Guest Notes for Episode 452: Canadian WW2 Normandy Sites

Categories: French History, Normandy & Brittany

Who was traveling? Ages?

Myself and my husband – Terri (56 years) and Paul Brault (67 years)

Date of trip?

Total trip was September 10-30th, 2022. 

  • Sept 10-14 in Paris
  • Sept 14-17 in Rouen
  • Sept 17-23 in Bayeux
  • Sept 23-24 at Mont St. Michel
  • Sept 24-26 in Chartres
  • Sept 26-30 in Paris

What do you think we should name the episode? What’s a good theme for our conversation?

How about “Following a father’s D-Day footsteps in Normandy”? 

Rank your favorite activities and places on this trip.

We couldn’t possibly rank our favourites, so here are the top 12 in no particular order!

  1. Seeing the Water Lillies at the Musee d’Orangerie and in-person at Giverny. At the Orangerie it was a sunny/cloudy day and we had the privilege of seeing the light transform the paintings as the sun moved over the skylights.  Giverny was so beautiful and peaceful, even with all the visitors.
  2. Visiting D-Day Sites (Longues-sur-Mer, Arronmanches, Juno Beach, Abbaye D’Ardenne, Canada House at Bernières-sur-Mer, and the Beny-sur-Mer Cemetery). Touring Juno Beach Centre and being able to walk on Juno Beach was very special. We were very moved by the ‘Abbaye d’Ardenne where Canadian soldiers were executed by the SS. The pinnacle was visiting Cruelly (near Bayeux) and the site of the airstrip where my father-in-law was based from June to August in 1944. (FYI – British headquarters were at the Chateau de Cruelly and was visited by Churchill and King George).
  3. Visiting the Battle of Normandy museums in Bayeux, Caen, and Juno Beach Centre. The Memorial Museum in Caen should not be missed. 
  4. Bayeux was our favourite town for many reasons aside from the amazing cathedral and the Bayeux Tapestry. We enjoyed shopping for local food and generally loved wandering the streets. The Office du Tourisme has a map indicating 26 historic sites and we challenged ourselves to find them all. Bayeux, which was not destroyed during the war, is where de Gaulle delivered his famous speech when he arrived back on French soil after D-Day. It was a perfect base to explore D-Day sites.
  5. Honfluer’s old harbour and Eglise Ste. Catherine. It’s he largest surviving wooden church in France and has a unique architecture — it was built by ship builders and looks like an upside down boat.  The people who sailed with Samuel de Champlain to New France (1603-1620) would go there to pray for safe voyage and the church is an important pilgrimage place for French Canadians. 
  6. Mont St. Michel. We were there at low tide and I wasn’t prepared for the sheer size of the bay.  I regretted not signing up for the walking tours that take visitors out into the bay at low tide. Super cool!  We did the voicemap tour of the Abbey and it was excellent and gave us a good idea of abbey life.
  7. Our road trip from Mont St. Michel to Chartres. We stopped in a small town called Ducey, just outside of Mont St. Michel, which is on the old pilgrimage route to the Mont. We walked over a 17th century stone bridge, visited a romanesque cathedral, and ate a picnic lunch by the river near Chateau des Montgommery that is connected to the man who killed King Henry II.  The countryside was beautiful and goes along La voie de la Liberté, which commemorates the route taken by the allies towards Paris during the liberation.  And we unexpectedly came upon the huge ruins of the Chateau La Ferte-Vidame that was destroyed during the revolution.
  8. Enjoying a special Harvest Mass at the Chartres Cathedral. We met a cellist from the UK at our hotel and he told us he was playing at the mass. It turned out to be a harvest mass where huge baskets of bread were brought in for blessing. Hearing the cello played in that beautiful space with all the stained glass was amazing! 
  9. Nightly Illumination shows on both the Rouen and Chartres Cathedrals. The illuminations were incredible and it was fun to be with tourists and locals alike during the shows.
  10. Doing Annie’s Paris voicemap tours. We did Latin Quarter and St. Germain des Pres tours, and part of the iIle de la Cite. 
  11. Carnavelet Museum in Paris. We took our time, started at the bottom with early Paris history, and barely made it to the revolution. It’s worth a return visit!

Did you have favorite restaurants? Please list them and say what city they were in.

