France - The Loire on 40 Courses a Day

Twilight is a magical time in Paris. The harsh reality of everyday bricks and mortar become smoothed in the diffuse blue light to become a romantic Renoir canvas. Enticing coffee aromas mingle with the smell of cooking as Parisian go about their daily magic of turning food into haute cuisine. Everywhere, there is the babble-and-pout lilt of the French language and the clatter of high heels on cobblestones.

These impressions dominated my thoughts as I explored the back lanes of the Left Bank. I had been on my feet since early morning. Only Paris inspires me to all-day promenading to absorb every precious moment in the City of Light. In these narrow lanes it was hard to accept that Edith Piaf and Toulouse Lautrec are dead. Their spirits certainly aren't. The wrought iron of tiny upstairs balconies casts distorted shadows on the pavement and golden squares of light appear as patrons leave smokey bars. Echoes of husky torch singers follow them down the footpath.

A convoluted alley lined with cafes spat me out on the Seine directly opposite Notre Dame cathedral. In an instant the scene had changed from quaint minutiae to towering edifice. When this cathedral was completed in 1345 it had taken almost 200 years to build. It was worth the effort: it became the prototype for the other Gothic cathedrals of Europe. More than 600 years later, observing its mood change dramatically as the sky fades to black and the floodlights come on is one of the great sights of the civilised world. For a moment its flying buttresses seem like outriggers for an ethereal apparition floating above the river.

The charm of Paris is simply that the whole city is so distinctly Parisian. Anyone kidnapped and dropped in Paris would immediately know where they were. Indeed, all they'd have to do is look at the traffic, a noisy backdrop of droopy-nosed Citroens, Renaults and Peugeots growing old at traffic lights.

Alluring as Paris may be, it has a well deserved reputation for being expensive. With five star hotel rooms costing $800 a night and a dinner for two easily able to run to $400 for two, caution is required. Unfortunately, Europe on $10 - or even $50 - a day is now ancient history.

However, some cost cutting can be a joy. Instead of a restaurant lunch for $100, French cheese and pate on a fresh bread roll with a bottle of French red is an excellent alternative.

If you avoid taxis, moving around Paris is cheap. Metro tickets in bulk cost less than $1 a trip and a one week pass costs about $15. The cost of seeing the world's treasures is also quite reasonable: the Louvre costs about $8.

Unfortunately, the declining fortunes of the Pacific peso don't allow most Australians the pleasure of staying in the best hotels and always eating in illustrious restaurants. But you don't have to penny pinch. You can stay in comfort and dine well in France and not spend a fortune.

Recently, I found out about an Australian company that is the answer to the eternal question of &quotwhere can I find out about affordable French accommodation that isn't merely a bland chain hotel?" France Promotions, owned by David and Catherine Jackson-Grose, represents chateaux and boutique hotels throughout France. Their 260-page colour brochure is an odyssey through paradise for the incurable romantic.

In April, I was in France and visited several of their chateaux. The words &quotstylish" and &quotcharming" fill my note pad. As one chatelaine told me &quotnow everyone who has a house with a turret calls it a chateau. Our group at least maintains standards." Indeed.

Some of these chateau are private residences that open their doors to the fortunate few. In many cases, dinner is with the family. At the Chateau des Briottieres near Angers, the lavish dinner cost $80 per head including aperitifs and wine. Afterwards I was relaxing with my host over a cognac in front of the fire. He had explained that he used to be a farmer. I asked him what he did now. In an expansive gesture his cigar encompassed several rooms full of antiques and an estate that stretched towards the horizon. &quotDo? I do this," he replied as he poured us another cognac. &quotWhy not?"

I have to give M. de Valbray points for style. When I told him that I was Australian he told me that Judy Davis had been at the chateau for a month filming &quotImpromptu" about authoress George Sand set in the 19th century. Little had to be rearranged throughout the chateau to make the decor fit the period. That night I slept in the cinematic dowager's bedroom which was the size of the average Sydney one bedroom flat. Rates for a room here range from $240 for my room to $145 for something less opulent.

For the greatest concentration of chateau, the Loire Valley is the place to visit. France Promotions offers cycling tours ranging from two to five days for those who wish to savour the experience.

