May 29, 2019 – June 2, 2019
Even if you’re not a history buff, a tour through Normandy is a great way to see the French countryside, coastline, and city life. We spent four nights driving through the region with our good friends Lauren and Vik, who were in town from the US. The route was: Rouen -> Mont Saint Michel -> D-Day tour -> Honfleur
The first stop on our 4 day tour of Normandy was Rouen. This location was partly picked because it was only 5.5 hours drive from Amsterdam and partly because it’s where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Other bonuses for this city included some cool churches, lots of cafes, and good wine. Tyler and I arrived on Wednesday evening after the 5.5 hour drive from Amsterdam turned into an 8 hour drive. I went straight to bed, while Tyler checked out the local bar scene.
The next day, our friends arrived from Paris, and we had a great day of catching up and bonding. We explored all of the churches in the area and several of the local bars. We had a philosophy of see something cool, then grab a drink, then go see something else cool, then go to another bar. I think this is the best strategy for seeing a new city. Since everything in Rouen is so old and authentic, it was easy to entertain ourselves on this journey.
Cathedral Notre-Dame de Rouen
Church of Saint Joan of Arc
Saint-Ouen Abbey Church
Church of Saint-Maclou
Gros Horloge (aka astrological clock)
Le Mont Saint Michel
The next morning, after a quick breakfast we headed to Mont Saint Michel, which was about a 2.5 hour drive. The main highlight of the road trip was almost running out of gas. We had to stop at some shady truck stop gas station off the highway that had no building so the boys had to relieve themselves in the woods. I was asleep for most of this, but apparently it was stressful times in the car!
I became fascinated with Mont Saint Michel after reading a WWII book where the main character visited the city. Basically, it is a tiny village that turns into an island depending on the tides. When the tides are high, the village is completely surrounded by waters and used to be unreachable. Today, there is a boardwalk over the waters so you can reach the city whenever you want. The island kind of looks like a fortress with high walls around the outside and steep steps throughout the village to the abbey that rests at the top.
Our hotel was located a few kilometers from Mont Saint Michel. We opted to not stay on the island because there were not many hotels and the hotels on the island had not the best ratings. It was easy enough to get to the Mercure hotel and parking was ample.
After dropping our stuff off and grabbing some make-your-own sandwiches at the grocery store, we were on our way. There were buses running to the island, but we decided to take a 30 minute walk instead. I really enjoyed this walk because we could see the village the whole time. It kind of felt like we were salmon swimming upstream because hundreds of people were leaving the city while only a few were heading towards it. I thought this was probably good news and things wouldn’t be so crowded.
We also saw people getting stuck in the mud surrounding the city. Apparently, you’re not really supposed to walk in the sands because the tide comes in with such short notice and the waters can be really strong. We saw a couple struggling to cross the sand and going thigh deep into the mud. It kind of seemed like quicksand. They made it across to the land, but were super muddy and did not look very happy. Thus, we decided to stay on the boardwalk and take the safest route.
As we got closer, I just stood in awe of how cool this place was.
But then when we got really close and went inside, I immediately felt like I was at Disney World. It was chaos and so crowded (and 10 degrees hotter). Just tons of people pushing and shoving to get into the village gates. I was amazed that there were still so many people inside because we saw hundreds leaving. After making it through the most crowded part, we looked for somewhere to sit and plan out our visit. The only available table was of course, right in the shining sun. It felt good to rest our feet, but we were roasting as we ate some ice cream.
We decided to go see the abbey and embarked up what seemed like never ending stairs. I must mention that I was sick throughout the trip, and this was my worst day, so maybe the stairs really weren’t so bad if you were in normal condition.
As we walked higher and higher, we could see the countryside surrounding the city outside of the walls. You could see for miles. Also, the tides started to come in. It was crazy how quickly the waters started to surround the city.
Although the abbey was EUR 10 to visit, I think it was worth it. The thing was huge and commanded basically the whole island. We wandered from room to room reading about the history of the abbey and imagining what it would be like to have visited during it’s operations. Only 50 people live on Mont Saint Michel these days and it’s basically overrun with tourists, but I imagine it used to be pretty peaceful.
After seeing the abbey, we decided it was time to leave. It was just too crowded to hang out anymore. We started the 30 minute walk back, but this time at a more leisurely pace, enjoying our stroll. There was a dam near the town that had a great view of the village, so we grabbed a bottle of wine from the store and headed here to enjoy the views before dinner.
Dinner here was one of the better meals we had of the trip. Even though we were expecting a tourist trap, the ingredients were really fresh and also the company was on point. My conditions were deteriorating all day, so after dinner I retreated to bed. The rest of the group went to watch the sunset over Mont Saint Michel. I wish I could have joined, because look at this amazingness.
After a full day of fun in Mont Saint Michel, we headed to go see some WWII things. Luckily I was feeling a bit better, and ready to take on the day. We didn’t really plan this part of the trip well, but there were many resources online detailing a route, so we blindly picked one.
First up was Saint Mere Eglise, a church near the coastline. During D-Day, many soldiers parachuted from planes down to the French soil. At the Saint Mere Eglise, a paratrooper named James Steele got caught on the spire of the church. He couldn’t move and pretended to be dead for several hours before being captured by the Germans. Today there is a parachute still on the roof to symbolize the paratroopers heroic journeys.
Because we were visiting Normandy just before the 75th anniversary of D-Day, there were a few special exhibits set up, and also a lot more people out and about than normal. Near the church, there was a field filled with old tanks that had been used in the war. I was amazed at how big these tanks were, and most of them were used by the Americans.
