Wednesday, 20 June 2012 13:49

Discovering France, Discovering Belgium...

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Discovering France, Discovering Belgium... Photos: Jackie Grandchamps

Hand in hand with your partner… venture by train through woodland forests and breathtaking overlooks to the heart of the French Alps, taking in a view of Montblanc, the highest peak in Europe.  Brave the gondola ride down into the glacier of Mer de Glace, where the ice is stunningly blue and an amazing exhibit of ice sculptures await you.


Leisurely wander through the narrow medieval roadways of Bruges – Belgium’s quaint ‘Venice of the North.’  Surround yourself with the history of landmark stone buildings erected during the Renaissance and the simple wonder of the Flemish windmills at the outskirts of the village.  Stroll along one of many picturesque canals, taking in views witnessed by travelers for centuries.


Indulge in the art of dining, European-style, while enjoying leisurely conversation and sampling a variety of French cheeses after the main course and before dessert.  Familiarize yourself with local wines, Belgian beers, breads and delectable hand-made chocolates...  Escape!


These are the quaint and inviting excursions that come to mind for many gay & lesbian travelers, as they consider a trip to la Republique Francaise or to the countryside of Belgium.  Yet imagine enjoying these moments not so much as a tourist, but as a visitor immersing him or herself for a week or two in the culture and activities of everyday locals.  Imagine experiencing Europe as a native.


This is the travel concept offered by Jackie Grandchamps, a Belgian scientist now living in the San Francisco area, who realized in 2003 that her love of travel was indeed her true passion.  “Don’t be a tourist, be our guest,” is the tagline she chose for her business:  French Escapade.


“With every trip, the common point is that we’re looking to give an authentic travel experience to people,” Jackie explains.  “I don’t like to say that I offer tours.  –People get the idea they’ll be on a big bus, with scheduled activities.  We don’t do that.  We limit our groups to eight people, many of them gay and oftentimes lesbian-only groups, and although I do have an itinerary and I do have a minivan,” she says jokingly, “...we’re able to provide flexibility and a truly unique experience where our guests actually meet locals and get a taste of the everyday culture, firsthand.”


A highlight for many who travel with Jackie is the opportunity to visit with European residents in their own homes.  “For example,” Jackie says, “during our trips we don’t tend to visit a lot of museums, but in Belgium one of the itineraries does include a visit to a museum dedicated to the Battle of the Bulge.  Afterward we stroll through a nearby cemetery where many of the Americans are buried...”  Several years ago, Jackie had a chance meeting with a woman in the area who was ten years old during WWII.  She continues, “Because we’re such a small group, this woman is happy to invite us into her house.  She makes coffee and such, and she tells us the story of how the Americans saved her life back during the war.  Usually at the end of the trip, people say their favorite part was a moment like this.”


A similar opportunity takes place during one of the trips to France:  In Provence, French Escapade travelers are welcomed into the home of a lesbian couple who recently bought a winery there just outside of town.  Unlike a tour in Napa Valley, for instance, this experience brings travelers directly into the women’s living room and kitchen.  “One of the women is French Canadian,” Jackie says, “and one is French.  They truly enjoy meeting the guests.  We go out into the vineyards and sample the grapes; we taste the wine.  Everyone shares stories about themselves and we just get to know each other, so it’s a combination of enjoying the wine and also making friends.  It’s more intimate.”


A visit to Provence with French Escapade, however, also allows for many of the more traditional regional highlights:  leisurely hours spent in the Provencal marketplace, an afternoon exploring the expansive lavender fields and the opportunity to savor the masterpieces in museums featuring Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, Degas and many others.  One day brings a visit to the famed Pont du Gard, the 2000-year-old bridge pictured on every Euro.  The group learns the basic architectural details about how such a mighty structure could have been raised without mortar -in just five years- and how it has withstood the test of time.


Yet another afternoon brings the adventure of a jeep safari in Camargue, where a local farmer invites the group onto his ranch to see rice fields and a herd of wild black bulls, raised for the Race Camarguaise.  (In France, the bulls are not killed in the arenas!)  “This farmer demonstrates how he herds the bulls with trained horses,” Jackie explains.  “And he does not make money to tour people, he makes money racing bulls.  So it’s very down-to-earth:  my travelers always love the outhouse on his ranch!”


