Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

France 101: Remembering Our Fallen

Memorial Day is here. In our family, like so many others, it is the kickoff to our summer season. The holiday seems iconically American as Memorial Day has its roots firmly planted in the Civil War. As time marched on, the day of wartime remembrance became the bank holiday we all know today- the official start of Summer. While fun and sun seem to dominate the landscape, this is the most solemn of military honors. It is meant to assist us in remembering our fallen in battle. It’s a moment of gratitude. While the US honors the fallen, our allies wish to say thank you as well since so many of “our boys over there” paid the ultimate price for their freedoms as well. Join me as we travel to France.

Understanding military family sacrifice…

One way other countries honor the military sacrifice is to honor the sacred battlefields of both WWI and WWII. A great example of this is what you can find when you travel to France. Last summer, I had the honor of meeting two heroes while I visited and the experience was life changing. My mom and I hopped into a sporty euro rental in Belgium and made our way west across the French border to an area out in the middle of nulle part– that’s French for nowhere. We were stopping to visit Private First Class Thomas McGovern. His address is one I can share: Plot B, Row 18, Grave 11, Somme American Military Cemetery, Bony, France.

Thomas is my great, great uncle and died in the famous Battle of the Somme on September 27th, 1918. Visiting the cemetery is quite amazing. The superintendent escorted us out to the grave, among impeccably manicured grounds and explained to us the play by play of the battle and exactly what fate my uncle met. He produced a small container of sand from Omaha Beach to rub across the marble stone so that Thomas’ name was easily read. There, in the summer sun out in the French countryside, I became the first family member- military or not- to come and pay my respects to him. I was all at once proud, connected, elated and humbled. It was a once in a lifetime experience!

My journey to understand family connections continued the next day. While the Somme had 1,100 bright white graves, Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery holds 10 times as many. And it is here at Meuse-Argonne that I meet another uncle. John McGovern also died on that fateful September Day. He is Thomas’ brother. Attached to a completely different unit, it’s hard to imagine their mother losing both of them on the same day. But, it happened. And I pay my respects with sand and flags.

This WWI cemetery has very few visitors but it is far from empty. And on this Memorial Day I remember. I think of those McGovern Boys and many others from my family- for they are not the only ones. I look at this picture of a wild poppy so bold in color and so fragile to touch. It is a metaphor for each marble stone. I take time this Memorial Day to remember.

Where do you start to find your ancestors?

Many families look to make their travel more meaningful by connecting with their destination in a bevy of ways. Visiting a relative who sacrificed is definitely a great place to start. But how? First, check out your family tree. Once you have some information to work with, connect with the American Battle Monuments Commission. This is the governmental office that maintains all of these military sites overseas. They will point you toward the correct site for your ancestor. If you find that you do not have a familial connections, try choosing someone from your hometown. Contact your local VFW to get started. Good Luck! You won’t regret your experience!

American cemeteries are all over the world but the ones that you are most familiar with are ones that you will see when you travel to France.

Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Paris 101: Bonjour!!!

Ahhh, Paris! What makes this city of lights so addicting? Is it the artistic light? Is it the curated café culture? Perhaps it’s the storied art that graces museum after museum. Then again, the shopping is world class. Whether it’s the picturesque parks or the charming arrondissements, Paris, never ever disappoints.

Truth be told, you can spend three days, three weeks, or three years in Paris and never get to take in everything that the city has to offer! With 20 neighborhoods and hundreds of points of interest, Paris is a never ending amusement park of history and culture for every sort of traveler. Additionally, Paris is a joy no matter what time of year you plan to visit. So, let’s dig in to the planning logistics that will make your trip to Paris all that it can be.

Coming In For A Landing

Flights from the States tend to clear customs by 8 a.m., so with a strong exit plan, the day will be yours to enjoy from noon on. Paris’ legendary Charles DeGaul Airport is about an hour from the city center and every traveler needs to make plans for a clear exit from the airport. CDG offers quite a few ways to get into the city center. The most economical (and sweaty) way is to lug your bags on the famed Metro in terminal two or three and get yourself to the busy Gare Du Nord. From this hub in the 10th arrondissement, the local Metro trains fan out to most areas.

