Thursday, June 16, 2011

Oui, oui! Une baguette, s'il vous plait!

My parents graciously offered to take me on part of their European adventure through the northern coast of France for the week on one condition: I speak French when needed. DONE! So last Sunday, I met them at their adorable B&B in Brussels, we got a quick café et sandwich, finally found the rental car place, and headed to Rouen, in Normandy, our first stop. 

We started in Rouen and made our way west and then south, with our final stop in Rennes.

Rouen is the capital of the upper Normandy region and also on the Seine River that flows along to Paris. The town dates back to 50BC and in the 10th century the city was nominated as the capital of the region. Porcelain and river traffic from the Seine allowed the city to prosper and the old half-timbered houses and soaring Gothic cathedrals are present proof its medieval roots. Perhaps most famously, Joan of Arc was imprisoned, tortured, and finally burned at the stake in the middle of the old city on May 30, 1431. Rouen's cathedral of Notre Dame was often depicted in Monet's paintings, as well.

The medieval Gros Horloge astrological clock, half-timbered houses, and the Gothic church of Rouen.

Mom and Dad...and the towers of Rouen.
On our way to Arromanches, we stopped for lunch in the picture-perfect port town of Honfleur, which lies in the province of Calvados. In the 1100s this city was a major hub for trade between England and France and continued to play a major role of goods movement until the build-up of silt in the harbor began to limit the ships from coming in and out. By the early 1900s, the modern port next door, La Havre, took over this principle trade role, leaving Honfleur's old world charm to be lapped up by the tourists. 

The old harbor of Honfleur and the fermented beverages its known for.
After a lovely walk through more medieval streets (the sun was finally shining!) and a quick croque monsieur, we were back in the car and heading west. The drive along the coast to Arromanches was stunning. The jagged coastline was dotted with old, brick mansions. We passed fields of wheat and barley, lots of happy jersey cows, and ancient-looking stone buildings. 

Our B&B in Arromanches was located a 5-minute-walk from the famous 'Gold Beach,' one of the beaches Normandy where hundreds of thousands of British, American and Canadian soldiers landed on June 6, 1944, also called D-Day (we arrived the day after the anniversary), as part of the largest invasion from waterborne vessels in the history of the world. This particular beach was where Churchill set up a fake bay by using 'mulberries' - a new technology especially made for the invasion that involved enormous concrete floating docks that were strategically aligned and then sunk part-way. The mulberries were used as docks to unload the troops, artillery, and supplies from the 5,000 ships involved in the invasion (something like 6,000 vehicles, 900 tanks, 600 guns, and 4,000 tons of supplies). The mulberries can still be seen today. 

The 'Mulberries' from WWII still surrounding Gold Beach.

A mulberry up close during low tide.
We had a full day of World War II sight-seeing the day after arriving in Arromanches. I hadn't really expected that I would really enjoy all the war talk, but I learned so much about 'Operation Overlord,' the immense amount of planning and strategy behind it, the collaboration between the three Allied forces, and the incredible heroism of the young men and women who risked their lives in the face of the enemy. 

One of the impressive sights was the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer. The grounds of this massive cemetery actually belong to the US and contain the graves of over 9,000 American soldiers. The museum at the cemetery was a stunning compilation of short archival videos, a timeline of events leading up to D-Day and after, and artifacts--my favorite was the dummy paratrooper, Rupert. The Allied forces dropped hundreds of these dummies in four locations throughout the Normandy region to trick the Germans. The dummies were loaded with voice recorders and self-detonators to further deceive the enemy. 

The Normandy American Cemetery
Another stand-out of the day was La Pointe du Hoc, a rocky headland where Germans had placed bunkers and massive artillery. The whole area was bombed, shelled and then attacked by about 200 US Rangers, who scaled the 11-story rock wall, while being shot at by the Germans, and still took over the bunkers. Today, you can still see where the bombs and shells hit--it's like walking on another planet. 

Craters of D-Day bombing at La Pointe du Hoc
The last high-light of the day was the Longues-sur-Mer battery, where four 150-mm guns with a range of 12 miles still stand. These guns pounded many the Allied ships on the morning of 6th June. 

