Day 9 – Good Day Sunshine

This morning we ate our last breakfast at the Conte Hotel, perched over the languid blue that is the Bay of Kotor, packed our bags and were picked up by a man named Padrag and his black Mercedes. We hired Padrag through a car service to drive us from Perast to our next destination, an hour and a bit south on the coast and out of the bay to a town called Petrovac in the Municipality of Budva. The city of Budva itself is a party town, so we decided to stay at her sleepy neighbour.

The car ride was uneventful, but the beautiful scenery kept it interesting. Montenegro is definitely one of the more naturally beautiful spots on Earth that I’ve visited so far.

We drove through Budva city, past Sveti Stefan and arrived in Petrovac. We were met there by a whirlwind of a man named Djordje whose English is just as good as our Serbo-Croatian. He called a friend to translate and took us up to our beautiful apartment, took us on the tour of the apartment, and as mysteriously as he appeared, he was gone.

Petrovac is a beautiful little bay surrounded by red sand beach and and a promenade filled with restaurants and beachy shops. We walked along some of the promenade, ooh-ing and aah-ing over the beautiful sea

Pa went to the little kiosk by our apartment and picked up some beers, so we drank a few Leffe and relaxed in our new place.

We had skipped lunch, so headed next door to the pizzeria for an early dinner and more relaxing time. We had been told by our driver that most of the visitors were Russians and Serbs, and this was obvious by the amount of signage in Cyrillic.

We went back to our apartment where we listened to the ocean outside our windows and fell asleep, excited for our time ahead in another utopian Montenegrin town.

Day 8 – If I Leave Here Tomorrow

Today was our last full day in Perast, so we wanted to relax, take it easy, walk the length of the village from watering hole to watering hole.

I tried in vain to capture how clear and blue the water is here, but still it eludes me!

It was the hottest day so far at 31 degrees, so we had to take it easy, my ugly heat rash spreading.

Probably my funniest interaction of the day was at the post office buying stamps. The post office in this tiny town is not a slick Deutsche Post-like operation, but a small room in one of the ancient stone buildings manned by a middle aged lady at a table. Our conversation went like this:

Me: hello! I need to buy some stamps to send post cards to Canada.

Her: Canada. Yes.

Me: uh, there’s a bunny in here.

Her: yes. Eet’s bunny. How many stamps?

Me: twelve. Does the bunny live here?

Her: eet’s not my bunny *rolls eyes*

I sent off some more postcards after my thrilling mail bunny encounter, grabbed a 1€ lavender ice cream and went back to taking more snaps.

We decided on our local favourite restaurant for dinner where we had chicken on the grill and local orange liqueur (Pa had two) and returned to our hotel room.

Perast is super lovely and exceeded my expectations for its stunning natural beauty alone. Although it suffers from apparently typical Montenegrin lack of detail (a lot of broken park benches, garbage cans overflowing), I would definitely come back to spend a week in this gorgeous seaside town.

Day 2 – Out On the Tiles

This morning we were up bright and early (brighter and earlier than we intended as we’re still on incredibly jet-lagged) as we wanted to walk the old city walls and ramparts, and we wanted to do it before the crowds as before the heat got too oppressive. The walls are the most recommended thing to do and we didn’t get a chance to walk them during Dubrovnik 2014, so we made sure we did them this time.

We got to the entrance by the Ploče Gate by 7:55, and it opens at 8:00, which we’ve learned by now is merely suggestion, and not a hard and fast rule. We were 2nd in line with a queue already forming, and the poor gate worker could not get the ticket machine working. It’s not something he could just wave people in for free – entrance is about $20CAD. After about 10 minutes of fumbling, trouble shooting and calls to what I assume is Croatian tech support, the poor significantly sweatier man got the machine working, and we were through.

The walls were originally built in the 9th century and further fortified in the 14th century in order to keep out the Turks (a common theme in the area). You can also see the difference in the orange tiled roofs – faded tiles are obviously older, bright orange indicates the roof and/or building didn’t survive the significant shelling during the Balkan War of the 1990s.

The walls are almost 4km with lots of stairs and ramps along the way, and for someone whose limbs can best described as “dachshund-esque”, some of the stairs were pretty challenging. The views made the blasting of my quads, hams and glutes worthwhile, with a total panorama every step along the way.