The Chateau de Pray is a 13th century fortress on the banks of the Loire. It has two wonderful features: it's surrounded by several of the most famous monumental chateaux of the Loire and its proprietor, M. Cariou, is fanatical about food and selects his chefs with great care. A room here costs from $145 to $170 a night and dinner starts at about $50.

Just six kilometres away is the most beautiful chateau of the Loire: Chenonceau. The first castle was built over the water in 1513 and the gallery across the river was completed later by Catherine de' Medici. The result is a superb marriage of formal gardens, water, architecture and forest.

Although it doesn't fall within the scope of economy travel, another nearby attraction is inconspicuously located on a back street in Tours. It is a place of pilgrimage for the serious foodie. It is called simply Jean Bardet, after its proprietor who, with his wife Sophie, runs what can be said to be the best restaurant in France. The 1992 Gault et Millau restaurant guide rated Jean Bardet 19.5 out of a possible 20.

M. Bardet, who approaches gastronomy with great zest, claims &quotI was introduced to cooking by a love of wines. For me, a dish must glorify wine and vice versa. Wine is the intellectual complement of a dish." After you select your order, you'll be steered towards the ideal wine for each course. Expect to pay at least $100-$200 per person (plus wine) for this remarkable dining experience.

By road or rail, the Loire is only a few hours from Paris. However, you should allow a full day to cover the 350 kilometres to the Brittany coast. Within France there is a great diversity of landscapes and architectural styles. Brittany on the most western part of France is spectacularly different. The coast is wild and rugged and dotted with picturesque villages and villas.

St Malo, a walled city that occupies a whole promontory is one of France's major tourist attractions. Built entirely of grey granite and with picturesque narrow lanes, St Malo appears as a single entity rather than a mere collection of houses and shops.

Nearby, on the boundary of Normandy and Brittany is one of the world's most astonishing sights: Mont St Michel, the rock of the archangel. It has justifiably been called &quotthe wonder of the western world". In effect, it is a small rocky island linked to the mainland by a causeway. The entire island is covered in a walled village and capped by a 13th century Gothic abbey. Looking across the coastal farmlands to the bulbous island rising to a single elegant spire, the whole edifice seems unreal and like the cover of a fantasy novel.

A note of caution: a sign in the Mont St Michel carpark is updated each day to inform you if the carpark is due to be flooded at high tide. The tidal range here can be up to 15 metres and several visitors have woken and looked out their hotel windows to find only the roof of their car was visible.

Inevitably, the locals have turned a geographical phenomenon into a delicacy. Because the foreshores flood, they have been planted with a salt resistant grass. The sheep that graze on this, in effect, end up pre-salted when they appear on restaurant menus.

The other coast of France is culturally and physically at odds with Brittany. Unlike the wild north, the sophisticated Riviera is the closest France comes to the tropics. So the cities of Cannes and Nice have attracted the rich and idle for centuries.

I've argued that no Australian should go to Europe to go to the beach. A French girl living in Australia disputed this judgement, declaring &quotbut the Riviera beaches are beautiful! All that jewellery and the wonderful fashions."

Beyond the beach, the Riviera is pleasant, beautiful and entertaining. It's where the sports cars and sunglasses of Europe congregate. Inland from Nice, French culture starts again at the tiny hilltop village of St Paul de Vence where Bill Wyman's son married his dad's mother-in-law a few weeks ago. On a previous visit, I found Yves Montand playing bowls outside the local cafe. Apart from being the home of celebrities, St Paul is almost the caricature of a French village: cobbled streets, lace curtains and bright flowers in window boxes predominate. A day exploring its nooks and crannies reveals why France has eternal appeal.

On the other hand, on my way home I visited Euro Disney outside Paris. Despite predictions of doom, its first year of operation saw total attendances fall just short of the 11 million visitors it had projected. That high tunr out is no wonder when some European airlines are advertising &quotvisit our country on your way to Euro Disney".

Europe? That's the place surrounding Euro Disney, isn't it?

Anthropologists may see Euro Disney as the dark face of cultural imperialism. I consider it to be a slice of California dumped in Europe. It's fun but it has absolutely nothing to do with France. In fact the Fantasyland castle looks a little sad when placed less than a day from dozens of picturesque real ones in the Loire. Still, I defy anyone to take a child to Europe without being presured to visit this latest manifestation of Walt's homogenised and sterilised world.

