Normandy Weekend (+ a little more Belgian beer!)

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Monday, June 28, 2004

Hi all,
We took a quick trip the last weekend of June, starting on Friday evening with the Beer Passion weekend in Antwerp, Belgium, followed by a drive to the Normandy coast in France Saturday - Monday. It was a lot of driving in a short time (8 hours each way), but it was a great weekend. We only wish we had had more time in Normandy. As it is we got to see the major sites, but could have used another day or two for a more thorough visit.

Our friend, Rick, who owns the Belgian beer bar, has been telling us for the past year that we should make a point to go to Beer Passion in Antwerp - and he was right! It was a very nice setup - inside one of the hangars beside the river that runs through the center of Antwerp. If the weather is nice you can go sit on the side of the wharf watching the sun set on the river. It's beautiful. Or, if the weather is bad, you can stay inside and listen to the band - which we did after the sun went down and it got cold.

The band was funny. We don't know what they were really called, but Melanie named them: Old Hippy Girl and the Ex-Bankers. The lead singer was an over-the-hill flower child and all of the band members looked like bankers - dressed in khaki pants and button down shirts and (mostly) in their 40s-50s. The bassist reminded Melanie of the ex-president of her bank in Chicago! Anyway, if you didn't look at them they sounded really good - played good ole rock standards: Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, etc., and provided a nice atmosphere.

As with most of these Belgian beer festivals, there were many different beers to sample. Three were made in the style of champagne and one of these actually even tasted very much like champagne. They also had beer cuisine available - different dishes cooked in beers. There was a choice of beef, chicken, salmon or a whitefish. It was delicious! We stayed at a boat-motel within walking distance so that transportation wouldn't be a problem.

On the way to Normandy, Chris wanted to stop at a place in the Flanders area of Belgium to pick up some 17th century brass candlesticks he had bought on eBay. Finding this place was a little difficult as the MapQuest directions were not very good and the place was actually in a little tiny town, but eventually we found it. The man who had sold the candlesticks to Chris has an antique store in his home. He is actually an expert on French and Flemish copper and pewter ware and has written a small book on the pewter specific to the Flanders area. He was a really nice guy and was very interesting to talk to. When he learned that we liked beer he insisted that we try his favorite beer (Grimbergen). Only problem for us was 1) it was 11:30 in the morning and 2) we had a 5 hour drive ahead so neither of us wanted the beer. It became clear that we were about to insult him if we didn't take something, so Chris asked if we could have some coffee instead. He made the coffee and then gave us the beer - unopened - to take with us and try later. When we were leaving, we asked for directions to the main road. He insisted that it was very complicated and he would drive us out to the interchange rather than give directions. It turned out that it *was* complicated and completely out of his way, but we were grateful for the direction. What a really, truly nice guy.

After spending more time than anticipated in Belgium, we finally arrived in Normandy at 6:30 Saturday night. Luckily we had made reservations at an old chateau which (even more luckily) was pretty easy to find so we checked in and headed directly for Omaha Beach. June 6, 2004 marked the 60th Annivesary of the actual landings. There are celebrations throughout Europe commemorating the liberation throughout the remainder of the year.

We were struck by several things at Omaha Beach. First, it's big. Second, it's beautiful. Initially it's hard to imagine a war here. It feels more like a quiet remote stretch of sand. Here is a view from the American Cemetary at Omaha Beach:

It was in 1944 and even more so now, a resort area for the French. It is especially popular with folks from Paris.

Then we thought about the images we've seen from war movies and footage and how truly difficult it would have been to cover such a large expanse of beach with the enemy firing down on you from above.

From the beach edge, turning around 180 degrees, it is also easy to imagine how difficult it would have been to scramble up the steep hillsides - again all under fire. There is a new commemorative sculpture in the middle of Omaha beach. It looks a bit odd having metal wings emerging from the sand, but the thought is a good one.

Next we drove further down the coast to Vierville-sur-Mer. This is one of the places where an artificial harbor was built to allow ships to bring in supplies after the beach was secured. Most of the barriers have been removed, but there are still a few remnants beached.

There is also a memorial to the U.S. National Guardsmen who served in World Wars I and II. The weather was poor - heavy rain off and on - but while we were eating dinner at a restaurant beside the beach the sun came out and there was a rainbow!

The restaurant we chose for dinner overlooked the beach and provided a really nice view. Melanie was drawn there not only by the view but also by the platters of "Fruits de Mur" (crab, oysters, mussels, lobster) sitting on many of the tables. It is common in France for restaurants to have fixed price menus in various price ranges and with varying choices. We didn't notice until toward the end of our meal that the middle menu was actually the better deal than the cheapest menu. Although it cost 6 Euro more, the food was of much higher quality. What we had was still good, though. We discovered that rice pudding (Chris' favorite) is actually a specialty of the region. We had it twice in 3 days! We also discovered a new, weight watcher's friendly, dessert that is a specialty of the region: Il Flottante (floating island). It's has whipped egg whites (probably with sugar) floating on a custard and drizzled with caramel. YUMMY!! Had that twice in 3 days too!

After dinner we drove on up the coast to Pointe du Hoc. This is a place where 200 men scaled the cliff to secure this area of the coast - again with people shooting down on them. What's cool about this place now is that the craters in the ground from the cannon bombardment have been left alone, so now the acre site has the feel of a grassy moonscape.

