Simone and Lee's Excellent European Adventure, 2011

When separated by an ocean, it can be difficult to see our family as often as we like. For me, it had been four years since I'd seen my big (and only) brother Terry in England. For my fiancée Simone, two years had passed since she'd seen her little sister Yanan in France. So, what better excuse for a vacation... a "EuroEleven" holiday! (Click on any photo below to enlarge it.)

Aboard a Virgin Atlantic jetliner, Simone and I flew out of Los Angeles International Airport in the afternoon of September 20, and we arrived at London's Heathrow Airport ten hours later...noon the following day. At Heathrow's EuropCar rental counter I opted for a French Renault Scenic (with an engine size and horsepower less than my motorcycle) over an English rental car, because much of our driving would be in France. (You see, there's still lingering animosity between the two countries...as demonstrated in the film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail.")

After a 90-minute drive on English motorways (driving on the "wrong" side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right, and shifting manually with the left hand) we arrived in Folkstone to buy tickets for the EuroTunnel car-train. But before leaving I was told that I should purchase several accessories for my rental car to avoid being fined by the French police. So I reluctantly bought: a "GB" sticker for the rear of the car; a high-viz yellow vest in case I have to emergency-stop the car on the roadway; a pair of stick-on "beam converters" for my angled-the-wrong-way-headlights; and a reflective warning triangle. After driving through the strict customs/security checkpoint we drove aboard the EuroTunnel train, parked in a long line of other travelers, and sat in our car for the 30-minute trip beneath the English Channel. When light once again streamed through the train's windows we'd arrived in Calais, France. Voila! (By the way, during my 1000 or so miles of driving in France...no stops by the police.)

 A few hours of driving southward (now driving a right-hand car on the "correct" side of the road) and we arrived in the historic city of Rouen, France. It was evening, the streets were often poorly marked and one-way, and our car's GPS simply gave up trying to find the Hotel Mercure. We flagged down a sympathetic French police officer in his patrol car, and he escorted us down one-way streets (going the wrong way) until we found the hotel. Even he had trouble. We were exhausted, and after check-in we collapsed on the bed and slept ten hours.

 Late the next morning, September 22, Simone and I walked around the city of Rouen, searching for breakfast, but most restaurants were closed, preparing for lunch. So we hungrily returned to our Mercure Hotel for food. After a quick tour of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen, we jumped back in our car and headed south toward Yanan and Pascal's house in the tiny farming village of Les Cerqueux-sous-Passavant...a bit south of Angers, France, if you know the Loire Valley. The drive took about five hours.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by Yanan and we settled into the rented house adjacent to hers. It would be our home for the next three days. Pascal returned home after his normal work day on his farm, and we all had a nice dinner at Les Plaisirs Du Lys in the nearby town of Vihiers.

On Friday, September 23 we visited Pascal’s duck farm, meeting his mother and father who we affectionately called "Mami" and "Papi." Pascal, who has a master's degree in agriculture, gave us the grand tour of the duck incubation, nursing and outdoor areas, plus his corn fields. Afterward Mami served everyone cake, then Pascal went back to work. I tried to eat scrambled duck-eggs...let's just say I prefer the taste (and texture) of chicken eggs.

Yanan drove Simone and me to the central part of Les Cerqueux-sous-Passavant, where we met Yanan's art teacher, a well-respected American artist and author named Ted Seth Jacobs. Wow! Ted's entire house was an art museum of his work...both on traditional canvas, and on the walls! Although Yanan is a UCLA-educated architect, since moving to France her passion has been art. Her talent as a painter is amazing, and her teacher Ted is the reason Yanan came to France, where she met love-of-her-life Pascal during an art exhibition. (They are a great couple!)

 

To wrap up a busy day, we joined up with Pascal and drove to the town of Saumur to visit the Bouvet-Ladubay art museum and sparkling red wine cellars for a tour. Afterward we bought several bottles of delicious Bouvet sparkling wine (my favorite was the Rubis Excellence). The view from the museum windows, down to the river and boats below was beyond picturesque. The day was completed with a lovely dinner at Mami and Papi's house.

