Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Normandy Express

NOTE: This blog is going back to last August as we were nearing the finish of Senior Nomads Round II. Many things have happened since then - some I have written about, but I didn't want this important part of our journey to go undocumented!

After our family gathering in Brittany last August, Michael and I had an additional week to spend with our 35 year old daughter Kelly. We had nostalgic visions of a pleasant family road trip along the coast of France to visit the World War II sites.  Memory has a way of blurring the bad bits, and if we all admit it, there were really very few pleasant family road trips.  Oh, there might have been moments where everyone was playing "Slug Bug" or telling fart jokes, or sleeping (not the driver of course), but road trips with our young children were taken well ahead of minivans with movies or the current device-for-every-child trend. Let's just say we went back in time 25 years and Michael snapped more than once "Listen you two" (that would be Kelly and I) "If I have to pull over you won't like the consequences!"

The team! Kelly Chief Navigator,  me Snack Mom, and Dad the Driver.
Our plans included a drive along the coast to the medieval city of Dinan with a three night stay in a converted barn in the nearby village of Pleudihen sur Rance. That would be base camp for day trips to St. Malo and and St. Michele before making our way to Caen for two nights. From there we would explore the World War II memorials and D-Day beaches.

Finding our way on the small back roads proved challenging - but rewarding.
With Kelly and I both glued to our iPhones using separate GPS map programs  set to navigate the French countryside we hit the road.  Of course we had conflicting ideas on the perfect route, and that led to some "my way is better than your way" moments - but our trusty driver reached back to early parenting skills and got the job done despite our squabbling. For all future travel after day one we designated Kelly as the official navigator. My job was to provide snacks, enjoy the scenery and do my best to stay out of any negotiations around how to find a small farmhouse in the dark in the dense Normandy countryside. Ommmm. Here's a link to our farmhouse airbnb: https://www.airbnb.com.mt/users/show/10580871

My mistake was not stocking up on snacks and basics for our first night before leaving Quiberon Sunday morning. I knew better - I guess I just got flustered around three families heading in four directions and did they have snacks? A rookie mistake for  this Senior Nomad. In France, especially outside of big cities, large grocery stores are only open until 1:00 if at all, and restaurants and other shops are definitely closed. We had a hard time finding lunch on the road, but finally diverted into a very small village and thankfully found a bar serving sandwiches. And an an amazing 16th century cathederal. 
Our airbnb farmhouse was warm and comfortable.
Our rural retreat was cozy and it came with a friendly goat  pegged to a tether just outside our door. Our host kindly provided a bottle of local cider and breakfast fixings, and we dined on crepes for dinner at the only restaurant that was open in the tiny village. The place was packed of course, so that made for great atmosphere, and luckily the food was outstanding. All in all, a good day.

The lovely Kelly Anne taking a break from her navigating assignments.
Early the next morning I walked a mile into the village and bought proper travel snacks for the day's journey. We were headed to Dinan, but because our host suggested a side trip we discovered the picture-perfect village of Saint-Suliac. We would have missed this harbor-side village otherwise, and it was very special. It is rated as a Beau Village of France (a top honor for the most beautiful villages in the country) and the designation was well deserved.

It was a beautiful day in the popular village of Saint-Suliac.
After a full compliment of pastries (over and above car snacks) we were on to Dinan where we explored the castle and the winding narrow streets of the old town. The waddle and daub houses leaned precariously over the lanes and you could truly picture life here three hundred years ago. Luckily you didn't have to smell life 300 years ago since waste of every kind was tossed to the street with a shout of something like "incoming".  Instead you can buy expensive souvenirs and in our case, have ice cream for lunch.

Dinan showed off  beautiful buildings and ancient stone walls around every corner.
We taught Kelly our rules around Gelato. It can be breakfast, lunch or dinner!
The next day we headed to St. Malo. If you've read the popular book All the Light we Cannot See
you'll know a majority of the book takes place there. With every twist and turn within the city I could experience that amazing narrative. After a "back to reality" pizza lunch we headed to St. Michele - the iconic monastery that sits off shore and is it's own majestic city on a rock.

Leaving the shuttle for the civilized walk to the top of the monastery on St. Michele.
A peek at the sea from the ramparts around the monastery.
We witnessed pilgrims wading knee deep in the slurping sand to reach the island from shore (we chose the brand new bridge). Inside the gates we pushed through the gauntlet of tourist traps and souvenir shops. Once we broke free and wound up the many, many stairs to the monastery at the top we were rewarded with an amazing vista across miles of sand and sea. Unfortunately we had arrived too late to tour the monastery itself, but we'd had such a rewarding day with a minimum of car wars that we treated ourselves to another lovely crepe dinner.

 A Rye flour crepe with a perfect farm fresh egg framed in the in the middle.
In anticipation of our visit to Omaha Beach, we re-watched the movie Saving Private Ryan. It had been many years since we'd seen it, and Kelly had never seen it. It was difficult to sits through the horrific opening scenes of the D-Day landings, but it set us up for the next two days.

Watching Saving Private Ryan was difficult - but a good set up for our D-Day excursions.
We arrived in Caen and found our Airbnb. It was nice, but nothing special, and Caen itself isn't really a destination city other than being home to the acclaimed World War II Memorial Museum. Our plan was to be sightseeing most of the time anyway, so we were set. We were fortunate to have great weather as well.

