Doni Belau is the founder and President of Girls’ Guide to Paris & Beyond, a womens-only tour operator that conducts trips to all parts of France each year. She splits her time between the US and France. We asked her what she loves most about France…
Like Gertrude Stein once said, “America is my country and Paris is my hometown.”
I have felt this way ever since I stepped foot in Paris back in 1987. Later I spent time traveling outside Paris and I fell hard and heavy for the French countryside, so much so that we bought a home directly on the Dordogne River about 12 years ago. It doesn’t seem possible to have such a strong love for a house but Le Priolet, formerly a monks priory, is a place I adore almost as much as my English cocker spaniel or my two grown kids, ok maybe not quite as much….but its close. I feel peaceful there, a kind of peace I don’t feel elsewhere. I can hear the birds as they fly down the river, I can hear the fish jump and I can’t see anyone else’s home, just the river. Aaaah.
In Paris, I feel alive. I feel refreshed. I feel more feminine because I’m surrounded by beauty. The rest of the time up until now, that is, I’ve lived with hubby in New York. New York is a place I also love but mainly because of our friends here. We’ve been here for almost 40 years… eeek and I’m thrilled to say we have just sold our home in Bedford, NY and we’ll be moving to France for 6 months of the year. We hope to spend winters somewhere warm, but that location is TBD. Of course, with my job as a tour creator and conductor I’m on the road at least two weeks of every month so home is a very relative term at this point.
What simply thrills me is that after wishing, hoping, wanting and working towards a real move to France it is finally happening….this year! I’ve been lucky enough thanks to a very flexible and supportive husband to have owned a home in France for the past 20 years but now getting to spend real, not interrupted time, in this beautiful country means that I’m quite simply over the moon.
Upon reflection, I’d say that first and foremost I love France because of the way she makes me feel. In Paris I feel one way and in the country I feel another way… both are feelings I need like I need air to breathe.
French Food – three of My Fave’s
Secondly, I love the actual food and the cultural reverence the French have for food. I always say that the simple baguette alone is reason enough to get on a plane. I simply do NOT understand people who don’t plan their days around food or discuss what they’ll be having for dinner while they are still enjoying lunch. That’s what we do in our family and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
If I had to pick just thee food items that make me swoon and that I can only find in France it would have to be a fresh hot buttery croissant, aligot and a briny oyster sold from an oyster-grower on Sundays. In our region in the Southwest, it’s a tradition to head out and get oysters to shuck at home on a Sunday. Call it oyster church. An oyster is perhaps my favorite food but there are no oysters on the planet that compare to the ones grown in Arcachon in our region or Cancale in Normandy.
L’Aligot is another matter altogether. Native to the Aveyron region, suffice it to say the French found a way to make mashed potatoes taste even better and that’s by whipping them up with Comté or Tomme cheese into a gooey magical substance that will widen your hips and open your heart. If you want to try it, you will just have to join us on a fall tour in the Aveyron!
Beyond the food, it’s got to be the architecture that punches me in the stomach every time I set foot in the hexagon. Limestone buildings carved from the caves of St. Emilion that line the quays in Bordeaux, the rustic farmhouses found in the Aveyron region, the half-timbered buildings seen in Normandy and Brittany. The funny looking domed sheep herder huts called bories which you find all over France but particularly in Provence, they actually make me laugh.
The incomparable castles of the Loire Valley that boldly shout a sense of grandeur. The bridges of Paris particularly the Pont des Arts and the Pont Neuf which make me swoon. The symbol of the country is another architectural and engineering feat, la Tour and every time she sparkles my heart skips a beat. Not content to rest on their laurels, France continues to churn out some incredible tastemakers and architects like Jean Nouvel, Christian de Portzamparc, Phillippe Starck and Bernard Tschumi so the legend continues.
Perhaps it’s just that the French appreciate beauty, in a way that I also do. They really care about it, they are concerned about it, they even have an institute focused entirely on the French language in order to protect it. Beauty to a French person extends beyond flower arranging and fashion to more esoteric things like table settings, perfume, the French language and lingerie that you buy just for yourself as a guilty pleasure.
How lucky is France that its surrounded by three bodies of water, each with its own unique appeal. The cliffs of Étretat which rise up out of the English Channel in Normandy, the world renowned rocky beaches of the Riviera on the Mediterranean sea, as well as the wild Atlantic that crashes up to the land from Brittany to the Basque region. France also has inherited most often through bloody means some glorious island paradises, Corsica being my personal favorite. Which brings me to one of the most poetic and heavenly notions about France is that each region has something unique and gloriously special to discover.
If you go to Brittany, you’ll discover buckwheat galettes and funny Breton bonnets, in the Basque area of Southwestern France you’ll shop for Espadrilles, colorful striped fabrics and espellette pepper for spice. It’s hard to even discuss the delectable Alsatian Flammekueche (like pizza sans tomato sauce) without having your mouth start watering. In Burgundy you must have the snails, in the Aveyron you must have Aligot….and the list goes on and on.
As is true of most places but it feels pronounced in France, each region exhibits such a pride of place – its inhabitants will wax on about how beautiful their villages are, how unique their customs remain. I believe it’s because France was once a feudal land and while I’m not anxious to go back in time, particularly as a lowly woman, each region had it lord, its own customs and so much of that remains today even in an era of globalization because of the French reverence for history and honor in their own land.
It’s pretty easy to come up with a list of what I love about France, what it is hard for me is to stop talking about what I love. How can one not love and cherish a country and a culture that created the term Joie de Vivre which translates to the exuberant enjoyment of life. That is my motto and how I aim to lead my life every single day. And I feel eternally blessed to be able to introduce women to my favorite regions and hidden corners of France as my métier.
Doni and her family share a home in the Gironde region, not far from St. Emilion which is home to superb Bordeaux wines, and they also have a flat on the Ile St. Louis in Paris.
Find out more about Doni’s unique, utterly fabulous tours, trips and adventures for women at girlsguidetoparis.com