At this time of year, Lower Normandy, especially the part near the coast from the Cotentin Peninsula to Le Havre is full of people. I’m continually amazed and, yes, often dismayed at how greatly industrial tourism has penetrated and altered so many parts of the world. Time was when, other than the French themselves, most tourists in France came from Britain and America. Britain is still well represented, especially in the region I’m writing about, since Normandy is very much Britain’s near abroad. Americans, however, are scarcer then they once were, and this is too bad for a reason I’ll come to below.
These days, international tourism has become far more diverse. One hears many unfamiliar languages spoken. Not long ago in a Normandy café, the threesome at the table next to ours was speaking in a language we didn’t recognize. It turned out to be Flemish, the language of the Belgians that is not French.
With a week to spend in this coastal region of Normandy, Kay and I decided to base ourselves in two towns, staying in each for three nights. The first is Bayeux, home of its famous, eponymous tapestry. Like many of you, we had been hearing about the Bayeux Tapestry since our school days but had not seen it until now. We’re very glad to have finally done so because this work of art 1,000 years old is uniquely marvelous.
When we think of the great European tapestries, what comes to mind are single, large wall hangings or a suite of them, each depicting a single scene. Perhaps the most famous of these examples are the six tapestries in the Cluny Museum in Paris entitled “The Lady and the Unicorn,” their fabric woven of wool and silk.
The Bayeux Tapestry is something different. Firstly, it is not woven. Instead, its makers embroidered it using colored wool thread on a light-colored linen backing. It tells the story of how Harold the Saxon was commissioned by the dying Edward the Confessor of England to travel to Normandy and tell William the Bastard, the Duke of Normandy, that Edward had selected him to rule England. Harold was entertained royally by William who accepted the honor, but making Harold swear on all that was holy that he would not make trouble with the transition. Harold swore, but when Edward died, Harold broke his oath and assumed the kingship for himself to the delight of his Saxon subjects.
William, who seems to have been an uncommonly organized and careful man, sought the Pope’s blessing and his barons’ permission to invade England and punish Harold. The rest is the story of the Norman Conquest and the great Battle of Hastings that saw the defeat of Harold and the Saxons and the start of Norman rule in the kingdom.
All of this is told beautifully and powerfully in images embroidered into the tapestry. Despite its great age, its colors have faded only slightly. Designed to be viewed by people who could not read, it was displayed at intervals over the centuries in the enormous nave of Bayeux’s cathedral. In a way it was a kind of propaganda. It told the story from the point of view of the Norman victors, legitimizing their claim to England’s throne.
The remarkable skill and creativity of the embroiderers is shown in several ways. Although the tapestry is in two dimensions, the artists used contrasting colors on the near and far legs of the horses to suggest depth. When two riders gallop to transmit a message their hair is shown blown backwards denoting speed. Boarding a boat, the horses’ forelegs are left colorless in outline to suggest they are under water.
A film we looked at after viewing the tapestry showed that buildings outlined in the tapestry have architectural details that correspond to the actual ones in the buildings they depict, which still exist.
The authorities have worked out a very efficient and sensible method of presenting the tapestry. One is given an audio guide in the language of one’s choice and told to touch nothing except the volume control; it operates automatically. The narrative is well paced to enlighten the viewer while moving briskly. One views it at eye level behind glass.
Bayeux is a lovely town. It’s large enough to not feel overly congested and has a good selection of accommodations and restaurants in different price categories.
Other than its tapestry, Bayeux has one of the country’s great medieval cathedrals. It was Bishop Odo, William’s half-brother who began its construction in the year 1067. Of the original church only the matched towers of the west front and the crypt remain. It is easy to distinguish the contrast between their Romanesque style and the flamboyant Gothic of the rest of this huge and magnificent edifice.
From the center of Bayeux we walked thirty minutes to view the British WWII cemetery that contains more than 4,000 identical grave markers of white stone set in neat rows over a vast and beautifully tended lawn. There are colorful flowers planted among the stones. Each grave is identified with the soldier’s name, unit, and age. Across the highway from the cemetery is a memorial inscribed as follows: WE, ONCE CONQUERED BY WILLIAM, HAVE NOW SET FREE THE CONQUEROR’S NATIVE LAND.
Viewing the enormous number of graves, realizing how young most soldiers were when they died, and reading the poetry left behind by still grieving friends and family members was a deeply moving experience. We were to have another at nearby Colleville where the American Cemetery is located on the once blood-soaked earth above the sea and the golden sand known as Omaha Beach.
