In early June, we left San Diego for Paris where we had plans to meet with Sarah’s parents and sister for a 2 week trip. We had been looking forward to this trip for about a year and were incredibly excited to begin. One small part of our excitement was over the fact that we had used our American Airlines miles to book business class flights. If you haven’t had the pleasure of flying an international flight in business class, it’s worth adding to your bucket list, with one important caveat. Unless you’re a multi-millionaire or your employer is footing the bill, it’s definitely not worth paying real American dollars for, as these one-way seats would have cost about $4,000 each. However, it is worth strategically applying for a few new credit cards to rack up the requisite miles.
The champagne and other amenities are nice, but the real treat is being able to fully recline and lie flat at 30,000 feet.
After our lengthy itinerary we arrived in Paris and headed to our beautiful hotel in the Montmartre neighborhood.
Looking out our hotel window.
On our first full day in Paris we spent the morning walking through Montmartre on our way to the Sacre Coeur. The Sacred Heart is a Roman Catholic Basilica situated on the highest point in the city.
From the church we continued our wandering and stumbled into a lovely little restaurant for lunch with an excellent canard confit on the lunch special.
After our first of many wonderful French meals, we took the bus to the Eiffel Tower. We spent time wandering around the park below the tower before picking up some picnic supplies and enjoying a snack on a bench in the shadow of the tower.
When it was time, we entered one of the legs of the tower, excited for the elevator ride up to the first level. Unfortunately the elevators were having some technical issues so we ended up opting to take the stairs.
On the first level, part of the floor is built of glass panels, allowing you to look down past your feet to the ground far below.
From the top level, the city spreads out below in miniature.
The top was quite crowded but well worth the vast views of the city at sundown.
The next day we started off exploring the Promenade Plantée, a park built on a former railway. The Promenade Plantée was the original inspiration for the Highline in NYC.
From the Promenade Plantée we went to Bastille plaza and then had lunch at Big Mama, a hip Italian restaurant with a truffle pasta dish that I wholeheartedly declare the best pasta of my life. That evening we met our fellow travelers who would be joining us on the Rick Steve’s tour Sarah’s parents had booked.
The next morning the tour began with a stop at Sainte-Chapelle, the medieval royal chapel of Paris.
From there we walked to Notre Dame.
Lighting a prayer candle in Notre Dame only counts if you have proof.
The Rose Window.
The tour ended for the day at Notre Dame, so we wandered along the Seine, browsing the little shops on our way to the Musée d’Orsay.
After the Orsay we relaxed in the Jardin de Tuileries, where Sarah got a bit snap-happy with the portraits.
One thing I loved about Paris was the abundance of public resting areas. In almost every park there were many of these metal recliners, available for anyone who wished to sit and take a moment to relax.
No matter where we went in the city, it seemed the Eiffel Tower was always popping into sight.
One of my priorities on this trip was to eat lots and lots of macarons, and our trip wouldn’t have been complete without a stop at Laduree, one of the most well known macaron shops.
The Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile.
The next morning we got an early start and went straight to the Louvre.
Even just after opening, the Mona Lisa was already crowded with viewers.
After countless european artworks, we loved the Egyptian section full of sarcophagi and this wonderfully preserved mummy.
Claude Monet’s Water Lilies.
Upon one of our good friend’s recommendations, we visited Les Cocottes de Christian Constant for dinner. The pigs feet dish above was one of my favorite meals of the trip.
The next day we met our Belgian bus driver, Paul, and left Paris for the first time.
Our first tour stop outside of Paris was Guedelon Castle in Treigny. Guedelon is a project with the goal of recreating a 13th century French castle, using only the technology and methods available in the 1200’s. Safety equipment, like steel-toed boots, is modern, but everything else is done as closely as possible to what we know of medieval construction methods.
Each stone block is painstakingly hand chiseled by the stone masons on site.
After visiting Guedelon, we got back on the road and drove through countless vineyards before arriving in Bourges.