The next stop on our tour was Utah beach. This was one of the beaches where American troops landed on June 6, 1944. It’s really interesting to read about the history of the D-Day actions and the strategy behind the different places the Americans, Canadians, and British landed. Utah was the furthest west beach and the soldiers who landed here were tasked with sealing off the Cotentin Peninsula from the Germans.
There were a few monuments at the beach and also a museum, but we didn’t enter it. Otherwise, it really just looked like a normal beach. There were people enjoying the sand and sunbathing.
Before grabbing lunch, we made one more stop at Pointe du Hoc. This was probably my favorite stop of our whole D-Day tour. The pointe is a series of cliffs overlooking the English Channel.
The German army had fortified this area with bunkers and guns because it was one of the highest points and easiest to see the Allies coming. On D-Day, a group of American Rangers were supposed to land on the cliffs and destroy the German guns. Due to some navigational errors they didn’t land in the right spot. The rangers had to scale the high cliffs and go in search of the guns. Although the lost a lot of men, they were able to complete the mission, and really helped out the Allies cause.
This site has a bunch of plaques that you can read telling the whole story of the events during WWII. It was very interesting to read about what I was seeing before we headed toward the cliffs. The cliffs were higher than I thought and I couldn’t imagine scaling up the walls. The rangers were very brave and in shape.
Scattered throughout the cliffs, there were a few bunkers that were still intact that you could walk through. They were very dark and dank, but I guess they did the job. It was also interesting to see several huge holes in the ground, which apparently were so that tanks couldn’t get too close to the bunkers. As a contrast to the other areas we had visited thus far, I could actually see how the war played out here and imagine the horrible scenes.
By this point, we were starving, and found a food truck to grab some burgers at. I think my burger was completely raw, but apparently that’s just how they do meat in France, and I survived.
Our trip was taking longer than we had planned, and we were on a tight schedule, so we did a drive by of Omaha beach, only stopping for a few minutes to get out. Again, it was just like a regular beach, people sunbathing everywhere, but there was also a huge monument. Omaha beach was the other place where American troops landed during D-Day. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to stop at the places where the British (Gold Beach and Sword Beach) and Canadians (Juno Beach) landed.
The last stop of the D-Day tour was the North American Cemetery and Memorial, honoring American troops who died in Europe during WWII. This cemetery is the final resting place of almost 10,000 soldiers. Rows and rows of crosses can be seen in a diagonal pattern. The cemetery overlooks the bluffs and sea below. It is a tranquil and beautiful place, and I could feel the somber atmosphere even when it was full of people. I took a moment to honor the soldiers who gave their lives to fight for Europe and soaked in the beauty of the place.
Looking back on our tour through the D-Day sites, I think it would have been a great trip to do a guided tour. I would have enjoyed hearing more about the history of everything we saw and the stories about what makes it a special place.
The last stop on our Normandy trip was Honfleur, a little town on the coast. As soon as we pulled into the city, I knew this would be my favorite stop of the trip. There were narrow, windy cobblestone streets flanked by the cutest houses. It was a little confusing driving through the streets because they were only wide enough for one car, but were mostly all two way streets so you had to play chicken with the car coming at you to see who would get out of the way. We barely made it onto the street our hotel was on because it was so busy. Our hotel was a huge old mansion that was decorated to the nines. Everything looked like it was an antique and it was kind of extra. I loved it.
After checking in, we headed to the harbor to have a much needed drink. Unfortunately, almost every place we tried to stop at wanted you to have food as well. We didn’t want food, and eventually found a bar to have a beverage at while we enjoyed the harbor views. In hindsight, we should have made reservations for dinner, on this busy Saturday night, but Tyler took it upon himself to walk door to door of the best restaurants in town and beg for a table. It worked out and after we finished our drinks, we headed to meet him somewhere with a table overlooking this view.
This was the best meal of the trip. Maybe because I was actually feeling better, or maybe because the seafood was incredibly fresh. We got mussels, snails, crustaceans, fish, clams, and a bunch of wine. It’s always great to catch up with old friends who you don’t see very often.
Since it was a Saturday, the town was still hopping after dinner and we went to a local pub that had live music. We sat outside enjoying the nice weather for a while, and then realized that the party was actually indoors. The band played 95% French music and the crowd was loving it. Everyone was singing and dancing. I think we were the only non-French in the bar, and we went crazy when they started to play Sweet Home Alabama. I let it slide that I really hate this song and joined in on the fun, singing and dancing my heart out.
After a while, we decided to call it a night since we had a big day of driving ahead. We wandered through the cute little streets back to our hotel.
On the last day of the trip, we walked the streets of Honfleur to see the town in the daylight. I really enjoyed the beautiful streets and houses. We walked down one street and there were about 10 people just sitting on the street making a painting of the beauty. Maybe it was an art class, but I thought to myself that anywhere that this many people are captivated to sit and paint is truly magical.
Before hitting the road, we had some mediocre crepes to sustain us for the long journey. We were dropping our friends off in Calais so they could catch a train to London. I do love a good road trip, and it’s even better when you can chat with your besties the whole way. We basically just spent the whole time planning our next trip together. Stay tuned.
After dropping Lauren and Vik off at their train, Tyler and I made our way back to Amsterdam. Once again, we got stuck in some pretty terrible traffic and added about 2 hours to the journey. Needless to say, I was happy to get home!