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WWII and Holocaust Summer Journey Gruezi and Teens - Trip Report

WWII and Holocaust Summer Journey Gruezi and Teens - Trip Report

Aug 21st, 2008, 12:33 PM
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WWII and Holocaust Summer Journey Gruezi and Teens - Trip Report

World War II and Holocaust Journey

Background

First, many thanks to everyone at Fodor’s that helped with this journey through your many contributions on my original planning thread and then later as I needed help with various legs of our trip. I did finally summarize all the books, movies, and suggestions for travel that were shared in the original thread and they are listed there in 3 separate posts. Search under WWII and Holocaust and gruezi and the thread will come up. I don’t know how to use the tiny url and don’t want to mess this up so soon which is why I’m not putting in the link…

For those that didn’t see the original thread, my 17-year-old daughter, who starts her senior year tomorrow, is very interested in history. We spent a few weeks this summer traveling to various WWII sites, memorials, and museums to learn more about this war from the soil and viewpoint of Europe, which is where we are living now (Switzerland) although we are American citizens.

Our trip altogether was about 14 days if we just count the WWII parts… We were able to visit Normandy, London, Berlin, and then the Dachau Concentration Camp that is outside of Munich. That is the order of our travels as well. (Originally we had planned to go to Krakow not London, but my husband had a business trip to London we needed to tag along on en route to home in the US, so we tweaked things a bit. It worked out well in that we were able to learn the perspective of the war from the point-of-view of the British, the French and the Germans. We did very little on Japan and just a bit more on Russia but we did learn quite a bit about the Cold War just by accident.

We did try to break up our travels with other points-of-interest, and with some comic relief along the way, which became more important as the summer went on and my daughter got a bit of “war overload” and some college application anxiety.

I’m not a history buff, never was, and took the bare minimum of history courses in school. I probably learned more this summer than my daughter. My daughter came to some of her own conclusions about war and they were interesting and certainly important for her at a time in her life when she is applying to college and thinking about what she’d like to study and do with her degree someday. She has already said, “the trip turned out to be so different than I expected.”

I can’t recommend this type of travel enough. 14 days of travel is like 6 months of school – or maybe travel is so rich that it can’t even be compared to time in the classroom.

It wasn’t always easy managing the needs and moods of a teenager with an awful lot of other things on her mind. I kept hoping she would be more involved in the planning, but realistically she just had too much else to do. It would have been great for her to read some more history during the course of the summer – even just one of the many books recommended by Fodorite’s, but she just didn’t have the time. Plus, she had spent all of May and June studying for AP exams and SAT IIs etc and so was pretty studied out. I had to accept that this would not be the “perfectly planned” and “seamlessly researched” trip I would have the time to plan and do. There was so much that could have been seen, but only so many days to do it. We had to make brutal cuts to the itinerary.

For Normandy, I just took the older daughter as she finished school first and the 14-year-old is not usually as hardy about long days in museums and such. I wish I had brought her along in retrospect. I think she would have been fascinated and she is doing much better the last couple months with long touring days. She did come to London, Berlin and Dachau. She did great.

The hardest part of the whole trip was fitting it into the busy older teen’s life. Given our reality, what worked best for her was watching various movies about WWII and the holocaust before the various legs of the trip. In fact our whole family, and her boyfriend, all spent our free time in June/July doing this with her. We all watched “Band of Brothers” in its entirety before my daughter and I headed to Normandy. It was a really wonderfully done series and I think we all enjoyed it – if enjoyed is the right word for 4 or 5 nights of watching war on TV… I usually hate this sort of thing but I thought it was very well done and my poor husband being the only Y chromosome holder in the family doesn’t get enough of “guy” movies. He was pretty excited to sit with his women and see the series. He even came home early a few nights so he wouldn’t get behind us.

Over the years, my husband has three times made me watch Schindler’s List and then fallen asleep halfway through! I’d “wake him up to go to bed” crying my eyes out. While we were in Berlin, and left him home alone, he finally watched the whole thing. He never told us if he cried but I bet he did because he’s a softie anyway. My younger daughter usually is too sensitive for this sort of thing, but she learned to leave the room for parts and come back later. So, this trip definitely affected the whole family and we all absorbed a lot over the course of the summer.

