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* NORMANDY – June 2007

Posted by Lew Weinstein on June 24, 2007

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NORMANDY – June 2007 …

Friday, June 15, 2007

When I returned the car in Perpignan (from our Nice trip), the train back to Collioure was 25 minutes late. This is very unusual, but later I learn the reason.

We had planned to leave on the 6:04 am train Monday morning, but the ticket clerk says the local train from Collioure to Perpignan (where we connect with the Paris train) probably won’t be running. We can hope the train runs, arrange a taxi to Perpignan, or take the Sunday night overnight train which is direct from Collioure to Paris.

I choose the overnight, but in seats rather than the sleeper, which we used last year and which is awful, and we get an earlier transfer to Rouen, so we’ll end up with more time on Monday to see the D-Day sights.

I use our Senior Carte to get the discounts, but learn that I should have booked the tickets sooner. The way it works is like airline miles, with a 50% discount for a limited number of tickets and a 25% discount after the 50% tickets are gone. I get a mix of 50% and 25% discounts, and the round trip is 279 euros.

For my second effort to derive driving directions from the Michelin site, I also have available to me the Michelin atlas that I bought on the way back from Caune-Minervois. I also make use of the “see detail map” options on the Michelin site which are available for each change of direction.

Perhaps this would have made the first experience less painful. When I get a chance, I’ll go back and re-look at those directions to see if I could have done better.

Checking the street map in Rouen, where we will stay one night on our way back from Normandy, I decide that the hotel I had chosen is not centrally located, find one that is, and cancel the first reservation.

While planning the next trip, I get an answer to the email I had sent to Boscolo, complaining about the lack of signage on their Nice hotel,  erroneously asserting that the name “Boscolo” is in fact displayed outside the hotel. I write back, really angry now, and include three photos which prove my case. So far, there is no answer to my second email.

Our terrace looks spectacular. The two storage boxes hold all of the pillows and other things that were cluttering our tiny apartment. The new umbrella, a yellow Provence design, sparks up one side of the terrace and the new green and yellow tile round table, sporting one of the small plants, is a delight.

Pat sends an email to Valerie that we have enough seating for our terrace could be a restaurant. All we need is a chef.

No one volunteers.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

On Sunday morning, we get a call from Peter the Tasmanian, and agree to meet Peter and Lyn at Café Sola at 5:00 pm for a drink. We get there early and Pat finds Geoffrey, Karin’s friend (Karin from Sweden who sent an email to our travel blog). Geoffrey is pleased to learn that Karin will be in Collioure on June 25.

Peter and Lyn arrive, and we learn a little about them and why they are in Collioure. They’re just back from Italy and on their way to Switzerland. We won’t see them again this year, since they won’t be back until Christmas, when we’ll be in Key West.

Peter says they’re working their way toward our life style, but, with a teenage daughter, they have a ways to go.

French trains provide a sequence of car numbers, corresponding to the reserved car number printed on your ticket, and these are displayed on a trackside “Composition” board, except that Collioure, being a small station, has no board. We try to guess where to stand so we’ll be near our car, because it can be difficult to go between cars after boarding, and you don’t get too long to board.

We’re excited to see a car number close to ours and get on; the next car is ours, and we find our reserved seats. They are recliner seats, so we are almost comfortable. We agree these are better than the sleeper compartments. Pat has packed a small pillow in her carry on bag, and a scarf for a blanket.

We both do get some sleep as the train pursues it’s leisurely passage to Paris. Leaving Collioure at 9:45pm, we arrive in Paris at 7:30 am, taking 10 hours for a trip which is accomplished in less than 6 hours during the day. But then we would have arrived at the uncivilized hour of 3:30 am.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Exiting at Paris Gare Austerlitz, we taxi to Paris Gare St. Lazare, about 20 minutes across the heart of Paris. There’s no place at St. Lazare to have the breakfast we had anticipated, but I get coffee.

