One of the first really big nomadic trips I planned was our two-week road trip through the northern part of France where we stayed in four different locations (two in Paris). I learned a lot while planning this trip, however, this was nothing compared to the planning that went into the two-week trip through the United Kingdom and Ireland where we stayed in nine locations, in multiple countries! This trip, like most of the others, was planned pretty darn perfectly if I do say so myself. We (Me, Andrew and his brother Matt, and Matt’s girlfriend, Janick) stayed in several locations, and types of accommodations, on this trip: A hotel in La Defense, Paris, two unforgettable Bed and Breakfasts in Mont St. Michel and Bayeux, and a decent Airbnb in Paris to end the trip.
When we landed in Paris we got our rental car at the airport and made our way to our first accommodation at the Hilton Paris La Défense. This area, La Défense, is a bit outside the city center, so we took the subway to Champs-Élysées and even managed to get lost and separated on our way to the Arc de Triomphe, literally within our first hour exploring the city. I feel like it looked like something off of a sitcom. Matt and Janick hopped on the subway as the door closed, closing on Matt’s backpack, as Andrew and I just stood there stunned as we watched them move along the tracks through the windows. It was hilarious, I would loved to have had that whole scenario on camera. We finally intuitively met across the Arc de Triomphe, in the rain, like some scene from a rom-com. A memorable way to begin our vacation. After an exhausting flight, and the excitement of getting separated with no cell service, we were ready for bed!
The next morning we fueled up with one of the best hotel breakfasts ever at the Hilton Paris La Défense, complete with a full charcuterie spread and crêpe station (some of my faves). The amazing breakfast was made better because of our a hilarious waiter (who made fun of Andrew’s graphic tee of a gorilla playing drums which he wore despite me saying he would stick out with the Parisians). With full tummies, we made our way toward Mont St. Michel where we stayed for two nights, followed by two nights near Bayeux, and ended our trip with 4 nights in Paris. If you plan to spend some time in France, especially near Paris, I would encourage you to rent a car and spend some time in the countryside. There are so many beautiful cities you can explore, Mont St. Michel and Bayeux being two great choices. Mont St. Michel is located near several really interesting castles and little towns worth visiting. We also took a day trip to Old Dinan and St. Malo in the Bretagne Region, two other places that are worth a visit, and perhaps an overnight stay if your schedule allows. If I where to plan this trip again, I think I would flip it and spend the first few days in Paris and the last portion of the trip in the countryside, only because this part of the trip was a bit more relaxing rather than the hustle and bustle of the city. Regardless this is an incredible itinerary for those who want to spend several days in Paris and balance it with a stay in the country.
In addition to this lengthy post, I also created a more streamlined 4-5 day itinerary that provides the various stops you can make on your road trip through Northern France, as well as our five-day Paris Itinerary. Happy Planning!
Parlez-vous français? Anglais?
Our time in France was absolutely incredible. Often the first question I get is about how we handled the language barrier. We are quite fortunate to have our travel buddy Janick whose first language is French- parfait! So we did not have much trouble at all! We even did a tour of Combourg Castle in the countryside where they only do tours in French, and Janick was the translator. Without her we would have missed out on a lot of really incredible experiences. While in Paris though, most people speak English, but I recommend you learn popular phrases to be respectful, and be more accepted by the locals. Overall, with some bravery and a little practice, you will be able to make your way around without being fluent.
Some simple phrases that will come in handy:
- Bonjour! – “Hello!”
- S’il vous plaît – “Please.”
- Oui/Non – “Yes/No.”
- Excusez-moi. – “Excuse me.”
- Pardon. – “Sorry.”
- Parlez-vous anglais? – “Do you speak English?”
- Je ne parle pas français. – “I do not speak French.”
- Merci/Merci beaucoup.– “Thank you/Thank you very much.”
- Au revoir! – “Goodbye!”
- De rien. – “You’re welcome.”
The Road Trip
Day 1: Travel from Paris to Mont St. Michel
On our way to Mont St. Michel we stopped at the Château de Fougères which is about 3 hours and 37 minutes from La Défense and 40 minutes southeast of Mont St. Michel. The Château costs €8,50 and is open 10:00am-12:30pm and 2:00-5:30pm. Here audio tours are provided for self-guided tours which was perfect for our group who all had various interests, so we could each linger where we wanted to learn more.