We also watched:

The Battle of Britain
Pearl Harbor
Saving Private Ryan
Sophie’s Choice
Hope and Glory

Well, we still have a few others films here we haven’t had time to see yet, and maybe in a couple of months we’ll be up for some more. For now, we need a break from war movies.

Regarding books, both girls and I visited the Anne Frank Zentrum in Berlin 2 weeks ago and saw a wonderfully done movie they show there about the holocaust, Anne, her family and the publishing of the book. Right now, on my older daughter’s bed stand is her battered old copy of Anne’s diary. She is re-reading it. I think I will too. (She’s supposed to be reading Obama’s book “Audacity of Hope” but that got pushed aside…)

I do hope to get her to read “Suite Francaise” because she was very interested in the whole occupation of France and I think for a young woman she will appreciate the point of view of the young French women when the German soldiers arrived.

I’m going to save the list of the many other books and movies suggested for my younger daughter as she gets more interested and for my older daughter who studies US History in school this year.

Next: Normandy Beaches
gruezi is offline  
Aug 21st, 2008, 12:47 PM
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Gruezi, thanks for the trip report. Looking forward to reading the rest.
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Aug 21st, 2008, 02:43 PM
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Thanks irishface...

I appreciate the encouragement. I've been procrastinating this report, but I do want to write while my thoughts are fresh.

gruezi
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Aug 21st, 2008, 02:52 PM
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mms
 
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Wow, I can relate! Our DD is 17 as well and we went to Normandy last summer. I am taking her back to France next summer for graduation as she wants to delve into it even more after her AP Euro class this year. Like your DD, she is swamped with applications, etc so probably won't be much help in planning, but oh well. So I really look forward to reading all about your trip since it will probably help me plan.
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Aug 21st, 2008, 03:00 PM
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mms,

Thanks for reading... I'm working on the next piece of the report right now.

It's such a fine line between getting them involved in taking advantage of this opportunity to see Europe, while respecting all the pressure they are feeling about schoolwork, testing and getting into college.

I think I was a bit too hard on her this summer in some ways. I really had to accept she can only do so much and she also needs some down time too. Someday, she'll be 48 like me and have all the time in the world to read and travel...Right now it's a luxury for her.

Where will you go in France?

gruezi

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Aug 21st, 2008, 03:42 PM
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Caen Peace Museum

Normandy – June 17 - 21

We took the train from Zurich to Paris (4.5 hours and wonderful to nap and read. We were reading “The Age of Innocence” together for another of my duaghter's school projects.) and spent the first afternoon and night in Paris. This was my excuse to see more of my favorite city and a nice start to our trip. It was the first time I ever was in Paris for gorgeous spring weather and it was heavenly.

We took a nice walk and spent a little time at Napoleon's tomb and then had a nice dinner at an outdoor café. We had some fancy champagne cocktails and toasted the end of the school year and the months of tests, and the beginning of summer.

Early the next morning we took a train and taxi to Caen and the Caen Peace Memorial. The whole trip took about 3 hours I believe. We had gotten train tickets in advance but it is not necessary – plenty of room on the train. We taxied in the interest of time, but there is a bus to the museum.

www.memorial-caen.fr/portail/index.php

The Caen Peace Museum was a bit overwhelming at first. I was relieved we were able to check our luggage there, which was a big concern. The admission price for us was around 31 Euros which I found really steep, and it didn’t include a floor map which I later found was available for an extra charge – I know I wouldn’t have paid any extra for it on principle. We tried to get oriented, and knew we wanted to see the 2 movies shown there as they are often recommended by Fodorite’s and others, so we tried to plan our visit around the times they are shown and also fitting in some lunch.

The museum is very maze-like and there is a lot of reading – printed in French, German and English. Unfortunately, the rooms are not well lit and the English is written in white letters on clear lucite and if you are over 45 it is very hard to read. But, if you can “see” past this, there are a lot of interesting exhibits that comprehensively cover WWII and D-Day. It took us a while to "settle in" to the museum but we adjusted as the afternoon wore on.

