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The Normandy Invasion in Less Than 36 Hours

Like William the Conqueror, we invaded and conquered Normandy in less than 36 hours. Okay, yes, slight exaggeration.

The truth is, with a rental car picked up at the Gare du Nord on Saturday morning, my visiting friend and I embarked on a circuit of Normandy intended to visit as many of the top ten spots as one could in less than two days.

Eyewitness Travel publishes a booklet guide of the Top Ten sights with a pull-out map that is almost all one might need, with the exception of Michelin’s detailed map that will keep you on the right road at all times. Trust me, you’ll need it.

Normally Normandy is a rainy corner of France, one reason for its lush green pastures and ultimately healthy milk cows, but this past weekend, it could not have been sunnier or more glorious. We chose to take the more southern and direct route from Paris to Bayeux to see the tapestries and learn of William’s tale of the 1066 Norman invasion as it is depicted on a 20
inch X 230 foot-long embroidered cloth exhibited in a special museum.

Bayeux is a beautiful medieval town worth a visit in its own right and the tapestry should be on every Normandy agenda. An audio guide describes scene by scene with precision over the course of a mere 20 minutes, a bit shorter than the two year tale that ends with the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066, coincidentally my birth date (thank goodness, except for the 1066 part!).

(In a small aside, once many years ago visiting Hastings in England, I spotted a concrete mixer truck on which was painted boldly, “William the Concreter.” To this day I get a chuckle over the clever play on words on the part of the mason.)

From the Battle of Hastings we headed to the scene of another Normandy invasion at the American Cemetery and the beaches below: Omaha, Gold, Utah, Juno and Arromanches. Many tour companies offer guided tours from Bayeux and other points in the region. We chose to simply stroll through the marked graves, read the inscriptions at the memorial and cast our eyes over the sands that took the lives of so many Americans (1,465), Canadians (340), Commonwealth (2,700), French civilians (300) and yes, Germans (4,000 – 9,000 dead, wounded or captured) during World War II.

For our overnight stay, we booked the Hotel de Cheval Blanc, a big white building on the northwest end of the port in the lovely village of Honfleur. (We chose the room for its big Jacuzzi tub — a small treat to make up for my new undersized bathtub.)

Honfleur is as picturesque a place on the planet as any and in spite of the mobs of tourists, still charms the soul. Here is where you will want to order a seafood platter in one of the port-side restaurants and while the evening away as the boats gently sway in the harbor and the tourists stroll by.

The next day, in the blinding warm sun, we got off the beaten paths to meander down the cobblestoned streets and gawk at the half-timbered (“collambage”) houses that date as far back as the 14th-century. It wasn’t long before we were peeking into real estate agency windows wondering what it would cost to own one…and turns out it’s a bargain — 80,000 euros for a 30 square meter studio in the a historic building in the center of town. (Perfect. It would make a great vacation home and revenue-generating rental!)

From Honfleur, we crossed the “Pont de Normandie,” a cable-stayed road bridge that spans the Seine linking Le Havre to Honfleur with a total length of 2143.21 meters. From the top you can see all of the port of Le Havre, but we didn’t detour and headed straight to Etretat to see the famous cliffs and natural arches worn by the sea. The town has turned a bit tacky tourist over the past ten years, disappointedly so, but the landscape is still breathtaking.

At Etretat, before heading home to Paris, we had one of those French cultural experiences I don’t have so often any more, and by now, can just give a shrug to the shoulders and chuckle over: We waited a good 15 minutes at the entrance to a seaside restaurant watching four or five waiters serving and clearing tables, not one time to be acknowledged or approached by anyone. In desperation, we took an available table for two that had just been abandoned. Another 15 minutes or so went by to be ignored again, totally. When I called to one of the waiters, he stopped long enough to reprimand me fully for having taken a table on our own that hadn’t been cleared, so how could we expect any better treatment?

With that display, we laughed and left to find another, and did — a better, nicer restaurant. After dining pleasantly, strolling on the rocks near the cliffs and taking our sweet time to enjoy the scenery, we walked back past the first seaside restaurant only to discover the same couple who had been seated before us, next to us, still working through their meal, and realized that could have sadly been us.

“Tant pis.” With Normandy properly invaded, Paris here we came.

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris

P.S. Mark your calendar for Tuesday, May 13th, for Parler Paris Après Midi where you can meet lots of other Parler Paris readers. Visit /parlerparis/apresmidi.html for more information.

P.P.S. May is the month of holidays in France: May 1, May 8, May 11 and May 12, but that won’t stop us from gathering on May 13th for Parler Paris Après Midi! Mark your calendar now and I hope to see you there. Visit /parlerparis/apresmidi.html for more information.

 

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