Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Greatest Generation

I had been looking forward to this day our whole trip as I have always wanted to visit Omaha Beach and see where our troops came ashore on June 6, 1944.  We took the 9:10 train from Paris St Lazare station and arrived in Bayeux at 11:15.  We had a little over two hours before our Omaha Beach tour which was perfect as we were able to see the Bayeux Tapestry!

I remember studying the Bayeux Tapestry with Dr. Willis at Converse.  The tapestry is the story of the Norman conquest of England ending with the Battle of Hasting in 1066.  The tapestry is actually embroidered on a linen canvas and is 230 feet long.  It is estimated to have been completed in the 11th century in a monastery in Southern England. 

Bayeux is a charming little town and definitely one that I would like to revisit. It is the quintessential French town with a large cathedral and lots of little shops and cafes.  We had a Croque Monsieur for lunch and a gelato for the walk to meet our tour.

There are a lot of different tours of Normandy for all the D-Day locations.  We opted for a half-day tour for four and half hours visiting Omaha Beach, American Cemetery and Pointe du Hoc with Overlord Tour.  This was the perfect tour for us as it was just enough information without being overwhelming and allowing us to take in all we saw so we could truly appreciate the significance of standing on the very spot of what began the end of WWII in Europe.

Our first stop was Longues sur Mer where the Germans built a portion of their Atlantic Wall.   It was completed in April 1944 by forced labor.  French citizens were required to work three days a week for the Germans if they had another job and six days a week if they didn't have another job.  While it was hard work, the money was better than anything they could make working in town.

Gunner Seat

Allied mortar took out
everyone in the bunker
There were a few poppies in bloom.

The drive to Omaha Beach took us through small country roads the only made me want to come back to explore this part of France.  As much as I love the action of Paris, I am more drawn to the small towns...very ironic as I always thought I would want to live in a big city.

I'm not quite sure what I was expecting of Omaha Beach but I know what I saw was not what I expected.  Prior to German occupation, Omaha Beach was a tourist beach and today, thanks to the bravery and sacrifices of our troops, it is once again a tourist beach.  It is not tacky tourist beach but just a beach open to the public. 

The tide was out when we arrived so we were able to get the full impression of the distance our troops had to cover to get from the shore to the cliffs.

The bunkers used by the Germans are still standing
and could be seen from our post on the beach.

Seems like no matter where a Charlestonian goes, they always run into another Charlestonian and today was no exception.  What are the chances that the in a small northern French town on a little tour would I run into another Charlestonian?!  Well, Irvin and Michelle Condon  and her sister's family were the other six people on the tour with us!  The really cool part is that Irvin's uncle was a US Ranger and landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944!  Our guide, Sean, was able to show Irvin where his uncle would have actually landed within 50 yards.


Our next stop was the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.  Prior to the landing this spot was already designated as the cemetery.  Due to the heavy fighting and inability to take the beach as quickly as anticipated, those killed on June 6, were temporarily buried at an alternate location and then moved once the land had been secured.

There are approximately 9,000 soldiers buried here...including 7 Congressional Medal of Honor recipients and 4 women.  While far more than 9,000 gave their lives in Europe during WWII, most were repatriated to the US after the war.  Every fallen soldiers' family was giving the option to have their loved one returned to the US to be buried in their hometown or national cemetery if they did not want them to stay in Europe.  Even to this day, if a missing soldier's remains are discovered, the family has the same options...all expenses covered by the government.

Every soldiers' headstone is identical with the exception of two things.  For the fallen Jewish soldiers, they have a Star of David rather than a cross.  For the seven Medal of Honor recipients, their name is in gold and they have a Medal of Honor on their cross.  All headstones face West towards the United States and are in perfect military formation.

Here Rests In Honored Glory
A Comrade In Arms Known But To God

On our way to the final stop, we passed the temporary
cementary for those that fell in the first days of the invasion.

The last stop on our tour was Pointe du Hoc.  The French created a memorial to the 2nd Ranger Battalion under the leadership of LTC James Rudder.  It was during the landing on Omaha Beach, the Ranger motto was first spoken..."Rangers, Lead the Way"

View from inside the bunker at Pointe du Hoc.
Imagine the view the Germans had on June 6, 1944.

We made our way back to town and Sean dropped Julie and I off at the train station so we could catch the 6:51 back to Paris.  Our train arrived back in Paris at 9:15 and we headed to a cafe by the station for dinner before taking the metro back to our hotel.  Please note that the clock says 10:10...that is PM!  It doesn't get dark here until 11:00PM here in the summer.

What an unbelievable day we privileged we are to to have been able to see the spot where the Greatest Generation landed and began the liberation of Europe!

Friday, June 29, 2012

A few words from my travel buddy

Since the day after my arrival in The Netherlands, I've been dealing with an injured knee and after two weeks of walking eight hours a day and tackling all the stairs (no such thing as ADA compliant in Europe), I decided to take today off and give my knee a much needed break.  For those of you that know me well, know this was a really tough thing for me to do as I can't imagine sitting in a hotel room when there is so much to explore but I really want to be able to enjoy the day in Normandy at Omaha Beach tomorrow.

So Julie headed out to visit a few museums and other sites on her "must see" list.  So, without further ado, here's what Julie's take on Paris...

It is important to find good travel companions.  I am lucky to have a superb one.  Not only should you like the same type of places, adventures, hotels, and standards, but you should be good enough friends to be able to give each other space. 
During our adventure, Lesa needed a day to rest her injured knee to be able to fully enjoy the trip to Normandy and the Omaha Beach tour.  Having had knee troubles and knee surgery myself I fully understood, so off I went.

One of my favorite artists is Rodin.  I saw a copy of The Thinker in the Tate Museum in London years ago and always wanted to learn more about his work.  The Rodin Museum in Paris is just across the street from the metro—very convenient.  Nice that it is on the Museum Pass and that it is an estate comprised of two building of his work and gardens with his sculptures scattered throughout.  I learned that many of his works are a combination of smooth and rough stone. While we are familiar with many of his works like The Thinker and the Kiss, I was taken by two of his works that were intertwined hands.   
The gardens are lovely and provided a lovely nasal cocktail with probably 50 different rose bushes in full bloom.  The café provided a lovely lunch and scenic outdoor seating to enjoy a quiche and salad.  I particularly like the Edvard Munch painting of The Thinker.
From the Rodin I took the metro to the Musee de l’Orangerie which was thankfully less crowded and relatively quite on a Friday mid morning.  The two oval galleries of Monet’s waterlillies were engulfing.  Sitting in the middle of the room and then slowly turning 360 degrees you got the sensation of the garden from early morning to sunset.  The downstairs gallery had additional  Impressionists work.  My attention was captivated by the two cathedral paintings.

Given my love of opera, I next jumped the metro to the Opera House or Palais Garnier and stood in line to check out the options for the evening performance.  Rameau’s first opera was playing and they had only a few seats—yes, the best seat in the house on the front row of the balcony, middle seat—but the price tag was 180.  Lesson learned is to buy tickets way in advance so that the good but less costly seats will be available.  Walking through the Opera House was amazing, though I decided to save that tour for the next Paris visit.
Just behind the Palais Garnier is one of the largest department store in Paris, Galeries Lafayette, which is quite the experience.  The hotel had provided us a discount coupon and never wanting to pass up good saving, I ventured forth.  Seeing an information booth inside the front door with maps and guides should have given me a clue.  Taking the elevator to the first floor, I was in the shoes.  Not only were there thousands of shoes, there were sections (the designer shoes) where there were black ropes and you had to wait to get into a particular section to look and try them on.  While I’ve always fancied myself a good shopper, I must admit I was overwhelmed and decided to exit the store while I still was in one piece as there was potential for bodily damage in the sale areas.  You know they are serious when they accept over 5 different currencies.  That’s some serious shopping.
After escaping the Galaries, I decided to head back to the hotel to relax, share about my adventure and be rested for the day trip to Normandy.  After all, vacationing is about going at an enjoyable pace and taking time for nasal cocktails and people watching.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Notre Dame

Julie and I are such great travel buddies as neither of us are obsessed with being out the door at the crack of dawn to see everything there is to see in a city!  After all, if you see everything on your first trip, there would be no reason to return, right?  We headed out around 10:00am so we could avoid the morning rush hour on the metro with our destination being Notre Dame.  The Paris metro system is pretty easy system to navigate and having the Passe Navigo is fabulous!

A few blocks from the metro stop we see Our Lady and she is beautiful!

Budding young artists outside of Notre Dame...they were very focused on drawing the cathedral!

Outside of Notre Dam is Point Zero.  This is the center of France and the point for which all distance in the country is measured.  Quote of the trip came as just before I took the picture, I began counting as though our feet would smile when I said "three".

We arrived about half way through the daily mass so I was able to take part.  The good thing about being Catholic is that even if the mass is in a different language, you can usually tell where they are in the mass by where you standing and kneeling.  After mass, I met up with Julie and we explore the beautiful church.  Unlike Sacre Coeur, you are able to take pictures but can't use a flash so many of the photos do not do justice to what we saw.

After touring the cathedral, we headed over to the one of the most expensive neighborhoods of Paris, Isle St. Louis.  A short walk across the bridge and it seemed as though we were miles away from the hustle and bustle of Paris.

A friend used to live in Paris and told us about her favorite bistro on the Isle St. Louis so we made our way.  Lunch at  Les Gourmands at 52 Rue St Louis en l'Ile was fabulous.  We had onion soup (absolutely wonderful...much less salty and higher grade of cheese than we have in the US) and a large salad of the freshest greens...almost as though they had just picked them before serving us.  The restaurant is very small...only 8 tables...but so very charming...old stone walls and exposed beams. 
We strolled the streets and made our way back to the bridge back to Notre Dame.  It was a very warm day so we took a little break to try Berthillon ice cream as it is supposed to be the best in Paris.  I must say it was quite tasty...but expensive (each of our desserts were €13).

We stumbled upon the Pont de l'Archevêché (Love Lock Bridge). A couple writes their names on a lock and then throws the key in the river to symbolize their never ending love. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sacre Coeur et Moulin Rouge

Today we headed to the Montmartre section of Paris to see Sacre Coeur and the Moulin Rouge.  The road leading from the metro stop to the cathedral was full of low-end touristy shops but we finally arrived at the foot of the church and it was even more spectacular than in pictures!

Once you get to the foot of the church, you have two options for reaching the entrance.  You can up the stairs or you can take the funicular.  The funicular is the cost of a metro ticket but if you have the Passe Navigo, it is covered.

We arrived in the middle of the daily mass so I took a pew for the last 20 minutes of the service.  They have a very strict no-photos rule for the church which is such a shame as it is quite lovely inside.  Above the alter is a spectacular mosaic ceiling...I so wanted to sneak a photo but settled for a postcard instead.

From the church, you can see all of Paris.

There is a little tram that makes a trip around Montmartre offering commentary in French and English.  We thought this would be a great way to see the area as I was pretty limited with walking.  Also if you take the Pigalle metro stop, you can catch the tram to the top of the hill.

After our little tour, we headed back down in the funicular and made our way to the Moulin Rouge.  I must admit, I was a little surprised it was so small...almost unnoticeable.  For the most famous cabaret in the world, I was expecting something a little more grand.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Intestines of Paris

Okay, I know the title of this post sounds a bit odd but it was a quote from Steve Cooper (WHDH TV in Boston)...we became friends while waiting in line for 30 minutes to get into the Musee d'Orsay (again, thank goodness for the museum pass as it would have been MUCH longer).  Just like at Versailles and many other of the very popular tourist attractions in Paris, the lines snake around and no one seems to know where they end.  Our new friend said to someone asking if this was the right line "yes, join us in the intestines of Paris".  It was very apropos as it does sum up how it ain't pretty but necessary.

They are very strict about photos in the d'Orsay so most of the pictures are of the main hall. The building originally served as a train station for Paris and it is quite beautiful.

View from the giant clock on
the top floor of the d'Orsay

After a couple hours in the museum, it was time to join in the Parisian custom of spending a couple hours enjoying a leisurely lunch (we could definitely get used to this...actually, we have).  People watching is really a treat in Paris and before we knew it, we had been sitting there for over two hours!

Next stop was the Place de la Concorde where they were already setting up for Bastille Day celebrations.

With the Champs-Élysées  right there, how could we not take a stroll to the Arc de off we went.  From the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe, it is a mile and a half and is lined with cafes.  We would cross the grand boulevard periodically to get shots of the Arc de Triomphe (sometimes you just have to do the touristy things).

While the Arc de Triomphe lower level is free to visit, there is a fee for climbing to the top...but with the Paris Museum Pass it is free.  The climb to the top is 284 steps that are steep and narrow so neither of us were terribly interested in making the trek.  Instead, we walked to the center of the Arc where the Unknown Soldier is located.
As we were walking out the other side of the Arc, we noticed a lift and the attendant took pity on us with my injured knee and gave us a ride to the top!  We only had to walk about 30 steps and then we were greeted by all of Paris.

The view was spectacular and we couldn't have asked for better weather!  You can see all the major sites of Paris from atop the Arc...and the lines are not nearly as long as those for the Eiffel Tower.  Side note, the Eiffel Tower is down to one lift so lines are three hours currently and they've closed down their online pre-sale tickets so make sure you check to see if repairs are complete or be prepared for a long wait.

When we came back down, they were beginning the daily ceremony honoring the Unknown Soldier.  Our timing could not have been better!  Every day at 6:30pm, the flame is rekindled and fresh flowers are place on the tomb...this is a tradition taking place since World War I.

We decided to check out a cafe in our neighborhood for dinner and headed back to the hotel for a recommendation.  The front desk could not have suggested a more perfect place!  It was about a 10 minute walk from the hotel and definitely a locals spot.  All of the outdoor seats were occupied so we were seated inside but five minutes later, our server came over and told us he found us an outside about service! 
Up until tonight's dinner, we both thought the food in France has been good but not spectacular...dinner tonight changed our opinion completely!  We started with a duck foie gras with an apricot chutney (YUM).  I had a spinach and goat cheese lasagna and rocket salad (aka arugula) and Julie had salmon and vegetables cooked in a tin foil (aka syran wrap) pouch with vanilla sauce...both were fabulous!  For dessert, I had creme brulee and Julie had fresh strawberries, strawberry sorbet and meringue...oh my were they good!  If you ever find yourself in Boulogne-Billancourt, you must visit La Verriere a 6 Grand-Place!

Side note, when dining in France, ask your server for tap water or l'eau du robinet.  Otherwise if you ask for water, you'll receive bottled water which is approximately €3 for an eight ounce bottle.