Normandy, France: A Bittersweet Weekend Away

Normandy, France has been on our “must see before we leave Europe list” since we arrived in the UK in 2013.  B is a huge history buff, and being affiliated with the military, we just knew it was something we had to see.  Normandy is not actually terribly far away, so we could’ve driven if we had wanted, but I found flights on Ryanair for like $8 apiece and jumped on them right away.  This was Marybel’s first flight, so I was interested to see how traveling as a family of four would go.  Overall, I think the long weekend (Columbus Day) was incredibly meaningful and memorable, and the kiddos did amazing, especially with the amount of car travel we did.

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**I am going to admit outright that I am terrible with history/names/dates/etc., so I apologize in advance for minimal information and/or if I inadvertantly make a mistake.  I will do my best to post the most accurate information and links to more thorough details regarding everything we saw.

We flew from London Stansted to Deauville-Normandy airport, which is definitely one of the smaller airports I have ever been in!  This was our first time ever renting a car for our travels, but it was necessary in the Normandy area, as everything we planned to see was pretty spread out.  I booked the car through Ryanair when I purchased our flights, and picked up the car at the airport upon arrival.  The only downside to renting a car whilst traveling is bringing two carseats for our littles.  I have used meet and greet services before at the Stansted airport, but didn’t this time, and immediately regretted it.  It would’ve been worth it to pay the little bit extra to not have to lug our checked suitcase (we almost always check a bag nowadays with two littles, it is just easier in the airport and on the plane), diaper bag, backpack, Benjamin in the stroller, Marybel in the Lillebaby, and both carseats through parking lots, on and off the shuttle, and up to the check-in desk.

Anyway, some friends of ours were traveling in the area as well and were on the same flight, so we both picked up our cars, then headed toward the town of Caen.  One of my college roommates had been traveling around Europe for a few months, and we made plans to meet up in Normandy, so we were picking her up at the train station in Caen.  The city isn’t terribly large, but it took us a bit to find the train station [I blame this on a number of things: lack of sleep, signs being in French, driving a rental car on the opposite side of the road, etc.].  Anyway, we finally found her, got ourselves situated back in the car {it was a little like playing Tetris with our luggage, two carseats/kiddos, and three adults, but we did it!}.  B really wanted to do a cheese tour while we were in Normandy, so that was our first destination.  We headed to Camembert, an agricultural town housing a museum and gift shop/cheese tasting area for the Camembert cheeses.  It was about 45 minutes from Caen, winding through vast farmlands and cute towns.  We skipped the museum (much to the chagrin of the worker there, even though we technically paid for the museum fee so that we could do the tasting), and dove straight into the tastings.  We were each given three different cheeses, served atop bread slices.  I personally enjoyed all three varieties, as did my college roommate.  The others liked two out of the three, but were completely turned off by the very pungent smell and strong taste of the third.  I like to think that I must have an exceptionally mature palate, which is why I enjoyed all varieties 😛

Other than our cheeses, we hadn’t eaten much all day, so the next thing on our agenda was to check into our AirBnB and find some dinner.  When I first booked accommodations, I didn’t know that my roommate would be meeting up with us; luckily I had booked a place that could sleep up to four adults.  The AirBnB we booked was an adorable flat in the tiny seaside town of Langrune-Sur-Mer (sorry, no English translation).  Our host was incredible–she was very welcoming, gave us lots of suggestions and information, and the flat even had a pack and play (cot), high chair, and books and toys, which my little guy loved!  It was cozy, with a small living area and kitchen, one bedroom with a large bed, and one bedroom with bunkbeds.  I loved that it was in a secure gated area also.

Once we got settled, we decided to walk around the town to see if we could find somewhere to eat.  Our legs needed to stretch out after being in a plane and car all day.  Unfortunately we are not ‘European enough’ to eat dinner late, so we didn’t find anything in our town open for dinner yet [not that there were tons of options anyway since it was such a small town!].  We ended up back in the car, and drove to the next town over, Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer.  We ended up at a yummy pizza place, La Mama.  After dinner, we picked up some wine and headed back to the apartment so that us adults could catch up with each other and the babes could sleep.

Saturday was to be our “D-Day day”, and we had a lot we hoped to see.  The Normandy area is huge.  There is SOO much to see, from Mont St. Michel to the D-Day sights to Monet’s garden.  I knew we weren’t going to be able to see it all, so we made a plan to start with our “must-sees” and work our way back toward the AirBnB.

