04 July, 2011

Weekendje Weg - Normandy

When we were discussing what we should do for the Ascension Day holiday, I was super excited that Maarten suggested that we visit Le Mont Saint Michel.  It has been on my bucket list ever since my oldest and dearest friend Fleur spent her student exchange year in France and wrote wonderful letters on onion skin paper telling me all about it.  Incidentally Fleur now writes for a living, and is insanely good at it.

So anyway, we decided to make the most of our four day long weekend and drive down to Le Mont St Michel, with a little diversion to Giverny and Claude Monet’s garden.  His beautiful garden that inspired some of his most famous works of art.  We would drive down at a leisurely pace, camping in our awesome new tent and just generally having a nice quiet time away.

Oh, how naive was I?!  It started off all very lovely.  Hardly any traffic and winding through gorgeous french villages munching on our pain au chocolats and when we arrived in Giverny there was not another soul to be seen.  To be honest we weren’t even sure if we were in the right place as the village is tiny and there was nobody around.  We parked and went looking for the garden.  In the distance we started to see a few people and then all of a sudden it was like the floodgates had opened - people absolutely everywhere!  Bus loads of them.  All heading towards the garden.  And beginning to queue half way down the street.  Now, I knew that the garden would be busy.  I expected a lot of people.  I just did not expect THAT many people.  

Nearly at the front of the queue!
With drooping shoulders I joined the queue while Maarten bounced off to check that this was actually a queue for the garden and not an ice cream stand.  Maarten tends to bounce.  Especially when he knows my mood is potentially going to get worse.  He over compensates.  “The queue’s not that bad!  It’s moving quite well!” bouncy bounce bounce (should I be calling him Tigger, perhaps?).  I love him for it.  Even though it makes me sigh (and I’m a sighing pro), it means he’s perceptive enough to know when I’m not happy and tries to turn it around before it ruins both our days.

But back to the garden.  When we made it to the front of the queue about an hour or so later (it probably wasn’t that long, but this makes for a better story) we discovered that there was ONE ticket counter!  ONE!  There were about 15 different ways I could have improved the system at a glance and at €9 per person entry, they could certainly afford to make some improvements!

Once in, the crush of people didn’t really ease either.  You have to enter the garden via the gift shop and then if you need to use the toilet, forget it.  There are four ladies loos for everyone in the garden.  The pathways were completely filled with people, so there is a lot of pushing and yelling “ParDON!” which isn’t that much fun when you are trying to admire the beautiful peonies, poppies and waterlillies.  
"The" Waterlily Pond
"The" Bridge
Foxglove, I have these in my own garden!

By this stage I was starting to feel a bit disheartened.  Visiting Monet’s Garden was supposed to be a dream come true.  I mean, I have loved Monet’s paintings since I was a little girl when my BFF Amy introduced me to him via a pack of greeting cards.  When I saw my first Monet in the National Gallery in London I shed a tear and had a bit of a “Beatles Moment.”  Visiting the garden although it was beautiful, was far too crowded and not something I would honestly recommend.  While you can certainly see the ‘sights’ like the waterlillies and the bridge, don’t expect to be able to have a quiet moment or to be able to take a photo without approximately 4000 people picture pooping it.  Unless you are a die hard Monet fan, give it a miss.

Just a few people on the bridge
Looks like the Tower of London, right?
From Giverny we headed further west and decided to camp in a beautiful little city called Falaise.  I would have really thought it was more of a village than a city, but it has a cathedral, so....

Our campground was smack in the middle of town and our view was the castle of the Duke of Normandy.  Otherwise known as William the Conqueror’s dad.  William the Conqueror was born in Falaise and although a bastard, was recognised as the duke’s heir upon his death (when William was 7 years old).  We all know the story of his triumph at Hastings and beyond and how he reformed England and created the Doomsday Book, but I never actually realised that he had a tenuous claim to the English throne through his aunt Emma of Normandy.  It turns out Emma was married to two Kings of England, two of her sons were kings and so were two of her step sons before William.  William had even tricked one of the Harolds to swear fealty to him in an early attempt to nab the English throne.  And here I was, thinking I was a bit of an arm chair expert in all things Royal..!

I really liked the campground.  It was cheap, central and had great showers.  however, don’t expect a seat for your toilet when you stay in French campgrounds (or use French public toilets for that matter).  I’m still not sure of the protocol.  Do I sit, squat, climb up on top?  I’m lucky to be blessed with a large arse, so I just give the bowl a good clean then sit.  In case you were interested.

We wandered around town and searched for a place to eat.  Eating out in the old part of town turned out to be quite a challenge!  We ended up in a small pizza restaurant which was all right, but expensive.  Plus the pizza was served with a raw egg cracked on top, which is just not right as far as I’m concerned!  Pineapple on pizza yes, raw egg no.

It was a long drive the next morning across to Le Mont St Michel.  We were in the business of avoiding toll freeways (most of the freeways in France have tolls.  It’s somewhere in the region of €40 to drive between Lille and Paris!), and it was beautiful driving through small villages and enjoying the countryside.

I did let out a little squee when I saw the Mont for the first time in the distance.  I must have looked like all those tourists I used to take to Ayers Rock!  I would tell them about 100km out that the rock would be coming up soon and that I would buy a beer for the first one to spot it.  Then I would just enjoy the neck craning and the oohing and aahing in the mirror as I drove along for the next 40km.

