There are numerous cities you may choose to stay if interested in the WWII battlefields. We chose Bayeux, Pop. 14,400, that sits within 80 KM south from the farthest Normandy beaches code named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword; the site of the D-Day landings that ultimately led to the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation. The most brutal fighting on D-Day took place just 15 KM northwest of Bayeux along the coastline known as Omaha Beach, re-enacted in “Saving Private Ryan”. We toured the waterfront and beaches, and walked through bunkers. Then we toured the various towns inland where the paratroopers dropped, including the massacre site at the town of Ste. Mere Elise, German and American cemeteries near Bayeux and then other pertinent sites. These excursions were thought provoking, inspirational, patriotic, but also brought upon much sadness.
Our tour started at 8:00. We were joined by only one other traveler. He was a Big 10 college student from Wisconsin who had really studied the history of WWll. Coincidently, his Grand Dad and my Dad were both Naval aviators in the Pacific theater and both flew PBY “Catalina” sea planes.
Our guide was very knowledgeable and offered a nice presentation. We went to many sites and were provided anecdotal information. For “Band of Brother” fans, we walked near the fence line where the 4 big German guns where hidden in the hedgerow. We were with our guide all day and ended the day at the US Military Cemetery situated by the shore as the sun set. It is an overwhelming experience.
The town of Bayeux had been miraculously saved from the ravage of war. The Nazis left to defend Caen, a bigger city with a railroad hub, so the allies just passed through. Its narrow streets are bordered by original row houses with cute shops, one after another, hotels and restaurants, a gem of a historic museum, and a Norman Gothic Cathedral. This is a great little town.
Bayeux first became famous from the 11th-century tapestry embroidered to tell the story of the Norman invasion of England in 1066. The Brits know this as the Battle of Hastings, where
William the Conquerer, from Normandy, defeated the interloper King Harold, took control of England, and changed the line of succession of future Kings. There are 58 graphic scenes in this 50 meter tapestry that we were surprised was so interesting. It has been described as the first comic strip in history.
We were also lucky to meet a charming American couple from Virginia. We really hit it off and had dinner together after we toured the Bayeux Military Museum; the museum displayed key information and photos about the invasion as well as a lot of equipment, tanks, and guns. The museum was a good preamble to our tour of the actual battle sites. As well, that night we downloaded the 1960’s film “The Longest Day” about D-day as a brush up on key events.
Mont St. Michel
The next day we left the beach area and toured the magnificent Mont St. Michel, an abbey fortress built on a rock island in the middle of the bay. The construction was allegedly demanded 3 times by the Arch Angel St. Michel who in exasperation poked a hole in the Bishop’s forehead to make his point. Isn't there an American saying “I need an excuse like I need a hole in my head”? Historically, visitors and/or attackers could only reach the Mont during low tide, when surrounded by bare sand and bogs for miles around. However, the bay is notorious for fast raising tides that swallow and drown all visitors. Now there is a single causeway for easier access.
You are just mesmerized as you drive up to the sight of this towering structure with its sky scrapping turrets. Over the centuries the monastery has been rebuilt, one church over another, and expanded. There is also a small village at the base of the island below the monastery with its own small church, residences and restaurants. We treated ourselves to lunch at the famous “La Mere Poulard”restaurant that specializes in world renowned soufflés omelets 5 inches thick cooked over an open fire in copper pans and stuffed with any delicious thing you would want. There is a musical cadence in whipping the eggs that you can hear and see as you enter the restaurant. With a glass of Rose’ wine and décor of signed celebrity photos the place is the best.
We caught the tram to our transport pickup spot, after finding the tram stop with the help of some young American gals from California on holiday. It has been nice to interact with some Americans lately; there is an instant bond. When we got back to Bayeux we spent the last part of the afternoon visiting the city’s historic museum, a real gem, and the Cathedral as we walked to the hotel. That night we packed for our trip to the Loire Valley, the place where nobles established their country getaways.
We got up really early and walked through the town to the train station. We had to catch the earlier train traveling to the cities of Caen, then Tours, and then finally Blois, a town of 40,000 pop., where we stayed at a really cute hotel called the “Anne Bretagne”, on the 3rd floor with a view of the Chateau Royal de Blois. The hostess was particularly friendly and we would certainly recommend staying there.
