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Reims, Bastogne, Bayeux, St. Malo Trip Report, September 2019

My husband and I started our trip by spending one night in Paris at Le Citizen Hotel on the Canal St. Martin. We stayed there in 2015, and loved the location and the staff. Since we were taking the train from Gare de l’Est to Reims the next morning, this choice was a no-brainer. Our previous visit was shortly before the 2015 terrorist attacks, and we had enjoyed a great meal at Le Petit Cambodge, one of the targets in the neighborhood. It was important to us to go back to Le Petit Cambodge and enjoy its delicious bobun and red wine again. There is now a memorial to the victims across the street from the restaurant. Otherwise, the neighborhood seemed pretty much the same as we left it nearly four years ago.

The next morning, we walked to Gare de l’Est for the easy train ride to Reims. I picked Reims for a one-night break in the fairly long trip to Bastogne and, as usual, I would love to spend more time there in the future. It was an easy walk from the train station to our hotel, the Best Western Premier Hotel de la Paix. I can’t think of a single negative thing to say about this hotel. We left our bags and made our way to the Cathedral and the Palais du Tau.

I got “churched out” several years ago when we visited way too many churches in Rome, but the Reims Cathedral was well worth the time. We both enjoyed the Palais du Tau even more. I love to find “bookends” in my travels, and Charlemagne’s Talisman paired up nicely with his Holy Lance that we saw in Vienna. I was still a bit jet-lagged when we were in Reims, and I regret that I didn’t buy a Gargoyle magnet in the gift shop at the Palais du Tau when I had the chance. My purse was so full of crap; I didn’t feel up to the chore of digging out my wallet – that should be a “money-saving tip”!

We made our way back to the Hotel de la Paix and checked into our room, taking a break before the walk to the Surrender Museum. Our main reason for stopping in Reims was to see the Surrender Museum, and it did not disappoint. It reminded me of the Churchill War Rooms in London, and it reminded my husband of Courtroom Six in Nuremberg. There were no other visitors in the museum until we were walking out the door. Eisenhower moved his headquarters from Versailles to this school building after the 101st Airborne moved out, and it felt a bit like my high school, which was built in the 1930’s. The maps and charts on the walls in the Signing Room were fascinating to me. Some of the charts were written on giant “Big Chief” tablets that I vaguely remember from elementary school.

Our walk to and from the Surrender Museum took us by the Porte de Mars, the widest arch in the Roman world. In September 2019, the surrounding area was under construction and fenced off.

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The next day we set out for Bastogne. This involved taking the train from the Champagne-Ardenne station outside of Reims to Luxembourg. I booked a car service, Shuttle Direct, to take us from the Luxembourg train station to our hotel in Bastogne. We used a car service because I wasn’t comfortable transferring from the train to a bus in Luxembourg, and we did not want to rent a car. It was a bit of a splurge, but totally worth it to us. The Shuttle Direct coordinator called me just as we were making our way out of the train station, and we stayed on the phone until we made visual contact with him and our driver, Fernando. Fernando didn’t say much, but the traffic between Luxembourg and Bastogne required most of his attention.

In Bastogne, we stayed at the Best Western Hotel Melba. Our room was huge and the staff was nice, but I don’t think the hotel deserves four stars. There was no Wifi in the rooms, and the bar was tended earnestly but inefficiently by the front desk staff. With that said, I would recommend this hotel to anybody looking for a place to stay in Bastogne. The included breakfast had a good choice of pastries, cereals and yogurt, but the “hot” items were consistently lukewarm at best. This was the case at all of our hotels except Le Citizen.

