Our original plan for our family vacation this year revolved around a trip to the Normandy WWII landing beaches. I was excited to return after 31 when I was there for my first time abroad as a study abroad student at Stanford. My husband Mike had never been, and my son Andrew is a military history nut. We had also gone to an exhibit of Monet paintings at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco that focused on his early career that included many paintings in the Normandy region.
We also decided to spend a few days in London as described in my previous blog, and a few days in Paris to end our vacation. After leaving London, we took the Chunnel train to Calais where we had planned to rent a car Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately we missed our train and had to stay in Calais a couple of nights because we arrived Saturday night after the rental car agencies were closed and they wouldn’t be open again until Monday morning. Fortunately, we were able to find a nice hotel in the center of town and our unexpected day in Calais turned into a pleasant visit.
Monday morning, we picked up our car and headed to the city of Rouen, known for being the home of Joan of Arc and where she was martyred. It is also home to the stunning Cathedral of Rouen which was a subject of several paintings by Monet, which we had seen in the exhibit in San Francisco. The old town has many half-timbered houses and along with the cathedral there is also the Church of Saint-Maclou which is in the “flamboyant” gothic style.
The Cathedral of Rouen has many impressive memorials, including one to St. Joan of Arc, who I consider a real “Amazon” and who is memorialized throughout the city of Rouen. There is also the femur of the original Duke of Normandy, Rollo, who was a Viking leader. The town, as most of the towns in Normandy, was heavily damaged in the war, and the cathedral is under nearly constant repair, from storm damage as well as age and pollution.
After leaving Rouen, we headed to Caen, where we met my nephew Alfonso, and his husband Joris, who were joining us for our time in Normandy from Rotterdam. We spent some time at the castle of William the Conqueror that evening, which is in the process of reconstruction. We headed up to our house rental, a very cute home in the town of Benouville, near a war memorial, the Pegasus Bridge featured in the film “The Longest Day.” The house is near the beach town of Ouistreham, which is also worth a visit. We ended up using the two bikes at the rental house and renting two more so we could bike along the beach one day, which was a lot of fun.
Our second day in Caen, we went to the town of Bayeux to see the famous tapestry that depicts the Battle of Hastings between William the Conqueror and Harold who had taken on the throne of England in his place. The tapestry is impressive and we also enjoyed visiting the nearby museum about the WW II landings. After the visit to Bayeux we went to Omaha Beach and walked up to the memorials on the hill above.
On Wednesday, we made our way toward Brittany and the famous Mont Saint Michel. The day started off foggy and our first glimpse of the mount and it’s abby was in the fog. The day cleared some and we did get some sun as we made our way through the narrow streets of the fortress that has had many purposes over the centuries. I was happy to return to this place, as I felt we hadn’t been able to spend much time here when I was a student and our guide had seemed in a hurry to usher us through. We worked our way up through the crowds to the abby where we did the audio tour. It was very impressive and they have added some modern artwork in many of the rooms. The tide was at a high point when we arrived so we were able to watch it go out over the hours that we were there.
After touring the abby we made our way down along the ramparts, checking out the cannons and having lunch in one of the rooms above the tourist shops. We were lucky that the weather was nice during most of our visit.
Our next stop was St. Malo, and I was very excited to revisit this town, it was one of my favorite stops from 31 years ago. I had written in my diary then that I wanted to visit the town in the summer someday (my previous tour had been in April, when it had been rather cold) and so my wish was finally being fulfilled. It was as I remembered, the high walls surrounding a medieval town, although it had clearly
become much more commercial in the center part of the town. We made our way all around the ramparts, enjoying the views of the various forts, and the sea. I bought a water color painting at the marketplace to commemorate our visit.
The next day we went to the American Cemetery, which was very sobering. The monuments in general have changed a great deal since my last. They have all been improved with first-person stories from survivors. I was particularly impressed with the visitors’ center at the cemetery, which was built in 2004 and recently renovated. The center did a very good job of providing context and telling personal stories of individual soldiers. I felt it was important to pay my respects for those who gave all to protect democracy, and I hope that I can show even a shred of the courage that they did to help protect the future for my children.
Our next stop was Pointe du Hoc. This memorial has also been improved since I was last here. There is a new visitors center where survivors tell their version of the story. In fact, the story we were when I was a student was incorrect and I heard a more accurate version of the story more recently. The rangers climbed up the cliffs at this point to take out a gun battery the month before D-Day to keep it from being able to attack ships during the invasion.
Friday was our day at the beach with biking and we finished our day with a seafood dinner in Ouistreham. Saturday morning, we were up early to drive back to Calais to drop off our rental car and take the train to Paris. We stayed at an apart-hotel near the Gare de l’Est that had two bedrooms so the boys had their own bedroom, and we had a little kitchenette. That afternoon we walked through the Marais and stopped at Places des Vosges. The Marais has become much more commercial as well, I was surprised to see more chain stores and high-end shops. We then walked by Notre Dame and had dinner at a bistro. The weather was very nice in Paris, warm but with cool breezes.
Sunday, we started off with a visit to the Cluny museum which has medieval art, and is in one of the oldest buildings in Paris, with ruins going back to the Roman era, it was originally a Roman bath in the Roman city of Lutetia. It is also the home of the tapestries called the Lady and the Unicorn which are stunning in their color and vibrancy.
I took a break while the boys went to the Musee D’Orsay to check out the Impressionists in the afternoon. That evening we went to a chamber music performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in the Sainte-Chapelle. Both the music and the surroundings were stunning.
For our last day, I spent a few hours in the morning doing a little shopping, then met the boys at the Louvre museum – pro-tip, skip the lines by buying your ticket online. The only reason you have to stand in line is to get through security and the line is shorter if you can show them that you already have a ticket. The Louvre is wonderful as always and we focused on the Denon wing which is always the most popular. It houses most of the paintings, including the Mona Lisa, as well as the most popular sculptures, including Michelangelo. Andrew was particularly interested in the Romantic and Neo-classical art.
We concluded our last night in Paris at a restaurant recommended by Rick Steves, Bofinger, at Place de la Bastille. It’s in an art deco building, and the food was very good. We had the seafood platter which included lobster, prawns, shrimp, whelks, crab, etc…we had a very enjoyable evening overall.
Paris is wonderful, but I like London better. My big complaint about Paris is that it really smells of urine during the summer, and I don’t mean dog urine. We actually came across a man peeing in a park as we were leaving the Cluny Museum. Men seem to think it’s OK to pee just about anywhere, in the Metro, streets, alleys, etc. Since it’s summer and hot, it smells everywhere. This is not something I have noticed in London. Then there’s the typical problem of Parisians who don’t clean up after their dogs. You have to be constantly vigilant to avoid stepping in dog poop.
Despite the smells, I do enjoy Paris, and overall, we had a great trip. It was my first time going to Europe that I didn’t have to do any work. People were very friendly, my French came back fairly quickly, and the boys got to practice their French, too (they’re both taking French at school). Although the security was high, it wasn’t oppressive. I look forward to visiting again, soon.