Sunday, July 18, 2010

Day 10 : July 11 - Normandy's Resort Towns

Caen, France to Honfleur, France ~2 hours
Honfleur, France to Paris, France ~ 3

Sunday was our last day in Europe, even though we would be sleeping in Dublin and flying to Boston Monday morning. We woke up in Caen, France, in the middle of Normandy and decided to keep driving east along the coast to see the other side of Normandy. We managed to find our way out of Caen and hit the road towards Honfleur. Along the way we took a wrong turn and ended up at a Carrefour, kind of like a French Walmart. We grabbed some breakfast and I was finally able to find some cute, affordable baby clothing to buy a present for Emma!

We drove through many small towns, all more or less on the water. It really does look like New England, with different architecture. Since it was Sunday morning, it was very busy the whole way. There were people getting out of church and crowds of people on the streets going to brunch and shopping at the markets. We drove through the more posh resort towns, such as Deauville and Trouville, on our way to Honfleur. On Saturday I had been surprised by the lack of crowds, b/c I was under the impression that Normandy was the place that all the Parisians go for the weekend. Driving east of Caen, it seemed to me that this was where all those tourists were. I guess it makes sense- it's closer to Paris and it's much more posh with fancier shops and restaurants everywhere.

After Deauville, we went back up into the rural farm lands before descending into Honfleur. As you come into Honfleur, you can see the super industrial port of Le Havre across the bay. Then you get into downtown Honfleur, which is on its own little inlet, le Vieux Bassin, and it's just like Rockport with Motif #1 and the sailboats. We walked around the old town, browsing the little shops and checking out the super old buildings before lunch. We decided to have lunch at a cafe right on the little inlet. It is completely surrounded by cafes, so we had a lot of choices. Not wanting to spend and arm and a leg, we opted for a sandwich place and ordered some Croque Monsieurs, kind of like a grilled ham and cheese. I had a Croque Madame, a grilled ham and cheese with an egg over easy on top and Janda had a Croque Forestier, a grilled ham and cheese with bacon and mushrooms on top. We enjoyed our sandwiches and our view and then it was time to get to the airport.

Cafes to the right of Vieux Bassin

Cafes to the left of Vieux Bassin

Busy little street in Honfleur

Another side street in Honfleur

We saw more half timbered buildings

The old church was having service while we were in town

I was worried about traffic going back to Paris on a Sunday afternoon, so we left at 2:30, hoping to be there around 6 for our 9:30 flight. Even though it was around a 2.5 hour drive, we (of course) hit traffic. There was an accident and a bunch of breakdowns, but we made it to the rental car return and were in the airport a little after 6. Getting to our terminal was a 20 hike and then we had to wait about 30 minutes to check in. The lines for check-in were unbelievable. There is no kiosk check-in at Charles de Gaulle and they open up very few check-in counters. Our line was out of the check-in area and around the corner, and we saw longer ones! We went up a few stories to the security to get to our gate and it was the same story. Only one line open and it took forever!

We managed to get on our flight, and the flight to Dublin was super easy. We grabbed some sandwiches at the airport, ate them at our hotel and hit the sack ready to come home in the morning. The flight back to Boston was long but not too bad. There is On-Demand at each seat and they give you a lot of food. A little after 4pm, we were back home and snuggling with the kitties!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Day 9 : July 10 - Normandy's Landing Beaches

Amboise, France to Omaha Beach, France ~ 4 hours

On Saturday morning, we woke up not too early, grabbed some breakfast and hit the road for Normandy around 8:30. After a bit of a misdirection snafu, we were flying along the Autoroute in no time. It was the same as the drive to Amboise, no traffic and wheat fields as far as the eye could see. Once we got into Normandy, we started seeing many more cows (Normandy is known for their cows and dairy products) and as we got closer to the coast we started to see apple orchards (Normandy is also known for their orchards and apple products including cider and apple brandy).


We made great time and before we knew it we could see the bright blue waters of the English Channel ahead of us. Just like home! We headed towards Pointe du Hoc, the cliff that the Army Rangers scaled to dismantle the big German guns, and on the way we saw a sign for the German War Cemetery. We had heard that this was a very interesting stop, so we made a quick detour on our way to Pointe du Hoc. The cemetery is kept by a German group who keeps all German war cemeteries abroad. It was very interesting b/c this group believes that by keeping these cemeteries and bringing young people to see the effects of war, hopefully future wars can be prevented. I hope that they are right. This cemetery is very different from the American one, which I had visited on my last trip to France. It is much less ornate and fancy and there were hardly any visitors at all. Even though Germany was the aggressor, the individual soldiers had very little to do with policy-making and war decisions, and it is sad that so few people come to their graves.