The Melba staff let us check in early; so we dropped off our bags and set out in search of food. We ended up at Wagon Leo. I remembered reading good reviews of Wagon Leo on Trip Advisor and they had room for us. This ended up being one of the best meals of our trip. I chose the “business man’s lunch”, which gave you the choice of an entrée and a plat or a plat and a dessert. I had the “coquillage” for an entrée (mussels and razor clams with bits of sausage in the sauce), and skate with frites for the plat. My husband had a huge bowl of mussels. The food in Bastogne, our only stop in Belgium, was universally good. To go with the meal, I had a nice pichet of red wine. My husband ordered a bottle of “Airborne” beer, which he poured into a glass, only to be scolded by the waiter for not using the ceramic helmet in which the beer is traditionally served. The story behind the beer is that during the Battle of the Bulge, a soldier was looking for beer to serve to his wounded comrades. He found some beer, but all of the glassware had been broken, so he filled his helmet with beer and brought it to the injured soldiers in his helmet. It’s a great story, but that means you have to work very hard not to spill the beer on your shirt.

After lunch, we checked out the 101st Airborne Museum. This is a great museum for those of us who are really into World War II. Personally, I’m not all that fond of dioramas, but you will see a lot of them in military museums. Even though this museum is dedicated to the 101st Airborne, there is a diorama of soldiers from the 17th Airborne surprising a group of German soldiers taking shelter in a cellar, with casualties on both sides. The best part of the museum is in the basement - a simulation of the bombing of Bastogne from the civilians' perspective. Terrifying.

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We really weren’t very hungry that night, but we felt like eating something and having a few drinks. So we made our way to McAuliffe Square. The first place we tried was simply too crowded to even consider, so we walked a few doors to another pizza place that was practically deserted. We ordered our drinks and told the waitress that we wanted to start out by sharing a pizza. She insisted that was not possible, even though we assured her that we could very well order another pizza. We cancelled our drink order and continued our search. We decided to give Le Nuts Bar a try.

“Le Nuts” honors the response of General McAuliffe to the German demand for surrender during the Battle of the Bulge. It is long on memorabilia and short on service. That worked to our advantage since they have great Wifi, allowing us plenty of time to enjoy our drinks, catch up on emails, and check out the memorabilia. We sat across from a man who was polishing off a huge ice cream sundae. We made general small talk, and he asked us where we were headed after Bastogne. Bayeux, we told him. He asked if we had heard of Angoville au Plain – yes we had been there on our 2010 trip to Normandy. Then he tells us that his father was Robert Wright, one of the medics (the other one was Kenneth Moore) who treated injured Americans and Germans inside the church at Angoville au Plain. Every year for D-Day, I change my Facebook profile picture to a photo of the stained glass window of a paratrooper inside that church. He told us that Robert Wright had also served near Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. We all teared up a bit, thinking of how much was asked of these young soldiers.

I asked him if I could take his picture and he demurred, saying that he hadn’t done anything. Fair enough. We had a pleasant conversation about his father and his life after the war. The younger Robert Wright said that he had no idea of his father’s significance until he accompanied his father to Normandy as a young adult. Since our 2010 visit to Angoville au Plain, his father had died, and at his request, the younger Robert Wright had taken some of his father’s ashes to be interred in the church yard at Angoville au Plain.

Thanks to the slow service at Le Nuts, we had plenty of time for conversation before our food order was delivered. At that point, Robert Wright excused himself, leaving us completely gobsmacked by the fact we had just met the son of “the” Robert Wright. A few minutes later, Robert Wright returned, wearing his father’s vest with his award ribbons. He said he was fine with me taking his picture with my husband as long as he was wearing his father’s vest. This was a very special moment for us.

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The next day was the first day of our two day Battle of the Bulge tour with Reg Jans Battlefield Experience. This was the primary reason for our trip, and it exceeded all of our expectations. On Day One, Reg's colleague, Frank Gubbels, was our guide for the "Band of Brothers" tour. We learned so much about what the HBO series got right, and where they fudged a bit about what actually happened. To hike through the Bois Jacques; to see Winters' command post, Doc Roe's aid station, where Foxhole Norman ran for help, actual foxholes; Foy... the entire day was a dream come true.