Bourges is a tiny town with lots of medieval charm. One of the unique features of the village is the half-timbered contstruction of many of the buildings and homes. Half-timbered buildings are built by using rough hewn timber to frame the structure, before filling in all the gaps between the wood with an infill material.
The Bourges Cathedral.
The next morning we visited the local market and picked up meats, cheeses, and baguettes ahead of time for lunch at our next stop, Souterrains winery in the Cher Valley.
We enjoyed the tasting hosted by the owner of the winery before having our picnic lunch in the small chateau where the winery is located.
Next stop, Chateau de Chambord. Chambord is a massive castle in the Loire Valley, built by Fancis the first.
At the heart of the castle lies the beautiful double helix staircase.
As the rain gushed down from the sky, we ran back to the bus and headed for Amboise, the former home of the French royal court and our home for the next two nights.
The view of the Amboise Chateau from our hotel room window.
The next morning we made the short drive to Chateau de Chenonceau, one of the most beautiful castles we saw, which spans the Cher River.
The kitchen housed an incredible collection of old copper cookware.
Medieval garden beds.
Back in Amboise, Sarah browsed the endless options in the soap shop.
After finally making a decision on the soap, we checked out the Amboise Chateau, which had a wonderful view overlooking the little town and the river below.
What better way to end the day than with a plate of garlicky snails and french wine?
Amboise by night
Our next stop was a small town in the Brittany region of France. Brittany is the original home of crepes, so we couldn’t resist the opportunity for a stop at an authentic creperie.
After lunch we explored the little town, and Sarah wore off her sugar buzz goofing around and shooting off her umbrella.
From our lunch stop, we drove on towards one of the most anticipated parts of our trip, Mont Saint-Michel.
Mont St-Michel is a tiny walled village, sitting on top of a small tidal island, with a picturesque abbey at the summit of the island. It’s so bizarrely storybook-like that it’s surreal to see in person. The tides were low while we visited, so we didn’t get to see the full island effect, but at other times in the month, the tides get high enough to completely surround the town with water.
We had the great pleasure of getting to spend the night on Mont St-Michel. Above is the view from our hotel bathroom.
I was drawn to the bright spots of moss on the rooftops of certain buildings, punctuating the otherwise dreary color-scheme.
That night we enjoyed a lengthy multi-course meal. Sarah adventurously chose the seafood platter for her appetizer, while I went with the 5 egg omelette, a specialty in Mont St-Michel.
After dinner, we braved the cold winds and walked back out to the bridge leading to Mont St-Michel to see the castle lit up at night.
No matter how long I stared at it, I couldn’t get over how much it looked like something from a fairytale.
The best part about spending the night in Mont St-Michel was being able to explore at odd hours when all the day trip visitors had left and the streets were empty. In the morning, I woke early before sunrise and walked out on the main bridge to the island to watch the first rays of daybreak light up the abbey and set the golden statue of Saint Michael alight.
Later, we made the long climb to the top of the town to tour the abbey.
Each brick in the pavement is carved with a unique symbol, signifying which particular mason carved the brick.
The size of the fireplaces here and in other chateaus was incredible.
These massive pillars support the weight of the chapel above.
In the past, monks used this human-hamsterwheel to pull a cart loaded with goods from the base of the island to the top of the abbey. These days the monks have a fancy mechanical one.
After touring the abbey, we left the island and made our way towards Normandy.
We made a lunch stop in a small town with an excellent sausage cart.
From there we drove to Bayeux to see the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The tapestry is an incredible 70 yard long, 1000 year old embroidery depicting the story of the Battle of Hastings. No photos were allowed, but here’s an example of what it looks like below.
At the museum you are given a headset and told to start at the beginning of the tapestry, as you walk along the 200 plus feet of medieval comic strip, the audio guide explains each scene. It’s incredible how much detail the creators were able to bring out in the embroidery.
