Essential Normandy : A four day itinerary

Indian travellers headed to France make a beeline for Paris and the Riviera. But there is so much more to France. A less frequented region, despite proximity to Paris, is the incredibly diverse region of Normandy. When in Normandy, a four day itinerary could involve things ranging from admiring the impressionist master Monet’s house and garden to checking out the famous D-day landing beaches from World War II. You could be spending a night on Mont St Michel, an island that houses an ancient abbey and admire the Bayeux tapestry the next day, the largest tapestry in the world. And after covering all this you would only be scratching the surface of Normany.
A map marking out the must see spots in Normandy
I was travelling with my wife and infant daughter and here’s how we spent 4 amazing days in this lovely region of France. We relied on public transport throughout but you could also rent a car to make your itinerary more flexible.  
Day 1: Monet’s House and Garden
Upon landing in Paris, we headed straight to Vernon, the rail head for the sleepy town of Giverny made famous by its most illustrious resident Claude Monet. Pro Tip: Get your entry tickets to Monet’s Gardens from the Tourist Information Office at Vernon to avoid lengthy queues. The office is housed in a medieval wooden building and is a sight in itself. Shuttle buses ply from Vernon to Giverny and cost 5 Euros per person one way. Schedules here . Giverny has limited stay options so you are better off basing yourself in Vernon.
The Tourist Information Office at Vernon (Source:
Monet settled down in this tiny hamlet, about 75km away from Paris. His house and garden now welcome tourists. Monet landscaped an amazing garden and cultivated lilies in a water garden so that he could paint them. No matter which season you visit in, some or the other bright flowers will always be in resplendent bloom. 
Japanese Bridge at Monet’s water garden (Source:
His house is now a museum and gives a peek into his life and times. But the star of the show is the water garden with lilies that Monet painted. He was heavily inspired by Japan and the quaint green Japanese bridges over the lake, along with a collection of oriental plants are a testament to that. It was incredible to witness first- hand the very scenes that had inspired the impressionist master, before eventually admiring the paintings in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.
Day 2: Bayeux Cathedral and Tapestry
The next day we took a train to Bayeux. Well the thing with France is all railroads lead to Paris. So we had to come back to Paris and change trains for Bayeux. Bayeux falls on the Paris-Caen-Cherbourg line. Visitors to landing beaches in Normandy typically chose between Bayeux and Caen as a base. We opted for Bayeux as it’s smaller and more intimate compared to Caen. It’s a lovely destination in its own right housing the largest tapestry in the world and a fabulous 11th century Gothic cathedral. Bayeux is compact and can be easily covered on foot.
The Bayeux Cathedral in the background
Cathedral Notre-Dame de Bayeux was consecrated by Bishop Odo, the half-brother of the King of England, William the Conqueror in July of 1077. The cathedral still stands strong after over 900 years unlike the cathedral in Caen which fell to allied bombings.  
A section of the Bayeux Tapestry (Source:
The Bayeux Tapestry is a 70 metre long cloth embroidered with tales describing the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror. The tapestry dates back to the 11th Century and was commissioned most likely by Bishop Odo. One thing is for sure, it is unlike anything you have seen before and you don’t need to be a history buff to enjoy it. I knew very little of French history and I came out fascinated. A very engaging audio guide is included in the price of the ticket which stands at 9.50 Euros presently.
The two major attractions aside, you’ll enjoy wandering through the historic town stopping for a coffee here and a croissant there. Bayeux oozes old world charm.
Day 3: D-day Landing Beaches
This is the main reason travellers flock to Normandy. These majestic beaches bear sad testimony to a gory history.
Omaha Beach
There are many operators who arrange full day and half day guided tours to the American, British or Canadian sectors of the D-day beaches. We employed the services of Bayeux Shuttle ( and were very satisfied. The half day tour cost us 60 Euros per person and they were kind enough to give us a discount for our infant and arrange a car seat for her. Our guide Llyod, a Welshman, was a WW II buff and extremely knowledgeable. All our co passengers were either American or Canadian and came from families of war veterans. It was very moving to hear some of their accounts. Lloyd said it is very rare to have Indians on these tours and it was the first time they had an Indian infant on board!  
We went for a tour of Omaha beach which is one among the five sectors where allies invaded German occupied France. It takes just about half an hour to get there from Bayeux. We chose the Omaha beach circuit because it includes a trip to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.
The trip began with a stop at Pointe du Hoc where we saw the German gun installations comprising 6 guns. The canons had a range of 10 miles and could shot fired from here could both Omaha and Utah beaches, thus posing a great threat to the allied landings. We also saw German bunkers were soldiers holed up.
Next we went to the Omaha beach. A chill went down my spine as I heard Llyod narrate the events of the fateful day. It sounded as if he were a first-hand witness of the proceedings. While the incessant rain during our tour was bothering us, it would have been the least of the worries for the soldiers who landed on these beaches on June 6th 1944. It is indeed sad that such a pretty beach, once known as plage d’or or the golden beach had to get tainted with such gory history.
Normandy American Cemetery
Then we proceeded to the American cemetery which houses the remains of more than 9000 Americans, most of who lost their lives during military operations in WW II. It was an extremely humbling experience to walk through the cemetery amidst graves of soldiers, so many of who were barely in their 20s. Famous interments include Theodore Jr and Quentin Roosevelt, sons of president Theodore Roosevelt. The cemetery is featured in the movie saving Saving Private Ryan. The movie is based on the lives of Niland brothers who are also buried here.   
Day 4: Mont Saint Michel
This was our last stop in Normandy and we had saved the best for the last. If you don’t find time to cover Normandy on your trip, at least spare a day to visit the Mont. We took a train from Bayeux to Pontorson, which is connected by a shuttle bus to Mont St Michel.
The impressive Mont St Michel by day
The Abbey in the middle of the ocean can be the highlight of any trip to France. It sure was for us.  The first montastic establishment here was constructed in the 8th century. The Romanesque church of the abbey was built in the 11th Century.
Lots of tourists flock here during the daytime, but I would strongly recommend spending a night here and experiencing the place after the floating multitudes have left. In the summer when daylight stretches to almost 10pm, you can have a magical dinner seated on a restaurant next to the ramparts. Pro tip: Do avail the free guided tour available in English twice a day.  It will help you truly understand the rich history of the Abbey and appreciate it better.

