Mont Saint-Michel: Normandy, France

Ah, Mont Saint-Michel, you tourist-trap beauty!

2.5 million – that’s how many come to Mont Saint-Michel per year, and we were one of them. Well, two of them I suppose.

I honestly had never heard of Mont Saint-Michel until we started planning this trip, but I’m a sucker for a good castle and a great view. And, it’s a top Normandy tourist attraction, remember? In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s a castle on an island. During low-tide, you can walk the surrounding mud-flats for access. During high-tide the castle is completely surrounded by water and unaccessible (except by road, in modern times)!

Tip: It’s pronounced ‘Me-chelle’.

For all you English speakers out there who tend to butcher beautiful French words (obviously, myself included). I wanted to call it Michael, which I guess technically it is in English, but we’re in France so…


A quick history:

In ~708, a sanctuary was built on Mont (mount)-Tombe (now Mont-Saint Michel) by the Bishop of Avranches in honor of the Archangel, Michel. Over time, it became a pilgrimage site, and starting in the 10th century a village began to form after Benedictines (Catholic monks) settled in the abbey. Eventually, it grew into what we see today.

The mont became a symbol of France during the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453, England v. France for control of France) when it’s fortifications proved too much for the English, and it was never taken.

And, like a lot of other rocky, fortified islands, the religious guys were kicked out and it became a prison. Finally, in 1874 it was classified as a historic monument. Somewhere in there is a story about a commune and an Irish hermit, but that’s for another time…

So, how do you get to the castle on the island?

You can’t drive there, that’s for sure. There are plenty of parking lots (€14 – tourist trap, remember?) which surround the visitor center. From the visitor center, you can either take the shuttle bus (runs constantly), or you can walk ~2.5km (1.5 mi) across the bridge to the village. Their signs say ~30 minutes, but I would plan for 45 minutes if you want to leisurely stroll with pictures along the way.

Tip: If you have kids – don’t bring a stroller!

The walk to the mont is flat, that’s not the issue. Once you’re inside it’s cobblestone, steep streets, and stairs. And, with a stroller you’re guaranteeing to not walk the ramparts – too narrow for stroller + masses of people.


It looks so peaceful from far away…
And as you get closer – notice the people now?

Tip: Pack a lunch!

While the restaurants have nice views, the food inside the village is tourist-expensive. Even better though, you can walk all over / around the village essentially unrestricted. We saw lots of people who managed to find a quiet spot to themselves for lunch: down by the beach, or in a corner with a nice view.

We packed a lunch, but on account of being losers who had leftover cold spaghetti, we ate it in the car.

At the base of the mont!

It’s free to enter the village, but €10 (+ €3 for an audioguide) to enter the abbey. Well worth the money. It’s a legitimate castle perched on top of this mountain with way more space inside than you would imagine possible. Plus, the views are spectacular.

Tip: Walk the ramparts to the abbey.

You’ll want to walk the ramparts anyway, but they are significantly less crowded than the main street leading up to the abbey. When you first enter the village you’ll notice a staircase to your right – take it.

Up we go!

People walking the mud flats. And yes, it was legitimately mud not sand.
Looking out on our way up with guided groups walking the mud flats.
View from the top at low-tide – across the bridge to get to the mont.
Entrance to the abbey.
There’s even a courtyard up there!
View from the top, as far as the eye can see.

Tip: Plan to spend at least 3 – 4 hours (parking + walking + exploring).


So, was it worth it?

ABSOLUTELY!

I couldn’t stop looking at it. I was craning my neck so much on the walk back to the car that Shane stopped me, turned me around, and we just stood there staring until the count of 10 so I could soak it all in.

Oh, and then this happened.

What? It was heavy.

And, considering it was only a 2 hour drive from the D-Day landing beaches in the direction of our next stop, Dinan, it was basically destiny.

Tot ziens,

Whitney

D-Day Landing Beaches: An American’s Guide

First, I’d like to start out by wishing us a Happy Anniversary!

It was a coincidence that this trip coincided with our third wedding anniversary, andddd… this is the only picture we took together all day.

Aren’t we cute?

Why?

Well, apparently spending holidays learning about wars is our thing now: Christmas at the Vietnam War Remnants museum, anniversary in Normandy for World War II. 🤷‍♀️

Anyway, back to the beaches.

I think the theme of this whole trip (which is very unlike me) was ”unprepared”. I did most of the planning in terms of driving route, not necessarily what to see. We learned quickly that our day and a half in this area was nowhere near enough. So, I’ve decided to put together a little guide in case we have a chance to go back. Who knows, maybe someone else might find this helpful.

