USA to Paris to the Vendée: Our European Family Vacation
There is nothing like a pandemic and lock down to make you appreciate your past travels. It is hard to believe that it has been one-and-a-half years since my husband and I decided to take a trip to France. With the children. I had been homeschooling my son, Jake (then 9yrs old) and has an affinity for geography, history, culture, and travel. To help encourage these interests, my former colleague and dear friend, Brenda, who now lives in France, began writing to him to share her experiences and adventures abroad. Their correspondence through letters and postcards sparked Jake’s eagerness to go and visit his new pen pal! After some planning and research together with Bren, we decide to introduce the kids to the thrill of international travel.
As our family clunk our way down the narrow aisle of the plane, my toddler daughter Sara’s car seat in tow, I pull out my sweetest southern smile and say, “Excuse us” to every passenger we pass in hopes of reassuring them that my children won’t be a nuisance on this 8 plus hour flight from Atlanta, GA to Paris, France.
As I hope to myself that we are looking like seasoned travelers, my overtly outgoing never-met-a-stranger son decides to loudly advertise,
“This is my first time flying!”
Well, the jig is up. I know that all I have to cling to now is hopeless optimism (or is it my stubborn insistence) that although this is their first flight my kiddos are excellent travelers and this will all be a piece of cake. The fasten seatbelt sign is lit and we’re off!
We arrive in Paris without incident. Our adventures begin in the La Defense district of Paris. This is the major business district of Paris, complete with modern skyscrapers, shopping malls and La Grande Arche de La Defense. After climbing the stairs of La Grande Arche to stand at its base and turn to face the south-easterly direction, I realize we are in alignment with the Arc de Triomphe, which is in alignment with Place de la Concorde, which is in alignment with Musée du Lourve.
Thus, our trajectory for the day is set!
Armed with a plethora of advice and assurance from my friend, we choose to bravely navigate Paris’s vast and complex subway system. Make no mistake, Paris is a massive city. If you have been to New York City you may have general understanding. After exiting the subway at Arc de Triomphe and taking a brief pause to enjoy the acoustics of a violin busker playing masterfully in the underground tunnel, we take a leisurely stroll down Champs-Elyées. After admiring the hieroglyphics on the Luxor Obelisk at Place de la Concorde, it is back on the subway for a detour to Cathédrale Notre-Dame.
You may recall that on April 15, 2019 the Notre-Dame suffered a devastating fire. We arrived in Paris exactly one week later. It is a humbling sight. The streets surrounding the cathedral are incredible. We wait out a spring shower in the open-air market nearby where I score a few precious soap tins to bring back home to friends. From here, we take a ride on the hop-on, hop-off boats on the Seine. We stop at the Louvre and then back on the boat to the Eiffel Tower where the kids love riding the carousel.
It is the perfect ending to a crash course in “Paris in one day”! The next day it is café and quiche followed by a taxi ride to Gare Montparnasse to board the TGV. We are Vendée-bound!
It is imperative at this point that I mention how my son is a train enthusiast. So, needless to say this is a true highlight for him and a memorable experience for my daughter as well. I opted for first class tickets, and it was well worth it. Between jet lag and our National Lampoon day through Paris the day before, the privacy of the first-class cabin is ideal for our family. We can sit back, relax and take in the sights of the French countryside along the trip south.
We arrive in Angers to the open arms of my friend, Brenda! After securing our rental car, we follow to the Vendée region and the tree-lined drive of Manoir de la Baudonniere, the 16th century manor accommodations my friend arranged for us. It offers breath-taking countryside living immersed in history and culture, and we soaked it all in!
My children are met with chocolates by Eleanor, the owner, and we are given a tour of our room which includes a kitchenette, private bath, and large picture windows overlooking magnificent gardens. I have never felt more at home. After time to settle in, Brenda and her husband, Price, treat us to dinner in a nearby village introducing us to a traditional French meal, galettes. Then, some quick history at the medieval castle keep of Bazoges-en-Pareds and prehistoric burial grounds nearby.
For the next four days we are escorted through the Vendée and the surrounding area. Our first stop is to Château de Brézé, which is a fairy tale castle in the Loire Valley that includes a dry moat with tunnels, tunnels, and more tunnels. Sarah and Jake roam every nook and cranny this castle has to offer. Jake soaks up every bit of history, and his pen pal quizzes his knowledge at every turn.
The next day we arrive at the legendary Bluebeard’s castle, Château de Tiffauges. This is a truly unique experience for the kids. They try their turn at shooting an authentic crossbow and a long bow, play games, train for jousting, and are entertained by a medieval reenactment. The show demonstrates the power of trebuchets, and includes a jousting competition peppered with comedic relief. My multi-lingual friend provides translation, but the acting is so good that anyone can follow along.
The third day is one of my personal favorites. We first try our luck at navigating on our own to our friends’ home in La Tardiere. (Special thanks to GPS. We would all be lost without you.) It is a treat to be able to see where your friends are living out their dreams. We later arrive at Ile de Ré. From the moment you pass through the toll and traverse the bridge, you instantly know you are somewhere special. We roam the streets, dipping in and out of shops. We stop for a bit of hot chocolate for the kids and Irish coffee for the adults. We climb to the top of the clock tower of the church. The view is worth every step and tight squeeze. We find the perfect restaurant to enjoy lunch in the open air. The boats in the harbor provide a most picturesque back drop.
It is all completely and wonderfully European.
I could have easily stayed and never crossed the bridge again.
Our final day of exploration takes us to Abbaye de Maillezais. There are ample grounds to explore, allowing kids to run and play. On our way to the ruins we stumble across the dismembered remains of a giant, providing perfect family photo ops. As you enter the ruins of the Abby you feel you have stepped through a portal to the past.
Traveling to see the world, to learn about and experience different cultures is paramount to me. Being a 'military child' it is a lifestyle that I have always known and I wanted to pass along to my children. I can honestly say that thanks to Brenda's help putting together this itinerary, it has been a success. When we returned home my children excitedly placed the pins on our map to mark the new places we have been. They are always asking, “Where can we go next?” While the pandemic does have us in a holding pattern, we have thoroughly enjoyed reminiscing and anxiously await our next big adventure!
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