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Published: October 5th 2009
Many years ago, during the lovely years of high school, I took two years of French. Aside from learning the language, my teachers often talked about the many different geographical regions of France. It was during these lessons that I began an life-long love affair with France. Although I had never visited the country, I knew that when I would finally have the opportunity to visit it someday, I would forever fall in love. I was so intrigued, and often times overwhelmed, by the size of the country and the incredibly long list of things that there was to do and see.
When we learned of Mont St. Michel and it's dramatic setting and history, I knew I would have to one day see it with my own two eyes. When I read that France, the land of historic castles and chateaus, had an entire region dominated by literally hundreds of chateaus called the Loire Valley, I was beyond excited at the thought of being able to walk through those giant houses. And of course, being a huge fan of architecture, I was always fascinated when we were taught about the different styles of architecture, especially the old stone and
half-timbered farm houses.
There was so many different aspects of the country that I was immensely interested in, and I knew that whenever I was finally able to visit, I would have to spend a fairly large portion of time. Two weeks just wasn't going to cut it for me; I needed at least a month to be able to cover the distances required to see all of the sights I was most interested in visiting.
As a result, it took nearly 12 years from that first day in my high school freshman French class until I finally departed for our four and a half weeks long journey through France. While we have visited Europe several times prior to this trip (including a total of eight days in Paris) we never made the commitment to visiting rural France. Of course, we could have easily visited France prior, but I didn't want to limit us to only two or three weeks in the country (which have been the lengths of prior trips). I knew I wouldn't be satisfied with the trip unless we had a month. So, when I finally had enough courage to request that much time off
of work (thankfully, and fortunately, I was approved!), we made the decision to go.
During our four and a half week journey, we planned on renting a car for four weeks, with stops in Normandy, Brittany, the Loire Valley, the Dordogne, Carcassonne, Provence, the French Riviera, Lyon, Annecy, the French Alps, Burgundy, Alsace, and Champagne, where we would drop the car off and spend the last three days in Paris.
This trip was of such immense personal importance, that I often found myself explaining to others that if I was told that I could take one last trip in my entire life, this would be it. I could die a happy traveler after having completed this trip. The idea of visiting France had played out in the back of my mind for nearly half my life; needless to say, I was beyond excited to finally be able to go.
Day 1 (Friday, August 28, 2009)
As with our trip to Central/Eastern Europe the year prior, we were fortunate enough to be able to secure two round-trip tickets for free through our frequent flier mile program with Delta Airlines. Although the first segment of our
flight to Portland, Oregon was not scheduled to depart from Seatac until 10:00, Mike and I decided to arrive at the airport several hours prior in hopes of getting on an earlier flight. Unfortunately, our flights had been scheduled with only a one hour and ten minute layover between the second departure to Amsterdam.
It just so happened that my sister Kimberly was also flying out the same day as us, but instead to Nicaragua, where she planned to stay for about nine months to complete her internship as part of her master’s degree. As a result, we decided to have my mom drive all three of us to the airport. When Mike and I arrived at the Alaska Airlines check-in counter, we saw what appeared to be hundreds of people in line. I kept my fingers crossed that this wasn't a sign that all of the earlier flights were sold out! Luckily, we only had to wait for about ten minutes until it was our turn. I explained our situation to the representative at the counter, and asked if it would be possible to go standby on one of the earlier flights (there were several to choose from).
She informed us that there were quite a few seats left on the 7:30 departure, so we were coded for standby.
Feeling much more relieved and relaxed, we met back up with Kimberly and my mom near security. We said our goodbyes to my mom, and then proceeded to security. Mike and I were able to go through a very short line specifically allowed for Portland bound passengers only (created as a benefit for the route to Portland since most of the fliers are business travelers) while Kimberly had to stand in the regular line. Luckily for all of us, security was running very quick that morning, so we were finished in no time at all. We hung out with Kimberly for a bit, until we had to leave to board our flight. I said goodbye to Kimberly (which was quite difficult as it seems to be more and more common these days) and we parted ways, knowing that we wouldn’t see her for nearly four months.
Our flight to Portland was uneventful, and passed by very quickly as it was only about 25 minutes long. Once in Portland, we had a few hours to kill as our
Northwest Airline flight to Amsterdam wasn’t scheduled to leave until 12:00. We decided to have a bite to eat for breakfast at a restaurant called Gustav's Pub and Grill. Unfortunately, I was quite exhausted at this point, so although I knew I should probably eat, food didn’t sound at all appetizing; I actually had to force the bites of food down. Afterward, we still had several hours until our flight was going to begin boarding, so we headed to our gate, where I proceeded to take a nap; it didn’t take long for me to fall asleep, especially since there were so few people at the gate.