Let’s start with some basic history…

The Battle of Normandy, code-named “Operation Overlord”, was a coordinated attack on German forces by the British, the Canadians, and the Americans and marked the beginning of the end of Nazi control over Europe. On June 6, 1944 Operation Neptune, commonly known as D-Day, started the battle across five code-named beaches: Sword & Gold (British troops), Juno (Canadian troops), Utah and Omaha (American troops).

Tip: If time allows, plan for one day per beach.


As I mentioned before, we were short on time, so we prioritized from an American’s perspective.

Things to see:

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

Location: Colleville-sur-Mer (Omaha Beach area)

The American Cemetery was our first stop. The overcast morning seemed fitting for the occasion.

Tip: Do not miss the (free) museum in the Visitor Center.


It’s the final resting place for over 9,000 men who lost their lives during Operation Overlord. Each Cross (or Star of David) listed the name, division, home state, and death date of the individual. An Unknown Soldier Cross was places for individuals who could not be identified.

The Visitor Center has a great exhibit on the American involvement in D-Day. Two facts stood out to me:

  • In December of 1940, America’s troops numbered ~800,000; by December 1941, 2.2 million.
  • Inflatable tanks (literally – like bouncy house inflatable) and stuffed paratroopers (called paradummies) were used as decoys to throw off German intelligence… and it worked!

I think the most powerful part of the Visitor Center was the constant roll-call. Names of those lost were said over the speakers as you left the building and walked to the cemetery itself.

Omaha Beach Memorial

Location: Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer

The memorial with the British, French, American, and Canadian flags behind.

For Americans, I would say Omaha beach is the most ‘famous’ of the landing beaches. The memorial itself is located in the center beach which, to our surprise, is 8km (5mi) long.

Tip: Parking at the beach is free, and the D-Day House restaurant directly adjacent offers a nice (& affordable) lunch.

I’ll be honest, we weren’t wow-ed by Omaha Beach. It’s hard to feel the history here – you really have to use your imagination because, at the end of the day, it’s just a beach. One thing that helped came from a documentary we watched before the trip. A veteran suggested:

Should you ever visit Omaha beach, walk out as far as you can at low tide and turn around. Notice just how much beach there is; how much unprotected beach.

Not to mention, things went sideways on D-Day. These young guys were unloaded in water over their heads carrying 35kg (75lbs) of gear and told to take the beach. We walked out at low tide as far as we could go, and thanks to that documentary, you could imagine it.

Looking back at the town & memorial at low tide.
The Omaha Memorial looking out.

Musée Mémorial d’Omaha beach 

Location: Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer (~200m from the beach)

A tank and a Czech hedgehog.

A quick walk up the road will take you to the Omaha Beach Museum. Now, you should visit this place with an open mind, because I walked in and instantly thought ‘nope!’. It’s one of those museums that has really bad mannequins… like, a lot of them. I spent the first 15 minutes annoying the shit out of Shane because all I could focus on was how f*cking creepy these things were. But, if you get over the fake people and actually look at the things on display, then you will be impressed. They have tons of artifacts from the war: uniforms, guns, obstacles from the beach (like the Czech hedgehog – meant to take out tanks), and trinkets from soldiers. And, they have a great film describing the events of D-Day as related to Omaha beach. All you need is about an hour, and it’s worth the visit.

Pointe du Hoc

Location: Cricqueville-en-Bessin

Pointe du Hoc is a cliff which overlooks Omaha Beach and was a battery for the Germans. Here, there were six 155mm cannons – which means nothing to me except for ‘that’s a big gun’. It meant a lot to the Allies, since these were intended to target approaching ships.

Looking at the English Channel from Pointe du Hoc.

On June 6, 1944, American Rangers were tasked to take Pointe du Hoc. After a series of bombings targeting the battery, the rangers scaled the 100m (~330ft) cliffs and attacked the German positions, but they found that the guns had already been dismantled.

Unlike Omaha Beach, you can see, feel, and explore the leftovers of war. The pits from bombs are everywhere and you can walk through all the bunkers and gun pits.

One of the concrete gun bunkers.
Inside a bunker looking out.
Looking out at the English Channel & remaining bombing pits.
Shane, standing in a massive gun pit.

The Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument is also here – at the very edge of the cliff overlooking the English Channel and Omaha Beach.

I purposefully chose to show the above picture first, because the monument itself is uh… well, I’ll let you decide what it looks like.

Tip: Pointe du Hoc is open 24 hours (but the Visitor Center only 09:00 – 17:00).


