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Paris in two days, it can be done - The Loire Valley, a feast for the eyes and palate
Paris in two days, it can be done - The Loire Valley, a feast for the eyes and palate


Paris in two days, it can be done

by Albert Rodriguez - SGN A&E Writer

You're on a European vacation and only have two days to spend in Paris. What to do? A lot. Paris is a premiere destination that offers travelers anything and everything they want, it's just a matter of knowing where to go and how to get there. The French capital also flaunts one of the world's busiest Gay districts, le Marais. As both a tourist and former resident of Paris, I can't think of a better place to visit on your next vacation.

Here's a short list of must-do's while in Paris, and essentials to have on-hand. Voila!

PARIS ESSENTIALS
Metro pass - Buy a "carnet" (pack of 10) Metro passes for 11 Euros at any Metro station. The public transportation in Paris is outstanding, so you won't need a taxi to see all the tourist attractions or to take you back and forth from your hotel. Visit www.rapt.fr for more information.

City map - Purchase a Paris city map before departure to familiarize yourself with the places you want to go in relation to where you're staying. Paris is divided into 20 arrondisements (districts), and I suggest knowing which arrondisement your places of interest are ahead of time.

Paris Museum Pass - If you plan to visit the Louvre, Musee D'Orsay, Pompidou Centre, and other known museums in the city, save money and avoid long ticket lines by purchasing a "Paris Museum Pass" at www.parismuseumpass.com or at a visitor's information center.

Presentable attire - Parisians are not known for being slobs, it's a fashionable and sophisticated city that won't put up with sweatpants, worn out jeans, or trashy attire. Looking presentable is key to receiving good service in Paris, and it's a matter of respect as well.

STAY
Avoid high-priced hotels near the Champs Elysee and Tour Eiffel. Stay in le Marais or Latin Quarter, where you'll find more affordable properties and hipper crowds to hang with. Here's a list of a few affordable hotels in or near these districts.

Hotel Beaumarchais, 11 arr.
www.hotelbeaumarchais.com
3, rue Oberkampf, Paris

Hotel du Dragon in the 6 arr.
www.hoteldudragon.com
36, Rue Dragon

Hotel de la Bretonnerie, 4 arr
www.hotelbretonnerie.com
22, Rue Ste Croix la Bretonnerie

Hotel Henri IV, 1 arr.
25 pl. Dauphine, Paris, 75001
Phone: 01-43-54-44-53

DO
In two days, you really can experience a lot that Paris has to offer. These are absolute must-dos.

Le Marais - For any Gay traveler, visiting le Marais is a no-brainer. It has to be done, at day or night or both, it just has to be done. You'll have no trouble locating Gay bar-lounges, though pick up a copy of France's popular Tetu print magazine for specific addresses and locations. L'Open Café and Bears Den are two prime spots to have a beer and eye the crowd. Shopping-wise, try Frippe Star for thrift attire and Oliviers and Co. for an entire store dedicated to olives, plus you'll find several Gay-owned shops that sell everything from dirty mags to brand-name denims.

Jardin du Luxembourg - From the Odeon station, walk five minutes to the immaculate Jardin du Luxembourg that brings locals and tourists together in one big spot. Parisians love to people-watch, and this is a perfect spot for it. Grab a snack and a caffe crème (coffee with steamed milk) and enjoy views of the gorgeous park and the parade of students from nearby Sorbonne and Paris University.

Tour Eiffel - The Metro station nearest the Tour Eiffel is Bir-Hakeim, though I suggest going to the Trocadero station and getting an early glimpse of the enormous, beautiful French monument and then walk 10 minutes to the foot of it. The lines are shorter and the view is magnificent at night, and you can choose to go up to the very top, or the first or secondary observatories.

Champs Elysees / l'Arc de Triomphe - If you can't afford to stay or shop along Champs Elysees, definitely take a stroll through it. The famous corridor in Paris is a shopper's dream with designer shops and American-based stores (Nike, Adidas, Gap) attracting consumers from all parts of the globe. There's a Metro station at the end of the Champs Elysees, which is very close to l'arc de Triomphe. Also, American and French movie theaters are mostly found in this area.

Montmartre / Sacre Couer - Aside from the Tour Eiffel, the best view of Paris is atop Montmartre - a hillside district that brings together sketching artists, street performers, and loads of tourists who want an upfront look at Sacre Couer. Get off at the Anvers station and walk up the somewhat steep hill, and you'll quickly realize that it was worth every step.

