Our tour of France started in the south of France. Our flight into Toulouse, the fourth largest city in France, was uneventful. Aside from being filled with history, Toulouse is known for modern-day aviation and aeronautics manufacturing. This visit, we were focused on history. The nearby walled medieval city of Carcassonne was our first tour stop. Left to right below - the city from a distance, the fortified walls and entrance to the city, walking along the narrow cobbled streets with throngs of tourists (this would be a recurring theme throughout the trip)
Our tour was entitled "France Through the Ages' offered through Smithsonian Journeys. When we visit historical places, we like to learn stuff. We have enjoyed each of the Smithsonian tours we've done because they include deep dives into the local history and culture through narration from highly-qualified guides. Here, Florence, our guide for most of our journey through France, walks us through cassoulet, a famous French dish featuring white haricot beans, duck, sausage, PINK garlic (not the white stuff), spices, and a special crock in which the whole thing is cooked. Later that evening, back in Toulouse, we sampled the dish for ourselves. Yum!
Next day we headed to Albi, more churches and a visit to the Toulouse Lautrec museum. Afterwards, on the way to our next stop in Sarlat, castles, castles everywhere, many in the most impossible cliff-hanging locations along the drive and along the Dordogne River. One notable castle we visited was the home of American Singer Josephine Baker.
From here on out, Dave and I had to share his phone to take photos because, unfortunately, my phone was 'lost' at a restaurant in Sarlat.
The pilgrimage city of Rocamadour, dating to the 12th century, put my recently-recovered broken ankle to its first real test; the ankle passed with flying colors, I'm glad to say!
Pilgrims from the Middle Ages who visited the black madonna in the lofty cathedral would have climbed some two hundred stone steps on their knees. Fortunately we accessed a lift to avoid some of the climb.
We headed further north to Saumur and the Loire River valley. We visited Fontevrault Abbey where we were introduced to some juicy 12th century history. Eleanor of Aquitaine, married two kings, gave birth to two kings, and was way ahead of her time - she was a powerful, influential woman in a male-dominated era in history. Her effigy is shown on the right (front). Her final resting place is unknown.
I'm more of a book listener than book reader, but I was so intrigued by Eleanor's story that I bought a biography and am now immersed. History truly comes alive after walking the same paths as some of its characters. The abbey itself has a varied history. Although much of the structure has been refurbished, the many interesting carvings caught my eye. No two capitals are the same inside the massive nave.
Looking upward inside the tower building. Shapes and shapes and shapes.
The Loire River Valley is famous for its many many castles. Chenonceau on the left and Clos Luce (where Leonardo DaVinci spent the last three years of his life) on the right, below
Moving right along and heading North into Normandy with a visit to the island city of Mont St Michel. Once again, millions of our new best friends join us along the narrow streets to reach the cathedral at the summit.
On to Bayeux to see the 1000 year old Bayeux Tapestry. The mind-blowing tapestry is really an embroidery--wool thread stitched on linen; it's 230' long and about 20" tall and tells the story of the Norman conquest of England. No photos allowed of the tapestry itself, so I had to settle for a photo of this model in a similar style to the figures on the tapestry in the museum entrance area (and a book purchase at the gift shop). This was truly a highlight of the trip for this stitchy person! If you ever have the chance to see this in person, see it. Period.
Modern day kits were available at the embroidery shop in town, but alas, the store was closed during our visit (probably a good thing!).
Moving forward about 1000 years, give or take, and we're on to the WWII Memorial Museum in Caen, the US Cemetery, and a visit to the five landing beaches - Omaha, Utah (US), Gold, Sword (Britain), and Juno (Canada) as well as Pointe du Hoc. Dave, the WWII history geek, was in his glory.
Below left, one of the mulberries from the artificial harbors created to load equipment and supplies into France after the successful beach landings. Below right, Les Braves, a newer structure at Omaha Beach dedicated on the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion.
Many German bunkers remain. Dave is 'on duty' inside one of them.
If you've ever seen the movie "The Longest Day," this scene should look familiar. Red Buttons played paratrooper John Steele whose parachute got stuck on the church in Ste Mere Eglise. These days a model now hangs from the church steeple.
The best part of the story: in truth, the model should be on the other side of the church - but this side is more easily accessible for tourist photo ops!
Moving on, as Claude Monet rode the train through Giverny, he saw a pink brick house which became his now famous residence and gardens. The house is filled with his paintings and Japanese art collection. Our visit seemed perfectly timed to highlight a huge variety of spring foliage and blooms.
Finally, our last stop, Paris. Below, the Eiffel Tower, and Winged Victory at the Louvre. This concept of taking photos in crowded museums has always been a huge turn-off for me. Mostly, we enjoyed a small portion of the numerous exhibits at the Louvre sans photos.
Around Paris, below: Ste Chapelle (with its jaw-dropping stained glass windows), Notre Dame Cathedral (no entry allowed, expected completion following the 2019 fire is December 2024), and Sacre Coeur with its mosaic details throughout the interior (photos not allowed inside)
Montmartre (an artsy village inside Paris close to Sacre Coeur), and the Palace of Versailles (a 20-minute train ride away from Paris) where we were again joined by millions of our closest tourist friends on a rainy day.
If I were to do this fabulous trip again, I wouldn't change much. However in Paris, I'd skip Versailles (way too many tourist throngs to make this stop enjoyable) and I'd move heaven and earth to book an entry time at the Musee d'Orsay, the home of impressionist art. I've been in Paris twice, and sadly missed this museum both times.
And . . . I'd tether my phone to the inside of my bag!
On the right, the weary travelers under a blanket of wisteria in bloom at Giverny. What a trip! Can't wait for the next voyage!
It's good to travel, but it's also good to be home, fortified with memories!
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