After touring the Château de Fougères and walking around the quiet streets that surround the castle, we hopped in the car and drove about 40 minutes toward Combourg Castle that is about 43 minutes southwest of Mont St. Michel. This is where traveling with a fluent French speaker came in especially handy. There are not self-guided nor audio guides at Combourg Castle, tours are only offered in French. Janick tested her translation skills and provided a great tour, along with the tour guide. The most interesting fact I remember from the tour is that there are multiple babies and cats buried in the walls- creepy!
Pro Tip: Make sure you eat lunch before everything closes! My friend Molly and her husband had just visited a couple months before us and warned me about this- yet somehow we still made the mistake! (She also warned me about the fast closing subway doors and look where that got us!) Many restaurants close between lunch and dinner, so be sure to grab sandwiches or snacks for later so you do not end up hangry like we did a couple times. After the two castle visits we were famished and were running on candy bars we got at the souvenir shop!
The last stop of the day was the adorable town of Old Dinan, a little town in the Bretagne Region about 46 minutes southwest of Mont St. Michel. The town itself is worth a visit to simply see what survived the bombings of World War II, it escaped these bombings so the architecture is original and did not need to be renovated after the war, like much of the surrounding cities. In town you can walk along the town walls, the riverfront harbor, and explore the old town center. In the center you will find a large square called Place du Guesclin where vendors have sold produce and crafts for over 700 years! This market is still active today on Thursday mornings. We visited Old Dinan on a Wednesday, and even on an off-day there were vendors packing up when we arrived in the late afternoon.
We parked near the basilica down a very narrow side street so we could walk along the town walls, visit Dinan’s Basilica, and walk through a little garden to St. Catherine’s tower. From here, you can walk through the old port and along the river to see the best stretch of Dinan’s wall. While here, be sure to try the local specialties: galettes (crêpes) and cidre (alcoholic apple cider served in bowls). In this small town some still speak Breton, so we learned to say “Cheers!” in Breton (Brittonic language of the Celtic language family spoken in the Brittany Region, it was brought from Great Britain during the Early Middle Ages), which is “Yec’hed mat!” I was so excited to use this local lingo, but when we asked our waiter about it he had no clue what we were talking about- oh well, we still used it throughout the trip.
So that was all done in only one day, if you can believe it! We then made our way to the adorable Bed in Breakfast near Mont St. Michel (see review and information near the end of the post). On our way to a local Crêperie, La Casa de Quentin, we passed by an adorable Windmill: Le Moulin De Moidrey. This was not on our radar while we were planning the trip, but one of those unexpected sights you get to stumble upon when driving around the countryside. We stopped as the sun was setting which was beautiful. A young couple was picnicking…a perfect evening, sunset, and location for a romantic marriage proposal.
Day 2: Mont St. Michel Abbey
The second full day in the French countryside we visited the gigantic medieval, awe-inspiring, Mont St. Michel. The abbey is located in a bay in between two French Regions: Brittagne and Normandie.
This abbey looks incredible in pictures, and it is one of the most interesting an intricate works of architecture I have visited. The Abbey is open 9:00 to 7:00 pm, I suggest you get there pretty early, as you will have to park in a lot, take a shuttle to arrive near the entrance, then walk about a half mile to get to the actual entrance of the abbey. They also have horse and carrigages you can pay for if you do not want to walk across the bridge. Since it is located on an island, you can experience the abbey in different states throughout the day. When we visited is was low tide, so you could not really tell that we were on an island. As we began to leave we could see the tide moving in. In some pictures online you can see the tide goes all the way around the abbey, creating the island.
Mont St. Michel is such a memorable place. You can choose to stay over on the island with the abbey walls, as it is fully equipped with little bed and breakfasts and hotels, shops, and restaurants. We did not stay on the island, but nearby. If you decide to stay on the island be sure to pack light! The staircases are extremely narrow and uneven, so getting a full suitcase up to your lodging may prove difficult. While visiting this gargantuan place you can get lost in all of the alleys and little side streets which is super fun, we spent about 6 hours there, which included lunch with incredible views. You can easily spend a full day here, or even return for a second day and still see something you missed the during your previous visit. There are multiple places of worship, offices, apartments, restaurants, shops, banquet halls, ice cream parlors, gardens, and so much more to see- so you will not get bored!
