.

We wandered the town, enjoying the evening, then headed back to the hotel where we had coffee on the terrace. A beautiful end to a wonderful day.

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Day 8, Sunday, Chamonix: Daniela arranged for an early breakfast, so we could get on the road. We arrived at Chamonix about 1:00, and went directly to the Hotel Faucigny. Not all the rooms were ready yet; ours was, and the only word for it was “cute.” It was tiny, and on the top floor, but was ingeniously laid out to make the best use of the limited space. Lots of nooks and crannies, pegs and shelves meant there was adequate storage. I was at first crestfallen that there was no window (gotta have my open window!) but there was a skylight. It took us longer than it should have to figure out that it did open, a bit.

DH and I headed out to explore a bit; we found lunch at a Pizza/Brasserie on the main street. The pizza wasn't very interesting, but my salad was delicious, and the white wine was very good. After lunch we headed back to the hotel, for laundry, coffee, and to email home. One of the nicest things about this hotel was the public areas. Not fancy, but comfortable and welcoming. Lots of places to sit, and the coffee pot was always on. They had some kind of snacks available later in the afternoon, but I don't think we partook.

We met up with the group for dinner; I don't remember the name of the place, but their schtick is fondue and cooking food at the table on a hot stone. The salad was good, and the fondue wasn't bad, but I was unimpressed. The hot stone cooking seemed gimmicky to me, and the portions were tiny. Fortunately, we had had enough fondue to weight us down for a while. This was another dinner where some wine was included. There was a blueberry tart for dessert; I had fresh fruit. DH and I went for a long walk after dinner, down to the end of the town, then headed back to the hotel for coffee and bed.

Day 9, Monday, Chamonix: The breakfast was good at the hotel. There was some great homemade yogurt, plenty of choices of breads, cheeses, cold cuts, and fresh eggs that could be boiled in a pot bubbling away on the counter. We have encountered these several times, and I have consistently been the victim of egg thieves. I put my egg in to boil, and when I come back, most of the time it is missing! The best arrangement I have seen of this system was in Lauterbrunnen: the hotel there provided permanent markers with which you could initial or otherwise mark your egg before cooking it.

But in spite of my missing egg, I enjoyed the breakfast.

This was a free day, but the weather didn't cooperate. It was cold, rainy, overcast when it wasn't raining – just downright unpleasant. Some of the folks went on up the mountain or to the glacier; we stayed on terra firma, opting to walk the river path. We managed to lose our way several times, but since we always knew how to get back to Chamonix, we didn't worry. We did get extremely wet, however, and I was certainly glad of the rain jacket I had purchased on our earlier tour, as well as the silk long underwear I had packed.

We finally decided it wasn't going to get any better, so we went back to town where we had a nice but small lunch at a bar just across from the hotel. I think it was called Le Chamonix, and is tied to a hotel of the same name. After lunch we went to Espaz Terrai, a great museum very near the hotel. It's in two sections; one focuses on crystals, and has an astounding collection of them, ranging from the tiny to the gigantic. The other section honors mountain climbers, and is jolly interesting. I learned a lot there about climbing and the tools and techniques climbers use.

Back to the hotel for a happy hour with the group. There were so many snacks that we decided to skip dinner. So it was early to bed. During the night, the sky cleared, and I awoke at one point to see a huge array of stars through our skylight. I kept checking them out as the night progressed, and felt the peace of the mountains.

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Day 10, Tuesday, Vaison la Romaine: After breakfast, we loaded the bus for Annecy. We had a brief orientation walk there, with Daniela acting as local guide in the marketplace. The group gathered again for the Lake Cruise. This was to me the one part of the tour that could easily have been skipped. It was a one-hour, narrated cruise of Annecy Lake. I'm not saying it wasn't interesting, but I hadn't prepared for it, which makes a difference. We were glad to return to town, and headed out to find lunch in the one hour or so we had left. A number of us found a good lunch at the Murriate Brasserie (I'm not at all sure of the name; it looks like my hand slipped while I was writing it.) I had a good plate of local sausages with fixings, and DH had delicious fish and chips. We also enjoyed chatting with some of the locals in the close quarters of the brasserie.

