A Cuppa Cosy Summer Holiday 2020 – Normandy, France

We spent a total of 2 ½ days in Normandy (including our to “travel days” to and from as we did things on those days). You’ll have seen my post devoted to Mont-Saint-Michel already (if not it’s HERE), but we did so much more in Normandy than that. Normandy has played such a role in World History being a landing site and the beginning of the Allied Forces taking charge during World War 2, however before that it was just…an area of France. The beaches that were stormed were just beaches and the area is absolutely gorgeous. During our time in Normandy, save for the Mont-Saint-Michel reprieve, we focused very heavily on World War 2 history. My husband had a long list of places that he wanted to see, and we managed to see most of them. Not only that, but our children were able to learn and understand what happened during that war, but I’ll get into that a bit later.

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After checking in to our hotel (we stayed at an Ibis in Port-en-Bessin-Huppain which I would recommend), we decided to just hit the ground running and head off to our first spot. It only felt right to pay homage and respect to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice before anything else, so we started at the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach.

The cemetery was originally a temporary American cemetery established in June 1944 and was the first American Cemetery on European Soil in the war. The cemetery has 9,385 graves, most of those who perished in the D-Day Landings and following operations, as well as a Walls of the Missing monument that contains 1,557 names. There is a visitor center within the cemetery, although this was closed due to Covid and there was also a path from the cemetery to the beach, but that closed due to security a few years back. You are able to walk the entire cemetery, through several different pathways (should you choose to walk along the beach side, the center, or the roadside), the wall of the missing, and the monument that details out the landings and invasion.

From the cemetery we went over to Point du Hoc. We wanted to make sure we were able to walk the area before it closed (as the locations with centers have opening and closing times, the beaches do not-you can walk those at any time), so we passed walking the beach until after. Pointe du Hoc is a little west of the center of Omaha Beach and a Ranger battalion was tasked with attacking and capturing the fortifications. Pointe du Hoc is a wall. A rock wall.

The Germans had a completed 4 casemates that housed guns, an observation bunker, and anti-aircraft guns.  The plan was to land by sea, scale the cliff and capture the area. There were quite a few problems that arose during the attack, a timing setback, the ladders weren’t long enough, and the second wave of soldiers did not get the flares in time and wound up landing on the beach rather than scaling the cliff. Now you are able to walk amongst the paths of the original fortifications and see the various gun mounts, observation deck, and bomb craters from World War 2. The site starts with a large plaque detailing what happened, and pointing out information before you start walking through the path. It ends at the monument to the battle.

We went to two beaches while we were in Normandy, Omaha and Utah Beach. I’m not going to go into all the history of what happened at the beaches as we should all have a basic understanding of D-Day and, quite honestly, there is so much information about the pre landings, landings, and ongoing battles afterward that it would be too much for this one post. However, I will do a brief rundown as to what we saw at each and a little comparison.

We went to Omaha Beach first.

Omaha Beach is probably the most “well known” of the beaches, the one that is featured in a lot of the films/movies, and the one that is talked about frequently. At Omaha Beach you are able to see the remains of the temporary harbor that was built after landing during low tide, as well as the memorial. The memorial is located at the center of the beach and features three independent sections. It was an incredible bit of time walking the same steps that a soldier might have taken.

Utah Beach was our second beach, visited on our second day, and it was another incredible experience.

Utah Beach was different from Omaha in that there was a lot more artifacts to explore. Utah Beach had one of the Huey Boats, had the anti-tank obstacles, had some tanks, and the museum also has airplanes and other items from D-Day. Our boys were able to have a much better understanding of what happened as they were able to see and visualize what it looked like.  It was something special to, once again stand there, but then see and wander through the various areas that…really haven’t changed in these 76 years.

After leaving Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey on our second day in the region, we headed over to the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Sainte-Mere-Eglise is one of the well-known towns from the various battles in France during World War 2. The town was under German control and the airborne paratroopers were to drop in the town during the night. What led was one of many firefights to liberate the French town. Over 3 days the Americans managed to maintain control of the bridges through the town, liberate, and continue to move forward. Sainte-Mere-Eglise is one of the French towns that continues to hold the American Military and the night of liberation in the highest esteem. The town is milestone 0 of The Freedom Path which is the path taken by Patton’s 3rd Army from Sainte-Mere-Eglise to Bastogne.

The Airborne Museum was born out of a desire to continue the memories of those who gave all and of that night that the town was liberated, and all of World War 2. This was one of those museums that you just have to visit. Beyond the typical artifacts and such that were used in the war (which were incredible) the museum has debuted an interactive iPad experience. They also offer a simulated jump experience that replicates what it would have been like to jump during World War 2 as well as what the ensuing battle would have been like. Excellent for both kids and adults as it’s a bit tamer than some of the other WW2 museums we went to (like Bastogne…but that’s another post).

The final place we went to on our final morning in Normandy was Longues-sur-Mer battery.

