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Enterprise, Étretat, France, Normandy, Paris

Étretat & The Little Renault That Could

Étretat's beachfront promenade

Étretat’s beachfront promenade

I wake as my alarm goes off at 8:00, and I know if I want to make the ambitious day trip to Étretat, I need to get up and commit to it now. Part of me tells myself to listen to the voice in my head that is telling me, “This is too far for a day.” The other voice is saying, “Stop being a wuss. Get in the shower and go!”

I get up and get ready. Apparently I’m up for a challenge. The good thing is that the Enterprise Car Rental is not too many stops away on the metro. The bad thing is that it’s South Paris, and I need to head north… and I’m not sure how I feel about driving through the city center.

I get ready, and head out much later than I anticipated. I make my way to Mairie de Montrouge, and because I’m directionally challenged, walk about 10 minutes in the wrong direction once I reach the subway exit. It’s just a simple reminder that I should also hire a GPS unit while I’m hiring my car.

In the Enterprise office, Phillipe greets me and we speak in broken French and English. He asks me to wait a few minutes, and I gather from the conversation between him and a co-worker that the car I am meant to have for the day is in Montmartre. He asks me to wait for 10 minutes. During this 10 minutes, I have a conversation with myself that goes a bit like this… “Do you really want to do this? Isn’t an afternoon in Paris sipping wine in a cafe and writing more appealing? Do you really want to drive a hire car through Paris? a manual hire car?” I’m talking myself out of the adventure when I see a silver Renault Twingo pull up outside. I ask Philippe, “Is that mine?” “Oui,” he says.

We go over the last items on the paperwork, and he asks me for the fourth time if I need insurance. This ins’t making me feel any better, and I mention to him again that I have purchased insurance through Allianz on Kayak. He laughs, and in the same casual tone he used to tell me Arsenal is his “favorite team,” He tells me, “Ohhh, ok, you can pay us 850 Euros for any problems and then take it up with Allianz.”

He then sits in the car with me, helps me program the GPS and tells me Hornfleur is beautiful. He asks me if I will have the car back at 6, and I tell him that’s my intention… followed up by asking what time they close. “6:30 p.m., he tells me.”

Philippe has said that I can avoid Paris by taking the ring road to the A-13, so I make my way. Twenty minutes later, I am on the ring road in the thick of morning traffic, but I break free and find my way to A-13. By the time I pass the exit for Versailles, I’m cruising at 130 kmh and scanning the radio for anything other than Suzanne Vega’s tune, “Luka,” which seems to be playing on every station.

Before I know it, I’m passing Giverny, and after a quick stop for a coffee and la toilette, I’m approaching Deauville. I drive the length of Deauville and decide I need to bite the bullet and go the extra 50kms or so to Étretat. After a few circles around the round about and the GPS wanting to send me down a dead end farm road, I leave Deauville and make my way over to the Normandy Bridge, passing through cash tolls, credit card tolls, and tolls I have to reverse out of and re-enter so I can pay cash… I keep telling myself things are going smoothly. At the next toll, I’m really glad I got cash out at the ATM at the toilette break.

I must mention that the landscape leaving Deauville is the reason I did this trip. I am in the country. Rolling hills, farm houses, horse pastures, and deep green colors surround me even though it’s the middle of January. Besides driving through an industrial area near the bridge, I am soon back on narrow country lanes… so narrow, it’s a wonder two cars can pass each other from opposite directions.

I’m watching the clock, my speed and the number of kilometers to go until my final destination. When I have less than 10 km to go, and I see no sign of the ocean, let alone a signpost for Étretat, I begin to wonder if I’m indeed going in the right direction. Then with less than 6km to go, I see the sign for Étretat, and moments later, I am pulling into a picturesque seaside village.