There was lots of “We’re nearly there!” and “This is so exciting,” until we hit the traffic jam.  About 6km out.  We just knew it was going to be a nasty, nasty jam so as soon as we could, we pulled over at a campground and booked in for the night.  From there it was a 30 minute walk across the causeway to the Mont.  The camping was well equipped and quite well priced.  The owners could have easily charged double the price, but haven’t taken advantage of that opportunity which is wonderful.

We were glad that we decided to park and walk.  We could certainly walk faster than cars could drive and we didn’t have to pay.  So bear that in mind if you’re planning to visit.  Parking at the Mont is €4 and you are still up to a 15 minute walk away.  Walking is less stressful and cheaper!  

But speaking of stressful, once we were through the gates and into the village on the Mont, it was madness.  Mosh pit madness.  We found that the best way to the top and to avoid the crowds (a bit) was to take the steep stairs.  We didn’t bother with the sloping streets as we would have never made it to the top and I would most definitely have spat the dummy.

Once at the entrance to the abbey we joined yet another queue to get inside only to discover that the French like to queue less than the Dutch, so there was much pushing in and pretending that they were allowed to be there.  The big revelation was that when we made it to the head of the queue, we could have bought the tickets online and missed the queues!  (you can also do this for Monet’s Garden here).

The Abbey was sensational.  It was also insanely busy.  It wasn’t until that afternoon that we realised it was also a national holiday in France.  Perhaps we would have re-planned our weekend if we had known in advance.  obviously I will be checking from now on before we go anywhere!

The tide was also out while we were there, so we could walk around the Mont and dip our feet in the water.  It was a fairly warm day, so my feet were in beach heaven.  By the time we started walking back to the campground we noticed that the other tide (of the traffic variety) had also changed.  Instead of there being a jam coming onto the causeway, now it was going to take hours for cars to get off!  So it was with big smug smiles that we sauntered past all the frustrated drivers.  As the sun set we walked over towards the Mont to see it all lit up, and it really was spectacular.  A must.

We decided to eat out in the small village despite the guide books telling us that everywhere was ordinary.  After a stroll around deciding everything was over priced, we settled on La Bergerie.  To its credit, the service was very good.  But the food was less than appetising and forgettable.  I can’t even remember what I chose except my dessert, which was a microwaved chocolate ‘torte’.  If the chef was a Masterchef competitor, he would have been eliminated for sure.

Our last two days were spent driving through Normandy, first to Caen, then on to Rouen and then Amiens.  Caen was the seat of Williem the Conqueror when he was still just the boring old Duke of Normandy, and Rouen is where he was buried (although only a thigh bone remains of his body).  Rouen is also where France’s patron (and possibly the world’s most famous) saint, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy.  All three cities have churches and/or castles on a grand scale, but even I, a seasoned castle fanatic, had had my fill by the end.  Although the cathedral at Amiens should have had a great impact, I was done.  The weather had changed, it was cold and wet, and I just wanted to get home.

We made the journey home via La Somme.  La Somme is probably the best known site and the site of one of the ugliest battles of World War One, with more than 1.2 million casualties.  visiting the memorials of La Somme was the greatest highlight (if you could call it that) of the trip.  Walking through the Canadian memorial, where you can see the best preserved trenches was heart wrenching.  I don’t know what it is about WWI, but just the mention of it affects me deeply.  Perhaps the madness of it all.  How the Australians (and New Zealanders and Canadians) came to be there when they had no business at all in that war.

One of the Australian memorials at Le Somme

My top tips for visiting Normandy and Mont St Michel

1.    Plan ahead.  Think about when you want to go and check to see if your dates correspond with national holidays in France.  If they do, think about a different location.  The vast majority of French holiday within France, so you won’t find a quiet spot to save your life.

2.    Book online!  Check beforehand if any of the national monuments that you’re planning to visit have tickets available online.  Queues are horrendous and Frenchies aren’t a fan of waiting their turn.  Having a ticket in your hand to skip the queue might just save your sanity.

3.    Camp.  French campgrounds are cheap and (usually) have good facilities.  You just need to get used to taking your own toilet paper and not having a seat to sit on...

4.    Bypass the toll freeways.  The freeways are expensive and the countryside is just stunning.  Why pay a fortune to drive on a four lane freeway when you can drive almost alongside it for free, visiting some gorgeous villages along the way.

5.    Pain au Chocolat.  I’m glad I don’t live in France to be honest.  But having said that, if I did, you’d always know where I was.  In the local boulangerie.  Shoving croissants and pastries into my face indiscriminately.

6.     Arrive at Le Mont St Michel late in the afternoon.  This will help you to avoid the queues (in traffic and on the Mont) and the abbey is open late everyday anyway.  Plus when the Mont is lit up at night it is incredibly beautiful.  Like a fairytale.

7.    Avoid eating out at Le Mont St Michel.  The restaurants are expensive and underwhelming.  We had bought a can of sausages and sauerkraut that would have been more appetising that whatever it was that we ate at a restaurant.

8.    Perhaps consider arriving at Monet’s Garden at opening time.  By the middle of the day there are just too many people for the experience to be enjoyable.

9.    Don’t miss Le Somme.  Although this is not actually in Normandy, if you are travelling down towards Normandy from the north you will need to pass through Le Somme.  It is a vital part of history and the million plus people who were killed there deserve that we pay our respects.

10.    Don’t over do the cathedrals.  Rouen and Amiens both have spectacular cathedrals, but after the over load of beautiful architecture in the days before, I was a bit meh about them.  That’s a big shame as they deserve better!
Have you been to Normandy?  Did I miss something that I should have visited?  What advice can you offer someone who is planning to visit the region?

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