Sunday, May 23, 2010

The sun rose again to illuminate our early morning drive along the rolling, hilly farmland from Chateau-Thierry back to Charles De Gaulle.  Paul and I were anxious to leave this strange, dirty village with it’s creepy townsfolk and begin our long journey home to Madison, Wisconsin.  Well, a long journey by 21st Century standards.

Fortunately, our one hour long drive was uneventful, and with the sun at our backs, we made it to the airport and through Hertz return processing.  We were going to bitch about the crappy Magellan GPS for a credit but didn’t have the energy.  We had larger concerns, like getting Paul’s bottle of Calvados through security in carry-on luggage.  Ramsi Yousef and security won, so the Calvados was destroyed by French authorities one glass at a time.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Morning at Hotel du Sud was pleasant with the omnipresent owners preparing le petit dejeuner for guests.  While Paul and I were eating, Isabelle came to our table and showed us family pictures taken months after the Battle of the Bulge.  Isabelle and her sisters were photographed sitting atop a destroyed Sherman tank.  You don’t see stuff like that in history books.

We took one last tour of the immediate area and found the building location for the US aid station that was bombed on December 24, 1944, killing 30 US soldiers and nurse Renee Lemaire.  There’s a plaque commemorating this event.  I think she’s been nominated for sainthood because of her sacrifice.

We said our goodbyes to Bastogne and hit the autoroute for Soy, about an hour to the north and into much hillier countryside.  We were able to easily identify the brewery by its ghostly signage.  We walked into an empty, quaint establishment except for the female barkeep who explained that she’s a friend of Danny the owner.

Danny arrived soon after, not immediately introducing who he was, until he stood up abruptly and said he would provide us a tour.  Fantome’s production area consisted of a single brew kettle, housed in a ramshackle building strewn with old equipment and debris.  Bottling and labeling is located in an adjacent room.  In spite of the dilapidation of the brewery itself, it had a distinctive charm.

Back in the bar area, we sat down to another Fantome masterpiece, when, through the window, Paul noticed windswept, white smoke swirling around the outside of the building.  We walked outside and saw that the chimney was on fire!  Strangely, at that same moment, our beers in hand outside of Fantome, a beautiful Belgian woman appeared through the smoke, and Jeff was momentarily distracted while Paul responsibly tried to deal with the situation at hand.  I came to my senses and noticed that our car was parked very close to the building and so I decided to move it across the street and out of harms way.

Danny was walking around and indicating in French that all was well.  But it wasn’t.  He stepped back inside and moments later came rushing out, yelling “Appelez les pompiers!”  Call the Fire Department! They eventually came from the next town over and put it out.  It appeared that the damage was isolated to the chimney stack itself and no damage was done to the roof or building structure.  Whew!

We bid our goodbyes to Fantome and continued on our route to Orval.  Along our sun-drenched drive, we saw a monument to an American war hero and another Sherman tank proudly displayed in a town square and quaint villages all along the hilly route towards the Orval monastery.

The restaurant at Orval was located a short drive from the monastery in a valley of lush green rolling hills.  It was busy and we sat down for a beer before heading over to the monastery itself.  The grounds are spectacular, but we decided to refrain from doing the tour itself – it just seemed too touristy.  That didn’t stop us from hitting their gift store where the full marketing prowess of Orval was on display with all of its branded paraphernalia from key chains to glassware.  We love Orval, but it’s bit too much in that respect.

So, to recap, our trip started with WWII (Normandy), then back to WWI (Ypres), then WWII again (Bastogne), and now back to WWI (Chateau-Thierry)!

Continuing on our drive back towards Paris, we chose Chateau-Thierry somewhat arbitrarily for our last night’s stay.  With Paul’s handy iPad, just released prior to our departure, we did a bit of research and learned that it played a significant role in the America’s late involvement in World War I.  In fact, the American Expeditionary Force, led by John “Black Jack Pershing fought the Germans in the town in July, 1918.  The month prior , the Battle of Belleau Wood , located just a mile west took place between the Germans and the US Marines.  It was bloody hand-to-hand combat to the death.

Our evening was spent touring this village which wasn’t as nice and clean as all the Belgian villages we had visited the past week.  It was full of graffiti and dirty.  Our dinner was strange because the otherwise perfectly acceptable restaurant served Andouille Sausage which almost made us hurl!

