It sounds incredibly snobbish to say that I was over being in Paris, but my feelings when I returned to the city reflected just that. Don’t get me wrong, I still loved being here, it’s just that after spending the first part of the month wandering around, going to the museums, hitting the tourist spots, and eating baguettes and cheese as a meal, I was ready for a change of scenery.
France, like every other country in Europe, has a fantastic rail system, so I looked into day trips from the city . I wanted to hit at least half the sites on the Savvy Backpacker’s list, but in the interest of saving money I narrowed it down. The trips I did take were awesome, but I did learn a valuable lesson that seemed to become more profound with each journey: do some research and make sure things are actually open on the day you want to go!
It wasn’t too bad when I went to Reims on a Saturday. As it’s in the Champagne-Ardennes region, my main reason for going was to hit up some champagne wineries although there’s plenty of other things to see in the city, too.
The Saturday issue came in when I discovered many of the wineries were closed, as were a few of the shops and restaurants. No matter, as the important ones were still running tours.
Lesson #2: you can’t just pop in and jump on a winery tour like you can in the States. You have to sign up in advance, and most importantly they only run the English-language tours at certain times of the day. I didn’t even think to check on this! As luck would have it, I showed up just before they started the 14:30 English tour, and after some convincing and paying 50 Euro (!) I was able to join them.
It was a very interesting tour, and they go into a lot of the specifics on what makes champagne so special. I’d already known about the champagne/sparkling wine thing but I didn’t realize how many government regulations were involved in keeping the quality of champagne so high. No wonder the bottles are so expensive! And of course, the best part was the tasting at the end where they gave us samples of both their regular yellow label Veuve and the vintage Grande Dame. It was wonderful, and you could really taste the difference between the two. And as luck would have it, of course I liked the Grande Dame better and thought about buying a bottle to bring back to Chuck (we’d had a bottle of the yellow label at our wedding) but at $150 a bottle I wasn’t risking it breaking in my suitcase.
I had wondered why the D-Day sights in Normandy were not among many of the “day trips from Paris” lists I’ve seen. After making the trip myself, I now know why – it’s not easy, nor is it for the casual tourist. Of course I’m glad I went, but I’d been determined to go to the cemetery and was not leaving France until I did.
Here was an instance when Google was not my friend. It’s easy enough to get to Bayeux (the closest town to the memorial) although I’m glad I heeded the advice of other travelers and bought my tickets ahead of time since it was Sunday. On my other day trips I hadn’t had a problem getting a seat at the last minute, but this train was full of people leaving the city. No, the real trouble came when I got to Bayeux expecting to take a bus to Colleville-sur-Mer, where the American Cemetery is, and discovering that the buses in Bayeux don’t run on Sundays! It’s my own fault for not doing better research, but in my defense it never even occurred to me that public transportation would be shut off for one day a week, especially to a place as visited as the D-Day memorial. Luckily, just as I was about to bite the bullet and shell out 50 Euro each way for a cab, another pair of American tourists showed up, as did a couple from China. It worked out well, and we got to split the cost of the cab five ways!
Anyway, the memorial is beautiful and really well done, and the cemetery speaks for itself.
I shouldn’t have even hesitated to pay the money. It’s really indescribable to stand in a place where so many young men gave their lives in the name of freedom.
Something else that stuck out for me was a father of one of the soldiers from the video they showed in the museum – he mentioned something I had often wondered, how the families of the dead felt about their loved ones being laid to rest so far from home. He’d said that it actually gave him pride to know that his son was buried in the very land he help to save. I love that sentiment, and thought of it again when we were walking on the beach. One of the other Americans mentioned that people go sunbathing on Normandy beach during the summer, and how he felt it was a little strange and borderline offensive. I see his point, but after watching the father in the video I also see the flip side: that all these brave men died so that people can enjoy the peace and beauty of Normandy today. By enjoying the beautiful beaches, we are honoring their memory.
Oddly enough, my only wish for today was that I had a little more time to spend in Bayeux. It’s a cute town that’s very proud of its role in history as the first town liberated after D-Day. The flags of the Allies fly everywhere, and on a vain note, English is widely spoken in anticipation of all the US/UK/Canadian tourists. It was nice to give my barely passable French a break for a day! It’s also the home of the Bayeux Tapestry which I feel silly for just figuring out.
One more cool thing I have to mention – one of the other Americans with us told me he was living in Egypt as a journalist, which I thought was really interesting. After I’d gotten back to Paris, I was curious to see if I could find any articles that he’d written, but all I knew was his first name and that he worked in Egypt. Here, Google was my friend, as a quick search turned up his Twitter and Instagram accounts with newly posted pictures from the cemetery, and I discovered that I’d been hanging out with none other than Ian Lee, CNN correspondent in the Middle East and award-winning journalist. I was simultaneously awed and disappointed (that when he’d asked me about my military background, I hadn’t taken the opportunity to rant about all the things that could be improved in the Navy Intelligence community to make it more effective, actually producing results rather than sitting around talking about the results it could produce while building power points that no one sees, but I digress.) Anyway, that’s humility. During my time in the Navy, particularly my tour at Pacific Command, I’d gotten used to admirals and captains – and even some self-important commanders and lieutenant commanders! – pulling the “don’t you know who I am?!” card all too often. It was impressive to meet someone who had done some very important work and brushed it off like it was no big deal, even though he’d be perfectly justified in bragging about it.
On Tuesday I went to Rouen, capital of the Normandy region and famous for being the place where Joan of Arc was tried and executed for heresy. Note to anyone planning on coming here: DO NOT COME ON TUESDAY. I found that out the hard way, when I arrived to find that everything worth seeing was closed!
All the Joan-related things were closed, as was the Musée des Beaux-Arts which has the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside of the Orsay Museum in Paris. It was still fun to walk around the town for a bit, but still… save the trip for some other day. Like Monday or Wednesday.
All in all, I enjoyed being able to hop on the train to make these side trips and get out of the city for a bit. The tickets are easy enough to purchase, as the yellow ticket machines at the SNCF stations have an English option. Just make sure you get them stamped before you get on the train!