Normandy Holiday - Falaise and Caen

Following our long drive to Bayeux and the beaches, we decided to stay in Argentan for the day. Partly to relax but also partly forced by a flat tyre which was repaired free of charge by a friendly local mechanic. Merci beaucoup!

We strolled through the pretty town centre, spent some money, had yummy baguette out of doors and enjoyed the sunshine. The locals were welcoming and friendly and the atmosphere overall was relaxed. A stroll through fields followed our return to the cottage. A peaceful and calm day!

After a night of rain rattling on our skylights and winds howling in the cottage’s nooks & crannies, keeping us awake half the night, it finally cleared up a little in the morning. In light of recent tyre trouble – and the change of weather – we decided to postpone our farthest trip to Mont St Michel and head for nearer places.
For once, we skipped the full brekkie and opted for a quick fix – two chocolate filled brioches and coffee. Yumm! Then we were off.
We arrived in Caen – site of much destruction during the fights for Normandy and also the final burial place of William the Conqueror – around 11am and immediately cursed the complex one-way system and bad signage for car parking and sights. I’m sure that were we searching for a hotel instead, we would have found it without problem, as there were dozens of signs for accommodation of all kinds. As it was, we ended up in a pre-paid car park in the centre, spending our last few coins for 2 hours’ parking. Then we marched up the hill to the castle, just a short walk away.
Sadly, not much is left of the original medieval buildings, just some crumbled walls and reconstructed sections. Several newer builds were still in existence although some had also suffered greatly during the bombardment. What a shame! However, the views over the city were great – but would have been even more amazing 70 years ago, before the destruction.
Caen was, as expected, a fairly modern city, although I found the limestone-coloured buildings in style with the overall picture of city and castle. Clearly, many of the planners had taken the locality into account during the rebuilding work in the late 40s and 50s. Hubby didn’t like it, though. The variety of shops was very good and there were plenty of crêperies and patisseries to keep the lunching working person happy. We bought a couple of tuna & salad baguettes, which were delicious. Can’t fault a freshly made baguette…

Following a trip to the Tourist Info we wandered off in the direction of the Abbaye aux Hommes, where William the Bastard/Conqueror/Duke and King of England lies buried but … we lost our way! By that time the clock was ticking for our parking slot, so we dashed back to the car, and made our way in it to the Abbey. My God, the city’s one-way system nearly got the better of me! It took some swearing on both our parts until we found a car park near the abbey. Again, it was pre-pay and our time there was limited. The good thing of that particular car park, belonging to the library nearby, was that university students could park for free for 1½ hours. Great idea! Just that we weren’t French students…

Due to the time restrictions of our parked car, we could not take part in the guided tour but had to make do with a short visit to the Abbey church, St Etienne. It was a nice enough Romanesque building with the burial place of William placed in the centre. Apparently there’s only one bone left of him, after the Huguenots ransacked the place so it makes you wonder where the rest ended up…
Coming to the end of our parking time, we had enough of the city and its silly car parks. We made our way back, via the peripherie and dual carriageway, south to Falaise, which we had bypassed on our way north.

Falaise was the birthplace of William the Conqueror, illegitimate son of the Duke o Normandy. He often resided there, as did later rulers of Normandy and England, the Plantagenets. To us, Falaise appeared to be a sleepy small town, with a cosy centre criss-crossed with cobbled streets and narrow high houses, and a big castle on top of a steep hill. Once inside the old ramparts, we went into the modern entrance building. There was an entrance charge and you received headphones for an audiovisual display. Walking toward the main castle, we found that again, not much was left from the old building – a few ramparts and towers – but instead they had created a semi-modern colossus, partly in sandstone and partly in concrete and metal. It made an interesting mixture but not everyone's cuppa tea. We didn't find it appealing from the outside, but once inside, listening to the recording and watching the audio-visual displays, it was a completely different story. When you entered certain rooms, the blinds came down automatically and the display started. The whole show was a reaction to sensors on our AV recorders. You were fed bits of William’s life, his parents’ backgrounds, scenes of an evening , some 100 years later, with Aliénor of Aquitaine and Henry II holding court, and general information about people’s roles in those days, compared to those on a chess board. The game of life. Amazing history. Amazing technology.

We thoroughly enjoyed our walk around Falaise castle, particularly the view from the top of the round tower (we could even recognise a tower in Argentan to the south) and the walkways and mechanics of the AV system. Glimpses of the real stones of the original building were caught through glass floors on the lower levels. An architectural feat, but not to everyone’s liking, as the guest book showed. Despite our initial reluctance, we found it incredible.

After a slow stroll back to the car, we headed home, just down the road. Dinner consisted of plain fresh pasta with mince. Nice & simple. Yawning again. It must be too much fresh air…

Photos of Argentan and Falaise / Caen!