We took it in early on account of the fact we had to rise early and hit the road west.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Wow, another morning of brilliant sunshine!  We spent the day kicking around Bastogne checking out various points of interest including the large Mardesson Monument to America’s critical role in the battle of the Bulge. Shaped like a five pointed star, it has inscribed on its walls the story of the Bulge for posterity.

(Paul – memory not serving me well here.)

In the evening, we searched for the church of Renee Lemaire, the Angel of Bastogne, whose story was featured so poignantly in Band of Brothers. It turns out that the church was located just behind our hotel, but we were also looking for the area that served as a first aid station, but to no avail. (In Band of Brothers, the church served as the first aid station, but this is incorrect according to eyewitnesses of the event.  Rather it was a small store that was converted into an aid station.)

Upon our arrival back at the hotel, we could see our drinking mate in the bar and we again passed the evening drinking Ciney Brunes with him, as he pulled out a poster of the 101st Airborne which was signed by returning vets in recent years.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

In the morning, we awoke to bright sun and a wonderful breakfast in the hotel cafe, after which we walked from the hotel on a convenient bike path which took us straight north to the village of Foy which was prominently featured in HBO series Band of Brothers.  We were able to locate a monument to the 101st Airborne near the Bois Jacques, where the paratroopers were shelled by the Germans stationed in the village of Foy.  The foxholes are still there!  We then walked the same line that the US soldiers did when they attacked Foy and successfully displaced the Germans in the last days of the Battle of the Bulge.  What an amazing history in this small, remote village that has changed little since Winter 1944.

A short mile to the northwest of Foy is another small village called Recogne.  What’s intriguing about this place is that there is a beautiful, haunting German cemetery here, where they buried vanquished Germans 3 to 4 soldiers per grave.  Also, there is a monument to a former American cemetery that was disinterred in the 1950′s.  Cows now graze the field where 3,000 Americans were once buried and were later moved to other cemeteries in Luxemburg or back to the States.

We walked the 4 miles back to Bastogne and thus earned our first beers of the day, which included my first La Trappe, at a quaint bar tucked into a side street off the main square.

Next, we had an early dinner of burgers and fries at Cafe Le Nuts and conversed with an American couple who was touring Europe.  The husband was on leave from the Middle East and a soldier in the 101st Airborne.

We passed the evening back at Hotel du Sud drinking Ciney Brunes with the male proprietor.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Morning in Iepers.  And, of course, more sun!  Gloomy weather may be appropriate for touring World War I battlefields, but clear, sunlit skies are always preferred.

Nonetheless, a great day to head to the World War I Museum right on the main square, only a few blocks from the Old Tom Hotel.  It’s called “In Flanders Fields Museum” (after the famous poem), and it’s housed in the stunning Lakenhalle building, otherwise known as “Cloth Hall”.  (Ypres was known for it’s fine woolen cloth and was the center of the Flemish weaving industry.)  The building was started in 1200 and took a hundred years to complete.  It stood majestically until early November, 1914, when the first German shell hit the building.  By April, 1915, German howitzers and “Big Bertha” tag-teamed to lay almost complete waste to the building, leaving only remnants of the belfry tower walls standing.  This became the iconic image of the war’s destruction, not only just for Ypres but for all of Europe.  Interesting fact:  Ypres and Hiroshima are sister cities.

They have a great website:  In person, your entrance ticket bears the name/picture/bio of an actual person of the era from the beginning to the end of the war. Then you proceed through the museum’s multimedia experience from life before the war, it’s causes, escalation, battles, weaponry, poison gas, etc., to it’s aftermath and at the very end learn if your person survived or not, and if so, what became of them after the war.  As far as museum’s go, one of the best experiences you’ll have.  By the way, the US National World War I Museum in Kansas City is on par with this one.

Next, we checked out a place just a 10 minute drive east of Ypres called Sanctuary Woods – which is kind of a creepy, weird, demented touristy place.  But, unlike many such places in the USA, this was authentic, nothing is pretend here, because this is the very heart of World War I misery.  Apparently, the story is that the grandfather of its current owner was a farmer who, upon his return to his land after the War, decided to keep a portion of it as it was during the war and open to tourists.

Now back to beer! And not just any beer, but St. Bernardus, one the best breweries in the world and located only 30 minutes west from Sanctuary Woods.   We asked at the front desk for a tour, and at first, we didn’t get the impression that it would be possible.  However, the Sales Manager arrived and gave us an outstanding tour of production and inventory of the new brewery which is located next to the original grounds of the facility.

