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Brittany/Normandy/D-Day 4 nights. October

Brittany/Normandy/D-Day 4 nights. October

Nov 2nd, 2018, 08:29 AM
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Brittany/Normandy/D-Day 4 nights. October

Oct. 18 - Oct. 22
We flew discount carrier Volotea Air from Cagliari, Sardinia, to Nantes, France, as the final leg of a 6-week European vacation.
We rented a Fiat 500 at the Nantes Airport and stayed in airbnb apartments in Dinan and Bayeux, each for 2 nights.

This report includes:
Mt. St. Michel
Omaha Beach
Utah Beach

Day One.
Two more new airports for us. Cagliari, Sardinia, had a nice modern terminal with lots of scenic banners showing love for Sardinia and making us disappointed to leave. They even have a slick museum in the terminal. The exit from the destination airport in Nantes, France, made us miss seeing the terminal there, but the outside area was very busy.

It was a nice fall day, bright blue skies and a bit cooler than we had enjoyed the last few weeks in Italy. Ninety-minutes away was Rennes, the center of Brittany. It’s a city, but didn’t feel too big, with an old city that was very walkable. It is cobble-stoned, with wide and large pedestrian only areas. It was the first place where we saw old French houses, with so-called half timber (timber construction that shows through on the exterior), all a little different, and painted in varying colors.

It was lunch time, and there were lots of people about, including numerous students, and it seems half had a baguette bag with their sandwich lunch. We found a little sandwicherie, with a long, fast moving line, and waited as we soon counted up to 40 people behind us. It was a walk up, with many dozens of prepared sandwiches, about 30 different types, and a couple people were working behind the counter making new inventory. Our dilemma was that virtually anything you could dream up had mayonnaise and/or eggs on them. A simple ham and cheese or tomato and cheese was not an option. Where is all that dijon mustard? Anyway, when in this part of France………Whatever, the bread was great, fresh and crusty.. And, just as we were remarking that people in France have good taste when they select fast food, we spotted a two-story Subway sandwich shop immediately across the street. And, it was busy, and we looked, and, yes, the bread was the same bland, mushy junk you get in the US.

We walked a lot of streets, but didn’t spend more than a couple hours here, but thought the city had a nice non-touristy feel.

Outside of Rennes, in St. Gregoire, we spotted a busy suburban mall, with colorful and large signs and video boards, but it was the little town of Lanvallay that got us to pull over. Clearly, the first sign of stone buildings everywhere, the whole downtown and all the houses surrounding it, was the show stopper. There was an attractive little chocolate and pastry shop, and they were filming what looked like a commercial there. With three cameras. But our “wows” related to all the granite buildings, which are the result of an area that was left with tons of granite from strong ancient volcanic activity in the area. There is a lot to see and do in this region, and, of course, this short visit hardly scratched the surface.

Home for two nights was our airbnb in Dinan, and, if we thought our first stone village was something to behold, Dinan was a big surprise for us. A medieval city with city walls, it was built on the riverfront, and it was spared from damage in WWII and thankfully so. It simply is one of the most beautiful small cities we have ever visited, every bit of it. And for us, even though it is a bit touristy, it was the historic area, and little else, that was the attraction for us. Besides the many stone buildings, we also saw numerous half-timber buildings, some of which seemed to be leaning. But we were told that some of the odd look, with more space on upper floors than on the ground, is a remnant of old tax policies that were based on the size of the ground footprint. We liked the many attractive and clever business signs. There were lots of restaurants, many of them creperies, but after mid-October, even on a nice day, it was not very busy. French food has never appealed much to us, and we were surprised to find a nice (and very quiet) Italian place. Our evening walk felt like we were the only ones in town. Our apartment was on the quiet end of one of the main commercial streets, a sort of 3-level carriage house to an old estate. The elegant owners have made its restoration their mission the last 20 years. We felt pretty special when we opened and closed the big iron gates to the old chateau so that we could access our car.

Day Two.
This day was a bucket list type of day. Mont Saint Michel. For years, we have drooled over photos. And, when we got several miles away, there it was in the distance, just like we expected. The stunning and seemingly magical abbey that rises into the sky from the sea (or at least the marshes much of the time including this day). But there is a bridge, and technically this is an island, even if it becomes so only a half dozen times a year. At dinner the night before, one of the few Americans we have run into in recent weeks, told us about the fog that enveloped the island and abbey the morning before. We would have loved that experience if the fog burned off before we left, as it did for them. But this day, the low fog already was disappearing. It was simply just another perfect weather day for us, with blue skies and temperatures that would get close to 70. There are so many parking lots, for visitors, it had a little theme park feel, although the lots were shielded by heavy landscaping, and, on this day, were not heavily used, at least first thing in the morning. You have three options to get to the island: a free shuttle bus (although you pay for parking); a fee-based horse and buggy; or you can walk. The walk was about 40-45 minutes each way and maybe four or five miles round trip. We chose that option on this beautiful day.

