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Trip Report: France (Paris and Normandy): August - September 2017

Trip Report: France (Paris and Normandy): August - September 2017

Old Apr 5th, 2018, 06:14 AM
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Trip Report: France (Paris and Normandy): August - September 2017

Friday August 25: Newark, NJ to Paris

For our international flight, we tried a budget business-class airline called La Compagnie, which only offers flights from Newark’s Liberty International Airport to Charles de Gaulle. La Compagnie flies from Newark’s Terminal 2, and because we arrived a bit early for our 9:40 pm flight, we spent some time in the airline’s landside shared Art & Lounge club. (Art & Lounge is a member of Priority Pass, so passengers from other airlines also use the club.) The club space is cozy and compact, but offers seating for a good number of people on sofas, chairs, at small round cocktail tables with chairs, or at a tiny bar. Bartenders pour hard liquor drinks, but other alcoholic beverages such as beer, wine, and champagne (as well as non-alcoholic drinks like sodas) are self-serve. Adjacent to the drinks bar is a buffet bar with hot and cold snacks. The lounge also offers televisions, reading materials, and restrooms. This lounge is located outside of the secured area, but when it is time to board, an attendant makes an announcement and then leads guests to a priority checkpoint for faster screening. Although the service on our La Compagnie flight was adequate, we (and other passengers) had great difficulty with the 170-degree reclining seats. Some seats, once moved into the almost-flat reclining position, could not be easily reset to a seated position, which necessitated calling a flight attendant, who dismantled the seat, sometimes straddling the cushions to remove them. (Fortunately, or perhaps by design, the female flight attendant uniforms include a knee-length walking short rather than a skirt or dress.) Many passengers also had difficulty using the large removable electronic tablets that served as the personal entertainment systems. Each passenger received a complimentary amenity/toiletry kit (which was the same kit when flying both the outbound and inbound directions). Meal service was more of an express type, with all courses arriving at the same time on the same tray. Because we did not pay any more money for the La Compagnie business-class seat than we would have paid for a coach seat on a more well-known carrier, we felt that our airline choice was acceptable; however, we are not sure whether we would fly them again.

Saturday August 26: Paris

Our 10:50 am arrival at Charles de Gaulle was disappointing. The aircraft deplaned on the tarmac, so passengers had to disembark using steep stairs; because passengers were not warned of this in advance, many of them had to descend carrying large roll-aboard suitcases. Then passengers boarded a bus that took them to the terminal, still toting their carryon baggage. The bus was overcrowded, with limited seating; when the bus moved toward the terminal, it missed its intended stop and had to complete an additional loop to reach the correct location, where passengers had ascend a high flight of stairs (still with their carry-on bags), enter the terminal, travel up and down the various inclined moving walkways (on which rollaboards rolled away from passengers). We noticed several elderly passengers who had difficulty with deplaning; if they had known about the restrictions ahead of time, perhaps they could have better prepared themselves. Although the airline gave passengers “fast passes” to move through immigration, we had to walk to the far end of the terminal in order to access the windows where we could use them. Because of construction in the baggage claim area and the lack of directional signage, we encountered difficulty leaving the terminal, but after that, it was easy to navigate to the taxi queue, and the trip into the city on a weekend morning was fast and easy for a fixed-price equivalent to $50 USD. (We had tried multiple times unsuccessfully to book our airport transfer online using the service offered by La Compagnie, but we could never make the transaction successful.)

We checked into the Paris Hilton Opera, then we met some old friends (temporary Paris residents) and visited l’Orangerie museum together. The Musee de l’Orangerie was built in 1852 as a winter shelter for the orange trees that lined the garden of the Tuileries Palace; it replaced their former cold-weather spot in the “Grande Galerie” (“Great Gallery”) of the Louvre. In fact, an “orangerie” (or “orangery”) is a building or room (similar to a greenhouse or conservatory) usually found in a wealthy or prestigious 17th to 19th century home or building that protects fruit tries in winter weather. Orangeries were used by the Dutch, English, and French, who borrowed the idea from Italian Renaissance gardens. The current l’Orangerie is located on the Seine’s waterfront terrace, with one façade made of glass to let in the sun’s light and heat, and the opposite side nearly windowless to avoid the winds. The remaining two sides contain the entrances, with columned doorways that mimic the design of the Tuileries Palace; however, the pediments here are topped with horticultural sculptures that indicate the building’s original function. After the fall of the French Empire in 1870 and a fire at the Tuileries Palace the following year, the Orangerie became the property of the State until 1922. After the First World War, Claude Monet willed his series of “Nympheas” (“Water Lilies”) paintings to the museum as a symbol of peace, although possession was not granted until after his death in 1926. The water lilies series contains 8 panels, each nearly 6.5 feet high and spanning a total length of nearly 100 feet; the paintings are arranged in two oval rooms that form the symbol of infinity, with their east-west orientation in the path of the sun and along the historical axis of Paris that runs from the Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre. Monet worked on these panels for nearly 30 years, creating the representation of a landscape dotted with water, lilies, willow branches, and tree and cloud reflections as they appear in a varying light cycle throughout the day. The first room contains four compositions that show the reflections of the sky and the vegetation in the water, from morning to evening, whereas the second room contains a group of paintings with contrasts created by the branches of weeping willow around the water’s edge. Monet created almost 300 paintings based on his water lily pond; over 40 of which were large format. Although Monet’s murals are the most important pieces at l’Orangerie, its collection also contains works by Paul Cezanne (15 paintings), Henri Matisse (10), Amedeo Modigliani (5), Pablo Picasso (12), Pierre-Auguste Renoir (25), Henri Rousseau (9), Chaim Soutine (22), and others.

Afterwards, the four of us enjoyed drinks and snacks at the Opera Cafe before our friends deposited us back at the hotel. In the evening, we visited the executive lounge for the evening reception, then we walked to our friends’ apartment in the 8th arrondissement for some drinks before the four of us strolled through the Parc Monceau, on which their apartment was positioned.

Parc Monceau covers more than 20 acres. Phillippe d'Orleans, Duke of Chartres (a cousin of King Louis XVI), created the public park in 1778. The Duke was a close friend of the Prince of Wales (later dubbed George IV), and a lover of all things English, so he commissioned the design of the park to resemble an English garden to delight and amaze his visitors. Originally, the park contained a miniature ancient Egyptian pyramid, Roman colonnade, randomly placed statues, water lily pond, “tatar” tent (like a decorative yurt), farmhouse, Dutch windmill, temple of Mars, minaret, Italian vineyard, enchanted grotto, gothic buildings, servants dressed in exotic costumes, and unusual animals (such as camels). Later, parts of the park were remodeled in a more traditional English landscape style, including a new city wall and a classic Doric temple with a rotunda (used as a customs house, it also an upper-floor apartment for the Duke) at the main entrance. Although the Duke supported the French Revolution, including the execution of his own cousin Louis XVI, he was guillotined during the Reign of Terror in 1793, and the park was then nationalized. After the monarchy was restored, the park was returned to the Duke’s family; however, during the Second Empire, the family sold land parcels within the park to builders of luxurious town houses. The city of Paris purchased the remaining part of the park in 1860; sadly, the only original design elements still existing are the water lily pond, the stream, and the Egyptian pyramid. To these remaining features, designers added two main perpendicular pathways so that carriages could drive in the park, other smaller curving pathways for strolling, a classical dome to the Pavilion de Chartres, and a bridge modeled after the Rialto in Venice. Between 1868 and 1878, Impressionist painter Claude Monet created a series of five canvases of the park. Today, the park has nine gated entries that are monitored by a fifth-generation park watchman who lives above the royal rotunda at the north entrance.