Next, we drove to the small  enchanting Flemish village of Vichte and the Verhaege family brewery that makes Duchesse du Bourgogne and Vichtenaar, both legendary Red Flemish Ales.  The Verhaege family member that greeted us shared that he wasn’t set up nor had the time to give us a tour.  So, Paul and I settled for the next best thing, which was a local watering hole which we believe was also owned by the Verhaeges.  The bartender was very friendly and accomodating and we drank Duchesse, Vichtenaar and a few others.  He was gracious enough to give us both a couple glasses and coasters to keep.

We were in fine driving shape – truly, because we always mind the drinking and driving – to continue on our pilgrimage, this time to St. Remy, Belgium, home of the Trappiste Rochefort brewery.  We got a little lost on the way, but eventually arrived.  No brewery tours.  An old monk told us to go around to the only area accessible to the public which was the church – Zzzzz.  Still, it was neat to see yet another legendary Belgian Trappiste brewery.  The hills in eastern Belgium – the Ardennes Forest  - are in sharp contrast to the flat fields of western Belgium.  These same hills were significant factor in the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944.

At sundown, we drove into Bastogne, again with no reservations, but confident that we’d find a hospitable place to stay and we found it – Hotel du Sud.  Located just on the the northwest side of the Centre Ville, it was a quaint hotel owned by a charming couple.  The hotel was established in 1930, and when the Germans invaded in 1940, promptly shelled the building, so it existed as a pile of rubble through the end of the war, until the family rebuilt it after the war.

We roamed around the village for a bit, where one clearly notices the huge American influence, including an aging park memorial to General Patton just to the south of the main square which was the route by which he ceremoniously entered Bastogne on December 26, 1944.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

After our first Belgian-style continental breakfast at our hotel – again a brilliant sunny morning – we ventured back into the center of Brugge.  What a gorgeous city - it’s got everything an enlightened tourist would want in a sophisticated yet comfortable European city - including Cuban cigars!  We found a great cigar store with a stylish gentleman and snagged (2) Montecristo #2′s and (2) Partagas’ for the evening – more on those later.

Then, we hit the road to Iepers or Ypres – whichever spelling you prefer.  As usual, we set the GPS for the “city center”, almost always the best option for lodging, restaurants, tourist attractions, etc.  We parked in the main square and found our hotel as recommended by our beer book: The Old Tom Hotel.

Ypres was a town at the very center of major action in World War I and was utterly destroyed, later rebuilt to look the same as before the war. It was our hub for the next few days of World War I history and Flemish beer.

After securing our nice room overlooking the main square, we headed directly to the Saint Sixtus Monestery in Westvleteran. This is one of the seven Trappist Monesteries still brewing beer in the Trappist tradition, but the only one that doesn’t export. If you want to drink their beer, you go visit them! The drive alone through hop fields along narrow roads is nearly worth it. You can’t actually visit the Monestery, but across the street is their own cafe when you can sit outside and enjoy all of their beer along with light snacks. We got their somewhat early and had our pick of tables outside, but as we sat and enjoyed all three of their beer styles the “beer garden” filled to overflowing. This is a popular place, and people visit from all over the world. The beer is very good!

We also visited De Struise Brouwers brewery in nearby Oostvletern. These guys make some of the richest, darkest, strongest stouts around, brewed in the lambic style of open fermentation. We chatted with one of the head brewers, Carlo, for an hour as he served us several of their beers to sample, each with its own interesting origin story.

That evening we enjoyed a nice dinner outside at The Old Tom and headed to the Menin Gate for the Last Post Ceremony, which has been happening daily since 1927. Truly something to behold, as many people gather to remember the 55,000 missing British soldiers from World War I.

Afterwards, we decided to torch our Montecristo #2s at our hotel’s outdoor cafe.  It was Paul’s first M2, and he was already sick of me saying how this was absolutely my favorite cigar in the whole world.  So, Murphy’s Law ensured that his experience would be the polar opposite.  His M2 unraveled, canoed, extinguished multiple times before he gave up halfway through his miserable experience.  The only way it could have been worse was for it to have burned his lip.  I’m not sure what the problem was with his M2, mine was perfect.  Actually, I know exactly what the problem was:  Cuban cigar quality is not what it used to be and it’s inconsistent from cigar to cigar, even within the same box of a great label.  Too bad we weren’t still in Brugge, because we would have gone back to the store, and I’m sure the gentleman would have happily obliged Paul with a new cigar of his choosing – well, except for a Cohiba Siglo 6, maybe.

