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What Do You Do with Two Weeks in Western Europe in November?


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We just booked tickets to Paris for mid-November. Now we're wondering what we should do once we land at Charles de Gaulle.

Originally we were planning to fly into Barcelona or Madrid, and focus on Spain.  But from Paris the possibilities widen up substantially - we could still focus on Spain/Portugal and tag on a few days in Paris, we could tour France and add on Northern Italy and Switzerland, we could see the low country, or maybe even Central Europe or the Balkans. I've never been to Europe and +1 hasn't been there in more than a decade.  So we have no idea what to expect or what to see, and we're open to anything since it'll all be new to me.  There are obviously tons of guides and lists talking about the virtues of various itineraries, but we're certainly value the opinions of people who care deeply about what they eat while traveling.

So my question to the well-travelled and/or well-daydreamed DR posters - where would you go with 2 weeks in mid November, starting and ending in Paris?  Are there anything that you love and must see?

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Well definitely spend some time in Paris!!  Don't skimp on that.  After that, if you haven't been to London that isn't far away.  I also loved Normandy and Brittagne.  You could also take rail to Munich and see some of Bavaria I did that and rail that way was pretty easy to get anywhere from Paris.  We liked Zurich (with London both not cheap but neat to see).  Madrid and Barcelona are very cool.  Are you more into landscape, scenery, outdoor activities, cities, museums?  This is hard to answer because really the answer is anything or everything.

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Normally, we're the sort who run for the hills and shy away from big cities.  But this being my first time in Europe and in November, I think we would spend most of our time in cities gawking at old pictures and older building.  After a little research, I'm thinking this itinerary might work for us (we have 14 days on the ground, plus a 1/3 day in Paris before flying back):

Paris (leave immediately)

Barcelona (via train)

San Sebastian (via train or bus)

?Madrid? (via train)

Montpellier or Marseille (via train)

Then spend 4-5 days driving around Southeastern France

Then spend 2-3 days in Paris

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If you've never been to Paris you deserve to give yourself more than 2-3 days.  As I've posted elsewhere, it's a magical place.  Save it for the end of your trip but give yourself at least 3-4 days.

You're eating up a good chunk of time by taking the train to Barcelona; it's about a 6 hour ride  Instead, I would fly to Paris and then get a direct flight to Barcelona, which is less than two hours.  Check EasyJet, Veuling, Ryan Air, etc. for cheap flights.  Then train it to San Sebastian, which is supposed to be lovely.

I would add Switzerland to your list.  The Alps are like nothing else you will see in Europe and this is coming from someone who is not a huge hiker, skier, etc. Bern is lovely and often overlooked.  If you want a taste of Italy without going there, Ticino, the Italian section of Switzerland, is stunning.

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Barcelona (via train)

San Sebastian (via train or bus)

?Madrid? (via train)

Montpellier or Marseille (via train)

Do not train from Paris to anywhere in the South (Spain or France). It is notoriously slow once you get into the south, and a waste of time. You're already there - spend the money and fly. *Or* train overnight and get a sleeping car. I think you're trying to squeeze in too much - leave Madrid for another time, at the minimum. Or, see Madrid and leave the Southeast of France for another time; one or the other - not both.

From Barcelona, you can drive to San Sebastian, cut across the north of the Pyrenées (spend a night in Carcassonne), and either drive back down to Barcelona, or keep going east to Marseille, either way flying back to Paris. I did this Barcelona-Barcelona circuit in 2011, and it's doable in about 4-5 days, not including Bordeaux (but as long as you're there, see some prehistoric cave art in the Dordogne Valley (I've heard Lascaux is closed, and that's tragic - the paintings are almost 20,000 years old)). Consider also getting an "open jaws" flight, arriving in one place, and departing from another (Marseille, Lyon, Nice, etc.). Generally speaking, San Sebastian (Bilbao, etc.) isn't a Paris-based trip; it's a Barcelona-based trip - to throw a wrench into your plans, San Sebastian is about the most beautiful city I've ever seen. And when you get back from it, you're going to curse DC restaurants for charging $9 for a glass of Txakoli.

Consider also jettisoning the South and going West to Versailles, Honfleur, Normandy (D-Day museum, American cemetery (tell the older people you're American and they'll do everything but get down on their knees to thank you)) Mont St-Michel, Bayeux (tapestry museum - maybe the finest museum I've ever seen), bike the Loire Valley and visit Chinon, Chenonceau, etc. Unless you *really* want to drive, spend your time in France; not in a car. Also, Champagne is only about 90 minutes east of Paris (under no circumstances should you have a car in Paris). Having typed this paragraph, and having done these things only once in my life, I want to do these a second time about as much as anything I want to do in this world.

I'm a big believer in what Rick Steves preaches when it comes to travel. I paraphrase: 'Cherish what you're unable to fit in, because you have something to look forward to.' Don't spend all your time traveling. You could spend two weeks *just* in Paris, but if you want a smattering of things, buy 2 to 22 days in France. Buy it *now*, read it cover-to-cover, and start planning. I may even have a copy if you can't find one, but it's a *great* travel guide (ignore the backpack-hippy-granola aspect if you want; it's chock-full of great stuff, even if it's an old edition).

