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Spotlight on top experiences in France

Spotlight on top experiences in France

Glorious France, renowned for her culture, style and savoir faire, is the most visited country in the world. Here are insights into some of the best of France by Jeannette Hermann.

Michelin one-star dining: the great French secret.

Everyone when given the chance should treat themselves to a three-star French dining experience. Unforgettable! But the joy of a delicious, beautifully presented and budget-friendly one-star meal is ever so satisfying. Paris of course has many one-star finds, but the fun is discovering those in small villages known mostly to locals. In fact, making driving plans to include a good restaurant meal was one intent of Michelin’s red guide, France’s drive and dine bible.

Lunches are less expensive than dinners but then you must choose between wine or a siesta. Most village one-stars are small with few tables, so book early in high season, especially for dinner. To find the one-star restaurants in France go to this site, and follow the prompts.

The Chocolate Road through France

The debate rages on — who makes the best chocolate in the world? Dark or light, France is the place to make up your own mind.

Begin in Paris where the most famous chocolate mecca is La Maison du Chocolat. They have five boutiques scattered around town. As with most chocolate boutiques, the tasting comes after the purchase, so be prepared to salivate as you choose. Their website includes chocolate tasting tips as well as descriptions of each flavor.

Other chocolatiers in Paris include Patrick Roger (a rather exotic site with address at bottom of home page) who did a meter length box of chocolates as a Christmas special ; and the designer chocolates of Pierre Hermé.

If you want a private insider’s trek through chocolate’s “best of” in Paris, David Lebovitz is it. His website, is informative, irreverent and constantly updated. His tours are upon request as is his May 6-12th Paris Chocolate Exploration.

Head south and pay homage to Valrhona, the chocolate gold standard producer. In Tain l’Hermitage, the Valrhona factory turns carefully selected cacao beans into stamped chocolate bars shipped around the world. Visits to Valrhona are rare and must be arranged in advance with great difficulty.

Nearby is much friendlier Pralus with delicious and beautifully pastel-packaged chocolates, great for travel.

St. Rémy in Provence is not only a village worth visiting, it’s also home to inventive Joel Durand (website in French). Joel adds local flavors to his chocolates — roses when in season, lavender, rosemary and basil. You order his pavés by number and he generously offers samples to all who visit.

Village open-air markets

Pick up one of those straw baskets with the leather shoulder straps and head for any outdoor market in France. Not only will you find the freshest fish or this morning’s fruit and vegetable harvest, you’ll find memories.

Even the simplest purchase is an opportunity to meet the faces behind the beautifully displayed stands. Any attempt in French is appreciated. And while you fumble with pockets full of euro coins, they may begin by asking where you’re from and by the end you’re swapping philosophical comments on how to relax.

Besides regional foods and cheeses (of which France boosts over 425 varieties) most markets have aisles of budget fashions, table and bed linens, toys, jewelry, etc, and plenty of cafes for watching the action.

In Paris: the Sunday Bastille market, the north African-Asian Marché d’Aligre, and the Sunday organic market on Boulevard Raspail.

For directions and hours visit Paris Markets.

Some upper end markets in Provence are in Apt on Saturday, St. Tropez on Tuesday and Saturday (be prepared for crowds); and Arles on Wednesday and Saturday. For a list check www. beyond.fr/a/calmktsday.htm.

A place of your own: Living like a local.

If you really want a slice of life in France, rent a place and settle in for a while. Find a chateau with a pool, or a village house with a view or a cottage near a forest and rent it for a week or two. Invite friends. Pick an area of France you want to explore — Provence, Brittany, Languedoc, the Alps — and book it.

You wake up in your own little piece of France, buy fresh croissants at the boulangerie, shop the weekly market, sip espresso on café terraces and become a regular at the best place to eat in town. Some days it’s a winery or a beach or a brocante. After a week, you’ve sampled a bit of France.

To begin your search check Vacation rentals by ownersor Just France for more upscale properties, or one known personally, La Source St. Michel

On the water in France.

In Paris.

