July 10, 2014

Channeling my inner Mario Andretti - Normandy Part 1

Not only has my family entrusted me with their vacation planning, they also are brave enough to allow me to drive them around in foreign countries. I won't lie that the prospect of driving a rental car in the city of Paris wasn't daunting and perhaps even a little frightening, I reasoned that if I could successfully navigate the craziness of driving in Italy, particularly along the Amalfi Coast, "I've got this."

In order to avoid having Dad and Lea try and maneuver luggage through the Metro to Hertz located near the Montparnasse train station, I thought it more sensible if I went to Hertz without them to first get the car and then return to the apartment to pack up the luggage/passengers. Sean was kind enough to accompany me on this adventure.

We stepped outside of the Montparnasse Metro station and with my Hertz confirmation in hand, set off to find the rental office. The language in the confirmation email was a bit confusing and to be honest, we were unsure if the office was located in or near the Montparnasse train station itself.

After seeking the help of some armed forces patrolling the Montparnasse Tower, we figured out that the office we were looking for was adjacent to the station. Off we went and imagine our surprise when we arrived at the Hertz office to a sign on the door that read "this office is now closed. Proceed directly to the parking garage." WHAT PARKING GARAGE? Is it the garage at the station? Seriously, the sign could not have been MORE cryptic. There was literally a parking garage on every corner surrounding the train station.

Stop, take a deep breath. This was not starting this whole driving adventure off on the right foot. Luckily, even though our first garage was a big zero for Hertz offices, there was a kind gentleman in the garage who pointed in the direction of a nearby hotel. Although that in itself was cryptic, it was a clue enough to figure out he meant the parking garage next to the hotel. And voila! There was the beautiful yellow Hertz sign we were looking for.

Now here's where the funny part starts. The kind woman behind the counter led me through all of the paperwork and there was an exchange of credit card and driver's information, then a "tour" of the wonderful world of Hertz cars. "Are you sure that you don't want to update to something LARGER?" Me, being the thrifty traveler assured her that the 5-passenger, Citroen wagon promising space for our luggage would be sufficient at the agreed upon price of one arm and one leg.

Sean and I followed her out to the vehicle and after a quick inspection of the existing damage, etc., we were handed the keys and off we went. We plugged the apartment address into the GPS and off into the Paris traffic we went. I won't lie, I was a bit nervous at first, but then my inner Mario Andretti kicked in and I was in my element among all of the crazy drivers. I was not going to let those 8-exit roundabouts scare me! I would NOT be pulling a Clark Griswold and circle multiple times before actually being brave enough to cut over and exit!

Now what did scare me is that the street in front of our apartment was a very narrow, one-way street with almost no parking, so either I was going to get lucky enough to find an open spot to use as a "staging area" for loading passengers and luggage, or I was going to drive around the block several times.

I think we were on our second loop before I found a spot to slide into. April had gathered the troops and they busily started loading. What appeared to be a roomy vehicle with plenty of storage turned out to be much too small. Poor Lea could barely get her foot into the car in order to shut the door and everyone but me had some sort of bag on their lap. This clearly was not going to work well for a long car ride.

So off to Hertz we went, and I will never forget the look on the face of the Hertz employee who had helped me earlier. She could almost not contain herself with her finger wagging and although she was speaking in French, I knew what she was saying. "I told you so."

Lea, bless her heart, tried to talk Hertz into renting us the biggest rig in the parking garage, which was some Mercedes passenger van. Alas, it was already reserved, so we settled into a Chevy Captiva SUV. It was still tight in the back seat, but at least there were 3 actual full seats and not just the middle hump for someone and all of the luggage was stowed in the back and not half of it on anyone's lap.

I think most of us breathed a sign of relief when were finally were safely out of Paris and onto the much roomier two-lane highway headed towards Normandy. Somewhere between Paris and Trouville, we stopped for lunch in the small town of Le Cadran. We ate in a small pub and had the most delicious lunch and probably the best Croque Madame I've ever had.

Across the street from the pub was a small patisserie, so of course we had to stop and load up on some delicious pastries (because we're evidently starving over here in France). It all looked so good and we weren't even back on the freeway before we'd inhaled more than 1/2 of the goodies we bought (followed shortly thereafter with groans from most of us about how full we now were -- those pastries were rich!).

Our final destination was Trouville-sur-Mer, in the Normandy region of France. This would be our base for the next 3 days while we toured the area.

In 1825, a young landscape painter Charles Mozin discovered Trouville, a little fishing port in Normandy.  In Paris, he kept Trouville in mind by exhibiting his Trouville paintings to other artists who later followed him to the paradise of Trouville. The artists and writers included Monet, Corot, Boudin, and Flaubert.