The island at low tide is largely surrounded by pebbles and sand, some of it very soft. We were told that you can walk to a nearby island, a half day trip, but they require you to do it with a guide because of dangers associated with some of the soft surfaces. The lower part of the island is surrounded by a castle wall. The island is topped by a large abbey cathedral that could not support such a structure, so they built several smaller churches to be used as its foundation support. In the middle is a little village, very touristy, with a narrow passageway that gets VERY crowded. We saw that as we were leaving and as the crowds were picking up. But, we were told, it gets a lot, a whole lot, busier in the summer and on some week-ends. There were several very large restaurants that can accommodate lots of these people.

The tour of the abbey, if you like castles or even if you have seen too many churches, is highly recommended. This is technically Normandy, but the views are mostly of Brittany, unspoiled countryside in one direction and mud and water elsewhere. In the morning, the abbey tower and spire make a nice shadow on the moist sand bed. The tour begins with the abbey and works its way through the hardships and sacrifices of monastic life in this place that had some rooms grand enough to host Kings. Our English speaking tour guide was entertaining, and 90 minutes went by quickly.

We saw windmills and drove for miles behind a truck loaded with a huge pile of hay bales in our ride in this rural area of Brittany. More stone villages, and then we spotted Cancale. If you like oysters, this place is for you. We don’t, but we enjoyed a warm day in a pretty seaside town that must be packed in the summer. Oddly, the signs seemed to encourage coming into town, unnecessarily, but thankfully, on a little one-way narrow dirt road that goes by a little castle-like tower and quickly provides a panoramic view of this little village. One street of stone buildings, mostly three or four story, with colorful window frames, house shops and restaurants. Behind it, there are a couple blocks of residences and then a hill-top, overlooking the sea, where larger and more expensive homes have been built. There are signs of oyster farming in the water, and that is the specialty of every restaurant. At the end of the street, there is a dock that has a little market of several vendors, and all they sell is oysters. There is a choice, you can buy number ones, or twos, up to number five, with the number ones, at least based on price, being the best. One of the other things we liked were the white on white antique sail boats embroidered on curtains in some of the houses.

We had planned lunch, but oysters didn’t appeal, so we decided to try Saint-Malo, a much larger city, about a half hour west across the same peninsula where Cancale was located. Parking was a bit tricky, especially because of an event, highlighting an upcoming widely known, every four-year, single-handed sailboat race (Saint-Malo to Guadeloupe). The event closed off a big area near the old town. But, to our delight, we found a space and were able to use and pay via Whoosh!, one of our parking apps we use in the US. We couldn’t believe its GPS found our space and correctly identified the parking meter’s number next to us. We had to walk several blocks along a very long and wide sand beach with long rows of big sections of tree trunks, providing some kind of strange looking breakwater on the upper end near the seawall.

The old city, even though it was virtually destroyed in WWII, is an amazing looking fortress. It’s so busy, on this day with what looks like lots of high school kids, and it is touristy, enough so that we saw eight soldiers with long guns walking about to provide security. An aerial view of this walled city, and its grand stone buildings, makes it look one of the best looking historic centers we have ever seen, even knowing that almost all of it was rebuilt in the last 70 years. The ramparts take a while to circle, but they are breathtaking. We even tried a creperie along there because of its location. Scallops and a salad both served on crepes is not something we’d normally choose, but they were good. A magician, promoting an upcoming show and with an entourage, was doing card tricks near our restaurant seats. It seemed like an active and fun city, wait staff at one restaurant with white and black striped shirts, white overalls and berets looking very Parisian.

Day Three.
Our short visit to the region now focused on Normandy, and our two days in this region would be more about history than anything. We started with very old history in the ancient and large city of Caen. We quickly found an underground parking garage that worked perfectly for us. Right above us was the massive “Men’s” Abbey, which we saved for the end of our day. We headed for the relatively quiet old town, grabbed some chocolate croissants and hot chocolate since there was a slight chill, at least for us Floridians. There were a lot of nice shops, and quite a few book shops, maybe because of the 30,000 students here. We didn’t explore the port, or any of the waterfront for that matter. There was lots of stone, but a few half-timber, buildings. We visited a castle that was constructed by William the Conqueror, his center of power, leading up to his tenure as King of England. Wrecked in WWII, the castle walls and ramparts have been rebuilt, and there is a small church and four museum buildings. That includes a historical museum of the area, a display about WWI, another presentation on barbarians and a museum that has mostly medieval art that we thought was excellent, and we peeked at a private opening of some kind of modern art exhibit in the lower floor. There is a well-known and separate WWII museum in the area that has a message of peace, but our next day was all about WWII, so we skipped that.

