May/June, 2017, Tour of France Castles, Chateaux, Wineries, Regions, and Nor many Beaches

Karen and I were joined with very good friends Mike and Diane (“Di”) for a trip to France in May to tour the Normandy beaches and WWII memorials, and then to tour a spectrum of the great French wine regions. It was a great trip that we all researched and booked on our own (not a tour or an agency booking). We landed at DeGaulle, which is Northeast of Paris and essentially made a wide circle around France. We rented a car, which Di and I took turns driving, a Peugeot 3008 SUV. The first part of the tour was to visit the Normandy D-Day memorials from WWII, but the rest of the trip was to learn about and celebrate the great wine regions of France. Throughout the trip, the weather was exceptional — warm, sunny, and without precipitation. We couldn't ask for better. We went in late May so the crowds were not as intense as they can get later on.

The France WWII and Wine Tour



Bayeux, Normandy

Upon our arrival at Paris DeGaulle, about 20 miles (32 km) NE of Paris, we rented the car and began our drive to Bayeux. Bayeux is about 10 km from the English Channel and, therefore, the Normandy Beaches, and is the perfect location from which to tour the area of the Normandy D-Day landings of World War II. These landings were of the American forces at Utah and Omaha Beaches, the British forces at Juno and Gold Beaches, and the Canadian forces at Sword Beach. Over 150,000 solders were involved in the landings, which resulted in an Allied beachhead and entry into Nazi held Europe from the Western side, but at a horrendous cost of over 4,400 dead Allied troop in the assault.

We arrived at Grand Hotel du Luxemburg in Bayeux for a two night stay.It is a wonderful, ancient & updated small hotel in the center of town, walking distance to everything. Having landed in the early AM, we arrived with plenty of time to explore. First we had lunch at a charming little cafe al fresco.

Below: Mike & Di and Chuck & Karen at lunch in Bayeux:
Mike & Di Chuck & Karen

That afternoon we took a look at the Notre Dame Cathedral Bayeux, which was consecrated in the presence of William the Conquoror, the Duke of Normandy and the King of England. Then we walked down to the beautiful water wheel on the River Aure, which runs through Bayeux, and toured the Tapisserie de Bayeux, which features a 70 meter tapestrie from the 11th century showing the history of William the Conqueror. We stopped for dinner at Le Moulin de la Galette and had the best crepes.

Below: Notre Dame Bayeux; and a crepe from Le Moulin de la Gatette:
Notre Dame A crepe!

Below: The Bayeux’s Water Wheel on River Aure:
River Aure Water Wheel

And that was just the first day! The second morning in Bayeux we were picked up by a private tour (Viator) by a guide with a small van for our Normandy tour. What a tour it was! We stopped at the American Airborne Museum at my request. It shows the valor of the 101st and 82nd Airborne units ahead of the beach landings. It includes the church where an airborne trooper was caught on the steeple and then shot by the Nazi’s. I had special interest because I spent some of my army time with the 101st, and its lore is legendary.

We then visited Omaha Beach. Omaha was an American Army landing, located between Utah (also American) and Gold (British landing). This landing was where over 45,000 American solders backed by two battleships and a half-dozen other warships, plus about 1,000 small craft to land, sought to secure a beachhead. The Americans from Rangers and V Corps Infantry, under General Omar Bradley, had to try to gain the beach and the 150-foot cliffs under the withering fire of the bunker-based Germans. Once landed, there was nowhere to go but forward to the cliffs, since Omaha Beach was enclosed by rocky cliffs on either end. We toured the German bunkers, which had six to eight feet of concrete surfaces and were dug deep into the cliffs, armed with MG.42 heavy machine guns, firing 7.92 x 57 mm rifle rounds at 1200 rounds per minute. There were hundreds of these, with maybe five firing at any particular infantry location. We went deep into bunkers, which survived the massive pre-attack bombing by the Allies. The bomb crators around the bunkers were massive, surviving to today. Karen stood in one crater and it was the size of a suburban house.

Below: An example of a bunker; and Karen in a bomb crater - over 70 years post-creation:
Bunker Crater

We followed Omaha with tour of Utah Beach, the western-most of all five D-Day beaches. Rangers had to scale the cliffs in the face of the German machine gun bunkers, but got the job done. The major part of the Utah Beach landing was secure the port at Cherbourgh, but the Germans destroyed the port and it wasn't functional for several months. The airborne (101st leading the way along with the 82nd) dropped 14,000 troops, and 2,500 of them did not survive.

