Tag Archives: France

“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

I had not been a Francophile for many years, since Parisians in particular had been well-known for their supposed rude treatment of American visitors to their fine city. However, I have to agree with Thomas Jefferson in his assessment of Paris’ many virtues, and for this reason, I felt my son needed to experience the city firsthand. So, after our short three day visit to Normandy (summarized in my post And What A Plan!), my son and I headed our rental car back south toward the City of Light. While the drive back toward Paris was tranquil and pleasant and I’m a very confident driver, after having to maneuver through the eight or so chaotic lanes – if you can call those haphazard things “lanes” –  of the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile Roundabout upon our return to Parisian city limits, I was thrilled to bits to return the rental car in favor of Paris’s convenient (and much less frightening) public transit system.

During our stay in Paris, the Hilton Arc de Triomphe (which is apparently no longer a Hilton brand hotel) was our base camp. I typically prefer boutique hotels which convey the flavor of my surroundings, but I’ll opt for a Hilton chain hotel on occasion when my reward points warrant use. While the Hilton didn’t have the same cozy ambiance of some of the small private hotels I’ve visited, the location was stellar and the hotel did provide comfortable, well-appointed lodging for Devan and me, along with an expansive breakfast buffet which Devan devoured daily to fuel up for our full days exploring the city.

The Unknown Soldier At The Base Of The Arc De Triomphe
The Unknown Soldier  Memorial At The Base Of The Arc De Triomphe
Avenue des Champs-Élysées
Avenue des Champs-Élysées

Devan and I wandered and traversed the city to take in many of the fantastic museums Paris has to offer including Musée de l’Orangerie, Musée Rodin, Musée de l’Armée, Cité de la Musique, Musée des égoûts de Paris and of course Musée du Louvre. There was not nearly enough time in our week long stay to spend enough time in any of the museums we visited or to visit many of the museums that would also have been enjoyable. We spent a good portion of one day exclusively in the Louvre, and, being exhausted from our hike around the many galleries, I suggested to my son that we head out. At 16 years old, he was enjoying the exhibits so much that he asked to stay longer to visit the Napoleon Apartments which we hadn’t yet seen.

Thinkers at Musée Rodin Paris
A couple of Thinkers at Musée Rodin Paris
La tour Eiffel, Paris
La tour Eiffel (obviously)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We broke up some of the standard sites with some diversions such as a night time Segway tour of the city, which offered a different perspective of Paris at night and was knowledgeably led by a French history major who was able to expound upon historic details regarding each of the stops along the tour.  Another day during our stay in Paris, we took a break from hoofing it around and about the city on a Seine River cruise; touristic river cruises in many cities provide such an amazing vantage point that is often missed on terrestrial only sightseeing itineraries. A couple of the museums on our agenda, Cité de la Musique and Musée des égoûts de Paris, were two of what I’d guess would be some of the lesser known or visited museums in Paris. My son, being a talented musician had an interest in the music museum (located toward the northeast outskirts of the city), and my son and I, both enjoying seeing some unusual points of interest, found the the sewer museum to be a nice (if not the best smelling) departure from the typical sightseeing stops.

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris
Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris

Of course, we were obligated to take in the incredible architecture of the numerous churches and cathedrals lacing the city. Notre Dame was spectacular as expected, inside and out, as was the Basilique Sacré-Coeur of Montmartre, along with too many other churches and cathedrals to mention or even remember by name after the passing of more than four years. We happened to be in Paris for Easter since our visit was during my son’s spring break from high school, and as such we found our way to the American Cathedral in Paris for a memorable and meaningful Easter Day service. We of course managed our way to see the usual suspects – the Eiffel Tour, The Arc de Triomphe, Palais Garnier – Opera National de Paris, the Panthéon and the like; but we also just ambled our way through the city to soak up the atmosphere via the city squares, parks, bridges, districts, gardens and streets themselves. We did manage to squeeze a day trip via train to Versailles, since the palace and gardens were not to be missed. While it was cold and rainy on the day of our trip to Versailles, the weather didn’t detract from Versailles’ splendor.

