France: Normandy

After our dreadful experience in Paris, we were convinced that the French positively hated children and wanted to make the little merde’s lives as miserable as possible.

I mean, if Paris could be so unwelcoming of toddlers, what about the rest of the country? Images of furious pitchfork-wielding villagers demanding to skewer anyone under 5 alive began to flash through my mind as we loaded our bags in the car, ready to embark on a road trip through northern France.

All ready.

And then we arrived in Giverny. Or more specifically, Creperie Fleur de Seine in Giverny, because ready to have a proper sit-down lunch after eating hobo-style for the past several days in Paris. I was ready to hold my kids down with one hand while I quickly shovel food into my mouth with the other — yes, that’s how desperate I was. Which is why I almost fell to my knees in gratitude when I found out they had high chairs! And toys to keep the kids occupied!

Our first decent meal in days!

It only got better at Claude Monet’s House and Gardens. As we wandered through the gardens that Monet, his family and his troop of six gardeners had carefully tended to since he moved here in 1883, it became clear that the kids thought they were at Disneyland.

A great artist, Monet made Mother Nature his muse, composing his garden as carefully he would a picture. The geraniums, lavender, irises and peonies bristled with color, and the ground was animated with infinitesimal beings — spiders, butterflies, bees – all buzzing with a sense of purpose.

It really felt like we had ended up in the wrong space-time continuum and stepped into in one of Monet’s paintings — except this one had two Asian boys running around with their mouths agape, mind blown by everything they saw, smelled and touched. And they weren’t even on ‘shrooms.

Set within this sprawling, colorful grounds is Monet’s boldly pigmented home, where he spent his last 40 years. Parts of it looked surreal, like backdrops for a Wed Anderson film. You know, I am a legit groupie of Monet now — I never expected a grizzly elderly gentleman from the 19th century to have such a keen eye for color and design. Dude is my style god.

Asians. Obviously.

After a lovely day out in Giverny, we rolled into Chateau de Chantore, an 18th-century castle surrounded by the deep dark woods and rolling hills in the little nowhere town of Bacilly. The owner, a gay strait-laced character who resembled Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks, came to welcome us at the massive doorway but his expression visibly fell when he discovered we brought our children along.

The Lord and Lady and their two children.

I figured out why the moment I stepped though the massive oak doors — the place, while gorgeous, is filled with expensive and fragile 19th-century antiques and a taxidermied fox. Classical music drifted in from the sitting room, and we were told to wait there among designer wallpaper and handcrafted porcelain worth more than my husband’s annual salary.

Of course this was the green light our toddler needed to blitz through the room and I had to dash over and physically restrain him like The Rock before he destroyed Napoleon’s vase and we had to live and work here forever to pay off our debts.

Blissfully oblivious to the high-speed chase that happened just seconds before and the sweat pouring down my forehead, the owner waltzed in with some crystal glasses filled with (delicious!) home-pressed apple cider: “Voila!”

A toast to not-destroying-anything-while-we’re-here.

We hurriedly gulped it down before Ari decided to take off like a Ninja Warrior again, and took the creaky steps to the Marquis’ Room, with a view of the fields where the owner’s brown stallions roam.

Before disaster struck.

But our eldest was too distracted by the 19th-century brass key to our room — he began toying with it and in a few moments later, it was gone.

GONE.

A HUNDRED-YEAR-OLD KEY THAT HAS SURVIVED THE FRENCH REVOLUTION AND OUTLIVED MY GREAT GRANDDAD LIM. VANISHED WITHOUT A TRACE, ALL BECAUSE OF MY SON.

And did they tell you 3-year-olds have the brain capacity of an 80-year-old with Alzheimer’s? Because no matter how much the husband and I shook him and threatened to call the Oompa Loompas, he couldn’t remember what he did with it five minutes ago. So now we had no way of locking our room door. We didn’t know how to bring it up with the owner either, especially now that he has every reason to hate little children.

Wrecked with guilt and despair, we headed downstairs to the salon the next morning where, over a lavish breakfast spread of Camembert, croissants and more apple cider (served on the finest, most expensive china, no less), we confessed to our crime. The owner seemed a little miffed at first, but he was nice about it.

Best of all, he didn’t poison my food.

Our spirits lifted a bit when we explored the grounds in the drizzling rain, hoping to spot a stag. But it soon became clear that sloshing around in mud was the only adventure to be had in this dreary weather.

Tres magnifique.

We spent the rest of the day in Honfleur, a quaint maritime town which has drawn artists the likes of Eugene Boudin and his student Monet for more than a century. The Vieux Basin is where all the action happens.

You could spend all day here doing nothing.

