Friday, May 6, 2011

Two weeks in France

The next country for us to visit was France. We spent almost two weeks touring France. We started in Paris then spent time in the Alsace region before finishing up in the Normandy area. Overall we were pretty busy during this stretch which is why I'm a little behind in posting blog entries.

Paris is a pretty good way to start a visit to France. To get to Paris we took an overnight train from Madrid. It would be our 9th and final overnight train of our trip. The ride was quite enjoyable as we had our own private cabin plus the scenery of the Spanish countryside were quite beautiful. The train ride took about 13 hours. We departed around 7 pm and arrived at 8:30 the following morning. Paris like Rome is a city I've visited before. I visited Paris one time previously  back in 2007. Alethea has visited Paris numerous times too as she used to fly there regularly while she was a flight attendant with Delta. Also like Rome Paris is a city worth at least a second visit if not more. We spent a total of 5 nights in Paris touring numerous sights. We spent our 1st day resting and plotting out our time in Paris. We were both trying to recover from allergies which were bothering us throughout Portugal and Spain. The remaining four nights were spent visiting sights as part of the Paris Museum Pass. I would recommend the pass for those visiting Paris unless you are going to be there for a short amount of time or if you've been there several times and don't plan on visiting too many attractions covered by the pass. For us the pass paid for itself. During our 4 days that the pass was valid we visited Saint-Chapelle, the Louvre (twice), Napoleon's tomb, the Army Museum, Rodin Museum, Pompidou Centre, Arc de Triomphe, Versailles Palace, and the Orsay. The only non pass sights we saw were Sacre Couer and Notre Dame (the church is free, hiking up to the top isn't free but is included in the pass but we didn't hike it). Many of those sights I had seen before but some sights such as the Rodin, Versailles, Napoleon's tomb, Saint-Chapelle, and Versailles were all new for me.

Pyramid entrance to the Louvre

My favorite sight that I visited for the first time was the Palace of Versailles. Versailles is just a magnificent and overwhelming complex that includes the actual palace, the gardens, and there is even a palace to get away from the main palace called the Grand Trianon. It is definitely a must see as it is immaculately decorated. It takes pretty much a day to see it all. I kept thinking this is both amazing considering it was started in the 17th century but also at the same time I kept thinking no wonder they had a revolution. It is just too over the top especially when the people of France were not doing so well by the time you get to the later part of the 18th century when the revolution took place.

one small section of the gardens at the Palace of Versailles

The next really neat first time thing for me was Saint-Chapelle. Saint-Chapelle was a royal chapel. It was built in the 13th century. It is rather small compared to Notre Dame and other Paris landmark churches but it is very pretty on the inside. It contained what were allegedly Jesus's crown of thorns that a French king purchased in the 13th century. After the French Revolution the alleged crown was moved to Notre Dame in Paris which is just a few blocks away. I would definitely recommend it. The one odd thing about the chapel is that it is surrounded by the Palace of Justice which contains the French Supreme Court.

Saint-Chapelle (13th century) in Paris

In all we had a pretty good but busy time in Paris. We stayed in an aparthotel on the south side of town that technically wasn't in the city limits of Paris but were within walking distance of public buses and the next to last stop on a metro line. We saved some money but preparing breakfast and dinner most days back at our place. The weather was also great. It was sunny and clear with day time highs in the mid 70's every day. The only real negative were the crowds. Paris in the spring time the week before Easter can be very busy. Most of the tourist appeared to be other Europeans from what we could tell. Many of the top sights such as the Louvre, Versailles, and the Orsay were quite crowded. I am glad we got to visit Paris. It is very beautiful city that would be in my top 5 cities in the world to visit. I would probably rank it second or third behind Rome.

Next stop for us in Paris was the Alsace region. We stayed all three nights in the city of Colmar near Strasbourg on the German border. It was a very scenic 6 plus hour drive across France to reach Colmar. We decided to rent a car for our non-Paris itinerary because even with gas prices close to $8 a gallon equivalent and tolls it was still cheaper than taking the expensive French TGV trains. The drive itself was uneventful. We found our hotel without too many wrong turns. The place we stayed at was the Maison Martin Jund which is an old house with some converted rooms as hotel rooms. Our room was nice and even had a mini kitchenette. The owner of the place didn't even copy our passports or ask for payment until we left when we checked-in which is unusual in Europe but we were in a small town.