One thing I always think is interesting when huffing around in 29 degree weather is the fashion. When I travel I wear pretty basic clothing – black pants, black low-cut top – the Kelly uniform. There were women in sky-high espadrilles, women in unflattering tune tops, women in shockingly short dresses, schlepping their shit up all those stairs. If they can stay cool and comfortable, more power to them.

The sun started to really punish us, so we stopped at one of the many refreshment stands along the walls for some orange juice, but were swiftly talked into some “signature” drink there. Turns out, this pink concoction contained not only oranges, but also beets and carrots. Not super refreshing or tasty, but very healthy.

The wall walk ended up being more interesting with more beautiful views than I was expecting, so I’m glad we did it and would recommend it to visitors! It’s supposed to take about an hour, but it took us two, as we stopped a lot to take what felt like the same photo 30 times.

It was a little after 1000hrs when we exited the ramparts so we decided to get a lot of water and coffee as well as some brunch in a beautiful restaurant that faces the marina so that we could people watch and watch the boats come and go. The coffee was delicious and our water looked like Croatian Javier Bardem.

The rest of the day was a relaxing one. We left the marina and headed for Buža 2 – another bar built into the rocks on the outside of the wall. They didn’t have the lemon beer that Pa and I have come to love, but they had cold beer and beautiful views in spades.

After our drinks and a mid day siesta, we went to a tobacco shop to buy some stamps and then set up shop at one of our favourite people watching restaurants along the stradun where we sipped more beers and I wrote and sent some postcards to some of my nearest and dearest. Again the parade of people was a fascinating sight – tour groups, bros, a bridal party, screaming children with disinterested parents. After dinner, we headed to back to our apartment around the corner, as it took every last ounce of strength to wash my face and brush my teeth before crashing into bed at the ripe old hour of 1930hrs.

Day 15: They Walk With You

Today we got up pretty early, as it was going to be a busy and emotional day. We were starting out the day by visiting Juno Beach.

For those of you unawares, there were 5 beaches stormed on June 6th, 1944 marking the start of the Battle of Normandy in WWII – the American forces stormed Omaha and Utah, the British stormed Gold and Sword, and Canada stormed Juno. Canada recently built an interpretive centre at Juno Beach, with Canadian employees running the exhibits.

It was a 1 hour and 45 minute drive west for us, and Ma and I peppered Pa, our resident historian with questions about the war and Canada’s role.

Juno Beach fronts a beautiful fishing town, Benières-Sur-Mer. We got into town and to the Centre and wandered the grounds.

After wandering, we decided to head down to the beach itself.

I was honestly very apprehensive about how to feel. I knew that Juno is a very sacred place to Canadians and a very emotional spot, and my brain recognizes that, but I was afraid I wouldn’t feel anything, standing in the spot where 359 brave Canadian souls fought and died on that day in 1944.

The beach itself is beautiful – sandy and warm with blue water and shells dotting the tide lines – but it was eerily quiet. There were some fisherman down the way casting their lines, but other than that it was me, Ma and Pa. All you could hear is the lapping of the waves on the shore. It was as if every living and kinetic being knew what had happened there and was paying their respects – the birds, the ocean, the grass. It was tangible.

We walked along the beach silently And watched the high tide, and went into the Juno Beach Centre and looked at the exhibits – posters, literature, radio broadcasts, donated relics, uniforms and medals from the period. The walls filled with facts and stories, and boards with the stories of Victoria Cross recipients all along the way. The exhibit ends with a video of footage of D-Day and voice over of Canadian letters written home. The ending, showing soldiers disappearing from photos and ending with the words “They walk with you/dans leur pas” is when my emotions got the better of me and I just let the tears stream freely down my face. I would like to think that I feel emotional about it because I work so closely with people who have served in the Canadian Forces and I care about them, but I think it’s more because I cannot process the heroism of very young men who volunteered in a time of need and were lost, and their families and friends who had to continue on without them. Maybe it’s both.

After we finished up at Juno Beach, we headed 10 minutes down the road to the outskirts of a town called Bény-Sur-Mer. Here is where the French government donated a square of land to Canada and is the final resting place for 2,048 Canadians who we lost at the beginning of the Battle of Normandy.

