Rouen Pedestrian Street and Cathedral

TRAVELLING WITH KIDS

 

Just a little pre-travel note for travelling with kids in Europe:  finding hotels with room for four or more can be a challenge; you may want to opt for two rooms- which also means two bathrooms- or make a point to ask if the roll-aways are big enough for your tall, American kids.  {We like hotels because we are breakfast fans, and love stumbling down for the best coffee and croissants in the world that we didn’t have to go out and buy or make, but in this day of house rental ease, you may want to opt for a more do-it-yourself kind of place, if travelling with kids in tow.}

 

Also, jetlag can be a bear- we found that our kids handled it just fine, while we, on the other hand, needed to acclimate with a nap here and there.  Make sure to bring activities for the kids in the event that they will have some downtime in the room.  We also found our appetites were akilter, so there were days in the beginning when didn’t sit down to meals, but rather grazed, often with hedonistic and entirely un-nutritious snacks, such as meringue the size of our kids’ faces.  (It’s okay, it’s vacation.)

Normandy

 

We knew we wanted to go back to France, but it was time, we thought, to experiment with an itinerary which we could do with our kids, ages 10 and 12.  Because we knew we were in for a trip that would likely be less checklist and more whim, we wanted to visit places that have activities to hold their interests, but also have educational value, outside of a the typical museum environment.  We wanted to give them a fun and memorable introduction to Europe, though we knew their memories over time would be limited- it was the experience we were after. (To this day, we get a kick out of asking them what they remember as, inevitably, they remember moments of excitement that we took for mundane.)

 

And, in order not to pull them out of school, we chose to go in November, a consideration we didn’t take lightly, given the wardrobe challenges and limits to activities.  Wintertime in Europe, while rainy, also means few tourists.  (Plus, there is the added bonus of the beginnings of the Christmas decoration) Some restaurants/towns thrive on tourism, and as such, are closed in low season, so finding places to eat was occasionally a challenge, but thanks to a little planning and those phones in our pockets, it was never too irksome of a task; after all, the fallback of crepes works with kids (and my husband) every time.

 

Our plan was to spend a few days acclimating in Paris, then onto Normandy, and finally, Venice. Sadly, a few weeks before our trip, Paris suffered a bombing, and given the high levels of security and other travel difficulties (getting to and from the airport, closed areas of town, our parental nerves), we decided to move on to Normandy early.  It was a terrific choice, as it gave us time we should have planned for originally.   We easily could have stayed a few more days in this region, enjoying the cheeses and pastries, abbeys and churches, cobblestoned streets, calvados and ciders, and the moving, poignancy of its history.  The coast is rugged, the towns quaint, and the areas in between show the real workings of France, the agriculture and wildlife, civilians and tradespeople (cidermakers, potters, lacemakers, metal forgers, and bakers).

ITENERARY

 

When planning our trip, I wanted to have one or two towns to use as home base while we visited the historic DDay beaches.  Deauville seemed too posh for us, though it might be a fun choice for an adults-only trip- or Trouville Sur Mer.  I settled on Honfleur and Bayeux based on their proximity to the beaches we wanted to see, their own historic relevance, and their size. We wanted a place big enough to explore on foot in our downtime, and which had some elements of interest and education for the kids.  We also had a time limit (and, likely, a patience limit, we realized), so we wanted to keep the driving and hotel-hopping to a minimum. 

 

  • Paris to Rouen-  (a straight, 2 hour shot, along the Seine and through a wildlife preserve)

  • Rouen to Honfleur (via Jumièges)

  • Honfleur to Bayeux (via Caen) (1 hr to Caen, 30 more to Bayeux)

  • Bayeux back to Paris and Venice (we left our car in Bayeux and trained back to Paris, 3.5 hrs)

Artistry en route to Rouen

The view from the Belfry next to the clock tower

The beautiful, timbered buildings of Rouen, Normandy

ROUEN

 

This city oozes history, known most famously for being the site of Jean D’Arc’s execution. The Notre Dame cathedral is an imposing figure, the façade of which attracted Monet’s brush.  The town center is a pedestrian-only shopping area, good for a stroll along its cobble stoned streets and timbered buildings, and in the middle is the Gros Horloge, a remarkable 14th century clock and belfry. The tower offers sweeping views of the town, including the cathedral.  The small museum highlights its history and shows the inner workings of the machinery which, remind your kids, works without electricity.  This clock was built to have only one hand, but marks the weeks and is a beautiful piece of art worth a visit.

