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...
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...
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Having dropped off my clients to enjoy their evening, France-Anne and I headed out for a four-hour evening to embrace the color, vitality, smells, and sounds of Paris...
What people love about New Orleans is the tiniest microcosm of France's crown jewel. There is no wonder why all of the courts of Europe, at one point in history, spoke in French. To this day, all of the major food terms in the English language, have French origins, instead of its foundational German. We eat "beef" - as in the French "boeuf." Not "Flesh" - like the same word for beef in German, "fleisch."
C H I L L
A big part of what I do is allowing time for my travelers to experience sights and sounds all by themselves. I never do this without a few cardinal rules: 1) Location. I always pick hotels, when we're in a major city, that is in the heart of the "old" town - or in a very pedestrian friendly sector that is close to key shops, restaurants, and sights. In this case, brutal as the traffic was to get in and out, it was perfect. With the vehicle tucked away in a nearby underground garage, they went off to explore some museums and such, and I laid low and enjoyed some air conditioning, reading up on some history for our next major move, and then heading out to switch our vehicle out.
Rental vans were oversold this year in Europe. With a strong dollar, lots of Americans were traveling this year. To keep my clients happy and not waiting around at Charles de Gaulle airport when we arrived, I took a smaller car - with the promise that I would have a van on the days I needed it.
They had upgraded us to a very fun American Jeep... and after the crawl out of Paris and back out to the airport (the first 4kms took me 1.5 hours), they had an upgraded van for me as a show of thanks. It was a very nice, 9-passenger Mercedes... brand new, leather interior, and all of the gadgets and driving aids you could imagine.
Our top of the line van - a day later, at a gun battery at Normandy Beach.
The nav was set in Arabic, however, but the manager at the Hertz rental desk got one of the Arabic-speaking car cleaners to come over and help us reset the nav to English...
I was off to pick up my clients at their hotel, before we headed across town to pick up my client's friend and family. They were running late from a dinner they had attended on a Disney tour, so we didn't get on the road until after 11:00pm.
The drive was 2.5 hours away... and believe it or not, there was conversation and laughter the whole way there.
It wasn't entirely without a snag. The French had shut down the part of the Autoroute (their version of our Interstate System). I tried to out-smart the nav system, but it kept trying to loop us back onto that one road. That's where I took over... knowing the terrain and towns from previous visits and my military history background, I made a command decision: since we were up, and we were planning on heading back this way in the morning to start our east-to-west tour of the invasion beaches, we simply did some of it right then and there. That would give us a little more time to sleep in before we finished up the tour.
Word of caution, too: You cannot and WILL NOT do a day trip to Normandy from Paris with any shred of enjoyment. You must spend the night the day before or evening of... unless you want to spend over half of your day's "tour" driving from/to Paris and getting to the spots to explore.
So we rolled through Ouistreham, saw the Grand Bunker, and worked our way across, past the Canadian cemetery, and north of Bayeux to our castle hotel for the night. I had called ahead, and they were waiting for us (ALWAYS do this when dealing with European hotels... they do not always run a 24-hour desk. It is not a lesson to learn at 2:00am).
We LOVED the hotel. And everyone was up and ready to roll, enjoying breakfast, laughing about the night before, and ready to see the battlefields.
Our Splendid Hotel
We had an issue with the seat in the van, and after some hilarious wrangling, we stopped by the Hertz rental "office" - a gas station - for further assistance, before resorting to American improvisation: "screw it... we're not waiting around and missing out on the sights."
We headed over to Arromanches, where I took them to one of the greatest movie theaters on the planet. It's a 360 degree theater, where you stand along rails in the center.
The movie is a 20 minute story of D-Day. It showcases all of the various aspects of the invasion, setting up the scene, showing where troops landed in stunning visual color, and peppering the viewer with footage, photos, and sounds that make the battle roar to life. You see and hear Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and de Gaulle... and you also learn of the massive bombing campaign - which killed more French civilians than the German Blitz on London - over 20,000!
