Planning ahead: 2009 in Burgundy
Written 20 April 2009
This year, we'll be returning to Bourgogne—Burgundy—the site of our very first trip to France, back in 1977. We were in France for a week and divided our time between Paris and Beaune, the wine capital of the region. We ordinarily try to visit a new region each year, of course, but after 32 years, we've decided it's time to go back.
"How," a friend has asked me, "do you plan your trips to France? How do you find hotels in all those towns that you drive to, and how do you make your own reservations there?" Well, let me count the ways . . .As anyone who has read my travel diaries knows, our first travel priority, at least in France, is the food. Secondarily, we like seeing the countryside, visiting museums (not just art museums) and interesting historical and architectural sites, and touring establishments where good things are made: wine, brandy, cheese, chocolate, other food, cutlery, pottery and dishes, etc; this year we're hoping for mustard.
In February, David sat down with a restaurant guide to see what was available in the region. We favor the bright-yellow Gault Millau guide (which we buy each year in France, to use for the following year's planning), but the bright-red Michelin guide (readily available in the U.S.) will also do. The Gault Millau ranks restaurants and hotels on a scale of 20 (it takes a score of about 10/20 just to get into the guide); gives contact information and info on things like the establishment's AC, parking, pet-friendliness, hours, etc.; and provides a written description of the food and service. It also awards one, two, or three chef's hats to the best restaurants—one hat starts at about 13/30, two hats at about 15/20, and three hats at about 17/20. Its main disadvantage, for Americans, is that it's available only in French. The Michelin guide awards restaurants one, two, or three stars (which it actually calls "rosettes"), as well as "also ran," status, for restaurants that don't quite merit a star. It offers no other rankings or prose descriptions (other than a brief listing of specialties for three-star restaurants), but it has the advantage that it's arranged to be legible without knowledge of French—all the information is coded in little icons, and you interpret the icons by looking up the page (in the front of the book) that gives the key to them in your preferred language. If you'll only be in Paris, you can buy just the Michelin Paris listings, bound separately in a little paperback, rather than buying the whole tome.
Anyway, David sits down with the GM guide and looks at its map of our chosen region, which marks each town and city with the ranking of its best restaurant and hotel. Once he has a list of promising towns and cities, he looks up each one in the guide and reads about the restaurants and hotels there. Then he "connects the dots"—i.e., lays out an itinerary that takes us through the most promising towns—and chooses a restaurant for each night of the trip, taking care not to schedule any restaurant for, e.g., a night when it's closed and paying some attention to scheduling more nights in towns with a lot of things to see, not moving us so often we never have a chance to get laundry done, etc. He also chooses a hotel for each town in which one of the restaurants is located. They he hands the whole thing to me, laid out in calendar format (showing, for each day, which city, hotel, and restaurant he's chosen).
Then comes the pursuit of reservations. In the past, we've often stayed in some quite expensive hotels solely because they had great restaurants and we like not having to drive home after a long dinner. This year, though, what with the economic downturn and our increasing realization that we hardly ever spend any time in those plush hotel rooms or hang around getting our money's worth out of the hotels' luxurious amenities, he suggested that I poke around on the internet to see what else I could find. When I did so, I was pleasantly surprised—the web makes it increasingly easy not just to find hotels but to see what you're getting. Many modest establishments have websites that list all their amenities, lay out their rates, show photos of the rooms, give driving directions to find them, and give e-mail addresses. By using resources other than the published guide, I was able this year to find us a good-looking hotel in each destination town for less than 100 euros per night—except in Paris, where prices are just inherently higher. For our nights in Paris, we leave the hotel to our travel agent, who keeps running tabs on the best bargains in good parts of town. This year he's put us back in the Relais Bosquet (19 rue du Champ de Mars, just a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower). We've stayed there before, and it's entirely satisfactory (except for their annoying habit of issuing only a single key per room; my account of our last stay there is at http://bio.fsu.edu/~thistle/blog07/07-06-23.html). They have a slick website (http://www.hotel-paris-bosquet.com/index.html), available in several languages including English, and you can make your reservation right there on the site if you want to do it yourself.
See below for more info on finding hotels and other places to stay.
