One Day in Normandy: Omaha Beach and COVID Test Chaos

It was our last day in France, which was bittersweet. We’d all fallen in love with France, and could have explored it forever, but Florence awaited! Since our flight didn’t depart until close to 10pm we’d planned to spend the day paying our respects to the thousands of Allied soldiers who died storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day by visiting several sites relating to the battle. It was a lot of driving, and time would be tight, but we were determined. However, we first needed to obtain COVID tests in order to fly back into Italy, so we bid Gilles a reluctant, fond farewell and set out on our three hour drive to Caen for testing.

Whether it was user error or our phones’ Americanized algorithms struggling to perform a Google search in France, the testing location we navigated to did not actually exist. Frustrated and confused, we began searching for another nearby location, each of us getting different search results, none of which proving fruitful. To make a long, and indescribably boring story a bit shorter, it took us almost three hours to find and obtain our COVID tests, which meant trimming our itinerary down dramatically, to a single stop.

We opted for Omaha Beach, set out in that direction, and arrived as we received email notifications that our results were available. However, the friendly nurse who had administered our tests had input my birthday incorrectly, making me unable to access my results. It took another half an hour and three phone calls before she finally entered it in correctly and I was able to access my results, and by that point Olivia, who spoke the most French of the three of us and had been the one making those three phone calls, was ready to explode.

Our tests were all negative, but our frustration level was still high, so we decided to get some lunch before heading to the beach. There was a restaurant across the street where we found an outdoor table to catch our breath and feed our bellies. It took many French fries, but by the time we got up we were in a much better head space.

On June 6, 1944 America, Great Britain and Canada launched the largest invasion fleet in history. More than 1200 warships, 4000 landing craft, 12,000 aircraft, and 160,000 troops set off for Normandy to finally gain a foothold in Nazi occupied France, and begin their push towards Berlin. The invasion itself was a surprisingly and hilariously successful deception by the Allies. Between radar trickery, dummy-paratrooper drops, espionage, and US General Patton’s phantom army full of inflatable tanks, trucks and planes, the Nazis were hoodwinked. They knew an Allied attack was imminent, but they thought it would happen at Calais, not in Normandy, and they focused their defensive resources according to that erroneous assumption. Hitler literally slept through it. Once he woke up around 9am, convinced the Normandy invasion was just a diversion from the non-existant attack on Calais, he started dispatching his infamous Panzer troops mostly in the wrong direction. Sucker.

While the Allies were successful on D-Day, we paid a heavy price. More than 3000 Americans died on Omaha Beach alone. Thousands more on Utah, behind enemy lines, and the ensuing days in the push to seize Caen and secure a supply line. That’s to say nothing of the millions who died throughout the course of WWII, including the 6 million Jews who died at the hands of Hitler’s Nazis. I can’t even fathom how it must have felt to walk through these European cities 80 years ago, amidst unimaginable destruction and death, knowing it was all at the direction of a madman.

If you didn’t know of the bloodshed that occurred there more than three quarters of a century ago you’d think it was just another beach. Omaha Beach today is pretty, and fairly touristy. Families milled around, walking their dogs and playing in the surf, and with the sun shining it was hard to imagine it had once been the site of unfathomable carnage.

I don’t think any of us were prepared for how emotional we’d feel walking on that battlefield. In my head I kept seeing the beach-storming scene from Saving Private Ryan. The clear, sunny day transformed into a haze of smoke, with boats full of terrified men and boys filling the ocean along the shore. I could hear the gunfire and screams, see the mangled bodies littering the blood-soaked sand. It was overwhelming to imagine. It reminded me how fragile our own democracy is. We’ve all seen how susceptible people can be to propaganda and misinformation, and how that vulnerability can be exploited by madmen craving power.

We had a long drive to the airport so we hit the road once we’d paid our respects. It was a quiet, reflective 3 hour drive back to Paris. By the time we arrived we were all emotionally exhausted. Our flight was a quick one, but thankfully long enough for us to get in the right mindset for our Florentine adventure. The only complaint we had about the flight was that after all the confusion and frustration and wasted time to get our COVID tests, we were never asked for them. Not at the airport, and not on arrival to Florence. We found that irritating, but we got over it quickly.