This trip we didn’t eat many dinners in restaurants. Our trick is to enjoy breakfast at our hotel, eat lunch out wherever we happened to be touring, and then have a lighter dinner back in our room.  Here are some nice restaurants where we had lunches: 

  • Honfleur – Brasserie Acte II, 23 Cours des Fosses, a short distance away from the old harbour and across the street from the Office de Tourisme. Great location, excellent service and good food typical of a brasserie.
  • Bayeux – La Table du Terroir, 42 Rue Saint Jean, on the main street in Bayeux. It was recommended by some visitors we met and it did not disappoint!  We sat outside and enjoyed the plat du jour.
  • Arronmanches-les-Bains – Le Bistro, 23 rue Marechal Joffre. Great location in the centre of Arronmanches close to the museum.  Typical bistro-style menu with some great seafood on offering.
  • Cruelly – Hotel St. Martin, 6 Place Edmond Paillaud, Cruelly. It’s a beautiful old hotel with stone vaulted ceiling in the restaurant, and we enjoyed traditional Normandy dishes for our lunch.
  • Chartres: Les Parvis,, our hotel served a lunch on their outside terrace overlooking the cathedral.  The food was good and the setting was perfect!

What were your favorite foods on this trip?

  • Normandy cheese (Pont l’Evesque, Brillat Savarin, Livarot, Normanville, and Deauville). We enjoyed local ciders and I took the opportunity of some shops in Bayeux to try different calvados.  We often ordered seafood dishes for lunches. 

How did you get around? Trains? Car rental? Metros? Walk?

We followed your recommendation and rented a car the entire time we were outside of Paris (12 days).  A shout-out to Carl Carlson (Episode 374) for his recommendation to rent a car from Porte Maillot in Paris. It’s a train station just beyond the Arc de Triumph and close to the Paris peripherique, so it was relatively easy to get in and out of the city.  I was originally apprehensive about driving, mostly because I don’t like driving even at home.  But after listening to all your podcasts and studying your videos and other resources, we were ready!  It turned out fine. Paying for tolls was easy, we didn’t have any accidents or get any speeding tickets, we didn’t put diesel in the gas tank, and I actually got quite good at navigating circles and round-abouts. We used Apple Maps for navigation, which worked really well.  I enjoyed driving in the countryside and small villages more than on the major routes. We ran into some difficulties finding our way into the centres of Rouen and Chartres, which was frustrating and time consuming. The small, winding streets were confusing and we didn’t understand how the bollards worked.  Overall, I still prefer trains over driving, but I understand why that’s not possible in Normandy.  The only downside of the car rental was the cost, which ended up being way more than I counted on!  This was partly because of a combination of my own booking mistakes and Hertz’s poor website. 

 What did you learn about France on this trip?

We learned much more about French history.  After several days in museums, I know more about the liberation of Normandy beyond what happened on D-Day.  We gained a great appreciation for the impact of the liberation on the people of Normandy and what it cost them in terms of loss of civilian life and destruction of homes, towns, and farms. We knew a fair amount about the Canadian contribution to the liberation of Normandy, but being there in person gave us greater perspective that isn’t possible to get from reading. Although the focus of our trip was on WW II, we didn’t pass up the opportunity to learn more about early medieval history of France, including the influence of King Rollo and the Vikings in Normandy through to William the Conqueror. 

We also learned more about Monet after seeing the Water Lillies and Giverny in person and I now understand how his work was the early start of abstract art.

Every trip to France just confirms my appreciation for French culture and people.  People we met in Paris and Normandy were kind, generous, gracious and patient, especially with my terrible French pronunciation! 

Did you make any mistakes on this trip?

Booking the budget hotel in Rouen was my own mistake.  I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to someone looking for an inexpensive place to stay, but it didn’t meet our expectations and I should have realized that earlier on. We lost a lot of time in Rouen looking for another hotel, checking out and checking in, and packing and unpacking.  There are things I missed seeing and doing in Rouen.  It was also costly – there wasn’t a lot of choices and there are no discounts when you book the same day. 

I also made some mistakes with the car rental, although I pin some of that on Hertz’s bad website.  I heard that it costs more for insurance if you don’t choose it right when you make the reservation.  But I couldn’t find anywhere on the Hertz reservation website to select insurance.  We added insurance when we picked up the car and it was an outrageous amount of money.  We went ahead anyway, just for the peace of mind, but I’m still annoyed about it. The second costly mistake was that I was charged in Canadian dollars at a higher exchange rate.  I know better and always choose to pay in Euros, so I don’t know how it happened, and the Hertz agent at Port Maillot said there was no way to change.