 

The one-handed Gros Horloge in the middle of town.

The view of the pedestrian area in Rouen from the clock tower

Last, but not least, visit the square of Jean D’Arc’s last moments where she was burned at the stake (She was accused of witchery by the English troops, against whom she had led an army at the age of 18.  King Charles of France allowed her to be executed in exchange for his life and indentured servitude to the English in 1431).  Here you will find a monument, a church, a pretty little square and garden and a fabulous market several days of the week.  It was the kids’ first stroll through a market and quite an eyeful.  Normandy cheeses worth a try (grab a picnic!) are the heart-shaped Neufchatel, Livarot, Pont-l’Éveque, camembert, Crillat-Savarin and don’t forget the butter!  I couldn’t get over the prepared foods in this market: next to the octopus marinating in olive juice and lemons were small seafood quiches.  Ambrosial.

  

Église catholique Saint-Maclou

The Site of Jean d'Arc's execution and  the Jean d'Arc church

The market at  Place du Vieux Marché, Rouen 

Hotel

Hôtel de la Cathédrale is steps from the cathedral, in a small little alleyway.  It is chock full of charm- split staircases, crooked stairs, meandering hallways, a beautiful garden area and a warm, breakfast room with wooden beams and chintzy art.  The hot chocolate hit the spot for our rainy weather, and yet they served fresh figs the size of my palm.  There is a fat cat to welcome you and a superbly friendly staff.  The hotel will give you parking instructions before your arrival. 12 rue Saint Romain

Just a few steps up the street is the creperie Le Saint Romain, 52 Rue Saint-Romain, 76000 Rouen, France.  Simple, clean, and an easy meal if you are tired and ready for bed.  

Do wander around town if you have time.  We happened upon a beautiful luthier, Il Pleut des Cordes, where we could watch the masters make their instruments.   It was hard to pull away.

Luthier shop in Rouen, where you can watch these masters ply their trade

JUMIÈGES

Jumièges is a perfect stop to break up a trip between Rouen and the DDay beaches.  It is a tiny town, but houses an historical abbey built in the 600’s (yes, you read that right) which survived the Vikings and multiple required rebuilds until the Revolution when it ceased being a working monastery.   The romance of the place, being able to wander through this immense now-open-air structure, and its historical backdrop, make it a worthy place for a stop.  Spend 30 minutes on a tad of education and then have a lovely lunch on the water at the Auberge du Bac. 

 

Auberge du Bac is a casual place, right on the river, with a beautiful patio for summer lunch, and a closed-in area for winter.  The food was good by any standard, but surprisingly good for such a small town.  My boys tried their first duck here and the chocolate molten cake for dessert was a hit.  To boot, we got to watch the ferry bring cars across the river, back and forth, for the length of our stay- great entertainment at any age!

The Abbey of 'Jumièges

The view of the river and working ferry from the patio of Auberge du Lac

HONFLEUR

 

Honfleur is one of the most popular places to visit in all of France. Its proximity to the water, its beautiful, old, shop-lined port full of sailboats, the oldest wooden church in France, streets and buildings that have lured and inspired many an impressionist painter, including Monet, and last, the birthplace of Erik Satie, composer and musician extraordinaire add the character of this place.  This is a charming town for a bit of flaneurie.

The historic port of Honfleur

HOTEL

Maison de Lea

 

While there is an option to stay at a Relais and Chateaux up the hill, we were lucky enough to be offered a whole house to ourselves (La Grande Maison), smack in the middle of town as an extension of the hotel.  It was the highlight of our stay, and something the kids will remember for years to come.  A relaxing little “library” area with one wall of wall-paper books, a full kitchen and dining room with a regal, wooden table and floor to ceiling drapes, monogrammed linens, a keyboard, a bedroom for each of us (the house sleeps 12), and a small attic area the kids adored.  It is only steps from the main square and port, and a block from the hotel where we had the most elegant of breakfasts every morning.  While I haven’t seen the rooms in the hotel, if this house is any indication, I can’t imagine a better place to stay.  The stone, vine-covered hotel is located just across from Ste. Catherine, has a beautiful restaurant, bar and lounge area, spa and garden. Place Sainte-Catherine, 14600 Honfleur, France