Below: The short beach and steep cliffs of Utah; and the Obelisk at Pointe du Hoc:
Cliffs Pointe du Hoc

The big reason to come to Nor many is to pay honor to those who served and payed the ultimate price to protect our way of life. One cannot adequately describe the moving experience of visiting the American Cemetary and Memorial. There are over 9,300 graves of American military personnel participating in the Normandy invasion. The place is somber, respectful, and strangely beautiful. It was on my bucket list of things that must be done, and I am thankful to have the privilege to visit this place to honor the fallen.

Below: Entrance to American Cemetary with “Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Waves”; and a section of the graves:
Entrance

Below: Wall of names of the fallen; and the plan of attack:
Names Plan of Attack

Below is the grave of the father of my very good and dear friend, John Zaleski. John’s father was killed in the invasion when John was yet to be born:
Zaleski



Tours, Loire Valley

We drove from Bayeux south toward Tours in the beautiful Loire Valley. But along the way we stopped at the spectacular Mont St-Michel, an island monestary and fortress from the 8th century. The island is just 600 meters from the mainland, allowing access during low tide, but offering protection from assailants during high tide. It was, for example, not conquored during the Hundred Years War, successfully repelling an English attack in 1433. We parked on the mainland, as required, and walked on a boardwalk to the island. Upon entry, one climbs and climbs and climbs up a steep cobblestone walkway with stairs intersperced at really steep sections. Along the way, particularly near the bottom, there are many little shops and restaurants. The most famous restaurant is La Mere Poulard, which has many off-shoots with different names and lower prices. We ate lunch at Restaurant Terresses Poulard along climb down and out.

At the top of Mont St-Michel is a monestary and its abbey, then below it are the great halls, then below that are locations for storage and workings, and finally, the entrance level and around it, places for the local fishermen and peasants. The whole of the structure is fortress-like and unbelievably impressive. If ever you are in northern or western France, you must visit this unique place, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Below: Approaching Mont St-Michel; and The Cathedral at the top:
View of Mont St-Michel Cathedral

Below: Mike and Di in front of Mont St-Michel; and Chuck and Karen, same:
Mike & Di Chuck & Karen

Below: Great Room example 1; and Great Room example 2:
Great Room 1 Great Room 2

Below: Did I mention stairs?:
Stairs

We made it to Tours, and a wonderful experience it was throughout. We rented a VRBO on Rue de Boisdenier, which we loved. It was centrally located across from a lovely park (Jarden des Prèbendes d’Oe). Not much from the outside, but brand new and just right for us inside, and the best location to tour around. We were met there by Caroline, who graciously brought us coffee and croissant when we awoke in the morning.

Below: the apartment building; and our living room:
VRBO VRBO LR

Dinner in Tours at Restuarant Le Staint Germain; Mike and me very happy at dinner:
St Germain Dinner

In the morning we talked through the park to the market area and bought fixings for lunch: wine, cheese, bread, fruit. It is the kind of ideal lunch you find in France. At the same time Mike and Di spent engrossed in the Tours Cathedral (“Cathédrale Saint-Gatien de Tours), which was built in the twelve century.

Below: Karen in the park across from our apartment in Tours; and the Tours Cathedral:
Karen Cathedral

That afternoon we walked up to the Tourism Office to get picked up by our tour guide in her van for our private tour and tastings. As we drove along the Loire River we were able to see several large chateaux on the hilltops. Our first stop was at a small chateau who name I cannot remember and neglected to write down. It is owned and run by a couple from England, and they operate as a B&B, tasting cellar, small vineyard, and other fun things for them to do, and who delighted us with their tour and tastings. The tastings were every educational.

Below: Chateau along the Loire River; the small chateau for the tastings:
Loire River Chateau The small chateau

Below: Karen and me in the courtyard:
Us in the courtyard

The Loire Valley is home of the Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir wines in the northmost part, and Chenin blanc and Cabernet Franc wines in the mid section. Vouvrays, Chenin Blanc and other fine wines also come from this region. Mostly the Loire Valley wines are white wines; some are rose. We went to for another private tasting at the home of Sebastian, the Count du Petit Thouars, of the wines he grows and bottles. He gave us a tour of his vineyards. He was an exceptional host, providing us with a feast of hors d'Oeurves to cleans our palates between generous tastings. This was another exceptional experience.

Below: The Chateau du Petit Thouars; and its vineyards:
Chateau du Petit Thouars Karen

Below: Karen and me; and Mike and Di at Chateau du Petit Thouar:
Us Mike and Di

The next day we spent touring Chateaux in the Loire Valley. We visited and toured three amazing Chateaux. The first was Chateau de Chenonceau, which spans the River Cher. The Chateau was built in the early 16th century and it is most visited in France second only to the Palace of Versailles. It actually spans the entire river and by walking end to end, one crosses the river. It was damaged by bombing by both the Allies and the Axis during WWII, but was reonstructed to its former glory by Gaston Menier of the famous chocolate family.

