By Scott Wittet
For Northwest Asian Weekly
Among European countries, perhaps driving in France is the easiest for Americans. Unlike in the UK, the French drive on the right side of the road, road signage is good, and the very common traffic roundabouts let you take your time finding the right exit (relax—there’s no rule saying you have to get off the first go-around if you’re not ready). The best thing about driving in France, though, is that you can explore so much farther afield, reaching quaint villages that don’t have rail stations or airports, and you can do it on your personal timeline. Google navigation worked perfectly for us, though you’ll need to either have a data plan in Europe (so you can see the traffic), or download the maps to your phone ahead of time.
We’ve been lucky to visit France several times and have checked in at most of the main sites, including six prehistoric, decorated caves (a special passion of mine). This past May (a great month to savor the country), my partner Gary and I focused on visiting new-to-us, less explored destinations. We skipped Paris entirely, flying into Marseille to grab a rental car and reach our apartment before nightfall.
Our first base was Nîmes, an old Roman town in southern France. We had made a day trip there a few years earlier, and pledged to return. This time, we spent five days exploring the charming, not-at-all-touristy city, and enjoying the best meals of our trip. The town had so much to offer that our little VW Polo rested in the garage the whole time.
Nîmes was settled by veteran Roman soldiers, many of whom had served in the Roman province of Egypt—that’s why the symbol of Nîmes is a crocodile in front of a palm tree (you see it everywhere). Nîmes is great for walking—much of the old town is pedestrian only. A well-preserved Roman amphitheater marks the center of town and it’s still used for entertainment. A few years ago, the city inaugurated a new museum of “Romanity” that helps put the ancient world in context. There’s also a contemporary art museum, a museum devoted to French bullfighting (in France, the bulls aren’t killed at the end of the fight), and a natural history museum that is pretty musty (the stuffed animals are sad and made us sneeze), but which has a nice, small prehistoric section. The city offers several different multi-day passes that help to save euros. Ask at any museum or tourism office.
One always eats well in France, and Nîmes is no exception. Our landlady helpfully suggested a small restaurant that she and her husband had stumbled upon while exploring some of their town’s hidden courtyards. L’Estanco (not to be confused with Bistrot L’Estanco, also in Nîmes) is the current passion of chef Luc Gilles. Coincidentally, during the 1970s, Luc interned as a line-chef at the Quality Inn in Seattle. After a nearly 50-year career in other kitchens, he retired.
Now he cooks as a hobby, though one that sends him to the Les Halles market at 7 a.m. and keeps him busy all day. Monday through Friday, Luc prepares set, different-every-day, three-course lunch and dinner menus (no substitutions).
Every Sunday, the coming week’s menu is posted on the L’Estanco website.
Chef Gilles accepts 10 reservations for lunch and 10 for dinner—10 people, that is, not ten tables—and he prepares only enough food for confirmed reservations. The first night we visited, he had only four guests—the two of us and another couple. During the evening, some folks dropped by, but they were turned away—not for lack of space, but because he hadn’t made food for them.
Luc is a cheerful man, always laughing. He greets and seats guests personally, suggests a local wine (or mixes cocktails), and serves and clears the table, too.
The only other staff was a young apprentice. Luc’s English is excellent, and because there were not many customers during our visits, we had lots of time to chat.
Our meal that first night blew us away, so we asked to see what was on for the rest of the week. Friday is fish night (which I can’t eat), so that was out.
Thursday featured blood sausage as an appetizer and rabbit for the main dish.
I am a picky eater and no blood sausage had ever passed my lips before, but I told Luc that I would take a leap of faith and place myself in his culinary hands.
It’s lucky I was courageous that day because the dish was superb—the main ingredient didn’t taste of blood and was more like a small, round loaf than a sausage. It was presented in two layers, with sautéed endive between, resting on a mild Roquefort sauce. Exquisite!
It was hard to tear ourselves away from Nîmes, but we wandered north a couple of hours to reach the Pont d’Arc (in Ardeche), a popular hiking, canoeing, and kayaking destination. We had come for cave art, specifically to visit one of the reproductions the French are so good at. Chauvet 2 opened a few years ago to help the world experience the magnificent, 36,000-year-old paintings found nearby. Only researchers can visit the real cave—the art is fragile and must be protected—but the reproduction is accurate to the millimeter and, mainly because the temperature is kept low, during the tour, it feels like you’re underground. The wall paintings are awe inspiring, and because the work is more technically and aesthetically sophisticated than art found in “younger” decorated caves, Chauvet’s discovery in 1994 turned on its head the idea that art becomes more complex as time passes.