There are many artifacts including old mess kits, first aid supplies, tanks etc. etc. The exhibits cover the various fronts of the war from France to England to Russia. If you are patient and have good glasses you can spend hours and hours here. This is where we really learned about the Russians stand against the Nazi’s in Stalingrad.

The film about D-day is excellent. It’s shown on 2 screens and there is no commentary. It is all film of the actual events with visual documentary about the strategic positions of troops and countries each step of the way. It is worth going to the museum just for this film. At the beginning there is a long sweeping aerial shot of the stretches of these beautiful beaches. You see the war pictures a little later and the contrast is shocking.

The museum pays special attention to the French resistance and also does a good documentation of the holocaust, although not as thorough as what we later saw at the Imperial War Museum and what I’m sure is in the Jewish History Museum in Berlin, which we unfortunately did not have time to visit.

We spent about 3+ hours between the WWII exhibits and the D-Day movie.
We had some lunch and then continued on to a temporary exhibit on loan from NY State Museum about 9/11. It was much better done and easier to read as it was in a brightly lit area on the ground floor.

My daughter was a very sensitive 10-year-old on the day of 9/11 and by design never actually saw the news films or any detailed coverage. We knew a family that lost their son that day, so it was very real to us. She was very intrigued by this exhibit and we spent another hour or so there. Again, lots of artifacts including a wall of the posters that were hung to find family members, video, things taken from the wreckage, gifts and notes sent from afar to the various fire precincts in NY.

We never intended to spend time in a 9/11 exhibit in France, but it was a very worthwhile hour or two. She still talks about this part of the exhibit and what it meant to her to see it in France. (Both girls go to international schools and came home on Sept. 11th last year very surprised the day was not even mentioned. In their US schools, there was always a memorial event and most kids wore something to commemorate the day.)

I thought it was important that she understand the full impact of that day on her country as so much of the events that followed are shaped by that fateful day. We talked a lot about this that day, and still are talking about it now.

After the 9/11 exhibit we saw the other movie, “Hope”, which is a pictorial of various wars, atrocities and genocide throughout 20th-21st century history. We didn’t find it hopeful at all, and after a full day of war and holocaust I just had a really good cry. I noticed lots of teary faces leaving the auditorium.

Finally, we went around the back of the museum and downstairs to the Nobel Peace Prize exhibit. It would have been nice to spend some more time here, but by then we were pretty tired. The exhibit was basically in an underground tunnel and a bit creepy that way. And poor Al Gore’s name was misspelled. Still, it was a relief to see something positive like photos of Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa. (I’m a nurse and Mother Theresa is one of my all-time heroines.)

My daughter very astutely noted that the whole Nobel Peace exhibit was located where no one would ever find it unless they were really determined to (we were the only ones there). Meanwhile the photos and biographies of the men who plotted and committed the 9/11 attacks were upstairs in the bright sunlight big as day.

(There was also a huge Cold War exhibit but we passed on that one. Later, in Berlin, we would learn a lot about the Cold War.)

Next: On to Bayeux and Normandy Beaches
gruezi is offline  
Aug 21st, 2008, 04:46 PM
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gruezi,

I am a big history buff, especially WWII, so I am really enjoying this. I have always wanted to visit the D-Day beaches and memorials.

I am looking forward to both you and your daughters thoughts about your visit to Dachau. It was a really moving experince for me. And thank you for the nice comment you left you left at my Dachau photo gallery.

Tom
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Aug 21st, 2008, 05:08 PM
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Like Tom, I am very interested in history, including (especially) the focus of your trip. Great report! I look forward to more.
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Aug 21st, 2008, 05:24 PM
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mms
 
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gruezi--For now we are just planning on Paris, but I hope to do more. We have been twice so far, both times hitting Normandy briefly, and both times we did visit the Museum in Caen. I think it should be a must see before any of the DDay beaches are visited. Our first trip was in early 2001 as a family, and then again last summer (2007). Your reference to your DD and 9/11 made me think back to that day as well for our family. My DH was a career Naval Officer and was away on an exercise...so yes, it is etched in our minds. But I will never forget explaining it to the kids on the way to school.
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Aug 21st, 2008, 08:13 PM
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Gruezi

Enjoying your trip report.