After our walk, we enjoyed a late dinner together on the sidewalk at the Café Monceau. It was a tiring but enjoyable first day!

Sunday August 27: More Paris

This was our only full day in Paris. We ate a quick breakfast in the buffet restaurant at the Hilton Paris Opera. Then we enjoyed a leisurely walk on the Rue Royal (Royal Road) through the Place de la Concorde (past the 3,300-year old Egyptian Luxor Obelisk at the end of the Champs-Elysee, and the “Fontaines” [“fountains”] des Mers and Fleuves). Created in 1772, the Place de la Concorde gained notoriety as a place where beheadings occurred by guillotine (including Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI). We then crossed the “Ponte della Concorde” (“Concorde Point Bridge”), where we attached a “love” padlock to the railing, making a wish and sinking our key into the Seine. (A man sells locks on the bridge in case you do not bring your own.) Our destination was the fantastic Musee d’Orsay, which we had first visited (separately) in 1990 and then (together) in 2002; however, it is one of our favorite museums that requires repeat visits, not only for the tremendous art collection but also for the building itself, which was once a train station.

The Musee d’Orsay occupies the former d’Orsay railway station and hotel, built in the Beaux-Arts style. The museum, one of Europe’s largest, displays primarily French art from 1848 to 1914, including the largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world (over 2000 paintings, 600 sculptures, and other objects d’art, photographs, and architecture), by artists including Monet (86 paintings), Manet, Degas (43), Pissarro (1), Renoir (81), Cézanne (56), Seurat, Sisley, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Van Gogh (24). It also displays works by non-French artists such as Cassatt, Klimt, Munch, and Whistler. The building itself is a work of art, constructed for the 1900 “Exposition Universelle” (“World’s Fair”), including an adjacent square with six bronze allegorical sculptures that represent the six continents. The building’s modern metallic structures (including passenger and freight elevators, ramps, and railway tracks) were designed to integrate into its elegant surroundings and are masked within the facade and hidden by stone. An open porch and lobby extends into a “great hall” that is over 100 feet high, 130 feet wide, and 450 feet long. Although the Gare d’Orsay was the end point for the railways of southwestern France until 1939, the station slowly become obsolete because its short platforms could not accommodate longer mainline trains; however, it was still used for some suburban services as well as a post office, film set, theatre, and auction house for the next 30 years. In 1970, the station was scheduled for demolition, but preservationists saved it, and in 1978, it was added to the list of Historic Monuments. Over the next 8 years, it was redesigned into the current art museum.

After the museum, we walked along the Quai Anatole France along the bank of the Seine, across the Pont Royal (Royal Bridge), past the Louvre, and down the “Allee Central” (“main promenade”) of the Jardin de Tuileries, where we stopped for drinks at one of the outdoor touristy cafes before we returned to the hotel.

Having visited Paris twice before, we did not feel compelled to visit the most renowned sites individually; however, we did want to see them again from the outside. Thus, we decided that a double-decker, open-topped, hop-on/hop-off bus tour would provide the refresh that we desired. Our concierge recommended the company Le Open, and we found the bus stop just two blocks from the Hilton. (Le Open offers four different routes with your ticket, whereas other companies offer only two or three different routes. Note that if you depart the bus to visit the interior of a site, re-embarking later, it is difficult to complete all four routes in one day, because each route alone could take longer than 2 hours to complete.) Our Parisian friends joined us on the bus tour, and afterwards, we stopped for a drink at the Opera Cafe before we jumped on an alternate bus route to travel to Montmartre. We climbed the steps to Sacre-Couer, then we ate dinner outdoors at La Cremaillere. Afterwards, we parted ways, they travelling home by Metro and we by Uber. (Uber operated similarly as in the US, just be sure to have your phone turned on in case the driver needs to contact you.) Back at the Hilton, we made a quick trip to the executive lounge, which after 8:00 pm offers only soft drinks and a few pastries.

Monday August 28: Paris to Bayeux with Caen

We rose early in order to catch a morning train from Paris to Bayeux. Fortunately, our hotel was located immediately in front of Gare St-Lazare, so we did not have to add any travel time between our accommodations and our transportation. Unfortunately, the Hilton breakfast in both the restaurant and the executive lounge does not begin until 6:30 am, and we wanted to depart the hotel prior to that time, so we missed our complimentary breakfast. (In retrospect, we need not have arrived at the train station more than 10 minutes in advance.) Neither of the grocery stores in the station were open at that hour, nor were any of the other shops or restaurants. Only one bakery kiosk and one shop were operational, so we bought a few croissants to share, along with some bottled water to take on the train.

We boarded the 7:06 am Intercities 3301 train for our 2-hour and 9-minute journey from Paris Gare St-Lazare to Gare de Bayeux on the Paris - Cherbourg route. (The Intercities train also stops at Caen and Lison.) We were seated in the first-class coach, seats 16 and 17, which were side-by-side but unfortunately rode backwards. The first-class car was less crowded than the other two cars on the train; however, it did not offer any additional amenities other than a small dedicated restroom. (This route/train does not offer a bar car, so bring whatever food and drink you need with you.) On the Intercities train, we stored our luggage on a rack at one end of the car, stowing our smaller carry-ons in overhead racks above our seats. When we arrived in Bayeux, because the first-class car was positioned at the end of the three-car train, passengers were unable to disembark on pavement. Instead, we jumped down onto gravel, holding our luggage, then tugged it on the pebbles until we reached the proper paved landing platform. There were no porters, and we saw some elderly passengers with multiple suitcases who had difficulty disembarking the train. We did not actually enter the Bayeux station, because our guide and driver were waiting for us on the platform, nor did we travel back to Paris from Bayeux station, so we cannot comment on the facilities.

We hired Lucie Hoffman from Cap Normandy as our private tour guide for our six-day trip to Normandy. We found Lucie listed online on a few websites, and our Bayeux hotel (Villa Lara) also recommended her. (She was once even listed in a Rick Steve’s guidebook.) We sent out emails to many Bayeux guides, but most were on holiday for the month of August, many were already booked, and still others only had one or two of our desired six days available. We were pleased that Lucy had availability to guide us, and we were extremely pleased with her knowledge, planning, and demeanor. Lucie arranged for her friend William to be our driver for the six days, and he was prompt for each pickup, with a clean vehicle, the car running, doors open, water bottles available, and a handshake greeting. William was an excellent driver, and although he does not describe himself as bilingual, he certainly seemed so to us. (Perhaps he is not technically fluent, but he was easily able to hold an extended conversation with us.) William also showed initiative in learning more about the sites that we visited. And we never worried about getting lost, what with the car GPS, a portable GPS unit, and William’s cell phone map for guidance! We emailed back and forth with Lucie many times in the months preceding our trip. She required a third of our total bill as a deposit, which we remitted using an international bank transfer. (This electronic bank transfer was difficult for us to do. In the past with private guides, we have used a credit card or PayPal to make a deposit. Because our regional bank does not permit international wire transfers, we had to open an account at a larger bank that offered that service. Although we could have also used a third-party service like Western Union to transfer the money, even using a credit card, we decided that the new bank account would also be useful to withdraw funds when we travel since it does not charge a foreign ATM usage fee. ) At the end of our tour, we paid the remainder of our balance to Lucie in Euros (which we withdrew from the ATM machine at the Bayeux Post Office using our new bank account). Private guides/drivers are much more expensive in France than in other places we have traveled – the daily rate averages about $550 Euros, with additional fees if you travel greater distances that require more petrol and road tolls. William and Lucie picked us up each morning at 9:15 am at the Villa Lara, and we returned in the late afternoon by 6:00 pm. Lucie was truly one of the best guides that we have ever had – educated, intelligent, sociable, and funny. She organized a great program for us, and she constantly monitored the weather forecast to make sure that we visited the most appropriate sites on specific weather days. (We had two days of brilliant sunshine, three days of clouds/partial sunshine/small passing sprinkles, and one day of heavy rain.) We highly recommend Lucie Hoffman of Cap Normandy – she was one of the best private tour guides we have ever had!

