There is no better way to start touring Europe than to fly on a nice and friendly carrier, and if you can swing business class, all the better. We flew Air New Zealand to London. They have brand new planes--very spacious--and the seats recline totally flat in business class. The flight attendants were so cheerful, polite and helpful -- always smiling.
From the first step at the check-in counter, to staying in the lounge and being escorted to the flight, it was a pleasure flying with Air New Zealand. They shipped our luggage all the way to Toulouse, although we had a British Air connecting flight. The lounge in LA is very nice and has good food, magazines and newspapers. The one in London is shared by all the members of the Star Alliance, and thus is quite crowded, and the food not so good.
We began touring Europe visiting Toulouse--known as the "pink"city because of its many red brick buildings. We enjoyed strolling the grand boulevards, dining on the lovely squares, and visiting cultural sights like the famous cathedral and the delightful Fondation Bamberg museum. From our hotel, we could walk to most sites in this lovely city of 450,000 inhabitants on the Garonne River, and at the start of the Canal du Midi.
We rented a car and drove to Carcassonne, the only city in France whose medieval wall is completely intact. One can walk atop the wall, looking down on charming rooftops and beautiful countryside vistas. Carcassonne is on a hill and thus very imposing, especially all lit up at night. We had a beautiful view of it from our hotel just outside the old city.
On this trip, we only had time for a short drive along the Canal du Midi. It would be lovely to travel by canal boat. We did that years ago in England and it was the most fun vacation we ever took. We always speak of repeating that great adventure.
Next stop: all my family [kids and grandkids] gathered at a beautiful rental house in the Dordogne, a lovely region of southern France that rivals Provence with its wonderful cuisine and culture. In the midst of cow pastures and part of a former abbey, our villa had cherry trees that the little ones loved picking and we loved eating. During our stay, we mixed relaxation with trips to the nearby wonderful towns of Rocamadour, Sarlat, Domme, and others. Whether you are based at a vacation home or a small town bed and breakfast or hotel, Dordogne offers many charming places to stay and lots to enjoy---buying local delicacies, fresh fruits and souvenirs at village markets; strolling through quaint villages; exploring pre-historic caves and more. One week is not enough to explore everything. We can't wait to go back.
After our stay at the house we drove back to Albi. It is a lovely little town with an amazing cathedral. Our hotel overlooked the river, the bridges and the cathedral up high [all aglow at night].
The next day we drove to the Toulouse airport, returned our rental car, and flew to Paris. We are always excited to return to our beloved Paris. This time we decided to stay somewhere new and chose a hotel in the Marais. The area is very lively, and our hotel was close to the river Seine, the Pompidou Center, the Hotel de Ville and many restaurants and and great shopping. ( I love shopping.) It was the time of the French Open, and there was a neat display. Children could try playing tennis and the tournament matches were projected on a large screen in front of the Hotel de Ville. The Hotel de Ville also had an excellent exhibit on literary life during the Occupation in World War II. As always, I enjoyed strolling and reading French magazines and newspapers and speaking the language. We visited some of our favorite jaunts, and in the spirit of exploring new corners of the city, we also took the metro one day to La Defense. It's a very modern district, set on a hilltop with skyscrapers, and gorgeous views of the city.
Our next stop was Brussels. From Paris it was a very quick trip on the Thalys, the fast train like the TGV. I lived in Brussels for several years as a child, and still have friends and family there, so it is fun to return. We stayed near the Grand Place which is a magnificent square with old guild houses and full of cafes, restaurants and shops. We also took the train to Louvain La Neuve, where we visited the new Herge Museum, an hommage to the creator of the famous Adventures of Tintin comics. (Steven Spielberg has a Tintin film coming soon.)
We ended our journey with a short car trip to Hardelot, a seaside resort on the Atlantic coast of France. Our good friends showed us around the area, and Calais, where a fierce wind was blowing, and one could imagine how hard it must have been for the American soldiers to land at the end of World WarII.
Vacations always seem to end too fast. Now I am ready to start planning my next one.