THE BLOG
09/29/2014 04:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

French Idyll: One Visit, Three Voices (Part 1)

Traveling is, by its nature, an intensely individual and personal experience. Whether one travels solo on a self-planned journey or as part of an organized group tour, the resulting experiences will be different for each traveler, based on interests, knowledge and temperament. While multiple people may agree that a particular trip was wonderful, the memories they take home with them may be slightly -- or even vastly -- different.

To illustrate my point, I asked my sister, Allison, and my 15-year-old niece, Olivia, to share their impressions of a 10-day trip the three of us took to Paris and the Loire Valley. None of us compared notes or shared copy. So while there are similarities and overlaps in our thoughts and impressions, our individual "takes" on the trip are indelibly our own. Following are my thoughts on this special "girls' trip." I invite you to check back in the coming days for Allison's and Olivia's commentaries on the same journey.Together, they form a balanced yet personal composite that I call French Idyll: One Visit, Three Voices.

Pam's voice:

I knew this trip would be something special from the moment I was invited. My sister (who spent a year in France while in college), and her daughter (who is studying French in high school), began talking about taking a "girls' trip" back last fall. According to my sister, my niece suggested that "Aunt Pam" might enjoy it too. Would I ever!

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Although I consider myself a committed Anglophile, I've made a conscious decision to broaden my travel horizons in recent years, visiting such wonderful destinations as Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Finland, Estonia and France. And a visit to Paris with my sister and my niece offered the added promise of quality inter-generational family time... a chance to enjoy a special experience together. For me, of course, being able to benefit from my traveling companions' ability to speak French was a welcome added benefit.

I happen to love planning trips, perusing travel guides, websites and blogs about possible destinations long before I actually go somewhere. But this time, I happily relinquished control to my sister. With input from my niece and me, she crafted an excellent itinerary that incorporated our individual "must sees" while being flexible enough to allow for unexpected deviations... and for strolling, people watching, and just sipping the occasional cappuccino or glass of wine in a sidewalk cafe

And let's face it, when it comes to France, food is definitely part of the experience. Not surprisingly, we found ourselves tempted on a daily -- sometimes even hourly -- basis by the gastronomic delights all around us. From the enormous, colorful meringues calling to us from a bakery window near our hotel to the light-as-air cheese soufflé we savored our last night, we bid adieu to calorie counting and celebrated both food and drink with abandon. Even such "comfort food" basics as macaroni and cheese were something to write home about. And thanks to Trip Advisor reviews and advanced planning on my sister's part, we did it without breaking the bank, opting for small out-of-the-way neighborhood eateries rather than large, well-known restaurants catering to tourists. We did get lost trying to find a couple of them, but with the help of kind Parisians, we eventually found our way. We were also treated to some home cooked meals in the homes of family members with whom Allison had lived during her junior year in college, a memorable experience I would have missed if not traveling with her.

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Day and night, Paris is a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach, a visual celebration for photographers like me. So much as I enjoyed the individual places we visited, my greatest pleasure was the simple act of strolling through the city. From the quaint streets of Île Saint-Louis to the bustling alleyways of the Latin Quarter, I spent hours soaking it all in and seeking to capture the essence of the city, its people -- and its canine residents -- through my lens. (Those who know me well are aware that I can't go anywhere without taking photographs of dogs.) This focus on canines caused me to take special notice of the number of beggars who had canine (and occasionally feline) companions with them. Whether for true companionship, warmth in winter, or as a calculated strategy for encouraging donations, I can't say. But none of the animals I saw looked sick or skinny.

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After the intoxicating vibrancy of Paris, the Loire Valley provided the blissful and beautiful tranquility I craved. It's a vineyard-covered region steeped in history, the stage on which the lives of such luminaries as Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart and Joan of Arc played out. And from the formerly feral feline resident Bube and amazing array of homemade jams and preserves at the charming Hotel Diderot to the peace and quiet of the Abbaye de Fontevraud and the cheerful and unexpected charm of the nearby Tea Shoppe, we found the Loire captivating.

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In my ignorance, I had assumed that the chateaux that dot the region's countryside were all glittering, over-the-top mansions... like the spectacular Versailles on a smaller scale. I discovered, however, that while many are indeed opulent country homes on an extraordinary scale, others, like Chinon, are veritable fortresses. Sadly, we only had time to visit three (each of them memorable): Chinon, Breze and Azay le Rideau.

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But never mind; I'll go back.

Lasting Impressions

Favorite place
Museum of Decorative Arts with its spectacular and jewelry and clothing exhibits.

Most memorable experience
Listening to a classical concert featuring Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" at Sainte-Chapelle.

Favorite meal or individual food item
An extraordinary flour-less chocolate cake with real whipped cream at
Bistro L'Estrapade.

Favorite exchange/interaction
When the proprietor of Hotel Diderot told us about her cat's name, Bube (pronounced booby), and how embarrassed she was when someone told her what "booby" meant in English.

Most frustrating experience/moment
When we couldn't find the rental car place -- even with the help of GPS -- and missed our train from Tours to Paris.

Something I didn't see or do that I'd like to
Touring vineyards, going to a wine tasting, and visiting more chateaux in the Loire.