Below: The magnificent Chateau de Chenonceau; A garden at the Chateau:
Chateau de Chenonceau Gardens

Below: Karen and me in front of the Chateau; and Mike and Di:
Us Mike and Di

Next up was Chateau de Chambord from the era of Francis I in the first half of the 15th century. It is the largest chateau in the Loire valley, and is surrounded by magnificent gardens created during the reign of Louis XIV and Louis XV in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Below: Chateau de Chambord; an example of the stairs found throughout
Chateau de Chambord Stairs

Below: Karen and me: at Chambord; and one of many tapestries and furnishings (notice the detail):
Us Tapestry

We ended the tour with Amboise Chateau Royal, 15th and 16th century buildings in the style of “Early French Renaissance”. The is where all the Valois and Bourbon kings lived. It is an area populated since the Neolithic, and became the main settlement of the Celtic Turones. The first fortifications were build in the 4th century. The king of the Franks, Clovis, met the king of the Visigoths, Alaric, at this site. It’s control was heavily disputed throughout the medieval period. Then in 1214 the King of France, Phillipe Auguste, captured Touraine (this area) and the Lords of Amboise became his vassals. There is much more history than I can do justice to, but it is full of intrique, rivalry, and dispute. And it is a beautiful place to tour

Below: Amboise Chateau Royal view of the town; and the main chateau from the wall;
Amboise - Town From Above View of the main chateau

All in all, the Loire Valley was a great start to our wine tasting tour, with visits to many spectacular Chateaux. Now off to the next wine region.



Dijon, Burgundy

We drove to Burgundy, and visited many of the wine-making towns in the region. Some of the more well-known towns in the region are:

  • Auxerre
  • Beaune
  • Dijon
  • Mâcon
  • Le Creusot
  • Nevers
  • Vougeot

This is wine heaven and wine-tasting nirvana. Everywhere you go, every village and town, there are the famous wine commune of the area. A wine commune simply means “wine village”. Each label clearly indicates where the grapes were grown and is classified as to quality. I will forego further description of that in favor of talking about our experiences. But I will say that all Burgundy red wines are 100% from Pinot Noir grapes. White Burgundies, however, are from Chardonney grapes. Beaujolais are from mostly Gamay Noir grapes, and are lighter than red Burgundies, and Chablis are mostly Chardonney, but these two types, while formally in the Burgandy region, are usually refered to as being in their own sub-region. Oh, it gets much more complicated - especially when you’ve been tasting wines all day.

We stayed in Dijon in a very nice Hotel du Chapeaux Rouge on Rue Michelet, right in the heart of Dijon, where we walked to dinner and sites within the town. After our arrival, we toured the area, sat in a setting off the lobby and drank some wine (of course) and later we walked down to the L’Emile Brochettes for dinner. Outdoors was packed so we sat inside in what looked like a cave, but the food was good and we enjoyed the experience.

Below: Hotel Rouge; and an the lobby
Hotel Rouge interior

Below: l’Emile Brochettes; and inside:
Brochettes Inside

Dijon is a charming town, but much larger than the surrounding villages. We enjoyed walking around, touring the city. The city streets seem to wander around and driving proved to be pretty confusing - though we always eventually found our way. Not that meandering was a chore; more like a pleasure to see more of Dijon.

Below: Karen at the Place Darcy (Darcy Square) in the center of Dijon; and Di at the Jardin Darcy a reproduction of the Pompon White Bear of the Musée d'Orsay:
Karen at Arch Di with Bear

In the morning we set about touring the Burgandy region once again. We stopped, for example, in Vougeot and saw the Domaine Bertagna vineyard, and in the village, we visited their shop for a tasting. They have 18 different appellations of which five are Grand Crus and seven are Premiers Crus. The vineyard is near the famous Château de Clos de Vougeot.

Below: Domaine Bertagna; the 4 of us at a tasting in the Bertagna shop:
Bertagna Tasting

Below: the Bartagna Vineyard entrance:
Vineyard

We drove through many charming villages in the wine making department of Côte-D’Or in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region in eastern France. That is a mouthful to say, but they are about 15 km south of Dijon on the road between Beaune and Dijon, just off the N74 road.

