A Mother & daughter trip to Normandy and Paris, France
After many months of planning, I was finally able to travel to Paris to meet up with my mom and sister Billi for a fun-filled week in France. We went prepared for the cold and the rain (as predicted by the forecast) but instead the whole vacation was punctuated by blue skies and rainbows! We were in awe of the little halo of luck that followed us around northwestern France, and in those moments of gratitude we couldn’t help but feel like the skies opened up just for us. And, given our inspiration for this trip, it’s possible that our hunch wasn’t too far off…
daily rainbows and hot spots all to ourselves
We had all kinds of must-see sights on the agenda and it started right off with beat-feeting out of Paris in our little rental car and heading towards the coastal town of Étretat. We had decided this portion of the trip was in honor of my mom’s dad, our Papa, Albert John Bernard, who served in World War II, and passed away several years ago. He would’ve been 102 years old this year. Mom had a photo of him in her purse, and everywhere we went it felt like he was with us the entire time. Papa was the inspiration for our time in Normandy, and his spirit and memory were truly with us in so many ways.
Billi had been joking around that she would “definitely jump into the water” at this quaint cliffside town, and although mom and I didn’t doubt she could do it, we didn’t think she really would do it. Well, we were way wrong! Billi came prepared, and in spite of the 48º Fahrenheit temps, she made her glorious polar dip into the waters of the English Channel! You only live once, right? Before this spectacular splash, we spent some time hiking up and around all of the gorgeous cliffs that overlook the water. There was an impressive golf course on the cliffs as well, with a beautiful view over the small town nestled between the vast beach and monoliths. The highlight was when we looked back over the peaks of the cliffs and noticed the first of many rainbows we would see on this trip. It truly felt like a colorful smile from above!
Seeing a rainbow is always special. Normally we wouldn’t be tempted to attribute its glowing appearance to anything other than atmospheric conditions, but this time it felt different. Whenever we checked the weather where we were heading, it called for rain. We aren’t the kind of women who let something like a little rain stop us from having a good time, but you can bet our hearts filled with gladness when the blue skies emerged every time we arrived at one of our destinations! I can’t emphasize enough how remarkable this was, and how grateful we were for it. Of course where there’s rain, there’s always a chance for a rainbow! The good fortune in weather punctuated by rainbows really felt like a gift just for us, and each time it made us think of our Papa with a wink and a smile. And for good reason! Nobody appreciated a rainbow as much as Papa did. And perhaps nobody appreciated the opportunity to give thanks with a dive into icy waters as much as Billi did!
After getting wet in the waters of Étretat, we were ready to make our way to our first overnight spot, nearby in Honfleur. Honfleur is one of many estuary towns on the coast of France, boasting a townhouse-lined harbor, numerous restaurants and shops and a warm, welcoming feel. It was here, in this little village, that we had our first of many servings of escargot (yum!) and calvados kir – a special drink made with apple brandy from the region, Normandy cider and creme de cassis (black currant liqueur). We learned that France is similar to many other neighboring countries concerning restaurant etiquette and hours of operation. Hence we decided to dine late like the French! Cheers!
Wine, escargot, and seafood!
The streets and shops of Honfleur…
After a good night’s sleep in Honfleur, we woke up to a dark and rainy morning. Our plan for the day was to make our way to the little historic town of Saint-Mère-Eglise for an historic day tour of the Normandy region. On our way out of town, we found the most incredible French bakery, where we stocked up on various croissants, quiche, tarts, and macarons. When in France, right? We chowed down on the fresh deliciousness as we wound our way through tiny towns of the Normandy region. At one point, mom (who is hard of hearing), commented on the pharmacies in each town. “Oh! There’s another pharmacy!” Billi and I got a real kick out of this, because of all the things to see, why point out the pharmacies? Nevertheless, we joked that it must really be a highlight for her, so we began pointing them out to her, too. Except…she couldn’t quite hear us, and she thought we were pointing out “farm scenes!” HA! This whole exchange turned into the most hilarious recurring joke of the vacation. Every time we went venturing out to a new place, we were on the hunt for “pharmacies and farm scenes!” Lucky for us and our silly sense of humor, there were plenty of both.