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What Don said.  Two weeks is barely enough time to sample three cities plus side trips.  Oh, and pack a good mosquito repellent; theirs suck.  And although we almost never ran into a situation where a merchant couldn't deal with an antiquated magstripe credit card, try to find a "primary chip-and-PIN" card with zero foreign exchange fees, or at least ask your existing card issuer if they can send you an EMV (chip) card even if it's only chip-and-signature.

Just a few words to add about Paris, where we spent a few days in June: Paris is magic, and will consume your thoughts of traipsing down old streets for days.  Forget the car, use the handy rail systems, splurge on lodgings in the 1er or 2eme, walk everywhere, and get good at spotting where the taxi stand signs are.  If taking in an art museum, book the d'Orsay tickets online (the collection is much more than Impressionists, but hey, you must see theirs in a lifetime) to avoid standing in line.  For the Louvre, splurge on a guided tour from Paris Muse.  Their guides are very knowledgeable (ours was a professor from the nearby Paris branch of the Parsons School), and working from planned narratives that will help to combat the sensory overload of such a vast palace museum.  It's also much more fascinating to look at the milestone pieces with a fresh dose of historical context right there.  The fact that they arrange admission so you bypass all the lines is almost just a nice side bonus.

If planning a bit of roaming the countryside in a rental car (hey, that's where most of the medieval cathedrals are), I found it easy to do so at one of the peripheral train stations.  At the Gare de Lyon, for instance, the Hertz office is situated in a parking garage, which keeps pickup and dropoff simple.  Note that most rental companies will show several rates for the same vehicle, at wildly disparate prices, often approaching a factor of 2.  The difference is mainly insurance.  To use the lower rate, you'll need *primary* insurance...a World Elite MC provides this as a cardholder benefit outside of the US, or with AmEx you can add their "premium" car coverage (in advance) for $25 per rental period; both have limitations on types of vehicle, and certain countries.

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Normally, we're the sort who run for the hills and shy away from big cities.  But this being my first time in Europe and in November, I think we would spend most of our time in cities gawking at old pictures and older building.  After a little research, I'm thinking this itinerary might work for us (we have 14 days on the ground, plus a 1/3 day in Paris before flying back):

Paris (leave immediately)

Barcelona (via train)

San Sebastian (via train or bus)

?Madrid? (via train)

Montpellier or Marseille (via train)

Then spend 4-5 days driving around Southeastern France

Then spend 2-3 days in Paris

I too think this isn't enough time in certain places.  I would cut Marseille.  Paris- I would give myself no less than 4 days.  Barcelona you will want at least 3.  That is one week right there.  I would potentially think about doing either Madrid or Barcelona.  Barcelona can really hold its own as a stand alone trip.  Madrid paired with other towns in the south of Spain is a nice trip on it's own too.  I like Barcelona way more than Madrid, so I would pick Barcelona.  Why not fly from Paris to Barcelona, then get to San Sebastian via rail or plane, then 4-5 days driving SE France, drop off the car off at a city you can hop a pretty quick rail or flight back to Paris?

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Thanks all the voices of experience and reason!  I've trimmed the itinerary down a bit (out goes Madrid and Marseilles). 

6 days in rental car

2+ days in Barcelona

2+ days in San Sebastian

Half day in Bilbao

3 days plus two partial days in Paris

It looks like Air France runs a discount flight service between Paris and Bilbao, so it definitely makes sense to return to Paris by plane and save a transport day. 

It looks like affordable one way car rental is available from CdG to Montpellier, and Barcelona to Bilbao airport, so that will give us some flexibility in terms of ground transport.  I know this time allocation is still pretty sparse on Paris and Barcelona, but I think it gives us enough time to take in a few delights of each city, while saving others for (hopeful) future trips.

Thanks also for the recommendations regarding DEET, Muse tours, staying close-in (finding some nice sounding airbnb whole studios in 1st Arrondissment for under $150/night).

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Thanks all the voices of experience and reason!  I've trimmed the itinerary down a bit (out goes Madrid and Marseilles). 

6 days in rental car

2+ days in Barcelona

2+ days in San Sebastian

Half day in Bilbao

3 days plus two partial days in Paris

It looks like Air France runs a discount flight service between Paris and Bilbao, so it definitely makes sense to return to Paris by plane and save a transport day. 

It looks like affordable one way car rental is available from CdG to Montpellier, and Barcelona to Bilbao airport, so that will give us some flexibility in terms of ground transport.  I know this time allocation is still pretty sparse on Paris and Barcelona, but I think it gives us enough time to take in a few delights of each city, while saving others for (hopeful) future trips.

Thanks also for the recommendations regarding DEET, Muse tours, staying close-in (finding some nice sounding airbnb whole studios in 1st Arrondissment for under $150/night).

You can get a full flavor of San Sebastian in two days; you don't need the "+". Stay within walking distance of the tapas; in Barcelona, stay near a train stop and buy your tickets to La Sagrada Familia online. Read those last eight words, ten times. Trust me on this one.