As we were pulling in, another car was leaving so we were alone with the white grave markers and maple trees. We signed the visitors book and silently walked the graves.

Each white marker features a maple leaf, a name and a date. They also featured either crosses, a Star of David or nothing, and many had words from their families inscribed at the bottom. The rows of markers are dotted with flowering plants.

What really struck me about the cemetery is that it’s not your typical spooky, sinister and grim graveyard, although it is still haunting. The cemetery was teeming with life – trees, flowers, buzzing bees, butterflies and chirping birds. There was serene life to the grounds, as if imploring us to celebrate the peace that the cemetery’s residents fought and died for us to have. For any proud Canadian, it is a must-visit.

Our next destination was a gorgeous seaside escape called Arromanches-les-Bains. We were headed there to see the mulberry harbour and caissons still visible in the ocean. This is where the British constructed an enormous portable and floating harbour in order to send fuel and supplies to the troops fighting in the Battle of Normandy.

Driving towards Arromanches-les-Bains we noticed French, British, American and Canadian flags flying in the distance, so we drove towards them to see what was there. Turns out a large panoramic viewing platform had been built and part of the harbour was on display.

We soon realized it was way past lunchtime, so we headed into the town for some food. In the town proper there are several large firearms, including a German 88, which Pa totally nerded out on.

Our next stop and the westernmost part of the day was outside a town called Longues-sur-Mer. Longues-sur-Mer is about 15 minutes west of Arromanches-les-Bains, still very close to the ocean and is the site of a German fun battery, 3 1/2 of which are still intact and the guns are still in place.

One thing that I noticed at the sites we visited, including Juno Beach, is from what I could hear most of the other visitors were French. I expected some Americans and maybe a couple Canadians, but mostly Parisian French as far as I could discern from my sleuthing abilities.

Our final stop was one of the key operations in the Allies succeeding in the Battle of Normandy and that was at Pegasus Bridge. Pegasus Bridge was originally known as Bénouville Bridge crosses the Caen Canal and was controlled by the Germans. In the wee early morning hours of just barely June 6th, 1944, 3 Horsa Gliders of the 6th Battalion commanded by Major John Howard and packed with a total of 90 armed soldiers and engineers silently landed with almost pinpoint precision and within yards of each other and took the Bridge from the Germans in a matter of 10 minutes. Major Howard and company successfully held the bridge and kept it intact until reinforcements arrived at 0300hrs the next day.

The bridge was rename Pegasus Bridge, as the flying horse was the insignia of the 6th Battalion. The cafe on the bank is considered the first French house liberated. The reason for why the capture of the bridge played such a crucial role, is that it limited German counter attack with the landing and advancing of the Allied forces from the beaches.

And with that, the sun was setting on us, so we headed back to Fécamp to indulge in beer, frites and crêpes and then bed.

By the end of the Battle of Normandy, over 5,000 Canadian heroes laid down their lives. Thank you for your service.

Day 11: White Caps on a Sea of Blue

I woke up this morning after a fantastic sleep and headed down to a delightful breakfast provided by our wonderful hosts, including a myriad of delicious homemade jams and apple juice. We piled into our VW and hit the road towards another seaside town called Étretat, 20 minutes west of Fécamp. I wanted to go to Étretat because it features some really beautiful and interesting coastal rock formations. The drive there was again very picturesque – green hills, quaint villages, cows cows cows.

We took a sharp turn and headed up a steep hill and found parking, bundled up and wandered out onto the cliffs.

The main point of interest in the formations is the one called “l’aiguille”, or “the needle”. It was windy and sky was moody and it was a truly breathtaking sight.

The tops of the cliffs feature rocky winding paths and in the typical European fashion, no safety railings to be seen (if you get too close to the edge and fall over, it’s your own dumb fault). We wandered and meandered, admiring the cliffs, ocean, flora, fauna, and a single white-sailed sail boat on the water.

We had all taken about 200 of the same photo of the cliffs and decided it was time to hit the beach. We got back in the car and headed town to the town of Étretat, found a créperie/pizzeria, had some lunch and headed to the beach. Étretat, like Fécamp has a pebble beach, but does not have as much as a natural protected harbour as Fécamp.

Along the promenade are fact placards about French Impressionist painter Claude Monet and his paintings featuring Étretat and its alabaster cliffs.

