Friday, June 30, 2017

I see London, I see France...

Saturday, June 3: Landed in London on Saturday with only 2 hrs of sleep on the plane... which is what happens when you're seated right next to the restroom. Sigh. We dropped our stuff in the apartment and went to lunch with the parents, and then we went off to find the Polish museum - only open the first Saturday of the month. Of course, we went to the wrong tube stop and had to hike a million miles... The Polish gentleman who was the tour guide was a survivor of WWII, I think. He knew everything - and assumed that we knew nothing, especially about WWII, which is not a good assumption to make with our family. Anyway, John and I were totally exhausted after the museum, so we went back to the flat for a while. The 'rents had theater tickets, so John and I stumbled out to find dinner in the rain and ended up having burgers at GBK in Earl's Court. I think the maitre'd was American. This was the start of my string of bunless burgers (gluten-free was hard to find) on this trip, but the salad that came with it was fantastic. 

John's panorama of the central atrium at the British Museum.

Sunday, June 4: The parents left early, so we went to the British Museum.  We saw the Greek and Egyptian artifacts, but we didn't go upstairs to see King Tut. My feet were already starting to hurt. We had lunch at a California Burrito place... sort of felt like cheating, but it was tasty. (Hey, it wasn't McDonald's!) Then we went back to the flat for a nap. We took mom with us for dinner with the London (McKinney) McCalpins, who had just come back from a week on a boat in Greece! We had pretty tasty tapas at the Spanish place near their house, and heard stories of kittens and rugs and all kinds of exciting Greek adventures. Riding back into town on the District line, we were almost the only ones on the train!  It was one of the new modern tube trains - all one train with joints between cars, and A/C.

Monday, June 5: This was the day we planned to go to Portsmouth, and already had tickets, but after only 4 hours of sleep, I wasn't about to make the 8:30 train with mom & dad. So I slept a little more, and we went at 10. We got to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard in time for lunch. It was raining and cold all day, bleh. We all went to see the Mary Rose, one of King Henry VIII's ships - it has been salvaged from the mud, with hundreds of artifacts. It's a multi-story museum, so you can see how the various levels of the ship's crew lived, and what artifacts were found in each area. It reminded me of the Vasa in Stockholm. Mom said she heard one of the docents say that the two museums are working together, because the Vasa isn't as well preserved and the Swedes are having to catch up to keep it from disintegrating! 
Captain John at the wheel of the Victory

Then we went on Admiral Nelson's ship, the HMS Victory. All of the ceilings are really low -- I'm short, and I kept having to duck! After a brief tea and cookie break (my feet were killing me!) we went back to the Royal Navy Museum Victory Gallery to see the masthead collection. Really beautiful carvings of mermaids and Scotsmen, and all really well preserved. After that, I was so dead, and it was cold and gross, so there was no way we could have stayed in Portsmouth for dinner. We took the train back, and went to have Thai food at Earl's Court, near the flat. 

The Hound of the Baskervilles
Tuesday, June 6: John and I decided to go to 221b Baker Street to see the Sherlock Holmes museum. Small and cramped, it's decorated as if Sherlock had actually lived there, with rooms for him, Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson. I can't imagine what it would be like on a hotter day... It was warm with just the 20 or so tourists who were moving through the house with us. They had a huge shop, but since I didn't want to carry too much around with me, I just bought a magnet and an "I am SHER locked" bag. We had lunch at the Sherlock Cafe across the street... It's a Lebanese restaurant. (We figured it's probably been a bunch of different types of restaurants over time, but under the same name.) 

Tuesday afternoon, we went to see Wonder Woman! The screen was pretty small for a stadium-seated theater of that size, so I'm definitely going again in Austin. But WOW. I was so emotional during all of the battle scenes! It was awesome. The power of her climbing up to walk across No Man's Land was amazingly compelling. And the relief that after all these years of waiting, the movie was beyond my expectations. Then we walked over to dinner at Noor Jahan (can't go to London and not visit our favorite Indian place!) And a short walk back to the flat. That neighborhood is so lovely.  
The Hive

Wednesday, June 7:  The others left for the airport at 6am - mom even folded our laundry before she left! We gathered ourselves and went off to the McCalpins. I'm sad to say the recurring theme of the day was getting off the bus a stop too early... Oops! We took the bus from the Earlham tube to get closer to their house, and got off too early. Julie made tacos for lunch (Old El paso crispy shells! Yum!) and then we decided to go to Kew Gardens. But since nothing could go exactly right, Julie couldn't get on the bus because none of her Oyster cards had any money on them (doh!). She texted Eleanor, and we got off at the next stop and went back to find her. Once we had all topped up our cards, we got back on the bus to Kew. By the time we got off [a stop too early], went to Starbucks, and got to the gardens, my feet were already killing me. But we had to go see The Hive - an installation built of metal and lights that activate when bees are humming in their hive. The problem is, you never find out where the beehive is, so it's hard to know whether it's real or not. But, it was cool. Otherwise, Kew was just as I remembered it from ~20 years ago. We took a tea break at the Orangery and then went off to find the bus back. 

