“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.”
- John Hope Franklin

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Weekend en Normandie & Bretagne

Loving the sun at Omaha Beach
After living in Paris for a month now, I am finally well-adjusted to the hustle and bustle of life in such a busy city. So much more frenetic and fast-paced than life in sleepy little Westfield and even Providence (my version of "big city living" back home), I was getting to the point of needing a break from dealing with crazy Paris day after day...cue a weekend trip to the northern shores of France!

Our weekend included many stops at historical hot-spots in the regions of Normandy and Brittany (Normandie et Bretagne, en français), both of which are situated along the northern coast of France bordering the English Channel (called la Manche, "the sleeve," in French, due to its arm-like appearance). We got up early to take a 9:10am train from Paris to Bayeux, our first stop in Normandy. After a quick 2 hour ride, we had arrived in the small town of Bayeux, where we walked to a museum to check out the famous Bayeux Tapestry.

The Bayeux Tapestry, with Harold swearing an oath of loyalty, upon relics, to William the Conqueror 
The Bayeux Tapestry is falsely named since it is, in fact, not at all a tapestry, but rather an embroidery. (Tapestries are cloths with the design physically woven into the fabric itself, whereas embroideries have their designs stitched on pre-woven fabric so the threads sit on top of the surface instead of being incorporated into it.) It is 70 meters long (230 feet), 20 inches wide, and comprised of fifty scenes depicting the Battle of Hastings and subsequent Norman conquest of Britain by William the Conquerer in 1066. 

While French legend maintains that the cloth was commissioned by Queen Mathilda, the wife of William, (as it has been traditionally called "La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde" - "Queen Mathilda's Tapestry") it is presently thought that Bishop Odo, the brother of William, ordered the work to commemorate this conquest of epic proportions. The Tapestry wraps around an entire room at the museum and is comprised of 50 numbered scenes from the narrative of the invasion, coupled with stitched words in Latin describing each scene. 

The fact that such a large strip of fabric from the 11th century has survived completely intact into the 21st century is amazing, as vestiges of previous centuries made out of fabric rarely survive due to their fragile nature. Its outstanding quality gives incredible insight into the clothing, meals, architecture, boats, weapons, etc. of the time when it was sewn and is a real gem for historians to study. As the fabric is damaged by light, we couldn't take any pictures inside, but the above panorama gives a good idea of the intricate nature of the cloth.

For more information about William the Conquerer (formerly know as William the Bastard, thankfully he did something significant in life so he could change his name!) check out this catchy video I watched at school a few years ago that explains all about William and the tapestry....

After an audio tour of the Tapestry museum, I ate a rather rushed lunch consisting of a salad, some cider and a galette du sarrasin - a savory crêpe filled with cream sauce, a few different types of local cheeses, ham and potatoes - before hopping back on the bus to head to our next stop. Normandy's known as being the region of all things apple, lots of cheeses, dairy products and crêpes, so I think I tried a good sampling of regional cuisine just in that one meal alone! 

Memorial at the D-Day Museum

We drove for a while in the bus until we got to Colleville-Sur-Mer, where Omaha Beach, the D-Day Museum and American Cemetery are located. Being a bit of a history buff & especially interested in the World War II era - most of the books I read (historical fiction, of course) take place in WWII Europe - this was a really interesting place for me to visit. 

Omaha Beach
As soon as we got off the bus, we found ourselves once again on good ole' US soil, as the American Cemetery was gifted from France to the US and is maintained by the American Armed Forces. The D-Day Museum was very informative, with lots of videos and exhibits to really help you appreciate what you see as soon as you exit the museum. We then made our way down to the sandy expanses of Omaha Beach, one of the five beaches (along with Utah, Juno, Gold & Sword) where the allied forces landed on June 6, 1944 to take back territory from the Germans. "Bloody Omaha," as it was known, was absolutely beautiful - we had the perfect warm and sunny day to visit the beach - but the weather made it that much harder for me to imagine the horrors of war that played out on these very shores.

Enjoying the refreshing waves of the English Channel

After the beach, we had a little time to see the American Cemetery that sits perched just above the shore of Omaha Beach. Reminiscent of Arlington National Cemetery back home in D.C., the expanses of graves really drive home the number of people people who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom. You can't help but get goosebumps as you wander among the rows and rows and rows of white grave markers.

Graves overlooking the blue waters of the English Channel

D-Day Memorial and Reflecting Pool

One of the many unknown soldiers
This link gives you a good idea of how vast the 173 acre cemetery here is - if you zoom in, you can see all of the 9,387 perfectly arranged white graves of all those who lost their lives during the D-Day invasion. Zoom out, and you can see all 5 miles of Omaha Beach sitting just to the north of the cemetery. In addition to the graves, there is a Wall of the Missing, on which the names of 1,557 soldiers whose bodies were never recovered are inscribed. Walking around here really made me take a few minutes to appreciate our freedom and the sacrifices that so many have made to ensure it.