D-Day Battle Tour
On the drive to meet our tour guide near the beaches of Normandy, the clouds lifted and the beautiful blue skies emerged. “Right on cue, Papa!” I thought. Of course, another beautiful rainbow smiled at us to start the day. We arrived at Saint-Mère-Eglise with plenty of time to hit up a cafe and wander around taking photos before meeting our tour guide, Rene, at the Airborne Museum. We learned that Rene lives in a home right next to the museum, where airborne paratroopers landed in his front and backyards at the start of the D-Day invasion. Rene told us stories and gave us so much detailed information about the events of the allied invasion – we felt completely immersed and riveted the entire day! It was a humbling experience to travel along the roads our soldiers worked to occupy and walk the beaches the brave men stormed over the first few days of Operation Overlord in World War II.
The tour through the museums taught us about “fly girls,” female pilots who got no credit or military benefits for their work. They flew newly constructed planes to the front lines where they would then be flown into battle [pictured above]. Apparently, if they wanted a uniform, these “fly girls” had to purchase one themselves! Also, after the war, in spite of their flight experience, they weren’t permitted to be employed as pilots. It seems to me this would make a great Hollywood movie!
We also learned about the brave bomber pilots and how their payload was remarkably small, resulting in fairly minimal damage to the enemy for how grueling their missions were. These pilots also had an extremely high mortality rate, and the newest installment of the epic WWII drama series produced by Spielberg and Hanks will be all about them – “Masters of the Air.” We can’t wait to see it! We learned all about the various missions of Operation Neptune (the initial invasion of allied forces of Operation Overlord in World War II), including the paratroopers and the glider pilots. It was interesting to learn that almost none of the paratroopers landed on their marks thanks to unfavorable weather conditions on drop day, and glider pilots had the highest mortality rate of any combat specialty in WWII. This was because the planes themselves were made of such flimsy material (linen) and they were nearly impossible to maneuver, so just the landing was a huge risk. This recruitment poster [left] came out when they ran out of pilots for the job and had to then only take volunteers – I can’t say the ad made the job appealing! “Join the Glider Troops! No flight pay, no jump pay, but never a dull moment!” Finally, we learned about the clever “ghost army” that the allied forces mustered to throw Hitler and the Germans off. They enlisted the help of artists, architects, actors, set designers and engineers to use creative tactics to deceive the Germans into thinking they had a larger army and were mustering in a different location than was true. Ben Affleck is producing a movie about this as well, called “Ghost Army,” that should premier sometime in 2020. Another must-see!
After getting a thorough appreciation of the memorabilia and stories of the museums, Rene took us to Notre Dame de l’Assomption, the historic nearby church (or eglise, in French) that inspired a movie about the event called The Longest Day (1962). It was here that a remarkable paratrooper named John Steele landed and his parachute got stuck on one of spires of the church. Looking closely at the photo above it is possible to see the commemorative paratrooper still hanging there in honor of the men who came to “rescue” the people of France and the region. They were received with such celebration and relief! A fun fact is that John Steele actually landed on the opposite side of the tower, unlike what is depicted in The Longest Day. His story is remarkable – and he survived to tell it! Inside the church it was still possible to see bullet holes from the fire fight that took place inside years ago. It feels like a living museum. Beautiful stained glass commemorates the brave soldiers who landed in this small town and helped to secure the area as an entryway for allied forces to move through France. What a place!
After seeing the sights of Saint-Mère-Eglise, we had delightful lunch of local beer, savory crêpes and croque monsiers. Then we continued our tour in Rene’s van over the countryside and across the shores of the American landing zones, Utah and Omaha beaches. Rene shared the stories of heroes, we walked in their footsteps, and saw every single memorial. It is sobering to think about that time period – the logistics and zeitgeist of it all – and compare it to today. Those brave souls were truly helped make up the “greatest generation.”
Pointe du Hoc
The next stop on our tour was Pointe du Hoc, an important strategic vantage point between Utah and Omaha beaches. The Germans occupied this area and had massive guns that could reach for miles, peppering both nearby beaches with shells. The area of Point du Hoc is crowned by 100 foot cliffs and the surrounding beaches stretch for miles in each direction. This was another landing point for the allies, who were able to scale the cliffs and hold the area in spite of a small number of troops and many, many casualties.
Above are the charred ceilings of the forts used by the Germans. After the allies took over, they used flame throwers to torch the underground buildings.
It is here that we were able to see the craters that still exist from the allied forces bombing runs. These craters – although large – were only big enough to swallow a jeep or tank. It is unbelievable to think that a bomber plane could carry only six 1,000 pound bombs, each of which could make a single crater. Standing here in this spot sure put things into perspective.
The wind was fierce, and Rene told us it was just as it would have been on those first fateful days of invasion. It was chilling to picture the rudimentary fighting styles and desperate maneuvers they used to overtake the Germans.
