Embroidery and War: Bayeux and Arromanches-les-Bains
We left late in the morning after another leisurely brekkie, so we had to adjust our original plan of doing Bayeux and Caen on the same day. Under normal circumstances, two towns in one day should have been easy to do but not with a late arrival in Bayeux of 11am. Well…
The road up to Caen, and onwards to Bayeux – via the Caen ‘peripherique’ – was fine, at first a one-lane country road, later a dual carriageway, which is currently being extended further south (we found the many road improvement projects in the area quite impressive - counties along A1, take note!). I’m sure if we come back here one day, it’ll all be finished and we can head straight from Argentan via speedy road up north. But what are we doing planning another visit already?
On our arrival in Bayeux we found a handy car park not far from the town centre – and free! A surprise on a Monday in a touristy town. We took the short stroll to the ‘Tapisserie’, the Tapestry exhibition, passing an old water mill by a narrow stream, the L’Aure, where clear water was cascading down the wheel as it turned.
The entrance fees were reasonable (Eur 7.50pp) and you began your tour with an exhibition about the background of the work, historical details (who did what), life-size mannequins dressed in Norman and Saxon clothes (copied, obviously) and a replica Domesday Book that had been gifted to the town by The Prince & Princess of Wales on the occasion of their visit in 1987. Exhibits included pottery painted with scenes of the tapestry, embroidered cushion covers, original bowls and vessels, replica villages complete with manor house, church and villeins’ huts and the White Tower of London (built on orders of William the Conqueror), and maps of England pre-and post-Norman invasion. ‘Invasion’ might be the wrong term in any event, as Harold had previously sworn an oath on William’s succession to the throne – only to grab it for himself when it became vacant. So William simply went to collect what was due to him in the first place. Sounds straightforward enough!
Which leads us straight to the next part – the short movie. We had waited for the previous English-language session to pass as we had seen a large class of British school kids march up the steps to the small theatre. It was worth it. By the time we got there, there were but a handful of visitors sharing the film with us. It told about the history behind the Battle of Hastings, and thus the Tapestry. There seem to be differing accounts on the background of its creation – some historians insist it was created in England by William’s queen, Mathilda of Flanders, in whose name it is displayed; others dispute that, saying it was in fact created in Normandy, or even in Bayeux. Regardless of these theoretical squabbles, it still is a perfect piece of Norman propaganda. While it portrays Harold as a statesman, deferring to his rank and prestige, he is still seen reneging on his oath to William and as a consequence – the battle won by William the Bastard – it shows the Normans as superior and in the right. God’s will was done. Fascinating stuff for a hobby historian like me.
Now back to the ‘Tapisserie’ itself. Having had our persons checked, we collected a couple of headphones and went into a long, darkened room where the work of art was displayed at low light and constant temperature of 20-23 degrees Celsius, at 50% humidity. We strolled past it, admiring the scenes as described on the recording. The details were incredible. One scene in particular was fascinating – where horses were seen going from slow walk into trot into gallop. There was movement in the pictures, almost like watching an early movie. The same applied for the people it showed, and of course the depth of the battle scenes, with chopped-off limbs, horses urging forward or toppling over into a ravine or soldiers throwing spears. The whole tapestry was a flowing history film. Apparently, in its early days of existence, it was displayed twice a year inside the impressive Bayeux Cathedral for the ‘normal’ (illiterate) folk to view. It must have worked wonders on people’s minds. And on their motivation. I must admit that when we got to the end we went back to the front and followed it all over again. ;-)
When we finally ended up in the shop, I could not resist buying a mini (foldable) version of the Tapestry for taking home. Got to have my souvenirs!
Afterwards we went into Bayeux town centre, past the impressive cathedral, a visit to which we saved for after lunch. It was nearing 2pm already, and we were starving. In between tacky pizza places and café bars (tourism rules!) we found a small restaurant serving local specialities: crêpes and galottes (buckwheat crêpes). We checked out another place but didn’t like the look of it so returned to the Creperie de St Jean. Or perhaps it was the snoozing cat on their windowsill that pulled us back. As we were missing our own two moggies, we made a fuss of the cat while ordering two ‘demis’ of cider and two galottes, mine with ham, cheese, mushrooms, egg, herbs and tomato, and hubby’s with mushroom, ham, and egg.
The food was absolutely delicious and the cider tasted not too sweet and wasn’t too potent either. Perfect! We finished our lunch with ‘deux cafés’ (espresso again). All our conversations with the lady owner had been in French and I was really proud of myself. I would have liked to make some lovely comments about the cat but my brain went on strike. Needless to say, the cat got plenty of attention before it settled again on the window sill. Another English speaking couple poked their noses in but were told that they were closing. Turning away somewhat baffled (‘it says ouvert on the door’) they walked away. We were the last, and possibly sadly only guests that lunchtime. Shame, as the food, drink and service were excellent.
We had to walk off our lunch, so headed back to the cathedral, with a quick detour via the Tourist Info centre. Entry to the cathedral was free and the architecture was amazing, Norman and Gothic designs. Built between the 11th-14th centuries, the styles moved gracefully between one another. We walked all the way round through the choir, lighting a couple of candles in thought of elderly relatives. We even went down to the crypt, which dates back to the 11th C, unchanged by time. There we found incredible paintings on the walls, which must have been retouched at a later date.
Leaving Bayeux was as easy as getting into the town and we decided to skip Caen – too late for a city visit – and headed for one of the beaches instead. Arromanches-les-Bains was closest. Like Bayeux, the town was littered with touristy food outlets but also had some nice architecture – those buildings that survived – and craft shops (where we bought two cider bowls with cow prints). But the obvious mix of money-making tourist trap and serious place of remembrance shocked us a little.
We walked to the seafront from the car park, passing cars of various nationalities – French, British, German, Dutch. We spotted one of the old containers – stranded further up on the beach – that made up the fake harbour, which was created to enable the Allied soldiers to come onshore on the flat terrain. There were several others still moored further out at sea, in a half-moon shape, which gave the place a haunted feeling. It was saddening to think that hundreds of thousands of men were killed here, and on other beaches nearby, the remains of many being washed out to sea. A humbling experience if somewhat dented by evident signs of mass tourism all around us.
We decided against going to see the exhibition and took a walk through the town before heading back toward our car and bought a couple of yummy Mövenpick ice creams. While waiting for our cones, we were approached by a group of British 20somethings who were wondering if we knew how to order ice cream in French (we had just ordered ours in French) and also where to get some cheap beer. We pointed to the sign at the ice cream stand with the prices per ‘boule’ but couldn’t help with the latter. I was a bit miffed at the thought of tourists just thinking of cheap beers here. It’s not like they were in Scarborough on a summer weekend trip – this place was a major battlefield and some visitors only think of getting drunk! Grrr!!
We finished our ice creams and headed back. Outside Caen we found a supermarché called Cora next to the ring road and stopped for some fresh foodstuffs. It had been a long day but when we arrived home at around 7.30pm, we still had to sort out dinner. As we’d planned it beforehand it was just a matter of scrambling the eggs, roasting some slices of baguette and cutting tomatoes. Hubby buttered the bread while I made sure the eggs didn’t burn. Then I put the scrambled mess onto the bread slices and hubby covered the lot with smoked Norwegian salmon. Fresh, meaty tomatoes and cool tsaziki on a separate plate provided a healthy side dish. We enjoyed pear cider from our new cow-print cider bowls. Delicious!
Well, it was getting late, so a round of games on the Macbook and some bedtime reading was on the cards to finish a good day. Bonne nuit!
PS - Check out our photos of Bayeux and Arromanches.