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The first time I visited Europe as an adult, I had about three weeks, and visited Berchtesgaden with family, then Munich, Milan, Florence, Amsterdam, and London, and it was mostly a terrible mistake. Knowing what I know now (having spent considerable time in Paris), if I were flying into Paris, I'd probably spend two weeks in Paris, perhaps with day trips by train. Or stay in Paris for a week, and then spend a second week in one other place, or one other area, such as northern Spain or Provence. Unless you think you'll never get back to Europe again, I think it's a big mistake to visit lots of places. If you go to Provence, you must spend a few days in Aix-en-Provence, which is among the loveliest places I've ever been. If you go to northern Spain, San Sebastian is beautiful, but I fell in love with Bilbao (which surprised me; it's a beautiful city). Having a car is something of a handicap in most European cities, but it's great to have one to explore the countryside and visit small places where the train doesn't stop. An automobile tour of Provence and the Cote d'Azure would be a very good idea. If you could fly into Paris and out of Nice, that might be a really nice itinerary. Fly to Paris, train to Aix (or plane to Marseille and train to Aix from there), rental car from Aix to Nice, with many stops in between, and perhaps a little beyond: St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is astonishingly beautiful. The drive along the coast from, say, Sainte-Maxime to Cannes is spectacular, and when I say spectacular I mean spectacular.

ETA: Having just refreshed my memory, the coastal road doesn't get all that spectacular until you pass Fréjus.

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The first time I visited Europe as an adult, I had about three weeks, and visited Berchtesgaden with family, then Munich, Milan, Florence, Amsterdam, and London, and it was mostly a terrible mistake. Knowing what I know now (having spent considerable time in Paris), if I were flying into Paris, I'd probably spend two weeks in Paris, perhaps with day trips by train. Or stay in Paris for a week, and then spend a second week in one other place, or one other area, such as northern Spain or Provence. Unless you think you'll never get back to Europe again, I think it's a big mistake to visit lots of places. If you go to Provence, you must spend a few days in Aix-en-Provence, which is among the loveliest places I've ever been. If you go to northern Spain, San Sebastian is beautiful, but I fell in love with Bilbao (which surprised me; it's a beautiful city). Having a car is something of a handicap in most European cities, but it's great to have one to explore the countryside and visit small places where the train doesn't stop. An automobile tour of Provence and the Cote d'Azure would be a very good idea. If you could fly into Paris and out of Nice, that might be a really nice itinerary. Fly to Paris, train to Aix (or plane to Marseille and train to Aix from there), rental car from Aix to Nice, with many stops in between, and perhaps a little beyond: St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is astonishingly beautiful. The drive along the coast from, say, Sainte-Maxime to Cannes is spectacular, and when I say spectacular I mean spectacular.

ETA: Having just refreshed my memory, the coastal road doesn't get all that spectacular until you pass Fréjus.

 

I definitely see the arguments for spending a generous amount of time in Paris and Barcelona for a first trip.  However, I'm balancing that with my personal aversions to large cities "“ we haven't found them as enjoyable as other places we visit while traveling.  Of course, I don't have any experience with European cities and I did enjoy Montreal the best of all the cities that I have visited, so it's entirely possible that I would enjoy European cities much more than North American or Asian ones.  So I'm trying to set the length of my stays to balance the two inclinations. 

The other concern with a lengthy stay in Paris is that the trip is in November, so likely to be chilly and dreary and dark outside.  That's also our concern with any side trip to London, NW France, or Germany.

Your description of Provence and the coast sounds stunning.  I'll have to look into that.  My original thought was to focus more on the Alps for the driving portion of the trip, but Provence in November sounds much better and the Alps can perhaps be reserved for a future warm weather month trip.

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Having a car is something of a handicap in most European cities, but it's great to have one to explore the countryside and visit small places where the train doesn't stop.

 

The airport(s) are a fairly long train ride to the city, so you can either land, rent a car, and bypass Paris when you arrive; or, you can train into Paris, and when you're ready to leave, rent a car locally right before you do. There are some pretty shady rental-car operators in Paris, so spend at least a little time investigating where you might want to rent, and make *sure* to go with a national (if not worldwide) company because you'll possibly be dropping it off elsewhere. These are two very different options, and the very nature of your trip will depend on which you choose. I, too, prefer the countryside and smaller towns, even to Paris (which is about as great as a big city can be), but if you're going to stay in Paris, plan on at least a few days, and buy a comfortable pair of walking shoes because you'll be walking a lot - you'll *want* to walk a lot.

But there are so many world class restaurants in San Sebastian! :-)

 

Ah, you didn't say this. If you're star-hunting, you can spend a lot of time in San Sebastian (and you *do* want a car for this - having a car in San Sebastian is not that much of a problem), but I would spend my first night there tapas-hopping regardless, and leave the car behind.

This was a pretty amazing coincidence. (Part Two of the story)

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Don's recommendation for online tickets is a good note, we bought all our Gaudi tickets online and that was great.  I would also just say as a tip, if you don't have advance tickets, I have found in France that often if you go past the end of the main line, you will find electronic kiosks for tickets with less of a line.  I would leave Mom at the end just in case, go find the electronic kiosk get the tickets, then go back and get her.  We did this for a lot of the big art museums in Paris and etc.  I can't remember if I put that on my trip report for Paris.