After a few days at our base in Vallon-Pont d’Arc, we headed further north, and west, to the town of Beaune in beautiful Burgundy. Our first meal was at the bustling Bistrot des Cocottes (recommended by my dermatologist, my old boss, and Rick Steves, too). The wine was phenomenal, of course, even though for budget reasons we often go with whatever the house is pouring. That night, we wanted old-school French dishes, gorging on local escargots and steak tartare, among other goodies.
Like Nîmes, Beaune is a walkable town. Our super-luxe but affordable boutique hotel, Les Jardins de Lois, sits just outside the medieval city walls. Owned by a vintner couple whose tasting room is on the ground floor, Les Jardins is a beautifully converted, centuries-old house. It’s backed by an extensive, manicured garden with private spaces for small groups to relax with a glass and some nibbles. Charming Anne-Marie unveils an amazing breakfast spread each morning—the best of our trip—and was happy to offer ideas about things to see and do. If you visit this beautiful town, don’t miss the Hospices de Beaune, a hospital endowed by a local noble in the 15th century that continued treating patients until the 1970s. Be sure to pick up the excellent English audio guide, included with your ticket.
Because we were in Burgundy, we felt we should indulge in a wine tasting class but for scheduling reasons, it didn’t work out. Instead, we visited a mustard factory, just around the corner from Les Jardins. The Moutarderie Fallot has been in the Fallot family for five generations and is the last family-owned mustard maker in France. They still use the traditional, cold-grind method—mustard seeds are crushed between two huge granite wheels—because, according to our guide, larger batch industrial methods kill the flavor.
The tour ended with a mustard tasting—Fallot produces about 20 different products (honey, truffle, curry, thyme, gingerbread, and other flavors, plus of course the regular Dijon style). In the last 15 years, the factory has introduced a mustard made only with ingredients from Burgundy itself, which has won coveted “Protected Origin Identification” status. Now no one can legally make “moutarde de Bourgogne” anywhere else in the world. By contrast, “Dijon mustard” can be produced in any country. Grey Poupon, for example, is made by Kraft in Michigan.
Our last base was Lyon, the second or third largest city in France, depending on whether you’re looking at population or physical size. Our Seattle friend Ken joined us there because we had an extra bedroom in our classy apartment on the Rhône river. The French acknowledge Lyon as the gastronomic capital of the country—a 1950s cartoon map symbolizes Lyon as a man, napkin tied around his neck and fork and knife in hand, about to dive into a feast. But Lyon has much more than a surplus of Michelin-starred restaurants to offer—there are two impressive rivers (the Rhône and Saone merge in Lyon), an incredible basilica, great museums, classical ruins, extensive parks, loads of public art, and fun open-air markets.
Our Lyon landlady was coy about recommending restaurants (I’ve never figured out why), but she did steer us to a bakery a few blocks away. In fact, there were several in the neighborhood, but only one had a line snaking out the door every morning. It was cute to see all sorts of local folks, from schoolkids to grannies, out early to grab fresh baguettes for the day. A favorite memory of ours is indulging in coffee, pastry, and baguette breakfasts on the veranda, overlooking the river and Lyon’s old town, getting ready for our day.
A young company called LyonExplorer offers “tips only” walking tours (no reservations, no tickets, but if you enjoy the tour, leaving 15 or 20 euros per person is appropriate). We opted for their night tour because Lyon is known for dramatic lighting of monuments and bridges (city planners from around the world make pilgrimage there to get new ideas). The tour has a special theme—death—and focuses on spots throughout town that are famous for epidemics (how a mayor identified bad water as a source of illness and solved the problem), Nazi atrocities (retribution for a bombing by the French resistance), and a celebrated murder (a man whose rabbits told him to kill his wife). It sounds morbid, but in fact Marc, our guide, was animated and amusing, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves! It was certainly a different take on the city.
While Nîmes, Beaune, and Lyon are easy to reach by train from Paris, Pont d’Arc is in the country and our day trips exploring the countryside wouldn’t have been feasible without a car. So don’t be intimidated about driving overseas, at least not in France. After all, you don’t have to get off the roundabout the first time you pass your exit!
Scott Wittet can be reached at email@example.com.