Day Two with Reg was just as good if not better. It turns out that our hotel was just around the corner from the aid station where nurse Renee Lernaire was killed - now it's a Chinese restaurant. On Day One we learned that she and Doc Roe never met. A few doors away, Reg pointed out von Rundstedt's former headquarters, and told us about Hitler's 1940 visit to Bastogne.

When we told him that a friend's father had served with the 17th Airborne during the Battle of the Bulge, he took us to Flamierge, and gave us incredible insight to what those men endured - for the most part they are ignored by history.

We saw the one location where German tanks briefly broke through the American lines - by a Roman road that led to the castle where Gen. Patton awarded the Distinguished Service Cross to General McAuliffe. We also saw the farmhouse where Germans delivered their ultimatum to surrender, and received Gen. McAuliffe's reply!

Our heads are still spinning with all of our new knowledge and insights - but in a good way. I didn't realize that the Battle of the Bulge was the largest ground battle in the history of the US Army. And, I didn't realize just how awful it was. It's easier now for me to understand why so many members of the Greatest Generation could not talk about what they experienced during the War.

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The next morning, we set out on the most challenging travel day of our trip - Shuttle Direct to the Luxembourg train station, TGV to Paris Est, and transfer to Gare St. Lazare for our train to Bayeux. Fernando got us to the Luxembourg train station with about 30 minutes to spare - no mean feat – and it was smooth sailing the rest of the way.

It’s an easy walk from the Bayeux train station to our hotel, the d’Argouges. This 18th century town house has been converted to a very comfortable hotel with a lovely garden in back. The lack of air conditioning and an elevator did not affect us at all. Strong WiFi. There are tables in the garden and lobby where you can sit and order a drink. There is no separate bar area. I can’t remember a better gin and tonic than the one(s) I had in these lovely settings. Bombay Sapphire gin and a grapefruit slice. On our first afternoon, we enjoyed chatting with two other American couples. We ended up having dinner with both couples on separate nights.

Our first night in Bayeux was a Monday and like others have mentioned, multiple restaurant closures make finding a place for dinner a challenge. Compounding the problem on our Monday night were the scattered showers making many outside tables out of the question. We ran into Couple No. 1 from the d’Argouges outside the restaurant the hotel recommended. It was closed. The Subway on the main drag was open, but we four agreed that we did not come to France to eat at a Subway, so our quest continued. We eventually did find a table at the Villa Lara Hotel’s restaurant. We were told that there would be a 45 minute wait, but we were seated earlier since we were a party of four. I was impressed by the quality of both the service and the food on a night when the restaurant was so busy. I knew that the Villa Lara Hotel rooms were over our budget, but the restaurant was actually quite reasonable. My chorizo-crusted cod was outstanding. The waiter even agreed to split the bill! Thanks to a little perseverance and appreciating the humor of the situation, we turned what could have been a disappointing experience into a fun evening with new friends.

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This was our second time in Bayeux. On our first trip, in 2010, we had taken a 2-day “American Experience” tour and a 1-day “Band of Brothers/101st Airborne” tour with the now defunct Battlebus. This time, we signed up for the “British/Canadian Sectors” tour offered by Overlord. We wanted to take the “Battle of the Hedgerows” tour, which follows the 29th Infantry from Omaha Beach to Saint Lo, but Overlord didn’t get the minimum number of people to sign up. So instead, we decided to take the “Omaha Beach/Utah Beach” tour.

First up was the Omaha/Utah tour. There were 10 people on this tour, and we all fit into the large van without crowding. Our guide, “Alan”, was French, and the tour got off to a rocky start when a couple realized that they were on the wrong bus. The couple’s name was similar to that of another couple in our group, which led to the misunderstanding. Of course, if the guide had counted heads, he would have realized that he had too many people. The displaced couple connected with their actual tour at Longues sur Mer.

The Longues sur Mer Battery was the only stop on this tour that we hadn’t already seen. Unfortunately, the rain there was almost sideways from the wind. Fortunately, the weather cleared up after that stop. Even though we had already seen everything else on the tour, every guide offers new insights, and it was a day well-spent. Our last stop of the day was Angoville au Plain. We found Robert Wright’s headstone in the church yard and paid our respects, along with everyone else.