Mont St Michel is also famous for its fluffy omelettes. La Mere Poulard is a legend. They are worth trying because you won’t find anything quite like this anywhere else though we didn’t find them to our liking. The local restaurants also have a wide selection of crepes and galettes. Post sundown, the lit up mont is a magical sight.
MSM looks nothing short of magical at night
Other places in Normandy that would be worth your while are Rouen for its famous cathedral, and the harbour town of Honfleur which was the birthplace of impressionism. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to fit them into our itinerary.

Ten Pro Tips for Your Upcoming Paris Trip



I am writing this so that more people benefit from the extensive research I did before visiting Paris and from my experiences there. These little things I am listing below will help you save time and money and experience the real, “offbeat” Paris.  Disclaimer: I and my wife were travelling with our 8 month old daughter, so if you are looking for party tips, you are on the wrong page.

Tip # Zero: Start every conversion with a Parisian with Bonjour Monsieur/Madame, even if that’s all the French you can manage. Do a social experiment. On one day, start all your conversations with Goodmorning. The next day, start all of them with Bonjour. Trust me, you will be blown by the difference it elicits in their friendliness towards you. The French are very proud of their culture and language and of course rightly so. They detest the assumption that they should be speaking English as much as they appreciate a foreigner making an effort to speak their tongue.