Omaha Beach is the most famous of the beaches, as it is the largest, and had the most casualties. It is also the beach depicted in Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. This enormous beach is flat and has an extremely long tide range, and all the stories Rene told us came alive as we walked along the sands. It is here we believe our Papa arrived in France in the early days of Operation Neptune. He reported seeing body parts on the beach as he landed, and Rene informed us that was only possible in the first couple of days of the invasion, as they did extensive beach clean up after that. Papa made it all the way to Belgium, where he fought in the foxholes of the forests of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge. Here he was shot in the hand, and lost his thumb – but it saved his life.
Normandy American Cemetery & Memorial
Our last stop of the day was at the stunning American Cemetery in Normandy. It is located along an untouched cliff-side stretch of Omaha Beach – where a heroic 9,388 American soldiers are laid to rest. The monuments and memorials here are simply beautiful, and it’s impossible to walk along the acres of graves without feeling a sense of deep gratitude and sorrow. 60 million people lost their lives worldwide in World War II, making it the bloodiest war in our history. Over 400,000 were American soldiers who died in the fighting, with the Battle of the Bulge amounting to the operation with the highest death toll. We walked through the cemetery with Rene as all the stories from the day sank in and we were able to pay homage to our fallen heroes.
We left feeling incredibly humbled and grateful for the thorough lesson in history we received from our history-buff tour guide, Rene. He offers tours through his private company, “Bayeux Sightseeing Tours” and we highly recommend him!
After the full and emotional D-Day Battle Tour day, we opted to head to Mont Saint-Michel. We stayed the night nearby and got a little glimpse of the glittery island through the evening mist and fog. The next morning we were treated to a lovely “French breakfast” of pastries and jams at our little bed and breakfast before heading to the island. This little magical sanctuary-on-a-rock had been on my bucket list for a while, and I was thrilled to see we would be able to visit on a beautiful day. The roads were still wet, and ominous clouds could be seen in the distance, but it was just perfect over MSM. In fact, as we rode on the bus along the land bridge, a huge rainbow emerged over the peak of the island. I tried to capture a picture, but behind the wet windows of the bus it was impossible! And so, this rainbow remains a picture in our hearts.
The wind was harsh across the land bridge as we walked towards the island, but we noticed it wasn’t busy at all. We made our way all the way up to the Abbey first to miss the crowds and experience it in good weather. It sure paid off! We ended up having the whole place (practically) to ourselves! Mom said she has been here several times but had never seen it this empty. Again, it felt like a little gift just for us! We listened to all the audio guides and went through every nook and cranny of the place. It was amazing!
On the way back down the hill we saw the weather change, so we grabbed snacks (baguette sandwiches and crepes – mmm!) and headed back to the bus. We made it to our car in time for it to rain. What luck! On our way to our next stop, we saw another rainbow. These little wonders winked at us the entire trip!
Our next stop was another estuary port-city that is just over the border of Normandy into Brittany. We heard that the crepes in Brittany are “not to be missed!” so our mission was a spot of shopping and more CRÊPES! We made our way into this walled town, reminiscing fondly of a novel we all read that took place in Saint Malo, “All the Light We Cannot See.” It sprinkled on and off, and we went in and out of shops until we finally decided to head to our next destination where a local had clued us in on “the best crêpes” around: Dinan!
We arrived in Dinan and managed to snag a parking spot again (while more rainbows smiled at us) and we walked into the cute center of town to find a crêperie. There were many, but not many were open! Finally we located one that was open, but unfortunately, after we sat down to order, they told us that they were only serving dessert crêpes. So, after a long day of travels and quite frankly realizing we’d have to wait even longer for places to open for dinner, we made a split second decision to stick around anyway and forego a proper crêpe dinner and skip straight to the dessert instead! We had already ordered drinks (kir and beer) but when our crêpes arrived, there was a little surprise for Billi. Instead of a “banana split crêpe,” it came out as just a banana split! Oh did we ever have a good laugh! Billi was drinking her beer and cracking up, “why on Earth would I have just ordered a banana split in the crêpe capital region of the world?” She was a good sport and we gobbled up our sweets before hitting the road again to our bed and breakfast. It was waaaay out in the country and it was pretty late when we arrived, so we were exhausted and ready to get a good night’s sleep!
Our pitstop was in a small town called Sainte-Gemmes-Le-Robert. In the morning we were served a delicious breakfast in the little kitchen of our apartment by our gracious host.
