FEBRUARY 2017

 
About Intimate France — We travel every spring and fall to Europe's most beautiful destinations. Our small groups (between eight and 16 travelers) guarantee you the utmost in personal service and attention to detail. Contact Intimate France or learn more about us.
 

THE BEST OF 2016, PART 2

 

Relais Brunehaut — A dreamy hotel north of Paris. While this hotel didn't figure into our 2016 tour itineraries, it did provide two nights of R&R between spring tours. The ambiance and setting are simply ideal.

THE BEST OF EUROPE 2016

 TOWNS, RELIGIOUS SITES, MUSEUMS, FABULOUS MEALS

 

By George Nevin

Founder-owner, Intimate France

 

The talented American food writer Patricia Wells followed her dream of enjoying "the bounty of fresh food" and writing about it when her husband, Walter, took a job with the Paris-based American newspaper then called the International Herald Tribune. (It's now the New York Times, International Edition — essentially the same paper, but with a different name.)

 

As Wells writes on "My husband, Walter, and I moved from New York City to Paris in 1980, for what we thought would be two years. The lure and love of the cuisine and lifestyle here has kept us blissfully here to this day."

 

Now dividing her time between Paris and a rural property in Provence, Wells continues to blog about food, to review restaurants and other foodie gems in Paris and beyond, and to offer cooking classes in both the French capital and at her country retreat.

 

As she told an interviewer once, during the early years of their lives in France, she would often say to Walter, "You know, living in Paris is not all peaches and cream." Then, after a giggly pause, they would both chorus, "But it's MOSTLY peaches and cream."

 

I know just what they mean. I treasure my times in Europe, and when they are over (usually four weeks in spring and four in fall), I am ready to return home to familiar surroundings in California.

 

While on the road, I love visiting larger towns and cities steeped in old-world charm, poking around venerable (and beautiful) cathedrals and churches, and, of course, sitting down to exceptional meals.

 

Here are my selections for the best towns, museums, religious sites and food that I encountered in 2016

BEST LARGER TOWN

Albi perches invitingly on the banks of the Tarn River.

 

 

Fortress-like cathedral of Ste. Cécile dominates the skyline of Albi.

 

 

La Barbie Palace, ancestral home of artist Toulouse-Lautrec, is today Albi's Toulouse-Lautrec Museum.

 

 

 

 

BEST MUSEUM

 

This elaborate cenotaph (a tomb that does not contain human remains) honors John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, and his wife, Margaret of Bavaria.

 
 

This facade of Dijon's cathedral, dedicated to St. Beningus, features 51 false gargoyles — false because they are not waterspouts.

 

 

BEST RELIGIOUS BUILDING

 

St. Peter's cathedral, Beauvais, has a vaulted interior that soars more than 160 feet. This is despite the fact that the cathedral was never finished — today it consists only of a transept, a choir and seven radiating chapels. It is noted for its magnificent stained glass.

 

 

BEST B&B

 

The B&B Relais de Tamaroque, with river view.

 

 

Albi, France

In many respects, Albi is the ideal French town. Let me count the ways:

  • It's large enough (pop.: 49,000) to be interesting but not so big as to be intimidating.
  • Its medieval core is a fabulous warren of cobbled lanes and handsome brick architecture.
  • It has an outstanding museum, the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum. The 19th century artist was born in Albi and lived there for much of his life.
  • It is attractively sited on the banks of the Tarn River.
  • Its cathedral, Ste. Cécile, is world class, a church with a story.
  • It sits on the edge of a fine wine region, Gaillac, not well known by Americans but deserving of discovery.
  • It enjoys a mild inland climate and a bustling economy, as well as exceptional cuisine.
  • It is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. 
In September 2016, our group of eight arrived at the very comfortable Hotel St. Antoine on a quiet street in Albi. Though it was a warm day, our rooms were delightfully cool as well as being very comfortable.
 
Albi proved to be fascinating to visit, as well as a fine excursion center for day trips to the lovely hilltop village of Cordes-sur-Ciel and to surprisingly lively Castres for a peek at its Goya Museum, home to paintings by that Spanish artist and others from his country.
 
Also nearby is the ravishing village of St. Antonin-Noble-Val, whose old center was featured in the 2015 film "Hundred-Foot Journey."
 
Even a day of rain didn't dampen our enthusiasm for Albi. We put out time to good use exploring the cathedral, a red-brick monstrosity whose resemblance to a fortress is no accident. Ste. Cécile was built at the end of the 1200s to subdue the local populace, which had indulged in a relgious movement variously called Catharism and the Albigensian Heresy.
 
In the evening, the old center of Albi comes alive as kids play ball in the street, couples stroll through the town and hungry diners check out the offerings at restaurants both simple and chic.
 

Fine Arts Museum, Palais Ducal, Dijon, France

This museum, housed in the splendid Ducal Palace in the heart of old Dijon, is considered one of the finest provincial art museums in France. This is partly due to its encyclopediac collection — from ancient Egyptian objects to 20th century art — and partly because of the splendor of the building, the former seat of the powerful Dukes of Burgundy.

