Northern France Holiday
Road Trip from Paris to Loire Valley & Normandy
After spending 3 wonderful days in Paris, we set off on a four day Northern France holiday to experience some of the beautiful countryside of central and northern France. We rented a car at Gare du Nord in Paris and headed south to the Loire Valley. After exploring some beautiful chateaux in the Loire Valley. Then, our trip took us northwest to Mont Saint Michel, and north to Bayeux and the Normandy Beach area. Finally, we drove back east to Giverny and the fabulous Monet Gardens and museum that celebrate the works of one of the most famous painters of all time. On our last day, we drove the hour from Giverny to the Charles de Gaulle Airport to catch our flight back to Texas.
Paris was great, but this four-day road trip through small towns, winding country roads, small personable hotels, and friendly folks gave us a better feel for the real France. Driving in France was easy (especially after having just left the UK and driving on the wrong side of the road!). Other than getting out of Paris traffic and one GPS malfunction, we had a great time driving in France.
Exploring the Loire Valley
Our first destination after leaving Paris was the central part of the Loire Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Loire Valley is full of stately chateaux, rolling hills, vineyards, and farms along the banks of the Loire River. Royalty and nobility built over 300 chateaux in the valley, from military fortresses to personal residences. On this trip, we had plans to visit Chambord, Chenonceau, and Amboise. All of them were within a couple of hours of each other on the way to our hotel near Tours, the nice but affordable Kyriad Tours Sud Hotel.
With its distinctive French Renaissance architecture, Chambord Chateau is the largest and one of the most recognizable chateau in the Loire Valley. In 1519, by order of King Francis I, construction began on the “hunting lodge”. With 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces, and an estate covering over 13,000 acres, Chambord is large and majestic in every sense. The unique history, the architectural and natural beauty, and its majesty make it worthy of its UNESCO designation.
Some of the interesting historical facts about Chambord include its use to store some of the art masterpieces from The Louvre and the Compiègne museums during WW2, including the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. The fascinating double helix central staircase is thought to be inspired by the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Some of my favorite areas were the large terraces on the upper floor, where I could view the amazing display of chimney stacks, turrets, the lantern tower, and the panoramic views of the beautiful countryside.
In addition to Chambord, there are numerous other notable chateaux in the Loire Valley. Some of these include Chenonceau, Amboise, Blois, Cheverny, Villandry, Usse, and many others. Typically, plan at least a couple of hours for each chateau. If you don’t want to drive yourself, many companies offer a variety of tours to the more popular chateaux.
Want to get the fairytale experience? Then check out this amazing day of castle touring, wine tasting, and lunch. Book the tour here.
Mont Saint Michel
The first time I saw pictures of Mont Saint Michel, it reminded me of some fantasy castle in a sci-fi video game. It couldn’t be real. A small, rocky island topped by a fortress, accessible only by boat. As we all know, Mont Saint Michel is real. Located on the western edge of Normandy just off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, this surrealistic edifice rises high above the sea. Mont Saint Michel is actually completely surrounded by water only a few times each year at extremely high tide levels. The rocky outcrop with a fortress topped by an Abbey is very impressive whether the tide is high or low.
To access the island, visitors (cars and buses) park in a large parking area about 2.5 km away. From there, they can reach the site via free shuttle buses, or they can take a 30-minute walk. Regardless of your mode of transportation, the site of Mont Saint Michel coming into view is a memorable one. Parking cost 12 Euros, but there is no charge for the shuttle or for admission to the site. There is also a 10 Euro charge for admission and tour for the Abbey. Another fun experience, especially if you have kids, that we unfortunately didn’t have time for is a guided hiking tour that leads you on a barefoot adventure through the bay of Mont St Michel and explains all about the unique ecosystem.
We stayed at Hotel Auberge de la Baie, a cute little place just minutes from the parking area. In fact, we could see Mont Saint Michel from our doorstep. Before sundown on that first day, we heard some commotion in the street below us. At first concerned, we looked out the window and were amused to find a herd of hundreds of sheep passing by the hotel on a side street, making their way from one pasture to another location for the night.
After leaving Mont Saint Michel, we drove the two hours to the charming town of Bayeux and onward to Omaha Beach, Point du Hoc, The American Cemetery, and other landmarks of the 1944 invasion that turned the tide for the Allies in WW2.
Bayeux is the perfect home base for visiting Normandy and its various WW II museums, cemeteries, and memorials. It is also the home of the famous Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered cloth that is 68 meters long (224 ft). The tapestry gives a detailed account of the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England. In addition, the majestic Notre Dame Cathedral along with great shopping and restaurants make Bayeux a wonderful place to visit.
