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France (and bit of Germany) trip recap

My parents, husband and I traveled to France and briefly into Germany from Sept. 12-22. We had a really wonderful time, hitting up a lot of Rick Steves' recommended spots, so I wanted to share the highlights of our trip, places we stayed and memorable meals. Hope someone finds this information helpful! Some of the detail got kind of lengthy – it's fun to recap a trip like this! Feel free to PM me with any specific questions.

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Day 1: Paris – Flew from Chicago to Stockholm to Paris on SAS. My parents and husband and I separately took out money from the one ATM we found at CDG. Turns out, my parents' card was comprised by someone who had set up a number-reading program on the ATM. Luckily, the bank caught it and everything was fine. We stayed in a fantastic apartment in Le Marais (VRBO #15502). The owner was super easy to work with, the place was just as the description said, the location was great (close enough to places like Norte Dame, but far enough away that you almost felt like a local) and there was easy access to public transportation. A nearby Monoprix was great for breakfast foods and snacks. We had a delicious dinner at Café du Marche, right in our neighborhood.

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Day 2: Paris – Visited Musee d'Orsay and we bought the two-day Paris museum pass. We got there right when it opened and had to wait in line for only about five minutes. Took metro to Percy area where we went to the La Cinematheque Francaise, covered on the museum pass (small but interesting museum). Then went to the Jewish Museum (also covered on pass). Tried to go to Café des Musees (Rick suggested restaurant) for dinner (just down the block from the apartment), but it was crowded and had too long of a wait. Had crepes from a street vendor instead.

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Day 3: Paris – First stop was the Arc de Triomphe (in the rain). We stood in line for about 15 minutes before t opened and got to the top right away. From there, took metro to the Musee des Egouts (Sewers of Paris) tour. It was much more crowded than I ever expected from a sewer tour! Three of the four of us thought it was interesting, but my mom was put off by the smell (I'll admit – it doesn't smell pretty, but you do get use to it). If you're more sensitive to smells, take a perfumed scarf or hanky. Walked around the Eiffel Tower and then explored Rue Cler. Had lunch at Café du Marche (Rick suggested) (Try the chevre chaud salad!). Explored the Marais a bit more, stopping at Diwali for a scarf and earrings. Had dinner at Bouillon Racine in the Latin Quarter – wonderful, inviting restaurant with great food.

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Day 4: Strasbourg – My husband and I started the morning in Paris with a run along the Seine and back. It was one of the simplest but neatest things I've ever done. Seeing a city like Paris wake up early on a Sunday was really cool. Took TGV to Strasbourg (about 2.5 hours). Explored the city by foot, stopping for beers, onion tarte and tarte flambees. Then took a boat tour around the old part of the city. It was an interesting tour, but all of us fell asleep at some point – make sure to do it when you're wide awake! Toured the beautiful Notre Dame cathedral. Stopped twice at Brassiere Lanterne (Rick suggested), a craft/local beer bar (my husband is a homebrewer and really appreciated the fantastic beer). We talked so much to the bartender that she gave us a hug when we left! Dinner at Chez Yvonne (Rick suggested). Fantastic meal – choucroute, coq au vin, quail with foie gras. Hotel: Hotel la France (very nice and great breakfast buffet).

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Day 5: Black Forest – Rented a car from Europcar office (through Auto Europe) near the train station. Ended up with a Ford C-Max, which was perfect for the four of us (our entire experience with Europcar was great. We elected not to get a GPS and in hindsight, we should have). Drove over border to Germany and explored the Black Forest. Unfortunately, it was rainy and very foggy, so it was difficult to see the scenery at times, but it was still beautiful. Stopped in Hornberg for lunch at little bar/restaurant – more tarte flame and schnitzel. We attempted to go to Freiburg, but missed signs to the city centre, so bypassed it and ended up in Staufen. Great, picturesque town. Had dinner at Hotel Bahnhopf – one of the best meals of the trip with steak, rosti, lentils in puff pastry, Schnapps after dinner. A nice couple helped us through the menu. Hotel: Gasthaus Loewen (Rick suggested). Great place!