Our itinerary for Saturday ended up being: Saint-Mere-Elise/Airborne Museum —> Utah Beach —> American Military Cemetery —> Omaha Beach —> Pointe-du-Hoc

We started the day at Sainte-Mere-Eglise, which was one of the first towns to be liberated in the D-Day invasions.  The highlights were the church and the Airborne Museum.  The church displays a dummy of the American paratrooper John Steele, who landed on the church during the invasion, and played dead so that German troops wouldn’t shoot him.  He ended up being taken prisoner by the Germans, but later escaped and rejoined the Allies.  The Airborne Museum was really cool and interactive, I would highly recommend visiting!  There were several buildings that housed different parts of the museum.  We walked through model planes amongst life-sized soldiers, saw paraphernalia from the D-Day invasions, and even got to “feel the wind” as we were able to *experience* what it would be like to be a paratrooper during the invasions.  Benjamin wanted nothing to do with that part of the museum (and I would advise parents not to take very young children through it, as it is a bit overwhelming; our friends’ 2.5 year old did okay, but was still a little bit frightened by it), so B and I took turns.

Next, we made our way to Utah Beach, one of the American beaches.  It was, in essence, just a beach, but there were memorials, and it was surreal to be standing on the very same beaches these young men stormed so many years ago.  After taking a moment to let it all sink in, we decided to move to our next destination: the American Military Cemetery.

The cemetery makes the whole experience of Normandy incredibly real.  The sheer number of crosses and vast expanse of land dedicated to the cemetery is overwhelming and humbling.  As I write this, I find myself having a difficult time finding the words to even express the experience.  Hopefully my photos will help, otherwise, I hope you get the opportunity to visit this area one day.

Omaha Beach was next on our tour, the other American beach.  Again, it is another beach with memorials and reminders of its grim past, but being there was just so strange and trying to put into words how it felt is beyond me.

It was getting late in the day, and we had only really snacked throughout the day, so we were all getting hungry.  However, we really wanted to see Pointe-Du-Hoc, as it was highly recommended by many.  We made our way there, and I was so glad we went.  Please take some time to read about the invasions and all of the places I am mentioning, as they are all worth it.  I cannot adequately describe these places and events in a few sentences.  At Pointe-Du-Hoc, we saw the cratered cliffs and were able to go into some of the German areas of fortification.  The views were also pretty incredible.

After our long day of heavy and powerful sightseeing, we decided we would head back to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer for dinner again.  As I mentioned, the sights throughout Normandy are fairly spread out, so we had done a lot of driving, walking, and hauling the kids in and out of the car.  They did absolutely incredible…..until our drive to dinner.  We were still about 30-45 minutes away from the town when all hell broke loose in our car.  Marybel was hungry and crying, and Benjamin thought it would be funny to mimic her cries, so he was both screaming and laughing for most of the ride.  I felt awful for my college roommate, who was sitting between them in the back seat.  I’m sure I scarred her for life and provided the best birth control ever!  We finally made it back to the town, and settled on Les Gourmands Disent for dinner.  We all enjoyed both dinner crepes and dessert crepes!  Delicious!  Once again, we ended our night with some wine and good conversation.

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Sunday was another full day of sightseeing, with lots of time in the car again.  The plan was to head to Mont St. Michel in the morning, then squeeze in anything we felt we missed the previous day in the afternoon.  I had heard from friends who had visited Mont St. Michel that it was incredibly beautiful from the outside, but that the inside was nothing super special and that it was usually packed elbow to elbow, as the pathways were super narrow.  We had all decided that we would see how we were feeling when we arrive as to whether or not we would venture inside.

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The drive from Langrune-Sur-Mer to Mont St. Michel was about an hour and half.  You could start to see the island from quite a bit out, as it is set up so high.  It’s magnificent to see in real life!  I think we pulled over at least twice to take photos from afar before we even got to the parking lot.  The island is sometimes surrounded by water, other times not, depending on the tide.  We all arrived at the visitor center around 10:30am, and immediately agreed that we should definitely go inside the small village.  Luckily, the employee at the visitor center advised us not to bring our stroller, as the pathways were steep and cobblestone.  I carried Marybel in the Lillebaby, and Benjamin half walked, half rode on daddy’s shoulders.

**As a side note, we used to have an Ergo baby carrier, but sold it and bought the Lillebaby mesh once Marybel was born.  I loved my Ergo, but I like that the Lille can be used from birth (8lbs and up) without an insert, can forward face (only recommended for short periods of time), and that it is the mesh version, so it is much more breathable than the Ergo.