Signposts that have maps of the D-Day sights on them

The memorial at the German cemetery

Overlooking the German cemetery

After visiting the cemetery, we continued on the road to Pointe du Hoc. Here they give you the history of the Army Rangers during the D-Day assault and then you can go out onto the point and see what is left of it. There are still the gun placements and the bunkers that the Germans built and most striking are the craters from the Allied bombings. The entire point is dimpled like a golf ball, no level ground anywhere. To get around you walk on the paths formed on the high ground between craters. From the point, you had a view of Utah Beach to the left and Omaha Beach to the right, the two American landing sectors. It must have been unimaginable on that point on D-Day. On a clear day, you'd be able to see the Allied fleet approaching for quite a while, and then the beach had a long run up to the cliffs. If you were on the point, you'd be able to see the entire battle unfolding.

Cliffs and view from Pointe du Hoc

The craters from the bombings

One of the bunkers you can check out

We continued eastward to Omaha Beach. On the westmost edge of the beach there is a war memorial and there are signs along the beaches that tell you which group landed on which beach. When we arrived, it was low tide and the beach was enormous, it looked like a 75m-100m distance from the cliffs to the water. We climbed up to an old bunker and you could see along the whole beach. We drove down to the eastern edge of Omaha, where Easy company landed if you've seen Band of Brothers, and saw the road that the Allies built to bring in supplies from the artificial harbor that they built. As we drove along the beach, we could hardly believe that a mere 60 years ago a battle was raging in Normandy b/c now it looks just like any coastal town in Massachusetts- houses on the ocean, tourists at the beach, little concession stands and shops. It was pretty hot that day, so Janda took a dip in the Channel before we left Omaha Beach.

Crooked picture of the Memorial

The pier at Omaha Beach

Janda standing in the dunes

Going for a dip

Just up on the bluffs over Omaha Beach is the American War Cemetery. We arrived there at about the same time as a tour group that included a veteran who had landed at Utah Beach. A group of young men, who may or may not have been military, gathered around him and had their photo taken. I can only imagine how emotional the day was for him. We checked out the monument at the head of the cemetery and then we walked its full length. It is amazing to see how many graves are there. We walked back along the cliffs and then headed into the visitor's center. We didn't have time to see everything b/c it was closing time, but it included several videos and a detailed timeline of the events leading up to, on and after D-Day. They had a lot of personal stories and mementos displayed, very similar to the German cemetery.

Memorial at the American cemetery

Rows of grave markers

Single grave

We continued east and made our last stop of the day at Arromanches, where the Canadians landed at Juno Beach. You can still the the remnants of the artificial harbor and floating bridge that were built there to bring Allied troops and supplies onto the continent. It is a very cute little town, kind of reminiscent of Rockport. There is a pedestrian area right next to the water that is full of cafes, restaurants and shops. After walking the length of the beach, we decided to have dinner here. We got paninis from a small sandwich shop and then ate them down by the water. After dinner, we checked out the weapon displays outside the museum and climbed up to the bluffs above Juno Beach. Another amazing view. On our way out of town, we had another delicious Nutella crepe and then headed to our hotel in Caen.

Downtown Arromanches

The remnants of the bridge and the breakwater in the distance

Looking down at Juno Beach

Overlooking Arromanches

Friday, July 16, 2010

Day 8 : July 9 - Chateaux of the Loire Valley

Chaumont, France
Montrichard, France
Chenonceaux, France

Friday morning we woke up to cooler temperatures and rain. It had basically stopped by the time we got up and went for our run, but it started again once we were out there. It was still pretty hot and after all the heat we had experienced on the trip to this point, it felt great. Of course the French people probably thought I was insane standing in the rain after my run.

After we showered, we had a relatively leisurely breakfast at the hotel. After breakfast we hit the road to our first chateau, Chateau Chaumont, which was about 20 minutes from our hotel. It was an easy drive, along the Loire, and by many caves that are being used for wine-making and as wine cellars.

Chateau Chaumont is up on a hill above the town of Chaumont and overlooking the Loire. It was a very interesting castle to visit b/c they were doing an experiment in organic farming on the grounds as well as having a modern art exhibit throughout the buildings on the grounds. First we checked out the garden, which had all the same things you'd find in a vegetable garden here. Then we walked through the courtyard and onto a path that looked onto the river. To get into the castle, we walked over the drawbridge and through the main gate. The tour of the interior was pretty interesting since they had furnished a lot of the rooms to look like they did when the castle was built. The modern art was a little freaky, there was some sort of post-apocalyptic thing going on with a story and art to go with it.
Chateau Chaumont

Relaxing in the seats overlooking the Loire

The drawbridge and main gate

Janda and the suit of armor- that armored guy had really long legs

We went to the stable buildings too, that was very interesting. The horses of the nobles who lived here had better quarters than most of the people did at the time. We checked out he rest of the grounds, walked down the paths and then headed out to our next destination.

