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Trip Report My Normandy Invasion - from Paris to the Loire Valley

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I recently posted a very lengthy trip report about my trip to France last July but now I realise that my title and introduction may have been too specific and didn't mention the many places I visited. Realising that many readers are interested in specific parts of France, I've decided to break my post up into smaller more specific and accessible portions. Hopefully any helpful hints I have to offer that may help in researching a trip or indeed anything of interest may reach more readers that way. I'll edited a bit and add afew details may have glossed over in my other report. Read my trip report here.

I'd already spent a few hectic days in Paris and now it was time to set off on my trip. With much trepidation I set off to collect the car and head off for my big adventure. I checked out of my hotel in Paris and schlepped my luggage to the RER C station right by the river. the previous day there were disruptions on the train service and the signs said the work continued. Now how was I getting to the Europcar depot on what was supposed to be a straightforward trip? Fortunately the signage was somewhat misleading and I was able to get there with only one easy change.

The Europcar place was easy to find (Thank you Google Earth) but there was a very long wait and it was 11.30 before I took possession of my little Fiat Punto -now called Felix and was on my way. (Felix and I never really got on and I discover it was Felix at fault – more later)

With just one stall I negotiated the Porte Maillot roundabout - there are lights giving you a chance to get into the road and next I was heading down Grande Armee Very busy but just like any major thoroughfare and then I disappeared into a tunnel which went on and on and on. Just drive. Next the toll booth (manned and took cash so no problems there) and I was on the freeway and on and on and on.

Eventually I reached the turn off (Very soon after paying a second toll) and travelling along some very narrow roads to Vernon and thence to Giverny.

Monet’s garden was top of my must-do list and it didn’t disappoint.

Giverny was just exquisite despite the crowds - many school groups - and the awful humidity. It's cloudy so it would be nice to see it in sunshine and when the roses are at their best - they are looking a bit past their prime. I took my time and many, many photos and then visited the house. Monet had the most amazing collection of Japanese prints -they are on every wall!

I indulged in a folding umbrella to use as a parasol but was able to put it to use almost immediately. After a pleasant lunch at a very charming little cafe opposite the gardens, I went to explore the village of Giverny. The few drops of rain that had fallen occasionally turned into quite the shower.

I very much enjoyed the gardens at the but would suggest that unless you have particular interest in the exhibition or are having a leisurely day, it is not worth the admission charge.

I set Kevin (my GPS with newly acquired Europe maps) to work and after a trip around Vernon he got me back onto the motorway and off to Honfleur. Kevin had me turn off the freeway before I thought he should but we got to see some lovely little villages with charming beamed and thatched cottages, cows and sheep etc.

I found the Motel les Bluetes easily. As you come into town you can see the sign and the building itself from the road even though it is in the next road.

I just had enough energy left to head into town and enjoy a seafood dinner at one of the cafes lining the old harbour. My Tour de France had really begun.

After a leisurely and delicious breakfast I headed into Honfleur. It was perfect weather for sightseeing, a light breeze, cool enough for jeans and joggers, sunny enough for reasonable pictures. I walked around town admiring all the historic buildings with their designer and tourist shops and cafes, though I found walking on the uneven cobblestones hard on my Paris-weary feet. Honfleur was just gorgeous though a less cynical person than I might be tempted to use the words 'quaint' or 'cute' or even 'twee'. I loved it – the colour palette, the half timbered buildings, the flower-festooned fishing nets decorating houses, the flowers everywhere.

After a while I caught the little tourist train which was 6 euros well spent though the only words of the commentary I understood were 'a droit' and 'a gauche'. It rambled around some of the more hilly streets before heading up into the hills to Cote de Grace at d’Equemauville to visit Sainte Catherine’s, a lovely old church which is a pilgrimage site and has a great view. A great way to see the sites, including cows and ye olde cowsheds without having to drive myself (thus far have been too busy watching the road and changing gears to do much looking at the passing scenery) Then we travelled past many mansions which were the summer retreats of wealthy Parisians in times past, though they no doubt had a better view of the mouth of the Seine than that enjoyed by the present incumbents, who have lovely views of the industry and port of Le Havre. Also had great views of the Pont de Normandie. Should probably have put on my 'bridge crossings of the world' itinerary but missed that chance. C'est la vie.

