It always takes me forever to write about my big vacations, mostly because when I get back it’s usually straight back to my normal, busy life, and I’m left with little time to absorb my experiences.
But taking a few weeks to do so actually helps, I think, so here goes!
I had been waiting for months to take this vacation. I had to reschedule it after my accident, and the dates at the beginning of November were just about the last ones available for the year and before the weather turned.
I’ve done several COSMOS trips of single countries, but this year I decided to try a multi-country one.
It’s taken me forever to gather my thoughts (and the time!) to write this blog, but here goes…
Next on my bucket list of countries was France. To be honest, I never thought much about France, but once I started researching, I realized it was a big country. I picked an 8-day vacation, but wish I’d added a couple of extra days in Paris. The tour only went from Paris, counter clockwise down to the Loire Valley and back to Paris, so there’s a whole lot of country left for me to explore!
I got to Paris pretty early in the morning and dropped my things at the hotel, which was on one of the outer arrondissemonts, or neighborhoods of Paris. The trips I usually take are budget trips, so the hotels might not be in the city center or very fancy, but they’re typically still good.
I shared a cab ride with another women from another group tour staying at the same hotel and we stuck together and walked around the base of the Eiffel Tower, took the metro to the catacombs, which had a line around the block, then hopped on a hop-on-hop-off bus for the rest of the afternoon to get oriented to the city before we were both ready to fall asleep!
My first impressions were that Paris is huge! Sites are sort of grouped together, but somewhat far apart, so the metro is very valuable and pretty cheap. If you had a bike, that might be a good choice, as well as the city buses or hop-on-hop-offs, but those are somewhat slow.
The second day we took a group tour of the highlights of Paris. We had a local guide show us around Notre Dame and the highlights of the Louvre Museum, which would take days to truly appreciate!
We saw the Mona Lisa, which as expected, was much smaller in person, but it was absolutely mobbed by tourists. You had to fight your way to the front of the crowd of people taking selfies with the thing!
I hadn’t expected to have the afternoon off, but since I didn’t sign up for an optional welcome dinner, I took off from the Louvre on my own. I strolled through the gardens and had made a plan to not spend a ton of money on cabs to go back to a few places I wanted to see, but realized the walk would be quite long, so I bought another ticket on the hop-on-hop-off and headed to the Champs Elysees first.
I immediately found my mecca, the flagship Sephora store, and took a stroll around. Knowing the Euro was good, not great, I made sure to focus my purchases on things you can’t find at U.S. Sephora stores, so I brought home some fun things to try, including a cute keepsake palette.
I ended my evening climbing the steps of the Sacre Couer for a decent view of the city. It’s located in the “red light district” of Pigalle near the Moulin Rouge. It was quite touristy and a bit far from the Eiffel Tower and the main sightseeing areas, but it was worth the bus ride up.
We headed northwest on day 3 to Monet’s home at Giverny to see the gardens that inspired his impressionist style. There were beautiful lilly ponds, a Japanese bridge and so many flowers I’d never seen before. His home was modest and had a great view of his gardens.
There wasn’t much else to see in the little village surrounding Giverny, so we headed off to Rouen, a town made famous for its beautiful cathedral and for the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. It featured wooden framed houses, giving it a cool medieval feel.
Next up was a quick stop in Honfleur, a fishing village with a famous wooden church. It was near the Normandy Bridge, a beautiful cable bridge connecting the town to the rest of the Normandy region. They sold Calvados, a regional apple flavored liquor that’s found throughout the Normandy region, so I picked up a sample set!
The church was quite small, and the town was definitely small, but I popped in one of the many caramel shops, another regional specialty, to pick up some samples.
We arrived in the seaside resort town of Deauville in the early evening, but we were all pretty exhausted, so only had time and daylight enough to take an hour stroll. The Deauville American Film Festival was being held while we were there, so we got to see the red carpet, but I was too tired to go out after dinner to see any celebrities. Apparently Keanu Reeves, Orlando Bloom and Robert Pattinson were there.