Our next stop was Arromanches, a small beach town in Normandy. Arromanches was part of the Gold Beach section of the Normandy Invasion and is known for being the location of one of the Allies “Mulberry harbors.” Mulberry harbors were floating concrete harbors that were built in Britain and towed over to France in sections to create a usable temporary port on the beaches of Normandy. The artificial port at Arromanches was put in place a few days after D-Day and allowed the Allies to offload 9,000 tons of supplies per day.
Remains of the Mulberry harbor still rest on the beach and dot the horizon.
Sarah, dutifully gathering sand for our friends’ sand collection.
After a night in Arromanches, we began our day-long tour of the beaches of Normandy. Our first stop of the day was the oft-overlooked German cemetery, La Cambe. Our guide wisely reminded us that despite what we may think of WWII German soldiers, in reality, most of them were just boys, young boys who without their uniforms would look no different from many American soldiers, and who, just like their Allied counterparts, were doing what they thought was best for their country. He also pointed out how the entrance to the cemetery (above) was intentionally built so narrow that only a single person can enter at once, reminding all who pass of the individuality of each person buried within.
This mound at the center of the cemetery marks a mass grave containing nearly 300 corpses, the majority of which are unidentified. The figures at the top of the mound represent German mothers and fathers, mourning their dead sons.
As we walked through the cemetery we were quickly overcome with grief over the loss of so many young lives. When all is said and done, there are no Allies or Nazis, no good or bad, no propaganda, just lots of dead boys, and we wept for them.
Each grave marker has 2 names. However, many of the markers simply state, “A German soldier” which was used to mark the graves of unidentified soldiers.
After our sobering stop at La Cambe, we went to Sainte-Mère-Église, the little town made famous by films like the Longest Day and Band of Brothers. The story goes that during the D-Day invasion, a paratrooper named John Steele got his parachute caught on the church tower. While the fighting played out below him, he could do nothing but hang there and only survived by pretending to be dead.
From Sainte-Mère-Église we traveled to Utah Beach, one of the 5 sectors of the invasion area. Utah is known as the most successful sector of the beach invasion. This was thanks to the pre-dawn bombing raid that had wiped out most of the German defenses in that area. Due to heavy fog, the bombing hadn’t been very successful on other beaches, but fortunately for the soldiers landing on Utah, there was little German presence left in the area and a few short hours after coming ashore, Brigadier Teddy Roosevelt Jr was sitting at a beachside cafe peacefully sipping on a latte.
The “Higgins Boat” was a crucial piece of D-Day’s success. The front of the boat folded down into a ramp as soon as the boat hit the sand and allowed soldiers to quickly disembark. As soon as they were offloaded, the ramp was raised and the boat reversed itself off the beach to pick up more soldiers and supplies. Dwight D Eisenhower has been quoted as saying Andrew Higgins, the designer of the Higgins Boat, was the man who won the war for the Allies.
This narrow passage from Utah beach is the only gap in the German wall along the beach. Everything that came ashore on Utah Beach had to have come through this gap. The large banks on either side have built up over the decades around the wall and were not present during WWII.
Next, we spent some time at the Utah Beach Museum which is full of wonderful artifacts and stories from the war. One of my favorite exhibits was the original B-26 Bomber, “Dinah Might”, pictured above. This is one of the only B-26’s in the world still in flying condition.
After the museum, we visited Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between Utah and Omaha beaches. The geography of the point made it the perfect spot to see up and down the coast and as such was heavily fortified by the Germans. On D-Day a small group of about 225 Army Rangers famously landed on the beach below Pointe du Hoc, scaled the cliffs, took over the German bunkers above, and destroyed the German artillery. After defending against counterattacks from the Germans and holding their ground for 2 days, they were relieved by additional Rangers. Of the 225, 90 survived.
At Pointe Du Hoc, there are some German bunkers in near perfect condition and we were able to view them up close and explore the inside.
