December 5th to 9th, 2003
This trip was recently planned for several reasons: 1) We needed a getaway as a “breather” from recent family and work stresses; 2) United AL had a special round-trip rate to Paris that was too good to refuse (and those miles would lock in Paul’s premier status for 2004); and 3) I’ve wanted to go to Normandy since hearing about the American cemetery from Stefan Muret – the young French history teacher who became the catalyst for our trip to Europe with Dad last fall. Soooo… the trip began Thursday afternoon, December 4th at Dulles airport --- BUT the flight that was scheduled to leave at 5:50 PM was delayed 1 hr (“fuel filter leak” indicated by the computer) – then 2 hrs (mechanic needed to go in and check the fuel filter) – then 4 hrs (had to replace the fuel filter and “complete the paperwork!”)…. At this point they served us a drink! (We had not been allowed to leave the plane nor had we even been offered water.) – then the delay stretched to an unbelievable FIVE hours because the plane now had to be de-iced because the snow storm began while we were sitting there! SO, instead of arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport at 7:00 AM, we arrived at 12:15 PM – a half-day gone.
(12/5) The adventures continued – finding the rental car office and finding the route to Normandy! We got on the road about 1:30 – and got to the town of Bayeux about 4:30 as it was getting dark. However, we became hopelessly lost trying to find the apartment (no address or map – just directions from an email and pictures from the website). We picked up some groceries, parked near the cathedral (since we knew the apartment was close to it), then went into a bar where 2 friendly French women went out of their way to help point us in the general direction. Armed with a map from the tourist booklet they gave us, we eventually found it on foot – then, after many wrong turns and one-way street snafus, we found it by car – with a lucky parking spot on the narrow street in front!
The apartment, “Le Guillaume” is a perfect home base for our Normandy travels. It’s located right next to the cathedral in a 16th century stone building in the historic zone in Bayeux. Just renovated last summer, it is clean, charming and comfortable, with a wonderful bathroom and kitchen. A very nice touch... when we arrived we found a welcome basket with cereal, cookies, and wine. Also, the fridge contained milk, cheese, butter, and eggs. The owners, Dawn Petts and Jean Lemagner, go our of their way to to make your stay a pleasant one. Since we arrived long after dark, there was just time to unpack, take a much-needed shower, and walk down the street for dinner. We were hungry and tired, so we chose the first place we saw: Restaurant Le Pommier. We each chose an entrée of Normandy specialties, after sharing an excellent country pate. Paul ordered the (tripe) sausage, but couldn’t eat it. I had the duck, which was excellent and we shared it – both meals served with a variety of delicious vegetables and baked apples. Paul also sampled the local Calvados (apple brandy) and declared it to the “essence of 100-year old gym socks!” Sleep came easily, but fitfully.
(12/6) After a restless night, we finally awoke for good at 9:00 AM. Whew! After a quick shower, coffee and breakfast, we headed out to tour some of the D-Day beaches. Our first stop was Arromanches (the coastal town famous for the building of the artificial harbor by the British) a key to the success of the Battle of Normandy. The “Musee du Debarquement” on the water overlooking this harbor was fascinating, with outstanding exhibits and videos. It was absolutely mind boggling to imagine the 2 years of preparation and planning that resulted in this incredible accomplishment that was put together on the other side of the channel – then towed and constructed in just a few days – complete with floating piers capable of supporting heavy vehicles needed to supply the Allied effort. It made us realize how poor our generations’ knowledge of WWII history is – not to mention that of our children and grandchildren!
From Arromanches we headed south along the coast to Omaha Beach – the site where so many Americans lost their lives on D-Day. Today it’s just a huge empty beach, but as we walked it, I couldn’t help but think of the emotional pain felt by those coming here who lost a loved one on that day. We climbed the hill from the beach to reach the touching memorials erected to the engineers and infantry – then continued walking until we found the huge American cemetery – wow. It was awesome and heartbreaking to see, touch, and walk among the countless rows of marble crosses (or stars of David) – almost 10,000 American graves of men who died in the fight to liberate Northern France. Brigadier Generals were buried beside Privates – there was no apparent order by rank, name, date or state – just rows and rows of white in contrast to the immaculate green lawn and beautiful landscaping, with a striking memorial dedicated to the youth of America – and a beautiful round Chapel which has inscribed around its dome: THESE ENDURED ALL AND GAVE ALL THAT JUSTICE AMONG NATIONS MIGHT PREVAIL AND THAT MANKIND MIGHT ENJOY FREEDOM AND PEACE. I couldn’t help but think that the leaders of those nations (including France and Germany, I must say!) that think Americans are war mongers and nation builders should be brought to this place to see and read this. We left this special site with tears in our eyes and heavy hearts.
