Nice, France

July 23-25:

Graham riding an e-bike!

Biking Along the French Riviera

When we arrived in Nice, we were greeted by our wonderful Airbnb host. He showed us around the apartment (located in Old Nice) and gave us some local recommendations. One thing he recommended was renting e-bikes (bikes with a battery-powered motor) and take it up the French Rivera. The next day we got up and went to Bicicletta Shop to rent some bikes! We are so glad we chose to do this instead of going to some other popular attractions. We had a wonderful four hour bike ride and enjoyed such fantastic views. We wore our bathing suits on the ride knowing we would want to stop for a quick swim in the ocean.

Our biking route

Motorized e-bikes are amazing! This was the first time we ever rode them and we were very impressed. I can’t imagine biking the road we did using regular bikes. We effortlessly rode up huge hills and still enjoyed the oh-so-satisfying cruise going down. One older woman that we passed gave me an odd look as I peddled slowly, still seated, continuing at a fast speed up this steep hill that she herself was struggling to walk up. She gave a look and then as though a light went off, she saw the battery and said in broken English “ohh… motor.”

As you will see in the photos below, the views were spectacular! We stopped about halfway and found a public beach to go swimming in. We locked our bikes up and headed down to the Mediterranean shore. We found some huge rocks away from the crowds to set our things on and went for a dip. The water felt so refreshing and was so clear! After our short beach stop, we got back on our bikes and continued along our route.

I wore my favorite $10 skirt from Aldi over my bathing suit. Unfortunately, being the inexperienced biker that I am, I thought my skirt would just effortlessly flow away from the wheels – wrong. About halfway down a hill, my skirt caught my tire. After a couple tugs the skirt came free from the tire to reveal the newly made tear on the side of my skirt. Lesson learned and now I am in need of a new skirt.

When we just picked up our e-bikes
Graham biking along the French Riviera
The French Riviera!

Exploring the City

Upon returning to the city area, we realized we had biked right into a protest. There were at least a hundred people chanting loudly and holding up signs. From what we could understand, they were protesting against President Macron’s recent announcement mandating that all French citizens must get vaccinated. It was a pretty peaceful protest as we watched from across the street, but it was growing in both size and volume as time progressed. We quickly rerouted to a quieter street and returned our bike rentals.

French protestors
Old Nice

One thing that we have come to fully appreciate about France is their incredible food selection. Each meal we have had in France has been so delicious! Graham’s favorite dessert is Creme Brûlée so he was certainly in heaven.

Taking our Airbnb host’s food recommendation, we ate dinner at Le Safari. It was a long wait, but ended up being so worth it! The restaurant was a part of a big square filled with all different types of restaurants with outdoor seating. Many street performers traveled along the sidewalk performing for each restaurant. After their short routine of singing a couple songs or doing some acrobatic moves, they would walk around the tables with a hat to collect money. It was the perfect spot for dinner and a show!

Dinner at Le Safari
Dinner at Le Safari
Desert at Le Safari
Creme Brûlée at Le Safari
Our breakfast one morning. Everything was put in mason jars. We got coffee, scrambled eggs, yogurt parfait, and lemon pudding.

Final Thoughts

The city of Nice was beautiful and we are so glad we stopped here before heading to Italy. Inside the city was a bit crowded and we have realized for us we enjoy getting off the beaten path, which is why we so enjoyed getting out of the city on our full day of bike riding along the coast. We will miss the fresh Creme brûlée, but we are sure to be back!

Along our bike ride

Marseilles, France

After Mont St-Michel, Lizzie and I were able to drive our rental car back to Paris. It was on this journey that we looked back at our paperwork to confirm the location of where to drop off the car that we realized that the rental company gave us the wrong rental! We had specifically rented a tiny electric car (cheapest option) for two nights, picking up and dropping off the car in Paris. When we picked up the car, we realized it was a somewhat nice car – and it wasn’t electric… But we figured perhaps something got lost in translation and we just rolled with the punches. However, upon closer inspection of the paperwork on the way back to Paris, we realized the rental company gave us a rental that was supposed to be dropped off 9 hours away from Paris! Oh – and it was a 4 day rental… My only guess is that the rental company mixed up our order with someone else’s, so somewhere in Paris, some poor chap drove off the lot with the cheapest car available (think: a little bubble-type car, smaller than a Smart Car) for an overnight rental thinking it was actually for a 4 day cross-country trek. Thankfully, when we brought the car back to Paris, the company was super apologetic and worked everything out.

