10 August 2016

Navigating through Normandy

Two months ago, I visited France: it was the third time I visited the country, and I should say, my best visit so far. The previous visits were either short or marred with food poisoning, that I didn't really get a good opportunity to enjoy it. That said, this visit also had its own share of problems, but fortunately, they were all overcome.

So where was I? This time I was mostly in Normandy. It wasn't completely a personal visit. I was there mainly because of a conference. The conference was held in Caen, during a weekday, for three days, from Wednesday to Friday. That meant that I had to travel the day before, on Tuesday. When the conference ended, I headed to Le-Mont-Saint-Michel, and afterward, I went back to Paris to catch my flight back home.

Remember I was telling earlier there was trouble? Well, this trip happened in June. And this month was rather chaotic in France. There was the Euro 2016 games happening all over the place, and more importantly, there was the strikes in pretty much all sectors of French society. The trains were on strike, the planes were on strike, the air traffic controllers were on strike, everyone and their grandmother were on strike. So a few weeks before I was scheduled to depart, I was more or less glued to French media watching everything, seeing how the situation has been developing, so that I can see whether I would cancel my trip or not. In any case, it wasn't fun.

Anyway, the Tuesday when I would be traveling arrived, and so I woke up really early to head to the airport. My flight was scheduled to depart at 6:10 AM so it was a pretty early flight. I was flying on Air Berlin; when I booked it back in April, I already assumed that it would be better to book on Air Berlin than on Air France, as I figured that summer would be the time when French companies would want to strike. And sure enough, the day I was flying, Air France was on strike for four days.

So I flew. But the plane had to wait for half an hour at the tarmac, because we weren't given permission to fly. Why? Because the French air traffic controllers were also on strike! So we departed late, and got to Paris Orly Airport a little behind schedule.

Upon exiting the airport, I had to get to Paris Saint Lazare station. The easiest way was to take the suburban rail, the RER. And yes, there was a strike here again, which meant that there were less trains running, and of the trains that were running, it was packed to the brim. I was pretty much like a sardine standing in the middle of the train from the airport to the center of town.

Anyway, I reached Saint Lazare station, and got a ticket. Usually the trains to Caen run every hour, but because of the train strike, there were less trains, and I had to wait a little bit. But in any case, by 4:00 PM, I found myself checked in to my hotel in Caen, 12 hours later from when I started traveling that morning.

I spent three nights in Caen, attending the conference, and doing some sight-seeing in the city during down times. I checked out the two monasteries in the city, the Abbaye aux Dames and the Abbaye aux Hommes. I also ate in a Michelin-starred restaurant. That I should say, was amazing, to say the least.

After three nights in Caen, I headed to a village called Pontorson. There is a train linking Caen to Pontorson, which runs a few times a day. I was constantly watching the schedules because this line is operated by regional trains, which means that these are highly likely to get canceled whenever there is a strike. It's not an important line with TGVs running anyway. But fortunately, during the day I needed to take it, the train was running. So after the conference, I headed to the train station, and two hours later, I was in Pontorson, just in time to check in to a lovely B&B.

So what's in Pontorson? Well, we wanted to visit Le-Mont-Saint-Michel, and the most logical way of doing that was by staying in this village, which was 10 kilometers away. There are buses linking Pontorson with Le-Mont, and that we took. Most people visit Le-Mont by taking a day trip from Rennes, but given where I was before, it was easier to stop in Pontorson, assuming the trains do run.

Anyway, after spending one night in a lovely B&B, and exploring Le-Mont-Saint-Michel, it was time to move again. Time to go back to Paris. The original plan was to take the train from Pontorson to Dol-de-Bretagne, and from there catch a TGV to Paris. When we got to the station, we were told that the first train was canceled due to operational reasons, so instead we had to take a couple of buses to get to Dol-de-Bretagne, in order to catch our TGV. That was a little stressful, but it all worked in the end. By Saturday evening, we were in Paris.

The next day was Sunday, and after having a small breakfast in some cafe, we went to the Catacombs. We lined up for 3 hours! All of that in order to enter the catacombs, which we then explored for 30 minutes. I think this was the longest line I have done in recent memory. In any case, it was worth it. Though I probably wouldn't do it if I didn't have company who was willing to line up with me.

After that, we picked up our luggage, and had lunch in a nice brasserie. Then we hung out in the Luxembourg Gardens. After that, it was time to head back to the airport, so we took the RER again to head to Paris Orly, and boarded our flight to Berlin. Of course, we grabbed some macarons in the terminal while waiting for our flight.

So there goes my third visit to France, specifically to Normandy. No instances of food poisoning this time. Photos and details of course will follow.

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