This is a World War 2 German artillery battery that is still relatively intact. On another cliffside, this battery is between Omaha and Gold Beaches. This is the ONLY battery in Normandy to retain all the original guns in their original positions. Walking the path, you are able to see the 4 casemates and the observation tower all fully intact, as well as walk through the guns in the casemates. I don’t think we could have picked a better spot to end our time in Normandy as this was just…incredible. To see the guns in the places they would have been, the cliffside as it was, the debris in the water, the view from the observation tower…there are no words.

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And on that note, we drove out of Normandy and over to Belgium.

A Cuppa Cosy Summer Holiday 2020 – Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey

I’m going to start our time in the Normandy Region off with our visit to the Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey. It wasn’t the first thing we did, BUT it was one (in a long list) of the most incredible things we visited. Our entire time in Normandy was full of incredible places, both in happy and heartbreaking times. 

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I’ll be honest- I’m going to give a brief rundown of the history of the abbey, a short breakdown of our visit, but I’m mostly going to just let the pictures speak for themselves in this post. It’s safe to say that this was hands down my favorite place we saw on our entire summer holiday. A place that I’ve heard about so many times, is featured on so many bucket lists, a place that you can only dream about, and a place that I can now say that I’ve been to and it doesn’t disappoint. 

Mont-Saint-Michel dates back to the 1st century (708 to be exact) when a bishop had a sanctuary built on the Mont-Tombe. This mount soon became a sacred point of pilgrimage and in the 10th century a group of Benedictines settled in the abbey. The village outside the abbey grew larger until it reached the edges of the rock island it is located on. Of course, the abbey hasn’t only been used as a religious spot, it was also used as a prison the in the 19th century. During that time, it was known as the “Bastille of the sea”. Finally, in 1874 it was classified as a historic monument and restoration work was able to begin. Restoration work is regularly done to continue to keep the abbey in the state it would have been during the Middle Ages and in 1979 it became the first property in France to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. The abbey is still, of course, in active use today as a religious site. 

 

An interesting note to make about the architecture (before I get into our visit) is that the concept of the abbey had to be somewhat redesigned to accommodate the pyramid nature of the rock. This makes it entirely unique; unlike any other monastery. The church stands on various crypts and a platform so that the church itself doesn’t collapse. The concept applied in order to make sure the entire abbey stood and stayed were relatively new and unheard of at the time as it met both the constraints for the monks as well as the constraints placed by the land itself. Walking through the tour you are able to see how this was done and where various platforms and load bearing spots are. 

Like I’ve already mentioned, I think this was one of the spots that I was most in awe and will never forget (like most of the Normandy portion of our trip). From walking the path to the bridge to cross the water, to walking through the tight alleyways with the shops and restaurants out to get your business (it’s not nearly as sinister as it sounds- promise), climbing up the rock until it opens up to the abbey itself was a memorable experience. The view from the uppermost point is the most incredible view, you really get the sense of isolation it could have been (as – at the time – it was only accessible at low tide). The abbey itself is an incredible feat. The architecture aside, the sheer beauty of the church, the intertangling yet separation of the various spots within the abbey was really neat to see. You are also able to see one spot that is an homage to the buildings use as a prison. 

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To be honest, we spent way too long contemplating if we would actually go. It was one of those situations where we would probably not ever get *this close* again, but it was just a bit too far. We didn’t know how long we would spend there and it was across the peninsula from us. The morning we decided to go it was a spur of the moment let’s just do it and have no regrets…and I’ll be honest- it was well worth it. The drive to the abbey is gorgeous, meandering through the French countryside and then along the shoreline leading up. The parking wasn’t bad at all (we did get there early thought), and the crowds were less than what I was expecting (but still more than we had seen previous). We only stayed for a couple hours at most before heading out, but those were hours very well spent. 

 

In terms of Covid and general tips…

I would purchase your ticket online, park, and then walk the path to the Abbey rather than take the bus (take the bus after your visit). The walk isn’t long and it’s stunning to see the rocky island get larger and larger in front of you as you get closer. We went mid-morning (our tour was around 11:30-45 I believe) and it wasn’t that bad. The shops are fun to look into and walking through all the little back alleys was neat. You get a real gist of what it would have been like to live there. They do require masks at all times once you enter in the abbey and the tour is, as many others, a very strict one-way tour. There is also an option to rent a room and stay overnight on the island (which I kind of wish we had done, but it’s totally ok). If you choose to just go for a day, I would plan on spending a few hours on the actual island. 

A Cuppa Cosy Summer Holiday 2020 – Paris pt. 2

There is a word derived from French, flaneur, and it means to stroll and observe; which is basically what we spent our second day in Paris doing. If our first day was spent dotting from here to there, hopping off and on public transport and staying on more of the Notre Dame side of things (read about it HERE), our second day was spent truly walking the streets of Paris. We utilized public transport twice, once heading in and then again heading back out. So, what did we do?

We started our day off at Hotel national des Invalides, or The National Residence of the Invalids. This building has several different facets, but it’s original use was as a military hospital and retirement home for war veterans. It also holds a large church with the tallest dome in Paris and the tombs of some very notable war heroes (we will break this down in a bit, but <cough, cough> Napoleon <cough, cough>).