From Paris, we caught a high-speed train southbound to Marseilles on the southern coast of France for our first experience of the French Riviera.

The train systems across Europe are incredible! The stations largely resemble airport terminals with restaurants, multiple waiting areas, and incredible architecture. Nearly every country has its own set of high-speed trains, and France is no exception. In the screenshot above, you can see our car-driving route from Mont Saint-Michel in the top left to Paris. This little route took us close to 6 hours! Now check out that giant route from Paris straight down to Marseilles on the Southern shore. That entire route took 2.5 hours on one of France’s high-speed trains. Each train is equipped with a fair-priced cafe car, outlets at each seat, and typically free wifi as well.

Walking through Marseilles at night

We arrived in Marseilles after a full day of travel ready to crash in bed. We were only staying in Marseilles for one night, and we came in pretty late (around midnight). Even though we were so late, the city was alive. There were families walking around, people playing soccer in the public squares, and restaurants were still open.

Streets of Marseilles at night

We arrived at our AirBnB to find that it was in a good central location of town. The only problem? We couldn’t get in! The check-in instructions were completely in French which normally isn’t a problem for us with Google Translate. But this time, something was lost in translation and we were stuck in the stuffy stairwell trying to figure out what the lockbox combination was. With it being so late, our AirBnB host was already asleep at their own apartment and wasn’t answering their phone. After 30 minutes of trying different combinations (close to 1AM now), we called an audible and got the last room in a hotel just down the street. It was a bit more expensive, but at least we had a place to call home for the night.

Our impulse-purchase hotel room

The next morning, we woke up to discover a completely different Marseilles than what we saw the night before. The streets from the train station to our failed AirBnB experience were very vandalized, dirty, and run down. There was also a low fog that rolled in from the Mediterranean that blanketed the city in an ominous haze. In the morning light however, the city took on a completely different meaning.

Public Saturday morning market
Selling fresh fish in the market

There is a beautiful cathedral overlooking Marseilles called Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde. From the center of Marseilles, it was a quick 10 minute bus ride to the top of the hill where incredible views were waiting for us to enjoy.

Overlooking the city + the Mediterranean!
Inside Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde

One of the highlights of our time in Marseilles was stopping in for a quick coffee and bite to eat at 7VB Cafe. When ordering our coffee, we asked the barista in French if they spoke English. He responded, “Sure do!” in a suspiciously American-sounding accent. We ordered our coffee, and I asked him, “Are you from America?” He said, “Yeah man I’m from Houston!”

It turns out this coffee shop was a part of the only Protestant church in Marseilles, and the barista was the son of a missionary family that was serving the church. He sat with us and ate lunch with us before we caught a train. We learned he was an aspiring short filmmaker (what better part of the world to live in for short film producers, right next to the Cannes Film Festival!?). He made a short film illustrating how the church was founded back in the 90s – we’ll embed the English-subtitle version below if you want to take a look.

Normandy, France

July 20-22:

From Paris, we rented a car and drove 3 hours north to the region of Normandy. After growing up watching World War 2 documentaries, reading books, and seeing movies about this region, it was humbling to physically be at the site of the biggest military operation in human history – one of the last-ditch efforts of the free world to determine the future course of humanity.

Omaha Beach (drone camera)

D-day happened in the early hours of June 6th, 1944. 156,000 Allied troops invaded Normandy, shelling the beaches from battleships, storming the beaches from transporters, and parachuting deeper into enemy territory from planes above. My Great Uncle Danny was among the groups of paratroopers during this operation, getting injured from anti-aircraft shrapnel as he jumped from the plane, but continuing the fight through the Battle of the Bulge and eventually on to march victoriously into Paris later. He earned a Purple Heart!

Omaha Beach

Taken from a field above Omaha beach. In the distance, families enjoying the beach. Between us, an old German bunker.

Today, the beaches of Normandy just look like normal beaches. It was surreal walking up and down the sandy beaches seeing children playing in the water, families making sand castles, and swimmers swimming laps. A part of me was disappointed that the people here were treating these beaches as if they were any other beaches, as if nothing significant happened here. This same part of me felt that somehow this carefree attitude was disrespectful of the many lives that were lost on these very beaches so that they (and we) could live freely. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought – isn’t this what the allied soldiers were fighting for? Were they not fighting for freedom, for simple family vacations, for carefree attitudes that didn’t have to worry about being controlled by dictatorships like Nazi Germany? With this realization, it became a beautiful picture in our minds to see these beaches treated so “normally”. Normalcy purchased by the bravery of so many Allied soldiers.

