My "Souvenirs" of France: Part 2

If you missed the last post explaining my awesome pun, I'll fill you in: "Souvenir" in French can mean that knick-knack you need to buy for family and friends back home to show you thought of them on vacation, but it can also mean "memories." So in light of our near departure back to the US, here's Part II of my mini-series reminiscing about my favorite souvenirs I've acquired during my travels in France.

The one with the Christmas market: Strasbourg

During our first year in Paris, I kept hearing the city of Strasbourg pop up in conversation in reference to its Christmas markets. “Oh, you have to go to Strasbourg in December!” everyone insisted. Strasbourg seemed to be a must-see, and never having been to any Christmas markets, it sounded like a decent place to start.

Many European towns have a Christmas market in the main square for the holidays (and larger cities usually have a few scattered around in different areas). Strasbourg isn’t very big, but the city touts itself as the “Capitale de Noël” (Capital of Christmas). After experiencing it, I don’t think Santa would mind transferring the title from the North Pole to Strasbourg. I will forever remember spending a weekend with Michael in the most festive, decked-out city bursting with Christmas cheer!

I've seen A LOT of markets since my first Christmas market experience in Strasbourg. But in my Ultimate European Christmas Market Round-Up, it still manged to nab the title for "Most Decked-Out Halls" - no one decorates like Strasbourg! 

The one with the history: Normandy

I can’t continue to talk about favorite moments in France without addressing one of the most touching travel experiences. Three months after we moved to Paris, Michael’s parents came out to visit (they had plane tickets booked before we did to move to Paris!). We wanted to choose a side-trip to get outside of Paris for a few days, and knowing that Dad shared an interest in WWII related-sights with me, Normandy seemed to be the perfect choice.

Our day tour of the D-Day beaches and sights in the area was incredibly moving. Standing on the beaches on a calm June day, it was hard to imagine what horrors this stretch of sand saw some 70 years ago. 

As boats of Allies pulled up along the coastline, they discovered that getting onto the mainland was anything but easy. The Nazis had planted landmines all over. So what they started doing, one by one, was running up the beach and making a path. One soldier would run up, hit a landmine, and blow up. Then another would follow in his path, knowing that his comrade detonated an explosive ahead of him...until he himself uncovered one. This “chain” was the way men finally got up the beaches to continue the fight ahead. This one story just hit me to my core, imagining those young men with so much life ahead of them running valiantly up the beach, giving their lives for our country. This and many of the other stories we heard that day made Normandy an unforgettable and powerful place to pay respects to those who bravely fought in the war. 

This is Omaha beach, one of the D-Day beaches. It was odd to us to think that people still sunbathe and swim here, but as our guide pointed out, there have been so many conflicts on European soil that it would be impossible to set aside land just because of its significance in a war. On a day like the one we had in June, only plaques, memorials, and our tour guide's stories reminded us of the grim past of this area.

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial - our final stop of the tour.  Entering into the cemetery solidified the events that we learned about earlier that day. Seeing each white cross and Star of David that represented a life lost gave a sense of the scale of this one operation during WWII, and brought me to tears. 

The one with the really old bottle: Saint-Émilion

As I’ve alluded to, many of my most vivid memories of traveling around France have taken place on the grounds of vineyards. So it's only fitting that the next memory follow suite: 

I’ve been to Bordeaux twice now, and each time my favorite vineyard tours have not been at the fancy estates of Bordeaux but rather at the small family-run operations of Saint-Émilion. 

My favorite visit of these was when I was with my parents. We had a private tour of Château Coutet, a family-run vineyard that has been in operation for at least 400 years. Our guide led us through the private family cellar, where he pulled out a dusty bottle of wine. “How old do you think this is?” he asked. Not having any idea, we estimated maybe the early 1900’s, if that.

We were wrong by 150 years or so. It dated from before the French Revolution, and had been found buried in the ground fairly recently. It seemed that one of his ancestors hid some wine in the ground before the French Revolution. After this discovery was made during a construction project, the family brought the bottle to a lab to date it. This incredible find sparked a lot of interest in the community and many local media outlets in the area wanted to get a look at this bottle our guide held in his hands.

I will remember it as one of those special moments getting to connect with a family business that has survived for generations. The vineyards surrounding this family plot are now owned by huge corporations like Louis Vuitton, and it is becoming more and more difficult for independent vineyards to stay afloat. Though I am hoping that Château Coutet will - what a fascinating and special history this place has!

Above: A comparison of what's for sale at the vineyard (left) and what's on hold in the family's private stash, waiting for a special occasion (right).

Do you have a favorite memory of your own from France, or a favorite place within the country?

PS. Thanks for your patience the last few weeks! I know I've been posting a bit sporadically these days. Turns out moving internationally while planning a month-long trip through France is a lot of work :-)