Damaged car rentals, “Le Big Macs,” tired kids, and a French Farmhouse that not only held the promise of rest, but our first lesson in history. Our European adventure began with Littles in London for days 1 – 7 and Brudder Scotch: Scotland with Kids for days 7- 11.
Day 11: June 22 - Arriving in Normandy, France
We arrived an hour later than expected in Dinard, France (via two short flights: one Edinburgh to London-Stansted and the other London-Stansted to Dinard) due a delay caused by the air traffic control strike in France. Luckily, the car rental shops stayed open to accommodate. But not so luckily, they didn’t have enough cars for both families. Until, after almost two hours, the darling Maud from Hertz found my family a car being held out for bodywork. The one catch: we could only have it for one day because it was due at the shop and wasn’t technically supposed to be hired out. And the other catch: our charming French farmhouse was a 90-minute drive from the airport, which meant a three-hour round trip commute the next day to exchange rental cars. But, when traveling, you’ve got to be flexible and make do when things don’t go your way.
With our slightly damaged rental car (you really couldn’t even see the body damage) and some very tired kids, we started out for our Farmhouse. But first, we swung through the McDonald’s drive-thru out of desperation and convenience. And after hilariously bloopered attempts from our party to order some Le Big Macs using French, English and a little accidental Spanish thrown in for good measure, we had laughed away most of the stress of the car rental disaster, and used most of our emergency Euros.
As we sped through the sunset-blanketed French countryside, bellies full of French frites, we were grateful that our accommodating Farmhouse host, another great Kid & Coe find, was waiting half into the night for our arrival.
Travel Tip: It’s handy to keep a little “emergency currency” in your travel wallet in situations where you need cash before you can find a bank (if you don’t change money at the airport, or if you fly into a small, regional airport that doesn’t have money changing services.) Our McDonald’s drive thru craziness would have been compounded without my thirty emergency Euros because our credit cards weren’t working in their machines for whatever reason.
Day 12: June 23 - Rental Car Swap, Exploring the French Farmhouse, Playing at Sword and Beaches
The two moms got up early and raced back off to St. Malo (about 12 K away from Dinard with a train station and a better selection of rental cars) for a car swap. While we did that, with a slight detour for some French pastries for ourselves, the dads stayed home and supervised the six boys in a game of Monopoly. And in some chocolate croissant eating of their own.
By the time the moms returned with the new rental car, the fathers and sons had explored the farmhouse and surrounding property, including sheep and horses. They had also discovered that the Farmhouse had an interesting history; during World War II it housed refugees within its thick, stone walls. We were in Normandy, of course, to visit the war museums and memorials, but we’d picked this farmhouse because it was so cute and French. And now we were not only staying in a cute, French farmhouse, but also in the very part of the history we’d hoped to explore.
Around noon we headed off to some local beaches with the main purpose of giving the boys a little play time. Yesterday had been a long travel day and we wanted them to fuel back up so they’d be able to better appreciate Omaha Beach and the other war sites we’d be visiting the next day.
We first stopped near Sword Beach, a little northwest of Caen, where we set up camp for a few hours and built sand castles and swam in the ocean. Although there is a memorial there to honor the 177 French green berets who helped liberate that section of the coast, the beach is mostly a regular beach filled with French sunbathers, some of whom were indeed topless (we had to remind our American boys beforehand that this was a distinct possibility and that they were to treat the sunbathers respectively by not staring.)
There was a white, wood beach shack on the edge of the sand with a patio full of red umbrellas that served crepes, typical French sandwiches and hamburgers. It made the perfect spot for lunch before heading out to beach number two. As we ate, we watched locals stroll along the bike path on foot and on cycles.
For beach destination number two, we decided to head east and drive across the river. There, we found a more ritzy beach town and a very low tide that provided an enormous stretch of sand covered in tiny shells. In addition to frolicking a little more in the water, they also scoured the exposed sand for treasures, including clams that they then gave to some local clam hunters. It was pretty perfect. Until one of the kids needed the bathroom and the only reasonably available one was housed inside a ritzy hotel. We became friends of an imaginary hotel guest of said hotel in order to use the facilities. And I don’t feel bad about it one bit.
We had just enough time back at the Kid & Coe farmhouse to say goodnight to the horse the boys had named Frank and bounce a few times on the trampoline before sinking into bed.
Travel Tip: Before visiting “emotional sites” while traveling with kids (like the American Memorial and Cemetery in Normandy or the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam), give them some time to blow off steam. Especially if you are coming off a travel day. Let them play at the park, build sand castles at the beach, hike a mountain, or take a walk around town — whatever feels restorative and gets some wiggles out. That way, they’ll get a needed physical release (and you might too) and they’ll be more open to experience the emotion of the site, and hopefully more likely to behave in a respectful way.
