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Normandy and Paris (Week One)... A Private Tour: Late June - Early July, 2015

And so it began... a second, three week tour for two clients who have become dearest of friends. It was prompted by the fact that a friend of my client would be in Normandy with his wife and two sons. I was asked to put together a tour, and then take them along with us for a day of visiting the cemeteries, museums, and sights of the Normandy invasion beaches.

It then grew to include two more weeks, as we both agreed that one week was simply a waste of airfare...

Day One:

It always starts with an airport arrival - and ours was our arrival into Charles de Gaulle, a pick up of our rental car, and a drive northwest to Normandy, stopping off at Monet's home and gardens in Giverny.

I chose a splendid manor-style hotel for my clients, which fit the bill perfectly and was located right between the Allied and American invasion sectors. Keeping the costs minimal, I stayed in a simple and appropriate hotel up the road in Arromanches, right off the beach.

Hotel for our first four nights in Normandy...

Day Two:

This was appropriately scheduled as a relaxing day in nearby Bayeux, one of Normandy's most famous cities and the perfect antidote to a long flight.

We parked and enjoyed a lovely stroll through the city, stretching our legs, taking in the sights, and dining on some delicious French food. And you cannot visit Bayeux without seeing its famous Bayeux tapestry, which tells the story of the Norman Invasion of England by William the Conqueror...

The Bayeux Cathedral

The Bayeux Tapestry... in the flesh.

A Perfect Norman Salad... cheese, apples, and Norman sausage.

And later that day, we stopped by an interesting museum devoted to all of the sunken wrecks and vehicles that posed a threat to Norman fishermen for at least a decade after the war. We watched a fascinating movie about the incredible effort it took to pull so much wreckage off the ocean floor - including many tanks whose crews were still inside.

Day Three:

Saving up the bulk of our military history sight-seeing for the family still to join us, we headed off to another famous landmark of Normandy, France's majestic Mont St. Michel.

The island has held strategic fortifications since ancient times and since the 8th century AD has been the seat of the monastery from which it draws its name. The structural composition of the town exemplifies the feudal society that constructed it: on top, God, the abbey and monastery; below, the great halls; then stores and housing; and at the bottom, outside the walls, fishermen's and farmers' housing.

According to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared in 708 to St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet. Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel's instruction until Michael burned a hole in the bishop's skull with his finger.

The interesting busses of Mont St. Michel... with no space to turn around, they have a wheel and cockpit for the driver on both ends!

A visit to a decidely touristy restaurant and icon of the Mont: La Mère Poulard. It confirmed our own suspicions... highly overrated. There aren't really options on one of the most visited locations on the planet. We pride ourselves on getting away from much of that, but every so often, you have to dive into the roar of tourism - t-shirt shops, Chinese armed with cameras, silly couples taking selfies, marginal food, and all...

The sparkling apple wine was a winner, however. :P

A haunting German cemetery, located close to Mont St. Michel... as ever and always, we are about the complete experience... Europe is full of culture, history, and great food, and it makes absolute sense to weave it all together. Food and wine tours don't know much about any other bit of history that is "unrelated." And military history tours often have the culinary background of an American eighth grader.

Balance, baby...

We then headed off to visit the Patton Memorial in Avranches, a town his army liberated, though at great cost to French civilians. Losing over 20,000 civilians to Allied bombings in preparation for the landing and in the subsequent battles, the French still remain humbly thankful for the Allied actions which liberated their country...

We had a drinks at a town cafe and marveled at their local war memorial - a landmark in every French town, built to commemorate the local war dead from WWI, with resistance fighters and soldiers added from WWII, and a few names from wars in Morrocco and French Indochina (Vietnam).

Day Four:

One couldn't ask for a better birthday present than to celebrate it doing what you love... and mine happened to fall on this day. We headed out for some of the Normandy battlefield sights we wouldn't be able to squeeze in with our upcoming all-day tour. We headed to Courseulles-sur-Mer for a highly regarded restaurant and birthday meal, but we first stopped off at a Commonwealth cemetery - this one for the Canadians who took the Juno Beachhead and fought against some top German units in the subsequent days.

A most delicious seafood platter... with oysters, whelks (sea snails that are simply delicious), and even bite-sized shrimp, which you eat, shell and all.

Norman Pâté... the finest on Planet Earth...

Summer in Normandy - this was my nightly drive back to my own hotel, the town of Arromanches and the remains of the great artificial harbor built to support the invasion beachhead just over the bluff in the distance. People often forget how far north Normandy lies... we had bands of light still visible in the sky until after 11pm.

Our final relaxed night in Normandy, with a dinner in Arromanches and a visit to the war memorial up on the bluff... What a view.

Day Five:

Paris was on the menu - and off we went. It's not a short drive, and one always has to account for the Paris traffic. Personally, I relish the drive around the Arc du Triomphe. It is one of the Valhallas for true drivers (an important trait for a tour guide to possess). We stayed in the St. Germain neighborhood, with Notre-Dame and a host of sights, restaurants, and shops all in perfect walking distance.

As before, I put my clients up in a charming, stately hotel - and I took a simpler one around the corner. One of my travelers had a request to find a special clothing shop, and I had a surprise for them. I had the wife of a great friend of mine meet up with us (she's a native of Paris), and it added much color and happiness to the experience.

Drinks after an afternoon of sights and shops in Paris.

It was a sweltering day in Paris... you'd better believe you'll need a hotel with air-conditioning in the summers in some of the major cities.

Difficult as Paris can be - with traffic, with "rude" people, etc. - I always find myself in love with it again and again. There is no place like it. The "rudeness" I can only attribute to people who are from the place - and have heard the same question by people who don't know the customs and mannerisms a thousand times over.

Is New York City known for it's charming, laid back folk? I think not...

I've never had a problem in Paris. Speaking fluent French and knowing the country and many of its citizens as dear friends sure makes that easy enough.

We learned a little lesson about French dining as well:

Aside from the ludicrous way we try and spice up the sound of our meals by calling a main dish an "entree," the word means "entrance"... as in a "starter" or "appetizer." The main course is called a "plat," as in "plate."

Second key point: the owners were adamant that we order four plats... We didn't want that much food, and without catching ourselves, we were committing a giant cultural faux-pas.

French don't "turn and burn" their tables. When you go out for a proper meal in France, your chair is essentially yours for the evening, if you are dining at any time past 7pm. You are to take your time, enjoy the many courses of food, several glasses of wine, and the company of your friends.

They allowed it, but we double tipped them for the courtesy - and the lesson in cultural etiquette.

One FANTASTIC MEAL... Great hotels = great concierges = great tips and special restaurants. You can experience Paris on a local level - and not at some tourist trap.

Cucumber Gazpacho - a delicious antidote to a hot summer day.