Another big vote for “Suite Francaise” - I felt cheated when I finished reading it, I wanted to know more about the characters and to know that she didn't finish the series because she died in Auschwitz was poignant
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Aug 22nd, 2008, 01:20 AM
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Hi Tom, Leely and Alya,

Thanks for reading along!


Hi mms,

I just can never have enough of Paris! In terms of WWII, I highly recommend the Imperial War Museum in London, and the whole city of Berlin if you can ever get to either.

gruezi
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Aug 22nd, 2008, 04:45 AM
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Bayeux and Normandy Beaches Tour

It was a long, but highly educational day at the Caen Peace Museum. After, we took the bus back into town and a quick train on to Bayeux. We stayed at the La Bellefontaine just outside of Bayeux town. It was an chateaux with scenic grounds and a pond complete with swans and some brand new “swanlets” or whatever the proper term is for baby swans. The setting was lovely and restful and the main inn was pretty and in keeping with the French countryside. Unfortunately we were put in a modern annex and I must say it was not at all charming, but would be good for families as it was on two levels and could sleep 4. We had booked late and there wasn’t much available in Bayeux and so beggars can’t be choosers. The staff very nicely arranged our dinner reservations. It’s a good 15-minute walk to the center of Bayeux. Probably best to stay right in town if you can, as your little feet might be tired from all the other walking.

[email protected]

We got settled and freshened up and then walked into town and had a wonderful dinner at le Pommier, often touted here on Fodor’s. My daughter enjoyed her favorite escargot. It was a cozy and friendly spot. We drank a bit of wine and regrouped for our tour of the Normandy beaches the next day. I think we were a bit weary and wondering how we’d fare with another full day of “bad news”…So we enjoyed some comforting French dessert to build up our endurance.

We had booked a private ½ day tour through Normandy Sightseeing Tours:

www.normandywebguide.com

The tour guide met us the next morning at 9 am after we had a hearty 12 Euro breakfast at the inn – pleasant, but nothing special.

We expected a scraggly, gruff old military-type man for the tour, but instead had a pretty and charming young French woman. She was delightful and the perfect guide for us. She was open to what we wanted to do with the 4 hours and also had some suggestions for things we shouldn’t miss. She reviewed with us the location of all the beaches and the basics of the strategy and divisions locations on D-Day.

As we drove through picturesque countryside, we talked about all our various travels and living in various countries, her job experiences before she started at D-day tours and some hilarious stories since. (Apparently lots of serious old war buffs want to have dinner with her! She was really cute, smart and fun so it’s understandable.) We discussed what the French today think of Americans, the British, and the Germans, and other such things that we ex-pats in Europe find interesting. Although we were visiting areas of bloodshed and intense battles, the day did not have the heavy feel to it of our visit to the Caen Peace Museum. Perhaps it was the natural beauty all around us that took the edge off.

We were able to pretty leisurely see:

Point du Hoc
Omaha Beach
The American Cemetery
Arromanches

Our guide made various stops along the way at small museums, various memorials etc. We didn’t spend a lot of time in the museums as we had had a pretty full day in Caen.

The Normandy beaches were simply stunning - some thing I had not been prepared for as a water/beach lover. Yes, they are pocked with holes from bombs and you can climb into frighteningly well-built German bunkers, but beyond that you can’t help but be taken by the natural beauty and the fact that nothing has been built on them in all these years. Much of the land we saw that day has been gifted to the US by the French.

The American Cemetery reminded me a bit of Arlington cemetery but with the addition of an incredible ocean view. It’s sheer size, the painstaking care of the grounds, and the endless number of white crosses and Stars of David is something to behold.

My daughter was very interested in seeing the graves of the Ryan boys who are buried there as she had seen the Private Ryan film. I’m not big on cemeteries, and didn’t want to linger, but I think my daughter found this a very touching part of our tour. She spent a lot of time in the chapels and in the small museum. I think seeing all the tombstones gave some sense of the amount of loss, and perhaps she needed to see that to really understand.

