Sunday, September 23, 2007

Honeymoon in France: highlights

After spending many hours planning our honeymoon in France, it’s ironic that the highlight of the trip turned out to be a spur-of-the-moment choice. This was Perouges, a tiny walled town about 50 miles north of Lyon that is the best preserved medieval village I have ever seen. Perouges is so perfectly medieval, in fact, that I almost expected to peer behind the exposed beam walls of the tiny houses and find a Hollywood set crew.

We found Perouges quite by accident. We decided to cut short our stay in Lyon (see the upcoming post: France Lowlights) and selected Perouges out of our guidebook as a promising visit nearby. When we arrived, the town was swarming with tourists, but by 6 p.m., it was almost deserted. We elected to stay at the Ostellerie du Vieux Perouges, which is one of two small hotels in town, and we were glad we did. Our room was in a 14th century building. It was reached by climbing a long circular stone staircase. Venturing out into town at dusk, we were able to experience the delights of this historic town unfettered by tourists.

Perouges is so perfectly medieval that it has been used as the site for several films, including The Three Musketeers in 1973. What appears to be perfect preservation is actually the result of a century of restoration. The town had fallen into disrepair in the early 20th century when a local benefactor made a commitment to restore it. They’ve done a remarkable job. While a lot of the appearance of the town today is the work of 20th century craftsmen, many of the original buildings are still standing.

I took over 30 photographs, but no film can capture the charm of this remarkable village. If you are ever traveling through Burgundy, do make it a point to stop there. It is an experience you will never forget.

Other highlights of the trip:

Beaune is a bustling and beautiful old walled city that features many delightful winding streets and some striking architecture. The highlight was the Hotel Dieu, a 15th-century hospital built to treat the poor. Its brilliantly colored tiled roof is world-renowned and there is a very nice walking tour that takes you through many of the old facilities. In fact, part of the hotel is still in use today as a retirement home. We also encountered our best hotel value here: Hotel Le Home. We rented a very large and comfortable room for only €75, and the proprietor and his wife couldn't have been more hospitable.

Sens is a lovely old town about 40 miles south of Paris. We had intended to stay overnight there, but were disappointed to find that all the rooms in town were booked. We would've liked to have spent more time there enjoying its impressive town square and cathedral. Instead, we put in at Joigny, which is a pleasant little town with a beautiful cathedral perched high on a hill. We enjoyed walking around the windy streets, admiring the beautiful flowers and the river which flows through the center of town.

Two hotels were also highlights. The Chateau d’Ige came highly recommended from Internet reviews, and we could see why. The hotel dates from the 12th century, although the original building was destroyed and rebuilt some 300 years later. There are three magnificent round towers and stone construction that is very reminiscent of a medieval castle. Our room was huge, with stone walls covered in a beautiful fabric that reminded us of the apartments at Versailles.

Our last night was spent at Chateau de Vault de Lugny, a huge country manor with a 14th century wall and real working moat. This is the closest I've ever come to staying in a real castle. At €225, the Château was the most expensive hotel on our trip, but some experiences are so memorable that they're worth the cost.

Speaking of expensive, our dinner the final night was at a restaurant that the guidebook described as the finest in Burgundy. We couldn’t validate that comparison, but there’s no doubt it was the best dinner we had in France. Of course, at €511, you’d hope it would be.

No, that’s not a typo. Dinner for two at l’Esperance in Vezellay cost over $700. That’s actually not uncommon for French haute cuisine and I have to say this experience was worth the cost. The nine-course meal was treat for the senses in every respect. A layered beef appetizer, for example, was topped by a thin disk of beef aspic and drizzled with a delicious sauce painted in a swoosh fashion. The soup was delivered in a tilted glass bowl and mixed at the table by the waiter. There were no less than nine desserts, all small and all delectable. Service was impeccable. A bonus was having the chance to meet the chef, Marc Meneau, who is a bit of a legend. He came out of the kitchen toward the end of the meal and visited with each of his patrons. Nice.

Some experiences are worth the price.

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