Best Restaurant in Bayeux: La Rapiere
One of our favorite dining experiences during our entire two weeks in Europe was at the lovely La Rapiere, just off the main street at 53 Rue Saint Jean in town center, down a quiet side alley. Linda, Simon and their team have put together one of the best restaurants in all of Normandy. Elegant, intimate, comfortable, friendly – and fantastic food. After dining at La Rapiere, we can see why it is rated the #1 restaurant in Bayeux by TripAdvisor.
I had the most delicious sea bass with curry and seaweed risotto and a butternut squash puree. My wife had a tasty Wild Brill fillet with asparagus, truffles and olives, and espuma. Other great mains include the Simmenthal Beef Fillet with herbs, shallots, garlic, and a savory tarragon gravy, and a nice looking Scottish Leg of Lamb.
As good as the main was, the dessert was equally fantastic. We chose the Valrhona Chocolate Dome, a dark chocolate mousse on a crunchy praline biscuit with a soft toffee heart. La Rapiere is a winner in every respect. Each time I think about our evening at La Rapiere, I will think about the smiling faces, the elegant atmosphere, the tantalizing flavors of the sea bass, and, of course, that fantastic Valrhona Chocolate Dome dessert!
American Cemetery in Normandy
Among the many emotion producing sights in Normandy, it is especially sobering to see the endless row after row of white crosses representing the 9,388 Americans who are buried on this sacred ground. The heart wrenching American Cemetery and grounds overlooking Omaha Beach, along with the outstanding museum, does an excellent job of explaining what happened during that momentous time in our history.
In addition to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach, many other locations commemorating military operations in the area are located on and close to those famous beaches. The Airborne Museum, Utah Beach, Pointe du Hoc, Dead Man’s Corner, the Caen Memorial Museum, several cemeteries, and other landmarks dot this area with reminders of the ultimate sacrifice made by thousands of brave soldiers in WW2.
For an in depth tour of the cemetery and other D-Day sites that will share many historic insights and stories, book this tour here.
Giverny & Monet’s Gardens
Heading back to Paris, we decided to take in the world-famous Monet Museum and Gardens in tiny Giverny near the Seine River. We were delighted to see the beautiful flowers and gardens surrounding the house where Claude Monet spent 43 years of his life.
The spacious house is a home of colors. With the pink and greens of the exterior, the blues of the kitchen and The Little Blue Salon, the yellow dining room, and various other shades and artwork throughout the house, the house is reflective of Monet’s love of colors he used in his art. Looking out the open windows, guests are treated to a kaleidoscope of more colors in the beautiful gardens.
It was especially thrilling to walk through the gardens and see the Japanese Bridge, and other parts of the gorgeous landscaping on the grounds. For those familiar with Monet’s work, it was surreal standing on the same bridge and staring at the same glistening lake speckled with vibrant water lilies inspired many of Monet’s works.
Tours are available for Giverny, but to make the most of your day and enjoy its beauty, we recommend the skip the line tickets as it gets quite busy: get your skip the line tickets here.
Hotel Restaurant La Musardiere
Tired from a fun, but exhausting day of driving and exploring the museum and the gardens, we were excited to be staying at the charming Hotel and Restaurant La Musardiere. Literally one minute from Monet Gardens on Rue Claude Monet! We walked into the charming lobby, checked in, and relaxed in our room. Clean, comfortable, affordable, and so convenient, we were very happy with our stay at La Musardiere.
La Rose des Sables
On the outskirts of Vernon, the small village just 10 minutes from Monet Gardens, we found a great little Moroccan restaurant, La Rose des Sables. It is far enough away not to be caught up in the crazy touristy area. However, it is close enough to be convenient for a top-quality lunch or dinner. Sadrine and her staff have created a welcoming environment. They are casual but elegant, with fantastic food, attentive service, and very reasonable prices.
I had the fabulous lamb tagine. It is a traditional Moroccan dish, served simering in its clay pot on the table. Tender lamb with potatoes, tomato, and plums in a savory gravy – a must try. Other grilled meats, including chicken, beef, and fish, served with couscous and a variety of vegetables are all excellent. La Rose des Sables also has a large inviting outdoor seating area in the back of the restaurant.
Northern France Road Trip
France is a fascinating country. By all means, visit the wonderful capital city of Paris. But also get out into the countryside to see other parts of the real France. The chateaux, the farms, vineyards and villages of the Loire Valley, the majestic Mont Saint Michel, the heart-rending memorials of Normandy Beach, and the inspiration of Monet Gardens all show France has so much more to offer.
Northern France Holiday was written and photographed by Scott Kendall
Disclosure: The author was hosted for complimentary meals by La Rapiere and La Rose des Sables.