Then back on the bus to Vaison la Romaine. We stayed at the Hotel Burrhus, which may well have been my favorite hotel of the entire tour. Definitely quirky, with odd staircases jutting off in different directions, and room numbers that followed no discernible plan. Our room was on the first floor up. It was good-sized, with big windows, and its own little balcony, big enough for a small table and two chairs. No elevator, though, and I think this was the other hotel that kept turning on the a/c in our room. I tried my trick of turning the thermostat up as high as it would go, then turning it off.

The group dinner that evening was good, but nothing special. (Are we getting jaded?) I had foie gras, fish, and a cheese tray. DH had a goat cheese salad, guinea fowl, and a mixed dessert plate.

Day 11, Wednesday, Vaison: Breakfast at the hotel, then off to meet local guide Annamarie to tour the archeological site, remains of a Roman house. It was great! She did a good job of conveying how the old Roman town was laid out, and how the house reflected the social structure of the time. There was also a Roman theater, and a dandy museum, where we were left on our own. DH and I stayed there for quite a while, then headed off to find lunch.

Even though it was not on our tour, I have got to mention the restaurant where we found lunch. I didn't note the address, but it's Le Bistroquet, and it's in easy walking distance of the hotel. We decided that this may well have been the best meal we had in France – and by then we had been there almost a month! It's a small place, with no inside seating, and everything is hand made by the owner. DH had a lovely tuna brochette, an a baba au rhum that consisted of a still warm cake, and a shot glass of rum to pour over it. I had a scallop fritter salad, followed by veal-stuffed squid served over squid ink pasta. And of course, water and wine. Sheer bliss. You're welcome.

We waddled to the bus, where we joined the group headed to Orange, to see the wondeful Roman theater. This is truly an amazing sight. It is huge, and in great condition. Part of it has been restored, but much of it is original. It is enormous, and even overwhelming. The audio guide included with admission does a great job of explaining and interpreting the site.

Then back to the hotel for yet another happy hour. We skipped dinner, but shared drinks and stories with some neighboring tour mates – their balcony abutted ours.

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Day 12, Thursday, Vaison: After breakfast, the group headed off for what turned out to be a very special day. We first headed to the nearby village of Séguret, for a lesson on olive farming and an olive oil tasting. We visited a man who is trying to revitalize the olive oil business in this area, and in his spare time molds and paints ceramic figures for the local traditional Nativity scenes.  The French Nativities, like the Italian ones, do not stop at baby Jesus and the shepherds.  Nope, the whole village is there - the baker with a basket of baguettes, the butcher with a string of sausages, an old lady with a pillow for the Child, even a carpenter carrying a cradle he made.  Dogs, cats, chickens, even a tramp sleeping on a pile of hay outside the local bar.  Wonderful.

And if that wasn't enough, we then went to a local vineyard, the Mourchon. Yes, yet another wine tasting.  (oh, no!) This one was something special.  It is owned by a Scotsman who, when he was 66 years old 20 years ago, decided he needed a new project.  He had made his fortune in Texas in the oil boom, so decided he needed a winery.  He found an old vineyard that was on the market, that had everything he wanted except a house and a winery.  Just lots of old vines on a windy, rocky hilltop in Southern France.  So of course he bought it.  He and his daughter run it, and are doing quite well.  It helps that he started out wealthy.  What's the old joke about someone winning the lottery and deciding to buy a farm?  "I'll start with a million dollars and farm until the money runs out."

I don't know how much money this fellow has left, but he has built a gorgeous house and a state of the art winery, where they crush, blend, ferment, age, bottle, and cork their wines.  It's an amazing place, and we got the full tour.  We climbed about a mile up to the winery, then up another steep slope to the vineyards, where we received lessons on the fine (and difficult) art of growing grapes.  Then down to the winery to see the entire process - from destemming to bottling, with lots of steps (and technology) along the way.  Then to the tasting room, where we sampled four of their wines, which were delicious.  THEN - no, we're not done yet - another (shorter) hike up to the house to be served a sumptious lunch in the garden, with three more wines to enjoy.  Kind of hard to top a day like that.