On Saturday, September 24 Pascal drove (beware of lost young cows in the road!) the four of us north to Chateau de Chenonceau on the River Cher. This so-called "ladies castle" has a fascinating history! We visited the adjacent nursery and gardens afterward, watching the hot air balloons soar up above the chateau. We returned to Saumur for a delicious dinner at Le Grand Bleu restaurant. Who knew the narrow streets of Saumur could contain TWO beautiful objects: Alfa-Romeos and Simones!

 

Sunday, September 25 we said goodbye to Mami and Papi at the farm. With Pascal and I each driving our own cars, we visited Château d'Angers, then Cathédrale Saint-Maurice d'Angers. For lunch we ate at the outdoor Le Grande Cafe De France in the main square of the city of Angers. Continuing northward, we finally arrived in Rennes to visit Pascal's brother, Jean-Jacques and wife Marite and their two wonderful children, Stefan and Jane. Pascal drove all the way back home alone that night! (He had to deliver some ducklings to a customer the following day.)

With Yanan now in the car with Simone and me, the following day (Monday, Sep 26) I drove the three of us from Rennes to the storybook-magical Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey. After checking in at the Hotel De La Digue, we made the long walk to and from the abbey, which began as a sanctuary in 708, then grew in the 1300s into the military-style fortress it is today. And when you see a windwill at sunset, take a photo!

On Tuesday, September 27 we again rejoined Pascal for the drive north to Etretat for a two-day stay at a B&B ("chambre d'hote") in Criquetôt l'Esneval...just five kilometers from the beach in Etretat. Pascal and Yanan ventured further across the the low-tide rocks of the famous Falais D’Aval than Simone and I dared do. Dinner that night was at La Salamandre, where we all sampled Pascal's plate of Escargots.

For our first full day in Etretat (Wednesday, September 28) we hiked up and down the cliffs and paths. After a lunch of galettes and crepes at the restaurant L'Aiguille Creuse, we took a tour of the museum of Arsene Lupin, the Sherlock Holmes-type character of the famous French novelist Maurice LeBlanc. (I can't put my finger on the name of the fine artwork in the museum.) Then we drove up the coast to Yport, where Pascal took an almost-skinny-dip (thank God for underwear) in the ocean before the tide went out. Simone and I blew "raspberries" with our lips from the back seat of our car. (Don't ask why.) All back in Etretat for dinner, we dined at a very nice restaurant called Le Galion.

All good things must end, and on Thursday, September 29 Simone and I said our goodbyes to Yanan and Pascal. They'd been such fantastic hosts, guides and friends! Simone and I drove the rental Renault north to Calais, where we dipped our toes in the sand for five minutes before crossing the Channel in the EuroTunnel. London's infamous M25 motorway was filled with traffic and accidents, but--after 9 hours on the road--we finally arrived in Stevenage, home of my big brother Terry! We spent two nights at the local Novotel, with a late hotel dinner our first night. Terry popped over for a nightcap, and we hugged for the first time in four years. It was good to see him.

 Friday, September 30 we spent with Terry and Brenda at their house in Stevenage. We drove to my childhood home in Hatfield, then we were off to the beautiful Hatfield House for a tour and coffee. (Photos were not permitted in the mansion, but I took some anyway!) For lunch we ate at a swanky pub called The Tilbury in Datchworth. That evening at Terry and Brenda's home we had delightful company: Cousin Sue Clark and Richard, and Brenda's daughter Donna and Aiden. Lots of terrific laughter and conversation.

Early the next morning (Saturday, October 1) nephew Steven and wife Sonia arrived to Terry's house very early with their four children (Thomas, Michael, Samuel and Hannah) so that Steven, Terry, Simone and I could begin our long drive northward to Blackburn. We were going to see the Blackburn Rovers play a football match at Ewood Park against Manchester City. Terry drove his sleek, black Mazda 6. Before the game, in Blackburn, we met Aunt Marjorie, the wife of our mother's brother Derek. Marjorie fed us a delicious lunch, and we all enjoyed a cup of tea while chatting in her lovely garden. Check out the photo of the Godden men: current and 23 years earlier. Squeezing into Terry's car, we drove to the match and enjoyed the game and the atmosphere, despite the Blackburn Rovers 4-0 loss to City. After a tasty dinner at a nice restaurant, the four of us retired to the Blackburn Travelodge for the evening. McDonalds egg McMuffins were actually pretty tasty for breakfast the next morning! (As the owner of one myself, I was tickled to see the English motorway police often used marked and unmarked BMW 5-series for high-speed work.)