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Anyway, there are several ways to get from the visitor center to the island; you can walk, take a free shuttle bus, or arrive by horse and carriage for €5.30.  We chose to truly live in the moment and took a horse and carriage ride.  Not only did the kiddos love it, it gave fantastic views along the way.  Had we known French, we probably could’ve learned a whole lot along the way as well 🙂  I think if we had unlimited time and didn’t have the kids, we might have walked out there, just for the experience.  The whole area is just breathtaking.

Once inside the walled village, we mostly just wandered and took a ton of pictures.  While I could totally imagine that it could get packed in the high tourist season, I am so glad we went in for the full experience.  The town was adorable (though most of the restaurants and shops were super overpriced), and there were some really great photo ops.  Since we were kind of on the shoulder/off-season, it was busy, but not terribly packed.  Before heading out, we stopped at a little restaurant (I don’t know what it was called 😦 ), where I had the most delicious omelette!

**Here is a picture of Benjamin having one of his epic “silent tantrums” on our walk back to catch the shuttle bus to the parking lot….

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As we headed back toward the area of Langrune-Sur-Mer, we discussed what D-Day sights we felt like we missed out on from the previous day, and all agreed that we would like to see the German Military Cemetery.  My roommate had been told to go to both the American and German cemeteries, if only to compare the two.  Both the kiddos fell asleep on the drive to the cemetery, so B and I took turns checking out the grounds.  It certainly was different from the American cemetery.  While it was kept neat and nice just like the other one, the grave markers were simple, small plaques on the ground, rather than the pristine white crosses, and most of the plaques indicated two fallen soldiers, rather than just one.  I’m glad we experienced this sight, I think it was important to see the “other side”.

From there, we had absolutely no agenda, so we just sort of drove around, looking for signs for interesting D-Day sights.  We ended up at Arromanches, which was used as a portable harbour for the Allied forces.  The beach here was recently used as the location for a memorial art installation in which two British artists (along with volunteers) etched 9000 life-size silhouettes in the sand, representing those who lost their lives on D-Day.  The images from the installation are stunning!  We stopped at a lookout area, then headed town to the actual town.  The town was adorable, and the beach was beautiful, especially in the late afternoon lighting.  While many of the towns and memorials paid tribute to the United States and Allied forces, this town in particular paid a great deal of respect with lots of signs and memorabilia.  We had a yummy dinner [and dessert] at Au 6 Juin {note the reference to D-Day!} before we drove back to our apartment.

That evening was spent packing up and drinking yet more wine.  The following morning, we had to drop my roommate back off in Caen to catch the train before we headed back to the airport to go back home.

**I don’t really want to end this post on a bad note, as we had such an amazing, meaningful weekend in Normandy, but our experience at the airport heading back was less than fabulous.  First, we tried to return our rental car, but no one was at the rental place, so we couldn’t figure out how to get it back to where it belonged.  Finally, our friend found a code for the gated parking lot on the rental agreement (which we were NOT informed of when we picked up the car).  While the boys parked the cars, the girls got everything prepped for security and VISA checks with the littles.  Security was a nightmare.  As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, Deauville’s airport was tiny.  The line for security was literally one teensy, tiny room with one scanner.  We thought we had everything ready (bags/coats/etc in bins, iPad out of the backpack, belts off, items out of pockets, etc.).  Marybel was in the carrier, as she was on the way through security at London Stansted, and I still had my boots on, just as I had in London.  We had Benjamin out of the stroller, as they usually have us push the stroller through, then carry him through with us.  Well, they first made us take our iPad out of the case.  No biggie.  Then, they told me I couldn’t wear Marybel through, I had to take her out of the carrier, take the carrier off and send it through the machine, and take my boots off before coming through.  Meanwhile, they made us fold up the stroller, then Benjamin had to walk through on his own {not a huge deal, as one of us was on each side, but still super annoying as he was already cranky and upset}.  They wanted to pat me down, so once the stroller was through, I unfolded it to put Marybel in it for a few minutes so that I could get patted down and put my shoes back on.  Well, while I was doing that, they took Brandon aside as well to get patted down, so Benjamin was trying to climb in “his” stroller with Marybel, and most of the workers didn’t speak English, so we struggled to ask them if one of us could go get the kiddos and then switch once the other was finished.  Finally, we were able to put all of our stuff back tougher and get Marybel back in the carrier just in time to get on the plane.  It was by far the worst experience I have had at an airport, and I have been to many, many airports in my travels!

That aside, our weekend in Normandy was fantastic, given the atmosphere of the visit.  I am so glad we were able to experience this incredibly important historical place; it is something I will never forget.

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