 

For me, the highlight of the visit is the room containing two remarkable cenotaphs (tombs that honor a fallen person but do not contain his or her remains). These incredibly elaborate sculptural creations honor two dukes of Burgundy, Phillip the Bold and John the Fearless, along with John's wife, Margaret of Bavaria.

 

Beyond its Fine Arts Museum, Dijon boasts many other impressive sights. It is a pleasure to wander the streets of the old town, passing many half-timbered buildings, and come upon the public market, Les Halles. This handsome, 19th century building, constructed of iron girders and glass panels and still in use today, was designed by Dijon native Gustave Eiffel, who later went on to design the iconic tower in Paris.

 

Dijon is synonimous with mustard, but only a handful of boutique producers still work here. Most French mustard is mass-produced elsewhere, using mustard seed imported from abroad, chiefly from Canada.

 

 

 

 

St. Peter's Cathedral, Beauvais, France

This entry is a bit of a "ringer" as it was not part of a group visit in 2016. Instead, I made my first-ever trip to Beauvais, around 60 miles northwest of Paris, during a couple of free days between my Provence and French & Swiss Alps tours.
 
Regardless, the cathedral, and the town itself, were quite wonderful. A compact but very attractive pedestrian zone anchors the city center, and just adjacent to the cathedral (you can see its towers in the left side of the photo, on the left) is the atmospheric Departmental Museum of the Oise, housed in an old bishop's palace.
 
The cathedral is resolutely gothic and its vaulted ceiling is reckoned to be the highest of any French gothic cathedral. 

 

Le Relais de Tamaroque, Portel-des-Corbières, France

This is another ringer, as none of my 2016 groups stayed here. Instead, three travelers plus myself stopped over in Portel, a small, winegrowing village a few miles inland from France's southern Mediterranean shore, between tours.
 
We were charmed by the welcome from owners Brigitte and Jean-Luc Coulteaux-Fierens, the peaceful village of Portel, the simple but entirely comfortable rooms and the excellent restaurant next door, Les Terrasses de la Berre. Here, we dined well, and affordably, on a pleasant terrace overlooking the Berre River.

 

 

BEST MEAL, IN THREE PARTS

 

Travelers to France know that complete meals at a restaurant usually involve three courses — starter, main and dessert. In times past (and still today, occasionally),
there is a fourth course, cheese, between the main and the dessert. Our 2016 best meal took place in three parts.

 

Part 1 came at the pretty Atelier des Augustins in Lyon. Here, delectable pieces of poached lobster were arranged in a shallow bowl and sprinkled with crispy croutons, radish coins, green onions and nasturtium petals. Everything was topped with a dollop of crème fouettée (cream beaten into a mousse) with lemon. It was a bit of heaven in the mouth.

 

 

Part 2. What can beat a meal at an honest, street-side bistro in southern France? Very little, I submit. This flavorful hunk of pork belly came with a deeply reduced red wine sauce and tiny vegetables at the Restaurant Gourman-dine,  right next to the Victor Hugo Market in Toulouse. With the market across the street, is there any wonder food at La Gourmandine is fantastically fresh?

 

 

Part 3. This dessert was an ode to spring. It was both intensely flavored and light. Perfect strawberries and mint leaves were interspersed with mini-logs and teardrops of strawberry meringue, while crunchy planks of spun sugar perched atop unctuous puddles of pastry cream. A richly reduced strawberry sauce tied everything together. It was an ideal ending to a dinner at Mas de Fauchon,
in the wilds of western Provence.

 
This elegant hotel-restaurant-spa makes an ideal destination for those seeking peace, quiet and great dining.

 

BONUS MENTIONS, ALSO IN THREE PARTS

 

 

Bonus mention — Best wines of 2016.

 

Hands down the wines I enjoyed the most last year were a yummy red from a reliable producer in Bandol, Château de Pibarnon, and an elegant white from the tiny Château Simone, whose Palette vineyard tops a hill just outside the pretty southern French town of Aix-en-Provence.

 

I admit to being partial to southern French wines, and these two are just about at the top of the list for quality. We enjoyed them at an atmospheric mountain bistro in Annecy, L'Etage. For the quality they were very reasonably priced.

 

 

 

Second bonus — Best simple meal.

 

This flavorful, hearty salad,
enjoyed with a pichet of rosé,
was served at the simple outdoor restaurant Le Sporting, in Vaison-la-Romaine, Provence.

 

It was a nothing-special lunch, but everything worked, from the chewy, bacon-like lardons to the meaty potato chunks and the tangy vinaigrette. Even the tomatoes were flavorful — something that is not always the case in France (or in the U.S., for that matter).

 

The bottle of water on the table reminds me that tap water is always available, at no charge, in any establishment in France that serves food. It's the law!

 

 

 

Final bonus — Table for two.

 

A tie between most heartless diner and hungriest, most pitiful cafe terrace dog.

 

No, the dog did not belong to the diner. It was a local dog, and after striking out with a man who clearly was not in a sharing mood, the dog came over to our table, where it found a more sympathetic welcome.