Since the weather was quite chilly and misty and because it was already after 3:30, we decided not to attempt the drive to Sainte Mere Eglise (well known from the movie “The Longest Day”) and instead headed back to Bayeux – found the apartment on the first try! – and walked to the museum to tour the famous Bayeux tapestry – 70 meters long and 50 cm high – an embroidery done in wool on linen canvas in the 11th century. It recounted how and why William the Conquerer achieved the conquest of England in the Battle of Hastings, Oct. 14, 1066. The audiophone in English made this an enjoyable 20-minute history lesson while witnessing a world masterpiece – amazing!
A day with lots of history – but little talk of food. We had lunch today in Port en Bessin – an interesting little town between Arromanches and Omaha Beach. We found a delightful little bistro " Le Bistrot d' a Cote' where Paul got his fill of delicious Meules Mariniere, I had Soupe de Poisson (rich and wonderful), and we shared a plate of fresh, homemade “frites” and house wine. An espresso (me) and a cappuccino (Paul) hit the spot. Wonderful!
Tonight we had dinner in ‘Le Petit Bistro” across the street from our apartment. It was great. We ordered from the 15 Euro menu and enjoyed tastes of delicious local specialties. Paul had potage du pommes de terre – a wonderful, aromatic potato soup – a cassoulet of local meats (pork, duck and sausage with beans), and a dense chocolate “pave” (brick) with chocolate sauce – he was in heaven! I had the terrine du canard (duck, which was served in a huge pan from which you served yourself a slice!-- delicious), a cassoulette de trios poisons (tender sliced potatoes with 3 pieces of fish – salmon, cod, and ?), ending with a pear poached in wine with outstanding vanilla ice cream. Yum! Of course we also had great bread with olives and other condiments (marinated red onions and a mushroom dish) before the meal, and wonderful house wines.
(12/7) Another restless night, but we got up at 8:00 anyway. Paul made a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast (the plus side of having an apartment) – then we headed out for day 2 of touring. Our first stop was a walk around the majestic “Cathedral Notre-Dame” next door – miraculously untouched during the Allied bombing raids of 1944. It was consecrated in 1077 (attended by William, Duke of Normandy who was then king of England) and has undergone many extensions and embellishments from the 12th to the 15th centuries. It’s quite impressive – and, though huge, it looks like a smaller version of Notre Dame in Paris.
After filling the gas tank (~$30. for 8 gallons!), we headed south to visit Mont Saint-Michel. We tried to take what appeared to be the most direct route for the first part of the trip, but got fouled up by some confusing signage and a new road near St. Lo – so we had to do some very frustrating backtracking to get onto A-84 – the major autoroute. (Advice to those traveling from Bayeux to Mont St Michel – drive to Caen and take A-84 – we did that coming back and it was a breeze.)
The approach to this famous abbey was quite impressive, as it looms above the countryside at the end of a causeway separating the mainland from the (former) island across the mudflats (ramparts) – which are covered by water when the record 56-foot tides come in! (We found out that the next high tide won’t happen until 8 AM tomorrow, which was very surprising. Anyway, there was no problem parking along the causeway close to the island, where there are just 30 permanent residents in the village at the base, and 3 nuns and 3 Benedictine priests in the abbey.
We took the advise in Rick Steve’s book and began climbing to the right after entering the huge doorway, a killer climb up countless stone steps to get to the abbey entrance! (I called it St Michel’s version of the Harvard Step Test – quite a workout!). After our climb in the freezing wind, we opted for a self-guided tour and wandered through the huge, but very impressive (though barren) structure – a granite masterpiece that has certainly stood the test of time – with a fascinating religious, symbolic and political history.