      Tip # 1: Stay at an Airbnb – Give the hotels a miss and stay with some locals by renting out a part of their apartment. It will definitely be way cheaper but that’s not even the biggest reason to be doing it. It will give you a glimpse into Parisian life that a hotel just can’t. We stayed with a young live-in couple. Staying in their home and having conversations with them taught us so much about the Parisian way of life. There will be Airbnbs for every budget, just make sure you go for one which has received good reviews from former guests. Oh, and also look out for a room on a lower floor or a building with an elevator. Don’t assume that buildings which are 6 floors high will have elevators. Its surprisingly rare.  
      Tip # 2: Buy your dinner from the supermarket – Especially if you are staying in an Airbnb and have access to the kitchen. A ready to cook pizza at a supermarket will cost 3-4 Euros, whereas the same Pizza served at an average restaurant would set you back by upwards of 12-15 Euros. All you have to do is grill it in the microwave! Same applies to wines and beers. Buying your stuff from the supermarket will cost you about a third of what a standard restaurant will charge. And trust me, you can still experience local cuisine; even the supermarket will spoil you for choices. 
      Tip # 3: Splurge on Lunch – Go for the two/three course formula menus at lunch. Lunch service at the same restaurant will be significantly cheaper than dinner. Also, in French restaurants it is mandatory so serve a bottle of tap water with food if the patron asks for it. And the tap water is absolutely safe. So just say “un carafe d’eau” and save loads on buying mineral water.
      Tip # 4: DON’T get the Paris Pass – The must see attractions covered in the pass –Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Notre Dame tower, Arc de Triomphe can be covered separately for 46 Euros  whereas a two day Paris Pass will cost you E135 (prices as on August 2017). Though the Paris pass also covers your transport, it’s still not worth the money. A carnet of 10 tickets costs 19 Euros. The tickets are valid for one metro/bus ride reach, irrespective of the distance. The only thing that the Paris pass offers is convenience – you can buy it and forget about having to buy a ticket at pretty much any attraction or form of transport. But the convenience comes at a substantial cost.

A better bet might the museum pass if museums are your thing. The 4 day pass costs E62 is and is well worth it if you use it to see the four must sees I listed above and a few more museums in addition. It also covers entry to the Palace of Versailles which is a very popular day trip from Paris. A big advantage of having the pass is the queue cutter feature. You get direct entry to the attractions without having to wait in the tedious queue. This is a godsend if you are visiting in the peak season. 

Tip # 5Visit a Flea market – We made an impromptu trip to one of them. We just spotted one when we were on a bus headed somewhere else. Me and my wife just gave each other a look and got down at the next step and walked back to this amazing place. You can actually read up and plan a visit to one that is most conveniently located for you. Each of these flea markets is only open on one or two particular days in a week so do work your itinerary around that. You can get brand name designer wear at throwaway prices, old books and LPs, family heirlooms and a lot of bizarre nicknacks.   

Tip # 6: Visit a local produce market – We visited Marche Bastille. I promise you will have a lovely time watching locals shopping for their daily needs from colourful carts selling everything from locally grown vegetables to cold cuts, fish, cheeses and what not. A variety of lipsmacking Turkish and Lebanese snacks were also on offer. The profusion of colours may tempt you to bring out your camera, but do ask for permission before clicking the stalls. The stalls are mostly run by immigrants and I guess not all of them have their papers in order.  

Tip # 7: Take a walk down Promenade Plantee – The Promenade Plantee is a park built on top of a disused railway line. It begins just near the Bastille Opera house and continues for almost 5kms. The landscape of the park changes as you walk along as do the buildings underneath. It offers a very different perspective on the city and you see things from an angle you wouldn’t get to otherwise.



Tip # 8 : Plan your Louvre visit very well – Let’s start with when to visit. If you are spending a Wednesday or a Friday evening in Paris, save one of those for your Louvre trip. The museum is open till 10pm on these nights, as against 6pm on other evening. Staying back till the end on one of the late opening nights is your best bet at enjoying the Louvre with least company. We got to spend a lot of time admiring Mona from up close without being shoved away when we visited on a Wednesday evening in May.

Don’t enter through the pyramid entrance and spend your time cursing the queue. Enter through the entrance called the Le Carrousel de Louvre. It’s an entrance to a shopping strip, accessible from Rue Rivoli, that leads up to the Louvre. EXIT the Louvre from the famed pyramid entrance to watch it and click it when it’s lit up in full glory in the evening. 