We ordered in - we had kebabs for dinner (Omg, Persian food! Yum!) and played a round of Carcassonne. I came from behind to tie Kenneth for 1st!  :)  

Thursday, June 8: Sadly, because of the timing of the Eurostar trains, and how far we were going, we had to get up at 5:30am to make sure we got out of Ealing and got to St. Pancras. But we made it, got our tickets, and even had time to grab breakfast and coffee (which was much-needed by then...) before we got on the 8:30am train to Paris. I forgot that we were also getting "breakfast" on the train, but I couldn't eat it anyway... It was a croissant, a roll, and yogurt. Sigh. But hey, egg salad on gluten free crackers wasn't bad! The French countryside flew by (the time in the actual Chunnel is short) and there we were in Paris. John figured out how to get from Gare du Nord to Gare St. Lazare via the RER (local non-metro train), for €2 each, so it turns out we didn't need 3 hours between trains, but our tickets were non-refundable/no changes. So we wandered/sat in Gare St. Lazare until the next train. It was a warm day, so we were hot, both in the station and on the train. Wifi was spotty, as it would be wherever we went after that. 

Then I had a total Meg Ryan moment ("French Kiss", which I referenced a LOT on this trip!) Riding backwards on the train leaving Paris, I looked out the window and saw the Eiffel Tower for a split second! I tried to show John, but we were going by a bunch of apartment buildings, so he didn't see it. He caught sight of it eventually... it just felt like "proof" that we were actually in Paris. 
Our adorable little cottage in France
We got to Caen a little bit late, so it's a good thing we took the earlier train, or the car rental place would've been closed. The Hertz office was a few blocks away. We got our Peugeot, and away we went! It took about an hour to get to the little cottage in Vire. We took smaller roads instead of big highways, to get more acquainted with the land. The rolling hills and farmland were beautiful, and the cottage was adorable! The owners are English... They've been there for 18 months. The markets were closed by the time we got there, so we went back into town (5km north) for dinner at a cafe, and tried the local cider. I thought it tasted funny, but John liked it... and all of it tasted like that, so I just got used to it. :) 
In front of the mystery castle

Friday, June 9 was a lazy day. We had fresh eggs for breakfast (from the owner's little flock of chickens!) and then we went to explore Vire. They were setting up for a big music festival on Saturday, but we were able to wander around. We found the ruins of a castle... But no signage, and there's nothing about it on Google - literally, it's not even on the map! We took lots of pictures anyway. We found a supermarket, and I couldn't believe it, but they had lactose-free milk and gluten free baguette! We got bananas, peanuts, cheese and crackers and wine and cider. 

The B&B owners made dinner for us on Saturday night. We were able to eat at the big table in the larger of their two properties because they didn't have anyone staying there. It was fantastic. It was a little weird to have the owners around all the time (living 50 yards from the cottage) -- at all of the other Airbnb's that we've done, they give us the keys and disappear. 

Saturday, June 10 - first day of real Normandy sights. We went to the Civilians in Wartime Memorial in Falaise. It's a pretty new museum (or recently renovated?). Really fascinating depictions of what happened in the small towns all over Normandy with the bombings after D-day -- bombed by both the Allies and the Germans. It's so sad to see the level of destruction. Psychologically, it had to be hard for the people to welcome the Allies as liberators, after they had just bombed out the cities. But they did!

The Museum is right next to William the Conqueror's castle, but we didn't have time to go in for a tour. But we couldn't leave without taking photos. 
Panorama of the castle

Memorial on top of the hill at Montormel
While we were in the museum, a wedding was held in the square, and apparently it is a French tradition for the procession of cars to honk as they leave! We had lunch in a little cafe (with wedding guests honking as they went by), and then we went off to find the Memorial at Montormel

It's a big hill in the middle of the countryside - smack in the area where the Americans and the British were trying to close in around the Germans, with help from the Polish panzer divisions. (We recognized some of the information in the Montormel museum from the Polish museum in London - things we never would have known about before.) The strategic importance of the hill was obvious, and the number of deaths was just shocking. This is one of the few places where the signs were in French, English, and Polish. 
The falls at Mortain

We drove back via Mortain, so we could go see the waterfalls there (we went to the Petite Cascade - we didn't hike to the big one). If you didn't know there was a deep chasm with a waterfall by the side of the road, you'd drive right by it. But we climbed down the hill and absorbed the beauty and the tranquility. 