The best way for me to describe Colmar was that is was the most German city I've been in even though it is located in France. The Alsace region where it is located has changed hands more than once between France and Germany. It has been in France's control since the end of WWII. The architecture of the buildings in the downtown area are mostly the old mixed timber German style buildings. The city is well preserved as it wasn't bombed heavily in WWII. We spent three nights in Colmar exploring it all on foot while we enjoyed the Alsace regional cuisine. I enjoyed a tart flambe which is a very thin crusted pizza, a breztel, and some German\French Sauerkraut. Colmar was a very nice relaxing stop after a busy stop in Paris.

The next stop for us was the city of Reims. We decided to stop in Reims as a way to break up the long drive of going from Colmar to Bayeux in the Normandy region. Reims was about a 3 hour drive from Colmar. We spent just one night in Reims. The place we stayed in Reims was called a hotel but was really just a house where a couple rents out two rooms. On the night we were there we were the only guests at the house. It is also conveniently located downtown next to the Reims Cathedral. In our brief time in Reims we did a little sightseeing. We visited the Reims Cathedral where at least 34 French kings have been crowned over the centuries. It was pretty neat but suffered a lot of damage in WWII but is still in good shape. It was actually about to celebrate it's 800th anniversary a couple weeks after we left. The other significant thing we saw the Surrender Museum. The museum marks the spot and tells the story of where the German armed forces surrendered ending World War II in Europe.

Reims Cathedral, a giant mechanical spider, and Alethea

The final place we stayed was in Bayeux, France. We did make two stops on the way. We stopped in Rouen for a couple hours touring their Notre Dame Cathedral and saw the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the steak. We also stopped in Caen just outside of Bayeux to tour the Caen Memorial Museum which is dedicated to the World War II, D-Day, and world peace in general. We spent a total of three nights in Bayeux. The first day we arrived late in the evening after driving across France. We spent the second day walking around the town and I got a haircut.

The primary purpose for visiting Bayeux was to tour the numerous D-day sights in the Normandy region. For me this was very important. When we were putting our list together of places we wanted to visit on our round the world trip the D-day sights were toward the top of my list. When we put the actual itinerary together I knew that France and Normandy would be toward the end and there would be a possibility that we may not make it since something could have happened causing us to come home before getting to this point. I am definitely glad were able to make it especially for a history bluff like me. We spent a full day visiting numerous sights in the Normandy area. We started with the small town of Arromanches which was known for a 2 mile long artificial harbor that was hastily built to offload allies troops and supplies. We also visited the US Military Cemetery, the Longues-sur-Mer Gun Battery, Omaha Beach, Point du Hoc Ranger Memorial, and the German Military Cemetery. I didn't know there was a German cemetery before we arrived in Normandy. I enjoyed all the sights. My favorite was the US Military Cemetery. It is located just off Omaha Beach where many of the serviceman who are buried there died. The cemetery is very well maintained. There are almost 10,000 servicemen and women buried there. There is also a wall displaying the names of approx 1,300 serviceman whose remains have never been found. We saw the graves of Teddy Roosevelt Jr. whose father was President Teddy Roosevelt. He was a general and a medal of honor recipient. He died of a heart attack about a month after D-day. We also saw the graves of the Niland brothers. The movie Saving Private Ryan is loosely based on their story. It is a very solemn place that was quite busy. In all it was a very special day that I enjoyed from a historical perspective. I couldn't imagine all the horror or participating in the D-day invasion but without it the war wouldn't have ended the way it did.

US Military Cemetery in Normandy

This concluded a very busy two weeks in France. It was a country that I really enjoyed. I liked visiting different areas of France outside of Paris as much as a I did Paris itself. It is a very beautiful country in so many ways. France is a country that I would like to spend more time in. There is more variety in France than I think a lot of people realize. One thing that made a lot of difference was that Alethea is completely fluent in French. It made a big difference as she was able to ask for things and get things that I couldn't. I would like to learn another language someday too even though I can barely speak English :-).