It was nearly midnight when we arrived so we took a taxi straight to the AirBnb. Although the driver totally overcharged us and lied about it, we were just grateful for our day of travel to be over and to get settled into the city at the heart of the Renaissance. Our AirBnb host’s son, Niccolo, arrived to let us into the flat, and the girls were positively smitten. He was young, adorable, so polite, and his Italian accent was absolutely charming. The flat itself was equally as charming, and we couldn’t have been more pleased with our home for the next four nights. The apartment was small, but beautifully decorated and comfortable. The girls had their own room, with my room next door, both connected by a balcony overlooking Brunelleschi’s Dome, which was all lit up for the evening when we arrived. My dream was coming true. I was in Medici country!

We had a busy day of exploring planned so we needed to get some sleep, but first we needed some food. As had become customary during our trip, and since we’d arrived so late, we ordered McDonald’s. And, as always, it was the comfort food we needed after a crazy day traversing two foreign countries.

Come back next time to get a history lesson from your resident nerd-blogger as I acquaint you with the Medici family while we explore the birthplace of the Renaissance! Till then stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

Loire Valley Road Trip: The Castles and the Countryside

After a week in two of the biggest cities in Europe it was time to switch gears (literally), and head to the countryside. There’s so much more to France than Paris, and narrowing down the area to explore was difficult, but a trip to Europe would seem incomplete without visiting castles and vineyards, and the Loire Valley is absolutely ripe with both. And so, we bid a fond farewell to Paris and set off for our next adventure.

The best way to see the French countryside is by car, and since I love road trips I didn’t hesitate to rent a car in France. With our budget being what it was I wasn’t willing to spend the money to upgrade to an automatic transmission, so the first challenge was remembering how to drive a stick shift. We stalled twice pulling out of the parking garage, and initially struggled to follow the GPS navigation while simultaneously re-learning how to shift, but once we were out of the city I’d gotten the hang of it. That’s not to say driving in a foreign country is without its challenges. It took me over an hour to realize the circular signs with numbers along the highway were speed limit signs, which is probably when I received two radar-generated speeding tickets (notified by the rental car agency of the violations, I have yet to receive the actual tickets from France, now 4 months later). Oops!

We had about three hours to our first castle, and I was immensely grateful for the time we spent in the car, just watching the countryside pass by, seeing sign after sign for castles and historical sites, and listening to our (mostly Taylor Swift) Spotify playlist, created especially for our European road trip. We all sang along with T-Swizzle, jammed to the French pop song (Carrousel by Amir) we’d added after hearing it in a taxi, and bumped FDT by YG as loud as the little car’s speakers would go. We were impressed by the large number of wind turbines we saw, by the infrequency of above-ground power lines to sully the beautiful landscape, and by the amount of sunflower fields we passed (sadly, all wilting at the end of the season).

Our first castle of the day was the Chateau de Chambord. The enormous, gorgeous castle was commissioned in the 16th Century by King Francois I, and completed in the 17th Century under the reign of King Louis XIV (the Sun King). It was built as a hunting lodge (you know, just a cozy little country cottage), and was never the primary royal residence, but both kings stayed here during their reigns. The central feature of this magnificent castle is the double helix staircase, inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, which is designed so that a person can be going up the stairs, and another going down, without ever seeing one another.

When we first arrived we decided to sit down for lunch at one of the shops on the castle grounds. We had yet to eat French crepes, so we were excited to find a creperie on site. We each ordered a different crepe and then perused the vendor stalls, buying a bottle of local wine for my sister, before heading into the castle to explore.

The Chateau de Chambord is positively marvelous. Like everywhere we’d visited, it’s freaking gigantic, and is beautifully and intricately detailed. We wandered its many rooms and corridors, all filled with period furniture and art, and even walked along the rooftop, admiring the view of the grounds. Though there were quite a few people visiting, it’s such a massive space that there was never any crowding.