So, once the list of restaurants and hotels is complete, I set about assembling all their contact info (name, address, phone number, e-mail address, and website if they have one), together with the dates for which we want to reserve a room or dinner table. The GM guide supplies most of it, but they don't always list the e-mail and website—I check the French yellow pages (see below) for the rest. I then systematically visit all the websites to see whether I can book on line there (booking on line through a secure website is the ideal, because you can easily and safely give credit-card info to secure the reservation). For the ones that don't have websites, I send e-mails. I do it in French, but you could probably just send a message in English—most hotel keepers know at least basic English. Key terms are "twin" (as in twin beds, used in French as well as English) and "double": a "double room" is a room for two people with one bed; a "twin room" is a room for two people with two beds. Be sure to spell out any dates you specify, because of the confusion over date notation: If you type 3/6/09, which in the U.S. means 6 March 2009, a European will read it as 3 June 2009 (or be confused, wondering whether you know that he would and therefore used European notation . . . ). So always write out "6 March 2009." Avoid using the word "offer" (as in, "do you offer breakfast?"), because in French, "offer" means "offer free of charge"; say instead something like "do you serve breakfast?"
Hotels usually reply with a proposition, something like "We can propose a standard room at 80 euros/night or a deluxe room for 120 euros/night." Once you and the hotel have reach an agreement about the room you want and the rate, the hotel may (a) simply book the reservation without any guarantee or deposit, or (b) ask you to call to reconfirm a few days before your arrival, or (c) ask for credit-card information in lieu of a deposit. I never send credit-card information by e-mail. Instead I offer to send it by mail, to fax it, or to telephone them (if you telephone, remember that France is 5 or 6 hours ahead of us; I call in mid-morning, when it's mid-afternoon there, when they're likely not to be too busy).
Restaurants involve less negotiation—they're either booked up or not. They also sometimes ask for a reconfirmation call or credit-card info. Sometimes they want a phone number they can call if they need to reach you (for example, one restaurant we had booked a couple of years ago lost electrical power and had to cancel all reservations for the evening). Because we don't have a cell phone that works in Europe, I give them the contact info of the hotel(s) we'll be at for a couple of nights before our reservation. I used to specify a nonsmoking table, but as of this year, all restaurants in France are nonsmoking, by law. (And note, also, that the tip is always included in the bill in French restaurants, by law.)
For each hotel and restaurant, I keep a careful log, with dates, of what I've sent, what messages I've gotten back, etc., and especially of any reconfirmation calls I must make and when. I take that log with me on the trip, both on paper and in my laptop computer.
Every year, more establishments have websites and e-mail addresses. This year, for nine hotels and 18 restaurants, I've had to make only five phone calls—three to give credit-card numbers, because we don't have a fax machine; one because I got no reply to my e-mail (they had copied my address incorrectly); and one to a restaurant in Paris that has no website or e-mail address. It's Chez l'Ami Jean, at 27 rue Malar, a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower and an easy walk from the Relais Bosquet, telephone 01-47-05-86-89. It has a 32-euro fixed price for dinner, and the food is great (and a steal for that price!). GM rates it 14/20, one hat. Another good and relatively inexpensive restaurant near the Relais Bosquet is Le Violon d'Ingres (135 rue St. Dominique, telephone 01-45-55-15-05, http://www.leviolondingres.com/, then click the restaurant's name).
Resources for finding hotels in France:
First, a good hotel-and-restaurant guide, like the Gault Millau or the Michelin. Note that (a) they only list the high-end places and (b) hotels listed in the guide can afford to charge more, because the guide steers business their way.
Second, city tourism websites. Every French town has an "office de tourisme"—an office charged with promoting tourism—and most sizeable ones have websites. A good example is Troyes (actually in Champagne but on our way from Paris to Burgundy). Just Google "tourisme Troyes," and the top hit is its excellent web page: http://www.tourisme-troyes.com/welcome/index.htm, available in French and English. If you click on "a successful visit," you find an "on-line booking" link. Fill in the little form (how many people, how many nights, what dates, etc.) and click "look for availability." That brings up a list of the hotels in town that have available rooms that fit your dates; each hotel's listing includes icons representing its amenities, a "more information" button that brings up a fuller description (usually complete with link to the hotel's own website), and a "reserve" button. Once you've explored the "more info" and made your choice, you can click "reserve" to make your reservation right from there. Slick.
Third, the French on-line yellow pages: http://www.pagesjaunes.fr/trouverlesprofessionnels/index.do. Take the little town of Gilly-les-Citeaux, for example. David had chosen the restaurant of the magnificent (and expensive) Château de Gilly hotel, and as far as GM was concerned, it was the only establishment in town, so I went to the on-line yellow pages and typed in "hotel" in the first blank (labeled "Quoi, qui," meaning "What, who") and "gilly-les-citeaux" in the second (labeled "Où," meaning "where"). When I clicked the purple "trouver" (find) button I found the Château (which we already knew about) and a little hotel/B&B called l'Orée des Vignes. By clicking on the map links in their entries (labeled "plan" in French), I was able to verify that they're within walking distance of one another, and by clicking on the "site" link for l'Orée des Vignes, I found its website, which listed its amenities and prices ("tarifs" in French). It looks absolutely charming, and it's way cheaper than the Château.