Is there something you didn’t like very much and wouldn’t recommend?

There was nothing that we didn’t like.  Normandy was beautiful, and I loved the places we visited.  Going to D-Day sites and especially the airstrip where Paul’s dad was based was very special. I have some regrets about the things we did not see or do, but we would have needed much for time to include them all. For my first trip to Normandy, I probably wouldn’t have changed much, except that I would include some cycling.  The countryside is perfect for cycling and we saw a lot of visitors on 2 wheels. I was very envious of them!

What tips do you want to share with other visitors?

Visit Normandy in September.  The weather is lovely, and not too hot.  It is still high season, so everything is still open and going strong (such as the cathedral illuminations) but the crowds are a bit thinner. It may be tempting to visit in on the anniversary in June, but some of the towns and historic sites are small and and it would be more challenging to enjoy them with huge crowds.  

If you don’t have much time and haven’t done a lot of research, I recommend using one of the D-Day guided tours. We did all of the D-Day sites on our own because we were on a personal mission. My husband had done a lot of research and we were able to put together a tour of D-Day sites important to us. Doing it on our own gave us flexibility about what we wanted to see and do.

Use Annie’s podcasts and itinerary review service!  And, also the voicemap tours of Paris are excellent!  The one we did in the Mont St. Michel abbey was also very good. I’m now using voicemap app to find audio tours in other places as well. 

I recommend Orange Travel Sim cards, which worked well. Canadian cell phone providers charge outrageous amounts and I would not consider using my own package in France.  Also, I liked having a French number to use for reservations, etc.  If you top up the card every 6 months, you can keep the number so that makes it easier for my future trips to France. 

Don’t overly schedule your trip. Take your time and focus on fewer things that are really important.  We always choose one or two regions on our trips to France and this time was Normandy.  We had 12 days in Normandy and we still needed to take some things off the list.  We made sure to leave some time to just wander and explore and some of our best experiences, such as the attending the harvest mass in Chartres, were spontaneous. We also allowed a lot of time at museums because we really enjoy them and don’t want to be rushed. Spending a few nights in Rouen and Chartres meant we got to see the cathedrals illuminated.  Spending the week in Bayeux gave us the chance to really explore the town as well as the D-Day sites around it. 

Plan ahead. For this trip, I did something I created a travel journal before we left with pictures and bits of information. It helped me prepare me for the trip and really think about the key things I wanted to see and why. For each journal entry, I left room to write reflections. I included specific artifacts at different museums. I had a quote from Monet where he talks about painting the air” along with a pictures of the pond and the Water Lillies., and a quote from Julia Child along with the menu of what she at La Couronne in Rouen. I added in pictures of my father-in-law’s airbase in Cruelly along with an excerpt about camp life written by someone in his squadron. In Paris, I included the address and a picture of the former Academy Colarossi where Emily Carr (a famous Canadian artist) studied in 1910.  I live down the street from her home and it was special to think of her journey to Paris and the impact her time in France had on her art.

For this trip, I also created a trip planner.  It was a spreadsheet with our itinerary, reservations, driving distances, museum opening dates and times, and packing lists. It really helped with planning and since it was saved on our iPads, we had it with us throughout our trip. I’ll be able to use it as a reference for future trips.

Overall was your trip restful or stressful?

A little of both!  Driving and navigating unfamiliar places was stressful, especially in Rouen and Chartres! Visiting D-Day sites was special, but not really relaxing. It was important for us to strike a balance between doing activities and just sitting in cafes and walking around.  Although we wanted to see more, we are glad we spent lots of time in each place as it gave us more flexibility and some down-time.   

How did the podcast and other trip reports help you prepare for your trip?

This was our third trip to France, but first time in Normandy.  I spent the pandemic listening to your podcasts and dreaming of returning to France. Your regular COVID updates helped us figure out the best time to travel.  I felt more comfortable driving because we had your tips.  We did your itinerary review and your recommendations were spot on.  Finalizing our plans was easy because you included links right in the document, and all the general information you included at the end of our personal itinerary was super helpful. 

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Categories: French History, Normandy & Brittany