Next stop for us is Belgium. The primary purpose for going to Belgium isn't for the sights. It is for the beer. Belgium is know as being one of the best beer places in the world and we'll do our best to test this reputation :-).

Link to photo albums:

Daily Logs:

Sunday, April 17th
Train made it in on time around 8:30.
Walked over to the metro and took it out to our stop. Walked little over half hour to hotel.
Arrived at hotel around 9:30 am. Check-in wasn't until 3 pm but we waited a little bit while they got a room ready for us.
Our aparthotel as it is called has a kitchenette and is on top of a Carafour grocery store so we stocked up after we checked in. Breakfast is 7 euros per person per day at our hotel. We can eat just fine for much cheaper. We'll eat lunch out during the day and dinner.
After lunch we took naps then worked on itinerary planning. I started on the night before on the train.

Monday, April 18th
Full day of sightseeing.
Took two buses to Notre Dame
Did the Rick Steves Historical Walk audio tour
Visited Notre Dame. Started to wait in line to hike the tower but it was very long. Decided to continue the walk.
Walked around the Latin Quarter and over to Saint Chapelle.
Went across street to buy the 4 day Paris Museum Pass.
Waited in line about 45 minuets to get through security @ Saint Chapelle. Toured St. Chapelle for 30 minutes. Very beautiful 13th century church.
Ate lunch
Walked to the Louvre. Toured for next two hours until closing time. Listened to Rick Steves Louvre tour. Saw the Mona Lisa. Plan on going back. Very crowded.
Took metro 13 stops back to our place and bought groceries for dinner.

Tuesday, April 19th
Full day of sightseeing in Paris.
Tried to see the Orsay but the lines were very long including the Museum Pass line.
Visited Les Invalides and saw Napoleon's Tomb along with a WW1 & WWII and Charles De Gaulle exhibit.
Visited the Museum Rodin
Walked the Champs-Elysees. It was very crowded.
Hiked up the Arc de Triomphe.
Took Metro back to apartment.
Went to grocery store and bought groceries for dinner.

Wednesday, April 20th
Long exhausting day of sightseeing.
Need to come back later and add notes.
Visited the following site Versailles, Momantre\Sacre Couer, & Louvre
Ate at Louvre McDonald’s
Got back around 10:30 pm

Thursday, April 21st
Full day of sightseeing in Paris.
Started with Jewish Art Museum – sort of got into trouble for wondering into a paid exhibit separate from the part the pass pays for.
Spent a couple hours at the Pompidou Center for modern art.
Final stop was the Musee D'Orsay which is undergoing a major restoration. Spent about 2 hours there. One of my favorite museums in the world.
Took RER C and bus back to apartment.
Did laundry and researched how to get to our hotel in Colmar

Friday, April 22nd
Drive across France
Drove from Paris to Colmar where we will stay for 3 nights. Drive took 7 hours.
Drive was pretty. Lots of bright yellow canola fields and wind turbines.
Funny how as we got close to Germany the town names, architecture, & people began to look more German.
Tolls were expensive over $50 worth.
Ate dinner and had a tart flambe (Alsace very thin crust pizza @ Maison Rouge).
Maison Martin Jund is where we're staying. Nice old hour. Only cost 30 euros a night.

Saturday, April 23rd
Full day of sightseeing in Colmar on foot
Slept in until 10 am. Went to grocery store to buy food for the next couple days especially since tomorrow is Sunday and Easter and we don't know what all is closed.
Followed the Rick Steves walking tour of Colmar.
Visited the St. Martin Cathedral that was started in the 13th century.
Finished by spending a couple hours at the Unterlinde Museum which was very nice
Had excellent dinner at restaurant downtown. I had the sauerkraut. Came back to hotel and talked about plans for the next few days and relaxed.