La Maison de Léa's Grande Maison

Breakfast feast at La Maison de Léa

Eglise Ste Catherine- has the distinction of being the oldest, wooden church in France.  Built in the 15th century (with a tower a few yards up the hill to avoid lightening strikes on the church), its original nave looks like an upside down boat (which, perhaps makes sense as it was built by marine carpenters).  It is a dark and creaky place, with enormous vaulted ceilings and lovely windows that direct welcome sunbeams down upon the worshippers.

 

Just outside of Ste. Catherine  is an organic farmers’ market several days a week.  Pick up some local cheeses and Calvados.  We weren’t hungry enough to sit through a full lunch, so the we grabbed one type of each of the apples available at the market, some fresh cider and syrup for the boys to try, some good bread and headed back for a casual picnic at home and a nap.

Buildings around the port and church of Honfleur

Ste. Catherine square, site of the bi-weekly market in Honfleur

Eglise Ste. Catherine

Satie’s House is worth a visit, especially if you have kids.  This museum takes advantage of technology with an audio tour that treats you to Satie’s music while you visit, and exhibits that are triggered by your proximity.  There are multimedia stations, hands-on areas, a small merry-go-round which you are invited to move by pedaling, while surprises pop up around you.  The house is quirky, and the museum celebrates Satie’s eccentricity; it is an absolute delight.  67 Boulevard Charles V, 14600 Honfleur, France

Satie's house/ museum has some creative, hands-on exhibits that kids and adults will enjoy

Église Notre Dame- This is the tiniest of chapels, and one of the most charming I have ever seen.  It is decorated with ships and maritime trinkets, and its walls are covered with plaques of appreciation from those who claim it has healed them.  The original building was erected by Richard II, Duke of Normandy, around 1023, to fulfill his promise to God after he amost died in a storm. When the building collapsed in the 1500’s, the sailors and civilians of Honfleur built this church as its replacement.   It has been visited by a king, Bonparte and was the subjet of one of Monet’s paintings.  Outside is a beautiful carillon of bells, which, if you are lucky, you may hear while you are there.  Nearby, there is spot with an overlook of Honfleur and the port, which is worth a stop.  While there is a bus that stops at the church on occasion, if you hike up the hill, you may have the place to yourself.  Take either the rue Charrière de Grâce, or better, the more picturesque pedestrian path called the ramp of Mont Joli.

 

The view from the overlook point near Eglise de Notre Dame - worth the hike.

Eglise de Notre Dame, painting by Monet

Eglise de Notre Dame, the mariners' church

There are several cute chocolate, pastry and ice cream shops in the streets surrounding the port.  Our favorites were: Chocolats Kouignettes (28 Rue du Dauphin),and nextdoor Maison Georges Larnicol (26 Rue du Dauphin),  with bins piled high of candies and regional delights my kids had never seen, huge meringues, chocolate in the shapes of things you might never imagine.

Maison Georges Larnicol chocolate shop in Honfleur

Chocolats Kouignettes is not just for chocoholics- try the nougat, meringue or other regional specialties

CAEN

 

WWII Museum

While I have heard that Caen has a lot to offer and is a fun city to explore, we stopped here for only one reason: the WWII museum, or, as they call it, the Center for History and Peace.  This is quite a large museum, and the flow is a bit haphazard, but the content is curated very well- both for the adult and the tween/teen.  As one might expect, it presents events from a European perspective, showing the destruction throughout France and Europe- bombed out cities and lives that were affected, but they do a good job of giving global coverage of the war and the roles of all nations involved.  The museum is divided into pre- and post- 1945.  Not only does the permanent exhibit highlight a detailed timeline to walk along, but it also does a beautiful job of putting the war into historical, political and social perspective, explaining the forces leading up to the war.  It also paints a global picture after the war, the evolution of the Cold War, something I was happy for my children to learn about.  There is so much to see- pieces of the Berlin wall, movies and letters from children in 1944, a car used to escape Berlin.  Do not miss the memorial wall behind the building and the bunker down below. I had to drag my husband out of this museum- my children weren’t quite as engaged, as was to be expected at 10 and 12; there is a lot to take in.