Oh, I want to go back...

Normandy Holiday - Bayeux and Arromanches

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.

Normandy Holiday - Argentan

Given my recent renewed research into Normandy, I've decided to share episodes of our fantastic trip from my old blog so that you can get an idea why I'm so fascinated. ;-)

Here goes... once upon a time, in October 2007 to be precise, hubby (then my fiancé) and I took our car, a Renault, to its home country of France. As it turned out, this wasn't the best idea, but let me start on our first day following the ferry trip...


Relaxation & Exploration of Argentan

Our first full day here in Argentan began well: with a lie in.

Our home for the next week was to be a farmstead with house, three cottages (a former barn turned into 3 self-catered units), whitewashed outbuildings with wooden beams and plenty of grass and grounds. Our cottage was pleasant, with wooden beams and original walls, living/kitchen area downstairs and a spacious bedroom and bathroom upstairs. We had booked the cottage next door, which turned out a bit small in the living room area, so we were offered a choice. Good call!

We got out of bed later only to find fog covering the whole landscape around us. Even the sheep and horses behind our house appeared as ghostly grey apparitions and the branches of the fruit trees resembled dark, thin arms raised skywards. Luckily it cleared up by late morning and the day turned warm & sunny, reaching 25C later that afternoon.

Our breakfast, taken leisurely in our dressing gowns (yes, we’re on holiday!), consisted of croissants, baguette, cheese & hams and 4 berries jam (the lid of which jammed and it took all hubby’s muscle to open it) and of course our usual continental 'must have' – boiled eggs. No decent brekkie without them. I had to enjoy my coffee black as I’d picked buttermilk instead of ‘normal’ pasteurised milk the previous day at the supermarché. The lid was green so I assumed it was semi-skimmed. Silly me!

At lunchtime we set off into the town of Argentan for a leisurely walk. We found the town centre very pleasant, with quaint houses, impressive churches and plenty of bars and patisseries open for Sunday coffee and cakes. We passed families out for an after-lunch walk (three generations happily together) and groups of sober teenagers joking and laughing (no bottles of booze in sight), not feeling threatened at all unlike in the UK. After our extensive stroll through narrow lanes, past shop windows displaying country fashion and gifts, we sat outside a bar in the main square in the old town centre for ‘deux caffé, svp’ (receiving espresso, as expected). Sitting back, we enjoyed the sunshine, peace and quiet of the afternoon, watching the world go by.

Suddenly, a French car stopped next to where we sat. A woman leaned out of the window, asking: ‘Excusez-moi, Madame. Nous cherchons la rue …’ Yes! It looked like we already blended in here. LOL She didn’t like my reply, though: ‘Nous ne sommes pas d’ici.’ Ah, and they drove off without further comments. Je l’aime bien ici.

After a gentle stroll along the canal of the river Orne back to our parked car, we tore ourselves away from this lovely town and headed back home, 5 minutes' drive away. By that time it was well after 4 pm and we spent another hour sitting in the sunshine, sipping cider. Organically produced, this time. Only €1,80! Yumm! We have to get more of that. The alcohol content is quite low, which explains the low price, but it’s wonderfully drinkable and refreshing. With the sun sinking, the temperatures dropped quickly and we headed back indoors, turning the heating on.

We finished the day with soup and warmed-up baguette, listening to French radio where they had a nostalgia night with English-language and French tunes from the 60s & 70s. Later, we played games on our Macbooks, linked electronically to each other so we could play chess, while we enjoyed a glass of red wine. We thought we’d have an early night, but in the end it was 11 pm again. Oh dear! We had a long day ahead of us.

See photos of Argentan!

 Tomorrow: Bayeux and Arromanches-les-Bains. :-)

Final galleys gone!

Yayyy!

My editor at The Wild Rose Press sent me the final galleys the night before our trip to Germany to my gran's funeral. So I had no option but to upload the final version to my iPhone. It was actually fab to read on the plane, no big bulky books to be carried around. Nice test to see how my potential readers would view it.

So now it's all in my editor's court. Or rather her production team's. Hopefully by next week I'll have my release date. Can't wait!

I'm on leave this week. Nice! Well, hubby's at work so I have plenty of time to catch up with my current WIP. Important scene where my protagonists meet Geoffrey of Anjou, father to Henry II and quite obviously descended from the Devil. How does this show in the story? Wait and see! ;-)

I love writing about Normandy. Can't believe our 10 days there was 3 1/2 years ago! I'm now really keen to go back and explore more, most definitely including a trip 'down the road' to Tours, Angers and Fontevraud Abbey. Must say 'allo' to Eleanor of Aquitaine, the most fascinating woman in history.

Now, how do I convince hubby to go back??