We loaded our Kia Carens, left our Paris apartment, and said “farewell” to the barista we’d seen every morning for a week by 9am on Tuesday, June 13. It was time to head west.
Just over an hour later, we pulled up at Giverny to see Monet’s gardens. If this looks like a scene belonging in an impressionist painting, you’d be correct:
Once the crowds got unbearable, we reboarded our vehicle and headed nearly 3 additional hours west, to Omaha Beach, site of the Allies’ liberation of France in WWII. We visited the Omaha beach museum / visitor center there, walked along the beach, saw the flags and monuments in the sand, visited the Overlord museum, and then tried to visit the Normandy American Cemetery (but they were closing its gates just as we pulled up, sadly). We explained to the children the significance of the beach landing–how many Allied troops died and just how incredible the scope of operations was to bring hundreds of thousands of troops to the shore under heavy enemy fire, especially after the failure of the initial sweep of air power to clear the way. We saw munitions, personal effects, and numerous other artifacts that have been, and continue to be, dug up along the beach in the area in the museums’ displays.
We headed another 3 hours southwest along the coastline and slept in a little cottage in the middle of seemingly nowhere, France.
We arose the next morning to roosters crowing, bunnies hopping, and sheep grazing in the grass behind our house. By 8:30am, we were parking and boarding a shuttle to Mont Saint Michel Abbey, stopping for crepes in one of the restaurants on the island where the abbey lay.
Mont Saint Michel was, quite possibly, the most impressive and enjoyable site we saw in nearly 2 weeks in France. We all got audio tours and walked through all the rooms, through the cemetery, and climbed the steep and winding paths that led along the castle-like abbey built in the 700s. I mean, just look at it:
We heard the church bells that sounded like the wedding soundtrack in The Sound of Music. It was perfect.
Rather than walk to the shuttle stop, we opted for a horse-drawn carriage ride from the abbey to the parking lot, just to further extend the visit and our views of the island as we slowly pulled away.
We got back in our car and headed about 3 hours east, stopping in Chartres. We parked next to a green-space, and the youngest and I sprinted up a series of steep stairways and sidewalks to the top of a hill in search of a restroom, found some folks exiting a government building at 5pm, and begged them to let us inside so she could use the facilities. Afterward, we waited a few minutes for the rest of the family to join us, followed the sidewalk for a bit, turned a corner, and saw this:
An audible “Wow!” escaped me. I stepped aside and waited for the rest of the family to catch up to us, so that I could see their reactions as they too came out of the alley pictured above. “Wooooow!” said my agape bride as she saw the Chartres Cathedral for the first time, too.
We explored the inside of the cathedral, including the “delivery veil” Mary is said to have worn while delivering baby Jesus, and we learned this basilica was built in only 30 years (compared to Paris’ Notre Dame’s 200 years)!
We had dinner at Cafe Serpente, sitting outside next to the cathedral and watched the sun set.
Then, we drove an hour northeast, to our AirBnB in Versailles. In one of the greatest instances of luck of my entire life, I found a parallel parking spot right across from the courtyard entrance to our little apartment, and it was free!
We arose on Thursday, June 15 a few blocks from the Palace of Versailles and arrived just after 9am. Luckily, my bride had arranged a private tour, which kept us from standing in a several-hundred-yards-long line that would have taken no telling how long to get inside and through security on a very hot day; we walked right up to our tour with no issues or wait. We explored the many many rooms in the Sun King’s palace, walked through the hall of mirrors, saw the in-house opera and a clock that still works (that was one of 2 items not sold or destroyed in the Revolution); then we explored the grounds along the canal on bikes we rented. We walked to the little hamlet where Marie Antoinette would play “peasant,” which was the most amusing aspect of the visit. We had a picnic lunch next to a statue under a line of shade-providing trees. It was too grand to capture in photographs, really, but I tried anyway:
We left the grounds to get dinner, stopping by a tobacco shop, where I bought a French-made pipe to add to my collection. Then, we boarded our Kia Carens again to head back toward Paris…specifically, Sacre-Coeur Basilica, about an hour away.
I was not as lucky when it came to finding parking this night as I’d been the night before, but we managed to find a garage (that cost for one night about 1/2 what I’d paid for an entire week in Paris earlier in our trip!) that was safe and monitored about 9pm. We decided we still had enough daylight to walk up the many steps toward the Basilica and watch the sun set. It was beautiful. Amazing. Awe-inspiring.
On Friday morning, we’d meet the McAllisters again at the Basilica, where my parking luck returned, and I found a free spot right in front of Sacre-Coeur!
We toured the inside, rode a carousel at the base of the hill on which it sat, had more crepes for lunch, and then headed to the airport for the long flight back to the States.
We’d driven 1,000 miles over 3 days of exploring northwestern France in our Kia Carens; it was perfect for our family of 5, including luggage and souvenirs accumulated over nearly 2 weeks of vacation. I’m so grateful to have been given the chance to use this vehicle for our family’s first trip to France, as it felt large enough to be safe but small enough to be quick and fun to drive on the windy streets and roundabouts in both the French countryside and dense urban landscape of Paris!
Flying back was bittersweet, of course, as we left what had been the best vacation we’ve ever taken. That said, more trips lay ahead for the summer of 2017: Philadelphia and West Palm Beach!