While we chose to rent a car to explore the area, there are also day trips from Paris that will take to Mont St. Michel. If you drive directly it is about 4 hours, but Viator and Trip Advisor have some options that look pretty doable for those who have a short time frame. I didn’t book a tour for Mont St. Michel through Trip Advisor or Viator, but I have done other tours, and both companies never cease to disappoint (assuming you make your decisions based on previous customer reviews). Some of my favorite travel experiences have been on quick day trips from where I am staying.
Day 3: Britagne “Brittany” Area Explorations
Another early start to the day, we packed up our bags and hiked up Pointe du Grouin– a beautiful overlook that is about 49 minutes northwest of Mont St. Michel. From this point you could look across the ocean and actually see Mont St. Michel which shows how ginormous the Abbey is. After a little climb we needed to have a seat and have a bite to eat. At the base of the point is a convenient cafe where you can carb-up before or after hiking the overlook.
Side Story: One of our favorite memories, and stories we like to tell, is of this cafe visit. To preface the story, Andrew was doing really well with practicing his French, he has no shame and is willing to make mistakes, unlike me, so he was speaking French to everyone. As we neared the cafe I told him to slow down and wait for Janick so she could greet the hosts (to avoid embarrassment, obviously). Andrew confidently waltzes into the cafe and exclaims “Au Revior!” (This is “Goodbye!” by the way!) I was dying laughing and could barely breath when he turned on his heels and just left the cafe with no explanation. Matt and Janick joined us and I could barely speak. So now we have an on-going inside joke where we use “Au Revior” instead of “Bonjour.” After this mistake, he accidentally did it at another restaurant later in the trip and it was just as funny. We then walked into the cafe, the second time for Andrew, as if nothing happened, ordered some coffee, and went on with our day.
The next stop on the schedule was St. Malo, a neat seaside town with a few military forts (Fort National, Grand Fort, and Petit Bé Fort), Cathedral, and a ton of shops and restaurants. The tide was low so we were able to walk along the beach rock and watch the tide and storm move in.
Side Story: Another one of our favorite stories to tell about this trip is about the aggressive seagull. We were about to leave St. Malo and wanted to grab a couple snacks from a food truck in their little town-square. I got a crepe, Matt got a baguette sandwich, and Janick got a hot dog (more on that later). We were standing there eating our snacks as Janick paid the vendor. Out of nowhere a giant seagull zooms in between me and Andrew, so close we felt the wind beneath his wings, and nose-dives into Matt’s sandwich. Matt turned around and was SO angry. He didn’t have time to process what had happened- he thought one of us tried to take his snack! Once he realized what happened we were all laughing hysterically. So about the hot dog? For the rest of the day Janick kept burping hot dog burps that filled the car, these were probably the most atrocious burps I have ever smelled. Another thing we still laugh about to this day.
In the map below you can see the main cities we visited while staying near Mont St. Michel: Old Dinan, Pointe du Grouin, St. Malo.
Day 4: Normandie “Normandy” Region
The next day we packed up the car to move from where we were staying near Mont St. Michel, to Bayeux. In the Normandy Region you will find the D-Day Beaches. For those of you who may not remember this from History class, during World War II, Allied Troops from America, Canada, and Great Britain landed along the 60-mile French coast to attack the German-occupied areas to liberate Europe from the Nazi occupation. After months of planning the operation was carried out on the morning of June 6th, 1944: D-Day.
If you are a history nerd like me, you will be able to spend several days along the coast visiting the beaches, each with museums, monuments, statues, and areas of remembrance. We only had a day scheduled to see as much as possible. We visited the Caen Memorial Museum which is a great place to start, as it is one of the most comprehensive WWII museums. Here you can map out your day and decide the other locations you would like to visit based on your time constraints. Each location has significance to the events that occurred, with it’s own history, stories, and artifacts.
Below is a list of the various stops along the coast you may find interesting (the places we stopped are indicated with an asterisk*). You can also check out a recommended driving route in the map above.
- Utah Beach*: The museum at this beach, the Utah Beach Landing Museum, is set in the remains of a German bunker.
- Pointe du Hoc*: the highest point between Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, which is along a 100 feet cliff overlooking the English Channel is considered to be one of the most significant memorials along this route as it was taken over by over 200 U.S. rangers on D-Day who climbed the cliffs from the sea.
