I've been to Paris many, many times. Give that its just an hour and a half between the Gare du Nord and St Pancras, its quicker and easier to get to Paris than it is to south London from where I live.

A place I have less experience of, though, is rural France. That's why a birthday trip to Normandy was so exciting- a new place to explore?! Sign me up.

Although Normandy is just a hop, skip and a jump over the Channel as the crow flies, it actually takes a really long time to drive there, so I was up at the crack of dawn. That's okay, I love sunrises and road trips.

We decided to take the Eurotunnel from Folkestone to Calais, which was also quite north of where we were headed in Basse Normandy. I wanted, however, not only a good old fashioned road trip, but to see as much of the open French roads as possible, having never experienced them. I was also curious to see what it was like taking a train, in a car, through the Channel. 

Turns out, its just driving your car in to a train and dozing off for 30 minutes as you cross under the ocean. A nice place to grab a quick kip if you've been up since 5am to drive.

Driving through the highways in Normandy, you pass through a lot of farmland. You'll also pass the location where the Battle of the Somme was fought. Its weird that this long expanse of grass and sky was once a bloody battlefield.

After so long in the car, it was a relief to finally get to Orchard Gites, located between the booming metropolises (hardehar) of Vire and Flers in Basse Normandy. Located amongst rolling hills dotted with cow farms, its pretty remote. The closest hamlet, St. Quintin-les-Chardonnets, is simply a collection of 10 or so houses around a large church. 

 Being exhausted from the long drive, the best thing possible awaited us: complimentary Norman cider and caramel cookies. Normandy isn't French wine country, but instead is known for its apple orchards and legendary cider...

 ...which we enjoyed whilst sunning ourselves- something you don't get to do very often in the UK!

Now before I get carried away talking about our escapades, I should stop myself and explain what a gite is. Gite is a French word for holiday home. Ours was extra cool; it used to be a barn. Its interesting that in France, I noticed that barns were connected to most homes, and owners now seem to either have left the barn portion fall apart, or renovated the barn to be part of the house.

Although the towns of Vire and Flers were within driving distance, and we did go in to Fler for one (amazing, excellent, delicious) dinner on Saturday night, the cool thing about staying in a gite is the ability to cook in. And even if you're not the best cook, I'd highly recommend giving it a go with all the fresh French ingredients at your fingertips. Being in cow country, I am unashamed to admit I lived off of butter, milk and yogurt almost the whole holiday.

Besides cooking amazing food with fresh ingredients, most of the time in Normandy was spent on country walks. One of the most eventful was a long, long walk to see the Vire Gorges.

I think most people probably drive around the countryside to see views of the gorges- they are pretty far apart. Since it was the last day of my youth, I decided to celebrate my young, not-yet-fatigued bones with a walk. It was gorge-ous (Haha!). At first.

The views are truly breathtaking- I don't think pictures can do the lush countryside justice. They can, however, show the clouds that gathered on our long walk.

By the time we reached Pont Bellenger, which has amazing views of the Vire valley, the clouds looked, as they say in England "proper" scary. It was too late to turn around, though. We'd committed, for better or worse.

The sky opened up and for the five kilometer walk back to the car, we were thankfully snowed on, for the most part. The rain only started once we descended the hills, close to the car.

The next day (my birthday!) dawned bright and sunny. After a refreshing run through the rural roads, and a stop off at a French cemetery (you who have followed the blog for a long time know I have a thing for French cemeteries) we headed to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach.

I probably seems strange, wanting to go to such a place on one's birthday. But I've always been so interested in the world wars- blame my early love of American Girl dolls- and being in what felt like the heart of so many WWII battles just stoked my interest even further.

I have never seen Saving Private Ryan, or really any movies about the Norman invasions, so I have to say I was kind of surprised by how the beach actually looked. Its flat beach for about 100 meters, and then there are sheer, ridiculously craggy cliffs that are 100 feet in some places. I can't really imagine invading a landscape like this; no wonder it was a bloodbath. The men coming in from the Channel were sitting ducks for the snipers in the pillboxes nestled in to the cliffside.

