Back in the summer of 1984, when I first began work on my guidebook Daytrips in France, I made a deal with Air France that in turn for free transportation I would write a mini version of the book for them to print and hand out to passengers. This was to be a 20-page booklet, 4" x 9" in size, summarizing many of the daytrip descriptions. Of course, this would also promote the book, so it was win-win for all concerned. That's its cover on the left.
The booklet went over big with both the airline and its passengers, so the next summer they asked me to write two similar guides for good-value dining in France. For this I would be paid, plus have my transportation and car rental covered. At the same time I could gather information for expanding my Daytrips France book in its second edition. And I would eat well. Free.
Now, I am no restaurant critic and hardly a foodie, but I do know what tourists like. Atmosphere and service are as important as tasty cuisine. Before taking off for France, I researched the red-cover Guide Michelin and both the Gault-Millau and Hachette guides — looking for well-rated restaurants where an entire good meal could be had for around 100 francs (then about US$14). These I would visit, armed with a letter of introduction (shown below) from the airline. I also devised a questionaire for the patron, or owner, to fill out. Air France translated this into French and had it printed.
On September 26, 1985 I left New York on Air France flight 070 to Paris CDG, changing there for flight 2407 to Nice. The Hôtel Alfa on rue Masséna was a bargain at only 170 francs (about US$24 at the time) a night, well located and perfectly comfortable.
My routine was to first case each restaurant on the list, checking off those that were not attractive or had poor locations. I also checked the posted Carte and Menu to see if it really fell in the good-value price range. Then I approached the owner, letter in hand. Most (not all!) were friendly once they got over that very French suspicion of strangers, and usually waved their hand toward the bar, exclaiming Choisir! — meaning choose a free drink. Quite a few also invited me back for a free meal.
The first working day, however, I spent exploring Beaulieu-sur-Mer and St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat as I wanted to add them to my book. Then it was off to Monaco, where I found several surprisingly inexpensive restaurants with plenty of atmosphere, one of which was right next to the Prince's Palace and another close to the Monte Carlo Casino.
After another few days in Nice itself, I picked up a tiny Ford Fiesta that the airline arranged for me at Europcar and took off for Aix-en-Provence. There I discovered a small family-style restaurant where a full meal could be had for 42 francs (under US$6 then). Another place was very friendly and brought me free drinks, but begged not to be included in the guide because they already had more business than they could handle and didn't want hordes of tourists descending on their doorstep. I honored their request.
Avignon was next. I was about to park in the municipal lot when someone warned me about car thieves, so I found a closed parking garage instead. The Hôtel Central was a converted old mansion, well hidden in a courtyard in the center of town. I requested a room with bath, but that evening I couldn't find any door to a bath, so I just used the one "down the hall." Wondering later why the plastic clothes cabinet had a button marked "pousser ici," I pushed the button and was startled when the whole thing moved out of the way, revealing the hidden bathroom! I did manage to find five excellent good-value restaurants, including a crêperie where you could have a full meal, including wine, for 50 francs (under US$7!).
The next day involved a lot of driving, up to Orange, then down to Pont du Gard, where I found a wonderful old inn near the ancient Roman aqueduct. The prices there were just a bit over my upper limit, but I included it anyway as a special splurge. From there I headed to nearby Nîmes, spending the night there and covering three restaurants.
Then it was off to Arles, the ancient Roman town where van Gogh cut off his ear. I stayed at Le Cloître, an old monastery that had been converted into a hotel. Among the other eateries I found there was one that offfered full meals for as little as 47 francs (less than US$7). While there, I drove up to Les Baux-de-Provence, an isolated fortress of a mountaintop village with at least two good places to dine without breaking the bank.
Finding anything inexpensive at the next stop, Saint-Tropez, was a challenge, but I did come across one where it was just barely possible to eat for under 100 francs (US$14). The rest were definite splurges, but two of them got included just because they were so attractive.
Not finding any reasonable place to stay the night, I took off on the Autoroute hoping to find a motel. There were none, so I wound up in Cannes where I spent three nights checking out restaurants there and in Grasse. The amazing thing is that there were actually plenty of inexpensive places to dine right in the heart of Cannes — I included eight of them in the guide!
On the way back I stopped at Vence, mostly to flesh out my guidebook but also to find a few restaurants. It was still morning when I arrived back in Nice, so I continued eastward on the Moyenne Corniche, a thrilling road high above the Mediterranean that led to Èze-Village, a very strange settlement carved out of the rocky mountainside. The one outstanding restaurant there was a bit above my limit, but I knew that the airline would certainly want it included as it offered one of the most spectacular views to be found anywhere along the Riviera.
Back in Nice and once again staying at the Hôtel Alfa, I spent a few days adding more local eateries, plus short trips to Antibes and Menton, both done by commuter train as I had returned the car.
Saturday, October 12, 1985 — I'm off on Air France flight 2477 to Paris to begin 11 days of work on the other dining guide (cover, left). And also to expand my Daytrips in France book with walking tours of the city. But first I looked for cheap accomodations, which I found for 270 francs (about US$35 at the time) a night on the rue des Martyrs, a few blocks below Montmartre.
In total, I included 56 restaurants spread all over the city. Among the more memorable ones was L'Incroyable, hidden between the Palais Royal and the Louvre. This was truly an incredible bargain, where a full meal could cost as little as 37 francs (under US$5) including wine and tip!
Another real find was Au Gourmet de L'Isle on the little island in the Seine just behind Notre-Dame Cathedral. Here dishes from the Auvergne and Limousin were featured along with country wines, and still remained within the target price range. The owner-chef invited me back for dinner, and produced a fabulous meal.
You should not expect modest prices at the top of the Montmarte hill, and you won't find many. But a great splurge can be made at La Crémaillère 1900, an extremely romantic garden restaurant on place du Tertre, where it was possible to put together a meal for 200 francs (US$26), wine and tip included. Their publicity director, a most charming lady, joined me for lunch there. I had the Confit de Canard (duck), followed by a dessert made of chocolate.
On October 23rd I returned to New York and began writing.
Air France later asked me to write a booklet aimed at business travelers, giving them ideas about what to do between meetings in Paris. Before I could finish it, however, all such projects were cancelled in an economy move. But I did get paid.
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