It would be a great place to bring kids - they can run all over jumping in and out of the craters. We were there close to sunset so the birds were doing their bedtime chirping and lots of rabbits were out playing. There's a monument at the point of the cliff, but we couldn't get close to it because the area was blocked off due to the crumbling cliff edge.

On Sunday we spent most of the day in the area of the D-Day beaches. First we went to the American cemetery where there are 9,386 graves of American military, most of whom gave their lives during and after the D-Day landings in World War II. We learned that 69% of the graves are now empty due to families having requested the return of the bodies of their kin. The cemetery is amazingly impressive. It's huge and really gives a sense of HOW MANY people (and this is only the Americans - there were also British, Canadians, and others) died during this period.

It is immaculately maintained with beautifully groomed lawns, but also more natural areas of bushes, shrubs and flowers. They must not use much pesticide or herbicide because songbirds were plentiful - chirping merrily away. The cemetery sits on top of the hillside overlooking Omaha Beach. It is possible to walk from the cemetery to the beach - which we did. Someone had left a letter and wreath in the dunes. This was probably left by someone who was there for the 60th year anniversary of the landings earlier in the month. The letter was titled: "The Price of Freedom". The photo. is of medics tending to soldier on the beach.

After the cemetery, were decided to go to Arromanches - another town on the coast where an artificial harbor was built. But we got sidetracked along the way and made a stop at a market in Port-en-Bessin-Huppain (another coastal town) where we bought fresh strawberries, sweet fresh apricots and luscious raspberries, bread baked that morning, local smelly cheeses and pear and apple cider - oh, and more rice pudding for Chris (and a meringue for Melanie)! The cider is a specialty of the region and comes in sweet, semi-sweet or dry, like champagne. We took our goods to a rock outcropping and had a marvelous picnic lunch overlooking the English channel. It was low tide so there were lots of locals out clamming and harvesting mussels, crabs and other sea creatures. We watched as they carried back buckets full of mussels! By the time we got to Arromanches we didn't have enough time to go through the museum because we wanted to be sure to have enough time at the main memorial museum in Caen. We took walked around the town a little bit, bought some postcards, viewed what remains of the artificial harbor, and headed on to Caen. Some British Veterans were still in town celebrating the anniversary of the landings.

The Memorial Museum in Caen is very well done. We had 3 hours until closing time and used all of it. We did not get to see the gardens in detail or one of the films, but otherwise saw everything. Dinner was in the nearby town of Bayeax. Melanie had mussels (had she seen these same ones carried out of the tide pools earlier that day?) and Chris had a really great ham in cider sauce. And, of course, Il Flottante for dessert!

Bayeaux itself retains its charming medieval center - full of half-timbered houses and other buildings. It also has a famous "tapestry" as well as a beautiful cathedral - both of which we visited on Monday.

After breakfast of bread, cheese and fruit from the previous day's market, it was time to make our way back toward Amsterdam - with a few stops along the way. The first of these was in Bayeaux to view the famous Bayeaux Tapestry. The "tapestry" is actually a 270 foot long embroidered cloth made in the year 1070 and tells the story of William the Conqueror's conquest of England and the Battle of Hastings, including why William felt he had to invade, the preparations made for the battle and the battle itself. It is amazing that almost 1,000 years later the colors of the "tapestry" are still bright and the cloth itself is still in very good condition. There are lots of details embroidered into the 270 foot long artwork including Haley's comet!

The place where we stayed, Chateau du Bosq, was a little bit rundown, but had a lot of character. The woman who runs the place speaks absolutely no English and we speak absolutely no French, so that was a challenge. Still it was amazing how much we managed to communicate just be trying very hard to understand each other, a bit of charades, and having some idea of the topic at hand. The chateau has a moat, complete with swans - including one youngster who didn't quite have it's beauty yet (sorta like the fairy tale). There were also horses in the pasture and a turret with a clock in the tower. And there was a REALLY LOUD FROG. That's right. This frog sounded like a car alarm that went off all night. It had endurance and strength. Periodically one of us would wake up in the night thinking that it had stopped croaking and it would promptly start again. How did it know we had noticed it stopped? Anyway, it really didn't keep us up any more than we would have been up anyway due to Chris' coughing (he had a bad cold), so it actually added to the atmosphere of the whole place.

On the way back to Amsterdam we stopped for lunch in Honfleur. This was a charming fishing town with beautiful old buildings lining the wharf. More fresh mussels for lunch! And, since no trip is complete without a full-blown Hunt for Red October, Honfleur was the location of this trip's "Red." Chris was determined to find a grocery store to buy more cheeses and cider at local (not tourist) prices. We spent over an hour wandering through not very nice grocery stores and trying to get directions to nicer ones from people who only spoke French. Finally, just after 4:00, we struck gold (or should we say RED!) and found a large grocery full of exactly the cheeses and ciders we were looking for. At 4:45, with almost 7 hours of driving ahead of us, we headed home - arriving before midnight.

We really enjoyed the Normandy region. It was a great weekend of interesting sites, wonderful food, and very warm people. We definitely didn't mind arriving home late in order to have such a nice visit.

Melanie & Chris

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