Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

I never know what is going to ignite my travel curiosity. It can be an article in a magazine, a documentary, or a discussion with a friend. In the case of Mont Saint Michel, it was the latter. Some years ago, I was lying on a massage table at Balance et Harmonie Massage in Sarasota, Florida, as owner Nancy Bouffigny-Enmeier worked her magic on my sore muscles. Out of the blue, she began talking about her childhood in Normandy, France. She told me about a Medieval church, built on a rock, just off the coast of France. When the tide came in, water completely surrounded the tiny islet, but outgoing tides laid bare miles of sand. Her family would spend warm summer days romping on the sand beneath the fairytale castle. By the time I rolled off her table I was itching to know more, so she pulled up a photo of Mont Saint Michel on the Internet. I was hooked; someday I would have to see this amazing place.

When I finally decided to tour France, Mont Saint Michel was at the top of my list. I hopped on a train to Pontorson, where I was met by one of the owners of Au Bon Accueil Bed and Breakfast, a lovely old three-story stone house in the country. The owners, Jane and Paul, are Brits who relocated to France a couple of years ago to escape the rat race. Paul’s story is much like mine. He was the manager of a large grocery store, working horrendous hours and never spending time with his family. Paul’s moment of clarity came one Christmas day, when he received a phone call from the police that someone had broken into the store. At the end of the day Paul realized that his devotion to his employer was not reciprocated. His company didn’t care that he’d missed Christmas; they only cared about money and achieving goals. Not long afterward the couple decided to move to France and buy Au Bon Accueil.

Mont Saint Michel emerges from the mists in Normandy France

Mont Saint Michel emerges from the fog in Normandy France

Jane promptly made me feel welcome and showed me to a lovely room under the eaves on the third floor that had a nice view to the hills. After settling in I rejoined them in the dining room for a briefing on the area. My three day stay soon grew to four, and then to five, not only because there was a great deal to see and do in the area, but also because I connected so well with Jane and Paul. Once in a while, I meet people who are so warm and welcoming that they feel like extended family; that’s how Paul and Jane made me feel, so I took a much needed break from hurry-up traveling. Read More

My guide from the Mémorial de Caen Museum, Rosine Champion, leaned against a low seawall and held up photos of the giant rolls of barbed wire and semi-submerged iron hedgehogs that Germans installed on Omaha Beach during World War II to thwart potential invasions. Shivering in the blustery October winds, I pulled my army-green sweatshirt up around my ears and gazed over the historic strip of sand. Children played tag with the undulating tide and couples strolled hand-in hand. In the distance, a few tourists clustered around “Les Braves,” a remarkable sculpture by artist Anilore Ban that sweeps its balletic stainless steel wings skyward in commemoration of the more than 4,000 Allied troops who lost their lives on that fateful day in 1944.

Iron hedgehogs that Germans installed on Omaha Beach in Normandy France during World War II

Tour guide Rosine Champion holds photos of the iron hedgehogs that Germans installed on Omaha Beach during World War II

“It’s hard to believe that this was a site of such carnage,” I remarked.

Champion pointed to an unassuming cottage on the opposite side of the road, tucked between sand dunes crowned with dense vegetation. “That’s the only house on Omaha Beach that survived the Normandy invasion,” she explained.” Gradually, families rebuilt and these days Omaha Beach is a very popular vacation spot with the French.” Read More

Versailles Palace, located in the western suburbs of Paris, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in France. Normally, I’m not a fan of such iconic tourism sites, as they’re often overrated and offer little opportunity to truly experience local culture. But in the case of Versailles I made an exception because this lavish palace has figured so prominently in historic events ranging from the popularization of chocolate by Louis XIV; to the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, in which France pledged to help the United States in the Revolutionary War; to the reign of Louis XVI and his bride, Marie Antoinette, which ended badly when Louis was sent to the guillotine during the French Revolution. I particularly wanted to see the Hall of Mirrors, site of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, and the magnificent gardens designed by Louis XIV.