The Cliffs of Étretat

The Cliffs of Étretat

I park on a side street near the beach and note the time. I don’t have long to visit, seeing as I need to get back to Paris as close to 6pm as possible, but I give myself until 3:30 to explore. As soon as I walk up the steps to the promenade that lines the beach, I can see the famous arch of the Étretat cliffs. The day couldn’t be any more beautiful: bright blue skies, mild temperatures and sunshine. The hills above the cliffs glow green, and the ocean is a vivid, cerulean blue. I listen as waves crash on the pebble beach in front of me. As they break and flow back out to sea, it sounds as if someone is shattering glass.

I look to my right, and high upon a hill behind me is a small church overlooking the sea. I begin the short hike up, and I’m afforded panoramic views of Étretat – the cliffs in the distance, a small sandy enclave to my right, the rooftops of the village homes, and ocean for miles. I soak this in for a moment, and silently curse myself for not spending more time in such a beautiful part of France, but I am just thankful for the time I have.

Étretat from above

Étretat from above

It’s not long though, and my watch is reading 3:38. I need to make a move. I get back to my silver Renault, plug in the address of Enterprise and see that I have 220 km to go. Unfortunately, the GPS doesn’t provide me with an estimated arrival time, but as I translate kilometers to miles in my head, I realize I have 2 1/2 hours to do approximately 130 miles… I begin the journey back, traveling in the direction that I came, but turning south towards Caen and Rouen and picking up the A13 again.

The hilltops of Étretat

The hilltops of Étretat

I’m cruising at the top speed of 130 km, plus 10 or 15 at times, only slowing for toll after toll after toll. I refuse to picture the scenario of me arriving at Enterprise to closed doors. I would have nowhere to return the car, which would make it very difficult to make my 7am train back to London the following morning. I reach the last toll at 5pm, and with less than 50 Km to go, I ask the toll driver “Une heure pour Paris?” He confirms about one hour. This will put me there at 6, if there’s no traffic, but it is rush hour after all. I don’t feel like I can look at that last half-an-hour as cushion.

Étretat's secluded beaches

Étretat’s secluded beaches

I drive so fast that the GPS begins shaking on the dash. I bet this Renault didn’t know what it was capable of until today! Then, I see the gas gauge which is quickly approaching 1/4 of a tank. Now I can’t ignore the scenarios unveiling in my head. Is a speeding ticket cheaper than an extra day’s rental and changing my Eurostar ticket? How much will Enterprise charge me if I can actually get the car back, but on empty? The GPS reads 30 km to go… that’s 18 miles. That’s nothing! I can do this.

I enter Paris, and pick up the ring road again, the peripherique, and I have less than 5 miles to go. It’s just ater 6pm. If it weren’t for that broken down semi-truck in front of me, I could probably do this journey in just a few minutes, but 9 minutes pass of stop and go driving, and I can feel my adrenaline spiking, the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. My lovely GPS alerts me to “light traffic on my route,” but once I clear the semi off on the right side of the road, I am cruising again. I can see the Enterprise office starred on the GPS screen… less than 5km to go now. It’s just after 6:20. I’m now back in the Mairie de Montrouge neighborhood and have joined the aggressive, rush hour drivers. I literally have two blocks to go… and it’s 6:26. After two traffic light stops that seem to last an eternity, I pull onto Rue Gabriel Peri, duck down a side street and pull up in front of the Enterprise. It’s 6:28pm, and the car’s gas gauge is almost on empty.

At this point, I don’t care. I am here. The car will be returned, and I am ok with the reality that Enterprise will charge me more than my 3-night hotel stay in Paris to fill it up.

A lady comes out to greet me, and we begin speaking. She speaks no English, and I sound like a mother of a toddler, as I tell myself to “Find my words.”

“Madame, je n’avais pas le temps pour trouver une station essence. (I didn’t have time to find a gas station)” I explain to her. “J’avais peur que vous fermez, et demain matin, j’ai un train pour Londres. (I was afraid you are closed and I have a train in the morning for London).

To which she responds, “Well, I have a train tonight too.”