We stayed at the Villa Lara in Bayeux for six nights, preferring to make day trips so that we could return to a home base each night. Because we would be at the hotel for an extended time, we splurged on a suite, which had a living room, separate bedroom, and large bathroom, as well as a balcony with an excellent view of the Cathedral. The hotel was well-located for Bayeux sites, shopping, and restaurants, and we would stay there again if we visited. (However, for less money, the Reine Mathilde or the Churchill would also suffice, particularly if we visited at a time when air-conditioning was not needed.) Villa Lara is considered a five-star hotel on the French rating system because it offers finer amenities including air-conditioning, elevator, fitness center, (nightly) bar and (morning) restaurant. After we stored our luggage at the hotel (our room was not yet ready to check into), we departed for our first tour.

Over the course of six days, we visited (1) Caen and Bayeux, (2) Rouen and Giverny, (3) Mont Saint-Michel, (4) D-Day sites including Sainte-Mere-Eglise, Utah Beach, Pont-du-Hoc, and Le Cambe, (5) D-Day sites including Arromanches, Longues-sur-Mer, Omaha Beach, and the American Cemetery, and (6) Honfleur, Deauville, and Trouville. In retrospect, we were pleased with what we had chosen to see and do (it was just the right mix of Impressionist sites, historical places, and D-day locations), and we would not have omitted anything that we saw, nor did we feel that we required more in-depth time on any specific area. (Of course, with unlimited time and money, we would gladly spend a few days and nights in each of these locations in order to explore them more fully.)

The French region of Normandy lies along the English Channel coastline east of the Brittany region. Prior to the 13th century, Normandy was part of Britain. In fact, a few British Channel Islands remain off the coast, such as Jersey and Guernsey.) Normandy is famous for its rolling green landscapes, wide sandy beaches, dramatic limestone cliffs, fishing villages, dairy products (cheese, cream, and butter), and apple orchards (that produce hard cider, pommeau, and Calvados brandy). It is an agricultural area made up of “bocages”, patchworks fields divided by high hedges.

Departing from Bayeux, we drove about 30 minutes to Caen, the main/capital city in Lower/Basse Normandy that sits on the Orne River. (Rouen is the capital of Upper/Haute Normandy). Unfortunately, Caen experienced bombing during World War II, so much of the city has been rebuilt, and today it is a busy and modern commercial center with a large student population. Still, Caen also offers a few castles and abbeys from the 11th century when William of Normandy ruled here before he conquered England; the twin abbeys (“Abbaye aux Hommes” [“Men’s Abbey”] and “Abbaye aux Dames” [“Women’s Abbey”]) founded by William and his wife Mathilda survive. First, we visited “Hotel de Ville/Mairie de Caen” (City Hall”) and the adjacent William’s abbey.

Next, we walked through the historic city center to the hill that holds Caen Castle (also called “Le Chateaux de Caen” and “Chateau Ducal”, one of the largest castles in Western Europe at 13.5 acres). Built around 1060 by William the Conqueror (initially Duke of Normandy and later King of England), the castle now houses the “Musée de Normandie” (“Normandy Museum”) and the “Musee des Beaux Arts” (“Museum of Fine Arts”). William’s son Henry I built Saint George’s Church, a hall and castle keep within the castle, in 1123. The castle saw several engagements during the Hundred Years War, and centuries later, the keep was pulled down during the French Revolution. The castle was used as a barracks during World War II and sustained bombing damage. We crossed through the “porte sur la ville” (“gateway to the town”; the alternate entrance is the “porte des champs” [“gateway to the fields”]), walked around the remaining foundation of William’s residence, and visited the Exchequer of Normandy (used as a temporary hall of exhibitions). The keep, now razed, had a large square section with round towers at each corner. The castle is surrounded by a moat (now dry) that until recently could be used as a walking circuit. The top of the ramparts offers great views of the city, resplendent with its many church steeples and spires.

Next we drove back to Bayeux, our home for the next six days, for a more in-depth tour. Our first stop was lunch at Au Louis d’Or, where we sampled “gallettes” (savory main dish crepes) and “crepes” (sweet dessert pancakes) as well as had our first taste of cider, which we drank from “boilles” (“bowls”). After our bellies were full, we commenced our tour of the historical center. En route to the Bayeux Cathedral, we stopped at the “Dentelle de Bayeux” (“Lace Conservatory” in Hotel du Doyen) to observe a woman weaving.

Bayeux was founded in the 1st century under the name of Augustodurum. In the 3rd century, a city wall was built for protection; however, Vikings still invaded in the 9th century. In the 11th century, Odo, half-brother of William the Conqueror, became bishop of Bayeux. In 1077, Odo used money from the Norman conquest of England to build the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Bayeux, the biggest cathedral in Normandy and one of the finest examples of Norman architecture in the world. The Cathedral is enormous, surrounded closely by the city (shops and restaurants), that it is difficult to photograph in its entirety; its three spires are visible from miles around. (The difference between a “church”, a “basilica”, and a “cathedral”: a “church” is just a regular place of worship, a “cathedral” has a bishop stationed on-site, and a “basilica” contains some type of relic inside.)

Around that same time, Reine Mathilde (wife of William the Conqueror) wove/embroidered the Bayeaux Tapestry in order to commemorate events in the Norman Conquest of England by illustrating the story of King William’s defeat of King Harold’s English army at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 for illiterate pilgrims who attended services at the cathedral. Our last stop of the day was the “Musee de la Tapisserie” (“Tapestry Museum”) to view the “document”. (This "tapestry" is not technically a tapestry, because it contains embroidered - not woven - scenes.) The nearly 230-feet long and 20-inch tall fabric includes 50 different scenes featuring William (Duke of Normandy) and Harold (Earl of Wessex , later King of England), that culminate in the Battle of Hastings.

In Bayeux in 1944, during World War II, General Charles de Gaulle made his first major speech in which he clearly stated that France sided with the Allies. Luckily, Bayeux was never bombed by either side during the Battle of Normandy (because it had no factories or military bases, it served no strategic purpose), so its half-timbered houses, stone mansions, cobblestoned streets, and ancient watermills of charming Old Town remain intact. Bayeux was the first town to be liberated on the day following D-Day.

In the late afternoon, we enjoyed cocktails at La Gitane, then did some shopping at the local City Carrefour. Since breakfast was not included with our room rate, our options were to pay for the hotel breakfast at $23 Euros per person, or to purchase some items to eat in our room. We visited the Carrefour every day, using the “secret passageway” through the Churchill Hotel to quickly reach the store. Daily, we purchased bottled water, wine/cider, beer, and Coke Zero, along with a baguette/dejeunette (small lunch baguette), butter, sliced meats or pate, and cheese to make small breakfast sandwiches. Our self-made breakfast cost less than $5 Euros per day, saving us over $240 Euros for the week. Later that evening, we dined al fresco at Maison Blanche for dinner, then stopped at a local Gelateria for cones to eat on our walk back to the hotel.

