Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Last Stop Normandy; Mont Saint-Michel

Trip date: January 2020

I remember getting a postcard from my friend Forest in the early aughts from Mont Saint-Michel, the photo was of the tide out and people walking on the tidal flats out to the island. I didn't know anything about this place but she wrote on the back about how you had to time your leave or you'd be stuck! I'd wanted to go ever since.

I was so excited for this last stop on our trip! Not only would we be visiting but we were spending the night on the rock!

We had an easy 1-hour drive from Saint Malo to the overnight parking lot that our hotel had directed us to. From here we would board a bus (or you can take a horse and buggy) that would take us out to a paved bridge; but there would still be a 1/4 of a mile walk to the actual island and then up through tiny cobblestoned lanes to the hotel. For this reason we decided to leave our suitcases in the car and bring only an overnight bag. I was so glad that we did this!

Our hotel, the Auberge Saint Pierre, wasn't too far from the main gates of the village. Forest and Thibault had a room in the main inn, while I had chosen to stay in one of the 13 Chapeau Blanc "logis", which are former fishermen's houses, all with views of the bay. As one of the hotel employees led me up to the logis I realized that the reason they all have views is that they are pretty much at the top of the hill! 

Lots of steps! And lots of twists and turns! I wasn't sure how I was going to find my way back down in the daylight, never mind at night! Cars are not allowed on the island so be prepared for some steep climbs.

It had been a long time since breakfast and we were all very hungry so we met in the hotel's restaurant for a lunch of the famous souffléed omelet that the island is known for. The restaurant La Mère Poularde has been making these omelets since 1888, and over there the going price is about $40. For an omelette. 
I can't remember what the price was at our hotel restaurant, probably $25? Still more than it should be but paired with a nice glass of white wine it made for a lovely lunch.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking all the way around the village walls. It’s truly fairytale- like! Narrow little lanes winding up and up, past stone houses, most over 200 years old! And the Abbey looking like a cake topper.

The only time the island is actually an island is at very high tide, generally this is after a full moon. Throughout the day the bay definitely changes but we never did see it high.

The number of people thinned out drastically as the afternoon turned to evening. When we entered the Saint-Pierre church with its statue of Joan of Arc outside, we were the only ones there . 

We had drinks at our hotel bar before dinner, which was cozy with Christmas decorations still up and a fire going, and were just three of a few. There weren't a lot of options for dinner so we chose Les Terrasses de la Baie since we had already had a meal at our hotel. It was very much what you would get at a cafeteria, nothing to write home about. It was very quiet when I made my way back up to my room.

The next morning I walked up the many steps again to the top of the village. I didn't pass anyone!
I was meeting Thibault at the Abbey, it was the first Sunday in January and so entrance was free. Once at the top there are 350 steps that lead up to the Abbey entrance. 

Being there right when they opened was wonderful. The tourist hadn't yet made it onto the island yet so there were only a few other people inside. 

Exploring the Abbey like that, having it almost to ourselves, was such a unique experience. And it's absolutely beautiful. There were also a few rooms which held crypts that were a bit creepy with no one else around!
I walked thru the chapel and around the cloister, appreciating all the detail of the carvings. This church opened in 1523! It's just incredible how well preserved everything is.

When it first opened there were just convent rooms, a Host room, the refectory, the knights room and the cloister. After the Benedictines were driven out in 1791 the French Revolution started and the church was a prison to around 300 priests who opposed the regime.

This huge treadmill was operated by the prisoners to bring up supplies. It's over 14 feet across and could haul up 3 tons of supplies and equipment!

Napoleon III closed the prison in 1863 due to poor conditions of the buildings and in 1874 it was made a historic monument. Preservation is an ongoing thing here to battle the salt air, wet conditions, and of course age. In 1922 worship resumed.
We walked around the outside a bit and spotted the tiny Chapelle Saint-Aubert on the banks of the bay below. 

With over 2 ½ million visitors per year, this tiny village can be a madhouse during the day. Even in the winter it was very busy. But at night, with only ~50 full time residents it is incredibly peaceful. Yes, everything is overpriced but it's really a special experience. I'd highly recommend an overnight if you can.

We met back up with Forest, checked out of the hotel. and walked out to the bridge to catch the bus, specifically sitting in the back to catch a few last shots of the majestic stone village.

Our Normandy road trip was over and we were headed back to the country house in Le Perche. Along the way was the LeMorton Calvados Distillery which just happened to be open on Sunday. We stopped for a few tastes and left with a few bottles!