Day 13, Friday, Aix-en-Provence: Up early, to get an early start. We said our good-byes to Luc on the bus, since he'll be heading home as soon as he drops us off in Aix. We got to the Hôtel Christophe before any of our rooms were ready, but late for our appointment with our local guide Corinne. She took us on a slow walking tour of the old part of Aix-en-Provence, the part inside the ring road. She noted points of interest as we passed, and we took a short break at a local market. Then on to the Cathedral, where after a brief overview we were left on our own.

DH and I found a great lunch at a brasserie just south of the cathedral, called L'Archeveche. Then we headed back to the hotel to check in and freshen up. We headed out to test the walk to the bus station, where we'll catch a shuttle to the TGV station when we leave Monday.

Then it was time for our final group dinner; the food was good, and plenty of stories were shared. Back at the hotel, a number of us settled into the bar; this is the last time we'll see most of our new friends.

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I should have mentioned that the public areas of the Christophe are very nice indeed. A pleasant lobby, big restaurant, and cozy bar. But I must say that this was probably our least favorite hotel on the tour. Our room was tiny – possibly the smallest hotel room we've had in all the years we've traveled in Europe, with fewer amenities. It was okay, and would have been fine if the price hadn't been so high. We were planning to stay on in Aix after the tour, but the price the hotel quoted us to stay on was out of our budget, even before we saw the room.

It didn't help that there was a very loud outdoor concert just outside our room. But of course, that wasn't the hotel's fault at all.

I don't mean to end on a negative note (and I won't,) but I was not impressed with this hotel.

Day 14, Saturday, Aix-en-Provence: As is the way with these tours, the last day is breakfast only. No other activities are planned, and our tour mates have already scattered. It's been a great tour.

I do intend to add one more segment to this thread, covering our post-tour time in Aix, and tossing in a few ruminations. But not tonight.

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Aix-en-Provence, post-tour: After breakfast, we headed out to the market to kill some time (we couldn't check into our next hotel until afternoon) and found a lovely chocolate shop, Riederer's. That took care of the gift problem. (That's all the people on our gift list want, ever since our trip to Belgium.) Then back to the Christophe to check out.

We walked from there to the Hôtel Paul, just north of the city center. (See my review of the Paul at https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/france-reviews/a-pleasant-inexpensive-hotel-in-ais-en-provence-but-it-s-not-for-everyone )

I won't do a blow-by-blow description of our time in Aix, but we had a wonderful time. We visited the Gramet Museum – a real eye-opener. I learned a lot there about an artist and collector (Gramet) that I had never heard of. There is another related museum we also visited: Gramet XXe that focuses on 20th century art. And the best was the exhibit of pieces from the New York Guggenheim at the Hôtel de Caumont Centre d'Art. The Caumont was worth visiting even without the Guggenheim exhibit; highly recommended.

And just wandering around we happened on some great performances, including one that appeared to be music students performing excerpts from an opera – it was a mezzo and an oboist, with occasion support from some little girls. Enchanting!

Aix is a great town for walking and wandering. Lots of museums, lots of narrow back streets, lots of street musicians, lots of markets, and lots of places to eat. We learned to go to bakeries for lunch – grabbing a sandwich to share was a relief after some of the huge meals we had on the tour. And everyone we met was warm, friendly, and welcoming.

We spent the rest of Saturday and all day Sunday enjoying Aix. On Monday we took the TGV to Paris, ready to fly home the next day.

Final musings on the tour: As I said earlier, this is a great tour. I can think of a few questions people might have: “What if I don't drink alcohol?” This is definitely wine-oriented, but there were a few people on our tour who did not drink wine, and who still had a good time. Visiting the vineyards and wineries was a real learning experience, and got us closer to an important part of French culture and economy.

I can relate to this question in a way: I don't eat sweets (sucrose intolerance.) But I've been on tours that visited chocolate makers and museums, and enjoyed every minute of it. Pastry demonstrations? I'm there, even if I can't sample the goodies.

“Are the French rude? Do they really hate Americans?” The French are not rude, but they're not as outgoing as we are. And they love Americans. I think the thing that's most important to them is respect. A lot of the things we Americans do are seen by the French as being disrespectful. Pawing through the carefully arranged display of garments in a department store, for example. Picking over the fruit at a market stall. And not greeting the staff at any establishment.