Reunited with Felix, Kevin was set to action and we headed off down the coast through very charming countryside, though rather a winding narrow road, until I found myself in the midst of Deauville No doubt Kevin (GPS) didn’t realise how very much I did not want to go right through the very centre of Deauville etc, past all the holiday makers lunching at the cafes. Luckily I didn't stall or bunny-hop in front of them - I was still getting used to Felix's gearbox (actually, I never did) It sure is a lovely looking town/resort but narrow streets and lots of traffic = pretty stressful. On down the coast past endless seaside resorts, not for the economy-minded I'm guessing. One town seems to join the next as seems to happen though what I saw of the actual beaches didn't look that impressive.

Back on more major roads and suddenly I was in the midst of Caen - I somehow missed the signs for the peripherie (by pass ) and headed for Bayeux. Unfortunately Kevin did not realise that the Hotel Churchill is located in a pedestrian street ( the hotel website didn't make that clear either ) so I spent sometime navigating the narrow crowded streets of Bayeux before finally finding the hotel and its cramped carpark. Phew. One squeezy place left more me. Hotel Churchill is much recommended here on Fodor's and it was indeed pleasant though I don't think I would stay here again if I had a car. It would be a great location if using public transport and taking advantage of the tours which leave from the carpark. Next time I'd stay somewhere outside the town.

Bayeux is all about the Tapisserie of course and that at least was easy to find, located as promised very near the hotel. The tapestry (which is really an embroidery) is very detailed and there's an interesting and included in the price audio commentary. Then there was a very interesting, for me, exhibition of a Japanese e-maki (ie scrolls) which had interesting comparisons with the tapestry in that it told a story in sequence in much the same way. Then there's a short video about the tapestry - a good example of a tourist facility, well organised and good explanations - in English even. I was there so long I started to be afraid of being locked in.

On leaving I made my next stop the cathedral and a little wander around downtown Bayeux. Then dinner at a little place near the hotel, where I had some local specialities - cider, pork with Pommeau etc. I wasn’t tempted by the “stomach fast guts in cream sauce “(ie tripe- maybe English menu isn’t always helpful.

So that was Wednesday - at least I think was Wednesday. One loses track so.

Boys’ Day Out

Knowing I had a busy day ahead, I got going a bit earlier than I have been thus far. Breakfast was not included in the room rate but when I saw the lovely breakfast room/conservatory and choices available I decided to fuel up for the day.

First stop was Arromanches but not before a few wrong turns resulting in me exploring more country lanes and tiny villages than was strictly necessary. Arromanches is where Port Winston was built, also known as the Mulberries and you can still see the concrete blocks on which the prefabricated harbour they built for D Day rested. Amazing that they towed all these platforms and portable wharves over from Britain and assembled them there, those that survived the crossing. A whole lot of old merchant ships formed a sort of outer protective 'harbour'.

There is a D Day museum there which gives an interesting account of the process and has models along with other displays of the Allied effort. For those of us who hadn’t read up on the whole D-Day story, it was very informative.

Next stop was the German bunkers at Longues sur Mer. They have a great outlook over the beaches - you can see for miles and it's eerie because there are fields of lupins and corn and wheat nearly ready for harvest, poppies and other flowers growing along the edges of the crops by the roadside, grazing cows, birds squawking above, a stone village with church spire in the background, so peaceful. At that time of the morning I was nearly alone in my wanderings and it was hard to imagine that it was once a battleground. On one of the bunkers, a group of British schoolchildren was posing for photos - what a great experience for students learning this way.

There’s a lot more to see and there’s a whole industry devoted to the D Day tourists. Lots of guys doing the rounds, often by motorbike, and the camper-van crowd are out in force. All the attractions have dedicated camper-van parking areas which are already well utilised.

A brief stopover for a snack at the seaport of Port-en-Bessin-Huppein and then onto Omaha Beach and the American cemetery. There's a visitors centre there with a large reflective pool overlooking the ocean and very "patriotic" displays and info. Some profiles of selected personnel and the iconic gun and helmet that I'm sure you've all seen. Some moving live action footage of actual battles in the area. Then you walk through a tunnel hearing the names of those buried there and you go out to the cemetery. What's most moving is the sheer extent of the graves. We've all seen pictures but it can't prepare you for the extent of the crosses and stars and to realise how young most of them were –each someone’s son, father, husband, brother etc.

It's immaculately maintained - at one part on the edge of the area, they were trimming the branches of a tree. There was a guy in a suit supervising the workers and they were placing the trimmings on sheets of tarpaulin placed on the lawn so as respect the graves (I assume).