One place that we stopped and walked around was Gevrey-Chambertin, a wine commune that is known for its Grand cru Burgundy wine, produced from its vineyards. Chambertin is the most famous of these. We stopped for a tasting and a tour of the shop of Philippe Leclerc, and were shown a large cellar, some very interesting surroundings in the museum and the shop. Then our tasting began. We tasted quite a number of truly outstanding Gevrey-Chambertin Cru les Champeaux, and we ordered two dozen of these very fine wines to be shipped home. When they finally arrived (they would not ship them when it was very warm out), we were thrilled.

Below: Philippe Leclerc showroom; and the wine vault (photos from his website):
Philippe Leclerc The vault

Below: Domaine Philippe Leclerc Champeaux, Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru (photo is from the Philippe Leclerc website):
Domaine Philippe Leclerc Champeaux, Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru

On our last evening in Dijon we walked a several blocks to Rue Monge for a very nice dinner at Grill Le Sauvauge. Everything is cooked over a flaming grill and they serve very good Burgundy wines. We sat al fresco in a beautiful street setting. Every table was taken, but we were fortunate to get a great table just as we arrived. Great dinner; great last evening in Dijon.

Below: Image of al fresco area of Restaurant le Sauvage in Dijon:
Le Sauvage



Reims, Champagne

We drove the A5 and A26 to Reims (pronounced like "rance", with the particular nasal tone of the French language - a tough thing for non-French to correctly pronounce) in the Champagne region. Reims is a little over 300 km directly north of Dijon, about 130 km northeast of Paris. It was founded by the Gauls “Remi” tribe in the century B.C. French kings were crowned at its Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims for over a thousand years. The cathedral is known for its stained-glass windows and Gothic carved portals, including the ‘Smiling Angel” (more about this to come).

We stayed at Hôtel de La Paix on rue Buirette. It is a thoroughly modern hotel in a historic city, located very near many things to do and see. The other hotels we have stayed in during this trip were quaint and much a part of their location, but we traded that for location and convenience this time. It was a good experience and a very good modern European hotel. The broad street in front and the relative organization of the town was quite different from Dijon. At intersections there were squares and parks along the way. Many of the buildings were historic, many were more modern, and all were kept up. Reims is a good place to explore. Mostly, besides the history, one remembers the Champagne. Oh, the champagne!

Below: The Hôtel de La Paix in Reims; and the street outside our hotel:
Hotel de La Paix Street outside hotel

Below: Around the corner from the hotel, the opera; and a nearby colorful building:
Opera Colorful Building

Below: A sculpture in the square a few doors from our hotel; and a fountain on the block:
Sculpture Fountain

Below: Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims; and inside the cathedral:
Cathedral Inside

We toured the G. H. Mumm & Cie., better known as Mumm Champagne. This was an unbelievable tour that we were privileged to receive. At every step, our guide educated us extensively on the history, grapes and vineyards, process and storage. Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay grapes are used in the production of almost all Champagne, but a tiny amount of pinot blanc, pinot gris, arbane, and petit meslier are also vinified. Champagne is made through a process requiring a secondary fermentation, to get the cabonization (bubbles) that we all know. Real Champagne is made only in France, only in the Champagne prefecture, and only from grapes grown in specific appelations (specific geographic locations). It is all very tightly defined and controlled by the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée. Other sparkling wines are sometimes mistakenly called Champagne, when they are in reality something else. For example, in Italy, they have Prosecco. Enough of this definition.

We saw highly stacked bottles awaiting maturity. We saw a demonstration of the turning process, called Riddling or Remuage. We saw the immense cave, a mile long and full of champagne. And then we had a tasting, featuring some of their premium Champagnes. Champagnes come in several types, mostly non-vintage. At the top is the cuvée de prestige, the proprietor’s best. There are many others, but some major categories are blanc de noir, blanc de blanc, and rosé. Critical to choosing a champagne is its sweetness: (from driest to sweetest) Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec, and Doux. It all depends on how much sugar remains in the bottle when sold.

Below: The G.H. Mumm entrane on Rue du Champs de Mer; and the immense cave:
Mumm Entrance Mumm Cave

Below: The various bottle sizes; and the turning room:
Bottle Sizes Mumm Turning Room

Below: The ancient Champagne storage room; and the four of us tasting the Champagne:
Mumm Entrance Mumm Tasting

In Reims, we visited the WWII HQ of Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). At end WWII in Europe, here General Eisenhower and the Allies received the unconditional surrender of the German Wehrmacht in Reims, at 2:41 on the morning of 7 May 1945. General Alfred Jodl, German Chief-of-Staff, signed the surrender. The war in Europe was finally over. The SHAEF HQ is in tact and is spine-chilling. You can read the orignal papers and visit the rooms where it all happened. What a moment!

