Day 10 – ROUEN, ETRETAT
We picked up our rental car early and left for the coast of Normandy. On our way we stopped for a couple of hours in Rouen, which has a well-preserved area of town that is an excellent example of a Norman medieval village. It is also where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. I’m reading a book about it called An Army of Angels. There are tons of books about her, but this one got pretty great reviews.
The cathedral here is famous in part because Monet spent a winter here doing a series of paintings of the facade.
Rouen was the ancient capital of Normandy, which switched hands between France and England on a regular basis for centuries. Sharon Kay Penman’s books cover that quite a bit.
It is also famous for being where Eric, the Phantom in Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera, was born. It states he was born in a village just outside of Rouen, so close enough.
It’s nice to get here early because around lunch time the tour busses roll in and it gets very touristy and busy. Before that it is very quaint and nice.
If we had had more time, a guided tour would have been nice, but it was really just a quick stop along the way to somewhere else.
Ignore the motorcycle and admire the walls.
That clock is probably the other most recognizable place in Rouen. We grabbed a quick bite of lunch and left.
This house is a new construction, but built in the typical Norman style. See the plants along the top of the roofline? Those are irises, and their purpose is for their roots to be the glue that holds the seams of the thatched roof together. In true French style though, they chose a beautiful flower for the job.
Our primary destination this day was Etratat, a beautiful seaside town with amazing cliffs.
Claude Monet was from this area (Honfleur, which is just down the coast), and he painted these cliffs often.
We had originally planned to stay the night here and stay at this Hotel Dormy House, which is RIGHT on the beach. They aren’t exaggerating in their hotel description. Ultimately we decided it would be better to stay the night near our meeting point for the Normandy beaches tour the next morning instead of getting up earlier and making the drive.
We hiked up the cliffs to get the view. It’s not a strenuous hike, and you don’t have to push through it, but it’s not a gentle stroll either. See the bride and groom?
The weather was very mild. It was a perfect day for climbing, but not warm enough to be on the beach in a swimsuit.
Wild blackberries growing along the path.
The beach is actually a rock beach. I may have picked up a few rocks for my collection. Cyprus also has rocky beaches, but they are some of the most beautiful rocks I’ve ever seen, so I gathered a pocketful and brought them home during our trip 10 years ago. My Etretat rocks are nowhere near as colorful, but they remind me of a beautiful place.
At this point in the trip we were pretty physically exhausted, so we chose not to climb the other side to the church, and headed to Caen to check out a WWII museum in preparation for the next day. Check out this bridge.
It’s not as much a museum as a gigantic timeline. It takes visitors through the events from WWI through WWII, tying in the world events that led up to and influenced the direction of the war. We could easily have spent hours there, it was so fascinating and informative, but by the time we got there, we only had an hour, so we zipped through pretty quickly. I thought it was included in our tour the next day, but it wasn’t. Otherwise we would have gotten there earlier.
Out front is THIS.
I know I wrote before that it was unfortunate that we didn’t stay at the Dormy House, but I don’t regret it, because we stayed at this incredible chateau instead. The interior seems more along the lines of what one would find in England. It was very different from the chateau we stayed at near Giverny.
And possibly even more beautiful are the other buildings on the estate.
This building is completely overrun with climbing roses and hydrangeas.
The get no care or pruning, the just GROW LIKE THIS.
Oh, I could move into this old building.
We had views of it from our room.
There is a stork that is nesting on the roof. I made a joke to the owner asking if the stork had dropped any babies off on their doorstep, and he told me that the stork keeps all four of her babies in her nest. I guess that joke doesn’t translate…
This is the dove coat or pigeonry.
This is where the pigeons were kept. They had four purposes. First was hunting for sport and hunting parties to show off how wealthy they were with all these pigeons. The second purpose was food. After they shot them, they ate them. The third purpose was fertilizer from their poo (this might explain those incredible roses), and fourth was for communication, ala carrier pigeon.
I am smitten with this staircase.
This lovely room is where we had a wonderful breakfast of cured meats and cheeses, fresh fruits, pastries and juice. No cereal on this table (or mine actually. Ever). The breads and pastries were picked up from the local bakery that morning. The cheese in France is just so amazing. All of it is.
