Thursday, May 2, 2013

France: Super U + Champagne + Versailles + the Market = A Fabulous Weekend

     We drove to Paris this past weekend.  (Ooh, that is really fun to say!)  Frankly, I would have rather taken the train but I can accept any opportunity to travel.  The trip had been planned for months and we were really looking forward to it.  On the outskirts of Paris is the city of Versailles and its incredible Chateau de Versailles.  We wanted to spend an entire day there so the plan was to leave on Friday, make it there in time for dinner, get to bed early and get an early start on the Palace on Saturday morning.

     The weather was wonderful all last week and of course, that could only mean that by Friday, it was cold and rainy.  I was not to be daunted and still packed my favorite picnic backpack and made plans to shop for picnic provisions once we crossed the border into France.  We absolutely had to have a picnic on the grounds of the Chateau.  We were on the road by noon on Friday and thirty minutes later, had arrived at my favorite French grocery store, Super U.  After a quick but productive visit, we were loaded with picnic provisions:  three types of cheese, an assortment of meats (salumi, prosciutto, copa), fig jam, incredible hazelnut cookies, water and of course, a bottle of wine.  Back in the car, we headed in the rain to our second destination, the small town of Verzy in the Champagne region.

     On the numerous drives we have made through the area, we have frequently noticed the miles of vineyards and one vitner's name in particular, Louis de Sacy.  After a quick Internet search, we learned that the winery had been in the family for 12 generations and its Champagne was the preferred bubbly of the French.  I wasn't sure if I actually believed this as I had never even seen it stocked in any French store but perhaps I do not visit the best places.  We exited the Autoroute, and snaked along the vineyards, through an incredibly small village and up a hill.  Entering Verzy, we learned that the entire area was designated a Grand Cru and we actually saw the vineyards belonging to Veuve Cliquot and Roederer.  We were excited to sample and purchase what had to be some really fancy stuff.  I will not go into great detail, but needless to say, the tasting was a bit anticlimatic, but we did leave the area with six bottles of Louis de Sacy Grand Cru Brut Champagne.  Who really knows if it is any better than the 7 Euro bottle of Cremant de Bourgogne that we purchase regularly at Super U...but hey, if you are in the Champagne region of France then you got to buy Champagne!

     Back on the road and in the rain, we continued our drive to the town of Versailles.  Our hotel was a gem...a lovely two-star called the Hotel des Roys (Hotel of the Kings) and it was located on the Avenue de Paris, one of the three large boulevards leading up to the Chateau de Versailles.  After one of the worst meals we have ever experienced, we slept soundly and woke up early Saturday morning. The weather had improved.  The Picnic Gods knew that we had to have a picnic that day and while it was still a bit cool and breezy, the rain did not reappear.  After breakfast in the hotel (note to self:  "Never pay for the French hotel breakfast, it is way overpriced"), we headed out to look for a bakery in order to procure our last picnic item, a baguette.  Believe it or not, the two bakeries we found were CLOSED?  On a FRANCE....what was the deal with this....were they on STRIKE? There are strikes in France all the time, for all kinds of reasons.  If we wanted a baguette, then we had to visit Paul - the name of a chain of bakeries that is becoming quite popular in France...and one that we try to boycott at all costs.  I didn't want a chain bakery....but I did want a baguette.  I acquiesced.

    After the little detour, we were back on our way and only a few minutes off my intended schedule.  Yes, we did have a schedule and for those that know me so are not surprised, are you?  I had already purchased our tickets online and we easily entered the queue for those who already had tickets.  If you go, get the Passport as it gives you entry into everything.  Children are free but you do have to buy a ticket to get them into the gardens later.  We went through security and were instructed to leave our bags (as they contained food and wine) at the bag drop and claim them later. 

     Wow, Wow, Wow...this place is impressive.  Built by Louis XIII, it started as a small hunting lodge.  Louis XIV, the Sun King, basically made it what it is today and he was definitely making a statement.  Later, his grandson, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lived at Versailles exclusively.  Can you imagine how Thomas Jefferson must have felt during his first visit?  Did he feel like a country bumpkin?  I bet he was totally intimidated...and that was exactly the point!  Armed with the free audioguide, we took a self paced tour of the King's and Queen's Royal Apartments and the Hall of Mirrors.  It paid to get there early as rooms filled up quickly after the tour buses arrived.  We spent about 90 minutes inside the Chateau and only hit a fraction of the rooms available to visit.  Getting our bags back took a bit of maneuvering but soon we were in the gardens.