Two large slabs of the Berlin wall, depicting the rabbits that inhabited "no man's land" between the wall and the city.

The Enigma machine on display at the Caen WW2 museum.

EATS:

 

We learned early on in the trip that on an occasionally long morning of trapsing or driving or doing something the kids might not be bouncing on their toes to do, the promise of an afternoon pastry stop would get them moving again. In Bayeux, we indulged in a pastry or two that looked to good to eat at the nineteenth-century La Reine Mathilde tea room.  They will do a full tea service, but you might also just pop in to salivate at their display and take a load off while you marvel at the opulent, mirrored interior and stacks of macarons. 47 Rue Saint-Martin, 14400 Bayeux, France

 

Two crepe places we enjoyed:

Creperie l’Insolite- don’t miss their big round  “boules” for dessert, filled with chocolate ganache, nuts and meringe.  67 Rue Saint-Jean

 

Crepes et Cie- A more traditional place near the cathedral, with cream-colored stone walls, green chairs, spiral staircase and a warm welcome. Open low season. Crepes were good, desserts even better. 67 Rue Saint-Jean

 

Ptit Resto- a lovely little place, open Sundays, fireplace and all.  However, in spite of an eager-to-please staff, it was the worst of our meals, and I can’t recommend it on our experience.

BAYEUX

Bayeux is in a convenient location to be a home-base for a day trip to Arromanches, Omaha Beach and Coleville-sur-Mer, home of the American Cemetery.  It was founded in the 1st century, and rebuilt in the 10th.  It is also where lace is made for some of the couture houses.  Some of the streets around the cathedral are cobbled with unusually, red and orange stones, which one might not notice in the summer, but in the rainy winter, they shine with brilliance under feet.

 

The exterior of the magnificent Bayeux Cathedral has not weathered particularly well, but it is nonetheless worth a visit.    The architecture blends Romanesque with Gothic.  The crypt dates back to the 9th century and is quite remarkable, with murals and original pillars still intact.

 

Bayeux also happens to be the proud owner of the 11th century Bayeux Tapestry many of us studied ad nauseum in high school French or history class.  I couldn’t convince my kids or husband to join me, but it is quite a sight to see: a 230-foot-long piece of detailed embroidery depicting the Norman conquest of England.  The audio guide gives good explanations and moves along at a good clip.  The museum also holds some interesting pieces of regional history.  13B Rue de Nesmond.

 

{My visit here is one of my favorite stories:  I was one of about 4 people in the museum, and when I ducked under the rope to skip a portion of the museum loop I didn’t have time to see, I was scolded and told I MUST follow the prescribed route for the visit.   So I marched through it and landed back where I was 30 seconds later.  They were satisfied.  Too funny.}

Beautiful Bayeux street stones

Bayeux Gothic cathedral dating to 9th C.

The tapestry has been, quite astonishingly, well-preserved.

HOTEL

 

Hotel d’Argouges- I am so pleased with this choice of hotel.  It is in a quiet section of town, only about 10 minutes from the cathedral, and offset from the street with free parking.  It is an 18th century mansion, with a gorgeous, split marble staircase to welcome you, regal sitting and dining rooms for cheese and aperatifs, replete with chandeliers, period mirrors, beautiful woodwork and and velvet settees.  There is a lovely little garden in the back for sitting in warm weather.  Best of all was an enormous room for the four of us which made a lovely place for recuperating after a long day.  The suites looked beautiful, too.  The bathrooms are modern and roomy and the staff were wonderful.  Breakfast in the white table-clothed dining room was a treat. 

Breakfast room and garden at Hotel d'Argouges

D-DAY SITES

 

A note for your day at the beach sites: There is not much by way of untouristy restaurants and cafés, and even those are few and far between, so take a picnic, or plan to stop at a bakery for a snack.  Wear comfortable clothing and shoes, as there is a good amount of walking, and depending on the season, it can be a bit windy, so throw a jacket or two in the car.