Tuesday August 29: Giverny and Rouen

Today we toured Giverny (in Vernon) and Rouen. Originally when we planned our trip, we thought that perhaps we would visit Giverny on our own without a guide while en route from Paris; however, we could not find any information online as to where we could store our bags in Vernon. Although we repeatedly emailed Giverny asking for suggestions, every email went unanswered. Some posters online suggested that a cafe across from the Vernon train station might offer luggage storage, which we could not confirm. Giverny runs a shuttle bus from the train station to the gardens, or you can walk. (Although we did not see the train station, we observed that walking might not have been as easy as we envisioned.) Another alternative would have been to travel to Giverny from Paris on a day trip, but we also decided against that plan. Ultimately, we added travel time and expense by driving back and forth from Bayeux, but our guide Lucie provided great information about both Giverny and Bayeux that we would have missed had we toured on our own.

In the late 1800s, Claude Monet spied the tiny quiet farm village of Vernon from a passing train, and decided to rent (and later purchase) a house there for his children and his girlfriend Alice (who later became his second wife; his first wife passed away). Monet was searching for a place to live and paint, surrounded by a great variety of natural landscapes. He once said that if he had not been a painter, he would have been a gardener, which is evident in the grounds of his estate, including the famous lily pond with the Japanese bridge and his vibrant multi-hued gardens (which resemble his paintings, with small stitches of color side by side). Monet lived at Giverny from 1883 to 1926, and he and several family members are buried in the local cemetery. Monet painted over a thousand canvases during his lifetime, including hundreds of paintings he created at Giverny that feature haystacks, poplars, poppies, irises, and the famous water lilies. In addition to exploring his extensive gardens, we toured his house. The two-story structure contains two large bedrooms on the upper floor, along with two small dressing rooms and a sewing room, whereas the ground floor contains a striking blue kitchen, vivid yellow dining room, and a large studio/sitting room (complete with Monet’s own paintings on the walls). Elsewhere in the house are paintings created by famous artists, as well as an extensive collection of Japanese prints. Outdoors, you can walk among the flower gardens of the Clos Normand, some of which contain plants that change seasonally, before using a tunnel under the road to reach the Las Nympheas lily pond with its bamboo trees, weeping willows, and rowboat. The Giverny estate also offers a large gift shop (in his former studio/atelier) and restrooms; another gift shop and the Las Nympheas Cafe are located near the front entrance.

After we toured the estate, we walked the length of the Rue Claude Monet that runs through the quiet village to visit the church and the cemetery. We passed the Ancien Hotel (with its restaurant Baudy), the Museum of Impressionisms of Giverny (MDIG), several restaurants, and a few art galleries. We dined outdoors in the garden at La Capucine for lunch.

Next, we visited Rouen, which lies between Paris and the sea on the banks of the Seine River (although the Seine is not a popular site in Rouen like it is in Paris). Once the capital of Normandy, the port city of Rouen was hit hard by Allied bombing during World War II. Still, Rouen Cathedrale Notre-Dame contains the highest spire in France. The cathedral displays elements of Gothic and Flamboyant Gothic architecture, including sculptures that cover the amazing facade to create an intricate stone pattern that resembles lace. Inside, the cathedral consists in a long, narrow, high nave with a light-filled choir at one end, with 13th century stained glass and interesting sculptures positioned around the periphery. The exterior of the Rouen cathedral inspired Monet so much that he painted it about 30 times, in different types of weather and light conditions and at different hours of the day. Inside, its crypt contains the heart of Richard the Lionhearted. Tall but narrow timber-framed houses (some cantilevered) provided a pleasant backdrop as we strolled down the Rue du Gros-Horloge medieval pedestrian walkway from the Cathedral. We walked beneath the 14th century “Le Gros Horlage” (“great astronomical clock”), and onward to the “Place du Vieux-Marche” (the “Old Marketplace/Market Square”, stopping at the “Eglise Jeanne-d’Arc” (“Church of Saint Joan of Arc”), a modern Nordic-looking church built to hold the beautiful stained glasswork of the destroyed church St Vincent. Outside the church, a memorial concrete and metal cross pays homage to Joan on the spot where she was burned at the stake by the English in 1431 during the Hundred Years War after being called a heretic.

We have viewed the amazing Monet paintings at the Musee d’Orsay, Musee l’Orangerie, and Marmottan museums in Paris, and seeing his home in Giverny and the Rouen Cathedral that he painted so many times was a highlight of the day.

After happy hour at La Gitane and daily shopping at City Carrefour, we ate an al fresco dinner on the sidewalk terrace at L’Alchemie, adjacent to the pedestrian street where we could people-watch.

Wednesday August 30: Mont Saint-Michel

The weather forecast today predicted rain all day, and unfortunately, the forecasters were right. We knew the prediction ahead of time, and Lucie wisely chose to Mont Saint-Michel to see on this day because much of our tour would take place indoors, as opposed to being outdoors all day on the D-Day beaches, or at Giverny, or at the seashore. Although our photographs with the Mont in the distance would have been more striking on a sunny beautiful day, and even though it would have been more pleasant to stroll the winding main street on the Mont without umbrellas, we agree with Lucie’s plan to visit on the rainy day that we did.

William drove the four of us about 1.5 hours to Mont Saint-Michel (originally called Mount Tombe), where he parked the car in the public parking lot. (When you are ready to depart the lot for the day, you pay your fee using automated outdoor kiosks on the far side of the visitor’s center.) We used the restrooms at the visitor’s center before we joined the outdoor queue to board one of the complimentary buses that would transport us on the 10-minute, 1.5-mile drive to the Mont. (Alternately, you can pay about $8 Euros per person to arrive more stylishly by horse-drawn cart, or you can walk along the road/bridge for 45 minutes, or more adventurously, you can trek through the bay itself (not recommended without a guide; Lucie offers the bay crossing, but we would not have chosen do it even in perfect weather). The free bus works well if you board from the terminus at the visitor’s center; however, if you try to access the bus from the stop in the nearby hotel area, you will find that most buses are already full and do not permit entry. When the bus arrives near the Mont, most people stroll on the wooden walkway headed for the main Boulevard city gate, and then once inside, walk through the King’s Gate to the Grand Rue. However, our clever guide Lucie led us on a path to a lesser-known back gate/entrance, where we were able to climb the winding inclined path/steps without the crowds that surely line the main street of the village.

Mont Saint-Michel is the third-most visited site in France (the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre are first and second). The Mont’s abbey fortress sits 400-feet high atop a 264-foot granite rock that straddles the tidal flats between Normandy and Brittany (a strategic location that has been the source of dispute between the regions and between England and France) at the mouth of the Couesnon River. Built in the 1200s, the Mont has been a pilgrimage site since medieval times because it is reportedly protected by the archangel Michael. The most fascinating feature of the Mont is that during certain phases of the moon, the village is entirely surrounded by water at high tide; at low tide, the water recedes nearly 11 miles and the difference in water levels is up to 46 feet. Unfortunately, we did not visit at a time when much difference can be observed between high and low tides, so the sand flats were not water-covered, which allowed visitors to cross the muddy bay on foot. (Be very careful if you walk in the bay, for there are quicksand-like patches, plus if you visit at a time of high tide, water can rush in at incredible speed.) The highest tides take place 36 to 48 hours after the full and new moons. In fact, the highest tides in continental Europe take place at Mont Saint-Michel, up to a 50-foot difference between low and high tide.
As legend describes, in 708, the archangel Michael appeared as an apparition to Saint Aubert, the Bishop of Avranches, who instructed him to build a monastery at the top of the rock. Saint Aubert repeatedly ignored the request until Saint Michael used his finger to burn a hole in the bishop’s forehead to convince him that his vision was God’s will, and the Mont (or “Marvel”) was constructed over a period of 500 years by hauling stones from Brittany. During the Hundred Years’ War, the English tried to take the island, but it was too well defended. During the French Revolution, the monastery was used as a prison. In the middle of the 19th century, several important figures (including writer Victor Hugo) promoted the site for its architectural importance, and in 1863, the prison was finally closed. In 1879, UNESCO added Mont Saint-Michel to the World Heritage List, and is a wonder of the Western world. Mont Saint-Michel was even documented in the Bayeux Tapestry.

