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.

IMG_8105

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.

IMG_7828

IMG_7833

IMG_1197

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.

IMG_7859

IMG_7877

 

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.

IMG_7894

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.

IMG_1016

IMG_7905

IMG_7929

IMG_7936

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…

IMG_7970

IMG_7985

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.

IMG_7991

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!

IMG_8006

IMG_8016

IMG_8022

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.

IMG_8038

IMG_8044

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.

IMG_8052

IMG_8078

IMG_8080

IMG_8102

IMG_1084

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.

IMG_8108

IMG_8112

IMG_8120

IMG_8126

DSC_5435A

IMG_8157

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…

IMG_1066

Advertisements

The Romance of Villages

During a mini break from work, I went through my list of places to visit and noticed two commonalities among my dream places: they either are near bodies of water, or picturesque towns or villages with a strong  architectural identity. Why do we gravitate toward these villages? We don’t necessarily want to live in one but a visit would be quite charming. Is it the simplicity and quaintness that attract us when we may  in dire need of “uncomplicating” and uncluttering our lives? Did it come from all the English novels which led imaginations  into the Bennets’ drawing room or the roads traveled by Ms Marple? Did Norman Carver let us to yearn to visit these villages with his series of exquisitely photographed towns? Do towns with homogenous architecture give us a sense of community that’s lacking in cosmopolitan cities? Does it feel more secure to be in a place where everybody knows the latest news in town without a formal neighborhood watch group? Or is it akin to liking a photograph where color restraint is among the most useful tricks? Restraints and limitation in use of color, materials or forms create the uniformity that’s so endearing in the many charms of the town.

Whatever the answer is to our obsession with town life, culture and flavors, the sense of commune is undeniable in the undercurrent of the attraction. For an architectural enthusiast, the added dimension of how the inhabitants juggle a common architectural language and arrive at such varieties in composition and texture is one of the most interesting exercises displayed around every corner of the village.

“It takes a village”. When I walk through a village that has taken years of patina and wear through the ups and downs of time, I sense its collective wisdom in the traditions the inhabitants maintain and the new business life they adopt. What does a town do to keep the children from going to the big towns, to maintain their lifestyles and indigenous habits without suffering financially and to resist the relentlessly on coming modernization?

Sometimes, I feel I don’t need to know the real gossip of the town.  It’s plenty for me to come up with story threads of my own. Isn’t part of traveling to let our imagination run amok within the magic realities of the places we visit? Dream places are places for us to dream, not just places that we dream to go to.