Fourth, chain hotel websites. The Accor hotel group has about seven different levels of hotel, from the "Sofitel" at the top all the way down to the no-frills "Formula 1" (or just "F1") at the bottom. We've never stayed at an F1, but we've talked to people who swear by them. Overhead is low—the only personnel are the chambermaids and one person who serves breakfast—so you can get a room for ca. 33 euros/night (plus 4 euros more for breakfast). The "front desk" is basically an ATM machine. You shove in your credit card, and if you have a reservation, it recognizes you and gives you the number of your room and the combination for the lock on its door. If not, it displays availabilities and lets you book on the spot. When the duration of your reservation is up, the combination on the door lock changes, and the chambermaid is signaled to come make up the room. Each room has a double bed and an upper bunk, a desk, and a TV. Spotlessly clean showers and toilets are just outside the room.
But we favor the middle levels, the chains called "Ibis" and "Mercure," which can also be quite economical. For a larger town, I go to the Accor website (http://www.accorhotels.com/gb/home/index.shtml; just Google "Accor Hotels"; the site comes up in English if you Google from an American address) and fill in the name of the city. For example, Accor has 11 hotels in Dijon, including one Mercure and five Ibises. You can click to see them all on a map, if you want one in a particular location. I tried the Mercure first, but it was booked up for our dates, as was the most centrally located Ibis, but I was able to book us into another Ibis a few blocks further away, right there on the website, with instant confirmation, all in English. If I hadn't been curious to see the whole assortment of hotels, I could have entered my targets dates on the first screen, and it would have shown me only hotels available for those dates.
There are other places to stay in France, besides hotels: (a) Bed-and-breakfast places (called "tables d'hôtes"), (b) vacation rentals (i.e., houses and appartments for rent, usually by the week), and (c) gîtes.
To find B&B's in or near a particular town, use the French yellow pages—enter "table d'hote" in the first box and the town name in the other. Many websites are also available (often in English) that list them. Some examples are http://www.france4families.com/BandBs.htm, http://www.guidevacances.com/hotes/, and http://www.chambres-hotes.fr/. Or just Google "france table d'hote" for lots of individual listings. Add a city name to the search terms to narrow the choice down.
If you Google "France vacation rental," you'll find a huge variety of websites listing houses and apartments for rent by the week—everything from châteaux that sleep 60 to family houses that sleep 6 to cottages that sleep 2 to apartments all over Paris. Many of the sites are in English.
There are also time-share vacation condos. We stayed in one when we were on sabbatical in Villefrance, near Nice. The company we dealt with, Pierre & Vacances, has a good English website (http://www.pv-holidays.com/) and they have branches all over France. They sell six-month time shares in their units—the purchaser then has control of the unit for six months of the year (he gets to choose which months), and the P&V people retain control for the rest of the time and rent the units out by the week or month to vacationers. See http://bio.fsu.edu/~thistle/blog/05-01-26.html for more on our experience there.
Gîtes (pronounced "zheet") are small, often spartan vacation rentals with cooking facilities. The British call them "self-catering cottages." The word comes from the archaic French verb "giser" (to lie), which otherwise survives in the language today only in the phrase "Ci gît . . ." (Here lies . . .) on gravestones. Gîtes come in all forms, from purpose-built clusters of vacation cottages, to vacation condos like Pierre & Vacances, to old travel trailers in somebody's back yard, to unused garage appartments—you name it. See http://bio.fsu.edu/~thistle/blog/05-05-17b.html for a description of our experience with a gîte. One place in Cancale, Brittany, that we know of has superluxurious gîtes—the occupants have the freedom of a large vegetable garden cultivated for the purpose, so they can pick their own fruits and vegetables and cook them up in their own kitchens!
French telephone numbers
French telephone numbers are 10 digits, of which the first two are the area code. France has only half a dozen area codes; e.g., Paris is "01," the whole Burgundy region is "03." To dial a French number in France, you dial all 10 digits. To dial one from the U.S., you must drop the zero from the area code. To call a Paris number, therefore, I dial 011 (international access) 33 (France) 1 (Paris area code without 0) xx-xx-xx-xx (the local number).
Our travels in France
At "Thistle Home Base," you'll find my travel diaries for our trips to France since 2005, with photos of the locations and the food.List of Entries