Back at the d’Argouges, we enjoyed our drinks in the garden, as well as a brief chat with Gloria, the owner’s Beagle. Once Gloria realized that we were not going to feed her, as requested by her owner, she quickly decided that it was time to go inside.

We wanted to have dinner at the restaurant the hotel had recommended the night before, l’Assiete Normande, but on the way there we ran into Couple No. 2 from the d’Argouges. The hotel had a made a reservation for them at Le Pommier, and it was decided that if the restaurant could accommodate a party of 4, we would join them. This was no problem for Le Pommier and we enjoyed another great meal. The Discovery Menu was a great value for money. I had a great salad, another excellent piece of cod, and a baked apple with vanilla ice cream. Everyone else was equally pleased with their choices as well. We ordered a carafe of a Cote du Rhone that only cost 16.40 Euros. This turned out to be such an excellent wine and value that we ordered another. We lucked into two great meals in Bayeux.

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The next morning we met up with Mathieu, our Overlord guide for the British/Canadian tour. Today there were only 8 of us – 3 Americans, 2 Australians, 2 Canadians, and 1 British person. Our first stop was Pegasus Bridge and like yesterday, it was raining when we got there. Again, the rain subsided and we had plenty of time to enjoy the museum and the grounds around it. Pegasus Bridge was the sight of the first action on D-Day, and the first man killed there was the first soldier killed on D-Day. The original Pegasus Bridge was replaced after the war, and is on display on the grounds of the onsite museum. There is also a Horsa Glider on display. This is an excellent museum, and the short film is also excellent.

Our next stop was the Ranville War Cemetery, which contains the graves of nearly 2,300 Commonwealth soldiers, counting the ones buried in the church yard, 97 unidentified soldiers and 330 German graves. After World War 2, families of the Commonwealth war dead were not given the option of repatriating the remains like Americans. Instead, they were buried near where they fell. Unlike the headstones on the American graves, the Commonwealth headstones show the soldier’s age and include the unit’s insignia. Families were also allowed to select a few words to be carved on the headstone.

One of the more poignant graves was that of Private E. S. Corteil, a 19 year old paratrooper who was killed on D-Day. “Had you known our boy you would have loved him too. Glen his paratroop dog was killed with him”. Mathieu told us that they survived the jump, only to be killed by friendly fire. I didn’t know that the British had paratroop dogs until that moment. We were all caught off-guard by this information.

We made several stops on Sword, Juno, and Gold Beaches. The casualties on those beaches were not as high as those on Omaha, but our guide pointed out that casualties evened out as the troops made their way inland. Our last stop was at the remains of the artificial harbor in Arromanches. An identical harbor was built at Omaha Beach by the Americans, which was destroyed in a storm the day after it was completed. Our French guide told us that the British harbor survived the same storm, but the Americans had cut some corners during the assembly, causing it to fail.

Back at that d’Argouges, a Rick Steves tour had checked into the hotel, and they were having a happy hour in one of the two breakfast rooms off the lobby. We were trying to visit with the other guests, but it was hard to hear each other over the noise. The hotel staff apologized profusely for the noise, but I didn’t think they needed to apologize – it was just a big group having a good time. The staff quickly invited the independent travelers to sit in the other breakfast room with the doors closed, and we enjoyed our drinks in peace, along with an excellent cheese plate. After that, I was done for the day.

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After 2½ days in Bayeux, we took the train to Saint-Malo. Although part of me wanted to stay outside the walls in a hotel with an expansive ocean view, I ended up choosing a hotel inside the Intra Muros – La Maison des Armateurs (the Shipbuilders House). It was an easy walk from the train station, but we managed to start off on the wrong rue, so it took us a lot longer than it should have to reach our hotel. By the time we had settled into our room, we were both starving and went off in search of a restaurant offering both food and a bar. We ended up at Café de l’Ouest – it did look touristy, but we are in fact tourists. The food and drinks were good and I never heard another American voice in the place. It ended up being our headquarters in Saint-Malo.