Monday, May 17, 2010

We awoke to a cloudless, deep blue sky and brilliant sun radiating the western hills of Port-en-Bessin which we had climbed the night before.  After petit dejeuner in the common area of the hotel, we were off in the direction of Belgium.  But not before visiting the massive German guns at Longues-sur-Mer!  There are four of these monsters (150mm, with a range of 12.5 miles) which were characteristic of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.  Installed in Spring, 1944, they were bombed in the early hours of June 6, two were out of action early that day, but one of them fired until evening.  They were captured D+1.

Continuing on our drive east, our next stop was Arromanches.  This picturesque seaside village was the site of a British engineering marvel.  They pre-fabricated a harbor in England, including these massive concrete caissons which they floated across the channel and then filled with water and sunk to create a break water for an artificial port harbor. (you can see them still at Google Maps, Satellite or Earth view).  We walked up the hill for a great view from the west side of town.

One could spend weeks in Normandy, but after three days we’re now off to Brugge!

On our northeasterly drive, I realized that we’d not had a drop of rain.  The toll roads take all major credit cards which is very convenient, because you go through them every 20 miles or so.  Once we arrived in Brugge, we randomly parked and after a bit of searching for hotel options, we returned to our first choice.  We dragged our stuff up to the top floor, and then promptly headed back down the stairs and out for an evening of massive beer consumption.  (Our car was parked for the evening and Brugge is a great stumbling…er, walking city.)

Using a small tourist map, we made our way into the heart of the city. Twenty minutes later we were standing in the Markt square, surrounded by wonderful old buildings and of course home of the Belfry Tower. Under the tower are several frites stands where you can get freshly-made frites and your choice of sauce.

First order of business was to find a bar with a nice beer selection. We walked around for a bit but all of the bars along the touristy routes in town have only a few of the standard Belgian fair. We wanted more variety. Eventually, I remembered we had brought a copy of Tim Webb’s excellent Good Beer Guide Belgium, where he had specifically circled the t’ Brugs Beertje as a must-visit location. We found the bar in a narrow alley a short walk from the main square, and made it our home for about six hours.

The Beertje was full of people from literally everywhere. We overheard groups of people from Japan, the UK, the US, and some unidentifiable places during our stay. The bartender, Martin, was very helpful and always found a nice beer for us a try, from their ample selection of common and exotic Belgian beers. Some of the beers we tried that evening include a dry-hopped Saison Dupont that was on tap, Black Damnation from De Struise Brouwers (who we would visit later), Taras Boulba Blonde, Cuvee de Ranke, Val-Dieu Grand Cru, and a Brugge Zot to finish up the night. We spent a few hours chatting with some great chaps from the UK, Guy (the drayman) and Tristan. We lost all track of time and when Martin flipped the lights on about 1am we bid everyone a good night and began our trek back to the hotel.

The city was absolutely dead quiet as we made our way back, which was very surreal. Fortunately. I had my little map and enough cognition to interpret it, as we stumbled through dim alleys and brightly-lit but sleeping boulevards. Jeff (who could have been thrown in the brig for public intoxication) pretended to be a paratrooper storming the town, ducking from opening to opening with his invisible rifle at ready, demanding “Captain Sobel” read the map properly. Normandy had obviously made a big impact on him (along with the alcohol).  Fortunately we made it, and not too worse for wear!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Upon waking, we decided to immediately investigate Maisy Battery – well, after some breakfast first.  We had stopped by the afternoon before, but the attendant said we’d need more than a half hour to go through all of it, and it was too close to closing time.  She was right! You need a solid two hours to soak it all in.

A modern archaeological site, this German artillery gun installation was only discovered a handful of years ago by a British WWII enthusiast who suspected there was more underneath the farm fields and hedgerows on this parcel of land just a short distance from the coast.  He had seen markings on a WWII map that suggested there was a German gun emplacement on this site, and so he went about acquiring the land and digging it all up.  His excavation revealed bare 150mm gun turrets, ammunition storage rooms, bunkers and officers quarters – most of which are intact!

There is still much mystery around the significance of this battery, and why, soon after being captured by the US Army Rangers on D+3, it was buried and simply forgotten by locals and historians.  What was this battery’s role on D-Day?  Was it responsible for the shelling of Omaha Beach?   Was this location missed by intelligence and was the assault at Point du Hoc (which revealed no active artillery guns) for naught?  It will be interesting to see how historians address the revelation of the Maisy Battery and it’s impact on D-Day.