Our train to Rouen takes an hour, and we taxi to the Budget location which is not at the station. We resolve to favor, from now on, car rental companies which are at the station. For this and other reasons, we’re beginning to re-think my choice of Budget as our car rental company.

The next hour provides much more reason to do so.

Our car is waiting for us. While doing the paperwork, I repeat that we are declining the collision insurance (covering damages to our rental car) since this coverage is provided by our Citibank MasterCard. I then say, offhandedly, that I understand the liability insurance (covering damage to other property and persons) is automatically included in French car rentals, which I have been told by Budget US when making the reservation.

The local Budget manager says this is not true, and if we want 3rd party liability insurance, it will cost 25 euros per day, 100 euros total for the 4 day rental. I protest, and ask him to call Budget in the US to resolve the question. Instead, he calls a friend of his who speaks better English, and after several interchanges between the friend, the manager, and me, he reluctantly agrees to call Budget’s main French office in Paris.

I explain the issue to the English speaking person, who says she thinks I am correct, but will check with her supervisor to be sure. She leaves me on hold so long I think we’re cut off, and I ask the local manager to call again.

Instead he calls the friend.

As you can imagine, this has taken a long time – we’ve now been waiting for 30 minutes with all these phone calls, and everyone is getting aggravated. Finally, the manager again calls Budget in Paris, and remarkably, I speak to the same woman, who tells me I’m correct, that 3rd party liability insurance is included in all French car rentals without separate charge.

So it’s now clear that the local Budget manager was trying to charge me 100 euros ($140.00) for something he knew, or should have known, I did not need.

OK, now to the car, which upon inspection, is filthy.

All that time on the phone, the manager did not see fit to make sure the car was cleaned. We wait another 15 minutes while the attendant cleans the inside of the car. By then, we say enough and decline the exterior cleaning.

A post script. When we return the car four days later, our charge sheet includes the CDW insurance we had specifically and explicitly declined, and some other charges. I’m furious. The desk clerk calls someone (the manager?) and the charges are removed. I get copies of both charge sheets so I can later document my complaint letter to Budget. We also decide to cancel all remaining Budget reservations (Ireland, Italy, Key West, etc, etc, and do business with another car rental company.

An aside. Getting there is always the most difficult part of any trip, but we’re learning some things to reduce the difficulty. One is to rent from a car company that has the cars at the train station. Budget did not meet this criterion at either Perpignan or Rouen, and here it cost us an added 30 minutes at each end, plus 17 euros cab fare.

Another aside. Michelin driving directions are impossible to follow as written, since the road signs that you actually see do not match what is stated in the directions. Perhaps GPS would be an improvement. We will explore that option as we seek a different car rental company.

The drive to Bayeux takes 1.5 hours, and we find the hotel without too much difficulty. Hotel d’Argouges is a family run B&B hotel with 28 rooms, set in its own grounds in the center of Bayeux, on the main street within easy walking distance of all restaurants, shops, and attractions.

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Our room is spacious, with a double bed and a single bed, and a large bathroom with a tub. It is adequately but not elegantly furnished. Wireless internet is available for 5 euros a night, a bargain.

Pat goes right to sleep, and I take a walk. Bayeux is a beautiful town, one of only two towns in Normandy (Honfleur is the other) not bombed in WWII, with the ancient buildings well maintained and street level floors turned into very nice shops.

Looking for a restaurant, Pat spots a gathering and we hasten to explore. In front of the Hotel de Ville, backed dramatically by the spires of the medieval cathedral, a flame burns. On either side of the small plaza are lines of men in uniform with French flags. Two firemen’s bands, heavy on the drums.

Monsieur de Maire speaks and then a young man reads a speech, from which we make out the words “De Gaulle … BBC … resistance.”

Afterward, I asked another young man to explain the ceremony. He tells me it’s the anniversary of the famous speech by General De Gaulle on the BBC from London, 67 years previous (June 18, 1940), when the leader in exile exhorted “we have lost the battle, but we must resist the Nazi occupation.”

