Pilgrimage to France: Part 1

When Charles and I travel there are certain parameters that must be met. Scenery should be compelling; there should be history, art and culture, and things to be learned, we need to walk, and I need a place, if at all possible, that has a pool so I can swim, and finally, the food should be excellent, whether a Michelin starred restaurant or a street café. Other factors such as meeting people add to the mix for a great holiday.

This summer Canada celebrated its 150th anniversary, and it was also the 100th anniversary of the capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadian forces during World War 1. Charles felt bound to go to France and see the monument at Vimy, and perhaps also to visit Juno Beach, the site in Normandy where the Canadians landed in World War 2. He loves reading war history, and this time he attacked the Pierre Berton book called Vimy, as well as the Tim Cook book on the same subject, and for an easier, fictional portrayal, but wonderfully moving, The Stone Carvers, by Jane Urquart, a book that I adored. Then I began to plan our French pilgrimage.

I always start by figuring out the dates and how I would get there from Toronto. Ten days seemed about right on paper and fit into our summer plans in August. Then I book flights, usually on Air Canada, after that I book places to stay, private tour guides, where to eat. This takes me a goodly amount of time that I enjoy. I used to do this by purchasing Frommers Guide or Fodors, both brilliantly now online, or other travel books, dig out a map of France of the specific region, or purchase a Michelin map, and check out the Red Guide, but now the internet is the best source with reviews of hotels on places like Trip Advisor, photos, offers, prices, and it is just plain fun to plan, albeit sometimes frustrating, and time consuming.

I decided we would fly into Paris, and rent a car on points. It seems that is all I often get from points is a rental car, but it can be a very good deal. Avis is the rental choice for Aeroplan miles so we lined up with a few other passengers, and waited and waited and waited to rent our reserved car. Now the only positive thing about this experience was that we met some interesting people and their families, and I listened to their travel adventures. We became fast friends during the hour and a half that we stood in line. The French bureaucracy was already in force. The other time we waited this long to pick up a reserved rental car was last year in Italy. May be it is a Europe thing. The car turned out to be just fine, and we headed out of the airport toward Chantilly where I had chosen a hotel for our first two nights.

After an overnight flight I like to have a nap, explore the area, eat some lunch, and relax before we start to tour seriously the next day. Now I chose a hotel that was somewhat on the way to our planned destination of Vimy, but not too long a drive from the airport as Charles needed to get familiar with the car, and the roads. In the early days of our travel I would have the maps highlighted sitting on my lap, and start to navigate. If we didn’t fight when we came to some small-unnamed French road, we would frequently arrive at our chosen destination without too much fuss.

Now it is different. The address is downloaded when we are in Wi-Fi range into Google maps on Charles’ phone.  I always book an overseas cellular plan for our phones. Once we find a place to prop the phone, the bags are stowed, one medium size each, and one small carry-on, I set the thermostat, Google girl is ready, and we are taken to our first hotel, the absolutely stunning Auberge de Jeu du Paume. I did my research and found that it has a small pool, gorgeous surroundings in a park like setting, and if you go to the hyperlink, I think our room with small terrace is pictured. It is part of the Relais et Chateaux group of properties which sets a certain reliable standard. There is also a one Michelin starred restaurant.

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flowers in our lovely room at Auberge de Jeu du Paume 

The nicest words that I like to hear when I arrive at a hotel after a long flight is, ’Your room is ready’. Indeed it was, and someone had put a gorgeous bouquet of flowers on a small table. We lunched simply in a small charming space off the bar with a light salad for me accompanied by rosé, ( I never drink at lunch except on holiday) and Charles chose scrumptious onion soup. Fortified, we walked into the small town of Chantilly. It was very very hot and I knew I didn’t have the right tops for my pants or even the right pants. I always check the temperatures before we go, but this heat was a surprise for everyone in the town. Nevertheless, we returned to our room, settled in for a nap and put the air on.

Dinner was a simple affair as we both chose appetizers in the casual terrace restaurant; I had the vitello tonnato that was cold and delicious, Charles, some shrimp carpaccio. The wines by the glass were a superb Chablis for me, and a Pomerol for Charles. We knew we were in France when the wines by the glass are special. The waiters seemed surprised that we were only eating two starters or entrées as they call them, but nevertheless as professionals, served us beautifully. For us, it is always better to eat lightly the first dinner after a long flight and the time change.