Fancy stall in the stable

We went to Montrichard next, a slightly bigger town on the Cher River, a tributary of the Loire. The town was pretty neat, with a medieval castle overlooking the town center. We stopped and got some Orangina and some candy and used the ATM before heading to the Caves Monmousseau. Cave is the word for cellar in French, so I thought originally that we were going to visit a wine cellar, but there are actual caves, like the ones that we had seen that morning. In the Middle Ages, people dug caves into the side of the hills along the river to make a system of tunnels. The tunnels at the Caves Monmousseau ran for 15 kilometeres deep into the hill. On our tour of the caves we learned how sparkling white wine (known as Champagne if it comes from the right region in France) is made. It is a long process- at the Caves Monmousseau it takes around 3 years. First they make the wine and put in the sugar, yeast and tannens, and then they set the wine bottle on their sides to develop the carbonation and flavor for 2-3 years. Then they take the bottles, slowly rotate them to upside down vertical over the course of a week or two, to make the sediment settle to the opening. Then they freeze the neck of the bottle and pull out a sediment filled ice cube. After that they put in more wine and sugar to fill the bottle and then they cork it. At any one time this cave system has about 4.5 million bottles of Champagne- 1.5 million per year, all made in one batch. Afterward we had a tasting, but we weren't too interested in that b/c we don't really like Champagne.

Entrance to the Caves, right in the middle of the picture

When we left the caves, we headed to Chateau Chenonceau, one of the most famous castles in the Loire Valley. It is on the Cher River, and in fact, the castle spans the entire river. This was much busier than Chateau Chaumont in the morning and by this point all the clouds had burned off and it was hot hot hot. We started out in the maze and then walked through a shaded forest path to get to the castle. The grounds were amazing, with multiple gardens, two sections of forest and a moat system. We looked through Diane de Poitiers garden to the left of the castle and once we got too hot, we headed into the castle. We walked right through the ballroom gallery to the other side of the river. It was nice and shady on that side, so we relaxed in the shade for a while before going back into the castle. We toured the rooms of the castle, which were fully appointed with the furnishings of the time, especially the kitchen. Then it was onto Catherine de Medici's garden, which was right next to a shady path back to the parking lot. The castle is beautifully kept, I can see why it is one of the most popular for tourists. I've heard that Chateau Chambord, the most popular, is not as well kept or as nicely furnished, so I'm glad that we chose Chenonceau and Chaumont.

Janda in the maze

Me in the middle of the maze

The wooded paths around Chateau Chenonceau

The Chateau from the edge of Diane de Poitiers garden

The chateau from the far side of the river

Standing over the river in the ballroom gallery

It's built right in the river and only short boats can fit under it

After Chateau Chenonceau, we headed back to our hotel in Amboise. Once again we had managed to miss lunch, so we decided to rest up for a couple of hours and try to get dinner right at 7pm when the restaurants reopened for the evening. We did end up falling asleep, but we woke up in time for dinner. Janda had been craving pasta, so we went to the Italian restaurant in town (sit-down meal #3). We had a delicious eggplant appetizer and for the main course I had a pizza and Janda had a seafood pasta dish. Portion sizes in Europe really aren't enough for Janda, so he ate half of my pizza too!

After dinner, we went for another walk around town. We saw some caves carved into the hillside, so we went to get a closer look at them and found a staircase leading to a scenic viewpoint above the city. When we got there we had a nice view of the city and the river. We also saw a sign for some Gallo-Roman ruins, so we went on a wild goose chase to find them. We had absolutely no luck, so we gave up and headed back down the hill to get a better look at the caves, which were actually people's houses. As we walked down the hill checking out the caves, I realzed that we were near Clos Luce, the house that Leonardo da Vinici had retired to at the behest of the French king, who only wanted to be able to converse with the famous inventor. We stopped and had a look at that before heading back to Chateau Amboise for a lit-up night walk through the grounds of the castle. We waited for at least a half an hour, with a large group of people, and no one from inside the castle bothered to tell us it was canceled! Bummer, but it was late, so we headed to bed so that we could get an early start the following morning.

At the scenic viewpoint

Cave houses in the hills

Clos Luce, where Leonardo da Vinci died

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Day 7 : July 8 - Tour de France

Paris, France to Montargis France ~ 1.5 hours + 2hours!! Montargis, France to Amboise, France ~ 1.5 hours

On Thursday we had a leisurely morning on our last day in Paris b/c the sight that we were going to see, the Catacombs, didn't open til 10am. We headed out around 9:30, stopped and grabbed some juice and pastries for breakfast and headed to the square where the Catacombs are. We couldn't tell exactly where the Catacombs was, so since it was only 9:40, we found a nice bench and enjoyed our breakfast, a pain au chocolat, a suisse and a torsade. Delicious. Once we finished off our pastries, we decided to go to the island in the middle of the traffic circle, thinking that would be a likely spot to find the Catacombs. We were indeed right and we got at the end of a very long line a little before 10.