“What about speaking French?” As the Car Talk guys used to say “Kent Hoit!” But no, it's not necessary to speak French. It is important to learn a few courtesy words and phrases, and use them. A lot. Especially Bonjour, madame; Bonjour monsieur. And leaving the shop as well: Au revoir, madame.

I will mention this, however. I do think you get treated better the more French you speak. I noticed that several service people seemed to perk up when I began speaking French. And believe me, my French is not very good. (This is not false modesty; I have studied a number of languages in my time, and I know when I'm doing well and when I'm not.)

One example: at one of our tour hotels, one of our group wanted some honey for his beverage. He asked politely for honey, and was brushed off. I asked in French, and the honey appeared. That was not typical, by the way, but it was noteworthy.

Dressing well is also considered to show respect. I found that interesting.

Any other questions?

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1002 posts

Jane-

I enjoyed your report, as it is on our list of potential tours. How would you compare this tour to Village Italy? The Village Italy tour had a mellow vibe, given that it focused on smaller towns. It seems that when you are in larger cities, there is always something more to see, resulting in a more hectic pace. Village Italy had a relaxed pace, even though we moved around every couple of days.

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1892 posts

Jane, thanks for taking the time to post this well written and comprehensive trip report. Sounds like it was a wonderful tour. It has been on my wishlist for far too long! I know, like and respect Daniela and have enjoyed having her both as a guide and a friend.

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4448 posts

Bob, that's an interesting question. I went back to review my trip report of that tour, (https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/tours/tour-report-village-italy) and was about to agree with you until I hit this section:

Day 12: A free day! No scheduled meals or activities! And it was
welcome. This has been a very active tour, and folks are flagging. For
the last couple of days we've noticed some people being a bit more
critical, or complaining. I attribute it to the fast pace of the tour;
even with all the free time, we are kept so busy that we're getting
tired.

I do think, on the whole, the VI tour is more relaxed, but one of the things I liked about the France tour, is there were two stops of three nights each. That adds some relaxation possibilities, and cuts down on the constant packing, unpacking, bus loading, etc.

I would do either of these tours again, by the way.

Edit to add: (Psst: the food was better on the Italy tour.)

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4448 posts

I thought of a couple more points. Packing: would I change anything about what I packed? I would take fewer socks. I took 4 pair, and my DH took 4 or 5 pair, and we were wearing the same size and style! We had a lot of socks. Other than that, I took pretty much what I always take, and it worked well.

DH said he would take fewer shirts. Counting sport shirts and tees, he had, I think, 9 shirts. Definitely more than he needed. Even layering in the cold and wet weather we encountered, that's too many shirts.

And someone always asks how strenuous a tour is. This one? Not at all. There are several opportunities for somewhat more strenuous things, including the hike uphill to the Mourchon Vineyard, and climbing the two Roman theaters we visited. Almost everyone in our group opted for the hike up the hill, which surprised me. (There was a car available to take folks that either couldn't or didn't want to make the climb.) A few people clambered around the theaters, but most did not.

Of course, any kind of hiking was available on our free day in Chamonix, but that was a free day, free choice. So the only other thing I can think of was also at the Mourchon Vineryard, and that was the climb from the winery up to the vineyard itself. This was short, but unpaved and steep. I had trouble with it, and I wasn't the only one. But I think everyone made it.

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4448 posts

An observation. Oddly enough, we never saw a bidet in France. Seems like most rooms we've had in Italy had them. Oddlier, it was my DH who noticed this, not me. Hmmmm...

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8008 posts

Thank you so much Jane! I love your Trip Reports!

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4448 posts

You're welcome, Pam. I think I'm going to have time to do one for the Paris and Heart of France tour, but not go into so much detail. When I reread my Village Italy report to respond to Bob's question, I was struck by how concise it was. That'll be my goal, anyway.

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8008 posts

Well, do it however it's fun and comfortable for you but I love detail!

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2503 posts

Jane, another hit! Enjoyed every detail (as usual). All your tips mixed with humor and enthusiasm makes an enjoyable read. Merci Beaucoup!

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217 posts

Can’t Wait to read your next trip report. Absolutely love all the detail, but if that’s too tiring, we’ll take what we can get.

