26 August 2015

I went to France in August! Part the First

"Don't go to France in August," they said. "It's beastly hot, it's full of tourists, all the real French people are on holiday somewhere else, and half of Paris will be closed," they said.

After years of heeding this advice and going to France in almost any other month, this year August was the best time for us to go. So we went. And you know what? It was fine! It was fun, even. It was no less pleasant than visiting in November or January, and the people-watching was a lot more interesting.

Since we've lived abroad, my husband and I--and our daughter, now that she's joined us--have managed a France trip at least once a year. Paris, usually, but the last few years we've taken longer trips and visited other regions (as well as a few days in Paris at the beginning and the end). This year was my parents' 45th Wedding anniversary, and the 10th anniversary of the family trip where my husband and I got engaged, so we decided to celebrate by inviting my parents to join us for a week in France during their usual long summer visit to their grandchild.

Part I: Normandy

The Rouen Cathedral was lovely.
We did that thing I swore I'd never do again, after the last time: we flew into Paris, rented a car at the airport, and drove immediately to Normandy. When will I learn? Even if the traffic isn't completely appalling (and, honestly, this was the first trip where it wasn't--another point in August's favor), leaving Paris immediately means hours and hours of planes and cars, instead of a few hours' travel and then relaxing at your destination. We stopped at Rouen for dinner and a bit of sight-seeing, which was delightful but meant we didn't fetch up at Bayeux--where the beds and showers of the cozy Churchill Hotel were expecting us--until nearly 11 p.m.

And then, early the next morning, we got back in the car for the drive to Mont Saint-Michel. Because it was August, and the guidebooks all said we had to get there early to beat the crowds. (The three-year-old cried buckets when she saw the car waiting for her first thing after breakfast. I sympathized.)

Naptime outside the Abbey at Mont Saint-Michel
Here was yet another nail in the coffin of the "Don't go to France in August!" myth. Because Mont Saint-Michel, while indeed crowded, was also stunningly well-equipped to handle the crowds. The parking lot is clearly marked and well laid-out, and shuttles run constantly. There's a visitors' center right near the parking lot, which we didn't have time to check out because we were already getting on the bus. I even saw signs for a dog kennel, since dogs are not allowed on the island itself.

I had expected to get off the shuttle bus and find a long, long line of people waiting to buy tickets to get through the gates. And I was wrong on both counts. There's no ticket to enter the town, only to visit the museums--and, frankly, the queues for the museum we visited weren't extreme. Every time we stopped to eat at a restaurant, we were seated immediately and served promptly (though there were lots of people waiting patiently at the takeaway sandwich places, which is why we decided on restaurants). A crowded Mont Saint-Michel just meant that we were surrounded by lots of other happy, excited people on their holidays.

(And a couple of screaming, over-stimulated children. Not mine, fortunately. But considering how many kids of all ages were happily accompanying their parents up and down the steep staircases and through the narrow streets, that we only saw a few major kid-meltdowns near the Abbey almost makes one believe in miracles.)

Bringing water back up the beach for hole-filling purposes.
"Don't go to France in August!" they said, and they completely failed to mention that France--Normandy, anyway--has a coastline. And beaches. Such that going to France in August can afford you a lovely, hot, sunny morning for building sandcastles and jumping over waves near the memorial on Omaha Beach. You can even chat in French with the other families who are there doing the same thing, as it turns out that quite a few of the tourists in France in August are from other parts of France.

It was a bit weird to look around the site of the Allied invasion, with the giant memorial right there, and rub sunscreen on my kid's nose and send her down to the ocean with her bucket and spade. But I got over it. Right beside the memorial is a series of placards with the history of the beaches, and of course, being beautiful, they were a resort location long before they were occupied and then liberated. I'd hate to see a place with potential for so much happiness barred from it forever because some people were awful there for a few years three generations ago. If I were being flippant, I'd say that to close the beaches to beach-going in perpetuity would be to let the Nazis win.

A picnic-free bomb crater, with rubble.
We also saw an elaborate family picnic at Pointe du Hoc (an invasion site managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission). Right there in the bomb craters, which have been left as they were seventy years ago, to show the extent of the damage to the countryside. Our guide said that usually the staff at the memorial site will inform picnickers that they are at a solemn site, despite all the wild flowers and sunshine.

Gravestones are not for climbing.
We decided to take a tour to the Normandy invasion sights, rather than just going ourselves, because (a) TripAdvisor/Viator's marketing is effective even when it's creeping me out and (b) I was worried about things like parking at the sites, and deciding which of them to see. I ended up really glad we went that route, even though doing so with a three-year-old was a bit of a challenge (we ended up with an unscheduled break to eat frites and watch the waves next to the National Guard memorial, and later there was a bit of difficulty explaining to a pre-schooler the difference between "The Normandy American Cemetery" and "a park"). Our guide loved D-Day history and had all kinds of stories to tell (in fluent English), and we learned much more than we would have from just going to the sites and reading the placards. 

We also picked up another advantage to going to France in August: while the D-Day sites were as crowded as everything else, they were nothing, per our guide, to the lines that accrue in June, around the anniversary of the landing. Really, France in August just gets better and better.

The tour was in the afternoon, and that morning we took advantage of having Grammy and Granddaddy with us to let them explore the cathedral in Bayeux with their granddaughter (who has a thing for statues) while Gino and I saw the Bayeux Tapestry. (My parents had seen it the previous afternoon, while the rest of us napped.) Thank goodness for grandparents! There's no way the three-year-old would have let us actually listen to the audio tour, or take more than a cursory glance at the tapestry itself. Between the exploits of William the Conqueror in the morning and a tour of WWII sites in the afternoon, we had a very martial day for our last full day in Normandy.

A rope/plank bridge at William the
Conqueror's chateau
Since the young 'un had put up with a lot of grown-up sightseeing on Tuesday, we pretty much scheduled Wednesday around whatever sounded like fun for her. Wednesday was also the day we had to get ourselves from Bayeux to Paris, but we worked it out by stopping at William the Conqueror's castle in Caen on the way. Once we finally found the entrance, the chateau was pretty much all our little family needed: we spent most of the morning at the nice playground right near the entrance, took a quick spin through the Musee de Normandie's exhibit on neanderthals, and finished up with a much nicer-than-anticipated lunch at the Musee des Beaux-Arts, whose museum cafe turned out to be a fairly fancy restaurant. (Albeit with a ham, cheese, and mozzarella tartine on the menu, so even the little one ate well.)

Then we got back in the car, and--ta-da! How often does this happen?--she fell fast asleep, just as I'd planned, for most of the three-hour drive to our hotel in Paris.

Paris, of course, was a whole different adventure for a whole new blog post. But still worth visiting in August! Stay tuned.

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