We toured through the Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel, climbing a great many steps, but remaining indoors for most of the visit. We reversed the path of most tourists; instead of passing through the Boulevard gate, then the King’s Gate, in order to reach the “Grand Rue” (main street), which runs between two tall rows of houses dating from the 15th and 16th centuries and leading to the abbey on top, we climbed the ramparts that turn around the mount. We saw features including the granite staircase that leads past the guard room to the Grand Degre (the platform in front of the Abbey church, where we had a wonderful view of the bay). In the Abbey, we ascended through time as we wandered along the cloister (which was temporarily enclosed because of restoration), through the refectory and the visitor’s hall. We passed through several other rooms, including the walking room, Knight’s hall, and chaplaincy of La Merveille (“The Marvel”). As we departed the abbey, we descended the “Grand Rue”. Near the end of the pathway, we stopped for lunch at Le Mere Poulard.

Back in Bayeux, it was a quick trip to La Gitane, Carrefour, and dinner at Le Fringale. As the dreary, drizzly weather continued, we were lucky to find an open table indoors at the restaurant. (Many competitors on Bayeux’s main pedestrian alley [which reverts back to automobile use on September 1] were closed on Wednesdays.)

Thursday August 31: D-Day Sites (Sainte-Mere-Eglise, Utah Beach, Pont-du-Hoc, Le Cambe)

Today, we began our tour of the D-Day sites (called “Jour-J” in French). Although some people rush to see all the war-related sites in one day, we spent two days touring, and even that was not enough time to fully absorb its historical significance. In addition to the various physical locations, there many museums to see; seemingly, each site has at least one or two.

“D-Day” occurred along 62 miles of Normandy coastline at 6:30 am on June 6, 1944, as 135,000 men and 20,000 vehicles of the Allied forces landed in Europe to fight in World War II. To this day, it remains the largest armada that the world has ever seen. The troops landed on five beaches known by their code names: two American beaches (Utah and Omaha), two British beaches (Sword and Gold), and one Canadian Beach (Juno). The code name for the invasion of Normandy was “Operation Overlord”, but it is also known as the "Longest Day" (there’s a movie by that same title). The beach landing sites were chosen along the coast on either side of Arromanches, where two artificial harbors (called “mulberries”) were built in order to accept landing craft and establish a bulkhead on the continent.

It was a rainy week in early June 1944, but a full moon and cooperative tides (although there was dense fog and rough seas) allowed for the cross-channel invasion. Although the British forces had access to a top meteorologist, the Nazis did not, allowing for an element of surprise. US General Eisenhower and Britain’s Field Marshal Montgomery sent a coded message at 9:15 pm on June 5 that announced the imminent invasion to the French Resistance so that they could dynamite railways in order to hinder German troops. Before midnight, Allied planes began bombing the Norman coast, and at 1:30 am, members of the 101st Airborne parachuted to the ground. For about a week, the future of the civilized world hung between the Nazi and Allied armies, before the Allies occupied Normandy, pushed on to take Paris, and eventually to Berlin.

We began our day by visiting the town of Sainte-Mere Eglise, the first town to be liberated on D-Day. The 82nd and 101st Airborne Division paratroopers defended this strategic crossroads town, including paratrooper John Steele whose parachute got snagged on the town’s church steeple, where he hung motionless to “play dead” for hours as war raged around him. We saw a bit of the town, including the church and its nearby market square (which had a small market operating on Thursday morning).

Next, we visited the town’s excellent “Musee Airborne” (“Airborne Museum”). The museum, which opened in 1964 in order to commemorate the 20th anniversary of D-Day, is dedicated to the American paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions who parachuted into Normandy on the night of June 5, 1944. The first/original building is shaped like a parachute and contains an authentic WACO glider, the only example in France. Visitors can walk around and inside the glider, which contains models of soldiers getting ready for a flight. These gliders played a key role in transporting over 4,000 troops, vehicles, ammunition, equipment, and rations for the soldiers. In 1983, a second parachute-shaped building opened to house a C-47 plane that was involved in airdrop operations on Sainte-Mere-Eglise on the night of June 5. In addition to the plane, visitors can observe dioramas with lifelike models that portray military preparations. The second building also contains a theatre that shows a film entitled "Combat pour la Liberte" ("Fight for Freedom"), which describes life during the German occupation and the liberation of Sainte-Mere-Eglise and the Cotentin Peninsula. For the 70th anniversary of D-Day, a third building named "Operation Neptune" opened, named for the first assault phase of the Overlord plan. This building contains realistic multi-sensory scenes that allow visitors to relive the D-Day experience as if they were a paratrooper. Visitors "board" a C-47 airplane in England on June 5 and then participate in the entire mission; we felt that it gave us some small understanding to what paratroopers might have felt when participating in their dangerous mission.

Afterwards, we drove through the countryside, where Lucie pointed out the proliferation of “bocage” (also called “hedgerows”), thick and high tree lines that surrounded French farms that made it difficult for the Americans to make progress against the German defenders. The true definition of “bocage” refers to a terrain of mixed woodland and pasture, with fields and winding country lanes sunken between narrow low ridges and banks surmounted by tall thick hedgerows that break the wind but also limit visibility. In response to the hedgerows, the Allies created the Rhino tank, a modification added to the front of a tank that allows it to cut a hole through the bocage.

Our next stop was Utah Beach, the site of the first Allied beach landing (and one of the two amphibious landings) on D-Day, led by Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt Junior. Strong currents and wind caused the group to miss their targeted landing area, which was beneficial because they landed in a less fortified area. Their mission was to lead the way inland through the flooded fields towards the village of Sainte Marie du Mont to link up with the paratroopers inland. With less than 30 soldiers killed during the landings on the beach, Utah had the lowest casualties of the five Allied invasion beaches that day. Between the sand dunes, we could see various memorials dedicated to the different units involved in the assault (including one featuring Sergeant Dick Winters of Easy Company [portrayed by Damian Lewis in the mini-series "Band of Brothers" based on Stephen Ambrose’s book]). We walked a bit on the beach before visiting the “Musee du Debarquement” (“Landing Museum”) at Utah Beach.

In 1962, the Utah Beach museum was created on Plage de la Madeline in Sainte Marie du Mont as an expression of the town’s appreciation and gratitude for the Allies’ sacrifices. (Over the course of five months, more than 830,000 troops and 725,000 tons of material landed here.) The museum was originally housed in a German command bunker, which expanded for the next 50 years as additional galleries (including one with stunning panoramic views of Utah Beach) and a theatre (for the poignant film "Victory in the Sand") were added to encompass 23,000 square feet. Highlights include the aforementioned movie, an original B-26 Marauder in a custom-built aviation hangar (one of only six remaining worldwide), an original “Higgins Boat” LCVP landing craft, vehicles, objects, artifacts, and oral histories from soldiers and civilians. The museum recounts D-Day in ten vignettes, from the preparation of the landing, to the final outcome and success.

In keeping with the day’s theme, we ate lunch on the outdoor terrace at Le Roosevelt Café at Utah Beach. Part of the restaurant occupies a former German (then American) radio transmission bunker. Inside the cafe, many veterans have left their autographs on the bar, and the space is filled with war memorabilia.