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Your description of Provence and the coast sounds stunning.  I'll have to look into that.  My original thought was to focus more on the Alps for the driving portion of the trip, but Provence in November sounds much better and the Alps can perhaps be reserved for a future warm weather month trip.

Provence and the Alps aren't mutually exclusive. The historic province of Provence comprises the modern départements of Var and Alpes de Haute Provence, as well as parts of Bouches du Rhí´ne and Alpes Maritimes, all of which are at least partly Alpine. Not like the really high Alps farther north, but with plenty of rugged, beautiful terrain, and picturesque perched villages. From the window of my hotel in Aix-en-Provence, I had a view of Sainte-Victoire, the subject of many paintings by Cézanne, Aix's favorite son. Like this:

Ste_victoire_Croix_zpsu1jizrw1.jpg

Okay, it was a little farther off, and I don't think it's technically an Alp, but still. The hotel was St. Christophe, and I recommend it.

If you're not really that keen on spending much time in Paris, you might consider skipping it and flying into Nice. Drive to Aix, exploring Provence as you go, and then drive to San Sebastian, which Google tells me is only 6 hours 40 minutes by car from Aix, and you'll pass through some incredibly beautiful country. I haven't driven that exact trip, but I did drive from Perpignan to Toulouse to Biarritz to San Sebastian, and it was lovely. If anyone is a fan of the late Victorian author George Gissing (as I am), you can stop in St.-Jean-de-Luz and visit his grave.

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But there are so many world class restaurants in San Sebastian! :-)

If you're renting a car, I highly recommend driving an hour outside San Sebastian to Asador Etxebarri.  What I don't recommend is having the tasting menu there for lunch and then dinner at Mugaritz six hours later, as we did on our honeymoon.  Both great meals individually, not something I'd want to experience together again though!

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We just booked tickets to Paris for mid-November. Now we're wondering what we should do once we land at Charles de Gaulle.

I'm sure you already know this, so forgive me, but I have to state the importance of having all your affairs in order and making sure that someone close knows all the details of your plans.  And buy insurance that covers emergency medical evacuation.  And have contact numbers for American Citizen Services/American Embassy for every area you're visiting, even though they're first world countries.

And, bon voyage. :)

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Thanks mom :-)  (actually, my mom wouldn't think of this, so you're better than my mom).

It looks like CdG has high speed rail connections to Nice and Avignon.  There's are also cheap flights.  So it's definitely possible to construct a car trip from Nice to Toulouse, then take the overnight train to Barcelona.  There's another overnight train between Barcelona and San Sebastian.  And cheap flights available between Bilbao and Paris.  So the transportation options are looking pretty good "“ I hadn't previously internalized how much easier European transport can be, compared to the US fly or drive dichotomy.

If this would tempt anyone into a trip this fall, I will say that airbnb currently has lots of tempting listings for all the cities we're looking at.  We just booked a 5 star reviewed (with 100+ review) studio in 2nd Arr. for under $90 per night.  And there are some well-reviewed studios in the 1st and 2nd Arr. in the $60-80 range.  High hotel costs had been a big mental stumbling block for us for Europe, so thank goodness for airbnb.  Plus, Air France's Dulles to CdG direct flights were not much more than domestic flights.  And with the low Euro, Michelin 3 stars can be had for under $200.

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It looks like CdG has high speed rail connections to Nice and Avignon.  

NO!

The TGV (Train de Grande Vitesse) is high-speed for the first 75% of the trip; then, you plod, and stop, and wait, and plod, and stop, and wait some more.

50% of the trip, time-wise, is probably Avignon to Nice. Be *very* careful about committing to this - don't make the same mistake I made. Taking the Paris-Nice train was a *terrible* mistake.

I thought it would be *so clever* taking the train, since it was an Air France (appropriately known in French as Air Chance) package deal. Matt's poor mom was pregnant, sick to her stomach, and it was a hell-trip - check the time-tables to make sure things haven't improved, but I remember that being an eight-hour train ride.

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My dream trip to Europe would be Paris to Munich by car, lingering for days on end -- and eating and drinking like crazy -- through Lyon and Dijon, up through Strasbourg and the Alsace, then down through Bavaria and into and around Munich. I would fly back from Munich, with a full belly and a satisfied life.

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Non-refundable train plane tickets have been purchased.  We're going to spend 10 days driving from Nice to Biarritz, stopping in Aix-en-Provence, Carcasson, Lourdes, San Sebastian (oh yes!), and Bilbao along the way.  We decided to forgo Barcelona altogether, so that we can devote more attention to it in the future (also to try and fit in an extra San Sebastian 3 star without having to eat at Martin Beratesgui and Azurmundi on the same day).  That leaves us 4 full days plus two half days in Paris, and I already have a Paris Wish List that's 20+ restaurants long.

Anyone here ever gotten a reservation for Abri, Frenchie, Septime, or Le Chateaubriand?  I think we can work our way into the latter three but Abri sounds like an impossible restaurant.  We're also pondering where to drop the big lunch bucks in Paris - Le Cinq, l'Arpege, or Ledoyen?