EAT
The city of Paris is like a giant kitchen of amazing food. Rather than supply you with a list of recommendations, I'd rather you discover the art of French cuisine on your own. You can eat on the cheap, which I suggest, by purchasing baguette-sandwiches, crepes, gyros, pastries, and salads at take-out cafes. The French deli chain Paul offers ready-to-go food that you can take to a nearby park. The best and most affordable sit-down cafes are in the 5th and 6th arrondisements, and two of my favorites are Le Comptoir-Relais du Saint-Germain (9 Carrefour de l'Odeon) and Les Deux Magots (6 place Saint Germain des Pres). If you happen to win the lottery, an entirely surreal yet top-notch spot is Restaurant la Maison Blanche (15, avenue Montaigne) that provides diners with a panoramic view of Paris and some of the finest gourmet food in the entire country.



The Loire Valley, a feast for the eyes and palate
The Loire Valley, a feast for the eyes and palate by Albert Rodriguez - SGN A&E Writer

The Loire Valley in France is a stunning region of rolling hills, sunflower fields, charming villes, chateaus in the middle of nowhere, and home to the country's best wines. This picturesque area, just southeast of Paris, is a feast for the palate as it is for the eyes. Like coffeehouses are to Seattle, good wine is to the Loire Valley - it's everywhere. So are mushrooms, grown in deep, dark caves that often double as residences for people known as troglodytes. And, rustic French dishes like cassoulets and duck confit are served at every corner café throughout the valley.

Imagine miles and miles of gentle, colorful scenery. Imagine hot air balloons rising up into the sky, surrounded by mountainside vineyards. Imagine small towns with big character, where locals truly appreciate life in the slow lane. This is the Loire Valley.

Allow me to guide you on a weeklong tour of the region, with stops in Angers, Saumur, Chinon, and Tours - and visits to wineries and chateaus along the way. If you're planning a future trip to the Loire Valley, here's information to get you started. Visit www.franceguide.com for more info.

DAY 1:
ARRIVAL IN FRANCE,
TRAIN TO ANGERS

Transportation: Board a TGV train from Charles de Gaulles (CDG) airport to Angers St. Laud station, which run frequently. The trip to Angers from Paris-CDG is two and a half hours long. Buy a multiple-day train pass in advance, allowing you to travel from ville to ville.

Eat: For a late bite, Le Novo (Marine Hotel ground floor) serves Italian favorites at a decent price.

Stay: Marine Hotel (www.marinehotel-angers.com) is an affordable, centrally located property in Angers. After a long-haul flight to France and a train ride into the Loire Valley, a cozy bed and soft pillow are essential for a good night's rest.

DAY 2:
ANGERS,
FRENCH COOKING CLASSES
IN SAVANNIERES

Eat: Nearly all hotels in France include continental breakfast with your overnight stay. You can expect a selection of breads, cheeses, cereals, yogurts, fruits, and morning beverages. The breakfast at Marine Hotel was a large spread that also included various deli-type meats, dried bananas (for cereal), hot chocolate, fresh croissants, and pain au chocolat.

Do: Atelier Culinaire (www.atelierculinaire.com) offers cooking classes for travelers wanting to learn first-hand the true art of French cuisine. Individual cooking stations make you the star chef at this sought-after school, plotted in the very heart of the winemakers town of Savannieres.

Visit: An afternoon stroll through Angers will familiarize you with the locals. Check out the Musee des Beaux Arts, Chateau d'Angers, Musee Cointreau and the city's cathedral.

Eat: Le Pub St-Aubin (71 rue St-Aubin) is a popular Angers hangout serving homestyle French specialties.

Stay: Marine Hotel (www.marinehotel-angers.com) has 83 studio-sized rooms with flat-screen TVs, contemporary baths (tub, shower), and complimentary Internet service in its lobby.

DAY 3:
CHATEAU DE BRISSAC,
MUSHROOM CAVES, SAUMUR

Eat: Your continental breakfast at Marine Hotel has everything to get your day off to a great start.

Visit: Forty-five minutes from Angers is Chateau de Brissac (www.chateau-brissac.fr), a mansion with its own mausoleum, vineyard, swimming pool quarters, and an actual family living on the upper floors. I met the Marquis (head of household) on the day our tour group dropped by and he was extremely cheerful. The Brissac estate has hosted many European celebrities, such as Sophia Lauren, Roger Moore, and Oscar winner Jeremy Irons. The chateau also boasts its own theater that presents holiday productions. A film crew is currently shooting a French movie there.

