Cindy Walker, a Travel Leaders agent, enjoys paella in Spain. // © 2014 Cindy Walker
Feature image (above): The French riverside town of Dinan is among Walker’s favorite stops outside of Paris. // © 2014 Thinkstock
As a child growing up the 1950s, Cindy Walker spent a lot of time spinning her globe. The game was a simple one: She would close her eyes, give the world a turn and then jab her finger at it. Wherever it landed would be declared her next vacation spot — even if only in her imagination. Her curiosity for other places also drove her to write to different tourism boards. Back then, they would reply with piles of information pamphlets selling the destination.
Walker got her first taste of Europe as teenager, first visiting with her parents and on school trips and later as a study-abroad student in Italy. But she explored much more of the continent when she became a mother — her family traveled the continent for a year in a motor home, which included toting two toddlers with them.
“Europe has always been the draw for me,” Walker said. “I studied both Italian and French in college. I love the languages, the art and the history of the region. I’m fascinated by everything about it, really.”
Walker became a travel agent in 1986. She currently resides in Seattle and works for Travel Leaders as a Europe specialist. She talked with TravelAge West about some of her favorite spots in France — she’s visited the destination more than a dozen times in recent years.
For clients who have never been to France, surely Paris is on their list. How do you recommend they tackle the City of Lights?
Paris is magical for first-timers and never ceases to amaze even after many visits. It’s also great for families. I’ve been there with my children as toddlers, young children and teens. You will find yourselves at parks and playgrounds with local French families when you travel there with children. We would keep everyone busy by seeing who could spot the most gargoyles — I still do this today on my own.
For any age, the street markets are endlessly fascinating, with beautiful displays of produce and amazing cheeses and fish of all kinds. In addition to dozens of temporary food markets that spring up around the city on select days of the week, Paris has a number of permanent market streets offering gaggles of fresh, high-quality produce, fish and meat, cheeses and other goodies. These Paris street markets are usually situated on pedestrian-only streets, making them particularly pleasant for a leisurely stroll.
But my heartiest recommendation when in Paris — and anywhere, really — is to slow down. Don’t try to do everything. It’s better to not have a goal in some of these places. When you allow yourself some free time, you’ll go around a corner and stumble upon something wonderful, which you would miss if you were just going from church to museum off some list.
Where do you suggest clients go outside of Paris?
I often suggest the Alsace region and Strasbourg, which we just fell in love with. Strasbourg is almost on the border of Germany, traded back in forth like a baseball card between the two countries. It was also trampled during the World Wars, but it is a charming area full of little half-timber homes and rich with history. There are beautiful cathedrals. It feels like a little Venice, the way it sits on the water.
I love Brittany as well, and it’s also steeped in history — a lot of English history, in fact. It was called Lesser Britain at one time. Dinan is a particularly gorgeous village there, dating back to the 11th century. It’s not on the channel, but an estuary, and it has a tiny port. There’s fabulous shellfish, and it’s a favorite place for the British, who can just come across by ferry and visit beautiful beaches.
It’s is also a good place to settle for a week and take day trips in the region. You can go to the walled town of Saint-Malo — a haven for pirates during the seafaring time and founded by a sixth-century Welsh monk. We also took day trips to Mont Saint-Michel and the nearby town of Cancale, which is famous for oysters and shellfish. In the interior of the region, we walked in the footsteps of the fictional characters King Arthur and Merlin the Magician, discovering 11th century castles and fortresses. And this just barely scratched the surface of what Brittany has to offer.
Where do your clients stay in these smaller destinations?
There are a lot of lovely small hotels in these regions. Generally, my clients are looking for three- and four-star accommodations, both of which can be lovely and comfortable. They also tend to reflect the character of the region they’re in. I can also help people find apartment-style accommodation to rent, if they want to stay longer.
There’s a service that I use called Venere.com (part of Expedia). You can register as a travel agent, and you’re guaranteed commission on all price ranges. The site offers everything from five-star hotels to bed and breakfasts and little apartments, and it allows my clients to have more options. It’s reliable, and I can still email the hotel and make special requests and carry on correspondence based on the reservations I make.
You have been known to create food-themed itineraries for your own travels and for clients. Tell us a little bit more about that.
We generally eat our way through our destination, yes. Brittany, for example, is known for galettes and crepes but also seafood, butter and cream. The beverage of choice there is hard cider.
The area of Languedoc-Roussillon is famous for cassoulet, which is a hearty dish of beans, pork, sausage and duck confit that is simmered for hours. The history of cassoulet is amazing: During the Hundred Years’ War, the citizens of Castelnaudary were trapped by the English, and they pooled their last scraps of meat and beans together and, fortified by this meal, rallied to chase the English back to the Channel.
In Provence, the signature dish is bouillabaisse, and in Alsace, they love choucroute garnie (a French version of sauerkraut with sausages), each dish accompanied by regional wines.
I like to do the same in Paris. We had been there a few times and found ourselves often going over the same territory, so we started creating a theme for our visits. One year, we found wonderful ideas in the back pages Ina Garten’s cookbook “Barefoot in Paris: Easy French Food You Can Make at Home.” She listed her favorite things — street markets, bakeries, cheese shops, pastry and chocolate shops, cookware, tableware, wine, even flowers, as well as a few restaurants. We plotted them out on a map and discovered some new neighborhoods in the city.
On a future trip, we plan to focus on the lesser-known museums of Paris. There are endless ways to follow your own interests.