Here, a harbor filled with pleasure boats is hemmed in by a jumble of the world’s skinniest buildings. I was excited by the numerous alfresco restaurants peddling fresh moules (mussels), my kids by the massive double-storey carousel, a permanent fixture in this area.

Looks like we’ll be stuck here for awhile.

Of course, the real reason I came here was for Maisons Satie, a half-timbered house once belonging of one of my favorite composers Erik Satie.

Fangirl at Maisons Satie.

It’s now a whimsical museum, which cleverly chronicles the different facets of Satie’s turbulent and desperately lonely life without the use of boring displays or wordy placards. Exhibits include a winged pear and a DIY carousel — the former freaked our son out so badly we had to haul him through the rest of the rooms while he vehemently protested.

I mean, a winged pear…who would’ve thought?

Feelin’ like Elton John in Satie’s home.

We finally emerged into broad daylight to the relief of my little one and since it was a weekend, there was a flea market happening in front of St Catherine’s Church.

Market day at Honfleur.

As much as I would love to spend more time in this beautiful wooden church, we had to do some involuntary shopping instead, as our children had begun playing with some second-hand toys and the vendor was giving them the stink eye.

They just wouldn’t leave.

The next day, after another round of tossing and turning in bed and elaborate breakfast served by Agent Cooper (who by the way had to assure my mom that the castle is not haunted because she spent the whole night awake and terrified that a headless princess will show up at the foot of her bed), we went to Normandy’s blockbuster sight, Mont Saint Michel.

Just three of the gazillion tourists.

There were several ways to get to this little island — we chose to arrive via a horse carriage but immediately regretted our decision five minutes into the ride. Imagine a poor, overworked mare pulling a cart filled with two dozen buffet-stuffed vacationers and you’ll know how painfully slow it was. I had to grit my teeth and resist the urge to shout “GALLOP!” to the horse each time an octogenarian shuffled past us with his walking stick.

Not as romantic as it looked.

One of the top Christian pilgrimage sites, Mont Saint Michel is a little more than a rocky outcrop with a magnificent abbey perched on top. It floats like a mirage, surrounded by a bay filled with mudflats. Pilgrims have braved quicksands and dangerous tides which swept in “at the speed of a galloping horse” to come here in search of solitude since the sixth century. These days, they use a causeway.

We did the whole touristy shebang, from walking up the crumbling stone steps to buying a tacky souvenir from one of the many stalls that swamp this island since the Middle Ages.

The climb wasn’t too arduous: there were plenty of places to stop for food along the way — though I can’t guarantee if these are any good. The most popular eatery on the island, La Mere Poulard sold omelets, a popular staple with the rushed pilgrims, and has been doing so since time immemorial. However, 12 euros for a slab of egg seemed a little #overthetop. I bought a baguette instead and it was terrible.

The abbey itself was a little underwhelming. The monks built it as close to heaven as possible, on top of the tip of a giant rock, but it’s hard to feel anything when you are jostling with a million other people for pictures.

I’m the king of the world!

The real highlight for me was walking around the bay with my boys.

Now, most tourists in their right minds would just steer clear of the bay. Not me. I love the element of danger involved in something seemingly so harmless as frolicking in the sand. I also wanted my boys to rough it out a bit, to feel some mud between their toes without having a meltdown. They’ve been city boys for far too long.

At first, clinging onto mommy for dear life.

So we kicked off our shoes and started our little, beautiful jaunt to the middle of nowhere. We saw little mollusks, limp seaweeds, swooping seabirds and dozens of dead jellyfishes. The kids got over their respective hangups, and even began to enjoy this little trek, collecting unusual seashells along the way.

Just us.

It was wonderful.

And when we returned to our castle, an even more wonderful thing happened. The housekeeper found our key, wedged between the drapes. That night we slept like babies.

STAY

Chateau de Chantore It’s not the kid friendliest, but the massive grounds and rooms make this mid-sized castle a delight for families. Couples will have an even better time as the host has spared no expense in kitting out his castle with the most beautiful antiques and opulent furnishings. Centrally located to visit most sights in Normandy, but a car is needed to get around. One has to drive out for lunches and dinner, but breakfast is an absolute delight. $$$

TIPS

  • People of all ages will enjoy Claude Monet’s House and Gardens. But be sure to purchase your tickets online in advance to skip the long lines.
  • The sights between Normandy are spread out, so you need your own set of wheels and a base from which to travel. Honfleur is a great choice, but restaurants here can be tiny, formal and upmarket.
  • History buffs will find the D-day Sights especially rewarding, but note that young children might find it tedious.
  • Visitors need to leave the cars at the designated parking zones at Mont Saint Michel and traverse the final kilometer by foot. Less enthusiastic walkers could also take a regular shuttle or a horse-drawn carriage. Choose wisely.

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