Below: A panorama of the table where the surrender happened and was signed and the actually surrender document:
SHAEF
The Surrendeer Doc

We drove over to Épernay, the real champagne capital, home of the headquarters of many of the great “maisons de champagne”. These include:

  • Moët and Chandon, and its 1919century Hôtel Chandon
  • Perrier-Jouët and its red-brick château
  • Mercier
  • Esterlin
  • Comtesse Lafond
  • Boizel
  • De Venoge

If you are looking for Dom Pérignon, it is a product of Moët and Chandon. Contrary to popular beliefs, Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon did not create the first champagnes. Madam Clicquot created the first champagne in 1805, I am told. Don’t forget that Veuve Clicquot vineyards surround the village of Bouzy, near Reims. We did not visit Bouzy, but Veuve continues to be my very favorite champagne.

Below: Épernay Avenue de Champagne, literaly lined end to end with the headquarters and principal production facilities of key champagne producers:
Epernay Avenue de Champagne

Below: Signposts in Épernay pointing to the Aveneu de Champagne; and Chuck at an appropriate sign:
Signposts Keep Calm

Below: Perrier-Jouët headquarters; and Perrier-Jouët tasting room:
HQ Tasting Room

Below: A glass of champagne at a tasting at Perrier-Jouët; and Karen raises a glass after a lot of touring:
Glass Karen

Our last evening in Reims, we walked around the corner on Place Drouet d'Erlon to Lapostophe, and dined al fresco. With a fine champagne, of course! A great and pleasant evening in a lovely spot.

Below: Chuck & Karen at Lapostrophe; and Mike and Di:
At Lapostrophe Lapostrophe

And so, on to Paris, or rather, a hotel near Charles De Gaulle Airport. Or so we thought.



Paris

Our original plan was to drive to Verdun after Reims to see the site of one of the longest battles in military history: The Battle of Verdun in 1916 during World War 1. It was a horrific example of “war by attrition” resulting in massive losses on both sides (French and German). But, we concluded that the drive was too long and opted to go directly to the airport in preparation of our early afternoon flight home. That was the plan, then.

We stayed at the Paris Marriott Charles de Gaulle Airport Hotel on Allee du Verger in Roissy. Unimportant aside: we choose Marriotts when we trave because of our “Lifetime Platinum Elite” status that automatically upgrades us and provides a number of goodies, even when we choose the cheapest room, and Marriotts are generally outstanding hotels. This one is very convenient to the airport, which is about 32 km from Paris.

Below: the Paris Marriott Charles de Gaulle Airport Hotel; and its lobby:
Marriott Lobby

So, we arrive, and we take the shuttle train into Paris and we split up. Mike and Di choose to tour the Paris catacombs, an ossuary where over six million remains (skeletons) were placed in the tunnels leading from Barrière d’Enfer ("Gate of Hell"). While they found this interesting, Karen and I didn’t want our last images of the trip to be so, well, macabre. We opted for a boat tour of the River Seine. What a tour it was! And open boat, sparsley populated, with a charming guide describing all that we passed. It was a beautiful sunny day - could not have been better.

Below: Tour guide explaining the sites; and Chuck pointing at the Eiffel Tower:
Tour guide Eiffel Tower

Below: The tour boat; and Karen enjoying the Seine ride and scenes:
boat Beautiful Karen on Beautiful Seine

After the boat tour we stopped for a drink at Cafe Bords de Seine on Quai de la Megisserie at Place du Châtelet. We sat on a slightly elevated terrace over the sidewalk and had a fantastic view of both the Seine and the street. Then we hired a taxi for the ride back to the airport hotel to meet up once again with Mike and Di.

Below: The beautiful Quai de la Megisserie; and Cafe Bords de Seine:
Street Cafe Bords de Seine

Below: Chuck at cafe enjoying a wine: Karen at cafe:
Chuck at cafe Karen at cafe

We slept, got up, packed, had breakfast, and shuttled to the plane.



Trip Summary

If you conclude that we drank a lot of wine on this tour, you would be correct - but it was still primarily a tour. We landed NE of Paris and made an automobile trip circling the countryside. We went all the way west to the Normandy beaches on the English Channel, all the way south to the Loire Valley white wine country, all the way east to the Burgundy country, and then north to the Champagne region. All along the way we stopped at great and small chateaux, received informative tours, and spent a lot of time and interest in the historical sites - most especially Normandy. Finally, we stopped in at Paris for a final fine day before returning home.

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