Loving Normandy

Trip Start Nov 30, 2007
Trip End Jan 01, 2009

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

We picked up our rental car at Gare du Nord (a blueish-gray compact Renault affectionately named Norma) and riddled our way out of Paris to the north-east towards Normandy.  Our intent was to stay in Rouen for the night but we found ourselves sidetracked as we meandered the backroads of the Eure Valley following the flow of the Seine River.  The sides of the road were littered with  brown "monument" signs...a monastery in St-Marcel, a chateaux in La Roche-Guyon, Monet's Gardens in Giverny, a covered bridge in Vernon.  We followed the historical walking tour in Vernon, exploring medieval corridors filled with ancient timber-framed houses, but never did find that damn covered bridge!  Much to my chagrin (and even more to Simon's!) Monet's garden was not yet open for the season.  On we drove through the stunningly beautiful valley - the sun illuminating vibrant shades of the green hillsides, the white of the limestone cliffs, the light blue sky, and the currents of the Seine - that inspired the creativity of many French artists.  And then, there, looming high on a cliff above the picture perfect town of Les Andelys was the grandest castle we had seen yet in our travels.  It was clear that a "drive-by" was not in the cards (though I wouldn't have minded) and we found ourselves climbing through its remains while a golden sun set over the Seine.  An old castle called Chateaux Gaillard (12th century) built by an even older man, ransacked multiple times over the centuries, now seeking its former glory as it crumbled on the ancient cliff.  We stayed in a cozy hotel run by exceptionally kind and gracious hosts Danielle and Jacques, whose personality made up for the baby blue carpet, peach walls and eyelit curtains.  We ate dinner at our hotel, beginning our introuction to the cuisine of Normandy, enjoying a marinated beef stew and a potato gratin that was to die for.  Remember, I eat meat now!  I must say that Simon's stew in Chelles was far superior...had a delicious apple tart in the shape of a pizza, covered with melting caramel ice cream for dessert...mmm!

Morning started with cafe-au-laits (only 1.40 Euro compared to 4.40 Euro in Paris!) and croissants.  We drove out of town from quaint village to quaint village with romantic names like Lyons la Floret.  As usual most everything was closed, for reasons like "breakfast break", "bathroom break", "lunch break", "closed until further notice for daughters wedding", and the capitalist in me wondered how the French make any money and how these towns survived.  Bound and determined to see a typical French chateaux we drove to the only one open for the season in Martainsville, and after waiting for the staff to return from their 3 hour lunch break re-opening at 2pm, we made the most of the cold interior furnished with period pieces expounding on the intricate carvings of the wedding chests and armoirs inspired by the Greek gods and sages.  We made our way to Rouen, but had a difficult time finding a hotel as there was a skating competition the next day on the Seine, which explained the group of women I saw crossing the bridge in their Canadian uniforms.  However, we were befuddled by this event, as the Seine was flowing in full form, there was no ice to be seen and the temperature was well above freezing.  We ate dinner at a restaurant recommended by the hotel, and I was still revelling in my newfound carnivorous ways ordering escargot and duck in cider sauce.  The duck was covered in gristle and fatty skin, and Simon's steak was so tough I feared the table legs were going to tumble and the table collapse as we attempted to cut the rump roast.  I was beginning to doubt my switch to the dark side...

The next morning, as we had yet to really see the town of Rouen, we embarked on the official walking tour after eating raisin cheese danishes bigger than a frisbee.  We blew through the tour with only two objectives in mind:  to see the church that inspired Monet's cathedral painting series and to see where Joan of Arc was imprisoned and burnt at the stake in the central square (only a small plaque commemorating the sight).  Achieving both of these objectives we drove on to Honfleur.  After finding an adorable bed & breakfast built in an old monastery, we hit the road to Etretat, a town fabled for its dramatic cliffs on the English Channel.  My desire to see the ocean and feel its damp mist had not waned an we hiked and explored the cliffs and coves for the afternoon enjoying the cold, windy and overcast day.  Back in Honfleur, after a long hot shower to warm my chilled bones we ate dinner at a restaurant called Au Petit Mareyeur, a cozy timber framed room with a fireplace (and regrettably an Amy Winehouse CD on repeat) with dogs in tow enjoying the fine ambience with their families.  This was undoubtedly the best meal of trip and the unfortunate start of Alison's weight gain in Normandy (not loss, as had been the recent trend).  Salmon in herb CREAM sauce, pork in BUTTER sauce and pot au chocolat NOIR for dessert were beyond temptation.  The food of Normandy, built on a foundation of cream, camembert, calvados and apples did me in!  I was in heaven.  After closing the restaurant chatting with two new friends, Michael and Dotty (an English couple who now lived in a commune in central France), we moved on to a jazz bar, sharing stories about the peculiarities and amiable likeability of the French, and eating bear in Romania.  

With still no progress on my Indian visa, we loitered our days in Honfleur and the surrounding area.  We enjoyed our morning breakfast at the B&B of homemade baguettes and jam and a stack of CREPES w/ nutella (which I only learned on our last morning there that Simon was just ho-hum on the crepes and I could have been eating his all along) in yet another timber-framed room with a fireplace and family dogs.  We explored the markets that dominated town, full of cheese rounds, rotisserie chickens, and fish soup.  On to Bayeaux to see the tapestry, portraying the story of the Normans invading England in 1066 through 70 intricately woven scenes.  We drove to more quaint towns like Beuvron-en-Auge, followed the cider route and toured calvados farms.  Then we headed further east to immerse ourselves in WWII history.

We went to Oistreham to see the grand bunker, part of the German Atlantic wall.  Visited Sword Beach, Juno Beach and Gold Beach - all flat and barren beaches colored only by the grayish tint of the water.  Arromanches where the Allies built the artificial harbor called Mulberry.  Saw the Batterie du Longues with four German casemates (you'll have to ask Simon what a casemate is, I just memorized the lingo) battered and destroyed by naval fire with some 145mm guns still intact; radar stations and command bunkers.  La Pointe du hoc, a heavily fortified German position, attacked by the Allies dominated by gigantic shell holes and destroyed gun circles.  Finally, the American Cemetery and Omaha Beach, where trenches, bunkers and lookouts remained in the cliffs.  Our time there was almost magical as the sky changed from heavy rain to clear blue skies scattered with cumulonimbus clouds and a series of rainbows that appeared throughout the remainder of the day.  It was here that I thought about the 20,000 men who died on this beach and pondered the futility and senselessness that war brings.  Today Omaha Beach is a playground for families, young children and sports enthusiasts.


India had finally issued my visa, and after a brief visit to Reims, we made our way back to Paris to catch our respective flights to India and London.  Staying in a cheap, slightly depressing airport hotel, offering internet at 15 Euro per half hour and an "Americaine Breakfast" it was time for Simon and I to say goodbye.  Me moving on to India (where my mom was coming to visit!), Simon on to deeper pockets of Europe and then Los Angeles to visit his brother.  A sad goodbye, but with the comfort of knowing we'd see each other again in Australia in July, our journeys continued on...
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