Our flight boarded and left Portland right on time, with nothing exciting to note. Mike was quite displeased when he noticed that none of the seats had the personal TV entertainment center. Otherwise, it was an okay flight; American airlines aren’t my most preferred for flying overseas. I would have much rather been on an Air France or KLM flight, but when you get your tickets for practically free, you aren’t allowed to complain!
Once in Amsterdam, we headed straight to customs, where we proceeded to wait in line for close
to 30 agonizing minutes in a line that moved as slow as a snails’ pace. Afterward, we headed to the gate where our KLM flight was scheduled to depart. Although we were booked on the 12:00 flight to Paris, we were keeping our fingers crossed that we would be able to move onto one of the earlier flights (9:30 or 11:10). At the gate, the chances of this happening didn’t look so good, especially since I overheard the gate agents state to other some of the other passengers that the flight was overbooked. Instead, I walked over to the customer service area, where I proceeded to once again to stand in a line for what seemed much longer than necessary (20+ minutes). At the end of all of that waiting, I was simply informed that all of the KLM flights that day between Paris and Amsterdam were completely sold out, so there was no way that we were going to be able to switch to one of the earlier flights. I was slightly disappointed as I wasn’t looking forward to spending several more hours in an airport, but at least we had guaranteed seat reservations, unlike many others! During the
next few hours, we tried to waste away time by eating lunch at a large sandwich place, and then later sitting in some random seats in a far off corner of the airport, where we attempted (but not very successfully) to get some sleep. Our flight finally left for Paris around 12:30, but not a second sooner for us! By this point, we had been awake on and off for nearly 24 hours, so we were exhausted and sick and tired of being in an airplane or airport!
Once we landed sunny Paris, we were easily able to find the Europcar Rental office, where I had arranged a four week car rental through Gemut.
Initially, I began speaking to the representative in French, so she obviously assumed thatI spoke the language well, as she then responded to me much faster than I will probably ever be able to understand. I think my dazed and confused look reeled her back in, so she immediately switched to English, which was very good for both of us. Within about ten minutes, we had found the car and placed all of our items inside, and were on our way out of Paris.
Our first stop along the way was to Giverny,
which is famous for being the former home of the impressionist painter Claude Monet. Monet painted some of his most famous works at his private property, including the much-beloved series of paintings of water lilies. The grounds of his former home, including all of the gardens, have been turned into a museum, which cost six Euro per person to enter. The gardens were absolutely lovely, brimming in every imaginable color. I saw many flowers that I recognized, such as dahlias and fox glove, plus many more that I had never before seen. We eventually made our way over to the water garden, which is the spot from which Monet painted all of his water lily scenes. Unfortunately, because it was partly cloudy out, the view of the pond was not quite as impressive as I had hoped it would be. We stuck around for a bit, patiently waiting for more blue sky to appear. Although there was plenty of vibrant colors within the other gardens, there wasn’t a lot of color variation going on within the area surrounding the water garden, so I was a bit disappointed. All in all, I
would definitely recommend a visit to this place for those who have admired Monet’s beautiful works of art; however, I would urge that your visit take place later in the day, in order to be able to enjoy the atmosphere of the garden without being trampled upon by hundreds of tour groups.
From Giverny, we drive towards the town of Honfleur,
where we were planning on spending two nights. I slept most of the ride as I was absolutely exhausted, and poor Mike had to stop off at a gas station at one point in order to buy some food to help reinvigorate his metabolism.
When we eventually reached Honfleur, I was absolutely blown away with what I saw. The city far surpassed any expectations I previously had. The cobble stoned-lined streets were jam-packed with a variety of houses of all shapes, sizes, and time periods. I was immediately giddy with excitement as Honfleur was exactly the type of town I could envision myself spending a lot of time in, just simply wandering the beautiful back-streets. I shouldn't have been too surprised though that I took an immediate liking to the city, considering that several artists, including Monet,
had found inspiration for many of their paintings within Honfleur.
We found our bed and breakfast, La Cour Sainte Catherine
fairly quickly. While Mike waited with the car outside, I walked onto the property to obtain more information on where to park and how to find the location of our room. When I walked past the gates of the property, I was so surprised to see a large garden area that was filled with all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies with many cute little places to sit down and relax. When we were brought up to our room, I was happy to see a very shabby but oh so chic French-inspired room that had an awesome view of the street below; I was so happy with the entire situation that I really contemplated pinching myself!