I then walked down to the beach itself. So peaceful ; once again you could sense the contrast between as it is, and has been, except for those few fateful weeks. In the words of the soldiers quoted at the Arromanches museum "The ramp lowered and we descended into hell".

Along the road further and I stopped at another of the D Day landing museums. This one was real amateur time by comparison. Basically a large shed like a country town hall just stuffed with memorabilia of all sorts.. Outside, some of the actual landing boats and equipment .

Onward, this time to Pointe du Hoc and the Ranger monument. This was the most interesting place –it’s a headland where the Germans had another lot of batteries - Awesome views of the coast in both directions on top of a cliff and thought to be impregnable, However the Rangers climbed the cliffs and took possession, Unfortunately they didn't get the back up they needed and lives were lost. The ground is riddled with holes and there's a memorial to the Rangers. In fact the whole coastline has many memorials to various battalions.

Last stop for the day - and quite a lot further along was St Mere Eglise, the church where the parachutistcs were stuck on the church spire. In fact there's a parachute there still, as the town milks its claim to fame.

The day was marching on so I headed south on some fantastic roads through Saint Lo (scene of heavy fighting) Luckily the freeway bypasses it and I eventually reached Avranches, my home for the night. Of course Kevin had trouble finding the place - took me off the freeway prematurely and made me go right through the town, which like many is on the top of the hill and riddled with tiny streets which look like they should be one way but aren't and take off at crazy angles which Kevin can't quite seem to figure out.

Eventually we found the hotel and decided to just stay put and indulge in dinner there. The restaurant. is a lovely old stone room with gleaming brass and copper pots everywhere. I had the 25 euro menu – five courses including an amuse bouche . Definitely the best meal I had had thus far on my trip. Most of the clientele had dressed up for dinner and the restaurant is much fancier than the rooms.

The hotel has a lovely flower filled courtyard where you could sit and relax. The Tour de France will pass very near it on Stage 6 Dinan to Lisieux - July 7. Seeing the notices advising the road closures was my first ‘contact’ with le Tour and was very exciting and now I was seeing cyclists riding the route - in fluoro vests and bike shorts and campervans with bikes on the back.

In Which Kevin Disgraces Himself and is Given The Sack

This was possibly the most stressful day of my trip. After planning for over a year, researching and collating, I had a vast number of resources saved on my home computer, But the weeks before my departure were busy at work and I got a case of tour-planning overload. Consequently, I hadn’t had a chance to print out all the documents and maps which I’d prepared. And something went wrong in transeferring the data to my memory stick and netbook. Result, things I knew I should know, but couldn’t remember or access. But that’s a problem for another time. The day started pleasantly enough.
I set off from Avranche. I set off quite early as I had a big day ahead. Down the long sweeping hill out of Avranches , following the route of the Tour de France , though the boys will go UP it.

I was at the Mont by 9 and already the crowd was building up. It’s one of those sights that impress from your first – “OMG there it is glimpse” along the road. The tide was well out and not due in until 6 in the evening – there are stern signs advising you - don't say you weren’t warned.

I spent a happy hour and a bit in the Abbey with audioguide and then walked along the ramparts before sitting down to grab something to eat before my long trek across country. My cappucchino arrived with mountain of cream soon enough but I waited and waited for my crepe. It seems when your coffee and bill arrive, you’re expected to lay down your money before you get the food All the while the bells were tolling and it was pleasant enough but they had a photographer there taking some pictures - for some publicity and they were fussing with getting all the umbrellas lined up etc. I think my crepe had sat forgotten on a bench for a while.

Eventually I got to "spent 50c" and I was on my way. Not before nearly making a stupid mistake– I nearly posted my postcard in a rubbish bin , realised just in time and as a concerned passer-by pointed out the error in my ways.