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Non-refundable train plane tickets have been purchased.  We're going to spend 10 days driving from Nice to Biarritz, stopping in Aix-en-Provence, Carcasson, Lourdes, San Sebastian (oh yes!), and Bilbao along the way.  We decided to forgo Barcelona altogether, so that we can devote more attention to it in the future (also to try and fit in an extra San Sebastian 3 star without having to eat at Martin Beratesgui and Azurmundi on the same day).  That leaves us 4 full days plus two half days in Paris, and I already have a Paris Wish List that's 20+ restaurants long.

Anyone here ever gotten a reservation for Abri, Frenchie, Septime, or Le Chateaubriand?  I think we can work our way into the latter three but Abri sounds like an impossible restaurant.  We're also pondering where to drop the big lunch bucks in Paris - Le Cinq, l'Arpege, or Ledoyen?

Good, so you can go to Michel Bras in Laguiole. :)

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Unfortunately, the restaurant is closed during the times when we'll be closest to it.

I have high hopes for Le Cinq for representing French haute cuisine, though my better half is still working through his outrage at *100+ Euros for just the entree!* aspect of a possible meal.

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Look, I have more reason to love Nice than anyone on this website, but I can safely say this: "It's a nice place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit there."

The irony is that I consider San Sebastian a smaller, cleaner, nicer, more beautiful version of Nice. In every way (except one), I would rather be in San Sebastian than Nice. Talk to me privately if you're going to spend any time there, and don't forget Monaco is only an hour away; but so is Marseille and authentic bouillabaisse - and that's going in the right direction. Your route will be dotted with very worthwhile (and some not worthwhile) Michelin 2-stars, and I can help you sort them out.

In Paris, part of what you're paying for is being in Paris. Michel Bras would have been the best restaurant you've ever experienced.

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Paris (CdG) to Nice by train is now about 5.5 hours, so it's actually not too bad. But flying is a bit faster and considerably cheaper than taking the train.

We probably won't stay in Nice, but I am hoping that it will be a nice starting point to see the French Riviera.

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Paris (CdG) to Nice by train is now about 5.5 hours, so it's actually not too bad. But flying is a bit faster and considerably cheaper than taking the train.

We probably won't stay in Nice, but I am hoping that it will be a nice starting point to see the French Riviera.

Nice is worth one day, especially when you're already there and you might be able to stay for free with a native.

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Non-refundable train plane tickets have been purchased.  We're going to spend 10 days driving from Nice to Biarritz, stopping in Aix-en-Provence, Carcasson, Lourdes, San Sebastian (oh yes!), and Bilbao along the way.  We decided to forgo Barcelona altogether, so that we can devote more attention to it in the future (also to try and fit in an extra San Sebastian 3 star without having to eat at Martin Beratesgui and Azurmundi on the same day).  That leaves us 4 full days plus two half days in Paris, and I already have a Paris Wish List that's 20+ restaurants long.

Anyone here ever gotten a reservation for Abri, Frenchie, Septime, or Le Chateaubriand?  I think we can work our way into the latter three but Abri sounds like an impossible restaurant.  We're also pondering where to drop the big lunch bucks in Paris - Le Cinq, l'Arpege, or Ledoyen?

I had lost sight of the fact that you started this whole thread saying that you had booked a roundtrip flight to Paris. Driving from Nice to Biarritz is a very good idea, and you should have a blast. Do consider the Hotel St. Christophe in Aix. My friend and I loved it. It's in a terrific location and we had a little suite on two levels, with a living room with a tiny balcony on the lower level, and a sort of mezzanine bedroom above, and it wasn't all that expensive. And we really did have a view of Sainte-Victoire, as well as of the housetops of the town. The hotel restaurant, Brasserie Léopold, is very good. Aix-en-Provence itself is entrancing. It's quite "picturesque", but isn't just a tourist venue; there are something like 60 thousand students in Aix, or so I've read. I was reading M.F.K. Fisher's Map of Another Town, her memoir of Aix, while I was there, and it was just utterly perfect. It's a wonderful book, which you might want to have a look at.

You might consider reading George Gissing's last completed novel, Will Warburton, one of his best books, which has a scene set in or outside St.-Jean-de-Luz, and then visit the town, which is charming, and Gissing's grave. He died in 1903. A lot of sources online say that Gissing is buried in the English cemetery in St.-Jean-de-Luz, but no such thing exists. He's buried in the plain old cemetery, the name and location of which I forget. The town's main church is where Louis XIV was married, and is incredibly interesting. When I first visited the town in 1993, I was able to enter the church and walk around in it; when I returned a few years ago there was no getting into it. I don't know if that's its usual condition nowadays, but it's certainly worth a visit if it's open.

In San Sebastian, my friend and I stayed at the Maria Cristina hotel, which was extremely expensive and worth every penny. The grandest, most gorgeous hotel I've ever slept in. We had a balcony with a view of the river and the Bay of Biscay.

I can't recommend the hotels we stayed in in Biarritz or Bilbao, but I really recommend Bilbao. I visited Aix and Bilbao on two different trips, but they're among the places I've most loved being in.

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Aix-en-Provence itself is entrancing. 

One word: Calissons.

Enjoy them there, and bring them home as gifts - the tins are easy to pack, and will get through customs. Both the small and large ones are equally delicious; I prefer the small ones so I can have them on more occasions.