There were 2 stark differences that we noticed between Omaha beach and other less historically-significant beaches around the world. For starters, there were memorials and plaques everywhere. Different divisions of Allied soldiers erected monuments to their company’s/platoon’s bravery – some of the monuments were jutting out of the surf, some were further inland. But everywhere the memories of their lives and sacrifice were memorialized. The second difference was that there were old German bunkers still standing on the very edges of Omaha beach. There were no plaques for these bunkers, they were just there. You could freely explore each of them. A humbling reminder of how difficult these beaches were to secure.

Inside a bunker – a stand for an anti-aircraft gun
Evidence of a grenade blast on the interior of a bunker
What used to be a direct line-of-sight to the beach
An old storeroom inside a bunker

Normandy American Cemetery

Overlooking the now-peaceful beaches of Normandy are several cemeteries for the Allied soldiers. We chose to visit the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha beach, the primary site of the American invasion.

Over 10,000 American soldiers found their final resting place in this cemetery. Lizzie and I were humbled seeing the dizzying number of headstones, imagining what each person was like. Fortunately, we didn’t have to work our imaginations too hard – there are so many organizations who have made it their aim to collect photos and stories of the soldiers buried here and in other American cemeteries around the world. We chose a few headstones and went deep on their stories, reflecting on their sacrifice and remembering their stories with gratitude in our hearts.

Merrill LeRoy Funk from Minnesota, killed in action 6 days after the invasion began, earned a Purple Heart

This cemetery is technically owned by France. They help secure it and maintain it to this day. This includes keeping the lawns and gardens pristine and keeping the gravestones clean. We sat and watched how local Normandy workers paid so much respect and care to each gravestone as they washed them, spending perhaps 20-30 seconds on each one. They said they clean all 10K gravestones every day.

Workers cleaning all 10K gravestones spending time on each one

Mont Saint-Michel

After spending the night in Villedieu-les-Poêles, we drove west through the countryside to Mont Saint-Michel.

Mont Saint-Michel

Built in the 800-900s on a tiny island in the English Channel, Mont Saint-Michel floats like a mirage on the horizon. This island is host to an historical abbey that has been the center for Catholic pilgrimages for centuries. Today, there are only 30 permanent residents on the island. The rest of the hordes are tourists like us!

In front of the island while the tide is fully out!
At high tide, the ocean waters go right up to the city walls
Approaching the drawbridge to the city (beyond all of the tourists)
Inside the Medieval portions of the city
The abbey crowning the top of the island
Looking down over the city back to mainland France at low tide

As you can tell from some of the pictures, Mont Saint-Michel is a big attractor for tourists. There are portions of the city streets where it feels like you are shoulder to shoulder with other tourists, and that can be pretty overwhelming – especially for Lizzie and I who like to find ways to get off the beaten path where possible. Towards the top of the island the crowds thin out a bit and we were able to enjoy reading about the history of Mont Saint-Michel in a quiet park which we loved. Tourists aside, the island is truly breathtaking. But next time we might just enjoy it from the less crowded beaches instead!

Paris, France

July 15-20:

Our first stop in France was Paris! Up to this point in the trip, we haven’t had any difficulty navigating public transportation. We were proud of this track record… Until we arrived in Paris. I watched a tutorial on YouTube before arriving and felt pretty confident I could handle it. We bought a book of 10 tickets at the train station just like the YouTube tutorial suggested. Unfortunately, the video was just about traveling inside Paris city center. The two places we ended up staying were outside of Paris, which required completely different types of tickets. There are also multiple transportation zones within Paris and different tickets are needed to travel across them. We spent a long time standing in front of the ticket machine trying to figure out which ticket would be best for where we would like to go. Finding the right bus to our first AirBnB was also tricky. We found a bus driver on break and asked for his assistance. He didn’t speak any English and we both tried to communicate with hand motions and Google Translate. He was so patient with us! He repeated everything and even wrote on his hand with his pen the bus number we needed, pointed in the direction of the bus, and off we went running to catch it.

Transportation struggles

Before coming to France, we heard many stereotypes. For example, we heard that no one speaks English and all French people hate Americans and are rude. It was true that we found more non English speakers in France (yet still found many that did speak English), but the other stereotype was not true. Everyone was so kind and patient with us! We tried our best to learn some of the language to better communicate, but usually ended up relying mostly on our Google translating app. The app even has a conversation feature where you can both be speaking and it will translate French to English and English to French.

