Two weekends ago, some friends and I adventured our way through Normandy on an “organized” excursion. Jean & Joy are here on a Fulbright as well, like Jasmine and I, but they are doing a research + masters program instead of English teaching. Our trip to Normandy was the first time the four of us had traveled together. While there was more than a few hick-ups along the way, the beautiful views of St. Michel and the sleepy and picturesque Deauville more than made up for it. More than anything though, it was the great company that really made the trip a memorable one.
Youth Events Paris is an organization that puts together various budget-friendly excursions and meet-ups for youths in Paris. A lot of people on the trip were language assistants of some sort. There was also one woman with her friend and her 4 year old son. It’s a good crowd and they are slightly different each trip.
Our first stop was Mont St. Michel. A UNESCO World Heritage site, St. Michel sits in a bay about 600 meters from land. It is accessible during low tide, and stands as an island during high tide. This natural ebb and flow made it a great fortification during the 100 Years War, and subsequently a great prison during French Ancien Regime. An abbey and monastery sit at the top of Mont St. Michel and thousands of people have gone there on pilgrimage. Today, the little island welcomes over 2.5 million visitors a year.
A shuttle runs from the welcome center to the island. My travels mates, a few other people on the trip and I got separated from the main group because we didn’t quite fit on the bus that everyone else had crowded into. It didn’t take long for the next bus to arrive and it dropped us off several yards from the entrance of Mont St. Michel. It allowed for some great far off shots of the island, but it also meant we had to fight wind and rain as we tried to finish crossing the bridge.
We spent the first several minutes on the island looking for the rest of our group but it soon became evident that they were long gone. There seems to be one main path that winds its way around the Island. It’s main attraction is the Abbey at the top center of this natural and architectural wonder. The narrow streets leading up to the Abbey were crowded in with gift shops, restaurants and hotels. It was quite clear what Mont St. Michel’s top revenue came from.
The further up we climbed, the more spectacular our view got! In one of the Abbey towers, we were able to see for miles around us – and this is all on a cloudy day. I’m curious what it would look like on a clear day. The abbey itself was filled with large rooms whose purposes weren’t always evident. Perhaps we should have invested in the audio guides – yay for budget travel.
We made our way back down the mountain and attempted to find our trip mates and some food. Many restaurants were beginning to close for the break between lunch and dinner. We finally found our trip mates at the one hotel-restaurant that was still open – it looked like the whole island was in there. We found some seats and after tracking down a waiter or two, we were finally handed menus and our order was taken. This was all over the span of about 20 minutes. Within minutes of receiving our food, it was suddenly made clear to us that we had to get on the bus immediately, or it would be leaving without us. We scarfed down the rest of our food, tracked another another waiter so we could pay and rushed for the shuttle. We made it on time with the vast majority of our group – reunited at last.
Another few hours on the bus – did we accidentally just pay for a trip that would mostly end up being on the bus, we thought. Finally, in the evening, we arrived in Caen, the capital of Normandy. We settled into a budget motel and found food at a cute local restaurant, La Ficelle. One of Normandy’s specialties is buckwheat crepes, so Jaz, Jean, Joy and I all got variations of that. Mine came with Chantilly cream, ham, Camembert and an egg on top. And we all had a delicious 5.50euros cocktail called Lagon Bleu – not the be confused with that night’s special cocktail for 5euros: The Blue Lagoon. We were supposed to meet the rest of the group at an Irish pub around 9:30, but our food and conversation was so good, we did not leave until around 11:30. By the time we got to the Pub, we didn’t see anyone and just made out way back to the hotel, convinced we missed the crowd. We found out the next day that they had all been dancing in the back.
Breakfast the next morning was “all you can eat” bread and portioned out croissants. Jaz and I made our way to the bus meeting spot early so that we could check out the town’s Sunday morning market. On our walk, and as the whole group chased down our bus, we saw a good part of Caen. It’s a very small town, with relatively boring architecture and a few amazing sites – that are all next to each other. A beautiful Norman Style church stands across a wide descending avenue from a subtle but visually jarring castle. Looking at the castle, you thought perhaps you were in the country side, not the middle of Normandy’s capital.
Caen didn’t seem quite as sleepy though when we arrived in Deauville. Deauville is a beautiful French town with cobbled city center and not much else to do besides shopping, walking on the long cold beach collecting shells and the American film festival once a year. We wandered along the beach and allowed ourselves to get lost in the center of town before eating and making our way back to the bus – on the next city!
Upon arriving at Honfleur, a few of us were a bit ready to be heading home instead – especially with the cold rain that was falling intermittently. We walked into town anyways. Jean and Joy went exploring art galleries and in search of a secret garden with a great view of Pont de Normandy. Jaz and I stayed near the town entrance looking through souvenirs and discussing gun control with our Australian friend, Adelaide. We found it fascinating that there were guns for sale in a French shop window. We ended up having some tea at a local restaurant, just so we could use the bathroom.
The important part was that we made it back to Paris intact and actually an hour early. This weekend was definitely memorable and I’m happy to be seeing a different side of France. The fresh air at Mont St. Michel was a great break from the constant assault of smells in Paris (more on that soon).