In the same conversation, I said I was surprised that young people, not born at the time, were still so appreciative of the American efforts on their behalf. He responded that Bayeux was the first town in France to be liberated, and that wonderful gift of freedom and the men who died for it must never be forgotten.

We have dinner at the restaurant Fringale, which was recommended by a previous visitor on Trip Advisor. The setting and the meal were excellent. I had a beef bourguignon, chunks of beef cooked to perfection in a red wine sauce.

Another aside. Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com) has become a necessary adjunct to any reservations we make, not only for objective comments about the hotel or B&B, but also for the ancillary recommendations frequently found there.

Before going to sleep, I work out a schedule and driving instructions for the two days (Tuesday and Thursday) we’ll be on our own. Wednesday we’ll be on the Overlord tour of Omaha Beach and Band of Brothers sites. The B&B manager has confirmed the reservation we made by telephone (Skype) before leaving Collioure.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Our plan for Tuesday includes three destinations – the Memorial museum in Caen, the harbor town of Honfleur, and the American military cemetery at Colleville overlooking Omaha Beach. I take all the drive times from the Michelin driving instructions, which, even though you can’t actually follow them, are accurate if you don’t get lost. Of course I add time to each trip segment for getting lost.

There are many signs to the Memorial museum in Caen, and following the signs is always a much better strategy than trying to find route numbers or street names. We arrive at the museum on schedule, and it’s a wonderful start to our exploration of Normandy.

Actually, we started preparing months ago, watching Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan, reading Stephen Ambrose’s D Day, and Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day.

Nevertheless, the video presentation and other displays in the Caen museum amplify our understanding of what happened at the landings and after. The video uses a very effective split screen. On the left you watch the Allies preparing for the invasion, and on the right, simultaneously, the Germans organizing their defense fortifications.

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At the gift shop, we purchase a clicker, like the ones used by the paratroopers in the early hours of June 6, 1944, a video of the landings compiled from archive footage, and a CD of Edith Piaf singing “the songs that won the war.”

We watch another video, depicting the world’s wars since 1945, a moving plea for elusive peace. There was brief footage of JFK, MLK and Bill Clinton, and thankfully none of GWB.

We drive to Honfleur easily, following the town to town strategy. Honfleur is a spectacular little seaside town, with 6 and 7-story fisherman’s homes surrounding a sparkling harbor. We eat a delightful lunch at one of many waterside outdoor restaurants, including a political conversation with the Danish couple next to us.

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We walk around the nearby streets, including the imposing wooden church of St. Catherine, and drive through Trouville and Deauville on our way back, but do not stop, which turns out to be a good decision since it takes longer than expected to get to the American cemetery at Colleville.

We have all seen films of the cemetery, including the emotional opening and closing scenes of Saving Private Ryan, but that is no substitute for being there. We go first to the new Visitor Center and watch the excellent video, then walk along the overlook peering down onto beautiful and peaceful Omaha Beach.

The cemetery itself is a sea of endless rows of crosses (>9,000) and Jewish stars (149), perfectly aligned in every direction, flowers on some, and stones on every Star of David. There are several memorial buildings. Periodically, as we walk solemnly along, we hear taps and our national anthem wafting gently across the fields of gravestones.

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We wait for the lowering of the colors, even as we’re drenched by a sudden storm, and are disappointed that the flag is lowered with no honor guard and with taps played via recording.

On the way back, the storm gets fierce and we pull into a parking spot in a tiny village to wait it out, which doesn’t take too long. In Bayeux, it hasn’t rained at all.

Having had our petit déjeuner at the B&B and our excellent lunch at Honfleur, we should have skipped dinner, but instead we guzzle pizza and beer at a side street restaurant.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

This was one of the most moving travel days we have ever had, or expect to have.

