The best tourists will always advise to never leave home without a plan.
Naturally, this weekend I decided to throw that tourism principle out the window and go to France.
Americans, I have found in my travels, love to plan things. I count myself among their ranks. Pre-booking registered tours, making reservations at Fodor-rated restaurants, obsessively checking TripAdvisor before hitting any main city sites: We love to do what so many Americans using travel agents have done before us.
As Alain De Botton wrote in The Art of Travel after visiting Madrid, “… in Madrid everything was already known, everything had been measured … sitting in a cafe on the Plaza Pronvincia, I acknowledged the impossibility of new factual discoveries.”
Like De Botton’s Madrid, we (as tourists) want everything to be known and measured. We don’t like new factual discoveries. We don’t want surprises, and we want a plan.
But we shouldn’t.
I set out for Caen, Normandie, with nothing more than a bus/ferry ticket to somewhere I would later realize wasn’t exactly Caen, but its port 30km away. I didn’t speak French, and I didn’t have a plan.
Traveling without a plan was so much more successful that traveling with one.
The folks who owned my hotel, Le Vaucelles, didn’t speak much English, like everyone else in town. But they were very accommodating and kept clean rooms, which is really all a college student can ask for.
The tourism office helped us find a tour of the Normandy D-Day sites, which ended up taking us to the official Memorial museum in Caen and off on a museum-sanctioned tour with four other people. The tour of eight was intimate enough, and our guide was kind enough to give her spiel in both French and English. We got to see Point du Hoc, Omaha Beach, the American Cemetery, Longues-sur-Mer (the German bunker battery) and Mulberry Harbor at Arromanches and the D-Day Memorial museum for 80 euro.
We asked our tour guide for a restaurant recommendation and received two.
The first was an Italian place across the river from our restaurant. It was full when we checked, but it forced us to walk further into town and find “Le Touristes” (aptly named) where I had a decent meal that wasn’t quite French, British or American, but a combination of the three. However, looking for the second recommendation on day two led us to a side street filled with cafes, where we found a restaurant that had the best Normandie Sole ever, cooked to perfection. A perfect French meal, relatively.
Without plans, we were able to go on what we had, which was a recommendation from a local we met by chance.
We stumbled across the Sunday market on our way to the Abbaye aux Hommes (Caen’s main attraction), and had the cheapest and perhaps most-delicious meal of the trip: a fresh baguette with fresh strawberries and fresh Brie cheese from a farm in the Norman countryside.
The market, and the lunch by the boat docks of the Orne river, was my favorite part of Caen.
The D-Day beaches cannot compare to any other experience, and so I won’t try to compare Caen with its coast. But, as far as the city goes, no Norman castle, abbey or church could hold a candle to a simple Sunday afternoon among the residents of Caen.
I heard “bonjour” and “excusez moi” more than I thought possible while walking around town. I was able to eat my baguette and Brie without the glares I became so used to from Parisans in my travels.
While the beach tour was amazing, it was just that: a tour.
My Sunday proved that sometimes, traveling without a plan is the better way to go. Our original plan was to do the beaches on Sunday, and we would’ve missed the market, the baguette, and the Brie. We would’ve missed our French restaurant. We would’ve missed the boats and the river. Essentially, we’d have missed the best parts of Caen.
Sometimes it’s better not to have a plan. The possibilities are more open. While a bit more challenging (and at times more expensive), the experience should be worth it.