After parking the car, Mike and I headed out into the city, where we simply strolled for about an hour, enjoying the passing scenery and sights. I hadn’t wanted to overload us on our first day (lessons learned from prior trips) so choosing to walk through Honfleur was the best decision as it was low-key and stress free! Within an hour, the beauty and easy-going
nature of Honfleur had already captured a place in my heart. It was the perfect place to begin our month long trip to France.
Next, we hiked up the Cote de Grace, which was a very long and uphill walk, where we were rewarded with stunning views of Honfleur and it’s nearby Normandy bridge. Since the sun was no longer shining upon the roofs of the homes, we decided to come back the following morning via car in order to obtain some better shots.
We opted not to eat out this night as we were both quite exhausted and preferred to sleep immediately versus taking the time to find a restaurant to eat at.
Day 2 (Saturday, August 29, 2009)
Having both fallen asleep around 9:00 the night before, we had a relatively easy time waking-up on our first morning in France around 7:30. We quickly got ready, and then headed down to the breakfast room at Sainte Catherine’s. As we arrived right at 8:00, we were the first guests in the room, which was filled with delicious aromas of freshly cooked food. As we sat down, a woman in the kitchen asked in
French if we wanted coffee, tea, or hot chocolate to drink. We decided that the hot chocolate sounded good, especially since it was a bit chilly out that morning. While we waited for our food to arrive, we were greeted by one of the cats, a very friendly black male. For breakfast, we were served orange juice, baguette, a homemade plum marmalade (which was delicious), and small crepes, which were quite tasty.
After finishing breakfast, we had to give our room key to the proprietor Lilianne, as she had informed us the night before that we were going to switch rooms our second night. While we would be away that day, her staff would move our bags into the new room.
We left the hotel and walked through Honfleur’s empty morning streets to the Vieux Bassin (old harbor), where I was able to take lots of great shots of the beautiful buildings reflecting in the water of the harbor. We walked into a store along the harbor, and ended up buying a bottle of Cidre Pays d’Auge (hard apple cider) for only 3.5 Euros.
We continued walking through town, eventually making our way to Place Berthelot, where
a very massive Saturday farmer’s market was taking place. In addition to fruits and vegetables, the market had a wide variety of other food, including cheeses, sausages, olives, baked items, and several prepared foods, such as roasted chicken and even paella. Aside from all of the food, the market continued to spread away from the square with non-food items such as clothing, jewelry, shoes, and trinkets. There were a ton of stalls to look at, and one could have easily spent hours passing by each one.
While in Place Berthelot, we walked into Eglise Sainte Catherine, a wooden church which was built in 1497. The interior of the church reminded us very much of the wooden stave churches in Norway. In fact, the church was constructed by boat builders so the ceiling was built similar to the hull of a ship, which was also a common building practice in Norway.
After touring the church, we walked across the square to the church’s bell tower, which was strangely not built atop the church, but instead directly across from it. The reason why it was not placed on top of the church was that the builders were concerned that the
heavy bell might collapse the roof, and they also thought that it would help prevent fires, as lightening was more likely to hit a metal bell versus a wooden building. Entrance to the museum inside the bell tower offered a combined ticket to the Eugene Boudin Museum (which we were also planning on visiting) so we figured that we might as well look around the small museum.
After stepping back outside, we noticed with great annoyance that it was raining. As I was not wearing a coat with a hood, I had nothing to protect my straightened hair, nor my expensive camera. Mike offered to take the camera (since he was wearing a rain jacket) while I attempted to protect my hair from the rain by placing my non-hooded jacket over my head.
From the square, we headed to the Eugene Boudin Museum, which is home to lots of local paintings of Honfleur and the surrounding region, and also has an entire section devoted to Norman folk costumes. In addition, there was an exhibition that featured many works of art created by the museum’s namesake, Eugene Boudin. As with many artists of his era, his paintings ranged from
Realism to Impressionism. It was interesting to be able to see paintings of the nearby towns and areas, especially those that we would be visiting later, such as the white cliffs of Etretat.
From the museum, we walked to a grocery store off of Place de la Republic called Champion Market. We had several toiletry items we needed to purchase, and we also wanted to pick-up some snacks that we would be able to eat in the car over the coming days. While in the store, we were lured to the deli area, where the lovely aromas of roast chicken were coming from. We decided to go ahead and buy a whole one, as they were less than half the price of the ones that were being sold at the farmer’s market. We also sprung for a side of pomme des terres (potatoes) which had been cooked beneath the chicken as they were roasting.