 Palais de Versailles
Gloomy day at Palais de Versailles

Per common knowledge and living up to its reputation, Parisian fare is worth a trip to France just for dining’s sake. During our wanderings through Paris, Devan and I sampled crepes (leading to my son’s Nutella addiction), fresh breads, rich cheeses, light macarons, delectable pastries and too many exquisite French cuisine delights for our own good. All of our meals and snacks in Paris were notable as were the historical and beautiful sites we visited, but one of my favorite memories of the trip is of the kind treatment bestowed upon us by so many of the locals. While studying our map of Père Lachaise Cemetery in our quest to find the graves of Jim Morrison and Chopin, an elderly gentleman approached Devan and me asking if he could help us find something. We told him which graves we wanted to visit, but that we had a map to lead our way. He insisted on accompanying us to each, saying we’d have a difficult time even with the map. Other travelers have managed unguided, so I was wondering if he thought Devan and I didn’t look to be all that bright. 🙂 BUT, we accepted his gracious offer to guide us to visit Morrison and Chopin and were regaled with his vast knowledge of the cemetery and Paris in general. He also asked if we had anything else on our itinerary that he could help us find. After he led us to Jim Morrison’s and Chopin’s resting places, the kind gentleman pointed us in the direction of the music museum. This encounter was not our sole experience with unsolicited kindness of locals in Paris. Another day while consulting our handy dandy attraction maps, we were again approached by a Parisian offering to help direct us to our destination of the catacombs. Devan and I actually enjoy the opportunity to roam and take a few wrong turns (time permitting, of course) as we explore our vacation destinations, but we also have been extremely fortunate to be confronted with kindness, rather than the hostility we so often hear about during others’ travel escapades. I can only hope that we’ll be lucky enough to have these same types of positive experiences during our upcoming venture to Prague, Vienna and Budapest!

Palais Royal Columns, Paris
Interesting monument topper at Palais Royal

 

“And what a plan! This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever occurred.” — Winston Churchill

Because of my penchant for over-planning and -researching in preparation for my trips, one might think that Winston Churchill’s above quote may very well have been referring to my oft intensive travel itineraries.  While I wish that I’d ever accomplished anything worthy of recognition by Churchill’s insightful wisdom, the British Prime Minister was  obviously referring to D-Day and Operation Overlord’s invasion of Normandy in an effort to liberate Europe from Nazi rule.  This quote came to mind as I reflected upon my 2010 trip to France with my son. As I was planning a vacation during my son’s spring break from school, I had absolutely no idea where I wanted to take my son, other than France, but for some time, I had an aversion to visiting France since all you ever heard about was the anti-American sentiment of the French as well as rude treatment of American tourists visiting France. This bum rap (addressed in my post Americans Really Can Be Ugly) inflicted upon the citizenry of France in the end did not deter me from my desire to experience the history of Normandy and ultimately the culture of Paris as well with my son Devan. Having had a short port stop in Nice the year prior, with no incident of rude treatment by the locals in the Côte d’Azur, I decided to take a chance to return to Normandy and Paris for the first time since I was a young girl so that I could share the experience with my son.

Buffalo Grill, Normandy, France
With all of the amazing cuisine accessible in France, Devan insisted upon a burger at the Buffalo Grill
Normandy Church
One of the lovely churches we passed along the way to Bayeux from Paris

Our itinerary with our limited 10 days’ time to visit Normandy and Paris ended up being split with 3 days in Normandy and 7 days in Paris, neither time frame being nearly sufficient to take in all that these areas of France have to offer. Upon commencement of the research phase, I labored over the decision of taking a train to Caen in Normandy vs. making the trip north via rental car. While the train offered the benefit of my being able to rest and take in the scenery after the long flight (especially since I don’t sleep on planes more than a blink and since we were landing at 7 am with a full day ahead of us), I eventually settled on renting a car to allow me to follow the precedent my dad set of embracing the ability to wheel off the intended path toward our destination to explore interesting things we stumble across along our way. This turned out to be the absolute right decision, as so many off-the-beaten path sites and sights would not have been possible to reach without a car to afford us the necessary flexibility.

