A Long-Overdue Vacation in France

For several months last year, I talked about planning a vacation but didn’t actually do it, money being a common excuse. After saving up a sizable amount, I finally decided that after a year and a half without any weeks off, it was finally going to happen. I was about to hit a milestone birthday, and damn it, I was burned out and needed–nay, deserved to travel somewhere new and interesting…and also European.

I looked at a lot of different trips. I considered Ireland, as it had been #1 on my places to visit for a long time, but somehow, I didn’t feel that strongly about it. I looked at Croatia and Slovenia, where I could travel for a longer period of time on the same amount I’d pay for maybe a week in Western Europe, and I’d heard lots of great things about the Dalmatian Coast. Then I stumbled on a trip to France. France was top-of-mind because, well, everyone’s always talking about it; a coworker had just been, I encounter people from there at work, it’s a popular destination.

The tour I chose went to Paris, Dijon, Avignon, and Nice, enabling me to see Paris and the Mediterranean in one trip. Paris is supposed to be romantic and magical, with so much rich history, art, and architecture, not to mention the food; I’d seen it in so many movies and tv shows, I wanted to experience it myself. I’m also a sucker for coastal/waterside cities anyway (see also: Sydney, Hobart, Venice), so of course I wanted to see the gorgeous Mediterranean coast.

I planned to travel by myself, but wanted to be on a tour because being on my own in a country where I don’t know the language intimidates me. Sure, lots of people in Europe speak English (nearly everyone I encountered spoke it perfectly), but I wanted to make an effort not to look like a tourist. (I was peeved that after 45 days of trying to learn French on Duolingo, I barely remembered anything.) I also didn’t want to have to plan all the details myself–places to stay, how to get from one city to another on the train, museum passes and tours.

The hotel in Paris was fine, but in the 14th Arrondissement, well outside the most-popular and well-trafficked part of the city (and a ways from all the chocolate shops I had hoped to visit). On our only full day in Paris, we did a bus ride and Seine cruise to see the city’s “greatest hits,” albeit at a distance. I took part in a side trip to the Louvre, as is practically a requirement when in Paris, and we saw some of the more famous paintings and sculptures there (yes, the Mona Lisa is kind of underwhelming), but in two hours, we barely scratched the surface of a place you could easily spend days exploring.

The weather the previous evening had been rough with lots of wind and rain, but we were lucky enough to see sun while we were out that day. That evening, the bad weather returned, with really strong gusts and even more rain–not exactly conducive to seeing the sights. In fact, the Eiffel Tower was closed due to the high winds, which was disappointing (because as much as I didn’t want to look like a tourist, I still wanted to do classic touristy things).

This was the closest I got to the Eiffel Tower. Next time…

The next morning, we stopped at Versailles, which lives up to any hype you’ve heard about it. The grounds are beautiful (I didn’t spend much time out there because the winds were still vicious), and the palace itself is grand and, of course, absolutely enormous.

We arrived in Dijon mid-afternoon and I was immediately struck by how charming and vibrant it was. The hotel was by far the best we stayed in during the trip (my first ever California king bed–whoa), and there were tons of shops, bakeries, bars, and restaurants in town. It’s a very pedestrian-friendly city with a tram and tiny electric buses to get around in (smaller than a minivan). There was a lot to see and do right by the hotel, such as a nice park the next block over, two movie theaters within a couple of blocks (one immediately next to the hotel), as well as a small grocery, a restaurant/hookah bar, and a great empanada place where I had both Argentine- and French-inspired empanadas. (It would have been more appropriate to have beef Burgundy–when in Burgundy–but I never say no to empanadas.) I also was lucky enough to find a local outpost of one of the chocolate shops I had missed in Paris, and I was not disappointed. (Those chocolate-covered hazelnuts didn’t stand a chance, and as I write this, I am finishing the rich and exquisite barre infernale noire.) This was a place I wish we’d stayed for more than 15 hours.

The next morning we had the longest bus ride on our way to Avignon. On our way, we stopped at Pont du Gard, a 2000-year-old Roman aqueduct, which I’ll admit didn’t interest me much. But when we got there, the scenery blew me away. Plus, any structure that’s two millenia old is really impressive when you think about it.

Avignon had some interesting aspects (a bridge that mysteriously ends in the middle of a body of water, walls around the city, briefly being home to a pope), but the city didn’t feel as intriguing or inviting as Dijon. My tourmates who went out for dinner that night actually said that the city had a sketchy vibe. (I ate so many snacks at an optional wine tasting in Chateauneuf-de-Pape that I didn’t go out for dinner that night…)

Nice, of course, made a huge impression immediately as we drove in. The sun was shining over the azure water as throngs of people walked along the boardwalk or lounged on the stony beach. The city was busy, perhaps because they were preparing for the Carnaval parade two days later (had I known, I might have extended my stay another day so I could have been there for it). The weather was gorgeous (sunny and 60s), perfect for extensive walking along the boardwalk and exploring the shops and huge market that Friday, where you could buy spices, prepared or even made-on-the-spot food, flowers, tchotchkes, and vegetables.

I also went on side excursions to Monaco and St Paul de Vence while in Nice. Monaco was fun, and we did some gambling; those who went to the fancy casino were disappointed that it was so expensive to get in, and then there was hardly anyone there! One of my tourmates won a bunch of money at the less-expensive casino. St Paul de Vence is a small hilltop enclave with fantastic views of the water, the Alps, and the valley below, as well as loads of art galleries. Definitely worth a visit.

It was a great trip, and as one of my tourmates said, it gave us a great taste of what France has to offer. I think it’s important to note too that I never felt judged for being an American tourist in France; I spoke very little French, but I never felt looked down on for it. I have had a couple of people suggest that I could pass for French or European, but I also had one guy in Paris look at me and immediately start speaking English, so who knows. I have zero regrets about the good food I ate while there (I can’t look at American bread the same way anymore, and I miss eating loads of bread, chocolate croissants, and Nutella at breakfast every morning), and it’s hard not to love a place with bakeries everywhere, many of which also sell chocolates.

Would I go back to France? Absolutely. Am I already planning my next trip back? No. I did enjoy it, but I didn’t feel some strong and immediate affection for it like I did Australia, Italy, or Iceland. There are a ton of things I would still love to see and do, especially in Paris, and I didn’t get enough time to really get a feel for the city. I’ll definitely go back…at some point.

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