My 2010 trip to Europe was my first major journey as a solo traveler (I don’t think a two day hiking tour of Delaware state parks counts) as well as the first big trip that I’d planned by myself. Needless to say, I made a lot of mistakes. Looking back, I accept that’s just part of travel and something to chalk up to experience.
I’d gone to Lower Normandy to visit Bayeux, Mont-Saint-Michel, and the D-Day beaches. I was traveling by train and used the Rail Europe website to plan my rail itineraries. The Rail Europe booking engine allows access to all the train systems in Western Europe at once, but five years ago it had serious flaws. The booking engine indicated it was impossible to travel from Bayeux to Rouen, which was completely untrue. In fact it was quite easy to get between the cities with a change of train at Caen. I’m not sure, but I may have had better luck with the website for SNCF (the French railroad). I may have also avoided the error by simply looking at a network map; as I discovered later, even the Rail Europe booking engine would have worked if I’d plugged in Bayeux to Caen and then Caen to Rouen separately. Rail Europe’s new engine does work much better.
As a result of the inaccurate information, I ended up spending a few days based in Bayeux exploring Lower Normandy and then backtracking to Upper Normandy from Paris. Had I done better research, I would have stayed in Normandy another day or two before relocating to Paris. Fortunately, I was using a rail pass so the extra train journeys weren’t any more of a financial hit.
On Monday, May 24, 2010 I set out from Paris on a somewhat ambitious day trip. First, I spent a few hours in Rouen visiting le musée Jeanne-d’Arc and walking around town. In the afternoon I had planned to visit Montville, home of the Museum of French Firefighters (Musée des Sapeurs-Pompiers de France). The rail line going from Rouen to Montville continued to Dieppe, a city I’d heard of during my history studies. I decided I’d take the train up to Dieppe and walk around town for an hour before backtracking to Montville. That’s the great thing about being a solo traveler: I had complete freedom to pick an itinerary. These days, my wife would never let me get away with planning a trip involving three cities (actually four, counting Paris) in a single day!
I was surprised when my train went nonstop from Rouen to Dieppe, which didn’t match the timetable I was reading. I realized the trains were running on a modified schedule because it was Whit Monday, a national holiday in France. Unless I took the next train in a few minutes without leaving the station, I would have to spend three hours in Dieppe instead of one. That would make visiting the fire museum in Montville quite impossible that day. I decided it would be silly to come this way and not even see Dieppe, even though it meant I would have to come back to Upper Normandy another day.
As soon as I left the train station around 1pm, I knew that Dieppe was worth visiting for much longer than an hour. The town was lovely and filled with handsome, historic buildings. Arriving at the harbor, I found what turned out to be one of my favorite views of the city. There was a marina in the protected inner harbor filled with small boats, flanked by beautiful old buildings along le quai Henri-IV. Atop a hill on the far side of the harbor sat l’église Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours.
I headed north through town to the beaches on the English Channel. Although the late May weather wasn’t really hot enough to be called “beach weather” there were a fair number of people enjoying the sun and water. (No doubt it’s a lot more crowded during the summer months.) Like other locations I visited in Normandy, Dieppe has a shingle beach composed of small stones rather than sand. I found the shingle harder to walk on than sand, but at least it didn’t get in my shoes!
The memorials near the beach were a reminder that Dieppe wasn’t quite so beautiful a place 68 years earlier. The Dieppe Raid of August 19, 1942 was an ill-fated Allied operation to temporarily seize a German-held channel port and draw out the Luftwaffe into battle. A majority of the Allied troops were Canadian infantry (supported by a smaller force of British commandos as well as a handful of US Army Rangers and Free French troops). Historians generally agree that the raid was a colossal failure. Canadian forces in particular took devastating casualties, with 907 soldiers killed and another 2,532 wounded or captured out of a force of 5,000. Historians’ opinions are divided about whether the lessons learned from the raid paved the way for success during the Normandy invasion in 1944, or whether those lessons should have been self-evident without the steep cost.
Perhaps the most poignant sight during my visit was a rock placed at the foot of the Essex Scottish Regiment memorial near the beach. Someone decorated it with a Canadian flag decal along with a message commemorating “Uncle Charlie”. It was unclear if the soldier in question had survived the battle or not, but according to Veteran Affairs Canada, his unit was “almost completely decimated” during the raid with 121 dead.
I visited the Mémorial du 19 août 1942, a small museum located in the old theatre. The museum had a limited number of uniforms and artifacts on display in one large room. A good documentary was also playing. The staff were friendly and I spent about five minutes chatting with them in French. (I studied French from grade school through my first semester of college. I’m happy when I get to put it to use, even if I’ve forgotten all but the simplest verb conjugations.)
I had a limited amount of time left until my train left, but I couldn’t resist paying a quick visit to le château de Dieppe, the castle on a hill at the west end of town. The castle was built in the 14th or 15th century and survived battles in 1694 and 1942 intact.
The château is home to a small art museum. I made my way through the exhibits rather quickly so I would have time to explore the grounds. The hilltop vantage point provided an excellent view of the city below.
I walked back through town towards the train station and got a sandwich before my train back to Paris.
My return train ride to Paris-Saint-Lazare only took about two hours, with just a single stop in Rouen. As I recall, this direct routing only occurred on weekends and holidays (and possibly only in warmer months, since I don’t see any direct trains now on the SCNF website); most travelers taking the train between Paris and Dieppe would have to change trains at la gare de Rouen-Rive-Droite.