Sunday, April 24th
Easter Sunday
Pretty much stayed in and rested. We hadn't had a down day in a while
Worked on pictures and hotels for Belgium and did some research on some other possibilities.
Walked around town for a hour.
Toured a Dominican Church
Went back to hotel and ate dinner

Monday, April 25th
Drove from Colmar to Reims
Got advice from woman at hotel to take some country roads. Stayed on country roads from Colmar to Nancy before getting on bigger road.
Didn’t pay any tolls.
Had difficulty finding our hotel in Reims. It isn't really a hotel. It is a house with two rooms for rent. Very nice place. The other room wasn't occupied so we had it all to ourselves.
Checked in ate lunch.
Walked to the Surrender Museum where the Germans surrendered to the Allies on 5/7/45. Pretty neat.
Walked to the Reims Notre Dame Cathedral. In about a week it celebrates its 800th anniversary. I believe 35 kings have been crowned at this church.
Ate dinner. Walked back to hotel.

Tuesday, April 26th
Drove from Reims to Bayeux
Stopped in Rouen. Visited their Notre Dame church.
Saw spot where Joan D'Arc was burned.
Drove to Caen. Visited the Memorial Museum. Topics were end of WWI, WWII, Cold War, and peace in general.
Drove to Bayeux. Directions from Google Maps weren't accurate. Drove back in to a McDonald's & tried to call hotel. 1st call was disconnected and next two weren't answered. Alethea went in and conversed with some EMTs in French who sort of told us where it was at. We eventually found our hotel Premiere Classe.
Ate dinner then came back and cleaned up.

Wednesday, April 27th
Slept in until we woke up without alarms since Alethea wasn't feeling well.
Thought about driving out to St. Michelle but it is over 100 km one way and with Alethea not feeling well we decided against it.
Instead we decided to walk around Bayeux and sight see on foot.
First stop was to walk downtown to a barber shop since I was in need of a haircut. I last got my haircut in Rome about a month ago. We found a place recommended by our hotel. They were going to charge me 16.50 euros but Alethea negotiated them to the base rate of 12.50 euros which is still the most I've paid for a haircut since leaving the US. They did a good job though.
We then at breakfast\lunch (around 1 pm) at a restaurant downtown that advertised a meal of the day menu for 10.50 euros. I had the beef bourgion and a tarte. Alethea had the fish. It was a good meal.
We spent the next couple hours walking around town following the historical markers on a map we got from the TI. We toured the main cathedral as part of the tour. It was a pretty good way to see the town.
After the tour we stopped at the grocery store for dinner supplies.
Came back to hotel and got online.

Thursday, April 28th
Full day of sightseeing of the D-Day sights
Woke up around 8:30.
Left around 9 and ate breakfast at a McDonald's. We were the only people in there for most of our visit. The French don't eat much for breakfast and not at McDonald's.
Drove to Arromanches and view the Harbor
I went in to the 360 degree theater and saw a 18 minute film on d-day
Walked down hill to Arromanches. Walked around for a little bit then went to our car.
Visited Longues-sur-Mer Gun Battery
WWII Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
Vierville-sur-Mer – went on Omaha Beach?
Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument
German Military Cemetery
Drove back to hotel. Walked to Bayeux to try to find a restaurant that was open for dinner. No decent restaurant was open until 18:30 or later.
Settled on a restaurant and ate a great dinner.
Walked back to hotel and researched how to get to Paris and our hotel in Brussels.

Really enjoyed visiting all the D-day sights. The US Military Cemetery was my favorite. It is in very good condition which it should be. It is hard to imagine the all difficult it was for Allied and German troops during D-Day and the battles to come. I'm very glad we got to visit it. It was one of the top destinations in the world I wanted to visit when we planned out our trip.

Friday, April 29th
Drove back from Normandy to Paris
Woke up @ 7:30, left at 8:30
Took autoroute back to Paris. Tolls were less than expected .
Arrived in Paris with no problems. Traffic was heavy inside Paris
Returned rental car then walked to the North Train Station. Tried to exchange our tickets for an earlier train but we would have had to cash in our current tickets for 50% of face value & the only tickets available for the next train were probably only 1st class per the ticket person.
We ate lunch at a cheap Chinese food restaurant and killed a couple hours before our train
Train let right on time @ 16:01.
Train car had wi-fi, Didn't purchase any access but did they did have a map available that showed our speed and location. Highest speed so far is 296 km/h.