I truly enjoyed the French autoroute (toll highways). They are wide with well marked road signs for sights and stops. Each roadside rest stop was nothing like I have seen in the states. They were always clean, and had at least 2 recycling bins. The roadside gas stops had the coffee and treats that were always a curiosity to peruse for familiar yet unfamiliar edibles. The coffee stands were not the pump and pour we are used to, yet typically, they were the automated affair that though in French, had at least 12 or so picture choices of what coffee you wanted: plain, with cream, cappuccino, hot chocolate, a mocha? And as I said before we never had a bad coffee in France. But best of all these were the cheapest.
Here is a pic of something we saw a couple of times at regular rest stops and gas stops: the pet stop. The French love of their pets, i.e. dogs, is real. The fact that this stop in particular had a bowl of food and water, free for any pooch that came in with it's owner, proves the point and gave me a chuckle and another opportunity to utter "Ah, the French!"
Our day was quite wet and got wetter (if that is possible) as we approached the Normandy region of France. But in the grey rainy backdrop Normandy still stood out. Now, I realize when people (especially Americans) hear about "Normandy" thoughts automatically go to D-Day when the beaches of Normandy were stormed by the allied forces and the Normandy invasion commenced. We have mental pictures from movies such as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. And that is completely understood and honored by the French in this region. But the history and significance of this northern area goes beyond even those heart wrenching times. William the Conqueror hailed from this area, and the national symbol of Le Mont St Michel sits off the western most coast where Normandy borders Brittany.
And that was where we were headed. Once again the forested greenness of the vistas, the small villages in the thick timbered style had me entranced. Now the cathedral of Le Mont St. Michel has a very long history itself. It was originally built in the 8th century by a bishop who felt led by the Archangel Michael to build a monastery on the rock island that jutted out from the coast and it is still there, cathedral and small (now touristy) village that surrounds the church with its population of 70 or so.
We stopped just before the causeway to the Mont at the well stationed grocery/convenience store to buy a few items for our in station wagon picnic. The girls were so good about making the most of our budgeting situation. I would travel with them anywhere. And our excitement grew as we watched cars stream into the parking lot showing that even on this dreary Monday the Mont was still a sight to be seen and explored.
We so enjoyed this tour. Yes, there was a constant thick dampness in the air (bad, bad, hair day and constant dewy sweating), all the ancient tight, stoned paved, steep walkways were rain slick, but upwards we charged with the girls delighting in the sense of "what's around the bend" and Sophia wanting to troop ahead on her own. This was the sight that had originally, on a poster in my high school French teacher's class, inspired my day dreaming to one day explore "that place" and here I was. I almost let the stresses of toting a 1 and 1/2 year old through steep stairs, and muddy gardens, with a stroller, and diaper bag get to me but the wonder of it all kept hitting home.
We strolled the cathedral and the small village with the girls buying a souvenir or two on our way back down to our station wagon. Our driving for the day was not done. At this point it was about 4pm but we still had a 1 and 1/2 drive along the coast to Honfleur. But I must say that in the parking lot we spotted something that caused us all to pause and chuckle.
See this man: What appears a little off. Yes, he is a very nicely outfitted man but one part of his ensemble quickly reveals his "European" sensibility. Yes, his man capris. And his was not the first or last exhibition of this French fashion trend. I and the girls the whole trip kidded David that when we first visited everyone back home that he should get a pair and wear them to show how fashion forward he had become. Ah, no, was his immediate answer. I knew this would be the response from the man who dislikes capris on women, and states that no man thinks capris are attractive on any woman. But the girls and I wear them gladly anyway. And so apparently do European men. Alrighty then.
We made it to Honfleur in good time and the rain was still looming but at bay. Honfleur is a sweet little port town on the Normandy coast whose thick timbered building of varying colors make the village quite picture pretty. No wonder impressionists like Monet found its views ones to be captured on canvas. David drove us through the oh, so, tight, winding roads to our Rick Steves recommend B & B, La Cour Sainte Catherine. The lady proprietor was so helpful through e-mails that I was sad that we did not get to meet her when we arrived for our room. As David parked I walked through the large old wooden entrance doors (in olden days these were so large as to accommodate horse drawn vehicles as they entered inner courtyards that many old French homes still have), into the cobblestoned paved inner courtyard with its crowded blooming garden, where a 30 something man was running around with his two Sophia-aged girls. He, I found ,was English and kindly directed me to the lobby that was cozily tucked away in a smaller building off the gardens. The kind housekeeper appeared ready for me and immediately showed me our room in the same small building. The room was completely ready and perfect for us. And to me, the amazing part was that no money at this point had exchanged hands at all. Over the e-mail it was simply me asking for a space and her putting our name down. No deposit or credit card numbers were given out. Just the honor system.
My family piled into the room, the girls claimed beds and unloaded, and we knew our first task was to explore a little and definitely find some spot for dinner. I loved this walk. The little homes that lined the tight road each had their own style. I first thought of the possible ages of these original looking row homes, then I tried to imagine if these quaint village images were just the same old same ol' for the locals. I looked at how out of place we seemed in our jeans, tennis, and American athletic wear in the midst of this old village. Then we turned off the small street corner into the center of town port crowded with small boats, restaurants, and people. I then saw plenty of American casual to put me at ease.
We scoured the menus on display by all the restaurants surrounding the port. Seafood was the order of the day and we were ready and willing. Sara was even chomping at the bit for her own bowl of mussels. Yes, you read me correctly--mussels in a brothy tasty sauce accompanied with frites of course. Sara tried them for the first time in London when I ordered a bowl (what a shock to us all) and declared them good and was wanting to be adventurous again. So order them we did and she ate and enjoyed them with gusto, nearly finishing her whole bowl which was generously filled to the brim. Anna ordered shrimp expecting the usual c-shaped delights and instead got the typical French preparation with the head on! David ended up having shrimp and Anna had to look away from the bug-eyed langoustines that seemed to keep staring at her. I also had a delish bowl of fish soup, wonderful mussels, and the always good salad with the perfectly mixed vinaigrette. We had ordered the fixed-price 3 course meal and each got a dessert. Sophia, as her usual, slept for a portion of the meal and once awake, rejected any bits of dinner we tried to feed her off our plates.
As seen in the picture above (finished result of course) Sara scored herself a chocolate crepe and we requested banana be added to it (ended being 4 dollars extra for the one banana--yes, she surely at the whole thing). We all declared this the best meal of our whole trip to this point and it was desperately needed in order for French cuisine to redeem itself in the eyes of my family.
We walked back to our hotel as the sun went down (our whole meal took 3 hours) and I looked forward to touring the sweetness of Honfleur before we traveled back to the Loire the next day. Sophia ran about the room back at the B & B and watched her daily Charlie & Lola. She thankfully ate some yogurt as everyone took turns in the shower to ready for bed. We all fell off to sleep quickly and comfortably. Ah, Normandy.