The next morning we took our first walk on the ramparts. This ended up being one of the highlights of a highlight-filled vacation. The weather was chilly and sunny, and there weren’t many people on the ramparts. I was a little worried about access to the ramparts – I don’t enjoy steep stairs without rails. But the stairs were easy to manage, and there was one place along the ramparts with a ramp. We walked the ramparts every day. It was hard to believe that they were almost completely rebuilt after WW2. At low tide, the beaches were beautiful, but when they disappeared with the high tide at sunset, the sight was awesome. The force of Nature in all its wild splendor, pounding against the walls of the rebuilt ramparts.

The walk along the coast to Alet reminded me of the coastal trails in San Francisco, except the guns along the coast of Brittany had actually been fired in anger and bore the battle scars to prove it. Gorgeous walk with only a handful of other hikers.

We happened to find the 39-45 Memorial about 10 minutes before the start a tour of the bunker (the only way to see it). The tour begins with a 45 minute video in French, followed by a 45 minute tour (also in French, but an English pamphlet is available). Even in French, the film was easy enough to follow – there were even a few shots of newspaper headlines in English to move the story along. We have seen the outside of many destroyed bunkers, but this was the first time we’d ever seen the inside of a restored German bunker. It was fascinating. Although the guide spoke French, we had no problem following along with the English translation. In addition, most of the displays had captions in English and French. I didn’t know that the US used napalm in WW2, let alone in the battle for Saint-Malo. This was a unique opportunity to get a look inside a German bunker. Before we went down into the bunker, the guide spoke politely to us in English, telling us to feel free to ask any questions. Everyone else on the tour was French, and did nothing to make us feel out of place.

The dock for the little ferry from Saint-Malo to Dinard really is just outside the city walls at the Porte de Dinan. Of course, we needed to walk all the way to the large ferry building to figure this out. After a pleasant boat ride, we enjoyed a pleasant stroll through the town. Dinard really is a lovely little town. We had coffee in a droll boite and made our way back to the dock. There actually two docks for this ferry in Dinard, and the two “extra” mid-day ferries on weekends only stop at one of them.

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On the next to the last day of our trip, we took a direct train from Saint Malo to Paris Montparnasse and eventually checked into the Citizen M hotel by CDG. We had an early flight the next morning, and it just seemed like the right choice to stay by the airport. The Citizen M is within walking distance of Terminal 3, and you can catch the free CDG/VAL shuttle from there to the other terminals. IMHO, this hotel is trying a bit too hard to be trendy, especially when most of the guests we saw were close to our age. With that said, the bed was comfortable, the limited food choices were good, and the price was right.

However, the bed is as long as the room is wide and abuts against the window, so if there are two of you in that bed, one of you will have to climb over the other to get out of it. Since everything in the room is controlled by a tablet, you will need to find the tablet in the dark and figure out how to turn on the lights to get to the bathroom. This is even harder than it sounds. We were getting up at 0400 so it didn’t really matter. We’ll stay at the Hilton next time.

When we checked our bags for our return flights to Austin, the British Airways agent told us to use either the American or Cathay Pacific lounge, since we were flying in Business. The American lounge didn’t open until 0630, but the Cathay Pacific lounge opened at 0600, or about 5 minutes after we made our way to the lounge area.. After the chaos of CDG, even at that early hour, the Cathay Pacific lounge felt like an oasis of calm. Delicious pastries and the first hot eggs of our trip, plus hash brown patties. I was in no hurry to leave.

After an uneventful flight to LHR, and a much longer but equally uneventful flight to AUS, we were home. Very few international flights land in Austin, but even there Global Entry is worth the trouble and expense. If we hadn’t checked our bags, we could have been out of there in less than 5 minutes, if that. Thanks to Global Entry, we got home with enough time to pick up our dogs before the vet’s office closed.

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Thanks, EP. I've enjoyed reading your trip reports.