Nowadays, though, the beach is clearly a tourist destination, with kite surfers, swimmers, walkers, horseback riders...you name it. Its strange, thinking of the world in which all those men gave their lives, and comparing it to our own today.

Above the beach is the actual cemetery. I was much more emotional than I thought I would be, walking through the small museum and out into the cemetery itself. I'm not a huge supporter of armed engagement, and while I absolutely respect the people who go out and put themselves in harm's way because they believe they are fighting for something more, I'm just not sure if I totally believe in the "something more" they are fighting in. That's neither here nor there, really. The fact is, during the Battle of Normandy, almost half a million people died on both the Allied and Axis side. Over 200,000 of those deaths were on the Allied side, including Americans. Of those, about 10,000 are buried at this cemetery. 

Walking the quiet cemetery, it was impossible to comprehend the devastation and mass loss of life that happened on the same places I was walking, only 70 years beforehand.

The small museum helped paint the scene, and also shared the stories of some of the many heroes, some American, some from other places. What I liked best was, as you walked out to the cemetery, a voice read the names of all the known killed. It is a nice way to remember someone, and the ultimate sacrifice they made for their beliefs when they were younger than I am now.

Amongst the graves are many graves for unknown men, and it was hard to see them, and know that no one will ever know their names. So spare a thought for them, too.

The weirdest thing, though, was how the entire cemetery overlooks the beach, the beautiful, glorious beach, where life goes on and people laugh and swim and surf and sing and kiss and run and scold their kids down below.

A few paces away from the American cemetery is a monument in honor of a division of soldiers that pushed through the German lines- there was massive loss of life in the division, of course. If you walk a little further down from the monument, you'll come across German pillboxes, where snipers picked off men landing on the beach.

You can still go in to them, although nature is really reclaiming them slowly but surely. The weirdest one for me was one where you could still see the lines the massive machine gun machines (see, not exactly an army aficionado) had etched into the concrete, they were so big and heavy.

Although it was sad, it was also kind of uplifting, to walk along the beach and see how much nature heals in such a relatively short amount of time, even if we as humans have trouble doing the same. 

We drove back to the gite with a newfound respect for nature, and for the people of France. The invasion must have been horrifying- there's probably a more appropriate word that isn't in my vocabulary, really. And yet, now the countryside is all farms and cows and green rolling hills and windmills.

I can understand, though, a bit more, why there are monuments everywhere along the countryside for those who gave their lives during the world wars. We came across quite a few when we returned to the gite, and took a little walk around St. Quintin-les-Chardonnets, to enjoy the warm evening, and take in the last bit of the countryside before we returned to England the next morning.

As it was our last night, and my birthday, most important of all, I got to choose our last supper in Normandy. Being a veg, I asked for a vegetarian take on an old French fave: mushroom bourguinon. Not to talk it up, but no restaurant could have made it better. You can see just how delicious it was from the smile on my face. Or many that's just me appreciating the holiday as a whole.

The next time you're considering a trip to Paris, think a little more outside the box. Basse Normandy may require a bit of driving, and you may find you have to speak French (or, if you can't, resort to lots of gesturing and smiling) to get what you need from the locals, but its definitely worth a trip.


24 Hours in Amsterdam

A wintry Friday evening not too long ago, I took a short flight to Amsterdam for a very short weekend trip.

As in, I was going to be in Amsterdam for a little more than 24 hours.

You may ask why I decided to go for such a short time. Quite simply poor planning on my part- I totally forgot I had made a commitment to go Stiffkey on Sunday when booked my flight to Amsterdam. So, I changed my return to earlier on Sunday (as in, 5am on Sunday) so I could enjoy one full day in the city.

It was no where near enough time.