Sunday, June 11: We went to see the Pegasus bridge Museum at Ranville, which was the lynch pin of the D-day invasion - those bridges had to be held so the Allied forces could advance from the beaches towards Paris. Amazing what these soldiers did coming in on gliders in the middle of the night, to maintain the element of surprise. The museum has all kinds of artifacts from the soldiers who fought there. We had lunch at a touristy place by the museum, where there were two Frenchmen dressed as GI's, but they didn't speak English!  While we were having lunch, the actual bridge (the original was replaced by a larger one) had to go up for a ship to go underneath. It was kinda fun to watch! 
Model of the Pegasus Bridge at the museum
Then went to Caen, to the Memorial Museum there. It is by far the most comprehensive museum in the area, starting with the end of WWI and how Hitler came to power, then moving through the war and the battles, with a separate section for the invasion of Normandy. For once I really couldn't handle the (surprisingly extensive) Holocaust section, it was too emotional. We didn't have time to see the underground bunker or the post-WWII section, either, so I guess we will have to go back someday. 
The Porte Horloge in Vire

The weather got much cooler, so we hightailed it back to Vire. While we were wandering around looking for dinner, I found a sign inside the Porte Horloge (the central clock tower) that explains the ruins and where the old walls were, including the ruins that we had seen on Friday. Huzzah! Turns out the ruins we saw were the "Donjon" (later the castle keep) and dated back to the 13th century. The belltower was added in the 15th C. 

We found a kebab place that was still open, so we got take-out (using as much sign language as French, and even a little bit of Spanish to speak to the owner), and ate at the cottage. Clearly, kebabs are the go-to fast food over there. 

Monday, June 12: It took a while to get going - poor John discovered the hard way that the fuse had blown on the hot water heater! I had taken a quick, lukewarm shower, but by the time he got in, it was gone. Fortunately, fuse boxes work the same way everywhere, so it was an easy fix. We eventually headed north to Bayeux and then Arromanches. We had lunch in Bayeux, and walked around a bit, but then we went up the road to see the beaches for the first time. Bayeux was beautiful but very touristy. I want to go back and see the famous tapestry, but not this trip. 
One of the gun bunkers at Longues Sur Mer

The beach was powerful. We went to the 360-degree cinema in Arromanches, and then drove to the German battery at Longues Sur Mer, which has four of the big concrete bunkers that the Germans used to guard the coast. Two of them are almost intact, although the big guns have rusted out in place. Then we walked out to the forward observation post, another multi level concrete bunker. Today, it's hard to see just how much the Germans could see from that vantage point, because of the overgrown weeds. The gun batteries were 1/4 mile back from the coast, which left lots of flat, open ground for the Allies to cover.

We stopped at the supermarket and found some dinner that we could cook at the house (with our little mini-oven), along with some other vital supplies, like TP and red wine. :)

Tuesday, June 13: Probably the most touristy thing we did - we went to Mont St Michel. It's just staggering that the monks built an abbey and 3 levels of rooms on top of the giant rock on the coast. (Apparently the final filial on top of the spire was put in place with a helicopter... so it's not that ancient.) We climbed a lot of steps, and took a lot of pictures. There are only a small number of people who actually live in MSM - the shop owners and some monks, I gather -  but it's a complete tourist trap. The parking area is set up to be very "inoffensive" to nature - no asphalt, just gravel and bushes - but there's space for thousands of cars, and from there you can either walk or ride a free shuttle (or a horse-drawn carriage!) to the base of the rock. Thank goodness it wasn't super crowded. We didn't even bother with souvenirs, although I did buy some real macarons in a bakery there. We heard a lot of English, but also noticed that a lot of the tourists were French. I guess it's like Mount Rushmore or the Smithsonian museums in DC...  It's in your country, so everyone eventually makes a pilgrimage. 

The drawback to staying in Vire is that we had to drive at least an hour to get anywhere. We drove through a lot of small towns (and bigger towns) and we noticed that there were very few people out! Anywhere! Maybe it's because we were usually driving through at lunch or dinner time... But it was weird. Like Blairgowrie in Scotland -- nobody was out between ~6pm and 7:30pm. Plus, a lot of the older buildings are right on top of the road... They have probably been there for centuries, but the roads have had to be widened to accommodate bigger trucks. So maybe the people are just at the back of the houses, so they don't have to walk on the road (or hear the traffic)? The only time we saw more than one or two people was when we went past a school, and the parents were picking up their children. 
Menu du jour at Chez Maman

We rested a bit, and then we went out to dinner. I chose Chez Maman, slightly off the beaten path in Vire. It was wonderful! Best meal of the trip. We sat on the patio, drank cider, and enjoyed every minute. All of the ingredients are local and homemade.  (I had to take a picture of the menu board.) :) 

Weds June 14: Laundry day! We were running out of clean clothes, so we had to take a break and do laundry. I think we will have to plan a "rest and laundry" day into any 2-week trip from now on - we did it in Scotland, in Spain, and now here. We thought it was going to rain, but instead it was just hot and muggy... Which is worse when you're hanging out in the laundromat. 