Visit & Eat: La Cave Aux Moines (www.cave-aux-moines.com) makes for an interesting side-trip, to discover the unique method champignons (mushrooms) are grown in France. Enter the deep, dark caves of this family-owned business and watch the incredible harvest of various mushroom types. I was fascinated by this off-the-beaten path attraction, which also has a snail farm. Mushrooms and snails at La Cave Aux Moines are for in-house use only. Speaking of which, the on-premise café serves escargots (snails) traditional-style in a buttery-garlic sauce.

Visit: Caves Langlois-Chateau (www.langlois-chateau.fr) is a family-run winery that creates a lot of its product below the earth's surface - in caves reachable only by elevator. In season, you can walk through the hillside vineyard, and then head indoors to sample the chateau's award-winning wines. If Sideways were filmed in France, this is what you'd likely experience - with better wine.

Eat: In Saumur, an adorable ville the actual "Three Musketeers" called home, try l'Alchimiste (6 rue de Lorraine) for contemporary French cuisine like filets de beouf and fois gras.

Stay: On a cobblestone street, near Saumur's central cathedral, is the most charming place to stay called Hotel St-Pierre (www.saintpierresaumur.com). This was the rural France I'd dreamed about, a hotel with shutters that opened to pastry shops across the street and French music seeping out from pubs down the block. So warm and cozy, like a blanket. Highly recommended.

DAY 4:
BIKING IN CHINON,
WINE TASTING IN TOURS

Eat: Continental breakfast at Hotel St. Pierre features croissants, peaches in light syrup, pain au chocolat, goat milk cheeses, and freshly brewed coffee brought to your table.

Do: Rent a bike in the snuggly town of Chinon and view the amazing scenery on wheels. Bikes can be rented at www.loire.a.velo.fr and a well-marked trail leads you through vineyards, residential neighborhoods, cornfields, riverside picnic spots, and local streets.

Eat: La Bonne France (4 Place Victoire de la Deviniere) is a petite cafe very few tourists go to, because it's tucked away in a Chinon shopping square away from the main pedestrian streets. Using locally grown ingredients, the bistro is known for rustic French fare such as savory poulet (chicken) with champignons. A moist chocolate cake topped off an extraordinary lunch.

Visit: The city of Tours was perhaps my favorite of this journey, primarily because of its vibrant energy and its collegiate eye-candy. Tours is also the birthplace of a fashion icon, Coco Channel. This city felt so alive, so hip and its Saint-Gatien Cathedral was dazzling.

Drink: Mille et un Verres (ask for directions), which translates to "1000 Glasses", is a shoebox-shaped bar that definitely should be stumbled upon late night in Tours. The bartender insisted, as a passionate French bartender would, that our group be served the exact wine suiting our individual palates. It took several pours from numerous bottles, but he succeeded.

Stay: Best Western Central Hotel (www.bestwesterncentralhoteltours.com) may sound like a hokey idea, but it lives up to its name. Located blocks from the city's thriving districts and pedestrian-friendly streets, this place is right in the center of everything.

DAY 5:
CHATEAU DE CHIVERNY,
PRIEURE DE LA CHAISE,
RETURN TO PARIS VIA BLOIS

Eat: The continental breakfast at Best Western was the biggest of my five-day trek that included standard choices and small containers of Nutella, which I stuffed in my to-go bag.

Visit: Among the thousands of chateaus in the Loire Valley, the Chateau de Chambord is one of the most visited. The estate spans 5,400 hectacres, almost the size of Paris, and credits Leonardo da Vinci as its interior artist. The estate has 426 rooms (some of them hidden that I was fortunate to be shown), 282 fireplaces, and 77 staircases. The 1970 film Peau d'ane, starring French goddess Catherine Deneuve, was shot in this very chateau.

Stay: Prieure de la Chaise (www.prieuredelachaise.com), once used by monks, is a turn-of-the-century mansion that can be rented out entirely by one party. Located on a winding street in the town of Saint-Georges sur Cher, you'd never know this was a bed and breakfast unless you made a reservation. The front gates open to a lived-in yet gorgeous chateau with its own stable, chapel, swimming pool, and manicured grounds. The property's owners, a loveable couple who made an urban-to-rural transition when their children grew up, treated us to a homemade dinner of quiche, beef stew, and coffee cake. This place is absolutely splendid, with spacious rooms and a grand parlor to enjoy quality time with your guests. If you've dreamed of a birthday or wedding in an unforgettable, French countryside setting - Prieure de la Chaise is my top recommendation.

Transportation: You'll need to get to a major train station for a return trip to Paris. I recommend going to the nearby, majestic city of Blois - with service to Gare d'Austerlitz - and you can opt to stay a night or two in the "City of Light" before returning to Seattle.
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