The dining room, even the bar area, is deserted. Yet somehow, language difficulties aside, the biker-chick chef returns from her nap to prepare a tarte paysanne for each of us — two pieces of dark country bread, topped by the local goat cheese and a fresh slice of tomato, everything grilled to melting perfection. This plus a crisp salad, a French draft beer, a glass of white Vouvray and two bottles of Orangina revive us in time for an afternoon of fairy-tale sightseeing. The Loire Valley region is known for its châteaux, its goat cheese and its fabulous wines, so we’re off to a good start: “Borat-approved,” according to my 15-year-old stepdaughter, who is fond of Sacha Baron Cohen’s insane humor. In her book, anything, uh, cool is Borat-approved. (We didn’t understand it either, but by the end of the trip, we laughed ourselves silly every time Borat came up.)
In complete contrast to an exhausting Day 1 visit to gaga-gold Versailles, the tour of Château d’Azay-le-Rideau actually takes the girls back in time — nearly 500 years. Called the “most perfect château of its era,” Azay-le-Rideau is cozy despite its feudal turrets and moat, which are purely ornamental, built to show off wealth. You can almost imagine the lords and ladies dressing in the Renaissance-style bedrooms for their galas. Gilles Berthelot, the French treasurer who owned Azay-le-Rideau in the 16th century, lost it to François I. Seems the families in the city of Tours had gotten rich speculating during the king’s war on Italy and the Holy Roman emperor, and when things went badly, the crown turned on its lenders, Gilles included. (Sound familiar? History does repeat itself.)
The Loire Valley turned out to be the perfect way to start our French trip. It eased us into the French language and ways. We picnicked on ham and Roquefort cheese by Chenonceau, the château famous for its stunning setting and long gallery spanning the river Cher — the dividing line between occupied and free France during World War II. (The gallery’s south door provided access to the free zone.) We ate a four-hour lunch in Blois at the foot of the famous château, known for its medieval fortress. We walked the hilly, narrow cobblestoned streets of Loches, a city with 1,000 years of French history behind it.
We became so mellow, we didn’t push to see other favorites like Cheverny (built between 1624 and 1634, the château is occupied to this day by the builders’ descendants) and Château d’Ussé (known as the “castle of the sleeping beauty”). We took afternoon naps. The Borat-approval ratings kept piling up. The girls even learned a few French words and phrases, though s’il vous plait (“please”) was in distressingly short supply. I learned that a little civility on my part helped ease the interaction: Start every conversation with a bonjour (“good day”) or bonsoir (“good evening”) and watch how much better you are treated.
Paris, after the countryside, was — I’ll be honest — crammed with tourists and opportunists. Not in the restaurants or shops, where waiters and shopkeepers were unfailingly kind, but on the streets. If not for the gypsies, in fact, the trip might have been a bit highfalutin for the teenagers. The girls made a game of gypsy sightings, giggling every time one would try the gold-ring scam on us. Never seen it? A gypsy slyly drops a ring on the ground, then runs after you to claim it’s yours. Then he or she walks away. Round 2 starts with a gypsy family asking you (who now hold this fabulous free ring) to give them money for food. The “Do you speak English?” scam, which involves some tale of woe requiring money, is almost as prevalent. It’s all a way to beg for money or to find out where you keep your money. I like the advice of one guidebook: Don’t be afraid; be aware.
We did find some quiet escapes in Paris. The Place des Vosges, the oldest square in the city, is ringed by perfectly symmetrical houses, with art galleries and restaurants below. The surrounding Marais district remains one of our favorite areas, with its boutiques, narrow streets and lighter crowds. The Pantheon in the Latin Quarter proved to be another great stop, with its tombs of Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Louis Braille. Thanks to 50-percent-off sales, the shops in Paris were crazy busy, but the department store Printemps was an oasis of calm compared with its neighbor, Galeries Lafayette, with its shoppers seemingly on steroids. Or, maybe, it was just that we were with an 18-year-old straight-A brainiac who changed personalities shortly before the France trip and declared, “Fashion is my passion.” Marie Antoinette had nothing on this girl!
Final tally for France, according to the girls: 8.5 Borat-approved activities out of 10!