After lunch, we visited Pointe du Hoc and walked atop the 100-foot high bluffs located between Utah and Omaha Beaches. The Allies first bombed the area so that Ranger troops could then use ropes and hooks to scale the high cliffs and neutralize the German gun battery that threatened the US Naval Landing forces and their offshore support fleets. The ground today appears as it did in 1944, covered with the craters left by the hundreds of bombs that were dropped before the landings. (Our guide mentioned that this is one of the only D-Day sites that still show these craters; at other sites, the depressions have been filled in.) You can climb inside the German bunkers and gun pits and visit the monument to the Rangers that stands on the German observation post at the edge of the cliffs.

We ended our day at the La Cambe German war cemetery, one of six main German cemeteries in Normandy. It contains more than 21,000 graves; almost half of the dead interred here were relocated from over 1,400 other locations in isolated field graves or small battlefield cemeteries throughout Calvados and the Orne. At the center of the cemetery is a large 50-foot high burial mound (called a “tumulus”) topped by a large dark cross and flanked by two statues that marks the mass grave of 207 unknown and 89 identified German soldiers. Nearly 50 rectangular grave fields (each containing up to 400 graves with flat grave markers) surround the mound. The soldiers range in age from 16 to 72 and all died during the Allied landings between June 6 and August 20, 1944. La Cambe contains an information center where relatives can use a database to look up grave locations for family members. A peace garden with 1,200 maple trees lines the access road.

Back in Bayeux, we enjoyed our nightly happy hour (this time at Le Conquerant), shopping at Carrefour, and dinner at L’Assiette Normand.

Friday September 1: More D-Day Sites (Arromanches, Longues-sur-Mer, Omaha Beach, American Cemetery)

This morning, we continued our tour of D Day sites by first visiting Arromanches, one of the two remaining artificial “mulberry” harbors on the Norman coast. You can still see remnants of the prefabricated concrete floating docks that were used to land 9,000 tons of Allied materials (troops, vehicles, and supplies) per day. This man-made harbor was important because the troops did not need to wait to conquer a deep-water port (such as Le Havre or Cherbourg). Although Arromanches was located near the center of Gold Beach, it was spared the brunt of D-Day fighting and continued to operate. During 100 days of operation of the port, 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles, and 4 million tons of supplies were landed. We visited the Arromanches “Musee du Debarquement” (“Landing Museum”) to view the powerful, emotional documentary called “The 100 Days of the Battle of Normandy” in its 360-degree “Cinema Circulaire” (“round movie theatre”).

Next, we visited the Longues-sur-Mer gun battery, located between the Omaha and Gold Beaches, where we walked among four “pillboxes”. Each concrete structure held a 152-mm navy gun, each protected by a large concrete casemate, a command post, shelters for personnel and ammunition, and defensive machine-gun silos. The four casemates are in various states of deterioration because of bombing; you can climb inside a few of the more stable examples. The battery was initially damaged on the night before D-Day by 1,500 tons of bombs, and then it experienced further bombardment on D-Day itself by a French cruiser, a US battleship, and two British ships.

Next, we enjoyed lunch at La Sapiniere before we proceeded to Omaha Beach. Omaha is known as the bloodiest site of the invasion day, the place where the US 1st and 29th divisions came ashore. (Figures estimate nearly 4,000 dead and wounded at Omaha.) Although the Allies tried to bomb the beaches before they landed, faulty intelligence reports prevented sufficient German casualties. Therefore, from their positions on the 4.5-mile long beach overlooked by high cliffs, Germans controlled the entire landing zone, gunning down Americans as they stepped from their Higgins boats. Other soldiers drowned or were shot in the water because they could not swim to shore. “Engineers” (the first soldiers who were supposed to clear beaches of mines and barbed wire) were mostly unsuccessful. The poor weather and strong tides in the English Channel were also disastrous for the landing. Still, some small units of troops and individual soldiers found their way to one of the four main access roads inland, and Omaha Beach was secured two days later. The horrific landing portrayed in the opening scene of the Steven Spielberg movie “Saving Private Ryan” depicts the landing on the “Dog” sector of Omaha Beach. The day we visited Omaha was so sunny and peaceful that it was hard to imagine the hell that happened there 73 years ago. So that no one forgets, the beach contains many memorials dedicated to the 3,000 casualties positioned among the dunes. (Our favorite memorial was a contemporary metal sculpture called “Les Brave” [“The Brave“].)

After our time on the beach, we visited the nearby “Musee Memorial d'Omaha Beach” (“Omaha Beach Memorial Museum”). (Note that there are several museums near Omaha Beach, including Musee Memorial d'Omaha Beach [which we visited], Big Red One Museum, and Overlord Museum.)

The Omaha Beach Memorial Museum displays an impressive collection of uniforms, vehicles, supplies, weapons, maps, military charts, photographs, and personal effects. Many dioramas with lifelike models provide a feel for American and German service life, and the scenes progress through all phases of the occupation until the D-day landing on Omaha and Pointe du Hoc. After viewing the progression of scenes, you can view a film that features American veteran’s testimonies, although the movie needs a refresh in terms of technology. (The quality cannot compare with the films that we saw at Sainte-Mere Eglise and Arromanches.) Vehicles and armaments are displayed outside the museum, including a Belgian anti-tank barrier, a 155-mm "Long Tom" cannon (the only one of its kind in Normandy), and a Sherman tank.

We finished our day by visiting the “Cimetiere Americain” de Colleville-sur-Mer (American Cemetery), which holds the graves of 9,387 American soldiers on 172 acres of land on a cliffside overlooking Omaha Beach. Rows of small white crosses stretch across acres of beautiful green grass. Notable burials include Theodore Roosevelt Junior (son of President Theodore Roosevelt; Junior died in Normandy of heart trouble, not by a bullet) and his brother Quentin Roosevelt (who died in World War I but was repatriated here to rest near his brother), and brothers Preston and Robert Niland, whose lives are chronicled in the Spielberg movie “Saving Private Ryan”. (Although tour guides are asked not to point out the location of the brothers’ graves, they are easy to spot because the public has worn away the grass as they make their pilgrimages.) In the center of the cemetery lies a garden with a large semi-circular monument that contains the names of 1,557 soldiers with unidentified remains (although periodically a family makes an identification). A platform contains a central 22-foot tall bronze inspirational statue with pavilions (that contain mosaic maps of war sites) at each end; a calming reflecting pool lies nearby. At one end of the cemetery is a nondenominational circular chapel with a beautiful ceiling fresco, and the excellent and informative Interpretation Center with its multi-media displays lies toward the opposite end. We only had a short time to visit the Center; however, we wish that we could have dedicated more time to view its excellent exhibits, film clips, oral histories, and memorabilia.

Back in Bayeux, we visited our favorite spot Le Gitane for happy hour drinks, made another shopping trip to Carrefour, and ate dinner at Le Volet qui Penche.

Saturday September 2: Honfleur, Trouville, and Deauville

Today, we visited Honfleur, Trouville, and Deauville on a day blessed with great weather. We drove through the Pays d’Auge region on winding back roads, passing little hamlets and villages. The Pays d’Auge French countryside is famous for its agriculture, including apples and dairy products (including butter, cream, and cheeses such as Camembert, Livarot, and Pont-l’Eveque, all of which we tried as part of our self-arranged breakfasts at the Villa Lara).

After our guide learned of our interest in (adult) apple cider, she arranged a visit to Manoir Apreval, an apple farm/winery where we could see the process and taste the ciders, pommeaus, and brandies (“Calvados”or “eau de vie de cidre”). The Pays d’Auge region of France has been granted “appellation d’origine controlee” status for its cider and calvados (an award for French wine that guarantees that it was produced in the specified region, using specific vines and production methods). Apples (and sometimes pears) are harvested and pressed into a juice that is fermented into a dry cider. Distillation occurs using a traditional alembic still. If the cider is aged in oak casks for two years, it is called “Calvados”; the longer it ages, the smoother it becomes. Calvados can be served as an “aperitif”, blended in drinks, between meals, as a “digestif”, or with coffee. Calvados tastes of apples, dried apricots, butterscotch, nuts, and chocolate.