While certainly economical, I think a standard Parisian taxi is the best bet as the industry has been regulated and the fee is exactly the same regardless of the car you get. Simply line up at the queue and grab the next car in line. Expect to pay about $80.00 for door to door and luggage transfer service. This well outpaces Uber and other drive share services.

Home Base

Hotels and Air BandB’s are plentiful in and around all of the most popular venues. Logic will guide you to know that the closer to famous landmarks and the Seine, the higher the price will be. Keep in mind that Summer and holidays will also boost that final bill. As with most of Northern Europe, the detail that travelers tend to forget the most is whether or not the rental in mind has air conditioning in months that apply. There’s not a ton of strategy to making the best choice, simply keep in mind what your primary interests are so that you are cutting down on travel time. With your luggage stowed and a bed to lay your head arranged, you are ready to hit the town!

Our booking rule of thumb: Arrondissement 1 and 16 are for museum addicts, arrondissements 5, 6, 9 and 18 are perfect for cafe sitting and ambiance, while arrondissement 4 and 7 is a good balance of both!!

The Paris Planning Primer

Paris is broken up into 20 districts called arrondissements that spiral neatly from the steps of the Notre Dame out toward the suburbs like a perfect escargot shell. Areas one and six contain the big museums, travel north to find Montmarte in the 18th arr., south to the 4th arr. to the famed Latin Quarter. The 7th arr. will get you closest to the Eiffel Tower while the 8th and 9th arr. will land you in smack in the middle Paris’ shopping district.

To really understand how Paris is set up I highly recommend two resources that give you plenty of insight into every corner of the city with true practicality. Rick Steves’ Guide is a travel staple that will lead you to all of the big stuff and make some of those massive places a bit more relatable. Conversely, the Paris In Stride authors have beautifully crafted a series of walks that lead you to many of the lesser known gems throughout 14 of the 20 arrondissements. Both books work well together to give you a bespoke Parisian experience.

Paris Museum Pass

This museum essential allows you to gain access to more than 50 metropolitan museums. Starting at €52, the more you use it, the better the deal will be. Keep scrolling to see how just 48 hours can be time and money well spent. Please beware! The Paris museum pass does NOT cover your entrance to the Eiffel Tower.

Grabbing a Batobus boat pass gives you express access through the spine of Paris, the scenic Seine River. With eight perfectly placed stops spanning from the Eiffel Tower, past the Louvre and Notre Dame, to the Sorbonne, a Batobus pass could be the most efficient way to get from point to point. While it is super efficient, I can’t say it’s the most dynamic moment of any trip. The pros are getting a chance to be on the river and pull up right next to those amazing sites that you’ve come to see. The cons? It’s not the most modern of boats and the greenhouse can get a little stuffy in the sun. Read on to see how we used our Batobus pass to our advantage.

Museum Palooza

There are more than 125 museums throughout Paris and each one offers a different take on time and technology, art and fashion, and turn of the century curiosities that dazzled in their day. With so much to choose from, it is an impossibility to take it all in with any sort of quality on any single trip. To that notion, Paris is a city that deserves research and understanding to truly get the most out of however long your trip may be. Taking time to make informed choices about how you spend your time will help create those memories that you want to cherish. I highly recommend The Little Museums Of Paris to guide you to those lesser known gems about town. Note that some of the links below are affiliate links. I only recommend products & brands I love and that I think you would love, too!

Art Attack

Let’s face it. You are headed to one of the premier art capitols in the world. Having some sense of the art world would probably be helpful. In fact, I’d go out on a limb to say that knowing just a little about art can change the way you approach museums in any city whether it’s Rome, Tokyo, or New York City. A comprehensive art history class would totally do the trick but for perhaps a more relaxed approach I suggest Secret Lives Of Great Artists for a little more gossipy version of the who’s who of the art world. For more on how to make art entertaining and useful click here for our full coverage on how to make art a part of your travel without overthinking it.

A Little Advice About the Icons

The Parisian skyline is full of the most recognizable architecture on the planet and during your first visit, you are going to want to see it all. The reality is you simply can’t. What’s a traveler to do?! Pace yourself and choose wisely. Here’s my take on the big guns to help you decide what’s a must and what to pass on.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame sits in the cultural and historical center of Paris. The rest of the city literally fans out from its steps. With the devastating 2019 fire, visiting Notre Dame will be impossible for the next few years but, you can connect with this icon in a few different ways. First, the plaza in front of the cathedral is now open and allows you to see the top half of the front facade. While it’s not much comparatively, a well angled selfie is possible. More interesting is to see the construction progress from the water. Take some time down on the river by using that Batobus boat service we talked about earlier. One of the nine stops is located on the bank opposite the construction.