Then we got right back on the road towards Paris! We had only one stop planned for the day – another bucket list item for me, Chartres Cathedral! The drive through the French countryside was so beautiful. We stopped a few times along the way – of course to note the pharmacies and farm scenes – but also to take pictures of the beautiful vistas!
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres
As we approached Chartres, the cathedral loomed large and was an impressive sight. We could see it from miles and miles away! I had heard about this cathedral from my mom since I was a little girl. Its magnificence rivals Notre Dame de Paris, and the history of the place is remarkable. It is the best preserved “high point” of French Gothic art of the 12th century, with around 150 of the 175 original stained glass windows surviving its tumultuous history. During WWII, the windows were removed and stored around the French countryside to preserve and protect them from damage. Today the cathedral is undergoing ongoing restoration that allowed us to see an incredibly bright, clean interior and even more detail inside than ever before. It was a place we could’ve stayed all day long – but alas, we needed to get to Paris to return the car and check into our next apartment.
After another round of shopping – where mom picked up the first of her many music boxes that turned into our soundtrack of Paris – we had a delightful lunch and then hit the road for the long haul through Paris in the rain at rush hour! It may have taken us about 5 hours to get to our apartment when it should’ve taken under 3, but we made it, and crashed for the night, excited for a ambitious day touring Paris!
Knowing that our weather-related luck couldn’t last forever, we decided to take the last halfway decent day and do ALL THE THINGS (especially outside) on our first day in Paris. If it rained, we figured, then museums and indoor tours would be a good option for the following day. Luckily mom had done her research and made the best call of the trip – purchasing week-long Navigo transit cards (with our photos on it, for around $30) which covers unlimited airport trains, metro rides, Versailles trips and funiculars. The other invaluable pay-ahead deal she scored was the [2 day, $50] Paris Museums Pass, a must for people looking to bang out as many landmarks, museums and attractions as possible. We certainly got our money’s worth with both of those items!
So, with that, we bopped into the first little bakery we could find for a savory croissant and coffees and headed out to see how the great Notre Dame de Paris was doing after the tragic fire of April, 2019.
Notre Dame de Paris
We were so eager to see “Our Lady” that we kept thinking we spotted her when it was only Saint-Jacques Tower or some other looming tower. But it was quite clear when Notre Dame emerged from behind the surrounding buildings that she was still alive and looked (from the outside) better than ever! Restoration workers had already cleaned the entire front facade, and they were clearly working hard to rebuild the roof and any other damage that had been done by the fire. The windows still look great – but we couldn’t get any closer than the barricades to see her. They had a huge operation in place to take care of her as quickly as possible! I’m glad we got to see it even though it was from afar.
Nearby on the Île de la Cité stands one of the most stunnning wonders of stained glass – Sainte-Chapelle. It is located inside the Palais de la Cité, where French kings lived for 800 years. This relatively small, gorgeous Gothic chapel was built in the 12th century and served a significant purpose – to house the “Crown of Thorns” for King Louis IX of France. We walked up into the sanctuary of the chapel and were immediately surrounded by gilded lines, rich royal walls and colorful, glowing stained glass. This is the kind of place that makes a person look UP!
We walked back over the river towards the Louvre to get a glimpse of the courtyard in good weather before heading to the Musée D’Orsay. This was a museum I had missed on my previous trip to Paris so I was very excited! Ahhh the impressionists!
This amazing museum is built inside of a train station from the turn of the 20th century. It houses the largest collection of impressionist artwork in the world – and of course, the artists are mostly French! We took a solid 2 hours and split up, opting to seek out our favorite artworks and enjoy it at our own leisure. Here are some of my favorites: Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Signac, Serat, and Van Gogh.
These post-impressionist sculptures and murals showed amazing detail and such range of emotions…
These paintings were larger than life – and took up entire walls, 10-15′ high!
After a fulfilling tour through D’Orsay, we headed towards the Eiffel tower to have a little lunch. French onion soup, wine and escargots were in order! The entire walk we were serenaded by mom and her music box, to a little French song by Edith Piaf. So charming. And also, hilarious!! We got our first solid glimpse of la Tour Eiffel and rested our feet during lunch for more steps to come…
La Tour Eiffel
We made our way through the Champs de Mars and right away I noticed that things had changed a lot since fall of 1998! When I was a teenager, I will never forget laying down with my friend Ann directly underneath the Eiffel Tower at night and looking up at the glittering lights. It was one of my favorite memories! As we laid there, a huge crowd of people – on rollerblades, bikes, skateboards, scooters, and even unicycles – came hooting and hollering on their wheels through the city. It sounded like a big peaceful party; it overtook us under the Eiffel Tower and was over in a flash. We learned later that it was a weekly Paris tradition – but I can’t remember what it was called. Alas, it no longer exists, as the area has been well quartered off for safety reasons. Now you have to pass through two metal detectors and checkpoints to get near the Eiffel Tower and go up for a tour.