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lunch near the terrace garden

After a good night’s rest we always experience some jet lag. I woke to go for a swim in the very tiny pool. Fine if it was just me, but the second morning there were about 8 people. I doggedly did my lengths, I swim to time rather than distance; i.e. for 30 minutes non-stop then it doesn’t matter how far I swim, if that makes any sense. At any rate, I always feel refreshed and ready to start the day no matter where I am.

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lanterns of an older time

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shops on the main street of Chantilly

Our plan was to visit the famed Chateau de Chantilly, a massive, exquisite structure, complete with moat and enormous grounds, which were crowded with masses of people this particular Saturday morning, doing a triathlon for charity. Children and prams were everywhere and lots of spectators. We headed for the castle and toured the main extravagant rooms filled with art, sculptures and magnificent period furniture. I urge you to check out the hyperlinks as well as my photos.

Chateau de Chantilly and crowds at triathlon

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gorgeous rooms at the castle including incredible library

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one example of precious art 

Outside I watched a bit of the triathlon. I love to see the runners doff their clothes and leap into the dirty river, swim their required laps, and then hop on bicycles. It is quite an amazing feat, but soon gets boring watching, so we headed over to the Museum of Horses or Le Musée du Cheval. This proved to be a fascinating visit as the history of horses as well as all sorts of horse paraphernalia like seats to weigh jockeys, old carousels, and a stable of live horses were housed there. Naturally after this hour long venture we had worked up an appetite and decided to head into town in the hope that the centre square still had the marché or market on. I adore markets in small French towns. I like to see the food stalls, the clothing, look at the people, everything, but alas that would have to wait. Most markets are on Saturdays, some on Wednesdays, and occasionally you can find a rare one on a Sunday.

horse museum with old carousel horses

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scale to weigh jockey from another era
dessert and some frolicking men after a stag walking down the main street

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Chantilly is very horse oriented , this one in the lobby of the Auberge

We were too late, but not too late to eat at an outdoor café on the shady side of the street. It was so hot, that as fashion conscious as I am, I borrowed one of Charles t-shirts, way too large, and stunning of course if your eyesight was failing, but cooler than my top. And nobody cared. I should mention that everywhere we went we walked. We try to stash the car when we arrive at our destination and walk as much as possible. At this point we realized that Charles had forgotten to pack a hat, but we figured he would easily find a replacement baseball cap somewhere. Not so easy as it turned out. Lunch was a traditional quiche at a charming tea shop. Then back to our room with balcony doors ajar, we read and napped in anticipation of an excellent evening meal in the hotel’s restaurant La Table du Connétable, a well-deserved Michelin Star experience.

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rouget with spiky delicious crispy skin

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appetizer on the rocks

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slightly cooked oyster with tiny perfect vegetables

Dinner was quite extraordinary in an elegant room with lovely windows. They presented me with a copy of the menu to take away, but the taste is always hard to replicate in words, even though I try. The presentation of the food on the plates was beautiful. There were many  small courses, and an unusual amuse bouche set on stones. The highlight among highlights was the main course of red mullet (sounds better in French-rouget) the skin had been deep fried and stood up all crunchy and spiky with lots of attitude. Delicious! Dessert of chocolate soufflé was superb. We also sampled the cheeses from the chariot, and drank a goodly amount of wine.

There were many French and British people in the dining room savouring their meals. We got a few pictures and one that is particularly amusing, as you will see. I handed the waiters my iphone, and they took a picture of themselves rather than us, as they pushed the reverse button. I was also very impressed when the headwaiter came over and announced that the meal for me would be low salt and Charles would have no beets. I thought how incredibly prescient he was, then I remembered that when I booked by email months before, I had been asked about our preferences. Ironically, when they placed our dishes after this discussion, the one with beets (I love them) they gave to Charles. We laughed when they realized their mistake. They were a tad embarrassed.

waiters inadvertently taking a picture of themselves and then properly of us

Bed, sated, and we were ready for the next day’s adventure heading north to the Pas de Calais where our friends lived. Now some history. Thirty years ago we were asked to house a young man from France for the summer. At the time our three boys were pre-teens, and Laurent was 18, and his family wanted him to learn English. He arrived and was very shy, but quite charming and eager to please. He didn’t own a pair of jeans, and his underwear was ironed to perfection. He was polite, and brought me a beautiful Hermès scarf, which I still have and cherish, although at the time I didn’t know what Hermès was. His English was almost non-existent. He also had a day job working for friends who knew his parents and who arranged our involvement.