Pre-invasion bombing of Pointe du Hoc
Next, we headed 4 miles down the road to Pointe du Hoc, a strategic Nazi stronghold situated atop 100 foot cliffs. The Germans had large cannons all along the cliffs here to defend Omaha and Utah Beaches on either side of it. US Army Rangers attacked the point here in order to destroy German defenses before the rest of the troops tried landing on D-Day, and only after great delay and much struggle in the bad weather did the Rangers discover that the Nazis had gotten rid of the canons and been replaced by huge decoys made out of tree trunks.
Bombed-out land atop Pointe du Hoc
The Germans had already pulled back, making the beaches available for landing, and the Rangers found 5 of the 6 guns only a mile away and were able to destroy them with grenades. A fierce battle still ensued, however, and the original 225 Rangers were reduced to 90 after only two days of fighting.To get a better perspective of how many craters cover the area, check out this view from above.

Cliffs of Pointe du Hoc
Many of the Nazi bunkers still exist more or less intact, and you can climb down inside them to have a look at what it was like to work out of such cramped surroundings.

Nazi bunker

Short, narrow passageways in the bunkers

Some of Normandy's famous cliffs as seen from Pointe du Hoc

Lots of barbed wire still remains

In the picture below, the giant concrete bunker to the right has been blasted apart, and the two large chunks of rubble on the left flew a couple hundred feet away to where they rest today. The intensity of the bombings there is absolutely unimaginable.

On a happier note, we left the destruction and headed off to our hotel in the tiny village of Pontorson. We stayed in Hotel Montgomery, a 16th century house which belonged to Baron Montgomery, the guy who killed French King Henri II after injuring him in the eye during a jousting match. Apparently there's a haunted room in the hotel, but thankfully it wasn't mine!

Frédérique, Eric & I enjoying drinks and games in Pontorson
We ended our evening by checking out Pontorson's only two bars, and even got our crazy secretary from the Sweet Briar Office to come out with us! She taught us how to play a dice game called YAM'S which is pretty similar to Yahtzee, from what I can gather. I gave her some stiff competition, and told her how when people win a gambling game like this back home they sometimes say "Winner, winner, chicken dinner!" After I finally stopped her winning streak, she asked me if she'd now have to share her chicken dinner with me...

Reid, Craig & Jacques super intent on winning at YAM'S
We learned the hard way that the sun in Normandy doesn't come up until a little after 8am, which made our early morning wake-up a little difficult - but it was definitely worth it. A short bus ride later, we were rolling along the Norman countryside, watching a rainbow-colored sky emerge from the fog and even got to see a hot air balloon floating above the region's rustic windmills, what a sight! We arrived shortly after at Mont St-Michel, an island in a bay of the English Channel crowned with an abbey of the same name.

TADA! Mont St-Michel
Formerly known as Mont-Tombe, a religious sanctuary founded in 708 in honor of St. Michael the archangel, the Mont St-Michel became a major pilgrimage site and also served as a military fortress during the 100 Years War. In 1863, the religious community living here at the abbey dissolved and the buildings were turned into a prison. Today, the grounds are fully restored to give visitors a feeling for what life during the Middle Ages was like here on the island.

View from the abbey's cloister
We had time to walk around the village's steep winding main road and sample many types of cookies famous to the island in all of the little shops lining the road. Thankfully we didn't have too much time to wander, because it became extremely congested when lots of tour buses arrived around lunch time. 

Rustic stores lining La Grande Rue, the main road on Mont St-Michel
Our last stop of the weekend took us even further west into the region of Brittany (La Bretagne, in French) to the town of St-Malo. The town was founded on the site of a 6th century monastery, and our host dad later explained to us how it was a popular pirate base in the 17th and 18th centuries! Both my host parents are from Normandy and thus very knowledgeable about both that region and Brittany, often supplementing what we learned on our trip with stories of their own.

A replica pirate ship moored in the harbor of St-Malo
By the time we got to the town, it was time for lunch, and what better lunch to have in a harbor town than seafood! The region is very famous for mussels, and I have a particular affinity for scallops, so I had a broiled casserole of fettuccine with cream sauce, scallops, mussels, mushrooms and cheese - delicious!

Nutella beignets!! MMMM!!!
And then, of course, we can't forget about dessert! One of La Bretagne's staple products is the beignet, a giant donut the size of a plate...so we tracked down a bakery and I bought a hot one filled with Nutella and rolled in sugar. It was absolutely delicious, and although I felt way too full after eating it, I do not regret trying it one bit!

The beach at St-Malo
After strolling along the top of a section of the towns ramparts, we decided to hit the beach for the second day in a row. We spent lots of time with the local 5 year-olds combing through tide pools looking for fish and cool shells, and then finally had to head back to the bus to catch a train back to Paris. We had amazing weather all weekend, and heading to the shore was definitely a nice change of pace from all the city weekends I've been having lately.

My friend & roommate for the weekend, Kasey, and I on the beach!

1 comment:

  1. Wow Rach it looks like you had another amazing weekend. I only hope you are leaving some things left undiscovered for our visit! Love you tons and can't wait to hug you in 4 short days :)