We smelled good French bread, and finally caved in and decided to get a sandwich. At Mount St. Michel, when we asked about mayo on the prepared sandwiches, the proprietor said: “Non, Non,Non.” So we got ham and cheese, and it had about a stick of butter on it. Today, we said please, and they were very nice. They made us a custom sandwich, which they don’t usually do, and even found us some dijon. And the bread seemed like the freshest yet.

William the Conqueror also built the Men’s Abbey in 1066 to appease the powerful Pope. His wife Matilda built the “ladies abbey” across town, but we didn’t make it there. William’s grave is below the altar of the Men’s Abbey's massive church. The abbey complex, which includes the city hall today, was spared during massive WWII bombing when they soaked some linens in blood and posted the reddened cross of the material on the building. And, it became a shelter and hospital for many in the city. There is a display that includes many photos of this difficult time. The abbey has a chapel and space that is popular with brides, and we witnessed four wedding groups in the short time we were there on this Saturday afternoon.

Time for another new home for the next two nights, this one in Bayeux, often mentioned as the first decent sized town, that the Allies secured after D-Day. It is about 4 miles inland. We booked another apartment near the city center behind tall iron gates that led to a courtyard, which is surrounded by residences in a complex of medieval buildings. We were on the top (third) floor, accessed by wide, and worn from years of use, marble floors.

Bayeux is a mixture of half-timber buildings and others looking more like chateaus with a finish that looks more like stucco, but not the stone we had seen in Brittany. There is a busy road that goes through the center of this cute town, which runs for quite a distance. There are more shops than restaurants on this main street.

We walk that street to go see Bayeux’s biggest, and, in some ways, oddest attraction. At one time, we owned a large embroidery company, using state-of-the-art computerized multiple sewing head machines. So, when we heard the world’s most famous piece of embroidery was located here, we decided to go. The Bayeux Tapestry was created by hand (lots of them), but its fame is both its historical significance and its size. You might snicker at paying something like $10 to see a piece of embroidery, but this cloth is 230 feet long. It was created under the direction of the half-brother of William the Conqueror, and it shows the events leading up to the so-called Norman Conquest by William. You are provided headphones that bring you through each of the nearly 50 scenes in the embroidery, numbered by the stitchers, and is an orderly way for one person after another to view it. There have been some repairs over the years, but we were astonished at how well preserved the cloth and especially the embroidery is. We doubt you will find threads today that will keep their colors for 1,000 years. We found it well worth it, and there was an additional museum area as well. The embroidery never has left France. Himmler wanted it for his castle in Germany, but it was stored and protected at the Louvre during the war. But this will change soon. Be forewarned that sometime in 2022, Macron and May agreed that it will be on loan to England. For now, it is in a grand old building not far from the Cathedral, the tapestry’s original home.

The Cathedral itself is 1,000 years old, is magnificent and was consecrated in the presence of William, who got a promise of support for his quest to be King in this church. That promise was broken by the man who became King, and that led to William’s Norman Conquest. A lot of history in this little town.

Day Four.
A beautiful sunrise this Sunday morning promised a great day for our one-day quest to see key D-Day sites. There are many private tours, starting around $100 per person, a lot of them in minivans that cover this area. We briefly, very briefly, considered doing that. We had a smidgen of apprehension about doing our own thing, but did a little planning on the geography of the area. The history we left to the museums and placards at various sites. And, for us, the flexibility of moving about on our own schedule was much preferred. We did not have time to view sites more significant to Allies like England and Canada, including Juno Beach, Gold Beach and Sword Beach.

Our visit started in little Aromanches-sur-Mer, which was a key British invasion location. Key to a successful landing in what officially was called Operation Overlord, was to get a harbor. Caen to the east and Cherbourg to the west were the biggest harbors in the region, and they were heavily fortified by the Nazis. So, the Allies, under the British, built a harbor and a floating road and floated it to Aromanches. To get an idea of the size of this undertaking, you need to come here and see all the remnants of this harbor that still are bobbing just offshore. A small parking area probably fills up quickly, but we are early. The nearby public restrooms oddly have two urinals, where your back is open for all to see you standing there. Other than that, this is a surprisingly cute little town, without the expected evidence of the massive tourism you would think both waterfront and beach, combined with a significant WWII museum, would bring.