Gold ornamentation of Versailles Palace glows in the early morning sun

Gold ornamentation of Versailles Palace glows in the early morning sun

In an effort to avoid the mob that descends upon Versailles Palace every weekend, I opted to visit on a Tuesday. Even so, the crowds were suffocating. Shoulder-to-shoulder, I shuffled from one opulent room to another, stopping whenever the throngs parted enough to capture a decent photo. After what seemed like hours I finally reached the Hall of Mirrors. Though somewhat smaller than I expected, it did not disappoint. Seventeen mirror-clad arches reflected floor-to-ceiling windows on the opposite wall Read More

Because I travel without a fixed itinerary and on a strict budget, I usually move around countries/continents by bus. But as I began making plans to visit France, friends warned me that this would not be an option, as France does not have a well established bus system. Everyone insisted that the only way I could visit some of the places on my wish list would be to rent a car, but after my stressful experience driving around Spain, I dismissed this idea. Instead, I trusted that I would find my way around, somehow. In the end I was able to visit all the destinations on my list, but I had to figure all this out after arriving, which was stressful and required many hours that could have been better used sightseeing. I kept meticulous notes, which I’ve detailed below in order to help others planning to visit France.

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Paris has the most convenient, well-planned metro system (subway) that I have ever encountered

How to Use the Metro System (City Subway) in Paris:

The map below is widely available all over Paris and posted in every metro station, both at the upper level, in the tunnels/platforms, and inside the metro cars. First, find the name of the station to which you will be traveling. Note the number and color of the line, as well as the name of the station at the end of the line. Once inside the Metro, simply follow the color and number coded signs to the correct platform. If you must change to a connecting line (very likely), keep in mind that you will need to note the name of the terminal station on each line. So for instance, if I was at the Châtelet station (center of the map below, next to the River Seine) and wanted to get to the Arc du Triomphe, which is at Charles de Gaulle station to the west, I would descend into the Châtelet station and follow the signs for line seven (pink) with a final destination of La Corneuve. I would disembark at Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre and follow the signs to line one (gold), with a final destination of Esplanade de La Défense. Read More

Experts disagree how Paris came to be known as the “City of Light.” According to the official City of Paris website, the nickname was originally bestowed upon the city “because it was a vast center of education and ideas during the Age of Enlightenment.” Other sources state Paris was dubbed City of Light in 1828 when it began lighting the Champs-Elysées with gas lamps, the first European city to do so. Still others claim the moniker came into fashion when Emperor Napoleon III tore down whole quarters of houses dating back to the Middle Ages in order to make way for large avenues that let light pour into the former Medieval city. Whichever story is correct, there is no doubt that the name is apropos; today Paris has no less than 242 illuminated hotels, churches, statues, fountains and national buildings.

I definitely wanted to see the city by night, but where to start? Even in broad daylight, touring a new city can be challenging, but by night it’s a daunting proposition. Fortunately, I had a home-grown tour guide. My friend Jérôme Gobin, who had recently returned to France after traveling the world for a year, was eager to show me how to get around Paris. We met up at the Arc de Triomphe at dusk and ducked beneath the immense arch to shelter from the persistent drizzle (refer to #1 on the map at bottom of article). For the next several hours he treated me to a breathtaking walking tour of Paris by night, which I recreate here so others can follow our path.

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Arc de Triomphe on a chilly, drizzly fall evening

As darkness descended, reflections from the eternal flame of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier flickered on the cold stone walls, engraved with names of French war victories and generals. Beyond the memorial lay the Champs Elysee (#2), Paris’ famous upscale shopping street, with storefronts representing the world’s most famous merchants. We wandered along the rain-slicked pavement, past stately horse chestnut trees, peering into the windows of Cartier, Louis Vuitton and the largest Adidas store in the world. Read More

I had a plan for the Louvre Museum in Paris. According to the museum’s website, nearly six million people each year view some of the 35,000 works of art displayed in its 652,000+ square feet of exhibition space. Because most of these six million want to see the museum’s most famous lady, the Mona Lisa is surrounded by crowds much of the time. Like everyone else, I wanted a first-hand view Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, but I hate crowds. Even the thought of being trapped in the midst of a jostling, jockeying throng, bombarded on all sides by people’s energy, makes me positively ill. Hoping to avoid the cattle call, I opted to leave the lady with the enigmatic smile for last, right before closing time.

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Richelieu wing of the Louvre Museum, with corner of the famous glass pyramid that serves as the main entrance of the museum

Inside the famous glass pyramid I descended to the main entry hall, already choked with tourists at 9 a.m. Hastily, I grabbed a map and fled into the Denon Wing on the lower ground floor, which was strangely bereft of traffic. At the end of a long gallery filled with Northern European Sculptures I came face to face with Saint Mary Magdalene, a unique early 16th century wood sculpture finished in polychrome. According to legend, Mary Magdalene was a repentant sinner who lived a life of seclusion in the cave of Sainte-Baume, clothed only by her hair. Every day the angels raised her up in the sky to hear the heavenly chorus. Read More