Pat had read all the information about battlefield tours, and the recommendations heavily favored Overlord Tours with Alain Chesnel. Alain, whose father was in the French Resistance, was active in planning the major D-Day celebrations for the 50th (1994) and 60th (2004) anniversaries. He founded Overlord Tours four years ago., and he’s since assembled a magnificent collection of maps and photographs, which he explains at each location we visit, often holding up the 1944 photo in front of the actual location.

Alain picks us up at our hotel, part of a group of 8. The next couple on the mini-bus is from Cherry Hill, NJ, our former home town. They’ve lived there for 35 years, and remember that I was Township Manager there, although they are vague about whether they voted for me when I ran for Congress in 1980.

In the morning (half day Omaha Beach tour), we see the remains of the German batteries of Longues-sur-mer, many of the bunker positions along Omaha Beach, the cemetery at Colleville (American soil in the midst of France), and the fortifications at Pointe du Hoc, impressive even in ruins. The bomb craters testify to the pounding they took.

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Alain explains that the incredible scaling of the heights to attack the guns which took so many lives was at first futile since there were no guns there, but then successful when the guns which should have been there were found nearby and destroyed.

Between these sites, Alain points out the exit roads the Americans opened from Omaha and the landing fields used by paratroopers and gliders. Memories derived from movies and books become indelibly impressed when we see the actual places.

We lunch at a roadside restaurant well familiar with Alain’s tours, since we are firmly advised there is no time to prepare omelets or galettes. My Nicoise salad is excellent (no raw tuna).

After lunch is the half day Band of Brothers tour, including the village of Carentan, the church at Angoville au Plain where Bob Wright and Kenneth Moore took care of 80 German and American wounded for over 72 hours, Drop Zone D where Colonel Johnson of the 501st landed and launched the attack onto the lock of La Barquette, Sainte-Mere-Eglise and the replica of the parachutist who was stuck on the church steeple (Red Buttons in The Longest Day), the U.S. military museum at Sainte-Mere-Eglise with the best collection of artifacts in Normandy, the field at field at Beuzeville -Au-Plain where 1st Lt. Thomas Meehan crashed and died, and Marmion’s farm, where Easy Company stayed for at least one night.

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Our last stop is the field adjacent to Brecourt Manor, where Lt. Dick Winters (having replaced Meehan) led the brilliantly improvised attack that destroyed the last four 105 mm howitzers which were battering Utah beach. We see the path Winters took through the adjacent woods, and how close he was to the guns when he began the attack. They took out three guns, covered by the noise of the shelling, before the Germans knew they were there. We imagine how it must have been to be on the beach five miles away when those engines of death suddenly fell silent.

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We drive to Utah Beach, today the preserve of wind surfers, and come to appreciate how this long straight beach, with no withering cross-fire possible, and no adjacent bluffs to climb, produced so many fewer casualties than Omaha.

It is impossible to say enough about the hard working Alain and his colleague. In addition to the history, they communicate with every word how much America is still appreciated for the sacrifices made to free France from the German atrocity.

Everywhere in Normandy, there are American flags, along with British, Canadian, and even, in the spirit of the EU, German flags. Small flags are for sale in all the stores and are often seen in the windows of stores and homes. Restaurants and stores frequently post “Welcome to our Liberators.”

No doubt this is good for the tourist business, but it is our impression that these feelings are totally sincere. In the world as it now is, it’s nice.

Returning to Bayeux, we again eat an unnecessary but excellent dinner.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Back in our own car, we devote most of this day to the extraordinary abbey at Le Mont-St-Michel, on the frontier between Normandy and Brittany about 1.5 hours drive southwest from Bayeux.

In 708, a dream commanded the bishop of nearby Avranches to create a shrine to Saint Michael. In the 11th and 12th centuries, Benedictine monks constructed a monastery with the church on the top of the hill.

From the middle of the 13th century to the beginning of the 16th, the monks completed the ring around the church by constructing the abbot’s residence and buildings to house the abbey’s legal and administrative services.

We approach across a wide expanse of marsh and low tide coastline, the incredible walled building soaring out of the absolute flatness.