Le Mont St. Michel from Avranches
Le Mont St. Michel from Avranches
Bayeux Cathedral
Bayeux Cathedral

What should have been a 3 hour drive north took us closer to 5 hours, since I prefer to avoid expressways in favor of highways to help us avoid the pitfall of speeding past points of interest and offer us the ability to amble through quaint non-touristy towns most travelers don’t take the opportunity to visit.  After stops in Evreux and some other towns whose names I no longer recall to sample our first (but certainly not last) croque monsieurs and macarons of the trip, we finally arrived at our initial destination of Bayeux where we’d be catching a small private Battlebus tour. While I typically veer away from taking guided tours, I opted for the tour of the American Beaches to allow Devan and me the opportunity to focus on the history, rather than splitting our energies and attention between navigation and reading about the history as we visited each of the monumental locations on our agenda. I have no regrets regarding taking the tour, as being able to hear an expert’s explanation of each of the stops on the tour including  Angoville au Plain, Sainte-Mère-Église, Utah Beach,  Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, and the D-Day Museum at Caen allowed us to absorb our surroundings and the wealth of history he imparted upon us.

tained Glass at Angoville au Plain church
Stained glass window at Angoville au Plain honoring the Paratroopers who liberated the town
American Cemetery in Normandy
The American Cemetery in Normandy provides a visual that inspires awe, respect and reverence.
2000 pound bomb crater, Pointe du Hoc
A boy in a 2000 pound bomb crater at Pointe du Hoc

While I’m most certainly not the most emotional person in the world, very little I’ve experienced in life not relating to my son or father has moved me the way that Devan’s and my time in Normandy overwhelmed me with emotion coupled with a pure sense of solemnity and reverence. Standing on Bloody Omaha and hearing our guide describe how the Nazis situated the Widerstandsnests with such precision and strategy that the American soldiers hitting the beach on D-Day had the odds severely stacked against them. Hearing about Paratrooper John Steele’s ordeal after getting his parachute caught on the spire of the church at Sainte-Mère-Église and learning of the two young Army medics who used the church in Angoville au Plain as an aide station to treat injured American and German soldiers as well as a child injured in the melee while standing in the locations where events shaped the history of the world as we know it was moving and memorable in a life-altering way that eternally affects your perception of history and the world. Standing amongst the hedgerows that complicated the movement of Allied soldiers, seeing the bomb-scarred moonscape of Pointe du Hoc, witnessing firsthand the blood stained pews of the church at Sainte-Mère-Église and wandering through the American Cemetery at Normandy’s row after row of grave markers of heroes  who lost their lives in a quest to liberate Europe were just some of the awe-inspiring moments that are indelibly marked in my heart and mind.

Bloody Omaha Beach, Normandy
Standing on Bloody Omaha Beach and visualizing what transpired there evoked emotion rarely experienced.
Utah Beach, Normandy
The ominous sky over Utah Beach seemed fitting.

The entire visit to Normandy was not filled with emotion and heavy hearted history. Devan and I did complement that memorable part of the visit to Normandy with lighter, yet also memorable moments and typical sightseeing. We visited the Bayeux Cathedral, saw the ancient Bayeux Tapestry and wandered the town to take in the local flavor and atmosphere. We stayed in a quaint hotel called Reine Mathilde, which was not fancy by any stretch of the imagination, but was run by welcoming staff who were as kind and helpful as all of the locals we encountered during our time in Normandy. We then headed toward Le Mont St. Michel, making a few unscheduled stops along the way. We found ourselves in the hilltop town of Avranches with its lovely botanical garden and spectacular view of Le Mont St. Michel. We spent our last night in Normandy on the Mont and wandered the cobbled streets, roamed the abbey and climbed our way around the perimeter of the colossal structure as the tides rolled in, separating Le Mont St. Michel from the mainland until the next morning when the tide subsided again.  Le Mont St. Michel lit up on a peaceful night was a sight to behold. Truly amazing.