During the Second Empire, from 1852 to 1870, Trouville became "Queen of the Beaches" and a very famous seaside resort.  It was during this glorious period that villas, splendid hotels and casinos were built along the beach.
I can tell you that our "Trouville-style" vacation rental was NOT one of these splendid villas. Of all the years we have rented vacation homes, this one was probably the worst rental EVER! It's not exactly that the owners lied to us regarding the functionality of their rental for 5 adults, but let's just agree that they LIED TO US. I confirmed with the owners twice that there were adequate beds and bedrooms for the five adults and they confirmed all of my assumptions. It just tells you how good photos can be misleading.
What was supposed to be a two-bedroom, 1 bath house with a separate 1 bedroom, 1 bath guesthouse was a LIE. This old house looked to be divided into several rentals. Our rental was up two flights of stairs from the street where you arrived at the "main" house. The tool shed in the yard was the "guest house". After you enter the house and climb up 27 stairs (it was a narrow, spiral staircase), there was a door where you entered. The door handle and lock assembly was actually pulling out from the door and was only being held onto by 2 screws that were too small to fit the holes, so when you really think about it, there was really NO security here. In addition, we were provided only 1 key, which unlocked the gate from the street (which we were told to NOT lock because the transients living below us did not have a gate key). Sean and I had the tool shed and we felt that since the shed was practically on the street that the town murderers would get us first, so we thought we should be locked into the shed at night. We didn't want to lock in the main house in case of a fire, so yeah, they were wide open for anyone to just walk in a kill them in their sleep. Comforting, isn't it?
Once you entered the top of the spiral staircase, (and basically pushing the door open), there was a decent-sized bedroom with an attached bath that contained just a tub (no shower) with fairly high sides making it difficult for anyone over the age of 10 to get in and out safely. Opposite the bedroom was a small alcove where two storage cabinets sat and through an opening in the wall, you entered the "living area." There was a table that barely accommodated us 5 adults and a very small sofa, plus a tiny little kitchen. It did have a nice outdoor patio, but since it rained pretty much the entire time we were actually "at" the apartment, we never used it. This is what the front of the house looked like.
Sean and I gave April the choice of the shed (which actually wasn't too bad if you didn't mind the slugs on the floor) or the sofa since we felt bad that she was on the sofa for 3 nights in Paris (after Dad and Lea arrived). April said she would take the sofa. She said that her blanket wasn't long enough to cover her feet.
Dad and Lea might have actually slept well enough in their bedroom, however, the constant screeching of the seagulls, pigeons and the discothèque down the street kept all of us from really getting a good night's sleep. There was a time that I thought living by the sea would be really lovely, but I can tell you that those seagulls pretty much have squashed that dream. We did have a nice view from the balcony:

Our rental was a one-way narrow street and the fact that we found a parking spot large enough for our Chevy SUV within a short distance of the front gate was a win-win. It was late afternoon when we arrived and knowing that we needed to procure some supplies (coffee and Rosé) we thought it best if we just left the car (and Dad and Lea) while Sean, April and I hoofed it down the hill to get some supplies. As we were leaving the apartment, we felt a couple of raindrops and April says "should we go back and get our umbrellas?" "Nah, it's not going to rain" I replied. I'm quite sure April will never let me live this one down because as you know it would, it started to not just "rain" but the heavens opened up and it started to just pour. What's 3 drenched rats to do? We decided to try and find a café and have a beer while we waited for the rain to move on. We waited, and waited. We had another beverage. We waited some more and really had no choice but to just continue to get wet. We really were pathetic looking. We're wearing summer attire (this is July, right?) and we're all soaked.

We find the Monoprix and start filling our baskets, trying to be careful about how much stuff we were accumulating knowing that we would have to huff all of this stuff back up a pretty steep hill. This "seaside resort" experience wasn't starting off so well.

As the next day was Sunday, we decided to just hang around the area and perhaps wander around the town of Trouville and Deauville, which was just across the river from Trouville. The clouds were mostly cloudy with a threat of rain, so we thought it best to just have a low-key day. We drove around and took some photos of the unique architecture and found a nice bistro for lunch.

After our late lunch, on our way back to our car, we spotted an antiques shop that was open. We spent a few minutes wandering around the shop. They had some really neat stuff in there; I wondered just how expensive it was to ship heavy armoires back to Seattle. They had some beautiful furniture, but I suppose after paying to ship them home, they weren't such a bargain after all. We didn't spot any cheap Monet nor forgotten Degas paintings, so we piled back into the car to head back into Trouville. Since lunch was late, we found an open Epicerie market and picked up some fruit, more cheese and a baguette for a snack later that night.

We enjoyed an exciting evening back at our hovel each of us on our "I" devices doing various things, like puzzles. At least the internet service was good. We were all hoping that the discothèque wouldn't be open on a Sunday evening and looked forward to perhaps a peaceful sleep, but once again, those damn birds wouldn't shut the hell up. Although we all looked forward to getting to sleep early, Trouville in on the 49th parallel and sunset isn't until just before 11:00 PM. Nevertheless, we were all looking forward to hopefully some sunshine the next day for our private tour of the D-Day beaches and sights.

À bientot!


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