We did miss a few things specifically related to the American efforts on D-Day, for example, all of Utah Beach. With more time, I would suggest:

The Utah Beach Landing Museum (Location: Sainte-Marie-du-Mont), Memorial Wounded Soldier & Mulberry Harbor A (Location: Omaha Beach), & Museum D-Day Omaha (Location: Vierville-sur-Mer).

We were able to squeak in a few more noteworthy stops in our short time…

Gold Beach / Mulberry Harbor B

Location: Arromanches-les-Bains

We honestly had no idea about this (remember, I said poor planning?). We were driving to get to the American Cemetery, crested a hill, and there was a spectacular viewpoint. In the distance you could see… things? Obvious remnants, but what we weren’t sure.

Notice the ‘things’ in the distance?

Turns out, those ‘things’ are leftovers of Mulberry Harbor B and you can actually walk up to them at low tide. There’s just something about things you can physically touch that solidify the history of a place.

Leftover beetles from Mulberry B.

Mulberry A (at Omaha Beach) and B (at Gold Beach) were code-names for the temporary ports which were built by the UK so cargo could be rapidly unloaded once the landing beaches had been secured. The pieces above, that you can walk to from the beach, were part of the road from the boats to the shore: ‘beetles’ (floating steel pontoons) held ‘whales’ (the roadway). What you see in the background are caissons and purposefully sunken ships to create a harbor and shield the roads from the sea.

Unfortunately, Mulberry A was destroyed in a storm, but Mulberry B was functional until November of 1944.

Tip: If time allows check out the Musée du Débarquement which goes into more detail.

We, unfortunately, didn’t have time for this and regretted it!

The German Gun Battery

Location: Longues-sur-mer

This is the only gun battery with the guns still in place!

It feels weird to be excited about big guns?

And, similar to Pointe du Hoc, you can walk in / around / over.

Tip: It’s also open 24 hours. Go before 10am and you’ll basically have it to yourself.


Do you play ‘happy & crappy’? My Sis & TB introduced us to the game and now it’s a thing. It’s simple. At the end of each day, you pick one happy moment and one crappy moment – whatever you want them to be. It’s a nice way to reflect on the day, especially on vacation.

Shane wanted to see this SO bad and we couldn’t find it the day before. We didn’t know the name, we didn’t know the location… After some serious Googling we managed to find it and went early in the morning on our way out of town. I know for a fact this was Shane’s ‘happy’ for the day, but I think it might have even made the top ‘happy’ for the trip (no offense, Sarah & Barend – we love you 😜).

Down the barrel…

Apparently, these bad boys had a 20km (13 mile) range…

View from the top of the gun bunker; English Channel in the background.

Tip: Hour long guided tours of the area are offered for only €5! Check out their website for details!


I think, despite only having 36 hours in the general area, we managed to fit in quite a bit! And, as an added bonus, we saw a little bit of Juno Beach. We rented an Airbnb with a great view and a 2 minute walk to the beach.

View from the Airbnb – Juno Beach Visitor Center in the background.
An abandoned bunker on Juno Beach.
General Charles de Gaulle monument on Juno Beach, commemorating his return to France.

Up next, Mont Saint-Michel!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Fécamp & Étretat, France

“I dunno – cliffs and sh*t?”

My response when our friend, Michelle, asked what we were going to see on our road-trip through France.

The cliffs at Étretat.

It’s been a long and boring summer – well, for me at least. Hence why the blog was dead as a doorknob until Shane came back from Corsica.

In all honesty it hasn’t been that bad. Maybe you heard, but we actually had a few heat waves in Europe (38 ºC here!) so we spent a lot of time outside and at the bouldering gym. Regardless, June through August is vacation season in the Netherlands, so one can get a little salty watching colleagues leave for their (standard) three-week summery vay-cay.

But alas, I endured! (ha)

Thanks to our friends, Sarah & Barend, we were heading to the Brittany region of France to see these two lovebirds get married and decided to turn it into proper road trip.

We booked a Mini Cooper. We got a VW wagon. Slight disappointment.

First up, the cliffs! I’ll get to the sh*t later. 😏

Fécamp

I’ll be honest, the only reason we stopped in Fécamp was because a night in Étretat, even in the shoulder season of September, was more expensive than we were willing to pay. Fécamp, located on the coast of Normandy, is a quick 25 minutes north of Étretat and 7 hours south of Groningen so it was a good stopping point on day 1.

Tip: For a stopover night on a budget, stay at the Ibis Budget Hotel. It has free parking and is an easy 25 minute walk to the boardwalk.