Tip # 9 : Skip climbing the Eiffel Tower – I know this is going to get me dirty looks and rolling eyeballs. But let me explain. If you want to climb the Eiffel Tower for the views, go to Montparnesse tower instead. There are no queues. There is an elevator that takes you to the top. It costs less. But the biggest reason is that the views are better. The view FROM the Eiffel Tower doesn’t have the Eiffel Tower in it. This does J. The best way to enjoy the Eiffel Tower is to get to a vantage point at sunset when there is a dazzling display of lights for 5 minutes and then the tower stays lit. We had the most romantic moment taking in the lights from the Pont de l’Alma (incidentally also the spot where Princess Diana crashed to her death).   


      Tip # 10: Be very careful of theft – Unfortunately, this bit is not just research but experience. In tourist attractions, it is very common for touristy looking young fellows to smile and request you to click a picture of them. If you leave your valuables unattended even for seconds, it’s enough for their accomplice to swoop in and run away with your valuables. Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that you act like a jerk and don’t offer to click photos for someone. But do remain very careful when you are doing that. We fell for this trick on our last day in Paris at Montmarte, in front of Sacre Cour and got our DSLR stolen. This was despite knowing that Montmarte is notorious for pickpockets. Another common trick is for someone to pretend to drop and scatter their change and when the saint in you leans down to help this distressed person, you’ll be relieved of much more than your change.

Paris is a fantastic city where every building is a landmark and every street corner is lined with terrific cafés and boulangeries. It is a city everyone dreams of visiting and everyone with the means must experience at least once. I hope this post makes it a tad easier for you on your dream trip.    

Maldives : A peek into the local life


Visiting the local islands in Maldives was an experience that rekindled my belief in the simple joys of life. I spent a night each in Maafushi and Gulhi, two islands traditionally inhabited by locals that have only recently started welcoming tourists. Opening up of the local islands is revolutionary and it has created stark contrasts.


On one hand are the island resorts redefining luxury. On the other, there are the simple islanders living their simple lives in tiny islands. It’s the honeymoon capital of the world and also the country with the highest divorce rate. As per UN estimates, the average 30 year old Maldivian woman would have already been divorced thrice. It’s the land where bikinis and burqas coexist.
Both Maafushi and Gulhi are well connected to Male by local ferries and you can get there from Male in under 2 hrs and for less than $2. But be warned, the ferries are infrequent. Research the ferry timings before drawing up the itinerary.
Maafushi is just about a kilometre long and a quarter of a kilometre wide. Yet it is the capital of independent travel scene in Maldives and is already full of guesthouses. It also boasts of  three PADI certified dive centres, water sports facilities and bikini beaches for foreign tourists.

 Maafushi is a great launchpad for Scuba diving, snorkelling or dolphin watching trips. The night fishing trips are also very popular. Guest houses typically charge $25-$30 per person for the fishing trips if they are able to get together a group of 4 or more. This includes a dinner prepared from your own fresh catch and served beachside! Million dollar views of the sun setting into the ocean are also thrown in complimentary.

Catch of the day

I also did a snorkelling trip organised by Crystal Sands Hotel where they took us to three snorkelling points, including the highly acclaimed (and rightly so) DM Giri. Our group was provided the services of 3 well trained and friendly guides and hygienic and neat equipment for $35. Well worth it. However, I recommend you ask around at a few operators before booking your desired excursions to get the best rates. 

Despite having welcomed its first set of tourists barely 7 years ago, Maafushi today is heavily commercialised. To get a real taste of Maldivian life, you have to look a little further still.

Stadium with a view


The tiny island of Gulhi, occupying no more than 1 sq km, is a microcosm. I saw toddlers playing football right next to the turquoise ocean, where a strong kick could send the ball soaring into the blue. A few paces away, there were local teenage girls playing beach volleyball in burqas. Yes, you read it right. Beach volleyball in burqas. Only a few paces further ahead is the bikini beach. It is cordoned off for tourists, primarily European revellers to swim, canoe, snorkel and sunbathe and is out of bounds for locals. Conversely, it is forbidden for tourists to dress immodestly anywhere outside the designated bikini beach.  At 5:30 on an August evening, I had the pleasure of having the beach to myself.
For the locals, evenings are meant for relaxation. The womenfolk gather together to play a few rounds of cards, smoke sheesha and chat up. Some take their small kids to the beach. The men are also back home by then with their fresh catch. Fishing is still the prime profession for locals and a very dignified one. Fishermen earn more than better educated people in the service sector. 