It ends showing France today, full of life and liberty, and it always brings people to tears...
We were all set for a great day ahead - and a great day it was.
We went over to Arromanches to view the giant Mulberry dock - an artifical harbor sunk offshore to allow for the unloading of supplies, troops, and vehicles until a port city could be captured (they were heavily defended and thus left alone during the invasion).
We then stopped a great cafe right along the square, with the beach on the far end, for a classic meal of Norman-style seafood and such.
Did I mention those delicious whelks?
The sons of my client were clearly well-raised. They were fearless and tried it all... I gave a huge compliment to Mom and Dad, of course. :)
My Merry Crew
We then headed out, bellies full and brains prepared, to see the sights that Americans have heard about and seen in so many films.
First up was the gun battery at Longues-sur-Mer. These ominous guns were not finally taken until the evening of D-Day. They remain one of the best preserved remnants of the Atlantic Wall in this region.
Note the shell hits on the glacis of the bunker... another one took a hit in the magazine (where the shells were stored) and the blast was so violent that it collapsed much of the structure and hurled the massive, heavy barrel forwards and out of the bunker, splitting it into several pieces.
At Colleville-sur-Mer, the infamous, well-maintained, and beautiful American cemetery of Normandy. It is a strange thing to behold a place that is so peaceful, so tranquil, and so immaculately kept - knowing that on the morning of June 6, 1944, it was a roaring inferno of gunfire and death.
The Airborne Museum complex in St. Mere Eglise
And they had a choral performance gearing up in the church of St. Mere Eglise ("Eglise" means "church" in French), which still has a replica of a paratrooper - John Steele - hanging from its steeple as Steele did on the night of the airborne drop.
And our final destination of the battlefield tour: Pointe du Hoc. After a swing out to Utah Beach and the monument to "Band of Brothers" CO, Dick Winters, I saved this final spot for last.
Two important and easy reasons for this: it's highly memorable with its massive bomb and shell craters (you actually find yourself pitying the Germans who had to defend this ground when you see the effects of our guns and planes), and it is also NOT a museum... There is no closing time. For a one-day visit like this, we squeezed in every bit of daylight, before we had to head back to Paris.
The Ranger Memorial - built on top of the observation bunker at the tip of the Point.
I could not have scripted a better ending for this magnificent day of travel...
We finished up our tour of the sights of that great invasion and had to get some food and get back to Paris. Another aspect of European travel is that when you are not in a high-volume, year-round tourist destination, they run on their own schedules (imagine that!)
I knew my choices were limited, save driving into Bayeux for a long, drawn out, sit-down meal. Fortunately for us all, everyone was pefectly fine with some good, simple local food.
After a quick scouting trip inside to review the menu, I came back out and gave the thumbs up.
There was Calvados, beer, mussels, burgers, and a favorite little sandwich we grew up eating in Belgium - a Croque Monsieur. It's essentially a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. I suggested it - and the gang loved it.
The owners were still the greatest highlight of it all...
They had a big American flag prominetly displayed inside, and when they saw that we were American, the owner brought out extra bowls of French fries, and even threw in dessert. We tipped him well, though I don't think it mattered to him and his wife one bit.
They were happy to see Americans coming to pay their respects - and we were delighted at the hospitality.
After a few photos, we walked outside. The wife pointed at a house down the small road, which sat near the edge of the coastline bluff.
"That was the house from the movie," she exclaimed in French...
She was referring to a scene in "The Longest Day" - and one my client had referenced a few times on this day.
She asked us where we were from, replies being Indiana, Texas, and Louisiana.
And I asked her where she was from...
"Here. I was born two months before the invasion. My father dug a trench to hide me and my mother in when the bombs started dropping..."
We made the late night drive back to Paris, laughing and reflecting on all we had seen and learned on one perfect day in Normandy.
That was France.