When we landed, MB and I were taken aback by how gorgeous (if not a bit cold and windy) Amsterdam is. The canals, the beautiful, big brick row houses, the cute cafes and bars, the many shops dedicated to cheese...basically, heaven on earth.

We ate a nice dinner at Rijks, the restaurant that is part of the Rijksmuseum (would highly recommend) and had a nice early night at the Hoxton, a trendy, trendy hotel in the Nine Streets, apparently the place to be in the city. (Don't take my word for it- I was only there for 24 hours!)

We woke bright and early on a blustery, rainy Saturday morning so we could see as many sights as possible in my short time in the city. We were shocked to see the line at the Anne Frank House so long at 9am. I would still say, though, as wet and cold as it was waiting for 45 minutes, it was worth it. Perhaps a bit of a depressing way to start the day, but so important. Although it was crammed with people going through each of the rooms, it really brought home how strong such a young girl was in the face of so much hate and adversity. 

After the museum, we walked around town as a pick-me-up. It had stopped raining and, although overcast, the city had a nice sparkle to it. Perhaps it was just the slick streets.

I have a weird habit of trying to peek in to windows and through doorways for cheeky looks in to people's houses. I'm always fascinated by how other people live. Because it was so dark and rainy, it was the perfect day to do a little peeping. I was stunned by how nice people's homes look in Amsterdam- and by how many people of all sorts seem to be living right downtown. (In London, only the extremely wealthy can really afford to live in the center of town, its extortionate.) The houses seem to have high ceilings, loads of colors and look really nicely appointed. Again, something new and different from London, unless you're a millionaire. We couldn't help but lament that we'd chosen the wrong European city to live in.

This thought was reinforced when I tried my first Dutch pancake, a savory cheese and onion concoction that I smothered with syrup. 

MB went for the slightly sweeter option. You can take the girl out of America, but you can't take the American out of the girl!

After our snack, we headed back out to the street. You really can learn a lot about a city just by walking around, and I was determined to do as much of that as I could while I had a little daylight, as overcast as it was.

One of the most interesting things about Amsterdam, I found, was the preponderance of antique shops. I passed so many, and almost all of them had interesting artifacts from one of the wars on display. You forget, as an American, how much the war affected Europe.

Later in the day the weather cleared, and I started to feel even better about Amsterdam. Days may be short in the winter, but the city is so sweet it doesn't seem to matter. Everywhere there were people on bikes, smiling and waving hello. Everyone I encountered was super friendly, and seemed very pleased to tolerate my attempts to try out my feeble Dutch.

No tour of Amsterdam would be complete without a quick tour of the Red Light District. Funnily enough, I was surprised to discover that the district is demarcated with literal red lights. You won't miss it when you enter the district.

It was weird how uncomfortable I was walking through the area. The main areas didn't have much salaciousness on display; a few sex shops and loads of chain restaurants, it differed very little from the Place Pigalle in Paris. But if you turned off to a side road, there were- I can only describe them as booths, I suppose- places where women would stand in front of floor to ceiling glass windows, on display. Behind them was a twin bed and a sink. Some had music on and were dancing, others posed provocatively, others just sat, staring out the window. There were a range of ages, shapes, sizes and ethnicities. I even saw a few clients leaving various booths. 

I couldn't meet anyone's eye in those alleys. Its not that I'm ashamed of sex, or people even buying it, if its consensual. Something just didn't feel right about oogling women on display, though. In a way, I was more disturbed than I was when I left the Anne Frank House a few hours earlier.

Just outside of the Red Light District in the Oude Kerk, a huge cathedral with a massive organ. There was an interesting art exhibit on inside, in which the artist had removed all sources of man-made light, so only natural light through the windows and door could come through. The organ played mournfully in the background. It made for a haunting experience of the church, given the late afternoon hour.

By the time we left the church, it was dusk. The sky had cleared and the city was illuminated in an ethereal glow. 

I definitely need to go back to Amsterdam for a longer trip, but this was certainly a good appetizer that only whet my appetite for more!