After Maisy Battery, we drove east towards Omaha Beach, coming in through the Vierville draw.  The day had started bright and sunny, but now a a gray mist settled along the coastline, weather which felt appropriate for our visit.  The span of Omaha Beach is about 5 miles from the waterfront bluffs on the western side (Vierville Draw) to a bit past the American cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer.  Aside from many markers, monuments, and a few surviving German bunkers, little evidence of what took place here remains from the bloodiest day for the Americans in World War II.  But you certainly feel it.  On June 6, 1944, at Omaha Beach alone, approximately 2,000 soldiers of the US 1st and 29th Divisions were killed in a single day of fighting.

We parked our car at the beach and went into the D-Day Cafe near the Omaha Beach memorials for a late morning brew.  The bartender told us a poignant story about an American D-Day veteran who returned a number of times to Omaha Beach in recent years hoping he would die there, joining his 11 fellow soldiers who perished there on landing, leaving him as the sole survivor of their squad.

Next, we drove up the hill to check out the church of Saint-Laurent-Sur-Mer.  It was here that Jeff’s friend’s father landed with the 1st Division (Big Red One) as a Warrant Officer, and wrote specifically about this church in their field notes.  In the graveyard, you can actually see shell damage on the graves.  We asked an old woman tending a grave about actually getting in, because it was locked.  After first saying she had no idea, she came back over and said that the Mayor of the village has a key and that she owned the D-Day museum back down the hill.  So, we went over and spoke to her about the field notes and our wanting to get in the church.  She gave us the tour of the inside of the church, and read the field notes from the Security Division of the Big Red One.  The stained glass of the church had etched depictions of D-Day – the shelling of Omaha Beach, Point du Hoc, and the burial of American soldiers at the original gravesite along the beach.  Amazing….

The mayor gave us a lift back to the museum, taking us en route to the site of the airfield for Allied aircraft that was quickly built in the days after the invasion.  At the museum, she photocopied the field notes for reference use at the museum, and we continued on our journey to Colleville-Sur-Mer.

Just a few miles up the road, we stopped at a cafe in Colleville and struck up a conversation with the staff and locals.  On our way out, the waiter showed us a book called “WN62″, by Hein Severloh, who was one of the German soldiers who manned this station on D-Day.  In the book was a picture of another soldier, Franz Gockel, standing in front of one of the homes near this cafe.  These two are attributed with many of the American casualties suffered on D-Day, as the WN62 nest was obscured from the beach, and they fired their MG42 machine guns for hours at incoming attackers.  Both men not only survived, but were taken prisoner and lived another 60 years!

Next, we visited the American cemetery at Colleville which holds the graves of nearly 10,000 American soldiers who died in the invasion of Normandy.  We took the paved path that winds gracefully to the beach.  It’s so hard to visualize the chaos and turmoilof what happened here on June 4, 1944! Powerful.

It was late afternoon and we decided that Port-en-Bessin would be our last stop for the evening.  We found a hotel, got steak-fritessandwiches and wolfed them down by the harbor.  We then climbed a footpath along the east side of the sea port village.  It was an awesome view as the sun dropped in the west and a drizzle started to fall from the bluish gray, chilly skies.  On our walk, we discovered some trenches, a tobruk and a bunker with a small plaque honoring the 48 British commandos that attacked this German stronghold in the invasion.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

IMG_0364.jpgAfter a decent night’s sleep – Melatonin pills do help – we were anxious to hit the road, having picked up a couple of French pastries the night before, and inhaled them on our way to retrieve our parked vehicle and get on the Route de Normandie.  We had decided to drive to our westernmost point, Sainte-Mere Eglise, and then journey back east, along the Normandy coast for the next few days.  Our post-Normandy plans were going to take us to Belgium, so this plan made complete sense logistically.

It was a very comfortable ride on an initially sunny day, which later turned to a slight mist. The Route de Normandie going west from Caen to Sainte-Mere Eglise is far less intense and hectic as the intial leg taking us from CDG around Paris on on way west.  This being our first full day, we had a full list of D-Day places and events to experience.