Honestly, it looks like a painting. So it should come as no surprise that this area of Normandy has been the inspiration for many an artist over the years. Displayed on the boardwalk is a plaque with the painting below, by Jules Achille Noël, from 1871. I was shocked by how alike the painting and the modern day view were – even the church is still there!

The beach at Fécamp.
Crinolines sur la plage, Fecamp (thank you Wikipedia for the image).

The other unique thing about both Fécamp and Étretat are the “pebble” beaches. I say “pebble” because some of them were flat-out rocks. The pebbles are created from the soft white chalk cliffs that make up a 125 km (80 mile) stretch of coastline called La Côte d’Albâtre (the Alabaster Coast) where these two towns are located. Over time, they are perfectly polished by the waves. The sight and, oddly enough, the sound of the water moving through them was a new experience for both of us!

Tip: Have a drink (or a snack!) on the boardwalk around sunset. Hard apple cider and mussels are a specialty of the region.


Étretat

Étretat is home to (in my opinion) the most famous cliffs on the Alabaster Coast, and for good reason! They are STUNNING. The kind of place that photos don’t do justice. We arrived in the area not knowing what to expect and left in awe of the natural beauty!

Similar to Fécamp, there is a boardwalk on the beach which allows direct access to paths up the cliffs on either side. We arrived early enough to enjoy a coffee on the beach, then head up the cliffs. We started to the right of the beach, if you’re facing the English Channel.

Tip: Park for free outside the town and walk in. The signs say 10 minutes walking; expect 15 – 20 minutes but it’s a straight shot.


Of course, you can go up and stop – that’s were a lot of people ended their cliff journey. But if you’re feeling a little adventurous and the tide is out, then pick one of the paths down and go exploring! We followed the path less traveled and ended up by ourselves on the beach underneath the cliffs.

Danger?! He laughs in the face of danger! Ha Ha Ha Ha!
(name that movie… 🦁)
We made it!

The cliffs look huge from a distance, but standing at the bottom really put things into perspective. Can you spot Shane?

This was also biologist Shane’s dream world – so much life in the rocks that wouldn’t have been visible at high tide. Mussels, anemones, other things I certainly can’t identify…

Tip: If rock-hopping is your thing, look up the tide schedules before you go and plan your day accordingly.

And, a little public service announcement:

Don’t be an asshole – throw your trash away in a proper trashcan! Better yet – ditch the plastic and get a reusable bottle. We brought as many plastic bottles that we could safely carry back up the cliffs, but it’s always astounding the amount of trash tucked away in corners. #endrant


All that danger (and trash collecting) works up an appetite – a galette and some cider did the trick, then we were off to explore the other side!

If you’re facing the English Channel and turn left, you will walk towards two natural arches (Porte d’Aval and The Manneporte) and L’Aiguille (The Needle), a 70m tall pointed chalk formation. Similar to heading right, you can walk up a clearly marked path to the top for what I can assume are some spectacular views. Unfortunately for us (or maybe fortunately?) there was a triathlon taking place which used the path so it was blocked off. No worries though, the tide was low and I read online that you could walk THROUGH the arch at low tide!

And damn it – if I could walk through that arch I was walking THROUGH THAT ARCH!

That wasn’t quite the case – the water in no way goes out far enough at low tide to walk through. What you can access is a cave with a tunnel that shoots you straight through to the beaches on the other side.

I’ll take it.

View of the beach from inside the cave.
And don’t worry – if you improperly time your adventure the cave is a safe spot. You’ll just be waiting a while before you can leave again…
The views from the other side certainly made it worth the risk (the Needle & Porte d’Aval (arch)).

In the photo above, we are actually standing underneath The Manneporte (the largest arch) so I guess I did get to walk under one after all! And to put things into perspective the sheer size of this arch…

Looking up.

Tip: Wear sturdy shoes. Your feet will thank you later.


With tired calves we made our way back to the car for the ~2 hour drive to our next stopping point – the D-Day landing beaches.

Final tip: Visit this area (!) and go in the shoulder season.

The towns, the cliffs, the views – all exceeded expectations, and by coming in the fall you miss the masses of tourists. The towns themselves are small; by mid-day it was a little crowded but not annoyingly so, and you were able to be alone out on the cliffs. I can imagine it being easily overwhelmed during peak-season.

By car, it’s a little under 3 hours from Paris so it could be seen in a day, but if you have the time then spend the night so you can explore at leisure.

If it’s inspiring enough for Claude Monet to create 20+ paintings, it’s good enough for a one night stay!

Tot ziens,

Whitney