As we got closer to the “Needle”, we noticed that there were a fair deal of surfers and stand up paddle boarders in the water, braving the winds and chilly waters.

The rain started picking up so we headed back to our car and drove back to Fécamp.

One of the points of interest of Fécamp is that it is the home of the Palais Bénédictine, a gothic/Renaissance/Art Deco structure that not only houses Bénédictine monks, but is the only distillery in the world of the liqueur Bénédictine. I had no previous knowledge of this liqueur prior to planning our trip, but when I mentioned it to Pa, he was pretty keen, which is part of the reason we chose Fécamp as our Normandy home base.

What we didn’t know is that the Palais houses a wealth of old liturgical relics, art and artefacts, as well as old Art Deco print ads for the liqueur.

We perused the artefacts and ancient letters on our own, but had to join a group tour for the distillery portion. The distilling seems like quite the time consuming process, taking 2 years of macerating, heating and ageing 27 herbs and spices in their basement and cellars until the elixir is bottled.

There have been many many imitations, but the only real Bénédictine is distilled in this one location.

After touring the cellar it was time for a sample, and we could choose between classic Bénédictine, B&B (Bénédictine and Brandy) and Bénédictine single cask. Given there were 3 samples and 3 of us, we all got a different sample so we could share. My apologies to the monks who saved the recipe during the scattering of their props during the French Revolution, but I am not a fan of Bénédictine.

After Pa helped us finish our samples, we hit up the local grocery store and boulangerie for a baguette, some cider, éclairs and gummy bears and brought them back to our B&B where we sat in the dining room, tore apart the baguette and smothered it in salted butter and emptied the bottle of cider. We then retired to our rooms to read and rest before a busy day tomorrow.

Day 10: I’m Free as a Bird

This morning we got up early to catch a cab to a car rental place to pick up our car for the France leg of our trip. We were really sad to be leaving Ghent (and the beer), but excited for a completely different portion.

We got to Europcar and picked up our little white Volkswagen Golf 4-door. The clerk at the office was very interested in our trip and when we mentioned we would be going to Ypres, he put his hand over his heart, clearly very emotional, and said to us that it was a special place and still hangs heavy in the heart of Belgians, and that we will feel the emotion when we get there.

We hooked up my phone to the USB in our rental, and turns out it’s equipped with Apple Car Play, so navigating and playing music from my phone was super easy. We plotted the course for our lunch destination, Boulogne-Sur-Mer on the French coast and we hit the road.

The flat Belgian countryside eventually gave way to green rolling hills and farmlands of France, dotted by brick farmhouses and cows. After 2 hours we rolled into Boulogne-Sur-Mer. We chose a random patisserie that we came across and lucked out – pastries, desserts, breads, sandwiches – all the things. Pa and I each had a delicious fresh sandwich and Ma had a fruit salad and pain au chocolat. We bought a couple of treats and bottles of water for the road and headed on a slight detour to Harley Davidson Côte d’opale so Pa could buy a t-shirt, and continued on our trek west.

The countryside got more and more beautiful the farther west we went, and it was times like this I truly treasure – adventuring with my folks, gorgeous scenery, Otis Redding pumping on the stereo. After about 2 hours, we saw a sign for a rest stop, so we pulled aside to eat our treat. The rest stop, as it turns out, was a slight divot in the grass beside a picnic bench and a pasture of cows. The wind had really picked up, so we ate our treats quickly and hopped back into the warm car.

An hour later, around 1700hrs we pulled into Fécamp, our cute little seaside town for the next 8 nights. We’re staying at a bed and breakfast called A La Maison Blanche, a wonderful little establishment with immaculate themed rooms (we got the China suite. There’s red toilet paper.) and wonderful warm hosts, Marc and Sébastien. We hauled our luggage up the flights of stairs, grabbed our cameras and hit the beach.

Fécamp is an old fishing town nestled in between the white cliffs of the Côte d’alabatre and fronted by a pebble beach. With the wind whipping our hair and the salty sea spray into our faves, we strolled along the promenade.

The Channel waters were rough and very choppy, but we did spot someone windsurfing in the distance. Apparently on a clear day, you can see England.

We found a seaside restaurant and had some dinner and returned to A La Maison Blanche, I hopped in the hot rain shower to rinse the salt from my body, and climbed into bed.