Northern France

This past bank holiday weekend, we took a whirlwind trip to the north of France to check out Normandy, Mont St. Michel, the Cliffs of Dover, and Leeds Castle.  We covered a lot of ground in just 3 days and we used a bunch of different modes of transportation.

Trip Overview

I flew overnight from LAX (work trip) and landed at Heathrow Friday afternoon.  From there, I took the chauffeur car to Portsmouth where I met up with Tara.  From there, we took an overnight ferry to Caen, France.  Then we jumped right into a private Normandy bus tour.  The next day, we drove to Mont St. Michel and then all the way to Calais.  The next morning, we hopped on the Chunnel and made our way back to England to check out the Cliffs of Dover and Leeds Castle.

Quick Side Note

Before I get into our France trip, I must mention that my very talented wife won 2 trophies in the Rolls-Royce Tennis Club championships while I was in California.  Nice job Tara Smash!

Rolls-Royce Tennis Club Ladies Singles Champion

Rolls-Royce Tennis Club Mixed Doubles Champions (Tara and Rafa)


Back to the trip; I arrived at Portsmouth at around 2:30 pm.  Tara was in training all day and couldn’t leave work until 4:30, which meant she didn’t arrive until 8:30 pm.  So with 6 hours to kill in Portsmouth, I went and checked out out the historic harbor area.  It was packed with ships, both old and new.  There were a lot of nice shops and museums too.

The Victory: An Old Old Wooden Ship (not to be confused with Diversity)

Coming off of the 10 hour overnight flight, I was pretty exhausted so I only snapped a few pictures before my brain gave up and found the nearest movie theatre.  I sat down inside the theatre with the intention of watching the latest Bourne movie.  I fell asleep during the previews and woke up about midway through the movie during a big explosion.  I can definitely say that the second half of the movie was very thrilling.

Tara eventually arrived in Portsmouth and we made our way onto the ferry.  Even though it’s only about 120 miles from Portsmouth to Caen, we chose to go with the overnight ferry because of the timescales we were working with for squeezing in the D-day tour the following morning.  Here’s what it looks like where we parked our car.

Trying to figure out the Anti-Dazzling device (yes that is a real thing)

The ferry boat was pretty nice.  It had a bar, 2 movie theatres, shops, restaurants, and a bunch of different lounges.  It even had cabins so that you could get some sleep during the overnight journey.  Unfortunately, these cabins were sold out when we booked the ferry and we had to try to sleep in something that was worse than an airplane seat.  It actually reclined less than an airplane seat.  Here is the room we slept in:

Tara is smiling because the reality of sleeping in this room has not sunk in yet

Luckily, it was not completely packed so some lucky people like Tara could lay down across a few seats to be somewhat comfortable.  I ended up sleeping directly on the floor.  Needless to say, it was awful and I would not recommend this to anyone, EVER.  If you find yourself on an overnight ferry with no sleeping quarters, my one piece of advice would be to find a comfy lounge couch right away and mark your territory.  Even if it’s in the middle of a bar with people drinking, just ignore the weird looks and know that you have a comfier place to sleep than all the suckers in the area we were in.

The next morning, we double checked all of our French driving gear and headed to the car.  In order to drive legally in France, you need to have all of this stuff in your car:

The French say you need these things to drive a car

  • High Visibility Vest (not actually required to wear it while driving)
  • UK to EU Headlight Anti-Dazzlers (Stickers you put on your headlights)
  • Headlight Bulb Replacement Kit (I seriously doubt modern car headlights are easily replaceable)
  • 2 Breathalyzers (So you and your mates can compare how drunk you are?)
  • Pop Up Traffic Triangle for re-directing traffic
  • Fold up Picnic Blanket (Not actually required, but it will come in handier than anything else in the picture)

Thanks Steve for letting us borrow your French gear.

We drove out of the port and straight to the meeting point for our D-Day tour.  Needless to say that after 1 night spent on a plane and the next night spent on the floor of a boat, I was feeling slightly less than rested and refreshed.  I thought maybe I could help out my situation by brushing my teeth in the parking lot.

Keeping it Classy

Normandy D-Day Tour

The main reason for this whole trip is that my grandfather, aka Grandpa Dale was in the Army during World War II.  More specifically, he was in the first wave of attackers on Utah Beach on D-Day.  Ever since he found out that I was going to England for work, he has been pretty persistant in asking me when I am going to make it over to Normandy.

