Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living – Mary Ritter Beard
After a long, hot afternoon of visiting the D-day beaches and the American Cemetery, it was time to segue into a less intense frame of mind. We drove back to Bayeux and got dressed for dinner at La Rapière à Bayeux. We had made reservations for this restaurant before coming to France based on all of the great reviews (and I think it gets a mention from Michelin).
When I say we got dressed for dinner…I mean we got cleaned up, not that we pulled out the fancy clothes. As we have found all over France, the service and setting of the restaurants tend to be formal, but almost no one dresses particularly formal, in fact, most people show up for dinner rather informally dressed (and the American tourists show up a little too informal if you ask me–flip flops and tank tops should be left at the pool).
One other thing that we found after a few days in Normandy is that the region definitely seems to be more of a beer culture than a wine culture, which you might not expect (or at least we didn’t). Maybe it’s a new thing…that I’m not sure. But as you stroll by the cafes, you will more likely see pints of beer than bottles of wine. And if you look at a map, Normandy is quite close to Belgium and Britain, which are arguably both beer drinking countries.
Normandy is also very proud of their calvados, which is an apple brandy. You will be served calvados at the end of your meal at most “finer” restaurants in Normandy. And then there is the fondness for all things duck. Actually, this was the poster food for our entire trip. Duck, duck and more duck. Roasted, grilled, smoked, confit, foie gras, pâté….you name the style of cooking and preparing the duck and you can find it here.
In fact, at La Rapiere, I celebrated duck and started with a salad that had apples, goat cheese with smoked duck and foie gras. And for my main dish, I had duck confit. I love duck…and rarely prepare it at home. Not only is it expensive, but it has to be cooked perfectly. I can say that both of my duck dishes were very delicious.
Josette opted for a beet salad with goat cheese, apples and walnuts for her entree and a beef tenderloin for her “plat”. Which leads me to the next little section.
Quick Tips on Dining in France. These tips may not hold up as being standard in every restaurant in every part of France by any means. But having traveled all over France at this point, we have noticed a few particulars that are a bit different from dining in New York City (or broadly speaking, in the US).
Make a reservation. The French are more formal than Americans. You can always drop by a cafe in the morning or stop by a restaurant for lunch without a reservation, but for dinner….you will almost always be asked if you have a reservation. Even if the place is tumble-weed empty, they will ask about a reservation. And if you don’t have a reservation and you are lucky enough to get a table, they might drag you to a table in some dark corner near the bathroom as a sort of passive aggressive scolding. Most restaurants offer on-line reservations these days, so if your French isn’t so great, you don’t even have to call to make a reservation. But it wouldn’t hurt to learn to ask for a reservation in French as a back-up.
The Entrée is not the Main Course. The word entrée means entrance in French, so it only makes sense that your meal will start with the entrée and not the appetizer. In fact, you won’t even see the word “appetizer” on the menu, and if you do, you should get up and leave because wherever you are is definitely a tourist trap.
Actually, eating dinner at a French restaurant explains what all of those borrowed French phrases on American menus actually mean! The “Le Menu” is usually a set meal from beginning to end, often with two or more choices for the various courses….and “à la carte” is when you randomly choose the dishes that you want which are not part of a set menu. So a typical meal in a French restaurant begins with the entrée, then your main dish is called the plat, followed by the dessert. If it is a more upscale restaurant, before the entrée, you might get served an amuse–bouche, which is a bite size morsel (literally a “mouth amuser” in French) that is free of charge and prepared by the Chef.
Before ordering dinner, the Waiter/Waitress might also ask if you want an Apéritif, which could be anything from a glass of champagne to a pastis or a calvados. And in fancier places, after you finish the plat, but before the dessert, you might be asked if you want a cheese plate (les fromages). Americans would typically have the cheese as an appetizer….but nope, not in France. Lastly…at the very end of your meal (after dessert), you might be asked if you want a café or a digestif. The café is going to be tiny little cup of espresso (without any milk offered–only sugar) and the digestif could be more calvados…or maybe some brandy or cognac.
Patience is a Virtue. When you travel in Europe, you have to remind yourself that you are a guest in a different culture. Don’t expect things to be like home. This is especially true with the waitstaff at restaurants. In France, the waiters earn a decent wage and they are not going to suck up to you in an effort to get a 20% tip. They do their job well, but in the French style. Do not expect them to continually stop by during the meal to check on you and ask how everything is. That is considered rude…to interrupt your meal. I have seen and heard many American tourists get annoyed and frustrated at meals where they feel ignored by the waitstaff. But the waitstaff is simply leaving you to enjoy your meal in peace. And I shouldn’t even have to say this, but don’t expect a refill on beverages. That concept does not exist. But should you want something, you simply have to say “excusez-moi” or “s’il vous plaît” to get their attention. When you finish your meal and place your silverware properly to indicate that you are done, they will then come to you and ask how your meal was. And if you are finished and ready for the check, you simply say “l’addition, s’il vous plaît”.
Paying the Bill. When it is time to pay the bill, they will bring it to you on a little tray as they do in the US, but when you pull out your credit card, they will NOT take it away from the table to run the charge. No matter how high end the restaurant, they will bring out a hand held credit card machine and run the charge right in front of you. And in many places, you go to the bar or to the maître d’ to pay, where they will have the same little machine. Sometimes it is best to ask the waiter where you pay when he/she brings you the bill.
On our last morning at Domaine de Bayeux after breakfast, I walked around the grounds..something I had yet to do on our stay. I do not know much about the house other than the fact that it was built in the 18th century. The grounds, while ever so slightly Gray Gardensesque, are still lovely and you can see that at some point in time, there was a formality to the house. Two allées of trees line each side of the rear yard, and I found a charming caretaker’s cottage, the remains of a substantial greenhouse as well as another gated entry that could have served as a shortcut for us to get into town (had we known about it earlier). We really enjoyed our stay here. Our room had a lot of character, with massive exposed beams. While very authentic, the beams did prove to be a bit of a challenge, but we managed not to knock ourselves out. The bathroom was also large, modern and comfortable.
Packing up didn’t take much time for us because we never brought our suitcases up to our room. We stayed in an attic room, a full 3 flights up old, steep stairs….and we are not known for packing lightly. My suitcase alone weighed about 66 pounds. So, we just left our suitcases in the car and grabbed what we needed each morning.
And we were off to Chinon….a 3 hour drive straight south to the Loire Valley. Our actual destination was another 3 1/2 hour drive south to the Perigord/Dordogne region. But we decided that rather than spend 6 or 7 hours in a car all day, we would break the trip into 2 smaller trips. And what a great idea it was! It turns out that Chinon is a total gem of a town, which we will explore in the next post.