Tuesday, 9 April 2013: Planning Ahead
Written Tuesday, 9 April 2013
Three steps forward; two steps back. This year, for the very first time, every single hotel and restaurant we picked out for our trip to France supplied electronic contact information of one sort or another. Maybe I wouldn't have to camp by the telephone (yes, we still use an old-fashioned tethered land line) telephoning restaurants and going through the usual spelling routine (you know, "T comme Thomas, H Henri, I Isodore, S Samuel, T Thomas, L Léon, E Étienne; oui, oui, Teess-luh").
But no. Two of the restaurants had closed permanently. Three supplied URL's that did not in fact lead to working websites. Two had slick on-line immediate-confirmation reservation systems that I couldn't use because they required cell-phone numbers. In those cases, I usually fill in our hotel's number and explain in the "comments" box, but these two sites firmly declined every number I had to offer (our home phone here, the phone of our hotel in the relevant city, and even my actual cell-phone number; they could apparently tell that the first two were land lines and that our cell phone won't work in Europe) and refused to complete the transaction. Six (count 'em, six!) simply never answered my e-mails. And I lost count of the ones that had changed their opening hours since publication of the Gault-Millau guide and were no longer open on the days (usually Sundays and Mondays) we had chosen them for. Drat. So we shuffled days of the week, David delved into the guide for second (and sometimes third!) choices, and I camped by the telephone. Fortunately, that's much less of a nuisance since my retirement; now I can conveniently be home to do the phoning when it's midafternoon in France rather than having to call at the crack of dawn while getting ready for work and having time for only one or two calls a day.
They still didn't make it easy. The phone numbers of two of the replacements, which had no websites or e-mail addresses, led only to answering machines that promised someone would call you back promptly, except that they won't, of course, when you're calling from the U.S. Short of writing them by snail mail, no way to communicate. One, which we had chosen for midweek, calmly announced that they were closed that day. On a Wednesday?! Oui, Madame, that's a bank holiday in France. Aargh. I still haven't found anybody open in Marseille on that day, but I found one where the waiter who took the call said he'd ask the boss, who hadn't yet announced whether they'll be open; I'll call back in a couple of days. Nîmes proved especially recalcitrant; they apparently just roll up the sidewalks on Sundays and Mondays, and the restaurants' opening days bear no relation to those quoted in the guide. After five tries, I finally found someplace that will take us on the Monday, but every restaurant in the guide is closed Sundays; even the better couscous places there close on weekends! But I had a sudden brainstorm; I Google-searched on "Brasserie Flo Nimes," and darned if there isn't one, and open on Sundays, too!
So at this point, we have all our hotel reservations and a restaurant for every night but that pesky holiday Wednesday (and I thought Mother's Day Sunday would be the problem). Despite all the electronic contacts, I had to make about twice as many phone calls as usual.
For accommodations this year, I leaned heavily on the Accor chain at the "Étap Hôtel" level (currently being renamed "Ibis Budget"). We'll be at nonchain hotels for a couple of stays, but for the combination of location and price, you just can't beat those Étaps. We're also trying a new experiment: separate rooms. French hotel rooms are small to begin with, and between my snoring and David's CPAP, we tend keep each other awake at night and trip over each other during the day. One of us always wants to get up for breakfast when the other wants to sleep in, and one of us always wants to nap while the other wants to watch TV, etc. So we'll see how it works; at the Étap/Ibis Budget level, we can get two small singles and, in many cities, still say under 100 euros a night. We'll see how it works.
We'll be flying through Amsterdam rather than Paris this year—the first time in years (decades?) that we won't spend even a day or two of our French vacation in Paris—it will be Tallahassee–Atlanta–Amsterdam–Marseille, where we will start our itinerary. After few days there, we'll pick up a family-sized rental car and drive to Aix-en-Provence, then Arles, then back to Marseille for a night or two, then Avignon, then Nîmes, then back to Marseille to fly home, again through Amsterdam.
The reason for the second visit to Marseille, and for the extra-large rental car, is that we'll need to pick up young CJ, also flying in from Amsterdam, who will not only join us for the second half of the trip but, this time, bring along her boyfriend!
Here's the orientation map, with our five destination cities marked. In addition, I've shown the directions along the coast toward Cannes and Perpignan and up the Rhône River to Lyon. For scale, Avignon and Marseille are just about 100 km apart. For the Peter Mayle fans, just north of Aix, at about the latitude of Nîmes, is the Lubéron region, where he spent his famous year in Provence.
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