We stopped to snag a trio of berets – because we couldn’t possibly visit the Eiffel Tower without them? We also stopped for a few photo ops and for mom to play her music box for the street peddlers.
And of course, what would a trip up the Eiffel Tower be without a romantic toast to our trip together with ridiculously expensive champagne in light up souvenir flutes? (Thanks, Billi!)
It was definitely cold up there, but we enjoyed every minute of the great views and even better company! Eiffel Tower….CHECK!
A little snack of street crêpes and a walk to Trocadéro prepared us for the next stop…
Arc de Triomphe
We decided to squeeze in a quick trip up the Arc de Triomphe on our way back towards Montmartre, where our Paris apartment was. It was just our luck to be up there at sunset. Beautiful! That day we walked over 22,000 steps – over 10 miles. Every step was worth it!
We made it back to our apartment (such a great location near the base of Montmartre) and found a place to have dinner. We ended up at this great little restaurant called La Cave Gourmande, where the most adorable waitress and chef served up delicious beef beef bourguignon – a classic French dish. It was sooooo good! It’s easy to say we got the full French culinary experience!
That night I also did a little extra shopping with mom at the Montmartre shops before taking a quick trip up the funicular to see what was happening around Sacre Coeur, the “wedding cake” shaped cathedral that tops the hill. It was pretty dead, actually, with almost no artists or vendors in the Place du Tertre. We did, however, find ourselves in the middle of a service at the Sacre Coeur cathedral, so that was lovely! I stocked up on the most delicious dark chocolate covered coffee beans (my favorite!) and a delightful fresh assortment of macarons. Nous sommes Français!
After another good night’s sleep we awoke to our first full day of rain. We were prepared! We headed straight to the Musée du Louvre. There was already quite a line, so we waited under mom’s little umbrella while she played her music box and entertained folks. Inside, we grabbed breakfast at a cafe and made our game plan. We would split up and see as much as we possibly could in around 2 hours – which is easy to do solo…
Of course many visitors flock to the Louvre to see Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa…but my favorite by far is the Winged Victory, a statue without a head or arms that dates back to 200 B.C. An incredibly detailed sculpture – it’s hard to believe it sat on the bow of a ship! I also loved the many Renaissance-era paintings and incredibly ornate ceilings in each room. Several exhibits were closed (including most of the Egyptian room and the French crown jewels) but we got a great overall sense of this famous collection anyway. The most impressive room – that I had all to myself – was Napoleon Bonaparte III’s lavish apartment. So much detail and so well preserved!
Chateau de Versailles
It was still raining when we left the Louvre, so we figured – why not head out to the Palace of Versailles? It had started to spit snow by the time we arrived at Versailles, so we were grateful to finally be indoors after waiting in a very long line. It was simply too cold to even attempt to show Billi my favorite part of Versailles – Marie Antoinette’s “Hamlet” – but we certainly enjoyed touring the grand, extensive and historic rooms of the palace!
Listening to the audio guide reinvigorated our fascination with the time period of the French Kings (especially Louis XIII through Louis XVI) and I decided I wanted to dive back into all the historical fiction – especially anything related to Marie Antoinette! Napoleon is also a huge feature of Versailles, with his inflated sense of self-importance depicted in every portrait of himself, but my favorite Napoleon-era creation was the war room – a massive hall of paintings depicting all French historic battles from the time of the Huns. We all agreed our favorite place of the palace was the Hall of Mirrors. It was here the treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June, 1919 at the end of the Great War. It was as glittering and impressive as ever! Such a beautiful and worthwhile visit.
That night we enjoyed our last meal together over classic French fondue and – of course – escargots! A bit more shopping and another trip up to Montmartre with Billi capped the evening perfectly. I love the picture of mom below…I said, “do something French!”
Billi and mom flew out early the next day, and I had the morning to myself to wander around the Montmartre district. I had a lovely “classic” French breakfast at a cafe, went up the funicular to Sacre Coeur one last time, took a quick peek at Moulin Rouge, snuck in another nutella crêpe, and shopped around a bit before heading to the airport myself.
If I haven’t said it already, this trip was one for the books! Such a wonderful time shared with my two favorite women. Thanks for coming all the way to Europe to make memories with me … now, where to next?