I’m in my “European Planning Mode”, and last weekend I took two days to methodically inspect my summer tour schedule. I am one of those guys who enjoys piecing together the individual tour elements in order to make a stress-free and seamless travel experience. Yesterday, I was talking with a friend who is considering studying architectural design. As the conversation went on I began to draw a lot of parallels between constructing a building and building a good group tour. You can do most of the planning up front and lay it out on paper just like a blueprint, but eventually there is always something that crops up to change your plans.
Brunelleschi, the designer and architect of the dome atop the Duomo in Florence, encountered many such problems. Did you know that he wrapped a series of chains and timbers inside the dome just so the gently sloping dome would be pleasing to the eye? Even today you can climb inside the dome and see where he had to alter his original plans to make the final product even better.
A few weeks ago I was taking a group from Interlaken, Switzerland to the Burgundy region in France. It was a Sunday morning and our route took us through the Jura mountain range and some pretty remote countryside. There were 23 of us on the bus and many needed to make a toilet stop. Unfortunately, villages were few and far between and none had any services available. Things were not going according to my plan. You see we were supposed to make a stop at a big restaurant on the highway just before leaving Switzerland. Well we either missed the place or it had moved since the last time I was through the area.
It was almost noon when we came to the town of Pontarlier. I had Peter, our driver, pull the bus off the road and I walked up “Main” street to find a toilet, an ATM, and somewhere to eat. We did find an ATM machine, but that was it! Back on the bus we finally came to a group of fast food highway restaurants. But much to everyone’s dismay, I had Peter drive right by them. We certainly were not going to have our first Sunday lunch in France at a McDonald’s!
I knew from experience that France is covered with little mom and pop run “truck stop” restaurants serving gourmet home cooking meals at a value price. I had my fingers crossed that we’d run across one of these restaurants and it would be open for Sunday lunch. Finally we came upon a lone restaurant. There were no cars but the lights were on inside. I had Peter stop and I ran inside.
The place was empty. I could here some people banging around in the kitchen out back so in my best French accent I shouted bonjour. Out came two ladies and I began my stilted French explanation about a bus full of people, could they serve us lunch, how much would it cost, and is there a toilet nearby. After a few moments we came to an agreement and I went back outside smiling and motioned the group to “come on in.”
You should have seen the two restaurant ladies! At first they were startled that I was even in the restaurant. Then I shocked them again with my lousy French (I am sure they wondered why an American was so far off the beaten tourist path). Their eyes got as big a saucers when I asked if they could serve 23 people. I think they thought I had not learned to count correctly in French. “Vingt-trois,” they exclaimed in unison. “Oui, oui, vingt-trois,” I said as I pointed out the window to the huge 50 seater bus. They looked around, spoke rapidly in French, ran back to the kitchen and took a peek into the refrigerator and return a bit calmer with a nice menu proposal.
By the time I got the group inside the tables had been rearranged with fresh sets of wine glasses, silverware, and napkins all neatly in place. The stressed and panicked looks which had been on their face just minutes before were replaced with kind and understanding expressions. They spoke no English, we spoke very little French, but we all managed to understand what we were ordering and how it would be served.
This began a two hour dining experience where we enjoyed the food, local wine, friendship, and most importantly , the hospitality of the staff. All this was offered at a cost of 17 EURO per person. (Had we had a remotely similar experience in the United States it would have been in a 4-star restaurant and at a cost of $60 or more, not including the wine). I think I can speak for everyone in the group that this was a good decision as our first impression of France. So when my best laid travel plans don’t seem to be going just right…I look for something better!
Restaurant “Le Petit Paris” was completely filled by local folks by 1:00 p.m. Obviously it was well known for good home cooking. We were offered three courses, each having several choices. I had homemade vegetable soup, pork sausage with wine and mushroom sauce, vegetables, and a pear tart for desert. Many of my friends said the “house” salad was to die for! The restaurant is located on route 57 between the towns of Pontarlier and Besancon, about 40 km north of the Swiss border. The owners are Laurence and Patrick Dufau. They can be reached at Tel. 03 81 60 04 42 and only speak French. Closed on Sunday evening and all day on Wednesday.