France itself is certainly neither uniform nor sterile. Its cultural richness extends from the works of art in the Louvre to the wonderful cheeses in every delicatessen. Peter Mayle's novel &quotA year in Provence" was a best seller because it captured a universal fantasy. The next best thing is a week in the Loire.

Travel Fact File

Getting There

With daily flights to Paris ex Sydney and Melbourne from the start of June, Cathay Pacific offer more flights to Paris (via Hong Kong) than any other airline. In the words of a Cathay spokesman "we are pushing Europe at present so we're leaner and meaner than the others". That competitiveness takes several forms. If you travel to Europe in high season between June and August the official cost of travel with Cathay is $2599 but your travel agent may be able to offer a better deal. The low season fare of $2099 applies for the whole of February and from mid-October to mid-November.

Cathay gives you two free flights within Europe - such as Paris to London and Paris to Amsterdam. On top of that you get a free one-and-a-half day "shopover" in Hong Kong either way. The standard ticket price also includes about $400 worth of extras: the choice in France is either free car hire for 10 days in France or a 21 day lease on a Citroen, or three nights in a stylish Paris hotel. If you pay $300 more, Cathay gives you $1000 worth of &quotpremium" options instead. In France, these include: five days of Eurail travel and six nights in Best Western hotels, or a five day cycle tour through the Loire. Cathay has also tied in with France Promotions to offer a premium option of four days car hire and three nights in chateaux.

To find out more about Cathay Pacific's deals, call 131 747 Australia-wide for reservations and 131 789 for Cathay Pacific Holidays. Cathay has office in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.

Climate

The best time to visit France is any time but mid winter (which can be very bleak) or August when Parisians leave town, surrendering it to hordes of tourists. Autumn can be perfect, but it can also be drizzly and misty. Springtime in Paris is legendary - but I'd still pack an umbrella.

Currency

There have been considerable fluctuations in the exchange rate between the $A and the French franc over the past 12 months. The costs quoted here have been calculated on 3.8 francs to the Australian dollar.

Visas

Every Australian visiting France needs a visa which can be obtained from the French embassy in Canberra or the consulate in Sydney. There is a scale of fees.

Restaurants

As a starting point for a few reasonably priced Parisian restaurants, try Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit at 34 rue Colisee (tel 43 59 83 80), Le Vaudeville at 29 rue Vivienne (tel 40 20 04 62), and Le Bistro d'A Cote at 10 rue G. Flaubert (tel 42 67 05 81). Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit (not far from the Champs Elysees) is especially good for seafood dishes. It is part of the Cafe Flo group that has also has restaurants in the Paris Printemps store and in Barcelona.

There are many restaurants in France upon which Michelin has bestowed its coveted star rating, the top of which is three stars. If you want to experience one of these, buy a current copy of the Michelin red guide to France (or Europe) before leaving Australia and make your restaurant booking well in advance - some establishments are booked out weeks ahead. The telephone number for Jean Bardet is (0011-33) 47.41.11 (fax 47.51.68.72).

Hotels

A room at one of the world's great hotels like Paris' Ritz, Bristol or Crillon is likely to cost about $800 per night.

A good major hotel such as the Hotel Balzac (6 rue Balzac, tel 45 61 97 22, fax 42 25 24 82) which is just off the Champs Elysees, charges $370 for a room and that includes breakfast. The rooms here are larger than normal, the toiletries (Nina Ricci) are excellent and the service is friendly and efficient.

Then there are the boutique hotels. Some of these are very pleasant, well situated and reasonably priced (for Paris). The Galileo, on the other side of the Champs Elysees from the Balzac is all of these and costs $270 for a double room. Down towards Notre Dame, the Hotel de la Bretonnerie is perfectly comfortable and costs from $175 a double.

Both of those hotels fall under the France Promotions banner. To obtain a copy of the France Promotions' guide book call the Sydney office on (02) 962-5549 or its Central Coast office on (043) 23-4443 or fax (043) 23-4322.

Further Information

For infomation about France, contact the French Tourist Bureau at 12 Castlereagh Street, Sydney, tel (02) 231 5244, fax (02) 221 8682. In Paris call into the Paris Tourist Office at 127 Champs-Elysees, Tel 47-23-61-72 (open 9-8 daily).

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd