Spring vacation, roller bags, the kids and I take a bus to the Gare St. Lazare and stand under the departure signs to wait for Nana to arrive at the station directly from Charles de Gaulle airport to catch our train to Deauville. There she is, in the nick of time, rolling in like she hasn’t just spent the last 48 hours in an airport. Hugs all around, we set off down the designated platform, find our seats and start our 7 day journey across Normandy to the border of Brittany.
Deauville is also called the 21st arrondissement because it’s only 1.45 hours from Paris up to this 19th century seaside resort on the Cote Fleurie (flowery coast). It’s also a flowery train ride going past fields and fields of bright yellow blooms of the colza plant. France is mostly agricultural, to the surprise of many who only see crowded Paris. Once out of the city, it’s a feast of fields and sky and beloved sheep.
Deauville is famous with film star types and thus is full of places to shop. But there are other charming attributes like story book half-timbered architecture, a boardwalk that spans the grand beach, a fancy American film festival, hills in the background, horses that race into the surf in the mornings and an artisanal ice cream shop called Martine Lambert. Plus you get Treuville, the town right across the inlet, a playful place with colorful rows of buildings facing the water, and a beach that has bungee jumping and old-fashioned amusement rides for the kids.
Much of the coast of France is apparently dotted with beautiful villages, but we loved Honfleur. From Treuville, if you take the D513, a winding coastal road, thru Villerville (stop for a coffee in the nice little square) in 20 minutes you arrive in Honfleur, a picturesque village with a harbor and narrow lanes twisting up hills that lead to artists studios, boutiques, imaginative food shops. We arrived on a gorgeous warm and sunny day and so were smitten. We took our time lolling around going in and out of little shops mooning over Italian linen shirts, leather purses… drooling outside shops devoted solely to caramel and nougat. We had forest mushroom crepes and ice cream sitting overlooking the harbor. I bought a peach lace Italian dress which is cuter than it sounds. Honfleur is a romantic persons ideal, with hidden hotels, courtyards, gardens.
The next day, in a light mist, we headed west along the coast driving through many quiet stone villages toward the World War II beaches and memorials. After crossing the Pegasus bridge, around Arromanches, high above the sea, we saw what looked like giant squared concrete beasts rising out from the gray misty sea off in the distance. I had no idea what the structures could be. Someone said it might have been Mulberry harbor – where prefabricated military harbors developed by the British were taken in sections across the English Channel and assembled here off the coast of Normandy as part of the D-Day invasion of France in 1944. Or part of the “Atlantic Wall.” I had never heard of the Atlantic Wall, so when I discovered what is was, I was a bit shocked and fascinated. So, I pulled the following from Wiki, apologies for the long post:
“The Atlantic Wall (German: Atlantikwall) was an extensive system of coastal fortifications built by Nazi Germany between 1942 and 1945 along the coast of continental Europe and Scandinavia as a defence against an anticipated Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe from Great Britain during World War II.
Hitler ordered the construction of the fortifications in 1942. Almost a million French workers were drafted to build it. The wall was frequently mentioned in Nazi propaganda, where its size and strength were usually exaggerated. The fortifications included colossal coastal guns, batteries, mortars, and artillery, and thousands of German troops were stationed in its defences. When the Allies eventually invaded the Normandy beaches in 1944, most of the defences were stormed within hours. Today, ruins of the wall exist in all of the nations where the wall was built, although many structures have fallen into the ocean or have been demolished over the years. By the time of the Allied invasion, the Germans had laid almost six million mines in Northern France. More gun emplacements and minefields extended inland along roads leading away from the beaches. In likely landing spots for gliders andparachutists, the Germans emplaced slanted poles with sharpened tops, which the troops called Rommelspargel (“Rommel’s Asparagus”). Low-lying river and estuarine areas were intentionally flooded. Rommel believed that Germany would inevitably be defeated unless the invasion could be stopped on the beach, declaring, “It is absolutely necessary that we push the British and Americans back from the beaches. Afterwards it will be too late; the first 24 hours of the invasion will be decisive.”“
Next we visited Omaha beach in Colleville-sur-mer and the American cemetery. Omaha beach was also a surprise. It was absolutely gorgeous, just sand, sea and high green hills behind it, and the beach itself at low tide was extraordinarily wide, miles and miles. But it was riddled with German bunkers everywhere you looked, like mole mounds, overgrown and grassy and hard to see, but you could go in them, which was strange, so the beauty of the place was at odds with its history.
The American cemetery sits high on a bluff above the sea and is a lovely and moving place to visit. The memorials are beautiful in recognition of the 10,000 who lost their lives there.
The end of the day brought us to St. Malo, Brittany where we found food and settled into our gite. On the following day, we awoke to gray mist which seemed to match the landscape of St. Malo – the sea, the sand, the fortifications, the small islands with fortresses and mossy hills to climb. The landscape is stunning. The walled city wonderful, like a fairy tale with pirates, knights, and perilous rocks. We walked all around and took the ferry to Dinard and back. We found another crepe place for lunch.
On the agenda the next day was Mont Saint Michel, the 12th century island abbey seen on so many postcards. Driving there, like a mirage, you see it off in the distance for miles around, but to approach you must get across a great silt mud flat that has now been closed to automobiles, so you approach the Mont as any pilgrim would, by foot, or by a French shuttle bus. (they even offer a horse-drawn carriage experience) On the day we went, it was a national holiday in France and it was raining bishops and cardinals. Perhaps in a sense, it was a more authentic experience because of this. The single narrow medieval street that winds up to the abbey was wall to wall with pilgrims (tourists) slowly bulging by way of creperies, souvenir shops offering saintly tea towels, keychains, oven mitts, the iconic Mont emblazoned on all. Some devout folks had walked across the mud flats barefoot and were relishing the holy mud between their toes. All in all, it was blessedly miserable if you were a regular pilgrim just trying to enjoy a jaunt out to the mount.
Our last day, we decided to brave the back roads to Deauville where we would return our car and catch our train home to Paris. The night before, I had folded out my gigantic map of Calvados/Manche (Michelin map #303) the area we would be driving through and had mapped out what looked like the greenest most scenic route by way of Bayeux. En route, we stopped in a grocery and geared up with some Vital, chips, abricots, licorice, and chocolate. We passed orchards and chateau and sheep and got to Bayeaux after a car lunch ready to stretch our legs. The Bayeux tapestry is 230 feet long, was made in the 1070’s and is kinda like ‘reading’ a film strip or cartoon. The linen roll is embroidered with some 50 scenes, the action, the Norman conquest of England, unrolls with 2 main characters, Harold the King of England and William the Duke of Normandy. You receive a free audio guide and are led along the ‘script’ as the story unfolds. The kids loved it! It all culminates in a Battle, but we won’t spoil the ending…
Thru Vire, we stopped and bought brioche and late that afternoon, while we waited for our train, we unfolded the buttery paper and ate the soft bread out of the bag. Andrew had been in Kiev then Brussels, and we were all reunited that night in Paris. The next day more family arrived and we had dinner and recounted our travels. Andrew is now in Budapest but will finally take a holiday himself with us next week on a four day weekend. Our dog enjoyed hanging out with our lovely dog sitter while we were away, but she jumped 3 miles high when we walked in the door.