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4448 posts

Pam, Janis, and Luv2Travel, thanks for your comments. (Hey, Janis!) Putting in the detail isn't too tiring, but it is time consuming. I actually rather enjoy it, because it helps me remember some of the things I didn't have in my journal, which as actually more of a trip log. And it's amazing how much we forget, and how quickly we forget it!

I'll try to get going on the Heart of France report this weekend. This week got rather more complicated than I had anticipated.

Thanks again for your kind words.

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930 posts

Jane - loved the trip report, and please, if you have the time and energy include the details!

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1173 posts

Jane:

I enjoyed reading your trip report. It was very similar in my feelings, thoughts, observations and findings about this tour. It was a lovely tour, easy going and enjoyable. Lots of cafes, walking around the small towns, some museums and churches but overall just a pretty, scenic type of tour. Really getting to know France and what a beautiful country it really is. I have now been on all the France tours except the My Way France tour and enjoyed each one. I loved every place we visited and would recommend seeing all the places we visited. It is a great tour for people that have traveled throughout Europe extensively and have seen the Greatest Hits of Europe, Rome, Prague, Vienna, London, Paris, Venice and Florence, etc.

Thanks for writing this detailed report, it had me remembering and reliving such a wonderful tour.

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1523 posts

Such a great report. I know it takes time and thought to make it concise, but informative, and you hit it just right. I am enjoying reliving this tour and nodding my head at some of your observations - it’s still one of our favorites. It is also interesting to see how they tweak the tours from one year to the next.

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294 posts

Off to Verdun, where we picked up local guide Ingrid. Verdun, for those of you who may have forgotten, is one of the best examples ever of the senselessness of war, especially as it was practiced in the early 20th century

Did you go to Fort Douaumont when in Verdun?

We did this tour a few years ago. The countryside around Verdun is something I still remember, it has been a century since the battle but the ground is still filled with divots from the shells. I think someone said that over the course of the battle there were several shells launched for every squre yard of ground.

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174 posts

Thank you for posting your trip report! It's bringing back so many memories of when I, also, took this tour with Daniela back in 2014. It's probably my favorite of all tours, the best combination of food, sights, and French culture I love.

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4448 posts

Bill G, yes, we did! For some reason, it's not in my notes, so I had forgotten. But we loved touring the Fort.

Justin, I agree. I'm not sure it's my favorite, but of 14 tours, it's in the top 3. We loved the Village Italy tour for the same reason - a great mix.

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208 posts

Jane, loved your report and it really gives us an idea of the tour and what to expect. We have been considering the tour, having taken the Village Italy tour couple years ago. Just a couple minor points:
1. There were actually about 750,000 casualties in the battle of Verdun, 400,000 French and 350,000 German. Total deaths were about 300,000. That emphasizes how horrible a battle it was, for very little gain on either side. 70,000 is bad enough but 750,000 is horrendous.
2. I hope that the salt that was harvested was not used for human consumption. Having brine water conveyed by lead pipes would leach out considerable amounts of lead, which would be in the harvested salt.

Again, thanks for the great overview of the tour.

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4448 posts

Thanks for the correction, David & C. Some of the digits on this keyboard don't work well, especially the 5 and the 9, and I don't always find my errors. I posted earlier that DH had 4 of one kind of shirt, and 5 of another, which made a total of shirts. I finally caught that, and I will go back and correct the Verdun figures.

Yes, the salt was for human consumption, but as it happens, the enterprise was not all that successful. They used wooden pipes first, but they were too leaky. Then they switched to lead, but the place didn't last too long after that.

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1042 posts

Jane, I loved your tour report!
Back in the 1990's Rick offered a 3 week tour called Slow Dance Through France which I took and loved.
Hotel Burrhus in Vaison was one of my all-time favorites. I remember the tiled floors and how that cooled the rooms in the heat. We were there for Bastille Day and there was quite a celebration late into the night in the square below the balcony.
It was a great couple of days!
Now I'm looking forward to your Paris and HOF report!
And thanks for taking the time.

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49 posts

This trip is on my list of potential future trips-thanks so much for sharing your trip report! I think that it was the perfect combination of concise-ness and detail ;).

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116 posts

Great report and great memories of doing this tour in 2013. We went in late September and got to experience the grape harvest along the way including the pickers singing in the vineyard. The weather was great though cool in Chamonix and Annecy. I’d definitely recommend this tour in the fall. We ended in Marseille which was a nice surprise, then went to Arles for a couple days.
I’d go back to this tour easily.