The museum is a perfect introduction to our day. There is a short film, but the better one is reserved for groups of river cruise passengers who come by the busload, one after another. We decided to pretend we were on the cruise with the first group of the morning and liked their movie better than ours. The only other activity this Sunday morning is one little hotel that has a buffet breakfast and locals walking with loaves of bread, a few with big bags full (they must own restaurants). We followed the smells to a little side street, where we found a perfect little bakery. Lots of bread, and we bought a baguette for later. Oh, and a couple of really fresh and good Napoleons or mille-feuilles. On the beach, we see a big cannon that looks like one that came from a large gun ship. The side of an adjacent building shows two little girls writing a message on the wall: “Please No More War.” That was the beginning of lots of war, and even peace, stuff all over Normandy. Museums; many of them. Some official; some grand; and many just business enterprises. And, there was lots of surplus: tanks and jeeps abound; on one roadside, even a couple huge sections of that famed floating roadway. American flags everywhere. 75 years later. We walked up the cliffs just west of town where there is the concrete bunker for German guns. But, what we noticed most is that the land around here, even though it’s waterfront, is otherwise untouched, much like it must have been in 1944.

Next stop was Longues-sur-Mer, where there was a battery of big German guns that was part of its fearsome European wall. The concrete bunkers and several of the big guns are still there. You can see the incoming damage to their equipment. It is amazing how the French have decided to keep so much intact.

The countryside is beautiful. Lots of agriculture. Peaceful small villages. Chateau style homes and old but stately farmhouses that looked more like village compounds. Again, everything must have looked eerily like this 75 years ago. Heading west, we reach the American sponsored memorial above part of the long Omaha Beach. This monument (and there are probably dozens in this region), surrounded by benches, sits above the beach., As we stand there, the sound of two horses galloping on the beach, as if racing at a fast clip, is echoing off the cliffs. The sand on the beach, some 5-miles long, is a golden color, with a bit of an orange tone in today’s sun. The adjacent American Cemetery is the main attraction here, although there are only a few dozen people here on this now warm day. A small museum with a film has a metal detector and other security. But anyone can come in and walk the grounds of the cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer that holds the remains of nearly 10,000 US troops under the neatly positioned engraved white crosses. The grounds are impeccable, with views of the beach below.

St. Laurent-sur-Mer/Vierville-sur-Mer, two adjacent towns, offer an entryway and easy access to Omaha Beach. This is where most of the US invasion force landed under the direction of General Omar Bradley. And, there are more memorials of different kinds. This is our opportunity to walk the beach and realize, not only how long it is, but how wide it is. It takes several minutes to walk to the water. There are more signs of old concrete gun batteries above this end of the beach. A half dozen tractors sit on the beach, with boat trailers attached, an unusual way, it seems, to launch a boat. The end of the beach to the west is the beginning of the high cliffs that have been a signature of the Normandy invasion. We were thinking that the cliffs were not as high as we had thought until we saw a paraglider coming off one of them onto the beach.

Pointe du Hoc has another museum, which, for some reason, had security that was more thorough than we got at European airports. And, for that trouble, inside, there were only a few boards of information. Outside, open to all, was the top of the high cliffs that US Army Rangers scaled to silence a massive gun complex, where Allies bombed incessantly prior to the invasion. The landscape, for acres and acres, is full of dozens and dozens of huge pits, created by the bombs. The gun battery is intact including one below ground multi-room area. The wood in the ceilings is blackened from some type of fire and makes you wonder exactly how things went down. On all these sites, including the dramatic spot here, there is still a lot of barbed wire.

Our last stop was Utah Beach, where the US landed amidst less resistance than encountered on Omaha Beach. The best area WWII museum, built on the top of an old German gun nest, is located here. The 2-story beachfront building has a PT boat, an airplane and a good film. The beach itself is another long, wide beautiful sandy beach. As we departed the beaches, we briefly stopped in the nearby town of Ste.-Marie du Mont, where there was a battle between US paratroopers and 60 German soldiers who were using the church tower as a lookout. We got turned around, and google maps brought us down a back country road, where we discovered a plaque commemorating a US airfield used shortly after D-Day. And today that former airfield is just a corn field on a road that probably gets a handful of local cars a day.

