20.11.2012 - 23.11.2012 13 °C
Unbelievably six months have passed since we arrived in Copenhagen in May, tired and exhilarated from our African adventures, ready to call Europe home until the end of November. And now here we are with our final few days on the continent, savouring our last few French meals and soaking up some history too. We left Paris in a rental car with a plan to do a loop around the outskirts of the city before making our way to Zurich to fly onwards to Brazil.
Heading north first, we visited the D-Day beaches of Normandy on France’s coastline – where the allied forces arrived in Europe on 6 June 1944 during WW2 in the assault on Hitler that would ultimately end the war the following year. In order to get troops and supplies onto the European continent a floating harbour was constructed in England in sections and towed to France across the English Channel. Twenty or so concrete pieces (caissons) are still strewn along the beach: a haunting reminder of the atrocities of the war, and also the engineering marvel that the harbour represented at the time. The museum right by the beach is well worth a visit – really well curated with some amazing video footage from the events at the time.
In the area not too far away is the site of the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, one of fourteen permanent US cemeteries on foreign soil. Much like Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC, this is a powerful place that really affects you. The immaculate gardens and serene location combine perfectly to honour these people who gave so much. Inside the museum there are personal stories of individuals buried here, including the heartbreaking story of five brothers who all went down on the same ship just off the coast. Lest we forget.
Heading west on our loop around Paris, we came to the familiar image of Mont St Michel, the abbey and small town perched high on a solid granite outcrop off the French coast. Until the late 19th century before the causeway was built, the only way to access the island was by foot at low tide. Once you are within its walls a secret little world of shops and restaurants opens up (a bit like Carcassone that we visited in southern France back in September). Dating back to the 11th century, the abbey is enormous and now doubles as a tourist attraction and conference/events venue.
Making our way back toward Paris we skirted the bottom of the greater city area to the Loire Valley – home to France’s rather extensive collection of chateaux. To have the time to see all of them you would have to allow weeks in this region, so with barely enough time to see one we had to make it a good one. We chose Chambord for our chateau experience and it was very impressive. Pretty amazing weather too – in a few hours we had brilliant sun, dark storm clouds, rain and then sun again.
Intended as a hunting lodge and used by the Kings of France in centuries past, the sheer size and spectacular roof on this building was incredible. Building commenced in 1519 directed by King Francis I who never got to see his chateau completed. Successive Kings completed the chateau which is an indicator of why so many styles are represented in the architecture. The chateau sits within a park that covers 5440 hectares, the largest enclosed forest park in Europe, and we were again treated to a beautiful autumn display of colour as we drove through the estate.
And that was about all we could fit in before it was time to head to Switzerland to catch our flight (couldn’t afford to miss that one!!). Six action packed months, almost every weather combination imaginable, and memories that will be with us for a lifetime. From Longyearbyen in far northern Norway, to Abu Simbel in southern Egypt, and as far west as the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in Iceland, to Jordan’s Petra in the east. We feel so fortunate to have seen and done so much, and so lucky to have the best friends and family who have encouraged and supported us every step of the way.
We left a cold Zurich on Friday evening to arrive in warm and sunny Sao Paolo on Saturday morning, the launching pad for the South American (and final!) leg of the trip. On the agenda are Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Chile….. bring it on!