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“Some pile of stones”

“How could this possibly have been built in the 11th and 12th centuries?”

“Time to re-read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.

Entering the walled city, we first find the restaurant Le Mare Poulard, described enticingly by our neighbor Carol in a 1995 article for the Key West Citizen, as a prime destination of “gastronomic pilgrimage.”

It is “the birthplace of the omelet,” Carol has proclaimed, and watching the preparations, the theatrical rhythmic drumbeat of the flying whisks whipping the eggs to a froth, creates the anticipatory mood.

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We eat and enjoy the two most expensive omelets on the planet, 38 euros each.

This treat blew our budget but was worth it. The restaurant was elegant, with photos on the walls of the famous people who have eaten there – from David Rockefeller, Margaret Thatcher and Prime Minister Mitterand to Ernest Hemingway, Woody Allen, and several veterans of the Normandy invasion.

A restaurant brochure relates the history of Mont St-Michel as follows … in 708, the archangel Michael commanded the construction of a sanctuary, 1000 years pass, in 1888, Annette Poulard creates her restaurant … all the important events in one sentence.

In the abbey, we climb and climb and finally reach the ticket booth.

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“How many more steps?”

“90”

“How many did we climb so far?”

“260.”

With so much effort invested, we pay and clamber on.

The abbey is one stunning medieval space after another – the flowered cloister, the refectory (which reminded me of the freshman eating halls at Princeton), the great halls for entertaining royalty and knights, the abbey church towering above it all, the sea all around.

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A monk passes silently through a heavy closing door, a nun is visible for a fleeting moment as she glides across a stone-arched opening. Such has life been in this place for 1300 years. Now they probably get email.

On the drive back to Bayeux, I thought about our plan for the next two days: drive to Rouen, stay overnight, then train to Paris the next morning to catch our train to Collioure.

What’s wrong with that picture?

I ask Pat what she thought about spending Friday in Paris instead of Rouen.

“Great idea.”

Back on the internet, we accomplish the following in about 30 minutes: (1) check if our Best Western in Rouen could be cancelled; it could, and was; (2) try to reserve the Hotel la Perle in Paris, but only their best and most expensive room is available; (3) go to Pat’s list of Paris hotels, find the Queen Mary near the (old) Opera, reserve on line; (4) check train schedules and target the 9:56 train from Rouen to Paris.

MAJOR TIP: This is the most important advice for anyone who wants to travel the way we do – you must become facile with the internet. Without it, arrangements, and especially changes to arrangements, take forever, or may be impossible.

Later, Pat told me that she had thought of this change two days before, but hoped it would occur to me as well. She hadn’t mentioned it because she thought I really wanted to see the cathedral in Rouen.

NOTE: We did see the cathedral from the cab driving from the Budget office to the Gare Rive-Droit, and in the gray early morning reality it didn’t approach the aura of Monet’s ethereal paintings.

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This time we had sense enough not to eat dinner. But we did go out to enjoy the musical groups celebrating the longest day of the year (June 21), and, back in our room, we are lulled by an excellent Dixieland band.

Friday, June 22, 2007

We rise too early for the B&B breakfast, and set off for Rouen. It’s no trouble to get to the city, but finding the Budget office is another matter.

The Michelin directions are again useless.

We drive through unnamed streets by instinct for awhile and finally I think we’re close, with the center of Rouen and the river bridge to our left. I have to stop for gas anyway, and the attendant confirms that we are now within 200 meters of the Budget location.

Returning the car is more complicated than it should have been because they charge me for the collision insurance we had explicitly declined. Is it a simple mistake? It doesn’t matter. We’re done with Budget.

At the Rouen train station, I stand in line to change our ticket to Paris from tomorrow to today. The line is only 8-9 people, but the train leaves in 30 minutes, and we’re sure we won’t make it, so as soon as the track is posted, we go to the train and board.