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4448 posts

SharYn, a three week tour of France sounds wonderful! We ended up staying 32 days, counting time on our own and two RS tours, and I would gladly have stayed longer.

Patty, we had hoped to go in the fall, but it didn't work. We were meeting up with friends, and late May was a compromise. But it was fine. Lots of rain, but no hot weather until the last day or so. Being there during the grape harvest must have been very special.

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1068 posts

I enjoyed your tour report. We did this tour in 2015. Some things have been changed since we took the tour. Our tour ended in Marseilles. I wish it had ended in Aix. Our guide was Daniela and she is an absolute love. One of our favorite memories was the lunch in the garden at the family winery. We also loved Colmar - so much so that we went back for the Christmas market there the December after our tour. I was not crazy about the hotel in Beaune either. The breakfast there was pretty skimpy. After the tour ended we rented a car and toured the south of France on our own. As we had really bonded with our tour group, I really missed not having them with us when we toured southern France on our own. It is a really good tour. Thanks for the memories.

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4448 posts

Thank you, Mary. I would have loved to stay longer, but we had already been gone a month, and I knew things at home were stacking up. But I'm going to try to get back to France sometime in the next couple of years.

Posted by
5931 posts

Jane, what a pleasure to read your thoughts on your trip(s). You are such a good writer with such an engaging style, it is a real privilege that you take us along for the ride!! I think you also have a real art for noticing and appreciating things, and in turn are able to convey that as well.

One thought:

Edit to add: (Psst: the food was better on the Italy tour.)

I agree totally!!!! (Is that sacrilège to say!!???)

Posted by
21 posts

We're going on this tour in early September and I just loved your tour report! Now I'm even more excited. Thanks for the details...especially about some of the restaurants you enjoyed in your free time. It's always nice to have the inside scoop.

One question...did you notice that lot's of places were closed in Reims on Sunday and Monday? I was doing a little research and reading and it seemed like a number of restaurants were closed on those days. Undoubtedly we'll find places to eat but just curious since our tour also begins on a Sunday.

Thanks again for all the insights!

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4448 posts

katykrip, no, we didn't notice too many places closing on Sunday; at least, I don't remember a problem. Some places were closed, but plenty of places were open.

We did notice, however, that quite a few restaurants booked up early. Now, I think that was at least partially because we were there on a holiday weekend, but if there's a place you have your heart set on, make a reservation in advance. I tried to make a same-day reservation at 3 or 4 places, and was turned away.

The street the hotel is on had lots of eateries that don't seem to need reservations. Some are nicer than others; we ate at one kebab place that was delicious, and twice at Le Gaulois. Even when it was packed on a Friday night, they squeezed us in.

We also ate at a tiny Moroccan place just a few blocks from the hotel; they were also crowded, but rearranged some tables so we could eat. I think that was on a Sunday, as a matter of fact. Oops, nope, it was Saturday. On the Sunday we had our first group dinner.

BTW, the Moroccan place is La Médina, 13 Rue de Châtivesle. It's on a quiet side street off the busy Place Drouet d'Erlon, where the hotel is located.

Have a wonderful time. This is a tour I would cheerfully sign up for again.

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586 posts

We were in Reims for the 2 nights of the tour. The Sunday we arrived we ate lunch at Le Lion de Belfour. It was ok, not memorable, but not bad. That night was the group dinner. The next day after the walking tour, we had lunch at Les 3 Brasseurs (which I believe means brewers and they brew their own beer.) Our guide had recommended it as one of the places serving a regional speciality, Flammekueches, which is like an individual tart with onions, mushrooms, meats, lots of different variations. We each ordered one, but we could have split one and still have had plenty to eat. For dinner, we ate at Le Gaulois, which Jane mentioned. We were not terribly hungry because of our large lunch, and each ordered a salad. They we're huge, and very good. 3 Brasseurs is on the same side of Place Drouet d'Erlon as the Hotel Continental where we stayed, and Le Gaulois is across the same street down a few blocks on a corner.
We did the tour in May of this year and had no trouble getting tables just walking into places. Probably because it was Sunday and Monday nights.