Day Five.
On this day, our final destination was a small apartment just outside the grounds of CDG airport in Paris. But we weren’t finished. As we headed east, through a little town of Equemaville, we spotted a local bakery. For us we got a baguette and chocolate croissants and an opportunity to see a Dad and son (probably high school age and we aren’t sure why he wasn’t in school on this Monday morning) working the dough and filling the ovens.

One of our neighbors at home recommended Honfleur, which is simply a very pretty little port town connected to the Seine River and therefore a stopping point for many river cruise boats. Its tall thin buildings on the waterfront were a little reminiscent of Copenhagen for us without the color. But the somewhat drabness of the many slate gray colored, and covered, buildings had its own charm that you can see in Monet paintings. And, the restaurant awnings along the waterfront do provide lots of bright colors. Nearby is the biggest wooden church in all of Europe. And fun streets full of cute little very French looking shops. Some of them in brick buildings, some in half-timbers, some in stone. In this village, we saw several different looks, some barren streets, some heavily flowered, some straight, some curved. The little harbor includes at least one 1920’s fishing sailboat, the Saint Bernadette, a survivor, thanks to a re-building, of WWII bombing that destroyed all the other boats there. The beautiful all wood boat has been a prop for years for the many painters drawn to the town. We saw an old unrestored Model T Ford speedster, a rare old American antique, just sitting in a parking lot. We bought some local, and expensive, non-alcoholic apple cider for our picnic lunch and found it to be no better than “blah” apple juice.

Our last city on this 40-day trip was one we would like to return to. As we drove along the Seine River, we saw more river cruise ships, and got a glimpse of some areas we would like to explore in a future visit. Our short walking tour of the old city offered many photo ops of its many colorful half-timbered buildings, some very straight and symmetrical and others noticeably crooked. Our time was limited, and we made two admittedly quick stops at two churches. The Rouen Cathedral, made famous by artists like Monet, and, although immense, for us, it reminded us of the Abbey at Caen and had little of the art, sculpture and frescoes we are used to in even small churches. And, we missed the burial spot of Richard the Lionheart. At the opposite end of the architectural spectrum is the Church of St. Joan of Arc. It is a curious modern effort, and currently under renovation, shaped to evoke the flames that consumed Joan of Arc. It is next to the public market and was built on the site where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy. There are many great streets and squares, some of which we might prefer to see when the regular line of river cruise groups aren’t around. Still, there were many peaceful and inviting places, that we remembered even more fondly as we eventually got caught in the Parisian rush hour traffic as we were concluding our trip.
whitehall is offline  
Nov 2nd, 2018, 08:50 AM
Join Date: Jul 2006
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" The Cathedral itself is 1,000 years old, is magnificent and was consecrated in the presence of William, who got a promise of support for his quest to be King in this church. That promise was broken by the man who became King, and that led to William’s Norman Conquest. "

you do know this is Norman propaganda? The promise was given under pain of imprisonment and on a hidden alter.

Meanwhile the Men's Abbey and the Women's Abbey were both built in atonement for WIlliam and Matilda being too closely related to marry, it wasn't just an argument with the Pope, it was considered against the religious law and the two abbies were to get dispensation from the Pope.

I'm glad you liked St Malo, not everyone does, but I spent many a summer holiday there as a kid.
bilboburgler is offline  
Nov 2nd, 2018, 09:10 AM
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Thanks for the clarification or at least another perspective. There was a lot of history, much of which we learned about many years ago (a lot forgotten since then) that was packed into a few short days. And, frankly, we were as focused on the bread and wine in the region.

An American couple we met and our landlord both discouraged a visit to St. Malo (either because of WWII destruction or being too touristy), but when we saw an aerial photo, we thought it a special place. We were not disappointed.
whitehall is offline  
Nov 2nd, 2018, 10:23 AM
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Whitehall, great report! We're heading to the Normandy area and Mont St Michel in the fall of 2019. We found your details very informative. Thanks!
tomarkot is online now  
Dec 2nd, 2018, 03:08 PM
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Whitehall, thanks for this. It’s an area we’re considering spending 5-6 days and I’m glad to see it’s do-able.
natylou is offline  
Dec 2nd, 2018, 04:01 PM
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Very easy with a car and our google offline maps. Don't forget 2019 is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, which may provide a double-edge for your visit: more people but more events as well. We are still amazed at how relatively unspoiled (as in much the way the Allies found it 75 years ago) this gorgeous bit of shoreline remains. There is plenty to see and do in Brittany and Normandy, but, as you can see, you can do a lot in a handful of days. Best of luck.
whitehall is offline  
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