The Chateau Royal de Blois was the feudal seat of the powerful counts of Blois. This is the first of the summer Chateaus we will see that are said to have the most extravagant architecture out side of Versailles. Here, the 4 grand halls were built in stages between 13th and 18th centuries by various Royals that leads to a merger of the architectural styles of Gothic, Renaissance , and Classical in the great halls and residences that are plushly decorated and harken back to their extravagant living style.
The next day, our hostess helped secure transfers to two other phenomenal Chateau. The first transfer was to Chateau de Chambord, initially constructed by King Francis I at the dawn of the French Renaissance it was an affirmation of his royal power. The Chateau is massive and impressive. The central grand double helix spiral staircase is a key architectural feature which some have attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci who lived nearby for 3 years until his death. All floors are connected by this twisting stairway. As well, the royal apartments of the first floor are plushly decorated, it took about 100 years later when the Sun King Louis XIV made his mark, and the second floor keeps have impressive barrel vault coffered ceilings with Francis’ trademark of “Salamander” carvings. There is an Italian influencedrooftop terrace with cupolas, domes, and chimneys where the royal court assembled to watch military exercises and returning hunting parties. We too looked out over the grand vista of the garden from this vantage point.
In the same day, we travelled to the much smaller, but certainly equally elegant Chateau de Chaverny. The estate has been in the same family, the Marquis Hurault, for more than 6 centuries, and descendants still live in the right wing of the Chateau. The Chateaut has hardly been altered since constructed in 1625. The exterior is elegant. Significantly, the interior décor of the rooms has been maintained and the dining room, bridal chamber, chapel, as well as a guard room with armor and weapons, are striking. Great fun is to go to the kennels where 50 pedigreed French Pointer Fox Hounds bark and howl in friendly fashion at visiting guests. We missed the public feeding that can be watched at 5:00 pm.
There are several other Chateau nearby that we were unable to schedule, but we enjoyed the opulence of what we saw and were ready to return to Blois for a fancy French dinner. Very rich. We might not be fans of froig qua, i.e., duck liver, that is considered a delicacy, and expensive. The veal and mushrooms sprinkled in brown sauce was tasty.
On Day 3—Monday, we had to get up real early and leave to go back to Paris to get new Passports. We where running short on pages to stamp as you know. We got an email that the passports where ready for pickup and figured this was the most convenient time to go and then leave Paris by train to reach our next southern destination of Lyon, the third biggest city in France, population 488,000.
This city has been a commercial, industrial and banking powerhouse for the past 500 years. It is also suppose to be the “ gastronomic” capital of France. Generally, we found the city dull. But people were very friendly. We did our best to walk the “Vieux Lyon” or old town which includes Roman ruins, and medieval and renaissance houses below the key landmark of Fourviere Hill. The nearby St. Jean Baptiste Cathedral is the typical buttressed Cathedral with large stain glass windows, but higher up the hill a newer Cathedral de Fourviere is the mind blower.
This Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere is purposely opulent as it was built as a testament to French greatness just after the war against Prussia had been LOST—kind of a moral booster. In any event, this may be one of the most beautiful churches we have seen. We actually started ranking churches as we admired the immense mosaic murals on all the walls, ceiling, and dome. There is a second full church built as the foundation under the grand cathedral, again just beautiful, and then a separate large side chapel. Funny thing is—this Cathedral is not listed in our guide books. It is ignored. We saw it's striking exterior as we walked the Hill, and we were really elevated and a long way from our Airbnb. Luckily, at dusk we found the “funicular”which is a tram for the Hill that connects to the metro and allowed us to get home really quickly—saved our legs.
We should mention that our Airbnb in Lyon was one of the best places we stayed. It was fully equipped and being on the eleventh floor we had great views. We used a lot more of our time in this city for scheduling travel and booking Airbnb's for Italy and Slovenia. Upon leaving we had an easy walk to the bus station too; good ole’ FlixBus with German origins, took us cheaply and comfortably from Lyon to the French Riviera.