Travel tip: If you can manage it, staying at unique places like the two chateaux, the B&B, the boutique hotel, and staying on the island at Mont St. Michel can really enrich your experience in another country. I loved exploring the estates, and I didn’t share even a quarter of the pictures I took of this home. The families who lives here are such hospitable hosts and eager to tell you about their family’s history. His family has occupied this chateau for more than 500 years.
DAY 11 – BEACHES OF NORMANDY WWII TOUR
For our WWII D Day Normandy Beaches experience we joined a tour, which we booked months in advance. We were a group of seven, so it was very personal. You may be able to find a tour guide with short notice, but the best ones usually book ahead. We made our reservation in May for an August trip. If you are planning to be there in early June when the anniversary celebration is, it is probably even more difficult to get a guide.
We met in a small town called St. Mere Eglise, which is full of WWII history. The first part of our day was spent in this museum that is shaped like a parachute.
This is a wooden glider plane, one of two left in the world. The other is in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The rest of them were burned during or after the war. The stripes under the wings were to alert the Allies they were on the same side. Before the stripes were painted on, they kept getting shot down by friendly fire, even after verbal notification.
I’m a huge Gone with the Wind fan, and Clark Gable is much more handsome than any of today’s actors, if you ask me. This is his WWII gear.
The nurses here were the first female military officers. Why would a nurse have rank? Because of sexual harassment from the soldiers. They needed to have authority to put them in their place.
In addition to storming the beaches, soldiers were dropped in with parachutes behind enemy lines. Not all of them were camouflage colored because of a shortage of supplies and production time. Some of them were white, but they were all silk. Once on the ground, the soldiers abandoned the chutes and headed toward their targets. Even in war time the French were chic and industrious. The villagers collected the silk parachutes and used the fabric to make things like this wedding dress and the blouse next to it, curtains, bed coverings, clothes, you name it.
This post predates the country of France. It is a Roman mile marker and a few thousand years old.
St. Mere Eglise was made famous in a book and movie called, The Longest Day. When the planes flew over to drop the paratroopers, the Germans fired on them. The US pilots panicked and just started dropping their soldiers anywhere so they could turn around and get out of firing range. None of the paratroopers were dropped where they were supposed to be. In this particular case, they were dropped in the middle of the town square where all of the occupying German soldiers happened to be congregated because a house had caught fire in the night, and they were overseeing the townspeople as they tried to put it out.
Two of the soldiers got stuck on the church steeple, which made them easy targets. One of them played dead. The other one was on the back side and mostly out of view, so he was able to cut himself free. I won’t spoil the story, because you should really read the book, or at least watch the movie, but a lot of heroics happened.
The battle continued into the church. The bullets are still lodged in the pillars.
all of the stained glass windows were blown out, and after the war, various airborne divisions designed and donated new windows. Can you see the paratroopers in this one?
The connection between the people of this region and “their” soldiers is very real, and just as strong today as it was then. They consider each other family.
Our next stop was Utah Beach. This sculpture is fairly new, within the last few years. The French government and private patrons are still actively adding new memorials and monuments.
This is a replica of one of the boats the soldiers came shore in. I didn’t comprehend how awful those days were until Adam had me watch the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. I don’t normally watch violent movies, but some things are important to understand, and the paragraph or two in a text book just doesn’t cover it. It’s kind of like Schindler’s List. I watched it one time, and it still haunts me, but I think everyone should watch it and understand what happened.
The book I read to learn more about this was Ghost Sniper. I really enjoyed it, and want to read the sequel. It is about the beach landings and what came next. Once the Allies gained control of the beaches, that was just step one.
One question I asked of a few different people, including our tour guide, the owner of the chateau we stayed at and a restaurant owner was this: Is all of this just a big show for the tourists, like it’s June 6 every day of the year, or do the French people, the current generations, still connect with the events of that day? Each one gave a very heartfelt, passionate response of yes, they are still very connected to the events of that time. They still have contact with “their soldiers” and the soldiers’ families. They consider them family. The soldiers come and visit and stay with the families. The French families still go visit their American relatives. The chateau owner told me that he went to his American family every summer, his nephews now go, and when his infant daughter gets older, she will go. Their families come stay with them. Our tour guide was Dutch, and I consider him to be impartial. He gave me the same answer. The people of Normandy are still very grateful for the sacrifices made to liberate them.