Next, we visited Honfleur, a picturesque Cote Fleurie's seaside town, where we enjoyed a walking tour of the winding cobblestone streets. We meandered along the Quai Saint Catherine and viewed the colorful, tall 18th-century townhouses that tower over the “Vieux Bassin” (“old harbor”), which is lined by outdoor cafes and restaurants. The narrow timbered buildings soar many stories from a time when land was taxed by width and not height. In fact, many of the main row of wooden, slate-roofed houses contain two owners; one person who owns the lower floors accessed from the harbor side, and a second person who owns the upper stories accessed from a rear street. Lucky to visit on a Saturday, we enjoyed walking through the touristy souvenir market and then the authentic food market, before we visited Honfleur famous St. Catherine wooden church. Honfleur enjoys a long history, being the harbor through which trade passed en route from Rouen to England in the 11th century. The town was fortified before the Hundred Year’s War began in 1337, and as the war continued, its city walls were strengthened and reinforced. The only remaining medieval fortification is “ La Lieutenance” ( “Lieutenancy Building”), the former home of the town’s governor. In the 16th century, the town was invaded by Vikings. In 1608, explorer Samuel de Champlain departed from Hornfleur to found the city of Quebec Canada. Eventually, trade through Honfleur was re-routed to the new port Le Havre on the other side of the estuary. We enjoyed a delicious lunch at Bistro des Artistes before departing Honfleur.

Next, we drove through Trouville, arriving on the bank of the River Touques, where we walked across the Pont des Belges Bridge to neighboring Deauville. (You can also drive or take a small boat/ferry.) Trouville is France’s oldest seaside resort, first discovered in the mid-1800s by wealthy French citizens, artists, and writers (including Gustave Flaubert, Eugene Boudin, and Claude Monet, who sought a return to authentic life far away from industrialized cities). The Duc de Mornay (half-brother of Napoleon III) and other aristocrats began building their villas along the deserted beach across the river, launching upscale Deauville, which is still visited by royalty and movie stars (some call it “Paris's 21st arrondissement” because it is located only 2 hours from the city). Today, visitors enjoy the casino, racecourses, golf courses, regattas, yacht harbor, polo grounds, tennis courts, swimming pools (outdoor and indoor), thermal spas, and shopping along the Rue Eugene-Colas, Place Morny (named for the resort’s founder), and Place du Casino. (In fact, Coco Chanel opened her first boutique in Deauville in 1913, and today, you can see other fancy stores like Louis Vuitton and Hermes.) However, Deauville is known best for its “Promenade des Planches” (“the planks”), a boardwalk lined with deck chairs, bars, and colorful umbrellas/cabanas that runs along the seafront and was created in order to preserve the very costly handmade shoes of the rich visitors. The adjacent street hosts elegant hotels, half-timber Norman villas, and blocks of prewar apartment houses with turrets, gables, and balconies. As luck would have it, we visited on the day that the American Film Festival began, and as we walked on the famous planks, observing the colorful parasols in the sand and the old cabanas, we encountered a large crowd of photographs and fans awaiting the arrival of actor Robert Pattison (from the “Twilight” movie saga fame).

Our last full day of sightseeing ended about an hour earlier than previous days, which gave us time to enjoy an extended sun-filled happy hour at Garde Manger (at the Reine Mathilde hotel) before dinner at Le Terroir le Table.

Sunday September 3: Bayeux to Paris

Because our car transfer to the Caen train station would not arrive until 11:30 am, we slept late, enjoyed our last in-room breakfast, and packed our bags. We had to check out of the Villa Lara by 11:00 am, so we relaxed in the lobby for 30 minutes until William arrived. He drove us to Caen station, where we arrived about 30 minutes prior to our train’s departure. The station has two cafe options, both owned by the same company. Other independent restaurants, various car rental agencies, and hotels are located directly across the street from the station. At the time that we visited, the doors to the main restrooms adjacent to the ticket office were cemented over; because we do not read French, we were unable to decipher whether the signs gave directions to additional facilities, but we did not see any alternate symbols listed on the station map.

We took the Intercites train (which runs from Caen to Alencon, Le Mans, and ultimately Tours). We disembarked at the St-Pierre-des-Corps station, where we transferred to the TGV that would take us to Charles de Gaulle Airport. (In retrospect, we should have taken the train from Bayeux back to central Paris, and then hired a taxi to drive us to the airport. As it was, we spent more time than necessary to reach the airport completely by train.) The St-Pierre-des-Corps station seemed like a major transfer point, and after we disembarked the train from Caen, we consulted the monitors to find the correct platform and side for our connecting train. Elevators are available if you have baggage or mobility issues. Once we reached the platform, additional monitors displayed the order number of the train coaches, and instructed us on where to stand (under which letter marker) in order to board the correct carriage. The diagram also showed us where the dining/bar car was located in the series of coaches.

We reserved seats on the upper level of the TGV train, which necessitated climbing a small flight of curved stairs. You can store your luggage on the ground level, although if the space is full, you must carry your bags up the stairs to store in your actual carriage. (There are luggage racks at both ends and in the middle of the coaches.) The seats in the first-class cabin on the TGV were more comfortable than on the Intercities train, with footrests and the ability to recline. After experiencing the differences, we would try to use a TGV train for our travels next time.

After we arrived at the Charles de Gaulle Terminal 2 station, we disembarked and followed the signs to the CDGVAL. We rode the airport train to Terminal 3, and then had a short walk to the Hilton on well-marked paths. The Hilton is located in an area with other hotels (including Citizen M and the Novotel) and office buildings, so you do not feel isolated. We checked into the hotel, receiving an upgraded Executive Plus room because we are Hilton HHonors Diamond members. We enjoyed some happy hour refreshments in the hotel’s Executive Lounge, followed by dinner in the Skylight Restaurant, and then an early bedtime.

Monday September 4: Paris to Newark, NJ

After we ate breakfast in the Skylight Restaurant at the Hilton, we walked to the CDGVAL station at Terminal 3 to ride the train to Terminal 1. We checked our bags, passed through immigration, then waited in the iCARE 2 Lounge. (Our business-class tickets on airline La Compagnie provided access to the landside lounge.) Then we passed through security and waited to board the aircraft. Our 10:30 am flight on La Compagnie was uneventful (except for similar repeated issues with our seats and in-flight entertainment that we experienced on the outbound flight), and we arrived back in Newark at 1:00 pm that afternoon.


Although a trip to France had not been in our immediate plans, when we learned that our friends were moving to Paris, we were excited at the chance to visit them. Afterward, we decided to tour Normandy so that we could check off a few bucket list locations including Giverny, Mont Saint-Michel, and the D-Day sites. We enjoyed basing ourselves in charming Bayeux for a few nights, as opposed to our usual travel method of moving every two or three days. Our visit to Paris and Normandy was great: the food, weather, and sightseeing was incredible!
fluffnfold is offline  
Old Apr 5th, 2018, 10:46 AM
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Wow. What an incredible amount of work you put into this trip report. Thanks so much for sharing so much information. It sounds like you had a very informative trip.
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Old Apr 5th, 2018, 01:56 PM
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Yes - amazing detail and histories of places. Amazing! Well-writ too.

