Conquest in Normandie

Normandie – the region begs to be travelled to and yet it took me this long to finally make it over there. When said and done, I admit I was thoroughly conquered by this lovely region complete with its happy cows (yes, I believe its cows are even happier than California cows), apple orchards and half timbered houses.

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I felt that it was only appropriate that the first major sight we went to was Bayeux. We arrived late in the day to see the Tapestry with its great exhibit and thus was given our very first glimpse of the glorious history of Normandie. The nine centuries old Bayeux Tapestry in real life was more magnificent than any photo or history textbook could describe. One had to see in person the intricacy of the embroidery stitches, realize the length of the piece, appreciate the beautifully preserved linen, and revel at the animated faces of the characters and the almost comic like quality that exuded honesty and straightforwardness in the retelling of an epic story. The audio aide that was part of the exhibit gave a very thorough description of the scenes. Afterwards, we enjoyed a great dinner at L’Asssiette Normande and went to see an interesting light show at the side of the Cathedral.

Bayeux itself is a very quaint town. The Cathedral, rebuilt in the 12th century in Gothic style, was quite regal and majestic. One could spend an entire day at the town.

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Our next stop was Colleville sur Mer to visit the Normandie American Cemetery and Memorial and Omaha Beach. The exhibit at the Memorial Pavillion was very well designed and informative. The most moving experience for me was the first time I saw the white crosses and stars of David laying across the lawn in an unending vista. I had approached them by the side and didn’t yet have the view of semi circular the colonnade nor of the reflecting pool nor of the mall. Just a view of sky, trees and white crosses. My mind quickly replayed images of young men on the beaches , on the sand, on the landing grounds without fanfare, without glorification. That was when the meaning of “so much owed by so many to so few” hit me. The definition of courage and valor had a new setting for me- that of a small stretch of beach facing a tall cliff between the sea raging behind and artillery shelling in front.

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I was grateful to see the grounds so well taken care of. I was moved to learn about Les Fleurs de la Memoire Foundation which had enlisted French families to adopt the US graves and promise to visit the graves once a year to lay flowers on the graves.

For dinner, we went to a restaurant named La Maree by the boardwalk at Grand Camp Maisy, a nearby town and enjoyed a spectacular sunset. All throughout the trip, we sampled a lot of local delicacies and didn’t have a meal we didn’t like. There was always an apple tart ordered and well finished. We took a tour at a Calvados distillery. We had confiture de lait for breakfast on crepes, on bread and french toasts. We nibbled on caramels d’Issigny and thought the apple flavor caramel was a good combination. We had oysters and seafood platters and gorged on mussels and french fries. We encountered Camembert, Livarot and Pont l’ Eveque cheese done in a dozen ways – on croque monsieur, as desert cheese, in omelettes, au gratin… I came across a creamy cheese with truffles and had it for breakfast everyday until it was gone. I had a perfect Souffle au Calvados at Le Dauphin in Breuil en Auge. With regret, we missed out on lamb from salted marshes at Mont St. Michel. We were one day behind a tour of 300 people who ordered the entire restaurant’s larder.

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Honfleur was our next destination. The old town was quite charming. The marche’ near the harbor was full of life. The wooden church Ste Catherine, built like an upside down ship’s hull, was simply beautiful in its structure and details.

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On the way back  from Honfleur, we stopped by Deauville and Trouville. I imagined jersey dressed ladies walking out of Coco Chanel’s boutique and bathing houses…

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There were many towns that were delightful and were perfect for overnight stays. We thought Pont L’ Eveque was such a town with the right amount of shops, restaurants and interest. We loved Beuvron en Auge and spent almost an entire day at Pont Audemer.

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One couldn’t go to Normandie and not see Rouen. The Rouen Cathedral was such a monument that inspired many paintings by Monet and Pissaro. This building survived fire, lightnings, and was the tallest building in the world from 1876 to 1880. Richard the Lionheart’ heart was entombed there. This was a church with impressive credentials!

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The well reviewed shops at Rue du Gros Horloge didn’t disappoint. We had macarons at Grand Mere Auzou and I discovered an ingenious savory combination for macarons: foie gras macarons.

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D Day for our Normandie trip was Mont St Michel. We made a point to arrive there before 10 to avoid the crowd and good thing we did.  From the top perches, we could see the salt marshes extending uninterrupted to the horizon. I was overwhelmed by a sense of humility being surrounded by the calm vastness blurring the line where the sky met the salted water. Through the winding walks and steps, we toured the abbey among the simplicity of the abbey’s hall, the bareness of the courtyards and stone walls contrasting nicely with intricate quoin vaulted ceilings and ornate column capitals.

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Other notable towns we visited were as memorable. The houses were the typical half timbered houses. Some had bricks, some had plaster between the timbers. My eyes never got tired of the textures, the colors and the shapes.

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We left Normandie with a greater appreciation of the glorious history that people have managed to record and preserve, a deeper gratefulness for the young men whose lives were struck short for the humane continuation of that history and an unrelenting reluctance to go back to our everyday routines.  If only time stopped when I caught this image…

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