The quality of travel experiences is diverse and uncommon, to say the least.  “It’s about the culture,” Jackie comments, “but mostly my trips are about meeting people.  When we tour a castle, for example, we schedule a guide who meets us and talks about the basics... but they also tell stories about the castle and its history and its surroundings.  They make it more lively, more real.”  Truly, her guests actively participate in the culture – through the food, through the wine, through the history, through nature, through the variety of rich experiences.  Visiting France or Belgium with French Escapade is to see, hear, taste, touch and feel the destination firsthand.


A typical excursion with French Escapade begins with the arrival at your destination and a sumptuous welcoming reception.  Accommodations are most often provided by small, luxury guesthouses or traditional inns, or sometimes by Jackie and her partner, Valerie, at their fully restored 19th-century French country home.  Certain itineraries include home-cooked meals by Valerie, with regional menus prepared to correspond to the travel adventures of the day.  “If we went to the south,” Jackie explains, “Valerie cooks a meal typical from that village or that region to enhance the guests’ experience.  Food,” she smiles, “is a big part of the trip!”


“A European dinner,” she goes on to say,” is three to four courses and lasts about three hours, from 7-10pm most nights.  So we play games, we talk.”  During trips to France, she and Valerie make sure that four different types of cheeses are served at each dinner, so their guests have the chance to sample an array of regional flavors.  “There are more than 500 types of cheeses in France,” Jackie adds.  “So after an eight-day trip, you’ve tasted at least thirty of them.  And these are all cheeses you cannot get in the United States.”  She teaches guests the proper way to slice the French cheeses; each night a different person slices for the group.  Wine selections are offered to best complement the culinary experience.  “Cheese,” Jackie adds, “is a big part of every dinner!”


Delectable Sample Menus from French Escapade:

Provence Day

Aperitif/ Hors d’oeuvres:

Rose wine (Côtes de Provence) with tapenade toasts (olive and anchovy paste)

Goat cheese salad (mache) with honey (Picodon cheese from Provence and lavender honey)

Ratatouille and garlic chicken (vegetable stew from Provence)

Cheese board: 3 types of local goat cheese flavored with pepper, apricot and chives

Fruit sherbet with raspberries (local fruit)
Wines: Red Chateau-Neuf-du-Pape (Côtes du Rhone) / Rosé wine (Tavel) / Clairette de Die (Dessert wine)

French Alps Day

Aperitif / Hors d’Oeuvres:

White wine from Savoy (Roussette) with  small slices of Pâté en Croûte (pâté pie)


9-vegetable soup served with cream and chives
Raclette: cheese melt over several types of meat and vegetables
Baked apple with chestnut paste

Wines: Red wine from Savoy (Mondeuse) / white from Savoy ( Abymes)


Trips with French Escapade range in cost from $2400-$3400 per person, and include accommodations, many and sometimes all of the breakfasts and dinners, activity fees and transportation throughout the 7-14 day excursion.  The cost does not include airfare.


Many itineraries are centered around particular interests, such as regional destinations or writing, painting, cooking or golfing getaways.  Artists and authors are booked in advance to offer workshops and ongoing assistance as travelers find themselves inspired at corner cafes or toting an easel and brushes along the footpaths of St Remy de Provence in the footsteps of Van Gogh.


“Travelers pay a deposit up front of $600,” Jackie says, “basically so I can count on the fact that they are committed to the trip.  I can then set up installments so that their entire fee is paid three months prior to departure.”  Once guests initially commit to a particular itinerary and travel date, Jackie sends along a packet of helpful information:  resources about travel agents, insurance and currency exchange and an overview of typical regional weather, what to consider bringing along, and an outline concerning the activities and accommodations.


Groups vary, in that sometimes an entire family may book a trip… or a few friends may vacation together and find themselves in a group with another couple and perhaps a single traveler as well.  Oftentimes, Jackie finds that her niche is providing the single person or couple an opportunity to travel within a small group, thus enjoying the inherent benefits:  lower costs, visiting Europe in the company of a guide familiar with the area and fluent with the language, seeing the sights within the security of a group that is intimate enough to offer flexibility but large enough to provide a sense of camaraderie.Recently Jackie booked a trip for a group of women who were all related but whose husbands were not interested in the adventure.  “So eight of the women in the family -a grandmother, daughter, cousins- all got together to go to Europe,” Jackie recounts.  “But generally we offer trips for women-only, gays and lesbians, gay men only and some that are available for everyone.  60-70% turn out to be women-only.”  Many on the guest-list are returning clients, she says.