The next morning the tour group was up bright and early to go to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. Unfortunately, as we drove up to the gates, we were informed that it was closed due to a “technical problem”! Needless to say, a lot of people were very disappointed, but our tour guide made some arrangements and we were able to visit the actual beach that morning and a smaller American Cemetery a little further inland the next day.
Omaha Beach was a really moving experience. There were still pieces of machinery in visible in the water and the memorial looked out to the sea. We drove a little further up the coast to a town called Arromanches, which has a WWII museum and several other artifacts overlooking the beach.
We drove to the town of Bayeux next to see the Bayeux Tapestry. The town had a beautiful cathedral and lots of shops selling poppy-themed things. The tapestry itself was amazing. The museum gave headsets that you listened to as you walked along the tapestry and learned the story.
By the end of the day, we’d made our way to another overnight stop at Mont St. Michel. We took a bus on the causeway and were dropped off in front of what was one of the most impressive feats of human engineering I’ve ever seen. The abbey towers above the water, and because we came while the tide was out, looked even more monstrous.
I hiked up to the top, through narrow winding streets of what was once an old town. Now it’s just touristy stores, a few hotels and restaurants. The view from the top was impressive looking out over the water. To one side, Brittany, to the other, Normandy.
The next morning, we headed to the American Cemetery in Brittany. It was smaller, and according to the American vets who ran the place, gets much fewer visitors than the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, so they were thrilled to show us around. It was a very somber experience to walk amongst the graves and read the names.
I particularly loved the Normandy region because of the caramels! I brought home lots of different kinds, as well as some apple liquor, or Calvados. Yum!
After the cemetery, we went to another seaside town, St. Malo, which was enclosed by medieval walls. There were several ruins of old fortresses that were only accessible when the tide was out.
I grabbed a baguette for lunch and walked with it (something I ended up doing a lot!) since we only had a couple of hours. The tow itself had lots of modern shops, so I ended up in a few beauty stores to check out some French brands. I walked around a bit of the city wall too.
We made a seemingly random stop in the college town of Rennes, which was beautiful with some timber-framed houses, but we only had an hour, which was hardly enough time, and I felt like I saw better timber houses elsewhere in Normandy. But it was cool to see a little slice of life in a more modern French town. We were about the only tourists though, so we got some strange looks!
Day 6 brought us to chateau country, where we stopped at Chenonceau, which was pretty amazing. The gardens were beautiful, but the house itself, straddling a river, was pretty spectacular. The interior seemed quite modest (by Versailles standards).
You could spend weeks hitting all the chateaux in the Loire Valley, but we hit some of the bigger ones. After a quick trip for a wine tasting in a traditional limestone cave, we went to Chateau de Amboise, which was perched atop a hill looking down on the city of Amboise. There was a pretty cool winding staircase that knights used to ride their horses around to get to the top of the castle, and lots of examples of gothic architecture and scary gargoyles. The town had lots of cute shops and restaurants, and a bakery to die for.
On our final day, we stopped at Blois to see its chateau, but I got a little lost and missed the good view of it! I did find another Sephora though…
We made a stop to see the famous Chartres Cathedral, which is a strong example of gothic architecture, but to be honest, it wasn’t as impressive to me as others we’d seen along the way.
We ended up back in Paris in the afternoon for a guided visit to Versailles. Luckily it was a quieter day, but it was still packed inside every room! Everything was covered in gold and the hall of mirrors was pretty amazing. I strolled around the gardens for a half hour before it started down pouring. I know we only scratched the surface of what’s inside, but our guide showed us some good highlights.
I ended the night with a trip to the Cabaret with a few other ladies in the group. It was for real, with topless dancers and all!
I feel like I’ve only just gotten started discovering France. I wish I’d added on another day in Paris on my own to do things like the catacombs or a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower, so now I have a list for when I go back!
As for the country, there’s so much more to see and I’m unsatisfied that I couldn’t tick the whole thing off my list! Now I’ll have to go do more of the Loire Valley and southern France next.
There’s always an excuse with the World Cups Finals being awarded to Paris in 2018…