LeMorton is in the Domfrontais region of Calvados. This far southern area uses a blend of apples and up to 70% pears in their Calvados. I'd never had it before and loved learning about this on a little tour around the distillery with Madame Martine. Later Didier, whose Grandfather had started the business in the early 1970's, continued to discuss the unique blends as he poured for us in the tasting room.
I didn't have quite enough cash on me for the bottles I wanted and they didn't take cards. Luckily Thibault had a checkbook in the car and they were very happy to accept that! So quaint!

The owners sent us on our way with a lunch recommendation at a grill just down the road a bit. I had some delicious grilled lamb and french fries and then we made our way back home. It had been an absolutely fantastic road trip around Normandy! 

All photos of Mont Saint-Michel here.

**As I visited all of these places before the COVID-19 pandemic, please double check on opening hours. And fingers crossed these businesses all stay in business!**

Other post from this trip:

Holidays in Le Perche, France

Intro to Normandy; Honfleur

Day Trip to the Parisian Riviera

New Year's Eve in Normandy

D-Day Beaches of Normandy

Normandy to Brittany

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Normandy to Brittany France

Trip date: January 2020

We had chosen Caen as our home base in order to explore the D-Day Beaches of Normandy, but we didn't leave ourselves any time to check out the city itself. All I can say about Caen is that we stayed in this Airbnb that was clean, bright, affordable, and comfortable for our 2-night stay. The building had private parking and was very secure. The only downside was that it wasn't in a very walkable area of town. 

The Memorial de Caen is both a memorial and museum dedicated to WWII. It sits on the remains of the command post of the 716th German infantry division just on the outskirts of town. We spend a couple of hours walking through the exhibits which focus a lot on both the civilians as well as the military battles. There are a lot of artifacts, photos, personal items, and film clips. It was heavy but well worth the stop.

The evening before, after a day of touring the beaches, we stopped in the quaint town of Bayeux which is just 30 minutes west of Caen. We arrived in time to queue up for the Musilumière, the light show on the Cathédrale Notre-Dame. What I didn't realize until we were in line was that this light show was actually done inside the Cathedral. Very nice as it was winter!

The church is famous in the area for its 223 foot Tapisserie de Bayeux, an 11th-century tapestry depicting the 1066 Norman invasion of England. The light show was an explanation of the scenes on the tapestry! It was incredible, and luckily I had Thibault to translate some of the information since I don't speak French.

It was really beautiful and such a cool little gem of history to learn about. The cathedral is known to have a lightshow on the exterior in the summer months. The town is really charming with cobblestone streets and half-timbered buildings (like all of Normandy!), I think it's a great stop while in this area. 

After the show we chose Restaurant L'Assiette Normande based on its location across from the church and the fact that we were starving. A kir Normande (sparkling cider, Calvados, and crème de cassis), steak au poivre, and Normandy apple tart were all perfectly good and typical cafe fare.

Our next stop on our road trip was Saint-Malo which I had first heard about while reading All the Light We Cannot See". If you haven't read this, it would be a great book to bring on a Normandy trip!

The 2 hour drive from Caen had us arriving in time for lunch; this was our one and only stop in Brittany and I was thrilled to be here! We parked at the La Cité area, just across from the walled-island town, and had lunch as the super cute Le Bulot

The specialty of the house here (besides bulot or whelks) is brandade de morue (cod brandade) which is served hot and bubbly in individual terrines. Absolutely delicious!

We had a little walk around this area after lunch and then drove over the short bridge to the island city. 

Public parking is just outside the main gates/walls of the old city. It was a short walk from the car to Hotel des Abers where I was staying. Thibault and Forest had a cool very old Airbnb just 6 doors down. 

We spent the rest of the day exploring La Cité Corsaire as it is known from it's history of being a base for pirates employed by the King. Since we had a bit of drizzle we decided to save a full rampart walk until the next day and instead checked out the cathedral and did some window shopping. It's a really cute city and the bakeries fill the streets with the incredible smell of kouign amann and sables made from the famous butter from the region.

While walking around I noticed that the town has a symbol with a cape wearing weasel on it! I have no info on this super weasel but it was one more reason to like the town!

That evening we had cocktails at La Fabrique bar, a really cute 2-story spot which also had a pretty impressive beer selection. Our drinks were lovely and I'd absolutely recommend a stop here.