The original project was commissioned by Louis XIV in the 17th century and it has some key history beyond just serving as a military hospital. During the French Revolution it was stormed by rioters and used against the Bastille, it also served as an important spot in the degradation, and then rehabilitation, of Captain Alfred Dreyfus (which I am just now learning about?!), and holds the sarcophagus of Napoleon Bonaparte. Of course, Napoleon is not the only Frenchmen interred in the dome, there is an exhaustive list of tombs, vaults, and hearts that are in Les Invalides. 

These days the property not only serves as a facility for veterans (it still holds a medical and rehabilitation center), but it also serves as a museum center with museums detailing war history as well as an archive center for the 20th century archives. The complex is massive, and we spent a few hours walking through all of the sections. The amount of compiled information just in the museum portion is a lot and spans not just French history, but quite a few other countries as well. They’ve got a lot of little models of battlefields and battles that our boys enjoyed. The church and dome are also quite grand and incredible in their own ways and of course, the tomb of Napoleon is front and center. 

From the Hotel des Invalides we walked over to the Eiffel Tower. We chose to simply walk as the distance is not that far and it’s an easy route (you just keep the tower in your sights…). It was actually a really nice walk that allowed us to see a bit more of the Paris architecture (that is different from the countryside in my opinion). 

So, the Eiffel Tower. Constructed in the late 19th century for the 1889 World’s Fair, it “towers” over Paris at 324 meters tall. I feel like it should be noted that this particular World’s Fair was held to celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution. As with the Louvre Pyramid, there were objectors on several fronts (although the Eiffel Tower massively predates the Louvre Pyramid- HERE). The two popular counter arguments to the Tower were those who objected on aesthetic grounds and those that did not believe that such a tower could be constructed. Gustave Eiffel fought back, had powerful people behind him, and so the tower went ahead. The tower has a storied history, but survived both World Wars (narrowly in the second as Hitler did order it to be destroyed) and still stands today. There are three platforms with the third being at the very top. We were not able to go up to the third due to Coronavirus, and ended up choosing not to participate in going in the Eiffel Tower at all. Instead, we walked “under” (really beside it), across the Pont D’lena bridge and over to the Trocardie Gardens for a view of the full tower. We didn’t linger to long, partly because you can see the Eiffel Tower from any viewpoint on this side of the city of Paris, choosing instead to head over to our next stop of the day. 

From the Eiffel Tower we walked along towards the Arc de Triomphe. The route that we ended up walking allowed us to see a bit more of the “white collar” business side of Paris (I say white collar very lightly) as well as a part of their embassy section. It wasn’t a bad walk and before long we were right at the Arc. 

Commissioned by Napoleon towards the beginning of the 19th century, the Arc de Triomphe is a tribute to the armies of the Revolution and the French Empire. Napoleon really liked Roman antiquity (and you see this theme in quite a few of the buildings he commissioned) so there are a lot of similarities between this arc and those in the Roman Forum. It was placed in a central point of the city, with the Emperors residence at one end of the walkway (now the Avenue des Champs-Elysees) and became a central point for numerous roads leaving from the arc (did that make any sense?). Construction on the Arc was quite start and stop, however once completed it became a rallying spot for the French Army and is home to several large military parades and demonstrations. In 1920 the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was interred beneath the Arc and the first eternal flame in Western/Eastern Europe since the Vestal Virgins was lit. There are a lot of architectural details and war history carved into the Arc and you are able to go to the top of the Arc and see the expanse of Paris. We declined to do so, but wandered around the base reading the names and paying our respects to their tomb. 

From there we wandered down the Avenue des Champs-Elysees which was open to foot traffic (not vehicular). The Champs-Elysees is an avenue that runs from the public square of the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe. It is home to luxury stores and boutiques as well as military parades and other major events. Originally called the Grand Promenade it was originally an extension of the Tuileries Garden and the Tuileries Palace. It quickly was extended (several times) and then became home to townhouses of the nobility before finally, much much later in history (not entirely- right around the 1860’s) settling to the shopping center it has become. The avenue is not only famous for its shopping, but also for its military parades. The Germans had two victory parades, but the most joyous were of the parades of the French and American forces after liberating the city. While we didn’t do any magical, high end shopping, we did stop for dinner on the avenue and treated ourselves to a nice little feast before continuing on. 

We wandered over towards the Grand and Petite Palais on Winston Churchill Avenue. The Grand Palais is an exhibition hall and museum dating back to the late 19th century. It is dedicated and intended for the arts and showcased objects innovation and modern technology (think planes, automobiles, household goods). During World War 1 it was used as a war hospital and during World War 2 it was used (by the Germans) as a truck depot and propaganda center. The Petit Palais is directly across the avenue and is an art museum and dates back to the 1900 World’s Fair. 

From there we walked across Pont Alexander III Bridge, which was built to connect the Champs-Elysees with the Hotel des Invalides and Eiffel Tower. Named after the Tsar Alexander III it was commissioned and built in the late 19th century. It is the most ornate and extravagant bridge in the city and boasts incredible views- from one side the Grand Palais, the other the Hotel des Invalides and out towards the water you see the Eiffel Tower. 

And that concludes our time in Paris!