John started the day checking on the wireless setup for the cottage, and spent some time explaining it to Julie and Nigel, so they could call their IT guy. :) (It didn't improve our situation, but it may help the next person.) Laundry was quick and easy - especially with Google to translate the signs- but we still had to hang some shirts on the line out back. 

Afternoon nap, followed by dinner in Vire. The place that I chose wasn't serving food by the time we got there, so we picked the Creperie that we had driven by a million times on the main road - and it was wonderful! Savory crepes with chicken & mushrooms (John had his with sausage and an egg over-easy) and dessert crepe with caramel - yum! We sat on the patio, and we finally saw people! Turns out 7pm is when the businesses close, so there was traffic. And people going out to dinner... The restaurant filled up. Unfortunately, when we got back, it was really hot upstairs in the cabin, even with all of the windows open. It finally cooled down around 1am, so we slept until 9. This place needs a ceiling fan! 
Paratrooper (mannequin) on St Mere-Eglise
church spire

Thursday, June 15: We decided to go to the Western landing zone on our last day. We started at St-Mere-Eglise, which was the first town liberated by the American forces on D-day. The Airborne museum is there. We had lunch in town, walked around and then went to the museum. They have a paratrooper hanging from the church by his parachute - which actually happened, and was featured in the movie, the Longest Day. The museum has a lot of artifacts, and two big planes that were brought in and then had buildings built around them. One of the buildings gives you the experience of being on a plane over the jump zone. Really cool! 

From there we went to Pointe du Hoc, where there were more German batteries, as well as bunkers and other giant concrete constructions. It has been mostly left as it was in 1944, with grass growing in the craters formed by the Allied bombings. To see the heights of the cliffs that the soldiers had to climb, and feel the wind coming in off the water... Staggering. There was a  monument, and a plaque in one of the bunkers for Rudders Rangers - a Texan led the charge. Lots of Aggies involved. 
Les Braves monument - note tiny Texas flag in the center!
We were too late to get into the American cemetery and museum, but we went down to the beach front at Omaha. It was more powerful than I expected. The 'Les Braves' monument rises out of the sand, signifying Hope, Freedom, and Fraternity. We took pictures and walked on the sand.  Studies have shown that as much as 4% of the sand on Omaha beach is made up of shrapnel - metal and glass from the WWII invasion. It made me so much more grateful that John's father came back!

We stopped in St Lô for dinner on the way home, since we weren't sure if we would find another restaurant to try in Vire. We went to a pizza place next to the Cathedral in the old quarter (google said it was "where the locals eat"). Not my favorite meal, but good enough. At least the cottage was cool enough to sleep in! 

Friday, June 16: We packed up and left the lovely cottage, and said goodbye to Julie and Nigel. I don't know if we would stay quite that far away from everything if we go back to Normandy, but it was perfect for us this time. Dropped off the car in Caen (after an adventure finding a gas station) and we were off to Paris for the night. 

The train from Caen to Paris was uneventful, except for the screaming baby. But I learned something on this trip - I really don't like riding backwards on trains. I was motion sick more often on this trip than ever before. Bleh. 
John caught sight of the Tour Eiffel from the taxi.

We took a taxi from Gare St Lazare to our hotel near Orly. OMG. The traffic in Paris! Ridiculous! I would never drive there. The hotel didn't have A/C, but we did have a fan, so we sat in the cool air and made use of the working wifi. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant and then tried to go to sleep early. But I was still way too hot. 

Saturday, June 17: I am not a morning person. Getting up at 4:45 was NOT fun. (Did I mention that I'm not a morning person?As the shuttle bus took us from the hotel to the airport, we passed a bunch of young people who were just going home from the nearby club! I don't even remember the last time I pulled an all-nighter. UGH.  Fortunately, the lines were pretty short at Orly at that hour, and the cafe was open. 

Lessons learned: 
If I had to do it again, I'd learn more French for starters, although I think we did pretty well -- everyone was really nice, and we didn't feel like "ugly Americans." We quickly determined that we much preferred listening to the Hertz GPS lady giving us directions in French, rather than listening to the Google lady mispronounce the names of all of the towns and roads. We learned a little more French that way, too! ("Au rond-point, prendre la deuxième sortie" - there were a lot of traffic circles.) I also learned some neat tricks from Rick Steves' French phrasebook. I might find somewhere closer to the sights to stay, but I think we did very well with the time of year -- not too hot yet, not as many people on vacation yet -- and just after D-Day, so everything was spiffied up, but the crowds were small. But we have so many other places on our list before we go back to France -- New Zealand, for one! Time to plan the next trip... 

All of the trip photos will be uploaded to Flickr... one of these days. Stay tuned.