France and Belgium hotel, restaurant and sites for Brittany, Bretagne, Pont Aven, Carnac, Gavrinis, Dinan, Bayeux, Loire Valley, Amboise, Bléré, Chenonceau, Bruges, Brugge, Brussels, Bruxelles
My partner and I travelled for 14 days in France and Belgium in May 2011. Below are some of the best hotels, restaurants and sites encountered during our trip. We’re listing only the things you might not find in a guidebook or on the web--experiences and people we found particularly wonderful.
During our trip US $1 = €1.49.
Paris for two nights.
* Pont Aven, Brittany for four nights.
* Dinan, Brittany for two nights. Used as a base to visit Le Mont Saint Michel and Bayeux.
* Bruges two nights.
one night. Flew home from Brussels.
Our Paris hotel was not memorable, though well-situated near the Marais. And while we had nice meals, there was nothing worth mentioning.
If you haven’t yet visited the Sainte Chappelle, make sure to do so (and pray for small crowds). It is spectacular. We had always avoided it, put off by long lines (they are waiting for the security screening, like at an airport), but this visit we arrived early and were in luck—only had to wait 20 or 30 minutes.
Pont Aven, Bretagne (Brittany)
Two friends from Portland were teaching at the Pont Aven School of Contemporary Art, so we day tripped from that small town. As it was pre-season, the tourist crowds weren’t bad.
We very much enjoyed staying at a B&B run by their British friend, Carol. It’s a cute house with a nice, wild back garden. It’s quiet and a short walk into town.
Roc An Eol
10 rue du Bourgneuf, 29930 PONT-AVEN; +33 (0)298 061926
While in Southern Brittany, if you are at all interested in megalithic monuments, don’t miss the Carnac rock alignments (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnac) and the Carnac museum (www.museedecarnac.com). With a car and GPS, they are easy to visit.
We also went to the carved burial chamber at Gavrinis, which I recommend (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gavrinis). To get there, take a short boat ride from the harbor at Larmor Baden. In high season you may need reservations (02 97 57 19 38), but there were plenty of open seats when we went. Surprizingly the guide on the private island only spoke French, even though they get plenty of international tourists. For a group that was at least 50% non-French-speaking, she kept asking, in French, “Are there any questions? [no response] So it’s all clear?”
Dinan is a lovely town, but we chose to stay about 20 minutes away, in a charming old country house. Rick Steves calls it “the place to stay if you have two days and a car.” (We did).
Owner Patrick was a great host and our upstairs rooms were charming and larger than we needed (with an extra loft for sleeping a friend or kids). We were very pleased with our stay.
Manoir de Rigourdaine
22490 Plouër-sur-Rance; Tél. 00 33 (0)2 96 86 89 96
From Plouër we visited Mt. St. Michel and Bayeux in one long day. Get to MSM early, before 9 if possible. Note: you do not have to walk up or down the busy, main commercial stretch to reach the site. Consult a guidebook for directions (not difficult).
On the way to Bayeaux from MSM, we stopped in Avranches for lunch at a cute shop and restaurant:
Tartines et decouvertes
4 Rue du docteur Gilbert, Avranches; Tel. 02.33.79.35.80; www.lelittre.com/cadre.asp
The exhibits and film in Bayeux Tapistry Museum (www.tapestry-bayeux.com) are excellent and engaging. The cathedral also is interesting. Bayeux is close to the Normandy beaches.
Warning: in Bayeux, avoid the restaurant next to the cathedral called L’Assiette Normande. It is a tourist trap producing very poor meals. You will do better eating away from the tourist sites, if possible.
Loire Valley, Bléré, France, near Chenonceau
We chose to stay outside the main tourist area of Amboise. Bléré is a small town about 15 minutes from Amboise and Chenonceau. We stayed in a charming, 400 year old mill property with a lovely pond and gardens, and a charming hostess/chef. The common areas of Le Moulin are very comfortable and well-stocked.
We were fortunate when our hostess, Mme. Heurtebise, told us that she would be preparing a meal on our second night, and invited us to join her. We enthusiastically accepted and the evening, shared with Florence, another American couple and a French couple, was one of the high points of our trip. Don’t miss her homemade preserves. They are delicious and it can be fun to guess the secret ingredients; often surprising!
From Bléré we visited three chateaux in one day: arrived early at Chenonceau to beat the crowds (it would have been better if we had arrived by 9), then trekked to Chambord, had a quick lunch, and finally arrived at Chaumont sur Loire to visit the old-style castle and see the famous “garden/art.” We got home in plenty of time for the feast described above.
Bruges, Brugge, Belgium
Bruges was lovely as expected. The interesting, modern B&B where we stayed (a 15 minute walk from the town square, free wifi) was a good deal and included a nice Flemish breakfast. The hostess and owner, Trees, was very friendly, fun and helpful with information of all sorts.
The three-day Bruges museum pass is a bargain, even if you only have one day to use it. In that case, you can pass it to the folks you meet at breakfast on departure day (for us, a nice couple from Czech Republic).
Brussels, Bruxelles, Bergium
We stayed at the Hotel Bloom, but I would not particularly recommend it. Bloom is rather self-satisfied and hypes itself incessently, but I felt that it faltered a bit in terms of functionality. Question to “spice girl” at reception: “about how much will it cost to take a taxi to the airport?” Blank faced response: “I have no idea.” End of conversation. To be fair, when I called again, later, and spoke to someone else, they had an answer. They also tend to spam customers with unnecessary and redundant emails and annoying follow-up surveys.
Because we stayed in Bloom’s somewhat seedy neighborhood 1+ km from the Grand Place, we happened to enjoy a gastronomic feast at a small restaurant near the hotel. The two female owners have been running this place for 25 years. Our meal was a slight splurge, but was very good value considering the quality and intriguing nature of the food presented, and the overall ambiance and experience. Brussels is famous for great food and this was a remarkable and memorable way to end our trip!
Les Dames Tartine
Chausee de Haecht, 58; Tel. 02 218 45 49 (it helps to speak some French); www2.resto.be/lesdamestartine
If you are looking for a decent, inexpensive Chinese lunch, try Chiu Chow City. Lunch specials at €3.80!