Disneyland Paris (from outside the gates!)

Our first day in Paris we got off of a train to transfer to another one. We walked up the stairs and to our surprise – we were at the entrance to Disneyland Paris! Through more hand motions and Google Translate, we realized that this was the entrance to Disney Village which was totally free! Think of the Disney Springs shopping/restaurant area in Florida, but much, much smaller. With our giant backpacks still on, we hopped in line and went through the security check! We walked into almost every store and enjoyed some classic Disney magic without even paying for a park ticket.

Disneyland Paris!

Palace of Versailles

Our first AirBnB in the Paris area was right outside of the Palace of Versailles. We decided to tackle the 2,014 acre palace on our first full day. It was a cool day, which helped since the palace does not have central air conditioning. We bought tickets to see the palace and gardens. We were pleasantly surprised to find that neither were as crowded as we were expecting!

The palace was a clear picture of the worship of man. Well, one man in particular – Louis XIV. Around the palace and gardens you will find statues and paintings of Louis XIV depicted as the sun king. Everything was elaborate and gaudy. Even in the king’s chapel, we learned that the “peasants” would be down at the bottom worshiping him as he worshiped God up above in his private balcony.

The palace started off as a hunting lodge/retreat that Louis XIII owned. After he died, his son, Louis XIV, transformed it from 1661-1710 into the elaborate complex it is today. He reigned as king for 69 years. Later, Louis XVI became king in 1774 where he married Marie-Antoinette in the royal chapel. They both had their own private apartment chambers. Louis XVI was the last king of France before the monarchy fell during the French Revolution.

Palace of Versailles
At the gates of the palace
Palace of Versailles
Studying our Rick Steves book on France inside the palace
The Royal Chapel
The Hercules Room
Hall of Mirrors
Hall of Mirrors

Gardens of Versailles

Fountain show in the Versailles Gardens



Unfortunately because of the 2019 fire at the Notre Dame cathedral, the building was still being repaired and was unable to be entered. We were, however able to enjoy checking out the exterior from the square in front of the church!

English Bookstores

Graham and I love bookstores! We wanted to buy a copy of the France Rick Steves book (as we were using our host’s copy while in Paris) and decided to seek out some English Bookstores. We found several right near Notre-Dame.

Our favorite find was the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. This bookstore first opened in 1951 by George Whitman, a fellow American. It is located in an old monastery with two floors filled with books. They had a piano on the second floor where anyone could sit down and play. The sound of the beautiful piano being played by a complete stranger echoed through each room. The cherry on top for Graham was the friendly bookstore cat.

Shakespeare and Company Bookstore
Shakespeare and Company Bookstore – notes you could leave for future guests
The community piano!
Shakespeare and Company cat

Luxembourg Gardens

We have realized that as Americans, we naturally rush everywhere and in everything. We walk quickly, eat fast, and struggle to slow down. One thing we have enjoyed learning about the European culture (and hope to bring back home with us) is that meals are meant to be enjoyed and should not be done quickly. This is especially true in France. For the most part, a meal here can last more than 2 hours. The check is not naturally brought to you at restaurants – you have to ask for it whenever you are done talking and enjoying your meal.

With this same theme of slowing down, we decided to take a moment to slow down and relax in the beautiful Luxembourg Garden. One of my friends told me about this garden and it definitely did not disappoint. Families and people of all ages sat all around the 60 acre garden in the heart of Paris and enjoyed the moment. We sat down with our Rick Steves book and read up on the surrounding areas.

The French Senate owns the garden and the Luxembourg Palace is where they meet. We also learned that French’s secret service is headquartered beneath the garden. Not so secret I guess!

Luxembourg Garden – with the Luxembourg Palace in the background
Luxembourg Garden

Paris Bed and Breakfast

The first two nights in Paris we stayed near Versailles in an AirBnB with a beautiful garden. Then, we moved to the southern side of the city to an incredible bed and breakfast for the next three days! We have learned on this trip that we don’t enjoy staying inside big cities. In fact, in general, we have found that we really like small to mid-sized cities such as Gouda, Netherlands or Akureyri, Iceland. This house was located just outside of Paris in a small suburb that felt more like a small/midsized city. To get into the Paris city center we just simply walked 8 minutes to the train station and then took the RER (regional) train into Paris.

