Across the Channel
Our first major trip to another country while living in England was France. We crossed the channel on the ferry from Dover to Calais. The channel ferries dwarf our ferries here in the Puget Sound. They are large, ocean going behemoths, with restaurants, bars, game rooms, lounges, gift shops, and even state rooms. The view from the ferry of the white cliffs of Dover is spectacular. The train underneath the channel is faster, but the ferry is the better way to travel.
When we docked in Calais, I had to drive our car off the ferry and onto French soil. The only problem was that I was accustomed to driving an American left-side car on the right side of the road, but had adjusted to driving our British right-side car on the left side of the road. Now, I was driving from the right-side of the car on the right-side of the road. Confusing? You bet! The French, realizing that their British neighbors would forget, placed huge signs on the pier as you disembarked your vehicle reminding you to drive on the correct side. We saw a few Brits quickly jump sides as they passed the signs. While you can legally bring your right or left side car into another country that drives on the opposite side of the road, you have 90 days to swap the steering wheel to the other side, which we found is possible, or get a new car.
Luckily, I figured out the right and left thing (mostly) and we headed for Normandy. France’s north coast is often overlooked by American tourists in favor of Paris or the warmer Mediterranean coast. However, I think it is an amazing place. Being a former Navy sailor, I very much wanted to see the area. The beaches of Normandy became infamous on June, 6, 1944 as Allied forces invaded them during D-Day. I have read numerous accounts of the fateful day and wanted to walk where so many gave so much that the cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer is filled with 9,387 white marble stones consecrating their heroic sacrifice; 307 read “Known only to God.”
Walking on those very same beaches, named Omaha, Utah, Sword, Juno, and Gold, gives you a clear perspective of the enormous obstacle that the soldiers faced. A little further west is Pointe du Hoc where the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion valiantly scaled the ocean cliffs to destroy Nazi guns that were not even there. You cannot be but humbled to stand there in awe of the magnitude of the assault. To their credit, the French maintain the memorial, including the American cemetery, in pristine condition. There is not a blemish on a single tombstone or weed in the acres of grass in the entire place. They truly treat it as hallowed ground.
The D-day Museum in Caen is incredible. It takes you through the invasion almost hour by hour. There are numerous displays, maps, artifacts, and personal accounts that help bring the invasion to life. There were not many dry eyes in the house. For our boys, the trip was a living history lesson. When they take history class and cover the subject of World War II, they will have a story to tell their teacher and classmates.
West of Normandy is Avranches, with Mont Saint Michel. I do not care that Rick Steves does not think very much of the cathedral fortress. It is impressive! Situated on a small island in the tidal flats of the channel, it sometimes is completely surrounded by water when the tide is in and mud when the tide is out. It is accessed by a narrow land bridge from the mainland. Entering the main gate is like stepping back in time. You spiral up the mount as you walk along the main street. Along the way are many interesting sights, merchants, and restaurants. When you finally get to the top, the view is awesome. In the monastery, devout pious monks still worship and pray.
Some advice, get duplicate room keys at the hotel. We were in Normandy over New Years. We got two hotel rooms, one for my wife and I and one for our two boys. They came over to say good night, but forgot their room key. The hotel manager went out for the night to celebrate. So instead of a night alone, we all camped out in one very small room with the dog. C’est la vie!
Check out our favorite places in France under the Top 10 page above!