“Oui, je comprends Madame,” (I understand). “Je suis desole.” (I’m sorry.)

Then, I resign to the fact that she’s not going to wait for me to go and fill the car up, but then she responds by asking me if I know where a gas station is.

“Oui, BP.”

She tells me to go, that she will wait.

I get back behind the wheel, plug in ‘gas station’ to the GPS, and make my way around the block to BP. 40 Euros later, I’m wondering what Enterprise would’ve charged me. I pay and make my way back to the shop and thank the lady profusely, as I try to stuff a 10 Euro note in her hand. She won’t accept it, and I ramble on in French how sorry I am, and that it was so far, and driving in Paris…

It’s close to 6:45 and I have to be at a dinner at 7 near Odeon. Luckily, I’m on the right metro line, no 4, so I change my shoes, retrieve a metro ticket out of my purse and make my way to St. Germain des Pres. As I sit through the ten or so stops, I flick through the pictures from the day. Étretat was simply stunning, and the journey was just another adventure. I survived driving in Paris, and by some miracle, (and I truly believe it was), I managed to get that little Renault back with 2 minutes to spare. I don’t spend much time thinking “what if?” It’s my last night in Paris. As I enter Les Editeurs to meet friends, they hand me a glass of red wine. “It’s nice to see you,” they say. They have no idea how happy I am to see them!

Europe, Food Porn, France, global cuisine, Paris, Travel, Uncategorized

Food Porn : Three Days of Gourmet Decadence In The City Of Light

After Iceland, I head to England for a few days to visit family and decompress. I am Morocco-bound next, so some time with family and friends, hot showers and clean beds are all welcomed. Back in the Summer I had found a “too good to pass up” flight from London to Paris, so I decided then to make a pit stop in Paris en route to Morocco. Paris is one of those cities that draws me back again and again, and I have a good travel buddy I owe a visit to. Ticket in hand, I am dropped off at Luton airport by a friend, and make my way to check in. Less than two hours later, I arrive at Charles d e Gaulle airport. My dear friend Marty is there to meet me, and we head straight to the city center.

We arrive at Bar Rota in the 11th arrondissement around 7:30 and plant ourselves, and my two backpacks, at a table next to floor to ceiling windows. The ambiance is so quintessentially Paris, you couldn’t script it better. Tea lights flicker on each of the six wooden tables, worn wooden bar stools line a dusty floor, effortlessly stylish friends sip their after work wine, and a couple so crazy about each other can’t keep their tongues out of each other’s mouths. Ah, Paris… it’s just so romantic.

The spread at Rota Bar

Marty ventures to the bar to take care of the business at hand. He comes back and informs me wine, cheese, charcuterie and bread are all on their way to us. It is a Wednesday night, and the crowd thickens as we lose track of time, catching up on the events of the two years that have passed since we traveled Southeast Asia together. Another hour passes, another bottle of wine is ordered. We run out of bread and a kind older patron who overhears us asking for more, brings a box of crackers over to our table. The restaurant has run out.

The next thing we know, it is 2 am, and Bar Rota is shutting down for the night. The only people left are us and the kissing couple. They bid us farewell, as we put on our coats and clumsily heave my bags from the floor. It is time to make the journey home.

One thing Paris is not known for is an efficient after-hours public transport system. We have to make it to Orgeval, a good 30 kilometers from Paris’ city center. A taxi is out of the question due to cost, so we make our way to the bus station at Les Halles, and take a bus headed to Orgeval. Marty informs me that we have a trek the other end, but that he will try to convince the driver to let us off at an unofficial stop en-route. That would mean a 20-minute walk as opposed to having to hitch hike from a farther stop. Luckily, Marty’s kind disposition wins the bus driver over, and he shakes me awake at 3:45 a.m. saying, “Hurry! He’s going to stop for us.” We walk the next 20 minutes in a comatose state to his home.  I never curse staying for the second bottle of wine. In fact, in hindsight, the walk may have been easier because of it. We crawl into bed around 4:15am.