Sneaking in your tins of foie gras from Périgord can be more problematic, but doable since they're sealed in metal, the key word being *preserved* (even though it's not true, use it).

If questioned, just lie and say everything you brought back has been "aged for over 90 days," "pasteurized," and "preserved." You can also have things shipped for you.

Hamilton Johnson posted this on his Facebook wall the other day:

228350194_LegalAutomaticWeapons_IllegalF

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Thanks for the possible offer of free Nice lodging.  We probably won't have time to stay over in Nice, unfortunately.  I've already committed 5 of the 10 travel days to Bilbao/San Sebastian (Extebarri, Akelarre, Martin Berasategui, and Azurmundi have been booked for separate days.  Arzak is sadly closed for vacation while we're visiting) and aspire to drive some slow hairpin roads in the Pyrenees.  So the first part of the trip will have to cover a lot of ground each day in daylight, which will be less than 10 hours a day during that time of the year.

Thank you all for your suggestions on this thread!  They have been tremendously helpful for us in figuring out the best itinerary for the trip.  So the bones of the trip are now in place and now comes the hard decisions like - there "are a bazillion pinxo bars and they all look amazing" and "we only have how many lunches and dinners for ALL OF PARIS"  (okay, also "how much more are we going to spend on food than everything else" and "are we crazy"?).  We're so lucky to have these problems!

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My experience with US customs is that they're ridiculously strict on meat products while being indifferent to seafood or vegetable products.  So I'm going to try my luck with Spanish tinned fish - though they're so expensive that it'll represent a substantial loss if they are confiscated.

As for foie gras - after my rather indulgent repeated visits to Ratinaud in Halifax this spring, I think what I really need is to bring back a poultry crazed Frenchman and set him up in a gentrifying part of DC.  How much is that in excess weight charges?

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I brought back tinned fish from Lisbon and canned foie gras from France without a problem.  Meats that were not in tins or cans are another story.  It is worth finding shops in touristy areas that are selling tinned fish; they will have a better idea of what will and will not get through.  I declared both, had to go through a second layer of screenings and was fine.

I know people who have gotten amazing charcuterie from all over Europe through customs without a problem while others have had their goods confiscated.

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I brought back tinned fish from Lisbon and canned foie gras from France without a problem.  Meats that were not in tins or cans are another story.  It is worth finding shops in touristy areas that are selling tinned fish; they will have a better idea of what will and will not get through.  I declared both, had to go through a second layer of screenings and was fine.

I know people who have gotten amazing charcuterie from all over Europe through customs without a problem while others have had their goods confiscated.

As a last resort, Duty Free in Paris is surprisingly good. Stick with tinned foods just to be safe - they're very good, and there's virtually no risk. Honestly, unless I see something really special (which I'd have to lug around with me), I just wait for Duty Free coming back - save some room in your carry-on.

And especially with foie gras, don't wait for a special occasion - these things really do have a life span, and you should pay attention to the expiration date (which is usually at least a year in the future) - I've waited longer than that, and while it's still edible, it turns a sickly gray. Just enjoy it, and remember that you can always buy more.

Remember the words "preserved" and "Pasteurized." Use them at customs, over and over again if you need to. You won't have any problems.

Also, I buy vacuum-packed cheeses and charcuterie to enjoy on the plane. They're not awesome, and they really *are* Pasteurized, but they're still pretty good, and if you have some crackers, you'll have a nice meal. And you certainly don't have to worry about customs with anything you've already consumed. Hell, buy some wine while you're at it; just make sure it's screwtop.

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I'm pretty sure that tinned fish is totally legal to bring into the US. I think it was my last trip to the Riviera, I brought some tinned tuna back. I foolishly declared it on the customs form (as "food" I guess), and was directed to a long, long line (I think it was at JFK). As I was slowly moving forward in the queue, an agent asked me "whatcha got?" and I said "canned tuna" and he opened the rope-barrier and told me to have a nice day.

I have brought lardo back from Italy, in plastic packaging, which is almost certainly forbidden, but I got away with it. I think that confiscation would have been the worst penalty I might have faced.

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I have the worst luck with customs, they'll even confiscate rousong, something that is made by cooking pork for hours until it falls apart, and then air dried until it looks like slightly crunchy brown dryer lint.  No possibility of anything alive after all that.

Is canned foie gras any good?  Or would I be better off ordering from D'Artagnan or Hudson Valley?

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I have the worst luck with customs, they'll even confiscate rousong, something that is made by cooking pork for hours until it falls apart, and then air dried until it looks like slightly crunchy brown dryer lint.  No possibility of anything alive after all that.

Is canned foie gras any good?  Or would I be better off ordering from D'Artagnan or Hudson Valley?

No, canned foie gras is very good - the ones marked lobe en entière (whole lobe) are better than the ones marked terrine (and priced accordingly), but the terrines are fine as well - they're 100% foie gras, and they make for wonderful spreads. If you want to splurge, go for the ones avec truffes - they're just bits, but you can taste and smell them.

The ones that are whole lobe melt right before your eyes if they aren't chilled a bit beforehand, so take heed - the ones encased in bocaux (glass jars) are notoriously difficult to open.