We left the abbey and returned through the village – complete with the obligatory souvenir shops, bars, and small hotels (many closed during the off season). We stopped at Le Mouton Blanc for a coffee and aperitif (Armanac for me and a much smoother Calvados for Paul). The small restaurants were full, so we returned to the car and munched on snacks, baguette and local Camembert as our lunch.
Though it was early, we called an end to the touring and returned to our Bayeux home base – Paul for a nap and yours truly for a walk along the main street (most shops and restaurants close on Sunday) for people watching, scouting out dinner options – and an apricot tartlette as a treat. It’s hard to believe that tomorrow will be our last day in Normandy. We definitely did not have enough time to see everything we wanted, but it was a wonderful taste of an interesting part of France.
Dinner options were limited. Our first stop was at Lion d’Or Hotel – a cozy looking place (Eisenhower slept here!) with a great restaurant menu posted – but as luck would have it – that menu was for the noon meal (they began closing Sunday nights starting today!)… so we had a drink in the pleasant bar (with fireplace) – then headed out to choice #2: Le Rapiere. We had excellent service and a wonderful meal – Paul had cod and I had pork – both surrounded by a delightful assortment of vegetables, with bread and wine, and followed by a cheese course. The chilly brisk walk back to the apartment was not long enough to burn the calories we consumed, so we’ll have to behave after we leave France! Tomorrow we head to Evreux – our final stop -- with a few side trips along the way.
(12/8) After a quick pack and breakfast, we headed to the Musee Memorial on the outskirts of Caen. This beautiful new museum was a place where one could easily spend a half day, but we limited our time to ~ 2 hours, including the spectacular videos on the Battle of Normandy and other WWII exhibits. We did not have time to explore the Hall of Peace and other exhibits.
Next stop was Honfleur – a coastal town across the Seine from LeHavre. It reminded us somewhat of Annapolis, Maryland – but our descriptions were “adorable” and “cute as a button!” relating to the old harbor area (which looked very similar 100 years ago!). It scores a “10” for ambience, with colorful old buildings of varying height and width stacked together around the old port, housing cafes, restaurants, shops and galleries. We chose the friendly “Les Crevettes” for a wonderful lunch of mussels (Moules Marienere again for Paul, and “a la Crème” for me), frites and a nice bottle of Muscadet. Then, after a pleasant walk, a peek into the unique St. Catherine’s church with vaulted wooden ceilings, etc… we reluctantly left the cobblestones and quaintness for the drive to Evereux – including an unplanned trip over the 1.3 mile Pont de Normandie – the longest cable-stayed bridge in the western world – which crosses the mouth of the Seine.
We had another adventure finding our hotel (this time a “Map-O-Rama” screw-up) – but finally got to Hotel Normandie in Evreux just at sunset. This is a comfortable place – not fancy, but with character (especially the heavily beamed old bar and lobby). Paul opted for a nap and I headed out on foot for a “mission” – a walk to the closest “Supermarche” (Supermarket) to buy pates, etc. for Christmas gifts. The woman at the reception desk suggested I drive since it was on the road out of town – but we must have mis-communicated on the distance….. So after a “marathon marche” of > 2 miles (past the next town!) I finally found it – then faced another 50 minutes hike lugging my purchases back to the hotel – just in time for a quick clean up before heading to dinner.
Since it was a Monday night, we again had few restaurant choices in this rather small town, but spotted Le Taverna Mistre Kanter – a great spot with a huge and interesting menu. Paul ordered mussels again (“Normande” or a la crème, this time) and I opted for the 15 Euro Taverna Menu and chose 6 oysters on the half shell (smaller than in Maryland, but tasty -- served with lemon and red onions in vinegar), papilotte of salmon with julienne vegetables, and a wonderful dessert crepe, which we shared. Sleep came easily!
(12/9) After a light hotel breakfast (juice, yogurt, croissant, coffee), we headed toward Paris and the airport. The drive was a smooth one until we reached A-86 and were able to translate enough of the sign to realize that there was an accident ahead… Little did we know that the delay would take us 1 ½ hours to travel 20 km – but we finally got to the airport, returned the car and checked in with time to spare…. Whew! The flight home was long, but pleasant, after an exhausting whirlwind tour of a taste of Normandy.