Learning to drive stick shift in Normandy
Please don’t tell the unnamed rental car company that I taught my 16 year old to drive a manual transmission during our trip to Normandy. Not too many kids have this view whilst learning to manipulate a 5-speed!
Climbing Le Mont St. Michel
Climbing Le Mont St. Michel

Our three days in Normandy were action packed, but not nearly enough time to embrace the many, many towns, sights and experiences that Normandy has to offer. I hope to make it back to this beautiful region again one day to have the opportunity to take in a bit more of the myriad splendors of this incredible part of France. I’ve visited many places that I recommend to others. Very few of them, however, would be numbered (in my humble opinion) as a destination you MUST make an effort to visit, as I believe Normandy should be on the tip top of every traveler’s list.

The Buddy System

VW bus in Europe
Just found this photo and was surprised since I have no recollection of my brother and me getting along well enough on trips for us to share one of the bench seats in the VW buses my dad used to rent in Europe (so that we’d have a whole row of seating to ourselves)

Looking back at my early travels, I never realized how important a decision it is to pick the “right” travel mates. As children, my brother and I were by default part of our parents’ little travel posse, which provided an amazing introduction to the world of travel and adventure.  When I was engaged in my younger years, I traveled a bit with my now ex-fiance, which was a mixed bag, since parts of our travel experience were enjoyable; others, not so much, for a variety of reasons.

Juneau, Alaska
With my son in Juneau, Alaska, during a port stop on an Alaskan cruise (2010)
Tour Eiffel, Paris, France
Devan and me, obviously, at Tour Eiffel in Paris, France (2010)
Templo de Debod, Madrid, Spain
My son and me at Templo de Debod in Madrid, Spain (2009)
Seattle, Washington
Devan and me visiting my friend David in Seattle, Washington (2010)
Diamond Head, Honolulu, Hawaii
Atop Diamond Head with Devan (2013)
Waiʻanapanapa State Park, Maui, Hawaii
Devan and me at Waiʻanapanapa State Park, Maui (2007)
Air Force Academy Chapel, Colorado Springs, Colorado
With Devan at the Air Force Academy Chapel in Colorado, Springs, CO (2006)
Füssen, Bavaria, Germany
Devan’s first trip to Europe – Füssen, Germany (2005)
Las Vegas, Nevada
Las Vegas, Nevada, with my Grandma (2004)
Fort Myers, Florida
Mini-vacation in Fort Myers, Florida, for Devan’s karate tournament (2004)

In more recent history, my main travel companion was my son Devan who accompanied me on a variety of domestic and international vacations. Devan spoiled me, as he was a travel buddy extraordinaire (which shouldn’t have been surprising, since he’s a son extraordinaire). After some recent travels with friends who (I learned) were not of the same travel mindset as me, I had to ask myself, “What made my son the perfect travel buddy for me?” What makes Devan such a wonderful travel companion is a conglomeration of factors. Firstly, Devan is incredibly intelligent, and, as such, his natural curiosity about the world, even from a very early age, made him interested in culture, new sights and discovering what else existed beyond the suburban microcosm of our every day lives. He loves learning, so participating as navigator and map reader was not a chore for him, since he relished the opportunity to utilize his deductive reasoning and critical thinking skills. As an example, he would often grab the transit map we were using to muddle our way through a city and make it his responsibility to determine which line, platform, etc. we needed to get to our next destination. But overall, he was always open to exploring and was never intimidated to forge ahead into the unknown on our way to our next destination or experience.

