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A visit to Normandy: exploring the D-Day beaches

D-Day Beaches 2013-001a intro

True to its history, our visit to the coast of Normandy was cool, windy and wet — but that’s how it’s been for thousands of years.  Many an armada was delayed in leaving or landing on these shores because of inclement weather, including the D-Day attack which had to be postponed one day to June 6, 1944 because of poor weather conditions.

We spent two days exploring the D-Day sites, not an exhaustive visit but enough time to gain a perspective of the region you can’t get from books or films.  Our goal was to see the different fronts of the invasion and gain a first-hand understanding of the scale of the largest naval assault in world history.  And we came …

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A visit to Normandy: Bayeux — a tapestry, cathedral and D-Day

Bayeux 2013 001 intro.  waterwheel

Bayeux is in the heart of Normandy, a town with a rich history that currently is best known for its ties with World War II.  Bayeux was the first non-coastal town liberated, one day after the D-Day invasion (“D-Day plus one”), but remarkably was spared the bomb damage which devastated so much of Europe (thanks to pleas from its clergy to the Allies).  It’s an excellent base from which to explore the D-Day beaches and other war-related sites but even without its D-Day ties, Bayeux is a worthwhile travel destination. The old town has retained an enchanting medieval character with its famous cathedral at its core; this cathedral was inaugurated by William the Conqueror himself, a native of the region, in 1077 …

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A visit to Normandy: magnificent Mont St. Michel!!

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As we drive through the pretty farmland of Normandy, with its pleasing apple orchards and pastures dotted with sheep and dairy cows, it’s easy to forget this region’s turbulent past.   Normandy’s geography, situated on the stormy Atlantic coast not far from England, put it in the path of repeated war and conflict dating back to the days of William the Conqueror (who was born here).  More recently Normandy was the site of the largest naval invasion in history, but more about D-Day in a future post.

Today’s destination is Mont-Saint-Michel and its iconic abbey, perhaps the most photographed in the world.  As we leave the expressway we finally see the silhouette of the Mont in the distance. …

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A visit to Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud, France

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Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud is situated in the western Loire Valley, a short drive from Chinon and near Saumur.  The name refers not only to Europe’s largest medieval abbey, built in the 12th century, but also to the medieval town that surrounds it.  The abbey is the prime focus of this discussion as it has a fascinating rich history that includes monks, nuns, royalty, Napoleon and prisoners.
We visited this abbey because my wife is a student of the Middle Ages and its kings and knights, and was determined to see the region in which the Plantagenets had lived.  I’m glad she insisted on coming here because the two days we spent at Abbaye Fountevraud were truly memorable and special.

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The Fortress and Medieval town of Chinon, France

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There are few places in France of greater historic importance than Chinon.  You wouldn’t know that by what you see when you drive into it today as it seems a small sleepy rural town.  You’ll see little evidence of it’s past prominence except for the ruins of a fortress on a hill, only partially restored.  Between the fortress and pretty Vienne River is sandwiched a small medieval village within which you’ll find dozens of beautifully restored buildings and — best of all — a place in France that is virtually free of tourists.  The newer portions of the Chinon have grown beyond this, mostly to the riverbank opposite the historic district.  And beyond the town lies the vineyards and greater …

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France’s Loire River Valley — l’art de vivre (the art of living)

Loire Valley-2013-001-intro Chateau Usse

Many find a visit to the Loire Valley to be the highlight of their trip to France, as did we.   When we were planning our journey I discussed our itinerary with my friend, Wayne.  Wayne and his wife had traveled to France for their honeymoon and he shared with me that the best part of their trip was the time spent in the Loire Valley.  With this recommendation alone it was worth planning some time in the Loire and we’re so glad we did.

Loire is actually an Arabic name meaning “unpassable”, coined by the Moors as this valley was the northern limit of their penetration into Europe.  The Loire Valley traditionally separates Northern France from Southern France.  It …

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The Medieval Cathedral and city of Chartres, France

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If you’re looking for a nice escape from the crowds and chaos of Paris, consider heading to the small city of Chartres for a day or two.  Situated 60 miles (96 km) southwest of Paris, just an hour’s train ride from the Montparnasse station with trains running almost every hour, the town is easy to get to.  Chartres has its own charm, is not too crowded and is very easy to explore on foot.

Things to see and do in Chartres:

Chartres Cathedral

The main site of interest is the great cathedral whose spires dominate the skyline, about a five minute walk from the train station.  Chartres’ Cathedral of our Lady is dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus, a theme present throughout the …

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The Sun King’s Legacy: a visit to Versailles

Versailles-2013-001 intro Apollo Basin

Among the many wonderful palaces of Europe, Versailles is said to be the greatest and grandest of them all.  It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and is on almost every traveler’s list of “must see” destinations near Paris.  Versailles’ an easy 35 minute train ride southwest of Paris (RER-C line, about 4 trains every hour); from the train station it’s only a five minute walk to the entry of the Palace.  While grand in it’s scale and design, Versailles is not for everyone.  I have to admit I don’t quite get what a lot of the fuss is about, but I’ll explain more about that later.  First a little background…..

A Brief History of Versailles:

Versailles was a …

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