Grandpa Dale (he has a Purple Heart Medal)

We did a bunch of research on our own and even watched a couple of D-Day documentaries to prepare for the trip, but we figured that the best way to see it all in a day would be to book a professional tour guide who could give us the rundown and answer all of our questions.  We went with Overlord Tours and it turned out to be completely awesome.  You can click the link to see a complete description of all the places that we visited in great detail, but the best part was that our guide was a total expert.  She had tons of really useful maps, historical photos, graphics, and diagrams that painted a vivid picture of what happened on that famous day.  I can’t begin to recount all of stuff we learned, so I’ll just throw some pictures out there.

Famous church with stuck parachuter in Sainte-Mere-Eglise

Here is Omaha beach.  For a number of reasons, this beach was the single biggest loss of American lives on D-day.  An estimated 3,000 Americans lost their lives on Omaha beach that day.  Incredibly moving stuff.

Omaha Beach

Gun Battery Defending Omaha Beach

The National Cemetery at Omaha was another stop on the tour.  It was very sad and thought provoking.

Teddy Roosevelt Jr.’s Grave. He made it through the first wave but later died of a heart attack in his sleep

Lots of Fallen Soldiers

At Point Du Hoc, the main objective was to take out several huge guns that were believed to be stationed here.  The Allied air force dropped 6,000 bombs on the area and only hit 1.  And as it turned out, the guns were moved prior to any bombings and replaced with wooden replicas.  The area was covered in craters.

Tons of Craters – Click on the image to make it bigger and see it better

The Craters were HUGE

Monument at Point Du Hoc

Tara going into a bunker

Cliffs that Allies had to climb on D-day

One of the last stops on the tour was Utah beach.  Compared to Omaha, things went more according to plan here and the Allies even got a little lucky.  The air raids were successful in knocking out some of the big guns.  The paratroopers that were dropped behind the lines were also able to take out all of their assigned guns.  The tides took the Allied soldiers to a spot on Utah that was not that heavily defended compared to other beaches.  That being said, there were still 167 allied causalities and heavy fighting when landing crafts arrived and I’m very grateful Grandpa Dale made it off the beach.

Utah Beach

Actually on Utah Beach

There were also a bunch of stops on the tour that were related to the Band of Brothers TV show.  I didn’t realize that show was based on real people/events.  Now we’ll have to go back and watch all those episodes.  All in all, the tour was amazing.  I learned more than I ever did in high school AP history and had a great time doing it.  That evening, I finally got to sleep in a bed and it was amazing.  I literally fell asleep about 15 seconds after my head hit the pillow.

Bayeux Tapestry

Since we were staying in the town of Bayeux for the D-Day tour, we had to check out the world famous Bayeux Tapestry before we left.  The tapestry tells the story of the 2 guys fighting for the throne of England.  It reminded me of the book/HBO series Game of Thrones.  It was pretty interesting stuff.  I guess if no one is literate and you want to get your message across, the only logical way to do it is to create a 70 meter long cartoon on a piece of cloth with your version of the story.

Here’s half of the tapestry

Close-Up of the tapestry

Mont St. Michel

After we finished with the tapestry, we headed to the 2nd biggest attraction in France; Mont St. Michel.

Mont St. Michel

Mont St. Michel is located on a tiny island just off the coast of France.  It has a huge Abbey (church) and a lot of tourist shops and restaurants.  While we were there, it was completely dry so it looked like the island was surrounded by a big desert instead of the ocean.  It was pretty cool walking through the giant church and wandering around the tiny streets.  It felt like Disney World.

View of the Church on Mont St. Michel

Crowded Touristy Street

View from near the top of the church. Doesn’t really seem like an island does it

The White Cliffs of Dover

After Mont St. Michel, we began our long journey to the cliffs of Dover.  Our GPS took us on a really strange route to get to the Chunnel.  We were only on a highway for about an hour of the 6 hour journey.  The GPS guided us through one small French town after another.  We drove on back country roads and weaved through lots of interesting rural areas.  At some points in the drive, I felt like we were in Ohio, but for most of the time, it felt pretty foreign.  We didn’t really complain about the roundabout route because we were enjoying the scenery, but we figured out that our GPS does not consider our time very valuable.  More on that later.  We stayed the night in Calais before hopping on the Chunnel the next morning.

The Chunnel was a pretty cool experience.  It was very efficiently run and the journey only took about 30 minutes once the train got moving.  It was the complete opposite experience of the ferry ride over.