The cemetery is a beautiful tribute to those who lost loved ones, and I was glad to see that if a family visited a relative’s grave here, they would feel their loved one had been properly honored.

After that we drove on to see Arromanches and the remains of the wharf buil there. We felt pretty much sated on D-Day and were pleased with our ½ day tour. I know some people do full days, but our eyes were pretty glazed over by then.

One thing I think that is important with this kind of travel is to allow some time for integration. Too much is just too much.

After our tour was complete our guide very kindly took us back into Bayeux and gave us a short tour pointing out some ideas for lunch and dinner. After saying our good-byes and exchanging emails we ate a long, late lunch at a little converted mill on the river. It turned out to be pretty touristy, and not so tasty, but a lovely and soothing setting.

Then, since we were right across the street, we went to see the Bayeux Tapestry. I knew nothing about it, but my daughter had studied it in Art History class last year. We were shuttled into the tapestry room pretty quickly. The tapestry is incredibly long and kept in a darkened exhibit hall. You are given an audio and do make sure you learn how to pause it before you enter, or you’ll be very rushed (the audio is sort of a speed reading of the history of the Battle of Hastings… basically another war story…). There is a bit of push and shove that goes on in there when a large group arrives which is too bad.

The tapestry is just simply amazing to behold especially if you have ever done any needlework. Upstairs is a museum and a wonderful short film about the tapestry. I highly suggest you view the movie before the tapestry, as it will make your experience of the tapestry infinitely better. Unfortunately we didn’t know to do that and we saw the tapestry first.

My daughter left before the film to sit outside in the sun and call her boyfriend. She was definitely done for the day…. This is something I have come to understand about travel with teens. They have the rest of their long lives to see Europe, but every place I visit, I imagine it very well might be the last time and so want to drink everything up and not miss a thing.

We took a quick peek into the rather imposing cathedral in Bayeux. I liked it better from the outside, but art history girl explained why it was actually quite nice inside too…it’s so nice having an expert along

I could have strolled the town a bit as it was rather charming but my darling companion was really, really done and was not as charmed as I.

Back to the inn for a little rest, showers, etc and then walk back into town for dinner at le Petit Normand. We had a wonderfully large and delicious 3-course meal for 16 euros each. A nice bargain compared to le Pommier and very tasty too especially a country salad I had for a starter.

We had already reserved in advance at Le Pommier again for our final night since we liked it so much, but we could have easily been happy again at Petit Normand.

At dinner we had a long discussion about our final day and how to spend it. Our lovely French tour guide had highly recommended Mont Ste Michel. Next to us at dinner was an American couple that had just spent the day there. Betwixt and between these recommendations we decided to get up early and take the train to see Mont Ste. Michel. I won’t go on and on here except to say:

I’m glad we went,
It was way too crowded,
Don’t go in the summer,
You will be stuck there all day if you use public transport,
You only really need a few hours,
And finally, I’m still glad we went.

Back “home” again to Bayeux, another lovely dinner at le Pommier where we had a much prettier table, walk back to Bellefontaine and then to bed…Taxi called for pick-up to train for 2 hour ride back to Paris in the morning.

Next: Paris and Homeward
gruezi is offline  
Aug 22nd, 2008, 12:16 PM
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gruezi ~

What a wonderful report. I'm a huge history fan and spent part of my honeymoon in Bayeux and the D-Day beaches.

The beaches are beautiful, aren't they? And yet you can't forget what happened there; with every step I took, I thought of the soldiers on the beach...

Eagerly awaiting more!
Mebe
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Aug 22nd, 2008, 02:11 PM
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gruezi, I remember your interesting planning thread and the discussions that took place.

Looks like you had a very interesting time in such a lovely part of the world.

I guess you can get too much war stuff, but your family seem to have dealt with it really well.

Next episode please.

Muck


Muck
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Aug 23rd, 2008, 05:07 AM
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Thanks Mebe...

Hi Muck - I remember your help along the way. Glad you are reading this...

