Sunday, March 20, 2016

Bayeux, one more time

Ocean reader, you're back!  I left off at a leisurely meandering through Bayeux on Saturday. Markets, shops, tapestries. Timbered homes, the river Aure, bakeries that would make a breadophile shake in delight.

Bayeux offers so much! And yet, I am ten kilometers (by main road) from the sea. That's too close for a Midwesterner to shrug off.

I don't want to rent a car and google tells me that the shortest route (main road -- ugh!) would result in a two hour walk.

My hosts suggest renting a velo (a bike).
I'm too enthusiastic. Monsieur looks up, suddenly uncertain. Perhaps a motorized bike?
No, no -- velo!
He's used to the whims of guests. He brings a folder of bike routes, including one that goes to Port-en-Bessin-Huppain, the nearest fishing port by the sea.
Yes! Perfect! Yes!

the Velo

Just before noon, I inspect the velo. Looks good! I swing my purse with maps loosely stuck in an outside pocket and my camera over my shoulder. I'm off.

And only as I follow the street to the edge of town, does it strike me that at home, when I bike, I don't challenge myself anymore. I know every bike path that passes nearby. I know the rural roads too. I avoid big hills. If Ed proposes a bike adventure, I grill him about the toughness of the circuit. He knows I'll reject anything that'll make me huff and groan.

Why didn't I worry about this here? Spring in Normandy -- it does something to your head. Everything is possible!

Including getting lost.

I take the wrong road out of Bayeux. Only I don't know this. I'm on a big road. Check. If the maps then say take the third left, I take the third left. I continue in this way for a number of miles until I begin to wonder why the villages I pass don't match the ones on the map.

(They say the cows in Normandy produce France's very finest butter.)


(Primroses line the road.)


(There is an abundance of daffodils.)


(Whichever way you go, you'll surely pass a Normand church, not unlike this one.)


(Happy chickens. Greetings from the cheepers back home!)


I notice, too, that the terrain is hilly. Never mind, it can't be far. I study the map carefully to figure out where I am. Damn! I am nowhere near the sea.

I plot a route that will put me on the right track. My legs are feeling the strain, but my spirits are high. It's a beautiful corner of France. It's not unusual to come across a hidden chateau. Like this one.


(You're so lost, aren't you? - the cow seems to be asking.
No no, I think I got it now!)


And then, just as I am counting the minutes (3.1 kilometers and I should be there!), I come across a sign: the road ahead is barre. Closed. Well so what! I'm not in a car. I'll walk my bike over whatever impediment stands in the way.

No I wont.

A river has flooded the bridge, the road. The current appears strong. I picture myself, bike and all, being carried away to the sea.


Sigh. I have to backtrack and find another road. Those hills, oh, those hills! Never mind. Concentrate on the upside. The chateaus!


Appreciate the blooms that are starting their spring parade.


It's such beautiful countryside and you cannot discover the details unless you hike or ... take your velo out for a spin.


Two hours after leaving Bayeux, I am finally at the Port-en-Bessin-Huppain. And I couldn't care less that it is by the Channel. I am cold (did I mention that we're in the low forties F? Inland?). I am tired. I need food in a warm room.

There is a a restaurant (La Marie du Port) claiming to serve local seafood. It has plenty of people inside. I want to be in their midst.

I ask about the freshest, best fish. The proprietor says without hesitation - Saint Pierre. Yes, the French love their Saint Pierre (aka the John Dory) as well they might: it comes straight from the sea (it's never farmed) and a filet prepared with a nice sauce can make a fish lover out of anyone.
Mine is in a sorrel sauce, with peppercorns and two colors of cabbage and a pretty little salad on the side. I would have eaten pretty much anything on the menu by now (perhaps not calf's brain -- I'm getting less happy about saying yes to brains and organs), but this fish -- oh my! It is a special treat.


I finish the meal with three local cheeses (Livarot, Pont-l'Évêque, Camembert) and I am so content that I'll spare you my thoughts on how much sweeter, moldier, better are the cheeses prepared with raw milk.

After this wonderful meal, I ride the bike through Port-en-Bessin-Huppain. Here's a view of the town looking inland.


I'm feeling ambitious again. I made it here! (It should be easier to find my way home.) I climbed hills! Let me go pedal up to the overlook for the view. It is such a dramatic bit of coastline!


And now comes the part where my chutzpah gets a bit out of control. And still, thinking back, I understand why I did it.

I am at the stretch of Normandy coastline where the D-Day invasion took place beginning June 6, 1944. The second coastal town to the west, Colleville-sur-Mer, marks the epicenter of the toughest battles that took place here. There is no shortage of reminders (as if I could ever forget anything about a war, the aftermath of which marked my childhood) of the heroic liberation of Normandy by the Allied troops.


I'd touched these Normandy beaches before (or at least one of them) a few years back when my friends and I visited this region, but it was just a touch and we were in a hurry.

If I were to pick one place that would speak most vividly to the tragic loss of life here 72 years ago, it would be the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach.

Just ten kilometers away, down the coastal road.

Spring impetuousness! Isn't there a poem on how brashness turns into folly when you fail to reign in your internal tempest? There should be one.

The road is fine for cars but grueling for a person whose legs already felt weary some ten kilometers ago. But I continue. At the worst incline, I get off and push the bike up. (I have too much pride to admit this small defeat and so I pretend to be taking a photo when a car passes.)

Finally. I'm there.

I start off with a look toward the sea. Here's Omaha Beach being put to a playful use now. As I watch these wind surfers, I think -- everyone of us may have had a different life were it not for the offensive that took place here.