The Louvre

Taking in the Louvre is an overwhelming task. With three larger than life wings to explore there is simply no way to see everything in one go. Additionally, visitors who are not art lovers may miss the truly magical moments that this Parisian perennial offers. Most people get themselves straight to the Denin Wing as it holds the most famous works housed there. I’m certainly not opposed to that idea but descending into Pei’s pyramid without a plan can spell certain disaster for any first time visitor.

With unlimited access you can choose to visit more than once. Did you hear that? You literally don’t have to stay for an entire day! You can come back! Make reservations for first thing in the morning to explore for an hour or two before hitting up some of the other sites. The crowds are thinner and you can do this for several days. Another great plan of attack is to choose 10 pieces of art to check in with and save the rest for another time.

An insider tip: there is a cafe at the end of the Denin Wing. Grab a refreshment and a macron then head out onto the terrace for a little break from all the walking! The downtime will be a great pick me up!

Musee D’Orsay

Musee D’Orsay picks up where the Louvre leaves off, as with the Louvre, you can take in this epic slice of art a little bit at a time. For those who want the express pass to the most famous of works, use the elevator directly to the left of the information desk to get yourself up to the top floor and the world of impressionism. This powerhouse museum also has a roof terrace that gives you spectacular views of the river below and the north bank beyond.

Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower IS NOT covered by the Paris Museum Pass, this icon is a take it or leave it moment. The pros and cons go on and on but at the top of the list is the fact that it is very crowded and surrounded by street hawkers with garish nonsense. Additionally, it’s the only view in Paris without the actual Eiffel Tower in it. Then again, it’s the Eiffel Tower. How do you go to Paris and not visit? I mean, it’s an icon of the world. And it’s fascinating up close. The paint, the rivets and the layers that send this tower up in the sky are truly interesting to look at in an up close and personal way.

A Little Advice About Some of the Smaller Sites

It’s so easy to get caught up in all the big attractions that Paris has to offer. So easy, in fact, that your time and planning can completely overlook some amazing stuff. As you plot your trip, be sure to weave in some of the smaller- and just as delightful– venues out there. Here are three of my favorites.

Musee Marmatton-Monet

This museum is located on the outskirts of the 16th arr. It is the former home of an art collector and the location chosen by Monet’s family to display their family collection. This small mansion is perfect for an hour or two. Combine your visit with the small park on the corner or the famous Bois Du Bologne, Paris’ answer to Central Park.


Spanning the walk between the Orsay and the Louvre is the lovely L’Orangarie. This small tribute to the early 20th century is ground zero for Monet’s iconic Waterlilies. In addition, look for the small yet powerful collection of impressionist and post impressionist art on the lower level. Located in the Jardin Tuileries, this museum offers the perfect balance between art and the café just outside the doors. Pull up a green chair and enjoy!

Saint Chappelle

Saint Chapelle is Paris’ jewel box. Just around the corner from Notre Dame on the Ile De La Cite, this unassuming chapel holds one of the best examples of stained glass in the world. As you walk up to the edifice in what is basically a municipal complex for the high courts, you will doubt me. I get it. But, walk around the warehouse of statuary and step inside. Not much right? The secret to this place is the stairs.

Spiral up the stairs to the left and step inside this chapel made for kings. With 365 degrees of perfect stained glass telling the church’s story Saint Chappelle glimmers and sparkles in every direction. Spend a little time in contemplation about the artistry, the history, the spirituality, and the fact that when you look around, you know that you are experiencing one of Paris’ hidden secrets as you are not shoulder to shoulder packed in from wall to wall.

Get your shop on

Gallerie D’Lafayette and Printemps are the premier shopping stores in Paris. Both are located just beyond the Opera Garnier in the 9th arr. Here, you will find every single famous name you are looking for. Browse floor after floor of the latest collections under the massive and impressive stained glass dome at Lafayette. Be sure to make your way to the roof terrace to enjoy the views. Just down the street at Printemps, head upstairs and enjoy a cup of tea or a glass of wine at one of the mirrored tables at the restaurant on the top floor. Find yet another, if not better, example of a stained glass dome. The blue hues will knock your socks off. Once you are done here, the Champs-Elysees will be a distant memory.