Do not hesitate to bring back 2-3 tins of inexpensive foie gras terrine. Duty Free at CDG is my friend.

Have one on the one-week anniversary of your trip - after all, you've just experienced France ... what's not to celebrate? These are not fifty bucks; they're more like twenty, so eat, drink, and be married. And while you're enjoying it, plan your next vacation. Isn't that what life is about?

One last thing: Avoid the tins marked "Páté de Campagne" (Country Páté) because you'll be playing Russian Roulette - they're mostly pork, and I've had some that are very good, and some that are almost literally like dog food.

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Pat and I ate our way across Portugal and northern Spain for almost three weeks in the summer of 2014. We didn't go many places that required a reservation, only places we could walk into and use my broken Portuguese or Spanish or the servers' better English. We traveled by train, bus, or taxi; we never rented a car.

Portugal: Lisboa, Porto, Braga (stayed here a while, as the people paid my way).

Spain: Vigo, La Coruí±a, Oviedo, Bilbao (lunch), Getaria (extended), Barcelona (extended).

I ate a lot of fresh fish prepared with little more than garlic and oil on grills outside little local places that seated about 20. I'd wash the fish and maybe some fresh veggies down with a half bottle of local Albarií±o or some neighborhood vino (usually costing just a couple of Euros).

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A bit of pre-trip announcement.  We're going to try all the non-Arzak Michelin 3-Stars in the Basque-lands ( plus Extebarri - I'm expecting amazing things from Extebarri). Also Michel Bras because of Don's rather vocal recommendations.  Also going to Le Cinq and Le Clos Y and David Toutain in Paris.  Hopefully, we will also go to Septime and Frenchie, if we can play thefork,com's reservation lottery correctly. We'll also have time to eat a lot of tapas in between those meals.  Also - Paris patisseries and chocolate shops and Languiole steak knives for Don...

Anyone with other recommendations?  Esp. for Cote d'Azur and Provence?

I'm so psyched over this right now.  I will definitely report back on what I find in Europe.

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Anyone with other recommendations?  Esp. for Cote d'Azur and Provence?

Don't ask this unless you mean it: Other than DC, I know this area better than any other - my MIL and her sister just left last night for Nice after staying for two weeks. *I have food in my refrigerator*!

How deep do you want to go with the fine dining, and how many days will you have? How far north are you willing to go? (I ask because of Le Clos des Cimes, but there's also La Bastide de Saint-Antoine, and numerous others that won't take you so far out of your way.)

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We will have 5 days to make our way from Nice to Bilbao, so far, only Michel Bras has been booked.  

Does this include San Sebastian? I'm afraid you're detouring too far north. If you want fine dining, head directly west from Nice Airport without staying (but I can give you a free place to stay in Nice if you want it). You absolutely don't need Michel Bras; Jacques Chibois is just fine, and you can be there relatively quickly from the airport. Consider canceling Bras - it doesn't look far, but it's one hell of a drive; hug the southern route instead (you can still see Grasse, Marseille (bouillabaisse - budget several hours and lots of money (have it with a bottle of Cassis Blanc, and find a non-touristy restaurant that does a traditional rendition if it's your first-ever version; the first one I linked to may be touristy (or not), and the second is a Michelin 3-star that isn't traditional, but interestingly, the chef (Gérald Passédat) gave me a recommendation for where to get one (he steered me to a very clubby, British-looking place with a good whiskey selection, near the port - it was 15 years ago, but if it's still there, it's a culinary must - I spent *8 hours* dining that day)))), Ní®mes (Pont du Gard), Arles, Avignon, Cannes, Aix-en-Provence (calissons), Carcassonne (make sure to stay inside the ramparts, and don't make this evening a culinary one), etc.) You don't have enough time to do everything without stressing yourself out - notice on that map all the parkland you'll be driving by, which has hills in it, and is not a very fast drive unless you stay on the autoroutes - unless you take the autoroutes (the roads marked in red that begin with A-), you're going to be making very poor time, as there are few good alternatives.

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I can't give much in the way of fine-dining recommendations, as I don't generally do much of that when I'm traveling, which is too expensive as it is. I did have lunch once at Bastide Saint Antoine in Grasse, and while it's a beautiful place, and the food was very good (it had 2 Michelin stars at the time; don't know about now), I'd have to say it wasn't worth it. I'd really rather eat in a modest bistrot (where you can often get wonderful food in France for not very much money, and be among locals rather than other high-spending tourists) and spend the extra time exploring.

All that aside, do consider my recommendation of Aix-en-Provence. It's a remarkable jewel of a city, much of the center of which is medieval, and yet it's not a museum, like Bruges, but a very lively center of all kinds of activity. I read somewhere that there are more than 60,000 students in Aix. My friend and I stayed at Hotel St. Christophe, which is nice, not terribly expensive (nor terribly fancy) and sits in a brilliant location just steps from La Rotonde, the circle with fountain at the lower end of the Cours Mirabeau, the city's main promenade. (St. Christophe has a pretty good restaurant, Brasserie Léopold. Not fine dining, but good, solid regional cuisine.) Up at the other end of the Cours, my friend and I ate at Aix's most famous eatery, the venerable Brasserie les Deux Garí§ons, which was not nearly as touristy as I had imagined, and where we had a very good dinner served by a really charming waiter. Paul Cézanne was there every evening for much of his life (which sadly ended quite a while before my visit). The cathedral at Aix is very interesting, and parts of it are of astonishing antiquity. Beware, though. If a soft-spoken nun asks you if you'd like to join her tour of the cloister, thank her politely and hurry off in the opposite direction. She has evil designs.