The view from inside the bunker.
The serene beauty of the beaches of Normandy struck me as unexpected and so contrary to the horrors that unfolded here on June 6, 1944.
This monument memorializes the accomplishment of the Rangers that successfully took Pointe du Hoc.
The ground is mercilessly pockmarked with craters and you can only try to imagine the force of the explosions that upended the earth and sent multi-ton hunks of concrete flying through the air.
Our next stop was the Normandy American Cemetery, where the endless rows of flawless white marble crosses solemnly bear witness to the memory of fallen American soldiers.
A traveling choir of American students had assembled near the entrance to the cemetery and sang hymns together.
The sheer vastness of the place and the impossible number of graves weighs heavily on one’s heart as you walk the grounds. It’s impossible to not be moved in the presence of so many reminders of grievous loss.
The American Cemetery overlooks Omaha beach, the bloodiest section of beach in the invasion.
Our guide, illustrating the confluence of factors that made Omaha beach the meat grinder it was on D-Day. Not only did the Germans have lines of defenses along the hills overlooking the beach, they also had guns stationed on the points on each side of the bay. This meant soldiers trying to land on Omaha beach had to deal with fire coming from the front, left, and right.
We ended our tour with a few minutes to ourselves on Omaha Beach, silently mulling over the great sadness of war. As we lingered there, small children splashed playfully in the tranquil waters and families happily stretched out in the sun, seemingly oblivious to the painful history of the place. This felt strange and somehow irreverent at first sight, but after more consideration, I realized the ability to freely and equally enjoy life’s pleasures is precisely what so many gave their lives for on that day. The act of celebrating life in that once dreadful place is the most reverent homage, the holiest prayer of gratitude.
That day was unexpectedly one of my favorite days of our trip. I’m not a war buff and have no familial ties to anyone involved in the war, but I was deeply moved all the same. I felt immense sadness for those who died, for the wars that still exist, for the brokenness that leads humans to battle for power or ideology or nationalism. I also felt grateful that there are people braver and more selfless than I, who, when stirred by their conscience, are willing to risk their lives in defense of others.
The Christ, overlooking the sleepy town of Arromanches.
That night I partook in a different kind of celebration and enjoyed a feast of mussels, grateful for the freedom to do so.
The following day was the final day of our tour. We departed Arromanches and headed towards Paris, only stopping in Giverny to visit Monet’s gardens. The famed impressionist lived in the little town of Giverny and there created an incredible garden, bursting with color.
The pond that inspired Water Lillies.
And so the tour ended, though we weren’t quite ready to head home. Back in Paris, we had a couple more days before flying back to the states. Our first day back, we took the train to the Palace of Versailles and spent hours exploring the vast grounds.
I had heard the place was large, but it’s impossible to fully comprehend the size without spending time walking around and seeing it for yourself. You could spend days and days wandering and still not see it all.
One of my favorite things at Versailles was this magnificent billiards table, almost twice the size of a modern table, with no cutouts for pockets, just holes for the balls to fall through.
While we were visting, there happened to be a fire show choreographed to classical music.
The Hall of Mirrors
The following day, Sarah’s parents and sister flew out, and we spent our final day in Paris trying to cram in as many of our friends’ restaurant recommendations as possible in addition to stuffing our faces with enough pastries to last us until our next trip to Paris.
We found French burgers to be consistently delicous and never overcooked. The ones at PNY were no exception.
After trying countless pastry shops, we declared our favorite to be Carette. Their eclairs and giant macarons are incredible and practically worth traveling all the way to Paris for.
The only way to eat a $6 macaron is slowly and mindfully. After eating our way through Paris, we reluctantly boarded the long plane home, already regretting leaving that lovely country behind and longing to return.
If you’ve made it this far, I salute you. Thanks for following along and I hope you’ve enjoyed it.
Lastly, a HUGE thanks to the Kurisus for their incredible generosity and adventurous spirits on this trip.
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