Day 13: June 24 - Bayeux War Museum, Commonwealth Cemetery, Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery and Memorial
Today was the big D-Day day. Based on recommendations from our Kid & Coe host and some previous research by my husband, we decided we’d first visit the Bayeux War Museum (The Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy at Bayeux) to get an overview of the war on the western front, and then visit the actual sites of battle.
The Bayeux Museum did a great job of doing just that. It had maps, timelines, weaponry displays (large and small), and features on major players from both the Allied and Nazi forces. Plus, it had a twenty minute black and white movie, with real war footage, that showed some of D-Day, but also some footage as the campaign moved across northern France.
We walked a short distance across the street to see the Commonwealth Cemetery, where 4,144 UK and Canadian soldiers are buried, most of whom perished in the Normandy Invasion, and almost 350 of whom are unidentified. There are also over 500 war graves of other nationalities, the majority of which are German. At the cemetery there is a large epitaph that reads: “We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land.”
With the Normandy Invasion starting to swirl in our heads, we took a break for lunch in the city center of Bayeux. Unlike many of its neighbors, like Caen, the small town of Bayeux survived the war largely untouched. We grabbed some jambon and fromage sandwiches and walked the cobble stones for an hour.
Omaha Beach is a quick twenty minute drive from Bayeux. As soon as we turned from the main country road and started descending towards the beach, we were hit with the beauty of the swatch of coast stretched out before us: caramel sand, turquois waters and a blue sky filled with clouds like rising dough.
Watching my sons play quietly on the sand made a stunning contrast to the sacrifice I knew thousands of other sons had made on that beach in 1944. Those sons came under the light of the moon and in rough waters, carrying seventy-five pounds of gear, and were greeted with whizzing bullets, mortar fire and a booby-trapped beach.
On the bluff above the beach, there are remnants of Nazi bunkers made of concrete thicker than the width of my body. Even with the hillside growing over them, it is still easy to see where the huge artillery guns were mounted and how much advantage they gave those soldiers over the ones below.
Past the bunkers and the statue on top of the hill is the American Cemetery and Memorial. I cannot fully describe what is there, but I can say it is truly a moving experience. The Memorial (which is more like museum) saturates you in that longest day and makes what happened on D-Day a personal experience. The cemetery beyond is lined with far too many white crosses, proud and powerful in their simplicity.
I was grateful we had an hour and a half drive to Le Havre directly after (Alan had to catch the late train to Paris) to try to process what we had just witnessed.
As I went to bed that night I was glad we were staying under a roof that once sheltered refugees of the war; it was an important juxtaposition to the sacrifices at Omaha Beach.
Travel Tip: Kids only have so much D-Day remembrance energy. Plan your Normandy visit so that you start with a more general overview of the war and invasion and then narrow it down. The Battle of Normandy Museum at Bayeux or the Arromaches D-Day Museum are good starting places. (Bayeux has also has a tapestry museum that is supposed to be excellent.) The American Cemetery and Museum at Omaha Beach is a must do. We thought it worked best to finish there.
Day 14: June 25 - Paris . . . and Operation Bacon
Late last night I got a panicked text from Alan: he’d left his passport at the farmhouse. He’d taken the train to Paris that night, instead of driving with us the following day, because his flight was early and it was going to be a real challenge to get our group up and out the door by 5AM to make the three-hour drive to Paris in time for it. But because of the passport error, we were left with that very option. We’d all have to suck it up and drive early to Paris. We named our task “Operation Bacon,” as in we were saving Alan’s bacon, and hauled our tired bodies out the door.
It started to rain on mid-way through the drive. That meant we were supposed to go 110 km/h instead of 130 km/h on the motorway. But it also meant Operation Bacon was in jeopardy. If we couldn’t go 130 km/h, we might not make it to Paris in time. And if we didn’t get to Paris in time, our herculean effort of packing up the luggage and hauling six kids out the door before sunlight (our lovely friends opted to join Operation Bacon so I didn’t have to do it solo because “that’s what friends do”) would all be for naught.
We pulled up to the curb at Terminal 4 of Charles De Gall Airport with only minutes to spare, swapped out Alan’s passport for the croissants he’d bought for the group, and sped out again waiting for confirmation about the mission’s success. Alan texted fifteen minutes later saying he’d been the last passenger ticketed on the flight.
The group celebrated our success by going to the Palace of Versailles. The kids weren’t totally sure that was good way to celebrate (there was a long line to get in even first thing in the morning and then many of the rooms were crowded in the palace) but the adults pointed out all of the gold leafing and decadent décor as evidence that it was clearly a celebratory place.