I awake early and will myself to go back to sleep, but I am not winning this game, so I head down to the kitchen for a coffee. It feels like we are ages away from the bustling city streets we had walked last night. The view outside Marty’s kitchen window is of an apple orchard, and farm land that stretches on for miles. I let out a deep breath and think I would be okay soaking in this view for the next few days, and I’m not worried if we make it back to Paris or not.

Confit de Canard

Marty joins me in the kitchen about an hour later, fires up the espresso machine, aka the “George Clooney” (thank you, French advertising) and we make plans for the day. Since it is already late morning, we decide to save Paris for another day. What we need now is some grease to soak up the excess red wine still lingering in our systems. Marty decides the best cure is Confit de Canard with Salardaises (translation- duck cooked in its own fat, with thinly sliced potatoes, also fried in the duck fat). I sit watching as he chops potatoes and removes the duck from a tin of hardened fat. I think of how sinful it seems to be eating something so rich for…breakfast? If there’s one thing the French know and do well, it’s indulgence. Especially when it comes to food.

Marty lays two places at the table and presents my confit de canard, and then, oh so, absentmindedly reaches for a box of red wine sitting nearby. He says nothing, but just looks at me and raises an eyebrow, as if to say, “Are you in?” My initial reaction is “God, no.” But I am eating duck for breakfast after all, so to hell with it. “Yes, please,” comes out my mouth. I ask Marty if he likes to cook. He says, “No,” quickly and affirmatively. I tell him he is good at it regardless. He looks at me and replies, “I’m French.” I have to laugh at this arrogant comment coming from my far from arrogant friend.

Marty’s father stops in on his lunch break and has a quick espresso, comments on the smell of duck that has permeated the house and asks us our plans for the afternoon. Marty explains our plans to go mountain biking through the farmland behind his house. His father looks at me and says in English, but with a thick French accent, “Thees is very ambiteuse, eespecially after confit du canard.” I couldn’t agree more.

But it is what we do… We bike through apple orchards, protected forests, winding village lanes, circling back to the center of town to pick up some things for dinner. This consists of three slabs of cheese. I am beginning to panic. (At least there was a bike ride?)

We head home and set out cheese, bread and a salad, pour wine and relax. Tomorrow, we hit Paris.

The second morning starts much like the first, with espresso, but no Confit de Canard. We head to Paris and have a cafe au lait and croissant near Notre Dame. We circle the cathedral, and dodge the hoards of tourists. I think back to my first trip to Paris- 1997, 16 years old, high-school spring break. It was most likely at this precise moment and physical place that I discovered I love to travel, that I knew I connected with something deep inside my heart that made me want to go, learn, and see more beyond my familiar world… yes, it was on this same gravel, outside Notre Dame Cathedral, 15 years prior, in Gap jeans, a white long john tee shirt and Adidas running shoes.  I have a moment where I feel like I’ve come full circle. (Except, I hope I dress better now.)

Pont des Arts

We walk up the Seine to Pont Des Arts, a bridge famous for its legend surrounding everlasting love. Apparently, the rumor used to be that if you thought of the person you loved as you crossed the bridge, or sailed beneath it, you would be with that person forever. I remember, at 16, thinking of Laurent, the lovely tour guide we had during our week-long trip, as we sailed below the bridge on our bateaux-mouche. Today the legend remains the same, but the bridge has been made even more famous by the thousands of locks that adorn the fences on either side, put there by lovers, partners, husbands, wives and best friends over the years.

From Pont des Arts, we head towards St. Germain and the Latin Quarter. Marty is in search of a famous macaroon shop. I’m wondering how I will eat any more food without dire consequences and am more preoccupied with finding the school where I studied French Art & Literature during my junior year abroad. We find the macaroon shop and debate for ages about which flavors we will buy. Each macaroon is like a little piece of art, and there are too many to choose from. We settle on pistachio, creme caramel, coffee and hazelnut. We walk parallel to Les Jardins de Luxembourg, and in the distance, I see the Foyer des Etudiants International, 93 Boulevard St Germain. Next door is the same cafe that was there in 2000, our meeting point before class. Memories of Matisse, Picasso and Camus come flooding back.