The drive along the quiet, narrow back roads leading to the American Cemetery gives no hint of the noise and violence that began 70 years and 47 days earlier.
After D-Day the fighting raged on for days and weeks. Standing on the bluff, 200 feet above Omaha Beach, the GIs’ task of climbing the steep hill against a wall of German gunfire seems impossible. That so many died in the attempt and are buried not far from where they fell is understandable.
The cemetery is vast. Covering acres of lush, green lawn are more than 9,000 markers of white, Lasa marble, each inscribed with a soldier‘s name, rank, unit, home state, and date of death. A few graves contain the remains of unknown soldiers. Four women rest among the men. Most markers are in the shape of Latin crosses while the graves of Jewish soldiers are marked with a Star of David.
Among the gravestones are a few pine trees and many flowers. Beyond the perimeters of the cemetery there are more pine trees and dense foliage where birds sing.
At the cemetery entrance is a large memorial that begins with a walled courtyard. The smooth, cream-colored walls contain the names in alphabetical order of those buried beyond them. Steps lead up to a central platform containing a large bronze sculpture of a male figure soaring upward. In a circle around its base are inscribed the first words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Coming of the Glory of the Lord.” There are wreaths, too, with ribbons identifying them.
Around the cemetery proper is a large, wooded park, beautifully kept as well. Paths wind through it leading to the car parks and the Visitor’s Center. Within that large building are many displays. Some describe the valor of individual soldiers who performed above and beyond the call of duty. Photos of these heroes accompany the text. There are short films as well. One describes additional heroic sacrifices and gives details of the ordinary backgrounds of the soldiers. The subjects of another film are the army’s preparations and training in England. General Eisenhower’s momentous decision that set the operation in motion is highlighted.
Several displays are centered on the skills and attributes of the soldiers. These have titles like COURAGE, COMPETENCE, LOGISTICS, etc. It’s a wonderful museum of the preparations, struggles, endurance, and accomplishments of what became the largest amphibious assault in history. Every American should be lucky enough to stand here in awe of what their country and its allies did 70 years ago to begin the liberation of Western Europe.
Thirty kilometers from Bayeux, the town of St Lô, the site of a German Headquarters, was almost bombed out of existence during the Allied assault. With 95% of its buildings destroyed, it had to be rebuilt almost from scratch. Today, it has the look of a modern city, all except for the truncated towers of a great church that were left in their ruined condition while the rest of the church was rebuilt.
Driving from Bayeux to our second base in the town of Honfleur, we stopped for a few hours in the city of Caen. Caen, too was bombed during the war, but unlike St Lô much of its historic character survived. For instance, there is the Hôtel d’Éconville, the Renaissance mansion built by a very rich man. Though worn by time and some abuse, perhaps during the Revolution, it is still splendid.
There is also the giant Abbaye aux Hommes, one of two religious institutions (the other is the Abbaye aux Dames) begun by William the Conqueror and his Queen Matilda in the 11th century. William and Matilda were cousins, and the pope pronounced against their marriage.
The two abbeys were founded in part to regain the pope’s favor. Attached to the Abbaye aux Hommes is the large Romanesque church of St-Étienne that contains William’s tomb.
Our principal interest in Caen was a visit to the Beaux Arts Museum enclosed within the ramparts of what had been an enormous, fortified citadel now known as the Chateau. Kay had read about the American abstract painter, Joan Mitchell. Luckily, there was a temporary exhibit of her work, installed side-by-side with works by artists who influenced her. These included Shirley Jaffe and Monique Frydeman. There is even a late work by Monet whose influence on Mitchell is clear. It is an instructive exhibit, one that we’re both glad to have seen.
The town of Honfleur at the mouth of the river Seine has to be one of France’s most picturesque. It was also, at the time of our arrival, one of the most congested. Our first half hour in Honfleur was nightmarish as, with nowhere to even let the car stand, we searched for the location of our accommodation at the Chambres Houdaille. Kay got out first to find the address and then I did, too, briefly abandoning the car where it blocked other parked cars from moving. For a short time, I felt very Turkish.
The puzzle solved and the car parked some distance away in a long-term lot, we settled into a spacious and well-appointed room, having at either end, extraordinary views of this ancient and lovely town. For centuries Honfleur lived from the sea, and there are still a few fishing boats in the harbor. However, today the town’s industry is tourism on a grand scale. There are dozens of cafes and restaurants located around the Vieux Bassin and on the narrow streets of the town center. The commercial spaces that aren’t restaurants are galleries, and those that aren’t galleries are souvenir shops.