First stop was Sainte-Mère-Église, one of the first towns liberated on D-Day. We visited the church, took some nice pictures of the wonderful stained glass windows depicting the paratroopers dropping into the town, and had some coffee. We skipped the museum, figuring if we’d seen one tank or MG42 we’d seen them all, and we had lots of places to visit today.

Next we headed to Utah Beach, and on the way stopped in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. The 101st Airborne took this town to prepare the route in-land for the beach landing troops. This was a charming place , with several plaques posted throughout the central town which told stories of interesting D-Day fighting that took place there.

At Utah Beach we got to see hedgehogs and some very long and pointy monuments. There is a museum here we skipped, and a nice cafe full of old Navy radio equipment salvaged from one of the bunkers there after the war.

On the way back we stopped at Brécourt Manor, site of the now-famous battle between Easy Company and four German howitzers that were shelling Utah Beach. This battle was accurately recreated in the second episode, Day of Days, of Band of Brothers. After meeting one of the owners of the manor farm, we got to tour the field where the battle took place. There’s nothing but pasture there, and some curious cows, but it was exciting to be there. We found a nearby memorial with a map, drawn by Dick Winters, showing how the battle took place.

Next we headed inland, to Sainte-Come-du-Mont, where the 101st tried to cut off the German retreat from the area, and a major cross-roads leading into Carentan. One location of interest is Dead Man’s Corner, where there is a museum and excellent selection of period relics you can purchase if you have the cash. Dead Man’s Corner was named after an American tank that was destroyed by a direct hit, with a dead crewman hanging out of the turret.

Next we headed into Carentan, a small town critical to linking the forces from Utah and Omaha beaches. The third Band of Brothers episode, Carentan, deals with Easy Company’s part in taking of the town, with some wonderful recreations of the town’s architecture.

Next we stopped at the La Cambe German Cemetary. The immaculate and solemn grounds house over 21000 German soldiers, most of whom are buried two per grave.

Finally we headed into Omaha Beach territory, first to Grandcamp-Maisy, a small ocean resort town, and home of the nearby Maisy Battery. We had a nice walk around town, found a great, inexpensive hotel right on the water, and had a fantastic seafood dinner. It was a long day, and time to get some sleep!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Uneventful nighttime flight from Madison, Wisconsin via Cincinnati to Charles de Gaulle Airport – Paris, France, arriving at about 6:30am. Jeff got sleep and I didn’t, but I can never sleep on planes anyway.

The plan was to fly into Paris and make a loop, starting with Normandy then up into West Flanders in Belgium, then over into the Ardennes and Bastogne, then back to Paris. We wanted to do things in chronological order, as best we could. Brussels would also have worked as a loop point, but Paris was cheaper at the time.

Travel by train in Europe is wonderful, as long as the train is going where you want to go, but in this case it wouldn’t have worked. It could have gotten us as far as Caen but after that we would still have had to rent a car for Normandy, and again in Belgium. So to the car rental desk at the airport we went. See our Travel Tips for more detail on getting around and some of the hidden gotchas of car rental.

Rented a Ford economy-size vehicle – declining insurance and GPS, because we assumed existing coverage would extend and we had a GPS with European maps loaded on a SD card.

A few miles outside of CDG, we couldn’t get the GPS to communicate with the satellite like it does in USA.  So we headed back to airport for the $200 rental unit.

Arrived in Benouville 2.5 hours later in the late morning to tour Pegasus Bridge, site of the first D-Day attack.

Arrived in Caen in the late afternoon, centre ville, used parking ramp (by the way Free Parking is Le Parking Gratuit – which doesn’t exist;  Parking Libre means open parking spaces).

First hotel was full because of a Catholic holiday, but they helped us to locate one just a few blocks away.  It was there that we decided to place a Skype call back home to my insurance agent who promptly informed me that we’re not covered on the vehicle.  So we called Hertz, and fortunately there was a branch office in Caen, for us to return the vehicle so we could obtain coverage. While parking right in front of the large glass window, I ding the bumper while parallel parking.  The small steel inverted u-shaped pipe protecting the tree behind me wasn’t visible from rearview mirrors nor through the back window.  If the agent saw it, she didn’t say anything (that’s why you are always nice, polite and cordial).  A few hundred dollars later, we had peace of mind that the bumper ding and any other future damage would be fully covered.

After a mellow start to the evening, we kicked it up a notch by accidentally stumbling into a district of bars stocked with local talent and quaint restaurants – we were surprisingly impressed by Caen’s nightlife, but too jet lagged to fully enjoy it.