A 25 foot statue called "Unconditional Surrender" based on the famous kiss in Time Square on V-Day stands outside the World War II Memorial Museum in Caen.
Our first day was spent at the museum. This is not a place to see artifacts - it is dedicated to the history of the most violent and intensive conflict of the 20th Century and particularly World War II. The museum was officially opened on 6 June 1988 (the 44th anniversary of D day) by the French President Francois Mitterrand. The original building deals primarily with World War II, looking at the causes and course of the conflict. Well said Wikipedia. This was a perfect start to our journey.

Michael surrounded by some of the headstones overlooking Omaha Beach.
Standing on the actual soil and sand of the D-Day beaches and learning first hand of the events of those weeks during WWII is almost indescribable. I am so glad our travels brought us, and our daughter, to this hallowed ground.
The most fascinating story we heard detailed the allied ingenuity that built a man-made harbor in a matter of weeks on the shore at Arromanches out of derelict tankers and huge concrete slabs. This was one of the war's most strategic accomplishments in that men and materials could flow continuously onto French soil. Here's a link to a great article in Scientific American that explains it in detail:  http://tinyurl/qetzmft

Kelly and Michael outside the museum at Arromanches.
We were humbled by the sea of 9,387 white crosses punctuated with Stars of David at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer overlooking Omaha Beach. We had seen a lot that day, but Michael and I were compelled to bookmark our experience with a visit to the German Cemetery at La Cambre, about ten miles inland from the American burial grounds. It was a sharp contrast, but no less powerful. More than 21,000 soldiers are buried here - and while over 1 million visitors pay tribute to our soldiers - a small fraction of that visit this somber site. It was no less powerful and we left with heavy hearts for all the young men who's final resting place we visited that day.
The German Cemetery and Memorial was a good reminder that war is in fact, Hell.
It was time to head back to Paris - could we survive the car trip? We could, but our car could not.
For two days the check engine light had been glowing. On this last day it added the message, loosely translated, "get to a garage or risk implosion".

In the two and half years we have been on the move as Senior Nomads, we rarely move around behind the wheel. Our itineraries are built around staying in the center of each city and relying on public transportation to get us where we need to go. This road trip would be the only the third time we'd rented a car.  We rest our case.

We definitely didn't like the looks of this message!
We found the nearest Avis rental agency in Caen and they said we could probably make it to Paris. "Probably?" No thank you. So we switched to a new car - but not before the agency said we'd either need to find a gas station and fill our tank or pay double to have them fill it before we turned it in.  Wait. You want us to put gas in a car we are returning early because it is a potential death trap? Ah, the French.
Kelly saying goodbye to new friends in Paris.
We made it to Paris and Kelly did a great job of navigating the city streets and getting us to the rental return site. Not easy since it was down a narrow street with a sharp right down into the depths of a parking garage. There was not a soul in sight, just a few spaces marked Avis. We left the car and once above ground found the tiny office. We were happy and relieved to hand over the keys and get back on the trusty Parisian Metro!

We put Kelly on a plane back to Seattle the next day. It suddenly seemed very quiet without a constant stream of advice from our daughter as well as way too loud bouts of laughter; some tender moments; some scratchy moments and some very, very good times. Bless you Kelly.

Thanks for following along.

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads


  1. Imagine a City...

    Imagine a city where every home had on it's front lawn a piece of sculpture or an art installation.

    Imagine a city where each and every business invited artists to exhibit their work to the company's patrons.

    Imagine a city where instead of gifting clothing, electronics, chocolate, or cash, a work of art was given, and appreciated.

    Imagine a city where each and every home housed and preserved an art collection. Where insecurities over self-interests were dispensed with, and collections reflected those varied tastes.

    Imagine a city where glass, pottery, painting, photography. fibers, basketry, and even graffiti were embraced. Where the artists themselves were looked upon as a treasured resource. No matter their perspective.

    Imagine a city where any construction project involved multiple artists, in its' execution.

    Imagine a city which preserved its' creative heritage and embraced it.

    Imagine a city which understood, that capturing a slice of life had merit. But to alter a communities perspective to embrace all thought and belief, strengthened it, not weakened it.

    Imagine a city which led the World in cultural munificence which would then reap the reward of becoming a global mecca.

    Imagine a city which could step outside of what others were doing could walk the path of its' own making.

    Imagine a city where meetings to enact such change, needn't take place. Rather a spontaneous change came from its' citizenry itself.

    Imagine a city which artists flocked to; enabling them to create without fear of censorship or derision.

    Imagine a city not dependent upon their museums or art schools for their lead in any discussions of artistic merit, but rather the career artists themselves.

    I have imagined this city since childhood, as have most of my colleagues. Instead we've swum through muck, hoping such change would miraculously happen without distracting us from our labors. Or moved to the closest metropolis which appeared poised to take the plunge.

    Cleveland, like most cities, while not a blank canvas; is one, where the image it sports has faded beyond restoration. The time to paint over it has come. Shiny new unaesthetic buildings, are simply masking the rot.

    Marc Breed, Fine Artist

    "In the distant future, when America is a mere shadow of itself, who historically, shall be remembered? In sports, an argument can be made for Ruth, Chamberlain, Gretzky, Ali, et al. In Art, there is but one name, Breed."

    -Smithsonian Magazine

  2. Lovely, as always, and very truthful about the traveling-with-family parts--we can all identify with those moments. As it happens, I just finished reading All the Light We Cannot See, so it was wonderful to see some photos of that area of France.

  3. Thanks for the post. People who are really concerned about their next trip may take help from the detailed road maps and travel videos. In my last trip to Spain I took help from the Spain Road Map to find my way out there.

  4. How nice that your daughter got to join you!

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