After lunch in Versailles we headed into the city to return our rental cars. If London’s roundabouts are a great white shark, Paris’ roundabouts can only be a megalodon. I accidentally entered the Arc de Triomphe roundabout, solo driving with three boys in the backseat, thanks to bad GPS directions while looking for a gas station — and we all lived to tell about it. Clark Griswold would be proud.
Because we only had one day in Paris, we knew we couldn’t do it all. Our group objectives were to 1) climb the Eiffel Tower and 2) eat nutella crepes. Since Versailles had somehow leapfrogged our list (the adults made the call because we had some extra hours in Paris thanks to Operation Bacon), we had to make good on the other two items, and STAT.
The boys had walked their ways through London, York, Edinburgh and Normandy so we decided to let them have a little pass in Paris. Instead of walking the mile to the Eiffel Tower from our condo on Avenue des Champs-Elyees, we negotiated a group rate on those silly carriage bikes. It was totally touristy, but it was great fun to be riding in the honking and flag-waving streets of Paris minutes after their football victory over Ireland.
Climbing the 669 stairs to the second floor of the Tower and getting a view of Paris was nothing short of spectacular. And it completely surprised me. I’d only agreed to climb the Eiffel because it was so important to my boys. Sure, I wanted to see the iconic landmark, but I didn’t need to go up it. But after we climbed the steel steps to the top, I was as excited by it as they were. I think all four of our faces were flushed, more from adrenaline than from physical exertion.
Via the metro we stopped by Notre Dame de Paris on the way to a famous crepe shop in the Marais District. My middle boy, who wants to go to the University of Notre Dame and really wanted to make the stop, was confused at the lack of a gold dome when we arrived at the cathedral. “I’ve seen pictures, mom, and THIS is not what Notre Dame looks like,” he told me. Oops. He forgave the error when I explained that this Notre Dame is kind of like the grandfather of that other Notre Dame. Or maybe a distant cousin.
Next stop: warm, gooey Nutella and banana crepes at the lovely La Droguerie du Marais. Our friends had been to Paris before and said this crepe shop could not be missed – and they were right. In addition to two Nutella crepes, we also had two vegetarians, two jambon and fromages, and one sugar and lemon juice crepe. They were all delicious. And what’s more, the bald-headed crepe maker let the kids pull up stools in the kitchen to watch him work. It’s hard to say if they liked the crepe making or the crepe eating more. No, it’s not. They liked the crepe eating more.
Travel Tip: Buy the tickets and hike the stairs to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower. Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, they are just stairs. But it’s also a real kick. And it’s the Eiffel Tower. After all of the amazing things we’ve done and places we’ve seen on this European Adventure, standing on that second floor observation deck looking out over Paris with my three boys by my side was complete and utter magic. My youngest slipped his hand in mine and whispered to me it was his favorite part of the trip. It may have been mine, too.
Day 15: June 25 - Paris to London via the Chunnel, then home
I wanted and didn’t want to take the Chunnel back to London. I wanted to because 1) it’s the fastest way to get back to London and 2) because it’s a train that goes under the English Channel; and I didn’t want to take the Chunnel because it’s a train that goes UNDER THE ENGLISH CHANNEL!
Putting my claustrophobia fears aside, we loaded on the Chunnel to London. This is after, of course, another 5 AM wake up, a thirty minute metro ride to the Eurostar train station at Gure du Nord, and a forty-five minute security/immigration process. Besides a delay out of Paris due to train traffic, the Chunnel ran smoothly.
We arrived at the St. Pancras/King’s Cross tube station forty minutes late but easily found the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow and used our Oyster Cards to pay our fares. An hour later, we were checking in to our flights and ready to head home.
Travel Tip: Take the Chunnel from Paris to London, or vice versa. Even if you are mildly claustrophobic, like me. It’s the fastest way to get between the two cities and it’s really cool to ride in the engineering marvel. There is wifi on board and you can track the train’s progress, even under the English Channel. But if you are going to travel on the Chunnel, make sure you by your tickets in advance. From Paris: Catch the train at the Gure de Nord station (if you take the metro or RER there, you’ll have to snake your way out of the basement and find Eurostar on the upper level of the station.) In London: The Chunnel stops in London at St. Pancras/King’s Cross. Getting to Heathrow: To get to Heathrow, follow the signs to the Piccadilly line (westbound) out of King’s Cross. You’ll have to know which terminal you depart out as one line services Terminals 4 & 1,2,3 and the other services Terminals 1,2,3 & 5. You can get that information by accessing www.heathrow.com