One of the many gardens at Versailles

     Louis XIV, with the assistance of his head gardener, Notre, created an absolute masterpiece.  Back in the day, the grounds hosted over 1,500 fountains and these were mechanical marvels!  Today, nearly 300 still remain, and it is no less impressive.   At various times of the day, music flows through the gardens, the spigots are turned on and the gardens become a magical treat.  We roamed the area for over an hour but the best part was when Dear Daughter turned to me and said, "Thank you, Mom for bringing me here.  This is totally cool!"  Really, she did say that and she was excited the entire day.

     Our walks pointed us in the direction of the smaller, lesser known palaces of the area: the Grand Trianon and the Petite Trianon.  The King, feeling "overwhelmed" by the stresses of royal life, needed an escape.  So, he had these smaller palaces built.  Can you imagine...."Oh, I am so stressed out.  I think I will head a mile or so down the road to my vacation home!"  While obviously not nearly as impressive as the main Palace, it does continue to give a glimpse into the inhabitants' lives.  Dear Daughter went goo-goo, gaa-gaa over Marie Antoinette's Hamlet.  The series of twelve buildings were built to look like a working farm, and actually, it was a working farm, and she loved to go here and "pretend".  While you cannot enter the buildings now, it was really cool to walk around them and imagine her playing with her children, etc.  As we wandered past a few old trees, we wondered if Marie might have actually touched them.  I noticed that Dear Daughter actually veered off the trail to place her palm on the tree trunk.

The original structure built by Louis XIII

    Nearing 1:00 pm, we were weary from the morning of walking and touring.  From the Grand Trianon, we found some steps heading down to the Petit Venice.  Louis XIV also built a small canal because he liked the ones  in Venice so much.  We figured that the canal would make a nice picnic spot but when we arrived at the bottom of the gate, we found that it was locked.  Dear Daughter scampered back up the stairs a bit, climbed up on the wall and nimbly jumped over the gate!  What may be easy for a 11 year old, is not necessarily easy from her much older parents.   However, we made it and after a short walk, we arrived at a perfect spot.  It was thrilling to enjoy our lunch while the grandeur of the palace loomed behind us.

Dear Daughter and Dear Husband in front of one of the many fountains

     Following lunch, we continued roaming around the extensive grounds and finally by 4:30 pm, we were exhausted and ready for a break.  It had been a fabulous day.  That evening, we celebrated the day at a local brasserie.  I cannot remember the name but it reminded me of a diner in New York City.  We were the youngest ones in the place and by 9:00 pm, the owner was ready to close for the night.  The food was good and we enjoyed the after-dinner drinks that the owner brought by just as we finished our coffee.

     On Sunday morning, we opted out of the expensive hotel breakfast and instead decided to visit the local Sunday market.  The Marche Notre Dame has been around  since the time of Louis XIV and today, the four buildings of the Marche Couvert (or Covered Market) provide a plethera of tasty food items.  There were numerous fishmongers selling oysters from Brittany, lobsters from the Atlantic and all sorts of fish.  We saw butchers selling horse meat! (And no, we did not buy any.)  There was an incredible fresh pasta vendor and we could not pass up the ravioli filled with figs and blue cheese.  It took all of my will power not to splurge on escargots from Burgundy.  If that was not enough, three times a week, in the center is an incredible open-air food market where you can find the most amazing produce.  This was, by far, the largest food market that we had ever visited.  After an hour or so of wondering around, we had our Sunday dinner completely planned.  Loaded down with our purchases, we hopped back in the car and made the 4.5 hour trip back home.  Later that evening nibbling on our purchases, we vowed to return to Versailles.  And I think we will...




  1. I love reading these, Dear Author. My friend with whom I've shared all of these German experiences. Loved our family dinner this weekend. The chix tortilla soup looks really good. We all ate the rest of your cake today. . . Yum. Packing. . . Much love to you, Dear Daughter, and Dear Husband. XO

  2. I adore your websites way of raising the awareness on your readers.
    things to do in Chateau de Versailles