One of the interesting things I learned about in The Ghost Sniper is that once the forces got off the beaches, they had these hedges to contend with. They are at least a foot thick, and not just some greenery. They are a mishmash of trees, brambles, anything tangly, thorny and impenetrable. Tanks couldn’t push through them. All across Normandy they form a patchwork quilt of dense, tall hedges surrounding a huge open area with a doorway at one corner, and an exit at the opposite corner. In between were narrow country lanes. This made it easy for snipers to pick off soldiers one by one as they came through a door. There was nowhere to hide. It was the same on the lanes, which were bordered by these hedges.
This is an artillery crater. The landscape has remain unchanged.
A German bunker.
Once off the beaches, soldiers had to scale the cliffs while the Germans were at the top shooting. There was no real cover. The whole D Day operation was leading men like lambs to the slaughter, and they knew it before they went. They went anyway.
There has been a lot of conjecture about the origination of the term D Day. Destruction Day, Doom Day, but the experts say that D was just a filler like we sometimes use X. The date of the operation wasn’t set until just before it happened, so the date was filled with D Day instead of X day. It has no significant meaning.
Something else I learned about was the extensive efforts by the Allies to mislead the Germans about their true plans. Farther north on the coast of England they set up a fake village with fake preparations for attack to make them think they were going to invade much farther north. There were inflatable tanks, speakers set up to play sounds of soldiers marching and shooting weapons. They even took a German POW general and took him to the location of their real D Day preparations but changed all the street and business signs to match those of the fake town up north. Then they released him so he could tell what he knew.
They also put General Patton in charge of their fake operation. He was known as a big mouth and a braggart. Word of what he was doing always spread. He felt slighted that he wasn’t in charge of the real thing. D Day wasn’t some impulsive whim. It was planned to the last detail and took 2 years.
This shows how thick the concrete walls on the bunkers were. The Germans were very well insulated.
This monument is a dagger.
The view from inside the bunker.
Concrete reinforced with steel.
This is a piece of a bunker that was blasted. There are huge chunks like this in several places, and none of them have ever been moved. The authorities assume that some of the MIA are actually under these remnants. Tombs of the unknown soldiers.
This is one of the floating, portable bridges used by the Allies in the ocean.
This part was…hard. Here we are at Omaha Beach, seeing the monuments, the bunkers, hearing the stories, talking about what happened here, and there are vacationers playing in the surf and lying on the beach. There are artistic renditions out there showing two halves of images from the same place, then and now. It’s very moving.
This particular one really got to me. Right behind me was the scene of all those vacationers.
The whole day was very emotional. I wish every person could go do this and have a greater understanding of the sacrifices made then, and now in modern wars. None of us will truly understand it unless we’ve been in it, but we can try.
This is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. There is a popular rumor that this is American soil, but it’s not. France offered, but it would have made things complicated. Think about people coming here to get asylum, for example, just like at an embassy. The French government maintains everything.
The outer wall is engraved with the name of the missing. the ones with the rosettes next to their names were later found. Remains still pop up from time to time, often in a farmer’s field.
This is a very confusing map showing all the movement during that time.
This statue is called the Spirit of the American Youth Rising from the Waves.
The reflecting pools are frequently cleaned and then dyed black so they reflect better.
The landscape that leads down to the beaches is never manicured or changed except to keep it trimmed back off the sidewalks that lead down to the beach. You can see how dense and thick it is, and that is the same stuff the hedges are made of. The hedges weren’t planted, they grew wild, but they were/are shaped and maintained. Mother Nature did the hard part. The beach is private and will never be developed.
We learned lots of interesting facts in the actual cemetery, too many to share here. The cemetery was years in planning. First they had to find the perfect spot. The U.S. government had a list of requirements, like it had to be in a location of actual D Day combat. All families were given the option of having their soldiers buried here. Once they had the number of grave sites, they laid out the format. Later when families of the soldiers that were buried at home saw the beautiful cemetery, they asked if they could change their minds and send them back, but the answer was no. Everyone had the chance.