From the grocery store, we had to walk back to our car in the pouring rain, which was not any fun. The weather seemed to be constantly changing in this city; it could go back and forth from rain to no rain, to rain
again all within just a few minutes, which we both found quite annoying.
From Honfleur, we headed out of town, and drove to Rouen.
For our second day of driving in France, we made sure to change the directions in our navigation system to indicate that we wanted to drive along non-toll roads only, as our toll cost from the day prior were slightly more than 15 Euros ($21 USD); quite ridiculous for less than two hours of driving!
Due to taking back roads, it ended up taking about 1.25 hours to reach Rouen, but we didn’t mind too much as we didn’t have to pay any tolls! Rouen is a moderately-sized city of about 100,000 residents who live within a very busy and modern city that is very lucky to still have its historic core left mainly intact. The city was once one of the largest and most prosperous cities of medieval Europe, so it has quite a bit of history steeped within it's cobbled old town.
The older part of the city features a ton of Gothic architecture, with its centerpiece being the Cathedral Notre-Dame, built back in the 12th century and constantly modified and
added to through the 16th century. The church is known by many as having been painted by Monet multiple times. When we walked inside the church, we immediately noticed that only a few panels of the original stained glass were in place; after conferring our guidebook, we quickly learned that much of the medieval glass was unfortunately destroyed during a World War II bombing.
After enjoying the interior of the church, we headed outside and began the self-guided walk listed in Rick Steves’ France 2009 guidebook. Along the long walk (which spanned from the church down to the Joan of Arc sight), we saw a multitude of colorful half-timbered buildings. I thought it was fascinating that most of these half-timbered buildings were actually painted instead of having been left in the traditional white and brown motif. As we approached Place du Vieux Marche, the streets began to become more and more crowded with both locals and visitors. At one point, I commented to Mike how refreshing it was to see so many French people casually dressed in a similar style to what we would see in the United States. During the last two times I’ve visited Paris, it always
seems as though everyone (the locals, at least) are always dressed perfectly, as if they might be photographed at any moment for some sort of major publication. I usually feel so frumpy in Paris, but I definitely did not in Rouen, which was quite nice.
From Rouen, we began the long drive to the town of Etretat.
This small city has been made famous for it’s chalk-white cliffs, which have been compared to the White Cliffs of Dover in England. When we arrived in town, it was jam-packed in every direction with visitors. We had a very difficult time attempting to find a parking spot for our car, so we ended up having to park up the road at a parking lot that was a good ten minute walk from the beach.
When we finally reached the beach, it was immediately obvious why it was such a popular place. The white cliffs were simply stunning, especially since they were contrasting so brightly against the deep blue sky. Although the beach itself was nothing to brag about (mostly pebbles with very little sand) the setting of the cliffs more than made up for the lack of a proper beach.
There were a ton of visitors at the beach, although most were enjoying their time lounging in a beach chair. The only downside to Etretat was the fact that the pebbles were quite difficult to walk upon, and even more difficult to walk up. The beach did not fan out smoothly from the walls of the cliffs. Instead, there was a slight drop-off, which was nearly impossible to walk down or up, considering it was made entirely of pebbles. As I ran down it, about 12 inches of my legs sunk in. Walking back up was worse though; we saw a lot of people getting stuck, and even encountered a little girl crying out for her parents as she was literally unable to walk up. Just make sure you have sturdy shoes when you visit this beach as I cannot even imagine how uncomfortable it would be to walk upon it wearing just flip-flops or flimsy sandals.
From Etretat, we headed back to Honfleur. It was getting late out by this point, so we made a beeline for the harbor in order to find a place to eat. Unfortunately, most of the restaurants appeared to be quite touristy with
menus in both French and English (generally not a good indicator of a quality restaurant). After finding what appeared to be an excellent but small place filled with locals (Le Bouilland Normand), we began to get a little excited. However, upon further inspection, we saw that it was packed with absolutely no tables available, so we had to settle on a restaurant across the way called Brasserie du Port, which I would have preferred not to eat at. I ordered a chicken dish with cream sauce while Mike had a steak. The food, while edible, was not exactly what we had been hoping for our first restaurant meal in France. We both absolutely hate going out to eat and spending money on crappy food, so neither of us left in a very good mood.
During the walk back to the hotel, I was able to take a few good shots of the lit-up harbor and of the narrow streets leading to hotel, which slightly helped improve my mood.
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