(Although we did not see the train station, we observed that walking might not have been as easy as we envisioned.)>

It is easy once you cross the Seine - having to find your way thru town which is not hard either but once on the path it is a straight shot to Giverny along the abandoned rail line now walking/bike path along the northside of the river - Monet used to ride the train that ran there to Rouen and back to paint that town's cathedral facade amongst other things.
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Old Apr 5th, 2018, 08:10 PM
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Beautiful trip report! I appreciate your detail, especially the history. The Musee D'Orsay is one of my favorite museums! I didn't know the train station was slated for demolition. Thank God we have preservationists! It is a gorgeous building and an outstanding museum!
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Old Apr 5th, 2018, 10:48 PM
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Thank you for posting this interesting and informative trip report.

I'm surprised at how much you were able to do on the day of your arrival when most travelers (like myself) would have been too jet-lagged.

Also the seats on your plane sound like such a poor design - it's unfortunate the flight attendants are getting the fallout.

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Old Apr 12th, 2018, 07:03 AM
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Let me add my thanks to this informative and enjoyable trip report. We will be in Paris mid May, and am getting more excited by the minute, thanks to you.

I was planning on day trips to Giverny, and Provins, but had Rouen in the back of my mind....maybe we'll try and squeeze that in, too. (We are in Paris for a week.)

Again, thanks for an inspiring trip report.
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Old Apr 13th, 2018, 02:43 AM
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Fluffnfold, many thanks for this wonderful TR. Made me relive memories of an area of France I love and have often visited
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Old Apr 13th, 2018, 12:05 PM
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Thank you so much for this truly informative and well written TR. I enjoyed reading it and appreciate the effort it took to write. I now have a small amount of guilt over the many trip reports I’ve thought of writing but not gotten around to!
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Old Apr 30th, 2018, 04:56 PM
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Our plans are a lot like yours

Like many others, I want to thank fluffnfold for the information provided in your post. My wife and I leave next week for a similar trip, with 3 nights in Paris before stops in Normandy and Brittany. I hope you're checking this thread and can answer a couple of questions about your trip.

I was not aware of fixed price taxi rides from CDG to central Paris. We have taken the RER on previous trips, and it is somewhat a hassle with luggage plus transfers to the Metro, so the taxi sounds like a much better plan. Is there any trick to getting in the right line, or do all of the taxis at CDG have that fixed price fare? Also, do you know if Uber is available at CDG?

We will be staying 3 nights at the Hilton Paris Opera after arriving in Paris, before departing for Bayeux. Are there any restaurants/bistros/etc. in the area around the hotel, Gare St Lazare or the Opera that you would recommend? We will probably be out all day each day we are in Paris, but we might want to eat informally near the hotel at least one evening.

Your post mentions quite a few restaurants in Bayeux. We will be staying there five nights will be looking for places to eat, ideally with outside seating if the weather cooperates. Are there any you listed that you thought were especially good or notable, or any to be avoided? Also, does La Gitane in Bayeuxserve food or is it strictly a bar? It sounds like a place we should visit at least for happy hour.

Thanks for any response.
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Old May 2nd, 2018, 06:48 AM
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In the Saint Lazare area, you will find all sorts of interesting restaurants. I know that my parents really liked an oyster bar in the area, but I do not at all remember where it was. Even though I do not recommend going there, take a look at the McDonald's directly across from your hotel. For a hundred years or so it was an Alsatian restaurant, and the building has retained all of the typical architecture, which is remarkable.

Uber is 1) more difficult to use at CDG since the cars cannot sit and wait for you and 2) more expensive in most cases than the flat rate of 50 euros charged by all official taxis for going to the right bank.

Ignore anybody inside the terminal offering transportation into Paris and just go to the taxi line with the official dispatcher.
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Old May 2nd, 2018, 09:30 AM
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Originally Posted by kerouac
In the Saint Lazare area, you will find all sorts of interesting restaurants. I know that my parents really liked an oyster bar in the area, but I do not at all remember where it was. Even though I do not recommend going there, take a look at the McDonald's directly across from your hotel. For a hundred years or so it was an Alsatian restaurant, and the building has retained all of the typical architecture, which is remarkable.

Uber is 1) more difficult to use at CDG since the cars cannot sit and wait for you and 2) more expensive in most cases than the flat rate of 50 euros charged by all official taxis for going to the right bank.

Ignore anybody inside the terminal offering transportation into Paris and just go to the taxi line with the official dispatcher.
Thanks for the information. We will make a point to check out the McDonald's, from a safe distance.

I am also following your posts about the rail strike, which are both interesting and useful. Our planned days of train travel are neither strike days nor the day after, so we feel very fortunate. But we're still watching to see how it develops.
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Old May 3rd, 2018, 07:13 AM
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We didn't stand in any special taxi queue for the fixed-price ride from CDG to the Hilton Opera. I don't know if Uber is available at CDG, but I know that it is available in Paris; we used it to travel from Montmartre back to the Hilton Opera., and it worked just like it does in the US.

We only stayed two nights at the Hilton Opera; because we were visiting Parisian friends, one night we ate with them at the Cafe Monceau (a typical French cafe a few blocks from the hotel), and the other night we ate with them in Montmartre, so I can't comment on restaurants close to the Hilton. I do recall seeing a few cafes directly across the street (including the fancy McDonalds that kerouac mentioned) , and the Hilton is located in a busy area, so you won't have any trouble finding somewhere passable to eat. As for Bayeux, La Gitane only serves drinks (and sells cigarettes, magazines, and lottery tix); no food is served.
Our best/favorite meals were at L'Assiette Normande, Le Volet Qui Penche, L'Alchimie, and Au Louis d'Or, whereas our meals at La Fringale, La Table du Terroir, Maison Blanche, Le Conquerant, and Garde Manger were less memorable. We were pleasantly surprised to find so many restaurant choices in historic Bayeux; before traveling there, we envisioned only a handful of options, but that wasn't the case - one could stay for 2+ weeks and eat somewhere different every night. In Bayeux, although we did not have time to dine at L'Angle Saint-Laurent, Le Pommier, and La Rapiere, we read / heard good things about them. (We tried several nights for a reservation at the highly recommended La Rapiere, but it was always fully committed.)
I wish you a successful trip! Enjoy!
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Old May 3rd, 2018, 01:45 PM
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Originally Posted by fluffnfold

We didn't stand in any special taxi queue for the fixed-price ride from CDG to the Hilton Opera. I don't know if Uber is available at CDG, but I know that it is available in Paris; we used it to travel from Montmartre back to the Hilton Opera., and it worked just like it does in the US.

We only stayed two nights at the Hilton Opera; because we were visiting Parisian friends, one night we ate with them at the Cafe Monceau (a typical French cafe a few blocks from the hotel), and the other night we ate with them in Montmartre, so I can't comment on restaurants close to the Hilton. I do recall seeing a few cafes directly across the street (including the fancy McDonalds that kerouac mentioned) , and the Hilton is located in a busy area, so you won't have any trouble finding somewhere passable to eat. As for Bayeux, La Gitane only serves drinks (and sells cigarettes, magazines, and lottery tix); no food is served.
Our best/favorite meals were at L'Assiette Normande, Le Volet Qui Penche, L'Alchimie, and Au Louis d'Or, whereas our meals at La Fringale, La Table du Terroir, Maison Blanche, Le Conquerant, and Garde Manger were less memorable. We were pleasantly surprised to find so many restaurant choices in historic Bayeux; before traveling there, we envisioned only a handful of options, but that wasn't the case - one could stay for 2+ weeks and eat somewhere different every night. In Bayeux, although we did not have time to dine at L'Angle Saint-Laurent, Le Pommier, and La Rapiere, we read / heard good things about them. (We tried several nights for a reservation at the highly recommended La Rapiere, but it was always fully committed.)
I wish you a successful trip! Enjoy!
Thanks for the tips. We're already enjoying (or at least anticipating), and we don't leave until next week.
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