- Omaha Beach* was the location of the most intense battles, it is also located next to The American Cemetery, and is lined with several Memorials and statues. We spent a significant amount of time at this particular site.
- Another location you can stop at is The Gun Battery located in between Omaha Beach and Gold Beach: this was the location of several bunkers thought of as Hitler’s most significant points of defense.
- The Gold Beach invasion was led by the British, and the museum at this beach includes documentation of America’s first airmail flight from the U.S. to France.
- The Juno Beach invasion was led by Canadian troops, here you can learn more about the role Canada had in the war, and is also the location of the Canadian cemetery.
- The easternmost D-Day beach is Sword Beach where the invasion was led by British troops. This museum goes into detail of the British Airborne Operations.
Near the beaches, we stayed in the town of Bayeux, a quaint town an hour and twenty minute drive northeast of Mont St. Michel, and two and a half hours from the Palace of Versailles. This was a convenient location to stay while visiting the Normandy Beaches. We explored the town and did our laundry while eating pizza after a long day of visiting the beaches and museums.
Where to Stay
Near Mont St. Michel
One of the best and most memorable Bed and Breakfasts I have ever stayed in was near Mont St. Michel at The Chambres au St-Avit. Located on a cow farm, we were greeted with the smell of cows, and flies in the rooms. Note about Europe: you may have difficulty finding places with Air Conditioning, so the windows are always open. The hosts only spoke French, so it was convenient that Janick could communicate, and most importantly ask if we could visit the cows. I asked if we could milk them, and the host looked at me like I was crazy and chuckled. I thought this would have been a pretty common question. Who doesn’t want to milk a cow when staying on a milk farm? This made sense once we actually went out to visit cows. It was an industrialized milk farm that had machines that milked the cows! I expected a little stool and a few cows- nope! Hundreds of cows milked by machines- who knew!? The milk from the cows was then processed into the most amazing Camembert Cheese. I never really liked cheese before our trip to France, but I found a love for Camembert and Brie cheese that I will never shake.
The breakfast served at The Chambres au St-Avit remains one of our favorites: fresh croissants from a local baker, Camembert Cheese and hot chocolate made from the milk cows across the street, and an assortment of meats and jams was truly unforgettable.
Near the Normandy Beaches: Bayeux
We stayed in another gorgeous and cozy Bed and Breakfast near the Normandy Beaches, in Bayeux: Le Hameaux du Hutrel. While it was a bit tricky to find (we arrived after dark), we made it there alive and were very happy with the location, service, common outdoor area, and breakfast. The hosts were incredibly friendly, and made a delicious Rhubarb tart made with rhubarb from their garden. We told them we would be leaving early the following morning so we would not be able to stay for breakfast, they were so accommodating and insisted we take some fruit and bread for the road.
Things to eat in the Normandy Region
One of the most important parts of travel, in my opinion, is eating the local cuisine! Be sure to taste all of these local treats:
- Apple Cidre (cider)
- Kouign Amann- a famous pastry created in the Brittany region.
- Calvados- a strong apple brandy made in the orchards of Normandy.
- Sable Breton (Butter Cookies)- these are sold everywhere, and make a great souvenir. There are some specialty cookies sold in Mont St. Michel that have the abbey on the cookies. These are very tasty but also pretty pricey. I would suggest getting a box when you visit the abbey, but then stop at Biscuiterie de la Baie du Mont St Michel (a few minute drive outside of the abbey) and stock up on a variety of these incredible cookies. At the shop you can try various flavors and styles of cookies, and be sure to buy enough to last you six months after your trip- that’s what I did.
Normady Region: Other Places to Visit
When thinking about your interests and timeline of your adventure, here are a few additional places to consider, some of which we were not able to make it to on this trip.
- Locations near Mont St. Michel:
- Bayeux: quaint town an hour and twenty minute drive away northeast of Mont St. Michel and two and a half hours from the Palace of Versailles
- A good location to stay to visit the Normandy Beaches.
- Château Gaillard (Les Andelys): Richard the Lionheart’s castle, on the way to Versailles from Bayeux. We did not have time to visit, but this looks like a cool place to stop on your way to Paris or Versailles from Bayeux.
After spending almost about five days exploring the countryside (check out the streamlined 4-5 Day Itinerary Post), we were excited and ready to make our way to Paris. Have you spent time in the Northern Regions of France? Where did you enjoy visiting?