We walk over to the gardens, pull up two green chairs in front of the fountain and begin our macaroon sampling. We’re selective in the order in which we enjoy these treats, starting with the ones we think we’ll like least– as if it’s even possible to dislike any of them. We savor each bite and force each other to take the last nibble. Most of the time, it’s smaller than a crumb. Marty drops part of the creme caramel one on the ground, and quickly retrieves it (the 5-second rule is in effect.) I have no words to describe how decadent and rich these treats are. To say I’m glad we sought out the macaroon shop is an understatement.

Le Village’s charcuterie plate

We sit in silence soaking in the warmth of the sun before finding the motivation to begin walking again. When we do, we loop back to Pont des Arts and head northwest to The Louvre and The Tuileries Garden. The Eifel Tower sits in the distance, but we bypass La Tour and hop on the metro to Montmartre. When we arrive, it’s pouring, so we decide it’s late enough in the day to duck into a cafe for a glass of wine. We find Le Village, and decide we should probably have something to eat as well. Marty’s friends are coming to the house for dinner later, so we settle on splitting a light charcuterie plate !

We while away a couple of hours here, sipping red wine, people watching and letting the rain pass. I imagine what life would be like if I lived in Paris, what I would do for work, which arrondissement I would live in, where my local cafe would be. My daydreaming is cut short. We have to catch a train back to Orgeval. We settle up at Le Village, and make our way back to the train station. We miss our train, but find a local cafe for a quick espresso while we wait for the next one.

Raclette, chez Marty.

Back in Orgeval, we are collected at the station by Marty’s friends. We head to his home and begin preparing Raclette. Now, I know Raclette is a type of cheese, but I do not know about the elaborate dish prepared using this cheese. Again, I am about to be schooled in French cuisine. Drinks are poured, and water is boiled for the potatoes. Charcuterie is arranged on platters- prosciutto, pepperoni, salami, parma, just to name a few. And the Raclette is sliced. A grill-like contraption is placed in the middle of the table, and each person is given a metal spatula to heat their cheese on. We dig in, and don’t stop. Boiled potatoes are mashed or sliced, depending on your preference, and warm Raclette is drizzled over the potatoes and charcuterie. When anyone slows down or shows signs of filling up, guests at the table take turns feigning dismay and make comments like, “you are not giving up yet, are you?” I am surely entering a food coma, although at this point in time, I’m not sure if I have even managed to escape one since arriving in Paris.

My thoughts return to Iceland- a beautiful place, but one which lacked any major culinary highlights. I convince myself three days of pure indulgence here will only make up for the lack of food consumed during my week there. I think ahead to Morocco- tagines, couscous, olives, lamb, pastilla, BREAD. And then I justify it all, by remembering what a wise person once told me, “As a traveler, you never know where you will get your next meal.” I’m thankfully full when the plates are cleared, and I’m profoundly more thankful that everyone seems to have forgotten about the flan we were supposed to have for dessert. I cannot eat another bite.

Marty and his friends have been such gracious hosts. I am sad this short trip has come to an end, but I’m thinking if I stay any longer, I’ll have to start spending my dwindling travel budget on Moroccan palazzos. Still, if there is one way to truly understand a culture, it’s to immerse yourself in the cuisine and the traditions surrounding it. These three days in Paris have been a success in that regard. But how can you fail in France? If anyone knows how to celebrate and enjoy food, it’s the French.

At the end of the evening, I pack up my things and prepare for an early morning jaunt back to Charles de Gaulle… I am full, happily reacquainted with a dear friend, and now, bound for Morocco.