It was a hot day and the 500 year old castle was pretty stuffy inside, so once we’d finished exploring the interior we found a bench in the garden under the shade of a tree to cool down on. This was one of those moments we were able to truly appreciate the slower pace of our road trip through the countryside. We had no timetable to keep except to be at our AirBnb that evening, so we were able to just sit, relax, smoke a cigarette (for me, anyway), and soak in our glamorous surroundings.

After an hour or so we headed back to the car to drive to our next castle, only about a half hour away, the Chateau de Chaumont. Originally built around the year 1000, it was rebuilt about 500 years later in the Renaissance style we see today. My favorite fun-fact about the Chateau de Chaumont is that it was once occupied by Queen Catherine de Medici (more on the Medicis when we reach Florence). When her husband, the King, died she took another castle, the Chateau de Chenonceau, which she liked more, as her own, kicking out the late king’s mistress, and sticking her in Chaumont instead. Pretty boss move by Queen Catherine! Before leaving, she entertained the likes of Nostradamus in this stunning, medieval marvel.

The Chateau de Chaumont has such a classic, fairy tale appearance, and the interior definitely felt older than the Chateau de Chambord. We explored the interior and the gardens, and though it was exciting to be in such an old, historic place, the modern art installations in the chapel and other rooms of the castle looked incredibly out of place. The inside of the chapel looked like something out of the Blair Witch Project, and the art throughout simply did not work with the beauty of the Renaissance architecture. Then again, modern art is definitely just not our thing in any environment.

It was late afternoon when we got back to the car and we decided to get an early dinner before heading to our AirBnb for the night, so we drove to the nearby town of Onzain, parked the car, and went in search of a restaurant. The town was picturesque and charming, and had the added bonus of having a festival going on in the town square. It must’ve been a big event in this small town, cause we didn’t see a single human being anywhere until we reached the square, which was packed with people. We found the only restaurant that was actually open and sat down at a small outdoor table to enjoy the all-ages community orchestra playing American pop music and show tunes while we ate our meal.

The big cities and tourist attractions were full of people who spoke English. Not so in the less touristy areas. Only one person at the restaurant spoke English, and it was limited, so Olivia and Carey got to really test out their French. Thankfully, everyone was patient with us, though I think they were also a bit annoyed with my requests to get my burger sans cheese and other toppings. Picky-ass Americans, amiright?

We’d been in communication with our AirBnb host, who had let us know his sister would welcome us upon our arrival. The house was located on a farm in the middle of nowhere, and was even more adorable than the pictures. We were greeted by Sylvie, who showed us around the space, then sat on the patio chatting with us over a bottle of local sparkling wine. Sylvie was gracious and hospitable, telling us about her family and asking us about where we were from and what brought us to France. The sun was beginning to set over the field when she left, and after getting settled into our home for the next two nights, we found ourselves back on the patio, enjoying the warm night breeze and the sound of the crickets. It was so quiet, so peaceful, the perfect place to unwind after our day of driving.

While we had run of the house, our host, Gilles, lived on the premises and had rooms at the back of the cottage. Olivia had been in touch with him regarding our visit and was already dying to meet him simply for the way he worded some of his messages. Gilles is an award-winning local chef who, for a fee, offers a full, 4 course meal option to his guests, which we were delighted to take advantage of. When he asked which menu we preferred, he asked which one “seduced” us. Language barriers can be positively amazing. Gilles arrived as the girls were getting cleaned up and I was on the patio. Though his English was limited, he made a valiant effort, and was as handsome and charming as we’d imagined. Olivia was ready to marry him on the spot, despite his being at least ten years older than I am. Truth be told I don’t think any of us would’ve turned him down. We were all loving the oh-so-sexy Gilles.

We each had our own room at Gilles’ cottage and we slept incredibly well. Perhaps it was the country air, maybe the frantic pace of our first week, or just how much more concentration I had to put on driving in a foreign country, and the comfortable atmosphere of Gilles’ cottage, but it was the best night’s sleep I’d had through the whole trip.

Our first day of the road trip had been absolutely wonderful. By this point I was running out of adjectives to describe just how wonderful each day had been. Every single one had been enchanting, and that was to continue for the duration of our epic Ladycation. Be sure to come back next week to read about our second day exploring the castles and vineyards of the Loire Valley. In the meantime, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!