The Cemetery itself is at once beautiful and horribly expansive. 9387 American soldiers who died during the invasion are buried here. [But consider the real numbers for the Battle of Normandy -- lasting from June 6 until the liberation of Paris in August: nearly half a million. In that, close to 200,000 were German. The country with the second largest number of losses? The U.S. at more than 125,000.]


It's almost too much to take in. You cry for the pain, which surely includes the pain of those back home who waited for better news of their loved ones.


Perhaps I should look at just one marker. Study one, because the entirety is just too much.

Here's a soldier from Wisconsin. He has a Polish name.


I go back to the sea. The wind is gusting fiercely now. We know that the weather was terrible during the invasion. Now, it is merely early spring stuff. I have a scarf. I have a warm bed waiting for me at the end of the day.


The D-Day invasion is forever in the history books. But standing here, on this blustery spring day, you just think about lives lost.

One dictator who shouts hatred. Millions die.

And graves of Americans, spilling out to the sea.


Beautiful chimes are played from the Cemetery Memorial at 4 p.m. (sorry, no photo of the Memorial -- I could not raise my camera to it) and it is a reminder that I now have to pedal home.

Oh, but the wind! It's in my face and the going is so slow! When it gusts at its fiercest, I realize that even on level ground, I'm barely hitting 8 kilometers per hour. (Pushing the bike on foot would put me at 5 kph).

Never mind. As I finally turn off the coastal road and hit the pastoral landscape of Normandy, I realize there's no help for it: I must continue. That warm bed will not be found here if I throw down the velo and despair. Foolish people who embark on adventures without attention to the winds must suffer.

(Here's a view from one such hill: even at the worst moments, you cannot not notice how beautiful this landscape is! Apple trees? Must be apple trees, we are in the land of Calvados. A church in the distance, probably a cow to my side.)


In the last two kilometers, any incline at all has me off the bike pushing. These are empty roads and besides, I no longer care if anyone passes. I just want to make it back to my starting point.

As the cathedral bells chime 6 pm, I pull into the driveway of the wonderful Hotel Particulier Poppa.

Dinner? Oh, I am ready for it! My hosts suggested L'Angle Saint Laurent and I have to say, it ranks as one of my French regional favorites: home made foie gras with pickled onions and toasted brioche, pave de bar (sea bass) with tarragon gnocchi, then cheese, ending with a sublime apple-cinnamon pastry with apple ice cream. I don't often post photos of all dishes these days, but this time I will.




In the late evening, I work on my Ocean post, but I save this bit of it for the train ride the next day. Some things deserve a better writing moment than the one where the author is working with one closed eye, a very sore everything, and a mind that begs to be shut off for the night.


It's still gray, still on the cool side, but I don't really mind. This is Normandy in early spring.

Breakfast is somewhat more elaborate today. My hosts are really hitting their post-vacation stride! (I pass on most of it. There's so much bread product to love!)


And I should add now that their little hotel is a really lovely place. The rooms are enormous and well cared for. The owners themselves know the area well and their suggestions are invaluable. They ask me now if I've saved anything for today (my train leaves shortly after noon).

Yes, one more walk through town and one more museum to visit -- it depicts the history of Bayeux, as presented through artifacts and paintings. It's a rich place, recently reconstructed and easy to navigate. I'll only post two photos -- ones that show a side of Normandy that is as much wedged into its identity as apples, butter and invasions -- the gentle art of lace-making.


There is a beautiful painting by Caillebotte where he depicts the women in his family working on lace in the garden. I looked at it for a long while.


Out on the streets again...


And one more bread store to visit -- to pick up a Camembert sandwich for the day. The line is long (Sunday lunch is coming up!) but it moves quickly.


I'll have one of those, please.


As I get ready to finally set out for the train station, I chat to my host, Madame Sophie, about this beautiful corner of France. She is from the region, but she herself would move to Paris, where her daughter attends the university, were it not for her husband who will not budge.
You know, my daughter's name is Nina. When I saw that my first booking was from a Nina, I thought -- that's a good way to begin a season!

Ah, but I am the lucky one on this trip. So very lucky. I tell her how charmed I am by northwest France.
Have you ever been to (and she mentions the name of a town by the Channel where her mother lives)?
It must be your next destination. You'll love it, I promise.
I have no doubt.

I know that she and her husband (Philippe) traveled some on their winter break from hotel keeping (grand and long trips are so typical for b&b proprietors! Patrizia (from Parma) went to Vietnam this winter, as did Michel and Francine from Giverny. Andrew and Alison (from Islay) went to Australia and New Zealand, not for the first time. Philippe and Sophie explored the south eastern states in the US. I ask them now -- how did you like the food?
They visibly hesitate. As if not to say the wrong thing.
Then quickly, recovering -- well, you know, we were in Florida and Georgia and South Carolina. We ate very well in Charleston!
And the rest?
Your food is so sweet!
Ah. They must have ordered desserts. It's true that none of the desserts I've had in Normandy were especially sweet. I tell them that we have plenty of good eating, you just have to know where to look. I realize I sound defensive.

We say good bye.

I walk back pulling my wheely over cobbled stones. And only now do I stop at the Cathedral. Mass has ended some while ago, but a few families linger, holding onto box elder branches. I remember it's Palm Sunday. But perhaps (dare I say it) more importantly, it's a Sunday and so it's a day for family. Rather than show you pictures of the inside of the cathedral, let me instead include two photos of families just outside of it. It's a good way for me to end my notes on Normandy.



A train ride to Paris -- no pause there, I have a flight to catch. My next post should be from Warsaw.I say "should" because there is an air traffic controller strike in Paris. In travel, nothing is ever certain.