A Sample Four Days

  • Day One
  • 0900 Check in to hotel
  • 1100 Saint Chappelle
  • 1230 Lunch
  • 1430 Musee D’Orsay
  • 1700 Refresh at the hotel
  • 1800 Evening walk stop for dinner and cocktails
  • Day Two
  • 0900 Louvre: Tour the Denin Wing looking for the 10 pieces I researched
  • 1200 Lunch in the Jardin Tuilleries
  • 1400 L’Orangerie
  • 1600 Tea at Printemps
  • 1900 Dinner
  • Day Three
  • 0900 Eiffel Tower
  • 1200 The Louvre: Tour the sculpture Garden and Napoleon’s Apartments
  • 1500 Lunch
  • 1700 Musee Marmottan-Monet
  • 1800 Walk through the park and perhaps play a game of Boules
  • 2000 Dinner
  • Day Four
  • 0900 Finish D’Orsay
  • 1200 Lunch and a walk in the Latin Quarter
  • 1500 Refresh for one last evening
  • 1700 Montmarte, take a tour of the city by night, enjoy an area you discovered, eat at a cafe that was recommended, see a show that you heard about.

The Controversy: What To Skip

I know, I know, it’s the question we always ask ourselves: what is not worth my time? Here’s my list full of my opinions:

  • Arc D’Triumph: It’s okay but the view is available in numerous other places.
  • Eiffel Tower: If you are not into how it was built, it’s a hard pass.
  • The Middle Wing of The Louvre: Unless you love art, hard pass.
  • The uber fancy macron and tea shops: the local places are just as good if not better.
  • The Moulin Rouge: Big windmills are far more impressive in The Netherlands.
  • Champs-Elysees: It’s just not what it once was.

Day Trips and Transfers

Paris is an ideal springboard for lots of other destinations. Look to pair up Paris with some of these idyllic choices.

Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Normandy 101: Tres Magnifique!

While we are all cooped up waiting for our quarantine days to end, let’s do a little travel dreaming. I’ve been thinking about how amazing the Normandy Region is. It’s got a bit of all the things that make a trip so globally literate: history, art, food, architecture, and local joie de vie. There’s a wonderful sense of time gone by and sentimentality that allows you to take a deep breath of sea air and enjoy an area dotted with french delights. It’s a part of the French experience well worth the time. Let’s dig in and look at some of the icons and off the beaten path moments that make Normandy magnifique! 🇫🇷

Mont Saint Michel

Starting in the West, Normandy welcomes you with a jaw dropper. The iconic Mont Saint Michelle is a study in how architecture is breathtaking from both far away and up close. To say it dominates the landscape is an understatement! It carves itself into the skyline in a way that Disney himself could only dream of. But, upon closer inspection, the Mont delights with its nooks and crannies that showcase medieval technology and know-how. Moreover, a visit here comes with quite a few unique experiences. From walking around the whole base of the island on the tidal flats to climbing to the very top to the religious heart and purpose of the Mont, there is something for everyone.

Quiet refuge awaits those who need a moment of meditation with the glorious views but hustle and bustle are just around the corner on the main path with a treasure trove of gift shops, restaurants, and B&Bs to fit any traveler’s needs. Any thorough exploration of this unbelievable place takes a bit more than a day and can be enhanced by staying in one of the rustic B&Bs in the island village or just over the water at one of the many hotels available. The best times to enjoy the village is before or after the big bus tours take over while the tidal flats beckon you mid day.

Normandy and Mont Saint Michel

Bayeux and The Beaches

Probably the most recognizable destination in Normandy, for Americans and Brits, at least, is the beach. Particularly Omaha, Utah, and Gold Beaches as these were the ground zero of the World War II invasion. The area around the American sector is an amazing time capsule of the 1940’s as American GIs finally got their foothold in Europe with the other allied forces. Fifty four miles of coastline await your exploration of the events that we call D-day. Start toward the west at Utah Beach and follow the story all the way to Arromanches. WWII buffs and novices alike will not be disappointed! East if Arromanches are the Canadian and British sectors. Unlike the American sector, these areas have been a built up and don’t hold the same interest as the western areas. There is one small exception, the museum on Juno Beach which is tiny but well laid out.