We ate well in Honfleur, as we did generally in Normandy, despite the fact that most menus didn’t vary much from one restaurant to another. Seafood, of course: oysters, mussels, shrimp, whelks, snails, and langoustines were common, and creperies were everywhere. Restaurants in Honfleur were distinguished more by their ambiance and level of service than by the individuality of their offerings. The ones on one side of the Vieux Bassin with tables crowded together blared loud music late into the night while those across the water were cleaner, more sedate, and with better service. They, of course, were more expensive. Our favorite was on a quieter side street. Its décor was easy on the eyes and its single waiter appeared interested in us and in assuring our satisfaction. We returned to La Commanderie for our last evening meal.
On our second evening in town we had one of those serendipitous musical encounters that occur spontaneously and rarely in our travels. It was already late, and we were heading back to our quarters from dinner when we passed a small bar at the corner of our street. Through the window we could see three musicians and hear the jazz they were playing. Though tired, we were intrigued enough to go in. As our timing would have it, we entered at the end of a set, so we sat for at least twenty minutes, sipping Calvados and waiting for the music to resume. We’re glad we did because what we heard was great. Just by chance our table was positioned behind the keyboardist, the trio’s leader. From where we sat we could watch his fingers on the keys and view the series of chords and key changes he displayed from time to time on his iPad. Over his shoulder we had a full-face view of the drummer and his kit. To our left, with his back to the window, stood the bass player fretting his upright instrument with his left hand and plucking the strings with the gloved fingers of his right.
What was so captivating about their performance besides the creative quality of their music was the joy they expressed in playing off and with each other. These were accomplished musicians with a lot of experience behind them. What they played mostly were improvisations on well-known American standards, two by Ellington: Caravan and Take the A Train, and the ever-popular Bye, Bye, Blackbird. Kay, whose ear is superb, indentified these after hearing just the first notes. Their final number eluded her, though. It was only by looking at the pianist’s iPad that she realized they were playing On the Sunny Side of the Street.
Our encounter with the music of the Jean Benoît Culot Trio, for that was their name, especially in such an intimate setting, was a rare and wonderful treat.
Honfleur has four small museums, and one of these, called Les Maisons Satie, is strange indeed. According to the plaque on its exterior, Erik Satie was born in the house that now houses his museum in 1866. Satie was close to the French Surrealists and his museum is nothing if not surreal. Again, as in Bayeux, we were given audio guides that worked automatically depending on whichever display we were standing near. As we wandered from one small room to the next, up and down stairs, we heard snippets of Satie’s music and voices reading excerpts from his writings. We looked at facsimiles of his written music that were often decorated with thumbnail sketches, for Satie had graphic talents as well as musical. Some of what we saw and heard in this odd, enchanting museum was animated. One room, painted entirely in white, was furnished only with a Yamaha grand piano, also white, automatically playing one of Satie’s compositions. In the final room we visited there was a kind of carrousel with seats made from soccer balls and with bicycle pedals and handlebars. As I sat on one of these and began to pedal, my efforts turned the carrousel beneath me and produced Satie’s music from a speaker. I could vary the musical tempo by the speed I pedaled.
We made one excursion out of Honfleur to the nearby towns of Trouville and Deauville. I had wanted to see these for a long time since they figure as settings in books that I’ve read over the years. As places of historic interest, neither one ranks alongside the ancient towns of Bayeux and Honfleur. They have no half-timbered, medieval dwellings but only the enormous and outlandish villas common to late 19th-century bourgeois architecture that line the boulevards behind the seafronts.
We learned that Trouville developed first from the time that Napoleon III would bring his court there in the summers of the 1860s. Deauville came next and grew around its famous horse track. Today, both towns are still popular resorts with hotels, restaurants, and giant casinos. Their beaches are long, wide, and lined with colorful beach tents. We wouldn’t trade either with Honfleur as a place to stay, but we did enjoy a tasty seaside lunch of grilled skate served with pesto and a baked potato slathered with butter. The apple tarts, as only the French can make them, were delicious and the chilled Muscadet was, too.
This small region of France confined to the coast known as the Riviera of Normandy and its immediate hinterland is so rich in historical monuments, wartime memorials, and just really good living that it would have repaid a longer visit than ours. There was much we couldn’t see and experience, but of what we did, most was excellent. Thanks for letting us share it with you.