An impressive lesson in history...

One of the four remaining 150-mm guns at the Longues-sur-Mer battery

Our next stop was passing through Le Mont St. Michel, one of the most famous sights in France, though I had never heard of it until I knew we were heading there. The small island dates back to the year 708 when a sanctuary was built on the mountain. In the 10th century, the abby was built on top of the rocky terrain, with the foundation strategically wrapping around the mountain, and supported by powerful buttresses. From the decks at the top of the abby you have a sweeping view of the mainland and the approaching tides (46 feet between high and low!) are visible if you can hold your gaze long enough. 

Le Mont St. Michel
That night we stayed in Dinan and planned to visit St. Malo and Dinard the next day. Dinan was just a magnificent old, walled city. So picturesque was every cobbled street and lined with half-timbered houses. We ate at a lovely restaurant on the river, with a view of the old bridge, and walked back to the hotel in a light drizzle of rain. 

The streets and river of Dinan
St. Malo was our first stop the next day. This gorgeous walled city was famous for its wealthy residents in the Middle Ages--corsairs, ship owners, explorers, tradesmen, and the occasional pirate. 

The walled city of St. Malo, where all the wealthy pirates used to live!
Right across the bay lies Dinard, another wealthy seaside town known for its mansions and beaches. From the main beach, an incredible pathway lined the length of the rocky cliffs adjacent to the ocean. Fantastic views!

Dinard's coastline walkway and the mansions on the hill
After one more night in Dinan, we headed to our last stop, Rennes. We were all impressed with this city and my parents wished they had booked one more night here. Rennes is the capital city of Brittany and the largest city we visited. Its impressive mix of ancient, medieval, and modern attributes lends a diverse architectural presence: remains of a Roman wall, reinforced by a Medieval wall, and streets lined with classic 3-4 story Haussmann-style apartments, wide boulevards, cobbled narrow roads, and amazing open public spaces. 

Local specialties at the Rennes market
We wandered around the grand marché in the Place des Lices, taking in all the sights and smells of fresh produce, flowers, fish, and spices. That evening we ate a spectacular dinner at Chez Paul: braised duck, tender beef, and grilled white fish followed by a delectable rhubarb tart and rich chocolate mousse. Parfait!  

Last night together in France...Chez Paul
The next morning, my dad and I had a chance to take one last walk through the city. We found ourselves at the lush local Parc Thabor known for its many tree and plant species, hundreds of roses, and well-maintained grounds. After a bit more packing and a quick coffee, were off to the train station for my 14h05 Thalys train back to Rotterdam. I had such a wonderful time and will see my parents in another couple weeks in Rotterdam. So sad to say good bye! Love you Mommy and Daddy, thank you for a great family vacation! 

Family portrait in a mirror


  1. Lovely pictures and interesting read... x

  2. Beautiful pictures and great history lesson!

  3. Wow Meredith, you take a good photo! How are you achieving the blur effect on most of the photos? Rouen is gorgeous and what a massive church!

  4. Thanks for reading Andrew! It's the customizable 'miniature effect' on my Canon 1400is. ;)

  5. Wow! It sounds like you have lovely parents! They must love you a lot...and they look so young too.
    (yes, great blog as well, nice special efx photos)

  6. Amazing photography and background stories to boot. My favorite picture is the Honfleur picture with the 3 images below.
    Like Andrew, I'm impressed with your photo arrangements. What program are you using to make the photo "frames"? I've tried messing around in InDesign (with little success).
    Maybe we'll have to have an intensive summer training session soon...

  7. Thanks Gadi! It is in InDesign...and we can definitely have a training sesh when you're here in a few weeks! Cant wait to see you! ;)

  8. Wow, it sounds like you had an great time in France! Beautiful pictures, makes me feel like going back in time to my childhood's holidays...
    I love the photo arrangements and the pictures you took in Rouen and Honfleur. Great blog!

  9. Thanks for a great travelogue, I especially liked the pictures of the food.


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