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Day 6: Route du Vin – Stopped in Colmar for a brief visit as we headed toward the Route. None of us were all that impressed with Colmar. Staufen and other small towns along the Route were much nicer. Stopped in Kayserberg, walked through town and stopped for a quiche lunch. The scenery along the Route du Vin is just phenomenal. Stopped in Eguisheim to sightsee and visit a winery. Stopped at Maison Emile Beyer (Rick suggested) and sampled some wines. Bought a bottle of Muscat to take home. Drove to Beaune – a fairly long trip, but on the autoroute it wasn't too bad. Toured the town a bit and had dinner at Brasserie Le Carnot (Rick suggested). I experienced my first "menu" meal, so salad, boeuf Bourguignon (we were in Burgundy, after all), cheese and crème brulee (delicious but SO much food!). My husband had the Andouillette sausage made of the lower intestines (not a meal for the faint of heart). He finished it, but I don't know that he enjoyed it. Hotel: La Paix-Auberge. Not a bad hotel and a good location.

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Day 7: Beaune to Chambery – Started with a visit to Hotel Dieu, which was really interesting and was a great self-guided tour. Stopped at the fresh market outside the Hotel afterward to pick up picnic supplies (cheese, bread, saucisson sec, mustard and fruit). Headed in the direction of Chambery down the smaller regional roads. Stopped in a park for our picnic, which worked out great. Had a great traditional Savoie dinner at a little place near, if I remember correctly, the Chambery cathedral (can't find the name of it now). Husband and I split the Raclette (that was a fun experience!). Others at the table got the tartiflette. Hotel: Hotel des Princes. Great location and not a bad place, but it turns out they gave us the family room instead of the quad we had booked (family room was one big room with four beds, whereas from the pictures, it looks like the quad has two rooms).

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Day 8: Day trip to Annecy, Chamonix – We stayed in Chambery two nights, so we took a day trip. Annecy is a great, cute little town that we explored for a few hours. We took the small roads all the way to Chamonix, which was beautiful. We had to take a detour at one point, which took quite a while, but took us on very scenic, beautiful winding roads. The first glimpse of Mont Blanc from the roadway was magnificent – I think I even gasped! Unfortunately, it was pretty cloudy this day too we so we didn't see as much of the mountain peaks as we would have liked, but it was still fantastic. We explored Chamonix a bit. If the weather had been better, it would have been great to take a gondola ride. We headed back to Chambery via the autoroute to make up some time. We had dinner at La Spaghetteria (I spent a summer going to school in Chambery and had had a few meals at this place. It's a great little Italian restaurant).

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Day 9: Route Napoleon – We explored Chambery in the morning (showing my family where I went to school and places I went to), and stopped at the great indoor market for more picnic supplies. From Chambery, we headed toward Grenoble where we were to pick up the Route Napoleon. Along the way, not too far outside of Chambery on the mountainside, we stopped for a picnic lunch at a beautiful spot – some type of old castle that is now being used for events (workers were setting up for a wedding the next day). Unfortunately, I can't find the name of it now. We picked up the Route Napoleon (some of the most beautiful scenery I've ever seen all along the Route!) outside of Grenoble and followed it all the way to Sisteron, where we stayed for the night. Had a great galette dinner (buckwheat crepes) at a Creperie L'Akène, a cute, small restaurant built into the earth. Hotel: Grand Hotel du Cours. Nice place, big rooms and they offered great cognac in the lounge area of the hotel afterwards (billed to the room).

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Day 10: Nice – We continued down the Route Napoleon, stopping in a few small towns along the way (Through Google, I learned the Route is the N85, but per Rick Steves, it seems to be a slightly different route. I believe we were on the N85 portion of the Route our first day and the Rick's way the second day, so that we ended up in Nice). Our last stop was Nice, so we returned our car here (I don't recommend driving in Nice if you don't have to) and toured the city on foot. Nice is an interesting city, with a nice mix of old, Italian-esque buildings and the beautiful ocean. It was unlike all the other cities we had been to. We did Rick's walking tour of Vielle Nice and walked along the water. Dinner was at Le Safari (Rick suggested). Really great Nice specialties. Hotel: Hotel Felix. Good location (on Rue Massena , a pedestrian street), but small rooms and fairly old, slightly dirty.

