Paris, Brittany and Normandy

A spring trip to France, taking in the Paris Marathon, Euro-Disney (yuk!), and a few days exploring Brittany and Omaha Beach and Bayeux in Normandy.

Paris by Eurostar

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I love Eurostar. It’s so much more convenient than flying. We can take the train in to Waterloo Station in London, and walk across to the Eurostar terminal in the same building. Through security, and then onto the train, which whisks us into the centre of Paris – the Gare du Nord – from where the Metro quickly takes us to our hotel. It’s not quite that easy – because we’re using public transport we end up with a taxi from home to the train, and then a bit of a walk between Gare du Nord and the Metro because of the line we’ve chosen – but still, we get it done with kids and luggage and no disasters.

The seats on the train are more spacious than on a plane, and we can get up and walk around more easily. There’s also more space for our luggage, and the checkin procedures don’t require us to let go of our luggage. Security in London is tighter than it used to be, so you need to allow enough time to get through. On the one occasion there were long delays, they held the train to make sure everyone got through security OK.

The marathon

This was the best kind of holiday – travelling with a few people we know and like. We took my neice Maria, who was a great help in looking after Caelean and Jeremy giving us a bit more freedom of movement, and we met up with the Coughlins – Dick and Liz and their two daughters. Dick and Liz did the marathon with Marina, while Maria and I took the boys up the Eiffel tower. That took most of the day, and once the 30,000 people in the marathon had finished, we met up again and had a delightful dinner with two of Dick’s friends at a place called Mandalay Ray – a sort of Asian fusion place close to Avenue George V.

The marathon created an enormous mess – bottles, paper – all the packaging for all the products consumed by the runners. We didn’t see the cleanup, but my experience of Europe is that the next day everything will be gone.

Euro-Disney

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I have to confess it – I’m no fan of Disney in general, and the prospect of a day at Disneyland fills me with gloom. However, if you go with good friends, and recognize that it’s a memorable experience for the children, it can be borne with good grace. This was also a birthday party for Dick and Liz’s elder daughter. We found our way there by train, arriving to be greeted by a cold wind.The day was fine, except that Jeremy got lost. Fortunately, we had discussed this with him, and in addition to writing our mobile phone number on his arm, we had instructed him that if lost, he should find someone in a uniform and get help. He did exactly that – he called for us for a minute or so, then went to one of the shops and told the assistant that he was lost. She walked him to the children’s play area and they called us. We found him without difficulty (after a bit of fairly frenzied running around) and he was none the worse for wear.

The kids liked the roller coasters the best, of course. They were not all big enough to go on everything, but all did plenty, and we used the entire day, leaving with everyone full of sugar and pretty tired.

Brittany

We took the TGV from Paris Montparnasse to Rennes, in the centre of Brittany. Very comfortable and fast, as is the case with the TGV. Rennes is not a place to visit, but as a kick-off place for a trip to Brittany, it’s not too bad. We rented cars, and drove to Combourg – a small town with an interesting looking chateau and some nice shops. We had rented a spacious apartment in a 17th century farmhouse, recently renovated. Lots of fun for the kids, who made themselves nests all over the house, and enjoyed the space outside.

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Our first big trip was to the famous Mont St. Michel, on the coast to the north east. It’s very spectacular, and an engineering marvel, but perhaps because it’s no longer a working abbey, and it’s had a varied life as a prison and now a museum, the atmosphere was rather less than we had hoped. But absolutely worth a visit, and in the most amazing location on a rock out in the sea. We were there at low tide, and the sands go on for ever. The tides move fast, so it’s not safe to walk out onto the sands without a guide.Pictures of Mont St. Michel here.

After Mont St. Michel we went in search of moules frites – this is supposed to be a local speciality. However, it’s the wrong time of year, so we had to make do with huitres – the excellent oysters, which were in season. As you might expect, food was a constant joy throughout the trip. We drove west to Cancale and on to St. Malo, which has a wonderful old town. We plan to come back to explore this area – there are ferries from Portsmouth direct to St. Malo.

On to Normandy and Omaha Beach

Sadly at this point the Coughlins had to leave. We said goodbye to them, and prepared to find our way up to Omaha beach – one of the most important landing places for the US forces on D-Day. On our way we stopped for lunch (and here I did find moules frites) in a small harbour town looking out to the west. The whole area is very tidal, and again we saw lots of mud and sand. But again excellent food, which keeps us all in good form.

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We went on to Coutances, which has a gorgeous Gothic cathedral As with so many of these towns, it’s built on a hill surrounded by relatively flat farmland. The church commands the skyline. We drove up into the city and had a quick look at the cathedral, which has been compared with the great cathedral at Rouen.It took us a while to find our hotel at Omaha beach, but once there we settled in and went to the beach for a quick look. Thee boys got wet (so did Maria!), and we found shells and build sand castles.

The hotel is run by a friend of a friend from Los Gatos, so we felt very much at home, eating breakfast and dinner in their informal restaurant, and practicing my rudimentary French.

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The next day we went to visit the American Cemetery – almost 5,000 graves. A lot of visitors, despite the rain. Standing on the beach it’s easy to imagine how frightful it must have been to come in from the sea against well entrenched forces protected by the sand dunes and the hills behind.On our last full day in France, we went to Bayeux, despite quite heavy rain, to see the town and the tapestry. The tapestry is enormous – perhaps less than a metre high, but about 80m long. It tells the story of the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings, when the Norman leader William (known to us as William the Conquerer) built a fleet and came to England to take the crown promised to him by Edward the Confessor.

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The tapestry is quite utilitarian in the sense that it simply documents the story sequentially, with borders that illustrate other aspects of life at that time. The embroidery doesn’t cover the whole face of the cloth – it mostly just provides outlines. The exceptions are important people and their horses, that are drawn in full.The museum provides a spoken commentary in a device that is provided as part of the entrance fee. This is a good idea because it ensures that everyone moves past the tapestry at a constant speed, so they can get a lot of people through. The commentary was good for all of us – adults and children alike – explaining the story and also pointing out interesting details of the design.Caelean’s enthusiasm for meat was addressed at a restaurant attached to a butcher’s shop – the food was excellent again. By this time it was raining pretty hard, so we went back to the hotel and packed.

The next morning we were off to Rennes by car, to catch the train back to Paris, Waterloo and home via Hook.

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