The Seine has always been the heart and soul of Paris. Walk along its quais from Pont Alexandre III to Bercy or take a boat ride. The Batobus is a hop on/hop off, one price all day, river bus between Paris’ most famous monuments. The best dinner cruise is aboard the Don Juan II, the newest in the Yachts of Paris fleet. Delicious, intimate and pricey, it’s perfect for a special occasion.

Among the one-hour Seine cruises, choose the smaller Vedettes de Pont Neuf, over the group-oriented Bateaux Mouches.

If you’re in Paris between mid-July and August, a must-see is the Paris Plage (beach). To soothe those left in Paris while the rest of France is on vacation, the mayor created a man-made beach resort complete with sand, beach chairs, cafes, bike rentals, swimming pools, restaurants and music venues along the river roadway. Its success has been copied in Berlin and is being considered for New York. Read more about Paris Plage For photos see.

On the canals

You can begin your trip to the Black Sea on the canals and rivers of France. However, the most popular cruises are six nights in the Burgundy or on the Canal du Midi.

Captain your own boat choosing from one to three bedrooms, from moderate to expensive. All you need is the official VNF (Voies Navigation de France) guide where every lock, grocery or village is listed and a full refrigerator. No license required.

If you want to be pampered, book a luxury barge and sit back and watch rental boats go by. Most barges have only 3 or 4 staterooms as the canal depth and width determine size. Charter rates for two or three couples are reasonable and the itinerary caters to your tastes. See Canals of France

Something old: The best antiques

The most well-known Paris flea market is Les Puces de Saint Ouen at Clingancourt. It lives up to its reputation of exquisite pieces, and is priced accordingly. Its intricacies are many and some websites include how to shop at the various inner markets. Check Check Paris Perfect for more information
A less known, less expensive and perhaps more fun option is the Marché aux Puces de la Porte des Vanves. Trinkets, furniture and all sorts of objets spill from over 350 vendors. Go early or late to find bargains.

The bird market, Marché des Oisseaux on Ile de la Cité has not only birds, but household pets, flowers and a jumble of people to amuse you for hours.

Information about all these Paris markets can be found at this site.

Outside Paris, Isle sur Sorgue, often compared to Venice, hosts a Sunday market stretching along the banks of river Sorgue. In July and August this second largest antique market in France has festivals which include floating markets on the river. The many antique shops in town are open daily as well as weekends.

Additional Favorites from expats in France

In Paris

A meal at Le Café Marly overlooking the pyramid of the Louvre.

A musical evening at La Cité de la Musique, music to suit every taste.

Movie at La Villette complete with boat ride across the canal.

Twilight picnic on the Pont des Arts, floating above the Seine with great views in both directions.

Les Flaneries, or strolls in any neighborhood. With a 1,2,3 or 5-day Paris Visite pass, good on metros, buses, trains and batobus, choose one and jump on. Ride to wherever it goes, exploring your way home. Check Paris Digest for transport info.

Outside Paris

Mont St. Michel at twilight after the tour buses leave. Click here for information. For photos, click here.

Villefranche sur Mer, on the Riviera, near the Italian border during shoulder season. sleeping at the Welcome Hotel

Honfleur in Normandy. A village below sea-level where dams keep the town dry during twice daily tides. For more information on Honfleur

La Braderie, the largest flea market in Europe at Lille, the first weekend of September. Restaurants compete to see who sells the most ‘moules marinieres’. Winner is decided by the size of empty shell piles on their sidewalk. For best bargains come with flashlight on opening Friday evening as dealers unpack their vans.

The ferry between Ste Maxime and St. Tropez on market days, avoiding miles of frustrating traffic. Schedules at Bateaux Verts

Jeannette Hermann

Eons contributor

Jeannette Hermann. (Eons screen name FrenchConnection) — an expatriate and travel writer — has been traveling most of her life. Of her travel in France, she says, “I started creating travel programs to my favorite places in France. We picked olives in Provence, did writer’s workshops while cruising the Canal du Midi, searched for dinosaur eggs near Aix en Provence, walked the labyrinth after hours at the Chartres cathedral and searched for the Soul of Paris sampling food, wines and chocolates along the way.” Jeannette lives with her husband on an old olive farm down a dirt road in Provence.

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