Wall Painting on the premises of a local school in Maafushi


I stayed at Tropic Tree Guest House. It’s one of only three options available on the island presently. When an island guest house in Gulhi has its custom designed toiletteries, you know they are ambitious and are in it for the long run. Ibrahim, whose uncles own the place, manages the front desk with cousin Yaan. Ibrahim gave us a tour of the entire island and even took us home. A long conversation with him taught us a lot about the local culture.

The tiny island having no more than 30 houses has a grand mosque, a health centre and a school and a municipal council. It even has a boat factory where boats get manufactured or refitted and repaired.

Bangladeshi crew of a dhoni singling away in the moonlight


Later in the night I had the good fortune of sitting next to the Bangladeshi staff of a dhoni (local boat) and hearing them sing. The dhoni transports cement from Male to the islands and anchors at the destination island for the night. The crew sleeps aboard. The entire staff had come from Bangladesh, as have many more of their countrymen who staff various guest houses, resorts, restaurants and supermarkets in Male. Some of them had not been home for more than 5 years. They used empty water jerrycans as drums and sang soul stirring folk songs. They sang of the pre-partition days when Hindus and Muslims lived next to each others as brothers, singing Bengali songs together and attending festivities at each others’ homes. They sang of longing for their motherland. A land they left in search of opportunities. The song ends with plans of returning home the next month. They sing it knowing very well that they are not going home. As the moonlight shone on and the ocean shimmered under it, their songs touched a chord inside. Their way of life reminded me that not much is required to experience joy, hope and contentment.
Till we meet again




Real Maldives for the budget of Thailand

What comes to mind when you hear the name ‘Maldives’? Pristine islands surrounded by turquoise waters! But accessible only through super luxe resorts or equally posh liveaboards well beyond the average Joe’s budget? You would have been correct in the year 2008, not anymore. In 2009, the government opened up the local islands to independent travelers, allowing locals to convert their homes to guesthouses. 

Maldives is a tiny island nation and yet many worlds in one. The most widely known version of Maldives is that of the private island resorts which outdo each other in providing obscene luxury to those able and willing to pay. Yet another version is life in Male, the extremely congested capital island and business center that is more chaotic than Bangkok. The least known version is the humble,peaceful life on local islands that is remarkably ordinary and yet fascinatingly extraordinary at the same time. 

I had the fortune of visiting two small local islands – Maafushi and Gulhi that are within 2 hours from Male by ferries that locals use. The ferry from Male will cost you less than $2! Caveat – there is only one ferry on most days and none on Friday. Ferry schedules are accessible at Tiny Maafushi is the capital of the independent travel scene in Maldives and is already heavily commercialized. Almost every home has either already been converted into a guest house or is in the process of being so. Gulhi is relatively quieter, even smaller and has only a couple of guest houses as of now. It is ironic that the very move that has made these gems accessible to common travelers is already jeopardizing the sustainability of their natural splendour. 

The water on the beaches on these islands is the same turquoise colour as that in the resorts. Most of the dive sites and excursions you can access from here are also the same as those you can from the luxury resorts.There is a small difference though.You can spend a fortnight here for the nightly rate you’ll pay at the resorts. But that is not even the real reason you should go here. You should go here if you want to know what ordinary Maldivians are like and how they live. That’s something top of the luxury resorts cannot give you. That’s also the topic of a separate blog post 😊.

Maafushi has atleast 3 PADI certified dive schools and dozens of companies that organize snorkeling, dolphin watching and fishing excursions. All the providers have their offices in a row, close to the ferry jetty. Do ask around for the best prices. If you are keen on getting a glimpse of the resort life and are not very hard up, day excursions can be arranged for $100-$150 pp (rates vary by resort and operator) which will include buffet lunches at the resort including alcohol. Gulhi has fewer options and the guest houses there can arrange most of these activities for you, but typically at a higher cost. 

My advice to every serious traveler is to visit the local islands NOW. Before they loose all semblance of local culture and become tourist traps.Or a new regime reverses the decision to open the local islands to tourism.