Our two hosts, Frédéric and Jean-Luc, were so hospitable. After meeting them for the first time, it felt like we were reconnecting with old family friends. Every morning they would make us gourmet breakfast – English cream, homemade jam from their fruit trees in the backyard, breakfast crepes and so much more. They also sat with us and helped map out each of our days to see all of the highlights in Paris. Our room was on the third floor. It had a private sitting room, bedroom, and bathroom. It was perfect! We hope to one day return and stay here again! If you happen to be in Paris and are looking for a spot to stay just outside of the city – check out Villa De La Terrasse.

The view from our bedroom
Just one example of the amazing breakfast spreads that our hosts made for us.
A picture with our amazing hosts right before we left

Tour De France

All of our traveling has been very spontaneous, necessitated by the ever-changing COVID regulations. We usually figure out where we are staying only days in advance (sometimes that very day) and our itinerary for that city is loosely decided once we arrive in that said city.

To our surprise, we found out that Tour De France would be ending in Paris while we were visiting. Totally unplanned! All we had to do was show our vaccination card and we were allowed in to the sectioned-off area of the city where the bikers would be riding through.

We met so many people there that had traveled from the States and around the world just for this race. We felt a little out of place since neither of us knew any racers or really anything about the race – we almost literally stumbled in to the event. Graham bought a Tour De France hat to commemorate the occasion. We arrived about 2 hours early before the peloton went by and were able to see the pre-race caravan parade. The caravan was a string of decorated cars and floats that generally seemed to be used for advertisements. We saw floats advertising water, recycling, detergent, a large chicken float advertising a brand of eggs, glasses and more. It was certainly entertaining!

After about an hour and a half, the group of bikers finally made it into the city. The bikes zipped past us so fast, we barely had time to blink! Luckily, they had to circle around and pass us 7 more times before the finish line so we had a lot more opportunities to see them. It was a very cool experience!

Part of the caravan parade
One of the floats – a giant biker on top of a car
Tour De France 2021 near the Arc-De-Triumph with different countries waving their flags
The friends we made while watching the Tour De France – we helped them hold up their Ecuadorian flag while the bikes flew by!
Tour De France 2021

Eiffel Tower

Of course, a Paris trip would not be complete without a visit to the iconic 1,063 foot Eiffel Tower. We first saw it in the afternoon and decided to buy tickets to go up the Eiffel Tower later that evening when the sun was going down. We only went to the second floor, which was definitely high enough! We decided to be economical and take the stairs versus the elevator. It was also a fun experience… at first. I’m not usually scared of heights, but when we were taking the stairs up (and especially coming down) my legs began to feel like jello. The first and second floor had such incredible views of the city though! We stayed at the top until it got very late. Then we raced to the bottom to catch the famous light show that happens every evening on the hour for 5 minutes. The whole tower sparkles! It was magical!

The view from the Eiffel Tower at sunset
The view from the the Eiffel Tower at night
Eiffel Tower at night
Taking the stairs down the Eiffel Tower
The light show that happens every hour at night

After a long day of walking around Paris and walking up and down the Eiffel Tower (now around 11:30pm) it was time to head home. With so much frustration with public transportation, (specifically because a lot of stops had closed due to Tour De France earlier that day) we decided to catch an Uber home. It was going to cost a little more than we would have liked, but when you are tired and exhausted – you just don’t care. So we plugged in our Airbnb address and requested an Uber who arrived soon after. We had such a delightful conversation with our driver during the 25 minute drive. He gave some marriage advice and told us about his life in Paris. We were just 2 minutes away from where he was going to drop us off when we realized the embarrassing truth. We plugged in the wrong address. We put our old Airbnb address near Versailles that we had stayed at a few days before. It was now midnight and we had to explain to our driver that we weren’t actually staying here, but 15 minutes in the opposite direction. We apologized profusely and even gave him the option to drop us off and we would get another Uber driver to pick us up. He was so sweet about the whole mixup and thankfully lived close to where our actual Airbnb was and happily took us to the right location. Note to self – if one finds themselves staying in a different spot every few days – double check the address when requesting an Uber.

Sacre Coeur

Our last day in Paris we traveled to Sacré-Cœur and climbed to the very top. The views were stunning! The chapel inside was also amazing. We found a middle seat inside to sit to take in all in.

Food Around Paris

Eating at a Cafe. We got pizza and French onion soup.
Eating at a restaurant some locals recommended. It is considered “fast food”.
Stopped for lunch at this yummy Japanese restaurant. Graham got sushi, Lizzie got a poke bowl, and we shared some mochi.