ARROMANCHES

Arromanches was a surprise, both in how visually sweet a little town it is, and in the impact of the site on my emotions.  While I had read about this temporary landing site built for the Invasion, I could not possibly have pictured the expanse in my mind or imagined the extraordinary feat of engineering this proved to be. If you park by the 360 Cinema on top of the hill, you will be treated to an overlook point showing all of Mulberry Harbour, where you can see the enormous caissons or cement blocks used to dock the ships and unload the cargo.   The beach itself is quite idyllic- here you can get up close and personal with the monstrous cement blocks which still reside there.   On your walk down the hill on r. de Batterie, you will pass by the Berry au Bac, one of the tanks used in the invasion, and be treated to the site of this beautiful, little town which flies French, British flags side by side.  The Museum du Débarquement is beautifully done- small, but it packs a punch, focusing on much of the engineering and strategy behind the landing.  The film is exceptionally moving.

 

(Check the dates and times for the 360 Cinema - we missed it)

The Berry du Bac tank

The town of Arromanches

Musée du Débarquement

The view of the caissons from above Arromanches

LONGUES-SUR-MER BATTERY

We happened upon this gun site on our drive and decided to stop; we were glad we did as it is well-preserved and resonated with our kids.  In 1944 the Germans built this vantage point to defend the coast they had taken.  There are four guns with a 12 mile range (show your kids how far out to sea that is from where you are standing, it will impress), meaning the guns could reach the Allied fleet.   Scattered in between are machine gun nests, bunkers you can all crawl into.   It took the Allies two days to take this site, when the Arkansas and two other French ships eventually proved victorious over the long-range German guns.  One of their shots had, unbelievably, a direct hit on one of the guns, which your kids can crawl in and around. You will see a plaque marking the final victory and takeover after the battle of Kriegsmarine on June 7.

Gun battery and and bunker at Longues sur Mer

OMAHA BEACH, St. Laurent-sur-Mer

Omaha beach does not need much introduction, as one of the most well-known and deadly beaches of the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944.  Not only is it worth a personal moment of thanks to walk on the sands on which 2000 young soldiers died, but also to experience the vast expanse and solitude of the place.    It is sobering to think of the guns in the hills above now scattered with beautiful beach homes, that would have been pointed down at those arriving on the beach. There is a memorial sculpture of “sails”, Les Braves by Anilore Banon, commissioned by the French government to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion Of Normandy.  It  honors the courage of the “Sons, husbands and fathers, who endangered and often sacrificed their lives in the hope of freeing the French people” and  represents The Wings of Hope, the Rise Freedom against barbarity, and the Wings of Fraternity. 

{There is also a DDay museum here, but there were so many tourists we decided to forgo it.}

The enormity and solitude of this beach is impressive

Memorials at Omaha Beach

Craters are over 5 feet deep

POINTE DU HOC

I doubt my kids will ever forget walking down into the craters left at this site from the battles of WW2.  There are batteries to explore, bunkers to crawl in and a nice memorial to the 225 rangers who fought for two days, eventually scaling these cliffs on June 6, 1944, under the command of Lt Col James Earl Ruddeer.  Their effort and sacrifice is considered crucial to the success of the invasion by the Allies and to the liberation of France as a whole. 90 men survived.

Pointe Du Hoc cliffs, scaled by Rangers, were a critical victory for the Allies' success.  They offer one of the prettiest views of the area.

COLEVILLE- SUR- MER

The American Cemetery

Check the times for the museum before you go, as it is a great place to start before you start your walk through the cemetery.  If you time your visit right, you may be treated to a Taps rendition which melts hearts from what I hear.   The Stars and Stripes raised at the top of the hill watches over approximately 10,000 American soldiers who gave their lives in Normandy (most families had their fallen shipped home).  This plot of land is one of the most stunningly beautiful spots you will see in the area, overlooking the sacred shores, with vast ocean views and endless rolling hills covered with crosses.  The scale of the sacrifice is majestic and moving.

"We don't forget, we will never forget the infinite debt of gratitude we owe to those who have given everything for our liberation."

The American Cemetery at Coleville- sur- Mer

© 2004 by Jody Holman Webster

jody @ holmanphotography.com    • 650.430.5225     •Based in Pacifica, CA   

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