We had decided on Breizh Cafe for dinner, but there was a bit of a wait so we had a round across the way at Le Galion. Very funny divey bar filled with antiques and more than a few locals. 

Breizh, which is the Breton word for Brittany, serves crepes and galettes with a Japanese twist. My traditional ham, cheese, and egg galette came with Bourdier seaweed butter and was delish! 

Also when in both Normandy and Brittany it's good to remember that crepes are made with wheat flour and are generally sweet, while galettes are made with buckwheat flour and tend to be savory. In fact, my hotel rate included breakfast, which featured fresh made crepes, homemade jams, and yogurt. They really love their flat pancakes here, luckily so do I!

The next morning was gorgeous and sunny, perfect for walking the entire city walls. But first Forest and I went to the Bordier Butter shop where we watched them form the butter into bricks with paddles while also picking up a few. There is a museum of butter in the shop as well, but it was being cleaned when we arrived so we weren't allowed in.

Other items that I purchased and would highly recommend are tins of sables Breton (buttery cookies which are absolutely addictive) and jars of babas from Babas of Saint Malo. These little cakes are soaked in delicious syrup, like rhum, calvados, whiskey, triple sec, and sold in jars. I wish I has some right now!

Shopping over it was time for our stroll. The city walls are 2km around and offer up gorgeous views. These ramparts were constructed in the 12th century and have been reconstructed and replaced as necessary over the years. It was fun to envision which of the apartments Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the blind protagonist of the fictional story that took place here, lived in during the war.

Just off of Bon-Secours beach, the island of Grand Bé is the burial site of the French author François-René de Chateaubriand. When the tide goes out there is a stone walkway that you can walk on to get there but it's fully submerged when the tide comes in so you'll need to time it just right or swim back!

Just before packing up the car and heading out, I stopped at one of the nicer bakeries and bought a couple of kouign amann. This famous pastry of the region is made with layers and layer of flaky pastry, copious amounts of Brittany's salted butter, and sugar which turns almost caramel-like during baking. It's sweet and salty and crispy and utterly one of the most delicious things you will ever eat. Do like I did and get a few, they taste nowhere near as good once you're out of Breton. 

And with that we said goodbye to the city of the super weasel and were on the road to our final destination; Mont Saint Michel!  

All photos of Caen & Bayeux here.

All photos of Saint-Malo here

Sunday, June 13, 2021

D-Day Beaches of Normandy

Trip date: January 2020

We based ourselves in Caen in order to explore the very northern shore of Normandy, historically known as the location of the D-Day Landings. On Tuesday 6 June 1944 the Allied invasion of Normandy, during World War II, was the largest seaborne invasion in history. This attack ultimately created a shift in the war against Hitler and led to his defeat. 

Our day started in Arromanches, commonly known as Gold Beach. It was here that the British towed huge concrete blocks across the English Channel to create Mulberry Harbour. The blocks still remain even though they were only intended to be a temporary way to get materials needed for the invasion. Gold Beach is the middle of the five landing beaches with Juno (Canada) and Sword (British) to the east and Omaha and Utah (both US) to the west.

The town has an incredible 360-degree theater presentation which shows war footage from Canada, US, Great Britain and France. It's a very good overview of the Hundred Days Offensive and was a great way for us to get up to speed with everything that happened here.

From here we drove to Longues-sur-Mer to check out the German coastal artillery battery. The five massive concrete bunkers were built on a hilltop, each with a German 150mm gun, and pointed right at the English Channel.

The site is incredibly in great shape and you can walk in and around the bunkers and the original cannons, which are mostly intact. These guns were firing shells weighing almost 100 pounds at a distance of 13 miles. It's all a bit creepy too!

It was about an hour drive from here to Colleville-sur-Mer, better known as Omaha Beach and the site of the Normandy American Cemetery. We started in the museum, going thru the exhibits outlining the offensive, before heading outside to the cemetery which looks out over the beach.

This site where 9,387 US soldiers are buried (2000 who died on Omaha on June 6th) is a lot to take in. Feelings of grief and thanks and patriotism ran high within me. The juxtaposition of this peaceful and beautiful location with the bloody history of the beach below is unsettling. 

At 4pm the flags were lowered for the day and we were lucky enough to be there for the ceremony. 