The line was a bit slow moving, probably b/c they limit and stagger the people going down into the Catacombs for safety purposes. We finally got in at about 10:30. That meant that we had to rush a bit b/c we needed to check out and get to the airport to get our rental car to drive to the Tour de France. On the tour of the Catacombs, you descend 130 steps, walk for 2k and then emerge 83 steps later in a different part of the neighborhood. We started by going down a spiral staircase and a ramp into the welcome area. Then you head into the tunnels. (Before the tour they warn you that if you have cardiac problems or a nervous disposition, you should not enter!) The light is dim and the head room is minimal. As you walk you see stones with numbers on them that tell you when the section you are in was built and you see other tunnels that are blocked from the tour by iron gates and brick. After walking through narrow tunnels and then through large chambers, you see a door with the following sign above it: "Attention! C'est ici l'empire de la mort." Warning- here is the empire of Death.

The stairs leading down to the Catacombs

The tunnels in the Catacombs

Janda peering into a blocked off tunnel

One of the large chambers you walk through

If you decide to walk through that door, you are now walking amongst the bones of the thousands of skeletons moved into these catacombs in the 18th century after the mass burial sites of the 17th century were flooded and brought back to the surface. The bones are extremely neatly stacked, at least on the facade. Each section of bones has a placard to tell you where these bones came from and when. All along the way there are quotes about death carved into granite markers. At this point there is no flash photography allowed, so it was difficult to get good pictures. At this point we also realized that we were going to be late, so we booked it through the rest of the tunnels and out to the spiral staircase up to daylight.

Bones in the Catacombs

Stacked very neatly

Tells you where they came from and when they were put here

We all but ran back to our hotel to check out and then walk back to the Catacombs with our luggage b/c the RER train station to the airport was in the same square. We made it through all that no problem and we were in our car and ready to drive to the Tour de France by 1:15 at the latest. Then we got out of the airport and onto the highway and into the worst traffic I've ever been in! It took us 2 hours to go about 30k to get around Paris and to the south. In 90+ degree weather. With no air-conditioning! We basically gave up on the Tour, but decided to at least give it a shot and head to Montargis, the finish town of the day. Going through the wheat fields, we actually started to make good time on the Autoroute (French for highway). As we got closer to Montargis, we actually saw some Tour de France fans parked on the side of the back roads, so we knew then that we had a good chance of making it!

We got into Montargis, came upon the closed roads and followed the crowds to park on the side roads. It was brutally hot that day and the rays of the sun literally felt as though you were way too close to a heating lamp. I feel bad for those guys out there on the road for 6 hours with little to no shade! We made it into town and to the 1k to go mark. Since we were about 2 hours late, everything closer to the finish was packed. We were very bummed that we didn't get to see the finish and podium area, etc... but we were very happy to have made it at all in the end.

We set up shop in the shade at the 1k mark and watched the caravan go through. It was pretty neat, there were sponsor cars and souvenir vans coming through and stopping for the fans. There were multiple speaker systems going, so we knew when the peleton was on its way. Finally they made it into town and flew by us. We're pretty sure that we saw Mark Cavendish, the winner of that stage and Armstrong as they flew by us. Then all the team cars came racing through right after that, plus a few stragglers. B/c we were so far out and we still had some driving to do, we didn't get to see the podium, but it was still very cool. I only wish that we had gotten there on time.

Sponsor car driving by

The 1k marker

The lead riders flying through- Garmin to the right and Columbia in the middle

We headed back on the road and to the west to the Loire Valley in the Centre region of France. It was an hour and a half through wheat and sunflower fields and it didn't seem that hardly anyone was going our way, so we made really good time. We arrived in Amboise, checked into our hotel and headed out to look for dinner, b/c we had, once again, missed lunch. Our hotel was perfectly located, just outside the little downtown area where the Chateau Amboise, restaurants and shops were. We had a tartine for dinner- it looked like a pizza, but it didn't taste like one! Then we shared a raspberry gelato and meandered around town. Since the sun set so late, we had plenty of time to take in the sights before bed. As we were winding our night down, thunderstorms came in down the river and cooled things off for us nicely.

Heading into downtown Amboise

Chateau Amboise

Lots of old half-timbered buildings in Amboise

Sun setting over the Loire- those clouds brought rain, thunder and lightening