When asked about the issues concerning gays and lesbians, as they travel through small villages and stroll through rural Europe, Jackie offers, “Belgium is a country where you can marry legally, so Belgium is very liberal.  Except if you really go into the deep countryside, but they’re not homophobic.  They just might think it is a little strange to see two women holding hands.  In France, the metropolitan areas like Paris are quite liberal, of course, but we don’t tend to visit those areas; we focus on the countryside.  But we really have never had any problems.  Once, at a castle,” she recalls, “a guide there spent the morning with us and she asked why the group was mostly women…  I told her it was a trip for lesbians and she happily suggested that we go to the nearby town for lunch and visit a particular restaurant – it was owned by two gay guys.”


The travel experience Jackie wishes to provide is not necessarily a visit to the tourist hotspots.  As she emphasizes, her goal is to allow her guests to participate in the everyday culture as they explore the landscape and history.  “Bruges,” she points out, “is a favorite with all the travelers.  Not so much because it’s gay-friendly, but because it’s quaint and wonderful.”


She adds, “Most of the time, as an American traveling abroad, you can go by yourself or with your family to Paris or to the other big cities.  But traveling in the countryside becomes more complicated.  That is the niche we offer at French Escapade.”


One of Jackie’s favorite travel moments took place unexpectedly, during a trip in which a lesbian couple happened to be celebrating their 25th anniversary.  “We didn’t know about it prior,” Jackie explains, “and they saw this vintage car one day –a Deux Cheveux, which exists only in France.  One of the women said, ‘Oh I love this car!  It’s one of my dreams to drive one!’”  Discovering it was the couple’s anniversary, Jackie and Valerie planned to make a cake and organize a sweet celebration, but then Valerie realized she knew someone who owned a Deux Cheveux.  “So,” Jackie continues, “we borrowed the car and we decorated it with balloons and a sign that said ‘Deux Cheveux are for Lovers…’  The American women couldn’t drive in France of course, so Valerie drove them…  Then all of our guests wanted a ride too, so everyone switched off with my little minivan following along behind.”  She smiles brightly, remembering, “Everyone who was on that trip even now (seven years later) says that this was their best souvenir.”


Since 2003, Jackie Grandchamps has been offering a multitude of travelers unique and joyful excursions through French Escapade.  For several years, she was certain her business would focus entirely on trips to France.  Ultimately it was the travelers themselves who changed her mind.  Recalls Jackie, “The guests would tell me that they loved their trips; it was like traveling with friends and not touring…  They’d say, ‘But we want to come back with you and visit other countries.’”  After several requests, she added trips to her native Belgium.  And soon she plans to book a group for Italy, specifically Tuscany.


“I’m reluctant,” she comments, “because I don’t speak Italian.  But I’m going to hire a guide and I want to keep my returning clients happy, so I’m branching out.  I will tell the local guide exactly what I want:  cooking in Tuscany, not in a school but in someone’s home…”


Also now available are excursions throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, where Jackie resides for six months during the year.  Travelers may choose from a variety of trips, from customized visits to the National Parks or Napa Valley, to a behind-the-scenes adventure through the City by the Bay where the gay rights movement gained such momentum.


2010 will also spotlight a trip to Senegal, an area to which Jackie has traveled herself many times over.  “I love Africa,” she says.  “And in Senegal they speak French.  Also it is not like Kenya or Tanzania, where Americans commonly tour.  Senegal is not a tourist-type country.  So it remains authentic.”  In keeping with her vision, Jackie chose the destination to provide a cultural experience for her travel guests.  “This will be a trip for women-only.  And we are going to meet Senegalese women – one day they are going to teach us African dances, one day we are going to cook with the locals.  One day we are going to a school and we’ll meet teachers who are women... we’ll visit the market and buy supplies and take them back to the school...  We will meet a panel of Senegal women sharing their life stories.  It will be amazing.”


Several years ago, a family of seven journeyed to Europe on a trip through French Escapade.  As the holiday ended, they were saddened at the departure and told Jackie, ‘We came here as a family of seven, now we’ve become a family of nine.’  Leaving Jackie and Valerie behind left them particularly sorry to end the beautiful trip.


This tender sentiment sums up the experience available to travelers who choose a vacation with Jackie Grandchamps, who stays in touch with her clients for months and often years after the trip is over.  “Who I work with,” she says, “are people who want to discover a new culture.  I offer the opportunity of an authentic experience, so that they will not be a tourist but a guest.”

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