Eurotrip, part seven: A real champagne room, a pilgrimage, and more cathedrals

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 cathedral in Reims is gorgeous! And for good reason, I found out later: it was where the kings of France had their coronation ceremonies back in the day.

The cathedral in Reims is gorgeous! And for good reason, I found out later: it was where the kings of France had their coronation ceremonies back in the day.

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.

The caverns at Veuve Clicquot

The caverns at Veuve Clicquot

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.

Crates upon crates of champagne in the extensive underground caverns, which have been used to store and age champagne for centuries.

Crates upon crates of champagne in the extensive underground caverns, which have been used to store and age champagne for centuries.

Additionally, the caverns served as a hiding place for the region’s residents as well as French soldiers during WWII. You can still see some of the markings on the walls, like this one pointing to the medical station.

Additionally, the caverns served as a hiding place for the region’s residents as well as French soldiers during WWII. You can still see some of the markings on the walls, like this one pointing to the medical station.

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.

asd

These “tastings” were no joke! They gave us full-size glasses of champagne

They were nice enough to provide a breathalyzer in the tasting room. After two full glasses, it’s a good thing I didn’t drive!

They were nice enough to provide a breathalyzer in the tasting room. After two full glasses, it’s a good thing I didn’t drive!

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.

American Cemetery in Normandy

Over 9.000 soldiers are buried at the American Cemetery in Normandy

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.

On the hills overlooking the ocean, where the Allied soldiers took back so long ago

On the hills overlooking the beaches, where the Allied soldiers landed so long ago.

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.

Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach

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.

The Bayeux cathedral, which was rebuilt after being almost destroyed during the war

The Bayeux cathedral, which was rebuilt after being almost destroyed during the war

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!

The tower where Joan of Arc was imprisoned. i'm sure the tour is fascinating.

The tower where Joan of Arc was imprisoned. I’m sure the tour is fascinating.

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.

The town center is still decked out in the medieval style

The town center is still decked out in the medieval style

 A church dedicated to Joan of Arc was built on the site where she was burned at the stake

A church dedicated to Joan of Arc was built on the site where she was burned at the stake

The Rouen cathedral, which was featured in several of Monet’s paintings.

The Rouen cathedral, which was featured in several of Monet’s paintings.

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!

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One thought on “Eurotrip, part seven: A real champagne room, a pilgrimage, and more cathedrals

  1. Pingback: Honoring the Fallen | Trapped in Paradise - the DC Edition

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