My son is also incredibly cool, calm and collected, so very little rattles him; such composure is an invaluable trait, since travel-by-fire frequently leads you to unexpected places. If things didn’t go the way we planned, he would roll with the punches and would patiently and pragmatically help me decide how to optimize whatever situation we found ourselves in. Devan, like me , is also adventurous (probably more so), so he was always game to find a new activity to try, whether it was zip lining in Ketchikan, going horseback riding down a precarious mountainside outside Las Vegas, snowmobiling along the Continental Divide, learning to ski in the Austrian Alps or sky diving to take in the view of Oahu from an altitude 12,000 feet.   Devan is also multifaceted, so he not only enjoys action packed activities, he also could appreciate meandering through cities to take in the architecture, visiting the Louvre, the Prado or Accademia to experience the work of The Masters or just sitting in a public square to people watch and absorb the energy of a city, while sampling a snack from one of the local proprietors. My son is also not shy, so he was never hesitant to try out his limited German (or other language indigenous to our destination) to ask someone where the train station was or how much something cost. Devan was also ready to offer his input about what he would enjoy doing, but was also accommodating to allow me to enjoy shopping in a few more stores than he would have liked.

At risk of this post turning into an homage to my son, of which he is most certainly worthy both as son and travel buddy….. It bears stating that Devan exemplifies the epitome of what makes for in ideal travel companion, at least for me, but likely in any case. Not every travel buddy needs to be as “perfect” a fit, but there has to be a level of symbiosis to your travel styles and objectives. Thus, many considerations should be pondered in selecting travel companions, as the company you keep can profoundly affect your experience. Here are a few things that might be prudent to ponder and discuss prior to embarking with a new travel mate for the first time.

  1. Outline the objectives of the trip. Do you have the same goals? (e.g. seeing as many sights as possible, having plenty of time to linger and relax, trying new activities, sampling local cuisine)
  2. Discuss modes of transport. Do you each like to hoof it to stay active and to allow ability to roam and wander? Are you OK with various modes of public transport, such as bus, subway or train to save money and/or have the local experience, or do you prefer to take taxis for convenience?
  3. Define your schedules. Are you an early riser so you can maximize your exploration time? Or do you like to sleep in after a late night on the town? Do you have lots of energy to keep going from sun up until late night, or do you need to take a siesta and nap to gear up for late day sight seeing?
  4. Review in detail what your destination entails. Will there be tons of crowds? Is the location known for being rife with gypsies or locals who badger and bully tourists into paying for unsolicited goods or services? Does special caution need to be taken to avert the attention of pickpockets? Will you have to amble along cobblestone roads, ascend staircases or lug suitcases if transport can’t drop you at your hotel doorstep?
  5. Discuss interest sets. Does one of you like to visit as many churches and cathedrals as possible to see the ornate details? Is shopping and souvenir gathering top on your list? Do you love art and plan to spend as much time in museums of all varieties while you’re trekking the globe? Does it matter to you whether you take time for fine dining or do you prefer to grab a meal from a sidewalk cafe or bakery and eat on the run as you head to your next point on interest? Are sports venues a priority to work into your schedule, or are you more interested in seeing the wonders of nature?
  6. Set expectations. Does one of you have something specific in mind to do or as a way of doing things? Or, does one of the travel group have something specific in mind NOT to do or as a way of doing things?
Venice, Italy
Jen and me in Venice (2009)
New York City, New York
Traveling in a group presents its own set of challenges, but can be fun (DBGB Kitchen, New York, NY, 2012)
Austin, Texas
My friend Suzanne and me in Austin, Texas (2013)
Carnival Liberty, Western Caribbean Cruise
Exotic Western Caribbean Cruise with my friend Sandy (2013)

Surely, there are many considerations to take into account prior to hitting the road with a friend whose travel preferences are a wild card. Sometimes, you won’t find out that your travel styles don’t mesh well until your’re a country or two into your journey. All you can do at that point is suck it up and hope your travel buddy has a willingness to compromise, or if that isn’t possible, sometimes it’s best to part ways and enjoy some wandering travels solo for a little while…..