Getting onto the Train

In the Train

After the short trip across the English Channel, we had a quick 15 minute drive to Dover where we walked along the famous white Cliffs.  We lucked out and got sunny weather for the walk.

In front of the famous white cliffs

Look, you can see France!

Another good shot

And one more for good measure

The 2 mile walk ended at a lighthouse.  Inside the lighthouse they serve tea of course.

Lighthouse/Tea Break Area

On the way back, we got a good view of Dover Castle.

Dover Castle

Leeds Castle

The last stop on our road trip was Leeds Castle.  According to the pamphlet we were handed on arrival, Leeds Castle is the “loveliest castle in the world”.  I have only been to a  handful of castles, but I can say with some authority that it in fact is highly lovely.  It’s been around since the 1100s and has changed hands a number of times and been upgraded throughout history.  For the past 50 years before it became a public park, it was actually owned by a really rich woman who used it for her house.  That made the castle pretty interesting because it had all the medieval castle stuff you would think of like a moat and a dungeon, but it was also renovated with modern amenities like granite countertops in the bathrooms and electricity.  The grounds surrounding the castle were vast and well maintained.  There was lots of ducks, geese, swans, and other fowl to be seen.

Legit moat

Another Castle Pic

Little known fact: Leeds Castle is home to the oldest wooden horse carved statue in England.  One more thing to check of my list of must dos.

Wooden horse carving

There was even a hedge maze.  The guy in charge of the maze said that it takes most children about 20 minutes to complete the maze, but me and Tara finished it in 5 minutes!  Booya!

Hedge Maze

At the end of the maze, you end up in the grotto.

Cool Rock Face in the Grotto. I need one of these in my future man cave

Tara is scared of the Rock Face

After the maze, we headed back to the car and then back to Derby.  It’s a good thing we double checked the route our GPS chose for us to return home because it had us driving through the center of London!  This is bad for a number of reasons.  The traffic would have added a lot of time to our trip and you have to pay a ‘congestion tax’ for just getting close to the city.  We changed our settings from ‘shortest time’ to ‘shortest distance’ and that didn’t fix the problem.  Oh well.

All in all, it was another successful trip.  I’m very glad that I got to learn about what my grandfather experienced on D-Day.

One last side note: French cows are not as cool as Scottish cows.  I’m sure there is a joke in there somewhere.

French Cow

Next up, Rome!


9 thoughts on “Northern France

  1. Great post as usual, Doug. You really packed a lot in but it seems like it went pretty well. Can’t believe you red-eyed 2 nights in a row. At least you are still young. (It’s a lot better with the cabin, btw).

    Cool about your Grandpa and your Omaha Beach photo.

    Congrats to Tara on tennis!

    Note: I bet your GPS is set to avoid toll roads. Most of the French autoroutes (interstates) are toll roads as is one stretch of the M25 around London.

  2. Great post Doug, funny as usual. I love the commentary. One question – was Leeds Castle wortha stop? I see it on all the “must see” lists but seeing the new renovations to old castles turns me off so I was wondering what you thought of it. Touring Normandy would be great but I don’t think we will get to see it on our trip.

    FYI from our of our lunches for what it is worth. You have the Brighton Pier on your cover page – supposedly Brighton is known as a “really happy” guy place. Way to show your pride buddy!

    • Leeds was really nice. It’s not your typical castle because it’s so well maintained and updated. The grounds were huge with lots to explore. There were TONS of people with kids there who were playing in the fields and with all the animals. I don’t know if it’s actually a must do, but I’m glad we went. I wasn’t so happy with the £20 ticket to get inside though. I can give you a good deal on a 2nd hand ticket if you plan on going within the next year.

      I’m definitely aware of the gayness in Brighton, although that didn’t come to mind when choosing the cover photo, haha.

  3. Love reading about all your and Tara’s travels — Rick Steves better look out, there is a better travel writer out there.
    Your grandpa is awesome, but you already know that.
    Tara’s maternal great grandfather Daniel N. McIntosh also fought in France, but during October 1918 as part of WWI in the Meuse-Argonne operation. He was in the 141st Infantry, 36th Division, American Expeditionary Forces. The 36th was composed of men from OK and TX and they wore a “T-Patch” consisting of a T (for TX) inside an arrowhead (for OK). Cool to think you and Tara both had ancestors fighting for freedom in France in two world wars……

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