Back in Stevenage the following day, Sunday, October 2, we hung out with Sonia and the kids. We all took turns doing improv comedy skits in the living room! Thomas insisted we kick around the football in the local park, but when we (including Steven, Terry, Michael, Samuel and Hannah) started playing, we were challenged to a game by a group of local kids. What fun! And we beat them, two games to nil! Simone and I stayed our final night at Stevenage Novotel.

The next morning, Monday, October 3, we followed Terry’s car on the drive up to Norwich to spend the day with Steven and Sonia. We visited Norwich Castle's museum, where Simone and I discovered that, if we'd ever had a child, he would look suspiciously like Terry! After our nice Greek lunch, Sonia left to pick up the kids from school. Terry, Steven, Simone and I went bowling. Steven thrashed Terry and me. Afterwards I asked Steven if we could visit the nearby train station where he works. Not only did we see the train he drives (up to 100mph!), but Steven also allowed me to pop my head into the cockpit of the train, to have a look at the controls. Fascinating! After spending more time with Sonia and the kids at their house, we said goodbye to Terry, Steven and the rest of the Godden clan. Simone and I retired to our hotel (Premier Inn in Norwich), and walked across the street for dinner at a Thai riverboat restaurant. Not too bad...

Simone and I drove southwest for several hours the next day (Tuesday, October 4) until we reached Cheltenham, England...the heart of the romantic Cotswolds. I booked the Wellesley Room at the posh Clarence Court Hotel for three nights so we could relax a bit and explore from a central location. That afternoon we walked along the river bank, then had dinner at the hotel's restaurant.

On Wednesday, October 5, Simone and I drove through several small towns and villages in the Cotswolds: Little Rissington, Bourton-on-the-Water, Stow-on-the-Wold, Moreton-in-Marsh. We visited the amazing Cotswold Falconry Centre, then Batsford Garden Center arboretum, where we had lunch. Late in the afternoon we arrived in Stratford-Upon-Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace). We watched a family's riverboat go through canal locks. Dinner was at Prezzo in Cheltenham.

The following day (Thursday, October 6) we drove to Bath and visited Bath Abbey (built in 1499), then we took in the famous Roman Baths Museum. We enjoyed a sandwich lunch in Bath's Parade Gardens, before walking up the hills to the famous Crescent. hat night back in Cheltenham we walked to La Tasca tapas restaurant for a great meal. (Would someone please tell the American swine not to climb on the statues?!)

The morning of Friday, October 7 we drove (whoa! slow down, Lee!) to London to spend our final two nights in England at the Hilton Docklands Hotel...right on the River Thames! After a questionable-quality tuna-steak lunch at the hotel, we took the Thames Clipper river ferry boat east to Greenwich. We toured the Maritime Museum (yes, that's me wearing a knight's helmet), and we walked up to the Royal Observatory and stood on the Meridian (Greenwich Mean Time) Line. Taking the ferry back to London, we had dinner at Salieri on the Strand (right across from the Savoy Theater). Salieri's food was as magnificent as their hand-painted leather seats!

On Saturday, October 8, Simone and I rode the massive London Eye, viewing Parliament, Ben Ben, Westminster Abbey, etc. from hundreds of meters high. Breathtaking. We next took a guided Thames River Cruise, then had lunch at the fantastic OXO Towers. We walked to St. Paul’s Cathedral, then to the Tower of London, then across Tower Bridge. After coffee at a riverside bistro we walked over 8 miles back to our hotel. Tired? Yup! Dinner was at “The Blacksmith’s Arms”…a Thai food Pub! Simone was so amazed at the size of the chips (a.k.a. French fries) that she brought one back to our hotel room for a snapshot!

Simone on the Hilton balcony, just before our drive to Heathrow

From Heathrow Airport the next day, Sunday, October 9, we flew home. We reconnected with our families, we made new friends, and we explored new places. To everyone who helped make our "EuroEleven" holiday such a wonderful, memorable experience...thank you!

Love, Lee & Simone