There are certain traditions for people who visit. Jewish people who visit a Jewish grave (marked with the star of David) leave a penny on top. Some people go down to the beach and get a handful of sand and rub it into the lettering, like on this one. It makes it golden and sparkly, and is a sign that someone came, and that soldier was remembered.
I love the beautiful roses, but I also love the wild, natural-looking landscape here.
In the chapel in the cemetery the ceiling has this beautiful mosaic. This is where I really started to cry. At the top of this picture the woman is The United States, arming her sons and sending them in bomber planes to fight. The woman at the bottom is France caring for the fallen youth, crowning them with victory. The angel, torch and dove are sending their spirits home.
We did our tour with Rene from D-Day Battle Tours. It was excellent. He has been doing this for 20 years, I think, and his house is actually right off the square in St. Mere Eglise. This was an all day tour. Be prepared for an emotional day. You don’t have to plan an entire trip to the coast or rent a car to do this. There are tours that leave early from Paris and get back late that night. You can also take the train to Caen. There are options, and this is definitely on the must-do list.
We left St. Mere Eglise that evening and drove south toward Mont St. Michel. We stopped in a town called Avranches and had dinner of savory crepes. They weren’t the best, but the view of this castle was nice. Avranches is up on a hillside and there is a great view of the valley.
I wanted to get to Mont St. Michel in time to see the sunset. It’s beautiful. Mont St. Michel was a place of refuge for Christian zealots as early as the third century, but the abbey itself wasn’t built until the seventh century when the archangel Michael instructed Bishop Saint Aubert to build it in the form of the Gargano sanctuary in Italy.
The island is not accessible by car. You park in a lot and then take a shuttle to the beginning of a long walkway that leads to the base of the Mont, where you have to walk/hike to your hotel, if you are staying on the Mont like we did. The streets are not really streets, more like alleys, they are cobblestone, and uphill. Once you arrive at your hotel, and this applies to all of them, you will be climbing narrow staircases.
My point is, you don’t want to take a bunch of luggage. We only took a carryon roller bag each for our entire 2-week trip, and even that would be too much to lug up the hill. Enter my Longchamp Le Pliage tote (mine is size medium) that I bought in Paris. After we ate dinner in Avranches, we opened our suitcases in the trunk and packed for an overnight stay in my awesome red bag. This was very easy to carry onto the Mont. Please, please do not do this repacking in the parking lot by the Mont. Thieves are watching and will break into your car. Also, put everything you’re leaving in the trunk, out of sight.
We had two reasons for wanting to stay overnight near or on the Mont. The first is, like Brugge, the island calms down after about 5 when the tour busses/day trippers leave, and is very peaceful before they get there. It’s really nice to be there without the crowds. That is why we chose to stay on the Mont instead of nearby, because nearby is still a trek.
The second reason is we wanted to do the night tour of the abbey that is only available 6 weeks of the year. This year it was July 11-August 29 from 7 pm to midnight, with the last entry being 11 p.m. In years past, it has been candlelight and musicians playing string instruments. Reviewers described it as magical. Also, it is nearly empty, instead of being crushed by piles of other people. I was so excited to experience this.
This year they did something…different. It’s called the secret inhabitant of the abbey. See the giant claw?
Images of spooky night skies were projected onto the ceilings.
There was also creepy music and screeching from the creature.
Here’s the creature’s tail. We were so confused. We kept asking the employees what was going on, what was this supposed to be, what is the creature? Each of them gave some variation of the same response, “I don’t know. I don’t get it. Someone new was in charge this year, and I think they are going to get fired.”
It was a cool experience to see it lit up at night and experience it when it was mostly empty. It was somewhat disappointing because we were expecting something else, but the abbey is still beautiful at night.
The abbey was used as a prison for centuries, so there are also prison cells and dungeons.
The other reason Mont St. Michel is famous is because this small granite island is only an island when the tide comes in. The time, height and duration depends on the cycles of the moon and the tides. When the tide is in you can usually still walk across the bay on the walkway, but sometimes the tide is so high it washes over it. This is the view from our hotel room. Breathtaking.