We stopped on the way out of town at the beach where there are two memorials. The metal sculptures are called Les Braves and consist of 'The Wings of Hope', 'Rise, Freedom! ' and 'The Wings of Fraternity'. The stone memorial has inscriptions on three sides, "1st US infantry Division - No mission too difficult, No sacrifice too great duty first - Forced Omaha Beach at dawn 6JUN", "Erected in memory of those the 116th RCT, 29th Infantry Division Aus Landed here June 6, 1944.”, “The allied forces landing on this shore which they call Omaha Beach Liberate Europe June 6, 1944”.

At the very western end of the Omaha sector, at Pointe du Hoc, Hitler had one of his strongest forts in his Atlantic Wall. A series of bunkers and five more of the 155mm guns were set up here. Ranger battalions scaled the 100 foot cliffs in just 22 minutes in order to eliminate this major site of fire power. They were surprised to find that the Germans had moved the guns and had left the area completely destroyed. 

The guns were located not far inland and destroyed, but not before 135 Rangers died on the cliffs. 

We ran out of daylight so did not make it to Utah Beach, 45 minutes away. It was a full day of history lessons and remembering those American, British, and Canadian servicemen who fought against the tyranny of Hitler. I was so very glad to have had a chance to learn more about D-Day and explore these sites 76 years later. 

All photos of the D-Day Beaches here.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

New Year's Eve in Normandy

Trip date: December 2019

After three wonderful nights spent in Honfleur we were on the move. It was New Year's Eve and we would be spending most of the day driving around seeing some more of the sights of the most northeastern end of Normandy.

We drove 30 minutes north, over the big bridge that spans the mouth of the Seine, and into Le Havre. We were just stopping for lunch, and I think we picked the perfect spot! I'd highly recommend a meal at Le Bistrot des Halles if you are in search of traditional bistro fare with a cute atmosphere and lots of easy street parking. 

I started with a bowl of fish soup which is famous in the region, and then had this amazing skate wing in brown butter caper sauce. Cheese to finish, as you do!

Another 30 minutes north, driving along the coast, we arrived in Étretat. We were stopping to view the incredible rock formations, as others have done for hundreds of years. It was an absolutely stunning winter day to view the Porte d'Aval arch and the Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Garde sitting atop the white cliffs.

Really a beautiful area if you are nearby. There are multiple parking lots throughout the town and even though it was a holiday and quite busy, we still found a spot very near the beach. As an added surprise, we ended up randomly running into the friends we would be meeting later that evening, also enjoying the cliffs!

Back in the car it was 20 minutes to our next destination, the city of Fecamp and home of the Palais Benedictine

We bought our tickets for a self-guided tour of this over-the-top palace/museum, built by the "inventor" of Benedictine, Alexandre Le Grand.

There are some interesting displays of typical hardware used on homes back in the day, a medieval Rejuvenation if you will. There is also a lot of stained glass that helps to celebrate himself and his business.

The story of the invention of the herbal liqueur Benedictine is a bit cloudy and a bit fabricated. But basically it was invented in 1863 by Le Grand and a local chemist. Many are led to believe that the spirit was made by monks, which is a bit of a tall tale. The chemist basically riffed on some old recipes he found that had been possibly written by monks. Le Grand embellished the story and saw his sales rise, so he continued on with it.

There is a large hall filled with wonderful photos of Benedictine being bottled and packed for shipping during war times, so you see that all the workers were women. There are also shelves and shelves of the various bottles and labels used over the years. 

Our tour also included a chaperoned tour of the distillery and the cellars. It was all pretty interesting and I don't think I've ever visited or learned about a liquor product that had so much "history" made up about it.
We finished with a tasting of both Benedictine on its own as well as a small cocktail made from it. There were a few choices so the three of us tried to mix up our drinks so we could taste them all. And in true Alexandre Le Grand style, the exit is through the gift shop.

It was time to meet our friends who had graciously invited us to spend New Year's Eve at their awesome Normandy farmhouse. 

The rest of the night was an abundance of champagne, foie gras, wine, an incredible dinner, and a lot of laughing and singing in a house full of friends ringing in 2020. Quite a bit different than New Year's 2021 would end up being!

**As I visited all of these places before the COVID-19 pandemic, please double check on opening hours. And fingers crossed these businesses all stay in business!**

All photos of Le Havre, Étretat & Fecamp here.

Last Stop Normandy; Mont Saint-Michel

Trip date: January 2020 I remember getting a postcard from my friend Forest in the early aughts from Mont Saint-Michel, the photo was of the...

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