First stop to get petrol First, go through my check-list.- Remember which side fuel cap is on, remember to put diesel in (ah but they don't call it diesel). Oh how to unlock the fuel cap. Once again the kindness of strangers came to the fore as the poor girl attempting to get her own fuel got interrupted by some useless Aussie woman trying to operate the fully automated bowser.- Put credit card in, and fortunately it works. Answer a whole lot of questions.(Do I want a ticket? Yes, you do) Freak slightly at the 138 euros displayed on the screen before realising that was how much I was authorised to put in; did Get my ticket (ie a receipt) etc. All the while the cycle-laden campervan brigade en route to Brittany for the TDF start are queueing up behind. No pressure

So now I have petrol, one worry less. Tell Kevin my next destination, Fourgeres, and off we go. Well I'm a bit suspicious when we pass the sign heading to Fougere, and after sending me to the station car-park and other random directions I decide to override his choice, but no, he insists and the "recalculations lead me though a narrow country lane past an isolated farm and full circle back to Pontsoron. Oh he must want me to go by the main road I think,so I relent and we head onto the freeway and - you guessed it, north. After a while, and too late to do anything about it, as stuck on the autoroute, I’m back in Avranches! Seems I had never completed the request to get to Avranches the previous day. Must learn how to cancel instructions no onger needed.

Well its only about 30 kms butna waste of time and resources, not to mention the strain on my nerves! And the driving was pleasant enough. I arrived in Fougere quite a bit later than I'd planned so I didn’t enter the Chateau but did the town walk. What a lovely place - all so historic and picturesque and flowers everywhere. Being me,did I go to the TI for information? No, I did the town walk in the wrong direction so had to go up a really steep path to the church and town centre on the top of the hill. Fougeres is a lovely place and really quiet compared to other places I've been. It seems to be overlooked in all the tourist guides and there were very few tourists in evidence. A bit sad really, lots of closed up shops all gone out of business and houses which seemed unoccupied. Go visit Fougere.

One of the things on my hit list is the tapestry in Angers . Could I make it? I decided it was just possible and headed off in that direction. A pretty straight run on well signposted roads, so it seemed it would be easy. Except for the roadworks, the fact that it was Friday and the start of holidays, for some etc. And rondepoint after rondepoint after rondepoint. The countryside gradually changed too, fewer flowers in the villages, a much more familar palette of colours. Very agricultural with wheat harvest in progress and fields of sunflowers replacing the lupins further west. Going through Laval was slow going past industrial areas with many slow trucks and the usual going through a city stop-start even though we were on the main arterial roads.

I made to Angers just before 5 and realised, I couldn’t remember where the tapestry actually was. On seeing the narrow streets crowded with buses and people and suspecting that the museum might close at 5 ( though many things are open later - Bayeux was open till 6.30) I decided, after all that, to give it a miss.

Well not much further to go and the autoroute would make it quick so onto the motorway and I'm speeding towards Tours. Easy, right? Until I get to the end of the toll-free section and , wouldn’t you know it, the machine won't accept my card. People are queueing behind – it’s peak hour of course.. Stress out. Press the help button and a torrent of French is no help Eventually an attendant comes out, tries my card without luck. My other card is buried deep in my suitcase in the boot. Should I try that or give him cash?- I profer my last 20 euro note rather than count out coins. He takes it and tells me to go to a parking area and sit and wait for my change. Eventually some woman comes over and starts talking at me. She speaks no English and seems to be asking me what the hell I'm doing there. Eventually I mime and write down the cost of the toll and 20 euros and the amount I'm waiting for She had my change all along.

By now I'm getting anxious that I wont get to the hotel by check in - Try to phone and get a recorded message in a loop which doesn't allow me to leave a message- the print out says between 4 and 6.30. I'm cutting it fine but no worries, I'll only be a little bit late. Not trusting Kevin any more, I take a wrong turn on the ring road around Tours which heads south and there's no signage that looks promising and no turn offs. I'm only about 30 kms from destination but how to get there. I end up in Loches, which looks to be a lovely place for another time but now? The road out of town towards Amboise is through the narrow streets that line most routes in and out of these towns from the days of horse and cart. I’m still having trouble with the gears and shy on the right side of the car- not anxious to scrape the car on the parked cars and stone walls which seem to jump out in front of me.

Eventually I make it to Amboise and of course, can’t find the street and have to relent and give Kevin another chance. I get there about 8, relieved to find, they still have my room and there wasn't anything to worry about. The manager (owner?) is really friendly and helpful and carries my luggage up to the second floor. A bit old and shabby but pleasant enough. Dinner is offered at La Breche but this night I walked to a pizza place for some pasta.,An early night would have been good but there was a rock concert on which didn't finish till about one o'clock. It seems there was a festival all weekend.

I’ve become a fan of staying in places that offer an evening meal. For a solo traveller, it’s a great option after a long day of touring. Relax, have drink or two and no worries about getting home safely.

Next stop in a few days based in Amboise.

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