On weekends we went to our chalet in Collingwood and it was there that he became part of the family and grew close to our sons. It was also there that his hunger overrode his table politeness and he finally ate as much as the boys. A lobster dinner did it when he happily finished everyone’s leftovers and we nick-named him poubelle, in French, or trash can in English. We also learned then that Laurent had a wonderful sense of humour and love of life. He returned a second summer as our fourth son, and we rented a houseboat and travelled on the Rideau Canal system and had a jolly time. An extraordinary amount of food was consumed by all. Swimming, laughter, horseplay and good friendships developed.

We were all invited to visit his family in France and we went the next summer.  Now Laurent’s family is part of the French aristocracy/nobility and although that ended formally in the 1800’s the families still honour their ancestry. Anyone with a ‘de’ in their name is part of that history. Laurent’s name or at least part of it is Laurent de Saulieu O’toole de la Chamonerie, At any rate his father, Patrice, is a viscount which makes Laurent a viscount and his mother, Chantal, is a princess. If you can read French and check out the hyperlink of the name, it is interesting to see their genealogy. When we met the family they lived in a crowded Paris apartment, crowded because there were five children, and an aggregation of gorgeous antique furniture. They had recently purchased their dream Chateau in Pas de Calais and were restoring it. We all stayed with them at the chateau, which was indeed a work in progress.

When we asked Laurent how many windows there were as he was assigned to wash them, he shrugged in that Gallic way, and said 500 perhaps. There were cows wandering in the field in front, and they had a room on the main floor for us with a recently installed tin shower because dear Laurent had told them we like to bathe everyday. They bought cereal for the boys and plenty of ice cream and rented a large van called a Renault Espace to transport all of us. Their five children and our three got along despite the lack of common language. The boys slept upstairs and managed to lock the door to their room, but assisted by Chantal we found a secret passage and were able to retrieve them.

The families posing in front of chateau and before trip to Belgium circa 1989

Scan 1

Scan 3Meals were full of amusement and laughter. We even were taken to Bruges in Belgium to visit a cousin of Chantal, the Prince Antoine de Ligne, who had a glorious large castle that offered tours to the public, and he slept in the luxurious stables, all to cover the taxes on the property. We enjoyed each other’s company, although Charles and I soon learned that the people in the small village of Grand-Rullecourt were very formal. The de Saulieu chateau was named for the village. Chateau de Grand Rullecourt, and as glamorous as it was it needed a great deal of work, and a new roof to the tune of 300,000 euros I believe. When we visited friends there or when they visited us I was expected to wear a skirt. Fortunately, I had packed one, albeit a mini-skirt, as we were travelling casually with young boys.

There was one dinner I recall that was just for adults. The local priest attended, and one of the oldest women in the village, who was quite hard of hearing, and who sat beside Charles, much to his delight. It was formal and exhausting as French was the only language spoken. Once during the meal, Charles and I escaped briefly to another room, chattered in English, and then returned to the dinner table. It was all a memorable experience.

I corresponded with Chantal over the years, and we saw Laurent and his bride once in Paris, but it has been 28 years since we had last seen Chantal and Patrice, and here we were heading north to spend three days in the Pas de Calais with their son, or so we thought. The night before we were to leave I received an email from Marie-Caroline, Laurent’s wife, to say they would not be able to be at their summer home in Pommera where we were supposed to stay, and would we go to his parent’s chateau instead. They would see us at dinner the following evening. Okay.

After we left Chantilly we decided to stop en route in Amiens, visit the famed cathedral, which was immense, and have lunch so we wouldn’t arrive at our friend’s hungry. I may have mentioned this in previous blogs, but I like to visit Catholic churches large and small and light a candle in front of the Madonna in memory of my daughter, Carrie, even though I am not Catholic, this gives me solace. Lunch was outdoors and fine. We were stalling a bit, as we were excited and nervous, but knew we had to get in our car and go. With the help of google girl we found our way to the village of Grand Rullecourt and truly hoped we were expected.

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the impressive majestic Cathedral at Amiens and Madonna

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I will relate all about our visit in Part Two of our Pilgrimage to France.

I hope you will join me on our adventure with our old friends, and of course the visit to Vimy that was fast approaching.

Au revoir,

Riki

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