Just when I think everything is running smoothly, it all explodes! But that’s life, right? Nothing ever stays predictable – and if it did, how boring would that be?
On the day I was supposed to be traveling from Brussels to France, I realized I didn’t have my host’s address. I had booked a BlaBlaCar and asked for the address, but my host only told me the neighborhood, not the actual street or number.
I had 4 hours before I had to leave Brussels, but once I did, I wouldn’t have WiFi or cell service. I needed to know the address ASAP to tell my driver where to go. I messaged my host, assuming she would reply quickly, but she never did. I explained the situation and sent an additional message asking for the address. Nothing. Thirty minutes before leaving Brussels, I had no choice but to book a last minute hotel. Well, my other choice was to arrive in Le Havre and find WiFi and hope she would reply, but I was already stressed and exhausted so I chose to spend the money for a guaranteed private room.
I met my BlaBlaCar and it was so much different than the first one! This one was a brand new car and had ample room in the backseat. I was riding with a middle aged French woman and her sister. There was one other traveler – a student from Le Havre. When he found out I was just traveling for fun, he asked why I picked Le Havre.
Why DID I pick it? When I was planning, I knew I didn’t want to see Paris again. Anything south or west of Paris was too far to do in my limited time. I always regretted not seeing the D-Day beaches the last time I was in France, so I decided to head to the coast to do that.
When researching cities in northern France, I came across Le Havre. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its architecture. The city was heavily bombed during WWII and had to be rebuilt. Timber was scarce and stone was impossible to transport due to the damaged infrastructure. The only option was concrete. Auguste Perret gained fame from designing the concrete buildings of Le Havre. He was a tutor to the father of contemporary architecture, Le Corbusier.
Plus, the BlaBlaCar options from Brussels to northern France were few and far between. Taking the train would have been more expensive and quicker, but the French rail system has a series of scheduled strikes throughout summer and one of them fell on the exact date I needed to leave Brussels. Driving to Le Havre was the only way out of Belgium! The drive was long. We hit traffic and were delayed an hour. Neither of the sisters spoke English, so it was a quiet ride. I ended up watching two documentaries I had downloaded on my Netflix app. Each time I looked up from my screen, I was greeted by the gorgeous French countryside.
I was surprised how much open space there was. Farmland stretched on as far as the eye could see. I felt the same way about the Netherlands and Belgium. For being fairly populous, Europe certainly doesn’t have the same sub/urban sprawl issues America does.
I arrived at my hotel and was pleasantly surprised. It was one of the cheapest options at $50 per night. It was located downtown but wasn’t a traditional hotel with a lobby and numerous rooms. It was more of a guesthouse with an open terrace. My room had its own kitchenette but I had to rent plates, pans, utensils, and a kettle from the front desk (which closed at 10pm, right after I checked in) so I ended up eating cold salad out of my own Tupperware instead.
I got a very good night’s sleep! I slept in and checked out around noon. Since there wasn’t a kettle or even a mug, I couldn’t make my morning coffee. The hotel held my bag while I ventured out for the day.
It was Monday, which meant many shops and cafes were closed. I’m not sure why, but I guess it is part of their weekend. Every country has different non-working days, so it’s hard to keep up! I spotted a cafe with several people sitting outside.
Le Havre is the second largest port in France and several cruise ships dock there. I assumed since this cafe was in the main square, they frequently dealt with tourists and spoke some English. Nope. Not at all. Ordering a coffee at this cafe was one of the most difficult behind Italy where it was always a mystery if I was allowed to sit down to drink my coffee without getting charged extra.
I walked into the cafe and took at seat. There wasn’t a bar or anywhere to order, so I assumed it was table service. Other people were eating food, so it seemed like a good guess. I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally another couple walked in and sat down. I was waiting to see how they ordered so I could follow along. Imagine my surprise when they yelled their order at the barista from their table! I waited to see if this was really how to order. Surely enough, an old man walked in and barked “CAPPUCCINO!” in the direction of the kitchen and soon one appeared for him. Before I had to do it myself, the busboy saw my confusion and asked (in French) what I wanted. I replied with a simple “Americano?” and he didn’t understand. He had to get someone else who asked me the same question. I feel like I’ve said this about many countries, but France really doesn’t speak a lot of English! Luckily I learned this the hard way when I visited Paris, so I was prepared, but it’s still tough when all I wanted was an Americano and had to endure the entire cafe giggling at the language barrier.
After coffee, I explored Le Havre. It was a chilly, overcast day and that added to the ominous ghost town feel. There were plenty of people walking the streets, but almost all of the businesses were closed. Where were they going?!
I walked to the harbor where there was a large art installation. New Zealand is famous for using shipping containers to build malls and restaurants, but Le Havre built art with them!
I continued along the harbor, but it was bleak and windy. I spotted the famous landmark cathedral of the Saint Joseph Church in the distance. It was also built out of concrete and looks like a NYC skyscraper from the outside, but inside it is a spectacular stained glass masterpiece.
I continued my walk back toward my hotel. I was getting hungry and wanted to find a grocery store. I wasn’t about to endure another English-French showdown. As I walked, I found a beautiful park in the middle of the city. Europe really appreciates having green spaces. It’s unfortunate that most of America’s parks are hard to enjoy due to the homeless population who have been forced to live there.
As I walked, I realized I was disappointed by Le Havre. I can appreciate the history of the city and see how the architecture was new and unique at the time it was built, but in the present day, it’s nothing special. If anything, it’s drab and depressing.
Thankfully I only scheduled myself one day in Le Havre before heading west to Caen! Why Caen? Again, it all came down to transportation! I wanted a direct ride from a city in the north to CDG airport in Paris. I didn’t want to stay in Paris since it’s so expensive and I likely wouldn’t find a host. Caen was the only city that was near the beaches and had a BlaBlaCar going directly to the airport.
One thing that’s changed during my travels is my tolerance of transportation. I used to think it was fun to figure out a bus schedule and get somewhere only using public transit. But now, I have realized that hauling my backpack on a bus or train is NOT fun. There’s no where to put it and people get upset since it takes up so much space. I’m thankful I discovered BlaBlaCar because it’s taken the stress out of traveling between cities. Plus if I’m lucky, they drop me off exactly at my hotel or host’s house!