The seeds of a d’aventure are often planted in the most unusual ways. Years ago Mike and I started watching the annual coverage of the Tour de France. And by coverage – I mean the full 5 or so hours of the daily broadcast for 2 weeks straight. My sister Laura asked, “What is the big deal about the Tour de France?” “Sit down and watch a bit,” we said. She did and got hooked. If you haven’t seen it, the coverage of the countryside the riders are passing through is just simply gorgeous.
The year the Tour started in England Laura began to daydream about going to England/France to see some of the places in person that she’d seen on TV. I promised I’d go with her someday. This spring when I found a cheap airfare from Chicago to Paris –the trip was on! Once the decision was made we added two tag-alongs: Laura’s husband, Gail and our brother-in-law Elton.
Because it was a first trip to Europe for everyone but me, we decided to focus mostly on Paris and London. However, one of our favorite Tour de France starts ever was held at Mont Saint-Michel in Western France. Laura and I considered it a MUST see. There were only 10 days to #do it all –for better or worse! I’m sure all three of them were definitely thinking “worse” by the time we got to our first hotel in France.
We had a really long travel “day” with lots of firsts: First time flying to Europe, first time taking a train, and first time dealing with jet lag. We left Grand Rapids at 6:00 AM Sunday morning for a 3 hour drive to Chicago O’Hare. There, we parked in a long term parking lot so far out that we were almost back in Michigan again. Getting ourselves from the parking lot to the terminal is another story all by itself.
Our flight had a 3 hour layover in Minneapolis, which we spent in the Escape airport lounge due to a credit card perk I have.
Finally, our flight to Paris departed. It was one of the smoothest fights and landings I’ve experienced in recent memory. I actually managed to get some helpful sleep too.
We booked a van transfer between the Paris airport and the St. Lazare train station. Due to it being rush hour, it took over an hour to get to the train station. We all got an eye-opening experience (more accurately -eyes closed, hanging on for dear life experience!) of what traffic is like in Paris. We watched in alarm as motorcyclists wove in and out through traffic, creating new lanes out of thin air. We saw a motorcyclist pulled over at one point and we noticed the words: MotoTaxi on the back of his leather jacket. The van driver explained that one can take a motorcycle taxi from the airport. There was a small shelf with bungie cords on the back for luggage. I offered the option to use MotoTaxis on our way back to the airport at the end of the trip, but the answer was a unanimous NO WAY!
We missed the train I wanted by less than 15 minutes, forcing us to wait another 2 hours for the next train …and then we were passengers (again) for nearly 2 hours. The 2 hour wait paid off for Laura – Gail found an Eiffel Tower charm for her Pandora bracelet.
Finally, after being awake (more or less) for more than 24 hours – we finally arrived in the town of Caen bleary eyed and walked the final few blocks from the train station to our hotel.
Caen was chosen as a strategic location for Mont. St. Michel and as a hopping off point for a D-Day tour. Our hotel was a very short walk from the train station, overlooking a river.
Just down the way was a large plaza with restaurants and shops. When setting out to explore: First things first!
It was only after choosing the location that I realized that Caen was the place William the Conqueror considered “home”. Having recently read a fictionalized book about William, I was excited to realize I could go see his castle. Since we had daylight, we went off to see what we could see. Caen has a tram that passed right by the castle.
The hard part about checking into history for these places is that it is almost impossible to put so much history into a short story. William’s early years sound like a script for The Game of Thrones (minus the dragons). One website I looked at simply said: “It was a bloody awful childhood.” He won his first major battle at the age of 19 in 1047. It appears that in those times it was a constant struggle for the nobility to maintain control over their lands.
I didn’t find any information as to why Caen became William’s seat of power (he grew up elsewhere) but he began building his stronghold there around the year 1060, improving and adding to an existing structure on the site. He’d married his wife about six years before that –against the Pope’s wishes- so around the same time he also began constructing two abbeys (a men’s and a women’s) in Caen as an act of penitence to obtain forgiveness for disobeying the Pope.
Over the ensuing years the castle has been touched by many events in history – recaptured by the French in 1200, battles during the 100 Year War, partially torn down during the French Revolution and bombed in WWII.
Just outside the walls was the Church of Saint-Pierre: Built between the 1200’s and 1500’s. We didn’t get to go inside.
In January of 1066, King Edward of England died without an heir, leaving three claimants to the throne. One of them was William. Another was the king’s brother-in-law, Harold. Harold rushed to claim the throne even though the king’s wishes were never exactly clear. William decided he had a better claim to the throne, having felt he’d been promised by the king that he would be the next king. So in September of 1066, William mounted an invasion of England that culminated in the Battle of Hastings, where he defeated Harold’s army and became the King of England and also received his “name” – William the Conqueror.
He died in 1087 and was buried in St. Etienne de Caen, the church at the men’s abbey in Caen. Unfortunately in the 1500’s the church was sacked by Huguenots and his remains were scattered – all but one bone was lost to history –and that bone is now buried in front of the altar.
After walking the castle grounds, we found our way back to the hotel. We’d kept our eyes peeled for ice cream on the way back, but didn’t find any. It was time for dinner (as far as we were concerned) by the time we got back, but the restaurants on the plaza weren’t serving dinner yet. Elton had stayed behind and done some exploring and he told us there was a place around the corner from the hotel that had some simple sandwiches and also ice cream. We decided it would do.
By then we’d pretty much stayed up as long as we humanly could. With an early start planned the next day – we all decided it was time to call it a day, a night and a day – so to speak!