The courtyard below. My kids saw the pictures and asked if those were toilets. Just chairs, kids. We knew the tide was not going to come in when we were there. We considered switching the French countryside and the Normandy coast so we could see the tide come in, but logistically it didn’t make sense. We wouldn’t have been able to see as much because the travel wouldn’t have been as efficient. It’s a choice we made, and we’re ok with it.
Also the view from our hotel room. Since the tide wasn’t going to come in while we were there, we were going to go horseback riding in the bay, but we canceled because Adam’s neck and back still hurt really badly, and he only had one pain pill he’d been saving for the plane ride. Riding a horse would have been too painful.
The king bed in our room was actually 2 twins pushed together, and it was kind of nice because there was no covers stealing, but we were still together. I’m saying who steals covers, but it’s not me.
Look at these old timbers. We stayed at the Auberge Saint-Pierre. It was nice. The breakfast was meh, but all the food on the mont is.
I wish I could take these floors home with me.
The local cemetery.
One important thing to know is that there is no good food on the Mont. It’s not horrible, but it’s not good. You can tell they aren’t trying because they don’t have to. Where else are you going to go to eat? Very un-French of them.
Since we weren’t going horseback riding, we decided to go back to the abbey to do the tour of Notre Dame Sous Terre (Our Lady Underground) where the crypts are, but there were two problems. One, it was in French. Two, it was at 10 and 2. We had barely missed the 10:00 tour because of the loooonnnngggg lines, and if we waited for the 2:00 tour we wouldn’t be able to go to Saint Malo.
We decided not to tour the abbey itself again, but we did walk around the outer portions and take in the incredible view. If you do the night tour, you have the option of paying just for that, or paying a little more and having the option to come back the next day for the daytime entrance.
Mont St. Michel is not for those who have physical limitations. It is not handicap accessible, and everything is uphill or stairs, uneven surfaces in narrow lanes. If you have a bum knee, leg, hip, back, this could be too strenuous. Interesting fact: Mont Saint-Michel was the inspiration for the design of Minas Tirith in the film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
This guy was doing an egg whisking demonstration. It made my arms hurt to watch. I heard him before I saw him.
Isn’t it spectacular? There are day trips available to Paris.
We drove another 45 minutes to Saint Malo to enjoy the afternoon in this resort town. The entire city is walled, and was very badly damaged from bombs during WWII. These timbers are to lessen the impact of the waves crashing into the wall. If you want to read a historical fiction book about St. Malo, there is a best seller called All the Light We Cannot See, and it is set during WWII.
There are some mini islands with fortresses on them that are only accessible during low(er) tide.
We stopped for a crepe first and then walked around town.
Like many tourist destinations, St. Malo has a lot of high end shopping and tourist traps.
Even though the city was horribly damaged from bombing, everything was rebuilt exactly as it was. It was interesting to see where the new and old came together.
This courtyard was restored to it exactly how it was before. This entire block was decimated.
We walked around the outer wall of the city. You can go up top and walk the entire perimeter. The view is beautiful.
We only stayed for the afternoon and headed back to Paris.
We stopped for a snack at a gas station. Look at the quick food options available. Ham and cheese, pulled chicken, chicken caesar salad, goat cheese and basil, smoked salmon.
I got a chicken caesar salad sandwich, and while it could have used more dressing, it was pretty good. Oh I wish options like this were available in the U.S. They could be, and that is what is so irritating.
Travel tip: There are a ton of tolls on French roads. I bet we spent $50 in tolls round trip. Some of them were very pricey. This is the toll to get back into Paris, and I counted 33 entrances. This traffic was on a late Saturday afternoon.
We flew out Sunday morning, so we stayed at the Sheraton airport Saturday night. It was extremely convenient because it’s right next to the car rental returns, and connects directly to the international terminal. We arrived at the airport around 7 pm and discussed whether or not to go back into Paris for the evening and for dinner, but decided against it. We were both exhausted, and we felt like we had said goodbye to it with our evening cruise. We also didn’t want to have to try to park in town. We checked into our hotel, got room service for dinner and went to bed. In the morning we walked out of the lobby into the airport, grabbed some breakfast at Paul and went through security and on to our gate. It was so easy and convenient. No traffic, no taxis, no waking up extra early. It was a very calm departure.