Just inland, is the charming town of Bayeux which makes a well positioned home base for coastal Normandy. Bayeux itself holds a treasure not related to D-day but, rather, another invasion that changed the world back in 1066. Way back then, the world’s first 64 meter comic strip now called the Bayeux Tapestry, was lovingly stitched for display in the local cathedral. This particular story makes sure that William, the new king of England would forever be known as William the Conquerer. He took out his rival, Harold and the tapestry caught the whole story play by play. To take in both Bayeux and the beaches, plan on three days: One to visit everything west of the cemetery, another to visit the cemetery and Arromanches, and a last day for Bayeux and the surrounding area which are filled with plenty of apple cider producing orchards.

Caen Remembers

Round out your D-day experience by visiting the Caen Peace Memorial. This is a beautiful tribute to the sacrifices it took to win the war and the ensuing years of reconstruction and political upheaval. It takes a little more than half a day to see all this museum has to offer.


Artistically speaking, Normandy holds some of the world’s greatest treasures. Home town hero Claude Monet lived his more mature years invested in the little artist colony of Giverny on the eastern side of Normandy very close to Paris. His creation of the impressionist movement holds the entire region in high esteem. However, his opus is his garden. Monet became entranced with finding the light among his garden that was planted with an artist’s eye rather than a horticulturist’s eye. This allowed the color and seasonality of each area of the garden to thrive and lend itself wholeheartedly to the master’s canvas.

Today, Monet’s oasis does not disappoint. Despite the crowds, the gardens delight the senses and the house allows you to time travel back to a time when Impressionism was at its bohemian height. Adjacent to the very popular property is the village full of restaurants, galleries, a church, and one of the best secrets in the area: The Museum of Impressionism. This gem hosts the story of the art form including its unlikely sources of inspiration. It’s the perfect size for the beginning art lover in all of us. In short, Normandy’s Giverny can be equated with one simple word: delightful. Plan on giving Giverny at least a day so that you can not only take in the gardens but the lovely village.

Honfleur and Rouen

Monet did not isolate himself in Giverny but instead spent plenty of time in other Norman gems including Honfleur, Le Havre, and Rouen. The seaside beckoned him to charming Honfluer where he put the magical harbor on canvas time and time again. Today’s Honfleur is the same seaside port with charming art galleries, amazing seafood restaurants, and views around every corner. Honfleur’s appeal isn’t tied up in any one particular sight. While there is a charming, seafaring church and a museum dedicated to Saitee, Honfluer is more about taking in the overall atmosphere. So, stroll along the waterfront, eat at an enticing restaurant, window shop to your heart’s content, set up an easel and give Impressionism a shot, there’s no rush. It’s a perfect overnight stay to ensure that you include some downtime in your vacation.

Rouen may have been Monet’s muse second only to those water lilies. This half-timbered town holds two important stories. The first is the cathedral. While not France’s most popular or fanciest church but it was the one Monet couldn’t walk away from. He painted throughout the day trying to do that thing impressionists do so well: “capture the light”. The cathedral was wounded during WWII pretty severely and rebuilding and conservation continue to happen in one way or another. One of the town’s best kept secrets for the art lover is the Museum of Fine Arts. The museum is intimate and not overcrowded like so many of its Parisian cousins. Get up close to the canvas and then step back to get the full effect. Compare the styles of Monet with those of his contemporaries like Renoir.

Meet Joan…

While Monet may be popular here, it’s Joan of Arc that dominates the town’s narrative. The young girl rose to fame or infamy, depending on who you were at the time, and became the confidant of French kings for a time. But, her luck was running out. Poor Joan couldn’t catch a break at the end and the authorities burned her at the stake then through her remains into the Seine River. You can follow most of her story here from relative obscurity to King’s court to the fire that took her all over town.

Normandy's rich art scene gives anyone a taste of culture

Architecture, history, and art work up quite the appetite! And Normandy delivers on every level! So, go, enjoy, and come back with memories to last a lifetime. Se magnifique!

There’s More!

For a great collection of books to share with your young travelers, check out 10 Books in !0 Minutes France Edition!

Where We Went: Normandy