Thanks!

gruezi

Next Installment....
gruezi is offline  
Aug 23rd, 2008, 05:13 AM
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More Paris and Back to Zurich

We’d been to Paris together last November, and had done the whirlwind city tour that trip (search “over the moon mother daughter trip to Paris” for my trip report if it’s of interest). This time we opted for a stroll, lunch at Angeline’s and a low-key self-guided tour of the Opera house. If you like Chagall or mosaic, do see this beautiful building. I would love to see a performance here someday just to be in the gorgeous theater.

That evening we wanted dinner some place fun. The women in my husband’s Paris office all said “send them to Costes!!” Well, it did not disappoint. After a few days of war and bunkers, we were so happy to be dressed up and watching the most blatant display of legs and cleavage we’d ever seen, while we sipped champagne and ate like piggies. It was quite the scene, and we had some great laughs and forgot about guns and bombs and just were silly for a few hours. We’ve decided that before we move back to the US, Paris and Costes will be our last stop.

Next day, train back to Zurich and we both finished reading “Age of Innocence” and had a good chat about the shocking ending. Of course, our points-of-view were very different given our ages and experiences. What a great book! My third reading and still love it.

Oh, forgot to say we had breakfast at Laduree and stocked up on croissants for the loved ones we left back home. Some of the goodies didn’t make it all the way to Zurich! Nothing like a good train picnic. Paris…sigh…

Next: London, Imperial War Museum and Cabinet War Rooms.
gruezi is offline  
Aug 23rd, 2008, 05:20 AM
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Thanks again, gruezi for sharing this with others. Your hint about public transportation at Mont St. Michel is well-taken.
In your opinion could one go from Paris to Bayeux to MSM and back in one day using train/bus/taxi??? Merci!
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Aug 23rd, 2008, 07:17 AM
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Dear TDudette,

Thanks for reading. It's a pleasure to share, as the writing is helpful in really absorbing and integrating everything we experienced.

Regarding your question...and I hope this is at all helpful...

Paris to Bayeux is almost exactly 2 hours by train with one easy change at Caen. Bayeux is small so easy to get around by taxi or by foot.

From Bayeux to Mont Ste Michel is a bit trickier because you take the train to another city and switch to a bus shuttle. I can't remember the train station name or the exact time it took! But, if I recall, I think you need about another 2 hours for this whole leg of the trip.

Here is what tripadvisor says about travel to MSM:

"Travel experts in the Mont-St-Michel area generally suggest driving as the best method of reaching the area. People who are traveling from international locations frequently fly in to Paris and spend time there before renting a car and heading from Paris to Mont-St-Michel. Mont-St-Michel is located approximately four to five hours driving time west of Paris. Travelers should pay attention to the local weather in the area, as there are times of year when floods cover the major highways and make driving in the area nearly impossible.
Travelers seeking alternative methods of reaching the area can plan to take the train or bus in the area. The train station is located approximately five miles away from Mont St. Michel and the bus is similarly convenient. Information about the high speed train options coming through Paris to Mont St Michel are available online at www.voyages-sncf.com"


I can't imagine seeing MSM and Bayeux in one day plus heading back to Paris mostly because the trains/buses from MSM to Bayeux run extremely infrequently. Perhaps direct toward Paris there are more possibilities.

As I mentioned, we felt literally stranded after our 2 hour tour of MSM. We didn't see any taxis anywhere although they must exist. We hitchhiked back to town as there was no bus for hours mid-day, and then just hung around for another few hours waiting for a train back to Bayeaux.

People we met in Bayeux did the trip by car and even they said it consumed almost a full day of their trip.

We had not planned to go to MSM until the night before, so perhaps our planning wasn't the best.

Your hotel may be able to make better suggestions on this or a wonderful Fodorite who has been to MSM, may respond to a post.

Did I mention go in the fall to MSM?

Good luck!

gruezi

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Aug 23rd, 2008, 08:39 AM
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Thanks, gruezi, we are going Sept. 2. I hear ya about the logistics though. We too hope to see MSM at dusk. Hopefully, I can do a report when we return but may ask you to edit it first!
TDudette is offline  
Aug 23rd, 2008, 09:02 AM
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bookmarking for later..thank you for doing this!
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