I've done a lot of complaining lately about the long vacations French people take and the way Paris virtually shuts down in August. But as the holiday month comes to a close I've found a few things to like about les congés, as they're called. Long vacations mean people can take trips to faraway places, which is hard for Americans. And it's fun to watch Paris wake up, shops re-opening, streets filling back up. I'm not convinced, however, that getting six weeks of vacation every year makes for more togetherness and stronger families in France, as stated in a recent International Herald Tribune Op-Ed piece. I know some French families as dysfunctional as any in the U.S.
I, too, took a vacation this month, a 10-day driving tour around France from Paris to the Vosges Mountains in the east, Burgundy, sunny Provence, the gorge of the Tarn River and Bordeaux, then back home to Paris. France may be smaller than the U.S., but you still can log a lot of miles getting around it. I will be writing about some of the places I visited in upcoming Her World columns. But I'll tell you about one of my favorite stops here.
I spent just one night in Cordes-sur-Ciel, a 13th century hilltop town about an hour's drive northeast of Toulouse, in a farming region that looks like a scene from a Medieval tapestry. I stayed at the venerable Hostellerie du Vieux Cordes, in the pedestrian-only precinct at the top of the hill, where I dined on a terrace overlooking the countryside at sunset.
The next morning, I went walking and found the Jardin de Paradis, a small but well-executed botanical gem. It is made of about a dozen pavilions, dedicated to flowers, fruit and vegetables, fountains and pools, tropical plants and -- my favorite -- the gardens of the Arab world. The place was so blissful I wished I didn't have to move on.
That day I was headed for Bordeaux, but had time to stop at Mas D'Aurel, a vineyard near the town of Gaillac just south of Cordes-sur-Ciel, home of the wine I'd had for dinner the night before. I came away with six bottles of red Mas D'Aurel for about $40. I adore them. When I run out, I'm going back to buy some more.
After I got back to Paris, I went up to the Maison des Gîtes de France, near the Gare St. Lazare, Paris headquarters of the Fédérations Nationale des Gîtes de France. For 50 years this organization has promoted vacations in the French countryside, partly by publishing guidebooks full of simple, reasonably priced places to stay in rustic settings. Its offerings include B&Bs and self-catered cottages and apartment rentals. Some are pretty basic.
I bought the "Gîtes de Charme" book (about $25), featuring the organization's top-of-the-line properties, like a thatch roofed cottage in Brittany and a house with a pool in Provence. Either would suit me fine for a week in the country this fall. You can find more information (in English) on Gîtes de France at www.gites-de-france.fr/eng.