While I was in Aix, I was reading M.F.K. Fisher's Map of Another Town, her memoir of Aix. I loved the book (and recommend it highly), and loved reading it in Aix. You might consider it.

One note on the autoroutes that Don mentioned: They are excellent highways, and in that part of France along the mountainous coast there are many stretches that are a succession of tunnels and viaducts: remarkable feats of engineering, which are worth seeing in their own right, but often with pretty spectacular views from the viaducts (and obviously no views at all from the tunnels).

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I'd really rather eat in a modest bistrot (where you can often get wonderful food in France for not very much money, and be among locals rather than other high-spending tourists) and spend the extra time exploring.

This is like going to China and not seeing the Taj Mahal!

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Thanks for your advice.  I'll ponder about Michel Bras...it would be a full day's driving out of the way, but Don had spoken so highly of it and the drive would be through a national park.  But skipping it would give us more time to see the Roman ruins around Nimes and Arles.  Or an extra day checking out the Pyrennes around Lourdes.

The trip is roughly divided into 3rds. Nice to Bilbao portion would focus on eating at modest restaurants and perhaps prepared foods from local markets and vendors.  Basque-land would be a mix of Michelin starred and local tapas/seafood places.  Then Paris leans heavy on Parisbymouth's favorites list (with l'Astrance's 70 Euro lunch being the only Michelin 3 star and Le Cinq's lunch being the only blowout meal).  The overall food budget will still be high (probably well over 50% of the overall travel cost), but it seemed foolish to skip out on the high end of the Basque dining scene since it's not a trip we're likely to retake anytime soon.

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Thanks for your advice.  I'll ponder about Michel Bras...it would be a full day's driving out of the way, but Don had spoken so highly of it and the drive would be through a national park.  But skipping it would give us more time to see the Roman ruins around Nimes and Arles.  Or an extra day checking out the Pyrennes around Lourdes.

The trip is roughly divided into 3rds. Nice to Bilbao portion would focus on eating at modest restaurants and perhaps prepared foods from local markets and vendors.  Basque-land would be a mix of Michelin starred and local tapas/seafood places.  Then Paris leans heavy on Parisbymouth's favorites list (with l'Astrance's 70 Euro lunch being the only Michelin 3 star and Le Cinq's lunch being the only blowout meal).  The overall food budget will still be high (probably well over 50% of the overall travel cost), but it seemed foolish to skip out on the high end of the Basque dining scene since it's not a trip we're likely to retake anytime soon.

I think you should drive straight to either Marseille (bouillabaisse, maybe stay at Le Petit Nice) or Grasse (Chibois, who loves mushrooms btw) for your first meal, depending on what time you arrive. Don't see Nice (but do note the lovely view you get while landing). Bras is its own destination, and you have to *really* want to go there - make sure he'll be there! It's a step up from everything I've talked about, but you'll miss Carcassonne (and you'll spend $1,500+ for dinner-for-two plus room plus breakfast - I say if you go there, you go all the way and get the grande luxe prix fixe and stay on the property, having breakfast in the morning. I just looked and it's pretty booked up (for a reason, I will add - also, they shut down on November 15th). The breakfast I got served at Marc Veyrat was one of the best meals of my life - 50 Euros per person (15 years ago) and worth it - they'll bring it to your room, most likely. Different people have different priorities, and it sounds like you're hell-bent on Culinary Nirvana, and if that's The One priority, see if you can get up to Bras - then prepare yourselves for a completely different (but just as fascinating) experience in Spain, which, at its best, is unforgettable, but a lot of places aren't as good as their Michelin stars would lead you to believe, so choose wisely. Example: I went to what was widely considered the best restaurant in Barcelona - the meal was "excellent but not outstanding," and the wine cellar was some sort of cruel joke (a wine cellar can, and should be, a million-dollar investment if you're running a two- or three-star property); but the hotel itself was *amazing* (had the spa *all day long* to myself at no cost)! Sometimes, when you go and do the Full Monty in the off-season, you get these kinds of perks - a lot of these country-inn places are actually hyper-luxe mom-n-pops, and they really appreciate it when you aren't afraid to spend money; then, there are the tourist traps who don't care what you do, and the crafty ones make it very difficult to tell which-is-which. I find the Michelin guide to be very unreliable, quite frankly (don't even get me going on the New York guide, which is a complete joke). Ask yourself this: If Michelin came to Washington, who, exactly, would be doing their inspections? Who should you trust? When I went to Spain, I picked up the phone and called Gerry Dawes, and I highly recommend you read his blog on Spanish culinary arts. If he says a Michelin three-star isn't all that, pay attention to what he says. I also highly recommend reading Andy Hayler's blog - he's the only living person who has been to every Michelin 3-Star restaurant, and is a super-nice guy as well (we'll be interviewing him here in the future).

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