The train leaves and we’re safe. The first stop is Paris, so we can’t get thrown off. Not to worry. When the conductor comes along, he studies the ticket, asks for our Senior Cartes, says “Merci, monsieur.” Tomorrow’s ticket is fine with him, at least on this mostly empty train without seat assignments.

In Paris, at Gare St. Lazare, I immediately regret not having drawn a street map from the station to our hotel. I think it’s only a couple of blocks, but I’m not sure, so we take a cab. We arrive in three minutes, 3.60 euros on the meter, and then the driver tells us the minimum fee is 8 euros. I’m not happy, but there really is no choice. Later, when we see how easy it would have been to walk, I’m even less happy. C’est la vie.

The Hotel Queen Mary is excellent. A small room, although large by Paris standards and well decorated. We’re immediately out the door to shop, for which our location is perfect, two blocks from the flagship Les Galeries Lafayette.

Our first order of business is a quick lunch, at their basement snack shop. Then up the escalators, pausing to stare (yet again) at the magnificent center dome.

Even when we buy nothing or little, Pat and I enjoy shopping together, which we guess is probably unusual. We each buy socks, and a thin navy sweater for me, almost exactly like the one I left in Key West.

We’re amused again by the 3rd floor, the “Seduction Floor,” ie, lingerie.

Our other objective, the Galeries Home store (the Maison store, not to be confused with the Homme store, which means men) is disappointing. They seem to have eliminated the stemware that Pat bought last year and was hoping to supplement.

We’re both tired, so we return to the hotel. Pat naps; I read Les Miserable.

I’m already past page 500 and not yet halfway through. I’m now skipping the huge sections where Victor Hugo takes a wide tangent that has nothing to do with the story, even though these are well written – actually, very well written.

When Hugo remembers he is telling a story, his writing is exciting, dramatic, full of unlikely coincidences that you just accept because it’s fun. He wrote a 19th century soap opera for readers who had little else to read, and his perceptively drawn characters entertain us even today.

Later, a drink downstairs with a bartender from Holland who is making her first gin and tonic. She does fine.

Out the door to eat dinner in a neighborhood we don’t know, a part of Paris which is more high-end commercial than residential, so there’s a lower proportion of restaurants. We find an Italian restaurant, our waiter was born in Normandy, and we’re happy.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Waking up in Paris instead of Rouen, we enjoy a relaxing morning, instead of a rush for the train. Pat runs 4 miles through the Tuileries, finding her way out and back with no trouble. We’re returning to Paris enough to begin to know it. Could there be a better goal for retirement travel?

We have our petit déjeuner at a nearby café, followed by a wonderful walk through nearly empty streets, window shopping. It’s a delightful way to spend an hour.

We pack and taxi to Gare Lyon, early enough to spend a few minutes at the luxurious Train Bleu restaurant (if there’s a more spectacular train station dining room, we haven’t seen it) before a second petit déjeuner at the Train Bleu Express on the platform level. We really must diet … next week.

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We return to Collioure (as far as Perpignan) first class, since a 50% discount on a 1st class ticket is less expensive than a 25% discount on 2nd class (50% discount not available). It’s much more comfortable, and there’s an outlet to plug in my laptop.

Facing us are a young French couple who live in Perpignan, with their charming, well-behaved one year old daughter, who laughs with Pat. The father tells us they’re sculptors, in ice and sand. They’re meeting a photographer in Montpellier, an obvious necessity for their short-lived art.

We change at Perpignan for the 20 minute local train to Collioure. Up the steps at Les Rocades, our apartment looks great, and the plants on the terrace have flowered grandly in our absence. I water from a can, and the one plant that didn’t look so good perks up immediately.

On our terrace, the Pyrenees spread before us as the evening cools, we reflect that this trip to Normandy was one of our best ever, a series of beautiful and moving sights. Collioure welcomes us back with spectacular fireworks of the Festival of St. Jean, which we view from our terrace at 11:00pm.

It’s great to travel and it’s great to be home.


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