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Day 11: Home – From Nice (airport turned out to be about a 10 minute cab ride from where we stayed), we flew back to Chicago via Copenhagen. Notes: -Pack some picnic supplies from home, such as a bottle opener, Swiss Army knife, some plastic cutlery (we used the Light My Fire sporks). -A lot of people remarked that they're intimated to travel to France because of the language barrier. I feel pretty comfortable speaking French (took about 10 years of it in school, including a French minor), but as long as you try with a few words (hello, goodbye, thank you, please) people are more than willing to work with you.
-Be prepared to pay up when taking the autoroute. The roads are in great shape and the rest stops along the way are very nice and have a lot to offer. But it's not cheap to drive on them.

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Thanks for the trip report. I have one question: "Stopped in Kayserberg, walked through town and stopped for a quiche lunch." Did you visit the castle? It's something I've considered checking out some weekend, but never quite had enough motivation to make the drive. Is it interesting or well preserved?

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Nicole, Great trip report. I found it interesting that you liked Strasbourg but weren't impressed with Colmar. I had the opposite opinion. Did you have time to visit the Unterlinden Museum? Strasbourg and especially the Cathedral were beautiful, but I found it too large and too crowded, and I was happy to get back to the more tranquil atmosphere of Colmar. I also took the boat tour in Strasbourg. I also really like Nice. It's a beautiful city. Have you started planning the next trip yet?

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Tom Unfortunately, we did not stop atthe castle, so I couldn't make a recommendation. One of the only downsides to the trip was that we had a lot of driving to do to hit all the cities we wanted to get to, and that sometimes didn't leave a lot of time for actual sightseeing at places like castles, museums, etc. If we were to do it again, I think we'd add a few extra days if we could and take our time getting from location to location. Ken Thanks! We did not get to the Unterlinden Museum. As I mentioned to Tom, above, unfortunately we cut some of our sightseeing a bit short. I can understand your impression about Strasbourg. It might have been a different experience for us, as we were there on a Sunday so it was fairly quiet and not as bustling as it likely is on a weekday. I'm always planning some sort of trip in my head! Portugal has always been at the top of my list, I think because it's a little more unknown than other countries.

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Bets -- We really enjoyed Sisteron. We ended there not knowing much about it (it was a game-time decision to stay there, based on how far we could drive before we needed to secure a room), and it was a great overnight stop. The town was charming, picturesque and offered enough options as far as hotels (luckily we found two rooms right away in a nice place) and restaurants. I don't believe I mentioned it earlier, but the next morning, a Saturday, there was a nice market set up along the main street in Sisteron, and it offered a wonderful selection of pastries, fruits, olives, nuts, etc.

You're right that that part of France is magnificent -- the scenery is breathtaking!

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Enjoyed reading your report. I hope to explore the Alsace and Burgundy regions in 2015.
Do you mind sharing what the cost of the rental car was and how much was spent on gas?

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@ Diane,
We just returned from a 17 day road trip in France and rented a car through Europcar. (Agency was Avis) It was not cheap but such a wonderful way to see the country. That said, we were "lost" much of the time even with a GPS (through Europcar) and a new Michelin map. The GPS took us on roads that were not listed on the map and vice versa. Gazole was less expensive than gas so be sure to get a diesel. Most rentals are standard transmission. Estimated price for our car,including insurance (not CDW), GPS, and gazole $1800. That does not include tolls or over night parking at hotels which can be expensive and very seldom included in price of room! Highly recommend car travel if you are patient and want to travel the road less travelled.

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@ Nicole...great trip report in particular the part on the Route Napoleon and your observations there. My question is did you come across when you left Grenoble on day 10 the village of Laffrey or saw the historical monuments/plaques on Napoleon on the Route Napleon at Laffrey, ca. 25-26 km south of the city?